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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Is the Bible the Ultimate Authority?

Don Stewart :: What Is the Roman Catholic Claim as to Where Ultimate Authority Resides?

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Question 4

What Is the Roman Catholic Claim as to Where Ultimate Authority Resides?

The Roman Catholic Church makes certain claims about itself and the divine authority which it says it uniquely possesses. These claims should be clearly understood by all. If the claims of the Roman Church are true, then the spiritual issues that are discussed among believers can be easily settled; just ask the Roman Church.

Protestants reject the claims of authority which are made by the Roman Church. Therefore, the Protestant response to these claims should also be made plain to everyone. Consequently, it will be helpful to outline the claims of the Roman Church as well as the Protestant position with respect to these claims.

The Roman Church Must Prove Their Claims from Scripture Alone

Before we examine what the Roman Church believes about the issue of ultimate authority, it is necessary to understand that their position must be proven to be correct if we are to believe it; their word is not enough. For the Roman Catholic position to be true, all of their claims must be supported by the Scripture.

Unless it can be demonstrated that the Bible establishes these various claims, no one should be expected to believe them. Therefore, a careful examination of Scripture is necessary to see if what the Roman Church asserts about itself matches up with Holy Scripture. This should be our starting point.

The Roman Catholic Position Concerning Ultimate Authority

The position of the Roman Catholic Church, as to where ultimate authority rests, can be simply summed up by a number of points. They are as follows:

  1. Christ Has Established the Church on the Earth

    To begin with, Roman Catholics believe that the establishment of the church on the earth is something that Jesus Christ founded. It is His church. He alone is the One who founded it.

  2. The Church Is a Distinct Society of People

    The church which Christ established on the earth is a distinct society; it is different from all other societies whether they may be religious or non-religious. In other words, the church is a unique group of people set apart from the rest of humanity. A person is either part of the church or he or she is not.

  3. The Church Will Always Continue to Exist

    Christ promised that His church would always continue. There would never be a time when they would cease to exist. Nothing can stop this from happening.

  4. The Church Always Exists as a Visible Society

    The church is not only a distinct society that will continue to exist; it has been, and always will be, a visible society. From the time of the apostles, and in an unbroken succession until the present, the church has publicly existed as a distinct entity for the entire world to see.

  5. The Church Will Be Free from Error

    This visible church, which has existed publicly from the time of the apostles, has always been pure; free from any type of doctrinal error. It has not only been entrusted with the truth of God, it will always continue to proclaim this truth, and only this truth. In fact, it is incapable of error.

    The New Testament says that the church is the pillar and support, or foundation, of truth. Paul wrote to Timothy:

    I hope to visit you soon. However, I’m writing this to you in case I’m delayed. I want you to know how people who are members of God’s family must live. God’s family is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:14-15 God’s Word)

    The truth of God has been entrusted to the church and to it alone. Therefore, it is not possible for the church to make any mistake in areas of doctrine or teaching. That which the church proclaims is the truth of Jesus Christ. Thus, we have God’s infallible presence on the earth.

    The Church of Rome admits errors occurred among those who professed to be Christians, but these errors did not infect the church. To the contrary, the church always rejected these errors and condemned them. Those who brought these errors into the church were sent away by the God-given leaders.

    Thus, the church, they argue, has always been pure and without corruption, it has never changed its earlier views or ever contradicted itself. All of the teachings that the church holds, it has held since apostolic times without any variation. However, at times, the church has given fuller explanations and definitions to certain teachings. Yet, in all this, they have been consistent in their teaching from the very beginning. Consequently, the promise of Christ, that the church would be pure throughout the ages, is established by the facts of history.

  6. The Roman Church Is That True Church the Bible Speaks About

    The Roman Church believes that the Scripture teaches the church which Christ left upon the earth is His church. This church will exist until He returns. It is made up of a distinct group of people who will have a continuous visibility from the beginning. In addition, this entity will always be doctrinally pure and proclaim only His truth. This, they argue, is the New Testament picture of the church.

    After this point is established, the Church at Rome then tries to prove that this one true church of Christ must be equated with it and it alone; they are “the” church that the New Testament speaks about. To support these claims, the Roman Church says that it has existed continuously from the beginning, it has been visible from the beginning, and it has been pure in its doctrine from the beginning. While other groups have risen for a time and then disappeared, the Roman Church remains. They see this as evidence that they are the true church.

    From the point of view of the Roman Church, the church is thus defined as the congregation of all the faithful, professing the same faith, partaking in the same sacraments, and governed by the same lawful leaders which are under one visible head, the Bishop of Rome. Therefore, the true believers in Jesus Christ must be in subjection to the Bishop of Rome, who is the Vicar, or substitute, of Christ and the head of the church.

    When the Bishop of Rome, or the Pope, who is the head of the church that Christ has established, makes authoritative pronouncements on areas of belief and behavior, he speaks ex cathedra (from the chair). This means his pronouncements are immune from error. His words are the words of Christ.

  7. The Bible Is Under the Authority of the Roman Church

    This brings us to the Roman Catholic view of Scripture. Because the church claims to be God’s continuing voice upon the earth, the Bible, like everything else, is under its supreme authority. The First Vatican Council gives the authoritative Roman Catholic perspective on the Bible. It said:

    “It is not from sacred Scripture alone that the [Roman Catholic] Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed,” but “sacred tradition [transmits] in its full purity God’s word which was entrusted to the apostles.”

    Sacred tradition makes up what is lacking in the Bible. Roman Catholics cite tradition as authoritative because they say it was appealed to by the early Christians in order to refute false doctrine and to settle doctrinal issues. Therefore, from the Roman Catholic perspective, it is both sacred tradition, as well as sacred Scripture, which are to be accepted as the instruments used by the Roman Church in their decision making process. However, it is the Roman Church itself which has the final authority because it is the custodian, guardian, teacher, and interpreter of the Bible, as well as the custodian and preserver of this sacred tradition.

Rome Claims to Be the Infallible Standard

Thus, we find that the Roman Church believes that the infallible standard of truth is the church itself. The Roman Church not only infallibly determines the proper interpretation of Scripture; it also supplements Scripture with additional traditions and teachings. It is that combination of church tradition plus the church’s interpretation of Scripture which constitutes the binding rule of faith and practice for all Roman Catholics. Its interpretations must be accepted without any question. To Roman Catholics, the voice of the church is the voice of Jesus Christ. In this way, the Roman Church places itself above the Bible in its authority.

Consequently, all matters of faith and practice are determined by their interpretation of the Scripture as well as their understanding of the sacred traditions which have been handed down. They also claim the authority to add further revelation that is additional to the Scripture, but not contrary to it. In the past, they have used this power to advocate such doctrines as the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and the infallibility of the Pope. They believe that all their major decisions have been consistent with Scripture.

The Bible Is Not the Final Authority

The result is this: the Bible is not the final standard of truth—rather it is the Roman Catholic Church and their infallible interpretation of it. They believe that the Scriptures are authoritative, but they are incomplete. This is important to understand. The Roman Church believes that God has more to say to humanity than that which is contained in the Bible. Oral tradition supplies what is lacking in written tradition, the Scriptures, and thus is an authority alongside of the Bible. Only the Roman Church can correctly interpret both Scripture and sacred tradition. And because sacred tradition is ongoing, Roman Catholic theology is constantly evolving. Thus, if we want to hear God’s voice today, we must listen to the Roman Church.

This sums up the Roman Catholic position. They believe they are the true church. Consequently, they have the final say on all matters. Their authority is over everything; including the Bible.

The Protestant Response to the Claims of the Roman Church

As we have emphasized, since both Protestants and Roman Catholics agree that Scripture is God’s divinely authoritative Word, it is from Scripture alone that this issue must be settled. Thus, Protestants respond to these Roman Catholic claims from Scripture in the following manner.

  1. The Church Was Instituted by Christ

    Protestants agree that the church on the earth was instituted by Jesus Christ and by Him alone. The church is His body. The New Testament makes this clear. There is no disagreement with the Roman Church here.

  2. The Church Is a Distinct Society of People

    The church is indeed a distinct group of people that belong to Christ. They are different than those people who belong to other religions, those who are members of non-Christian cults, or those who profess no religious belief whatsoever. Thus, a person is either part of the church of Jesus Christ, or he or she is not. There is no middle ground here.

  3. The Church Will Exist until Christ Returns

    Because of the promise of Jesus, we know that the church will continue to exist until He returns. He has made this promise and He always keeps His promises. Jesus said:

    On this rock I will build my church, and death itself will not have any power over it. (Matthew 16:18 CEV)

    Nothing can stop Jesus’ church from existing, and no force has any power over it.

  4. The Church Will Not Necessarily Be Visible at All Times

    At this point, the Protestants differ from the Roman Church. Protestants agree that the church can, and should be, a visible entity on the earth. This is not difficult to illustrate from Scripture. For example, we are told in the Book of Acts that the Lord added to the church:

    And the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47 NET)

    The Lord added to the number of believers that were already meeting in the city of Jerusalem. This addition to the number of believers was something that was visible to all.

    We also note that the Apostle Paul addressed his letter to the “churches” in Galatia. He said:

    Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia. (Galatians 1:1-2 NRSV)

    Again, we are dealing with entities that were public and visible. There were a number of different communities in Galatia which were called “churches.” There is no disputing this. The church was a distinct group of people who professed faith in Jesus Christ. This was all done publicly and visibly.

    However, the Protestants disagree with Roman Catholics as far as defining the church as a continuous visible entity. While the church will always exist as the distinct people of Jesus Christ, there is nothing in Scripture that says that it must always be a visible entity. Protestants also speak of the “invisible church” or the “spiritual church” as well as the visible church. The invisible or spiritual church is made up of the true believers in Jesus Christ; those who have trusted Him as their Savior.

    The people who belong to the visible or organized church may or may not be true believers. It is not enough to be a church member or to be in good stead with the church. To be a member of Christ’s true church, one must be regenerated, or “born again.” The true church is made up of these people.

    This does not mean that there are two churches; one visible and one invisible. What it means is that the true church is not necessarily the same as the visible church.

    It is also possible that there are times when the church will not have some type of high profile visibility. It is possible, even likely, that the public side of the church will not be apparent in various places around the world. This certainly does not mean that the church has ceased to exist, or that the work of God has somehow stopped. It merely means that it will not necessarily be on public display. Indeed, in a number of countries, where Christianity is outlawed or persecuted, the work of the Lord continues in a non-public manner.

  5. The Church Is Never Promised Infallibility

    The Protestants also take issue with the idea that the church on earth will somehow be infallible. There is nothing in Scripture that remotely teaches, predicts, or implies anything like this. While the church has been given God’s truth through the Holy Scriptures, and has the charge to proclaim this infallible truth, it is possible for fallible Christian leaders to misunderstand or misapply these truths. Church decisions can never be assumed to be infallible.

    As far as the church being pure and remaining pure, this is actually contrary to what Scripture teaches. Peter himself wrote:

    False prophets were among God’s people [in the past], as false teachers will be among you. They will secretly bring in their own destructive teachings. They will deny the Lord, who has bought them, and they will bring themselves swift destruction. Many people will follow them in their sexual freedom and will cause others to dishonor the way of truth. (2 Peter 2:1-2 God’s Word)

    Indeed, false teachers had already infiltrated the church during the time the New Testament was still being written. Jude warned his readers:

    Dear friends, although I have been eager to write to you about our common salvation, I now feel compelled instead to write to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men have secretly slipped in among you—men who long ago were marked out for the condemnation I am about to describe—ungodly men who have turned the grace of our God into a license for evil and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 3-4 NET)

    Instead of becoming more pure, the church will find itself engulfed with more false teachers and false teaching. This is exactly what occurred in the history of the church. Therefore, the truth must be sorted out from error. However, in doing so, church leaders are never promised some sort of personal or doctrinal infallibility. History demonstrates that the church has rightly understood and applied God’s truth at certain times, while at other times they have misunderstood and misapplied it. They have been anything but perfect.

    The Romanists, on the other hand, cannot believe that the church could have been in error for as long as the Protestants contend; for one thousand years in the so-called “dark ages.” However, who are we to say what God would or would not allow when He has not committed Himself either way in His Word? The fact that the organized visible church was in darkness for a long period of time is not contrary to anything that is taught in Scripture. Therefore, the Roman Catholic idea of the continuous doctrinal purity of the church cannot be supported biblically or historically.

  6. The Roman Church Is Not the True Church to Which Believers Must Submit

    Protestants strenuously deny the Roman Catholic claims about the nature of the true church that Jesus placed upon the earth. There is nothing in Scripture that says that the church must always be a continuous visible entity that stands out in the eyes of humans. Neither does the New Testament teach that the church will infallibly proclaim the truth of Christ without the possibility of doctrinal error. This is certainly not the biblical view of the church.

    Even if this were taught in Scripture, the next point, that the Roman Church is this true church, cannot be sustained either biblically or historically. Indeed, the Roman Church bears no resemblance to the church which is portrayed in the New Testament.

    The idea that the Roman church has remained doctrinally pure cannot be taken seriously by anyone who has looked at the matter. This is even admitted by Roman Catholic defenders. The examples of the authorized leaders of the church falling into doctrinal error can be easily documented.

    Thus, there is no basis for the claims of the Roman Catholic Church as to the nature of the church which Jesus is building upon the earth, or the idea that they somehow are the one true church to which all true believers must submit. Both of these points, which the Roman Church must prove to be true from Scripture, are shown to be false. Therefore, their claims of authority are to be soundly rejected.

  7. The Reformation Doctrine of Sola Scriptura: the Scripture Alone Should Be Our Guide

    In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformers emphasized that ultimate authority did not come from the visible church on earth, but rather from the written Word of God, and from it alone. The doctrine is known as Sola Scriptura. It is the Scriptures alone that are the final authority on all matters of faith and practice. This is a correct understanding of what the Bible teaches about itself.

    It is important that we understand the point of disagreement between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics regarding Sola Scriptura. The question is whether Scripture alone is a sufficient rule of faith and practice. The Protestant view, and the biblical view, is that the Bible itself is the only binding rule of faith and practice for all Christians. It is not only authoritative, it is sufficient. Nothing else is necessary.

    The faith, which God has revealed to the world, has been once and for all delivered, as Jude noted:

    My dear friends, I really wanted to write you about God’s saving power at work in our lives. But instead, I must write and ask you to defend the faith that God has once for all given to his people. (Jude 3 CEV)

    Ultimate authority is not found in Christian creeds, church councils, or one single church leader, such as the Pope. It is the Bible alone which reveals the will of the living God.

    As far as church tradition, whether written or oral, as having some sort of authority over spiritual matters, a couple of points need to be emphasized. First, a study of church tradition shows that it often contradicts itself. This fact alone destroys its claim to have any type of binding authority. It cannot be divinely inspired if it is contradictory. God does not oppose Himself.

    Furthermore, church tradition often contradicts Scripture. This being the case, one would have to make the choice between the two; either the Bible or church tradition is final and authoritative. It is not possible to have two infallible lines of truth which contradict each other. Since we find that church tradition is often self-contradictory, and the Bible is not, this conclusively settles the matter. The Scripture stands as the last word on all matters; tradition has no binding authority.

  8. Roman Catholics Do Not like to Argue with Protestants from the Bible

    There is something else that needs to be mentioned. While these issues, of necessity, have to be decided from Scripture, Romans Catholics are not fond of attempting to establish their claims from the Bible. For one thing, learned Roman Catholics realize that the Scripture does not give them any basis for substantiating their claims. In fact, as we have seen, a close examination of the Scripture will demonstrate that their claims have no basis whatsoever.

    Second, entering into a discussion from Scripture concedes the point which they do not want to concede. If this fundamental question, about what is the nature of true church, can be solved by investigating what the Bible says on the matter, then why should not all other issues between Roman Catholics and Protestants also be settled by appealing to Scripture? If we can solve our spiritual questions from the teachings of Scripture, then why should we look elsewhere?

    The Roman Church contends that while the Scriptures are true and authoritative, they are incomplete. This is why we must look elsewhere to answer these fundamental questions. Consequently, they deny the idea of the sufficiency of Scripture.

  9. What Roman Catholics Believe Should Characterize the Church

    Therefore, we find that the Roman Church will usually pursue a different line in answering this, as well as other questions on these eternal issues. In their defense of Romanism, they try to produce general considerations from the Scripture that give us a general view of what the church should be like. Thus, they conclude that there are certain things which should characterize the true church. These usually include the following four things: unity, purity, apostolicity, and catholicity or universality. They can be briefly explained in the following manner.

    First, the church must be unified, or “one.” Second, the church must be holy or pure in its teaching. Third, the church must have an unbroken connection to the apostles. And fourth, the church must be catholic or universal. Then, they argue, that only the Roman Church fits the profile of the church that is revealed in the New Testament.

    Their argument can be summed up as follows: As described in the New Testament, and in the early Christian creeds, the church of Jesus Christ is to be unified, holy, or set apart from the world, apostolic, and universal. The Roman Church is unified, holy, apostolic, and catholic or universal. Since no other church has these characteristics, or marks, then the Roman Church alone is the true church which the Bible and the creeds speak of. Therefore, if the Roman Church is the true church, then it and it alone speaks authoritatively for Jesus Christ.

The Response of Protestants

Protestants would disagree that the church which is characterized in the New Testament is the same as what is found in Roman Catholicism. In fact, it is nothing like it. Protestants would agree that the church on earth should be unified, holy, or set apart for Jesus Christ, be able to trace its beliefs and practices back to the apostles, and be universal in scope. However, they would not understand any of these terms in the same sense as Roman Catholics would. Why? Because the Bible does not understand these terms in that sense!

Again, we come back to the central issue. Are we going to use the Bible as our common source to discuss these issues, or are we going to bring in other sources that do not have God?s divine authority behind them? This is where the line is drawn.

Furthermore, even if it is conceded that the church on earth is supposed to be like the Roman Church claims it is to be, this certainly does not mean it is the true church. The Eastern Orthodox, or the Greek Orthodox Church, makes the same claims for itself. Why should the claims of the Roman Church be believed and the Greek claims rejected? On what basis do we decide which of these two ancient communities is the true church of Christ?

Fortunately, we do not have to make this decision. Neither the Greek, nor Roman Church, is anything like the church that we find revealed in the New Testament.

Therefore, we conclude that it is the Bible, the written Word of God, which is the final authority for believers in Jesus Christ. The Bible points beyond itself to the absolute authority of the living God. Therefore, God exercises His authority in the churches through the Holy Scriptures. The Bible is complete, or sufficient, in that it contains everything the church needs to know in this world concerning the way of salvation and the proper way of serving the Lord. Nothing else is necessary.

Summary - Question 4
What Is the Roman Catholic Claim as to Where Ultimate Authority Resides?

The issue of ultimate authority is of the utmost importance. Believers in Jesus need to know where to go to discover final answers. The Roman Catholic Church, as well as Protestants, have an answer to this question. However, their answers differ. Romanism says that Christ meant for His church to be a continuous visible entity from the time He left the world until He comes again. They also contend that the church is to remain doctrinally pure during the time it is here on the earth. Therefore, the visible church on the earth will be that entity that provides the ultimate answers to our deepest questions about spiritual truth.

The Roman Church then claims that they alone are that church which the New Testament speaks about. Therefore, all believers in Jesus must submit to them because they alone have the final answers to these spiritual questions.

Thus, the Roman Church can speak infallibly on doctrinal matters. Because the church has been given ultimate authority by Jesus, it decides all spiritual matters; the Bible does not. The Roman Church believes the Bible is a true and authoritative document, but it is not sufficient. More is needed. Sacred tradition supplies what is lacking in the written Scripture. Therefore, the Bible, along with sacred tradition, are merely the instruments the Roman Church uses to make its authoritative decisions about what is true and what is not. The Roman Church has the final say.

The Protestant Church rejects a number of these claims of Romanism. While it does agree that the church was established by Jesus and that it will remain until He returns, it does not agree that it must always be visible. There is an invisible or spiritual church that exists. These are the true believers in Jesus Christ; the church does not merely consist of those who profess belief.

Furthermore, the idea that the church on earth is supposed to be infallible is soundly rejected. Nothing like this is taught, predicted, or even suggested in Scripture. Therefore, the Roman Catholic view of the nature of the church is at odds with the New Testament. It is the Scripture, and it alone, that is the authoritative and sufficient guide for all Christians. The church on the earth must submit to the Scripture.

In addition, the idea that the Roman Catholic Church is the church that Christ set up, and that all believers must submit to it, is also rejected in the strongest possible manner. As stated, Protestants do not believe Jesus left any organization on the earth that is to be His infallible spokesman. Moreover, if He had done this, the Roman Church is not that entity.

Protestants also take issue with a number of other claims of the Roman Church; such as church tradition having some type of authority. Church tradition cannot be any type of final authority for the believer because it has a number of differing viewpoints; many of which actually contradict the Scripture. Since tradition has shown to be self-contradictory, and the Bible is not, the Bible alone must be our final standard.

The doctrine of Sola Scriptura, or the Scripture alone, is the Protestant position and the biblical position. To decide matters of ultimate truth, we must go to the Bible and determine what it teaches; it alone is our guide.

Finally, we note that Roman Catholics do not like to argue these issues of authority directly from the Bible. For one thing, the Bible contradicts their position. Second, arguing from the Bible demonstrates that the Bible can indeed provide answers to these types of questions. This is something that the Roman Church will not admit to be true.

Therefore, when the facts are considered, it becomes clear that Jesus did not establish the Roman Church to be His infallible source of truth. His truth has been once and for all revealed in the Holy Scriptures—the Bible. The Bible alone is the authoritative, complete, and sufficient guide which gives ultimate answers on matters of belief and practice.

Where Do Protestants and Roman Catholics Differ on the Question of the Authority of the Scripture? ← Prior Section
Did Jesus Give Peter the Unique Authority to Speak for Him? (Papal Authority) Next Section →
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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