Considering the “What” & the “Who” of Ecclesial Authority

May 1991By Richard J. Mouw

Richard J. Mouw, a member of the Christian Reformed Church, is Provost and Professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California He is Co-Chair, with Msgr. Royale Vadakin, of the Los Angeles Area Roman Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue His latest book is The God Who Commands.

Peter and Paul in the Church of Rome: The Ecumenical Potential of a Forgotten Perspective.  By William R. Farmer and Roch Kereszty. Paulist. 188 pages. $11.95.



Recently I have been listening with some ambivalence to the complaints of my Roman Catholic friends about the heavy-handedness of the recent instruction delivered by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. I have much sympathy for my friends’ concern for the freedom of theologians to pursue their scholarly task. But as an evangelical Protestant, I have also found myself occasionally envying the Catholic Church’s ability to set some authoritative limits on what gets taught and practiced in the name of Christianity. Sometimes I even wish that our American television preachers had a Cardinal Ratzinger to contend with!

This is a good time for all of us to be thinking about what the real issues are in our continuing disagreements regarding the nature of ecclesial authority. This book, jointly authored by a Roman Catholic and a Protestant scholar, can serve as a helpful stimulus to that discussion. It treats the topic of papal authority in a refreshing manner by insisting that it be looked at in a larger context than is often recognized by either its defenders or critics.

Most Protestant-Catholic dialogue on papal authority has focused on the interpretation of the Matthew 16 passage in which Jesus gives Peter “the keys of the kingdom.” Farmer and Kereszty insist that the question of Petrine authority cannot be considered apart from Peter’s relationship to Paul and their common link to the city of Rome. The church at Rome takes on a special leadership position in the larger Christian community, they argue, because that church was established by “the unified apostolic witness of the two most glorious apostles,” Peter and Paul, who sealed their joint ministry with the blood of their Roman martyrdom.

As is appropriate for an ecumenical discussion of this topic, the book does not present a completely unified perspective. While the first and final chapters are jointly authored, each writer has also contributed two chapters: Fr. Kereszty, a Cistercian monk, treats topics in the history of the church, and biblical scholar Farmer offers a New Testament study and a response to one of Kereszty’s chapters. An eight-page Epilogue by the late Albert Outler is also included.

There is much fascinating material here. For example, Farmer makes the dynamics of the New Testament’s references to Paul’s relationship with Peter come alive, and Kereszty carefully probes intriguing questions in his study of the views of Irenaeus and Tertullian on apostolic authority. Furthermore, these discussions complement each other nicely. This book provides an excellent model of how Protestant and Catholic thinkers can struggle together on troublesome topics of longstanding disagreement.

In the final analysis there is still a core of unsolved issues. Farmer concedes Peter’s unique role within the apostolic community; he even allows for a special leadership position that the congregation at Rome has rightly occupied, by God’s providence, in the history of the church. But he still balks at the point of acknowledging the legitimacy of Petrine succession as a relevant criterion for deciding issues of ecclesial authority. The statement of residual differences is not allowed to stand, however, as the final word. The authors conclude with a list of “proposed considerations” for both Protestants and Roman Catholics to continue to reflect upon.

I certainly came away with much to ponder. For example, Farmer notes that we Protestants have given little attention to “the cult of the apostles.” This is a provocative observation. The fact that Protestants have tended to place more emphasis on the teachings of the apostles than on their persons has important implications for the topic of ecclesial authority. For one thing, it means that we Protestants will insist on deciding doctrinal legitimacy not on the basis of who teaches but on what is taught. Thus the fact that something is declared by Peter’s successor in Peter’s city is not nearly as important as whether the declaration conforms to Peter’s published writings.

This Protestant preference for “what” over “who” reinforced my inability to identify with the curious emphasis on martyrdom in some of the authors Kereszty appeals to. He finds in Irenaeus, for example, the insistence that “martyrdom provides the highest credential for the teacher; it reveals that his teaching was inspired by the Holy Spirit.” But isn’t this an idiosyncratic version of the Catholic side of the discussion?

My mind immediately turned to the death of the Mormon “prophet” Joseph Smith: Does his martyr’s blood add any weight at all to his testimony regarding a “restored Gospel”? Mustn’t we establish a prior question regarding the truth of someone’s teachings before we view that person’s martyrdom as a pedagogical “credential”? Or am I missing something important about the link between martyrdom and authority that appears in the line of argument Kereszty presents?

In his Epilogue, Outler, a Protestant, describes this work as a “remarkable little book” and a “very gratifying contribution.” Outler is not exaggerating. All things considered, this fine discussion points to new convergences on one of the thorniest issues faced in the ongoing Protestant-Catholic dialogue.



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