A Very Bad Answer to a Very Important Question
I recently had a discussion with a Protestant friend of mine on the issue of authority. One of the questions I asked this particular Protestant friend was: “who determines what is an essential doctrine?” The answer I received was: “long story short. I do.” This is a perfect example of pure, unadulterated individualism at its worst and it is typical of many Protestants. It is a very problematic answer to say the least because if each individual person who claims the name of Christ has the authority to determine what is and what is not an essential doctrine then the result is chaos. An Arian would claim, based on their interpretation of Scripture, that it is essential to believe Christ is not fully God or consubstantial with the Father. A Donatist would claim, based on their interpretation of Scripture, that it is essential to believe the moral character of the Priest determines whether or not a sacrament is valid. A Protestant, based on their interpretation of Scripture, would say justification by faith alone, as they understand it, is an essential doctrine. Many more examples could be conjured up and this could go on ad nauseum since when it comes to Scripture there are “as many interpretations as their are interpreters” (St. Vincent of Lerins).
Individualism Leads to Chaos
The view that each individual determines what is and what is not an essential doctrine not only results in chaos, but it is a very dangerous view. Based on this view, a person who determines that the dignity of human life from the moment of conception is not essential to the Christian faith cannot be rebuked. After all, if each individual determines what is an essential doctrine and one particular person determines that abortion does not conflict with any essential doctrines, then how could they ever be rebuked and told their understanding of Scripture is false? Based on this view every person could do what is right in their own eyes. It is just this sort of individualistic mentality that results in Christians compromising on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, contraception, divorce and so forth.
A Shortsighted Answer
There are not only dangers that result from the view that each individual determines what is essential to the Christian faith and what is not but such a view seems to be a very shortsighted answer because it does not address how one knows they have been given the authority as an individual to determine what is and what is not an essential doctrine. How does the one know one is not usurping the role and authority Christ has given to another by taking it upon oneself to determine what is and what is not essential to the Christian faith? Surely one should not simply assume they have given this authority, especially in light of what God did to those who attempted to usurp authority in the Old Testament (Numbers 16).
An Alternative to Individualism
Is there an alternative to the view that each individual determines what is and what is not essential to the Christian faith? Yes! What is this alternative? The oral tradition of the Apostles as understood by the Catholic Bishops, the successors of the Apostles. When the Gnostics of the second century claimed Christ did not have a human body but only appeared to be human, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the disciple of Polycarp (who himself was the disciple of the Apostle John), refuted the Gnostics by claiming that their view was not consistent with the oral tradition that was passed down from the Apostles to the present Bishops of the Catholic Church. St. Irenaeus wrote:
“In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical Tradition from the Apostles, and the preaching of the Truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same life-giving faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the Apostles until now, and handed down in truth.” St. Irenaeus, “Against All Heresies,” c. 180 A.D.
“When we refer them to that tradition which originates from the Apostles, which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the churches, they object to Tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but than even the Apostles.” St. Irenaeus, “Against All Heresies,” c. 180 A.D.
“Therefore, it is within the power of all in every church who may wish to see the Truth to examine clearly the Tradition of the Apostles manifested throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to reckon up those who were instituted bishops in the churches by the Apostles, and the succession of these men to our own times…. For if the Apostles had known hidden mysteries…they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men.” St. Irenaeus, “Against All Heresies,” c. 180 A.D.
“It behooves us to learn the Truth from those who possess that succession of the Church which is from the Apostles…” St. Irenaeus, “Against All Heresies,” c. 180 A.D.
Considering the words of St. Irenaeus, how can one know what is the true interpretation of Christ’s message? One can know by the oral traditions that have been passed down from the Apostles to their successors, the present Bishops of the Catholic Church. It is the Bishops who have been given the authority to determine what is the true understanding of Christ and his message, what is essential to the message of Christ and what is not. We even see this in Scripture itself in Acts 15. When the controversy over whether or not gentiles had to be circumcised in order to saved began, the Apostles and elders assembled in council in the city of Jersualem and the Holy Spirit spoke through them (Acts 15:28) and guided them to determine whether or not circumcision was consistent with the message of Christ. Once their decisions was made it was binding on all Christians, as can be seen in the Book of Galatians, and no individual’s personal interpretation of Scripture could overturn this decision (see here for a very interesting article about the issue of authority and the council in the Book of Acts written by Jason Stewart at Called To Communion).
To conclude, Christ has not left us in chaos where each individual is required to determine what is and what is not essential to the Christian faith. Christ has given us oral traditions that have been passed down through the Apostles down to the present Bishops. Christ has also given us the gift of the Holy Spirit who speaks through the successors of the Apostles and guides them to determine what is consistent with the teachings of the Apostles and what is not, what is essential to the faith and what is not. Just as the Gnostic teaching that Christ did not have a body was foreign to the oral tradition we received from the Apostles, so is the view that each individual determines what is essential and what is not essential to the Christian faith. Without embracing the Catholic alternative to Protestant individualism, the result is chaos, which ultimately prevents the full reunion of Catholics and Protestants at this present time.
May the Lord convict the hearts of Protestants to turn away from their personal interpretations of Scripture and turn to the Bishops Christ has placed in authority over them for the sake of the unity of His Church. In nomine Patris et fillii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.