Debate: Early Catholic Authority & Development of Ecclesiology

Debate: Early Catholic Authority & Development of Ecclesiology December 10, 2022

Vs. Protestant Apologist Jason Engwer

Jason Engwer, who runs the Tribalblogue site, wrote a post entitled, “The Authority Debate Between Jimmy Akin And The Other Paul” (10-29-22). This is my reply. His words will be in blue.


Jimmy appealed to the paradigm of scripture, tradition, and magisterium that he claims we see during the time of the apostles. But he acknowledged that Divine revelation started orally during the Old Testament era, without scripture or a magisterium.

Indeed it did. Before there was a Bible, God communicated with Moses the oral law on Mt. Sinai. This is what Judaism believes, and Christians, to varying degrees, do also. See my paper, Biblical Evidence for the Oral Torah & Oral Apostolic Tradition (10-18-11). In it I provide nine biblical arguments for an oral law that was in place in Old Testament times. Jewish oral tradition was accepted by Jesus and the apostles:

1) Matthew 2:23: the reference to “. . . He shall be called a Nazarene ” cannot be found in the Old Testament, yet it was passed down “by the prophets.” Thus, a prophecy, which is considered to be “God’s Word” was passed down orally, rather than through Scripture.

2) Matthew 23:2-3: Jesus teaches that the scribes and Pharisees have a legitimate, binding authority, based on Moses’ seat, which phrase (or idea) cannot be found anywhere in the Old Testament. It is found in the (originally oral) Mishna, where a sort of “teaching succession” from Moses on down is taught. Thus, “apostolic succession,” whereby the Catholic Church, in its priests and bishops and popes, claims to be merely the custodian of an inherited apostolic tradition, is also prefigured by Jewish oral tradition, as approved (at least partially) by Jesus Himself.

See my huge interaction with Baptist anti-Catholic apologist James White on this topic: Refutation of James White: Moses’ Seat, the Bible, and Tradition (Introduction: #1) (+Part II Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI) [5-12-05]

3) In 1 Corinthians 10:4, St. Paul refers to a rock which “followed” the Jews through the Sinai wilderness. The Old Testament says nothing about such miraculous movement, in the related passages about Moses striking the rock to produce water (Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:2-13). Rabbinic tradition, however, does.

4) 1 Peter 3:19: St. Peter, in describing Christ’s journey to Sheol / Hades (“he went and preached to the spirits in prison . . . “), draws directly from the Jewish apocalyptic book 1 Enoch (12-16).

5) Jude 9: about a dispute between Michael the archangel and Satan over Moses’ body, cannot be paralleled in the Old Testament, and appears to be a recounting of an oral Jewish tradition.

6) Jude 14-15 directly quotes from 1 Enoch 1:9, even saying that Enoch “prophesied.”

7) 2 Timothy 3:8: Jannes and Jambres cannot be found in the related Old Testament passage (Exodus 7:8 ff.).

Furthermore, the forms those oral revelations took varied a lot, and we have no reason to think that everything God revealed during the Old Testament era was infallibly maintained throughout Old Testament history by some sort of equivalent of the Roman Catholic paradigm. To the contrary, revelation was sometimes lost or disregarded on a significant scale (e.g., 2 Kings 22:8-13Nehemiah 8:13-17).

Since this was before the Church Age, and the much greater gifts that God provided, full infallibility was likely not maintained in an unbroken fashion. God hadn’t promised that, as He did to Peter. But infallibility did exist in some times and in some persons, and many analogies existed, as I shall explore as we proceed. The prophets, for example, received their inspiration by the Holy Spirit (2 Chron. 24:20; Neh. 9:30; Zech. 7:12) and routinely purported to proclaim the very “word of the LORD”: a sort of “revelation on the spot”:

1 Samuel 15:10 (RSV) The word of the LORD came to Samuel:

2 Samuel 23:2 The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me, his word is upon my tongue. [King David]

1 Chronicles 17:3 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan,

Isaiah 38:4 Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah:

Jeremiah 26:15 . . . the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.

Ezekiel 33:1 The word of the LORD came to me: [“word of the LORD” appears 60 times in the Book of Ezekiel]

Haggai 1:13 Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke to the people with the LORD’s message, ‘I am with you, says the LORD.’

Priests in the Old Testament were also highly gifted by God:

Malachi 2:6-8 True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.

St. Francis de Sales, in his book, The Catholic Controversy, argued that even the old covenant institutional religious system possessed the characteristic of indefectibility (passages: RSV; all comments are his own, except for a few of my bracketed interjections):

2 Chronicles 15:3 For a long time Israel was without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law;

Elijah lamented that he was alone in Israel (1 Ki 19:14) [“I, even I only, am left”]. Answer: Elijah was not the only good man in Israel, for there were seven thousand men who had not given themselves up to idolatry [1 Ki 19:18: “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Ba’al”], and what the Prophet says here is only to express better the justice of his complaint. It is not true again that if all Israel had failed, the Church would have thereby ceased to exist, for Israel was not the whole Church. Indeed it was already separated therefrom by the schism of Jeroboam; and the kingdom of Judah was the better and principal part; and it is Israel, not Judah, of which Azarias predicted that it should be without priest and sacrifice. (p. 61)

Isaiah 1:4-6 Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged. [5] Why will you still be smitten, that you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. [6] From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, . . .

. . . these are forms of speaking, and of vehemently detesting the vice of a people. And although the Prophets, pastors and preachers use these general modes of expression, we are not to understand them of each particular person, but only of a large proportion; as appears by the example of Elijah who complained that he was alone, notwithstanding that there were yet seven thousand faithful. [1 Ki 19:14, 18] S. Paul complains to the Philippians (2:21) that all seek their own interest and advantage; still at the end of the Epistle he acknowledges that there were many good people with him and with them. [4:10, 14-18] (p. 61)

And to the extent that Jimmy had fallible oral communication in mind during the Old Testament era, a Protestant paradigm allows for that in the New Testament era as well.

Protestant authority is nothing if not fallible. And that is contrary to New Testament teaching: which constantly expresses the notion that God wants the Christian believer to have certainty of belief; not the relativism and denominational chaos that Protestantism invariably logically reduces to, and as it exists in practice.

There wasn’t a paradigm of scripture, tradition, and magisterium comparable to Roman Catholicism during at least most of the Biblical era.

I strongly disagree. There were strong analogies. The Jews had a very strong paradigm of authoritative interpretation: far closer to the Catholic rule of faith than to the Protestant late-arriving rule of faith (sola Scriptura). Protestants have, of course, teachers, commentators, and interpreters of the Bible (and excellent ones at that – often surpassing Catholics in many respects). They are, however, in the final analysis optional and non-binding when it comes down to the individual and his choice of what he chooses to believe. This is the Protestant notion of private judgment and the nearly absolute primacy of individual conscience (Luther’s “plowboy”). Luther’s own revolt against Catholic authority and (partially) against Catholic tradition presupposes this freedom of the individual Christian.

In Catholicism, on the other hand, there is a parameter where doctrinal speculation must end: the magisterium, dogmas, papal and conciliar pronouncements, catechisms — in a word (well, two words): Catholic tradition. Some things are considered to be settled issues. Others are still undergoing development. All binding dogmas are believed to be derived from Jesus and the apostles. Now, who did the Jews resemble more closely in this regard? Did they need authoritative interpretation of their Torah, and eventually, the Old Testament as a whole? The Old Testament itself has much to “tell” us:

1) Exodus 18:20: Moses (with his brother Aaron: Lev 10:11) was to teach the Jews the “statutes and the decisions” — not just read it to them. Since he was the Lawgiver and author of the Torah, it stands to reason that his interpretation and teaching would be of a highly authoritative nature.

2) Deuteronomy 17:8-13: The Levitical priests had binding authority in legal matters (derived from the Torah itself). They interpreted the biblical injunctions (17:11). The penalty for disobedience was death (17:12), since the offender didn’t obey “the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God.” Cf. Deuteronomy 19:16-17; 2 Chronicles 19:8-10.

3) Deuteronomy 33:10: Levite priests are to teach Israel the ordinances and law. (cf. 2 Chronicles 15:3; Malachi 2:6-8 — the latter calls them “messenger of the LORD of hosts”).

4) Ezra 7:6, 10: Ezra, a priest and scribe, studied the Jewish law and taught it to Israel, and his authority was binding, under pain of imprisonment, banishment, loss of goods, and even death (7:25-26).

5) Nehemiah 8:1-8: Ezra reads the law of Moses to the people in Jerusalem (8:3). In 8:7 we find thirteen Levites who assisted Ezra, and “who helped the people to understand the law.” Much earlier, in King Jehoshaphat’s reign, we find Levites exercising the same function (2 Chronicles 17:8-9). There is no sola Scriptura, with its associated idea “perspicuity” (evident clearness in the main) here. In Nehemiah 8:8: “. . . they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly [footnote, “or with interpretation”], and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” So the people did indeed understand the law (8:12), but not without much assistance — not merely upon hearing.

The Old Testament and Jewish history attest to a fact which Catholics constantly assert, over against sola Scriptura and Protestantism: that Holy Scripture requires an authoritative interpreter, a Church, and a binding tradition, as passed down from Jesus and the apostles.

Many people do not realize that Christianity mostly developed from the Pharisaical tradition of Judaism. It was really the only viable option in the Judaism of that era. Since Jesus often excoriated the Pharisees for hypocrisy and excessive legalism, some assume that He was condemning the whole ball of wax. But this is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Likewise, the Apostle Paul, when referring to his pharisaical background doesn’t condemn Pharisaism per se.

The Sadducees, on the other hand, were much more “heretical.” They rejected the future resurrection and the soul, the afterlife, rewards and retribution, demons and angels, and predestinarianism. Christian Pharisees are referred to in Acts 15:5 and Philippians 3:5, but never Christian Sadducees. The Sadducees’ following was found mainly in the upper classes, and was almost non-existent among the common people.

The Sadducees also rejected all “oral Torah,” — the traditional interpretation of the written that was of central importance in rabbinic Judaism. So we can summarize as follows:

1) The Sadducees were obviously the elitist “liberals” and “heterodox” amongst the Jews of their time.

2) But the Sadducees were also the sola Scripturists of their time.

3) Christianity adopted wholesale the very “postbiblical” doctrines which the Sadducees rejected and which the Pharisees accepted: resurrection, belief in angels and spirits, the soul, the afterlife, eternal reward or damnation, and the belief in angels and demons.

4) But these doctrines were notable for their marked development after the biblical Old Testament canon was complete, especially in Jewish apocalyptic literature, part of Jewish codified oral tradition.

5) We’ve seen how — if a choice is to be made — both Jesus and Paul were squarely in the “Pharisaical camp,” over against the Sadducees. We also saw above how Jesus and the New Testament writers cite approvingly many tenets of Jewish oral (later talmudic and rabbinic) tradition, according to the Pharisaic outlook.

Ergo) The above facts constitute one more “nail in the coffin” of the theory that either the Old Testament Jews or the early Church were guided by the principle of sola Scriptura. The only party that believed thusly were the Sadducees, who were heterodox according to traditional Judaism, despised by the common people, and restricted to the privileged classes only. The Pharisees (despite their corruptions and excesses) were the mainstream, and the early Church adopted their outlook with regard to eschatology, anthropology, and angelology, and the necessity and benefit of binding oral tradition and ongoing ecclesiastical authority for the purpose (especially) of interpreting Holy Scripture.

Therefore, based on the many reasons just presented, Jason’s claim:There wasn’t a paradigm of scripture, tradition, and magisterium comparable to Roman Catholicism during at least most of the Biblical era” is false.

Even during the time of the apostles, was there an infallible magisterium in any relevant way? Jimmy’s appeal to the inclusion of the elders in Acts 15:23 is insufficient. 

I’ve addressed the question of the magisterial authority of the Jerusalem Council many times. It’s one of my favorite topics. What we know about it proves in several ways, I believe, that a self-perceived infallible authority (in this instance, conciliar in nature) existed in the early Church:

Apostolic Succession as Seen in the Jerusalem Council [National Catholic Register, 1-15-17]
Were the Jerusalem Council Decrees Universally Binding? [National Catholic Register, 12-4-19]
First Clement is written in the name of the church of Rome. It doesn’t follow that everybody in the Roman church at the time, both leaders and laymen, had equal authority.
I agree! Clement was a pope. He wrote the letter (dated c. 96 AD). And in it he stated:

If, however, any shall disobey the words spoken by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and serious danger … (59)

Joy and gladness will you afford us, if you become obedient to the words written by us and through the Holy Spirit root out the lawless wrath of your jealousy according to the intercession which we have made for peace and unity in this letter. (63)

Jason loves to ask provocative questions. I have a few of my own for him (but alas, he has refused to reply to me for some ten years now; he used to, quite a bit):

Catholics would respectfully ask Protestants or Orthodox: Why is it that Clement is speaking with authority from Rome, settling the disputes of other regions? Why don’t the Corinthians solve it themselves, if they have a proclaimed bishop or even if they didn’t claim one at the time? Why do they appeal to the bishop of Rome? These are questions that I think need to be seriously considered.

Clement definitely asserts his authority over the Corinthian church far away. Again, the question is: Why? What sense does that make in a Protestant-type ecclesiology where every region is autonomous and there is supposedly no hierarchical authority in the Christian Church? Why must they “obey” the bishop from another region? Not only does Clement assert strong authority — he also claims that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are speaking “through” him.

That is extraordinary, and very similar to what we see in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:28 (“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things”) and in Scripture itself. It’s not strictly inspiration but it is sure something akin to infallibility (divine protection from error and the pope as a unique representative of God).

Why do the Christians atCorinth have to obey Romein the first place? Who determined that set-up? Why does it evencross their minds to write to a local church far away to settle their problems, and why does Clement assume that they should obey him, and that it would be “transgression and serious danger” if they don’t?

Similarly, Acts 15:23 could cite the elders who were present without their having the attributes Jimmy assigns to them. We know from other evidence, such as what’s discussed here, that the apostles had more authority than non-apostolic elders. The Jerusalem elders mentioned in Acts 15:23 were respected leaders who were worth citing (after the apostles) in that context, but it doesn’t follow that they had the role Jimmy assigns to them. Verse 22, like First Clement, even refers to “the whole church”, but we don’t conclude that the laymen, deacons, etc. involved were acting as an infallible magisterium.

Of course, overall, apostles had more authority than elders as a general matter, yet in this council, they acted in concert. This has tremendous implications, as I have written about in one of my articles on that council:

The Jerusalem council presents “apostles” and “elders” in conjunction six times [Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4]. What is striking is that the two offices in the Jerusalem council are presented as if there is little or no distinction between them, at least in terms of their practical authority. It’s not an airtight argument, I concede. We could, for example, say that “bishops and the pope gathered together at the Second Vatican Council.” We know that the pope had a higher authority. It may be that apostles here had greater authority.

But we don’t know that with certainty, from Bible passages that mention them. They seem to be presented as having in effect, “one man one vote.” They “consider” the issue “together” (15:6). It’s the same for the “decisions which had been reached” (16:4).

Therefore, if such a momentous, binding decision was arrived at by apostles and elders, it sure seems to suggest what Catholics believe: that bishops are successors of the apostles. We already see the two offices working together in Jerusalem and making a joint decision. It’s a concrete example of precisely what the Catholic Church claims about apostolic succession and the sublime authority conveyed therein. There are three additional sub-arguments that I submit for consideration:

1) The council, by joint authority of apostles and elders, sent off Judas and Silas as its messengers, even though they “were themselves prophets” (15:32).  Prophets were the highest authorities in the old covenant (with direct messages from God), and here mere “elders” are commissioning them.

2) St. Paul himself is duty-bound to the council’s decree (16:4), which was decided in part by mere elders. So this implies apostolic succession (and conciliarism), if elders can participate in such high authority that even apostles must obey it.

3) Paul previously “had no small dissension and debate” with the  circumcision party (15:1-2), but was unable to resolve the conflict by his own profound apostolic authority. Instead, he had to go to the council, where apostles and elders decided the question. All he is reported as doing there is reporting about “signs and wonders” in his ministry (15:12). He’s not the leader or even a key figure. This is not what the Protestant “Paulinist” view would have predicted.

Appeals to other passages, like 1 Timothy 3:15, are likewise insufficient for reasons Protestants have discussed many times.

I’m sure they have, but they (including Jason himself) haven’t interacted with my particular argument from that passage (see especially the first article):

1 Timothy 3:15 = Church Infallibility (vs. Steve Hays) [5-14-20]
[S]omebody like Irenaeus could have good reason to reject sola scriptura (e.g., reliable information about extrabiblical apostolic teaching from Polycarp), but it wouldn’t follow that Irenaeus’ position is equivalent to Roman Catholicism’s (it’s not) . . . 
St. Irenaeus’ position sure was a lot closer to the present — and historic — Catholic position than any sort of Protestantism, as I massively documented way back in 2003, in a big debate with Jason himself on the CARM discussion board (one which he departed long before he should have):
See also:
Chrysostom & Irenaeus: Sola Scripturists? (vs. David T. King) [4-20-07]
When Paul and Peter are anticipating their death in 2 Timothy and 2 Peter, for example, they presumably don’t know whether every other apostle will also be dead soon. So, how Paul and Peter prepare their audiences for their (Paul and Peter’s) death isn’t equivalent to preparing them for the post-apostolic age. But it does have some relevance. For one thing, Peter was a Pope under a Roman Catholic scenario, so any apostle who was still alive after Peter’s death would have a lesser authority than Peter and his successors. And even though Paul and Peter knew that one or more of the other apostles could outlive them, their own deaths would have underscored the potential for the other apostles to die and the need for preparing for that scenario. Yet, they show no awareness of anything like a papacy or infallible magisterium. The pattern in these passages of referring to sources like past apostolic teaching and scripture without referring to anything like a papacy or infallible magisterium makes more sense under a Protestant paradigm.
I have many arguments about this: most over against Jason himself:
In addition to the three portions of the New Testament I discuss there (Acts 20, 2 Timothy, 2 Peter), think of the writings of John. He probably wrote in his elderly years, and, like Paul and Peter, he keeps calling on his audience to remember things like apostolic teaching and scripture, but shows no awareness of anything like a papacy or infallible magisterium.
There is a lot of indication of it, as I have been showing, but it developed slowly. What we do know is right in line with what we would expect to see in these early years (from the perspective of development of doctrine). St. John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote about this:
From: Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1878 edition, University of Notre Dame Press, 1989, pp. 148-155; Part 1, Chapter 4, Section 3:
Let us see how, on the principles which I have been laying down and defending, the evidence lies for the Pope’s supremacy.
As to this doctrine the question is this, whether there was not from the first a certain element at work, or in existence, divinely sanctioned, which, for certain reasons, did not at once show itself upon the surface of ecclesiastical affairs, and of which events in the fourth century are the development; and whether the evidence of its existence and operation, which does occur in the earlier centuries, be it much or little, is not just such as ought to occur upon such an hypothesis.
. . . While Apostles were on earth, there was the display neither of Bishop nor Pope; their power had no prominence, as being exercised by Apostles. In course of time, first the power of the Bishop displayed itself, and then the power of the Pope . . .
. . . St. Peter’s prerogative would remain a mere letter, till the complication of ecclesiastical matters became the cause of ascertaining it. While Christians were “of one heart and soul,” it would be suspended; love dispenses with laws . . .
When the Church, then, was thrown upon her own resources, first local disturbances gave exercise to Bishops, and next ecumenical disturbances gave exercise to Popes; and whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated . . .
Moreover, an international bond and a common authority could not be consolidated, were it ever so certainly provided, while persecutions lasted. If the Imperial Power checked the development of Councils, it availed also for keeping back the power of the Papacy. The Creed, the Canon, in like manner, both remained undefined. The Creed, the Canon, the Papacy, Ecumenical Councils, all began to form, as soon as the Empire relaxed its tyrannous oppression of the Church. And as it was natural that her monarchical power should display itself when the Empire became Christian, so was it natural also that further developments of that power should take place when that Empire fell. Moreover, when the power of the Holy See began to exert itself, disturbance and collision would be the necessary consequence . . . as St. Paul had to plead, nay, to strive for his apostolic authority, and enjoined St. Timothy, as Bishop of Ephesus, to let no man despise him: so Popes too have not therefore been ambitious because they did not establish their authority without a struggle. It was natural that Polycrates should oppose St. Victor; and natural too that St. Cyprian should both extol the See of St. Peter, yet resist it when he thought it went beyond its province . . .
On the whole, supposing the power to be divinely bestowed, yet in the first instance more or less dormant, a history could not be traced out more probable, more suitable to that hypothesis, than the actual course of the controversy which took place age after age upon the Papal supremacy.
It will be said that all this is a theory. Certainly it is: it is a theory to account for facts as they lie in the history, to account for so much being told us about the Papal authority in early times, and not more; a theory to reconcile what is and what is not recorded about it; and, which is the principal point, a theory to connect the words and acts of the Ante-nicene Church with that antecedent probability of a monarchical principle in the Divine Scheme, and that actual exemplification of it in the fourth century, which forms their presumptive interpretation. All depends on the strength of that presumption. Supposing there be otherwise good reason for saying that the Papal Supremacy is part of Christianity, there is nothing in the early history of the Church to contradict it . . .
Moreover, all this must be viewed in the light of the general probability, so much insisted on above, that doctrine cannot but develop as time proceeds and need arises, and that its developments are parts of the Divine system, and that therefore it is lawful, or rather necessary, to interpret the words and deeds of the earlier Church by the determinate teaching of the later.

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Photo credit: St. Peter as Pope (1610-1612), by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Summary: I address Jason Engwer’s all-out assault on many levels against early Catholic authority and ecclesiology, utilizing a great many scriptural and historical arguments.

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