In a previous article, I showed that Scripture and the early church both agreed that all doctrine had been revealed to the apostles. Only Jesus and the apostles are “upstream” from doctrine; in other words, only statements by them can be taken as definitive of Christian doctrine. Everyone else is “downstream” from doctrine; our statements must be compared to the doctrines defined by Jesus and the apostles.
However, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches believe that they can make authoritative statements that are upstream from doctrine, such as in an ecumenical council or letters from the Pope. This article will address the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox views in more depth.
Key term: By “defining” the faith, I mean “making a statement about doctrine that establishes what true doctrine is, a statement that has the authority to be binding on all Christians, as the apostolic writings are.” I don’t mean the word “define” in its broader colloquial sense.
Does the Church Have Continued Authority Over Doctrine?
The Roman Catholic Church claims that they have stayed true to the original apostolic deposit, but they also believe that there was room within that deposit for doctrines to be further clarified, defined, or developed. They believe that their doctrinal developments are actually infallible. In other words, they claim the same level of authority over Christian doctrine that the original apostolic doctrines had.
Eastern Orthodox Christians don’t typically accept that doctrine can develop. However, they do agree with the Roman Catholics that further authoritative statements can be made about the faith in certain circumstances—specifically in an ecumenical council.
Of course, the idea of doctrinal development, or the idea that further authoritative statements are possible, can only be true if that idea itself originated from someone who had authority to define Christian doctrine. Did it originate from Jesus and the apostles?
No. As Scripture and the witness of the early church shows (see my aforementioned post), Christians for the first several hundred years believed that Christian doctrine had all been previously revealed. Church leaders had authority, but not the authority to make definitive statements about the faith. There is therefore no reason to think that these ideas originated from Jesus or the apostles.
Did these ideas maybe originate from someone who got their authority from Jesus or the apostles? Since apostolic succession did not pass on apostolic authority, no one besides Jesus and the apostles has authority to define the faith. Thus, the answer is no. The idea of doctrinal development has no authority, nor does the idea that church decisions are upstream from doctrine. We should accept the belief of the earliest Christians—that the apostles knew and taught all Christian doctrine, and no one else is upstream from doctrine.
But what if these churches, in their “upstream” decisions, are only stating lesser-known doctrines that were still taught by the apostles? This also fails, since the early Christians clearly said that the entire contents of the apostolic deposit were taught publicly and entrusted to church leaders all over the Christian world. That leaves no room for anyone to teach a doctrine that wasn’t widely known but was still apostolic—if it wasn’t widely known, it wasn’t apostolic. Thus, claims such as finding out that the perpetual virginity of Mary or Mary’s sinlessness were taught by the apostles as doctrine are false. They appear rarely in the early centuries of the church, and seem to originate in a spurious document called the Protoevangelium of James.
What must we conclude? The doctrine of continued doctrinal authority is itself an addition to the faith. It is therefore outside the bounds of Christianity. However, I will continue to evaluate several aspects of this view.
Doctrinal Development—Some Philosophical Objections
It’s a little hard to pin down what Roman Catholics believe about doctrinal development. However, it seems to be something like this: No new doctrines can be revealed, but truths about previous doctrines can stated more clearly—and these truths are not mere speculations, but are binding all Christians.
Note that a clarification or definition makes something more precise. That is, it shows what the boundaries of a certain term or doctrine is—what is true and what is false. If Roman Catholic clarifications and definitions are within the apostolic deposit, then they are not extending the boundaries in any direction. Either they are stating clearly where the actual boundaries have always been, or they are actually shrinking the boundaries, making something false that could be true before. Both possibilities lead to issues.
If a clarification or definition is shrinking the boundaries of a term or a doctrine, then it is a change. Once something was true that now is not true. Therefore, there has been a change in the material of the apostolic deposit.
On the other hand, if a clarification or definition is stating clearly where the actual boundaries have always been, then it’s simply a restatement of the original belief. Thus, anyone who comes before the clarification or definition and does hold to that belief never needed the clarification or definition to make him be in the right. And anyone who comes before and does not hold to that belief is in the wrong. However, typically Roman Catholics hold that those who appeared before something was deemed heretical are not themselves heretics. But if the church is merely stating clearly where the actual boundary has always been, these Christians held to beliefs that weren’t within the apostolic deposit. So how are they not heretics?
What if developments are just derivations, or entailments, of the deposit?
Or, perhaps, did Christians just not know what the apostolic deposit entailed until the church made its clarification later? What if these developments are derivations from the original content of the deposit, which were later found out to be entailments of those previous doctrines?
But then, to whom was the apostolic deposit left, if not to those earlier Christians who didn’t have these clarifications? Is the apostolic deposit something that was only partially given? Or was it given but not understood? Yet both are indicated to be false by Scripture and the apostolic church. We simply have no evidence that later-discovered entailments can be infallibly taught, and we have strong suggestions otherwise.
Furthermore, many of these supposed “entailments” are very dubious. Often they appear in areas that the apostles didn’t seem to consider to be important—like who the most important bishop is, or the precise makeup of Jesus’ being, or facts about Mary’s life. These are issues that the apostles didn’t seem to care much about. Isn’t it a little suspicious when a church later thinks they’ve figured out exactly what the apostles would have believed, based on a few ambiguous apostolic statements and a lot of hearsay and opinions?
And as I point out in the next section, some of these supposed “entailments” were simply false. That, of course, disproves the claim of infallibility and renders their other statements to be very suspicious.
Catholic & Orthodox Views That Are Alterations, Not Developments
Whether or not some doctrines are developments is of comparatively small importance, however—a much larger problem faces Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. That is, that there are at least three points on which the Roman Catholic Church has changed in ways that are demonstrably inconsistent with the apostolic deposit.
Even if one could still hold to the view that Christian doctrine can change, but just not substantially, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have altered some aspects of the faith. Doctrines that were held to be true by the apostles and their followers were later jettisoned, and doctrines that the apostles and their followers were unaware of were later added. Here are three examples:
- Where separation from the world had been the mark of Christianity, the church now joined up with the state and Christians became patriotic citizens of an earthly government, valuing what society around them valued.
- Where war and the use of violence had been unacceptable, they now became acceptable.
- Where venerating images had been unacceptable, it now became acceptable.
These changes are not in continuity with the apostolic faith, but are instead alterations. In themselves, they demonstrate that neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the Eastern Orthodox Church is the apostolic church. In another article, I showed that alterations of this sort are not surprising, given the influence of the Roman Empire on the church, beginning in the 300s.
Do Developments Pass Newman’s Criteria?
When John Henry Newman proposed the idea of doctrinal development, he recognized that we need to be able to tell the difference between legitimate developments (if such exist) and illegitimate ones, which he termed “corruptions.” (I tend to call them “alterations” rather than “corruptions,” to avoid sounding polemical.) So he suggested several criteria that a change need to meet if they are to be legitimate developments. Here are Newman’s criteria:
“There is no corruption if it retains one and the same type, the same principles, the same organization; if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and a vigorous action from first to last.” (On the Development of Christian Doctrine, Chapter 5)
I disagree that even these criteria are sufficient to demonstrate a legitimate development, because I believe Scripture and the early church clearly teach that development of doctrine cannot occur. However, I grant them for now because they are sufficient to demonstrate that some of the Roman Catholic beliefs are actual alterations. In other words, they don’t even meet the criteria that Newman proposed.
Here are two types of cases in which a change is an illegitimate alteration, even according to Newman’s model:
- If a doctrine or practice that was held to be true by the apostles and their followers is no longer held to be true, that is an alteration. It doesn’t retain “one and the same type” or “the same principles,” and it’s not true that “its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases,” because it is a negation of the previous doctrine or practice.
- If a doctrine or practice that the apostles and their followers were unaware of was later added, that is an alteration. It doesn’t retain “one and the same type” and “its later phenomena” don’t “protect and subserve its earlier,” and it’s not true that “its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases,” since it is a new doctrine unlike any original apostolic doctrine.
The changes that I listed above fall under these cases. The case of nonresistance falls under (1), since a doctrine was jettisoned that had been held to be true. The case of veneration of icons falls under (2), since a doctrine that was unknown to the apostles was later added.
Note that a doctrine must meet all of Newman’s criteria in order to be a legitimate development, since they are connected by “and.” Thus, a doctrine can meet all but one criterion and yet be an alteration.
How Important Are the Councils?
The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church hold that church councils, in some cases, are upstream from doctrine in the way that Scripture is. Each church also gives significant weight to the writings of certain church fathers, especially to those who taught during the era of the seven ecumenical councils. Do councils and church fathers have some kind of authority?
Scripture clearly shows that Jesus and the apostles gave certain forms of authority to church leaders. Councils of church leaders do have authority, because church leaders have a certain level of authority over their churches. However, councils and church leaders are downstream from doctrine. Their statements must be corroborated by sources that are upstream from doctrine.
No one beside Jesus and the apostles was given authority to define the faith, not even through apostolic succession. Therefore, if a church ever teaches something beyond what the apostles gave us, that teaching cannot define the faith. In fact, often their teachings have often not even been correct.
So have the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches taught non-apostolic teachings as definitive? In short, yes. They have held numerous church councils that further developed Christian doctrine or altered Christian practice—one of these so-called infallible decisions demanded the veneration of icons, a practice that was rejected by the apostolic church.
Not everything that was decided was wrong, and some decisions, like the Nicene creed, were helpful. However, no matter how helpful some of them might have been, these decisions were wrongly claimed to be definitive pronouncements. Councils can be a very good thing and can have a lot of authority. But they can’t define the faith.
Who Gets to Decide Which Councils & Books Are Authoritative?
There have been multiple councils in history that haven’t been considered to be authoritative. So what are the criteria for determining which are and which aren’t? It doesn’t always seem to be clear.
Eastern Orthodox have said that their church decides which councils and Scriptures were definitive. But how does it do so?
Is it by the next council? Then who decides whether that council is definitive? Is it by the general consensus of later Christians? But that seems like a glorified (and highly risky) form of the bandwagon fallacy. After all, the consensus of earlier Christians has disagreed, and how do we know that the consensus of Christians a millennium from now won’t have changed again?
What if councils are just describing what the faith is?
Councils cannot add to the faith. But what if councils are just descriptions of what the faith is, and God has made so that their conclusion will be correct?
There is no evidence that councils can be infallible. Furthermore, if Scripture and the witness of the early church are correct, we would have an example of that doctrine taught in the earliest years of Christianity, not just absolute silence with regard to it. Instead, many of these doctrines have no noteworthy support from the first centuries of the church.
Objection: the Jerusalem Council
One argument for the idea that a church can make continued doctrinal decisions appeals to the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. There are several reasons that this council seems like a good example of conciliar infallibility and evidence that church leaders who aren’t apostles can participate in making infallible decisions:
- The council seems to have been chaired by James, who was a bishop rather than an apostle.
- The council’s decision was a consensus of apostles and elders, not just apostles.
- The council is widely thought to have been the definitive source of the doctrine that Gentiles don’t need to follow the Law of Moses in order to be Christians.
Let’s see what the story indicates. Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch, where they had been teaching what the church has always taught since then—that Gentile Christians don’t need to follow the Law of Moses. However, some men from Judea (the region around Jerusalem) came to Antioch and began to teach the opposite. What happened then?
And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. (Acts 15:2 ESV)
Why did these men not listen to Paul and Barnabas, who had authority to spread the gospel? Since these men came from the area where Christianity had been founded, it would have seemed to new Christians that they would know what was true. So, to settle the issue, Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to see what the apostles and these men’s church leaders would say (although they already knew what the truth was).
When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:4-5)
So it turned out that this incorrect teaching was arising from “some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees,” which was a faction of Jewish belief in that day. The church at Jerusalem wasn’t all teaching correctly. The apostles and elders discussed this issue at a meeting:
And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Paul and Barnabas then agreed with Peter, and James the brother of Jesus (who was not an apostle, but bishop of Jerusalem) proposed to send a letter clarifying that Gentiles didn’t need to follow the Law of Moses. The letter read
The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.
So what happened during this incident? The Gentile believers had been taught two different things. Paul and Barnabas taught them the apostolic doctrine, which Peter agreed with (it also seems that the other apostles agreed with it as well, from the way Acts recounts the story). Yet some people from Judea who seemed to have authority taught a different doctrine.
It seemed best to go to Jerusalem to settle the issue, since that was the area where the problem arose, and there were apostles there. When Paul and Silas arrived, it became clear that there were people who weren’t apostles who were dividing the church on this issue. So the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, along with the apostles, discussed the issue. They came to a consensus on it and wrote a letter that reflected that consensus.
Was any doctrine decided at this council? No, because the doctrine was already known. Even before this decision, neither Peter nor Paul (nor any other apostles that we know of) were in any doubt that Gentiles didn’t need to obey the Mosaic Law (See Galatians 2). Note that the letter specified that the men from Judea weren’t sent out by the church. However, the church in Jerusalem was divided on this issue and was causing problems for other churches, so they needed to deal with it.
One could say that “clarification” of doctrine occurred at this council, since apparently the apostles took this council as an opportunity to speak clearly on where they stood on this matter, even though the correct teaching was not in question among them. The words of Peter read very much like an attempt to help the elders to understand the truth already known but which their Jewish upbringing made difficult for them to grasp. Paul and Barnabas further helped them understand how things stood and how the Spirit was choosing to work with Gentiles. And James’ words can easily be read as elucidating, for the sakes of the other elders, the apostolic teaching, and proposing how they could correct their oversight. But this clarification of truth already definitively taught by apostles is very different from Roman Catholic “clarifications” which specify truths about doctrine that were not definitively taught before those clarifications were made.
The evidence seems to be entirely consistent with the doctrine of Gentile freedom being fully known to the apostles before the council of Jerusalem. Because of this, the council doesn’t provide a counterexample to my case that doctrine cannot develop beyond what the apostles taught.
It’s clear that the doctrine of Gentile freedom was known to at least some, if not all, of the apostles before the Jerusalem council. However, even if we were to suppose that the doctrine of Gentile freedom became clearer in apostles’ minds and teaching after the council, this still wouldn’t pose a problem for my view. That’s because it’s very clear that all true doctrine was revealed within the apostles’ lifetime. There were still apostles alive at this point, but there weren’t apostles alive at the ecumenical councils. As Jesus promised the apostles, the Holy Spirit would lead them into all the truth. Every indication is that there would be no definitive revelations of doctrine after their deaths.
Of course, since apostles were present and took part in the decision, the decision of the council of Jerusalem was authoritative for all Christians and definitively true, even though no doctrine was decided there. However, this council is not evidence that ecumenical councils can make definitive decisions. That council isn’t comparable to the ecumenical councils, because there were apostles present helping to make the decision; thus giving it apostolic authority. No indication is given that future councils, without apostles in attendance, could have comparable authority.
Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church seems not to entirely accept the decisions of that council as binding to the same degree as those of later councils. The Roman Catholic Church actually allows for the consumption of blood, which that council teaches against. It’s not a good example for them to use as an infallible council if they themselves don’t fully accept it as one. It does seem that the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches against consuming blood, although when I researched this, I found a lot of confusion on the issue.
If a council is guided by the Holy Spirit, can it be upstream from doctrine?
In the Council of Jerusalem, the apostles and elders described their decision by saying “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” If the Holy Spirit guides the workings of a council, is it upstream from doctrine? This view appears to have originated in the fourth century, coined by Constantine (who was not even a Christian at the time to my knowledge, and certainly not a church leader).
For that which has commended itself to the judgment of three hundred bishops cannot be other than the doctrine of God; seeing that the Holy Spirit dwelling in the minds of so many dignified persons has effectually enlightened them respecting the Divine will. (Constantine to Alexandria, Socrates NPNF)
Eusebius, the pro-Constantinian historian seems to have not contradicted this, although he didn’t confirm it. He said that “the proceeding was the work of God” but said this in context of the harmony between the bishops who attended, not specifying that the declarations of the council were upstream from doctrine.
Now when they were all assembled, it appeared evident that the proceeding was the work of God, inasmuch as men who had been most widely separated, not merely in sentiment but also personally, and by difference of country, place, and nation, were here brought together, and comprised within the walls of a single city, forming as it were a vast garland of priests, composed of a variety of the choicest flowers. (Life of Constantine 3.6)
But Constantine’s view would seem to make sense. After all, if the Holy Spirit guided the council, how could it not be infallible? How could a decision guided by the Holy Spirit not be upstream from doctrine, since the Spirit was the one who revealed doctrine to the apostles at Pentecost in the first place?
First, though it is true that the Holy Spirit still leads Christians throughout history, he has made clear through Scripture and the witness of the early church that all authoritative Christian doctrine was revealed to the apostles. For anything later revealed by a spirit, we are to test what is revealed against what has already been revealed. The apostle John writes,
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1).
The apostles did not leave room for further sources that would be upstream from doctrine. Revelations of spirits might or might not be from the Holy Spirit, but even what comes from the Holy Spirit in later revelation is not to be added to the corpus of upstream sources. We must judge everything by what was already delivered by the Holy Spirit.
Second, if every decision guided by the Holy Spirit is upstream from doctrine, then why don’t we accept the claims of just any Christian who says they are led by the Holy Spirit? Everyone recognizes that individual Christians, even individual bishops, can be wrong. Even though they are filled with the Spirit. The utterances of the Spirit are not wrong, but we can mistake our beliefs for the utterances of the Spirit.
Councils are a good thing. Because they are composed of many individuals, they are more likely to reflect the truth than individuals are. But there is nothing so fundamentally different about a council that makes that council upstream from doctrine. Jesus said that “two or three” of his followers could assemble to make judgments and that he would be there. However, we do not take the decisions of just any assembly of two or three, even of two or three hundred Christians, as upstream from doctrine.
But since this is “the Church” making decisions, it can’t be mistaken, right? To claim this would be begging the question. How can we assume that the church is infallible when we are asking whether the church’s decisions are infallible?
God allows there to be wrong beliefs even in people he guides, just like he allows there to be evil people in leadership positions. If this is a problem, it’s nothing other than the problem of evil. Why would God allow any evil or any false doctrine to occur? Because he allows human free will. He wants people to have a chance to blind themselves so that people can also have a chance to freely seek him.
God could give maximum clarity, but people will always get around clear statements, as we see with the Roman Catholic magisterium, which has been interpreted variously even though it tries to make things clearer than Scripture does. More clarity is not always better, or God would have made things even clear; even Jesus didn’t always give a sign of his Messiahship to those who wanted one.
Protestantism, Church Councils, and Development of Doctrine
Though as a whole, it seems that Protestants also object to development of doctrine, and want to remain true to the original church, I’m concerned that many Protestants give too much room to the idea of doctrinal development. Some actually seem to believe that doctrines like that of the Trinity have developed. Others believe that they haven’t developed, but they still see church councils, at least the earlier ones, as upstream from doctrine.
Most Protestants accept the first two councils and the resulting Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. They may not believe that they are truly upstream from doctrine, but it seems that they live as though these councils were. I think this is an unsustainable marriage between “Scripture alone” and having creeds and councils. Recognizing councils as doctrinally authoritative seems to me to compromise our foundational theology. Fortunately, most Anabaptists have remained free from seeing the councils as upstream from doctrine.
Can There Be an Ongoing Infallible Magisterium?
Using Scripture and other sources, it becomes very clear that there is no ongoing infallible magisterium (teaching authority) in the church. There is no longer a magisterium that can infallibly interpret revelation such as Scripture and apostolic tradition.
Of course, there was once an infallible teaching authority—Jesus and the apostles. Does this mean that if we believe that there’s no longer such an authority, we’re breaking continuity with the Scriptural model? Certainly not. The Scriptural model is that only Jesus and the apostles could define the faith, so the Roman Catholic Church is actually breaking continuity with the Scriptural model by adding an “infallible” teaching authority.
Also, there is still a fallible teaching authority—church leaders (1 Tim 3:2). But if the apostles handed down authority to teach to church leaders, does that mean that church leaders can teach infallibly? Certainly not. The authority to teach is a very different thing from authority to define doctrine. Consider that a company’s marketing representative has authority to present what the company stands for. However, a CEO doesn’t hand the marketing representative the authority to decide what the company stands for. We understand this distinction in normal life—is it less clear when we discuss religious matters?
So how can we be sure that there is no ongoing, infallible magisterium? As I showed above,
- We have no evidence for such a thing from Scripture or the early church.
- The first Christians believed that all authoritative doctrine had previously been revealed.
- This supposedly infallible magisterium has actually contradicted the apostolic faith on several points.
Here are a few further objections a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian might put forward.
- If we can’t trust the councils and those church fathers who were considered saints, what can we trust? Well, the men Jesus authorized to teach the faith—the apostles.
- We wouldn’t understand the Trinity or the atonement if we couldn’t continue to learn new things from the revealed text of Scripture. Isn’t this a legitimate development? There’s plenty enough teaching about the Trinity and the atonement in Scripture. Further teaching has been helpful, but not necessary for understanding the faith.
I’ve offered multiple lines of argumentation against the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox claim to having continued authority over Christian doctrine. I conclude that any church councils or later teachings can only offer a helpful perspective on the original faith; they cannot be considered infallible definitions of or pronouncements on the faith. Church leaders have the authority to teach and, in so doing, to help their people better understand the faith; however, their clarifications do not have the authority to define Christian doctrine or practice—that authority only belongs to the apostolic doctrines.