I've heard the claim that scriptural references to the establishment of the Catholic Church and its authority to interpret scripture is circular reasoning.

From a conversation I was having with a friend:

There's no scriptural evidence for it. Well, the claimed scriptural evidences depend on circular reasoning (i.e., the only way know what's referenced is the Catholic Church because the Catholic Church authoritatively interprets it for you).

What evidence is there (besides the word of the Catholic Church) that Jesus established the Catholic Church? It's a completely presuppositional claim that he did.

How does the Catholic Church respond to such a claim?

  • Possible duplicate of What is the Roman Catholic view on Matthew 23:9?
    – Geremia
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 20:49
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    I don't think this is a duplicate, as it is asking for a Catholic apologetic against the "circular reasoning" claim, not the exegesis of Matthew 23:9. Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 21:07
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    I agree that it's not a duplicate. But as originally written it is perilously close to being a "truth question." I've made some edits to clarify that it is asking for a Catholic answer to the question. Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 21:33
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    @Andrew If the second and third paragraphs are a quote, where does the quote come from? Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 21:36
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    catholic church (catholic meaning universal) is a term used to describe the church (Paul's church as body of Christ) from way back (it's in the Nicene Creed). The distinction between catholic and Catholic doesn't really get made until the Schism of 1054. You will find that catholic church (universal) is still in the Apostles' Creed which many Protestant denominations still hold as a shared statement of the faith. Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 13:50

2 Answers 2


The teaching of both Roman and Eastern traditions is that the Bible can only be understood in the context of culture and traditions which birthed it.

The reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. "For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression. (CCC 110)

Understanding Paul but ignoring those who knew him (like Ignatius, Polycarp, or the contents of the Didache) would be like studying Luther but claiming anyone who knew him was a quack. All of those documents testify to a church with a defined set of bishops, given the authority to rule over and teach the Church (strikingly similar to the Episcopai Paul talks about in the New Testament).

The Church claims itself to be "the pillar and foundation of truth" (CCC 171 citing 1 Tim. 3:15). The Roman Catholic Church cites 1 Timothy as an example for people who view the Bible as authoritative (note: the Bible does NOT claim that title), but the Church would be the pillar and foundation even if Paul had never said that. In fact, there is a very, very long list authors, going back to the very beginning of Christianity who testify to the Church.

All of that said, you can still find testimony of the authority of the Church and the validity of her practices in scripture, but that is a different from saying "we interpret the Bible to endorse us therefore it endorses us".

As a counter argument, you might reply: The Bible speaks of deacons, presbyters, and episcopai. These were men selected and ordained by the Apostles for the purposes of administration and evangelization. These early authors claim to be or to know deacons, presbyters, and episcopai. They claim to have served under the Apostles. (we'll ignore the fact that presbyter came into English as "priest", and episcopai came into English as "bishop"). Their instruction and testimony is a valid source of instruction in matters of faith.

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    you mention the Bible can only be understood in the context of culture and traditions which birthed it, so Judaism which isn't Catholicism
    – depperm
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 20:46
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    @depperm So early Christian writings; which were far more closer to Catholic teaching than they are any other group. Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 20:57
  • I edited this for a few spelling and format issues, and also took some of the we and tried to make it more neutral. Please review and if you don't care for the edit, roll back. Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 14:06

It's not circular reasoning, it's spiral reasoning.

We start with the bible as if it were just any other historical document and interpret it as such. Doing so, we discover that Jesus founded a church and invested it with his Divine authority. We see that in Peter he established a Papacy to lead this church. Using this information we search for the modern day church which has the successor to the Papacy. We identify the Roman Catholic Church as this church and conclude that it is the church that Jesus founded, complete with his Divine authority to teach. We then examine the teachings of this church. One of these teachings is that God speaks through the bible. All of a sudden the Bible becomes more than just a historical document...

The papacy is key. Peter was the visible focal point of unity for the early church, and the Popes, as his successors, succeed him in this role. Therefore whichever church has the true papacy is the true church of Christ. We can establish all this merely by reading the scriptures as historical documents. We don't need to depend on them as if they are word of God, that comes later. In this way it is "Spiral" reasoning rather than "Circular" reasoning.

  • I'm definitely against replacing "bishops" for "papacy" because then my answer would not be accurate. The bishops alone are not enough to identify the true church, you need the pope. Peter and his successors are the focal point for unity in the universal church, not the bishops. Concerning references, I'll look some up. Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 20:13
  • (Replacing bishops for papacy would mean that my argument applies to the orthodox church too) Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 20:14
  • OK, it was a suggestion, and like most free advice worth about what you paid for it. :-) Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 20:21
  • "We see that in Peter he established a Papacy to lead this church." This is where things are circular. I only hear this claim from papal sources.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Mar 22, 2020 at 15:37

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