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January 3rd, 2012 @ 5:52 pm by admin
I’m having (yet another) debate with a Catholic friend of mine re: the role that Tradition should play in belief formation. He’s accusing me, a Protestant, of being my own highest authority. As a Catholic, he defers to the Church as the ultimate authority. A brief excerpt of something my Catholic friend just wrote:
Since they [Protestants] reject the concept of an infallible interpreter of Scripture, whether it be the Church or an individual, Protestants can only put forth their own opinions on what they think Scripture means. They have no way of knowing for certain if their interpretation of the Bible is correct.
To which I responded:
What you’re missing here, is that certainty is a very brittle foundation for truth claims, b/c it requires unanimity–and that can be broken by a single dissenter. Hence the religious pogroms of the past and present as religious authorities attempt to silence those who reject their truth claims–which are often self-justifying.
In addition, no matter what authority you choose to follow–and no matter how hard you try to justify that decision with historical facts, etc.–it’s still YOU making that decision. No one made it for you. So you are still your own highest authority, b/c YOU are the one who has examined the competing truth claims and determined which is ultimately authoritative. So it makes no difference to me what authority you choose or what arguments you present in terms of that authority’s validity. It’s still a subjective decision, and I fail to see why anyone would feel compelled to agree with you apart from making their own subjective decision based on your word or their own assessment of that same evidence.
This isn’t the first, and it won’t be the last time this ground is trod and retrod. But it doesn’t raise an interesting and important question–especially as it relates to hell. By what authority–or on whose authority–do you consider your beliefs to be valid? Is there any escape from the subjective nature of belief formation I described above?
One of my favorite tools to help me think through such issues is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Credited to John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement in the late 18th Century, the term was coined by Albert C. Outler in his introduction to a collection of Wesley’s sermons. Upon examination of Wesley’s work, Outler theorized that Wesley used four different sources to help him form theological conclusions:
In other words, when seeking to test a particular belief, Wesley would examine what the Bible had to say on the topic, weigh his reading of Scripture against historical interpretations within the Church, apply reason to his conclusions and then test them against his experience.
I’m not sure if Wesley always proceeded in that order, b/c life is rarely that buttoned down. However, being a Protestant, he likely regarded the Bible as his supreme authority. So even if his questions were triggered by rational reflection or experience or his reading of Tradition, he would probably go straight to the Bible as his point of departure for resolving them.
Now, if Wesley were a Catholic, he would go to Tradition first and then accept whatever the Church had to say on the matter, only reading the relevant Scripture passages and applying reason and experience to help him work out the finer details. And, according to my Catholic friend, he could rest assured in the certainty of his beliefs, knowing they were based on an infallible interpretation of God’s Word.
To be honest, I can see pros and cons of both approaches. As I’ve been told many times, you can either have one Pope or a billion popes, each one offering their own interpretation of the truth. The question isn’t so much whether an interpretation is valid but which interpretation should be regarded as authoritative. The Catholics solve this problem with their hierarchical church structure. Truth is revealed from the top down. The official teaching of the Church trumps everything else. Protestants don’t really have an effective mechanism for settling such questions, hence the proliferation of church splits and denominational divides.
Catholics–and many Protestants–see this as a weakness in Protestantism. I’m not so sure I agree. Because as much as I would enjoy the security of being able to solve all theological disputes by flipping to the appropriate page in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I can’t help but feel that life–and truth–are more dynamic than that. There’s something to be said for the Protestant’s freedom to innovate and adapt to life’s ever-changing circumstances. And if the Protestant realizes his or her conclusions are provisional and likely to give way upon the acquisition of subsequent knowledge, he or she can avoid the rigidity so often associated with toxic forms of religion.
I could go on, but my point here is really to prod you into thinking which aspect of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral you consider your ultimate authority–and I’m talking in practice here, not in theory. Many Protestants pay lip service to the Bible, for example, but when it comes right down to it, experience trumps all. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. If you give any credence to the theory of moral dumbfounding, this is how all of us arrive at our beliefs–we are emotionally drawn to a particular position and then justify it by back-filling it with rational arguments and a selective reading of Scripture and Tradition. Christians don’t have a corner on this way of thinking either. It’s part of the blessing–and the curse–of being human.
But it also creates some significant problems when it comes to theological dialogue, as I’ve recounted above. Namely, if my dialogue partner and I don’t define these four sources of truth in the same way or grant them the same level of authority, how can the conversation proceed? I can present evidence in defense of one authority or another until I’m blue in the face, but if you don’t regard the source of that evidence as valid, what good will it do?
So while pointing out the four main sources of knowledge is helpful, it merely presents us with another set of questions:
- Scripture – But whose interpretation?
- Tradition – But which Tradition–Catholic? Protestant? Orthodox?
- Reason – But which arguments, and by which thinkers?
- Experience – But whose experience–Mine? Yours?
Is there any way out of this mess? Is the certainty my Catholic friend claims to have even possible? I’m not sure, but I’ll present what I believe to be a reasonable workaround in a subsequent post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you have to say about this.