There are two ideas that I encounter over and over again in my conversations with non-Catholic Christians. The first idea is that, for whatever reason, the Catholic Church does not possess apostolic authority. The second is that Christians should only believe what can be explicitly found in scripture, because the Bible is the final authority. I would like to reflect on these two ideas that I myself once held.
If apostolic authority died with the last Apostle, then no one has apostolic authority. No Catholic, no Protestant, no Evangelical or Fundamentalist has apostolic authority. Hence, no one since the Apostles has had the authority to tell anyone what to believe or what not to believe about the Bible, including its contents.
The early Christians had to believe what the Apostles told them. But, the Apostles died. So, what happened to their authority? How could they continue to “tell” Christians what to believe? How would the Holy Spirit guide and unify the Church without the Apostles? Here are a few options: 1) Apostolic authority was transferred to the successors of the Apostles. 2) Apostolic authority was transferred to the Bible. 3) A combination of the two.
If authority was transferred only to the Apostles’ successors, then there would be little point in writing things down (like the Gospels, for example). So there must be at least some apostolic authority contained within the writings of the Apostles. After all, if the Apostle has authority, his writings will, too.
If authority was transferred only to the writings of the Apostles, then it would make sense to include that information in the writings. For example, the apostles should have written down something that says, “When we are all dead, our authority will reside only in these written documents” or, “Only believe what is explicitly written in this future collection of writings and nothing else,” or “The Bible is now your final authority.” The problem is that the Bible makes no claim that it is the final authority for the Christian upon the death of the last apostle or at any other point in time. Although the Bible claims to be “profitable” it does not claim to have “the final say” or to be entirely “sufficient.” Plus, the Church went 400 years without an officially assembled Bible.
Non-Catholic Christians (with few exceptions) have largely rejected the idea that the authority of the Apostles was transferred to successors. Therefore, unlike the early Christians, there are no men that these Christians are ultimately accountable to. They are essentially free to discern the Bible on their own and believe what they wish. If they disagree with one church, they can find a different one. While many of them claim submission to their respective church leadership, there is really no reason for them to do so in matters of faith and morals. Why submit to leadership when each Christian can decide what to believe? “Leadership” therefore becomes limited to the logistical and administrative needs of each church. In this scenario, apostolic authority on faith and morals (limited now to only the Bible) takes a back seat to the beliefs of individual Christians. Christians now tend to submit to leadership that aligns with what they believe. This is the opposite of the early Church where individual Christians were expected to line up with the unified teaching of the Apostles.
Catholics, believing that the Apostles transferred their Christ-given authority to successors, are expected to behave as the early Christians did. They are expected to fall in line with God’s written Word as well as the teachings delivered by men with apostolic authority. In this scenario, apostolic authority is still in the driver’s seat. Individual Christians are expected to remain in the back seat and submit to the teachings of Church leadership, just like when the apostles were alive. In other words, the apostles “live on” in their successors who are able to clarify their writings and apply them to the present day life of the Church. This has continued for 2000 years.
The authentic Catholic Christian, like the early Christian does not search for a church that aligns with his or her individual conclusions about the Bible. Rather, like the early Christians, the authentic Catholic is obedient to Christ through obedience to Christ’s Church (which includes the Bible). The Bible is not the “container” which holds all things Christian. The Church is the “container” which holds all things Christian, and the Bible is inside that container (aka the Deposit of Faith). The Bible points the Christian back to the Church as the “pillar and ground of the truth.” (1Tim 3:15) The Bible never places itself over and above the Church’s authority, or demands that the Christian reject the Church and submit only to the authority of Bible. The Bible and the Church together are a coordinated, apostolic authority. It is not either/or, it is both/and.
The Catholic Church must possess apostolic authority in order to have assembled and affirmed the contents of the Bible 400 years after the Apostles died. The Catholic Church declared which writings were inspired and which were not. It makes no sense to reject the apostolic authority of the Catholic Church and then claim that the Bible contains apostolic authority for the Christian. It is inconsistent to say, “I only believe what is in the Bible, but I don’t believe that the Church that assembled that Bible has apostolic authority.” That is akin to saying, “I believe the Gospel of John, but I don’t believe John had apostolic authority.”
Assembling the Bible was as important as writing the Bible. Without the Church’s apostolic authority, we could all pick and choose whether or not we think the book of James or the Gospel of Thomas belongs in the New Testament. Why not rely only on the words spoken by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel? Why not accept Peter’s writings but reject Paul’s? When you dump the Catholic Church’s apostolic authority, everything else is up for grabs, including the Table of Contents of your Bible.
Apostolic authority was promised by Christ to the Church. It is not transient, it is permanent. It is not something that can be “lost” and then “picked up” by another church, for Jesus established only one Church and promised to remain with that Church. Bad people in the Church cannot cause apostolic authority to “go away.” It is the authority of Christ, given by Christ. Jesus never said that the authority given to the Apostles would someday go away or be confined to a book. The Apostles never taught that, either. They appointed new men to fill vacant offices (Acts 1:20-26).
If the Catholic Church does not have apostolic authority, then no one has apostolic authority. That authority died with the Apostles, and the Bible doesn’t have it, either. It’s just a collection of old writings that may or may not have been inspired by God, put together by a false religion that calls itself Christian. If that’s the case, it really doesn’t make sense to believe what is in the Bible. On the other hand, if the Catholic Church does have apostolic authority, then it is reasonable to believe the things that are explicitly stated in the Bible as well as all of the other official teachings of the Catholic Church. It’s all apostolic teaching.
Ultimately, for the Catholic, it comes down to trusting Christ to hold it all together in spite of our imperfections. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” (2Cor 4:7) Jesus, I trust in thee.