The Final Word? Theology, Authority, and Christian Unity

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I had the opportunity recently to attend a series of Christian talks on the “Gifts of the Holy Spirit” given at a local church. The speaker was a scholarly pastor and seminary professor who has written many books on theology and biblical studies. I thought it would be good to understand more clearly the evangelical point of view on the subject of gifts and how it compared to Catholic teaching. The whole experience was interesting, to say the least.

I would like to share a few observations from the event to help Catholics consider what it means to share the world with their “separated brethren,” as together we live out the Gospel. This event helped me to focus on the authority behind what we are called to believe as followers of Jesus Christ, and the differences between Catholics and Protestants. In learning about the gifts of the Spirit, I was called to consider the Spirit behind those gifts and the role he plays in guiding the Church.

The Spirit of the Event

One thing that stood out for me at this mini-conference was the absolute joy and the sincere devotion of the participants as they joined in the singing and the prayers, and listened to the talks given by the speaker. There was clearly a sense that these men and women had come to worship and to learn. They were unified members of the Body of Christ, eager to understand what it means to be gifted to serve by the Holy Spirit. Their love for the Savior was evident, and their zeal for knowledge inspiring. They had questions and they had opinions, and they were fully invested in the event.

I found that I too had become caught up in the worship and the wonder. As I listened to the speaker, I also had questions and opinions about what he was saying. Most of what I heard seemed sound, but there were parts of the talks with which I disagreed. I began to realize that I was holding up the speaker’s words to the lens of my Catholic faith, and in doing so, was asking myself a more fundamental question: How do we know what is true or untrue about what we believe?

In My Opinion …

The speaker gave a breakdown of different beliefs regarding the Gifts of the Holy Spirit along the spectrum of Protestant Charismatic and evangelical movements. One thing I found interesting was how he said that at one time he had believed in a certain view (for example, that the gifts the early Church received such as prophecy continued today), but now believed in the opposite (that such charisms had ceased with the ending of the Apostolic Age of the formation of the Canon of the Bible).

It struck me that the speaker, while sincerely seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit in his search for truth, was, in the end, expressing his own insight — his best guess — as to what the truth was. He even admitted a number of times that he could be wrong in his opinions.

I, on the other hand, found myself wrestling with these same ideas, yet searching through the Catholic commentaries on my electronic tablet to confirm the Church’s teaching on the subject of spiritual gifts. Though I might have wanted to lean toward my own ideas and opinions, I knew I needed to anchor myself to the authority of the Church. This insight truly took the event to a whole new level.

Bible, Tradition, or Both?

Protestants claim that the whole of God’s truth is contained in the inerrant, infallible word of God, the Bible. It alone has the final say in all matters of faith.

Catholics, on the other hand, hold that, in addition to giving us the Scriptures, Christ instituted the Church to carry on his teachings, and through the authority of her leaders, has passed on the truths of the faith from the apostolic age to today. Non-Catholics consider the Catholic Church to have suffered from corruption and so refuse to give her teaching any real weight next to the Bible. And yet, I hear Protestants quoting their founders or current leaders when they are teaching from the Bible.

There are many examples from the Scriptures that support the idea of oral tradition and the teaching authority of the leadership of the Church. In Acts 15, the Apostles met to decide on the very important issue of whether or not to allow Gentiles into the Church without having them submit to circumcision. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:2, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, and 2 Timothy 2:2 refer to oral traditions passed on to the faithful from the Apostles. David J. Palm has an interesting article that details these ideas further.

The speaker at the conference argued that any such oral traditions — or “prophecy” as he referred to it — ceased when the Bible was put together. And yet he also argued that the books of the Bible rejected by Luther and other “reformers” were not part of the true Canon of Scripture.

Such an argument seemed convenient and almost circular. This would mean that the Holy Spirit empowered the early Church leaders to put the Bible together and then ceased to reveal himself authoritatively through any other means except the Bible after that. But then, when Luther came along, he and the other “reformers” were somehow gifted and graced enough to know which books of the Bible should now be thrown out.

In a sense, this is like arguing that the Bible is the inerrant word of God by referring to 2 Timothy 3:16 – which is in the Bible!

Yes, the Bible is the inerrant word of God, an authoritative and living document that cannot be overruled by any tradition. But this truth has been discovered not just by the Bible alone, but by the traditions of the Church and the experiences of her members throughout the ages. To say that the Bible alone is the only authority for living a life of faith even seemed to go against everything the speaker was saying in his talks, as he quoted from numerous sources for his conclusions.

In the End, the Church

Certainly, this godly man has been guided by the Holy Spirit — and yet he is still a man. As these words spill out from my mind through my keyboard to the page, I realize that so too am I.

Yes, the Catholic Church has seen scandal and experienced sin and corruption through her people, from Popes down to those in the pews. I lived through the strange and confusing close of the era of Modernism in the Church, where faithful Catholics questioned even the words of Jesus himself in the Gospels and turned the Bible into a piece of literature to be dissected and picked apart by the opinions of men. I have wrestled with the “JEPD theory” and have found relief in modern study Bibles that have returned to the traditions and teachings of the Church for their interpretation.

As Catholics, we are called to search out answers and live out our faith. Protestants are called to the same. The pastor hosting the conference talked about different groups of Christians loving each other enough to be able to dialogue about their differences as we grow in knowledge and faith. I hope he would extend that same sentiment to Catholics as well.

My ministry focuses on loving and working with Christians of other denominations, as well as helping Catholics to understand the richness and the power of the Catholic faith. The reason I am able to do this is that, in the end, I rest on the Church, whose head is Christ. It is the true foundation of all I say and do.

I Forgot to Mention the Gifts

Ultimately, this essay was not really about the “Gifts of the Spirit Conference” as much as it was about the authority of the word of God and the Church that is forming my faith.

And yet, I did take time to think about what the speaker had to say about spiritual gifts: how the Holy Spirit gives believers gifts for the glory of God and the life of the Church. How these gifts come from God alone and not from our own strength. How together, we are individual members of the Body of Christ. How each one of us, no matter what our gifts, has a role to play in living out salvation’s story. How when one member suffers, we all suffer; and how when one member rejoices, we all rejoice.

I think of my fellow writers on this and other sites, sharing their gift of words and the insights they have received by living as members of the Church. I think of so many Christian family and friends who have come alongside me in my walk with Christ, encouraging me and supporting me every step of the way. I think of you dear reader and how we are all brothers and sisters because of the gift of love that was given to us on the cross. We are all gifted, graced, children of God, living out what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ. And that is a glorious thing.

The Church’s One Foundation

One of the hymns sung at the conference was “The Church’s One Foundation,” by Samuel John Stone, an Anglican priest. According to historians, he wrote the hymn in response to a schism in the Church in South Africa. As I listened to the words of this beautiful song, I found myself saddened by the division that exists between churches today. This separation among believers goes against Christ’s prayer that his children be one as he and the father are one (John 17:20-21). I know many reading these words will have strong opinions about the nature of these divisions, but still, my sadness remains.

For you who are Catholic, I would ask that you anchor yourselves in the authority of the Church. I would ask too that you consider Christ’s call for unity and the Church’s teachings on the same, as you interact with others who call themselves Christian. I pray that you lovingly share your words and your life with them. Let us all hope for the day when the Church is once again united in our one Foundation — Jesus Christ, our Lord. Until that day, may we use our gifts, under the authority of God’s Spirit, to love one another as he has loved us.

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9 thoughts on “The Final Word? Theology, Authority, and Christian Unity”

  1. Pingback: THVRSDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

  2. To Christopher, who again evades the “reply” button for his comments.

    Enoch and Elijah are the only two mentioned in scriptures that do not suffer a physical death.
    Could they be the two witnesses who will appear after the temple is built in Jerusalem and the antichrist declares himself to be God (Revelation 11)?

  3. To Christopher, who somehow evades the “reply” button.

    Where in the Bible does it state your position about assumption?
    Please explain your quote from the Bible, which is found in the Book of Revelation, Chapters 2 and 3, and how it relates to Bible vs. tradition.

    1. ‘As [Alisha and Alijah] walked on still conversing, a fiery chariot and fiery horses came between the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind, and Elisha saw it happen. He cried out, “My father! my father! Israel’s chariot and steeds!” Then he saw him no longer.’

  4. A follow up to my first posting about “traditions” vs. the Bible.
    For example, Jesus tells us in Matthew 23:9 not to call anyone on earth your father. Yet, the Catholic Church seems to ignore this.
    Another example is John 3 where Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one has gone to heaven. Yet the Catholic Church contends that our souls can go to heaven, purgatory, or hell upon death. But Jesus told his closest followers in John 14 that he was going to prepare a place and would return for them. If they are already in heaven, why would Jesus need to return for them? And there is no mention of purgatory in the Bible.
    Or how about Jesus telling us that he is the only way to the Father. Yet the Catholic Catechism says that Muslims share in our salvation, but they don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God.

    1. We are assumed into Heaven – we cannot ascend into Heaven.

      “‘“Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”’

  5. The traditions passed along by the Apostles pre-dated the written books of the NT. They were witnessing to what they saw and experienced with Jesus Christ. As time passed, the need for a written record was made as the Apostles were dying. Can you claim that later traditions instituted by the Catholic Church are on the same level?

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