"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Why I cannot be a Roman Catholic (Part 5): I believe in Authority

I don’t have as much time for these posts with school work piling up, but I thought I would end on a final question of Authority. The question relates to the ability of the visible church and one in authority to contradict the true faith. Can the church or tradition be placed in a position of authority?

I would like to submit that the question must be nuanced to be of any value. For if the question is merely stated as above, the Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox should answer yes. There are many different ways at looking at authority in relation to Scripture, tradition and the church. I would like to briefly (probably too briefly) explore three possibilities. The Pope authoritatively determines doctrine, the Councils authoritatively determines doctrine and the "Church Fathers" determine church doctrine. My answer to the Church fathers and the councils is actually, yes they do to a large degree help determine the faith. Yet, the question is not just a determination of doctrine, but an infallible guide. The real question becomes: Can the Pope, a Council or a/the Father(s) infallibly be an authority of the Christian faith in the same way Scripture can?

The Church Fathers?

Some, mostly those new to Church History, will place the Church Fathers, (variously grouped from the Apostolic Fathers to Augustine or perhaps to Gregory the Great) in a place of authority and infallibility alongside the Bible. I think seeing Church Fathers as the deposit of infallible authority is the weakest answer. Various early church fathers, and not just Origen and Tertullian, but recognized orthodox church fathers like Gregory Nyssa, contradict each other and accepted orthodox doctrine in certain areas. If the Church Fathers are an infallible guide, do we accept Ireneaus’ premillenialism, or Augustine’s amillennialism? Do we hold to the Latin fathers who held to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist as a function of the priest’s invocation, or to the Eastern Fathers’ view of the presence as a function of the Holy Spirit? Do we hold to the partaking of the Eucharistic presence as by faith (as Augustine does) or as objective, as Thomas Aquinas does? Considering their disagreement with each other, it is not disrespectful to put them in a secondary relationship to Scripture, as the Second Helvetic Confession put it in Chapter 2: “Neither do we think that we do them any wrong in this matter; seeing that they all, with one consent, will not have their writings equated with the canonical Scriptures, but command us to prove how far they agree or disagree with them, and to accept what is in agreement and to reject what is in disagreement.”

And this is true, when writing about theology, early church theologians cited Scripture as a rule over faith. Tertullian would often base points of argument on merely stating "for the Scriptures have taught us." [Against Praxeas, ch 17] Justin Martyr called Typho the Jew to believe on the authority of "so many Scriptures [as] proved to you." Typho's criteria for belief is "the Scriptures compel me to admit." The early fathers themselves held Scripture to have authority over them.

The Church Councils?

One must first ask what is meant by elevating “councils” to authoritative status. In the early history of the church, multiple synods and councils met, some now called the “Ecumenical Councils” and some not. The Councils of Toledo where rejected as not speaking for the entire church by the East. Other councils such as Orange issued decrees that were later lost to a great part of the church. Generally, there are either Four or Seven Councils recognized by Christians. The first problem is identifying what is a genuine ecumenical council. The Council of Hieria met as an Ecumenical Council, but was later rejected by a subsequent Ecumenical Council (Second Nicaea).

If we look at the first four Ecumenical Councils, perhaps there can be more agreement there. While the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition have a position of high importance in identifying orthodox Christianity, are they on the same level as Scripture? Scripture carries the same inspiration in Genesis as in Revelation, can we say this for the first four councils? In the first council in Nicea, an anathema was affixed at the end of the creed, condemning any who say Christ is of another “hypostasis” than the Father. By Chalcedon (the four council), Christ was being describes as one in ousia with the Father, but a different hypostasis than the Father. At one point, the wording of hypostasis was anathema, at another it was catholic faith. I say this not to undermine those creeds, which are vitally important to the faith, but to place the fluidity of tradition and developing understanding in contrast to the Scriptures.

The Councils display a developing understanding and a fluidity of terminology and words. Scripture, on the other hand, lends itself to interpretation based on the particular wording, tense and phrases invariably, rather than with fluidity. Jesus based His defence of resurrection on the particular tense of a verb in Exodus. (Matt 22:23-33) Jesus also spoke of the Law being preserved in such a way in the Law that neither a “jot or tittle” would pass from it. (this incidentally, is not a philosophy of text criticism, but a statement of the precise nature of Scripture's authority to the word.) Deuteronomy stated God is one, and though the New Testament developed the three persons, it was never to the denial of the Shema (that God is one). On the other hand, Nicaea first said one hypostasis, then developing terminology and need of another term then required the church to declare three hypostasis.

Can the Pope contradict the true faith?

I would submit for your consideration the little known case of Honorius. Honorius was Pope in the early Middle Ages and publicly backed the Monothelitist heresy. The church anathematized (condemned as a heretic) Honorius in the third Council of Constantinople for his heresy. In this case, the pope in authority did not speak for the true catholic faith. In fact, this case was cited in 1870 by Roman Catholics who did not want papal infallibility to become official doctrine (yes, it was not a formal doctrine until 1870). Of course, modern Catholics can use an achronistic new category of ex cathedra to read back into the affair to say that somehow though Honorius was supporting, writing letters and encouraging people to believe such a heresy he still was not "officially wrong" because he did not say he was officially speaking from the chair of St. Peter. It is a good argument since that phrase was not used for making teaching “official” by bishops of Rome - but it was said about the bishop of Rome in the Council of Chalcedon when they praised the current bishop of defending orthodoxy at the council. This is another interesting instance where the orthodoxy of the bishop of Rome was judged by others and not his own self-declaration, but I digress. One must deal with the fact that to be true to the catholic faith during Honorius’ reign, one had to disagree with the Pope to be catholic. That is because the true catholic faith is about something other than mere human authority. But for more detail, and how this helps disprove papal infallibility, see Schaff’s treatment here.

The Authority of Scripture.

Catholic apologetics cannot allow for a fallible Pope, mostly due to their quasi-Gnostic view of Scripture. What do I mean by quasi-Gnostic view of Scripture? Catholics set up interpretation of Scripture as this impossible task, best left to the magesterium. The Papacy becomes the only way to know if an interpretation is correct. In this way, modern Catholic apolegtics sets up a faith to crumble. The idea that the teaching of the Pope was errent now has set up a situation where because the Scriptures are set up as a foreign book of codes, it no longer is able to be understood at all. Is this how the early church interpreted the Bible?

Irenaeus, when facing the question of interpretation, never appeals to a magesterium, but boldly declares, "the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospel, can be clearly, unambigiously and harmoniously understood by all..." but the important distinction between the Christian understanding and the pagan is "...all do not believe."

There are several principles the early church sets up for the interpretation of scripture, the first:

1) Believe and you will understand.
This is a trust in the authority and of God to speak through the Scriptures. Anslem said this more broadly about theology stating he does not "understand in order to believe, but believes in order to understand."

2) Christ is the key to interpretation
The Apostolic Father Ignatius wrote to a group of believers who debated if they should accept the gospel preached to them in the Gospels and the preachers, questioning how to interpret the Old Testament (which they refered to as the ‘archives‘). Ignatius replied “But for me, the archives are Jesus Christ, the unalterable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith that comes through him.” [Ignatius to the Philadelphians 8:2] The rule of faith in interpretation was to see the Scriptures through the lens of the person and work of Christ. The first creed of Christianity is "Jesus is Lord." (Rom 10:9, Phil 2:11, etc.) Such a creed is not merely bestowing a title, but the reorienting of all life to a different paradigm. This reorientation extends even to the reading of Scripture. The true interpretation of Scripture is Christotelic. But you can read more on that elsewhere…

3) Scripture does not answer all our questions
Irenaeus ends his short section on interpretation declaring that though some questions can be clearly answered from Scripture, not all can. "In regards to those things which we investigate in the Scriptures, we are able by the grace of God to explain some of them, while we must leave others in the hands of God." Scripture does not intend to explain some scientific matters like the human circulatory system or even some theological matters such as the circumstances of the fall of Satan or workings of the responsibility of man and the sovereignty of God or the reasons behind God's election of some and not others.

The writings of the church fathers inform our reading of Scripture. The creeds provide the boundries. Christ provides the key. Yet, in the end, the Scriptures are our only infallible rule for faith, of which no other has claim, be it tradition, a pope, a theologian or a council. Perhaps this is why theology remains both a science and an art. Yet, objective truth remains, as the Second Helvetic puts it:

“Who Is The Judge? Therefore, we do not admit any other judge than God himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what to be avoided. So we do assent to the judgments of spiritual men which are drawn from the Word of God.”


Andrew said...

Good way to end the series. If you want another good case against papal infallibility try Pope Stephen and the Cadaver synod where he declared the holy orders of the entire church invalid (including his own) and thus if he was speaking as Pope, destroyed apostolic succession, or made an error in faith and morals disproving papal infallibility.

Though I wish you would've put more church documents in earlier than the reformed confessions, but it was still good.

Anonymous said...

This article gives a good response to the argument presented here. Of course, it is not going to change the author's mind but it is a serious one.

David said...

I am a Roman Catholic and amateur apologist. I have read these posts with interest as I'm always trying to understand the arguments used to support Protestantism.

I've noticed in your posts that more often than not, you do not reference the specific letter or writing from which a quotation of a church father is drawn. This would be helpful so that your readers can look up the writing and understand the quote in the context of the passage.

I think this post is the most important in the series, as the question of authority is the question; all others are secondary.

Your arguments against church councils, popes and church fathers rests solely on the basis that fathers contradict each other, popes contradict each other and councils contradict each other. Yet, based on this standard, scripture must also be discounted as authoritative because there are passages that contradict each other. For example, regarding marriage Matthew 5:31–32 and Mark 10:11–12. These two passages contradict each other. An authority outside of the bible is required to determine the true teaching regarding divorce. Since we know that the bible is inerrant, we know that the must be an answer that harmonizes both passages. What is this authority?

"But if I tarry long, that you may know how you ought to behave yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."1 Timothy 3:15

The church, according to scripture, is the pillar and ground of the church. This is the biblical view of the church.

I may, with your permission, copy this post to my blog and comment on your arguments (or course, providing a link back to your blog).

My blog is here: http://www.miraculous-disaster.blogspot.com/

May God bless you and your work. David

Jared Nelson said...


I would admit for my blog posts, I do not cite as thoroughly as I would a paper or published work. I cited longer quotations from Augustine and others, but is there a particular quote you would like a citation to that the context would alter the meaning?

You are also certainly welcome to interact with my posts on your blog if you wish.

David said...

Hi Jared,

In the current article, there are two seemingly contradictory statements for Irenaeus. The first occurs in the introduction:

"Irenaeus, when facing the question of interpretation, never appeals to a magesterium, but boldly declares, "the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospel, can be clearly, unambigiously and harmoniously understood by all..."

The second occurs in point 3:

Irenaeus ends his short section on interpretation declaring that though some questions can be clearly answered from Scripture, not all can. "In regards to those things which we investigate in the Scriptures, we are able by the grace of God to explain some of them, while we must leave others in the hands of God."

It would be interesting to know the sources of these two quotes. One wonders if they are as contradictory as they seem or if the context would better help the reader understand the meaning. The topic under discussion is not a minor one.