October 20, 2020

Open Discussion at the IM Mic: How Much Can The Bible Do “Alone?”

A very interesting topic arose on the last “Real Differences” thread: Differing views on the distribution of scripture to the public.

Got me thinking…..

How much can the Bible do alone? (That’s a little tricky, because the Bible is never completely “alone.” I mean how much can the Bible do without someone there to teach or explain it?)

I’ve concluded that one of the very important differences between Catholics and Protestants has to do with the mass distribution of Bibles (or New Testaments) to the general, unbelieving public.

Evangelicals put a lot of resources into efforts to translate the Bible into local dialects, languages, idioms and subcultural contexts. There are more than a few evangelicals who think too much is done to make the Bible understandable to various groups. (See Phil Johnson’s various condemnations of “Bible ‘Zines” designed for women, skaters, goths, etc.)

Many evangelicals mount large scale, well-funded efforts to distribute the Bible in their communities, among students, in the military. Some ministries smuggler hundreds of thousands of Bibles into closed countries. Many evangelistic efforts are intertwined with the distribution of scripture.

But setting that discussion aside, it’s apparent that many evangelicals believe that the Bible, given to a person, can convert by the illuminating, transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Translated into a local dialect, it can guide the converted into the essentials of Christianity and into some (imperfect) form of Christian community.

In other words, the Bible alone is an instrument powerful enough to accomplish some form of God’s purposes and distributing it- as per the Gideons, GFA, Bible League, IBS, ABS, ESBS, etc.- is serious and valuable ministry.

Now before some of you arrive at my house with pitchforks and torches, no one is claiming that the Bible alone can produce the same outcome as the Bible taught, preached, explained, etc. I certainly am not denying that God has ordained teaching, preaching and mentoring as means through which the Word does its work. God sent Phillip to explain the text to the Ethiopian, but God has left many people without a Phillip, and they have come to faith- imperfectly- by scripture alone.

I am committed to Bible teaching and proclamation as a vocation, but I am completely fine with giving scripture to a student without Christian influences and praying that God will sovereignly use it, in whatever way he chooses and with or without assistance. I would send a Bible to every Mulsim in the world if I could. I have thorough confidence that, despite the many obvious risks and the certain imperfect result, God does often work powerfully through scripture alone.

As I said, this is a clear difference among Christians, and explains why evangelicals place such a premium on placing the Bible in the hands of every person whenever possible, not just in the hands of the religiously educated. It explains why our Catholic friends, with a different view of the relationship of church, scripture and teaching authority, are less convinced of the value of these efforts.

So what do you think? Should the Bible be distributed to the general public? What can the Bible do “on its own?” How much does the Bible need the church in order to do what the Word of God can do?

Talk amongst yourselves.


  1. Lisa:

    Fair call, but I don’t see Clark piling on adjectives like knavish, etc. He’s a high school history teacher and he appears to be citing history in a factual manner. Anyone is welcome to dispute his facts, but I don’t see any animosity at all. If someone says that sola scriptura led to the Salem Witch trials, I am not insulted by the historical citation.

    So I hear you, but as I said to Martha, she’s free to disagree with him factually.

  2. Martha, do you really want me to name all the sins of the RCC? The fact that Protestant denominations don’t officially agree on things proves exactly what?

    For the record, I think a community of believers is needed for someone to grow in Christ. I also believe that if any community places the cannonical written word of God in a secondary position to the whims of the Church is heretical, regardless of whether that heresy has been taught for 1 year, 100 years or 1000 years.

    If someone is doctrinally sound but lives an unregenerate life, are they really a Christian? If a community is “doctrinally sound” but not only allows members to live unregenerate lifestyles but will sell them the means to “get away” with it, is that really a community we can trust to teach new converts what it means to follow Jesus? There are Protestant churches doing some of that now…accepting gay marriage or passing out condoms. The RCC has done it through out it’s history.

    I reject the idea that a church who reads “If we confess our sins, he is faithful to forgive us” and adds that the ONLY confession that counts is to a priest can be considered the final authority on what the Bible says and means. I don’t care which name is on the door.

    Also, Giovanni, the RCC SAINTED Thomas More for burning heretics at the stake for claiming the Bible took precedence over the Pope.


  3. I think our disagreements reflect our soteriology.

    Protestants believe we are saved by grace through faith. And faith comes by hearing God’s Word (from the Bible).

    Catholics believe we are saved by grace received from The Church (we’ll pass on ecclesiology for today). Hence, the Bible takes second place to the traditions and dictates of authorities.

    There, I’ve said it. If Michael likes, he can send all the Catholic apologists to my blog to continue the fight 🙂

  4. Okay, late posting, got stroppy.

    I do apologise.

    Think I’ll go and prostrate myself before an idol, or something.

  5. To play the Devil’s Advocate for a moment, let us note that during a typical Mass, one hears 3 half-chapters of Scripture, read without any commentary to whomsoever will listen. A homily follows but generally, the words are allowed to speak for themselves.

    In most Baptist, non-denom, etc… services, one very rarely hears Scripture read. A handful of isolated verses are surrounded by a very comprehensive sermon. More often, it is “Open your Bibles and turn to this one verse, and then hear me comment on it for 45 minutes.”

    That may exaggerate but I think it is generally true. Who, in this case, shows more trust in the divine words themselves, and who feels more inclined to support Scripture with dense ecclesiastical interpretation? Didn’t Calvin forbid “dumb readings” (as the Catholics were wont to do) in his services?

  6. Clavem:

    I’ve made the point about the paltry and impoverished evangelical approach to scripture in worship for years. Let’s not revisit that.

    In what way does the use of scripture in worship imply that one necessarily believes what it says or has confidence in its content?

    Liberals who deny the Gospel typically read lot of scripture too. Your conclusion doesn’t follow your premise.

    This is about the use of scripture outside the church. Scripture distribution, primarily.


  7. iMonk:
    My point is that Catholics do not always hide Scripture under a basket, or always heavily censor it with interpretation and commentary. I realize that the most liberal Episcopalian reads as much Scripture in his liturgy as does the most conservative Catholic, but there is a fundamental reason why that Scripture is read in the liturgy in the first place, and it is because we do fundamentally believe that the Scriptures can do a lot of good on their own, to relate back to your original question.

    The Scriptures just make more sense in an ecclesial context. It’s like a fish in water. If you just want the meat, you can buy it in the supermarket, but if you want the living fish, you need it from the water.

  8. I hesitate to even get into this again but I’m nuts, what can I say.

    And what do the “sins of the RCC” listed out, have to do with Scripture distribution, primarily?

    Right, the Catholic Church is guilty of all manner of sins, done by the high and the low alike, for the whole history of the Church. Hell, there are probably still some sinnin’ goin’ on.

    Here’s the deal: The question has been asked about Scripture distribution – well, really the question was asked: “How much can the Bible do alone?”, which is a different question, much more complicated to answer, hence the nutty battle above.

    Scripture distribution: Everyone, and I mean everyone in this thread, seems to basically AGREE that giving Bibles away is, at its base, a GOOD thing, a thing that should be done. We do NOT agree on the reasons WHY one would distribute Scripture – can I say SO WHAT? I just did.

    The need for the/a/some church/Church/community to grow people into the kind of Christians they should be (with Bibles): Everyone, and I mean everyone in this thread (I said that again didn’t I?), seems to basically AGREE that it is not ideal for someone to only ever have been given a Bible without ever then having or moving into the lived life of the Christian community (aka, church) in order to be properly and fully formed as a Christian person. We do NOT agree on the form that “church” should take, what it should teach (in full), how the Bible should be used in it or what should be fully believed about the Bible by it – again, dare I? SO WHAT?

    If this has to be a Catholic/Protestant thing, OK fine – then, with our respective and varying ecclesiologies and theologies of Scripture, evangelism, preaching, etc., will we ever fully agree on this subject? Very likely not. O–K, so let’s not. Can we try to understand the others’ reasons for doing or not doing what they do or don’t do and why?? Looks like that’s a hard row to hoe. God help us, please.

    Either way, and in all that – there really is (shouldn’t be) no reason to drag out all kinds of ecclesiastical dirty laundry – IN EITHER DIRECTION. It’s pointless and discouraging. It give off a bad smell to those around us.


  9. I’m your atypical Catholic. I think that we, meaning all Christians, should do what we can to spread the Good News about Jesus the Christ.

    I think that most methods should be used, (I tend to be bothered by the methods that are aimed at other faith’s most important holy days.)

    Yes, the Bible should be distributed as much as possible, especially if the person handing them out can talk to the recipent.

    Can it be effective, yes. You don’t know how many missionary stories that I have read that show a unique entrance point for the Gospel to enter untouched peoples.

    Can we do it better, yes and one way that I would love to see it tried is for Catholics and Baptist to get together to spread it. Sure there are a lot of doctrinal disagreements, but the basics we agree on.

  10. Alan:

    The sins of the RCC or the Puritans or evangelicals etc isn’t the topic of this thread. But I didn’t feel that Clark’s post was inappropriate because of what it said, which was, “Given certain past events, why are you surprised at this response?” His history was open for disagreement if anyone wanted to disagree with his historical case.

    Not accusing you of this, Alan, but there is a habit of some on this blog to act as if I may say anything critical I want about evangelicals, but woe unto he that speaketh of well known facts of RC history.

    I don’t think anyone can accuse me of having thin skin on evangelicals foibles. I have hundreds of letters of people telling me to shut up about Osteen, etc for the good name of good evangelicals. Of course, I won’t be shutting up about Osteen or materialism, etc. That’s who we are.

    And you folks have a history that has to be acknowledged; a history that significantly plays into how issues like the distribution of the Bible to the public are viewed.



  11. Sean McKeating says


    Getting back to answering your original question, at least if I can remember it-

    1. Get the Bible into as many hands as possible, for many have come to saving knowledge of Christ via the Spirit and reading of the Bible alone;

    2. Anyone reading the NT, especially, would realize that Scripture warns against going it alone, and that all those epistles were written to the saints gathered in various places.

    In this fashion the Bible provides a self-corrective to our concerns someone will read Scripture on his own and get some crazy idea that is left unchecked.

    Parachute a million copies of Scripture into Mecca and hope for the best? No. But the very reading of Scripture will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, lead a man to seek out fellow believers wherein he can get the further teaching and live out the faith in community that everyone (I think)agrees is the best goal for any person not yet saved.


  12. Posted by Sal:

    Today I was privileged to spend the entire day at the “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia. For you youngsters, that was the retreat of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the place where he died. He was the only U.S. President to have been elected to 4 terms. And this was in spite of the fact that he was crippled by polio. At the museum there is a very small white Bible under a glass case, with this inscription:

    “To the Armed Forces: As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Throughout the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration. It is a fountain of strength, and now, as always, an aid in attaining the highest aspirations of the human soul. Very sincerely yours, Franklin D. Roosevelt”

    These small white Bibles were handed out to members of the armed forces during World War II. And I thought of my father, uncles, and cousins who fought during that war, some of whom did not return alive – or at all – and what it must have meant to have a Bible with the inscription and FDR’s personal message and printed signature on the first page. This gave a whole new meaning to your previous discussions of mass distributions of the Bible. The current post is amusing, though not being a theologian, I don’t recognize most of those names. But the sobering experience of viewing that little Bible in the glass case today gave me a new insight into what it must have been like to face World War II with the word of God in your pocket. And it is still difficult to laugh this evening after all I saw today. I hope the U.S. soldiers buried in the thousands of graves I saw at the American cemetery in Normandy had been given these Bibles.

  13. Alan,

    I mentioned listing out the sins of the RCC because two different people had already thrown their rocks at Protestantism, not to mention the flat out accusations of heresy by the RCC camp in this thread and the one before it or two back. Sorry, I felt the need point out that there’s enough sin and twisting of scripture to go around.

    My point was simply that having a group of people around you to teach you what the Bible “really” means is in no way a garauntee of Truth.

    If I wasn’t clear enough before: sure give out the Bible to anyone who wants a copy. I don’t consider that “pearls before swine”. Giving the Bible to a rabid atheist, spittle flying from his lips as he angrily denounces Christianity ( you notice they never go after Islam except for from a safe 2 or 3 thousand miles) is pearls before swine. Sure, God could use it but most likely not.


  14. Clavem Abyssi says

    I may be wrong, but I think swine and dogs refer to any unbeliever, a Gentile in the context of the Gospel, not necessarily one overtly hostile to the God of Israel. The Syro-Phoenician woman who begged for the crumbs that fall from the table was called a dog, and she was rather interested in Jesus.

    St.Peter comments on the pig and the dog in his 2nd letter: “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and, ‘A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.'” This doesn’t quite refer to an unbeliever, so much as a neophyte or recent convert.

    Nevertheless, I would still say with Paul: “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” Perhaps all theoretical objections ought to be dropped for the sake of the abundance of positive anecdotal evidence that we all know exists. Praise God.

  15. urban otter says

    “My point was simply that having a group of people around you to teach you what the Bible “really” means is in no way a garauntee of Truth.”

    But is there even a guarantee of Truth in the first place?

    How could a reader, any reader, distinguish a false interpretation from a true one?

  16. I really enjoyed NT Wright’s little book which was interestingly called “Scripture and the Authority of God” (stupidly called “The Last Word” by the American publishers), published by SPCK. While Wright was talking about authority and not our own topic, he taught me to reframe the question as so:

    Instead of asking, ‘what is the Bible’s authority,’ let’s ask instead, ‘how does God exercise his authority in the Church through the Bible?’

    My response to the question on the thread is similar to Alan’s, but informed by Wright’s reframing: What are the normative ways that God was to use (and does use) to form people as Christians? The Bible can do nothing on its own, and does nothing on its own. A good Calvinist would say the same about himself, wouldn’t he? :0) Clearly, demonstrably, God uses the Scriptures outside of the Church to bring people to knowledge of Himself. He also uses dreams and visions to bring benighted Muslims to himself, where the Church as such cannot reach. God is not limited by his own preference of tools, but I would say that normally, God wants to birth people into the Community and bring them up in a healthy fashion. In the same way that its unfortunate for kids to be brought up in orphanages, it does mean that they shouldn’t be given food. Offering the Bible but not the Church is something God does and something God uses, but it’s not normal or preferable to the whole package.

  17. What has been unstated by all the commnters is everyone seems to have made the presumption that all the people receiving bibles are literate. Keep in mind that literacy is largely a post-World War II phenomenom. Before the second world war, few European countries had literacy programs. Most of the answers above seem to take for granted that Bible recipients are literate.

    The U.S. literacy rate is about 95%. This means that among our 300 residents that about 15-16 milllion cannot read. That about the same number of people as are registered as members by the Southern Baptist Convention.

    The world literacy rate is about 80%. Based on a world population of about 6 billion, that translates into about 1.2 billion people who cannot benefit from a written Bible.

    For the individual wanting to bomb Afghanistan with Bibles, only one person in three or four would even be able to read it and that person would likely be a male. Afghanistan’s literacy rate is around 28%; 43% for males.

    As Fr. Ernesto stated, its better than nothing. Hopefully those Bibles are full of pictures.

  18. What financial planning have you done for yourself?
    My trading

  19. The Bible .. alone … has proven to be the most dangerous book in the world, starting war after religious war.

    The Bible .. together with the Spirit of God to bring supernatural wisdom, guidance, and instruction .. turns the Bible into a love story and brings Heaven to Earth

  20. I’m late to this discussion, but here’s a Lutheran perspective (not angry, but still Lutheran) on the original question (How much does the Bible need the church in order to do what the Word of God can do?):

    men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith … that we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel (Augsburg Confession, articles 4 & 5)

    Note that it is not “the Bible” as such through which the Holy Ghost is given, but the Church’s ministry of Word and Sacrament. For us, then, the Church is absolutely needed for the Word of God to do its (His, really) work, because that is the purpose for which He founded the Church. But it is not the Church as an institution or as an authority that is needed, but the Church as the liturgical assembly in which the Gospel is preached and the sacraments administered.

    Or as St Cyprian so much more succinctly put it, extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

    There is nothing wrong with distributing Bibles, and I have no doubt that people sometimes come to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord through the reading of those Bibles. But two points must be made. First, those Bibles would not exist had the Church not guarded and handed down the Scriptures in her Tradition through the ages. So even he who is converted by reading the Bible “on his own” has actually been converted through the ministry of the Church, and is the recipient of her Tradition. Secondly, he who is “converted” through solitary reading of the Bible has not united himself to Christ until and unless he joins himself to His body, the Church.

  21. From Dei Verbum (Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on scripture):

    “Furthermore, editions of the Sacred Scriptures, provided with suitable footnotes, should be prepared also for the use of non-Christians and adapted to their situation. Both pastors of souls and Christians generally should see to the wise distribution of these in one way or another.”

    Sorry to the “waste of time” committee. Looks like the RCC was out in front of a few of its members.

  22. Michael,

    Key words in that quote include “proper footnotes”, “adapted to their situation”, and “wise distribution”. There is nothing in that paragraph that disagrees with anything I said, at least.

  23. Paul in the GNW says

    I though some of this was very applicable, even though no one is still reading this. Of the 55 propositions, these are the most relevant no this discussion. My emphasis

    from Synod on Sacred Scripture Propositions”

    Proposition 43: Bible and distribution

    The synod desires to recall how necessary it is that all the faithful have easy access to reading the sacred texts. In this connection, a general mobilization is required so that the sacred text be distributed as widely as possible, and with all the instruments that modern technology offers, above all for those who are differently abled – to whom our attention should go in a special way.
    A similar commitment is required to an exceptional form of collaboration among the churches so that those with greater means express greater solidarity in meeting the needs of the churches which are in greater difficulty. The synod fathers recommend supporting the efforts of the Catholic Biblical Federation for greater access to Sacred Scripture (DV 22), so that the number of translations of the Sacred Scripture may be increased and their distribution may be widespread. This should also be done in collaboration with the various Biblical Societies.

    Proposition 48: Bible and inculturation

    Revelation was expressed by taking from the diverse human cultures the authentic values susceptible of expressing the truth that, for our salvation, God has communicated to human persons. (DV, 11) In fact, the Word of God, as revelation, immersed in the cultures the consciousness of truth that otherwise would have remained hidden, and which created progress and cultural development. The mandate which the Lord gives to the church to announce the Gospel to all creatures (Mark 16:15) implies the encounter of the Word of God with all the peoples of the earth and their cultures. This presupposes the same process of inculturation of the Word of God which happened in revelation. For this reason, the Word of God must penetrate into every environment in such a way that the culture produces original expressions of life, or liturgy, of Christian thought. (CT 53) This happens when the Word of God, proposed to a culture, “makes fecund from within the spiritual qualities and the traditions of every people, confirms them, perfects them, and recapitulates them in Christ” (Gaudium et Spes, 58), arousing new expressions of Christian life.
    For an authentic inculturation of the evangelical message, a formation of missionaries must be assured with adequate means for knowing the environment of life in depth, as well as the social-cultural conditions, in such a way that the missionaries can insert themselves into the environment, the language and the local cultures. It’s the responsibility of the local church to reach an authentic inculturation of the gospel message, naturally paying attention to the risk of syncretism. The quality of inculturation depends upon the degree of maturity of the evangelizing community.

    Proposition 49: Missio Ad Gentes

    The Word of God is a good intended for all persons, which the church must not conserve for herself, but share with joy and generosity with all people and cultures, so that they too may find in Jesus Christ the way, the truth and the life. (Jn 14:6)
    Looking to the example of St. Paul, to the apostles and to so many missionaries throughout the history of the church who have carried the Gospel to the peoples, this synod reaffirms the urgency of the mission ad gentes also in our time. It’s an announcement that must be explicit, not only inside our churches, but everywhere, and it must be accompanied by a coherent witness of life which renders the content of the announcement credible and reinforces it.
    Bishops, priests, deacons, persons of consecrated life and laity must be close also to those persons who do not participate in the liturgy and who do not attend our communities. The church must reach out to all with the strength of the Spirit (1 Cor 2:5), and continue to prophetically defend the right and the liberty of people to hear the Word of God, seeking the most effective means to proclaim it, even at the risk of persecution.