(I was thinking of ending this series with my last post, but a friend pointed out it wasn’t really fair to critique other positions without offering up the Catholic position for critique, so here it is, as best I can understand it.)
In my last post I wrote about the need for a living authority who can (among other things) make tough calls on disputed issues and guarantee the unity of the community in times of conflict. Hiding underneath every question of interpretation is the question of authority. Who gets to decide?
I left off with the question that the temple authorities asked Jesus.
“Who gave you authority to do this?”
Having arrived at the need for an authoritative interpreter, the natural next question is just that. Where does authority come from? Believe it or not, I came around to the Catholic understanding of this while I was doing some research for a sermon I was giving at my previous church down in California.
The text was John 8, where Jesus sets free the woman caught in adultery. Doing my due diligence to understand the historical background, I learned about the significance of Jesus, as it says, sitting down to teach. Sitting and teaching in Jesus’ context, especially in the temple, was an astounding claim to rabbinic authority. Jesus is setting himself up as an authoritative teacher.
This was a shock and a scandal.
In those days, if you wanted to become a rabbi there were different schools of teaching to which you could apprentice yourself, and at the end of it you got to say that you studied under so-and-so, who learned at the feet of so-and-so, who learned at the feet of so-and-so, all the way back to some great teacher. All of the different competing factions of Jesus’ day—the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and so on—operated on this principle. Your authority to teach was derived from your rabbinic pedigree.
So when Jesus shows up in the temple—the holiest place in the Jewish world—with absolutely no qualifications whatsoever and sits down to teach, the authorities ask questions like, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” (John 7:15), or “By what authority are you doing these things?”, or “Who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23, Mark 11:28, Luke 20:2), or “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” (John 2:18).
These questions make perfect sense when we consider how authority was understood by Jesus’ contemporaries: as something handed down from teacher to teacher in a direct line, proceeding from the original source.
Keeping this concept in mind, we can better understand what Jesus is doing in other parts of the Gospels.
Take, for example, John 20:23:
He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Here’s another example, from Matthew 18 (:
Amen I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
What is happening here? In both these passages (as elsewhere in the Gospels) Jesus is handing down his authority to his disciples, just as the other great rabbis of his day did. Just as the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins, so these disciples now have authority to do the same. Just as Jesus prohibited and permitted certain behaviors, so his disciples were now authorized to do the same.
It would have been implicitly understood that this same authority would be passed down by those disciples to the next generation.
This principle is called apostolic succession.
Apostolic succession is the way that all of the ancient Christian churches—Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, and so on—understand where they derive their authority. Authority to retain or forgive, and and to bind or to loose, has been passed down to them by Jesus through the original apostles.
It’s an ancient rabbinic tradition which is still alive in these churches today.
And that’s how the Catholic Church—among the other ancient churches—understands its own claim to authority. The Church is the authoritative interpreter because Jesus himself has given her that authority through the apostles.
In the next post, we’ll talk about the one claim that makes Catholicism unique even among the ancient churches, and why it makes such a claim.