Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Problem of Theological Authority

This is a subject that, I suspect, I will return to again and again.  From whence derives theological authority?

If we say the Scriptures:
--which ones?  Who determines the canon, that is, which books are to be read amongst catechumens (learners not yet baptized), which are to be read in the liturgy/mass/service, which are for the mature, which are not allowed?  Alas, our early copies of the Scriptures come without a table of contents!
--which text families?  Who determines whether we use the Byzantine text type, the Textus Receptus, the modern eclectic critical texts?  Should we privilege earlier manuscript traditions, on the assumption that earlier = less adulterated?  Should we privilege the ones that the Church herself has held close, even if the manuscript evidence is later?  Which textual variants (most insignificant, some of utmost importance) should we go with when translating?  What text critical philosophy and translation philosophy shall we adopt?
--which Old Testament?  Masoretic? Septuagint? Vulgate? Peshitta?  Samaritan?  An eclectic combination of all the above?  I've heard, although I don't recall where, one Orthodox argue that the text used is whatever Chrysostom quotes in his sermons.  I'm unaware if a full text has been compiled from his writings -- that would be quite a helpful project to undertake!
--whose interpretation?  Once the dust of canon and texts has settled, the Book still needs interpretation.  Shall it be the individual conscience?  The schoolmen, whether higher critical or not?  Shall it be the Church's?  If so, which Church: Reformed through the Confessions, Roman Catholic through the Magisterium, Orthodoxy through the Fathers/the Councils/theoria?  Shall the interpretation be according to the "Allegory of the Theologians" outlined by Origen, Cassian, and others?  Shall it be according to a redemptive-historical method? A historical-critical method? A canonical method?  A combination of some/all/none of the above?

It is important to note that I am not making any choices here; rather, I am trying to uncover all the issues involved in theological authority.  As you can see, even when thinking just about the Scriptures, the questions to answer are legion.

If we say the Church:
--which Church?  Each version/branch/division/sect/denomination has a different basis of authority, even though they all claim the same divinely-given status.  God is not the god of confusion, but of logos, of order, rationality, of the peace that arises out such a stable (and therefore freedom giving) cosmos.  So, not all the churches can have the same claim to divine authority: this does not automatically mean that they are deriving authority from a demonic source, but they are deriving from some "lesser good(s)" in creation.  It is imperative that this question be answered honestly and frankly, without regards for the possible consequences: the truth must be followed.  Christ has one Church, made up of many members -- but they are united.  The question that then arises is: what is the basis of that unity?  Is it doctrinal?  Is it hierarchical?  Is it Eucharistic?  Is it a combination of some/all/none of the above?
--which definition of "Apostolic Tradition"?
--what do we do with the checkered history of the Church?  How can an entity that drowns Anabaptists, holds a Thirty Years War, has Crusades and Inquisitions, etc. have any moral and spiritual authority?  How could an entity that doesn't go to war for the truth have any moral or spiritual authority?

If we say the individual conscience:
--what about the role of sin (the so-called noetic effects of sin)?  How much has reason, when searching into the things of the holy God, been hampered/distorted/perverted due to the corruption of human nature?
--whose individual conscience?  The history of American evangelicalism and revivalism is full of folks being "led by the Spirit" to say and do and start problematic, often heretical, things.

It is an adage, given to us by St. Paul, that the Holy Spirit is the One who interprets the deep things of God.  St. John reminds us that "no one has seen God at any time...the only begotten Son/God [one of those few important textual variants] has declared [exegeted/interpreted] Him."  In other words, theological authority must derive from the Triune God: Father, Son, Spirit.  But, the question of how we connect to the Spirit is wide open: is it through careful interpretation of the Scriptures (which sends us back to our list of questions above)?  is it through charismatic experience?  Is it through hesychastic prayer?

And so, I'm at the point that I always return to, and have returned to for many years: who has the Spirit?  Which community is the bearer of God's Life?  How would we know?  St. Paul, to his plenipotentiary St. Timothy, writes: "the Church of the pillar and ground/foundation of the Truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).  The Church is the Body of the Resurrected Messiah: she is possessed by the Spirit, is the Body of the Son, and offers worship, on behalf of all, to the Father.  The most prime task, then, is to determine who the Church is.  This leads, of course, to another whole set of questions -- but what more important subject is there in the entire world?

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