Posts Tagged ‘papacy’

Authority in the Church: Biblical Evidence (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

This is the second part of my examination of what the Bible has to say about authority in the church. Read part 1 here to see my method and conclusions thus far.

The remaining questions we have to address are:

  • How are leaders in the church chosen?
  • What gives leaders authority?
  • Are there circumstances in which a leader’s authority can be abrogated?
  • Who has authority to interpret the Scriptures?
  • How can we know true from false teachers?

Leadership in the Church

In part 1, I said that though the office of apostle does not continue that the apostles did appoint elders to care for the church and to teach and that these elders would in turn appoint others and so on. The authority of these church leaders (who may variously be called elders, bishops, overseers or presbyters, depending on one’s denomination) is then from above in that it comes from the previous leaders of the church and is conveyed through he laying on of hands.

In his pastoral epistles (his letters to Timothy and Titus) Paul gives qualifications for elders. These include both tests of ability (can they teach?) and morality (are they sober? are they good family men?). The implication is that these are the criteria which Timothy and Titus (and others) should use in choosing elders.

The question then arises: Can such authority be lost? If there are  qualifications for an elder, it makes sense to say that one who fails to live up to such criteria might be disqualified. I am not going to spend a lot of time arguing this point because it seems that all Christian churches agree that a church leader can be deposed. Even the Roman Catholic church, which believes that a pope (the bishop of Rome) cannot lose his authority, will depose a bishop. The only real question then is not whether a leader’s authority can be abrogated, but if the pope has special status in this regard which gets back to whether the bishop of Rome has special status at all, an issue I addressed in my previous post. I will only say in this regard that we are told that false teachers will be within the church (Acts 20:29-30; 2 Pet. 2:1) and that Paul says that he even he himself were to come with a different message that his audience should reject his message (Gal. 1:6-9).

The Legacy of the Apostles

There is one more big issue before us which is how the human successors of the apostles relate to the Scriptures of the New Testament, which we might think of as the apostles’ written successors. Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches give the people authority over the word. Both say that the Scriptures (Old and New Testaments) can only be rightly interpreted by the successors of the apostles, thus giving the people power to say what the written word means. Protestants take the opposite view, saying that the word is the primary legacy of the apostles and that once Christ’s message was written down that the human authority became less important and must always be ruled by the written word.

To begin to get at this issue, I’d like to look at a use of the word apostle which we haven’t addressed yet. A number of passages speak of “the prophets and the apostles.” As we look at these occurrences, we must understand that the word “prophet” in the Old Testament has a broader meaning than we usually associate with it. A prophet is not just one who tells the future but one who speaks for God. The Hebrew Bible has traditionally been divided into three sections: the Torah (the five books aka the books of Moses or the Pentateuch), the Prophets, and the Writings. The Writings are those books we may also call Wisdom Literature including Psalms and Proverbs among others. The Prophets include not just those books we think of as prophetic but also the historical books, known in Hebrew tradition as “the Former Prophets.” If we consider that Moses, the traditionally ascribed author of the Torah, was also a prophet himself, we can see that most of the Old Testament could be called “prophetic.”

We first find the phrase “the Prophets and the Apostles” in the book of Luke in which Jesus says,

“Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute.'” (Luke 22:49)

While the people are clearly here in mind, the association with Wisdom makes me think that it is the human authors of God’s written word who are in view here.

Paul in Ephesians tells us that:

“In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” (Eph. 3:5)

And from Peter:

“. . . that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken through your apostles.” (2 Pet. 3:2)

Note the emphasis on words here. The words spoken through the prophets correspond to the OT and the commandment of the Lord through the apostles to the New.

And then Peter speaks of Paul’s epistles specifically, equating them with “the other Scriptures”:

“So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability.” (2 Pet. 3:15-17)

I don’t think anyone really disputes this point, but I cite these passages to show that the apostles’ legacy include not just human successors but also the written word, which we now call the New Testament, and which stands beside the Prophets, that is the Old Testament.

The real question is not whether we have the written word of the apostles but how their written legacy relates to their human one. In the quote above from 2 Peter we see that Peter says that Paul’s writings are at times hard to understand and can be twisted by lawless men. Though Peter’s immediate conclusion is only that his readers should be forewarned and not be led astray, he does say in his earlier epistle that “you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders” (1 Pet. 5:5). I think it is reasonable to conclude that one way to keep from being led astray is to listen to one’s elders (elders in the technical sense of the church leaders called elders) but Peter stops short of connecting the dots and saying that only the elders may then interpret Scripture.

Another passage from 2 Peter is often used to show that individuals may not interpret Scripture for themselves. It reads as follows:

“20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (1 Pet. 1:20-21)

Usually the first verse above (v. 20) is taken to mean that individuals may not interpret Scripture for themselves. I think, however, that, in context with v. 21, this is not what Peter is saying. He is not making a point about who may interpret Scripture but about how Scripture itself came to be. In v. 21 he tells us that the human authors of Scripture were not speaking on their own authority but that their message comes from God. His point in v. 20, then, is that the Prophets and Apostles were not giving their individual interpretations but were speaking as God led them. This is the same point Paul makes in 2 Timothy when he says, as the NIV translates, that Scripture is “God-breathed.”

In fact, if we look at the entire context of this passage from 2 Timothy, we find that Paul presents the Scriptures to Timothy as the antidote to both persecution and deception:

12 Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 13 But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is[b] useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:12-17)

Though Timothy to whom the letter is addressed is an elder, Paul does say that “everyone who belongs to God” should be equipped by Scripture.

Personally, I don’t see any indication that Scripture is to be interpreted only by the leaders of the church. On the contrary, Scripture is good for everyone and is to be treasured by all:

 This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful.” (Josh. 1:8)

 The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
    and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
    and drippings of the honeycomb.

11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.

(Ps. 19:7-11; I know I said I would not get into the OT, but I couldn’t resist these quotes.)

Conclusions and More Questions

To bring it all together, I’d like to return to the nine questions I posed at the beginning of my first post. Here they are again, with the conclusions I have come to:

  • Who were the apostles? What makes one an apostle? There were 13 apostles, Christ’s 11 closest followers (Judas having been lost) plus Matthias and Paul. Others may be spoken of as apostles as well though these references are not as clear. An apostle is one who has seen Christ in the flesh and has gotten his authority directly from God.
  • Is there a continuing apostolic authority or apostolic succession? The office of apostle does not continue but the apostles appoint elders who continue their ministry though their work is not backed up by signs and wonders as the apostles’ was. These elders in turn appoint other elders and so on.
  • What is Peter’s role relative to the other apostles? Does he have greater authority? Peter is a leader among the apostles and is prominent in the earliest days of the church, as depicted in Acts 1-12, but there is no evidence that he has authority above and beyond that of the other apostles.
  • If Peter does have any greater role, does he pass this on to his successors? Even if Peter did have more authority, there is no evidence within the NT that Peter passes this authority on to anyone.
  • How are leaders in the church chosen? Elders are appointed first by the apostles and then by other elders. Authority is conferred through the laying on of hands. Lists of qualifications for elders, both having to do with their abilities and their character are given.
  • What gives leaders authority? See above.
  • Are there circumstances in which a leader’s authority can be abrogated? Yes. With the exception of the Roman Catholic view of the popes, all agree that a leader can lose his authority through doctrinal or moral error. This seems to be a reasonable conclusion based on the lists of qualifications given.
  • Who has authority to interpret the Scriptures? Scripture can be misused and twisted and we must be on our guard against these things. Christians are urged to listen to their elders and to respect their authority. However, I see no evidence that the interpretation of Scripture is the exclusive prerogative of the church leadership, rather, we are told that Scripture is “for everyone,” that it is a delight and a help to the believer.
  • How can we know true from false teachers? I didn’t really touch on this but I will say, briefly, that false teachers may be known both by their fruits, that is their deeds and morality (Matt. 7:15-20; Matt. 12:33; Luke 6:43-44), and by their teachings, whether their message (2 Cor. 11:3-4; Gal. 1:6-9; 1 John 4:1-3).

If these things are true, then I think the Roman Catholic Church, whose authority depends upon that of its popes, has gone astray and is in a very dangerous position. On the other hand, most, if not all, Protestant churches, including my own, also have to answer the question of where their leaders’ authority comes from. If it cannot be traced back to the apostles is it valid? The Eastern Orthodox may cheer at these conclusions, but I cannot fully support their position either. They, like the Catholics, exalt the church leadership (and Tradition, but that’s another issue) above the Scriptures, and I do not see that this is biblical either. I don’t honestly think that there is a perfect answer or a perfect system. This should not surprise us, perhaps, since we are not perfect people. I have been going round and round in my own head and though there are certain aspects of my own chosen tradition which I am not completely comfortable with, I am no more comfortable with the others. In the end, I come back to where I began — I would rather have a choose the church with a written standard as my ultimate guide than one that relies upon men to tell me what that standard says. Part of the controversy comes down to whether we are even able to understand Scripture without outside interpretations and it may be others look at what I have written and see all my biases and preconceptions and reject my conclusions. But for myself I feel like I have gone back to the biblical text, I have tried to approach it honestly and not to read into it what I want it to say, and it has not let me down. It speaks pretty clearly, I think, on most of these issues. And, beyond that, the more I study the Scriptures themselves, the more I am impressed with them and even love them. I have no desire to choose otherwise.


Apostolic Authority in Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism

Dear Reader,

This is the second in a two-part series on the sources of authority in Christianity. In the first part, I looked at Apostolic Tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and asked how each of those three major branches of Christianity views the concept — Do they believe there is any Sacred or Holy Tradition apart from the Bible? If so, what does it consist of and how does it relate to the Scriptures?

But many, if not most, Christians believe that Christ not only passed along a body of knowledge to His closest followers but that he also gave them special authority to act and to teach in his name. In this post I would like to look at the concept of apostolic authority in each of these three branches. The questions I would like to answer for each are:

  • Did Christ give special authority to the Apostles?
  • Do they pass this authority on to others in subsequent generations? That is, is there such a thing as Apostolic Succession?
  • Did Peter have authority even above the other Apostles and does this position of greater authority also continue through the generations?
  • What is the nature of Apostolic authority? In other words, the authority to do what?

The Roman Catholic Church

I’d like to begin this time by looking at apostolic authority in the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is all the way on one end of the spectrum — they say that yes, there was special authority given to the Apostles and that it has been passed down through the centuries and continues today in the bishops of the Church. They also believe that Peter was given even greater authority which he also passed down to each subsequent bishop of Rome (the Pope is the bishop of Rome). This is called the primacy of Peter and I’ll return to it in a minute.

Apostolic authority in the Catholic Church resides with anyone bishop and above (bishop, archbishop, cardinal, pope) but not with the ordinary clergy like your local priest. It is very important for bit Catholics and Orthodox to be able to trace the historical line, that is to be able to say “so-and-so” ordained “so-and-so” all down through the generations. Apostolic Succession is all about the particular people and the transfer of authority from one to another. I do not know if Catholics can actually trace all these lines for each bishop but they can (or claim they can) for the Popes. In Catholicism (in contrast to Orhtodoxy as we will disuss below) there doesn’t seem to be any way to break this line. That is, there is nothing that disqualifies one if they have been thus ordained and made part of the Succession.

It is not my object in this post to discuss the merits of the concept of Apostolic Succession or of the primacy of Peter. I hope to be able to do so in a future post. In case you are interested, however, here are some of the passages which are usually cited to support these concepts:

  • in support of Apostolic Succession:
  • in support of the primacy of Peter: I have done one post on Matthew 16 which seems to be the major passage in support of Peter as foremost among the Apostles; you can read it here.

What then is the purpose of Apostolic authority in the Catholic Church? Authority to do what exactly? In my previous post, you will hopefully remember, I said that the Catholic and Orthodox churches maintain that there is a continuing oral Tradition (big “T”) which has been handed down from the Apostles. So the first purpose of the position of apostle is to maintain and pass on Sacred Tradition. I don’t really see how it would be possible to claim such a Tradition exists if one does not also believe that there is a line of people charged with perpetuating it.

Beyond this, there is a perceived need to provide accurate interpretation of both the Sacred Tradition and the Scriptures. Though both the Orthodox and Catholics speak against new “traditions,” they also both allow for some progression in the church’s knowledge and understanding.

“This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop [sic] in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.  For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.” (Dei Verbum 8)

Lest one think this a democratic process, however, the Catholic Church makes clear that it is the successors of the Apostles alone who have the true authority to teach right doctrine:

But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, “handing over” to them “the authority to teach in their own place” (Dei Verbum 7

And again:

“It devolves on sacred bishops ‘who have the apostolic teaching’ to give the faithful entrusted to them suitable instruction in the right use of the divine books, especially the New Testament and above all the Gospels. This can be done through translations of the sacred texts, which are to be provided with the necessary and really adequate explanations so that the children of the Church may safely and profitably become conversant with the Sacred Scriptures and be penetrated with their spirit.” (Dei Verbum 25)

The key point here being that the ordinary believer is not able to “safely” interpret the Scriptures without the guidance of the church leaders.

Papal infallibility is a concept not well understood by Protestants and probably merits another post in its own right (and I may get to that too) but I do want to just touch on it here. The flip side of “What authority do the bishops of the Church have?” is “What is required of the members of the Church?” Despite Protestant misconceptions, Catholics do not believe the Pope is always right in whatever he says. Nor is the concept of infallibility limited to the Pope. There are times at which the bishops also are infallible. The best explanation I have found of this idea is in the chart found in the section entitled “Levels” in the Wikipedia entry ion the Magisterium. You can see that chart here. If you examine it, you will find that there are certain matters in which Catholics are required to accept completely what the Church leaders say, to give “the full assent of faith.” In other matters, they are required to submit as to the wisdom of those who have been put in charge of them. But when it comes to what ones local priest says, there is no inherent authority.

The Eastern Orthodox View

The position of the Eastern Orthodox Church on Apostolic Succession is very similar to the Catholic one but there are a couple of notable differences.

Like the Catholics, the Orthodox subscribe to the idea of Apostolic Succession and believe it is very important to be able to trace the historical line of this succession from person to person. The purpose of the continuing office is also similar. It is to pass on the Holy Tradition:

“Holy Tradition is the deposit of faith given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and passed on in the Church from one generation to the next without addition, alteration or subtraction.”(“Holy Tradition” from

And to perpetuate the correct understanding of this Tradition (which if you have read my earlier post, you will know includes the Scriptures):

“Likewise, the Orthodox Church has always recognized the gradual development in the complexity of the articulation of the Church’s teachings. It does not, however, believe that truth changes and therefore always supports its previous beliefs all the way back to what it holds to be the direct teachings from the Apostles. The Church also understands that not everything is perfectly clear; therefore, it has always accepted a fair amount of contention about certain issues, arguments about certain points, as something that will always be present within the Church. It is this contention which, through time, clarifies the truth. The Church sees this as the action of the Holy Spirit on history to manifest truth to man.” (“Eastern Orthodox Christian Theology” from

And again:

“If the Apostles didn’t say it, it isn’t true. The teaching of the Apostles is the teaching of the Church.” (“How does the doctrine of apostolic succession work in the Orthodox Church?” from

The Orthodox do not, however, have a doctrine of infallibility of any individual though there is authority in church councils:

“Orthodoxy does not believe in the infallibility of the Pope of Rome, nor of any other individual.

Orthodoxy upholds the reality that the Church, gathered together in Council under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is guided in making correct decisions and in enunciating truth.” (“Infallibility” from the Orthodox Church in America

 But there is room for the individual believer to have his or her own personal theology on matters on which the Church has taken no specific position:

Likewise, the Orthodox Church has always recognized the gradual development in the complexity of the articulation of the Church’s teachings. It does not, however, believe that truth changes and therefore always supports its previous beliefs all the way back to what it holds to be the direct teachings from the Apostles. The Church also understands that not everything is perfectly clear; therefore, it has always accepted a fair amount of contention about certain issues, arguments about certain points, as something that will always be present within the Church. It is this contention which, through time, clarifies the truth. The Church sees this as the action of the Holy Spirit on history to manifest truth to man.

The Church is unwavering in upholding its dogmatic teachings, but does not insist upon those matters of faith which have not been specifically defined. The Orthodox believe that there must always be room for mystery when speaking of God. Individuals are permitted to hold theologoumena (private theological opinions) so long as they do not contradict traditional Orthodox teaching. Sometimes, various Holy Fathers may have contradictory opinions about a certain question, and where no consensus exists, the individual is free to follow his or her conscience.” (“Eastern Orthodox Christian Theology” from

As I said earlier, the Orthodox do not accept the primacy of Peter. Though they recognize that the current Pope is the historical successor of Peter they do not view him as a legitimate bearer of Apostolic authority. This is because, unlike the Catholics for whom the historical connection is sufficient, the Orthodox also  have other criteria by which they determine legitimate succession. For them one in the apostolic line can sacrifice their position by not adhering to right doctrine or by not remaining in communion with their fellow bishops:

“To be within Apostolic Succession, bishops must not only be traced historically, but they must also conform to Orthodox doctrine and be in communion with the rest of the Holy Episcopacy descended from the Apostles that conform to these standards. This is different than the understanding given in Latin theology, which heavily influences all of Western Christianity, teaching that Apostolic Succession in simply an historical matter. In this way, Romans may accept other churches Apostolic Succession as “valid”, meaning that they also accept their sacraments/mysteries as valid. Somehow, under this line of thinking, one can be “valid” but at the same time considered “illicit” because, for the Latins, any bishop not ultimately under the Roman Pontiff is outside of the Church.

Orthodoxy does not allow for such conditions. To be within Apostolic Succession means not only to hold historical ties back to the Apostles, but also to hold spiritual ties through agreement in doctrine with the other Orthodox bishops. It is because of this mystical understanding that all bishops outside of Orthodoxy, even with historical claims, are outside of Apostolic Succession. The Pope of Rome, for example, may have a legitimate claim as the successor of St. Peter. Actually, the Orthodox Church would readily admit that this is a simple historical fact. However, when the Roman Patriarch broke in doctrine from the other Orthodox bishops, he removed himself from that Apostolic Succession, deviating from the Faith and therefore breaking the spiritual succession of the Orthodox Faith that was originally transmitted by St. Peter. Essentially, either a bishop is Orthodox…or he is not.” ( “How does the doctrine of apostolic succession work in the Orthodox Church?” from

My understanding of this is that the Roman Catholic Church would acknowledge that the Orthodox bishops stand in the line of Apostolic Succession but that the favor is not returned and that the Orthodox deny that the current Pope retains his Apostolic authority.

The Protestant View

It is always hard to generalize with Protestants since they are such a varied group. When it comes to Apostolic Tradition and Succession the Anglicans are the most notable exception. They, like the Orthodox accept both Tradition and Succession though they reject the primacy of Peter. In general, however while Protestants accept the special position of the Apostles who were eye-witnesses to Jesus’ ministry (except for Paul who nonetheless also saw Christ face-to-face on the road to Damascus),  they deny that this established permanent positions which were to be passed on to others. Rather, they speak of the Apostolic age which came to a close with the writing of the New Testament as it was then, in their view, no longer necessary since the written Word was available and thenceforth took precedence. There is a lot more that could be said about where authority comes from in Protestantism and this is a subject I would like to pursue. But since the topic of this post is Apostolic Succession I will just leave it for now with saying that Apostolic authority does not continue for most Protestants.

To sum up this post as well as the previous one, here is how the various branches stand on these issues of authority within the church: All agree that there were Apostles who had special authority given them by virtue of their close relationship with Christ who were also entrusted with His teachings. They also all accept the Scriptures of the New Testament as an accurate, truthful and inerrant record of at least some portion of those teachings.

Protestantism says that:

  • The New Testament is all we have remaining of the apostolic teaching. It alone is authoritative in the church and there is no Tradition (big “T”) apart from the Bible to which believers must adhere.
  • There is no apostolic succession in the sense that there are positions which are handed down from person to person. The apostolic age ended with the writing of the New Testament. The unique apostolic authority was no longer needed after the written word was available.
  • The Bible itself is the final arbiter of right doctrine.

The Roman Catholic Church says that:

  • There are two pillars of the church: Scripture and Sacred Tradition. These two together constitute the authoritative teaching of the church.
  • There is an apostolic succession in which the authority delivered from Christ to the first apostles is handed down through the generations to the present day. This line is unbroken and cannot be abrogated. The purpose of the Apostolic Succession is both to preserve Sacred Tradition and to provide right interpretations of Tradition and Scripture.
  • Among the first apostles, Peter held a place of preeminence and this position has been passed down to every succeeding bishop of Rome, each one in turn standing as the one head of the church and the “vicar of Christ.”

The Orthodox churches say that:

  • The Scriptures are a part of the Holy Tradition which was delivered to the apostles. They were written down because they were the most important parts of Tradition. They must be interpreted in the context of the Tradition of which they are a part.
  • There is an apostolic succession in which the authority given by Christ to the first generation of apostles is passed down through the ages. While the historical line must be unbroken for a bishop’s authority to be established, the place of a given bishop (and any who would then claim descent from him) can be lost through a failure to adhere to right doctrine or to continue in unity with the rest of the bishops.
  • No special place was given to Peter among the apostles and the bishops of Rome have lost their legitimacy long ago.
  • Those in the line of apostolic succession hold the Holy Tradition of the church and determine what qualifies as right doctrine though there is a certain amount of leeway given for personal theologies on matters on which dogma has not been established.


Sacred Tradition in Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy

Dear Reader,

In my previous post I tried to outline the sources of authority in the Roman Catholic Church. This time I’d like to take a broader view and compare how the three largest branches of Christianity — Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism – deal with these topics.

When we speak of sources of authority in the church, we can think of two big categories: content and authority. By content, I mean that body of knowledge which Christ passed along to his immediate followers. By authority, I mean the authority to define doctrine which the first Apostles enjoyed. All three major branches agree that Jesus Christ did give the Apostles both knowledge  and authority. What happened after that is where we begin to see differences. Because of how very big this topic is, I am going to concentrate on the content issue in this post and save that of authority for the next in the series.

A last note before I dig in — this is meant to be a very general introduction to the topic for those who, like me, find themselves in dialogue with those from other strains of Christianity. As such it is meant to detail what can currently be found on the positions of the various branches. It is not by any means a historical study. I myself am just beginning to read a book called The Shape of Sola Scriptura by Keith Mathison. My preliminary impression is that is gives  a very good summary of the historical aspect.

The Content of Faith: Questions

My Catholic friend tells me that his church would call this the “Deposit of Faith.” It is the information that Christ gave his immediate followers. The three major branches of Christianity agree that there was such content and that at least some portion of it was written down and became the New Testament. They also all agree that the New Testament, combined with the Old (in whatever form they accept it; that is another huge topic), is authoritative, truthful and inerrant.

The questions I would like to ask of each branch are:

  • How much of the oral knowledge delivered to the Apostles was enshrined in the New Testament?
  • Were there an criteria for determining which part of the broader body of knowledge was included in the NT?
  • If there is also an oral tradition which survives apart from the NT, what is its content?
  • How do the oral and written traditions relate to one another? Are they held in equal esteem or does one have precedence?

The Protestant View

In some ways the Protestant position is the simplest.  In other ways, because there are so very many kinds of Protestants, nothing is ever simple with them. The short answer to “what is the Protestant take on Sacred Tradition?” is that they just don’t believe it exists.* Protestants say that all the content delivered by Christ to the Apostles is written in the New Testament, at least all that God wishes us to have. There is no surviving tradition apart from the New Testament.

I want to be clear, however, that many Protestants do rely on tradition (little “t”) in many ways. They use of catechisms and confessions, for example. They listen to their elders, pastors and Sunday School teachers They adhere to the same early creeds as their Catholic and Orthodox neighbors. They quote John Calvin as if he were Scripture. But deep down they know he is not and when pushed will admit that even Calvin is fallible. There is nothing else in Protestantism which approaches the level of the Bible which is the God-breathed Word of God. There is no body of knowledge in Protestantism which passed down from the Apostles which constitutes Sacred Tradition (big “T”).

*Anglicans are the most notable exception. They believe in both Sacred Tradition and the Apostolic Succession and so fall much more in line with the Roman Catholic view discussed below than with other Protestants.

The Eastern Orthodox Position

The Eastern Orthodox believe that only part of the body of content delivered to the Apostles was included in the New Testament. They see the New Testament as a subset of the larger body which is Holy Tradition:

The preaching of the apostles preceded the Scripture, so we must understand the Scripture as an expression of that preaching . . .” (“Holy Scripture” from

In Orthodoxy, it is the most important parts of the knowledge delivered to the Apostles which was written down:

“From the Orthodox point of view, the Bible represents those texts approved by the church for the purpose of conveying the most important parts of what it already believes.” (“Eastern Orthodox Christian Theology” from

Because the Bible is a part of a bigger Tradition in the Orthodox Church, it does not stand alongside Tradition or above it but within it:

“Orthodox see the Bible as a collection of inspired texts that sprang out of this tradition, not the other way around; and the choices made in forming the New Testament as having come from comparison with already firmly established faith. The Bible has come to be a very important part of “Tradition“, but not the only part.” (“Eastern Orthodox Christian Theology” from

And being a part of Holy Tradition, the Scriptures cannot be interpreted except in the context of Tradition:

“Holy Tradition consists of those things which Christ delivered to his
Apostles and which they transmitted to their successors orally.  It is
absolutely essential to faith, because it is the source of the Holy
Scripture and we cannot understand all of the Holy Scripture correctly without the help of Holy Tradition.” (Rev. Constas H. Demetry, Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox Church, p.4)

According to the Orthodox, the Bible focuses on Christ and was written down so that there might be a record once the generation that knew him had passed:

“The Scripture—both Old and New Testaments—is fundamentally about Christ. It is Christocentric and Christological. The whole Bible presupposes the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ. Indeed, the very purpose in writing the New Testament was because Christ had already risen from the dead—with the death of the Apostle James, the Church realized that the eyewitnesses were not always going to be with them, therefore the preaching of the eyewitnesses was written down.” (“Holy Scripture” from

The Scriptures were written “so that we might believe and be saved” (“Holy Scripture” from If this is so, then what is left for Holy Tradition? What does it consist of?

Let me start by saying what Tradition is not, for the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is not, as some Protestants might think, a changeable thing:

“Unlike many conceptions of tradition in popular understanding, the Orthodox Church does not regard Holy Tradition as something which grows and expands over time, forming a collection of practices and doctrines which accrue, gradually becoming something more developed and eventually unrecognizable to the first Christians. Rather, Holy Tradition is that same faith which Christ taught to the Apostles and which they gave to their disciples, preserved in the whole Church and especially in its leadership through Apostolic Succession.” (“Holy Tradition” from

What then is the content of Holy Tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church?  In their longer catechism, I find:

“By the name holy tradition is meant the doctrine of the faith, the law of God, the sacraments, and the ritual as handed down by the true believers and worshipers of God by word and example from one to another, and from generation to generation.” (Orthodox Catechism of Philaret, Question 17)

The Catechism then goes on to give us some idea of the content of Holy Tradition when it quotes St. Basil the Great as follows:

“Of the doctrines and injunctions kept by the Church, some we have from written instruction. but some we have received from, apostolical tradition, by succession in private. Both the former and the latter have one and the same force for piety, and this will be contradicted by no one who has ever so little knowledge in the ordinances of the Church; for were we to dare to reject unwritten customs, as if they had no great importance, we should insensibly mutilate the Gospel, even in the most essential points, or, rather, for the teaching of the Apostles leave but an empty name. For instance, let us mention before all else the very first and commonest act of Christians, that they who trust in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ should sign themselves with the sign of the cross–who hath taught this by writing? To turn to the east in prayer–what Scripture have we for this? The words of invocation in the change of the Eucharistic bread and of the Cup of blessing–by which of the Saints have they been left us in writing? for we are not content with those words which the Apostle or the Gospel records, but both before them and after them, we pronounce others also, which we hold to be of great force for the sacrament, though we have received them from unwritten teaching. By what Scripture is it, in like manner, that we bless the water of baptism, the oil of unction, and the person himself who is baptized? Is it not by a silent and secret tradition? What more? The very practice itself of anointing with oil–what written word have we for it? Whence is the rule of trine immersion? and the rest of the ceremonies at baptism, the renunciation of Satan and his angels?–from what Scripture are they taken? Are they not all from this unpublished and private teaching, which our Fathers kept under a reserve inaccessible to curiosity and profane disquisition, having been taught as a first principle to guard by silence the sanctity of the mysteries? for how were it fit to publish in writing the doctrine of those things, on which the unbaptized may not so much as look? (Can. xcvii. De Spir. Sanct. c. xxvii.)” (Orthodox Catechism of Philaret, Question 24)

I take a couple of points from this:

  • The content of Holy Tradition is, if not entirely so largely practical in that it tells how things are to be done and also provides a basis for practices of the Church which are not described in the Scriptures.
  • Holy Tradition is intentionally kept unwritten to keep it mysterious and to guard it from prying eyes.

The Roman Catholic View

The Roman Catholic Church, like the Eastern Orthodox, believes that there was additional content, apart from the New Testament, which was not written down but continued to be passed down orally. This is the Church’s Sacred Tradition. As I tried to show in my previous post, Catholics hold Scripture and Tradition as two pillars which stand side by side:

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end.” (Dei Verbum, 9)

This strikes me as a slightly different characterization than that of the Eastern Orthodox. Scripture is not a part of Tradition but stands along-side it. I am not sure yet what all the implications of this may be.

While the Orthodox say that Scripture contains the most essential parts of Tradition, I have found no explanation in Catholicism of what parts of the body of knowledge delivered to the Apostles were written down. I get the impression that Scripture and Tradition, while never contradictory, are nonetheless two distinct bodies of knowledge.

Nonetheless, if there is any preeminence it is given to Scripture:

[The Church] has always maintained [the Scriptures], and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.” (Dei Verbum, 21)

But it is Tradition which tells what Scripture is:

“120 It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books.”(Catechism of the Catholic Church 120)

Like the Orthodox, the Catholics say that there are no new public revelation: “. . . we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Dei Verbum 4).

What then is the content of Sacred Tradition in the Catholic Church? Here I am at a bit of a loss. I can find no good answer to this question. Indeed, it seems that there is no definitive answer as I am told that Catholic theologians themselves argue both about the content of Tradition and about its relationship to Scripture.

From a Protestant source, I find this:

“It is true that the Early Church also held to the concept of tradition as referring to ecclesiastical customs and practices. It was often believed that such practices were actually handed down from the Apostles, even though they could not necessarily be validated from the Scriptures. These practices, however, did not involve the doctrines of the faith, and were often contradictory among different segments of the Church.” (“What did the Early Church believe about the authority of Scripture? (sola scripture)” from

The above quote would seem to agree with the Orthodox depiction of Sacred Tradition as containing mostly practical information.

It seems that even within Catholicism there is no clear understanding of what Tradition is and what its relationship to Scripture is (this is again from a Protestant source):

“There is not a consensus opinion as to the exact content of Tradition, the precise relationship between scripture and Tradition, and exactly how the vehicle of Tradition functions and becomes known by the church. Rome’s official statements do not explicitly define whether Tradition is the second of a two-part revelation (known as partim-partim), or if both forms of revelation contain the entirety of God’s revealed truth. Does Tradition function as the interpreter of scripture, or is it interpreted by scripture, or do they interpret each other? Is the content of Tradition confirmed by historical scrutiny, or is it an unwritten opinion only confirmed by a movement within the developing church?”(“‘Tradition’ as Viewed by Popular Roman Catholic Apologists . . . and a Response” from

This article goes on to quote  a few Catholic apologists. I will leave it to you, Reader, to pursue this angle if you wish to do so.

To conclude this part of my discussion, then, let me just summarize what I have found regarding the presence, role and content of Tradition in each of these branches of Christianity:

  • Protestantism, while quite varied, generally denies that there is any Tradition (big “T”) apart from the Scriptures themselves.
  • Eastern Orthodoxy sees Scripture as a subset of Holy Tradition. It is the most important parts of that body of knowledge which was delivered to the Apostles, written down for us. As such, it must be interpreted within the context of Tradition and cannot stand part from it. The rest of Tradition, that part which remained oral, seems to be mainly of a practical nature in that it deals with the practices of the Church.
  • Roman Catholicism views Scripture and Sacred Tradition as two parts of a whole. Both were delivered to the Apostles and are authoritative. They stand side by side with perhaps some preeminence given to Scripture. There seems to be little consensus in the Catholic Church as to the content of Sacred Tradition.

Next time, I will give you the second half of this essay on Apostolic Authority in each of these three strains of Christianity.



Sources of Authority in the Catholic Church

Dear Reader,

Recently, in dialogue with a friend, I have been revisiting the claims made by the Roman Catholic Church. I say “revisiting” because I was raised Catholic. I left the RC Church in college when I came to faith. I do not consider that I was saved before this time though to my recollection I always accepted the Church’s teaching on who God is and on the death and resurrection of Christ. I did not understand until that point what was necessary for salvation nor did I have saving faith. As I said in my earlier post on the (alleged) primacy of Peter, I found in the Catholic Church Law but not Grace. This may not be everyone’s experience but it was mine.

While I considered myself a fairly educated (ex-) Catholic, I am discovering that there is much I did not know or at least did not fully understand. While there was no Catholic school in my area, I attended Sunday School consistently all through my childhood. In fact, my mother was in charge of the program so I was at church a lot both on Sundays and other days. We knew every priest that came through town, had them over to dinner, etc. I even had a stuffed walrus named after the bishop (Walter). Nonetheless I have found in my study that there are things that I was never clearly taught, particularly about today’s topic: Authority in the Catholic Church.

I am focusing on this topic specifically because it has been central to my talks with my friend. And I think that for any of us trying to converse with Catholics or those considering Catholicism it is helpful to understand what common ground we have and what we don’t have. Plus I think there are a lot of misconceptions among Protestants about this topic.

Whereas Protestants adhere to the principle of sola Scripturataking the Bible alone as their supreme source of authority*, Roman Catholics rely on three strands: Scripture, Tradition and the authority of the church hierarchy known as the Magisterium.

Tradition (big “T”) stands alongside Scripture in the Catholic Church:

“Therefore Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (see Cor. 1:20; 3:13; 4:6), commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, and to impart to them heavenly gifts. . . This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing.

But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, “handing over” to them “the authority to teach in their own place.” This sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God . . .” [From Pope Paul VI in Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum chapter 2 (November 18, 1965)]

This Tradition seems to be a finite body of knowledge since we are told in the same document that there will be no more public revelations (which I assume means the door is still open for private revelations along the lines of “You, John, should go to India”):

The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ .” (Dei Verbum, chapter 1)

But, while there is no new revelation, there is more for the Apostles and their successors to communicate as their understanding of revelation grows:

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop (sic) in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.” (Dei Verbum, chapter 2)

Thus the Catholic church holds Scripture and Tradition side by side and the two cannot contradict each other:

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end.” (Dei Verbum, chapter 2)

Nonetheless, there is still a preeminence given to the written revelation:

[The Church] has always maintained [the Scriptures], and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.” (Dei Verbum chapter 6)

It is interesting to me that the reason given for the Scriptures’ preeminence here is that, being written, they are “without change.” Does that mean that Tradition is changeable? It doesn’t sound to me like it should be so, given that Tradition, like the Scriptures, where handed down to the first generation of Apostles by Christ himself and that revelation is said to be complete. Nonetheless, this quote seems to imply that the unchangeableness of the written Wotd is what makes it unique.

There is one sense in which Scripture is subject to Tradition; it is Tradition which tells us what Scripture is:

“120 It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books.”(Catechism of the Catholic Church 120)

But to these two, the Roman Catholic Church also adds a third strand of authority – that of its human teachers through the ages, known as the Magisterium. For it is only those who stand in the Apostolic succession, we are told, who are able to interpret either Scripture or Tradition:

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office 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.” (Dei Verbum, chapter 2)

And again from The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

85 “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

86 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 85-86)

These then are the three sources of authority in the Roman Catholic Church: the content transmitted from Jesus to his Apostles, some of which has been since written down and, with the Old Testament, become the Bible, and some of which has remained oral and been handed down through the centuries from generation to generation of church leaders and which is still their exclusive possession except as they choose to reveal it to the Church and the authority to rightly  interpret both of these which again was given by Christ to the Apostles and handed down through the generations.

How then do we talk to our Catholic friends? Do we have any common ground on which to operate? Well, yes and no. In theory we do have the Bible, the written Word of God. We both hold it to be true and unchangeable. Though Catholics also hold to Tradition (big “T” again), the two cannot contradict one another and Scripture is on some level preeminent. On the other hand, the Catholic Church says that Scripture cannot rightly be interpreted except by the leaders of the church, that is, its bishops (local priests do not have this authority). So you may come to your friend with some text you think supports your position only to have them say, “Well, but the Church says that’s not what it means.”  This makes dialogue difficult since the person in front of you is likely not a bishop and therefore does not have, according to their Church, the ability to rightly interpret what is before them. On the other other hand, most Catholics are not very clear on what their Church teaches and may not be aware that they are not allowed to do any of their own interpreting.

Before I close, I want to do a little myth-busting of some common misconceptions Protestants have about the Catholic Church:

Myth: Catholics are discouraged from reading the Bible for themselves.

Truth: In this day and age, the Catholic Church encourages all its members to read the Bible in their own languages:

Hence “access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful . . . The Church “forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful… to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 131, 133)

Myth: Catholics consider the Pope infallible.

Truth: Papal infallibility applies in only certain circumstances. On one hand, not everything a pope says is infallible. On the other, infallibility also applies in a few other circumstances. I’ve tried for this post to rely as much as possible on documents released by the Catholic Church itself so as to let it speak in its own words. However, the most helpful thing I’ve found for my own understanding of infallibility is the Wikipedia article  “Magisterium” and particularly the chart which is included about midway through it under the heading “Levels” (I can’t seem to add a link right now). What this chart shows, and the article explains, is that there are three scenarios in which infallibility applies, some other scenarios in which infallibility does not apply but authority is still present, and lastly some in which authority is not present and the ordinary Catholic is free to disagree.

Infallibility applies when:

  • The Pope speaks ex cathedra — that is, when he speaks with the full authority of his office — on matter of matters of faith and morals. I think of this ex cathedra bit as like a mantle he puts on; when he assumes it, he puts on the maximum authority of his office. Popes do this very rarely, and I believe it was John Paul II who said he would never do so.
  • When bishops define doctrine at general councils. This cannot be done without the consent of the Pope. This is when there is a big gathering of bishops in one place and they all agree on some matter of doctrine. Some of the earliest church councils come to mind — like Nicaea in 325 AD –as well as relatively recent ones like the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. You may have heard news stories of the current Pope meeting with world bishops (again, my linking feature is failing me; sorry about that). I am honestly not sure if they had made decisions at these meetings if they would qualify or not.
  • When bishops, though not gathered together, all teach something. Again the Pope must also be in union with them on this. In other words, anything that is universally taught by bishops (of which the Pope is one) is considered infallible.

If something is infallible, then Catholics must accept it as such. There are lesser matters which are not considered infallible but which Catholics are expected to freely submit to as they submit to the authority of their leaders. In this category we have anything else the Pope says and anything that the bishops say “in communion with the Pope.” I suppose that means that the bishops must say it first and the Pope then goes along with it since everything the Pope says is authoritative anyway. If your local priest says something which does not fall into one of these categories or some Catholic theologian who you might be listening to or reading the works of, you are free to dissent.

Last burning question because I know you will ask: What sorts of things qualify as infallible? There is no definitive list. The canonization of saints qualifies (i.e. when they are made saints) and there are some other things which are agreed upon as infallible like the Immaculate conception of Mary (that she was conceived without original sin; that’s a whole nother post). But, as I said, there is no definitive list, part of the problem being that the whole doctrine of infallibility was not conclusively defined and widely accepted within the Catholic Church until the 19th century.

This post has been in many ways preparatory to another one I’d like to write comparing the sources of authority in the three big branches of Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and the Orthodox Churches. So if you like this sort of thing, you are in luck — more to come soon.


*God also reveals Himself through His creation but this revelation is non-specific and not sufficient unto salvation. In addition, it should be noted that Protestants rely on tradition (little “t”) in many ways but hold to the Bible as the “only infallible rule for faith and life” (as the vows of church membership in my denomination, the RPCNA, phrase it). “Only” here modifies “infallible” meaning that there may be other good guides in faith and life but that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the only guides which are infallible and therefore are the standard by which all others must be judged.

Rocks and Popes

Dear Reader,

The following is an edited version of an email I sent to a friend who was/is considering becoming a member of the Roman Catholic church. It is my interpretation of what seems to be the most widely used passage by the Catholic church in its defense of the papacy.

A little background on me to put this in context (and let you know my biases) — I was raised Catholic and came to faith in college. I attended a non-denominational evangelical church, then a Presbyterian one and now finally a Reformed Presbyterian church (RPCNA). My own take on my background would be that while the Catholic church gave me a firm foundation in who God, in all His persons, is and a deep consciousness of my need for a Savior, it did not point me to saving grace. It was to me Law without Gospel, if you will.  I don’t bear the Catholic church ill will but at the same time it was not enough for me. I Another perhaps relevant fact about me — I studied biblical Hebrew in college which doesn’t inherently help me with this study as it is on the New Testament but I do think I have some experience with how to read and interpret the Bible.

When considering the claims of the Catholic church, and particularly its claim to be The True Church established by Christ, we can consider a few kinds of evidence:

  • the biblical evidence (which will be the focus of this post)
  • the testimony of the early church fathers — Not surprisingly the Catholic church relies heavily on the church fathers. A quick internet church will reveal a host of sites citing church fathers who seem to support the doctrine of the papacy. Then you search again and find the other side just as well supported (it’s much like other controversial issues in that; global warming, for instance). I don’t feel qualified to evaluate all that evidence and without the backing of the biblical text I am not sure any of it amounts to much anyway. My one observation would be that it never did take humanity many generations to go astray. Finding early evidence for the supremacy of the bishop of Rome doesn’t convince me of much.
  • our own experience and feelings, what one might call the workings of the Holy Spirit — this is necessarily very subjective. One man’s promptings of the Spirit are another mans’ crazy. Which is not to say I doubt the Spirit works in this way; He is the Fount of all Wisdom, but the only way to evaluate such things to see which spirit they are from is to test them against the Word of God.
  • fruit — The Bible tells us that we are to judge a tree by its fruit.Jesus warns of false prophets in Matthew 7:15-20 and tells us how we will know them:

    “15 ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.’” (all biblical citations are ESV unless otherwise noted)

I won’t tell you now what I think of the fruit of the Catholic church. I suspect you have your own opinions on that.

Where we must begin and end is the biblical evidence. This is by far the most important, being the least subjective and the necessary foundation of anything that may come later. The two main points of contention as I see it are that the apostolic authority is passed from person to person – that it is a role and position that must be occupied by someone rather than being a teaching which is passed down, and that Peter specifically is designated as the head of the church and that this too is a continuing position which is passed from person to person. The Catholic church would argue that Christ entrusted Peter with a specific role of leadership over the other disciples and that this role was an ongoing one which was filled by each succeeding bishop of Rome. A number of passages are cited to defend this position but the one which seems to be the most pivotal and the most convincing is Matthew 16:13-20 which says:

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

There are a few things going on here. The first is the renaming of Peter followed by “upon this rock I will build my church.”  While it is certainly possible to see Peter as the rock, I don’t think we are obligated to do so. To see either Jesus himself or Peter’s confession as the rock is also possible.

Now the next sentence (“ I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”) does sound like Christ is investing Peter with some authority but it also a very enigmatic utterance and I think we have to ask what is meant by it. The immediate context doesn’t add much but a couple of chapters later in Matthew 18:15-20 we find:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

You will notice that the same language regarding binding and loosing is used here. I think the context gives us a little more idea of what these words mean. The subject at hand is really what to do when another Christian sins against you. There is a process involved which starts at the individual level and then may ultimately lead to what Protestants call “church discipline.” It seems based on v.1 that Jesus is here talking to all his disciples. He is certainly not singling out Peter exclusively and I think it is quite possible there may be even more than the 12 in view. It is hard to say since what Matthew gives us is a string of utterances which may in reality have occurred at different times. Given what comes before the binding and loosing bit in vv.15-17 it seems that any Christian could be involved since the command is to address the issue first on the individual level and that it is the church which is ultimately responsible for the binding and loosing. And then we come to verses 19 and 20 which say that wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in his name, Jesus is there in the midst of them. This to me takes a much broader view of what the church is – it is a gathering of believers, even a small one.

The other main passage I am aware of that Catholics point to is at the end of the gospels when Jesus tells Peter three times to “feed my sheep.” I do not think this is such a strong basis for the whole doctrine of the papacy and that without Matthew 16 it would not be much to rest that belief upon. Given Peter’s recent denials of Christ, I think it is just more about restoring Peter himself than about giving him special authority beyond what the others have. As I was looking back over the relevant passages, I also noted this one which comes just after the renaming of Peter:

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matt. 16:21-23)

Perhaps it is snarky of me to point it out but it is funny to me that Catholics spend so much time building an ecclesiology on v.18 in which Peter is called “Rock” but fail to note that five verses later he is called “Satan.”

As somewhat of a side note, we also need to examine the word used for “church” in these passages from Matthew. The Greek word used is ekklesia. While it is used for church later in the NT, it seems somewhat anachronistic here as Jesus has no church yet and we wouldn’t really expect his listeners to envision (yet) what the church would be. And of course Jesus wouldn’t have spoken Greek anyway. I suspect we would be better off translating these as “assembly” or “congregation.”