Certainty was one of the most important influences in my becoming a Catholic Christian. The word of God is certain, but interpretations are not. Yet, it is neither biblical nor reasonable to believe Christ would leave the Church without clear guidance.
Certainty rests upon the Catholic Church—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, as the Nicene Creed states—being not simply one “denomination” among many, but the Church that Jesus Christ established.
Good Men Differ?
“Good men differ,” we used to say as protestants. But diametrically opposed positions—all claiming the Bible as their authority—cannot simultaneously be true. A PewSpective post underscores the point:
I remember discussing the Eucharist with a Presbyterian friend whose opinion on the subject was very different than mine. He smiled and said, “We can agree to disagree and both leave here friends.” I smiled back. “You bet, but we can’t both leave here right.”
Scot McKnight, in “From Wheaton to Rome,” quotes Irenaeus (Bishop of Lyons in the second century) as saying “the mission of the Church to teach with infallible certitude.” Indeed! It was Dr. McKnight’s article—the work of a protestant theologian—that helped me make sense of the Catholic Church. He cites certainty, history, unity, and authority.
We all want certainty. We don’t just want it, but can reasonably and biblically expect it. “God is not a God of confusion” (KJV, ESV translations of 1 Corinthians 14:33). Such certainty is achieved in fellowship with the Church that received “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
How is This Accomplished?
How is the “faith once delivered” transmitted and certainty thereby achieved? The pattern for the Church is found in 2 Timothy 2:2. The apostles chosen by Christ sent forth a subsequent generation of faithful men, who sent forth the next generation of faithful men, who sent forth the next, right up to and including those who are leading Christ’s Church today. To be a Catholic Christian today is to be in direct contact with faithful men who trace their offices back to the Apostles chosen by Christ (1 John 1:1-3).
To suggest to some evangelicals that Catholics have certainty might seem ironic, since one common protestant objection to Catholicism is, “Oh, those poor people. They live in such fear. Don’t they realize they can know they are going to Heaven?” This protestant concern for Catholics only serves to underscore how important certainty is about eternal questions.
Good Men Needn’t Differ
Good men needn’t differ about theological points. Certainty is found in the Church founded by Christ. After Peter’s affirmation that Christ is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16) Jesus said to him:
Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.¹
By this, Jesus Christ confirmed Peter’s profession of faith was divinely inspired and established him as head of the Church—the role today we would call Vicarius Christi, the “Vicar of Christ,” or Pope (“Papa” in Italian, a wonderful, tender title).
Authoritative teaching was promised to Peter, the Apostles, and their successors. “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 behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Pastoral Care and the Certainty of Forgiveness
Moreover, pastoral care, along with authoritative teaching, was entrusted to Peter and his successors. Christ not only admonishes Peter to “feed my lambs; feed my sheep” but to “tend my sheep” (John 21: 15–17). Our Lord concludes these remarkable acts by even giving Peter, the Apostles, and their successors the power to forgive sins and reconcile fallen men and women to Himself and His Church:
Jesus then said to the Apostles, “‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’” (John 20:21-23).
These are the charters given Peter and the first Apostles of Christ’s Church.
Apostolic succession matters. As Steve Wood once said in a radio broadcast about his experience as a Presbyterian minister and that group’s ordinations, “How could we know we weren’t just a bunch of friends, going through the motions of ordaining each other?” The answer? He couldn’t. He had no certainty.
Certainty matters—and, best of all, certainty is possible. Christianity Richly!
¹ For evangelical readers of this post, be assured that Catholics humbly trust God for salvation— “perseverance unto glory” in the words of Father Garrigou-Lagrange, director of Karol Wojtyła’s doctoral thesis before Cardinal Wojtyła became John Paul II.
² Matthew 16:17–19