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The Exegesis of the Reformers: Authority Redux

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 05, 2011

In an article in the March 2011 issue of First Things, Timothy George argued that we can enrich our faith by reviving the way the Protestant reformers read the Bible (see “Reading the Bible with the Reformers”). George is the Dean of Beeson Divinity School at Stamford University. While we do not expect him to exhibit Catholic sensibilities, his argument is not without merit, especially considering the highly technical yet fundamentally faithless manner in which too many exegetes of all denominations have read the Bible in recent decades.

The merit consists in George’s perception that, by contemporary standards, the 16th century reformers employed a “churchly” hermeneutic, that is, they read Scripture from the vantage point of a believing community, and not (for example) primarily as specialized scholars operating outside the “constraints” of faith. It is important for Protestants to grasp the importance of the community which carries on the Christian tradition, and a Catholic should not make light of it. Inevitably, however, George’s argument does raise a Catholic eyebrow, and in the ensuing discussion (in the Letters section of the May issue), three Catholics in particular raised obvious questions.

First, Stan Grove:

Either the Church is ontologically and theologically prior to the inspired Scriptures or it is not. If it is, then sola scriptura-based challenges to the Church are out of order…. To claim that “Reformation exegesis resisted the disintegrating impulse of deconstruction” invites the rebuttal that the Reformation’s rejection of ecclesial priority was itself a factor in the eventual rise of deconstructionism. A return to Lutheran and Calvinist exegesis, it may well be feared, can only amount to reentering the familiar cycle of disintegration at a point long since passed.

Second, Mark Reasoner:

How can readers accept the notion that “while in many cases [the reformers] broke with the received interpretations of the fathers and the Scholastics who came before them, theirs was nonetheless a churchly hermeneutics,” when there is no definition of the church offered and no acknowledgement of how reformers read the Bible in ways that empowered them to divide bodies of Christians from one another?

Finally, Gina Nakagawa:

The “reformers” have left behind a book truncated to suit their own purposes. When did the Bible become the “inerrant and inspired Word of God”? Was it when Holy Mother Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, finally collected and codified all the books of sacred Scripture, or was it when the reformers removed what clashed with their views and then labeled those books Apocrypha?

In his response to his critics, Timothy George was quite correct to note that the Protestant Reformers stimulated a new interest in Scripture. (After all, they claimed sola scriptura, which pointed their adherents to Scripture for nourishment and their opponents to Scripture to persuade them of their errors.) Attention to Scripture is obviously a good thing in itself and, in any case, George was also correct in noting that both Catholic and Protestant scholars took advantage of new critical editions of the Hebrew and Greek texts, and that one “result was an amazing profusion of biblical comment that greatly enriched the preaching and spiritual life of the Church.”

But as Catholics, his critics are necessarily puzzled by George’s spelling of “church” with a capital C, and one wonders if this might not be the key point of confusion in the whole business. To investigate, let us consider two other points he makes in his response, which have less to recommend them than the intense interest in Scripture generated by the Reformers. First, he says, in defense of Protestant “churchiness”, that “any church that is willing to excommunicate anyone for any reason whatsoever has a magisterium. A community that would never consider such can hardly be called a church in any meaningful sense.”

Second, on the question of whether the Bible became the inerrant and inspired Word of God during the Patristic or the Reformation era, he replies:

The answer is: neither. The Church is creatura divini verbi [creature of the Divine word], not its creator. That prerogative belongs to God alone, who inspired the prophetic and apostolic writers of the sacred text. But that the Church certainly did—and does—have a providential role in the recognition of the canon as well as its transmission, translation, and interpretation is not doubted.

These two responses interest me far more than this or that reading of Scripture, which on a good day can be fruitfully explored by just about anybody. They interest me because they are another instance of what I wrote about last week in How Do We Know Our Faith?. They interest me because they demonstrate quite conclusively that Timothy George does not understand, and therefore cannot answer, the key question of how we know whether something asserted about the Word of God is true. He does not understand and so cannot answer the question of authority.

First, please note the telling misuse of the term “magisterium”. It is not true that any religious body that is willing to kick somebody out has a magisterium, for the simple reason that a magisterium is not, as George seems to suppose, merely a disciplinary power. It is rather a teaching authority. It is not the power to reach a disciplinary decision and make it stick; any successful government can do that. It is rather the authority to make a judgment about whether something is true—authority in the sense that the judgment will always be correct. No religious institution apart from the Catholic Church claims a magisterium, yet that claim is absolutely essential if we are to consider any of the other claims of any religious body to be intelligible.

Second, note that George does not capitalize the word “church” in making his first point, but he does in making the second. This is simply another way of evading the question of authority. In the first point, the problem of authority is dismissed by saying that all serious religious bodies exercise internal discipline; but in the second George is back to capitalizing the “C” in order to imply that there is real authority in something called “the Church”, something which is very important to our reception of the truths of the Faith, even though George cannot begin to explain what the Church is, or on what grounds he now abandons the small “c”.

Finally, note the verbal sleight of hand in answering the question about when the Bible became authoritative. Clearly, the question was not intended to imply that the Church provided the inspiration to Scripture at some particular point in time, but rather that the Church has the authority to identify what is inspired whereas the Reformers (church with a small “c”) did not. Instead of responding to this implication, George evades the question still further by assigning a double-meaning to the “Word of God” much as he has done with “church”. For while it is true that the Word of God created the Church, it is not true that Scripture created the Church. The former is a reference to the Word of God in its entirety; the latter a reference to certain aspects of it that have been written down. In the first usage, the Church is created by the Word of God; but in the second, the Word of God is generated, identified, preserved and interpreted through the Church. For the Church encompasses all of God’s words (in both Tradition and Scripture), and can alone authoritatively explain which words are truly God’s, and what they mean.

It is astonishing that Timothy George, a foremost exponent of committed Protestantism, has not yet come far enough in thinking about his faith to even begin to acknowledge the question of authority, or to hint at the need for a Church which possesses a Principle of Authority.

If what I am saying is true, then how is it that George can be right in arguing that we could benefit today from the way the Reformers read Scripture. The reality is simply this: The sixteenth century Reformers saw themselves as part of a living community which reflected more of the goods of the Church than that same Protestant (or even a Modernist) community does today, after further deterioration across half a millennium. It is this closer connection with, and closer approximation to, the true Church of Christ which enabled them to read Scripture more fruitfully than many scholars do today—yet also with disastrous consequences because they were unable to read it as fruitfully as their predecessors, who actually accepted the authority of, and lived within, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Sadly, as George’s three Catholic respondents tried to tell him, any reform or recovery of the past which does not reconnect with the Church and her authentic Magisterium is utterly doomed to disintegrate all over again.

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Show 1 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: trini - May. 09, 2011 3:40 AM ET USA

    This is a vital article. I read many books defending the authenticity and reliability of the New Testement witness to the life, work, passion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth our Saviour, God and man. But most of this excellent writing is by non-Catholic scholars. The one defect in such writing is the failure to recognize that Christ did not found vague 'churches' but a Church - 'all authority ... make disciples of all nations ... teach all things I have commanded you ..' Mt28

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