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Where Does the Authority Lie?

CATHOLIC: I am confused by Christians who claim that the Bible is their only authority. Some of them have creeds that summarize their beliefs, while others have no such creeds. Those who subscribe to creeds like the Augsburg Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith certainly have a greater degree of unity than those who have no creed but the Bible. Still, it seems that it is the creed that unites them rather than the Bible, and that is exactly what Catholics practice. They are united around a creed. So is the Bible the only authority, or is it the creed?

JOHN CALVIN: I can’t speak for those who hold to the Augsburg Confession. As for those who subscribe to Westminster Confession of Faith or similar Reformed confessions, we make a distinction between ultimate and secondary authorities. Our ultimate authority is the Bible as God’s written word. Our creeds are summaries of the biblical teachings and we hold to them to the extent that they teach the Bible. We speak of them as “subordinate standards.”

MARTIN LUTHER: I agree with J.C.’s statement, except for the word Reformed you must substitute the word Lutheran. Likewise, substitute Augsburg Confession for Westminster Confession of Faith. I hate to use terms like Reformed and Lutheran. I would rather just use the words truly Christian.

JOHN MILTON: I completely agree with that. Let’s throw out all these nice little distinctions like Reformed and Lutheran and get back to the true doctrine of Christ. Ultimately, that is what we find in the plain words of Scripture. We don’t need any “subordinate standards.” God has given to each individual the right to determine for himself the true meaning of the Bible. We don’t need the Augsburg Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Bible is all we need.

CATHOLIC: Now I’m really confused. J.M. says that no creed is necessary, only the Bible. I take it that neither J.C. nor M.L. would agree with that?

J.C.: In its material content the Bible is sufficient, but because human sinners will find all kinds of reasons to abandon the truth of the Bible, we need to have creeds so we can be united.

M.L.: I’d go further and say that we need creed to be the Church. A creed or confession is what the Church does. The Church confesses its faith in the world. You need a creed to know who the Church is.

CATHOLIC: So both J.C. and M.L. believe in the need for creeds but for different reasons, while J.M. doesn’t believe in them at all?

J.M.: Paul says that what we need is charity or love (cf. 1 Cor. 13). He never says we need creeds.

M.L.: Oh, but he does. He says, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Paul is saying that the essence of being a Christian is to confess Christ. That is what we are doing in the Augsburg Confession.

J.M.: Paul says to confess Christ. He doesn’t say that we need to confess the same things on baptism, church government, sacraments, the second coming of Christ, or a hundred other topics that Christians disagree on.

M.L.: So in your view these issues are just of secondary importance?

J.M.: Absolutely! They are not necessary for salvation. All that is necessary for salvation is plainly revealed in the Bible. We don’t need a creed to define them, just as we don’t need a church hierarchy to define them.

CATHOLIC: So, tell me, J.M., do you think that we don’t need anything more than the Bible to be unified as Christians? I sense from M.L. and maybe from J.C. that they at least feel some necessity for Christian unity fostered by the use of creeds.

J.M.: The important thing here is the individual Christian conscience. No church has an authority over the individual except what is plainly revealed in the Bible. It’s ultimately up to the individual.

CATHOLIC: So is it plainly revealed in the Bible that all Christians should be one? I think it is clear that Jesus wanted all his disciples to be united in one faith. Isn’t that what he was teaching in John 17? And isn’t that what Paul teaches when he says that there is “one body” and “one faith” (Eph. 4:4–5)? Aren’t you in fact denying a clear teaching of the Bible to say that Christian unity is not important? Your reliance on individual conscience, taken just a few steps further, would lead to a breakdown of all Christian unity. Wouldn’t that be in contradiction to the Bible?

M.L.: My Catholic friend, you make an excellent point to J.M. His individualism can be found nowhere in the Bible. The Church of Jesus Christ needs to be united in a common confession of the truth.

J.C.: I agree. J.M.’s individualism does not represent the historical position of the Protestant Reformation. His position is better dubbed solo scriptura rather than sola scripturaSolo scriptura is really a sort of “me and my Bible” approach. I agree that such views have led to unnecessary divisions within Protestantism. Sola scriptura is really the idea that the Bible is the ultimate authority for Christian faith, but this does not exclude drawing on the historical witness of the Church as represented by the Church Fathers.

M.L.: Yes, the heirs of the Augsburg Confession do not throw out all of Christian history; in fact, they honor that past as guided by God the Holy Spirit to lead the Church into all truth.

CATHOLIC: Your views are much closer to the Catholic view than J.M.’s approach, but then I don’t see why you are not Catholic. If you revere the Church Fathers and the history of the Church, how can you object to the Catholic approach to these questions?

M.L.: The Catholic approach is much preferable to J.M.’s approach, but the problem with the Catholic approach is that it places the Church over Scripture and makes the Church the judge of Holy Scripture.

J.C.: I agree. The Catholic sense that Church history is to be honored, valued, and even in some sense followed is a good thing. But then the Roman Church went too far in making itself the arbiter of truth. I could show you from many biblical texts that it is God’s word alone that must guide God’s people.

CATHOLIC: So you both agree that the problem with Catholicism is its exaltation of the Church over the Bible. If I had the time, I could show you from Catholic documents that you have misunderstood the Catholic position on the relation of the Bible to the Church. 

M.L.: Perhaps that’s where our real disagreement lies. We believe the Church should be subject to Scripture. If the Church Fathers taught something contrary to Scripture, then Scripture must be followed rather than the Church, whether past or present.

J.C.: It’s clear to me that many things said by the Church Fathers go counter to Scripture. They may be helpful at points but they cannot be our ultimate guide.

CATHOLIC: Your claims would require us to delve into the specifics of the Fathers, something we don’t have time to do today. But, if I may, let me return to that point we started on: the relation of Christian unity to creeds. You both recognize the need for creeds, and this has some relation to unity in your minds. Both of you believe that all creeds are “subordinate standards” that must be subjected to Scripture and can be revised in the light of Scripture.

J.C.: I would agree with that way of putting it. So long as the creed agrees with Scripture, it is fine, but if it departs from Scripture, it needs to be revised.

M.L.: I am not comfortable with trying to revise the creeds. They express the essence of Scripture’s teachings.

CATHOLIC: But you do admit, M.L., that your creeds are fallible documents. In theory anyway, they are subject to revision. This, in essence, is the problem from my Catholic standpoint. You both admit the necessity of a creed to unify the people of God. But it is clear that your two creeds, the Augsburg Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith, do not agree on a number of essential points. I presume that you, M.L., would have to say that, logically speaking, the Westminster Confession of Faith is not a true confession of the Christian faith.

M.L.: Yes.

CATHOLIC: And I think that J.C. would be forced into a similar judgment about the Augsburg Confession.

J.C.: Yes.

CATHOLIC: You both have said that one of the functions of a creed is to unify the people of God. Yet it is clear that you are not unified in your confession of faith because you believe that the other’s creed is wrong. Imagine this situation continues on and on until there is more and more disunity among Christians. One possible solution to this problem is what J.M. proposed. Although you both rightly reject his interpretative individualism, your inability to agree on a common creed could easily lead to his position. In fact, history shows that this is exactly what did happen. The more Protestantism failed to have a unified confession of faith, the more individualism entered as a solution. To use the terminology J.C. suggested earlier, the sola scriptura of the Protestant Reformation led to the solo scripturaof modern Protestantism. These results show the inherent flaw in the Protestant approach, because it inevitably ends up denying an essential truth of the unity of God’s people as taught by our Lord in John 17 and Paul in Ephesians 4.

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