By What Authority?

Last week a conversation with a non-Christian friend veered off into the nature of the Bible. I forget exactly what prompted it. At some point I stated that the Bible consisted of the history of our covenant relationship with God, which is found prior to the time of Jesus in the Old Testament books that the Jews had written, and after the time of Jesus in the New Testament books that the Church had written. He rather emphatically stated that the New Testament predates the Catholic Church rather than the other way around.

As we were having dinner with multiple friends out at a restaurant, it wasn’t the best venue for that long of a discussion. So I invited him to pick up that conversation with me at a later date.

Concepts of the Bible and the Church are very commonly disjointed among non-Catholics, and even among some Catholics. It stems in large part from the culture in which we live. The religious background of the United States is predominately Protestant Christian, something that is baked into the culture of this country whether or not one is a Christian. As such, the general concept of the Bible among non-Catholics will tend to follow that of the culture at large. This presents a difficulty in evangelizing, as the Protestant Christian concept of the Bible is… odd.

I say it is odd because it is based on invalid logic that does not stand up to scrutiny when it is critically examined.

Valid logic means the conclusion follows from the premises. For example, consider the classic syllogism:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

A syllogism must follow the following structure:

A is B
C is A
Therefore, C is B.

The syllogism is valid because it is properly structured. Validity only depends on the structure. Whether or not the premises are true has to do with something called soundness rather than validity. This syllogism is also sound, because the premises are both true and the conclusion logically follows from them.

The typical Protestant claim about the authority of the Bible can be simplified into some form of the following invalid syllogism:

God is authoritative.
The Bible is inspired by God.
Therefore, the Bible is authoritative.

The first premise is true. The second premise is true. The conclusion, however, does not follow from the two premises. The logic is invalid. The first premise is A is B. The second premise, however, is not C is A. It is C is D. “God” and “inspired by God” are two different things.

One of the primary differences between Catholic Christians and non-Catholic Christians is authority. Catholics agree with Protestants that the Bible is inspired by God. Catholics agree with Protestants that the Bible is a useful tool for teaching. Catholics agree with Protestants that that the Bible is useful for refutation, correction, and training in righteousness.

But Catholics do not agree with Protestants that the Bible is authoritative. It cannot be, as it is an inanimate object. The words within the Bible reside on paper. When it is possible to interpret those words in two or more contradictory ways, the words are unable to explain themselves and point to the correct interpretation. No book can explain itself. It takes a mind to explain a book, a mind with intellect and will.

But Jesus ascended to the Father after his resurrection. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are dead. Paul is dead. Whoever wrote the letter to the Hebrews is dead. James is dead. Peter is dead. Jude is dead. Who is left to interpret the Bible when Jesus and those who wrote the books of the New Testament are all in heaven?

If only Jesus had left us an authority here on earth to which we could turn when we lack understanding or have difficulties in matters of faith and morals. If only he had founded something that would stand forever against the forces of darkness, guided by God in teaching truth for the sake of salvation. If only there had been an authority in the decades after Jesus to handle questions such as whether or not gentiles being baptized were also bound by all of the strictures given to the Jewish people under the old covenant. If only there had been an authority in the first several centuries after Jesus to handle questions about the nature of God and the persons of the Trinity that came up in heresies such as Gnosticism, Montanism, Arianism, and Nestorianism. If only there had been an authority to give us a creed to succinctly state what it is we believe as Christians. If only there had been an authority to decide which of the writings in use by the early Church were divinely inspired and which were not. If only that authority still existed today.

That authority, of course, does exist to this day. And as was the case throughout history whenever that authority spoke, not everyone listened. Some in the first century chose to remain Gnostics or Montanists. Some in the third century onward chose to remain Arians. Some in the fifth century onward chose to remain at least somewhat in line with Nestorianism in the Assyrian Church of the East. Many in the case of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century chose to remain Lutheran/Calvinist/Anglican.

In doing so, all of them sacrificed the one thing expressed quite clearly in the name applied to that authority since the early second century. That one thing is universality. The word Catholic means universal. The Catholic Church remains universal. All other Christian groups become particular rather than universal over time, and either disintegrate completely or continue splitting apart until they become so particular and so small that they’re little more than an exclusive club with maybe a large extended family and some close friends.

The Catholic Church is not a monolithic entity that operates under the principle “My way or the highway”. The Church is headed by Jesus Christ, who wishes to draw all peoples to himself. The Church must be universal to do this. Moral principles do not change and do not vary, but then moral principles are by their nature universal. All else is open to discussion.

There are 22 distinct Rites within the Church, celebrating the Mass in a variety of languages and according to a variety of liturgical norms. There is a Code of Canon Law for the Latin Rite, which is the largest of the rites, but it is only for that rite. Other rites have their own codes. A special entity called an ordinariate was created only a few years ago by Pope Benedict XVI specifically to enable Anglicans (three of these ordinariates exist at present in the United States and Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia) to return to the Latin Rite without having to give up many of the cultural practices they had acquired in their time separated from the Catholic Church. Pope Francis, in recent negotiations with various patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox on the matter of restoring communion, stated that he was willing to discuss moving the celebration of Easter to correspond to their calendars.

Much to the surprise of many, once they start looking into it they discover that the Church is quite open to listening to people’s concerns on anything that is not a matter of faith and morals.

As Americans, we’re culturally conditioned to resist authority. We don’t like to be told what to do. When the Church is described as an authority, it’s understandable that we may wish to resist. But the authority of the Church is being exercised under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to further the goal of unity rather than division. It seeks to draw people together, not drive them apart.

It is not an authority to be feared. It is a voice of sanity among the insane, a voice that remains steady in the center of a whirlwind of yelling and screaming, a voice of reason and stability. In short, it is something founded on rock rather than shifting sand.

If you like to read, I highly recommend the book By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition, by Mark Shea. It can be bought on Amazon here for a pittance. In it, he does an excellent job explaining in far greater detail than I ever could, using a variety of sources and arguments, how he wrestled with the authority question.