Giotto, Birth of the Virgin (1303)
Today we Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Happy Birthday, Mother of God!) When I was a Baptist, Marian doctrines were particularly difficult for me. I had been taught and believed “that the sole authority for faith and practice . . . is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.” Emphasis on the word “sole.” Baptists inherited this doctrine (called “sola scriptura” in Latin) from Martin Luther and have it in common with almost all Protestant churches. How could I believe Mary was born sinless when the Bible says nothing about her birth? Doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception were “unbiblical” because they were extra-biblical. I used to preach and teach we must believe only what we find in Scripture.
As a Church historian, I felt uncomfortable with this principle because many foundational doctrines are not spelled out in Scripture, at least not as clearly as what we were required to believe. (Yes, required. If we didn’t believe them, we’d be considered “unsaved” and headed to eternity in hell.) The Trinity is probably the best example. Although grounded in Scripture, the doctrine developed over time. Here’s how I expressed the conundrum when I was still a Baptist preacher:
“If I didn’t already know the doctrine as it developed over time and as it is expressed in the creeds, and if I had only the Bible to guide me, Would I be able to arrive at the full expression of the doctrine of the Trinity as found in the Nicene Creed? If not, I am left with one of two unsettling possibilities: either my doctrine of the Trinity is wrong or my doctrine of religious authority is wrong.” (You can read the full blog post here.)
I eventually concluded my doctrine of religious authority was wrong. “The Bible alone” is unbiblical and self-contradictory. The Bible never teaches the principle of Scripture alone. Quite the opposite. St. Paul admonished the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:1-2). Where did St. Paul or any of the Apostles ever say, “All you need to believe is in the Bible”? Where did Jesus ever say that? He didn’t.
Think about that for a minute. Jesus never said, “If you want to know what to believe or how to live, all you need to do is consult written Scripture.” As far as we know, he never wrote anything, and he didn’t tell his followers, “Wait until the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are written and canonized and they will guide you in all truth.” Here’s what he told his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:1-2). In other words, Jesus told his followers to rely on apostolic tradition.
Most Baptists and other evangelical Protestants believe the Bible is inerrant. Every book. Every sentence. Every word. However, they don’t believe the table of contents is inspired. Ask Protestant ministers why they believe those twenty-seven books are inspired and not other early Christian writings, and they will start sounding very Catholic. They start quoting church synods and councils. In other words, they rely on Sacred Tradition. Why? Because the Catholic Church gave us the canon of Scripture. Baptists and other Protestants wouldn’t even know what books were in the Bible unless the Church had told them. The Reformer John Calvin saw this problem and invented a subjective and individualistic test of Biblical authority called “self-authentication.” It says that when a Christian reads the canonical Scriptures, the Holy Spirit speaks to his heart and reveals that they are true. (You can read a good article on this topic by a reformed theologian turned Catholic apologist here.)
This problem of self-authentication raises a similar conundrum to the one I mentioned earlier about the Nicene Creed. If I have only the Holy Spirit to guide me, could I pick out which twenty-seven books were to be included in the canon out of all the religious literature of antiquity if I didn’t already know which books were part of the New Testament? Hardly! No one comes to believe in the canon this way. Our parents give us a book with the title “The Holy Bible” stenciled in gold leaf on its bonded leather cover. They tell us that it’s God’s book and we should believe what’s in it. It’s given to us by tradition. And we believe it, because we believe those who gave it to us. The Holy Spirit can (and does) confirm the truth we find in Scripture. But the Bible itself is a product and gift of the Church. And we know that because Sacred Tradition works in tandem with, not against, Sacred Scripture. Tradition and Scripture are the two oars that, pulling together, move the Church along.
All that to say, I don’t need a biblical prooftext to celebrate the birth of Mary or believe God kept her free of original sin from her conception. I can celebrate our Blessed Mother’s nativity and believe the Marian doctrines for the same reason I can know and believe the Bible . . . because that’s what Sacred Tradition has taught me.