Friday, November 10, 2006

The Three-Legged Stool of Catholic Christian Authority: a Brief Explanation

This is something I don't understand about Catholic teaching. I have been told that Catholics consider scripture, tradition and papal declarations of equal authority.

The third is usually stated as the Church or the Magisterium, but papal declarations would be under that category. There are also infallible (dogmatic) and non-infallible declarations, and areas where Catholics are free to have various opinions. All kinds of biblical arguments can be produced as to why we believe this.

But what to you do when they are in conflict? Please correct me if my understanding of Catholic doctrine is wrong.

What we believe in faith is that they don't and won't conflict. They are seen as pieces of a whole, just as Protestants believe (in faith) that Scripture doesn't contradict itself, and is a harmonious, coherent whole, all the while devoting whole books (e.g., Gleason Archer) to supposed "Bible difficulties" which present a challenge to many readers and believers. One can believe in faith that an answer to a "difficulty" exists, and at the same time not deny that there is (on the surface, anyway) a seeming difficulty that requires much scholarship and study to resolve. Otherwise, Bible study wouldn't be nearly as much fun, right? :-)

Sacred Scripture is true, and God's inspired, infallible, inerrant written Word and revelation. Catholics have always believed this. A scholar like Harold Lindsell, former editor of Christianity Today, in his book Battle for the Bible, joyfully acknowledged that fact, and then demonstrated how many Protestant denominations have eroded or denied this doctrine of faith.

The Bible is central and primary in Catholicism as well, but not exclusively authoritative - it is not isolated, or by itself (Scripture Alone) nor can it even logically be so. We maintain that this was the apostolic and patristic viewpoint, and that of Augustine and Aquinas, which we preserve unchanged. The Bible itself points to Tradition and the Church as authoritative (see, e.g., the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15); it doesn't teach that it alone is the Christian's sole ultimate authority, and, of course, it was the Church which declared the parameters of what books were Scripture in the first place. I believe R.C. Sproul said that the canon was "a fallible collection of infallible books." This poses a huge epistemological problem for the Protestant, in my opinion.

Scripture is what it is, in its essence, and always has been, yet the Church was necessary to settle a matter (the canon) which had indeed achieved a general or broad consensus, yet not without many deviations from what we now regard as Scripture (some Fathers thought 1 and 2 Clement, or the Epistle of Barnabas were Scripture, etc. And books like Revelation and James were very late in being generally received as such).

So we believe in faith and from reason and Scripture, that God will protect the Church from error in its dogmatic pronouncements, because we believe there is one institutional Church (and "one faith," as Paul states), handed down (again, according to Paul) from the Apostles, with which other Christians can implicitly be connected, to more or less degrees (particularly by baptism and common beliefs, such as the tenets of the Nicene Creed).

Protestants believe that God protected Holy Scripture from error, by means of inspiration, even though sinful, fallible men wrote it. Catholics agree with that, and also believe that God (the Holy Spirit: John 14-16) can protect His Church from error (a merely "negative" and preventive guarantee), by means of infallibility (a lesser supernatural gift than inspiration), even though sinful, fallible men are involved in it.

If God can do one thing, He can do the other. Since we see these things indicated in Scripture and Apostolic Tradition, we believe them. It takes much faith, because now we are dealing with a human (yet divinely-guided) institution, yet this faith is not without much biblical and reasonable grounds. And we think it is demonstrable that the Apostles and Fathers agreed with these notions of authority.

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 4 November 2001.

1 comment:

Khass said...

I am a catholic and from Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro but I never thought if a question like this..Mind boggling.. I hope I can help you with your inquiry. Nice job Christian.