In order to be a good Protestant, you must be a good anti-Catholic. I am not Catholic. I am Protestant. There are many doctrines of the Roman Catholic church that I am against, but there are many things that I appreciate about them.
Both Protestants and Roman Catholics have our lineage in the catholic church. Yes, I just said that. I am catholic, but not Roman Catholic. I’ve got some info for you: If you are a Christian, you are catholic too. This differentiation between catholic and Roman Catholic is part of a solid Protestant polemic against Roman Catholicism. It normally drives Roman Catholic apologists crazy, since it undermines their belief that they are the one true church. But it is true; Protestants are catholic Christians, but not Roman Catholic Christians. The word “catholic” was used very early to describe the church. It simply meant “universal,” describing the church’s universality. The church is not exclusive to Gentiles, Jews, Greeks, Romans, those in the East, or those in the West. The church that Christ built is universal, or “catholic.”
However, there was an institutional arm of the catholic church that eventually became known as the Roman Catholic church, complete with its own hierarchy, doctrines, and liturgical distinctives. The type of institutionalization that eventually characterized the Roman Catholic church is one of the major issues the Protestants battled against, believing that it had corrupted the catholic church to the core, even obscuring the Gospel itself. We now call it the Roman Catholic church due to its identification with the “seat of Rome.” This seat, according to the Roman Catholics, is the perpetual seat of ultimate authority that Peter passed on. It is known today as the papacy, which is the office of the Pope. The Pope sits in the seat of Rome, having the infallible authority to guide and direct the church in matters of faith and practice. He, along with the magisterium, form the institution and can, through “ordinary” or “extraordinary” means, intervene in church life and doctrine in a binding way. If a heresy arises in the church, the institution can condemn it, thus securing the faith of the church. Intervention rarely takes place (though this is debated), but this infallible safeguard can theoretically step in at any time and protect the church from corruption.
How did this come into being? Protestants are right to point out that this institution is not biblical. If this is the truth, and this system is not biblical, how did such an institution come into being?
The answer is very complex, but let me attempt to give you a bird’s eye view by means of some charts!
First, let’s get introduced to a concept called “apostolic succession.” This is not simply a Roman Catholic concept. As we will see, in its uncorrupted and ideal state, apostolic succession is very important for the church, Roman Catholic or not. Notice the chart. It starts with Jesus. Jesus handed his teaching over to twelve Apostles. The Apostles were authorities in the early church. When they spoke, people listened. Why? Because they were trained by Christ. They were witnesses of his death, burial, and resurrection. They carried unique authority in the establishment of the church.
So far, so good? Protestants and Catholics agree to this point. The next step is that the Apostles passed on their faith to others. Easy enough. The Apostles commissioned others to be leaders and authorities in the church. They handed over the faith to followers, like Timothy, who were approved in both their life and teaching. This created a succession of faith and teaching. They would often call this “laying on of hands.” With this “system” in place, the church maintained a safeguard against rogue expressions of the Christian faith. This is why Paul warned about commissioning people too hastily (1 Tim. 5:22).
Again, to this point both Protestants and Catholics agree. We need to pass on the faith. We need to commission others that have been approved. There needs to be accountability. However, the departure comes when we begin to define not only what this succession of authority is, but what it does. Again, we agree that it is the duty of the church to pass on the faith once for all handed to the saints (Jude 3). We agree that the church is the “pillar of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). We also agree that all in this succession are saints and a part of the church. However, Catholics believe that in order for this succession to be valid, it has to be seen as primarily a succession in person. Protestants, on the other hand, believe that the primary issue involved it is a succession in teaching, doctrine, and practice. Therefore, Roman Catholics focus on the one to whom the succession is given, while Protestants focus on the teaching and doctrine itself, believing that the person who receives the succession is instrumental, not integral.
Therefore, in essence, for the Roman Catholic, the persons in succession define the Gospel and make up the institutional church which presides over the Gospel. Hence, Catholics have the Pope and the magisterium of bishops (as represented by the fellows in the graph that follow the apostles). For the Protestant, on the other hand, it is the other way around. Only to the degree that the person is in succession with right teaching are they in apostolic succession. A hasty “laying on of hands” is possible, and can damage both the doctrine and reputation of the church.
This is why Protestants are continually going back to the source – the Bible – for final authority (sola Scriptura) and why Roman Catholics are continually going to the institution for final authority.
But there is one more way in which the chasm is further widened between Roman Catholics and Protestants with regard to the issue of apostolic succession. For the Roman Catholic, in order for this institution to have ultimate authority, it must possess the gift of infallibility. For the Protestant, the person upon whom the hands are laid (along with the institution, which is made up of a bunch of fellas upon whom hands have been laid) is fallible. Only the Apostles’ teaching is not. For the Protestant, apostolic succession is a safeguard to the Gospel, but it must be continually tested by the Scriptures.
So both believe in “Apostolic succession” and have some similarities in their understanding and rationale for Apostolic succession.
The next component which characterizes both Roman Catholics and Protestants is the idea of the regula fide (though it is much more central for Roman Catholicism). This literally means “rule of faith.” In essence, the rule of faith was the unwritten tradition which summarized the orthodox understanding which is found both in the Scriptures and the apostolic succession of the church. This is expressed through the creeds, confessions, and traditions that are passed from generation to generation. Because Scripture is the final authority, individual interpretation is not the final authority. We interpret the Bible in and with the church. When doctrine is established, it is not established with an individual, his Bible, and the Holy Spirit, but with an individual, his Bible, and the Holy Spirit who is at work both through the individual and the historic body of Christ represented through apostolic succession.
The idea of the regula fide is organic, but was articulated through events and controversy in history. When someone in the church would propose an interpretation of the Bible, his or her interpretation was tested against the Scripture itself and against how Christians have always interpreted Scripture. So, for instance, if someone came to the church and began to teach that Christ was created, not eternal, this doctrine would be tested first according to the Scripture. Then it would be tested according to the regula fide by asking the question, “What has the church always taught about Christ?” So, not only does the Bible deny that Christ is a created being, but the church, having its teachings handed down since the time of the Apostles, has always interpreted the Bible as teaching that Christ is eternal as the Father is eternal. We find evidence of this through the early church fathers and the great Creeds of the church.
Again, so far so good. Roman Catholics and Protestants agree. Where we part ways is when we begin to define the authority of this unwritten tradition called the regula fide. The Roman Catholic church believes that this tradition is infallible. Protestants believe that it is only infallible to the degree that it rightly represents the Scriptures. Therefore, the regula fide, while serving as a safeguard for doctrine, needs a safeguard itself.
Both of these ideas, apostolic succession and the regula fide, have the same goal for both Protestants and Roman Catholics: to protect the faith once for all handed to the saints. However, the Roman Catholic church, having all the right intentions, believes that these safeguards must be infallible in order to be effective.
The Rise of Rome
This is where history takes an interesting and definitive turn. It is not unlike our desire to protect our children. There are two extremes. One extreme locks the children up in the house and thows away the key in order to protect them from all harm (like I am tempted to do!). Nothing wrong with the intentions here. The other extreme lets their children run wild, believing they have to learn the ways of the world in order to learn to protect themselves. Again, intentions good. As the church began to face more and more dangers, as doctrine was continually manipulated, as teachings that did not fall in line with Scripture or the church’s historic interpretation of Scripture were put forth, the church began to institutionalize itself. In other words, we brought all the children in the house and locked the door. This is what it looked like:
Now we have a shut door. Behind that shut door is both the Bible and the regula fide (unwritten tradition). Guarding the door is a representative of the now-institutionalized church. This representative is a successor of the Apostles. In the Roman Catholic system, the ultimate guard is the Pope (the successor of Peter). He holds the keys to the door. The Scripture is infallible. The regula fide is infallible. And, now, the representative guard is infallible. The people on the outside must go through him (the institution) in order to access the doctrines of the church.
But notice (and this is important), while the institution of the church was protecting both the Bible and the regula fide (unwritten tradition), the regula fide was also protecting the Bible. So there were two layers of authority standing between the people and the Bible.
While we Protestants would begin to protest here, we still understand why this situation arose. Who of us does not understand and sympathize with the mentality to bring all the kids in the house and lock the door? Yes, it may be wrong. Yes, it may be extreme. Yes, it may lack faith in God. But it makes sense.
Where things really go wrong is when infallibility is invoked upon the guardian. To say that he is right is one thing. To say that he is infallibly right, in order to curtail any rebellion, is another.
Once the church is institutionalized in such a way, understandable or not, corruption of its most fundamental beliefs becomes a serious danger. And this is the turn the church took in the later middle ages. Here is another chart (!):
The regula fide, because it is unwritten, is easy to abuse. The Scripture is not. And this is what happened in church history. The institution of the church (now quickly on its way to becoming the Roman Catholic church) began to expand on the regula fide, moving it from a summary of the essentials to requirements of non-essentials (notice the chart). Everything from liturgy to doctrine were added. What started as a small confession of Christian doctrine, as represented by the likes of the Nicene Creed (325) and the Statement of Chalcedon (451), became full catechisms, with infallible requirements of doctrines and practices that fell well outside of the regula fide and far outside the bounds of Scripture itself. Now included in this unwritten tradition were non-essential doctrines concerning the mother of Jesus, celibacy in the priesthood, how one is to break the bread in the Lord’s supper, and a thousand other things. The unwritten traditions that were meant to preserve the essence of the Christian faith had developed to such a degree that one could not even see the Christian faith. The essence, which was important before, took on a secondary status to the authority of the institution. In the midst of this, the Gospel began to be obscured to such a degree that a major reformation was needed.
I think that we can all understand and empathize with the rise of Rome. While I seriously disagree with the “lock the doors, don’t let the kids out, and mom and dad are infallible” approach, I know why it happened. In fact, being a chapter in the history of the catholic church, it is a part of my history. However, in the Reformation, the door was unlocked, the regula fide was minimized (not abandoned), and apostolic succession became no longer a guarantee of infallibility, but a responsibility that must continually be submitted to the Scripture.
That is it. The rise of Rome in a nutshell.