Friday, May 22, 2009

The Authority of the Catholic Church - A friendly debate

Over at Nick's Catholic Blog, Nick and I have gotten on a rabbit trail from a post he did about imputation of righteousness. The particular trail started when he commented about the possibility of the re-unification of the church, and I responded with the idea that while I'm all for believers to work, play, and worship in unity of spirit and behavior, I'm not so sure that institutional unity is even desirable. We then segued into the question of apostolic succession and the authority of the church, which obviously Nick sees as important, and I(equally obviously?) see as dangerous.

I'm picking up the thread here so as not to run too far afield for Nick, and also because my last response turned out to be longer than his comment settings will allow. I hope you will read the discussion comments linked above, before trying to pick up here.

Anyway, this post is in response to the questions in these comments of Nick's:

Nick:...the danger of not having hierarchy (a thing very clearly indicated in the NT, and OT) is that of having the masses determine doctrine, whether individually or by majority. This makes truth a matter of popularity contest, or worse yet having the "teacher" be subject to the "students." Either he is a bishop with authority or he can be overturned by those he is guiding. It's a slippery slope because then "authority" loses it's meaning.

Nick, this is a great discussion. Thanks for engaging!

I see your concern with the masses determining doctrine. My counter would only be that the bishop is still a sinner before God under the forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ, and no ordination changes that. So he's just as susceptible to error as any other believer--no less, but also no more--and therefore the risk of him going astray is equivalent to that of the flock under his oversight...and perhaps more so if he's not accountable to them. It's a balancing act, to be sure, but in the final analysis it comes to a definition issue: If I correctly understand you (and correct me if I am wrong), you are saying that by virtue of being ordained into the episcopate of the true church, the bishop is protected from making that error, unlike the laiety. I contend, to the contrary, that just like the laiety, he is susceptible to all the same temptations and error as the rest of us, perhaps compounded by the illusion of supremacy conveyed to him by his position. Those two definitions are fundamentally at odds, and we can only agree (if I am correct) that this is a point where we disagree. You fear authority "losing its meaning," I fear the exercise of authority that ought not to exist.

Nick: One of interesting passage in this regard is 2 Tim 4:3, where Paul warns against those with "itching ears" who will elect teachers who will say what they want to hear. Also, I'm not sure how your system would mesh with a clear example like Acts 15 and 16:4.

2 Tim. 4:3 is true by empirical observation as well as biblical authority...we don't have to look far to see people tailoring "truth" to their convenience or pleasure. I find it compelling that the defense Paul offers is in verse 2--which you might interpret as exhorting Timothy to exercise his authority (am I correct?), but I see as Paul warning Timothy to stay grounded in the truth of "the word." In other words, I see "sola scriptura" as the one thing that is offered to Timothy as an anchor against the tides of opinion. Bringing my own assumptions to the text? Perhaps, but I think it's consistent with Pauline teaching.

Acts 15 is important, and you are right to bring it up. Clearly when there was a dispute among different believers, they appealed to the apostles and elders. This is right and good and biblical. It is interesting that in verse 22, we see that it was not only the apostles and elders, but also "the whole church" that is related to have decided what to do, apparently in Spirit-led consensus. It is also possible that an authority-based answer was necessary due to the authority-based problem being addressed (the demand that Gentiles follow Jewish law). While a good model, it does not necessarily follow that this account justifies a complete ecclesiastical system. However, if I ever saw an ecclesiastical system that met in open session and (apparently) solicited the input of "the whole church" I might also be more positively inclined toward it. There's a vast chasm between consensus and fiat!

Nick: To me, if the Church is the Body of Christ, with Him as it's head, the Church is indefectible and guarded against a tainted Gospel by definition (1 Tim 3:15; Mat 16:19).

I confess I don't see what 1 Tim 3:15 brings to bear on the discussion, so I can't respond to that one. As to Matt. 16:19, you know well that Protestants and Catholics interpret that passage radically differently--you see it as establishing the apostolic succession of Peter, we see the "rock" as being the confession of Jesus as the Anointed of God..."for no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11).

I can only say that I really don't want to start listing examples because I DON'T want to get into Catholic-bashing, but surely you acknowledge that your church (along, I insist, with all the others) has in fact committed serious errors in the 2000 years since Jesus? Isn't that a historical, empirical fact? How do you reconcile that with an indefectible church with Christ as its head? It's easy for me, holding that the church whose head is Christ is not the human institution, but rather all everywhere who call on his name and seek to follow him in all their brokenness. But if you are looking for the standard of an unsullied theology and an authoritative institution that holds it, how do you reconcile this with the bloody, sinful history of the institution?

And to your last question, I don't trust someone who waffles on the basic truth of Jesus Christ. But I, somewhat opposite of you I guess, run screaming from any group that DOES claim to have the whole truth without error. I consider that claim to be proof positive of corruption...whether the authority is the papacy or the fiat of the individual, self-righteous independent Baptist minister doesn't matter to me, either one is wrong when they refuse accountability to honest confrontation from scripture. This, again, is probably a point on which we'll agree we disagree.

But I will reiterate in closing, that this does not in any way cause me to write off those who've chosen to put themselves in that church. As I've said before, I've found Jesus' followers in all kinds of places I expected far less, than just in a church with which I don't agree. And I know the Lord seeks such to follow him!



Nick said...


I don't believe a bishop is free from error simply by virtue of being a bishop, though I do believe God protects the Church from binding believers to false doctrines (Acts 15:28; Mat 16:18f). However, just because a bishop is subject to the same temptations as all men, he still has an office of authority which the layman cannot usurp.

Regarding 2 Tim 4:3, the context is first of all a letter addressed to Bishop timothy, then the verses immediately in context are talking about Tim's authority to rebuke, correct, etc. I don't see this consistent with Sola Scriptura, nor do I see "the word" as limited to Scripture, instead it's the Gospel message as a whole.

As for Acts 15, that's a clear "Biblical model," so it's certainly valid. Not only is there no model presented of laymen running around with their own Bibles, such a notion is what prompted the Acts 15 council in the first place. The main reason the Church rebuked the Judaizers of 15:5 is because these men were "preaching without authorization" (15:24). And what is even more interesting is that the Acts 15 dispute was not one where they turned to Scripture as their primary means of solving the problem (and even then they only quoted one obscure passage of Amos). The Judaizers likely pointed to OT passages talking of circumcision as "everlasting covenant" and such, while no such passage exited stating circumcision was to end. This council is a failure of Sola Scriptura if I've ever seen one.

You said you were unsure why I quoted 1 Tim 3:15, I did so because it calls the Church the "pillar and foundation of truth." The Church can never formally proclaim false doctrine, so the idea that no "church" has a pure Gospel is not consistent with the Scriptural definition of the Church. And I agree we interpret Mat 16:18 differently, verse 16:19 is more to the point here, stating "the gates of hell will not prevail" when the Church formally teaches. Again, something impossible/illogical if no church is preserving a fully undefiled Gospel.

As for the Catholic Church having sins in its past, that is a fact, because men are still sinners. However, this does not extend to the realm of dogmatic teaching, which we (based on Scriptural testimony) is protected by God.

You are also correct about the central claim of this dispute when you said: "But I, somewhat opposite of you I guess, run screaming from any group that DOES claim to have the whole truth without error."

This is the heart of the matter, whether or not Jesus could and did preserve His Church in every generation. I cannot imagine how Christ would establish a system where a "trustworthy" pastor would begin his sermon with "I know for a fact there are errors in the Gospel I will proclaim today, but bear with me." How can such a man be trusted? He already admits he's wrong and doesn't even know where for sure. And this is only more compounded if he's just as much a expert on the Scriptures as the next guy.

I can see your 'fear' of trusting an institution which claims its Gospel free of error.......but the "alternative" is willfully trusting an institution that openly admits it's Gospel contains errors. Is that really what you believe? Please comment on this point.

Dan Martin said...

Hey Nick,

Again, my thanks for the dialog.

Acts 15:28 relates how the Jerusalem Council came to their decision (the Holy Spirit and us), but I think it's a stretch to pull a statement of ecclesiastical authority/protection from it. They are demonstrating a model, absolutely. They are not laying down a constitution. I would ask you also to address the fact that it wasn't just the elders/apostles but the WHOLE CHURCH that participated in the hearing and the decision of the matter (v.22).

I see your interpretation of v. 24; whether "without authorization" is the reason for their rebuke, or whether it's the wrongness of their teaching, is something I would question. To me it seems they're rebuked on content, not on authority grounds.

As to the church being the "pillar and foundation of the truth," of course this statement hinges on your definition of "the church." I, of course, refer to that term to mean the collective Body of Christ, submitting to each other in fellowship, and to the Word of God. You, of course, add to that the ecclesiastical structure, but that's a point of definition. I've got to get to a meeting so if you want me to dig up the scriptural foundation for that I'll have to defer.

But I do want to address your last question as you directly put it to me. My answer is, as I think I implied before, that I do not trust any authority--religious or otherwise--that is so secure in their own rightness that they cannot be challenged according to a higher authority (God's revelation in scripture) to which we both appeal. In an earthly sense, I don't trust a teacher whose pronouncements are not subject to challenge from the texts of his discipline, either. It is a fact that we all "see through a glass darkly," and if that included the Apostle Paul, I think it has to include his successors, and Peter's, if successors they even be. So no. For me, if someone does not acknowledge the possibility--even probablility--that they are in partial error, they are (to me) only giving proof positive that they aren't to be trusted. They're only human, and no office protects them from that. COULD Christ do so? Of course. But has he given any compelling evidence that he does/will? I don't see it.

RichnHim said...

Hello Dan. I realize this is a bit of a two-way conversation, but I must say, the arguments you present are the same conclusions I've been coming to as I study Catholic teaching. I've had numerous conversations with David Armstrong who is a popular Catholic apologist over the last couple of years. His arguments are very similar to Nick's.
David has become a good friend, but we certainly disagree on a number of issues, authority being one of them. Keep up the good work. Your arguments are very compelling and helpful.

Dan Martin said...

Thanks Rich. Please don't feel you're intruding on a private conversation here; if it were that Nick and I would take it offline. Good dialog, IMHO, is intended to enrich and strengthen the body.

I would stress that my conclusions are solely to be taken as a difference of opinion on ecclesiology and authority, and NOT in any way to cast aspersions on the faithful witness of Catholic believers. I hope I don't irritate anybody by stressing this too often, but I've encountered so much interdenominational bashing and I most assuredly do not want to contribute to it.

My position remains that the issues I have discussed would preclude my ever joining myself to a Catholic congregation, or advocating the "re-unification" of Protestant and Catholic denominational structures. But I devoutly hope that we will continue to find ways to transcend the organizational boundaries in terms of love, fellowship, and serving the world together.

Nick said...


I'm not sure why they would have to lay down a constitution rather than just a model sufficing. The "whole church" was gathered as a matter of solidarity, nothing to do with making every man an apostle, elder, etc.

I do believe the rebuke was both on illegitimate authority and heterodox grounds, and I would argue the two usually go hand in hand.

You are correct that the "pillar of truth" hinges on the definition of "church," but as you know I would point to texts suggesting "ecclesial structure" in some form or another. I would be interested in seeing how you defend your view, especially given the fact we see divisions arise both in Scripture and in real life.

I'll give you another significant example of why I would feel terribly uncomfortable in your system. Let's say two godly men who are both students of the Bible come to directly contradictory views on a doctrine (eg whether salvation can be lost) and neither will back down because of the seriousness of the doctrine. Surely this cannot be the system God put in place, nor does it model any sort of "pillar of truth" model. I'd like your view on this example as well.

If you have any questions for me to answer or talk on, I'll do my best.


Feel free to comment, this is "open forum" and we might as well hear all the angles and views. I'd like to see your view of my "trusting someone who openly admits they are wrong" and the "two disagreeing pastors" examples.

I do know who Dave Armstrong, and I agree with much of what he says and respect his work.

Dan Martin said...

Sorry guys, I'm slow commenting b/c I'm swamped this week. I'll get back when I can, probably next week. Please don't take my silence--or my delay in approving posts--as disinterest, but I just can't engage the way I'd like right now. Back soon!

Kurt Willems said...

I am a bit late to this discussion as i have been out of the blog world for a while.

I just want to say to Nick: Although I disagree with your perspective in many ways, I have much respect for the continuity it brings to the whole of the Christian tradition. I also have been to a few catholic masses here and there and have found Jesus there. However, to claim a closed system of dogma or an infallible system of theology is dangerous. My question to you is: What do you do with doctrines that the Catholic church has changed over time? One Pope declares something and then it is modified by another? Who was truly right? Whose truth was the TRUTH? Or, would it be safe to say that our doctrines about God and the Church are in process as we study more and learn new things by the power of the Spirit etc.? Where does "Authority" end up if the structures in place and those who speak as the top of the hierarchy eventually disagree?