In the Christian liturgical year, yesterday was the First Sunday of Lent. In the Catholic calendar, the Gospel reading came from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew (quoted here from the RSV):
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'”
Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.
This passage is the central inspiration behind the liturgical season of Lent, which is a forty-day period ‘in the wilderness’ contemplating our sins and resolving to grow ever-closer to God. Christ—just like all of us—was tempted by the devil to do things that he shouldn’t, and had the opportunity to choose to serve God or to serve his own desires. Of course, given who Jesus is, there was never any real doubt which he would choose . . . but that he suffered temptation as we do every day shows that he is, indeed, truly human just as he is truly divine.
Something stood out to me, however, during the reading of the Gospel . . . something I had never noticed before, despite having read and heard this particular passage probably hundreds of times.
In the first temptation of Christ, the devil appeals to his human need for food. Jesus had been fasting for forty days and nights and, needless to say, he was hungry. In response, Jesus quotes Scripture and says that, “Man shall not live by bread alone.”
In the third and final temptation of Christ, the devil appeals to Jesus’s natural, human desire for power and authority. In response, Jesus quotes Scripture again and says that “only [God] shall you serve.”
But look at the second temptation of Christ. The devil appeals to Jesus’s faith in God and his certainty that God [the Father] will save him from being killed if he were to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple. Not only does the devil appeal to his faith, but he does so by quoting Scripture! “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'”
I think the second temptation is, in fact, the most diabolical of all. Faith in God, and a faithful belief-in and reliance-on Holy Scripture, are normally virtuous things. They are qualities that we generally want to see in our Christian communities. What this Sunday’s Gospel reading illustrates in perfect clarity is that it is possible to use virtuous things—faith and Scripture—for evil, especially if you excise from them the proper contexts within which we must understand them.
This is the perennial error of the doctrine of ‘Scripture alone,’ or ‘sola Scriptura,’ which has been the rallying cry of many post-reformation Christian communities. Taken alone, without its historical and traditional contexts, you can interpret the Bible to mean almost anything. Even Satan himself, as demonstrated here in the Gospel of St. Matthew, could twist it to suit his own purposes. I can make a plausible argument from the position of ‘sola Scriptura’ that there is no Trinity, or that our faith permits slavery, or that we have a right to slaughter women and children in war, or that you’re going to Hell for calling your dad ‘father,’ or that everybody (not just Priests) should be celibate. I would be wrong if I did so. Those interpretations—though I can pick out individual passages to support them—are not in accord with the traditional understandings of what those passages actually mean, or the historical explanations for them.
We see the fruits of this erroneous doctrine all the time. On one extreme, we see communities who identify themselves as ‘Christian’ relying entirely on the passages that speak of God’s infinite love and forgiveness and ignoring anything that seems to ‘contradict’ that ideal. These are the bodies that shy away from making any moral judgement on anything, lest they offend somebody by calling their sinful behavior into question. This is a form of Christianity that paints God as completely pliant and malleable to suit our own personal desires and opinions. On the other extreme, we see other communities—also identifying themselves as ‘Christian’—claiming that God commands us to blow up abortion clinics and speaking of God’s infinite judgement and condemnation of humanity. This form of Christianity paints God as completely rigid, violent, and judgmental.
Believers in these extreme forms of the faith can point to passages of Holy Scripture that support their case, and believe that they have Christianity right while the others have it wrong. What might surprise members of both groups—and, indeed, will surprise them in death, if not in life—is that they are both right in some respects, and they are both wrong in others. God isn’t infinitely forgiving, nor is he infinitely demanding. He is both. Only through tradition can we understand how to balance these two seemingly-contradictory natures of God.
We must take the Scripture in the context of Christian tradition, as handed down to us by Christ’s Apostles and their successors. After all, Apostolic tradition traces its history without interruption to Christ himself and his original eleven Apostles (excluding Judas, the betrayer). Already in the Book of Acts, we see those Apostles choosing their first successors (Acts 1:20-26), holding their first Ecumenical Councils (Acts 15), and making decrees that were to be obeyed as authoritative by all extant Christian Churches (Acts 15:23-30). This tells us, without any doubt, that the Church had the authority to define the moral teachings of the faith and pass those teachings on to its successive leaders and believers. It is this truth, among others, that led me to the Catholic Church as the direct successor of the body that held that first Ecumenical Council in the Book of Acts.
Scripture itself says there is more to Christianity than what is written: “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:24, RSV). Indeed, the Canon of Holy Scripture was defined, collated, and translated into Latin by St. Jerome under the authority of Pope Damasus I in the late 300’s—relying on over 200 years of Apostolic tradition, since there had been no clearly-defined Scripture before St. Jerome’s Vulgate. To the honest student of Christian history, this proves that Scripture cannot be properly interpreted and understood without its context, and that its context is defined by the holy traditions and teachings of holy Church. Scripture cannot be taken alone, or dissected and separated from itself and its history. We cannot take any single passage and say it stands alone as truth, any more than we could pull one sentence from our favorite novel and feel we had encapsulated what it said on that particular subject. We have to look at all the things that surround it and explain it, and examine how it fits in with the rest of the work.
That Satan himself, the ‘evil one’ spoken of time and time again throughout Scripture, could use Scripture itself to support his efforts to tempt Christ is possibly the strongest argument against ‘sola Scriptura.’ The devil was able to corrupt the meaning of Scripture to suit his needs by removing its proper context—its rooting in history and holy tradition. We are fools if we believe he isn’t continuing to do so today.