Several days ago I had an exchange on another blog, a Protestant blog. Overall it was a cordial exchange and I think it went well. He made his points, I made mine, and we countered each other in a pleasant way.
I want to post portions of what I wrote there because I think it is important. It has to do with the idea of private judgment, and how private judgment ends at God’s established authority. Catholics often criticize Protestants for exercising an “absolute right to private judgment,” and Protestants will counter by saying that Catholics legitimately exercise private judgment too. But each side does it in a different way, with different limits. Here is what I wrote:
It is accurate to say that I made a private judgment regarding the claims of the Catholic Church. After that, I surrendered it. I do not continue to exercise it on individual doctrines, because I believe that the Church is Christ’s bride, and whoever hears her hears him.
I may be mistaken, but it seems that private judgment means something a little different to Protestants? The Catholic surrenders his private judgment once he becomes Catholic, because God only teaches one truth and the Church is his authority on earth to teach it. I am not certain this is the case with Protestants. I say this because of the different Protestant faith communities that exist. Aren’t they all continuing to exercise private judgment on various matters? I’ve heard of churches splitting over non-doctrinal issues. Wouldn’t they claim they were exercising private judgment? At what point do we surrender our private judgment?
I am completely convinced that God’s mercy is better revealed in and by the Catholic Church than the alternatives. So yes, that is my private judgment on the matter. I don’t think Catholics are being hypocritical to “call out” Protestants for their (seemingly inordinate) use of private judgment, but they might need to do a better job explaining it? It just doesn’t seem like we are talking about exactly the same thing.
I also wrote this:
… let me take an example from the book of Acts to support the idea that Christians need, and actually do have, a final human authority to resolve disputes or contradictions, and that private judgment ends with that authority, not with the Scriptures.
Certain Christians believed that people needed to be circumcised in order to become Christians. Others responded by saying that circumcision was not necessary. Debate ensued. Those who believed in the necessity of circumcision undoubtedly had clear Scripture verses on their side. But what happened? A council was convened, and more debate ensued. Ultimately, the council decided that circumcision was unnecessary. After making their non-scripturally based arguments, they cited one rather weak verse to support their position, a verse that does not even mention circumcision. Those who favored circumcision had to make a private judgment: either comply with the council, or with their own view of the Scriptures.
Given what I know of debates today between Catholics and Protestants, I find this circumstance quite convincing for the Catholic position. Debates today rage on and on over this or that doctrine, and victory is claimed on the strength of the verses presented. Not so in Acts 15. The issue of circumcision was decided by human authority with weak Biblical support.
The issue of circumcision was decided by human authority. Peter had a vision about the gentiles coming into the Church, and there was a lot of debate during the council. Even if I concede that the council was totally following the Scriptures only, and not influenced by Peter’s vision at all (which seems highly unlikely) or anything else, it doesn’t matter. The council decided what the Scriptures meant, and those who disagreed had to make a private judgement: agree with the council about what the Scriptures meant (and change their views), or hold onto their views. They did not get to retain their previous interpretation of Scripture and remain in good standing as Christians.
The council was what enforced the issue, not the Scriptures. It should be obvious that the Scriptures can’t enforce anything. I’ve touched on this idea before here. Similarly, the NT verses discussing church discipline mean nothing if there is no human authority that has the final say.
If you want to see the entire exchange, go here.