The Authority of Roman Catholicism Examined
Many will object to considering Roman Catholicism under the category of cults. However, if my definition of a cult is correct, (see my article on How To Identify A Cult) then Roman Catholicism can correctly be considered under this category. As noted in that article, there are three main areas where cults differ from genuine Christianity. First, in the area of authority, cults will rally around the leadership of one man or woman. So Rome's government is centered around the Pope. Cults also recognize extra-biblical sources as that which governs the church. While Rome does not accept extra-biblical writings such as the Mormon's Book of Mormon, it does however, elevate church traditions and papal decrees as that which is equal, if not superior to the authority of the Bible. This will be examined in this article.
Secondly, cults distort the person and work of Jesus Christ. At first glance, Rome's teaching concerning the person of Christ would seem biblical. However, they teach that Jesus was born of the ever-virgin and immaculately conceived, Mary. But here Jesus' humanity is distorted in that He would not have born from genuine humanity, but from one unlike any other of mankind. Not only does Rome distort the person of Christ, but they also distort the work of Christ in teaching that in the Mass, Christ is sacrificed over and over again for man's sins. This betrays the Bible's teaching that the sacrifice of Christ was once and for all.
Thirdly, cults teach something contrary to the Bible's teaching of salvation by grace through faith alone. Rome teaches that grace comes through the sacraments of baptism, marriage, extreme unction, etc. In all three of these areas then, Rome falls into my definition of a cult.
Concerning its belief about its place of authority in the religious world, Catholicism teaches that,
"We must believe that Christ Jesus founded the Catholic or Universal Church, of which He is the perpetual Head, and His Spirit the perpetual Guide; which is founded upon the rock of Blessed Peter, and is ever victorious over all the powers of earth and hell. This same Roman Catholic Church, outside of which it is impossible to be saved, is always One, in all its members professing one Faith, in one communion, under one chief pastor, called the Pope, succeeding St. Peter, to whom Christ committed His whole flock. The Church is always Holy, in teaching a holy doctrine, in inviting all to a holy life, and in the eminent holiness of many of her children. It is Catholic, or Universal, for it subsists in all ages, and teaches all nations, and maintains all Truth. It is Apostolic, for it derives its doctrine, its communion, its orders, and its mission, by an uninterrupted line of succession from the Apostles of Christ."1
In other words, only Rome is the church authorized by Jesus Christ. Rome also teaches that,
"We are bound to believe that with the Roman Catholic Church the Sacred Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testaments, were deposited by the Apostles. This same Catholic Church is the sole guardian and the sole interpreter of them, and the sole judge of all controversies relating to them. The Scriptures, thus interpreted, together with the Traditions of the Apostles passed down to us through the centuries by word of mouth, are to be received and admitted by all Christians for the rule of their faith and practice. We hold that those who dare to usurp these roles of guardian, interpreter, and judge of the Sacred Scriptures, are taking unto themselves a role they did not receive from God, and are therefore acting unlawfully. And that those who hold to private interpretation of Sacred Scripture, interpret them to their own damnation."1
Once again, the teaching of Catholicism is that it is the only church that can properly interpret the meaning of the Scriptures. No other church or person is so equipped or called to do so.
Thirdly, Rome teaches that,
"We are bound to believe that, when the Roman Pontiff , the Pope, speaks "ex cathedra"--i.e., when, in discharge of his office of Pastor and Teacher of all Christians, he defines, in virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, --he is endowed, by the Divine assistance promised him in Blessed Peter, with the infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church should be furnished, in defining doctrines of faith or morals. And therefore such definitions of the Pope are irreformable of themselves, and not in virtue of the consent of the Church. However, the Pope is also a human being and possesses the gift of free will, and in non-infallible matters, that is, when the Pope does not speak "ex cathedra," he is quite capable of sin, even grave sin. But this neither diminishes, nor nullifies his office and authority."1
Papal decrees then become as authoritative as Scripture itself.
The infallibility of the church and of the Pope is defined in the Catholic Encyclopedia as follows,
"That the Church is infallible in her definitions on faith and morals is itself a Catholic dogma, which, although it was formulated ecumenically for the first time in the Vatican Council, had been explicitly taught long before and had been assumed from the very beginning without question down to the time of the Protestant Reformation. The teaching of the Vatican Council is to be found in Session III, cap. 4, where it is declared that "the doctrine of faith, which God has revealed, has not been proposed as a philosophical discovery to be improved upon by human talent, but has been committed as a Divine deposit to the spouse of Christ, to be faithfully guarded and infallibly interpreted by her"; and in Session IV, cap. 4, where it is defined that the Roman pontiff when he teaches ex cathedra "enjoys, by reason of the Divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer wished His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith and morals."2
From this definition, it can be stated that should an ecumenical council of the church or the Pope by himself declare something to be true, then that thing is true, even if Scripture may clearly teach otherwise. As such then, papal decrees and traditions of the church bear a greater degree of authority than the Scriptures do.
Biblical support for their belief of infallibility is supposedly found in these verses: Matthew 28:18-20; Matthew 16:18; John 14-16; 1 Timothy 3:14-15; and Acts 15:28. According to Rome's understanding of Matt. 28:18-20, there is a necessity of seeing an abiding promise of God to be with the apostles and then their successors throughout the church age. While I agree that this verse does contain a promise of God to be with believer's throughout the church age, that promise is not limited to the successors of the apostles. This promise is given to all Christians, not a select few.
In Matthew 16:18, the promise is given to the church that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church. Rome teaches that if the church could err in any doctrine, then hell could prevail against the church, therefore the church must be infallible. The problem with this interpretation is that the verse has nothing to do with the infallibility of the church in its doctrine. Gates are used to keep something out or something contained. What is in view here is the building of the church. The church is built with people as its "building blocks" (1 Peter 2:5). But where do these people come from? They are snatched from the condemnation of hell as they believe in the gospel. The gates of hell can not contain those that are in its confines when they believe on Jesus Christ.
In John 14-16, there is the promise of the abiding of the Holy Spirit who will lead them into all truth. While the promise of the indwelling of the Spirit is given to every believer, the promise of the ministry of the Holy Spirit to remind the apostles of what they had been taught was given to only the apostles. Once they had recorded those things, we had a tangible record of the truth that Jesus taught to His apostles, and can be led into that truth by the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth who indwells every believer, it is not necessary for a body of men or one man to be the sole interpreter of the Scriptures. The One Who inspired the writing of the Scriptures is the same One Who indwells each believer to understand the Scriptures.
While the church is the ground and pillar of the truth, it must be remembered that the church is inclusive of every believer. Paul did not write to Timothy and tell him that Peter was the ground and pillar of the truth, or even the pastor of a church was the same, but that the church, inclusive of every believer, was such. To use 1 Timothy 3:14-15 as proof that the Roman church is the sole interpreter of Scripture is simply making Paul write something that he did not write.
Acts 15 is an account of the first recorded doctrinal problem which surfaced in the early church. It is important to note that Paul and Barnabas came to the apostles and elders of the church in Jerusalem. If only the apostles were given a promise of infallibility, then why did they include the elders of the church in the discussion? The only way that the elders could be included in the discussion is that they were also capable of being moved by the Holy Spirit to arrive at the truth. But there is no such promise of infallibility given to them. We must conclude that the basis for the claims of Rome's sole possession of the ability to interpret Scripture and formulate doctrine is false.
Rome also uses the Matthew 16:18 passage to teach the infallibility of Peter and consequently, his successors which they claim are the Popes. To Rome, the only fitting understanding of the identity of the rock upon which Christ will build His church is Peter. But both grammatically and Biblically, that interpretation is wrong. Our Lord describes Peter as a rock (petros= a small rock) but He will build His church upon a rock (petra= massive rock). For Peter to be the foundation of the church, Jesus would need to use the same Greek word for both Peter and the foundation. In that He does not, Peter can not be the foundation grammatically.
Neither can Peter be the church's foundation biblically. 1 Corinthians 3:11 states that there is no other foundation than Jesus Christ. Luke 20:17 reinforces this conclusion. Jesus states that He is the rock that the builders rejected and He has become the head of the corner. The church is founded upon the person of Jesus Christ, which Peter had just declared, not what Peter would declare in the future.
With Rome's belief about the authority of the church and the infallibility of the Pope, what then is their attitude of the authority of the Scriptures and the believer's responsibility to understand it? Ruth Wilkinson writes in a "Letter to My Non-Catholic Friend" an apologetic of the Roman Catholic faith. Concerning the use of the Bible in the early church she writes,
WHICH WAS APPOINTED BY CHRIST TO TEACH MANKIND THE TRUE RELIGION -THE CHURCH OR THE BIBLE? When our Divine Savior sent His Apostles throughout the world to preach the Gospel to every creature, He laid down the conditions of salvation thus: "He who believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he who believeth not shall be condemned" (Mark 16:16). Here, then, our Blessed Lord laid down two absolute and universal conditions - Faith and Baptism. What is this Divine Faith which we must have in order to be saved? It is to believe, upon the authority of God, "all things whatsoever" (Matt: 28:20) He has revealed. Therefore if a man would be saved he must profess the true Religion. Now if God commands me under pain of damnation to believe what He has taught, He is bound to give me the means to know what He has taught. What is this means?" "The Bible," say the Protestants. But we Catholics say, "No, not the Bible, but the Church of God." For if God had intended that man should learn his religion from the Bible, surely God would have given that book to man. But He did not do so. Christ sent His apostles throughout the earth and said: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19,20). Christ did not say, sit down and write Bibles, and then let every man read and judge for himself Since the sixteenth century we have seen the result of such thinking in the founding of hundreds of religions by men, all quarreling with one another about the interpretation of the Bible. Jesus never wrote a line of scripture nor did He command His Apostles to do so, except when He directed St. John to write the Apocalypse (Book of Revelations 1:11), but ordered them to "teach all nations" (Matt. 28:19). In Matt. 18:17, He does not say, "He who will not read the scriptures," but "he who will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican." The Apostles never circulated a single volume of scripture, but going forth, preached everywhere (Mark 16:20). It is true that our Lord said on one occasion, "Search the Scriptures for in them ye think ye have eternal life, and the same are they that give testimony of me" (John 5:39). This passage is quoted by Protestants in favor of private interpretation but proves nothing of the kind. Our Savior speaks here only of the Old Testament, because the New Testament was not yet written. He addressed, not the Apostles, but the pharisees, and reproaches them for not admitting His Divinity, clearly known and shown by the prophets of the Old Testament.
The Church established by Christ existed about 65 years before St. John wrote the last book of the Bible. During these years how did the people know what they had to do to save their souls? Was it from the Bible they learned it? No, because the Bible as such was not yet composed. They knew it precisely as we know it, from the teaching of the Church of God. The New Testament writings were not gathered together and declared to be divinely inspired until late in the fourth century. Moreover, these witnesses were Catholics, and accepted the Scriptures as divinely inspired because their Church declared them to be so. Protestants hold that the writings, known as the Sacred Scriptures, are inspired. But it is on the Catholic Church's word that they hold this truth! They take for granted that followers of the Catholic Church transcribed and translated the original writings without making any errors, that they never altered a line, that they preserved them until the sixteenth century in their original purity and integrity. Unless they grant all this, they cannot logically appeal to the Scriptures as divine authority. Thus Protestants are breaking away from their theory of "Nothing but the Bible" and basing their arguments on Tradition, or on the authority of the Catholic Church, which, on principle, they repudiate!
The Jewish religion existed before the Old Testament was written, just as the Christian Church existed before the New Testament was written. Peter converted three thousand before the first word of the New Testament was put on paper. Paul had converted hundreds of Romans, Corinthians, Galatians and Thessalonians before he wrote his epistles to those congregations; and all the Apostles were dead, and millions had died Catholic martyrs, before St. John wrote the last part of the New Testament. Until the end of the first century the "Word of God" could have been delivered only by word of mouth.
IS SCRIPTURE INHERENTLY CLEAR?
Suppose: an Episcopal minister reads the Bible in a prayerful spirit and says it is clear and evident that there must be "bishops." The Presbyterian, a sincere and well-meaning man, deduces from the Bible that there should be no bishops, only "Presbyters." A number of religions hold that baptism by immersion is correct, while others approve of baptism by sprinkling. Next comes the Unitarian who calls them all a pack of idolaters, worshiping a man for a God, and he quotes several texts from the Bible to prove it. So we have here a number of denominations understanding the Bible in different ways. what then, if we bring together 500 denominations all differing? One says there is no hell; another says there is. One says Christ is God; another says He is not, etc. Is baptism necessary for salvation? Must infants be baptized? Are good works necessary, or is faith alone sufficient? The correct answer to these questions is surely essential, but zealous Bible readers do not agree concerning them. Is anyone foolish enough to believe that the changeless and eternal Holy Spirit is directing those five hundred denominations, telling one Yes and another No; declaring a thing to be black and white, false and true, at the same time? If the Bible were intended as the guide and teacher of man, would St. Peter have declared that "In the scriptures are things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16)?
On the contrary, the Bible itself declares that it contains many passages, the meaning of which is not clear. Read Acts 8:27-35; Luke 24:25-27; 2 Peter 3:16. Moreover, if the Bible is the Protestants' authority for everything, how is it that they cannot quote the Bible in favor of the "private judgment" theory? Not only can it not be found, but you will find this declaration in the holy book: "No prophecy of Scripture is made by private interpretation" (2 Peter 1:20). St. Paul warned Titus not to concede to anyone the right of private judgment (Titus 3:9-11)."3
Let's look at these claims. The first claim is that God did not give Bibles to the early church, but preachers. Certainly it is true that when the church was born of the day of Pentecost, the New Testament was not in existence. But does that mean that the church should not rely on the written Word of God today? In no manner. First of all we note that the early church relied upon the written word as it became available. Colossians 4:16 states that the Colossian epistle should also be read in the Laodicean church and the epistle to Laodicea (probably the Book of Philemon) should be read at Colosse. Those two epistles did not become the Word of God in the fourth century when the Bible was compiled, but they were the Word of God the very day Paul wrote them. Likewise, Paul gives instructions to the Thessalonians through two epistles to be read publicly and obeyed by the church there. If Christians are unable to understand today what is correct doctrine apart from the church's decrees and interpretations, how could the Thessalonians do so then. Paul's epistles would have been pointless! No one could have understood correctly what they taught until the church interpreted which would not be for some time after those people lived.
In a similar vein of thought, if the Roman church today is the sole interpreter of the meaning of the Scriptures because people are incapable of themselves of knowing a definitive truth, then of necessity, there must have been some ecclesiastical authority for the Jews of the Old Testament times which was infallible. But where do we find such a group? While the Pharisees tried to be the sole interpreters in Jesus' day, we find that they greatly corrupted the meaning of the Scriptures. The fact of the matter is that Jesus expected individuals to privately understand the meaning of the Scriptures. This is evidenced in the account of the 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection of Christ. Jesus rebuked them for not knowing what the Old Testament taught of His resurrection and opened the Scriptures to them.
The second basic argument of Wilkinson is that since there exists so many different interpretations by "Bible-believing" people, all can not be right. This is a true statement. But the truth of that statement does not prohibit the Bible from being correctly understood by any man apart from the church's assistance. If that would be the case, why would Paul write to Timothy and instruct him to study to show himself approved unto God, a workman that would not be ashamed, and one who rightly divided (interpreted) the Word of truth? Timothy should not study the Word, but study the pronouncements of the church, if Rome is correct.
A final argument of Wilkinson is that "private interpretation" is not supported by Scripture, but prohibited. Such is not the case. In citing 2 Peter 1:20-21 as a defense for her position, Wilkinson misses an important word of the text. Peter writes that no prophecy of the Scripture was given by private interpretation. While the word given is not in the text, the activity of the giving of the prophecy certainly is. In verse 21 it states that the prophecies of the Old Testament came not by the will of man... The passage has nothing to do with the interpretation or meaning of the prophecies, but the manner of their revelation to the prophets. In other words, Peter is saying that the prophecies found in the Old Testament were not dreamed up by man, but revealed to the prophets by the Holy Spirit.
What then, should the Christian's attitude be toward the reading and study of the Bible? We must take the position of Isaiah, who in warning against false prophets said, "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them."(Isaiah 8:20) Christians must base their beliefs not on what a pope has said, not on what a pastor has said, not on what a bishop, presbyter, cardinal, or Sunday School teacher has said, but on what God has said in His Word.