Monday, September 21, 2009

Does The Church Have Authority?

At the Eastern Orthodox blog, The Well of Questions, blogger MG has been arguing for some time (most recently, here) that Protestants do not in fact believe that the church has any authority. Rather, we merely believe that the church has been right in those doctrines which it has affirmed at all times and in all places (the “catholic” faith) and that it is better to read the Bible in the light of tradition and the history of doctrine than in isolation. But, MG says, this only amounts to a belief that the church is accurate, not that it is authoritative. In order to be truly authoritative, MG contends that the church must have the inherent power to bind people’s consciences (in other words, an average Christian would be required to abide by the decisions of church councils and hierarchs, regardless of their personal opinion on the matter).

Why is this a problem for the Protestant? Well, frankly, for many Protestants it is no problem at all. Most evangelicals seem to assume that the “church” (which they rarely identify with any particular institution or denomination) has no authority whatsoever. The Pastor is equipped to teach his congregation because he usually knows more about the Bible (and therefore, in MG’s words, he would be more accurate in understanding it), but everyone’s opinion about Scripture is treated as equal. If a member of the congregation disagrees with the pastor there is little sense (if any) that he or she should submit to the Pastor’s judgment. And since so few evangelicals actually subscribe to any creed or confession, it becomes every person, Bible in hand, standing alone on equal interpretive ground.

Historic Protestants such as Lutheran and Reformed, however, would argue that the church does indeed have some measure of authority. Lutheran and Reformed denominations subscribe to creeds and confessions that all professing members must affirm. This is not because the creeds and confessions are believed to be infallible or on equal ground with the Bible. Rather, they are seen as binding because they were produced by official synods (or councils) of the church and are believed to accurately reflect what the Bible teaches. It is here that MG might point out my use of the word “accurately.” Indeed, we do believe that the church is accurate, but do we really believe, when the chips are down, that it has authority?

I would like to suggest that MG has set up something of a false dilemma here. It is true that Protestants do not believe that it is inherently a sin to disobey your pastor or synod, because we believe it possible that both could err. However, it does not follow from this that the church possesses no authority whatsoever. I would like to suggest that, in fact, accuracy produces authority. For example, a doctor is not inherently authoritative in medical matters because he is still human and can err in his diagnoses. However, his medical training makes him far more accurate at diagnosing, and with that accuracy comes a degree of authority over others who lack such training. We would be far wiser to accept the medical advice of a doctor over that of an accountant. This is not merely because the doctor is more accurate at diagnosing medical problems than the accountant, but because that accuracy grants the word of the doctor a level of authority that the accountant’s does not have.

This authority is a derivative authority, then, because it derives from the degree of accuracy that the church body has in interpreting Scripture (which means, of course, that the authority ultimately derives from Scripture). At this point the objection seems to be that the individual Christian is still granted a greater authority than the church, because he or she can simply choose to disobey the church if they feel that their own interpretation is better than the church’s. In such a case, however, I find it likely that the person does not truly believe that the church is accurate, let alone authoritative. If a person truly believes that his church (say, the PCA) is accurate in its interpretations of Scripture, then he ought to give her the benefit of the doubt and adopt an attitude of humility. This would be especially true for lay members of the congregation, who lack the theological training that their pastors and elders have. If a person’s conviction is unshakably strong and the issue is important enough, then they ought to concede that they do not truly believe that their church is on the whole accurate, and they should either find another church or continue to study and seek council from their elders. However, I’m confident that 99% of the time the issue can be resolved with humility. If a lay person (or even a clergyman) would simply adopt an attitude of humility and not immediately assume that they must always be right and everyone else (synod or not) be wrong, then there would be relatively few times in a person’s life where he or she would feel compelled to seriously disagree with their church.

The final question would seem to be, why should a Protestant ever adopt such a humble attitude? Why should a Protestant ever submit to a church’s decision on anything, when the church is not inherently more authoritative than the average lay person? Again, this question seems to presuppose that only an inherent authority can be real authority. But if indeed accuracy can bestow a derivative (and fallible) authority, and human beings are finite and fallen and therefore each individual cannot possibly know everything perfectly, it makes quite a lot of sense to speak of submitting to the church’s authority, even though that authority is neither inherent nor infallible.

If it is argued that the individual still has greater authority than the church because he or she can choose which church to follow and submit to in the first place, I would simply point out that the same is true for those who choose to follow either Rome or Constantinople.

8 comments:

Saint Cypher said...

Perhaps a better distinction between the Catholic/Orthodox churches and protestants is that the latter can (and do) believe that the church is -fallible,- while the former do not. To be fallible means to affirm something that is false, "falsity" is measured by contradiction to what is true (by definition). Usually, the affirmations of the church that protestants believe to be false involve interpretation of Scripture; ie, the passage about Peter's keys. Unfortunately, the "truth" that we use to provide the contradiction then becomes a -different- interpretation of scripture--namely, the individual's--which results in the "my interpretation can beat up your interpretation" spitting contest that has characterized protestant theology. In an attempt to gain legitimacy of what is, essentially, an opinion, Protestants tend to turn to scientific analysis (exegesis) of the text, or logical evaluations (systematics) to provide the "best explanation;" ultimately, this has the effect of holding Scripture accountable to humam wisdom, with forseeable results. Of course, the early fathers of the church relied heavily on philosophy themselves, so the traditional church is not entirely immune from this, either; further, some application of reason (if not the tenets of philosophy)is necessary, if for no other reason that to argue about contradiction.

Historically, both individual and ecclesial interpretation were held accountable to what the early Apologists called "the rule of faith," which transcended both scripture (for the canon was "selected" to correspond with it) and the Church (for the church was accountable to it); it is essentially the same tenets from which the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds are derived (and, incidentally, the criterion for apostolic authority). Accordingly, the idea was to reject anything that contradicted this rule (in context, gnosticism), and to decide which things were the "core" of the gospel that "could not be added to" (though of course speculation outside was permitted, but it could not be encoded as doctrine). Protestants tend to run afoul of the first intent, while Catholic/Orthodox run afoul of the second. Perhaps a rediscovery and a greater emphasis on the rule of faith, rather than individual or corporate authority, could go some way towards resolving these issues.

Anonymous said...

Nilsen, if authority comes from accuracy, then the highest authorities of the "church" are biblical scholars. If all one needs to interpret the Scriptures accurately is the historical-grammatical method, then why could not an atheist be the highest authority in Christendom (in principle)? I bet the Devil can more accurately interpret most of the Scriptures than most humans. Could this (in principle) make him an authority to some degree in the church?

The basic idea of your position seems to be this: the one who is authoritative on a specific issue is the one who is right about a specific issue. The question is, what is the standard by which one judges "who is right?" The answer for you seems to be: private judgement. Practically speaking, your position seems to work itself out in a believer never submitting his private judgement about scripture to any external authority that doesn't comport with his private judgement. (As a sidenote, this is where we can see protestentism's humanism. It makes all too much sense that the enlightenment came on the heals of the protestant revolution.) I don't really have a specific argument in mind here...but I certainly think that this is the way that Church authority works itself out in Scripture.

PS: This is Krause. I post anonymously because Blogger hates me and won't let me post as me.

Anonymous said...

***Lol, should read: "I certainly think that this is NOT the way that Church authority works itself out in Scripture.

David Nilsen said...

Hey Krause! I actually knew it was you right away because you called me Nilsen, haha.

"Nilsen, if authority comes from accuracy, then the highest authorities of the "church" are biblical scholars."

Yes, which is why the Reformed have always required their pastors to be biblical scholars, in some sense at least.

"If all one needs to interpret the Scriptures accurately is the historical-grammatical method, then why could not an atheist be the highest authority in Christendom (in principle)?"

Well, just as the Orthodox believe that the Holy Spirit will guide the church infallibly, the Reformed believe that the Scriptures are only truly opened to a person's understanding by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. So while an atheist scholar may certainly be a good biblical exegete (and because of that I would have no problem using the arguments of atheists), I would say that there are other factors which detract from their authority (for one thing, they're not elders or deacons).

"Practically speaking, your position seems to work itself out in a believer never submitting his private judgement about scripture to any external authority that doesn't comport with his private judgement."

Again, I would say that if your private judgment tells you that you should submit to your spiritual leaders (at least to a point), and your private judgment tells you that church x is a true church that possesses the Holy Spirit, then you should submit to the leaders of church x in most things, even when you don't agree.

Obviously if you believe strongly that the gospel itself is not being taught (or something else equally serious) then you would be conscience-bound to reject the church and find another, but then if the gospel isn't even being taught then it obviously isn't a true church that you should submit to.

Jnorm888 said...

Quote:
"Rather, we merely believe that the church has been right in those doctrines which it has affirmed at all times and in all places (the “catholic” faith) and that it is better to read the Bible in the light of tradition and the history of doctrine than in isolation."



I don't think you can speak for "all" protestantism since different protestant churches/groups disagree on "what" they think the historical church been right on. So at the end of the day, you can only speak for your own protestant sect/denomination.


Quote:
"This authority is a derivative authority, then, because it derives from the degree of accuracy that the church body has in interpreting Scripture (which means, of course, that the authority ultimately derives from Scripture)."


This doesn't work, nor has it worked for different protestant groups end up with different theological interpretations.







ICXC NIKA

Jnorm888 said...

Quote:
"Well, just as the Orthodox believe that the Holy Spirit will guide the church infallibly, the Reformed believe that the Scriptures are only truly opened to a person's understanding by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. So while an atheist scholar may certainly be a good biblical exegete (and because of that I would have no problem using the arguments of atheists), I would say that there are other factors which detract from their authority (for one thing, they're not elders or deacons)."

If all it takes is to be right, and if it's nothing more than a simple matter of the historical grammatical method, then you automatically leave no room for the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

Yeah you may say it, but you can't really mean it with any real power or substance. The natural sciences should be opened to all to see and understand by mere emperical observation.........thus it shouldn't take an illumination in order to understand a philosophical naturalistic process of something.





ICXC NIKA

David Nilsen said...

Jnorm888,

"I don't think you can speak for "all" protestantism since different protestant churches/groups disagree on "what" they think the historical church been right on."

Yes, which is why I devoted a paragraph to describing the anti-authority views of the majority of evangelicals, and then went on to mention specifically the Lutheran and Reformed traditions.

"This doesn't work, nor has it worked for different protestant groups end up with different theological interpretations."

Simply because two different groups come to different conclusions about the same topic, that doesn't mean that there isn't one right answer, nor does it mean that there isn't one method that works for finding that answer. I see little force in the objection that "Well, you and a Pentecostal disagree on doctrine, therefore Sola Scriptura must be false." Not least of all because Pentecostals do not even follow Sola Scriptura!

"If all it takes is to be right, and if it's nothing more than a simple matter of the historical grammatical method, then you automatically leave no room for the illumination of the Holy Spirit...Yeah you may say it, but you can't really mean it with any real power or substance."

Actually I do. Heck, I'm Reformed! Just as regeneration requires the direct work of the Holy Spirit on a person's heart, so too does illumination. Sure, in order to get the right answer out of Scripture you "only" need to do the historical-grammatical method correctly. The question, however, is HOW one can accomplish this supposedly simple task. The mind of fallen man is, on the whole, incapable of grasping the truth of God, and so he will willfully deny the plain meaning of Scripture (suppressing the truth in unrighteousness). But the illuminating of the Holy Spirit allows a sinful human being to overcome his tendencies toward distortion and idolatry to discover the true meaning of God's Word.

MG said...

Church Authority, Argument 5: Private Judgment and Authority

In this post, I will argue that their responses are unsatisfactory because they (1) ultimately affirm that private judgment is the final word in doctrine, (2) fail to correctly distinguish “inherent” from “underived”, and (3) falsely charge Catholic Christians with the use of private judgment.

... continue reading here: http://wellofquestions.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/church-authority-argument-5-private-judgment-and-authority/