Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Apologetics: Give Me that Old Time Authority Principle

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 27, 2013

Recently a very intelligent layman asked me why I had written somewhere that Anglicanism had no “authority principle”, when in fact the Anglicans do have bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. For years I have referred to Catholicism’s “authority principle” as something unique and essential to revealed religion. Now, suddenly, I doubted whether some of my readers really knew what I was talking about.

Let us suppose God wishes to reveal Himself to us in a way which gives us not just an experience of the Divine but a formal knowledge of God, His nature, His purposes, and His commands. He wants, in fact, to establish a religion based on these things, a religion which can be truthfully taught, so as to bring men into conformity with Himself. Now let us suppose that this Revelation is delivered in some way. Never mind, in this essay, whether the manner in which He reveals Himself is objectively verifiable and broadly witnessed. That is not our concern at present. However He does it, there will be some revealed content which the human community receives. This content may be immediately written (think of the Ten Commandments); or it may be something taught by God’s anointed representative, whose teaching are then preserved over time.

However it is done, the precise interpretation of this revealed content can be guaranteed only as long as the Revelation includes some designated mechanism to preserve and protect it and to oversee the legitimate developments of its leading ideas as new questions arise. This is what is called an “authority principle” in religion. Either a Revelation contains such a mechanism, preserved within the religion it engenders, or it does not. And unless this principle is divinely guaranteed to produce infallible results with respect to the issues on which the Revelation is authoritative, then there is no guarantee that the Revelation will be understood in the same way by future generations.

The result of the absence of an authority principle is that a Revelation must ultimately fail of its purpose over time. Yet this can hardly be what God intends. Therefore, we ought to expect that an authentic Revelation will contain an authority principle within it, and this expectation ought to be so strong that the absence of an authority principle will substantially weaken the case for the authenticity of an alleged revelation or of any religion which claims to be based upon it.

Catholicism’s Authority Principle

It is in this sense that the claim of Catholicism to a Revelation with an authority principle, which it carries on through time, is so striking, especially in the absence of a similar claim in any other religion yet known to man. Note here that the existence of an authority principle is not to be confused with the existence of leadership. All religions have leaders; some even have bishops. But only Catholicism claims that its founding Revelation contains within it a mechanism for infallibly interpreting, developing and applying the content of the Revelation over time, long after the “revelation event” has passed.

The authority principle in Catholicism ensures that there is no difference in dispensation between the first Christians and ourselves, such that they should have had a living, infallible guide to the truth (in Christ) and we have not. Thus Peter and His successors have been commissioned by Christ as His vicars, with the authority to bind and loose, the exercise of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 16:18-19), and the ability to confirm their brethren in the faith (Lk 22:32). This is all based on Christ's prayer that Peter's faith would not fail (again, Lk 22:32).

Hence the Catholic Church logically claims the gift of infallibility in matters of faith and morals, a claim which provides a unique credibility within the character of Christian Revelation. Such a claim is absolutely necessary if the original Revelation is to remain the same, yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8). It is essential if Christ's promise to be with the Church is not to be void (Mt 28:20).

Anglicanism: A Counter Example

I have no particular reason for singling out Anglicanism as a counter example, but a consideration of Anglicanism prompted the original question, and this example will serve as well as any. Put simply, there is no authority principle in Anglicanism, for Anglicanism has rejected the authority principle that is both implicit and explicit in the original Revelation. Again, this is not to be confused with leadership, which Anglicanism possesses in the same manner as do all human institutions.

Such human authority as exists in the Anglican Church lies, in theory, with the English crown, ever since the King was declared the head of the Church in England. Obviously, the English crown has no infallibility in matters of Revelation—or at least it has never claimed such, nor is there any Revelatory grounds for thinking it has. Moreover, the Archbishop of Canterbury is not an ultimate doctrinal authority in Anglicanism, but merely the highest-ranking bishop. This ranking, of course, is actually based on Catholic tradition, since Canterbury was the highest-ranking bishopric in England under Catholicism.

In practice, the content of the Faith in Anglicanism is now decided in convocations of the bishops, by vote. Hence the ordination of women, the morality of homosexual acts, gay marriage, contraception, and so on—all of the issues through which modern societies are falling away from Christian teaching, all of which clearly touch matters of Revelation and the natural law—are now decided by democratic vote of the bishops gathered in convocation. Yet there is nothing in Scripture or Tradition (the twin sources of Christian Revelation) which even remotely suggests that the content of the Faith can be determined in this way, while there is overwhelming Biblical and historical evidence against it.

From the beginning, appeal for a definitive judgment had to be made to Peter and his successors. The Fathers are full of references to this truth. Even the earliest heretics appealed to Rome to justify their causes, though they appealed in vain. The contentious St. Jerome says in one of his writings against the heretic Ruffinus, “If anyone is joined to Peter’s chair, he is mine.” Newman’s great work on the development of Christian doctrine is replete with examples.

Even with respect to the role of councils, in the Catholic tradition, as evidenced from the Council of Jerusalem on, it has always been Peter's endorsement of a conciliar decision that has made even a broadly representative council ecumenical—that is, universally binding on the whole Church. Councils without the pope have never had more than local disciplinary jurisdiction.

To conclude then, when a religion has no authority principle, this lack raises a strong objection to the authenticity of the Revelation it claims to have received. In any case, there can be no good reason to believe and follow a religion without an authority principle, for the nature of human inquiry makes it virtually impossible that any such religion should remain a credible witness to the original Revelation across the ages. Human ideas change constantly. For God’s Revelation to remain uncorrupted over time, God Himself must provide an authority principle—a principle integral to the Revelation itself, a principle without which its Divine integrity cannot be maintained.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Brent Poirier - Aug. 20, 2013 9:32 PM ET USA

    The Baha'i Faith has a written Covenant of Successorship providing for exactly what you describe. The Founder of the Faith, Baha'u'llah [The Glory of God] wrote "The Book of the Covenant" providing for his son, Abdu'l-Baha, to be the Head of the Faith and Interpreter of His Texts. Abdu'l-Baha in his Will and Testament provided for a dual successorship, with provision for interpretation and for application and supplementation. The Universal House of Justice is the successor today.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 30, 2013 6:48 PM ET USA

    "Thou shalt make them princes over all the earth: they shall remember Thy name, O Lord...". Offertory Sts. Peter and Paul EF. " I make my doctrine to shine forth to all as the morning light, and I will declare it afar off.". Offertory. St. Irenaus. EF. The character of Holy Orders transcends the character of the individual. The authority exercised is ordered to the service of the Word and to the service of his members in his love. This is the enduring reality of the authority principle.

  • Posted by: chady - Jun. 29, 2013 12:20 PM ET USA

    Such human authority as exists in the Anglican Church lies, in theory, with the English crown.....Like other Christians in the UK we wrote to persuade Her Majesty not to make reference to UK Government [same sex] Couples Bill in her Queen's Speech [2013]. I indicated from the point of view of scripture [and Her as Head of the Anglican Church] Her sanctioning this law could not be justified. The reply I got said 'The Queen acts on advice of her Ministers' thus skating around the faith issue!!

  • Posted by: - Jun. 29, 2013 9:07 AM ET USA

    Most excellent as usual, Dr. Jeff, and in the over-sportsed culture we live in, an easily understood principle, too. Imagine a sporting event with no officials, just lots and lots of rule books, and all of those of various editions. Or imagine sport A wanting to use its rule book for sport B. Each sport provides its own authority principle. We seem able to understand this in sports, but not when it comes to something trivial like the salvation of our very souls. Isn't that amazing?