On the Magisterium’s (Sort Of) Superiority
In a recent comment in this thread at Called to Communion, Ray Stamper provided what I think is a helpful distinction with respect to the kinds of problems the Catholic view of authority can solve, versus the kinds it can’t (who, us triumphalistic?). He writes:
But are you not able to acknowledge that the kind of crisis being pointed out by CTC and CCC is different than the kind of crisis you keep pointing to in the Catholic Church? Although you surely disagree with the arguments, you must acknowledge that the Catholic critique of Protestantism is that it has an authority crisis rooted in its theological working principles. The authority crisis you are pointing to in the Catholic Church (which is very real), is not at the level of Catholicism’s theological working principles; but at the level of dissent arising from obstinacy or ignorance.
Stamper is suggesting that there is a kind of authority crisis with which both Catholicism and Protestantism must wrestle, but there is also a crisis of authority that is unique and endemic to Protestantism. We’ll call the former AC1, and the latter AC2. Ray continues:
But I spent the first 30 years of my life in Protestant circles, and am perfectly aware that there is plenty of doctrinal obstinacy and ignorance circulating among the troops. Both Catholics and Protestants share that kind of authority crisis, and I would be the last to go wagering bets as to which camp has the worst of it in that respect.
AC1, according to Stamper, stems from either obstinacy or ignorance (perhaps both), resulting in the teachings of a body’s leadership being disobeyed or ignored. This is a problem for both Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church.
But, it is, to my mind, a distinct disadvantage to be in a camp which has both an obstinacy/ignorance authority crisis and an authority crisis seated at the root of its theological principles; as opposed to a camp which only suffers from one of those two evils. So yes, Catholics share some serious authority problems with Protestants. But there are also some serious authority problems unique to Protestant approaches to theology which Catholicism. . . resolves. I think it is this later sort of authority problem which CTC and Creed Code Cult are focused upon.
In addition to the general ignorance or disregard of a church’s teachings (AC1), there is a further problem that is unique to Protestantism that, Stamper insists, is “an authority crisis seated at the root of its theological principles.” This additional problem, or AC2, exists on a fundamental level for Protestantism, since those who claim to speak in Christ’s name in any Protestant sect lack, by their own admission, any authority that transcends mere fallible human opinion. This is not a controversial charge, for the material principle of the Reformation, Sola Scriptura, states that our only source for infallible revelation is the Bible. Human interpreters of Scripture may and do err, and therefore all that they teach must be judged by Scripture.
The difficulty enters in when we admit, to quote Keith Mathison, that “all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture.” The result of this admission is that one fallible interpretation of Scripture may be rejected in favor of a contrary, and equally fallible, interpretation of Scripture, with no infallible person or court that can adjudicate the dispute and bring an end to the he-said-she-said hermeneutical spiral. “Authority” in Protestantism by its very design and material principle, therefore, reduces to fallible opinions rooted either in charismatic and persuasive rhetorical skills or academic acumen, neither of which are divinely protected from error under any conditions, which is why they cannot compel the assent of divine faith to their teachings (even if those teachings happen to be correct).
“Orthodoxy,” then, inevitably devolves into “that set of doctrines that conforms to my fallible interpretation of Scripture, or that of the denomination of which I am a member.” And to whatever degree the various traditions of the ancient church are invoked on this score, since there is no infallible body to differentiate between “biblical” and “unbiblical” traditions, such appeals are no less arbitrary (since the only traditions that will make the cut are those that conform to one’s own, or one’s denomination’s own, interpretation of Scripture).
Now whether Catholicism is the church Christ founded or the synagogue of Satan, what Stamper and other Catholics are asking Protestants to acknowledge is the fact that it is not susceptible to AC2, despite its having to wrestle ceaselessly with AC1. The “tu quoque,” in other words, does not apply. When operating according to the rules of its own interpretive paradigm, Catholicism can in principle propound a doctrine as infallible dogma (despite the fact that many may disagree with or disregard it). The best a Protestant denomination can do, by contrast, is appeal to its admittedly fallible interpretations of various biblical texts to show the reasonableness of this or that doctrine, leaving the members of that denomination to weigh their leaders’ fallible opinions about what the Bible says against their own.
Is it possible that the Catholic Church is biting off more than it was ever intended to chew? Absolutely, and I am happy to debate that point and discuss whether we are laying claim to a level of knowledge beyond what Christ intended. But before we can get to that point, Protestants first need to understand the distinction between AC1 and AC2. For as long as the two are collapsed, we’ll keep talking past one another.