Sola Scriptura and Private Judgment
By Jimmy Akin
The theory of sola scriptura is, of course, the claim that one should root all Christian teachings (everything pertaining to faith and morals) in Scripture alone. This doctrine was created and defined as a deliberate reaction against and rejection of historic Christian teaching.
Ever since the earliest days of Church history, Christians had held that theology must be formulated according to three principles–Apostolic Scripture, Apostolic Tradition, and the Apostolic Magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church. The first two of these provided the data necessary to conduct theological investigation while the third served to authoritatively formulate the correct interpretation of the data presented by the two material sources. Thus Scripture and Tradition served as material principles of theology, while the Magisterium, by enabling us to know with certainty the correct interpretation of this material, served as a formal principle of theology.
Because the Protestant Reformers wished to hold teachings which were completely foreign to historic Christian theology, they had to reject the historic Christian method of formulating theology, and thus could not continue to accept the three principles of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium. They had to reject the teachings of the Magisterium because the Magisterium disagreed with them, and they likewise had to reject Tradition as a source, for it also disagreed with them. They were thus left in the position of trying to formulate theology in terms of a single principle–Scripture–and thus the doctrine of sola scriptura was born.
All of this is admitted, with varying qualifiers, by Protestant historians, as it is simply a historical fact that the doctrine of sola scriptura arose later in history than the original teachings of the Reformers. The Reformers proposed these teachings to the Church and, when the Magisterium refused to change it position and reaffirmed the historic Christian teachings on these matters, the Reformers were forced to eliminate both Magisterium and history (Tradition) from their theological method.
If the Magisterium, contrary to its mission and its indefectability, had changed its position and rejected the historic Christian teachings in favor of the new Protestant ones, then hypothetically it would not have needed rejection. A version of sola scriptura might have arisen in which only eliminated Apostolic Tradition. Sola scriptura would then have meant that one was to base one’s theology on the material presented in Scripture alone but as interpreted by the living Christian Magisterium.
However, the Magisterium was prevented from endorsing the new Protestant doctrines by its indefectability in its mission of upholding the historic Christian teachings, and so such a version of sola scriptura never arose. The Magisterium, along with Apostolic Tradition, had to go and be excluded from the theological method of the Protestants.
Thus if one were today to propose a “Scripture only, but as interpreted by a Magisterium” model for theology, it would be immediately and roundly rejected by the Protestant community (except perhaps in a few small, radical sects) as being no true theory of sola scriptura at all. The term “only” in “Scripture only” must be taken not only to exclude other material principles of theology (like Tradition) but also other formal principles of theology (like the Magisterium).
But if one has cut loose the historic Christian principle of formulating the matter of theology into distinct, concrete doctrines then what is one going to use in its place? How is one to formulate doctrines if one has rejected what has historically been the formal principle? What formal principal will you propose in its place?
This was a question put by Catholics to Luther and the other Protestants, who answered that, in the absence of some group of Christians who were divinely commissioned with the task of formulating the material of theology, the individual himself must be divinely commissioned with this task. Thus the doctrine of an absolute right to private judgment–to deciding for oneself what the correct interpretation of Scripture is–was created.
Christians, of course, had always taught a right to private judgment–that the every individual had the right to think on and interpret the Scriptures for himself (this is why the Scriptures were read out loud at Mass, so that even the illiterate could hear them and think about their meaning). The exercise of private judgment was fine and wholesome and to be encouraged by all possible means so long as it was not used to reject those doctrines which had been determined by Christ’s appointed teachers (the Magisterium) to represent the authentic teachings of the Bible.
Thus Christians had historically taught a right to private judgment, but not an absolute right that overthrew the teaching authority which Christ himself set up in his Church by gifting it with official teachers, as the New Testament itself declares (Ephesians 4:11). On any area in which the teaching authority of Christ’s Church had not spoken (which was and is the great majority of areas), private judgment was permitted. It was only when a doctrine which had already been established to be true, such as the Trinity, the fully Divinity and humanity of Christ, the atoning death and resurrection of Christ, the efficacy of the sacraments, etc.–that private judgment was limited.
In order to throw off the Magisterium’s teachings, however, the Reformers had to get past this limitation, and so they asserted an unconditional, absolute right to private judgment, according to which the individual had a right to disagree and to publicly teach contrary to even those doctrines that Christ’s teaching authority had already established as true.
This was necessary as an answer to the Catholic question, “Who are you to overturn a historic Christian teaching which has already been settled by the Magisterium? You are not even a member of that body, much less the whole of it, and such doctrines can never change to begin with.” In the face of this question, the Reformers were driven to answer, “We do not need to be the whole of the Magisterium, or even individual members of it, for every Christian has the right to settle every single doctrine on his own and is not bound in conscience to accept the rulings of the teachers which, we admit, Christ intended his Church to have.”
Thus the doctrine of private judgment became a necessary component of the doctrine of sola scriptura. Scripture itself would be the sole material principle for theology, and the judgment of the individual would be the sole formal principle, as no other source could ultimately and authoritatively tell the believer what was the correct interpretation of Scripture. Any theory which said that there was a magisterial group of Christians who were to interpret the Scriptures on behalf on the individual would be vigorously opposed.
PRIVATE JUDGMENT IN PRACTICE
That is odd because, in several ways, that is exactly how the doctrine is applied in Protestant churches. Even though every member of the congregation has the theoretical right to interpret the Scriptures for himself, the vast majority of them do not.
There may, in any given congregation, be a number of theologically inclined people who make a serious study of the Bible, but the average person simply listens to the exposition given to the Scriptures in the Sunday sermon or weekday Bible study and accepts it. The pastor or Bible study leader sketches out what his view of the Scripture is, and it is not rigorously questioned by the average listener. The average person does not go out and get commentaries from opposing viewpoints, compare them to the pastor’s view, and then do a rigorous analysis of the arguments on both sides.
THE FIRST REASON WHY PRIVATE JUDGMENT IS NOT USED IN PRACTICE
This is true even in denominations which try to encourage the development of theological reasoning in their members, such as the conservative Presbyterian tradition I used to be a part of. I was in a much richer theological environment than any I had previously been in, where there was a much larger ratio of people in the congregation who were theologically alert, yet almost all of them were officers of the church in one fashion or another (pastor, elders, deacons, youth minister), and not even all of the officers were that theologically inclined. As I reflect back on the situation, I realize that I myself was the only person in the congregation who was not a church officer and was serious about theological study.
And it is the same in every congregation in Christendom. There is no “church of the theologians” anywhere, and if there were, it should be dismembered immediately so that the theological talent it included could be spread out into theologically deprived groups.
The fact that the average Christian is simply not theologically inclined is something that was realized even in my highly pro-intellectual denomination. It is a basic fact of church life, and nothing in the history of the world has ever been able to change that. My Presbyterian pastor once told me privately, and with regret, “People are sheep. That’s why the Bible depicts them as such, and that’s why it’s so important that they have a good pastor.”
This need to be led by a pastor is the “ugly reality” (from a Protestant point of view) that is papered over with the doctrine of sola scriptura. Those in leadership in every single Protestant church know that the average member of the congregation is not, no matter what they do, going to turn into a junior theologian, much less a full, mature Bible interpreter, yet they continue to make a big show of the idea that you can interpret the Bible for yourself and that Scripture should always be your first and final recourse, anything anyone else says being merely a secondary factor, a suggested interpretation for you to take into account as you evaluate Scripture for yourself.
Thus private interpretation remains only a hypothetical, a dream for some idealized Christian world, but not something practiced in this one. Sola scriptura ends up meaning that the average Christian has the right to interpret the Bible for himself, but a right only exercised in any kind of consistent manner by rare individuals.
THE SECOND REASON WHY PRIVATE JUDGMENT IS NOT USED IN PRACTICE
When it is exercised consistently, when the individual really does give his pastor’s and denomination’s teaching a rigorous analysis, he is likely to find out that his previous theological sloth is not the only barrier to his ability to exercise the absolute right of private judgment. There is a second barrier, for if he comes to the conclusion that the pastor or the denomination is simply wrong about something it considers important, then he is almost always confronted with two choices: Keep your mouth shut about this and don’t go advocating your private interpretation in the congregation (that would prompt a crisis of leadership and disturb the tranquillity of the sheep) or simply get out and take your private interpretation somewhere else.
Any layman trying to stay in a congregation and advocate a different position on something the pastor or the denomination considers important will have first subtle and then no so subtle pressure put on him to either keep quiet or leave, and if he will do neither then he will finally be expelled from the body.
And, of course, this is entirely necessary. Every group hangs together by having certain fundamental principles that it agrees upon, that form the basis of its union, and if someone insists on denying one of these basic, shared axioms that hold the group together then he must be expelled lest the group itself break apart–an all too familiar phenomenon given the multitude of church splits in the Protestant world.
(Something that always amazes Protestants when they start going to Catholic parishes is how large the average parish is–which is usually several thousand people. The reason is that parishes don’t split like Protestant churches, so there only need to be enough of them to see to the pastoral needs of the local Catholic community; the number of parishes is not multiplied beyond this due to church splitting.)
The hypocritical thing is not the expulsion of dissenters, but the holding out of the promise of private interpretation, of promoting it by continual rhetorical harping on this theme and by encouraging the faithful to look down their noses at denominations which don’t preach this principle, when in reality the promise is: “You have an absolute right to interpret the Scriptures for yourself, but we will cast you out if you disagree with something we consider important.”
“Now wait,” one may say. “Isn’t the charge of hypocrisy a little strong? After all, if a person comes to conclusions at odds with the group he is in, he can always go join another group with views that fit his own.”
THE PROTESTANT DISSENTER’S DILEMMA
But the person who has exercised the right of private judgment may respond, “But I don’t want to uproot myself from this group of people who I have known and loved over the years, among whom I was raised, found my spouse, was married, had my children, and planned to be buried, and among whom I have all of my friends. The personal cost to me and my family of uprooting will be heavy.
“Furthermore, precisely because I love these people I want them to have the truth, and I believe that in an important matter they are being seriously misled.
“And even if I did choose to uproot and go somewhere else, there may not be any group of people who share my views. Suppose I have decided that speaking in tongues is for today, that Calvinism is true, that children are not to be baptized, and that the sacrament of baptism regenerates. Where am I going to go? There aren’t too many Charismatic Calvinistic Baptist churches that teach sacramental regeneration. Any one of those teachings is a major teaching of a different Protestant denominations, but no one denomination holds my views of those clearly important issues. And even if there were a church that taught all of those, there isn’t one in my town.
“Should I then start my own church? Noooo, that would be pastorally irresponsible in the extreme. I am just a layman who has exercised his absolute right to private judgment. I am not a Bible scholar; I am not a trained preacher; I am not a pastoral counselor; I have no background in church administration and finance. I would be a complete wash as a church planter.
“So the ‘just go someplace where the people believe as you do’ suggestion is really a hollow promise for me, and my options are still ‘Shut up and don’t publicly exercise of your absolute right to private judgment’ or ‘Be an outsider to us and to whomever else you might go.’ Thus it is hypocritical of you to tell me that I have this absolute right which I must relish and treasure and guard–but which you will prohibit me from using right here in my own community.
“Furthermore, you should never speak of other communities which believe different things as if this were a normal or desirable things–a perfectly acceptable ‘release value’ for the exercise of private judgment. There can only be one set of true doctrines, and Jesus meant for us to have it. The existence of multiple, contradictory, competing sets of Christian teachings is a tragedy, a fulfillment of Paul’s prophecy: ‘The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings’ (2 Timothy 4:3). That is exactly what you are encouraging me to do–go off and seek teachers who suit my own likings. You are counseling me to fulfill Paul’s prophesy of departure from the true teachings of Christ!
“You must never speak of going and joining a group who teaches differently as if it were a matter of indifference and say, ‘Well, if you don’t like this one, go try that one’! The teachings of Christ are not matters of indifference! If you think you have them then you must do all you can to re-educate me and, if you must kick me out, you must not encourage me to think of going to another denomination as if embracing its teachings–which you claim are false–are a matter of indifference. You are just looking for an easy way out of a difficult pastoral situation! You are trying to cop out on me by pointing me toward another church!”
THE PROTESTANT PASTOR’S DILEMMA
For myself, I would counsel this person to go as easy as he can on his church leaders in his heart, as much as he has been wronged by his church in holding out to him an absolute right which he is prohibited from exercising in practice, and though he is correct in what he has said. For while his pastors are engaged in a hypocrisy, it is a mostly unconscious one.
They must preach absolute right to private judgment to guarantee their own right to interpret and expound the Scriptures in public. They have no other basis for doing this. If they concluded that the average person does not have an absolute right to interpret the Scriptures for himself, then how would they know they have this absolute right? They wouldn’t. They would be forced to go join a church led by those who have been entrusted with the task of interpreting the Scriptures, surrender their own positions of authority, and become part of the flock. The shepherds would have to become sheep.
The doctrine of private judgment is thus the thing which justifies their own positions of authority, meaning that they need to keep and expound this doctrine in theory. At the same time, they recognize that they must protect their group from being torn apart by dissent, and so they must prohibit in practice the free and public exercise of this absolute right within their group. They are between a rock and a hard place. They must teach the existence of this right to justify their own leadership of the group, yet they cannot allow others to publicly exercise this right within the group lest it be torn apart. They must only allow for themselves the free exercise of a right which they teach all Christians innately have.
Rather than own up to this horrible truth, which when stared in the face is a grotesque hypocrisy, they avert their eyes from it and simply never think about it. Thus it is an unconscious or at least mostly unconscious hypocrisy. They can spend their time expounding the doctrine of private judgment, knowing that only occasionally will someone in the congregation cause trouble by pertinaciously asserting his right to exercise private judgment. The more normal problem is rather the reverse–getting people to think about Scripture and doctrine at all, and for getting them to do that, expounding the doctrine of private judgment will actually be a help, for if God has entrusted them with the task of interpreting the Scriptures for themselves, then they certainly need to be exhorted to fulfill the task.
Preaching the doctrine of private judgment thus normally serves a constructive role in the Protestant church, as it will normally get the sheep to do devote at least some thought to Scripture and theology and only occasionally will one of the sheep try to exercise his right to private judgment in a consistent, public manner and try to usurp the role of the shepherd. And, of course, those people were just theologically uppity in the first place, right? Otherwise they wouldn’t have been such troublemakers and would have either kept quiet or left quietly rather than disturbing the tranquillity of the flock under its shepherd.
Thus Protestant pastors feel comfortable preaching the doctrine of private judgment–and even publicly and pridefully scorning those churches which don’t preach it–and seldom or never seriously think about the contradiction between the theory of this doctrine and whether it is actually possible to implement it in practice. Their hypocrisy is unconscious, making it forgivable, not open, deliberate, and malicious.
THE FIRST REASON FOR THE PROTESTANT MAGISTERIUMS
And so Protestant churches trundle along, teaching their members that they have an absolute right to interpret the Scriptures for themselves, yet continuing to function as if there is a special class of people within them–a Magisterium–to whom the task of interpreting the Scriptures for the people has really been entrusted. And, for the sake of the survival of the group, the interpretations of this Magisterium have the force of law so that open and public dissenters may be purged for the health of the body.
The typical Protestant church thus unconsciously reinvents the Catholic system that it consciously scorns. It does this out of necessity, since there is simply no way to maintain an organized, healthy group which works in harmony without having someone with the authority to determine what the group is going to do and to expel those who won’t go along. You cannot have a classroom, a work crew, a social club, or a nation without someone with that kind of authority, and you certainly cannot have a church without one. Someone in any group must be able to say, “This is what the group is going to do” and “If you won’t do it and will continually publicly oppose it, then you cannot be part of the group. You must leave the classroom, work crew, social club, society, or church.”
Since the New Testament clearly indicates that Jesus intended us to have organized churches–the claims of the non-denominational “house church” movement not withstanding–he clearly indicated for someone within these churches to have that kind of authority.
THE SECOND REASON FOR THE PROTESTANT MAGISTERIUMS
Thus we read in the New Testament of evangelists (bishops) and presbyters (priests) and deacons. We read of how the deacons are to assist the higher leaders and relieve them of duties which would take them away from the word of God and prayer (Acts 6:2-4). We read of how the presbyter-priests are to labor in teaching and administrating (1 Timothy 5:17b). We read of how the evangelist-bishops (cf. 2 Timothy 4:5) are to appoint (1 Timothy 5:22, Titus 1:5) and then discipline the presbyters, rewarding those who “rule well” (1 Timothy 5:17a) and openly rebuking those who persist in sin (1 Timothy 5:20). And, most importantly, we read the direction to the laymen to “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority” (Hebrews 13:17a) for they “are over you in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 5:12).
Thus Jesus provided for his Church’s needs, he gave shepherds for his flock. “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ . . . so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:11-14).
Because of his Church’s needs, because people would have been tossed about by every wind of doctrine, unsure what to believe and often falling into error, God provided teachers. The average person isn’t supposed to do it all alone. He is supposed to have a teacher. When we see God fully in the kingdom then the promise will be fulfilled that “no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:34).
That New Covenant promise is yet to be fulfilled, but for now Christ gave that “some should be . . . evangelists, some pastors and teachers,” and the expressed purpose of this was that “we may no longer be . . . tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine.”
Christ thus has established a Magisterium–a teaching authority–in his Church, as even Protestants recognize, for they have pastors and teachers who they proclaim to be called by God to these roles.
This is a second reason the hypocrisy that stems from the doctrine of private judgment is unconscious. These Protestant leaders read the Bible. They know all about these verses. It is clear to them as to everyone else that God intended there to be teachers in his Church, people who would teach in God’s name and who were called by God to do this. Thus they know, because the Bible says it, that there are to be people in their positions; they simply never think through the implications of this and fail to notice the cognitive dissonance it generates with their doctrine of private judgment.
THE INEFFICIENCY OF PROTESTANT MAGISTERIUMS
Christ clearly intended there to be a teaching authority, a Magisterium operational in the Christian community, and both Catholic and Protestant communities have them. The difference is that Catholics are open and acknowledge the teaching authority as an entity, while Protestants tend to downplay it and minimize it because of their doctrine of private judgment.
This kind of ignoring a function one is performing leads to bad consequences, just as any inattentive exercise of authority does, and as a result the Protestant community suffers.
Because the Catholic Church is open about the role of the teaching authority in the Christian community, it has thought through the issue, has a much better conscious understanding of it, and so administers the role much better. The Catholic Magisterium, because it is aware that its decisions are authoritative and bind the consciences of believers so they will not be tossed to and fro by doctrines, is very cautious and careful when it speaks. It uses very precise language and makes very careful, narrow pronouncements on an issue.
By contrast, because they are exercising magisterial authority in a largely unconscious, unreflective manner, the Magisteriums in Protestant churches tend to be much less measured in their pronouncements, and pastors in Protestant churches often teach in broad brushstrokes, without careful reflection and without stating important qualifiers, and tell their people they must believe as revealed by God some interpretation which merely seemed like a good idea to the pastor.
PROTESTANT MAGISTERIUMS OUT OF CONTROL
This is especially problematic in less intellectual denominations where the pastors are not given an academic training that teaches them the importance of nuance and qualifiers in teaching. For example, the man under whose ministry I first became a Christian often spoke of how he had grown up in an Assembly of God church, which was one of twelve in that town which had split off of an original, root Assembly of God church in town. The splits had been over tiny matters that were presented as major doctrinal divides. One split was caused when people began teaching that it was a sin to drink coffee. Another was caused when a teaching arose that one should not wear a tie. A third arose over the issue of whether one should wear cuffs on one’s pants. In fact, the man’s father was the pastor of the “no tie” Assembly of God church in that town.
All of this is stuff the Catholic Church Magisterium would never put up with, yet the Magisteriums of these Pentecostal churches not only put up with this nonsense, but made church-dividing issues out of them, and because people pertinaciously asserted their right to privately interpret the oracles of God, congregation-rending splits developed. Because of the absolute right of private judgment, coupled with the knowledge that you could always pull up stakes and start your own church, one original, unified congregation was split into thirteen competing bodies trying to steal sheep from each other.
Now, most Protestant Magisteriums would also not put up with the kind of stuff that happened there, but they do put up with stuff they shouldn’t, and even split churches over things that they themselves acknowledge are not matters of doctrine. Sometimes a church will split over the question of whether a new building should be built, or whether a building fund is being managed properly, or whether the new building is in the right location, or has the right architecture, or has the right color carpeting, or is targeting the right socio-economic group in the community. Sometimes a popular junior pastor or even choir director will get mad at the senior pastor, start going somewhere else, and take half the congregation with him (in fact that happened when the choir director left what had been the largest Protestant church in my home town, a church which happened to be Southern Baptist and had several thousand members).
When I was in the early stages of the research which eventually led me to become a Catholic, the full import of Jesus’ commands concerning Church unity hit me for the first time, and I began to agonize over the state of my current denomination when was the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The PCA’s sister denomination is called the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and the two subscribed to the same edition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, meaning they had the same teaching standard, yet they remained apart. The PCA thought the OPC was too stuffy; the OPC thought the PCA was too progressive. The PCA thought the OPC was too bureaucratic, forming committees for every little thing; the OPC thought the PCA was too lax about church government. Yet even though the two churches had the same doctrinal beliefs, differing only in matters of style, administration, and emphasis, they were making no motions toward and would resist motions toward union with each other. I thought, “How on earth can we, in these two denominations that have the same teaching standard, claim to be following Jesus’ teachings on Church unity if we can’t even unite with each other!”
Those two denominations were willing to stay separate, in flagrant violation of Jesus’ teachings on visible Church unity, over matters that were no longer even doctrinal, but had to do with style, administration, and emphasis. The reason, of course, was the “If you don’t like it, start your own church” mindset that in this context became an “If it would be inconvenient to merge, stay separate” mindset. This was the trickle down effect of what was originally a principle that advocated church splitting over doctrinal matters. Now it had festered and rotted until it became a willingness to split over non-doctrinal matters, and a corresponding unwillingness to merge if it would be inconvenient due to non-doctrinal matters.
THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM
For too long the Protestant world had advocated a principle which suggested that the solution to bad teaching was schism, and now it had mutated into a form that the suggested solution to administrative problems, policy disagreements, and inconvenience was schism as well. As I meditated on these matters, it became more and more obvious that such matters could never be allowed to govern decisions of whether or not Christians should affiliate. I concluded that Christ’s solution to bad teaching was not schism, but good teaching.
Yet because the practice of going into schism had become so pandemic in Protestant circles, it had generated a host of competing Magisteriums which are totally out of control and are willing to split churches over tiny doctrinal matters (as with the Assembly of God ones mentioned) or project and personality matters (as with the Baptist church mentioned) or to refuse to even attempt to obey Christ’s teachings on Church unity due to the inconvenience involved (as with the Presbyterian churches mentioned).
Each group has its own Magisterium–its own teaching authority–but because they are rooted in the doctrine of private judgment, they encourage splits and end up operating in a capricious, careless manner in rank disregard for Christ’s teachings and they actually encourage the tossing of believers to and fro with every wind of doctrine. They are the ones making the winds of teaching. Through their teaching, publishing, and publicity mechanisms they, in effect, have aimed big, doctrinal snow-blowers at the Christian world, trying to sweep as many as possible into their own sphere of influence. By generating the winds of doctrine they are acting counter to the purpose for which Christ established a Magisterium in the first place, which was to prevent doctrinal confusion and give the ordinary people safety and security in their beliefs.
I thus was forced to conclude that the principle of private judgment–an inherent and indispensable part of Protestantism–led inescapably to the formation of multiple competing Magisteriums, which defeat the purpose of having a Magisterium in the first place. Since “God is not a God of confusion, but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33), he cannot be the author of the doctrinal chaos in the Protestant world, and since this chaos is rooted in the very essence of Protestantism itself, due to the principle of private judgment, God cannot be the author of Protestantism.
He did not found his Church on principles guaranteed, by their very nature, to breed chaos and confusion. Instead, he gave that “some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers . . . so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” He set up a Magisterium precisely in order to prevent the doctrinal confusion caused by a multitude of people expounding their private judgments in public.
THE AUTHORITY OF THE MAGISTERIUM AND PRIVATE JUDGMENT
Because the Magisterium is an essential component of the Church and authorized by God, it must have corresponding authority and must be able to bind private judgments so that they do not go beyond certain bounds. Boundless private judgment is precisely the problem God set up the Magisterium to cure. There is simply no way to harmonize the existence of a divinely authorized Magisterium and an absolute right to private judgment.
There can and is a harmonization between the Magisterium and a limited right to private judgment, and this is what we find in the Catholic Church. Individual laymen and theologians can exercise their private judgment in reading the Scriptures all they want so long as they do not transgress what the Magisterium has settled. There is free reign for private judgment and opinion within the bounds of established Christian teaching. It is the crossing of these bounds that the Magisterium was set up to prevent.
This is the way in which the intellect of the individual is harmonized with the teaching authority of Christ, as exercised through his Church. God gave each individual a rational soul which, if it is not impeded, will enable him to learn, understand, and know the Scriptures and the teachings of Christ. This exercise of private interpretation is to be encouraged and fostered. People have been given a faculty by God, and they must be encouraged to fulfill the responsibility that comes along with that faculty.
But they were not given the faculty or the responsibility of building Christian theology from the ground up all by themselves. The average Christian was not given the responsibility to do this, nor the ability to do this. Not even the bishops who constitute the Magisterium have the responsibility or the ability to do this as individuals. Nor does even the pope himself have this responsibility or ability, since he is bound by all the previous decisions of the Magisterium. No one individual, since the day that public revelation stopped, has had the right or responsibility to decide all of the Christian faith for himself, not even the organs of the Magisterium God created.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE
Thus it is not the case that the Magisterium can simply decide what it wants people to teach and require them to believe that. The Magisterium itself is bound by its own prior infallible teachings and, while it can delve deeper into issues and add new clarity to them, it cannot deny what has once been infallibly settled (consequently, it never has). Thus, under the exercise of the divinely appointed teaching authority, Christian theology grows organically, not mutagenically. New depth, clarity, and context is added to what has been settled, but what has been settled remains settled, as was God’s intention from the very beginning.
There is no room in the divine plan to have Christian theology periodically scrapped and reconstructed from the ground up. That is what generates the winds of doctrine the Magisterium is to combat. It is the Magisterium’s task to see that Christian theology grows in a stable, orderly, and organic way.
There are not to be periodic “reboots” of Christian theology. If there were to be such, if the Church’s theology could so degenerate that it periodically had be scrapped and reconstituted from nothing, then the Church would not be “the pillar and foundation of truth,” as the New Testament declares it to be (1 Timothy 3:15), and the Magisterium could not fulfill its function of preventing the faithful from being blown about by every wind of doctrine. Believers could have no security that they were not living in one of the theologically corrupt times before a reboot; nor could they have any sense of doctrinal security during a reboot, when theology was hastily being reformulated; nor could they have any security after a reboot, since they would not know if theology–especially the theology in their denomination–had been reformulated in the right way.
The idea of periodic reboots to Christian theology, rather than slow, organic development into greater clarity and depth, robs the average believer, who is not a theologian, of any security his church is imparting to him the real teachings of Christ, thus making him vulnerable to competing teachings, and thus stopping God’s appointed teachers of being able to fulfill their mission of anchoring the average believer so he will not be blown about by the winds of contrary doctrinal claims.
In fact, the attempted reboots of the past have been what has unleashed these winds, as when historic Christian theology is scrapped reformulated, people do not come to the same conclusions about how it is to be recast. Thus the Reformation issued a host of new sects–Lutherans, Calvinists, Mennonites, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, and others.
And, of course, when people disagree about doctrines, some of them are going to be wrong, and heresies will be taught. When people attempt to reboot the system, heresy and schism are the inevitable consequences, just as system errors and corrupted files are the result of rebooting a computer while its software is still running. The program of the Christian Church must thus be allowed to play itself out to the end. Only in this manner can the accuracy of the results be guaranteed.
All you will do is reinvent the errors of the past that the program has already eliminated. Thus today we see heresies like Gnosticism, Arianism, Sabellianism, and polytheism reappearing in the guises of New Age Christianity, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Oneness Pentecostals, and the Mormons, all of which began as attempts to scrap historic Christian teaching and reboot the system.
THE ORIGINAL SIN OF PROTESTANTISM
Protestantism itself, of course, began as an attempted theological reboot, and by incorporating into itself the principle of absolute private judgment, it infected itself with the oldest heresy of all, the one that goes back to the Garden and with which mankind was originally tempted–the principle of the individual ultimately deciding for himself what is right and what is not instead of trusting in God to provide this from without.
In his encyclical The Splendor of Truth, Pope John Paul II writes:
“In the Book of Genesis we read: ‘The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may eat freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die”‘ (Genesis 2: 16-17). With this imagery, revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone. The man is certainly free, inasmuch as he can understand and accept God’s commands.
“And he possesses an extremely far-reaching freedom, since he can eat ‘of every tree of the garden’. But his freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’, for it is called to accept the moral law given by God. In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfillment precisely in the acceptance of that law. God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of his very love proposes this good to man in the commandments. God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather, it protects and promotes that freedom. In contrast, however, some present-day cultural tendencies have given rise to several currents of thought in ethics which center upon an alleged conflict between freedom and law” (Veritatis Splendor 35).
God gave Adam and Eve rational intellects which he expected them to use in the pursuit of truth, but he did not entrust them with the task of ultimately deciding what was right and wrong by themselves. He himself was to tell them what was right and wrong, and they were to then go and use their intellects within these bounds to apply God’s teachings.
Yet they decided they wanted to be like God and have absolute authority over what they were to believe and do, and this was what shattered them and doomed billions of human beings to hell. It was the pertinacious assertion of one’s own intellectual decision making faculties in the face of God that caused the human race to fall; it was the aspiration to an unlimited right to private judgment, to simply look at the evidence and decide for oneself.
This is the temptation of every rebellious human intellect, to prefer one’s own judgments and interpretations to those God has authorized. Newman writes eloquently of this in the “General Reply to Kingsley” at the end of his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and he explains the means that God has established to combat this original sin:
“Starting then with the being of God . . . I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. . . . The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet’s scroll, full of ‘lamentations and mourning and woe.’
“To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts . . . the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, ‘having no hope and without God in the world’–all this is a vision to dizzy and appall…
“What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer that either there is no Creator or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from his presence. … And so I argue about the world… since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.
“And now, supposing it were the blessed and loving will of the Creator to interfere in this anarchical condition of things, what are we to suppose would be the methods which might be necessarily or naturally involved in his purpose of mercy? … I am… asking what must be the face-to-face antagonist, by which to withstand and baffle the fierce energy of passion and the all-corroding, all-dissolving skepticism of the intellect in religious inquiries…. I am not speaking here of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man…
“Experience proves surely that the Bible does not answer a purpose for which it was never intended. It may be [occasionally] the means of the conversion of individuals; but a book, after all, cannot make a stand against the while living intellect of man, and in this day it begins to testify, as regard to its own structure and contents, to the power of that universal solvent [of the skeptical intellect] which is so successfully acting upon religious establishments.
“Supposing then it to be the Will of the Creator to interfere in human affairs, and to make provisions for retaining in the world a knowledge of himself, so definite and distinct as to be proof against the energy of human skepticism, in such a case… there is nothing to surprise the mind if he should think fit to introduce a power into the world invested with the prerogative of infallibility in religious mattes. Such a provision would be a direct, immediate, active, and prompt means of withstanding the difficulty; it would be an instrument suited to the need; and when I find that this is the very claim of the Catholic Church, not only do I feel no difficulty in admitting the idea, but there is a fitness in it which recommends it to my mind. And thus I am brought to speak of the Church’s infallibility, as a provision, adapted by the mercy of the Creator, to preserve religion in the world and to restrain that freedom of thought which of course in itself is one of our greatest gifts, and to rescue it from its own suicidal excesses….
“At first, the initial doctrine of the infallible teacher must be an emphatic protest against the existing state of mankind. Man had rebelled against his Maker. It was this that caused the divine interposition [to begin with], and to proclaim it must be the first act of the divinely-accredited messenger. The Church must denounce rebellion as of all possible evils the greatest. She must have no terms with it; if she would be true to her Master, she must ban and anathematize it” (Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 1900 Longmans edition, 240-246).
THE FIRST EXPLOSION OF DENOMINATIONS
Unfortunately, what Protestantism has done is to enshrine rebellious, fallen, private judgment as a dogma of the faith, and the consequences of it are manifest. It doesn’t work! The World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press, 1983) estimates that there are over 20,000 denominations in existence at present, and the overwhelming majority of them–all but a handful–have been created in the last 500 years and are Protestant denominations. That is the fruit of the doctrine of private judgment.
We are able to see, from our vantage point 500 years after the Reformation, the devastating consequences of this doctrine, how it acts like a hammer to pound and shatter churches into smaller and smaller pieces over time. However, the people of the time should have been able to foresee these consequences, and in fact they did foresee them. The Catholics of the period openly predicted the chaos which has now blossomed in the Christian world, and the Reformers themselves saw what would happen. The Reformers therefore took steps to mitigate the situation and slow the number of denominations being started.
A MITIGATING FACTOR: THE INCONSISTENCY OF THE REFORMERS
They only went to the doctrine of private judgment because all of Christian history was against them, and so they had to find a way of shucking all of Christian history and leaving only their own Bible interpretations standing. They then immediately prohibited their followers from exercising the same private judgment that they insisted on for themselves.
Typically, when they started out and were in politically precarious positions, they preached the free exercise of private judgment and its corollary, tolerance of others’ public exercise of private judgment. However, once their own positions were consolidated and they saw the chaos that the public exercise of private judgment led to, they backed off of the principle and tried to reign it in. Historian Will Durant writes:
“It is instructive to observe how Luther moved from tolerance to dogma as his power and certainty grew. Among [the 95 Theses was the proposition] that ‘to burn heretics is against the will of the Holy Spirit.’ In the Open Letter to the Christian Nobility (1520) Luther ordained ‘every man a priest,’ with the right to interpret the Bible according to his private judgment and individual light; and added, ‘We should vanquish heretics with books, not with burning.’ … [But] Luther should have never grown old. Already in 1522 he was outpapaling the popes. ‘I do not admit,’ he wrote, ‘that my doctrine can be judged by anyone, even the angels. He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved'” (Durant, The Story of Civilization, volume 6 [“The Reformation”], 420-2).
Thus in 1529, Luther wrote:
“No one is to be compelled to profess the faith, but no one must be allowed to injure it. Let our opponents give their objections and hear our answers. If they are thus converted, well and good; if not, let them hold their tongues and believe what they please…. In order to avoid trouble we should not, if possible, suffer contrary teachings in the same state. Even unbelievers should be forced to obey he Ten Commandments, attend church, and outwardly conform” (Letter of August 26, 1529 to Jos. Metsch).
Now that Luther’s own position had been secured, he was able to survey the anarchy caused by the principle he had used to rise to power–the public exercise of private judgment–and he was put in the same paradoxical position as a modern Protestant pastor, needing to preach private judgment to validate his own teaching, yet needing to prohibit the public exercise of private judgment to hold off the forces of chaos and keep the group together. Durant writes:
“Luther now agreed with the Catholic Church that ‘Christians require certainty, definite dogmas, and a sure Word of God which they can trust to live and die by.’ As the Church in the early centuries of Christianity, divided and weakened by a growing multiplicity of ferocious sects, had felt compelled to define her creed and expel all dissidents, so now Luther, dismayed by he variety of quarrelsome sects that had sprouted from the seed of private judgment, passed step by step from toleration to dogmatism. “All men now presume to criticize the Gospel,’ he complained; ‘almost every old doting fool or prating sophist must, forsooth, be a doctor of divinity.’ Stung by Catholic taunts that he had let loose a dissovent anarchy of creeds and morals, he concluded, with the Church, that social order required some cloture to debate, some recognized authority to serve as ‘an anchor of faith.’ … Sebastian Franck thought there was more freedom of speech and belief among the Turks than in the Lutheran states, and Leo Jud, the Zwinglian, joined Carlstadt in calling Luther another pope” (ibid., 423).
But everyone knows that Luther was a man of fierce temper. Surely this was responsible for his attitude and made him unique among the Reformers in his inconsistency with regard to private judgment. Right?
“Other reformers rivaled or surpassed Luther in hounding heresy. Bucer of Strasbourg urged the civil authorities in Protestant states to extirpate all who professed a ‘false’ religion; such men, he said, are worse than murderers; even their wives and children and cattle should be destroyed. The comparatively gentle Melanchthon accepted the chairmanship of the secular inquisition that suppressed the Anabaptists in Germany with imprisonment and death. ‘Why should we pity such men more than God does?’ he asked… He recommended that the rejection of infant baptism, or of original sin, or of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, should be punished as capital crimes. He insisted on the death penalty for a sectarian who thought that heathens might be saved, or for another who doubted that belief in Christ as the Redeemer could change a naturally sinful into a righteous man. He applauded… the execution of Servetus. He asked the state to compel all the people to attend Protestant religious services regularly. He demanded the suppression of all books that opposed or hindered Lutheran teachings; so the writings of Zwingli and his followers were formally placed on the index of forbidden books in Wittenberg” (ibid., 423-4).
Yes, but we are still talking about the Lutheran thread of the Reformation. Surely the detached, intellectual Calvinists were better.
“The new clergy… became under Calvin more powerful than any priesthood since ancient Israel. The real law of a Christian state, said Calvin, must be the Bible; the clergy are the proper interpreters of that law; civil governments are subject to that law, and must enforce it as so interpreted….
“No one was to be excused from Protestant services on the plea of having a different or private religious creed; Calvin was as thorough as any pope in rejecting individualism of belief; this greatest legislator of Protestantism completely repudiated the principle of private judgment with which the new religion had begun. He had seen the fragmentation of the Reformation into a hundred sects, and foresaw more; in Geneva he would have none of them. There a body of learned divines would formulate an authoritative creed; those Genevans who could not accept it would have to seek other habitats. Persistent absence from Protestant services, or continued refusal to take the Eucharist, was a punishable offense. Heresy again became [both] an insult to God and treason to the state and was to be punished with death…. Between 1542 and 1564 fifty-eight persons were put to death [in the city of Geneva], and seventy-six were banished, for violating the new code. Here, as elsewhere, witchcraft was a capital crime; in one year, on the advice of [Calvin’s] Consistory, fourteen alleged witches were sent to the stake on the charge that they had persuaded Satan to afflict Geneva with plague” (ibid., 472-3).
Thus the Reformers were no more consistent in their application of sola scriptura than modern pastors are. The leader, the head guy, gets to use his private judgment in an unrestricted manner–in fact he has more private judgment than the Catholic Magisterium, which is bound by its own prior doctrinal teachings–but nobody else does. Thus in the area a given Reformer was able to seize religious control of through alliance with the state, only that Reformer’s views were allowed. In Lutheran-controlled areas, people were not allowed to teach contrary to Lutheranism. In Calvinist-controlled Geneva, it was a civil crime punishable by banishment to publicly disagree with Calvin. When the Anabaptists seized control of the city of Munster, all residents were required to submit to re-baptism at the hands of the Anabaptists or be driven out of the city in the height of the German winter. And in England everyone was required by law to attend the Church of England and pay fines if they didn’t, not to mention the hundreds of Catholic martyrs that Protestant rulers put to death in England, Wales, and Ireland.
The Reformers not only applied these measures to the Catholics from whom they had broken away, but against each other as well, as the histories of “Nonconformist” religious movements in England show. These eventually developed into the Congregationalists, Plymouth Brethren, Baptists, and Puritans. Remember how the Pilgrims fled to this country from England due to religious persecution? Catholics weren’t persecuting anyone in England at the time; they were the chief among the persecuted. The Puritans came to America to flee Protestant religious persecution. And the Puritans only did so after their own religious-political takeover agenda had been thwarted in England.
In his work on ecclesiastical polity, the English divine Richard Hooker produced a remarkably insightful portrait of the Puritan movement and its relation to private judgment, which is here summarized by political historian Eric Voegelin:
“If a movement, like the Puritan, relies on the authority of a literary source [like the Bible], the leaders will then have to fashion ‘the very notions and conceits of men’s minds in such a sort’ that the followers will automatically associate scriptural passages and terms with their doctrine, however ill founded the association may be, and that with equal automatism they will be blind to the content of Scripture that is incompatible with their doctrine. Next comes the decisive step in consolidating … ‘the persuading of men credulous and overcapable of such pleasing errors, that it is the special illumination of the Holy Ghost, whereby they discern those things in the word, which others reading yet discern them not.’ They will experience themselves as the elect; and this experience breeds ‘high terms of separation between such and the rest of the world’; so that, as a consequence, mankind will be divided into the ‘brethren’ and the ‘worldlings.’…
“Once a social environment of this type is organized, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to break it up by persuasion. ‘Let any man of contrary opinion open his mouth to persuade them, they close up their ears, his reasons they weight not, all is answered with the rehearsal of the words of John: ‘We are of God; he that knoweth God heareth us’: as for the rest ye are of the world: for this world’s pomp and vanity it is that ye speak, and the world, whose ye are, heareth you.’ They are impermeable to argument and have their answers will drilled. Suggest to them that they are unable to judge in such matters, and they will answer, ‘God hath chosen the simple.’ Show them convincingly that they are talking nonsense, and you will hear ‘Christ’s own apostle was accounted mad.’ Try the meekest warning of discipline, and they will be profuse on ‘the cruelty of bloodthirsty men’ and cast themselves in the role of ‘innocently persecuted for the truth.’ In brief: the attitude is psychologically iron-clad and beyond shaking by argument” (Voegelin, Eric, The New Science of Politics [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1952], 135-137, citing Richard Hooker, Works, ed. Keble (7th ed.; Oxford, 1888) I:145-155).
Voegelin also notes the measures such a mindset must take to protect its interpretations:
“In order to make the scriptural camouflage effective, the selections from Scripture, as well as the interpretation put upon them, had to be standardized. Real freedom of scriptural interpretation for everybody according to his preferences and state of education would have resulted in the chaotic conditions which characterized the early years of the Reformation; moreover, if one interpretation was admitted to be as good as another, there was no case against the tradition of the church, which, after all, was based on an interpretation of Scripture, too. From this dilemma between chaos and tradition emerged the first device, that is, the systematic formulation of the new doctrine in scriptural terms, as it was provided by Calvin’s Institutes. A work of this type would serve the double purpose of a guide to the right reading of Scripture and of an authentic formulation of truth that would make recourse to earlier literature unnecessary.… A man who can write such a [work], a man who can break with the intellectual tradition of mankind because he believes in the faith that a new truth and a new world begin with him, must be in a peculiar pneumopathological state. Hooker, who was supremely conscious of tradition, had a fine sensitiveness for this twist of mind. In his cautiously subdued characterization of Calvin he opened with the sober statement: ‘His bringing up was in the study of civil law’; he then [said] with some malice: ‘Divine knowledge he gathered, not by hearing or reading so much, as by teaching others’; and he concluded on the devastating sentence: ‘For, though thousands were debtors to him, as touching knowledge in that kind; yet he [was debtor] to none but only to God, the author of the most blessed fountain, the Book of Life, and the admirable dexterity of wit’ (Voegelin, 138-9, citing Hooker, 127ff).
“The second device for preventing embarrassing criticism is a necessary supplement to the first one. … From contemporary experience with totalitarian movements it is well known that the [first] device is fairly foolproof because it can reckon [on] the voluntary censorship of the adherent; the faithful member of a movement will not touch literature that is apt to argue against, or show disrespect for, his cherished beliefs. Nevertheless, the number of the faithful may remain small, and expansion and political success will be seriously hampered, if the truth of the … movement is permanently exposed to effective criticism from various quarters. This handicap can be reduced, and practically eliminate, by putting a taboo on the instruments of critique; a person who uses the tabooed instruments will be socially boycotted and, if possible, exposed to political defamation. The taboo on the instruments of critique was used, indeed, with superb effectiveness by [these] movements whenever they reached a measure of political success. Concretely, in the wake of the Reformation, the taboo had to fall on classic philosophy and scholastic theology; and, since under these two heads came the major and certainly the decisive part of Western intellectual culture, this culture was ruined to the extent to which the taboo became effective. In fact, the destruction went so deep that Western society has never completely recovered form the blow” (Voegelin, 140-141).
So the Reformers were well aware that the universal solvent of private judgment could not be let out of the bottle, no matter how much they publicly preached that it was the right of each and every Christian to wield this absolute right. All that “Here I stand, the Word of God compels me, I can do no other” stuff had to be interpreted narrowly. “I can do not other” meant “I can do no other.” It did not mean you could do something other if you felt the word of God were compelling you. You had to do what I said because I–the leader–was the one the Word of God had compelled, and thus the whole era of Protestant religious laws, and the era of the competing Protestant Magisteriums, was ushered in.
THE SECOND EXPLOSION OF DENOMINATIONS
Eventually, under the influence of non-denominational democracy as popularized by the American experiment, the era of the Protestant religious laws came to an end in the developed world, either practically or totally, but this only intensified the jockeying and competition of the Protestant Magisteriums. Now that the local Protestant church could not compel membership by force of law, the universal solvent of private judgment was free to be let loose and all of the established denominations fell apart into smaller factions. The American Civil War was a big boost along those lines as it divided denominations along North-South lines, which is why we today have Southern Baptists, for example.
At the same time a whole host of entirely new groups was suddenly free to set up shop. Ever wonder why the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Theosophists, Spiritualists, Christian Scientists, and Seventh-Day Adventists all started in the 19th century? It wasn’t because people in the 19th century were any crazier than people at other times; it was just that now the crazies and the charlatans had the freedom to gather followers for themselves. These groups are just the survivors of a whole host of bizarre new movements that started then, and, one will notice, they are all offshoots of Protestantism, where the doctrine of private judgment was preached as one of the two supreme doctrines of the Reformation (the other being sola fide or “faith alone”).
So long as Protestants could keep the public exercise of private judgment prohibited by law, while still preaching it in their pulpits, they were able to keep a handle on things. But once there came a group of political revolutionaries idealistic enough to enshrine the principle of private judgment in the American Constitution, who then had enough integrity to follow through on the promise (contrary to their forebears), Pandora’s Box had been opened, the cat was out of the bag, and now nothing could stop the avalanche of new denominations.
Thus the vast majority of the new denominations we have not only date from the time of the Protestant Reformation, but from the time of the American Revolution, which exported its ideals all around the world, even into countries governed by common law instead of constitutions.
A MITIGATING FACTOR: THE INCONSISTENCY OF PASTORS
There is still, however, a mitigating factor in preventing the even more rapid explosion of competing viewpoints, which would cause the denominational structure to disintegrate entirely. This mitigating factor, which we have touched on before, is the inconsistency of the local Protestant pastors in allowing the public exercise of private judgment.
They retain the exercise of private judgment for themselves, but because they prohibit its public exercise in their congregations, they are able to keep the expression of opposing viewpoints in check, except for the occasional dissenter who leads to a church split. If the public expression of alternative theologies by any and all members of the congregation were permitted, the group would totally dissolve into competing factions, instead of only periodically being split, with time to regroup and re-grow after each one.
If each member of each Protestant congregation were allowed to express his theological speculations in public, on an equal basis with the pastor’s, then the Protestant denominational structure would totally disintegrate in short order and the different Protestant Magisteriums would find themselves fleeced of their flocks, lacking bodies of the faithful to anchor against the winds of competing doctrinal claims, as the New Testament says the Magisterium should.
It is thus the inconsistency of the Protestant pastors in allowing the public expression of private judgment for themselves, while prohibiting it for others, that enables the Protestant denominational system to retain what structure it has left. The Protestant pastors living today, during the second explosion of denominations, realize, in a not fully elaborated way, that it is their inconsistency that permits the group to retain its identity and avert the coming of total chaos.
In the same manner, the Reformers living during the first explosion of denominations, realized, in a more fully elaborated way, that it was their inconsistency that permitted their nations to retain their religious identities and avert the second explosion of denominations. When the national laws upholding individual denominations broke down and private judgment was allowed to be expressed on a local rather than just a national level, the second explosion came.
THE FIRST RULE OF BIBLE INTERPRETATION
The fact that the doctrine of private judgment would result in chaos was perceived long before the time of the Protestant Reformers, however. It was, in fact, perceived in the time of the apostles, when there was also an explosion of new heresies.
The word “heresy” (Greek, hairesis) means “opinion,” “preference,” or “what one has chosen on one’s own” and comes from the verb haireomai, meaning “to take for oneself” or “to choose for oneself.” In the first century it already had a negative connotation of going off on one’s own, in rebellion to the established teachings (it is used this way in Acts 24:14, where it is rendered “sect” in some translations).
In a Christian context, a heresy–a Christian heresy–occurs when a person professing to be a Christian has insisted on exercising private judgment in an absolute manner and preferred his own interpretation to the established teachings of the Church. That is the historical meaning of the term in Christian history, but this linkage between private interpretation and heresy was well understood by the writers of the New Testament itself, as they were fighting to establish a consistent set of teachings in a community of new believers who were not yet fully grounded in the faith an often reached erroneous personal interpretations (the correction of these views being is one of the key reasons the epistles of the New Testament were written).
Thus it is no surprise when we read the New Testament and find the principle of private interpretation linked to heresy and condemned. In writing about the value of God’s word, St. Peter tells us:
“You will do well to pay attention to this [God’s prophetic word] as to a lamp shining in a dark place … First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled” (2 Peter 1:19b-2:2).
Peter’s logic is clear: For the sale of our souls we must pay attention to God’s word, but as we do this the first thing we must keep in mind is the fact that no utterance of Scripture is a matter of private interpretation. Why? Because Scripture did not originate from the views of a private individual but from the Holy Spirit. And we must be warned that not all who purport to speak for the Holy Spirit are telling the truth. In the Old Testament age there were false prophets who deceived the people, and Peter tells us that, in the same way, in the New Testament age there will be false teachers who will circulate among the people and “secretly bring in destructive heresies.” Why secretly? Because they are wrapped in a cloak of Scripture verses, read according to the false teacher’s personal interpretation of them. It is the private interpretation of the false teacher which twists Scripture and results in the destructive heresy, but it is still a heresy which is secret, not open, because the heretic has cloaked it in a mantle of Scripture verses.
Peter thus warns us that we must stay away from private interpretations. Instead, we must look to the public interpretation that Christ deposited in his Church. Only in this way can we avoid the errors of the false teachers circulating in the Christian community. Peter is so concerned about it that he makes it the first rule of Bible interpretation, telling us that we must pay attention to God’s word, but that in doing so we must know first of all that no utterance of Scripture is a matter of private interpretation. The rejection of the interpretations of private individuals, as opposed to the teachers Christ appointed for his Church, is thus the first rule of biblical hermeneutics. We must cling to Christ’s Magisterium and not to our own judgments, for that way lies the way of heresy, Peter tells us.
And he warns of a time when the situation will be very bad in this regard, telling us that eventually “many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled.” In a day when there are over 20,000 Christian denominations and when the division in the Christian community has become an object of scorn among unbelievers (“Oh… You are a Christian? Which franchise?”), it is safe to say that the day Peter prophesied has arrived.
Yet people still cling to private interpretations, and some have even dared to eradicate Peter’s statement concerning them from Scripture. The force of his statement is so strong that some Protestant translations, such as the New International Version (NIV) have tried to mask it by deviating from a literal translation of the text and inserting words into the verse which do not appear in the Greek.
Perhaps the most literal rendering of the Greek is that we must pay attention to the prophetic word, “knowing this first, that every prophecy of Scripture is not of one’s own interpretation.” An acceptable rendering would be “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture is of one’s own interpretation,” but the Protestant translators of the NIV cannot bear this and so replace “is of one’s” with “came about by the prophet’s,” resulting in the “translation”: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.”
This is simply not what the Greek text says. The Greek says “of one’s” (idias) not “the prophet’s” (tou prophetou). In making this translation error the NIV does provide us with a marvelous illustration of the extent to which private interpretation can corrupt a Bible text. Here the translators have not only shown willingness to impose a private interpretation on a text but to impose their private interpretation into the text, deviating from what it literally says, and thus bringing in a destructive heresy in the most secret form of all–where it is insinuated into the words of the translation itself, so the faithful reading the passage have no opportunity to even compare the private interpretation with the actual words of Scripture, because here the private interpretation has replaced the actual words of Scripture.
This is, in fact, a regular thing with paraphrastic translations like the NIV, which also shows its anti-Catholic bias in suppressing the word “tradition”(paradosis) in passages like 1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6, where it is used in a positive sense. The Protestant translators of the NIV always want the word “tradition” to be used in a negative sense, and so in those verses replace it with the word “teaching” instead.
They thus again insert their private interpretation into the very words of the text itself and, functioning in a magisterial capacity, deny the reader the ability to compare their interpretation of the text with what the text actually says.
If they were a Magisterium authorized by God to teach the people, this would not be as big a deal as it is, but the only authority the translators have is the supposed right of private judgment and their knowledge of Greek. The latter is also a force that will inevitably lead to Magisterium-like action on the part of some Christians, because no matter what anybody does, the great majority of Christians are simply never going to become fluent, much less expert, in New Testament Greek, meaning that the actually text itself will be forever locked away from them and only mediated to them by translators.
This is not insignificant. Sometimes Evangelicals try to minimize the role of translation by saying that it does not affect any substantive teaching of the Bible, but that is manifestly false, as the very example we have cited shows, for it pertains to the very first rule of Bible interpretation itself–the first thing we must bear in mind as we are reading God’s prophetic word. What are the consequences of making a mistake in this area? Peter tells us a little later in his epistle, saying,
“[O]ur beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking … as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the unlearned and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability” (2 Peter 3:15b-17).
The price of error in how to read the Bible is one’s own destruction, and it is easy for the unlearned and unstable to do with the Scriptures, for there are “things in them hard to understand.” Thus we must again beware of the false teachers, the lawless ones who come to us with unauthorized interpretations, and be moved from our own stability in the true teachings of Christ. The need for a Magisterium is key.
At best, only a class of magisterial Christians could even attempt to apply the rule of private judgment and the “Bible only” theory to which it is a part. But for the average Christian, not a member of his denomination’s magisterial class, not one of the pastors or presbyters or Bible translators, the source of Christian authoritative teaching would have to be Bible as interpreted by the Magisterium.
This is the way it is in all of the Protestant churches, just as much as it is the case in the Catholic Church. The difference is that the Catholic Church is honest about the role of the Magisterium and does not try to hide it while preaching the absolute right (and the correspondingly enormous responsibility) of the individual Christian having to be his own theologian and thoroughly evaluate all the issues for himself.
The fact that all Protestant denominations have had, of necessity, to reinvent the Catholic model, just clothing it in a rhetoric which masks its true nature, shows that the doctrine of private judgment simply does not work. It cannot work even in theory given the learning and inclinations of the average Christian and the fact denominations and pastors actively work to prohibit its exercise; it has been shown not to work in history, by the explosion of denominations and sects when its implementation was attempted; and it is condemned in the very pages of Scripture itself. But since the teaching of an absolute right of private judgment is an essential component of the doctrine of sola scriptura (for if one looks to a Magisterium then one is not looking to Scripture alone), this means that the doctrine of sola scriptura itself does not work.
So let us cast aside the false promise of “Just-me-and-my-Bible” Christianity, let us remove the crushing burden of telling every individual Christian, no matter how poor, uneducated, or illiterate, that he must be his own theologian and that his soul hangs in the balance, let us remove the hypocrisy Protestant pastors are forced into by the doctrine as they permit for themselves a right they prohibit for the members of their congregations, and let us be honest, with the Catholic Church, about the matter: Sola scriptura, and the absolute right of private judgment which it entails, is simply not God’s plan.