Now, there's much more to say about the New Testament teaching on the Church. We haven't even mentioned Peter and the keys and the foundations of the Catholic teaching on the papacy. We've barely touched on the idea of apostolic succession. In arguing the case for the Catholic view of an authoritative Church, much more would need to be said. And we'll come back to this.
But at this point our focus is not on the Church but on whether or not the New Testament presents us with a Christianity in which the Bible functions as only real authority in the Christian's life -- all other authorities, when you get down to it, being merely advisory.
So far, I don't see a hint that the apostles had it in their minds that when they had passed from the scene Sola Scriptura would become the rule of faith and practice for the Church.
And so the question comes to mind: Why do Protestants not only embrace Sola Scriptura but embrace it as the very foundation of their worldview as Christians? Why?
As I ask this question, I think back to my own experience as an evangelical Protestant for over twenty years. How did I think about this issue of authority? How did everyone I knew think about it?
When it comes down to it, I don't think most Protestants hold to Sola Scriptura because they can point to passages in the New Testament that actually teach it. They hold to it because they don't believe the kind of authoritative Church we see functioning in the New Testament exists any longer.
They think "that Church" died with the apostles. And in the absence of such a Church, what alternative is there but to look to Scripture alone, and hope we can agree on what it's teaching?
In other words, when we read the Gospels and watch Jesus establishing his Church -- breathing his Spirit into the living foundation stones of his Church, the apostles, sending them out to heal the sick and raise the dead, announcing that those who listen to them will be listening to him, that whoever's sins they forgive will be forgiven, that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven -- he surely seems to be establishing the kind of Church that will speak with his authority.
And then, when we read the Acts of the Apostles and watch this Church actually functioning in the New Testament -- meeting in council to settle disputes and define Church teaching, issuing decrees introduced with words like "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" that believers are expected to receive with joy and submit to as to the very word of God -- we see that it clearly was the kind of Church that could and did speak with Christ's authority.
We think about how most of the apostles never bothered to write anything down.
We look at the New Testament epistles and notice that even those who did write wrote primarily to deal with specific issues in specific churches and seem to have had little concern to preserve in their writing anything like a summary of Christian doctrine.
We listen to the apostle John say he'd rather not write at all.
We listen to St. Paul, preparing for his departure from the world and thinking specifically about the preservation of his teaching after he's gone. And rather than speaking a word about "writing," we hear him instruct Timothy to "guard" by the Holy Spirit what he has "heard" him teach in the presence of many witnesses and "entrust that" to others who must be "faithful."
Why faithful? Because they will also need to guard by the Holy Spirit what they've been entrusted with so that they can in turn entrust to others, and so forth.
And here's the thing: the way the apostles act and speak -- all of it makes perfect sense on the premise that they believed in the sort of Church in which the substance of their teaching could and would be preserved by the Holy Spirit, especially through their successors.
On the other hand, the way the apostles act and speak doesn't make sense at all on the premise that they were looking forward to a Church in which what they had written alone would rule.
The Key Difference
To put this in the simplest of terms, Catholics believe that the Church we see Jesus establishing in New Testament, the Church we see actually functioning in the New Testament, is the Church our Lord intended to continue in the world after the death of the apostles, the Church that has continued in the world, the Church that still exists in the world -- a Church filled with sinners and yet enabled by the Holy Spirit to preserve and pass down the truths of the Christian faith.
This is what Catholics believe and this is why the Catholic Church speaks as it does, in ways that seem (putting it as kindly as possible) so "strange" to Protestant ears.
For instance, in Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation from Vatican II, the Church speaks of the Magisterium's Spirit-given authority to define Christian teaching.
Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God, which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching.
The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone….Yet 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.
And yet it happens to also sound exactly like what we see when we look at the Church in the New Testament -- the kind of Church that could meet in Council in Acts 15 and decide an issue of tremendous theological importance and send out a decree saying, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" and expect believers to receive it with joy.
Catholics simply believe that this is -- not precisely but essentially -- the kind of Church Jesus intended to continue in the world after the death of the apostles.
Protestants do not. Protestants believe that with the end of the apostolic era the Church became a Church functioning under the authority of Scripture Alone. And I don't think it's because our Protestant brothers and sisters see "Bible only" Christianity as actually taught in the New Testament.
I think it's because they don't believe the sort of Church we see in the New Testament exists any longer. And in the absence of "this kind" of Church, what other option is there?
In other words, Sola Scriptura is what you come to when you've abandoned the idea that there exists on an authoritative Church that in the midst of all its failings can accomplish the work of guarding, preserving and handing down the apostolic faith.
And of course, as we've seen in an earlier lesson, this is precisely what happened at the time of the Reformation.