Friday, March 18, 2011

Tradition: Were the apostles blameless?

Today I want to discuss the issue of apostolic infallability. The question, namely, is whether someone in the position of an apostle after coming of the Holy Spirit, led a perfect life, and passed on that perfection of life and teaching ability to the bishops. We will discuss the issue of apostolic succession later, but for now, we will grant the point.

A Few Key Points from the Catholic view:

  • The Catholic teaches that the whole of the apostolic life is the foundation for the church--that every action and word was fully consummed by the Holy Spirit (Cat. 76).
  • Because of this perfect filling of the Holy Spirit, the modern apostles (bishops) are the only people able to accurately interpret Scripture and historic teaching of the church (Cat. 85)
  • Because of this, "the faithful receive with docility (with simpleness--not questioning) the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms. (Cat 87).
  • It is important to note that the bishops are called to be faithful to the Word in Cat. 86. However, this is an illogical plea, for if they are fully filled with the Holy Spirit, every action and statement will be faithful!
  • Later, we find that specifically Peter, the head of the apostles (and later the bishop of Rome as head of the bishops) is considered the Vicar of Christ--the "acting" Christ in the world (Cat. 936)

With these thoughts in mind, can we know whether the apostles were given such authority? Can we know whether their life was given as a perfect example? Were the earliest Christians expected to accept their words "with docility"?

A few Scripture to consider:

Galatians 2:11-14

This passage speaks of Paul oppossing Peter because Peter was refusing to eat with the Gentiles. First, if Peter were the "Vicar of Christ" how would Paul have any right to oppose him? Second, if the examples of the apostles were perfect, why were two apostles arguing? Third, this passage speaks clearly of Peter sinning, "when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel." Clearly the Bible teaches the fallability of Peter in this passage.

Acts 17:11

The Bereans are praised because they "examined the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true." This raises interesting questions. If the only people able to accurately interpret the Bible are the apostles (or bishops), why are the Bereans praised for doing so on their own? If Scripture is to be accepted with docility, why did Paul not repremand them for checking his facts? This passage does not tell us that Paul's words were wrong, however, it does weaken on pillar of this fundamental teaching.

Romans 7:18ff

Paul speaks of his sinfulness, not just in his past, but in his present reality. This passage culminates in the "Thanks be to God" because salvation is found in no other way but Jesus. Paul is expressing his regular need for the forgiveness of Christ--his reliance on grace and his inability to conquer sin. Paul, an apostle, is quite clearly fallable (and we should thank God for this! Our theology of grace is dependant upon need!)

Clearly, the example of the apostles is not a perfect example. Knowing this, however, we must also realize that their example was very good, and was overall something to be immitated in the Christian faith:

1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul tells the Corinthians (not us) to follow his example as he follows the example of Christ. He speaks to people who saw his daily life. They lived with him, they saw his passion for Christ. However, we cannot take this as a "follow my example period," statement. If Paul is not following the example of Christ, he is not to be followed!

Philippians 3:17 Paul urges the Philippians to follow his example in suffering for Christ. Again, this is not a blanket teaching, but a specific example.

In conclusion, therefore, we must conclude that the nature of the apostles, including Peter, was not any different than any other Christian. They were given a specific purpose, which we will talk about another day, but they were not given special power to avoid sin, speak blamelessly, etc. at all times. This means that as we look at tradition, even ancient church tradition (more ancient than the Catholic church even!) we must realize that not everything spoken or done is correct. In our hearts we know this, because there are many bishops (including bishops of Rome) who have been deemed heretical, excommunicated, and removed from the historical record of the church because their faulty lifestyle, their faulty teaching, etc. We must ask, if these men are the only correct interpreters of Scripture, how can one vote out another, how can one not agree with another, etc?

Tomorrow I will look at the foundation of the church, and the role of the apostles in that foundation (and possibly examine the claim of the bishops to be continuing that task).



  1. I think there is a strong difference between the inerrancy of those in the papal office and those serving as bishops from the Catholic perspective. There is also a strong difference between sinless living and inerrant teaching. I would like stronger evidence from you with regard to papal doctrinal teaching that was considered heresy within the Catholic church.

    As an aside, it is interesting that Paul's message to the Bereans was equated to the word of God in Acts 17.

  2. The point is made quite clearly in the catechism that the apostles and those who succeed them provide a perfect example of Christian living both in word and deed in Catechism 85. "The task of interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form (Scripture from the apostles) or in the form of Tradition (living of the apostles) has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome."

    If we recall their previous definition of Tradition (in Cat. 74-76) it includes not only their teaching, not only the churches they established, but also their living example. Therefore, the lives of the apostles are considered a perfect Tradition for us to follow.

    As per your aside, be careful that we do not take "the word" in Acts 17:11 as "The Word." It is simply stating that they received his words.