In the final analysis it seems to me we have only two choices in matters of authority: we either take ourselves as the measure of all things, or we take some external authority.When we say that we take the Bible as our authority, in reality we don’t. The Bible does not interpret itself, and the first Christians did not even know it existed – by Scripture they understood what we call the Old Testament. If the Bible cannot tell us what books should be in it, or what the New Testament books are, then it seems unwise to assume that it interprets itself for us. In fact it was not until relatively modern times that men imagined it could do so. That is not to say that the head as no part in our faith, but it is to say that for the Catholics and the Orthodox, one’s own reason has been only a part of the way we apprehend what God wants from us: the second is the heart, through prayer, and the the third is the external authority of the Church which Christ founded.
There is a natural desire in us for certainty, but that is to be had only by personal infallibility. If we believe our own reading of Scripture is inspired, then we shall believe in our own reading, even if we attribute it to the Holy Spirit. But for those who ask with the Ethiopian, ‘how shall be we know what it means unless someone shall teach us?” – then we know we need guidance. That comes in a variety of forms. Prayer before reading Scripture seldom goes unrewarded, and good commentaries are a great aid too. But what to do if one’s own reading and the commentaries do not quite square up? That is where the authority of the Church is invaluable.
One of the many half-truths which emerge from those convinced of their own infallible reading of the Bible, is that the Catholic Church discourages people from reading the Bible. That is not so. What the does is to encourage us to read the Bible within the tradition which produced it. It is perfectly possible to read the Bible by the light of one’s own authority and go badly astray. Arius read ‘only-begotten Son’ to mean that Jesus was a separate, created being, and that is certainly a reading which one can adopt and defend, just as one can adopt and defend the reading preferred by Athanasius; how are we to know which reading is correct? Well, for an Orthodox or Catholic Christian, the answer is plain – by the authority of the Church.
Thus, one’s own reasoned reading might, or might not, lead one to an orthodox position; the same is true of the promptings of the heart, but only the balance of all three elements – head, heart and Church – can lead one to a secure rock. This is not least because the only other real hermeneutical tool is the spirit of the one’s own age. The fact is that no one reads Scripture in a vacuum. You either read it influenced by the intellectual fashions of your own age, or you read it in the tradition of the Church.