Monday, December 05, 2005

The Nature of Christian Authority

It finally dawned on me that one of the most major differences between Protestants and Catholics is that Protestants advance sola scriptura and thus believe that the nature of the institutional church should be derived from the Bible, while Catholics argue that the Church is the interpreter of Scripture, and thus the Bible flows from the teaching of the Church.

In a way, these arguments address separate issues. The Protestant is essentially saying at least "if it contradicts the Bible, it's wrong," while the Catholic is saying "private interpretation is dangerous; the Church determines the correct interpretation." I definitely agree with the Protestant assertion, and I'm pretty sure that I agree with the Catholic assertion as well.

The Catholics have their strongest argument in the question of the canon of the Bible. They argue that the ecumenical Councils of the Church established the canon, and that as such, apostolic tradition (received teaching from the apostles to church leaders on down to today) has at least some role. The Table of Contents is not inspired Scripture, and so the question becomes "what are the holy books of the Bible?" Roman Catholics claim 73. Modern Protestants remove the Apocrypha/Deuterocanon and claim 66. Anglicans, as usual, sort-of claim 66, but also sort-of claim 73. Martin Luther wanted 62 (removing the Apocrypha, Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation). Some Orthodox churches include various other books, such as Enoch and 3 and 4 Esdras. Without a revelation to either the Church as a whole or at least to himself, how can a man (or, if herself, a woman, of course...) know whether to accept the Gospel of John, the Gospel of Thomas, or Tobit? If there is a teaching authority, or magisterium, things become much simpler.

However, Protestants can very well argue that what's true is true, even if everyone says otherwise. They might well take argue C.S. Lewis's view, that even if they agreed with everything the Church has taught so far, they're not prepared to promise to believe whatever it may teach in the future. Especially in light of past scandals and crimes of the Roman Catholic Church, Protestants have a fair case that perhaps Rome cannot always be trusted, however much they may like and admire John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Personally, I find it amusing that Protestants typically point to sola scriptura as their argument against the role of tradition, though the canon of the Bible itself can only be proved to be a tradition at present. Meanwhile, the Catholics typically point to Matthew 16:19 as their basis for a magisterium, although someone's private interpretation was necessarily to classify this as dogma. Ironies abound.

I also think some connections can be drawn between Protestantism and the individualism of John Locke, and Catholicism and the communitarianism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. That's pretty deep stuff, though, so I'm thinking it would be better tackled later, when I don't have a huge project due the next day...

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