Monday, November 13, 2006

"Me, My Bible, and the Holy Spirit"

The Relationship of the Church to the Judgment of Individuals in the Matter of Authoritative Biblical Interpretation. Does the Church Require a Particular Meaning for each Passage?(collected from various papers of mine)

By Dave Armstrong (2001)

. . . man's sin and rebelliousness make an institutional Church with real, binding authority necessary, in order to maintain the doctrinal oneness and unity which is both commanded and assumed in Holy Scripture . . .

It's very simple: one can often find things in the Bible by oneself, with adequate study aids, and (hopefully) some basic background as to hermeneutics and exegesis. I do this now, and have done it for years. This is, of course, the theme of my website, and my upcoming book (A Biblical Defense of Catholicism). I've never been disappointed or "stumped" when studying Holy Scripture. It is always a glorious shining light, and unambiguous. The difference lies in the ultimate authority, or formal principle of authority. The Catholic, when completing such a study, will want to know if his conclusions are in line with those of the Church, and with what Christians have believed for 2000 years. In this way, doctrinal unity and historical continuity with the Apostles and the Church of the Ages can be maintained, and the relativism and sin-influenced individualism avoided . . .

To reiterate briefly, then, my thesis: it is not so much that Scripture is so unclear and esoteric that it is an utter mystery and an undecipherable "code" which only Holy Mother Church can break, and which no individual can possibly understand. Rather, the Church is required to speak authoritatively as to what Holy Scripture teaches, just as it spoke authoritatively with regard to what books were to be included in Scripture. In both instances, Holy Scripture is inherently what it is: God's inspired, inerrant, infallible written revelation, but human error, sin, and inability to achieve unity of belief on the basis of individualism made the teaching Church absolutely necessary. It is the principle of private judgment to the exclusion of a necessary, binding, ecclesiastical teaching authority which is radically unbiblical, blatantly contrary to the practice of the Church in the patristic period - all the way up to the Protestant Revolt, and obviously a failure in practice.

* * * * *

Something may indeed be quite clear (which I maintain is the case for many, many doctrines - it is the foundational premise of my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, for Pete's sake), but there will arise people who manage to distort it, and so a conciliar definition and clarification becomes necessary in a practical, very "human" sense.

* * * * *

In my soon-to-be-published book I wrote the following in the Introduction:

The widespread existence of evangelical Protestant commentaries and various lexicons, Bible
Dictionaries, Concordances, and so forth, for the use of laypeople, is based on a
presupposition that individuals without formal theological education can arrive at conclusions
on their own. This is largely what I am attempting presently. The only difference is that I am
willing to modify or relinquish any conclusions of mine which turn out to be contrary to the
clear teachings and dogmas of the Catholic Church, whereas the quintessential Protestant
ultimately can stand on his own (like Luther), "on the Bible," against, if need be, the whole
Tradition of the Christian Church. I formulate my conclusions based on the work of Church
Councils, great Catholic scholars, Fathers, Doctors, and saints, just as the conscientious
Protestant would consult the scholars and great pastors and theologians of his own

. . . [some Protestants] assume falsely once again that because we believe Scripture does not function as a perspicuous authority apart from some human ecclesiastical authority, therefore every individual passage is an utter "mystery, riddle, and enigma" (to borrow from Churchill's description of Russia). Of course, this doesn't follow, and is another straw man - not very useful for the purposes of constructive dialogue.

* * * * *

Jerome Smith, editor of The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge and an acquaintance of mine (he has been at my house, and his brother Martin is a long-time friend), wrote in our discussion on perspicuity of Scripture:
All that is necessary to believe for salvation is to be found in the confines of the written words of the Bible alone.
I replied:

Yep; if you are on a desert isle with no one around, and a Bible, I believe you could be saved. I also believe you could be saved without a Bible or ever hearing a word of it, if you seek truth; since God said His existence is evident from that which is made (Romans 1). This does not - again - disprove the need for a Church and an authoritative Tradition in normal circumstances. It's like saying "I could survive on a deserted, barren island with bread and water, no modern conveniences, no medicine, etc." Sure you could, but is this the best way to go through life? Do we not take advantage of those blessings which God has provided for us - among which is the Church, and the wise spiritual guides in it who help us better follow the path of discipleship?

* * * * *

And in my dialogue with my friend Carmen Bryant - who has a Master's degree in the field of perspicuity of Scripture, or something quite similar to that, I wrote:

The Catholic Church - I want to stress - does not dictate how every Bible passage must be interpreted. Actually, there are very few individual passages which must be interpreted a certain way (and Catholics and Protestants would not disagree on the plain meaning of vast numbers of passages, such as, e.g., those having to do with the divinity of Christ, or God the Father's attributes). But the Church does require its members to interpret the Bible according to received, Catholic Tradition.

The online Catholic Encyclopedia article on BIBLICAL EXEGESIS states (emphasis added):

"(a) Defined Texts
The Catholic commentator is bound to adhere to the interpretation of texts which the Church
has defined either expressly or implicitly. The number of these texts is small, so that the
commentator can easily avoid any transgression of this principle."

. . . the Church declares that Christians should believe certain things (which all Christian groups do, of course), and that no one may interpret any passage of Scripture in a manner which contradicts these received doctrines (which is logically a far different proposition). Protestants do exactly the same thing, just in a more limited manner. Luther, e.g., was absolutely convinced that "this is my body" meant a literal Eucharist (consubstantiation), while Zwingli adopted a symbolic view and was therefore dismissed by Luther as a reprobate and apostate.

Likewise, Calvinists today have a whole set of biblical passages (e.g., their favorite, Romans 9) related to their notions of double predestination, unlimited election, irresistible grace, and limited atonement (TULIP), concerning which they do not admit any difference of interpretation. If the whole truth be known, I suspect that Protestants are more guilty of the practices decried above than the Catholic Church ever was. It is Protestantism which is far more "hung up" on proof texts from the Bible which supposedly can only mean one thing. The Catholic Church is much more concerned about true doctrine, received from the Apostles, than about particular proof texts. That's not to say that proof texts aren't offered (my website is devoted to that very thing); just that the emphasis is different.

(Carmen): The author of Scripture is also the creator of language. Furthermore, as the omniscient God who chose to reveal himself and his will to man, he knew thoroughly all the rules of the language-game. God is not a cheater. Although his revelation may have been selective, the truth he chose to reveal was disclosed according to the rules of the language-games known by the writers of Scripture. The message itself, then, was clear. From this perspective, the perspicuity of Scripture means that there is no way whereby the message could have been improved. It was true and it was clear. To say otherwise is to put a limitation either on God's ability to deliver a message or on his ability to choose the appropriate persons to record the message.

This assumes what it is trying to prove. It takes for granted from the outset that Scripture must be clear without an ecclesiastical Guide and Infallible Interpreter, which is precisely what is at issue in Catholic-Protestant discussions on the nature of authority, the roles of Scripture and Tradition, theological certainty, and the rule of faith. Scripture doesn't have to be clear for any reader to ascertain its meaning if it was always intended (by God) to be understood within an overall context of Church and Tradition (as I would argue and attempt to demonstrate with many proof texts that it itself teaches). In other words, the Church would provide the foolproof method of proper interpretation of a Scripture otherwise often misinterpreted due to sheer ignorance or prior doctrinal biases and predispositions (see, e.g., 2 Peter 1:20-21, 3:15-17). So the above claim is a false dilemma and a circular argument.

. . . In practical terms, "clearness" can only be viewed in terms of actual, human exegesis and interpretation.

God (as an omnipotent, sovereign Being) is just as able to bring about the institutional and doctrinal unity He wants (within His established Church) as He is able to theoretically write the message in a clear fashion without need of authoritative interpreters. To say it is "clear" regardless of how it is variously interpreted is not only illogical, but also, in the final analysis, a reduction of Christianity to a mere abstract, theoretical philosophy, when in fact it was intended by God to be very practical, concrete, and lived out. The Church exists for a reason, and it is an extension of the Incarnation, the Body of Christ. It has real, tangible authority. It is not simply an invisible society of like-minded individuals, who possess authority each one for themselves (as if the Church was optional or a convenient historical accretion). Christianity, like Judaism before it, was always a fundamentally historical religion.

Catholics do not disagree about the importance of understanding the original languages and cultural context of the biblical books.

. . . Spiritual clarity means that only those who have accepted God's grace in Jesus Christ can understand the spiritual concepts.

We agree, except that we emphasize Christianity as a communal and historical entity, much more so than an individualistic enterprise. So then, there is such a thing as a "mind of the Church," informed by the Holy Spirit, which is more profound than the "spiritual mind" of one person, . . . We apply the passages in John 14-16 about the Spirit's leading believers into all truth primarily to the Church as a whole. They can apply to individuals as well, but not as a norm for the faith: that must be historical and communal; ecclesiastical. And we maintain that this is the biblical (as well as the historic Christian) position, not some arbitrary and irrational "Catholic corruption" supposedly separate from Scripture and the Apostles and early Church.

Certainly there are many concepts within Scripture that are not clear even to the most able exegete. Perspicuity of Scripture does not deny this. Perspicuity, however, is based on a view of God that sees him as the one who reveals, not the one who hides. "Comprehensible enough" means that the teachings of Scripture are presented in straightforward language that can be understood in the normal way that one hears and understands language.

To a large degree this is true; not to the extent, however, that it makes a teaching Church unnecessary. We believe in material sufficiency and the ability - very broadly considered - of the regenerate, Spirit-filled individual to understand much of the Bible. But we think that the "check" of historical interpretation is necessary as the final determinant of true doctrine and guarantee of unity.
Even persons without faith can understand the sentences of Scripture, assuming that a good translation is being used. This is true, regardless of whether one is reading or listening to Scripture.
They can, theoretically (and actually, in many cases). That they often don't is evident; hence the need for something more than Scripture Alone.

. . . I find that in this debate, Protestants and Catholics are often talking past each other (maybe you have observed that as well). E.g., we believe in the centrality of Scripture, as you do (being God's inspired and infallible Revelation). We simply deny its exclusivity (i.e., its isolation from Church and Tradition - which we would argue that Scripture itself clearly includes within the parameters of Christian authority). There is no such thing as "Bible Alone" or even "Bible as the Ultimate and Exclusive Authority" because - we would say - Holy Scripture itself does not teach this (which makes it a self-defeating position).

I also believe that Scripture is - in the main - "clear". My point (in my many website debates on this subject and related ones) has been that the Protestant belief of private judgment mitigates against this clarity, and leads to relativism and chaos, due to a faulty notion of authority and hermeneutics, excluding the Church and historical interpretation (I speak generally - I know you have done a good job of providing historical support for your views). Most Catholics I know also accept the material sufficiency of Scripture, just not its formal sufficiency.

So the two views are not as far apart as often supposed. But when Fathers are quoted with regard to Scripture, I doubt that you can find even one who will totally separate Scripture from Church authority and Tradition (in the sense of final authority, as in sola Scriptura proper). You will never find them teaching that the individual in his own conscience (a la Luther at Worms), with the help of the Holy Spirit, ultimately adjudicates biblical interpretation, over against apostolic succession and Tradition. That is, in my opinion, where they differ fundamentally from the Protestant approach, and support ours.

. . . There are also more areas of agreement than you may suspect. In my own apologetic on this topic - as you probably know - I emphasize human sin and propensity to divide and disagree as contrary to a unified interpretation of Scripture, more so than the "unclearness" of Scripture itself. I have stated in my papers that I believe that the Bible is, by and large, clear, but that Church authority is needed to guarantee doctrinal unity.

So, in other words, I would move the discussion to the practical necessity of Church authority (as with, e.g., also the Canon), and the failure of Scripture Alone as a formal principle of authority. In a sense, then, I largely agree with you, but I immediately consider the practical consequences of such a view, given human fallibility and sin. But I think just saying "sin" does not adequately explain the Protestant situation and the (in my mind, apparent) failure of the principle of perspicuity. Scripture is unclear enough to require an authority (itself indicated and required in the same Scriptures) to maintain unified biblical teaching.

It's almost as if the Protestant emphasis is on individual freedom and supremacy of conscience - even to the extent of "vetoing" ecumenical Councils and hundreds of years of doctrinal consensus, if needs be (Luther at Worms), while the Catholic is concerned with doctrinal unity and proper Church authority and the maintenance of passed-down apostolic Tradition.

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