We live in a world filled with competing truth claims. Every day, we are bombarded with declarations that something is true and that something else is false. We are told what to believe and what not to believe. We are asked to behave one way but not another way. In her monthly magazine column, Oprah Winfrey tells us how to handle our lives and our relationships. The New York Times editorial page regularly tells us what approach we should take to the big moral, legal, or public policy issues of our day. Richard Dawkins, the British atheist and evolutionist, tells us how to think of our historical origins and our place in this universe.
How do we sift through all these claims? How do people know what to think about relationships, morality, God, the origins of the universe, and many other important questions? To answer such questions, people need some sort of norm, standard, or criteria to which they can appeal. In other words, we need an ultimate authority. Of course, everyone has some sort of ultimate norm to which they appeal, even if they are not aware of it. Some people appeal to reason and logic to adjudicate competing truth claims. Others appeal to sense experience. Still others refer to themselves and their own subjective sense of things. Although there is some truth in each of these approaches, Christians have historically rejected all of them as the ultimate standard for knowledge. Instead, God’s people have universally affirmed that there is only one thing that can legitimately function as the supreme standard: God’s Word. There can be no higher authority than God Himself.
Of course, we are not the first generation to face the challenge of competing truth claims. In fact, Adam and Eve faced such a dilemma at the very beginning. God had clearly said to them, “You shall surely die,” if they were to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:17). On the other hand, the serpent said the opposite to them: “You will not surely die” (3:4). How should Adam and Eve have adjudicated these competing claims? By empiricism? By rationalism? By what seemed right to them? No, there was only one standard to which they should have appealed: the word that God had spoken to them. Unfortunately, this is not what happened. Instead of looking to God’s revelation, Eve decided to investigate things further herself: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes . . . she took of its fruit and ate” (v. 6). Make no mistake, the fall was not just a matter of Adam and Eve’s eating the fruit. At its core, the fall was about God’s people rejecting God’s Word as the ultimate standard for all of life.
But if God’s Word is the ultimate standard for all of life, the next question is critical: Where do we go to get God’s Word? Where can it be found? This issue, of course, brings us to one of the core debates of the Protestant Reformation. While the Roman Catholic authorities agreed that God’s Word is the ultimate standard for all of life and doctrine, they said this Word can be found in places outside of the Scriptures. Rome claims a trifold authority structure, which includes Scripture, tradition, and the Magisterium. The key component in this trifold authority is the Magisterium, which is the authoritative teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church, manifested primarily in the pope. Because the pope is considered the successor of the Apostle Peter, his official pronouncements (made ex cathedra, or “from the chair”) are regarded as the very words of God Himself.