The Roman Catholic Church considers itself to be the centre of, not just Christian unity, but world unity. That after all is what the word Catholic means: according to the whole.
The Catholic Church calls itself the sacrament for world unity. A sacrament in Roman Catholic understanding is a visible and effective sign—in other words, it actually does what it signifies. The way this works is that by creating links with every religion and organization throughout the world, the Church is also creating links between those religions and organizations and God, whom the Roman Catholic Church teaches it most fully represents in this world.1
Yet, despite this high view of unity, many things the Catholic Church does result in great division. One of those is the way it understands biblical interpretation.
You will often hear Roman Catholics arguing the opposite, that Protestant teaching on biblical interpretation has created great division in the Christian world since the Reformation. Every time a Protestant church disagrees on the interpretation of a biblical passage, they split. To counter this, Catholics argue, we need one authoritative interpreter of the Bible so that we can have unity.
At first glance it seems like a compelling argument, however a closer look will reveal this idea to be the most schismatic view of all.
It all comes down to authority. If you have one ultimate authority, you have unity. If you have two or more ultimate authorities, you have division, particularly when they disagree.
Protestant churches are united in the belief that the Bible is the ultimate authority when it comes to understanding God and our relationship with him. John Calvin called this normis normanis—the thing that norms the norm. Note that the Reformers never considered the Bible to be the only authority. They recognized the place for present-day Bible teachers and the work of Christians in centuries past, and even science and reason as authorities… just not the ultimate authority.2
Roman Catholics will frequently parody the Protestant position, calling it solo scriptura—the Bible as the only authority, without anything else—and rightly showing this position to be undefendable. However, that is not the position of the Reformers, nor of Protestant churches today; their position is sola scriptura—the Bible is the ultimate authority.
The real division comes when you introduce a second ultimate authority: the Roman Catholic Church. Now you have two competing authorities: the original authors of the biblical texts and what they intended to say, and the Catholic Church who tells the world what they are actually saying. It’s like a company where the boss says to his employees, “There is a ‘no smoking indoors’ policy at this workplace”, and then the shift manager tells the employees, “What the boss really means is that you can’t smoke indoors while he’s around”. Protestants rightly argue that many Roman Catholic teachings and practices are at odds with the clear teachings of the Bible.
If the ultimate desire is Christian unity, which the Catholic Church seems very committed to, then why not say, “The ultimate authority lies in the inspired words of the original authors and what they intended to communicate, yet we as flawed human beings will sometimes misunderstand”? This introduces an element of humility, which recognizes our creaturely state as ones who sit under the authority of the divinely inspired words of the Bible and not as those who determine it.
This position doesn’t create uncertainty, as the Bible’s authors under the Holy Spirit were able to write in a way that is truthful and complete across time, language and culture. And we, with the tools we have—translators, teachers, historians, fellow church members, our own comprehension skills, and the work of Christians in the past—are also under the action of the same Holy Spirit. We are able to understand this word about the Word Jesus Christ, in order to trust and obey him. This is the testimony of countless Christians from the times of Jesus, recorded in the Scriptures and throughout history and to this day.
It is sad that, in its desire to create and maintain unity in this world, the Roman Catholic Church has placed its confidence in its own traditions and authority and not ultimately in the authority of God’s inspired Scriptures—and as such has created a false idol that competes for people’s faith.
It reminds me of the struggles early followers of God faced, gathered around Mount Sinai in Exodus 32. Under stress and seeking unity so that they would not fragment, they created a golden calf to represent God’s presence amongst them. God’s response to this was to give them his word, the Law, to unite them.
Christians who trust ultimately in God’s word are united under the same Spirit who spoke these words, even though they sometimes struggle to understand everything they say and apply it perfectly. Sadly, those that call for a second ultimate authority—the teachings and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church—create the most serious division within the Christian world, and as a result lead people away from their confidence in and trust of God’s personal word to them.
So next time your Catholic friend accuses Protestants of being divisive, you can say confidently that no, we are not. We have unity because we believe the Bible is our ultimate authority and we trust it and the person it reveals, Jesus.
2. You can see this in the way they extensively quoted Christians from the past and indeed their understanding of the Biblical texts.↩
Hear from three evangelicals ministering to Roman Catholics in different contexts, and how you can be better equipped to minster to them too. Saturday 25 August 2018 at Marrickville Road Church. Book now.