Tuesday, February 9, 2010

So Who Interprets Just Like Me?

You know how once in a while you will read something that is stated just exactly the way you wish you would have stated it yourself? I just ran onto that in a great conversion story by Tom Cabeen in the February 2010 newsletter from The Coming Home Network. Tom came to the Catholic faith out of a Jehovah's Witness background. Part of his search for truth very closely parallels mine. In my own conversion story published in This Rock magazine I wrote:

what was my standard of orthodoxy, the Bible or the creeds? If I appealed to creed or "the universal belief of the Church" in order to declare something unorthodox, was I not following something besides Scripture alone? This raised questions that I couldn't answer: What is orthodoxy? What is the standard of Christian orthodoxy? I began to suspect that it couldn't be just the Bible, because none of us could agree on what the Bible says. All appeals to the Bible can be countered with a different interpretation or an outright rejection of the authority of the Bible. Increasingly I turned to the creeds and to a nebulous collection of the "universal beliefs of the Church" to assure myself that what I believed was orthodox.

Tom says this differently and really captures this particular dynamic beautifully. He writes:

During my research, I kept running across references to the "Early Church Fathers." . . . What surprised me is how they applied the Scriptures. There was no official collection of Christian Scripture when these writers put pen to parchment, but they did quote from writings which later became part of the Christian canon. Often they applied a familiar passage in a way that was completely new to me. I was intriqued by the implications of this fact.

I began to see that the Bible is not self-interpreting. Most passages can be understood in more than one way. The problem is not resolved even if one is familiar with the original languages, as were all the ancient writers. Clearly, some parts of the sacred writings are to be taken literally, some metaphorically, others allegorically or figuratively. How do we sort out which is which? I had paid a lot of money for excellent commentaries, yet often I was surprised at the variety of explanations of a given passage I found among respected commentators from differing Christian traditions or denominations.

Slowly, I came to understand that there is simply no reliable way to determine if a particular Christian teaching is true [NB: here I would say "orthodox" rather than "true"] based only on whether or not it is logical, reasonable, and seems to be supported by "proof texts" from Scripture. Some other source of authoritative interpretation is needed. Some Christians expect to receive individual guidance from the Holy Spirit; others rely on scholarship, historical sources, or reason. But none of these methods produces consensus among all commentators or interpreters.

I finally realized that this is why every single denomination uses written materials in addition to the Bible, whether a catechism, commentaries, books, tracts, or other publications. No one just hands a Bible to a potential convert and says, "Read the book and you will understand the Christian message completely and clearly." Every Christian teacher must add explanation to Scripture in order to communicate the full Christian message.

I am reminded of a very aggressive Protestant apologist who is seldom left at a loss for words. But I have seen at least one question posed to him for which he was completely unable to come up with a reasonable answer. This particular person is a Reformed Baptist by doctrinal conviction and is vociferous that the Scriptures are perspicuous, that is, they are in all important points sufficiently clear that the ordinary person can discover their true teaching. But this person has been asked several times to explain how it is that, if the Scriptures are indeed perspicuous and they perspicuously teach the Reformed Baptist faith, we just can't find any Reformed Baptists in the early centuries of the Church? Indeed, we don't seem to find any of them until well into the seventeenth century. As Baptist scholar Dr. James McGoldrick states in his scholarly study into claims that earlier groups qualify as Baptist:

[A]lthough . . . groups in ancient and medieval times sometimes promoted doctrines and practices agreeable to modern Baptists, when judged by standards now acknowledged as baptistic, not one of them merits recognition as a Baptist church. Baptists arose in the seventeenth century in Holland and England (Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question in Baptist History. ATLA Monograph Series, No. 32. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1994, p. 2).

Seems like if those doctrinal tenets are clearly taught in Scripture, somebody prior to the seventeenth century would have put them all together. I have yet to hear a really good answer to this challenge.
Now obviously just pointing out that Scripture is not self-interpreting does not by itself validate the claims of the Catholic Church. It's not a standalone argument--"See there, your system doesn't work so mine must be true." But it definitely keeps us focused on just what sort of "system" (to use a clumsy word) our Lord put in place to perpetuate the Christian faith. Did He really make it fundamentally dependent on a pastiche of writings that would not be definitively gathered into a collection for centuries and would be inaccessible to your average Christian for many centuries more? Or did He make it fundamentally dependent on His Church, an extension of His own Incarnation? I think Tom's fascinating conversion story points us in the right direction.


Nick said...

A variation of that question that always stumps that aggressive Protestant apologist is: if you condemn Catholics for believing in many of the same things "Christian fathers" like Augustine taught, why do you condemn the former but not the latter?

The simple answer is, while true consistency and honesty would condemn the latter (i.e. admit Augustine was a major heretic), these Protestant apologists know how devastating such an admission would be.


Anonymous said...

Interesting to see the effect of the 'Bible Societies' which were huge in the 19th century and sent tens of millions of translations of the Bible to places like the Malay Peninsula where a Protestant missionary commented - for the tens of thousands of Bibles distributed here I don't know of ONE convert. Many of these translated Bibles are rare and collectible because they were used - to start fires and for....toilet paper.