Salvation, the Church, and the Papacy


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Salvation, the Church, and the Papacy

Mike Field



The inerrancy of Scripture is common ground for Protestants and Roman Catholics.[1] However, its interpretation is not. In fact, Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis asserts: “the written Word cannot cry out to you, ‘Wait! You have misinterpreted me!’ But the Church can.”[2] Thus, Roman Catholics believe that the Church, in the person of Peter’s successor and the bishops in communion with him, possesses “the charism of infallibility when authentically teaching matters of faith and morals.”[3] The papal bull, Unam sanctam, written by Boniface VIII in 1302, provides a provocative example of such teaching on salvation, the church, and the papacy. Indeed, Unam Sanctam concludes with the words: “we declare, say, define and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”[4] Commenting on this papal bull, Catholic apologist Mark Shea says: “When a Pope declares, pronounces and defines, he is using the formula to make crystal clear that he is delivering, not his personal opinion, but the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church.”[5] Nevertheless, like the apostle Paul, we Protestants ask: “what does the Scripture say?”[6] In other words, might the divine author be saying through Scripture that Boniface VIII has misinterpreted His inerrant Word?

The primary questions of interest in this study are: (1) Is EENS as articulated by Boniface VIII in Unam Sanctam consistent with Scripture?, and (2) Is EENS as formulated by Vatican II consistent with Unam Sanctam and/or Scripture? The initial assumption is that it is presumptuous to declare what is absolutely necessary for salvation (as Boniface VIII did), and unwarranted to speculate about those incapable of faith, such as infants or the profoundly retarded. The methodology I have chosen is to analyze Unam Sanctam in its historical context, drawing from Scripture and the writings of the church fathers and others, including Roman Catholic apologists, and then to evaluate its present interpretation according to Vatican II.



Published on November 18, 1302, the papal bull Unam Sanctam was prompted by a Church-State quarrel between Boniface VIII and King Philip IV of France that began in 1296 over taxation of the clergy.[7] Over the intervening years the power struggle escalated to encompass control of the clergy’s attendance at rival councils called by the king and the pope. The pinnacle of hostilities occurred in September, 1303, ten months after Unam Sanctam was published, when an armed band from Philip briefly captured Boniface after hearing of his plans to excommunicate him. The pope died within a month. This episode represents just one of many chapters in Church-State conflicts over the centuries.

For example, after Christianity was declared a legal religion in 313, Constantine set the precedent for all of the Ecumenical Councils (AD 325 to 787) to be convened by the Roman emperor (and in one case, the Roman empress). Yet in 800, Pope Leo III presided over Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The Church-state pendulum then swung the other way for more than two centuries of lay investiture, wherein feudal lords and vassals appointed bishops and other church officials. Pope Gregory VII (1073 – 1085) wrested power back to the Church, not only ending lay investiture, but also excommunicating and deposing King Henry IV of Germany. Pope Innocent III (1198 – 1216) further consolidated power by acquiring title to papal states, declaring all kings to be subject to the pope, and asserting that the pope, as Christ’s vicar, could be judged by no man.[8] It is in this context that Unam Sanctam was published and has come to be viewed as “one of the most carefully drafted documents which emerged from the papal chancery . . . a formal exposition of the plenitude of papal power, spiritual and temporal.”[9] In light of today’s prevailing perspective wherein the powers of Church and State are considered to be largely complementary, Boniface’s papal bull might seem irrelevant – were it not for his dogmatic claims about salvation and the papacy.


Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam

Boniface VIII makes five provocative claims in Unam Sanctam, each building upon the preceding ones. This study will briefly examine these claims in light of their historical context and the teaching of Scripture. The five claims are:

(1) Salvation and forgiveness of sins can be found only in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

(2) There is one head of the Church: Christ and the Vicar of Christ (the pope).

(3) The pope is the shepherd of all of Christ’s sheep, and only those who are committed to the pope can be Christ sheep.

(4) The plentitude of papal powers underscores the perils of resisting the pope.

(5) It is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

The opening statement of Unam Sanctam offers an interesting mix of Scripturally-based ecclesiology and the provocative soteriological premise upon which Boniface builds a series of pretentious claims about the relationship between salvation, the Church, and the papacy.



Unam Sanctam’s Opening Statement

Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins, as the Spouse in the Canticles proclaims: ‘One is my dove, my perfect one. She is the only one, the chosen of her who bore her,’ and she represents one sole mystical body whose Head is Christ and the head of Christ is God. In her then is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.[10]

Much of this opening statement about the Church is scripturally sound. For example, the Church is one according to 1 Cor. 12:5-12 (the body of Christ is one, though the members are many). The Church is holy according to Eph. 5:25-27 (Christ cleansed the church “by the washing of water and the word . . . that she would be holy and blameless”). Moreover, 1 Cor. 1:2 attests to the catholic, or universal, scope of the Church, including “all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In addition, Paul describes the apostolic character of the Church in Eph. 2:20 by affirming that the Church has been “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Boniface then reiterates the point that the Church is unique, “the only one” (Song of Songs 6:9; cf. Rom. 12:4-5, 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:12-13, 20; Eph. 2:16; 4:4; 5:25-32; Col. 1:24; 3:15; etc.), and he alludes to Col. 1:18, identifying Christ as the head of the Church, and to 1 Cor. 11:3, which says that the head of Christ is God. The paragraph concludes with a quote from Eph. 4:5, further describing the Church, marked by “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” These truths are common ground for Protestants and Roman Catholics.


Boniface’s First Provocative Claim

Embedded among Boniface’s affirmations about the Church is his first provocative claim: that outside of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins. The general belief that “outside the church there is no salvation” was well-established long before Boniface’s time, known by the Latin phrase, “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (EENS). However, Boniface’s precise language and his subsequent assertions about the Church, the papacy, and salvation raise significant questions. How does this dogma, as understood by Boniface and the church fathers, stand up in the light of Scripture?


Outside of the Church There is No Salvation (EENS)

Boniface VIII justifies his premise by appealing to the story of Noah’s ark. He writes: “For certainly, in the time of the Flood, the ark of Noah was one, prefiguring the one Church. . . . And outside of Her, everything standing upon the land, as we read, had been destroyed.” Compare Heb. 11: 7 – “By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world.” Thus, the ark functioned as a safe haven during God’s judgment of the world by the great flood: whoever was in the ark was saved, whoever was outside of the ark perished. Boniface infers that the Church will function in the time of God’s future judgment as the ark did in Noah’s time.

The EENS dogma is by no means unique to Boniface, having been articulated more than a thousand years earlier by Cyprian of Carthage. Cyprian quotes 1 Pet. 3:20, writing: “[Peter] said, ‘In the ark of Noah, a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water; the like figure where-unto even baptism shall save you;’ proving and attesting that the one ark of Noah was a type of the one Church.” A number of other church fathers agree with Cyprian.[11] Yet, Augustine recognizes an important soteriological difference between the ark and the Church: “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!”[12]

Augustine’s observation about the Church notwithstanding, those who leave the Church are singled out. Cyprian cites 1 John 2:19, “Let none think that the good can depart from the Church. . . . ‘They went forth from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, surely they would have continued with us.’”[13] However, Cyprian takes this verse out of context. John is talking about ‘antichrists,’ who deny that Jesus is the Christ. Christians leave churches and other fellowships for many reasons, the vast majority having nothing to do with rejecting Christ. For example, John Mark deserted Paul and Barnabas in Pamphylia during his first missionary trip, yet his faith remained intact, as Paul himself attests later (cf. Acts 15:38; 2 Tim. 4:11).[14] Hence, Cyprian’s interpretation of 1 John is not a reliable test of whether or not someone is outside of the Body of Christ.

Cyprian also asserts that schismatics as well as heretics are outside the Church. For example, in the treatise, Unity of the Church, he quotes Luke 11:23 and comments: “‘He who is not with me is against me, and he who gathereth not with me scattereth.’ He who breaks the peace and the concord of Christ, does so in opposition to Christ; he who gathereth elsewhere than in the Church, scatters the Church of Christ.”[15] Cyprian likens schismatics to Korah, who rebelled against Moses.[16] However, schisms are messy, and typically all participants share some fault.

Nevertheless, Augustine argues from 1 Corinthians 13: “You ask, do they [schismatics] have the baptism of Christ? Yes. You ask, do they have the faith of Christ? Yes. If they have these, what do they lack? . . . Listen to the Apostle: ‘if I understand all holy things . . . if I have all prophecy . . . and all knowledge.’ . . . Listen further: ‘if I have all faith . . . so that I could move mountains. But if I have not love, I am nothing.’”[17] Augustine infers that if you have not love, your faith is nothing and you are therefore without Christ and have no hope of salvation. He continues: “Prove to me now that you have love: hold to unity. . . . If we praise one Father, why don’t we recognize also one mother?”[18] However, if unity is the proof of love, unity with whom? For example, the “mother church” in Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70. The remaining churches still shared one Lord, one faith, one baptism; yet the schism between East and West in 1054 persists to this day.[19] Attempts to take sides in that schism by identifying the “mother church” are futile. More importantly, do we recognize and love our brothers and sisters in Christ? Our Lord must grieve schisms, and we should strive to avoid them and to be reconciled one to another.

In spite of the strong tradition supporting EENS, not all church fathers limit salvation to membership in the Church, or even to faith in Christ. For example, Justin Martyr (ca. 170) writes: “[Those] who lived according to reason [logos] were really Christians, even though they were thought to be atheists, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates, Heraclitus, and others like them.”[20] However, salvation by reason alone is another gospel. Another church father, Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200), asserts: “before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness,” because, he says, it brought the Greeks to Christ as the Law did the Hebrews.[21] Again, philosophy without Christ never saved anyone (cf. Acts 17:22-31).

In summary, EENS (“outside the Church there is no salvation”) has enjoyed a strong, though not unanimous, following since the third century. This tradition counts deserters, heretics, and schismatics as being outside the Church – notwithstanding John Mark’s desertion and the long-standing schism between the East and the West. In addition, EENS raises questions about the definition of the Church: are the Old Testament saints catalogued in Hebrews 11 members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church? Interestingly, even Calvin and the Westminster Confession endorse a version of EENS.[22] But – what does Scripture say about these things?


A Scriptural Evaluation of EENS

First, nowhere does Scripture articulate EENS. Instead, Scripture teaches broadly that “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32; cf. Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13).[23] And, according to Gen. 4:26, “men began to call upon the name of the Lord” in the time of Adam and Eve. Interestingly, the Old Testament name, YHWH, translated Lord, is incorporated in Jesus’ name, which means “YHWH saves” (cf. Matt. 1:21). Thus, Old Testament saints, in effect, called upon the name of Jesus. Hebrews 11 gives many examples of such saints who lived long before the Church was founded, and yet have come to the “heavenly city.” Moreover, Rev. 7:4-8 explicitly identifies twelve thousand from each tribe of Israel as “sealed bond-servants of our God,” and Rev. 21:9-27 depicts the bride of Christ as having twelve gates representing the tribes of Israel and twelve foundation stones representing the apostles (cf. Eph. 2:20; Rev. 4:4, 10; etc.).[24] In summary, according to Scripture, salvation is not confined to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church – but extends to all who call upon the name of the Lord (YHWH, Jesus).

In particular, Scripture promises salvation and forgiveness of sins to all who are ‘in Christ’ by grace through faith. For example, “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13; cf. Rom. 1:16). Moreover, Peter declares in Acts 10:43, “Of Him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” Furthermore: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). In other words, no one “in Christ” can be outside the Church since the Body of Christ is the Church, according to Col. 1:18.


Boniface’s Second Provocative Claim

Boniface’s second provocative claim is that there is one head of the Church: Christ and the Vicar of Christ (the pope). Like EENS, the primacy of Peter has a long history in the Church, but the church fathers did not articulate it as Unam Sanctam did. For example, Cyprian writes of Peter: “upon whom He built the Church, and whence He appointed and showed the source of unity.”[25] Theodoret of Cyrus (ca. 450) also says of Rome: “For that holy see has precedence over all churches in the world.”[26] However, no church father ever suggested that Christ and the pope constitute one head of the Church. From where did this idea come?

According to Unam Sanctam: “[The ark] had one pilot and helmsman, that is, Noah, and outside of Her, everything . . . had been destroyed. . . . And so, of the one and only Church there is one body and one head, not two heads like a monster; that is, Christ and the Vicar of Christ, Peter and the successor of Peter.” In other words, since the ark prefigured the Church (as Boniface previously argued), and the ark had “one pilot and helmsman,” so also must the Church have only one pilot and helmsman. However, Noah could not have been the pilot of the ark because he, like the other passengers, was stowed deep inside, tossed by the waves and driven by the winds and currents to land on Mt. Ararat. Rather, God was the pilot and helmsman of the ark.

Nevertheless, Boniface continues to argue that since Christ is the head of the Church and there can only be one head (lest the Church be like a two-headed monster), then Christ and “Vicar of Christ” must be one head. Boniface is right that Christ is the head of the Church and there is only one head. But one plus one is not one. Peter and his successors cannot say “I and Christ are one” in the same way that Jesus said “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).[27] Jesus alone, being both divine and human, is capable of being the head of the whole Church, of both those in heaven and on earth (cf. Col. 1:18; 2:19). Moreover, Peter and his successors are undeniably members of Christ’s body, not the head of the body. Thus Boniface commits a category mistake. Furthermore, Peter himself acknowledges that he is not the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4).[28] Boniface is mistaken: Christ has no peer in the Church; He alone is its head. The ramifications of Boniface’s claim, which implies two heads of the Church, become clearer as the text of Unam Sanctam unfolds.


Boniface’s Third Provocative Claim

Boniface next argues that the pope is the shepherd of all of Christ’s sheep. On what grounds? He writes: “there is one head [of the Church]. . . Christ and the Vicar of Christ, Peter and the successor of Peter, since the Lord speaking to Peter Himself said: ‘Feed my sheep’, meaning, my sheep in general, not these, nor those in particular, whence we understand that He entrusted all to him [Peter].” The idea that Peter was the universal teacher or the chief shepherd of the Church was by no means new with Boniface. For example, John Chrysostom late in the fourth century cites John 21:17-19: “‘Tend My sheep’ . . . ‘Follow Me’ . . . And if any should say, ‘How then did James receive the chair at Jerusalem?’ I would make this reply, that He appointed Peter teacher, not of the chair, but of the world.”[29] Gregory the Great, at the turn of the seventh century, also comments on Acts 10:25-26 thus: “When Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter raised him up, saying, ‘Stand up; I too am just a man.’ It is hence that the chief Shepherd of the Church . . . refers to the equality of his creation.”[30] However, it is one thing to make claims about Peter; it is another to apply them to Peter’s successors.

Interestingly, regarding Jesus’ prophecy in John 10 to bring other sheep into his flock, Catholic apologist Tim Staples asks: “Who does our Lord use as the shepherd to bring this prophecy to pass?” He then suggests that John 21:17 supplies the answer: “Jesus the shepherd here commissions Peter to be the prophetic shepherd of John 10:16 to shepherd the entire people of God!” Staples next asserts that the prophecy is fulfilled in Acts 10 when Peter “commanded [Cornelius and his household] to be baptized . . . There was now one fold and one shepherd for Jews and Gentiles.”[31] However, Staple ignores the fact that Christ had already decided that Paul would be entrusted with all of the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; Rom. 1:5).

In addition, the authors of the book, Jesus, Peter, and the Keys, assert that because other disciples were present when Jesus commanded Peter to feed his sheep, that Jesus gave Peter a distinct and supreme office, ruler over all the flock.[32] Moreover, they say, “Our Lord did not say feed these lambs, nor those lambs. He said My lambs . . . He does not abdicate His office of pastor when He appoints a Vicar; He makes him co-pastor with Him and in Him. All the lambs and sheep of Christ are Peter’s also. No one in the whole flock, no disciple of Christ, can claim exemption from the jurisdiction of Peter.”[33] Yet Rom. 1:5 and other passages indicate otherwise.

According to the book, Upon This Rock, by Stephen Ray, even the apostle John was subordinate to Peter’s successors after Peter’s death. He asserts that John, writing his gospel thirty years after Peter’s death, paid special attention to the claims of Peter “because Peter was living on in his successors who even during John’s own lifetime . . . were exercising Peter’s prerogative of shepherding the entire flock.” He continues, “Whatever John’s position . . . he was still inferior not only to Peter but to Peter’s successors, for to John was not given the supreme commission to feed the entire flock of Christ.”[34] However, John’s own disciples knew nothing of this. Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 105) addressed a fellow-disciple of the apostle John, Polycarp, as the “Bishop of the Church of the Smyrnaeans, or rather, who has, as his own bishop, God the Father, and Jesus Christ.”[35] The apostolic fathers, therefore, did not recognize a special Petrine office.[36]


A Scriptural evaluation of the pope as universal shepherd

Scripture portrays the broad extent of Peter’s shepherding role as temporary at best. In fact, Christ personally entrusted a significant portion of His sheep to Paul during Peter’s lifetime. As Paul writes in Galatians: “Those who were of high reputation” (Peter, James, and John) recognized “that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised” (Gal. 2:6-9; cf. Acts 22:21; Rom. 15:15-16). In fact, Paul writes to the church of Rome that he, not Peter, was entrusted with the Gospel to all of the Gentiles (Rom. 1:5). Moreover, as Peter addresses his fellow shepherds of Christ’s flock, he admits that he is not the Chief Shepherd: “I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder . . . shepherd the flock among you. . . . And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:1, 2, 4; cf. Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:20).[37] Finally, Jesus did not say to Peter, “Feed all my sheep;” whereas Scripture affirms that He did entrust Paul with the gospel to all the Gentiles. Boniface’s interpretation of John 21:17 does not follow.

Furthermore, Jesus leaves no doubt in John 10 who is the ‘one shepherd’: “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, . . . and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:14-16). Jesus thereby identifies Himself as “the good shepherd,” claiming a personal relationship with each of His lambs, whom He will bring into one fold, where they hear His voice and follow Him (cf. vv. 27-28). No bishop is capable of such a personal relationship with all of Christ’s sheep. Moreover, by laying claim to all of Christ’s sheep, Boniface creates tension between Christ and His alleged Vicar. No one can serve two masters (Matt. 6:24). There is no question, then, that Boniface’s interpretations of John 10 and John 21 are contrary to the teaching of Scripture and the testimony of the apostolic fathers. Jesus Christ is and always has been the only universal shepherd of the Church.


Corollary to Boniface’s Third Provocative Claim

Having just argued that the pope is the universal shepherd of all of Christ’s flock, Boniface then claims that only those committed to the pope can be Christ’s sheep. He writes: “Therefore, if either the Greeks or others declare themselves not to be committed to Peter and his successors, they necessarily admit themselves not to be among the sheep of Christ, just as the Lord says in John, ‘there is one sheepfold, and only one shepherd.’” Ironically, he also likens the Church to Christ’s seamless tunic which was not torn (cf. John 19:23-24), yet now he specifically cites the Greeks. What about the Greeks who had followed Christ since Paul brought them the gospel, and who continued to follow Christ after the East-West schism?

About commitment to the Petrine office, Catholic apologist Mark Shea says, “It is impossible to accept Christ without accepting the authority of Peter’s office to some degree or other. If you say to Jesus, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ you are submitting to the judgment of Peter, who said it first (Matthew 16:16).”[38] Shea forgets that the thief on the cross never heard Peter’s confession, so it was not possible for him to submit to Peter’s judgment. Jesus also said that Peter’s confession was a revelation from God, not the result of human judgment. In fact, Scripture teaches “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). Furthermore, the context of Boniface’s statement has nothing to do with King Philip’s response to Peter’s confession. Boniface is instead warning the king against resisting the pope, which he more fully articulates in the next section of Unam Sanctam.

Nevertheless, Boniface’s assertion that Greeks or others not committed to the pope are not Christ’s sheep rests on a false premise. Peter could not hand down a universal office that he himself did not hold. Moreover, it is striking that Boniface denies that some are Christ’s sheep without regard to Christ’s own relationship with them. Indeed, Jesus says, “My sheep hear My voice and follow Me, and I give eternal life to them, . . . and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27-28). Furthermore, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). Indeed, “The Lord knows those who are His” (2 Tim. 2:19). Scripture thus refutes Boniface’s arbitrary exclusion of Greeks (who were originally entrusted to Paul anyway) and others (such as the thief on the cross) from Jesus’ flock. Moreover, Boniface exposes his own duplicity: claiming to be “one head” with Christ, he could not be further from the mind of our Savior, who desires all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2:3-4).


Boniface’s Fourth Provocative Claim

So far, Boniface has focused on commitment to the pope; he focuses next on the dangers of resisting the papacy.[39] In the fourth section of Unam Sanctam, he asserts that the pope possesses a plentitude of powers, and consequently anyone who resists papal authority does so at his own peril.[40] Among these powers, Boniface asserts that the Church has ‘two swords’ – one spiritual and the other, temporal. He supports this claim by citing Luke 22:38, where Peter asks Jesus if two swords are enough as they head to Gethsemane following the Last Supper. His interpretation simply does not follow. He also claims that the Church has been appointed over the nations and kingdoms of the earth, as God says of Jeremiah in Jer. 1:10. Yet Rom. 13:4 declares that civil government with its temporal power is a minister of God, not of the Church. Third, he asserts that the supreme spiritual power [the pope] judges all things but he himself is judged by no one (cf. 1 Cor. 2:15). Innocent III made this same claim a century earlier. Perhaps this assertion explains the impunity of past immoral popes?[41] Did not Jesus say, “You shall know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:15-19); and did not Peter himself say, “Let another man take his office” (Acts 1:20; cf. Deut. 21:21; 1 Cor. 5:11-13)?

Boniface bases all of these powers on Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16: “Christ ‘disclosed [Peter] to be the firm rock, just as the Lord said to Peter himself: ‘Whatever you shall bind, etc.’” He describes this authority as “a divine power given by divine word of mouth to Peter and confirmed to Peter and to his successors by Christ himself.” However, Jesus gave the other apostles the same power to bind and loose, and He never addressed Peter’s successors (Matt. 18:18; cf. John 20:23). Moreover, throughout the history of the Church there has never been a unanimous interpretation of ‘this rock’ in Matthew 16:18.[42] For example, although Tertullian (ca. 210) and some early church fathers describe Peter as “the rock on which the church is built,”[43] Hilary of Poitiers (ca. 365) and others say that Jesus was speaking of “the rock of confession whereon the Church is built.”[44] Moreover, Augustine declares: “For the Rock was Christ; and on this foundation was Peter himself also built. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Christ Jesus.”[45] After all, Christ is the corner stone (Eph. 2:20; cf. Matt. 21:42; Acts 4:11).

Nevertheless, Boniface assumes the “plentitude of papal powers” to be his, and adds, “Whoever, therefore resists this power so ordained by God, resists the ordinance of God. . . .” (cf. Rom. 13:1-2). By claiming all of these powers, Boniface portrays himself as Christ’s equal. Furthermore, his appropriation of Paul’s teaching about civil authority projects a certain ominous tone, leading to his fifth, and most provocative, claim.


Boniface’s Fifth Provocative Claim

Unam Sanctam concludes with the words: “Furthermore, we declare, say, define and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”[46] This claim seems to rest on an implicit assumption: that the pope is an arbiter of salvation. Boniface thereby usurps the prerogative of Jesus, the author of salvation (Heb. 2:10). Whatever the power of the keys of the kingdom might be, salvation is from the Lord alone. “There is no savior besides Me,” declares the Lord in Hosea 13:4 (cf. Isa. 45:21; 1 Tim. 4:10; Tit. 1:4). In fact, Peter himself, filled with the Holy Spirit testifies of Jesus: “there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Neither Peter nor his successors are able to save.[47] Thus, the conclusion of Unam Sanctam, invoking the formula of papal infallibility, contradicts Scripture and is therefore false.

In summary, Boniface argues in Unam Sanctam (1) that the pope is Christ’s peer in the Church, outside of which there is no salvation or forgiveness of sins; and (2) that the power of the keys passed down to Peter’s successors extends to salvation itself. However, Scripture and reason counter every provocative claim Boniface makes. Christ alone is Savior and head of the whole Church. Moreover, the Body of Christ has flourished in Orthodox and Protestant Churches around the globe for centuries apart from the pope. How, then, have Roman Catholics (especially, as taught by Vatican II) understood the provocative claims asserted by Unam Sanctam?

As background, it is important to recognize that Roman Catholics cannot ignore Pope Boniface VIII’s ‘infallible’ teaching, thanks to the dogma adopted at Vatican I in 1870.[48] Yet, Unam Sanctam has been divisive for Roman Catholics: some, like Leonard Feeney, assert that it and Vatican II are incompatible; whereas most, like Dave Armstrong, believe that Vatican II and Unam Sanctam are consistent.[49] Yet others express various personal opinions, such as this one by Phil Porvaznic (“Philvaz”): “a non-Catholic CANNOT submit or be subject to the Pope, even if the person sincerely desired to obey the Pope in everything and believe all his teachings. Only CATHOLICS can submit to the Pope . . . Therefore, Unam Sanctam applies only to Roman Catholics.”[50] Porvaznic’s opinion, however, is not compatible with Boniface’s explicit assertion that Greeks not committed to the pope are not among Christ’s sheep. Nor is his opinion consistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the documents of Vatican II, the official sources of Roman Catholic teaching that will be considered next.


Unam Sanctam Revisited: Vatican II

Vatican II largely retains the perspective of Unam Sanctam, albeit with some significant revisions. For example, the dogma that outside the Church there is no salvation (EENS) is now stated thus: “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.” The Catechism continues: “those, who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church” but “who seek God with a sincere heart” and try to do his will according to their conscience, “may achieve eternal salvation.”[51] Thus Vatican II recognizes “invincible ignorance” as an exception to the rule of “no salvation outside of the Church.”


Invincible Ignorance

Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong affirms “invincible ignorance” as taught by Vatican II and claims it was known and accepted by Boniface VIII. He cites Thomas Aquinas to support this position. However, Unam Sanctam, exempts no one from the “absolute necessity” of being subject to the pope. Moreover, according to Aquinas, if unbelievers “who have heard nothing about the faith are damned, it is on account of other sins, which cannot be taken away without faith, but not on account of their sin of unbelief.”[52] Aquinas therefore denies that invincible ignorance saves anyone. Rather, as Scripture repeatedly affirms: salvation requires faith in the name of the Lord (cf. Joel 2:32; Hos. 13:4; John 1:12; 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:11-13; 2 Tim. 3:15; Heb. 11:6; 1 Pet. 1:5, 9; etc.). God may overlook ignorance, but He does not reward it.

According to Jesus, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). Moreover, Paul affirms that “whoever calls upon the Lord will be saved” and asks, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?” (Rom. 10:13-14). Thus, according to Paul it is necessary to hear and believe in order to call on the Lord. Paul demonstrates this in Acts 17, where he finds Athenians groping for an unknown God and he responds by telling them about Jesus, saying: “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring that all people everywhere should repent” (cf. Acts 17:22-31). Instead of excusing ignorance, Paul asserts that God now demands repentance from all peoples. Therefore, Vatican II appears to be at odds with the Apostle by asserting that ignorance (if ‘invincible’) exempts one from needing to call upon the name of the Lord, which requires knowing who the Savior is (cf. Acts 10:34-35; Rom. 10:13-14). Rather, fulfillment of Jesus’ Great Commission is necessary for the salvation of “some from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.”

The Head of the Church

Vatican II also differs from Unam Sanctam in its treatment of the head of the Church. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “[A]ll salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body.”[53] Lumen Gentium adds that the successor of Peter is “the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church.”[54] Vatican II thus stops short of calling the pope ‘one head’ with Christ. Yet Christ and the pope cannot both be head of the whole Church; you cannot serve two masters.[55] Moreover, Eph. 1:22-23 teaches that Christ is “head over all things to the church, which is His body.”

Not surprisingly, Vatican II has retained Boniface VIII’s claim that the pope is the shepherd of all of Christ’s sheep. As expressed by Unitatis Redintegratio, Christ “selected Peter, and after his confession of faith determined that on him He would build His Church. Also to Peter He promised the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and after His profession of love, entrusted all His sheep to him to be confirmed in faith and shepherded in perfect unity.”[56] The claim that Christ entrusted all of His sheep to Peter and his successors has already been refuted.


Christ’s Sheep and Unity

On the other hand, Vatican II views Christ’s sheep in a radically different way than Unam Sanctam. In fact, instead of saying that anyone not committed to the pope cannot be among Christ’s sheep, Unitatis Redintegratio declares: “The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter.”[57] This document calls such Christians “separated brethren” (more will be said about this later).

Regarding unity, Vatican II asserts: “The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful.”[58] Catholic apologist Tim Staples ties this interpretation to Luke 22:24-32, where “Jesus prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail, so that ‘he may be the source of strength and unity for the rest of the apostles’”[59] However, it does not follow that Jesus’ prayer for Peter’s faith makes his successors the permanent “source of strength and unity for the whole Church.”

Scripture never teaches that Peter’s successors are the source of unity; in fact, the papacy, with its antipopes and its roles in the great schisms of the Church, has a mixed record on unity.[60] According to Eph. 4:4-5, unity is found in “one Spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” In fact, perhaps baptism, with its confession of the one faith, is a better visible sign and symbol of unity of the Church.[61]


Papal Powers

Regarding papal powers, Vatican II says: “The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, . . . the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power.”[62] This claim is based on Jesus’ promise to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). For most Catholics, this is the strongest Scriptural argument for the exclusive claims of the papacy. For example, Scott Hahn argues that the keys imply a permanent office requiring perpetual succession from Peter throughout the history of the Church.[63]

On the other hand, it is not at all clear (1) what power and authority Peter possessed that was not shared by other apostles, and (2) what authority Peter actually handed down to his successors.[64] As already noted, the other apostles shared the power to bind and loose (Matt. 18:18), and Christ subsequently entrusted Paul with the Gospel to all of the Gentiles (Rom. 1:5; cf. Gal. 2:9). Thus, Peter himself held no permanent exclusive power or authority (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20).[65] Moreover, none of Peter’s successors walked on water or exhibited any other signs and wonders to confirm this alleged supreme office. Furthermore, none of Peter’s successors are part of the foundation of the Church, as the apostles were. There is simply no basis in Scripture or in history for the presumption that Christ granted supreme perpetual power to Peter or to his successors.


Separated Brethren and EENS

Regarding the salvation of Christians separated from the Church, Vatican II takes a cue from Augustine’s understanding of EENS. Having argued that unity is the proof of love, without which faith is nothing, Augustine continues:

Outside the Catholic Church there can be everything except salvation. He can hold office, he can have sacraments, he can sing “alleluia,” he can respond “amen,” he can hold to the gospel, he can have faith and preach in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But never except in the Catholic Church can he find salvation.[66]

Apparently Augustine recognized in his day that Christians “outside of the Catholic Church” demonstrated all the visible signs of Church life. Yet, he felt compelled to insist on institutional unity as the test of the widely accepted dogma that outside the Church there is no salvation. Nevertheless, does not Scripture teach that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9-11)? Sadly, Vatican II followed the tenets of EENS rather than Scripture, and said: “[I] is only through Christ’s Catholic Church . . . that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation.”[67] In addition, Unitatis Redintegratio 2.22 states: “Baptism, therefore, envisages a complete profession of faith, complete incorporation in the system of salvation such as Christ willed it to be, and finally complete ingrafting in eucharistic communion.” Therefore, according to Vatican II, ‘separated brethren’ cannot “benefit fully from the means of salvation” because they lack “complete incorporation in the system of salvation.” Consequently, how do Roman Catholics today believe Protestants are saved?

Roman Catholics find it difficult to articulate how Protestants are saved because of the dogma of EENS. What follows is an attempt to explain this complex issue in simple terms. According to Vatican II, a person is incorporated into the Church by Trinitarian baptism, which does not have to be administered by a priest (UR 1.3, CCC 1256). Thus, Protestants are incorporated into the Church by baptism. However, the new life conferred at baptism requires ongoing nourishment, which Rome attributes to the Eucharist based on John 6:53: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves” (cf. CCC 1392).[68] Roman Catholics are required to partake of this “spiritual food” at least annually, which in turn requires preparation by the sacrament of Reconciliation (CCC 1389). However, Rome asserts that only priests possessing sacramental Orders conferred through apostolic succession can administer a valid Eucharist, in which the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Christ (CCC 1400).[69] Moreover, according to Joseph Ratzinger (later, Pope Benedict XVI), Protestant “Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element [the Eucharist] of the Church.”[70] In other words, Protestants are deprived of ongoing spiritual nourishment through a valid Eucharist. Hence, according to the Roman Catholic Church, Protestants lack what Jesus said is necessary for [spiritual] life. Nevertheless, like Augustine, Roman Catholics cannot deny the vibrant spiritual life manifest in many Protestant communities today. Consequently, Roman Catholics conclude that Protestants may be saved by means of extra-ordinary grace, being excused from the ordinary means of grace provided through the Eucharist because of non-culpable ignorance.[71] However, this is essentially the same means of salvation that Vatican II articulates for unbelievers. Why is “by grace you have been saved through faith” not enough?



Summary and Scriptural Reflections on the Papacy

In summary, Vatican II differs substantially from Unam Sanctam as follows: (1) it says that those who are invincibly ignorant, yet sincerely seek God, may be saved outside of the Church (vs. “there is no salvation outside of the Church”); (2) it recognizes baptized Christians not in communion with Rome as Christ’s sheep (vs. only those committed to the pope are Christ’s sheep); and (3) it distinguishes Christ, the (invisible) Head of the Church, from the pope, the visible head of the whole Church (vs. Christ and the Vicar are “one head,” not “two heads like a monster”). However, Vatican II does claim that the papacy is the “supreme and universal power over the Church” as well as “the perpetual source of unity.” Finally, Vatican II asserts that all baptized Christians – except for those who do not know any better – must be completely incorporated in “the system of salvation” available through the Church (vs. the “absolute” necessity for all humans to be subject to the Roman Pontiff).

In contrast, Jesus says that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. What is necessary for salvation? Trusting the Savior who has revealed Himself through the prophets and in the person of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:13-14; Heb. 11:6).[72] We Protestants affirm salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone, for the glory of God alone (the “five solas”). Nevertheless, the Church plays a significant role in nurturing God’s children on their journey of salvation.

Regarding the nurturing role of the Church, Scripture suggests several ways the papacy may be affirmed. For example, as a bishop, the pope is called to preach the gospel and teach the mysteries of God, as well as to exhort, rule, and manage the church of God under his care (cf. 1 Tim 3:1-7; 2 Tim. 2:2; Tit. 1:5-9).[73] Moreover, as the spiritual leader of more than one billion Christians, he has great responsibility and power (Heb. 13:17). Therefore, he must be careful not to usurp the authority and role of the Head and Chief Shepherd of the Church, nor disparage the authority of other overseers of Christ’s flock (cf. 1 Pet. 5:1-5). In addition, as Paul writes: “Render to all what is due them” (Rom. 13:7). Christians who are under the pope’s care are to follow his example and to obey him, as he watches over their souls (Heb. 13:7, 17); Protestants, as well, should love, honor, and respect the pope as a brother in Christ and as the leader of many of Christ’s sheep.

Finally, with a sincere desire to seek reconciliation between Christians who are separated from one another by various divisions, I commend the following from Vatican II: “Sacred Scriptures provide for the work of dialogue an instrument of the highest value in the mighty hand of God for the attainment of that unity which the Saviour holds out to all” (UR 2.2).


APPENDIX: Summary of Unam Sanctam’s Claims and Responses

(1)    Salvation and forgiveness of sins can be found only in the one holy catholic and apostolic Church – a questionable assertion, in view of Joel 2:32 and Hebrews 11. Salvation is from the Savior, who is not bound exclusively to a New Testament institution.

(2)    There is one head of the Church: Christ and the pope – nonsensical (one plus one is not one); a category mistake (Peter is a member of the body, not the head). Christ is the sole head of His body, the Church.

(3a) The pope is the shepherd of all of Christ’s sheep – refuted in Rom. 1:5 and Gal. 2:9 (Christ entrusted Paul with the Gospel to the Gentiles); and by John 10 (according to Jesus, the shepherd has a personal relationship with each sheep; there is one heavenly shepherd and many earthly shepherds).

(3b) Only those committed to the pope can be Christ’s sheep – contrary to Scripture: Jesus promises eternal life to all who come to him; and no one will snatch His sheep (including the Greeks) from His hand (cf. John 10:27-29).

(4)    The plentitude of papal powers underscores the perils of resisting papal authority – claims based on eisegesis, wrongly portraying the pope as Christ’s peer.

(5)    It is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff – it is presumptuous for the pope to set himself up as an arbiter of salvation (Heb. 2:10); salvation is from the Lord alone (Hos. 13:4; Acts 4:12).



[1]Robert Sungenis states that “official statements and teaching of the Catholic Church have always affirmed and continue to affirm that Scripture is written wholly and entirely in all its parts through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and that it is absolutely inerrant” (Robert A. Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Santa Barbara: Queenship Publishing Company, 1997), 38.

[2]Ibid. 4.

[3]Lumen Gentium (LG) 3.25, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, by Pope Paul VI, 1964, at (accessed January 29, 2015). A ‘charism’ is a divine gift for the building up of the Body of Christ.

[4]As quoted by Mark Shea in “Just Exactly Where is the Church?” at, (accessed March 10, 2015).


[6]Rom. 4:3; Gal. 4:30. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation), 1995.

[7]For further reading, see Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII: State vs. Papacy, ed. Charles T. Wood (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967).

[8]For further reading on Gregory VII and Innocent III, see Mandell Creighton, “Halfway House from Gregory VII to Luther,” in Wood, 94 – 95.

[9]F. M. Powicke, “The Culmination of Medieval Papalism,” in Wood, 103.

[10]The English translation of Unam Sanctam, unless otherwise noted, is quoted from Catholic at (accessed February 22, 2015). The name, Unam Sanctam, comes from the first words of the bull: Unam sanctam ecclesiam catholicam (one holy catholic church).

[11]Cyprian of Carthage, Letters 75.2 (ca. AD 255), in Ante-Nicene Fathers vol. 5 (ANF 5), ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975). Others who taught EENS prior to Boniface VIII include Irenaeus, Origen, Lactantius, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Innocent III, and Thomas Aquinas.

[12]Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John 45.12, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1, vol. 7 (NPNF 1-07), ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1888).

[13]Cyprian, Unity of the Church 9, in ANF 5.

[14]Anti-popes might similarly be charged with schism; but was Hippolytus therefore outside the Church when he opposed the heretical Callistus, yet restored to the Church when he later reconciled with another pope?

[15]Cyprian, Unity of the Church 6.

[16]Cyprian, Letters 72.8 and 75.8.

[17]Augustine, Address to the People of the Church at Caesarea 3, translated by Jean Goodwin, at (accessed February 23, 2015).

[18]Ibid. 5. More importantly, do we still recognize and love our brothers and sisters in Christ?

[19]There have been steps between the East and Rome to “forgive and forget,” but the schism remains.

[20]Justin Martyr, First Apology 46, in ANF 1 (ca 170).

[21]Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 1.5, in ANF 2 (ca. 200).

[22]According to Calvin, “Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for . . . the paternal favour of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar people, and hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal.” However, he cites Joel 2:32, “And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered; For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape . . .” (Institutes of Christian Religion 4.1.4, trans. Henry Beveridge [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989]). Thus, according to Calvin, the Church includes Jews. The Westminster Confession similarly states that there is “no ordinary possibility of salvation” out of the visible Church, “which consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and their children” (25.2). See The Westminster Confession, in Reformed Confessions Harmonized: with an annotated Bibliography of Reformed Doctrinal Works, ed. Joel R. Beeke and Sinclair B. Ferguson (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999).

[23]The phrase, “the name of the Lord,” appears more than one hundred times in Scripture.

[24]Israel, with its unique gifts and calling, should not be confused with the Church (cf. Rom. 9-11). Members of both are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 21:27; cf. Dan. 12:1; Rev. 12-13).

[25]Cyprian, Epistles 72.7, in ANF 5 (ca. 255).

[26]Theodoret, Epistles 116, in NPNF 2-03 (ca. 450).

[27]Jesus, having taken human nature while remaining eternal God, makes an ontological claim when he says, “I and the Father are one.” That God subsists in three persons is not a contradiction. One person (the Father) plus one person (the Son) plus one person (the Holy Spirit) is three persons and at the same time one God.

[28]On the other hand, Stephen Ray notes that the President of the United States does not deny his office when he addresses his audiences, “My fellow Americans.” However, the President does not say, “When your President comes . . . ,” as Peter says of the Chief Shepherd. See Stephen K. Ray, Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 59.

[29]Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St. John 88, in NPNF 1-14.  

[30]Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job 21.24, trans. John Henry Parker and J. Rivington (1844) at (accessed March 19, 2015). Cf. Book 5, Epistle 18.

[31]Catholic Answers, “The Papacy in Scripture, no Rocks Required,” by Tim Staples, at (accessed March 6, 2015). Staples also attributes supernatural strength to Peter who “heaves the entire net of fish to shore by himself” (the net, according to Staples, is a symbol of the church). Staples fails to acknowledge that moving a heavy object in water requires no special strength, as long as the object is buoyed by water (water was used by NASA to simulate the moon’s much lighter gravity when training astronauts in the 1960s).

[32]Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, and Rev. Mr. David Hess, Jesus Peter, and the Keys: A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy (Santa Barbara: Queenship Publishing Company, 1996), 118 – 22.

[33]Ibid. 123. Notice the similar language vis-à-vis Unam Sanctam: “not these lambs, nor those lambs.”

[34]Stephen K. Ray, Upon This Rock, 49n64 (quoting Hugh Pope).

[35]Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to Polycarp preface, in ANF 1. Ignatius was also a disciple of John.

[36]Roman Catholics cite Ignatius’ letter to Rome as evidence for the primacy of that See, but the text merely mentions “the region of the Romans” (ANF ­1). Moreover, Ignatius asserts that all authorities, including Caesar, should be subject to the [local/regional] bishop, as their bishop is to Christ (To the Philadelphians 4, in ANF 1).

[37]Because shepherding requires personal relationships, the office of shepherding Christ’s flock on earth is distributed among many: “He gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers” to spiritually feed the members of Christ’s flock under their care (cf. Eph. 4:11).[37] The Catechism of the Catholic Church agrees in principle: “the office of shepherding the Church, which the apostles received . . . [is] to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops.” Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 862, at (accessed March 1, 2015).

[38]Shea, “Just Exactly Where is the Church?”

[39]Unam Sanctam merely escalates warnings to the king communicated a year earlier (1301) in his papal bull, Ausculta fili. Not long after Unam Sanctam Boniface VIII wrote a bull of excommunication against King Philip.

[40]The text for this fourth claim is actually divided among four sections (4 – 8) of Unam Sanctam as translated at

[41]Roman Catholics acknowledge the gross immorality of popes such as John XII (AD 955), Benedict IX (1032–48), and Alexander VI (1492–1503), but they say that the Vicar of Christ does not have to be impeccable (sinless) to be infallible. However, the point is that such men should have been deposed and replaced.

[42]In spite of the diversity of interpretations of Matt. 16:16-19 noted, Stephen Ray asserts that “preconceived biases or anti-Catholic sentiments, and not objective study of the passage itself, compel the objector to resist the clear meaning of the biblical passage” – clear only to those who agree with Ray? (Upon This Rock, 61n82)

[43]Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics 22, in ANF 3. Cyprian, Origen, Ephraem the Syrian, Basil of Caesarea, Epiphanius, Jerome, and Cyril of Alexandria also said Peter was the rock upon which the Church was built. Some of these church fathers also endorse other interpretations of ‘this rock’ in Matt. 16.

[44]Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 6.36, in NPNF 2-09. Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Epiphanius, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, and Theodoret also identify the rock as Peter’s confession or his faith.

[45]Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John 124.5, in NPNF 1-07. Eusebius, Cyril of Alexandria, Theodoret, and John of Damascus agree that Christ was the rock upon which the Church was built.

[46]Thomas Aquinas’ Contra Errores Graecorum (ca. 1265) contains a number of assertions favorable to the papacy, including: “It is also shown that to be subject to the Roman Pontiff is necessary for salvation” (part 2, 38). See Contra Errores Graecorum, trans. Peter Damian Fehlner, ed. Joseph Kenny, at (accessed March 2, 2015). The editor says he has supplied “missing chapters,” but does not identify which chapters were thus supplied and why they were missing. Nevertheless, the assertions about the papacy attributed to Aquinas are addressed in this study.

[47]“There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy” (James 4:12).

[48]At Vatican I, Pope Pius IX defined the dogma of papal infallibility while declaring his previous (1854) teaching of Mary’s “Immaculate Conception” to be infallible. Canon 18 of Session 3 asserts: “this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.” The formula used by Pius XII in his later declaration of Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven (1950) is almost identical to that of Unam Sanctam.

[49]Leonard Feeney (1897-1978) was excommunicated for teaching that Jews and Protestants could not be saved; however, other “old school” Roman Catholics remain. For example, several years ago, a contributor on Stephen Ray’s Defenders of the Catholic Faith apologetics forum ( told me, “You are separated from the Mystical Body of Christ and the wrath of God does indeed remain upon you.”

[50]Phil Porvaznic, “The Unam Sanctam ‘Problem’ Resolved: Can Non-Catholics Be Saved?” at (accessed February 12, 2015).

[51]CCC 846-47; cf. LG 16. Pope Pius IX was the first pope to tie ‘invincible ignorance’ to EENS (Singulari Quadem, 1854). The tradition articulated by Pope Innocent III (Fourth Lateran Council, 1215), Pope Boniface VIII (Unam Sanctam, 1302), Pope Eugene IV (Cantate Domino, 1441), and Pope John XXIII (1958) has been revised.

[52]Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica vol. 2, part 2 of 2, 10.1 (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947). Aquinas also denies that one who has a false opinion of God (e.g., other religions) knows Him (ibid. Dave Armstrong cites Aquinas, arguing that invincible ignorance is not a sin; but he fails to recognize the burden of other sins that, without faith, condemn all humans. See “Dialogue on ‘Salvation Outside the Church’ and Alleged Catholic Magisterial Contradictions” (2004), at Biblical Evidence for Catholicism with Dave Armstrong,  hxxp:// (accessed March 10, 2015).

[53]CCC 846.

[54]LG 3.18; cf. CCC 882.

[55]Conflict occurs when requiring religious assent and submission to the teaching of the pope (such as in Unam Sanctam) that can be reasonably shown to contradict the teaching of Christ and His apostles (cf. LG 3.25).

[56]Unitatis Redintegratio (UR) 1.2, a decree of Vatican II, at (accessed February 28, 2015). At the same time, CCC 862 affirms “the office of shepherding the Church, which the apostles received . . . to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops.”

[57]UR 1.3. Interestingly, this broader view of Christ’s sheep has incited a backlash from some conservative Roman Catholics who claim Vatican II ushered in a realm of anti-popes who have corrupted the Church’s dogmas. The fact is, the Protestant situation today is in principal the same as it was for the Greeks in Boniface’s day.

[58]LG 3.23; cf. Cyprian, Epistles 72.7 (ca. 255).

[59]Staples, “The Papacy in Scripture.”

[60]There have been more than forty antipopes (including Boniface VII). Moreover, the pope initiated both the Great East-West Schism (1054) and Martin Luther’s excommunication (1521), resulting in lasting schisms within the Body of Christ. In addition, not long after Boniface VIII, two or three popes simultaneously claimed to be the only valid successor of Peter for forty years (1378 to 1418) – a situation Unam Sanctam did not anticipate.

[61]The Eucharist is (should be) another visible sign and symbol of the unity of the Body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10:17). Sadly it has become a symbol of divisions within the Body. Similarly, the assembly of Christians for worship can be either a sign of unity or division, depending on the context. It, too, often is a sign of the latter.

[62]LG 3.22; cf. CCC 882.

[63], Scott Hahn on the Papacy, at (accessed March 26, 2015). Interestingly, Calvin identifies the keys as a metaphor for the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation (cf. Rom. 1:16; Eph. 1:13). See Institutes of Religion 4.6.4. He says “heaven is opened to us by the doctrine of the Gospel.”

[64]Another question might be: How does anyone today know to which of Peter’s successors “the keys” were actually bequeathed? For example, Mark, a well-known protégé of Peter was the first patriarch of Alexandria; and the line of succession from Peter in Rome is not reported consistently by the church fathers.

[65]Roman Catholics cite Isa. 22:15-25 as a type of the keys Jesus offered to Peter. However, in Isaiah, Shebna, the incumbent, is deposed and replaced by Eliakim, something that has never happened with the papacy (“the supreme spiritual power is judged by no one”). Instead, there were often ‘anti-popes,’ and only in hindsight did “the Church” decide which were the rightful heirs of ‘Peter’s Chair’.

[66]Augustine, Address to the People of the Church of Caesarea 6.

[67]UR 1.3; cf. CCC 845. CCC 830 defines the means of salvation to be: “correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession.” CCC 1129 says that the sacraments are necessary for salvation: “The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior.” CCC 1816 also says that “service of and witness to the faith are necessary for salvation” (cf. Matt. 10:32-33).

[68]Protestants view John 6:63 as the key to Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” Tertullian says of this passage: “we ought therefore to desire Him in order that we may have life, and to devour Him with the ear, and to ruminate on Him with the understanding, and to digest Him by faith” (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 37, in ANF 3). Similarly, Irenaeus writes: “Eat ye from every Scripture of the Lord” (Against Heresies 5.20.2). Consequently, Protestants seek spiritual nourishment primarily by coming to Christ through the written Word of God: through reading, prayer, and preaching; although Anglicans celebrate the Liturgy of the Word together with the Liturgy of the Sacrament. See the footnote below for more on the Anglican perspective of the Eucharist.

[69]According to Rome, even Anglicans, who claim apostolic succession, do not have a valid priesthood, nor a valid Eucharist, because they deny transubstantiation. Thomas Aquinas explains this dogma in Summa Theologica, vol. 2, 3.73 – 83. According to Aquinas, “the entire Christ could be in both His hands and mouth. Now this could not come to pass were His relation to place to be according to His proper dimensions” (3.81.1 ad 2). Also, “God ‘wedded His Godhead,’ i.e. His Divine power, to the bread and wine, not that these may remain in this sacrament, but in order that He may make from them His body and blood” (3.75.2 ad 1). These are highly strained interpretations of Jesus’ words, “This is My body.” The Apostle Paul suggests an alternative in 1 Cor. 10:2-4, where he identifies manna as spiritual food and says that the rock that gave the Israelites spiritual drink “was Christ.” The substance of the manna and the water did not change, yet they provided both physical and spiritual nourishment. Thus the sacrament can be affirmed as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (the Anglican view).

[70]Joseph Ratzinger, Dominus Iesus 17, [2000]). See (accessed March 22, 2015). According to Ratzinger, Protestants worship in “ecclesial communities” which “cannot be called ‘Churches’ in the proper sense” because “these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element [the Eucharist] of the Church” (cf. CCC 1275). However, the Eucharist was originally celebrated house to house with more than 3000 people without the sacrament of Orders (cf. Acts 2:42, 46-47). Protestant clergy fulfill the requirements and functions of church leaders defined in 1 Tim. 3; 2 Tim. 2:2; Tit. 1; Heb. 13:17; etc.

[71]This explanation was given by Andrew Preslar in private correspondence, August 18, 2015.

[72]It is vain to call on the name of the Lord without faith (cf. Job 35:13; Psa. 18:41; Isa. 1:15; Rom. 10:9).

[73]The pope, like all other bishops and overseers of the Church, must meet the qualifications of and fulfill the responsibilities of the office.



Copyright © 2016 Michael A. Field – All rights reserved

Mike Field is a graduate of Southern Evangelical Seminary (MA-Apologetics), a lover of Jesus and His Word, and a member of Church of the Cross (Anglican) in Austin, TX. Hoping to retire soon to spend more time in ministry, Mike currently helps his wife, Leanne, train people in healthcare informatics and health IT at the University of Texas.

This essay is reproduced at with permission of Mike Field. It originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of the Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics.  For additional resources by Dr. Geisler on Roman Catholicism, please visit

Interview with Dr. Geisler regarding Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas: Christian History Interview – He’s Our Man
Evangelicals can embrace a rich inheritance from Aquinas.
by Norman L. Geisler
In a 1974 Christianity Today article marking the 700th anniversary of Aquinas’s death, author Ronald Nash said some nice things about the deceased but ultimately judged his system of thought “unsuitable for a biblically centered Christian philosophy” and “beyond any hope of salvage.” Norman Geisler disagreed with that assessment then, and he disagrees with it now. We asked Dr. Geisler, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and author of Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Baker, 1991), for his evaluation of the Angelic Doctor. . .
For additional resources by Dr. Geisler on Roman Catholicism, please visit

Is the Roman Catholic Church the Only Church of Christ?

Is the Roman Catholic Church the Only Church of Christ?

by Michael A. Field

August 2007

The Vatican’s recently published response to questions about its doctrine on the Church puzzled many Christians. The document, dated June 29, 2007 (released July 10, 2007), said nothing new, yet it reminded the world that Churches not in communion with Rome are considered defective in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Parts of a previous declaration, Dominus Iesus (2000), were restated; namely, that Orthodox Churches are defective for not recognizing the primacy of the Pope, and that Protestant “ecclesial communities … cannot be called ‘Churches’ in the proper sense.” The reason given for the latter assertion was that “these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element [the Eucharist] of the Church.” These clear statements of the RCC are an invitation for non-Catholics to speak the truth in love.

It is important to understand the theological context that prompted the recent Vatican release and Dominus Iesus (DI), from which it was derived. In both documents, the Vatican expressed concern about the diversity of interpretations of Vatican II, specifically in the area of ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church. The Vatican wants to protect the Church from relativism wherein “what is true for some would not be true for others” (DI, 4), so it restated the definition of the RCC and clarified its position regarding Orthodox and Protestant Churches. By addressing some fundamental differences between the three major branches of Christianity, the Vatican has provided an excellent opportunity for the other two to compare and contrast their own views vis-a-vis the RCC.

Key questions prompted by the Vatican’s statement will be evaluated in this paper based on consistency with Christian truth, as suggested in DI. The primary witness of this truth is God-inspired Scripture, which presents the teaching and practices of the founding fathers of the Church. Indeed, as Vatican II declared: “Sacred Scriptures provide for the work of dialogue an instrument of the highest value in the mighty hand of God for the attainment of that unity which the Saviour holds out to all” (Unitatis Redintegratio 21, 1964). Additional helpful insights will be gleaned from occasional references to subsequent church fathers.[1] The topics to be addressed include: What does the Bible teach about the Church? What is required for a valid Eucharist? Is “apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders” necessary? What is the role of the Pope in the Church?

What Does the Bible Teach about the Church?

For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Mt 18:20 (NASB)

According to the Vatican, a “Church” cannot exist without apostolic succession in the sacrament of

Orders (ordination), which in turn is required for the Eucharist (communion). On face value, this view seems to contradict New Testament (NT) references to “churches” that met in the homes of individuals who undoubtedly were not ordained in a manner recognized by the RCC. What does Christian truth as revealed in the NT and affirmed by the early church fathers profess about the Church?

The Greek NT word for church is ekklesia, meaning an “assembly duly summoned.”[2] Clement of

Alexandria wrote, “For it is not now the place, but the assemblage of the elect, that I call the Church” (Stromata, 7.5, ca. AD 220). For Clement, the “assemblage of the elect” meant those “summoned” or called by God in Christ (cf. 1 Pet 1:1-2). In the NT, ekklesia also is associated with a congregation (cf. Acts 7:38, applied to Israel) and the “household of God” (1 Tim 3:15).3 More specifically, a Christian church (ekklesia) is a gathering of “those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours” (1 Cor 1:2).

The NT uses the word, ekklesia, over one hundred times. Sometimes it refers to churches in private homes (cf. Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philem 1:2), at other times, to city-wide assemblies. In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul mentions both the church at Rome that met in Prisca and Aquila’s house (16:5) and “the whole church” in Rome (16:23). Paul and Barnabas “gathered the church together” at Antioch after their first missionary journey (Acts 14:27). Churches are often identified by the city in which they meet;

e.g., Jerusalem (Acts 8:1), Antioch (Acts 13:1), Cenchrea (Rom 16:1), Thessalonica (2 Th 1:1), and the seven churches in “Asia” (cf. Rev ch.2-3). These churches are examples of local assemblies that are part of the greater entity, the “house (or household) of God,” the whole Body of Christ (Eph 1:22-23).

The larger Body of Christ includes and transcends all local assemblies. For example, the Church can be viewed at a regional level, e.g., “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria” (cf. Act

9:31); but in its entirety, it is “His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (cf. Eph 1:22-23). This Church consists of all the members who are “holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God” (Col 2:19). It is also likened to a spiritual building, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the

Spirit” (Eph 2:20-22). The writer of Hebrews offers a glimpse of the Church beyond space and time: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the

Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Heb 12:22-23). Finally, Scripture describes the Church as the bride of Christ and tells of the wedding in which He will “present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Eph 5:27ff; cf. Rev 19:7). As presented in Scripture, then, the Church is a multi-faceted entity, manifested in local assemblies that are joined together spiritually as a holy temple and a living “body” connected to its head, Jesus Christ. The Church in its fullness transcends geography, time and space.

In its most elemental form, “Church” is defined by Jesus’ words, “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Mt 18:20). A church is people meeting in Jesus’ name, with the expectation that He, who has called them to be His disciples, is indeed in their midst.  Ignatius of Antioch wrote (ca. AD 105), “where Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans,

8). Tertullian, early in the third century, said: “But where three are, a church is, albeit they be laymen” (Exhortation to Chastity, 7). In other words, the body (two or more people) together with the head (Jesus) is the Church. In light of the above testimonies, the RCC’s sectarian view of the term, “Church,” appears to be inconsistent with God’s Word and early Church belief and practice. One can conclude that

Protestant Churches are part of God’s household, and thus deserve to be called Churches in both a biblical and historical sense.[3]

What is Required for a Valid Eucharist?

This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” Lk 22:19

According to the RCC, only a priest or bishop ordained in apostolic succession is qualified to administer the Eucharist. Yet, based on the previous discussion, one might infer from Matthew 18:20 that any group of believers who gather together in Jesus’ name should be able to obey His command, “do this in remembrance of Me.” The daily celebrations of the Eucharist among the thousands of Christian converts “from house to house” following Pentecost (Acts 2:42, 46) most assuredly did not rely on “consecrated” presbyters and bishops. [4] After all, even the first deacons of the Church weren’t selected until some time had elapsed after Pentecost (Acts 6). Even centuries after the New Testament was written, the Church

Father, Basil of Caesarea, made allowances for communion “without the presence of a priest or minister” (cf. Letter 93, ca. AD 370). Thus, consistent with the practice of the NT Church (including house churches), Basil affirmed that the Eucharist does not depend on the sacrament of Orders.

The RCC also asserts that a valid Eucharist requires a literal interpretation of Jesus’ words, “This is My body … this is My blood” (Mt 26:26, 28) and “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves,” (Jn 6:53, cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 1384-1400). Why single out these two sayings from the many other figurative sayings in the New Testament? Jesus didn’t change into a vine when He said, “I am the vine;” yet the RCC insists that the bread changed into His flesh when He said, “This is My body,” at the Last Supper. The RCC also claims that the communion bread, under the invocation of its priests, is changed into the physical body of Christ, in spite of its unchanged physical properties (the doctrine of transubstantiation). In view of the interpretive difficulties inherent in the above quotations, it would be helpful to consider what the Apostle Paul and some of the church fathers taught.

The earliest interpretation of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper is found in 1 Cor 11:26-31. Paul’s support for a figurative interpretation begins with his triple repetition of the phrases, “eat the bread” and “drink the cup,” instead of “eat the body” and “drink the blood.” But some Christians are confused by the phrase, “judge [or discern] the body rightly,” in verse 29. To understand what Paul means, one must study the larger context in verses 27-31. Paul is saying that eating the bread and drinking the cup “in an unworthy manner” (v. 27a) can be avoided when a person “examine[s] himself” (v. 28), for “if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged” (v.31). Being “guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord” (v. 27b), then, is about failing to properly examine ourselves, not about perceiving an unseen reality in the bread and the cup. Therefore, the phrase, “judge the body rightly” (v. 29), refers to examination of the assembled body of Christ (ourselves), not the bread of the Eucharist.6 This is consistent with the early


NT, Church offices are to be filled by faithful men and women (with the exception of the office of bishop/overseer that is limited to mature men of high character, cf. 1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:6).

Holy Orders in the RCC differ from the NT Church offices described above. A “priest” does not function as an elder did in the early church; NT elders (plural) shepherded their church as a “presbytery” or board of elders. Also, the offices of presbyteros (elder) and episkopos (bishop/overseer) were interchangeable in the early Church; cf. Acts 20:17-28, 1 Tim 5:17; 1 Clement 1:3; 44:4. Lastly, no bishop had jurisdiction over the bishops or presbyters of other churches (cf. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Polycarp); that function was reserved for apostles, a foundational office of the Church (cf. Eph 2:20; 4:11; 1 Cor 12:28; 2 Cor 11:28).

6  The Greek verb for “judge” in both 1 Cor 11:29 and 31 is diakrino, which may be translated “discern.” The D-R Bible translates v. 29 “discerning the body of the Lord,” [“of the Lord” is not in either the Greek or the Latin Vulgate]; and v. 31, “but if we would judge ourselves.” The D-R translation appears to be biased.

second century description of the Eucharist in the Didache (9), in which the broken bread is likened to the Body of Christ (the Church) scattered and gathered. Augustine also reflected this view in his fifth century work: On Baptism, Against the Donatists (7.50.98).

Although most church fathers accepted a literal interpretation of the Eucharist, Eusebius, a famous participant at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea (AD 325), wrote the following: “[W]e have received a memorial of this offering… which we celebrate on a table by means of symbols of His Body and saving Blood according to the laws of the new covenant” (Demonstratio Evangelica, 1.10, emphasis added).

Other church fathers who used figurative language to describe the Eucharist included Clement of

Alexandria, Tertullian and Cyril of Jerusalem (more than a thousand years before the Protestant

Reformation!). Different interpretations never prevented early Christians from taking communion. Indeed, Augustine strongly endorsed “judging no man, nor removing any from the right of communion if he entertain a different opinion” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists, 7.2.3). For Augustine, the requirements for communion were simply baptism “consecrated with the words of the gospel” and love for one’s Christian brethren (cf. ibid. 7.47.93; 1.18.28). These examples demonstrate that differences of opinion and personal conscience were not barriers to communion in the early Church.

Interestingly, although Augustine believed the bread and wine were transformed into Christ’s body and blood at the Last Supper, nevertheless, he interpreted Jesus’ previous words, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood” (John 6:53), figuratively.7 Jesus himself implied that these words should be interpreted symbolically when he said: “the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63). Indeed, the context in John 6 provides the intended symbolic meaning: “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst… For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life” (Jn 6:35, 40). To behold Jesus and believe in Him is to see Him with the eyes of faith and thereby inherit eternal life (cf. Jn 20:29). The literal interpretation of Jn 6:53 by the RCC (cf.

CCC 1384) thus appears to contradict both Jesus and Augustine, a “Doctor of the Church.”


1 Cor 10:16-17 says that the cup of blessing is a koinonia (fellowship/sharing/participation) in the blood of Christ and “the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ.” The RCC interprets this literally and links it to 1 Cor 11:29 (“discerning the body”). But as explained above, 1 Cor 11:29 is about the Church. In 1 Cor 10:21, the “cup of the Lord” is compared to the “cup of demons.” Since demons lack blood, both cups must be symbolic.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to fully exegete 1 Cor 11:26-31; however, the phrase, “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord,” is worthy of comment. Guilt is incurred when a person takes lightly what Christ did for him on the cross, particularly when participating in the rite dedicated to remembering His death. Failure to do so may result in impairment of one’s health (verse 30), but Paul doesn’t prescribe excommunication in this context.

7  Cf. On Christian Doctrine, 3.16.24. The RCC believes that Jn 6:53 refers to the Last Supper; Augustine apparently didn’t, nor does this author. The “Bread of Life” discourse in John 6 followed the feeding of the five thousand.  

A number of other legitimate questions about transubstantiation must also be considered. For example, the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in AD 451 declared that Christ’s flesh was completely human, “unchanged and unmixed,” yet united with His divine nature in one person. This means that Christ’s flesh could not be separated from its physical properties (its “accidents,” as Aquinas called them); in other words, Jesus’ body could not transmute into bread. So, when Jesus held the bread in His hands and said, “This is My body,” either the Council of Chalcedon was wrong or Jesus was speaking figuratively. The RCC claims that its priests duplicate what Jesus did at the Last Supper. If nothing happened to the bread at the Last Supper, then nothing happens to it today in the celebration of the Eucharist. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic belief that Christ’s flesh appears simultaneously all over the world wherever the Eucharist is celebrated also contradicts the Council’s description of Christ’s human nature.[5] Likewise, teaching that the priest’s sacramental offering of the Eucharistic elements to God “makes present” the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood is problematic (cf. Heb 9:25). Lastly, the RCC lacks a satisfying explanation for how communicants are able to receive both the body and the blood of Christ when the priest only gives them the bread. The many questions raised by the doctrine of transubstantiation cannot be easily dismissed.

The above points validate the Protestant celebrations of the Eucharist and call attention to inconsistencies in the Roman Catholic position vis-à-vis early Church teaching and practices. Historically, the Lord’s Table has always been a symbol of the unity of the Body of Christ. The refusal of the RCC and other Churches to admit certain people to communion because of their Church affiliation has deeply hurt some of Christ’s disciples. Making the Eucharist a point of division is a sad commentary on the Church today.

Is Apostolic Succession in the Sacrament of Orders Necessary?

God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets…” Eph 2:19-20

It has been argued (above) that apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders is not required for the Eucharist. Scripture also indicates that this rite is unnecessary for other functions of the Church. For example, baptism, by which a person formally enters the Church, was administered for the Apostle Paul by Ananias, a simple disciple in Damascus (cf. Acts 9:10-19).[6] The NT also teaches that a person can receive the Holy Spirit by hearing and receiving the gospel by faith without the imposition of a bishop’s hands (cf. Acts 10:38-48). In addition, the Scriptures defend the validity of confessing sins to God or to one another and receiving the assurance of forgiveness without requiring a priest to define penance and pronounce absolution (cf. Ps 32:5; Mt 18:15-18; Ja 5:16; 1 Jn 1:9-2:2; contrasted with CCC 1450-1470).

Even the authority to “bind and loose” [7] granted by Jesus to the Church in Mt 18:18 does not depend on apostolic succession any more than does baptism, receiving the Holy Spirit or confession. Scripture provides many examples that illustrate that God’s work is not confined by institutional regulations.

Likewise, the testimony of the early Church refutes the arguments for apostolic succession. The Didache

(“Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”), one of the earliest documents of the Church after the New Testament was written, says: “Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers” (15, emphasis added, ca. AD 110-130). The Didache never mentions apostolic succession; instead it directs the early churches to appoint their own bishops and deacons! Moreover, Augustine (in the context of discussing schismatics and heretics) wrote, “God is present in His sacraments to confirm His words by whomsoever the sacraments may be administered” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists, 5.20.27). For Augustine, the validity of the sacraments depended on the faith of the recipient, not on the status of the person administering them.

Some Christians still argue that apostolic succession is necessary in order to continually guard the original “deposit” of truth handed down by the apostles. Irenaeus, in the second century, a strong advocate of apostolic succession at the beginning of the Church, contradicts that argument as follows: “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith” (Against Heresies, 3.1, emphasis added). One can conclude that Irenaeus believed that apostolic succession was only necessary until the Scriptures were made available as the bedrock of our faith.[8]

Furthermore, history has shown that apostolic succession did not protect the Church from heresy. Most of the heresies in the early Church were either initiated or propagated by clergy who were “consecrated” by the Church. The Arian heresy is a case in point. It almost overwhelmed the Church before the AD 325 Council of Nicea. There can be no doubt that many consecrated presbyters and bishops spread that heresy. One must conclude that no institutional rite of succession can compensate for ignorance or mishandling of the Scriptures.[9]

If apostolic succession is no longer necessary, in what sense, then can the Church be called Apostolic? Consider what Tertullian wrote ca. AD 200. “And by this very Rule [a precursor of the Nicene Creed] they will be approved of other churches also, which are every day planted, and which though they do not derive immediately from the Apostles, or Apostolic Men, as being much later in time to them, do yet agree with them in the very same Faith, and by virtue of that harmony and agreement, have no less a right and title (than the Churches planted by the Apostles) to be called Apostolic” (The Prescription against Heretics, 32, emphasis added). To be an “Apostolic Church” is to teach the faith of the apostles; merely keeping a long list of the names of those who passed on the faith through the centuries is not enough.[10]

Protestant Churches that teach the same faith as the apostles, therefore, are rightly called “Apostolic.”

What is the Role of the Pope in the Church?

You are Peter and upon this rock [petra, in Greek] I will build My church.” Mt 16:19

The RCC interprets everything about the Church through the lens of the above verse. The Vatican’s recent statement reiterated that the RCC is the “only Church” of Christ: “This Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him” (cf. DI, 16; CCC 816). Since not all Christians agree with this definition, it is reasonable to enquire further about what the Scriptures teach and about how the early Church understood the role of Peter’s successors.

It is important to observe that Christ did not say to Peter, “upon you I will build My church.” This is key, because if the rock in Mt 16:19 does not refer to Peter, the case for the RCC definition of the Church is considerably weakened. The early church fathers were fairly evenly split between two positions: that the rock in Mt 16:19 referred to Peter’s confession or to Christ Himself (very few held the view that Peter was the rock).[11] Because the interpretation of this verse has always been disputed, clearer parallel passages of Scripture must be consulted, such as Eph 2:20, which explicitly says that the church has been

built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone” (cf. 1 Pet 2:4-8). The early church fathers recognized this truth, which is compatible with the two dominant views already mentioned. What, then, is the meaning of Christ’s play on words between “Peter” and the rock (petra)? The historical consensus seems to be that by virtue of Simon bar Jonah’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Mt 16:16), Jesus honored Simon with a new name that identified him in some sense with Himself, the eternal Rock, the cornerstone of the Church (cf. Eph 2:20; 1 Pet 2:4-8). Peter, indeed, was highly honored by Christ; he was the first of many to receive the “keys of the kingdom” (see below). The Church was built on the foundation of all the apostles; Christ alone is both the cornerstone and head of the Church. To claim otherwise is to contradict divine revelation.

What, then, is the Scriptural basis for the Vatican’s belief that the Pope, as the “successor of Peter,” is the visible head of the whole Church on earth? Unlike God’s promises that David would never lack a successor to his throne (cf. 1 Ki 9:5), Christ never promised Peter an unbroken line of successors to perpetually govern His Church. Jesus’ promise that the “gates of Hell” will not prevail against the Church is not based on Peter and his successors, but on Christ himself, the living head of the Church. As previously mentioned, Peter did not retain exclusive rights to “bind and loose” (i.e., “the power of the keys,” cf. Mt 18:18; Jn 20:23). Roman Catholics look for implied promises about Peter’s successors in passages like Jn 21:15-17, “feed my sheep,” and Lk 22:32, “I have prayed … that your faith may not fail; … when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Yet the apostles themselves didn’t view Peter as their earthly head (cf. Lk 22:24ff); and Peter addressed the presbyters who came after the apostles as equals (cf. 1 Pet 5:1-4). Peter himself identified Christ as the rock (“the living stone”) upon which the Church was built (cf. 1 Pet 2:4-8). The only possible Scriptural support for the papacy is based on speculation and arguments from silence.

Neither does Scripture suggest that the Church must maintain a physical presence at a particular location, unlike Judaism. The Church has a spiritual (not a geographical) base, being “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets …” (Eph 2:20). Christ’s letters to the seven churches in Revelation never mention Rome (implying its irrelevance to those churches), and the later oblique references in Revelation to Rome are all negative (cf. “Babylon” in Rev 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2,10,21). Neither does Paul’s letter to the church at Rome mention or imply its authority over other Churches.


Some recognized both Christ and Peter’s confession as the foundation of the Church, e.g., Cyril of Alexandria and Theodoret. Tertullian was one of the few who wrote that the Church was built on Peter.

What support, then, does history lend to the claim that the Popes in Rome have functioned as an unbroken chain of bishops who have governed the whole Church since its inception? Ignatius of Antioch, an early Church Father often quoted by Roman Catholic apologists, considered God as the sole “bishop” over each local bishop (cf. Letter to Polycarp, ca. AD 105). Also, three of the first four Ecumenical Councils of the Church defined regional jurisdiction under four or five “Apostolic Sees” (cf. Canons 6, 2,and 28 from the first, second and fourth Councils, respectively, AD 325-451). Rome was just one of these “Apostolic Sees.” [12] Sadly the “Great Schism” of AD 1054 irreparably split the Eastern Church from the West, but the historical fact remains that the “Roman Pontiffs” never exercised jurisdiction (“supreme power,” according to Vatican I, session 3, 1870) over the whole Church. If the Church has survived and thrived without universal papal jurisdiction for so many centuries, what makes it necessary today?

Because Jesus declared Himself to be the door of the sheep-fold (cf. Jn 10:9), Christians should recognize the error in statements such as, “Into this fold of Jesus Christ no man may enter unless he be led by the

Sovereign Pontiff, and only if they be united to him can men be saved” (Pope John XXIII, Nov. 4, 1958). Indeed, non-Catholic Christians should help their Roman Catholic brothers and sisters understand that the Pope does not take Christ’s place as the door, neither does Peter “continue to govern” through the Pope. Unless the RCC can provide convincing arguments from both Scripture and Church history to the contrary, it is time for the Vatican to abandon its claims to the Pope’s universal primacy. A serious student of both Scripture and history cannot ignore the many inconsistencies surrounding the papacy.

Christ alone is “head over all things to the Church” and His Word of Truth, together with His Spirit of Truth, guides the Church “into all the truth” (cf. Eph 1:22; Jn 17:17; 16:13). Churches that cling to the true head of the Church need not fret over claims that they are “defective” for not submitting to the Pope. Protestants and Orthodox are both vindicated by Scripture and history in retaining their respective Church rights vis-à-vis Rome. The Pope may govern the institution he heads, but he has no rightful claim to supreme authority over Christ’s whole Church. Nevertheless, all Christians should grant the Pope the respect he deserves, love him as a brother in Christ, and insofar as possible be at peace with him and with those who are in his care.


The Vatican’s recent answers to questions about the Church, based on Dominus Iesus, opened the door for respectful and honest ecumenical dialog. Clear statements by the Vatican have prompted clear answers. This paper has offered a rebuttal to the Vatican’s arguments that Orthodox Churches are defective and that Protestant Churches lack the necessary elements to be called Churches. It is right and proper to call

Protestant Churches by the name Jesus gave them. Protestant Churches are indeed part of the “household [house] of God” which the Apostle Paul identifies as the Church. As Jesus said, “there are many rooms in My Father’s house” (Jn 14:2, NIV).

Although there are no perfect Churches, no Church should be denigrated for naming Christ as its head.[13]

The many Churches make up one Body precisely because they have one head, the Lord Jesus. The unity Christ most desires is that of the Spirit in the bond of peace, manifested by the members of His Body loving one another as He has loved them. In lieu of visible institutional union, Churches everywhere should share the Lord’s Supper with Christians of all affiliations as a tangible expression of the spiritual unity of the Body of Christ.

There are strong arguments against the necessity of apostolic succession and a universal papacy. Teaching of the RCC to the contrary is inconsistent with Christian truth both as revealed in God’s Word and as understood and demonstrated by the early Church. The inconsistencies identified in this paper suggest that the RCC may have succumbed to the very relativism that the Vatican denounced in DI: i.e., what is true for Rome was not true for the early Church nor is it true for many Christians today. How the RCC will address these inconsistencies could have a greater impact on ecumenical dialog than the Vatican statements that prompted this paper.

Walk “in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4:1-6)

[1] Unless otherwise stated, references cited can be found on the internet with a good search engine. Most of the early church fathers’ writings are available online at

[2] Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (LSJ, 1940), ekklesia.  3

Acts 19:32ff is an exception, where ekklesia refers to a civic gathering in Ephesus.

[3] This paper cannot adequately cover the subject of ecclesiology; however, a few additional comments may be helpful. Jesus’ instructions for the Church include: making disciples, baptizing and teaching them (Mt 28:19-20); loving God and one another (Mt 22:37-40; Jn 13:34-35); cultivating discipline, prayer and worship (Mt 18:15-20; Jn 4:23-24); and sharing the Lord’s Table (Lk 22:17-20). Scripture also teaches that the Church is one (one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father; cf. Eph 4:4-6), holy (called to be holy as a temple of the Holy Spirit; cf. 1 Cor 6:19-20; 1 Pet 1:15-16), catholic (from every tribe and tongue and people and nation; cf. Rev 5:9-10), and apostolic (built on the foundation of the apostles and devoted to the apostles’ teaching; cf. Eph 2:20; Acts 2:42). These criteria apply equally to all Churches.

[4] The sacrament of Orders, as defined by the RCC, cannot be found in Scripture. Ordination through the laying on of hands was originally a function of the local church “presbytery” (cf. 1 Tim 4:14; 5:22; Didache, 15). The NT defines Church offices for overseeing, shepherding and providing administrative care. These offices include episkopos (bishop or overseer), presbyteros (elder or presbyter, translated “priest” in the Douay-Rheims [D-R] Bible), and diakonos (deacon); cf. Acts 20:17-28; 1 Tim 3:1-7; Tit 1:5-9; Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:1-5. According to the

[5] Roman Catholics who argue for “multi-location” resort to Eastern religion, not Christian truth.

[6] The RCC recognizes that baptism can be performed by anyone using the Trinitarian formula (cf. CCC 1284).

[7] The context of Mt 18:15-18 implies that “bind and loose” refers to the Church expelling or excommunicating (“binding” the sin) sinners who refuse to repent, and reconciling (“loosing” from sin) with sinners who repent.

[8]  Irenaeus understood tradition to be synonymous with the teaching of the apostles: that which was preserved, without addition or loss, in the Scriptures. The Scriptures, then, ensured that the Church would lose nothing handed down by the apostles. For Irenaeus, “catholic” tradition would never introduce new beliefs. He also wrote that the truth is “clearly and unambiguously in express terms set forth in the Sacred Scriptures” (i.e., the perspicacity of Scripture, cf. Against Heresies 2.27.1). Yet, Irenaeus insisted that interpretation of Scripture must be tested in the community of faith; isolated “private interpretation” can lead to false doctrine (evangelical Protestants agree). Thus, the principles of sola Scriptura were articulated from the earliest days of the Church. For a partial list of early church fathers who attested to the final authority of the Scriptures see, “Does Early Church History Favor Roman Catholicism? An Answer to Cardinal Newman’s Claim,” in Christian Apologetics Journal (Fall 2007) by this author [in press].

[9] The Scriptures, particularly the Gospel of John, easily refute the Arian heresy that Jesus was created and not coeternal with God the Father. The Arian heresy, rather than proving the need for apostolic succession, is a clear example of the importance of rightly teaching the whole counsel of God as revealed in the Scriptures. Apostolic succession also failed at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (cf. the author’s paper cited in the preceding footnote).

[10] Tertullian’s argument about apostolic faith parallels Paul’s argument about Abrahamic faith (cf. Gal 3:7).

[11] Examples of church fathers who associated Peter’s confession with Mt 16:19-20 include Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Epiphanius and Chrysostom; those who associated the rock with Christ include Jerome and Augustine.

[12] Early church fathers often praised the Church at Rome for its faithfulness, and honored it because both Paul and Peter were martyred there. The RCC concept of perpetual papal sovereignty appears to be an anachronistic appeal to the historic honor of the Church at Rome combined with sporadic statements (many focused on Peter, rather than his successors) by various popes and church fathers through the centuries. No consistent historical support for a universal papacy can be found in the records of the church fathers. Jesus, Peter & the Keys: A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy, by Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, and Rev. Mr.David Hess (Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Publishing, 1996) makes a valiant attempt to defend the papacy from Scripture and tradition, but it fails to convince that 1) Jesus promised unique powers and privileges to Peter’s successors, and 2) that those successors consistently exercised such powers in Church history. The Orthodox more accurately acknowledge that there was a time in history that the Church and Bishop of Rome were granted a “primacy of honor.”

[13] Early responses to Dominus Iesus from representatives of several ecclesiastical traditions can be found in Pro Ecclesia, Volume X, No. 1 (2001), 5-16. For additional insights on ecclesiology, see Timothy George, “Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology,” in Catholics and Evangelicals: Do They Share a Common Future? (Thomas P. Raush, ed., Mahwah, NJ: California Province of the Society of Jesus, 2000), 122-144.

Copyright © 2007 by Michael A. Field – All rights reserved

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Responses to Evangelical Exodus


A note from the faculty of Southern Evangelical Seminary:

Norman Geisler and all the rest of the faculty here have consistently made the point in their teaching and writing that there is no connection between Thomistic metaphysics, which we teach, and Roman Catholic theology, which we reject.

SES has set up a resource page on to help anyone who would like to learn more on the topic. This resource page includes articles, research, and even a free set of classroom lectures from Dr. Geisler’s Roman Catholicism course he taught for SES last year.


For additional resources by Dr. Geisler on Roman Catholicism, please visit

Why I’m not a Roman Catholic (MP3)

Why I’m not a Roman Catholic (MP3 audio file)

by Dr. Norman L. Geisler

Copyright 1994 – Norman Geisler – All rights reserved

45 minutes in length



Partial Transcript:

Why I’m not a Roman Catholic

by Dr. Norman L. Geisler

This is approaching October 31st, which is Reformation Sunday. The whole Catholic-Evangelical issue has been a controversy in the news recently with the publishing of the Colson-Neuhaus statement on Catholics and Evangelicals Together. This is the second of a two part series. The first I did in the previous hour; it was titled What Roman Catholics Believe. And this one is titled Why I’m not a Roman Catholic. I really should have been! I should have been because my father was and normally when your father is, you are too. In fact, almost all my relatives on both sides are Roman Catholic. I have over a hundred first cousins so that makes a lot of relatives. In fact I went to two Catholic schools—two Jesuit schools. I did my Master’s work at the University of Detroit and my doctoral work at Loyola University. My favorite philosopher and theologian of all time is a Roman Catholic theologian—Thomas Aquinas. I should have been a Roman Catholic. But I’m not. Why?

I like to divide my comments into two categories. There are many reasons why I never became a Roman Catholic to begin with. And there are many reasons why I continue to not to be one in the present.

There are a lot of evangelicals who have jumped camp and become Roman Catholics. Neuhaus is a recent example. He was a Lutheran who became Catholic. Peter Kreeft is another example. He from Calvin College became a Catholic. [Thomas] Howard from Gordon Seminary is another example. When I look at the reasons for which people are becoming Roman Catholic I find them inadequate. For example, let me tell you why my father left the Roman Catholic Church before I was ever born. He was reared German Catholic . . . very faithful and attending church . . . St. Clement’s Parish north of Detroit, Michigan. My father was very faithful in helping to build the church. . . a very devout catholic family. He fell in love with a Protestant and wanted to marry her. He went to his priest and the priest said, “You cannot do that. That is against the teaching of the Catholic Church.” Deeply in love with my mother, he decided to leave the Catholic Church because he didn’t feel that [this teaching] was right. Incidentally, history has proven my father right because the Catholic Church has changed its position since then. [Note: Norm did not mention here that the Priest tried to get his father to pay him a 500$ bribe to make it happen. Norm mentioned that in an interview at another time.]

I remember sitting on an airplane once and next to me was a gentleman who had a little card. It was Friday and we were eating steak. I looked mine; I looked at his. He was a Roman Catholic and he was eating steak. I said, “Now you’re a Roman Catholic so how can you eat that?” The card said for purposes of flights on airplanes he had a special dispensation that allowed him to eat meat on Friday rather than fish. I said to him, “You know there really is no difference whether you’re several feet above the ground or on the ground, is there?” And I tucked that away because just previous to that at the University of Detroit one of my top philosophy professors said, “I do not believe the Pope is infallible when he talks about dietary matters like whether we should eat fish on Friday or not.” And as we all know, the Roman Catholics changed on that. But I was taught that the Roman Catholic Church never changes. They changed on fish. They changed on mixed marriage. They changed on whether the mass should be in Latin or not. They changed on some of the issues that kept my father from being a Roman Catholic.

Secondly I saw nothing in the lives of my Roman Catholic relatives that was appealing to me. All of them lived an unsaved life just like I did. Oh they would go to confession on Saturday but they would swear and curse just like I did. Oh they would go to Mass on Sunday but on Saturday night when the family got together they would get drunk just like everyone else in the family got drunk.  I saw nothing in any life of any Catholic I knew—and I knew a lot of them because almost all my relatives and friends were Catholic—which made me want to become one. No change whatsoever.

At the same time, at age nine, since my parents did not take me to church a little Sunday school bus came and picked us up. The boy down the road had asked me to go to Vacation Bible School, I had said yes, and they said, “Why don’t you come back for the same thing on Sundays?” And then I began to see a difference. I began to see a belief system that made a difference in peoples’ lives. These people loved me. These people lived consistent lives. They practiced what they preached. These people prayed for me. These people picked me up in that little school bus 400 times before I became a Christian at age seventeen. I only remember two things: they loved me and they were happy. It made a difference in their life and they were concerned about me as a result. And at age seventeen I committed my life to Jesus Christ in this little Bible Church at ten mile and brown road north of Detroit, Michigan. And then I started to study the Bible. For the next five years I studied the Bible full time, day and night.

I went to Detroit Bible College (now William Tyndale College) and I studied the Bible. I studied the Bible for myself and I saw nothing in it that would make me want to become a Roman Catholic. In fact it was contrary to what I knew about Roman Catholicism and it resonated in my own heart and with what I believed to be true. I studied the Bible and saw no support for any unique Catholic doctrine. And then, after I was through, I decided I wanted to take another look—a closer look—[at the Catholic question].

I wanted to go right to the top and study it at a Roman Catholic institution. And so for the next five or six years I went almost full time to two Jesuit institutions. I studied Roman Catholicism from the sharpest philosophers and teachers that Roman Catholicism has—the Jesuits, the great defenders of the Papacy. I did my Master’s work in the University of Detroit. I wrote my Master’s thesis in a Catholic seminary—Maryknoll Fathers near Wheaton, Illinois, on a Catholic philosopher—Thomas Aquinas. I went on to do my doctoral work at a Roman Catholic university—Loyola University of Chicago, one of the best Catholic schools in the entire United States. In all of the exposure I had to Catholicism on the popular level with my relatives and on an intellectual level with the top, I never once was tempted to become a Roman Catholic because I never once saw any good reason why anyone should.

But that’s not really the reason that I am not a Roman Catholic; that’s just the reason I never became one even though I should have been. . . I never saw anything that changed someone’s life.  I never saw anything comparable to what I had that I learned in that little Bible Church north of Detroit and the Bible school I attended.

There are many reasons, however, why I remain a Protestant and why I don’t become a Roman Catholic.

One of these reasons involves looking at the reasons people give for becoming Roman Catholic—like Howard, Kreeft, and Neuhaus. I see several fallacies with their reasoning. One [reason] seems to be an aesthetical reason—having to do with beauty. It’s a beautiful institution. If you’re into pomp and circumstance, if you’re into ritual, it is hard to find a system that is more beautiful and ritualistic than the Roman Catholic system. I’ve seen many people attracted to Rome because of its beauty. But of course beauty is not a test for truth. There are very beautiful people who are unsaved. There are very ugly people who are Christians. Which one has the truth? There are some very ugly buildings—I’ve been in mud huts in the middle of the jungle with the Jivaro headhunters in South America where they take your head and shrink it to the size of a grapefruit—and I’ve worshiped with them in their mud huts, but you know I’ve seen the beauty of holiness there. You don’t judge truth by beauty. If you judge truth by beauty, you might be a Buddhist because Buddhism is a very beautiful religion. The gold statues of the Buddha, the pomp and circumstances, they rival if not excel the Roman Catholic Church in ritual and beauty. They’ve got monks. They have colored robes. It’s a beautiful religion. Many are attracted to Roman Catholicism for its beauty but they fail to realize that beauty is not a test for truth.

Other people are being attracted for historical reasons.  It’s an old institution that goes way back—they claim all the way back to the beginning, to the first bishop of Rome who they think was Peter. It is certainly an old institution. It has a history to it. But that’s not a good reason for becoming a Roman Catholic. After all, the Eastern Orthodox Church is just as old as the Roman Catholic Church; in fact it is older. . .

[Incomplete transcription. To be continued later. Reached minute 11:23 of 44:48.]



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Irenaeus on Scripture and Tradition

Irenaeus on Scripture and Tradition

by Dr. Norman L. Geisler


Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 200) is an important figure in the early Church. He was the Bishop of Lyons, France who heard Polycarp (the disciple of the apostle John) when he was a boy. He was thought to be a native of Smyrna who studied at Rome. He was the first great Father in the West. His major work was titled Against Heresies.

His View of Scripture

Irenaeus stood soundly on the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of Scripture. He also held to its inerrancy. Further, he is an important testimony to the authorship and dates of the Gospels.

On the Authority of Scripture

The Scriptures are said to have divine authority for they are called “divine Scriptures” (AH 2.35.4; 3.19.2). The Bible is called “the ground and pillar of our faith” (AH 3.1.1). It is “the Scripture of truth” as opposed to the “spurious writings” of heretics (1.20.1). For “…all Scripture, which has been given to us by God, shall be found by us perfectly consistent” (AH 2.28.3). He affirms that “…even the Gentiles present perceived that the Scriptures had been interpreted by the inspiration of God” (AH 3.21.2). Indeed, the apostle Paul’s words came from “the impetus of the Spirit within him” (AH 3.6.7).

On the Inerrancy of Scripture

Irenaeus declares that “the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit” (AH 2.28.2). They are also said to be “divine” (from God), and God cannot err (Rom. 3:4; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). They are called “the Scripture of truth” as opposed to the “spurious writings” of heretics (1.20.1). The fact that “all Scripture, which has been given to us by God” is further evidence of their inerrancy, since God cannot err (AH 2.28.3). Likewise, the fact that they are “found by us perfectly consistent” bespeaks of their flawless character. Indeed, Irenaeus speaks of the authors of Scripture as “the apostles, likewise, being disciples of the truth, are above all falsehood” in what they taught (3.5.1). They Gospels, written by the apostles, are based on the words of our Lord. And “our Lord, therefore, being the truth, did not speak lies” (AH 3.5.1)

On the Authenticity of the Gospels

Irenaeus held the traditional authorship of the Gospels were the contemporary eyewitness apostles and disciples whose names they bear. He speaks of “the Gospel of truth” (AH 3.11.9) that were written by the true apostles. He wrote: “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundation of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.” Further, “Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John the disciple of the Lord…did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia” (AH .3.1.1). Irenaeus exhorts, “let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel” (ibid.). He speaks also of the certainty we have of the Gospel which we would not have were it not for the apostles. “For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings” (AH 3.4.1). Hence, “these [four] Gospels alone are true and reliable, and admit neither an increase nor diminuition of the aforesaid number, I have proved by so many and such arguments” (AH 3.11.9).

The Transmission of the Truth of Scriptures

Irenaeus offers two main arguments for the accuracy of the transmission of biblical truth. First, the translations are accurate. Second, the interpretation is the same as that of the apostles and associates who produced them with whom we have an unbroken historical connection.

The Accuracy of the Copies.–Little is said on this point because little needed to be said. After all, the available copies were only about a hundred years after the New Testament was completed. Nonetheless, Irenaeus does make some comments about both Testaments.

As for the Old Testament, he bases his belief in the reliability of the translation on the widely believed story of the alleged miraculous origin of the Septuagint (LXX). It was supposedly produced by some 70 different translators, each working independently and yet producing identical translations from Hebrew to Greek.[1] He wrote, “For all of them read out of the common translation which they had prepared in the very same words and the very same names from beginning to end, so that even the Gentiles present perceived that the Scriptures had been interpreted by the inspiration of God” (AH 3.21.2). As unlikely as this story is, there is a core of truth contained, namely, abundant available manuscripts verify that the Old Testament has been accurately reproduced down through the centuries (see Geisler, General Introduction, Chap. 21), is that the Old Testament has been accurately copied down through the centuries.  

Irenaeus adds to this the argument that the text has not been corrupted because “the Scriptures have been interpreted with such fidelity, and the grace of God has prepared and formed again our faith towards His Son, and has preserved to us the unadulterated Scriptures in Egypt, where the house of Jacob flourished;…This interpretation[2] of these Scriptures was made prior to the Lord’s descent to earth, and came into being before the Christians appeared…–but Ptolemy was much earlier, under whom the Scriptures were interpreted” (AH 3.21.3). Irenaeus’s argument is similar to that of current Christian apologist who point out that Isaiah 53 is a messianic prediction about Christ, since even the Rabbis before the time of Christ understood it to be about the Messiah, not about a suffering nation (see Driver, FTCIAJI, Vol. 2).

As for the New Testament manuscripts available in the second century, Irenaeus based their authenticity on several factors. He wrote: “But our faith is steadfast, unfeigned, and the only true one, having clear proof from the Scriptures, which were interpreted [transmitted] in the way I have related; and the preaching of the Church is without interpolation.” This is evident because “…the apostles, since they are of more ancient date than all these heretics, agree with this aforesaid translation; and he translation harmonizes with the tradition of the apostles. For Peter, and John, and Matthew, and Paul, and the rest successively, as well as their followers, did set forth all prophetical announcements, just as the interpretation of the elders contain them” (AH 3.21.3). He adds, “For the one and the same Spirit of God, who proclaimed by the prophets what and of what sort the advent of the Lord should be, did by the elders give a just [right] interpretation of what had been truly prophesied” (AH 3.21.4). In short, the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures also guided the early Fathers in interpreting them.

On the Unbroken Chain of Transmission

Irenaeus refers to the links in this unbroken chain transmitting the apostolic understanding of the Gospel, namely, it came from John the apostle to Polycarp to Irenaeus who knew him. Indeed, he spoke of Polycarp as one “not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but also, by the apostles in Asia appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth…” (AH 3.3, 4). Irenaeus wrote: “But, again,… we refer them [heretics] to that tradition which originates from the apostles, and which is preserved by means of the successions of presbyters in the Churches” (AH 3.2.2). Indeed, Irenaeus refers to the “presbyters” as “the disciples of the apostles” (AH 5.35.2). For, “It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and to demonstrate the succession of these men to our own times” (AH 3.3.1).  Irenaeus added, “These things are borne witness to in writing by Papias, the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp [who was a disciple of the apostle John), in his fourth book” (AH 5.333.4).

On the Canonicity of Scripture

Irenaeus cites freely from every major section of the Old Testament and from most of the books. He also cites from more New Testament books than any other early writer (all but Philemon, James, 2Peter, and 3John). And he gives no reason to believe he rejected any of these; he simply had no occasion to quote from them, three of them being tiny one chapter books (Geisler, GIB, 193). Further, he chides heretics because they “adduce an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings” (1.22.1) as opposed to the authentic Scriptures.

On the Primacy of Scripture.

No one reading the apostolic and other early Fathers can’t help but be stuck by their extensive and authoritative use of Scripture. Just seven major Fathers from Justin Martyr to Eusebius cites 36, 289 verses from the New Testament–every verse but eleven (most of which are from 3 John). Irenaeus alone cites nearly 2000 verses (1819 to be exact) (see Leach, OBHGI, 35-36).

Further, the manner in which they are cited reveal the great respect shown to the Scriptures as the very written word of God. As we have already seen, Irenaeus believed that the very words of Scripture were God-given, perfect, and without error. It is the very ground and pillar of truth.

Other than a few scant references in early Fathers to the oral words of apostles confirming what is in their written word, which alone is God-breathed (2Tim. 3:16 cf. 2Peter 1:20-21; 3:15-16), the Bible is not only the primary source of divine authority cited; it is the only source. Hence, it is not simply a matter of the primacy of Scripture but the exclusivity of Scripture as the sole written, God-breathed authority from God. Indeed, Irenaeus criticizes heretics because “they gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures” (1.8.1). Likewise, he condemns them because they “adduce an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings” (1.22.1). In this sense, Irenaeus held to Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone)–one of the great principles of the later Reformation.

On the Perspicuity (Clarity) of Scripture

As J. N. D. Kelly notes, “Provided the Bible was taken as a whole, its teaching was self-evident” (ECD, 38). Only when heretics wrenched texts out of their proper context did the basic message seem confused. Of course, because the Bible is “spiritual in its entirety” it is not surprising that there are some obscurities (Kelly, ibid., 61). Nonetheless, the proper exegesis and aid of the Holy Spirit, the main message of the Bible is clear.

Irenaeus criticized those who “…accuse these Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and assert that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition” (3.2.1). This shows clearly that he not only believed in the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture but also the sufficiency of the literal hermeneutic, apart from tradition, to understand what the Scriptures are teaching.

Irenaeus recognized, of course, that as clear as the Scriptures are there are depraved minds which will not accept it. He said, “I shall for the benefit of those at least who do not bring a depraved mind to bear upon them, devote a special book to the Scriptures referred to…, and I shall plainly set forth from these divine Scriptures proofs to satisfy all t he lovers of truth” (AH 2.35.4)

On the Interpretation of Scripture

Following on the clarity of Scripture is the belief in a literal historical-grammatical hermeneutic which alone can yield this clear message. Irenaeus believed that proper interpretation yields a harmonious and unambiguous understanding of Scripture. He wrote: “A sound mind…will eagerly meditate upon those things which God has placed with the power of mankind…and will make advancement in them, rendering the knowledge of them easy to him by means of daily study” (AH 2.27.10). He added, “these things are such as fall plainly under our observation, and are clearly and unambiguously in express terms set forth in the Sacred Scriptures” (ibid.).

Irenaeus concludes: “Since, therefore, the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all, although all do not believe them,…those persons will seem truly foolish who blind their eyes to such clear demonstrations…” (ibid.).

As for difficult passages, “the parables shall be harmonized with those passages which are perfectly clear…” (ibid.). Hence, there is a proper and improper way to read a text. And “if, then, one does not attend to the proper reading of the passage…there shall be not only incongruities, but also, when reading, he will utter blasphemy…” (AH 3.7.2). While Irenaeus did not hesitate to offer “proofs [of] the truths of Scripture” he was quick to point out that “proofs of the things which are contained in the Scriptures cannot be shown except form the Scriptures themselves” (AH 3.12.9). That is, the Bible speaks best and most clearly for itself.

Referring of the New Jerusalem, Irenaeus speaks against the allegorical method of interpreting prophecy, saying, “nothing is capable of being allegorized, but all things are steadfast, and true, and substantial, having been made by God for righteous men’s enjoyment. For as it is God truly who raises up man, so also does man truly rise from the dead, and not allegorically, as I have shown repeatedly…. Then, when all things are made new, he shall truly dwell in the city of God” (AH 5.35.2).

As for Iraenaeus’ affirmation of the true exposition of the Scriptures is to be found in the church alone, the context indicates that he simply means that, as the repository of the true teaching that has come down from the apostles, the church alone, as opposed to heretics outside it, contains the true meaning of Scripture. This is clear from what he says in elaborating on this very point. For he wrote: “It behoves us to…adhere to those who, as I have already observed, do hold the doctrine of the apostles….” (AH 4.26.4). And, “it is also incumbent to hold in suspicion other who depart from the primitive succession…” (AH 4.26.2).

Likewise, Irenaeus places the correctness of his teaching this close link to the apostles, saying, “I have heard from a certain presbyter, who had heard it from those who had seen the apostles, and from their disciples, the punishment declared in Scripture was sufficient for the ancients in regard to what they did without the Spirit’s guidance” (4.27.1). Hence, “True knowledge is that which consists in the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the succession of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved, without an forging of Scripture, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor suffering curtailment in the truths which she believes; and it consists in reading the word of God without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures…; and above all it consists in the pre-eminent gift of love…” (AH 4.33.8, emphasis added).

It is evident from the emphasized words in the foregoing quote that the correct interpretation of Scripture is found by: 1) reading a text in its proper context; 2) in harmony with other Scripture; 3) as the apostles meant it; 4) and as it is expressed in the apostolic doctrines; 5) which is known to us by historical links with the apostles.

Thus, the succession of elders in the church were to be followed not because of any special divine revelatory authority that rest in them but because known historical link to the apostles gives validity to their claim to be offering a correct interpretation of what the apostles taught.

On the Canonicity of Scripture

Because the basis of the New Testament revelation is the authority of the apostles–both what they had originally proclaimed orally and later committed to writing (AH 3.1.1)–“it was not simply church custom but apostolicity, i..e., the fact that they had been composed by apostles and followers of the apostles” that was the basis for discovering their canonicity (Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 38).

Not only does Irenaeus cite every New Testament writer as an apostle of accredited mouthpiece for God (like an associate of an apostle), but he cites from the vast majority of the twenty seven New Testament books. The same is true of the Old Testament. So, there is no reason to believe he rejects any one of the sixty six canonical books of Scripture. As for the so-called apocryphal books of the Old Testament later accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, there is no definitive evidence that Irenaeus believed they were inspired. Of the 14 apocryphal books (11 of which are accepted as inspired by the Roman Catholic Church), only two are alluded to by Irenaeus: 1) History of Susana ( AH 4. 26.2) that is quoted but not used as a divine authority to establish any doctrine. 2) The other book, Wisdom ( AH 2.18.9) is only a possible allusion, not a quotation or an authoritative citation at all. This in contrast to 1819 citations from a vast array of Old Testament books and 23 of the 27 books of the New Testament.

On the alleged citations of the Old Testament Apocrypha by Irenaeus and other early Fathers, the canonical authority Roger Beckwith notes:

When one examines the passages in the early Fathers which are supposed to establish the canonicity of the Apocrypha, one finds that some of them are taken from the alternative Greek text of Ezra (1Esdras) or from additions or appendicies to Daniel, Jeremiah or some other canonical book, which …are not really relevant; that others of them are not quotations from the Apocrypha at all; and that, of those which are, many do not give any indication that the book is regarded as Scripture (Beckwith, OTCNTC, 194, 382-383).

His View on Tradition

In defense of his orthodox interpretation of Scripture, Irenaeus appealed to several arguments. First, the correct means of interpretation of Scripture is used. This entails several factors: taking their words in their literal sense and the over-all theme of Scripture (see below). Second, the presence of the Holy Spirit is in the Church to guide it to correct interpretation (AH 3.21.4). Indeed, the Church is viewed as the home of the Holy Spirit who through its Spirit-endowed men who vouchsafed the truth of the Gospel (AH 4.26.2, 5).

Third, he refers to and unbroken chain of Bishops going back to the apostles to verify it was the correct interpretation (AH 3.2.2).

Finally, in connection with this later argument was Irenaeus’s belief that there was a living oral tradition housed in the Church which attests to the true apostolic interpretation of Scripture.

The Nature of Tradition

According to J.N.D. Kelly, not authority on the early Fathers, “Scripture and the Church’s living tradition [are viewed] as co-ordinate channels of this apostolic testimony….” (Kelly, ECD, 35-36). In contrast to Gnosticism, Irenaeus held this tradition to be public. It emanated from the apostles and them alone who were the sole authority on the matter (AH 3.1.1). He contended also, that regardless of differences in language and expression “the force of the tradition” communicated by the apostles was one and the same (AH, 1.10.2; 5.20.1).

The Locus of the Tradition

Unlike Papias who could refer to personal reminiscences of the apostles (Kelly, ECD, 37), Irenaeus believed in “the tradition from the apostles” which he said was available in the Church for all who care to look for it (AH, 3.4.2-5), having been faithfully “preserved by means of the succession of Presbyters in the Churches….” (AH 3.2.2) He also pointed to Barbarian tribes whom he believed had it in unwritten form (AH, 3.4.1). For all practical purposes this tradition could be found in what he called “the canon of truth,” Kelly calls a “condensed summary, fluid in its wording but fixed in content, setting out the key points of the Christian revelation in the form of a rule” (ECD, 37). Irenaeus makes numerous allusions to this body of truth (AH, 1.10.1, 22.1; 5.20.1 etc.).

The Relation of Scripture and Tradition

While some infer that Irenaeus exalted tradition alongside of, or ever over, Scripture, Kelley rejects this for several reasons. First, this only appears to be the case, since in his controversy with the Gnostics Irenaeus appealed to apostolic tradition as the proper way to interpret the Bible. Second, “the Gnostic’ appeal to their supposed secret traditions forced him to stress the superiority of the Church’s public tradition, [yet] his real defense of orthodoxy was founded on Scripture” (Kelly, ECD, 38-39, emphasis added). Third, “tradition itself, on his view, was confirmed by Scripture, which was `the foundation and pillar of our faith’ [3.1.1] (ibid., 39, emphasis added). Fourth, even the “canon of truth” which converts supposedly received at baptism used to help preserve orthodoxy was itself based on Scripture. Finally, Kelly said that Irenaeus believed that “Scripture and the Church’s unwritten tradition are identical in content” (ibid., 39, emphasis added). Kelly adds, “If tradition as conveyed in the “canon” is a more trustworthy guide, this is not because it comprises truths other than those revealed in Scripture, but because the true tenor of the apostolic message is there unambiguously set out” (ibid.)

Further, considering the overall context of Irenaeus’ polemic againt the Gnostics, who were misinterpreting Scripture, it is understandable that Irenaeus would stress the value of valid tradition supporting the orthodoxy of his anti-Gnostic views.

On the Apostolicity of the Church

It is evident form repeated statement by Irenaeus that the final authority for the church rests in the teachings of the apostles, not in any one apostle. Even the founding of the Church at Rome was said to be by two apostles, Paul and Peter (AH .3.1.1). Irenaeus repeated speaks of “the apostolic tradition” (AH 3.3.2) and “the blessed apostles” who “founded and built up the Church” (3.3.3), “the doctrine of the apostles (AH 3.12.4), and “the tradition from the apostles” (AH 3.5.1). He wrote: “these [apostles] are the voices of the Church form which every Church had its origin...; these are the voices of the apostles; these are the voices of the disciples of the Lord, the truly perfect, who after the assumption of the Lord, were perfected by the Spirit…” (AH 3.12.4, emphasis added) For “He [God] sent forth His own apostles in the spirit of truth, and not in that of error, He did the very same also in the case of the prophets” (AH 4.35.2)

On the Unity of the Church

Irenaeus strongly stressed the unity of the Christian Church. As just shown, most often this is in connection with its central apostolic doctrines over against heretical views which denies some fundamental tenet of the Faith.

He spoke repeatedly against schisms, once declaring of “A spiritual disciple” that “He shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ….” He then adds, “For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism” (AH 4.33.7).

On the Authority of the Church

A good deal of controversy revolves around a disputed text in Against Heresies, Book Three. Irenaeus refers to “that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also by pointing out the faith preached to men, which comes down to our times by means of the succession of the bishops.” For “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree [Latin, Convenire] with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolic tradition has been preserved continuously by those faithful men who exist everywhere” (AH 3.3.2, emphasis added).

Interpretation favoring the Primacy of Rome.–Kelly sets for the dispute in these words: “If convenire here means “agree with” and principalitas refers to the Roman primacy (in whatever sense), the gist of the sentence may be taken to be that Christians of every other church are required, in view of its special position of leadership, to fall in line with the Roman church, inasmuch as the authentic apostolic tradition is always preserved by the faithful who are everywhere” (Kelly, ECD, 193).

Interpretation not Favoring the Primacy of Rome.–Many scholars have found fault with this translations for two reasons. First, the weakness of the final clause has struck them as “intolerable” (ibid.). Second, “the normal meaning of convenire is “resort to”, “foregather at”, and necesse est does not easily bear the sense of “ought” (ibid.) Indeed, the editor of the Apostolic Fathers in the The Ante-Nicene Fathers, A. Cleveland Coxe, cites one candid Roman Catholic scholar who translates is it as follows: “For to this Church, on account of more potent principality, it is necessary that every Church (that is, those who are on every side faithful) resort; in which Church ever, by those who are on every side, has been preserved that tradition which is from the apostles” (ANF, 1.415). Coxe adds, “Here it is obvious that the faith was kept at Rome, by those who resort there from all quarters. She was a mirror of the Catholic World, owing her orthodoxy to them; not the Sun, dispensing her own light to others, but the glass bringing their rays into focus” (ibid.). This is in direct contrast to the proclamation of Pope Pius IX who “informed his Bishops, at the late Council, that they were not called to bear their testimony, but to hear his infallible decree” (ibid., 461). In short, what Irenaeus meant was that Rome is the center of orthodoxy since she, by virtue of being the capitol of the empire, was the respository of all catholic tradition-–‘all this has been turned upside down by modern Romanism” (ibid.)

Kelly concurs, observing that many scholars “…have judged it more plausible to take Irenaeus’ point as being that the Roman church [of that day] supplies an ideal illustration for the reason that, in view of its being placed in the imperial city, representatives of all the different churches necessarily (i.e., inevitably) flock to it, so that there is some guarantee that the faith taught there faithfully reflects the apostolic tradition” (ibid., 193).

It is noteworthy that the apostles did not appoint more apostles to replace them after Pentecost where they became the “foundation” of the Church, Christ being the chief cornerstone (Eph,. 2:20). Rather, they appointed “elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). Irenaeus himself speaks of “the disciples of the apostles” as “presbyters” (elders) (AH 5.35.2). He wrote: “… we refer them [heretics] to that tradition which originates from the apostles, and which is preserved by means of the successions of presbyters in the Churches” (AH 3.2.2).

Irenaeus seemed to believe that each church has a single Bishop over it, speaking of Polycarp as “bishop of Smyrna” (cf. AH 3.3.4) and a line of bishops in Rome beginning with Linus (AH 3.3.3). However, this is in contrast to the New Testament which is clear that every local church had its own “bishops and deacons” (cf. Phil. 1:1; Acts 14:13).[3] And it was they whose leadership was to be followed by their congregations (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24), not any ecclesiastical authority in Rome. For Christ, the Chief Shepherd, was the invisible Head of the visible church. For He walked among them and rebuked them for not recognizing His Headship (cf. Rev. 1-3).[4]


While the non-Catholic interpretation of Irenaeus seems preferable for the many reasons given, the outcome of this issue is not definitive for the debate about the alleged primacy of Rome. For if the former view is correct, it simply shows an earlier statement of what later developed into what came to be known as Roman Catholicism. If so, this would not be surprising for a couple reasons. For one thing, the beginning of false doctrine, even on the primacy of the episcopacy, was nearly a century before this time. John the apostle spoke of it in his third epistle when he warned: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us” (3Jn. 9). Further, Irenaeus was over a century after most apostles had died–the very time that even apocryphal Gospels were emerging. Indeed, he is writing sometime after the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (c. 140). So, there was plenty of time for false views to emerge, even among those who were otherwise orthodox. What is more, considering the attacks on Christianity at the time, there was strong motivation to develop an ecclesiology that would provide a united front against the divergent heretical groups emerging at the time, which is reflected in Irenaeus’ emerging episcopal view of church government. Finally, there is no evidence Irenaeus favored the Roma Catholic view of the primacy of Peter. And even if he favored the primacy of Rome as the center of Christianity, he does not support the later Roman Catholic pronouncements on the infallibility of the Pope. His constant appeal was to the original “apostles” (plural) as the God-established authority. Peter was not singled out by him as superior to others. He, at best, was only a co-founder of the church at Rome along with Paul. He was in fact on the same level as Paul and the other “apostles” to whom Irenaeus repeatedly refers. Furthermore, his stress on the primacy of Scripture as the final written authority of the Christian Faith demonstrate that all ecclesiastic authority is based on Scripture, not the reverse. Finally, his stress on the sufficiency on the Holy Spirit and the proper mode of interpretation as sufficient to understand the Scripture denies the later Roman Catholic view that the church in an organizational authoritative sense is necessary to interpret Scripture.

Other Doctrines

Other doctrines of interest included his view on anthropology, human responsibility, and eschatology.

On Anthropology

Irenaeus strongly defended creation ex nihilo over against Greek and Gnostic views of ex deo and ex materia.

He also believed in a dualistic view of human nature. While united to the body in this life, the soul survives death and is immortal. Human’s a conscious between death and resurrection, but are not made complete again until they are reunited with their bodies.

On Human Responsibility

On the question of human free will, Irenaeus stood in the long tradition of those who maintained the self-determining nature of free choice. Irenaeus wrote, “Those persons, therefore, who have apostatized from the light given by the Father, and transgressed the law of liberty, have done so through their own fault, since they have been created free agents, and possessed of power over themselves” (AH 4.39.3).

On Redemption

Along with his orthodox views on the death and resurrection of Christ for our sins, Irenaeus is the author of the so-called “Recapitulation” theory of the atonement. According to this view, the fully divine Christ became fully man in order o sum up all humanity in Himself. So, what was lost through the disobedience of the First Adam, was restored through the Second Adam (Christ) who went through all the stages of human life, resisted all temptation, died, and rose victoriously over the Devil (AH 5.21.1).


Irenaeus said, “With regard to those (the Marcionites) who alleged that Paul alone knew the truth, and that to him the mystery was manifested by revelation, let Paul himself convict them, when he says, that one and the same God wrought in Peter for the apostolate of the circumcision, and in himself for the Gentiles [Gal. 2:8]” (AH 3.13.1). Likewise, his companion Luke knew what Paul taught. And he told Ephesians he told them the whole council of God (Acts 20). The Church is spiritual seed of Abraham (5.34.1, 3).

On Eschatology

Along with most other early Fathers, Irenaeus was premillennial (5.32.1-2; 33:1; 5.35.1-2). The millennium begins with the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4-6). Of this Irenaeus said, “John, therefore, did distinctly foresee the `first resurrection of the just.’ and the inheritance in the kingdom of the earth” (AH 5.36.3). According to George Peters, other premillennial early Fathers included Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Hermas, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Melito, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian (Peters, TK 1.451). Irenaeus also believed in the literal fulfillment of the unconditional land promise to Abraham and His descendants (5.32.2).

The Conscious Survival of the Soul

Irenaeus believed that the soul consciously survives death and lives on immortally in the next world (AH 5.31.1). Here the soul of believers awaits the resurrection when it will be reunited with the body forever in a perfect state. Unbelievers will be banished from the presence of God in a place of punishment (call Hell) forever.

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End Notes

[1] Justin Martyr had this same view (To the Greeks, 13), as did St. Augustine after this time (see City of God).

[2] The word “interpreted” includes the idea of translated, since one must interpret a text correctly in order to properly translate it.

[3] Indeed, bishop and elder were used interchangeably in the New Testament (cf. Titus 1:5, 7), the former being the term Greeks used or leaders and the later which Hebrews used. Indeed, the qualifications are the same for both; the duties are the same; there was a plurality of both in even small churches (cf. Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1). Thus Irenaeus, writing over a hundred years after the apostles, is reflecting an emerging episcopal form of government not found in the New Testament.

[4] See N. L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Vol. 4, Chap. 4.


Beckwith, Roger. The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986).

Behr, John. “Irenaeus and the Word of God” in Studia Patristica 36 (2001)

Driver, S.R. and Ad. Neubauer, The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah According to Jewish      Interpreters (Oxford: James Parker and Co., 1877). Vol. 2.

Jacobsen, Anders-Christian. “The Philosophical Argument in the Teaching on the Resurrection of the Flesh” in Studia Patristica 36 (2001).

Geisler, Norman and William E. Nix. General Introduction to the Bible, revised (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986).

Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrine (NY: Harper and Row, 1960).

Leach, Charles. Our Bible: How We Got It ) (Chicago: Moody, 1897).

Morris, Richard. “Irenaeus” in Historical Handbook of Major Interpreters (IVP, 1998).

Osborn, Eric F. “Reason and The Rule of Faith in the Second Century” in Making of Orthodoxy (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Peters, George. The Theocratic Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1952 (originally published in 1884).

Tiessen, Terrance. “Gnosticism and Heresy: the Response of Irenaeus” in Hellenization Revisited      (Lanham, MD, University Press of America, 1994)

Dr. Geisler is the author of Should Old Aquinas Be Forgotten? Many Say Yes but the Author Says No. (Bastion Books:2013), What Augustine Says (Bastion Books:2013), Is the Pope Infallible: A Look at the Evidence (Bastion Books:2012), Is Rome the True Church? A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim (Crossway Books:2008), and Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Baker Academic:1995). For additional resources by Dr. Geisler on Roman Catholicism, please visit

An Evaluation of John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine

An Evaluation of John Henry Newman’s

Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine 

by Dr. Norman L. Geisler



            More properly this evaluation should be titled A Defense of the Roman Catholic Claim to be the one true Church with Explanation of the Changing Doctrines and Practices of Rome throughout the Centuries in Terms of the Development of Doctrine.  Newman’s essay (titled An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine) is one of the most famous defenses of Roman Catholicism by one of its most noted convertsIn our response, we have organized the materially systematically and quoted from it extensively, using the 1845 edition (Pelican Books, 1974). 

The Stated Purpose of Newman’s Essay

Newman wrote: “The following Essay is directed towards a solution of the difficulty which has been stated—the difficulty which lies in the way of using testimony of our most natural informant concerning the doctrine and worship of Christianity, viz., the history of eighteen hundred years” (90). That is, “that the increase and expansion of the Christian creed and ritual, and the variations which have attended the process in the case of individual writers and churches, are the necessary attendants on any philosophy or polity which takes possession of the intellect and the heart and has had any wide or extended dominion; that, from the nature of the human mind, time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas; and that the highest and most wonderful truths, though communicated to the world once for all by inspired teachers could not be comprehended all at once by the recipients, but, as received and transmitted by minds not inspired and through media which were human, have required only the longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation.  This may be called the Theory of Development” (90).

The Logic of the Argument

  1. Roman Catholic Doctrine as known today is “…the historical and logical continuation of the body of doctrine…in every preceding century successively till we come to the first. Whether it be a corrupt development or a legitimate, conducted on sound logic or fallacious, the present so-called Catholic religion is the successor, the representative, and the heir of the religion of the so-called Catholic Church of primitive times” (240).

            Response:  First, a historic continuity of the early and present Roman Catholic churches is acknowledged.  However, this proves nothing as such because, as admitted, it may be a corruption of the original doctrine. Second, this assumes without justification that the original doctrine was correct.  But, as will be shown below, the original two sources view (Scripture and Tradition) is not correct.  For a parallel example, the present US government is the historic descendant of the first one.  However, many decisions of the Supreme Court are directly contrary to the First Amendment of the Constitution as envisioned by its framers.

For instance, the framers did not intend it to enact a separation of Church and State and never even used the terms.  The First Amendment says simply “Congress [the Federal Government] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Nor did the Federal Government forbid the States from having their own State religions which five of the 13 colonies had at the time and were never required to disestablish.  But the current Supreme Court following the Everson ruling in 1947 declared: “The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another…. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.’”  Clearly there is a historical continuity between early and current America, yet there is a doctrinal discontinuity on some important matters.  So, it is with the earlier and later Roman Church (as shown below).

  1.   “…the doctrines of which the present Catholic religion consist are prima facie the correct, true, faithful, legitimate development of the doctrines which preceded them, and not their corruption” (240.)   No “case can be made out against that religion, to prove that it is materially corrupt, and not in its substance Apostolic” (240).  So, “It appears then that there has been a certain general type of Christianity in every age, by which it is known at first sight…. And it appears that this type has remained entire from first to last, in spite of the process of development which seems to be attributed by all parties, for good or bad, to the doctrines, rites, and usages in which Christianity consists; or, in other words, that the changes which have taken place in Christianity have not been such as to destroy that type…” (335).

Response: This premise is challenged on two grounds.  First, even if Catholicism was an uncorrupted development of the original idea, Catholicism would not be true, if the original idea was false.  It would just be a logical development of a false idea.  Second, as will be shown below, there was significant doctrinal corruption between earlier and later Catholicism.

  1. The tests to determine whether development or corruption of the ideas occurred include:

(A.) Preservation of the Basic Idea (122).

“It was said, then, that a true development retains the essential idea of the subject from which it has proceeded, and a corruption loses it (241). This parallels the development of a living organism from conception to maturity (241).  “An empire or a religion may have many changes: but when we speak of its development, we consider it to be fulfilling, not to be belying its destiny” (122).  “A popular leader may go through a variety of professions, he may court parties and break with them, he may contradict himself in words, and undo his own measures, yet there may be a steady fulfillment of certain objects, or adherence to certain plain doctrines, which impress upon beholders, not his scrupulousness, but his sincerity and consistency” (123).

Response: There are several problems with this test.  First, the starting premise of the “basic idea” behind Christian doctrine can be challenged.  Protestants take it to be sola Scripture (see below) and Roman Catholics believe it is Scripture plus Tradition, that is, as interpreted by the Roman Catholic teaching Magisterium.  The development of these different basic ideas will bring about different results.

Second, one can question whether the analogy between the development of a doctrine and the development of a living organism is a proper analogy.  There are, after all, some significant differences between the two: one is living and one is dead.  But Newman’s whole thesis and conclusion depends on the appropriateness of this challengeable analogy (see below).   Even Newman himself claims a heresy is like a living organism.  He wrote: “The church is a kingdom; a heresy is a family rather than a kingdom; and as a family continually divides and sends out branches, founding new houses…” (275).

 (B.) Continuity of the Principles (124).

“Doctrines expand variously according to the mind, individual or social, into which they are received; and the peculiarities of the recipient are the regulating power, the law, the organization, or, as it may be called, the form of the development.  The life of doctrines may be said to consist in the law or principle which they embody” (124).

“Principles are abstract and general, doctrines relate to facts; doctrines develop, and principles do not” (127).  “Principles are popularly said to develop when they are but exemplified; thus the various sects of Protestantism, unconnected  as they are with each other, are called development of the principle of Private Judgment, of which really they are applications and results” (129).

“Doctrine without its correspondent principle remains barren, if not lifeless, of which the Greek Church seems an instance” (129).   “Pagans may have, heretics cannot have, the same principles as Catholics…. Principle is a better test of heresy than doctrine” (129) “The doctrines of heresy are accidents and soon run to an end; its principles are everlasting” (129).

Response: Non-Roman Catholics acknowledge a doctrinal continuity between original and later Catholicism without accepting Catholicism.  For example, Protestants agree with Catholics on the dogmas of the first four ecumenical councils and Eastern Orthodox agrees on the first seven councils.  The basic idea could have been preserved in these earlier councils, as it has been noted: “One Bible, two Testaments, Three Creeds, and Four centuries” is the common core of most forms of Christianity.  Since Catholicism embraces these as well, it too has a doctrinal continuity with earlier Christianity.  However, this does not as such support the Catholic claim to be the true Church.

(C.) The Power of Assimilation (130). 

“In the physical world whatever has life is characterized by growth, so that in no respect to grow is to cease to live.  It grows by taking into its own substance external materials; and this absorption or assimilation is completed when the materials appropriated come to belong to it or enter into its unity” (130).  “Thus, a power of development is a proof of life, not only in its essay, but in its success; for a mere formula either does not expand or is shattered in expanding.  A living idea becomes many, yet remains one.  The attempt at development shows the presence of a principle, and its success the presence of an idea.  Principles stimulate thought, and an idea keeps it together” (131).

Response:  As mentioned above, this is dependent on the alleged validity of the analogy of Roman Catholicism’s development with a living organism.   But this is a questionable analogy.  Ideas are not living entities and do not “assimilate” the way a living organism does.  Further, since this is based on the first two tests and is a continuation of them, it is subject to the same criticisms of these two tests (see above). Finally, even if this principle was valid, it would only demonstrate that ideas develop in a certain way; it would not prove that the original ideas were true.

 (D.) Early Anticipation of Aspects of the Idea (133).

“When an idea is living, that is influential and operative in the minds of recipients, it is sure to develop according to the principles on which they are formed; instances of such a process, though vague and isolated, may occur from the very first, though a lapse of time be necessary to bring it to perfection.  And since developments are in great measure only aspects of the idea from which they come, and all of them are natural consequences of it, it is often a matter of accident in what order they are carried out in individual minds; and it is in no wise strange that here and there definite specimens should very early occur, which in the historical course are not found till a late day…. Nothing is more common, for instance, than accounts or legends of the anticipations, which great men have in boyhood of the bent of their minds, as afterwards displayed in their history” (133-134).

Response:  This test shows indication of being devised in advance to help explain a severe difficulty in Catholicism, namely, that many of its doctrines have no real root in the Bible or in the early church.  Indeed, many of them are late in origin.  Hence, positing that faintness and lateness can be explained by comparison with a living organism is suspect.  This is particularly true when later ideas (doctrines) of Rome are in conflict with earlier ones.  This is most evident in the contradictory “infallible” pronouncements of Rome regarding ex cathedra declarations (see Popes below).

Further, Newman’s concept of slow development is countered by admitting the supernatural confirmation of God’s revelation.  He wrote: “But this progress of events, vague and uncertain as it seemed to be, notwithstanding the miracles which attended it, has been directed by Him who works out gradually what He has determined absolutely” (161).  But what could be greater than the original revelation as supernaturally confirmed by God.  How does time outweigh the Transcendent?

(E.) Logical Sequence of the Idea (136). 

“Though it is a matter of accident in what order or degree developments of a common idea which show themselves…, yet on a large field they will on the whole be gradual and orderly, nay, in logical sequence” (which may not be a conscious process) (136). “Afterwards, however, this logical character which the whole wears becomes a test that the process has been a true development, not a perversion or corruption from its naturalness” (137).  “Again, the doctrine of the Sacraments leads to the doctrine of Justification; Justification to Original sin; Original sin to the merit of Celibacy” (199). “The Mass and Real Presence are parts of one; the veneration of Saints and their relics are part of one; their intercessory power, and the Purgatorial State, and again the Mass and that State are correlative…. You must accept the whole or reject the whole; rejection does but enfeeble, and amputation mutilate: (199).  “Moreover, since the doctrines all together make up the integral religion, it follows that the several evidences which respectively support those doctrines belong to the whole, and are available in the defense of any” (199).

Response:  To the degree that ideas have logical consequences, this point is true.  However, it does not show that the later doctrines are true anymore than the earlier ones.  For instance, prayers for the dead may help lead to the idea of Purgatory, but this does not prove that either idea is true; it may merely show a logical connection between two false ideas.  Furthermore, it is a stretch to see the alleged connection between earlier and later doctrines.  For example, Newman held that belief of Christ’s resurrection in flesh leads to doctrines of the Real Presence, Virginity of Mary, and her Mother of God (378).  But this is a stretch, to say nothing of the fact that the original doctrine (of the Real Presence) may be challenged (see “Does the NT Support the Roman Catholic View of Communion?”).

(F.) Preservative Addition (141). 

“As developments which are preceded by definite indications have a fair presumption in their favour, so those which do but contract and reverse the course of doctrine which has been developed before them, and out of which they spring, are certainly corrupt; for a corruption is a development in that very stage in which it ceases to illustrate” (141).  The development is gradual.  However, “…so great a paradox cannot be maintained as that truth literally leads to falsehood” (142).  But “True religion is the summit and perfection of false religion; it combines in one whatever there is of good and true separately remaining in each.  And in like manner the Catholic Creed is for the most part the combination of separate truths, which heretics have divided among themselves, and err is dividing” (143).  “And thus a sixth test of a true development is its being an addition which is conservative of what has gone before it” (144).

Response: Within proper limits, this is a valid principle, but it may be questioned whether later Catholicism is the proper and logical development of what has gone before. This is particularly true when some later practices contradict the earlier doctrines.  Such practices are not conservative, but contradictory, of what has gone before.  Even Newman recognized that this is precisely the Protestant criticism of Catholicism.  He spoke of Roman Catholics as being “…accused of substituting another Gospel for the primitive Creed” (144).  When Catholics point out that they are as faithful as anyone to the original creeds, Neman recognized the Protestant rebuttal that Catholics “…obscure and virtually annul them by their additions; thus the cultus of St. Mary and the Saints is no development of the truth, but a corruption, because it draws away the mind and heart from Christ” (144).  The Catholic response to this is weak and unsatisfactory, as is its response to the charge that Purgatory (see below) diminishes the all sufficiency of the death of Christ (Jn. 19:30; Heb.1:3; 10:11-14).

Newman critiques Islam for revoking previous revelations in view of later contradictory ones, pointing to their principle of abrogation which he claims revoked about 150 of Muhammed’s previous revelations (143).  But this is a more credible way to deal with the problem than Newton’s Essay which attempts to show there is a progress in Dogma wherein later formulations (which in some cases are contrary to earlier ones) are accepted and the previous ones rejected. How can this be true if the earlier one was infallible (see Pope below).

(G.) Chronic Continuance of the Idea (144).

“Since corruption of an idea, as far as its appearance goes, is a sort of accident or affection of its development…it is as has been observed, a brief and rapid process…. Corruption cannot, therefore be of long standing; and thus duration is another test of a faithful development” (145). “The course of heresies is always short.  It has a “’transitory character’” (147).  “If Christianity is a fact…and impresses an idea of itself on our minds, that idea will in course of time develop in a series of ideas connected and harmonious with one another, and unchangeable and complete, as is the external fact itself which is thus represented” (148).  “And the more claim an idea has to be considered living, the more various will be its aspects; and the more social and political is its nature, the more complicated and subtle will be its developments, and the longer and more eventful will be its course.  Such is Christianity” (148).  Newman adds, “Hence, all bodies of Christianity develop the doctrines of Scripture” (150).

Response:  This test is false as stated.  For it is simply not true that “Corruption cannot, therefore be of long standing; and thus duration is another test of a faithful development” (145).  Even Newman admits that Islam—a false religion—is an apparent counter example. He said, Islam has “…a living idea somewhere in that religion, which has been so strong, so wide, so lasting a bond of union in the history of the world” (131).  Yet he said elsewhere that “A corruption is of brief duration, runs itself out quickly, and ends in death” (442).

Further, Arianism was a widespread and long enduring heresy.  At one time it encompassed much of the Christian Church.   It is still alive in the Jehovah’s Witness cult. Likewise, not all forms of Christianity “developed” the doctrine of Scripture in the way Roman Catholicism has.  For other than drawing logically necessary conclusions from Scriptural premises, as in the Trinity and Incarnation, Protestants believe that the perspicuity (clearness of the central message) of Scripture as interpreted by the historical-grammatical method (see below), there is no Catholic-like “development” of Scripture in biblical Protestantism.

 4. When applied to the Catholic Church, these principles show that it is a development, not a corruption, of the original Idea. 

Newman’s conclusion from his premises is:

“It appears then that there has been a certain general type of Christianity in every age, by which it is known at first sight…. And it appears that this type has remained entire from first to last, in spite of the process of development which seems to be attributed by all parties, for good or bad, to the doctrines, rites, and usages in which Christianity consists; or, in other words, that the changes which have taken place in Christianity have not been such as to destroy that type…” (335).

            Response:  First of all, the conclusion is no better than the premise.  A chain is no better than its weakest link.  And the foregoing discussion shows the weakness of Newman’s premises.  At best, even if the basic premises of development versus corruption are correct, it would show no more than Roman Catholicism in its present form is a natural outworking of the core idea which is Scripture plus Catholic interpreted Tradition plus time yields current Roman Catholicism.  This leads us to examine this core premise more carefully.

Second, Newman frankly admits that his view is only a theory: “it will be said that all this is a theory. Certainly it is…. “Then he adds quickly, “…[but] all depends on the strength of that presumption.”  Of course it does, and that is the point.  If Newman’s basic idea (of Scripture plus tradition as interpreted by Rome) is accepted, then to no one’s surprise, one can make a convincing case the current Roman Catholic Church is the developmental result of its long history from the seminal beginning.  Then Newman adds a negative argument, namely,               “Supposing there be otherwise good reasons for saying Papal Supremacy is part of Christianity, there is nothing in the early history of the Church to contradict it” (212).  But neither is there anything that really supports it either.  In fact, as we shall see, there is much to contradict it.

Third, Newman’s stress on the necessity of faith to accept the system and explanations of Catholicism is a key to understanding how otherwise intelligent and thinking persons can accept a view with such incredible beliefs as Transubstantiation and the Infallibility of the Pope.  He claims that faith is preferred to reason in making a decision about a religious system (242f.).  He said that “Men were not obliged to wait for proof before believing” (346).  Then he attempts to justify this conclusion by citing Aquinas and Augustine out of context (348) and by neglecting clear passages to the contrary.  For example, Augustine said, “No one indeed believes anything unless he has first thought that it is to be believed.  For… it is yet necessary that everything which is believed should be believed after thought had led the way” (On Predestination of the Saints, 5).  However, “faith” in a “theory” as big and boasting as is Catholicism (which claims to be the only true religion) and which holds teaching so contrary to experience and reason (e.g., transubstantiation) needs careful scrutiny before one makes the leap of faith into it.


Newman’s Rejection of Sola Scriptura 

Of course, accepting the Catholic starting point means rejecting sola Scripture. Many arguments against the Protestant principle of the Bible alone are offered by Newman.  However, all of them fail to dethrone the doctrine. Let’s examine them carefully.

1) He rejects sola Scripture saying,

“It may be objected that inspired documents, such as the Holy Scriptures, at once determine its doctrine without further trouble.  But they were intended to create an idea, and that idea is not in the sacred text, but in the mind of the reader” (149).  But that idea is complete and accurate and only “…comes to perfection in the course of time” (149).

Response: this argument begs the question by assuming that the Bible is not sufficient in itself to convey a central message.  Rather, he believes that its purpose is “…to create an idea, and that idea is not in the sacred text.”  But the Bible as a revelation of God’s true in itself and not merely an instrument to create an idea in our minds.

Furthermore, the idea conveyed by the sacred text does not have to wait for centuries to come to perfection.  “The Law of the Lord is perfect” (Psa. 19:7).  And when that idea is conveyed to our minds by the Holy Spirit enlightening them to God’s truth, neither centuries of development nor a teaching Magisterium is necessary to do the Holy Spirit’s work for Him.

Newman’s attempt to counter this misses the point.  He wrote, “Nor is the case altered by supposing that inspiration did for the first recipients of the Revelation what the Divine Fiat did for herbs and plants in the beginning, which were created in maturity.  Still, the time at length came, when its recipients ceased to be inspired; and on these recipients  the truth would fall, as in other cases, at first vaguely and generally, and would afterwards be completed by development” (149). However, any distortions that occur after a perfect and mature revelation are given are irrelevant to the point which is that God gave a complete and clear understandable revelation in the Bible

2)  Newman claimed that important theological questions like “the intermediate state between death and Resurrection” are not answered in Scripture but imply a later development (153).

Response: The Bible tells us all we need to know about the intermediate state.  It is found in many verses like these: “it is far better to depart and to be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23); “Absent from the body, present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8); “Today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43); ”We must all appear before he judgment seat of Christ that each one may receive a reward for what was done in the body” (2 Cor. 5:10 cf. Mat. 17:2-3; Rev. 6:9).  As for the rest, “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but to us and to our children the things that are revealed” (Deut. 29:29).

3)  Newman claims that doctrines like the duty to worship and that the day of worship is Sunday are not revealed in the Bible.  Thus, without the Catholic Church’s “development” of the original deposit of revelation in the Bible and the Catholic teaching Magisterium interpreting this, we would not know on which day to worship.

Response:  Not everything in the Bible is taught by direct command.  Some things are taught by principle and example.  As for Church attendance, Hebrews 10:25 exhorts us “Do not neglect to meet together.”  And Jesus set the example for meeting on Sunday by rising from the dead on Sunday (Mat. 28:1), by appearing to his disciples on Sunday (Jn. 20:1), by sending the Holy Spirit to baptize the disciples into the body of Christ on Sunday (Acts 2:1).  Following this example, the early disciples met “on the first day of the week they gathered together to break bread” (Act 20:7).  And Paul exhorted the Corinthians, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside” to give to the Lord (1 Cor. 16:2).  This is sufficient for faith and practice on this matter.  No pronouncements by a teaching Magisterium are necessary.

4) Newman argued that

“The Bible does not answer basic questions like how we got “the Canon of Scripture.“  That is, “unless we suppose a new revelation, from the revelation we have, that is by development [deduction]” (151).

Response: A new revelation is not necessary to establish the canon.  All that is necessary is, as the Westminster Confession states, that everything we need is “…either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequences may be deduced from Scripture” (I, VI).  The Bible speaks of the Old Testament canon in “the Law and the Prophets” (Lk. 24:27) and in the Jewish “Scripture” (2 Tim. 3:15-16).  The epistles speak of the Gospels as “Scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18).  Peter speaks of Paul’s epistles as “Scripture” (2 Pet 3:15-16), and by “good and necessary consequences” we deduce that the other New Testament books written by apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20) were also Scripture (see Geisler, From God to Us in

Even Newman admits elsewhere that one does not need an infallible writer to confirm an infallible writing.  And he acknowledges that even though “the Apostles were made infallible” in their inspired writings, “yet we are only morally certain that they were infallible” (170).  Similarly, we can be morally certain about the canon of Scripture by the Bible’s claim for itself and as confirmed by the early Fathers’ citations from the canon.

Further, contrary to Catholic claim, the Church did not determine the canon of Scripture; God determined it by inspiring the canonical book.  The Church merely discovered the books that God had determined to be canonical by noting the earmarks of inspiration such as, was it written by a prophet of God?  Was he confirmed to be a prophet of God by miracles (Heb. 2:3-4) or other means? Did it tell the truth about God in accordance with other prophetic writings?  If so, then these were collected by the people of God (cf. Duet 31:24-25; Dan. 9:1; Zech. 7:12;   2 Pet. 3:15-16).

All the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments were eventually recognized by the Early Fathers as part of the canon of Scripture by citations, translations, and official listings (see From God to Us, chaps 6-10). By the time of Irenaeus in c. A.D. 180 (who knew Papias the disciple of John the apostle) all the New Testament books (except the tiny one chapter book of 3rd John) were recognized as canonical.  Only a few years later (c. A.D. 200) even 3rd John was cited as canonical.  By the time of the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) the Christian Church in general had recognized the entire canon of Scripture, including the 27 books of the New Testament as inspired of God and rightfully in the canon of Scripture.  For a discussion of The Old Testament Apocrypha see below.

5) Newman claimed that only the Church can properly interpret the Bible.  

“We are told that God has spoken.  Where?  In a book?  We have tried it, and it disappoints; it disappoints, that most holy and blessed gift, not from fault of its own, but because it is used for a purpose for which it was not given.  The Ethiopian’s reply, when St. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading (Acts 8:34), is the voice of nature: ‘How can I unless some man guide me?’  The Church undertakes that office; she does what none else can do, and this is the secret of the power” (175).

Response: This does not deny the Protestant principle of the perspicuity which holds only that the main message of the Bible is clear, not every particular detail.  The Ethiopian Eunuch was: a) only one man, b) reading one text.  He did not represent a failure of believers in general to understand the central message of the Bible in general.  Further, the Ethiopian was a new convert who had not yet heard about Jesus, his death and resurrection for our sins (1 Cor. 15:1-4).  There is every indication that once he heard the Gospel that he had no difficulty understanding it.  Indeed, once the Ethiopian heard about Jesus he understood the message and wanted to obey him in baptism immediately (Acts 8:35-38) without the help of an ecclesiastical authority.

6) The Claim of Need for Absolute Authority. “The absolute need of spiritual supremacy is at present the strongest argument in favour of its supply” (177). “The only general persuasive in matters of conduct is authority; that is when truth is in question, a judgement which we consider superior to our own” (177).  While there are many conflicting authorities, “The question is, which of all these theories is the simplest, the most natural, the most persuasive.

Response: There are several problems with this argument.  First, the need for something does not guarantee it will be obtained; it merely shows that it is needed.  Thirsty people need water and hungry people need food, but still many die of hunger and thirst.  Second, Newman does not demonstrate (but merely posits, but does not prove, that absolute authority is a need).  Indeed, he admits elsewhere that infallibility does not need an infallible argument to support it (169).  Finally, he assumes a questionable hypothesis that the “simplest” explanation is the best.  This is sometimes called “Ockham’s Razor,” but Ockham did not say this. He said “Don’t multiply causes without necessity.”  The true explanation may not always be the simplest one.

Newman’s Argument for a Mystical Interpretation of Scripture

Hand in hand with the rejection of sola Scriptura is Newman’s rejection of the sufficiency of the historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture.  There is a good reason for this because once a sufficiency of knowing God’s Word (that is adequate for faith and practice) is no longer found in the Bible and its historical-grammatical interpretation, one must find a source elsewhere.  Newman finds this in the teaching Magisterium (see Pope below) and in a mystical interpretation of the Bible.

Catholicism Can’t be established by Scripture Alone. 

Newman argued that the Catholic Faith can’t be proven from Scripture alone without using a mystical interpretation.  He wrote,

“Nor am I aware that Post-tridentine writers deny that the whole Catholic faith may be proved from Scripture, though they would certainly maintain that it is not to be found on the surface of it, nor in such sense that it may be gained from Scripture without the aid of Tradition.  And this has been the doctrine of all ages of the Church, as is shown by the disinclination of her teachers to confine themselves to mere literal interpretation of Scripture.  Her most subtle and powerful method of proof, whether in ancient or modern times, is the mystical sense, which I so frequently used in doctrinal controversy as on many occasions to supersede any other” [e.g., Mal. 1 is used by Trent to support the Sacrifice of the Mass] (339).

Response: This is an incredible admission. He admits “…the disinclination of her (the Church’s) teachers to confine themselves to mere literal interpretation of Scripture” (339, emphasis mine).  This is a confession that they cannot establish the truth of Catholicism from the Bible alone using the normal method of interpretation.  He adds, “Her most subtle and powerful method of proof… is the mystical sense, which is so frequently used in doctrinal controversy as on many occasions to supersede any other” For example, Malachi 1 is used by the Council of Trent to support the Sacrifice of the Mass (339).  But the inability of the mystical method to be anchored in the objective text of divine Scripture, along with the inability to provide an objective criteria by which to guide one’s understanding of Scripture, is sufficient evidence to show the inadequacy of Rome’s “most powerful method” of establishing its unique but aberrant doctrines.

2) The Bible is not Self-Interpreting

Newman argues that the Bible is not self-interpreting. He wrote:

“The whole Bible, not its prophetical portions only, is written on the principle of development” (156).  “But this progress of events, vague and uncertain as it seemed to be, notwithstanding the miracles which attended it, has been directed by Him who works out gradually what He has determined absolutely” (161).

Response:  First of all, pointing to fulfilled prophecy is not a good example of Newman’s principle of development which demands more than the Bible to understand the Bible.  For using the Bible to understand the Bible is not contrary to sola Scripture; it is an example of sola Scriptura at work.  For literal predictions of Christ’s first coming found literal fulfillment in the New Testament, whether it was the place of his birth in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), the manner of his birth by a virgin (Isa. 7:14), the manner of his death (Isa. 53), or his resurrection (Psa. 16:10 cf. Acts 2:27-31), or numerous other literal predictions and literal fulfillment (cf. Isa. 61:1-2 cf. Lk. 4:16-21).

Second, Newman’s passing reference of miracles to confirm a message from God (“notwithstanding the miracles which attendee it”) is evidence against his view.  For if a clear revelation is accompanied by a literal divine confirmation) what need is there of a further gradual development before one can understand it.

Third, if one carried this logic out consistently, then there would be need of a further “development” of divine confirmation for that and so on, ad infinitum.  And if one agrees the process can be stopped, then why not stop it with God’s supernatural revelation as confirmed by miracles.  In this case there is no reason to add an infallible interpreter for God’s infallible Word.  For Newman argued that there is no need of infallible proof for the doctrine of infallibility (169).  If moral certainty is sufficient in this case, then why not in the case of miracles confirming a revelation from God.


Newman’s Arguments for an Infallible Authority (Pope)

            Not only do Roman Catholics insist the Bible is not sufficient for faith and practice, but they insist there must be an infallible authority (Pope) to interpret the Bible.  Indeed, as retroactive as it is and as arrogant as it seems, Newman claims later Pope are in a better position than the earlier Fathers to know what they meant.  He wrote: “Rome knows the meaning of the Fathers better than they did.”  So, the “testimony of all the Fathers, supposing such a case, would not have a feather’s weight against a decision of the Pope in Council…” (227). The reasons given for the infallibility of the Pope include the following:

1)  There must be an infallible authority to adjudicate the conflict between all the sects and heresies.  Newman claims that “The Church is everywhere, but it is one; sects are everywhere, but they are many, independent, and discordant” (275).  What is necessary to counter this disunity?  According to Newman, “Councils and Popes are the guardians and instruments of the dogmatic principle; they are not that principle themselves; they presuppose the principle; they are summoned into action at the call of the principle…” (359).  “In a thousand instances of a minor character, the statements of the early Fathers, are but tokens of the multiplicity of openings which the mind of the Church was making into the treasure-house of Truth” (360). “The doctrinal determinations and the ecclesiastical usages of the middle ages are the true fulfillment of its self-willed and abortive attempts at precipitating the growth of the Church” (362).  “Doctrine too is percolated, as it were, through different minds, beginning with writers of inferior authority in the Church, and issuing at length in the enunciation of her Doctors” (363).

Response:  An infallible authority is not necessary to discern between truth and error, just as clear understanding of truth.  Jesus said to the Father, “Your Word is truth” (Jn. 17:17).  The Bible is more than sufficient for that task.  It is certainly a lot better than the hundreds and thousands of conflicting statements of the Fathers and even some flat contradictions in the alleged infallible Councils of the later Church (see Popes below).  As for confirmation of the essentials doctrines, there are the Creeds of the first few centuries of the Church.  With the infallible Scriptures and its historical grammatical interpretation and confirmation by the ministerial guidance of the Fathers and Creeds, there is no need for a Magisterial function of a Pope. In fact, history has demonstrated that with the anti-Popes, heretical Popes, and contradictory papal pronouncements, the so-called infallible Magisterium has not proven to be very effective (see Popes below).

2)   Newman claimed:

“No Church can do without its Pope.  We see before our eyes the centralizing process by which the See of St Peter became the Head of Christendom” (213).

“To this must be added the general probability…that all true developments of doctrine and usage which have been permitted [is] in favour of the existence, in some quarter, of an infallible authority in matters of faith” (213).

Response:  First, in the political realm, centralizing governments do not lead to better results but worse.  Rather than being an argument for an infallible authority, this centralizing tendency leads to a spiritual monarchy.  Further, there is no guarantee of its orthodoxy. Diverse independent authority is a better check-and-balance in preserving orthodoxy. Second, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Checks and balances are needed to preserve the integrity and orthodoxy of an institution. The scandalous conflicts between numerous anti-Popes strongly supports this conclusion.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1974 ed.) lists some 40 anti-popes.  Sometimes a third party (a Church Council) had to intervene and resolve the conflict between the Popes (see Council of Constance 1413-1418).

3) Newman claimed that basic doctrines cannot be truly understood without a period of doctrinal development. Even the name “Trinity” did not appear until the Third century (in Tertulliam) after it was revealed in the Bible.

Response: The truth of the Trinity was revealed in the first century revelation in the Bible, even though the term “Trinity” came later.  As the Westminster Confession declared (I, VI) that “The whole counsel of God…is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequences may be deduced from Scripture.”  For the Bible clearly teaches that (1) there is only one God (Deut. 6:4; 1 Cor. 8:1-6).  Further, (2) there are three Persons who are called God: Father Son, and Holy Spirit (Mat. 3:16-17; 28:18-20; 2 Cor. 12:13).  So, there is no need for a long doctrinal development to understand that: (3) there is One God who exists in three distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  All that is necessary is a logical deduction from the basic biblical truths to have the basic meaning of the Trinity.  Of course, the implications (significance) of the doctrine takes time and development, but the basic meaning is known immediately from the Biblical texts and necessary logical deductions.

The same is true of another great Christian doctrine:  the Incarnation of Christ.  Its meaning is taught clearly and simply in Scripture in two premises: 1) The Person of Christ has a human nature; He is a human being.  2) The same Person also has a divine nature; He is God. Now only one conclusion validly comes from these premises, namely, 3) The Person of Christ has both a divine nature and a human nature.  He is both God and man in one and the same Person.  So while plummeting the depths of the significance and implications of this doctrine takes time and involves a process, nonetheless, the meaning is clear from the Bible alone.  Thus it is with all basic salvation truths; they are known from the Bible alone without any infallible teaching authority.

This is not to say that there is no role for creeds or systematic theology.  There is.  It is only to say that the basic biblical propositions are clear and sufficient as a revelation of God.  They do not need years, even centuries, of development for their truth to be understood.  Later nuancing, systematization, and application are welcomed, but they are not necessary for discovering the basic truths of God’s revelation in Scripture.

As even Newman admits, many doctrines assumed to be apostolic were not actually formed until centuries later.  He wrote: “Certain doctrines come to us, professing to be Apostolic, and possessed of such high antiquity that, though we are able to assign a date of their formal establishment to the fourth, or fifth, or eighth, or thirteenth century, as it may happen, yet their substance may, for what appears, be coeval with the Apostles, and be expressed or implied in texts of Scripture” (192).   If the “formal establishment” was not until centuries later it is merely a “theory” (212) based on “faith” (242f.), then this allows Catholics to claim they were apostolic.


The Teaching Magisterium Rome (the Pope)

Did Jesus establish Peter as the first Pope, the first infallible interpreter of God’s infallible Word?  According to Rome, the infallible Scriptures need an infallible interpreter, and God chose Peter to be the first one.  The chief biblical text used to support this doctrine is Matthew 16:18-19: Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Other verses used by Rome are even less convincing (see Geisler, Is Rome the True Church?, Chap. 5).

Matthew 16:16-18 Does not Make Peter Alone the Basis of the Church

Despite Rome’s current claim, this text does not support their claim that Peter alone was given this Magisterial authority and that it was infallible.

Response:  First, Peter alone was not given the authority to bind and loose since all the disciples were given this authority only two chapters later (in Matt. 18:18).

Second, the church was not built on Peter alone but on “the apostles [plural] and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20).  Indeed, the names of all the apostles (not just Peter’s name) are inscribed on “the twelve foundations” of the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev. 21:14).

Third, even though Peter preached the sermons that opened the kingdom to the Jews (Acts 2) and the Gentiles (Acts 10), these were only one-time events.  Indeed, after the conversion of Paul (Acts 9), Paul becomes the dominant apostle through most of the rest of the book of Acts. Indeed, Peter fades into the background.  When the first big doctrinal dispute occurred, it was not Peter alone who made the decision, but “the apostles and elders” together (Acts 15:6, 22).  And James seemed to be the leader of the apostles since it was he who spoke last and summed up the decision (Acts 15:13, 19), saying, it is “my judgment.” Indeed, the New Testament speaks of “pillars” (plural) in the church (Gal. 2:9), not only one pillar.  Peter himself spoke of Christ as the chief “Cornerstone” of the church (1 Pet. 2:7).

Fourth, the authority in the early church was the “apostles” as a body, not a single individual.  Paul spoke of the church being built on them (Eph. 2:20; Rev.21:14) and they had the power to do its work (Mat. 18:18) in “the laying on of hands of the apostles” (Acts 8:18) to anoint others to do the work of building the church (Mat. 18:18; Acts 2:42), and in performing special confirming miracles (Acts 5:12; Heb. 2:3-4).

Fifth, with regard to Peter being the alleged Rock on which the Church was built, there is strong evidence to indicate that it was not a reference to Peter alone: (1) The term “rock” is in the  third person whereas Peter (“you”) is in the second person; (2) “Peter” is masculine singular” but “rock” is feminine singular; (3) “Peter” (petros) means little rock, but the Church was built on petra, the big Rock, Christ.  (4) No Catholic commentator gives Peter primacy in evil a few verses later because Jesus called him “Satan” (v. 23); (5) Peter himself refers to Christ as “the chief Cornerstone” (1 Pet 2:7); (6) Even some great Catholic commentators, like St. Augustine, affirm that the “Rock” is Christ; “’Upon this Rock’ which thou hast confessed…will I build My Church.’  I will build thee upon Myself, not Myself upon thee (Augustine Sermons on the NT), XXVI, p. 340 (in Schaff Vol. VI of Nicene and Ante-Fathers); (7) According to Catholic dogma of Vatican I, no dogma of the Church should be established apart from “the unanimous consent of the Fathers,” but even Catholic authorities (see Ludwig Ott, Sources of Catholic Dogma, 996) admits many early Fathers did not affirm the primacy of Peter.  Peter was only the little rock (petros) who confessed the big Rock (petra) on whom the Church of Christ was built.

Peter was not Given Infallibility in His Official Teaching

Not only was Peter never given the sole authority for defining faith and practice, neither he nor the apostles were given infallible authority to do this.  So, Newman’s claims for the infallibility of the Pope are groundless.  Indeed, even he recognizes some serious problems with Rome’s claim to infallibility.

First of all, he defines infallibility thus:  “When we say that a person is infallible, we mean no more than that what he says is always true, always to be believed, always to be done” (170).  But when we examine this more carefully, we discover that it is infallibility only when speaking ex cathedra, that is, “out of the chair” [of St. Peter].  And when we examine that, we find that there is no infallible way to determine when that is.  It is certainly not anytime he engages in teaching doctrine for even Newman admits there were heretical Pope’s.  He even names three, saying, “Three Popes, Liberius, Vigilius, Honorius, have left to posterity the burden of their defence” (15).  So, the Popes do not even have infallibility whenever they teach doctrine, but only when they do it while sitting in St. Peter’s chair.  However, there seems to be no real way to know when this is.  It certainly is not in the regular teachings and writings of the Pope.  At a minimum it probably has only been a couple times in the last two centuries, once pronouncing the Pope infallible (1870) and once declaring the Bodily Assumption of Mary (1950).  In between, the faithful must accept an authoritative but fallible Pope.

Second, neither can we say the Pope is infallible only when he sits in Council with the other Bishops for even then we run into two serious problems.  First of all, this contradicts an infallible dogma of the Church given at the First Vatican Council (in 1870) which declares that the Pope’s definitions are “irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church” whenever he is speaking ex cathedra.  That is, they do not need the council and consent of the Bishops. Second, this infallible statement itself is contradicted by the Council of Florence (1413-18) which declared (in Haec Sancta) that “this Council holds its power direct from Christ; Everyone, no matter his rank of office, even it be papal, is bound to obey it in whatever pertains to faith….”  Here we have an irresistible dogmatic force hitting an immovable dogmatic object!  In short, this is a flat and unequivocal contradiction of allegedly infallible pronouncements.

Newman admits, “It is possible for the Pope, even as Pope, and with his own assembly of counselors, or with General Council, to err in particular controversies of fact, which chiefly depend on human information and testimony” (174).  However, “whether it is possible for him to err or not, [he] is to be obeyed by all the faithful” (174).

Newman proposes a way out of this dilemma in his progress of dogma theory.  However, his position collapses upon careful scrutiny because of the contradictions of dogma with Scripture and of Dogma with Dogma.  Even the dogma of infallibility is questioned by Newman.  He wrote: “Again, it may be discussed whether infallibility is a principle or a doctrine of the Church of Rome, and dogmatism a principle or doctrine of Christianity” (127).  According to Newman, principles don’t change but dogmas do.  But herein is a dilemma of Rome.  If the infallibility of the Pope is only a dogma which can change, then how can it be infallible?.  One of the characteristics of infallibility is irreformability.  That is, what is infallible cannot change, and what changes is not infallible.  If, on the other hand, infallibility is a principle that cannot change, then they are left with no explanation of the contradiction between two infallible Church councils (the 16th and 20th).  The first (Council of Constance, 1413-1418) declared the Council could act apart from the Pope).  And the later (First Vatican Council, 1870) declared that the Pope could make infallible pronouncements apart from the Council.


The Doctrine of Development

According to Newman, the Doctrine of Development is “…the doctrines of which the present Catholic religion consist are prima facie the correct, true, faithful, legitimate development of the doctrines which preceded them, and not their corruption.”  He adds, no “case can be made out against that religion, to prove that it is materially corrupt, and not in its substance Apostolic” (240).  “If there are developments in Christianity, the doctrines propounded by successive Popes and Councils through so many ages, are they” (183).

Further, “We have no reason to suppose that there is so great a distinction of dispensation between ourselves and the first generation of Christians, as that they had a living infallible guidance, and we have not” (173).  We can argue “…on the analogy of Nature, and from the fact of Christianity.  Preservation is involved in the idea of creation… (173). “And, then, in addition, is the high antecedent probability that Providence would watch over His own work, and would direct and ratify those developments of doctrine which were inevitable” (193).

“From necessity, then of the case, from the history of all sects and parties in religion, and from the analogy and example of Scripture, we may fairly conclude that Christian doctrine admits of formal, legitimate, and true development, or of development contemplated by its Divine Author” (164).  “It has now been made probable that developments of Christianity were but natural, as time went on, and were to be expected; and that these natural and true developments, as being natural and true, we of course contemplated and taken into account by its Author, who in designing the work designed its legitimate results” (165).

“If the Christian doctrine, as originally taught , admits of true and important developments…this is a strong antecedent argument in favour of a provision in the Dispensation for putting a seal of authority upon these developments” (168). ”There are various revelations all over the earth, which do not carry with them the evidence of their divinity” (168).  “Thus developments of Christianity are proved to have been in contemplation of its Divine Author, by an argument parallel to that by which we infer intelligence in the system of the physical world [given by Butler]” (154), namely, “gaps” in the creeds, like gaps in nature, imply a Divine Author (154).  Likewise, earlier prophecies imply and expect later ones (155).  “But the whole Bible, not its prophetical portions only, is written on the principle of development” (156).  “But this progress of events, vague and uncertain as it seemed to be, notwithstanding the miracles which attended it, has been directed by Him who works out gradually what He has determined absolutely” (161).

Response:  First of all, Newman makes the same error that some divine design in nature theorist did.  It is called the “God-of-the-gap” fallacy.  For gaps as such do not prove divine intervention.  They simply show the lack of evidence.  Newman superimposed divine design on his human attempt to explain the widespread lack of evidence that all these major Catholic doctrines were found in seminal form from the very beginning—even if the evidence is lacking or contrary.

Second, of course, granted the Christian view of God’s providence, we can accept the idea that God will preserve the truth He has provided for the saints of all time.  However, serious question can be raised as to whether God granted a living infallible authority for the saints of all the ages.  Again, the analogy of nature breaks down.  Of course, God will provide for his creation now as he did in the past.  However, it is a giant step to assume that an infallible authority is like God’s provision for nature.

Third, there are in fact is good reasons to believe that God never intended to perpetuate a living infallible authority for the church on earth between the First and Second advents of Christ.  An infallible Bible is sufficient (see sola Scriptura above).  We don’t need an infallible interpreter of it.  Even Newman admits that a less than infallible authority is sufficient to establish an infallible authority (169).  Even so, a less than infallible guide is sufficient for understanding God’s infallible Word.  Likewise, if the Bible can be infallible without another infallible authority for it, then why is it necessary to have another authority after Christ even in the first century—let alone in the centuries to come.  Sola Scriptura plus the principle of the perspicuity of Scripture (dependent on the Historical-Grammatical interpretation) is sufficient for understanding the main message of the Bible.

Fourth, the evidence is lacking that Peter was a living infallible authority in the first century.  And if he was not, then there is no succession of infallible authorities after him.  There was not even a first link in the chain, to say nothing of an unbroken chain after Peter.  Consider the following:

(1) Peter made a serious mistake in “faith and practice,” and had to be rebuke by the Apostle Paul for it.  Paul wrote: “When Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him [Peter] to his face, because he stood condemned…. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the gospel…,” I rebuked them for their “hypocrisy” (Gal. 2:11-13).

(2) The doctrinal dispute was not settled by Peter, but by the whole group of “apostles and elders” (Acts 15:23).

(3)  The first opportunity Peter had to exercise his alleged infallible authority not to mislead the faithful in “faith of practice” he totally blew it so that Jesus had to say “Get behind me Satan” (Mat. 16:23). “Immediately after Peter had earned commendation by his acknowledgement of Jesus as the Messiah, the doctrine of the crucified Messiah was proposed to him and he rejected it.”  So if “…the Apostles had believed that the words ‘On this Rock I will build my church’ constituted Peter their infallible guide, the very first time they followed his guidance they would have been led to miserable error” (Salmon, Infallibility, 343).

Fifth, even according to Newman, “development” of doctrine cannot include contradictions (123).  Yet these two infallible pronouncements (from Councils 16 and 20) are contradictory.  The Council of Constance (1413-1418) declares flatly that the Council can make infallible pronouncements without consulting with the Pope.  And the First Vatican Council (1869-70) declared that the Pope can make infallible statements without consulting the Council of Bishops. Both of these cannot be true without violating the law of non-contradiction. The only way out of this dilemma is to deny the absolute truth of one or both infallible pronouncement.

Adding the Apocrypha to the Old Testament

            Roman Catholics accept eleven extra books not found in the Jewish (and Protestant) Bible (7 of which appear in the table of contents plus four small books appended, three in Daniel and one in Esther).  These are sometimes called Deutero-Canoncal (Second Canon) books.  These books were mostly written between 250 B.C. and the time of Christ.  Catholics accept these as divinely inspired books and Protestants do not, considering them of various degrees of value historically and devotionally (hence, they were sometimes read in services).  Although from the time of Augustine on these books were increasingly cited by some Church Fathers and even some local councils, they were not given an infallible status in the Old Testament canon by Catholics at the Council of Trent (in 1546).  In actual fact, this is a good example of the corruption of doctrine in Catholicism since: (1) Unlike most canonical books, there is no implicit or explicit claim in them for divine inspiration; (2) Judaism never accepted these books as inspired.  In fact, the first century Jewish historian lists the inspired books of the OT by name which excludes the Apocrypha(see Josephus, Against Apion 1.8); (3) Most of the early Church Fathers did not grant them canonical status; (4) The great Catholic biblical scholar and translator of the Latin Vulgate rejected this books as part of the canon; (5) Although Jesus cited  the vast majority of the Jewish Old Testament books as inspired, he never once quoted from an one of the eleven apocryphal books as inspired; (6) None of the apostles or writers of the New Testament ever cited any of these eleven books as inspired; (7) The Catholic official acceptance of these books (at Trent in 1546) was a sign of its doctrinal deterioration.  For they inconsistently rejected an Apocryphal book opposed to praying for the dead (2) [4] Esdras 7:105 and yet accepted an apocryphal book in favor of praying for the dead (2 Mac. 12:45-46). This tended to support several Catholic doctrines which were part of the corruption of Christianity which included prayers for the dead, Purgatory, the unfinished nature of the Atonement, and Indulgences.

Adding the Doctrine of Purgatory to the Bible

            Newman attempts to justify adding Purgatory to the list of biblical doctrines by several different argumentsFirst, he opines: “Thus we see how, as time went on, the doctrine of Purgatory was opened upon the apprehension of the Church, as a portion or form of Penance due for sins committed after Baptism” (417).  Of course, this assumes baptism actually washes way sins when the apostle declares baptism is not part of the Gospel (1 Cor. 1:17), but the Gospel alone is that by which we are saved (Rom. 1:16).

Second, he rationalizes that there are people too good for hell but not good enough for heaven:   “How Almighty God will deal with the mass of Christians, who are neither very bad nor very good, is a problem…; (418).  But the Bible speaks only of two categories of people; believers and unbelievers (Jn. 3:36), saved and lost (Lk. 19:10), sheep and goats (Mat. 25:32). Further, apart from the saving grace of God received by faith (Eph. 2:8-9), all men are evil and lost (Rom.3:10-23).  What is more, Christ died for all men and purged our sins on the cross (Heb.1:2) once and for all (Heb. 10:11-14).  His work was “finished” on the Cross (Jn. 19:30).

Third, Purgatory is necessary to account for “the universal and apparently apostolical practice of praying for the dead in Christ” (421), according to Newman.  However, the practice was not universal or apostolic, and the Bible says emphatically that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Rom. 8:1).  Finally, when we are saved, we are instantaneously made “a new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  So, we need not be further purified from our sins in order to qualify for heaven.

Fourth, other than text taken out of context (1 Cor. 3) which speak of rewards and loss of rewards (not of loss of heaven), Catholics have to resort to mystical (allegorical) interpretations of Scripture or adding books to the Bible to support their doctrine of Purgatory.  Thus 29 years after Luther spoke out against buying indulgences and praying for the dead in Purgatory, the Catholic Church officially and infallibly added 2 Maccabees to the Bible which declares: “Therefore, he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 ac.12:45 RSV).  While at the same time they rejected an Apocryphal book that forbid praying for the dead, saying, “No one shall ever pray for another on the day” (2 [4] Esdras 7:105).


Other Indications of Catholic Doctrinal Corruption

Contrary to Newman’s hypothesis, the facts support a doctrinal corruption, not a doctrinal development. By reading subsequent history back into prior history (207), Newman was able to argue that Catholic dogmas that were late in the appearance, often many centuries later, he attempted to counter the stark silence of the Bible and early Christian history by assuming they were there is implicit of seed form.  He said,  “For instance, it is  true, St. Ignatius is silent in his Epistles on the subject of the Pope’s

authority; but…such silence is not so difficult to account for as the Silence of Plutarch about Christianity itself, or Lucian about the Roman people” (208).  “And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgement of the doctrine of the Trinity till the fourth” (209).  The reason, he hypothesized, was that “The state of the most primitive Church did not well admit such universal sovereignty.  For that did consist of small bodies incoherently situated, and scattered about in very distant places, and consequently unfit to be modeled into one political society, or to be governed by one head” (210/211).

However, the evidence, much of which ironically Newman revealed, was exactly to the contrary of his speculations about development. Consider the following evidence. First, there is an acknowledged late date for the official ecumenical pronouncement of many crucial Catholic doctrines, with no orthodox acknowledgement of an earlier date for the doctrine:

1) Transubstantiation of the Communion Elements (1215)

2)  Prayers for the dead (and Purgatory) (1546)

3)  The Canonicity of the Apocrypha (1546)

4)  Worship of the Consecrated Communion Elements (1546)

5)  The Veneration of Mary (1546)

6)  The Immaculate Conception (1854)

7) The Infallibility of the Pope (1870)

8)  The Bodily Assumption of Mary (1950)

Second, in most cases there is scant, if any, evidence that the given aberrant view was held by even most, let alone, all orthodox Fathers long before these late dates.  Most Roman Catholic views emerged for unorthodoxy to orthodoxy by infallible pronouncement many centuries after the time of Christ.  In fact, many seem to violate Newman’s principle that error cannot give rise to truth.  For he declared that “…a development, to be faithful, must retain both the doctrine and the principle with which it started” (129).

Third, most of these later dogmas violate the Catholic principle annunciated infallibly by Trent that a dogma must have “the universal consent of the Fathers.” For many of these later dogmas did not even have a majority consent of the Fathers, let alone a universal consent or meet St. Vincent’s canon that orthodoxy is what is “believed everywhere, always, by all.”

Fourth, Newman frankly admits that many of the additions Rome made to Christianity were of Pagan origin (see next point).

Pagan Religions are the Source of Many Roman Doctrines and Practices

Newman acknowledged that “We are told in various ways by Eusebius, that Constantine, in order to recommend the new religion to the heathen, transferred into it the outward ornaments to which they had been accustomed in their own.”  This included, holy water, temples, holy days, sacerdotal vestments, images, incense, and candles.  These “are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the Church” (369).  “It [the Church] need not therefore because if the absurd use of the Greeks, to abolish our use which is so pious” (371). “The continuity of these various principled own to this day, and their operations, are two distinct guarantees that the theological conclusions to which they are subservient are, in accordance with the Divine Promise, true developments, and not corruption of the Revelation” (374).  He adds,  “There is in truth a certain virtue or grace in the Gospel which changes the quality of doctrines, opinions, usages, actions, and personal characters which become incorporated with it, and makes them right and acceptable to its Divine Author.… Thus outward rights, which are but worthless in themselves, lose their own character and become Sacraments under the gospel [e.g., circumcision becomes baptism]” (365).

Response: First of all, this is a surprising admission, one that fits the counter thesis that Rome contains a corruption, not merely a development of Christian truth.  In fact, his words need to be put in bold for they are self-condemning: These “…are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the Church” (369).  He adds, “It [the Church] need not therefore because if the absurd use if the Greeks, to abolish our use which is so pious.”  But how does adoption by the Church “sanctify” paganism?   How does the piety of the Church justify the absurdity of the Pagan teachings or practice (371).  Baptizing Paganism and giving it a Christian name does not somehow make it Christian.  The Gospel does not “change” a false doctrine into a true one, nor take pagan practices and “make them right.”

Second, this focuses one of the most serious charges that can be leveled against Roman Catholicism, namely, it sanctions idolatry and, as such, stands under the condemnation of Scripture.  This is does in several ways: (1) By the veneration (dulia) of saints, (2) by the veneration of (hyper-dulia) of Mary (3) by the veneration of images, (4) by prayers to saints, (5) by prayers to Mary, (6) by prayers for the dead, and (7) by the actual worship (latria) of the consecrated communion elements.

Communicating with the dead was a Pagan practice condemned in the Old Testament (Deut 18:11).  Making, not just worshipping, graven images was forbidden in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:4).  Likewise, prayer (a form of worship) was forbidden by Moses (Deut. 6:13) and Jesus when he commanded, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”  In vain Newman attempts to explain why early Christians were opposed to the use of an image as an object of worship.  He wrote, “In like manner Celsus objects that Christians did not ‘endure the sight of temples, altars, and statues;’ Porphyry, that ‘they blame the rites of worship, victims, and frankincense;’ the heathen disputant in Minucius asks, ‘Why have Christians no altars, no temples, no conspicuous images’ and ‘no sacrifices’” (366).  Newman’s response that only images and sacrifices to false gods were condemned; the true God can overcome false gods (367) is just another unconvincing Example of Catholicism capitulation to the Pagan culture around it.

Perhaps one of the most egregious examples of compromise was in the developing Mariolatry.  Prayers to Mary “the Mother of God” became part and parcel of the faithful Catholic’s devotional life.  Indeed, Newman acknowledges that “Her being the Mother of God is the source of all the extraordinary honours due to Mary” (441).  One of the most popular of all Catholic devotional guides, the Glories of Mary (1750), illustrates the excessive exuberance in devotion to Mary.  It affirms, for example, that: “The way of salvation is open to none otherwise   than through Mary” or “Many things are asked from God, and are not granted: they are asked of Mary, and are obtained” or “At the command of Mary all obey—even God”[!!!].  These prayers are repugnant, if not blasphemous.  It is not possible to so highly exalt a creature without withdrawing the heart from the Creator.

Newman’s theory of “development” is a beautiful theory, but it is ruined by a brutal gang of facts about the Paganism that was adopted by Catholicism.  It is clearly a corruption of biblical truth, not a true development of it.   In fact, there is a better model for understanding what Jaroslav Pelikan called The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (1959) in his excellent book on the topic.

A Package Deal: Evidence for One Part Supports the Whole: When Neman finds it difficult to support a given Catholic dogma, then he appeals to the evidence for another in a “Package deal” kind of reasoning.  He wrote: “One strong argument imparts cogency to collateral arguments which are in themselves weak” (199).

Of course, this can be true, if the “collateral” arguments are logically necessary.  But here again this is not the case with Newman’s argument. For often there is no logical connection between the two arguments.  For instance, just because there is evidence that canonical books were written by prophets of God, confirmed by acts of God, telling the truth about God, having life-transforming power of God, and received by the people of God, it does not follow that we should accept Apocryphal books into the canon which lack these characteristic.   Further, just because God graciously blessed Mary to give birth to the Messiah, it does not justify the veneration of Mary or praying to her.


A More Adequate Model of Roman Catholicism

A more appropriate model for understanding Roman Catholicism is an eclectic one which combines: (1) A basic Christian doctrinal core; (2) A Roman hierarchical structure; (3) A Jewish ritualistic form, and (4) Some Pagan idolatrous practices.  These different aspects vary in dominance from time to time and place to place, but they are all part of the total system.

(1) The basic doctrinal core (expressed in the early creeds and accepted by all major forms of Christianity) has not changed or “developed” by addition or subtraction from the original truth of the Incarnation and Trinity, regardless of later wording or nuancing.  And it is this doctrinal core which provides the Christian element in Catholicism.  It is the affirmation of all these essential doctrines that saves Roman Catholicism from being a “cult” which is designated as a religious group that denies one or more essential Christian doctrines (see Geisler, Conviction without Compromise, Part 1). However, the addition of the other three elements of Roman Catholicism has evolved down through the centuries and it has placed layers of distortion on the core Christian element.

(2) The Roman hierarchical structure, adopted from the dying Roman Empire has obscured, blurred, and at times contradicted the simplicity of the Gospel.  For example, the Episcopal authoritarian structure was not found in the biblical or later first century church.  It evolved from a first century (a) plurality of elders (=bishop) in a local church (cf. Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5, 7) to (b) a Bishop over the elders in a local church (in the second century) to (c) a Bishop over a group of churches (in the third century) to (d) the Bishop of Rome (Pope) over all the churches (in the fourth century).  As Newman admitted, “Here is assuredly abundant evidence of the nature of the unity, by which the Church of those ages was distinguished from the sects among which it lay.  It was a vast organized association, co-extensive with the Roman Empire, or rather overflowing it” (290).  While this may have been a “natural” development, it does not mean it was biblical one. The same is true of other doctrines like baptism and communion.

(3) The Jewish ritualistic form was a natural progression from the Old Testament priesthood, sacrifices, and ceremonies.  It was a legalist and typological progression from a Jewish heritage.  As Newman put it, “Their ranks and numbers were insensibly multiplied by the superstitions of the times, which introduced into the Church the splendid ceremonies of a Jewish or pagan temple; and a long train of priests, deacons, sub-deacons…to swell the pomp and harmony of religious worship” (287).  Thus, reality became lost in ritual and substance in symbols.  A form of godliness evolved but denying the power thereof.

(4)  Finally, along the way Pagan practices infiltrated the Church.  The temptation to imbibe the surrounding Pagan culture, as Newman admits, added new dimension to the corruption of Christianity.  This became manifest in the magical and sacramental interpretation of these symbols as time went on.  The idolatrous influence of Paganism became visible in the veneration of saints and images, and the exaltation of Mary.  Thus, salvation by grace alone through Christ alone, by faith alone became obscured by a system of works. Rome became an institution of salvation. Rather than obtaining a right standing with God by faith alone, it was mediated to the faithful a sacrament at a time through the institutionalized church.

Thus, pure, unadorned New Testament Christianity became encrusted and overlaid with layers of Romanism, Ritualism, and Paganism.  The simplicity of the Gospel became lost in the complexities of Catholicism.  It is this Pagan influence that properly earned the Church the title of “cultic.”  Indeed, by the time of Luther, the Church cried out for reformation.  Some since then have called for Restoration, believing that NT Christianity has been lost in Rome and needs a complete restoration.  To use Newman’s words, “When Roman Catholics are accused of substituting another Gospel for the primitive Creed, they answer that they hold, and can show that they hold, the doctrines of the Incarnation and Atonement, as firmly as any Protestant can state them.  To this it is replied that they do certainly profess them, but that they obscure and virtually annul them by their additions” (144).


Assuming “Private Judgment” is a basic the Protestant Principle

Newman argues that “Private Judgment” is the basic principle of Protestantism.  But he insists that this principle leads to sects and heresies.  Because without a unified authority, as in the Catholic Church, division and schism are inevitable (129).

However, the unified authority (In Rome) of the Catholic Church did not hinder the two biggest schisms the Catholic Church even has, the one with Eastern Orthodoxy (11th cent.) and the reformation (16th cent.).  Nor has the alleged unified authority in Rome settle the numerous divisions within Rome between Calvinists and Arminians, between Augustinians and Thomists, and myriads of Orders with opposing beliefs.  Indeed, the majority of Catholics do not agree with the Church’s stand on contraceptives, and many Catholics believe in abortion.

Further, the so-called “Private Judgment” is not a core belief of Protestants. For the individual is not the final authority, the Bible is—sola Scriptura.  And as for how the Bible is interpreted, apostolic guidance is provide.  This guidance is found in the unified statements on doctrine found in the Creeds of the first four centuries.  As for tradition, it offers guidance but is not infallible.  Essential to the idea of tradition is the concept of good history back to the apostles.  Jesus promised to give his apostles guidance by the Holy Spirit to understand Scripture.  This has been passed down to the Church historically.  But its function is ministerial not magisterial.  It is not centered in the Roman hierarchy but is dispensed to the body of the Church on earth generally.  Further, the means of interpreting Scripture is the historical-grammatical method.  So, the Bible alone is the final authority for non-Catholic believers as interpreted by the historical-grammatical method and guided by the early creeds.  The final authority is in Scripture so understood, not in the private judgment of individuals.

The Improbable use of Probability

Newman makes strange use of evidence.  He claims that “A collection of weak evidences makes up a strong evidence” (199).  This must be part of the “new” math.  Or else it is the old leaky bucket argument.  Adding up arguments that don’t hold much water don’t fill in the holes in the bucket.  Of course, adding up the number of witnesses (whose testimony is probable) can strengthen the argument, but this is not what Newman has here.  For some of the Catholic dogma has virtually no evidence of being apostolic such as the bodily assumption of Mary, her veneration, the infallibility of the Peter and successors, prayers to Mary, and the worship of the consecrated host

He also says that “The truth of our religion, like the truth of common matters, is to be judged by all the evidence taken together” (200).  This is true, providing that there is a reasonable probability for each piece of evidence.  However, this is not the situation with Newman’s argument for the Catholic Church being the one and only true church.  For many aspects crucial to the overall argument are not strong links.  And a chain is no stronger than its weakest link.  And, as we have shown, some of the links in the argument for the infallibility of Peter and his successors are weak links.

Newman’s Attack on Justification by Faith Alone

            He argued that “Few but will grant that Luther’s view of justification had never before been stated in words before his time” (150).  Perhaps Newman was reading too much Trent and not enough of St. Paul when he wrote: “But when does not work, yet believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5, Catholic NAB).  And “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9, Catholic NAB).  Or, perhaps did not know about the Angelic Doctor (Aquinas) who when commenting on these same verses, declared: “Men receive the hope of this salvation when they are justified from sin in the present…. But this salvation of grace is by faith in Christ…. According to Romans 11 (6); ‘If by grace it is not now by works; otherwise grace is no more grace.’ He follows with the reason why God saves man by faith without any preceding merits, that no man may glory in himself but refer all the glory to God” (Aquinas, Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, Magi Books, 1966, 95-96).

Contrast this with the infallible pronouncement of Trent that “If anyone shall say that the good works of the man justified are in such a way the gift of God that they are not also the good merits of him who is justified, or that the one justified by the good works…does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of eternal life (if he should die in grace), and also an increase in glory; let him be anathema” (Denzinger, Sources of Catholic Dogma, no. 842).

             Concluding Comments

            The crucial question can now be addressed: Is Roman Catholicism a true church with significant error.  Or, is it a false Church with significant truth.  In view of the forgoing discussion, it would seem that the former is the better description, at least if judged by the doctrines of the early Creeds which Rome clearly affirms.  Of course, if judged by reformation standards, it would be a false Church since it would thereby have denied justification by faith alone.  One thing seems clear, Rome is not the true church.  At best it is a true Church.  Spiritually, all believers are part of the true Church which is the body of Christ, even though organizationally we may belong to different visible manifestations of the true Church.

As Professor Merrill Tenney put it (in The Gospel of Belief, 248), “Unanimity means absolute concord of opinion within a given group of people.  Uniformity is complete similarity of organization or of ritual.  Union implies political affiliation without necessarily including individual agreement.  Unity requires oneness of inner heart and essential interest or a common life.”   So, when Jesus prayed that we “all may be One” (Jn. 17:21), he certainly was not praying for unanimity or uniformity.  Even the Roman Catholic Church does not have that.  Nor was he praying for union, otherwise his prayer has been unanswered for at least a thousand years since Rome split with eastern Orthodoxy.  Rather, Jesus was praying for true unity which all orthodox Christians have, East and West, by virtue of our common confession in the early creeds and outward conduct of love manifest to all men (Jn. 13:35).  He certainly was not praying that we all belong to the Roman Catholic Church which demands that one belong to this particular organization.  That would be organizational union with Rome.  Rather, Jesus was praying for spiritual unity among all believers, even if we differ in our organizational associations.  This is clear from his statement that we all may be one, “even as we [the Father and Son] are one” (Jn. 17:11).  There is no sense in which this is true organizationally, but only spiritually.  However, this does not mean that this unity will not be manifested visibly in doctrine and deed, in truth and in love.  In short, the error of Rome is in confusing organizational union with spiritual unity.

Dr. Geisler is the author of Should Old Aquinas Be Forgotten? Many Say Yes but the Author Says No. (Bastion Books:2013), What Augustine Says (Bastion Books:2013), Is the Pope Infallible: A Look at the Evidence (Bastion Books:2012), Is Rome the True Church? A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim (Crossway Books:2008), and Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Baker Academic:1995). For additional resources by Dr. Geisler on Roman Catholicism, please visit

What Think Ye of Rome? (1994)

WHAT THINK YE OF ROME? (Part Three): The Catholic‐Protestant Debate on Biblical Authority

WHAT THINK YE OF ROME? (Part Four):   The Catholic‐Protestant Debate on Papal Infallibility

WHAT THINK YE OF ROME? (Part Five):  The Catholic‐Protestant Debate on Justification

by Norman L. Geisler
and Ralph E. MacKenzie 


WHAT THINK YE OF ROME? (Part Three): The Catholic‐Protestant Debate on Biblical Authority


Traditional Roman Catholicism has always, in its official pronouncements, held sacred Scripture in high esteem. Indeed, doctors of the church such as Jerome, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas — when dealing with Holy Writ — at times sound positively Protestant. Unfortunately, Roman Catholicism has not followed their lead and has elevated extrabiblical tradition to the same level as the Bible. The authors maintain this is a serious error, having dire consequences on the practical formation of the laypersonʹs Christian faith. Scripture itself should be the final authoritative guide for the Christian. As the apostle Paul reminds Timothy, ʺFrom infancy you have known [the] sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesusʺ (2 Tim. 3:15 [The New American Bible]). 

How should evangelical Protestants view contemporary Roman Catholicism? In the first two installments of this series1 Kenneth R. Samples showed that classic Catholicism and Protestantism are in agreement on the most crucial doctrines of the Christian faith, as stated in the ancient ecumenical creeds. Nonetheless, he also outlined five doctrinal areas that separate Roman Catholics from evangelical Protestants: authority, justification, Mariology, sacramentalism and the mass, and religious pluralism. 

Samples observed that Roman Catholicism is foundationally orthodox, but it has built much on this foundation that tends to compromise and undermine it. He concluded that Catholicism should therefore be viewed as ʺneither a cult (non‐Christian religious system) nor a biblically sound church, but a historically Christian church which is in desperate need of biblical reform.ʺ 

With the first two installments of this series being largely devoted to establishing that Catholicism is a historic Christian church, it is appropriate that in the remaining installments we turn our attention to the most critical doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants. This is especially important at a time when many ecumenically minded Protestants are ready to portray the differences between Catholics and Protestants as little more important than the differences that separate the many Protestant denominations. For although the doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants do not justify one side labeling the other a cult, they do justify the formal separation between the two camps that began with the 16th‐century Protestant Reformation and that continues today. 

Among the many doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants, none are more fundamental than those of authority and justification. In relation to these the Protestant Reformation stressed two principles: a formal principle (sola Scriptura) and a material principle (sola fide)2: The Bible alone and faith alone. In this installment and in Part Four we will focus on the formal cause of the Reformation, authority. In the concluding installment, Part Five, we will examine its material cause, justification. 


By sola Scriptura Protestants mean that Scripture alone is the primary and absolute source for all doctrine and practice (faith and morals). Sola Scriptura implies several things. First, the Bible is a direct revelation from God. As such, it has divine authority. For what the Bible says, God says. 

Second, the Bible is sufficient: it is all that is necessary for faith and practice. For Protestants ʺthe Bible aloneʺ means ʺthe Bible onlyʺ is the final authority for our faith. 

Third, the Scriptures not only have sufficiency but they also possess final authority. They are the final court of appeal on all doctrinal and moral matters. However good they may be in giving guidance, all the fathers, Popes, and Councils are fallible. Only the Bible is infallible. 

Fourth, the Bible is perspicuous (clear). The perspicuity of Scripture does not mean that everything in the Bible is perfectly clear, but rather the essential teachings are. Popularly put, in the Bible the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things. This does not mean — as Catholics often assume — that Protestants obtain no help from the fathers and early Councils. Indeed, Protestants accept the great theological and Christological pronouncements of the first four ecumenical Councils. What is more, most Protestants have high regard for the teachings of the early fathers, though obviously they do not believe they are infallible. So this is not to say there is no usefulness to Christian tradition, but only that it is of secondary importance. 

Fifth, Scripture interprets Scripture. This is known as the analogy of faith principle. When we have difficulty in understanding an unclear text of Scripture, we turn to other biblical texts. For the Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible. In the Scriptures, clear texts should be used to interpret the unclear ones. 


One of the basic differences between Catholics and Protestants is over whether the Bible alone is the sufficient and final authority for faith and practice, or the Bible plus extrabiblical apostolic tradition. Catholics further insist that there is a need for a teaching magisterium (i.e., the Pope and their bishops) to rule on just what is and is not authentic apostolic tradition. 

Catholics are not all agreed on their understanding of the relation of tradition to Scripture. Some understand it as two sources of revelation. Others understand apostolic tradition as a lesser form of revelation. Still others view this tradition in an almost Protestant way, namely, as merely an interpretation of revelation (albeit, an infallible one) which is found only in the Bible. Traditional Catholics, such as Ludwig Ott and Henry Denzinger, tend to be in the first category and more modern Catholics, such as John Henry Newman and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in the latter. The language of the Council of Trent seems to favor the traditional understanding.3 

Whether or not extrabiblical apostolic tradition is considered a second source of revelation, there is no question that the Roman Catholic church holds that apostolic tradition is both authoritative and infallible. It is to this point that we speak now. 

The Catholic Argument for Holding the Infallibility of Apostolic Tradition 

The Council of Trent emphatically proclaimed that the Bible alone is not sufficient for faith and morals. God has ordained tradition in addition to the Bible to faithfully guide the church. 

Infallible guidance in interpreting the Bible comes from the church. One of the criteria used to determine this is the ʺunanimous consent of the Fathers.ʺ4 In accordance with ʺThe Profession of Faith of the Council of Trentʺ (Nov. 13, 1565), all faithful Catholics must agree: ʺI shall never accept nor interpret it [ʹHoly Scriptureʹ] otherwise than in accordance with the unanimous consent of the Fathers.ʺ5 

Catholic scholars advance several arguments in favor of the Bible and tradition, as opposed to the Bible only, as the final authority. One of their favorite arguments is that the Bible itself does not teach that the Bible only is our final authority for faith and morals. Thus they conclude that even on Protestant grounds there is no reason to accept sola Scriptura. Indeed, they believe it is inconsistent or self‐refuting, since the Bible alone does not teach that the Bible alone is the basis of faith and morals. 

In point of fact, argue Catholic theologians, the Bible teaches that apostolic ʺtraditionsʺ as well as the written words of the apostles should be followed. St. Paul exhorted the Thessalonian Christians to ʺstand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or epistleʺ (2 Thess. 2:15; cf. 3:6). 

One Catholic apologist even went so far as to argue that the apostle John stated his preference for oral tradition. John wrote: ʺI have much to write to you, but I do not wish to write with pen and ink. Instead, I hope to see you soon when we can talk face to faceʺ (3 John 13). This Catholic writer adds, ʺWhy would the apostle emphasize his preference for oral Tradition over written Tradition…if, as proponents of sola Scriptura assert, Scripture is superior to oral Tradition?ʺ 

Roman Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft lists several arguments against sola Scriptura which in turn are arguments for tradition: ʺFirst, it separates Church and Scripture. But they are one. They are not two rival horses in the authority race, but one rider (the Church) on one horse (Scripture).ʺ He adds, ʺWe are not taught by a teacher without a book or by a book without a teacher, but by one teacher, the Church, with one book, Scripture.ʺ7 

Kreeft further argues that ʺsola Scriptura violates the principle of causality; that an effect cannot be greater than its cause.ʺ For ʺthe successors of the apostles, the bishops of the Church, decided on the canon, the list of books to be declared scriptural and infallible.ʺ And ʺif the Scripture is infallible, then its cause, the Church, must also be infallible.ʺ8 

According to Kreeft, ʺdenominationalism is an intolerable scandal by scriptural standards — see John 17:20‐23 and I Corinthians 1:10‐17.ʺ But ʺlet five hundred people interpret the Bible without Church authority and there will soon be five hundred denominations.ʺ9 So rejection of authoritative apostolic tradition leads to the unbiblical scandal of denominationalism. 

Finally, Kreeft argues that ʺthe first generation of Christians did not have the New Testament, only the Church to teach them.ʺ10 This being the case, using the Bible alone without apostolic tradition was not possible. 


As convincing as these arguments may seem to a devout Catholic, they are devoid of substance. As we will see, each of the Roman Catholic arguments against the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura fails, and they are unable to provide any substantial basis for the Catholic dogma of an infallible oral tradition. 

Does the Bible Teach Sola Scriptura? 

Two points must be made concerning whether the Bible teaches sola Scriptura. First, as Catholic scholars themselves recognize, it is not necessary that the Bible explicitly and formally teach sola Scriptura in order for this doctrine to be true. Many Christian teachings are a necessary logical deduction of what is clearly taught in the Bible (e.g., the Trinity). Likewise, it is possible that sola Scriptura could be a necessary logical deduction from what is taught in Scripture. 

Second, the Bible does teach implicitly and logically, if not formally and explicitly, that the Bible alone is the only infallible basis for faith and practice. This it does in a number of ways. One, the fact that Scripture, without tradition, is said to be ʺGod‐breathedʺ (theopnuestos) and thus by it believers are ʺcompetent, equipped for every good workʺ (2 Tim. 3:16‐17, emphasis added) supports the doctrine of sola Scriptura. This flies in the face of the Catholic claim that the Bible is formally insufficient without the aid of tradition. St. Paul declares that the God‐breathed writings are sufficient. And contrary to some Catholic apologists, limiting this to only the Old Testament will not help the

Catholic cause for two reasons: first, the New Testament is also called ʺScriptureʺ (2 Pet. 3:15‐16; 1 Tim. 5:18; cf. Luke 10:7); second, it is inconsistent to argue that God‐breathed writings in the Old Testament are sufficient, but the inspired writings of the New Testament are not. 

Further, Jesus and the apostles constantly appealed to the Bible as the final court of appeal. This they often did by the introductory phrase, ʺIt is written,ʺ which is repeated some 90 times in the New Testament. Jesus used this phrase three times when appealing to Scripture as the final authority in His dispute with Satan (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10). 

Of course, Jesus (Matt. 5:22, 28, 31; 28:18) and the apostles (1 Cor. 5:3; 7:12) sometimes referred to their own Godgiven authority. It begs the question, however, for Roman Catholics to claim that this supports their belief that the church of Rome still has infallible authority outside the Bible today. For even they admit that no new revelation is being given today, as it was in apostolic times. In other words, the only reason Jesus and the apostles could appeal to an authority outside the Bible was that God was still giving normative (i.e., standard‐setting) revelation for the faith and morals of believers. This revelation was often first communicated orally before it was finally committed to writing (e.g., 2 Thess. 2:5). Therefore, it is not legitimate to appeal to any oral revelation in New Testament times as proof that nonbiblical infallible authority is in existence today. 

What is more, Jesus made it clear that the Bible was in a class of its own, exalted above all tradition. He rebuked the Pharisees for not accepting sola Scriptura and negating the final authority of the Word of God by their religious traditions, saying, ʺAnd why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?…You have nullified the word of God, for the sake of your traditionʺ (Matt. 15:3, 6). 

It is important to note that Jesus did not limit His statement to mere human traditions but applied it specifically to the traditions of the religious authorities who used their tradition to misinterpret the Scriptures. There is a direct parallel with the religious traditions of Judaism that grew up around (and obscured, even negated) the Scriptures and the Christian traditions that have grown up around (and obscured, even negated) the Scriptures since the first century. Indeed, since Catholic scholars make a comparison between the Old Testament high priesthood and the Roman Catholic papacy, this would seem to be a very good analogy. 

Finally, to borrow a phrase from St. Paul, the Bible constantly warns us ʺnot to go beyond what is writtenʺ (1 Cor. 4:6).11 This kind of exhortation is found throughout Scripture. Moses was told, ʺYou shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from itʺ (Deut. 4:2). Solomon reaffirmed this in Proverbs, saying, ʺEvery word of God is tested….Add nothing to his words, lest he reprove you, and you be exposed as a deceiverʺ (Prov. 30:5‐6). Indeed, John closed the last words of the Bible with the same exhortation, declaring: ʺI warn everyone who hears the prophetic words in this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words in this prophetic book, God will take away his share in the tree of life…ʺ (Rev. 22:18‐19). Sola Scriptura could hardly be stated more emphatically. 

Of course, none of these are a prohibition on future revelations. But they do apply to the point of difference between Protestants and Catholics, namely, whether there are any authoritative normative revelations outside those revealed to apostles and prophets and inscripturated in the Bible. And this is precisely what these texts say. Indeed, even the prophet himself was not to add to the revelation God gave him. For prophets were not infallible in everything they said, but only when giving Godʹs revelation to which they were not to add or from which they were not to subtract a word. 

Since both Catholics and Protestants agree that there is no new revelation beyond the first century, it would follow that these texts do support the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura. For if there is no normative revelation after the time of the apostles and even the prophets themselves were not to add to the revelations God gave them in the Scriptures, then the Scriptures alone are the only infallible source of divine revelation. 

Roman Catholics admit that the New Testament is the only infallible record of apostolic teaching we have from the first century. However, they do not seem to appreciate the significance of this fact as it bears on the Protestant argument for sola Scriptura. For even many early fathers testified to the fact that all apostolic teaching was put in the New Testament. While acknowledging the existence of apostolic tradition, J. D. N. Kelly concluded that ʺadmittedly there is no evidence for beliefs or practices current in the period which were not vouched for in the books later known as the New Testament.ʺ Indeed, many early fathers, including Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, and Augustine, believed that the Bible was the only infallible basis for all Christian doctrine.12 

Further, if the New Testament is the only infallible record of apostolic teaching, then every other record from the first century is fallible. It matters not that Catholics believe that the teaching Magisterium later claims to pronounce some extrabiblical tradition as infallibly true. The fact is that they do not have an infallible record from the first century on which to base such a decision.

All Apostolic ʺTraditionsʺ Are in the Bible 

It is true that the New Testament speaks of following the ʺtraditionsʺ (=teachings) of the apostles, whether oral or written. This is because they were living authorities set up by Christ (Matt. 18:18; Acts 2:42; Eph. 2:20). When they died, however, there was no longer a living apostolic authority since only those who were eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ could have apostolic authority (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor. 9:1). Because the New Testament is the only inspired (infallible) record of what the apostles taught, it follows that since the death of the apostles the only apostolic authority we have is the inspired record of their teaching in the New Testament. That is, all apostolic tradition (teaching) on faith and practice is in the New Testament. 

This does not necessarily mean that everything the apostles ever taught is in the New Testament, any more than everything Jesus said is there (cf. John 20:30; 21:25). What it does mean is that all apostolic teaching that God deemed necessary for the faith and practice (morals) of the church was preserved (2 Tim. 3:15‐17). It is only reasonable to infer that God would preserve what He inspired. 

The fact that apostles sometimes referred to ʺtraditionsʺ they gave orally as authoritative in no way diminishes the Protestant argument for sola Scriptura. First, it is not necessary to claim that these oral teachings were inspired or infallible, only that they were authoritative. The believers were asked to ʺmaintainʺ them (1 Cor. 11:2) and ʺstand fast in themʺ (2 Thess. 2:15). But oral teachings of the apostles were not called ʺinspiredʺ or ʺunbreakableʺ or the equivalent, unless they were recorded as Scripture. 

The apostles were living authorities, but not everything they said was infallible. Catholics understand the difference between authoritative and infallible, since they make the same distinction with regard to noninfallible statements made by the Pope and infallible ex cathedra (ʺfrom the seatʺ of Peter) ones. 

Second, the traditions (teachings) of the apostles that were revelations were written down and are inspired and infallible. They comprise the New Testament. What the Catholic must prove, and cannot, is that the God who deemed it so important for the faith and morals of the faithful to inspire the inscripturation of 27 books of apostolic teaching would have left out some important revelation in these books. Indeed, it is not plausible that He would have allowed succeeding generations to struggle and even fight over precisely where this alleged extrabiblical revelation is to be found. So, however authoritative the apostles were by their office, only their inscripturated words are inspired and infallible (2 Tim. 3:16‐17; cf. John 10:35). 

There is not a shred of evidence that any of the revelation God gave them to express was not inscripturated by them in the only books — the inspired books of the New Testament — that they left for the church. This leads to another important point. 

The Bible makes it clear that God, from the very beginning, desired that His normative revelations be written down and preserved for succeeding generations. ʺMoses then wrote down all the words of the Lordʺ (Exod. 24:4), and his book was preserved in the Ark (Deut. 31:26). Furthermore, ʺJoshua made a covenant with the people that day and made statutes and ordinances for them… which he recorded in the book of the law of Godʺ (Josh. 24:25‐26) along with Mosesʹ (cf. Josh. 1:7). Likewise, ʺSamuel next explained to the people the law of royalty and wrote it in a book, which he placed in the presence of the Lordʺ (1 Sam. 10:25). Isaiah was commanded by the Lord to ʺtake a large cylinderseal, and inscribe on it in ordinary lettersʺ (Isa. 8:1) and to ʺinscribe it in a record; that it may be in future days an eternal witnessʺ (30:8). Daniel had a collection of ʺthe booksʺ of Moses and the prophets right down to his contemporary Jeremiah (Dan. 9:2). 

Jesus and New Testament writers used the phrase ʺIt is writtenʺ (cf. Matt. 4:4, 7, 10) over 90 times, stressing the importance of the written word of God. When Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders it was not because they did not follow the traditions but because they did not ʺunderstand the Scripturesʺ (Matt. 22:29). All of this makes it clear that God intended from the very beginning that His revelation be preserved in Scripture, not in extrabiblical tradition. To claim that the apostles did not write down all Godʹs revelation to them is to claim that they were not obedient to their prophetic commission not to subtract a word from what God revealed to them. 

The Bible Does Not State a Preference for Oral Tradition 

The Catholic use of 3 John to prove the superiority of oral tradition is a classic example of taking a text out of context. John is not comparing oral and written tradition about the past but a written, as opposed to a personal, communication in the present. Notice carefully what he said: ʺI have much to write to you, but I do not wish to write with pen and ink. Instead, I hope to see you soon when we can talk face to faceʺ (3 John 13). Who would not prefer a face‐to‐face talk with a living apostle over a letter from him? But that is not what oral tradition gives. Rather, it provides an unreliable oral tradition as opposed to an infallible written one. Sola Scriptura contends the latter is preferable. 

The Bible Is Clear Apart from Tradition 

The Bible has perspicuity apart from any traditions to help us understand it. As stated above, and contrary to a rather wide misunderstanding by Catholics, perspicuity does not mean that everything in the Bible is absolutely clear but that the main message is clear. That is, all doctrines essential for salvation and living according to the will of God are sufficiently clear. 

Indeed, to assume that oral traditions of the apostles, not written in the Bible, are necessary to interpret what is written in the Bible under inspiration is to argue that the uninspired is more clear than the inspired. But it is utterly presumptuous to assert that what fallible human beings pronounce is clearer than what the infallible Word of God declares. Further, it is unreasonable to insist that words of the apostles that were not written down are more clear than the ones they did write. We all know from experience that this is not so. 

Tradition and Scripture Are Not Inseparable 

Kreeftʹs claim that Scripture and apostolic tradition are inseparable is unconvincing. Even his illustration of the horse (Scripture) and the rider (tradition) would suggest that Scripture and apostolic tradition are separable. Further, even if it is granted that tradition is necessary, the Catholic inference that it has to be infallible tradition — indeed, the infallible tradition of the church of Rome — is unfounded. Protestants, who believe in sola Scriptura, accept genuine tradition; they simply do not believe it is infallible. Finally, Kreeftʹs argument wrongly assumes that the Bible was produced by the Roman Catholic church. As we will see in the next point, this is not the case. 

The Principle of Causality Is Not Violated 

Kreeftʹs argument that sola Scriptura violates the principle of causality is invalid for one fundamental reason: it is based on a false assumption. He wrongly assumes, unwittingly in contrast to what Vatican II and even Vatican I say about the canon,13 that the church determined the canon. In fact, God determined the canon by inspiring these books and no others. The church merely discovered which books God had determined (inspired) to be in the canon. This being the case, Kreeftʹs argument that the cause must be equal to its effect (or greater) fails. 

Rejection of Tradition Does Not Necessitate Scandal 

Kreeftʹs claim that the rejection of the Roman Catholic view on infallible tradition leads to the scandal of denominationalism does not follow for many reasons. First, this wrongly implies that all denominationalism is scandalous. Not necessarily so, as long as the denominations do not deny the essential doctrines of the Christian church and true spiritual unity with other believers in contrast to mere external organizational uniformity. Nor can one argue successfully that unbelievers are unable to see spiritual unity. For Jesus declared: ʺThis is how all [men] will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one anotherʺ (John 13:35). 

Second, as orthodox Catholics know well, the scandal of liberalism is as great inside the Catholic church as it is outside of it. When Catholic apologists claim there is significantly more doctrinal agreement among Catholics than Protestants, they must mean between orthodox Catholics and all Protestants (orthodox and unorthodox) — which, of course, is not a fair comparison. 

Only when one chooses to compare things like the mode and candidate for baptism, church government, views on the Eucharist, and other less essential doctrines are there greater differences among orthodox Protestants. When, however, we compare the differences with orthodox Catholics and orthodox Protestants or with all Catholics and all Protestants on the more essential doctrines, there is no significant edge for Catholicism. This fact negates the value of the alleged infallible teaching Magisterium of the Roman Catholic church. In point of fact, Protestants seem to do about as well as Catholics on unanimity of essential doctrines with only an infallible Bible and no infallible interpreters of it! 

Third, orthodox Protestant ʺdenominations,ʺ though there be many, have not historically differed much more significantly than have the various ʺordersʺ of the Roman Catholic church. Orthodox Protestantsʹ differences are largely over secondary issues, not primary (fundamental) doctrines. So this Catholic argument against Protestantism is self‐condemning. 

Fourth, as J. I. Packer noted, ʺthe real deep divisions have been caused not by those who maintained sola Scriptura, but by those, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, who reject it.ʺ Further, ʺwhen adherents of sola Scriptura have split from each other the cause has been sin rather than Protestant biblicism….ʺ14 Certainly this is often the case. A bad hermeneutic (method of interpreting Scripture) is more crucial to deviation from orthodoxy than is the rejection of an infallible tradition in the Roman Catholic church. 

First Century Christians Had Scripture and Living Apostles 

Kreeftʹs argument that the first generation of Christians did not have the New Testament, only the church to teach them, overlooks several basic facts. First, the essential Bible of the early first century Christians was the Old

Testament, as the New Testament itself declares (cf. 2 Tim. 3:15‐17; Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6). Second, early New Testament believers did not need further revelation through the apostles in written form for one very simple reason: they still had the living apostles to teach them. As soon as the apostles died, however, it became imperative for the written record of their infallible teaching to be available. And it was — in the apostolic writings known as the New Testament. Third, Kreeftʹs argument wrongly assumes that there was apostolic succession (see Part Four, next issue). The only infallible authority that succeeded the apostles was their infallible apostolic writings, that is, the New Testament. 


There are many reasons Protestants reject the Roman Catholic claim that there is an extrabiblical apostolic tradition of equal reliability and authenticity to Scripture. The following are some of the more significant ones. 

Oral Traditions Are Unreliable 

In point of fact, oral traditions are notoriously unreliable. They are the stuff of which legends and myths are made. What is written is more easily preserved in its original form. Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper notes four advantages of a written revelation: (1) It has durability whereby errors of memory or accidental corruptions, deliberate or not, are minimized; (2) It can be universally disseminated through translation and reproduction; (3) It has the attribute of fixedness and purity; (4) It is given a finality and normativeness which other forms of communication cannot attain.15 

By contrast, what is not written is more easily polluted. We find an example of this in the New Testament. There was an unwritten ʺapostolic traditionʺ (i.e., one coming from the apostles) based on a misunderstanding of what Jesus said. They wrongly assumed that Jesus affirmed that the apostle John would not die. John, however, debunked this false tradition in his authoritative written record (John 21:22‐23). 

Common sense and historical experience inform us that the generation alive when an alleged revelation was given is in a much better position to know if it is a true revelation than are succeeding generations, especially those hundreds of years later. Many traditions proclaimed to be divine revelation by the Roman Catholic Magisterium were done so centuries, even a millennia or so, after they were allegedly given by God. And in the case of some of these, there is no solid evidence that the tradition was believed by any significant number of orthodox Christians until centuries after they occurred. But those living at such a late date are in a much inferior position than contemporaries, such as those who wrote the New Testament, to know what was truly a revelation from God. 

There Are Contradictory Traditions 

It is acknowledged by all, even by Catholic scholars, that there are contradictory Christian traditions. In fact, the great medieval theologian Peter Abelard noted hundreds of differences. For example, some fathers (e.g., Augustine) supported the Old Testament Apocrypha while others (e.g., Jerome) opposed it. Some great teachers (e.g., Aquinas) opposed the Immaculate Conception of Mary while others (e.g., Scotus) favored it. Indeed, some fathers opposed sola Scriptura, but others favored it. 

Now this very fact makes it impossible to trust tradition in any authoritative sense. For the question always arises: which of the contradictory traditions (teachings) should be accepted? To say, ʺThe one pronounced authoritative by the churchʺ begs the question, since the infallibility of tradition is a necessary link in the argument for the very doctrine of the infallible authority of the church. Thus this infallibility should be provable without appealing to the Magisterium. The fact is that there are so many contradictory traditions that tradition, as such, is rendered unreliable as an authoritative source of dogma. 

Nor does it suffice to argue that while particular fathers cannot be trusted, nonetheless, the ʺunanimous consentʺ of the fathers can be. For there is no unanimous consent of the fathers on many doctrines ʺinfalliblyʺ proclaimed by the Catholic church (see below). In some cases there is not even a majority consent. Thus to appeal to the teaching Magisterium of the Catholic church to settle the issue begs the question. 

The Catholic response to this is that just as the bride recognizes the voice of her husband in a crowd, even so the church recognizes the voice of her Husband in deciding which tradition is authentic. The analogy, however, is faulty. First, it assumes (without proof) that there is some divinely appointed postapostolic way to decide — extrabiblically — which traditions were from God. 

Second, historical evidence such as that which supports the reliability of the New Testament is not to be found for the religious tradition used by Roman Catholics. There is, for example, no good evidence to support the existence of first century eyewitnesses (confirmed by miracles) who affirm the traditions pronounced infallible by the Roman Catholic church. Indeed, many Catholic doctrines are based on traditions that only emerge several centuries later and are disputed by both other traditions and the Bible (e.g., the Bodily Assumption of Mary). 

Finally, the whole argument reduces to a subjective mystical experience that is given plausibility only because the analogy is false. Neither the Catholic church as such, nor any of its leaders, has experienced down through the centuries anything like a continual hearing of Godʹs actual voice, so that it can recognize it again whenever He speaks. The truth is that the alleged recognition of her Husbandʹs voice is nothing more than subjective faith in the teaching Magisterium of the Roman Catholic church. 

Catholic Use of Tradition Is Not Consistent 

Not only are there contradictory traditions, but the Roman Catholic church is arbitrary and inconsistent in its choice of which tradition to pronounce infallible. This is evident in a number of areas. First, the Council of Trent chose to follow the weaker tradition in pronouncing the apocryphal books inspired. The earliest and best authorities, including the translator of the Roman Catholic Latin Vulgate Bible, St. Jerome, opposed the Apocrypha. 

Second, support from tradition for the dogma of the Bodily Assumption of Mary is late and weak. Yet despite the lack of any real evidence from Scripture or any substantial evidence from the teachings of early church fathers, Rome chose to pronounce this an infallible truth of the Catholic faith. In short, Roman Catholic dogmas at times do not grow out of rationally weighing the evidence of tradition but rather out of arbitrarily choosing which of the many conflicting traditions they wish to pronounce infallible. Thus, the ʺunanimous consent of the fathersʺ to which Trent commanded allegiance is a fiction. 

Third, apostolic tradition is nebulous. As has often been pointed out, ʺNever has the Roman Catholic Church given a complete and exhaustive list of the contents of extrabiblical apostolic tradition. It has not dared to do so because this oral tradition is such a nebulous entity.ʺ16 That is to say, even if all extrabiblical revelation definitely exists somewhere in some tradition (as Catholics claim), which ones these are has nowhere been declared. 

Finally, if the method by which they choose which traditions to canonize were followed in the practice of textual criticism of the Bible, one could never arrive at a sound reconstruction of the original manuscripts. For textual criticism involves weighing the evidence as to what the original actually said, not reading back into it what subsequent generations would like it to have said. Indeed, even most contemporary Catholic biblical scholars do not follow such an arbitrary procedure when determining the translation of the original text of Scripture (as in The New American Bible). 

In conclusion, the question of authority is crucial to the differences between Catholics and Protestants. One of these is whether the Bible alone has infallible authority. We have examined carefully the best Catholic arguments in favor of an additional authority to Scripture, infallible tradition, and found them all wanting. Further, we have advanced many reasons for accepting the Bible alone as the sufficient authority for all matters of faith and morals. This is supported by Scripture and sound reason. In Part Four we will go further in our examination of Catholic authority by evaluating the Catholic dogma of the infallibility of the Pope. 


Dr. Norman L. Geisler is Dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. He is author or co‐author of over 40 books and has his Ph.D. in philosophy from Loyola University, a Roman Catholic school in Chicago. 

Ralph E. MacKenzie has dialogued with Roman Catholics for 40 years. He graduated from Bethel Theological Seminary West, earning a Master of Arts in Theological Studies (M.A.T.S.), with a concentration in church history. 



1 See Kenneth R. Samples, ʺWhat Think Ye of Rome?ʺ (Parts One and Two), Christian Research Journal, Winter (pp. 3242) and Spring (pp. 32‐42) 1993. 

2 Some Reformed theologians wish to point out that the material principle is really ʺin Christ aloneʺ and faith alone is the means of access. 

3 Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma (London: B. Herder Book Co., 1957) [section] 783, 244. From the Council of Trent, Session 4 (April 8, 1546). 

4 Denzinger, ʺSystematic Index,ʺ 11. 

5 [sections] 995, 303. 

6 See Patrick Madrid, ʺGoing Beyond,ʺ This Rock, August 1992, 22‐23. 

7 Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 274‐75. 

8 Ibid

9 Ibid

10 Ibid

11 There is some debate even among Protestant scholars as to whether Paul is referring here to his own previous statements or to Scripture as a whole. Since the phrase used here is reserved only for Sacred Scripture (cf. 2 Tim. 3:15‐16) the latter seems to be the case. 

12 D. N. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 42‐43. 

13 See Austin Flannery, gen. ed., Vatican Council II, 1, rev. ed. (Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, 1992), Dei Verbum, 750‐65 and Denzinger, [section] 1787, 444. 

14 I. Packer, ʺSola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism,ʺ in The Foundations of Biblical Authority, ed. James Boice

(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 103. 

15 See Bruce Milne, Know the Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), 28. 

16 Bernard Ramm, The Pattern of Authority (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1959), 68.



What Think Ye of Rome? Part Four: The Catholic-Protestant Debate on Papal Infallibility

by Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie


Papal infallibility was formalized at the First Vatican Council, A.D. 1870. It is required belief for Roman Catholics but is rejected by evangelicals. On examination, the major biblical texts used to defend this dogma do not support the Catholic position. Further, there are serious theological and historical problems with the doctrine of papal infallibility. Infallibility stands as an irrevocable roadblock to any ecclesiastical union between Catholics and Protestants.

According to Roman Catholic dogma, the teaching magisterium of the church of Rome is infallible when officially defining faith and morals for believers. One manifestation of this doctrine is popularly known as “papal infallibility.” It was pronounced a dogma in A.D. 1870 at the First Vatican Council. Since this is a major bone of contention between Catholics and Protestants, it calls for attention here.


Roman Catholic authorities define infallibility as “immunity from error, i.e., protection against either passive or active deception. Persons or agencies are infallible to the extent that they can neither deceive nor be deceived.”[1]

Regarding the authority of the pope, Vatican I pronounced that all the faithful of Christ must believe “that the Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold primacy over the whole world, and that the Pontiff of Rome himself is the successor of the blessed Peter, the chief of the apostles, and is the true [vicar] of Christ and head of the whole Church and faith, and teacher of all Christians; and that to him was handed down in blessed Peter, by our Lord Jesus Christ, full power to feed, rule, and guide the universal Church, just as is also contained in the records of the ecumenical Councils and in the sacred canons.”[2]

Furthermore, the Council went on to speak of “The Infallible ‘Magisterium’ [teaching authority] of the Roman Pontiff,” declaring that when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when carrying out the duty of the pastor and teacher of all Christians in accord with his supreme apostolic authority he explains a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished that His church be instructed in defining doctrine on faith and morals; and so such definitions of the Roman Pontiff from himself, but not from the consensus of the Church, are unalterable. [emphases added][3]

Then follows the traditional condemnation on any who reject papal infallibility: “But if anyone presumes to contradict this definition of Ours, which may God forbid: let him be anathema” [i.e., excommunicated].[4]


Roman Catholic scholars have expounded significant qualifications on the doctrine. First, they acknowledge that the pope is not infallible in everything he teaches but only when he speaks ex cathedra, as the official interpreter of faith and morals. Avery Dulles, an authority on Catholic dogma, states for a pronouncement to be ex cathedra it must be:

(1) in fulfillment of his office as supreme pastor and teacher of all Christians;
(2) in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, i.e., as successor of Peter;
(3) determining a doctrine of faith and morals, i.e., a doctrine expressing divine revelation;
(4) imposing a doctrine to be held definitively by all.[5]

Dulles notes that “Vatican I firmly rejected one condition…as necessary for infallibility, namely, the consent of the whole church.”[6]

Second, the pope is not infallible when pronouncing on matters that do not pertain to “faith and morals.” On these matters he may be as fallible as anyone else.

Third, although the pope is infallible, he is not absolutely so. As Dulles observes, “absolute infallibility (in all respects, without dependence on another) is proper to God….All other infallibility is derivative and limited in scope.”[7]

Fourth, infallibility entails irrevocability. A pope cannot, for example, declare previous infallible pronouncements of the church void.

Finally, in contrast to Vatican I, many (usually liberal or progressive) Catholic theologians believe that the pope is not infallible independent of the bishops but only as he speaks in one voice with and for them in collegiality. As Dulles noted, infallibility “is often attributed to the bishops as a group, to ecumenical councils, and to popes.”[8] Conservatives argue that Vatican I condemned this view.[9]


Not only Protestants but the rest of Christendom — Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox included — reject the doctrine of papal infallibility.[10] Protestants accept the infallibility of Scripture but deny that any human being or institution is the infallible interpreter of Scripture. Harold O. J. Brown writes: “In every age there have been those who considered the claims of a single bishop to supreme authority to be a sure identification of the corruption of the church, and perhaps even the work of the Antichrist. Pope Gregory I (A.D. 590-604) indignantly reproached Patriarch John the Faster of Constantinople for calling himself the universal bishop; Gregory did so to defend the rights of all the bishops, himself included, and not because he wanted the title for himself.”[11]

Biblical Problems

There are several texts Catholics use to defend the infallibility of the bishop of Rome. We will focus here on the three most important of these.

Matthew 16:18ff. Roman Catholics use the statement of Jesus to Peter in Matthew 16:18ff. that “upon this rock I will build my church…” to support papal infallibility. They argue that the truth of the church could only be secure if the one on whom it rested (Peter) were infallible. Properly understood, however, there are several reasons this passage falls far short of support for the dogma of papal infallibility.

First, many Protestants insist that Christ was not referring to Peter when he spoke of “this rock” being the foundation of the church.[12] They note that: (1) Whenever Peter is referred to in this passage it is in the second person (“you”), but “this rock” is in the third person. (2) “Peter” (petros) is a masculine singular term and “rock” (petra) is feminine singular. Hence, they do not have the same referent. And even if Jesus did speak these words in Aramaic (which does not distinguish genders), the inspired Greek original does make such distinctions. (3) What is more, the same authority Jesus gave to Peter (Matt. 16:18) is given later to all the apostles (Matt. 18:18). (4) Great authorities, some Catholic, can be cited in agreement with this interpretation, including John Chrysostom and St. Augustine. The latter wrote: “On this rock, therefore, He said, which thou hast confessed. I will build my Church. For the Rock (petra) is Christ; and on this foundation was Peter himself built.”[13]

Second, even if Peter is the rock referred to by Christ, as even some non-Catholic scholars believe, he was not the only rock in the foundation of the church. Jesus gave all the apostles the same power (“keys”) to “bind” and “loose” that he gave to Peter (cf. Matt. 18:18). These were common rabbinic phrases used of “forbidding” and “allowing.” These “keys” were not some mysterious power given to Peter alone but the power granted by Christ to His church by which, when they proclaim the Gospel, they can proclaim God’s forgiveness of sin to all who believe. As John Calvin noted, “Since heaven is opened to us by the doctrine of the gospel, the word ‘keys’ affords an appropriate metaphor. Now men are bound and loosed in no other way than when faith reconciles some to God, while their own unbelief constrains others the more.”[14]

Further, Scripture affirms that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone” (Eph. 2:20). Two things are clear from this: first, all the apostles, not just Peter, are the foundation of the church; second, the only one who was given a place of uniqueness or prominence was Christ, the capstone. Indeed, Peter himself referred to Christ as “the cornerstone” of the church (1 Pet. 2:7) and the rest of believers as “living stones” (v. 4) in the superstructure of the church. There is no indication that Peter was given a special place of prominence in the foundation of the church above the rest of the apostles and below Christ. He is one “stone” along with the other eleven apostles (Eph. 2:20).

Third, Peter’s role in the New Testament falls far short of the Catholic claim that he was given unique authority among the apostles for numerous reasons.[15]

(1) While Peter did preach the initial sermon on the day of Pentecost, his role in the rest of Acts is scarcely that of the chief apostle but at best one of the “most eminent apostles” (plural, 2 Cor. 21:11, NKJV).

(2) No one reading Galatians carefully can come away with the impression that any apostle, including Peter, is superior to the apostle Paul. For he claimed to get his revelation independent of the other apostles (Gal. 1:12; 2:2) and to be on the same level as Peter (2:8), and he even used his revelation to rebuke Peter (2:11-14).

(3) Indeed, if Peter was the God-ordained superior apostle, it is strange that more attention is given to the ministry of the apostle Paul than to that of Peter in the Book of Acts. Peter is the central figure among many in chapters 1-12, but Paul is the dominant focus of chapters 13-28.[16]

(4) Furthermore, though Peter addressed the first council (in Acts 15), he exercised no primacy over the other apostles. Significantly, the decision came from “the apostles and presbyters, in agreement with the whole church” (15:22; cf. v. 23). Many scholars believe that James, not Peter, exercised leadership over the council, since he brought the final words and spoke decisively concerning what action should be taken (vv. 13-21).[17]

(5) In any event, by Peter’s own admission he was not the pastor of the church but only a “fellow presbyter [elder]” (1 Pet. 5:1-2, emphasis added). And while he did claim to be “an apostle” (1 Pet. 1:1) he nowhere claimed to be “the apostle” or the chief of apostles. He certainly was a leading apostle, but even then he was only one of the “pillars” (plural) of the church along with James and John, not the pillar (see Gal. 2:9).

This is not to deny that Peter had a significant role in the early church; he did. He even seems to have been the initial leader of the apostolic band. As already noted, along with James and John he was one of the “pillars” of the early church (Gal. 2:9). For it was he that preached the great sermon at Pentecost when the gift of the Holy Spirit was given, welcoming many Jews into the Christian fold. It was Peter also who spoke when the Spirit of God fell on the Gentiles in Acts 10. From this point on, however, Peter fades into the background and Paul is the dominant apostle, carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 13-28), writing some one-half of the New Testament (as compared to Peter’s two epistles), and even rebuking Peter for his hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11-14). In short, there is no evidence in Matthew 16 or any other text for the Roman Catholic dogma of the superiority, to say nothing of the infallibility, of Peter. He did, of course, write two infallible books (1 and 2 Peter), as did other apostles.

John 21:15ff. In John 21:15ff. Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my lambs” and “Tend my sheep” and “Feed my sheep” (vv. 15, 16, 17). Roman Catholic scholars believe this shows that Christ made Peter the supreme pastor of the church. This means he must protect the church from error, they say, and to do so he must necessarily be infallible. But this is a serious overclaim for the passage.

First, whether this text is taken of Peter alone or of all the disciples, there is absolutely no reference to any infallible authority. Jesus’ concern here is simply a matter of pastoral care. Feeding is a God-given pastoral function that even nonapostles have in the New Testament (cf. Acts 20:28; Eph. 4:11-12; 1 Pet. 5:1-2). One does not have to be an infallible shepherd in order to feed one’s flock properly.

Second, if Peter had infallibility (the ability not to mislead), then why did he mislead believers and have to be rebuked by the apostle Paul for so doing? The infallible Scriptures, accepted by Roman Catholics, declared of Peter on one occasion, “He clearly was wrong” and “stood condemned.”[18] Peter and others “acted hypocritically…with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.” And hypocrisy here is defined by the Catholic Bible (NAB) as “pretense, play-acting; moral insincerity.” It seems difficult to exonerate Peter from the charge that he led believers astray. And this failing is hard to reconcile with the Roman Catholic claim that, as the infallible pastor of the church, he could never do so! The Catholic response — that Peter was not infallible in his actions, only his ex cathedra words — rings hollow when we remember that “actions speak louder than words.” By his actions he was teaching other believers a false doctrine concerning the need for Jewish believers to separate themselves from Gentile believers. The fact is that Peter cannot be both an infallible guide for faith and morals and also at the same time mislead other believers on the important matter of faith and morals of which Galatians speaks.

Third, in view of the New Testament terminology used of Peter it is clear that he would never have accepted the titles used of the Roman Catholic pope today: “Holy Father” (cf. Matt. 23:9), “Supreme Pontiff,” or “Vicar of Christ.” The only vicar (representative) of Christ on earth today is the blessed Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 26). As noted earlier, Peter referred to himself in much more humble terms as “an apostle,” not the apostle (1 Pet. 1:1, emphasis added) and “fellow-presbyter [elder]” (1 Pet. 5:1, emphasis added), not the supreme bishop, the pope, or the Holy Father.

John 11:49-52. In John 11:49-52 Caiaphas, the High Priest, in his official capacity as High Priest, made an unwitting prophecy about Christ dying for the nation of Israel so that they would not perish. Some Catholics maintain that in the Old Testament the High Priest had an official revelatory function connected with his office, and therefore we should expect an equivalent (namely, the pope) in the New Testament. However, this argument is seriously flawed. First, this is merely an argument from analogy and is not based on any New Testament declaration that it is so. Second, the New Testament affirmations made about the Old Testament priesthood reject that analogy, for they say explicitly that the Old Testament priesthood has been abolished. The writer to the Hebrews declared that “there is a change of priesthood” from that of Aaron (Heb. 7:12). The Aaronic priesthood has been fulfilled in Christ who is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 7:15-17). Third, even Catholics acknowledge that there is no new revelation after the time of the New Testament function. So no one (popes included) after the first century can have a revelatory function in the proper sense of giving new revelations. Finally, there is a New Testament revelatory function like that of the Old, but it is in the New Testament “apostles and prophets” (cf. Eph. 2:20; 3:5), which revelation ceased when they died. To assume a revelatory (or even infallible defining) function was passed on after them and is resident in the bishop of Rome is to beg the question.

In addition to a total lack of support from the Scriptures, there are many other arguments against papal infallibility. We will divide them into theological and historical arguments.

Theological Problems

There are serious theological problems with papal infallibility. One is the question of heresy being taught by an infallible pope.

The Problem of Heretical Popes. Pope Honorius I (A.D. 625-638) was condemned by the Sixth General Council for teaching the monothelite heresy (that there was only one will in Christ[19]). Even Roman Catholic expert, Ludwig Ott, admits that “Pope Leo II (682-683) confirmed his anathematization…”[20] This being the case, we are left with the incredible situation of an infallible pope teaching a fallible, indeed heretical, doctrine. If the papal teaching office is infallible — if it cannot mislead on doctrine and ethics — then how could a papal teaching be heretical? This is misleading in doctrine in the most serious manner.

To claim that the pope was not infallible on this occasion is only to further undermine the doctrine of infallibility. How can one know just when his doctrinal pronouncements are infallible and when they are not? There is no infallible list of which are the infallible pronouncements and which are not.[21] But without such a list, how can the Roman Catholic church provide infallible guidance on doctrine and morals? If the pope can be fallible on one doctrine, why cannot he be fallible on another?

Further, Ott’s comment that Pope Leo did not condemn Pope Honorius with heresy but with “negligence in the suppression of error” is ineffective as a defense.[22] First, it still raises serious questions as to how Pope Honorius could be an infallible guide in faith and morals, since he taught heresy. And the Catholic response that he was not speaking ex cathedra when he taught this heresy is convenient but inadequate. Indeed, invoking such a distinction only tends to undermine faith in the far more numerous occasions when the pope is speaking with authority but not with infallibility.

Second, it does not explain the fact that the Sixth General Council did condemn Honorius as a heretic, as even Ott admits.[23] Was this infallible Council in error?

Finally, by disclaiming the infallibility of the pope in this and like situations, the number of occasions on which infallible pronouncements were made is relatively rare. For example, the pope has officially spoken ex cathedra only one time this whole century (on the Bodily Assumption of Mary)! If infallibility is exercised only this rarely then its value for all practical purposes on almost all occasions is nill. This being the case, since the pope is only speaking with fallible authority on the vast majority of occasions, the Catholic is bound to accept his authority on faith and morals when he may (and sometimes has been) wrong. In short, the alleged infallible guidance the papacy is supposed to provide is negligible at best. Indeed, on the overwhelming number of occasions there is no infallible guidance at all.

The Problem of Revelational Insufficiency. One of the chief reasons given by Catholic authorities as to the need for an infallible teaching magisterium is that we need infallible guidance to understand God’s infallible revelation. Otherwise it will be misinterpreted as with the many Protestant sects.

To this the Protestant must respond, How is an infallible interpretation any better than the infallible revelation? Divine revelation is a disclosure or unveiling by God. But to claim, as Catholics do, that God’s infallible unveiling in the Bible needs further infallible unveiling by God is to say that it was not unveiled properly to begin with.

To be sure, there is a difference between objective disclosure (revelation) and subjective discovery (understanding). But the central problem in this regard is not in the perception of God’s truth. Even His special revelation is “evident” and “able to be understood” (Rom. 1:19-20). Our most significant problem with regard to the truth of God’s revelation is reception. Paul declared that “the natural person does not accept [Gk: dekomai, welcome, receive] what pertains to the Spirit of God…” (1 Cor. 2:14). He cannot “know” (ginosko: know by experience) them because he does not receive them into his life, even though he understands them in his mind. So even though there is a difference between objective disclosure and subjective understanding, humans are “without excuse” for failing to understand the objective revelation of God, whether in nature or in Scripture (Rom. 1:20).

In this regard it is interesting that Catholic theology itself maintains that unbelievers should and can understand the truth of natural law apart from the teaching magisterium. Why then should they need an infallible teaching magisterium in order to properly understand the more explicit divine law?

It seems singularly inconsistent for Catholic scholars to claim they need another mind to interpret Scripture correctly for them when the mind God gave them is sufficient to interpret everything else, including some things much more difficult than Scripture. Many Catholic scholars, for example, are experts in interpreting classical literature, involving both the moral and religious meaning of those texts. Yet these same educated minds are said to be inadequate to obtain a reliable religious and moral interpretation of the texts of their own Scriptures.

Furthermore, it does not take an expert to interpret the crucial teachings of the Bible. The New Testament was written in the vernacular of the times, the trade-language of the first century, known as koine Greek. It was a book written in the common, everyday language for the common, everyday person. Likewise, the vast majority of English translations of the Bible are also written in plain English, including Catholic versions. The essential truths of the Bible can be understood by any literate person. In fact, it is an insult to the intelligence of the common people to suggest that they can read and understand the daily news for themselves but need an infallible teaching magisterium in order to understand God’s Good News for them in the New Testament.

The Problem of Indecisiveness of the Teaching Magisterium. There is another problem with the Catholic argument for an infallible teaching magisterium: if an infallible teaching magisterium is needed to overcome the conflicting interpretations of Scripture, why is it that even these “infallibly” decisive declarations are also subject to conflicting interpretations? There are many hotly disputed differences among Catholic scholars on just what ex cathedra statements mean, including those on Scripture, tradition, Mary, and justification. Even though there may be future clarifications on some of these, the problem remains for two reasons. First, it shows the indecisive nature of supposedly infallible pronouncements. Second, judging by past experience, even these future declarations will not settle all matters completely. Pronouncements on the inerrancy of Scripture are a case in point. Despite “infallible” statements, there is strong disagreement among Catholics on whether the Bible is really infallible in all matters or only on matters of salvation.

Historical Problems

In addition to biblical and theological problems, there are serious historical problems with the Catholic claim for infallibility. Two are of special note here.

The Problem of the Antipopes. Haunting the history of Roman Catholicism is the scandalous specter of having more than one infallible pope at the same time — a pope and an antipope. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says “there have been about thirty-five antipopes in the history of the Church.”[24] How can there be two infallible and opposing popes at the same time? Which is the true pope? Since there is no infallible list of popes or even an infallible way to determine who is the infallible pope, the system has a serious logical problem. Further, this difficulty has had several actual historical manifestations which bring into focus the whole question of an infallible pope.[25]

Catholic apologists claim that there were not really two popes, since only one can be infallible. However, since the faithful have no way to know for sure which one is the pope, which one should they look to for guidance? Each pope can excommunicate the other (and sometimes have). This being the case, claiming that only one is the real pope is at best only a theoretical solution. It does not solve the practical problem of which pope should be followed.

The Problem of Galileo. Perhaps one of the greatest embarrassments to the “infallible” church is its fallible judgment about Galileo Galilei (A.D. 1564-1642), generally known as Galileo. In opposition to Galileo and the Copernican solar-centric theory he adopted, the Catholic church sided with the scientifically outdated Ptolemaic geocentric universe.

In A.D. 1616, the Copernican theory was condemned at Rome.[26] Aristotelian scientists, the Jesuits, the Dominicans, and three popes (Paul V, Gregory XV, and Urban VIII), played key roles in the controversy. Galileo was summoned by the Inquisition in 1632, tried, and on June 21, 1633, pronounced “vehemently suspected of heresy.” Eventually Pope Urban VIII allowed Galileo to return to his home in Florence, where he remained under house arrest until his death in 1642.

After the church had suffered many centuries of embarrassment for its condemnation of Galileo, on November 10, 1979, Pope John Paul II spoke to the Pontifical Academy of Science. In the address titled, “Faith, Science and the Galileo Case,” the pope called for a reexamination of the whole episode.[27] On May 9, 1983, while addressing the subject of the church and science, John Paul II conceded that “Galileo had ‘suffered from departments of the church.'”[28] This, of course, is not a clear retraction of the condemnation, nor does it solve the problem of how an infallible pronouncement of the Catholic church could be in error.

Roman Catholic responses to the Galileo episode leave something to be desired. One Catholic authority claims that while both Paul V and Urban VIII were committed anti-Copernicans, their pronouncements were not ex cathedra. The decree of A.D. 1616 “was issued by the Congregation of the Index, which can raise no difficulty in regard of infallibility, this tribunal being absolutely incompetent to make a dogmatic decree.”[29] As to the second trial in 1633, which also resulted in a condemnation of Galileo, this sentence is said to be of lesser importance because it “did not receive the Pope’s signature.”[30] Another Catholic authority states that although the theologians’ treatment of Galileo was inappropriate, “the condemnation was the act of a Roman Congregation and in no way involved infallible teaching authority.”[31] Still another source observes, “The condemnation of Galileo by the Inquisition had nothing to do with the question of papal infallibility, since no question of faith or morals was papally condemned ex cathedra.”[32] And yet another Catholic apologist suggests that, although the decision was a “regrettable” case of “imprudence,” there was no error made by the pope, since Galileo was not really condemned of heresy but only strongly suspected of it.

None of these ingenious solutions is very convincing, having all the earmarks of after-the-fact tinkering with the pronouncements that resulted from this episode. Galileo and his opponents would be nonplussed to discover that the serious charges leveled against him were not “ex cathedra” in force. And in view of the strong nature of both the condemnation and the punishment, he would certainly be surprised to hear Catholic apologists claim that he was not really being condemned for false teaching but only that “his ‘proof’ did not impress even astronomers of that day — nor would they impress astronomers today”![33]

At any rate, the pope’s condemnation of Galileo only leads to undermine the alleged infallibility of the Catholic church. Of course, Catholic apologists can always resort to their apologetic warehouse — the claim that the pope was not really speaking infallibly on that occasion. As we have already observed, however, constant appeal to this nonverifiable distinction only tends to undermine the very infallibility it purports to defend.


Despite the common creedal and doctrinal heritage of Catholics and Protestants, there are some serious differences.[34] None of these is more basic than the question of authority. Catholics affirm de fide, as an unchangeable part of their faith, the infallible teaching authority of the Roman church as manifested in the present bishop of Rome (the pope). But what Catholics affirm “infallibly” Protestants deny emphatically. This is an impassable roadblock to any ecclesiastical unity between Catholicism and orthodox Protestantism. No talk about “first among equals” or “collegiality” will solve the problem. For the very concept of an infallible teaching magisterium, however composed, is contrary to the basic Protestant principle of sola Scriptura, the Bible alone (see Part Three). Here we must agree to disagree. For while both sides believe the Bible is infallible, Protestants deny that the church or the pope has an infallible interpretation of it.

About the Author

Dr. Geisler is Dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina .


1 Avery Dulles, “Infallibility: The Terminology,” in Teaching Authority and Infallibility in the Church, ed. Paul C. Empie, T. Austin Murphy, and Joseph A. Burgess (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978), 71.
2 Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. Roy J. Deferrari (London: B. Herder Book Co., 1957), no. 1826, 454.
3 Ibid., no. 1839, 457.
4 Ibid., no. 1840.
5 Dulles, 79-80.
6 Ibid.,
7 Ibid., 72.
8 Ibid.
9 They appeal to Denzinger 1839 to support their view.
10 Eastern Orthodoxy is willing to accept the bishop of Rome as “first among equals,” a place of honor coming short of the total superiority Roman Catholics ascribe to the pope.
11 Harold O. J. Brown, The Protest of a Troubled Protestant (New York: Arlington House, 1969), 122.
12 See James R. White, Answers to Catholic Claims (Southbridge, MA: Crowne Publications, 1990), 104-8.
13 Augustine, “On the Gospel of John,” Tractate 12435, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series I (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), 7:450, as cited in Ibid., 106.
14 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) 4:6,4, p. 1105.
15 Many of these arguments are found in White, 101-2.
16 One cannot, as some Catholic scholars do, dismiss this dominant focus on St. Paul rather than Peter on the circumstantial fact that Luke wrote more about Paul because he was his travel companion. After all, it was the Holy Spirit who inspired what Luke wrote.
17 See F. F. Bruce, Peter, Stephen, James and John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), 86ff.
18 This is the literal rendering given in the Roman Catholic New American Bible of Galatians 2:11.
19 See John Jefferson Davis, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994). Also see Ott, 238.
20 Ott, 150.
21 Catholic apologists claim there are objective tests, such as: Was the pope speaking (1) to all believers, (2) on faith and morals, and (3) in his official capacity as pope (see Ott, 207). But these are not definitive as to which pronouncements are infallible for several reasons. First, there is no infallible statement on just what these criteria are. Second, there is not even universal agreement on what these criteria are. Third, there is no universal agreement on how to apply these or any criteria to all cases.
22 Ott, 150.
23 Ibid.
24 F. L. Cross, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 66. See also, A. Mercati, “The New List of the Popes,” in Medieval Studies, ix (1947), 71-80.
25 See Jarislov Pelikan, The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (New York: Abingdon Press, 1960), 40.
26 New Catholic Encyclopedia, 15 vols., prepared by an editorial staff at the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1967), vol. 6, 252.
27 Brown, 177, n. 4.
28 Ibid. See also “Discourse to Scientists on the 350th Anniversary of the Publication of Galileo’s ‘Dialoghi,'” in J. Neuner, S.J. and J. Dupuis, S.J., eds., The Christian Faith: Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church (New York: Alba House, 1990), 68.
29 Charles G. Herbermann, et al., The Catholic Encyclopedia, 15 vols. and index (New York: Robert Appleton Co., 1909), vol. 6, 345.
30 Ibid., 346.
31 New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 6, 254.
32 “Galileo Galilei,” in John J. Delaney and James E. Tobin, Dictionary of Catholic Biography (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1961), 456.
33 See William G. Most, Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1986), 168-69.
34 Interestingly, the problem areas for evangelicals have also been addressed by some well-known Roman Catholic authorities, such as Athanasius, Jerome, and Aquinas. The evangelical case could be made for these writers on a number of issues. For example, Jerome did not accept the Catholic apocryphal (deuterocanonical) books and Aquinas rejected the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary.



WHAT THINK YE OF ROME? (Part Five):  The Catholic‐Protestant Debate on Justification1

by Norman L. Geisler, and Ralph E. MacKenzie, with Elliot Miller


The Protestant Reformers recovered the biblical view of forensic justification, that a person is legally declared righteous by God on the basis of faith alone. In so doing, their principle of “salvation by faith alone” gave a more biblical specificity to the common Augustinian view of “salvation by grace alone” held by Catholics and Protestants alike. For although Rome has always held the essential belief in salvation by grace, its view of justification–made dogma by the Council of Trent–obscures the pure grace of God, if not at times negating it in practice. 

Roman Catholics and evangelicals share a common core of beliefs about salvation. Both camps are greatly indebted to the same church father (Augustine) for their views on this subject. Despite this common heritage, however, the question of how a person is justified before God has always been a fundamental dividing point between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Recently, the Catholic doctrine of justification has become a divisive issue even among evangelicals, as they seek to determine how far they should go in cooperative relations with Catholics.

In this conclusion to our series on Roman Catholicism, we will examine both the commonalities and differences between Catholic and Protestant soteriology (beliefs about salvation). We will give special attention to the Protestant Reformation doctrine of forensic (legal) justification, and we will provide a Protestant critique of the official Roman Catholic response to that doctrine, as embodied in the decrees of the sixteenth‐century Council of Trent.


The earliest serious threat to Christian faith was Gnosticism. This was not a clearly defined movement but was made up of various subgroups drawn from Hellenistic as well as Oriental sources. One of the central beliefs of Gnosticism was that salvation is the escape from the physical body (which is evil) achieved by special knowledge (gnosis; hence, Gnosticism). The understanding of the body as evil led some gnostics to stress control of the body and its desires (asceticism). Others were libertines, leaving the body to its own devices and passions.

The early orthodox theologians and apologists devoted much of their effort to combating Gnosticism. In response to the libertines, the early father Tertullian (A.D. 160‐225) focused on the importance of works and righteousness. In so doing he went so far as to say that “the man who performs good works can be said to make God his debtor.”2 This unfortunate affirmation set the stage for centuries to come.

The “works‐righteousness” concept, which seemed to be so ingenious in combating Gnosticism, was popular for the first 350 years of the churchʹs history. However, a controversy that would produce a more precise definition of the theological elements involved was needed. This dispute came on the scene with the system of Pelagius, and the Christian thinker to confront it was Augustine of Hippo.3


Augustine (A.D. 354‐430) was an intellectual giant. No one has exercised a greater influence over the development of Western Christian thought than the Bishop of Hippo. In dealing with Augustineʹs doctrine of justification, it is important to note that his thinking on this vital issue underwent significant development. Early on Augustine stressed the role of the human will in matters of salvation, a view he would later modify in his disputations with the British monk, Pelagius.

Pelagiusʹs theological system taught the total freedom of the human will and denied the doctrine of original sin. After reflecting on Pauline insights, the later Augustine came to the following conclusions: First, the eternal decree of Godʹs predestination determines manʹs election. Second, Godʹs offer of grace (salvation) is itself a gift (John 6:44a). Third, the human will is completely unable to initiate or attain salvation. This concept squares quite well with the later Reformed doctrine of total depravity. Fourth, the justified sinner does not merely receive the status of sonship, but becomes one. Fifth, God may regenerate a person without causing that one to finally persevere.4 This is basic Calvinism without the perseverance of all the saints.

It would be incorrect to say that Augustine held to the concept of forensic justification. Nonetheless, he did maintain that salvation is by Godʹs grace. That is, no good works precede or merit initial justification (regeneration). Augustine has been regarded as both the last of the church fathers and the first medieval theologian. He marks the end of one era and the beginning of another.

The Early Medieval Period

The medieval period (the “Middle Ages”) is commonly dated from Augustine (or slightly later) to the 1500s. This period saw the balance of power in the church shift from the East (where Christianity began) to the West or Latin wing of the church.

Pelagianism was officially condemned by the church at the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) and again at the Second Council of Orange (A.D. 529), which declared that “if anyone says that the grace of God can be bestowed by human invocation, but that the grace itself does not bring it to pass that it be invoked by us, he contradicts Isias the Prophet….[cf. Isa. 65:l]”5 However, this heresy, along with its more moderate relative semi‐Pelagianism (also condemned at the Council of Orange),6 keeps recurring in church history. It seems that manʹs inclination is toward Pelagianism rather than Augustineʹs Pauline emphasis on the grace of God.

Leo “the Great,” who was the bishop of Rome from A.D. 440‐461, is designated by many non‐Catholic historians as the first “pope” in the modern sense. During his era many Roman Catholic dogmas (which may have existed in germ form earlier) solidified: the supreme authority of the Roman bishop in the church, sacramentalism, sacerdotalism (belief in a priesthood), and the change of emphasis in the Eucharistic Feast from celebration to sacrifice, to name a few. These doctrines influenced medieval soteriology in several ways.

Justification and the Sacraments. During the medieval period baptism and penance were linked with justification. Godʹs righteousness was begun (infused) in baptism and continued (perfected) through penance.

Although this understanding of the nature and purpose of baptism can be found from the earliest of times, the same is not true of the concept of penance. The idea of confession to a priest for the remission of sin existed in the second century but did not become a widespread practice until the early medieval period.

The view that developed was that baptism addresses the problem of original sin; confession cleanses the effect of actual sin. Some theologians of this era took pains to stress that the sacraments were the means God used to mediate grace to man. However, this theological nicety was often lost on the laity who became entangled in a worksrighteousness system.

The Concept of Merit. Closely related to the sacraments in general is the concept of merit. The term was first used by Tertullian and then fully developed by the Schoolmen in the medieval period. As Alister McGrath points out, “It can be shown that a distinction came to be drawn between the concepts of merit and congruity; while man cannot be said to merit justification by any of his actions, his preparation for justification could be said to make his subsequent justification ʹcongruousʹ or ʹappropriate.ʹ”7 Unfortunately, as with the sacraments, this distinction did not always filter down to the common folk.

Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm of Canterbury (A.D. 1033‐1109) was arguably the most penetrating theological thinker between Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. One of Anselmʹs great theological treatises was Cur Deus Homo? (“Why the God‐man?”).8 In it he addressed the relationship between the Incarnation and the Atonement and redirected thinking on the nature and purpose of the Atonement that had been in place since the apostolic era.

A popular doctrine in the early church was the so‐called ransom theory. This understood the Atonement as a deliverance of humanity from the clutches of Satan. Anselmʹs contribution to the doctrine of the Atonement is called the satisfaction theory. It understands the Atonement as compensation to the Father rather than Satan. While forensic justification is not explicit in Anselmʹs theology, the Reformers later built upon his insights and developed the judicial aspect of salvation that they called justification.

Thomas Aquinas

One figure dominated the late medieval period: Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1225?‐1274). Aquinas considered himself Augustinian in his theology, although he preferred to express his philosophical views in Aristotelian terms rather than the Platonic language of Augustine.

Like Augustine, Aquinas believed that regeneration occurs at baptism, and that not all the regenerate will persevere (i.e., not all are of the elect). Contrary to a widespread misunderstanding among Protestants, Aquinas believed that because human beings are fallen, humankind is unable to initiate or attain salvation except by the grace of God.9 Indeed, even faith is a gift of God.10

Like Augustine and Anselm, Aquinas did not distinguish forensic (declarative) justification and progressive sanctification as did the Reformers. Many contemporary Roman Catholic scholars, however, believe that forensic justification is included in the thinking of these men, at least implicitly.

The Augustinianism of Anselm and Aquinas dominated medieval church soteriology (existing in tension with the works orientation of the sacramental system). In light of this it is clear that some basic theological tenets of the coming Reformation are not at irreconcilable odds with the historic church, but are a continuation of it.

Martin Luther

Born in A.D. 1483 in Eisleben, Germany, of middle class parents, Martin Luther entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt in 1505. The themes of salvation and damnation ‐ which were central to the culture of the day ‐ concerned him greatly. Luther became aware of the presence of sin in his life and the ineffectiveness of penance and the other sacraments provided by the church to bring relief to this situation.

In 1511 Luther was transferred from Erfurt to Wittenberg. He lived in the Augustinian cloister and was fortunate to have as his spiritual confessor a godly man ‐ who was also the vicar‐general of the monastery ‐ Johannes von Staupitz (1469‐1524). Staupitz, aware of the intense spiritual struggles that enveloped his young charge, directed Luther to study Scripture. Luther was graduated Doctor of Theology on October 19, 1512 and commenced teaching theology and biblical studies at Wittenberg on August 16, 1513. It was in the context of his assignment at the university that Luther developed his initial ideas concerning justification by faith.

The decisive role in the formulation of Lutherʹs theology was played by the apostle Paul and Augustinianism. It was shortly after his exegesis of Romans 1:16‐17 that Luther concluded that justification is a gift of God, appropriated by faith: “Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ʹthe just shall live by faith.ʹ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”11

The beginning of Martin Lutherʹs break with Rome has often been identified with his posting of the Ninety‐five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg on the eve of All Saints, October 31, 1517. These theses dealt with the penitential system and papal authority, but primarily with the sale of indulgences. With the public display of the Ninety‐five Theses the die was cast, the Reformation began, and Christendom changed forever.

Indicating how deeply his evangelical (Augustinian) principles influenced his theses, Luther was later to write: “And this is the confidence that Christians have and our real joy of conscience, that by faith our sins become no longer ours but Christʹs upon whom God placed the sins of all of us. He took upon himself our sins….All the righteousness of Christ becomes ours….He spreads his cloak and covers us….”12

Before Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation, extrinsic justification, in which a sinner is declared righteous legally, was, at best, a subterranean stream in Christian soteriology. With Luther the situation changed dramatically. However, as Peter Toon notes, “Luther does not employ forensic terms to explain this imputation or alien righteousness. This development will come later, from others.”13 Philipp Melanchthon, Lutherʹs great systematic theologian, did use legal terminology to describe justification.

John Calvin

Without a doubt, the most important Reformed theology to come out of the Protestant Reformation was that of John Calvin. He was born in Noyon, France on July 10, 1509. Young Calvin studied in Paris, where he was familiar with the writings and theology of Luther. He drew his deepest inspiration, however, from Augustine. Calvin believed that he was doing nothing more than reproducing “that holy manʹs own plain and uncompromising teachings.”14

Calvinʹs theological system begins, as did Augustineʹs and Aquinasʹs before him, with manʹs present condition ‐ one of complete moral corruption. For “even though we grant that Godʹs image was not totally annihilated and destroyed in man, yet was it so corrupted that whatever remains is a horrible deformity.”15

Calvin held that “predestination we call the eternal decree of God, which he has determined in himself, what he would have to become of every individual of mankind.”16 Furthermore, “while the elect receive the grace of adoption by faith, their election does not depend on faith, but is prior in time and order.”17

For Calvin, justification “consists in remission of sins and the imputation of Christʹs righteousness.”18 Departing at this point from the medieval tradition, Calvin does not see justification as involving an infusion of grace: “Man is not made righteous in justification, but is accepted as righteous, not on account of his own righteousness, but on account of the righteousness of Christ located outside of man.”19

What place, then, does good works have in the life of the believer? “To the charge that justification thus understood obviates the need for good works, Calvinʹs firm reply is, like Lutherʹs, that although in no respect can good works become the ground of our holiness, a living faith is never devoid of such works. Thus justification necessarily has its consequence in sanctification.”20

Common Soteriological Roots 

A soteriological survey of both the leading Roman Catholic theologians and Protestant Reformers reveals a number of commonalities. First, both believe salvation is effected through historic, divine intervention. Against Gnosticism, Catholics and Protestants jointly affirm that man is not saved by wisdom, but by Godʹs action in history in the person of Jesus Christ.

Second, both evangelicals and Catholics believe salvation is moral and spiritual. Salvation is related to a deliverance from sin and its consequences.

Third, salvation is eschatological for both Catholics and evangelicals. The future perspective is crucial. All that is now known about salvation is preliminary and a foretaste of the fullness, which awaits the completing of the kingdom at the Parousia (physical “presence” or second coming) of the Lord.

Fourth, the grace of God is absolutely necessary for salvation. And, initial justification is based on grace alone, apart from all works. Thus, Colin Brown can speak of “the Augustinian orthodoxy of Geneva [Calvinʹs home base] and Rome.”21 For both groups, salvation comes as a gift of God to undeserving humanity.

It is against the backdrop of this common heritage that the important soteriological differences between Catholics and evangelicals must be viewed. As Harold O. J. Brown put it, “We must not oversimplify and create an artificial and forced consensus between great Christians of the past and present. Yet if one thing stands out when one studies the writings and lives of such men, it is that they knew and served the same Lord, and that they shared one faith and one hope.”22


The Council of Trent, which began its deliberations on June 22, 1546, was the Catholic response to the Reformers. A proper understanding of the Catholic view of justification is not possible apart from an understanding of the decrees of Trent.

The Council considered the following questions concerning justification: (1) Is justification only extrinsic (judicial) in nature or is there also an intrinsic (sanctifying) work involved? (2) What is the relationship between faith and good works? (3) Does the human will have an active roll in justification? (4) How are justification and sacraments such as the Eucharist, baptism, and penance related? (5) Can the believer know with certainty that he or she is justified? (6) Can humans incline themselves toward justification, and if so, is this inclination to be understood as meritorious?23

On January 9, 1547, the Council participants agreed on a final formula for justification: First, although several Council members recognized an extrinsic element in justification (thereby approaching the Reformers on this point), the consensus view was that “the opinion that a sinner may be justified solely as a matter of reputation or imputation…is rejected.” And so, “justification is thus defined in terms of a man becoming, and not merely being reputed as, righteous…” (emphases added).24

Second, in that Trent understands justification in two senses (the second corresponding to the Reformed doctrine of sanctification), good works are required in the second sense as a condition for ultimate justification. Therefore, it is possible and necessary (in this second sense) to keep the law of God.

Third, Trent, taking into account original sin, states that sin has affected the human race. Therefore man cannot effect his own salvation, Free will, while not destroyed, is weakened by the Fall. For “if anyone shall say that manʹs free will moved and aroused by God does not cooperate by assenting to God who looses and calls…let him be anathema.”25 (It is important to note that “anathema” is a decree of excommunication, not automatic damnation.) So, as one Catholic author put it, “The sinner indeed cooperates with this grace, at least in the sense of not sinfully rejecting it.”26 Of course, most Protestants agree with this. Many Protestants, Calvinists in particular, add quickly (as would Catholic Thomists) that it is God by His grace who brings about this cooperation. But He does this without destroying manʹs free choice.

Fourth, the subject of the sacraments was addressed at Session VII (March 3, 1547). In order to understand these pronouncements, one must remember that Trent understood justification in two ways ‐ the “first” and “second” phases which Catholic scholars refer to as initial and progressive justification respectively. Baptism is operative in the

“first” or “initial” justification, since grace to overcome original sin is “mediated” to us through baptism. Both the Eucharist and penance pertain to the “second” or “progressive” sense of justification, and such justification (i.e., righteousness) is said to be “increased” by participation in these sacraments. There is finally a third or “ultimate” stage of justification by which, providing one had not committed a mortal sin, he or she is allowed into heaven.

Fifth, due to the Reformersʹ stress on the assurance of salvation, Trent was forced to deal with the subject. McGrath claims that they issued “an explicit condemnation of the Lutheran doctrine of assurance as an assertion contrary to proper Christian humility.”27 However, this explicit condemnation deals with “infallible certainty,” which many Catholic scholars point out is not necessary, if indeed it is possible. In fact, “in many ways Roman [Catholic] dogmatics have pointed out that Romeʹs rejection of personal assurance of salvation does not mean the proclamation of a religion of uninterrupted anxiety.”28 For the Roman Catholic “there is an intermediate position between the assurance of faith and doubt. This position is that of moral certainty which excludes any anxiety and despair.”29 Thus, Christians can be said to have relative, not absolute (i.e., infallible), certainty of salvation.

Sixth, Trent states that our initial justification must be seen as a “gift.” Thus, it comes as a surprise to many Protestants that Roman Catholics believe that “if anyone shall say that man can be justified before God by his own works which are done…without divine grace through Christ Jesus: let him be anathema.”30 Further, “none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace of justification. For if it is by grace, it is no more by works; otherwise, as the apostle says, grace is no more grace.”31

In this connection it is only fair to point out that when Catholic scholars cite James 2:24 ‐ that “we are justified by works” ‐ they do not mean this initial justification at baptism which comes only by grace. Rather, they are referring to progressive justification (growth in righteousness) which Protestants call sanctification. On the other hand, Trent does assert that works are necessary for salvation in the progressive and eventual senses. For Trent made it dogma that “by his good works the justified man really acquires a claim to supernatural reward from God.”32 And it is precisely here that Catholics and evangelicals disagree.


With all due recognition of the common Augustinian core of salvation by grace, there are some important differences between the Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant views of justification. Unfortunately, the well‐intentioned but unsuccessful recent statement, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” lacked precision in these very areas, speaking of a common belief that “we are justified by grace through faith.”33 What it failed to note, however, is what the Reformation was fought over, namely, that Scripture teaches, and Protestants affirm, that we are saved by grace through faith alone (sola fide). Since this was the heart cry of the Reformation, many evangelicals refuse to sign the statement, believing it would betray the Reformation.

The Biblical Basis for Forensic Justification

In order to appreciate the significant contribution of the Reformers it is necessary to examine the biblical background of the term justification. As we will see, there are solid biblical grounds for the Protestant doctrine of forensic justification.

The background for the doctrine of forensic justification (as with other New Testament doctrines as well) is found in the Old Testament. Concerning the Hebrew word hitsdiq, usually rendered “justify,” more often than not it is “used in a forensic or legal sense, as meaning, not ʹto make just or righteous,ʹ but ʹto declare judicially that one is in harmony with the law.ʹ”34 George Eldon Ladd notes that “he is righteous who is judged to be in the right (Ex. 23:7; Deut. 25:1); i.e., who in judgment through acquittal thus stands in a right relationship with God.”35

Turning to the New Testament, the Greek verb translated “to justify” is dikaioó. This word is used by Paul in a forensic or legal sense; the sinner is declared to be righteous (cf. Rom. 3‐4). As Anthony Hoekema observes, “The opposite of condemnation, however, is not ʹmaking righteousʹ but ʹdeclaring righteous.ʹ” Therefore, by dikaioó, Paul means the “legal imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believing sinner.”36

When a person is justified, God pronounces that one acquitted ‐ in advance of the final judgment. Therefore, “the resulting righteousness is not ethical perfection; it is ʹsinlessnessʹ in the sense that God no longer counts a manʹs sin against him (II Cor. 5:19).”37 Thus we find in the New Testament that “justification is the declarative act of God by which, on the basis of the sufficiency of Christʹs atoning death, he pronounces believers to have fulfilled all of the requirements of the law which pertain to them” (emphasis in original).38

The Incompatibility of Grace and Merit

Much criticism of the Catholic view of justification revolves around the concept of merit that was elevated by Trent to the status of infallible dogma. While Catholics wish to remind us that the whole doctrine of merit should be viewed in the context of grace,39 they overlook the fact that Scripture teaches that grace and meritorious works are mutually exclusive (e.g., Rom. 11:6).

The New Testament clearly speaks against obtaining salvation (whether justification or sanctification) as a “reward” (i.e., wage) for work done. For the Scriptures insist that gifts cannot be worked for; only wages can (Rom. 4:4‐5). Grace means unmerited favor, and reward based on works is merited. Hence, grace and works are no more coherent than is an unmerited merit!

Eternal Life Is a Gift That Cannot Be Merited

The Council of Trent declared clearly that to “those who work well ʹunto the endʹ [Matt. 10:22], and who trust in God, life eternal is to be proposed, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Christ Jesus, ʹand as a recompenseʹ which is…to be faithfully given to their good works and merit.”40 By contrast, the Bible declares clearly and emphatically that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

Further, in direct opposition to the Catholic position, the Bible guarantees eternal life is a present possession of those who believe. Jesus said: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my words and believes in the one who sent me has [present tense] eternal life and will not come into condemnation, but is [right now] passed from death to life.” This same truth is repeated over and over in Scripture (e.g., John 3:36; 1 John 5:13). But according to the Roman Catholic view, one must await a final justification at death to know whether he or she has eternal life and will not see Godʹs condemnation.

In the entire Gospel of John only one condition is laid down for obtaining eternal life ‐ belief (John 3:16, 36; 5:24; 20:31, etc.). If salvation were not by faith alone, then the whole message of John would be deceptive, stating that there is only one condition for salvation when there are two: faith plus works. Indeed, John states explicitly that the only “work” necessary for salvation is to believe (John 6:29). There is simply nothing else to do for our salvation. Jesus did it all (John 19:31).

It is true that all who are saved by Godʹs grace through faith (Eph. 2:8‐9) will be rewarded for their works for Christ (1 Cor. 3:11ff.; 2 Cor. 5:10). These rewards for service, however, have nothing to do with whether we will be in heaven, but only have to do with what status we will have there. As Jesus said, some of the saved will reign over ten cities and others over five (Luke 19:17, 19). But all believers will be in His kingdom.

Christians Work from Salvation, Not for It

Put in traditional terms, Catholicism fails to recognize the important difference between working for salvation and working from salvation. We do not work in order to receive salvation; rather, we work because we have already received it. God works salvation in us by justification and we work it out in sanctification (Phil. 2:12‐13). But neither justification nor sanctification can be merited by works; they are given by grace.

Despite the fact that the Catholic understanding of salvation does not logically eliminate forensic justification, nevertheless, it does obscure it. For when one fails to make a clear distinction between forensic justification and practical sanctification, then the good works Catholics believe are needed for sanctification tend to obscure the fact that works are not needed for justification.

Of course, good works are necessary in the Christian life. But Protestants have solved the problem in a much more biblical and balanced way. They insist that while we are saved by faith alone, nevertheless, the faith that saves us is not alone. It inevitably produces good works. That is, we are saved by faith but for works. Works are not a condition of justification but they are a consequence of it. Thus, someone who is truly saved will manifest good works. If there are no good works present, then there is no reason to believe that true saving faith is present either.

As James said, “Faith without works is dead.” Such faith cannot save. “Can [mere intellectual] faith save him?” Only the kind of faith that produces good works can save. So, we are not saved (i.e., do not receive eternal life) by works, but we are saved by the kind of faith that produces good works.

Preserving the Pure Doctrine of Grace

We conclude by noting that Protestants, following the clear biblical distinction between forensic justification and practical sanctification, make the way of salvation much clearer and preserve the doctrine of grace (which Catholics also claim) in a much purer form. For once believers know they have right standing before God (=are justified) by faith alone apart from works, then their minds are not cluttered with works they must perform in order to know all their sins are forgiven (past, present, and future) and they are on their way to heaven.

While Catholicism acknowledges that there is an initial act of justification (which some even admit includes a forensic act), nevertheless, it also maintains that one must work to faithfully avoid mortal sin in order to achieve final justification before God. Thus, works are ultimately necessary for salvation. But this is contrary to the biblical teaching that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, based on Christ alone. And, despite Catholic protest to the contrary, this is not conducive to the assurance of salvation by which we “know…[we] have eternal life” (1 John 5:13), and by which we are connected to God by His inseparable love (Rom. 8:1, 36‐39).


1This material is taken from a forthcoming book by Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and

Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Baker, 1995), as extensively edited by Elliot Miller.

2Tertullian, De paenitentia 2; 1.323.44‐6.

3An excellent historical analysis of this period can be found in Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, vol. l (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1986), 1‐23. 

4Augustine, City of God 10.8.

5Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. Roy J. Deferrari from the 30th edition of Henry Denzingerʹs

Enchiridion Symbolorum (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1957), “Grace” Can. 3.176., p. 76.

6Semi‐Pelagianism held that man cooperated with God by ordinarily taking the first steps toward salvation.  7McGrath, 110. 

8Or “Why God Became Man?” The Library of Christian Classics, vol. X, ed. and trans. Eugene R. Fairweather

(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1951).

9See, e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae. 2, 4, in The Basic Writings of Thomas Aquinas, ed. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1944), 1079.

10Aquinas, 2a2ae. 2, 6, ad 1.

11Cited by R. H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abington, 1978), 65. 

12Martin Luther, Explanations of the Ninety‐five Theses, published August 1518.

13Peter Toon, Justification and Sanctification (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1983), 58. 

14Bernard M. G. Reardon, Religious Thought in the Reformation (London: Longman, 1981), 190. 15John Calvin, Institutes, III, I xv, 4.

16Ibid., 2, i.

17J. K. S. Reid, trans., Calvin: Theological Treatises, vol. 22, The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), article 5.

18Calvin, 2I, xi, 2.

19Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1986), 36.

20Reardon, 196.

21Colin Brown, Christianity and Western Thought, vol. 1 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 165. 22Harold O. J. Brown, The Protest of a Troubled Protestant (New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1969), 107. 23McGrath, 69.

24Ibid., 72. The words “solely” and “merely” in these quotes indicate that Trent did not reject forensic justification as such. 

25Denzinger, 814, 258. 

26H. George Anderson, Justification by Faith (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1985), 34.

27McGrath, vol. 2, 78.

28Gerrit C. Berkouwer, The Conflict with Rome (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1958),


29Bernhard Bartmann, Lehrbuch der Dogmatik, II, 109. Quoted in Ibid., 115.

30“Trent,” see Denzinger, 811, p. 258. 

31Ibid., ch. 8, 801, 252.

32Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1960), 264.

33“Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” final draft (29 March 1994). 

34Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 154.

35George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 440.

36Hoekema, 154.

37Ladd, 446. 

38Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 956. 

39See Avery Dulles, S. J., in Anderson, 274.

40Denzinger, 809, p. 257.




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Why Roman Catholics are Leaving the Church in Mass

Why Roman Catholics are Leaving the Roman Catholic Church in Mass

Norman L. Geisler


True, there are a few intellectual evangelicals who are becoming Roman Catholic, but the overall trend is in the other direction.  Actually, the Roman Church is hemorrhaging members.  A 2007 Pew Foundation survey revealed that Catholics have experienced the greatest net loss of any American religion.  Were it not for immigrant Catholics, the percent of Catholics in America would be decreasing.  In 1997 a Catholic sociologist reported that one in seven Hispanic Catholics was abandoning the church.  According to World Magazine (Jan. 15, 2011), the number is nearly one in five.  And it is almost one in four for second-generation Latinos.

This is good news and bad news.  It is bad news in that most of those who leave Rome are claiming no religion at all.  It is good news for evangelicalism since 40 percent of those who leave the Roman Church are becoming evangelical.

Why do a few intellectual evangelicals become Catholics?  Many reasons are given.  It is an older, deeper, richer, more intellectual tradition.  Or, to summarize one recent convert, “My family is Catholic.  They wanted me to return, and the Bible says we should honor our parents!”   It is clear that none of these are a test for the truth of a religion, and by the same logic one could argue for becoming a Hindu, Buddhist, or even an atheist.  We have weighed all of these reasons (in Is Rome the True Church?) and found them wanting.  As for the appeal of the intellectual tradition, I have a Ph.D. in philosophy from a Jesuit institution and have never once been tempted to become a Roman Catholic.  If you want to compare the two, read our book, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences.  My co-author Ralph MacKenzie and I both have Catholicism in our background.  We have studied both sides carefully, and we see no reason to swim the Tiber.

On the other hand, why are so many former Catholics becoming evangelical?  In short, they are having a personal experience with God through Christ that they never found in Romanism.  As one of my liturgical friends once put it to me, “The problem with our church is that we tend to confuse lace and grace.”  Evangelical converts from Rome like Christ Castaldo (see his, Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic) say they feel a liberation from ritual and a freedom of guilt they never had in Romanism.  Tens of thousands of these Catholic converts end up in one of the large Calvary Chapel churches where they are singing God-centered praise music and being taught the Word of God verse-by-verse.  This is something that Rome with all its layers of tradition has lost.  Thomas Aquinas (13th cent.), who was more of a pre-Protestant, taught the Bible verse by verse.  But what we know of as “Roman” Catholicism today, with its belief in works being necessary for salvation, the veneration of and prayers to Mary, the worship of the consecrated host, buying indulgences, Purgatory, adding apocryphal books (which supports praying for the dead) to the inspired Scripture, and bowing to the infallibility of the Pope, simply cannot compete with the simplicity of the evangelical Gospel: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31).

So, while we are losing a few intellectual egg-heads out the top of evangelicalism to Rome, we are gaining tens of thousands of converts out the bottom from Catholicism.  The trade-off highly favors evangelicalism.  So, invite a Catholic to your Bible study or church.  There is a good possibility that they will get saved!  They have a least been pre-evangelized by Roman Catholicism to believe in God, miracles, Christ, His death and resurrection.  Once they find that works are not a necessary condition for salvation (Rom. 4:5; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:3-6) but that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, they will make great evangelical Christians.  They will realize that we can’t work for grace but that we do work from grace.

Dr. Geisler is the author of Should Old Aquinas Be Forgotten? Many Say Yes but the Author Says No. (Bastion Books:2013), What Augustine Says (Bastion Books:2013), Is the Pope Infallible: A Look at the Evidence (Bastion Books:2012), Is Rome the True Church? A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim (Crossway Books:2008), and Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Baker Academic:1995). For additional resources by Dr. Geisler on Roman Catholicism, please visit

Yes, the “in Mass” is a play on en masse. 😉

Does Thomism Lead to Catholicism?

Does Thomism Lead to Catholicism?

By Norman L. Geisler

            Thomas Aquinas, the great philosopher and theologian, was a Roman Catholic.  And there are a growing number of non-Catholic scholars who have become Thomists.  And some of these have become Roman Catholic. Is there a logical connection?  Does Thomism lead to Catholicism? It is natural that one would want to examine this connection.

The Reason Some Non-Catholic Thomists become Roman Catholic

            There are a variety of reasons why non-Catholics become Roman Catholic.  Let’s examine some of them.  There is the appeal of antiquity, unity, continuity, beauty, fraternity (or paternity), intellectuality, and a desire for certainty (see Geisler, Is Rome the True Church? chap. 8).  Any one or more of these appeal to some evangelicals.  It is noteworthy that none of these or combination of them is a valid test for truth.

Few evangelicals become Catholic because they became convinced by the study of Scripture that Rome is the true Church.  Hardly anyone reasons his way to Rome purely by an objective study of the evidence.  For example, one recent convert to Catholicism wrote, “My family is Catholic.  They wanted me to return, and the Bible says we should honor our parents!”   It is clear that none of these reasons is a good test for the truth of a religion for by the same logic one could argue for becoming a Hindu, Buddhist, or even an atheist, if their family belonged to that group.  Or, one could become Eastern Orthodox, if he was looking for a tradition older than his.

We have weighed the many reasons some evangelicals have become Catholic (in Is Rome the True Church?), and almost no one said it was because their study of Thomistic philosophy led them there.  As for the appeal of the intellectual tradition in Catholicism, I have a Ph.D. in philosophy from a Catholic (Jesuit) institution and have never once been tempted to become a Roman Catholic.  I have used my scholarly training in both traditions to compare them (see Geisler, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences). My co-author Ralph MacKenzie and I both have Catholicism in our background.  We have studied both sides carefully, and we see no reason to swim the Tiber.

One recent convert to Catholicism admits that it was not good reasoning that led him to Rome but faith.  He said, “The false disciples only follow Jesus when they agree with his teaching.  If I am very honest, the rationalism of my evangelical faith would have put me in the first camp (those who reject it because it is hard to understand) for I rejected the doctrine of the Real Presence based on theological arguments (It is a hard teaching), rather than placing my faith in Christ who taught it” (emphasis added).  Of course, once one places his faith in the Roman system (for whatever reason), the rest is all part of a package deal.

Whatever the reason is that people become Catholic, I have never seen anyone make the case that Roman Catholicism flows logically from Thomistic philosophy.  The reason for this is simple: there is no logical connection between them.  Aquinas himself said there is no logical connection between Thomism and Roman Catholicism.  Further, experience shows that there are many Thomists who are not Roman Catholic.

The Thomistic Distinction Between Faith and Reason

Aquinas believed that faith and reason were such distinct domains that even belief in God could not be an object of both faith and reason simultaneously.

The Formal Distinction between Faith and Reason

Although Aquinas did not actually separate faith and reason, he did distinguish them formally. He affirmed that we cannot both know and believe the same thing at the same time. For “whatever things we know with scientific [philosophical] knowledge properly so called we know by reducing them to first principles which are naturally present to the understanding. All scientific knowledge terminates in the sight of a thing which is present [whereas faith is always in something absent]. Hence, it is impossible to have faith and scientific [philosophical] knowledge about the same thing.” (See Aquinas, Should Old Aquinas be Forgotten, chap. 5).

The Object of Faith is Beyond Reason

For Aquinas, the object of faith is above the senses and understanding. “Consequently, the object of faith is that which is absent from our understanding.” As Augustine said, we believe that which is absent, but we see that which is present. So we cannot prove and believe the same thing.  For if we see it, we don’t believe it.  And if we believe it, then we don’t see it.  For “all science [philosophical knowledge] is derived from self-evident and therefore seen principles. . . . Now, . . . it is impossible that one and the same thing should be believed and seen by the same person.” This means “that a thing which is an object of vision or science for one, is believed by another” (ibid.). It does not mean that one and the same person can have both faith and proof of one and the same object. If one sees it rationally, then he does not believe it on the testimony of others. And if he believes it on the testimony of another, then he does not see (know) it for himself.

We Can Reason about Faith but not to Faith

Nonetheless, “this does not prevent the understanding of one who believes from having some discursive thought of comparison about those things which he believes.” Discursive thought, or reasoning from premises to conclusions, is not the cause of the assent of faith. Nonetheless, such reasoning “can accompany the assent of faith.” The reason they are parallel but one does not cause the other is that “faith involves will (freedom) and reason doesn’t coerce the will” (ibid.). That is, a person is free to dissent even though there may be convincing reasons to believe.

Reason Cannot Produce Faith

Reason accompanies but does not cause faith. “Faith is called a consent without inquiry in so far as the consent of faith, or assent, is not caused by an investigation of the understanding.” Commenting on Ephesians 2:8-9, Aquinas contends that “free will is inadequate for the act of faith since the contents of faith are above reason. . . . So, reason cannot lead someone to faith” (ibid., emphasis added).  At best, reason is the preamble to faith in God and in Christ.  So, the Christian Faith as such does not follow logically from philosophy—even Thomistic philosophy.  The best philosophy can do is to prepare the way for faith, but it does not logically lead to faith, let alone to a particular faith like the Roman Catholic Faith.

Faith Goes Beyond Reason

A philosophical argument contains no premises borrowed from faith.  It stands on its own two philosophical “feet.”  Further, according to Aquinas, unique doctrines of the Christian Faith (such as the Trinity and the Incarnation of Christ) are not the result of human reason.  No rational process, no matter how sophisticated, can attain to these unique Christian doctrines.  They are not contrary to reason (since there is no contradiction in them), but they go beyond reason.  Given this difference between what can be known by reason and what can be known only by faith, it is obvious that Thomistic philosophy does not lead logically to Roman Catholicism.

Thomists Who were Not Roman Catholic

Not only is there no logical connection between Thomism and Catholicism, but historically there is no actual connection for many Thomistic philosophers have not been Roman Catholic.  Eric Mascal was an Anglican Thomist.  David Johnson is a Lutheran Thomist.  John Gerstner, R. C. Sproul, and Arvin Vos are Reformed Thomists.  Win Corduan and myself are Evangelical Thomists.  Thomas Howe, and Richard Howe are Baptistic Thomists.  Joseph Holden is a Calvary Chapel Thomist.  Mortimer Adler saw no contradiction in being a Jewish Thomist for many years (before he became a Catholic), and so on.  There are many more.

It is true that a number of evangelical Thomists have become Roman Catholic (e.g., Thomas Howard, Jay Budziszewski, and Frank Beckwith).  However, none of them did so because the philosophical principles of Thomism drove them there. The truth is that there is no logical connection between them. Thomistic philosophy as such does not logically or philosophically lead to Roman Catholicism, any more than it leads to being a Presbyterian or a Baptist.  So, if a Thomist becomes a Roman Catholic, it is not because of any philosophical necessity arising out of Thomism.

This is not to say that some evangelicals who do not have a very deep liturgical, aesthetic or intellectual history are not attracted to Catholicism.  Some are, but some are also attracted to Eastern Orthodoxy or Anglicanism.  But many remain content with their evangelical faith—and that for good reasons. Converted Catholic Chris Castaldo expressed this in his book Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic when he rejoiced in the sense of liberation from ritual and guilt he never had in Romanism. Tens of thousands of former Catholics who have become evangelical were attracted by the personal, Bible-based experiences evangelicalism provided with the simple Gospel message and a personal relation with Christ they obtained through it.

I have a strong background in Catholicism, having been trained in two Jesuit institutions with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Loyola University. However, there are several basic reasons that I have not been attracted to Catholicism.  First, I am satisfied with being an evangelical doctrinally, experientially, and philosophically. Second, I have not seen any convincing reasons biblically or otherwise to tempt me to become Roman Catholic. Third, my systematic study of Catholicism has convinced me that it is based on unbiblical and unreasonable grounds. Fourth, I have never had the tendency to confuse lace and grace, or to connect ritual and reality very closely.  Finally, there are some Catholic doctrines and practices that I find unbiblical and even distasteful such as, purgatory, praying for the dead, indulgences, venerating images, praying to Mary, venerating Mary, the bodily assumption of Mary, worshipping the consecrated host, and the infallibility of the Pope—to mention a few.

The Protestant Dimensions in Thomas Aquinas

Even though there is no logical connection between Thomistic philosophy and Catholicism, I have found many philosophical and even theological similarities between evangelicalism and Thomistic philosophy that make it attractive to me as an evangelical.

Aquinas was a pre-Trentian Catholic, part of what may be called the “Old Catholic Church” with which Episcopalians would be happy on most counts.  As such, Aquinas was not committed to the immaculate conception of Mary, the bodily assumption of Mary, the infallibility of the Pope and a number of other Roman Catholic idiosyncracies.  Further, Aquinas was committed to sola Scripture, exposition of Scripture, and other characteristic doctrine of Protestanism (see Geisler, Aquinas, ibid., chap. 4).  His basic Bibliology (minus the Apocrypha), Prolegomena, Apologetics, Theology Proper, and Christology are compatible with evangelicalism.

As a matter of fact, I find Aquinas’s philosophy to be a helpful prolegomena for evangelical theology.  After all, Aquinas defended metaphysical realism, the correspondence view of truth, proposition revelation, classical apologetics, and classical theism—all of which are helpful to defending the evangelical positions.  Indeed, one has to search hard, if not in vain, to find an evangelical philosopher who can match Aquinas in these areas.

But what we know of as “Roman” Catholicism today, with its belief in works being necessary for salvation, the veneration of and prayers to Mary, the worship of the consecrated host, buying indulgences, Purgatory, adding apocryphal books (in supports praying for the dead) to the inspired Scripture, and bowing to the infallibility of the Pope, simply cannot compete with the simplicity of the evangelical Gospel: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31). And, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has [right now] eternal life.  He does not come into judgment, but has [already] passed from death unto life” (Jn. 5:24).

So, my attraction to Thomism is somewhat like my attraction to C.S. Lewis.  There are many things I like about Lewis’s views, e.g., his apologetics, his belief in absolute truth and morals, his classical theism, his defense of New Testament miracles, his affirmation of the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation of Christ, his belief in the resurrection of Christ, eternal punishment (Hell). However, there are also some of Lewis’s beliefs which I do not accept, e.g. his denial of some Old Testament miracles, his belief that the OT contains myths and errors, and his belief in evolution, and in Purgatory.  But none of these hinder my acceptance of the many positive values I find in Lewis.  But in spite of my acceptance of all these positive features in Lewis, I have never been tempted to become an Anglican (as he was).

Likewise, many protestant identify closely with the writings of St. Augustine, but would not think of throwing out his philosophy entirely because he claimed to be a Catholic, accepted books of the Apocrypha, believed in baptismal regeneration, and other Catholic teachings.

So, in spite of the many positive aspects of Aquinas’s beliefs, I have never been thereby tempted to become an Anglican—or even an Episcopalian.  One can profit by the positive philosophical views of Lewis without buying into negative religious views. Why throw the baby of truth out with the bath water of error in the name is Aquinas or Lewis?


Turn about is Fair Play

While we are losing a few intellectual egg-heads out the top of evangelicalism to Rome, we are gaining tens of thousands of converts to evangelicalism out of the bottom from Catholicism.  The trade-off highly favors evangelicalism. There are literally tens of thousands of Catholics in South America who have become evangelical.  Some countries (like Brazil) are nearly a third Catholic now.  Also, tens of thousands of these Catholic converts end up in one of the large evangelical churches where they are singing God-centered praise music and being taught the Word of God.  This is something that Rome with all its layers of tradition has lost.  Once they find that works are not a necessary condition for salvation (Rom. 4:5; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:3-6) but that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, they make great evangelical Christians.  They realize that we can’t work for grace but that we do work from grace.  Once they learn that we can have eternal life now (John 5:24) by faith and do not have to work for it or wait until they die, they are exuberant.

I for one welcome the Thomistic renewal in evangelicalism.  In a world of experientialism, a shot of Thomistic “rationalism” is more than welcome.  Likewise, Thomism is a good antidote for the New Age mysticism that has penetrated some of evangelicalism.  In addition, the Angelic Doctor’s emphasis on objective truth and propositional revelation is a sure cure for Barthian existentialism that has infiltrated the evangelical view of Scripture.  As  Reformed Thomist John Gerstner put it, “God wants to reach the heart, but he does not want to bypass the head on the way to the heart.”  Thomism can definitely help in this department.  Last but not least, Thomistic metaphysics is the only solid answer to the drift into Open Theism and process views of God.   Of course, Rome is not home soteriologically (salvation) or ecclesiologically (church), but Thomism does embrace important truths in Prolegomena, Apologetics, Theology Proper, and Metaphysics which evangelicals desperately need today.  In brief, there is too much good in Aquinas’s views to be singing “Should Old Aquinas be Forgotten!”


Dr. Geisler is the author of Should Old Aquinas Be Forgotten? Many Say Yes but the Author Says No. (Bastion Books:2013), What Augustine Says (Bastion Books:2013), Is the Pope Infallible: A Look at the Evidence (Bastion Books:2012), Is Rome the True Church? A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim (Crossway Books:2008), and Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Baker Academic:1995). For additional resources by Dr. Geisler on Roman Catholicism, please visit