Sola Scriptura: A Dialogue between Michael Horton and Bryan CrossNov 15th, 2010 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Featured Articles
In February of this year Ryan Glomsrud, the Executive Editor of Modern Reformation, invited me to participate in a roundtable discussion on the subject of sola scriptura, with Michael Horton, editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation, a co-host of the White Horse Inn, and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. The article containing our discussion was just published in the November/December 2010 issue of Modern Reformation, and is titled “Sola Scriptura: A Dialogue between Michael Horton and Bryan Cross.” The purpose of the discussion was to educate and inform readers regarding the nature of the points of remaining disagreement between Protestants and Catholics concerning sola scriptura.
The discussion is a roughly seven-thousand word interchange between Michael Horton and myself. But the published discussion ends rather abruptly, and not as our actual discussion ended. In actuality, after a couple of exchanges, I received Michael’s fourth comment, which was about eighteen hundred words long. As I began to prepare my reply, Ryan informed me that there was space enough for me to write only five hundred more words. So, I sent him a five-hundred word comment just wrapping things up, and letting him know that I would post a longer reply later, here on Called to Communion. But unfortunately none of my five-hundred word comment was included in the published version, I presume because there was less available space than Ryan had estimated.
Online access to the Modern Reformation article requires a subscription, and I cannot reproduce the entire article here. So below I have included the very last two comments in the article as it appears in its published form: Michael’s eighteen-hundred word comment and then my fifty word comment. That is the part in burgundy-colored font. Then, below that, I have provided the original five-hundred word comment that I sent to Ryan and Michael as what I thought would be my concluding comment in the dialogue. Then below that I present a more thorough response to Michael’s last comment. I would like to thank Ryan and Michael once again for inviting me to dialogue, and for their example of grace and civility in a discussion about issues and divisions that are so sensitive and provocative that negative emotions can easily poison the well of genuinely productive ecumenical dialogue. I see such dialogue as a stepping-stone to future reconciliation. Finally, I should note that in the introduction of this issue of Modern Reformation, on page two I am described as a “former Presbyterian pastor,” when in fact I was never a Presbyterian pastor.
Michael Horton: We all have to answer that “according to whom” question. Why the Church of Rome? Why not the East, Wittenberg, Geneva, or Canterbury? Or, for that matter, Tulsa or Salt Lake City? At some point, you came to believe that the Church of Rome has magisterial authority over the whole body of Christ, but why? Even if you now submit unquestioningly (fides implicita) to everything taught as necessary by the Church of Rome, you still had to make a decision about which side you thought was correct when you left Reformed Christianity.
It’s interesting biographically when you say, “I came to believe that the Westminster Confession has no authority, because the only basis for its ‘authority’ was my own agreement with its interpretation of Scripture. And agreement with oneself cannot be the basis for authority.” Sifting out the caricature, I see your point, but as an argument it seems quite dangerous to me. It seems to assume that the Bible is murky, confusing, perhaps even contradictory, requiring the clarity of an infallible teacher. When it comes to Scripture, one has to interpret a lot, but when it comes to the Magisterium, no interpretation is necessary. I don’t believe one could find a single respected Roman Catholic theologian or cleric who would agree with you on that one, but it is certainly a radical surrender of one’s fate to ecclesial authority. Quite aside from the specifics of actual church history (which renders the assumption of a clear and self-consistent Magisterium implausible), I puzzle over what appears to be a radically postmodern (skeptical) view of the possibility of a faithful interpretation of Scripture coupled with a radically modern (absolutist) view of ecclesial interpretation.
Although there are passages I don’t understand, the Bible seems marvelously clear on the essentials of doctrine and life—so clear, in fact, that Christians across all times and places can agree with its summary in the ecumenical creeds. In sharp contrast with Scripture is the massive library of deliverances from councils, counter-councils, counter-counter councils, popes, counter-popes, and so forth. Rome has to require implicit faith in everything that the church teaches. How could one even be aware of everything that the church teaches? The scandal of opposing Protestant denominations and interpretations that weaken public confidence in the ability to arrive at truth is also apparent throughout the history of the church prior to the Reformation—and in Rome ever since.
My concern is that the position you defend is naive both in its confidence in magisterial infallibility and clarity as well as in its interpretation of church history. First, even the presence of the living apostles did not preserve the church from internal strife. The Epistles address a variety of errors and disciplinary issues in the churches, even questioning whether the church in Galatia was a true church. Yet it is the apostolic canon of the New Testament that is the infallible rule, not the apostles themselves. If so, then it is even more certain that the ordinary ministers who followed were subject to the authority of Scripture—even if one’s pastor happened to have been a disciple of one of the apostles.
Of course there is a “living teaching authority in the church”: normatively, Christ, by his Spirit, speaking in his Word and, subordinately, the common confession of this Word through the instruction of pastors and teachers (held in check by elders). It’s not an infallible, fail-proof system. But then, neither is Rome. History simply stands against any claim that the Church of Rome has been as self-consistent or clear as Scripture. And I repeat my earlier point that the anathemas of the Council of Trent (reaffirmed ever since) actually set Rome in opposition to the clear, marvelous, and saving gospel that is taught in Scripture. So even if there were an infallible teaching office in the church today, Rome would fail that crucial test.
When you say concerning contradiction that “ecumenical councils cannot and have not done so,” I suppose a lot depends on what you include. Not only Protestants, but Eastern Orthodox bodies, would be unable to endorse Rome’s list. In fact, some Western councils anathematized the East, while others anathematized Protestants; and in one, as I mentioned, the medieval church anathematized itself. By definition, an ecumenical council cannot be subordinate to a single pastor. (Indeed, “Roman Catholic” is an oxymoron, since the catholic church is the whole body of Christ in all times and places.)
All of the passages you offered speak of the necessity of submitting to our pastors and elders in the church. Yet not one passage in the New Testament supports the idea that the apostles handed off their apostolic office to their successors. Peter and John emphasize that their apostolic authority derived from their being directly and immediately called by Jesus as eyewitnesses and ambassadors of his ministry. At the beginning of Galatians, Paul also labors this point concerning his office. Yet the apostles speak of their ministerial successors as pastors and elders in each city (Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 5:17-22; Tit. 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1; Rev. 4:4), having their authority conferred upon them by Christ indirectly and mediately, through the laying on of hands by the whole presbytery (presbyterion; 1 Tim. 4:14).
Even at the Council of Jerusalem, neither Peter by himself nor even the whole college of apostles decided the matter. On the contrary, the phrase is repeated throughout Acts 15 that “the apostles and elders” arrived at the synod’s dogmatic conclusions that were then binding on the whole church. Even with the living apostles, the decision was reached in communion. The official practice of the church was not determined by a single apostle, or even by the college of apostles, but by delegated representatives (apostles and elders). Furthermore, the decision was not delivered from a single church to the rest of the body or left to the judgment of each local church. Rather, it was reached by these representatives from all the churches in assembly together.
If this was true in the apostolic church, it is surely to be the case in the post-apostolic era. The apostles laid that foundation by their extraordinary calling and ministry, while the ordinary ministers who follow them will build on that foundation (1 Cor. 3:9-17). The apostles gave us the deposit and now ministers like Timothy are told to “guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:14), “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:1-2). In the face of heresy and schism, the ordinary ministers and elders are to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). There is a magisterium—a proper teaching authority—in the church after the apostles, but it is representative rather than hierarchical, catholic rather than based on a single pastor or city, fallible rather than infallible, and ministerial rather than magisterial.
Even Pope Benedict XVI, as well as Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, acknowledge that presbyterian government was the earliest form of polity (see John Zizioulas, Being as Communion [Crestwood, NJ: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997], 195: “On the one hand [the bishop] was understood as a ‘co-presbyter,’ i.e. as one—presumably the first one—of the college of the presbyterium. This is clearly indicated by the use of the term presbyters for the bishop by Irenaeus [Haer. IV 26:2]. This should be taken as a survival of an old usage in the West, as it can be inferred from I Clement 44, 1 Peter 5:1, etc.” [195, fn. 85]. In Called to Communion [trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996)], Pope Benedict [then Cardinal Ratzinger] acknowledges that presbyter and episcopos are used interchangeably in the New Testament [122-23]).
You cite the early Father Clement of Rome: “In St. Clement of Rome, for example, before the end of the first century, we see him exercising authority when he says to the Corinthian usurpers, ‘You therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be subject, laying aside the proud and arrogant self-confidence of your tongue’ (c. 57)” (emphasis added). In the New Testament Epistles, the terms elder (presbyteros) and bishop (episkopos) are used interchangeably for the same office. Eventually the bishop became the moderator of presbytery and then, by Irenaeus’s day, was a separate office. Regardless of whether one affirms presbyterian or episcopal government, however, none of these early Fathers argued that the bishop of Rome was the universal head of the church, much less endued with infallibility.
The argument of Irenaeus against the Gnostics makes sense. The Gnostics were basing their heretical teachings on spurious writings, and they gathered their own circle of false apostles. Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of John the Apostle, could appeal to an obvious and publicly recognized circle of pastors in the line of the apostles who walked with Jesus. However, this historical argument became a dogmatic argument that went beyond the church’s constitution (Scripture). After Constantine, churches in both the East and the West began to imitate the hierarchical political system of the empire. Yet as late as 597, Pope Gregory the Great famously declared, “I say with confidence that whoever calls or desires to call himself ‘universal priest’ in self-exaltation of himself is a precursor of the Antichrist” (quoted in Bernard McGinn, Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages [NY: Columbia University Press, 1979], 64). The bishops of the East certainly agreed with this statement, but Gregory’s successors were less inclined to such pastoral humility.
Of course, the Spirit could have preserved the Jewish elders and Sanhedrin from error, but he did not—which is why Jesus placed the authority of Scripture over the Magisterium in Matthew 15:6 and Paul did as well (1 Cor. 4:6; Gal. 1:8-9). The Spirit could have preserved the Christian elders and teaching office from error, but he has not—although he does lead his true church into all truth through pastors and elders who are instructed, examined, and held accountable to the Scriptures by the wider church in its representative assemblies.
The church was full of all sorts of doctrinal errors during the time of the apostles. In spite of the clarity and power of God’s Word, the church is a mess and has always been so. Yet Christ’s pledged presence with his church in the power of his Word and Spirit remains in effect. Again, there seems to be a lot of unhistorical nostalgia for a church that never was and a certainty that is absolute and visible in this world that no longer requires interpretation and is no longer susceptible of differences and tragic divisions. But that has never been and will never be until our Savior returns to glorify his ecclesial body and we behold him face to face. “Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!”
Bryan Cross: Thank you very much for inviting me to participate and for being gracious. I feel we only scratched the surface. I hope we can pursue this in greater depth at some point in the future. May Christ make us instruments of his peace for the reunion of Protestants and Catholics.1
Here, below is the unpublished five-hundred word reply that I submitted after learning that there was space for me to write only five-hundred more words:
Bryan Cross: Michael, I’m told by Ryan that there is space for me to say only five hundred more words. In such a short space I cannot give an adequate reply to your most recent comments. So I will offer a very brief summary here of what I see as the most fundamental point of disagreement, and later at Called To Communion I’ll post a more thorough reply to your latest comment.
Three years ago your colleague R. Scott Clark, talking about the Federal Vision controversy, said the following: “All heretics quote Scripture. The question in this controversy is not the normativity of the Bible but who gets to interpret it.” He was absolutely correct. But it is not only the question in the FV controversy; it is ultimately the same question at the very heart of the Protestant-Catholic divide: Who has interpretive authority? The Catholic answer to that question is based on apostolic succession. Christ did not leave His Church with only a book; He also authorized and equipped a perpetual, visible living magisterial authority to provide the authoritative interpretation of Scripture to His flock, until He returns. The Church universally affirmed and practiced apostolic succession, wherever she spread all over the world, as is clear in the historical record from the second century on. There wasn’t some great controversy or debate as the ‘heretical’ practice of apostolic succession universally swept over the Church in the first and second centuries, and replaced the ‘original’ notion that ecclesial leadership was based entirely on agreement with the Apostles’ doctrine. If the Apostles didn’t institute the practice of apostolic succession, that’s a very strange silence. If apostolic succession were a later innovation, we would expect to find all those Christians who were being martyred for holding fast to what the Apostles had taught, vociferously protesting to the death that apostolic succession is not the way the Apostles set up the basis for leadership in the Church. But what we find instead is that these martyrs are the ones defending apostolic succession, and defending those bishops ordained by way of apostolic succession. The only ones denying the necessity of apostolic succession were the second-century Gnostics, because they didn’t have it. One must adopt a radical ecclesial deism in order to explain away such evidence.
Although it would be nice to think that Scripture is so clear that no visible living interpretive authority is needed to provide the authoritative interpretation, if the fragmentation of Protestantism over the past four hundred and ninety years is not enough to falsify such a position, then how many more centuries of division would be needed to falsify it? Exegesis and hermeneutics cannot unite Christians in one body; only a divinely authorized visible living interpretive authority can do so.
I wish to thank you for inviting me to participate in this discussion. I pray that it may be helpful for advancing mutual understanding, and the eventual reconciliation of Protestants and Catholics together again in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
But, Michael’s eighteen-hundred word comment obviously calls for a more thorough reply, which I had intended to give. So, below is my reply to Michael’s last comment in the dialogue. It is divided into twelve sections, as I have outlined here:
I. The Tu Quoque
II. Perspicuity of Scripture
III. Persons and Texts
IV. Strife and Error in the First Century
V. Following the Spirit
VI. Trent vs. Scripture?
VII. The Roman Catholic Church: An Oxymoron?
VIII. Scripture and Tradition
IX. Apostolic Succession
A. Evidence from Tradition
B. The Ground of Magisterial Authority
C. Evidence from Scripture
XI. The Authority of the Magisterium in Relation to Scripture
XII. The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty
You have raised a number of objections to the Catholic position, so many, in fact, that answering them with sufficient depth and care would require something approaching a book-length reply. So for the sake of space and time I’ll sketch out relatively brief replies to your primary objections.
I stated earlier in our discussion that the problem with claiming that the Reformed confessions and catechisms are binding because they summarize the teaching of Scripture is that such a claim leaves out the “according to whom.” That is, each different Protestant confession and catechism summarizes the interpretation of Scripture held by some subset of like-minded Protestants. And each confessional denomination thinks its own tradition’s confession best summarizes the teaching of Scripture. Without apostolic succession, ultimately the only answer to the “according to whom” question is “me and those who agree with me.” But since without apostolic succession no subset of Protestants has any more authority than do any other Christians, therefore there is no ground or basis for any Protestant to claim that his own confession has any more authority than that of any other Protestants. He can treat his own confession as authoritative only by arbitrarily ascribing to himself an authority he would deny to Protestants holding interpretations contrary to his own, or by abstracting away the existence of contrary Protestant hermeneutical traditions.
Your response to this argument is essentially that the Catholic is in the same boat, picking some particular ecclesial institution on the basis of its agreement with his own interpretation. We might summarize this response as the tu quoque objection. Here’s why the tu quoque is not true—for the same reason you think magisterial authority is more than ministerial authority. Apostolic succession qualitatively changes the picture by including in the present a visible living magisterial authority, having its authority not on the basis of agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture, but on the basis of authorization by Christ through His Apostles and their successors. If apostolic succession is true, and if Christ gave to St. Peter and his successors the primacy with respect to teaching and interpretive authority, then no creed is binding-because-of-one’s-own-judgment-that-it-accurately-summarizes-Scripture, but instead because of an authoritative decision by the successors of the Apostles in communion with the successor of St. Peter that the creed in question authentically presents the deposit of faith entrusted to the Apostles and faithfully preserved and handed down by their successors. The doctrine of apostolic succession entails that orthodoxy is found ultimately through living divinely authorized visible persons. By contrast, the denial of apostolic succession relativizes ‘orthodoxy,’ because no person has any greater interpretive authority than does anyone else, and so no one’s interpretation of Scripture is any more ecclesially authoritative than is anyone else’s. No one’s ‘orthodoxy’ is any more binding than is anyone else’s, and no one’s ‘heresy’ is any more condemned than is anyone else’s.
Of course the inquirer has to determine whether there is a succession of authority from the Apostles to the bishops of the present day, and whether Christ gave to St. Peter and his successors the primacy. But just as our discovery of Christ does not entail that the basis or ground of His authority is our judgment that He is the Son of God, and just as a first century Roman citizen’s discovery of the Apostles would not entail that the basis or ground of their authority is his judgment that they were sent by Christ, so the contemporary inquirer’s discovery of the Catholic Magisterium extending down through the centuries by an unbroken succession from the Apostles to the present day does not entail that the basis or ground of this Magisterium’s authority is the inquirer’s judgment that it is the divinely authorized teaching authority of the Church Christ founded. The reasons by which he grasps its authority are not the ground of its authority, whereas without apostolic succession the only ground for the authority of any confession or pastor is its or his general agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture. I have written a more detailed response to the tu quoque objection in a post titled, “The Tu Quoque.”
You stated that my claim that the only basis for the Westminster Confession of Faith’s ‘authority’ is one’s own agreement with its interpretation of Scripture assumes that the Bible is “murky, confusing, perhaps even contradictory.” First, I’m not sure where you got the notion that my position is that the Bible is “perhaps even contradictory.” We agreed at the outset that the Bible is inerrant, and this has always been the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church.2 And since truth cannot contradict truth, therefore it should be clear that my position cannot possibly be that the Bible is contradictory.
As for whether the Bible is “murky” and “confusing,” as St. Peter tells us in 2 Peter 3:16 some parts of Scripture are “hard to understand” and easily subject to distortion by untaught interpreters. If Philip the deacon had thought all Scripture is easily understood, he would not have asked the Ethiopian eunuch whether he understood what he was reading. Nor would the eunuch have replied, “How could I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31) And I think you agree on this, because otherwise you would not participate in the activity of a seminary, an institution built on the notion that persons need training in order rightly to interpret and teach Sacred Scripture.
Take Jesus’ parables, as an example. If the Apostles had not explained the meaning of Jesus’ parables, it is quite likely that no degree of exegesis could have determined their meaning. In themselves, exegesis and our best hermeneutical tools would have left the meaning entirely underdetermined. In the time of Christ, the only way to learn what the parables meant, was to learn the meaning from those to whom Christ had privately revealed it. And this same hermeneutical principle remains true to this day for so many Jews who study the Old Testament; a veil remains over their eyes, as St. Paul says regarding the unbelieving Jews of his time. “But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted.” (2 Cor 3:14) They can read the words, but they cannot understand what they are reading, no matter how many exegetical or hermeneutical tools they apply to the text. Perceiving the true meaning of the Sacred Scripture is not fundamentally a matter of using the right exegetical tools or methods, because as St. Paul explains, the natural man cannot accept the things of the Spirit of God, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor 2:14)
And this same principle applies broadly to the whole of sacred Scripture, precisely because it is a divine text. The problem with the mere exegetical approach is not exegesis itself; the problem is much deeper. The notion that all one needs in order rightly to interpret Scripture are exegetical tools, lexicons, and the historico-critical method, denigrates Scripture by reducing it to a merely natural book, decipherable through natural tools and the natural power of human reason. The notion that proper scholarship is sufficient to determine the meaning of Scripture is what I would call hermeneutical Pelagianism. That is true even if one appropriates the guidance and approval of the Spirit, by claiming that the Spirit guides one’s own exegesis and hermeneutics, or at least guides those who generally share one’s own conclusions from Scripture. And if one claims to rely on the Church for the interpretation of Scripture, then without apostolic succession one has only reasoned in a circle, as I showed here.
Some Protestants think that if Scripture requires divine aid to be rightly understood, this makes Scripture inferior to other writings, as though it implies that God is incapable of writing to humans even as well as we can. But there is another way to view this. If Scripture could be understood just as we can understand the writings of mere men, without the aid of divine grace, this would reduce Scripture to something merely natural, and not supernatural. It is precisely because Scripture is supernatural (i.e. having God as its primary Author), and reveals truths that exceed the capacity of natural reason to grasp on its own, that we require divine aid in order to understand it rightly. We need divine aid in order rightly to understand Scripture precisely because Scripture is superior to every other writing; in fact it is divine, and thus incapable of being truly grasped by finite minds, without grace from above. What is supernatural cannot be attained to by what is natural, without divine aid. The denial of that truth is the essence of the Pelagian error, i.e. to think that what is supernatural can be attained by what is merely natural, without supernatural aid.
Of course a person with no training or guidance can come to faith in Christ through reading the Bible, by the aid of the Holy Spirit. Many people have come to faith in Christ in this way. The disagreement and fragmentation among well-meaning Christians demonstrates that God has not given the Spirit’s infallible guidance to each Christian individually. Hence the unity of the Church cannot be preserved by Scripture alone, as the history of Protestantism clearly shows. The notion that without a divinely authorized magisterium Church unity can be preserved by Scripture alone has been shown to be false by the many schisms and sects of the four hundred and ninety year experiment that is Protestantism.3 A divinely authorized magisterium is necessary, and has permitted the Catholic Church to remain a unified body for almost two thousand years, even though many others have gone out from her. And while there have always been Catholics who in some respect dissent from what the Magisterium of the Church teaches, their doing so only separated themselves in that respect from the one faith taught definitively by the Church’s Magisterium. The essential unity of the Magisterium serves to preserve the first of the Church’s four marks listed in the Creed: unity.
I do agree with you that there were theological disagreements within the Church prior to the sixteenth century, and there have been disagreements within the Church all the way back to the beginning of the Church. But it would be anachronistic to describe any party in those prior conflicts as ‘Protestant.’ When some Catholics would obstinately retain a position contrary to the doctrine the Church’s Magisterium had already definitively determined, those persons were by that very fact shown to be holding a heretical position, and were either brought to repentance and reconciliation with the Church, or excommunicated. But when those disagreements were about doctrinal matters that had not yet been formally defined by the Church’s Magisterium, they were fully compatible with unity in the faith, and thus with full communion in the Church’s sacraments and hierarchy.4 A Protestant obviously wouldn’t want to say that the sixteenth century disagreement between Protestants and the Catholic Church was a disagreement of the former sort, for that would be to categorize Protestantism as one more heresy in the history of the Church. But neither can Protestantism be described as a disagreement of the latter sort, because the Church has spoken definitively and irreversibly in the ecumenical Council of Trent. Therefore, disagreements within the Church regarding doctrinal matters not yet defined do not show either that a living visible magisterial authority is unnecessary for preserving the Church in “one faith,” or that the Protestant’s rejection of the Council of Trent on the basis of appeals to his own interpretation of Scripture is comparable to those earlier in-house disagreements about doctrinal questions the Church’s Magisterium had not yet decided. In-house theological disagreement about matters not yet defined is one thing; cases of heresy and schism are something else altogether.
You stated that the Bible is “marvelously clear on the essentials of doctrine and life.” If that were true, disagreement regarding which doctrines are essential could be due only to illiteracy or malice. But when we engage in on-the-ground ecumenical dialogue with Christians in other interpretive traditions, we find that the people with whom we disagree on such matters are generally neither unintelligent nor malicious. That implies that resolving the disagreements regarding which doctrines are essential is not as simple as pointing to Bible verses. Otherwise, after the last five centuries of reading and studying Scripture, then even if there was not an initial agreement concerning the meaning of Scripture, there should be at least a convergence of biblical interpretations among all students of Scripture. Instead there has been a continual multiplication of doctrinal disagreements among the various Protestant traditions. Nor does appealing to the creeds resolve the question because, for example, Protestants and Catholics do not agree regarding the referent of “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” and what “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” means. In addition, as you noted at the beginning of our discussion, Catholics and Protestants do not even agree over which books belong to the Bible, and that question cannot be resolved by appealing to the Bible. For these reasons, Scripture alone is not capable of answering the “essentials” question.
You raise another important objection when you suggest that my position is that Scripture requires the clarity of an infallible teacher, but that the Magisterium needs no interpreter. You see such a notion as an ad hoc juxtaposition of postmodernism on the one hand and absolutism on the other hand. I have already explained just above why Scripture, being a divine inspired text, requires the aid of the Spirit to be faithfully interpreted, on pain of hermeneutical Pelagianism. Noting this limitation of human reason is not a form of skepticism; it is rather a recognition of the limits of the natural power of human reason before a supernatural text. And the last five-hundred years of Protestant history only confirm this about the powerlessness of human reason to resolve interpretive disputes. In light of that continual fragmentation, it would be naïve to maintain that “faithful interpretation of Scripture” is available to everyone, through interpreting it for themselves, or through following academia.
Let me clarify that it is not my position that the Magisterium “needs no interpreter.” But when the Magisterium needs to be interpreted, the Magisterium itself performs this function, just as St. Philip explained to the Ethiopian eunuch what the prophet Isaiah meant. This is not some ad hoc juxstaposition of postmodernism and absolutism. There is a relevant ontological distinction between the respective communicative potencies of persons and books; and this distinction has very important hermeneutical implications. This is why it does not follow that if a book needs an authoritative interpreter in order to function as an ecclesial authority holding the Church in “one faith,” then we must need an infinite regress of living persons in order to interpret the living voice we presently hear.
A book contains a monologue with respect to the reader. A book’s author can often anticipate the thoughts and questions that might arise in the mind of the reader. But a book cannot hear the reader’s questions here and now, and answer them. A living person, however, can do so. A living person can engage in genuine personal dialogue with the reader, whereas a book cannot. Writing is a human technology that records the speech or dialogues of others, but cannot engage in authentic personal dialogue with the reader. Chesterton notes this when he writes that though we can put a living person in the dock, we cannot put a book in the dock. In this respect, a person can do what a book cannot; a person can correct global misunderstandings and answer comprehensive interpretive questions. A book by its very nature has a limited intrinsic potency for interpretive self-clarification; a person, on the other hand, by his very nature has, in principle, an unlimited intrinsic potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification. This unlimited potency of persons with respect to interpretive self-clarification ensures that the hermeneutical spiral may reach its goal; we can continue to ask clarification questions, be heard, and receive answers to those very questions, until the questions are answered. By contrast, a book cannot speak more about itself than it does at the moment at which it is completed; thus without a visible living magisterium, disputes regarding the interpretation of Scripture can in principle be interminable and unresolvable. A person, by contrast, remains perpetually capable of clarifying further any of his previous speech-acts. So likewise an enduring Magisterium made up of persons remains perpetually capable of clarifying and explaining any of its previous statements.
One objection is an argument that takes the form of a dilemma in which it is claimed that we must choose between an infinite hermeneutical regress on the one hand, and on the other hand, no need for an interpretive authority when interpreting Scripture. Our response to this objection is to show that it is a false dilemma. We do not have to choose between an infinite hermeneutical regress, and not needing an interpretive authority. It can be true that we need a living interpretive authority in order for Scripture to fulfill its function as the authoritative Word of God, without it being true that we are stuck in an infinite hermeneutical regress. One reason why there is no necessary infinite hermeneutical regress is that with a living Magisterium we can continue to ask clarifying questions, even to the point of saying, “I’m understanding you to be saying x. Is x what you are saying? Yes or no?” And the Magisterium can respond by saying “yes” or “no.” And at that point, there is no need for an interpretive authority, so long as a person understands the English language and has adequate hearing. Interpreting “yes” and “no” is quite different from interpreting, say, the book of Romans. We do not need an interpretive authority to explain the meaning of ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ But we may very well need an interpretive authority to explain the meaning of the book of Romans, or at least to help us avoid misinterpreting it.
Does my position involve a “radical surrender of one’s fate to ecclesial authority”? Yes, it does. Faith in Christ involves radical surrender to Christ, through radical surrender to those He has placed in authority in His Body the Church, just as for the first generation of Christians listening to Christ involved listening to His Apostles. “He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects Me; but he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.” (Luke 10:16) This requirement to submit to the Church is part of the gospel, to come and take up one’s cross and die with Christ, in His Body, the Church. That man who remains his own highest arbiter of what Christ said and did has not yet discovered the Apostles and the living Church present in the world today. His gospel is a kind of gnosticism which grants him only an invisible Christ and an invisible Church. Where no radical trust in the Church is required, the Church has not yet been discovered. As the Church Fathers said repeatedly, “He cannot have God for His Father who does not have the Church for his Mother.”
You suggest that I am being naïve, because in your opinion I must be either unaware or unable to account for two phenomena in the first century: the internal strife among the Apostles, and the presence of errors and disciplinary issues in the particular Churches. You wrote that the Church was “full of all sorts of doctrinal errors during the time of the apostles. … [T]he church is a mess and it has always been.” As a Catholic I can agree with that last statement, under a certain qualification. And I am aware of the internal strife among the Apostles and the presence of errors and disciplinary issues in the particular Churches of the first century; both are fully compatible with Catholic theology and ecclesiology.
There have always been sinners in the Church, and there have always been dissenters and heretics. In every generation of the Church we find some new or old heresy arising and leading some people astray. They go out from us, as St. John put it. (1 John 2:19) In addition, there have always been some unfaithful men among the clergy, men who have committed shameful deeds, or watered down or perverted the faith, or led their flock into schism. There have always been such men in the Church, and their sin has always been the cause of scandal. Likewise, in every century of the Church’s history there have been instances of disagreement between certain bishops, and cases of certain priests or bishops requiring Church discipline.
On that we agree. But from that you conclude that only Scripture has divine authority and only Scripture is infallible, and that there is no visible living magisterial authority in the Church Christ founded. That conclusion does not follow from those premises. The presence of a visible living magisterial authority in the Church does not entail that those belonging to the Magisterium will never disagree with each other, nor does it entail that particular Churches will never err. It entails that when the Magisterium speaks with her full authority, either when the bishops in communion with the episcopal successor of St. Peter, together with him, definitively determine a matter of faith or morals in ecumenical council, or when the Pope does so ex cathedra, they are protected from error by the Holy Spirit, and hence such dogmas can never be subsequently overturned or revoked or denied. The fact that Barnabas and Paul had a disagreement, or that Paul rebuked Peter, does not in any way reduce the magisterial authority of the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 to that of the individual interpreter of Scripture. In other words, none of these things makes the individual believer his own highest interpretive authority; the Magisterium remains the divinely instituted authority to which all those who wish to follow Christ should submit, and to whose judgments their own private interpretation of Scripture should conform.
St. Paul said to the Ephesian elders, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” (Acts 20:29) He speaks here of heretics coming into the Church and seeking to lead her members astray. But St. Paul is not saying that the universal [visible] Church will be led astray, or that the Magisterium of the Church will be taken over by wolves. That would have been to deny the very purpose of Christ establishing magisterial authority in His Church. We believe that Christ by His Holy Spirit is protecting His Church, guiding her into all truth, and preventing the gates of hell from prevailing against her. But there are continual onslaughts from the forces of darkness. Dissent, heresy and schism can and do occur, but thanks be to God they can never prevail against the Magisterium of the Church, the Magisterium that Christ Himself established and through which He continues to govern His Church. He has the key of David; what He opens no one will shut, and what He shuts, no one opens.5 There can be heresy in the Church, even among various bishops, but the Church herself, governed by the Magisterium Christ established in her to endure until He returns, can never fall into heresy. There can be schism within the Church, but the Church’s essential visible unity can never be diminished or destroyed, because whichever side separates itself from full communion with the episcopal successor of St. Peter, becomes by that very fact a schism from the Church.6
Regarding theological matters not yet formally decided, internal disagreement about such matters is in a certain sense healthy for the Church, so long as it is done in charity, peace and the pursuit of truth. That is because the Holy Spirit often deigns to work through such debates to help deepen the Church’s understanding of the deposit of faith, clarifying the orthodox nature of orthodoxy and the heretical nature of heresy. But the decision of the Apostles in council together was protected from error by the Spirit. The decision of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 did not become free from error only when St. Luke wrote about it; nor did it come to “seem good to the Holy Spirit” only after St. Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote about it. Likewise, the presence of doctrinal error in particular Churches is not incompatible with Catholic theology. The Catholic Church has never believed or taught that every particular Church would be protected from heresy. The Catholic Church has believed and taught that the Holy Spirit prevents the Church universal, in communion with St. Peter and his successors, from falling into heresy. So the presence of errors in particular Churches is not incompatible with what the Catholic Church believes and teaches about the universal Church. But the presence of errors in various denominations is a problem for the claim that Scripture is marvelously clear on the essentials of doctrine and life, because if Scripture were marvelously clear on the essentials of doctrine and life, then there would be no errors in such matters among those who read and study Scripture.
You propose that the living teaching authority in the Church is Christ, by His Spirit, speaking in the Scripture. But the question is this: How does one know what the Spirit is saying? How does one find and follow the grace from above, by which to understand Scripture? The Mormons claim to rely on the Spirit, by following the burning in their bosom. But that is not a reliable way of determining what the Spirit is saying.7
The Catholic way of following the Spirit is to follow the Magisterium of the Church in its explication of the deposit of faith entrusted to it, not an internal bosom-burning. Christ promised that He would send His Spirit to guide His Church into all truth, and that He would be with her even until the end of the age. But where there are contradictory beliefs, the Spirit cannot be guiding both parties, because the Spirit is the Spirit of Truth,8 and by the Spirit the Church is the pillar and bulwark of Truth.9 So we are neither hermeneutical Pelagians who credit the Spirit for our own exegetical efforts, nor do we resort to the subjectivity of bosom-burning. We follow the Spirit by finding the Temple not made with human hands, because the Spirit dwells in the Church Christ Himself founded, and speaks through that Church.
We believe that because Scripture is a divinely-inspired book, it therefore requires the aid of the Holy Spirit in order to be understood rightly. And the means Christ established, by which the Holy Spirit would teach and guide His Church, is the divinely-established Magisterium (i.e. the Apostles and their successors), by whom His Spirit will lead His people into all truth.10 So, we agree that Christ is the living teaching authority in the Church, and that we must follow His Spirit speaking in the Scripture. But the point of disagreement here is that Catholics affirm, while Protestants deny, that it is through the successors of the Apostles that the Spirit guides the Church in rightly understanding the deposit of faith. Hence Dei Verbum, says:
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 whom she has received everything, until she is brought finally to see Him as He is, face to face (see 1 John 3:2). And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. (Dei Verbum, 7-8)
According to the Catholic Church, Christ established a permanent visible living teaching authority in His Church, so that Christians of all time would be able to know what is the truth concerning the deposit of faith He entrusted to His Apostles. When in describing the Catholic position I refer to the Church’s living teaching authority, I am referring to the Church’s visible living teaching authority. The visible Church Christ founded needs a visible living teaching authority. Because Christ’s physical body is not now visible to us, He cannot in that respect be the Church’s visible living teaching authority. That is why before His ascension He gave authority to men to be the visible living teaching authority of His Church until He returns, so that we would not be left like sheep without a shepherd.
You also claim that the anathemas of the Council of Trent “set Rome in opposition to the clear, marvelous, and saving gospel that is taught in Scripture.” From my point of view, the Council of Trent is like the Council of Nicea with respect to Arianism, and the Council of Ephesus with respect to Nestorianism, and the Council of Chalcedon with respect to Eutycheanism—the Council of Trent, by its very authority as an ecumenical council, gives the orthodox way of understanding the doctrine of justification found in Scripture. In other words, it shows us how rightly to read and interpret the passages of Scripture so as to avoid heresy. That is why your use of your own interpretation of Scripture to judge that the Council of Trent erred in its teaching concerning justification, presupposes that Christ did not establish His Church with a Magisterium by which to provide us with the authoritative determination of orthodoxy and heresy. This paradigm difference makes the task of reconciling Protestants and Catholics much more difficult, because Protestants appeal to their own interpretation of Scripture to judge the Council of Trent to be in error, and Catholics look to the Magisterial authority of the Council of Trent to determine that the Protestant interpretation of Scripture is in error.
For example, the Council of Trent explains “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1) in relation to St. Paul’s claim in Romans 6 that we are buried together with Christ by baptism. The Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin allows Romans 8:1 to be explained by union with Christ through the infusion of sanctifying grace and agape (Rom 5:5) into the soul through baptism. It allows it to be true that “in those who are born again God hates nothing.”11 The Council of Trent makes use of the Tradition to explain that in Romans 7:17 St. Paul is not speaking of sin itself, but of concupiscence, i.e. that disorder in our lower appetites which is not itself sin, but which is the result of sin and inclines us to sin, and must be manfully resisted. Understanding the seventh chapter of Romans in this way allows us to see justification as God truly making the believer righteous, such that by the infusion of sanctifying grace and agape there is now no condemnation for him. This is how the Tridentine Fathers understand St. Paul’s statement to the Corinthians: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11) By the washing of baptism, the believers were both sanctified and justified, and received also the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.12 Trent’s treatment of justification as being made internally righteous by the infusion of sanctifying grace and agape on account of the merit of Christ’s passion, allows the righteousness had by faith (Rom 4:11,13), the justification had by faith (Rom 5:1,16), and the free gift of righteousness (5:17), to be the same righteousness to which we are now “slaves,” (Rom 6:18) no longer walking in darkness but in newness of life. (Rom 6:4) According to St. Paul, obedience to this righteousness “leads to” righteousness, (Rom 6:16), which can also be described as yielding our members to righteousness for sanctification. (Rom 6:19) Given the teaching of Trent regarding justification, we can then see how growth in justification (i.e. righteousness) is part of St. Paul’s theology, and how justification and sanctification are co-referential terms.
This likewise reconciles St. Paul’s theology with the teaching of Jesus that all those who love Him keep His commandments (John 14:23, cf. 1 John 5:3), and that His yoke is easy and His burden light (Mt. 11:30), and that His commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). It likewise makes sense of Jesus’ statement to the rich young ruler: “if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Mt. 19:17) It makes sense of Jesus’ claim that the whole law is summarized in the two great commandments to love God and to love one’s neighbor (Mt. 22:40), and St. Paul’s teaching that the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal 5:14, Rom 13:8, 13:10) Without the mortal-venial distinction, James’ statement “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” would contradicts Jesus’ teaching about the law not being burdensome. We don’t have to imagine that James’ statement “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well” (James 2:8) is merely hypothetical, since “there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation,” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XV), and “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)
Seeing Scripture in this paradigm brings all the parts of Scripture into a beautiful harmony. But, from a Protestant paradigm, the Catholic claims seem contrary to Scripture. That is why the disagreement cannot be resolved by pointing to various Scripture verses, and thus presupposing that no one has greater interpretive authority than does anyone else, or by pointing to ecumenical councils, and thus presupposing that ecumenical councils have more authority than do individual interpreters, because underneath the disagreement about justification are two very different paradigms regarding the authority of the Church and her Magisterium. If the Catholic points to the Council of Trent to resolve the Protestant-Catholic dispute, that simply begs the question, i.e. assumes precisely what is in question between us. But likewise, if the Protestant simply points to Scripture to resolve the dispute that too begs the question. Both such approaches to the dispute do not address the underlying paradigmatic difference. So in order to resolve this long-standing schism we (Protestants and Catholics) have to learn to understand both positions, each on its own terms within its own paradigm, and then find common ground by which to evaluate the respective paradigms. I think the nature of the Catholic paradigm makes this is more difficult for a Protestant to do than for a Catholic seeking to understand the Protestant paradigm. Hence when you say, “So even if there were an infallible teaching office in the church today, Rome would fail that crucial test” you seemingly do not realize that if Rome does have a charism of infallibility, then where your theology is contrary to the doctrine taught by the Council of Trent, it is your interpretation of Scripture that is mistaken. So using your interpretation of Scripture to show that Rome does not have the charism of infalliblity assumes precisely what is in question.
You have claimed a few times in our discussion that the Magisterium has not been self-consistent. But you have not explicitly stated any alleged inconsistency. In order to evaluate whether your claim is true, I would need to know the particular ways you think the Magisterium has been inconsistent. It is easy to assume that over the course of two-thousand years of history, the Magisterium must have contradicted itself, just as it is easy for liberals to assume that Scripture contains contradictions. But, we believe that the Magisterium has never contradicted itself regarding any teaching of faith or morals, because the Holy Spirit has prevented her from doing so. In addition, contrary to your claim, it has never been the case that the Magisterium “anathematized itself.” When the Magisterium anathematizes a teaching which in your opinion is a truth in Scripture, this is not anathematizing itself, but anathematizing a particular [heretical] interpretation of Scripture.
In response to my claim that ecumenical councils have never contradicted each other, you note that Protestants and Eastern Orthodox “would be unable to endorse Rome’s list” [of ecumenical councils].13 I recognize that Protestants and Orthodox do not accept the Catholic Church’s list of ecumenical councils. But their not accepting all the Catholic Church’s ecumenical councils does not have any bearing on whether any of those ecumenical councils contradicted each other.
You also claimed that the term “Roman Catholic” is an oxymoron, since, as you said, “the catholic church is the whole body of Christ in all times and places.” An oxymoron involves a contradiction, and if the Church were said to be particular and universal at the same time and in the same sense, that would be a contradiction. But there is no contradiction if a thing is particular in one sense, and universal in a different sense. And that is the sense in which the Catholic Church is Roman. As Pope Pius XII wrote in Mystici Corporis Christi in 1943:
If we would define and describe this true Church of Jesus Christ – which is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church – we shall find nothing more noble, more sublime, or more divine than the expression “the Mystical Body of Christ” – an expression which springs from and is, as it were, the fair flowering of the repeated teaching of the Sacred Scriptures and the Holy Fathers. (Mystici Corporis Christi, 13, emphasis mine)
The universal Church Christ founded is Roman in the sense that its visible head (until Christ returns) is the episcopal successor of St. Peter at Rome. The notion that either the Catholic Church Christ founded has no visible head, or there is no Catholic Church, is a false dilemma. Christ being the Savior of all men (every race, tribe, nation) is compatible with His being born of the Virgin Mary in a stable in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. In Christ we see universality in one sense, and particularity in another sense, such that there is no contradiction. So likewise, the Catholic Church that Christ founded extends throughout the whole world, will endure through all time, and is open to all men; in that sense it is universal.14 Yet Christ gave the keys of this Catholic Church to one man (i.e. St. Peter), who made Rome the place of his apostolic seat, and through martyrdom spilled his blood, handing those keys on to St. Linus, who gave them up to St. Cletus, who gave them up to St. Clement, etc.15 In that sense the Catholic Church is Roman; that is its particularity, which is rooted in Christ’s giving the keys of this universal Church to one particular man. So there is no oxymoron in the term “Roman Catholic,” because the Church is Roman in a different sense in which it is Catholic.
Another fundamental aspect of the paradigm difference between the Catholic and Protestant approaches to Scripture is that in the Catholic paradigm, because Scripture is the divinely-inspired written words of God, it is rightly understood only in light of the Apostolic Tradition in which it was given, and thus only within the community of persons in which that Tradition has been consciously and faithfully maintained and preserved over the last two thousand years.16 We do not believe that Scripture can be rightly understood (as a whole) from an abstract view-from-nowhere, a traditionless and contextless vacuum. The view-from-nowhere is an ‘illusory ideal,’ and the illusion is most effective when we think we have obtained pure objectivity, all while unknowingly presupposing contemporary ideas and assumptions. So our goal is not to attain an absolute, elusive view-from-nowhere when approaching Scripture. Our goal is to approach Scripture in and with that very same living Tradition in which it was given, in the same continuous community of persons who have lived-the-text within that Tradition, and whose very life and practice and sensibility still carry that Tradition like an intricately woven tapestry.
St. Paul makes a distinction between two modes in which the Revelation of God to His People is handed on. He calls the process of handing on the Word of God “tradition.” He does this most clearly in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, where he says:
Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions (paradoseis) that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.
The Catholic Church teaches that the Bible—i.e. Tradition in its written, divinely-inspired form—is not the only means by which the deposit of faith is transmitted. The Bible itself does not teach that it is the only means by which we receive Revelation. The Apostle John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of (his) disciples that are not written in this book.” (John 20:30) This distinction between oral and written modes of handing on the tradition was taught by the Council of Trent (1546), which declared:
This [Gospel], of old promised through the Prophets in the Holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, promulgated first with His own mouth, and then commanded it to be preached by His Apostles to every creature as the source at once of all saving truth and rules of conduct.
It also clearly perceives that these truths and rules are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.
Following, then, the examples of the orthodox Fathers, it receives and venerates with a feeling of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and New Testaments, since one God is the author of both; also the traditions, whether they relate to faith or to morals, as having been dictated either orally by Christ or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church in unbroken succession.17
It was likewise taught at the First Vatican Council (1870):
“Now this supernatural revelation, according to the belief of the universal Church, as declared by the sacred Council of Trent, is contained in written books and unwritten traditions, which were received by the apostles from the lips of Christ himself, or came to the apostles by the dictation of the Holy Spirit, and were passed on as it were from hand to hand until they reached us.”18
“Wherefore, by divine and Catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God written or handed down and which are proposed by the Church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn definition or in her ordinary and universal magisterium.”19
And the Second Vatican Council further developed the Church’s understanding of the relation of Scripture and Tradition, teaching that they have one common source, the deposit of faith, received by apostolic succession from the Apostles, who in turn received it from Christ:
“Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the end of the age”. ” Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church.20
Toward the end of the second century, St. Irenaeus wrote:
But, again, when we refer them [the heretics] to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place, and yet again from the Pleroma, but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner! It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.21
St. Irenaeus refers to the Apostolic Tradition, which is preserved by apostolic succession. But it would not make sense to appeal to apostolic succession as preserving the Apostolic Tradition if ‘apostolic succession’ simply meant ‘agreement with the Apostles.’ According to St. Irenaeus, the heretics consent neither to Scripture nor to Tradition. In this way, St. Irenaeus testifies to the real distinction between Scripture and Tradition, even at the end of the second century. He goes on to explain how the Apostolic Tradition was to be found, to whom it was entrusted, and how it was preserved:
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.22
St. Irenaeus testifies that the Apostolic Tradition is to be found in those bishops (and the Churches over which they are bishops) having the succession from the Apostles. The Apostolic Tradition is openly and publicly taught and known by those bishops in those Churches. Just over two hundred years later, St. Augustine wrote:
In the first place, I want you to hold as the basic truth of this discussion that our Lord Jesus Christ, as He Himself said in the Gospel, has subjected us to His yoke and His burden, which are light. Therefore, He has laid on the society of His new people the obligations of the sacraments, most sublime in their meaning, as, for example, baptism hallowed by the name of the Trinity, Communion of His Body and His Blood, and whatever else is commended in the canonical writings, with the exception of those burdens found in the five books of Moses, which imposed on the ancient people a servitude in accordance with their character and prophetic times in which they have lived. But, regarding those other observances which we keep and all the world keeps, and which do not derive from Scripture but from tradition, we are given to understand that they have been ordained or recommended to be kept by the Apostles themselves, or by plenary councils, whose authority is well founded in the Church.23
Tradition plays an important role in answering the question of apostolic succession. One typical Protestant way of seeking out an answer to the question of apostolic succession is to presuppose that if apostolic succession were part of the deposit of faith, the teaching and practice of apostolic succession would be explicitly spelled out in Scripture. Then, not seeing this doctrine clearly and indisputably spelled out in Scripture, the Protestant concludes that it must not have been part of the teaching and practice of the Apostles, and that its presence in the early Church is due to the adoption of a man-made innovation that was later mistakenly assumed to be an Apostolic teaching and practice. But that presupposition loads a Protestant assumption concerning the purpose and sufficiency of Scripture into the inquirer’s methodology, and in that respect presumes precisely what is in question between Protestants on the one hand, and Orthodox and Catholics on the other. So when you say that “not one passage in the New Testament supports the idea that the apostles handed off their apostolic office to their successors,” you seem to presuppose that if apostolic succession were something we are supposed to believe, it would be explicitly presented in Scripture. But that’s not a neutral assumption; it is a Protestant assumption, because it assumes that the Tradition is not needed to make explicit what is only implicit in Scripture.
A Catholic approach to the question of apostolic succession is to examine the testimony and practice of the early Church Fathers who had received the deposit of faith from the Apostles, and then approach Scripture through the Tradition we find in the Fathers. In examining the Church Fathers we observe that the Church universally affirmed and practiced apostolic succession, wherever the Church spread all over the world. There was not any great controversy or debate as the ‘heretical,’ novel practice of apostolic succession universally swept over the Church in the first and second centuries, and replaced the ‘original’ notion that ecclesial leadership was based entirely on agreement with the Apostles’ doctrine. If the Apostles did not institute the practice of apostolic succession, that silence is a very strange and unexpected silence. If apostolic succession were a man-made innovation, we would expect to find in the early Church all those Christians who were being martyred for holding fast to what the Apostles had taught, vociferously protesting that apostolic succession is not the way the Apostles set up the basis for leadership in the Church. But instead we find that these martyrs were often themselves successors of the Apostles, or at least loyal defenders of the bishops ordained by way of apostolic succession. Moreover, if those bishops who in the first four centuries determined for the Church which books did and did not belong to the canon had not only fallen into the ‘error’ of apostolic succession, but by way of the ‘error’ of apostolic succession had acquired the ‘authority’ to give testimony concerning which books are and are not canonical, we could not trust their judgment concerning the canon, and thus we could not trust that the canon of Scripture is correct. In this way, ecclesial deism undermines the justification for believing in the veracity and authenticity of the canon.
Given the importance of understanding Scripture in light of the Tradition, as explained just above, when answering the question of apostolic succession, it is therefore important first to consider the Tradition concerning this question, as it is manifested in the Church Fathers. According to the Church Fathers, the Apostles had received authority from Christ Himself, and the Apostles then handed on their authority to their successors. We find evidence of this succession in all the apostolic Churches. St. Clement of Rome, writing sometime toward the last part the first century, describes what the Apostles did, writing:
The Apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the Apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved [i.e. tested] them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus says the Scripture in a certain place, I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.24
St. Clement first explains that the preaching of the Apostles by having received Christ’s authorization and commission is a continuation of the preaching of Jesus, by the authorization and commission of God the Father. This authorization and commission means that one speaks for the other, and therefore that accepting the sending one requires accepting those he sends, while rejecting those he sends entails rejecting the one who sent them. Having that pattern as the basis for their own authorization, the Apostles then, by this same authority they had received, appointed men whom they had tested, to be bishops and deacons of those who would come to believe in Christ.
Then in chapter 43 of his epistle to the Corinthians, St. Clement refers to the example of Moses, who had to deal with rivalry and contention concerning the priesthood and authority. St. Clement describes how Moses placed the twelve rods in the tabernacle, knowing all the while that Aaron’s rod would blossom. Moses did this not to learn which tribe ought to have the priesthood, but according to St. Clement, “he acted thus, that there might be no sedition in Israel.” In other words, Moses did this so that all the people would know who rightfully held the priesthood, and in this way would have no excuse for sedition. Then St. Clement shows that the Apostles (whom St. Clement knew personally) likewise knew “with perfect foreknowledge” that there would be contention over authority in the Church. So the Apostles did something that would show the people who had the rightful authority in the Church, and thus leave men without excuse with respect to sedition. He writes:
Our Apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those already mentioned [i.e. bishops and deacons], and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ, in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure [from this world]; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them.25
According to St. Clement, in order to show the people who had the rightful authority in the Church, the Apostles publicly appointed bishops and deacons, so that everyone would know who were the rightful successors of the Apostles. In addition, the Apostles instructed these bishops to do the same when they too approached death, so that “other approved men should succeed them [i.e. the first generation of bishops] in their ministry.” Here we see the principle that underlies apostolic succession. Teaching and governing authority in the Church is given from the top-down, that is, from Christ, to the Apostles, and then to their successors. Since no one can give what he does not have, then those who have not received such authorization cannot give it. Not only that, but in order to prevent sedition, these appointments, like Christ’s authorization of the Apostles, were made in an orderly way, because “all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.” (1 Cor 14:40) By ordaining their successors in this public and orderly way, no one could claim ignorance of who was the rightful ruler, as a justification for sedition or schism.
This same pattern of succession can be found from the beginning in all the apostolic Churches. Earlier I pointed out that according to Eusebius (c. AD 263–339), after the martyrdom of St. James the Righteous, who became the bishop of Jerusalem, Symeon, the son of Clopas was found to be worthy of “the episcopal throne of that see.”26 When Symeon was martyred under the emperor Trajan in A.D. 106 or 107, “his successor on the throne of the Jerusalem bishopric was a Jew named Justus.”27 Eusebius goes on to list the succession of bishops in Jerusalem until the siege of Hadrian (AD 133):
But since the bishops of the circumcision ceased at this time, it is proper to give here a list of their names from the beginning. The first, then, was James, the so-called brother of the Lord; the second, Symeon; the third, Justus; the fourth, Zacchæus; the fifth, Tobias; the sixth, Benjamin; the seventh, John; the eighth, Matthias; the ninth, Philip; the tenth, Seneca; the eleventh, Justus; the twelfth, Levi; the thirteenth, Ephres; the fourteenth, Joseph; and finally, the fifteenth, Judas. These are the bishops of Jerusalem that lived between the age of the apostles and the time referred to, all of them belonging to the circumcision.28
Eusebius gives us a succession of fifteen bishops that sequentially occupied the “episcopal throne” of the Church at Jerusalem, until the time of Hadrian.
Regarding the succession from St. Mark in the Church at Alexandria, Eusebius writes:
In the fourth year of Domitian, Annianus, the first bishop of the parish of Alexandria, died after holding office twenty-two years, and was succeeded by Abilius, the second bishop.29
Domitian came into power in AD 81. So according to Eusebius, Annianus died about AD 85, having held the episcopacy in Alexandria since around AD 63. Then Eusebius writes:
It was during the first year of [Trajan’s] reign that Abilius, who had ruled the church of Alexandria for thirteen years, was succeeded by Cerdon. He was the third that presided over that church after Annianus, who was the first. At that time Clement still ruled the church of Rome, being also the third that held the episcopate there after Paul and Peter. Linus was the first, and after him came Anencletus. At this time Ignatius was known as the second bishop of Antioch, Evodius having been the first. Symeon likewise was at that time the second ruler of the church of Jerusalem, the brother of our Saviour having been the first. …30
About the twelfth year of the reign of Trajan the above-mentioned bishop of the parish of Alexandria died, and Primus, the fourth in succession from the apostles, was chosen to the office.31
Trajan took office in AD 98, and so according to Eusebius, it was during this year that Abilius (i.e. the second bishop of Alexandria) was succeeded by Cerdon. Cerdon was bishop of Alexandria until about AD 110, at which time he was succeeded by Primus. At this time, St. Clement was still bishop of the Church at Rome. Primus was succeeded by Justus (121-129), who was succeeded by Eumenes (129-141), who was succeeded by Mark II (141-152), who was succeeded by Celadion, (152 – 167)32 then Agrippinus (167 – 178), and then Julian (178-189), and then Demetrius (189-232), who died at the age of 106. Demetrius is the bishop who appointed Origen to teach at the Catechetical school in Alexandria, and then later (around 230) condemned Origen (for self-castration and, possibly, heresy). Demetrius was the first bishop of Alexandria to establish other bishoprics in Egypt.
Concerning St. Clement of Rome, Eusebius writes:
In the third year of the reign of the emperor mentioned above, Clement committed the episcopal government of the church of Rome to Evarestus, and departed this life after he had superintended the teaching of the divine word nine years in all. (Historia Ecclesiastica III.34)
According to Eusebius, St. Clement served as bishop of Rome until about AD 101, while St. Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch after Evodius who was the first bishop of the Church of Antioch. Concerning St. Ignatius, Eusebius writes:
And at the same time Papias, bishop of the parish of Hierapolis, became well known, as did also Ignatius, who was chosen bishop of Antioch, second in succession to Peter, and whose fame is still celebrated by a great many.33
According to the tradition St. Ignatius had been taught and ordained by apostles, and his character shows no sign of infidelity to the mission he received from them to hand on faithfully the deposit of faith entrusted to him. But, St. Ignatius believed and taught that without the three-fold hierarchy, no Church is entitled to the name of ‘Church.’34 In the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, laymen are enjoined to submit to their bishop, and to do nothing apart from their bishop. According to St. Ignatius, the bishop has more authority than [mere] presbyters. (See “St. Ignatius of Antioch on the Church.”) because of apostolic succession. He writes:
“Every one whom the master of the house sends ought to be received as him who sent him. Clearly therefore we must regard the Bishop as the Lord Himself.”35
St. Ignatius teaches that the basis for the authority of the bishop, is that Christ sent him. The bishop is to be received as one would receive Christ, because the bishop has been sent by Christ. The principle is that we ought to receive the messenger as we would the one who sent him, because the messenger represents him, and speaks for him. But the authorization and sending of the bishops was not merely an internal, private, subjective witness, nor were they authorized by a bottom-up democratic election by the local congregation. Rather, they were authorized and given their mission by the Apostles. Hence, St. Ignatius shows that in his understanding (formed by personal acquaintance with apostles), when the Apostles ordained and commissioned a bishop, it was primarily Christ who was ordaining and commissioning that bishop. And this is the consistent principle we find in the early Church Fathers, that when a bishop having apostolic succession ordains someone, it is Christ who is doing so through the one He authorized to speak and act in His Name.
According to Eusebius, when St. Ignatius was martyred (around AD 107), “he was succeeded by Heros in the episcopate of the church of Antioch.”36 Heros was succeeded by Cornelius, who was succeeded by Eros, who was succeeded in the latter part of the second century by Theophilus,37 who wrote the work Ad Autolychum, which still exists today. Theophilus was succeeded by Maximus I (AD 182 – 191), who was succeeded by Serapion, who was bishop until AD 211.
In Asia, the apostolic appointment of bishops continued even to the end of the first century. Eusebius relates the following from St. Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215):
For when, after the tyrant’s [i.e. Domitian’s] death, [the Apostle John] returned from the isle of Patmos to Ephesus, he went away upon their invitation to the neighboring territories of the Gentiles, to appoint bishops in some places, in other places to set in order whole churches, elsewhere to choose to the ministry some one of those that were pointed out by the Spirit.38
Shortly after AD 96, the Apostle John returned from Patmos to Ephesus, and began to travel to neighboring territories to appoint bishops, and set in order whole churches, and to choose to the ministry some that were pointed out by the Spirit. By “choosing to the ministry” St. Clement of Alexandria is likely referring to St. John choosing some laymen to become presbyters, something distinct from “appoint bishops,” which likely refers to ordaining one presbyter (within a particular Church) to the episcopacy. Among those ordained by the Apostle John at this time was St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Tertullian writes, “For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John.”39 Concerning St. Polycarp, Eusebius writes:
At that time Polycarp, a disciple of the apostles, was a man of eminence in Asia, having been entrusted with the episcopate of the church of Smyrna by those who had seen and heard the Lord.40
And this is confirmed in the epistle of St. Ignatius to St. Polycarp. St. Polycarp was entrusted with the episcopate of Smyrna by one or more apostles. According to less established tradition, the first bishop of Smyrna was Apelles (mentioned in Romans 16:10), followed by Strataes, a brother (or uncle) of Timothy, then Ariston, then Bucolus, the bishop under whom St. Polycarp was raised, first being made a deacon, then a presbyter, and finally, upon the death of Bucolus, bishop.
In Athens, Dionysius the Aeroapagite became the first bishop of the Church there. This we learn from a letter written by a different Dionysius, Dionysius the bishop of Corinth, written around AD 170 to Soter, bishop of the church at Rome from AD 166-175 AD. Dionysius the Aeroapagite was succeeded by Narkissos (who was originally from Palestine) around the year AD 96. Narkissos was succeeded by Publius (who was from Malta). According to St. Jerome, Publius was martyred during the persecution under the Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138). He was succeeded by Quadratus. There is some dispute as to whether the Quadratus who was bishop of Athens after Publius was the same Quadratus of Athens who was an apologist, and who wrote a letter to Hadrian when the latter visited the city of Athens. The letter helped relax the persecution against the Christians. In the letter he reports that he himself had seen many who were healed by Jesus and even raised from the dead by Jesus.41
In Crete, St. Paul ordained St. Titus to be the first bishop of the churches there. From Dionysius, bishop of Corinth (writing in AD 170) we learn that at that time Philip was bishop of Crete, the church at Goryna being the location of the episcopal see of Crete. It was this Philip, according to Eusebius, whose writings most effectively refuted Marcion’s errors. We learn from Eusebius that Pinytus then became bishop of Crete, and died around AD 180.
St. Paul also ordained St. Timothy the first diocesan bishop of Ephesus. The tradition indicates that St. Timothy served as bishop there until the last decade of the first century, and was martyred. His relics were later moved to Constantinople. Around AD 107, St. Ignatius, in his epistle to the Ephesians, refers to Onesimus as the bishop of Ephesus. About AD 190, Polycrates, the bishop of Ephesus, wrote a letter to Victor, the bishop of Rome, in which letter he states that the Apostle John is buried in Ephesus, and the Apostle Phillip is buried in Hieropolis. He also tells us that seven of his relatives had been bishops before him. So Polycrates thus testifies to the connection and continuity between the episcopal office held by Onesimus and later by Polycrates.
Hermas, mentioned in Romans 16:14, is said to have become the bishop of Philippi, and was later martyred. (His feast day is May 9.) Tradition holds that Philemon, to whom the Apostle Paul wrote his epistle, became the bishop of Colossae, where tradition says he was martyred. The earliest tradition shows that Crescens (mentioned by Paul in 2 Tim 4:10) became a bishop in Galatia. Aristarchus, mentioned in Acts, Colossians and Philemon, became the bishop of Thessalonica. According to tradition, Jason, at whose home Paul stayed in Thessalonica (Acts 17; cf. Rom 16:21), became the bishop of Tarsus, Prochorus, one of the seven deacons named in Acts 6, became the bishop of Nicomedia, and Nicolas, another of the seven deacons, is said to have become the bishop of Samaria.
Also according to St. Jerome, St. Philip, one of the seven deacons mentioned in Acts 6, later became the bishop of Tralles. When St. Ignatius composed his epistles, he tells us that at that time Polybius was the bishop of Tralles. Tradition maintains that the bishop of Philadelphia, to whom Ignatius refers without naming him in his [Ignatius’s] epistle to the Philadelphians, was Demetrius (mentioned in 3 John 12). Demetrius had been ordained bishop of Philadelphia by the Apostle John. According to tradition Gaius (mentioned in 3 John 1) was the first bishop of Pergamum, followed by Antipas (mentioned in Revelation 2:13). According to that tradition Antipas was martyred by being burned at the stake some time before John wrote the book of Revelation. A piece of Antipas’s skull is now preserved as a relic in the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on the island of Patmos. St. Ignatius also tells us that at that time (i.e. AD 107), Damas was the diocesan bishop of Magnesia. Papias (AD 60 – 135), an auditor of the Apostle John, and a friend of Polycarp, became the diocesan bishop of Hierapolis, the place where Philip, one of the Twelve Apostles, was buried. Two later bishops of Hierapolis were Apolinarius, who flourished during the time of Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180), and then Abircius Marcellus, who was martyred around AD 200. According to tradition the first bishop of the Church at Laodicea was Archippus (Col 4:17), followed by Nymphan, followed by Diotrophes (3 John 9), followed by Sagaris, who was martyred in AD 166 under Marcus Aurelius. In Lyon, St. Irenaeus was the second bishop after Pothinus, who was about 90 years old in AD 177, and could have remembered the Apostle John.
Everywhere we look, we see this same pattern regarding the authorization and commissioning of bishops by the Apostles, and then these bishops continuing this practice in ordaining bishops to succeed them.
In the generation after the Apostles, if someone had asked the question, “By what authority do you do these things?” it is clear that the bishops would have answered by pointing to their ordination, i.e. their having received authorization from the Apostles. And the second generation of bishops would have pointed to their having been ordained by those having the succession from the Apostles. We see this most clearly in St. Irenaeus and Tertullian, both writing toward the later part of the second century. St. Irenaeus writes:
“Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?”42
Here St. Irenaeus is teaching that the truth about Christ and Christianity is to be found not by looking to the heretics but by looking to the bishops who were entrusted by the Apostles with the deposit of faith, and to the apostolic Churches which these bishops shepherd. Because the Apostles entrusted the deposit of faith to the bishops, that deposit belongs to those bishops and is guarded and preserved by the succession of bishops in those apostolic Churches.
Earlier in this same work St. Irenaeus had written:
“Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions [of bishops] of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority—that is, the faithful everywhere—inasmuch as the Apostolic Tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who are everywhere.”43
First, it is worth noting that according to St. Irenaeus it is necessary that “every Church should agree with this Church,” meaning that every particular Church (e.g. Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus) must agree with the particular Church at Rome on account of its “preeminent authority” due to its having been founded by St. Peter and St. Paul.44 But, St. Irenaeus is also saying here that the faith comes down to his time by means of “the succession of bishops.” He is not saying that the faith merely happens to have been preserved in the succession of bishops; he is making a much stronger claim than that. He is saying that the succession of bishops is the normative means by which the deposit of faith can be determined, precisely because the authority of stewardship of this deposit was entrusted to these lines of bishops by the Apostles. His whole argument against the Gnostics would be undermined if he was claiming only that it presently happens to be the case that the genuine deposit of faith is found in the succession of bishops. In that case, it would be pointless to bring up the succession of bishops, for it would offer no more (or less) assurance of finding the genuine deposit of faith there than among the Gnostics.
St. Irenaeus continues:
“Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters [priests] who are in the Church—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate [bishop], have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also necessary] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever . . . . But those who cleave asunder, and separate the unity of the Church, [shall] receive from God the same punishment as Jeroboam did.”45
We see here that the priests and the bishops have their authority because they “possess the succession from the apostles.” This phrase shows what St. Irenaeus understood concerning the gift the bishops (including himself) had received at their ordination. The possessed something that those not having the succession did not. Through having the succession from the Apostles, they possessed stewardship over the deposit of faith, to guard and preserve it, and to provide the authoritative determination concerning its identity and meaning. By having the succession from the Apostles, they possessed what St. Irenaeus calls “the certain gift of truth.” The priests and bishops are promised (by Christ) the gift of preserving the truth that was entrusted to them by Christ through the Apostles, upon condition of remaining in communion with the successor of the one to whom Christ entrusted the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. In this quotation we see also that St. Irenaeus teaches that we should hold in suspicion those who depart from “primitive succession”—i.e. those who reject apostolic succession, and claim to teach the apostles’ doctrine, but do not have the authority from the Apostles to say what is the Apostles’ doctrine. St. Irenaeus views departure from the succession of bishops as schism, as having in some sense rejected the Apostles who authorized and sent these bishops. The principle is that he who rejects the Apostles, rejects Christ, just as he who rejects Christ rejects the Father who sent Christ. “The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.” (Luke 10:16)
St. Irenaeus was himself only one generation removed from the Apostles, because he had known St. Polycarp (AD 69 – 155), who had been ordained by the Apostle John. Concerning St. Polycarp, St. Irenaeus writes:
“But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he [Polycarp] tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time—a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics.”46
According to St. Irenaeus, St. Polycarp was instructed by apostles, and by apostles appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna. During his long life he taught the things he had learned from the Apostles. Surely, if apostolic succession was something the Apostles either did not teach, or taught against, St. Polycarp would have opposed it. But, there is absolutely no evidence that St. Polycarp, or anyone of the second generation bishops, opposed the doctrine and practice of apostolic succession. We have every reason to believe that the doctrine of apostolic succession we find in St. Irenaeus is the doctrine of apostolic succession he had received from men like St. Polycarp, who had themselves received it from the Apostles.
We can see this same idea in Tertullian in his work titled The Prescription Against Heretics, where he writes:
“The apostles . . . next went forth into the world and preached the same doctrine of the same faith to the nations. They then in like manner founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day borrowing them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches. Every sort of thing must necessarily revert to its original for its classification. Therefore the churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive church, (founded) by the apostles, from which they all (spring). In this way all are primitive, and all are apostolic, whilst they are all proved to be one, in (unbroken) unity, by their peaceful communion, and title of brotherhood, and bond of hospitality, — privileges which no other rule directs than the one tradition of the selfsame mystery.”47
According to Tertullian, the authority of the Church corresponds to the origin and organic development of the Church. The Apostles founded Churches and ordained bishops over those Churches. These Churches are Apostolic by having been directly founded by the Apostles. Later, other Churches were founded by men sent out by the Churches founded by the Apostles. Tertullian explains that in order for a Church which was not founded by the Apostles to be Apostolic, it must have been founded by a Church which is itself Apostolic. In this way there is always organic unity between all the priests and bishops, and all the particular Churches. All true Churches can be traced back to the Churches founded by the Apostles, because they have the authorization from the Apostles.
Tertullian again writes:
“But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men,– a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed. Let the heretics contrive something of the same kind. For after their blasphemy, what is there that is unlawful for them (to attempt)? But should they even effect the contrivance, they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own diversity and contrariety, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man; because, as the apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory, so the apostolic men would not have inculcated teaching different from the apostles, unless they who received their instruction from the apostles went and preached in a contrary manner. To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine. Then let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests by our apostolic church, offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic. But in truth they neither are so, nor are they able to prove themselves to be what they are not. Nor are they admitted to peaceful relations and communion by such churches as are in any way connected with apostles, inasmuch as they are in no sense themselves apostolic because of their diversity as to the mysteries of the faith.”48
Tertullian is here saying that the way to distinguish heretics from the orthodox is to get out the records and see whose bishops can trace their succession back to the Apostles. The heretics cannot trace their bishops back to someone who was ordained by the Apostles. The Apostolic Churches, however, can do just that. Tertullian provides two tests to show that the doctrine of the heretics is contrary to that of the Apostles. These two tests are related to each other. One necessarily comes before the other, and depends on the other. First, he uses the test of apostolic succession. “Let them produce the original records of their churches, let them unfold the roll of their bishops ….”. The second test depends on the first test. The second test is comparing whether the ‘faith’ proposed by the heretics agrees with the doctrine held by the Apostles. But to determine whether the doctrine of the heretics agrees with the doctrine of the Apostles, Tertullian does not say, “Look at the Scriptures.” He says that the ‘faith’ of the heretics must be compared to the faith of the Churches which are in agreement with the Churches founded by the Apostles. So the Apostolic Churches (the ones founded by the Apostles and maintaining the succession from the Apostles) are still the standard for what is the Apostolic faith. For Tertullian, we know which Churches have the Apostolic faith by comparing their doctrine to that of the apostolic Churches, i.e. the ones having the succession from the Apostles. So the second test (i.e. comparing the faith of the heretics to that of the Apostles) depends on the first test (i.e. apostolic succession). According to Tertullian, the succession of bishops in the Apostolic Churches is what determines the standard for what is the apostolic doctrine, against which to compare the doctrine of these gnostic heretics.
The requirement of testing the claims of heretics against the faith taught in the Apostolic Churches would make no sense if there were no “charism of truth” in the Apostolic Churches. If ecclesial deism were true, there would be no more reason to expect to find the Apostles’ doctrine in the Apostles doctrine than in the assemblies of the Gnostics. In other words, if Tertullian believed that the Apostolic Churches of his time only happened to contain the Apostles’ doctrine, but were not necessarily the divinely authorized and divinely protected guardians and stewards of the deposit of faith, there would be no reason to point to the Apostolic Churches as the standard by which to locate the Apostles doctrine. That would simply beg the question (i.e. presume precisely what was in question) between the Catholics and the Gnostics, because the Gnostics maintained that the true doctrine of the Apostles had not been passed down to the bishops. So Tertullian’s requirement that Apostolic doctrine be determined by conformity to the doctrine taught in the Churches founded by the Apostles presupposes not only that the Apostles did not withhold any revealed doctrine from the bishops they ordained, but also that there is a divine promise of preservation of the faith among those having the succession from the Apostles. In other words, we see here implicitly in Tertullian the same notion in St. Irenaeus of a “charism of truth” that accompanies possessing the succession from the Apostles, in full communion with the successor of St. Peter.
Again Tertullian writes:
“From this, therefore, do we draw up our rule. Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, (our rule is) that no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed; for “no man knoweth the Father save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him.” Nor does the Son seem to have revealed Him to any other than the apostles, whom He sent forth to preach—that, of course, which He revealed to them. Now, what that was which they preached–in other words, what it was which Christ revealed to them—can, as I must here likewise prescribe, properly be proved in no other way than by those very churches which the apostles founded in person, by declaring the gospel to them directly themselves, both viva voce [with the spoken voice], as the phrase is, and subsequently by their epistles. If, then, these things are so, it is in the same degree manifest that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches—those moulds and original sources of the faith must be accounted true, as undoubtedly containing that which the (said) churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, Christ from God. Whereas all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savours of contrariety to the truth of the churches and apostles of Christ and God. It remains, then, that we demonstrate whether this doctrine of ours, of which we have now given the rule, has its origin in the tradition of the apostles, and whether all other doctrines do not ipso facto proceed from falsehood. We hold communion with the apostolic churches because our doctrine is in no respect different from theirs. This is our witness of truth.”49
Tertullian is here saying that no man knows the Father except Christ, and no one knows Christ except the Apostles, and no one knows the Apostles except the bishops whom they appointed. Therefore, no one who is not sent by the bishops should be received to preach. In other words, the imperative for Catholics of the second century is this: Do not accept as your Church authority anyone who is not sent by the bishops (who are themselves sent by the Apostles, who were themselves sent by Christ, who was Himself sent by God the Father). If it does not come from the Apostles and those ordained by the Apostles, then it is ipso facto not to be received. This applies not only to teaching, but also to teachers and preachers.
Again Tertullian writes:
“Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, go through the apostolic churches, in which the very seats of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally. Achaia is very near you, (in which) you find Corinth. Since you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi; (and there too) you have the Thessalonians. Since you are able to cross to Asia, you get Ephesus. Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves). How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile!”50
Notice Tertullian’s emphasis on the unique authority of the Church of Rome among all the other apostolic churches, much as we saw in St. Irenaeus’ claim that all the particular Churches should agree with the Church at Rome, on account of its preeminent authority.
And again Tertullian writes:
“Since this is the case, in order that the truth may be adjudged to belong to us, “as many as walk according to the rule,” which the church has handed down from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God, the reason of our position is clear, when it determines that heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the Scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures. For as they are heretics, they cannot be true Christians, because it is not from Christ that they get that which they pursue of their own mere choice, and from the pursuit incur and admit the name of heretics. Thus, not being Christians, they have acquired no right to the Christian Scriptures; and it may be very fairly said to them, “Who are you? When and whence did you come? As you are none of mine, what have you to do with that which is mine? Indeed, Marcion, by what right do you hew my wood? By whose permission, Valentinus, are you diverting the streams of my fountain? By what power, Apelles, are you removing my landmarks? This is my property. Why are you, the rest, sowing and feeding here at your own pleasure? This (I say) is my property. I have long possessed it; I possessed it before you. I hold sure title-deeds from the original owners themselves, to whom the estate belonged. I am the heir of the apostles. Just as they carefully prepared their will and testament, and committed it to a trust, and adjured (the trustees to be faithful to their charge), even so do I hold it. As for you, they have, it is certain, always held you as disinherited, and rejected you as strangers—as enemies.”51
Tertullian here shows that those who are not in communion with the Apostolic Churches have no right to appeal to Scripture to defend their positions, because the Scriptures belong to the bishops to whom the Apostolic writings were entrusted by the Apostles. Since the Scriptures belong to the bishops, those not in communion with those bishops in the universal Church have no right to challenge what the bishops say that the Scriptures teach. The sacred books do not belong to them, but to the bishops to whom the Apostles entrusted them. Since the Scriptures belongs to the bishops and have been entrusted to them, they have the right and authority to determine its authentic and authoritative interpretation.
The notion of apostolic succession we see clearly in the latter half of the second century in the writings of St. Irenaeus and Tertullian we find also in the middle of the second century. Eusebius tells us that St. Hegesippus, who was already a young man at the time of the time of the death of Antinous (AD 130), came to Rome under Anicetus (154-7 to 165-8) and wrote in the time of Eleutherus, bishop of Rome from 175 to 189. Eusebius writes:
Hegesippus in the five books of Memoirs which have come down to us has left a most complete record of his own views. In them he states that on a journey to Rome he met a great many bishops, and that he received the same doctrine from all. It is fitting to hear what he says after making some remarks about the epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. His words are as follows:
“And the church of Corinth continued in the true faith until Primus was bishop in Corinth. I conversed with them on my way to Rome, and abode with the Corinthians many days, during which we were mutually refreshed in the true doctrine. And when I had come to Rome I remained there until Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And Anicetus was succeeded by Soter, and he by Eleutherus. In every succession, and in every city that is held which is preached by the law and the prophets and the Lord.”52
As St. Hegesippus traveled through many different cities in the middle of the second century, he met a great many bishops, and received doctrine from them. He notes that he received the same doctrine from them all. And this is a testimony to the unity of the faith and practice of the Church in the second century. Even though we see heretics (e.g. Marcion, Valentinus) arise within the Church, be excommunicated from the Church, and lead some Catholics to follow them out of the Church, there is no evidence here or elsewhere of a great falling away of the Church. There is no outcry or protest as though some group of Christians within the Church adopted a novel practice of apostolic succession, while some original group of Christians or Churches stood in opposition, maintaining the apostolic practice of ordination from below by congregational election. In St. Hegesippus’ letter we see evidence that in the mid-second century, the faith of the Church is everywhere preserved within the Church. That is significant because in the middle and late second century, we see apostolic succession, as episcopal succession, practiced ubiquitously in the Catholic Church.53 And this implies that the apostolic succession described at the end of the second century by St. Irenaeus and Tertullian was the same apostolic succession believed and practice in the middle of the second century. And in order for there to have been the kind of widespread agreement St. Hegesippus describes in the middle of the second century, we have very good reason to believe that the mid-second century belief and practice of apostolic succession was itself a faithful continuation of a doctrine and practice established by the Apostles themselves.
Between St. Hegesippus and the testimonies of St. Irenaeus and Tertullian, we find the testimony St. Dionysius. Around AD 170, St. Dionysius, the bishop of Corinth wrote a number of letters to various Churches, and in these letters he describes each Church as having its own bishop.54 In his letter to the Church at Athens, St. Dionysius writes of the recent martyrdom (under the persecution of Marcus Aurelius) of their bishop Publius, and reminds them of the faith of their first bishop, Dionysius the Areopagite, who had been converted to the faith by the Apostle Paul, recorded by St. Luke in Acts 17:34.55 Similarly, a few years later, Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, wrote a letter to Victor, bishop of Rome from 189 to 199.56 There is no reason to disbelieve that the episcopacy we see in the example of bishop Polycrates at the end of the second century is not the continuation of the episcopacy that St. Paul had established at Ephesus in St. Timothy, and which St. John had maintained when he returned from Patmos.
Around AD 215, St. Hippolytus, a presbyter at the Church of Rome, wrote a work known as “The Apostolic Tradition.” This is a work intended to record some of the tradition which the Church at Rome had received and always practiced concerning ordination of bishops and presbyters. St. Hippolytus writes:
We have set forth as was necessary that part of the discourse which relates to the spiritual gifts, all that God, right from the beginning, granted to people according to his will, bringing back to himself this image which had gone astray. Now, driven by love towards all the saints, we have arrived at the essence of the tradition which is proper for the Churches. This is so that those who are well informed may keep the tradition which has lasted until now, according to the explanation we give of it, and so that others by taking note of it may be strengthened (against the fall or error which has recently occurred because of ignorance and ignorant people), with the Holy Spirit conferring perfect grace on those who have a correct faith, and so that they will know that those who are at the head of the Church must teach and guard all these things.
St. Hippolytus here states that he is presenting the “essence of the Tradition which is proper for the Churches,” a Tradition that has lasted from the time of the Apostles “until now.” Those at the head of the Church “must teach and guard all these things.” He then presents a description of the rite by which a bishop is ordained:
He who is ordained as a bishop, being chosen by all the people, must be irreproachable. When his name is announced and approved, the people will gather on the Lord’s day with the council of elders and the bishops who are present. With the assent of all, the bishops will place their hands upon him, with the council of elders standing by, quietly. Everyone will keep silent, praying in their hearts for the descent of the Spirit. After this, one of the bishops present, at the request of all, shall lay his hand upon him who is being ordained bishop, and pray, saying:
God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Father of mercies and God of all consolation, you who live in the highest, but regard the lowest, you who know all things before they are, you who gave the rules of the Church through the word of your grace, who predestined from the beginning the race of the righteous through Abraham, who instituted princes and priests, and did not leave your sanctuary without a minister; who from the beginning of the world has been pleased to be glorified by those whom you have chosen, pour out upon him the power which is from you, the princely Spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son Jesus Christ, which he gave to your holy Apostles, who founded the Church in every place as your sanctuary, for the glory and endless praise of your name. Grant, Father who knows the heart, to your servant whom you chose for the episcopate, that he will feed your holy flock, that he will wear your high priesthood without reproach, serving night and day, incessantly making your face favorable, and offering the gifts of your holy Church; in the spirit of high priesthood having the power to forgive sins according to your command; to assign lots according to your command; to loose any bond according to the authority which you gave to the Apostles; to please you in mildness and a pure heart, offering to you a sweet scent, through your son Jesus Christ, through whom to you be glory, power, and honor, Father and Son, with the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Church, now and throughout the ages of the ages. Amen.
We see that one who is to be ordained a bishop can be ordained only by a bishop. We also see an explicit description of the authority of the bishop as a continuation of the authority of the Apostles. The bishop has the responsibility to feed the holy flock, to function as a high priest through the sacrifice he offers in the Eucharist (i.e. “the gifts of your holy Church”), having the apostolic power to forgive or retain sins (John 20:23). He also has the authority to assign presbyters and deacons their places in the Church, and to loosen any bond. Next, regarding the ordination of elders St. Hippolytus writes:
When an elder is ordained, the bishop places his hand upon his head, along with the other elders, and says according to that which was said above for the bishop, praying and saying:
God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, look upon your servant here, and impart the spirit of grace and the wisdom of elders, that he may help and guide your people with a pure heart, just as you looked upon your chosen people, and commanded Moses to choose elders, whom you filled with your spirit which you gave to your attendant.
Now, Lord, unceasingly preserving in us the spirit of your grace, make us worthy, so that being filled we may minister to you in singleness of heart, praising you, through your son Christ Jesus, through whom to you be glory and might, Father and Son with the Holy Spirit, in your Holy Church, now and throughout the ages of the ages. Amen.
Of note here is that while the [mere] elders do also place their hands on the candidate to be ordained an elder, they do so not for the same reason or with the same necessity as that of the ordaining bishop. Mere elders cannot ordain, but a bishop can ordain. The other elders also lay hands on the candidate to show their union with the bishop and to join their prayer to that of the bishop, that the candidate may receive the Holy Spirit’s sacramental gift of ordination to the priesthood.
This same affirmation of the Catholic understanding of apostolic succession is ubiquitous in the third and fourth centuries. For example, St. Augustine, responding to the Donatists in 393 wrote:
You know what the Catholic Church is, and what that is cut off from the Vine; if there are any among you cautious, let them come; let them find life in the Root. Come, brethren, if you wish to be engrafted in the Vine: a grief it is when we see you lying thus cut off. Number the Bishops even from the very seat of Peter: and see every succession in that line of Fathers: that is the Rock against which the proud Gates of Hell prevail not. (PL 43.30)
Seven years later, responding to a Donatist appeal to episcopal succession, St. Augustine writes:
For if the lineal succession of bishops is to be taken into account, with how much more certainty and benefit to the Church do we reckon back till we reach Peter himself, to whom, as bearing in a figure the whole Church, the Lord said: “Upon this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” The successor of Peter was Linus, and his successors in unbroken continuity were these:— Clement, Anacletus, Evaristus, Alexander, Sixtus, Telesphorus, Iginus, Anicetus, Pius, Soter, Eleutherius, Victor, Zephirinus, Calixtus, Urbanus, Pontianus, Antherus, Fabianus, Cornelius, Lucius, Stephanus, Xystus, Dionysius, Felix, Eutychianus, Gaius, Marcellinus, Marcellus, Eusebius, Miltiades, Sylvester, Marcus, Julius, Liberius, Damasus, and Siricius, whose successor is the present Bishop Anastasius. In this order of succession no Donatist bishop is found. But, reversing the natural course of things, the Donatists sent to Rome from Africa an ordained bishop, who, putting himself at the head of a few Africans in the great metropolis, gave some notoriety to the name of “mountain men,” or Cutzupits, by which they were known.
Now, even although some traditor had in the course of these centuries, through inadvertence, obtained a place in that order of bishops, reaching from Peter himself to Anastasius, who now occupies that see—this fact would do no harm to the Church and to Christians having no share in the guilt of another; for the Lord, providing against such a case, says, concerning officers in the Church who are wicked: “All whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.” Thus the stability of the hope of the faithful is secured, inasmuch as being fixed, not in man, but in the Lord, it never can be swept away by the raging of impious schism. (Letter 53)
Regarding apostolic succession you wrote:
The argument of Irenaeus against the Gnostics makes sense. The Gnostics were basing their heretical teachings on spurious writings and they gathered their own circle of false apostles. Himself a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John the Apostle, Irenaeus could appeal to an obvious and publicly recognized circle of pastors in the line of the apostles who walked with Jesus. However, this historical argument became a dogmatic argument that went beyond the church’s constitution (Scripture).
The arguments given by St. Irenaeus and Tertullian for apostolic succession are not that the Apostolic doctrine is more likely to be found among those having the succession from the Apostles. Otherwise, the Gnostics could have treated such arguments as question-begging, that is, as presuming without any justification that the succession of bishops fully received and faithfully preserved the deposit of faith. That is precisely what was in question between the Catholics on the one hand, and the Gnostics on the other hand. In their arguments against the Gnostics, St. Irenaeus and Tertullian are making a much stronger claim. They are claiming that the Apostles publicly authorized certain men (i.e. bishops) to function as official stewards of the deposit of faith, to guard it and explicate it, and charged them to publicly authorize other tested and qualified men to carry on this function of stewardship, in a line of perpetual successions, until Christ returned for His Bride. According to St. Irenaeus and Tertullian, the Apostles did not merely preach some truths to the first Christians, and then go to their martyrdom. That would have left the Church susceptible to the Gnostic challenge, with many clamoring voices claiming to speak for the Apostles, and claiming to have texts written by the Apostles. It would have left the sheep without divinely-designated shepherds, entirely at a loss regarding what is the truth concerning Christ and His Gospel. Rather, according to St. Irenaeus and Tertullian, by publicly appointed successors, and giving to them the authority to appoint further successors in perpetuam, the Apostles cut off the Gnostic challenge at the knees, by, in a sense, perpetuating themselves, and so ensuring that no Gnostic challenger could ever have an equal claim to speak for the Apostles. In this way, it is not just an “historical argument.” It is an argument that reaches back into history in order to show why the normative way of determining the truth concerning the apostolic deposit is to unroll the lines of bishops, and see whose go back to the Apostles. Only those bishops have the divine authority from the Apostles to say what does or does not belong to the deposit of faith received from the Apostles.57
As for Scripture being the Church’s “constitution,” that is not a claim made either by Scripture or by the Church Fathers. The Church did not even settle the canon of the New Testament until the end of the fourth century. If the Apostles had intended the Bible to be the Church’s constitution, they would have publicly settled the canon question even before departing from Jerusalem after the day of Pentecost, or at least at the Jerusalem Council. They would have made sure that before they departed from this earth, the canon was settled and every particular Church received a copy of the [Protestant] Bible. But they did not do that; they sought instead to establish bishops in all the Churches, before they died. So there seems to be no good reason to believe that they intended Scripture to be the Church’s constitution.
The authority of Catholic teaching does not rest on an a priori or fideistic assumption of the Church’s orthodoxy. The authority of the bishops and their teaching is based on the authority of the Apostles who ordained them, which in turn is based on the authority of Jesus who authorized and commissioned them. Recognizing that authority as authoritative is not a fideistic leap, but something confirmed by the miraculous signs and wonders done by Christ and the Apostles, and by Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. Therefore, belief in the authority of Jesus and of His Apostles and the bishops whom they ordained, is not an a priori belief, but is instead a belief based on the motives of credibility provided by these divine signs. By contrast, because a Protestant does not rely on the Church as the authority by which to know the divine character of Scripture and the veracity of the canon of Scripture, he has to derive his belief about the divine authorship of the books of Scripture, and the veracity of the Protestant canon, from the books themselves, by a kind of internal witness, hopefully from the Holy Spirit.
What we do not see in the Church Fathers, in the transition from governance of the Church by the Apostles, to governance of the Church by their successors, is any notion that each individual Christian is his own highest interpretive authority. But the notion that the successors of the Apostles had only “ministerial” authority entails just that, namely, that the successors of the Apostles did not have the authority to provide the authoritative interpretation of Scripture, and the authoritative determination of orthodoxy and heresy. That would leave each individual as his own highest interpretive authority.58 Instead, as I have sketched out above, what we see in the transition from Apostles to bishops is a very strong sense of continuity of authority from the Apostles to the bishops.
In all the evidence we have from the early Church, we find not a single case in which someone was recognized as holding episcopal authority, but did not receive that authority either from Christ Himself, or from someone who had received authority mediately from Christ, by way of succession from the Apostles. No one could take ecclesial authority to himself, precisely because it is not a human authority, but a divine authority, which therefore has to be given from above. And this is also why no one could receive ordination from someone who had not himself received this authority from Christ directly or from Christ mediately through succession from the Apostles. Knowingly treating an invalid ordination as though it were a valid ordination would be the equivalent of arrogating ecclesial authority to oneself. Because no one can give what he does not have, therefore those not having ecclesial authority could not give it. Only those having ecclesial authority could give ecclesial authority in the act of ordination.59
In the first fifteen hundred years of Church history there is not a single case of a [mere] presbyter or deacon ordaining anyone, let alone a layman. Congregations might put forward candidates for ordination, as in Acts 6:1-6 where the whole multitude put forward seven candidates to be ordained as deacons. But in the history of the Church there is not a single known case of ordination “from below,” rather than by Apostolic succession. Only presbyters who had episcopal orders could ordain, though as I showed above in St. Hippolytus, presbyters without episcopal orders participated in ordinations by laying on their hands as well, not to ordain, but to offer their blessing and unite their prayer with that of the bishop.60
In light of the evidence from Tradition in the Church Fathers, the meaning of the evidence in Scripture is more apparent. Christ made His Apostles the foundation of His Church. We see this in Ephesians 2:20, where St. Paul explains that the Church is built upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone. Just as we saw above in the section titled “Persons and Texts,” Christ is not fundamentally a concept or proposition; He is a divine Person. And before He ascended into Heaven He established authorized persons to stand in His place as stewards of His Church until He returns. In that respect, it is not Scripture that is the foundation of the Church, but the Apostles, even those Apostles who never wrote any Scripture.61
When men have “hands laid” on them by those having authority, in the sacrament of ordination, they receive delegated authority (1 Tim 4.14; 5.22; 2 Tim 1.6; Heb 1.10). This was a continuation in the Church of a practice under the Old Covenant, as Moses laid hands on Joshua (Num 27:15-23, Deut. 34:9); in this way the Spirit which was upon Moses was given to the elders. (cf. Num. 11:16-17,25) St. Paul tells Titus to “declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15). But this is not Titus’ own authority; Christ has all authority, and He entrusted His authority to His Apostles, who delegated this same authority to their successors.
The evidence for this can be seen in the New Testament in the clear pattern of authorized succession that has its source in the Godhead. This succession begins with God the Father. Jesus does not speak or act on His own initiative; He does and says only what He was sent to do and say by His Father. (John 5:19, 30; 8:28, 42; 12:49-50: 14:10) His teaching is not His own but that of the Father who sent Him. (John 7:16) That is why to listen to Jesus is to listen to the Father. (John 14:24) The same pattern continues with the Spirit, who is sent by Christ and discloses what belongs to Christ. (John 16:14-15) Jesus teaches that this same pattern continues with the Apostles.”He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” (Matthew 10:40), and “He who listens to you listens to Me, and he who rejects you, rejects Me.” (Luke 10:16) To receive the Apostles is to receive Jesus, because Jesus is the one who sent them. (John 13:20) Just as the Father had given authority to Jesus, so Jesus gives authority to His Apostles. (Luke 22:29-30; Matthew 11:27) Jesus gives to St. Peter the keys of the Kingdom. The Apostles in communion with Peter share in the authority by which their decisions on earth are ratified in heaven. (Matthew 16:19; 18:18) St. Paul speaks of the authority with the Lord gave to him as an Apostle. (2 Cor 10:8, 13:10) When the Apostles forgive sins, those sins are forgiven; when they retain men’s sins, those sins are retained. (John 20:23) This all reveals that Christ had extended to the Apostles a participation in His divine governance of the Church; upon His ascension, He governed through them. As the Father sent Christ, so Christ sent the Apostles. (John 17:18; 20:21) The Church was to continue to follow the pattern it had received from the Apostles (2 Tim 1:13) including the pattern of succession of authority.
Just as Christ had authorized the Apostles to teach and govern His kingdom in His name, so the Apostles authorized successors to do the same, entrusting to them the deposit of the faith, and teaching them to do the same to their own successors. (2 Tim 2:2; Titus 1:5) We see this already in their filling Judas’ unoccupied “ἐπισκοπὴν” (i.e. bishopric). (Acts 1:20) If there were no apostolic office, but only twelve individuals chosen by Christ, it would make no sense to choose someone to take Judas’ bishopric after his death.62 The apostolic authorization was given through the laying on of hands. (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 2 Tim 1:6; 1 Tim 4:14) And St. Paul warns St. Timothy not to be hasty or incautious when he [i.e. Timothy] ordains successors. (1 Tim. 5:22) Without this authority received from the Apostles or their successors, those speaking did not speak for the Church, or as Christ’s authorized representatives; they could only speak in their own name. (John 5:43) When the Apostles ordained successors, they knew that it was not only they who were doing this, but also the Holy Spirit working through them. (Acts 20:28; cf. Acts 14:23)
Consider Acts 15:24, “Since we have heard that some of our number who went out without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind.” If apostolic succession were merely doctrinal, then the Apostles would not have implied that the disturbers needed a mandate from the Apostles. Their lack of an Apostolic mandate would be irrelevant, and therefore not even mentioned. The Apostles and elders should simply have said only that the doctrine of the disturbers was not the Apostles’ doctrine. But the Apostles and elders do not merely say that. Instead they provide a mandate to Paul and Barnabas, Silas and Judas called Barsabbas. The “letter” mentioned in verse 23 is the authentication or proof that these men have the necessary mandate from the Apostles to teach and preach in their name, as official legates or ambassadors of the Apostles.63
In Romans 10:15, St. Paul writes, “And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” St. Paul indicates that a person needs to be sent, in order to preach. But who can send the preacher? There are two possible answers to that question: the Spirit apart from the Church, or the Spirit speaking in and through the Church. But if someone claims to be sent by the Spirit, apart from the Church, we should not assume he has been sent by God, unless by miraculous signs he demonstrates himself to be divinely authorized. Hence, if someone comes without signs, he cannot give an authorized message unless he has the authorization of the Church.64 Those who claim that prophecy ceased at the end of the apostolic era, therefore can be authorized to preach only by being sent out by those having the authority to send out men to preach on behalf of the Church. If only ordained people can ordain, then it follows by logical necessity that if anyone is presently ordained, there must be an unbroken succession extending back to the Apostles.65 In this way, Romans 10:15 requires apostolic succession, for those who claim that prophecy ceased at the end of the first century.
As we saw above, those having this authority from the Apostles could “speak and reprove with all authority.” (Titus 2:15) Titus, for example, was authorized by St. Paul as bishop of Crete, and Timothy as bishop of Ephesus. Eusebius writes, “Timothy, so it is recorded, was the first to receive the episcopate of the parish in Ephesus, Titus of the churches in Crete.”66 To explain this in Scripture, William Mounce in his Word Biblical Commentary on the Pastorals has to create a new office which he titles “apostolic delegate,” and which does not last beyond the age of the Apostles. That he has to do this shows that the falsehood of apostolic succession is not as obvious in Scripture as you seem to suggest. In the New Testament, we see that to be authorized by the Apostles was to be authorized by Christ, precisely because when the Apostles exercised the divine authority entrusted to them, Christ worked through them (Mt 16:19; Lk 10:16, 2 Tim 1:6) Those who know God listen to those who are “from God,” i.e. have been sent by Christ or by those whom He sent, or by those whom they sent. (1 John 4:6)
Only on the basis of this succession is it right for us to obey and submit (Heb 13:17) to the shepherds of the Church, for in doing so we are submitting to Christ. But those who “take the honor” (Heb 5:4) to themselves, without the succession, are not true shepherds. (John 10:1-2)
Only by this succession of divine authorizations, derived from the Apostles who had themselves received it from Christ, does the Church remain perpetually the “pillar and ground of truth,” (1 Tim 3:15) preserving the apostolic kerygma until the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)
Any person can claim that Christ has given him authority. Any group of people can claim to speak for Christ or speak for the Church. Any group of people can claim to act on behalf of Christ in giving Christ’s authority to an ordinand. Anyone can claim to have the Apostles’ teaching. The sacramentality of ordination helps guards the unity and doctrinal purity of the Church. In order to preach in the name of Christ, one must be sent by the legitimate authorities of the Church, i.e. those in sacramental succession from the apostles, just as the apostles could not send themselves but could only be sent by Christ. (cf. Acts 15:24; Romans 10:15; 2 Cor 5:20).67
If ecclesial authority were not derived from the one laying on hands, then anyone could ‘ordain’ anyone, and ordination would thus be “presumed authority,” that is, nothing more than permission from a group of persons to speak to them or teach them. In that case, no one would have actual ecclesial authority. But if ecclesial authority is derived from the one laying on hands, and the one laying on hands has no authority to give, then again the ordinand would have only presumed authority, not actual authority. So actual ecclesial authority can be acquired in ordination only if the one laying on hands has the authority to give. But the same truth applies to the one laying on hands; he could have acquired actual ecclesial authority at his ordination only if the one who laid hands on him had the authority to give. And the same applies again to the one who ordained him, etc. This shows that either no one has actual ecclesial authority, or only those ordained in sacramental succession from the Apostles have actual ecclesial authority.68
At one point above you wrote:
There is a magisterium—a proper teaching authority—in the church after the apostles, but it is representative rather than hierarchical, catholic rather than based on a single pastor or city, fallible rather than infallible, and ministerial rather than magisterial.
I think the evidence I have laid out above demonstrates that the authority of the bishops was not derived from the approval of the laypeople. Ordination was not bottom-up authorization, by democratic approval. “Ministerial authority” as you are using the term means that each individual remains his own highest interpretive authority. No doctrinal determination by the Apostles or bishops is higher in authority than one’s own interpretation of Scripture. Such a notion is entirely foreign to the early Church. The bishops represent Christ to the people, just as the Apostles represented Christ to the people. I have already addressed the “catholic or Roman” dilemma in the section VII. The Roman Catholic Church: An Oxymoron?. And the infallibility issue would require its own forum. But in short, we believe that the Holy Spirit lives in the Church, and that He is guiding her into all truth. The notion that the Church, speaking with her highest authority, could get the deposit of the faith wrong, is a denial of what the Church teaches about herself as not only a divinely established institution, but as a divinely animated Body. Every dissenter and heretic has to posit that the Church has gone wrong, and that it is his own interpretation that is true, in order to justify his refusal to accept the Church’s teaching. This ecclesial deism is fundamentally a disposition of doubt, a lack of faith in Christ’s indwelling of the Temple He is building, and a placing of oneself in position of hermeneutical superiority to those having the succession from the Apostles. While the Gnostics of the second century claimed that the bishops never received the full teaching of the Apostles, Protestantism claims that the bishops lost it. But, either way, it amounts to a kind of ecclesial deism; Christ set up His Church and then backed away and let her lose the faith. The Church is not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul. (Heb 10:39)
In your last paragraph you claim that Pope Benedict XVI and John Zizioulas “acknowledge that presbyterian government was the earliest form of polity.” Your evidence for this claim is that Pope Benedict XVI and John Zizioulas affirm that the bishop is a fellow presbyter, and that the terms for ‘presbyter’ and ‘bishop’ are used interchangeably in the New Testament. Both of those claims are true, but they do not establish that someone without apostolic succession had the authority to govern in the early Church or the power to ordain others. Both Pope Benedict XVI and John Zizioulas believe that the episcopacy is an Apostolic institution, and that the bishop received his authority to ordain from the Apostles through the sacrament of episcopal ordination. Every bishop is also a presbyter, so referring to a group of persons as ‘presbyters’ does not entail that there is no bishop among them. Moreover, a bishop can be so in two [compatible] ways: by having received from the Apostles or their successors the authority to ordain, and by being given charge over a particular Church, to be its shepherd or overseer. There could be multiple presbyter-bishops [i.e. bishops in the sacramental sense] in a particular Church at a single time, even if only one of them had juridical charge over that particular Church. And while a Church was still being overseen by one or more Apostle, it could have presbyters (with or without the authority to ordain) without any one of them having juridical charge over that Church as its bishop. That is why we cannot justifiably infer from the Scriptural data that the earliest form of polity was presbyterian and not episcopal. For a more detailed explanation see Tim Troutman’s article “Holy Orders and the Sacrificial Priesthood.”
After Constantine, churches in both the east and the west began to imitate the hierarchical political system of the empire. Yet as late as 597, Pope Gregory the Great famously declared, “I say with confidence that whoever calls or desires to call himself ‘universal priest’ in self-exaltation of himself is a precursor of the Antichrist.” The bishops of the East certainly agreed with this statement, but Gregory’s successors were less inclined to such pastoral humility.
The Church was constituted a hierarchical Body by Jesus Christ, when He appointed the Twelve to sit on twelve thrones, (Mt. 19:28, Lk 22:30) and made them the foundation stones of the Church. (Eph 2:20, Rev. 21:14) Of the old temple, Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down.” (Mt. 24:2, Mk 13:2, Lk 21:6) But the Church is the new Temple, as St. Paul says in 1 Cor 3:16, 2 Cor 6:16, and Eph 2:21. And the foundation stones of this Temple are the Twelve Apostles. Not everyone in the Church was an Apostle. (1 Cor 12:29) Rather, Christ established His Body with an order wherein some were publicly given the authority to govern the Church. The authority of the bishop is something we see very clearly in the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred about AD 107.69 It can be seen implicitly in the writing of St. Clement, who writes:
These things therefore being manifest to us, and since we look into the depths of the divine knowledge, it behooves us to do all things in [their proper] order, which the Lord has commanded us to perform at stated times. He has enjoined offerings [to be presented] and service to be performed [to Him], and that not thoughtlessly or irregularly, but at the appointed times and hours. Where and by whom He desires these things to be done, He Himself has fixed by His own supreme will, in order that all things, being piously done according to His good pleasure, may be acceptable unto Him. Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not. For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen. (Epistle to the Corinthians, c. 40)
He is writing about doing all the things which the Lord (Jesus) has commanded us to do, and in speaking of “offerings” he is speaking of the Eucharist, which Christ commanded to be done in memory of Him. And St. Clement explains that Christ has appointed certain people to present these offerings, at the appointed times and hours. Then he immediately makes a three-fold distinction in “peculiar services.” The high priest has his own peculiar duties, and the priests have their own proper place, and so do the Levites. And even the laymen have laws pertaining to them. So in describing the functioning of the Church, St. Clement lays out a three-fold distinction in Holy Orders, as something established by Christ. Christ established in His New Covenant three different Holy Orders: new high priests, new priests, and new Levites. And these clearly are referring to the three-fold division of bishop, priest, and deacon, with the bishop being the high priest of the Church in his city.
That was long before the time of Constantine in the fourth century. But it is understandable that bishops would be given authority over cities, i.e. areas individuated on the basis of their political characteristics. And this should not surprise us; it is in keeping with the principle that grace builds on nature. Whereas every city would have a political leader sometimes termed a ‘magistrate,’ the Church in that city also had a leader, i.e. the bishop.
At the time of the Council of Nicea, the bishops were not just a loose collection, but were organized under metropolitans, who were themselves under patriarchs—and of the three patriarchs, the bishop of Rome had the primacy. This hierarchy of bishops under metropolitans and patriarchs was not something that developed from the bottom up, but from the top down. And that is how we can know that it went all the way back to the beginning, even to the time of St. Ignatius. St. Paul not only ordained St. Titus a bishop, he also made him essentially a metropolitan in Crete, a bishop over other bishops. St. Ignatius held the office in Syria that would become known as patriarch, one having an authority over other bishops. Whether St. Ignatius already exercised patriarchal authority over other bishops is unclear. But just as the priesthood grew from the episcopate as an expression of the need to extend the work of the bishop into the parishes of a particular Church, so the expansion of bishops under metropolitans and patriarchs grew not in a democratic way (i.e. by the coming together of bishops and election of one of them to be patriarch) but by the appointment of subordinate bishops by the patriarchate. So even if this did not yet occur in St. Ignatius lifetime, it at least occurred shortly thereafter in his successors, who by the time of the Council of Nicea had patriarchal authority over many bishops. This was not something that came about after Constantine; it was in place long before Constantine.
Regarding the statement by Pope Gregory the Great, to understand the sense in which he condemned the expression “universal Bishop,” we must understand the sense in which John the Faster intended it. It has always been Catholic teaching that the bishops are not mere agents of the Pope, but true successors of the Apostles. The supreme authority of St. Peter is perpetuated in the Popes; but the power and authority of the other Apostles is perpetuated in the other bishops in the true sense of the word. The Pope is not the “only” Bishop; and, although his ecclesial authority is supreme, his is not the “only” power. But John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople, wanted to be bishop even of the dioceses of subordinate bishops, reducing them to mere agents, and making himself the universal or only real bishop. Pope Gregory condemned this intention, and wrote to John the Faster telling him that he had no right to claim to be universal bishop or “sole” bishop in his Patriarchate.70
According to Catholic doctrine, the authority Christ gave to His Apostles and their successors is three-fold: the authority to teach, the authority to lead men to holiness (by way of the sacraments), and the authority to govern the Church.71 Here I’ll clarify the nature of the Magisterium’s teaching authority, and how it differs from the authority of Sacred Scripture
The Sacred Scriptures are divinely inspired; God is their primary author. They contain in written form the words of God, including the final word given to us in His Son. In giving to us His Son, God has said everything He has to say, because to see Jesus is to see His Father. There will be no other word than this one. St. John of the Cross writes:
In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word – and he has no more to say. . . because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son. Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behavior but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty.”72
For this reason, no new public revelation is to be expected until Christ returns on the clouds in glory. This is why “the Christian faith cannot accept ‘revelations’ that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions,” such as Islam or Mormonism.73 So when the Magisterium of the Church exercises its teaching authority and declares some doctrine definitively to be believed by all the faithful, it is not adding to the deposit of faith, but instead unfolding and clarifying it. In doing so, the Magisterium is not divinely inspired; no new revelation is being given. The Nicene Creed, for example, is not divinely inspired. But because God protects the Magisterium from error when it defines a doctrine to be believed by all the faithful, the Nicene Creed is without error. And because the Magisterium has the authority (given to it by Christ) to make definitive decisions regarding the content of the deposit of faith entrusted to it, therefore to deny any dogma so taught by the Magisterium is ipso facto, [material] heresy. This is why it is heretical to deny any part of the Nicene Creed, but it is not ipso facto heretical to deny the interpretation of any particular person or group of persons. Heresy is not defined in terms of truth-as-determined-by-me, but in terms of truth-as-determined-by-those-to-whom-Christ-gave-the-authority-to-make-such-determinations.
One of the primary tasks of the Magisterium is to give the authoritative interpretation of the deposit of faith:
“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.”74
But having interpretive authority does not mean that the divinely authorized interpreter has more authority than what is being interpreted. When the Apostles testified to Jesus being the Christ, they did not thereby take away from Christ’s authority. An authorized witness can give an authoritative testimony to an authority greater than himself, otherwise no one could have come to believe in the divinity of Jesus through the authority of the Apostles’ testimony. That is why, according to Catholic doctrine, the Magisterium “is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant.”
“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.”75
Protestants sometimes mistakenly think that the Catholic position is sola ecclesia, but that is not an accurate description of the Church’s teaching, because it excludes the essential role of Scripture and Tradition. There is a three-fold structure of authority consisting of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and Magisterium, each according to its own mode of authority:
“It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”76
Catholics treat Scripture as something properly known and understood only within the bosom of holy Mother Church, and only as explicated by the Magisterium of the Church. Of course this does not preclude private study of Scripture, which is encouraged. But we view Scripture as something known through the Magisterium’s teaching authority, not fundamentally or ultimately removed from it. Interpretive authority is distinct from the authority of divine revelation, but each complements the other. The authority of Scripture is authority with respect to the content of the deposit of faith. The authority of the Magisterium, on the other hand, is interpretive authority with respect to the identification and explication of the deposit of faith. These are two different types or modes of authority. They do not compete with each other but complement each other and are mutually dependent. The Magisterium cannot exist as an interpretive authority without the sacred deposit of the Word of God. Similarly, the Sacred Scriptures cannot provide their own authentic and authoritative interpretation to the Church and so require the Magisterium in order to fulfill their purpose in the Church.
In relation to interpretive authority there are two kinds of interpretation. One is private interpretation. That is what I do when I read the Bible on my own. Another is authoritative interpretation. That is what the Church does when she speaks with her full authority about some doctrine, say, the Trinity or the Incarnation. Our own interpretation of the Bible does not have equal or greater authority than the interpretation of the Magisterium when the latter speaks with its full authority. To pit interpretive authority against (or in competition with) the authority of divine revelation is to fail to recognize the qualitative distinction between the two types of authority. Because they each have a distinct mode of authority, they can be complementary in function.
Tertullian shows us quite clearly how the question of interpretive authority is of primary importance:
“Our appeal [in debating with the heretics], therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures; nor must controversy be admitted on points in which victory will either be impossible, or uncertain, or not certain enough. For a resort to the Scriptures would but result in placing both parties on equal footing, whereas the natural order of procedure requires one question to be asked first, which is the only one now that should be discussed: “With whom lies that very faith to which the Scriptures belong? From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule by which men become Christians? For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions”77
“Since this is the case, in order that the truth may be adjudged to belong to us, ‘as many as walk according to the rule,’ which the church has handed down from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God, the reason of our position is clear, when it determines that heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures. For as they are heretics, they cannot be true Christians, because it is not from Christ that they get that which they pursue of their own mere choice, and from the pursuit incur and admit the name of heretics. Thus not being Christians, they have acquired no right to the Christian Scriptures; and it may be very fairly said to them, ‘Who are you?'”78
Tertullian shows here that the Scriptures belong to the Church, and therefore that the Church has the right and authority to interpret them. The heretic does not have the authority to give the authoritative determination of Scripture. But if ‘heretic’ were defined as “anyone who denies my interpretation of Scripture,” what Tertullian is saying here would not make any sense. Each party would treat every disagreeing party as heretical, and there would be no objective answer to the question, “Who has interpretive authority?” In other words, if interpretive authority rested in having the right doctrine, as determined by oneself, then every heretical sect could claim to have an interpretive authority that every other sect lacks. So in order for there to be a meaningful sense of interpretive authority, it cannot rest on right-doctrine-as-determined-by-oneself. This is why, as Tertullian explained above, interpretive authority rests in the succession from the Apostles. Of course the heretics think the bishops having the succession are in error and have misinterpreted Scripture; otherwise the heretics would not be heretics but would be in communion with the bishops having the succession. In actuality, however, the heretics are shown to be exactly that, heretical—not fundamentally by a journal article or academic authority because that presupposes that the determination of the true meaning of Scripture is fundamentally a matter of reason. Instead, they are shown to be heretical fundamentally by their disagreement with those having the succession and only per accidens by an exegetical or hermeneutical argument.
You claimed that in 1 Corinthians 4:6 and Galatians 1:8-9, St. Paul “placed the authority of Scripture over the magisterium.” You mean that in those passages, St. Paul denies that there is in the Church a [Magisterial] interpretive authority to which our interpretations must conform.
In 1 Corinthians 4:6, St. Paul says:
I have applied all this to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brethren, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. (1 Cor. 4:6)
And in Galatians 1:8-9 he writes:
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
I do not see in 1 Corinthians 4:6 St. Paul denying Magisterial interpretive authority. The point in discussion in 1 Corinthians 4:6 is not whether there is an interpretive authority or how to interpret what is written. The point in question is whether the Corinthian believers should (in some sense) go beyond what is written, not whether they should hold to the authoritative interpretation of what is written.
Regarding Galatians 1:8-9, St. Paul is not teaching that individual laymen should subjugate Church authorities to their [i.e. the layman’s] own interpretation of Scripture. St. Paul is saying that the Galatians must not abandon the gospel which he and all the other Apostles had preached to them. The foundation laid is absolutely true and therefore must never be torn up and re-founded on something different. That initial apostolic preaching is an infallible and irrevocable foundation. But the gospel that St. Paul and the others had preached was not defined as the individual Galatian believer’s own personal interpretation of Scripture. It was something much bigger than that. It was the faith that had been preached throughout the world by the Apostles. There was a communal, historical and personal dimension to the received faith and its identity; it wasn’t limited to the letters written by the Apostles. To see whether someone was teaching a novel teaching, one would compare the message in question to the teaching universally received from the Apostles throughout the whole universal Church. The standard by which to measure the message in question was not “my interpretation of Scripture.” Otherwise, anyone following his own novel interpretation of Scripture could claim to be following the original gospel. Instead, St. Paul is exhorting the Galatian believers to test the spirits against what had been originally given to them and to the whole world by the Apostles, namely the Apostolic deposit. He is not advocating the authoritative supremacy of private interpretation of Scripture but rather the irreversibility and irrevocability of the one universally received Apostolic deposit. That’s what Catholics have always affirmed and still affirm.
If a Catholic priest or bishop comes along who teaches contrary to the Apostolic deposit that has been taught and believed throughout the Church, we must not follow him because he is a heretic. But the standard is not our own private interpretation of Scripture; rather, the public and communally-shared faith received by the whole Church from the Apostles is the standard. It is public and communal, not a standard of private interpretation. So the Catholic Church is not requiring anyone to give more obedience to the successors of the Apostles than did St. Paul because St. Paul was not teaching that each individual has supreme individual interpretive authority. The duty to submit to present interpretive authority is not incompatible with a duty to hold to what has previously been given; the two duties go together, and neither nullifies the other. The duty to hold on to what has been handed down from the Apostles does not give us a green light to pick as our ecclesial ‘authorities’ those who teach according to our own interpretation of Scripture. In other words, the duty to hold on to the Apostolic deposit and not to forsake it does not justify doing what St. Paul condemns in 2 Timothy 4:3-4—i.e. choosing one’s ecclesial ‘authority’ on the basis of their agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture.
While from your perspective I exhibit a “nostalgia for a church that never was,” from the Catholic perspective Protestantism is objectively (though not necessarily subjectively) an expression of a lack of faith in Christ in the form of a lack of faith in the Church Christ founded that continues to exist in unbroken continuity from the day of Pentecost. The Catholic Church in communion with the successor of St. Peter, is the very Church referred to in the Creed: “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” This is an article of faith. The Church that for you “never was” is the same universal Church that gave us the Creed, the ecumenical councils, and the canon of Scripture. This one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church has always been a single visible universal Church, capable of excommunicating someone not just from a branch but from the universal visible Church.79 This universal visible Church has always been capable of promulgating doctrinal and disciplinary decisions to all the faithful.80 You seemingly think that although Christ prayed in the Garden that His followers would be unified, so that the world may know that the Father sent Christ and that Christ loves them (John 17:23), His prayer will not be answered until He “returns to glorify His ecclesial body.” Hence you see the Catholic claim that Christ established His Church with an essential unity that is essentially visible, as “over-realized eschatology.” But, if Christ truly did establish His Church with a principium unitatis such that she can never lose visible unity, then the Catholic position is not “over-realized eschatology;” rather, your position is an under-realized ecclesiology. So, in order to adjudicate between the two paradigms, we have to determine what kind of unity Christ established in His Church, and whether the schisms that occurred in the history of the Church actually divided the unity of the Church, or whether they amounted to schisms from the Church.81
To believe in the gospel as expressed in the Creed, one must believe also in the Church Christ founded. And this Church is known by those four marks which this same Church formulated in the Nicene Creed. The Reformed tradition, without any ecclesial authorization, replaced those four marks with three different marks (i.e. preaching the [Protestant] gospel, administering [two] sacraments, and practicing Church discipline). In doing so, they “de-materialized” the original four marks, as I have explained here. That invisible-church ecclesiology allows Protestants in their own minds—and with the good intention of preserving the purity of the apostolic doctrine—to justify separation from the Church Christ founded. But it is impossible to lay another foundation than the one Christ laid, namely, the Apostles themselves (Eph 2:20, Rev. 21:14).
Namaan, for example, did not like the muddy Jordan. He would have picked a cleaner river back home near Damascus. (2 King 5) But the issue was not ultimately about some virtue of Jordan’s water but about faith as submission to God, accepting what God had said through His prophet even though it was not the way Namaan would have done it. The obedience of faith required of Namaan by divine prescription that he dip in what to him was the muddy Jordan, whereas he would rather have washed in a cleaner river in his homeland. The Church Christ founded is very much like this. Even her seven sacraments are foreshadowed in Namaan’s being required to dip seven times. That is because the Mystical Body mirrors Christ’s physical body. Isaiah tells us, “He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” (Isaiah 53:2-3) The Church, which is the Body of Christ, imitates Christ in this respect. It is so human that one can walk right past it without recognizing it for what it is. Just as when looking at the physical body of Christ on the cross, and seeing the wounds from the nails, the gashes from the scourging, the crown of thorns, we might not see the divinity of that body, so likewise it is easy to look at the tares within the Church, dissenters within the Church, heretical clergy, etc., and conclude that this visible body cannot be the Church that Christ founded. It requires the eyes of faith to believe that this visible body, having the succession from Peter and the Apostles, is the Church that Christ founded and that Christ is found within her.
You seem to think that I have or seek a certainty “that is absolute and visible” but which never has been and never will never be until our Savior returns. But from my point of view you lack a certainty that Christ through His Church has always offered to all His sheep. Because you do not believe in an infallible Church, you cannot be certain about the canon of Scripture, being left with what R.C. Sproul calls a “fallible collection of infallible books.”82 You cannot be certain about the Creed because it is not an exact restatement of Scripture, nor does it follow by logical deduction from Scripture. Thus for a Protestant there is no dogma because nothing other than Scripture can be known to be protected from error. Because of the absence of an authoritative Magisterium within Protestantism, in two thousand years of Church history, nothing has been definitively and irreversibly established. Every single theological question is unsettled, still up in the air, capable in principle of being answered in a way contrary to the way it has always been answered.
The problem with the claim that Catholics are on a quest for illegitimate religious certainty is that ‘illegitimate’ is defined in a question-begging way, i.e. one that presumes that Christ did not establish His Church with a living visible Magisterial authority by which doctrinal and moral questions could be definitively resolved. While from a Protestant point of view the Catholic seems guilty of QIRC (i.e. Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty), if in fact Christ did establish a living visible Magisterium, then the Protestant is guilty of what we could call NODIMA (Neglect Of Divinely Instituted Magisterial Authority). So charging the Catholic with QIRC is question-begging, and in order to resolve the disagreement on this point we have to step back and examine whether or not Christ did in fact establish a visible living Magisterial authority in His Church.
St. Paul describes the condition of men in the last days as “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Tim 3:7) They are like the episcopal ghost in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, who cannot come to the knowledge of the truth. The one term they cannot bear is ‘dogma,’ because it requires them to submit their own interpretation to that of someone else. They have placed themselves in this epistemic condition because ultimately they are “lovers of self.” (2 Tim 3:2) By making themselves their own highest interpretive authority, they lose the very possibility of dogma and hence lose the possibility of coming to a knowledge of the truth. They are left perpetually only with opinion, with its accompanying uncertainty. And that is desirable to them in one respect because it allows them to retain autonomy. No one has the authority to tell them how to interpret and understand Scripture and thus how to worship and what to believe. They can therefore interpret Scripture as seems fit to them, having an appearance of learning, by accumulating for themselves ‘teachers’ to suit their own likings. (2 Timothy 4:3) They choose teachers who fit their own interpretation of Scripture, and if no denomination or community exists which teaches their own interpretation of Scripture, then they simply start one and tailor it to their own interpretation. We see this clearly today in the form of ecclesial consumerism, and ‘hipster Christianity.’ Your solution is a return to Scripture, or, more accurately, to your own interpretation of Scripture. But the source of the problem so clearly manifest in the explicit ecclesial consumerism of our time is inherent in the Protestant denial of the visible living magisterial authority Christ established in His Church. Church-according-to-my-style and Church-according-to-my-interpretation are two sides of the same coin. You condemn the former, while embracing the latter. You can call people to your interpretation of Scripture; however, since you have no interpretive authority by way of a succession from the Apostles, you are essentially just one more talking head among the myriads of men offering their own opinion. And that very fact performatively expresses approval to everyone to follow his or her own opinion concerning God and Scripture: if you can do it, so can they. But we are men under authority, subject to Christ by submitting ourselves to those having the succession from Christ through the Apostles.83
May God help us, and reconcile us all in the full communion He prayed we would manifest to the world. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the peace of Christ,
Feast of St. Albert the Great, 2010.
- Excerpted from “Sola Scriptura: A Dialogue between Michael Horton and Bryan Cross,” Modern Reformation (Nov./Dec. 2010, Vol 19 Issue: 6, pp. 47-49) [↩]
- See “Vatican II and the Inerrancy of the Bible.” [↩]
- See Bishop Bossuet’s History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches. [↩]
- Disagreements of this sort continue within the Catholic Church to this day, as for example, Thomists and Bonaventurians and Scotists differ on certain undefined points of theology, but nevertheless share in the Eucharist together. Because these disagreements are not about already-defined matters, they are in that respect not like schisms and heresies, both of which are incompatible with unity of faith and full communion in the sacraments. [↩]
- Revelation 3:7, cf. Isaiah 22:22. [↩]
- See, for example, “St. Optatus on Schism and the Bishop of Rome.” [↩]
- In June of last year I addressed this Montanistic approach to following the Spirit in a post titled “Play Church.” [↩]
- John 14:17, John 15:26, John 16:13 [↩]
- 1 Tim 3:15 [↩]
- John 16:13 [↩]
- Council of Trent, Session 5. [↩]
- Council of Trent, Session 6, chapter 7. [↩]
- See here for a list of the ecumenical councils. [↩]
- That the Catholic Church is Roman in this respect obviously should not be taken to mean that every particular Catholic Church is Roman in the same sense that the Latin [particular] Church is Roman. The Catholic Church is a communion of twenty-two particular Churches, only one of which is the Latin Church. [↩]
- See the list of Popes here. [↩]
- See my “The Tradition and the Lexicon.” [↩]
- Session 4. [↩]
- Vatican I, Session 3, 2.5. [↩]
- Vatican I, Session 3, 3.8. [↩]
- Dei Verbum 9,10 [↩]
- Ad Haer. III.2 [↩]
- Ad Haer. III.3 [↩]
- Letters, 54; To Januarius. [↩]
- Epistle to the Corinthians, 42. [↩]
- Epistle to the Corinthians, 44. [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica III.11. [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica III.35. [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica IV.5. [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica III.14. [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica III.21-22. [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica IV.1. [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica IV.19. [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica III.36 [↩]
- Epistle to the Trallians, 3.1. [↩]
- Epistle to the Ephesians, 6:1. See also 3:2. [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica III.36 [↩]
- Eusebius writes, “At that time also in the church of Antioch, Theophilus was well known as the sixth from the apostles. For Cornelius, who succeeded Hero, was the fourth, and after him Eros, the fifth in order, had held the office of bishop.” (Historia Ecclesiastica IV.20 [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica III.23. [↩]
- Liber de praescriptione haereticorum, 32. See also Historia Ecclesiastica III.36. [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica III.36 [↩]
- Cf. this fragment. [↩]
- Adversus haereses III.4.1 [↩]
- Adversus haereses III.3.2 [↩]
- As for Schaff’s interpretation of this paragraph from St. Irenaeus, his is a novel interpretation; that is not how it has always been understood. Nor does it fit with what St. Irenaeus is saying. St. Irenaeus says nothing about travelers to Rome keeping the Church at Rome orthodox. Travelers to Rome could just as easily have corrupted it with heresies. In fact we know of many Gnostics who went to Rome in the second century (e.g. Marcellina, Cerdon, Valentinus, Marcion), precisely to try to infiltrate the mother Church with their heretical doctrines. The basis St. Irenaeus gives for the “preeminent authority” of the Church at Rome is the succession from St. Peter. [↩]
- Adversus haereses IV.26.2. [↩]
- Adversus haereses III.3.4 [↩]
- Liber de praescriptione haereticorum, 21. [↩]
- Liber de praescriptione haereticorum, 32. [↩]
- Liber de praescriptione haereticorum, 21. [↩]
- Liber de praescriptione haereticorum, 36. [↩]
- Liber de praescriptione haereticorum, 37. [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica IV.22 [↩]
- Regarding some of the more recent claims about St. Hegesippus, see my comments #20 and #26. [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica IV.23 [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica IV.23 [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica III.31 [↩]
- St. Augustine wrote, “[I]f you acknowledge the supreme authority of Scripture, you should recognise that authority which from the time of Christ Himself, through the ministry of His apostles, and through a regular succession of bishops in the seats of the apostles, has been preserved to our own day throughout the whole world, with a reputation known to all. (Against Faustus Bk. 33.9) [↩]
- See “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority.” [↩]
- Moreover, only those who had received the authority to pass on that authority could do so. Those who had not received the authority to pass on their authority could not pass on their authority. [↩]
- This is the sense in which we can understand St. Paul’s statement, “Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery.” (1 Tim 4:14) Since Apostles and bishops are also presbyters, the phrase “laying on of hands by the presbytery” does not necessarily mean that all the men who laid hands on Timothy when he received this gift were [mere] presbyters. The term “presbytery” could include both [mere] presbyters and bishops and even apostles, such as St. Paul. [↩]
- Just as the writing of the Old Testament came after the covenant with Abraham, so the writing of the New Testament came after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection and sending of His Spirit on the day of Pentecost. The people of God existed prior to the sacred writings, because God used members of these communities to write these texts. Therefore the sacred writings could not be the foundation of the Church, for otherwise the Church could not exist until the writings existed. [↩]
- Moreover, the Apostles made use of lots in order to choose Judas’ successor, precisely because they so strongly believed Christ’s promise that the Spirit was guiding the Church, that they trusted His providential guidance of the lots. [↩]
- I agree with you that there were elders participating at the Jerusalem Council, and that Peter himself did not decide the matter. The collegiality of the Jerusalem council is fully in keeping with the collegiality of the bishops in communion with the successor of St. Peter. (See Lumen Gentium, 19-27.) But since every bishop is an elder, the fact that elders participated in the Jerusalem Council does not show that the Apostles treated [mere] presbyters as having the authority reserved for bishops at the first Council of Nicea. Even to this day, larger cities have more than one bishop, even though only one is the diocesan bishop, as James the Righteous was of the Church at Jerusalem. Therefore, Luke’s account of the Jerusalem Council is fully compatible with Catholic ecclesiology. [↩]
- Luther and Calvin did no miraculous signs, arguing rather that such things ceased with the death of the Apostles. Nor did they have the authorization of the Church to say what they said against the Church. [↩]
- But if unordained people can ordain, then any believer can ordain any other believer, perhaps even himself. In that case, anyone can celebrate the Lord’s Supper, even in one’s own kitchen. [↩]
- Historia Ecclesiastica III.4. [↩]
- If Scripture so clearly taught something incompatible with the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession, it would be strange that no one throughout the universal Church noticed it, for fifteen hundred years. [↩]
- As for the common Protestant objection that because seeing the Lord was one criterion for being an Apostle, therefore there can be no apostolic succession, I have addressed that in comment #89 of the “John Calvin’s Worst Heresy” thread. [↩]
- See “St. Ignatius of Antioch on the Church.” [↩]
- For an illuminating study regarding the authority of the Pope in the Church Fathers, I recommend Studies on the Early Papacy, by Dom John Chapman, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority: AD 96 – 454, by Giles, The Primitive Church and the See of Peter, by Luke Rivington, and The Throne of the Fisherman, by Thomas W. Allies. [↩]
- Mystici Corporis Christi, 38. [↩]
- CCC, 65. [↩]
- CCC, 67. [↩]
- Dei Verbum, 10. [↩]
- Dei Verbum, 10 [↩]
- CCC, 95. [↩]
- Liber de praescriptione haereticorum, 19. [↩]
- Liber de praescriptione haereticorum, 37. [↩]
- cf. Matthew 18:17. [↩]
- cf. Acts 15. [↩]
- Cf. St. Cyprian writes:
The Lord speaks to Peter, saying, “I say unto you, that you are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” And again to the same He says, after His resurrection, “Feed my sheep.” And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power, and says, “As the Father has sent me, even so send I you: Receive the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins you remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whose soever sins you retain, they shall be retained; ” (John 20:21) yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity. Which one Church, also, the Holy Spirit in the Song of Songs designated in the person of our Lord, and says, “My dove, my spotless one, is but one. She is the only one of her mother, elect of her that bare her.” (Song of Songs 6:9) Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church, when moreover the blessed Apostle Paul teaches the same thing, and sets forth the sacrament of unity, saying, “There is one body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God?” (Ephesians 4:4)
And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided. Let no one deceive the brotherhood by a falsehood: let no one corrupt the truth of the faith by perfidious prevarication. The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole. The Church also is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strength based in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although the multiplicity seems diffused in the liberality of an overflowing abundance, yet the unity is still preserved in the source. Separate a ray of the sun from its body of light, its unity does not allow a division of light; break a branch from a tree—when broken, it will not be able to bud; cut off the stream from its fountain, and that which is cut off dries up. Thus also the Church, shone over with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which is everywhere diffused, nor is the unity of the body separated. (On the Unity of the Catholic Church, 4-5)
- Cf. “The Canon Question. [↩]
- I would like to thank Tom Brown, Barrett Turner, Andrew Preslar, Jonathan Deane, and John Kincaid for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post. [↩]