Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 3: An Authoritative Church

The third and last part of my reflections on grappling with sola scriptura as a Protestant journeying to the Catholic Church. Part 1. Part 2. Part of my ongoing conversion story. This part proved to be really long, but the pieces were so dependent on each other that I wanted to post the rest of it whole; please bear with me.

An authoritative Church

Rome from the dome of St. Peter's.

Rome from the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The idea that the scriptural interpretations of the Church could have inherent authority was an epiphany to me. It was the catalyst that started the chain reaction, the push that started the dominoes falling, that would ultimately bring down the last vestiges of my faith in sola scriptura. But it was perhaps not the biggest hurdle. Recognizing that the Church Fathers are authorities in interpreting Scripture does not translate to accepting that the Catholic Church is the authority in interpreting Scripture.

Yes, an interpretation that is constructed from and founded on a sack full of authorities is generally going to be more authoritative than one based solely on one’s own unaided reasoning. A student who makes an argument from his own interpretation of a single primary source stands on shaky ground, while one who stands on the authority of learned men who have written on the matter in the past has a reasonable claim to credibility. As I have written before, this by itself gave me compelling reason to put stock in the claims and interpretations of the Catholic Church. Following those claims and the arguments made for them, I generally found the Church’s witness to be credible.

But accepting that the Church’s scriptural interpretations are authoritative and credible — a factual claim — is a far cry from accepting that the Catholic Church has the exclusive authority to interpret Scripture authentically — a doctrinal claim. My visceral inclination as a Protestant was to balk at such extravagance. But my willingness to consider and credit the scriptural, interpretive claims of the Church brought me, at least, to examine this one more closely.

What does it mean for the Church to claim “exclusive authority in interpreting Scripture“? What did the Church actually claim? And what was my objection? I had already admitted that the Church could authentically interpret Scripture. What I balked at, I realized, was the thesis that the Church could have authority at all — over believers, over me.

St. Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbarán

St. Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1627) (Wikimedia)

The truth is, I had never even encountered such an argument, that a church could have authority. It may be a commonplace for Protestants of more traditional denominations, but for me, steeped in such a free, independent, individualistic tradition, it seemed entirely foreign. The church, in my mind as a Protestant, was a voluntary social association. Our pastor was the man who preached every week at church, who had little or no personal involvement in our lives or faiths. Our deacons were little more than a board of directors for the corporation. The district council of our denomination, if we ever heard about it, seemed to exist mainly for cooperating in missions and youth activities. I don’t remember ever hearing of a national body (there actually is one). None of these bodies had any authority over our church; and I didn’t consider the church, or even the pastor, to have authority over me.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, claims to have authority. This was a novel and fairly stunning concept, one that had never even occurred to me. Was the Church something more than just the people? Were its leaders something more than just public speakers, something more than business administrators? The Catholic Church claims to have some authority over its faithful. In what way was I supposed to understand this? On the surface, once again, I balked, imagining a tyrant, standing over believers, telling them what they could believe and do.

The Magisterium

Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

When I first encountered the idea of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, I envisioned something like a formal council of robed and hoary bishops meeting weekly or daily, to which every interpretation of Scripture, every homily and every teaching, had to be submitted for approval. The magisterium, after all, claimed “exclusive authority of interpreting Scripture.” I supposed Catholics were forbidden from reading and interpreting Scripture on their own. Naturally, this conception was something to balk at.

But this isn’t, I soon discovered, what the Church was claiming at all. The magisterium of the Church refers to the Church’s teaching authority — her role as a teacher. The magisterium is not literally a formal body of men at all (although it can be said that the pope and the bishops in communion with him make it up); it does not meet (aside from the couple of dozen times over the whole history of the Church that all the bishops of the Church have met in ecumenical council); it does not stand over the scriptural interpretation of the faithful as any sort of regulatory authority. So what actually is being claimed?

The Good Shepherd, Bernhard Plockhorst

The Good Shepherd, by Bernhard Plockhorst (19th century) (Wikimedia)

Scripture presents that God Himself appoints preachers and teachers (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, 2 Timothy 1:11) in the person of the bishops (1 Timothy 3:2, 5:17, Titus 2:24), men charged with passing on the truth of the faith (2 Timothy 2:2, 4:2) and keeping watch over the souls of the faithful (Hebrews 13:17). A pastor is a shepherd, one with authority over God’s flock (1 Peter 5:1-5). If we accept these teachings of Scripture, that God gave pastors and bishops the authority to teach and to guide His flock, then the notion that the magisterium of the Church, made up of all the bishops, should have the authority to teach the truth is not so far fetched.

With just a little reading, I soon came to see that what the Church really means when she claims that the magisterium of the Church has the authority to give the authentic interpretation of Scripture is mostly this: that the whole body of bishops, giving the very interpretations over all the ages that I had already come to hold as authoritative, does in fact have the authority to give that interpretation. The Church is a teacher, not a tyrant. Like a teacher, the Church offers teaching, the authoritative interpretation of Scripture, for the benefit, edification, and guidance of the people of God.

Not a Tyrant

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus Caesar as Pontifex Maximus (Wikimedia).

One point I alluded to before is the misconception and fear I had that the Church could dictate whatever interpretations she pleased, no matter how contradictory they actually were to Scripture: that she could teach believers to believe Scripture meant something completely other than what it actually says. Well, the first thing that was clear to me, as I began to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, even the Council of Trent, is that this hasn’t actually happened. When the Church speaks as a teacher, she bases her teachings on Scripture and on the interpretations on the past: each of these documents is rife with scriptural quotations and citations, quotations and citations from the Church Fathers, from prior councils and documents; a modern edition has footnotes. Each reflects the didactic method of a teacher and not the bald pronouncements of a dictator.

Jesus said that “the [leader of the faithful] must be as one who serves” (Luke 22:26). Peter taught that a pastor must shepherd the flock not by constraint but willingly, leading not by force but by example (1 Peter 5:2-3). This is the kind of authority that the Church offers as a teacher. In the very same statement as the one that I once took to be so troubling — the claim that the Church has “exclusive authority to interpret Scripture authentically” — she also says this:

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office [magisterium] of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office [magisterium] is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. (Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum [Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation] 10).

The Church cannot teach something that has not been handed down as truth. The Church does not “invent” teachings; she passes them on. It is plain for any student to see the truth of this, to see the support offered for every teaching, the foundations and precedents in traditional and time-honored interpretations of Scripture and in the teachings of the past. These teachings, these traditions, everything that makes up the deposit of faith — none of it is hidden, secret, or unknown, but all of it is available to be studied by the faithful.

Too Many Teachers

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

And why is the Church’s authority exclusive? Does this imply that individual believers are not authorized to interpret Scripture for themselves? Or that no one other than a bishop is capable of interpreting the meaning of the Scriptures truthfully? Not at all. It means only that God gave His teaching authority to the office that came (by the end of the first century) to reside in the bishop alone. And why? As someone who has spent most of my life involved in education, I can attest that when everybody thinks they are the teacher, nobody learns anything. Scripture is very clear that God appointed shepherds over us with the authority to teach.

The Church with authority over scriptural interpretation and doctrine is evidenced again and again in history. In Acts 15, when the controversy of the Judaizers arose, it was not individual believers, interpreting Scripture on their own, that decided the matter, but a council of Apostles and bishops. When the great heresies such as Arianism arose, the matter was not left to the consciences and private interpretations of individual believers, but the orthodox way was ultimately defined by a council of all the bishops through interpreting Scripture.

Sola scriptura presents the problem of “too many teachers” writ large. If every person’s interpretation is considered authoritative, if an individual believer’s opinion has just as much value as the whole teaching tradition of the Church, then we see in the history of Protestantism exactly what we should expect to see: thousands of separate churches. Everyone having authority ultimately means that no one has authority at all. And this is what I felt as a Protestant; this was the source of my paralysis.

And yes, it’s true, that Protestants insist that sola scriptura is not the giving of interpretive and doctrinal authority to every individual believer. They insist that the Church still has doctrinal authority, and to greater or lesser extents, some Protestants churches actually implement that. Some churches, such as the P.C.A., do enforce the orthodoxy of their confessions, and bring censure or even excommunication to those who depart from it. But then, if anyone disagrees with the confessions of the P.C.A., he is free to depart and start his own church, and feels the moral and doctrinal mandate to do so. Church authority is of no authority at all if the individual believer has the authority to challenge it. The church really does become a voluntary association. Sola scriptura, I argue, does necessarily result in the implication that every believer is his own teacher: even the most submissive Protestant can pick and choose what teachers he submits to; he can embrace the one whose teachings agree with his own private interpretation, and reject the one whose don’t. I think it is very telling, in comparing the history of the Catholic and Protestant churches, how comparatively rare real and substantial doctrinal schism — the actual breaking away of a significant number of believers to form their own churches, on account of some doctrinal dispute — is in the Catholic tradition, versus how commonplace splits of the local church or of whole denominations are in the Protestant world.

“Other Things”

Infant baptism by immersion

Baptism.

Several times in the course of this series, I’ve alluded to my acceptance of other authorities, other sources such as historical documents, as instrumental in my eventual rejection of sola scriptura. I opened the series, provocatively, with the statement that “Protestants hold as authoritative the Bible alone, while Catholics deny this and add other things.” This was my understanding as a Protestant. It is not a very accurate statement of what Catholics believe.

First, do Catholics deny that Scripture is authoritative? That it is the Word of God? Absolutely not. For Catholics, just as well as for Protestants, Scripture is the highest, most eminent authority, the very and absolute Word of God in written form. Scripture cannot be denied, dismissed, or contradicted, by the magisterium of the Church, by the pope, or by anyone else. I very often hear the charges that “the Catholic Church makes her teachings equal with Scripture,” or places herself “above Scripture”: this is not true. The Church teaches about Scripture, from Scripture; she is not and cannot be above Scripture. Scripture is part of the deposit of faith and truth from which she teaches; she cannot add to, take away from, or alter that deposit.

What else is part of this deposit of faith? What “other things”? The other component of the deposit of faith is Sacred Tradition. No, this does not mean that the “traditions” of the Catholic Church are held to be authoritative, on the same level of Scripture. What does the Church mean by “Sacred Tradition”? Sacred Tradition is a technical term: it does not refer to “traditions” or to just any tradition in the Catholic Church, but very specifically to only one thing: to the oral teachings of Christ and the Apostles that have been handed down [traditae sunt] in the Church. If Christ spoke it, then it is the Word of God.

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena, c. A.D. 1562 (Wikipedia).

Protestants complain that this idea of “Sacred Tradition” is inherently amorphous and undefined, that at any point the Church can declare some novel doctrine on the basis that it is part of this unseen body of “Sacred Tradition.” Because it is not written down, it can be abused, or even invented whole cloth. But the “traditional” aspect of it is essential: every part of this “Sacred Tradition” has been handed down in the Church, and is visible, and practically, has been written down by the Church Fathers. The Church applies the same standard for Tradition that the most ancient Church applied: we know it is part of the deposit of faith, handed down from the Apostles, because it was taught in all the Churches (cf. Irenaeus, etc.).

So in the end, the statement that the Catholic Church adds “other things” to Scripture, that she believes “other things” in addition to the Word of God, is misleading. No, the Catholic Church does not indiscriminately hold “traditions” or “other things” to be divinely authoritative in addition to Scripture. Nothing the Church believes can contradict Scripture. Once I began to understand the truth of what the Church actually holds and teaches about Scripture and revelation, it seemed entirely reasonable and consistent with what I was was already coming to believe — and I readily let go of the notion of sola scriptura.

I have heard many Protestants, too, complain about the “tripod” of the Church’s teaching, with its three legs being Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the magisterium — which seems to imply that the Church considers all three to be equal. This is an analogy, it’s true, that some Catholics have used, and Vatican II itself stated that “sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the magisterium … are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others,” implying this image of the tripod. But the Church does not consider the three equal. The statement is only that “one [of the three] cannot stand without the others”; the illustration of the tripod, if it be drawn, is only meant to convey this interdependence, not the three components’ equality or even their relative positions. Neither Scripture nor Tradition interprets itself: a teacher is also necessary, but is a servant to the deposit of faith, not above it.

Conclusion

John Calvin, by Titian (16th century) (Wikimedia).

John Calvin, by Titian (16th century) (Wikimedia).

I had struggled for many years to arrive at some authoritative interpretation of Scripture. I believed, as a Protestant, that finding such an authoritative interpretation was my initiative; I was told that Scripture “perspicuous,” and such an authoritative interpretation should be plain, and that it was “self-interpreting,” that it ought to be findable without depending on my own understanding. Such plainly did not happen: The more I studied Scripture, the more paralyzed I became in coming to any sort of authoritative interpretation.

This was where I stood when I stumbled into the antechamber of the Catholic Church. I did not fully understand my problem — I could not have articulated what my paralysis was or what it stemmed from — and I had not even an inkling that the solution to it lay ahead. How could I move past my logjam? I needed a teacher. Protestants who espouse developed theology and doctrines point to “Scripture alone” as the origin of their teaching, but in truth they too are relying on an interpretive tradition, the fruit of teachers — the pastors, theologians, and Reformers who developed the doctrines that they hold. It is easy to point to a collection of doctrines already held and already exposited and claim they are clear on the face of Scripture, that Scripture can interpret itself, but in truth this is not historically and intellectually honest. Were these doctrines “perspicuous” and “self-interpreting” for the fifteen centuries before the Protestant Reformers developed and espoused them?

I had no teacher. I came from a background mostly bereft of concrete doctrine or theology or meaningful exegesis. I had not the benefit of an already exposed system of doctrine. I had the tools to exposit Scripture, but not the guidance. Thus, it gradually became clear to me over the years that the claims of sola scriptura were false: Scripture was not “perspicuous” in any meaningful way, apart from the barest outlines of the gospel. Scripture was not “self-interpreting.”

Scripture is a collection of texts. They do not “self-interpret.” Interpretation is the activity of a person, and Scripture is not a person. The Holy Spirit is a person, who can and does aid us in understanding the truth of Scripture — but His guidance is necessarily filtered through our own human perceptions; Scripture is necessarily understood through our own human interpretations. Over the years, developing in my consciousness as a Christian and as an academic, I had come to realize these things, more or less concretely, by the time I encountered the Church.

I needed a teacher; and where Protestants, especially the ones I was familiar with, tended to limit their interpretation of Scripture to their own understanding, or to teachers in the past who had done the same, the Catholic Church that I discovered strove to base her interpretation of Scripture on the whole context of Scripture and the whole body of received, authoritative tradition. I accepted this authority at first academically, but was troubled by the Church’s theological claims to have exclusive authority to interpret Scripture, perceiving them to be extravagant and somehow tyrannical. Over time, though, I came to see the truth: In interpreting Scripture, the Church is a teacher, not a tyrant. And I, at long last, had found my teacher.

10 thoughts on “Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 3: An Authoritative Church

  1. I have a question for you, JR. I read all three parts and don’t remember you addressing this, but if you did, forgive me. I’d go back and reread them but…they are quite long 🙂 , though well-written. I assume you believe God intended for his people to have a resource for the correct interpretation of his word. If so, on what do you base this belief?

    • Hi Caroline. Thanks. No, I don’t think I addressed that assumption specifically. But I would argue that it’s a common assumption of both Catholics and Protestants. The whole idea of Scripture being “perspicuous” and “self-interpreting” seems premised on the notion that there is a correct interpretation, and that Christians can know it. The very idea of sola scriptura, I would argue, depends on Scripture being clear and unambiguous: If “Scripture alone” is going to be God’s teaching to us, then either God Himself has to teach it or it has to be “self-teaching” — as even Protestant arguments conclude. The Westminster Confession of Faith — the Protestant confession I have had the most contact with, traveling in Baptist and Presbyterian circles, but by no means the only one — states that “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded [in Scripture … that even] the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (WCF 1.7). Yes, the correct interpretation (I find that many Protestants don’t even like to talk about “interpretation,” since “Scripture interprets itself” and requires no other interpretation) — the truth — is supposed to be clear. These claims seem designed to “pass the buck” of where that organ of correct interpretation lies, to place it in Scripture itself where it had always existed before in authoritative teachers — but ultimately, as I’ve argued, they leave such authority and responsibility with individual believers.

      Why do I believe God has provided an organ for the correct interpretation of Scripture? Well again, it’s clear, and in this I agree with Protestants, that if God is going to give us His Word, it must be a message without confusion, since God is not a God of confusion but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33). How does Scripture account for this? In the New Testament, Scripture speaks repeatedly of pastors and teachers with authority to guide and teach the faithful; it speaks of the Holy Spirit, who will guide the faithful into all truth (John 16:13). The model of the Church in the New Testament, beginning with Jesus’s statements (e.g. Matthew 18:17) and continuing with Paul’s and with Acts 15, presents a Church with authority over teaching and doctrinal matters, not a resignation of scriptural interpretation to individual believers. In the Old Testament, by analogy, God instituted a formal order of priests with specifically charged authority over the teaching and implementation of the Law; also prophets, judges, and kings to communicate His messages and exercise His rule. God wanted His people to know the Law so much that He gave it to them written down, and gave them men constantly to ensure that they heard and understood the message.

      And then, God Himself takes on flesh and walks among us, giving us the clearest, most definite, most absolute revelation of Himself and His will yet — and when He departs from us, we’re left with… a book? A book we’re supposed to interpret for ourselves, without the aid of any of the authorities He had provided in the past? Growing up Protestant, I believed that the Holy Spirit guided us in the proper interpretation of Scripture — but more and more lately, I’ve read Protestants, hard-core sola scripturists I call them, who effectively deny that the Holy Spirit has anything to do with it at all, arguing that any impulse external to our own reason is mystical and emotional and not to be trusted. They place so much emphasis, so much confidence, in their own understanding — and yet these same people insist that Scripture is “self-interpreting.”

      How would you answer the question? Would you say that God provided us with an organ or resource for the correct understanding of His Word?

      The peace of the Lord be with you.

  2. Here’s what I believe:

    Jesus’ promise to his disciples in John 16 that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth was primarily for them for the crucial task of founding the church. They would need divine direction in remembering what he taught and understanding it accurately in order to teach others and write it down for us. It also speaks to the Holy Spirit’s role and work in the life of every believer, but not that we are guided in the same way as the original disciples were.

    Because there were Holy Spirit-guided and -inspired men who had been with Jesus who could be trusted as teaching truth, were communicating this truth in letters, and had appointed men as church leaders who would also teach the truth, and because there was already much heresy to contend with but no New Testament Scripture as such to serve as the divinely-inspired truth to refer to, these leaders were necessary as an “organ or resource” for correct understanding of who Jesus is and what he did and taught.

    Once the church had gotten a foothold and the documents of the NT were written and generally accepted as authoritative, God used Scripture and the power of his indwelling Spirit in the believer to communicate the truth.

    I do believe Scripture is clear enough in the essentials…Jesus is God made flesh, was crucified for us, rose on the third day, and by faith in him we can be saved. You’ll notice I said “can” and not “will,” though “will be saved” is what I believe. I have often said to people, in reference to Catholics, that we are saved by faith alone, NOT by faith IN salvation by faith alone. So faith IN Jesus the God-Man is what is essential for salvation, I believe, and his identity and the recording of the facts of his death and resurrection are unmistakable in Scripture.

    I don’t believe God decreed or even intended the necessity of ensuring there would always be a human organism to be an “organ” for proper interpretation of his word. I do believe he gifts and raises up men and women to teach the truth, but since his divine Word is complete he does not inspire them in such a way as to prevent them from error. So although there is ONE accurate understanding, we have conflicting teachings within the Body of Christ as to the unessentials. And though that’s not God’s desire, he permits it and uses the confusion to draw the believer to deeper study and a more intimate relationship with himself.

    I do believe, as you once did, that the Holy Spirit does guide us individually into proper understanding (and no Protestant author I’ve ever heard or read denies the Spirit’s role in that). The reason we don’t all agree is that we are all still in the flesh and that gets in the way. But because neither our salvation, our effectiveness as witnesses, nor a full, joy-filled life is dependent on our knowing all the truth revealed in Scripture, God did not provide a continuing, human, authoritative source.

    • First, let me clarify: I still believe that the Holy Spirit guides us in understanding Scripture, in listening to God’s Word, in receiving faith and continuing in faith. It’s only by the Holy Spirit, I would hazard to say, that any of us can be Christians at all. But as I said, the guidance of the Holy Spirit in understanding Scripture is filtered through our human perceptions, and is not absolute.

      Second, I think the argument you’ve just posited contradicts the whole theses of your blog and mine. You state that “although there is ONE accurate understanding [of Scripture], we have conflicting teachings within the Body of Christ as to the unessentials.”; So unless you’re willing to stipulate that the very things we’ve been discussing, matters of soteriology and ecclesiology, are non-essentials (or alternately, to argue that Catholics are not Christians at all), then it’s fairly clear that we do have fundamentally divergent interpretations of Scripture in at least a few essential matters. “Neither our salvation, our effectiveness as witnesses, nor a full, joy-filled life is dependent on our knowing all the truth revealed in Scripture.” Really? Would you say, then, that neither your salvation, nor your effectiveness as a witness (for Christ), nor the fullness of your life, has any dependence on your embrace of Protestantism over Catholicism?

      I, for my part, don’t believe these disagreements are so fundamental as to deny that either of us is a Christian — but they are certainly essential enough to separate us from any meaningful communion. And not only Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox have such disagreements, but there is much such fragmentation even within Protestantism. Why do either of us blog, and why are we commenting to each other, if not to advance interpretations of Scripture, against each other’s, that we believe are essential?

      So in matters of “essentials,” or even of “nonessentials,” how can we discern the truth from Scripture alone? If Scripture is supposed to be perspicuous or clear or self-interpreting, why do diverse Christians have such difficulty in coming to any meaningful agreement on this? That’s the primary problem I struggled with as a Protestant. Why can we, whom I believe to both be reasonable, well-meaning people, not agree on how to interpret Scripture? I have a lot more I wrote and was struggling to write in answer to your comment, but most of it amounted to picking at your argument, and this is really the part I am most interested in.

      Peace be with you.

  3. As I said, I do believe that a person’s salvation does not depend on knowing how one is saved but on faith and trust in Jesus. So, yes, the matters we’ve been discussing are unessential to salvation. If I didn’t come right out and say it, I believe I at least implied that I consider you a brother in Christ. But unessential does not mean unimportant. If the Bible is God’s Word to us then all who claim to be Christians should make some kind of effort to know and understand what he has to say.

    “Would you say, then, that neither your salvation, nor your effectiveness as a witness (for Christ), nor the fullness of your life, has any dependence on your embrace of Protestantism over Catholicism?”

    A poor tribesman in a remote location can live a full, joy-filled life testifying to his neighbors of what Jesus did on the cross for him, and them, without knowing anything beyond the plain and simple gospel. Personally, my life has been greatly enriched since leaving the Catholic Church, but that doesn’t contradict my claim.

    “Why do either of us blog, and why are we commenting to each other, if not to advance interpretations of Scripture, against each other’s, that we believe are essential?”

    Well, I can’t speak for you, of course, but when I criticize the Catholic Church (and that’s not the primary focus of my blog…it’s about faith in God being reasonable, hence most of my interactions have been with atheists…and then how that faith is exhibited in policies and opinions on social issues) it’s not because a Catholic can’t be saved, which is not what I believe. It’s for a number of reasons, but generally speaking it’s because truth matters and I believe much of what the Church teaches is not true.

    “So in matters of “nonessentials,” how can we discern the truth from Scripture alone?”

    I don’t believe that all of Scripture is supposed to be perspicuous, and that good men and women will be discussing, dissecting, and debating the doctrinal details until Jesus returns. And that that’s okay. The divisions within Protestantism may be seen as pragmatically necessary, but it’s truly unfortunate and unChrist-like when they result in rancor and disunity. Each denomination believes their unique doctrines or interpretations are true, but I believe the contradictory views are opportunities for promoting unity instead of division, and not evidence of a need for an arbiter.

    • Caroline, thanks. This is refreshing to read and I agree with you for the most part. No, I don’t believe that Protestant beliefs, per se, separate anyone from salvation. I do think that some Protestant propositions, if misunderstood or misapprehended, can be dangerous — namely, if somebody goes around living a carelessly profligate life in the false “security” that he once prayed a “sinner’s prayer” and “all his sins are covered.” I’m especially sensitive to that one — from personal experience. Misunderstanding Catholic propositions about salvation can be dangerous too, of course, but in general Catholic teachings tend toward a “better safe than sorry” attitude.

      And yes, I don’t believe full joy, or even salvation, as a Christian depends on a complete knowledge of Scripture or any fine, theological nuance of doctrine. Small children are some of the most joyful and faithful Christians; also those with mental disabilities or the old and senile. I would contrast this to some — particularly in the Reformed camp — who seem to base salvation on a particular appreciation of Reformation doctrines like sola fide — such that a Catholic isn’t “saved” if he believes anything at all besides faith needs to be present for salvation. By the same token, I would argue — and I actually read something by R.C. Sproul Jr., in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing years ago, that agreed with this charge — small children would likewise be excluded from salvation.

      So yes, perhaps the niceties of doctrine and practice are not essentials for the gospel or for salvation, but they are essentials for the kind of unity our Lord prays for (John 17:21) and Scripture presents we should have (1 Corinthians 1:10). I am not willing to dismiss our divisions as necessary or okay or even desirable, as some Protestants I’ve spoken to have.

      I would argue that divisions within Protestantism are “pragmatically necessary” only in the sense that they’re practically inevitable in the absence of any unifying authority. For about the first four centuries of Christianity, what we consider the Orthodox, Catholic, Universal Church continued in nearly perfect doctrinal agreement as to essentials, surviving the ravages of Gnosticism, Quartodecimanism, Montanism, Donatism, and Arianism (probably the most pervasive early heresy and possibly the most significant threat to Christian unity and orthodoxy of all time) and two ecumenical councils — only to see the Church of the East divide at the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Monophysite Churches divide at the Council of Chalcedon (451). Of course, scholars can debate how “unified” the Church actually was before this, and we can debate even more fiercely what this unity consisted of and how it was achieved — but the fact is that up until this point, churches the world over were willing to meet to discuss doctrinal controversies in firm hope of resolving them, they could work together for their common gospel, and they were willing to break bread together in communion, the most important marker for me. After these churches split, the rest of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity remained essentially unified for another 400 to 600 years.

      Without going into lengthy or detailed arguments, I would present that the essential model of authority in the early Church that made this possible was one that placed real, doctrinal, magisterial authority in the hands of every bishop over his own flock, and one that placed great emphasis on the unity of brother bishops, every one guiding to every other as a matter of necessity — especially to the recognized apostolic Churches, and especially to one in particular, as we have discussed. Even more than that, the lay faithful saw it as a matter of necessity that they submit to their local bishop as a doctrinal authority.

      Contrast this to Protestantism, which resulted in at least half a dozen disparate sects within its first century. This schism compounded and compounded, until five centuries later, disparate Protestant denominations number somewhere in the many thousands. Of course, some of these churches agree more with some than with others, but by the same marker I used before, most of them cannot meet together to discuss doctrine, to approach a common mission, or to break bread together in communion. What is the difference? Protestantism approaches the matter of doctrinal authority in a completely different fashion than the Church up until that point, denying for the most part the authority of the bishop in doctrinal matters (if not the office of bishop altogether) and placing that authority in Scripture alone, something essentially subjective and subject to personal opinion and interpretation. We can well see the fruits of this.

      And speaking for my own part — as I’ve detailed in this series — I couldn’t reverse the process. Proceeding from this fragmentation, I could not discern between competing claims, to put the pieces back together and assemble any sort of coherent theological or doctrinal framework. It may sound to some that I’m whining, that I simply couldn’t make up my mind, what I was unwilling to make firm doctrinal decisions about my own faith — but the fact is, I don’t think I should have to. Reading Scripture and history, the idea of a Christian believer having to “make firm doctrinal decisions about his own faith” is not an element that I find. When Jesus taught, His doctrine was unambiguous. When the Apostles taught, their doctrine was unambiguous. When the Church Fathers wrote, for some twelve centuries, their doctrine was unambiguous, and agreed in every essential matter with every other. And you are telling me that the Word of God, the only real doctrinal authority that Protestants will accept, is not supposed to be unambiguous in matters of doctrine, is not supposed to be clear? Yes, I’m quite sure, too, that good men and women will be discussing and debating doctrinal details till kingdom come. No, I don’t think this is the situation that Jesus intended when he prayed that we “all be one, just as He and the Father are One.”

      You say you don’t see in this disunity “evidence of a need for an arbiter.” If you had asked a Christian of the first millennium, I think she would have given you a very different answer than that. Whether you believe in a single arbiter or not, the fact is that Catholic Christians (in which I include the Orthodox) have always followed a completely different model of authority. Whether you see a “need for an arbiter” or not, I would present that historic Christianity had one and has one, which Protestants rejected, in the person of the bishop. An essential unity of doctrine still subsists in the Catholic Church, for some billion Christian believers, while you are making excuses for the fragmentation of Protestant teaching. To me, arguing there is “no need for a personal doctrinal authority” has the ring of a child confidently declaring that he doesn’t need training wheels on his bicycle, moments before he crashes into a tree.

      The peace of the Lord be with you.

        • I think that’s a good question, too. I don’t know what Caroline’s response is, but I generally see it in layers: The most essential matters are those that would divide us from Christ; then there are those that would divide the Church, dividing believers from one another; then there are matters on which differences are tolerable. I think most of the ones we’re disputing about fall into the second or third category.

  4. Pingback: Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 1: Paralysis | The Lonely Pilgrim

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