The Messianic Prerogative
This essay is the second in a series entitled “Catholicism: What You’d Expect.” The previous essay can be found here. In the first post, I lay out an argument that Christian distinctives find their fulfillment uniquely within the Catholic paradigm. I also argue that the first Christian distinctive, its incarnational theology and practice, is an ultimately Catholic attribute. This essay concerns the second distinctive which I listed: the authoritative nature of Christian theology.
In all ages, the fleshly nature of the Christ has offended some segment of the world. But equally offensive is His prerogative: His claim to exclusive authority over Heaven and Earth (Matthew 28:18). This prerogative is central to the Christian religion. Without it, Christ is nothing more than another good man or wise teacher or prophet. Even the very name “Christian” implies that Jesus had something uniquely important to say; that we are followers of Him above and beyond any other teaching that might claim our loyalties.
This essay will address Christianity’s unique tradition of interpretive prerogative. This authority is found in Christ’s teaching, as well as the teaching of his apostles. My argument is that this prerogative is historically and rightfully now in the possession of the Catholic Church. Thus, the Catholic Church again finds another one of its distinctives (its unique claim to teaching authority) in the claims of primitive, mere Christianity.
Jesus taught “as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). This is the first fact about Christ’s teaching that we encounter in His earliest-written Gospel, and one of the most important. Christ’s teaching was not bound by the limitations which humans face when interpreting the Law and the Prophets: you will not find probabilistic arguments from carefully-reasoned exegetical treatises in any of the four Gospels. Rather, you will find that He declared truth as He knew it; His insights were of revelation and Divine knowledge, not textual interpretation.
Consider, for example, John 13:18. Jesus quotes the Psalmist to prophesy of Judas, “I am not speaking of you all; I know whom I have chosen; it is that the scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’” The Scripture in question is from Psalm 41, verse 9. Consider the context:
“As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me;
heal me, for I have sinned against thee!”
My enemies say of me in malice:
“When will he die, and his name perish?”
And when one comes to see me, he utters empty words,
while his heart gathers mischief;
when he goes out, he tells it abroad.
All who hate me whisper together about me;
they imagine the worst for me.
They say, “A deadly thing has fastened upon him;
he will not rise again from where he lies.”
Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted,
who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me.
But do thou, O Lord, be gracious to me,
and raise me up, that I may requite them!”
No amount of careful training would ever, I think, allow Jesus to exegete the meaning that he derives from the text. When the Psalmist says that “my bosom friend… has lifted his heel against me,” he could not possibly have been intending to write from the perspective of the Messiah. After all, in verse four, he writes that “I have sinned against thee.” Ought we conclude from this that Christ had some sin against God? Of course not. Rather, we must conclude that even the best exegete would never have been able to realize that verse nine would apply to the Christ, since the context is definitively not messianic.
Instead, we must conclude that Christ’s interpretive authority is revelatory rather than textual. The plain meaning of Scripture does not guide Him; He guides our understanding of the Scripture through revelation. The authority He possesses is built off Who He Is, not His reasoning or evidence.
This was too much for the other teachers at the time. Jesus’ constant appeals to His own authority inspired hatred and jealousy from the religious leaders of the era. To those who accepted the Messianic Prerogative, “he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12). But to most, His claims of authority were too wild to be believed. They would not surrender their logical autonomy to the One Who could have freely given them all truth.
We can learn through Scripture that the interpretive prerogative also extends to the Apostles. Saint Matthew provides a useful example. His infancy narrative includes a quotation from Hosea 11:1, “When Israel was a youth I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.” Yet despite the parallel circumstances which Christ encountered, no amount of exegesis could have ever led a Jew to conclude that this was a prophecy about the coming Messiah. In context, this verse concerns the exodus from Egypt; the prophet is recounting the past, not consciously predicting the future.
I ought to clarify that I don’t mean to say that Saint Matthew is a bad exegete. Careful textual reasoning is important, and at many points the Bible does exegete itself quite well. Indeed, without the Messianic prerogative, careful exegesis is the only option available to arrive at infallible truth. However, in light of the prerogative, both interpretation as well as the text can be unquestionably true, because the prerogative relies upon the authority of the speaker rather than the reasoning of an exegetical argument.
The fact of the matter is that interpretive authority is absolutely necessary for man to move past doubt. Our textual reasoning, as any literary scholar can tell you, is fragile and incomplete. If our authorities must rely on reason to exegete a text, then we introduce a substantial amount of uncertainty—a fact borne out by the fundamental disunity of Protestant thought. The eunuch’s reply to Saint Philip is our own cry: “How can I understand what I am reading, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30-31).
Two objections are often presented against this last claim: one at the front end, and one at the back. On the front end, one must still interpret the interpretation, meaning that perfect knowledge of revelation is still impossible by our own standard. Second, one must first use reason to arrive at a trust of the authority, erasing any infallible confidence we might have in them, since our fallible reason led us to them.
These arguments have been dealt with on a more philosophical level by other apologists, so I will content myself to point out their practical superficiality. I will do so by accepting, for the sake of argument, the basic validity of both contentions. If we assume the first, then we have still made our task a thousand times easier: we have allowed for continual clarifying statements to direct our thoughts in vaguer theological realms. All of us have made oblique statements to our friends, family, or acquaintances that we needed to explain further after receiving quizzical looks. Through further explanation, we arrive at a better understanding of one another’s meaning. The interpretive authority that we carry with regards to our own statements vastly aids in the project of removing doubt; the Holy Spirit’s work through Christ and the Apostles in interpreting the Old Testament has similar effects.
As for the second contention, identifying authorities with an indisputable claim to prerogative is still much easier than single-handedly reasoning to every important theological conclusion ourselves. It borders on laughable to suppose that God meant for us to embark on such a project, especially when most Christians throughout history have been illiterate, uneducated, or without constant access to Scripture and exegetical tools. These things are good, of course–but to achieve any kind of theological certainty under this paradigm would be near impossible. Even widely respected scholars disagree vehemently on matters as basic to Christianity as the nature of original sin, predestination, and salvation.
We ought to be good Bereans, of course. Even good theology can lead to bad conclusions, and it would be a tragedy if the existence of a Messianic prerogative led someone to believe that searching the Scriptures was no longer of importance. As I have said before, there is a place for careful exegesis in verifying truth-claims. This fact is not logically or practically opposed to the existence of the prerogative.
Another example of the Apostles exercising the prerogative is in 1 Timothy 5:17-18: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain’ […]” It hardly requires mentioning that Moses or any exegete could have reasoned their way to this interpretation. Nevertheless, Paul asserts his interpretation with the same confidence we find in Christ and in the words of Matthew.
The Apostles were especially confident of their prerogative at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Despite no New Testament Scripture existing at that time, the Apostles felt that they could jointly define the responsibilities of Gentiles in a way that defied millennia of Jewish tradition. The case for this decision, of course, was less than obvious from the Scripture that they currently had available to them. But, as we have said before, the prerogative is not constrained to the conclusions of careful exegesis.
The next question seems to be obvious: “how did the Apostles inherit the Messianic prerogative?” Scripturally, the evidence is unequivocal: He gave it to them by the power of the Holy Spirit. In John 16:13, Christ prophesies this event when He says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” This is far from the only Scripture to support this view. In fact, the New Testament is littered with explanations that this prerogative was handed to the Apostles. To list a few:
- “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority 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 lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
- Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” (John 20:21)
- “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40)
- “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16)
- “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
Thus the messianic prerogative became an apostolic power. At Pentecost, the authority of the apostles to define true doctrine for the early Church became absolute. Their prerogative to set down theology is never justly called into question again in the pages of the Scriptures.
Some Christians draw the line here. They will admit that, at least in many ways, the apostles inherited the Messianic prerogative to lay down doctrine. However, they reject what is called apostolic succession–the idea that others received the prerogative of the apostles. However, even within the Scripture we see hints that this is not meant to be the case. This is most obviously true in the pastoral epistles of Saint Paul.
In 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul indicates that the prerogative is located in the Church, not merely in the persons of the apostles. Paul refers to the Church—not the Scripture, Christ, or the apostles, all of which would have been more fitting had the messianic prerogative ceased—as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” Meanwhile he entrusts Titus and Timothy with authority, over and above all other presbyters in their area, to “teach what befits sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1).
Our scriptural suspicion of Apostolic Succession is confirmed by the testimony of the bishops of the first and early second century. Pope Clement I writes around AD 90 with prerogative when he commands the Corinthian Church to reinstate their leaders.
Receive our counsel, and you shall be without repentance. For, as God lives, and as the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost live—both the faith and hope of the elect, he who in lowliness of mind, with instant gentleness, and without repentance has observed the ordinances and appointments given by God— the same shall obtain a place and name in the number of those who are being saved through Jesus Christ, through whom is glory to Him for ever and ever. Amen. 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; but we shall be innocent of this sin […] You will afford us joy and gladness if being obedient to the things which we have written through the Holy Spirit, you will root out the wicked passion of jealousy. (1 Clement 58-59, 63)
Similarly, Saint Ignatius of Antioch writes around AD 110 that,
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father […] Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 8)
To these early leaders of the apostolic era, the teaching of the bishops was nothing less the will of God. Saint Ignatius writes again in the same time-frame that
For even Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the manifested will of the Father; as also bishops, settled everywhere to the utmost bounds of the earth, are so by the will of Jesus Christ… Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God. (Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 3,5)
Saint Irenaeus further explains the prerogative handed to the apostles and their successors in Against Heresies (c. 180):
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to the perfect apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity. (Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, Section 1)
The bishop whose prerogative was most absolute, of course, was the bishop of Rome. Saint Clement’s bold order to the Corinthian Church ought to lay some foundation for this fact, but both Ignatius and Irenaeus likewise testify to this fact. In his Letter to the Romans, Saint Ignatius begins
[…] to the Church beloved and enlightened after the love of Jesus Christ, our God, by the will of him that has willed everything which is; to the Church which also holds the presidency in the place of the country of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification, and because you hold the presidency of love, named after Christ and named after the Father; here therefore do I salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father.
Saint Ignatius also says of Rome that “You have envied no one; but others you have taught. I desire only that what you have enjoined in your instruction may remain in force” (Letter to the Romans, Chapter 3). Likewise, Saint Irenaeus writes that
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. (Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, Section 2).
All of these evidences for the continuance of Messianic prerogative and papal supremacy have been disputed by either Protestants, the Eastern Churches, or both. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of each statement leads to a singular historical conclusion. Infallible, revelatory interpretive authority did not end with either the Christ or His Apostles. Rather, it was continued by the bishops of the early Church, especially the bishops in Rome.
This prerogative has always caused offense. From the time of the pharisees to the Great Schism to modern day, there has always existed an antipathy towards the messianic prerogative. Indeed, as early as Eden, man has wanted to replace Divine instruction with his own, limited reasoning. In fact, the very existence of offense could almost be taken as a sign of the ,essianic prerogative.
However, the prerogative continues to exist in all of Christianity (to some degree). We all recognize the authority of Christ (and, in many cases, the apostles) to infallibly define and redefine doctrine, beyond what could be learned through exegetical or philosophical reasoning. Indeed, the less we adhere to this prerogative, the more dissolved Christianity becomes. If we do not admit the a priori authority of Christ and His apostles to define doctrine, as some modern Christians have done, then even the most essential of Christian doctrines fall into question. Without the prerogative, Christianity inevitably dissolves into disunion.
The Roman Church alone has kept this essential characteristic of Christianity. The East, which now lacks a source of unity, has stayed together by adhering to the pre-Schism traditions with rigor. However, the offense it takes at Romish power has deeply limited the extent to which it can exercise prerogative in doctrine. The Protestant Christians suffer from this pitfall to an even greater extent. Many have given up on doctrinal assurance altogether, exhausted by a fruitless pursuit of truth, and declared that such issues are unimportant. Both approaches seem at odds with the joyful assurance of truth found in Christ’s teachings, the teachings of the apostles, and the teaching of the early Church.
Once again, “mere” Christianity and Catholicism rhyme in ways that no other Church or denomination can. Rome has the unique ability to exercise the messianic prerogative, even to present-day. As a result, her unity and cohesiveness of doctrine far-and-away surpass all competitors. Like Christ, she teaches with authority—not as the scribes and the pharisees.
Photo by Walwyn and found here.