Jesus Christ in the Gospel of John says to His disciples:
I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come (John 16:12-13).
What Jesus said is pretty obvious. Up to that point in time (pre-resurrection) there were a lot of important teachings that Christ either did not relate to them, or more likely, they did not yet properly understand.* So, in His absence He will send the Holy Spirit and He (the Spirit) will guide the disciples specifically into all truth.
Ironically, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox appear to jump on these verses as proof that the teachings of their churches that are not found in the Scriptures are either Apostolic or later revelations from the Holy Spirit.
Concerning the preceding verses Bob Stanley of the Catholic Treasure Chest writes:
Doctrinal development is the on going teaching by the Holy Spirit to the only Church which Jesus Christ founded, the Catholic Church…Thus, Holy Scripture, the Word of Jesus Christ Himself, has clearly laid the foundation for greater understanding of revealed truth over time.
Here, Stanley goes beyond saying that the Catholic Church merely preserves Apostolic Tradition that is found outside the Scriptures by saying that Catholic interpretations past the Apostolic period are Spirit-revealed truths:
For those who deny the process of “Doctrinal Development”, ask yourselves these questions: Do you believe that Jesus Christ is GOD? This doctrine was defined at the Catholic Council of Nicea in 325. Do you believe Jesus Christ is one person with two natures? This was defined at the Catholic Council of Chalcedon in 451. Do you believe that the Holy Spirit to be consubstantial with the Father and the Son? This was defined at the Catholic Council of Constantinople in 381. All of the above are results of “Doctrinal Development” as performed by the Catholic Church. So there is nothing “new” in doctrinal development as enacted by the Catholic Church. It is simply a deeper understanding of what has previously been revealed by divine revelation.
Of course, all of the above points are true. However, it is important to note that the conclusions of such councils are true inasmuch as they accord with the Scriptures (at least according to Augustine). Hence, true doctrine is not new, though the terminology adopted to describe these doctrines may be.
Yet, such an idea ultimately cannot be reconciled with Catholicism. Catholics argue, as they have in the comments section of this blog, that the Scripture in of itself is insufficient. Hence, what is needed is some sort of guaranteed perfect interpretation of Apostolic truth, which the Catholics believe is found only in their church in the Magisterium. Therefore, the claim made by Catholics is essentially that John 16:13 proves that the Magisterium, with its interpretations and extra-biblical teachings, is accurate.
Catholic Answers writes, “John 16:13 does tells us that the Spirit will lead the apostles, and by extension, the Church, into truth.” ETWN more specifically states that the Catholic Church is magically protected from ever teaching error:
The teaching authority of the pope and the bishops is called the magisterium (from the Latin for “teacher”). The magisterium, guided and protected from error by the Holy Spirit, gives us certainty in matters of doctrine. The magisterium is infallible when it teaches officially because Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the apostles and their successors into “all truth” (John 16:13).
Eastern Orthodoxy has a very similar view:
Tradition is the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit leads the Church “into all truth” (John 16:13) and enables her to preserve the truth taught by Christ to His Apostles.
There are two key presuppositions that the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are making in their interpretations:
1. The promise made to the Apostles in John 16:13 also applies to their respective churches.
2. Because the promise in John 16:13 applies to their respective church, then all of their extra-biblical teachings are infallible because they in effect come straight from God the Holy Spirit.
I believe that though the second presupposition cannot be proven, the first presupposition can be disproved. And, if the first presupposition is actually wrong, then the second presupposition is impossible because its very basis is the one that precedes it.
Let us turn to some very similar words of Christ a couple chapters before in John 14:25-26:
These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.
*As we can see, the “all things” that Christ makes reference to in John 14:26 and John 16:13 pertain to things that Jesus actually taught in the physical presence of the Apostles. Hence, by teaching all things the Holy Spirit brings into remembrance what Christ literally had already said to the disciples.
This completely shatters the Catholic and Orthodox positions. For one, they presuppose that John 16:13 pertains to their church, but the language of John 14:26 makes this interpretation impossible. The RCC and EO will argue that John 16:13 pertains to Apostolic Successors, an extra-biblical teaching if there ever was one, but it clearly does not because John 14:26 states that the Holy Spirit brings into remembrance things that only the actual, literal Apostles were there to hear.
Hence, if the Catholic Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or ANYONE teaches a doctrine that Jesus Christ Himself did not teach, we can be assured that such a doctrine is wrong. There are no new doctrines that can be part of the “all truth” that the Scripture speaks about, because the “truth” part of the “all” was already covered by Jesus Christ when He was on Earth. Anyone who teaches otherwise contradicts the Scripture.
Now that the continuing revelation bugaboo is out of the way, the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox may change gears. They often argue that Protestants have abandoned the Apostolic Tradition, as covered by John 16:13, that is found outside the Bible. Of course, this tradition is only preserved by their churches.
My response is in the Youtube video above. Where are these traditions actually written down so that we may follow them? Oh yeah, they’re not found anywhere, so we trust by hearsay that they are Apostolic Traditions.
“But they’re not hearsay,” say the EO and RCC. “John 16:13 says our church is led into all truth, so they cannot possible preserve extra-bibilical oral tradition wrongly!”
Sorry, that’s a circular argument! You cannot say that the EO and RCC can be an authority outside of Scripture, because they preserve Apostolic teachings that the Scripture doesn’t, and this is guaranteed by the authority of the EO and RCC.
Granted, accepting the truth of the Scripture itself based upon its own authority is also a circular argument. However, my circular reasoning is sola scriptura, while the circular reasoning of EO and RCC is sola ecclesia (the church alone). The Scripture DOES NOT teach that the church is at all times without error (rather, they are the pillar that supports the truth according to 1 Tim 3:15, they are not the truth in of themselves). Yet, the RCC and EO teach that the Scripture IS without error.
So, going by the standards of both Protestants and Catholics/Eastern Orthodox alike, only Scripture alone is indisputably without fault. Therefore, in the Scripture alone can be found without debate the teachings of the Apostles which by the authority of Christ and the Holy Spirit we may be assured there can be found therein all truth. Therefore, in the Scripture alone there is “all truth.”