Authority: The Key Issue


The question of authority plays a central role in understanding the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. If the issue of authority is left unresolved or unexplored, the two sides end up arguing apples and oranges.

Protestants hold to the notion of sola scriptura, claiming that the Bible is the sole authoritative source for Christian doctrine. Conversely, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Bible is authoritative, but is not the only authority for Christian doctrine. The Catholic Church also relies on what it calls “Sacred Tradition.” Most of Protestantism holds to the idea that if a particular point of belief is not covered in Scripture, it does not belong in Christian doctrine. On the other hand, Catholicism holds that a belief may be Christian doctrine even if it is not covered explicitly in the pages of Scripture. Of course, both sides would say that a belief would be impermissible if it directly contradicts Scripture.

Therefore, authority is among the first issues that must be tackled when considering the claims of Catholicism and Protestantism.  When I started to wonder whether Catholicism was correct, I began to look for answers in the Bible. Surely, if the Bible is the only authority for Christian teaching, it would say so itself, right?

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16 is the closest thing I could find in the Bible to a claim that the Bible is the sole authority for Christians. Indeed, I believe wholeheartedly that all Scripture is inspired of God. I believe it is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness. But, nowhere in this verse or any other verse of the Bible do I see a claim that only the scripture is given by inspiration of God, profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness. If anyone can find such a verse, I would be happy to change my mind.

Otherwise, if the scripture does not, itself, claim to be the sole source of authority for Christianity, Protestantism has a problem. On what authority can it be claimed that Scripture is the sole source of authority?

Besides the text itself, I have found one other problem with the claims of sola scriptura. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he did not leave a complete copy of the Holy Bible with the apostles. Yes, the Old Testament was available, but all of the New Testament had yet to be written. How, then, were the apostles supposed to know how to carry on?

For several hundred years, the church existed and operated without a universally recognized canon. Some books were accepted at one church but not another. It wasn’t until the Synod of Hippo and the Council of Carthage at the very end of the fourth century that the canon was closed. Again, how did the church survive over the first four hundred years of its existence without a complete and final understanding of which books were inspired and which were not?

I have no doubts that the early church had certain books upon which they agreed. Nevertheless, there was a lack of complete agreement as to which books should be in and which should be out. Even now there is disagreement between Protestants and Catholics as to which books should be included.

Even setting aside the deuterocanonical (or apocryphal) books, the canon is not as self-evident as we may think looking back from the 21st century. Perhaps most famously, Martin Luther either attempted to remove the books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation from the Bible or, at the very least, considered them lesser in value than the rest of the Scripture.

So, the question remains, if the Bible is the sole source of authority for Christian doctrine, how did Christianity survive for four hundred years prior to the closing of the canon of Scripture? Surely there had to be some earthly authority during that time. If so, doesn’t that contradict the claim of sola scriptura? Didn’t they at least have the authority to discern which books were to be included in the canon and which were not? Wouldn’t that authority itself contradict the claim of sola scriptura?

Again, when Jesus left, he did not hand his disciples a complete copy of Scripture. Surely, though, he left some clues as to how his followers should carry on after his departure. In Matthew 16, we see Jesus asking the apostles who they thought he was. When Peter answered, “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus responded,

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:17-19)

After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to the apostles, saying:

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:21-23)

At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, we see Jesus instructing the apostles:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

It seems clear, then, that before Jesus left, he conferred a certain level of authority on the apostles. It is also clear that they and a couple others had the authority—and inspiration—to write the books of the New Testament. I believe even Protestants would agree that the apostles’ successors had the authority to discern which books were inspired and then compile them into what we now know as the canon of Scripture. So, does it make sense to say that their authority abruptly ended once the canon was closed? Or could it be that they were conferred a continuing authority to teach?

The Apostle Paul, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 wrote, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” Interestingly, it doesn’t say “hold only to the traditions that we taught you by letter.” Paul specifically includes traditions passed on orally. In other words, the inspired Holy Scripture includes instructions for believers to hold to both written and oral traditions.

But if tradition other than the Bible bears authority over Christians, how do we know that it will not mutate dramatically over the centuries? Aren’t we just playing a 2,000-year game of telephone?

In First Timothy 3:14-15, Paul told Timothy, “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” There are two important takeaways here. First, Paul says he is writing this book—a book that was included in the canon of Scripture—to serve as a guide for Timothy before Paul arrives to instruct him in person. In other words, Paul seems to indicate that his direct, personal instruction was at least equal in stature and possibly even more valuable to Timothy than his written letter. Second, Paul calls the church of the living God “a pillar and buttress of the truth.” The church itself is a pillar of truth.

In John 16:13, Jesus told his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” In other words, the Holy Spirit was sent at Pentecost to lead the church into all truth – to make it “a pillar and buttress of truth,” against which “the gates of hell shall not prevail.”

According to the Catholic Church (and the Eastern Orthodox churches), Jesus commissioned his apostles as his successors here on earth. He handed over the keys, granted them the power to bind and loose, and sent them out into all the world to preach the gospel and baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He granted authority on those who were closest to him as he walked the earth. As time passed, the original apostles appointed their closest disciples as successors. Generation by generation, the authority granted by Jesus to the twelve apostles was passed down, with the Holy Spirit continuing to guide the Church in truth and protect it from error. It was through this apostolic succession that the Tradition of the Catholic Church was developed – a Tradition that includes the canon of Scripture.

To my mind, sola scriptura just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense because the Bible itself doesn’t even make such a claim. What makes sense to me is that Jesus would entrust his authority to men who, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, were able to develop the doctrine of the Church, write the books which comprise the New Testament and compile them into one coherent, infallible canon.

I believe the Bible is holy, inspired, and inerrant. I believe it is authoritative and that no truly Christian doctrine can contradict it. But if the Bible doesn’t support sola scriptura, why should I?