I have read/heard this accusation a few times. Usually bandied about by the same person but there are a fringe few who say it as well. I find it rather sad because it shows an ignorance of what the function of the Magisterium is. It is true that the Magisterium has officially interpreted only a few verses in the Bible however it seems that there is quite a misunderstanding as to what that means. Today it seems rather common for someone to attack something without the person actually having any knowledge of what they are talking about. First I will start off by listing the implications of what I believe the Protestant could mean I will then follow it up with a response.
1. This could potentially put the Protestant on equal ground (finally!) with the Catholic in their eyes. This means that any interpretation that the Catholic comes up with can be answered with “that is your fallible interpretation.”
2. The Catholic Church doesn’t really understand the Bible and so has only defined five, six or seven verses (most lists I have seen list seven).
Addressing the Implications:
1. While there is a short list of definitive interpretations, the job of the Magisterium is not to define each and every verse of the Bible. The job of the Magisterium is to prevent us from falling into error. With this, through the help of the Holy Spirit, they have done an outstanding job! The Church over its 2,000 year history has yet to fall into error and will not because of the promise from Christ (Matthew 16:18). For instance, instead of defining each and every verse that refers to Jesus as human and divine they defined His hypostatic union at the Council of Nicea. There is no need to define each one of those verses since the truth was already established in this union.
With the Magisterium tasked with the difficult job of keeping us fallible humans from error they have given us many definitions in which each Catholic is allowed to interpret the Bible themselves within the bounds the Magisterium has set. For instance, John 3:5 refers to being born of water and Spirit. The Magisterium has definitively defined this to refer to baptism. Canon II of Council of Trent On Baptism refers to this:
CANON II.-If any one saith, that true and natural water is not of necessity for baptism, and, on that account, wrests, to some sort of metaphor, those words of our Lord Jesus Christ; Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost; let him be anathema.
A good question that one could ask is if this verse can also refer to something else. Well yes it can! There are many ways to read Scripture but as long as one keeps in the back of their mind the definitive declaration and not contradict it all is well. Think about the truth as a road. The Magisterium puts up guard rails on both sides of the road. As more and more truth gets defined the road becomes narrower. This is to lead us to the truth instead of putting up road blocks that keep us from the truth.
What about that difficult task of a verse that has yet to be defined such as 2 Timothy 3:16 that Protestants point to saying it proves Sola Scriptura? Well again we are in luck! Since the job of the Magisterium is to keep us from error, there is a Doctrine for that. This Doctrine is commonly referred to as the three-legged stool. Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium are part of that three-legged stool. The best part about it is that it is also in the Bible and all contained in one verse:
2 Thessalonians 2:15: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”
As you see, it is quite clear that the Magisterium exercises a teaching function not by definitely defining Scripture but by using Sacred Tradition and Scripture in conjunction with each other. All three are imperative for Christians and pitting one against the other will lead to an incomplete knowledge of God.
2. The charge is often made that Catholics don’t know the Bible. While in some respects this may be true, it is mostly a false accusation. Most Catholics don’t know that they know the Bible. That sounds rather silly but it is the truth. The Divine Liturgy (Mass) is, as Scott Hahn wrote in his book Rome Sweet Home, “so steeped in Scripture” (p. 87). From the entrance to the dismissal the whole of the Divine Liturgy is from the Bible. Most people do not even realize that what they are reciting, seeing, hearing or smelling comes directly from the text of Scripture.
What a lot of Catholics will not know is what book, chapter and verse that this or that phrase comes from. For a lot of Protestants this is what is important. The memorization of this information has fallen by the wayside for Catholics a bit though it is making a strong come back.
The Church Fathers are another good example of Catholics knowing the Bible since they were (are) all Catholic. Many Protestants do read the Church Fathers because of this. They read these because, contrary to some beliefs, there were no pockets of Baptists, Reformed, Lutherans or any other Protestant denomination, only Catholics. If Catholics didn’t know the Bible then, then no one did. No one was able to defend us from the heresy of Gnosticism, Arianism, Docetism or any other heresy that popped up. Most Denominations agree with Catholics that these were heresies and have to look to Catholics to answer the question of why. While most of the arguments were made from the Bible, the heretics also used the Bible to support their ideas. Instead of definitely interpreting this passage or that, the Magisterium defined Doctrine in which we adhere to today.
In closing, the argument that the Magisterium has only defined seven verses is a poor one. In the grand scheme of things it does not mean a lot. The job of the Magisterium is to teach as 2 Thessalonians 2:15 indicates not define each and every verse of the Bible. Often times Catholics are criticized for not being able to believe a certain way because the Magisterium has closed that path. In fact, the Magisterium leaves open interpretations in order to derive the truth instead of limiting the Christian to a specific path regardless where the truth is like some Protestant Denominations do. They can’t have it both ways.