The New Testament: In Medio Ecclesiae
One of the strangest things about the theology of Protestants and of others, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, who claim to base their doctrine on Sacred Scripture, is their use of Scripture as a judge, even an enemy, of the Catholic Church. That is, by treating Scripture as independent of the Church, instead of as something produced by the Church, they erect the Bible, particularly the New Testament, into something it was never intended to be, an entirely independent source of sacred doctrine. In this article I intend to show from the text of the New Testament, especially from the Acts of the Apostles, that invaluable history of the Church in the early Apostolic era, that the text of the New Testament must always be viewed in medio ecclesiae, in the midst of the Church, something of, by and for the Church, a book that cannot be understood apart from the Church and which can never rightly be separated from the Church, let alone made into a judge of the Church.
The first thing to understand, and a fact that can hardly be denied, is that the creation of the Catholic Church preceded the creation of the New Testament. Thus all the documents of the New Testament, the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, all the various epistles, and the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse), were written by members of the Church, presuppose the existence of the Church, and reflect her teaching and liturgical practice. In the Acts of the Apostles we possess an account of the spread of the Gospel from the time of the Ascension of our Lord until shortly after St. Paul's arrest and detention in Rome. Any open-minded reader of Acts must see that from the very beginning it focuses on the work of the Church. Although all the details are by no means clear to us, the fact of the Church appears on every page of the book of Acts and must be obvious to anyone who looks at it without prejudice. Let us take a tour through that book to highlight some of the major points which reflect or presuppose the existence and doctrine of the Church.
Before doing so though, it would be well to say a word about when the Acts of the Apostles was written. For if it is not, in fact, an historical account of the earliest life of the Church, compiled from contemporary accounts, in fact written by St. Luke, companion of St. Paul, then its historical value is much less. The traditional date of the composition of Acts is about 63 A.D., that is, a mere thirty years after our Lord's Ascension. Thus concerning those events which Luke himself did not witness, such as the Ascension or the day of Pentecost, he was able to interview the participants themselves. Therefore we need have no hesitation about accepting the work as a perfectly reliable historical document. With this in mind, let us begin our journey through Acts, focusing on those elements which in some way involve the place and role of the Church.
At the very beginning of Acts, right after Jesus's Ascension is narrated, we have the account of the selection of Matthias to take the place of Judas among the Apostles. We should note here that it was Peter who initiated Matthias's selection, but for the purposes of this article, we will concentrate on the fact that already this early band of followers of Jesus Christ is acting, not only like a corporate body, but a body with officers and procedures, and at least some sense of its future mission. It was not simply some unorganized band of men who were inspired by the teachings of Jesus or who individually received enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, but a regularly constituted organization. In other words, here already we have in germ the Catholic idea of the Church, a body with officers, created by God and which received from him its authority to carry out the work of making disciples of all nations and bringing the means of grace to the human race.
Next follow the events of the day of Pentecost, when God the Holy Spirit came upon the early Catholics and endowed them with the power of preaching the Gospel throughout the world. Here also the institution of the Church is apparent: Peter preaches the first Catholic sermon, and "those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:41). Added to what? To the Church, of course, and added by means of an external and public rite, Baptism, not by a merely subjective salvation experience. And what did these new converts do? They "devoted themselves to the apostles's teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42).
Here we would do well to pause and look more closely at this last phrase, "to the breaking of bread and the prayers." What exactly does this mean? We, of course, can be sure that it refers to the Eucharist, to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. But does the text say this exactly and without any doubt? No, for this is just one example of how the New Testament presupposes knowledge of the Church's practices in order to be fully understood. Were we "Bible-only" Christians, and seeking to emulate the life of the Jerusalem church, what would we do? Break up pieces of bread while we engaged in prayer? The point is that the book of Acts, like the rest of the New Testament, does not explain a very great amount of what it mentions or alludes to, simply because St. Luke was assuming that its readers, faithful Catholics, would understand it in a Catholic sense. We will see this happen many times as we proceed with our discussion.
The next incident in Acts that we will look at is the institution of the order of deacons in chapter 6. When confronted with a disagreement between Greek-speaking and Aramaic-speaking Catholics, the Apostles created and ordained the first deacons to take charge of the distribution of food. Here again the Apostles act with consciousness of their own authority. They clearly consider the Church to be one body of believers over which they rule. And all this happens, we should note, before any book of the New Testament exists. Unlike Protestants, they do not "search the scriptures" to find out what they should do, because either by command of Christ Himself, given to them orally when He was on earth, or by the continuing inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they, as rulers of the Church, know what to do to meet the needs and continuing crises of her existence. They clearly claim an authority that derives immediately from Jesus Christ, not simply from Jesus Christ by means of the written Scriptures, as Protestants today perforce would. The question of the creation of deacons, moreover, is akin to the question of the Sacrament of Confirmation or the conferring of the Holy Spirit. Let us look at how Acts treats this subject.
Chapter 8 of Acts contains the account of the visit of Peter and John to Samaria so that the new converts there "might receive the Holy Spirit" (8:14-15). The way St. Luke recounts the experience of various new converts with the reception of the Holy Spirit is a good example of how the bare text very often cannot be understood apart from knowledge of the Church's doctrines and practices. On the day of Pentecost God the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles and the other members of the Church (chap. 3), and Peter promises the three thousand who were about to be baptized that they "shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (2:38), but nothing is said about there being a sepa-rate rite for this. What can we conclude from that? Nothing really, though the "Bible-only" Christian might wonder about the correct manner that the Holy Spirit is to be given to believers. Indeed, in the account of the Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by Philip (Acts 8:27-39), there is no mention of the newly-baptized receiving the Holy Spirit. Though after Paul is converted he is told that he is to be "filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 9:17), again nothing is said about a separate rite for this, only that he was baptized (verse 18). And finally, in chapter 10, Cornelius, a gentile, together with his friends and relatives, receives the Holy Spirit while Peter is preaching, and immediately afterwards they are baptized by Peter's command. So here we see accounts of people being baptized with no mention of their receiving the Holy Spirit, and yet of others who receive this gift before their Baptism. But in chapter 8, as I said, Peter and John are expressly sent to Samaria because the Holy Spirit "had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." And those Apostles then "laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit" (Acts 8:17). Now what can these various narratives teach us?
I think that the "Bible-only" Christian would be perplexed here, or at least he ought to be. If he seeks to follow the teaching and practice of the New Testament Church, how is he to handle the matter of receiving the Holy Spirit? Is this for everyone or only for some? And who can confer the Holy Spirit? If only apostles, then is there anyone living today who can do this? But Catholics, knowing the practice of the Church, can see that Luke simply omits to mention the conferring of the Holy Spirit on the three thou-sand converts of the day of Pentecost or on the Ethiopian eunuch. There is no implication here that receiving the Holy Spirit is optional or simply a part of baptism. And although the early Church undoubtedly witnessed many supernatural charisms that no longer are given or are no longer common, in this matter of receiving the Holy Spirit we can see the current Catholic practice of the Sacrament of Confirmation (or chrismation). All the newly baptized are to receive the Holy Spirit, which is the reason Peter and John were sent to Samaria. And since, at this early date, it is likely that the Apostles had not yet ordained or consecrated anyone else to the priesthood, there was no one else able to confer Confirmation, which is why they had to ask Jerusalem to send someone to administer this sacrament. And if in any particular account of someone's conversion the reception of the Holy Spirit is not mentioned, this is simply an oversight by the author, it does not imply that this is optional or unimportant. But the reader of Acts who does not have the framework of the Church's teaching to help him understand has no way of knowing this. He would be in doubt about who is to receive the Holy Spirit, when (before or after Baptism), and by whom the Holy Spirit is to be conferred.
This same confusion about the sacraments is reflected in the interpretation of some Protestants (the Berean Baptists) about I Corinthians 1:17. There Paul is deploring the divisions in the church of Corinth and he states that he is grateful because he himself had baptized very few of the Catholics there. Then he says (verse 17): "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel." From this these Protestants have concluded that baptism is optional or unnecessary and that the Church in the time of St. Paul did not regard it as obligatory. Again, looking at this passage with the Catholic fullness of faith, we recognize simply one of St Paul's characteristic overstatements. But how are Protestants, using only the bare text of Holy Scripture, to deal with this objection?
In a similar vein, the question of who is the proper subject of baptism has also been a controversy between Catholics and many Protestants. That is, can infants be baptized? Does the New Testament say anything about this one way or the other? In fact, the text of the New Testament is not clear on this matter, but we might pause and look at a phrase that occurs in connection with Baptism, namely that someone is baptized `and all of his household' or a similar phrasing. Does `all his household' include children below the age of reason? From the text of the New Testatment, we do not know definitely, for some Protestants would argue that, just as the statement, "All the family enjoys reading books," excludes infants, so here there is no implication that infants are included either. The point is, that the New Testament text is not definite. But would Jesus Christ leave his followers in doubt about a matter of such great importance? Would he leave his followers merely a book, a book that can and has been interpreted a thousand different ways? Without the existence of the teaching, believing and worshipping Church, we would be in the dark about not only Baptism but about many equally important questions of faith and practice.
To return to the Acts of the Apostles, in chapter 13 we begin to read of Paul's various missionary journeys. And here again we see the Church in action, for Luke states that Paul, and his companion St. Barnabas, returned to the cities where they had preached the Gospel and "appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting . . . " (14:23). Now who are these "elders?" They are previously mentioned in Acts 11:30, but, unlike the order of deacons, no account is given of their creation. And to make matters more confusing, they are sometimes equated with another office, that of bishop (e.g., Acts 20:17 and 28, Titus 1:5-7). What can one conclude from this? If one looks at the names of the officials who lead various Protestant congregations today, sometimes one will find a pastor, sometimes an elder, occasionally even a bishop. For, again, the text of the New Testament does not set forth clearly a system of church government. A Christian who seeks to rely solely on the Bible would be confused by the variety of titles and functions. But we Catholics know that whatever names may have been used in the early Church, there are three distinct orders of ministry, bishops, priests and deacons, that are of divine institution. But from this we can see two important facts: First, that the New Testament church regarded itself as an institution which required officials, and that these officials were not free-lance agents nor did they receive their authority from their congregations; and secondly, that the bare text of the New Testament does not allow us to make any certain judgment about the powers and authority of bishops or elders and their relationship with the Apostles. Again, only our knowledge of the Church and her teachings and our recognition of the fact that, despite our inability always to understand the meaning of some of the New Testament passages, we have in the constant practice of the living Church a sure method of interpretation, allows us to avoid the confusion that ought to exist for one seeking in the biblical text alone all his theological and ecclesiastical knowledge.
In the next chapter of Acts (chap. 15) occurs one of the great events of the Apostolic Church, the Council of Jerusalem, called to decide whether the newly-converted had to submit to circumcision and keep the Mosiac law in order to become Christians. Or in other words, whether all Catholics had first to become Jews. This event alone ought to be enough to put to rest forever Protestant notions of ecclesiology, for in this serious crisis about what Christians must believe and how they are to act, it is not by consulting the Scriptures nor by individual prophecies from the Holy Spirit, but by the hierarchy meeting together and listening to the Apostles, particularly Peter, that a decision is reached. And when a decision is reached, not only is it imposed on the whole Church authoritatively, but the actual decree that is sent out begins: "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . . "! (15:28). What group of Protestant pastors would ever presume to speak in the name of God the Holy Spirit himself? Yet here the Catholic Church does so with no hesitation or hint of embarrassment. And to this day the Catholic Church continues to speak with authority and the world is still astonished by it, much as it was astonished at that Church's Founder "for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes" (Matthew 7:29).
Although there is much else that might be mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, Msgr. Ronald Knox sums up well the career of the Church as it is recounted in that book:
From the very outset of the Acts, you have the impression that the Church has sprung into being ready-made. Not that it has no lessons to learn from experience, needs no fresh revelations to guide it. But it knows already how to deal with each fresh situation that arises, and does so with a wonderful sureness of touch.
It would be beyond the scope of this article to review the entire New Testament in the same manner in which we have just reviewed parts of the Acts of the Apostles. But I would like to call attention to two more passages, Colossians 4:16 and I Thessalonians 5:27, each of which also illustrates something of the Catholic nature of the New Testament Church. In these passages St. Paul commands the letters he has just written to be read aloud in the congregations. In Colossians he writes: "And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea." And in I Thessalonians, "I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brethren." Now what seems interesting to me about these verses, is that very likely the practice of reading such letters aloud was common and was carried out in the case of all of St. Paul's letters, even though only twice does he specifically mention it. And what does this mean? It means that, unlike the Protestant notion of biblical interpretation, the Pauline letters were meant to be read in the context of the local church by the local clergy, and no doubt commented upon and the difficult passages and expressions explained for the benefit of the faithful. There was no notion of each believer taking his Bible into his study, reading it and coming up with his own interpretation. The Scriptures were read and interpreted within the local church. In fact, doubtless at least some of those in the congregations Paul addressed could not even read. So here again, when we actually look at the practice of the Church of the New Testament, far from seeing in it Protestant ideas and Protestant practices, we see ample evidence of Catholic faith and practice, often, it is true, not fully grown, but existing in germ. And in many other passages, we have allusions to practices and deeds which are not explained by the passage, and leave the reader in doubt about what the Apostolic practice really was. In both these cases the Catholic Church is the key to understanding the New Testament. As Catholics we must learn to see the New Testament as the prime book produced by the Church, a book that is in many ways unintelligible without the Church. If we do this, then we can rejoice with the Apostles and St. Paul, as we repeat:
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations for ever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:21)
Thomas Storck writes from Maryland.