Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Roman and Protestant models of apostolic authority

Continuing the conversation with Japhy on the papal bull Unam Sanctam in which the Roman Catholic church made the official claim that it is "absolutely necessary for salvation ... to be subject to the Roman Pontiff".

This one took me a few days to post because I had to edit out as much as I could of the frustration at exactly how over-the-top I find this particular claim of Rome. I hope I have got it in a better tone; I have reworded it a number of times. The difficulty comes when I re-read one particular part in which I genuinely believe the pope was abusing his power. Japhy, I'm sure you disagree with that, but I just wanted you to know that I struggle with anger when I see someone handle Scripture the way this particular papal bull does. I'll explain why as we go through. But my main hope is that you (Jeff) will know, that first of all that I hope I've got the frustration edited out, and second of all that if any of it's left it's not intended for you but is coming from the way Scripture is being used.

The support which the pope made for the claim is not of the quality I would expect from a Christian who is knowledgeable of the Bible (more on this shortly), and I also have to wonder whether a spiritual person might be aware of the possibility that the sinful nature was involved in making a claim which so plainly and openly advocates their own power and status.

Allegorical Arguments
Japhy posts more of the pope's decree here. The decree contains Scriptural interpretations such as arguing from the spouse in Song of Songs, or from the flood and the ark to the necessity of subjection to Peter and his successor as if to Noah. From the outside looking in, the reasoning on those points is a chain of loose and fanciful interpretation and presumption of key points. I know that Song of Songs is often interpreted allegorically as love betweeen God and his people. Still, that is a long way from identifying God's one and only beloved with Rome to the exclusion of all others. There is a certain presumption on Rome's part that God does not see us as one on the basis of "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" but only on the basis of submission to Peter's successor. Or again, where does Scripture compare the Ark to the church? Where does Scripture make a point of Noah being the captain? Where does Scripture compare Peter to Noah? Allegorical interpretations are not in the mind of the original author but in the mind of the interpreter. Fanciful and allegorical interpretations of Scripture could easily have been interpreted otherwise; all it would take is for someone else's fancy to envision the allegory that suited them.

Feeding the Sheep
Again the papal bull reviews Jesus' conversation with Peter, "feed my sheep", and interprets that as if an appointment to office, as if Peter alone was given charge to feed the sheep, as if the care of the whole church were given to Peter alone by that. It is difficult to imagine that Jesus did not intend for all the disciples to feed his sheep, as the Great Commission entrusted all of them with that; the question is whether special status was intended for Peter. During Peter's life, there is no sign that Peter or any of the rest of the church took it that way. In the first church council as recorded in Acts 15, Peter is not in charge and submits his case to James, with Peter answering to James as if to his superior. Neither is there any record that the others who had studied under Christ felt the need to run their teachings past Peter, having themselves been taught by Christ. When Paul submitted to review of his teachings, he spoke with Peter, James, and John -- and makes no mention of any special status adhering to Peter alone. If Christ had meant to confer unique headship on Peter on behalf of the church, there is no sign that Peter or the rest of the church while he was alive had understood that. That alone makes a powerful case against Peter's unique status: Peter didn't seem to know he had it, and neither did those who knew him.

Whatsoever you bind on earth ...
This next part of the decree is the most difficult for me to read without becoming outright angry because of the way Scripture is handled:
This authority, however, (though it has been given to man and is exercised by man), is not human but rather divine, granted to Peter by a divine word and reaffirmed to him (Peter) and his successors by the One Whom Peter confessed, the Lord saying to Peter himself, "Whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound also in Heaven" etc., [Mt 16:19]. Therefore whoever resists this power thus ordained by God, resists the ordinance of God [cf. Rom 13:2], unless he invent like Manicheus two beginnings, which is false and judged by us heretical, since according to the testimony of Moses, it is not in the beginnings but in the beginning that God created heaven and earth [cf. Gen 1:1]. Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

Take careful note of what is quoted here from Matthew as the Scriptural support for Peter's uniqueness. Jesus was speaking directly to Peter on the occasion of his confession that Jesus was in fact the Christ: "Whatsoever you (singular, i.e. Peter) shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven" (Matthew 16:19). The biggest problem I have with that argument is that it completely ignores that Jesus quickly thereafter grants the same thing to the other apostles. Jesus soon after says to all the apostles together, "Whatsoever you (plural, i.e. all of them) bind on earth shall be bound in heaven" (Matthew 18:18). What the pope quoted here as having been said to Peter -- and the pope cites it as proof of Peter's uniqueness -- is exactly what Jesus also said soon after to all of the apostles. In context, the second passage granting the same authority to all the apostles is immediately followed by the need for agreement and fellowship among them: "if two of you shall agree on earth ... if two or three are gathered in my name". Peter cannot stand alone; no disciple is placed above the other, and the greatest is to be servant of all. The pope's decree has a pointedly partial reading of Scripture, quoting the one passage as proving Peter is unique without even acknowledging the existence the other passage where the same authority is given to all the apostles. Here is why it makes me so angry: when someone makes such a one-sided case, ignores contrary evidence, and does this to his own advantage and about his own authority, it can hardly help coming across badly. In light of the selective reading of Scripture, the pope's later quote which equates disagreement about his interpretation with "resisting the ordinance of God" comes across as heavy-handed rhetoric deflecting an open discussion about the merits of the argument.

Apostolic Authority: the Roman model and the Protestant model
Japhy talking now:
If you reject the ones Jesus sent, you reject Jesus. This is why the Church is so darn stubborn about Apostolic succession. If some random preacher shows up tomorrow, how can I be sure following his teachings about Jesus will lead to my salvation?

What church rejects those who Jesus sent? He sent the apostles, and I am not aware of any church today rejecting any of them. So on to the next question: how can you be sure that someone's teachings are true? You can be sure by comparing those teachings with what Christ and the apostles taught. There was a time in church history when the main guarantee of hearing what the apostles taught was belonging to a church where the bishop was taught by the apostles. But the time came when the churches that traced back to the apostles started teaching things that the apostles had never taught. At that time there became two varieties of "apostolic authority": the Roman variety, where tracing your leadership back to the apostles was seen as a guarantee of true teaching, and the Protestant variety, where tracing the contents of your teachings back to the apostles was seen as a guarantee of true teaching. That's why Protestants are so darn stubborn about what Scripture says: those are the teachings that we are sure trace to the apostles. If I had to choose between a church that can trace its leadership to successors of the apostles but cannot trace its teachings to the apostles on the one hand, and a church that can trace its teachings to the apostles but not its leadership to successors of the apostles, I am glad to stick with the teachings I know trace back to the apostles. Of course, more than that I wish it were not an either/or kind of decision.

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