Acts 15: private judgment and authority, part one

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.

peters vision
Peter’s vision from Acts 10

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.

Advertisements

For Reformation Day: Bible conundrum

I recently had an online disagreement with somebody, a Protestant. I asked her to cite Bible verses to support her position. So she did. I replied I disagreed with her interpretation of those verses. Then I asked her if I had an obligation to accept her interpretation. I also said that if her answer was yes, that I DID have an obligation to accept her interpretation, then to tell me where or from whom she received her authority to impose her interpretation upon me (and presumably upon every other Christian). Then I asked her what we should do if I disagreed with her claim about the source of her authority. Her response was that I was using an ad hominem. I responded by saying that I was not criticising her, but I was criticising her presupposition. So it wasn’t an ad hominem.

Here is the syllogism:

  • Since God is one, He does not change, and He only teaches one truth, there can only be one objectively correct interpretation of Scripture.
  • There is disagreement of what Scripture means between two or more Christians of good will. They all can see this.
  • No parties to the dispute have authority to enforce the correct interpretation, but one or more do not realize this. One or more believes that making better arguments or citing more or better Scripture verses is the way to resolve the dispute. Yet the dispute is never resolved.
  • No agreement is made. Visible fractures develop between Christians, since the parties to the dispute all believe themselves to understand the correct interpretation of Scripture (which is a tacit reinforcement of the first point above).

By what authority may somebody enforce the one and only correct interpretation of Sacred Scripture when there is a disagreement between Christians of good will?

1 Cor. 1:12 does not say, “I am of the Scriptures”

Seckau Basilika Engelskapelle Bekehrung des Äthiopiers
The Ethiopian Eunuch and Philip from Acts 8. Credit: Uoaei1 Wikimedia Commons

I wrote this post as a response to an interaction I had earlier today on my blog.

1 Corinthians 1:12 says: “Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.” (KJV)

St. Paul is discussing divisions among the Christians. I just thought of something though. None of the examples St. Paul gives are saying, “I am of the Scriptures.” If the “Bible alone” doctrine is true, then this situation would have been a good opportunity for the Holy Spirit to teach it, it seems to me. After all, they certainly had Scriptures at that time, what we now call the Old Testament. And the Scriptures are important. They are the Word of God. Many people say that are the highest or final authority. If that were true, then certainly some of the people St. Paul mentioned would have said, “I am of the Scriptures.” Why would they be saying they were of one person or another if the Scriptures alone were the highest authority?

Today, Christians will often say, “I don’t follow any person. I use the Bible alone as my authority.” This sounds just like saying, “I am of the Scriptures.” Yet there is no Biblical example of somebody identifying with the Scriptures in that way.

The Scriptures are like a Holy Reference Book, to be sure, but it is a two-edged sword and we must be careful when using it.

Asking Jesus into our hearts as an Act of Spiritual Communion

While talking to a friend on the phone tonight, I thought of another entry for the Catholic/Protestant Dictionary post.

Protestants encourage people to pray a simple prayer called the Sinner’s Prayer, and to ask Jesus into their hearts. I first did this when I was six or maybe seven years old. I wrote about that experience in my post called The OSAS pattern is present in Catholic practice.

What I didn’t mention in that post is how when I first became Catholic, I spent a short period of time with a sense of mocking or derision for that prayer. It was clear to me that it’s not in the Bible, and so it seemed like a blatent oversight that “Bible alone” Christians would encourage people to pray it. I didn’t spend much time in that mindset though. This is because at some point I realized that the Sinner’s Prayer can be thought of in Catholic terms: it is a simple Act of Contrition. And so I included this in the Catholic/Protestant Dictionary post. But I did not realize that the prayer to ask Jesus into my heart has it’s own Catholic equivelant, until talking to my friend this evening.

Catholics have a prayer called the Act of Spiritual Communion. There are several versions and they are all pretty similar from what I’ve seen. Here is one I just found on the EWTN website:

My Jesus,
I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament.
I love You above all things, and I desire to receive You into my soul.
Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally,
come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You.
Amen.

Just as the Sinner’s Prayer is a simple Act of Contrition, it seems that that the Protestant prayer to ask Jesus into our hearts is a simplified form of the Act of Spiritual Communion! At least, I think it was for me when I first prayed it as a little girl.

That makes me feel really good. 🙂