The Heresy of Sola Scriptura, Pt. 1
by Jeff Childers
This is the first part of a two-part open letter being published by The Angelus consisting of 11 reasons why the doctrine of sola scriptura is heresy, that is, the heretical doctrine that all authority in religion exists in scripture alone. The original letter has been slightly edited for the magazine. Its writing was instigated by a challenge to the Catholic Faith by the husband of a woman who recently converted from the Jehovah's Witnesses to the Protestant sect, the Church of Christ. The first four are dealt with in this installment.
Readers should be aware that the Church of Christ is a radical Protestant sect. Its origins are in the 19th-century Restoration Movement of Alexander Campbell and Barton Warren Stone, the first purely American religious movement in all of history. The Church of Christ teaches that it is just that: The Church of Christ. All others abuse, add to, and pervert the Word of God, thus consigning themselves to eternal damnation.
To begin with, I will restate the description of sola scriptura to which we have both agreed: Jesus Christ came to the earth with the full authority of God. He appointed apostles, and gave them the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth. They spread through the world, teaching the truth that the Holy Spirit gave them. This truth was all recorded in the Scriptures of the NewTestament. Since the only sure guarantor of truth is the Holy Spirit, and since the Holy Spirit can only be given by the hands of an apostle or a miraculous outpouring accompanied by undeniable miracles, the only guarantor of truth today is the inspired apostolic scriptures of the New Testament. Anything not found in the New Testament is a tradition of man. Traditions of man constitute vain worship, which is condemned by Jesus. Adding anything at all to the deposit of faith which is recorded in the inspired apostolic scriptures of the New Testament renders one liable for the curses of Revelation.
Now, I'll give a brief explanation of the Catholic doctrine. This is not a defense, just a description. This way, we both know where the other stands: Jesus gave His authority to the apostles, promising them the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, they were given the whole revelation of God, the depositum fidei (deposit of faith). They spread the faith and established churches, over which they ruled. To aid them in shepherding the flock, they appointed successors. These successors, the presbyters and bishops inherited their authority by the gift of the Holy Spirit, received by the laying on of their hands. Some of the depositum fidei was recorded in the various letters which we eventually recognized as the Church's inspired Scriptures, that is, the written Word of God which could be read aloud at the liturgical assembly. These successors also ordained successors, and this has continued through this day. These successors, the bishops in union with the successor of St. Peter, the pope, are guided by the Holy Spirit to infallibly teach the very same depositum fidei which was once and for all handed down to the saints. As time goes by, the Church grows in her understanding of doctrines already revealed. When the bishops or the pope makes a decision about a doctrine which is part of the depositum, intending for that decision to be obeyed by the whole Church, the decision is infallible. In areas not pertaining to doctrines or morals, but to discipline and laws of the Church, the bishops and pope are not infallible, but the Catholic is still bound to obey. Jesus has promised that His Church will continue to exist and to teach infallibly until the end of the world.
At one time I believed sola scriptura as much as anyone else. I was opposed to Catholicism 100 percent. However, I came to learn that sola scriptura is unscriptural, unhistorical, and untenable. I will attempt to establish that by making the following points:
1) Sola scripture contradicts itself, because it is not taught in the Sacred Scriptures.
2) Sola scriptura is an example of the logical fallacy of begging the question, in as much as the canonical scriptures never identify what is and what is not Scripture.
3) The Sacred Scriptures teach that oral tradition is a source of revelation.
4) The Sacred Scriptures show the Catholic system of authority.
5 ) The writings of the earliest Christians show the Catholic system of authority.
6) The legitimate practices of the Jews developed, and the Scriptures were not viewed as an exclusive guide.
7) The infant Church in Acts is in a constant state of legitimate development.
8) Sola scriptura was not believed by anybody until the Reformation, and is thus a tradition of man, condemned by our Divine Lord Jesus Christ.
9) The Sacred Scriptures prophesy the rise and growth of the Catholic Church.
10) The Church of Christ sect has no historical connection to the Church established in Jerusalem in A.D.33.
11) The Church of Christ only teaches sola scriptura because she split from Calvinism and is, therefore, a Protestant denomination or sect, and not the universal Church of the Bible.
1) Sola Scriptura Contradicts Itself, Because It Is Not Taught in the Sacred Scriptures
The doctrine that the Bible alone is our only religious authority is not taught in the Bible. There is no book, chapter, or verse that demands book, chapter, and verse authority for every doctrine and practice. Don't get me wrong—I believe that the 27 letters which are in the New Testament are inspired. I believe that they are inerrant. I believe that they are authoritative. However, they never claim to be our only authority. The entire doctrine collapses because it contradicts itself.
Dr. Scott Hahn relates a telephone conversation he had with a professor when he was first discovering the Catholic faith:
To one professor I said, "Maybe I'm suffering from amnesia, but somehow I've forgotten the simple reasons why we believe the Bible is our sole authority."
"Scott, what a dumb question!"
"Just give me a dumb answer."
"Scott," he responded. "You really can't demonstrate sola scriptura from Scripture. The Bible doesn't expressly declare that it is the Christian's only authority."1
You see, Jediah, without the express command of the Bible to follow the Bible alone, sola scriptura becomes this monstrously illogical rule: All religious truth must come from the Bible alone, except for the truth that all religious truth must come from the Bible alone!
When Jesus promised His apostles the Holy Spirit, He told them that they would preach the truth to all peoples. He never said anything to them about writing any scriptures! Jesus never alluded in any way, shape, or form, to the fact that His followers would be bound solely to a book which would later be produced. The only time Jesus ever commanded anyone to write was when He appeared in a vision to St. John the Apostle and commanded him to write the seven letters which we know as his Apocalypse.
None of the books of the New Testament, with the exception of Apocalypse, ever claim to be inspired. (I agree, however, that in a couple of St. Paul's letters, he makes statements which may imply inspiration.) The biblical letters—supposedly our only authority, in your view—seldom comment on their own authority, but, in any case, never insist that they are the only authority.
I challenge you to provide a passage which tells us that we are limited to the New Testament. (By the way, you won't even find a passage that tells us there is a New Testament.)
What about the third chapter of II Timothy?
...And because from thy infancy thou hast known the holy scriptures, who can instruct thee to salvation, by the faith which is in Jesus Christ. All scripture, inspired by God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice. That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work. (II Tim. 3:15-17)
You'll find that in context, this passage is speaking only about the Septuagint Old Testament. [The Septuagint is the first translation of the Bible, the Greek translation of the Old Testament made from the Hebrew between 300 and 130 years before Christ. —Ed]. St. Timothy was a Greek Jew, whose Scriptures were the 72 books of the Greek Old Testament. St. Paul speaks of the "holy scriptures" which Timothy had known from his "infancy." Those writings did not include the New Testament because the New Testament did not exist in Timothy's "infancy" and, in fact, would not exist in compiled form for another 300 years.
The Apostle then states that "all [of this] scripture," that is, all 72 of the Books of the Alexandrian Canon (which is identical to the Catholic Old Testament), is "inspired by God, [and] profitable...." Notice that one word: "profitable." It does not say "sufficient." John Calvin, Thomas Campbell, and Roy Cogdill say "sufficient," but St. Paul says, "profitable." What about Apocalypse 22:18?
For I testify to every one that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book: If any man shall add to these things, God shall add unto him the plagues written in this book. (Apoc. 22:18)
Doesn't St. John say not to add to or take away from the Bible? No, but even if he did, this would not prove sola scriptura. Catholics object to tampering with the Biblical text. When Jehovah's Witnesses pervert the Sacred Writ, the Catholic Church is angered, for she loves the Scriptures. However, forbidding to tamper with the text is not the same as calling the text your only authority. For example, if I were to lend you a dictionary, it would be wrong of you to rip out any of the pages or add your own definitions. But I wouldn't mind if you used other sources as well. In any case, all of these points are moot since the passage is talking only about the Book of the Apocalypse, and not the whole Bible.
If there's a passage which teaches sola scriptura, please let me know. If there's not, then the entire concept self-destructs. It fails its own test! The concept of sola scriptura is simply not in the scriptura.
2) Sola Scriptura Is an Example of the Logical Fallacy of Begging the Question, Inasmuch as the Canonical Scriptures Never Identify What Is and What Is Not Scripture
Your belief requires that every doctrine you hold be found in the pages of the Scriptures. However, the Scriptures fail to answer one all-important question: What is scripture?
When we go to the store and buy a nice leather-bound Bible, chosen as our favorite out of a hundred different bound Bibles, it's easy to forget that this is not how the Bible was originally available. The New Testament was originally 27 separate letters sent to separate people about various issues. You believe that those 27 letters, now conveniently collected into one volume, are the sole source of faith. This leads to a problem. There is no passage in any of the 27 letters which states:
The following books, and only the following books, are Sacred Scripture: Matthew; Mark; Luke; John; Acts; Romans; I and II Corinthians; Galatians; Ephesians; Philippians; Colossians; I and II Thessalonians; I and II Timothy; Titus; Philemon; Hebrews; James; I, II, and III John; Jude; and Apocalypse.
But that's what you believe. So what's your authority? No matter what you say—"inner guidance of the Holy Spirit," "the testimony of the early Christians," "historical evidence," or even "the Catholic Church," etc.—you violate your own rule that all authority is in the Scriptures.
Few of the letters are even self-authenticating. As mentioned above, only the Apocalypse and, maybe, one or two of St. Paul's epistles claim to be inspired. To claim that any of the other books of the Bible is inspired forces you to violate your own rule. The Bible is silent, nonetheless you speak.
Many of the letters are anonymous. To call St. Matthew the author of Matthew or St. John the author of II John requires you to violate your rule again. The Bible never says that Matthew wrote Matthew or that John wrote John, that St. Mark wrote Mark, St. Luke wrote Luke and Acts, that St. John authored I, II, and III John, or that St. Paul composed Hebrews.
The only evidence that the traditional authors of the Gospels and Epistles mentioned in the preceding paragraph are Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul is Catholic Tradition. The only evidence that the 26 books of the New Testament are inspired, excluding the self-attesting Apocalypse, is the authoritative proclamation of the Catholic Church. You reject that authority, so with what do you replace it? The only evidence that only the Old Testament and the 27 letters that are in our New Testament are inspired is the authoritative proclamation of the Catholic Church. You reject that authority, so with what do you replace it?
The Catholic Church, after three centuries of thoughtful consideration, canonized the 27 books of the New Testament. Some of them, like Hebrews and the Apocalypse, were considered by some to not belong to it, but the Catholic Church declared otherwise. Other works, like I Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistles of Ignatius, etc., which were thought by many to be inspired, were left out. We even decided to leave out St. Paul's Letter to the Laodicians, despite that he mentions it in Colossians 4:16: "And when this epistle [to the Colossians] shall have been read with you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodicians; and that you read that which is of the Laodicians (Col. 4:16)."
3) The Sacred Scriptures Teach That Oral Tradition Is a Source of Revelation
It is very true that Jesus condemned the Pharisees for the way they treated their traditions. Notice, however, that it was not the fact that they had traditions that was wrong; it was the fact that they were teaching as doctrines what were merely traditions of men: "And in vain do they worship me, teaching doctrines and precepts of men" (Mk. 7:7). The crime of the Pharisees was that they elevated their own customs, such as hand-washing and Sabbath laws, etc., above the Law of God. In much the same way, they were able to assassinate the Son of God and still remain ritually pure. Pharisaism, then, is focusing on the letter of the Law to the exclusion of the spirit of the Law.
St. Paul condemns in his Epistle to the Galatians anyone who preaches another gospel. "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema" (Gal. 1:8). About whom is the Apostle warning? It is Jewish Christians, probably former Essenes, who were preaching that man is justified only by following the Torah. St. Paul asserts that man is not justified by works of the Torah, but by the grace of Jesus Christ. Calvinists, on the other hand, abuse this passage by teaching that man is justified apart from works in general. You and I know that the Apostle is referring to works of the Torah.
We agree, Jediah, that false doctrine and traditions invented by men to subvert the true faith are unacceptable. For something to be taught as doctrine, it must be part of the depositum fidei given to the apostles by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the depositum once and for all handed down to the holy ones. Searching the Sacred Scriptures, one finds that there are several truths which the apostles believed, and which they assumed everyone believed, which were oral traditions. The oral traditions, though not part of Scripture, were just as much the Word of God. Here are some examples:
St. Matthew relates some early events in the life of Jesus and the Holy Family. "And coming he dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was said by the prophet: That he shall be called a Nazarene" (Mt. 2:23). In this instance, after fleeing from Herod, the Holy Family comes to dwell in Nazareth. St. Matthew claims that this is a fulfillment of a prophecy. St. Matthew quotes this prophecy as a revealed truth, and acts as if his audience were familiar with it. It is obvious that this prophecy was part of the depositum fidei. Yet, it is a prophecy of oral tradition. Such a prophecy is nowhere in Scripture. The Scriptures are silent, but St. Matthew speaks.
In his second letter to St. Timothy, St. Paul compares the heretics of his day to the ancient Egyptian sorcerers who opposed Moses in front of Pharaoh: "Now as Jannes and Mambres resisted Moses, so these also resist the truth, men corrupted in mind, reprobate concerning the faith" (II Tim. 3:8). Search the Exodus account [where the account of Moses is recorded] and you won't find the names "Jannes and Mambres." They are part of an oral tradition that, recalled by the inspired Apostle, speaks where the Scriptures are silent.
If I had believed in praying to saints at the same time as I believed in sola scriptura, Jediah, I probably would have appealed to St. Jude, the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes! Indeed, it is St. Jude's Epistle which shows just how hopeless sola scriptura is. In his very short letter, he twice appeals to an oral tradition outside of the Scriptures as if it were revealed by God. In speaking of the heretics of his day, one of his concerns is the lack of honor they paid angels: "In like manner these men also defile the flesh, and despise dominion, and blaspheme majesty" (Jude 1:8). [The Greek text uses the plural for "majesty," which is understood as referring to the angels. —Ed.]
In contrast to such heresy, St. Jude relays a story about St. Michael the Archangel: "When Michael the archangel, disputing with the devil, contended about the body of Moses, he durst not bring against him the judgment of railing speech, but said: The Lord command thee" [i.e., "May the Lord rebuke thee." —Ed.] (Jude 1:9). St. Jude seems sure that his audience knows this story well. ]The cause of the dispute between St. Michael and the devil is not identified, but it is certain the devil wished to make some evil use of the body of Moses. —Ed.] If they did, they didn't learn it from Scripture, but from oral tradition. It is nowhere else recorded in Scripture.
St. Jude isn't through with the bombshells yet, Jediah. He goes on to tell yet another story as he debunks the heretics who, like Korah, are rebelling against the legitimate authorities in the Church.
Now of these Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying: Behold, the Lord cometh with thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to reprove all the ungodly for all the works of their ungodliness, whereby they have done ungodly, and of all the hard things which ungodly sinners have spoken against God. (Jude 1:14-15)
Notice, Jediah, that this prophecy is not in Scripture. It was handed down from the time of Enoch—generations before Noah—to barely a hundred years before Christ when it was finally recorded in the First Book of Enoch, which is not part of Scripture! Jude quotes directly from I Enoch 1:9. This is oral tradition about which the Canon of Scripture is silent, but about which St. Jude speaks.
I could show many other examples, but I know you're a busy man. If you are interested in more examples, let me know.
How could mere men pass along an oral tradition without it being corrupted? They couldn't. It required the guidance of God. Jesus assured his contemporaries that their leaders had, despite all their sins, such a guidance. That's why, in St. Matthew's Gospel, Ch. 23, just before he condemned the deeds of the priests, scribes, and Pharisees, he gave an unqualified approval to their teachings. God saw to it that they taught the truth:
Saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not. For they say, and do not. (Mt. 23:2-3)
4) The Bible Shows the Catholic System of Authority
What I hope to establish in this point is that the Scriptures support the notion of Catholic authority, that the Seat of Moses, passed down in succession for 1500 years until the time of Christ and the High Priesthood of Caiaphas, was transferred to the Church where it became the Seat of Peter.
The events which transpired in the land of the Jews in the first century are monumental events. The coming of Jesus Christ, the preaching of the Gospel, and the establishment of the Church truly rocked the world order. The fate of the Roman Empire was sealed by the few faithful men and women who, by their holy lives and holy deaths, turned the world upside down. It is these holy people in this most tumultuous era which produced the 27 letters which we know as the New Testament. As the inspired Word of God, these venerable documents give us a profound insight into answering this all-important question: What was really going on in the first century? St. Paul answers:
God, who, at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all, in these days, hath spoken to us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the world. Who being the brightness of his glory and the figure of his substance and upholding all things by the word of his power, making purgation of sins, sitteth on the right hand of the majesty on high. (Heb. 1:1-3)
Elsewhere, he makes the same point: "But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law" (Gal. 4:4).
At the turn of the first century, God the Son, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, "God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God. Begotten not made; being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made. Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven. And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary."2 Jesus, the Messiah of Prophecy, "was made flesh and dwelt among us (and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14). Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate"3 and accomplished our salvation by his Blood Atonement on the cross of Calvary.
He came to bring all nations back into a right relationship with God. To do this, He established the Catholic Church. He chose twelve men as apostles to lead this Church. They were given a share in His authority. Once He returned to heavenly glory, the Twelve ruled in His place. To those apostles, Jesus declared: "Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven" (Mt. 18:18).
Elsewhere, our Divine Lord equates the authority of the apostles with His own and with that of His Father: "He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me, receiveth him that sent me" (Mt. 10:40).
Our Divine Lord appointed St. Peter as head over the other apostles. St. Peter was given responsibility to guide the other apostles: "And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren" (Lk. 22:31-32).
St. Matthew specifically states that St. Peter is the Chief of the apostles: "And the names of the twelve Apostles are these: The first, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother" (Mt. 10:2). This is a reference to the special authority vested in St. Peter. The Greek word protos, used here by St. Matthew, is often translated "chief." Chronologically in the order of their choosing, of course, you will remember that St. Andrew, the brother of St. Peter, was the first apostle.
St. Peter exercises his leadership over the apostles when, at his order, a new apostle is chosen.
In those days Peter rising up in the midst of the brethren, said: ...Wherefore of these men who have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, until the day wherein he was taken up from us, one of these must be made a witness with us of his resurrection (Acts 1:15, 21, 22).
Later, when the apostles are arrested, it is St. Peter who takes the stand to testify on their behalf.
And setting them in the midst, they asked: By what power, or by what name, have you done this? Then Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said to them: Ye princes of the people, and ancients, hear.... (Acts 4:7-8)
In the instance when Ananias and Sapphira lie to St. Peter, he sentences them to death for "lying to the Holy Ghost."
But Peter said: Ananias, why hath Satan tempted thy heart, that thou shouldst lie to the Holy Ghost, and by fraud keep part of the price of the land?...And Peter said unto [Sapphiral]: Why have you agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Behold the feet of them who have buried thy husband are at the door, and they shall carry thee out. (Acts 5:3, 9)
As Prince of the Apostles, St. Peter was head of the Catholic Church. This does not take away from Christ's headship. Under the Old Covenant, the Davidic kings had major domos who ruled with the authority of the king while the king was away. (See Isaias, Ch. 22.) The kings, however, remained heads of the kingdom. Likewise, while our Divine Lord Jesus Christ, the final Davidic king, is "away," St. Peter rules as his Major Domo. The Prince of the Apostles was given the commission to shepherd all the Lord's sheep, not just those immediately around him: "Feed my lambs....Feed my lambs....Feed my sheep" (Jn. 21:15-17).
So important is the role of Simon Bar Jona in the Church, that Jesus gives him a title making him Vicar of Christ. That title is "Rock," for only God is a Rock. Christ is God, and authorized to grant the Divine title to whom he will. Only once before had that title been given, and that was to St. Abraham the Patriarch.
Give ear to me, you that follow that which is just, and you that seek the Lord: look unto the rock whence you are hewn and to the hole of the pit from which you are dug out. Look unto Abraham your father, and to Sara that bore you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and multiplied him. (Is. 51:1-2)
Jesus takes the Divine title and grants it to Simon Bar Jonah to use in place of his name. Then, our Divine Lord, the Chief Cornerstone, goes even further and promises to build His new Church upon Simon: "And I say to thee: That thou are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Mt. 16:18).
Our Lord Jesus Christ establishes St. Peter's role as His Major Domo: "I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 16:19a). The authority which belongs to all the apostles together belongs to St. Peter by himself, for our Lord continues: "And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven" (Mt. 16:19b).
To the apostles, Jesus promised to entrust the depositum fidei: "I have yet many things to say to you: but you cannot bear them now. But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth. For he shall not speak of himself: but what things soever he shall hear, he shall speak. And the things that are to come, he shall shew you" (Jn.16:12-13). The Holy Spirit came upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost, instilling in them the entire Word of God.
Jesus had commissioned the apostles to "Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mk. 16:15). So that "all men [could] be saved, and come to knowledge of the truth" (I Tim. 2:4), Jesus granted to the apostles the charism of infallibility. It was not enough for the Holy Spirit to give the apostles the true faith, the depositum fidei, but he would also see to it that the apostles continued to teach the truth without doctrinal or moral error. Said our Blessed Lord: "But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you" (Jn. 14:26). Only if it was assured that the apostles would teach truth would it be possible for Jesus to tell His apostles: "He that receiveth you, receiveth me: and he that receiveth me, receiveth him that sent me" (Mt. 10:40).
The infallibility of St. Peter and other apostles was not the same as impeccability, or sinlessness. The only one who was by nature sinless was Jesus Himself. The Blessed Mother was also without sin, but not by nature. She was preserved from sin by the grace of God, of which she was perfectly full, that she might be worthy to carry the Incarnate God in her womb. The apostles were great men, but still only men. They had the same temptations and weaknesses that all men do. They were not infallible because of their innate holiness. Rather, they were infallible because of a gift of God in spite of their sins.
The apostles spread the Gospel to the nations, sacrificing their lives for the cause of Christ. They preached the whole depositum fidei, so that St. Jude could write: "Dearly beloved, taking all care to write unto you concerning your common salvation, I was under a necessity to write unto you: to beseech you to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3).
From time to time, certain problems arose in the infant Church requiring direct apostolic intervention. When an apostle was unable to come to the aid of the specific local church or churches affected, he wrote an epistle. So that this epistle would be just as reliable as his preaching, God the Holy Spirit inspired the author. The written epistles were to be considered every bit as binding on the Church as the preached word. Both were part of the depositum fidei; both were the Word of God. St. Paul commands: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle" (II Thess. 2:14). In recent centuries, detractors have made unsubstantiated claims that we are only to follow the traditions taught in "our epistle," that is, the Scriptures, and not those taught "by word." Others claim that all of the teachings "by word" were eventually recorded in epistles anyway. Both conclusions are not upheld by Scripture, tradition, or history.
The apostles were not alone in spreading the Gospel throughout the world. All Catholics, by virtue of their baptism, share the responsibility of evangelization. Certain men were chosen by the apostles to share in the leadership of the Church. These men were called deacons, presbyters, and bishops. The Greek term presbuteroi is translated variously as "presbyter," "elder," and "ancient." It is the etymological origin of the Anglo-Saxon "priest," and is often rendered this way in the Douay-Rheims Bible. "Bishop" is the English translation of episkopoi, also translated as "overseer." These three orders of successors to the apostles were ordained by the laying on of the apostles' hands and the reception of the Holy Ghost. Deacons are called to a ministry of service.
And in those days, the number of the disciples increasing, there arose a murmuring of the Greeks against the Hebrews, for that their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve calling together the multitude of the disciples, said: It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business....And the saying was liked by all the multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles; and they praying, imposed hands upon them. (Acts 6:1-3, 5, 6).
The priests are the delegates of the bishop. They share in governing the Church.
And some coming down from Judea, taught the brethren: That except you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved. And when Paul and Barnabas had no small contest with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain others of the other side, should go up to the apostles and priests to Jerusalem [to solve this question]. (Acts 15:1-2)
For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and shouldest ordain priests in every city, as I also appointed thee.... (Titus 1:5)
Often, there are several priests in each local church. They inherit from the apostles, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, the power to turn bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ and the power to forgive sins.
When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. (Jn. 20:22-23)
The bishops are the leaders or shepherds of the Catholic Church. They have authority over all congregations in their area. They ordain priests and deacons (see Titus 1:5 above), and have the authority to excommunicate: "A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid..." (Titus 3:10). Those who succeeded the apostles by the laying on of hands shared in their authority. These men were guided by the Holy Spirit into all truth. Their preached message and inspired writings are the very Word of God, the two fonts of revelation.
Scripture shows, Jediah, that it was not only the apostles and those on whom they laid their hands that were guided by the Holy Spirit in all truth. The line of succession has continued to this day in the deacons, priests, and bishops of the Catholic Church. You have objected to this, citing the eighth chapter of Acts. It is recorded in this chapter of the Acts of the Apostles that St. Philip converts and baptizes many Samaritans. When it comes time for them to receive the Holy Spirit or, in Catholic terms, the sacrament of confirmation, Philip is unable to do this. He sends for SS. Peter and John from Jerusalem, who come and lay hands on the Samaritans.
Now when the apostles, who were in Jerusalem, had heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John. Who, when they were come, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost ....Then they laid their hands upon them, and they received the Holy Ghost. (Acts 8:14, 15, 17)
From this you argue that only the apostles could confer the gift of the Holy Spirit by laying on of hands. The Church of Christ, Baptists, and other noncharismatic Protestants use this to argue against Pentecostalism and Catholicism, both of which involve the transmission of the gift of the Holy Ghost by laying on of hands. To the Catholic, Jediah, this passage does not prove anything. You see, St. Philip was a deacon. Deacons do not have the power to anoint people with the Holy Spirit. Priests and bishops, as the apostles did, do have that power. We use this passage to demonstrate that the power to confirm belongs only to rightly ordained priests and bishops.
Evidence from Scripture abounds that apostolic succession was intended to continue. Firstly, let's consider St. Timothy. He was a co-author of Sacred Scripture (II Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, I and II Thessalonians, and Philemon) and a close companion of St. Paul the Apostle. I'm sure you would agree that he received the gift of the Holy Spirit by the hand of St. Paul: "Neglect not the grace that is in thee , which was given thee by prophecy, with imposition of the hands of priesthood" (Douay-Rheims, I Tim. 4:14). Catholics generally interpret this to refer to St. Timothy's ordination as Bishop of Ephesus. Technically, however, the passage could possibly refer to any situation in which St. Timothy received the Holy Spirit, i.e., by sacrament of confirmation, by ordination to the diaconate or the priesthood, or to receive miraculous power. Notice how the Holy Spirit was given: "with imposition of the hands of the priesthood." The New American Standard and King James Version editions of the Bible translate: "the laying on of hands of the presbytery." The New Revised Standard Version has: "the laying on of hands by the council of elders." The non-Catholic New International Version has: "when the body of elders laid their hands on you."
These translations leave us, Jediah, with two possibilities: 1) St. Timothy received the Holy Spirit from priests and not apostles, or 2) St. Paul was among the "council of elders" which gave St. Timothy the Holy Ghost. If the first possibility is true, then your objection has fallen completely apart. With early priests/presbyters/elders conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost without apostles, it is proven that not only apostles could confer the gift of the Holy Spirit. This means that the apostolic succession did not end with the death of the last apostle. Rather, those upon whom the apostles laid their hands also laid their hands upon people with the same effect. The second possibility appears true because it is backed up by St. Paul: "For which cause I admonish thee [Timothy] that thou stir up the grace of God which is in thee, by the imposition of my hands" (II Tim. 1:6).
Though it is less embarrassing of the two for you, it still does not support your view. You see, Jediah, the Scriptures attribute the giving of the Holy Ghost not only to the unmentioned apostle, but to all of the priests. Also, if St. Paul was a priest/presbyter/elder, it disproves the teaching of the Church of Christ sect that an "elder" must be married with children.
Secondly, there is another scriptural example which involves St. Titus, Bishop of Crete. The Scripture is very clear that St. Titus, who inherited his authority from the Apostle Paul, had complete authority in Crete. St. Paul urges him: "These things speak and exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee" (Titus 2:15).
What a powerful phrase! There is absolutely no implication in the text that St. Titus served either as an elder or a preacher in the sense understood by your Church of Christ. He neither shares his authority with other Cretan elders nor works as a preacher under the Cretan elders. On the contrary, any elders are subject to his authority! "For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldst set in order the things that are wanting, and shouldst ordain priests in every city, as I also appointed thee..." (Titus 1:5). The non-Catholic King James Version has: "ordain elders," where the Douay-Rheims has "ordain priests." In any case, officials are not appointed by those under them. You don't choose your boss at work, do you?
Likewise, St. Timothy also has authority over his elders, so much so that he is the one who hears and judges the crimes committed by them. If your boss were to commit tax fraud, would it be your place to remove him from office? Of course not! But listen to these words of St. Paul to Timothy: "Against a priest receive not an accusation, but under two or three witnesses. Them that sin reprove before all: that the rest also may have fear" [i.e., Reprimand publicly those who do sin, so that the rest will be afraid.—Ed.] (I Tim. 5:19-20).
Right after explaining to St. Timothy how to handle unworthy priests, St. Paul offers definitive proof that men other than the apostles could practice the laying on of hands: "Impose not hands lightly upon any man, neither be partaker of other men's sins" (I Tim. 22). The Scriptures are clear that those who serve as leaders of the Church—deacons, priests, and bishops—do so by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. Hence, St. Paul commands the Macedonian Catholic bishops: "Take heed to yourselves, and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops, to rule the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28).
Jediah, you believe that the elders of the Churches of Christ are the "bishops" or "overseers" that the Apostle mentions. But you also deny the power to confer the gift of the Holy Spirit to all but the apostles. Unless one of the apostles visited New York City, for instance, to lay hands on your elders, then how can you say that the Holy Spirit made them overseers? And if the Holy Spirit did not make them overseers, then they are not really overseers!
During the lives of the apostles, the ordained bishops and priests shared in the governance of the Catholic Church. For many years, St. Peter and the Twelve remained at the Mother Church, Jerusalem, while St. Paul exercised his authority in transit. When the first grave heresy arose, that of the Judaizers, St. Paul came to meet with the apostles in Jerusalem. It was not, however, the apostles alone who made the decision. Paul brought with him St. Barnabas, who is called an apostle but is not of the same rank as the Twelve and Paul. In Jerusalem they met with "the apostles and priests" (Acts 15:2). After grueling hours of unrecorded discussion regarding whether physical circumcision was necessary for salvation, St. Peter decided the matter.
And when there had been much disputing, Peter, rising up, said to them: Men, brethren, you know, that in former days God made choice among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, who knoweth the hearts, gave testimony, giving unto them the Holy Ghost as well as to us; and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why tempt you God to put a yoke upon the necks of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we believe to be saved, in like manner as they also. And the multitude held their peace.... (Acts 15:7-12a)
St. James the Righteous, who had before sympathized with the Jews, spoke, granting assent of will to the decision of St. Peter and the council. The decision was codified in a letter and written in the name of "the apostles and ancients," and stated that its ruling was the decision of the Holy Ghost:
Writing by their hands: The apostles and ancients, brethren, to the brethren of the Gentiles that are at Antioch, and in Syria and Cilicia, greeting....For it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us to lay no further burden upon you than these necessary things: That you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; from which things keeping yourselves, you shall do well. Fare ye well. (Acts 15:23, 28, 29)
Since the line of succession was intended to continue, so was the charism of infallibility. Indeed, the second, third, tenth, and ten thousandth generation of Christians is every bit as important to our Lord as was the first. That is why He has guaranteed to preserve His Catholic Church from teaching error. Since the bishops of the Catholic Church enjoy a direct traceable succession from Christ and the apostles, when they speak together on matters of faith and morals, they cannot err. Also, since our Divine Lord appointed St. Peter to be His Vicar and the visible head of the Church on earth, his successors, the Bishops of Rome, enjoy the same authority.
Notice, Jediah, what our Lord said when promising the apostles the Holy Spirit: "And I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete, that he may abide with you for ever" (Jn. 14:16). Elsewhere, our Lord promised: "Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world" (Mt. 28:20). Or, as St. Isaias foretold: "This is my covenant with them, saith the Lord: My spirit that is in thee, and my words that I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed's seed, with the Lord, from henceforth and for ever" (Is. 59:21).
Because the Holy Ghost is the soul of the Catholic Church to guide its true leaders in truth, we can have the confidence of St. Paul writing to St. Timothy: "But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (I Tim. 3:15).
In the September 2000 issue of The Angelus we will publish the second and final part of this open letter to "Jediah." In it, we will examine how the first generation of Christians interpreted the words of the apostles before it. Did they believe in and adhere to the Catholic system, or did they believe in sola scriptura?
1. Dr. Scott Hahn. Rome Sweet Home. San Francisco, Ignatius Press: 1993.
2. Nicene Creed.
3. Apostles' Creed.