I got to thinking about the need for authority when I read the other day that Mark Driscoll, the often controversial pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, had caused a stir recently by accusing several prominent figures in the Emerging Church movement -- namely, Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell -- of espousing heretical beliefs. (You can listen to Driscoll's talk from the Southeast Baptist Theological Seminary's Convergent Conference here.) My question is this: Heretical by whose standards?
The point of this post is not to agree or disagree with Driscoll's specific conclusions about the hereticalness of certain individuals; rather, I will argue that, apart from the teaching authority conferred upon the Catholic Church by God, there is no solid ground on which to base a meaningful, objective understanding of what theological orthodoxy and heresy even are.
Many non-Catholic Christian readers are probably ready to call me a heretic right about now. "What's he talking about, 'no solid ground'?" they're thinking. "There's the Bible, and don't forget, 'All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness'!" To which I, as a Catholic, reply, "Amen!" But that's not the end of the story.
It's a little-known fact that the Catholic Church has quite a high opinion of Scripture. Consider these two passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which might be reassuring to other Christians:
"God is the author of Sacred Scripture. 'The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.'" (CCC 105, quoting Dei Verbum)
"The inspired books teach the truth. 'Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.'" (CCC 107, quoting Dei Verbum)
The Catholic Church strongly believes, has always believed, and will always believe that the Bible contains the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Thus, she takes it seriously when the Bible gives us a word of warning, as it does in this verse written by Peter concerning the letters of Paul: "There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16). Interpreting the Bible is serious business.
One of my favorite professors at Harvard was the Reverend Peter J. Gomes, a Baptist minister who claimed the distinction of having the longest title in the University ("Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church"). The recurring theme of his course The Christian Bible and Its Interpretation, which he repeated again and again in his inimitable, affected pseudo-British accent was this: "To read is to interpret."
We cannot help but interpret the Bible when we read it, and the Catholic Church is concerned that we interpret it correctly and not twist it (even inadvertently, in good faith) to our own destruction. The Catechism states:
"'The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.' This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. 'Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.' Mindful of Christ's words to his apostles: 'He who hears you, hears me,' the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms." (CCC 85-87, quoting Dei Verbum)
"It is the task of exegetes to work . . . toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God." (CCC 119, quoting Dei Verbum)
It may seem the height of arrogance and presumption for the Catholic Church to claim the exclusive authority and ability to interpret Scripture authoritatively, but its position is actually one of supreme humility. The Church understands that by human ability alone no one could ever plumb the depths of the meaning of Scripture -- the Bible itself says that "no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation" (2 Peter 1:20) -- but that true understanding can only be achieved through the power of the "the Spirit of truth," who Jesus promised would guide the Church "into all the truth" (John 16:13). Indeed, Paul referred to "the church of the living God" as "the pillar and bulwark of truth" (1 Timothy 3:14-15).
The Church's divinely conferred ability to authoritatively interpret the Bible is necessary because the Bible's meaning is not always as crystal clear to us as most would like. The texts of Scripture can be subjected to a variety of interpretive methods which lead to a multitude of conclusions (sometimes diametrically opposed to each other) on a number of important issues. It is almost a cliche to note that in the 19th century American slaveholders used their interpretation of the Bible to defend the institution of slavery, while abolitionists used their own interpretation of the Bible to condemn it. Similar scenarios continue to the present day.
It seems to me that, apart from the interpretive authority of the Catholic Church, most issues of biblical interpretation boil down either to personal opinions, preferences, and presuppositions or to the temporary consensus of the majority. And that's fine, if all you care about is feeling good on a superficial level. If you are so inclined, you can artfully interpret Scripture such that it seems to affirm pretty much any personal belief you hold or practice you engage in. It's really not that hard, and it also means you never have to change your life, unless you decide you want to, at which point you can also change your interpretation of Scripture.
But if you believe that there is such a thing as Truth, and you believe that God has truly spoken to us in the words of Scripture, then it would seem logical that you would want to have the true understanding of Scripture as God meant us to have it, and not just your own fallible interpretation.
Now, it seems pretty clear to me that, for whatever reason, God has not chosen to guide each individual person who reads the Bible to a full and correct independent interpretation of it. This is obvious from the fact that when two honest, faithful people sit down to read the Bible, they often come to wildly divergent (and sometimes mutually exclusive) conclusions about what it means. Now, if we believe in the existence of objective Truth, we must conclude that at least one of these people is mistaken in their interpretation; and if we don't believe in objective Truth, then what are we wasting our time talking about the Bible for?
The fact that there is such a thing as objective Truth, and that the Bible is concerned with that Truth, is the reason that an authoritative interpretation of the Bible is so essential. The Bible deals with the most important subjects imaginable: who we are, who God is, and how we can know Him and share eternal life with Him. Those are questions we don't want to screw up on, and God doesn't want us to screw them up either. That's why He's given us a Church that He has promised to guide into all truth and to protect from error.
It may seem inconceivable to some that God would give the Catholic Church the ability to infallibly interpret Scripture. But why? Most Christians readily accept that God protected His chosen authors of Scripture from error in their writing; why should He not also protect His Church from error in its interpreting? Is the reading, interpreting, and living of God's Word really that much less important than the writing of God's Word?
There are about two billion Christians in the world, and if every one of them sat down with a Bible and tried to interpret it on their own, they would come up with about two billion different interpretations of it. The Bible is far too complex, far too rich, far too divine for man to solidly grasp on his own. Through our own private reading and prayer, we can indeed come to understand much of what God would have us understand in the Bible, but our interpretations will always differ somewhat from those of our neighbors, and it is an historical fact that those differences of interpretation lead to division, and that is not what Christ wants for His Church. The Catholic Church does not wish to stifle individual thought and personal study of the Bible; rather, the Catechism refers to the riches of the Bible as "inexhaustible" (CCC 129) and "forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn 'the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ,' by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures" (CCC 133, quoting Dei Verbum). The Church merely seeks to carry out the responsibility God has conferred upon her and prays that Jesus' vision for a united Church in John 17:20-21 will one day be realized: "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me."