The question of final authority is a major difference between Bible Christianity and Catholicism. The former adheres to sola scriptura while the latter to what we call “sola ecclesia” (Church alone). Sola scriptura teaches that the Bible alone is the final and infallible rule of faith for the church and all other authorities – traditions, church, creeds – are neither equal nor superior to it. This is because the Bible is “God-breathed” and thus carries the highest authority (2 Tim. 2:16). Consequently, teachings, practices or revelations contradicting the Bible are rejected.
“Sola ecclesia” on the other hand, is the belief that the Church, specifically the Magisterium (headed by the Pope), is the final and infallible authority, thus the Catholic Church is the supreme authority on what Scripture and Tradition is and what they say. The Catholic catechism (1:2:85) says:
“The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone.”
1. Logically, there can only be one final authority just as there is one captain in a ship. We can’t serve two masters (Matt. 6:24). But Catholicism has a “3-legged stool” of authority – Bible, Traditions and the Church. So what happens when these 3 final authorities contradict themselves? Many Catholics often resort to their Church and discard the other two.
2. By choosing their Church as final authority, Catholics embrace a fallacious assumption that Rome alone can define the extent and meaning of both the Bible and traditions. But its impossible for the Catholic church to be subservient to two authorities that she alone defines and interprets. This results in a cultic loyalty to a religious system for truth and morals.
3. This blind loyalty makes Catholics attack the infallible authority of the Bible. They try to prove sola ecclesia by attacking sola scriptura. This is often done by twisting Bible texts to “prove” that we are to follow the Church (their leaders) and not the Bible alone. This is a fallacy of circular reasoning because they are appealing to the authority of the Bible as a basis of rejecting its authority. Every Catholic is caught in this trap. He blindly assumes that Rome is right so he either twists the Bible to conform to it or attacks its inerrancy.
4. The prophets of old, the Lord Jesus and His disciples appealed to the Scriptures as their final authority (Jos. 1:8; Ps. 119:15; Mt. 4:10; 15:2-9; Acts 15:15-18; 17:11-12, 1 Cor. 4:6). They didn’t appeal to an institution. Apostle John said “But these things were WRITTEN that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn. 20:31) All that is needed for Christians to know God’s truth and receive eternal life is written in the Bible. Not partly preserved in Scripture, partly in traditions and majorly in the Magisterium. We are glad God didn’t preserve even elephants that way, leaving us to find their tusks with John, dig up their tails with Tertullian or bring in their bodies from a little town in Italy.
5. Some Catholics claim that the church is the final authority because it is “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” (1 Tim. 3:15) One must have a preconceived notion of sola ecclesia to cite this verse. The text differentiates between the church and truth. Just as pillars and foundations support and uphold a thing, the church preaches and upholds the truth, but it doesn’t learn the truth from herself, but from the voice of God speaking in Scripture.
6. Since God has the ultimate authority over all things and has revealed His mind and will in Scripture, only the Bible has the highest authority. This chops off the “3-headed” Cerebus of Rome. Only the Bible is God-breathed, not traditions or the Magisterium.
7. Catholics insist they need their “Spirit-led” church to explain the Bible to them. But Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown, contends: “Roman Catholics who appeal explicitly to Spirit-guided church are often unaware that their church has seldom if ever definitely pronounced on the literal meaning of a passage of Scripture i.e what an author meant when he wrote it.” (Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday Dell Pub., 1997, 31)
For all the maximal authority and “institutional certainty” that Rome brandish, she rarely interprets the Bible. This is like a psychic claiming to have superior foresight while being strangely vague about names, dates and places. The Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible has been given to every believer to understand it. One doesn’t need a blind submission to a religious system to understand the Bible (1 Cor. 2:12).
8. Catholic apologists argue: “If the ‘Bible alone view’ is the final authority, why are there doctrinal disunity and different Bible interpretations among Protestants?” To be sure, the Bible is not the cause of this disunity. There will always be differences in people’s understanding and interpretations of an infallible source. Catholic apologist, Robert Sungenis surprisingly agrees:
“First, Jesus himself, the infallible, incarnate word of God, did not create unanimous theological ‘unity’ among his hearer. In fact, Jesus was disheartened that so many people argued with him and rejected his message of truth. At many points, his message divided more than it unified. Paul encountered the same opposition, among both Jews and Gentile converts. Hence, it is very short-sighted to suggest that infallibility is the criterion of unity.” (Not by Scripture Alone, Queenship Pub., 1997, 285-286)
There are schisms and conflicting views among Catholics – both clergy and laity – on several issues. Universalism and inclusivism have made many of them smoothly embrace Eastern/New Age spirituality. If Rome’s Magisterium has failed to unite Catholics, its hypocritical for her apologists to fault sola scriptura because of “disunity” among Protestants.
9. History shows that Catholicism is a highly dubious religious system. Many popes (and councils) have erred and contradicted one another. The Magisterium has reversed its stance on critical issues and made up doctrines out of the whole cloth (e.g Mary’s assumption). Catholicism fits Jesus’ description of the sinking sand which truth-seeking Christians must not put their trust in (Mt. 7:24-27). There is absolutely no meeting point between Bible Christianity and Roman Catholicism on this issue. Every Catholic will have to make a choice: either to follow the inspired Word of God or the words of men.