Reformation 500: Appealing to authority

As I stated previously, I am unconvinced that Catholicism should rightly be considered a cult. The Catholic faith is rooted in historic Christian truth. While this is true, I am persuaded that the truth has been so obscured by Catholic tradition that the foundation is crumbling.

Protestant Reformers reacted strongly to what they considered to be deep-seated doctrinal falsehoods in the Catholic Church. The passing of time has not diminished those differences. And while there are numerous differences that could be cited between the Catholic and Protestant faiths, four stand out. In my next few posts, I want to highlight the importance of these doctrinal differences. I will begin by noting the differences in the two traditions with regard to authority.

The Reformers referred to disputes over the issue of authority as the “formal” cause of the Reformation. It was the issue of authority, more than anything else, that drove the Protestant Reformation.

The Catholic Church affirms a triad of authority structures: Scripture, apostolic tradition and magisterium (the teaching office of the Church). This understanding of authority poses a great challenge to those who would evangelise or reason with Catholics, for it renders null the authoritative base of Scripture alone.

The authority of Scripture

Protestants are sometimes guilty of misrepresenting the Catholic understanding of authority, as if everything the pope says is considered automatically on par with Scripture. We will consider the doctrine of papal infallibility below, but we must begin by acknowledging that the Catholic Church affirms the Bible as the inspired, infallible Word of God, given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit through the apostles and prophets. In short, the Catholic view of the Bible is the same as the evangelical view of the Bible—except that they consider the deuterocanon (the Apocrypha) to be inspired.

The authority of apostolic tradition

According to the Catholic Church, Scripture and apostolic tradition share equal authority. The Profession of Faith of the Council of Trent reads: “I shall never accept nor interpret [Holy Scripture] otherwise than in accordance with the unanimous consent of the Fathers.”

Catholics appeal to Scripture to support this notion of authoritative tradition. For example, Paul writes, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Again, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6).

In both these verses, however, the “tradition” can be understood as oral apostolic tradition that, while not committed to writing when Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, was eventually recorded in written form in our present-day New Testament.

One Catholic writer goes so far as to claim that the apostle John expressed a preference for oral tradition over written Scripture in 3 John 13: “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink.” John tells his readers that he would rather speak to them face-to-face than in writing, and this is interpreted to mean that John preferred oral tradition over the written word.

In fact, John is not contrasting oral tradition with the written word. He is simply stating that he would rather commune with his friends face-to-face than by the written medium, particularly since he had some hard things to say, which could always be misinterpreted in writing.

Catholics claim that this position—that oral tradition bears the same weight as the written word—is consistent with the principle of causality, for an effect (in this case, Scripture) cannot be greater than its cause (in this case, the Church). If Scripture is infallible, its cause (the Church) must likewise be infallible.

Catholics further argue that Scripture cannot be exclusively authoritative because the first century Christians didn’t have the New Testament.

There are several problems with this position.

In the first place, oral traditions are notoriously unreliable. There is an interesting illustration of this in the New Testament, where Jesus’ words concerning John’s death were twisted by oral tradition to claim that he would never die—an oral tradition that the written word clearly corrected (John 21:20–23).

Second, oral traditions are often contradictory. Catholics like to pretend that the traditions of the church have remained monolithic since its inception, but this is clearly not the case. Among Catholic fathers, there were contradictory opinions on matters such as the inspiration of the Apocrypha and the Immaculate Conception.

Third, Catholic use of oral tradition is inconsistent. For example, the widespread Catholic acceptance of the Apocrypha as inspired is based on weaker tradition. The inspiration of these books has historically been questioned, and even roundly rejected, rather than accepted, and yet contemporary Catholics sometimes base their opinion of the authority of these works on the supposed monolithic oral tradition of the church.

Fourth, unlike the written word, which has a completed canon (whether Catholic or Protestant), oral tradition is nebulous. There is no final, authoritative list of oral traditions that should be accepted.

The authority of the magisterium

Completing the Catholic trinity of authority is the authoritative voice of the church, which has infallible authority to declare what traditions are infallible. If this sounds like circular reasoning, it’s because it is! We should note, however, that Catholics (quite credibly) argue that Protestants resort to similar circular reasoning in arguing for sola Scriptura: We affirm the authority of Scripture because Scripture asserts its own authority.

Catholic doctrine holds that the magisterium of the Church is infallible when officially defining faith and morals for believers. Vatican I pronounced that

all the faithful of Christ must believe that the Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold primacy over the whole world, and that the Pontiff of Rome himself is the successor of the blessed Peter, the chief of the apostles, and is the true [vicar] of Christ and head of the whole Church and faith, and teacher of all Christians; and that to him was handed down in blessed Peter, by our Lord Jesus Christ, full power to feed, rule, and guide the universal Church; just as is also contained in the records of the ecumenical Councils and in the sacred canons.

The Council added that when the pope speaks “ex cathedra … such definitions of the Roman Pontiff from himself, but not from the consensus of the Church, are unalterable.” This warning is added to the formula: “But if anyone presumes to contradict this definition of Ours, which may God forbid; let him be anathema.” (“Anathema” in this context means excommunicated from the church, not damned to hell.)

The pope is only considered infallible when he speaks ex cathedra. There is a specific formula that he must use to indicate that he is speaking ex cathedra. Unfortunately, there are differing opinions on how many times popes have spoken ex cathedra, so it is somewhat difficult to ascertain which statements should be considered infallible. There is widespread agreement that Pope Pius IX’s declaration concerning Mary’s Immaculate Conception (1854) and Pope Pius XII’s statement concerning the Assumption of Mary (1950) were made ex cathedra. Some theologians add other instances of ex cathedra statements, but there is no universal agreement.

The pope is not absolutely infallible (only God is), and many Catholic scholars argue that the pope cannot speak infallibly independent of, but only in agreement with, his bishops.

Catholics claim biblical support for papal infallibility from several texts. Primary among them, is Matthew 16:18ff, where Jesus identified Peter as the rock on which he would build his church. Of course, Matthew 18:18 gives the same authority to all the apostles (cf. Ephesians 2:20), and Peter’s role in the New Testament falls far short of Catholic aspirations!

Catholic scholars claim further support from John 21:15ff, where Peter is told to feed Christ’s sheep. However, non-apostles are given the same commission (Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:11–12; 1 Peter 5:1–2), though Catholics do not consider them to have equal authority.

Finally, Catholics claim John 11:49–52 as support for papal infallibility. There, Caiaphas, in his official role as high priest, received a revelation, which supposedly mirrors the popes in their official capacity. This is clearly a stretch of an interpretation, and even many Catholics assert that there is no more revelation after the conclusion of the New Testament.

Over the centuries, several happenings have seriously challenged the notion of papal infallibility: heretical popes; simultaneous popes (which one had the authority when there was more than one pope?); and indecisiveness in the magisterium (infallible interpretations being subject to disagreement and conflicting interpretations).

Over against this mess of confusion, the Protestant Reformers rallied around the cry of sola Scriptura—Scripture alone. The Bible is the final authority for all matters relating to faith and practice. There is much to learn from church tradition, and great wisdom in submitting to church authority, but the authority of the Bible stands on a plain of its own. This issue of authority continues to divide Catholics and Protestants five hundred years after Martin Luther first created waves in the religious community.

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