Redimete Diem!

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise,
making the most of the time, because the days are evil. (Eph. 5:15-16, ESV)

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Sola Scriptura


            With the election and installation of German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict XVI, it would appear that the conservative legacy of his predecessor is firmly in hand.  World Magazine reports

“[t]he new pope is a man who rails against ‘the dictatorship of relativism.’  He dismays ecumenicists by insisting that Christ is the only way to salvation.  He is heckled by gays for teaching that homosexuality is sinful.  He says that there can be no human rights without the right of life.  He has said that pro-abortion politicians should not be given communion and that voting for candidates because they are pro-abortion is a sin.”

Considering how much all conservative Christians share those views, we welcome him and his assertions on these subjects.

            Still, such a time as this would be a good opportunity for us to be clearly reminded of how significantly different the official doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church remains to be from the doctrines of Protestantism in general, and of the Reformed faith in particular.

            The largest area of difference, and effectively, the ground for all the others, concerns the issue of authority.  The Scriptures alone bear witness of being the very Word of God and that it is given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to all men and that all men are under its authority.  The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, asserts that the Church gave us the Bible and therefore the Church and her traditions – which are ongoing and developing with every generation (and, therefore, are not merely “ancient”) – are on equal footing with the Bible in terms of divine authority.  Their theology, then, is seen not as grounded solely and once-and-for-all in God’s unchanging Word, but rather in the authority of its traditions.  And their theology and tradition are seen as developing with time (some would use the word “evolving”) and even accommodating, when deemed necessary, to the changing world around them.  Some of the traditions that have developed in this way over the years to become official doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church include:

the Doctrine of Purgatory, established by Gregory I in 593
the Doctrine of the Seven Sacraments, affirmed in 1439
the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary proclaimed by Pope Pious IX in 1854
Mary proclaimed the Mother of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1965

Catholics are taught that because authority comes from the Church (and by that term they mean the hierarchy as opposed to the laity) that such developments are from God and are to be welcomed.  But Scripture teaches none of these things and the Protestant view of authority would, therefore, forbid such doctrines from taking their place in a true, orthodox theology.

            Clearly, the most significant icon of such divine authority for the Roman Catholic Church is the pope himself.

·           To defend the authority and position of the Vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Catholic Church points to a tradition called “apostolic succession”.  Here, they do begin by appealing to Scripture.  Based on Mt. 16:18, the Roman Catholics claim that exclusive authority to lead the Church was given to Peter.  But that is in spite of and to the disregard of other biblical passages which indicate that all the apostles received such authority from Christ.  It is also in spite of the fact that Peter never, self-consciously, exercised such singular authority during the rest of his life.  Nor was he ever recognized by others as having such prominence such as in Jerusalem, the Council in Acts 15 or by Paul.

·           And the connection of Peter to Rome is only providential at best.  Paul actually had more influence on the ancient, biblical church in Rome and taught her well.  But whereas Paul wanted to go on to Spain, Peter decided to settle in Rome.  Eventually, both were martyred and are buried there.  But Peter’s grave is given prominence and position and is revered (Benedict blessed the tomb as part of his installation service) while Paul’s remains seem more a tourist attraction.  (Benedict visited Paul’s tomb the day after his installation as he made his first tour through the area of Vatican City.)  Following Peter, if indeed Peter ever really led the church in Rome, was Linus (67-76 AD).  But Linus only referred to himself as Peter had done in his biblical letters – not as bishop or pope (a title which was, as of then, still yet to be coined), but as a fellow presbyter or elder.  And there is no evidence in the writings of the Fathers anywhere before Cyprian in the 3rd c., who was not a theologian, that more prominence should have been formally given to the Bishop of Rome or that, in fact, some apostolic mantle had been handed down to him as per Jesus’ own instructions.  Still, such authority began to slowly be exercised and claimed, and it eventually did become the official tradition and doctrine of the Church with Boniface III in 607.

·           And then there is the issue of the church in Rome’s own rise to prominence.  It has been assumed and concluded by following generations that the church in Rome has divine importance and position.  She did continue to thrive and survive when the Muslims attacked, destroyed and swept away other ancient centers of the Christian faith, and she is one of only two ancient churches (Antioch being the other) who can trace her line of Bishops all the way back to the beginning.  But being in Rome had other pragmatic advantages: that city was, after all, the center of the empire, the church there boasted a fine library and attracted scholars, and drew and attracted generous monetary gifts and donations.  All of that and more would definitely make the church in Rome important, powerful, even invaluable.  But that is not the same thing as saying that the center of all Christianity, by God’s own decree, should rest there uncontested or that absolute submission to the church in Rome should be expected by all other churches everywhere else in the world.

            Now, none of this is meant to give the illusion that while the Protestant Churches, or more particularly, the Presbyterian Churches, hold up the Scriptures alone as her authority from God that she has always historically and consistently honored and obeyed that authority.  Admittedly, our own house has several walls of glass.  But a very important challenge the Reformers placed in our hands was to “be Reformed and be continually Reforming”, that is, be always re-examining our own motivations and traditions by the Word of God and continue to sound the call back to the Bible alone as the ground for our faith, our practice and our role in the world.

            It is the word of God that is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword.  No tradition of man, no man himself, no matter how well rooted and grounded in that Word he might personally be, can claim an equal kind of spiritual power and authority to transform the world and continue to hold out to all men everywhere the one rule for faith and practice.

David G. Barker, May, 2005

David G. Barker