Who’s in authority here?

Night image of St. Peter's Basilica, Ponte Sant’Angelo and Tiber River in Rome, Italy.

Night image of St. Peter’s Basilica, Ponte Sant’Angelo and Tiber River in Rome, Italy.

All the beliefs that divide Catholics from fundamentalists are derived from the teaching authority of the Church.

Because Catholics believe in the Church, they believe a fuller, more complex and mysterious set of things than the narrowed down fundamentalist. Thus, the Church is the essential point of divergence.

In the fundamentalist view, the Catholic Church exalts itself over the Bible, adding to God’s Word: It is man arrogating to himself the right to speak in God’s name.

But for Catholics, the fundamentalist puts the Bible in place of the Church as his “paper pope.” Instead of a living teacher (the Church) with a book (the Bible), the fundamentalist has only a book.

Fundamentalists believe that the Bible authorizes the Church. They accept a Church only because it’s in the Bible. Catholics, on the other hand, believe the Bible because the Church teaches it, canonized it (i.e., defined its books) and authored it (the disciples wrote the New Testament).

Last week we looked at the fundamentalist idea of the Bible and contrasted it with the Catholic view. Now we must do the same with fundamentalist notions of the Church.

The most important point here is that the fundamentalist view is a new one while the Catholic view is an old one. The Catholic Church and its claims have been around for more than 19 centuries, fundamentalism for less than one. The historical argument for the Catholic Church is thus very strong. Fundamentalists have to believe that the early Christian Church went very wrong (i.e., Catholic) very early, and went right (i.e., fundamentalist) very late. In other words, the Holy Spirit must have been asleep for 19 centuries in between.

Fundamentalists usually know very little about Church history. They don’t know how many Catholic doctrines can be traced back to the early Fathers of the Church — e.g., that appeals to the Bishop of Rome to definitively settle disputes throughout the rest of the Church occur as early as turn of the first Century; or that the Mass, not Bible preaching, was the central act of worship in all the earliest descriptions of the Christian community.

Five key differences between fundamentalists and Catholics center on the Church’s (1) nature, (2) mystery, (3) authority, (4) structure and (5) end.


Fundamentalists agree with Catholics that the Church was founded by God, not just by men. For a fundamentalist the Church is not just a religious social club, as it is for a modernist. But while fundamentalists see that God commanded the Church’s beginning, they do not see that He still dwells in it intimately, as a soul lives in its body and as He lives in faithful souls. For a fundamentalist, the Church’s origin is divine but its nature is human.


Fundamentalists see the Church in the opposite way from which they see the Bible. They affirm the divine identity of Scripture and minimize or ignore the human side of its authorship. But they stress the human side of the Church and ignore its divine side. In other words, they’re Docetists about the Bible and Arians about the Church. (Docetism was an early heresy that denied Christ’s human nature; Arianism denied His divine nature.) Catholicism alone has consistently affirmed the mystery of the two natures both of Christ, and of the Church and Bible.

Fundamentalists often accuse Catholics of the error of the Pharisees and love to quote Mark 7:7-8, Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees for teaching as divine doctrines mere human traditions. The Pope and bishops are men, after all, and fundamentalists bristle at the thought of ascribing to these humans a divine authority. But they’re inconsistent, for they ascribe to the human writers of the Bible a divine authority, and (of course) they ascribe to Christ a divine authority, though He was also human. So the principle that God can and does speak through human authorities is a principle based on Christ and Scripture.

Maybe the simplest way to see the difference is this: Fundamentalists see the Church as man’s gift (of worship) to God, while Catholics see it as God’s gift (of salvation) to man. For fundamentalists, we’re saved as individuals and then join in a kind of ecclesiastical chorus to sing our thanks back to God. For Catholics, we are saved precisely by being incorporated into the Church, Christ’s mystical Body, as Noah and his family were saved by being put into the ark. (Many of the Church Fathers use the ark as a symbol for the Church.)

It’s as if — to extend the metaphor — fundamentalists prefer to be saved by clinging to individual life preservers, then tying them together for fellowship.

To Catholics, the Church is “the mystical Body of Christ.” The Church is a “mystery.” Fundamentalists don’t understand this category. “Mystery” sounds suspiciously pagan to them. They want their religion to be clear and simple (as Moslems do). They’ll admit, of course, that God’s ways are not our ways and often appear mysterious to us. But they don’t want their Church to be mysterious, like God, because they don’t think of it as an extension of God but as an extension of man.

In other words, they think of “mystery” as mere darkness or puzzlement. But in Catholic theology it’s a positive thing: hidden light, hidden wisdom.

Fundamentalists say that they emphasize “the Church invisible” more than “the Church visible” and accuse Catholics of overemphasizing the latter. Fundamentalists draw a sharp distinction between these two dimensions of the Church so that they can explain Scripture’s strong statements about the Church as applying only to “the Church invisible” (the number of saved souls, known to God) and not to the visible Church on earth.

Why? Because if they referred such statements to the visible Church, the claims of the Catholic Church to be that single, worldwide, visible Church stretching back in history to Christ, still forgiving sins and exercising teaching authority in His name — well, these claims would surely seem more likely to be true of the Catholic Church than of any other visible Church.

Fundamentalists also have a very individualistic notion of the Church. The Catholic sense of a single great worldwide organism, a real thing, is not there. The Eastern Orthodox Church usually has an even more powerful sense of the mystery and splendor of the Church than most modern Western Catholics do. They’re east of Rome spiritually as well as geographically — i.e., more mystical. Fundamentalists are west of Rome — much too American.


A third difference concerns the authority of the Church. This follows from the previous point: Fundamentalists lack the Catholic vision of the Church as a great mystical entity, an invisible divine society present simultaneously in heaven and on earth, linking heaven and earth as closely as man’s soul and body are linked. And lacking this vision, authority can only mean power, especially political power. Thus, fundamentalists sometimes sound like their archenemies, the modernists, when it comes to criticizing the “authoritarianism” and political power of Rome. For both fundamentalists and modernists lack the Catholic understanding of the Church and its authority as much more than “political.”

Yet fundamentalists tend to be quite authoritarian themselves on a personal level — e.g., in their families. They are more willing than most people to both command and to obey authority, if it’s biblical. The issue that divides us is not authority as such but where it is to be found: Church or Bible only?


The structure of the Christian community also divides us. Fundamentalists usually criticize the “hierarchical” Church. This is often more a matter of politics than of religion, sometimes stemming from American egalitarianism rather than religious conviction. But when it is a matter of religious conviction, such criticism usually takes one of these three forms:

  • First, fundamentalists charge that Catholics worship the Church and the hierarchy, especially the Pope. There’s a fear of idolatry coupled with a fear of the papacy mixed up here, a confusion between sound principle (anti-idolatry) and a gross misunderstanding of facts. While I’ve met many Catholics who love the Pope and (unfortunately) some who hate him, I’ve never met or heard of anyone who worships him!
  • Second, the hierarchy is suspected of corruption just because it’s a hierarchy: It is structurally, culturally, un-American. (So is the hierarchy of angels “un-American.” But that doesn’t mean it’s corrupt.) Of course, 500 years ago there was some truth to this charge, but fundamentalists are still fighting Luther’s battle.
  • Third, there’s often an unadmitted racial prejudice against Italian Popes. Some people, when they hear “Italian,” immediately think “mafia” and “Machiavelli.” This element is rarely admitted, but it definitely plays a part in anti-papal prejudice.

Beyond these irrational criticisms, I’ve never come across any solid theological argument against the papacy. The current Pope (Blessed John Paul II as of the time of this essay – Editors) has done much to temper fundamentalist fears by his holy personality, wise words and strong opposition to abortion and to the excesses of some contemporary theologians.


Finally, fundamentalists and Catholics have different visions of the end or task of the Church. For fundamentalists, that task is only two things: edification of the saved and evangelization of the unsaved. For the Catholic, these two ends are essential, but there are also two others.

  • First, Catholics also emphasize the Church’s this-worldly tasks — social justice and the corporal works of mercy such as building hospitals and feeding the poor. Fundamentalists say the Church “shouldn’t get involved in politics” (though many of them are thoroughly politicized on the far right). And when did you last see a fundamentalist hospital.
  • Second, there’s a still more ultimate goal. Evangelization, edification and social service are ultimately only means to this greater end in the Catholic vision. The Church is there for the world, yes (the first three ends), but in a more ultimate sense the world is there for the Church, for her eternal glory and perfection.

The Church’s ultimate task is to glorify God, to be the Bride of Christ. The world is, in the long run, only the raw material out of which God makes the Church. In fact, the universe was created for the sake of the Church! God’s aim from Day One was to perfect His Bride, to share His glory eternally.

When we speak of this eternal glory we have in mind first of all the Church as invisible, as “mystical”; but there’s a substantial unity between the Church invisible and the Church visible, between the Church as inner organism and the Church as outer organization, between its soul and body, as there is between man’s soul and body.

You can see this mystical thing, as you can see a man. The most holy thing you can see on earth has its seat in Rome, its heart in bread and wine on the altar and its fingers as close as your neighbor.

It isn’t that fundamentalists explicitly deny this Catholic vision of the Church; they just don’t comprehend it. They may have things to teach us about being on fire with religious zeal, but we have much to teach them about the fireplace.

A fireplace without a fire is cold and gloomy. But a fire without a fireplace is catastrophic.

Excerpted from Dr. Kreeft’s, Fundamentalists — as appeared in National Catholic Register (1988). Please post your comments and questions below.

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About the Author

Peter Kreeft

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and also at the King's College (Empire State Building), in New York City. He is a regular contributor to several Christian publications, is in wide demand as a speaker at conferences, and is the author of over 55 books including: Back to Virtue; The God Who Loves You; Heaven, The Heart's Deepest Longing; Everything You wanted to Know About Heaven; Your Questions - God's Answers; How To Win The Culture War; The Journey; Before I Go - Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters; and Jesus Shock.

Dr. Kreeft is a convert to the Catholic Church from reformed Protestantism. He earned an A.B. degree from Calvin College, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, followed by post-doctoral work at Yale University. He has received several honors for achievements in the field of philosophy, including the Woodrow Wilson Award, Yale-Sterling Fellowship, Newman Alumni Scholarship, Danforth Asian Religions Fellowship, and a Weathersfield Homeland Foundation Fellowship.

Connect with Dr. Kreeft at:

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  1. To take the fundamentalist argument against the need for a Church further, they really don’t need to go to Church, because they’ve been saved. They can never end up in Hell.

    Why do you need to worship God? Although He commanded that the Sabbath be holy, what’s He gonna do, if you disobey and go for a swim on a Sunday? Nothing – you’ve been saved and you’re going to Heaven.

  2. Simplistically binary. Evangelicals vote better against abortion than Catholics do…maybe because they actually read scripture more than Catholics do. The murder rates in the two largest Catholic populations, Brazil and Mexico, are both over 20 per 100,000 which is within the top worst 25 murder rates on earth. Try getting mugged in a Bible reading Amish or Hutterite area. Won’t happen unless it’s a cow in a bad mood chasing you throughthe field. Flattery is actually a sin and too much of our Catholic writing is simply the sin of self flattery. The Old Testament says, ” Do not praise thyself but let another’s lips praise thee.”

  3. +JMJ
    The last line of this article is perfectly true.
    I want to also address, having been married to a Lutheran pastor for thirty years, a common misunderstanding about the Protestant Reformation. The vast majority of Christians, many Catholics included, wrongly believe that it was the corruption of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that inspired Luther and others to take action in the 16th Century. The Church has always had corruption in its hierarchy, just as all governing bodies have throughout history. In the 237 years of the United States ‘hierarchy’ there have been countless cases of corruption… but let some idealistic young scholar in an obscure town in Idaho try to start his own country and see where he ends up? We Americans are so indoctrinated by an educational system that champions the rebel over the establishment, that we do not seek to know the truth behind most historical events of any consequence. A Religious Studies major in university I took two courses which covered the Reformation, I’ve read “Here I Stand” (Bainton’s biography of Luther) three times, and several other books on the subject. The real causes of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation were social-political and not theological or ecclesiastical. Luther was the fair haired boy of Frederick the Wise, Prince of Saxony, whose own Wittenberg Church housed many relics for his subjects to pay to see. Luther wrote a letter to the Princes of Germany encouraging them to support his efforts against Rome, which they were happy to do in light of their growing interest in independence from the Holy Roman Empire. Money and power, resources serving man’s pride, are behind all corruption, and it wasn’t limited to the Church. Ironically, Luther, Calvin and other successful ‘Reformers’ all set up their own little papacies. Read about Calvin and you will find a ruthless tyrant who would have given the Borgia Popes a run for their money. The bottom line, that should have prevented the great scandal of the Protestant Reformation from happening, is that Jesus Christ declared in Matthew 16 that He would build His Church and the gates of Hell would not prevail against it. Therefore, there is but ONE Church of Jesus Christ… all those others that have chosen to self-determinate as not part of the Holy Catholic Church, do not understand that they cannot separate themselves and still profess Jesus Christ as LORD. John Paul II said this when he reminded us that there is only one church and he is the only Pope. We just have to believe this Truth and stop worrying about all the fallen away Catholics of every generation. We can pray for them and thank God for the gift to the Church that is Purgatory.

  4. The article contrasts the views of the Catholic Church with those of fundamentalists. But to what extent are the views of ‘fundamentalists’ on these issues any different from the views of other Protestants? (Excluding modernists, of course.) I understand that there is a difference between a ‘fundamentalist’ and an ‘evangelical’ but I do not know what the difference is. And what about your traditional Lutheran, Calvinist or Anglican? Or are they all ‘fundamentalist’ if they are not ‘modernist’?

  5. In effect, the protestant groups described show a relationship to the sedevacantists who rejected the authority of popes after John XXIII. These in effect state that the Holy Spirit guided the Church from Pentecost up to the start of Vatican II and then abandoned it.
    The biblical fundamentalists in this article are rejecting the promise of Jesus to send us a Paraclete to guide the Church after His ascension into heaven. So much for the promise in Matt, 28:20: “And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!”

  6. I have asked to debate Kreeft several times. Most of his discussion boils down to a collection of strawmen arguments. He has totally misrepresented the Protestant position. Even at the most basic level, the Orthodox reject the Papacy. The Catholics reject the eight ecumenical council, while the Orthodox accept it. So I ask, the Catholic church has had novel doctrine way before the Protestants. Kreeft is twisting both history and scripture to support his agenda.

    Shame on you Dr. Kreeft.

  7. Fred, not sure what you mean by “The Catholics reject the eight ecumenical council”. Both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox accept the first 7 Ecumenical Councils, the ones which lay out fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith. These councils are also accepted by some Protestants, such as the Anglicans, and many of their decisions implicitly by most other Protestants e.g. the declarations as to which books of the Bible were inspired, the date of Easter, etc.

  8. Fred. As your comment stands it just consists of unsupported assertions. It would aid discussion if you would give some examples of your assertion that Dr Kreeft has ‘totally misrepresented the Protestant position’.

  9. Sorry for not spell checking. Catholics reject the eighth ecumenical council while Orthodox accept it. Catholics claim church councils are binding, so why do they reject the eighth? This double standard is only one of many that can be found in the Catholic church.

    Kreeft accuses Protestants of not knowing church history. This is a classic strawman argument. Protestants have written many great works on church history. The issue as always how to interpret church history and apply those teachings to the 21st century church.

    Protestant do accept the authority of the church just like Catholics. They just reject that the Roman Catholic Church is that authority. Seriously Kreeft needs to repent for distorting the truth. The Orthodox also reject the authority of the Roman Catholic Church for very good reason. The reason goes all the way back to the third and fourth century. This is called church history and is NOT being reported by Kreeft. Kreeft has cherry picked history and distorted it to support his agenda and disparage Protestants.

    Both Orthodox and Protestants reject the principle of ex-cathedra, the Assumption of Mary, and the primacy of the Pope. The reason they reject these things are all based on the study of church history.

    So I challenge Kreeft to an HONEST intellectual debate, not his usual spin-doctoring.

    Read his defense of Islam, if you want to see Kreeft’s spin-doctoring in full force.

  10. “’…thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church’ … It is on him that he builds the Church, and to him that he entrusts the sheep to feed. And although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single Chair, thus establishing by his own authority the source and hallmark of the (Church’s) oneness…If a man does not fast to this oneness of Peter, does he still imagine that he still holds the faith? If he deserts the Chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, has he still confidence that he is in the Church?” Cyprian, De Unitate Ecclesiae (Primacy text), 4 (A.D. 251)

  11. Actually, as far as I understand it, Fred, the Orthodox Christians absolutely do NOT deny the assumption of the Blessed Mother. In fact, they believe that she was taken up into heaven before she died, based on the scripture “He will not let his Holy ones to see corruption”. Which is why the issue was left open when the church infallibly declared the doctrine of the Assumption (not saying we didn’t believe it before, it was just reiterated authoritatively) because many western Catholics believe she was taken up after death. It was left open so that one day the East and the West could come back together under the leadership of the pope one day.

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