Chalcedon’s excellent piece on the dangers of one’s own unguided interpretation of Scripture takes its title from an exchange between Jesus and the religious authorities in the Temple in Jerusalem. He had just cleared the Court of the Gentiles of money changers and those who sold sacrificial animals – we might call them “worship profiteers.” The religious establishment of the day had tolerated such behaviour, and may have in fact been implicated – it may be that some families were “taking a cut” of the profits. Jesus represented a challenge to their practices, their authority, and their whole way of thinking. He didn’t even come from the circle of high priestly families – he was a Judahite, not of the Aaronide lines.
So, they come and ask Him by what authority He clears the Temple Courts. But He doesn’t play their game. Instead of giving them a direct answer, He asks them a double-bind question: “John’s baptism – did it come from Heaven or from mankind?” Now they’re stuck. Reasoning among themselves, they consider the implications of either answer to that question. If they affirm that it came from Heaven, then they think Jesus will ask why they didn’t believe John – why weren’t they baptised for repentance. On the other hand, if they say that it was a purely human affair and not inspired at all, then the people will stone them because the people believe that John was a prophet sent to them by God.
So the religious leaders take the coward’s way out: “We don’t know.”
Jesus replies to them, “Then neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
This event has a number of lessons to teach us. It reveals that our life hinges on faith and our response to Jesus, God’s “Messenger of the Covenant” as Malachi calls Him. The religious establishment were hard-hearted and proud: they weren’t going to bend the knee in repentance with John, so they certainly weren’t going to bend the knee in obeisance to Jesus.
Human leadership is a place of intensity. When you make a mistake, if you don’t admit it, the people will hate you. If you do admit your error, you have no guarantee that the people will forgive you. You may lose all your power and authority – a leader without followers is no leader. All the good you did may perish with you, and when you cry out with a true message, no one will listen to you – and they too will perish.
“Much is required of the man to whom much has been entrusted.” This is one of Jesus’ most memorable precepts and it was passed on by the Apostles to the Church: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” (Jas. 3:1, NASB) Those who give sermons, those who write Christian books, those who lead Bible studies, those who make proclamations of doctrine – all such are responsible for the influence they have had on God’s people – ” as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Prov. 23:7, NASB).
Human leadership is ordained by God, but is also subject to God. He is Melech haOlam (King of Eternity). The Lord raises up and the Lord pulls down – He is sovereign. He turns the darkness to light and the light to darkness. Who has known His mind to give Him counsel?
Chalcedon’s choice of title taps into this problem. If it is a problem for Protestants to “be their own popes”, it is also dangerous for those who lead the Catholic Church. Of them much is required by God, and if any among them should find himself in the same position as the men challenging Jesus in the Temple Courts, he must repent and face the same risks.
Again we come back to faith and perception. This is where Bosco comes in. Bosco is known for quoting Jn. 10:26-27: “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (KJV). Christ has appointed for the Church elders, overseers, pastors, teachers, deacons, prophets, administrators etc. These carry on His teaching and ministry just as the Apostles did. However, the fact that someone bears a title does not mean that they truly minister in the spirit of the Christ. This is why Christ warns us about false prophets (vide the Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse). Earlier in Jn. 10, Jesus says of His flock, “a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers” (KJV). This is the position that Protestants find themselves in regarding the Catholic Church as an institution (but not its individual members and teachers). There is plenty in her doctrines and practices that we can agree with, but there are elements that are foreign to us, no matter how well explained, and these cause us to withdraw from “strangers”.
That is why this matter of “authority” for interpreting the Bible is more complex than first sight would reveal: it involves heart and our perceptions. It is especially difficult for people with trust issues: “once bitten, twice shy.” I’m not one of those Christians who denies the teaching authority of the Church altogether – that would clearly contradict Scripture – but I do worry when the Church is emphasised over the Holy Spirit. Such thoughts seem to neglect what Jesus said of Him in Jn. 16:13 and overlook the fact that He can speak to us directly, as in Acts 13:2. We have to remember that it is possible for God’s people to resist His Spirit (cf. Acts 7:51). Now that we are willing to see the risk of Christians becoming like Pharisees we really ought to be willing to see the risk of resisting the Holy Spirit – after all, Paul tells the Church “do not quench the Spirit” and “do not grieve the Spirit”.
Chalcedon rightly asks, “But what to do if one’s own reading and the commentaries do not quite square up?” He concludes, “That is where the authority of the Church is invaluable.” But I find myself asking, “Which Church?” As a non-denominational Christian (admittedly under strong Protestant influence), I don’t see the Catholic Church as the one true Church founded by Christ with the others as “pretenders”, “appendages”, “heretics”, “schismatics”, “conventicles” or whatever terminology you want to apply to the bloody carnage. To me this kind of mentality dismembers the Body of Christ and is in direct disobedience to the Apostle Paul’s instruction to the Christians of Corinth.
Now it could be that I’m a high priest refusing to accept John’s baptism, but equally it could be that I’m a sheep who won’t follow a stranger (or something in between?). The point is, it is not possible to answer this question without the eye of faith.
This is why I like the fact that Lutherans refer to Martin Luther as the Reverend Doctor. The use of this title puts Luther on the same plane as the Doctor Angelicus, Thomas Aquinas. And that is where Luther should be. Now, some will challenge that Luther committed sins and had some very unsavoury writings. Agreed, as a Zionist I oppose the anti-Semitic strain that developed over Luther’s life. But which of us is without sin? King David himself, a prophet who beheld the Son of God before the Incarnation (Psalm 110), was an adulterer and subject to anger. Pobody’s nerfect.
The claim that Luther is on the same plane as Thomas Aquinas makes at least two implicit assertions:
A) Luther should be treated as an important teacher of the Church: he is not some gangrenous limb that was amputated the same as Arius.
B) Luther should be treated the same as any Father, Doctor, or Bishop: a guide in the tradition of the Church, but not infallible by any stretch of the imagination – he would be the first to affirm his own fallibility.
This question of reading the Bible, then, is not simply about hermeneutics, exegesis, and historical context – important as those things are. If Protestants have overemphasised those things: nostra culpa. This is in fact a question of our relationship with the Holy Spirit both as individuals and as a body. It is also a question of ecclesiology. My contention is that God’s ministers and teachers are found across the denominations. Listening to Doctor Luther should not be separated from listening to Augustine – he is in a sense a “Pre-Tridentine Father”.
Something to think about.