Controversies of ReligionSep 20th, 2011 | By Tom Brown | Category: Blog Posts
I. The Reformed Position:
The claim in the Westminster Confession of Faith that all controversies of religion ultimately are to be determined by the Holy Spirit speaking in Sacred Scripture contradicts the testimony of the Church Fathers, who repeatedly teach the necessity of judging such controversies by way of the Church and Sacred Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith is a classic restatement of Reformed theology born in the 17th century from an assembly of ‘Divines’ convened by the British Parliament. In its Chapter One, the Divines took up what is perhaps the clearest point of distinction between Protestant Reformers and Catholics, namely the locus of ecclesial authority to settle the doctrine of the faith.
The Westminster Confession addresses the matter this way:
The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.1
Robert Shaw, in his Exposition of the Westminster Confession, expounds upon this point:
That the Supreme Judge, by which all controversies in religion are to be determined, is no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture, is asserted in opposition to the Papists, who maintain that the Church is an infallible judge in religious controversies; though they do not agree among themselves whether this infallible authority resides in the Pope, or in a council, or in both together. Now, the Scripture never mentions such an infallible judge on earth. Neither Pope, nor councils, possess the properties requisite to constitute a supreme judge in controversies of religion; for they are fallible, and have often erred, and contradicted one another. Although the Church or her ministers are the official guardians of the Scriptures, and although it belongs to them to explain and enforce the doctrines and laws contained in the Word of God, yet their authority is only ministerial, and their interpretations and decisions are binding on the conscience only in so far as they accord with the mind of the Spirit in the Scriptures. By this test, the decisions of councils, the opinions of ancient writers, and the doctrines of men at the present time, are to be tried, and by this rule all controversies in religion must be determined.2
That is, for the Reformed subscriber to the Westminster Confession, every controversy of religion, and every theological decree, opinion, or doctrine, is to be put to one test: the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. This is meant to avoid ultimate reliance upon human ecclesial authorities (specifically, the Catholic Magisterium) who, from the Reformed perspective, can, and have, erred on religious matters.
Given the finality with which the very Word of the Third Person of the Trinity must be taken, it might seem straightforward enough to rely on this Word to settle controversies. With this rule, the English Reformers were marking out a bright dividing line between the Church of England and those Churches in communion with Rome. The reformational church authorities were not over the Bible, could not declare contrary to it, and would not be taken as having a voice against the Holy Spirit. But how does this work practically, this putting a controversy of religion or theological doctrine to “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture”?
Shaw explains that it works this way: a controversy may properly be put to the Church or her ministers, who, acting as ‘guardians’ of the Scriptures and enforcers of the law contained therein, yield ‘ministerial’ authority. However, he also cautions, their decisions on any given controversy are only binding on the believer’s conscience insofar as the decisions are in line with “the mind of the Spirit in the Scriptures.” The believer may, under this scheme, try the word of the ministerial authorities in an effort to ensure it is sound.
Because a believer-disputant can cross-check his ministerial authorities before being bound by their settlement of any given controversy, these authorities offer “final judgment” on nothing. The relationship is one of ‘guardianship,’ but the guardians are followed only to the extent that the guarded are in consent and agreement with the guardians’ interpretations. But the believer-disputant, too, is a fallible and often-erring authority, so fails the very test Shaw attempts to apply to Catholic authorities. This leaves the believer-disputant in no better position than his guardian to render “final judgment” on a controversy of religion. Given these deficiencies, what the ministerial authorities and believer-disputants cannot do individually, they cannot do in conjunction. As both authorities who could determine what the Holy Spirit has said have failed the test Shaw believes he has properly applied to the Catholic Church, there is no practical way in the Reformed scheme to settle a controversy of religion with certainty through “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”
With that background, I would like to explore how the Church Fathers treat the question of whether the final judge of controversies of religion, or of theological decrees, opinions, or doctrines is Scripture or the Church, or whether there is a third way. I will also briefly identify what the Catholic Church itself officially teaches on this matter.
II. Church Fathers
A great deal of extant writings from the early Church Fathers have “controversies of religion” as their very topic or subject matter. The early Church Fathers penned these works, which were mailed and passed amongst the early Churches with great zeal, to combat a host of disputes, controversies, and heresies. From them we can glean an understanding of how the early Church resolved controversies, or measured theological decrees, opinions, or doctrines. This makes for a useful comparison to the conclusion on the same subject drawn by the Westminster Divines.
The works of St. Ignatius of Antioch provide a fine example. He lived from around the year AD 50 to approximately AD 107, and wrote on the subject of resolving controversies of religion on the way to his martyrdom, just a few years after the Apostle St. John died. He wrote that:
For, all who belong to God and Jesus Christ are with the bishop. And those, too, will belong to God who have returned, repentant, to the unity of the Church so as to live in accordance with Jesus Christ. Make no mistake, brethren. No one who follows another into schism inherits the kingdom of God. No one who follows heretical doctrine is on the side of the passion.3
For St. Ignatius, returning to one’s bishop is identical with returning to the unity of the Church. One lives in accordance with Jesus Christ by way of seeking unity with the Church. There is no apparent place for conflict between belief necessary for unity with the Church and belief in accordance with Jesus Christ.
Elsewhere, he writes:
Let all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father, and the priests, as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Apart from the bishop, let no one perform any of the functions that pertain to the Church. Let that Eucharist be held valid which is offered by the bishop or by one to whom the bishop has committed this charge. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.4
From this text we see how inextricably intertwined are the authorities of the Church and the Word of God. Theirs is not a non-binding guardianship over Scripture. Rather, they have the shepherd’s authority to lead. Consider St. Ignatius’ claim that “whatever has [the bishop’s] approval is pleasing to God.” Of course St. Ignatius does not have in mind a bishop who invents novel doctrines that are contrary to the deposit of faith. But nor could he mean to say that whatever has the bishop’s approval is pleasing to God only insofar as the bishop is ruling in a way that is subordinate to and fully consistent with the Bible. Since one could say the same of the determinations of non-bishops (i.e., that their decisions are pleasing to God insofar as they conform to Scripture), this incorrect interpretation of St. Ignatius would leave the Bishop with no ruling authority at all. A third way to view this question of final doctrinal decretal authority starts to emerge – the Church and revealed truth resolve controversies of religion together; they are the inseparable, final authority.
To take up just one other brief example, the works of St. Irenaeus provide a helpful perspective on this subject. St. Irenaeus, born in the early second century, speaks with great clarity in identifying what is a proper authority to settle controversies of religion. He does not teach that the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture is our final authority in controversies of religion, as the Westminster Confession claims. Rather, he says:
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 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 we are bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the things 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 to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?5
For St. Irenaeus, “[t]he supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined” for the individual Christian is not the Holy Spirit speaking in Sacred Scripture. In cases of controversy of religion, we should “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.” In helping to shed light on how to resolve a dispute about an important question among the Christians, St. Irenaeus argues from a hypothetical scenario wherein the Apostles had left us with no writings (that is, imagine if there was no New Testament by which to judge a matter). In that case, he argues, Christians would be left to turn to the traditions handed down by the Apostles to the most ancient Churches. Likewise, for disputes that persist even though all disputants have the Apostolic writings in hand, his argument concludes that we must “lay hold of the tradition of the truth,” which was passed on through the apostles.
These examples are from just two of the early Church Fathers, but each of them would support this recurring theme. These are not cherry-picked snippets from the early Church Fathers, but exemplary of early discourses on this question. And this question is one that came up routinely as the early Church struggled with settling the proper procedure necessary to address substantive theological debates in a binding fashion. We learn from the ancient Church that controversies of religion are resolved by ecclesial authorities expounding upon the Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Tradition together.
III. Catholic Teaching
There are noteworthy similarities between the Reformed and Catholic doctrines on Sacred Scripture. Both would agree that Sacred Scripture is the word of God.6 God is its author.7 He chose human authors, and inspired them to write what He wanted, and nothing more.8 The inspired books that make up the canon teach truth, and are truth without error.9 The Church venerates Scripture as she does the Body of Christ itself.10 In Scripture, “the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children and talks with them.”11 The concept of personal communication from God to believer in Scripture is not antithetical nor even foreign to a Catholic understanding. The Catholic Church’s teaching and the Westminster teaching coalesce even insofar as they teach that the Holy Spirit is our interpreter of Scripture.12
But there is certainly a difference between Protestants and Catholics when it comes to belief about Sacred Scripture, and this difference relates to the section of the Westminster Confession I began by quoting. The Catholic Church teaches that Christianity is not a “religion of the book,” but rather a religion of the Eternal Word, a “Word which is incarnate and living.”13 While the Holy Spirit interprets Scripture, He does so for the Church and through the Church, not in a private-yet-authoritative fashion.
This contrast highlights an essential feature of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church does not believe that the Holy Spirit ordinarily operates directly and immediately in the heart of the individual Christian to teach Scripture and illuminate its meaning. If the Holy Spirit ordinarily operated in this way, the individual would not have need for the Church as a teaching agent of God. This view denies that Christ established a visible organ through which the Holy Spirit ordinarily operates. Such is the view of the Montanists. The Catholic Church, against Montanism, believes that Christ did establish a visible organ through which the Holy Spirit operates, including the key operation of illuminating revealed truths for the Church’s benefit so that she can, in turn, reliably and authoritatively teach the faithful.
In regard to the roles of the Church and Sacred Scripture in resolving controversies of religion, the Reformers seemingly had to reach the conclusion articulated in the Westminster Confession because they subscribed to a false dichotomy between the Scripture and the Church as the final doctrinal authority. For the Westminster Divines, and for Calvinists today, the starting point for analysis is that either the Magisterium or the Bible can settle controversies of religion, or bind upon believers a theological decree, opinion, or doctrine. It could not be both together because, they believe, any human agent cooperating with Scripture qua Word of God would compete with or detract from its Divine character. (And it goes without saying that, for Calvinists, it could not be the Magisterium.)
According to the Catholic Church, all interpretations of Scripture — and we could say all attempts at resolving controversies of religion — are “subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God.”14 While believers can and should read Sacred Scripture with great devotion, listening for the voice and guidance of the Holy Spirit while they do so, their conclusions are always subject to the guidance and correction of the Church’s teaching authority. Without Her divinely given authority, there is no safeguard on the deposit of faith from dilution and admixture of human or sinful error.
There is no middle ground between this divinely given authority of the Church to guide scriptural interpretation, on the one hand, and complete individualism in interpretation which leads to unceasing division, on the other. This is because the method dependent upon individual interpretation cannot compensate for the admixture of sinful error without resort to the Montanist’s view of the Holy Spirit’s action in guiding each individual’s interpretation of Scripture — a view which experience with diverse interpretations of Scripture betwixt the faithful, if nothing else, has proven invalid. The early Church Fathers saw the need for having resort to the Church’s teaching authority in settling controversies of religion, and they addressed this need time and again. It is this the Catholic Church sees today while it stands firm on its own teaching authority while simultaneously yearning for reunion with the separated eastern churches and Protestant ecclesial communities.
The Westminster Confession’s claim that every controversy of religion, and every theological decree, opinion or doctrine is to be taken to none other than the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture is ahistoric. The primary subject of the extant writings of the early Church Fathers is precisely controversies of religion; this is far from an alien topic to them. And the recurring answer they give is that controversies of religion are settled ultimately from the Church and Scripture in inseparable unison. Only this position allows for binding answers to disputes within the faith. The Catholic Church has held this position steadfastly through two millennia.
- WCF, ch. I, sec. 10. [↩]
- Robert Shaw, Exposition of the Westminster Confession, ch. 1, available here. [↩]
- Letter to the Philadelphians, ch. 3, MG 5, 700; FC I, 114. [↩]
- Letter to the Smyrnaeans, ch. 8, MG 5, 713; FC I, 121. [↩]
- Against Heresies, bk. 3, ch. 4, MG 7, 855; ANFI, I, 416. [↩]
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 104. [↩]
- Id., para. 105. [↩]
- Id., para. 106. [↩]
- Id., para. 107. [↩]
- Id., para. 103. [↩]
- Id., para. 104. [↩]
- Id., art. 3, sec. III. [↩]
- Id., para. 108, quoting St. Bernard, S. missus est hom. 4, 11: PL 183, 86. [↩]
- Dei Verbum 12, sec. 3. [↩]