A Question of Authority

Peters keys.jpgHi. I received this question some time ago in the comments section and I’ve finally gotten around to answering it. I think it would be very instructive for everyone. What follows is the question and my response.

From Thomas: How much authority does church council have, from where does it derive that authority, and what do we do when Scripture and Church council appear to contradict? Certainly this is a question that Christians have wrestled with for centuries, and I would like to come to a better understanding of the subject.

From me: Hi Thomas! I’m so sorry that I’m only now responding to your question!  First let me recommend two very good and thorough books on the topic that will do so much more for your understanding than what I might deliver here. The first is by Mark Shea, and is titled, “By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition,” and the second is by Richard R. Gaillardetz, and is titled, “By What Authority?: Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful.”

To your question, there is only one deposit of faith. Period. Catholics believe that the fullness of truth that God desired to make known to mankind was revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Of course, those teachings/that truth was first transmitted by word of mouth, or what is referred to as the “oral proclamation,” (up to 30yrs after Jesus’ death) and eventually came to be written down (30-60yrs) to be used as a form of Catechesis for those who desired to follow Jesus. Those teachings about Jesus, and the letters written by others were eventually accepted (and some rejected) and then compiled into what we today refer to as the New Testament. Whether oral or written, it is all one deposit of faith. Naturally, then, councils do not contradict Scripture, as Scripture itself was born out of councils. Truth does not contradict truth. If I recall, the New Testament Canon was debated at the Council of Hippo in 393, Carthage in 397, and then finally approved by Pope Innocent in 405AD. Over the course of these years, books were debated, accepted, or rejected based upon their authorship, universality, and consistency with what was known to be true by the Catholic bishops and theologians at the council. For more about the books that were not chosen, see New Advent.org. This link will take you to both the Apocrapha of Jewish and of Christian origin. Apocrapha simply means, “outside the Canon,” as oppposed to the “canonical books” that were approved and make up the 73 books of the Old and New Testaments.

The Catholic Church’s claim is quite simple—we are not a Bible based church, but rather the Bible itself is anchored deeply within the Church. The Bible is ecclesial (churchical). Catholic theology cannot be “Bible based,” as that would assume that somehow Scripture preceded the Church and formed it. The opposite, of course, is true. Jesus formed the Church when he gathered those who would eventually become his herald and give witness to his resurrection. The Church, his herald and witness, shares the truth about Jesus and his teachings in every generation. This “passing on” of the teachings of Jesus is what we call tradition—from the Latin traditio, which literally means, “to hand on” or to “pass on.” A great example of this is found in 1COR 15:3-4 where St. Paul cites the Old Testament as evidence for what he has himself heard. He says, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,…”

When there appears to be a conflict between Scripture and Tradition, then it is only a matter of appearance of conflict as a result of an improper rendering of either sacred tradition or sacred scripture. The magisterium, made up of the college of bishops in union with the pope, is the official interpreter and teacher of the deposit of faith.

So, all of that to say, the greatest weight in the Catholic Church’s teachings come out of Ecumenical Councils where the bishops around the world gather in union with the pope. That’s a big deal, and the teachings that come out of that gathering with regard to the truths of faith and morals are therefore binding on the Catholic Christian community.

Finally, (and this is from the heart, I don’t have any ideas what Jesus said, or even less by what he meant with what he said. I was not there. I didn’t hear it, and he never explained it to me. There is no such thing as uninterpreted Scripture. The Bible doesn’t SAY anything. You and I have to believe either our own or someone else’s interpretation and teaching about what it “says” and what it means. That’s as close as we can get. With all respect, I rely not on my own holiness and scholarship with regard to Scripture. I have to trust somebody. That’s why I’m Catholic today. I don’t know who’s ultimately “right” in regard to Jesus’ teachings in total or those found only in Scripture, but the Catholic Church has the most claim to be right. The Bible didn’t fall from the sky. It was compiled by Holy men who sought to preserve for each generation what they knew to be true about their Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. The successors of those men continue to teach and guide the Christian community today, and they are the Catholic bishops of the world led by the vicar of Christ on earth, the Pope.

Many great evangelists and teachers have appeared and blessed us with their amazing giftedness, holiness, knowledge, and wisdom—but none of them individually trumps the collective giftedness, holiness, knowledge, and wisdom of 2,000 years of bishops and popes in the Catholic Church. And so, Catholic Christian I remain today and forever.

To conclude, the place of Scripture in the Church is one of great weight and authority because it came out of councils—and all councils since have pointed to Sacred Scripture to stand as a witness to the truthfulness of their teaching. So, while the Catholic Church cannot be Bible-based, the Bible indeed stands witness in every generation to the teachings of the Church. For Catholics, it’s not Bible OR Tradition (councils, encyclicals, theologians, etc.), but rather Bible AND Tradition, as authoritatively interpreted by the Pope and the bishops in union with him. And of course, the authority of the Pope to guide and lead the Christian community derives from Jesus himself, when he, in the Gospel of Matthew 16:19, Jesus says to Peter, “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.” So, the authority to teach in the name of Jesus comes from Jesus himself, and the teachings of Jesus make up the deposit of faith–safeguarded by Jesus’ faithful women and men for two millennia.

Again, sorry so long delayed in my reply. I hope this helps.

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

3 comments on “A Question of Authority

  1. Stephen, thankyou for your friendly and helpful reply. And no worries about the delayed response- I have recently been reading up on how the canon was defined, so your answer could not have come at a more appropriate time. I would also have to agree with you that no one reads the Bible in a vacuum, and that we all rely on church tradition, to some extent, for help on how to interpret it. Hopefully the tradition that we rely on to interpret scripture is truly an apostolic tradition. And, even when we encounter genuine apostolic tradition, as the Bereans did when they listened to the preaching of Paul and Silas, should we not search the scriptures daily, to see whether these things where so?

    All the best to you, and I will try to read the two books that you recommended.


    • All the best to you as well, Thomas. This is a great quote from the text of Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s document on Sacred Scripture that I spoke of in the body of the text with regard to the deposit of faith: “10. Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort. (7)

      But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

      It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”

      And from the same document, on of my favorite lines, “ For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life.” (DV21)

      The link to the full text is below. It’s really very good and will answer your question quite well. Sadly, most Catholics have not read it. Many still live with the belief that the Catholic Church tries to keep the from the Scriptures! As the document clearly teaches, it’s simply not so.


      Many blessings to you, Thomas, as you continue your great journey of faith and discovery! Please feel free to contact me any time.

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