Truth and Authority
by John Pacheco
used with permission
Truth has become an anomaly in our modern day culture. For many, it is an irrelevancy. For many others, it is to be understood in a more tolerant and therefore allegedly less dogmatic manner. It is too rigid, indeed even intolerant and narrow minded, to speak of truth in the traditional absolute and exclusive sense of the word. Secular humanism has reduced the idea of a transcendent Truth from its overriding, universal nature to a relative and mutable idea, whose substance has been subject to the fantastical whims of modern western culture. The culture of death does not speak of the Truth, but only truths,which may be true for one person, but not necessarily for another, which of course completely saturates the concept of a universal and imperative ideal. Indeed, it is not difficult to see why the Truth must be subservient to many truths,in order for this culture to survive, since the existence of many truths,tolerates and perpetuates the accepted social evils of this century, whereas the Truth,could never do so.
Christians should not be surprised at this development because, as society has been de-Christianized, it has been less receptive to the Absolute and Transcendent. God is relegated to the deist idea of the Napolianic age, and there is no room for a God that requires obedience and suffering - just the grand watchmaker who winds up the universe and remains aloof from humanity. It is easier that way for today's modern man - avoid the vagaries and absurdities of atheism but remain in control by rejecting the Christian culture responsible for building the foundations of Western civilization.
It is therefore no small coincidence that the abandonment of Christ has left Western civilization without the Truth and its constitutive relationship to its inherent qualities. Hence, there should be no real surprise that not only is the Truth rejected in principle, but also its qualities of universality, immutability, infinity, and unity. Universalism is replaced with provincialism ; immutability is replaced with mutability; infinity is replaced with measurability, and unity is replaced with division. The few believe in the former while the many believe in the latter. For the latter, Truth is neither palatable nor possible. This is the reason that Jesus spoke these words: "Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice" (John 18:37), and as if representative of our culture today, Pontius Pilate responded predictably: "What is Truth?" (John 18:38).
All Christians understand and agree in principle with the concept of an absolute Truth because it represents something that exists outside of our own dangerous subjectivism. Without Truth, not only is there is no right or wrong, there is no God either. After all, if one takes away the source (God), how can the consequent (Truth) still exist? But, while all Christians can agree on the concept of the Truth, the instrument of learning that truth is quite another matter. It is this very issue of instrumentality that has divided the Christian Church for the past five hundred years. Hence, the central question for all of Christianity, and to a lesser extent everyone else, is: How does God communicate His truth to us?
In order to learn the Truth, there are two things which are necessary: a belief in God and a belief that God wants to communicate to His creatures. Since God has not chosen to infuse his incorruptible Truth into each individual human, the only and inevitable conclusion which can be inferred, while holding to God's will to communicate, is that He has chosen to communicate to us through certain human intermediaries. The bible provides ample proof of this assertion when one recalls the authority given to the prophets of the Old Testament. God spoke his holy Word through them. These prophets not only wrote God's word, they spoke it as well. Hence, there were two means of communication opened to these prophets, namely, the written word and the oral word.
In the Old Testament times, the oral word of a prophet was just as binding as his written word. For instance, the prophet Obadiah has 21 short verses attributed to him, yet this is surely not the extent of his teaching office. His listeners would surely not reject his oral teaching because they were not yet on papyrus. It is evident, therefore, that the relationship between the intermediaries and the instruments is an important one in that any manipulation of one leads to a distortion of Truth in varying degrees. Those who rely on the written word alone have cut off the Truth for themselves since God has chosen to use both instruments in communicating His Truth. After all, He chose people and not methods of communications for speaking His word. He never restricted the means by which they would give His word to only Scripture. In fact, Jesus and His Apostles never restricted their teachings to the Scriptures, but relied on Jewish oral tradition as well (Cf. Matthew 23:2, 2 Timothy 3:8, Titus 1:9). (Nowhere in the Old or New Testament times did the sole source of Truth depend on God's written word alone. This idea of sola scriptura,was a theological presupposition proposed by the Reformers in the sixteenth century.)
The inevitable consequence to sola scriptura,is a loss of truth since there are diametrically opposing positions of what individual Christians think the bible says. Picture this fascinating scenario: A Seventh Day Adventist, a Mormon, a Jehovah Witness, a Fundamentalist, and everyone else who thinks the Bible is their sole source of truth are all in a room together. All will claim that the Bible is the SOLE authority for their positions, but each group teaches different doctrines. Now, all groups will point to the others and say that the others teach false doctrines. After an hour of endless and useless haggling over the interpretation of biblical passages, one of these people will surely come to the inevitable and inescapable solution to this absurd mess. One of these people will surely realize that the Bible alone cannot be the sole authority by itself since no one can definitely say what the truth is UNLESS there is one group or one person who has the authority to decide which interpretation is the correct one. After all, what good is an infallible Bible if there is no infallible group to say what the infallible Word of God is? This question of truth is therefore really one of authority. The singular quality of authority is, however, that some people have it and others do not. Indeed, if everyone had authority, then the logical consequence is that NO ONE has authority. Yet, SOMEONE (or some group speaking in unity) must have authority in order for humanity to know what the truth is.
It follows, then, that since sola scriptura cannot be the objective avenue to the Truth the question must change from what the bible says to who should interpret it. Jesus Christ appointed twelve apostles to teach His doctrines and exercise His authority once He ascended into heaven (Cf. Matthew 28:16-20). He gave them specific authority to speak and teach what He taught (Cf. Ephesians 2:19-20, 1 Thessalonians 4:2, 2 Peter 3:2), and He warned all of His followers of the consequences of private teaching outside of the Church (Cf. Matthew 18:16-17, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Timothy 2:20, 2 Peter 1:20-21). Most importantly, however, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to guide the Apostles in truth (Cf. John 14:16-17), which would distinguish them from the false prophets who would later introduce false doctrines and heresies (Cf. 2 Peter 2:1). This is the reason why Saint Paul described the Church as the pillar and foundation of truth,(Cf. 1 Timothy 3:15), and not the Bible which can be twisted by the untaught and unstable (Cf. 2 Peter 3:16). It is not unlike a secular court interpreting the laws of society. Without lawful justice to interpret the laws, there would be anarchy in society. Likewise, in trying to determine what the sacred writers and apostles meant, there must be a group who has the authority from God to make such interpretations and binding pronouncements. The alternative is duplicity and error which is personified in the 30,000 Protestant denominations.
Jesus established His Church, and conferred His authority to the Apostolic community to bind and loose,(Cf. Matthew 16:17-19, 18:16-17). The power of binding and loosing,had been a well established Jewish formula used by the rabbinical body of each age to open and shut (Cf. Isaiah 22:22) religious doctrines and moral teachings. Throughout the New Testament, the Apostles, and the Apostles ONLY, exercise this authority. This is the only way that any group can claim to have the truth - they teach what the Apostles taught, either written or oral (Cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:15). When there is a doctrinal dispute in the Church, as was the case at the Council of Jerusalem (Cf. Acts 15), it is not any or every disciple who votes on the question, it was the Apostles, and Peter in particular, who decides the question. In fact, after their decision, they carefully guarded their authority when they warned the early Church in Antioch about those whom they gave no instruction,(Cf. Acts 15:24) to promulgate doctrine.
Again and again, this theme of sovereign apostolic authority is reinforced throughout the New Testament. For instance, Saint Paul rejects another Jesus, that heretics preach, and he warns against being deceived by them (Cf. 2 Corinthians 11:3-4). When the Apostles do encourage people to teach, however, they are to teach what the Apostles teach, and not their own ideas. Saint Paul wrote to Timothy: "And the things which you heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2). Saint Paul encourages other disciples to teach, but not outside of the Church. In fact, the Apostles condemn rebellion against hierarchy (Cf. Jude 1:11, Numbers 16:8 10,19-21), and require obedience to the Church (Cf. Acts 20:28, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 5:5).
Remarkably, there are still those who disregard the requirement for obedience to the Church, and presume they can find salvation without Her. The opponent of the Catholic Church would say that while Hebrews 13:17, for instance, "does require us to be obedient to those taking the lead, Christians do not have to follow any edicts, or rulings, rendered by the Church that do not conform to God's word, the Bible." This is not only an unscriptural assertion, but it is also rather senseless. In the first part of this statement, the individual acknowledges the requirement to be obedient, yet the obedience is essentially optional obedience,because, should he not agree with a teaching, he declares it be unbiblical,and therefore exempts himself from the obedience which he claims to have. Of course, the ultimate foundation of this idea is based on the belief in himself rather than TRUTH existing apart from himself, which is manifested in the one Church Jesus established, being founded on the Apostles. Moreover, while he may reject Apostolic authority, he still agrees that one should be obedient to those taking the lead. The problem with this idea is that there may be certain people taking the lead,that have no authority to do so.
But this begs the question which must come: what happens after the original Apostles die? Is the Church not to continue the way Jesus established it in its hierarchical structure? It has been established that Jesus gave His Apostles the right to teach. Is it to be proposed that this structure should be radically altered from the Church of the New Testament once the Apostles have died? Is it the will of Christ to discard this Church for an anarchical democratic church where the Truth is subject to the prejudices and slants of popularism as exists today in the Protestant churches? No. This is not the will of Christ. The will of Christ has been manifested in the ONE church He established, the visible Church of the New Testament. This is the same Church which continues to exist today - not because of human construct but because of Her divine founder who promised that the gates of hell would never prevail against Her (Cf. Matthew 16:18).
If Jesus,words were not meant eternally and were to be understood simply in His time, then the authority of the Apostles which Christ instituted would have died with the last Apostle. This would leave the Church without leadership and in total confusion when serious doctrinal questions and problems occurred, which, inevitably, they did. (There would be no point in relying on Scripture since many of the heretics used, or rather twisted, scripture to buttress their positions.) The other option, the much more likely and divinely consistent one, is that the Apostles would choose successors, passing on to them what they learned from the Lord, and in turn giving them not only the authority to teach but also the divine promise to correctly interpret God's written and inspired word. This is what the Scriptures prophesized (Cf. Matthew 16:17-19, 18:17-18), and this is, in fact, what the early church did and has continued to do ever since Her beginning.
Even in Scripture itself there are a number of examples which testify to Apostolic succession. When the time had come to replace Judas Iscariot, Peter asks God to fill the place left vacant due to Judas' betrayal. If Christ had not intended the Apostolic Community to be maintained, then why did He choose Matthias to replace Judas (Cf. Acts 1:20 26)? The position that Matthias assumed is an office with all the authority and responsibility of that office (Cf. Hebrews 13:17). Moreover, the authority passed on is given to specific people; it is not conferred indiscriminately (Cf. Titus 2:15, Acts 6:1 6, Acts 13:3, 1 Timothy 5:22).
The case from early church history is even more forceful than the numerous examples from Holy Writ. Saint Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in the first century, said, "Wherever the bishop is, there let the people be, as where Jesus is there is the Catholic Church."
In the second century, we have the case for the apostolic succession stated forcefully and clearly by Irenaeus. A native of either Syria or Asia Minor, Irenaeus had in his youth seen Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp, he informs us, had been instructed by Saint John and the other Apostles, and had talked with many who had seen Christ. Coming to Gaul, Irenaeus in time became Bishop of Lyons. Distressed by what he regarded as the errors and corruptions of the Gospel which he knew in Gaul and by the headway which he found on a visit to Rome was being made by them, he wrote an extensive treatise Against Heresies, describing them and refuting them by setting forth what he believed to be the true faith. He insisted that the apostles had transmitted faithfully and accurately what had been taught them by Christ. He was emphatic that the apostles had appointed the successors bishops to whom they had committed churches and in doing so had undoubtedly passed on to them what had been entrusted to the apostolic company of Christ. These bishops had been followed by others in an unbroken line who were also guardians and guarantors of the apostolic teaching. Peter and Paul, so he says, appointed Linus [second Bishop of Rome]. Linus, in turn, so Irenaeus declared, was followed by others in an unbroken line to the twelfth in the succession who was bishop when the book was being composed.
In the middle of the third century, Saint Cyprian defended the Church against the Novatians who advocated the permanent exclusion of all former apostates from the Church. Claiming that Pope Cornelius had betrayed his trust, Novatian had himself elected as Pope by his followers - the first Anti-Pope in history. Cyprian thereupon wrote the beautiful treatise On the Unity of the Catholic Church. In it he compares the Church to the seamless robe of Christ and says: "Outside the Church there is no salvation. He cannot have God as his Father, who has not the Church as his Mother." Later in his life Cyprian was martyred. Brought before the Proconsul and asked who he was, Cyprian replied: "I am a Christian and a Bishop."
But how can the truth exist through an organization which has permitted some decadent and immoral Popes and Bishops? There is little doubt that some Bishops and some Popes were, admittedly, not the holiest of men, but the real question is: Does this give individuals within the Church the right to usurp the authority which Christ had established in His Church? If the criteria is impeccability or perfection in a leader, then no one could lead because impeccability does not exist. It must be remembered that Jesus picked Peter not because of his human failings, but despite them, which goes to show how Divine wisdom can so transcend human faults. In fact, despite Peter's betrayal of Jesus, Christ still affirms his position as the shepherd of the Christian flock after the betrayal (Cf. John 21:15-17). Secondly, if impeccability would be a criteria for leadership then NO APOSTLE or disciple could claim the leadership role, least of all Judas who was still an Apostle with authority, and who Christ knew would betray Him.
The two arguments for the Catholic view are given by Jesus, Himself. "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed darnel also among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprang up and bore grain, then the darnel became evident also. And the slaves of the landowner came and said to him, Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have darnel? And he said to them, An enemy has done this!, and the slaves said to him, Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?, But he said, No; lest while you are gathering them up the darnel you may root up the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in them of the harvest I will say to the reapers, First gather up the darnel and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn." (Matthew 13:24-30). Another compelling evidence for submission is found in the Gospel of Matthew. Although Jesus despised the Pharisees' behaviour and called them hypocrites (Cf. Matthew 23:13), He still recognized their authority, and commanded His disciples to observe what they command even if they were hypocrites. "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them" (Matthew 23:2-3). So, just because Pope Leo X (1513-1521) intended to enjoy his Pontificate, that hardly gives any Christian the right to usurp the teaching of the church and introduce their own doctrines.
There are also instances from the Old Testament. For example, there is the case of King Saul and David. "Then Abishai said to David, Today God has delivered your enemy into your hand; now therefore, please let me strike him with the spear to the ground with one stroke, and I will not strike him the second time. But David said to Abishai, Do not destroy him, for who can stretch out his hand against the Lord's anointed and be without guilt?...The Lord forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the Lord's anointed..." (1 Samuel 26:8-11). Saul did not live up to his vocation to be King, but even David did not reject Saul's authority to lead because Saul, for all of his faults, was God's anointed. And what about King David and Bathsheba? Did King David forfeit his right to rule or write the Psalms because he was guilty of conspiracy to murder and adultery? God did not seem to think so when He used King David to communicate His inspired, inerrant Word.
In fact, evidence of bad Popes actually supports the Catholic position more than it detracts from it. What is the likelihood that rogue Popes would NOT change doctrine or teach error if they were not protected by divine intervention? Wouldn't it be easier, for instance, for one of the more opulent Popes of the Renaissance to teach against suffering or poverty. Did they? No, they did no such thing. Is this a coincidence? It is NO coincidence. It is the Holy Spirit preserving the truth through sinful and decadent men of the time, and allowing the truth to survive man's fallen nature.
The most compelling evidence, however, is found in the Holy Family itself. In the Holy Family, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God Himself and the maker of the universe, was trying to teach a very important lesson for those who want to link impeccability with authority in an indiscriminate manner. Becoming a mere infant, Christ submitted to the authority and in complete obedience to Mary and Joseph (Cf. Luke 2:51). Did Jesus say to His parents, I am perfect, therefore, I do not recognize your authority over me? No, He did not. He obeyed His Father's will, and subjected Himself to a finite, imperfect creature - Saint Joseph. The case is clear, is it not? Nowhere is impeccability a requirement for authority. It is no more true in the bible than it is in everyday life.
Some final words
As the Christian Church heads toward the third millennium, She must look at herself honestly and with sober consideration. The fragmentation and division of the Church is a scandal which has existed five (West) and ten (East) centuries too long. This is not the will of Christ who (Cf. John 17:21-22). There is only one way to stop the disastrous moral and social evils of the twentieth century, and that is for Christians and people of good will to honestly seek the Truth and submit to Her authority. Jesus is the truth (Cf. John 14:6), and He promised us the truth if we obey His voice which speaks through the Apostles of today, the bishops of the One Church He established - the Holy Roman Catholic Church - just as surely as it has spoken through the first Apostles of the first century.