Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 3: An Authoritative Church

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

An authoritative Church

Rome from the dome of St. Peter's.

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

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

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

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

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

St. Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbarán

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

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

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

The Magisterium

Four Doctors of the Western Church

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

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

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

The Good Shepherd, Bernhard Plockhorst

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

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

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

Not a Tyrant

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus Caesar as Pontifex Maximus (Wikimedia).

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

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

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

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

Too Many Teachers

Martin Luther

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

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

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

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

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

“Other Things”

Infant baptism by immersion

Baptism.

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

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

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

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paralysis

A Catalogue of Sects

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

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

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

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

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

I resisted until I couldn’t

no

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

“Authority” in a Different Sense

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

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

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

The Catholic Sense of Scripture

Monk at work in scriptorium

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

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

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

Teaching from the Deposit of Faith

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

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

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

A Well-Built Building

pyramid

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

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

“He taught them as one having authority”

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

Jesus teaching in the synagogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Vatican Council

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

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

John Calvin, by Titian

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

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

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

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

Codex Sinaiticus

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

Is “Sola Scriptura” in Scripture?

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

Gutenberg Bible

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

The canon of Scripture: “Self-authenticating”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saints Peter and Paul, by El Greco

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

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

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

Gutenberg Bible

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

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

St. Thomas Aquinas (Crivelli)

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

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

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

Going to the source: Some light on the Assumption of Mary from Munificentissimus Deus

Assumption of the Virgin, by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823)

Assumption of the Virgin, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758-1823) (WikiPaintings)

I don’t have a lot of time for an update today, and am in no mood for argument; but this is an important day: the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the celebration of our Blessed Mother being assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life, as a sign of the promised resurrection for each of us. For me it is especially meaningful: for on this day seven years ago, I received in my own body a foretaste of that resurrection.

I made a meaty post last year which expounded some of the scriptural and patristic testimonies to the Assumption; it is worth a read. Today I took a few minutes to read and reflect on Munificentissimus Deus, the Apostolic Constitution by which Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption a dogma of the Catholic Faith on 1 November 1950. If any one is doubtful or insecure about the Catholic Church’s promulgation of a dogma that is not spelled out explicitly in Scripture — if any one feels that the Magisterium of the Church is free to pull fanciful doctrines out of hats, to invent and declare to a gullible public whatever is expedient or profitable for the prelates of the age — he need only read this document, to understand the prayer, caution, and deliberation that goes into such a declaration; the certainty and unanimity in a doctrine that is required; the research and reasoning and support from the deposit of faith that must form its foundation.

Venerable Pope Pius XII.

Venerable Pope Pius XII.

Here I’ll give a few quotations that stood out to me in particular. I would encourage anyone who is curious to learn more to read the whole thing (it’s not a very lengthy document), and read my post from last year.

Pope Pius XII, in a 1946 encyclical letter to all the bishops of the Church, Deiparae Virginis Mariae, asked what they thought of the notion of promulgating the Assumption (which has been held since the earliest centuries of the Church) as a dogma — if it could or should be done. To this he received a nearly unanimous response in favor (§16):

But those whom “the Holy Spirit has placed as bishops to rule the Church of God” (Acts 20:28) gave an almost unanimous affirmative response to both these questions. This “outstanding agreement of the Catholic prelates and the faithful” (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus [1854]), affirming that the bodily Assumption of God’s Mother into heaven can be defined as a dogma of faith, since it shows us the concordant teaching of the Church’s ordinary doctrinal authority and the concordant faith of the Christian people which the same doctrinal authority sustains and directs, thus by itself and in an entirely certain and infallible way, manifests this privilege [the Assumption] as a truth revealed by God and contained in that divine deposit which Christ has delivered to his Spouse to be guarded faithfully and to be taught infallibly (First Vatican Council, Dei filius [1870]).

In other words: the near-unanimous response in favor proved that the teaching authority of the Church was in agreement with the faith of the Church.

Certainly this teaching authority of the Church, not by any merely human effort but under the protection of the Spirit of Truth (John 14:26), and therefore absolutely without error, carries out the commission entrusted to it, that of preserving the revealed truths pure and entire throughout every age, in such a way that it presents them undefiled, adding nothing to them and taking nothing away from them. For, as the Vatican Council teaches, “the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter in such a way that, by his revelation, they might manifest new doctrine, but so that, by his assistance, they might guard as sacred and might faithfully propose the revelation delivered through the apostles, or the deposit of faith.” (First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus [1870]).

Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1550), by Tintoretto

Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1550), by Tintoretto (WikiPaintings)

This is where it leapt out at me: To the mind of the Church, to all the faithful who petitioned for the dogmatization of the Assumption, to all the bishops who affirmed it, this was not the promulgation of a “new doctrine,” but the protection of the Divine Revelation handed down by the Apostles, that had been a part of the deposit of faith for time immemorial.

Pope Pius then went on to lay out many testimonies and evidences from both Scripture and Tradition which affirm the truth of the Assumption. Noting that the Church had celebrated the Assumption in her liturgy since ancient times, he declared (§20):

However, since the liturgy of the Church does not engender the Catholic faith, but rather springs from it, in such a way that the practices of the sacred worship proceed from the faith as the fruit comes from the tree, it follows that the holy Fathers and the great Doctors, in the homilies and sermons they gave the people on this feast day, did not draw their teaching from the feast itself as from a primary source, but rather they spoke of this doctrine as something already known and accepted by Christ’s faithful. They presented it more clearly. They offered more profound explanations of its meaning and nature, bringing out into sharper light the fact that this feast shows, not only that the dead body of the Blessed Virgin Mary remained incorrupt, but that she gained a triumph out of death, her heavenly glorification after the example of her only begotten Son, Jesus Christ — truths that the liturgical books had frequently touched upon concisely and briefly.

We today are so fixated on primary sources, on declaring proofs for everything we do; but Pope Pius here makes an important point: that ancient Christians based their liturgy on the faith revealed to them, and that the Fathers who expounded on the Assumption did so from that very tradition handed down from the Apostles, not from the surviving liturgical texts which now we look to as proofs.

The Assumption of the Virgin (1650), by Nicolas Poussin

The Assumption of the Virgin (1650), by Nicolas Poussin (WikiPaintings).

Since the universal Church, within which dwells the Spirit of Truth who infallibly directs it toward an ever more perfect knowledge of the revealed truths, has expressed its own belief many times over the course of the centuries, and since the bishops of the entire world are almost unanimously petitioning that the truth of the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven should be defined as a dogma of divine and Catholic faith — this truth which is based on the Sacred Writings, which is thoroughly rooted in the minds of the faithful, which has been approved in ecclesiastical worship from the most remote times, which is completely in harmony with the other revealed truths, and which has been expounded and explained magnificently in the work, the science, and the wisdom of the theologians — we believe that the moment appointed in the plan of divine providence for the solemn proclamation of this outstanding privilege of the Virgin Mary has already arrived.

Pope Pius concluded (§41) that the overwhelming weight of evidence supports this declaration of the Assumption: not only its basis in Scripture, but the certainty in the minds of the faithful, in its celebration in liturgy since the most ancient times, in its harmony with all other revealed truths (something I wanted in particular to point out to critics), and in the extensive and learned exposition by all the theologians of the ages. This, truly, was not a case of “making stuff up”: it was a setting down of what was already known and believed.

The Pope’s Holiness and Infallibility

I’m on a roll here! Three posts in as many days! In response to this post:


My Protestant friend asks:

So the pope’s word is supposed to be infallible, right? When does it become so? Was his word as a “cardinal” infallible? And since he’s still alive does his word continue to be infallible? If not, how does one go from being fallible to infallible and back to fallible again? Talk about a rollercoaster ride! And also, is Benedict still the most-holy or is he only normal-holy? Or is he even Benedict anymore?

Pope Francis

Blessings and Prayers for our new Holy Father Pope Francis

Hi again. I appreciate that you are interested in asking questions and having a respectful dialogue. It doesn’t look like you’ve gotten any adequate answers here. I do hope you will consider me your “Catholic friend” and, I do hope, “brother.” I look forward to your response to my other comments on the authority of the papacy.

I’ll try to reply here in brief, and then we can expand if you wish.

Your question about infallibility again reflects some misunderstandings. I think you are misunderstanding the ways in which the Catholic Church sometimes uses the word holy. For the sake of discussion, let’s define that word. From TheFreeDictionary.com:

ho·ly [ˈhəʊlɪ]
adj. ho·li·er, ho·li·est
1. Belonging to, derived from, or associated with a divine power; sacred.
2. Regarded with or worthy of worship or veneration; revered: a holy book.
3. Living according to a strict or highly moral religious or spiritual system; saintly: a holy person.
4. Specified or set apart for a religious purpose: a holy place.
5. Solemnly undertaken; sacrosanct: a holy pledge.
6. Regarded as deserving special respect or reverence: The pursuit of peace is our holiest quest.
7. Informal Used as an intensive: raised holy hell over the mischief their children did.

When we call the pope the “Holy Father,” that is an aspect of his office — that office is (1) “belonging to, derived from, or associated with a divine power,” the Church, and his office is (4) “specified or set apart for a religious purpose”; that office is (5) “solemnly undertaken,” and because of that office, he is (6) “regarded as deserving special respect or reverence.” The pope, as a man, may or may not be holy as in (3), “living [a holy life],” being “a holy person.” Certainly there have been popes who were not!

To say that God is holy is an entirely different sense of the word. God alone is infinitely holy and (2) “worthy of worship”; He is also, by his nature, (1) “a divine power” and “sacred.” The saints (sancti, holy ones, those set apart), on the other hand, are holy first and foremost because they (3) lived holy lives, and we believe that after their deaths they’ve gone to Heaven and are with Jesus and are thus (1) associated with a divine power. They are (2) deserving of veneration, not akin to worship but more akin to (6), a special respect or reverence.

Pope Benedict XVI.

Prayers are blessings to our Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Now, to your question about infallibility: Again, you are misunderstanding the Church’s claims. Infallibility is an aspect of the office of the papacy, not of the person of the pope. There was nothing “infallible” about Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he was pope, or about him now that he is no longer the sitting pope. And this is why I got into that about holiness: you ask how holy he is: well, he’s only as holy as the life he lives. Having read his writings and followed his life for the past eight years, I think he’s a pretty holy guy — but there’s nothing divine about him as a person, and never was. Further, there is nothing infallible about the person of Pope Francis, or the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.

With regard to infallibility: the best way to think about it is not so much about the pope being infallible, but that when he sits in the captain’s chair, it’s really God steering the boat. Literally, that’s pretty much exactly what the Church teaches: by the formal definition of the doctrine, the pope is only said to be infallible when he speaks ex cathedra (“from the chair” of the episcopate) regarding matters of faith and morals (and “the chair” is not a literal chair). Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13), and it’s only as an aspect of that that the pope is ever considered infallible. And his infallibility only “kicks in” when he invokes it; and it is only formally invoked in very limited circumstances. The pope in his day-to-day life isn’t infallible when he declares his favorite pizza or gives his opinion about football (soccer, you know), or even when he writes encyclicals about Church practice or discipline (which are not considered ex cathedra, but, by analogy, written standing up). He is considered to have authority when he writes such, just as a prominent pastor or scholar is considered to have authority when he speaks, by nature of who he is and what he knows. But papal infallibility has only really been invoked a few times in the past couple of centuries. And ex cathedra pronouncements are only ever made in union and agreement with the cardinals and bishops of the Church.

Blessed Pope John Paul II

May Blessed Pope John Paul II, of happy memory, pray for us.

It all boils down to this: Papal infallibility is an assurance that the Holy Spirit, not the pope, is guiding the Church, when push comes to shove. That is not to say that the pope is the Holy Spirit, or always follows the Holy Spirit, or even necessarily lives in accord with the Holy Spirit — certainly there have been popes who have not. But even in the darkest times of the Church, corrupt popes have never promulgated doctrine that is contradictory to the teachings of Christ or the Bible or the Church: they have never declared, say, that the pope is divine, or that Mary is divine, or that Jesus is anything but divine. They have never declared that adultery or theft or murder is okay, or that everybody has to give all their money to the Church. The fact that even the most dastardly people who have held the office of pope, regardless of how they lived their personal lives, have never promulgated such heresy or error should be a confirmation of the truth of this doctrine. Infallibility — the guidance of the Holy Spirit — ensures that the Church will never run off the rails. And the fact that in 2,000 years it hasn’t is a sign of the Church’s Oneness, Holiness, Apostolicity, and Catholicity. You and I disagree about interpretations of Scripture — you may even disagree that the Church has never “run off the rails.” But in the 2,000 years of the recorded history of the Catholic Church, the Church has never promulgated any doctrine in opposition or contradiction to its own doctrines, or contradictory to the truth of Scripture. You would be hard pressed to prove that it has.

As an extension to the doctrine of infallibility: the Magisterium of the Church (Magisterium means “teachership” — the teaching authority of the Church) — that is, the collected body of bishops in communion with the pope, the chief bishop — is considered infallible in its agreement. This means that the ecumenical councils of the Church, from Nicaea to Vatican II, have taught infallible doctrine.

There you have an explanation of the Church’s teachings on infallibility. I will let you chew that up before I continue with the Marian doctrines.

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

Pope

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.