What should happen when two Christians, or more typically, two groups of Christians, both earnestly seek to follow Christ faithfully, but are at serious loggerheads about what the faith is? The 27th Comrade, in his comments on these three posts, raises a number of points against what he thinks is the Catholic stance on issues like justification. His view of what Catholics believe and the view actually held by Catholics are worlds apart: we don’t try and earn our way to Heaven, for example, but he’s quite sure we must. But for now, let’s just agree to the basics: the issue of justification is incredibly important (too important to simply agree to disagree), both of us think Scripture supports our view, and this is an issue which needs to be resolved on this side of eternity. We need to have some clear answer that all Christians can point to. Here’s how to find that answer:
There are four major reasons not to base all doctrine off of Scripture alone:
- Scripture doesn’t tell us to. Sola Scriptura is a doctrine, yet it’s not taught by any passage of Scripture. So it’s self-refuting to claim it, because in teaching a doctrine not taught in Scripture, you condemn yourself by your own standard.
- Scripture tells us not to. 2 Thessalonians 2:15, and the other verses I cited yesterday. See below.
- Scriptura alone doesn’t even dictate the canon of Scripture. The canon of Scripture is a doctrine, an incredibly important one, particularly for believers in sola Scriptura, yet no book in Scripture tells us which books are canonical.
- The dispute is on the meaning of Scripture. Augustine’s rightly said: “Heresies arise simply from this, that good Scriptures are ill-understood, and what is ill-understood in them is also rashly and presumptuously given forth.” So to say, “What does Scripture say on this?” is to ask a circular question: that’s what we’re disagreeing about. If there’s a dispute about the meaning of an amendment to the Constitution, it doesn’t make sense to expect the amendment, alone, to answer the dispute. We have to determine which interpretation is right. There are times when Scripture interprets itself (like Matthew 1:23 explaining what Isaiah 7:14 means), but most of the time, we have to look outside Scripture for the interpretation of Scripture.
On #2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 tells us to hold fast to “the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” T27C claims that this means that Tradition-by-word (what we’ve been calling Tradition, for short) and Tradition-by-epistle (Scripture) are one in the same. Specifically, he says,
The passage affirms that they are identical (they are referred to as one plural entity: traditions); it is the methods of delivery that vary. This is quite plainly what the passage says: “the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.”
So the Marine’s Law of War says, “Collect and care for the wounded, whether friend or foe.” Does that mean that since they use one entity (the wounded), that friends and foes are the same? How is that even a serious argument? Where does grammar ever work the way T27C claims it does? And if the Traditions the Apostles had written down were 100% comprehensive, why bother telling them to pay attention to anything else? Why not just say, “if it’s written down, follow it”? The reason we don’t see Paul saying something like “hold fast to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or word of mouth” is that it would be redundant and silly. If word of mouth and letter are 100% the same, as T27C’s claiming, it’d be equally redundant and silly.
T27C also says,
Note that I have no problem with deciding on one thing or the other by simple, blind, gut faith (it is what I do); but the Roman Catholic Tradition insists that these things must be reasonable.
And not just the Roman Catholic Tradition, but Scripture itself: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Simply saying, “gut feeling” isn’t an answer, and it certainly isn’t a reason. Jesus Christ is the Logos, the Divine Logic, so irrational religion is an insult to Him. At this point, T27C isn’t saying we should go by Scripture alone, but by Scripture and random gut feelings. In fact, we only listen to those Scriptures which our gut tells us are right: that’s how he says to judge the canon of Scripture. So his gut is now the highest earthly authority in Christendom, and it judges even Scripture.
But remember, we need an objective standard, so all Christians can live in harmony. 1 Corinthians 1:10 calls us to total doctrinal agreement. We can’t get that if we’re each going by our gut instincts, because our gut instincts (1) disagree, and (2) are warped by our sinful natures. It’s pride to assume you know better than all of Christendom, and that all Christianity must agree with you. But Scripture says all Christianity should agree with something, so the standard can’t be your (or my) gut.
How were the Christians at Corinth to know what right belief was? Scripture, certainly, but Scripture alone? No. We’ve seen from the history of Protestantism how peaceful and unified going by Scripture alone is: there are Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists (Calvinist and non), Anglicans, Quakers, Mennonites, Pentecostals (Trinitarian and non-Trinitarian), Assemblies of God, Amish, Anabaptists (not anymore, but they were sure they were right while they were here), Disciples of Christ, so-called Non-Denominationals, etc. Beneath these umbrellas, there are massive divisions and schisms: how many feuding Presbyterian bodies did the last two centuries see, even in the US alone? The tower of Babel saw more unity than Bible-alone Christians, and it’s no exaggeration to say that there are groups of Christians whose interpretation of the Bible is rejected by every Christian outside their individual assembly of a few dozen people.
So what does the Bible say to do? 1 Timothy 3:14-15 points to “God’s household, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” So the Church, not our gut, is the pillar and foundation of Truth. T27C says that without the Bible, Protestantism would cease to exist. I agree, and the early Church didn’t have the Bible. There’s a gap of a couple decades between the Resurrection and Petecost on the one hand, and Paul’s first letters on the other. John’s Revelation isn’t until about 90, so there were countless people who were born after the Resurrection, and dead before the New Testament was done being written. Even once the books were written, there were a couple centuries before the Catholic Church declared which ones were Scripture, and it wasn’t until the 16th century(!) that the Protestant Bible was made (by cutting out clearly inspired books like Wisdom, which prophesies the death of Christ, and Tobit, which prophesies the number of angels around the altar of God). So the only period in which Christianity was unified in the sense called for by 1 Corinthians 1:10 and John 17:20-23 (Christ’s clear prayer on the matter) was an era in which the Church, not the individual’s interpretation of the Scriptures, was the highest authority.
There are two major reasons to favor this approach. First, it’s what Scripture calls for. Matthew 18:15-17 says that the Church is the last authority for dealing with a Christian who sins: “if they refuse to listen even to the Church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Now, someone who introduces a heresy into Christianity is sinning, and is subject to the Church’s ruling. Luther, born and raised a Catholic, and a willing member of the Catholic hierarchy, was judged by the Church to have commited the sin of heresy. He then left the Church, rather than obey Her judgments. Is there any question that this is sinful? In Acts 15, which I mentioned before, the question of the Judaizers was placed before the Church. She made the determination, in the name of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28), and didn’t leave it up to the individual believer. So determining orthodoxy and heresy is clearly part and parcel of the Church’s power and responsibilty. Paul orders a church ruling against an incestous man in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, and chastises them for not handing matters to the Church in 1 Cor. 6:1.
The second reason is that the Church is perfect, while the individual members are sinful and fallen. That’s because the Church is the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12), and the Bride of Christ, “a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27). The Church on Earth, full of both the saved and the damned, is called the Kingdom of God (Matthew 13:47-50). In John 14:15-16, Christ promised to send the Advocate to be with the Church forever. And in v. 26, He promises, “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” In John 16:13, He says, “when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth.” So you and I are individual Christians impacted severely by the Fall, and by our limited understanding. The Holy Spirit never guides us into all truth, or teaches us all things. That’s a power left to the Church.
Note also that the Church is eternal: “the gates of Hell will not overcome” (Matthew 16:18), and the Holy Spirit guides Her into all truth forever. This is why Catholics point to antiquity. If what you believe today isn’t found at all times in the Church’s history, it raises two possibilities: (1) Christ was wrong, and the Church did fall away from the fullness of the truth; or (2) you’re wrong. I outline this at some greater length here. T27C says in response to this idea that “God, through His Holy Spirit, has sustained a remnant of believers in Truth at all times,” so that Luther wasn’t alone in proposing sola fide. But of course, Luther was alone. It’s historical nonsense to pretend that there were invisible Christians teaching sola fide in the generations prior to Luther. But Christ also doesn’t promise just a remnant. He promises in Matthew 13:31-32,
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
So the Church goes from being the smallest Church (with only Christ and a few Apostles, at the Crucifixion), to being the largest. But besides this, the proto-Protestant “remnant” T27C talks about is made up. There’s absolutely no historical evidence they ever existed. And what’s more, if they did exist (which, seriously, they didn’t), they were bad Christians for hiding their light under a bushel, instead of being “a city on a hill” (Matthew 5:14-16). Even if T27C could find a group he considered a “remnant,” that group’s defining characteristic (cowardly hiding from heresy for centuries) is the characteristic of the damned, not the saved (Rev. 21:8). More on this can be found at part 1 here, and here and especially here.
So here’s the standard: if you want to know the truth, look at what the Church teaches, and has taught. Two points here. First, it’s true that nowadays, there’s some confusion about who the Church is. Fair enough. If the Holy Spirit guides the Church in all Truth yesterday, today, and tomorrow, we can just as easily look at the Church when there was no dispute about who the Church was, sometime like 200 A.D. What did the Church teach then? If the Holy Spirit was leading the Church then, whatever the Church said in the third century is the true Faith. If you take this seriously, and look for the Church, you’ll find out immediately She was Catholic (since this post is more about how to find the Truth, I won’t get into the specifics of what those conclusions look like). Second, remember that the Church needs to have the power to declare individuals excommunicated, to make binding declarations about a person’s state of grace because of their sins; and She needs to be able to say that a certain decision seemed good to “the Holy Spirit and us” (Acts 15:28). Is there any church besides the Catholic Church that even claims to be this Church?
Like I said, this post isn’t about outlining the precise contours of the Faith, but showing how that faith may be found. But there is one serious confusion I wanted to clear up. T27C claims in one of his comments:
But you know yourself that most declarations of the Roman Catholic Church are after the time of the apostles. Some Marian Dogmas—Immaculate Conception, and Assumption—for example. The Co-Redemptrix Dogma is not yet codified, therefore it has not yet been ascended to by any faithful Catholic.
I’ve handled this falsehood before here, but here’s where the misunderstanding lies. When the Catholic Church says “x is dogma,” She’s defining what’s already believed. For example, the Council of Nicea dogmatized the Trinity in c. 325 A.D. That doesn’t mean nobody in 324 believed it: rather, it was always the orthodox view, but confusion had arisen that was misleading the faithful. The early Christians believed in a set of doctrines we now call the Trinity (namely, that there was One God; that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were that One God; and that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct persons). Eventually, these beliefs were challenged: one camp said that only the Father was God, and that the Son and Holy Spirit were subordinate Beings, not fully God, but simply godlike; another camp said that the Father was the Son, simply taking a different form; later, you would get groups claiming the Father and Son are “distinct personages” who are both gods, but not the same God. All of these heresies relied, in no small part, upon Scripture. So the task of Nicea was not to propose something new, but to reaffirm the old, and to clarify which (already existing) system of beliefs about the nature of the Godhead was accurate. So we can honestly say that the truth of the Trinity was taught in an unbroken chain from the time of the Apostles until today (although the word “Trinity” wasn’t used), but that when heresy and confusion arose, it was necessary to clarify and solidify this belief. Or, if you don’t like that example, look to Scripture: Acts 15 shows the Church simply reaffirming, in the name of the Holy Spirit, what Peter was already teaching in Acts 10-11.
So T27C’s claim that if a given dogma isn’t formally promulgated, it is therefore not accepted by any faithful Catholic is absolutely false. Ideally, every Catholic believes a doctrine, and it’s never necessary to define it. So the Assumption, for example, wasn’t formally promulgated until 1950, but even in doing so, the pope noted that “the bishops of the entire world are almost unanimously petitioning that the truth of the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven should be defined as a dogma of divine and Catholic faith.” So it wasn’t as if, in 1949, no Catholic believed in the Assumption, and in 1951, they all did (I used to go to Assumption Parish in Topeka, KS, founded in 1911, so I can say forcefully that this is nonsense history). There were celebrations of the Feast of the Assumption for centuries, and there’s ancient art depicting it: it’s been celebrated in the East and West, etc., etc. As strong as the case for the historicity of the Assumption is, the case for the Immaculate Conception is even stronger. The first time we ever hear the word “Trinity” used is 181 A.D. The first time we read a Church Father (St. Irenaeus) clearly laying out the Immaculate Conception is 180.
If you want to argue that a certain belief is a novel heresy, point to the heresiarch! If this is a novel doctrine, added at some late date, who added it, and when? Saying, “Well, x pope formally promulgated it” isn’t the same as saying he made it up, and for every example you cite me of a pope promulgating a given Catholic doctrine, I’ll show you a group of earlier Christians who believed it. The Church adds not an iota of content to the Faith, for the exact reason outlined above: She’s had the “faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3) since the time of the Apostles.