Some more thoughts on Authority and Christian doctrine and practice
It’s been a while since I’ve posted any thoughts on my blog. I have recently finished reading D. H. Williams’ book Evangelicals and Tradition, and decided to continue some of my brief thoughts on the problem of biblical interpretation and authority for Christian doctrine and practice (see here). The debate in question is, of course, of importance for all of the different groups that would claim to be Christian.
Now Protestants make the claim that the Bible, the inspired word of God, alone, is the only authority for all Christian practice and doctrine. The protestant would deny that tradition, in any form, can exercise any authority on Christian doctrine and practice. There are, however, a number of problems to such a claim. First of all, it is a matter of historical fact that the canon of the New Testament was discovered, defended, and worked out by the early church during the first 500 years of its existence. Therefore, the New Testament, and therefore the Bible as we know it was non-existent as authority for the church. Does this mean that during the first 500 years of the church there was no authority for church practice and doctrine? It would seem, first of all, that during the first century the living apostles, and the teachings that they gave publicly (tradition), served as the authority for the early church. Afterwards, their writings (part of which became the New Testament), and the tradition that they passed on to the churches (see 1 Cor. 15) was used as authority. This is where the problems, so to say, began. After the apostles had died the authority for church doctrine and practice were their inspired writings as interpreted by the church community.
At this point, another question presses itself upon us. Namely, how do we explain the discovery or selection of the canon by the early church? There are a number of criteria, which I have already discussed in a previous blog, but, one thing that is sure is that it certainly seems that God supernaturally directed the selection of the books that are in the canon through the fathers of the early church. This question takes us further into our discussion of authority by bringing up a further question.
Does the divine direction of God stop with the selection of the books of the canon, or does He divinely protect His church from heresy? This is an important question for the subject of authority, because most Protestants would claim that God, the Holy Spirit, illumines the Christian (individual) who is reading the Bible, so as to help him/her to understand, and properly interpret the Bible. Now, if this principle is true, then, it seems arrogant to claim that somewhere along the line (first, second, 13th, or even in the 15th century after Christ) the church (which is composed of individual Christians) deviated entirely from the true interpretation and meaning of Scripture. That is to say, if the Holy Spirit illumines the Christian individual who is reading scriptures such that they are able to properly understand scripture, then, this is true in all ages of the church, and the claim that the church deviated drastically from that which Jesus intended, seems foundationless. Yet, there do seem to be some teachings, in numerous Christian groups (found within Catholicism, and cults of Protestantism such as Jehovah’s Witnesses) that are the subject of great debate, and some which are even heretical. How could this be so if the Holy Spirit divinely illumines the Christian who prays, and seeks his wisdom? In other words, if this principle is true, then, or so it seems, we must assume that God illumined the early church fathers, and the many other Christian authors down through the centuries, just as much as any contemporary Protestant Christian author is illumined. Someone who wishes to repudiate the early church, and medieval, fathers might claim that they erred because they were not true Christians. However, doubting the salvation of an author in order to bypass this principle is an instance of special pleading. How can one be sure that any particular author is, or is not, a Christian?
Therefore, if this principle is true, then the writings of Christian authors down through the centuries all possess an equal authority, and, therefore, should all be equally considered in attempting to determine the meaning of a biblical text. There are two things that I would add to these observations. First of all, this does not mean, and cannot, in fact, mean that every Christian who sits down prays for guidance, and proceeds to interpret the bible will inevitably, and necessarily arrive at the true interpretation of the text in question. The evidence of history is that, much to the contrary, some of the godliest men have been prone to error in their interpretation of the Bible. Furthermore, some of the godliest men of God have disagreed on important points of interpretation. It is a case of special pleading to claim that when the interpretation is true, then the Holy Spirit illumined the interpreter, and when the interpretation is false, it is due to the interpreter going on his own. In fact, even if the case of special pleading were to be true, it still would not provide a way of determining which interpretation (of the many differing interpretations) is Holy Spirit illumined. It would seem that some criterion is needed, therefore, in order to determine the proper interpretation of scripture, and what is normative for Christian doctrine and practice.
Now, it seems that everybody agrees that the Bible, in everything that it affirms, is 100% authoritative on Christian practice and doctrine. However, our interpretations are not inspired. It seems, then, that one principle that all Christian denominations must agree upon is that authority for true Christian doctrines and practice, must be based upon, in some way, a proper interpretation of the Bible. The question then is how to determine which interpretations are right, and which aren’t.
More thoughts to come.