Scripture and Authority

Protestants who have had any debate with Catholics or Orthodox believers usually end up talking about authority and the role of tradition, after all those are the main reasons for our separation. Catholics and Orthodox believers accept many practices to do with Baptism, the Breaking of Bread, the priesthood and the honouring of the Saints because of tradition.

Let us begin with some logic:

Premise 1: Scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith and practice.
Premise 2: Scripture nowhere lists which books are Scripture.
Conclusion: There is no way of knowing which books are an infallible rule of faith and practice.

Premise 3: Gospels and Letters were written by the genuine Apostles.
Premise 4: Churches planted by the genuine Apostles kept the genuine Apostles writings.
Conclusion: The Gospels and Letters belonging to the genuine Apostles were passed down through the churches planted by the genuine Apostles.

Premise 5: Gospels and Letters were written by false Apostles.
Premise 6: Churches planted by false Apostles kept the false Apostles writings.
Conclusion: The Gospels and Letters belonging to the false Apostles were passed down through the churches planted by the false Apostles.

Premise 7: The Church Fathers of the 4th Century believed in baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, the Breaking of Bread as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the concept of an established priesthood.
Premise 8: The Church Fathers of the 4th Century codified the list of 27 books of the New Testament.
Conclusion: The list of 27 books of the New Testament was codified by churchmen who believed in baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, the Breaking of Bread as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the concept of an established priesthood.

Premise 9: The Gospels and Letters belonging to the genuine Apostles were passed down through the churches planted by the genuine Apostles. The Gospels and Letters belonging to the false Apostles were passed down through the churches planted by the false Apostles.
Premise 10: The list of 27 books of the New Testament was codified by churchmen who believed in baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, the Breaking of Bread as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the concept of an established priesthood.
Conclusion: The genuine apostolic writings are the 27 books of the New Testament that were passed down through the churches planted by the genuine Apostles. Those churches practised baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, the Breaking of Bread as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the concept of an established priesthood.

Protestants especially Pentecostals today accept Scripture as their sole infallible rule of faith and practice. They should however be honest in admitting that the Church Fathers who were guided by the Holy Spirit in affirming the true and rejecting the false apostolic writings believed some different things to them. They practised baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, the Breaking of Bread as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the concept of an established priesthood. In some forms of Protestantism many of these practices are still accepted especially in certain strands of Anglicanism and Lutheranism.

Pentecostals believe that many if not all of those practices arose within the first three hundred years of the church. All of the oldest churches and denominations in the world practice those same things and as such they must have been very early developments.

Of the books now accepted as the New Testament there were disputes over the acceptance of the Hebrews, James, II Peter, II John, III John, Jude and Revelation. No book in the final list of 27 books was ever declared spurious or heretical, except for Revelation which the Council of Laodicea in 363-364 AD rejected. It is speculated that this rejection was based upon the Montanists use of Revelation.

There were many Gospels and Epistles being passed around in early Christian communities. Many of them were written by pious Christians presenting their own ideas as if they had been written by the apostles. There were other letters linked to Paul such as the Third Epistle to the Corinthians, the Epistle to the Laodiceans and the Acts of Paul and Thecla. There is even an Epistle of the Corinthians to Paul. There were many other gospels: Gospel of the Ebionites, Gospel of the Hebrews, Gospel of the Nazarenes, Gospel of Marcion, Gospel of Mani, Gospel of Apelles, Gospel of Bardesanes, Gospel of Basilides, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Nicodemus, Gospel of Judas Iscariot, Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Philip.

That is just naming a few! Some books were even listed as Scripture by some Church Fathers: 1 Clement, 2 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache.

The classic Protestant view has been expressed by R.C. Sproul that the collection of Scripture that we have is a fallible collection of infallible books. He said:

Though Protestants believe that God gave special providential care to ensure that the proper books be included, he did not thereby render the Church itself infallible. Protestants also remind Roman Catholics that the Church did not “create” the Canon. The church recognized, acknowledged, received, and submitted to the canons of Scripture…The church did not create the canon, but merely recognized the books that bore the marks of canonicity, and were therefore authoritative within the Church” (Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, pages 22-23)

Many of the additional beliefs of the oldest churches come some of these extra writings. The name of Mary’s parents for example are from the ‘Protoevangelium of James’. The whole early life of Mary is given in this book. The Assumption of Mary is taken from ‘The Book of Mary’s Repose’. The Church Fathers did not receive these additional books as Scripture but they did read them and view them highly. It is no wonder then that Protestants who only use the 27 books of the New Testament would naturally have different practises than those who place their authority more widely.

Mormons and Christians have different Scriptures and so have different practises in the same way although Catholics and Protestants use them same New Testament books many Catholic traditions are to be found in the books that were never finally recognised as Scripture.

Pentecostal churches are an example of restorationism. Pentecostals seek to restore to the church that which they believe has been lost and remove those things which they believe have been added. Pentecostal churches share beliefs and practices common with other groups within restorationism such as believers baptism and a congregational polity.

Pentecostals acknowledge that by the 4th Century Christians had started to practise baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, the Breaking of Bread as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the concept of an established priesthood. We do however think that some of these ideas and practises are developments and so seek to return to the earliest Christian writings (the New Testament) and base our beliefs and practises on the first generation of Christians as revealed in the Scriptures.

Councils and Authority

In the 39 Articles of Religion we read in Article XXI:

“General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.”

The phrase “they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God” is very important when discussing Protestant-Catholic and Orthodox relations.

In both the Catholic and Orthodox churches great authority is placed in the hands of Councils. Councils decide what is Orthodoxy and what is Heresy. Councils sort out truth from falsehood. Catholic and Orthodox churches descend from the ‘winning’ side in all of the major Councils and so point to them to provide their lineage of correct-belief. History is written by the victors.

It might come as a surprise to the reader to realise that by the time of the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD) there was more than one Christian ‘church’ even more than one ‘orthodox’ church. There was a Novationist Church, Donatist Church, Montanist Church and the proto-Catholic/ Orthodox Church. Representatives from the Novationist Church even attended the First Council of Nicaea.

At the First Council of Nicaea around 318 Bishops of the 1,800 bishops in the proto-Catholic/ Orthodox Church attended. Arianism was condemned in the state-backed church. This decision was then overturned in 359, at the Council of Ariminum. A new Arian Creed was also adopted by the state-backed church. Pope Liberius condemned the creed but was exiled and replaced by Pope Felix II who supported it. Pope Liberius tired of exile eventually returned having condemned Athanasius and signing a Semi-Arian creed.

Between 359 and 381 (22 years) Arianism was the official position of the state-backed proto-Catholic/ Orthodox Church. Those who disagreed met in separate congregations or lived in exile outside the boundaries of the church. The Council of Ariminum (359 AD) was a meeting of 400 Bishops. That was far more than those who assembled at Nicaea. Jerome remarked that the world “awoke with a groan to find itself Arian.” Of course modern day Catholics and Orthodox Christians say that the councils that affirmed Arianism were not real councils and they don’t accept them. If their party had won they would have accepted them! Protestants don’t accept the Council of Trent in the same way.

In 897 the Cadaver Synod met and Pope Stephen VI declared Pope Formosus posthumously guilty of perjury and of having acceded to the papacy illegally and his papacy retroactively declared null. So as a Catholic in 897 Pope Formosus was an Anti-Pope then in December 897, Pope Theodore II annulled the Cadaver Synod. The annulment was affirmed in 898 by John IX. Pope Formosus was once again considered a Pope until Pope Sergius III (904–911) reapproved the decisions made against Formosus. The Catholic Church at present considers him a legitimate Pope against the wishes of Pope Sergius III.  Between 1378 and 1417 there were multiple Popes each claiming to the be legitimate successor of St Peter. Which of the three men simultaneously claiming to be the true Pope was the right one? The Kings and Princes of Europe were divided on the issue.

The phrase “they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God” is very important. Protestants believe that Popes error and Councils error. Where then should our trust be placed? – surly in the Scriptures Alone!

Augustine (354-430) knew this well saying to an Arian:

“What does “homoousios” mean, I ask, but The Father and I are one (Jn. 10:30)? I should not, however, introduce the Council of Nicea to prejudice the case in my favor, nor should you introduce the Council of Ariminum that way. I am not bound by the authority of Ariminum, and you are not bound by that of Nicea. By the authority of the scriptures that are not the property of anyone, but the common witness for both of us, let position do battle with position, case with case, reason with reason.” Answer to Maximinus, Part I

Athanasius adds:

“Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith’s sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrines so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture” (De Synodis, 6).

He added in Contra Gentes, I:1:

“The Holy and Inspired Scriptures are sufficient of themselves for the preaching of the Truth.”

The Word of God remains steadfast.

Idolatry in Israel and the Church.

John Calvin famously said:

“From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols…Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God.” – Institutes, 1.11.8

Idolatry plagued the story of Israel just as it has at times plagued the story of the Church. In Israel’s story we read how Aaron pressurised by the Israelites in the wilderness formed a golden calf for them in Moses’ absence. Many scholars today suggest that the Israelites did not think that the calf was Yahweh their god but rather imagined him standing upon it. Many ancient near eastern images show a god standing on the back of a bull.

calfsThe Israelites in this view saw the calf like the ark, an object upon which the presence of Yahweh rested. The difference however was that God had instituted the ark whilst the calf was condemned as an idol. They were guilty of loving the right thing (Yahweh-God) but in the wrong way (calf idol). This mistake would be repeated. When the United Kingdom split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south Jeroboam the northern King made two calves of gold which he placed at Bethel and Dan, declaring, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!” (1 Kgs 12:28). Like Aaron it is possible that Jeroboam might have seen himself as an orthodox worshipper of Yahweh and that the calves he had created where simply the footstools of God. God however condemns the action once again. Were the Israelites once again guilty of loving the right thing (Yahweh-God) but in the wrong way (calf idols)? They thought that what they were doing was ok but it was not.

The central commandment that was meant to govern Israelite faith, life and worship was:

Exodus 20:3-5 (NLT)
“You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.”

The Israelites were told:
• No other elohim but Yahweh.
• No idols.
• No bowing before images/idols.
• No worshiping/serving the images/idols.

We are told the reason “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.”

Many Christians assume that the first commandment “You must not have any other god but me” means just what we mean by the word ‘god’ and the attributes that we as 21st Century westerners assign to that term. The truth is that many Old Testament scholars consider Elohim ‘god’ to be a place of residence term rather than carrying the baggage and attributes that we now ascribe to the word ‘god’. The word elohim is applied to Yahweh the Christian god, his divine council (Psalm 82), foreign gods like Molech (1 Kings 11:33), the spirits of dead people (1 Samuel 28:13), demons (Deuteronomy 32:17), and angels (Genesis 35:7). Elohim therefore refers then to any and all inhabitants of the unseen realm.

The story of Israel and Judah is the story of idolatry. King Solomon built the Temple of Yahweh but 1 Kings 11:5-8 (NLT) says:

“Solomon worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites. In this way, Solomon did what was evil in the Lord’s sight; he refused to follow the Lord completely, as his father, David, had done. On the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, he even built a pagan shrine for Chemosh, the detestable god of Moab, and another for Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites. Solomon built such shrines for all his foreign wives to use for burning incense and sacrificing to their gods.”

For over 200 years the shrines remained in place until King Hezekiah closed them. The shrines were not shut for long however as Manasseh reopened them. It was not until the days of Josiah 50 years later that they were finally torn down. Once again the Kings who followed Josiah turned back to idolatry. As John Calvin said “man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols”.

Even whilst Jesus was alive there were those who sought to give the Virgin Mary an inappropriate place. We read in Luke 11:27-28 (ESV):

“As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

Women in the crowd sought to place Mary in a special position and Jesus shot them down. He said “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” May we be those who heard the word of God and keep it!

As Christianity spread across the Mediterranean the Council of Elvira that took place between 295-302 or 306-314 in Canon 36 decreed:

“There must be no pictures used in churches: Let nothing which is adored or worshipped be painted on walls.”

Whilst pictures can be useful especially for catechists there were many in the church who did not want converts to use images in a wrong way.

Returning for a moment to the first commandment “You must not have any other god but me”. Since the word of ‘god’ elohim is used also for the disembodied spirit of the dead prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 28:13 it follows then perhaps all the saints in heaven likewise being disembodied spirits of the dead fall under the condemnation of the first commandment. It therefore follows that the other condemnations proceed from the first. If you are forbidden from having any other elohim but Yahweh then we must not bow, worship at or serve any image/idol of Mary or the saints. Why? “I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other elohim.”

We must always be careful that “ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda secundus verbum Dei” that is, the church, having been reformed, must continue to be reformed according to God’s Word. May we be those who hear the word of God and keep it! May we hold fast to the commandments of God knowing that he is a jealous God who will not tolerate our affections for any other inhabitant of the unseen realm. Let us hold fast to 1 Corinthians 10:6-7 “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were”.

References:
ANE images from here.