Wednesday, September 09, 2015

When I Was Done Being Astonished

Then I started to think about what was said here. The title certainly grabs one, and the title uses decidedly Catholic words like, "teaching authority," and "Church." Does this suggest that some segment of Protestants, as represented by Swain and Rishmawy, are moving toward us in the Catholic Church? Perhaps it is rather for those men to argue that the real distance between themselves and the Catholic Church is not as great as some suppose. The reader must decide, upon reflection, if a real change in the Protestant position has taken place.

Rishmawy correctly notes some measure of evangelical and Protestant suspicion of "churchly teaching authority", owing to the Protestant affirmation of Sola Scriptura and the Scripture as the "Word of God." He affirms the traditional Protestant formulations, but insists that still more could be said about the teaching authority without recognizing the magisterium, viz.,the authoritative teaching office, of the Catholic Church, or being captive to "what this means to me" in a small group Bible study. He writes, "No, many Reformed have recognized that God has given the Church in its broadest and narrower institutional expressions the task of representatively serving Holy Scripture."

Scott Swain, in the book Trinity, Reading, and Revelation, summarizes William Whitaker's answer to the question of the role of the Church with respect to the Scriptures within Whitaker's work, A Disputation On Holy Scripture, as follows:

1.      1.“First, the church is the witness and guardian of the sacred writings, and discharges, in this respect, as it were the function of a notary.” God has entrusted the Scriptures to the church for safekeeping, to guard and protect them from corruption or harm (cf. Deut 31:9; Rom. 3:2). Again, though, just because Israel was entrusted with the tablets of the covenant, that does not mean they established or authorized the covenant, but they themselves were governed and authorized as God’s people by them.
2.      2. “The second office of the church is, to distinguish and discern the true, sincere, and genuine scriptures from the spurious, false, and suppositious” (cf. 1 Cor. 14:37; 2 Thess. 2:1-2). The Church, again, doesn’t authorize or establish the canon, but it does recognize it. In other words, the Scriptural texts have their authority before the Church says so, but the Church is given the Spirit of God in order to recognize which texts possess that authority. As Swain says (possibly paraphrasing Whitaker), a goldsmith is trained to recognize gold, but his recognition doesn’t make the gold what it is.
3.      3. “The third office of the church is to publish, set forth, preach, and promulgate the scriptures; wherein it discharges the function of a herald, who ought to pronounce with a loud voice the decrees and edicts of the king, to omit nothing, and to add nothing of its own” (c. Isa. 40:9; Rom. 10:6; 2 Cor. 5:19). Whitaker’s quote is fairly clear, but the point is, the text of Scripture is supposed to be read, preached, and passed on. That does require a body of people committed to its dissemination and faithful transmission.

4.      4. “The fourth office of the church is to expound and interpret the scriptures; wherein its function is that of an interpreter. Here it should introduce not fictions of its own, but explain the scriptures by the scriptures” (cf. Mt. 13:52; Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 14:3, 29; Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 2:15). The Church is called to interpret the Scriptures and give their sense, not adding or subtracting, but attempting to humbly and simply explain the Word of God. This happens in all sorts of ways, but especially in the giving of preachers and teachers who take the apostolic message and explain it to the people of God, much as Ezra did the returned exiles.
      It's not my purpose to critique each of these points here. I would note that the Catholic Church's understanding of the primacy of Sacred Scripture as uniquely God-breathed does no violence to its understanding of revelation originating in God, but delivered in two modes: Sacred Scripture, and Sacred Tradition. The humility of the Church's guardianship answers many of the objections offered here. I commend Dei Verbum, chapter II, article 10 and chapter V to Mr. Rishmawy and others.

      Swain concludes by writing, "the church is that community created and authorized by the Word of God in order that it might obediently guard, discern, proclaim, and interpret the Word of God." Such a statement could be affirmed by a Catholic, but for the fact that "Church" is not being defined visibly. Without a visible Church, the various "institutional expressions" have no meaningful connection to one another, but are discrete members of a set. Also, asserting the existence of a universal Church is only an assertion, if the particular expressions are not actually parts of the whole. Rishmawy essentially concedes this point in distinguishing between those "institutional expressions" and the Church in its "broadest" sense. The universal Church is invisible, according to Rishmawy. In terms of authority, then, the particular communities exercise some authority; the universal Church cannot, for it is only a mental construct. Even the particular communities have only a pretense of authority, since any individual may challenge and refuse submission to any particular body, on the basis of "Scripture." Sola Scriptura remains at bottom the primacy of individual interpretation, and any hope of institutional control or authority is illusory, having accepted the premise. "Solo Scriptura" cannot be distinguished in a principled way from Sola Scriptura, and as a result, the old dispute and its contours remain unchanged.

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