Scripture, Authority, and Divine Revelation

One often comes across “new atheist” types mocking the apparent circularity of Christian appeals to divine revelation as authority. For instance, a typically ridiculed caricature might go something like this:

  1. The Bible says God exists
  2. What the Bible says is true
  3. Therefore God exists

This argument is not technically circular. It is potentially circular, depending on how one supports premise two. For example, the following is a circular argument:

  1. The Bible says God exists
  2. The Bible is the Word of God
  3. God’s Word is true
  4. Therefore, what the Bible says is true
  5. Therefore, God exists

The argument is circular because it attempts to establish the existence of God, but assumes the existence of God in the second premise in order to support the ultimate conclusion that God exists.

But there are other ways to support the premise that what Scripture says is true. For instance, one could argue that Scripture is historically reliable based on independent evidence. One could perhaps argue that Scripture has a transformative power which is indicative of supernatural accompaniment. And so on.

This is the problem of revelation. Christians claim to have actual knowledge of truths which are in principle unknowable by reason, and which are only capable of being known through divine revelation. This includes truths such as the Holy Trinity, the atonement, the Church as Christ’s Bride, etc. Since these truths can only come from revelation, and revelation is a kind of authority, these truths are dependent upon authority.

Most Christians claim Scripture as a central authority/ source of divine revelation. But why? What grounds do we have for thinking Scripture is actually divine revelation? One kind of argument might go like this:

  1. Scripture says that Scripture is divine revelation
  2. What Scripture says is true
  3. Therefore, Scripture is divine revelation

Again, this argument is not necessarily circular, as long as one has independent reasons for holding to premise two. What sort of reasons could those be? One could perhaps argue that Scripture is historically reliable, and hence that what Scripture says is true. But establishing the historical accuracy of Scripture doesn’t quite do all the work needed here. Scripture could be generally accurate in the historical events it conveys, and that wouldn’t necessarily tell us whether it delivers true theological or other kinds of information. (Admittedly, some historical events recounted in Scripture will inherently carry theological information with them. For instance, the giving of the Law to Moses is a historical event, but one which, if true, confirms the reality of the supernatural and the divine inspiration of the Law. But it’s not absolutely certain whether this will be so in all cases. Even if it is, we’re left with other problems — namely that of the canon — which will be discussed below). [Also, it’s worth noting that there are other potential arguments one could make for providing grounds for trust in Scripture as divine revelation. Instead of arguing that Scripture contains divine revelation because it claims to, and what it claims must be true, one could instead argue something like 1) If X, then Scripture contains divine revelation; 2) X; 3) Therefore Scripture contains divine revelation. “X” could be something like “Scripture is accompanied by miraculous events and profound moral transformations.” The strength of this argument will depend upon whether one thinks whatever X is is actually good reason for concluding Scripture to contain divine revelation. In the case of the example we’ve used, a defense of the first premise might look something like: if Scripture is accompanied by miraculous events and profound moral transformations, the best explanation is likely that God is giving attestation to Scripture. The rest of this post, however, will be predicated on the assumption that one chooses the former kind of argument rather than the latter.]

But perhaps another argument could be constructed, a more probabilistic one:

  1. Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected from the dead, which constitutes divine validation of his authority
  2. Jesus of Nazareth intended to found a Church to proclaim and live the message of his kingdom
  3. Knowledge of divinely revealed truths would be crucial to carrying out this mission
  4. Therefore, it seems likely that God would provide some means of knowing and preserving divinely revealed truths
  5. Scripture is the best means of presenting and preserving knowledge of divine revelation
  6. Therefore, Scripture is probably a reliable conveyor of divinely revealed truths

Premise one would have to be established on historical grounds (for which there is actually a pretty compelling case, in my view). Premise two likewise seems probable given the historical information we can gather from the gospels and other New Testament/early Church writings. Premises three and four seem fairly plausible: after all, if God really did raise Jesus from the dead and intend for him to found a Church to proclaim and live the message of his kingdom, it would make sense for God to provide some means of actually knowing and preserving that message.

Now we get to premise five. Given that God would likely provide some means of knowing and preserving divine revelation, what reason do we have for thinking that God would do so specifically through the medium of Scripture?  Here again, we could appeal to historical evidence: it seems historically likely that Jesus of Nazareth accepted the Old Testament as authoritative divine revelation. Given the resurrection of Jesus and his validation by God, we also have good reason for accepting what Jesus accepted as authoritative divine revelation.

So that supports God using Scripture in general as a medium of divine revelation, and it supports the Old Testament specifically being actual divine revelation. Thus we have an Old Testament. And indeed, it was largely from the Old Testament that the apostles and early Church preached and drew their readings and arguments for the legitimacy of Jesus’ messiahship. But it wasn’t until later that what we refer to as the New Testament was written down and compiled. So what grounds do we have for believing the New Testament to be divine revelation?

This gets at the central issue: even if we know that “Scripture” is divine revelation, how can we know what Scripture actually is? In other words, how can we know which books actually constitute Scripture? Nowhere within what we consider canonical Scripture are we given a “list” of the correct books. Even if we conclude that God has given divine revelation, that Scripture is the best means of divine revelation, and that Scripture includes both an “Old” and “New” Testament, we are left without a good way of knowing which books are actually part of the canon.

Our problem, in short: If we cannot know what Scripture actually is (i.e. what books count as Scripture), then how can we have any confidence in our knowledge of the divine revelation which Scripture contains?

Perhaps one could try an argument like this:

  1. Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected from the dead, which constitutes divine validation of his authority
  2. Jesus of Nazareth intended to found a Church to proclaim and live the message of his kingdom
  3. Knowledge of divinely revealed truths would be crucial to carrying out this mission
  4. Therefore, it seems likely that God would provide some means of knowing and preserving divinely revealed truths
  5. Scripture is the best means of presenting and preserving divinely revealed truths
  6. If we cannot know which books constitute Scripture, we cannot know the content of Scripture’s message
  7. Therefore, if God wanted his divine revelation known and preserved, it seems likely that he would provide a way for knowing which books constitute Scripture
  8. Therefore, we probably know which books actually constitute Scripture, and Scripture is probably a reliable conveyor of divinely revealed truths

Six and seven are the new premises, and both of them seem very plausible. Now, one has several possibilities. One could say: well, we do have a canon, and however it is we came to have it, it seems likely God was involved in guiding and preserving it, so we probably have good reason to trust it. This was my own conclusion for much of my Christian life. The fact that the three main branches of Christianity (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism) all have slightly different Old Testament canons might have some effect on this point, but it’s not insiginficant that all three are agreed upon the status of the same twenty seven New Testament books.

So I do not find this position necessarily irrational; but I do think it is incomplete. It trusts that God did provide a means of preserving the canon, but it allows one to stop short of inquiring what that means was, and what its implications are. This is not to say that those who take this position don’t give any justification for holding to the canon that they do. Very often, the history of the canon’s formation, as well as certain criteria used for inclusion, are given and discussed. Some of the most important of these criteria are antiquity, ubiquity, and apostolicity. On the last of those three alone an indepent argument for a New Testament canon could be given:

  1. Jesus rose from the dead, which constituted divine validation of his authority
  2. Jesus appointed apostles and passed on his own authority to them
  3. Therefore, the apostles had the authority to preach the divinely revealed truths

And so, if we have good reason to think any books were written by apostles, we have good reason to think that those books contain divine revelation.

But in order for this argument to actually ground our trust in Scripture, the premises cannot be based on the inspiration of Scripture, and rather must be historically supported. When this is done, I think we are forced to admit another premise in addition to the others, which premise was instrumental in moving me from protestantism to Roman Catholicism. Here I shall present the premises, and then their historical justifications:

  1. Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead, which constitutes divine validation of his authority
  2. Jesus appointed apostles, upon whom he bestowed his own authority
  3. Those apostles later appointed successors, likewise bestowing their authority upon them.

Premise one will be accepted by anyone who is already a Christian; and is also based on historical grounds for which there is a fairly compelling case (but which it is not our object here to examine).

The following is support for the second premise (assuming a general, basic level of New Testament historical reliability). That Jesus appointed twelve apostles is usually considered bedrock historical data concerning his life and ministry. It’s in all four gospels, as well as the Acts of the Apostles. The office of apostleship is presupposed in the letters of St. Paul, and specific reference to “the Twelve” is made in the crucial 1 Corinthians 15 creed. In Revelation 21:14, the wall of the New Jerusalem is said to have twelve foundations with the names of the twelve apostles written on them.

Likewise, there is abundant evidence throughout the New Testament (and beyond, as we will see) that Jesus bestowed upon the apostles his own authority. In Matthew 10:1, it is said that Christ “gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity” [1]. But the ability to cast our unclean spirits and heal diseases is one of the primary signs of Christ’s own authority. Later in the same chapter he sends out the twelve with the command to preach the message of the kingdom of heaven, and warns that anyone who rejects them will be severely punished in the judgement. Furthermore, he tells them in verse 40 that “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” This implies that Christ has the authority of God, and the apostles have the authority of Christ.

Similar points abound throughout all four gospels. Jesus gives the authority to the apostles to “bind and loose” sins, tells them that they will sit on twelve thrones and judge the nations, and so on. Likewise, we see in the letters of St. Paul an extremely high view of the authority of the office of apostleship.  In 1 Corinthians 5:4, St. Paul claims the authority to pronounce judgement “in the name of the Lord Jesus”. In Ephesians 2:20 St. Paul refers to apostles as the “foundation” of the Church, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. St. Paul accords himself the right to discipline, forgive, and make commands. In Galatians 1:8 he asserts that anyone who teaches a gospel other than the one he preached is “accursed.” In other words, St. Paul is saying that apostolic preaching is the rule of faith, because apostolic preaching has the authority of Christ.

Even if some of these points are doubted or contested individually, it seems pretty clear overall that the historical Jesus appointed apostles and that the early Church understood the apostles to hold the authority of Christ. The apostles were, as St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “ambassadors” for Christ.

What about premise three, that the apostles appointed successors and passed on their authority to them? Here we can appeal to some New Testament evidence, and a plethora of evidence from other early Church writings. In the Acts of the Apostles, after the death of Judas, the other eleven apostles determine that they ought to appoint someone else to take the place of Judas. Admittedly, this could be seen as a unique situation. But at the very least, it shows that the office of apostleship is something that can in principle be passed on.

In the New Testament, authority is often bestowed by the laying on of hands. So we see in Acts 13:1-3 that Paul and Barnabas are “set apart” by the Holy Spirit for a special ministry, and before sending them out on this ministry the church at Antioch “laid their hands on them”. In 1 Timothy 14:14, in the context of talking about Timothy’s leadership role within the Church, Paul instructs Timothy to “not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the elders laid their hands upon you”. In other words, Timothy’s gift of teaching and authority were bestowed upon him at the laying on of hands. Later, in 5:22, Paul exhorts Timothy that he “not be hasty in the laying on of hands”. The laying on of hands is a physical sign of the conferral of authority.

But perhaps the strongest evidence comes from the writings of the early Church. The early Church fathers almost unanimously accepted and defended apostolic succession. Apostolic succession in the early Church was the greatest sign of legitimacy and orthodoxy. We can examine a number of sources to see this:

The first epistle of St. Clement to the Corinthians is one of the earliest Christian sources outside the New Testament, written sometime around the end of the first century. In it he writes:

“The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe” [2].

God sent Christ, Christ sent the apostles, and the apostles appointed bishops and deacons.  A little later on, he continues:

“Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry” [3].

The apostles, before they died, appointed ministers — the bishops — and gave instruction that when these bishops died, they should be succeeded by still others. The line from Christ to the apostles was to continue.

St. Ignatius wrote several letters around the beginning of the second century, shortly before his martyrdom, in which he strongly exhorts various churches to submit to the authority of the bishops and presbyters. He writes:

“For even Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the [manifested] will of the Father; as also bishops, settled everywhere to the utmost bounds [of the earth], are so by the will of Jesus Christ . . . Wherefore it is fitting that you should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also you do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, you may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that you are indeed the members of His Son. It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus you may always enjoy communion with God” [4].

Notice several important points here: 1) Christ manifests the will of the father, the bishops manifest the will of Christ. 2) Christians are to submit to the will of their bishop. 3) Church hierarchy (presbytery and bishops) is a beautiful and haromonious presentation of Christ. 4) Communion with God, and being counted among the members of His Son, require this unity/harmony with the Church hierarchy.

St. Ignatius goes on to write that anyone who does not assemble with the bishops and the Church is condemned and that “we should look upon the bishop even as we would the Lord Himself” [5]. This is because, just as one who is set over a household by the master of the house bears the authority of that master, the bishops, appointed by the authority of the apostles derived from the authority of Christ, therefore have the authority of Christ.

In his letter to the Magnesians, St. Ignatius writes that those who submit to the bishop are actually submitting to God, and those who do not submit to the bishop are mocking God. In the same letter he asserts that the bishop “presides in the place of God” and the presbyters in that of the apostles [6]. Just as Christ did nothing apart from the will of the Father, Christians are to do nothing apart from the bishop. In his epistle to the Trallians, he repeats his command to be subject to the bishops as to Christ, and indeed states that “apart from these [bishops, presybters, and deacons], there is no Church” [7]. He warns that the only way to guard from heresy is to stay within the assembly of the bishop. In his epistle to the Philadelphians he makes the claim that “as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop” [8], and that if anyone does not walk in accordance with the bishop, he may not inherit the kingdom of God. God does not dwell where there is division, says St. Ignatius, but “to all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop” [9]. In his epistle to the Smyrnaeans, he writes: “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” [10]. The significance of this statement should not be overlooked: the Church is where Christ is. How do we know where Christ is? Christ is where the bishop is.

St. Irenaeus, writing in the second century, notes that correct interpretation of Scripture, in opposition to the interpretations of various heresies, must be rooted in “that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches” [11]. He goes on to explain:

“It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times . . . . For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men . . . ” [12].

The apostles appointed successors to whom they delivered “their own place of government,” i.e. their office/authority. Elsewhere he writes:

“Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church — those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, [looking upon them] either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory. For all these have fallen from the truth” [13].

And finally:

“True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place” [14].

Thus we see there is a good amount of historical evidence that Christ appointed apostles and granted his own authority to them; and then that these apostles in turn appointed successors to whom they passed on their authority. Recall that premise one of our argument is that Christ’s resurrection from the dead constitutes divine validation of his authority. If we can establish historically that Christ rose from the dead, then it makes sense to regard the apostolic successors as legitimately holding a divinely instituted authority.

Recall that all of this was in attempt to provide a grounds for holding that Scripture is a medium of divine revelation. I have taken the route of historical evidence. But some propose a different method: Scripture and the canon do not need external historical justification; they are “self-attested” by the Spirit working within us. On this view, as one reads the Scriptures, one is made internally aware by the Spirit that what one is reading is actually Scripture. One sees it automatically as clearly as one’s eyes see different colors [15]. I’m not going to respond to this latter view in any depth here. I personally am unconvinced by it; but if one accepts it, it might be a legitimate challenge to my argument.

But if one, like me, does not find that view convincing, I think we have very good reason to accept the argument I have here put forward. Our trust in Scripture as a medium of divine revelation is grounded in acceptance of the authority of the apostles, and the historical evidence shows that the apostles passed this same authority on to their successors. Although this does not take us directly to Roman Catholicism, this was for me at least a powerful push in that direction, and towards a rejection of the doctrine of sola Scriptura (or at the very least, solO Scriptura).

In short, if we are to accept the authority of Scripture, we must also accept apostolic authority. The very means by which we can trust Scripture is the authority of the apostles, handed to them from Christ, and handed from them to their successors. The Church is bound to the authority of those successors, even today.

 

Sources

[1]. All Scripture references/locations from: The Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1965, 1966 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2]. St. Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians. Chapter 42. Translated by John Keith. From Ante-Nicene FathersVol. 9. Edited by Allan Menzies. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1896.Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.<http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1010.htm&gt;.

[3]. Ibid, Chapter 44.

[4]. St. Ignatius, The Epistle to the Ephesians. Chapters 3-4. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. From Ante-Nicene FathersVol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0104.htm&gt;.

[5]. Ibid, Chapters 5-6.

[6]. St. Ignatius, The Epistle to the Magnesians. Chapters 3 and 6. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. From Ante-Nicene FathersVol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0105.htm&gt;.

[7]. St. Ignatius, The Epistle to the Trallians. Chapter 3. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. From Ante-Nicene FathersVol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0106.htm&gt;.

[8]. St. Ignatius, The Epistle to the Philadelphians. Chapter 3. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. From Ante-Nicene FathersVol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm&gt;.

[9]. Ibid. Chapter 8.

[10]. St. Ignatius, The Epistle to the Smyrnaeans. Chapter 8. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. From Ante-Nicene FathersVol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0109.htm&gt;.

[11]. St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies. Book III, Chapter 2.1. Translated by Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut. From Ante-Nicene FathersVol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103302.htm&gt;.

[12]. Ibid. Book III, Chapter 3.1.

[13]. Ibid. Book IV, Chapter 26.2.

[14]. Ibid. Chapter 33.8.

[15]. http://shamelesspopery.com/is-scripture-self-attesting/

Other sources:

http://www.churchfathers.org/category/the-church-and-the-papacy/apostolic-succession/

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2016/09/biblical-arguments-for-apostolic-succession.html

https://www.catholic.com/qa/what-is-the-biblical-support-for-apostolic-succession

http://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/apostolic-authority-how-does-it-work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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