Areas of disagreement between Roman Catholics and evangelicals
(2) A different view of ultimate authority
Related somewhat to one’s understanding of church history is one’s viewpoint of ultimate authority as quotations above suggest. From the Catholic side there is the general sentiment that since Christ formed the church (a single church) it inherently carries His authority. Perhaps the general Catholic thought is summed up with these words: “They [Protestants] are not clear-headed enough to perceive that a proper notion of the Church is a necessary stage before we argue from the authority of Christ to any other theological doctrine whatever.”1 Adding some intensity, the same writer goes on to claim that “the Protestant had no conceivable right to base any arguments on the inspiration of the Bible, for the inspiration of the Bible was a doctrine which had been believed, before the Reformation, on the mere authority of the Church; it rested on exactly the same basis as the doctrine of Transubstantiation.”2 Karl Rahner, the famous Catholic theologian, says the same truth in a different way. He speaks of the two aspects of the faith of a Christian. Those two aspects are faith in Christ and faith in the church, not faith in God’s Word:
It makes no difference…whether he believes in the Church first and then in the rest of matters proposed for his belief because these come from the Church, or whether he first attains to belief in Christ and his word, and goes on from there to belief in the Church as founded by Christ…On the basis of faith in Christ the believer includes the Church too in his faith in such a way that it immediately becomes the direct medium and rule of faith as such.3
Consequently, there can be no question that in Catholic understanding the church functions as final authority in life today. Demonstration of this belief was attempted during the Counter Reformation by officially changing the list of books in the approved canon of Scripture for Catholics. In this way, even God’s Holy Word is thought to be under the power of the Roman Church.
The biblical evangelical does not dismiss church tradition and church authority as if they have no role to play in life. Paul told the Thessalonians, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thess 2:15). Here the idea of tradition in the sense of apostolic teaching is clear. From the vantage point of our historical moment, we are talking about biblical teaching. It just does not include the concept of “Roman” authority and centrality. In addition, Paul commands Titus, who apparently serves as a church emissary from the apostle, to “rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15). Elders are to be obeyed according to the author of Hebrews as they minister the Word of God to their flocks (Heb 13:7, 17). However, there is no passage of Scripture which actually conveys the notion of a global network of bishops headed up by one man who mediates the interpretation of this word.
On the other hand, there exists a host of passages which lead to the conclusion that the Bible is the final and ultimate authority or, in other words, Sola Scriptura. We will mention a few of them here. Christ Himself taught the truth of the Bible in dealing with His adversaries (Matt 22:41-46). In fact, he told His enemies that they were wrong because they did not know the Scriptures or the power of God (Matt 22:29). In addition, Jesus eluded the temptations of the devil by using the authority of the word of God found in the OT (Matt 4:1-11). He taught us that the Scriptures can not be broken (John 10:35) and thus possess accuracy and authority. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commanded us by His own authority to interpret the Scriptures correctly. Christ taught us in the account of the rich man in hades that the authority of the Bible was sufficient to lead a person to believe in the resurrection when even the experiential witness of a real resurrection could not led a person to faith (Luke 16:31). Similarly, the apostolic teaching is that the source of the Bible is God (2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:19-21). When the Bible speaks, it is God speaking. Therefore, there is a better case to be made for the Bible as infallible, ultimate authority and not the church.4
(3) A different view of Bible and canon
At the Council of Trent in 1547 the Roman Catholic Church added thirteen books to the list of canonical books.5 These books historically have been called the Apocrypha or “books hidden away.” While some of the books in the Apocrypha and also in the Protestant canon of sixty-six books have been disputed going back to the early days of the church, Protestants have generally rejected the Apocrypha and not recognized it as part of Holy Scripture. However, is there a real basis for making the claim that the Protestant Bible is superior to the Catholic Bible? If one holds to the church as the ultimate authority and views that church as the Roman Church, the pronouncements of the Roman Church would hold sway. Biblical evangelicals, however, settle the question by pointing to the Bible itself and to the Catholic’s traditional belief that the Scriptures reliably give us the words of Jesus.
What is important to note is that all of the books of the Apocrypha were written before the time of Christ and some of them are actually additions to existing OT books. They were generally written during the four hundred silent years before Jesus. Consequently, they were all in existence at the time of Christ. This presents a quandary for the Roman Catholic position. Which OT did Jesus use? What books did He consider part of the Word of God up to that time? All of the biblical teaching points in the direction that Jesus approved of the Jewish canon of His day, which was the OT minus the Apocrypha. In Luke 11:51 Jesus teaches that His contemporary Jewish generation will be held responsible for the shedding of the blood of the prophets from Abel to Zechariah. Interestingly, the expression from Abel to Zechariah is similar to our Christian statement “from Genesis to Revelation” to mean everything in the Bible. Here Jesus refers to Genesis where the first man was killed (Abel) and 2 Chronicles, the last book in the order of books in the Hebrew OT, in which Zechariah is mentioned. The statement clearly shows the commitment of Jesus to Jewish understandings of canon in His day. Similarly, in Luke 24:44 Jesus teaches the disciples that “everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Here the traditional three-fold organization of the Hebrew Bible is in view, which in Jesus’ time did not include the Apocrypha. Consequently, Roman Catholics have the dilemma of having a different OT than the one Jesus used. In this matter, evangelicals believe themselves to be on higher ground in agreement with the direct teaching of Christ.
Next week: Roman Catholicism’s different view of justification
1 Knox, Belief of Catholics, 104.
2 Ibid., 106.
3 Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, trans. David Bourke (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 7:106-107.
4 More specifics about apostolic succession will hopefully be dealt with in a follow-up article to come.
5 The thirteen books are Tobit, Judith, Additions to Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremiah, Song of the Three Children, Story of Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, Prayer of Manasseh, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees.
Dr. Michael Stallard is Dean at Baptist Bible Seminary. He also teaches dispensational premillennialism, ecclesiology, Baptist distinctives, and theological method. He has authored several articles for publications such as The Journal of Ministry and Theology, The Baptist Bulletin, The Conservative Theological Journal, Bibliotheca Sacra, and The Dictionary of Premillennial Theology. He has also written a commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians published by AMG Publishers. Dr. Stallard is a frequent speaker at the Conservative Theological Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and Pre-Trib study group. He has several years of experience as a senior pastor, including involvement in inner-city church planting. He is the founder and director of Mission Scranton and the founding pastor at New Life Baptist Church in Scranton, PA.