"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Divine authority: a backhanded introduction

Today's Gospel reading in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite concludes:
Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)
If that audience was anything like one that I'm familiar with, somebody would have piped up at once: "Your development of doctrine has no basis in the text." To that, of course, Jesus could have replied: "I AM the text." And in his ministry, that is in effect what he asserted. To any Catholic familiar with conservative Protestantism, though, it should come as no surprise that most first-century Jews didn't see Jesus that way.

That brings up a point I have long pondered during my obscure career as an online Catholic apologist. Many Christian opponents of Catholicism often argue something like this: "Nowhere in the New Testament do we find your allegedly infallible Magisterium. The Magisterium's arrogant and self-serving claims for itself have no basis in the text." But it should go without saying that such a response proves nothing pertinent. It merely exhibits the fundamental difference between the conservative-Protestant interpretive paradigm (CPIP) and the Catholic interpretive paradigm (CIP).

On the CPIP, it is in and through the Bible alone, not something called "the Church," that we encounter and recognize that divine authority by which the public, once-for-all divine revelation is given to us. When we render the assent of faith in that revelation, we are believing God, the ultimate authority, by means of trusting a book as that secondary authority which embodies God's primary authority and conveys the content of his revelation. Thus, for conservative Protestants, the biblical canon as they acknowledge it is the formal, proximate object of faith (FPOF). As their FPOF, the Bible is the sole "infallible" medium of doctrine. That is the basic meaning of sola scriptura. Individual believers can accept ecclesial authority as such only to the extent that it conforms to "Scripture." In practice, that amounts to judging the orthodoxy of any church by means of one's own interpretation of Scripture. It is the individual believer who judges the conformity of any non-scriptural authority to the FPOF. Of course, many conservative Protestants do not see this, because they assume that their often-divergent interpretations of Scripture are simply "what the Bible says." And they say the Magisterium is arrogant!

On the CIP, however, it is the opposite. It is not the individual believer who gets to judge the Church's orthodoxy, but the Church that is the judge of the believer's orthodoxy. That is because, as the "Body of Christ" and "pillar and bulwark of the truth," the Church is a living embodiment of divine authority through her college of bishops, the successors of the Apostles, in union with the pope, the successor of Peter. On such an account, the FPOF is not the Bible alone, understood as self-attesting, but the triad Scripture-Tradition-Magisterium, understood as mutually attesting and interdependent. The first two together convey to us the content of divine revelation, and the last ensures that we identify and interpret that content reliably. The FPOF, as the Catholic Church understands it, thus bears the same divine authority of Jesus that is described in the New Testament.

The basic dispute between conservative Protestantism and Catholicism, then, is about whether divine teaching authority is limited to its embodiment in a book, or whether the two other authorities in question are also necessary for constituting the FPOF. That dispute is similar to the one most Jewish scholars had with Jesus and the Christians. And the beauty of it is that we can compare, contrast, and evaluate the two IPs in terms of the means they offer for distinguishing between expressions of divine revelation as such and merely human opinions about how to identify and interpret the data in which we are given that revelation. Protestantism invests that means in the individual; Catholicism, in the Church. I know which seems more biblical, as well as more reasonable, to me.

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