Project Canterbury

The Authority of the Church
The Congress Books: No. 13

Leighton Pullan, DD

Fellow of St. John Baptist’s College, Oxford
Examining Chaplain to the Bishop of Gloucester
London, The Society of Saints Peter and Paul,
First Edition 1923

Transcribed by Dr. Elizabeth G. Melillo
AD 2000

Religious Authority

Our conscience and our reason agree in ascribing authority not only to the commanding force which any true proposition has in itself, but also to the organ through which that truth has been and is expressed. And the organ through which we get our religion is not the individual conscience alone and by itself, but the spiritual society which Christ called his Church.

The only authority over our spiritual life must itself be spiritual. It must come from the Holy Spirit. So the religion which has the right to exercise authority is the religion which is taught by the Holy Spirit. The religion of authority and the religion of the Spirit are the same. It is to be seen and experienced in the Church which Jesus Christ founded. For it was to this Church, and to this Church only, that the Holy Spirit came with power. (Acts i. 8; ii. 4.) He did not come as a substitute for Christ, or to act as the viceroy of our King. He came to give us the blessings which flow from the risen Christ. He makes Christ present in his Church, according to Christ’s own promise, ‘I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you’ (Saint John xiv. 18).

Communion with this Church is necessary for a full participation in the blessings of redemption; for the human soul has direct access to the divine Saviour, not where the soul chooses or fancies, but where the Saviour promises and commands. He specially promises his presence in three particulars: (i.) in faith and doctrine, for he says, ‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost…. And lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’ (Saint Matthew xxviii. 19,20); (ii.) in worship and sacraments; for he says, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Saint Matthew xviii. 20), and he gives his presence in the Holy Communion and in the union made in baptism between himself and the believer; (iii.) in government and discipline; for he says, ‘Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven’ (Saint Matthew xviii. 18); and he says to the apostles, ‘As my Father hath sent me, even so I send you’ (Saint John xx. 21).

The apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit, exercised authority in these three particulars. And the first believers continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and in the Breaking of Bread and the prayers (Acts ii. 42.) They knew that this was liberty. For liberty of conscience is no more impaired by obedience than liberty of action is impaired by obedience to the laws of health.

The manner in which the apostles used their rightful power is frequently shown to us in the New Testament. One important instance is to be found in Acts xv., when a Council of the Church was held at Jerusalem and it was decided that Gentile converts need not be circumcised. Modern Christians may find it hard to realise the importance of this decision, but it has affected the whole subsequent history of religion. We also find proof that the apostles instituted the keeping of the Lord’s day (Revelation i. 10), the day of Christ’s resurrection, to take the place of the Jewish sabbath; another very serious decision. They taught men what they ought to believe, and how they could be saved from sin. And they had the right to expel from the Church men who taught false doctrine or led evil lives (I Corinthians v. 3).

When the apostles saw that they must soon depart from this world, they appointed men to succeed them in the work of founding and teaching churches, ordaining ministers, and exercising discipline. We find Saint Paul handing on this power to Timothy and Titus. One of their most important duties was to ‘guard the deposit’ of the faith and ‘hold the pattern of sound words.’ Timothy is told to commit this deposit to ‘faithful men who will be able to teach others also.’ (I Timothy vi. 20 : 2 Timothy i. 13; ii. 2.)

Early in the second century we find in all directions Christian bishops who had received this authority. The power which had been given in ordination by the laying on of the apostles’ hands (2 Timothy i. 6) was given also by the successors of Saint Paul and the other apostles.

The Witness to Truth

While it is the duty of the Church, and especially of the bishops, to teach the truth, it is, and always has been, their duty to witness to the old truth, not to invent new truth. The witness of the Church in the first century is embodied mainly in the books of the New Testament. The witness of the Church in the second century and in the third can be found in several important Christian writings, and in the separation made by the Church between the books of the New Testament and a number of forged and legendary books which were then in circulation. We also find an appeal made to the witness of the various churches which the apostles had founded. And then we find the witness of the great Councils of the Church held during and after the fourth century.

Christianity very soon attracted the attention of the heathen world and many inquirers took some interest in the life of Jesus Christ. And some of these inquirers found it hard to believe that so holy a Person had a real human nature. To us modern Europeans this seems very strange; but we find the same difficulty felt by some Eastern people at the present day. So, very early indeed in the history of the Church, we find that Catholic Christians had to repeat again and again the truth that, as our Lord truly rose again from the dead with a real human body, so he truly suffered and truly ate and drank. This is exactly what the gospels teach: and gradually the witness of the Church to the truth prevailed.

Then as the Church grew stronger, other men who had been brought up in a heathen atmosphere professed that they were Christians, but wanted to treat Christ as if he were a demigod, such as the Mercury worshipped by the Romans. They said that he was not eternal, but was made by God to help him in the creation of the world. The bishops of the Church then met together at the great Council of Nicaea in AD 325 and declared that Christ is truly God eternal, of one substance (not a material but a spiritual substance) with the Father. They said that the Arians, who held the other view, had no right to worship Jesus Christ if they did not believe in his true deity. They drew up the Nicene Creed which, with some later improvements, is used through the whole Catholic Church to the present day.

Difficulties were not over. After the deity of our Lord had been attacked, his manhood was once more attacked. People no longer said that our Lord had no human body, but said that he had no human soul. They argued that if he had had a human soul he would have sinned, and he would have made mistakes in his teaching. The bishops then met at Constantinople in AD 381 and declared that our Lord had a true human soul, as is plainly taught in the New Testament.

Then an archbishop named Nestorius won a large following among the Syrians by teaching that Jesus Christ was a human person to whom the Son of God gradually united himself. They disliked calling the blessed Virgin ‘Mother of God,’ because they did not really believe that God the Son was borne in her womb and on her arms. But there is a great difference between believing that our Lord is a human person who gradually became united with God because he was very good, and the real Christian belief that our Lord is a divine Person who, in his great love for us, chose to become human and pass through the same griefs and troubles as ourselves. Therefore the bishops quite rightly condemned the teachings of Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus, held in AD 431.

Once more there came a reaction. A monk named Eutyches was so anxious to protest against the Nestorians that he taught that the human nature of our Lord became changed into his Godhead. He confused the two natures of our Lord. Now it is plain that if our Lord’s human nature was not a real human nature, his example does not really help us. It would be like a show in a cinema, in which we see people going through imaginary adventures.

The bishops of the Church therefore met at Chalcedon in AD 451 and carefully summed up the Christian faith, quite fairly guarding against the teaching of Eutyches and that of Nestorius. They declared that we must not divide the two natures of Christ, his Godhead and his manhood, as Nestorius had done, or confuse them as Eutyches had done.

These four Councils were the most important Councils of the Church, although three other great Councils were held before the unfortunate quarrel between the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople divided the Church in AD 1054. The last of these seven Councils taught that sacred pictures should be reverenced, because they help to teach us that our Lord’s nature was real and not a phantom.

If we look back upon these Councils we cannot fail to see how they preserved for us faith in the real historic Jesus Christ. The Church taught that Our Lord had human feelings, that he had a human reason and soul, that he had a human will. But just as we have something deeper, something behind our feeling and our reasoning and our willing, something that we call ‘self’; so our Lord has a ‘self.’ In us the self is human, in him the self is divine. Our self may more or less resemble that of our father. His self is the perfect eternal expression of his Father.

Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the first, the ending he.

All the modern conflicts of Christianity with infidelity and semi-infidelity prove that if we believe the statements about our Lord in the New Testament to be true, and not in opposition to one another, then we must logically believe that the decisions of the great Councils with regard to our Lord are also true.

Limits of Dogmatic Authority

I have devoted special attention to these Councils, because their decisions illustrate the truth that the Holy Spirit has enabled the Church to teach and to explain what Christ was and what he taught. Christ has given no different revelation; and therefore he has not given any one any right to teach any strange new doctrine, or to deny what he originally revealed. The Church could never have the right to teach, for instance, that there are four Persons in the Godhead, or to deny that the Holy Sacrament is the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, or to say that a man may marry a second time while his first wife is living. On the contrary, it is the duty of the Church to witness daily to the divine revelation that God is Three in One, to feed her children with that true bread of life and that true cup of salvation, and to maintain the holiness of Christian marriage. If we ask, ‘Where is the authentic record of the original doctrines of the Christian faith?’, the great Fathers of the Church would at once have replied, ‘In the holy Scriptures.’ And this leads me to say a few words about the Bible and tradition.

The deposit of truth committed by the apostles to the Church is almost entirely contained in the New Testament. With the exception of one or two doubtful sayings which some Christians believed to have been spoken by our Lord, no other traditions about him have the least scientific value. We have only a few legends which are almost certainly unhistorical, like the legend of Saint Veronica. No one who has seriously studied the writings of the Christian Fathers of the second and third centuries, can fail to see that practically all their knowledge about Christ is derived from, or contained in, the New Testament.

It is very much the same with regard to his blessed Mother. For instance, the theory that she was conceived ‘immaculate,’ wholly free from all tendency to sin, has no support in the Bible, and is contrary to the teaching of some of the greatest ancient Fathers. Such a theory therefore, though it may be true, cannot properly be made into a dogma of the Church. On the other hand, the truth that when she was about to become the Mother of the Son of God, there was no evil in her which could be in contact with the operation of the Holy Ghost, is a real doctrine of the Church. It is taught in the Bible that she was indeed a virgin, and some of the oldest writers of the second century assert it no less plainly than Saint Luke asserts it. Like the truth of the resurrection of Christ’s body, it is so vital to the Christian faith that those who deny it nearly always, sooner or later, teach that Jesus Christ was a human person who might have sinned, even if he did not sin.

One of the great dangers of putting legend on the same level as truth is that it tempts those who are weak in the faith to put truth on the same level as legend. During the early ages of Christianity, the leaders of Christian thought made few mistakes of this kind. They developed doctrines simply by teaching old truths in a fuller, more effective, and more modern fashion. They held it to be their duty to transmit, not to transform, Christian truth. Their religion was founded upon facts – the facts recorded in the New Testament. And tradition meant the consistent maintaining that these facts are facts.

Dogma and Experience

We are now in a position to understand what is meant by what is often called ‘the mind of the Church.

The Church is not a person, and therefore when we speak of this mind we mean the age-long agreement of the minds and the consciences of the different members of the Church. Here the question at once arises, What can be the value of the opinion of a very simple people with regard to great subjects such as the deity of our Lord, or his miraculous birth and resurrection? The Catholic Christian can answer immediately that the value of their testimony is often very great. The humblest member of Christ who in love and obedience surrenders to his guidance, becomes a channel of his truth. His knowledge of Christ is a living experience. He knows our Lord as his own Lord, sinless and living, mighty to save.

So Saint Paul, a man of the keenest intellect, says, ‘God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty’ (I Corinthians i. 27). This great fact helps us to understand that the authority of the Church is not a separate thing, sharply distinct from, or opposed to, the authority of the mind and conscience of any ordinary member of the Church.

The mind of the expert is also necessary. The theologian can learn from the child; but the child also needs the theologian who has specially studied the meaning and the history of the Christian revelation. Saint Paul, like our Lord himself, teaches us that ‘the wise and prudent,’ who think they know, are sometimes more foolish than babes in Christ: but he also says, ‘To one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit.’ (I Corinthians xii. 8).

But, it may be said, the experts, the theologians, often disagree. Well, the wisest physicians often disagree, but their agreement is vastly greater than their disagreement, or no human diseases would ever be alleviated. And so the agreement of the theologians of the Church is vastly greater than their disagreement. The action of the Holy Spirit has not removed all imaginable difficulties from our path, but it has most certainly secured us against the errors which are destructive of the Christian life. Some things remain open questions; the Church as a whole has not decided through her bishops and her theologians every minute point of doctrine; and with regard to such things we can be content to ‘know in part’ (I Corinthians xiii. 9).

The Catholic Church has never made a dogma out of opinions which have not been in agreement with the knowledge and experience of Catholic Christians. Consider the great and serious fact of sin, the removal of which is one of the great purposes for which the Church exists. Consider whether experience does not there verify dogma. The Church teaches, not, as many Protestants once taught, that man is ‘wholly inclined to all evil,’ but that he inherits from his origin a defect and a tendency towards evil. It teaches that there is such a thing as deadly sin, which separates us from God, who is the source of all our life. It teaches that forgiveness and peace may be gained by the repentant sinner from Christ through the Church. It teaches that Christ was sinless, for he who enables all others to overcome, was himself the victor over sin; the effect has a cause.

In these short sentences a vast quantity of Christian doctrine has been summarised. But even those who have little time for the study of doctrine can see that it corresponds with experience. The Church’s wisdom is therefore justified by the experience of her children. Her authority gives to us a definite guidance, a clear lead. It does not, indeed, lead us like men who are blindfold. But if we make it our real rule of life, gladly and intelligently, we shall in Christ see that light of life which all his people have followed, and other men will see his light in us.

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