The Authority and Reliability of Paul: More historical thoughts on Early Christianity

Ribera, Saint Paul (1637)

Saint Paul (1637), by Jusepe de Ribera.

[Continuing my thoughts from last night, about the historical reliability of early Christian testimonies, in particular the biblical texts, and the argument that the “orthodoxy” we see today only stemmed from this faction being the victor among many competing early sects. This is Part 2, and it nearly doubled in size from what I started with tonight.]

My friend challenges that the New Testament texts themselves reveal fault lines and factions within early Christianity. Does this argument have merit?

It is true that Paul describes his conflicts with the Judaizers, early Christians who insisted that Jewish Christians should continue to observe the Mosaic Law, in effect, according to Paul, nullifying Christ’s atoning sacrifice by the argument that salvation was only possible through the works of the Law. (See especially Galatians and Romans.) 1 John 4:2–3 seems to reject the doctrines of the Docetists, who argued that Jesus never truly came in the flesh but was instead a kind of divine phantasm. 1 Timothy 6:20 may mark an rejection of early Gnostic thought, which argued that some secret and esoteric knowledge (γνῶσις or gnosis) was necessary for salvation. So yes, there is evidence of some early disagreement; this is not a great surprise, given human free will.

But what was the nature of these disagreements? How widespread were they, and what following did these alternate viewpoints have? We don’t have that information, since these mentions in the New Testament itself are the only sources we have even attesting to their existence at this early date, just as the New Testament documents are the only testimonies we have to the first-century Christian Church.

The Apostle John is traditionally held to have been really old when he died, around the turn of the second century.

The Apostle John is traditionally held to have been really old when he died, around the turn of the second century.

Even more important: how early were these disputes? The first epistle of John (1 John) is believed to be one of the latest documents of the New Testament, written as late as the final decade of the first century. By that time, those who had personal experiences of Jesus had nearly all passed away. Paul’s first epistle to Timothy (1 Timothy) is generally believed to have been written toward the end of Paul’s ministry and life, between A.D. 62 and 67, also nearly a generation after Christ. A setting in which the firsthand witnesses to Jesus’s life and ministry were passing from the scene would have been ripe for the rise of new interpretations and viewpoints.

But of course, the rigorous skeptic would ask, how do we know which is the original viewpoint, and which are the alternative ones? In addition to examining the dating of the extant documents — the oldest texts, especially those written mere decades after Christ’s ministry, having at least the greatest authoritative claim — we should examine the authors of these texts, and question their claims to authority. In a similar way, in judging the reliability of ancient historians, we consider who they were and how they would have obtained their information. Thucydides, for example, is generally accepted as a reliable authority on his subject, he being a contemporary and firsthand participant in the Peloponnesian War.

Valentin, Paul Writing

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (ca. 17th century), by Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632).

To begin, let us consider Paul, the largest target, he being the author of the greater part of the New Testament. It is reasonable to accept that there was in fact a Christian leader named Paul who wrote a series of letters in the first century. It is also reasonable to accept that at least some of the letters we ascribe to Paul were in fact written by Paul. If this weren’t the case, we would have to ask why this Paul character had such authority if he never wrote anything authoritative. It is reasonable to accept, from the fact that his letters were accepted as authoritative, that Paul’s teaching and influence covered a fairly wide geographic area for the time, with Pauline letters being addressed to Christians in places as diverse as Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome. We have no reason to question that Paul actually visited these places and taught those Christians in person: otherwise, no one would have accepted his letters as authoritative. These letters, if authentic, can be reasonably dated to the A.D. 50s and 60s, based on internal evidence.


Or, Shakespeare could have written St. Paul.

Of course, it is conceivable that “Paul” himself could have been an elaborate hoax perpetrated by someone writing in the second or third century, planting and disseminating Pauline letters around the Christian world (by that time vast). Perhaps Paul never existed at all, let alone visited any of the places he is supposed to have visited, and the supposed recipients of his letters never received them at all. ― But this line of reasoning presses “rigorous skepticism” to the point of the ridiculous.

Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius of Antioch

We know with reasonable certainty that Paul did exist; we know that his letters were disseminated among Christian communities fairly rapidly. Nearly all of the canonical Pauline letters were in circulation and were accepted by Christians by the end of the first century — by the testimony of Ignatius of Antioch, who quoted most of them explicitly in the letters he wrote to Christian communities around Syria and Asia Minor and to Rome. We can draw from Ignatius’s quotations both that he had access to the many New Testament documents he quotes — and probably knew them by memory, since it seems unlikely he would be traveling to his death carrying a full library — and also that the communities to which he was writing would have understood his allusions and their context also, having access to the same documents themselves. Also tellingly, he did not quote or allude to any other documents that were later rejected from the New Testament canon.

So it seems reasonable to conclude that Paul was widely accorded authority by at least some Christians as early as the A.D. 50s and 60s. These Christians were spread over a wide area, to nearly every corner of the world that the Christian message had then advanced — since, at least according to “orthodox” accounts, Paul was the one advancing it. The fact that he was accepted by Christian groups in many places and not by isolated sects is an argument in favor of his authority and reliability as an historical source. Organized, dissenting sects would have had identifiable leaders — just as we know the names of the major proponents of nearly all of the later “heresies.” Here there is no evidence at all of such organized sects during Paul’s lifetime — neither through literature of their own, nor through rigorous opposition that would have been evident in the surviving “orthodox” documents.

[There’s more where that came from! Stay tuned!]

The Audacity of Pope: Everything I’ve ever tried to say about Church Authority


When I get busy and enfrazzled, I get behind on my blog-reading. So forgive me for reposting an entry that’s now a month and a half old. But Called to Communion, ever one of my favorite blogs, has offered a brilliant piece by Neal Judisch, a Catholic convert from the Reformed tradition, that says everything I’ve ever tried to say about church authoritytoward sola scriptura, toward the Magisterium, most of all toward the epistemological trap that Protestants fall into regarding scriptural interpretation — only in a clearer, more robust, more comprehensive way than I ever could; every argument, tied neatly and powerfully together. And most important and thought-provoking of all — Judisch demonstrates how the Catholic Church’s position, seeming from the outside to place so much authority in the hands of men, is actually the far more humble and self-effacing position than sola scriptura, which places ultimate authority in one’s own individual interpretation and conscience.

Similar remarks apply, as we’ve also seen, to the question of “Tradition” and “Magisterium.” The idea of an authoritative tradition and ecclesial teaching organ had sounded uncomfortable to my Protestant ears, since it sounded as though Catholics didn’t think the Bible was enough, that the words of mere men had to be added so as to round off and complete what was apparently lacking in the very Word of God. Here again, I thought, the Catholics were detracting from Scripture and its Author by putting mere men on some sort of par with them, and the human element was being unduly exalted once more.

Yet from a Catholic perspective this gets things upside down. For the Protestant alternative is to say that since Scripture alone is infallible, that means the Church cannot claim such authority when it comes to Scriptural interpretation. At the same time, we know we cannot simply leave this task to each individual Christian, for neither the individual Christian nor the tradition to which he belongs can claim to possess some sort of authority that he refuses to attribute to the Church. So, we are left with the question of how we can know, how we can decide with confidence, which of the endlessly diverse and contradictory Christian traditions has things right – hardly a trivial matter, if it might mean heresy on the one hand or fidelity to the Faith on the other.

And such sums up the conflict over authority that brought me to Catholicism in the first place.

Read the rest: The Audacity of Pope

This article, as CtC always is, is meaty, lengthy, and will stretch your theological muscles — but I encourage everyone to read it, as I encourage anyone of a Reformed background to examine CtC and consider its arguments. I pray every day for the reunion of Christ’s Church, and CtC is the most powerful voice of Christian unity I know.

The Roman Catholic Controversy: Catholic Epistemology

The Roman Catholic Controversy

This is the seventh post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy. This post is the second part of my review of Chapter 6, “The Thousand Traditions.” Part One.

I should thank James White for introducing me to a new concept in the understanding of Catholicism, of which before I was unaware. His intentions in pointing it out, of course, were to expose a weakness in the foundations of the Catholic Church; but his demonstration has only served to further prove how solid that foundation is. He also alerted me to a position that opponents of the faith attempt to exploit, that to the unlearned might appear to be a weakness.

White challenges that there are two major positions Catholics hold with regard to the “nature, extent, and authority of tradition,” that are logically “completely at odds with each other” and “mutually exclusive.” In fact, the question relates to none of these things; rather, he admits, it pertains to the “sufficiency or insufficiency of Scripture.” At issue is Catholic epistemology: How Catholics know what we know. White does not call it thus here, but I believe he does in other places, and it is an appropriate term for the questions he asks and the charges he makes.

The question is relevant to White, because from his perspective, if Catholics can’t adequately explain the sources and transmission of their revelation, then they must not have any good reason for believing what they believe.  But he misrepresents the nature of the disagreement among Catholics. Both positions accept the authority of both Scripture and Tradition. Both positions hold that both Scripture and Tradition are real, finite bodies of received knowledge. Both positions hold that both Scripture and Tradition are essential elements of divine revelation on which Catholic dogma is founded. The disagreement does not call the “nature, extent, [or] authority” of Tradition into question; rather, it has everything to do with the “nature, extent, and authority” of Scripture. The underlying question is how we know what we know. There is no doubt that we know it.

The matter is only this: Does divine revelation exist partly in Scripture, and partly in Tradition?—that is, some Catholic doctrines are found in only Tradition that are not found at all in Scripture—or does the fullness of divine revelation exist both in Scripture and Tradition?—that is, all Catholic doctrines can be found in Scripture, even if only implicitly. The former view, which White calls the partim-partim view (Latin for partly … partly), holds that Scripture is materially insufficient—that it lacks essential material to present a full picture of God’s revelation. The latter view, which White calls the material sufficiency view, holds that Scripture is in fact materially sufficient—that it contains the full material of God’s revelation, even if some of it is only represented implicitly—but that Tradition is still necessary to discover and interpret the revelation in Scripture. Both views hold that we have received our doctrine from Scripture and Tradition. The only real difference is these positions’ view of Scripture; and White’s only real dispute with either of them is that neither holds Scripture to be solely sufficient. I will discuss these views in greater detail below [i.e. in the next post].

First I want to examine White’s charge that these views are “mutually exclusive,” that they create doctrinal confusion, and that they result in statements that are “often more liable . . . to various interpretations” than even the disparate interpretations of Protestants under sola scriptura. I fail to see how any point of this charge can be sustained—and in fact, White doesn’t sustain it; he does not mention this charge again after his introduction. These two views of Scripture are not “mutually exclusive” doctrinal positions that Catholics are expected to hold; they amount to only a minor theological question that in no way affects the outcome of Catholic doctrine. Whether one believes that Scripture supports all doctrine or not, all Catholics agree that between Scripture and Tradition, our doctrine is supported—and more important, proponents of either position can demonstrate this support in texts. There is no doctrinal confusion, since all doctrine is pronounced by the Magisterium, and the Magisterium speaks with one voice, regardless of the views of its individual members. The charge that this difference of opinion results in ambiguous statements that are open to various interpretations is empty, since the only authoritative interpretation is that of the Magisterium. If there is any ambiguity in interpretation, the Magisterium speaks again to clarify.

White attempts to make much of the point that the Tridentine Fathers—the Fathers of the Council of Trent—had a disagreement regarding these points. The original draft of the Decree concerning the Canonical Scriptures (which White never properly cites—I had to track it down myself) reads that revelation is passed on “partly in written books, partly in unwritten traditions,” supporting the partim-partim view. Upon debate, this was changed in the final draft to state that revelation is “contained in the written books and unwritten traditions”—allowing for the support of proponents of the material sufficiency view. This point is insignificant, and the fact that it was disputed is entirely irrelevant. The important fact is that the Magisterium reached an agreement and spoke with one voice to pronounce and clarify Catholic doctrine.

The Magisterium has agreed on Catholic doctrine and pronounced it with authority. Certainly if White means to charge that this doctrine is invalid because of a difference in theological opinion among the Magisterium’s members regarding the means of revelation, then Protestant doctrine suffers from an even greater problem, since the many disparate Protestant groups cannot agree on the content of doctrine let alone its means of revelation. This disagreement is analogous to the legal philosophies of strict constructionism versus loose constructionism among the members of the United States Supreme Court—that is, should the Constitution be interpreted strictly and literally by its letter, or should it be interpreted more loosely by the intent of its framers in the context of evolving legal and political situations? Regardless of what philosophy the individual justices of the court hold, once the court reaches a decision, its ruling is legally binding: when the court speaks, that is the law. Likewise, when the Magisterium speaks, that is doctrine.

The Roman Catholic Controversy: Tradition and the Magisterium

The Roman Catholic Controversy

This sixth post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy. I am really getting bogged down with this. White’s chapters aren’t getting longer, but my responses to them are. I reckon his accusations are growing more and more onerous and his tone more and more condemning, and I feel there is a lot more that needs to be answered. My response to this chapter, “The Thousand Traditions,” is expanding to monumental proportions; so I’ve decided to split it up into segments. I regret that anyone who reads this chapter will not have my full review in one succinct piece; but I am sure my readers will be thankful that I don’t dump the whole tome on you at once.

In this chapter, “The Thousand Traditions,” White seeks to undermine the Catholic concepts of Sacred Tradition and doctrinal development. As he has throughout the book, White continues to demonstrate a lack of understanding of basic Catholic positions. He attempts to equate the undeniable doctrinal confusion among the diverse Protestant sects with differences of theological opinion among orthodox Catholics regarding the origin and function of Tradition. In comparison to the many interpretations that result from sola scriptura, according to White, “statements of Rome are not only equally as liable to various interpretations, but often more liable.” “Even on the issue of tradition itself,” White argues, “there are a thousand ‘traditions,’ a thousand different ways of understanding the ‘final’ word on the matter.” White in fact discusses two positions, neither of which has any bearing on the interpretation or finality of the Magisterium’s rulings. [I will get to these in the next post, hopefully.]

Tradition and the Magisterium

White continues to struggle with a basic definition of Tradition. He believes, as he argued in previous chapters, that “tradition” is something nebulous and undefined, until it is defined by the Church itself. In examining the Church’s claims that both Scripture and Tradition are necessary for the authentic interpretation of the Word of God, White charges that “not only is Rome claiming the exclusive right of interpretation of the Scriptures but the exclusive right of both definition and interpretation of tradition.” White asserts that Tradition is effectively whatever the Church says it is. “When we ask to see the contents of tradition, we have to depend upon the veracity of the same Church that bases her doctrines . . . on those very traditions!” White once again accuses the Church of “circular reasoning” in its claims to authority. “Because Rome defines tradition itself, you have ‘Scripture and Church,’ not ‘Scripture and tradition.’”

The Church does not define tradition. The Church receives tradition. Tradition is not something vague and nebulous, but something real and substantial. Tradition is the entire body of knowledge that has been passed down through all the ages of the Church. It subsists in the writings of the Fathers, thinkers, theologians; music, hymnody, and liturgy; monuments and inscriptions; art and architecture — documents of all kinds; whatever exists that sheds light on that which has been passed down by Christians before. These documents are visible, tangible, and accessible, not just to the elite circle of the Magisterium, but to anyone who seeks them. Increasingly, the documents that define the Tradition on which Catholic dogma rests are published and available online.

What the Church does is select and interpret tradition. Out of this vast body of received tradition, the Magisterium chooses out the elements that are relevant and applicable to the questions of faith that are being asked, and interprets what they mean. White charges that “Rome has a ‘supreme rule of faith’”  that “does not exist outside of her own realm of authority” — that “the Roman Catholic Church defines and interprets the rule as she sees fit.” The Church’s rule of faith is Scripture and Tradition, read and interpreted by the Magisterium. Scripture and Tradition are received, immutable, and eminently authoritative in and of themselves. (White charges also that since the Church defines the canon of Scripture, the Catholic Church nullifies the authority of Scripture, since it can effectively pick and choose what it wants. This is a preposterous claim, since the canon of Scripture is itself immutable and has existed unchanged since the Church defined it originally.) The interpretations of the Magisterium are defined and limited by the truths that Scripture and Tradition reveal: it cannot create, produce, define, or present what isn’t there.

But by the act of selecting the elements of tradition that are relevant, isn’t the Church “defining” tradition? Can’t the Church pick and choose only what supports the conclusions it wants to arrive at? In theory, it could — but it would be guilty of dishonesty and deception. And since the entire body of tradition is open for all eyes to see, its dishonesty and deception would be transparent and self-evident. If the Magisterium arbitrarily ignored or dismissed conflicting evidence without cause (some conflicting evidence is in fact dismissed with cause — for example, the Gnostic gospels), then any observer or critic would have ample ammunition to attack the Magisterium’s decisions.

There is a clear analogy between the work of the Magisterium and the work of a scholar — for in fact the principles which guide the modern Magisterium are scholastic principles, invented by the Church and only borrowed by secular scholars. Let us suppose an historian, since I am most familiar with that discipline. Just as an historian chooses the sources from the body of accumulated knowledge with which to build an argument, the Church chooses sources from tradition on which to base dogma. The Church is no guiltier of “defining” tradition than the scholar is of “defining” history. The historian meticulously documents his sources, giving the reader the trail by which to check his sources and verify that his arguments are correctly founded and reasoned. If he has built a specious or poorly founded argument, his peers and critics will recognize it. Likewise, the Magisterium meticulously documents the sources of its dogma, and even publishes them and makes them freely available, so that anyone can follow the trail of its arguments and verify that they are well founded. Rather than being opaque, nebulous, and esoteric, the Tradition of the Church is eminently transparent, solid, and public.

White charges that “Rome loudly proclaims her fidelity to the Scriptures and insists that the Church is subject to the Scriptures” while actually “[making] statements that plainly elevate her own Magisterium to the highest position of authority.” White fails to present these “plain” statements. In fact, the Magisterium is subject to and bound by what Scripture and Tradition reveal; its authority is only as interpreter, arbiter, teacher, and servant, to read Scripture and Tradition and discern the truth that it reveals. It can neither promulgate truth not revealed by Scripture and Tradition nor contradict that truth.

White complains that in the Catechism (CCC 83), “Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time,” and that these “lesser” traditions “can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.” He argues that the Magisterium is free to dismiss what it doesn’t wish to be authoritative as not “real” tradition. But there is a clear, qualitative difference that White fails to grasp between these local traditions — for example, the Benedictine tradition or Franciscan tradition — and the Tradition that binds the entire Church.

White believes that the Catholic Church claims “no one else can properly interpret [the] Scriptures” — but in fact the claim is that only the Magisterium can interpret the Scriptures properly and with binding authority. The Church encourages exegetes and theologians to study Scripture and interpret it to the full extent of their ability. Their judgment informs and supports the Magisterium. Because the Church also claims to be “the sole guardian of ‘Sacred Tradition,’” White argues, there are “no external checks and balances . . . that could correct her should she err.” Of course, the very idea of an ultimate authority precludes the notion of “checks and balances.” But the Church believes the Magisterium does not err. We are taught that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13). Practically, the possibility of error is limited by the necessity of consensus among all the assembled bishops for an authoritative ruling.

In the end, White insists “that the Magisterium, by its own teachings, cannot logically maintain that it is a servant of the Word of God.” The only logical position it can take, he claims, is that of “‘overseer’ of the Sacred Scriptures, a position that demands a superior authority than that vested in the Bible itself.” White’s logic is flawed. How does the claim of the Magisterium to have authority in interpreting Scripture require that it be a “superior” authority over Scripture, any more than the individual, sola scriptura believer’s claim to have authority in interpreting Scripture require him to be a “superior” authority? In both cases, a party is exercising informed judgment to interpret Scripture. In both cases, Scripture has the superior authority, and the interpreter is bound and subject to the words and truths it contains.

White charges that the Church’s claim to “only [be] teaching what has been handed to her” is patently false. Suggesting such doctrines as the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of Mary, and Papal Infallibility, he intends to demonstrate that this claim is false, and that “such doctrines were not ‘handed on’ by the Apostles, and . . . were unknown to the early Christians.” “It is obvious” (emphasis mine), “that Rome has drawn from traditions that are not Apostolic.” White offers no such evidence of these claims here — in fact, it is not “obvious” at all. Later in the chapter he addresses Catholic epistemology and doctrines of theological development; it will be more expedient for me to address these claims there.

The Catholic and Protestant authority paradigms compared

The Council of Trent

The Magisterium of Church, assembled at the Council of Trent.

In line with my recent posts discussing Protestant and Catholic conceptions of authority, here is a really splendid post on Called to Communion, exploring the topic in more depth and greater theological and philosophical acuity than I could hope to: “The Catholic and Protestant Authority Paradigms Compared.” It’s piercing, astute, and thought-provoking, as Called to Communion always is. My blog is the little kid that wants to grow up to someday be like Called to Communion.

The bottom line is that by placing a book, rather than a divinely authorized living authority, at the center of his epistemic paradigm, the Protestant not only must use his fallible human reason to arrive at the locus of divine authority and to ask clarifying questions regarding the content of divine revelation, as the Catholic also must do. He must continue the use of fallible reason to construct the clarifying answers to the questions he asks. But as I explained above, fallible human reason has neither the authority, nor the competency to supply such answers.

The Roman Catholic Controversy: Sola Scriptura

The Roman Catholic Controversy

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

I said in beginning this review that I was prepared to give praise where it was due. It is due here: James White has constructed a really splendid and solid case in favor of the doctrine of sola scriptura — “by Scripture alone,” the cry of the Reformers, which White calls the formal principle of the Reformation. His argument is finely honed and well oiled, almost as a mathematical proof, and snaps shut like a steel trap. I must confess, it left me rather stunned.

I will, however, point out a few assumptions on which White rests his argument that I believe weaken it. But I was asking yesterday how any reasonable Christian could read the same sources from the Early Church that I am reading and maintain a Reformed system of belief. This is how: with arguments like this. I see no adequate way to refute this, assuming the premises that White assumes; so I can therefore only question the premises, which to me are indeed questionable.

What Sola scriptura is not

White begins by presenting six points of what sola scriptura is not — none of which I thought it was:

  1. Sola scriptura is not a claim that the Bible contains all knowledge (e.g. scientific, historical, political).
  2. Sola scriptura is not a claim that the Bible is an exhaustive catalog of all religious knowledge. (It’s not a catechism or compendium, as I’ve pointed out before — but, according to sola scriptura, it has everything the believer needs.)
  3. Sola scriptura is not a denial of the Church’s authority to teach God’s truth.
  4. Sola scriptura is not a denial that God’s Word has, at times, been spoken (e.g. the preaching of the prophets and Apostles).
  5. Sola scriptura is not a rejection of every kind or use of tradition (only the ones that can’t be supported by Scripture are not binding).
  6. Sola scriptura is not a denial of the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church.

Regarding the third point: White explains that there is “a vast difference between recognizing and confessing the Church as the pillar and support of truth (1 Timothy 3:15), and confessing the Church to be the final arbiter of truth itself.” “The Church, as the body of Christ, presents and upholds the truth, but she remains subservient to it.” Catholics too agree that the Church remains subservient to the truth — that is, she serves Christ and His truth and the divine revelation of God — but the Catholic Church believes that part of her service to the truth, her responsibility, is to properly interpret that truth and teach it to her people. This is as much the Church’s God-given duty and mission as it is her authority. White charges that “Rome has gone far beyond the biblical parameters regarding the roles and functions of the Church.” He needs to define, and expound from Scripture, what he believes these biblical roles and functions to be. “The Apostles established local churches. They chose elders and deacons” — and bishops too (1 Timothy 3:1-7), I must again add, if he is in fact teaching the biblical organization of the Church — “and entrusted to these the task of teaching and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Indeed they did; and invested them with the authority to teach. As any teacher knows, the truth — even Scripture — involves interpretation, breaking down ideas and conveying them to the student in an understandable way. I don’t know what White thinks “teaching” is, if not this. The “truth” he teaches in his church, too, is an interpretation. White misunderstands what the Catholic Church believes her role to be. He assumes, despite his statement to the contrary, that the Christian Church in fact has no inherent authority to teach the truth.

What Sola scriptura is

White next approaches a definition of what sola scriptura is.

  1. Scripture is the sole, infallible rule of faith (regula fidei); Scripture, and Scripture alone, is sufficient to function as such.
  2. All that one must believe to be a Christian is contained in Scripture.
  3. That which is not found in Scripture — either directly or by necessary implication — is not binding upon the Christian.
  4. Scripture reveals those things necessary for salvation.
  5. All traditions are subject to the higher authority of Scripture.

“The doctrine of sola scriptura, simply stated,” says White, “is that the Scriptures alone are sufficient to function as the regula fidei, the infallible rule of faith for the Church.” Proceeding from the very nature of Scripture as “God-breathed” (θεόπνευστος, theopneustos) revelation, Scripture is infallible and sufficient for salvation.

The Catholic Church fully agrees and affirms that Scripture is divinely inspired, inerrant, and authoritative:

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired [θεόπνευστος] and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” [2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text] (Second Vatican Council, Dei verbum III.11).

White’s argument that Scripture’s authority and sufficiency proceed from the very nature of Scripture itself strikes a chord with my argument from yesterday about the “actual authority” inherent in historical sources by virtue of what they are. Scripture too has this actual, historical authority, even aside from its divine inspiration.

White asserts that Scripture’s sole, infallible authority is not dependent on any man, church, or council, but proceeds from the nature of Scripture itself — for indeed Scripture attests to its own inspiration by God (2 Timothy 3:14-17), and everything God says must be authoritative and infallible. This argument does have one limitation, however: for it was the Church, by Tradition, that established the canon of Scripture, over several successive generations. It is only by the Church’s actions of collecting, preserving, and transmitting Scripture that we have an authoritative collection of Scriptures at all. It was through the discernment of the Church Fathers, guided by the Holy Spirit, that the canon of the New Testament was formed: the truly inspired books selected, and others excluded. Otherwise, we would not have a New Testament to be our “sole rule of faith.” I presume this is an issue which White will address later in the book.

White claims that Scripture is “self-consistent, self-interpreting, and self-authenticating” — and doesn’t really expound on these assertions. With these claims on their face, I have a serious problem. Nothing is “self-interpreting.” Language, by its very nature, has to be received and understood and processed mentally. As Dei verbum states, “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” (III.12).

This is not even to mention that the Scriptures are written in ancient languages that are the native tongues of no one living today. Even English translations of the Scriptures must be interpreted; but to even create the English translations from the original languages requires a great deal of interpretation, in many cases when the meaning of the Greek or Hebrew words themselves is unclear or obscure, let alone the syntax and grammar. Translation is a monumental task of interpretation. To say that Scripture is “self-interpreting” undermines the hard work of both translators and teachers, and implies that the interpretation of the one making the statement is the only obvious and possible one.

Likewise, among the extant early manuscripts of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures, there are thousands of textual variants — cases in which letters, words, or whole verses were left out, added, changed, transposed, misspelled, miscopied, or otherwise corrupted in the course of textual transmission. It is only by the arduous work of textual critics and paleographers that we have the authoritative, critical texts of the Scriptures on which grounds sola scriptura is even possible. To say that Scripture is “self-authenticating” undermines their labors.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) writes of the doctrine of sola scriptura:

VI. The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his 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: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and the government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

The claim that doctrines that are not themselves in Scripture, but “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture,” and still meet the demands of sola scriptura, troubles me. This statement seems a catch-all for any doctrine that Protestants want to work out from Scripture, “by good and necessary consequence.” As I have pointed out before, the five solas are themselves found nowhere in Scripture, but proceed only “by good and necessary consequence” of a certain interpretation of Scripture. Likewise, the tenets of Calvinism — total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, et al. — are not written on the face of Scripture at all, but were worked out by Calvin and his followers through a considerable amount of interpretation and exegesis; they are nonetheless, to a Calvinist, a “good and necessary consequence” of Scripture. Other Protestants whom White, I presume, would accept as orthodox, may not find these doctrines to be “good and necessary consequences” of Scripture at all. For something that is “perspicuous” and “self-interpreting,” there is a considerable degree of interpretation and even disagreement as to its meaning.

White admits that “some measure of effort must be expended in reading and understanding the Scriptures” — but apparently, this effort does not involve “interpretation.” He notes, however, because of this required “effort,” “surely many of the disagreements people have over the meaning of the Scriptures are due not to any lack of clarity in them, but to unwillingness of people to make use of ‘ordinary means.’” We Catholics could not agree more. If Protestants would only use the “ordinary means” that would put the Scriptures into the proper historical, theological, and ecclesial context — that is, Tradition — then we could resolve our disagreements.

The Steel Trap

White’s biblical proof for sola scriptura hangs almost entirely on the interpretation of a single passage — 2 Timothy 3:14-17 (this is White’s translation):

14 But you remain in what you have learned and have become convinced of, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and that from your childhood you knew the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise unto salvation by faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction, for training in righteousness, 17 in order that the man of God might be complete, fully equipped for every good work.

White seems to know his Greek (he likes to show it off; I guess I do too), but one thing I would point out, that doesn’t particularly affect the sense of the passage, is that the main verb in the first verse, μένε (mene) is imperative — it’s a command, not an indicative statement. Most published translations read “But you, remain in what you have learned . . . ” Also, the word he translates “Scriptures” in verse 15 and the word he translates “Scripture” in verse 16 are two different words — the former being γράμμα (gramma), which can be any kind of writing (the ESV translates this phrase “holy writings”), and the latter being γραφή (graphē), which in the New Testament is only used of Scripture. In any case, the translation of this verse, so far as the words themselves, is clear.

White’s proof follows like so (I am simplifying it and presenting it as a logical proof; White does not):

  1. The Scriptures, by their very nature as God-breathed, are able to make one wise unto salvation. Scripture in itself is sufficient for salvation.
  2. The Scriptures, being God-breathed, i.e. breathed by God, have their origin in God, and therefore as the Word of God have God’s authority.
  3. The Church, in Scripture, has and hears God’s Word, which has God’s authority. Therefore the authority of the Church to teach, rebuke, and instruct is derived from Scripture itself; the Church has no authority that does not derive from Scripture (“despite Roman Catholic claims to the contrary”).
  4. Because Scripture is God’s voice, it is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction, for training in righteousness, in order that the man of God might be complete, fully equipped for every good work.”
  5. Therefore the man of God can be both saved and made complete with Scripture alone. Nothing else is necessary, or Paul would have mentioned it.
  6. Therefore Scripture alone is sufficient to make the man of God complete for “every good work.” No man of God needs anything else for the purpose of ministry.
  7. The Roman Catholic Church teaches doctrines that are not found in Scripture, either directly or by any logical deduction of implication — for example, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (the belief that the Virgin Mary was bodily assumed into Heaven at the end of her earthly life).
  8. If these doctrines were true, it would be a “good work” to teach them.
  9. Since Scripture equips the man of God to be complete for every “good work,” and Scripture does not equip the man of God to teach the Assumption, then it follows that teaching the Assumption is not a “good work.”
  10. Therefore, the doctrine of the Assumption, and other non-biblical doctrines taught by the Catholic Church, are not necessary to be taught, or Scripture would equip the man of God to teach it. These doctrines are not necessary for salvation, or Scripture, being able to make one wise unto salvation, would teach them.

And the trap clangs shut.

“Hence,” says White triumphantly, “the Protestant says the doctrine is not binding upon the Christian; the Roman Catholic, having accepted the doctrine on the authority of the Roman Church, is forced to conclude the Bible is insufficient as a source of all divine truth.”

But wait. White isn’t done there. He proceeds to another leg of his argument, based on Matthew 15:1-9:

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for following the tradition of the elders — which the Pharisees believed to be God-given and authoritative, though it was not written in the Law — even though it broke the commandments of God, what was given as the Law, and were written in Scripture. Therefore all “tradition of the elders” is subject to Scripture, and it is to be tested against the known standard of Scripture.

White assumes that Sacred Tradition is contrary to or contradicts Scripture — but it isn’t and doesn’t. I assume, though, I will hear more about this later.


These are the questions I have with White’s argument.

The Nature of Scripture – The Old Testament

First, when Paul was writing to Timothy, the Holy Scriptures he was referring to were only the Old Testament; the New Testament had neither been written nor collected. White acknowledges this much. “No one would wish to say that the Old Testament is wholly adequate and the New Testament is superfluous and unnecessary,” he admits. “The thrust of the passage is the origin and resultant nature of Scripture and its abilities, not the extent of Scripture (i.e. the canon),” argues White. “That which is God-breathed is able, by its very nature, to give us the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (‘all things necessary for man’s salvation’) and to fully equip the man of God for the work of the ministry (‘all things necessary for . . . faith and life).'”

White continues to press this argument. Even acknowledging that Timothy would have heard and been brought to faith by the Gospel through hearing oral preaching, not through Scripture at all, he asserts that “the content of the teaching Timothy has received is identical with, not separate from, that found in the Word of God.” White insists that this oral preaching of the Gospel is the same content Timothy would received in the Holy Scriptures which he “had known from childhood.” “The message he has received in the Gospel is to be found in the Sacred Scriptures themselves” — in the Old Testament. Really?

Does White really mean to say that all Scripture, being God-breathed, is sufficient and able by its very nature to bring one to salvation in Christ Jesus? Is, say, the Book of Leviticus? What about Esther, which doesn’t even refer directly to God? Every book in the Old Testament, it’s true, is laced with metaphors and types and prophecies pointing to Christ — but are these prophecies, these precursors, sufficient in themselves to bring one to faith in Jesus? How could they be, if they don’t even mention Him? I’ve never heard of someone (other than Paul himself) “getting saved” reading only the Old Testament, with no other knowledge of Christ. Doesn’t faith in Christ necessitate knowledge of Christ? For “how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14).

If Paul, referring to the Old Testament Scriptures, said “all Scripture is God-breathed” and “able to make wise for salvation in Christ Jesus” — and yet the Old Testament Scriptures aren’t able to bring one to faith in Christ Jesus — then it follows that Paul meant something else other than the way White and Protestants have interpreted this statement.

The Nature of Salvation

This raises another important point: The Scriptures are able to make Timothy wise unto salvation. According to the Protestant view, isn’t Timothy already “saved”? Isn’t justification by faith a once and for all experience, a done deal? Does this passage not suggest the Catholic view, that salvation is a process? Reading the Scriptures, then — any Scriptures, including the Old Testament (even including Leviticus, which I found illuminating) — would make the believer, who already has faith in Jesus and is already on that road, “wise for salvation.” They would add wisdom and foster spiritual growth and further him along the path — and we believe they do.

Oral Preaching and Tradition

No, in fact Timothy wasn’t brought to faith in Christ by Scripture at all, but by oral preaching. That preaching was sufficient to bring him to faith, along with every other believer during the Apostolic Age and before the New Testament was canonized. They didn’t have Scripture pertaining to Jesus. The preaching and teaching of the Apostles was transmitted orally by tradition for at least the first several generations of Christians; it was that tradition that brought the earliest believers to faith in Christ, not Scripture. And if that tradition continued — as we in the Catholic Church believe it did — would it not remain sufficient to “make wise for salvation”?

White stated earlier that “the content of the teaching Timothy has received is identical with, not separate from, that found in the Word of God.” He made this argument for the Old Testament Scriptures, to which Timothy had access, and this seems to fail on its face. But suppose White were arguing instead that the content that would be contained in the New Testament was identical with the message Timothy heard — which seems to be more logical and consistent with his thesis; that God breathed all that was sufficient for man to be saved into Scripture, and so the message Timothy heard is what God would have caused to be written. This argument, too, seems to make an unreasonable assumption. White acknowledges that God’s Word, at times, was spoken rather than written. How does White know — how can he assume — that there was no more to the message God spoke through the Apostles orally, that was not later written into the New Testament, the Sacred Tradition that the Catholic Church teaches? White assumes, by sola scriptura, that Scripture is all there is; but he cannot prove sola scriptura using sola scriptura. Scripture itself attests that not everything that was taught by spoken word was written (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

According to Protestants, Scripture contains all the Word of God that’s necessary to bring one to faith in Christ. The rest, according to their view — the other doctrines in Tradition that aren’t in Scripture — aren’t necessary. Even supposing that were true, it doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that because they are not necessary, they are not good, or are necessarily false, or should be discarded. God is a God of overabundance, not just “enough.” Why would I want only what was sufficient for salvation? Our Catholic faith is overflowing in its fullness — and every bit of it is good and worthy and “makes us wise unto salvation” — by my definition above, of furthering us along that path.

“All Good Work”

Okay, I changed my mind. I would like to take exception to one point in White’s interpretation of the Greek of the 2 Timothy 3 passage. For the Greek phrase he translates “every good work” — πᾶν ἔργον (pan ergon) — another possible reading is “all kinds of good work.” In fact, this is the reading preferred for this verse by the BDAG, the premier, most authoritative lexicon of New Testament Greek, which White himself calls to support his translation of another word. πᾶν ἔργον could, instead of every, mean every kind of or all sorts of.

White takes a very narrow, strict, legalistic reading of the word πᾶν — but Paul was not constructing a legal or logical argument here, but exhorting Timothy about doing good works. Just as we would say in English, “The Bible is useful for all kinds of things,” without meaning that the Bible is literally useful for all, each and every kind of thing, the same sense of the word πᾶν was common in Greek. While White does attempt to limit the scope of Paul’s “every good thing” to only those good things that pertained to Christian ministry, this sense isn’t at all clear from Paul’s language. But suppose for a moment that’s what Paul meant. “Scripture fully equips you for all kinds of good work in ministry.” White is very careful to make clear that the word complete (ἄρτιος, artios) is to be understood in the sense of “fitted, complete; capable, proficient; able to meet all demands.” Does Scripture literally make one fully equipped, “able to meet all demands” of “all kinds of good work” in ministry? Does it, say, teach you to preach a rhetorically good sermon? Does it provide you with a workable geography of Asia Minor? Does it teach, in plain terms, the Trinity, or the hypostatic union of Christ, or the five solas, or even its own canon? So, not quite “all kinds of things.” Paul is speaking as a rhetorician, not a logician.

Also, can Scripture be used for anything besides “good work” in ministry? Certainly. It can even be used for evil, such as justifying slavery or rape or genocide. So clearly Paul’s statement here is not meant to be taken as a legalistic, limiting, exclusive statement that “Scripture equips you for all, each and every good work you will ever need to do in ministry — and nothing else that would possibly be not so good.”

The Sufficiency of Scripture

Even if we were to accept White’s interpretation that Scripture in itself is sufficient to “make one wise unto salvation” — Scripture nowhere states, nor is it clear, that Scripture is the only thing that is sufficient to bring one to faith in Christ. In fact, as I have pointed out above, it is clear that the oral preaching of the Apostles — and its oral tradition, the passing of the apostolic teachings from one generation of Christians to the next — was sufficient to bring hearers to faith in Christ, before the New Testament was written, canonized, and disseminated.

That is not even to mention the oral preaching of preachers to this day — which also is sufficient to bring hearers to faith. White would argue that preachers today are preaching Scripture, that they are using the words of Scripture and the content of Scripture — but, since the oral teaching of the Apostles and their successors was also sufficient, it is clear that this Tradition also contained content that is sufficient for salvation.

White makes another unreasonable assumption about Scripture’s sufficiency. Paul says that Scripture is able to “equip the man of God for every good work.” According to White, if any other authority were necessary, Paul would have told Timothy. But we only have two surviving letters of Paul to Timothy. How do we know there weren’t other letters in which Paul gave Timothy other essential information? How do we know Paul didn’t impart other essential teachings to Timothy orally? We don’t have proof that he did (beyond the reception, through Tradition, of doctrines not in Scripture), but we don’t have proof that he didn’t. White assumes, because he believes Scripture is sufficient, that if anything else were necessary, Paul would have said so in Scripture. Because he didn’t, it must be true that Scripture is sufficient. White assumes his conclusion. It narrows to a tautology: Scripture is sufficient because it is sufficient.

The Authority of the Church

White denies repeatedly that the Church has inherent authority beyond the the authority of Scripture itself. “The authority of the Church is one: God’s authority,” states White. The Catholic Church agrees — the Church’s authority is God’s authority which Christ imparted to the Apostles. But White argues that the only authority God imparted was that contained in Scripture, His authoritative voice speaking to the Church and through the Church. “The divine authority of the Church, then, in teaching and rebuking and instructing, is derived from Scripture itself, despite Roman Catholic claims to the contrary.”

But Scripture itself very clearly presents a different picture. On numerous occasions, Christ Himself imparted authority to the Apostles, and charged them with a divine mission, and promised them power to fulfill it: to Peter, the authority to “bind and loose,” and the “keys of the kingdom” (Matthew 16:17-19); to the rest of the Apostles, the authority to “bind and loose” (Matthew 18:18); the authority to forgive sins or withhold forgiveness (John 20:22-23); the promise that the Holy Spirit will guide the Apostles into all truth (John 16:13-15); the Great Commission (Mark 16:15-18); and the promise of power from the Spirit (Luke 24:49). This is not an exhaustive list by any means. The Catholic Church believes that by apostolic succession, the authority of the Apostles descends to today’s pope and bishops. The authority of the Catholic Church derives from the authority of the Apostles, which was imparted to them by Christ. To the Church, its exercise of authority over Scripture and Tradition is God’s own authority.

The Magisterium of the Church has the authority to interpret Scripture definitively. White asserts that Scripture is the “higher authority” of Protestants, and that the individual believer has the authority to interpret Scripture for himself or herself. White asserts that Scripture is “self-interpreting,” and yet acknowledges that individual believers may come to different conclusions. Above it all, there seems to be a “correct” interpretation — the “self-interpreting” one — to which White is appealing. To what authority is he appealing? By what authority can White claim that his interpretation is right and the Catholic one is wrong?


As I said in the beginning, my arguments here do very little to argue against sola scriptura; they merely undermine White’s defense of it. There are no doubt other defenses, and even deeper, heartfelt convictions, that maintain Protestants in the belief.

This question begins, and ultimately ends, with authority. What do we believe our authority is? If we trust in the authority of the Church, her claims to authority rest on Scripture, history, and the writings of the Church Fathers. If we trust in sola scriptura, then we trust in the Protestant Reformers — whose interpretations of Scripture and doctrines ring just as true now as they did 500 years ago.

It is incumbent upon Protestants to prove that the Early Church ever believed or taught sola scriptura, that Scripture was ever their sole rule of faith. In my opinion as an historian, there is no evidence to suggest that anyone before the Reformers ever did. Even if Scripture seems to support a system of belief built upon sola scriptura, it cannot be true if no one in the Early Church ever held it. We have a sufficient store of writing from the first generations of Christians that this question — whether they adhered to sola scriptura, or also founded their beliefs on oral tradition — is answerable.

If it wasn’t held by the Early Church, then it wasn’t taught by the Apostles, and it wasn’t taught by Christ. It seems, in my historical opinion, an unlikely doctrine to have ever been taught. If it had been, the Apostles would have been much more concerned with writing, and the Early Church would have been much more concerned with preserving the apostolic letters that were no doubt written but no longer survive.

The Apostles taught by spoken word, and their spoken word was passed on to the next generations of Christians by oral tradition. The Christian faith was transmitted in such a way for several generations. Even after Scripture was canonized, the Church would not have abandoned the tradition of apostolic teachings. Over time these were written down by the Church Fathers.

The objection by educated Protestants — as it will no doubt be of James White — is that the Early Church almost immediately fell away from the true doctrine taught by the Apostles of sola scriptura. As diligent and faithful as the Early Church was, this seems unlikely; and it presumes a position of ecclesial deism.

In the end, the question comes down to whose authority we trust more: the Church Fathers, who attest to the beliefs of the Early Church, or the Reformers, who posit that the Early Church held doctrines that cannot be attested.

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.

On this Rock: An Analysis of Matthew 16:18 in the Greek

St. Peter

Peter Paul Rubens. St. Peter. c. 1611. Oil on canvas.

One of the Roman Catholic Church’s chief scriptural supports for the authority of St. Peter as the leading Apostle, who would become the bishop of Rome — whom we would eventually refer to as the first pope — is the verses of Matthew 16:17-19:

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.’

This is also a favorite passage of anti-Catholics to pick apart. But with even a basic understanding of the ancient languages, the wordplay that Jesus and the Evangelist were implementing here becomes clear: These verses cannot be interpreted any other way but as an explicit declaration of Peter’s authority. And they never were, until the time of Luther.

Let’s look at the Greek, especially of the critical verse 18 (Greek text from NA27; see also, in English, BibleGateway, Bible.CC, New Advent):

κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ἅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.

Now, I don’t expect my readers to have a lot of Greek. If you do, I am delighted — but I’m here to make this as simple as possible. Here it is transliterated into Roman characters:

kagō de soi legō hoti su ei Petros, kai epi tautē tē petra oikodomēsō mou tēn ekklēsian, kai pulai hadou ou katischusousin autēs.

And one more time, all together: this time cribbed so you can understand it.

κἀγὼ [I, emphatically, in response to Peter’s delaration] δέ [and, also, postpositive: together with first word, and I or I also] σοι [2nd person singular dative pronoun, to you] λέγω [(I) say] ὅτι [that] σὺ [2nd person singular nominative pronoun, you, emphatically] εἶ [2nd person singular present active, are] Πέτρος [Peter], καὶ [and] ἐπὶ [preposition on, upon] ταύτῃ [this] τῇ πέτρᾳ [rock] οἰκοδομήσω [first person singular future active I will build, as in building a house] μου [my (lit. of me)] τὴν ἐκκλησίαν [church (lit. a calling out, a meeting, an assembly — but concretely and universally in Christian lit. refers to the Church)], καὶ [and] πύλαι [(the) gates] ἅδου [of hades] οὐ [negative particle, not] κατισχύσουσιν [3rd person plural future active, will overpower] αὐτῆς [it].

Now, the first thing to note about this is that Jesus addresses Peter in the second person singular: that is, he says you and not y’all. The distinction between the second-person singular and plural personal pronouns has died out in modern English; technically, the singular personal pronouns (thou, thy, thee) have died out and been replaced by the plural (ye, your, you). This is why the Southern U.S. y’all will save the English language. But back to the point: Jesus addresses Peter in the singular you — the King James’ Thou art Peter actually preserves the important distinction. So there can be no question that Jesus is speaking to Peter and to Peter alone here; not to all the Apostles; not to all Christians.

Second, and more important: the wordplay. The name “Peter” — Petros in Greek, Petrus in Latin — translates as “Rock.” Jesus is giving Simon a new name, Peter or Rock, in reference to his firmness or steadfastness.

And on this Rock I will build my Church. “You are Rock, and on this Rock I will build my Church.” That’s the proper way to understand the statement, had it been spoken in English.

Now, the common anti-Catholic refutation of this is thus (first put forward by Luther himself): the Evangelist uses different words in the Greek for Peter and Rock. You are Peter (Πέτρος, Petros) and upon this Rock (πέτρα, petra) I will build my Church. Not only are the two words different, but they are different genders — Petros is masculine and petra is feminine — and they have supposedly, according to the Protestant argument, different meanings in Greek. A petros is a small rock or a piece of rock; a petra is the bedrock or a massive rock formation. Therefore clearly, Jesus wasn’t referring to the same rock in both cases, so the argument goes.

There are several reasons why this argument doesn’t work. First of all, the context. Jesus had asked the disciples who they said he was: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, some other prophet? And in one of the most dramatic moments of the Gospel, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ. And Jesus in turn confesses Peter: “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 say to you . . .” The episode would not make any sense if Jesus had said, “I rename you Peter, a steadfast Rock; and on this (other) rock I will build my Church.”

Not only does that not make sense — but Jesus doesn’t say “other” — he says ταύτῃ, this rock. And there doesn’t seem to be any other rock, any petra present. The common Protestant argument is that petra here refers to Peter’s confession or Peter’s faith. But if that were the case, why the wordplay on Peter’s name? Even more so, why the wordplay without any clarification of the ambiguous metaphor? It seems unlike Matthew to let such an ambiguous statement go without explanation, who in other places is careful to provide explanations for the fulfillment of prophecies (Matthew 3), difficult parables (Matthew 13), and foreign words (Matthew 27:46). The reason he doesn’t here is because to Matthew, and to his earliest readers, it wasn’t ambiguous.

In fact, the literary structure of Jesus’s proclamation mirrors Peter’s exactly: “You are the Christ”; “You are Peter.” And Jesus’s other pronouncements here are perhaps even more important, more indicative of Peter’s singular authority, than His pronouncement of Peter as “Rock”. Jesus gives three separate blessings directed to Peter and Peter alone that leave no doubt of His intention to invest Peter specifically with authority:

  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”].

Further, there is no evidence, beyond the assertion itself, that the meanings of petros and petra are as distinct as Protestants argue. No scholarly lexicon I have consulted, in particular neither the LSJ for Classical Greek nor the BDAG for Koine, supports the definiton of petros as merely a small rock or piece of rock. The words seem, rather, to be nearly synonymous. If there is a distinction between them at all, it is between petra, a great mass of rock, and petros, stone as a monumental building material — for building, say, a Church.

But most important: there are perfectly good reasons why Matthew used two different words here, Petros and petra: this was the only way to compose the statement so that it would make sense in Greek.

  1. Peter’s name in Greek is Petros, not Petra. Why didn’t they call him Petra in Greek? Because Petra is a feminine noun, and Peter is a male. By the time the Gospels were written, Petros had been his Greek name for decades.
  2. Even supposing the Protestant argument about the different meanings of the words petros and petra were true (all evidence is that this is an anti-Catholic invention) — Jesus wouldn’t have said “on this petros I will build my Church,” to make the statement in Greek seem less ambiguous (to us), because that wasn’t what He meant. He meant “I will build my Church on this bedrock,” this unmovable foundation, not this piece of rock.
  3. Greek is an inflected language, meaning that the endings of words change depending on the grammatical function in which they are used. For example, πέτρος (petros), πέτρον (petron), and πετρῷ (petro[i]) are all the very same word. So variations in the endings of words with the same stem seem quite natural to the Greek mind, and the difference between petros and petra would have seemed much less significant than it does to an English-speaker. In fact, this type of wordplay between similar-sounding words, called paronomasia, was common in ancient Greek.
  4. Jesus wasn’t speaking Greek at all. Scholars are pretty certain that in His day-to-day life and teachings, Jesus spoke Aramaic. The Gospels quote Jesus in Aramaic for special dramatic emphasis: “Talitha cumi” (Mark 5:41), “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36), “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (Mark 15.34).
  5. So if Jesus was speaking Aramaic, the words for Peter and RockPetros and petra — would have been the same word: Kepha (כיפא‎).
    “You are Kepha and on this Kepha I will build my Church,” is what Jesus would have said (pretending that the rest of the sentence is in Aramaic, which I don’t know, and you probably don’t either).
  6. The Aramaic Kepha (כיפא‎) was rendered into Greek as Kephas (Κηφᾶς). Why didn’t Matthew just use that in both cases? Because it would have been as awkward as my sentence above, saying most of the sentence in Greek and a couple of words in Aramaic, and then having to explain it. Matthew’s readers apparently didn’t know Aramaic — or at least, if the book was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic as some of the Church Fathers suggest, whoever translated it into Greek didn’t expect his readers would know Aramaic, and provided a crib for the Aramaic phrases.

To further confirm the Catholic interpretation — it’s not a Catholic interpretation; at least not an invention or reinterpretation of the modern Catholic Church as anti-Catholics charge. This is the way this Scripture has been interpreted since the very earliest biblical commentators:

“. . . I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a Church whose faith has been praised by Paul . . . The fruitful soil of Rome, when it receives the pure seed of the Lord, bears fruit an hundredfold . . . My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the Cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the Rock on which the Church is built! This is the house where alone the Paschal Lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the Ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails.”

—St. Jerome, To Pope Damasus, Epistle 15:1-2 (A.D. 375)

“Number the bishops from the See of Peter itself. And in that order of Fathers see who has succeeded whom. That is the rock against which the gates of hell do not prevail.”

—St. Augustine, Psalm against the Party of Donatus, 18 (A.D. 393)

“Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome, through us, and through this present most holy synod together with the thrice blessed and all-glorious Peter the Apostle, who is the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, hath stripped him of the episcopate, and hath alienated from him all hieratic worthiness. Therefore let this most holy and great synod sentence the before mentioned Dioscorus to the canonical penalties.”

—Council of Chalcedon, Session III (A.D. 451)

To me, this makes a rock-solid (that’s petra-solid) case: In this verse, there is no doubt that Jesus is declaring Peter to be the Rock on which He would build his Church. Seeing these words in stone did more to move me to this truth, and toward the Catholic Church, than almost anything else: my banner above is a photograph I took of this same declaration, in Latin, around the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, over the high altar and St. Peter’s tomb.

See also: Early Testimonies to St. Peter’s Ministry in Rome

By Scripture Alone; Alone with Scripture

(I am afraid this one gets a little preachy; possibly a little critical. As always, my heart is not to attack, but to rebuild.)

Gutenberg Bible

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

So continuing from my thoughts yesterday:

One of the most strident cries of the Protestant Reformation, and of Protestants to this day, is sola scriptura: by Scripture alone. Scripture, the Bible, was to be the sole rule and authority of faith and doctrine.

From an academic standpoint, I can respect this. It holds Christian doctrine and tradition to a very high, legalistic standard of proof. It demands that all belief and practice be absolutely attested to in inspired writing and stamped with divine approval. It demands written attestation by the Apostles — or by God Himself — before Christians put any element of faith into action. But is this a reasonable expectation?

As I wrote yesterday, nothing in our New Testament represents itself as a compendium or catechism of the Christian faith. No book claims to contain the sum of Christian truth. There is no demand or expectation in the New Testament that the New Testament writings alone should support, nourish, instruct, or guide the Church. At the time these documents were written, there wasn’t even any such collection as the New Testament. How could Paul, at the time he wrote his letters, have expected that his words, with those of a few others, would be the sole rule of the Church’s faith? Arguably, he and the other writers were aware that their writing was inspired by the Holy Spirit; but it is doubtful that they at the time would have understood their words to be Scripture — which to them referred to the Old Testament (though St. Peter in 2 Peter 3:15-16 apparently places St. Paul’s writings on the level with Scripture by the end of their lives, ca. A.D. 63–67).

It is evident throughout the New Testament that the Apostles’ primary mode of transmitting the teachings of Christ was through spoken preaching and teaching, not writing. Most of the Apostles were too busy doing other things, like evangelizing to the ends of the earth and dying martyrs for the faith, to write much. That Paul was such an effective writer as well as a tireless preacher surely had a lot to do with why Christ chose him. On every page of Paul’s epistles, he refers to what he taught to the churches in person, teachings that he does not repeat in writing. The Early Church, living prior to the New Testament being collected, received their Christian faith directly through the oral teaching of the Apostles and their successors, and could not have even comprehended an insistence on “Scripture alone.” It is a little ironic that a faith so focused on sermons and preaching should at the same time reject the oral tradition of the Apostles.

Some Protestant sects take this rejection further than others. Especially some of the older groups, such as Lutherans and Anglicans, have retained many of the external trappings of the Church’s traditions. I speak only anecdotally, I confess — I have a lot of reading to do about these churches — but I often hear Anglicanism referred to as “Catholic lite.” Many more conservative and traditional Anglicans are making the journey back to the Mother Church by the parish. I’ve never been a part of a Lutheran church, but through following Ken Ranos and talking to my friend Heather (who attends an ELCA church in California), I’m frequently nodding in agreement at all the similarities and parallels between our traditions. They take the attitude, it seems, that many of the traditions of the Church are valuable and beautiful and praiseworthy, and ought not to be discarded as long as they don’t hinder the Gospel of Christ.

Other churches, especially those descending from the Calvinist tradition, take the rejection of tradition much further. Here I’m on much more familiar ground, having been a part of Baptist and Presbyterian churches. The iconoclasm of Reformation Calvinists toward religious images is well known. It is evident to anyone who has ever seen or set foot in an evangelical church the extent to which their sects have rejected the artistic, ornamental, and architectural aspects of tradition. In doctrine, to a further point than Lutherans or Anglicans, these churches reject anything that is not written explicitly on the face of Scripture. The Sacraments of Confession and Confirmation are completely absent, for example — if not the notion of sacramentality itself. The veneration of saints, the very idea of sainthood, is gone. The attitude here, as I’ve heard from many Protestants, is that the absence of a tradition from Scripture is reason in itself not to do it.

This can, and has, been taken to extremes. The Seventh-Day Adventists and their ilk reject Sunday worship — which has been practiced by the Church since the earliest days — because it is not commanded by Scripture. The Churches of Christ reject the use of musical instruments in worship because there is no evidence of it in the New Testament. I encountered a “new wave” church in Alabama that had no pastor but professed to practice a “New Testament model of church organization.” I am not quite sure what that means, since the New Testament never lays out a model of church organization; but presumably it included elders and deacons. It is common to hear of Protestant churches that try to reconstruct the New Testament Church — but the New Testament gives only glimpses of the faith and practice of the Early Church; most evangelicals reject the authorities that would shed the most light, the Church Fathers. Some churches are even rejecting the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, and returning to such ancient heresies as Sabellianism and Arianism. I’ve talked to Protestants who readily acknowledged that some of the traditions of the Church are good things to do and hold, and have value and merit — but that their churches nonetheless reject them because they can’t find them in Scripture.

This seems to me to be an awfully lonely and barren place to be. By their strictness in living by Scripture alone, these churches are left entirely alone with Scripture. They have shorn themselves of all of the beautiful and wonderful things that have clothed and ornamented the Church over the ages: all of the history, all of the scholarship, all of the art, all of the music. They have spurned the fellowship of the heroes and martyrs, the great cloud of witnesses, who are a part of our spiritual communion in Christ. Even more seriously, they have cast away elements of the faith — the Sacraments, Holy Orders, Apostolic Succession — that make the Gospel work, that guide and nourish the Church, that protect her teachings and sacraments, and that keep her in communion with the Holy Spirit.

Most tragically, with these nuts and bolts and hinges removed, the Church has lost her unity. Since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the breakaway Protestant sects have split, and split, and split again, until there are estimated to be upward of 33,000 distinct Protestant denominations (and this is a conservative estimate). There have been more new denominations formed in the past century than have ever existed in all the prior centuries combined. Many churches — the hundreds of thousands of independent or nondenominational churches — really are completely alone. Only the Catholic Church remains one and coherent in the face of this disintegration. The Protestant churches beyond are splintering.

But wasn’t the Reformation supposed to restore the Church? Wasn’t sola scriptura supposed to bring the Church back to the Gospel? Whatever may be said about the doctrine’s aims, without any kind of magisterial authority to guide the Church, disagreement about the interpretation of Scripture only multiplies. Sola scriptura is the linchpin of the whole Reformation, without which it would not have been possible to reject the Catholic Church, its hierarchy, or its Sacraments. It, more than any other doctrine, is the root of our continued disagreement, and our failure to reunite the Church. And it has fostered the individualistic, private interpretation of Scripture, which to this day has been more divisive than any other element in Christian spirituality.

Broken Communion

EucharistToday I’m troubled by the first major challenge from my parents to the Catholic Church: not so much, thankfully, to my personal journey, but ostensibly to the Catholic practice of closed communion.

My father feels offended to be excluded from the Catholic Eucharist. As a baptized Christian, he feels he is privileged to partake. He feels that in denying him communion, the Church is in effect saying he is not a Christian. He feels that the practice of closed communion perpetuates division in the Body of Christ. My mother is hurt that she could not come to my church and take communion with me, or I with her at her church.

Frankly, I had no expectation that this would be an issue. It had not even occurred to me that this would be upsetting to anyone until I googled and found that many Protestants were troubled by this matter. From the very first time I attended Mass some seven years ago, then a thoroughgoing Protestant, it seemed perfectly natural and reasonable to me for the Catholic Church to exclude non-Catholics from the Eucharist. I recognized, even then, that the Church held the Eucharist to be most sacred, was very protective of it, and didn’t offer it to just anybody.

Further study revealed that closed communion is nothing new; it’s one of the most ancient customs of the Church:

But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs” (Didache 9, ca. mid to late first century A.D.).

We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration and is thereby living as Christ has rejoined (St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 65, ca. A.D. 150.).

So the Eucharist was closed to non-Christians; it was only open to baptized Christians who believed the truth of catholic teaching. Certainly, in those early days, when Christianity was outlawed and persecuted, an unknown stranger could not have simply shown up at a Christian meeting, professed to be a baptized Christian, and been received into the Mysteries; no, he would have to have been a known, accepted, and approved member of that community, or else commended to it by other known, accepted, and approved Christians. The Eucharist was closed for the Church’s protection. The unbaptized were not even allowed to be present at the Eucharist, let alone to receive it.

Pope Benedict distributing the Eucharist to a child

Pope Benedict distributing the Eucharist to a child.

What says, then, that communion should be open? My dad points out that there is nothing in Scripture that says explicitly that communion should be closed; but likewise there is nothing in Scripture that says that it should be open to all without restriction. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, is writing to the church at Corinth, a closed communion of Christian believers. He does not recommend that the church open its doors and its table to strangers from the street; he is advising the church in the context of its own private, closed Eucharistic celebration. The Eucharist, the Communion of believers with Christ and with each other, is the most intimate and precious of all the Christian Mysteries. It was closely protected and guarded.

But this is 2012. There is no longer the need for such protection, is there? The liturgy of the Mass is no longer a closely-guarded secret; there are no longer accusations of cannibalism in Christians consuming the Lord’s Body and Blood; there are no longer persecutions unto death in our country. My parents are both baptized Christians. Shouldn’t they, known, accepted, and approved Christians, be allowed to receive the Eucharist, too?

That depends on what you believe the Eucharist to be. Evangelical Protestant communities that practice open communion by and large believe that the Lord’s Supper is merely symbolic, a memorial gesture of communion with the Lord, with no sacramental value. When I questioned my dad, this is basically what he affirmed. Christ extends the offer of grace and salvation to all; so why wouldn’t communion in His Body and Blood be extended to all? This exclusivity, this seeming denial of grace to the uninitiated, is what offends my dad.

Eucharistic adorationBut if you believe, as the Catholic Church believes, that the Eucharist is a real, actual, physical communion, in body and spirit, with the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, a sacramental commingling of our elements with His Elements, then it seems to me that you would have no choice but to be protective of that communion, and selective of who partakes in it. The Early Church allowed only those who believed and affirmed the reality of that Holy Communion. Why would the modern Church allow anyone who denies that reality? Should the Church offer the most intimate communion with our Lord to just anyone who walks in off the street, who doesn’t even have faith in Him? You may be a Christian — and the Catholic Church affirms that, if you have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you have a right to be called Christian (Unitatis Redintegratio I.3 § 1) — but if you deny His Real Presence in the Eucharist, it is you who are denying yourself full communion.

If you don’t share the Catholic belief in the Real Presence, why would you be offended at the closed communion? I think that is why it has never offended me: I recognized and respected that I believed differently. I think what offends my dad is the thought that since Christ’s death on the Cross was freely offered to all, why should participation in His Communion be offered to only a select few? This perception of exclusivity is in fact false. The Church has never excluded anyone from grace who sought it. She welcomes all Christians into full, Eucharistic Communion. But they must first affirm what she teaches: the reality of Christ’s presence in that Communion. What “perpetuates division” is Protestants’ continued denial of this core Catholic truth, the “source and summit of our faith.”

I think what offends my dad, even more fundamentally, is the idea that the Church has authority at all: the authority to tell anyone that they cannot celebrate the Eucharist when, where, and exactly how they wish. In the democratic and individualistic mindset that has ascended in modern evangelicalism, any individual is free to approach Christ outside and without the Church at all. It’s a misguided interpretation of the “priesthood of all believers,” taken to its furthest extreme: each believer individually is his own priest, and therefore needs no one else at all. And this gets into a whole ‘nother barrel of worms that I’ll have to deal with another time.

Suffice it to say that I am troubled. This will not stop the course I know I have been placed on; but I don’t want my parents to be offended or hurt. I don’t want them to feel excluded or rejected. But I’ve talked to my dad at length, and I don’t think there’s any getting past this; he’s unwilling to see the matter any other way.