Pastor Weedon has supplied the text of an article which was published in the Lutheran Forum (Subscription only) (courtesy of the author) in the comments section of my second last blog post called “THE RELATION BETWEEN THE BIBLICAL AND CATHOLIC PRINCIPLES” by HEATH R. CURTIS (Lutheran Forum 39.4(Winter 2005): 20-24).
There is a great deal that is good and valuable in this essay, but I must say it had me running back to the safe arms of Mummy (Holy Mother Church) on more than a number of occasions. It reminded me of how, as a Lutheran pastor, I was really left to work it all out for myself “in fear and trembling” (as they say)–and often in open combat with my fellow Lutherans. As a Catholic, I have the blessed relief of simply pointing people to the Catechism. Call me lazy if you like, but the task of trying to form a personal infallible opinion on every article of Christian doctrine is simply beyond my human ability (even in the grace of Christ!).
What can be said about this essay? It is very complicated. I want to agree with a lot of it. I have put ticks next to the following statements (with the qualification that they are true as far as they go). Maybe this is one of those situations which really calls for the methods outlined by Pastor Pearce in his recent blog on polemical theology. Alas, I am too lazy and a blog post is not the best medium for such work. Here’s what I agree with:
- The Word alone established dogma.
- the point is not how Augustine or Chrysostom interpreted a given passage but how that passage has been received by the entire Church catholic.
- The bible is the Church’s book and it cannot be understood or interpreted rightly outside the Church and neither can the Church stand apart from God’s Word.
- How can I be sure that I have all the right books [in scripture]? The traditionalist Romanists [eg. me and Pope Benedict] answer this question definitively by the authority of the bishops and dogmatically declared the canon of scripture at Trent.
- The tradition of the Church is our only link to the apostolic scriptures–the Church handed them down to us and they also handed down their interpretation.
But there is so much that raises questions for me. The WEAKEST point of the whole essay is that which addresses the actual definition of what is and is not “scripture”:
Lutherans are historical Christians taking the information that the Church handed down concerning the canon and accepting it. So, the Lutherans take seriously the doubt expressed by the Early Church about the apostolicity of seven of the books in the New Testament (the antilegomena books: James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, Hebrews, Revelation) and refuse to give them strictly equal status with the twenty sure and certain homolegoumena books of the New Testament (see Luther’s Prefaces to these books; Chemnitz Examen I,192; and Pieper, Christian Dogmatics III.330-338). Likewise, Lutherans express grave doubts about the Greek portions of the Old Testament (“apocryphal” or “deutero-canonical” books) yet encourage their reading and even quote one of them (2 Macc.) as “Scripture” in their confessional writings (Ap. XXI.8-9; see also Ap. IV.156ff.)
This is scarey stuff. Consider that the arguement of the paper is that Scripture alone determines dogma, but then Lutherans (according to this paper, which I think is a little skewiff on this matter) hedge their bets on certain books of scripture which have been unanimously accepted as Word of God since the early centuries of the Church.
Part of the difficulty is in the definition of what is and what is not “Word of God”. See the previous blog on this matter, but in short, the Catholic Church also believes that no doctrine can be established which is not clearly revealed in the Word of God, but does not restrict God’s revealed Word to the written scriptures of the Old and New Testament. The burden of proof remains with the Lutheran parties to demonstrate (yea, even on the basis of Scripture alone) that only the written scriptures may be regarded as Word of God and therefore as the foundation and source of all doctrine.
Another part of the difficulty is that the whole discussion is couched in relation to “Scripture and Tradition”. But the Catholic Church knows at least two (in fact three) other players in the determination of doctrine. The first is the living magisterium of the pastors of the Church. What gives the New Testament its authority is the fact that it is written and attested to by the Apostles. But while God’s revelation ended with the death of the last apostle, the apostolic authority to teach did not, and continues in the body of men we call “bishops”. Even Lutherans today struggle with the question of the degree to which their pastors (as a body) have authority and responsibility for teaching in the Church. We Catholics are definite about the matter: our bishops have the authority to judge authentic Catholic doctrine.
In fact, Curtis’ paper is overly concerned with the question of whether Scripture norms the Tradition or the Tradition norms the Scripture. At times he ends up in a circle: Tradition determines the authentic interpretation of Scripture, but “the perspicuity of the Scriptures reins in the fanciful interpretations” offered by the Tradition. He is at a loss to explain why the ecumenical councils of the “undivided church” (“in particular, the first four”–why exactly?) have pride of place in the Lutheran canon. He is at a loss to say what it means that “the whole church” receives a certain tradition. What he is grouping for is the doctrine of the authoritative living Magisterium. It is this Magisterium alone which has determined what elements of the Tradition are authentic and authoritative.
Furthermore, it isn’t quite true to say that Scripture gives us dogma and Tradition gives us interpretation. Scripture does have doctrinal/creedal statements, but such statements make up a small percentage of the scriptural material. On the other hand, the Tradition (or in fact, the Magisterium as recorded in the Tradition) is the “go-to” source of declarations and definitions of dogma. The Tradition did not “invent new doctrines” mind you, but throughout history has specifically declared what is to be regarded as the true Catholic faith.
Ah, there is so much here. It really can’t all be dealt with at once. By the way, you will have noticed that I said “at least two (in fact three) other players in the determination of doctrine” in the Catholic Church. They are:
1) The Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures
2) The Sacred Tradition
3) The Living Magisterium
4) The Successor of Peter
5) The Sensus Fidelium
The relationship between all these is an intricate one, and has worked mighty well over the centuries. I believe that it is the security of this matrix of authorities within the Catholic Church which has ensured its faithful survival against the gates of Hell to this day (Past Elder’s suspicions not-with-standing). Without all five of these authorities, the Catholic Church would have fallen to the forces of its enemies (most relentless throughout the 20th Century and not showing any sign of letting up in this new century). This is why it, and it alone, remains as the only universal communion of Christians faithful to the Apostolic Deposit of Faith today.