Scripture, Apostolic Succession and the Importance of Foundations

Scripture, Apostolic Succession and the Importance of Foundations February 29, 2020

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According to the commission of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
— 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 RSV

As a carpenter, dealing with building foundations is part of my profession. Like a domino effect, a faulty foundation not only affects the framework of a building, but the final appearances of the finishing details. In effect, framed openings can lean or bend out of square which can cause greater difficulty in installing windows and doors. Exterior siding and interior trim may also appear tilted or crooked. It can even lead to the functionality of the home to be compromised such as effective placement of plumbing, electrical, ducting and insulation. In worst cases, it can lead to the overall structure of the building to be compromised subject to destruction from wind, rain, snow or earthquakes.

One of the worst foundations I’ve ever had to deal with was a basement that was six inches out of square. This was only discovered after we were nearly finished assembling the main floor frame when we noticed the last row of the subfloor sheathing ended up with a 6-inch taper. Since the concrete had already cured and the floor already installed, the home builder wasn’t willing to demolish it and start fresh. Having to work with a distorted foundation made the latter stages of the framework all the more difficult. The discrepancy was especially evident when it was time to frame and finish the roof. When you can see from a distance how crooked the shingles line the edge of the roof, you know something is wrong. And, more often than one would expect, the problems can often be traced directly to the quality of the foundation.

Similarly, in the case of personal worldviews, foundational beliefs are equally as important. When a person withholds multiple philosophical ideas that are incompatible with one another, the sources of these beliefs can often be traced to something the person might have picked up from entertainment, media or simply poor instruction passed down from parents or teachers. I don’t think there’s a single person in the world who is immune to this sort of thing — myself included.

In a Christian perspective, the Bible explains how certain types of foundations are either built to last or doomed to fail. One of the most referenced passages is the parable of the two builders…

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
— Matthew 7:24-27 RSV

Because sand is made up of tiny particles of stone, it has fluid-like characteristics. Houses built along a body of water tend to be prone to sandy soil and land slides. Since construction technology has significantly advanced over the last century, it has enabled builders to alleviate the risk of washouts by drilling concrete or metal pilings down to bedrock or undisturbed clay. One could say this is allegorical to how the mere Christian finds his grounding in God, who is referred to in the Bible as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-22).

Regarding theology and moral ethics, the foundation of these beliefs is detrimental in how its entire framework stands. In the case of Christianity, its foundation rests on who Jesus truly is. This is where the Bible is believed to affirm that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the fulfillment of the covenants as foretold by ancient Jewish prophets. Though throughout the centuries, the contents of the Bible as well as how to interpret them have been up for dispute. Whenever the question arises as for where the Bible came from, the default answer many people often recite is, “Well, it comes from God, of course!” As much as I can agree that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, I think the more appropriate question is, “How did the Bible come about and who did God deem responsible for its assembly?” Even though the essence of God’s Word transcends space, time and our material world, most knowledgeable Christians know the Bible didn’t just fall from the sky or materialize out of nowhere.

I think the answer is simply: from God working through the Church.

In order to maintain a sense of uniformity in belief, traditions such as the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed have been created to connect the dots in Scripture to summarize Jesus as fully divine and fully human. While they may agree in most aspects on who Christ truly is, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians differ the most regarding the authoritative role of Scripture as well as its contents, and what role the Church plays in the economy of salvation through Jesus.

In Protestantism, their system of belief is summarized in what is called the Five Solas — Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), Solus Christus (Christ Alone), Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone). While Catholics and Protestants differ in their views as for how the grace of Christ and glory to God are applied, they have more in common than not within the tenets of Sola Gratia, Solus Christus and Soli Deo Gloria. But where they most disagree are on Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide. It’s important to understand that the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura is well-meaning in its intent to prevent abuses of authority and distortion of truth due to mankind’s sinful nature. Though it’s also important to note that the Catholic Church has never claimed to place Tradition or the Magisterium on par with or above Scripture. While Protestantism places Scripture as their only authority (Sola Scriptura), Catholicism places the Bible as their primary source of authority (also known as Prima Scriptura).

The model of authority for the Catholic Church is like a three-legged stool. Each leg represents a pillar which supports the base of Catholic Christian authority — Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. If one ‘leg’ is removed, the entire structure topples to its side. Some would argue rather than having a ‘three-legged stool’ model of authority, the Church ought to use Scripture as their base. After all, they don’t call it the ‘Word of God’ for nothing, right? The problem with that approach is even if Scripture were the sole authority, the foundational principles of whether the contents of the Bible is complete rests upon whether the hands of those men who arranged the canon were actually guided by the Spirit of God. The authority of the Catholic Church in relation to Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium can be summarized by a quote from Thomas Aquinas,

…[S]acred doctrine…properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors.”
—Summa Theologiae 1:1:8

Although the Bible is divinely inspired by God, it is still a collection of books written by mere men. While the Protestant Bible consists of 66 books in its canon, the Catholic Bible contains an additional 7 books in the Old Testament along with additions to Esther and Daniel, whereas the Eastern Orthodox Bible has a total of 79 books altogether. And to top it off even further, the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible has 81 books within its canon. But which one is right, and who has the authority to determine which one is right?! In order for the Bible to be an infallible document, it would seem like it would have to come from an infallible source — which some would argue is the Church itself.

In Matthew 16:18-19 (RSV), Jesus says to Peter,

“And I tell you, you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (Petra) I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

The Catholic Church interprets this passage to be the moment when Christ founded His Church upon the Apostle Peter, whom is referred to as the first Pope (even though the term ‘Pope‘ didn’t come along until the third century as the Church continued to develop). Some Protestants would argue that the ‘rock’ on which the Church is founded upon is Christ Himself. This is due to how ‘Peter’ is translated in the original Koine Greek as ‘petros’ while ‘rock’ is translated as ‘petra.’ Petros is the masculine form meaning ‘stone’ or ‘little pebble’ while petra is the feminine form which would imply to be a large rock. But why would Christ address Peter as a lesser rock in one breath, give him ‘keys of the kingdom of heaven’ in another and then proceed to call him ‘Satan’ immediately afterwards? Some would argue that Christ would not have founded anything on a sinner like Peter (as proven in his threefold rejection of Jesus later on), otherwise it would render the Church to be a precept of man.

This is where I think Christians generally forget that Christ is not only considered to be the ‘chief cornerstone,’ but also the ‘builder of all things‘ as mentioned in Hebrews 3:3-4 (not to be confused with the Masonic belief in the ‘master architect‘). Whenever a covenant was made in the Old Testament, it was usually named after a patriarch whom God revealed himself to such as Abraham, Moses or King David. The faith of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is commonly referred to as an Abrahamic faith. The Law passed down from Moses was known as the Mosaic Law. The Messiah was foretold to be a descendant of David, which is known as the Davidic line. Likewise, the fathers whom would pass along the faith of the Church would be ordained as a successor to Peter, whom in Aramaic is called Cephas, which is known as a rock. This is called the Petrine line, or the Primacy of Peter.

I think when anti-Catholics cite passages in Scripture to disprove Peter’s credentials to lead the Church, they neglect to give credit to God’s grace. Yes, Peter is a mere man who has fallen flat many times, but so have many other biblical figures who have been pivotal in salvation history. This is usually where people bring up the bad popes of Church history. Jesus tells us in the Gospel that the Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses (which is believed to be the precursor to the chair of Peter), and that people ought to listen and do as they say, but not as they behave. Noah was a drunkard (Genesis 9:20-21). Abraham lied about his wife being his sister (Genesis 20:2). Jacob stole his brother’s birthright (Genesis 27). Moses was a murderer (Exodus 2:11-15). Saul was a wicked king (1 Samuel 15). David had an affair with a married woman and had her husband murdered (2 Samuel 11). Paul persecuted Christians (Acts 8:1-24). Peter was short-tempered, denied Christ three times publicly (Matthew 26:73-75) and was called out and corrected by Paul for avoiding the Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-21). If Peter could be an instrument of God’s grace, who’s to say every other successor of Peter leading up to our modern day Pope could not be?

If the issue of Peter’s human faults disqualifies him from leading the Church, how can anyone trust the human hands that assembled the Bible Canon, let alone the Bible itself? How could I even trust myself in reading it for that matter? This is where I find Christians from varying denominations tend to be selective for whom or what they believe the Holy Spirit chooses to work through. And this has often been a struggling point for me as for whether I could believe the Bible can be trusted if it was assembled by mere men — whether they were actually guided by the Holy Spirit or driven by their own agendas. When Jesus said, “…the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” it would seem that He would mean his Holy Spirit would protect the Church from falling victim to falsehood.

It is also worth pointing out that some would argue that it was James (son of Alphaeus), not Peter, who was the leader of the Church — yet he was actually a leader of the Church in Jerusalem at the time, and is also described as one of the ‘three pillars’ of the Early Church in Galatians 2:9. In light of this, some would argue that James, like Peter, is a little stone as well as every other believer in Christ — though the problem I have with this analogy is it further enables the fluidity of individuals who may either be guided by the Holy Spirit or their own ambitions. It seems to reaffirm the passage on a house built on sand as well as when Paul addressed an issue of divisions in the Church in Corinth,

I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chlo′e’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apol′los,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Ga′ius; lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Steph′anas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
— 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 RSV

Because the branches of Protestantism embody several traceable ‘founders’ for every denomination, they are burdened by continual fracturing and disunity even to this day. But it would be naive of me to deny that Catholics are immune to dissent. Even nowadays as Pope Francis faces hostile criticism from Catholics who oppose his approach to evangelism, there are people who eerily mimic the very actions Paul warns the Corinthians about. We hear people saying they stand in solidarity with Fr. James Martin, or belong to the same school of thought as Dr. Taylor Marshall. Some even go as far as saying that Francis is a counterfeit and that Benedict XVI, in spite of his resignation, is still the true Pope. Apostolic succession has far less to do with following a mere man in place of Christ, but more to do with having a visible figure of unity while preserving the fire of what Christ had started under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

If I consider myself to be a follower of Christ, then it would mean I must conform to the design and blueprints that were already passed down by Christ through His successors — which would include what they themselves deem as inspired Scripture, traditional practice and moral teaching. For me to call myself a Christian and start up a new church in my own home while basing it all on my own (or a group of people’s) subjective interpretation of Scripture would be no different than trying to reinvent the wheel. But if apostolic succession had died out immediately after the first Apostles, what makes anyone in the modern age think they could decipher what was truly taught by them?

For the amount of times I’ve failed in the process of learning to become a carpenter, it was usually because I deviated from the standards of the building code as well as what had been taught by the journeyman tradespeople who had taken me under their wing. This isn’t to say that my superiors never made any mistakes (after all, they are human as well). But like the Apostles, they are passing down what they have learned from their own masters while they were apprentices. And as building science progresses over the years, technology improves and new building products become available, so do the building codes develop and become more refined — yet the principles of construction practices remain the same. Make sure your walls are square, level and plumb. Measure twice, cut once. Likewise, as my former employers and journeyman instructors have taught me how to build, so have the Apostles and successors passed down the faith to other disciples for generations.

To me, this only reinforces the idea that Christ Himself is the bedrock on which the Church is formed on, and the Apostle Peter may be the first of many layers (or stones) to be built upon it. To base my belief and morality on any other brand of Christianity other than what can be traced from the modern age all the way to the First Apostles would be to build on a foundation of sand.

“But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth.” — 1 Timothy 3:15 NAB

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