In the preceding articles, I give my reasons for coming to believe the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, the one and true Church, apostolic and universal, founded by Christ and containing all sacred truth.
Readers of a modern frame of mind, as is only natural for those raised in English-speaking hence Protestant cultures, will no doubt be nonplussed that the majority of this argument dwelt on the question of who has the authority to define Christian teaching.
(Readers of a post-modern frame of mind, or non-mind, will have a negative emotional reaction to the word ‘authority’ because it has been associated by their indoctrination with the concept of tyranny and despotism, and they will make squawking noises like a duck in reaction, just as they have been conditioned or programmed to do by their programmers. We need not dwell on the delicate distinction between legitimate versus illegitimate authority, because it is neither necessary nor possible to answer an sentimental reflex with a reasoned argument: all that happens is the post-modern mind will dimly apprehend other words in the argument to which it has a stereotyped and pre-programmed reaction of sentimentality, and again will produce duck-noises, regularly as a dog salivating to Pavlov’s bell. I address no argument to anyone in this frame of mind.)
From even before I was a Christian, I have never sympathized with the argument that one can accept the writings of the Church as authoritative, but reject the authority of the Church that authorized them.
The logical difficulty is that the canon of scripture is neither self-evident nor self-defining, nor did the writings appear out of nowhere for no reason, nor is there any independent witness to their authenticity, aside from the Church. The men who wrote the Epistles and the Gospels are properly understood as Christians writing to Christians, since there was only one Church in those days before the schism with the Nestorian and the Orthodox: and the men who protected, circulated, copied and sanctified those writings as official Church teaching were Christians as well.
The claim that the current Catholic Church is not the legitimate heir to that Primitive Church consisting of St Peter and the Apostles, their disciples and so on, whether true or false, has no bearing on this question of the authenticity of the Gospels. My claim is that faith in the authority of the Gospels logically implies faith in the authority of the men that wrote them, and the authority of the men that sanctified them and declared them canonical, and declared other writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas, to be fraudulent.
The only reason why you or I or any might has reason to know Christ exists at all, much less what He said and did and taught, is because of the witness of the Church preserving the record. If you think the witness is lying or telling a half-truth, rejecting Christianity wholly is a logical option, but accepting the written record as sacred, while rejecting as apostate the single and sole source on whose authority the sacredness of scripture rests, is flatly illogical.
If you do not believe something said aloud by a notorious story-teller like me, why would you believe it merely because I wrote it down on a letter? If you believe what is written on the letter because it has the imprimatur of some authority, let us say that it was notarized, why would you take that notarization as a sign of authenticity if it turns out that the only Notary-Public in existence is me, the selfsame story-teller?
The reason why the main point of the argument turns on the question of teaching authority is because that is the cause of the schism severing Catholic from Protestant. In legal terms, it is what a lawyer would call a question of standing. Who has the right to complain that Church teachings are heretical? Who has the right to correct the Church? Who has the right to start a new Church if the old Church proves incorrigible? Who has the right to define what Church teaching should be?
My argument is that there are only four possibilities:
One can say that the Church has that right, either by a consensus of the laity, or if no consensus emerges by the formal ruling of an official body, synods or councils or archbishops speaking from the Chair of Peter, no doubt aided by the Holy Spirit. (Whether the Archbishop of Rome possesses a supreme authority over the archbishops of Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Constantinople is a separate question.) This is the orthodox position.
Or one can say that every man has the right to define what the Church ought to teach, each man in his own private conscience, again no doubt aided by the Holy Spirit. This is the theory of individual Magisterium.
Again, one can say that the Church had the right to define what the Church ought to teach up to a certain point in history, and then lost that authority. This is the theory of the Apostate Church.
Finally one can say that prophets and wonder-workers such as Mohammed or Mary Baker Eddy or Joseph Smith have this authority, due to their possession of miraculous or prophetic powers. This is the argument from prophecy, also called Montanism.
Each argument turns in a different set of facts and involves a different theory of the case. Let us deal with them in reverse order:
The argument from prophecy or miracle depends on two things (1) whether the miracle was performed as described or the prophecy came to pass or both and (2) whether the doctrine preached by the prophet is coherent with other and previous prophets. If a new prophet or dreamer of dreams contradicts things said by Moses and Isaiah and Saint John the Beloved Disciple, then he is asking us, in effect, to follow after other gods, and scripture warns us not to do this.
The main defect from the argument from prophecy is that prophets founding new churches have no more ability to pass along their prophetic character to their immediate or remote successors than Saint Peter to pass alone his sainthood. Mohammed wrote the Alcoran, for example, but Omar and Ali did not.
Now, while the successors to the First Church of Christ Scientist and the Church of Latter Days Saints make the claim — which any man is free to investigate — that their practitioners and prophets can produce signs and wonders and prophecies as a continued evidence of their divine authority, I see no logical reason on that ground to disbelieve that St Peter validly ordained Linus, or Linus ordained Cletus, and so on to the present day. If anything, St Peter is making the much more mild claim: not that his saintly miracles are passed along from one minister to the next, but only his ministry is passed on from one minister to the next. And in terms of the total number of saints and miracles and signs and wonders, naturally an ancient Church with a billion members has a much greater repertoire of signs and wonders than a denomination one twentieth her age and one hundredth her size.
The argument that the Primitive Church was valid up to a certain point, then turned apostate, and cannot be reformed ergo a new church founded on different grounds with different disciplines, organization, and different sacraments is fundamentally an historical argument. That argument turns on the date selected for the point of no return. Any findings of the Church back when she was primitive and pure, or even back when she was only somewhat corrupt, are still authoritative; whereas those after the date are suspect.
A problem with that is constitutional and foundational. If the Primitive Church was founded by Christ and His Apostles, and the Apostate Church cannot be reformed, then the new church has to be founded anew: but no Augustinian Monk or English Monarch has the right to found a new Church, unless he can show apostolic succession or some other valid warrant from God. It is analogous to the incapacity or abdication of a king: if the king abdicates, the crown does not pass to the first wandering scholar who wants to erect his own kingdom to suit himself. Likewise here, no Reformed Church which does not have the character and structure of the First Century Church can make a claim to be Reformed, because it is not a return to the original forms allegedly abandon through corruption and apostasy.
A second problem is that while the offending doctrine, whatever it is, might be purged from the new and reformed Church once it is proved that the old Church was wrong to teach it — let us say that the Council of Nicene was wrong in anathematizing Arianism, for example —the new Church has no authority to reform the usages, disciplines, or manners of the Church, such as by abolishing bishops or admitting priestesses or refusing baptism to infants, unless that usage sprang from that doctrine. In other words, it is perfectly logical for an Arian Church to anathematize Trinitarianism if indeed Arius was correct and orthodox and the Council of Nicene was incorrect and heterodox: but the new Church cannot reform practices and disciplines present in the Primitive Church, because the purity of the Primitive Church is the axiom on which the abolition of the impure Apostate Church is based.
A third problem here is that an investigation of the Primitive Church, or what records remain, does not logically allow for the rejection of earlier usages, such as infant baptism or the adoration of Mary, while also allowing for the acceptance of later usages, such as the doctrine of the Incarnation, or the Trinity, or the establishment of the canon of scripture.
While it is logically possible that the Church, as she fell ever deeper into corruption, made few and then more heretical decisions early on by popular consensus, and just so happened to hit upon some few orthodox decisions later on by Episcopal council and vote, the practical effect of the stance that the Pure Church had some bad doctrine and the Apostate Church had some good doctrine, is the same as awarding each individual man the right to decide what the Church should teach. The stance requires every single decision and doctrine to be revisited, every case reopened, and all the evidence and arguments to be re-examined. The main difficulty in reopening the Arian controversy, for example, is that both Arius and Athanasius are dead, and the documents on which they relied are lost, and the entire culture and language is changed.
The difficulty of awarding each man the right to define Church doctrine is that it is tantamount to abolishing the Church. The body of Christian belief is corporate and public. It is not like a belief in a philosophical or scientific theory, which is a matter of private opinion.
In that respect, the body of Christian belief is more like loyalty to the flag. If you do not believe that it is self-evident that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness, no matter what it says on any legal document or voting roll, you are not an American. Likewise, if you do not confess Christ died and rose again in the flesh, ascended and will come again, if you do not accept Him as Lord and Savior, you are not a Christian. Likewise again, if you do not confess and believe all that the Catholic Church teaches, you are not Catholic. The question for the Reformers is what should the Catholic Church teach?
In all this, one position that cannot logically be maintained is that the Church decisions of the first Ten Centuries of the Christian Era were authoritative, so that, in fact, the sacred canon of scripture is just as the Church defined it, and the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity are authoritative, but that the doctrine of Justification defined by the Council of Trent is non-authoritative.
There is more and more clear justification in scripture for the teachings of Arius or Nestorius than for the teachings of Luther. The only logical ground on which to reject heretical teachings, aside from reopening and revisiting each case separately, is to accept the rulings of the authority as authoritative. To accept all rulings as authoritative except only that one which runs afoul of your personal interests, insight, belief, preference or perspective is rank hypocrisy, if you do not extend the same courtesy to the Nestorians and Arians.
If you do extend the same courtesy to the Nestorians and Arians, this is tantamount to abolishing the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church; and, once again, if you abolish the Magisterium, you cannot rely on it.
And even less logical position is to maintain that salvation is by scripture alone, and then NOT to take the canonical rulings of the ancient Church as authoritative, but to edit and redact scripture according to your own personal will.
Luther had no more right to throw away books of the Bible, and declare them unsacred, than Joseph Smith had a right to add the Book of Mormon, and declare it sacred.
Mohammed did both, declared the whole body of scripture unsacred, while adding a book of his own devising, the Alcoran: but his Alcoran contains references and highly edited versions of the stories from the Old and New Testaments, the very books he claims none of the faithful should read or tolerate.
As a logical matter, one cannot claim sola scriptura, the doctrine that all Church doctrines are contained in scripture, as a Church doctrine, because scripture does not recite the doctrine of sola scriptura.
The one passage in 2nd Timothy which Protestants tents to quote as proof test says that scripture, meaning the Old Testament, is useful for correction and reproof and growth. Saying something is useful is not the same as saying all non-scriptural sources are unnecessary.
And in the alternate, even if this is what the passage meant, since Timothy’s own letter was not scripture at the time, ergo by its own logic, the doctrine of sola scriptura would be unnecessary. If it is unnecessary to salvation to believe that all non-scriptural sources are unnecessary to salvation, then the Church, which teaches all things necessary to salvation, needs not to teach this.
That this doctrine was invented by a man who redacted the scripture, removing books that had been present for over a thousand five hundred years, merely makes the doctrine one of grotesque hypocrisy. *