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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.



The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Who Interprets Scripture? Sola Scriptura, the Reformation, and the modern era: Reformation Review

Theological debates raged throughout the period of the Reformation. These debates were about who had the right to interpret Scripture, what was the nature of salvation, who had authority in the church, and the like. Sound familiar? It should. Many of the debates that were central to the reformers are still in our purview today. Central to several of these debates focused upon the interpretation of Scripture.

Sola Scriptura: Two difficulties

The Reformers operated under the ideal of sola scriptura. The term literally means “scripture alone.” The notion seems simple enough: when it comes to doctrine, practice, and belief, the church universal is to be guided by Scripture alone. Yet it quickly became apparent during the Reformation era that things were not quite so simple.

First, sola scriptura was largely founded upon the notion that any Christian could read and understand Scripture. Yet, as became clear due to the fierce debates of the meaning of the Sacraments (i.e. the debate between Luther and Zwingli on the “real presence” in the Lord’s Supper), it seemed that on some things, Scripture wasn’t so simple (McGrath a, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 106-107, cited below). People could disagree, vehemently, even over things that each side thought was abundantly clear.

Second, Anabaptists and others argued that sola scriptura meant that every single individual Christian could read and understand the Bible for themselves. How was this problematic? Well, if every Christian could understand every part of the Bible, then there was no way to arbitrate between differing interpretations of soteriology (doctrine of salvation), eschatology (doctrine of the end times), and the like. Of course, not all of these interpretations could be correct, and if those who had argued for the individualism of Scriptural interpretation were correct, then they could all be right, in some sense. Furthermore, the issue was exacerbated in that because no one had the authority to proclaim what doctrines were correct, the church began to increasingly split  to the point that “the radical Reformation was not a unified movement, but rather a chorus of protest against the clergy, secular authorities, and Reformers such as Luther and Zwingli. It was a reservoir for uncompromising protest that could well up in the most varied social circles… ‘Within the turmoiled flood of radical reform or restitution the fresh vitalities of the Reformation… were borne along swiftly to radical extremes'” (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 213, cited below).

Limiting Perspicuity

The solution to the first problem was simply to concede that, on at least some issues, Scripture was not crystal clear. On at least certain points, the magisterial reformers “had conceded that Scripture is obscure” (McGrath a, 108). There was genuine disagreement over some issues. However, not all agreed with this conclusion, and some still pressed that all of Scripture was indeed clear. Such an argument tied into the second problem the Reformers had to confront in relation to sola scriptura: who has the right interpretation?

Which Interpretation? Tradition’s Importance

Tradition played an important role in determining how the interpretation of Scripture was to be undertaken. During the Medieval period, a number of developments in hermeneutics laid the groundwork for the various interpretive methods utilized in the Reformation (McGrath b, 148ff). There were three primary views which emerged during the Reformation.

First, there was the position that “there is no place for tradition in the interpretation of the Bible. Every individual or community is free to interpret the Bible without reference to the Christian past” (McGrath a, 100). Such a position was part of the Radical Reformation and led to innumerable differing interpretations of Scripture. Of course, this was the group of reformers which applied sola scriptura most consistently. They took the principle literally and only allowed the Bible to be authoritative. However, with no way to arbitrate between differing doctrines, it seemed that such a position was incapable of standing up to scrutiny. All it could allow for was rampant individualism.

Second, there was the position that tradition was “an additional mode of divine revelation, in which information that was not committed to writing in the Bible was passed down…” (McGrath a, 100). The Roman Catholic church endorsed this position. However, it did not become popular with the reformers at all.

Instead, the Reformers developed a third position, one which stood as a middle way between the extremes of enshrining tradition and rejecting it outright. On this position, “Tradition designates a traditional way of interpreting a biblical text, which does not displace the text” (McGrath a, 100). Tradition therefore does not become an independent source of authority, but rather a way of interpreting the authority–Scripture–in an authoritative manner. By using tradition in this manner, the Reformers avoided the individualism of rejecting tradition, while also avoiding the error of raising tradition to the same level of importance as Scripture.

The third way was developed largely in the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, but it had its core in the historic Christian Creeds. Within the Lutheran tradition, the Apostles’; Nicene; and Athanasian Creeds were taken as theological foundations, and the Augsburg Confession and the later Book of Concord (which drew together several other confessions of the Lutheran faith) became the interpretive lens through which the Lutheran church would view Scripture and right doctrine.

Modern Theology, Reformation Problems

The discussions which occurred in the Reformation on the nature of sola scriptura, tradition, and the interpretation of Scripture had their origins in the past, and they continue into today. Some continue to insist that anyone can read the Bible and understand it in its entirety.

Against those who argue against their position, they insist that they themselves are just reading what the Bible says. This can be seen in a number of debates in Christian theology. It seems the best response to those who wield the ‘perspicuity of Scripture’ as a weapon against alternatives to their own doctrine have no alternative against those who disagree other than going back and forth claiming their own interpretation is correct and/or more clear.

The example I most often like to use is the book of Revelation and eschatology. Someone who claims the perspicuity of Scripture applies to the whole of Scriptural teaching must claim, in order to be consistent, that these doctrines are clear. Thus, such a person must maintain that every single verse in Revelation can simply be read by anyone and understood.

To be frank, I find this absurd. The extreme diversity of people’s interpretations of Revelation seem to undermine the notion that every passage in Scripture is clear. Furthermore–as has already been noted–those who hold to this radically individualistic position of Scripture have no way to decide between differing interpretations of Scripture. They are thus left with no way to determine any doctrine, whether it is radically opposed to Christianity or not, is heretical. Thus, one who holds this position cannot condemn modalism, as long as the person arguing for it is only using the Bible. After all, Scripture is clear! Everyone can read it. Therefore, it seems that this debate which continues to rage on from the Reformation must end. In order to avoid the mire of wanton individualism, we must have some principles for interpretation.

Another major issue of contemporary debate is that of Creeds and “paper popes.” Often, for example, the Lutheran Church is accused of utilizing the Book of Concord as a “paper pope”–a book which acts as an infallible interpreter of Scripture. Similarly, some argue that the historical Christian creeds are not Scripture and therefore must not be affirmed: again, sola scriptura.

It may be helpful to see this as a case study: in Lutheran circles, there is a debate over whether one must agree with the Book of Concord (the Lutheran Confessions) because it agrees with Scripture or insofar as it agrees with Scripture. Note the very important difference. If one says it is “because,” one is affirming that the Book of Concord is the correct intepretation of every relevant passage of Scripture. If one affirms that it is “insofar as,” one is admitting that there may be error in that interpretation. From a Lutheran perspective, this debate is hard to resolve. I tend to line up on the latter (insofar as) view.

However, it is clear that once one takes that position, one must lean more towards individualism. Again: how does one arbitrate doctrine if one does not adhere to any kind of authoritative statement on doctrine? It seems to me that one must at least hold that God has the power to transmit His teaching truthfully, and that’s why the historical Christian Creeds are vastly important. There must be a line drawn somewhere, but people may ever debate where to draw that line.

The key is perhaps found in Scripture itself, in which Christians are instructed not to continue arguments needlessly nor to focus upon topics which will create division (1 Corinthians 1:10ff; Ephesians 4:1ff). These teachings do not, however, preclude division nor do they allow for rampant individualism. It seems to me, therefore, that by adhering to the ecumenical council’s teaching–specifically, the creeds–as drawing out the right teachings of the church, we can avoid some of the great difficulties illustrated above. That’s why I would focus upon the Creeds which were drawn from those councils (like the Apostles’,  and Nicene Creeds) as the sources of authoritatively governing Christian interpretations on those topics.


Many theological questions that are in play today have their origins in various aspects of Reformation thought, which themselves have their origins in earlier Christian thought. The issue of the perspicuity of Scripture, it seems to me, must be limited to that of soteriology and perhaps a few other core issues. On who has the authority to interpret Scripture, it seems that the Reformers offered a way forward: by agreeing to submit to the authority of ecumenical Creeds not as sources of their own authority but rather as authoritative interpretations of the Bible, Christians can proceed in their reading of Scripture and interpretations thereof through those lenses. Thus, the danger of individualism and endless division can be avoided.


I survey the origins of the Reformation.


Alister E. McGrath a, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

Alister E. McGrath b, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003).

Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010).


Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction was a gift from an anonymous donor. I was blown away when I saw it show up at my door and I have to say Thank you so much for being such a blessing! Whoever you are, you made my day. Well, more than just one day actually. This series of posts is a direct result of your donation. Thank you!



The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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