I considered Catholics Pharisees for more than a decade.
A common biblical paradigm for Protestants to justify rejecting Catholicism is likening the Catholics to Pharisees; those who “make their phylacteries long,” or “have neglected the weightier matters.” I understand the appeal of this claim. They might see the liturgy or the thoroughly complex canon legal structures within the Catholic church and want to simplify it. This is to leave aside their revulsion at things like reverence of Mary or the Saints, and focus on a specific element of disagreement – the notion that Catholics and Catholic Priests and prelates are something akin to the Pharisees, preventing people from entering the kingdom by their laws and regulations.
This is an interesting comparison and has quite a bit of appeal. But the knifing question is this: Was the Catholic Church’s authority ever legitimate, and if so, when was that authority lost?
Before we approach such a monumental question, let’s deal with the same question in the comparison made – the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Jesus directly affirmed their authority:
“The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat…” (Mat 23:3 NET)
That settles that. If Catholics are the Pharisees and experts of the law, your comparison directly affirms the Catholic church’s legitimacy to interpret law. But let’s follow through with the context of the statement:
“Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”
So even if the Pharisees and teachers of the law “do not practice what they teach,” their authority is still legitimate. So much for dismissing Catholics because of Pope Francis’ permission of ambiguity.
So, if Catholics were once authoritative, which is implied by the comparison to the Pharisees and teachers of the law – by what justification have Protestants rejected that authority?
I have a sense that they would immediately say, “Well, let’s go to the scriptures and see what they say.” Let’s look at how Protestants justify the authority of the scriptures. Countless times, I’ve seen Protestants quote this verse:
[2Ti 3:16 ESV] 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…
I can hear the statements now: “Scripture alone!” “The bible doesn’t teach that!” “I follow THE BIBLE!”
This is strange from my perspective, because the New Testament was not scripture until the Church’s stamp of authority was placed upon it. Peter & Paul only refer to the Old Testament when they say “scripture.”
Here’s how silly this is: “A statement made in the New Testament declaring the Old Testament sacred scripture confirms that the New Testament is sacred scripture.”
There is no reasonable argument that can be put forward for rejecting Catholic authority on the basis of scripture. If you argue that immediately after the canon of scripture was established the Catholic Church no longer had any authority, you are performing a miraculous gymnastic feat of thinking, whereby the Church has the authority to declare writings “scripture” – an unbelievable admission – yet you reject that same authority because of some arbitrary interpretation of some flawed church leader.
“But the Papacy, the Priesthood, and many other Catholic doctrines were not established until much later!”
You will notice that the priesthood of the Levites was not established until after the Exodus. You will also notice that the Tabernacle itself, the central and only location for sacrifice and priestly ordnances, was not built until after the Exodus. Israel was not permitted to say “Moses is illegitimate because our fathers in Egypt and before the Egyptian captivity didn’t have a priesthood.” That would have been ignorant nonsense worthy of death.
Likewise, David moved the Ark from the Tabernacle of Moses which was at Gibeah over to the threshingfloor of Ornan, then finally to Zion. He had no scriptural basis for doing this.
You will also notice that after the death of Moses, the Levites were under obligation to teach the rest of Israel the laws up until Jeroboam kicked them out of the cities of the separated 10 tribes. They never lost that teaching authority – Jeroboam and his compatriots simply rejected it and went their own way. Protestants have done exactly the same thing, and they struggle and reach and scramble for some apex of Christian history when things went wrong, where they can claim that the Catholic church lost its legitimacy. This is foolish and narcissistic if you honestly evaluate history and the scriptures.
Simply choosing to be “sola scriptura” is no different from the Samarians – they rejected the later prophetic and kings writings and stuck to only the first 5 books of Moses, with a few textual variations from the recognized canon of the first 5 books of Moses. Protestants have done the same. They rejected the authority of Jerusalem, the priesthood, the Temple, and the teaching authority of the Levites (Moses’ seat). They will likely suffer the same fate, in time.
You might see my Samaritan-Protestant connection, and perhaps your mind races back to Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, and you’re inclined to argue that Jesus said this:
[Jhn 4:19-21 ESV] 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.
This is a good point, but let’s continue in the verse to some crucial footholds Jesus puts in place:
[Jhn 4:22-24 ESV] 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Aha, so Jesus makes a distinction between the Samaritan and the Jew. Without a relationship to teaching authority, the Temple, and the Priesthood, the Samaritans worshiped a God they did not know. Protestants today worship a God they do not know. Every new altar the Samaritans of the separated 10 tribes was a place for selfish sacrifices that did not respect the authorities God had established.
However, certainly “Protestants worship a God they do not know” needs clarification, since that is a very broad statement with a range of possible meanings. First, Jesus is obviously not saying that the Samaritans had no idea who Yahweh was. He is saying they do not understand what they are worshiping. They see him differently than he is. The footholds of teaching authority and access to legitimate sacrifice and priests must be in place to understand God. Jews went through periods where they had no access to sacrifice, and God provided for them in the meanwhile, but the separated nation of Israel is described by the Prophet Hosea:
[Hos 8:1-14 ESV] 1 Set the trumpet to your lips! One like a vulture is over the house of the LORD, because they have transgressed my covenant and rebelled against my law. 2 To me they cry, “My God, we–Israel–know you.” 3 Israel has spurned the good; the enemy shall pursue him. 4 They made kings, but not through me. They set up princes, but I knew it not. With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction. 5 I have spurned your calf, O Samaria. My anger burns against them. How long will they be incapable of innocence? 6 For it is from Israel; a craftsman made it; it is not God. The calf of Samaria shall be broken to pieces. 7 For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. The standing grain has no heads; it shall yield no flour; if it were to yield, strangers would devour it. 8 Israel is swallowed up; already they are among the nations as a useless vessel. 9 For they have gone up to Assyria, a wild donkey wandering alone; Ephraim has hired lovers. 10 Though they hire allies among the nations, I will soon gather them up. And the king and princes shall soon writhe because of the tribute. 11 Because Ephraim has multiplied altars for sinning, they have become to him altars for sinning. 12 Were I to write for him my laws by the ten thousands, they would be regarded as a strange thing. 13 As for my sacrificial offerings, they sacrifice meat and eat it, but the LORD does not accept them. Now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins; they shall return to Egypt. 14 For Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palaces, and Judah has multiplied fortified cities; so I will send a fire upon his cities, and it shall devour her strongholds.
[Hos 3:1-5 ESV] 1 And the LORD said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.” 2 So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. 3 And I said to her, “You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.” 4 For the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or household gods. 5 Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the LORD their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the LORD and to his goodness in the latter days.
Many of Hosea’s verses are commonly interpreted as applying to all Israel as we understand natural Israel – the Jews. In its original context, Hosea separates Judah and Samaria for judgment and calls both out for certain sins and each on for particular sins:
[Hos 4:15-19 ESV] 15 Though you play the whore, O Israel, let not Judah become guilty. Enter not into Gilgal, nor go up to Beth-aven, and swear not, “As the LORD lives.” 16 Like a stubborn heifer, Israel is stubborn; can the LORD now feed them like a lamb in a broad pasture? 17 Ephraim is joined to idols; leave him alone. 18 When their drink is gone, they give themselves to whoring; their rulers dearly love shame. 19 A wind has wrapped them in its wings, and they shall be ashamed because of their sacrifices.
[Hos 5:3-5 ESV] 3 I know Ephraim, and Israel is not hidden from me; for now, O Ephraim, you have played the whore; Israel is defiled. 4 Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. For the spirit of whoredom is within them, and they know not the LORD. 5 The pride of Israel testifies to his face; Israel and Ephraim shall stumble in his guilt; Judah also shall stumble with them.
[Hos 5:9-10 ESV] 9 Ephraim shall become a desolation in the day of punishment; among the tribes of Israel I make known what is sure. 10 The princes of Judah have become like those who move the landmark; upon them I will pour out my wrath like water.
[Hos 5:12-15 ESV] 12 But I am like a moth to Ephraim, and like dry rot to the house of Judah. 13 When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his wound, then Ephraim went to Assyria, and sent to the great king. But he is not able to cure you or heal your wound. 14 For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of Judah. I, even I, will tear and go away; I will carry off, and no one shall rescue. 15 I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me.
No one will argue that Catholics and their leaders have not sinned in history or that its leaders are perfect (and no, Papal infallibility is probably not what you think). Catholics and Protestants have compromised. Both have sinned and permitted the sacrifice of children upon the altar of modernism. However, Judah clung to its Davidic heritage, its priesthood, and its teaching authority, so that after the judgment, it could rise again.
[Hos 6:10-11 ESV] 10 In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing; Ephraim’s whoredom is there; Israel is defiled. 11 For you also, O Judah, a harvest is appointed, when I restore the fortunes of my people.
The last portion of this is a cryptic statement that should be interpreted with care. “Harvest” is not necessarily a positive, in the immediate context. But looking at the book as a whole, the sentiment is “Both have sinned. I will judge Ephraim. Judah also has judgment coming, with some unique differences.”
Further discussion of the judgment of Israel ensues, with this direct statement:
[Hos 11:12 ESV] 12 Ephraim has surrounded me with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit, but Judah still walks with God and is faithful to the Holy One.
In context (Hosea was purportedly written before the destruction of Judah), it does not diminish the sins that hung over Judah:
[Hos 12:2 ESV] 2 The LORD has an indictment against Judah and will punish Jacob according to his ways; he will repay him according to his deeds.
Interestingly, Hosea might here be referring to the desire of the 10 tribes to overthrow Solomon’s son after his death, since Solomon had been so disastrous for the tribes during the latter half of his reign:
[Hos 13:9-11 ESV] 9 He destroys you, O Israel, for you are against me, against your helper. 10 Where now is your king, to save you in all your cities? Where are all your rulers– those of whom you said, “Give me a king and princes”? 11 I gave you a king in my anger, and I took him away in my wrath.
A possible interpretation to “Give me a king and princes” is that it is referring to what the people said to Samuel:
[1Sa 8:19-20 ESV] 19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
This may well be the case, but it may also refer to a statement by Israel not recorded in other places that they have their own king separate from David – Jeroboam’s kingship. The statement in Hosea 13:9-11 is bracketed by two large sections of condemnations specifically against Ephraim. Ephraim had a heritage of prestige going back to Joshua himself – why wouldn’t they rule themselves, apart from the son of David? Surely the son of David was no longer legitimate, as he was ruling corruptly and oppressing the people.
Surely the Papacy and its protector, the Holy Roman Emperor, ruled corruptly. Therefore, Luther and the other reformers in the 1500s were entirely just in setting up entirely new Churches, new masses, and an entirely new biblical understanding shaped by the flood of Greek classics from refugees from recently fallen Constantinople in 1453. Surely all the corruption and sleaze they heard of or saw in Rome was a worthy reason to defy the Church’s long held teaching authority…I digress.
Hosea also has another verse commonly interpreted in an abnormally modern context:
[Hos 6:6 ESV] 6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
This is commonly interpreted as “God doesn’t want sacrifices at all.” That’s not what is being said here, as Jesus himself endorsed sacrifices during his own lifetime. Let us zoom out and see the greater context:
[Hos 6:4-9 ESV] 4 What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. 5 Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light. 6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. 7 But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me. 8 Gilead is a city of evildoers, tracked with blood. 9 As robbers lie in wait for a man, so the priests band together; they murder on the way to Shechem; they commit villainy.
So both had sinned – Judah and Ephraim. But the “knowledge of God” is what he really desired – and that knowledge was associated with the teaching mission of the Levites and the ability of the priests to offer sacrifices and incense daily. While Ephraim had defiled themselves by overt rejection, with idols, a false priesthood, and false teaching (see Hosea 8, the first Hosea passage I quoted), Judah had done so a few hundred years later by corrupting those institutions internally and pretending that those institutions, hollowed of their holiness, would save them:
[Jer 7:1-4 ESV] 1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 “Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the LORD. 3 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’
Jeremiah tells us that Judah reigned unjustly and had lost its moral center, and therefore God would judge Judah in time with destruction – even after all that corruption, even after all that destruction and the diaspora, more than 500 years later when Jesus arrived on the scene, please hear this if nothing else:
The teaching authority of the “seat of Moses” was still legitimate.
Given that this is so, how in the world can a person who genuinely knows the biblical story believe that mere human corruptions or politicking by the Catholic church divested it of its God-given authority?
Famously, Israel rejected the kingship of David:
[1Ki 12:16 ESV] 16 And when all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king, “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David.” So Israel went to their tents.
They rejected the Levites:
[2Ch 11:14-15 ESV] 14 For the Levites left their common lands and their holdings and came to Judah and Jerusalem, because Jeroboam and his sons cast them out from serving as priests of the LORD, 15 and he appointed his own priests for the high places and for the goat idols and for the calves that he had made.
Before defeating the Israelites in battle, Abijah king of Judah gave a crusade-worthy speech that outlines everything in plain terms:
[2Ch 13:8-12 ESV] 8 “And now you think to withstand the kingdom of the LORD in the hand of the sons of David, because you are a great multitude and have with you the golden calves that Jeroboam made you for gods. 9 Have you not driven out the priests of the LORD, the sons of Aaron, and the Levites, and made priests for yourselves like the peoples of other lands? Whoever comes for ordination with a young bull or seven rams becomes a priest of what are not gods. 10 But as for us, the LORD is our God, and we have not forsaken him. We have priests ministering to the LORD who are sons of Aaron, and Levites for their service. 11 They offer to the LORD every morning and every evening burnt offerings and incense of sweet spices, set out the showbread on the table of pure gold, and care for the golden lampstand that its lamps may burn every evening. For we keep the charge of the LORD our God, but you have forsaken him. 12 Behold, God is with us at our head, and his priests with their battle trumpets to sound the call to battle against you. O sons of Israel, do not fight against the LORD, the God of your fathers, for you cannot succeed.”
Let us hear Peter’s own words not to be ignorant and twist the scriptures – Old Testament or New Testament – to our own destruction. The interpretation of the scriptures is always within the context of Church authority, not vice versa, which is lawlessness.
[2Pe 3:15-17 ESV] 15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.