Sola Scriptura & the Authority of the Catholic Church

Recently, there has been an effort amongst Protestants to balance the role of the Catholic Church with the sufficiency of the Word of God. This is amidst a collapsing culture which has been swept away by relativism, leaving us searching for solid ground. As seen in either secularised churches or over-exalted churches, trying to replace the Sacred Scriptures as the ultimate authority has been disastrous. However, how can this Sola Scriptura actually provide solid ground? This can only be understood through the authority embedded in the promises of the Sacred Scriptures.

The Ultimate Authority

All epistemology must reach some kind of foundation. There must be basic presuppositions which are not themselves proved but are used to prove everything else. Our faculty of reason, for example, presupposes the basic Laws of Logic (identity, non-contradiction, rational inference, etc.). Likewise, our faculty of faith presupposes God Himself through His revelation in the Sacred Scriptures. This forms the Christian’s epistemological foundation.

Just like being makes itself present to man through the senses, the Sacred Scriptures are present to us as the Word of God: God’s very communication to His people. Some try to object and ask how we know these books are the Word of God. However, such a line of reasoning is like asking how we can prove our senses access reality or how reality is real.

Such absurdity can be illustrated by Yahweh communicating Himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai. How did Moses know it was really divine? What authenticated such divine communication? Fundamentally, God’s revelation is simply given to faith just like being to the senses. The proper object of faith is God. Just as Moses, by illumining grace, received God’s revelation on Mt. Sinai, so us Christians are called to receive God’s revelation as found in the Sacred Scriptures.

To deny the ultimacy of the Sacred Scriptures would mean something else proves that the Sacred Scriptures are divine revelation. However, who can appeal over God Himself, their author? If it is by historical realities (early manuscripts, natural knowledge of Jesus Christ without inspired texts, probability), then one tries to bootstrap from the natural to the supernatural, from reason to faith. However, the faith demands full assurance and reliance: from He who can neither deceive nor be deceived, which cannot be established by merely rational calculations.

Some try to avoid this by posing an infallible Church. However, the epistemological question simply continues: how is that church known to be infallible? It cannot be known by mere reason, since it is being presented as an article of faith. It cannot be the Sacred Scriptures, since this infallible Church is being presented as the authenticator of those same Scriptures. Falling into such a trap would lead to a circular skepticism. Perhaps it is some tradition known outside of the Church or the Scriptures. However, the question arises: where is that tradition? How is that communicated to you? It cannot be relying on Church authority, since that very authority is being authenticated by tradition.

Fundamentally, the Christian’s ultimate authority must be found in the Sacred Scriptures as the revelation of God for His people. As Our Lord teaches,

flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 16:17

It is by this faith, illumined by the Holy Ghost, that man comes to know the Most Holy Trinity and His self-communication.. As St. Athanasius argues, it is by faith that we receive the revelation:

For having in ourselves faith, and the kingdom of God, we shall be able quickly to see and perceive the King of the Universe, the saving Word of the Father.

Contra Gentes 2:30

And the object of faith, being the Triune God Himself, is not just by any claims to revelation but the Scriptures themselves. As he protests, we ought to reject whatever:

is no longer based on the Scriptures.

Didymus the Blind

If it is by any other faculty, such as a progressively-revealing church or amorphous tradition or the signs of the times, then these become one’s ultimate authority. An abandonment of the Scriptures as the ultimate bedrock of our faith is leads to the shifting sands of rationalism (proving faith by reason), Mormonism (progressive revelation), and Modernism (the changing of truth with the times).

Scriptural Sufficiency

If the Sacred Scriptures are the ultimate authority, then they are sufficient as the regula fidei: the rule of faith. The sufficiency of the Sacred Scriptures is a doctrine confirmed by itself and witnessed by the Church Fathers (discussed more in depth in What is Faith?). In the Psalms, the Word of God is constantly described as the sufficient source of the knowledge of God’s Law. As he writes,

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet,
And light unto my path.
I have sworn, and have confirmed it,
That I will observe thy righteous ordinances.

Psalm 119:105-6

This is reinforced by St. Paul who writes to Timothy:

But abide thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; and that from a babe thou hast known the sacred writings which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness: that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work.

2 Timothy 3:14-7

The expectation for the righteous Jew, as seen in Psalm 119, is that he learn God’s revelation from the Sacred Scriptures. This remains true for the Christian in the new covenant. For the Christian, Sacred Scripture is that which completes him for the actions which depend upon divine Revelation. This is why St. Athanasius wisely taught:

To be sure, the sacred and divinely inspired Scriptures are sufficient for the exposition of the truth.

Contra Gentes 1:1

All of our doctrines, explanations of what God has revealed, must be grounded in the Sacred Scriptures themselves. Going beyond the literal meaning of the Sacred Scriptures necessarily undermines them, since it requires the Christian to believe that a doctrine is so important that the Sacred Scriptures are not sufficient to expose it, and that the Word of God does not make the man of God complete to teach that doctrine.

Scripture’s Promise to the Church

Upon realising the ultimacy and sufficiency of the Sacred Scriptures, it is tempting to go “straight to the Scriptures,” so to say, in an individualistic manner. However, such a passion not only undermines the promises contained in the Scriptures but is a farce itself. No man approaches “just the Scriptures.” As St. Paul teaches,

How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach, except they be sent? even as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that bring glad tidings of good things!

Romans 10:14-5

It is only through the ministry of the Catholic Church, spread throughout the world, that anyone encounters the Gospel. It is only through the preaching of the particular churches of God that anyone is given a Bible and receives adequate instruction in its proper use.

While Sacred Scripture forms the epistemological foundation of the faith, no one in practice actually encounters the foundation directly. Likewise, while it is self-authenticating, no one comes to the Scriptures without the authentication of someone else. This is not to undermine the centrality and foundation of the Word of God. Instead, it is simply to recognise the divinely-instituted mediation of the Word of God through the Church’s ministry.

Jesus Christ gives His authority to the apostles and exercises His ministry and high-priestly office through them. While this deserves its own article, it suffices here to say that this authority, which is seen in both the apostles and their successors, simply continues the ministry of Christ. As Jesus Christ tells them,

Peace be unto you: as the Father hath sent me, even so send I you.

John 20:21

The apostles and their successors do what Jesus does. Just as Jesus is the apostle of the Father (Hebrews 3:1), so the apostles are apostles of Our Lord (Acts 1:2). Just as Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), so the bishops are called to be shepherds of their flocks (Acts 20:28). Just as Jesus Christ forgives sins (Matthew 9:6), so the apostles forgive sins (John 20:23). This is not in competition with Our Lord but derivative from Him.

It is important to note, however, that this authority exists not for its own sake but only in the service of the Gospel. To have apostolic authority without apostolic faith destroys the very purpose of the authority.

Likewise, this authority, if it were exercised in an individualistic way, would make no sense. These charismata are not for bishops to wander and form cliques. Instead, they only exist in light of His promise to send the Holy Ghost upon His Church. His Church has, as an essential element, “the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father” (John 15:26). And He is promised to work in the Catholic Church:

when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all the truth: for he shall not speak from himself; but what things soever he shall hear, these shall he speak: and he shall declare unto you the things that are to come.

John 16:19

The Catholic Church, in her ministry, constantly trusts and places her faith in this Scriptural promise. Likewise, her authority and commission to preach the Gospel and to teach is given by Our Lord. Giving the apostles His own authority, He says,

All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.

Matthew 28:18-20

Constantly throughout the Gospels, and applied in Acts, the authority of Word & Sacrament is promised to the apostles as essential to the Church’s ministry. This teaching authority is not to take away from the Sacred Scriptures. Instead, it brings the members of the Church intimately close to the Sacred Scriptures: not just their words but also their substance by the unique aid of the Holy Ghost.

The Catholic Church: Portal to the Scriptures

Since the Holy Ghost is promised to the Catholic Church to exercise her ministry, the Church can always trust to never be separated from Him. The Spirit is the life-giving principle of the Body of Christ. Therefore, she will never die or be separated from that divine guide. But if that is so, then the Holy Ghost could not fail to continue to guide her into all truth, and certainly never allow her to fail in total.

Just as the soul is active wherever the body is, likewise the Holy Ghost is active wherever the entire Body of Christ moves, not reluctantly but as a cause. While particular churches can fall to heresy, the teaching ministry of the Church could not die (that is, be separated from the Spirit of Truth) so as to teach universally that which is a falsehood contrary to the Sacred Scriptures.

This reliance on the Scriptural promise forms the foundation for the infallibility of the Church, whether expressed in her ecumenical councils or as taught “always, everywhere, and by all.” This is the essence of a catholic doctrine: that which has been taught and received with catholic consent (consent of the whole Church). Therefore, no Christian could—without sin—disobey such an authority to teach. Because of this, the Catholic Church is not the regula fidei but, rather, the means by which the regula fidei is understood well and accessed.

This instrumental and secondary role the Church plays cannot obscure the Scriptures, since it is a promise of the Scriptures. Instead, it is the means by which the Holy Ghost, by drawing the Church together into agreement and consensus over time, guides the Church into all truth. Therefore, she will never be set back dogmatically. Old heresies can never truly be considered new issues or require “re-examination.”

Because of this, if the Sacred Scriptures form the primary and ultimate regula fidei, then the Catholic Church is the regula fidei proxima: the proximate rule of faith. The faithful Christian can, then, truly believe something because the Catholic Church has taught it. It is not the best reason to believe, and the internal logic (beyond the mere claims of the doctrine) ought to be received. However, especially for laymen, it is pious, if not brought into the excess of sola ecclesia.

Ordinary Teaching

While catholic doctrines are infallible, the ordinary Christian is not often concerned with these doctrines. Instead, he should be concerned with the teaching of his own bishop and his fathers in the faith. Due to the Spirit-blessed offices of ministry, it is fitting to listen and accept rationally and faithfully the teaching of one’s pastors.

This is not to confuse the teaching of one’s pastor—and one’s fathers in the faith—for the Word of God. Rather, they serve as reliable guiding lights. As St. Athanasius teaches, while teaching the sufficiency of the Sacred Scriptures:

 For although the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth — while there are other works of our blessed teachers compiled for this purpose, if he meet with which a man will gain some knowledge of the interpretation of the Scriptures, and be able to learn what he wishes to know — still, as we have not at present in our hands the compositions of our teachers, we must communicate in writing to you what we learned from them — the faith, namely, of Christ the Saviour; lest any should hold cheap the doctrine taught among us, or think faith in Christ unreasonable.

Contra Gentes 1:1

However, these teachers—if their teaching is not yet received with catholic consent—may err in their articulations of the faith. What does a good Christian do if his pastors, or even fathers, teach heresy?

When a bishop teaches, he necessarily presents the the Word of God (the source of his authority to teach) to his flock along with his own words. Due to the purpose and origin of his authority, it is only exercised truly when the teachings are derived from the text of the Scriptures.

Here, it is important to note that faith is never irrational. Real faith never poses a contradiction for belief. Rather, faith is received in a truly rational manner. Therefore, if the flock is presented the Scriptures on the one hand and a false teaching on the other, then they are really able to discern the contradiction between the two. At this point, the faithful can both (1) receive the Sacred Scriptures and the bishop’s teachings and (2) notice that one of his teachings contradicts the Scriptures.

This does not diminish the mediating role of the Catholic Church, since the former would never be received without the ministry of the Church. Instead, it puts the flock in the sad situation where they must intimately pray:

Thou, through thy commandments, hast made me wiser than mine enemies; for they are ever with me.
I have more understanding than my teachers; for thy testimonies are my study.
I am wiser than the aged; because I keep thy commandments.

Psalm 119:98-100

In such a case, the bishop ought to be corrected. If he refuses to repent, eventually, communion must be broken with him. The flock must obey the Good Shepherd and cast out the false shepherd.

Broken Communion

The issue of breaking communion with heretics is discussed in Refusing Communion. However, the witness of three saints in the midst of crisis illustrates the proper approach to combatting heretical bishops. For example, St. Hilary of Poitiers needed to shepherd his churches during the Arian Crisis. He was careful to maintain communion only with orthodox catholic bishops. Part of his vocation was to inform his brother bishops of those orthodox sees. He writes:

…your invincible faith keeps the honourable distinction of conscious worth, and content with repudiating crafty, vague, or hesitating action, safely abides in Christ, preserving the profession of its liberty. You abstain from communion with those who oppose their bishops with their blasphemies and keep them in exile, and do not by assenting to any crafty subterfuge bring yourselves under a charge of unrighteous judgement.

De Synodis 4

Likewise, St. Athanasius had to deal with this reality of heretical bishops invading the churches of God. Especially himself being often put in exile, he needed to maintain a proper theology of ecclesiastical communion, writing:

But the faithful servants of our Saviour, and the true Bishops who believe with sincerity, and live not for themselves, but for the Lord . . . these, I say, perceiving all this, as defenders and preachers of the truth, chose rather, and endured to be insulted and driven into banishment, than to subscribe against him, and to hold communion with the Arian madmen.

History of the Arians 79

It makes no sense for a Christian receive false teaching but, rather, to hold the catholic faith, fundamentally grounded in the Sacred Scriptures. One’s communion is ultimately shaped by that commitment. Finally, St. Photius, who dealt with the new Arian Crisis—iconoclasm—was careful to instruct his faithful to avoid those bishops who reject the catholic faith. As he teaches,

Is the shepherd a heretic? Then he is a wolf, and it will be needful to flee and leap away from him, and not be deceived into approaching him, even if he appears to be fawning gently. Avoid communion and intercourse with him as snake’s poison: for fish are caught with hook and bait, while an evil intercourse, which contains the poison of heresy concealed therein, has captured many of the more simple-minded who came close and expected to suffer no harm.

Homily XV:9

This shows the practical necessity of breaking communion. It is not just that communion makes no sense with those who lack faith. It is not just that an heretical bishop must needs be corrected. It is also that a Christian will become accustomed and deceived into the bishop’s heresy if he allows himself to be taught by the heretic, or the heresy will become normalised over time, so that it is not properly fought and the faith defended.

Final Analysis

The authority of the Catholic Church does not lead away from an intimate encounter with the Scriptures. Neither does it trap Christians into a state of “just believe what the Church says.” Rather, it allows the Holy Ghost to work in us, both yesterday, today, and after to understand the sole, sealed deposit of faith of the Sacred Scriptures.

The consequence of scriptural individualism is seen far too easily in the resurgence of ancient heresies today. It may be an overturning of the divine processions, the old Arianism which denies Our Lord’s divinity, the new Arianism which denies His Incarnation by rejecting icons of Him, or any other already-hashed-out issue.

The virtue in the middle is recognising Scripture alone as the ultimate rule of faith and the Catholic Church as the means which Christians are given to access the Scriptures. This mediating role is not in competition to the Scriptures but a promise of the Scriptures. And because it is a promise of Our Lord, and how the Holy Ghost works within His Church, it is a sure way to have peace within the Church which mirrors the peace of the Most Holy Trinity.


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