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CONTINUING THE THINKING PROCESS: AUTHORITY IN CHURCH DOCTRINE AND PRACTICE


I have been writing some thoughts on Authority for Church Doctrine and Practice. Recently it crossed my mind that the Canon of scripture might be more important for the subject than I had previously thought. In other words, Protestants advance the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, but, the question must be asked, what counts as scripture? If the books, which Protestants refer to as Apocryphal, are indeed inspired scripture, then, perhaps, Protestants need to “return to the scriptures”. When we come to the question of the Canon there seems to be a difficulty for the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura, namely, without the canon, what is scripture? Prior to the establishment of the canon how did Christians know what was doctrinally right? I’ve already mentioned this problem in other posts. I have to say, at the outset, that I am not a huge fan of the way sola scriptura is commonly explained; it seems to be ignorant of the fact of interpretation (regardless of which books are canonical, inspired, etc. they are ALL interpreted, which means that the bigger question is not about the canon but about authority on deciding appropriate interpretation for scripture.). Furthermore, I am much more dependent on tradition than your average Protestant; I think that it is the church universal's role to protect the proper interpretation of scripture. However, it is a fallacy to claim that because the majority thinks X, that X is therefore true. At the same time, I think that it is a pretty good rule of thumb that when you come up with something that no one in the church has ever thought of before you need to be very careful. Granted that there are problems with Sola Scriptura, I also think that there are some problems with the Catholic position, as I understand it, which claims that the Bible as interpreted by tradition is the authority.

First of all, I find it is interesting that the council of Trent (1546) accepted Augustine's (354-430) view of the Canon, which gave equal authority to the apocrypha as to the rest of the "canonical" books of the Bible, rather than Jerome's (347-420) view of the Canon, which denied, absolutely, that the apocryphal books had any authority on church doctrine and practice. Jerome is the church father who translated the entire Bible from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into Latin (known as the Latin Vulgate). Both Augustine and Jerome were great exegetes.

I say this is interesting because it seems a little too convenient. “Tradition” prior to Augustine certainly seemed to agree that the Apocryphal books were neither inspired nor authoritative, Jerome is as much a part of “Tradition” as Augustine, and Jerome was, at least (if not more), as qualified as Augustine to make a pronouncement concerning which books were canonical and which weren’t. Furthermore, Jerome, not Augustine, was in agreement with the general thoughts of the church of the preceding centuries. It all seems a little TOO convenient.

We might reply that church councils in the 4th century made pronouncements on the canon. I've gone over (rapidly) all of the decisions made by the Major church councils between the 4th and 8th centuries and haven't seen anything concerning the canon of the Bible. The Councils (there were a lot of them) of Carthage did make pronouncements on the Canon of Scripture. However, the Councils of Carthage were not major church councils. They were all local councils held in Africa and were not universally accepted (until, interestingly enough, they were ratified at the council of Trent). As such we cannot say that they represented, necessarily, the teaching of the universal church. It is interesting to note that they were all influenced by Augustine, who, as I mentioned above, accepted the books written after the end of the prophetic period.

It seems to me that individual councils (especially local councils such as those from Carthage), have as much authority as any one church father on any given subject, because they are still only a part of the “Tradition” of the Church.

It might be claimed that the Jews had two canons, and that the Catholic Church simply accepted the broadest of the canons. Perhaps I'm being overly cautious here, but, it seems to be claiming too much to say that the Jews had two canons (so I won't refer to a deutero-canon). The only thing that I am able to find on that subject is that the sect of the Essenes accepted the books written after the prophetic period had closed as part of their sacred writings. However, to my knowledge the Jews, in general, did not accept these books as inspired or prophetic. It would be like saying that due to the fact that certain church fathers accepted the Gnostic gospels, that they are canonical. I'd like to see Jewish writings that put the books written after the prophetic period on the same par as their other scriptures.

[A note on the term apocrypha. R. K. Harrison notes that the term apocrypha "means 'hidden things,' and when applied to books it described those works which religious authorities wished to be concealed from the reading public." (R. K. Harrison, 'Old Testament and New Testament Apocrypha,' in The Origin of the Bible, ed. Philip Wesley Comfort (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992), 83.) He goes on to say that the term became, later, synonymous with books which were non-canonical (p. 84), and that, therefore, should be kept away from church members. (By the way, on the subject of a second Jewish canon he says, "Earlier scholars suggested that the so-called 'council of Jamnia,' held in Palestine about A.D. 100, was responsible for drawing up a list of Old Testament books suitable for use by the faithful. However, subsequent studies have thrown considerable doubt upon the historicity of such a council, at the same time showing that the Jewish authorities of that period considered their noncanonical writings to be more of an obstacle than a help to devotion." (p. 85). In the article to which I am referring he then goes on to survey, briefly, the main ideas and problems with the books written after the prophetic period. ]

Secondly, I am under the impression, currently, that councils are not enough. (On a side note the catholic definition of tradition seems vague to me. Is tradition only councils? I read Josef Pieper's book on the subject and it seems that tradition is much larger than just councils.) Rather, I have been informed by some friends of mine, who are Dominicans, that for a council to be authoritative it has to be ratified by the Pope Ex Cathedra. (Now this implies an interpretation of the Bible that has been debated for a very long time.) Perhaps I am missing something here, but, it seems to me that there are problems with the doctrine of Ex Cathedra. For example: 1. A Pope is infallible when he speaks Ex Cathedra. 2. A Pope speaks Ex Cathedra when he makes a pronouncement on church doctrine or practice. 3. There have been Pope's - Honorius comes to mind - who have made heretical pronouncements and were declared Heretics by later Pope's and councils. 4. The heretical pronouncements concerned church doctrine and practice. 5. Therefore, 1 is false. We might respond to this argument by claiming that the Pope speaks Ex Cathedra when he makes an infallible pronouncement on Church Doctrine or Practice. This, however, seems to be circular reasoning. If it is the Pope that is supposed to be able to make infallible pronouncements when speaking Ex Cathedra, but, his pronouncements are only Ex Cathedra when they are infallible, then how can we ever know that the Pope has made an infallible pronouncement, that is, how will we know when it is Ex Cathedra? It is Ex Cathedra when it is infallible and it is infallible when it is Ex Cathedra. Perhaps we know that a pronouncement is infallible and, therefore, Ex Cathedra, only when a later Pope ratifies the previous Pope’s pronouncements. But, then, how do we know that this later Pope’s ratification of the previous Pope’s pronouncement is infallible and therefore Ex Cathedra? We seem to run into a vicious circle. Furthermore, if it is the Pope that ratifies the Councils, how, then, will we ever know that a Council has been infallibly ratified?

Either way, whether it be church councils, or ratification by a Pope, the problem of interpretation persists, the claims of councils, Popes and church fathers are as open to false interpretation as the scriptures themselves. Which means that we need to have a method of interpretation that can be universally verified, that can be used as much on the pronouncements of Popes, councils, and church fathers as on the Bible and which will be sufficient to sift between true and false interpretations. Regardless of which canon is used, the interpretations can always be debated.

Provisional conclusion? The question of canonicity does not help answer the problem of authority in church doctrine and practice.

           Anyways, those are some of the thoughts that I'm still working through.

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