The Rule of Faith

What is meant by the rule of faith?

The word “faith” here means the truths of the Christian faith, not the faith that we exercise when we put our trust in Jesus.  The word “rule” here means the measure or the standard which we use to judge things true or false.  The by “rule of faith” we are referring to that standard by which we judge different teachings to be true or false.


Why is this question so important?

Because it is a question of authority.  If we don’t agree first on what we are going to use as our final authority in all discussions of religion, there is no point in beginning the discussion.


What are the major disagreements on this point between Christians?

The disagreement is between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  Both agree that the Bible is the rule of faith, but Roman Catholics hold that the traditions of the church are also to be included alongside the Bible as the rule of faith.


What do you mean by tradition?

This has been defined in different ways.  Traditional Roman Catholicism has said that some of the apostle’s teaching was written down and some was not written down.  The unwritten traditions have been handed down through the ages from person to person and are defined and protected by the church’s magisterium.  The written teachings are contained in the Bible.  Consider the teaching of the Council of Trent;

This [Gospel], of old promised through the Prophets in the Holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, promulgated first with His own mouth, and then commanded it to be preached by His Apostles to every creature as the source at once of all saving truth and rules of conduct.  It also clearly perceives that these truths and rules are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Spirit dictating, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.

Also the Catechism of Pius X:

Q34: What is meant by tradition?

A: Tradition is the non-written word of God, which has been transmitted by word of mouth by Jesus Christ and by the apostles, and which has come down to us through the centuries by the means of the Church, without being altered.

Q35: Where are the teachings of tradition kept?

A: The teachings of Tradition are kept chiefly in the Councils’ decrees, the writings of the Holy Fathers, the Acts of the Holy See and the words and practices of the sacred Liturgy.

Q36: What importance must we attach to tradition?

A: We must attach to Tradition the same importance as the revealed word of God which Holy Scripture contains.

Then the Douay Catechism of 1649, by Henry Tuberville:

Q. What is the rule by which the church preserves entire the deposit of Faith and confounds all sectaries?

A. Apostolical traditions, or receipt of doctrine by hand to hand from Christ and his apostles.

and finally Bellarmine (as quoted in Schaff ) divided tradition into three classes:

    1. Traditions given by Christ to the Apostles and not recorded in the Gospels;
    2. traditions originating with the Apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and not found in the Epistles;
    3. church usages which have come to be regarded as law in the Roman church.


What then is the Roman Catholic doctrine on this point?

They hold to the following three propositions:

  1. Jesus and His apostles taught many things which were never written down.
  2. These doctrines have been faithfully preserved by the Roman Catholic church.
  3. These doctrines remain authoritative and binding on all Christians.


How is it possible that the Roman Catholic church, over a period of 1900 years, has faithfully preserved the unwritten part of the apostolic tradition?

They believe that God supernaturally protects their teaching magisterium from ever losing or corrupting any of these traditions.


What is the Protestant doctrine of tradition?

Protestants agree that Jesus and His apostles taught many things which were never written down.  They affirm, however, that those teachings which God intended to bind on His church were preserved to us in written form, and it is to these written records that we are to submit.


Is this what Protestants mean by sola scriptura?

Yes, sola scriptura is Latin for Scripture alone by which Protestants affirm that the only record we have of God’s revelation to us is that which is preserved for us in the Scripture.  Therefore, these writings alone are our final authority in all matters of faith and practice.


What misunderstanding has often arise around this idea?

Some Protestants have become too dismissive of the tradition of Biblical interpretation and have tried to interpret the Bible by themselves without consulting the wisdom of past interpreters.  Charles Hodge writes:

Christians do not stand isolated, each holding his own creed.  They constitute one body, having one common creed.  Rejecting that creed, or any of its parts, is the rejection of the fellowship of Christians, incompatible with the communion of saints, or membership in the body of Christ.  In other words, Protestants admit that there is a common faith of the Church, which no man is at liberty to reject, and which no man can reject and be a Christian.

Some Christians have named this view nuda scriptura by which they mean the practice of one man interpreting Scripture for himself without the help and assistance of those who have gone before him.


What is wrong with this idea?

The problem with this idea is clearly that the Holy Spirit has been promised to the entire church. (John 6:45; 16:13)  That means that other Christians have also been taught by the Spirit of God to understand Scripture, and we do well to learn from these.  This is why Protestants with Roman Catholics view the tradition of biblical interpretation and theology with great respect.


What then are the leading differences between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants on this point?

  1. The Roman Catholics understand tradition to be the tradition of their teaching magisterium, not the consensus of all Christians everywhere.
  2. The Roman Catholics teach that equal respect is to be given both to tradition and Scripture.  Protestants insist that great respect is to be given to tradition but only Scripture is to be regarded as the infallible word of God.


Do the Roman Catholics find any support in Scripture for their teaching on this point?

Yes, they will point to Jesus’ words:

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.  But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on His own; He will speak only what He hears, and He will tell you what is yet to come.  He will bring glory to Me by taking from what is Mine and making it known to you.  All that belongs to the Father is Mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is Mine and make it known to you. (John 16:12)

This text teaches that the disciples were not yet ready to receive all the truth that Jesus wanted to teach them.  Later, however, the Holy Spirit would come and teach them all these things.


What is wrong with Roman Catholic understanding of this text?

They believe that in order for Jesus’ promise given in this passage to be realized in the church, there must be an infallible teaching magisterium to protect the body of truth which the Spirit will bring, but the text says nothing about this.


What other texts do Roman Catholics bring in support of their doctrine on this point?

Sometimes, they reference Paul’s comment in his second letter to Thessalonica:

But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.  It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.  So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word [of mouth] or by letter from us. (2 Thessalonians 2:13-15)

One Roman Catholic author writes:

The Bible actually denies that it is the complete rule of faith.  John tells us that not everything concerning Christ’s work is in Scripture (John 21:25), and Paul says that much Christian teaching is to be found in the tradition that is handed down by word of mouth (2 Timothy 2:2). He instructs us to “stand fast, and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). We are told that the first Christians “were persevering in the doctrine of the apostles” (Acts 2:42), which was the oral teaching that was given long before the New Testament was written and centuries before the canon of the New Testament was settled. This oral teaching must be accepted by Christians as they accepted the written teaching that at length came to them. “He who listens to you, listens to me; he who despises you, despises me” (Luke 10:16). The Church, in the persons of the apostles, was given the authority to teach by Christ; the Church would be his stand in. “Go, therefore, making disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).  How was this to be done? By preaching, by oral instruction: “See how faith comes from hearing, and hearing through Christ’s word” (Romans 10:17). The Church would always be available as the living teacher. It is a mistake to limit Christ’s word to the written word only or to suggest that all his teachings were reduced to writing. The Bible nowhere supports either notion. Keating, Catholicism, p136.


What is wrong with the Roman Catholic understanding of this text?

The texts which this author brings forward certainly prove that Paul and the other apostles did teach both by the written word and by unwritten sayings.  None of these texts, however, teach that these teachings are preserved in some institution or by some church.  Previously, we stated the Roman Catholic doctrine this way:

  1. Jesus and His apostles taught many things which were never written down.
  2. These doctrines have been faithfully preserved by the Roman Catholic church.
  3. These doctrines remain authoritative and binding on all Christians.

The texts given above certainly establish the first premise. If the second premise were true, then Protestants would also grant the third, but Protestants do not accept the second premise; and therefore, reject the third as well.


How do Roman Catholics defend the second premise?

They point to the words of Peter:

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.  For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.  For, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:22)


How does this text show that the Roman Catholic church has faithfully preserved all the unwritten traditions from Jesus and the apostles?

RCs understand this text to teach that the unwritten part of the apostolic tradition will last until the end of time. That this text refers to the unwritten part of apostolic tradition is clear because the text says this is the word that was preached [not written] to you.


How should we understand this text?

This text certainly does teach that God’s word will stand forever.  It does not say in what form it will endure.  In the apostles’ time, much of it was unwritten.  The very reason for writing it down was to preserve it uncorrupted.  Now, the written word of God is the infallible judge of what the apostles really taught both verbally and in writing.


Doesn’t Paul hand down a tradition in Acts 20:35 that is not contained in the gospels?

Indeed, he does.  Paul quotes Jesus as saying “It is more blessed to give than to receive” which is a word from Jesus not recorded in any of the gospels.  This shows how the early Christians kept many of Jesus’ teachings in their memories and never committed them to writing.


Are there other arguments which Roman Catholics make against the Protestant position?

Consider Q562 in the Baltimore catechism:

Q562: How do we show that the Holy Scriptures alone could not be our guide to salvation and infallible rule of faith?

Answer: We show that the Holy Scripture alone could not be our guide to salvation and infallible rule of faith:

    1. Because all men cannot examine or understand the Holy Scripture; but all can listen to the teaching of the Church;
    2. Because the NT or Christian part of the Scripture was not written at the beginning of the Church’s existence, and, therefore, could not have been used as the rule of faith by the first Christians;
    3. Because there are many things in the Holy Scripture that cannot be understood without the explanation given by tradition, and hence those who take the Scripture alone for their rule of faith are constantly disputing about its meaning and what they are to believe.


What of this first argument?  Certainly, it cannot be denied that the Bible is a difficult book to understand.

While it is true that much of the Bible is difficult to understand, it is just as true that some of it is easy to understand; e.g. the Old Testament histories, the good news about Jesus, etc. What Protestants mean by the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture is that there is a message in the Bible which anyone can understand simply by reading it.  They certainly don’t mean to affirm that all of the Bible is easy to understand.


But doesn’t the Bible have to be translated?  Doesn’t the difficulty start there?

Yes, it certainly does.  When the Bible was first given, no translation was necessary.  Since then, the Bible does need to be translated to be understood.


So are you saying that the more difficult parts of Scripture are unimportant and believers can safely ignore them?

Certainly not. In these parts of Scripture, believers should be guided by the teaching of their churches and other competent Bible interpreters.


So you admit then that some kind of teacher is needed if the laity are going to rightly understand the Bible?

Not necessarily.  As stated above, there is a message in Scripture which anyone can understand who reads it.  For the more difficult parts, a teacher is needed, and the history of the Christian church provides us with vast and rich resources to do just this.


What has been one negative result of the Roman Catholic church’s teaching on this subject?

The reading and study of the Bible is neglected by the laity since they are taught that the reading of the Bible is not necessary and could even be harmful.  Consider Q561 of The Baltimore Catechism:

Question: Must we ourselves seek in the Scriptures and traditions for what we are to believe?

Answer: We ourselves need not seek in the Scriptures and traditions for what we are to believe. God has appointed the Church to be our guide to salvation and we must accept its teaching as our infallible rule of faith.  [note: The Catechism of Pius X has a similar Q&A but adds “…however its reading is very useful and recommended to all.”]

Now if children are being taught this, no wonder the Bible is neglected!  In addition to this, the Index of Forbidden Books, issued by Pope Pius IV in 1559 teaches:

Since experience teaches that, if the reading of the Holy Bible in the vernacular is permitted generally without discrimination, more damage than advantage will result because of the boldness of men, the judgment of the bishops and inquisitors is to serve as guide in this regard. Bishops and inquisitors may, in accord with the counsel of the local priest and confessor, allow Catholic translations of the Bible to be read by those of whom they realize that such reading will not lead to the detriment but to the increase of faith and piety. The permission is to be given in writing. Whoever reads or has such a translation in his possession without this permission cannot be absolved from his sins until he has turned in these Bibles. (Cited in Cambridge Medieval History, section written by W. H. Hutton, edited by H. M. Gwatkin and J. P. Whitney, (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1967) 11:247.)


How would Protestants answer the second objection made in the Baltimore catechism above?

The catechism teaches:

Q562: How do we show that the Holy Scriptures alone could not be our guide to salvation and infallible rule of faith?

Answer: We show that the Holy Scripture alone could not be our guide to salvation and infallible rule of faith:

    1. Because all men cannot examine or understand the Holy Scripture; but all can listen to the teaching of the Church;
    2. Because the New Testament or Christian part of the Scripture was not written at the beginning of the Church’s existence, and, therefore, could not have been used as the rule of faith by the first Christians;
    3. Because there are many things in the Holy Scripture that cannot be understood without the explanation given by tradition, and hence those who take the Scripture alone for their rule of faith are constantly disputing about its meaning and what they are to believe.


In light of objection #2, is it not true, that in the history of the Christianity, the vast majority of Christians have never owned a Bible?

This is certainly true.  The Bible, in book form, didn’t even exist in the first centuries, and it wasn’t until Gutenberg (1498ad) invented the printing press that Bibles were mass produced. In addition to this, translations of Scripture into the common languages weren’t completed until after the Reformation.  Finally, I grant that even now, the vast majority of Christians, Roman Catholic and Protestant, come to their understanding of Scripture through the church [i.e. tradition] and not through direct Bible study.


So what of this objection then?

The argument is based on the assumption that only a written document can serve as a rule of faith.  This is certainly false.  Church historians tell us that in the first century most of the apostolic tradition did not yet exist in written form; but for all that, it was still considered to be the infallible rule of faith.


But it still seems odd that God would make the Bible our exclusive authority while also knowing that the majority of Christians would never have access to one.

First, many of the ways of God are mysterious to us.  For all that, these things are still revealed to us and are therefore true.

Second, we can grant that very few Christians in the history of the church ever had access to a printed Bible, but all Christians had access to the teaching of Scripture in some form.  All that is necessary for sola scriptura, is that the teachings of Scripture be accessible in some way.  For most people, both then and now, biblical teaching flows down through the teaching of their families and churches (and thus through tradition).


What about the last argument?

Q562: How do we show that the Holy Scriptures alone could not be our guide to salvation and infallible rule of faith?

Answer: We show that the Holy Scripture alone could not be our guide to salvation and infallible rule of faith:

    1. Because all men cannot examine or understand the Holy Scripture; but all can listen to the teaching of the Church;
    2. Because the New Testament or Christian part of the Scripture was not written at the beginning of the Church’s existence, and, therefore, could not have been used as the rule of faith by the first Christians;
    3. Because there are many things in the Holy Scripture that cannot be understood without the explanation given by tradition, and hence those who take the Scripture alone for their rule of faith are constantly disputing about its meaning and what they are to believe.

This argument is based on the Roman Catholic idea of unity which assumes the real, Biblical unity is impossible unless there is one organization.


Do you not mean something different here by “tradition” than what Roman Catholics mean?

True, by tradition here I mean to refer to all biblical scholarship, theologians, and philosophers, pagan and Christian, ancient and contemporary; in a word, the entire history of Bible interpretation.  The Roman Catholics understand tradition to be their church’s magesterium.  Such a narrow definition is unreasonable and violates the Vincentian canon.  Vincent of Lerins prescribed what has been believed in all times, everywhere, by all as the true meaning of tradition.  Certainly the Roman Catholic magisterium is but a small part of Christian interpretation of the Bible.


Is not some human authority necessary to resolve disputes amongst Christians on how to interpret the Bible?

Whether it is necessary or not depends on what the Scripture teaches, and the Bible does not define for us who this authority must be.


Is there no need for authority in the Christian church then?

There is a need for authority in the church because the Bible clearly teaches us about the offices which are in the church.  The elders especially have the mandate to protect the sound interpretation of Scripture.  Both Protestants and Roman Catholics agree that the Bible is God’s infallible revelation to mankind.  The question is, who or what governs the interpretation of this text?  Thousands of sects and Christian denominations claim to know what the Bible teaches, and they often contradict each other.  Who determines which is correct and which isn’t?  This is the question. Cardinal Newman writes (§15):

Surely then, if the revelations and lessons in Scripture are addressed to us personally and practically, the presence among us of a formal judge and standing expositor of its words is imperative. It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so unsystematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times, and places, should be given us from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself. Its inspiration does but guarantee its truth, not its interpretation. How are private readers satisfactorily to distinguish what is didactic and what is historical, what is fact and what is vision, what is allegorical and what is literal, what is idiomatic and what is grammatical, what is enunciated formally and what occurs “obiter”, what is only of temporary and what is of lasting obligation?


How do the various bodies of Christians resolve this question?

Protestants teach that while the Bible is the supreme authority (prima scriptura), tradition is needed to help believers understand it properly.  This tradition is not, however, infallible.  Only the Bible is infallible.  Our interpretations of Scripture will always be fallible even though they might be highly authoritative.  Roman Catholics teach that their magisterium ultimately determines the proper interpretation of Scripture and, under certain circumstances, this decision is infallible.


So the difference appears to be regarding infallibility then?

Yes, that is correct.


Why do Roman Catholics insist that their magisterium be infallible?

Because this is the only effective way to achieve unity in the church.  If someone refuses to agree with the pope (the head of the magisterium who possesses, on certain occasions, the charism of infallibility), they are, in essence, refusing to agree with God Himself.


What do you mean by charism?

Roman Catholics mean by charisms what Protestants mean by spiritual gifts.


Don’t creeds and confessions function as a kind of magisterium in Protestant churches?

They do.  Baptist and Independent churches have doctrinal statements; Presbyterian churches have the Westminster Standards; the continental Reformed churches have the three forms of unity.  All persons who won’t sign these statements are refused membership in their respective churches.


Sounds like both Roman Catholics and Protestants have their magisteriums; what is the difference?

The difference is that Baptists, Presbyterians, and Reformed churches do not regard their magisterium as infallible.


Why do Roman Catholics believe that a magisterium has to be infallible in order for it to be effective?

They think that it is useless to have an infallible document (the Bible) without an infallible interpreter.  If we once grant a fallible interpreter, then it makes no difference whether the standard be infallible or not.  A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.


But even with an infallible interpreter, is there not eventually going to be a fallible interpretation?

Yes, Roman Catholics have simply moved the weakest link down a step. The Protestant has a fallible interpretation of an infallible document. The Roman Catholic has a fallible interpretation of an infallible interpretation of an infallible document.  The result is the same as can be seen in the vast variety of differing theologies in the Roman church.  Plantinga writes:

The doctrine of papal infallibility can serve as a reminder that a proper respect for tradition as helpful for reading Scripture should not lead us to forget that we must distinguish between good and bad tradition. In other words, tradition can be mistaken. But if we are ever to pronounce it mistaken, we must have some yardstick or criterion. That yardstick, of course, is Scripture.  One way to express what it means, that Scripture is the norm, is to think of it as our interpretive anchor. Tradition operating on its own represents a series of interpretations, which in turn need to be interpreted until we wind up with interpretations of interpretations of interpretations. The result of all this interpretation is that we drift ever farther away from our moorings, just as a story retold by person after person tends to change. But if Scripture is the ultimate norm for tradition, it can serve as an anchor. We do not escape the necessity of interpretation, but we keep interpreting the same source, i.e. the purest text of Scripture. This insistence on retaining the source is part of what is meant by the sola scriptura principle. (Plantinga, Contending For the Faith, 72, 73)


How does the Roman Catholic magisterium claim to preserve truth and unity?

By infallibly interpreting the apostolic tradition. The catechism of Pius X asks:

  • Q31. Through which means can we know the true meaning of the Holy Scripture?
  • Answer: We can only know the true meaning of Holy Scripture through the Church’s interpretation, because she alone is secure against error in that interpretation.


How much of Scripture has been infallibly interpreted by the Roman Catholic magisterium?

Surprisingly, the RC magisterium has made no authoritative interpretations of 99% of the Bible.  The Council of Trent interpreted John 3:5 and John 20:23, and Vatican I interpreted Matthew 16:18 and John 21:15-17 (although RC theologians continue to debate whether these councils actually meant to give infallible interpretations of these texts (Jerome Biblical Comm. 71:84-87)  Fact is, the magisterium has produced volumes of theological definition but very little, if any, in the way of biblical commentary.  Pope Leo XIII clearly asserts in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus that some passages of Scripture have been definitely and dogmatically defined but what passages these are is unclear even to Roman Catholic theologians.

By this most wise decree [referring to a previous quote of the council of Trent] the Church by no means prevents or restrains the pursuit of Biblical science, but rather protects it from error, and largely assists its real progress. A wide field is still left open to the private student, in which his hermeneutical skill may display itself with signal effect and to the advantage of the Church. On the one hand, in those passages of Holy Scripture which have not as yet received a certain and definitive interpretation, such labors may, in the benignant providence of God, prepare for and bring to maturity the judgment of the Church; on the other, in passages already defined, the private student may do work equally valuable, either by setting them forth more clearly to the flock and more skillfully to scholars, or by defending them more powerfully from hostile attack. Wherefore the first and dearest object of the Catholic commentator should be to interpret those passages which have received an authentic interpretation either from the sacred writers themselves, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost (as in many places of the New Testament), or from the Church, under the assistance of the same Holy Spirit, whether by her solemn judgment or her ordinary and universal magisterium – to interpret these passages in that identical sense, and to prove, by all the resources of science, that sound hermeneutical laws admit of no other interpretation. In the other passages, the analogy of faith should be followed, and Catholic doctrine, as authoritatively proposed by the Church, should be held as the supreme law; for, seeing that the same God is the author both of the Sacred Books and of the doctrine committed to the Church, it is clearly impossible that any teaching can by legitimate means be extracted from the former, which shall in any respect be at variance with the latter. §14


If Roman Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit infallibly guides their magisterium’s decisions, then why don’t they resolve the meaning of some of the more difficult texts in Scripture (e.g. Romans 9; 1 Corinthians 15:29; 1 Peter 3:19)?

This is another of those questions that Roman Catholics persistently fail to answer.  Turretin asked this question long ago.  The truth is, that the Roman Catholic church is just as reliant on sound grammatical and historical exegesis as anyone.


Above, you said that Protestants and Roman Catholics have agreed to the proposition–“The teaching of doctrine in the church is never above the word of God but must serve that word and be in conformity with it.” Does this not contradict this idea of an infallible interpreter?

Indeed it does as Karl Barth has made clear. How can a church be corrected and judged by the word of God if it reserves to itself the right to infallibly interpret it?  If the word of God is addressed magisterially to the church, how can the church hear this magisterial word if she seeks in every way to control it?  How does the Roman Catholic church concretely and truly subject herself to the Christian Scriptures in such a way that a truly judgmental word can be heard?  What structure or structures within the Roman Catholic church can she show which prevents the suffocation of the word of God and on the other hand permits it to run a free course and correct the church?  It appears that the Roman Catholic church is answerable only to itself. source


Back to the unity issue. Evidently, the Protestant magisteriums are worthless since there are so many Protestant denominations.  Are not the Protestant churches in serious breach of the biblical command that churches be one or united?

First, we must carefully understand what kind of unity the Bible makes a mark of the true church.

Second, we must also be honest as to just how much difference there really is between Protestant denominations. The differences are usually slight and don’t affect unity on the fundamental doctrines.

Finally, Roman Catholics must be honest as to the diversity that exists within their own communion.  The same debates that divide Protestant denominations are found in the Roman Catholic church.  Predestination is one example; the Roman Catholics have the Thomists and the Molinists, while Protestants have the Calvinists and the Arminians.  Witness also the contemporary struggle between the progressives and traditionalists.  The same denominations found within Protestant churches are also found in Catholicism.


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