Reformation Theology, theology

By Whose Authority? The question of authority in the church


The Question of Authority

One cannot question that perhaps the most central issue which divides the Roman Catholic Church from Protestants is the question of authority. The issue touches upon a number of others. Who has the authority to interpret Scripture (ultimately)? What is the structure of a church? How do we learn doctrines? It must be acknowledged by all that the Roman Catholic Church’s claims to authority are paramount. It is possible for the Church to claim infallible authority for its teachings, however few claims they have actually made.

The question of authority persists in its importance today. If one church body–the Roman Catholic Church–is capable of infallibly defining doctrine for the whole of the Christian world, and some deny these doctrines, then that automatically means that those who deny these doctrines are in some sense denying God. It is important to note what the Church itself has said regarding this doctrine. Here is part of the definition of infallibility from the First Vatican Council (Section 4, Chapter 4):

[W]e teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.

What is to be said about those who deny any teaching that the Pope declares infallible? Again, I’ll allow the Church to speak for itself:

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.

Because I personally do reject some of the infallible teachings of the Church (such as the Marian Dogmas of perpetual virginity, immaculate conception, and the asumption), I, by virtue of this teaching, am anathema. Thus, it should be clear that the authority of the church is at the core of the divide between Catholics and Protestants.

Discordant Voices

The problem of authority is often pressed by Roman Catholic thinkers as a kind of argument against Protestantism. The way in which it is is presented is often through an argument for unity. For example, the claim is made that the Magisterium is capable of preserving doctrinal unity to a higher degree than the Protestant denomination. The claim is also often accompanied by an offhand remark about the number of Protestant Denominations. What is the implication? The discordant voices within Protestantism are, in some way, to be viewed as a discrediting piece of evidence when it comes to the nature of the truth claims of these churches. The implication (as quoted here) that some Roman Catholic apologists draw is that this proves the necessity of an infallible interpreter of doctrine/Scripture.

Infallible Magisterium?

Initially, the claim sounds a bit appealing. One may trust in the infallible Church to settle the debate on various theological topics once and for all. One need not try to draw out the implications of specific texts for themselves, leading to any number of diverging interpretations and arguments and ultimately, the splitting of the church into ever-smaller units each warring against each other and saying they have the truth.

There’s one major problem, though. By whose authority does one make the decision to trust in the infallible magisterium? This question should be on the mind of any individual who chooses to join the Roman Catholic Church based upon the argument from authority. After all, it is the decision of the individual to trust the Church which leads to accepting the Church as the infallible authority.

One must then ask the question: are you infallible? That is, is your [fallible] decision to make the Roman Catholic Church your infallible authority itself an infallible decision? Could you be mistaken? If the answer is that you are indeed fallible and you may be mistaken, then it must follow that any trust placed in the allegedly infallible Church must be equally fallible and stand upon shaky ground. For it is the person who joins the church who has joined the Church, not vice versa. The decision rests upon the individual, and it is therefore a fallible decision to make the Church infallible for one’s faith.

This argument therefore tears down any grounds one might have for asserting that one should trust the infallible Church in order to eliminate the discordant voices of Protestantism or choose-your-own-theology which may be the case outside of the Roman Catholic Church.*

*This is not to mention the often discordant voices within the Roman Catholic Church itself and the fact that fallible persons must interpret allegedly infallible statements in order to discern what they mean. Are you an infallible interpreter? Surely not.

Sola Ecclesia?

Moreover, suppose it is correct that the Church is the infallible interpreter of the Bible and tradition. Does this not mean that any allegations that one is under the authority of the Bible, Tradition, and the Church really boil down to the authority of the Church? After all, the last and final authority in interpreting the Bible, Tradition, or the Church is the Church. If one has a dispute about the meaning of a biblical teaching, the Church may (but does not have to) make the ultimate, infallible decision regarding its meaning. If one argues that tradition hints at something which the Church does not teach, the Church is the ultimate arbiter of tradition as well. Thus, it seems like the final authority in every case lies with the Church. The system, I would argue, ultimately boils down into sola ecclesia.

A Final Note for my Roman Catholic Readers

I want to end with a call to my Roman Catholic readers. First, I would note that in this post I have not sought to insult or denigrate Roman Catholics or their beliefs. I have allowed the Vatican to give its own definitions and presented them, I hope, without distortion. Second, I think that we need to be honest about the differences that we have rather than covering them up. Third and finally, these differences should not, I hope, lead us to be incapable of working together in social and yes–at times–even theological issues. I hope that you will be comfortable interacting with me on this topic and others. I appreciate whatever insight you would like to share.


The Church Universal- Reformation Review– I discuss the possibility of maintaining a universal church in light of the breakup of the church into ever smaller groups. I place this discussion against the background of Reformation theology.

“20,000 denominations”– an in-depth analysis of the claims of those who wish to use denominationalism as an argument against sola scriptura. The link for the article the author evaluates is now down.

Much of the argument found herein has been learned from listening to or reading James White, and although I do not directly quote his work I am greatly indebted to him. A particularly helpful work was The Roman Catholic Controversy.



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


5 thoughts on “By Whose Authority? The question of authority in the church

  1. Outstanding post. I’m a big fan of fallibilism, and the way you described it was novel for me, pushing my thinking in some productive directions. Thank you.

    Personal fallibilism has some broad implications when it comes to the issue of objective truth. Truth may be objective, but who has access to it? The other day, I heard an apologist argue against postmodernism by declaring that something is true if that which it purports to represent as the case is actually the case. The example he gave was, “If I have a quarter in my pocket, then the claim ‘there is a quarter in my pocket’ is objectively true.” But it’s easy to see how this hypothetical’s consequent is tied strictly to the truth value of its antecedent. Being a tautology, it does not tell us one lick about whether there actually is, in fact, a quarter in my pocket.
    When postmodernists argue in favor of fallibilism — “nobody’s actually able to peek inside the pocket” — they often put it in terms of “subjective truth” (for which I fault them). But at the end of the day, that’s what “subjective truth” functionally “is.” It’s prudent fallibilism about anything that depends on observation; it’s a recognition of the impassable noumenal/phenomenal barrier. And it relegates the authority over deciding whether or not to subscribe to claim X to individual, prospective subscriber.

    Of course, as with any conclusion that is difficult to convey and perhaps unpalatable on its surface, many infer from postmodernism deontic suggestions or new allowances that postmodernism doesn’t actually imply. The biggest example: Postmodernism does not relieve folks of the burden to invest due diligence into investigation, education, contemplation, and self-scrutiny into their decisionmaking. Layabouts love to use “well, this thing’s just true for me” as an excuse to avoid dealing with challenges entirely.

    Catholicism was a big challenge for me. Back in high school, because of the authority issue and my committed belief in objective truth *without* recognizing the fallibilism that ought ride along with it, especially as it pertained to the canon of Scripture, I felt no other choice but to convert. I became Catholic, and spent about 5 years building up an arsenal of apologetics in her favor and arguing vehemently for her authority. Because without her authority, whose authority was I making prime? MY OWN? The audacity!

    By this time, I was finishing up my degree in college, and spending much of my extracurricular time invested in religious debates of all kinds, I stumbled upon something devastating. While coming to the defense of the Church’s stance on contraception, I re-read the encyclical Humanae Vitae, and suddenly realized that the stance was incoherent and unstable. And it seemed almost as if the Pope knew it — because he handled his multiple frayed logical rope-ends by tying them all to a post of, ‘Well, nobody can deny that the Church has the authority to make whatever declaration.’

    Further, the teaching was preached by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, making it (and the fact that it is a “mortal sin”) infallible, which conservative Catholics are quick to proclaim. Say this to a moderate or liberal Catholic (since everybody but the conservatives is unrepentantly using contraception, not believing that it’s damning them to hell), and what is their response? “I don’t personally think it’s ‘ordinary and universal’ ENOUGH to be infallible.”

    “I don’t personally think.”

    It’s been about 10 years since then, and I’ve journeyed back into the land of, “Probably nobody has it entirely right.” The highest, superordinate, arch-authority over what you personally believe is yourself, because no matter what external authority is claimed, you are always the last gatekeeper before the keep.

    Posted by Stan | October 14, 2013, 9:54 AM
  2. Hello, to my mind the doctrines of Biblical inerrancy and Solo Scriptura are as non-sensical as the infaillibility of the Pope.

    First of all, since the DECISION of defining the Canon is not itself a part of the Canon, it cannot be inerrant or infaillible.
    And if conservative Protestants reject the decision of the Church to adopt infant baptism and the veneration of the saints, then what warrant do they have that the Church got God right with respect to the Canon?

    Finally it is true that the Popes contradict each other in various way, but so does the Bible .


    Posted by lotharson | October 14, 2013, 4:10 PM
  3. We can be selective with the humans in which we put our trust. We don’t have to blindly and sweepingly adopt anyone’s complete doctrinal system.

    For example, I think that Aristotle’s metaphysics is way better than Plato’s. Furthermore, I think that Aristotle was a smarter man than I am. At the same time, I think Aristotle was wrong to say that there are 4 or 5 elements in the world. I can elevate Aristotle as a respected authority in some respects, but when I find legitimate cause to call something of his into question, I am free to do so.

    Am I sure that they got the canon “right?” Of course not. Hebrews, for example, may not have been inspired by God. It’s completely possible. Perhaps 2 Kings contains a large uninspired chunk. Maybe 1 and 2 Maccabees are both inspired. Maybe all 4 are inspired. Maybe only the first is. Maybe none of them are. Maybe Enoch, however, weird it is, is inspired. Maybe Revelation isn’t. It might be that a lost writing called “The Gospel of Lazarus” was inspired, but had a small circulation and all copies were lost.

    We don’t have a 100% guarantee of the veracity of any specific point of doctrine, from the correct canon of Scripture, to whether infant baptism is acceptable, to whether fallen saints are conscious and have their ears open to our requests for intercession — and even source issues like the faithful English translation of certain ancient Greek words.

    A person might say, “I don’t think God would let us err in such a popular fashion on things so important,” anchoring her confidence to God’s providence. But, if a person says this, then they are anchored to God, not necessarily the Christian Church under the Bishop of Rome. If they say, “God would not have let the synods at Hippo and Carthage make a bad determination,” then that isn’t really a statement of reliance on those men, is it? It says absolutely nothing about their peripheral authority.

    I wouldn’t say that, however. There are natural disasters, there are horrors, there are atrocities, there are genocides, there are holocausts, and there are probably popular and persistent doctrinal errors. If the reconciliation of the last item with a good God is “unthinkable,” how on Earth does one handle the previous items?

    We are given a pillar and foundation; we are not given impeccability. We are promised a spiritual guide; we are not promised publicly demonstrable proofs.

    Posted by Stan | October 14, 2013, 4:44 PM
  4. Interesting article, JW. I’m not a Catholic, but it strikes me that the same arguments you use against the infallibility of the Catholic Church could also be used against the infallibility of the Bible. How do you get around that, if at all?

    Posted by Jordan | October 16, 2013, 9:53 AM
    • My argument is specifically against the notion that one must have an infallible interpreter in order to have surety of doctrine. The point is not purely that being fallible humans is a problem. The problem is, instead, when one argues that one needs an infallible interpreter. Which interpreter do you choose, if that is the case? So my argument wouldn’t apply to sola scriptura, unless someone is arguing for sola scriptura in some relevantly similar manner.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 22, 2013, 8:18 PM

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