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What’s Your Authority?

May 25, 2012

In looking back through my blog, I noticed that I write a lot about Authority.  It’s an awfully big subject because it encompasses the basis of entire theological doctrines.  It sets the stage for the most fundamental disagreements between mainline Protestants or Catholics and Evangelicals.

“Where is that in the Bible?”

That is the number one rule of thumb which governs most Evangelical theology.  If there’s nothing explicitly mentioned in the Bible about it then it does not stand on credible ground.  Consequently, much of what other faith traditions adhere to is jettisoned.  Many of these arguments cited to Catholics involve Mary.  If the Bible doesn’t teach it, or is not explicit, or is silent, then it does not form the doctrinal basis of faith.

However, passages like John 6 which talks, in a very straightforward manner, about Jesus telling His disciples about eating His flesh and drinking His blood has them standing on their heads not to translate that literally.  The same with 1 Corinthians chapter 10:16 and 11: 27-30.  (for further reading see, The Gospel of John, Chapter 6)  Also, the second chapter of James, specifically verses 17-24 completely refutes the doctrine of Sola Fide – Faith Alone (a person is justified by faith alone, not along with works) but those verses get overlooked or, in the case of some translations, the wording is changed to fit the theology.  These passages, for Catholics, demonstrate two huge doctrines for our Church: The Real Presence and Justification through faith and works.

It’s hard in this midst of a theological throw down to respond to “That’s not in the Bible!” with, “Not everything of faith is explicitly spoken of in the Bible.”  Especially, if you let yourself be caught up in the whirlwind argument style that many Catholics are lead into.  Many converts from Protestant theology have summarized the issue well when they point out that ‘Bible-only’ Protestants know their Bible well and refute everything on its mention or lack thereof in the Bible because that’s all they have.  The don’t have a governing body or teaching office that operates in the same manner as the Catholic Church’s Magisterium.  They don’t have a Catechism, they don’t have traditions, rites, rituals, devotions, etc.  All they have is the Bible.  They don’t have anything else because they don’t believe they need it and they don’t want it.

It is difficult not to get caught up in that whirlpool effect when you’re peppered with a string of indignant questions one after the other.  You get shaky, frustrated, angry, and allow yourself to retort back with the same amount of vigor adamantly defending, in detail, your beliefs only to have the listener rush on to the next thing or fall completely silent without acknowledging your point.  If the individual insists on basing everything off the Bible then start off by asking some questions of them.  Ask them to explain to you why they believe the Bible is the sole rule of authority.   You can argue semantics all day, but if the basis of Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone – is going to be the basis from which they argue as their sole source and authority, it doesn’t matter how much you try to show them outside of the Bible.  Therefore, if we’re going to talk about ‘Where’s that in the Bible?’ then we need to establish the validity of that ground rule.  Principle arguments that must be satisfied are to:

Prove from the Bible that the Bible is the only rule of faith.
Tell me how you know which books belong in the Bible in the first place.
Prove both that you have the authority to interpret the Bible and that your interpretations will always be accurate.¹

One more I like to throw in there is: Prove to me from the Bible that the pillar and foundation of truth is the Bible.

For Catholics there has never been an appeal solely to the Bible because it’s never been taught throughout Christian history that the Bible was the sole source of direction and authority.  It doesn’t exist in the Bible itself and it doesn’t exist in history.  It most assuredly didn’t exist in the early Christian community because there were no New Testament books until nearly 20 years after Christ ascended into Heaven.  1 Thessalonians was written in 50 – 60 AD but what about all those other writings that circulated at exactly the same time as the epistles were written?  What about those?  Why weren’t they included in the collection of inspired writing?  Not all of them are heretical either.  Many of them are considered theologically stalwart like Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians which was read in the early church at Corinth.  Who decided which books we read today were inspired and which were not?

 So what was there first: the Bible or something else?

The only answer is that it was a group of men consecrated by the Apostles to carry on the mission of Christ which was to spread the truth of the Gospel to the whole world.  These men taught the faith by word of mouth for twenty years before Paul even wrote a letter to Thessalonica.  They were the leaders of the Church and they were called bishops (episkopos), priests (presbuteros), and deacons (diakonos).2

There are countless things they taught which are not included in the letters and writings of the Bible but which formed the basis of Sacred Tradition.  The Order of the Mass, for instance or the details of the Eucharist, which was not shared with outsiders of the Christian community for fear of heretics distorting and changing the sacred rite to attract followers.  The Liturgy of St. James, considered to be the oldest surviving liturgy developed for general use in the Church, details the Order of Mass, and is based on tradition of the ancient rite of the early Christian Church of Jerusalem.

It is through the teaching office of the Church, the ancient traditions handed down throughout the ages, and Sacred Scripture which form the basis for our  Catholic authority.  Since not everything was written down and Sacred Scripture writings were staggered in the timeline of development it would only make sense that the leaders of the church and doing things the way they’d always been taught and believed would make up the basis of faith.  i.e. – the Church (or teaching office), Traditions and, when it finally came along, Scripture would all be incorporated into forming the Authority of faith.  Why would Christians jettison almost three hundred years of listening to the Church leaders and following the ancient traditions they always had once the compilation of the Bible was obtained (In 393 AD at the Council of Hippo) and didn’t include the answer of how to do everything and what to do in every way?

Only in assuming that the early Church Fathers either completely ignored the teachings of their masters even while they were alive, or completely misunderstood them, can one believe that the truth of Christianity was corrupted as early as the first century AD and that from this error became doctrine.  The disciples of the Apostles would have to have taken one of these two routes in order to hold to what anti-Catholics say is at odds with the teachings in the Bible.  The last book to be written that was included in the Bible was probably Titus (100-150 AD).  From there it is simply a matter of reading the material written by the Church Fathers in the early first century which would first come from Ignatius of Antioch about 105 – 115 AD.

Therefore, there are two choices to consider: either the disciples of the Apostles completely abandoned the ‘true’ teachings that were given to them and preserved in the Bible, the way Bible-only Christians believe, and started teaching “heresies” like the Real Presence, Confession, Mariology, Saints, etc. or the disciples of the Apostles, the early Church Fathers, maintained the traditions they had been given either by word of mouth of by letter as had been handed down to them  from the Apostles. (2 Thess. 2:15 )

The following excerpt from Prescription of the Heretics was written by Tertullian 1,800 years ago summarizes the situation exactly.

“But if there be any heresies, which venture to plant themselves in the midst of the age of the Apostles, that they may therefore be thought to have been handed down from the Apostles, because they existed under the Apostles, we may say, let them then make known the origins of their Churches; let them unfold the roll of their Bishops so coming down in succession from the beginning, that their first Bishop had for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the Apostles, or of Apostolic men, so he were one that continued steadfast with the Apostles.  For in this manner do the Apostolic Churches reckon their origin: as the Church of Smyrna recounts that Polycarp was placed there by John: as that of Rome does that Clement was in like manner ordained by Peter.  Just so can the rest also show those, whom being appointed by the Apostles to the Episcopate, they have been transmitters of the Apostolic seed.  Let the heretics invent something of the same sort; for after blasphemy what is withheld from them?

But even though they invent it, they will advance never a step: for their doctrine, when compared with that of the Apostles, will of itself declare, by the difference and contrariety between them, that it had neither any Apostle for its author, or any Apostolic man: because, as the Apostles would not have thought things differing from each other, so neither would Apostolic men have set forth things contrary to the Apostles, unless those who learned from Apostles preached a different doctrine!… So let all heresies, when challenged by our Churches to both these tests, prove themselves apostolical in whatever way they think themselves so to be.  But in truth they neither are so nor can they prove themselves to be what they are not, nor are they received into union and communion by the Church in any way apostolical, simply because they are in no way apostolical, by reason of the difference of the sacred mystery which they teach.”

Tertullian, The Prescription of Heretics, Chap. 12 (200 AD)


As a Fundamentalist I had discovered while I was in college that it is possible to dismiss the entire Church as having gone off the rails by about AD 95. That is, we, with our open Bibles, knew better than did old Ignatius or Clement, who had been taught by the very apostles themselves, just what the Church is and what it should look like. Never mind that our worship services would have been unrecognizable to them, or that our governance would have been equally unrecognizable: we were right, and the fathers were wrong (about bishops, and about the Eucharist). That settled the matter. 

– Thomas Howard, Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome


1. Adapted from John Martignoni’s newsletter Apologetics for the Masses, issue #139
2. The writings of Ignatius of Antioch (d. A.D. 107) who wrote at length of the authority of bishops as distinct from presbyters and deacons (Epistle to the Magnesians 6:1, 13:1-2; Epistle to the Trallians 2:1-3; Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8:1-2)

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