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*** This topic is critical, more so than it may appear

Since I was a good Protestant growing up, unlike those confused Catholics, I believed I would understand the truth if I faithfully read Scripture. I didn’t need tradition to help me, no creeds or teachers from ancient times. I was wrong. Why? Because I was putting myself in the place of authority.

There are (at least) two kinds of authority in Christian thought – revelatory and interpretive. The item with revelatory authority has authority because it contains revelation from God. The person or group with interpretive authority has authority because they interpret revelation to determine how we think and live.

Below are the approaches of three major groups to these authorities. These are put in historical order starting around the time of the Reformation:

Catholic Church
Revelatory Authority – Scripture and tradition
Interpretive Authority – the Church according to the rule of faith

The Reformers
Revelatory Authority – Scripture alone
Interpretive Authority – the Church according to the rule of faith

Some Modern Evangelicals
Revelatory Authority – Scripture alone
Interpretive Authority – the individual

I want to make two points in this article. One is that Luther and the other reformers of that day agreed with the Catholic Church on interpretative authority, but disagreed that the Catholic church had moved that authority to the level of ultimate authority alongside Scripture. Luther went against the Catholic church of his day, not because he thought everything they said was wrong – he agreed with much of it – but because he believed some of the things they said were wrong. He got into trouble because the Catholics gradually came to a position over the centuries that the pronouncements they made were revelation from God, and therefore could not be opposed. Luther rightly pointed out that their councils and the Church fathers disagreed with each other and therefore couldn’t all be true. For saying this, Luther was branded a heretic. For orthodox Protestants, the church and the rule of faith have authority, but their authority is subject to the ultimate authority of Scripture.

The other point I want to make is that interpretive authority lies with the entire church, not us as individuals. What matters more to how we think and live our lives: the words of Scripture or how we understand those words? Unfortunately, it’s how we understand those words. I say unfortunately, but really there is no way around this. When we read the Bible we don’t get audible commentary from God saying “this is what that verse means.” No, we have to interpret the verse. What’s the safest way? Well, the interesting thing about us humans is that our reason isn’t rational when left to itself. Instead, our reason serves to promote our preconceived notions (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for this concept). Typically, we only become rational in the context of sympathetic dialogue. How is this relevant to interpretive authority? It means that often when we read the Bible by ourselves we are simply confirming what we already believe. We’re never going to get anywhere with that approach. It is by Christians wrestling with one another for centuries that the truth is discovered. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth (John 16:13). This doesn’t mean Christians individually; believers can be way off and still be genuine. No, it is the whole church together that the Holy Spirit is leading into all truth. Don’t go alone. Connecting yourself to the Church brings big rewards.

For more on this topic, see Keith A. Mathison’s excellent Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes. Some suggestions to get you started learning from the Church: read the early creeds – the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. These are quite short and so don’t take much time. Then read the Heidelberg Catechism. From these you’ll get a solid doctrinal foundation.

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