The Church of the New Testament
Tim Wells (GSXR on #CathApol)
The Bible is Authoritative
The Bible is the inspired Word of God. This is attested to by the Bible itself as well as by the Church.
2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;
17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (NASB)
The Greek term used here for “inspiration” translates literally as “God-breathed.” The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), paragraph 9, from Vatican II states: “Sacred Scripture is the Speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.” Dei Verbum, paragraph 11 states: “The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For Holy Mother Church relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn. 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:19-21; 3:15-16), they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.”
Where the Bible Came From
The Canon of God is Scripture. Scripture can exist in both spoken and written form. In the Old Testament (OT), the scriptures were communicated to prophets, men of God. These men spoke the word orally and transmitted it orally. Later, scripture was committed to writing. The writings were carefully copied from scroll to scroll, down through the centuries, and depending on the age, new writings were preserved following periods of new revelation. New public revelation closed with the death of the apostles of Jesus Christ, and the writings of the Canon of God were recognized and canonized in the Bible.
The definition of the Canon of God is that which is God-breathed, that which represents the written Speech of God. There may be a great number of good, accurate, and useful writings that are not the Speech of God, but these writings are not Canon. There is debate about what properly represents Canon and what does not. Canon is timeless in the sense that when Paul was writing in 2 Timothy 3:16, this passage does not only refer to the Old Testament. All scripture is God-breathed. Those writings which are God-breathed are scripture. Therefore, even though the New Testament (NT) had not all been written and canonized yet, 2 Timothy 3:16 does not exclude those writings in this statement. We do not even know if Paul knew he was necessarily referring to other contemporary and future NT writings (including his own writings) when he wrote this statement, but certainly God knew that these NT writings were/are scripture and includes them in His inerrant and infallible statement in 2 Timothy 3:16.
Probably the earliest preserved document we have that reflects official Church dogma on the Canon of Scripture dates to 382 A.D. Pope Damasus, in the “Decretal of Gelasius” lists the Canon of Scripture, which is the same Canon used today by the Catholic Church and affirmed at the Councils of Florence in 1442 and Trent (session IV) in 1546. The Canon of Scripture sent by Pope Innocent I in 405 to a Gallican bishop in answer to an inquiry also corresponds to our modern Catholic Canon. The Councils of Hippo and Carthage in 393, and subsequent Councils of Carthage in 397 and in 419 all reaffirmed the Canon of Scripture that continues to be used in Catholic Churches today (Council of Carthage, Canon XXIV). St. Augustine, among others, lent his support to these councils.
Canon XXIV (Council of Carthage)
That nothing be read in church besides the Canonical Scripture.
Item, that besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in church under the name of divine Scripture.
But the Canonical Scriptures are as follows:
Joshua the Son of Nun.
The Kings, iv. books.
The Chronicles, ij. books.
The Five books of Solomon.
The Twelve Books of the Prophets.
Ezra, ij. books.
Macchabees, ij. books.
The New Testament.
The Gospels, iv. books.
The Acts of the Apostles, j. book.
The Epistles of Paul, xiv.
The Epistles of Peter, the Apostle, ij.
The Epistles of John the Apostle, iij.
The Epistles of James the Apostle, j.
The Epistle of Jude the Apostle, j.
The Revelation of John, j. book.
Let this be sent to our brother and fellow bishop, Boniface, and to the other bishops of those parts, that they may confirm this canon, for these are the things which we have received from our fathers to be read in church.
Harmonization of the Text of the Bible
There are several places in the Bible where an apparent inconsistency may be evident in the plain reading of the text. Since we are dealing with God-breathed, inerrant scripture, we must understand to the fullest extent possible how these accounts can be harmonized. If an explanation suffices to explain the apparent inconsistency, then the burden of proof lies with the person asserting that it is a contradiction, to prove it is a God-breathed contradiction. There are many passages that may be hard to understand, but this is foretold in the Bible already (Acts 8:30-31, 2 Peter 3:16).
An example of harmonization might be applied to the following two statements. First, John F. Kennedy served in World War II, but did not serve in the Military following his service in that war. Second, John F. Kennedy was Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Military from 1961-1963. Both statements are true and might seem contradictory to someone unschooled in the organization of the Military and Presidency in the United States. Obvious to any American is that the President is a civilian and also the Commander-in-Chief of the military. Would this seem so obvious for someone far removed from American society, particularly if that person was familiar with a very different organization of their own state military system?
An example from scripture is the question of who carried the Jesus’ cross to Calvary. The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all name Simon of Cyrene (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26) as the bearer of the cross. Jesus carries his own cross in John 19:17. If we do not allow for harmonization of the scriptures, we might be tempted to say that these accounts are inconsistent with one another. There are at least two rather simple explanations. First, Jesus, having been physically abused and beaten by his captors, may have collapsed under the burden of carrying the cross, or simply may have been too physically weak to carry it at first, and therefore, Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service. Or, the cross may have been carried in two beams, Jesus carrying one and Simon carrying the other, with the cross being nailed together at the site of crucifixion, just before Jesus himself was nailed to the cross. The synoptic gospels tell one aspect of the story, while John emphasizes another. They are not directly contradictory as this harmonization shows.
This example from the synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John regarding the carrying of the cross should also illustrate the concept of the use of the word “alone” or “only.” For example, reading the Gospel of John in isolation, one might conclude that only Jesus carried the cross, or stated another way, Jesus alone carried the cross. Reading Matthew, Mark, and Luke, one might say that only Simon of Cyrene, or Simon of Cyrene alone carried the cross. Obviously, these statements are incorrect if we believe in harmonization of scriptures and the inerrancy of scripture. We must say that both accounts are true. Both Simon of Cyrene and Jesus carried the cross. This is critically important in understanding many points of difference among Protestants and Catholics. For example, Catholics and some Protestants may assert that we are saved by Baptism (1 Peter 3:21), but they would not say that we are saved by Baptism alone. Catholics and some Protestants may assert that we are justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24, emphasis mine), but they would not assert that we are justified by works alone. On the other hand, all true Christians will agree that we are saved by Grace alone; we are saved by Christ alone, and we are saved by God alone, as long as all of these terms are properly understood (i.e. they are not exclusive terms of one another).
Interpretation of the Bible
Once we have established that the Word of God was handed down to us perfectly and inerrant, we have to establish how we know what the Word of God is, and how it is preserved, transmitted, and ultimately, interpreted. Why for example, do the people who claim to be the people of God, disagree on what the Word of God is? How does the Word of God come to us, and how do we recognize the Word of God? We will may follow the principle set forth in Isaiah:
Isaiah 28:9 To whom would He teach knowledge, And to whom would He interpret the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just taken from the breast?
10 For He says, "Order on order, order on order, Line on line, line on line, A little here, a little there.'
Who has the authority to properly interpret sacred scripture? Reasonable people might disagree upon areas of central importance, such as Baptism, the Trinity, and what we must do to be saved. Since these are issues of such critical importance, do we have to put our faith in mere men, and man’s ability to understand and interpret scripture on his own? Of course, we don’t study scripture on our own; we study under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
1 John 2:26 These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you.
27 As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him.
Now this is where the rubber meets the road. Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and many, many more, all feel they are right because they feel they are studying under the inspiration of God and have the conviction of God in their hearts. But they cannot all be right in the broad sense of what they believe, because they openly contradict one another and accuse each other of teaching false doctrine. So only one is right, or none are right. (Most are right about one thing. Most teach in one form or another that we must live our lives according to principles of moral good; this is the ecumenism that ties us all together. This is what the Catholic Church has tried to impress upon our separated brethren during and since Vatican II.)
So who is right? Obviously, everyone cannot be doctrinally correct when they are teaching contradictory things about central issues of faith, morals, and salvation. We cannot accuse the Holy Spirit of leading people astray, so there must be some authoritative way to know who holds the keys to the truth. Fortunately, the Bible itself gives us the answer.
In NT times and today, we have the same model that we had in OT times; God has established a Church, instituted by his Son, Jesus, founded on the Apostles, and invested with authority to recognize, preserve, and teach his Word. In OT times, we had a priesthood and prophets. They too were founded by God and invested with authority to speak, preserve, and teach his Word.
God can give authority to his high priests and prophets in the OT, and he can make that authority unconditionally binding for the people. Similarly, he can designate unconditional authority on the apostle Peter, if he chooses, or his NT Church, meeting in authoritative council, and make that authority binding on the consciences of the people. God can do so much more though. Through the sending of the Holy Spirit, he can protect the authority that he himself established, from teaching error in matters of faith and morals, and leading the sheep astray. God can and does protect the very words of his prophets and apostles; this has been taught since OT times.
1 Samuel 3:19 Thus Samuel grew and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fail.
Let us look to the New Testament for the founding of Christ’s Church.
Founding of the Church
Jesus founded his Church on earth. This is evident in Matthew 16:18: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (KJV). Protestants dispute whether Peter himself is the rock on which the Church is built, or whether or not Peter passed on his authority, but I will return to this later. For now, it is sufficient to say that Jesus did indeed found his Church here on earth.
There are two basic understandings of the Church, (Greek, ekklesia, “the called out ones”) the visible and the invisible. Both understandings are not difficult to appreciate. The invisible Church is the people that make up the body of Christ, all true Christians wherever they exist. The invisible Church is not a building, a structure, a political organization, or a hierarchy. It is merely the bond that Christians have with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. As such this Church cannot be seen from the street. It can be seen in the charitable works of people as they live and practice the Christian faith.
The visible Church is the authoritative Christian Church that Jesus Christ established in the NT. This is the church we see meeting in council in Acts 15. This is the Church founded on the apostles who were the first bishops of the Church. This Church is seen clearly in 1 Timothy 3, where we see the offices of bishop (1 Timothy 3:2, KJV) and deacon (1 Timothy 3:8), and also in chapters 4-5 where we see the presbytery (1 Timothy 4:14), and elders (1 Timothy 5:1, 5:17). Philippians 1:1 refers to bishops and deacons; Titus 1:5 speaks of the ordination of elders, and Titus 1:7 states that a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God. 1 Timothy 3:15 refers to the Church as the pillar and foundation of the truth. Scripture clearly depicts a visible church, founded by Christ on the apostles.
In NT times, the visible church and the invisible church were the same, inseparable. This was also the understanding of the early apostolic church fathers, those who came after the apostles but were contemporaries with some of them. The witness of the early church fathers is particularly important, because the NT had not yet been fully recognized as part of the Canon of that which is God-breathed. There was dispute during apostolic times about the proper inclusion of some books in both the OT and the NT. Not everyone agreed that the books of Esther, Hebrews, and Revelation were inspired, to name a few. How did the Church know that the Gospel of Matthew was inspired, and the Gospel of Thomas was not? But the living Tradition of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ had to be infallibly preserved during this time, the first four centuries of the early Christian Church, until the Church could ultimately and authoritatively recognize the Canon of God-breathed Scripture.
The living Tradition of the Church had to faithfully and infallibly preserve the Gospel, the teachings that flowed from it in the writings of the apostles, at least until the NT Canon was officially recognized by the Church, meeting in Council, and organized and bound into the Bible. Doctrines such as the Trinity and the God-breathed inspiration of some of the early writings (those that would eventually be dogmatically defined in Church Councils as Canon), had to be known to the Apostles, passed on to their successors, preserved by the power of the Holy Spirit, and taught to the people for centuries before the Church would have in her possession a bound and officially recognized, completed Bible. Therefore, the witness of these early Church fathers, who came after the Apostles and preceded the full recognition of the Canon of Sacred Scripture, provides to us an important affirmation of the structure of the Church as Jesus established it. Does the early Church reflect the visible, structured Church we see in the NT? Or is an invisible Church, devoid of apostolic authority, the rule? If we accept that the Church in this era did carry apostolic authority, what do the earliest preserved apostolic documents show us?
Clement of Rome, 4th Bishop of Rome, and a contemporary of Peter and many of the original apostles (probably writing sometime in the period between 70-96 A.D.; while exact dates do not exist, Peter was the first Bishop until his martyrdom probably in the year 67 A.D. and was followed by Linus, then Anacletus, then Clement), writes, in his epistle to the Corinthians:
42:1-2 The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ has done so from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ.
42:4-5 And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons.
44:1-2 Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. (Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I, Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc. 1997)
Regarding the unity of the Church, Clement echoes Paul (Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13):
46:5-9 Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us? And have we not one calling in Christ? Why do we divide and tear to pieces the members of Christ, and raise up strife against our own body, and have reached such a height of madness as to forget that “we are members one of another? ” Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how He said, “Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones. Your schism has subverted [the faith of] many, has discouraged many, has given rise to doubt in many, and has caused grief to us all. And still your sedition continueth. (Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I, Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc. 1997)
Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, writes in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, about 110-115 A.D.:
8:1-2 See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.
9:1-2 Moreover, it is in accordance with reason that we should return to soberness [of conduct], and, while yet we have opportunity, exercise repentance towards God. It is well to reverence both God and the bishop. He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil. Let all things, then, abound to you through grace, for ye are worthy. Ye have refreshed me in all things, and Jesus Christ [shall refresh] you. Ye have loved me when absent as well as when present. May God recompense you, for whose sake, while ye endure all things, ye shall attain unto Him. (Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I, Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc. 1997)
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, A.D. 177, writes in Book III of Against Heresies:
3:1:1 For the Lord of all gave to His apostles the power of the Gospel, through whom also we have known the truth, that is, the doctrine of the Son of God; to whom also did the Lord declare: “He that heareth you, heareth Me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me, and Him that sent Me.”
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed “perfect knowledge,” as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God. Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church.
3:3:1 But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place, and yet again from the Pleroma, but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner! It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. (Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I, Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc. 1997)
There are many more examples, but these will suffice for now. Note also the testimony of Irenaeus in the second paragraph cited: “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect...” (emphasis mine). Irenaeus, living in the second century, would undoubtedly have access to many ancient writings that are not available to us today. There are other early writings that testify to the existence of the Hebrew origin of the Gospels. (For example, in the fragments of Papias we have: “So Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew language...”) Many modern Bible scholars today still claim that the Gospels were written in Greek, and they base much of their understanding of doctrines on the basis of the Greek grammar; unfortunately, the premise is wrong. All the Gospels (except the introduction to Luke), Acts, and perhaps other books of the NT were written in Hebrew or Aramaic, and later translated into Greek (see “The Birth of the Synoptics, by Jean Carmignac, and “The Hebrew Christ,” by Claude Tresmontant for a more in depth discussion of this topic).
The Catholic Church referred to in the writings of Ignatius is the Universal Church of Jesus Christ, “universal” being the meaning of the word “catholic.” It is not generally disputed among Protestants and Catholics that the early NT Church was universal or catholic; it is disputed that the early catholic Church is the Catholic Church of today. Catholics maintain that the early catholic Church and today’s Catholic Church are in fact one and the same Church. Protestants maintain that at some point, the Catholic Church fell away from the faith. Some Protestants go so far as to say the Catholic Church became apostate, but within the medieval Catholic Church, there continued to exist true Christians. These true Christians within the Church, along with some true Christians outside the Church, made up the invisible Church. Protestants therefore are forced to recognize that there was a visible Church in the NT, as established by the above scriptural quotations and affirmed by the early church fathers, but maintain that the visible and invisible separated, perhaps gradually, and then perhaps more fully at the time of the Protestant Reformation, and that Christ’s promise in Matthew 16:18, that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church, was really a promise to the invisible Church, but not to the visible one.
Now we will fall back to scripture. Does the Bible teach this concept of an invisible Church apart from the visible Church? In order for the gates of hell to prevail against the visible church, the visible Church must be clearly separated and distinguished from the invisible Church in scripture, and it must be clear that Jesus’ promise was not to this visible Church. Sola scriptura (scripture alone) will not help here, because this argument cannot be sustained from scripture alone. Therefore sola scriptura fails the Protestant position that champions it. On the other hand, sola scriptura gives support to the Catholic position. Why? Because if a doctrine is not taught in the Bible, it is not binding on the consciousness of the Christian, according to sola scriptura. The separateness of the visible and invisible Churches is not taught anywhere in the NT. Reading through the NT, the commissioning of the apostles by Jesus and the authority that he gave to them (Matthew 16:18; 18:18; Luke 10:16; John 13:20; 20:21-23), the meetings in council (Acts 15), the exhortations to maintain unity of the faith (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 11:17-19; 12:24-48; Ephesians 4:11-14; Romans 15:5), and the structural establishment of a presbytery, with bishops, deacons, and elders (1 Timothy 3), all point to a unity of the visible and invisible churches. The promise made in Matthew 16:18 is to Christ’s Church, not to one aspect of his Church. The Church is referenced by Jesus, that he will build his Church upon “this rock,” and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Later in the NT we see the establishment of the Church, through the commissioning of the apostles, the gathering at the day of Pentecost, and the meeting at the Council of Jerusalem. The Church is always referenced in a singular sense, exhorted to remain unified, and described in terms of her visible apostolic structure. (What about the churches in Revelation 2,3? These are not separate Churches; they are all one and the same body of Christ, being different branches of the same vine. They are also criticized for tolerating false, divisive teachings from within their ranks in Revelation 2:15; 20, and for having dead, imperfect, and lukewarm works in Revelation 3:1; 16.) Going beyond sola scriptura, we also see this maintained in the writings of the early church fathers, during the time before the NT was recognized as Canon, when no one seriously disputes that the sacred traditions were still being passed on in spoken form and through the councils of the Church (the first council being the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15).
What about Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Isn’t this a clear reference to the invisible church, apart from the visible church so clearly established elsewhere? Context is almost always critically important in interpreting scripture, and the context here is quite telling. Immediately preceding this passage we read:
Matthew 18:15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.
18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
The context of Matthew 18:20 is the visible Church. Matthew 18:15 begins with a trespass by a brother, and the instruction to resolve it privately. Verse 16 instructs to bring witnesses if it cannot be resolved privately. Verse 17 instructs that if it still cannot be resolved, then what? Take it to the Church. This is not the invisible Church that is being discussed here. This leads right into Verse 18 where the rest of the apostles are given similar authority to that which Peter was given in Matthew 16:18-19. (Similar authority? Peter was given the keys of the kingdom and heaven, in addition to this authority. Here the apostles are given the same authority to bind and loose as a part of their function in the Church, but not individually, and no keys.) Matthew 18:19 states that if two shall agree on earth, it shall be done in heaven, and then we come to Verse 20 where we have the famous passage of two or three gathered in his name, there he will be among them.
The context is the visible Church. The authority is given to the apostles in Matthew 18:18, and verses 19-20 show that the authority is to the apostles meeting together, in council, as seen later in scripture in Acts 15, at the Council of Jerusalem.
This is not to say that the Holy Spirit does not descend upon a group of Christians meeting for a prayer meeting, a Bible Study, or a worship service. Of course the Holy Spirit may descend upon any Christian, even when he is alone, and Jesus can walk with us daily, when we are gathered in his name and when we are not. Catholics and Protestants both accept this. But Matthew 18:20 is not a reference that distinguishes an invisible Church apart from Jesus’ authoritative visible Church founded on his apostles, and, since the invisible is not taught separately from the visible, this verse does not provide a basis for stating that Matthew 16:18 is not a promise to Christ’s visible church. So stating would really amount to an abrogation of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of Hell would not prevail against his (visible) Church.
This Church authority is real, and may be exercised for serious matters. Consider the preceding context to the above passage:
Matthew 18:10 Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.
11 For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.
12 How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?
13 And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.
14 Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.
In Matthew 18:15 when Jesus speaks of the trespass, he is immediately following this passage. The context here is leading the little ones, the sheep astray. Who are Christ’s sheep? What does it mean for one of his little ones to perish. Are not Christ’s sheep the ones he came to save? Verse 11: “For the Son of man is come to save that which is lost.” (Yes this is a disputed verse, not being extant in all the ancient manuscripts that we have, but it fits the context quite well, and verses 10, 12-14 are not disputed.) If we lead even one of these little ones astray so that they should perish, this must be an extremely serious matter. And then we have verse 15 about the brother that offends thee, and in verse 17, if he will not hear the Church, he will be cast out as a heathen. What is Jesus talking about here? How about preaching heresy, leading his sheep astray, so that they should perish? What does it mean to perish? John 3:16, a beloved and time-honored passage: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Perish means to not inherit eternal life, in other words, to be condemned to hell. The context and teaching of Matthew 18:10-20 is the apostolic authority and duty of the Church to teach sound doctrine, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to root out heresy, and ex-communicate those who persist in teaching heretical doctrine, so that not one of Christ’s sheep should be led astray and perish, and not inherit eternal life.
Where has scripture led us? To the founding of a visible Church by Jesus, on his apostles, that can and does teach authoritatively to lead the sheep (us) to the shepherd (Jesus Christ). Precept upon precept, line upon line, no circular arguments here. One straight line starting with the Bible as the inspired Word of God, leading us to a promise that Jesus would establish his Church upon the apostles, that this Church is visible, and will exist down through the ages because the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. This is affirmed by the teachings of the earliest preserved writings of the early church fathers who succeeded the apostles. We could almost stop right here and declare victory for the Catholic Church. What other visible Christian Church has existed down through the ages, since the time of the apostles?
So who has the authority to interpret scripture authoritatively? The Bible gives us the answer to this question in the above passage from Luke 24:44-45. The apostles have that authority. Now the logical steps. Jesus commissioned his Church, as we have seen. This Church was founded on the apostles. He opened the apostles minds to the understanding of the scriptures; this he did personally for them. Does scripture say whether he gave them perfect or imperfect understanding of the scriptures? Not explicitly. But I will agree with Irenaeus, referenced earlier, when he said in reference to the apostles: “For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed ‘perfect knowledge,’” because this is a quite logical inference from scripture itself, and it is preserved in the tradition of the early church as referenced here.
Jesus was commissioning his disciples to go out into the world and preach the Good News. The NT had not been written yet at this time in history. The apostles we know preached the Gospel from the OT. We have the example of the Bereans in Acts 17:10-11, testing the preaching of Paul by the scriptures, that is the OT, which constituted the scriptures they had available to them at the time. I will accept the inference that Jesus does his work perfectly, and that he gave his apostles a perfect understanding of the sacred scriptures in all their senses, literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. Scripture does not necessarily say that he gave the apostles understanding of all scripture, but it should be clear that the scriptures he gave them to understand, they would have understood perfectly. I do not rule out that the apostles did understand all scripture perfectly, but it is probably not critical to our understanding of sacred scriptures to speculate about the potential understanding of the apostles in all areas of the OT, which had already been written, and the NT, which had yet to be written. It is sufficient to say that in everything in scripture the apostles did understand, they understood perfectly. This is a necessary precept to understanding how the apostles could preserve the sacred traditions of the early Church, and pass it on to their successors, during the first four centuries of the Church before the Bible was completely written and recognized as such as the Canon of God.
It also would be quite arrogant on the part of any modern biblical scholar to assume that he or she actually understands scripture better than Peter, Paul, or any other ancient apostle of Jesus; the apostles understood scripture far better than we ever can hope to—after all, they were taught by Jesus Christ himself and by direct revelation from God. The successors of the apostles would not have understood scripture like the original apostles, because the successors did not have direct revelation from Jesus the way the original apostles did. But the apostles did faithfully passed on the sacred traditions of Christ’s Church. Jesus himself would remain with his Church (Matthew 28:20), and the Holy Spirit would be the guide, that would allow the successors to the apostles, the early church fathers, to continue to preserve the living traditions of the Church.
How could it be otherwise if the Church is to be the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). So there is a straight line, from sola scriptura, to a visible Church with apostolic foundation, to a direct revelation of understanding of sacred scripture from Jesus himself, and the commissioning and authority to spread the Gospel to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19) and a promise in the book of Matthew from Jesus to his apostles, that he will remain with them “even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus has promised that the gates of Hell will not prevail against his Church and that he will be with them always to the end of the world.
The Authority of the Church as it relates to Sacred Scripture
This often comes up often in discussions of the Catholic Church, because the Church denies the doctrine of sola scriptura. The Church may be accused of putting herself above the scriptures, defining first what sacred scripture is, secondly what sacred tradition is, and third, how both should be interpreted. Essentially, that may be said to put the Church in a position above the scriptures, because the Church has licensed herself to add to and/or misinterpret scripture. This position has been referred to as sola ekklesia, the “Church alone,” and even as sola Roma (see “The Roman Catholic Controversy, by James R White, p. 80).
This would be a real fear, if the Church could be proven guilty of one of the two charges above, that is adding to the scriptures that which does not belong, or dogmatically defining incorrect interpretation of scripture. These two charges are not possible to prove against the Catholic Church however. In order to attempt to prove either of these two charges, Protestant criticism over the years has taken at least three forms. One is to misrepresent what the Church teaches about herself, in effect, setting up a straw man, then knocking it down, but not addressing the true teachings of the Church. The second is to confuse the authoritative with the non-authoritative in the Church, and make examples of errors that persons within the Church have made in areas that are not dogmatically defined, or where individuals have erred when not speaking dogmatically for the entire Church. These errors are then incorrectly held up to be examples of a failure of the “infallibility of the Church,” when in fact they sometimes do not represent genuine errors at all, or they are examples of the errors of individuals within the Church, but not examples of an erroneous, dogmatic (i.e. ex cathedra, from the “chair of Peter”) teaching of a Pope when teaching a matter of faith or morals. A third and perhaps most honest criticism, comes from those persons who make an effort to honestly understand the Catholic position on points of doctrine in scripture, and then offer alternative explanations for these same scriptural passages, and try to argue why their own interpretation is superior.
The first and second types of argumentation are of really no consequence for the Catholic (or non-Catholic) who understands the Catholic position well. Unfortunately, many Catholics are not well catechized, and it is a rare non-Catholic that really has a solid understanding of the Catholic theology. Therefore, numerous Catholics and most non-Catholics are subject to being misled by biased arguments that misrepresent major Catholic beliefs, and often history itself, regarding the occurrence of certain historical events that support the Catholic position.
The third type of argument is the only one we really need concern ourselves with, because this is the only intellectually honest type of argumentation or debate. Non-Catholics offer us an alternative explanation for the scriptures with regard to the true identity of Christ’s Church and the nature of her authority, as well as myriad differences in teachings regarding central aspects of the Christian faith, such as the means by which we are saved, whether or not there is a process of purgation by which we are made perfect prior to or as we enter heaven, whether or not baptism is regenerative, whether or not we are once saved, always saved or can fall from grace, etc.
Problems for the these other positions first of all, is that there is no unity of faith on these central doctrines of salvation, and secondly, there is no authoritative basis for us to accept these interpretations either, other than our own faith in the individual’s ability to accurately interpret scripture. Working carefully from the Bible, it may seem possible to “prove” a variety of heretical doctrines; simply converse with a knowledgeable Baptist, then a Mormon, then a Jehovah’s Witness, then an Orthodox Jew, then a Muslim to illustrate this point. Nearly all of these groups will condemn every other one. But if you find persons in these respective faiths who are quite knowledgeable about the Bible, then they might all give you quite convincing arguments from the Bible that their own arguments are the true ones. They all contain elements of truth, but are incomplete in their entirety, lacking in something, the fullness of the understanding of the faith through Christ’s Church. The real question falls back to authority. A non-Catholic may give a fairly convincing presentation of his or her interpretation of scripture, but who is to say one is right and the other is not. Everyone of them lacks the mark of Biblical authority. None of them claim to be heirs to the Chair of Peter, which Jesus so clearly commissioned in Matthew 16:18-19. Only the Catholic Church bears the apostolic mark through history, unbroken all the way back to this moment.
Does scripture teach us that sola scriptura itself, is sound doctrine? Does scripture teach that we all have the authority to definitively interpret scripture for ourselves? Why was it important for Jesus to open the eyes and minds of the disciples to an understanding of the scriptures, and to establish a living tradition in a living Church? By the way, what is “Sacred Tradition” anyway? Doesn’t the Bible condemn tradition in more than one place (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13; Colossians 2:8)? The Bible condemns placing the traditions of men above the sacred traditions of God, not all tradition. Otherwise, why would we have 2 Thessalonians 2:15 (“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.”)? And multiple other scripture citations regarding preservation and passing on the word of mouth teachings, that is the sacred traditions (1 Corinthians 11:1-2; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; Philippians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 1:13).
Sacred Tradition is the Word of God that was preserved and passed on in the universal Catholic Church, that which was not written down initially or explicitly in Sacred Scripture. Prior to the writing of the NT, the teachings of Jesus were preserved in Sacred Tradition. Once the NT had been written, but before the Church had officially recognized and proclaimed which of the many period writings were the Canon of God, and organized them into the Bible, the teachings of Jesus and the understanding that some apostolic writings were “special,” continued to be preserved in the Sacred Tradition of the Church. There was not universal agreement among all the Bishops of the Church, and the process of recognizing the Canon of the NT and OT both was not completed until the 4th century, but it ultimately fell to the Church to gather this information together and proclaim it unto the faithful. And once the Canon of Scripture had been recognized, the meanings and proper interpretations of many of the passages had to be preserved in within the Church and guarded against the intrusion of heresy. This the Church has faithfully done for about the past 2,000 years and will continue to do until the end of time because Jesus promised to remain with her until then (Matthew 28:20).
Getting back to sola ekklesia, let me say that the Church definitely does not place herself above scripture. The Church was empowered by God to recognize scripture. The Church does not author God-breathed Canon, but through the apostles of the NT Church, God inspired the NT (as through the prophets of the OT, God inspired and delivered the OT Canon). While it is not correct to say that the Church wrote the NT on her own, it is correct to say that God authored and delivered to us the NT through the apostles/witnesses that were within his Church. Jesus founded the Church to be his instrument on earth, guided by the Holy Spirit, to recognize Sacred Scripture, keep Sacred Tradition, and teach scripture and tradition correctly to his sheep. In much the same way that God spoke through the prophets of the OT, he now speaks through the Church of the NT. When the OT prophets spoke and began or concluded with, “thus says the Lord” (Exodus 5:1; Joshua 24:2; Isaiah 7:7, and many more), we can be certain that what followed was the accurate and infallible Word of God. These OT prophets were not in a position to be above the Word of God; they had been commissioned by God to deliver the Word to his people, and God protected their speech (1 Samuel 3:19). In much the same way, the Church has been empowered by Christ to recognize, deliver, and interpret his Word to his people on earth today. Only because Jesus invested the apostolic Church with this authority does the Church exercise it, and according to God’s plan, the Church will exercise it faithfully.
What would have happened if Isaiah just decided on his own one day to go before the people and become a false prophet, and began with the statement, “Thus says the Lord,” and then proceed to teach some false tradition of man, solely on his own authority? There would have been a potential crisis of the faith. But Isaiah could not have done that. Through a combination of his service to God, and God’s ability to protect his own Word in his servant Isaiah, Isaiah was not empowered to go before the people in his divinely established position as a prophet and deliver false prophecy. Likewise, the NT Church cannot dogmatically define infallible doctrine regarding faith or morals to the people of God—modern day Christians.
Did some of the ancient Jews come to Isaiah and accuse him of sola ekklesia, or sola Isaiah? Perhaps some did, we do not really know, but we do know that if they did, they would have been wrong, and may have paid a price for it. We know what did happen to the Korah, in Numbers 16. Listen to what they said to Moses and Aaron in Numbers 16:3: “They assembled together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (emphasis mine). It sounds like they were accusing Moses and Aaron of sola ekklesia, or sola Moses, doesn’t it? This is exactly what some many accuse the Catholic Church of today. I will skip to verse 32, to the outcome of the Korah; the reader may be interested in reading the entire story. The same story is also cross-referenced in the NT in Jude 1:3-11.
Numbers 16:31 As he finished speaking all these words, the ground that was under them split open;
32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men who belonged to Korah with their possessions.
33 So they and all that belonged to them went down alive to Sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.
It is a gross misrepresentation to accuse the Church of sola ekklesia, just as it was for the Korah to accuse Moses of sola Moses. Moses spoke with the authority of God only because God spoke through him, and thereby invested him with that authority. The apostles spoke with the authority of God because Jesus invested them with the understanding of his Word, and the commandment to continue the work that Jesus himself established, the building up of the Body of Christ, through his Church, which he himself established on the apostles. Those who would intentionally rebel against the authority of the Church, and contribute to divisions within Christ’s Church, cut themselves off from the Church, and do so at the peril of their own eternal salvation, just as the Korah did when they cut themselves off from Moses and Aaron, and accused them, they in whom God had established authority, of exalting themselves above the congregation of the Lord.
Jesus did not give us the Church is be an oppressive master, to rule over us; he gave us the Church as a wonderful gift, to lead us to him, to teach us to worship, and as a means of communicating his grace to us. What leads Christians to rebel against the Church? Pride, deception for some, addiction to sin for others. Many ex-Catholics feel they never really knew Jesus in the Church, but then found him in a Protestant denomination. Undoubtedly this is true for many of them. The fault does not necessarily lie with the Church however. They may have been taught improperly at times, or poorly catechized, or maybe many were young, and just didn’t pay attention or really take heed to what they were supposed to be learning. Some were caught up in their sins, and the addiction to sin kept their hearts hardened to what the Church was trying to teach them. The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary, for many truly may become a vain repetition (Matthew 6:7) for them, rather than the heavenly prayer (Revelation 4:8, Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 1:26-49) that they are supposed to be, meant to be contemplated, reflected upon, to draw us closer to God. Unfortunately, so many young people really don’t know their faith, never take the time to learn it or try to live it, and then when they are older, are susceptible to falling into any number of different heretical or apostate religious systems.
In Matthew 16:18-19 Jesus first commissions his Church, to be founded on Peter (“Rock”), and promises to him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and also the power to bind and loose on earth and in heaven. In Matthew 18:18-20, this same authority is extended to the rest of the disciples together, not individually, and not the keys. This is the commissioning of the visible Church, the divine body of Christ with a visible head, Peter, and a visible council, the disciples. These disciples will later commission new bishops, deacons, elders, etc. to teach and guide the faithful authoritatively, to perpetuate the Church “even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20; Acts 1:20; 2 Timothy 2:1-2).
The Church therefore is given her authority by Christ, not by exalting herself into a position of sola ekklesia. The disciples are given a divine gift to understand the interpretation of the Word of God (Luke 24:44-45). This gift of understanding would of course have included an ability to know what scripture is. The ability to separate out the books which represent the Canon of God from those writings which, while some may be well and good, are not God-breathed. This understanding would have included the ability to perfectly understand the correct interpretation of God-breathed scripture, lest we accuse Jesus of imparting imperfect understanding. And since the Word of our Lord Jesus Christ had not yet been written in the forms of the Gospels yet, and because the apostles themselves had not yet written their own Canonical books, they had to have an understanding of the oral nature of the Word of God, that is the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus, which they of course, did have, what we know today as Sacred Tradition.
It therefore follows that the Church does have authority, given to her by Christ himself, to recognize Sacred Scripture, to define and interpret Sacred Scripture for the children of God, Christ’s sheep, and to recognize and define what is Sacred Tradition. Sola ekklesia? No, not any more than sola Moses or sola Isaiah. Nothing more than the faithful exercise of the authority that Christ established in his Church as a means of revealing to his people the fullness of his Word and the proper teaching of sound doctrine and the fullness of the Christian faith.
Let us turn now to the scriptures to see some of the many teachings which support the concepts presented above. In Matthew 5:13-14, Jesus is preaching the Sermon on the Mount. He has just finished the beatitudes (verses 3-12) and now he speaks to his disciples: “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.” The city set on a hill foreshadows Christ’s Church, his visible Church; it is on a hill and cannot be hidden.
In Luke 10:16, Jesus is commissioning the seventy. He invests them with authority in much the same way as he commissions the disciples later: “He who hears you, hears me; he who despises you, despises me, and he that despises me, despises the one who sent me.” How much stronger can these words be?
In 2 Corinthians 10:8, Paul speaks of the authority of the apostles. He clarifies that there is indeed authority, but notes that it is for our own good, not for our destruction. “For even if I boast somewhat further about our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be put to shame”.
Ephesians 4:11-12, Christ’s visible Church is again being described along with her mission. In Ephesians 4:13-14 we find the theme of the necessity to achieve a unity of the faith, so we are not tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, whereby we may be deceived:
Ephesians 4:11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers,
12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;
13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming;
In Luke 8:10, Jesus is teaching in parables. He says to his disciples: “And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.” The disciples are given the power to know and understand; others are not.
2 Timothy 4:2-4 warns about the necessity to teach sound doctrine, that is, the doctrines that Jesus invested in the apostles. We are warned about going to other teachers, outside of the apostolic Church:
2 Timothy 4:2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.
3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires,
4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.
Note the words in verse 3, “…in accordance to their own desires,” How many times have I heard from a faithful Protestant, about the difficulty they might have had in finding a Church they liked, particularly after they have moved from one location to another. These Protestants look for a Church primarily based on fellowship with people they enjoy, and conformity with the individual doctrines they want to believe. Catholics do not generally have a problem finding a Church in accordance to their likes and desires. They go to Christ’s Church to worship God, according to the prescription provided by Christ’s Church. Fellowship is important, but it is secondary to the primary purpose of going there to worship first.
2 Peter 1:19-2:1 also warns us against private interpretation of the scriptures, outside the teaching authority of the Church:
2 Peter 1:18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.
19 So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.
20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation,
21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
2 Peter 2:1 BUT false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.
In 2 Peter 3:15-16, it is written:
2 Peter 3:15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you,
16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.
Some things are hard to understand. If this were not the case, there would not be literally thousands of Protestant denominations since the Reformation. By some estimates, there have been as many as 23,000 to 26,000 denominations within Protestantism since the Reformation began. The Bible itself exhorts us to remain unified in our faith (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 3:3; 11:17-19; 12:24-28; Ephesians 4:11-14; Romans 15:5). As has been previously mentioned, non-Catholic Christians disagree about many of the central aspects of the faith. Some Protestants believe that baptism plays a role in our salvation; others deny it. Some believe that Christ died for only some of us here on earth (a fundamental precept of the reformed doctrine of TULIP, the L is for the Limited Atonement of Jesus Christ), others believe he died for all of us. Some believe in eternal security, that once you are saved, you are always saved and cannot lose your salvation, others believe you can fall from or lose grace. There are thousands of differences that separate us from one another. While most of them will profess sola fide (faith alone), they don’t all necessarily mean the same thing by it. While most profess sola scriptura (scripture alone), they all have their own traditions, many of which are gifts from the Catholic Church, but they will not generally admit to this truth.
More on Sacred Tradition
Sacred Tradition is a fundamental precept of the faith. In discussing this we must carefully distinguish between the traditions of men, and sacred tradition. Why would the Bible say in Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” And then follow in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 with: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” The distinction is between traditions of men, which are not always well and good, and Sacred Tradition, that which is given from God and preserved in the oral tradition of Christ’s Church. Jesus makes this distinction in Matthew 15:1-9 (the same scene also told in Mark 7:1-13).
Matthew 15:1 THEN some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said,
2 Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.
3 And He answered and said to them, Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?
4 For God said, "HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,' and, "HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH.'
5 But you say, "Whoever says to his father or mother, Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,
6 he is not to honor his father or his mother.' And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.
7 You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you:
8 "THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME.
9 "BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.'
Jesus condemns traditions of men here, not all tradition. Tradition may be tested by Sacred Scripture; it cannot contradict or invalidate scripture. This was believed and taught by the apostles and continues to be believed and taught in the Catholic Church today. Jesus and the apostles were able to teach the Gospel both from the OT (John 5:46-47) and from the oral tradition much of which would later be written down as the NT and recognized by the Church as Canon. Not everything would be written down however (John 21:25), and this is one reason why the Catholic Church does not affirm the doctrine of sola scriptura. That which is written down is not always self-interpreting. But the Church does affirm that the scriptures are sufficient to equip the man of God for every good work, as the Bible says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Why? First of all, the Bible points to and leads one into Christ’s unified and apostolic Church, as has been shown. Secondly, all of the central doctrines of the faith do appear in scripture, some explicitly; some are only implicitly supported by statements in scripture. But all of the doctrines are echoed in scripture, in the various senses that scripture is properly interpreted, literally and spiritually, including allegorical, moral, and anagogical. The living Sacred Tradition of the Church complements Sacred Scripture by supplying the historical background to many of the doctrines, filling in details not always presented explicitly in the Bible, and perhaps most importantly, preserving the proper interpretation of difficult to understand scripture in the teaching magesterium of Christ’s living, visible Church, to teach the faith soundly, so that every person may come to a faithful and accurate understanding of Jesus, and his wonderful plan for our salvation.
Some have argued that in John 21:25, (which states, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.) that this just refers to things we don’t need to know, like the color of the apostles’ eyes or hair, or what they ate at each meal in their lives (see again, “The Roman Catholic Controversy,” p. 57). This is a specious argument, and does injustice to God-breathed Sacred Scripture, by making light of what it really says. John is telling us in plain language that there is much preserved in the tradition of the Church, but that it is too much for him to include in his short book. He is hitting the highlights of his journey with Jesus, and communicating what God wants us to have in specific written form about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus here on earth, for our sakes. John is not referring to the rest of the Bible; he is referring to the acts and life of Jesus, as recorded in his gospel. We only need to step into the other three Gospels to find many important things that God preserved in writing for us that are not recorded in the Gospel of John. And we can step to Acts 20:35 to find an important saying of Jesus that is not recorded in any of the four Gospels, that “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” There is much that is faithfully preserved in the Sacred Tradition of the Church that is not explicit in Sacred Scripture, but perhaps the most important Sacred Tradition is the proper literal and spiritual interpretations of scripture.
2 Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.
1 Thessalonians 2:13 For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.
2 Timothy 1:13 Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.
The Primacy and Office of Peter
Let us now return to Matthew 16. This passage is not the only passage where the primacy of Peter is found, but it is the most clear.
Matthew 16:13 When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
20 Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ.
In Matthew 16:13, Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus puts the question to the disciples, “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?”
In verse 16, Peter speaks for the disciples, as is characteristic, and confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. The focus here and the context is on Jesus himself. In verse 17, the focus begins to change, as is often characteristic of a two-way conversation. Jesus now addresses Peter directly, and gives him a blessing. Peter is blessed both because God has honored him by revealing to him the identity of Jesus, the Christ, and also because here, Jesus is clearly giving him a blessing with the words, “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona..”
Now we step right into verse 18 where Jesus is clearly addressing Peter, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus undoubtedly is looking right at Peter and as he is telling him these things. Verse 19, “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
If I am having a discussion with one of my older children, and say to him, “I am giving you the keys to the house while I am gone, and you will be in charge until I return,” who is the emphasis on, me or the child? Jesus is giving Peter a clear and unambiguous mandate here. The context starts with Jesus, shifts to Peter as Jesus directs his words to Peter personally, and then shifts back to a general instruction to all the disciples in verse 20, to tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ.
In Matthew 18:18, this same power of binding and loosing is also promised to the other apostles, in almost exactly the same language, except, as has been noted, no keys, and not to them individually. This is the prescription followed by the Church today and in apostolic times. Peter is the leader; the apostles are the bishops which make up the authoritative council. The other apostles do have real authority, meeting together in council as in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, and they have a real leader, Peter, as commissioned here and supported elsewhere in the scriptures.
There are five strong arguments which support this interpretation of Matthew 16:17-19, making it one of the more clear and unambiguous statements in scripture. First, Peter is the first to be commissioned, before the other disciples will be commissioned with similar authority in Matthew 18:18. Second, Peter is given the blessing. Third, Peter is commissioned by name, while the other apostles are commissioned as a group only. Fourth, Peter is given the name, Peter (or Kepha in the Aramaic, Cephas transliterated into Greek, Rock in English), a name that is usually used elsewhere in scripture to refer to God or Jesus himself (Psalm 18:2,31,46; Psalm 19:14; Psalm 28:1; Psalm 62:2,6,7; 1 Corinthians 10:4; 1 Peter 2:6-8; numerous others). Fifth, Peter is promised the keys to the kingdom of heaven, something not promised to the other apostles.
There is the argument from the Greek, that Peter was named Petros (said to mean, a “little stone”), and Christ stated that he would build his Church upon “this rock,” Petra (said to mean, a “massive rock”). First, regarding Petros and Petra, this is most likely a false distinction. As we have seen earlier, it is unlikely that the Gospel of Matthew was even originally written in Greek, and this difference in masculine and feminine gender does not exist for this word in Hebrew or Aramaic. Peter is also referred to as Cephas (Aramaic transliteration of Kepha into Greek) in numerous other passages in the NT (John 1:42; 1 Corinthians 1:12, 3:22, 9:5, 15:5; Galatians 1:18, 2:9-14), identifying this name, Kepha, as the spoken name that Jesus gave to Peter, which clearly means Rock in Aramaic, and would have led to no gender difference in the passage: “...you are Kepha, and upon this Kepha I will build my Church...” The gender difference arises obviously because of the early translator, who translated the Hebrew (or possibly Aramaic) manuscript into Greek, and assigned Petros as the name to Peter rather than Petra because he didn’t want to give Peter a woman’s name! Petra would have been left in place of “this rock” because it is grammatically correct to do so in this instance.
The shift to the third person is also notable. Why say, “...you are Peter and upon this rock…” rather than “...you are Peter and upon you...”? This has been argued in various ways. It is often asserted that when using the phrase, “upon this rock,” Christ as the “chief cornerstone” (Luke 20:17-18, Acts 4:10-11) is gesturing to himself as he is saying this. Another argument is that Jesus is referring to Peter’s faith, not Peter himself, as the rock on which the Church will be built.
It may not be possible to conclusively decide the use of the word “this” in the phrase “upon this rock,” from this passage alone. But several observations seem to make this an extremely thin nail from which to hang the rejection of Christ’s visible Church. First, the entire understanding hangs on the one word, “this.” This is therefore an extremely shaky foundation from which to hang an entire theology, particularly when the Gospel was not even written originally in Greek (on which the grammar hinges, and thus the interpretation of the word “this” in this passage). Part of the argument also involves the use of a supposed gesture Christ may have made to himself, a gesture not recorded in sacred scripture (and thus outside of sola scriptura). The counter arguments are strong, as given in the five responses above, Peter is commissioned first, given the blessing, commissioned by name, given the name, “Rock”, and promised the keys. The commissioning on Peter’s faith cannot really be separated from Peter himself and does not fit the context well, except perhaps in one aspect, if Jesus is commissioning an office as well as the man, Peter. This point is brought out by Stephen K. Ray in his book, “Upon This Rock,” (p. 36, note 37). The commissioning of offices of Peter and the apostles also fits well into the succession to the office of Judas Iscariot following his fall and death, seen in Acts 1:15-26.
The discussion on offices is an important one, referenced in Acts and Psalms 69:25 and 109:8.
Acts 1:15 At this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together), and said,
16 Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.
17 For he was counted among us and received his share in this ministry.
18 (Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out.
19 And it became known to all who were living in Jerusalem; so that in their own language that field was called Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
20 For it is written in the book of Psalms, "LET HIS HOMESTEAD BE MADE DESOLATE, AND LET NO ONE DWELL IN IT'; and, "LET ANOTHER MAN TAKE HIS OFFICE.'
21 Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us --
22 beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us -- one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.
23 So they put forward two men, Joseph called Barsabbas (who was also called Justus), and Matthias.
24 And they prayed and said, You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two You have chosen
25 to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.
26 And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
Psalms 69:25 May their camp be desolate; May none dwell in their tents.
Psalms 109:8 Let his days be few; Let another take his office.
Judas Iscariot died, leaving his office vacant. Peter clearly references this office as well as the need for a successor to this office. Does it make sense that only Judas Iscariot, and not the other apostles, would occupy an office, to be filled by a successor? Does it make sense that the apostles would have successors but not Peter, the apostle that Jesus chose to found the church upon?
There are other passages which support the Catholic position regarding the primacy of Peter. These are dealt with comprehensively in Stephen K. Ray’s book mentioned above, also in “Jesus, Peter, and the Keys,” by Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, and Rev. Mr. David Hess, and numerous other works, many of which are referenced in these two comprehensive books just mentioned.
One more passage will be mentioned here, because it seems sufficiently clear, in context:
John 21:15 So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these? He said to Him, Yes, Lord; You know that I love You. He said to him, Tend My lambs.
16 He said to him again a second time, Simon, son of John, do you love Me? He said to Him, Yes, Lord; You know that I love You. He said to him, Shepherd My sheep.
17 He said to him the third time, Simon, son of John, do you love Me? Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, Do you love Me? And he said to Him, Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You. Jesus said to him, Tend My sheep.
Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him; three times, Peter is commanded to feed Jesus’ sheep. Yes, Peter did deny Jesus three times, and went away that night, crying bitterly after Jesus turned and looked at him and Peter remembered Jesus’ words (Luke 22:57-62). All the other disciples ran away and deserted Jesus entirely however, except Peter, and one unnamed disciple in John 18:15, who followed along behind.
Peter is obviously penitent in this passage in John 21, and Jesus exacts the threefold confession symbolic of Peter’s threefold denial. Three times also, Jesus commands Peter to feed his sheep. Again here, Jesus is addressing Peter directly, face to face. The context is on Peter, his restoration after his fall, after his denial of Jesus. What is he being restored to? His position as shepherd of the flock on earth. After all, who are Jesus’ sheep?
Another argument has to do with the Protestant position that referring to Peter as the Rock on which the Church on earth is built detracts from Christ himself, as the chief cornerstone. This is why we must not confuse the chief cornerstone, Christ with the people that he chooses for the purpose of his work. The commissioning of Peter and the successors to his office does not detract in any way from Christ as being head of the Church. God uses men to accomplish his work here on earth. The entire Bible is replete with examples of this: Moses and the prophets, John the Baptist, the disciples of Jesus, etc. God sent his own Son, Jesus through the incarnation, fully God yet made fully man also. He chose Peter, first among the disciples to be the Rock on which he would found his Church. One other person besides God was given the designation of rock in the OT, Abraham, in Isaiah 51:1-2, the rock on which the nation of Israel was founded. (“Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him.”)
The designation of Peter as the rock does not detract from the primacy of Christ as head of the Church. Christ is head of the Church; the Church is the bride of Christ. There are many other stones in the foundation besides Jesus, who is the Chief Cornerstone. Perhaps the best way to visualize this is as an upside-down pyramid, the tip and first stone in the upside-down pyramid is Peter, settled firmly on the Rock of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is the Chief Cornerstone of the foundation for the entire pyramid, including Peter. The next tier of stones after Peter is made up by the apostles, followed by the priests, deacons, elders, and the of course, the people, the sheep making up the mass of most of the pyramid, the body of Christ. These principle stones in the leadership tier are offices, to be filled at the death of the apostle by the other apostles, just as Judas Iscariot’s office was filled. In this way, Jesus perpetuates his living, visible Church, like a city on a hill that cannot be hidden, here on earth which with he will faithfully remain until the end of the world (Matthew 5:14; 28:20).
These verses are useful to keep in mind along with Matthew 16:18 where Jesus tells Peter that the Gates of Hell/Hades will not prevail against the Church. When I was a high school student, I once attended a seminar put on by a local Seventh Day Adventist church. At this seminar they made much of end-times prophecy, and they felt they could identify the Beast as the Catholic Church and the Pope as the antichrist. One of the more popular passages they quote is the Revelation 17:6-9:
Revelation 17:6 And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. When I saw her, I wondered greatly.
7 And the angel said to me, Why do you wonder? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns.
8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction. And those who dwell on the earth, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will wonder when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come.
9 Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits,
Which city was founded on seven hills? The city of Rome, there probably dating back to the 7th-8th century B.C. Where is the seat of the Catholic Church? Rome! The Pope therefore must be the antichrist and the Church must be the woman of Revelation 17:9!
This subject itself could take volumes to discuss, but a short answer to a short charge is called for here. First of all, the Vatican is a city on a hill, just like in Matthew 5:14, but unlike Revelation 17:9. Rome is a city on seven hills and the Roman empire was undoubtedly guilty of many of the charges leveled in Revelation, such as being drunken with the blood of the saints—including the blood of St. Peter and St. Paul, martyred in Rome during the persecution of Nero. Nero was the person identified in Revelation 13:18 as the “666” (some ancient manuscripts read 616; Karl Keating covers this in detail in his book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, pp.221-222). It would might be a mistake though to limit this identification to Rome alone in this passage and throughout the book of Revelation, as this book is rich with symbolism that has many polyvalent interpretations. The Vatican however is not a city on seven hills, and not even on one of the seven hills that Rome was founded upon. The seven hills of Rome are: Quirinal Hill, Viminal Hill, Esquiline Hill, Palatine Hill, Capitoline Hill, Aventine Hill, and Caelian Hill (“The Atlas of the Ancient World,” by Margaret Oliphant, Barnes and Noble Books, New York, 1998, p. 136; see also, “The Grolier Family Encyclopedia,” Grolier Incorporated 1994, Volume 16, p. 156, and many other general geographic maps and references). All of these hills were present in the ancient city of Rome and are East of the Tiber River. The Vatican is Northwest of ancient Rome and is West of the Tiber River.
Remember also that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. How could this promise of Jesus not be broken if the Church is indeed the beast harboring the antichrist as her head? How could Jesus remain with the Church until the end of the world if the head of the Church is the antichrist and the Church is apostate? Jesus’ promise cannot be broken; the argument that the Catholic Church is the beast or antichrist is therefore refuted.
It may be useful to recall some metaphors of war. After all, doesn’t Satan make war on the children of Jesus—his body, his Church? Revelation 12:17, “And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
Wars can be won by guile. Subvert the opposition’s leadership to your cause and you may win the war without firing a shot. It would be a prize indeed for Satan if he could conquer the Church by subverting the Pope and the bishops, and letting them lead the entire flock into apostasy. But since the promises of Jesus in Matthew 16:18 and 28:20 unconditionally prevent this, and the Holy Spirit also guides and protects the Church, Satan must choose the next available course to him, which is to attempt to destroy the confidence of the people in the Church. By placing the seed of doubt in the minds of the people, and attempting to get them to leave Christ’s Church, and thereby cutting themselves off from the graces of the Church, these lost sheep become easier targets for Satan to make children of the world, rather than children of God.
Convince a child his parents are bad, and the child becomes easier to divert into false causes, false teachings, and sin. I am not saying there are not good and wholesome, honest and true-believing Christians outside of the Church, and the Church herself does not teach that. The pathway is less sure however, for those outside the Church. It is easier to get lost, and not find the way. And those who knowingly and willingly cut them off from Christ’s Church, do so at the risk of their own eternal salvation, because this in and of itself, is an act of rebellion against Christ. This is what the Church means when she teaches that there is “no salvation outside of the Church.” Not that a person cannot be saved if they are not Catholic, but that a person who fully understands and rejects the Catholic Church or intentionally remains outside of her, thereby also rejects Christ, cuts him or herself off from salvation. Luke 10:16, “He who hears you, hears me; he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me, rejects the one who sent me.”
We all have a responsibility as well. To those who have been given much, much will be required (Luke 12:48). This verse can be applied in many ways. How fortunate are we just to live in this time and have access to the Bible, with many varied translations and versions from very readable Bibles like the New American Bible (NAB), Today’s English Version (TEV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), and Living Bibles, to more literal versions, to the interlinear Greek NT (which is probably about as close as we can get to the original Hebrew Gospels today) and interlinear Hebrew OT. In addition, we can benefit from the modern studies of others through the easy and wide availability of books, and in more recent years, the Internet. For those of us with computers, at a touch of a key or the click of a mouse, we can rapidly and exhaustively search the entire Bible, the writings of the early church fathers, and many other rich sources of encyclopedic knowledge on computer diskettes and CD-ROMs.
What responsibility is greater in our life than to learn about the Christian faith, the life of Jesus and our walk with him? What greater gift can we bestow upon our fellow brothers and sisters, made in the image of God, then teaching them about Christ himself? How can we stand before God and say that we didn’t have the time to study his word in detail, and listen to what his apostles and their successors had to teach? Do we stubbornly cling to our own religious system, secure in our “eternal security?” Or do we go out and vigorously “contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3)? A person who does not recognize Christ’s Church can be saved outside of it, but the path is sure within Christ’s Church, and we build up the unified body of Christ by proclaiming Christ’s Church and opening the door for all to see and enter.
Catholic Bibles—versions include the Douay-Rheims Holy Bible, The New American Bible , the New Revised Standard CE, Today’s English Version, and the The New Jerusalem Bible. Study Bibles include valuable explanatory notes and introductory materials to the study of the scriptures.
Theology for Beginners Frank J. Sheed
Theology and Sanity; Frank J. Sheed
A Father Who Keeps His Promises ; Scott Hahn
Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to...; Scott and Kimberly Hahn
Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic; David B. Currie
Evangelical Is Not Enough; Thomas Howard
Catholicism and Fundamentalism; Karl Keating
Not by Faith Alone: A Biblical Study of...; Robert A. Sungenis
Not by Scripture Alone; Robert A. Sungenis
Crossing the Tiber ; Stephen K. Ray
Upon This Rock ; Stephen K. Ray
Faith of the Early Fathers; William A. Jurgens
Refuting the Attack on Mary: A Defense...; Father Mateo
www.americancatholictruthsociety.com - The ACTS website.
www.catholic.com Website for Catholic Answers. Catholic Answers provides a wealth of Catholic apologetic materials as well as books, tapes, tracts, on-line radio shows, etc., all immensely helpful in receiving accurate instruction in the orthodox Catholic faith.
www.tanbooks.com TAN Books and Catholic Book Publisher
www.ignatius.com Ignatius Press, Catholic Book Publisher
Magazines:This Rock, published by Catholic Answers and available through their website.