The Roman Catholic Controversy: Claims of Authority

The Roman Catholic Controversy

The fourth post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy.

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.

Sacred Tradition

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.

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.

Ultimate Authority

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?

Sola Scriptura

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.

30 thoughts on “The Roman Catholic Controversy: Claims of Authority

  1. Wow man how long did this take you? You should have been on Crossfire! o.k. here goes… I totally disagree!! well not really, but I do have some frustrations. I think it is human nature to divide from a structure where one is expected to believe what one is told by a hierarchy even if that hierarchy (Church) has been guided by God. It is a lot harder to be obedient and go with the teachings of the Church rather than do what “you” the “individual” feels is “right”. I struggle with this part of being Catholic more than any other. Also, because I think it is important to always question and not be led blindly I think it is healthy to have dissent as after all, The Church is made up of humans and we are ultimately fallible.

    • I read the chapter last night, wrote some notes, and wrote the post today. It took a few hours. 🙂

      I agree that it’s not always easy, but we are members of the Body of Christ, and Christ himself is the Head. We’re called to submit to the elders (priests) of the Church (1 Peter 5:5-11), and ultimately we should submit to Christ himself. And no, we shouldn’t submit blindly — and we don’t have to. The Church provides good reasons why she makes the decisions she makes.

  2. Mm. I may have skimmed over the last third or so of your post.

    I would ask you how we can be sure that the Catholic hierarchy will get it right, but I suspect I know your answer–in your view and in the view of other Catholics, they are guided by the Holy Spirit. (If that’s not the answer, by all means correct me.) If that’s the case, then I guess I would like your opinion on two points: 1) Is the Catholic Church the only church so guided; and 2) If so, are all other churches implicitly false/heretical, meaning their members ought to return to the Catholic fold posthaste?

    • Heh, sorry. I know it was long. The last third was the best part though, I thought.

      Yes, that’s basically the view. We believe the pope and the Magisterium, when speaking ex cathedra, are guided by the Holy Spirit. And no, Catholics don’t necessarily claim a monopoly on the Holy Spirit, or label Protestants heretics anymore. As far as the Church’s official position, the “separated brethren” have “defects” in that they’ve given up important elements of the Church’s teaching (apostolic succession, the sacraments), but that the “elements of sanctification and truth” may be present in them. I quoted a document from the pope about this a while back.

      My personal view is, the Holy Spirit is definitely active in the lives of all true believers, and hopefully in their churches — but the very fact that there is so much disagreement and division makes it pretty clear that at least somebody (or a lot of somebodies) isn’t properly discerning it. This guy I’m reading (White) writes about there not being any “checks” on the Catholic Church’s authority, but I think basing Church decisions so firmly in the authority of Scripture and Tradition — and citing the sources of its arguments very scholastically — at least ensures consistency.

      I tend to think that because so many churches are separated, God does His best to keep them fed and nourished and doesn’t want them to dry up — but I don’t think it’s the Will of God for us all to be divided like this.

      • Eh, it probably was. I have a short attention span sometimes, so don’t take it as me being bored.

        Given the Church’s circumstances, that’s a reasonable position to take. And it’s one with which I largely agree. I can’t really talk much about the Church’s claims to authority, as early Christian history is less familiar to me than the Reformation era, but I think you have a strong argument in your earlier posts about the continuity issue–if the Church did go wrong, it must have gone wrong very early on, if at all, because the idea that it became a false church at some indefinite point during the Middle Ages is just too ridiculous. I’m not sold on the infallibility thing, but my personal feelings on the matter are that the Catholic Church is the original Church.

        As for what God desires for the churches–well. My idea is that while it would probably be a good idea, for multiple reasons, to once more have a united Christian Church, the fact is, the Reformation became institutionalized a long time ago. The Baptists, the Lutherans, and other denominations now have their own history and traditions, and it might well cause more discord to actively push for a reunion than to remain apart. In that context, the current state of affairs might be the preferable one.

        And yes, I know that’s a somewhat weak reed to lean upon if you look at it too closely. But I have to come up with some reason to remain Protestant (if only in name).

        • I agree that reunion would be very difficult, and isn’t likely to happen all at once — and the different paths and traditions that the different churches have taken is a major factor. But a church reuniting with Rome doesn’t necessarily entail adopting Catholic liturgy and practice, etc., in every way. The Catholic Church is actually a pretty big umbrella that encompasses a number of different “rites.” The Roman rite is the rite of the Church in the West, but now that the Church is accepting some Anglican bodies into communion, they are allowed to keep some degree of autonomy and Anglican tradition (Anglican Use). There are also Eastern Rite Catholic Churches that reunited with Rome from the East, that maintain their own liturgies and traditions. The baseline for communion with Rome is accepting the authority of the pope and Church and the doctrines of the Sacraments; beyond that, I think there could be a lot of flexibility — maybe a “Methodist Rite,” a “Baptist Rite,” that externally kept the traditions of those churches.

          I also think God leads us to the churches we’re supposed to be in, and even if the Catholic Church is the “true” one, it may not necessarily be the “right” one for everybody. We have a really wonderful Catholic parish and community here in Oxford, and I would recommend it for anybody, but the Methodist community here also seems really great. Some places, I admit, the Catholic parish isn’t that great — and though I think a lot of passionate converts would revive them and energize them, I think in some cases I would recommend somebody staying in their a loving and enriching evangelical community than joining a Catholic parish that’s dry and aloof, or modern and newfangled, or any other kind of problems — Catholics aren’t always the best at community. I have mixed feelings about the evangelical explosion in Latin America, grabbing up so many poorly-catechized Catholics. On one hand, those are our sheep; but on another, if they weren’t really being fed, then maybe it’s better they go somewhere where they are. We do believe that the Sacraments are efficacious even if the presentation seems otherwise dry and dead, but I also think some genuine love for God and neighbor, a passion for Christian living, is very important.

          We all have to work to do for the kingdom, loving our neighbors, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor — and I also think it’s important to encourage understanding and Christian love among the diverse Christian bodies. And it’s valuable and beneficial to have people who accept and respect the Catholic Church all throughout the Body of Church.

  3. I like how Walter Miller in “A Canticle for Leibowitz” describes Tradition in a roundabout way. Something moves from small “t” tradition to Holy Tradition as part of a long process of sifting. At any point in time there might be kitsch or some other thing that maybe fits to the time, but becomes rapidly dated. However, over time the flaws are smoothed out and the best is kept. Like where the Bible talks about burning away the “dross” and leaving pure gold.

    And a point about the Church being teacher and guide: I read an argument someone made the other day that I found very convincing. If someone moves to a church because the church teaches everything he believes with exactly, then has that person really submitted to a faith tradition? Hasn’t that person really just submitted to nothing more than themselves and their own sense of correctness? But in the life of faith sometimes we must be challenged and sometimes we must be obedient to wiser and more Spirit-full teachings from someone who may have run the race to a greater distance than us. We may disagree with some teachings, but it’s better to admit that sometimes we just need to be obedient even if we disagree because to be otherwise is to place our own ego at the highest point.

    It’s not a blind obedience as you mentioned, everything is there for us to weigh in every statement the Church makes. And believe me, I wasn’t looking for authoritative “fuzzies” either. As I’ve mentioned on my blog, I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into the idea that perhaps there NEEDS to be an authority.

    As to your question on the Reformation and the priesthood of all believers. I think the answer is that the Magisterial Reformation (Martin Luther, etc.) would say that the priesthood of all believers is a collective priesthood and not individualistic. The Radical Reformers (Menno Simons, etc.), or at least their followers, would perhaps interpret the priesthood of all believers more individualistically. However, John Calvin is generally slotted into the “Magisterial Reformation,” but he might have had a more individualistic interpretation. Or, it could be that his followers adopted a more individualistic interpretation and I’m reading that back into him. My Calvin is a bit rusty, I must admit.

    Great series!

    • That process of “sifting” does sound a lot like the way I imagine it worked in the Early Church. The prayers and rituals and customs we have now are the ones that proved valuable and beneficial. I haven’t read A Canticle for Leibowitz, but as I’ve read you talking about it, I think I would really enjoy it.

      For the longest time, I was “shopping” around, trying to find the Church that I “agreed” with the most — but I was always stumped when it came to deciding between two or more competing doctrines. How could I know which was right, when intelligent, reasonable people on both sides made what seemed to be valid cases? Finally, it was the Catholic Church that “shopped” me — I fell into it without ever realizing I was falling into it.

      All of my Reformation theology is a bit rusty. 🙂 I’ve read a book or two on Calvinism and a book on Arminianism, but beyond that, it’s just Luther nailing theses to a door (which probably never happened anyway). I need to read a good overview of the Reformation.

      • Justo Gonzalez has a really good two-volume Church history work. It could be more in-depth (a twenty volume work could be more in-depth!) but it’s a decent overview. I think there might even be an edition where they made it one really large volume.

        • Thanks. I will probably go bobbing on my own shelves first — I think I have some books worth reading that I haven’t yet read — and then see what turns up at my university library. We are bound to have a lot. I have a professor here who is a well-versed Reformation scholar — I may ask for recommendations from him, too.

  4. A really great post Joseph 🙂
    We have, surely, to go right back? How do we know there are only 4 Gospels and that the ones we read are the right ones? How do we know that the 27 books in the New Testament are what we say they are? The NT does not declare itself as such. The Apostolic authors did not collect them and add a contents page. Indeed, the earliest codices we have have other books in them, so how come we receive these 27? On what authority?
    I am not going to say the Pope, because I do not think history shows that. I am going to say that it was the Church. St. Athanasius gives us the first canon as we have it now in one of his Festal Letters, and that has been accepted by Christians ever since.
    He did not say that on his own authority, but on what he thought had been received everywhere by the Church. Indeed, it is said that St. Jerome included Hebrews on his authority. Jerome knew it was not by Paul, but Athanasius said the EAst had always recognised it as Pauline.
    Without the Church we should not have any authority for knowing Scripture was what it is.

    • Thanks for the comment. I haven’t studied the development of the NT canon extensively, but according to what I’ve read it was a fairly easy consensus over several generations of Fathers. I’ve found this website helpful for many years (this page is nice) — Protestant, but well done. You’re certainly right — without the Tradition of the Fathers, the consensus of the Early Church, we would have no canon. Even Protestants in the know recognize this — but acknowledging that authority is a slippery slope; when does patristic and conciliar authority cease to be valid? Many Protestants I’ve read accept the “first four ecumenical councils” (up to Chalcedon, I think) — I’m not sure what they think happened after that. But if they accept Tradition up to Chalcedon, then there is an awful lot that they’re flat-out ignoring: apostolic succession, all seven of the Sacraments, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, all of the important doctrines about Mary, pretty much anything “Catholic” that they’d rather reject.

      • Good website – thanks. Well, I guess if the essence of Protestantism is picking and choosing, we can’t be too surprised! I think many Protestants simply don’t think too deeply about the period before the Reformation. As someone who doesn’t think too deeply about the period after, I can’t complain 🙂

        • I’m very, very curious how someone as steeped in the early documents as this guy is can read the same things I’m reading and still remain Reformed. I would love to hear his reasoning, curiously and respectfully. Because his work is really impressive. And I would trust him to be honest and to understand the issues. I sincerely hope White here doesn’t represent the best of Reformed apologetics.

          • I doubt that White does.

            I think I can see how one could remain Reformed, but it would involve saying that the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox both fell away into apostasy, but that the Holy Spirit guides the hearts of Christians to the Truth all the same. That’s more or less what one Reformed Pastor I like tells me.

        • Yes, that’s one of the common arguments — but to hold that belief honestly, one must fix a point in history at which the Church became “apostate.” If it’s too late, one has to explain rejecting so many of the Early Church’s doctrines. If it’s too early, then one is presented with a Church that the promised Holy Spirit very promptly abandoned to apostasy and spiritual death — which is its own theological problem. In any case, it entails ecclesial deism, as Bryan Cross calls it.

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  6. Whew! Long post, and I’ve been gone all week.

    First, the “priesthood of all believers” is, as someone above mentioned, meant to be taken as a community, not in the highly individualistic sense that permeates western culture. It was a reaction against the teaching that the clergy were “better” people, holier people than the laity and that they had special powers that entitled them to rule. It is a recognition that Christians all together are priests who call certain members apart to act in the name of the entire community.

    As for authority: I hate the word “apostate”. For me, it has a very, very strict definition–a Christian who rejects altogether Christ. Someone who disagrees with a religious doctrine is not an apostate. To be an apostate, one must reject the most utterly basic truth. I am an ELCA seminarian–I have been called an apostate many times.

    Rant over–anywho: that came up because I think there are very very few sects I would consider apostate, and even then, I’d have to really think about it. Neither you nor I fit that definition. I may disagree with the Roman Catholic church on some doctrines, but would never call it apostate or even heretical.

    As I’ve said before, it’s important to remember that Sola Scriptura developed at a time when the hierarchical authority was abusive. With the loss of trust in that authority, the Reformers turned elsewhere. And, as you’ve said, since then, Sola Scriptura has in turn been abused. And, ironically enough, as mentioned above, traditions descended from the Reformation have since taken their own traditions and “codified” them, though would never admit it (the Book of Concord is a prime example of this). Ultimately, there is no true Sola Scriptura–we all have our traditions we use to guide us, many of which go back to the ancient church–but we still use scripture as our last judgment.

    I like what you have to say about Tradition and Scripture. However, I don’t believe that what is imagined about the two and the reality on the ground are congruent. The experience of many of my ex-Roman Catholic friends is that the Magisterium as they experienced it on the local level was indeed a tyrant instead of a teacher. That’s not a bash against the Roman Catholic church, as I’ve seen it in pretty much every church at some point. The good thing about having a solidly built pillar and foundation of Tradition is that it is sturdy. The bad thing is that it is very, very, very slow to integrate new thought or change.

    • Oh, this one is nothing to that behemoth I posted last night. 😛

      I agree with the “priesthood of all believers” in that priests are not “better people.” Holy orders, priestly ordination, was established, I reckon, to ensure order and integrity in doctrine and to protect the faithful, so only approved people would be leading and teaching the flock, and also to bind priests to service. Because it’s not something just anybody should be able to walk in and do, or walk away from on a whim — it’s a commitment. As I’ve complained about in the past, there are evangelical pastors calling themselves “pastor” who don’t have any education or credentials. Most denominations, though, I reckon, do still have an ordination process. Even most Protestants think that is essential.

      I do admit that despite making a statement or two to the contrary, I am still pretty rosy-eyed and idealistic toward the Catholic Church. I haven’t really seen the Magisterium much in action, just read what it’s done in major, Church-wide documents. I do think it’s a good idea in concept — but people are fallible and make mistakes. Nobody says that the individual members of the Magisterium are infallible; just when they all get together and agree on something. And yes, that is very slow, by design, I think. The Catholic Church doesn’t really like new things and does its best not to have to deal with them.

      • I’ve struggled with finding hard data on this (someone with more time than me really needs to do these studies), but I can’t think of a denomination that doesn’t have some sort of ordination, a setting-aside of a person for ministry. The biggest American Mainline churches for sure and most of the rest of the Mainlines have seminaries for theological training, though I know that for some it is not strictly required (but encouraged anyway). It is mostly non-affiliated, independent charismatic churches whose leaders don’t have to have any theological training because of the way they are formed–someone just decides they don’t like the church they are in and that it is high time for them to correct everyone else’s errors by starting their own church. And as a seminarian, that of course annoys me and troubles me.

        • One thing that really annoys me, common in the circle of evangelicalism that I came out of, is the tendency for preachers to identify themselves as “Dr.” so-and-so when they in fact have honorary degrees from nowhere institutions that they didn’t work for at all. The first thing I do when I pick up a book whose cover identifies its author as “Dr.” so-and-so is check the author’s bio and credentials. Serious academics seldom use the title so baldly. “Do you know who I am? I’m Dr. So-and-So.”

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