My Twitter feed leads me to this article recently, "Protestantism's biggest problem: on who authority do we interpret the Scriptures?
The article has an ecumenical context for the question which it poses:
"On Saturday I joined a group of Anglican and Methodists in our village to walk around its familiar landmarks offering prayers. We started at the (pre-Reformation) Anglican church, moved on to the war memorial, then to the village school, thence to our popular local pub. A Methodist lady whom I know well told me sotto voce that she wasn’t going to join in praying for the pub to flourish. I remembered that Methodists forswear alcohol. Sotto voce I responded, “But what about Jesus’s first miracle at the marriage feast of Cana?” She replied, half-resigned, half-humorous: “Why do people always bring up Cana!”
Why indeed? It was not only Jesus’s first recorded miracle and a heavenly blessing on matrimony; it was also a sign of God’s lavish generosity and of the complete trust Our Lady had in her Son’s divine powers. The deeper question is: on whose authority do we interpret the Scriptures; John Wesley’s or the Church? To be fair to Wesley and as the Methodist lady and myself agreed, he was condemning the “demon drink” of his day rather than inventing a dogma. Yet at some stage in the spiritual life of a thoughtful Christian the question must arise: “Is private interpretation enough?”"
The question is important. We live in a world with more than one issue (believe it or not, Anglicans!). Lives are at stake as we consider questions of euthanasia, abortion (with its 21st century tendency towards infanticide), war, climate change. Quality of life in the church is at stake when we consider questions of gender in relation to ordered ministry or questions of the nature of godly leadership. Or, even, if anyone dares, questions of what might actually shift us from denominational difference to catholic unity.
Two recent personal conversations with fellow (non Anglican) Christians revealed significant questions about two different (Protestant) church contexts which, all said and done, are questions of the authority by which Scripture is interpreted.
The paragraphs above, of course, elide an issue or three about interpretation!
When "the Church" is invoked as the interpretative authority, which "[Roman] church" are we talking about? The present day church which largely welcomes biblical criticism? What if we were seeking authoritative interpretation during the period of the Modernist controversy (roughly WW1 to WW2) when biblical criticism was severely frowned upon? Was that church a reliable guide to interpretation? A century from now, will "the Church" of 2017 be viewed as reliable as its 2117 successor?
Conversely, when we reflect on (say) John Wesley's role as hermeneutical guide and mentor for Methodists and link that to "private interpretation", is that fair to the role a John Wesley plays in the life of Methodist churches (ditto Luther/Lutheran, Calvin/Reformed, Cranmer/Hooker/Anglican ...)?
What Wesley (and co) have contributed to the life of God's church has been a publicly available, widely disseminated interpretation of Scripture which has generated wide adherence and steadfast application through many centuries. I suggest another description than "private interpretation" could more accurately describe such hermeneutical phenomenon.
Before we get to what that better description might be, let's acknowledge that Wesley was not an infallible interpreter of Scripture. As the years have gone by the Methodist church here and there has moved on from some initial Wesleyan positions (so I understand). In that sense the church founded on Wesley's interpretation has reinterpreted Wesley's Scripture. It might even yet prove that in a reunification of Anglican and Methodist churches that such reinterpretation is involved that we would consign Wesley (and Cranmer/Hooker) to the history section of hermeneutics.
Conversely, we might usefully also acknowledge that Wesley and co did not set out to interpret Scripture as private individuals de nouveau. They were church members who sought the betterment of the church through good teaching. What they may have emphasised differently to other teachers was much less to do with "private interpretation" and much more to do with revising or reforming church interpretation.
Also before we get to that better description, two further observations on Roman Catholic interpretation.
Observation 1: the strength of Roman emphasis on "the Church" as interpretative authority is that it arrives at decisions very slowly, very coherent with previous decisions ("tradition"!) and with very solid theological foundations (e.g. relating any decision to systematic theologies of Augustine and Aquinas). Roman hermeneutics generally stands the test of time. Protestant hermeneutics may or may not stand that test!
Observation 2: (and obviously from a Protestant perspective) what is one to do when one is convinced "the Church" is wrong in its interpretation? Whether we are an unconvinced but otherwise model Catholic Martin Luther opposed to indulgences in the 16th century or a 21st century ecumenically minded Christian (i.e. sympathetic to Rome's many virtues) who is unconvinced by Marian dogma, what do we do with disagreement? Especially when we find that on some matters at least (and indulgences and Marian dogma would be such matters) we are united with a great host of Protestant Christians for whom 500 years of Protest have stood the test of time! No new Scriptural evidence supporting indulgences or Marian dogma has emerged in that time. That is, "private interpretation" does not do justice to a serious, plausible, sustained disagreement over what Scripture means.
So, what is, arguably, more helpful to describe two significant modes of interpretation than "the Church" and "private interpretation"?
How about this? We replace "the Church" with the authority of the church which guards
the interpretation of Scripture (i.e. conserves and maintains what has always been taught and only in a very guarded way ever changes what has always been taught).
And we replace "private interpretation" (in respect of churches interpreting Scripture) with the authority of the church which guides
interpretation of Scripture (i.e. churches work on guiding interpretation of Scripture free from anxiety to guard it; individuals (preachers, scholars, Bible Study group leaders, etc) look to the church to guide them in understanding the Bible.
Thinking in terms of two such authorities, church as hermeneutical guardian and church as hermeneutical guide, could help our respect for one another and foster ecumenical relationship building.
I am sketching out some broad terms here, mindful of the fact that the notion of "guarding the gospel" is an important motif in Protestant biblical hermeneutics.