Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 3: An Authoritative Church

The third and last part of my reflections on grappling with sola scriptura as a Protestant journeying to the Catholic Church. Part 1. Part 2. Part of my ongoing conversion story. This part proved to be really long, but the pieces were so dependent on each other that I wanted to post the rest of it whole; please bear with me.

An authoritative Church

Rome from the dome of St. Peter's.

Rome from the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The idea that the scriptural interpretations of the Church could have inherent authority was an epiphany to me. It was the catalyst that started the chain reaction, the push that started the dominoes falling, that would ultimately bring down the last vestiges of my faith in sola scriptura. But it was perhaps not the biggest hurdle. Recognizing that the Church Fathers are authorities in interpreting Scripture does not translate to accepting that the Catholic Church is the authority in interpreting Scripture.

Yes, an interpretation that is constructed from and founded on a sack full of authorities is generally going to be more authoritative than one based solely on one’s own unaided reasoning. A student who makes an argument from his own interpretation of a single primary source stands on shaky ground, while one who stands on the authority of learned men who have written on the matter in the past has a reasonable claim to credibility. As I have written before, this by itself gave me compelling reason to put stock in the claims and interpretations of the Catholic Church. Following those claims and the arguments made for them, I generally found the Church’s witness to be credible.

But accepting that the Church’s scriptural interpretations are authoritative and credible — a factual claim — is a far cry from accepting that the Catholic Church has the exclusive authority to interpret Scripture authentically — a doctrinal claim. My visceral inclination as a Protestant was to balk at such extravagance. But my willingness to consider and credit the scriptural, interpretive claims of the Church brought me, at least, to examine this one more closely.

What does it mean for the Church to claim “exclusive authority in interpreting Scripture“? What did the Church actually claim? And what was my objection? I had already admitted that the Church could authentically interpret Scripture. What I balked at, I realized, was the thesis that the Church could have authority at all — over believers, over me.

St. Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbarán

St. Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1627) (Wikimedia)

The truth is, I had never even encountered such an argument, that a church could have authority. It may be a commonplace for Protestants of more traditional denominations, but for me, steeped in such a free, independent, individualistic tradition, it seemed entirely foreign. The church, in my mind as a Protestant, was a voluntary social association. Our pastor was the man who preached every week at church, who had little or no personal involvement in our lives or faiths. Our deacons were little more than a board of directors for the corporation. The district council of our denomination, if we ever heard about it, seemed to exist mainly for cooperating in missions and youth activities. I don’t remember ever hearing of a national body (there actually is one). None of these bodies had any authority over our church; and I didn’t consider the church, or even the pastor, to have authority over me.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, claims to have authority. This was a novel and fairly stunning concept, one that had never even occurred to me. Was the Church something more than just the people? Were its leaders something more than just public speakers, something more than business administrators? The Catholic Church claims to have some authority over its faithful. In what way was I supposed to understand this? On the surface, once again, I balked, imagining a tyrant, standing over believers, telling them what they could believe and do.

The Magisterium

Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

When I first encountered the idea of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, I envisioned something like a formal council of robed and hoary bishops meeting weekly or daily, to which every interpretation of Scripture, every homily and every teaching, had to be submitted for approval. The magisterium, after all, claimed “exclusive authority of interpreting Scripture.” I supposed Catholics were forbidden from reading and interpreting Scripture on their own. Naturally, this conception was something to balk at.

But this isn’t, I soon discovered, what the Church was claiming at all. The magisterium of the Church refers to the Church’s teaching authority — her role as a teacher. The magisterium is not literally a formal body of men at all (although it can be said that the pope and the bishops in communion with him make it up); it does not meet (aside from the couple of dozen times over the whole history of the Church that all the bishops of the Church have met in ecumenical council); it does not stand over the scriptural interpretation of the faithful as any sort of regulatory authority. So what actually is being claimed?

The Good Shepherd, Bernhard Plockhorst

The Good Shepherd, by Bernhard Plockhorst (19th century) (Wikimedia)

Scripture presents that God Himself appoints preachers and teachers (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, 2 Timothy 1:11) in the person of the bishops (1 Timothy 3:2, 5:17, Titus 2:24), men charged with passing on the truth of the faith (2 Timothy 2:2, 4:2) and keeping watch over the souls of the faithful (Hebrews 13:17). A pastor is a shepherd, one with authority over God’s flock (1 Peter 5:1-5). If we accept these teachings of Scripture, that God gave pastors and bishops the authority to teach and to guide His flock, then the notion that the magisterium of the Church, made up of all the bishops, should have the authority to teach the truth is not so far fetched.

With just a little reading, I soon came to see that what the Church really means when she claims that the magisterium of the Church has the authority to give the authentic interpretation of Scripture is mostly this: that the whole body of bishops, giving the very interpretations over all the ages that I had already come to hold as authoritative, does in fact have the authority to give that interpretation. The Church is a teacher, not a tyrant. Like a teacher, the Church offers teaching, the authoritative interpretation of Scripture, for the benefit, edification, and guidance of the people of God.

Not a Tyrant

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus Caesar as Pontifex Maximus (Wikimedia).

One point I alluded to before is the misconception and fear I had that the Church could dictate whatever interpretations she pleased, no matter how contradictory they actually were to Scripture: that she could teach believers to believe Scripture meant something completely other than what it actually says. Well, the first thing that was clear to me, as I began to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, even the Council of Trent, is that this hasn’t actually happened. When the Church speaks as a teacher, she bases her teachings on Scripture and on the interpretations on the past: each of these documents is rife with scriptural quotations and citations, quotations and citations from the Church Fathers, from prior councils and documents; a modern edition has footnotes. Each reflects the didactic method of a teacher and not the bald pronouncements of a dictator.

Jesus said that “the [leader of the faithful] must be as one who serves” (Luke 22:26). Peter taught that a pastor must shepherd the flock not by constraint but willingly, leading not by force but by example (1 Peter 5:2-3). This is the kind of authority that the Church offers as a teacher. In the very same statement as the one that I once took to be so troubling — the claim that the Church has “exclusive authority to interpret Scripture authentically” — she also says this:

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office [magisterium] of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office [magisterium] is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. (Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum [Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation] 10).

The Church cannot teach something that has not been handed down as truth. The Church does not “invent” teachings; she passes them on. It is plain for any student to see the truth of this, to see the support offered for every teaching, the foundations and precedents in traditional and time-honored interpretations of Scripture and in the teachings of the past. These teachings, these traditions, everything that makes up the deposit of faith — none of it is hidden, secret, or unknown, but all of it is available to be studied by the faithful.

Too Many Teachers

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

And why is the Church’s authority exclusive? Does this imply that individual believers are not authorized to interpret Scripture for themselves? Or that no one other than a bishop is capable of interpreting the meaning of the Scriptures truthfully? Not at all. It means only that God gave His teaching authority to the office that came (by the end of the first century) to reside in the bishop alone. And why? As someone who has spent most of my life involved in education, I can attest that when everybody thinks they are the teacher, nobody learns anything. Scripture is very clear that God appointed shepherds over us with the authority to teach.

The Church with authority over scriptural interpretation and doctrine is evidenced again and again in history. In Acts 15, when the controversy of the Judaizers arose, it was not individual believers, interpreting Scripture on their own, that decided the matter, but a council of Apostles and bishops. When the great heresies such as Arianism arose, the matter was not left to the consciences and private interpretations of individual believers, but the orthodox way was ultimately defined by a council of all the bishops through interpreting Scripture.

Sola scriptura presents the problem of “too many teachers” writ large. If every person’s interpretation is considered authoritative, if an individual believer’s opinion has just as much value as the whole teaching tradition of the Church, then we see in the history of Protestantism exactly what we should expect to see: thousands of separate churches. Everyone having authority ultimately means that no one has authority at all. And this is what I felt as a Protestant; this was the source of my paralysis.

And yes, it’s true, that Protestants insist that sola scriptura is not the giving of interpretive and doctrinal authority to every individual believer. They insist that the Church still has doctrinal authority, and to greater or lesser extents, some Protestants churches actually implement that. Some churches, such as the P.C.A., do enforce the orthodoxy of their confessions, and bring censure or even excommunication to those who depart from it. But then, if anyone disagrees with the confessions of the P.C.A., he is free to depart and start his own church, and feels the moral and doctrinal mandate to do so. Church authority is of no authority at all if the individual believer has the authority to challenge it. The church really does become a voluntary association. Sola scriptura, I argue, does necessarily result in the implication that every believer is his own teacher: even the most submissive Protestant can pick and choose what teachers he submits to; he can embrace the one whose teachings agree with his own private interpretation, and reject the one whose don’t. I think it is very telling, in comparing the history of the Catholic and Protestant churches, how comparatively rare real and substantial doctrinal schism — the actual breaking away of a significant number of believers to form their own churches, on account of some doctrinal dispute — is in the Catholic tradition, versus how commonplace splits of the local church or of whole denominations are in the Protestant world.

“Other Things”

Infant baptism by immersion

Baptism.

Several times in the course of this series, I’ve alluded to my acceptance of other authorities, other sources such as historical documents, as instrumental in my eventual rejection of sola scriptura. I opened the series, provocatively, with the statement that “Protestants hold as authoritative the Bible alone, while Catholics deny this and add other things.” This was my understanding as a Protestant. It is not a very accurate statement of what Catholics believe.

First, do Catholics deny that Scripture is authoritative? That it is the Word of God? Absolutely not. For Catholics, just as well as for Protestants, Scripture is the highest, most eminent authority, the very and absolute Word of God in written form. Scripture cannot be denied, dismissed, or contradicted, by the magisterium of the Church, by the pope, or by anyone else. I very often hear the charges that “the Catholic Church makes her teachings equal with Scripture,” or places herself “above Scripture”: this is not true. The Church teaches about Scripture, from Scripture; she is not and cannot be above Scripture. Scripture is part of the deposit of faith and truth from which she teaches; she cannot add to, take away from, or alter that deposit.

What else is part of this deposit of faith? What “other things”? The other component of the deposit of faith is Sacred Tradition. No, this does not mean that the “traditions” of the Catholic Church are held to be authoritative, on the same level of Scripture. What does the Church mean by “Sacred Tradition”? Sacred Tradition is a technical term: it does not refer to “traditions” or to just any tradition in the Catholic Church, but very specifically to only one thing: to the oral teachings of Christ and the Apostles that have been handed down [traditae sunt] in the Church. If Christ spoke it, then it is the Word of God.

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena, c. A.D. 1562 (Wikipedia).

Protestants complain that this idea of “Sacred Tradition” is inherently amorphous and undefined, that at any point the Church can declare some novel doctrine on the basis that it is part of this unseen body of “Sacred Tradition.” Because it is not written down, it can be abused, or even invented whole cloth. But the “traditional” aspect of it is essential: every part of this “Sacred Tradition” has been handed down in the Church, and is visible, and practically, has been written down by the Church Fathers. The Church applies the same standard for Tradition that the most ancient Church applied: we know it is part of the deposit of faith, handed down from the Apostles, because it was taught in all the Churches (cf. Irenaeus, etc.).

So in the end, the statement that the Catholic Church adds “other things” to Scripture, that she believes “other things” in addition to the Word of God, is misleading. No, the Catholic Church does not indiscriminately hold “traditions” or “other things” to be divinely authoritative in addition to Scripture. Nothing the Church believes can contradict Scripture. Once I began to understand the truth of what the Church actually holds and teaches about Scripture and revelation, it seemed entirely reasonable and consistent with what I was was already coming to believe — and I readily let go of the notion of sola scriptura.

I have heard many Protestants, too, complain about the “tripod” of the Church’s teaching, with its three legs being Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the magisterium — which seems to imply that the Church considers all three to be equal. This is an analogy, it’s true, that some Catholics have used, and Vatican II itself stated that “sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the magisterium … are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others,” implying this image of the tripod. But the Church does not consider the three equal. The statement is only that “one [of the three] cannot stand without the others”; the illustration of the tripod, if it be drawn, is only meant to convey this interdependence, not the three components’ equality or even their relative positions. Neither Scripture nor Tradition interprets itself: a teacher is also necessary, but is a servant to the deposit of faith, not above it.

Conclusion

John Calvin, by Titian (16th century) (Wikimedia).

John Calvin, by Titian (16th century) (Wikimedia).

I had struggled for many years to arrive at some authoritative interpretation of Scripture. I believed, as a Protestant, that finding such an authoritative interpretation was my initiative; I was told that Scripture “perspicuous,” and such an authoritative interpretation should be plain, and that it was “self-interpreting,” that it ought to be findable without depending on my own understanding. Such plainly did not happen: The more I studied Scripture, the more paralyzed I became in coming to any sort of authoritative interpretation.

This was where I stood when I stumbled into the antechamber of the Catholic Church. I did not fully understand my problem — I could not have articulated what my paralysis was or what it stemmed from — and I had not even an inkling that the solution to it lay ahead. How could I move past my logjam? I needed a teacher. Protestants who espouse developed theology and doctrines point to “Scripture alone” as the origin of their teaching, but in truth they too are relying on an interpretive tradition, the fruit of teachers — the pastors, theologians, and Reformers who developed the doctrines that they hold. It is easy to point to a collection of doctrines already held and already exposited and claim they are clear on the face of Scripture, that Scripture can interpret itself, but in truth this is not historically and intellectually honest. Were these doctrines “perspicuous” and “self-interpreting” for the fifteen centuries before the Protestant Reformers developed and espoused them?

I had no teacher. I came from a background mostly bereft of concrete doctrine or theology or meaningful exegesis. I had not the benefit of an already exposed system of doctrine. I had the tools to exposit Scripture, but not the guidance. Thus, it gradually became clear to me over the years that the claims of sola scriptura were false: Scripture was not “perspicuous” in any meaningful way, apart from the barest outlines of the gospel. Scripture was not “self-interpreting.”

Scripture is a collection of texts. They do not “self-interpret.” Interpretation is the activity of a person, and Scripture is not a person. The Holy Spirit is a person, who can and does aid us in understanding the truth of Scripture — but His guidance is necessarily filtered through our own human perceptions; Scripture is necessarily understood through our own human interpretations. Over the years, developing in my consciousness as a Christian and as an academic, I had come to realize these things, more or less concretely, by the time I encountered the Church.

I needed a teacher; and where Protestants, especially the ones I was familiar with, tended to limit their interpretation of Scripture to their own understanding, or to teachers in the past who had done the same, the Catholic Church that I discovered strove to base her interpretation of Scripture on the whole context of Scripture and the whole body of received, authoritative tradition. I accepted this authority at first academically, but was troubled by the Church’s theological claims to have exclusive authority to interpret Scripture, perceiving them to be extravagant and somehow tyrannical. Over time, though, I came to see the truth: In interpreting Scripture, the Church is a teacher, not a tyrant. And I, at long last, had found my teacher.

Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 2: Sources of Authority

The second part of my account of how I, as an Evangelical Protestant journeying to the Catholic Church, grappled with sola scriptura. I decided to split the post into three, so there is still more to come! Part of my ongoing conversion story.

Santa Maria Maggiore, interior

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Roma (Wikimedia)

So this idea of authority — which I had never really thought much of as a Protestant — proved to be a critical one. Who has the authority to interpret Scripture? If anyone had asked me that as a Protestant, I would have answered that I did. I don’t think this is the right answer, understanding what I do now about about Protestant theology: “Scripture interprets itself” seems to be the appropriate response. Only it didn’t for me. As I read and studied Scripture on my own, praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, I strove to find my way to a correct understanding of biblical doctrine and theology — only I never made much headway. When faced with competing claims to truth from different denominational camps, based on different, apparently valid interpretations of the same scriptural passages, I struggled to come to any confident conclusion.

As a Protestant, I still very much felt that Scripture was the only authoritative source of divine truth — the only place we could go to find divine revelation. It is the Word of God. But as an academic, I was coming to understand the idea of authority in perhaps a different way than many of my Evangelical brethren.

An argument from history

Douay-Rheims New Testament (1582)

Douay-Rheims New Testament (1582) (Wikimedia)

As I studied history in school, I came to think more about sources of authority. Obviously, in terms of the Christian faith, Scripture, the Holy Bible, was the primary source, the authoritative Word of God. But — at least in the Evangelical Protestant camps I grew up in — it was common to treat it as the only source: as if, if something is not detailed explicitly in Scripture, it cannot possibly be true. This was applied not only to matters pertaining to Christianity and the Church, but to all matters. It was, of course, applied unevenly, and used more as a cudgel to reject facts and evidence the believer happened not to care for than for any universal standard of truth.

As a budding historian, I was aggravated by this logic. Just as in history, there were secondary sources, of a different degree of authority but nonetheless valuable, there were numerous other sources — historical sources, the writings of the earliest Christians after the New Testament or even of secular authors; scientific sources, evidence scientists had observed and that we ourselves could observe from nature — that could add to our knowledge about our world and even about our faith. The Bible being the authoritative Word of God did not demand that it be the only source of truth.

The Bible was God’s Word to us; but it was also an historical document. The Bible could shed light on Christian history; but other, historical sources could also shed light on Christian history. The Bible, in terms of history, only gave a brief glimpse at the origins of Christianity; other sources could certainly tell the story of what happened next, where the Bible could not. When I journeyed to Rome as a student, I was fascinated by the claims that the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul were there. The truth of these claims could be supported from history and archaeology. But I encountered Christians who were prepared to reject such claims out of hand, on the simple grounds that “it wasn’t in the Bible.”

sky-earth-galaxy-universe

So already, years before I even approached Catholicism, I was discontent with the way some Evangelicals applied sola scriptura — in an unintellectual opposition to observable fact. I was similarly disgruntled with the literalistic reading of Scripture espoused by many Evangelicals, who sought to read the words of Scripture as statements of bald fact and not the literary forms — poetry, liturgy, allegory — that they certainly contain. I witnessed so many nasty and fruitless arguments quibbling over young-earth Creationism, the biblical Flood, points of historical or narrative accuracy — when none of these things had any bearing at all on the spiritual truths contained in Scripture. They only detracted from our understanding rather than adding to it, divided Christians rather than united them, and falsely pitted Christianity against science in a way that made people of faith a laughingstock to the secular world. There was no reason to use “sola scriptura” as a denial of the observable facts of history or science, of truth we could glean from other sources. God gave us Scripture to reveal His truth, not to blind our eyes to it.

Sources of authority

Clio, Mignard (Muse of History)

Pierre Mignard, The Muse Clio (1689) (Wikimedia)

The thing that still bothered me deeply about Catholic claims was the claim that the Church was the sole authentic interpreter of the Word of God — in other words, the Church could tell believers the right way to understand Scripture! As a Protestant, I felt a closely-held prerogative to interpret Scripture for myself. Looking back, I felt a liberty to read, interpret, and define the meaning of Scripture for myself that seems to contradict what Protestants actually teach about the perspicuity of Scripture — supposing that Scripture has one meaning that ought to become clear with effective study — but in truth seems to reflect the way many Protestants actually read Scripture — with the ultimate authority being one’s own individual interpretation.

Chained Bible

How dare the Church insist on interpreting Scripture for me! Didn’t Luther’s focus on “Scripture alone” originate to combat the tyranny of the Church, and its imposition of “unbiblical” doctrines? What was to keep the Church today from dictating to believers that Scripture said something entirely different than what it actually said? This, coming from my Protestant formation, is exactly what I presumed she did. This, up until the time I discovered the Church for myself, was my foremost, most easily vocalized objection to the Catholic Church.

It was the single point I raised the fateful day I ran into my friend Audrey at the library. Her response was simple, clear, and disarming. She was perhaps the only person in my life who could have addressed this particular issue in this particular way — the way that made perfect sense to me and cut through all my defenses. It was the answer all the years of my journey had been preparing me for.

“I see it like authority for a historian,” she said. “We base our arguments on the authority of those who have written in the past. The closer a witness is to the event, the more valuable it is in understanding how that event was understood by contemporaries. And each generation builds on the authority of those who have written before, and as they reflect on those interpretations, they gain a deeper understanding of the truth. The Catholic Church has 2,000 years of authority behind her interpretations of Scripture — of trusted, respected, and authoritative voices who have spoken on the matter.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine (c. 1645-1650), Philippe de Champaigne.

And there it was. Of course the Catholic Church has an authoritative interpretation: By relying on the ancient witnesses of the past, according to a scholarly, historical method, the Church’s interpretations of Scripture become by default more authoritative than my personal, unaided interpretation alone. I know some Greek and a little Hebrew, but those are not languages that I understand natively. I was not personally acquainted with the Apostles or with their disciples or with the historical and theological context of the Early Church and the faith they received. The Church Fathers — whom I had respected for so long — were. It was on they that the authority of the Catholic Church’s interpretation of Scripture was, at least in part, based.

It is true that some Protestants do consult the Church Fathers when interpreting Scripture — but I had never encountered this as an Evangelical. In general, most Protestants I have read consider the Fathers to be merely another consulting opinion, of no more inherent value than their own private interpretation. They dismiss the idea that anyone other than themselves has inherent authority in interpreting Scripture. If the Fathers seem to agree with their foregone conclusions, they cite them — piecemeal and without context — for support. If the Fathers do not, they are quick to dismiss them as wrong or mistaken (but usually not as apostates or heretics). It is true, of course, that the Church Fathers can be wrong; but they certainly deserve a degree of respect and deference beyond what most Evangelicals give them, both on account of being closer to the original sources and of the high regard in which they have been held, both in their own times and over the centuries.

There is still more to come!

A Tradition of Authority: Why Catholic Arguments Were Convincing to Me, and Not Merely a Cure for Exegetical Paralysis

This is a bit heavier than my usual posts here, but it answers an important question that Protestant apologists have posed to me and other Catholic converts: Was I only drawn to the Catholic Church because its claims to authority offered an “easy out” to the difficulties of weighing Scripture and doctrine for myself?

Paralysis

A Catalogue of Sects

A Catalogue of the Severall Sects and Opinions in England and other Nations: With a briefe Rehearsall of their false and dangerous Tenents. Broadsheet. 1647.

I’ve been accused before, and I readily admit that it’s true, that as a Protestant, I never had a very thoroughgoing commitment to Protestant theological principles. It was not for lack of trying: for a number of years I had studied theology, prayed, and pored over the Scriptures in an earnest attempt to arrive at some apprehension of the truth. But no Protestant theology, despite the ardent, sometimes vehement assertions of each’s adherents, had a firm enough foundation to convince me. Each was based in subjective interpretations of the Scriptures that lacked either the context or the clarity to convey everything their doctrines demanded of them. Each’s interpretation conflicted with every other, and yet was based in the very same texts; and each had no greater claim to being the correct and sole interpretation of those texts than the rest. I had not the knowledge or the faculty to sort it all out, and even if I had, any conclusion I reached would be, I realized, my own subjective conclusion, based only on my own interpretation and whosever opinion happened to sway me at that time. I realized the inherent weakness, instability, and insufficiency of this position. Though I would never have articulated it this way then, it was clear that Scripture by itself could not teach me everything I needed to know about God and His salvation.

So as a Protestant, I resigned myself to uncertainty, to never being sure exactly what Scripture was trying to teach; to never knowing, in the sea of competing and conflicting doctrines, which ones were the true ones. Since I could not discern, from Scripture, the truth or falsehood of every doctrine and theology, I was lulled into a sense of complacency, what I called a thoroughgoing ecumenism: if I could discern no school of theology to be absolutely true, then each of them must be more or less acceptable and worthy of consideration. On one hand, I am glad for this: it made me tolerant and accepting of a wide diversity of Christian brothers and sisters, and open-minded enough to listen to and consider what they have to say. It was an open-mindedness that eventually made me willing to examine the Catholic Church and finally found welcome in her walls. It troubled me, and still does, the Protestants who could assume a stance of enough certainty to condemn and judge the doctrines of other believers, based on so unsteady a foundation as I perceived theirs to be. On the other hand, this ecumenism eventually reached a point of doctrinal relativism, agnosticism, or universalism: that not only could we not know the truth of doctrine, but that it didn’t really matter and that God loved and accepted us all anyway.

A Protestant apologist recently referred to this as the “paralysis” of the Protestant mind; apparently it is common enough to have its own name. This apologist also suggested, as I have heard other Protestant apologists charge against other Catholic converts, that the Catholic Church was attractive to me simply because it offered a way to break this “logjam”: that I accepted the Church’s claims only because they asserted a singular authority, because the Church could dictate the answer rather than leave me to muddle it out on my own, and not because there was anything compelling or convincing about the claims of themselves: in short, that the singular, magisterial authority of the Catholic Church was a crutch, an escape, a deus ex machina, an easy out of the Protestant conundrum of having to reason through the Scriptures.

There are several answers I’d like to make to this charge.

I resisted until I couldn’t

no

First, I wasn’t looking for such a crutch. I was well aware of the position of the Catholic Church in claiming to be the only authoritative interpreter of Scripture for years before I ever considered Catholicism — and rather than being an attractive prospect, it horrifed me more than almost anything else I knew about the Church. It seemed the perfect setup for the many doctrinal abuses I had heard about and believed existed in Catholicism: if the Church can dictate that some thing in Scripture means something different than what it says, and that doctrines don’t even have to have a biblical basis at all, then she can teach her followers anything, no matter how contrary to reason and truth, and compel them to accept and believe it. (Of course, these are all mischaracterizations of what the Church teaches.) As an academic, I cared about and was convinced by reason and evidence, and was suspicious of claims without solid factual foundation. The Catholic teaching authority, as I understood it, was a proposition that I strongly and vehemently resisted, not one that I readily embraced as a savior.

“Authority” in a Different Sense

http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/bnf/lat11641/6v/0/Sequence-204

Leaf from a manuscript of Augustine at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, dated c. 7th–8th century (e-codices.unifr.ch).

Once I examined her in earnest, the Catholic Church won me over, against my expectations or inclinations, because her arguments were compelling: not merely because they claimed to be authoritative, but because they were based on actual authority, on an authentic, continuous, and documented tradition of authoritative testimony. Protestants tend to think of “authority” only in terms of divine authority, the absolute, unquestionable authority of God, which they find solely in Scripture. In this regard — even if they acknowledge that Jesus granted authority to His Apostles — they find no essential connection between that authority and the Church, and so presume that the claims of the Catholic Church to be “authoritative” are based only on bald assertion. But to me as an historian, “authority” also has another meaning: the authority of support for a claim or argument. And rather than bald assertions or empty, unsupported claims, as I had been led to believe the Catholic Church stood on, I found, for every substantive point of Catholic doctrine, well-articulated, well-defined, and well-supported arguments based in a rich, academic, scholarly tradition and founded on a continuous and consistent corpus of authoritative documents and teachings spanning twenty centuries.

The Catholic Sense of Scripture

Monk at work in scriptorium

In most everyday matters, it is precisely this latter understanding of authority that is the substance of Catholic teaching, and not the sort of dictatorial pronouncements that Protestants presume. For example, Protestants commonly understand that the Catholic Church must dictate to the believer how to interpret every jot and tittle of every passage of Scripture, such that believers cannot read and interpret Scripture for themselves. But the truth is that the Church has given authoritative teachings on only a very small portion of the whole corpus of Scripture. The sense of the Catholic understanding of Scripture subsists not only in such pronouncements, but in the exegetical tradition of Church Fathers, bishops, teachers and theologians, whose mind and understanding is faithfully passed down and preserved in the Church — whose teaching is authoritative by its own merit, because of their great learning and holiness and their nearness in history to Christ’s revelation. Though not having divine authority on its own, this is more authoritative by bounds than the subjective, substantially unsupported interpretations of Protestants.* In exactly the same way, I accept the writings of past historians as having great knowledge and insight, as being authorities into their subject matter.†

* There are some Protestants, especially the great theologians, who do seek to support their exegetical arguments with appeals to the authority of the Church Fathers; but generally, I find, they do this selectively and unevenly, accepting a Father’s argument where it suits them but ignoring him where it does not, and looking to the Fathers only as a last recourse, designed to support their own subjective interpretation, and not as a primary means to discerning the meaning of the Scriptures in the first place.

† Of course, some historians are simply wrong; and Church Fathers can also be wrong. Here the consensus of the Church, the opinions of other Fathers and teachers and theologians, is important. If the consensus of later writers is that Augustine was a great and orthodox teacher, then that is the reputation and the authority he enjoys. If the consensus is that Tertullian strayed off track in his later life and expressed some opinions that are not in agreement with the Church’s teachings, then we read those opinions of Tertullian as dissenting and sometimes heterodox arguments. Nevertheless, because of his position in time, so close to the Apostles themselves, Tertullian’s authority as an historical witness to the doctrines believed and taught in his time is absolute.

Teaching from the Deposit of Faith

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

Matthias Burglechner, The Council of Trent, 16th century (Wikimedia Commons).

This is the raw material: Scripture and the generations of holy men and women who taught, prayed, and commented on it, preserving and passing on the teachings they had received, the inheritance of the faith delivered once unto the saints, and with it the teaching of Christ and the Apostles themselves. When the Catholic Church does make official pronouncements of doctrine — whether from a council of bishops or pastorally from the pope — these teachings are not invented from nothing, but are drawn from, based on, and supported by this raw material. Especially when the meaning of Scripture and doctrine is not completely clear from the sources themselves, and when there is uncertainty or dispute, it is the role of the Church’s Magisterium, her teaching authority, to weigh the body of evidence and discern the truth from it. Even then, the conclusion is not arbitrary: the Magisterium cannot declare something contrary to the evidence, contrary to Scripture or to the orthodox teachers of the faith; she cannot declare a circle square, or dictate something that revelation has not itself revealed, or compel her faithful to believe something not already contained in the deposit of faith. The Church teaches what she has received (1 Timothy 4:11): not anything more and not anything less.

A Well-Built Building

pyramid

Catholics believe that in such teachings, the Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth (John 16:13) — and this is a simple matter to believe, because they are evidenced by the constant and unchanging course of that guidance, and founded in reasonable and well-supported arguments from authority. For example: the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the epitome of Catholic doctrine, is not a book of empty assertions, but bases its every sentence on several thousand citations to authority in Scripture, the Church Fathers, councils and popes. Every one of these citations can be followed to find the origin and basis of the Church’s teaching, like a well-built building, every element borne up by the support of another, until it reaches the ground of absolute authority in Christ’s revelation itself. Even the declarations of the most controversial doctrines to those outside the Church, such as the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in Pope Pius XII’s 1950 Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, rest not on bald assertion or any empty claim to papal privilege or authority, but on carefully constructed and well-reasoned arguments from the tradition of received authority.

Thus, the charge that I was drawn to the Catholic Church solely because her claims to authority were a cure for my exegetical paralysis, a crutch and an escape from having to discern and decide for myself, is completely false. The Catholic Church did cure my exegetical paralysis, but I was not seeking and did not believe there could be a cure: I was taken by surprise, and thoroughly convinced, by something I was not expecting at all, something I never imagined could exist: a Christian body who based its arguments not on subjective interpretations of Scripture, not on concepts and constructs of theology with no other basis than such interpretations, not on vitriolic polemics against other sects — but on the very concepts of authority, evidence, and tradition I had been taught to embrace and accept as an academic; on a sturdy and unshakeable foundation of such authority reaching back through the ages to the Apostles themselves, evincing and confirming the origin of all authority, Christ Himself.

“He taught them as one having authority”

Hi, I’m back in school now and still trying to organize my time. I haven’t had much of a chance to sit down and write, especially not about any large subjects; but in today’s Mass readings, an idea hit me forcefully that I think I might be able to comment on quickly. This will be an exercise in brevity, both of length and time.

Jesus teaching in the synagogue

I’ve always been struck by today’s Gospel reading (Mark 1:21–28): “The people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority.” Jesus was something completely different, something no one had ever seen before. Not since Moses himself, the codifier of the Law, had anyone spoken with such authority on the Law and the mind of God toward human behavior.

He stood in vivid contrast to the so-called authorities of the day, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the scribes and scholars of the Law. The only authority they ever offered was their own, as they disputed endlessly on the interpretation and application of the Law. They had sola scriptura: Scripture alone, the divine and authoritative Word of God, in the Law and the Prophets — and yet they did not have authority. For all their scholastic eminence and merits, they could offer only disagreement and division. Jesus did not come to give God’s people more of the same: another holy book or another teacher or even another prophet. He came to give them something radically new and different.

Jesus spoke with authority, such that there was no question, dispute, or ambiguity about what He meant. And he gave that same authority to His Apostles (Matthew 10:1, 40; Luke 10:16), to speak and to teach with His voice. And the Apostles gave their successors, the bishops, that same authority to teach (1 Timothy 4:11, etc.). And this is the same authority with which the Magisterium of the Church teaches today.

By contrast, see the state of teaching in the Protestant churches. When a preacher stands up to teach, he may speak with self-assurance; he may speak from the divine, authoritative Word of God; but he gives an interpretation; he does not speak with authority. In the Protestant world, there are only endless disputes concerning doctrine and interpretation. Sola scriptura — “Scripture alone” — without prophets, without a Christ — is all the Jewish people had before Jesus came. And He came to deliver us from that chaos and confusion, as surely as He came to deliver us from sin and death. The Protestant proposition seeks to return the Church to that: to deny and reject the very authority that made Jesus Christ’s revelation so radical and so powerful a revolution.

“Sola Scriptura” is in the Bible? Thoughts on the Canon and Interpretation of Scripture

The following is a response to John Bugay’s review of Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books by Michael J. Kruger, in which John announces, “Attention Roman Catholics: ‘Sola Scriptura’ is in the Bible.” It proved too long for his comment box, so I thought I would put it in full here.

Hi again, John. Thank you for pointing out this review. I haven’t read this book yet, but thanks to a recent Amazon giftcard from my brother (also named John), I intend to give it top priority.

Van Gogh, Still Life with Bible (c.1885)

Still Life with Bible (c.1885), by Vincent van Gogh (WikiArt.org).

Catholics are “helpless” to interpret Scripture without the Church?

I’d like to respond first to this paragraph above that stuck out to me like a sore thumb:

To be sure, some Roman Catholics pay some lip service to Scripture. It’s “in there”, among the legs of the stool. But in practice, for Roman Catholics, the Bible has no intrinsic authority as the Word of God. That is, even though God may speak, still God’s very Word is helpless to communicate its message without the “interpretation” of the Roman Catholic Church. …

Speaking of “caricatures”: This is a rather crude one, and flatly contradictory to the Church’s own teachings on Scripture. I’d encourage you to read the whole of Chapter III from Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation; but for here, a few quotes:

“Since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words. …

“In Sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous “condescension” of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, “that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature.” For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.” (Excerpted from Dei Verbum 12, 13)

Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council, assembled in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Does giving guidance and direction to “interpreters” in how to “see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us,” “expressed in human language … like human discourse,” really suggest the idea to you that to a Catholic, “God’s very word is helpless to communicate its message”? Surely you are aware that the magisterium of the Church has actually given authoritative interpretations of a relatively minuscule portion of the whole corpus of Scripture. Do Catholics, then, consider the rest of God’s Word in Scripture, where the Church has not spoken, “helpless” to communicate to them? Are Catholics “helpless” to read and interpret Scripture for themselves? Like so many Protestants — and like I did myself, when I too was a Protestant — you seem to mistake the role of the Church’s magisterium for that of a dictator rather than a teacher. It is a poor teacher who dictates every rote fact to her student but never teaches him to think or function for himself, and it is a poor student who never learns anything more than to parrot his teacher’s answers! The Church’s role and mission is to guide and raise up healthy disciples of Christ, not blind, mindless, and helpless sheep. Like a good teacher, the magisterium teaches not only divinely-revealed truths, but approved principles, methods, and guidelines: and within those guidelines, the Catholic exegete is equipped and encouraged to listen to and interpret God’s Word for himself. The Church has spoken authoritatively to teach the truth of the Gospel as Jesus charged, particularly in scriptural matters where uncertainty has arisen; but the Catholic believer is free and entitled to his own opinion in any matter on which the Church has not given an interpretation.

John Calvin, by Titian

John Calvin, by Titian (This blog). I am thrilled to find this! I had no idea Titian painted Calvin! I love it when my favorite people cross paths!

Protestants are “helpless” to have any certainty in interpreting Scripture

I would submit, actually — speaking from my own experience — that the Protestant exegete is absolutely helpless to arrive at any meaningful certainty or confidence regarding the interpretation of Scripture. For all the talk of “due use of ordinary means” — the man out to sea with a boat-full of “ordinary means” is nonetheless out to sea. “Ordinary means” (e.g. lexica, grammars, commentaries) are nonetheless human means; and my “sufficient understanding” is nonetheless a human understanding. If, by my fully-informed, “sufficient understanding,” I disagree with the “sufficient understanding” of someone else whose faculties and authorities I respect — which is bound to happen, and obviously has — how can I have any confidence at all that I have the correct and proper understanding? It is arrogance and hubris — an exaltation of of my own human understanding and that of others — to assert, as I’ve seen so many Protestants, particularly in the Reformed camp, assert, that my human understanding is the only one that “anyone in his proper mind” could come to. On what is such certainty based, other than prideful self-aggrandizement and self-assurance?

As an academic, and a human one, I must accept that other reasonable people can disagree with me and arrive at different, and reasonable, conclusions than mine. And regardless of how convinced I may be of mine, I must always accept that because my reasoning and interpretation are human and uncertain, so is my conclusion. This is not the character of the Christian teaching I witness in Scripture: which was taught authoritatively by divinely-appointed Apostles and teachers, and accepted as the direct Word of God Himself. There is no indication in Scripture of this Word being submitted to “interpretation” or “deduction” or “ordinary means” or “sufficient understanding”: if there were any doctrinal question, the resort was to the judgment of these authoritative teachers, not to common, human interpretation of the message’s meaning. And when these teachers spoke, their voice was clear, authoritative, and certain: and this is a certainty I do not find today in the Protestant paradigm, nor can I find it in any degree of smug self-assurance of my own reasoning.

Codex Sinaiticus

A leaf from Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest known Greek uncial manuscript (c. A.D. 330–360).

Is “Sola Scriptura” in Scripture?

What I also do not find in Scripture, despite your assurance that it is there, is the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. Now, it is entirely possible that I am one of those who caricature that position, and if that is the case, I humbly ask you to correct me. But by the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura itself, as I find it presented in the Westminster Confession, “all things necessary for [God’s] own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture”; and, “nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” — in other words (and if I am in possession of a caricature, it surely must be in this understanding): all doctrine to be believed by the Church is either plainly stated in Scripture, or implied by necessary consequence; and no doctrine can be added from any source to what is plainly stated or necessarily implied in Scripture. The problem is, I cannot for the life of me find these doctrines either “expressly set down [or] by necessary consequence [implied]” in Scripture. How, then, can sola scriptura be said to be in Scripture? And how can it not be self-refuting if, as a “necessary” doctrine taught by Protestants, it can’t be found in Scripture? I wrote a recent post on these questions. I would appreciate it if you read it and gave it an honest critique.

Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible, the first printed Bible. (Wikipedia)

The canon of Scripture: “Self-authenticating”?

Regarding the canon: As I said in my other comment, you pounced on my one throwaway comment out of context and ignored the rest of my statements. For the sake of reference, let me paste a little of what I said there:

As Catholic apologists often present, Protestants cannot appeal to the authority of Scripture alone without first accepting the canon of Scripture as declared by the Church — and this is true. But is it that declaration of the canon that makes those texts scriptural, for a Catholic? Before any formal declaration of the canon of the Scripture, were Christians unable to appeal to Scripture? No, of course not — because such declaration defined the canon; it did not bestow some “divinely inspired” status on texts otherwise presumed to be human.

(For that matter, the Church for the most part declared a truth that had already been accepted sensu fidei fidelium for centuries: the canon was only defined for the sake of a few books whose scriptural authority was disputed. The canonicity of the majority of books was a self-evident truth to most Christians. This does not mean that the canon as a whole was “self-authenticating” — it certainly wasn’t.)

As I made clear there, I completely agree that with regard to most of the books of the scriptural canon, the books’ divine inspiration, apostolic origin, and scriptural nature were readily, at an early date, and universally accepted. But this idea of unanimous consensus and immediate acceptance certainly can’t be applied to all the now-canonical books of Scripture, nor to the conception of a unified, universal “canon.” Consider, for example, 2 Peter, which by all appearances, nobody prior to Origen and Eusebius in the third century had ever heard of, and they considered its authenticity and inspiration doubtful. Or, books such as 1 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, or the Epistle of Barnabas, which some included among their early compilations of Scripture, such as Codex Sinaiticus, and other Church Fathers quoted from as scriptural authority. Or, consider that no sooner than Protestant sentiments were breathed, the so-called “self-authenticating” canon of Scripture was open again to question: Luther himself designed to dismiss the Epistle of James, as well as Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. Did those books not “self-authenticate” to him? Or was his judgment not in accord with those “of proper mind”? And of course, Luther succeeded in excising seven books of the Old Testament that had previously been declared canonical. And Protestant scholars ever since have considered the canon “fallible” and seen it fit to question the authenticity and canonicity of various books. And yet you insist that the canon is “self-authenticating” and rests on something more authoritative than fallible human reason and judgment? The very facts of Protestant history contradict this statement.

The fact that Protestant apologists so easily gloss over with regard to the canon is the plain fact that, regardless of any “self-authentication,” the traditional canon declared by the Catholic Church is the starting point, and (with the exception of the Old Testament deuterocanon) usually the ending point, even for Protestants today. It’s easy to declare that one knows the answer when it was declared by someone else centuries ago. Whether they like it or not, Protestants do inevitably depend on the Church’s declared canon, epistemologically: One can’t very well un-know what is already known and accepted; and any argument about whether or not one could have known it otherwise is a moot quibble. And yet, given the fact that Christians questioned and doubted a number of scriptural books both before the Church’s declaration of a universal canon and after Protestants denied the Church, I tend to doubt that anyone ever really had certainty as to a complete and closed canon without the Church’s declaration — or would have any today. I observe that putting five Protestants in a room usually results in six or seven opinions, on any given matter: so I very much doubt that, if the canon hadn’t already been declared as a starting point, Protestants could have reached any meaningful agreement at all concerning it. Likewise for Christology, the Trinity, and every other doctrine hammered out by the toil and tears of centuries of early Christians whose heritage Protestants take for granted.

It seems to me that so much of Protestant rhetoric is aimed at dismissing Catholic claims of the Catholic Church being an authoritative interepreter and guide to Scripture with one hand, while with the other advancing the thesis that the individual, fallible believer has access to some other, concrete, authoritative and infallible interpretation of Scripture — one that, apparently, is self-evident and “self-authenticating” from Scripture itself and Scripture alone, to “anyone of proper mind.” But one can’t hold both at once. Scripture does not interpret itself, and submitting it to fallible human reason by necessity yields a fallible and uncertain human interpretation.

God bless you for your thought on this matter, and may His peace be with you!

“Nuda Scriptura” and the Authority of Tradition

Bible painting

Bearing down on the thesis today. But I wanted to point you in the direction of an incisive new post by Bryan Cross, relevant to what we’ve been talking about recently, over at Called to Communion: “Sola Scriptura Redux: Matthew Barrett, Tradition, and Authority.”

In it, Bryan responds to a “Reformation Day” post by Matthew Barrett of California Baptist University at the Gospel Coalition, “‘Sola Scriptura’ Radicalized and Abandoned,” which argues that sola scriptura never meant for a total abandonment of tradition, but that Protestants should value and uphold a ‘healthy’ adherence to tradition. But as Bryan rightly points out, the proposition of submitting only to the tradition that one believes agrees with Scripture actually submits tradition to one’s own interpretation of Scripture — and isn’t submission at all. As I asked a few days ago, “What authority does your interpretation have?” To presume that one’s own understanding of Scripture is the very voice of Scripture places oneself as the ultimate authority.

In the course of Matthew’s article, I happened across a term I hadn’t seen used before, one Matthew uses to describe the position many Protestants put themselves in who abandon all else but the bald face of Scripture: nuda scriptura, “bare Scripture” — which, as I’m beginning to think more and more, most aptly describes the whole concept of sola scriptura: the Emperor’s New Clothes that no one dares admit are not clothes at all, but the thin covering of one’s own self-assurance. I have yet to hear any answers offered to my challenge: If we are supposed to hold all doctrine to the word of Scripture, and reject anything not found there, why isn’t that teaching found in Scripture? Why do we not find the earliest Christians following that precept? If the Church Fathers were such faithful adherents of sola scriptura, why did every one of them accept and teach and pass on unchallenged the many “unscriptural” teachings of tradition?

The peace of Christ to you today.

The Emperor's New Clothes

Sola Scriptura and Authority: What authority does your interpretation of Scripture have?

Saints Peter and Paul, by El Greco

Saints Peter and Paul (between 1605 and 1608), by El Greco.

(I shouldn’t write much today. I stand poised to wrap up a draft of the last chapter of the thesis. But I know it’s been a little while and I wanted to share a little bit lest you forget about me. I have a bit of previously written material I may share over the next week or so.)

One thing in particular I’ve been thinking about lately is how knowledgeable Protestants can tenably defend their doctrines; how anyone, reading the writings of the Church Fathers, can honestly contend that the tenets of the Reformation were anything but a sixteenth-century invention, a novel interpretation of Scripture unsupported by any authority other than the interpretation of the Reformers — but trumpeted as “the authority of Scripture.” I’ve got news for you: despite your constant assertions to the contrary, your interpretation of Scripture has no inherent authority; it has only the authority you yourself give it and others might or might not accord it. If it did have a universal and absolute authority — if your interpretation of Scripture could be equated with Scripture itself — then it could not but be universally recognized, and could not fail to settle every doctrinal dispute and end every schism. If Scripture could indeed speak for itself, with a clear and perspicuous voice, then it would indeed be the ultimate authority, for it is God Himself speaking.

Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible, the first printed Bible. (Wikipedia)

But Scripture does not speak for itself; it does not edit itself; it does not translate itself; it does not interpret itself. Any reading of Scripture involves the apprehension and comprehension of the human mind; and any reading of Scripture in English involves reading what has already been apprehended and comprehended and reproduced by quite a few people before it came to you. As it stands, under the doctrine of sola scriptura, no matter how one formulates it, the authority of Scripture must always stand upon the authority of someone’s interpretation — be it your own, your pastor’s, your presbytery’s, your church’s, or the Reformers’. The question necessarily becomes not what authority Scripture has but what authority your interpretation has.

St. Thomas Aquinas (Crivelli)

St. Thomas Aquinas (15th century), by Carlo Crivelli. (Wikimedia)

So it is also in the Catholic understanding also, of course: our understanding is built on an interpretation, also. We ask, too, what authority our interpretation has; and rather than looking to ourselves, or to any single man or group of men, we look to the amassed weight of the whole of the Christian tradition, to the interpretations of those who first received Scripture, who understood it in its time and context, and to the many pastors and teachers and exegetes and theologians who have taught on it, thought on it, commented on it, and carried it forward through time to us. This tradition has authority in itself, supported by the very pillars of history. But even beyond that, we look to the voice of the combined Church, to the agreement of the whole people of God, and to the consensus of her bishops, invested with the authority of the Apostles from Christ Himself: to the Church to whom He promised the Holy Spirit, Who would lead her into all truth (John 16:13), to the Magisterium, which speaks with His authority (Luke 10:16).

This screed is not what I set out to write today. Oops. But sola scriptura and the question of authority has certainly been at the forefront of my thought recently, and I expect to be writing a bit more on it in the near future.

Why I am a Catholic: the Short Version

This came out of the blue, off the cuff, just as you read it, when a friend on Facebook asked me to sum up in one point why I converted to Catholicism. This is probably the most succinct account you’ll ever read from me.

It’s hard to narrow down to just one. But I’ll give you three: The authority of the teachings, the catholicity and universality of the Church, and the historical continuity with all ages.

St. Gregory the Great

St. Gregory the Great.

The first point, authority: Protestants believe in sola scriptura, that one’s doctrine and authority come from Scripture alone. But that means that ultimately understanding God’s Word is dependent on the individual conscience. It’s up to you to read it and decide what it means. Which left me constantly in the place of feeling lost and unworthy to come to any conclusion. Who was I to say one denomination was right and another wrong, when so many wise and intelligent people had been arguing over it for centuries? How could I have any certainty at all, about anything?

And I really don’t think Jesus would have left us in that pickle. There’s nothing in Scripture to suggest that anyone ever intended that. All through the Old Testament, God anointed priests and prophets and judges and kings to lead and instruct and guide His people. The prophets promised that He would send us shepherds after His own heart. And then, God Incarnate Himself comes! To reveal to us the fullness of divine Truth! And then — we’re left with a book? That we have to muddle through ourselves? It has no continuity with the rest of revelation. It seems completely out of character with God and anti-climactic to the history of salvation.

St. Paul

But from the very first century, even suggested in Scripture, the Church has believed in apostolic succession — the idea that Christian teachings, and the authority to teach them, were passed down from the Apostles to the bishops and down through the ages. That seems entirely more in character, after the succession of Aaronic priests and the Davidic line of kings. Christ told the Apostles that when they spoke, their word would be as His, with all the same authority. And the whole foundation of Catholic teaching is that that authority never went away. There’s still an authoritative Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, with the authority to teach us.

And the second one, the universality: “Catholic” means “universal.” And in Scripture Paul talks repeatedly about us being the Body of Christ, one through our Baptism and through the sharing of the One Bread. And the Catholic Church is spread worldwide, and in any place I could go, it would be the same liturgy, the same belief, the same doctrine — the same One Bread. And there would be brothers and sisters who would welcome me and embrace me. And it’s not just universal around the world — it’s universal through the ages. With all the believers who’ve ever lived. United by that One Bread.

And the Protestant churches have no concept at all of that. There are 40,000+ Protestant denominations, and that’s not even counting “nondenominational” churches. It’s hip not to be affiliated with anybody, just to be a splinter with no attachments to anything bigger and no accountability to any authority.

The Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

And the third one, you get: Historical continuity. Both in terms of events and in terms of doctrine. Everything the first century Church believed, we believe today. Everything we believe today, the first century Church had at least some notion of. And all the events, all the developments, all the heroes and saints and brothers and sisters, are connected. Whereas for most Protestants, history began from nothing in 1517. They can’t explain where their faith came from, other than point to the Bible. But how did the Bible come to them?

I was thinking yesterday: Protestantism is the ultimate reboot. Like with Batman or Superman or Star Trek, they decided they didn’t like how the story was going, so they took the original source material and started over, re-reading it all in a new light and re-inventing it how they wanted it. With no connection at all to anything that had happened before.

A Biblical Argument for the Authority of the Papacy

El Greco, The Repentant Peter (c. 1600)

El Greco, The Repentant Peter (c. 1600). (WikiPaintings.org)

Wowzers, you get two posts by me in just two days! I couldn’t help myself. I wrote this piece in response to another post, and come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever posted this argument here before.


The title “pope,” to which you objected on the grounds that it can’t be found in Scripture, is only an honorific one; “papa” in Latin is an affectionate term along the lines of “daddy.” The office is another matter. The “pope” is more formally the bishop of Rome, and the office of bishop (ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos]; episcopus in Latin, literally an “overseer”) is quite scriptural (1 Timothy 3, Philippians 1:1, Acts 20:28).

The Catholic Church does not claim, as you suppose, that the successor of Peter is the “earthly head” of the Church: as you say, there is only one Head, and that is Christ. Cf. the Catechism:

“Christ is the Head of this Body”

792. Christ “is the head of the body, the Church.” He is the principle of creation and redemption. Raised to the Father’s glory, “in everything he [is] preeminent,” especially in the Church, through whom he extends his reign over all things.

807. The Church is this Body of which Christ is the head: she lives from him, in him, and for him; he lives with her and in her.

The office of Peter and his successors is merely as the Church’s pastor, its shepherd, the vicar (stand-in, substitute, or representative — not replacement) of Christ:

936. The Lord made St. Peter the visible foundation of his Church. He entrusted the keys of the Church to him. The bishop of the Church of Rome, successor to St. Peter, is “head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the universal Church on earth” (CIC, can. 331).

St. Gregory the Great, by Francisco Goya (1797)

St. Gregory the Great, by Francisco Goya (1797).

Surely you don’t object to pastors, called by God to be the shepherds of their churches? Just as God never left His people Israel without His authoritative voice — through prophets, priests, and kings — Jesus will never leave His people the Church without an authoritative shepherd. And Scripture affirms that He did not.

I think an honest reading of Scripture requires one to acknowledge that Jesus did delegate His authority, first to the Twelve Apostles as a group and then to Peter in particular. The references I could cite are numerous, but I will give you just a few of the most prominent and explicit:

  • Matthew 10:1: And He called to Him His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.
    Matthew 10:5–8: These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. v. 40: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”

    • By Jesus’s own words, His gave authority to His disciples, and they received something from Him: the authority to carry out their ministry in His name. He sends them out as His representatives: “Whoever receives you receives me.”

  • El Greco, Portrait of Pope Pius V (c. 1605)

    El Greco, Portrait of Pope Pius V (c. 1605) (WikiPaintings.org)

  • Matthew 18:18, to the Twelve, in the context of dealing out church discipline: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

    • Binding and loosing are rabbinical terms and concepts, which, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, mean “to forbid and permit” authoritatively with regard to doctrinal and disciplinary pronouncements, such that “they [those with this authority; in the context of the article, the Pharisees] possessed and exercised the power of tying or untying a thing by the spell [i.e. word or formula] of their divine authority, just as they could, by the power vested in them, pronounce and revoke an anathema upon a person.” “This power and authority, vested in the rabbinical body of each age or in the Sanhedrin, received its ratification and final sanction from the celestial court of justice.” I don’t know how you read this, but it sounds very clear to me, first that this authority was Jesus’s to invest in whom He chose (surely the Pharisees would have considered this a gross blasphemy), and second that He invested that authority in His Apostles.

  • Matthew 16:17–19, to Peter solely (using singular pronouns and verbs), after Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ: And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

    • Protestants like to reject the “upon this rock” statement with an argument involving the supposed difference between πέτρος and πέτρα in the Greek — but this argument does not hold any weight in Greek, as even most knowledgable Protestant scholars of Greek admit. Jesus’s wordplay between Peter’s name, explicitly stated, “You are Peter (Rock),” and the “rock” upon which Jesus said He would found His Church, mirrors grammatically Peter’s statement: “You are the Christ.”

      What is more, that argument does not deal with the other, equally important parts of Jesus’s pronouncement. Jesus gives three separate blessings to Peter and Peter alone which cannot be interpreted in any way but as an explicit investment of authority:

      St. Leo the Great, by Herrera

      Pope St. Leo the Great, by Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1622-1685).

      1. You (Peter) are “Rock,” and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

      2. I will give you (Peter) the keys of the kingdom of heaven [mirroring “the gates of hell”].

      3. Whatever you (Peter) bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven [linked implicitly to the “keys”].

      The fact that each is clearly directed to Peter negates the argument of some that the “rock” of the statement was only Peter’s faith or his confession.

  • Isaiah 22:20–22, the passage which Jesus was clearly referencing in His speech to Peter, as acknowledged even by Protestant exegetes (cf. ESV Study Bible): [To Shebna, steward of the royal palace:] “In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your sash on him, and will commit your authority to his hand. And he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

      Albrecht Dürer, St. Peter

      St. Peter, by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). (WikiPaintings.org)

    • This passage describes a stripping of authority from one to whom it had been entrusted and an investment of that authority in someone new. In the context of the passage in Matthew and its application to Peter, the authority of binding and loosing with divine approval (“opening” and “shutting” the gates of the kingdom of heaven, with the key), which had been entrusted to the Jewish rabbinical body and the Sanhedrin, was now being removed and entrusted to Peter and the Apostles in Christ’s new order — from the rabbinical, teaching authority of the Jewish people to the episcopal, teaching authority of the Church, the Magisterium. Peter is installed as steward over the house of Judah, to exercise order over the household [the Church] in the absence of the king [Christ]. Christ certainly foreshadowed this stewardship in His parables about wise and foolish stewards or servants and their care for the affairs of the house while their master is away (Luke 12:35–48, Matthew 24:45–51). And what is more: he shall be called a father to the house of Judah: just as the bishop of Rome is called a Father to the Church: he is called the pope (papa), or the Holy Father. Given this understanding, the kissing of a ring — a very ancient sign of respect and acknowledgement of authority, not of worship — begins to make a bit more sense.

  • John 20:21–23, Jesus appearing to the Apostles after His Resurrection: Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.

    Pope Francis

    Our Holy Father Pope Francis

    • Just as the Father sent [Jesus], Jesus sends the Apostles in continuation of His ministry and authority, “to make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18–20) and continue doing what He was doing. Just as Jesus has the authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:10–12) — an authority with a clear association to physical healing (cf. James 5:13–16) — He imparts that authority to the Apostles — with an implicit connection to that of “binding and loosing,” but rightly exceeding any authority before claimed by any other rabbi.

Evidently, we Catholics interpret Scripture more literally and realistically than you, and accept it more readily for what it actually says in its plainest sense. I don’t think that leaves you much ground to stand on from which to accuse the Catholic Church of “unbiblical practices.”

A Dialogue with a Rigorous Skeptic

Giotto. Pentecost (1310)

Pentecost (1310), by Giotto. (WikiPaintings.org)

I have really struggled with how to present this piece, the wrapping up, for now, of my address toward the “rigorous skeptic.” This is my third rewrite. The first, the end of what I originally wrote the first night, seemed to stray from the point and lose coherence when I read it in the morning. The second addressed the roots of “rigorous skepticism” and sounded rather too preachy. Here I’m going to drop any pretense and be as frank as I can.

The fact is, every thinking person has a Rigorous Skeptic who lives inside. Just because one has faith in realities one cannot see and cannot objectively prove doesn’t mean one has abandoned all reason. But one must be careful that Skepticism is not merely Agnosticism in disguise. Questioning and testing every truth is healthy and beneficial. Resigning oneself to the conclusion that truth is unknowable precludes any possibility of faith or belief; it is in effect a refusal to believe. Faith is a gift from God; but one can’t receive that gift if one closes one’s mind and bars the door.

Here I’m going to bare the inner workings of my mind and let my own Rigorous Skeptic express himself for a little while. I’ll present it as a dialogue: a sample of the dialogue that goes on in my head every day of my life. I’ll have to restrain him for now, or else this post would be interminable. But this I offer as evidence that one can believe and still be a Rigorous Skeptic, as long as one is open to the possibilities of faith.


Velazquez, St. Paul

St. Paul (c. 1619), by Diego Velazquez. (WikiPaintings.org)

Acceptor: I believe because of the witness of the New Testament: The extant documents that we have — the Pauline epistles that are universally accepted as genuine, dateable to within two or three decades of the lifetime of Jesus, and the Gospels, which are dateable to no more than four or five. These give witness to the very early belief in Jesus as the risen Messiah, too early for such beliefs to have formed by a process of accretion and of the veneration of a mere man getting out of hand.

Detractor: Unless they were deliberately fabricated.

Acceptor: To what end? What would be in such deception for anyone to gain? Surely there was no monetary gain in misleading Jesus’s earliest followers, or popular or political power — only persecution and death.

Detractor: The followers of Jesus needed him to be their Messiah, to save the Jews and overthrow their Roman oppressors.

Acceptor: Then why not present him as such? The Gospels do not present Jesus as a political or military revolutionary. Jesus had failed to be the Messiah the Jews were looking for: the Jews rejected him, and gave him over to be crucified.

Detractor: At least according to the Gospels. They present that it was the Roman authorities who crucified him: Doesn’t it make more sense for them to have executed him as a troublemaker and rabblerouser, who threatened to incite an uprising?

Acceptor: But the historical fact remains that the Jews did not accept him. And even if many had, they abandoned his cause in dejection when he died.

Detractor: Thus the resurrection. His closest followers “resurrected” him in order to continue what Jesus started.

Hans Memling, Christ Giving His Blessing (1481)

Christ Giving His Blessing (1481), by Hans Memling.

Acceptor: Again: Why not present him as a political revolutionary, were that the case? Not even the Gospel of Mark, dated to ca. A.D. 70 if not earlier (the date of 70 hinges only on the argument that Jesus could not have foretold the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 [Mark 13:2]), presents Jesus as that kind of leader. In fact, there is not even a trace of that. He is presented, even from that early date, as a religious teacher and a “suffering Messiah” with clear deific claims, with the seeds of Christian theology firmly planted and evident. The Gospels present him as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

Detractor: Perhaps, then, the motive was to overthrow the ruling religious elites, the Pharisees and Sadducees and “teachers of the Law.” And as for prophecy: Clearly the authors of the Gospels shaped the “facts” of Jesus’s life in order to appear to fulfill the prophecies.

Acceptor: Jesus failed to be a religious revolutionary also, at least in the near sense of overthrowing the Jewish religious elites. The Jews on the large had rejected Jesus. It would have been of no profit to the earliest Christians to present a risen Messiah if they did not in fact believe him risen; to offer a savior from Roman oppressors who had already crushed the Jews (if in fact the date of 70 for Mark is correct) or to subvert a Judaic temple system that had already fallen. The earliest Christians believed that the risen Christ offered a different kind of salvation, one that extended beyond the Jews (e.g. Mark 6:26–29, 13:10,27).

Hals, St. Luke

St. Luke (c. 1625), by Frans Hals. (WikiPaintings.org)

And as for prophecy: The authors of the Gospels must have been brilliant men to have fabricated such an elaborate and thoroughgoing “fulfillment” of the Old Testament: to present a foretold Messiah who not only quoted the Old Testament Scriptures but lived them; who fulfilled not just a handful or even a dozen prophecies, but hundreds of Scriptures that had not even been traditionally viewed as Messianic prophecy — and not in a forced and clumsy fashion, but in beautiful symmetry from the deepest marrow of the Judaic religion to the trappings of the Jewish monarchy — in a way that satisfied both but subverted neither. If fabricated, it is a masterwork of fiction, written not by single mastermind, but harmonized through the writings of half a dozen different authors — all of whom were engaged in active and deliberate deception, and nearly all of whom went to martyrs’ deaths for that deception, with no evidence that any of them recanted.

Detractor: Perhaps it was not the earliest Christians who constructed such a fabrication, but later editors who altered the primary sources of the New Testament to create this “harmonized” image.

Acceptor: But there is no evidence that this is the case. The manuscript tradition of the New Testament, with papyri dating possibly to the first century and to mere decades after the authorship of the documents, shows no evidence of extensive tampering or emendation. The thousands of textual variants throughout the manuscripts do not call into question a single, major, doctrinal or christological claim of the Christian religion. It appears that we have texts that are reasonably close to the autographs of each New Testament book, and that these texts are substantially unchanged from what existed at the end of the first century.

Detractor: But the canon of the New Testament — certainly what we have is only the documents that later “orthodox” Christians found supported their position.

Papyrus 46

Papyrus 46, one of the oldest extant New Testament manuscripts, dated to ca. 175-225, and containing most of the Pauline epistles. (Wikipedia)

Detractor: But there is little evidence of other early documents that were rejected, either in manuscripts or in quotations in early patristic authors, or any others that were suppressed, as this thesis argues. The earliest extant authors beyond the New Testament, such as Clement of Rome (ca. 97), Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 108), Irenaeus of Lyon (ca. 180), to name a few, express full agreement with what became the established New Testament, quoting from the now-canonical documents extensively, with little evidence or mention of other documents that have been lost or suppressed — only a few, surviving quotations from which support the same canonical unity. There was a general consensus regarding the authority of most of the now-canonical New Testament documents by the middle of the second century (see the Muratorian fragment, ca. 170). The early patristic authors, especially Clement and Ignatius, describe a Christian Church with remarkable unity both in doctrine and polity among many groups of Christians. Clement, a leader in the Church at Rome, wrote to advise and admonish the Church at Corinth. Ignatius wrote letters in exhortation to churches across Syria and Asia Minor and even to Rome. Irenaeus wrote to reject the arguments of Gnostic religions, invoking as authority the same unity and agreement that existed among “orthodox” churches that can be seen in the earlier writers. These documents present a Church firmly structured and organized by orders of bishops and priests and deacons, attested in the New Testament and plainly established in the time of these early extrabiblical writers.

Detractor: That appears, admittedly, to be a strong case for the historical adequacy of the Church’s claims. I have nothing more — for now.