False Extremes Part 1: The Case of the Missing “Both-And”

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One of the things I’ve noticed in my many discussions with those who are separated from the Catholic faith is the recurrence of a variety of false dichotomies. This is a fallacy which suggests that the truth must be one of two options given, when in reality these options are not exhaustive, and the full truth oftentimes includes both positions. A good example of this is the Puritan notion that earthly pleasures such as dancing or alcohol are inherently bad. The flip side of this is the hedonist/pagan position we see anytime we turn on the television: anything goes, especially if it’s the opposite of traditional Christian values. The Catholic position, of course, incorporates faith and enjoyment of creation with a sense of moderation: some revelry is good, but not to a degree to which it destroys our relationship with God.

It’s not surprising, then, that extreme positions of faith show up today in interfaith dialogue, with Protestant positions continuing to diverge and diversify from the great Catholic “both-and,” a moderate position which doesn’t rule out everything and doesn’t accept everything–quite foreign to Protestant thinkers. Since this topic is quite broad, we will break our discussion into several pieces. This article, Part One, will deal with Sola Scriptura and a related question of ‘Who is ‘The Church?’.

Sola Scriptura

The first and most obvious example of this kind of extreme position is the notion of sola scriptura, the notion that all authority resides in scripture alone, to the exclusion of any other authority.  Of course, there is variation of how this is defined in the Protestant world, but in general the notion is that the sole or final authority is the Bible.  Men in the church certainly have authority, but in the end the Bible trumps all opinions. This is often accompanied by a belief that the Catholic Church is an institution which only accepts tradition and the changing opinions and decisions of Popes. The reality is that the Catholic Church finds the Bible true and indispensable, but it was the Church which authoritatively defined the canon of Scripture.

The logical apologetic for this position is easy. The Church existed for 300+ years prior to a complete canon being declared.  Different communities had different books, and some were using books that were later declared uninspired. The narrative of the Gospels, and especially the various epistles, tell the story of an authoritative Church instructing the faithful verbally and in writing–and reminding those communities they had established to obey both written and oral tradition.  They illustrate the Church in action.  When communities decide to define Christianity differently than the Apostles, and those they later appointed, they are admonished and reminded to hold fast to what they had been taught.  The only occasions mentioned in which these early Christians defy the Church in this regard are the proto-Protestant Judaizers and the Gnostics, and both are roundly condemned.

The scriptural apologetic for this position is equally straightforward: the Bible never declares itself to be sufficient for instruction, the sole authority, and the sole source of the Word of God; the Bible does declare the Church to be the teacher and resolver of disputes. The first verse often quoted by Protestants to demonstrate sufficiency is 2 Timothy 3:  16-17, but it actually proves the opposite. The verse was written by St. Paul to Timothy, whom he had ordained as a Bishop, an authoritative figure in the Church. The opening context at the beginning of the book is reminding Timothy what Paul had previously taught him verbally.  Within the context of the authority which Timothy had been given, Paul is reminding him that Scripture (in this case Old Testament Scripture) is useful for instruction. Remember that they were teaching people who Christ was based on Old Testament prophesy: of course Old Testament Scripture would be useful for this, but the teaching about Jesus came directly from the mouth of the Bishop (or deacon or presbyter) sent by the Church. In fact, in 1 Timothy 3:14-15, St. Paul sets this context:

I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”

Every Catholic should have 1 Timothy 3:15 burned into his memory: The Church is the Pillar and Foundation of the Truth.

Who is “The Church”?

The next argument you will often receive, which is also an extreme dichotomous position, is that “The Church” isn’t the hierarchy–it’s really just the body of believers, it’s only “two or three” gathered in Jesus’ name. So the next logical step would be that as a “member of the church” I have authority to decide for myself what the Bible says. Of course, this is nonsense.  The Church (Ekklesia) is the fulfillment of the Qu’hal, or the gathering of the people before God, like those gathered before Him at Sinai. But the Qu’hal, and the Ekklesia established by Jesus, both have a visible hierarchical level of spiritual leadership.  The former had Moses and Aaron who lead the priesthood of the people.  Jesus established His Church in Matthew 16:18 with Peter as the leader and chamberlain of the Davidic kingdom with the power to bind and loose. A little-observed fact about Matthew 16 is that Jesus was giving Peter this “binding and loosing” authority on Yom Kippur (this can be determined by the sequence of feasts in Matthew: the Transfiguration in the earlier verse was Yom Sukkot, festival of booths). At this same time the High Priest was in the Temple binding the sins of Israel to the scapegoat which would later be driven into the wilderness to be killed and consumed by beasts for the symbolic remission of sins. Jesus was establishing something much more significant. Later in Matthew 18: 15-20, He clarifies:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Note how Jesus commissions his disciples to try to resolve disputes at the individual level. Then he says that one or two others should go along to try to resolve the problem. He then makes a distinction. If two or three (gathered in His name) are unable to resolve it, “tell it to the church.” In this context, what is the difference between “two or three gathered in my name” and “the church.” The answer was given two chapters earlier in Matthew 16: it’s the leaders of the Church who have the power to bind and loose. In fact he refers back to what he had said earlier about binding and loosing–a charism given exclusively to Peter and then to the Apostles.  He clearly gives the role of arbitration of disputes, especially disputes over issues within the Church, to the leaders of the Church. Another proof of Jesus’ regard for human authority is captured a few chapters later in Matthew 23: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.” Obviously this was before the Ekklesia had been launched at Pentecost and the Old Covenant was still in effect, but is illustrative that the Church is both the body of believers and the hierarchical leadership commissioned by Jesus.  

St. Paul gets at this concept in his letter to the Romans:

“But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?  And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!” Romans 10:14-15a.

We can also see an illustration of The Church–the leaders succeeding the Apostles–as the authoritative teachers of the Lord’s Scriptures in a quote from early church father Irenaeus from the year 180 A.D.:

Those, therefore, who desert the preaching of the Church, call in question the knowledge of the holy presbyters, not taking into consideration of how much greater consequence is a religious man, even in a private station, than a blasphemous and impudent sophist. Now, such are all the heretics, and those who imagine that they have hit upon something more beyond the truth, so that by following those things already mentioned, proceeding on their way variously, in harmoniously, and foolishly, not keeping always to the same opinions with regard to the same things, as blind men are led by the blind, they shall deservedly fall into the ditch of ignorance lying in their path, ever seeking and never finding out the truth. It behooves us, therefore, to avoid their doctrines, and to take careful heed lest we suffer any injury from them; but to flee to the Church, and be brought up in her bosom, and be nourished with the Lord’s Scriptures.

(Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5,20:2)

This point is made even more dramatically in a quote from the early writer Tertullian from around 200 A.D.:

Since this is the case, in order that the truth may be adjudged to belong to us, “as many as walk according to the rule,” which the church has handed down from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God, the reason of our position is clear, when it determines that heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the Scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures. For as they are heretics, they cannot be true Christians, because it is not from Christ that they get that which they pursue of their own mere choice, and from the pursuit incur and admit the name of heretics. Thus, not being Christians, they have acquired no right to the Christian Scriptures; and it may be very fairly said to them, “Who are you? When and whence did you come?

(Tertullian, Prescription against the Heretics, 37.)

In conclusion, in your interfaith discussion you may encounter many extreme positions which pit one aspect of the truth against another aspect, when the truth is really a construct of both elements. Such is the case with Sola Scriptura, the concept that Scripture alone has any authority to teach us. Sola Scriptura is perhaps the root error which has lead to so many other extreme positions which miss the mark of the fullness of the truth; it upholds the truth that God’s written word is truthful and without error, but swaps out a central teaching authority with many individual interpretations. Of course, early church history and even Scripture itself holds that while the Scriptures certainly contain God’s inspired truth, the entity with the authority to interpret and teach Scripture is in fact The Church, that is, the ordained leaders succeeding the Apostles and St. Peter.  Hopefully some of the ideas presented here, can help in leading our separated brethren, who have great faith and a passionate love for the Lord, home to a fuller sense of the truth and the treasury of gifts He left for all of us in the Universal Church.