Calling of St. Paul & Church Authority: Dialogue w Calvinist

Calling of St. Paul & Church Authority: Dialogue w Calvinist November 12, 2018
This is a Facebook exchange I had with Neil Shenvi, a chemist who is a Calvinist. His words will be in blue.
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I haven’t actually been arguing for Sola Scriptura. In fact, it is completely compatible with my argument to claim that there are also traditions passed on by the apostles that are in some way authoritative. What I am asking is whether the words of God are given ultimate authority over everything else, including the practice of the church. Do the church, its traditions, our theology and even the apostles themselves have to submit to God’s words or not? Is it the ultimate authority? That is the question.

We’ve discussed how in Galatians 1:8-9 Paul tells the Galatians to reject his own teaching if it departs from the words of God that he had preached to them. And precisely the same argument applies even if he was speaking only to the judaizers; he was telling clearly telling someone to reject his teaching if it strayed from God’s word. Paul wrote:

Galatians 1:8-9 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!”

We could also consider how Paul rebukes Peter in Antioch because he ‘stood condemned’ for ‘not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.’ Here Paul rebukes a fellow apostle for not conforming his practice to God’s word. Again, God’s word has authority over even the apostles:

Galatians 2:11-16 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group… When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.  

When rebuking his people for following pagan religious practices, God told his people through Isaiah: “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.” Is. 8:20

Finally, Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day:

Mark 7:8, 13 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men….Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.

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I said that my questions were compatible with the idea that tradition is also in some sense authoritative. In fact, the traditional Protestant definition of Sola Scriptura has never held that the Bible is the only authority that exists, but that it is the only infallible and ultimate authority the exists. Anyway, as I said, my point is that the argument does not depend on the rejection of all other authority, it simply asks whether Paul held his apostolic authority under the authority of God’s words and commanded the Galatians to do the same. . . .

The real question then seems to be whether Paul received his apostleship from Jesus himself directly or from the other apostles. Here, I again think Galatians is crucial. Paul writes:

“Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” – Gal. 1:1

“I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” – Gal. 1:11-12

Or consider:

“Through him [Jesus] and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.” – Rom. 1:5
“Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? ” – 1 Cor. 9:1
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It is incorrect to regard St. Paul as some kind of spiritual “lone ranger,” on his own with no particular ecclesiastical allegiance, since he was commissioned by Jesus Himself as an Apostle. In his very conversion experience, Jesus informed Paul that he would be told what to do (Acts 9:6; cf. 9:17). He went to see St. Peter in Jerusalem for fifteen days in order to be confirmed in his calling (Galatians 1:18), and fourteen years later was commissioned by Peter, James, and John (Galatians 2:1-2, 9). He was also sent out by the Church at Antioch (Acts 13:1-4), which was in contact with the Church at Jerusalem (Acts 11:19-27). Later on, Paul reported back to Antioch (Acts 14:26-28).

Acts 15:2 states: “. . . Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.” The next verse refers to Paul and Barnabas “being sent on their way by the church.” Paul did what he was told to do by the Jerusalem Council (where he played no huge role), and Paul and Barnabas were sent off, or commissioned by the council (15:22-27), and shared its binding teachings in their missionary journeys: “. . . delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4).

The Jerusalem Council certainly regarded its teachings as infallible, and guided by the Holy Spirit Himself. The records we have of it don’t even record much discussion about biblical proof texts, and the main issue was circumcision (where there is a lot of Scripture to draw from). Paul accepted its authority and proclaimed its teachings (Acts 16:4).
Furthermore, Paul appears to be passing on his office to Timothy (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:6, 13-14; 2 Tim 4:1-6), and tells him to pass his office along, in turn (2 Tim 2:1-2) which would be another indication of apostolic succession in the Bible.

The attempt to pretend that St. Paul was somehow on his own, disconnected to the institutional Church, has always failed, as unbiblical. Protestant frown upon institutions, but we Catholics rather like the Church that Jesus Christ set up, initially led by St. Peter.
David, if you agree that Paul was commissioned as an apostle “by Jesus Himself” then does he derive his apostleship from Jesus or from Peter?
Both. Why do you feel compelled to make a choice? It’s the usual Protestant “either/or” dichotomous mentality. Calvin does the same thing repeatedly.


And actually, why do you say that “fourteen years later was commissioned by Peter, James, and John (Galatians 2:1-2,9)”? But you leave out the intervening verses where Paul claims that these men “added nothing to his message” and that their high esteem “makes no difference” to Paul or to God. There is also the interesting incident in Gal. 2 where Paul rebukes Peter “to his face” for his “hypocrosy” because he was “not walking in line with the gospel” (Gal. 2:11-15).

So what? Peter was a hypocrite in that instance, and so Paul rebuked him. They had no differences theologically. Popes have been rebuked throughout history (e.g., by St. Catherine of Siena, St. Dominic, St. Francis). It doesn’t follow that they have no authority. Jesus rebuked and excoriated the Pharisees, but He told His followers to follow their teaching, even though they acted like hypocrites ((Matt 23:2 ff.).


You’re trying to set the Bible against the Church, which is typical Protestant methodology, and ultra-unbiblical. The Bible never does that. I’ve already given the example of the Jerusalem Council, which plainly shows the infallibility of the Church.

The Bible repeatedly teaches that the Church is indefectible; therefore, the hypothetical of rejecting the (one true, historic) Church, as supposedly going against the Bible, is impossible according to the Bible. It is not a situation that would ever come up, because of God’s promised protection.

What the Bible says is to reject those who cause divisions, which is the very essence of the onset of Protestantism: schism, sectarianism, and division. It is Protestantism that departed from the historic Church, which is indefectible and infallible (see also 1 Tim 3:15).

But again, none of this has direct relevance to the question of whether, in Gal. 1:8-9, Paul says that his authority is derived from preaching the words of God and is to be rejected if he strays from it. Here are the three questions I asked Alan:

1. Do you agree that Paul told the Galatians that his own apostolic authority was derived from preaching God’s words and was to be rejected if he departed from God’s words (1:8-9)?

2. Do you agree that the Bible contains God’s words?

3. Do you agree that the current church then still derives its authority from God’s words and is to be rejected if it departs from it? Or is the current church’s authority different from Paul’s?

How would you answer these questions? . . .

Right now, my main questions involve Gal. 1:8-9 and the nature of apostolic authority. . . . they underlie all subsequent questions since they determine whether or not all teachings of any church have to be tested against the words of God. Is the church under the authority of God’s words or not? 

The one true Church is and always will be in harmony with God’s inspired revelation, the Bible; yes. Thus, we reject any form of Protestantism, because they fail this test. It’s not a matter of one thing being “under” the other. All of that is the invention of the 16th century and the biblically bankrupt and meaningless notion of sola Scriptura. The Bible presents Scripture-Tradition-Church as a “three-legged stool”: the rule of faith. All are in harmony; all work together.  

And is any church and any teacher to be rejected who strays from God’s words, as Paul commands? That is the fundamental issue.

Sure; this is why we reject any form of Protestantism, because all fail the test of allegiance to God’s Word in Holy Scripture, and the historical pedigree that the fathers always taught was necessary. Every heretic in the history of the world thumbed their nose at the institutional Church and went by Scripture alone. It is the heretical worldview to do so, precisely because they know they can’t prove that their views were passed down through history in an unbroken succession.

Therefore, heresies and Protestantism either had to play games with history in order to pretend that it fits with their views, or ignore it altogether.

Dave, where does Paul say that he derived his apostleship in any way from Pete or the other apostles? 

I gave several passages showing that Paul was under Church authority, in various ways. Of course, all authority ultimately comes from God (Paul was called before he was born: Gal 1:15). It is the pitting of the ultimate source against the secondary, human source (the Church) which is the problem in your approach and that of Protestantism in general. You guys don’t like human, institutional authority and don’t have enough faith to believe that God can and does preserve it, so you try to undermine it by fallacious arguments, as presently.

No doubt you aren’t even aware that you are doing it. To do this is automatic in Protestantism; it’s like breathing. It’s like the fish that doesn’t know it’s in water. It all comes from the rejection of the infallibility of the Church (which is one thing that sola Scriptura always entails). 

Aren’t the whole first two chapters of Galatians a very exhaustive and emphatic statement by that he did not receive the gospel he preached “from any man, nor by the agency of men”? “Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Gal. 1:1) “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 1:11-12). How can it be “both” when Paul says “No, not from man or through man. Only from Jesus himself.”

Anyway, as I said, I’m more interested in those three questions, and I’m curious how you’d answer them.

In Galatians 1-2 Paul is referring to his initial conversion. But even then God made sure there was someone else around, to urge him to get baptized (Ananias: Acts 22:12-16). He received the revelation initially and then sought to have it confirmed by Church authority (Gal 2:1-2); then his authority was accepted or verified by James, Peter, and John (Gal 2:9). So we see that the Bible doesn’t pit the divine call directly from God, against Church authority, as you do. You do it because it is Protestant man-made tradition to do so; period, and because the Protestant has to always undermine the authority of the Church, and the Catholic Church, in order to bolster his own anti-system, that was set up against the historic Church in the first place.

We believe in faith that the Church is infallible and indefectible, based on many biblical indications. It is theoretically possible (speaking in terms of philosophy or epistemology) that the Church could stray and have to be rejected, but the Bible rules that out. We believe in faith that it has not and will not.

Protestants don’t have enough faith to believe that God could preserve an infallible Church, even though they can muster up even more faith than that, which is required to believe in an infallible Bible written by a bunch of sinners and hypocrites.

We simply have more faith than you guys do. It’s a supernatural gift. We believe that the authoritative Church is also a key part of God’s plan to save the souls of men. We follow the model of the Jerusalem Council, whereas you guys reject that or ignore it, because it doesn’t fit in with the man-made tradition of Protestantism and a supposedly non-infallible Church.

Dave, this is the key issue. I asked: “Is the church under the authority of God’s words or not?”

Your answer was: “yes.” But then just one sentence later, you wrote: “It’s not a matter of one thing being “under” the other.”

Exactly. You are not really saying “yes”. You are trying to say “both.” But that is not what Paul is saying in Gal. 1:8-9. He says that he -even as an apostle- is to be rejected if he strays from God’s word. If he strays from God’s words then he is “accursed” and he commands the Galatians to reject him. Why would he issue such a command unless his own authority -apostle though he was- is derivative from God’s words?

It’s “under” the authority of the Bible in the sense that it will not contradict what is in the Bible. It is not “under” it in terms of the authority of the Bible being intrinsically superior to the authority of the Church. The Bible presents both and never implies that one is “higher” than the other.

It’s a matter of definition and meaning. I know what you are driving at, because I used to believe the same thing myself. But I also have to show where your thinking is unbiblical, and must dispute the premises that underlie your questions. The whole thing is a far more complex matter than Protestants usually comprehend, because they have been taught only one way of looking at things: sola Scriptura and anti-institutionalism, and anti-Catholicism (either subtle or more pernicious opposition).

What is straying from God’s word is the very notion of denominationalism, which is always considered an outrage in the NT; the rejection of apostolic succession, and of, e.g., bishops (plainly present in the NT), or belief in a non-literal Eucharist, or a baptism that doesn’t regenerate, or sola Scriptura or faith alone (separation of justification and sanctification): all the host of unbiblical teachings that are in Protestantism. That’s why I left the system; wanting to follow biblical teachings more closely, traditional moral teachings, and the historic Christian Church. 

Dave, are you claiming that Paul’s statement in Gal. 1:8-9 is purely hypothetical? In other words, is he not actually telling the Galatians that they should test his words against the words of God because his words and the words of God will never conflict?

If so, you should consider that Paul writes “if we or an angel from heaven… If anyone is preaching a gospel other than what you accepted.” Note that Paul is putting himself in the same class as “an angel from heaven” or “anyone” in terms of his condemnation if he strays from God’s word. As Alan rightly noted, Galatians is written specifically to convince the Galatians to reject the false gospel of the judaizers which was under God’s curse. Paul is calling for a real rejection of real false teachers and then includes himself in the list. He says that all teachers and all people claiming authority are subject to God’s words. So the command here cannot possible be purely hypothetical. It is real and it is a command to all Christians.

Galatians 1:8-9 is very real; thus, we reject Protestantism where it departs from God’s word. The Bible teaches that the true Church is infallible and indefectible. That is a promise of God. One either accepts it in faith or not. That is the task: does one accept all of what the Bible teaches, or just selectively, with man-made traditions added to it?

There is such a thing as a false church and false gospel, that must be rejected, and there is also the one true Church that cannot fail doctrinally, based on God’s protection. You assert the first thing but reject the second, which is your difficulty (accepting one part of the Bible but not another). We accept both things and have no difficulty.

Incidentally, note the criterion that Paul gives the Galatians for determining false teachers. He does not say “If anyone comes to you and is not authorized by the other apostles” or “If anyone comes to you and is not under the auspices of the official Church”. He is very clear. He says “if anyone preaches a gospel to you other than the one that you accepted.” That is his criterion. And it is by this criterion that he appeal to the Galatians to reject the judaizers and even himself, if he strays from God’s words.

So what? It depends on what he is writing about at the time. In Acts 16:4 he appeals to an infallible Church council: telling his followers to obey it as he does himself. Again, you insist on pitting one thing against another (Paul’s authority vs. the Church’s): a thing that the Bible doesn’t do. In Gal 1:8-9 Paul tells the Galatians to reject any gospel that is different from what he presented to them. Duh! Of course he would say that! He preached the truth to them. In the same book he says how this gospel had been confirmed as true by the Church (Gal 1:18; 2:1-2, 9). No opposition. The Church is guided by God to preserve apostolic truth.

So you reject Protestantism because “it departs from God’s word.” But do you test Roman Catholic teaching by the same standard? No, because “The Bible teaches that the true Church is infallible and indefectible…there is also the one true Church that cannot fail doctrinally, based on God’s protection..” 

Yep; I’ve made a career out of it. It’s my specialty. I’ve always found Catholic teaching to be in complete harmony with the biblical revelation. 

So wait a minute, aren’t you just rejecting Protestantism because it is not Roman Catholicism?

I reject it for the reasons I gave: it fails the test of biblical teaching, the historic Church, and also of consistent logic.

Again, this goes directly back to ultimate authority. Are we really going to test all claims against Scripture. Or only the claims of non-Roman Catholics? And what does Paul say? Was he an apostle of the one true Church? And does he command the Galatians to reject his authority if he strays from God’s word despite the fact that he is an apostle of the true Church?

I’ve been playing your game all along. You want Scripture; I am giving it to you. Protestantism fails that test. I keep talking about the Jerusalem Council: a very “biblical” thing. You have consistently ignored it because it doesn’t fit in with your preconceived notions of authority, that come from man-made traditions. I have given you plenty of Scripture. All you can do is repeat Gal 1;8-9 over and over. After I answer that in ten different ways, it gets old when you repeat it for the eleventh time.

If you want to cry “Bible, Bible” then at least give us more of it than one passage! If all you can do is repeat your mantra, and you refuse to interact with opposing arguments, then the dialogue will soon be over.

Look at Galatians chapter 1.

Just as I said. I’m a prophet. I wrote: “All you can do is repeat Gal 1:8-9 over and over.” Eleven minutes later you did precisely that. I have provided maybe 25 Bible passages or more. You give one 25 times: Galatians 1. We answer 25 times, then you give the same passage again, as if repeating a falsehood (no infallible Church; St. Paul as a lone ranger) makes it more true. This is supposed to impress anyone who loves the Bible?  

It is God’s understand[ing] of the gospel that has authority and God’s words that have authority. That is the point that Paul is so clear to make in Gal. 1. The Galatians received the gospel through Paul’s preaching, but the message was from God. That is why Paul can say that even he or an angel from heaven is to be rejected if he preaches a different message. Because the different message would not be God’s message if you believe (as all of us do) that the message Paul preached to them originally was the true gospel. And that is why Paul states that his authority is derivative and is to be emphatically rejected if he strays from the gospel. He is saying “I entrusted you with the words God gave me. Now you have them. And now you are to reject anyone, even me, if they teach something different.” 

Why is this “news” to you, as if it were some big discovery? All this is saying is that the gospel is the gospel. A=a. Did you think anyone would think otherwise? So if even Paul came back and preached a false gospel (because we believe people can fall away from faith, based on the Bible, whereas Calvinists do not), then folks are to reject it and him.

We believe that the Church preserves this true gospel in perpetuity, because it is infallible and indefectible. Even disciples can fall away (Judas is described as “elect” yet fell away). But the one true Church cannot. False claimants of supposed “true Church” status can fall away if they are not the Church established by Jesus Christ, with St. Peter as the first pope.

‎Now the question is: what happens if a church turns around and starts preaching a gospel different than the one that was given by God? 

Then we reject it. But indefectibility prevents that from happening in the case of the one true Church, as I have now stated some 7-8 times or so. Maybe if I repeat things enough, like you do, they will eventually sink in, since what I say is true: directly based on Holy Scripture.

Does the Catholic church have the same derivative authority as Paul?

Yes, from God. It was started by our Lord, Jesus Christ (Matt 16:18-19).

Are they also to be held to the standard that Paul held out for his own authority? 

Yes. But this also requires accepting in faith what God says about the one Church, as recorded in inspired Scripture. If you don’t care about those passages, then you won’t have a scriptural conception of what the Church is.

Or do they have a greater authority than Paul did?

Yes; the Jerusalem Council was a greater authority than Paul since it sent him off (Acts 15:22-25), and he proclaimed “for observance” the “decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4). Thus the Council, representing the infallible and binding authority of the Church (binding and loosing), had greater authority than he did.

Calvinists have the bizarre position of holding that a person who was truly a follower of Jesus Christ couldn’t possibly fall away (perseverance of the saints; irresistible grace); therefore Paul couldn’t possibly do so, and all this is a moot point, from that perspective. Yet the Church that God set up could fall away from the true gospel. Classic individualist and unbiblical nonsense . . .

We believe that the Church preserves this true gospel in perpetuity, because it is infallible and indefectible.

Right. Again, this is the key issue. Paul commands the Galatians to test the message that he himself preaches against God’s words. He says: “Reject me if I deviate from it. My authority is contingent on preaching God’s words. I am under a curse if I stray from God’s words.” 

If you are a Calvinist, you believe it isn’t possible for Paul to do so; therefore, all this is much ado about nothing.

Does the Catholic church say the same thing? [Is] it also willing to command Christians to test their teaching against God’s words and to reject it if they stray from God’s words? Or is it infallible in a way that Paul the apostle was not?

Yes, it is. It is infallible and indefectible; therefore it is different in essence from one apostle. I’ve said this, now, maybe 15 times? Does it take 50 times to sink in for you? I can cut and paste it 50 times if you like. :-)

Paul says that it is quite possible and conceivable that he could fall away, and that his salvation wasn’t yet assured, but apostasy is never applied to the Christian Church:

1 Corinthians 9:27 but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Philippians 3:11-14 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own . . . I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Thus, you have it exactly backwards. You have to exalt the authority of the individual over the institution (being a Protestant), even though this is the exact opposite of what the Bible teaches.


(originally 10-24-11)

Photo credit: Saints Peter and Paul (c. 1620): anonymous (Roman school) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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