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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVI, No. 4
Advent - Christmas 2011

On Whose Authority?
The dilemma of discerning truth outside the Church

by Joel Davidson

Last month, I was the lone Catholic around a table of eleven earnest Evangelical Protestant Christians. This group gathers in coffee shops and cafes as part of an ongoing study into the “Early Church for Today”, a rigorous look into what first-century Christians taught on a host of topics: sacred art, icons, stewardship of the earth, and the seven Ecumenical Councils. This fall, they are exploring early Christian views of heaven, hell and purgatory.

As the recent gathering unfolded, the presenter explained that various ancient Greek notions about the afterlife have shaped our own Christian understanding and articulation of hell and the underworld. In fact, even Saint Peter made a passing reference to a Greek idea about the afterlife in one of his New Testament letters (II Peter 2:4).

These revelations disturbed one attendee who wondered whether the influence of pre-Christian Greek thought on the New Testament writers didn’t undermine the purity of the Gospel.

The presenter explained that Sacred Scriptures did not simply fall from heaven. Rather, they are the product of the Holy Spirit, inspiring human hearts to communicate, through words and metaphors who God is and what Jesus accomplished on the cross.

In short, the Scriptures are the result of the Holy Spirit working in and through real people, culture and customs.

The presenter reaffirmed that some pre-Christian Greek ideas did, in fact, influence the Sacred Scriptures.

One participant then pointed out, “All truth is God’s truth”, as Saint Augustine famously penned.

The point was that elements of the truth are found — in varying degrees — within all cultures. And where this truth is found it can and has contributed to our Christian understanding of God.

The thoroughly Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, for example, influenced Christian thought, both in the first centuries and in those that followed.

But this is not cause for scandal. This is how God reveals Himself — through human language, culture and metaphor. Most profoundly, He revealed Himself through the flesh, blood and bone of a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, who was also God, as well as a sandal-clad first century Jewish carpenter.

As the recent discussion unfolded, someone finally raised a question that such a presentation eventually begs: “How do we know which elements of human culture, mythology and philosophy are harmonious with Christian faith and which are not?”

It might be added that one could also question how we know which of the books of the Old and New Testaments should have been included in the Bible? Were there some that failed to make the canon that should have? Should others have been excluded?

In other words, who gets to decide what is authentically Christian? On whose authority are these decisions made?

Unfortunately the recent discussion did not flesh this out, and perhaps the religious makeup of the group had something to do with this.

Up until the 16th century, nearly all Christians in the West recognized that the authority to defend some teachings as authentically Christian and to denounce others as false was reserved for the Apostles of Christ and their successors — those bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome, the pope.

As the appointed guardians and teachers of the faith, these bishops first compiled the books of the Bible into the Sacred Scriptures and then defended the authentic revelation of God against countless heresies while preserving the teachings of Christ down through the centuries.

This was not the result of a single person, a small group or one denomination. Rather, it was the work, first of Christ, then His twelve Apostles whom He gave the authority to preach, teach and baptize. Later, the Apostles passed this sacred duty on to their successors — the bishops who have continued to teach in union together with Saint Peter’s direct successors, the popes. United together, the universal Church has preserved, defended and proclaimed the authentic revelation of Jesus Christ to the world.

But Evangelical Protestant Christians do not recognize Catholic bishops and popes as the successors of Christ’s original twelve Apostles. Therefore they are left with a genuinely perplexing and admittedly disturbing predicament.

On whose authority do they accept the writings and ideas contained in Sacred Scripture?

In an age known to repackage old heresies and false doctrines for modern minds, we Catholics would do well to share the comforting news that the direct successors of the Apostles are still hard at work — preserving the faith for generations to come.

Joel Davidson is the editor of the Catholic Anchor, the official newspaper and news web site of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska. This editorial was originally published on the Catholic Anchor web site — — and is reprinted here with Mr. Davidson’s kind permission.

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