by Huge Pope

The word rule (Latin regula, Gr. kanon) means a standard by which something can be tested, and the rule of faith means something extrinsic to our faith, and serving as its norm or measure. Since faith is Divine and infallible, the rule of faith must be also Divine and infallible; and since faith is supernatural assent to Divine truths upon Divine authority, the ultimate or remote rule of faith must be the truthfulness of God in revealing Himself. But since Divine revelation is contained in the written books and unwritten traditions (Vatican Council, I, ii), the Bible and Divine tradition must be the rule of our faith; since, however, these are only silent witnesses and cannot interpret themselves, they are commonly termed “proximate but inanimate rules of faith”. Unless, then, the Bible and tradition are to be profitless, we must look for some proximate rule which shall be animate or living.

Private judgment as the rule of faith

The Reformed Churches were unanimous in declaring the Bible to be the sole rule of faith. “We believe that the only rule and standard by which all dogmas and all doctors are to be weighed and judged, is nothing else but the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments” (Form. Concordiae, 1577). But men had already perceived that the Bible could not be left to interpret itself, and in 1571 Convocation had put forward what was, perhaps unwittingly, a double rule of faith: “preachers”, they say, “shall see that they never teach anything . . . except what is agreeable to the doctrine of the Old and New Testament, and what the Catholic Fathers and ancient Bishops have collected out of that very doctrine” (Wilkins, “Concilia”, IV, 267). Convocation thus not only laid down that the Bible was the rule of faith, but insisted upon its inanimate character as a witness to the Faith, for they declared the early Church to be its acknowledged interpreter; moreover, they were themselves exercising church authority. A somewhat different doctrine appeared in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1643-7), which declared that the “Books of the Old and New Testaments are . . . given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life” (art. ii), but that the “authority of the Holy Scripture . . . dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church” (art. iv). They add: “We may be moved by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture . . . yet our full persuasion of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts” (art. v). This is a clear enunciation of the principle that the judgment of each individual, moved by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, is the proximate living rule of faith. But apart from its solvent effect upon any true view of the Church, it is easy to see that such a rule could never serve as an infallible interpreter of the inanimate rule, viz., the Bible. For where does the Bible ever testify to the inspiration of certain books? And what limits does it assign to the canon? Moreover, the inward work of the Holy Spirit, being purely subjective, can never be a decisive and universal test of doctrinal divergences or critical views; thus Luther himself termed St. James’s Epistle an “epistle of straw”. The fruits of this principle are everywhere apparent in Protestant Biblical criticism. “The Reformation theologians treated Paul as if he were one of themselves. More recent writers do the same. In Neander and Godet Paul is a pectoral theologian, in Rückert a pious supernaturalist, in Baur a Hegelian, in Luthardt orthodox, in Ritschl a genuine Ritschlian” (Expository Times, 1904, p. 304). In practice, however, the Reformed Churches have never acted up to the principle of private judgment, but have, in one form or another, urged the authority of the Church in deciding the contents of the Bible, its inspiration, and its meaning.

The Church as the rule of faith

This follows necessarily from any adequate view of the Church as a Divinely constituted body, to whose keeping is entrusted the deposit of faith, but the grounds for this doctrine may be briefly stated as follows:

New Testament

Christ gave His disciples no command to write, but only to teach: “going therefore, teach ye all nations, . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). “As the Father hath sent me, I also send you” (John 20:21). And in accordance with this, the Church is everywhere presented to us as a living and undying society composed of the teachers and the taught. Christ is in the Church, and is its Head; and He promised that the Holy Spirit should be with it and abide in it. “He will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you” (John 14:26). Hence St. Paul calls the Church “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15; cf. Mark 16:16; Romans 10:17; Acts 15:28).


The same doctrine appears in the writings of the Fathers of every age; thus St. Ignatius (Letter to the Trallians 7) “Keep yourselves from heretics. You will be able to do this if you are not puffed up with pride, and (so) separated from (our) God, Jesus Christ, and from the bishop, and from the precepts of the Apostles. He who is within the altar is clean, he who is without is not clean; that is, he who acts any way without the bishop, the priestly body, and the deacons, is not clean in conscience”. And St. Irenæus (“Adv. Haer.”, III, ii) says, of heretics, that “not one of them but feels no shame in preaching himself, and thus depraving the rule of faith” (ton tes aletheias kanona); and again (III, iv), “it is not right to seek from others that truth which it is easy to get from the Church, since the Apostles poured into it in fullest measure, as into a rich treasury, all that belongs to the truth, so that whosoever desires may drink thence the draught of life”. A little further on, he speaks (V, xx) of the “true and sound preaching of the Church, which offers to the whole world one and the same way of salvation”. Such testimonies are countless; here we can only refer to the full and explicit teaching which is to be found in Tertullian’s treatises against Marcion, and in his “De praescriptionibus Haereticoum”, and in St. Vincent of Lérins’ famous “Commonitorium”. Indeed St. Augustine’s well-known words may serve as an epitome of patristic teaching on the authority of the Church. “I would not believe the Gospels unless the authority of the Catholic Church moved me thereto” (Contra Ep. Fund., V). It should be noted that the Fathers, especially Tertullian and St. Irenæus, use the term tradition not merely passively, viz., of orally bestowed Divine teaching, but in the active sense of ecclesiastical interpretation. And this is undoubtedly St. Paul’s meaning when he tells Timothy to uphold “the form of sound words which thou hast heard from me” (2 Timothy 1:13). It is in this sense that the various formulae of faith, of which we have the earliest sample in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, became the rule of faith.


The teaching of the Church’s Doctors on this point has ever been the same, and it will suffice if we quote two passages from St. Thomas, who, however, has no set treatise on a question which he took for granted. “The formal object of faith”, he says, “is the First Truth as manifested in Holy Scripture and in the Church’s teaching. Hence if anyone does not adhere as to an infallible and Divine rule to the Church’s teaching, which proceeds from the Church’s truth manifested in Holy Scripture, such an one has not the habit of faith, but holds the truths of faith not by faith but by some other principle” (II-II, Q. v, a. 3). And still more explicitly when (Quodl., ix, art. 16) he asks whether canonized saints are necessarily in heaven, he says, “it is certain that the judgment of the universal Church cannot possibly err in matters pertaining to the faith; hence we must stand rather by the decisions which the pope judicially pronounces than by the opinions of men, however learned they may be in Holy Scripture.”


If faith is necessary for all men at all times and in all places, and if a true saving faith demands a clear knowledge of what we have to believe, it is clear that an infallible teaching Church is an absolute necessity. Such a Church alone can speak to men of all classes and at all times; it alone can, by reason of its perpetuity and ageless character, meet every new difficulty by a declaration of the sound form of doctrine which is to be held. If the teaching of Christ and His Apostles is distorted, none but the Church can say “This is its true meaning, and not that; I know that it is as I say because the Spirit which assists me is One with the Spirit which rested on Him and on them”; the Church alone can say, “Christ truly rose from the tomb, and I know it, because I was there, and saw the stone rolled back”. The Church alone can tell us how we are to interpret the words “This is My Body”, for she alone can say, He Who spoke those words speaks through me, He promised to be with me all days, He pledged Himself to safeguard me from error at all times”.

In what sense is the Church the rule of faith?

(1) All non-Catholic systems have felt the need of some such authoritative rule as that sketched out above, and the history of Anglicanism practically resolves itself into a series of attempts to formulate a theory which shall, while avoiding the Scylla of Rome, enable the Church of England to escape the Charybdis of dissolution. This has never been more painfully evident than at the present time, when an apparently destructive Biblical criticism has compelled men to look for some firmer standing ground than the Bible alone. But in formulating their various theories, non-Catholic theologians have never seemed to realize the absolutely vital character of the question at issue, and have contented themselves with illogical views, which have done more to alienate thinking men than the direct and unveiled assaults of infidels and agnostics. At the Reformation the only authority deserving of the title was overthrown, and since then men have been seeking, at all costs, to replace it by some form other than that of the Apostolic Church, from which they cut themselves adrift. All the sects are seeking an active rule of faith; the High Church in the testimony of the primitive Church; the Low Church in what we may term the spiritual intuitions of the illuminated soul; the Broad Church does the same, but refuses to be bound by any dogmatic formulae, and regards the Bible as no more than the best of all inspired books; and lastly the Ritualists appeal to the testimony of the Living Church, but naively confess that such testimony is not to be found at the present time, owing to “our unhappy divisions” which preclude the assembling of a truly representative council. The Low Church and the Broad Church content themselves with a purely subjective criterion of truth; the High Church with one which itself needs interpreting; and the Ritualist looks to “the Church of the future”, he clings to the illusory “branch theory”, but forgets that none of the Churches he calls “branches” accepts the designation.



There has of late years arisen, within the pale of the Church, a school of theologians who make appeal to the conscience of the invisible Church rather than to any conciliar gathering, and appear to neglect entirely what theologians term the quotidianum magisterium of the Church. Thus, the Rev. G. Tyrrell writes: “It is all important to distinguish the pre-constitutional formless church from the governmental form, which it has now elaborated for its own apostolic needs” (Scylla and Charybdis, 49). He would even make this formless church the rule of faith. “Authority is something inherent in, and inalienable from, that multitude itself; it is the moral coerciveness of the Divine Spirit of Truth and Righteousness immanent in the whole, dominant over its several parts and members; it is the imperativeness of the collective conscience” (op. cit., 370). Such doctrine inevitably leads to the individual soul as the ultimate criterion of religious truth, as is forcibly pointed out in the Encyclical “Pascendi”. But the most remarkable feature of Modernism is its return to the old Protestant rule of faith, for Modernists insist, not only on the pre-eminence of the Bible, but on the independence of Biblical critics. In the Syllabus, “Lamentabili Sane”, Pius X has condemned such views as that the opinions of Biblical exegetes are beyond the jurisdiction of the Church (props. i-iii, and lxi); that the teaching office of the Church does not extend to a determination of the sense of holy Scripture (prop. iv); that the office of the Church is merely to ratify the conclusions arrived at by the Church at large (prop. vi); and that the Church’s dogmas are often in conflict with the plain teaching of the Bible (props. xxiii-xxiv, and lxi).


The Catholic doctrine touching the Church as the rule of faith

The term Church, in this connection, can only denote the teaching Church, as is clear from the passages already quoted from the New Testament and the Fathers. But the teaching Church may be regarded either as the whole body of the episcopate, whether scattered throughout the world or collected in an ecumenical council, or it may be synonymous with the successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ. Now the teaching Church is the Apostolic body continuing to the end of time (Matthew 28:19-20); but only one of the bishops, viz., the Bishop of Rome, is the successor of St. Peter; he alone can be regarded as the living Apostle and Vicar of Christ, and it is only by union with him that the rest of the episcopate can be said to possess the Apostolic character (Vatican Council, Sess. IV, Prooemium). Hence, unless they be united with the Vicar of Christ, it is futile to appeal to the episcopate in general as the rule of faith. At the same time, it is clear that the Church may derive from the conflicting views of the Doctors a clearer knowledge of the Deposit of Faith committed to her, for as St. Augustine pointedly asked, when treating of the re-baptism question, “how could a question which had become so obscured by the dust raised in this controversy, have been brought to the clear light and decision of a plenary council, unless it had first been discussed throughout the world in disputations and conferences held by the bishops?” (De Baptismo, ii, 5).

Thus the appeal of the Ritualist to a future council, that of the Modernist to the conscience of the universal Church, and that of the High-Churchman to the primitive Church, are, besides being mutually exclusive, destructive of the true idea of the Church as the “pillar and ground of truth”. If the Church is to exercise her prerogative, she must be able to decide promptly and infallibly any question touching faith or morals. Her conciliar utterances are rare, and though they are weighty with the majesty of ecumenical testimony, the Church’s teaching is by no means confined to them. The Vicar of Christ can, whenever necessary, exercise the plentitude of his authority, and when he does so we are not at liberty to say, with the Jansenists, that he has not done justice to the views of those he condemns (cf. Alex. VII, “Ad Sacram”, 1656); nor can we take refuge, as did the later Jansenists, and as the Modernists appear to do, in obsequious silence, as opposed to heartfelt submission and mental acceptance of such pronouncements by the supreme pastor of souls. (Cf. Clement XI, “Vineam Domini”, 1705; and Pius X, “Lamentabili Sane”, 1907, prop. vii) When Newman was received into the Church, he penned those famous lines which form the conclusion of the “Essay on Development”. “Put not from you what you have here found; regard it not as mere matter of present controversy; set not out resolved to refute it, and looking out for the best way of doing so; seduce not yourself by the imagination that it comes of disappointment, or disgust, or restlessness, or wounded feeling, or undue sensibility, or other weakness. Wrap not yourself round in the associations of years past, nor determine that to be truth which you wish to be so, nor make an idol of cherished anticipations. Time is short, eternity is long.”

Patristic writers.- IRENAEUS, Adversus Haeres., ed. MIGNE, P.G., VII; TERTULLIAN, De praescriptionibus Haereticorum, ed. HURTER (Utrecht, 1870); CYRIL OF JERUSALEM, Catecheses, ed. MIGNE, P.G., XXXIII; CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA, Second Letter to Nestorius, styled by Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon “the Rule of Faith” (epistole kanonike); VINCENT OF LERINS, Commonitorium, ed. HURTER. See also SCHANZ, Apologie, tr. (New York, 1892); HARNACK, History of Dogma, tr. Writers of the Scholastic period.- MELCHIOR CANUS, De locis theologicis (Rome, 1890); SUAREZ, Defensio Fidei Catholicae et Apostolicae, ed. VIVES (Paris, 1878); BELLARMINE, Disputationes de controversiis fidei (Ingolstadt, 1586). Catholic Writers of the Reformation Period in England.- CAMPIAN, Decem Rationes etc.; BRISTOW, Motives (Antwerp, 1574); HUDDLESTONE, A short and plain way to the Faith and Church (1688), reprinted by DOLMAN (1844). Modern Writers.- MILNER, The End of Religious Controversy (1818; reprinted Shrewsbury, 1831); WISEMAN, Lectures on the Catholic Church; IDEM, The Rule of Faith; SWEENEY, The Nature, the Grounds, and the Home of Faith (1867); WILHELM AND SCANNELL, Manual of Dogmatic Theology (London, 1898); HUMPHREY, The Bible and Belief (London, 1886). Anglican Writers in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.- THORNDIKE, On the Principles of Christian Truth, ed. PARKER (Oxford, 1845); PEARSON, Exposition of the Creed (1659); BULL, Works, ed. BURTON (Oxford, 1827), 6 vols.; BUTLER (said to have died a Catholic), Analogy of Religion, II. During the Nineteenth Century.- NEWMAN, The Via Media of the Anglican Church (revised edition, 1877); W. G. WARD, The Ideal of a Christian Church (1844); R. I. WILBERFORCE, An Enquiry into the Principles of Church Authority (1854); PUSEY, An Eirenicon (Oxford, 1865), I; MANNING, The Rule of Faith (a sermon at Chichester, 1838); Lux Mundi, art. 9, The Church (10th ed., 1890); STALEY, The Catholic Religion for Members of the Anglican Church; GORE, The Incarnation of the Son of God in Bampton Lectures (1891). See also references under FAITH.

Pope, Hugh. “The Rule of Faith.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.