Sunday, May 02, 2004

Back to Babylon-1

Traditionally, Roman Catholicism has held that sola Scriptura is an inadequate rule of faith. And a number of one-time Evangelicals have converted to Rome for the same reason. This contention has two parts: (i) that sola scriptura is inadequate and (ii) a Magisterium is the logical alternative to (i). Even if (i) were a sound argument, it wouldn't automatically follow that (ii) is the logical alternative. That demands a separate argument.

I have already examined 10 objections to sola scriptura and found them wanting; now I'll examine the case for the Magisterium—or divine teaching office of the church.

In principle, sacred tradition (inclusive of Scripture) comprises the Catholic rule of faith. In practice, though, what qualifies as authoritative tradition and authoritative exegesis is determined by the Magisterium, headed by the Pope. Therefore, the case for the Catholic rule of faith (sacred tradition) is contingent on the case for the Magisterium, which is—in turn—contingent on the case for the papacy in particular. So this chapter will emphasize the papacy.

I. Supreme teacher in abstentia

According to Catholicism, the Pope is the supreme teacher of the church. But if that were the case, it is passing strange that of the 260 plus men—give or take an antipope—who have occupied the office, not one has been a theologian of the first rank. The intellectual firepower has come further down the chain-of-command, viz., Anselm or Aquinas, Augustine or Bonaventura, Geach or Lonergan, Maritain or Newman, Rahner or Scheeben, Scotus, Suarez or von Balthasar. It seems incongruous, to say the least, that the real shapers of Catholic thought are not the Popes, but lowly priests and laymen, with an occasional bishop thrown in. When papal advisors are more distinguished teachers than the Pope is, it makes me wonder what the job qualifications are for the papacy. It certainly doesn't seem to be based on the principle of merit pay.

But that's not the worst of it. Whenever a case had to be made in defense of papal prerogatives during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, who made it? Wouldn’t the Pope be the natural candidate to present the case for his own preeminence? But, no. Once again, none the big guns were Popes, but men who spoke on behalf of the papacy, viz., Fisher, Eck, Cajetan, Bellarmine and Stapleton. Now if the Pope is supposed to be the supreme teacher of the Church, then why can't he speak for himself? Can't he even make a case for himself? If he isn't up to the job of laying out his own credentials for the job, then what does that say about his credentials for the job?

What would be our impression if a search committee were scheduled to interview a job applicant for a teaching position, yet the applicant didn't show up in person, but sent a spokesman in his place? The Pope flaunts his divine résumé, but then hides behind a phalanx of handlers and spin-meisters.

On the one hand, Luther and Calvin were quite able to make their own case, even though their critics denied the right of private judgment. On the other hand, their critics had to do all the talking for the papacy.

II. Bashful Magisterium.

For a denomination that regards the right of private judgment as so spiritually perilous, the Roman Church has shown itself to be remarkably shy about formally and infallibly committing itself on a wide range of fundamental questions in faith and morals. Why has an ecumenical council never issued an infallible catechism? Why has the papacy never produced an ex cathedra commentary?

But what we instead witness is an organization that brandishes maximal authority-claims while venturing minimal truth-claims. It bears a sneaky resemblance to a psychic who dons an air of superior foresight while remaining strangely vague about names, dates, and places.

Shouldn’t one of the singular advantages of a divine teaching office be to anticipate and head-up a major controversy before it erupts, rather than engage in damage control? How was the Reformation even possible with a living Magisterium on the scene?

III. Without Intertestamental precedent:

A traditional pillar of the papal apologetic has been the contention that unless a living Magisterium, headed by the Pope, existed throughout the life of the Church, the people of God would lapse into heresy and apostasy.

But as a matter of fact, this surmise has already been put to the test. During the Intertestamental period—an interval of about 400 years between the composition of the Old and New Testaments—there was no charismatic office in place to offer the people infallible guidance in faith and morals or unerring interpretations of the law and the prophets. Yet compared with the times leading up to the Assyrian deportation and Babylonian exile, when the people did enjoy special guidance, and went awhoring all the same, this is one of the more zealous chapters in the nation’s history.

During the Intertestamental period, the people’s only recourse was to sola scriptura—which then amounted to the OT canon. In the providence of God, there was nothing equivalent to a Magisterium during the Intertestamental period.

IV. Without OT precedent:

Even during the dispensation of OT inspiration, special revelation was sporadic (cf. 1 Sam 3:1). While the nation as a whole fell away, God’s word sufficed to preserve his elect. Rahner himself admits that, "before the church of Christ this absolute authority of a teaching office did not exist. The OT knew of no absolute and formal teaching authority which was recognized as such. Its ‘official’ representatives themselves could fall away from God, his revelation and his grace," Foundations of Christian Faith (Seabury 1990), 378.

"There was no infallible teaching authority—not even before the death of Christ—in the OT, in the sense of a permanent institution, which had this inerrant character. There were prophets every now and again. But there was no infallible Church," Inspiration in the Bible (Herder & Herder, 1961), 52.

V. Nonconformity in the OT:

Appeal to a magisterium also ignores the tradition of nonconformity in the Bible. As G. B. Caird dryly remarks, "to say that God has committed himself to working through a historical succession, but has reserved the right of departing from this method in exceptional circumstances, is to say that most of the prophets in the Old Testament, and John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul in the New Testament, are exceptions to a divine rule which finds its full expression in the temple priesthood in the one case and in the Sadducees and Pharisees in the other," Our Dialogue with Rome (Oxford, 1967), 65-66.

Old school Catholicism used to appeal to Mt 23:2-3 to prove the existence of a Jewish magisterium. But several comments are in order:
i) One wonders if those who take refuge in this passage are as eager to embrace the string of dire maledictions.
ii) If anything, this passage is a prooftext for the Protestant position inasmuch as the scribes and the Pharisees comprised a lay organization, as over against the priesthood.
iii) This is not intended to be a blanket endorsement of the religious establishment, given dominical criticisms of the same (e.g., Mt 151-14; 16:6,11-12).
iv) The universal quantifier ("everything") in v.3 is hyperbolic, just as it is in v.5.
v) It wouldn’t be possible to carry out the terms of v.3 without further ado inasmuch as there were rival schools within the religious establishment—Pharisees and Sadducees, disciples of Hillel or Shamai, et al. At one point, Paul even exploits this internal division (Acts 23:6ff.).

Some commentators (Carson, France) regard the remarks of Jesus as sarcastic. And that interpretation is defensible.

However, I take them to mean that since the scribes and Pharisees were well versed in the law, they were entitled to a respectful hearing. It's a general, common sense injunction— subject to specific, common sense exceptions.

Oddly enough, the charge in Jude 11 is sometimes attributed to those who were rebelling against ecclesiastical authority. In the very next verse, however, Jude characterizes their activity in terms of "shepherding." Since this was an established term for pastoral ministry (Jn 21:16; Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 9:7; Eph 4:11; 1 Pet 5:2), Jude seems to be targeting errant clergymen rather than laymen.

Because the Roman Church has a low view of providence, she has a low view of Scripture. In lieu of providence, she must substitute some special, makeshift mechanism (the Magisterium) to ensure the indefectibility of the church. But Reformed theology, with its high doctrine of providence, has no need of this stopgap solution. Unlike the ad hoc measures and quick-fixes of so many other theological traditions, the Reformed tradition has a fully integrated theology.

VI. Vox populi, vox Dei?

Vatican II grants that the community of faith is infallible in faith and morals when a popular consensus obtains (Lumen Gentium 12). But if that is so, then why bother with a Magisterium at all?

VII. The Petrine prooftexts:

Catholicism has invoked three Petrine prooftexts in support of papal primacy (Mt 16:18-19; Lk 22:32; Jn 21:15-17). But this appeal falls flat on numerous counts:

1. Non-sequitur:

Even if the passages did imply Petrine primacy, that doesn’t imply papal primacy. We need to distinguish between consistency and implication. As I’m typing these words, it’s raining outside. These two facts are mutually consistent. But my typing doesn’t imply that it’s raining, or vice versa. So even if the claims made for papal primacy dovetail with promises made to Peter, you cant' directly papal primacy from Petrine primacy.

2. Hidden assumptions

Catholicism doesn’t take these texts on their own terms, but has instead allowed the papacy itself to supply the comparative frame of reference. If the papacy didn’t already exist in his mind to color his expectations, a Roman Catholic wouldn’t discover it in these passages, for they’re concerned with the role of Peter, which is historically prior to, and logically independent of, the development of the papacy. Just try that mental experiment yourself. Imagine that you’d never heard of the papacy. Would reading these verses suggest the papacy, all by themselves? You can only "see" the papacy in these verses because you've seen the papacy outside these verses. What a Catholic reader is sees in these verses in not an image of the papacy, but the historical afterimage of the papacy, superimposed on these verses.

3. A double-edged sword.

Ironically, Protestants polemicists have historically employed a parallel mode of reasoning to disprove papal claims by finding Mt 23:8-10, 2 Thes 2:3-4,8-9 and Rev 13:6 fulfilled in the institution of the papacy. So the Catholic appeal cuts both ways. It either proves too much or too little. Its method of papal proof could be redeployed as a method of papal disproof.

4. Mirror-reading

Insofar as you can find a parallel between the Petrine texts and the papacy, that is in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the advantage of hindsight, the papacy has modeled itself on the Petrine texts. Thus, when it reads these verses it sees a reflection of itself staring back. But that's a case of historical impersonation rather than prophetic foresight—like a vaticinium ex eventu. If, after the fact, the cast yourself in the very terms of fulfillment, then—voila! —you see your own face at the bottom of the well.

5. From Peter to papacy—a bridge too far:

Mt 16:18 is the primary Petrine text. But a direct appeal to Mt 16:18 greatly obscures the number of steps that have to be interpolated in order to get us from Peter to the papacy. Let’s jot down just a few of these intervening steps:
a) The promise of Mt 16:18 has reference to "Peter."
b) The promise of Mt 16:18 has "exclusive" reference to Peter.
c) The promise of Mt 16:18 has reference to a Petrine "office."
d) This office is "perpetual"
e) Peter resided in "Rome"
f) Peter was the "bishop" of Rome
g) Peter was the "first" bishop of Rome
h) There was only "one" bishop at a time
i) Peter was not a bishop "anywhere else."
j) Peter "ordained" a successor
k) This ceremony "transferred" his official prerogatives to a successor.
l) The succession has remained "unbroken" up to the present day.

Lets go back and review each of these twelve separate steps:

(a) V18 may not even refer to Peter. "We can see that 'Petros' is not the "petra' on which Jesus will build his church…In accord with 7:24, which Matthew quotes here, the 'petra' consists of Jesus' teaching, i.e., the law of Christ. 'This rock' no longer poses the problem that 'this' is ill suits an address to Peter in which he is the rock. For that meaning the text would have read more naturally 'on you.' Instead, the demonstrative echoes 7:24; i.e., 'this rock' echoes 'these my words.' Only Matthew put the demonstrative with Jesus words, which the rock stood for in the following parable (7:24-27). His reusing it in 16:18 points away from Peter to those same words as the foundation of the church…Matthew's Jesus will build only on the firm bedrock of his law (cf. 5:19-20; 28:19), not on the loose stone Peter. Also, we no longer need to explain away the association of the church's foundation with Christ rather than Peter in Mt 21:42," R. Gundry, Matthew (Eerdmans 1994), 334.
(b) Is falsified by the power-sharing arrangement in Mt 18:17-18 & Jn 20:23.
(c) The conception of a Petrine office is borrowed from Roman bureaucratic categories (officium) and read back into this verse. The original promise is indexed to the person of Peter. There is no textual assertion or implication whatsoever to the effect that the promise is separable from the person of Peter.
(d) In 16:18, perpetuity is attributed to the Church, and not to a church office.
(e) There is some evidence that Peter paid a visit to Rome (cf. 1 Pet 5:13). There is some evidence that Peter also paid a visit to Corinth (cf. 1 Cor 1:12; 9:5).
(f) This commits a category mistake. An Apostle is not a bishop. Apostleship is a vocation, not an office, analogous to the prophetic calling. Or, if you prefer, it’s an extraordinary rather than ordinary office.
(g) The original Church of Rome was probably organized by Messianic Jews like Priscilla and Aquilla (cf. Acts 18:2; Rom 16:3). It wasn’t founded by Peter. Rather, it consisted of a number of house-churches (e.g. Rom 16; Hebrews) of Jewish or Gentile membership—or mixed company.
(h) NT polity was plural rather than monarchal. The Catholic claim is predicated on a strategic shift from a plurality of bishops (pastors/elders) presiding over a single (local) church—which was the NT model—to a single bishop presiding over a plurality of churches. And even after you go from (i) oligarchic to (ii) monarchal prelacy, you must then continue from monarchal prelacy to (iii) Roman primacy, from Roman primacy to (iv) papal primacy, and from papal primacy to (v) papal infallibility. So step (h) really breaks down into separate steps—none of which enjoys the slightest exegetical support.
(j) Peter also presided over the Diocese of Pontus-Bithynia (1 Pet 1:1). And according to tradition, Antioch was also a Petrine See (Apostolic Constitutions 7:46.).
(j)-(k) This suffers from at least three objections:
i) These assumptions are devoid of exegetical support. There is no internal warrant for the proposition that Peter ordained any successors.
ii) Even if he had, there is no exegetical evidence that the imposition of hands is identical with Holy Orders.
iii) Even if we went along with that identification, Popes are elected to papal office, they are not ordained to papal office. There is no separate or special sacrament of papal orders as over against priestly orders. If Peter ordained a candidate, that would just make him a pastor (or priest, if you prefer), not a Pope.
(l) This cannot be verified. What is more, events like the Great Schism falsify it in practice, if not in principle.

These are not petty objections. In order to get from Peter to the modern papacy you have to establish every exegetical and historical link in the chain. To my knowledge, I haven’t said anything here that a contemporary Catholic scholar or theologian would necessarily deny. They would simply fallback on a Newmanesque principle of dogmatic development to justify their position. But other issues aside, this admits that there is no straight-line deduction from Mt 16:18 to the papacy. What we have is, at best, a chain of possible inferences. It only takes one broken link anywhere up or down the line to destroy the argument. Moreover, only the very first link has any apparent hook in Mt 16:18. Except for (v), all the rest depend on tradition and dogma. Their traditional support is thin and equivocal while the dogmatic appeal is self-serving.

6. Tension between Petrine & Papal primacy:

But to put a sharper point on things, every argument for Petrine primacy is an argument against papal primacy since the more that Catholicism plays up the unique authority of Peter, as over against the Apostolic college, the less his prerogatives are transferable to a line of successors. There’s a basic tension between the exclusivity of his office vis-à-vis the Apostolate and the inclusivity of his office vis-à-vis the Episcopate.

In the text before us, the promises were made to the person of Peter, in contradistinction—as Catholicism would have it—to the person of James, John, or Paul. They were all apostles. That is not the distinguishing feature. And the Petrine texts don’t draw a distinction between the office and office-holder. Of course, the papal apologist is free to multiply his own distinctions, but these are devoid of textual support.

In fairness, appeal is sometimes made to the Pastorals to justify just these sorts of distinctions. But this suffers from several fallacies:
i) It equivocates over the nature of succession. Even if the Apostles appointed pastors (elders/deacons) who in some sense succeeded them, that doesn’t make them successors in the technical sense of Apostolic succession. As I. H. Marshall remarks, "Certainly the thought of succession is present, but the purpose of ordination is not primarily the handing on of official authority but the safe transmission of the tradition which has been entrusted to the official. It is a succession in teaching, not in official authority," Pastoral Epistles (T&T Clark, 1999), 514.
ii) When Catholicism treats Timothy and Titus as role-models of apostolic succession, they place a false construction on the Pastorals, for as Gordon Fee has pointed out, these men were never office-holders, but itinerant troubleshooters (cf. God’s Empowering Presence [Hendrickson 1994], 757,772).
iii) The charism in question is a functional enduement rather than an office, since one doesn’t "fan into flame" an "office" (2 Tim 1:6-7), and since an office is external to the holder and not internal (1 Tim 4:14: "the gift that is in you"), ibid., 773; cf. 786-88.
iv) Neither is this charism conferred by an ordination ceremony, since the laying on of hands doesn’t bear an instrumental sense, ibid., 774-775.
v) Furthermore, this does not indicate the transition of power, since Paul is alluding to an event that had taken place at an earlier point in Timothy’s life and Paul’s ministry, ibid., 775

Along the same lines, appeal is sometimes made to the ecclesiastical terminology of Scripture to justify apostolic succession (e.g. Acts 1:20; 1 Tim 3:1). But it is a blatant anachronism to equate this primitive usage with the highly refined conception of church office in later Catholic theology. As F.F. Bruce remarks, "Lit. ‘overseership,’ not in a technical sense. The meaning here (‘responsibility’) is much the same as that of diakonia in vv.17 and 25, and of apostolh in v.25," The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary (Eerdmans, 1990), 111.

Likewise, Trent references the Pastorals (1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6-7) to prove that the imposition of hands is a sacramental action with special reference to holy orders (23:3). But this appeal is seriously underdetermined by its chosen prooftexts:
i) The imposition of hands does not carry a uniform significance in Scripture. Rather, its setting varies from ritual, judicial, benedictory, and pneumatic to therapeutic and commissive contexts.
ii) Its subjects range from children, animals, coverts, blasphemers, and ministers to the ill and infirm.
iii) Its officiates are not limited to a clerical class.
iv) Even in commissive contexts (Acts 13:3), there is nothing to indicate that this represented an unrepeatable action. It is anachronistic to construe such passages in light of a more formal conception of office
and ordination. Paul and Barnabas were certainly involved in major ministry before this special commissioning.
v) To imply that reception of the Spirit is contingent on the imposition of hands (canon 4) disregards the difference between an established believer and a convert to the faith (Acts 8:17-18; 19:6). The spiritual character of a candidate was a prerequisite for, rather than result of, this gesture (Num 27:18ff.; Acts 6:3ff.).
vi) Even commissive contexts do not imply a transfer of official duties. To take a paradigm case, Joshua was the successor to Moses, and the imposition of hands served to signify that transition of power. Yet Joshua didn’t succeed Moses in his official capacity as a federal head or prophet of God.

Appeal is sometimes made to the Isaian background of Mt 16:19 (cf. Isa 22:22) as a precedent for apostolic succession. But as E.J. Young has noted,
"this office is not made hereditary. God promises the key to Eliakim but not to his descendants. The office continues, but soon loses its exalted character. It was Eliakim the son of Hilkiah who was exalted, and not the office itself. Eliakim had all the power of a "Rabshakeh," [the chief of drinking], and in him the Assyrian might recognize a man who could act for the theocracy...Whether Eliakim actually was guilty of nepotism or not, we are expressly told that at the time ("in that day") when they hang all the glory of his father’s house upon him he will be removed. Apparently the usefulness of the office itself will have been exhausted...The usefulness of Eliakim’s exalted position was at an end: were it to continue as it was under Eliakim it would not be for the welfare of the kingdom; its end therefore must come," the Book of Isaiah (Eerdmans 1982), 116-18.


  1. Relavant to this discussion are Steve Hays' critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura, "By Scripture Alone," and Blosser's rebuttal, "Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses)."

  2. > "of the 260 plus men—give or take an antipope—who have occupied the office, not one has been a theologian of the first rank."

    To be fair to Rome, this statement is arguably only 260/261ths accurate now that Josef Ratzinger has the chair.