Monday, October 31, 2016

"you will receive no other law for your belief than that interpretation of the Scripture which seems to you the best"

I am going to reserve comment on the quotation from the title of this thread until the end of this post, focusing instead, for now, on Alister McGrath's, Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution, which I recently finished reading (link to Google Books preview).

I had actually purchased this book—along with a number of others—a few months back, but did not get around to reading it until just a few days ago. Dr. McGrath is one of my favorite Protestant authors, especially his works on Christian history (both history proper, as well as historical theology), and this book did not disappoint. If one is looking for a polemical treatment on the subject he addresses, don't bother purchasing the book; but, if one is looking for concise, objective and balanced contribution, definitely get a hold of a copy.

His introduction sets the tone (of course) for the book, beginning with some reflections on the July 1998 Lambeth Conference. From the pen of Dr. McGrath we read:

In July 1998, the bishops of the Anglican Communion met in the historic English cathedral city of Canterbury for their traditional Lambeth Conference, held every ten  years. The intention was to address the many challenges and opportunities that Anglicanism faced worldwide...The bishops gathered every day for prayer and Bible study, a powerful affirmation of the role of the Bible in sustaining Christian unity, guiding the church in turbulent times, and nourishing personal spirituality.

But how was the Bible to be interpreted...

How, many Anglicans wondered, could the Bible be the basis for their identify and unity when there was such obvious disunity on how it was to be understood? How could a text-based movement have a coherent inner identify when there was such a clear and fundamental disagreement on how that text was to be interpreted and applied on an issue of critical importance?

The idea that lay at the heart of the sixteenth-century Reformation, which brought Anglicanism and the other Protestant churches into being, was that the Bible is capable of being understood by all Christian believers—and that they all have the right to interpret it and to insist upon their perspectives being taken seriously. Yet this powerful affirmation of spiritual democracy ended up unleashing forces that threatened to destabilize the church, eventually leading to fissure and formation of breakaway groups...

The dangerous new idea, firmly embodied at the heart of the Protestant revolution, was that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves. However, it ultimately proved uncontrollable, spawning developments that few at the time could have envisaged or predicted. (Pages 1, 2)

On the next page, he raises two very important questions:

Who has the authority to define its faith? Who has the right to interpret its fundamental document, the Bible? (Page 3)

This is followed with:

The outbreak of the Peasant's War in 1525 brought home to Luther that his new approach was dangerous and ultimately uncontrollable. If every individual was able to interpret the Bible as he pleased, the outcome could only be anarchy and radical individualism. Too late, Luther tried to rein in the movement by emphasizing the importance of authorized leaders, such as himself, and institutions in the interpretation of the Bible. But who, his critics asked, "authorized" these so-called authorities? (Page 3 - bold emphasis mine.)

The above questions are repeated throughout the book. In addition to strict individualism, the issue of competing "authorities" creating fragmentation almost from the very beginning of the Protestant revolt/revolution are raised. Dr. McGrath states that, "There was no single Wittenberg reforming program, no single approach to biblical interpretation and application" (p. 65).

Is it any wonder that such problems were greatly magnified as the revolt/revolution spread from Wittenberg?

McGrath moves on from Wittenberg to Zurich and Zwingli, then to the Anabaptists; and in chapter 4, to John Calvin. Chapter 5 is devoted to England and the "Emergence of Anglicanism", which is followed by "European Protestantism in Crisis, 1560–1800" (ch. 6), and then "Protestantism in America" (ch. 7).

Questions concerning authority and interpretation continue. Chapter 10, "The Bible and Protestantism" is excellent, containing reflections on the issues of sola scriptura, translations, commentaries, lectionaries, theological works and the canon.

On page 209, he writes:

Since every Protestant has the right to interpret the Bible, a wide range of interpretations cannot be avoided. And since there is no centralized authority within Protestantism, this proliferation of options cannot be controlled. Who has the right to decide what is orthodox and what is heretical?

And just a bit later he states:

Over the years, each strand of Protestantism developed its own way of understanding and implementing the sola Scriptura principle.

Dr. McGrath has added confirmation to many important issues that have been raised here at AF. From almost the beginning of this blog, I have pointed out that the assessments of A.N.S. Lane in his important article, “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey” (LINK), raise some serious, unanswered problems for the Protestant paradigm. The following quotation from Lane's work has been published at the bottom of the right side-bar of this blog for nearly a decade now:

The Reformers unequivocally rejected the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. This left open the question of who should interpret Scripture. The Reformation was not a struggle for the right of private judgement. The Reformers feared private judgement almost as much as did the Catholics and were not slow to attack it in its Anabaptist manifestation. The Reformation principle was not private judgement but the perspicuity of the Scriptures. Scripture was ‘sui ipsius interpres’ and the simple principle of interpreting individual passages by the whole was to lead to unanimity in understanding. This came close to creating anew the infallible church…It was this belief in the clarity of Scripture that made the early disputes between Protestants so fierce. This theory seemed plausible while the majority of Protestants held to Lutheran or Calvinist orthodoxy but the seventeenth century saw the beginning of the erosion of these monopolies. But even in 1530 Casper Schwenckfeld could cynically note that ‘the Papists damn the Lutherans; the Lutherans damn the Zwinglians; the Zwinglians damn the Anabaptists and the Anabaptists damn all others.’ By the end of the seventeenth century many others saw that it was not possible on the basis of Scripture alone to build up a detailed orthodoxy commanding general assent. (A.N.S. Lane, “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey”, Vox Evangelica, Volume IX – 1975, pp. 44, 45 – bold emphasis mine.)

And back in Nov. 2009, I posted the following from yet another Reformed author:

Unlike modern Evangelicalism, the classical Protestant Reformers held to a high view of the Church. When the Reformers confessed extra ecclesiam nulla salus, which means “there is no salvation outside the Church,” they were not referring to the invisible Church of all the elect. Such a statement would be tantamount to saying that outside of salvation there is no salvation. It would be a truism. The Reformers were referring to the visible Church…The Church is the pillar and ground, the interpreter, teacher, and proclaimer of God’s Word…The Church has authority because Christ gave the Church authority. The Christian who rejects the authority of the Church rejects the authority of the One who sent her (Luke 10:16). (Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, pp. 268, 269.)

Clearly, the questions of individual interpretation and authority outside the Bible itself raised by Dr. McGrath are/were also on the minds of Lane and Mathison.

And so, with all this in mind, I shall ask: how does one determine which interpretation of the Bible is the correct one? And further, is there an authority in place which/who has the approval from God himself to provide the correct interpretation of His Word?

Now, back to the opening quotation/title of this thread:

"you will receive no other law for your belief than that interpretation of the Scripture which seems to you the best"

This quotation is from Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy (page 3, of Mackey's English trans., third edition, 1909 - PDF version available online HERE).

For anyone who has ever pondered over the questions raised by Dr. McGrath, I sincerely believe that you owe it to yourself to read de Sales thoughtful answers.

Grace and peace,