Come on, y’all. I am actively courting controversy here. And I’m not doing it just to talk to myself. I know there are readers out there who disagree with me and with my critiques. Please don’t be shy about challenging me. This is supposed to be a discussion, not a soliloquy.
I am getting into the meaty matter of The Roman Catholic Controversy‘s charges. In Chapter 4, “Who Defines the Gospel?,” James White brings some preliminary scrutiny to bear on the Roman Catholic Church’s claims of authority. This is leading into his discussion of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, but first he wanted to present the claims of Rome as a contrast. He raises some important questions that every believer needs to consider, regarding authority, history, and Scripture. His own answers to those questions, however, are problematic.
The Interpretation of Scripture
The Roman Catholic Church claims the ultimate (final) authority in interpreting Scripture, by her teaching authority, the Magisterium of the Church (Magisterium from Latin magister, teacher; the adjective magisterial refers to this teaching authority). The Magisterium is made up of all the Church’s bishops in communion with the pope, and the pronouncements of the ecumenical councils of the Church, drawing from the sum of the ages of Church Tradition. White, however, misunderstands both the sources of the Church’s claims to authority and that authority’s implications.
According to White, the Church “maintains that only she can properly interpret the Scriptures.” This is not quite true, and neither of the council documents which he quotes out of context (from Trent and from Vatican II) indicates this. The Church fully acknowledges that believers are capable of reading and interpreting Scripture; but the Church, through the Magisterium, is a guide, a teacher, in the interpretation of Scripture and Tradition. The Church neither excludes nor discourages individual exegetes, so long as they operate in concert with the Church. To the contrary, learned exegetes contribute to the Church’s understanding. From Dei Verbum, the same Vatican II document that White quotes:
But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God. (Dei Verbum, III.12)
The bride of the incarnate Word, the Church taught by the Holy Spirit, is concerned to move ahead toward a deeper understanding of the Sacred Scriptures so that she may increasingly feed her sons with the divine words. Therefore, she also encourages the study of the holy Fathers of both East and West and of sacred liturgies. Catholic exegetes then and other students of sacred theology, working diligently together and using appropriate means, should devote their energies, under the watchful care of the sacred teaching office of the Church, to an exploration and exposition of the divine writings. This should be so done that as many ministers of the divine word as possible will be able effectively to provide the nourishment of the Scriptures for the people of God, to enlighten their minds, strengthen their wills, and set men’s hearts on fire with the love of God. The sacred synod encourages the sons of the Church and Biblical scholars to continue energetically, following the mind of the Church, with the work they have so well begun, with a constant renewal of vigor (Dei Verbum, VI.23).
The Magisterium is a teacher, not a tyrant — a guide and a guardian, to protect the believer from falling into error, as much as to protect the integrity of the faith and the unity of the Church. It is the final authority for the interpretation of passages of Scripture that are open to dispute, that might, and have, led to schism. But the Church does not arbitrarily and dictatorally make such magisterial judgments with the aim of shoring up its own doctrine, as White implies. Every decision of the Magisterium is made in consideration of exhaustive exegesis of Scripture and Tradition, and is made transparently. Read any document of the popes and councils and you will find it abounding with citations to Scripture, popes, councils, theologians, and the Fathers.
What does the Church mean by “Tradition”? White seems to think it means “whatever the Church says it means.” He charges that the Church claims she alone is responsible for both defining what is “tradition” and for interpreting what it means; and that there is “no external means of checking [this] authority.” He seems to misunderstand the difference between tradition (little-t) and Tradition (big-T) — that is, Sacred Tradition. Tradition with a little-t is anything that is passed down from previous generations, whether it’s music, liturgy, art, habits, folk beliefs, and almost anything else. Little-t tradition holds no inherent authority. Sacred Tradition is the authoritative tradition that has been passed down from the Apostles and the Church’s Magisterium through the ages of the Church. It is visible, traceable, and transparent through the documents of the Church — and it is authoritative not just because the Magisterium says it is, but because it has actual authority.
In discussions about the Apostolic Churches (Catholic and Orthodox), the word “authority” is thrown around a lot. Protestants, I’ve noticed, tend to assume this refers to the divine, infallible authority with which the Church was charged by Christ. But it doesn’t always. In considering the Church’s claims to authority, it is important to realize that the documents, Scripture, and Tradition on which these claims are based are not just authoritative because the Church says they are, but because they have actual authority.
White accuses the Church of basing its claim to authority on circular reasoning: that the Church claims authority because Scripture and Tradition give it authority, and that Scripture and Tradition have authority because the Church says they do. This charge fails to recognize the inherent, actual authority of these documents. This is analogous to the academic, historical use of the word “authority” — in fact, it’s through considering these documents as historical documents that we realize this actual authority.
Pretend for a moment that we know nothing about Jesus. The four Gospels can be conclusively and academically dated to within several decades of Jesus’s life and ministry. Based on their date alone, even regardless of any claims of divine inspiration or canonicity or even of their truth, the Gospels are authoritative historical documents attesting to what Jesus taught and to what the Early Church taught about him. This is actual authority, which these documents have inherently by nature of what they are, not authority that had to be declared or given to them externally. Likewise, the Epistles of Paul are authoritative historical documents to the teachings of the Apostle Paul and to the history, organization, and culture of the Early Church in each of the places to which he wrote.
The same goes for the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the first generation of Christian writers after the Apostles, including men like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, to early Christian apologists such as Justin Martyr, and to the works of the Church Fathers in every generation. These writings are authoritative historical documents in and of themselves. They reveal to us what the Church taught in specific locations at specific dates; they attest to the presence and prevalence of ideas and doctrines. Like all historical sources, of course, they are open to interpretation and historical criticism; but provided these documents are properly authenticated, their authority stands for itself.
This actual authority eliminates any possibility of “circular reasoning” in the Church’s claims to authority. The Church’s claims to authority are not based upon themselves, but are supported by the accumulated weight of documents that are authoritative in themselves. These documents, especially the writings of the Church Fathers, are also the foundation of the Church’s authoritative interpretations of Scripture: the Magisterium’s pronouncements about Scripture are not authoritative only because the Church says so, but because they rest on the actual authority of the Church Fathers, early councils, and learned exegetes and theologians.
So White’s charge that the Magisterium’s interpretation of Scripture ignores “what the actual text says” in favor of its “tradition” and “special empowerment” fundamentally misunderstands the purpose and function of the Magisterium. As the arbiter of Scripture and Tradition, the Magisterium considers all the accumulated evidence from Tradition and from its own learned scholars — not ignoring the text of Scripture, but rather making it paramount, as the excerpts above indicate. Tradition does not contradict or compete with Scripture in the Magisterium’s judgments: rather, it is a lamp for shedding light on Scripture and a lens for peering deeper into it. It is never a case of “Scripture versus Tradition,” but rather of “Scripture and Tradition” together forming a cogent whole. The actual authority of Tradition allows us to benefit from the insight into Scripture of the Early Church and Church Fathers, who received the authoritative tradition of the Apostles’ own teachings.
White charges that Rome, as an “ultimate authority,” “cannot be examined by a higher standard because by definition none could possibly exist.” Once one accepts Rome as an authority, “testing of all claims must be suspended.” “Rome may condescend to offer a proof here or a supporting text there,” but how can this be meaningful evidence, he asks, when only Rome can interpret the evidence she offers? He is incorrect in the charge that one must stop testing Rome’s claims: every judgment and pronouncement of the Church is open and transparent to the examination of the believer. Rather than “a proof here or supporting text there,” the Magisterium meticulously and exhaustively documents the sources of its dogma, and publishes those very sources so that they are available for anyone, from the average lay believer to the highest scholastic theologian, to pursue them and study them. In this digital age, virtually all of these documents are available online.
White is correct, though, in the sense that the Church is the highest and final authority in matters of faith and doctrine, liturgy and practice, and interpretation of Scripture and Tradition. This authority is not founded only upon itself, as I have demonstrated above, but supported and attested to by actual, historical authority from the origins of Christianity. But the claim to ultimate authority is based even more significantly on what the Church is and claims to be: the one, holy, and apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ and the Apostles, invested with Christ’s own authority and guided by His promised Holy Spirit.
White charges that Rome’s adherents follow her blindly and idealistically into unscriptural, even unhistorical doctrines, directed only to “trust Rome” against all other contrary evidence. As I have demonstrated above, Rome never asks anyone to trust blindly, but always meticulously and carefully explains her reasoning and documents her sources, proving the truth of its judgments rather than simply claiming it. It is true, however, that Rome, our Lord’s Church, is the authority to which we as Catholic believers are called to submit. If we believe that the Church is who she says she is — and if we believe that Christ is who He says He is — then we choose to submit gladly.
A number of Scriptures — most notably Matthew 16:17–19, but also Matthew 18:18, John 20:22-23, John 16:13-15, Mark 16:15-18, Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8, and others — can only be interpreted be as Jesus explicitly granting authority to His Apostles. In Matthew 16:17-19, Jesus declared the foundation of His Church on the Apostle Peter, and invested Peter with the authority to “bind and loose” and the power of the “keys.” Historically and textually, the Gospel of Matthew originated in Judea and was neither written nor preserved nor canonized by partisans of the Church of Rome, but by the entire universal Church. If we as Christians believe the Bible at its Word, then we must believe that Jesus founded a Church, declared that it would stand against the gates of hell, invested it with His authority, and gave His Holy Spirit to guide it into all truth.
White charges that it is merely a “fallible” choice to follow the Church of Rome, no more certain than the decision to follow any other faith or sect. It is true that no one can be certain beyond rational doubt of the truth of Rome’s claims — but in the same way, no one can be certain beyond rational doubt that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, or any other truth we proclaim about Christianity. Faith in Christ is not “blind,” but supported by a wealth of testimonies, experiences, scientific, historical, and textual evidences — but in the end it is still accepted on faith, the gift of God’s grace. The claims of the Church of Rome, that it is the authoritative Church that Jesus founded, cannot be proven with absolute, scientific certainty, any more than the truth of Christ can. Rome’s authority must also, similarly, be taken on faith. But it is not a blind faith by any means. We know with a fair degree of certainty, both historical and archaeological, that Christ’s Apostles Peter and Paul were the foundation of the Church of Rome. Together with the historical evidence of the Gospels, the universal acknowledgement among early writers that Peter and Paul founded the Church, the Church Fathers’ deference to her authority, and the very fact that the Roman Church came to be preeminent, all attest to the truth of Rome’s claims.
What drew me to the Roman Catholic Church was her actual, historical authority, not her claims to infallible authority. My choice was a fallible one, it is true; I made it on faith; but I based my decision on the overwhelming weight of historical evidence. I accept Rome’s claims of infallible authority — I put my faith in the Church — not blindly or idealistically, but because all the evidence supports them.
The Church of Rome has a legitimate, historical, documentable claim to her origins and authority. Rather foolishly and provocatively, White claims that “the modern Roman Church is not the historical Roman Church.” Because she has changed and evolved over the centuries, and no longer resembles exactly the Church of the third, eighth, or eleventh centuries — because the early bishops of Rome would no longer recognize her as the Church they founded — she is not the same Church, says White. But by the same token, the Founding Fathers of the United States would no longer recognize the nation they founded. The modern Catholic Church is no less the Church that St. Peter founded than the modern United States is the nation that George Washington founded.
The Great Scandal
White also charges that believers choose to put their faith in the Catholic Church, or similarly the Orthodox Church — they choose to accept the claims of an infallible Church authority — because they fear taking “personal responsibility” for their faith and want a “higher authority” to do the work of interpreting Scripture for them, to make the hard decisions for them, to dictate their faith to them. Believers follow an authoritative Church because they desire the “infallible fuzzies,” “that comforting feeling of being ‘in’ with the ancient, unchanging, all-powerful, and infallible church.”
As I’ve written before, I wasn’t even looking for authority — or at least, I didn’t know that it was what I was missing — when I stumbled upon it and everything fell into place. Giving up personal responsibility was the last thing I was searching for — it was in fact my greatest fear about the Catholic Church. I neither desired nor expected the “infallible fuzzies” — and if I now have them, it’s only because Holy Mother Church is rightly sheltering me.
Rather, I was wandering to get away from the chaos and disorder of Protestantism — from the complete disarray and disagreement among Protestants about scriptural interpretation and doctrine; from the more than 50,000 distinct Protestant denominations and sects; from the intellectual inanity and emotionalism at one end, and the rigid, heartless dogmatism at the other. I blame all of this disorder on the very Reformation and its doctrines — on the Reformers’ severing of Christianity from any form of Authority or Tradition — most of all on sola scriptura.
Sola scriptura, a well-meaning doctrine that aims to set up Scripture itself as the ultimate authority, ultimately results in the setting up of each individual believer as his own ultimate authority. White admits as much. For it is each believer’s individual, personal responsibility to interpret Scripture for himself or herself, to arrive at correct doctrine, and make his own decisions about his faith. By the “individual priesthood of the believer,”* White declares, every believer is personally responsible for his own faith. “God holds us individually responsible for what we believe and why we believe it.” This, to White, is the “Great Scandal” of the Reformation.
* I’m not the Reformation scholar yet that I should be, but is White not grossly misinterpreting the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” — that is, the idea that all believers together are a priesthood, not each individual believer his own priest?
Of course God holds us personally responsible for our own decisions about our faith and beliefs. But that does not excuse us from submitting to the authorities that Christ established. In the Early Church, rejecting the authority and tradition of the Church to follow one’s own choices regarding belief was called heresy (αἵρεσις [hairesis], from αἱρέω, to choose for oneself). It is only by charity and a desire for reconciliation that most of us have stopped using that term of each other.
A little ironically, White steps back a moment to emphasize that this doctrine does not eliminate the need for the Church, and “does not do away with the biblically based authority of elders.” He seems to be selectively ignoring the biblically-based authority of bishops (ἐπίσκοποι) (1 Timothy 3:1-7). He declares that believers are to submit to the elders of the Church, and hold firm to the Apostles’ doctrines. So, believers are to submit to the authority of elders (πρεσβύτεροι, or presbyters — the origin of our priests) — but not a hierarchical, authoritative Church?
In light of this “Great Scandal” — which to me, seems every bit as scandalous as White means it to be ironic — White attempts a defense of sola scriptura and the private interpretation of Scripture. He establishes that we are rational, but fallible and limited creatures, and that God entrusted to us His inspired Word in the Scriptures — and then hits the point of individual authority. “Do you really think God is shocked that human beings end up disagreeing over what His Scriptures teach?” he asks. “No, not for a moment.”
But this view seems immediately contrary to the God revealed in the very Scriptures He gave. All throughout salvation history, God installed His authority in the lives of His people, to instruct them and guide them. In the Old Testament, there was the Law of Moses; after Moses and Joshua, there were judges; then there were kings and prophets. Always there was God’s authoritative voice and leadership in the midst of His people. Then in the New Testament, God Himself came down to teach and shepherd His people, to establish a New Covenant and to enact the Gospel. And then, He left them with — a book? Open for each individual believer to interpret? With no other guidance or authority? That seems rather anti-climactic. No, Jesus never mentioned anything about a book; the Gospels do not anticipate the New Testament or a sola scriptura dependence on Scripture, let alone the individual interpretation of it. Jesus does establish a Church in the Gospels, and promise that the Holy Spirit would guide it into all truth (John 16:13).
In fact, none of Scripture was written or directed to the individual believer. Every book of the Old Testament was intended for the entire people of Israel. The books of the New Testament were meant for the whole Church (the Gospels and Catholic Epistles), for local churches (most of the Pauline Epistles), or for specific individuals (the Pastoral Epistles). When Paul addresses the collective Church, he uses the plural; he does not anticipate individual believers interpreting Scripture on their own or being their own authority.
What is more, in the Early Church, and even up until the modern age, the individual believer couldn’t read and interpret Scripture for himself. Until fairly recently, the vast majority of people were illiterate. This is not even to mention the great time and expense involved in copying the Scriptures: Very few individual believers even had private access to the Scriptures until the printing press. The Scriptures were the domain of the local church: only an entire church body could afford a copy of the Scriptures. Only in the Church could the lay believer hear the Scriptures read publicly, or could a knowledgeable teacher instruct him in their meaning. This is exactly analogous to the Jewish tradition from which Christianity descended: only in the synagogue could faithful Jews hear and be instructed in the Scriptures. When Paul wrote to Timothy and instructed him to devote himself to the Scriptures, it was to the public reading of Scriptures, and to publicly teaching them to other believers (1 Timothy 4:13), not to private study and personal interpretation; Timothy certainly didn’t have his own private copy. There was never any thought of the private ownership, readership, or interpretation of the Scriptures among the lay faithful until the days of Wycliffe and Luther and Tyndale. In the Early Church, the “priesthood of the individual believer” was not a practical possibility.
This demands the question: Would Jesus grant to His Church as its sole authority a Book of Scriptures that few could read and fewer could afford to own? That wasn’t even all written until thirty to fifty years after His Ascension? That didn’t even exist as a canon until a century or two later? Did Christ expect individual believers to take “personal responsibility” for the interpretation of Scripture for the fifteen or sixteen centuries when they had no private access to it, and when there was no reasonable expectation that they would? Did He simply abandon the majority of His faithful to be sore out-of-luck until the glorious day of the Reformers? No, this does not sound like the Jesus I know. Scripture attests that Jesus established a Church and invested it with authority to teach and guide believers, to corporately be His Body and His Bride; not to foster individualism and private interpretation of Scripture and doctrine.