This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In conjunction with that anniversary, I read an interesting book called Was the Reformation a Mistake? by Matthew Levering and Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Levering’s portion of the book consisted of a defense of the Catholic position on various issues raised by the Reformation, to which Vanhoozer offered a response. It was an interesting read, and prompted me to think more about some of these matters. Over the next three days I want to look at three issues which divide Catholics and Protestants. First on the list – the issue of authority. What is the final and infallible authority for Christian faith and practice?
My Catholic friends hold that this authority is found in three sources: sacred Scripture, sacred Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Church, known as the Magisterium.
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. (Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 95)
We Protestants, on the other hand, contend that Scripture alone is the final and infallible arbiter of faith. This is not to say that we don’t use resources to help us grasp what Scripture teaches, or that there aren’t human authorities (like elders) in local churches. But it does mean that once we have discerned what Scripture actually teaches, that and that alone is the bottom line, the “norming norm” of faith and practice.
I appreciate the argument that my Catholic friends make to the effect that without the additional authority of the Magisterium, Protestants have no anchor, and that we are susceptible to a myriad of interpretations of and endless deviations from the apostolic teaching.A quick glance around the Protestant landscape seems to validate this criticism! This is why Catholicism places such emphasis on apostolic succession, the notion that the deposit of faith has been “entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome” (Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 85).
However, I don’t find this argument ultimately persuasive, for a couple of reasons. First, there are competing claims to apostolic succession between Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and some forms of high Anglicanism. In order to determine which view is valid, I have to analyze the claims of each and decide which one is correct. But the need for that sort of individual, independent evaluation of competing interpretations is precisely what apostolic succession is supposed to alleviate when it comes to competing interpretations of Scripture. So it doesn’t seem to me that apostolic succession really solves anything.
Second, on a practical level, I am unpersuaded that a consolidating authority like the Magisterium really helps keep Christians united. Right now the Catholic Church is embroiled in a tremendous controversy regarding doctrinal statements by Pope Francis regarding divorce. One Catholic author that I’ve benefited from, Thomas Weinandy, has criticized Pope Francis for fostering confusion, division, and uncertainty because of his various public statements on these matters. The way I look at it, we Protestants have enough confusion, division, and uncertainty of our own without adding more! So I don’t see a practical advantage to an institutional authority like the Magisterium.
Third, the absence of any sort of apostolic succession (as it is conceived of by Catholicism) in the Bible is glaring. There are many places in the New Testament where such an institutional concept of authority would have made sense to mention, such as Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesians elders in Acts 20:17-38, or John’s first letter regarding the “antichrists” who were denying the truth about Jesus. Yet in neither instance did the apostles mention a specific successor who would help the church navigate difficult circumstances. Both Paul and John pointed to the truth which was previously taught as the safeguard against doctrinal error (Acts 20:32; 1 John 2:24).
For these reasons, I do not find the Catholic understanding of authority to be compelling. But in the spirit of the Reformation, I think it is also important to reevaluate Protestantism as well. Many Protestants confuse sola scriptura with solo scriptura, the assumption that “all I need is the Bible.” I believe that all I need as the sole infallible source of authority is Scripture, but that’s a different proposition entirely from the notion that I don’t need to consider other resources in order to grasp what Scripture says.
In the first place, unless you read Hebrew and Greek, you need something more than the Bible to understand it – translations. And unless you are an expert in ancient cultures, you need resources like dictionaries and encyclopedias to understand the terminology of the Bible. Don’t misunderstand – these resources are helps to understanding Scripture, not replacements for or supplements to Scripture. And they are certainly not infallible. But they do provide crucial help in understanding what the sole infallible source of authority, Scripture, actually says.
Second, the easiest way to subvert the authority of Scripture is by ignoring its context and downloading your own definitions of terms onto the Scriptures. This is an insidious path to substituting your will for God’s. The antidote to this is using resources that are designed to aid your understanding of the context of the Bible – again, not in place of Scripture or as an authority comparable to Scripture, but as a means of knowing what the authoritative word of God says.
Third, the notion that “all I need is the Bible” ignores the value of listening to what others have to say. Years ago I heard of a preacher who claimed that he never read any commentaries. I appreciate the sentiment that places devotion to the Bible above all else, but what that sort of claim basically says is, “I don’t have anything to learn from anyone else.” God did not give us the Bible in a vacuum. He “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to equip the saints” (Ephesians 4:11-12). Throughout my life I have benefited from many teachers, whether in classes or in commentaries, who have helped me see the Bible more clearly. Are they infallible? No. Are they invaluable? Yes.
The confession that “Jesus is Lord” is ultimately about authority, about living in submission to the Lord of Lords. I hope this post will spark greater interest in living out that confession. For my Catholic friends, I think the current climate under Pope Francis provides an occasion to reconsider the ramifications of papal authority and extra-biblical tradition. For my Protestant friends, I suggest that we remind ourselves that sola scriptura can easily become a rationalization for lazy or arrogant individualism.