Friday, September 12, 2008

The Infallible Interpreter

I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.

- 1 John 2:26-27
For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you

- Ephesians 1:15-18
It is written in the Prophets, 'And they will all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me

- John 6:45*

Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians all agree that the Bible is infallible. We also agree that an infallible interpreter is needed in order to truly understand what the Bible teaches. But who is that infallible interpreter?

Orthodox and Catholics say that the infallible interpreter is the church, and that may well be true. But these Scripture passages at least give credence to the Protestant response that the infallible interpreter is the Holy Spirit Himself. And moreover, each of these verses seems to suggest that the Holy Spirit works in such a way as to illuminate the individual believer in a direct manner, and not necessarily through a magesterium or councils.



* All Scripture quotations are from the ESV.

31 comments:

Peter Wagenet said...

The difficulty for Protestants is the multitude of conflicting interpretations. How is one to know who is really following the Holy Spirit?

David N said...

Peter,

Quite right. However, that is a separate issue that can only be a problem after we have established that the Protestant response is correct. At this point, I'm only trying to figure out what the Bible has to say about this question. I'm not yet offering other defenses (philosophical, for example) for the Protestant response.

In other words, I'm quite familiar with the objection you have raised, but what I am looking for is a Biblical/exegetical response to the Scripture passages I have cited.

Thanks for commenting!

MG said...

David--

1. Do you think that the private judgment of an individual believer about the interpretation of a verse can bind human consciences to agree with said interpretation? Do you think any of these verses teach this?

2. Do you think the private judgment of an individual believer can circumvent the interpretive decisions of Church authorities in terms of binding the conscience to believe certain things, such that an individual's judgment can trump an ecumenical council? If an ecumenical council says "x" and you do not agree with "x" for your own private reasons (presumably exegetical, theological, etc.), do you think that you are not obligated to change your beliefs to agree with said council? Do you think these verses teach this?

3. What do you mean that these verses "give credence"? Do they imply your conclusion, or is it just possible that they imply your conclusion?

4. Could one argue that because the Bible is not mentioned in any of these verses, that therefore what this also implies is that the individual believer can be illuminated by the Holy Spirit in a direct way, apart from the Bible?

5. If the Holy Spirit directly illumines the biblical text so that a particular person can know its meaning, and we disagree over the interpretation of this text, does this imply that one of us has the Holy Spirit and the other doesn't?

David N said...

MG,

1. Yes.

2. Should it? In most cases, probably not. But can it and will it? Yes.

3. They show that there is Biblical justification for the belief that the Holy Spirit can and does illuminate the individual believer in a variety of ways to understand the meaning of the text. They don't necessarily refute the position that the church is also an infallible interpreter.

4. Sure.

5. Yes.

MG said...

David--

You wrote:

"1. Yes."

(1) Do you think that this is possible only in the case of direct, obvious, supernatural revelation with external miraculous or prophetic confirmation, or do you think it is possible under more normal circumstances as well?

"2. Should it? In most cases, probably not. But can it and will it? Yes."

(2) What kind of authority does the Church have?

"3. They show that there is Biblical justification for the belief that the Holy Spirit can and does illuminate the individual believer in a variety of ways to understand the meaning of the text. They don't necessarily refute the position that the church is also an infallible interpreter."

Okay, I see what you're saying. They imply your conclusion, but not to the exclusion of the possibility that there are other infallible interpreters.

But if there is an equally plausible interpretation that does not include the idea that the Holy Spirit infallibly teaches the individual apart from the help of a Church authority, then it seems like we would have no reason to think that these passages support your view. To get an idea for whether or not your interpretation is equally plausible, or more plausible, here are some questions:

Here are my questions about the 1 John passage:

(3a) What is the anointing? How does it teach?

(3b) Who are "those that are trying to deceive you"?

(3c) What is the relationship between the statement "you have no need that anyone should teach you" and "I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you"?

(3d) Given that this was written at a time when most of the hearers would not have copies of the New Testament documents, or even the Old Testament documents, why should we think this is telling the laity that they have teaching about how to do exegesis, and the authority to do so?

(3e) How does this passage fit with the idea that there is a teaching ministry in the New Testament Church, that not all people share in? (Acts 13:1, 1 Cor 12:28-9, Eph 4:11)

Here are my questions about the Ephesians passage:

(3f) Given that Paul's audience probably didn't have their own copies of the OT, and certainly didnt have their own NT's, why think that this is referring to interpretive power?

Here are my questions about the John passage:

(3g) Given that Jesus' audience probably didn't have their own copies of the OT, why think that this is referring to interpretive power?

You wrote:

"4. Sure."

How would this fit with the idea of Sola Sciptura, which includes saying that there are no distinct sources of authoritative Christian teaching from the contents of the OT and NT?

"5. Yes."

How does this fit with the widespread disagreements that Protestant denominations have about important matters of faith? Do you think that "not having the Holy Spirit" implies moral defect, not being elect to salvation, not having a special blessing from God, or what?

David N said...

MG,

To deal with (3d), (3f), and (3g) up front, these verses need not be referring specifically or exclusively to an individual reading the text for himself. Most of the time the illumination of the HS is going to happen when the believer hears the Word preached. I believe that also answers (3e), but let me know if you were getting at something else.

(1) I'm not sure I understand this follow up. The original "1" asked if I thought that one's private interpretation was sufficient to bind their conscience. I said yes, simply because I don't know what else could possibly bind someone's conscience other than their own belief in the truth of something. However, now that I re-read your original question, it seems that you might have been asking if I think that someone's private interpretation can or should bind the consciences of OTHERS, in which case my answer would have been "no".

(2) I think the church has a good amount of authority, but the question is what an individual can or should do based on their own beliefs. If I am convinced that the church is infallible, then even if I cannot accept some of her doctrines, what can I do but submit to her anyway? Now suppose I am an Anglican and I do not think that the church is infallible, and I become absolutely convinced that Anglicans are wrong about 70% of their doctrines, what can I possibly do but leave the Anglican church?

Essentially it's not a question about church authority, but individual belief (See Romans 14:11-12, 23 and 2 Timothy 2:24-25).

(3a) I'd say it is the anointing of the HS.

(3b) The false teachers and "antichrists."

(3c) It seems that what John is getting at is that the true believers who have the HS within them will be able to recognize false teaching when they hear it. He doesn't need to go into all the minute details of what the antichrists are teaching because those who are truly anointed don't need him to. He is probably also assuming that they have already heard the gospel (which I would say is necessary to be a true believer anyway), so he isn't saying that they don't need to be taught anything, period.

4. Strictly speaking the illumination of the HS in the individual is not infallible nor authoritative (like I said in response to 1, it cannot bind the consciences of others).

5. It need not imply any of those things. It simply means that some are illumined on certain aspects of doctrine where others are not, and some not where others are. Ultimately it is part of God's providential workings.

MG said...

David--

This response will have to come in parts.

You wrote:

"To deal with (3d), (3f), and (3g) up front, these verses need not be referring specifically or exclusively to an individual reading the text for himself. Most of the time the illumination of the HS is going to happen when the believer hears the Word preached. I believe that also answers (3e), but let me know if you were getting at something else."

Good point--the public reading of scripture was happening. So if we were going to suggest that these texts are talking about interpretive power, then there is something available that they could interpret.

Still, do you think that there is any mention of interpretive power in this text? I, for one do not see it. And this seems necessary to sustain your argument.

You wrote:

"(1) I'm not sure I understand this follow up. The original "1" asked if I thought that one's private interpretation was sufficient to bind their conscience. I said yes, simply because I don't know what else could possibly bind someone's conscience other than their own belief in the truth of something. However, now that I re-read your original question, it seems that you might have been asking if I think that someone's private interpretation can or should bind the consciences of OTHERS, in which case my answer would have been "no"."

The second interpretation of my "1" is correct. I was asking if you thought that the interpretive decisions of an individual could bind others' consciences. Denying this makes sense, because otherwise you would be saying that interpreters have a binding, normative power over what others believe.

"(2) I think the church has a good amount of authority, but the question is what an individual can or should do based on their own beliefs. If I am convinced that the church is infallible, then even if I cannot accept some of her doctrines, what can I do but submit to her anyway? Now suppose I am an Anglican and I do not think that the church is infallible, and I become absolutely convinced that Anglicans are wrong about 70% of their doctrines, what can I possibly do but leave the Anglican church?

Essentially it's not a question about church authority, but individual belief (See Romans 14:11-12, 23 and 2 Timothy 2:24-25)."

If I believe the Church is infallible, then it would be most consistent with my beliefs to adopt its actual teachings on subjects. Believing that the Church has authority would offer a reason to accept its teachings and adjust my own beliefs accordingly.

Does the Church have the power to obligate us to believe and do certain things?

If not, what does its authority consist in?

David N said...

MG,

"Still, do you think that there is any mention of interpretive power in this text?"

Well, the explicit statements are that the anointing "teaches", that God can give "a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him", and that people can be "taught by God."

Obviously these statements don't specify how and where the teaching and giving of knowledge and revelation happen, but I don't see how they wouldn't apply to the interpretation of Scripture (even if they could happen in other contexts).

"Does the Church have the power to obligate us to believe and do certain things? If not, what does its authority consist in?"

It seems to me that the Romans and Timothy passages I cited indicate that the ultimate responsibility for faithfulness rests on the individual. The church can certainly require certain things of its members (say, holding to a certain confession), as well as administer discipline, but only so long as the individual submits himself to that church. If he chooses not to submit himself, the church is not obligated to force him into submission.

The 2 Timothy passage specifically seems to indicate that the only obligation the church has is to try to correct the individual, in gentleness and meekness, in the hope that God will grant repentance.

So, in a sense, I guess my answer is "yes." The Escondido URC has the power to obligate me to hold to the 3 Forms of Unity and submit to the church's leadership, and if I do not, they have the power to excommunicate me. If I choose not to submit to the church, then it is between me and God, so to speak (as Romans 14:11-12 and 23 seem to indicate).

David Cox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Cox said...

David
I hope you don't mind me asking a question...

Can there be something binding about one being excommunicated? That is, if one is excommunicated, is he removed from the body of Christ, or does it mean that he must merely find another place to worship?

David N said...

Hey David, welcome back!

If someone does something serious enough that his church feels excommunication is called for, then I would say he has probably already cut himself off from the body of Christ. Even if he runs off to some non-denominational mega church that doesn't care if he's been excommunicated by his previous church, he still cuts himself off from Christ by virtue of his impenitence. And even if he recieves communion and hears the Word preached at his new church, it will profit him nothing if his faith is dead (which would be the case if his previous church was right in excommunicating him).

I should point out that the function of excomunication is ultimately not to decide who is saved and who isn't. Excommunication cuts a person off from the means of grace (Word and sacrament) and is a public display of the person's impenitence.

David Cox said...

David
Thanks...I never really left--just slowed down quite a bit. I have been trying to keep up with your discussions. It seems like blogging has slowed for all of us...school must have started:)

I think I agree with your response, for the most part. However, if one simply chooses not to hold to a particular church's confession, is that truly impenetince? Or is it a matter of 'changing one's mind?' If it is the latter, then is was the confession of a particular congregation ever really binding?

Also, if excommunication doesn't determine if one is 'saved or not' then are you making a distinction between the "body of Christ" and the church? Or perhaps one can be saved and not be part of the body of Christ?

David N said...

David C,

"However, if one simply chooses not to hold to a particular church's confession, is that truly impenitence?"

It's not just a matter of switching churches for personal or doctrinal reasons. I have in mind here someone who has been excommunicated for some very serious sin that they are unwilling to repent of. In that case, leaving the church would seem to be impenitence. (Unless of course you have some unlikely situation of a super-fundamentalist church that excommunicates you for going to the movies or something).

"Also, if excommunication doesn't determine if one is 'saved or not' then are you making a distinction between the "body of Christ" and the church?"

Yes. As in the strange example above of a church excommunicating someone for going to the movies, I would hardly think that that person is actually now outside of the body of Christ. Or when the Reformers were excommunicated by Rome. The body of Christ is all true believers, of which I take it that there are some from different denominations, both Catholic and Protestant (This is why I have said, following Augustine, that the body of Christ is invisible).

MG said...

David--

Sorry it took so long for me to respond. You wrote:

"(3a) I'd say it is the anointing of the HS."

When you say "anointing" do you mean some kind of physical conferring of a spiritual gift?

You wrote:

"(3b) The false teachers and "antichrists.""

Might there be an exegetical clue in how John identifies these false teachers as to why John speaks of not needing anyone to teach you? In context, doesn't it seem like statements like "you need no one to teach you" mean something specific, such as "you do not need to be taught by these new false teachers"? If so, it doesn't seem like these verses support your understanding of individual interpretation.

You wrote:

"(3c) It seems that what John is getting at is that the true believers who have the HS within them will be able to recognize false teaching when they hear it. He doesn't need to go into all the minute details of what the antichrists are teaching because those who are truly anointed don't need him to. He is probably also assuming that they have already heard the gospel (which I would say is necessary to be a true believer anyway), so he isn't saying that they don't need to be taught anything, period."

Sure. But it is interesting to note how John speaks of "what you heard from the beginning". It seems like this is important to understanding how the anointing teaches, and why the anointing is sufficient for discerning heresy. What do you think these people heard, and who do you think they heard it from?

You wrote:

"4. Strictly speaking the illumination of the HS in the individual is not infallible nor authoritative (like I said in response to 1, it cannot bind the consciences of others)."

Okay, so it seems more like what we're getting at here is not arguments for an infallible interpreter, but for an accurate interpreter. Does that seem correct to you?

And if so, how would this in any way constitute a challenge to a Catholic understanding of Church authority?

You wrote:

"5. It need not imply any of those things. It simply means that some are illumined on certain aspects of doctrine where others are not, and some not where others are. Ultimately it is part of God's providential workings."

In Reformed thought, the reprobate are culpable for their lack of faith, even though it is only by the effectual regeneration of the Spirit that anyone can have faith. Even people who have never heard about the Gospel are culpable for not believing it. Could we not say the same thing of people who do not know Christian doctrine--that they are culpable for the fact that God has not specially graced them in certain ways? If not, why not? I don't see what is so different between these two cases.

MG said...

David--

You wrote:

(3d)-(3g)

"Still, do you think that there is any mention of interpretive power in this text?"

Well, the explicit statements are that the anointing "teaches", that God can give "a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him", and that people can be "taught by God."

Obviously these statements don't specify how and where the teaching and giving of knowledge and revelation happen, but I don't see how they wouldn't apply to the interpretation of Scripture (even if they could happen in other contexts)."

In my questions and arguments about 1 John 2:26-7 I am moving toward suggesting what I consider to be a better read of the text that does not imply that, apart from reception of tradition from Church authorities, the Holy Spirit uniquely guides and teaches Christians in a way that is formally sufficient for their ability to identify and condemn heresies. Similarly, I would suggest that there are a number of issues with your understanding of Ephesians 1:15-18 and John 6:45.

(3I) For instance, knowing the "hope of your calling" seems to be the goal of having spiritual vision in Ephesians 1:15-18. If this is talking about propositional knowledge of truths about Christian teaching, then it seems unnecessary for Paul to pray about this, for presumably the Ephesians already know the basic facts about what they are being called to. Whatever is being talked about here seems like it should probably be a kind of anticipatory experience of God's kingdom. It is repetitive and unnecessary to think of this text as talking about the power of the individual believer to interpret Scriptures being read to him or her.

(3II) With respect to John 6:45, doesn't this seem to be a past-tense kind of thing which seems to be talking about how Christians receive grace at the initial moment of salvtion, not how they interpret Scriptures?

David N said...

"When you say "anointing" do you mean some kind of physical conferring of a spiritual gift?"

A likely interpretation seems to be that it is referring to conversion (or being born again).

"In context, doesn't it seem like statements like "you need no one to teach you" mean something specific, such as "you do not need to be taught by these new false teachers"? If so, it doesn't seem like these verses support your understanding of individual interpretation."

Actually yes, I think that is what he is saying. Obviously this very letter is an example of John teaching his readers, and like I said, he is writing to believers who have already been "taught" the gospel. But I don't think that is where the support for my argument is coming from. Especially when combined with the other 2 passages I quoted, not much rides on who John is referring to here or what kind of teaching he's talking about.

"What do you think these people heard, and who do you think they heard it from?"

The gospel (at least), from one or more Apostles and/or elders.

"Okay, so it seems more like what we're getting at here is not arguments for an infallible interpreter, but for an accurate interpreter."

Well, no. The HS is necessarily an infallible interpreter. But our interpretation of the HS's illumination is necessarily fallible. When we interpret the HS correctly, our belief is objectively infallible (but of course we can never know that, which is again why our it can never bind the consciences of others).

"Could we not say the same thing of people who do not know Christian doctrine--that they are culpable for the fact that God has not specially graced them in certain ways? If not, why not? I don't see what is so different between these two cases."

Yeah, they are culpable. But being wrong about a certain doctrine doesn't necessarily mean that someone isn't saved. I suppose you could call illumination a "special blessing" and the improper interpretation of that illumination a "moral defect" if you want.

David N said...

"I am moving toward suggesting what I consider to be a better read of the text that does not imply that, apart from reception of tradition from Church authorities, the Holy Spirit uniquely guides and teaches Christians in a way that is formally sufficient for their ability to identify and condemn heresies."

I would actually agree with this, at least in the way you have phrased it here. I would simply disagree that the tradition from Church authorities is infallible (other than Scripture itself). Like I said, I don't believe that John is saying that any lay person can pick up the Bible and automatically know every truth of Christianity without the guidance of church elders/tradition.

Out of curiosity, what role does the interpretive illumination of the HS play in an EO model?

MG said...

David--

You wrote:

"It seems to me that the Romans and Timothy passages I cited indicate that the ultimate responsibility for faithfulness rests on the individual. The church can certainly require certain things of its members (say, holding to a certain confession), as well as administer discipline, but only so long as the individual submits himself to that church. If he chooses not to submit himself, the church is not obligated to force him into submission."

This doesn't seem to be what we mean by "authority" normally. After all, you are expressly denying that the Church has the power to obligate us to believe and do certain things in an objective sense based on appealing to its own properties. You seem to be saying the Church can only obligate us to do things if we already agree with the Church on those matters.

A close analogy for what you are saying seems to be a child who, when asked by his father to take out the trash, says "I accept your authority to tell me to do that dad, but I am only obligated to obey you when I feel like it, or when I have independent reasons to trust that what you expect of me is best". The thing that the son is acknowledging is not authority, but only a suggestion of a possible course of action. This sits awkwardly, to say the least, with biblical descriptions of the spiritual power to teach (Eph 4:11, Romans 12:7) and rule (1 Cor 12:28, Romans 12:8) that is given to some particular persons by God. It also sits awkwardly with the commands that are given to laity to be recognize clergy that admonish them and are over them (1 Thess. 5:12-13) who rule over them and must therefore be obeyed (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24).

You wrote:

"The 2 Timothy passage specifically seems to indicate that the only obligation the church has is to try to correct the individual, in gentleness and meekness, in the hope that God will grant repentance."

Even if this is the only obligation the Church has (which seems to assume this is the only passage that speaks of the Church's obligations in this matter) this does not speak to whether the Church has authority to bind human consciences. After all, if it does have divine authority, the Church can utilize its authority in a gentle, meek way and try to persuade people to come back to their senses. But this does not preclude appeals to the authority of the Church in obligating us to believe and do certain things. So what part do these verses play in your argument? Perhaps I have misunderstood how you are using them.

You wrote:

"So, in a sense, I guess my answer is "yes." The Escondido URC has the power to obligate me to hold to the 3 Forms of Unity and submit to the church's leadership, and if I do not, they have the power to excommunicate me. If I choose not to submit to the church, then it is between me and God, so to speak (as Romans 14:11-12 and 23 seem to indicate)."

As I tried to argue above, it seems like what you're talking about is not authority, but simply helpful suggestions that people can either agree with or not. This can be brought out by distinguishing between two different reactions to a situation in which one becomes convinced that "the Church teaches that x" and "I have been kicked out of the Church". The Protestant (P) and Catholic (C) reactions to this realization are very different.

(P) It seems like the reaction that a person with a Protestant view of the Church should have to the realization that "The Church teaches that x" is interest and apprehension; you have to check it out for yourself whether or not this teaching is to be trusted. The fact that the Church seems to say that x is true has no intrinsic moral or epistemic force to it. If I make the decision to submit to the Church's teaching (which I am not obligated to do by God simply in virtue of the fact that "the Church teaches that x"--though maybe I could be obligated on independent grounds such as persuasion by Scriptural proof) then I may be held responsible by the Church for my disagreements with it, and even kicked out if the situation is extreme enough. But if I know I have been kicked out, there is no implication based purely on the fact that "I have been kicked out of the Church" that my salvation status is in question or danger or anything like that. There may be an implication that I am in a dangerous or questionable state, but I wouldn't know it simply in virtue of knowing "I have been kicked out of the Church". Maybe I could know it in virtue of the fact that I know some particular thing that the Church says is actually a biblical teaching that they happened to get right, and that consequently I am disobeying what I know to be from God by disbelieving it. But obviously this is different from saying that I am responsible for disobeying the Church as an authority qua Church.

(C) On the Catholic view, if I know that "The Church teaches that x" then I am morally and epistemically obligated to believe that x *in virtue of the fact that* the Church teaches that x. Similarly, if I know that "I have been kicked out of the Church" this is grounds for questioning my status with respect to salvation *in virtue of the fact that* I have been kicked out of the Church.

The fact that it is ultimately between you and God whether or not you will be held responsible for your sins does not settle or clarify the issue of whether or not it is a sin to disobey the Church as an authority considered qua Church (as distinct from, say, qua having correctly interpreted a passage of the Bible and me knowing that it has correctly interpreted that passage). If we deny that it is a sin to disobey the Church as an authority considered qua Church, then it seems like we have to say the Church doesn't have power to do the things in question. At least, it doesn't have the power to do the things in question any more than a pagan has the power to cite and correctly interpret Bible verses to try and obligate a person to obey what they are saying. What do you think--is this an accurate assessment?

MG said...

*(in the above comment, "whether or not you will be held responsible for your sins" should read "whether or not you are ultimately culpable for actions you do which the Church takes to be bad")

David N said...

It would only be a sin to disobey the church if the church is right. Since I would say that the church is not a single, visible body with infallible authority, then it would not necessarily be a sin to disobey "the church" in and of itself. But this is only from our point of view, since there are bodies that call themselves churches but are not of the true church, and we can't always tell for sure. In particular cases of a visible body that is a "true church" with the HS working in and through its elders to discipline a member of the church, then it would be a sin to disobey.

I think the concern you're getting at is that what I'm saying is, "The church has authority over me when I agree with what the church says." The concern being that objective authority would seem to include cases where I don't agree with the one in authority over me, but do what they tell me to do anyway. But I would agree with you that the church does have this authority. The only point I'm making is that the individual still has to decide whether or not his particular church is a true church that has the authority, by the HS, to tell him what to do and not to do in certain situations, even when he doesn't agree. If his church is a true church and he disagrees, it is sin. If his church is not a true church and he disagrees, then he is right. It seems to me that a RC or EO person is in the same situation.

That may not have been clear at all, so please ask more questions. :)

MG said...

David--

You wrote:

“It would only be a sin to disobey the church if the church is right. Since I would say that the church is not a single, visible body with infallible authority, then it would not necessarily be a sin to disobey "the church" in and of itself. But this is only from our point of view, since there are bodies that call themselves churches but are not of the true church, and we can't always tell for sure. In particular cases of a visible body that is a "true church" with the HS working in and through its elders to discipline a member of the church, then it would be a sin to disobey.

“I think the concern you're getting at is that what I'm saying is, "The church has authority over me when I agree with what the church says." The concern being that objective authority would seem to include cases where I don't agree with the one in authority over me, but do what they tell me to do anyway. But I would agree with you that the church does have this authority. The only point I'm making is that the individual still has to decide whether or not his particular church is a true church that has the authority, by the HS, to tell him what to do and not to do in certain situations, even when he doesn't agree. If his church is a true church and he disagrees, it is sin. If his church is not a true church and he disagrees, then he is right. It seems to me that a RC or EO person is in the same situation.”

I think that there may be an ongoing lack of clarity about distinguishing *accuracy* and *authority*. Surely RC and EO and Protestant all have to try to accurately identify where the Church is. But you seem to be saying not only this, which (presumably) all Protestants would agree with as uncontroversial, but something more. You seem to be saying that given an accurate identification of the Church and its teachings, we must submit to the teachings and rules of the Church *because of the authority of the Church*. This is confusing to me, because it seems your position on this topic in these comments has been different throughout.

In the fourth comment on this post you stated that you think the private judgment of an individual believer can trump the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils of the Church. This standard Protestant stance denies that the Church *qua Church* has the power to bind human consciences to believe and do certain things.

In the sixth comment you went on to say the Church has a good deal of authority, without yet specifying what this authority is.

Then you wrote the following in the eighth comment:

“The church can certainly require certain things of its members (say, holding to a certain confession), as well as administer discipline, but only so long as the individual submits himself to that church.

“So, in a sense, I guess my answer is "yes." The Escondido URC has the power to obligate me to hold to the 3 Forms of Unity and submit to the church's leadership, and if I do not, they have the power to excommunicate me. If I choose not to submit to the church, then it is between me and God, so to speak (as Romans 14:11-12 and 23 seem to indicate).”

At this point, I thought you were just saying that the Church has relative authority, ie. when we have independent reason to think it is right in its judgments, we ought to agree with it. This is very compatible with holding to the Protestant idea of private judgment. After all, it doesn't require us to commit to the idea that the Church *qua Church* has the power to bind human consciences. Rather the Church can only obligate us if we happen to agree with it on independent grounds.

But now (comment 20) you seem to be saying that the Church's decisions can trump our private judgment, and hence that the Church *qua Church* has authority to bind human consciences to believe and do certain things. This seems to contradict comment 4. This leads me to ask the following questions:

If the Church has the power to obligate me to do certain things, then how is it that the judgment of a believer can trump the authority of an ecumenical council? Assuming we have identified the true Church correctly, and it has an ecumenical council and I am aware of this council and its validity, am I obligated to believe what it teaches *based on the fact that it is the teaching of the Church* or not? (note: the question is not if I am obligated to believe what it teaches based on, say, the fact that the Church makes a persuasive case by appealing to biblical authority. We are talking here about the authority of the Church *qua Church*)

MG said...

David--

You wrote:

“A likely interpretation seems to be that it is referring to conversion (or being born again).”

How does this square with the fact that Christians often convert in Acts, and are even baptized, but have to wait to receive the Holy Spirit?

You wrote:

“Actually yes, I think that is what he is saying. Obviously this very letter is an example of John teaching his readers, and like I said, he is writing to believers who have already been "taught" the gospel. But I don't think that is where the support for my argument is coming from. Especially when combined with the other 2 passages I quoted, not much rides on who John is referring to here or what kind of teaching he's talking about.”

But if all John is saying about how we need no one to teach us is “you do not need to be taught by these new teachers” isn't that perfectly compatible with saying “you receive the Holy Spirit's teaching from tradition and Church authorities”? That's why I'm trying to get clear on whether or not John is talking about something specific and contextual. If we don't have reason to prefer your interpretation (that John is talking about the Spirit's anointing speaking to an individual and infallibly interpreting Scripture to them) over and against my Catholic interpretation (that he doesn't mean we don't need any Church authorities to teach us) then it doesn't seem like you have given an offensive apologetic for your understanding of the Spirit directly interpreting and revealing Scriptural meanings.

And if I can offer some reason to think that my Catholic interpretation is better in any respects, this would mean we should prefer my read; and this would undercut a defensive apologetic for your understanding of the Spirit directly interpreting and revealing Scriptural meanings.

You wrote:

“The gospel (at least), from one or more Apostles and/or elders.”

Do you think that all John is referring to is that these Christians heard the Gospel preached, and then believed? I find this questionable. John says that the anointing teaches (2:27). He also says that his listeners should let the anointing he speaks of abide in themselves (2:27) and let the thing they heard from the beginning abide in them (2:24). He seems to be implying the anointing and the teaching are sorta the same thing, or two aspects of one thing. But how could this work if anointing is the same thing as conversion (or maybe you meant regeneration)? And if some don't receive the Holy Spirit until some time after they have converted as I suggested above, this seems even more awkward of a read.

You wrote:

“Well, no. The HS is necessarily an infallible interpreter. But our interpretation of the HS's illumination is necessarily fallible. When we interpret the HS correctly, our belief is objectively infallible (but of course we can never know that, which is again why our it can never bind the consciences of others).”

Okay, that makes sense.

I wonder, though: what does your understanding of the Holy Spirit as an infallible interpreter actually add to your theology? Does it make a difference in how things are done? It seems to just amount to the same thing as if the Holy Spirit was not illuminating believers: we try our best to exegete a text, and we use the best arguments available and go with the conclusion of those arguments, recognizing that our conclusions have no inherent authority, and that they are the conclusions of fallible men. So, I'm curious what you think you've added to the above picture, other than the fact (which everyone accepts) that we can only do good things by the grace of God, and that God helps us to understand his revelation by his grace.

You wrote:

“Yeah, they are culpable. But being wrong about a certain doctrine doesn't necessarily mean that someone isn't saved. I suppose you could call illumination a "special blessing" and the improper interpretation of that illumination a "moral defect" if you want.”

Okay. Do you think that only wrong belief about theological matters is culpable, or is ignorance culpable also?

MG said...

David--

You wrote:

“I would actually agree with this, at least in the way you have phrased it here. I would simply disagree that the tradition from Church authorities is infallible (other than Scripture itself). Like I said, I don't believe that John is saying that any lay person can pick up the Bible and automatically know every truth of Christianity without the guidance of church elders/tradition.”

But (to return to the subject of a previous comment) do you think that what elders/tradition contributes is authoritative? It is easy to say that we could be helped to know truths of Christianity with elders/tradition as guidance by means of their suggestions about possible ways to read texts, etc. But that is quite different from it being authoritative.

Also, under what conditions does the Holy Spirit infallibly interpret things to us? Can it be done apart from the teachings of the hierarchy?

You wrote:

“Out of curiosity, what role does the interpretive illumination of the HS play in an EO model?”

It is one of our most beloved and important sacraments, of course.

David N said...

These comments will be short, but I'm sure there will be further questions.

With respect to church authority, what I had in mind was a case where you don't personally know what the right interpretation of Scripture is, or where you disagree with the church's interpretation, but not strongly enough to override your belief that you are in a true church guided by the HS. So, if the elders want to discipline you for something, and you don't know with any certainty whether or not they have correctly interpreted the Bible passages that they claim show you to be guilty, you should defer to their judgment. Or, if you think they have not interpreted the Bible passages correctly, but that belief is not strong enough to make you question their judgment (say, ALL the elders and deacons are unanimous that you are in the wrong, and you know them to be otherwise honest and godly men), then you should defer to them.

I will say more about what exact boundaries I think church authority has later tonight or tomorrow.

As to the 1 John passage, the point of my citing it was to draw your attention to the fact that something which is neither the church nor the Scriptures "teaches" individual believers. I'm not concerned with who specifically John says his readers DON'T need to be taught by (I'm not Pentecostal, so you and I are probably in agreement on that front). But I don't think you are warranted in interpreting the anointing to be identical (or close to it) with some body of teaching. The anointing "teaches", which suggests to me that it is not the teaching that it produces. Further, the verb "teaches" suggests an active power that continues to teach, specifically in circumstances where false teachers are present and Apostles/elders are NOT present (this, to me, seems to be what John is addressing in the first place).

I was referring to regeneration when I said conversion, but I'm curious now how you would interpret the Acts passages where the reception of the HS comes after conversion?

So, what does it mean for the illumination of the HS to be a sacrament? How does it function? Does the HS illumine individuals, or only councils? Does it teach believers doctrine individually, or only help them to see that the EO church's doctrine is correct?

David N said...

While I continue to think about it and articulate my own position, here is something my HT professor said to me:

"As I understand it, the church acts ministerially, i.e. the church does not create authority neither does the church not speak truth or reality into existence. Only God speaks truth into existence. The institutional church merely speaks or ministers (serves by speaking) that Word.

That ministerial authority is real, divinely given authority. This is why the Belgic Confession repeats Cyprian's dictum, "outside the church there is no salvation." Thus BC 29 delineates the marks of a true church.

When we preach the gospel, whether in the sermon or in the declaration of pardon/absolution or whether we are exercising church discipline in pronouncing a sentence of excommunication the church is merely recognizing what is. We don't make it so. We simply speak the Word (law or gospel) to a particular situation."

MG said...

David--

I will wait to give specific responses until after you have a chance to respond more thoroughly. Take your time; but I must say, I think there has been a considerable amount of progress in our recent (past few days) interaction, and I personally want to try and keep up the momentum.

As a general observation though, I suspect that the theory of Church authority you are currently articulating is not compatible with Protestantism, and that greater reflection on its content and implications will bear this out.

I will try to respond to your questions about the illumination of the Spirit sometime soon.

David N said...

Sorry it took me so long to respond. It was a busy Christmas weekend.

I'm also sorry for being somewhat anti-climactic, but upon reflection I don't think I have anything new to add to my previous comments. But since I'm sure I've been confusing and scattered, I'll make some summary comments.

I don't believe that the church qua church has intrinsic authority. I believe that the Scripture as the Word of God has intrinsic authority. Elders of the Church are called by God and gifted by the HS to administer the Word of God, but the authority lies outside of themselves. This ties in with the 1 John and John 6 passages we've been discussing. It is God, the HS, who teaches us, not men. Men are the instruments, the HS illumines the believer to understand what the men are teaching. And likewise, when the believer hears false teaching, the HS will enable him/her to discern that.

I still stand by what I said about deferring to the judgment of the elders in certain cases, even when you might disagree with them. Earlier you brought up an analogy of a child being told to take out the trash and suggested that the only way for the parent to have any meaningful authority is if the child complies with the command to take out the trash without thinking about it, weighing the pros and cons, and deciding that it's the best course of action. But surely you wouldn't think that it was right for a child to obey his parent qua obey his parent in ANY circumstance (suppose his parents are Nazis and his neighbors are Jews...). Parents are fallible and capable of making mistakes, and a child ought to show some moral discernment in such matters. I'm sure you would agree. And yet it hardly seems that a recognition of these facts suddenly divests parents of all meaningful authority and makes the commands in the Bible to obey one's parents meaningless.

I hope that helps a little, but please ask more questions if you have any.

Catz206 said...

MG-
How would you define authority? What makes something authoritative?

MG said...

David--

You asked for an Orthodox perspective on the gift of the Holy Spirit. I wrote this post with you in mind primarily. Please read and critique if you get a chance:

http://wellofquestions.wordpress.com/2008/12/30/on-the-sacrament-of-chrismation/

MG said...

David and Catz--

I have responded to your most recent comments and questions in the following post:

http://wellofquestions.wordpress.com/2008/12/30/accuracy-authority-and-the-visibility-of-the-church/

Please comment on it when you have time.

Catz206 said...

Thankx MG, will do