The Foundations of Christian Knowledge

    Let us look back at where we have been, so that we may discuss the foundations of Christian knowledge.

Natural Philosophy (Reason)

    We can learn about God through natural philosophy. We are able to learn about the greatness of God in all ways, including love. We are able to understand that the law of love applies to us. However, we lose many things when using only philosophy to learn about God. We don't learn about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We don't learn about the Incarnation and how Jesus is the interface between us and God. Even though we can learn about the love of God, philosophy does not show us the love of God expressed. For these things and many others, we need scripture.

Scripture (Revelation)

    We have learned much about God from scripture, much more than we ever can learn from philosophy; so by example, we have learned that scripture is necessary to understand as much as possible about God. However, how do we know that scripture itself is reliable? It does appear on textual analysis to be the work of honest, careful men, who were writing about historical events. Realize though, that in order to defend the authenticity of the work, we must also know who wrote it and when to verify that they were close enough to the actual events to know what they were talking about. For this, we rely on tradition.


    Tradition, taken narrowly, is a theological term which means the deposit of faith preserved by the Church that is not contained in scripture. It is not a tradition like painting eggs at Easter is a tradition. It is tradition in the sense that we remember who wrote the New Testament because of the information that the church fathers left us. Who wrote the New Testament is a key part of tradition, but from tradition we also get teachings such as the perpetual virginity of Mary. Since we use tradition to defend the authenticity of the New Testament, we implicitly assert that we can use tradition to defend the perpetual virginity of Mary. Reason, scripture, and tradition all have a difficulty, though. How do we know that we understand any of them correctly? If you have spent any time arguing the truth of Christianity with others, you have learned that the same passage can have wildly different interpretations by different people. In many cases, both people in the argument are well meaning, believing Christians; yet their differences of opinion lead to a dramatically different understanding of God. Things get even worse when discussing philosophy. It is not that difficult to find two philosophers with deeply held beliefs that are exactly opposite. To understand which person's beliefs corresponds to actual truth, we need some authority, some body which can resolve disputes. This authority is the Church.

Church (Magisterium)

    We have come to the understanding that the Church is necessary to resolve differences of opinion regarding the content of Christian knowledge. However, which church? Let us look at what scripture and tradition tells us.

    In the following verses, we see Jesus giving authority to humans. Authority is given to teach and cast out demons (or other evil).

As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men." (Mt 4:18-19) [All of the apostles were called in this way.]

After this the Lord appointed seventy[-two] others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place to visit. ... The seventy[-two] returned rejoicing, and said, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name." (Lk 10:1,17)

Then Jesus approached and said to them, "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." (Mt 28:18-20)

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." (Jn 20:22-23; Mt 18:18 is similar).

    In the next two verses, we see Jesus giving special authority to Peter. Peter is the rock, upon which Jesus will build his Church.

He [Jesus] said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Mt 16:15-19)

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." He then said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, "Do you love me?" and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep." (Jn 21:15-17)

    We also learn that Peter and the other apostles are not like other Earthly leaders. Even though they have power, power is not their primary purpose. Service is their primary purpose.

Then an argument broke out among them about which of them should be regarded as the greatest. He [Jesus] said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them and those in authority over them are addressed as 'Benefactors'; but among you it shall not be so. Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant. For who is greater: the one seated at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one seated at the table? I am among you as the one who serves. It is you who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom; and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

"Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers." (Lk 22:24-32)

    As we proceed forward in the New Testament, we see the apostles taking the authority that Jesus gave to them and granting it to others. In Acts 1:15-26, the apostles, led by Peter, selected (with God's direction) a replacement for the traitor Judas. In Acts 6:1-7, the apostles appoint assistants to help with the work of the Church. The apostles consecrate the new assistants by praying and laying on of hands, which is how deacons and priests are ordained to this day. In Acts 13:1-3, we see authority is given, with the direction of the Holy Spirit, to Paul (also called Saul) and Barnabas by the laying on of hands. This was done even though earlier Paul was called directly by Jesus in a vision (Acts 9:1-9, 1 Cor 15:8). Later, Paul writes to Timothy as a friend and superior in 1 and 2 Timothy. Paul speaks of the duties that Timothy was granted by the laying on of hands (1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6) and Timothy's explicit duties as a bishop (1 Tim 3:1-13, 5:22; 2 Tim 4:1-6), including the selection of new bishops. In this way, we see the apostolic succession well under way in the New Testament.

    After the period of the New Testament, we have the period of the early church. During this time, we have the writings of the church fathers. These fathers consistently defended the authority of Rome in general and the bishop of Rome (the pope) specifically. To cite a few of the many examples:

Therefore shall you [Hermas] write two little books and send one to Clement [Bishop of Rome] and one to Grapte. Clement shall then send it to the cities abroad, because that is his duty. (The Shepherd of Hermas 1.2.4, ca. A.D. 80)

You [the church at Rome] have envied no one, but others you have taught. I desire only that what you have enjoined in your instructions may remain in force. (Ignatius's Letter to the Romans, 3.1, ca. A.D. 110)

Today we have observed the Lord's holy day, in which we have read your [Pope Soter's] letter. Whenever we do read it, we shall be able to profit thereby, as also we do when we read the earlier letter written to us by Clement (Dionysius's Letter to Pope Soter, preserved in Eusebius's Church History, 4.23.11, ca. A.D. 170).

But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition. (Irenaeus's Against Heresies 3.3.2 ca. A.D. 189)

We see then that the authority was transferred from Jesus to Peter (and the other apostles) to the future popes (and the future bishops) in a smooth process. We then realize that the church that Jesus founded still exists today. It is the Catholic Church, which is led by the pope. Contrary to standard Protestant belief, there was no period when there was no authority in the Church. The church that the Protestants imagine to have restored has no historical basis.

    Eastern Orthodox Christians, who broke off from Rome in the great Schism[*] (officially in A.D. 1054, unofficially the separation took many centuries), typically believe that the pope has a role of honor, but not one of authority. This is more reasonable than the Protestant view, but it is not consistent with the above evidence, especially the evidence from tradition.

    Realize that as there must be a final authority on truth in the world (the Church), there must also be a final authority on truth in the Church (the pope). To give each bishop equal and final authority would lead to no authority. This problem is realized to various degrees in both Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches. Throughout history, there have always been bishops (or independent theologians) who bent or broke doctrine and had to be reined in by the pope.

    However, how do we know that the Church has been faithful to its mission? Just because it was given a mission by Jesus does not mean that it has been true to it. In this matter, as in all matters, the Church relies upon God.


    Jesus did not come only for the benefit of 1st century Jews. Jesus came for the benefit of the whole world, for all time (Mt 28:18-20, Is 59:21). If the Church failed to teach the message of Jesus correctly, a substantial part of God's efforts would be nullified. God will not allow the corruption of God's efforts, and therefore will not allow the corruption of God's message. If corruption is allowed to begin, it would only grow with time. More specifically, the Holy Spirit, as the guide to truth, prevents the Church from making any error which weakens or distorts Jesus's message.

    Which parts of Jesus's message are important, understood, and certain? The Church labels these as dogmas. Dogmas are those teachings which the Church asserts, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are infallibly true.


    Infallibility is one of the most misunderstood teachings of Catholicism. Many opponents of Catholic Christianity do not try very hard to understand it properly because it is easier to contradict a false teaching than a true one. The official, summarized teaching is available in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 874-896. What must be understood is that the infallibility teaching is very restrictive. The pope is infallible when teaching ex cathedra (from the chair), or by the authority of the office of St. Peter on issues of faith and morals. The teaching must be declared to be binding to the whole Church, typically in an encyclical (church-wide letter). The pope is not infallible in his everyday life, when speaking as a private theologian, or when guiding a subset of the church. Even though the letter may be long, the infallible part typically consists of only a few sentences. Future popes are not free to contradict the content of the infallible statements of previous popes, though they may restate them using different language. Teachings that are understood to be true by the whole Church are often not declared as binding by the pope until a heresy (false teaching) appears that requires the pope to act against it. Most commonly, the true teaching is accepted by all for centuries before the heresy develops. Infallible teachings can also be declared as the result of an ecumenical (church-wide) council. These declarations are typically argued about and written by bishops, but a given declaration is not infallible unless the pope lends his infallible authority to that declaration.

    As explained above, the rules for determining which statements are infallible are very strict. This leads to a tendency among liberal theologians to attempt to downgrade to a fallible statement any teaching with which they disagree. This tendency must be resisted. What must be realized is that you will never be in a dangerous state by following the teachings of the Church, but it is very easy to enter a dangerous state by contradicting the teachings of the Church. You would be advised to error on the side of caution when picking which teachings are only doctrines (teachings) and not dogmas (infallible truths). Erring on the side of caution typically means doing a fairly exhaustive search of Church teachings, past and present, and determining whether or not the requirements for infallibility have been met. If the requirements for infallibility have not been met, you must still look to see whether or not there has been widespread agreement in the Church throughout its history. The Church as a whole is continually guided by the Holy Spirit, even before the pope (with or without the assistance of the bishops) infallibly expresses that faith in definitive teachings.

    This is not to say that the Church (or the pope) does not make mistakes. Different people put forth different ideas about what mistakes the Church has made; but we all agree that the Church has made mistakes, some of them severe. What this states is that when the Church claims to be infallible, it is; and when it does not claim to be infallible, it is not. In addition, if we study these mistakes in detail, we realize that they always come down to imprudent or unjust moral behavior of its members or leaders rather than mistakes in definitive teaching on faith and morals.

    Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, by Ludwig Ott, is a good source for understanding which teachings on faith are dogmas, and which are not. Each section is labeled with its grade of theological certainty. The labels are defined in the introduction (§ 8). In general, only the appropriately marked headings are considered infallible, not Ott's explanatory text. Note that there are also dogmas that are supported as much by tradition as by scripture (such as the perpetual virginity of Mary) and dogmas that are founded as much in reason as in scripture (such as the Trinity). Even though we reached an understanding of dogma by realizing that God would not allow the corruption of scripture, dogmas are also legitimate when they require tradition or reason. If the Church could declare any falsity as dogma, all teachings of the church would be rendered invalid. We do not have the freedom to pick and choose among the dogmas based upon their foundation. I have not found a good source that lists the moral dogmas. I believe this is because until the present day, most Christians agreed on what is good moral behavior and what is not, so there has not been as much need for the pope to make declarations.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a comprehensive summary of the teachings of the Church, both faith and morals, but does not organize them by level of certainty. As stated above, though, you will never be in a dangerous state by following the Catechism, but you can easily enter a dangerous state by going against various bits of it. As John Paul II wrote in his introduction to the Catechism, it is a "sure norm for the teaching of the faith."

    For the most part, the Catechism does not defend the teachings of the Church, it merely states them. If you are a Protestant, and have the usual Protestant objections to Catholicism (in addition to authority, which is covered above), I recommend that you look at Catholic Answers, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic, by David B. Currie, and Catholic Christianity, by Peter Kreeft. I find that the most common difficulty when debating Protestants in that they state the teachings of the Church incorrectly, and then argue against that false teaching. After using these sources, you may not agree with the Catholic Church, but at least you will know what it actually teaches.


    Just as we understand that the Holy Spirit guides the church, we also understand that the Holy Spirit inspires and guides the writing, canonization, and preservation of scripture and prevents scripture from falling into error. We can now make a stronger and more accurate statement about the reliability of scripture than we made earlier:

The inspired books teach the truth. "Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred scriptures." (Catechism of the Catholic Church § 107 following "Dei Verbum" § 11)

There are three key points here, each of which is frequently misunderstood. The first point is that scripture is inerrant because of the active will of God. In the end, it is only through the Holy Spirit's guidance that we can be assured that nothing vital has been left out or corrupted and that everything that is in scripture belongs. The second point is that scripture is inerrant with respect to our salvation. This is what is vital, and as such has the Holy Spirit's protection. Historical and scientific details are not necessarily correct, and must be evaluated using techniques from outside theology with an understanding that each human author writes from his own knowledge, world-view, and literary style. The third point is that all of scripture is without error with respect to salvation. In many cases, a single passage can have both a historical and a salvific meaning, or both a scientific and a salvific meaning. In some cases, such as the crucifixion and resurrection, a historical fact is vital to our salvation. Therefore, it is incorrect to say that parts of scripture are divine and parts of scripture are human, and we should only pay attention to the divine parts and throw away the rest. All of scripture is both divine and human and scripture should be read as a unified whole.

    Finally, note that though scripture itself is inerrant as described, individual interpreters such as you or I are not. In order to have confidence in our interpretations, we must rely upon the wisdom of the Church.


    Even though we have learned much about God, we have not learned all there is to know about God. Aside from the matter of my limited knowledge compared to that of the Church, we have no evidence that God has told us everything. Even if God did tell us everything, it is doubtful that we could understand it. Our minds and experiences are limited, while God's are infinite. Practical faith requires an acceptance of mystery: that there is more about God, infinitely more, than we will ever understand. We do not need to despair, however, for there is more than enough information for us to know the love of God and to properly live our lives as Christians.


[*] The relationship between Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches is better than it has been in a long time, and with prayer and the assistance of God, we look forward to the reuniting of our family. See "Common Declaration of Pope John Paul II and The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople."

This page was last changed on 2011/08/28