I had a plan for something much less sloppy in covering teachings that must not be lost. Apparently God did not share the same plans. Maybe by looking at Jesus’ church circumspectly, from several possible angles, we can paint a picture that will bring light to those who read.
Okay, so this post is a response to a post on Frontier Ruminations blog. I’m trusting that Ben is not going to be offended by straightforward and robust but polite disagreement. The post is titled “The Great Question,” but I want to argue that it should be titled “The Wrong Question.”
The actual video is called “Protestantism and Authority,” and it is found on Youtube.
The video is a Roman Catholic apologetic. I disagree with its premise, but I completely agree with its charges against Protestantism. How can I not? They’re obviously correct.
Hopefully, my response will direct Protestants and Catholics both to the right question.
The Great Question
“Who finally has the authority to interpret the Word of God?”
Father Robert Barron states this as the central issue of this short video at 0:52 in. On the surface this is an excellent question. I blame no one for asking it.
I just think it’s already been answered.
Martin Luther’s Wrong Answer
At about 1:15 of the video Fr. Barron tells us that Martin Luther’s answer was that because of the priesthood of all believers, we are all capable of reading the Bible and interpreting it.
Do you need Fr. Barron to tell you what his argument against this Protestant teaching is? You probably don’t. You know the problem with Martin Luther’s assertion. These “capable” Bible interpreters have come up with at least 30,000 different answers to what the church ought to be.
Oops! That didn’t work very well.
Alister McGrath’s Wrong Answer
At around 1:53, Fr. Barron then tells us that Alister McGrath’s answer (Barron is critiquing a book by McGrath) is to reject any absolute authority and rely on a consensus that gradually builds up.
Fr. Barron is apparently pretty smart because he tears that argument apart several ways. Really, though, the objection to Martin Luther’s answer is just as valid when applied to McGrath’s. There are at least 30,000 consensuses that have gradually built up. Which one should we rely on?
Father Barron’s Answer
At 2:40, Fr. Barron gets to his own answer.
We do need a voice, finally, that can determine for us the truth of things when there is this tremendous disagreement.
He adds Cardinal John Henry Newman’s answer, basically the same.
There has to be a living voice that can determine the truth of things when the church is divided about central matters.
Fr. Barron compares this to the role of a referee in a sporting event. A referee doesn’t tell everyone what to do, but when there is a dispute, everyone agrees there needs to be a referee.
This is the role of the church, he says, in Cardinal Newman’s eyes.
Cardinal Newman’s Answer Before He Was Catholic
Fr. Barron tells us that Cardinal Newman’s opinion, while he was Anglican, was that the referee, the final interpreter of the Word of God, would be the consensus of the fathers. Newman realized, however, that their voice was not a “living” voice. They had to be interpreted as well. They can no longer speak for themselves.
My Objection to Cardinal Newman
Fr. Barron foresees my objection. At 5:35 he tells us that the umpire analogy breaks down. Umpires and referees can be wrong. In fact, referees are sometimes fired because they are incompetent or biased.
Bob’s Defense of Cardinal Newman
I figured a few Protestants might be offended because I’m referring to Mr. Barron as Fr. Barron, so I threw in a “Bob” here. Now that I’ve pretended to obey the letter (as opposed to the spirit) of Matthew 23:8, I’m going to go back to being polite.
By the way, Protestants who object to the Catholic use of “father”, while referring to men as Pastor Hagee or Dr. Stanley are hypocrites anyway. Our reference should be to Matt. 23:5-12, not just v. 8.
Sorry. pet peeve of mine.
Anyway, Fr. Barron’s defense to the charge that I would make, that the Roman Catholic “magisterium” is not a competent referee and should be fired, is that the Holy Spirit shares his and Cardinal Newman’s opinion that we must have a living voice to be the final interpreter of God’s Word. Thus, the Holy Spirit would ensure that the truth given to the apostolic churches was preserved by some organization that descended from those churches, in this case the Roman Catholic Church.
My Answer to Fr. Barron’s Defense
My answer to Fr. Barron is the same answer he gave to the Protestant idea that an ongoing consensus could be the final authority on the truth. That Protestant answer clearly did not work. Thirty thousand denominations is his evidence.
The answer Fr. Barron gives, that the Holy Spirit would ensure that the truth would be preserved in the Roman Catholic Church, clearly did not happen. Numerous significant false doctrines are my evidence. Prayer to saints, the assumption of Mary, her immaculate conception, a philosophy of leadership bolstered by an invented history, a priesthood class in the church, and so many more.
It is a nice theory that the Holy Spirit would preserve truth in the Roman Catholic Church, but the proof is in the pudding. Bad fruit does not come from a good tree. If the fruit is bad, make the tree bad.
I think the right question makes it clear that the wrong question leads us to the wrong tree.
The Right Question
Jesus said that a true prophet would be known by his fruit. A good tree produces good fruit.
The right question is not who is the final authority on the interpretation of God’s Word. The right question is:
Who is producing the fruit that Jesus and the apostles produced?
The fruit of properly interpreting the Scriptures—and thus the rest of God’s Word—is Christians who are thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Every good work includes the prayer that Fr. Barron mentioned. Jesus prayed that his disciples would be as united with one another as he is with the Father (Jn. 17:20-23). Every good work also includes love between the disciples (Jn. 13:34-35), obviously meaning a love that exceeeds typical love in the world, or else that love would be no proof of anything.
Part III: The Authoritative Interpreter of the Word of God
The authoritative interpreter of the Word of God is any church that is producing a unity between disciples that is so like the unity between God and his Son that the world believes God sent him (Jn. 17:20-23).
The authoritative interpreter of the Word of God is any church that produces disciples that love one another so much that the world knows they are Jesus’ disciples by their love for one another (Jn. 13:34-35), not by an organization they hold in common.
The authoritative interpreter of the Word of God is any church that consistently raises up disciples who are thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
What Do You Want?
If you want to be able to argue that you are joined to the right church, join yourself to people that effectively argue that they are the true church.
If you want to feel like you are correctly interpreting the Scriptures, join yourself to people that win all the doctrinal arguments in which they engage.
If you want to be a part of the family of God, united in love, sharing and being shared with, growing in godliness and experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, join yourself to people living that way.
Each one of these illustrate the truth that trees produce fruit in accordance with their nature.
I would argue that the goal of Scripture interpretation is to produce people who keep God’s commandments (1 Jn. 2:4), walk in the light (1 Jn. 1:7; 2:6), practice righteous (1 Jn. 3:7), and love one another (1 Jn. 4:7-8; Jn. 15:12).
If you find a tree producing that fruit, you can be sure it is a good tree, a true and trustworthy interpreter of the Word of God.