Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Stumbling Block of Authority

From a recent email:

Thanks for the invitation to bounce questions about RCism. It's funny, really: I have no problem with real presence, Marian devotion, praying to saints, apostolic succession, all of the things that usually hold protestants up. For me it's all about AUTHORITY, viz., why does the Roman Church think it has so much of it? And I know my doubts about the authority of the magisterium and the Holy Father put me squarely in the Protestant tradition...for now.

Here's my reply.

0. Let’s get your concept of authority and how much of it you think the Church claims, and what portion thereof you think excessive. This might clear up some necessary difficulties.

1. I don’t have the time to put this sensitively, but perhaps the best argument for the necessity of authority is the results of the lack of it ravaging the Anglican communion right now. I can’t remember if I mentioned how much I loved and still love Anglo-Catholicism. It was absolutely perfect. Too good in fact. It suited *me* too perfectly, just as it was designed to.

2. The Church is an organism of sorts, the Body of Christ. An organism must have a principle of unity sufficiently strong to make the organism a true organism and to maintain its organic integrity. Furthermore, the Church is the *visible* body of Christ, so it needs a *visible* head. I think a central authority is just a consequence of the very concept of the Church as the Body of Christ.

3. The bottom line, perhaps, is that Jesus has simply *established* the authority of the Church and so the Church’s authority is His authority.

Consider Matthew 16:

17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed[d] in heaven.”

That’s pretty strong stuff. We all know that verse is there, but it’s one of those scandals from which we divert our eyes, for when we attend to them we are offended. The giving of the keys in the OT and surrounding culture symbolized the transference of power to the Viceroy. Matthew’s language is clearly meant to bring to mind the prophecies of the Messiah Himself in Isaiah 22:

22And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open and none shall shut, and he shall shut and none shall open.

Consider also Matthew 18:

15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’[b] 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.

The context here clearly portrays the Church as a kind of Supreme Court.

Finally, consider the commissioning of the Apostles in John 20:

“Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 22 And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

That is mega-authority.

4. Apostolic Succession is huge as is the Transubstantiaionism inherent in early accounts of the Real Presence. All I can do for now is attach some documents which have some source material on this. Gotta go.


PS - There is a *great* article in this months First Things (perhaps providentially so) by Avery Cardinal Dulles called “The Orthodox Imperative” which I think would address some of your concerns (again, though, we need to get those concerns on the table so we know what the problem is: “What’s the deal with authority?” is not a very easy question to address!). I highly recommend going to B&N and checking it out.


Anonymous Matthew said...

I think you may need to say a great deal more on the matter. I hope you'll read this charitably, that is as me pressing you to say more in support of your position and not an attack.

1. It isn't clear to me how more centralized authority would keep the Anglican's on a better track. There are a serious number of people in authority positions within the communion, particularly in the US, who are simply wrong headed. What is to prevent a stronger and more centralized authority from being similarly wrongheaded? Some might argue that this has in fact occurred within the Roman Catholic Church.

2. I'd like you to say more about why the church needs a visible head. The scripture is quite clear that Christ is the head of the church, so why two heads and why isn't Christ sufficient?

3. Ok, but why should I read "church" here as synonymous with "Roman Catholic Church". Your readings of Matthew are certainly open to different, and to my mind more plausible, interpretations. I'm not someone who has turned my head from these verses, but instead I embrace them.

Matthew 16:

Jesus asks the apostles "who do you say that I am?" to which Peter responds "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus acknowledges that Peter doesn't know this by his senses but by the Father. Jesus then points out that Peter is aptly named because of his firmness and solidity. It is this firmness, this Christian commitment that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus will build his church upon. This is addressed to those assembled not Peter alone. It's highly counterintuitive that a man, even a fine apostle, would be the foundation of the church. The remarks about the keys are addressed to the group too, and parallel his remarks in Matthew 18:18.

Consider also Matthew 18:

I agree that the context portrays the church as a kind of Supreme Court, but the Greek here is Ekklesia which I would take to refer to a broader assemblage of Christian believers rather than a formal church organization.

4. Apostolic Succession, ok even if I granted everything above this seems like a difficult point to establish.

Thursday, September 14, 2006 1:39:00 PM  
Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

Matthew, I'm glad to say more. Most of it will probably just be stuff I would have said if I wasn't saying it in as casual an environment. I'm happy to focus in though.

1. You ask a direct question: "What is to prevent a stronger and more centralized authority from being similarly wrongheaded?" I give a direct answer: The Holy Spirit. I hasten to add that it is far from Catholic doctrine that the Holy Spirit does not work outside the Catholic Church, indeed He does, and that he does is itself Catholic doctrine. However, the charism of infallibility is retained for the Church in its visible structure as descended via Apostolic Succession from the Apostles.

You note that "Some might argue that this has in fact occurred within the Roman Catholic Church" and indeed it has from time to time here and there (including, in some cases, the Papacy itself). However, what's also true is that--and this is just a fact--the Church as always emerged from such times in a Spirit-led renewal. Catholicism is in a really really good state right now. It's a great time to be a Catholic. There are always problems, of course--as the bumper sticker on my truck in High School said: "Christians are forgiven, not perfect."

By contrast, it seems to me that every other denomination--and of course I'm only aware of a few dozen out of the 30,000 by one count--of which I am aware has been subject to a pretty steady decline throughout their history. You might think this a brash overgeneralization and I'm not about to do the detailed research necessary to substantiate it, but it is my studied impression and time will tell the tale.

2. The Church has but one Head and that is Christ. However, Christ has ascended into Heaven and left us with a viceroy (which is precisely what the keys symbolize) and the Holy Spirit to guide him and the rest of the flock which he pastors. Jesus said Himself that he was going to build the Church on Peter (Matthew 16:17-19 (and I must with regret admit that as a Baptist I actually espoused the petra/petros distinction, a sad state of affairs) and we see Peter assuming this role in the first half of the book of Acts and especially in the Council of Jerusalem. As James, the local prelate said "Peter has spoken..."

It's quite clear from the Acts of the Apostles that they *just were* the visible governing authoritative body within the Body of Christ on Earth, and it is further clear that Peter is the Chief of the Apostles (the book of Acts divides in haves between the story of Peter and the story of Paul). It would be passing strange if that role wasn't passed on. The idea that after the Apostles died, there remained no intact de jure governing body or that it suddenly became utterly egalitarian strikes me as, frankly, absurd. Also, the Apostolic Fathers make clear that their role as Bishop was successor to the Apostles--and they knew them, so they ought to know.

3. Oops, I guess I should have read the whole thing first before mentioning the petra/petros thing above. Here's one thing I retain from my Baptist days--indeed it's a large part of why I'm no longer a Baptist: "When the plain sense makes sense, don't look for another sense." Jesus turns to Peter--the man--and says "Blessed are you" who? Peter, he continues "You" who? "are Peter, and on this rock (the meaning of the name Peter) I will build my Church, and to you" who? "Peter I will give the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven" and furthermore "and whatever you" who? Peter "bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matt 16:17-19), that last bit is particularly hard core.

It's not some abstract profession of faith that gets the keys, it's not some abstract profession of faith that binds and looses, it's not some abstract confession of faith that's told "Feed my sheep", and it's certainly not some abstract confession of faith which decides matters at the Council of Jerusalem. Furthermore, it's not some abstract confession of faith that the Apostolic Fathers claim to have been consecrated by in their role as Bishops. Which brings us to the next point.

4. This part is actually one of the very first things I was convinced of and one that remains among those about which I am most confident. I've pasted together some important passages of Clement, Irenaeus, and a few others (forgive the disorganization) here. Irenaeus was very early (c. 130-202) and a disciple of Polycarp who was himself a disciple of John. So we have here a grandchild of the Apostles and Apostolic Succession is the *backbone* of his apologetic in Adversus Haereses.

Thanks for the good questions Matt. There's more which could be said, but I've tried to get the gist of things down here. My #1 suggestion is just to really spend time in Acts and in the Apostolic Fathers, nothing can substitute for that.


Friday, September 15, 2006 11:47:00 PM  

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