Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Because I Say So

When all the voluminous arguments are brushed aside, this, in a nutshell, is the underlying presupposition held by the Roman Catholic Church to defend her ultimate authority. No, I’m not exaggerating one bit. This really is the “end all, be all” of arguments for the Roman Catholic.

I’ve asked more than one Roman Catholic the following question: “Why should I accept that the Roman Catholic Church is the ultimate authority on earth?” Answers may vary depending on the depth of study of the individual, but here are a few of the more common answers: (1) church history validates Rome’s claims, (2) an unbroken Apostolic succession of Pope’s beginning with Peter, and (3) because of the Bible. One, two and three … usually in that order, or at least with the authority of the Bible given last.

The responses become even more muddled when I add on the following qualifier to the end of my question: “Why should I accept that the Roman Catholic Church is the ultimate authority on earth, as opposed to the Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, or the Prophet and Apostles of the Latter-day Saint Church?”

Here is an honest and an overwhelmingly fair question: are we to just accept Rome’s claims about herself, no questions asked?

Consider with me for a moment the 3 arguments posed by Roman Catholics in defense of “Mother Church,” and you will begin to see how easily their line of thinking begins to unravel.

First – church history validates Rome’s claims? It is all-too-often claimed by Roman Catholics, especially Protestants who wind up converting to Romanism, that once they began studying church history they are amazed at how “Catholic” the church fathers sound. Usually what this means is that many of the early church fathers use terms Roman Catholics are familiar with and, using anachronism, interpret the meanings of these words as Rome presently defines them. For example, the term “Catholic” didn’t (and doesn’t) mean “the Roman Catholic Church.” “Catholic” simply means “universal,” which does not pose any problem for the Protestant who believes local churches make up Christ’s worldwide collection of saints. But the Roman Catholic who has his anachronism-goggles on will only see what he wishes to see, and therefore interprets “Catholic” as though the early church was referring to a single church, and not the Biblical understanding of the universal body of believers scattered around the world amidst local churches.

Furthermore, the real reason this argument astounds me is because they act as though church history presents a single church … in Rome … with the majority of professing Christians agreeing with present-day Roman Catholic beliefs. Anyone with a cursory understanding of church history laughs at such a claim. The only thing most professing Christians in history agreed on was monotheism, and even then Arianism reigned supreme for a time.

This brings out another point: if Rome claims church history as her ally, wouldn’t the history books have to present a unified, or at least a majority opinion for most of history, agreeing with their current doctrines? What I have found when I’ve pressed this issue is that Rome can’t (or won’t) claim all of church history, but only the parts they agree with. A clear example of this is with the famous Augustine, loved by Protestant and Catholic alike. Roman Catholics love him for his view of church authority in dealing with the Donatists, while Protestants love his view of Predestination and sovereign grace. Obviously Rome disagrees with Augustine’s pre-Calvinistic view of Predestination, so they can’t honestly say they agree with all of Augustine. In light of this, how can they honestly claim church history defends her? They want to pick and choose, all the while pretending that the church fathers “unanimously” agree with her.

Second – beginning with Peter as the first Pope, there was an unbroken succession of an Apostolic Papal authority? There is no evidence, whatsoever, that Peter ever went to Rome. We have to trust Rome and even her “unwritten oral traditions.” I’m not kidding. Unwritten. Oral. Traditions. If they’re unwritten, umm, how can one know what those traditions were? You just have to trust “Mother Church” on that one. That’s it. There is one interesting fact that I’ve not yet heard a meaningful response to: there was a plurality of bishops at the church in Rome in the first and second centuries. This is important because according to the Roman Catholic Church Peter was the (singular) Bishop/Pope in Rome, and there was only ever a single Bishop/Pope in Rome since that time.

The best argument for the cessation of the gift of Apostleship is that the purpose for this role in the Church was to lay the foundation (Ephesians 2:20). Welp, that foundation has been laid my friends, and Christ has been glorified in His Church for 2000 years (Ephesians 3:21) with walls, a ceiling, windows, door, antechamber … you get the idea. To claim that Apostles were continuously being given implies that the foundation needs to continuously be laid, which is not how any building is made. The foundation is laid and then one starts building.

Third – the Bible establishes Peter as the “rock” which means he will begin the unbroken Apostolic succession at a church 1500 (?) miles away from Jerusalem as the ultimate authority in all things on earth and as the personal representative for Christ until the end of all things. This is always a tricky argument for a Roman Catholic to make because it is an appeal from a source that they believe is unclear and receives its authority from the Church.

Since I’ve dealt with the “Peter = the rock” argument in a previous post, I won’t spend time on that here. But just for the sake of argument, let’s say that in Matthew 16 Jesus does say (though he doesn’t), “I say that you are Peter, and you are the Rock upon which I will build my Church…” Then what? How does Rome make “Rock” equal “the unbroken Apostolic succession at a church 1500 (?) miles away from Jerusalem as the ultimate authority in all things on earth and as the personal representative for Christ until the end of all things”? Leaps and bounds must be made between unconnected dots to make sense of how Rome chooses to interpret this passage.

After engaging each of these arguments, I have heard 2 epistemological questions that are an indirect appeal to the ultimacy of Rome: (1) “So you don’t believe in the authority of Christ’s Church?” and (2) “Oh Come on. Rome is clearly Christ’s Church. Come on.”

To epistemological question #1, I would simply say that yes, each of Christ’s local churches have a real authority. But the Church (comprised of local churches around the world) receive their authority from the God-breathed Scriptures. They themselves are not the ultimate authority. Rather, like good pillars, they hold up the truth which is found in the Bible.

To question #2, I would ask, so you expect me to trust in Rome just because you or she says so? And again, what makes Rome different than the authority in Salt Lake City or in Chicago?

No matter which way one begins a conversation with a seriously minded conservative Roman Catholic, the discussion will always find its way back to epistemology, ultimate authority issues and one’s presuppositions. This is what truly divides Roman Catholicism from Protestantism: Sola Scriptura vs. Sola Ecclesia – that the Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith, vs. the Roman Church is the sole infallible rule of faith.

Thanks for reading,

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