In my experience with those who wrestle with conversion to Roman Catholicism—at least those who have professed faith in the gospel—the driving theological issue is authority. How can I be certain that what I believe is true?
The gospel of free grace through the justification of sinners in Christ alone moves to the backseat. Instead of the horse, it becomes the cart. Adjustments are made in their understanding of the gospel after accepting Rome’s arguments against sola scriptura. I address these remarks to friends struggling with that issue.
Reformation Christians can agree with Augustine when he said that he would never have known the truth of God’s Word apart from the catholic church. As the minister of salvation, the church is the context and means through which we come to faith and are kept in the faith to the end. When Philip found an Ethiopian treasury secretary returning from Jerusalem reading Isaiah 53, he inquired, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I,” the official replied, “unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30-31). Explaining the passage in the light of its fulfillment in Christ, Philip baptized the man, who then “went on his way rejoicing” (v. 39).
Philip did not have to be infallible; he had only to communicate the infallible Word with sufficient truth and clarity.
For many, this kind of certainty, based on a text, is not adequate. We have to know—really know—that what we believe is an infallible interpretation of an ultimate authority. The churches of the Reformation confess that even though some passages are more difficult to understand than others, the basic narratives, doctrines, and commands of Scripture—especially the message of Christ as that unfolds from Genesis to Revelation—is so clearly evident that even the unlearned can grasp it.
For the Reformers, sola scriptura did not mean that the church and its official summaries of Scripture (creeds, confessions, catechisms, and decisions in wider assemblies) had no authority. Rather, it meant that their ministerial authority was dependent entirely on the magisterial authority of Scripture. Scripture is the master; the church is the minister (for helpful definitions, see page 30).
Three Theses on Sola Scriptura
The following theses summarize some of the issues people should wrestle with before embracing a Roman Catholic perspective on authority.
1. The Reformers did not separate sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) from solo Christo (Christ alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), and sola fide (through faith alone). As Herman Bavinck said, “Faith in Scripture rises or falls with faith in Christ.” Revealed from heaven, the gospel message itself (Christ as the central content of Scripture) is as much the basis for the Bible’s authority as the fact that it comes from the Father through the inspiration of the Spirit. Jesus Christ, raised on the third day, certified his divine authority. Furthermore, he credited the Old Testament writings as “Scripture,” equating the words of the prophets with the very word of God himself, and commissioned his apostles to speak authoritatively in his name. Their words are his words; those who receive them also receive the Son and the Father. So Scripture is the authoritative Word of God because it comes from the unerring Father, concerning the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Neither the authority of the Bible nor that of the church can stand apart from the truth of Christ as he is clothed in his gospel.
2. Every covenant is contained in a canon (like a constitution). The biblical canon is the norm for the history of God’s saving purposes in Christ under the old and new covenants. The Old Testament canon closed with the end of the prophetic era, so that Jesus could mark a sharp division between Scripture and the traditions of the rabbis (Mark 7:8). The New Testament canon was closed at the end of the apostolic era, so that even during that era the apostle Paul could warn the Corinthians against the “super-apostles” by urging, “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). While the apostles were living, the churches were to “maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2), “either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). There were indeed written and unwritten traditions in the apostolic church, but only those that eventually found their way by the Spirit’s guidance into the New Testament are now for us the apostolic canon. The apostles (extraordinary ministers) laid the foundation, and after them workers (ordinary ministers) built on that foundation (1 Cor. 3:10). The apostles could appeal to their own eyewitness, the direct and immediate vocation given to them by Christ, while they instructed ordinary pastors (like Timothy) to deliver to others what they had received from the apostles.
3. Just as the extraordinary office of prophets and apostles is qualitatively distinct from that of ordinary ministers, the constitution (Scripture) is qualitatively distinct from the Spirit-illumined but non-inspired courts (tradition) that interpret it. Again, therefore, Scripture is magisterial in its authority, while the church’s tradition of interpretation is ministerial.
To accept these three theses is to embrace sola scriptura as the Reformation understood it.
Receiving the Word
This is precisely the view we find in the church fathers. First, it is clear enough from their descriptions (e.g., the account in Eusebius) that the fathers did not create the canon but received and acknowledged it. (Even Peter acknowledged Paul’s writings as “Scripture” in 2 Peter 3:16, even though Paul clearly says in Galatians that he did not receive his gospel from or seek first the approval of any of the apostles, since he received it directly from Christ.) The criterion they followed indicates this: To be recognized as “Scripture,” a purported book had to be well attested as coming from the apostolic circle. Those texts that already had the widest and earliest acceptance in public worship were easily recognized by the time Athanasius drew up the first list of all seventy-seven books in A.D. 367. Even before this date, many of these books were being quoted as normative Scripture by Clement of Rome, Origen, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others. Of his list, Athanasius said that “holy Scripture is of all things most sufficient for us.” (1) Also in the fourth century, Basil of Caesarea instructed, “Believe those things which are written; the things which are not written, seek not. It is a manifest defection from the faith, a proof of arrogance, either to reject anything of what is written, or to introduce anything that is not.” (2)
Second, although the fathers also acknowledged tradition as a ministerially authoritative interpreter, they consistently yielded ultimate obedience to Scripture. For example, Augustine explained that the Nicene Creed was binding because it summarizes the clear teaching of Scripture. (3)
The Debate with Rome
Roman Catholic scholars acknowledge that the early Christian community in Rome was not unified under a single head. Paul, for example, reminded Timothy of the gift he was given when the presbytery laid its hands on him in his ordination (1 Tim. 4:14). In fact, in the Roman Catholic-Anglican dialogue, the Vatican acknowledged that “the New Testament texts offer no sufficient basis for papal primacy” and that they contain “no explicit record of a transmission of Peter’s leadership.” (4) So one has to accept papal authority exclusively on the basis of subsequent post-apostolic claims of the Roman bishop, without scriptural warrant. However, there is no historical succession from Peter to the bishops of Rome.
As Jerome observed in the fourth century, “Before attachment to persons in religion was begun at the instigation of the devil, the churches were governed by the common consultation of the elders.” Jerome goes so far as to suggest that the introduction of bishops as a separate order above the presbyters was “more from custom than from the truth of an arrangement by the Lord.” (5) Interestingly, even Pope Benedict XVI acknowledges that presbyter and episcipos were used interchangeably in the New Testament and in the earliest churches. (6)
Ancient Christian leaders of the East gave special honor to the bishop of Rome, but they considered any claim of one bishop’s supremacy to be an act of schism. Even in the West such a privilege was rejected by Gregory the Great in the sixth century. He expressed offense at being addressed by a bishop as “universal pope”: “a word of proud address that I have forbidden….None of my predecessors ever wished to use this profane word [‘universal’]….But I say it confidently, because whoever calls himself ‘universal bishop’ or wishes to be so called, is in his self-exaltation Antichrist’s precursor, for in his swaggering he sets himself before the rest.” (7)
Nevertheless, building on the claims of fifth-century Roman bishops Leo I and Galsius, later bishops of Rome did claim precisely this “proud address.” Declaring themselves as Christ’s replacement on earth, they claimed sovereignty (“plenitude of power”) over the world “to govern the earthly and heavenly kingdoms.” At the Council of Reims (1049) the Latin Church claimed for the pope the title “pontifex universalis“—precisely the title identified by Gregory as identifying one who “in his self-exaltation [is] Antichrist’s precursor.” Is Gregory the Great correct, or are his successors?
Though inspired by God, Scripture cannot be sufficient. It is a dark, obscure, and mysterious book (rendered more so by Rome’s allegorizing exegesis). An infallible canon needs an infallible interpreter. This has been Rome’s argument. The insufficiency of Scripture rests on its lack of clarity. It is true that the Bible is a collection of texts spread across many centuries, brimming with a variety of histories, poetry, doctrines, apocalyptic literature, and laws; however, wherever it has been translated in the vernacular and disseminated widely, barely literate people have been able to understand its central message. Contrast this with the libraries full of decretals and encyclicals, councilor decisions and counter-decisions, bulls and promulgations. Any student of church history recognizes that, in this case, the teacher is often far more obscure than the text. It’s no wonder Rome defines faith as fides implicita: taking the church’s word for it. For Rome, faith is not trust in Jesus Christ according to the gospel, but yielding assent and obedience unreservedly simply to everything the church teaches as necessary to salvation. There are many hazards associated with embracing an infallible text without an infallible interpreter. However, the alternative is not greater certainty and clarity about the subject matter, but a sacrifice of the intellect and an abandonment of one’s personal responsibility for one’s commitments to the decisions and acts of others.
Scripture Alone is Sufficient
Those of us who remain Reformed must examine the Scriptures and the relevant arguments before concluding that Rome’s claims are not justified and its teaching is at variance with crucial biblical doctrines. A Protestant friend in the midst of being swayed by Rome’s arguments exclaims, “That’s exactly why I can’t be a Protestant anymore. Without an infallible magisterium everyone believes whatever he chooses.” At this point, it’s important to distinguish between a radical individualism (believing whatever one chooses) and a personal commitment in view of one’s ultimate authority. My friend may be under the illusion that his decision is different from that, but it’s not. In the very act of making the decision to transfer ultimate authority from Scripture to the magisterium, he is weighing various biblical passages and theological arguments. The goal (shifting the burden of responsibility from oneself to the church) is contradicted by the method. At this point, one cannot simply surrender to a Reformed church or a Roman church; one must make a decision after careful personal study. We’re both in the same shoes.
Most crucially, Rome’s ambitious claims are tested by its faithfulness to the gospel. If an apostle could pronounce his anathema on anyone—including himself or an angel from heaven—who taught a gospel different from the one he brought to them (Gal. 1:8-9), then surely any minister or church body after the apostles is under that threat. First, Paul was not assuming that the true church is beyond the possibility of error. Second, he placed himself under the authority of that Word.
The frustration Reformation Christians have with the state of contemporary Protestantism is understandable. I feel it every day. Yet those who imagine that they will escape the struggle between the “already” and the “not yet,” the certainty of a promise and the certainty of possession, the infallibility of God’s Word and the fallibility of its appointed teachers, are bound to be disappointed wherever they land. As Calvin counseled on the matter, Scripture alone is indeed sufficient: “Better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it.”
Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
1 [ Back ] From “Athanasius: Select Works and Letters,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts et al, 2nd ser. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 4:23.
2 [ Back ] “On the Holy Spirit” from “Basil: Letters and Select Works,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 8:41.
3 [ Back ] Augustine, “On the Nicene Creed: A Sermon to the Catechumens,” 1.
4 [ Back ] From Unity Faith and Order – Dialogues – Anglican Roman Catholic Authority in the Church II (Anglican/Roman Catholic Joint Preparatory Commission), paragraph 2, 6.
5 [ Back ] Cited in the Second Helvetic Confession, ch. 18.
6 [ Back ] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 122-23.
7 [ Back ] From “Gregory I: Letters,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1:75-76; 2:166, 169, 170-71, 179, 222, 225.