Over the decades, I have heard countless debates about ecclesial authority and contributed to not a few of them. For reasons I've described on this blog and elsewhere, such debates are unavoidable and, up to a point, healthy. Many people try to avoid them, of course. They deny that any entity called "the Church" has authority beyond appeal to preserve, present, and interpret divine revelation for us. They insist that Jesus Christ alone, who has been given "all authority in heaven and on earth" (Matthew 28:18), has the requisite authority and thus merits the requisite submission of mind and will. In a sense, that is true. But the debate is precisely about the extent to which something called "the Church," the Mystical Body of Christ which, together with the risen Christ, makes up "the whole Christ," has been granted such authority. I don't believe, and never have been able to believe, that we can dispense with the living voice of "the" Church—whichever communion of churches that may be—in ascertaining what God has revealed to us. In that belief, I am far from alone.
I hold said belief because, after many of the aforesaid debates, I became convinced that, if nobody on earth after the Apostles has the same degree of divine authority as theirs to say which propositions are and are not de fide, then the question where to draw the line between theological opinions about the data of revelation and divine revelation itself reduces, always and necessarily, to a matter of opinion. And that effectively renders the entire subject of divine "revelation" a matter of opinion, not of revelation. That is the reductio of denying divine teaching authority to some entity justly deemed "the Church." As Newman so pithily put it: “No revelation is given, if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given.” Such an authority cannot of course decide on its own “what is given”; to serve its function, it can only do so with the subject matter and the authority Jesus Christ has given it. But if such authority has in fact been given it, then when it interprets Scripture and Tradition in a manner intended to bind the whole Church irreformably, the Holy Spirit guarantees that those interpretations will not be false.
That follows from the teaching of the Catholic Church, but it is not a distinctively Catholic position. The Orthodox churches too maintain that Scripture and Tradition can only be rightly received and interpreted in and through something called "the Church," that the authentic voice of the Church is the voice of Jesus Christ. The authentic voice of the Church is thus beyond appeal even if not "infallible" in the technical sense of that term employed by the two Vatican councils. Orthodoxy does differ from Catholicism about ecclesial authority, to be sure: it differs with Rome over the questions who in the Church teaches with the aforesaid voice and when. And those differences are significant enough to cause the Orthodox communion to regard itself, rather than the Roman communion, as "the" Church of Christ.
In point of fact, the centuries-old debates about ecclesial authority reveal not two but three distinct "hermeneutical circles" encompassing the relationship between Scripture, Tradition, and ecclesial teaching authority. I shall describe those circles shortly. To characterize and understand them, however, we need to be limit who counts as participants in the debate.
It has become a sociological commonplace over the past few decades to note that the divisions between the three major strains of Christianity—Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy—are less important than the division between the more conservative and the more liberal believers within each of those strains. A conservative or a liberal believer within a given church generally has more in common with her counterparts in other churches than with people on the opposing wing in her own church. (Orthodoxy, of course, has a smaller percentage of "liberals" than Protestantism and Catholicism; but "liberals" there are, and I suspect there will be more in future.) I think the new commonplace is correct, and is best explained as the difference between people who believe that religious doctrine is ultimately a matter of provisional opinion—i.e., the liberals—and those who believe that divine revelation has given us identifiably absolute truths—i.e., the conservatives. It is the conservatives who count in the debate about ecclesial authority, because it is they who maintain that the revelation in and through Jesus Christ is public, complete, and definitive, in such a way that the deposit of faith left to us as the precipitate of revelation many neither be added to nor subtracted from. Accordingly, the three basic disagreements about the relationship between Scripture, Tradition, and ecclesial authority are disagreements among those who hold that the DF is both reliably identifiable as absolutely true and may neither be added to nor subtracted from. They are disagreements about precisely how the DF is to be handed on, received, and interpreted reliably, without augmentation or diminution, even as it was first left to us by a God "who can neither deceive nor be deceived."
As I've said, the disagreements take the form of three hermeneutical circles. The idea of a hermeneutical circle began, ironically enough, with the liberal Protestant theologian and biblical critic Friedrich Schliermacher; the term was formally introduced a century later by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who developed the idea further in parallel with another German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer. The core idea was that, in reading a text, the parts can only be understood with reference to the whole and the whole can only be understood with reference to the parts. That yields a circle. But an interpretive motif arising therefrom need not be viciously circular. For hermeneutical circles are unavoidable, and the way to decide between them—if and when we face such a decision—is to assess which of them is most capacious and plausible in light of what is known about the intentions of the author(s), the literary antecedents, and the historical context of the text. And even when such "knowledge" is too limited to settle the question, there's always the distinct possibility that such limits will be outgrown in the future.
For purposes of discussion, I cannot avoid oversimplifying the content of the three competing hermeneutical circles which, I believe, define the epistemic differences between the three main strains of Christianity. I am forced to omit all the variations and nuances of each and most of the supporting arguments for each. But each involves an account of the relationship between Scripture, Tradition, and ecclesial teaching authority; and I believe that, in the final analysis, the three circles may be described as follows with minimal unfairness:
- The Protestant HC. Scripture records the substance of apostolic Tradition, and the canon of Scripture was put together by ecclesial authorities over a rather long period of time. But once that process was complete, Scripture was recognized and accepted by all Christians as the sole written work of man which is inspired by the Holy Spirit. As such, Scripture is (a) materially sufficient as an expression of the DF, and (b) perspicuous enough in itself to enable any Spirit-led believer who reads it to reliably understand the parts in terms of the whole and the whole in terms of the parts. Accordingly and (c), Scripture is the sole "infallible" rule of faith after the Apostles, and comprises all that is necessary for any Spirit-led believer to know, in its fullness, the verbally expressible content of what God has revealed to humanity in and through Jesus Christ.
This HC is complete in principle. It enables believers, quite generally, to judge the orthodoxy of ecclesial authority in terms of Scripture. For given the material sufficiency and interpretive perspicuity of Scripture, any doctrine which is not explicitly stated in Scripture must be derivable therefrom by some form of rational necessity. The sole function of ecclesial authority is to bear and enforce faithful institutional witness to the Truth that can, in principle, be understood independently of such authority. Thus, such authority is not strictly necessary for assimilating divine revelation; it is only a disciplinary and educational convenience.
- The Orthodox HC. Scripture is indeed inspired by the Spirit and materially sufficient for expressing the DF. But Scripture is a work of the Church and for the Church, and can only be reliably understood as read by the Church in light of the broader "Holy Tradition" handed down to her from the Apostles. Tradition in that sense is the sum total of the ways in which the life of the Holy Spirit is manifest in the Church as a collectivity. Those ways chiefly include: the liturgy, the writings of the Fathers, the lives and wisdom of the saints, and the Ecumenical Councils. Although ecclesial teaching authority is ordinarily exercised by individual bishops over their flocks, only the dogmatic decress of the Ecumenical Councils must be understood as affirmations of faith which bind the whole Church.
The doctrinal authority of such councils, however, is not primarily juridical. It lies in their "reception" by the whole Church over time as authentic expressions of the consensus of the faithful, informed as that consensus is by Scripture and Tradition understood together. From that point of view, "the Church" consists of those believers who accept such criteria as exhaustive touchstones of orthodoxy; hence the "Orthodox" communion. Such an account of the relationship between Scripture, Tradition, and ecclesial teaching authority constitutes an HC; for we know by the consensus of the Church which understandings of Scripture and Tradition are orthodox, and we know who is in the Church by their adherence to what is orthodox.
But this is not a vicious circle. For to know the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who is a Person, entails belonging to his people, his Body, the Church; there is no standpoint outside her by which the true doctrine can be reliably known. At the same time, there is nothing in the historic consensus of the faithful to suggest that Jesus Christ willed that any one bishop or leader in the Church, apart from the consensus of the whole, exercise supreme doctrinal or disciplinary jurisdiction over the Church catholic. Orthodoxy is a gift of divine love, collectively received and collectively known. Though juridical authority is necessary in the Church, even for teaching, disputes about doctrine cannot be resolved by mere juridical imposition on the whole Church without her consent. Consensus, not diktat, is the true sign of what is Orthodox.
- The Catholic HC. First, read Dei Verbum §7-§10 and Lumen Gentium §25.
Although Scripture and Tradition taken together are "materially sufficient" for expressing the entire DF, and can sometimes be understood to a great extent by various individuals without ecclesial authority, they can only be interpreted and understood "authentically"—i.e., with the authentic and thus binding voice of the Church—by the apostolic teaching authority or "Magisterium" of the Church. The "ordinary" way in which that is done is by the consensus of the bishops, which must be at least diachronic and is ideally synchronic too; "extraordinarily," it is done by the dogmatic decrees of ecumenical councils of the bishops and/or the dogmatic definitions of popes.
For a putatively ecumenical council to bind the whole Church, it is necessary that its dogmatic decrees have at least the free consent if not the ratification of the Roman Pontiff, who succeeds Peter as the visible head of the episcopal college. Indeed he can, if he so chooses, speak unilaterally with the authentic voice of the Church, and when so doing enjoys "the infallibility with which Christ willed His Church to be endowed in teaching on faith or morals." Such definitions do not therefore acquire their binding character from the "consent of the Church" (cf. Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus); yet in such cases "the assent of the Church can never be wanting, on account of the activity of that same Holy Spirit, by which the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith" (LG §25).
Such an account of the relationship between Scripture, Tradition, and ecclesial teaching authority constitutes an HC. On the one hand, it is clear that Scripture and Tradition, which together form "one sacred deposit of the Word of God," were not formed and cannot be authentically understood without the Magisterium (DV §10). On the other hand, the Magisterium has no authority other than that which Scripture and Tradition record as having been given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and their successors, the college of bishops united with their head, the Bishop of Rome. Indeed the Magisterium, whether episcopal in general or papal in particular, would make no sense and could not function without a general understanding and possession of the DF in the Church as a whole. But without sitting, knowingly or unknowingly, on the "three-legged stool" of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, one cannot know what is orthodox by reference to Scripture and Tradition without the Magisterium. The ambit of orthodoxy, including the authentic development of doctrine, is definable only by the Magisterium in its definitive and binding interpretations of that unified "Word of God" known as Scripture-and-Tradition. But whenever the Magisterium does issue such definitive and binding interpretations of the DF, it must do so in a manner that logically consistent with its prior interpretations that enjoy the same degree of authority. It is of course logically possible for the Magisterium to fail to do so; but it is not spiritually possible, given that the three-legged stool is God's means of ensuring the Church's unfailing profession of the "faith once given to the saints" (Jude 3).
The first point to be made about the above three "hermeneutical circles" is that none can be shown superior to the others with an argument containing only premises that all parties involved—Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic—would accept. From within each circle, the others will seem at best question-begging and, at worst, viciously circular. To borrow a metaphor from the philosophy of science: each HC constitutes a paradigm that is epistemically incommensurable with the others. And that holds even when many quite similar doctrinal conclusions are reached from within each HC.
For example, for the last quarter of 2008, I actively participated in a series of Bible studies led by a team of conservative, evangelically-oriented Protestant ministers. Throughout the series, I heard not a single doctrinal assertion that was incompatible with Catholicism. Although the leaders did not recognize the Catholic Magisterium's claims to authority, their interpretations of the DF on the doctrinally significant points that came up were virtually indistinguishable from those of the Catholic Church. Similarly, as a college student in the 1970s, I attended many Orthodox talks and liturgies; once again, I heard not a single doctrinally significant assertion that I could find, after due inquiries, to be logically incompatible with Catholicism. Both the Protestants recently and the Orthodox back then turned out to be professing the same doctrines I did on the points being discussed, even though their language and conceptual framework were often quite different from what I was used to. The disagreements with me as a Catholic only came up when I asked them to give their reasons for interpreting the sources as they did. More generally, it seems to me that the differences defined by the three HCs are less over what we know of the DF than over how we know it.
But that source of Christian disunity, I submit, is not merely a philosophical problem. It is not just a matter of epistemological differences that could eventually be overcome by scholarly means such as clever argument, creative re-reading, and further research. No discoveries of lost texts or artifacts, no renewed critical editing of known texts, no work of theological genius, would even begin to break open and join into one the three HCs that define the basic epistemological differences between the three main strains of Christianity. By the same token, no arguments from reason alone are objectively cogent enough to rationally compel any informed but uncommitted inquirer to decide that one particular HC is better than the others. Each such inquirer should in due course decide, on the basis of the sort of information I've described above, which HC is the most plausible to him; and ordinarily, that suffices to justify a decision in good conscience to embrace one of them as a matter of faith. But given that each HC presents its understanding of doctrinal authority as an element of the DF, and therefore as a matter of faith, no such decision can be shown to be the only rationally justifiable one. For if any one HC were the only rationally justifiable one, then its understanding of doctrinal authority would be a conclusion of human reason rather than a tenet of divine faith.
I shall not repeat here my reasons for having chosen the Catholic HC. I've explained all that before and, if only as a means of defending my faith, will doubtless find myself doing so again. The point I want to close with is one that ought to be granted by any participant in the intra-Christian debates over ecclesial authority: if such debates could be resolved by scholarly considerations alone, they would already have been resolved. I am tempted to say they would never have arisen in the first place.