What the New Testament's Baptisms Teach Us About the Magisterium

Christians remain bound to Church doctrine through its development, precisely because “the Church of the living God” is indeed “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”

Lambert Sustris, “The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by the Deacon Philip”, between 1545 and 1550
Lambert Sustris, “The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by the Deacon Philip”, between 1545 and 1550 (photo: Public Domain)

In my previous article, I noted the great Anglican apologist, C. S. Lewis' “real reason” for not becoming a Catholic. He wrote in 1944 that “to accept your Church means, not to accept a given body of doctrine, but to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces.” I then compared this view unfavorably to that of St. Paul.

Presently, I'd like to explore another scriptural argument against what Lewis thought, and what many Protestants urge as an argument against the Catholic Church: the antipathy to a Church with binding, infallible authority, requiring one to accept its dogmatic proclamations even into the unknown future. I understand it very well, since it was my own biggest objection by far, when I was an evangelical Protestant.

I discovered this line of reasoning from a great Catholic apologist, and one whose work should be far more known: Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman (1802-1865). He had the high distinction of being the first person to cause Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman to have doubts about his Anglicanism, due to an 1839 article, in which he drew an analogy between Anglicanism and the Donatist schism in the early centuries.

In his 1836 Lectures on the Doctrines and Practices of the Roman Catholic Church, Wiseman observed:

We read, in the Acts of the apostles, of three, or five, and more thousands, being converted in one day, and admitted to baptism. . . . Can we, therefore, suppose, that all these thousands who were baptized immediately, had time to go through the minute and detailed examination of the specific doctrines presented to their acceptance by the apostles?

. . . there must have been, as I said before, some principle, some confession of faith, exacted from them, which secured their subsequent adhesion to every doctrine that should be taught . . .

And, in fact, we do find this to have been the case in practice, because we find that the apostles subsequently made decrees, and published laws, regarding the practice of the church, and came to a decision as regards matter of belief and discipline, and that all the faithful instantly submitted to their decrees [Acts 16:4; regarding the Jerusalem council]; that all the faithful seemed to have considered them from the beginning, not merely as teachers, but absolutely as superiors, to whose authority they were obliged to bow.

. . . Catholics . . . have considered any person as truly in heart a Catholic, and as having implicitly received all the doctrines of the Catholic religion, when he has once given up his belief in his own individual guidance, and adopted the principle, that whatever the Catholic church shall teach him must be true.

. . . We find a course pursued by them necessarily supposing the Catholic principle of authority, and of an infallible teaching in the church of God.

Let's flesh this out a bit, with relevant Bible passages:

Acts 2:41-42 (RSV) So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

St. Paul makes it clear that baptism is the entrance into the Church (this is what the baptized were “added” to):

1 Corinthians 12:13, 27-28 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free -- and all were made to drink of one Spirit. . . . Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, . . . (cf. Eph 4:4-16)

Thus, if baptism simultaneously ushered one into regeneration and membership in the Church (i.e., admission to Christianity itself), then it does seem to follow that the baptized persons accepted the authority of this existing Church: over and above their own private judgment and opinions.

It's not so much that we never learn again after becoming Catholic: as if that is the end of it; rather, we resolve to have an attitude of obedience to the Church, even when we don't fully understand every jot and tittle of doctrine, or the rationale for same. The Church possesses the apostles' doctrine, or deposit of faith (Acts 2:42 above): an objective body of teaching, received from Jesus and the apostles. It unfolds and develops over time, with reflection, but nothing is added to the essential initial deposit of faith.

This is presupposed in Paul's language, and how he presents the facts of existing doctrine in the Church. He does it again and again, using many synonymous descriptions:

1) “the traditions” (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15)

2) “the tradition” (2 Thess 3:6)

3) “the faith” (Acts 6:7; 14:22; 16:5; Gal 1:23; Col 1:23; 1 Tim 1:2; Jude 3)

4) “the word of God” (Acts 8:14)

5) “the word of the Lord” (Acts 15:35-36; 16:32; 19:10, 20)

6) “the truth” (Rom 2:8; 2 Cor 4:2; 13:8; Eph 1:13; 1 Tim 2:4)

7) “the doctrine” (Rom 16:17)

8) “teaching” (Rom 6:17; 1 Tim 4:16; 6:1)

St. Paul refers to “holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (Philippians 2:16; cf. 2 Tim 4:7). He even goes so far as to claim that “all may be condemned who did not believe the truth” (2 Thess 2:12; cf. 2 Jn 1:9). All of these terms referred to an existing body of doctrine, which could develop, as it did in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15; 16:4).

Christians remained bound to it after such development, precisely because “the church of the living God” was indeed “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” And this appears to have been the case from the beginning, with reflection upon the implications of mass baptisms, per Cardinal Wiseman's argument.