J (Protestant Evangelical): Opening Statement
One of the characteristics of the modern defenders of Catholicism is that they don't defend Catholicism. Who would want to defend claims such as these (emphasis added):
Indeed, "from the incarnate Word's descent to us, all Christian churches everywhere have held and hold the great Church that is here [Rome] to be their only basis and foundation since, according to the Savior's promise, the gates of hell have never prevailed against her." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 834)
If any one denieth, either that sacramental confession was instituted, or is necessary to salvation, of divine right; or saith, that the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, which the Church hath ever observed from the beginning, and doth observe, is alien from the institution and command of Christ, and is a human invention; let him be anathema. (Council of Trent, session 14, "Canons Concerning the Most Holy Sacrament of Penance", canon 6)
And indeed, illustrious documents of venerable antiquity, of both the Eastern and the Western Church, very forcibly testify that this doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the most Blessed Virgin, which was daily more and more splendidly explained, stated and confirmed by the highest authority, teaching, zeal, knowledge, and wisdom of the Church, and which was disseminated among all peoples and nations of the Catholic world in a marvelous manner--this doctrine always existed in the Church as a doctrine that has been received from our ancestors, and that has been stamped with the character of revealed doctrine. For the Church of Christ, watchful guardian that she is, and defender of the dogmas deposited with her, never changes anything, never diminishes anything, never adds anything to them; but with all diligence she treats the ancient documents faithfully and wisely. (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus)
The Roman Catholic Church has made similar claims about transubstantiation, indulgences, and other doctrines. While the hierarchy makes inaccurate claims about church history, Catholic scholars, who are more accountable to their non-Catholic colleagues, have to be more careful. Catholic historian Klaus Schatz gives us an example:
There appears at the present time to be increasing consensus among Catholic and non-Catholic exegetes regarding the Petrine office in the New Testament….
The further question whether there was any notion of an enduring office beyond Peter's lifetime, if posed in purely historical terms, should probably be answered in the negative. That is, if we ask whether the historical Jesus, in commissioning Peter, expected him to have successors, or whether the author of the Gospel of Matthew, writing after Peter's death, was aware that Peter and his commission survived in the leaders of the Roman community who succeeded him, the answer in both cases is probably "no."…
If we ask in addition whether the primitive Church was aware, after Peter's death, that his authority had passed to the next bishop of Rome, or in other words that the head of the community at Rome was now the successor of Peter, the Church's rock and hence the subject of the promise in Matthew 16:18-19, the question, put in those terms, must certainly be given a negative answer. (Papal Primacy [Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1996], pp. 1-2)
How do you think Schatz's comments would have gone over at the Council of Trent? The pattern is for the hierarchy to make inaccurate claims that are accepted by Catholics who don't know better and are ignored or implausibly reinterpreted by Catholics who do know better. For example (emphasis added):
The doctrine [Assumption of Mary] first emerged in various New Testament apocrypha of the 4th cent., and on the strength of a passage in pseudo-Dionysius became accepted in orthodox circles by the 7th cent. Finally in 1950 Pope Pius XII, in the decree Munificentissimus Deus, defined it as a divinely revealed dogma, making claims that have little historical support: 'This truth is based on Sacred Scripture,...it has received the approval of liturgical worship from the earliest times, it is perfectly in keeping with the rest of revealed truth.' What is clearly true is the recognition that it is 'deeply embedded in the minds of the faithful' (or at least many of them), and on this basis it was declared and defined as a dogma revealed by God (The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, John Bowker, editor [Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999], p. 101)
The average Catholic will either believe or disbelieve the Pope without knowing much about the history of the Assumption of Mary doctrine. But the Catholic who is more knowledgeable will have to give an explanation for accepting as apostolic a doctrine that can't be historically traced back to the apostles.
Seeds of Speculation
We're told by Catholic apologists that an oak tree grows from an acorn. Nobody denies that it does. The question with the teachings of Catholicism, in some cases, is whether an oak tree can grow from an apple seed or no seed at all. In other cases, the question is why Catholic apologists are looking for an acorn where the Catholic Church tells us we should see an oak tree.
When we read the Bible, do we find the Roman Catholic Church? Do we find a papacy, private confession of sins to a priest, and a sinless Mary, for example? No, we don't. But the modern Catholic apologist will tell us that such differences between the Bible and Roman Catholicism are consistent with Catholic teaching. We're told that if we can find an acorn, or just something that might be an acorn, then the oak tree of modern Catholicism is thereby justified. If you can't see the alleged acorn, or it looks more like an apple seed to you, you'll be told that you can't trust your own fallible eyesight. You need the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to look into the microscope for you and infallibly assure you that it's an acorn.
How significant is the Bible?
Catholics who realize how unbiblical their denomination is will often try to minimize the significance of the Bible. Many Catholics would consider the topic of this debate too narrow. They might even advise against participating in such a debate. Why limit the discussion to the Bible? Why not include church history?
The Bible is church history. When people cite a church father such as Irenaeus or Augustine, what are they referring to? Written documents. We have no videotape of Irenaeus' conversations with Polycarp. We have no tape recordings of Augustine's sermons. We have the writings of these people. The Bible is a collection of Divinely inspired documents covering thousands of years of history. If a Catholic doctrine appears in the writings of a third century church father, but doesn't appear anywhere in the Bible, that's historically significant. It's more significant than Catholics acknowledge.
Let's consider prayers to the dead as an example. If the concept isn't mentioned anywhere in scripture, how significant is its absence? If we can find some people advocating the doctrine in a later century, isn't its absence from the Bible insignificant? Not when you give the Bible its proper historical weight. How much of history is covered in the Bible? All of it, from creation in Genesis to the end of the ages in Revelation. How many passages are there on the subject of prayer? Hundreds. How many circumstances are addressed that are relevant to prayer? Many. Abraham prays. Daniel prays. Paul prays. There are prayers for families, prayers during wartime, prayers during peacetime, prayers of repentance, and prayers of thanksgiving. Where are prayers to the dead? Nowhere. How often do the dozens of writers of scripture encourage us to pray to the deceased? Never. Not only is such a practice absent from scripture, but it's even contradicted by a condemnation of any attempt to contact the physically deceased (Deuteronomy 18:10-12, Isaiah 8:19, 19:3). The language in these passages is too broad to not include prayers to the dead. We would expect prayers to the dead to be taught explicitly and often in scripture if such a practice was Divinely approved, but instead it's absent and contradicted.
Church government is another subject that's widely covered in the Bible. The book of Acts covers about the first 30 years of church history, and it refers to many churches, church offices, doctrinal disagreements, etc. Paul's letters often refer to church government, sometimes going into a lot of depth. A papacy is never mentioned. The bishop of Rome is never referred to in the New Testament, much less is he described as the infallible standard of orthodoxy for all Christians. When the last book of the New Testament was written, there had been a church in Rome for about half a century, with multiple Roman bishops having lived and died during that time. To say that it's reasonable for a papacy not to be mentioned explicitly and often in such a context, if such a church office existed at the time, is irrational. Paul writes numerous letters that are largely about church government. He says nothing of a Pope. Peter wants to prepare his readers for his upcoming death (2 Peter 1:13-15, 3:1-2). He doesn't say anything about any successor in Rome. Instead, he appeals to his audience's memory of what he had taught and the written documents he was leaving behind.
What about Mary? According to the Roman Catholic Church, she's sinless from conception, a perpetual virgin, bodily assumed into Heaven, the dispenser of all grace, and God's greatest created being. Catholics have built thousands of shrines to her around the world, and they're taught to "fly with utter confidence to this most sweet Mother of mercy and grace in all dangers, difficulties, needs, doubts and fears" (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus). How often do we find Mary's name invoked in the twenty-one epistles of the New Testament? Never. How often is she mentioned in Acts? Just once, in passing. How about the gospels? She's rarely mentioned outside of the accounts of Jesus' birth. When she is mentioned, we find that she's a sinner saved by grace (Luke 1:47), if we're to define "Savior" as it's defined so often elsewhere in the Bible instead of proposing a unique interpretation for this one passage. We also find Mary not honoring Jesus as she should have (Mark 6:3-4), wrongly implying that Jesus had mistreated her (Luke 2:48), and being rebuked by Jesus (Luke 2:49, John 2:4). The authors of the New Testament repeatedly use the words we would expect them to use to refer to Jesus' siblings if those siblings came from Mary's womb. There were other Greek terms the authors could have used, which they do use elsewhere, if they wanted to portray Mary as a perpetual virgin. Thus, even Catholic scholars, such as John Meier, conclude that the Biblical evidence is against the idea that Mary was a perpetual virgin. Concepts like Mary being bodily assumed into Heaven and her being the dispenser of all grace are not the probable or necessary conclusion to any teaching of scripture. Such doctrines can be found in the Bible only by reading things into the text. Such reasoning could be used to justify almost any conclusion. Catholics might as well see John 19:26-27 as evidence that John is the dispenser of all grace. Or maybe they could read an assumption of John into Revelation 4:1. Of course, the Roman Catholic hierarchy isn't looking over the shoulder of Catholics, telling them that they must see such doctrines in John 19 and Revelation 4. But if Catholics are going to rely on highly speculative, unverifiable arguments to try to justify their beliefs, then they can't object when other highly speculative, unverifiable arguments lead to other conclusions.
What gospel did Jesus and the apostles preach? Was it the Roman Catholic gospel of salvation through a New Law of seven sacraments, meriting grace, and such? No, instead Paul cites Genesis 15:6 as an example of how all people are saved (Romans 4:9, Galatians 3:6). What happens in Genesis 15:6? Is Abraham baptized? Does he give money to the poor? No, he just trusts God. The Bible gives us examples of people being saved when they believe, not when they're later baptized or do some other work (Mark 2:5, Luke 7:50, 17:19, Acts 10:44-48, Galatians 3:2, Ephesians 1:13-14). Eternal life is called a free gift in scripture (Romans 6:23, Revelation 21:6, 22:17), but it's far from being free in Catholicism.
What about private confession of sins to a priest, something the Catholic Church describes as having been practiced from the beginning of church history? It's not mentioned anywhere in scripture. James 5:16 is often cited in support of the practice, but it could also be cited in favor of public confession of all sins to a deacon. The epistle of James is addressed to Christians in general, so the confession to "one another" would be to any other Christian, not to Roman Catholic priests. And common sense should tell us that the sins we confess to each other are limited in scope. John 20:23, another passage often cited in this context, has been interpreted in numerous ways over the centuries. Anybody claiming to be sure of the correct interpretation is making an assertion without evidence. For all we know, the passage may just refer to the apostles having supernatural knowledge of who was saved and who wasn't. There are other possibilities. We don't know which interpretation is correct, much less do we know that the passage is referring to confession of all sins in private, and that this power of receiving confession was to be passed on to some later church office. Catholics have to do more than just look for passages of scripture that might support Catholic teaching in some vague way if assumptions are read into the text. We would never accept such argumentation from a Mormon or a Jehovah's Witness, so why accept it from a Catholic?
More examples could be given, but I think these ones I've mentioned make my point. Much of what the Catholic Church teaches is absent from or contradicted by the Bible, including doctrines that allegedly were always held by the Christian church. Having given specific examples, I now want to address some broader issues of Biblical interpretation. I want to give some examples of errors committed by Catholic apologists when discussing a wide variety of doctrines. What sort of reasoning leads one to the conclusion that the church of the Bible is the Roman Catholic Church?
Making Molehills Out of Mountains
Catholic apologists change their priorities when they discuss church history. What's of most importance to them today may become something of least importance when they're asked for evidence from the past for what they believe. Consider the Marian doctrines of Catholicism as an example. Would you say that Mary is important in modern Catholicism? Pope Leo XIII wrote:
How grateful and magnificent a spectacle to see in the cities, and towns, and villages, on land and sea-wherever the Catholic faith has penetrated-many hundreds of thousands of pious people uniting their praises and prayers with one voice and heart at every moment of the day, saluting Mary, invoking Mary, hoping everything through Mary. (Octobri Mense)
The Second Vatican Council said that Mary is above all men and angels. Supposedly, she was sinless from conception, a perpetual virgin, and bodily assumed into Heaven. She's the dispenser of all grace, the Queen of Heaven, and the mother of the church.
When we go to the Bible, we see a different picture of Mary. And what are we told to think of this difference? We're told that the modern Marian doctrines didn't develop until later in church history, since there were doctrines of more importance that the church was tending to early on, such as the deity of Christ. But the authors of the Bible discussed many subjects in much depth. If they could write so much about spiritual gifts, the responsibilities of deacons, and eschatology, are we to believe that they just didn't have time or opportunity to discuss the sinless dispenser of all grace, the mother of the church and the greatest of God's creations?
"Sure," Catholics tells us, "the confession of sins practiced in the New Testament wasn't private, it didn't involve all sins, and it wasn't given to a priest. But, other than those minor differences, it was basically the same as our private confession of all sins to a priest."
One gets the impression that Catholics are trying to put together the puzzle of church history with a saw in one hand and a hammer in the other. If everything doesn't fit together to form the shape of the Roman Catholic Church, then the pieces are cut and pounded until they do.
Failing to Distinguish Between Possibilities and Probabilities
When a Mormon claims that Isaiah 29:4 is referring to the Book of Mormon, or that 1 Corinthians 15:29 is referring to a church practice of baptizing for the dead, how do we respond to such interpretations of scripture? If the Mormon interpretation is possible, do we accept it? Or do we, instead, examine the context, consider alternate interpretations, and seek the probable meaning of the text? If we don't have enough evidence to reach a conclusion, don't we admit it? Don't we adjust the strength of our conclusion according to the strength of the evidence?
Why respond any differently to Catholic interpretations of scripture? Is it possible that Luke 1:28 is referring to Mary being sinless from the time of conception onward? Yes, but it's speculative to identify the word "favored" as a reference to sinlessness. The same type of terminology is used in other places to refer to other people, without any implication of sinlessness (Ephesians 1:6, Sirach 18:17). Even if Mary was being referred to as sinless, how would we know that the sinlessness was from the time of conception onward?
Similarly, Catholics cite passages about the Christian church as evidence for Catholicism when other interpretations are possible and more likely. Matthew 18:17, for example, is often cited as evidence of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, even though no Christian church of any type existed when Jesus spoke those words, and the practice of church discipline isn't unique to Roman Catholicism anyway. Catholics often read the Roman Catholic denomination into any mention of "the church", even when the text and context don't make such an interpretation necessary or probable.
It's common among mainstream Catholic sources, even in papal decrees and councils, to find highly speculative, unverifiable interpretations of scripture cited as the only Biblical evidence for a doctrine. Catholics see an immaculate conception of Mary in Luke 1:28. They see papal infallibility in Luke 22:32. They see an assumption of Mary in Revelation 12:1. Such interpretations of scripture don't come from an intelligent, honest concern for text and context.
Catholics see papal implications in just about any passage of scripture in which something unique is said about Peter. Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong has a list of "50 New Testament Proofs for Petrine Primacy and the Papacy" (http://ic.net/~erasmus/RAZ112.HTM). He calls the Biblical evidence for a Petrine papacy "inescapably compelling by virtue of its cumulative weight". His list of "50 proofs" contains many speculations, irrelevancies, and errors, and it's far from "inescapably compelling". If we were to apply Dave Armstrong's reasoning to other apostles, not just Peter, we could find a number of Popes in scripture.
For example, consider the following alleged Biblical proof of Peter being a Pope:
Peter's name is mentioned more often than all the other disciples put together: 191 times (162 as Peter or Simon Peter, 23 as Simon, and 6 as Cephas). John is next in frequency with only 48 appearances, and Peter is present 50% of the time we find John in the Bible! Archbishop Fulton Sheen reckoned that all the other disciples combined were mentioned 130 times. If this is correct, Peter is named a remarkable 60% of the time any disciple is referred to!
What, or who, is missing? Paul. I think I know why. Paul's name occurs more often than Peter's in the New Testament. Once Paul becomes a Christian in Acts 9, Peter isn't mentioned much, and Paul becomes the focus of the book of Acts. Paul also writes much more of the New Testament than Peter. Paul is referred to as a "chosen vessel" who will bear God's name before Jews and Gentiles (Acts 9:15), which sounds like something a Pope would do. Paul publicly rebukes and corrects Peter (Galatians 2:11), and he refers to his authority over all churches (1 Corinthians 4:17, 7:17, 2 Corinthians 11:28). Should we conclude, from these and other facts, that Paul was a Pope?
How about John? He alone is called "the beloved disciple" (John 13:23). He's sometimes portrayed as being the disciple closest to Jesus during His earthly ministry (John 13:24, 19:35). He alone is referred to as living until Christ's return (John 21:22), which may be a reference to John's papal successors. John alone calls himself "the elder" (2 John 1, 3 John 1), which may be a reference to his primacy as Pope. John receives the unique eschatological revelation recorded in the book of Revelation. He writes the last gospel, he writes the last book of the Bible, he's the last apostle to die, and he apparently was the only apostle not to be martyred. We could produce a long list of things that are unique about the apostle John. Should we conclude that John was a Pope?
Catholics who think that the keys of Matthew 16:19 must represent papal authority never see papal authority in the keys of Luke 11:52 or Revelation 20:1. Catholics who think that the keys of Matthew 16:19 must be unique to Peter, since Matthew 18:18 mentions the power of binding and loosing without mentioning any keys, would never apply the same reasoning to Revelation 1:18. They would never conclude that Jesus must only have keys, without any power to bind and loose, since only keys are mentioned. It goes without saying that if you have the keys, you can bind and loose (or open and shut). And if you can bind and loose (or open and shut), it goes without saying that you have the keys. These things are all part of the same imagery. Some passages mention one, some mention the other, and some mention both. To try to separate the keys of Matthew 16:19 from the power of binding and loosing that all the disciples had, then assume that the keys represent papal authority, is irrational and speculative.
Peter is the most prominent of the apostles in the gospels and in the earliest chapters of Acts. Paul is the most prominent apostle in the rest of the New Testament. But why is Peter prominent early on? Because he's a Pope? No, the Christian church didn't even exist during most of Peter's appearances in the gospels. The disciples were still arguing about who was the greatest among them as late as the Last Supper (Luke 22:24). Apparently, they had no concept of Peter having been appointed their ruler. We know that Peter could be prominent in the gospels without being a Pope, because he was prominent without being a Pope. And why was he prominent? Most likely because of his personality. Peter spoke a lot, sometimes wisely and sometimes unwisely. He took initiative in doing good things and bad things. He didn't get out of the boat in Matthew 14:29 because he was a Pope. He didn't falsely claim that he would never deny Jesus (Luke 22:33) because he was a Pope. He didn't cut off Malchus' ear in John 18:10 because he was a Pope. He didn't enter Jesus' tomb in John 20:6 because he was a Pope. Peter was an aggressive, brash person. His prominence in some portions of scripture is largely a result of such factors. Once the Christian church comes into existence, however, and during the large majority of church history that's covered in the New Testament, Paul is more prominent than Peter.
Many of the books of the New Testament were written from or to Rome. The book of Acts chronicles the first 30 years of church history, and it discusses Paul visiting Rome. Much is written about church government and church discipline, such as in 1 Corinthians and the pastoral epistles. In all of this context covering numerous authors and decades of church history, we would expect a Roman papacy to be mentioned, if such a thing existed. Not only is such an entity never discussed, but the New Testament doesn't even mention the earliest bishops of Rome. Even the general concept of Peter having some sort of exclusive successor is never mentioned.
Without a papacy, you have no Roman Catholicism. But even if we were to set aside the doctrine of the papacy for a moment, what about the church in general? Are Catholics correct in believing that the Christian church must be a worldwide denomination that's infallible in its teachings, with an unbroken succession from the apostles, etc.?
Much of what Catholics claim about the Christian church is derived from taking passages of scripture out of context. John 16:13, for example, is often cited by Catholics as a reference to the supernatural knowledge and infallibility of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. My opponent in this debate, for example, cites John 16:13 in such a way in one of the articles at his web site (http://www.biblicalcatholic.com/apologetics/num6.htm). But the passage is addressed to Jesus' disciples, not Roman Catholic clergymen who would live hundreds of years later. John 15:27 refers to the disciples bearing witness for Jesus because they had been with Him during His earthly ministry. How could a modern Roman Catholic hierarchy meet that criterion? John 14:26 refers to the disciples being reminded by the Holy Spirit of all Jesus had said to them. John mentions that there were many other things he could have recorded in his gospel (John 20:30, 21:25). Yet, the Roman Catholic hierarchy hasn't been able to give us a single word spoken by Jesus that isn't recorded in the New Testament. There's no evidence that a passage like John 14:26 or 16:13 applies to the Catholic Church. Yet, Catholic apologists frequently cite such passages as references to their denomination. As though Jesus and the apostles were thinking of some worldwide institution centered in Rome when they said these things.
What if we were to take Catholic reasoning about these New Testament passages and apply them to the Old Testament? Isaiah 43:10 refers to the Israelites as God's witnesses. Using the sort of speculative interpretation Catholics apply to New Testament passages when discussing the Christian church, maybe we should conclude that the Israelites were infallible. Surely God wouldn't want fallible witnesses. Jeremiah refers to how Israel won't be destroyed (Jeremiah 30:11, 31:35-37). Therefore, there must have been an infallible, unbroken succession of religious leaders in Israel throughout the nation's history. 2 Chronicles 33:4 refers to God's name being in Jerusalem forever. Can you imagine if a New Testament passage referred to God's name being in Rome forever? What would Catholic apologists make of it? Surely, then, there must be some Vicar of Yahweh in Jerusalem with an unbroken succession going back to the time of Abraham, who is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. How would we know who that infallible leader was at different times in history? Let's take 2 Chronicles as an example, since I just mentioned that book. Let's count how many times each person is mentioned in 2 Chronicles. The person mentioned most probably had jurisdictional primacy over everybody else. If he also was unique in some other ways, such as standing up more often than anybody else mentioned in 2 Chronicles or being the person who speaks most often in the book, then we can be even more confident that he was the Pope of his time. The Old Testament, like the New Testament, has references to people being given new names, people receiving keys, etc. Perhaps we should read papal implications into those passages.
Catholics are selective in their interpretations of scripture. They can see papal implications in Peter's prominence early in the New Testament, but see no papal implications in Paul's prominence later on. Peter being told to "strengthen the brethren" in Luke 22:32 is seen as having implications of papal authority, but no such implications are drawn from other passages where other people "strengthen the brethren" (Acts 14:22, 15:32, Romans 16:25). Catholics can see an assumption of Mary in Revelation 12:1, but no assumption of John in Revelation 4:1. Luke 1:28 is interpreted as referring to Mary being sinless, even immaculately conceived, but no such conclusion is reached when the same sort of terminology is used in Ephesians 1:6 and Sirach 18:17. Passages like John 16:13 and 1 Timothy 3:15 are interpreted as referring to the authority and infallibility of a worldwide denomination centered in Rome, but passages in the OId Testament about the uniqueness, authority, and perpetuity of Israel are interpreted differently.
What is the church?
If the church established by Jesus Christ isn't the Roman Catholic Church, then what is it? There have been a lot of interpretations of the word "church" down through the centuries. There have been arguments about how many definitions the term has, how it should be interpreted in different contexts, etc. For the purposes of this debate, I don't need to discuss all of the issues involved. The question in this debate is whether one entity, the Roman Catholic denomination, is identified in scripture as having been established by Christ. But discussing what the church is can clarify what it isn't. Catholics often cite passages mentioning the term "church" when the passage cannot refer or isn't necessarily referring to the Roman Catholic denomination.
Earlier, I mentioned the example of Matthew 18:17, which was spoken at a time when no physical Christian church or denominational structure of any type existed. The word "church" means something like "assembly", and it conveys a broad concept that originated before the time of Christ. What's described in Matthew 18:17 could be applied to a wide variety of ancient and modern institutions, not just the Roman Catholic Church.
The term "church" is often used in the plural. Nobody denies that it can be applied to local gatherings of Christians meeting in houses and elsewhere (Acts 20:17, Romans 16:5, Colossians 4:15).
We also find references to the church as a spiritual entity consisting only of those who are saved. Paul refers to the church as Christ's body (Colossians 1:18), with every Christian being a member of that body (1 Corinthians 12:27) and every part of the body participating in its spiritual growth (Ephesians 4:16). There's no mixture of unbelievers in the church Paul discusses in these passages. He cannot possibly be referring to a denominational structure such as the Roman Catholic Church, which would include unbelievers. A liberal Catholic clergyman who has never been born again, or an agnostic who attends a Catholic church, cannot be part of the church Paul has in mind in these passages of scripture. Paul refers to Christ nourishing and cherishing the church, including all of the members of it (Ephesians 5:29-30), but it would be absurd to suggest that Christ nourishes and cherishes a liberal Catholic priest who doesn't even believe in the existence of God. Revelation 19:7-9 refers to the church being in Heaven, which excludes the possibility of some earthly denomination with church offices and a mixture of believers and unbelievers.
Since the term translated "church" predates Christianity, and many passages of scripture use the phrase in reference to something that cannot possibly be the Roman Catholic denomination, we ought to reject the Catholic misuse of the term. Just because a passage like Matthew 18:17 or 1 Timothy 3:15 uses the word "church", that doesn't mean it's referring to the Roman Catholic Church.
Earlier, I said that a papacy is never mentioned in the passages of scripture that discuss church government. The concept of a papacy is also absent from passages discussing the church in general. We find much discussion of the church, its significance, and how it functions in books like 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians. Not a word is said about any papacy. Instead, Paul refers to apostles as the first order in the church (1 Corinthians 12:28), refers to his own equality with and independence from the other apostles (Galatians 1:1, 2:6), refers to Peter as just one of three reputed pillars in the church (Galatians 2:9), and refers to all of the apostles as rocks upon whom the church is built (Ephesians 2:20). Catholics offer their own interpretations of these passages in order to argue that the passages don't necessarily contradict Catholic doctrine. But, taking Galatians 2:9 as an example, how likely is it that Paul would refer to Peter in such a way if Peter was perceived as the Vicar of Christ, the infallible standard of orthodoxy with jurisdictional primacy over all Christians on earth? The weight of probability is in favor of anti-Catholic interpretations of these passages, even if pro-Catholic interpretations are possible. And if we were to accept the Catholic interpretations, we would still be left with no mention of a papacy in the many passages of scripture that discuss the church in general and church government in particular. Arguing that 1 Corinthians 12:28 or Galatians 2:9 can be interpreted in some way that's consistent with Catholicism doesn't explain the absence of a papacy in the New Testament. It's not enough for Catholics to argue that the Bible doesn't contradict the concept of a papacy. According to the First Vatican Council (session 4, chapters 1-3), the papacy is a "clear doctrine of Holy Scripture" that has "always" been held by the Christian church, something that people with "perverse opinions" deny.
While there are some uncertainties and disputes about what "church" means in some contexts, what's most significant in the context of this debate is the absence of the Roman Catholic Church in the Bible. Not only is it absent, but many of its characteristics and doctrines are even contradicted by scripture.
Why do people become or remain Catholic?
Most Catholics never participate in a debate like this. Most never read a book that's critical of Catholic claims about church history. Most Catholics don't spend much time or effort thinking about these issues, studying them, or discussing them with other people. The same could be said of most Protestants. A lot of people are ignorant of the evidence, not because they must be ignorant, but because they want to be ignorant (Ephesians 4:18).
But among the minority of people who spend significant time and effort considering issues such as the ones raised in this debate, why do some choose to become or remain Catholic? I think I've shown that much of what the Catholic Church teaches is absent from or contradicted by scripture. Different people are at different stages of thinking through these issues, so I don't want to put everybody in one category. I don't want to claim that every person has the same motives.
However, it would be unreasonable to ignore some factors that might mislead some people into becoming or remaining Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church is a large institution. It's old, even if not as old as it claims to be. Many highly regarded people down through the centuries have been part of the Catholic Church or have been associated with it in some way. There are thousands of cathedrals, shrines, statues, paintings, and other structures around the world that people associate with Catholicism, and these things appeal to a lot of people. They form relationships with Catholic relatives, friends, and acquaintances. They may teach at a Catholic high school or have some other career associated with Catholicism. It would be unreasonable to deny that factors such as these have a significant influence on a person's decision to become or remain Catholic.
But the same could be said about Anglicans. Or Eastern Orthodox. Or Lutherans. Do Catholics claim an unbroken succession from the apostles? So do other groups. Is the Catholic Church old? So are other institutions. Does a Catholic have a sense of love and unity within the Roman Catholic Church? Others would claim to have the same sense within their church or denomination. When a Catholic refers to his denomination having an unbroken succession from the apostles, or he refers to having an experience with the Roman Catholic eucharist, we should realize that members of other groups can use the same arguments. We should ask ourselves whether the arguments being put forward for Catholicism actually set Catholicism apart from everything else.
The Protestant theologian Charles Hodge gave a wise warning:
If any in their sluggishness are disposed to think that a perpetual body of infallible teachers would be a blessing, all must admit that the assumption of infallibility by the ignorant, the erring, and the wicked, must be an evil inconceivably great. The Romish theory, if true, might be a blessing; if false, it must be an awful curse. (cited in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998], Vol. I, p. 171)
Whatever desire one may have for an institution with the attributes the Catholic Church claims to have, the desire alone isn't enough. Some people want the Roman Catholic Church to give ecclesiastical unity to Christians, to settle doctrinal disputes, to infallibly interpret the scriptures for us, and to do other things it claims to be able to do. But if the claims of the Catholic Church are false, the desire for those claims to be true doesn't make them true.
If Catholicism was an unbiblical, post-apostolic development, what would we expect to happen? I think we would see what we do see today. Even conservative Catholics make frequent, widespread appeals to development of doctrine. Since passages of scripture addressing church government don't mention a papacy, we're told that we should see allusions to the office in passages like Matthew 16 and Luke 22. We're told that a passage like John 16:13 teaches the supernatural knowledge and infallibility of a Roman Catholic hierarchy that didn't exist at the time and isn't mentioned anywhere in the context of the passage. We're told that the word "favored" in Luke 1:28 should lead us to the conclusion that Mary was conceived without original sin. We're told that Roman Catholicism's salvation through a system of sacraments, penance, indulgences, and meritorious works is the same as the gospel of Genesis 15:6.
The child Samuel said, "Speak, for Thy servant is listening." (1 Samuel 3:10) I don't think Catholics are listening to what God is speaking to them through the scriptures. Instead, they read the Bible with a veil over their eyes (2 Corinthians 3:14-15), that veil being the teachings of Roman Catholicism. They go to the Catholic hierarchy for teaching, then go to the scriptures for corroboration of that teaching. If the teaching isn't corroborated in scripture, or is even contradicted, there are a number of responses the Catholic can choose from. He can just ignore the problem. He can appeal to a vague, unverifiable process of development of doctrine, even if the Catholic hierarchy has denied development. He can appeal to possible allusions to Catholic doctrine in the Bible, even if nothing in the text or context makes an allusion probable or necessary. He can claim that the Catholic hierarchy is God's appointed infallible interpreter of scripture, so we should trust whatever the Catholic Church teaches, even if our fallible judgment leads us to a different conclusion.
Such arguments are common in Catholic apologetics, and on a wide variety of issues. Try talking to a Catholic about the papacy, papal infallibility, the Inquisition, clerical celibacy, not eating meat on Fridays, indulgences, the Assumption of Mary, numbering the sacraments at seven, transubstantiation, Mary being the dispenser of all grace, and other issues. Again and again, you'll get arguments like the ones I just mentioned in the paragraph above. Catholics don't deny that the difference between the church of the New Testament and the Roman Catholic Church is like the difference between a seed and a tree. They just deny the significance of that difference. If the tree is an oak, and the seed is an apple seed, Catholics will tell us about God's ability to transform an apple seed into an oak tree.
The more knowledgeable a Catholic is, the less a debate like this one will be about historical evidence. The more a Catholic knows about church history, the more he realizes that much of what the Catholic Church teaches wasn't taught by Jesus and the apostles. They can't honestly, intelligently argue that Jesus and the apostles taught things like the papacy, the Assumption of Mary, and numbering the sacraments at seven. They turn, then, from historical evidence to philosophical preferences. They talk about the concept of an infallible institution with an unbroken succession from the apostles. They talk about how it seems fitting that God would have a worldwide denomination that could maintain ecclesiastical unity throughout church history. They talk about how it would be helpful to have an entity that could infallibly interpret the scriptures for us. In other words, since they can't prove historically that Christ did establish such an institution, they argue philosophically that He should have. And since they consider Roman Catholicism the best candidate for fulfilling this role (while others would choose Mormonism or Eastern Orthodoxy, for example), they tell us that Roman Catholicism must be that entity.
I have a better idea. Let's just go by the evidence we have, and leave the philosophical preferences to God.
7000 words approx
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