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By What Authority?

July 20, 2013 by  
Filed under Church Authority, Paul McCusker

Life, As I Find It

As I’ve mentioned before, and will mention again, one of the triggers for my journey to the Catholic faith began with a simple but life-changing question: By what authority does someone interpret Scripture and establish doctrine?

What made that question so pivotal for me is that it challenged a few vital assumptions in my Evangelical Protestant theology. It also came up at a time when I faced radical changes in the Episcopal Church, of which I was a member. I was alarmed by the way decisions were being made there that seemed contrary to Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Yet, according to the authority of that church, their radical interpretation of the Bible and establishment of tradition-breaking doctrine was legitimate.

I started asking, “Hey, wait a minute, who’s in charge here anyway?” It can’t be a theological free-for-all – can it?

At the same time, I watched as more traditional Evangelical Protestants, with their Bibles in hand, set themselves up as their own “authorities” and made some surprising decisions. Surprising to me, that is. Some dropped out of any regular church attendance (because it was an optional extra, rather than a necessary part of the Christian life). Some talked as if there was no objective way to discuss Scripture, as if it all came down to “what it means to me and you can’t tell me otherwise.” I saw the line between interpretation and application become blurred, if not erased. So, again, I wondered: who gets the final word?

I read Jesus’ prayer for unity and almost wanted to dismiss it as sentimental wishful- thinking on His part. I suspect many Christians do. And I struggled to reconcile the idea that the same Holy Spirit – invoked by every individual – could be inspiring so many outright contradictions among believers.

So I asked the question. By what authority does someone interpret Scripture and establish doctrine?

To find the answer, I dared to venture beyond the boundaries of history I had previously allowed (only as far back as the Reformation) and pushed through to the Ancient Church. I wanted to know what the generation of Christians following the Resurrection and original 12 Apostles believed and why they believed it. I was shocked to learn how very Catholic they were.

The Bible itself pointed me to the reality of Apostolic Authority and, eventually, the question was settled. Once that was done, the move into the Catholic Church became inevitable.

Thereafter, I thought that, since the question was important to me, I ought to put it to my Protestant friends because it ought to be important to them. I was naïve. The question was often unwelcome, but stirred up some remarkable reactions.

One involved a wide-eyed have-you-lost-your-mind kind of response. Not because I had lost my mind, but because the question itself seemed crazy. The answer, it’s assumed, was clearly established long-ago by someone,  somewhere – though they don’t know when or by whom or where exactly. Maybe by Luther or Billy Graham. But certainly not by the corrupt gang who messed everything up before them.

Not only was the question crazy, it was superfluous. It’s like asking whether or not the American Revolution was a legitimate action or speculating what might have happened had the South won the Civil War. Things are what they are, there’s no point in revisiting a question that’s been answered somewhere somehow.  Don’t mess with the “givens.”

If my friends thought about it at all, they often had varying answers. Authority to interpret Scripture, for them, may be based on a democratic consensus in their churches. Or because the Pastor went to seminary. Or a teacher seemed wise and holy. Or the interpreter is personally charismatic. Or maybe the person speaking says things that “ring true” or resonate with their own feelings or experiences.

But, at the heart of it, I found that my question triggered a debate most people didn’t really want to have.

Assumption plays heavily in any answer, if an answer comes at all. People assume that it’s understood where the Authority rests, in the same way they assume that a chair is reliable and will hold them up if they sit on it – or that the person in the uniform flying the airplane is qualified to do it. It’s a vague and mysterious trust in the established order of things.

What I hadn’t anticipated was how very unnerving and distressing the question could be. The one thing most people don’t want challenged are the core assumptions in their worldview. Usually it takes a personal trauma or cataclysm to make people re-think those assumptions: God didn’t behave the way they thought, there is a terrible sickness or death, a horrible act of evil, or a natural catastrophe. Other than that, why bother?  To ask such a thing is like throwing a brick through a carefully crafted Tiffany window. I asked because the crisis in my church forced me to.

Now, as a Catholic, I see more clearly what I’m up against. The Catholic faith is an assault that challenges the assumptions not only of Evangelical Protestants but of most people. It is solid, rigorous and unique – and therefore foreign and frightening and dangerous. It is the answer to an unwelcome question. So, how do we get people to ask a question they don’t want to ask? That’s one of the challenges of the New Evangelization.


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About Paul McCusker

Paul McCusker is an author. He converted from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism in 2007. He still works for an Evangelical organization. Paul has over 40 published works, including novels, plays, scripts, and lyrics.

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  • Thank you, Paul. When challenged about our Faith, we should always remember that the Divine God-Man did say He did not come to bring peace on earth but to set it on fire…….and a fierce fire He sure lights in the hearts and minds of those who are their own theologians and Interpreters of His Holy Word

  • Yule

    Thank you so much for sharing this one.

  • DanGoddu

    My Catholic-raised daughter commented on a “cute” Episcopal church in town as a possible location for her future marriage. It made my typical, blunt remark about Episcopals being heretics. My sister who was listening in on the conversation disagreed with me. I’ll ask her to read this post.

    Thanks Paul.

  • Jeanette

    I do so enjoy your posts Paul. They can be controversial but they sure make us think about our faith! God bless you.

  • elena aska

    You cannot get people to do Anything! When the foundations fail Christ can begin to build the house !!

  • robert chacon

    As a cradle Catholic, I have to say congratulations to you for having the courage to ask those difficult questions and even more so to seek the answers regardless of how challenging they may be and to eventually convert! As a cradle Catholic, I have continuously questioned the tenets of the faith posed by my own conjuring as well as challenges by Protestants, other religions and complete atheists. I am always impressed and blessed by the truth the Church has as a reasonable response, and so I am always confirmed in my faith and remain a devout and ever strengthened Catholic. Which means that I have never had to make the life altering steps it takes to convert. I cant even imagine all the implications. But I can see how completely upheaving it must be. For that reason I really honor and admire, and thank God for the witness of people who remain steadfast in their trust in Christ to bring you to His Church when it means your whole world is shifting beneath your feet! I find that trust in Christ and the Holy Spirit a real blessing! I may still find certain assumptions regarding the faith challenged from time to time but I almost always know that the Church will have a solid response. I can virtually always count on that. But even times when I had some doubt, She ultimately provided such sound and inspiring answers. But God bless you Paul and all you other converts for actually trusting in Him to bring you to a place that must have almost literally rocked your world in making that conversion. Amazing!

    • abby

      Agreed. Can even imagine having to leave your church, even for Catholicism the “one true church” because I all the guilt you’ve been raise to associate with “leaving the church” (your evangelical one in this case but all churches consider it bad to leave their church, right?) and truly admire you for seeking the actual truth, as uncomfortable and frightening as it may have been at first. Praise God!

  • BHG

    A question I am beginning to ask my Protestant friends is: Why should I believe YOU and not someone else–gets right to the question of authority.

    • LizEst


  • It is a good, effective question. A few years ago I asked this question of a protestant youth minister who was interfering with one of his former sheep who, with me for sponsor, was going through RCIA. Your explanation is very clear, useful.

    But the question I wonder about most is one I ask of atheists. What if it is true? This body of statements which the Church proposes for belief, what if it is actually true? The atheist frequently appeals to authority, that authority being himself, as being smarter than any Christian, therefore atheism is true. But my standard reply is to explicate the weakness — they would carry the day ONLY IF they were the smartest person of all time. And any atheist of this type, whether Richard Dawkins or anybody else, will personally believe that, yes, they actually ARE the smartest person of all time. 😀 But of course, at one stroke, you can take them down by questioning their authority, asking, “Oh, you are smarter than Thomas Aquinas? Galileo and Newton were devout, and even Albert Einstein believed in God.”

    But as you pointed out, people are afraid of grappling that authority question directly. It is like looking out of the comfort zone and into the abyss — who actually DOES have authority to interpret scripture? It is a fearful view, for a protestant. Similarly, it is frightening yet thrilling to consider: what if it is really true that Creation itself awaits the revelation of the children of God? What does that say about us? Can it possibly be true? Think of all the other enormous things that the Church teaches, the weight of glory.

    Well, thanks for a good, useful article, Mr. McCusker.

  • American Catholic

    You have clearly been guided by the Holy Spirit my brother. I would like to add the point there is one of several verses in scripture that stands out & declares through itself there must be one and only one authority to teach, interpret scripture and establish doctrine and if the Church was in fact established by Christ as scripture attests and these instructions themselves exist in scripture, they must have existed since the infancy of the Christian faith and of course prior to the writing of the gospels of the New Testament in order to have been included therein.
    The following is IMO one of the most profound yet clearly defied directives of all and there has never been a satisfactory answer justifying the existance of one let alone the many protestant systems of beliefs that exist not only divided from the one Church but among themselves:
    “God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” (1 Corinthians CH1: vs9-10)

  • JefZeph

    Yes, that question does make them squirm. It’s closely related to another one that will keep them up at night. Call into question their casual acceptance of the absurd notion of “church shopping”. If that one takes root, they won’t sleep for months.

  • Mars Melnik

    Agreed. As a former Bible-thumpin’, turn-or-burn, can-ya-gimme-an-Amen, evangelical Protestant, my issue/concern/problem was:

    WHO decided what books to include in the Bible, and by what authority did THEY have? And, if they got seven of those books “wrong”, only to discover their mistake through Luther’s “great spiritual insight” almost 1500 years later, when He and his followers pulled those seven from the canon (and it almost was eight books which were pulled, since Luther thought that the Epistle of James was a “book of straw” and shouldn’t be included in the canon), then what good was Christ’s promise that the gates of hell would not prevail upon His church?

    And … since the last New Testament book (Revelation) was not completed until about the mid-90’s A.D., and the whole agreed-upon canon was not settled officially at council until the late 4th century … and, since literacy was not as widespread as today … how then, to transmit the Gospel?

    Maybe by word of mouth, and (dare I say) … Tradition?!!

    It was only when I started going back in history beyond the “Reformation” (really, De-formation would be more accurate), and reading the early Church Fathers, that I began to see that — lo and behold — the early Church was (gasp!) VERY Catholic.

    The Eucharist, John 6 (eat my flesh, drink my blood), and the need for some interpretive authority were critical (even though as a Protestant I had already read the entire Bible through, front to back, a few times).

    1 Timothy 3:15 was the final clincher: “… that thou mayest know how men ought to behave themselves in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”

    God is not only truth, He is THE Truth (John 14:6). So why (I asked myself, when I had read, as if for the first time, 1 Timothy 3:15) was a “pillar and ground” — i.e., “the Church” — necessary to support the truth, namely God? God is in no need of any support or pillar. And so, I concluded that, insofar that the truth was in need of “pillar and ground” (i.e., in need of “the Church), that the need was not for God’s benefit but for man’s benefit, so that man could know, without corruption, what was and is the Truth.

    And 1 Timothy 3:15 didn’t say “a” church; it says “the” Church. So then (mid-2004) I asked myself … Well, if it’s “the” Church, then “which” Church?

    And my answer (after having studied months on the issue) was: oops, the Catholic Church!

    I was relieved and startled at the same time, because never in a thousand years did I think I would become one of those “hell bound” Catholics. Having grown up in the Piney Woods Bible-belt of northeast Texas, I thought that the Catholic Church was in league with Lucifer. No kidding.

    Well …

    It’s good to be Catholic. Thanks be to God.

  • $1650412

    There are a number of points, I find, in my life, where the Lord challenges my underlying assumptions about things- how I think things should be- the essence of truth, and my ability to find it, or to find Him. I know that I know that I know that my secure home in Christ is in the Catholic Church- I have unreservedly, by God’s mercy and grace, staked my soul, my sanity, and very being on this. I don’t know how to explain this to someone, but I find no refuge in my own ability to understand and accept Catholic teaching, but my security is in God’s love and ability to reveal it– and His willingness to enable me to pursue and persevere in His love. I wish I were a better advertisement for it, like some rare exquisite orchid in a greenhouse of God’s glory (a peaceful child at rest in the bosom of the Church), because my current thistle and thorn gig (thrashing around in combat with vice and in restless pursuit of virtue) doesn’t strike me as the most effective way to market the new evangelization but then I might have to refer to sentence one in this post….

  • Christina Channell

    I could relate to your experiences of turning to peers with your questions. There was a lot of stammering when I asked those “givens.”

  • Catherine Herzog

    Thank you for writing what I have seen for the last twelve years! It took me three years to go from Protestant to Catholic, and so many people could not understand what I was doing nor why. Now I am Eastern Rite Catholic– My church is four hours from me, but I go to a local parish when I am not at my church, and participate in homeschool activities with my children in two Evangelical homeschool groups because there is not a Catholic one in my area. When I talk to people that are not Catholic– or in my area not conservative Catholic– they do not understand, and as I pose the same question that you wrote about I either get a blank stare, as if to say “Why would you even ask that question?” or anger sometimes as if I had no right to ask the question. So many ask me why I haven’t become Greek Orthodox, but again it has to do with authority and being in line with the pope, and this little thing called unity that Jesus ask of us. As I explain, and try to tell them how important this is to our relationship to God, they do not understand and I am heart broken for these people.
    The saddest thing I find in this area are Catholics that do not even understand the reason their church has authority. This breaks my heart because I found the truth that so many ignore within the Catholic Church!

  • Renee Costello

    I love your question “It can’t be a theological free-for-all – can it?” I actually laughed when I read that and said “Oh yes it can and that is exactly what it is.” I’m also a former protestant and as a child was told the Catholic Church was “evil” and “cultish” and I was taken to whatever the church du jour was – Unitarian, Congregationalist – whatever seemed to be “in” at the time with the most popular pastor and the least demands on its members. The last church was Lutheran and I actually chose it but more or less only because a friend was going there and she was raised as a Lutheran and was very good at selling its theology. When I truly came to Christ and wanted a church based on His teachings I couldn’t understand why anyone would have a problem with the Catholic Church. Thank you for your great posts Paul, I can always relate to them.

  • Darryl Hart

    Paul, so now that you’re a Roman Catholic, have you noticed that the same problems you found among Protestants afflict Roman Catholicism? Just change a few words and what do you have?

    “At the same time, I watched as Roman Catholics, with their American freedoms, set themselves up as their own “authorities” and made some surprising decisions. Surprising to me, that is. Some dropped out of any regular church attendance (because of Vatican II). Some talked as if there was no objective way to discuss papal infallibility, as if it all came down to “what it means to me and you can’t tell me otherwise.” I saw the line between church teaching and individual practice become blurred, if not erased. So, again, I wondered: who gets the final word?”

    • LizEst

      Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium are the guardians of our faith. If people reject these, they reject the faith. They follow themselves not the Catholic faith, even though they like to say they are Catholic.

      • Thank you, Liz. I could not have said it any better. We disobey the Teachings and the Authority of the Holy Church – the Body of Christ – and imperil our Eternal Destiny. “He who hears you hears Me and the One Who Sent Me. He who does not hear you, does not hear Me or the One Who sent me”…..Absolutely no ambiguity here.

      • Darryl Hart

        Liz, but if they reject these, it will still be okay. Just a stay in purgatory. And don’t worry about me. I’m merely a separated brother.

        You see, Vatican 2 seemed to remove the incentives for accepting Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. Ironic no, that the magisterium would undermine the magisterium?

        • Darryl – Thanks for your comments. Of course, you are welcome to believe that folks can reject Church teaching with impunity but your opinion does not reflect the teachings of the Church. With respect to Vatican II’s effect, in reading the documents myself (have you read any?) I am drawn more deeply in my own commitment to the magisterium. The documents are beautiful, compelling, and clearly have the mark of the Holy Spirit in them.

          • Darryl Hart

            Dan, I think the same of Holy Scripture, which was written by the Holy Spirit.

          • Darryl, we agree regarding the beauty and power of Holy Scripture as inspired by the Holy Spirit. As you are probably aware, the bible is the fruit of the magisterium of the Catholic Church.

        • Camila


          You say “Vatican 2 seemed to remove the incentives for accepting Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium.”

          Vatican 2 says “This Sacred Council (Vatican II) wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation.”

          Vatican 2 also says “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.”

          (both quotes from Lumen Gentium)
          ….. so where exactly does it remove incentives for accepting Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium?

      • Camila

        B E A U T I F U L

    • Paul McCusker

      The good news, Darryl, is that the Church has the Magisterium as a final interpreter (though people often ignore it, but that’s another issue).

      • Darryl Hart

        Paul, so do Protestants. We have the Holy Spirit. But people ignore God too.

        • Athanasius De Angelus

          Sorry, but I don’t think Protestants have the Holy Spirit because right now there are over 40,000 Protestants denominations and they contradict each other in faith and moral. The Holy Spirit is the not the God of contradictions.

          “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms among you; but that you be perfect in the same mind, and in the same judgment.” – 1 Corinthians 1:10

        • Jacob Suggs

          This doesn’t work – clearly many of the people who disagree are sincere, and so it’s not a case of ignoring God but of misunderstanding Him. If God had left direct appeal to the Holy Spirit as the method by which we were to discern truth, then He did a pretty bad job of it, since many people try this direct appeal in exactly the same way and think they get different answers. An algorithm that answers the same question yes and no depending on who asks is not much of an algorithm.

          And God is not in the habit of doing a bad job of things. So it seems likely that’s not what He intended.

          • Darryl Hart

            Jacob, same goes for the magisterium. If that was God’s plan, why three popes (at the same time) and why Garry Wills?

          • God allows for free will – that fact that people reject Him and His ways is not a reflection on Him or the Church. The redemption of humanity is a messy affair. The Church is not protected from stupidity, it is protected from error in doctrine.

    • Jacob Suggs

      The difference is, what you describe is a problem with Catholics’ actions that are actually against Catholicism, not with Catholicism itself. The Church still gets the final word, it just so happens that some of us aren’t that good at listening.

      • Jeffrey Job

        I am fairly certain that alot of “Catholics” have ears for decorative purposes only.

    • ZuzanaM

      I am a convert and it distressed me greatly after I became a Catholic to find my ‘studied Faith’ was shared with a minority of laity in my parish. Unfortunately, after Vatican II foolish innovators rushed in where previously ‘even angels feared to tread’ and cooped the liturgy, the CCD, and also staff positions and standing committee chairs. The faithful minority suffered for decades, especially because the Bishop was very liberal in his formation. Thankfully I have been a member in recent years in many solidly Catholic parishes and there is a growing hope for renewal in the Church here in the USA.

      I also have lived and worked for two years in the Catholic Diocese of Nnewi in Nigeria. We should never judge the state of the Universal Church by the situation here in the US. Americans like to think that what happens here has a big impact, but frankly, we are too small a part of the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church. In truth, it is Almighty God who is in charge, and His will we pray be done in our lives. I think that it really doesn’t matter what our Separated Brethren, think, say or do (only if we let it, that is). As St Paul said, much worse things than the Reformation, will never separate us from the Love of God.

      Lastly, I think that a big problem for the Catholic Church in the US is the fact that we are a democracy that has lost its barrings. The Church is a Theocracy to begin with… and a nation built on revolt against a monarchy, will naturally have trouble submitting to the authority of a Magisterium and Pope.

  • LizEst

    I like this quote on “I will go peaceably and firmly to the Catholic Church: for if Faith is so important to our salvation, I will seek it where true Faith first began, seek it among those who received it from God Himself.”

    – St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

  • Phoenix_Lion

    I just posted this question to my friends on Facebook. Most of them are evangelical or non practicing Catholics. I pray they take it in without lashing out. But if the past indicates the future that prayer is a long shot.

  • Clementius

    “And when he was come into the temple, there came
    to him, as he was teaching, the chief priests and ancients of the
    people, saying: By what authority dost thou these things? and who hath
    given thee this authority?” (St. Matthew 21:23)

    Jesus Himself found Himself in this situation. We wonder that this is still our situation after 21 centuries of established doctrine.

    • LizEst

      “To one who has faith no explanation is necessary; to one without faith, no explanation is possible” (attributed to Thomas Aquinas).

  • markmestrange

    being raised roman catholic– it is the Holy Spirit that bears wittness to each individual on the scripture meaning– to the religious person who loves to quote scripture based on a commentary that they have read— well than — the idea that the Holy Spirit is the person who interpreters the scripture– will be foolishness–

    this is what Saint paul was referring to in 1 cor– 3– to the natural man it is foolishness–
    so as if a religious individual does not — have any of the 9 gifts of the spirit — manafesting — thru them — well than — they relay — on the scripture that they have memorized —

    it is far more “common” for a non catholic — religious person — converting to the catholic religion– but still not — being enlighting by the Holy Spirit–

    but now they — become even more of a zelet– but with out the Holy Spirit– i have seen this time and time again on the catholic answers forum–

    like a former alcoholic– they become evangelical in their newness to the catholic rituals–

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