Most Protestants perceive that when the Catholic Church speaks of the oral, teaching Tradition (with a capital “T”) that the Church is somehow placing the “Church” over and above scripture. They seem to think that the Church circumvents scripture and changes doctrine as it pleases. But this is far from the Truth. The oral, teaching Tradition of the Church and the Scriptures are equal in authority and one depends upon the other. The Church does not change the teachings of scripture as it pleases and scripture does not contradict the teachings of the Church. The Church doesn’t change doctrine and it can’t change doctrine. If you say it has, then please show me…I will guess that what you think is doctrine, is actually a practice or devotion and not Doctrine. See: The Gates of Hell shall Not Prevail…EVER!
At the root of this misconception is how do we understand the scriptures? Protestant theologians contend that a proper interpretation of scripture is all that is required and the scriptures will tell us everything that is needed to understand God and His plan for us. But the Catholic Church does not “interpret” scripture, it explains it’s full meaning and teaches the faithful because it was the author of the Scriptures under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and it’s the same Holy Spirit that guides the Church in teaching the scriptures and ultimately, it’s the Holy Spirit that prevents the Church from derailing from the true meaning and teachings of Jesus Christ, whether in word or letter.
For example, if I write a story that has deeper meaning to it beyond the words on the paper, I understand the full meaning of what I was trying to convey in it. I don’t need to interpret it, because I wrote it. I can explain it’s meaning. If I pass on what my story means to my children, and they pass it on to their children and so on, then they have the full meaning of my story and can continue to explain it’s meaning to others. However, if someone else comes along who had not received the full explanation of my story and says “Ah, here is the meaning of what Ken wrote” and it is in contradiction to what I truly meant, then they would be in error. Would my kids claim to have authority over my explanation and be able to change it at will? Or, would they wish to guard the true meaning and hand it on faithfully? They would have my authority to teach the true and faithful meaning of my words. But if someone comes along and claims that my kids don’t have the authority and proceed to “interpret” what the meaning was… that is a problem.
Now apply this to the Church and the promise that Jesus gave His Church to keep it from teaching error and maintain the True meanings of His words.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” ~Matthew 16:18
And he goes on to give Peter, and the Church the authority to guard and maintain His teachings.
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” ~Matthew 16:19
Now, if we say that Jesus did no such thing, and there was no Authority put in place, then this was either a lie, or meant nothing… either way I would not be a Christian if that were the case. No, Jesus promised to protect His Church from error and we see Apostolic Succession in the scriptures. It makes complete sense that Jesus would do this. If we say He didn’t or couldn’t, then are we saying that He doesn’t have the ability or power to do so?
The testimony of the early Church is deafening in its unanimous (yes, unanimous) assertion that Jesus has indeed instituted apostolic succession. Far from being discussed by only a few, scattered writers, the belief that the apostles handed on their authority to others was one of the most frequently and vociferously defended doctrines in the first centuries of Christianity. (See this post on Catholic Answers: Apostolic Succession)
Look at 1 Timothy 1:6 and 4:14, where Paul reminds Timothy that the office of bishop had been conferred on him through the laying on of hands. Notice in 1 Timothy 5:22 that Paul advises Timothy not to be hasty in handing on this authority to others. In Titus Paul describes the apostolic authority Titus had received and urges him to act decisively in this leadership role.
This brings us back to our timeline of the Development of the New Testament…
In 85AD we finally get the first of the writings from the Apostle John. He gives us The Revelation of Saint John. 50 years after the Resurrection of Jesus. That is a significant amount of time. What did all those new Christians do without this part of New Testament scripture to “interpret”? It is evident that John has written it down so that future generations can have his words and be able to teach them through the Church faithfully. Which is why all the Gospels were written. Oh, and by this time, we still don’t have John’s Gospel.
Evidence of Apostolic Authority
In 88AD we get another writing that will not make it into the later accepted Canon of Scripture. The Letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians. In fact, this is the earliest piece of Christian literature outside of the New Testament authors for which the name, position and date of the author are historically attested.
A few interesting things about this letter. Why is Clement, who is the head of the Church in Rome, writing a letter to Corinth? Well, basically, he is telling them to repent. The letter is primarily an exhortation for the Corinthians to straighten up their act. This seemed to be a problem area in the early Christian world. Paul already wrote two letters basically telling them the same thing. Clement even refers to Paul in his letter and is telling the Corinthians that things are even worse than when Paul knew them.
Another very interesting thing about this letter is that the letter does not use Clement’s name, but is addressed from “the Church of God which sojourns at Rome.” Also, It does not seem that the Corinthians had asked Rome to intervene. For this reason it is compelling that Clement does not apologize for meddling, as would be appropriate were his letter motivated merely by the brotherly solicitude of an equal. Rather, he apologizes for not writing sooner, as though intervening to restore order were his duty. On the other hand, if the Corinthians did ask Rome to intervene – rather than appealing to the still-living Apostle John – that in itself would be a powerful testament to the authority accorded Rome at the close of the 1st century.
Clement’s clearest claim to special authority over the Corinthians comes towards the end of the letter, when he says that if the recipients of his letter disobey him they will be guilty of sin:
Receive our counsel, and ye shall have no occasion of regret…. But if certain persons should be disobedient unto the words spoken by Him through us, let them understand that they will entangle themselves in no slight transgression and danger, but we shall be guiltless of this sin.
And again: “For ye will give us great joy and gladness, if ye render obedience unto the things written by us through the Holy Spirit.”
Clement is clearly asserting that his position as the Bishop of “the Church of God which sojourns in Rome” has the authority to correct the church in Corinth, an authority that has been given through the Holy Spirit.
Clement also seems to have intended the letter to be read publicly, and we know that decades later it was still read to the congregation during worship. St. Dionysius, bishop of Corinth around 170, wrote in a letter to Pope Soter:
“Today we observed the holy day of the Lord and read out your letter, which we shall continue to read from time to time for our admonition, as we do with that formerly sent to us through Clement.”
That the Corinthians gave the letter such a welcome tells us that they could hardly have thought Rome was exceeding its authority. Indeed, Clement’s letter was held in such high regard that in the early fourth century, Eusebius could write that it was read publicly not only in Corinth but “in many churches both in the days of old and in our time.”
Still No Codified New Testament and it’s been 55 years…
So we have gone 55 years since the Resurrection and we still don’t have ALL of the New Testament in writing yet. Which begs the question, for those 55 years where the early Christians practicing Scripture Alone? Up until this point, I would contend that the only writings accepted as authoritative teachings and universally accepted as important for all the Churches of the time would have been the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, the Acts and maybe Revelation which was only written in 85AD. We still don’t have the Gospel of John and his three letters.
Coming up next: Part 4 – The Gospel of John