I remember being quite taken aback when I first encountered the claim made by the Catholic Church stating that,
“The Church is catholic: she proclaims the fullness of the faith. She bears in herself and administers the totality of the means of salvation.”1
What arrogance! How condescending to other Christians! The fullness of the faith?! The totality of the means of salvation?! I was aghast.
Having been raised in an evangelical Christian home, I had never encountered a church that would have even dreamt of saying that they possessed the, “fullness of the faith.” I had never heard of a church claiming to be “infallible” in her official teachings, or one who claimed to administer the, “totality of the means of salvation.” I was used to attending churches that were very forthright and honest about just how fallible they were! I was used to listening to sermons by preachers who would often end their sermon by warning us to double-check what they had just taught us against our own personal understanding of the bible!
Growing up, it seemed like every church I attended had one thing in common – the bible was the sole rule and guide for all matters of faith and morals. The bible was the ultimate authority when it came to truth – not the church! Unfortunately, that was almost all that these churches agreed on. Each church had a different way of interpreting the bible, a different way of understanding the truth.
These differences ran the full gamut, ranging from what was necessary for salvation and whether or not salvation could be lost, to whether baptism was necessary and efficacious or merely optional and symbolic. We disagreed on moral issues like homosexuality, whether or not divorce was permissible, and whether or not abortion was okay in certain circumstances. We disagreed on what day of the week to worship, free will versus predestination, the necessity (or lack thereof) of good works in the life of the believer, end time chronologies, the gifts of the Holy Spirit – the list went literally on and on.
We disagreed with one another on virtually everything, often completely convinced that we were right and they were wrong…but no one was ever audacious enough to claim that they were infallibly correct. A church that taught infallibly? A church that contained the fullness of the faith? A church that administered the totality of the means of salvation? Ludicrous.
So, when I learned that the Catholic Church claimed to be infallible in her official teachings on matters of faith and morals, when I discovered that she claimed to possess the fullness of the Christian faith, when I heard her proclaim that she bore and administered the totality of the means of salvation,
I found myself simultaneously offended and intrigued. Who was this church that had the audacity to make such radical claims?!!
Not only did the Catholic Church make radical claims as to her ability to dispense truth and salvation, but she also claimed to be the church which Jesus Christ founded on and through His apostles. Which kind of made sense when I reflected on the fact that Christ Himself was no stranger to audacious claims. Not only did he claim to be God in the flesh, but he also declared, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”2 As a Christian, this was a claim that didn’t strike me as being particularly arrogant or condescending, but I had to admit, if I had encountered Christ’s words as a Muslim, Hindu, or Jew, I might have felt very differently about the nature of His claims!
Ultimately, I realized that all declarations of truth are exclusive. In saying that one thing is true, we are by default eliminating other options. Fundamentally truth claims aren’t personal although we often tend to take them that way. Rather, they are an invitation to either prove or disprove the veracity of the claim that is being made. They are entirely non-subjective. They aren’t about personal feelings, desires, or how we want the world to be. They are either true or they are not. With that in mind, we should be free to evaluate truth claims without getting our panties in a bunch. I know, I know, it’s easier said than done sometimes, but nevertheless, there you have it.
I was also forced to admit that the Catholic Church’s claims to absolute truth weren’t in opposition to other Christian churches who made similar claims, rather she was the only Christian church which even claimed infallible truth. She alone claimed to possess the fullness of the Christian faith and the totality of the means of salvation. And that began to bother me. As a Protestant, why would I want to be a part of a church that admitted that they taught some error mixed with truth? Why would I want to be part of a congregation that flat out said, “Listen, we don’t have all the answers. Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we think we’re right. We can’t know for sure, and ultimately you’ll have to follow your own best judgement, but you’re more than welcome to be a part of our group.”
The Catholic Church claimed to possess infallible truth and the fullness of the faith. Every other Christian church responds, “No you don’t – and we don’t either!” [Tweet This]
Once upon a time, Protestants and Catholics fought over which side was correctly proclaiming the truth. When they squared off in the ring it was to see who could best defend the tenants of their faith. But in recent times, non-Catholic Christians have seemed less and less willing to engage in a fight to determine truth.
Modern Protestantism doesn’t claim infallible and absolute truth, rather it defaults to a fundamentally agnostic position asserting that no denomination can have complete certainty on all doctrinal and moral issues. The claim is essentially that no one possesses the fullness of the faith – that no one can say with absolute certainty, “We can teach you to observe all that Christ commanded.”
Protestant Christianity is kind of like a challenger who steps into the ring with the champ, but oddly enough isn’t interested in beating the champ or taking his title. Instead the challenger just wants to discredit him. He just wants the world to acknowledge that there’s no such thing as a title and no such thing as a champion. That the claim to greatness (or the claim to truth) is itself a lie. That there’s really no such thing. Their knockout punch is the claim that the fullness of truth can never be taught without an admixture of error.
In some ways these claims are as audacious as that of the Catholic Church, they are simply claims which find themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Perhaps it will come as no surprise when I tell you that I found this approach unappealing. I decided that it was time to honestly and fairly consider the truth claims made by Catholicism.
A Rock in Shifting Sands
In the Sermon on the Mount, after Christ finishes His preaching, He gives an apt description of what will befall those who heed His words, and what will befall those who don’t.
“Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.”3
Interestingly enough, when Christ builds His house, His Church, it is also built upon a rock. “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.”4 Christ’s Church is built upon a rock – not on shifting sands. And it is His Church, “the church of the living God,” which becomes the very, “pillar and foundation of the truth.”5 The Church is the pillar of the truth – it upholds it and elevates it. The Church is the foundation of the truth – it supports it and strengthens it.
The foundation of the truth is the Church, which is built upon the rock. There are no shifting sands, everything is firm and stable and secure. Christ gives to Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. To Peter and the apostles He gives the almost unbelievable authority to bind and loose in heaven and on earth6. In sending them out he tells them, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”7 In the Great Commission, Christ also commissions and sends out the disciples saying, “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.”8
Perhaps then, it is not so odd that the Catholic Church speaks with the same authority and audaciousness as her founder. Having been given the very teaching authority of Christ (he who hears you hears me), the authority to bind and loose, the commission to teach all that Christ commands, the promise that Christ will be with her to the end of the age and that He Himself will ensure that His Church prevails over death and Hell…well perhaps the Catholic Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth as the Scriptures claim. Perhaps she does proclaim the fullness of the faith and administer the totality of the means of salvation. Perhaps she is infallible in her official teaching. Perhaps no other church can claim this precisely because no other church was founded on the rock by Christ Himself.
A Walk Along the Beach…
Have you ever walked along the beach in deep sand? It can be pleasant enough for a while, especially on a beautiful day. But after awhile you may start to notice how much harder it is to walk in deep sand rather than on solid ground. Sometimes people will train by running on the beach because it’s a much more difficult workout versus running on a solid track.
Whether walking or running, you will notice that with every step, you have to rebalance and correct for the next step as the sand shifts under your feet. Soon your arches ache and you find yourself using muscles that you typically don’t pay any attention to as your body tries to compensate. Even though you are on relatively flat ground, the deep sand is making you breath harder than usual and you’re definitely not able to go in a straight line. It’s hard to find any sort of cadence because each step brings a uniquely shifting terrain that you have to adjust to on the fly. By the time you leave the beach and head to the parking lot your body is crying out for stable ground. As you step onto the pavement it’s wonderful. Firm and supportive, your body finds it’s natural walking rhythm, and your muscles are able to relax. Your breathing slows and your calves and arches unknot.
When I left the shifting sands of Protestantism for the firm ground of Catholicism it was a relief. I finally had firm teaching under my feet – fixed and unmoving. Spiritually I had been crying out for solid ground without even realizing it. I had been worn out by the shifting sands of doctrine and a lack of fixed truth. I needed solid ground. My soul echoed the cry of the Psalmist
Hear my cry, O God; Attend unto my prayer.
From the end of the earth will I call unto thee,
When my heart is overwhelmed:
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.9
And in His mercy, Christ led me to His Church. The rock that is higher than I.
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