Posts Tagged ‘Roman Catholic’

Is it Biblical?: CM’s 2nd Principle (Part 2 of 3)

Dear Reader,

This is part 2 of a 3 part series within a series. Read part 1 here.

A Bit of Review: CM’s own words and Defining the issues

In my previous post, I asked how Charlotte Mason herself explained her oft-discussed second principle. Here again is that principle:

“They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” (“Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles” from Ambleside Online)

Based on a section from her sixth volume, I concluded that:

  • “The possibilities for good and the corresponding possibilities for evil” are “present in all children.” These possibilities or tendencies are what we might call predispositions. Some people are more prone to certain errors than others but we all have areas of particular temptation or weakness, just as one person might be more prone to infection, allergies, or alcoholism.
  • The whole child is in view, “body and mind, heart and soul.”
  • Evil tendencies of the body include physical weakness or susceptibility to disease.
  • Tendencies of the mind include, on the positive side, an affinity for or facility at certain academic subjects and, on the negative, a tendency to laziness, for example, or even an over-attachment to certain subjects to the exclusion of others.
  • When Charlotte speaks of the “heart” or “feelings” she is really speaking of what we would call the virtues.  Foremost among these are love and justice but many others flow out of them such as generosity, kindness, and even gladness.
  • When Charlotte speaks of the soul, she addresses our ability and desire to have a relationship with our Creator.

It is these last two — the heart and soul — which we most need to address. Because most Christians recognize that human beings, since the Fall, have a propensity for evil, the real question is to what degree we still have a tendency to good.

My Object

My goal for this series has been to take each principle and ask “is it biblical?” and to confine myself to what the Bible says. But I find myself hard-pressed on this particular topic to say what the Bible says. The fact is that there is a range of belief in Christendom on the topic and all would claim that their view is biblical. We look at the same texts and come to different conclusions. I’d like to begin by looking at this range of views. My goal is for you, the reader, to come away with two things:

  • to see where Charlotte Mason herself fits in the range of beliefs
  • to find where you fit

Because there is such a range, we may not all come to the same conclusions, but if you can see where Charlotte fits and where you fit, then I think you can begin to decide for yourself whether you think her second principle is theologically sound or not.

An Overview of Christian Thought


On one end of the spectrum of belief is Pelagianism. Pelagius, who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, is considered a heretic by all the big branches of Christianity — the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholicism, and historic Protestantism. Nonetheless, his position is worth considering as a foil against which to view others. Pelagius said that man is basically good and can choose to do good and to follow God without divine intervention:

“[He] taught that people had the ability to fulfill the commands of God by exercising the freedom of human will apart from the grace of God. In other words, a person’s free will is totally capable of choosing God and/or to do good or bad without the aid of Divine intervention. ” (“Pelagianism,” by Matt Slick from

Eastern Orthodox

The Eastern Orthodox have been accused of but deny being semi-Pelagian.  I think it is fair to put them towards this end of the spectrum, however. Their position rests on an alternate translation of Romans 5:12, translating “because all men sinned” instead of “in [Adam] all men sinned.” The significance of this difference is explained:

“If we accept the first translation, this means that each person is responsible for his own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression. Here, Adam is merely the prototype of all future sinners, each of whom, in repeating Adam’s sin, bears responsibility only for his own sins. Adam’s sin is not the cause of our sinfulness; we do not participate in his sin and his guilt cannot be passed onto us.” (“Orthodoxy’s ‘ancestral sin’ versus Calvinism’s total depravity,” from

Instead of the term “original sin,” the Orthodox prefer “ancestral sin.” Though people are born with the consequences of sin, they are not born sinful, that is, they do not bear Adam’s sin or its guilt. These consequences are both physical (pain and death) and moral. Though they reject the idea of total depravity (see “Reformed Theology” below), Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware is able to say that man is often “morally paralysed: we sincerely desire to choose the good, but we find ourselves caught in a situation where all our choices result in evil” yet “[e]ven in a fallen world man is still capable of generous self-sacrifice and loving compassion. Even in a fallen world man still retains some knowledge of God and can enter by grace into communion with him” (“The Consequences of the Fall,” Bishop Kallistos Ware).

The Roman Catholic Church

Moving along the continuum, we find Roman Catholicism. Everybody besides the Orthodox understands Romans 5:12 as “in [Adam] all men sinned” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 402).  Since we all fell in Adam, we are all born bearing his sin (CCC, 403). This is what the Catholic Church refers by “original sin.” For Catholics, this sin is removed through baptism (CCC, 405). Adam, who had original holiness, then transmitted to his descendants not just this one sin but a fallen nature which the Catechism defines as “a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice” (CCC, 404). Human nature has been deprived of something and men are thenceforth “inclined to sin” but “human nature has not been totally corrupted” (CCC, 405). The result is a conflict within man:

“By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free.” (CCC, 407)

The two key points here seem to be: a) that man remains free, that is free to choose good or evil and b) that human nature in the Fall has lost something, namely holiness, but has not been totally corrupted. A side note, since our initial subject is education, the Catechism goes on to say that we must understand this truth — of man’s evil inclination — in order form a right philosophy of education (CCC, 407).

The Church of England

Protestant belief varies from something pretty close to the Catholic view at one end to the Reformed (Calvinistic) view at the other. I will not touch on all the variations one might find but moving on, I do want to spend some time on the historic Anglican position. Charlotte Mason, you will remember, was a member of the Church of England (COE).

The foundational document for the COE is The Thirty-Nine Articles (1801) and the relevant sections are articled 9 and 10:

IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin.
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit . . .
X. Of Free-Will.
The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith; and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.” (The Thirty-Nine Articles, IX-X)

I found a wonderful, long article by Joseph Miller which goes to some length to explain not just the COE view but its place relative to other Christian positions. Miller was writing in 1885 (remember that Charlotte Mason lived from 1842-1923). Miller rejects the Catholic view, calling it semi-pelagian, saying that it allows for “the pura naturalia in fallen man after baptism, though weakened and deteriorated” (Joseph Miller, The Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England, a historical and speculative exposition, 1885, p. 22). In other words, the Catholic Church, according to Miller, does not view man as fallen enough. He does bear the guilt of Adam’s sin, but when that is removed by baptism, his moral capacity is not much diminished, relatively speaking. On the other side, Miller also rejects the Reformed view found in the Westminster Confession which speak of the “utter inability and opposition to all good in the natural man” (p. 24).

What then is the COE view which Miller propounds? He maintains that man retains a “formal freedom” though he has lost “real freedom.” Man is no longer able to execute “perfect obedience and conformity to God’s holy will” but he is still able to exhibit “those relative virtues or excellencies of character” which are seen even in non-Christians (pp. 18-19). Miller believes that such “formal freedom” is a prerequisite for redemption for without it man would have “no recuperative energy whatever, no capacity for redemption” (p. 19).

In his own salvation, Miller believes, man must cooperate with God’s grace. He sees this view as being firmly founded in Scripture:

“Does not Holy Scripture throughout in its commands and admonitions proceed on the supposition that it is in the power of each to choose to hear the word of God and to yield oneself to its holy guidance, or on the contrary, to turn aside and resist the impulses of grace ? At least it is apparent, that man must refrain from wilful and obstinate resistance, if divine love is to work savingly. Take conversion, for example. Whilst it may be admitted to be mainly God’s act, a fruit of regeneration, must there not be in it a certain yieiding or movement on the part of the man himself ? Otherwise how is the necessity of irresistible grace in order to salvation and eternal life to be evaded ? Are not faith and repentance necessary conditions of regeneration in those of riper years ? And have the will and other natural powers no part in these acts ? Observe that the Article says, that ” man is very far gone from original righteousness,” not ” altogether.”” (pp. 25-26)

Reformed Theology

As the Eastern Orthodox view of original sin is better called ancestral sin, the Reformed take on it is more aptly described by the phrase “total depravity.” I have learned recently that the acronym TULIP as a mnemonic for remembering the main tenets of reformed theology (oft called the 5 points of Calvinism) is a uniquely American invention. But if you are familiar with the acronym, you will know that the “T” of TULIP stands for total depravity. It is the foundation from which the other points flow.

Total depravity says that the effects of the Fall are profound. More than a mere loss of holiness, man in Adam had his entire nature corrupted so that no part of it is free from the effects of the Fall. In the words of the Westminster Confession, man became “wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body” (Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF], VI, 2). R.C. Sproul explains the use of “total” in this context:

“So the idea of total in total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person. The fallenness that captures and grips our human nature affects our bodies; that’s why we become ill and die. It affects our minds and our thinking; we still have the capacity to think, but the Bible says the mind has become darkened and weakened. The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin.” (R.C. Sproul, “TULIP and Reformed Theology: Total Depravity,” from Ligonier Ministries)

The Confession goes on:

“From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil . . .” (WCF, VI, 4)

This is not, as it is often supposed, a rejection of man’s freedom to choose, but a statement about what he, by nature, is able to choose:

“Man is a free agent but he cannot originate the love of God in his heart. His will is free in the sense that it is not controlled by any force outside of himself.” (Loraine Boettner, Total Depravity, 2, from

Boettner further explains:

“He possesses a fixed bias of the will against God, and instinctively and willingly turns to evil. He is an alien by birth, and a sinner by choice. The inability under which he labors is not an inability to exercise volitions, but an inability to be willing to exercise holy volitions. And it is this phase of it which led Luther to declare that “Free-will is an empty term, whose reality is lost. And a lost liberty, according to my grammar, is no liberty at all.” In matters pertaining to his salvation, the unregenerate man is not at liberty to choose between good and evil, but only to choose between greater and lesser evil, which is not properly free will. The fact that fallen man still has ability to do certain acts morally good in themselves does not prove that he can do acts meriting salvation, for his motives may be wholly wrong.” (Ibid., 2)

Thus, “fallen man is so morally blind that he uniformly prefers and chooses evil instead of good” (Ibid., 2).

Regarding apparent good done by the unregenerate, the Confession says:

“This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.” (WCF, VI, 5)

Such seemingly good acts are not truly good because a deed is good not in and of itself but is justified by its motives:

“The unregenerate man can, through common grace, love his family and he may be a good citizen. He may give a million dollars to build a hospital, but he cannot give even a cup of cold water to a disciple in the name of Jesus. If a drunkard, he may abstain from drink for utilitarian purposes, but he cannot do it out of love for God. All of his common virtues or good works have a fatal defect in that his motives which prompt them are not to glorify God,  . . .” (Boettner, 3)

Boettner, quoting Augustine, goes on to distinguish between those qualities which even the worldly may call virtues and true Christian virtues:

“Augustine did not deny the existence of natural virtues, such as moderation, honesty, generosity, which constitute a certain merit among men; but he drew a broad line of distinction between these and the specific Christian graces (faith, love and gratitude to God, etc.), which alone are good in the strict sense of the word, and which alone have value before God.” (Ibid., 3)


As you consider your own position, if you do not already know where you stand in this spectrum, some questions to ask yourself (and possibly your pastor) are:

  • What was the effect of the Fall on human nature? Do we bear Adam’s sin or only the consequences of his sin? What was lost in the Fall? How much of human nature was corrupted and how deeply has it been corrupted?
  • What is man able to do apart from God? Any good works? Is he able to evince any faith or virtues?
  • Is man free to choose to do good?

Here again are the major positions:


  • Man is basically good.
  • “[A] person’s free will is totally capable of choosing God  . . .”

Eastern Orthodoxy

  • Ancestral sin: Men, since Adam, bear the consequences of Adam’s sin but not his sin or guilt.
  • Though man may often find himself “morally paralysed,” “man is still capable of generous self-sacrifice and loving compassion. Even in a fallen world man still retains some knowledge of God . . . “

Roman Catholicism

  • In the Fall, man lost his original holiness.
  • Man is born bearing Adam’s sin (original sin) but this is removed through baptism.
  • Men are thenceforth “inclined to sin” but “human nature has not been totally corrupted.”
  • Men have freedom to choose good or evil.

Church of England (place CM here)

  • Though he has lost “real freedom,” man retains “formal freedom” without which he would have “no recuperative energy whatever, no capacity for redemption.”
  • “Man is very far gone from original righteousness” but not “altogether” gone [emphasis added].

Reformed Theology

  • Total Depravity: The Fall affects all aspects of man’s nature — body, will, spirit, and mind. The “whole person” has “been infected by the power of sin.”
  • “[T]he unregenerate man is not at liberty to choose between good and evil.” Though he is a “free agent,” he is in his nature unable to choose good.
  • By common grace, unregenerate men may appear to do good, but they are incapable of pleasing God or of the “specific Christian graces.”

My goal with this post has been to give the lay of the land so that you can see where Charlotte Mason probably stood and think about where you stand. I have done my best to present each position accurately but there is necessarily going to be some over-simplification when trying to treat such a thorny subject briefly. If you have been reading here at all, you will no doubt know that I adhere to a Reformed position.  It is this view whose adherents suffer the most pains when it comes to reconciling Charlotte’s ideas with one’s own theology. So in my final post in this series, I will talk about how we can either reconcile these two views or whether we need to reject some of what Charlotte says.



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.


Authority in the Church: The Biblical Evidence

Dear Reader,

I thought I was done with this topic but I guess I am not. I have been going back and forth with a Catholic friend on authority in the church, how it works, where it comes from, etc. I tend to think through issues as I write. To catch up and see how my thinking on this issue has developed, you can read these earlier posts:

Rocks and Popes

Sources of Authority in the Catholic Church

Sacred Tradition in Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy

Apostolic Authority in Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism

Scripture and Tradition– Sorting through All the Issues

Book Review: The Shape of Sola Scriptura

Object and Method

Perhaps, being a good Protestant, I should have come to this first, but I am getting to it last. I’d like to look now at all the biblical evidence I can find on the issue of authority in the church. A few caveats before I begin: I am here acting like a Protestant. I understand that if you are Catholic or Orthodox or other that you will not approach the Bible as I do so you may not accept my conclusions. But this is my method, and it is simply this: When someone says something about God or the Bible or a theological issue that strikes me as funny or wrong, then I find every verse I can on the topic, look it up in context, and try to discern what the text actually has to say. I have done this, for example, on dinosaurs and on the glory of God.  Today’s topic is authority in the church. Second caveat: I am not actually looking at the whole Bible, but only the New Testament. It is an interesting question what we might learn of the church from the Old Testament but since the church as such did not exist in OT times it is a bit of a trickier issue. I do think there are conclusions that could be drawn about God and His people and how He deals with them but anything we would say is going to be more debatable so I am not touching that aspect of the issue at this time. I chose to use a Catholic translation, the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE), for this study to make sure that I am being fair and not biasing my argument with an anti-Catholic translation.

The Issues

Based on my previous studies (see all those links above), here are some of the issues that need to be addressed:

  • Who were the apostles? What makes one an apostle?
  • Is there a continuing apostolic authority or apostolic succession?
  • What is Peter’s role relative to the other apostles? Does he have greater authority?
  • If Peter does have any greater role, does he pass this on to his successors?
  • 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?

What does the New Testament have to say about Apostles?

There is not much we all agree on when it comes to authority in the church, but one point that the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants all concede is that there were men the Bible calls apostles who had authority in New Testament times.

Who were the apostles? The simplest and most common answer is that the first apostles were Jesus’ closest 12 disciples (Matt. 10:2; Mk. 3:14; 6:30; Lk. 6:13; 9:10; 22:14; 24:10). Of course, this list includes Judas Iscariot who later betrayed Jesus and died. He was then replaced by Matthias (Acts 1:26) making a nice even 12 again.

But then Paul (aka Saul) was also added to the number, bringing it up to 13 again. Paul makes very clear that he is an apostle, beginning most of his letters by self-identifying as an apostle (Rom. 1:1; I Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1; I Tim. 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1; Tit. 1:1) and also giving an extended defense of his apostleship in Galatians (Gal. 1:11-19). These 13, then, make the generally accepted list of apostles and no one seems to doubt their position.

However, there a few places in which others are called as apostles. In Acts 14 and I Corinthians 9, Barnabas seems to be called an apostle as well as Paul.  Acts tells us that:

“. . . where Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers . . . But the residents of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles.” (Acts: 14:1, 4)

And again later it says “when the apostles Paul and Barnabas heard . . .” (Acts 14:14; cf. I Cor. 9:6).

At the end of Romans Paul concludes his letter by saying:

“Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” (Rom. 16:6-7)

This passage may be calling Andronicus and Junia apostles or it may be saying that they are well-known to or esteemed by the apostles. The NRSVCE, NIV and KJV prefer the former interpretation, the ASV and ESV the latter.

It should be noted, however, that Paul also seems to call himself the last of the apostles:

“Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (I Cor. 15:7-9)

This brings us to our next question: What makes one an apostle? When Matthias is chosen, we are told that the qualifications are:

 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22)

Which is to say, an apostle is one who has literally and physically seen Jesus. This may then make some sense of Paul’s (possible) designation of Andronicus and Junia as apostles if they too had seen Jesus firsthand — we are told at least that they came to faith before Paul himself did — though he counts himself as the last of the apostles since he saw Jesus in a vision after His death. Since, as he says, he was the last that Christ appeared to in the flesh (and that in a vision), he becomes the final apostle.

So then we may say that an apostle is one that has seen Jesus in the flesh. To this we may add one further qualification: an apostle gets his authority directly from Christ. In his defense of his own apostleship, Paul says,

“11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 1:11-12)

Though Paul appears before Peter and the other apostles, he does not do so till 3 years after his conversion and he makes very clear that his authority comes not from them but from Christ. And again he says that:

” . . .he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles.” (Gal. 2:8)

Thus the other apostles did not give Paul authority but only recognized the grace which had been given him (Gal. 2:9). Matthias also was chosen by God. Though the 11 remaining apostles (at the time) cam up with a list of candidates, they cast lots to decide who would get the position and so left the decision up to the Lord (cf. Prov. 16:33).

Before moving on, we can say a few words about the works of an apostle. The apostles, we are told, teach (Acts 2:42), do signs and wonders (Acts 2:43; 5:12; 2 Cor. 12:12), make major decisions affecting the church (Acts 9:27ff; Acts 15:2ff), accept money given to the church (Acts 4:37), lay on hands for the purpose of conferring authority (Acts 6:6; 8:18), and send people (including Peter and John) on missions (Acts 8:14).

Apostolic Succession?

Having looked at who they apostles were and what defines an apostle, we may then ask if there continue to be apostles. Based on the above criteria — that an apostle has seen Jesus in the flesh and has been appointed directly by God– I think we would have to say that, no, there are no more apostles after Paul (who, as I said above, speaks of himself as the last).

This is not to say that the authority of the apostles does not continue, however. We have also seen that the apostles lay hands on others as a means of conferring authority. We can add to this that they appointed leaders in the churches:

“And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.” (Acts 14:23)

So too Paul tells Titus to “appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (Tit. 1:5; cf. 2 Tim. 2:2). He also gives both Timothy and Titus extensive lists of qualifications for elders  (1 Tim.3:1ff; Tit. 1:7ff). It should be noted that the word for “elder” in these passages may be translated as “bishop,” “presbyter, or “overseer” depending on one’s inclination. I am not worried here about which word we use but about the role of these men, whatever one calls them.

The role of an elder is to teach and argue for the faith (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9; 1 Tim. 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:2) and to care for the church (1 Tim. 3:5; James 5:14). There is evidence as well that they, as the apostles did, can practice the laying on of hands for the purpose of conferring authority (1 Tim. 4:14). Even while the apostles are still around they are involved in the big decisions of the church as we are told that the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 consisted of the apostles and the elders. It is notable that signs and wonders, the mark of an apostle, are not mentioned in connection with the elders.

Is there then an apostolic succession? If we mean by that term that there continue to be apostles through all generations, I would have to say no. But there is a passing on of authority from the apostles to the elders who would then appoint more elders and so on. Inherent in the idea of apostolic succession is the notion that those who stand in such a line have exclusive authority over the church, particularly in matters of scriptural interpretation. So I think this issue needs more study before a firm conclusion can be reached. For now I would like to set it aside and look instead at the primacy of Peter.

Peter among the Apostles

What really sets the Roman Catholic Church apart from all others is the doctrine of the primacy of Peter and his successors. So we must now look at what the Bible has to say about Peter’s role specifically.

I’d like to think about the passages relating to this issue in two groups: those that seem to confer authority in Peter and those that show Peter’s role in the early church. When asked to defend the primacy of Peter, Catholics go immediately to the former group and particularly to Matthew 16. I’d like to begin instead with the latter.

There is no doubt that Peter takes a prominent role in the early church and particularly in the events recounted in the first half of the book of Acts. When Christ has ascended, we are told that “Peter stood up among the believers” (Acts 1:15). He speaks first and he takes charge. Early in the book of Acts, Luke often speaks of “Peter and the apostles” (Acts 2:14, 37; 5:29). Peter takes a prominent role at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:7) and  is given a significant vision (Acts 10). He heals Aeneas and raises Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9). His fame seems to precede him and to be widely known since the people believe that even his shadow will heal them (Acts 5:16).

Though there us no doubt that Peter is singled out most often in the early chapter of Acts, John, we are told, is often with him (Acts 3-4). James also takes a prominent role at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13ff). The three of them — Peter, James and John — are called by Paul “pillars of the church” (Gal. 2:9). Paul and John are sent by the apostles, implying that that body has authority over them (Acts 8:14).  In defense of his own apostleship, Paul equates himself with Peter (whom he calls Cephas; Gal. 2:8) and he urges Christians not to consider themselves followers of one apostle or leader, naming specifically himself, Peter (Cephas) and Apollos, but of Christ alone (1 Cor. 1:12-13). He even tells of a time in which he opposed Peter publicly, accusing him of hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11-14).

From this collection of passages, I conclude that while Peter took a leadership role in the early church and was clearly the most prominent apostle up until Acts 13, when Paul’s ministry become the focus, that there is no evidence that he had any authority over the other apostles or any greater authority than they did.

We turn then to those passages from the gospels in which Jesus is believed to have conferred special authority upon Peter. Twice Christ seems to give Peter special instructions to care for others. In Luke 22, when He is predicting Peter’s betrayal, Jesus tells him, “‘You, when you have once turned back, strengthen your brothers'” (Luke 22:32). And after his resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Him and three times tells him (in various ways) “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19). The three-fold repetition of this scene has been connected to Peter’s three-fold denial of Christ. That is, having to say he loves Jesus three times undoes the three times he denied his Lord.

The primary passage used to defend the primacy of Peter is Matthew 16:17-19. I have blogged on this passage once before (here), but I will go over it once again. The passage reads as follows:

“17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

There are really two key bits to this passage: “upon this rock I will build my church” and “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” As you hopefully know, Peter’s name was originally not Peter but Simon. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus changed his name to Peter which means Rock when He first called him to follow Him (John 1:42). Here He makes a play on that name. Catholics understand the rock of Matthew 16 upon which the church is to be built to be Peter himself; others take it to be Peter’s declaration about Christ.

There is an interesting contrast here with the passage which comes right after it, Matthew 16:21-23. (I am indebted to my 15yo for this observation:) In vv.17-19 Jesus tells Peter that what he has said has come from God (v.17) and makes a play on his name, speaking of the rock as a foundation stone upon which the church is built (v. 18). In vv. 21-23, Jesus tells Peter that what he has said comes from Satan and again plays on his name, this time calling him a stumbling block (v. 23). The contrast between these two passages, juxtaposed as they are, is so marked that I do not see how we can take the one literally without taking the other in the same manner.

There is an interesting connection here to Revelation as well in which we are told that the foundations of the New Jerusalem are written with the names of the apostles:

 And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:14)

It is hard to know just how literally to take this since, with Paul, there are not 12 but 13 apostles, but to me it would seem to argue that all the apostles might be considered foundational, not just Peter.

We turn then to the second half of the passage in which Jesus tells Peter, “‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’” (Matt. 16:19). I take this to be one idea — that Peter is being given authority, symbolized by keys, and that that authority is to bind and loose. Though Jesus is addressing Peter here, he uses the same wording regarding binding and loosing in Matthew 18:15-20. It is worth looking at that passage as well:

“’If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’”

As you can see, the same language of binding and loosing is used here, but the audience seems to be all the apostles (or perhaps even a larger group of Jesus’ followers). The context is discipline within the church and the instructions seem to be for the church (“two or three”) rather than the individual.

These are the main passages which are used to support the primacy of Peter. There are  a few others of lesser impact. For example, when Peter is listed first in the list of apostles this is taken to indicate his primacy. However, tis alone does not seem to be terribly significant.

My opinion would be that while Jesus may well be calling Peter himself the rock in Matthew 16:18 that he is making a play on words which is of no more lasting import than the similar (but negative) pun he makes in Matthew 16:23. The authority he seems to give Peter in Matthew 16:19 does not seem to be exclusively for him but for the church in Matthew 18. I think if all we had were these passages, one could make  a reasonable (but not conclusive) argument for Peter’s primacy, but when we include also the evidence from the rest of the New Testament which seems to show that Peter, while a leader, had no greater authority than the other apostles, that there is not a very strong case for the doctrine of the primacy of Peter.

The authority of the popes (and through them also of the Catholic Church itself) rests not just on the primacy of Peter but also on the primacy of his successors, the bishops of Rome. For this I find no biblical evidence. We are told that the apostles appointed elders (or bishops) and it seems clear that these also appointed successors and that they carried on the work of the church. But nowhere does there seem to be a one-to-one correspondence between an apostle and his successor. Instead, multiple successors are appointed as the church grows. In fact, Peter is not even associated with Rome in the New Testament; only later traditions place him there.


I’ve gotten through 4 of the 9 questions I began this post with, and those four the most fundamental I think for all that follows. As frequently happens, one post leads to another, so I will call this “part 1” and continue the topic in my next post.

To sum up what I have found thus far:

  • There are people termed apostles in the NT who have special authority. The two qualifications seem to be that they have seen Crist in the flesh and are appointed directly by God. There are probably 13 of them (including Matthias who replaced Judas and Paul) with Paul being the last to become an apostle though occasionally others, notably Barnabas are referred to as apostles.
  • The apostle appoint elders who succeed them. They take on most of the tasks of an apostle though they are not associated with signs and wonders. They are not themselves apostles but whether they constitute and “apostolic succession” is not (yet?) clear.
  • Peter appears to be a leader among the apostles after Jesus ascension though his prominence wanes after Paul comes on the scene. There is no indication that he had authority over and beyond that of the other apostles, however. Nor is there evidence that he appointed specific successors who would inherit his primacy (if he had any).

Until next time






Scripture and Tradition — Sorting through all the Issues

Dear Reader,

I would like to once again revisit the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. I gave my own thoughts on this topic previously when I discussed sources of authority in the church (see here and here). Since then I have read and reviewed (here)  Keith A. Mathison’s book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Reading Mathison’s book both clarified and muddied my own thoughts. My purpose now is to try to do some sorting of all that is buzzing around in my head.

As Mathison states in his conclusion, the real question is not if we refer to tradition but what tradition(s) we make use of. Even those who claim to rely upon Scripture alone (what Mathison calls the Tradition 0 or solo scriptura position) come to the text with preconceived ideas which they have gotten from other sources, whether their own imaginations, their parents, their teachers or their favorite rock anthem (the possibilities are endless). I am not going to spend a lot of time critiquing the so-called solo scriptura position. It has one fatal flaw which I think is pretty obvious which is that it leads to utter subjectivity and no way to discern right from wrong or orthodoxy from heresy.

Instead, I’d like to turn to the three other positions which Mathison defines (though I am not overly enamored of his categories). He calls them Traditions 1, 2 and 3. You can find a little more detail on them in my review of his book. I’ll begin with a brief review of these positions and then discuss the pros and cons of each.

The Positions

Tradition 3, as Mathison defines it, places a person or group of people above both Scripture and Sacred Tradition. This is the view of today’s Roman Catholic Church. For a more in-depth look at the Catholic position, with quotes, you can look back out those previous posts. The condensed version is that the Catholic Church holds that Scripture and Tradition are two branches of the teaching passed down from Christ to the Apostles. They are complementary but not identical. Christ also gave authority to his disciples, and especially to Peter, which was also handed down through the ages (this is known as the Apostolic Succession). These men, the leadership or Magisterium of the church, are given the authority to tell us what is contained in Sacred Tradition and also to rightly interpret both Scripture and Tradition. Ordinary believers, even local priests, are not able to do this. In this way, the Church (big “C”) is evelated over Scripture and Tradition both as it is the only one with the authority to tell us what they are and what they mean.

By Mathison’s definition, “Tradition 2” is that in which Tradition interprets Scripture. That is, Tradition tells us what Scripture means. I find this position somewhat of a straw man. Because Tradition in the church (whatever church you are speaking of) is oral tradition, it must necessarily be passed down by someone. And if there is a someone telling us what Tradition is, then there is a someone telling us what that Tradition means and therefore also what Scripture means.

The Eastern Orthodox church makes Scripture subject to Tradition. It believes that Christ gave one body of knowledge, Sacred Tradition, to His apostles. The most important parts of this were written down and became the New Testament. Scripture then stands as a part of Tradition. However, the Eastern Orthodox still believe in Apostolic Succession, saying that the bishops as a group show apostolic authority when they agree with one another.  Thus, they recognize the authority of the church councils. This is not really then Mathison’s Tradition 2 since there is still a body of people who are charged with preserving Sacred Tradition and interpreting it.

Tradition 1 is the position Mathison himself adheres to and which he says was that of the early Protestant Reformers (like Calvin). It is what they meant by sola scriptura, that Scripture is the only infallible rule but that it must be interpreted by the church (not the individual) in the context in which it was intended. This context is really a very narrow version of tradition (which Mathison himself would acknowledge). He speaks of the regula fidei or Rule of Faith as the guide by which we must interpret Scripture. He makes clear in his book that this rule is found on the creeds of the church, paryicularly the Apostles’, Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds. As I tried to make clear in my review of his book, I feel that Mathison is selecting just one possible rule (actually a few, since he doesn’t pick just one creed) and that though he makes a lot of good points in his book, he fails to explain this particular choice, defend it, or show that it is the rule that the Reformers would have used.

The main difference I see between Mathison’s position and that of either the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches is that his tradition is tangible and finite. he can point to it and say “here it is” and we can know the whole content of it. Having defined it, he can’t come along later and add to it or detract from it. Though to be honest, since he doesn’t pick one creed, or even one set of creeds, it is not as tangible and finite a position as I would like it to be.

Critiquing the Positions

Christianity is a diverse enterprise these days. Mathison tries to define four positions, but though his categories are helpful in framing the discussion, they don’t truly reflect the range of beliefs out there.  As I see it, there are really two extremes. On one side we have the Tradition 0, solo scriptura, crowd which, though few would acknowledge it openly, says that whatever Scripture means for you is what it means.  There is no outside standard, whether traditions or people, by which to judge an interpretation’s correctness. On the other side, we have something like the modern Roman Catholic Church which acknowledges that the authority to rightly interpret lies ultimately in one person (though even the Roman Catholic Church does not really go quite so far as this or as it could). Really the question seems to be: How many people can interpret Scripture? Another way of asking this might be: How many truths are there? Solo scriptura says that we have as many interpretations as we have people. Unfortunately, this leads to a world in which we cannot judge what is The Truth. On the other hand, if we have one person telling us what is true then we can have One Truth. Of course this is only  valuable insofar as that truth is, well, true. And in between we have an almost limitless number of permeations of those two positions.

I’ve gone back and forth on how to write this section. I want to say something about the problems with each major position, but I don’t want to be petty, I don’t want to get bogged down in the details or side-tracked on smaller issues, and I don’t want to repeat myself. And, honestly, what I find when I think about it is that the criticisms that apply to one position tend to apply to most if not all of the others.

So let me say it this way — Here is the problem: While we would all love for the Bible to be 100% clear and unarguable, it is clear from the present situation that those claiming its authority can still believe vastly different things and all back up their positions (to varying degrees perhaps) with biblical arguments. Even Satan uses biblical proof texts (Matt. 4:6) so it should come as no surprise to us that almost anyone can use the Bible to support their position.

Given this circumstance, we must then have some means of discerning between true and false interpretations of Scripture.  We might come up with principles (“Scripture interprets Scripture”), outside information (Sacred Tradition) or people (bishops, the Magisterium, the “Church”), but somewhere, somehow we need to refer to something else. The alternative is to say that there is no absolute truth, that the Bible can mean one thing to you and another to me (in which case Satan’s take is just as good as Jesus’). I’ll concede a slight variant to this — we could say that there is absolute truth but that we just can’t know it in this life. But then really what is the point of Scripture if it is not God telling us what He wants is to know? If we can’t know what it means, He might as well have not communicated at all.

As Mathison points out, everyone, everyone comes to the Word with some preconceptions. Even if we acknowledge no outside standard, we have a whole host of influences in our past which inform our own thinking. No one can truly hold to the solo scriptura approach. The question we all have to answer is: Why do you believe whatever or whomever you believe? The Roman Catholics, for example, would say that Protestants are subjective because they have no one standard of interpretation. But if we were to ask them why they believe the Scriptures mean one thing or another ultimately the answer is “because the pope says so” (there may be layers in between which involve words like “Tradition” and “Magisterium,” but ultimately this is what it comes down to). So then we may ask, Why do you believe the pope? One answer which is given is “Well, Jesus gave Peter special authority in the Bible and that has been passed down through the generations to his successors.” But Protestants and Eastern Orthodox and really everybody else look at the same texts and do not see the primacy of Peter. So how do we know that this is what the Bible means? Again, we are back to the same question. Another response might be that it is the tradition of the early church or that the church fathers tell us about the primacy of Peter and of the successive bishops of Rome. But here we are just really pushing off the problem again because there is no less debate over what the church fathers say than over what the Bible says. If anything, because there is even more material available and because it is a less well-defined body of material, it is even harder to say what the early fathers said (and that is if we even care, which many Protestants don’t).

In the end, almost everybody uses circular reasoning at some point and everybody hits that wall where they have to say “I believe it because I believe it.” In other words, we are all subjective. Today more than ever we are all “cafeteria Christians.” We have a wide array of choices before us and even if we never abandon the tradition we were raised in, we are to some extent choosing what to believe and what church to be affiliated with.

Evaluating the Options

If we all to some extent pick our church, we must before we do so have some criteria by which to choose. The catch-22 here is that our church tells us by what criteria to judge but we must first pick a church so we need some criteria before we officially subscribe to one set of criteria.

How we initially judge will be informed by a number of things. We are reasoning creatures, and while I personally believe that our sense of reason was corrupted in the fall, it does still remain. We also have consciences, inborn senses of right and wrong, which may steer us one way or anther. We have feelings (also created good but fallen) which may tend to sway us, and we have past experiences which may tend to make us gravitate toward one choice or away from another.

The questions we have to ask and which any scheme of biblical interpretation has to answer are:

  • Who can rightly interpret the Bible? — and a follow-up question: Where does their authority come from?
  • What outside sources are used?
  • What principles are used?

I am going to concentrate on the first two of these because it is in them that all the major differences between the branches of the church on this issue seem to lie.


As to the who, the Roman Catholic Church says the Pope (with the Magisterium, but if you read the specifics the Magisterium cannot disagree with the Pope) interprets the Bible. It should be remembered that (at least while all is going well) there is only one legitimate pope at a time, there are multiple popes over the course of history and the past ones have as much authority as the present one and so in some sense there is a body, albeit a small one, of people who interpret. Their authority is due to their apostolic succession. It comes ultimately from Christ who appointed apostles who appointed successors and so on.

The main advantage of the Catholic position is that it claims a clear line of authority and has one living ultimate authority to which to appeal. Its main drawback is that it has to maintain and defend its consistency. If a pope contradicts himself or a previous pope, it undercuts the Catholic claims. If a pope behaves poorly or says something which is later contradicted, a shadow is cast upon his legitimacy. And without this legitimacy, the Catholic position has little ground upon which to stand. I would add, with Mathison, that having one authority is only valuable insofar as that authority is correct. The consequences if that authority is wrong are dire indeed if no dissent is allowed.

Sacred Tradition, though it is relied upon by the Catholic Church, does, as Mathison says, become subservient to the human hierarchy because it is they who tell us both what the traditions are and what they mean. The fact is that almost 2000 years after Christ’s ascension, there is no definitive statement of what Sacred Tradition contains and therefore we rely upon those to whom it was entrusted.

Eastern Orthodoxy

In the Eastern Orthodox churches, there is a group of people, the bishops, who, as long as they agree with each other, provide right interpretation. Their authority is due, as in Catholicism, to their apostolic succession but also to a right adherence in matters of faith and morals since apostolic authority can be lost in Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Eastern Orthodox get around some of the problems the Catholics face by not concentrating authority in one person (who could then let one down by going astray) and also by allowing that apostolic authority can be abrogated. The problem for them is that whenever there is a disagreement among bishops there must be some way to determine who is orthodox and who is the heretic. Since the general test is agreement with one’s fellow bishops, one would assume that if one bishop disagrees that he is the rebel. But what if there is a larger split? I honestly don’t know anything about the history of orthodoxy since 1054, but we can look back at the early church councils which were called to deal with heresies. Though in retrospect we are able to say that Arianism, to take one example, was an error and has since been suppressed, at the time it would have been very hard to say who was right and who was wrong.

Though they have different understandings of the nature and status of Sacred Tradition, the Orthodox are open to the same charge the Catholics are — that a purely oral tradition necessarily becomes subservient to those who maintain it. Both of these branches, then, really depend in their views upon the legitimacy of their claims of apostolic succession. If we are not convinced that Christ established a continuing line of authority through the apostles (and in the Catholic case the primacy of Peter as well) or if we believe that such a line was at any time broken, then there is no legitimacy for the authority of either of these branches of Christianity. Both branches acknowledge that the line continues in the other though the Orhtodox believe that the bishops of Rome (that is, the popes) long ago abrogated their authority so that that branch is effetivley wiped out. The Catholics believe that apostolic authority continues in the Eastern Orthodox bishops but that they are outside of the proper church since they don’t submit to the pope as the successor of Peter. How then do we know that apostolic succession and the primacy fo Peter are real? Well,the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches tell us so; they tell us that the right interpretation of Scripture shows these things. Protestants, of course, would disagree and say that the Bible  and the history of the early church show no such thing and that apostolic authority ended with the first generation of apostles.

One final observation before we turn to the Protestants — though both claim to hold the Tradition passed down from Christ, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus between them as to what that Tradition is. As I said, though neither defines it well, they seem to view it quite differently which would lead to the conclusion that one or the other (at least) must not have the actual Sacred Tradition.


Protestant churches vary. Many give at least greater authority to interpret the Bible and determine right doctrine to either the leaders of the church or the church as a whole. A few, like the Anglicans, will claim apostolic succession, but most do not and therefore have to answer the question of where authority in the church comes from. Though it is my own branch, I think this is a weak point in the Protestant position. There is usually some sort of passing down of authority, as when hands are laid on at an ordination. Sometimes leaders are chosen by other leaders; sometimes they are chosen by the congregation or by some combination of these two. Usually there is some recognition that one is fit for leadership because he (or she) has gifts or qualities given by God which are then recognized by the leaders or the people. One might say that authority in Protestant churches (for the most part; it is hard to generalize with Protestants) comes from right adherence in matters of faith and morals combined with some sort of recognition by others of this reality.

With no clear line of authority to be traced beyond a certain point, Protestants are faced with a problem of origins — that is, where did the authority of the first Protestant ministers come from? And if their authority is based upon having right doctrine then we must first know what that doctrine is. But it is the leaders of the church (often) who tell us what that right doctrine is. So as we trace a line back we will ultimately reach a point where we must ask who first determined what was right and how did they determine it?

Without apostolic authority to fall back on, having the right beliefs becomes even more important in Protestantism. So then having standards by which to judge what is right also becomes more important. Most Protestant denominations do not claim to have Sacred Tradition. While some do take the extreme position of saying “the Bible only” (what Mathison calls solo scriptura), many others pick a certain standard or set of standards on which to base their doctrine. Mathison himself picks the early church creeds (though not specifying which). My own denomination relies upon the Westminster confession combined with its own Testimony which responds to the confession. Perhaps because they have no clear line of human authority to maintain traditions, Protestants tend to choose written standards on which to base their theologies. The advantage of this position is that there is something anyone can refer to and which is not inherently dependent upon people. The disadvantage is that any such standard is arbitrary (why this creed or that confession?) and likely open to interpretation itself.


What conclusions can we come to then? I agree with Mathison that it is impossible to come to the text without presuppositions and biases. There is no solo scriptura and to try to hold such a position leads to a multiplicity of interpretations and ultimately to a state in which whatever anyone believes is right and therefore nothing is truly right or wrong.

On the other hand, all the major branches of Christianity at some point use circular reasoning. There is always a point beyond which we cannot get or at which we must say “it is this way because I say it is.”

One option at this point is to abandon the whole thing. One could easily conclude that because there is no unanimity in Christianity that it cannot be true. I don’t think we need to go there, however. Looked at from another angle, one can actually be amazed how many different churches and denominations agree on some pretty central truths — that there is a God who created everything we know, that man sinned, that God sent His Son in the person of Jesus to die on a cross, rise from the dead and ascend to heaven and thus in some way to redeem us from our sins and restore us to our Creator and that there is a resurrection of the dead and that there will be eternal life for those whom Christ redeems. Though we may disagree on some other issues which may seem important as well — like how salvation happens and what is necessary for salvation and even how the two natures of Christ interact (which was the dispute at the Chalcedon and separates the Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Church of the East from their brethren) yet there is still agreement on the basics that I have listed above. Is this enough agreement? It really depends on your perspective. It is reminiscent of Paul’s description of a Christian confession in Romans:

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9; cf. I John 4:2)

While I personally hold a fairly low standard for what is essential, both for salvation for an individual and for a church to be considered a “true church,” I also think that ideas matter very much. So while on one hand I would say that I am impressed by how much agreement there is on these essentials even 2000 years later, on the other I do not think that this means that it doesn’t matter which church we choose. The specifics of what we believe about who God is, who we are, and how we are saved are going to play out in other ways. In other words, while I may believe there are a large number of “true churches,” I also believe that some are better, that is closer to the truth, than others.

A church near me had a sign out front recently which amounted to “whatever you believe is okay here” (I can’t recall the exact words). The extreme position is out there. But for the rest of us, I think we are making some assumptions which are so basic we don’t even think about them. One is that there is a Truth, that there are right and wrong interpretations of Scripture. This, I think, is essential to our understanding of what Scripture is. If it is the Word of God, if it is how He chose to communicate with us, then we must believe that it is understandable by humans (which humans is another question). If God’s communication to us is of any value, we must be able to comprehend it.  Likewise, if it has no specific meaning, I would argue that it is worthless. One could argue (and the church near might well do so) that God might want to communicate one thing to you and another to me and to a certain extent this is true, but ultimately God must be one thing or another. Either Jesus is God or He isn’t. Either Moses parted the Red Sea or he didn’t.

A second assumption we are all making is that uniformity is to be expected, that if Christianity is true then we should all be believing basically the same things. This comes out in our criticism that the solo scriptura position leads to too much diversity in opinion. I happen to agree that it does, but does this mean that our message is always undercut if we can’t present a unified front? Scripture does lead us to believe that Christians will have unity (Phil. 1:27, 2:2; I Peter 3:8) though it also tells us that there are matters on which we may disagree (Rom.14:5). Determining which matters it is necessary to agree on again gets us back to the subject of discernment and how we can judge what it true and what isn’t.

What then are the answers? I think that is something we each must decide. And I think that even those who choose the Catholic Church with its claim that only the Magisterium can interpret Scriptures are themselves first making judgments about what is true. They may choose to submit themselves to another’s authority (as most Christians do to some degree) but they are choosing which means they are making determinations and judgments of their own. I can’t tell anyone, even my children, what they should believe and who they should submit themselves to. But I can suggest some questions we should all consider:

  • Where does authority in the church come from? What makes it legitimate?
  • Can that authority be lost and if so, in what circumstances?
  • Do I believe in apostolic succession? The primacy of Peter?
  • Do I believe that there is a body of knowledge known as Sacred Tradition which has been passed down from Christ to the apostles and their successors?
  • Whether I accept Sacred Tradition or not, what other standards do I use and why choose them over other options?
  • What principles should be used to interpret Scripture?
  • Who am I submitting myself to and why?
  • To what degree I am submitting myself? Am I free to leave this body if I choose to? Or are there certain circumstances which make it alright to leave? Do I want to be able to leave?

The Role of the Holy Spirit

Why after 2000 years is there any Christian church? Why do we still adhere to some fundamental truths, though there may be much we disagree on? Christ promised that He would preserve His church.

When I make criticisms like that placing the authority for interpretation in the hands of one man seems like a bad idea, I understand that the Catholics themselves would not see it this way. For them the pope is the successor of Peter to whom it was said, “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” (Matt. 16:18).  If a pope is infallible, in the Catholic view, then it is not because he is a sinless or wise or perfect individual but because God preserves him from error (at least when he speaks ex cathedra in matters of faith and morals).

Similarly, Protestants will say that they don’t need apostolic succession because God raises up leaders. When a congregation votes to call a pastor, it is not just the individual opinions of how ever many separate people, it is the Holy Spirit working in hearts and minds and providing unity.

The problem is, of course, that one cannot really judge another’s claims regarding the work of the Holy Spirit. We all put Him in the process somewhere but it is a very easy thing to claim “God told me so” and a very hard thing to prove to another’s satisfaction.

So I suppose I could add to my list of questions above, Does this seem like the work of God to me? Is He at work here? Of course to know what the work of God looks like, I must read and rightly interpret His Word which brings us back full-circle to our initial problem. In the end, I don’t think any one of us is going to be able to fully defend his or her choice, but we do have to make one.




Original Sin

Dear Reader,

As long promised, I want to talk about how the Roman Catholic Church views sin. In my posts on indulgences and Purgatory, I concluded by saying that these doctrines, which seem so bizarre to Protestants, are based upon a very different (from a Protestant point of view) understanding of sin and therefore also of salvation. So now it is finally time to look at how the Catholic Church views sin, which I am going to do primarily by looking at the doctrine of Original Sin.

I don’t actually like to say that I believe in Original Sin, which I am sure sounds quite heretical, but I say so because it means so many different things to different people. By the Catholic Church’s definition, no, I don’t believe in Original Sin. (I do believe in the Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity however.)  What then is Original Sin?

Defining Original Sin

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) Original Sin is in antithesis to the state in which Adam and Eve were created, that of Original Holiness (CCC 399). It is among the consequences of Adam’s first sin which affect both mankind and creation (CCC 400). From the Fall onward the history of mankind becomes inundated with sin which is universal among men (CCC 401). “All men are implicated in Adam’s sin” (CCC 402) which is contrasted with the salvation which comes through Christ. It is because of this first sin of Adam’s that we have evil and death for “he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the ‘death of the soul'” (CCC 403). Thus “we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’ – a state and not an act” (CCC 404; emphasis theirs).

A lot of this will sound pretty kosher to us Protestants. We too believe that Adam and Eve originally had holiness, that sin came through Adam as salvation through Christ, that creation and mankind both fell through Adam’s sin, and that death thus entered the world. We also believe that Adam’s personal sin affected the nature of his descendants and that they are now in a fallen state.

But the Catechism goes on:

“[Original Sin] is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.” (CCC 405)

Here is where we begin to differ — firstly on the degree of corruption which results from Adam’s sin. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) defines original sin as follows:

” . . . the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.” (WSC 18)

The Catholic Church’s position is intentionally phrased in such a way as to reject the idea that man’s whole nature is corrupted (CCC 406).

A second, but by no means lesser, issue is how this corruption can be dealt with. I am part of a church which baptizes infants. This sacrament marks the children of believers as members of God’s covenant community. It is a means of grace to them.  But we do not believe that, as the Catholic church says, baptism “erases Original Sin.”

The Nature of Sin

How sin is and can be dealt with is very much a factor of the nature if sin itself. The Catholic depiction of sin makes it something very tangible, a concept to which I am not inherently opposed. I actually discussed just that issue in an earlier post, The Nature of Sin (and the Cat in the Hat). The idea is that sin almost has weight; it has to go somewhere. In the Old Testament era, the high priest would once a year place the sin of the people on the scapegoat. In the Catholic Church, sin is like a stain on a garment —  it can be removed, but each new stain needs to be removed individually. In this analogy, the doctrine of Original Sin says that our garment comes soiled. In baptism this original stain is removed, along with any others that may have been committed up until that time. The person is then, at least temporarily, clean. But if and when they sin again, there are new stains which must then be removed. If a person dies with the stain of sin still upon them, then they either go to Hell, if the sins on their person be mortal, that is serious, sins, or go to Purgatory where the remaining sins are in some fashion burnt away (see my earlier post on Purgatory for more on that). There are people who die without the stain of sin upon them, these are the Saints as declared by the Church. There are also people who never commit sins. John the Baptist is in this category. He is believed to have been cleansed of his Original Sin in the womb and in his life never personally sinned. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was never even subject to Original Sin:

“Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ’s victory over sin: she was preserved from all stain of original sin and by a special grace of God committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life.” (CCC 411)

And, of course, Jesus himself was neither subject to Original Sin nor did He commit personal sins in His lifetime.

In contrast, the Westminster Shorter Catechism says of baptism:

“Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.” (WSC 94)

Thus baptism to  a reformed Protestant is more about a relationship. It signifies that the individual has become part of  — has been “ingrafted” into — the body of Christ. It is more of a legal judgment than a laundry issue. There is no illusion that the individual will no longer sin or could, if they live any length of time, manage not to sin further. And yet all their sins, past and present, have been paid for. If we were to continue to apparel analogy, we would say that their garment is declared, legally, to be white and free from stain, though we are aware that they will not be seen as such until Christ receives them into His Presence, at their death or His second coming. At this point “the souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory” (WSC 37).

A better analogy would be that of citizenship. To be holy in the Bible means to be set apart for divine use. Thus the bowls and forks used in the Temple service are holy while those used in one’s private house are not. To be holy is to belong to God, to be able to live in His kingdom. In Moses’ day this kingdom was represented by the Israelite camp. Those who did not belong or who were, perhaps temporarily, unlclean were sent outside the camp, just as the scapegoat was sent outside into the wilderness. To be holy for us, then, means that we belong in God’s camp, that we are citizens of His kingdom. Though we temporarily still live in this fallen world, we are citizens of another Kingdom. Baptism declares us as such.

Though we both say that we believe in Original Sin, there are a number of very significant differences between the Catholic and Reformed positions:

  • In Catholicism the corruption of Original Sin is not complete. In Reformed Protestantism, man’s whole nature is corrupt and fallen.
  • For Catholics baptism removes Original Sin and the possibility exists that the person could then continue without ever sinning (or sinning again) in their life.* For Protestants, baptism is the outer witness of inclusion in God’s covenant community. Man’s sinful nature, however, remains until his physical death, though by God’s grace His people are enabled to do good works in this life.
  • If a Catholic does not continue to be sinless, each subsequent sin must be dealt with. If one dies with unconfessed mortal sins, one is not saved but goes to Hell for eternity. In Reformed thinking, once one has become a citizen of God’s Kingdom, that status cannot be lost. One’s sins, past and present, have all been forgiven; there is no lingering stain.

*A corollary of this belief is that those who are not baptized cannot be saved since the stain of Original Sin has never been removed from them. (This is an idea the Catholic Church has been moving away from as it allows for the possibility that those outside the Church and even outside of Christendom may be saved.)

Purgatory and Indulgences

In the Catholic conception, it is possible for one, having once been cleansed, to not sin again and to remain unstained by sin. For those of us who don’t (which is most of us), there needs to be some way to remove each new stain. In this life this is accomplished through the sacrament of penance. Many will still die not having confessed their sins. For those who die with the stain or venial (lesser) sins on their souls, there is Purgatory which is meant as a mercy since it gives one another chance after death to remove the stain. Indulgences too are a mercy in that they allow one, or one’s loved ones, to spend less time in the admittedly brutal fires of Purgatory.  On the other hand, those who die with mortal sins on their souls, which would include the likes of murder, adultery and idolatry, are unable to be saved from Hell whether they have been baptized or not.

Another thread which plays into all this is the power of the Church’s apostolic leadership. In the Catholic understanding, Jesus gave Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and told him that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. This is taken to mean that the Pope (the successor of Peter) and whomever he designates the power to can declare men’s sins forgiven or not as they choose. Thus the Church has the power to remove the stain of sin through the sacraments of baptism and penance. The flip side of this is that if the Church has not done so, as in the case of a person who dies without having had a chance to go to penance again, then the stain of sin remains.

The Big Picture

My own opinion is that this one difference — how we view sin — is one of if not the most fundamental one that exists between the Roman Catholic Church and Reformed Protestantism. So much else flows out of it. And so much stands behind it as well. The Catholic view would seem to be a higher view of human nature; it is not all corrupt and people are able to go through life without committing actual sins (as opposed to the sin they inherit from Adam). On the other hand, the Reformers exalted Christ’s work since it deals with all our sins, past and future, at once with no lingering stains to be cleaned up (though the sinful nature is not removed until death). The Catholic view might be said to be more optimistic about people’s abilities. The Reformed view  is one which I personally, having lived in both camps, find more comforting in that it does not depend on me.




Questions about Purgatory

Dear Reader,

This is starting to become a series on the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. One just seems to lead to another. So far I have talked about: the papacy, sacred tradition, the magisterium, and indulgences. As I mentioned in the most recent of these, the idea of indulgences is intimately bound up with the doctrine of purgatory.

What is Purgatory?

Let’s begin by looking at what Purgatory is. The name comes from the verb “to purge.” Purgatory is a where, after death, saved people are purged of their sins and made holy and therefore able to enter God’s Presence.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about Purgatory:

1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.

(The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030-1032)

I think the key points to note here are that Purgatory is for God’s people; it is not Hell. It is, to Catholic thinking, necessary for most people (but not all!) because sinful people cannot enter the Presence of the Holy God. Therefore after death, even believers must undergo a further purifying before entering God’s Presence for eternity.

Here again we touch on an idea I discussed in that earlier post on indulgences — that there are different effects of sin. In Catholicism, sin has eternal and temporal effects. It is the temporal effects which cling to the person, keep him from being perfect, and need to be removed before one can enter Heaven. While I find these “temporal punishments” ill-defined to the extent that I am not sure that Catholics even know what they mean by the term (again, see that previous post; I don’t want to rehash it all here), I think we Protestants can at least agree with our Catholic friends on two points: none of us are perfect so long as we live on this earth and imperfect people cannot stand before a perfect God. Where we differ is in how (and where and when) this last purification happens.

Scriptural Support for Purgatory

The main verse upon which the concept of Purgatory rests in found in the Apocrypha, those books which are in the Catholic Old Testament but not the Protestant one. As such one is already at somewhat of a disadvantage when it comes to convincing Protestants that Purgatory exists.

2 Maccabees 12:39-46

39 On the next day, as had now become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kindred in the sepulchres of their ancestors. 40 Then under the tunic of each one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was the reason these men had fallen. 41 So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; 42 and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. 43 He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. 44 For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45 But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.” [2 Maccabees 12:39-45; New Revised Standard Catholic Version (NRSCV)]

This passage from the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees is the primary scriptural support for the doctrine of Purgatory.  It is hard to deny what happens — that Judas Maccabee offers atonement for the sin of those who have died and prays for them.  Of course, most Protestants do not regard this book as canonical and will reject it out of hand, but I would like to take a moment and look at what it does (and doesn’t) say.

If you are familiar with your New Testament, you may be aware that one of the main points of dispute between the Pharisees and Sadducees in Jesus’ day was whether there is a resurrection of the dead. This book, 2 Maccabees, was most likely written in the last 1st century BC, some 150 years before Jesus’ ministry.  Its language suggests that one of the main purposes of including this incident is to show that Judas believed in the resurrection of the dead. If he had not, his actions would have been pointless. In terms of the polemical value of this passage, this seems to be the main point — to argue for life after death. What one can do to help those who have died, if anything, is rather another point. My impression is that while this text is arguing on behalf of resurrection, it is assuming that if there is a resurrection that something can be done for the dead by the living. In other words, its main point is to say there is a resurrection, not to say that prayer or atonement for the dead are effective.

Judas does two things for the deceased: he collects an offering and he prays. The offering is of money which is then sent to Jerusalem presumably to pay for an animal sacrifice to be offered on their behalf.  Was Judas’ offering effective? Did it remove the dead men’s sin? We must remember here that we are still in the time before Christ, the time of the temple sacrifices. Animal sacrifices are how God’s people at that time were commanded to deal with sin. Nonetheless, we know from the book of Hebrews, that these offerings were to point to Christ, the one true sacrifice on our behalf. They did not themselves accomplish forgiveness:

“Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:1-4; NRSCV — I am using this Catholic version in all quotes unless otherwise noted.)

Thus Judas Maccabee’s offering did not obtain forgiveness for his fallen comrades because it, like all Old Testament sacrifices, could not. He made it in the hope of gaining atonement for them, just as all sacrifices were offered in the hope of atonement, but, as Hebrews says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

There is an issue of timing here. To my knowledge, there is no provision in the Old Testament for offering sacrifices of atonement for a person after they have died. (This omission in itself is perhaps one of the best arguments against Purgatory.) In any case, this is somewhat of a moot point in the case of the sacrifices since none of them actually obtained forgiveness anyway.

But Judas also prays for the men so we must ask: Was Judas too late? Could his prayers help the dead? My own feeling on this is that it is part of a much larger issue about time and the nature of God. While as a good Protestant, I don’t feel that there is any way to change a person’s fate after they have passed, I would also say that God, who created time, stands outside it. There are many times when I pray for things that are in reality fait accomplis. For instance, I might pray that a friend’s surgery went well even after I know that the event itself is done. From a human perspective, bound by time, there is no way my prayers after the fact can change what has already happened. But God stands outside of time. He sees it all: past, present and future. So He can take into account my belated prayers. Is it wrong of me to pray this way? I can’t really think so. So I suppose it is not very Protestant of me, but the mere fact of praying for the dead does not bother me too much in this light.

The last thing I’d like to note in this passage is what it says about the actual state of the deceased. Where are they and what are they up to? The text most frequently calls them “those who had fallen” and says that they “would rise again.” It also speaks us “those who fall asleep in godliness.” This language, speaking of death as sleep, is common in the Old Testament where the usual formula in speaking of death is to say that so-and-so “slept with his fathers.” I don’t think 2 Maccabees adds much on the issue of where the dead are and what they are doing after death which is actually my point. There is nothing new here in terms of the circumstances of the dead after death which is not in the Old Testament, and there is no indication that they are alert in any way or are, as the dead are supposed to in Purgatory, working off their debts in any way. Truth be known, I am not at all sure what the dead in Purgatory are supposed to be doing and this is a major issue I would like to return to. But before I do that, let’s look briefly at the other passages which have been offered in defense of Purgatory.

Revelation 21:27

22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:22-27)

I’m including this passage from Revelation since it has been used in the defense of Purgatory. The import of it for this issue seems to be that no one unclean can enter heaven. Catholics take this to mean that there must be a time and place for purification then before we sinful people can enter God’s Presence.

Isaiah 4:4 and I Corinthians 3:11-15

On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel. Whoever is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, once the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.” (Isaiah 4:2-4)

10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.” (I Corinthians 3:1-15)

If Revelation implies that there must be a purification, then Isaiah and I Corinthians tell us something about the nature of that purification. Isaiah speaks of cleansing by “a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning” and I Corinthians also speaks of judgment and fire. It is important to note, however, that it is not the person but his work which is tried by fire in I Corinthians. The person is tried “as through fire” but it seems clear from the preceding verses that the fire tests the work, not the individual. Furthermore, while Purgatory is said to be a place of purification and Isaiah certainly speaks of cleansing, it is not at all clear that the fire mentioned in I Corinthians is the purifying sort. It tests and it burns up but it is not said to purify.

If we begin by accepting the existence of Purgatory, then we might take these verses to tell us something about the nature of Purgatory. If we do not start with a belief in Purgatory, however, then I do not think we would derive it from these passages. That there is a judgment we can see and that fire, either real or metaphorical, is involved. But there is no sense of a place in which one passes time or of an extended tenure anywhere. The burning sounds to me rather like a relatively brief process and one which would occur at the Last Judgment.

Matthew 5:24-26 and Luke 12:59

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:23-26)

57 “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”” (Luke 12:57-59)

Matthew and Luke both tell of Jesus’ instructions regarding disputes. He cautions his followers not to make an offering if they know that anyone could lay a charge against them. Rather they are to make peace first lest they be thrown in a prison from which they will not get out until they have “paid the very last penny.”

The tying of this passage to judgment after death and the “prison” to Purgatory is not quite as much of a stretch as it might seem. Both passages, from Matthew and Luke, come in the midst of a string of sayings some of which seem to refer to the end times. In Matthew the connection is most pronounced. Jesus says in the preceding verses:

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

While there is mention of hell, there is also mention of the council which I would assume refers to an earthly court. The two seem rather oddly combined here. Or perhaps there is some heavenly judgment council in view? But this is not a common picture; I know of no where else in the Bible where such a council is spoken of in the context of final judgment.

If we are meant to be thinking of earthly judgment, then the prison is also an earthly one. If we are meant to be thinking of heavenly judgment, then how do we make peace with our accusers on the way?

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the scenario is the after-death one. If one has not made peace, we are told, then he will be thrown into prison and will not escape until the full penalty is paid.  Is this prison Purgatory, as the Catholics claim, such that one can pay the price and ultimately be freed? Or could the prison be Hell itself and the price unpayable? I’m biased, but the latter sounds more plausible to me given the overall context of the Matthew passage.

Matthew 12:32

31 Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:31-32)

This passage, with its reference to a particular sin which will not be forgiven “in this age or the age to come,” is taken to imply that there are other sins which could be forgiven. This would jibe well with the Catholic view of Purgatory as a place in which one can work off venial (small) sins but not mortal (serious, fatal) ones. Of course it need not mean this at all (for one alternative explanation, see “Is there any biblical basis for Purgatory?” by Don Stewart at

What is Purgatory like and what do the dead do there?

If we assume for a minute that all the above passages which the Catholic Church uses to defend the doctrine of Purgatory do indeed describe that place, what can we conclude about it and its inhabitants? Looking at the Scriptural evidence, we find that 2 Maccabees speaks of the dead men as asleep, though this may not be meant literally as it is common biblical language for death. Isaiah and I Corinthians speak of fire and Isaiah in particular of cleansing by fire. Matthew 5 and Luke 12 speak of a prison from which one is not released until one’s debt is paid. And lastly, Matthew 12 tells us that there is at least one sin for which forgiveness after death is not possible.

If we return to the Catechism of the Catholic Church which I quoted above, we find few specifics. Purgatory, we are told, involves purifying fire and it is possible for those on earth to pray for, obtain indulgences for and offer penance for the dead in Purgatory. Beyond this, little description is given.

The truth is even after so many centuries, even millennia, there seems to be little knowledge of or consensus on what Purgatory is like. There is a general tendency to preserve its fiery aspect to some degree, but there is also a competing tendency to make it seem less harsh. There is also some question as to whether Purgatory can be located in space or time. A survey of some Catholic sources shows the range of beliefs:

The older view is certainly a more painful view of Purgatory and tends to take the fires literally:

“St. Thomas Aquinas said the worst pain we feel on earth is not as painful as the least pain in purgatory. Aquinas explains, ‘It is the same fire that torments the reprobate in hell, and the just in purgatory. The least pain in purgatory,’ he says, ‘surpasses the greatest suffering in this life. ‘ Nothing but the eternal duration makes the fire of hell more terrible than that of purgatory.'” (“Purgatory: What can I expect there?” from

The current and previous popes have both attempted to make Purgatory sound more bearable and less, well, torturous. Pope John Paul II in his August 4, 1999, “General Audience” , after explaining the need for purification, tells us that:

“Every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected. Purification must be complete, and indeed this is precisely what is meant by the Church’s teaching on purgatory. The term does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence. Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already in the love of Christ who removes from them the remnants of imperfection (cf. Ecumenical Council of Florence, Decretum pro Graecis: DS 1304; Ecumenical Council of Trent, Decretum de iustificatione: DS 1580; Decretum de purgatorio: DS 1820).”

After dealing with the more doctrinal issues, John Paul II adds a person address, telling us that:

“But before we enter into God’s Kingdom every trace of sin within us must be eliminated, every imperfection in our soul must be corrected. This is exactly what takes place in Purgatory. Those who live in this state of purification after death are not separated from God but are immersed in the love of Christ.”

There are two key points to take from this document: Purgatory is not a place and those in it are not separated from God but “immersed in the love of Christ.” It sounds from this like rather not a bad state to be in.

In 2011, the current pope, Benedict XVI said, citing the visions of St. Catherine of Genoa (a 15th century figure but not typical for her age in her benign take on Purgatory), that “the ‘torments’ of purgatory” are not external “but rather called it an ‘interior fire’ that purifies and inflames our hearts with God’s love” (“Purgatory inflames hearts with God’s love, Pope says,” from This pope has also emphasized that Purgatory is a blessing to God’s people in that it allows them to be purified and enter His presence.

Lest we think Purgatory has become no big deal, however, other (less official) sources make quite clear that Purgatory is still not a pleasant experience. Catholic Herald says that in Purgatory “Like Hell, there is the pain of loss and the pain of sense: however, the severity of these pains between Hell and Purgatory is vastly different. The pain of loss for those in Purgatory is the temporary deprivation of the Beatific Vision. . . . the souls in Purgatory long for this vision [of God]. That longing and deprivation is what torments their soul” (“Straight Answers: What is Purgatory Like?” from The pain, in this case, is that of being separated from God.

Others still try to incorporate the fiery imagery. The fires of Purgatory are likened to that which refines metals (quite biblical image) and even to radiation treatments for cancer which burn away the bad cells (a decidedly more modern analogy).

St. Peter Catholic has its own, even more benign, view of the fiery aspect of Purgatory:

One theory that I am personally attracted to is that perhaps Purgatory is actually the experience of the Beatific Vision before our souls are perfectly able to accept God’s love. The effect is like walking outside into the brilliance of a sunny day, especially in winter when the sun reflects off the snow (this happened to me just today). Until our eyes adjust, the light hurts our eyes and causes us pain. Once our eyes adjust, we are able to appreciate the beauty of the sunny day and we are hesitant to go back into the relative darkness of the house. In the same way, God’s glory burns into our imperfect soul and causes suffering because we are not perfectly oriented to receive God’s love. Once our imperfections are burned away, then we are able to enjoy the glory of God’s love.” (“Does the church still teach about Purgatory?” from

As the quote from Pope John Paul II showed above, Purgatory need not be thought of as a place. It has come to be viewed as timeless as St. Peter Catholic explains:

“Purgatory used to be seen as a waiting room or a jail cell where the soul pays reparation for the “temporal punishment for sin” by “doing time. In fact, some devotionals used to assign a specific number of years in Purgatory for each sin, and a certain number of years that could be taken off of our sentence in Purgatory for an act of indulgence. I do not know much about this practice, and if anyone knows more about it I would really appreciate if you could explain it more clearly by leaving a comment for this post. The vision of Purgatory as a waiting room or a jail cell has somewhat fallen out of favor among post-Vatican II theologians. One reason is the awareness that Purgatory is experienced before the resurrection of our bodies. Without a body, a soul does not experience time in the same way we do now.” (“Does the church still teach about Purgatory?” from

This timelessness is in sharp contrast to older depictions which clearly spoke of Purgatory in terms of time. We can see this in the old lists of indulgences which were said to get take specific lengths of time off of the tenure of the dead there.

So what, then can we conclude about the modern view of Purgatory?  Still Catholic provides a concise summary saying, “purgatory is no party” (“Purgatory: What can I expect there?” from While there is no consensus on the details, it goes on to say that while Purgatory is meant as a blessing one should “expect some sort of pain” and that “by most accounts, it is brutal.”

There is no definitive interpretation on whether it is a place:

“Purgatory only refers to the state of being purged of our sinfulness. Whether or not there is a physical place where this occurs, we will not know until we arrive. Since it is difficult for us earthlings to envision supernatural things, some of us may tend to envision purgatory as a place, which is fine, as long we realize that the Church has not yet defined whether or not it involves a place.”(“Purgatory: What can I expect there?” from

While some argue for its timelessness, or at least that time would make no sense to the dead in Purgatory, it seems hard to speak of it without referring to time:

“We do not know. Some theologians would say it could last anywhere from a second to many centuries, depending on the depth and number of sins, the intensity of one’s attachments to earthly things, and the amount of penance one had done on Earth..”(“Purgatory: What can I expect there?” from

The Theological Argument for Purgatory

My own feeling is that in many ways modern Catholics would like to distance themselves from the old depictions of Purgatory, particularly its more brutal, fiery aspects. Yet at the same time, they are not willing to give up the concept altogether (as for instance, Limbo has been abandoned), because there is a very great perceived need for such a place.  To Protestants, this is mystifying. We do not see the need, because we do not have the same view of sin and salvation. And that is really what it all comes down to. As I said in my post on indulgences (once more, you can read it here), Catholics and Protestants just view sin and salvation differently. I plan to get into this more in depth on a future post on original sin. For now, let me just attempt to explain the Catholic view as it relates to Purgatory.  Andres Ortiz sums up the Catholic position well on About Catholics:

“If purgatory didn’t exist, the man would go to hell for his small sin. God’s mercy is so great and our God is a just God that it seems unfathomable that he would condemn a justified man to hell for a small, yet unrepented sin. The man’s soul is dirty. His actions have defiled his soul, but not the point where he has cut himself off from God. Only mortal sins cut off a person from God’s grace. So, the man, having been justified by the Lord, is destined for heaven, yet his soul is defiled by his sin (Matthew 12:36, 15:18). His soul is in need of cleansing because nothing defiled can enter heaven. This is the purpose of purgatory. Out of mercy and love God sends the man through purgatory on his way to heaven so that his soul can be purified to be able to join God in heaven.” (Adres Ortiz, “Where is Purgatory in the Bible?” from

To try to sum up a complicated theological doctrine briefly, in Catholic thought though we may be destined for salvation there is still a way in which our sins cling to us and make us unfit for God’s Presence. Purgatory is a mercy in that it provides a way in which we may be cleansed of those sins and still enter Heaven. If there were no Purgatory, anyone who died with any unconfessed sin, no matter how small, would go to Hell.

I realize there is a lot in this conception for my Protestant brethren to disagree with and, again, I do plan to get into all that soon, but for now I just want us to appreciate how necessary Purgatory seems to our Catholic friends. While I personally don’t think the Scriptural evidence for it is strong and I am bothered by the fact that the conception of it is still so little fixed after so much time, I don’t think it is a doctrine we can argue against until we get to what is behind it, namely our very different views of sin itself.





The Catholic Church on Indulgences

Dear Reader,

Indulgences. The word sounds so old-fashioned, doesn’t it? As I have been studying up on various aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine, I have also reread their position on indulgences. As every article on the subject says — you may not realize that the Roman Catholic Church still believes in them. (I did in fact know this so I count myself ahead of the game.)

While in my other recent posts relating to Catholicism my aim has been to inform other naïve Protestants like myself (I’m actually an ex-Catholic myself and I think a relatively well-informed one but I still find there is much I didn’t know and was never taught), this time I think I would like to talk to the Catholics. The articles I have read on indulgences from Catholic sources are along the lines of “This is how you misunderstand indulgences; this is what they really are and why they are not so weird and bad.” To the authors of those articles I would like to say in return: “This is why you are not convincing me as a Protestant; these are the real issues I have with your position.”

Indulgences in the Catholic Church Today

Let’s start then with what indulgences are and how they are used in today’s Roman Catholic Church. Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

“What is an indulgence? ‘An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.’ ‘An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.’ The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1471)

Before I get into this, let me clarify for my Protestant friends that, unlike in Luther’s day, the Catholic Church does not sell indulgences. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) banned the misuse and selling of indulgences. For perspective, Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in 1517. Trent happened a mere 40 years later; that’s a pretty quick turn-around in church terms. So I am not going to spend time talking about what was; I’d like to focus just on modern day teaching on indulgences.

Returning to the above quote, I’d like to pull out and discuss a few phrases:

  • “the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven”
  • “the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints”
  • “. . . or apply them to the dead”

For each of these, I’ll give you first the Catholic Church’s elucidation and then turn to my own questions and critiques.

Temporal Punishment

A large part of the Catholic defense of indulgences is spent explaining that in obtaining an indulgence one is not working for or buying forgiveness for sins. Indulgences are about the temporal punishment of sin, not about guilt and forgiveness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

“The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the ‘old man’ and to put on the ‘new man.'” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1473)

Canon Law Made Easy seeks to explain this:

“To begin with, receiving an indulgence is not the same as being granted forgiveness. We Catholics know that God forgives our sins when we humbly confess them in the sacrament of Penance and receive absolution from the priest, who acts in God’s place . . .

. . . Rather, indulgences concern the temporal punishment which must be paid, even after a sin has been forgiven. A simple example might serve to clarify the distinction.

Let’s say that Jeff is a bored 12-year-old boy sitting idly on the curb, throwing stones he’s picking up along the side of the road . . . Suddenly there’s a crash — and he realizes he just broke the neighbor’s window!” (“What are the Church’s Current Rules on Indulgences?” from Canon Law Made

The article goes on to point out that even if and when the neighbor forgives the boy, there is still the window to be dealt with and paid for. The boy “is morally obliged to make restitution.”

On the surface this seems like a reasonable thing to say. We Protestants too believe that sins have consequences and that it is often not enough to merely say “sorry.” Boys who break windows should pay for them. The Old Testament likewise tells us that those who steal must restore what they have taken with interest.

The problem I have is that this is a false example. The broken window that needs paid for is not really the sort of temporal punishment that indulgences deal with. The article this example was taken from is about an indulgence received by listening to or watching a papal blessing. So what if in our example the boy had participated in such a blessing, could he then not pay for the window? Could the indulgence he earned by applied to the window situation? Of course not. The neighbor still needs the window fixed; the effect of the sin would still remain in the form of the broken window.

The problem is that the broken window is not really a temporal punishment. It is a natural consequence; it is the effect of sin, but it is not punishment. What the argument above shows is that there are effects of sin which last beyond the point at which forgiveness has been given. But I don’t think even its writer would really think that receiving an indulgence gets the boy out of paying for the window.

Though this is the sort of example Catholics like to cite, the truth is that they seem to be talking about something quite different than the broken window situation, which is a natural and physical consequence of a sin, when they speak of “temporal punishments.”

If an indulgence can’t fix  a broken window, that sorts of “temporal punishments” are really in view? In my reading I have not found one clear answer to this question. Here are some of the answers given — first from two official documents of the Church:

“On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin. These two punishments [temporal and eternal] must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1472)

“It is a divinely revealed truth that sins bring punishments inflicted by God’s sanctity and justice. These must be expiated either on this earth through the sorrows, miseries and calamities of this life and above all through death, or else in the life beyond through fire and torments or ‘purifying’ punishments . . .

. . . Every sin in fact causes a perturbation in the universal order established by God in His ineffable wisdom and infinite charity, and the destruction of immense values with respect to the sinner himself and to the human community . . . ” (“Indulgentiarum Doctrina” 2-3; This document is an Apostolic Constitution issued by Pope Paul VI in the 1960s as a part of Vatican II.)

And from two online Catholic apologists:

“When we are sorry for our sins and have received absolution for them, they are forgiven — but we still owe God a sort of “debt” that needs to be paid either here on earth, through prayer and penance, or after death in Purgatory.” (“What are the Church’s Current Rules on Indulgences?” from Canon Law Made

“While our sins are truly and fully forgiven in the sacrament of penance, our souls can still suffer the spiritual damage caused by our offenses.” (“A Primer on Indulgences” from

It is unclear to me from these just how Catholics themselves view the “temporal punishments.” Are they a debt we owe to God? Are they a sort of spiritual injury to ourselves? Are they wider ranging as the Vatican II document implies? I don’t even really know what to make of the Catechism‘s “an unhealthy attachment to creatures.” I assume it is more about sin’s attachment to us human creatures than about our becoming attached to creatures, but I can’t get much further than that with it.

So, my Catholic friends, my question for you is just what “temporal punishment” there is to deal with. From my Protestant perspective, there are three effects of sin:

  • The guilt I incur when I sin which is removed when I receive forgiveness. From the above quotes, Catholics also believe in such guilt and believe that it is removed when forgiveness it sought and given.
  • The natural consequences of sin. These would include things such as the boy’s broken window, losing one’s job, losing the trust of one’s friends and family, etc. Again, we both acknowledge that such consequences exist, but I don’t think they are what you have in view when you speak of indulgences.
  • The pervasive effects of sin on Creation. “Indulgentiarum Doctrina” speaks of “perturbation in the universal order.” These effects are not personal in that we usually cannot connect them to specific sins (beyond Adam’s first sin in the Garden). Creation itself is fallen as we are told in Romans 8:20-22: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope  that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:20-22; ESV). Practically speaking we see this is natural disasters, the difficulty with which men till the earth, disease and illness, etc. So too human nature is fallen. I don’t believe Catholics and Protestants, though we both use the term Original Sin, mean the same thing by it (that’s another upcoming post), but we do both believe that humans are born with sinful  natures even before they have had to opportunity to commit sinful acts. But none of these are tied to specific sins we have committed. So despite the wording of the Apostolic Constitution cited above, I don’t see how these can be the “temporal punishments.” 

Which brings me back to my intial question: what are the “temporal punishments” which indulgences remove? Do they fit into one of the above categories? Or is there another category still?

The Treasury of Satisfactions

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of “the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints” which the Church opens to the faithful. I picture a giant treasure chest of extra righteousness just waiting to be assigned to deserving individuals. Indeed the Catechism tells us that “the ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1476).

My first reaction to this is that it is simply not necessary. It is not that I doubt the abundance of Christ’s merits or their infinite value, but that the necessity of such a treasury implies that Christ’s initial salvation of us is not sufficient. There is a fundamental difference here in how we view sin and salvation. In the Protestant view, our sins have been paid for once and for all by Christ; there are no remaining temporal punishments, and so there is no need for such a treasury.

Beyond this there is that little phrase “…and the saints.” For it is not just Christ’s merits which fill the treasury but also those of other Christians. There is a truth at the bottom of this that the Church is the body of Christ and that its parts work together. But I think that the Catholic Church takes it too far in saying that the spiritual merits of one can thus be applied to another. The Catechism says that:

“In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1475)


“‘This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.'” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1477)

And from the Indulgentiarum Doctrina:

“Following in the footsteps of Christ, the Christian faithful have always endeavored to help one another on the path leading to the heavenly Father through prayer, the exchange of spiritual goods and penitential expiation. The more they have been immersed in the fervor of charity, the more they have imitated Christ in his sufferings, carrying their crosses in expiation for their own sins and those of others, certain that they could help their brothers to obtain salvation from God the Father of mercies.” (Indulgentiarum Doctrina 5)

“A Primer on Indulgences” explains that

“Yet there are some saints who, through their lives of heroic patience and charity, have already done more than enough to ready their own souls for heaven. Because of this, the Church effectively has a surplus of goodness, which is referred to as the ‘treasury of the Church’ (cf. CCC 1467). Given the Church’s doctrine on the communion of saints (the Church’s teaching that all Christians share a deep spiritual bond with each other), it is possible for one Christian’s overabundant merit to be applied to the spiritual healing of another soul still in need of purification.” (“A Primer on Indulgences” from

The idea that some could “help their brothers to obtain salvation” goes too far for most Protestants. Again it implies the insufficiency of Christ’s own work. It also overrates human abilities. The Protestant view is that we do not contribute to our own salvation in any way; how then can we contribute to the salvation of others? Of course, God does answer our prayers for our others and He uses us in their salvation in that we show them His love and tell them about Him, but it is a far cry from that to saying that our extra merits can be applied to their account. Again, this gets to the nature of sin and salvation. In the Protestant conception, the debt we owe is paid in full when we are saved — both past and future sins have been paid for fully by Christ. Since the debt is paid in full, there is no lingering “temporal punishment” in the sense discussed above. Nor do we contribute in any way to the payment; it is Christ who pays all. Because there is no debt to pay, there is no need for a “treasury” of merits to be dispensed. The whole idea of an accounting system in which debts are tallied and paid off gradually is foreign to Protestant thinking. Love, after all, does not keep a record of wrongs (I Corinthians 13), nor, I think, does it keep a record of rights in this way.

. . . Applying them to the dead

There is one more point to discuss and that is the application of indulgences to those who have already passed. This conception is not possible without the idea of Purgatory. Indeed, the concept of indulgences seems closely linked with that of Purgatory. Indulgentiarum Doctrina states that:

“That punishment or the vestiges of sin may remain to be expiated or cleansed and that they in fact frequently do even after the remission of guilt is clearly demonstrated by the doctrine on purgatory. In purgatory, in fact, the souls of those ‘who died in the charity of God and truly repentant, but before satisfying with worthy fruits of penance for sins committed and for omissions are cleansed after death with purgatorial punishments.'” (Indulgentiarum Doctrina 3)

If there were no lingering temporal punishments, there would be no need for Purgatory. If there were no Purgatory, there could be no punishment for believers beyond death. And in the Protestant conception, there is neither. As Christ told the thief beside him on the cross, “‘Today you will be with me in Paradise'” (Luke 23:43).

I am not sure which came first, Purgatory or indulgences. It seems that the one implies the other and vice-versa. The doctrine of Purgatory itself seems to rely heavily on the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees which is not in the Protestant Old Testament so it doesn’t tend to be very easy to convince Protestants of.


To my Catholic friends– the basis of our disagreement on indulgences is really a more profound disagreement on the nature of sin and salvation. I have only scratched the surface of these issues here. I hope to do another post soon on Original Sin which will add a little more to the discussion.

If you wish to convince Protestants of the need for or value of indulgences, you need to show above all that there is a temporal punishment which needs remitted. And it is very important to be clear on the nature of this punishment. It is not merely a broken window. I find the Catholic sources themselves a little vague on this so I think it needs a lot more clarity not to mention biblical support (we Protestants gobble up that sort of thing). That is the most important issue, but I am also not convinced that there is a treasury of merits to which people other than Christ are able to contribute. And lastly, we cannot separate the doctrine of indulgences from that of Purgatory so the latter needs some explanation as well, preferably one that does not rest on 2 Maccabees as that is unlikely to convince us.



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.