Is the New Testament All We Have From the Apostles?

What did the Apostles teach, and how can we know it?

That’s a key question that divides Protestants and Catholics. In my recent rebuttal of James White’s statements, I focused on correctly summarizing the Catholic and Protestant paradigms of authority, including the doctrine of Apostolic Succession and the Protestant belief sometimes called apostolicity.

Here I want to focus on White’s second statement:

We only know what the Apostles taught, from the New Testament.

White went on to add that because never once had any of his Catholic interlocutors produced writings from the Apostles beyond the New Testament, that means that the twenty-seven books of the NT are all that we know.

For this post, leave aside the question of how (or whether) Protestants know the New Testament contains those exact twenty-seven books (no more and no less).

Praise for Copts, Condemnation for Catholics

In response to the horrific murders by ISIS of twenty-one Coptic Christians, White wrote a blog post where, alongside some laudable statements, he both vilified Catholics for allegedly giving Muslims the wrong idea about Christianity–indicating Catholics worship crucifixes–and praised the “vital faith” of many “Coptic Christians” he has known. White wrote:

To my Muslim readers: I know you see Roman Catholics prostrating before crucifixes and praying and lighting candles.  And you think that represents Christianity.  Please, think with me: what represents Islam, if not that which is truly and fully in accord with the Qur’an?  Look at the Christian scriptures: you will never find them invoking worship of anyone but God….We worship only one God, and we do not worship the cross.

Of course, this is a strawman fallacy: the Catholic Church teaches that God alone should be worshiped, and not a statue or crucifix or saint or any created thing. When considering Catholic claims, you must look to what she teaches, and not to what you may imagine or want to be true when you see a Catholic light a candle.

If you see a Catholic kneeling before a crucifix, it does not mean they are worshiping a piece of wood or metal; rather, the crucifix calls to mind our Savior Jesus Christ and they are worshiping Him.

Connecting the Dots

The New Testament goes into almost no detail about what the Christian worship service should look like. What is the structure of it? The order? What is read or not read? How are bread and wine used? What words are said? Who has the authority to preside over the worship service?

copt2As a result, Protestant worship services vary widely. Some do some type of Lord’s Supper with bread and wine (or crackers and juice), some don’t do it, or do it less frequently. Some are more liturgical–more on this later–some just have praise and worship music plus a long sermon. Protestant denominations have even split over whether playing a piano is acceptable in the service.

Similarly, how many ordinances or sacraments are there, and what do they each do (or not do)? Protestants differ from Catholics on these questions, but also differ from each other on them (see, for example, the wide differences in doctrine surrounding the Eucharist).

And yet, the Coptic Church, which broke in schism from the Church in the 400s, looks and believes very similarly to the Catholic Church. Their “worship service” is the Liturgy, one which resembles closely Eastern Catholic liturgies, as well as the Divine Liturgies of Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Coptic Church, like the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches, also recognizes seven sacraments, Apostolic Succession, the intercession of the saints, the veneration of Mary as Theotokos, prayers for the faithful departed, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and many other ancient doctrines.

In short, the Coptic Church is light years closer to Catholicism than it is to Protestantism.

If someone wishes to condemn Catholics for their their lit candles and crosses, their kneeling and prostration, then to be consistent one must condemn the Coptic Church for their Coptic crosses and lit candles and Liturgies, along with their other beliefs that align with Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.


So how is it that these different Churches, even ones that broke in schism early on in the Church’s history, all teach substantially similar things and have substantially similar Liturgies, even though the New Testament does not describe these things in detail?

One possibility is that the Church became corrupted early on, across the entire world, in peculiarly the same way.

Though the Christian worship service was not described in the New Testament, all the Apostles, wherever they planted Churches and practiced the Faith, somehow transmitted corrupted Liturgies that closely resembled one another (and that bear little resemblance to the vast majority of Protestant services, especially Evangelical, non-denominational, and Baptist ones).

That’s one possibility, reminiscent of the Mormon Great Apostasy theory. Another possibility exists however, one that is much more plausible and faithful to the Scriptures: These Churches have followed the Tradition of the Apostles. That Tradition includes truths passed down and lived out, like the shape and meaning of the Liturgy, like Apostolic Succession, like the sacraments–their number and meaning.

The New Testament, when interpreted accurately, certainly supports these practices and beliefs, but you cannot point to a list of verses that prove them to be true, or even describe them in detail.

The Apostles left more than just the New Testament; they left their Tradition as lived out in the life of the Church: the office of bishop as successor to the Apostle, the sacraments, the prayer life of the Church.

The Coptic Church provides strong evidence that all these teachings were not Catholic inventions and accretions of the Middle Ages. No, not at all. They were beliefs and practices from early on, from the Apostles themselves. They were found everywhere in the world where the Church had established itself. Hence, all the oldest Churches have strikingly similar Liturgies and beliefs on the sacraments and Apostolic Succession.

So, in fact, the New Testament is not the only place that the Apostolic teaching can be found; it is also found in the living Tradition of the Church. Protestants, you are invited to come and join the fullness of this Apostolic truth! Pray for the grace to be open to believing it.

In-depth Interview with Dr. Jonathan Armstrong

I had the honor of doing an in-depth interview with Dr. Jonathan Armstrong of the Aqueduct Project.

Dr. Armstrong invited me onto his God Talks program, one in which he had interviewed such scholars as (former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury) Rowan Williams and Alister McGrath.

I have a lot of admiration for Dr. Armstrong: he received his Ph.D. from Fordham and in the Aqueduct Project is working to promote understanding and unity within Christianity. This work has primarily been within Protestantism, so it was an extra privilege that he asked me to come on the program as a Catholic.

Here were some of the questions he asked:

Dr.-Jonathan-Armstrong“Let’s talk about the papacy. In chapter 2 of your book, you write: “If Protestantism is true, after centuries of its existence, God decided to eradicate the office of the papacy” (p. 35). Help me understand your point. The first time that a bishop of Rome makes a claim of unique authority based on Matthew 16:18 is in the third century, and it would still be hundreds of years before the “office of the papacy” would be clearly discernable.”

“You write concerning ecumenical councils: “Protestants contend that no council of the Church, even the ones traditionally deemed ecumenical (universal), carry any authority – except insofar as they accurately interpret Scripture, in which case the authority is the Bible’s, not theirs” (p. 39). But, the Book of Concord, for example, opens with a clear affirmation of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. You conclude (p. 45) that it is the pope who makes a council ecumenical, but how can this be? The Council of Constance was an ecumenical council, although it deposed all three clamants to the Papal See and appointed a fourth man to the papacy. If it were a pope who makes an ecumenical council “ecumenical,” then how could the Council of Constance be “ecumenical”?”

“You write: “If Protestantism is true, it’s okay to remove books from the New Testament canon if you judge them to be non-inspired” (p. 67). But, Martin Luther never removed books from the canon nor advocated doing so, although you are right that he voiced suspicion about the apostolicity and worthiness of four of the NT books. Many Protestants would fully agree with you when you affirm the idea that “public revelation ended with the death of the last apostle” (p. 105). Are Protestant and Catholic views of Holy Scripture so vastly different? Why or why not?”

“As a Catholic apologist, you have significant experience in Catholic-Protestant dialogue. From your perspective, what is the greatest obstacle to genuine ecumenical progress for the future?”

“Despite the diversity that we witness in Christianity around the world today, what is it that gives the Church her essential unity?”

The interview is just a bit over 30 minutes long–go check it out!

Note on comments: In the past several posts, I’ve let commenters veer off-topic, favoring the free exchange of arguments and ideas over staying on the subject. In this post I will be moderating comments more closely, and it may also take longer for me to look at comments. Keep this in mind with your commenting. In particular, keep your comments respectful to each other. No progress toward unity in the truth is made by insults or rudeness. Thanks!

Is Apostolic Succession Self-Deception? A Reply to James White

James White tweeted at me that he had spent an hour on his program responding to my recent appearance on Catholic Answers Live.

Here I want to look at a few of his attempted corrections of my statements regarding the two different paradigms of authority between Protestantism and Catholicism.

On Catholic Answers Live I said: “In the Catholic paradigm, we know who has rightful authority in Christ’s Church because we look to the succession of bishops going back to the Apostles themselves.

In the Protestant paradigm, anyone who teaches the gospel accurately has de facto authority.”

My goal in laying out this explanation is to accurately summarize the two different paradigms so that listeners and seekers will understand the difference.

White criticized what I said, indicating it was wrong or foolish, and gave a supposedly different summation of the Protestant paradigm of authority:

True Apostolic Succession means teaching what the Apostles taught. We only know what they taught from the New Testament.

The idea is that (certain) Protestant churches teach what the Apostles taught and so they are the ones with “true Apostolic Succession.” Regarding his first statement, he is giving Apostolic Succession a different definition from what it has been over the past 1,900 years. 

igna2The Catechism gives the traditional and historical definition: “In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.” Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.”

We see the evidence for the Catholic definition and reality of Apostolic Succession from the Scriptures and the very earliest writings of the Fathers, including St. Clement, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Irenaeus.

Protestant “Apostolicity”

An alternative word for the Protestant paradigm, summed up in White’s words regarding teaching what the Apostles taught, is apostolicity. In fact this is a word that some Reformed Protestants themselves use. (Note that this word should here be distinguished from its Catholic usage as one of the four marks of the Church, that the Church is apostolic.)

But let’s go back for a moment to White’s attempted correction of what I said. I originally said that whoever teaches the gospel accurately has authority in Protestantism. That is the same thing that White is saying Protestants believe. Observe the following Protestant syllogism:

  1. The Apostles taught the gospel
  2. Whoever teaches what the Apostles taught has authority
  3. Protestants who teach the gospel accurately have authority

So White’s “correction” of what I said is actually in complete agreement with it. The only difference is his attempt to redefine Apostolic Succession to mean apostolicity. Better to use apostolicity and avoid confusion.

White’s next statement, that we only know what the Apostles taught from the New Testament writings, is another way of arguing that sola Scriptura is true.

But all this does is beg the question, as Tom Brown cogently explained several years ago in his article on Apostolic Succession versus Apostolicity:

Further, our author begs the question by judging the doctrine of apostolic succession from the presupposition that sola scriptura is true. He asserts that apostolic succession is improper because it allows for traditions that “are distinct from canonical Scripture.”  The failure, then, in the respondent’s mind, is not some historical inaccuracy of any given tradition claim, but Catholicism’s inability to validate the tradition from Scripture [as interpreted by like-minded Reformed Christians].  But if sola scriptura is false, there is no impropriety in Bishops relying upon traditions “distinct” from Scripture.  Such traditions do not invalidate the doctrine of apostolic succession unless the doctrine is seen as necessarily existing in a sola scriptura paradigm.

Go read the whole article as he makes two other arguments that are quite powerful.

Is Succession “Self-Deception”?

A short while later White says (paraphrased):

The idea that you can actually in any meaningful historical fashion, trace an unbroken line of succession through the morass of immorality…involves pure self deception. Anybody who has taken any time to examine, in even a semi-unbiased fashion, the Roman papacy for the first x hundred years will recognize the central role of external political authority, the role that Constantinople and the Emperor and invading armies played, in the selection of bishops of Rome.

It does not involve pure self-deception. In fact, it is not difficult to do, except in a handful of instances. For anyone looking for a good series of books that trace the succession within a historical narrative of Christendom as a whole, go get Dr. Warren Carroll’s History of Christendom series (I linked to the second volume, that covers from roughly 300 to 1100 AD). And even if it were difficult to determine, that would not of itself invalidate Petrine succession.

“Morasses of immorality,” whatever and whenever those might have been, do not invalidate Petrine succession. Nor have they typically made it difficult to discover who was the valid pope at any given time.

White’s second argument, that Petrine succession is invalidated by the influence of external political authority, of the Emperor, or of invading armies, is incorrect. The Catholic Church does not teach that the election of the bishop of Rome cannot have any influences other than certain ones. Human beings have always been involved in the selection of the next pope, and even the way in which the pope is chosen has changed many times (and could change again in the future–it is not dogma).

God made His Church able to withstand immoral men, even when those men managed to become bishops or even the pope. It is a testament to His power and love that no man has been able to thwart His plan for all men to know the truth through His Church in every century.

I watched, and this post covered, about twenty minutes of White’s video. I am open to correction by anyone at any time; however, as I have shown in this post, James White did not correct anything I said. Instead, he made several claims, none of which held water. I do not plan to devote any more time to this particular video, but in the interest of helping him and readers understand why his statements were erroneous, I thought it was important to explain how his arguments fail to work.

Note on comments: In the past several posts, I’ve let commenters veer off-topic, favoring the free exchange of arguments and ideas over staying on the subject. In this post I will be moderating comments more closely, and it may also take longer for me to look at comments. Keep this in mind with your commenting. In particular, keep your comments respectful to each other. No progress toward unity in the truth is made by insults or rudeness. Thanks!