The Catholic Claim of Authority

This is a slightly-edited form as comment number 681 in the “Whose Lens Are You Using” thread at Greenbaggins.

In another posting, Bryan Cross said he became Catholic because “I had to choose between ecclesial deism and apostolic succession.” (From comment #635 in the above-linked thread.)

This is just a false choice.

Turretin described this choice some four hundred years ago. He says,

Thus this day the Romanists (although they are anything but the true church of Christ) still boast of their having alone the name of church and do not blush to display the standard of that which they oppose. In this manner, hiding themselves under the specious title of the antiquity and infallibility of the Catholic church, they think they can, as with one blow, beat down and settle the contoversy waged against them concerning the various most destructive errors introduced into the heavenly doctrine. (Institutes, Vol 3. pgs 2)

This is exactly the way that you argue. “There must be this category of infallible church that cannot fail. There is only one church that claims this; it can’t be the Mormons, and the Protestants don’t seem to exhibit this monolithic trait of “church which cannot fail,” therefore it must be Rome.”

Turretin continues:

Nothing can be more unfair than this method of acting because the very thing in question is imposed upon us as the principle of faith to be believed.

And you have repeatedly been cited for assuming the thing that you must prove.

For since the church of Rome is asked concerning itself whether it is a church of Christ (the head and mistres of the rest), they think that they settle the whole matter if they obtrude in place of an indisputable principle what is in the highest degree disputable. And that they “may not be convicted of error, they impudently vociferate with those scribes in Jeremiah (8.8) that the church is infallible, and is with them, and that they alone are wise. Thus in the definition of the church (from which fountain they draw their positions with the insane fraud of the false apostles), “they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Cor 10:12). And as if the matter was settled, they condemn as schismatics and heretics all those who withdraw themselves from obedience to that church, which they cover with treacherous fraud.

You must look at the particulars, because the categories you have set up by Catholicism from the beginning are wrong. Here is a broad description of early Christianity from the outside:

“Christians at first were few in number, and held the same opinions; but when they grew to be a great multitude, they were divided and separated, each wishing to have his own individual party: for this was their object from the beginning….being thus separated through their numbers, they confute one another, still having, so to speak, one name in common, if indeed they still retain it. And this is the only thing which they are yet ashamed to abandon, while other matters are determined in different ways by the various sects.” (cited in Origen’s Against Celsus, 3:10, 3:12)

Celsus was writing in the early 200’s at this point. Though he opposed Christianity, there is no reason to believe he was lying about it. In fact, this picture is corroborated at many points, by many of the historians I have been citing.

There was no such thing as “one true church” in the ante-nicene times, under the headship of the successor of Peter.

How do you square such descriptions with your statement “In studying early Church history, and in the Fathers, I found the early widespread practice of apostolic succession and an episcopal form of Church government.”? Do you look point-by-point at such things and dismiss them each for each? No, you simply make a category-wide assumption and dismiss the whole thing.

You do not tell the whole story, and in fact, you hide and gloss over facts that are very inconvenient for you:

The earliest advocate of a papacy seems to have been the Roman bishop Stephen, acting in his own interests, around the middle of the third century. His claims were widely opposed in the East and West, by men like Firmilian and Cyprian. To include men like Firmilian and Cyprian in his definition of early church unity, Bryan Cross would have to define unity in a sub-Roman-Catholic manner.

It’s true that apostolic succession was a popular concept in early patristic Christianity. It’s also true that the concept had deep cultural roots in other contexts, is absent from many early Christian sources, is defined in a variety of ways, sometimes is defined in a way acceptable to Protestantism, and sometimes has been advocated by Protestants. An appeal to apostolic succession would have to be highly qualified in order to lead one to Roman Catholicism. And the historical record doesn’t support such a highly qualified definition.

Keep in mind that men like Irenaeus and Cyprian qualified their comments on apostolic succession by other standards. A bishop must meet particular doctrinal and moral standards. Churches such as Rome and Ephesus are significant for particular historical reasons that may not be applicable at all times. Etc.

(comments by Jason Engwer from Triablogue).

There’s a whole world in that “Etc.”

That’s why Turretin goes on to say,

“The arts of our opponents impose upon us the necessity of this disputation that we may distinguish the real face of the church from its counterfeit, …

You would say that “faith or doctrine ought to be known from the church rather than the church from the doctrine and faith” (3). In the same way, the Jews boasted “that they were the people of God” yet they persecuted the prophets, and “with rage cast out and cruelly treated the Lord of the vineyard himself.”

That is precisely what Rome has done since the day of the Reformation.

The nub of the problem for you seemed to be [Johann] Mohler’s need to “pick and choose”. But there is another word for that — discernment. We look at the early church, and say there were any good and pious people, but they in no way held to the monolithic position of the Church which you, in your effort to categorize, have attributed to them.

“The way of discussion and examination of doctrine,” Turretin says, “is long and dangerous.” But your way is “short and indubitable.

Catholicism indeed “looks good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.”

But what it claims to be, and what it actually is, are two different things.

If you don’t see that Scriptural connection, painstakingly outlined from doctrine to doctrine, consider that Aristotle’s first category is “equivocation.”