An issue that separates the theology of Protestants (especially evangelicals) from the theology of the Catholic Church is the authority of the Church. I have often heard a caricature of evangelical churches as churches that don’t believe the Church is authoritative. But most evangelicals do believe that the Church is authoritative in some sense. Even for autonomous congregations like mine (which means there is no higher ecclesiastical authority than the leaders of the congregation), the congregation’s leadership has authority. As the first part of Hebrews 13:17 says: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority….”
The issue that divides Catholics and evangelicals is whether the Church (however this is defined) has an authority greater than or equal to the authority of the Bible. Evangelicals say “No!” Catholics say, “Yes!”
In conversation with many of my Catholic friends, the argument is often made that, historically, the Church gave us the Bible. It was the Church which decided (or, at least, recognized) which books belonged in the Bible, and it was the Church that preserved the manuscripts. And so it is improper, they say, to place the Bible as an authority over the Church, since the Church gave us the Bible.
Is this a good argument?
G. K. Chesterton thought it was. In his work, The Catholic Church and Conversion, the English journalist used this argument in explaining why he finds Protestantism’s criticisms of the Church strange:
To this I owe the fact that I find it very difficult to take some of the Protestant propositions even seriously. What is any man who has been in the real outer world, for instance, to make of the everlasting cry that Catholic traditions are condemned by the Bible? It indicates a jumble of topsy-turvy tests and tail-foremost arguments, of which I never could at any time see the sense. The ordinary sensible sceptic or pagan is standing in the street (in the supreme character of the man in the street) and he sees a procession go by of the priests of some strange cult, carrying their object of worship under a canopy, some of them wearing high head-dresses and carrying symbolical staffs, others carrying scrolls and sacred records, others carrying sacred images and lighted candles before them, others sacred relics in caskets or cases, and so on. I can understand the spectator saying, “This is all hocus-pocus”; I can even understand him, in moments of irritation, breaking up the procession, throwing down the images, tearing up the scrolls, dancing on the priests and anything else that might
express that general view. I can understand his saying, “Your croziers are bosh, your candles are bosh, your statues and scrolls and relics and all the rest of it are bosh.” But in what conceivable frame of mind does he rush in to select one particular scroll of the scriptures of this one particular group (a scroll which had always belonged to them and been a part of their hocus-pocus, if it was hocus-pocus); why in the world should the man in the street say that one particular scroll was not bosh, but was the one and only truth by which all the other things were to be condemned? Why should it not be as superstitious to worship the scrolls as the statues, of that one particular procession? Why should it not be as reasonable to preserve the statues as the scrolls, by the tenets of that particular creed? To say to the priests, “Your statues and scrolls are condemned by our common sense,” is sensible. To say, “Your statues are condemned by your scrolls, and we are going to worship one part of your procession and wreck the rest,” is not sensible from any standpoint, least of all that of the man in the street.
This argument appeals to many people. I remember the lengthy time in college when I encountered arguments like these. It led to much reading and reflection, and a considerable amount of uncertainty about how to handle it.
A few years ago, as I was reading some of the letters of C. S. Lewis, I came across a letter where Lewis had address this problem. In a letter written later in life, C. S. Lewis warned a correspondent about this type of argument. He wrote:
“Beware of the argument ‘the Church gave the Bible (and therefore the Bible can never give us grounds for criticising the Church)’. It is perfectly possible to accept B on the authority of A and yet regard B as a higher authority than A. It happens when I recommend a book to a pupil. I first sent him to the book, but, having gone to it, he knows (for I’ve told him) that the author knows more about that subject than I.” (Yours, Jack, 349)
I think Lewis is right. He does two things that I think need to be done but often aren’t in many discussions.
First, he rightly shows that there is nothing logically inconsistent about the idea of someone accepting the Bible on the authority of the wider Christian witness to it (that is, the Church). The person or entity through which we learn of something else’s authority doesn’t have to be a higher authority.
C. S. Lewis gives a book recommendation as an example. But there are many, many examples that could be given. A child can learn from her parents about the authority of the country’s king, accept the authority of the country’s king because the parents taught her to do so, and still recognize that the king is a higher authority than the parent.
You could reply that since the church decided which books belong in the New Testament, then that gives the Church a higher authority (or, at least, an equal authority). In other words, the Church’s authority isn’t proven from its telling us to see the Bible as an authority; the Church’s authority comes from its deciding what constitutes the Bible.
The problem with this is that Christians have traditionally rejected that the Church decided what belonged in the Bible; instead, the Church merely recognized which books should go in the Bible. Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:
It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books.” (Section 120; emphasis mine)
The Church didn’t decide which writings are in the Bible; it discerned it. There’s an important difference there. So I think Lewis is right in warning about this commonly-heard argument.
Second, C. S. Lewis is right to reject this argument without denying that the Church has any authority. Remember the quote from C. S. Lewis that I used earlier? It said, “It is perfectly possible to accept B on the authority of A and yet regard B as a higher authority than A.” Notice that B is a “higher authority” than A. It’s not that B isn’t an authority.
Both sides in this debate often presume that authority is an all-or-nothing concept, but it isn’t. We know that there can be different levels of authority, and yet each level has authority. A king might be the highest authority in an entire country, but that doesn’t mean that one’s parents aren’t also an authority. Something can be an authority but not be the ultimate or highest authority.
After all, if we (Protestants) are honest with ourselves, then we have to admit that we accept the canon of Scripture (the canon of Scripture is the list of books that belong in the Bible) on the authority of other Christians. It was the Bible our parents handed us and our church used. Out of the hundreds of Christians I know, I don’t know of one who started from ground zero and searched out which early Christian writings belonged in the Scriptures. I only know a few who have even read about the historical process by which the canon of the New Testament was developed.
So we can acknowledge that what has been passed down to us by the Church has authority. That doesn’t mean we accept it uncritically. But we accept it. C. S. Lewis was right to see that, but he was also right to see that this acceptance doesn’t mean the Church is a higher authority than the Scriptures.
The popular argument to the contrary can be rejected.
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Thank you – this was very helpful to me.