Three Biblical Arguments for the Authority of the Church

My friend Al Kresta (a Catholic radio talk-show host and author) once noted that in C. S. Lewis’s famous book Mere Christianity, which was an ecumenical effort to find things that all Christians shared in common, and the “nonnegotiables” of Christianity, a central, crucial doctrine of two of the three major divisions of Christianity was omitted.

The great Anglican apologist did not include a doctrine of the Church as a binding authority in the Christian life, which is a belief strongly held by Catholics and Orthodox, but formally denied by Protestants, who hold that only Scripture is an infal­lible authority (what is known as sola Scriptura, “Bible alone”).

As a Catholic convert, whose former biggest objection to Catholicism, by far, was the notion of an infallible Church or pope, I understand this viewpoint, but I thoroughly reject it now. As an introduction to the topic, I’d like to highlight three biblical passages that teach a very strong view of the authority of the Christian, or Catholic, Church.

Matthew 16:18-19: And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death 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.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Proving the Catholic Faith is Biblical. Click image to preview or order.

This is also a key passage for the defense of the papacy, but that is a separate topic. Here I want to note that there is such a thing in the Bible as “the Church” and that it was established by Jesus Christ Himself as His own Church. Some comedian once made a wisecrack about there being “only one the Church.” He spoke the truth.

St. Peter and the other apostles (of whom bishops and priests are successors) were given the power to bind and loose: Jew­ish rabbinical terms for penance (binding) and forgiveness extended by a representative of God (loosing). These decisions corresponded with the decrees or will of heaven itself (that is, God). Therefore, such power is indicative of a strong view of the authority of the Church.

The third notable element in this passage is the concept of the “powers of death” not being able to prevail against the Church. This means that the Church (not just individual Christians, but the collective entity) will always emerge victorious in her spiritual battles. The King James Version renders the phrase “powers of death” as “gates of hell.” This brings to mind a great image of the Church breaking through, conquering the gates of hell itself and overcoming evil and Satan.

Acts 16:4: As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.

This verse is often overlooked in discussions about authority in Christianity. St. Paul didn’t simply hand out Bibles, nor did he preach the gospel only on his evangelistic journeys. He also proclaimed an authoritative Church decision, made at the Jerusalem Council, which is described in Acts 15:1-30.

What happened there was not “Bible alone” or individual Christians and the Holy Spirit, independent of other Christians, but very clearly a strong Church authority. The “apostles and elders” (Acts 15:6), representing the “whole church” (Acts 15:22) gathered, much as bishops in our time got together at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

The main question they dealt with was whether Gentile Christian converts were required to be circumcised and to observe the entire Jewish Law. The Church in her council decided that it was not necessary, with the participants confidently proclaiming, “[I]t has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” The Holy Spirit guided the process (see John 16:13).

St. Paul then went out and proclaimed what the council (including him) had decided, to be observed as a binding decree. If that’s not Church authority, it’s difficult to imagine what would be. If God approved of such Church-wide decisions in the early Church, why not also today? Why would that cease? It makes no sense to argue that it all went away and that we were left to fend for ourselves as mere individuals.

1 Timothy 3:15: the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

Truth is truth. It cannot be error, by its very essence and definition. How can truth’s foundation or pillar or bulwark or ground be something less than total truth (since truth itself contains no falsehoods, untruths, lies, or errors)? It cannot. It’s impossible, as a straightforward matter of logic and plain observation. A stream cannot rise above its source.

What is built on a foundation cannot be greater than the foundation. If it were, the whole structure would collapse. If an elephant stood on the shoulders of a man as its foundation, that foundation would collapse. The base of a skyscraper has to hold the weight above it. It can’t be weaker than that which is built upon it. The foundations of a suspension bridge over a river have to be strong enough to hold up that bridge. They can’t possibly be weaker than the bridge, or the structure would collapse.

Therefore, we must conclude that if the Church is the founda­tion of truth, the Church must be infallible, since truth is infallible, and the foundation cannot be less great or strong than that which is built on it. Truth cannot be built on any degree of error whatever, because that would make the foundation weaker than the superstructure above it.

Accordingly, given the above biblical passages and many others, the Catholic “three-legged stool” rule of faith may be defined in the following way:

In the biblical (and historic Catholic) view the inspired, infallible Bible is interpreted by an infallible, divinely guided Church, which in turn infallibly interprets and formulates the true doctrinal (apostolic) tradition.

Why We Accept the Catholic Church’s Claims

The bottom line is that faith is a gift of God, by His grace. The very faith to believe that God not only made a way for salvation, but also provided an authoritative Church, through which He chose to channel that salvation and to provide guidance, is a gift. It doesn’t come from our reasoning efforts. Reason can bring us up to the gates, but it can’t prove that the gates and what lie behind them are what they are, or compel us to walk through them and enter in.

What reason and facts and evidence can do is to confirm over and over that the Catholic Church is right. When that happens so many times, it becomes easier (by the weight of cumulative evidence) to accept in faith that she is always right when she claims something dogmatically or infallibly. We must accept that there are things that we don’t and can’t understand and must believe because of what we do understand. No one can ever figure out every jot and tittle. For one thing, no one has the time to do so.

It’s a matter of agreeing with biblical revelation that there is indeed such a thing as an authoritative Church, set up by God (and initiated by Jesus’ commission to St. Peter in Matthew 16) and then judging (again, led by grace and the Holy Spirit, the Helper) whether the Catholic claims are feasible and plausible.

My greatest struggle was with the notion of infallibility, so I understand that objection inside and out. But I kept studying and talking to Catholic friends and saw that none of the alternatives were plausible, and so I yielded myself.

I’ve become more and more assured of this truth during my nearly twenty-four years of defending it. The more I learn, the more my faith is strengthened (never weakened), and this is one of the joys of apologetics.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Mr. Armstrong’s Proving the Catholic Faith is Biblicalwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press. 

Dave Armstrong

By

Dave Armstrong is a Catholic apologist and evangelist who has proclaimed Christianity for more than twenty years. Formerly a Protestant campus missionary, Armstrong entered the Catholic Church in 1991. He has written several books on Catholicism as well as articles for many Catholic periodicals. He, his wife, Judy, and their four children live near Detroit, Michigan.

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  • Jose Samilin

    The Protestants formally denied the authority of the Church because they do not need the church to come to Jesus, since they believed they were bold enough to go straight to God for their salvation. Their authority is the bible put on top of the table, so they point out to that bible, though such book is clearly made up of mere paper and ink. That belief of bible alone is not supported by the bible.

  • candide

    You cannot have it both ways: accept the bible because the church tells you to do so, and then base the authority of the church on biblical passages. The bible was written by men, in the case of the Gospels men who never heard or saw Jesus. Mark is the most reliable but it has problems also. If you take the bible seriously you wonder what happened to the Kingdom of God Jesus and Paul expected imminently. It never came. The church came instead, a sort of second or third prize, I guess.

  • Héctor Oziel Torres

    Read “The Life of Jesus by Ratzinger ( 3 books serie ) : Infance, Life and Pasion

  • candide

    He’s no biblical scholar.

  • Héctor Oziel Torres

    😀 Yes he is. Read the books and you will find out . He Is One of the best scholars on the life of Jesus . Recognized as such even before becoming Pope Benedict XVI

  • candide

    You all assume that the bible is the word of God. Why? It was written and re-written and re-edited for a variety of political and religious purposes by many different individuals with different and conflicting agendas. The church decided which books to accept and which to reject, which gospels to accept and which to reject. Much of what we call Christian orthodoxy came after what is called Christian heresy. The church decided what was authentic and orthodox. This doesn’t mean it was right, only that it came before the written scriptures. But why believe the church? Why believe the bible books? Only faith or arbitrary decisions, not irrefutable proof of anything. Protestants are wrong to base everything on the bible. Catholics are wrong to claim the authority of the church as the authority of God. All Christians base their beliefs on very weak foundations indeed.

  • Peccatori

    The Kingdom of God is the Church. The Body of Christ, which is the Church. God manifests His power and glory through imperfect, weak, sinners, the Church.
    Matthew was one of the twelve. John, also, the beloved disciple.
    I ask you where did the Bible come from? When Saint Stephen was stoned to death by Sol and the others who persecuted him, in Acts, did Stephen go to heaven according to the Bible?
    Was he following a script, the Bible as it happened in real time? Or was the Bible written after this event? How could Stephen have been saved if he wasn’t a ‘Bible Christian’?
    How many different writings came about after Jesus died? Who read them and decided they were or weren’t inspired by the Holy Spirit? The Church.

  • Peccatori

    What set the Jewish people apart from the pagans? Was it because the Jewish nation is religious?
    Nope, most pagan societies had / have gods. The Egyptians had gods. What set the Jews apart was that God chose them, by revealing Himself to them. He did this so He could show them how He wanted them to worship Him. The pagans devise their own gods and worship however is seems right to them. But to worship God in the way He wants us to worship is how we know that we aren’t just making up stuff that makes us feel good and holy. Jesus, again, showed us how to worship.
    “This is the cup of the new and everlasting covenant, do this in remembrance of me.”

  • Jeremy

    You say that you cannot rely upon the judgement of the Church because it was written by men and men are fallible. That is a strong defense against believing in the claims of anything written by a man I agree. However, you are completely omitting the fact of fist hand eye witness accounts of Jesus and his works. His followers as well as other Jewish historians wrote about Him and his miracles at the time. The apostles “taught” to their successors and disciples their eye witness accounts (this is authoritative Tradition) of Jesus’ works and teachings. All of His apostles were martyred -they voluntarily died for Jesus’ Church and salvation for all men. Their successors died and so on. for a few hundred years until it became the state religion of Rome all the while spreading like wildfire and eventually converting the whole of the western world. If that doesn’t have divine influence I don’t know what does. It is more irrational to believe that Jesus and His teachings are false than to believe that his followers would simply throw their lives away for nothing. It just doesn’t follow. You may say dieing for a cause doesn’t make it true, that may be so, but when it is verified by contemporary secular historians and proliferated the way it had without the current tools of mass media and internet, you have to give it credit.

  • kathleen

    You are forgetting the Resurrection of Jesus and His appearances to His Apostles after His Crucifixion – for 40 days. And Paul’s conversion. All historical facts. And, Paul died for the Faith along with our first Pope, Peter, and the rest of the Apostles, except John. The writers of the Gospels were not making it up as they went. They were willing to die for the Truth, and they did. Jesus established one Church 2000 years ago. It’s still here and will be until Gabriel blows his horn. No one can destroy the Church even the unfaithful clergy or laity.

  • Dave Armstrong

    Technically, we don;t accept the Bible because the Church tells us so, but because it is intrinsically what it is: the inspired, infallible Word of God and revelation of god to man. Vatican I and Vatican II both reiterate this point.

    Thus, it isn’t circular reasoning. Circular or self-refuting reasoning lies entirely with the advocates of sola Scriptura, who assert a belief about the Bible that the Bible never states about itself.

  • Dave Armstrong

    For lots and lots of reasons. To peruse some of those, see my Bible and Tradition page:

    http://socrates58.blogspot.com/2006/11/bible-church-tradition-canon-index.html

  • sky

    Candide, there are thousands of ways to explain Christian faith or, for that matter, any religious phenomenon. It seems to me that if one does not believe there is any true reality behind the beliefs, any explanation might be plausible. Similarly,there are those who deny the moon landings. Their arguments are plausible from a certain point of view. That does not mean they have the truth behind them.

    You seem to say that the so-called “Church” (at least the one you have come to understand) has distorted and changed so much that we do not really know what Jesus said or did. Well, if that is the truth, then we Catholics sure have been fooled! Silly of us!

    But what you need to consider is that just maybe the Church didn’t really change anything at all. Maybe it just frightens you to think that the Church really has maintained the historical as well as the revealed truth.

    Some of what you express might seem clever and novel. Like certain documentaries broadcast on cable TV from time to time that pretend to be discovering the “real”Jesus behind the Bible stories, many explanations are rationally “plausible.” But none of this is new to the Church. We have heard it all before for many centuries.

    What is hard to appreciate is that for Catholics, our Tradition is our collective memory. It tells us who we are. Outsiders may not share it or accept it. That’s their right. But it does not change what it is for the Church. In other words, some of this story of salvation only really makes sense when it is learned within the Church. From the outside, it doesn’t always seem to make sense. After all, no one really rises from the dead, do they?

  • candide

    The collective memory of fallible, ignorant, credulous, and also sinful men is a rather weak foundation.

  • Anthony Zarrella

    You’re missing the point, candide – this isn’t an argument for Catholicism as against non-Christianity, but rather as against Protestantism. Of course we don’t expect non-Bible-believers to take the Bible as evidence (except for its value as a historical document). But when arguing against other Christians there is no need to say “accept the Bible because the Church tells you to do so” – other Christians already take the truth of the Bible as a “given”.

    You are wrong, however – two out of four Gospel writers knew Jesus personally (the Apostles Matthew and John), and Mark was the scribe and “personal assistant” of sorts to Peter. Luke was probably the furthest-removed, as he got his information from Paul, who got it from the Apostles in Jerusalem.

    As to the Kingdom – the biblical “soon” is very often not the “soon” that we expect on a human timescale.

  • sky

    Yes. That is the great wonder and mystery about it. How this faith in the resurrection has shaped a civilization in spite of the people who actually believe in it. You are dead on! We are fallible, ingnorant, etc. It’s amazing that we can get anything right!
    Did you never notice that Jesus chose Peter to be the leader of the 12 but Peter (Rock) is about as rock-like as a bowl of jello! That is the great paradox! It is the magnet for souls who can perceive that this whole Christian story must be true because it is so impossible!

  • candide

    There is nothing about Jesus that really gives information except the Gospels and the Gospels were written late, by men who did not know Jesus, and are in any case not biographical. Mark, the oldest Gospel, has the embarrassing notion that Jesus expected the imminent coming of the messianic Kingdom and so the later gospels suppressed this. Other ancient writing simply say that Jesus was worshipped by Christians, nothing more.

  • candide

    Biblical scholars deny that the names Mark, Matthew, John and Luke were people who wrote the gospels and knew Jesus. We don’t know who wrote them. Your information comes from early Christian speculations about the authors of these gospels which have no validity.

    In Mark it is clear that Jesus expected the Kingdom not soon but immediately. Read Albert Schweitzer’s The Mystery of the Kingdom of God. Paul also expected it almost immediately. Jesus’ teachings were designed in the very short term until the Kingdom came — not for 2000 years. You cannot turn the other cheek for 2000 years or you’ll be finished.

  • ThirstforTruth

    Who do you mean is NOT a “bibilical scholar”? Pope Benedict XVI?( now Benedict XVI is properly called the Pope Emeritus).
    Who then, pray tell, if not this man, with years of Biblical study and accompanying degrees, do you consider to be a Biblical scholar?
    Me thinks you know not much about the topic(s) being discussed and
    are giving us knee-jerk reactions mostly based upon bigotry and prejudice, both forms of ignorance.
    Cease and desist until you become better informed!
    You have just maligned one of the most recognized Biblical scholars in the world. You may not agree with what he preaches, but
    you cannot, in fairness, deny his academic pedigree.

  • ThirstforTruth

    Troll somewhere you are appreciated. You are getting dull and uninteresting in your repetitiveness. Perhaps you are of the opinion that if you tell a lie often enough, someone will fall for it. Nice try!
    The people here commenting seem to have a strong religious faith
    and you are wasting your time and theirs.
    Still waiting for you to give your opinion on who qualifies as a biblical scholar, if not Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI? Pretty quiet there on that subject. Maybe you could give us your own academic pedigree in biblical studies? Hmmmm?

  • Anthony Zarrella

    Biblical scholars deny that the names Mark, Matthew, John and Luke were people who wrote the gospels and knew Jesus.

    That’s funny, because I’ve read plenty of other biblical scholars who say we can be reasonably certain the writers are exactly who we claim they are. In no small part because they are attributed to those individuals as early as the mid-Second Century (when at least some people would have been alive who personally knew the Apostles, and many people would have personally known a disciple of the Apostles).

    In Mark it is clear that Jesus expected the Kingdom not soon but immediately.

    To which verses are you referring? Mark 9:1, perhaps? There, Jesus says there are some who will not taste death until the coming of the kingdom – but He also says in the Gospels that those who believe in Him will never die. He isn’t talking about mere bodily death, but the spiritual death that comes to those who die without the grace of God. So, if some of the crowd there consisted of people who attained salvation, then no, they didn’t “taste death” as He means it.

    You cannot turn the other cheek for 2000 years or you’ll be finished.

    You can if you understand the rule properly.

    First, striking someone on the cheek, in the culture of that time, was the equivalent of spitting in their face – it wasn’t an attack, meant to do real harm, but rather a serious insult. So, Jesus is saying don’t repay an insult with an insult (or with violence), but bear insults humbly.

    Second, He contrasts it with the lex talionis. So, he’s saying that just because someone hurt you, it doesn’t justify hurting them in equal measure.

    Neither of these principles prohibit violence or self-defense altogether. They merely prohibit retaliation – which is distinct from defense (as evidenced by the fact that He Himself says, “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.”).

  • Patrick

    I think part of the Catholic/Protestant controversy is the choice that is continuously offered between the authority of the Bible and the authority of the Church. I think this is false. I don’t think a book can be an authority (possessing the rights of the author), since it is simply the product of the author(s), right or wrong. Authority touches on the right to say (authoritatively) what the author meant. So the disagreement is whether one accepts the final arbitraiment of the pope or Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Jones or Joseph Smith or my great Aunt Ethel. That’s the only issue among those who accept the inspiration of scripture.

  • Phil Steinacker

    That’s SOMW bible scholars – the most ignorant of speculators.

  • Phil Steinacker

    You keep using that phrase. It doesn’t mean what you think it means, if you seriously believe Benedict XVI is not a biblical scholar.

  • bdlaacmm

    Wow. There’s just so much wrong with what you wrote here. The currently fashionable trend among all too many “Biblical scholars” to accept late dating and anonymous authorship of the Gospels is nothing more than that – a fashion. There are libraries of good, solid scholarship that rebuts such unthinkingly popular ideas.

    Let’s just take one tiny example. Some scholars like to date Luke’s Gospel to sometime in the late 70s. Yet it is addressed to the “most excellent Theophilus”. Then we note that Acts is only addressed to “O Theophilus” (notably without the “excellent”). Now why is that? Well. Turns out that we know of a Theophilus ben Ananus who served as High Priest from A.D. 37 to 41. Luke used the more formal address when writing to Theophilus as High Priest, but the less formal after he had left the office. That dates the Gospel of Luke to, at most, only 8 years after the Crucifixion. Acts (written subsequently to Luke) was likely written prior to A.D. 67 (the date of St. Paul’s martyrdom), since the apostle is still alive at the book’s end.

    Eight years – that’s it. Plenty of room for eyewitnesses who saw and heard Jesus to have their say in Luke.

    And as I said above, that’s just one tiny crack in “Biblical scholarship’s” crumbling wall of denial. Put them all together, and there are huge breaches in the dam, wide enough for the water of truth to come pouring through.

  • Peccatori

    All of the transcripts, back to the earliest transcripts and original texts carry the names of the authors that we have always used to refer to them with.
    Has someone found older transcripts with differing author’s names? Why isn’t that breaking news?
    The idea that the names of the authors were made up or are different from the names we use, is simply a ‘scholarly construct’.

  • James M

    Lewis did well to make the mission complained of, because it is not part of “mere” Christianity. That something is de fide, or in some other way doctrinally essential, does not make it part of the “mere” Christianity that is common to all Christians. Or was, when the book was written.

  • James M

    He is not a New Testament specialist, or even a specialist in the Gospels, academically speaking. His books seem to be mainly about the Liturgy and the Church, not the Gospels or Scripture. Unlike the late Cardinal Martini, who was both a student of the Greek NT text, and a populariser of the reading

  • ThirstforTruth

    What are your own claims to biblical scholarship? One is not saying that Benedict is the ONLY biblical scholar, only that it cannot be said he is NOT a biblical scholar. Of course, there are others, some fine examples you mention here.
    That his books have become popular is not a basis for judging their quality of scholarship. His intention was to use his scholarship for
    the erudition of those who might NOT be steeped in biblical studies and be drawn to the validity of the Christ. No small feat in today’s craven world.

  • James M

    Although I have two degrees in Theology, neither mine nor anyone else’s are of any relevance to the point at issue – that Benedict’s academic interests lie outside the Bible, is very much the point at issue. I have avoided belittling those interests, and have simply pointed out the obvious, which no opinion of him can alter.

  • Windsong

    Christ Himself is His Church and the Authority.

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