In Acts 17, St. Paul encounters the Bereans, and it is recorded that “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessaloni′ca, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
This passage is often used to support a view of sola-Scriptura. Examples:
“This is significant because it clearly is commending the Bereans over and above the Thessalonicans, because while they listened to Paul and Silas with an open mind, they still checked what they were told for accuracy by comparing it with the existing Old Testament scriptures. They did not just accept what they were told by anyone. They used scripture as their only ruler for truth. The principle of Sola Scriptura is very firmly and clearly established in this text.” (link no longer available)
“The primary Catholic argument against sola scriptura is that the Bible does not explicitly teach sola scriptura. Catholics argue that the Bible nowhere states that it is the only authoritative guide for faith and practice. However, this is only true in the shallowest sense. The principle is strongly indicated by verses such as Acts 17:11, which commends the Bereans for testing doctrine—taught by an apostle, no less—to the written Word.”
The idea that the Bereans are a primary example of the doctrine of sola-Scriptura is firmly implanted in the thinking of most of Protestantism. While you can find Catholic parishes named after saints, you can find “Berean Bible Churches,” as well as “Berean” ministries (many of them targeting the conversion of Catholics). They are seen as being “noble” for upholding a doctrine of sola-Scriptura.
The question – were the Bereans really commended for testing the doctrine being taught by St. Paul against Scripture before accepting his teaching? In context, the answer to that is clearly no. Not only does Paul’s encounter with the Bereans not support the idea of sola-Scriptura, it even contradicts it.
Context to that exchange is important. First, Paul and Silas preach the Gospel to the Jews in Thessalonia:
“Now when they had passed through Amphip′olis and Apollo′nia, they came to Thessaloni′ca, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’ And some of them were persuaded, and joined Paul and Silas; as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked fellows of the rabble, they gathered a crowd, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the people.” (Acts 17:1-5)
There are many things to note in this encounter. First, Paul did use Scripture in his discussions with the Jews from Thessalonia – it says he argued with them for three weeks with Scripture as his basis. And it’s clear what he was trying to prove to them from Scripture – “it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead.” For many Jews of the day, they were expecting the Messiah to be a conquering king who would free them from Roman rule. The Old Testament prophecies of a Messiah who would be a “suffering servant” had not been emphasized or studied and had “gotten lost” in a sense to the understanding the Messiah would come in glory. (From a Catholic perspective, those prophecies in the Old Testament regarding the Messiah coming in glory refer to Christ’s second coming at the end of time).
So in this encounter with the Thessalonians we have a conflict over what the Old Testament Scriptures actually teach about the coming of the Messiah – it’s a conflict over interpretation. But these Jews, with the exception of a few, reject Paul’s teaching regarding what those Old Testament passages really mean. The second thing to note is Paul also provides them with information that cannot be found in their Scriptures at all – “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” For while their Scriptures indeed contained references that the Messiah would be a suffering servant, they had no Scripture that could attest to the truth that the person of Jesus Christ, born among them, had actually died and risen from the dead in fulfillment of those prophecies. This was the oral proclamation of the Gospel, which was the only way the Gospel was transmitted in the first decades of the Church. There was no written record of these facts for them to search or use for verification.
The Thessalonians refused to accept anything beyond the facts they had in the Scripture available to them (the Old Testament) and their own interpretation of those facts. They rejected Paul’s oral teaching that Jesus had died and risen from the dead. They are the ones actually practicing sola-Scriptura here — ”Scripture alone,” with no recognition of the oral proclamation of the Gospel that could not be verified in their Scriptures. And when they reject St. Paul’s explanation of what the Old Testament Scriptures actually teach us about the Messiah, they reject the Magisterium of the Church in the person of St. Paul as an authentic teacher of the Truth. This is sola-Scriptura at practice in a nutshell.
When Paul and Silas come to Berea, they have a different experience:
“The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Beroe′a; and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessaloni′ca, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews of Thessaloni′ca learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Beroe′a also, they came there too, stirring up and inciting the crowds.” (Acts 17:10-13)
Imagine you are a first century Jew who has been anticipating the arrival of the Messiah your whole life. And now someone who is very knowledgeable in your faith and a well respected teacher brings you news the Messiah has come (St. Paul was a Jewish rabbi after all). But to understand that truth, you have to learn that your understanding of what you thought your Scriptures taught has been in error, or at least incomplete. Wouldn’t you eagerly start searching the Scriptures to try to understand how you had missed those things?
But were the Bereans really considered more “noble” because they wanted to verify in Scripture everything Paul said before they would accept it? The text doesn’t say that. According to the text, the primary reason they were considered to be more noble than the Jews in Thessalonia is because they “received the word with all eagerness.” They received “the word” – the “logos.” They accepted Paul’s oral presentation of the Gospel – that the person of Jesus Christ, who had been born and lived among them, was the Messiah. He had not only been crucified but he had risen from the dead. And those were facts they could not verify in their Scripture at all. They accepted both the oral witness of the Gospel, and the teaching authority of the New Testament Church to correctly interpret the relevant Old Testament passages to show they pointed to Jesus. Both of these ideas are contrary to the doctrine of sola-Scriptura. If they had not been able to go beyond what was written in their Scriptures to hear the oral proclamation of the Gospel, or had not listened to the teaching authority of the Church in the person of St. Paul to correctly interpret their Old Testament Scriptures, they could never have accepted Jesus Christ as the Messiah at all. They’d still be Jews, like the Thessalonians.
So perhaps we Catholics should consider naming some parishes after the Bereans – those who “receive the word with all eagerness” from the heart of the teaching authority of the New Testament Church and its authority to profess the Truth about the person of Jesus Christ.