2. The preservation and authority of Scripture according to Rome
The Protestant Reformation, which was spearheaded by Martin Luther in 1517 when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany, is so named because it involved a protest against various teachings and practices of Roman Catholicism. The fundamental issue that has divided Protestants and Roman Catholics since the 16th century is that of Scripture and authority.
In identifying the key issues involved in the dispute, historians often point to the material cause and the formal cause of reformation. The material cause was the question of justification, how a person ultimately is redeemed by Jesus Christ. The Reformation slogan with regard to the material cause was sola fide, which means “faith alone,” and that was at the forefront of the controversy.
The formal issue, which was the underlying issue, the issue that was not in the limelight but nevertheless was at the center of the fragmentation, was the question of authority — especially the question of the authority of Scripture. The Reformation battle cry with regard to authority, the formal cause, was sola Scriptura, that is “Scripture alone.” This was an assertion that the ultimate authority for the Christian is the Scriptures alone.
At the beginning of the Reformation, it was tacitly assumed by most of the church that the Pope was infallible in his pronouncements. The Reformers, led by Luther, believed that the Pope and councils could, and had, erred — and insisted the Pope’s teachings be documented from Scripture. It wasn’t until July 18, 1870, at the ecumenical council known as Vatican Council I, that the Roman Catholic Church formally defined the infallibility of the Pope in the official pronouncements of his office — a doctrine known as ex cathedra, literally, “from the chair” (First Vatican Council, Sess. IV, Const. de Ecclesiâ Christi, line 9). There, papal infallibility was declared to be de fide — that is, “of the faith” — which means that as an official edict of the church, denying it would constitute heresy. The vote in the council to elevate this doctrine to de fide status was 533 to 2.
Because of this disagreement, a caricature has arisen that suggests that Protestantism believes that the Bible is the final authority, while Roman Catholicism believes that the Pope or the church is the final authority — as if Rome had a low view of Holy Writ. This caricature is inaccurate. One of the most important episodes in all of Roman Catholic history was the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Trent was called to formulate a response to the Protestant Reformation, and it remains the most formidable council of dispute between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, as Rome has never rescinded its pronouncements. At this council, Rome gave official definition to its views on justification, the sacraments and many other issues that were subject to discord during the earlier days of the Reformation. In the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent (1546), Rome set forth its “Decree Concerning The Canonical Scriptures”:
“[The gospel], before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand; [the council] following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament — seeing that one God is the author of both.”
In this statement, Trent declared that the Scriptures have come to us either directly from the mouth of Christ or from the Apostles under the dictation of God the Holy Spirit. Also, it called God the Author of both the Old and New Testaments. Thus, the Roman Catholic Church set forth a very high view of Scripture. But that’s not all there is to this story.
“[The council] also clearly perceives that these truths and rules are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which, received by the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand. Following, then, the examples of the orthodox Fathers, it receives and venerates with a feeling of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and New Testaments, since one God is author of both; also the traditions, whether they relate to faith or to morals, as having been dictated either orally by Christ or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church in unbroken succession.” Translation by Rev. H. J. Schroeder in The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books, 1978), 17. For the Latin of the text, see Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985) II:80.