Recently I was the lector for Mass in the chapel at the Catholic Answers office. Since this is the Easter season, the reading was from the Acts of the Apostles and focused on the promulgation of the decisions of the Council of Jerusalem.
It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right (Acts 15:28-29).
These directives were placed in a letter and given by the council fathers to Barnabas and Paul, who had first approached the apostles in Jerusalem to settle the debate between Barnabas, Paul, and the Judaizers whom Barnabas and Paul had been opposing in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia.
What caught my attention while I read this passage aloud at Mass was how the apostles chose to deliver this letter to the faithful in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. The apostles didn’t just hand it over to Barnabas and Paul to do with as they chose. Rather, the apostles chose representatives who would accompany Barnabas and Paul in promulgating the letter:
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, with the following letter (Acts 15:22-23).
In their introduction to the decision of the Council of Jerusalem, the fathers of the council make clear that they’re investing Judas and Silas with authority in this matter. Here’s how the letter opens that was given to Judas and Silas to promulgate:
The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting. Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth (Acts 15:23-27).
Defenders of sola scriptura claim that all that’s necessary for a right understanding of Christian doctrine is access to the written text of Scripture. They believe that each Christian is able to figure out for himself what God requires him to believe and do if he just reads the Bible.
In St. Luke’s account of the early Church, though, when the Council of Jerusalem needed to communicate to the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia the decisions of the council, the council doesn’t tell the Gentiles to read what we now know as the Old Testament, and it can’t refer these Gentiles to the New Testament because that does not yet exist.
The council doesn’t even entrust the letter solely to Paul and Barnabas, despite the fact that they hold these men in great esteem (Acts 15:25). Paul and Barnabas were parties to the dispute that the council had been convened to settle. Because of this, they couldn’t be considered impartial representatives of the intent of the council. So the council chose Judas and Silas to carry the letter to the affected communities. They would pass on “by word of mouth” the contents of the letter—and, undoubtedly, how the council intended the letter to be understood.
The Vatican II document Dei Verbum offers a cogent and concise description of the Catholic Church’s teaching on this important doctrine.
And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter, and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all.
Now what was handed on by the apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life, and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes (Dei Verbum, 8).
Of course, this passage of Scripture doesn’t, by itself, definitively prove the Catholic Church’s position that Christian doctrine is handed on by means of written Scripture, apostolic Tradition, and the authoritative magisterium of the Church. But it is one more weight to add to the scale on the side of the Church.
The passage about the Council of Jerusalem is invaluable for Catholic apologists because it is clear that the primitive Church operated in a fashion that distributed definitive teachings by word of mouth. Those who advocate for sola scriptura have here yet another passage of Scripture to contend with that stands in contradiction to their understanding of Christian authority.