By What Authority?
Life, As I Find It
As I’ve mentioned before, and will mention again, one of the triggers for my journey to the Catholic faith began with a simple but life-changing question: By what authority does someone interpret Scripture and establish doctrine?
What made that question so pivotal for me is that it challenged a few vital assumptions in my Evangelical Protestant theology. It also came up at a time when I faced radical changes in the Episcopal Church, of which I was a member. I was alarmed by the way decisions were being made there that seemed contrary to Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Yet, according to the authority of that church, their radical interpretation of the Bible and establishment of tradition-breaking doctrine was legitimate.
I started asking, “Hey, wait a minute, who’s in charge here anyway?” It can’t be a theological free-for-all – can it?
At the same time, I watched as more traditional Evangelical Protestants, with their Bibles in hand, set themselves up as their own “authorities” and made some surprising decisions. Surprising to me, that is. Some dropped out of any regular church attendance (because it was an optional extra, rather than a necessary part of the Christian life). Some talked as if there was no objective way to discuss Scripture, as if it all came down to “what it means to me and you can’t tell me otherwise.” I saw the line between interpretation and application become blurred, if not erased. So, again, I wondered: who gets the final word?
I read Jesus’ prayer for unity and almost wanted to dismiss it as sentimental wishful- thinking on His part. I suspect many Christians do. And I struggled to reconcile the idea that the same Holy Spirit – invoked by every individual – could be inspiring so many outright contradictions among believers.
So I asked the question. By what authority does someone interpret Scripture and establish doctrine?
To find the answer, I dared to venture beyond the boundaries of history I had previously allowed (only as far back as the Reformation) and pushed through to the Ancient Church. I wanted to know what the generation of Christians following the Resurrection and original 12 Apostles believed and why they believed it. I was shocked to learn how very Catholic they were.
The Bible itself pointed me to the reality of Apostolic Authority and, eventually, the question was settled. Once that was done, the move into the Catholic Church became inevitable.
Thereafter, I thought that, since the question was important to me, I ought to put it to my Protestant friends because it ought to be important to them. I was naïve. The question was often unwelcome, but stirred up some remarkable reactions.
One involved a wide-eyed have-you-lost-your-mind kind of response. Not because I had lost my mind, but because the question itself seemed crazy. The answer, it’s assumed, was clearly established long-ago by someone, somewhere – though they don’t know when or by whom or where exactly. Maybe by Luther or Billy Graham. But certainly not by the corrupt gang who messed everything up before them.
Not only was the question crazy, it was superfluous. It’s like asking whether or not the American Revolution was a legitimate action or speculating what might have happened had the South won the Civil War. Things are what they are, there’s no point in revisiting a question that’s been answered somewhere somehow. Don’t mess with the “givens.”
If my friends thought about it at all, they often had varying answers. Authority to interpret Scripture, for them, may be based on a democratic consensus in their churches. Or because the Pastor went to seminary. Or a teacher seemed wise and holy. Or the interpreter is personally charismatic. Or maybe the person speaking says things that “ring true” or resonate with their own feelings or experiences.
But, at the heart of it, I found that my question triggered a debate most people didn’t really want to have.
Assumption plays heavily in any answer, if an answer comes at all. People assume that it’s understood where the Authority rests, in the same way they assume that a chair is reliable and will hold them up if they sit on it – or that the person in the uniform flying the airplane is qualified to do it. It’s a vague and mysterious trust in the established order of things.
What I hadn’t anticipated was how very unnerving and distressing the question could be. The one thing most people don’t want challenged are the core assumptions in their worldview. Usually it takes a personal trauma or cataclysm to make people re-think those assumptions: God didn’t behave the way they thought, there is a terrible sickness or death, a horrible act of evil, or a natural catastrophe. Other than that, why bother? To ask such a thing is like throwing a brick through a carefully crafted Tiffany window. I asked because the crisis in my church forced me to.
Now, as a Catholic, I see more clearly what I’m up against. The Catholic faith is an assault that challenges the assumptions not only of Evangelical Protestants but of most people. It is solid, rigorous and unique – and therefore foreign and frightening and dangerous. It is the answer to an unwelcome question. So, how do we get people to ask a question they don’t want to ask? That’s one of the challenges of the New Evangelization.