“The continued insistence on papal authority and infallibility is unfortunately a solid barrier to true and acceptable reform.”

The Vatican Council has come and gone. The Protestant world rejoices at many overdue reforms. With cautious approval it notes that acceptance of collegiality curbs the autocracy of the papacy. Yet the continued insistence on papal authority and infallibility in Roman teaching and practice is unfortunately a solid barrier to true and acceptable reform. This has been neither modified nor reinterpreted but maintains the harsh promulgations of the Middle Ages, Trent, and Vatican I. Under the circumstances, reunion of the Reformation churches with Rome is quite unthinkable; a courteous but plain reaffirmation of Reformation convictions is still required.

1. The heirs of the Reformation believe passionately that lordship in the Church belongs to Christ alone, and to none other. “The crown rights of the Redeemer” is a fine phrase that sums up this point. Christ himself is Lord and Head, not merely in his incarnate life, not merely in his future reign, but even now “between the comings.” Rome, of course, also acknowledges this. The quarrel concerns, not the basic affirmation, but the additions. For Rome goes on to say (a) that this lordship is vested in the Church as Christ’s body and more particularly (b) that it is vested in the pope as Christ’s vicar by Petrine succession. This is what the evangelical world cannot accept.

It cannot accept the supreme authority and infallibility of the Church—a belief that in its own way Eastern Orthodoxy also seems to endorse. For, though Christ as Head is also the whole body, the Church as body is not also head. Christ certainly exercises lordship in and by the Church. But he does not confer lordship upon it. It can claim his lordship only by virtue of its faith and obedience. In so far as it does not believe or obey, it may resist or even defy its Head or wrongfully claim his lordship for its own actions. On earth, it is a body in process of being brought to the maturity when there will be perfect obedience. Hence there can be no simple equating of the will and rule of the Church with the will and rule of Christ. The Church, to have true authority and infallibility, has always to listen to the voice of its Lord, and to obey this voice.

Even less can Protestantism accept the lordship of the pope as Christ’s supposed vicar. What has been said about the Church applies to the pope too, so that he cannot, as Vatican I suggested, claim his prerogatives as representing the Church. Other considerations also demand notice here. We have no good reason to think that Christ has any such vicar on earth, or ever intended to have. If he did, the alleged appointment of Peter is by no means secure exegetically. Granted Peter’s appointment, there is a big historical jump from Peter to the bishops of Rome; is it really historical at all? Furthermore, popes have used this supposed office to make doctrinal and practical decisions (e.g., the assumption of Mary or a celibate clergy) that are either without apostolic authority or in obvious conflict with it. Even if sincerely believed and humbly practiced, the attempt to be Christ’s vicar is fundamentally arrogant, so that understandably its practical consequences are harmful. In sum, the Church cannot have two heads. The bishop of Rome may fulfill an honorable function as a member of the body like all the rest, but he disturbs the whole body if he tries, even in Christ’s name, to play the role of the one Head, Christ.

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2. Those in the Reformation tradition also believe with passion that Christ has in fact a “vicar” in and by whom he exercises his lordship. But this “vicar” is the Holy Spirit, who in this respect is rightly said to be the Spirit of Christ, the other Comforter. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is the answer to the twofold question of authority in the Church to which both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and indeed liberal Protestantism, provide erroneous, inadequate, or confused answers. For this ministry provides the Church both with the objective authority that is elsewhere sought in church, papacy, consensus, or reason, and with the living subjective authority, or freedom, for which the individualistic subjectivism of liberal Protestantism, the collective subjectivism of Roman Catholicism, and the strange fusion of the two in Orthodoxy are only partial, inadequate, and often mischievous substitutes.

Reformation theology holds that the Holy Spirit, not to be subsumed under individual or collective subjectivity, has been given to the Church to exercise both authoritative and dynamic lordship on behalf of the ascended Christ. This theology does not make the common mistake of taking the Holy Spirit for granted, or regarding him as a nebulous factor, or denying his genuine objectivity as third person of the triune Godhead. Hence it resists any equation of the Holy Spirit with the Church (or papacy), as though every church decision were the Spirit’s decision. It also resists any necessary identification of the Holy Spirit with purely individual thinking, which may like to appeal (after the manner of liberal Protestantism) to the Spirit who leads into all truth. Furthermore, Reformation theology emphasizes the relation of Son and Spirit. It does not divorce the two, as Orthodoxy tends to do with its denial of the Filioque and with its resultant tendency to play off the Spirit’s lordship in the Church against Christ’s lordship, or to hold in paradox the objective orthodoxy of the councils and the free-ranging, if rather vague, discussions of the theologians. Christ’s own lordship is both an objective and a subjective reality in the Church precisely because it is exercised in and by the Spirit. As such, it claims, and may be given, the obedience that it is the primary office of the body to render.

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3. According to Reformation theology, this lordship has a given, objective side. This is where inspired Scripture comes in. The Holy Spirit inspired the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures in order that the lordship and authority of Christ might have a fixed point of reference. Holy men were raised up and given a unique ministry which has no succession, a unique endowment of which there is no repetition, a unique, absolute, material authority in the Church which has no rival. For these men, not by themselves but by the Spirit, gave verbal and written form to the self-revelation of God, culminating in Jesus Christ, which is the true, infallible, unchanging norm of everything authentically Christian. They bore true testimony, compiled authoritative records, expressed genuinely infallible doctrine, laid down pure and binding orders. By giving Holy Scripture through the Spirit, God has not left his self-revelation at the mercy of institutional or individual subjectivity claiming the authority of the Spirit or of Christ. He has given objective form to the revelation so that lordship may be genuinely exercised. What is plainly not in Scripture is ruled out; what is scriptural, whether fact, doctrine, or precept, is authentic and authoritative, to be proclaimed and obeyed in the Church.

This is not to exalt one human authority, i.e., that of Scripture, among many others. To be sure, Scripture as apostolic testimony has also historical sanction. But the true supremacy of Scripture is that of the Spirit who raised up and equipped the authors for their unique task. Moreover, the authority of Scripture does not destroy human authority. It resists that which is self-grounded and consequently false. But it establishes real authority for the Church, confessions, fathers, preachers, and theologians. Everything consonant with, and obedient to, Scripture, enjoys the authority of Scripture. The pope can find real infallibility, and proclaim it without fear, if he will utter pure scriptural truth. So, too, can the humblest Christian. If the Holy Spirit in Scripture is a sharp opponent of all pseudo-authority, he is a generous friend of the true authority of the Church and its members, i.e., that which keeps to the given point of reference.

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4. This leads us to the final point, that for the heirs of the Reformation the lordship of the Holy Spirit has a living and dynamic side, not in competition but in harmony with the objective aspect. The Bible is not just a book of the past. It is not just a textbook. It is a book that enjoys ongoing, powerful life and authority as the Spirit uses it in living proclamation and exposition, in reading and hearing, in inquiry and interpretation, in real “tradition.” This is where the Church and its present members come in, not in free speculation and opinion, but in thought that is genuinely freed (from false subjectivity) by commitment to the objective self-revelation embodied in the written word. This freedom is not at odds with authority, as it would have to be with the type of institutionalized authority found in Roman Catholicism. Nor is it in paradox with it, as often suggested by Orthodox theologians. Nor is it an opponent of all authority, as liberal Protestantism argues. For divine truth is authority, yet an authority that confers freedom. To be free for the truth of God is to be bound to it, as was Luther’s conscience at Worms, but also to be liberated by it, so that the authentic testimony, record, and statement of the past is the exciting, living activity of the present and the thrilling task of the future. Christ by the Spirit does not allow the Church to be enslaved by its past mistakes and failures. He saves it even from bad or inadequate interpretations of Scripture. In giving true authority, he also gives true freedom.

Naturally, those in the Reformation tradition have not always lived up to their convictions. Like all others on earth, they have made mistakes. They have no more intrinsic infallibility than others. Yet they believe, and cannot but believe, that only in terms of these four principles—not in terms of papalism, Orthodoxy, or liberal Protestantism—can the Church find its way to the true authority which is also true freedom. For Christ’s lordship is true lordship. Obedience to the objectivity of the Spirit is the legitimate obedience of true knowledge. The security sought in God is authentic and necessary security. The freedom built on the word, and worked out in the Spirit, is freedom from caprice, and for the truth. God is herein glorified as source, pledge, and content of both authority and freedom.

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