After informing my Sunday School class at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida (9/19/99) about the teachings of the Council of Trent on justification, one of the members of the class asked me: Since its teachings are so obviously non-Pauline, why does Rome teach what it does about justification and salvation? My answer that morning was somewhat sparse: Rome has followed its Tradition, and that Tradition has been bad Tradition. But thinking that many Protestant Christians might have the same question, I have expanded upon my answer here.
From the vantage point of the great sixteenth-century magisterial Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church’s problems in the area of soteriology (and there are many) begin in the arena of authority. Protestantism has one authority—the inspired Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Rome has two authorities—Scripture and Tradition—and Protestantism disagrees with Rome’s understanding of and teaching on both.
Scripture and Canon
With respect to its Scripture authority, Rome places twelve additional Apocryphal (hidden, then obscure, then spurious) books within the Old Testament, namely, Tobit, Judith, the (six) Additions to the Book of Esther, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach (known also as Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men (considered one work), Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. Bruce M. Metzger, in his editorial Introduction to the Apocrypha, in The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, explains how these books came to be included by Rome in its Old Testament canon: At the end of the fourth century Pope Damasus commissioned Jerome, the most learned biblical scholar of his day, to prepare a standard Latin version of the Scriptures (the Latin Vulgate). In the Old Testament Jerome followed the Hebrew canon and by means of prefaces called the reader’s attention to the separate category of the apocryphal books [In the preface to his Latin Version of the Bible Jerome, after translating the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, says: Anything outside of these must be placed within the Apocrypha, that is, within the non-canonical books—RLR]. Subsequent copyists of the Latin Bible, however, were not always careful to transmit Jerome’s prefaces, and during the medieval period the Western Church generally regarded these books as part of the holy Scriptures. [At one of its prolonged sessions which occurred on April 8, 1546, with only fifty-three prelates present, not one of whom was a scholar distinguished for historical learning—RLR]...the Council of Trent decreed [in its Sacrosancta] that the canon of the Old Testament includes them (except the Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras). [And, I may add, Trent went on to anathematize anyone who does not accept these entire books, with all their parts, as they have customarily been read in the Catholic Church and are found in the ancient editions of the Latin Vulgate, as sacred and canonical. This decree was confirmed by Vatican I (1870).—RLR]. Subsequent editions of the Latin Vulgate text, officially approved by the Roman Catholic Church, contain these books incorporated within the sequence of the Old Testament books. Thus Tobit and Judith stand after Nehemiah; the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus stand after the Song of Solomon; Baruch (with the Letter of Jeremiah as chapter 6) stands after Lamentations; and 1 and 2 Maccabees conclude the books of the Old Testament. [Metzger could have also noted that the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men is placed between Daniel 3:23 and 3:24; Susanna is placed either at the beginning of Daniel as an introduction to chapter 1 (this placement is that of the Greek text of Theodotian and the Old Latin, Coptic, and Arabic versions) or at the end of Daniel as chapter 13 ( this placement is that of the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate); and Bel and the Dragon is placed either at the close of Daniel 12 in the Greek manuscripts of Daniel or at the end of Daniel as chapter 14 in the Latin Vulgate, Susanna being chapter 13.—RLR] An appendix after the New Testament contains the Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras, without implying canonical status. ...Thus Roman Catholics accept as fully canonical those books and parts of books which Protestants call the Apocrypha (except the Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and2 Esdras, which both groups regard as apocryphal). (Emphasis supplied)
How shall we respond to all this? To begin, these Aprocryphal books were written predominantly in Greek (Tobit, Judith, Ecclesiasticus, part of Baruch, and 1 Maccabees are the exceptions here, having been written in Hebrew or, in part at least, in Aramaic) during the last two centuries before Christ and the first century of the Christian era, long after the Hebrew Old Testament canon was completed. Interestingly, these books themselves, from first to last, bear testimony to the assertion of the Jewish historian Josephus (Against Apion, 1.8) that the exact succession of the prophets had been broken after the close of the Hebrew canon of the Old Testament. Nowhere in them is found the phrase, Thus saith the Lord, which occurs so frequently in the Old Testament. Accordingly, the Palestinian Jews never accepted these Apocryphal books as canonical, their canon being essentially the same as what the Protestant Old Testament is today (see Josephus, Against Apion, 1.41; Babylonian Talmud, Yomah 9b, Sota 48b, Sanhedrin 11a). Nor did Jesus or the New Testament writers ever cite from these books. When Paul declared then that the Jews possessed the oracles of God (Romans 3:2), he was implicitly excluding the Apocrypha from those oracles.
According to Gleason L. Archer, Jr., the Septuagint—the pre-Christian Alexandrian Jewish translation of the Hebrew Old Testament—was the only ancient version which included in one manuscript tradition or another the books of the Apocrypha. This has led some scholars to speak of an Alexandrian Canon which held equal authority among Jews along with the Palestinian Canon. But, writes Archer, while Philo of Alexandria quotes frequently from the canonical books of the ‘Palestinian Canon,’ he never once quotes from any of the apocryphal books. Furthermore, Aquila’s Greek version, even though it did not contain the Apocrypha, was accepted by Alexandrian Jews in the second century A.D. Jerome explained the presence of the Apocrypha in the Alexandrian version by saying that the Alexandrian Jews included in their edition of the Old Testament both the canonical books and the books which were ecclesiastical (that is, considered valuable though not inspired). While it is true that the Septuagint served as the Greek Bible of the early church and of the apostles in their mission to the Gentiles, there is no evidence, as I just said, that a New Testament writer cites from any of the Apocryphal books.
These books abound in historical, geographical, and chronological inaccuracies and anachronism. Consider just two of the more apparent inaccuracies:
They also teach doctrines which are at variance with the inspired Scriptures. For example, 2 Maccabees 12:43-45 teaches the efficacy of prayers and offerings for the dead. Ecclesiasticus 3:30 teaches that almsgiving makes atonement for sin and justifies cruelty to slaves (33:26, 28). The Wisdom of Solomon teaches the doctrine of emanation (7:25) and the Platonic doctrine of the pre-existence of souls (8:18-20).
Accordingly, the Dutch Bible published by Jacob von Liesveldt at Antwerp (1526) placed the Apocryphal books after Malachi and identified the section as the books which are not in the canon, that is to say, which one does not find among the Jews in the Hebrew. The six-volume Swiss-German Bible (1527-1529) placed the Apocryphal books in the fifth volume, the title page of which volume reads: These are the books which are not reckoned as biblical by the ancients, nor are found among the Hebrews. Concerned to return to the sole authority of inspired, inerrant Scripture, Martin Luther in his German translation of the Bible (1534) placed the Apocryphal books once again between the Old and New Testaments with the title: Apocrypha, that is, books which are not held equal to the sacred Scriptures and nevertheless are useful and good to read. Miles Coverdale’s English translation of the Bible (1535) put them in the same position with the title: Apocrypha. The books and treatises which among the fathers of old are not reckoned to be of like authority with the other books of the Bible, neither are they found in the Canon of the Old Testament. The Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (1562) state concerning the Apocrypha: And the other books (as Jerome saith) the Church doth read for example of life, and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine. And the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648) declares: The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of Scripture; and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings (I.3).
Then, because of its views on Tradition Rome also rejects most of the great attributes of Scripture that Protestantism holds in high esteem, namely, Scripture’s canonics, its necessity, its self-attestation, its sufficiency, its perspicuity, and its finality. So historic Protestantism and Roman Catholicism do not share the same Bible, either extensively or intensively. For Protestantism the Bible alone (sola Scriptura) is self-validating and absolutely authoritative in all matters of faith and practice; for Roman Catholicism its enlarged Bible (and this applies to any given statement in it) has only the authority and meaning the Roman Church has determined to give to it.
With respect to its Tradition, which Protestantism rejects outright as its authority, Rome insists that its Tradition possesses an authority equal to that of Scripture itself and that the church should receive and venerate its Tradition with the same feeling of piety and reverence that it feels for the Old and New Testaments. Very cleverly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) blurs the distinction between canonical revelation (which is indisputably authoritative) and Rome’s own later traditions (which are non-canonical and therefore not authoritative) when it declares in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition (paragraph 83).
It is true, of course, that the first Christians did not have a written New Testament, but they did have the Old Testament and inspired apostles living among them to give them authoritative revelational instruction which is referred to as the traditions (tas paradoseis, literally, the things passed on) in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. But it is a giant leap in logic and theological reaching and equivocation of the worst kind simply to assert, because there was such a thing as apostolic tradition coming directly from the apostles in the New Testament age, that the fact of that tradition justifies Rome’s claim to an ongoing, perpetual process of living Tradition within its communion throughout the present age whose authority is on a par with Scripture’s authority.
The problem with this dual authority of Scripture and Tradition, of course, is that the Scriptures cannot (and in fact do not) really govern the content of Tradition, not to mention the fact that with this view of Tradition, given Rome’s view of itself as a living organism in its capacity as the depository of Tradition, there can never be a codification of or limitation placed upon the content of this Tradition, not even by Scripture. As Charles Elliot stated: ...so far as we are aware, there is no publication which contains a summary of what the Church believes under the head of tradition. As a result, because Rome’s Tradition is ever free to include doctrines which are the very antithesis of Scripture teaching while yet claiming divine authority—becoming thereby bad tradition as recent history will verify (consider the papal dogmas of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, papal infallibility in 1870, and the Assumption of Mary in 1950)—the Church is left vulnerable to every kind of innovation. Moreover, Rome’s teaching on Tradition impiously implies, since Protestantism self-consciously rejects one of the two indispensable media of divine revelation, that Protestantism cannot possibly be the church of Christ, when in fact it is Rome with its dogmatic deliverances from the Council of Trent to the present day that is perverting Christian truth by its traditions of men.
Before we say anything more I must discuss Rome’s doctrine of papal infallibility, which is a major aspect of its Tradition and thus contributes in a major way, for Roman Catholic belief, to the authority of Church Tradition. The Roman Catholic Church since the early Middle Ages has contended that in Matthew 16:18 Jesus declared that Peter was to be the first Pope (of Rome, of course) and as such the supreme leader of Christendom, and that his supremacy would be transmitted to each Bishop of Rome who would succeed him. This contention is dramatically captured by the Latin inscription around the entablature just below the great dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam. Accordingly, the Roman Catholic Baltimore Catechism states: Christ gave special powers in His Church to St. Peter by making him the head of the Apostles and the chief teacher and ruler of the entire Church. Christ did not intend that the special power of chief teacher and ruler of the entire Church should be exercised by St. Peter alone, but intended that this power should be passed down to his successor, the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, who is the Vicar of Christ on earth and the visible head of the Church.
The Roman Catholic Church has employed this dogma to claim for itself the authority to bind men’s consciences by its interpretation of Scripture, to add new doctrines not taught in the Scripture, and to reinterpret the plain teaching of Scripture. It has done so, as we have suggested, by first distinguishing Peter from the other apostles and then by claiming that his apostolic authority is continued in the single line of Bishops of Rome.
Now it is true that in the early years of the New Testament era Peter was a leader among the apostles. A case can even be made that he was the first among equals (primus inter pares) in some sense. Consider the following data. There are approximately 140 references to Peter in the four Gospels, some 30 more than all the references to the other disciples combined. He stands at the head of the list of the twelve apostles in each of the lists given in the New Testament (Matthew 10:2 [note Matthew’s first here]; Mark 3:16; Luke 6:14; Acts 1:13), and he is included among that inner circle of disciples (Peter, James, and John), which alone witnessed certain miraculous events such as Jesus’ transfiguration; he is the spokesman for the disciples on several occasions (Matthew 15:15; 17:24-25; 19:27; John 6:68-69); it is he who walked with Jesus on the sea (Matthew 14:28-29); it is he whom Jesus specifically charged to strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:32). He was in charge in the selection of the one to take Judas’ place in Acts 1; it was he who preached the first Christian sermon on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, converting many Jews to the Way; it was his activities (along with John’s) which Luke recounts in the first half of Acts; it was he whom God chose to be the missionary who would take the special action with regard to Cornelius’ household in behalf of Gentile salvation in Acts 10; his was the first testimony to be recounted by Luke at the assembly in Jerusalem in Acts 15; his name appears first in Paul’s official list of those to whom Christ appeared after his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:5); and Paul even refers to him (along with James and John) as a pillar (stulos) in the church at Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9). All this is beyond dispute. But to derive Rome’s understanding of Peter’s priority, which goes beyond what the New Testament actually teaches about it, from Matthew 16:18 (Rome bolsters its position with a few related verses such as Luke 22:31-32 and John 21:16) forces the verse to say something which it does not say. For the verse to bear such heavy doctrinal weight, the Roman Catholic apologist must demonstrate the following things exegetically and not simply assert them dogmatically:
The Roman Catholic apologist must also be able to demonstrate historically that Peter in fact became the first Bishop of Rome and not simply assert it dogmatically. But what are the facts? Irenaeus and Eusebius of Caesarea both make Linus, mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:21, the first Bishop of Rome. That Peter may have died, as ancient tradition has it, in Rome is a distinct possibility (see 1 Peter 5:13 where Babylon has been rather uniformly understood by commentators as a metaphor for Rome), but that he ever actually pastored the church there is a blatant fiction which the more candid scholars in the Roman communion will acknowledge. Jerome’s Latin translation of Eusebius (but not Eusebius’ Greek copy) records that Peter ministered in Rome for twenty-five years, but if Philip Schaff (as well as many other church historians) is to be believed, this is a colossal chronological mistake.
Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome in early A.D. 57, but he did not address the letter to Peter or refer to him anywhere in it as its pastor. And in the last chapter he extended greetings to no less than twenty-six specific friends in the Imperial city but he makes no mention of Peter which would have been a major oversight, indeed an affront to Peter, if in fact Peter were ruling the Roman church at that time. Then later when Paul was himself in Rome, from which city he wrote both his four prison letters during his first imprisonment in A.D. 60-62 when he was welcoming all who came to him (Acts 28:30), and his last pastoral letter during his second imprisonment around A.D. 64, in which letters he extended greetings to his letters’ recipients from ten specific people in Rome, again he makes no mention of Peter being there. Here is a period of time spanning about seven years (A.D. 57-64) during which time Paul related himself to the Roman church both as correspondent and as resident, but he says not a word which would suggest that he believed Peter was in Rome. What are we to make of Paul’s silence? And if Peter was at Rome and was simply not mentioned by Paul in any of these letters, what are we to conclude about him when Paul declares to the Philippians: I have no one else [besides Timothy] of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:20-21); or when he writes to Timothy later and says: Only Luke is with me.... At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me (2 Timothy 4:11, 16)? And what are we to make of an alleged extended ministry on Peter’s part in Rome in light of Paul’s statement in Galatians 2:7-8 that the apostolate had entrusted Peter with missionary efforts to Jews? Are we to conclude that Peter had been disobedient to that trust? I think not. For just as Paul wrote several of his letters to churches he had founded, so it would appear that Peter also, writing from Babylon to dispersed Jewish Christians (see his use of diaspora in 1 Peter 1:1) in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, was writing to people he had evangelized in those places. The one glimpse we have from Paul’s writings concerning Peter’s whereabouts and ministry is found in 1 Corinthians 9:5 where he suggests that Cephas, his wife with him (see Matthew 8:14), was an itinerant evangelist carrying out the trust which the other apostles had given him. From this data we must conclude, if Peter did in fact reach Rome as tradition says, that his purpose more than likely would have been only to pay the church there not much more than a casual visit, and that he would have arrived there only shortly before his death which, according to tradition, occurred during the Neronic persecution.
The Roman Catholic apologist must also be able to address, to the satisfaction of reasonable men, the following questions:
Needless to say, in my opinion Rome’s exegesis of Matthew 16 and its historically developed dogmatic claim to authoritative primacy in the Christian world simply cannot be exegetically demonstrated and sustained from Scripture itself. Rome’s claim of papal infallibility is surely one of the great hoaxes foisted upon professing Christendom, which claim all the rest of Christendom—Orthodox and Protestant—has formally and officially rejected, upon which false base rests Rome’s entire sacerdotal system of salvation which is its chief engine of revenue.
Rome’s claim of papal infallibility is also a blatant rejection of the many significant opposing testimonies in church history. While Jesus, true enough, said that upon this rock (taute te petra) he was going to build his assembly, whether this phrase has for its antecedent Peter personally and exclusively and in what sense Jesus was going to build his assembly on Peter have been matters of considerable controversy in the church virtually from the beginning. Roman Catholic Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick prepared a paper to be delivered at Vatican I (1870), in which he noted that five interpretations of the word rock were held in antiquity:
These statistics show that the view that eventually became normative for Rome was a minority view in the ancient church, being held by about 20 percent of the fathers consulted, and thus far from certain. Where is Rome’s allegiance to this ancient tradition? It obviously does not suit Rome to follow its Tradition at this point.
As samplings of this divergence of ancient opinion, Origen, making his usual distinction between the letter and the spiritual intention of the text, urged that according to the letter the rock in Jesus’ explanation referred to Peter while the Spirit had in mind everyone who becomes such as Peter was. Tertullian explicitly declared that the power to bind and to loose was given to Peter personally then and there and was not passed on to the Roman Bishop. Cyprian held that Jesus was addressing the whole body of bishops in speaking of Peter since, he says, he later endowed all the apostles with a like partnership both of honour and power. He also contends that Jesus spoke specifically of Peter only to highlight the necessity of the unity of the church. Chrysostom, followed by Gregory of Nyssa, Isidore of Pelusium, the Latin father Hilary, and the later Greek fathers Theodoret, Theophanes, Theophylact, and John of Damascus, held that the rock in Jesus’ explanation was the faith of Peter’s confession. The later Augustine believed the rock was not Peter but Christ.
During the Middle Ages the Roman Bishop regularly employed Matthew 16 to ground Rome’s claim to ecclesiastical primacy as though no other understanding were possible. But at the time of the Reformation Luther returned to Augustine at this point (The rock is the Son of God, Jesus Christ himself and no one else), and urged that Peter’s rock-like characteristic applied not to his person but only to his faith in Jesus who was the Rock. Calvin also held that the Rock was Christ and that in addressing Peter as Rock Christ was addressing both Peter and all other believers as well in the sense that the bond of faith in Christ is the basis on which the church grows. Zwingli taught that Peter is only the type of him who believes in Christ as the sole Rock. It can be safely said, I think, that all of the Reformers believed that the true Rock of the church is Jesus Christ, with Peter being the Rock not in respect to his person but in respect to his being the type of all who trust in Jesus as Messiah and God.
Given this divergence of opinion, what did Jesus mean then by his statement? I have argued in my Jesus, Divine Messiah: The New Testament Witness for the authenticity of the pericope. I argued in the same work that by his confession Peter declared his conviction that Jesus was both the long-promised Old Testament Messiah and the divine Son of God. I pointed out there that it was in response to Peter’s exclamatory declaration, You are su ei the Messiah, the Son of the living God! that Jesus responded to Peter as he did: And I am saying to you that you are su ei a peter [literally, ‘a rock’]! I think it important to note that in his exclamation Peter did not employ a proper name to designate Jesus; rather, he ascribed to him two titles, the first functional (Messiah), the second ontological (Son of the living God). I would suggest from the parallelism in the two su ei clauses that Jesus may have intended to respond in kind. That is to say, he may not have employed petros as a proper name. Rather, he may have likewise ascribed to him only a title: You are a rock! And by capitalizing the Greek word petros as it does, the Greek rendering of the Aramaic kepha, which latter word Jesus almost certainly used, the editors of our critical editions of the Greek New Testament may have misled us. Jesus may have intended to say, in other words, not You are Peter, but You are a rock! by which exclamation I suggest he would have meant, You are [truly] a rock [by describing me as you just did]! If so, when Jesus continued by saying, and upon this rock [note: he does not say upon you] I will build my ‘assembly,’ I would suggest that he may have intended to say that it was upon Peter’s rock-like description of him as the Messiah and the Son of the living God, which understanding the Father had just graciously revealed to Peter, and not upon Peter personally that he would ground his church. This would mean, in sum, that the bed-rock itself of the church is the fact of Christ’s own messianic investiture and his ontological existence as the Second Person of the Godhead, just as Paul would later write: No man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11; see also 1 Corinthians 10:4: ...and the rock was Christ he petra de en ho Christos). In confessing the same Peter was himself a rock.
It is entirely possible, of course, that Jesus did intend to say that upon Peter he would build his church in some sense (I think sometimes that our Protestant reluctance to admit this possibility plays into the hands of the Roman apologist), a possibility that certainly receives support from the next verse where Jesus declared to Peter: I will give to you [singular] the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you [singular] bind upon Earth shall have been bound in Heaven, and whatever you [singular] loose upon Earth shall have been loosed in Heaven (16:19). But in what sense?
Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah and Son of the living God, just revealed to him by the Father, cannot be excluded from Christ’s reference to Peter as a rock. Not Peter personally as the man but Peter as the confessing apostle—confessing specifically what he did, namely, the revealed truth about Jesus being the Messiah and the Son of the living God—is the foundation rock of the church: This interpretation is demanded by the sequel in the passage which follows (Mt. 16:22-23). There Jesus calls Peter by another name: Satan. Just as Peter had spoken by revelation from the Father, he now becomes the mouthpiece of the devil. In confessing Jesus to be the Christ he was the rock, in tempting Jesus to refuse the cross he is Satan. He is called Satan only in direct reference to his word of seduction. Apart from that expression the designation does not apply. Jesus is not declaring that Peter the man is a Satan in terms of all his personal qualities, nor is satanicity a character indelibilis. Peter is Satan as he speaks for Satan. [This would require by analogy that ] Peter is a rock as he speaks for God.
This shows then that Peter was a rock only in his office as a confessing apostle speaking the Word of God. When he (or any pope) spoke something authoritatively other than the Word of God, he became not a rock but a Satan (may we also say an Antichrist?).
Furthermore, it must be noted in this connection that to the rest of the disciples (Matthew 18:1) several days later Jesus gave the same kingdom authority that he had given to Peter when he said, Truly I say to you [plural], whatever you [plural] bind upon Earth shall have been bound in Heaven, and whatever you [plural] loose upon Earth shall have been loosed in Heaven (18:18). He did the same thing on the night of his resurrection when he breathed on [the ten disciples] and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whoever’s sins you [plural] forgive, they have been forgiven; whoever’s you [plural] retain, they have been retained’ (John 20:22-23). What should we make of this similar promise of the keys to the other disciples? I suggest that Jesus was implying on these two latter occasions what Paul would later state explicitly, namely, that Christ’s church would be built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20; see 1 Corinthians 10:4), and what John would later symbolically depict in Revelation as one aspect of the church as the bride of Christ: And the wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Rev 21:14).
In sum, the New Testament teaching grants a certain priority to Peter among the original Twelve, but this priority, to use Jack Dean Kingsbury’s phrase, seems to have been salvation- [or redemptive-] historical in nature, that is, Peter occupied a primus inter pares position only during the specific time frame of the salvation history in which he lived. The New Testament does not restrict the church’s foundation to him alone but founds the church on the entire apostolate, not in regard to their persons as such but in regard to their office in the church as authoritative teachers of doctrine who confess the truth about Jesus. I must conclude from all of the Scripture data that there is no warrant whatever for Rome’s dogma of the exclusive primacy of Peter’s chair in these words of Jesus.
What then can we safely say about Jesus’ assembly or church on the basis of his words in Matthew 16:18? First, the disciples did not appear to have any difficulty comprehending Jesus’ talk about building his ekklesia. They rather obviously did not find it a totally new or strange concept. This is surely to be traced to the fact that the concept had its roots in the Old Testament’s recurring depiction of Israel as God’s congregation or assembly. Second, it is ultimately Jesus, not men, who will build his church. Like a wise master-builder who builds a house, so Jesus will build his church. Third, his building, more specifically his temple (Ephesians 2:20-21), will be unconquerable: The very gates of Hades (the power of death?) will not prevail against it. Fourth, he would build it upon the bed-rock of his own person as the Messiah and divine Son of God as this bedrock comes to expression in both his and his apostles’ authoritative teaching. Fifth, his ekklesia, made up of those who like Peter confess his messianic role and divine Sonship, would be the assembly [or congregation] of the Messiah. Sixth, his ekklesia would become the vehicle of authority (see the keys of the kingdom of Heaven) throughout this age for carrying out the predetermining will of Heaven (see the shall have been’s) by binding (that is, retaining) the non-elect man’s sins through the smell of death character for him (2 Corinthians 2:16) of the Gospel proclamation and/or of church discipline, and loosing (that is, forgiving) the elect man’s sins through the fragrance of life character for him (2 Corinthians 2:16) of the same Gospel proclamation and/or of church discipline. These two activities on the church’s part (binding and loosing in accordance with the predetermining will of Heaven) would become then the means through the centuries by which Jesus would build his, the divine Messiah’s, assembly. Seventh, Jesus’ statement suggests that his assembly would be a world-wide entity for this appears to be the connotation of the word here. Finally, the fact that the foundation stones of his assembly were given the keys of the kingdom of Heaven indicates that there is a direct connection between his church and the kingdom of God. In other words, by entrusting oneself in saving faith to the Christ espoused in the apostles’ doctrine, one enters Messiah’s church which is also the present redemptive expression of the kingdom of God among men. As Paul will write later: [The Father] delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son of his love (Colossians 1:13).
The Apostate Fathers
The upshot of all this—and this is the first half of my response to the original question—is that Rome bases its soteriological teaching not primarily on Scripture but primarily on its own infallible, unamendable Tradition that virtually from the beginning began to exhibit great error.
With this last observation we come to the second half of my response to the class member’s original question, for it is one of the saddest facts of church history that, with regard to its tradition, from the post-apostolic age onward the church fell more and more into serious soteriological error, with grace and faith giving way to legalism and the doing of good works as the pronounced way of salvation. An unevangelical nomism runs virtually unabated through the writings of the church fathers. Only upon rare occasion, and not even fully in Augustine, was the voice of Paul clearly heard again before the sixteenth-century magisterial Reformation where it was heard in the preaching and writing of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin. Kenneth Escott Kirk writes: St. Paul’s indignant wonder was evoked by the reversion of a small province of the Christian Church [Galatia] to the legalistic spirit of the Jewish religion. Had he lived half a century or a century later, his cause for amazement would have been increased a hundredfold. The example of the Galatians might be thought to have infected the entire Christian Church; writer after writer seems to have little other interest than to express the genius of Christianity wholly in terms of law and obedience, reward and punishment.
J. L. Neve carefully documents in the apostolic fathers how quickly after the age of Paul—doubtless due to Jewish and Hellenistic influences without and the tug of the Pelagian heart within—the emphasis in their preaching and writings on soteriology fell more and more upon human works and their merit and upon moralism. J. N. D. Kelly reaches similar conclusions. Richard Lovelace affirms: By the early second century it is clear that Christians had come to think of themselves as being justified through being sanctified, accepted as righteous according to their actual obedience to the new Law of Christ. And Thomas F. Torrance, in his The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers—whose entire work is an inquiry into the literature of the apostolic fathers, that is to say, into the Didache of the Twelve Apostles, the First Epistle of Clement, the Epistles of Ignatius, the Epistle of Polycarp, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Second Epistle of Clement, in order to discern how and why such a great divergence away from the teaching of the New Testament occurred in their understanding of salvation—concludes his research by saying: In the Apostolic Fathers grace did not have [the] radical character [that it had in the New Testament]. The great presupposition of the Christian life, for them, was not a deed of decisive significance that cut across human life and set it on a wholly new basis grounded upon the self-giving of God. What took absolute precedence was God’s call to a new life in obedience to revealed truth. Grace, as far as it was grasped, was subsidiary to that. And so religion was thought of primarily in terms of man’s acts toward God, in the striving toward justification, much less in terms of God’s acts for man which put him in the right with God once and for all.
...Salvation is wrought, they thought, certainly by divine pardon but on the ground of repentance, not apparently on the ground of the death of Christ alone.... It was not seen that the whole of salvation is centred in the person and death of Christ, for there God has Himself come into the world and wrought a final act of redemption which undercuts all our own endeavours at self-justification, and places us in an entirely new situation in which faith alone saves a man, and through which alone is a man free to do righteousness spontaneously under the constraining love of Christ. That was not understood by the apostolic fathers, and it is the primary reason for the degeneration of their Christian faith into something so different from the New Testament.
Thus the early post-apostolic church’s sub-Christian soteriological deliverances launched the church on a doctrinal trajectory that moved virtually the entire church (there was always a remnant that put up resistance) away from the pristine Pauline teaching on salvation by pure grace and justification by faith alone, a trajectory that eventually came to expression in Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Semi-Semi-Pelagianism, that then found formal expression in the system of Thomas Aquinas, and finally became the hardened official position of the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent.
This naturalistic soteriological vision (for that is what it is) in its purest expression, which Benjamin B. Warfield designated autosoterism (self-salvation), the church has called Pelagianism named for Pelagius, the late-fourth/early-fifth-century British monk who formally taught it. This vision contends that men can save themselves, that is to say, that their native powers are such that men are capable of doing everything that God requires of them for salvation.
Over against this soteric plan, the supernaturalistic vision, designated Augustinianism after Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo, who vigorously resisted Pelagius’ teachings, insists that men are incapable of saving themselves and that all the powers essential to the saving of the soul must come from God. Augustinianism triumphed formally, if not actually, over Pelagianism in A.D. 418 when Pelagianism was condemned at the Sixteenth Council of Carthage. In this conciliar triumph, Warfield notes, ...it was once for all settled that Christianity was to remain a religion, and a religion for sinful men, and not rot down into a mere ethical system, fitted only for the righteous who need no salvation. In other words, the church of Jesus Christ, alone among all the religions of the world in this regard, in its best creedal moments is supernaturalistic or Augustinian in its soteric conception that God must save men, and every Christian should be in this sense Augustinian in his soteric beliefs.
As I just intimated, Pelagianism did not die with its conciliar condemnation in A.D. 418, men being born as they are with Pelagian hearts, which fact makes it necessary to fight this battle in every generation. Rather, it only went underground, meanwhile vexing the Church with modified forms of itself, modified just enough to escape the letter of the Church’s condemnation. For example, it reappeared at once in the Semi-Pelagian denial of the necessity of prevenient grace for salvation. This was opposed by the Second Council of Orange—not an ecumenical council—in A.D. 529. Alister E. McGrath, after noting in his study, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, that the earlier pronouncements of the Sixteenth Council of Carthage were vague at several points which were to prove of significance, and these were revised at what is generally regarded as being the most important council of the early church to deal with the doctrine of justification—the Second Council of Orange, convened in 529, then observes: No other council was convened to discuss the doctrine of justification between  and 1545, when the Council of Trent assembled to debate that doctrine, among many other things. There was thus a period of over a millennium during which the teaching office of the church remained silent on the issue of justification. This silence serves to further enhance the importance of the pronouncements of Orange II on the matter, as these thus come to represent the definitive teaching of the Christian church on the doctrine of justification during the medieval period, before the Council of Trent was convened. Recent scholarship has established that no theologian of the Middle Ages ever cites the decisions of Orange II, or shows the slightest awareness of the existence of such decisions. For reasons that we simply do not understand, from the tenth century until the assembly of the Council of Trent in 1545, the theologians of the western church appear to be unaware of the existence of such a council, let alone its pronouncements. The theologians of the Middle Ages were thus obliged to base their teaching on justification on the canons of the Council of Carthage, which were simply incapable of bearing the strain which came to be placed upon them. The increasing precision of the technical terms employed within the theological schools inevitably led to the somewhat loose terms used by the Council of Carthage being interpreted in a manner quite alien to that intended by those who originally employed them.
So while the Second Council of Orange in A.D. 529 saved the church from Semi-Pelagianism, regrettably that same council betrayed the church into the semi-Pelagian denial of the irresistibility of prevenient grace by human free will, which theological vision eventually came to expression in the popular medieval slogan: God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within their power (see William of Occam’s facere quod in se est, doing what in you is). In spite of recurring protests through the centuries by such men as Gottschalk, Bradwardine, Wycliffe, and Hus, eventually Thomas Aquinas, as we have already noted, systematized this theological vision and the Council of Trent (1545) was to declare it the official position of those churches in communion with Counter-Reformation Rome. In doing so, the Council of Trent rejected the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone even though their own great humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam and other of Rome’s brightest philologists by this time had uncovered the fact that Jerome’s Latin Vulgate had mistranslated the Greek word metanoeo (repent) as do penance and the Greek word dikaioo (declare righteous) as make righteous.
The Reformers of the sixteenth century, being Biblical scholars, rejected Rome’s soteriology with all of its concomitant errors and returned to the earlier best insights of the later Augustine and before him to the inspired insights, in particular, of Paul’s letters to the Galatians and to the Romans. But sadly where Protestantism placed its either-or or solus (alone) (see its sola Scriptura, sola gratia, solus Christus, sola fide, soli Deo gloria), Roman Catholic theology has continued to place its both-and or et (and) (see its doctrines of Scripture and tradition, Christ and Mary, grace and nature, faith in Christ and works, faith in Christ and indulgences, the sacred and the secular). All of these ands are outworkings of Rome’s theologico-philosophical commitment to Aquinas’ vision of the analogy of being (analogia entis) between God and creation, the latter of which Rome regards, over against Reformation theology, as being still fundamentally good in spite of the Genesis Fall. For myself, standing with the Reformers who contended that the first principle of all true theology is the fact that God is there and he has spoken with finality in Holy Scripture, while I often disagree with the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, I do agree with him completely when he wrote: I regard the analogia entis as the invention of Antichrist, and think that because of it one cannot become Catholic. For it is indeed the invention of Antichrist when one adds anything to the great sola’s of the Reformation. The and in grace and..., Christ and..., or faith and... brings the apostolic curse and damnation (Galatians 1:6-9; 5:2-6; Romans 11:6). For they who would trust in the work of Christ plus their own good works plus the righteousness and intercessory work of Mary and the saints plus their pilgrimages and their purchases of indulgences are, according to Paul, making Christ’s cross-work of no value (Galatians 5:2), alienating themselves from Christ (5:4a), falling away from grace (5:4b) abolishing the offence of the cross (5:11), trusting in a different gospel which is no gospel at all (1:6-7) at the peril of their souls and showing thereby that they have never been truly regenerated by the Holy Spirit (or they would submit to the teaching of the Holy Scripture) but are still lost in their sin.
Because Pelagianism, including all the modified forms it takes today (Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Arminianism), is always an attack on the sola gratia, solus Christus, sola fide soteric principle, claiming as it does that man deserves at least some measure of credit for effecting his salvation, if not in its initiation, at least in his cooperation with initiating grace, the true church of Jesus Christ must ever be on guard to ensure that the sola gratia, solus Christus, sola fide soteric principle of Holy Scripture and of Paul specifically continues to be proclaimed as the sole way of salvation.
Dr. Robert L. Reymond, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, holds the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Bob Jones University. A prolific author, Dr. Reymond recently published A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Thomas Nelson, 1998).
The Trinity Review Feb. 1999
© 1999-2005 Trinity Foundation
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