One of the things that surprised me since becoming Catholic is how often I come across a passage in the Bible that I thought I was familiar with, only to have something leap out at me from the text that I never noticed before. I am not talking about merely interpreting a passage differently than I did as a Protestant; I am talking about a forehead-slapping “Why didn’t I notice this before?” moment. It happens quite a bit. Today’s readings had one of these. St. Paul is speaking to the Ephesian elders/priests prior to his departure and said this:
And so I solemnly declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God.
As a Protestant in the evangelical milieu (though by culture and temperament I have never fit in with American-style evangelicalism) I saw that the most common way that disagreements between individuals and churches over doctrine was handled was by saying that we all agree on the “essential” doctrines, including the Protestant solas, and that other doctrines were of secondary importance. As long as we loved Jesus and agreed on the basics, we shouldn’t make a big deal of disagreements on other matters. (As an aside, I can’t help rolling my eyes whenever some secular fundamentalist zealot in the press depicts evangelicals as some sort of monolithic entity marching in lockstep. The truth is that on any question, if you ask three evangelicals you will probably get four different opinions!)
Yet St. Paul doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo that some parts of the Christian revelation are of “secondary” importance in contrast to the “basics.” His “solemn declaration” above seems to say the exact opposite. I don’t see how this statement can be taken other than that he regards it all as essential, and not just five to ten (!) bullet statements that can fit on the single page of a church bulletin. It never did make sense to me that God would give us a book the size of the Bible if so much of its content was not essential. And then there is the question of who has the authority to determine which bits are essential and which bits are not. These questions are of vital importance in St. Paul’s view.