Protestant Authority

Note: much of this post is more random thoughts than coherent argument. Please read as such.

Over at Anglican Philosopher (1, 2), Sarah gets into some interesting areas.

You’ll notice, though, that one big problem emerges: What counts as Tradition, and who decides what counts? I haven’t yet figured out how to think about this. That’s partly why I don’t accept it as being authoritative over my own interpretation of Scripture.

Because I don’t place Tradition above Scripture, but beside it, it means that my own interpretation and reason counts. That means that if you present me with a claim based on Tradition I don’t necessarily have to accept it. Otherwise: reformation would be impossible. But, I would maintain, the following standard should hold:

*The burden of proof is always on the innovator.

In other words, if I disagree with Tradition, the burden of proof is on me, not on the Church, to defend the claim. Does that mean that Tradition need never justify itself? Certainly it should – it’s always necessary to defend one’s beliefs in order to help others to see why they are true. But what it does mean is that when I am deciding what to believe, I should take that as my standard.

The comments went the way of discussing Richard Hooker’s understanding of the place of the church’s authority. The main quotation I found online (in the context of defending the church’s place in authority) was:

What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason over-rule all other inferior judgments whatsoever.

The example I tried to give to make sense of this thought goes as such.

Think of a scientist. He uses his reason when the textbook is silent and the reason of others (tradition?) when his own reason is silent. But if he makes a determination, there’s still the possibility that he’s simply wrong (ie he’s not a final authority in some god-like sense, but merely in a humble “I’m giving it a shot” sense).

However, this is just a rule of thumb, certainly not a definitive process. There are situations where textbooks are plainly wrong (few Christians, I’d imagine, would say the same thing about the Bible…which is most likely why it holds the number one spot no matter what). There are situations where the individual scientist’s understanding of a topic is not up to par and thusly should not be trusted (bowing to tradition in this situation would certainly be preferable) even by the scientist himself (recognizing your own limitations is a very important, and quite ancient, principle…think “know thyself”).

So, let me push this example a bit and see what we can do with it.

First of all, we need to recognize that this is a scientist, not someone trying to apply the science (ie intellectual reading vs devotional reading?). As such, it will certainly limit the analogy.

Second, as Scripture is recognized (by most) to be authoritative in a final and rather complete way in things spiritual, it will take the number one spot always.

Third, there can be ties in authority (eg I think the sky is blue, the scientific community tells me the sky is blue, and the recognized authoritative texts state that the sky is blue). These ties are signs of something that ‘doth plainly deliver’ (as Hooker’s quote above states).

Fourth, it is possible for an authority to be silent (eg I do not discover the color of pinecones in the Bible).

Finally, I find it helpful to think of a progression of authority, not necessarily a simple continuum. The reason for this is that our maturity level affects what we’re in a position to understand and interact with. Also, our reason (which I will assume to be a source of authority) can be untrained in some ways or trained in others.

As such, think of a young child. He or she will undoubtedly rely on ‘reason’ (if you can call it that) during the first times of life. However, this untrained reason will obviously fall short of the mark. This is when parents can act as teachers to help train the child’s reason. Obviously, the parent’s own reason can be flawed, but at this point in time, those flaws are negligible compared to that of the child. This…

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