By What Authority?

    What can replace infallible Tradition?

  1. The issue of whether the Church and its Tradition is an infallible authority is at the heart of the divide between Protestant and Catholic ecclesiology. I have argued elsewhere that the infallibility of the Church will be found at the Eschaton and that everything which happens in the meantime must be provisional if the eschatological Church is not to be robbed of its unique position (see Perfectible: Infallible in the End). That is not to oppose the temporal and eschatologigal dimensions of the Church, but to recognise that we cannot now pre-empt what we will know better at the End. However, to argue for the provisional nature of current Tradition is only half of the matter. For there remains the question for those who have always relied on the Tradition as an ultimate source of authority, of what could possibly replace it, could it not be sustained. For though the Catholic view of Tradition may be untenable, without an alternative basis for truth, the consequences of abandoning it present a strong practical deterrent. So here I hope to address this concern by looking at what might provide an alternative foundation for understanding faith in a provisional-tradition Church.
  2. Scripture

  3. The obvious alternative to Tradition as the ultimate authority is the Scriptures. Indeed, many would maintain that the Scriptures are the ultimate authority for Christian faith, even if, in practice, they find another authority ruling their interpretation. Before going any further, to avoid misunderstanding, I think we must stop to consider the relationship between Tradition and Scripture, because presuppositions could easily trip us up here.
  4. For some, Tradition is understood as including all General Revelation, including the Scriptures, which are understood as the most authoritative, God-breathed part of the Tradition. Others regard Tradition as separate from the Scriptures, which alone are authoritative because of their divine inspiration. For these, only Scripture can be regarded as Revelation. These two perspectives, broadly identifiable as the Catholic and Evangelical positions, need to be kept in mind. Both positions would accept the need for Scripture to undergo interpretation before it can be applied to the questions of the day, and Reason and Tradition would both be seen as having a rôle in that. There is a third position, sometimes called the Fundamentalist, which maintains that Scripture needs interpretation only when the ‘book’ (irrespective of what kind of document it actually might be, Fundamentalists seem, in my experience, to regard everything as a book) falls into the genres of poetry or prophecy. Narrative books are treated as history and the New Testament letters as instructions, and both are read more or less literally. Of course, this is a crude oversimplification, and there are many variations on these positions, but it can serve us as a starting point for considering the various approaches.
  5. The problem I have with the Fundamentalist approach is that its adherents are unwittingly viewing both Scripture and Tradition through modern culturally-conditioned lenses which distort what they see. When the Reformers insisted on the plain meaning of Scripture they were not, on the whole, denying the need to apply hermeneutical methods and study to understanding it. If so, they would not have approved of sermons. Rather, they were opposing some of the rather obscure (and to modern minds esoteric) spiritualising practices which are often associated with the Middle Ages. (Actually, there is a fine example of allegorical interpretation in the letter to the Galatians 4.22ff, so it may not be such a Mediaeval innovation as we might like to think.) They were pointing out that, whatever might usefully be understood from Scripture by way of typology or analogy, the primary intention of the writer would be expected to be found in the straightforward logic of the words themselves. Therefore, the plain meaning is not what the words might mean to an uninformed reader conditioned by cultural expectations alien to the writer. Rather, it is what the plain meaning would have been to a contemporary reader. Moreover, that plain meaning would have to include allowance for the genre of the work, and any subtleties, such as irony, which a contemporary reader might have detected.
  6. Inasmuch as Fundamentalists fail to take account of such factors they fail to read the real Scriptures. Unfortunately, because many Christians lack the time to gather the necessary background knowledge, they are vulnerable to Fundamentalist interpreters whose arguments are immediately accessible. This is not an inconsequential academic nicety. I am quite convinced lives are being lost in the Middle East as a result of poor Biblical exegesis in the American Middle West, and the effect that has on American public opinion and foreign policy. It follows that the Church has a duty to proclaim sound Biblical teaching, using the best resources available to discern what that is, in order to balance such misinformation.
  7. There is an obvious problem of discerning what the plain meaning would have been in a culture which has passed into history. In fact, as historical documents do not cover every detail of life, past cultures tend to pass not so much into, as beyond, history. Accessing the past is highly problematical. For this reason, it is clear Biblical interpretation can never be an exact science, and there will always be room for different opinions and revision as new information emerges or is recognised in a new way. Moreover, this is only one area of difficulty. I have not addressed legitimate divergences or ambiguities which might have struck contemporary readers, or the manner in which what was once plain should be applied in our changed context. These are clearly areas for study, but it should be obvious, if we consider the problems, that study will only yield intelligent guesses.
  8. A final aspect of the problem is that the authority and definition of Scripture is not straightforward. A clear, direct statement of Scriptural authority can be found in II Timothy 3.16, but this brings us up against two problems straightaway. Firstly, as a logical basis for authority, any argument from a Scriptural statement is clearly circular, so it cannot stand by itself. It has to be received or rejected as a matter of faith. Faith then becomes a prior authority (cf Heb 11.1); although it can enter the circle by submitting itself to Biblical authority, it cannot escape the circularity. The second problem is that the Biblical statement predates both the Hebrew canon and the Christian New Testament one. This means that, to the contemporary reader, Scripture was a concept with undefined limits. We have a statement of principle, but it is clear Timothy would have to use his judgement in deciding how applicable a particular text was and whether to consider it Scripture for the purpose in hand.
  9. The canon of Scripture was defined by the Church before Jewish scholars settled on their own. The result was that the Church accepted a number of books and fragments (known as the deutero-canonical books or Apocrypha) which were not to end up in the Hebrew Bible. The Reformers revisited this issue and took the view that the Jews were guardians of the Old Testament and therefore the Christian canon should be brought into line with theirs. The result is that Christians now have two canons of Scripture, both depending for their definition on decisions taken in the past by the Church. Whichever canon one accepts can only be as infallible as the Tradition which defines it. So without an infallible Tradition we have to recognise the definition of Scripture cannot be infallibly either. The Scriptures may still have ultimate authority, but we cannot quite be sure what they are!
  10. Yet should this worry us? Should it not rather encourage us, by reassuring us we are not pursuing an illogical position blind to its flaws? For what it is worth, I believe God does nothing without significance, and perhaps he has allowed us to have two canons in order to prevent us becoming over-confident about our ability to reach the fullness of truth in this life. Doubt over something as fundamental as the canon may serve to remind us of our limitations, and of the provisionality of our present knowledge on this temporal stage of our journey into all truth.
  11. Tradition

  12. Tradition is inescapable. Everyone who tries to understand their faith does so within a tradition, whether that is the tradition of their contemporary society, of their peer group in theology, of their worshipping community, or even of scepticism towards these. This immediately raises two questions: which tradition governs an interpreter’s understanding, and is Tradition an authority or an impediment to true understanding?
  13. It is essential to recognise the source of a tradition in order to understand how it influences, and indeed how it should influence, an understanding of faith. Inasmuch as an unrecognised tradition operates subconciously, it impedes understanding, because it prevents appreciation of all the factors influencing the conclusion. In order to aid understanding it is essential all contributing factors are themselves understood.
  14. Not all sources will be equally useful, because sources will vary in relevance and their underlying authoritative basis. These need to be evaluated carefully if they are to aid, rather than hinder, interpretation. Any special claim to authority deserves particular attention, first of all to establish its validity, and then to consider how it affects application. Even if such a special claim is rejected that does not necessarily invalidate the tradition itself, though it might alter the way it is applied. Tradition will always be a witness to itself, and that may still be relevant and need to be taken into consideration, even in the absence of any particular authority.
  15. The special claim to authority of Roman Catholic ecclesiastic Tradition rests on itself and interpretations of Scripture (e.g. Matt 16.18, Jn 16.13, Jd 3) which are accepted only within and according to that Tradition. This makes the argument circular, just as for Scripture above, and therefore it can only be accepted as an act of faith for the same reason. However, I have argued elsewhere that belief in an infallible Tradition poses serious problems with regard to its own internal integrity and also to the essential core of Christian belief accepted both within the Tradition and outside it. Therefore, belief in an infallible Tradition imposes an obstacle to Christian unity and credibility, in a way belief in the ultimate authority of Scripture (with the caveats above) does not.
  16. This is not to deny a rôle to Tradition in combatting the prejudices of our own age. By giving us historical insight into interpretation, and especially to near-contemporary interpretation of Scripture, it undeniably aids our understanding of the changed environments in which interpretation has operated throughout the history of Christian faith. Thus it helps us guard against repeating the mistakes of the past, or being misled by past understandings distorted by changed perspectives.
  17. Reason

  18. Reason is sometimes proposed as a third approach to theological authority. God gave us minds, the argument goes, in order that we can use them, and we should use them in the search for truth. Furthermore, it can be pointed out that whenever we try to interpret either Scripture or Tradition, Reason is the tool we employ. In that sense, it is argued, Reason is above Scripture and Tradition, because they must bow to its judgement. Therefore, the real authority is Reason, and it is all we really need to understand our faith.
  19. The fallacy here is that Reason’s superiority stems from its use in relation to Scripture or Tradition. It is a tool, or a process, which needs an object on which to operate. Isolated from that object it can have no superiority because it has no relationship with it at all. Moreover, its superiority is only a subjective one, because its function lies purely in the epistemological sphere of the reasoner, and can endure only within the reasoner’s mind. It does not operate on any external reality, but only on the model of that reality contained in the mind. As computer programmers would put it, arguments are passed to Reason by value rather than reference. It would be a mistake to think Reason has the power to alter what actually exists.
  20. In fact, because all information humans receive is filtered through our minds, we have no ultimate basis for knowing the truth about anything. This can lead to a view that ontological reality, being unknowable, is unimportant, and subjectivity is all that matters, resulting in a hedonistic philosophy where my experience is the paramount arbiter of value. Such self-centred thinking is clearly recognisable in the way many live their lives, but it contains numerous flaws.
  21. Firstly, something is not necessarily unimportant because it is unknown; people were killed by bacteria long before we knew what they are. Secondly, anything which is beyond my knowledge does not cease thereby to be real. Thirdly, ultimate truth may be unknowable, but what we receive through our senses might be a fair approximation. Indeed, every time we walk along a cliff-top, drive a car, or even get out of bed, we rely upon it being so. Otherwise, if the layout of our houses were not as we perceive it, many of us would start the day by falling down the stairs or walking into a wall!
  22. From a simple practical viewpoint, most of us proceed on the basis we can trust our experience most of the time, and that care in how we interact with reality is necessary if we are to continue to experience it. In other words, we assume the hazards we avoid in the outside world are not just subjective constructions of our minds, but real dangers which could kill us if we fail to respect their reality. Moreover, a person who refused to believe that say, a train was real, and proposed to jump in front of it to demonstrate that belief, would be considered to be deluded, and detained for his or her own safety.
  23. Can Reason be applied in the absence of an object and, if so, what value would it have? Whilst I am open to contradiction if a philosopher could show me otherwise, I am inclined to think that the applicability of the product of Reason is directly related to the object to which the Reason is applied; that is, Reason will only directly inform us about the matter under consideration. If that were true it would mean Reason without an object would be valueless, since its conclusions would apply to nothing. However, that depends on an unproven proposition, albeit one which seems intuitively likely. It is difficult to see how one can reason without something to reason about.
  24. It also seems possible that where Reason is applied purely subjectively, it is really being applied reflexively; that is, the subject is providing the object in the form of a conjectured proposition. However, I am indulging in thought-provoking speculation here.
  25. To return to faith, Reason applied to faith needs some basis for believing faith to be reasonable, otherwise it is simply dealing with a fiction of the reasoner’s creation, and there is no basis for accepting that. Therefore Reason can only make a contribution where there is some authority for it to consider, and in the absence of such an authority it ceases to be one itself. Reason, therefore, cannot replace another source of authority, as it needs such a source to act upon. Any attempt to use it in that way is to let go of reality and replace faith with fantasy.
  26. However, if Reason cannot replace other authorities, it is still true that it is the means by which such authorities are evaluated and understood and, to that extent, it is a supreme authority in the subjective sphere, though that supremacy is a product of our human limitations. For while Reason seems supreme to us, that is only because it is an essential intermediary in our understanding of what we cannot know directly.
  27. This subjective supremacy is potentially misleading, because it elevates the human experience above the thing experienced, and can lead to an anthropocentric culture. In many ethical spheres such anthropocentrism can be dangerous, leading to relativistic and pragmatic approaches which lose sight of absolute truth. The last century was full of examples of such pragmatism in totalitarian states, and the principle continues today in utilitarian approaches to human rights (e.g. Guantánamo Bay, and the creation of human embryos as research material, with no prospect of growing to their potential maturity).
  28. A more logical response to this subjective supremacy of Reason is to understand it as evidence of the human limitation which separates subjectivity from the underlying, but unknown, objective reality. Far from elevating human experience, we should be humble about it, for we do not yet know everything and our knowledge is uncertain and fallible.
  29. Moreover, although Reason is unable to escape the prison of subjectivism into which its object is mediated, it is in itself evidence of the existence of an objective reality, as René Descartes observed (A Discourse on Method - Part IV). The existence of Reason requires a reasoning subject, and although there is room to argue over the nature of that subject and its precise relationship with its subjective consciousness, there is no room to doubt that subject as necessarily representing something objectively real. If Descartes were over-simplistic in regarding thought as proof of his own existence, he was not over-simplistic in recognising that thought is only possible if something exists. Thought itself is something, and if an activity is going on, it must be happening in some sort of reality. Reality must therefore exist in the objective sense to provide a ground of being for Reason.
  30. Belief in an absolute reality thus becomes inescapable, even though contact with that reality is necessarily mediated through our imperfect and provisional senses. We can only know, as St Paul recognised, in part (I Cor 13.9). Relativistic understandings of reality are therefore not a viable alternative to infallibility. Rather the alternative to infallibility must be a confident, but humble assertion that there is an ultimate truth to be sought; humble because of our human limitations, but confident because, as Christians, we are promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit and, providing we take care not to be complacent, we can be confident God is with us despite the difficulties we face.
  31. Conclusion

  32. Belief in an absolute reality translates in a Christian context into belief in a transcendent God, who has revealed himself as God the Son in Jesus Christ. This revealed Son is himself revealed in Scripture which is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and in any authentic memory of him which has been transmitted through human tradition, particularly in the Church. However, human frailty means that, after many hundreds of years, this latter source is unreliable and of little practical use, because there is no way to distinguish what is authentic in any human tradition, or to recover what has been forgotten. Whereas we can have full confidence in the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures and guides us as we seek to understand them, we can have no such confidence in ourselves in receiving that guidance.
  33. Scripture testifies to both Christ’s appointment of the twelve Apostles (Luke 6.13) and their appointment of other leaders (Acts 1.23-26, 6.3-6, 14.32, Tit 1.5). (It is fair to mention that St Matthias is never found again in Scripture and it could be argued that St Paul, who was emphatic that his Gospel came directly from God without human transmission [Gal 1.11f], was the true heir to Judas’ vacant seat. So possibly we should exercise a measure of caution over understanding the means of appointment and transmission from these passages.) Other passages mention leaders within the Church (e.g. I :Tim 3.1-13, Heb 13.7,17, Jas 5.14, I Pet 5.1). It is clear, therefore, that it is God’s will that his Church should be led by human pastors. Moreover, such authority is a gift from God, and those who exercise if are both gifted and called to do so (I Cor 12.28).
  34. It is not surprising that a Church which stands for an absolute reality should have an ordered authority within it, but it is essential that such an authority, if it is to exercise its ministry correctly to the service of the whole, understands its true nature in relationship to the truth and community it serves. Failure to do so will result in failure of that ministry and the Church becoming impoverished through loss of the effectiveness of God’s gift.
  35. This may happen through the leadership becoming over-confident and exercising lordship of the kind our Lord warned us against (Mk 10.43-45), thus losing the distinctive savour of Christian leadership (cf Matt 5.13), through a converse failure to exercise leadership, or through rejection of that leadership, all of which may result if the proper view of Christian authority is obscured.
  36. Without an authoritative structure the Church is unable to present a united call to the world to respond to the challenges Christ imposes, and similarly unable to respond in a unified manner to challenges the world may issue to Christians. Fragmented responses to the world’s challenges can introduce tensions which threaten communion and undermine the concept of the absolute nature of truth, although, within acceptable limits, diversity can also provide a welcome expression of freedom within faith.
  37. Because over-confidence in the Church’s self-understanding can be as great a threat to its authority as under-confidence, it follows that recognition of the eschatological nature of the Church’s infallibility need not be a threat to the Church’s authority. Rather, it may strengthen it by making it more plausible to a wider range of opinion, and thus increasing its reception among believers. This will reduce the ability of the Church’s leadership to be authoritarian while enhancing its authoritative standing.
  38. Therefore, recognising the provisional nature of the Church’s developing Tradition could give the Church greater authority to challenge the moral and spiritual relativism of the age in which we find ourselves, and enable it to be seen to be standing up for that ultimate Truth which we see, as yet, in part, but to which we nonetheless bear witness in a world which needs to know the unknown God (Acts 17.23). It would provide a strong foundation on which the Church could interpret and set forth Revelation, assisted by Reason and Tradition under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and build a platform from which to proclaim that Revelation to the world.
  39. So, one answer to what could replace an infallible Tradition would be leadership, structure, and an interaction between Scripture, Reason and Tradition which would prevent moral relativism and enable the leadership to operate in a humble but authoritative manner.

Ken Petrie

2nd Draft
13th July 2006.
The 1st Draft of this article was published in Ecumenical Trends vol. 35 No.5 May 2006
Your Comments welcome.


Designed in the UK by
© 2001-2016
K.J. PetrieWebmaster