09 June, 2009

Is the final authority for faith the Bible or the Church?

The biblical Canon came about out of necessity because of the growing problem of heresies within the Church. It became necessary to decide not only what books were inspired by God but which books in the New Testament were suitable for instruction of the faithful. It is undisputable that by this time the Septuagint had been fully accepted by the Christian Church as we see by the quoting from it by Jesus, the apostles and by the early Church fathers.

In the early centuries of the Church there were many different writings circulating in the various congregations of the Church. Most of these writings never became part of the Canon of Scriptures and after the African Synods most of these books ceased to be used by the Church. Eventually some of these books were banned by Pope St. Gelasius in His purge of Gnostic writings of the heretics.

Some would say that the inspiration of what would become the New Testament books was recognized from the beginning of the Church but the historical evidence of the writings of the Church fathers stand in opposition to such a premise. We see opposition to these writings in reading such works as Irenaeus’ work “Against Heresies” and other works as well and disagreements between different bishops in their writings which oppose the idea that these books were accepted from the beginning as inspired. What we see instead is the authority of the Church through the bishops using the authority given to them through apostolic succession. Just as the Pharisees sat in Moses seat and were the authority under the Old Covenant (Mat 23:2-3) so are the bishops of Christ’s Church the authority calling on the Sacred Traditions handed to them by their consecrators. So, it was not until the bishops gathered together at the African Synods, under the inspiration of the Spirit and the authority given by Christ (Mat 16:19) that the New Testament became the Canon of Scriptures.

Prior to the African Synods all authority came from the teaching authority of the Church and not from Scriptures which remains the primary rule of faith which is always in accordance with Scriptures. We must take seriously the teaching of Jesus who said about the Pharisees, you must follow “everything they tell you” because they sit in Moses seat. That is the foremost teaching of Jesus on the veracity of sacred Tradition as the authority of the faithful and points out explicitly that Jesus did not forbid all of the traditions, even all of those taught by the Pharisees.

It is hard to deny that using the Bible alone is creating an opportunity to ignore most of the teaching of Jesus. St John makes this clear in the following verse:

(Joh 21:25 DRB) But there are also many other things which Jesus did which, if they were written every one, the world itself. I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written.

This writing is as inspired as any other writing of Scripture and it is not logical to assume that just because something is not taught explicitly in the Scriptures that it was not taught by Jesus or is not true. This would explain the fact that many of the practices and teachings of the first century Church are not written because they were an ongoing practice needing no explanation in writing for correction as some of those practices explained. Therefore the logical conclusion is that St. Paul was correct, we must hold fast to both the oral and the written Traditions of the Church for a fullness of truth. Disobedience to either is a serious error.

(2Th 2:15 DRB) (2:14) Therefore, brethren, stand fast: and hold the traditions, which you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle.

St. Paul further reinforces this teaching when instructing St. Timothy in ordaining others to teaching authority. He reiterates what he had previously told St. Timothy as recorded in the following:

(2Ti 2:2 DRB) And the things which thou hast heard of me by many witnesses, the same commend to faithful men who shall be fit to teach others also.

What we see here is St. Paul following Jesus’ teaching in his instructions to St. Timothy:

(Mat 28:19 DRB) Going therefore, teach ye all nations: baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.

As this instruction from Jesus says, Christianity is a living faith with its teaching entrusted to those in apostolic succession to the original apostles. We are not to act as people of a book but people of God where the written Traditions are a complement to the oral teaching of the Church and not a weapon to be used against it. Could this be why there is nowhere in the Bible where it says that it contains the final authority for faith? It says the contrary, that the Church is the final authority instead but only that the Bible is useful:

(2Ti 3:16 DRB) All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice:

Clearly this points out that Sola Scriptura is a contradiction to Scripture.

Let us consider, the central and essential belief of Christianity is the belief in the Trinitarian God yet this is not taught in Scriptures in an explicit way. In fact the word “Trinity” is nowhere to be found in all of Scriptures yet we as Christians believe because the Church as the final authority has decided that this is the true belief in God. Is this consistent with the Sola Scriptura doctrine? Of course not, but it is consistent with the Church being the final authority for faith, just as St. Paul taught and the Church declares. Let me conclude with the following that puts this whole discussion in proper perspective, lest there be doubt:

(1Ti 3:15 DRB) But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

For further understanding of the teaching of the Church according to authority read the letter of St. Ignatius to the Magnesians for insight as to how this authority was applied at the end of the first century.

St. Ignatius was the disciple of both St. John and St. Peter believed to have been consecrated to the bishopric of Antioch by St. Peter himself and following him as the third bishop of Antioch. He was martyred at the coliseum upon orders of the emperor Trajan by being eaten by the beasts before a cheering crowd whose glee was only exceeded by the joy of St. Ignatius at the honor of his martyrdom.

In Christ
Fr. Joseph

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