St. Peter who was given “the keys of the kingdom “
I HAVE received a number of emails, some from Catholics who aren’t sure how to answer their “evangelical” family members, and others from fundamentalists who are certain the Catholic Church is neither biblical nor Christian. Several letters contained long explanations why they feel this Scripture means this and why they think this quote means that. After reading these letters, and considering the hours it would take to respond to them, I thought I would address instead the fundamental problem: just who exactly has the authority to interpret Scripture?
But before I do, we as Catholics must admit something. From external appearances, and in reality in many churches, we do not appear to be a people alive in the Faith, burning with zeal for Christ and the salvation of souls, such as is often seen in many evangelical churches. As such, it can be difficult to convince a fundamentalist of the truth of Catholicism when the faith of Catholics so often appears dead, and our Church is bleeding from scandal after scandal. At Mass, prayers are often muttered, music is commonly bland if not corny, homilies are oftentimes uninspired, and liturgical abuses in many places have drained the Mass of all that is mystical. Worse, an outside observer might doubt that it is truly Jesus in the Eucharist, based on how Catholics file to Communion as though they were receiving a movie pass. The truth is, the Catholic Church is in a crisis. She needs to be re-evangelized, re-catechized, and renewed in the power of the Holy Spirit. And quite bluntly, she needs to be purified of the apostasy which has seeped into her ancient walls like the smoke of Satan.
But this does not mean she is a false Church. If anything, it is a sign of the enemy’s pointed and relentless attack upon the Barque of Peter.
ON WHOSE AUTHORITY?
The thought that continued to run through my mind as I read those emails was, “So, whose interpretation of the Bible is right?” With nearly 60, 000 denominations in the world and counting, all of them claiming that they have the monopoly on truth, who do you believe (the first letter I received, or the letter from the guy after that?) I mean, we could debate all day about whether this biblical text or that text means this or that. But how do we know at the end of the day what the proper interpretation is? Feelings? Tingling anointings?
Well, this is what the Bible has to say:
Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the Holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God. (2 Pet 1:20-21)
Scripture as a whole is a prophetic word. No Scripture is a matter of personal interpretation. So, then, whose interpretation of it is correct? This answer has serious consequences, for Jesus said, “the truth will set you free.” In order to be free, I must know the truth so I can live and abide in it. If “church A” says, for example, that divorce is permitted, but “church B” says it is not, which church is living in freedom? If “church A” teaches that you can never lose your salvation, but “church B” says you can, which church is leading souls to freedom? These are real examples, with real and perhaps eternal consequences. Yet, the answer to these questions produces a plethora of interpretations from “bible-believing” Christians who usually mean well, but completely contradict one another.
Did Christ really build a Church this random, this chaotic, this contradictory?
WHAT THE BIBLE IS—AND ISN’T
Fundamentalists say the Bible is the only source of Christian truth. Yet, there is no Scripture to support such a notion. The Bible does say:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17)
Still, this says nothing about it being the sole authority or foundation of truth, only that it is inspired, and is therefore true. Furthermore, this passage refers specifically to the Old Testament since there was no “New Testament” yet. That wasn’t fully compiled until the fourth century.
The Bible does have something to say, however, about what is the foundation of truth:
You should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth. (1 Tim 3:15)
The Church of the living God is the pillar and foundation of truth. It is from the Church, then, that truth emerges, that is, the Word of God. “Aha!” says the fundamentalist. “So the Word of God is the truth.” Yes, absolutely. But the Word given to the Church was spoken, not written by Christ. Jesus never wrote down a single word (and nor were His words recorded in writing until years later). The Word of God is the unwritten Truth which Jesus passed on to the Apostles. Part of this Word was written down in letters and gospels, but not all of it. How do we know? For one, Scripture itself tells us that:
There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25)
We know for a fact that the revelation of Jesus was communicated in both written form, and by word of mouth.
I have much to write to you, but I do not wish to write with pen and ink. Instead, I hope to see you soon, when we can talk face to face. (3 John 13-14)
This is what the Catholic Church calls Tradition: both written and oral truth. The word “tradition” comes from the Latin traditio which means “to hand down”. Oral tradition was a central part of Jewish culture and the way teachings were passed on from century to century. Of course, the fundamentalist cites Mark 7:9 or Col 2:8 to say that Scripture condemns Tradition, ignoring the fact that in those passages Jesus was condemning the numerous burdens placed on the people of Israel by the Pharisees, and not the God-given Tradition of the Old Testament. If those passages were condemning this authentic Tradition, the Bible would be contradicting itself:
Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours. (2 Thess 2:15)
I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you. (1 Cor 11:2). Note that the Protestant King James and New American Standard versions use the word “tradition” whereas the popular NIV renders the word “teachings” which is a poor translation from the original source, the Latin Vulgate.
The Tradition which the Church guards is called the “deposit of faith”: all that Christ taught and revealed to the Apostles. They were charged with teaching this Tradition and making sure that this Deposit was faithfully passed on from generation to generation. They did so by word of mouth, and occasionally by letter or epistle.
The Church also has customs, which correctly are also called traditions, much the way people have family traditions. This would include man-made laws such as abstaining from meat on Fridays, fasting on Ash Wednesday, and even priestly celibacy—all of which can be modified or even dispensed with by the Pope who was given the power to “bind and loose” (Matt 16:19). Sacred Tradition, however—the written and unwritten Word of God—cannot be changed. In fact, since Christ revealed His Word 2000 years ago, no Pope has ever changed this Tradition, an absolute testament to the power of the Holy Spirit and the promise of Christ’s protection to guard His Church from the gates of hell (see Matt 16:18).
APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION: BIBLICAL?
So we come closer to answering the fundamental problem: who, then, has the authority to interpret Scripture? The answer seems to present itself: if the Apostles were the ones who heard Christ preach, and then were charged with passing those teachings on, they should be the ones to judge whether or not any other teaching, whether oral or written, is in fact the truth. But what would happen after the Apostles died? How would truth be faithfully handed down to future generations?
We read that the Apostles charged other men to pass on this “living Tradition.” Catholics call these men the Apostle’s “successors.” But fundamentalists claim that apostolic succession was invented by men. That’s simply not what the Bible says.
After Christ ascended into Heaven, there was still a small following of disciples. In the upper room, a hundred and twenty of them gathered including the eleven remaining Apostles. Their first act was to replace Judas.
Then they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:26)
Justus, who wasn’t chosen over Matthias, was still a follower. But Matthias was “counted with the eleven apostles.” But why? Why replace Judas if there were more than enough followers anyway? Because Judas, like the other eleven, was given special authority by Jesus, an office which no other disciples or believers had—including His mother.
He was numbered among us and was allotted a share in this ministry… May another take his office. (Acts 1:17, 20); Note that the New Jerusalem’s foundation stones in Revelation 21:14 are inscribed with the names of twelve apostles, not eleven. Judas, obviously, was not one of them, so therefore, Matthias must be the twelfth remaining stone, completing the foundation upon whom the rest of the Church is built (cf. Eph 2:20).
After the descent of the Holy Spirit, apostolic authority was passed on through the laying on of hands (see 1 Tim 4:14; 5:22; Acts 14:23). It was a practice firmly established, as we hear from Peter’s fourth successor who reigned during the time that the Apostle John was still living:
Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . [see 1 Tim 3:1, 8; 5:17] Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. —POPE ST. CLEMENT OF ROME (80 AD), Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3
A SUCCESSION OF AUTHORITY
Jesus gave these Apostles, and obviously their successors, His own authority.
Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt 18:18)
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained. (John 20:22)
Jesus even says:
Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. (Luke 10:16)
Jesus says that whoever listens to these Apostles and their successors, is listening to Him! And we know that what these men teach us is the truth because Jesus promised to guide them. Addressing them privately at the Last Supper, He said:
…when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. (John 16:12-13)
This charism of the Pope and bishops to teach the truth “infallibly” has always been understood in the Church from the earliest of times:
[I]t is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the infallible charism of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. —St. Irenaeus of Lyons (189 AD), Against Heresies, 4:33:8 )
Let us note that the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, was preached by the Apostles, and was preserved by the Fathers. On this was the Church founded; and if anyone departs from this, he neither is nor any longer ought to be called a Christian… —St. Athanasius (360 AD), Four Letters to Serapion of Thmius 1, 28
THE FUNDAMENTAL ANSWER
The Bible was neither invented by man nor handed down by angels in a nice leatherbound edition. Through a process of intense discernment guided by the Holy Spirit, the successors of the Apostles determined in the fourth century which of the writings of their day were Sacred Tradition—the “Word of God”—and which were not inspired writings of the Church. Thus, the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of St. John, the Assumption of Moses and several other books never made the cut. But 46 books of the Old Testament, and 27 for the New did comprise the “canon” of Scripture (although Protestants later dropped some books). The others were determined as not belonging to the Deposit of Faith. This was confirmed by the Bishops at the councils of Carthage (393, 397, 419 AD) and Hippo (393 AD). Ironic it is, then, that fundamentalists use the Bible, which is part of Catholic Tradition, to refute Catholicism.
All this is to say that there was no Bible for the first four centuries of the Church. So where were the apostolic teaching and testimonies to be found in all those years? Early church historian, J. N. D. Kelly, a Protestant, writes:
The most obvious answer was that the apostles had committed it orally to the Church, where it had been handed down from generation to generation. — Early Christian Doctrines, 37
Thus, it is clear that the successors of the Apostles are the ones who have been given the authority to determine what has been handed on by Christ and what has not, based not upon their own personal judgment, but upon what they have received.
The pope isn’t an absolute sovereign, whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary, the ministry of the pope is the guarantor of the obedience toward Christ and his word. —POPE BENEDICT XVI, Homily of May 8, 2005; San Diego Union-Tribune
Along with the pope, the bishops also share in Christ’s teaching authority to “bind and loose” (Matt 18:18). We call this teaching authority the “magisterium”.
…this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 86)
They alone have the authority to interpret the Bible through the filter of oral Tradition which they have received through apostolic succession. They alone ultimately determine whether or not Jesus literally meant that He was offering us His Body and Blood or just a mere symbol, or whether He meant that we should confess our sins to a priest. Their discernment, guided by the Holy Spirit, is based upon the Sacred Tradition which has been passed on from the beginning.
So what matters is not what you or I think a passage of Scripture means so much as what did Christ say to us? The answer is: we have to ask those to whom He said it. Scripture is not a matter of personal interpretation, but a part of the revelation of who Jesus is and what He taught and commanded us.
Pope Benedict spoke pointedly about the danger of self-anointed interpretation when he addressed the Ecumenical Meeting recently in New York:
Fundamental Christian beliefs and practices are sometimes changed within communities by so-called “prophetic actions” that are based on a hermeneutic [method of interpreting] not always consonant with the datum of Scripture and Tradition. Communities consequently give up the attempt to act as a unified body, choosing instead to function according to the idea of “local options”. Somewhere in this process the need for… communion with the Church in every age is lost, just at the time when the world is losing its bearings and needs a persuasive common witness to the saving power of the Gospel (cf. Rom 1:18-23). —POPE BENEDICT XVI, St. Joseph’s Church, New York, April 18th, 2008
Perhaps we can learn something from the humility of St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890). He is a convert to the Catholic Church, who in teaching on the end times (a subject polluted with opinion), shows the proper course of interpretation:
The opinion of any one person, even if he were the most fit to form one, could hardly be of any authority, or be worth putting forward by itself; whereas the judgment and views of the early Church claim and attract our especial regard, because for what we know they may be in part derived from traditions of the Apostles, and because they are put forward far more consistently and unanimously than those of any other set of teachers. —Advent Sermons on Antichrist, Sermon II, “1 John 4:3”
First published May 13th, 2008.
- On Scripture and Oral Tradition: The Unfolding Splendor of Truth
- Charismatic? A seven part series on the Charismatic Renewal, what the popes and Catholic teaching say about it, and the coming New Pentecost. Use the search engine from the Daily Journal page for Parts II – VII.
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