Hermeneutics and the Authority of ScriptureSep 9th, 2009 | By Matt Yonke | Category: Featured Articles
It is my pleasure to be able to write on a subject where we as Catholics share so much common ground with our Reformed brothers, and even with most Evangelicals. In fact, it is no small thing that we agree upon foundational truths contra mundum in a time when even many Christians deny them.
This article intends to show that, though Protestants agree with the Catholic Church on the basic truths about Scripture and its authority, the Reformed view of Scripture errs in three respects: in its assumption about the canon of Scripture, in its view of the authority of Scripture, and in its view of the role of Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church. These errors are harmful to the faith, and the truth proclaimed by the Catholic Church about its Sacred books is the perfect corrective. I will begin this examination of the authority of Sacred Scripture with our points of agreement.
I. Points of Agreement
The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares that God is the author of Scripture, that the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit and without error1, that Scripture cannot be rightly interpreted without the aid of the Holy Spirit, that the Old and New Testaments are both the word of God, both binding on men for all time, that the Old and New Testaments are one unity of revelation, and that, consequently, one cannot be rightly understood without the other.
To quote from the Catechism:
In order to reveal himself to men, in the condescension of his goodness God speaks to them in human words: “Indeed the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men.”2
In Sacred Scripture, the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength, for she welcomes it not as a human word, “but as what it really is, the word of God.” In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them.3
I know our Reformed brothers will approve of each and every one of these points, as the
Westminster Confession of Faith states the following:
Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now cease. 4
Here we stand as Reformed Christians and Catholics together claiming Sacred Scripture to be the word of God given for the salvation of the world. Together we deny that Sacred Scripture is merely a collection of historical books or the wise words of human authors.
We agree further that the Word of God recorded in Sacred Scripture has a special place in the life of the Church: as its guide, as its greatest earthly treasure, and as its greatest source of wisdom and guidance. This has been the case in the Catholic Church from her inception down to the present, as a few quotations from the Fathers and councils of the Catholic Church suffice to show:
These books are the fountains of salvation, so that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the oracles contained in them: in these alone the school of piety preaches the Gospel; let no man add to or take away from them. (St. Athanasius, Festal Letters, 39.)
[H]e will find there in much greater abundance things that are to be found nowhere else, but can be learnt only in the wonderful sublimity and wonderful simplicity of the Scriptures. (St. Augustine, De Doctr. Christ., 2,42,63.)
‘As a trusty door, Scripture shuts out heretics, securing us from error…’ (St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, Joann. 58.)
Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture. For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: “For the word of God is living and active” and “it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified.” (Dei Verbum, 21, quoting Hebrews 4:12, Acts 20:32, and citing 1 Thessolonians 2:13.)
When we examine the very earliest days of the Church, through the time of the Fathers, even through the divisions of the Reformation, down to the Second Vatican Council, we see that Catholics and Reformed Christians have significant common ground in our understanding of Sacred Scripture.
Before advancing to our points of disagreement, let us pause for a moment and thank the consubstantial Trinity for preserving in us all a love and reverence for Sacred Scripture, which will surely be integral to the reunion for which we all pray.
II. Errors of the Reformed View
But advance we must, for there remain divisions between us on the nature and number of the books of Sacred Scripture, as well as the nature of its authority. Protestants view the books of Sacred Scripture as the complete revelation of God and sole arbiter of all theological disputes whereas the Catholic Church has always taught that Sacred Scripture is a part of the Deposit of faith, along with Sacred Tradition and the living Magisterium of the Church. These are some of the most fundamental issues that have divided us for centuries and will continue to do so until we can come to a common understanding.
I intend to address three of the errors in the Reformed doctrine of Sacred Scripture, and then proceed to consider how the Catholic doctrine of Scripture provides a corrective for these errors and a proper understanding of the authority of the Scriptures. The first Reformed error I will address is the deficiency of its standards for determining which books are a part of the canon of Sacred Scripture. Among the different Protestant communities there are numerous views of the way in which the canon of Sacred Scripture was established, and space does not allow for all of them to be addressed.5 I will therefore address the Reformed views which seem to be the most widely held.
How Do We Know?
The first problem is one of epistemology. For all the many attempts to prove otherwise, two of which I examine below, Protestants simply have no way to verify a canon apart from a subjective internal witness. R.C. Sproul claims that we have a “fallible collection of infallible books,”6 but on what basis can he know that each of these books is infallible? It has never been the view of the Church that the books of Sacred Scripture are anything less than an infallible and trustworthy standard.
Sproul argues that Scripture claims infallibility for itself, but that there are other fallible authorities in the world, such as the Church, that are nonetheless authoritative in spite of their fallibility. According to Sproul, on the basis of the Church as an institution founded by God acting with His authority, we can trust that the Scriptures were rightly identified by the Church.
But the claim that we have a fallible collection of infallible books does not solve the problem of how we know which books are inspired and which are not; in fact it creates more problems. His argument points to the Scriptures as evidence supporting the claim that the Scriptures are infallible. But the evidence supporting the claim that the Scriptures are infallible is unavailable unless we already know which books belong to the canon. Even beyond that problem, there is an additional question: if we can trust God to guide the Church to establish a canon of infallible books, why can we not trust her when she explains to us what these books mean? The Protestant answer is, of course, to compare the later teachings of the Church to the teachings of Scripture. But this brings us right back to square zero. If the Church can err, for example, in proclaiming that icons ought to be venerated, she can err just as easily in compiling a canon, and it would be ad hoc to allow ecclesial infallibility in establishing the canon but deny infallibility in every other ecclesial activity.
The fallibility of the canon, of course, presents its own problems. The fallible list could be excluding divinely inspired books that commend us to offer prayers for the dead, that could lead (and have led) many into the grievous error of not praying for the souls of the faithful departed or a host of other doctrines. Furthermore, there would be no way for the Protestant Christian to know if that was the case.
Those taking Sproul’s argument will often cite the “self-authenticating” nature of the books of Sacred Scripture. John Calvin is one of the defenders of this view. In his Institutes, Calvin writes:
Nor is there any room for the cavil, that though the Church derives her first beginning from [the foundation of the writings of the Apostles and prophets], it still remains doubtful what writings are to be attributed to the Apostles and prophets, until her judgement is interposed. For if the Christian Church was founded at first on the writings of the prophets, and the preaching of the Apostles, that doctrine, wheresoever it may be found, was certainly ascertained and sanctioned antecedently to the Church, since, but for this, the Church herself never could have existed.7
First of all, Calvin states that “that doctrine, wheresoever it may be found, was certainly ascertained and sanctioned antecedently to the Church.” But the fact that people in the Church can distinguish true and false (nonapostolic) doctrine, does not entail that there was no doubt about “what writings are to be attributed to the Apostles,” nor that the interposition of the Church’s judgment was unnecessary. Certainly the Apostles’ doctrine was clearly known by the early Church, but that alone did not make it perfectly clear to later generations receiving Christian teaching amidst any number of false teachers which books contained the actual Apostolic teaching or even which had an actual connection to Christ and the Apostles.
But St. Paul seems to indicate there is more than meets the eye in this foundation of the Apostles and prophets when he calls the Church, not the Scriptures, the very pillar and ground of truth.8 The Church certainly contains the teachings of the Apostles, but the Church is not only the teachings of the Apostles. The Church’s foundation also contains the living magisterium and deposit of faith we see working already in the time of the Apostles in Acts 15. Without this foundation, we could not know the teachings of the Apostles and Prophets. We see after St. Paul’s death the importance of the divinely ordained authority of the Magisterium when multiple written works bearing the names of the Apostles and containing diverse and sometimes contradictory messages would appear. St. Paul was, at Our Lord’s command, setting up the Church as the judge and protector of doctrinal orthodoxy. Further, as I will explore below, this is not a function a book is even capable of performing, as a book cannot explain its own meaning when questions about that meaning arise.
It is interesting to note that St. Paul says that the Church is founded on “the Apostles and Prophets,”9 but Calvin renders it “the teachings of the Apostles and Prophets.” He does not allow the passage say what St. Paul actually says: the men themselves and the authority given to them by God are the foundation of the Church. This divinely appointed authority is what gives weight to their teaching and gives authority to their interpretation, and is thus more foundational to the Church than the teaching itself. This is why St. Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to hold to both the written and unwritten traditions of the Apostles10. Nowhere in Sacred Scripture do we find the common Protestant assumption that all the essential information concerning Christ and the Apostles’ teaching would be codified in written form.
It should be noted, however, that although the authority of the Church’s Magisterium is foundational and binding, the Church still holds the Scripture in the highest place of honor and authority. The Magisterium is the servant of the Scripture, and, as the Catechism says, “with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully.”11
Next Calvin offers his understanding of the Catholic Church’s view of her own position in relation to the Scriptures which, as we will see, is directly contrary to the Church’s stated self-understanding:
Nothing therefore can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her nod its certainty depends. When the Church receives it, and gives it the stamp of her authority, she does not make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful or controverted but, acknowledging it as the truth of God, she, as in duty bounds shows her reverence by an unhesitating assent.12
This section sets up a straw man of the Catholic position. The Catholic Church did not teach in Calvin’s time, nor has she ever taught, that her stamp of approval on a book makes it God’s Word. It is almost as if Calvin believed that the Church thought, by declaring a text to belong to the Word of God, that she makes it into the the Word of God, or that she could turn around tomorrow and declare that St. Matthew’s gospel is no longer the Word of God. The Council of Trent refers to the books the council had “received,” and Dei Verbum13 uses precisely the same language of receiving. To imply that the Church ever taught that her fiat makes the word of God authentic is misleading and incorrect. The Church’s position has always been one of recognizing the authenticity of the great treasure that has been handed down to her.
When the Church tells her members what books are Scripture, she operates in exactly the same way she does in all other matters of faith and morals. Tobit is inspired not because the Church says so; the Church says so because Tobit is inspired. Abortion is wrong not because the Church says so; the Church says so because abortion is wrong. We can trust her authority on these matters far more than we can trust our own intuition or reason.
Now Calvin gets to the meat of the argument, that is, that the Scriptures are so self-evidently what they are that it is plain to anyone with a conscience which books are in and which are out:
As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that it came from God without recurring to a decree of the Church? it is just the same as if it were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their colour, sweet and bitter of their taste.14
The claim that the Scriptures identify themselves is a falsifiable proposition but it is being treated as unfalsifiable by those who hold it. In his preface to the book of Revelation, Martin Luther wrote, “I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.” How could a person argue with Luther about what he could or could not “detect” in the text? If Calvin claims his sixty-six books identify themselves, we should be able to conduct blind “divinely-inspired-test” experiments to confirm his hypothesis. It also raises the question of why there were such disputes in the early Church about what was and was not Scripture. If it is as easy as telling black from white, then there should have been no disagreement in the early Church about the identity of canonical books. But there was manifestly such debate, and for no small period of time.
To look back centuries later and claim that the canon is self-evidently what it is denies history and falls prey to the very same mentality according to which the King James Bible fell out of Heaven whole and complete. Many of our brothers in some of the anti-intellectual forms of fundamentalism give no thought at all to the historical origin of Scripture. They have their Bible, the Spirit testifies unto their spirit that it is the Word of God, and that’s good enough for them. This claim that the identity of the canon is self-evident is in this respect exactly like the claim of the fundamentalist who ignores the historical development of the canon.
The Protestant is in agreement with the Catholic Church in the belief that the books of the canon of Scripture are the very words of God, but the Catholic has a better reason for believing so. The proposed ground of the Protestant’s epistemic certainty of the infallibility of the canon lies precisely in the books he is seeking to prove are infallible; and that certainty is primarily based on a handful of citations from St. Paul’s epistles. By contrast, the Catholic’s certainty rests in a hierarchy established by Jesus Himself that claims a call from God the Father, promises from Jesus, and the protection of the Holy Spirit over the Church in establishing and preserving true doctrine. Assuming the truth of our shared premise that God exists in a Trinity of divine Persons, the Catholic Church’s claim has a sound Trinitarian bedrock, while the Protestant claim of self-authentication trusts neither the Trinity nor the Church, but rather relies on the intellectual prowess of a handful of 16th century intellectuals, the Reformers, and their ability to discern true Scripture from false. In the worst case scenario, the Protestant claim relies on every man doing what is right in his own eyes, depending on which books the Holy Spirit testifies to his spirit are the Word of God.
In light of this, it hardly seems surprising that when the Westminster Confession of Faith lists its canon, it does so completely without commentary or substantive proof texts. This is a striking difference from the form of the rest of the Confession which goes into such incredible detail in defending from Scripture and other sources the things it claims. Not so with the canon. The Protestant canon is apparently to be accepted on its own self-evidence. But it is not in keeping with the doctrine of sola scriptura to take a doctrine as essential as this on the basis of a supposed self-authentication that is not taught in Sacred Scripture.
So we see that one problem with the Reformed view of Scripture is its inability to account for the determination of the canon of Scripture, and thus for the authority of Scripture. For if we cannot determine with certainty which books are and are not God-breathed, we have no means for discerning which teachings are true and binding on Christians and which are not.
An Unbiblical View of the Authority of Scripture
A second problem with the Reformed view is that it attributes to Sacred Scripture a functional capacity that Sacred Scripture does not claim for itself. The Protestant view attempts to ascribe to Sacred Scripture the role of final court of appeal in matters of faith and morals, citing the theory that clear passages will elucidate those that are unclear. But such notions are simply not found in Sacred Scripture.
The Westminster Confession makes this claim:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.15
But in attempting to substantiate the claim, it only produces the following proof texts:
And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.16
These verses are wonderful and true, but they claim that all Scripture is useful for doctrine, reproof, etc.; not that only Scripture is useful for these purposes, or that Scripture can accomplish them in a vacuum, that is, apart from the divinely appointed teaching and interpretive authority of the Church. Scripture interpreted correctly is good for all the things St. Paul mentions. Scripture interpreted incorrectly leads to heresy, division, and the destruction of souls. What this passage fails to prove is that Sacred Scripture by itself is able to do all the things St. Paul mentions.
In interpreting these verses, we must also consider the state of the New Testament canon. Since most of the New Testament was unwritten at the time St. Paul was writing, he could only have been referring here to the Old Testament. So the Scriptures that will equip the man of God for every good work cannot be the Scriptures St. Paul is writing as he writes this, much less the ones that will be written after. And even if the written books will equip, this passage does not tell us whether or not they do so in the context of the Church’s interpretive authority. Thus, these verses do not show that Sacred Scripture is sufficient to lead the Church on its own without an interpretive authority.
The confession’s next citation is from II Thessalonians:
That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.17
This verse does not show the sufficiency of Sacred Scripture as a supreme rule, especially since Sacred Scripture is not mentioned in it. St. Paul argues that the Thessalonians ought not to be shaken from the message delivered to them. This in no way implies that this message is fully contained in the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon.
So we see that the WCF’s citations do not back up its claims, but we might still wonder whether Church history would help the Protestant position. After all, the quotations at the beginning of this article made it clear that the Church Fathers had a very lofty view of Sacred Scripture. But it must be noted that the same Church Fathers whom we saw above speaking in such elevated prose about the virtues and supremacy of Sacred Scripture believed doctrines not taught explicitly or by good and necessary consequence in Sacred Scripture.
Take as an example the following quotations from each of the Fathers mentioned above, on the Catholic Church’s teachings on Mary, Jesus’ mother:
The self-same who was born of the Virgin is, in truth, King and the Lord God. And on His account, she who gave Him birth is properly and truly proclaimed Queen, Lady and Mother of God. . . . And standing now as Queen at the right hand of her Son the King of all, she is celebrated in Sacred Writ as clad around with the gilded clothing of incorruption and immortality, and surrounded with variety. . . . Let us say then again and again as we look up to Our King, Our Lord and God, and to Our Queen, Our Lady and Mother of God: The Queen stood at thy right hand, in gilded clothing, surrounded with variety. (St. Athanasius, Epist. ad Marcellin. in Interpret. Psalm, sec. 1.)
We must except the Holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honor to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin. (St. Augustine, Nature and Grace, 36:42.)
It is truly right to bless you, O Theotokos, ever blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, without defilement you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos we magnify you. (St. John Chrysostom, Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.)
We see here the same men who above reveled in the glory of Sacred Scripture espousing doctrines found in Sacred Scripture only in type or shadow. These doctrines certainly are not presented in Scripture in any sense that would satisfy the Westminster Divines.
So whatever these Fathers meant in speaking of the primacy of Scripture, it did not rule out believing doctrines not found explicitly in Scripture. These and all the other Fathers of the Church who held Scripture in incredibly high esteem also believed in the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist and its sacrificial character, the succession of Christ’s authority in the Church through the episcopacy, the ministerial priesthood, and the Catholic understanding of the communion of the Saints, to name a few examples. St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures18 are an excellent resource for seeing all of these doctrines taught as common knowledge in the early Church.
In the Fathers we find that Scripture was used in the context of what the Church already knew to be true, that is, the deposit of faith handed down both in Sacred Scripture and the unwritten traditions of the Apostles cited above by St. Paul. Even though these doctrines concerning Our Lady are found explicitly only in Sacred Tradition, the Fathers quoted above clearly valued them just as highly as those doctrines explicitly taught in Sacred Scripture. Scripture took ultimate pride of place in the early Church, to be sure, but it did not take that place in a vacuum.
Since this was the understanding of the place of Sacred Scripture in the Church from the earliest times, the burden of proof rests on the Westminster Confession and its defenders to prove from Scripture that their view is correct. The small smattering of proof texts offered fails to meet that burden because these texts do not display the Westminster Confession’s actual position from the Scriptures, and that position is clearly not the standard held by the early Church or any stage of the Church prior to the Reformation.
What Can A Book Do?
Finally, the Reformed view also ascribes to Sacred Scripture a capacity that, on a purely practical level, a book simply cannot bear.
A book provides words that must be interpreted to be understood. A person speaking to us in person, like the Apostles speaking to the early Churches, can explain the meaning of his speech. A book cannot elucidate problem passages for us. Given the fallibility of human understanding and the diversity of perspectives regarding interpretation, especially over the span of 2,000 years of Church history, it is simply not possible that a book by its very nature could be the supreme rule of faith and doctrine. At least it cannot do this if we expect there to be a consistent understanding of this book that would work itself out into consistent faith and practice. A human, or set of humans, must make the final decision about the meaning of written texts.
The Protestant response, of course, is an appeal to perspicuity. The doctrine of the perspicuity of the Scriptures refers to the claim that the Scriptures are able, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to make the truths essential to salvation known to any reader. The WCF states:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.19
The citation given to support this claim is from the Psalmist:
The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.20
Certainly the Law of the Lord brings understanding to the simple, but the Confession’s interpretation mistakenly identifies “the Law of the Lord” with the modern Protestant canon of Scripture. This verse in no way entails that the simple can “obtain a sufficient understanding” of the Scriptures without any aid or guidance.
But even if there were a case to be made from the Scriptures for the perspicuity of the Scriptures, reality tells a different story. Learned Scripture scholars and even the revered figures of various modern Reformed communities cannot agree on what “the gospel” is, much less on the meaning of the Sacraments or any number of other topics of great doctrinal importance. The Federal Vision controversy is a striking testament to this discord. This, of course, is why we see such disparate faiths and practices among our Protestant brothers, even among our Reformed brothers who hold to a common set of confessions. The Reformed have 21 denominations in Switzerland, 14 in the UK and 44 in the US, all divided because of some irreconcilable doctrinal difference.
This is also the source of continual splitting that the history of the Reformed denominations has borne out. When each individual, or even each presbytery or each denomination decides where the boundaries of orthodoxy are on the basis of its own understanding of Sacred Scripture, even with the guide of the Reformed confessions, division at least every fifty years or so is practically a design feature.21
Unless there is an arbiter of these interpretive disagreements, there will necessarily be division and disagreement about basic tenets of the Christian faith. This division is contrary to Christ’s prayer in John 17 and unacceptable for the witness of the Church to the outside world.
From these historical facts, we see that a book simply does not have the capacity in and of itself to function in the way the Westminster Confession claims it must function. A book cannot resolve an interpretive dispute about itself, decide who is right in a doctrinal controversy, or address any areas that it does not address. If Scripture were intended to do this, as Protestants claim, we would not see the history of division and infighting that we see. Indeed, the entirety of the Protestant experiment hinges on the truth of the idea that the Scriptures were intended to function as described by the Westminster Confession. The Scripture’s inability to perform the ecclesial function expected of it by the Confession is one of the more common factors provoking Protestants to consider the claims of the Catholic Church, and eventually leave their communities to seek full communion with the body that Christ founded to give us the true interpretation of Sacred Scripture.
God be praised, the view of Scripture handed down from Christ to the Apostles and through the unbroken succession of Bishops in union with the Pope answers and corrects each of these errors in the Protestant position. In this section we will examine how each of the errors in the Reformed view is corrected by the teaching of the Catholic Church about Sacred Scripture.
The Epistemology Problem
The Catholic Church’s teaching on Scripture avoids the epistemological problems laid out above concerning the origin and authority of Scripture. An important key to understanding authority in the Church, and thus the Scripture, is the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15. This first Ecumenical Council gives us a model of the way the Apostles understood authority in the Church.
The Council was convened to answer the following question: do Gentiles have to be circumcised to become Christians? The Scriptures extant at the time did not answer the question, otherwise there would have been no need for the Council. What did the Apostles do? They called a council consisting of themselves and the presbyters they had ordained.
At this Council the Apostles and their successors debated this question, using what the Jewish Scriptures taught and what Christ had taught them in His earthly ministry. They issued a decree that was binding on all Christians. It is important to note that this was not merely a council of the Apostles, but also of the presbyters they had ordained, who took full part in the Council. As we see in Acts 15:4-6:
When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, as well as by the apostles and the presbyters, and they reported what God had done with them. But some from the party of the Pharisees who had become believers stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.” The apostles and the presbyters met together to see about this matter.
The assumption of the continuity of authority between the Apostles and their successors is apparent at this council. The presbyters ordained by the Apostles were present and it was these very same men, and those ordained by them that ruled over the further ecumenical councils of the Church. It is precisely the pattern of the Council of Jerusalem–of bishops gathering and proclaiming their decisions to be binding with the authority of the Holy Spirit–that the Church has followed throughout her history, from Jerusalem to Vatican II.
The same authority by which the Apostles and the presbyters whom they ordained declared that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised is the authority by which Trent declared the canon of Scripture. The pattern of the councils of the Church, clearly visible from the earliest councils, made clear that the Bishops at those councils perceived themselves to be citing the same episcopal and apostolic authority and calling on the same Holy Spirit for the same kind of binding decree.
The extent of the authority of the council is the same as well, that is to say, it was binding on every Christian. If we can reject Trent’s authority on the canon, we can reject the findings of Jerusalem, Nicea, Chalcedon, and any other finding of any Church council we please. Otherwise we need a principled reason to accept some and reject others. Again, an arbiter of some sort over the entire process is clearly needed, which is exactly how conciliar and papal authority have functioned in the Church for two thousand years. There is no other Scriptural pattern on which to base Church polity and the resolution of doctrinal disputes.
The example of the Bereans, a passage oft cited by Protestants to warrant holding the written text as the supreme interpretive authority, fails to produce that kind of pattern for two reasons. First, the Bereans were individual people exercising their consciences, no different from someone outside the Church checking the Church’s message against itself before believing. In no sense are the Bereans an example of Church polity or how the Church handles in-house disputes. The Bereans were a group of individual Jews deciding whether or not they would join the early Christians. Second, the appeal to the Bereans as a pattern falls flat for the Protestant because the Bereans checked the Apostles’ teachings against the Old Testament. Those who accepted the testimony of the Apostles held the Apostles’ teaching as a new source of revelatory truth, as all other Christians did. The example of the Bereans does nothing if not prove the superiority of oral testimony. Further, the example of the Bereans proves too much for the Protestant. Acts tells us that some of the Bereans believed the Apostles, which implies that some did not. So the example of the Bereans makes clear that individuals searching the Scriptures and determining for themselves which sources of revelation and authority to accept leaves the door wide open to error and self-deception.
Since the Catholic Church has from its inception followed this pattern of accepting the authority of the Apostles and their successors to lead her into all truth, no such epistemological quandary as we find in Protestantism is produced by Catholic doctrine. Catholic doctrine is not restricted to a “fallible collections of infallible books,” nor is there any need for temporary and unbiblical ad hoc infallibility to be attributed to the Church in determining the canon, nor any need for question-begging self-authentication. All that is needed is what Christ left for us, the sound foundation of the Church passed down from Christ to the Apostles to their successors.
The Problem of the Nature of Books
The Catholic Church’s doctrine also solves the problem of trying to use a book for a purpose a book cannot serve. The authority of Christ, given to His Apostles to call upon the Holy Spirit to lead them into truth (John 16:13) was given to the Bishops who succeeded them. (II Timothy 1:6) As we see in 2 Tim 1:6, St. Paul refers to the gift of the Spirit given to Timothy by him. Through the succession of bishops, this same authority guides how we understand the Scriptures today, and guides it perfectly. The Catholic Church does not rely on Sacred Scripture alone to make herself clear, anymore than the Apostles relied on the Hebrew Scriptures alone to make clear the full content of the gospel. They relied on the oral teachings they had received from Christ and on the power and authority of the Holy Spirit working in their midst to make the truth clear. The Catholic Church has followed this pattern for all of its history and, furthermore, no conception of perspicuity such as that proposed by Reformed theology can be found anywhere in Church history prior to the Reformation.
With confidence in the protection from error in the Church’s infallible teachings on issues of faith and morals given to the Church by the Holy Spirit through Christ’s promise (John 16:13), we can value and venerate Sacred Scripture. At the same time we are not forced to require that it interpret itself for us. Likewise, we do not have to force the Scriptures to produce a clear passage to interpret every difficult passage. This is a particularly baffling requirement of the Westminster Confession, because it leaves us once more with no arbiter to decide which passage is difficult and which corresponding clear passage explains it.
The Catholic position provides a remedy for division and disagreement, as the sure word of the Church is the dividing line between orthodoxy and heresy. Each person need not look for a burning in his bosom to distinguish truth from error. Rather, by looking at the Scriptures through the interpretive lens of the teaching of the Church, he will be led into the truth and unity Christ promised that the Spirit would bring.
The Problem of the Nature of Scripture As A Book
The Catholic understanding allows the Scriptures to exist in the role and with the authority that the Scriptures accord themselves. In the Catholic understanding, the Scriptures are the Church’s great treasure and to be highly valued, but not as a mere rule book or exhaustive source of truth. Again, going back to Acts 15, the Apostles themselves did not believe this. They cited the Scriptures in their deliberations at the Council of Jerusalem, but while they took counsel from the Scriptures, their decision was ultimately guided by the Holy Spirit. They did not come to their decision because the answer was “either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence [could] be deduced from Scripture.”22 Rather, they debated, prayed, and asked for guidance from the Holy Spirit. This guidance they received as promised and their decision was binding on all the faithful.
Over the course of the history of the Church there arose a plethora of pressing questions that the Scriptures do not address directly. With respect to such questions, the authority Christ gave to His Church, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, protects the Scriptures from being twisted to address a controversy they do not directly or indirectly address.
Having addressed our differences regarding the determination of the canon and authority and role of Sacred Scripture, I will also address our differences in the area of hermeneutics.
As with the authority issue, we have significant points of agreement on the principles we ought to employ in interpreting Sacred Scripture. We agree that Scripture cannot be rightly interpreted without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Its depths cannot be mined if we treat it merely as a historical text. We agree that cultural context, authorial intent, literary mode, and other similar factors must be taken into account, unlike certain anti-intellectual segments of ‘just-me-and-my-Bible’ Christianity. We also agree, to a certain extent, that Scripture must be read in light of those who came before us and interpreted Scripture before us. But in Dei Verbum, Pope Paul VI makes clear the pivotal role played by Sacred Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church:
This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop 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.
The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church. Through the same tradition the Church’s full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe and makes the word of Christ dwell abundantly in them (see Col. 3:16).23
But I believe the real point of disagreement is how we understand the Church’s authority in regard to how we read the Scriptures. The Catholic Church understands the Scripture’s primary place to be in the Church and interpreted by the Church, informed by her deepened understanding of Scripture throughout her history. Reformed Christians claim that they take the Church’s historical understanding of Scripture as an important factor in their reading of Sacred Scripture. Their respect for the early councils provides a basis for unity on certain fundamentals, especially on Trinitarian theology and Christology.
But if Protestants truly discerned the visible body of Christ, the Church, they would accept the later councils as well. As we have seen, the later councils were acting with the very same authority the Apostles and their brother presbyters and bishops acted with at the Council of Jerusalem, and those actions are the actions of the body of Christ. To love them is to embrace them and to seek to understand them, not to criticize them and act as their judge. Furthermore, to act as their judge is simply to draw a bullseye around the arrow one has already shot in the wall. If the councils agree with the Reformed understanding of Scripture, then they are accepted, but if not, they are deemed not to hold any authority whatsoever.
As Catholics, we accept these councils, and all subsequent Ecumenical Councils, as authoritative fundamentally because they are the words of our Holy Mother the Church to us. Our Reformed brethren generally accept the first four councils and some teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, but they accept them only because they have found them “biblical” according to their own interpretation of Scripture.
To be sure, all the dogmas of Mother Church are Biblical in the fullest sense of the word–there is no contradiction between any of the Councils and any teaching of Sacred Scripture. But we believe them not because we deem them Biblical according to our own interpretation of Scripture, but rather because we believe Jesus, whose Mystical Body the Church is. We believe the words of the Church because the words of the Mystical Body cannot come from anywhere but Christ the Head.
I am glad our Reformed brethren recognize the value and authority of the Fathers and the Church’s tradition in approaching Scripture; it gives us a significant basis for discussion and dialogue as we seek for unity. But for Reformed Christians, the words of Councils and Popes are not the reliable and trustworthy words of their Mother the Church and of Our Lord. Rather, they are a potentially helpful grab-bag whose contents must be treated with skepticism until one has determined whether or not they are in agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture.
This issue of hermeneutics is perhaps the most important epistemological obstacle between Protestants and Catholics, and the way to unity is blocked until we can find our way over it. If there is not one true Church to settle disputes and be the authoritative arbiter between heresy and orthodoxy, there can be nothing but the division and in-fighting that have plagued the last five hundred years of Christianity and which are not what our Lord and His Apostles intended when they implored Christians to unity. May we all come to love and humbly accept the words of Christ in the words of His Holy Church that we might all be one–not selectively, but completely.
- Providentissimus Deus, sec. 20-21 [↩]
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101. [↩]
- Id., 104. [↩]
- Westminster Confession of Faith, I.1. [↩]
- A future article on Called to Communion will address “the Canon Question” in greater depth. [↩]
- R.C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, 22-23. [↩]
- Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.7. [↩]
- I Timothy 3:14-15. [↩]
- Ephesians 2:20. [↩]
- 2 Thess. 2:15 [↩]
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 86. [↩]
- Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.7. [↩]
- Dei Verbum, 8. [↩]
- Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.7. [↩]
- Westminster Confession of Faith, I.4. [↩]
- II Timothy 3:15-17. [↩]
- II Thessalonians 2:2. [↩]
- Available here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3101.htm. [↩]
- Westminster Confession of Faith, I.7. [↩]
- Psalm 119:130. [↩]
- A very helpful timeline charting the divisions within Presbyterianism can be found here: http://www.pragmatism.org/american/presbyterian_churches.jpg. [↩]
- Westminster Confession of Faith, I.4. [↩]
- Dei Verbum, Ch. 2 [↩]