Lately, and for quite some time, my mind has been vexed with the question of authority, especially ecclesial authority. In our fractured experience of Christianity, I wonder who (that is, which communion) has the rightful authority to call itself the Church. This presupposes that there is one true Church. Maybe that is too much to assume, but if God is "not the author of confusion" (1 Cor. 14:33), then there must be one true interpretation and application of Scripture to the life of the believer. The Church is, as Paul asserts, the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15): can there be so many conflicting pillars? I may be looking at this the wrong way, but it seems that while there can be diversity in many things in the Christian life, there must be some sort of unity between the various bodies that comprise the one Body of Christ. Obviously, of course, that bond is the holy Spirit, but does that reality mean anything real and practical? That is, should there be some institutional unity amongst the Church? In many ways, this goes back to the previous post on authority. Hopefully, Lord willing, it is a step forward.
I present it as a dialogue between two people concerning the topic of Sola Scriptura.
Teacher: What should we believe and do so that we might be saved?
Catechumen: We must believe the Scriptures and do as they say, trusting in the grace of God through Jesus Christ.
T: Good. Whose interpretation of the Scriptures?
C: I don't follow. Scripture is self-interpreting. It's meaning is clear to all.
T: Then why are there so many differing interpretations? Should we have bishops or elders? Should we baptize via the process of immersion or sprinkling or pouring? Should we baptize children or only believing "adults"? Pre-mil? A-mil? Post-mil? I could go on, but hopefully you see the point.
C: I do, and it could drive me to despair.
T: Be glad, then, that we are not talking about the problematic presuppositions of textual criticism. The question, whether or not it is ultimately legitimate, often becomes whether or not there is a settled text at all (Dr. Bart Ehrman seems to have embraced this unfortunate train of thought).
C: So, there must be some ground that can guide us to a proper interpretation of the Scriptures, so that we might be saved.
T: Good. What is that "ground"?
C: The Spirit of God is the One who will "lead you into all Truth" (John 16:13).
T: Good. How do we know we have the Spirit, that is, that our interpretation is the proper interpretation of the Scriptures?
C: I do not know. This is something that has puzzled me for quite some time.
T: Let us do a little exercise, then. Who originally had the Spirit and the proper authority to rightly interpret the Scriptures?
C: That would be the Apostles of Christ, I suppose. It does say that the earliest Church grew because of its allegiance to Apostle's teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Acts 2:42).
T: Good. But what happens when the Apostles die?
C: Then their teaching must survive on in the Church. This, I suppose, is the origin of the New Testament?
T: Yes, but remember that Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, says that the churches are to follow his Tradition, whether through word -- that is, spoken to them in their presence -- or through epistle -- that is, what will become what we know as the New Testament.
C: Did they contain the same thing?
T: This is a common assumption, but we see no one in early Church history hold to it. There is a common life, what Acts 2 called "the prayers," that needed to be passed on, which is the meaning of the word "tradition."
C: So, there is an apostolic written tradition, the New Testament, and an oral tradition?
T: It would seem so, wouldn't it?
C: But we are still in a quandry: has the Tradition survived throughout all these centuries? Can we trust any group to have held it faithfully throughout all that time? Are not all men sinners?
T: Indeed, all men are sinners. However, we have been given the promise of the Spirit of Truth to guide us into all truth, yes?
C: Yes, we've already established that. But who continues on the Tradition, who has the Spirit?
T: What pattern do we see in the New Testament? Do the Apostles train up men to continue their work?
C: As we've seen in 2 Thessalonians, Paul, at least, passed this assignment onto the individual churches.
T: So now we see the necessity of conciliar unity, yes?
C: Yes, one of the guarantors of proper interpretation is that the ancient churches agreed with one another. If one church did not hold the Tradition faithfully, there were others that would correct them and lovingly restore them. At least theoretically.
T: We see this in Bishop Clement's letter to the Corinthians shortly after the Apostle Paul's death (know as 1 Clement in the Apostolic Fathers). The question, then, is: did the Apostles entrust certain people in the congregation to do the work of guarding the Tradition, passing it onto the next generation, and training others to do the same? Obviously, the Tradition was in the hands of the people, but the church had a leadership -- did they have a role?
C: Of course! The people needed to keep their regular jobs and lives, living out the life of Christ in all their walks. So the leadership would need to be focused on teaching, or on serving, just like it was in the time of the earliest Church (Acts 6). In fact, in his teaching on this to his co-worker Timothy, Paul talks about training up bishops and elders for the work of teaching (1 Tim 3).
T: Good, you are making much progress. So, the Tradition -- the Apostolic interpretation accompanied by the common life and the "prayers" -- was maintained by the individual churches working in concert with one another, but was guarded and passed on by its leadership, the bishops and the elders. In other words, when Paul says that the Church is the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15), he means it.
C: So, for the proper interpretation, we need conciliar agreement between the churches, a Tradition passed on through the leadership, and an agreement with the Scriptures themselves?
T: Yes, exactly! This is what Irenaeus and Ignatius, early bishops of the Church, argue in their various epistles. It is called "Apostolic Succession" in theological terms.
C: However, we know from Church history that "Apostolic Succession" isn't enough. Didn't Rome err in the middle ages, necessitating the Reformation? Didn't the Reformers see that the ancient Tradition had been irretrievably lost, necessitating the teaching Sola Scriptura?
T: Well, this depends on what we believe about the Great Schism of AD 1054. It is possible, and I only say possible as this is not the topic of discussion, that the Roman bishop left the apostolic succession when they separated over the question of the Quinisext Council and the Filioque. If that is the case (and, for sake of argument, let us assume that), then the Reformation would have been necessary to restore that communion -- and all the other communions under Rome's jurisdiction -- to unity with the Apostolic Church. If all the other ancient churches, though, had also fallen in the meantime -- that is, if Eastern Orthodoxy, or Coptic Orthodoxy, or Oriental Orthodoxy (I'll not argue which one is most faithful) had fallen away from the Tradition -- then the promise of the Spirit to guide us "into all Truth" and Christ's promise to be with us "even unto the end of the age" (Matt. 28:20) will have failed. So, one of those communions, or set of communions (remember conciliar agreement?), must preserve the Apostolic Tradition faithfully.
C: But this would deny the legitimacy of the Reformation! It is historically evident that the Reformers did not find union with the East, in any form.
T: Like I said, though, it depends on your view of the Great Schism. If Rome had only recently (that is, with indulgences, etc.) fallen into heresy, then the Reformation was a necessary corrective to an erring bishopric.
C: What about Luther's insistence on the conscious of the believer?
T: Ah, a very important question: does the interpretation of the individual trump the conciliar authority, the Apostolic succession, and the agreement of the Scripture with these?
C: Wait, what if the Scripture does not agree? What if, for example, a communion of churches, in conciliar agreement, decide that bishops are to be unmarried, where Paul explicitly commands that they are to be "husbands of one wife" and to have children (1 Tim 3)?
T: You are asking how the Church might be lawfully be reformed?
C: Yes, I suppose so. What happens when one link in the chain fails?
T: We must ask, first, whether one error constitutes a true break of the Tradition? Could the Tradition be flexible enough to allow some "wiggle-room"? No extant church, we might say, totally preserves the Tradition unchanged. This does not mean, however, that the Tradition has been lost, rather that portions -- and we might assume that the Spirit will keep these portions small -- have been developed, or changed, or evolved, without major damage to the whole.
C: While not thinking ill of the Spirit (God forbid it!), is this not a rather large assumption?
T: Maybe and maybe not. As the Gospel goes out into many different cultures, there is bound to be local needs that must be met, not with an ironclad Tradition, but rather one with flexibility. There are dogmas -- things that the Church, in her Spirit-given wisdom -- that must be held to, but there are other parts of the Tradition that must show some flexibility. What happens when bishops, for example, come under great persecution? Is it better to maintain their married status, or to "be like I am" as Paul says (1 Cor. 7), able to serve the Lord without family hindrance in times of distress?
C: There is wisdom in that, I suppose. One would need to have a good rapport with the other leaders to change that back after the persecution ceased, then.
T: Indeed. This is necessary. And part of the reason that, at least in the East, bishop celibacy is the norm, but not a dogma. They have greater battles to fight right now, however, then that one. Lord willing someday this will be addressed. Have you been praying for them?
C: Pardon me, I have not. Should we pray for other communions?
T: It is one of the greatest needs of any time.
C: We still have not addressed my question about the legitimacy of the Reformation.
T: Indeed, we have not. The great question of the Reformation is whether or not it has restored the Church to conciliar unity, with the same teaching passed on by the early Church, and all in line with Scripture. This is the "calling," as it were, of the Reformation churches. It could be her divine calling. Has she succeeded?
C: Historically, no. Rome still holds to the Tridentine councils, even though they have been modified somewhat by the Vatican councils. Does this mean that the Reformation has failed?
T: No, but her calling is in danger, as it will always be. The enemy of our Lord wants nothing more than to keep the churches from uniting in love and truth (and it must be both). The Reformed churches must be spurred on to greater historical study in doctrine, liturgy, and the common life. There are many assumptions that must be jettisoned, I'm sure, but that will require much greater study to ascertain. Despair not! God has not abandoned any who call on the name of Christ, even if, as of now, they disagree. His Spirit will continue to lead us into all Truth, into the full stature of Jesus Christ (Eph 4).
C: Then there is much work to be done.
T: Yes. God bless you.