There can be no doubt as to the core issue separating Protestants from Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians. It is the sufficiency of Holy Scripture. Roman Catholics and the Orthodox both impute to the church an authority that lies, at least beside, if not underneath the authority of Holy Scripture. It is, they believe, the very authority of Christ’s apostles, continued in the church, which is held by the bishops of the church. They speak of the apostolic tradition and of the church as its custodian and herald. And so, for Roman Catholics, and, in a similar way for the Orthodox, there are two sources of theological and spiritual authority in the world: the Lord speaking through the Scriptures and the Lord speaking through his bishops and his church. The Bible by itself is not sufficient. We need this second voice.
This is a vital addition, of course, because the Roman Catholic system, as we know it, cannot be accounted for by the teaching of the Bible alone. There is much, of course, that devout catholics believe that is found in the Bible — the doctrine of the trinity and the incarnation and so on –, but there is a mass of teaching, distinctive of Roman Catholicism and forming the center of Roman catholic piety and worship, that is nowhere found in the Bible. The veneration of Mary and the various beliefs about her sinless conception, perpetual virginity and bodily assumption to heaven, prayers to the saints, a treasury of merits of the saints from which the church might draw for blessings for the living, the practice of confession to a priest as part of a developed penitential system, penance as a sacrament, extreme unction as a sacrament, the practice of indulgences, belief in purgatory, the doctrine and practice of apostolic succession, the existence of the papal office and the primacy of Rome, are all essential features of the Roman system and all of them are nowhere taught in the Bible. Many less major, but still important features of the Roman Catholic version of Christianity, similarly, owe their authority in catholic thinking not to the Bible but to what is believed to be the voice of Christ speaking in and through the church. A celibate priesthood would be such a feature.
Now, it is important to realize that Roman Catholics heartily admit this. It is no embarrassment for them to admit that some of the teaching that most profoundly shapes their spiritual world cannot be found in the Bible. The new converts to Rome from Protestantism seem to be a bit more sensitive on this point. Scott Hahn, for example, tries manfully to find a basis for purgatory in the Bible, but, at the last, he does not claim that the Bible ever actually teaches the whole doctrine that lies at the heart of the catholic penitential system. He perhaps would admit that educated Protestants would not even be much impressed with his effort to find the doctrine in the Bible — I wasn’t. I think he would probably admit that one must believe it first to see it there, and he believes it not because he reads it in Holy Scripture, but because the church has told him it is the truth. And that is what the church teaches, in fact. Here is the opening sentence of the Decree of the Council of Trent — the definitive statement of Roman doctrine — on purgatory: “Whereas the Catholic Church instructed by the Holy Ghost, has, from the Sacred Writings and the ancient tradition of the fathers, taught in sacred councils, and very recently in this ecumenical Synod, that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls there detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar…”
Steve Wood, a former PCA minister, says in one of his tapes that if you restrict yourself to the evidence of the Bible alone you should be a Presbyterian in your view of church government. But, he is no longer a Presbyterian because the church has taught him a different view.
That is, I think, an interesting and important admission, by the way. It is not only that Christ may teach his church, through her bishops, truth that he did not communicate to her in Holy Scripture; it also seems to be the case that he may communicate truth through the church that seems to be at odds with what one would conclude is the truth from Holy Scripture alone. That is not the teaching of the Roman Catholic church, but it is the, perhaps unwitting, admission of Roman Catholics and is certainly the observation of many Protestants. It is not only that the Bible teaches nothing about a purgatory, for example. The problem is that the Bible does in fact teach, and one would have thought unmistakably, that death ushers the believer into the immediate presence of Christ and the joy of life in the company of the spirits of just men made perfect. “Today, thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” and “to depart is to be with Christ.”
In any case, truth comes to us in two different ways and from two different sources in the Roman Catholic thinking — or, better, from one voice speaking in two places: Christ’s voice speaking through the Bible and through the Church. Indeed, that doctrine itself is never actually taught in the Bible. As we shall see, Roman Catholics think there are suggestions of it, but obviously the debate would disappear if we read anywhere in the Bible that God would communicate some of his truth in Holy Scripture and some of it through the church by means of an apostolic tradition preserved by the bishops under the authority of a Pope in Rome. Indeed, nowhere in the NT is it ever suggested that more doctrine or divine law will be forthcoming or will be necessary beyond what the apostles themselves proclaim and publish to the church. [Bavinck, GD, I, 522]
Now the argument that Roman Catholics use against the Protestant doctrine that the Bible alone is the authority for faith and life and that the church must measure the faithfulness of its teaching solely by its conformity to the teaching of the Bible, is that this is, in fact, an impossible and hopeless position.
I just read this week an example of this reasoning by Thomas Howard, Elizabeth Elliot’s brother. He asks the question zealous Roman Catholics always put to us Protestants, an embarrassing question, to be sure. You say that the Bible alone is your authority, but you don’t agree among yourselves about what the Bible in fact teaches. In fact, you don’t agree among yourselves about anything the Bible teaches. And so, at last, it comes down to this: the Bible is the only authority as it happens to be understood by your little group of people over where you are. What good, what significance is an authority like that? This is the way Thomas Howard puts it [Touchstone, 10:4, Fall, 1997, pp. 19-20]:
“[You say] ‘…we get it straight out of the Bible…’ The great difficulty here is that Eutychius and Sabellius and Arius got their notions straight out of the Bible as well. Who will arbitrate these things for us? Who will speak with authority to us faithful, all of us rushing about flapping the pages of our well-thumbed New Testaments, locked in shrill contests over the two natures of Christ, or baptism, or the Lord’s Supper, or the mystery of Predestination. This question formed itself in the following way for me, a twentieth century Christian: who will arbitrate for us between Luther and Calvin? Or between Luther and Zwingli, both appealing loudly to Scripture, and each with a view of the Lord’s Table that categorically excludes the other’s view? And who will arbitrate for us between John Wesley and George Whitefield — that is, between Arminius and Calvin? … Or between the dispensationalists and the Calvinists on the question of eschatology? A piquant version of this situation presented itself to us loosely affiliated Evangelicals, with all of our independent seminaries and Grace Chapels and Moody Churches, and so forth. When a crucial issue arises– say, what we should teach about sexuality– who will speak to us with a finally authoritative voice? The best we can do is to get Christianity Today to run a symposium, with one article by J.I. Packer plumping for traditional morality, and one article by one of our lesbian feminist Evangelicals (there are some), showing that we have all been wrong for the entire 3,500 years since Sinai… The trouble here is that J.I. Packer has no more authority than our lesbian friend, so the message to the faithful is, ‘take your pick.'”
Now that is a real argument and it has a certain plausibility. How are we to answer it? Many things might be said and at very great length. Let me reduce my reply to three points, all-too-briefly put. The first a rebuttal of the assumptions that underlie Mr. Howard’s enthusiasm for the authoritative voice of Rome, second, an examination of Scripture itself on the question of the source of authority for Christians, and, finally, the Bible’s own witness to the authority of church tradition.
- Let me begin then with the argument that the church provides an authoritative interpretation of the truth that is destroyed by Protestant individualism and sectarianism and begin by saying, in effect, “says who?”
The great problem with this Roman Catholic argument, from a logical point of view, is that it amounts to the commission of the fallacy of “petitio principii” or “begging the question.” That is, as an argument, it assumes what must be proved. Of course, if the church speaks with a single voice and that voice is the voice of Christ speaking through the bishops, then we do have such an authoritative interpretation of the Bible and sure foundation for thinking and living that the catholics believe they have and Protestants do not. But that is, of course, exactly what is in dispute.
It is an entirely too-simple view of the church in its earliest centuries that leads the advocates of Rome to speak of the church’s single voice and clear witness to fundamental things. Fact is, if you had asked the church, the Christian church and its bishops, in the fourth century whether Arius or Athanasius was right about the deity of Jesus Christ, most of the time, most of the bishops would have sided with Arius. Later on, most of the bishops of the medieval period would have sided with the semi-Pelagians against Augustine. Why should we assume that the church that produced the Canons of the Council of Trent is the one pure voice of Christ speaking in the world and not the Protestant Reformers, whose lives and ministries were, in many respects, so much like those of Athanasius in the fourth century, who was also drummed out of the church, by the church, for his loyalty to what, later, Christians accepted was the true teaching of the Bible? Why do we assume, for example, that the Roman bishop speaks for all bishops. The Orthodox don’t think so. The Protestants don’t think so. Two-thirds of the Christian world, for a thousand years, hasn’t swallowed that argument. [Indeed I read a lengthy account of the Roman Catholic church’s Doctrine of Tradition this week and its historical development, and all the differences within the church concerning it, and changes in its conception through the years — enough to make the idea seem altogether more human than Divine — but also all together too complicated a story to tell here!]
And, what is perhaps even more telling, why should we suppose that we should take the Roman church to be the church that speaks with Christ’s clear voice on matters of doctrine and still feel free — as even devout Roman Catholics do today — to dispense with what it once taught and enforced, with all of its impressive and sometimes brutal authority, with regard to the practice of Christian life and worship? This too was the church’s teaching, or, shall we say it, the voice of Christ speaking in the church. Whether we are speaking of warring Popes, or a refusal to provide Christians with the Bible in their own language, or to permit them to worship God in their own language — think of it! century after century, Christian folk in Roman churches, by church law, couldn’t understand what was being said in the worship! — something the early church never allowed or contemplated allowing –, or burning of Bibles to keep them from the hands of the laity, or, and this is a more dogmatic or doctrinal issue, believing that folk outside of the Roman Catholic church could not be saved.
You should read Thomas Howard’s glowing tribute to the piety and spirituality and love for Christ that animated the life of the evangelical home in which he was raised. This is true of all these men, the former PCA men as well. They have no hesitation in affirming the spiritual life and salvation and love for Christ of the devout Protestants they knew and worked with before they became Roman Catholics. But that is not what their new church used to teach!
Here is the conclusion of the famous Papal Bull “Unam Sanctam” (one of the most historically significant in Roman Catholic history): “Further, we declare, say, define, and pronounce it to be altogether necessary for salvation for every human creature that he be subject to the Roman pontiff.”
This too was the voice of the Roman church but she does not herself listen to that voice today. And these are not trivial matters. They strike at the vitals of her entire system and, I should say, at the vitals of biblical Christianity — as a message about salvation –, when Roman bishops teach, as now they do, that salvation can be found not only out of the Roman Church but out of the Christian church altogether!
You see, if you had appealed to “the church,” or “the voice of the church” in Jeremiah’s day — or for most of the 500 years before his day — for the authoritative interpretation of the Bible, you would have received a defense of “pluralism” and “syncretism,” a mixture of Moses and the Prophets with the paganism round about. We know that is true for that was the reason God sent his prophets to the church in that day. And if you asked the church in Jesus’ day, you would have been led astray again. Jesus tells us that himself. And if you asked Boniface VIII if you could be saved without being subject to the Pope he would have said — he did say — you couldn’t, though the present Pope doesn’t agree. If you had asked some of the renaissance Popes if you could purchase forgiveness with money they would have said “yes,” or, some, perhaps, would have said “no” with a wink. But were they Christ’s voice when they spoke so? Devout Roman Catholics don’t think today that they were Christ’s clear voice, at least, if they do, they do not think it necessary to agree with that voice.
You see: who says Rome is the church of Christ, and that Rome now is speaking the truth? Sometimes it has spoken the truth, often it has not. And much of what it now says, it has continued to say in defiance of reformers who have arisen within her and been cast out from her as was always the case in biblical times and has been ever since. You see, like it or not, Rome is really in just the same spot that we are in. They think that they see the truth, they think that they are the biblical church. So do we, though our sense of the church is broader. But no historical argument can solve this disagreement. Rome is old, but so is the eastern church, both stretch back in some form or another to the early centuries of Christianity after Pentecost, — but each believes she is the true church of God, but equally ancient are some of the doctrines and practices that the Protestant church holds over against both Rome and the East. Thomas Howard, understandably, wishes for a “recognizable church,” those are his words, but you couldn’t recognize the true church in Elijah’s day — for it was 7,000 knees that had not bowed to Baal hidden among the homes, the priests and the sanctuaries of Israel.
What is the touchstone? How can we decide? Where can we discover how to discover and recognize the church?
- My second point is that the Bible teaches itself to be that touchstone and that unerring source of truth and light.
I chose to read 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and…thoroughly equips the man of God for every good work.” We could begin by pointing out that that statement is not entirely true from a Roman Catholic perspective. A man is not thoroughly equipped for every good work by the Bible, for there are a great deal of works of piety that catholics think are right and even essential that the Bible does not teach. The Bible only partially equips a Christian, the church must teach the rest of the truth that is not in the Scripture. But where are we given to think this, or expect this, or believe such a thing in the Bible itself?
Always we are taught to think and to speak about the Bible in this transcendent, utterly unique way that Paul uses here: “God-breathed,” that is, “coming directly out of God’s mouth.” As Paul puts it in Romans 3:2: the Bible is “the oracles of God” or “the very words of God” as the NIV has it. The Lord told Jeremiah that he would put his words in Jeremiah’s mouth. But he never said that about the church. The church is given the Word of God to hold and to proclaim and to defend and to live by, but she is not the source of that Word.
Roman Catholic apologists typically refer to John 16:12 where the Lord says to the apostles, “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth,” which speaks about the equipment of the apostles — which is not in dispute — and says nothing about the continuation of some apostolic authority in the hands of the church’s bishops enabling them to formulate new doctrine and law — which is the point in dispute. Or they refer to 1 Timothy 3:16, where the church is described as the “pillar and foundation or bulwark” of the truth. But in the context there, Paul himself declares what the truth is that the church is the pillar and foundation of — truth already revealed — and, in any case, Paul says nothing about the discovery and publication of new truth, but, in the context, is concerned with the church’s proclamation and defense of the truth once and for all revealed to the saints. Besides, once again, we are back to the original question: who says that Rome is the Christian church? Two-thirds of Christendom doesn’t!
The Bible’s viewpoint is, I make bold to say, the Protestant viewpoint. The Word of God, Holy Scripture, is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. The only voice in the world that can with certainty be identified as the very voice of God, the ipsissima verba Dei, the very words of God himself.
- And this point is confirmed, in the third place, by the fact that the Bible directly addresses itself to the question of church-originated traditions in theology and practice and uniformly condemns them and recalls the church to the sure Word of God.
Never do you find in the Bible what you find in Roman Catholic thinking, viz. an appeal to the church and the authority of the church and the voice of Christ speaking in the church in addition to or apart from or over against the voice of God in his Word. To be sure, you find that word in biblical times in the oral form that it had in the actual ministries of prophets and apostles, but, even then, it is as the Word of God not as the church that their voices bear divine authority.
It seems to me one of the strange quirks in the Roman viewpoint that it seems to require that the church begin after Pentecost, as if there were not those thousands of years of history already behind her and revealing to us the nature and character of her life in the world. Fact is, the church developed traditions — both doctrines and forms of piety and faithful living — over and over again in her history. But — and here is the problem for the Roman viewpoint — these developments are uniformly rejected in the Bible, are condemned as corruptions, and are condemned precisely because they do not meet the standard of God’s Word. The fact that many of the traditions specifically rejected in the Word of God, even by the Savior himself, are very similar to Roman Catholic ideas and practices is only the more striking: whether we are speaking of the repetition of set prayers, the codification of the practices of fasting and penitence, or the development of elaborate customs of ritual washings. These were among the practices which the Jews referred to as “the traditions of the elders”, very much like what the catholics call “the traditions of the fathers”, but, as a matter of fact, Jesus himself condemned them, however innocent, however well-intentioned they may have been when they originated.
The Jews by Jesus’ day had overlaid the pure revelation of God with layers of traditional interpretations and practices, which Jesus summarily rejected, citing in Mark 7 Isaiah who had addressed the same problem in a different form 700 years before: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” But the Jews didn’t think so! They thought their traditions were from God and were the law and truth of God! Jesus said they weren’t. In fact, as I have said in previous messages, I can very well imagine pious Jews of the first century defending their traditions in much the same way that devout catholics defend theirs today. But the Lord pronounced on those traditions, however well-meant. “You have let go,” he said, “of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And again and again he corrected them in their reverence for these traditions of men by appeal to the Scriptures. And that is what the prophets did before him. When Isaiah faced teachers who claimed to be getting other messages from God, what was his reply? “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn” [8:19-29].
I do not say that there are no traditions in the Christian church. Of course there are. What our churches look like, what ministers wear, at what time on Sunday we worship, on what day we celebrate Christmas and Easter, and so on. But all of this is simply the exercise of that liberty conferred upon the church by her Savior to perform in some specific way the general obligations laid upon her in the Word of God. But, this is hardly what Rome claims for the apostolic tradition she claims to convey through the ages. She claims an authority for the church to define the truth of God.
But the Bible places no such confidence in “the church”, nor does it teach us to invest our confidence in the church’s teaching office such as it is construed by Roman Catholicism. It is too aware of how often and how profoundly the church has corrupted the truth and how invariably it is the case that once corrupted it can be recovered only by a return to the pure Word of God, and nothing else. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:20: the church, God’s people, God’s household is built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, that is, on the revelation that came through them, with Jesus Christ the chief cornerstone. There are not two foundations and, certainly, the church, which is the house, is not under the foundation!
When two voices are given to speak to the church, one will always speak with the loudest voice, and human nature and church history conspire to teach us that it will always be the human voice not the divine voice speaking in the Bible. It is so in much of Protestantism today, indeed. The voice that carries the day is the voice of so-called individual revelations and communications from heaven that a particular Christian or minister has received, or the impression that a believer has about one thing or another. But so it is, we believe, with Rome. The defining shape of Roman Catholicism is not biblical but traditional, the traditions of men that have supplanted the pure Word of God. [cf. Bavinck, GD, vol. 1, pp. 512-527]