The relative authority of the Bible and Church


Catholic views on the Bible and Church

Heteronomy is the view that moral authority comes from the combination of Church, Bible and reason. This is typically a Catholic view.

Catholics believe that the Bible and Church are equally important and essential authorities. Thus, we need the Bible but also the Church to interpret it.

The apostolic succession

The apostolic succession is the basis on which the Catholic Church claims to be an authoritative source of Christian moral principles. The people who first spread Christianity, such as Jesus’ disciples and others like St Paul, are known as the apostles. Catholics argue that Christ began the apostolic tradition where he commanded his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” – thereby creating a social institution with a mission. He also said to them ‘whoever hears you, hears me. Whoever rejects you, rejects me’. This is giving the disciples a lot of power and authority. Jesus also told his disciple Peter to watch over his people. When Jesus said these words, before they came to be written in the Bible, there was no Bible yet in existence. The teachings the disciples would give in the service of their mission must therefore have been what they had learned from Christ’s words, his way of life and the holy spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic church interprets this as Christ telling them to preach “what they had learned” from Jesus. Jesus thus gave the Church the authority to create its own teachings.

The apostles then left bishops as their successors and hairs to their own positions of ‘teaching authority’ creating an apostolic succession which is meant to continue until the end of time. They made teachings which were separate from the Bible, yet meant to explain it for the laity. This created ‘sacred tradition’, distinct from sacred scripture ‘though closely connected to it’. Through tradition, the Church ‘transmits’ its own moral teaching. This is why the Catholic church thinks it has the right to create its own teachings in addition to the Bible and to interpret the Bible. It was what Jesus wanted.

Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are closely linked and both have the same source; God. Scripture is the speech of God put in writing by the power of the Holy Spirit. Tradition transmits the word of God that Christ and the Holy Spirit have entrusted to the apostles which transmits to their successors (The Church) so they can preach it. Both scripture and Church must therefore be viewed with ‘equal sentiments of devotion and reverence’. The Magisterium of the Catholic Church claims that the Apostolic succession means it alone can interpret the word of God and that it is the servant of the word of God, teaching ‘only what has been handed on to it’.

The second Vatican council’s document Dei Verbum states that Sacred Scripture ‘is the word of God’ as it was written “under the inspiration of the divine spirit” and sacred Tradition “takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors” so that they can faithfully “preserve” and “explain” it.

“Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence”

“But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church … explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit.

“It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, sacred scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”

The Catholic Church’s corrupt sale of indulgences. There have been many crimes perpetrated by the Church such as the paedophile priest scandals and allegiance with fascism, especially Hitler. Protestants suggest that the Church is therefore corrupt. They arguably don’t act like they are guided by the Holy Spirit.

The sale of indulgences was the policy of the Catholic Church to accept money in return for forgiveness of sins. Purgatory was an important part of this – if you gave the Church money, the priests would pray for your recently dead relative, claiming to get them out of purgatory faster. Luther claimed Purgatory was ‘fabricated by goblins’ and wrote a 95 thesis critique of the practice of the sale of indulgencies. Here are some of them:

81 “preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity?

 84. “What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul’s own need, free it for pure love’s sake?”

 86. “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”

Ultimately, the invention of purgatory for use in the sale of indulgencies looks like the Church is abusing its power to invent false doctrines purely for the sake of making money. It is corrupt.

Catholics would respond that of course the Church can sin because it is populated by human beings. Christ knew this yet still wanted them to be a source of moral authority. We can’t use human flaws as evidence that Jesus didn’t want humans to have this role.

Protestants could respond that the extent of their corruption is so great that they have betrayed and sacrificed their right to the authority Christ entrusted them with. Arguably the crimes of the Catholic Church go beyond normal human flaws. Jesus entrusted flawed humans with the role of forming a Church, but if the Church went beyond normal human flaws then they are going beyond Jesus’ expectations. The catholic church made up purgatory – not to spread the word of Jesus, but to enrich themselves.

But what human has the right to decide to end something Jesus started?

Arguably the apostolic succession is an overinterpretation of what Jesus actually said.

Protestant views on the Bible and Church

Theonomy is the view that moral authority comes from God, typically sourced from his revelation in the Bible. Both religion and ethics have a shared source; God. In Protestantism, this often involves claiming that the Church has no authority to invent doctrines since we have the Bible.

Sola Scriptura is a form of theonomy involving Christians who think the bible alone is the source of Christian moral principles, not the Church. This is typically a protestant view since Luther thought the Catholic Church was corrupt and had deviated from God’s revelation in the Bible for their own political earthly agenda. It follows that a return to the Bible was the method for placing God at the centre of religion and ethics again. The role of the Church for protestant reformers was merely to preach the Bible. The Church may interpret the Bible, but they should be considered subject to correction by the Bible. This is radically different to the catholic view of the equal validity of sacred tradition to sacred scripture.

“A simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it” – Luther.

The priesthood of all believers is the doctrine developed by Luther that all people have the status of priest. The aim of this is to counteract the Catholic view, that priests have a special spiritual status which sets them apart from laypeople and gives them an important role in their salvation, acting as a mediator between the people and God. This again lessens the role, value and authority of the Church.

1 Timothy 2:5 says that Jesus is the only mediator between God and humanity.

Sola scriptura is not in the Bible. Bible quotes suggest that the Bible should be a source of Christian moral principles, but they do not claim it is the only source nor speak against other sources. It is self-contradictory to believe that all religious knowledge should come from sola scriptura when sola scriptura itself cannot be derived from scripture.

Arguably the Bible doesn’t suggest there is any other authority, so by implication it suggests it is the sole authority. Catholics claim that the Bible supports apostolicity, but Luther and Calvin disagree – arguing that the Bible only supports the passing on of faith and the teachings of the apostles, not authority.

The books in the New Testament were not decided on until the 4th century by Catholic clergy. This suggests that the Bible should not be the only source since it grew out of the church and therefore if it is authoritative, the Church is also. It also seems strange for the protestants to trust those Catholics in their choice of what to include in the Bible. Arguably it is not possible to separate Biblical authority from Church authority and thus they must be regarded as equal.

Protestants respond that the holy spirit influenced the creation and choosing of the Bible, thus ensuring its validity.

Catholics respond that the holy spirit guides their magisterium too.