Friday, March 15, 2013

The Bible and Church Authority: Tracing the Circle

 
            I think that the Roman Catholic Church's (RCC's) claims regarding its authority and the Bible are circular.  Here's what I mean:  The RCC asserts that its authority is based in Scripture and in things said and done by Christ and the apostles in Scripture, in places like Matthew 16 for instance, which Catholics often quote in this regard.  The RCC also says that the Bible itself, and a proper interpretation and application of the Bible, are rooted in, and dependent upon, the church's authority.  Without the church, it says, we'd have no Bible and no authoritative interpretation of it.  But if the church's authority is rooted in the Bible, and if both the Bible's very existence and a reliable interpretation of the Bible are rooted in the church's authority, then we are arguing in a circle.  We are arguing that the church's authority arises from the church's authority.  To say that A comes from B, and at the same time to insist that B comes from A, is a failed explanation -- especially if A and B turn out to be identical.
             Circularity also undermines the assertion that the RCC's authority comes from the Holy Spirit, a claim that depends for its authentication, at least according to common Catholic argument, upon the Bible, which, because we supposedly owe the Bible to the church, is to base the church's authority on the church's authority.  In other words, we are still arguing in a circle.  If the RCC wants to invoke the Holy Spirit as the Guarantor of its authority, it cannot base that invocation, as it does, upon the Bible and upon the church's own allegedly authoritative interpretation and application of the Bible because that would be to base the church's authority upon itself and then to label the entire circular enterprise the work of the Spirit.
            The RCC's claim to apostolic succession and, therefore, to apostolic teaching authority and reliability fares no better because the church rests the authentication of its claim to apostolic teaching authority and reliability upon the Bible in places like Matthew 16, John 16, and 1 Timothy 3.  The church also asserts that the Bible, to which it appeals here in order to authenticate the church's authority, arises from the church's authority.   By rooting its claim to apostolic authority and reliability in things said and done in the Bible, and by employing its own alleged authority to interpret and apply those passages reliably and authoritatively, the church is already assuming and employing what it seeks to prove.  By arguing this way, the church is already employing its alleged apostolic authority to teach reliably on the issue of its alleged apostolic authority to teach reliably.  In other words, the church is presuming to teach reliably and authoritatively before it has proved that it has the apostolic authority and reliability by which to teach reliably and authoritatively on apostolic authority and reliability.  By the same token, when the RCC insists that the very promise given to the apostles to be led into "all truth," devolves upon the RCC, it is already employing the church's alleged authority to establish the Bible and to interpret and apply the Bible authoritatively and reliably in order to establish the church's authority to teach the Bible authoritatively and reliably, all of which it then calls "apostolic."  If they say that one does not require the church's authority in order to read the Bible correctly, then the church is arguing that the Protestant principle of interpretation and the Protestant principle of the perspicuity of Scripture are correct.  (I shall argue in the next chapter that the RCC's interpretation of the passages at issue here is incorrect, not simply an example of circular reasoning.)
            If the RCC wishes to escape this conundrum by appealing to a tradition outside the Bible in order to establish the church's authority, it cannot establish the authority, the existence, the boundaries, the theological content, or the truthfulness of that tradition by any means other than its own self-referral, or self-authentication.  According to the RCC, we can know what constitutes that authoritative extra-biblical tradition, how to weigh the various parts of that tradition against each other and against things outside it, and whether or not the tradition thus identified and thus interpreted were authoritative, only if we assumed the RCC's authority to identify, preserve, and interpret that tradition for us -- an authoritative tradition the RCC claims authoritatively to say establishes its authority. 
            If, to try a completely different tack (as some Catholics do), one were to argue that we could go to, say, the gospel of Matthew, in which the relevant words of Jesus and Peter are found, and establish the authenticity, historical reliability, and proper meaning of that book without recourse to ecclesiastical authority, that argument would fail because it would show that indeed we do not need an authoritative RCC in order to establish a reliable, believable, and properly understood Biblical text, a proposition which the RCC strongly denies -- but a proposition which, as a Protestant, I myself strongly support, and which Protestants have asserted for centuries.  We can, indeed, determine such things, and we do not require the pronouncements of Rome in order to determine them.
            Notice that I am making an argument from reason, not from my own alleged authority.  To refute it, therefore, requires not an argument against me myself, or against my alleged authority -- I have none -- but rather a better, and non-circular, argument for RCC authority, an argument based upon something other than that authority.
            Each of the arguments cited above comes from one or more Catholic apologists.  Interestingly, however, I have heard from other Catholic apologists that these arguments are not really what the church teaches -- which brings us back to the issue of the elusive monolith, mentioned earlier.
            To approach this issue from a completely different angle:  The entire argument proffered here by the RCC goes astray because it is wrongly conceived, wrongly based.  The point is not whether the Bible gives rise to the church or the church gives rise to the Bible.  The point is that the gospel gives rise to the church, and that the church is, and always must be, subject to the gospel, never vice versa.  If ever the gospel is subjected to the church, then the church must be changed, reformed, in order to preserve the gospel.  In that light the Reformation was not about repudiating the church but about preserving the gospel and calling the church back to it, back to the message of grace that had given the church its very life and which the church was intended to preserve and to propagate, but which, instead, it had suppressed for centuries.

12 comments:

Joshua Mercer said...

The Catholic Church does not claim its authority derives from the Bible.

The Catholic Church has always maintained that her authority comes from Jesus Christ himself.

The Church specifically points to the moment when Christ told Saint Peter that he was building his Church on him.

Saint Matthew gave a written account of this event in his Gospel.

But if none of the Apostles had ever written a single word down on to paper -- that is if there never was a New Testament-- the Catholic Church would still have 100% of her authority because it was given to her by Jesus Christ himself.

One can deny this claim. One can say that Jesus did not give her this authority. One can say that this is not what Jesus meant and that Saint Peter and his 265 successors got it all wrong.

But the Catholic Church's argument is not circular.

Stephen Wolfe said...

Joshua, what do you use to establish that authority? If you're using the "you are my rock" statement in Matthew 16, then isn't that your *private* interpretation of the text? If it is, then your justification for the infallible authority of the Roman Catholic Church is your own private and fallible interpretation of the early texts, which presupposes the authority of the text logically prior to the Church establishing the authority of the text.

You say: "The Church specifically points to the moment when Christ told Saint Peter that he was building his Church on him."

That is a circular argument. When you say that the "Church" points to that moment, you're essentially claiming that the Church establishes its authority by exercising its authority That's circular.

I'll ask again. To what do you reference, without question begging, to establish in your own mind the authority of the RCC?

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Josh,
When asked to demonstrate that the RCC's authority comes from Christ, RCC apologists point to various passages in the Bible. Without the Bible, they could not make the point. The Bible is fundamental to the argument.

The exegesis of Matt. 16 on which they rely is simply and flatly false. I will post a detailed correction of it here soon. The same with their reading John 6 and the physical presence view. I will address that soon as well.

The RCC could not establish that Christ gave it authority if it did not have the Scripture for support. Without scripture, it would have to rely on the allegedly authoritative oral tradition of the church, which is again circular.

You understand, right, that every church claims that Christ stands as its origin and head and invokes its own exegesis of what it deems the critical Biblical passages in its own support.

Stephen Wolfe said...

I can see two options for Roman Catholics. One is circular and the other is shaky.

1) They can claim, as Joshua seems to have done, that the church establishes its authority by exercising it. I don't think all circular arguments are necessarily wrong, but they are usually inaccessible to those not already in the circle, like myself.

2) They can use standard methods of research to answer the questions of what type of Church Christ established and how one becomes a part of the Church. This requires "private" judgment on early texts prior to the Church establishing their authority and it requires one to "privately" determine an extensive and dense form of ecclesiology and soteriology *prior* to accepting the infallibly determined "deposit of faith". So the individual would have to develop an extensive array of theology prior to appealing to an infallible earthly Magisterial authority for theology.

Option one is circular. Option two has shaky evidence (in my opinion) and contradicts the claim, usually directed against Protestants, that people, in their own effort, can know or have good reason to believe aspects of the deposit of doctrine from Christ. If Roman Catholics can claim to have good reason to believe in RC ecclesiology, then I can claim to know or have good reason to believe a Protestant ecclesiology.

Stephen Wolfe said...

Sorry, my last paragraph has a mistake.

What I meant to say is this:

Option two has shaky evidence (in my opinion) and contradicts the claim, usually directed against Protestants, that individuals, in their own effort and private interpretation, cannot know or have good reason to believe aspects of the deposit of doctrine. But if Roman Catholics can claim to have good reason to believe in RC ecclesiology with their own effort and private interpretation, then I can claim to know or have good reason to believe a Protestant ecclesiology based on my own effort and private interpretation.

Ilíon said...

Off topic ---

Mr Bauman,
For months, I've had trouble accessing your R-and-C blog. That is, I couldn't actually see the content of individual items unless I used Opera rather than IE.

Now, the front page displays in Chinese or Japanese or something, regardless of which browser I use.

Similarly with this blog -- using IE, I can sort of see the front page, with links to content, but I can't view any of the content. I can see the content (and presumably I can comment) using Opera.

Personally, I suspect that part of the issue is the Blogger template you're using. I've been noticing that as people start using the "new and improved" (I'm rolling my eyes) options in Blogger, their blogs become more and more unresponsive and difficult to read and navigate.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Ilion,

I'll try a different template this morning to see if works better. sorry for the inconvenience.

Ref. and Cons. got taken over by a Japanese company. I hired GoDaddy to get it back but to no avail.

Best to you, as ever.

Ilíon said...

I know: isn't it the most amazing thing to imagine that Christ is going to build his church on the "rock" of men, we who are "shifting sand" or "dust in the wind"?

Jesus was punning, as he so frequently did. In this case, he was using Simon's nickname, the Rock, as the basis of his pun -- and I personally think he was calling Simon a "Blockhead", as we might say -- "Simon, dear Rock (Blockhead), human wisdom did not reveal to you that I am 'the Christ, the Son of the Living God', but rather God Himself did; and on the Rock of this truth I will build my Assembly/Congregation, and it shall prevail over Hell."

The "this" upon which Christ will build his Church is not Peter, a mere man -- and it certainly isn't a bureaucracy claiming organizational descent from Peter -- the Rock upon which Christ's Church is built is the truth and declaration that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the Living God".

If Jesus is *not* "the Christ, the Son of the Living God", then there can be no Church!

Really! This isn't rocket science! The *only* reason there is any dispute over this passage is because a certain well-entrenched bureaucracy intentionally muddies the waters, using that confusion from which to assert its authority over the souls of all men.

Ilíon said...

"Ref. and Cons. got taken over by a Japanese company."

Tsk! Well, I did think the writing looked Japanese, rather than Chinese.

I've modified my blogroll links to reflect your blog's new URL.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Ilion, I agree with you that the rock in view is not Peter. The grammar of the passage forbids it.

Ilíon said...

I expect that the grammar does forbit that understandiong ... but I don't read Greek.

So, for those of us who do not read Greek, we must (ultimately) rely upon (ahem) "Greek reasoning" --
1) as we can plainly and openly reason that the idea of Christ building his Synagogue upon the back of Peter doesn't gibe with the idea that it is in Christ that "we live and move and have our being";
2) as we can plainly and openly reason that there can be no salvation -- and no Church -- unless it is true that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the Living God";
3) as we can plainly and openly reason that since "no man comes to the Father but by me", that there can be no salvation unless ultimately one admits the truth (and rejoices in that truth) that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the Living God";
therefore, via reason, we can understand that "the rock" upon which Jesus said he would build his Church is not Peter, but is rather Peter's declaration that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the Living God".

There is no *point* to Christianity if it is not true that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the Living God"; there is no *point* to Christianity if it cannot reconcile us to God, so that we may be saved from Death.

But, of course, however Christian it is, the Roman denomination is primarily a bureaucracy that outlived its empire -- The One True Bureaucracy -- and the *point* of a bureaucracy is the bureaucracy.

Steray Snyder said...

Four men die in a small plane crash; a Cardinal, a Jesuit, a Franciscan monk, and a Free Mason. Upon approaching the Pearly Gate, they see a true sabra draped with a traditional blue and white prayer shawl standing at the gate's entrance.
With no small amount of fear and dread they ask, "Where is Peter?" Matthew replies, "Where Peter is you can not follow."
The monk asks, "Can I ask what he is doing?"
With a pause that approaches eternity Matthew responds, "He is worshipping the Rock."