Scriptural Authority and Church Authority

"Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matt. 18:18, NRSV)
As a "Catholic-Protestant" Christian, one of the most significant matrix of issues that I constantly am trying to sort out (which is why I write so much in this direction) is that of the relationship between Scriptural Canon (which books are in the Bible), Scriptural Authority, and Church or Ecclesiastical Authority. When talking with a friend who is a student Dallas Theological Seminary I put it like this: "In a way the most important single page of the Bible is the one that the Church wrote hundreds of years after the Apostles died: the Table of Contents Page!"

That is to say, "the Authority of Scripture" has no meaning if the word "Scripture" does not have some definitive content. And it was the Spirit-baptized Church that decided what that should be.

I like what 'section I' of Pontificator Al Kimel’s discussion of Biblical Canon has to say, especially this quote from Robert W. Jenson, whom I am told is a moderately evangelical Lutheran theologian:

Hence it is true to say both that the canon of Scripture imposed itself on the Church and that the Church dogmatically imposed the canon. Both are rightly attributed to the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson has seen all of this very clearly:

"Although the history is complex and its complexities are disputed, the canonical event can for theological purposes be very simply described: becoming aware that the apostles were gone, the community collected and certified documentary relics of the apostolic message. The church did this because she is to bring the same message she brought while the apostles guided her. Not all books in the canon were written or used by apostles. As the church gathered and commended apostolic writings, the criterion of apostolicity was simultaneously material and historical: a document was apostolic from which could be heard the teaching of the apostles. There is nothing viciously circular here; if the church had already forgotten the message of the apostles, she could not anyway have assembled a canon.

The foregoing should not be misunderstood. If indeed the Spirit creates the self-identity of the church through time, the process of canonization is also worked by the Spirit. There is thus a sense in which the church does not make the canon but rather receives it. But this does not contravene the more commonsensical point just here to be made.
It was the historical and already conflicted church that gathered and winnowed documentary relics of apostolic proclamation. The canon of Scripture, that is, a list of writings together with the instruction, “Take all these writings and none other as standard documents of the apostolic witness,” is thus a dogmatic decision of the church. If we allow no final authority to churchly dogma, or to the organs by which the church can enunciate dogma, there can be no canon of Scripture. The slogan sola scriptura, if by that is meant ‘apart from creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy,’ is an oxymoron…. The canonical list is a historically achieved commendation by the church as community to the church as association of persons: here are documents in which to see how the church spoke the gospel while the church’s reliance on the apostles was not yet problematic. (Systematic Theology, I:27-28)"
When we approach the question of Church authority and the canonization process it is not so much an "either or" as a "both and." The Church recieved the writings that they thought had Apostolic authority behind them and then dogmatically required that these and none others should be the Biblical canon. If we want to affirm the authority of Scripture, it seems we must affirm the authority of the Church as a whole as represented in her own mechanisms of authority, including consensus of tradition as well as the gatherings of bishops and other representatives and leaders who make dogmatic decrees. As Jenson points out the (especially American) Protestant reductionist/seperatist impulse to throw off liturgy, tradition, and Church authority would have left us no Bible at all, if it were followed by the Ancient Church.
Of course, while virtually all Christians agree on the canon of the New Testament since this was debated earlier in church history (and the earlier is generally more universally recieved), there is still the uncomfortable problem of the Old Testament (and thus of the canon as a whole) - which books are the Bible will differ (slightly, but still) depending on which church you go to: Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox.

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Blogger Nance said...

Good post. I'm afraid that a lot of the problem that some people have with church authority and tradition simply comes from an ignorance of the ties therein to Scriptural authority. It's always nice to see ignorance in the church...

10:11 AM, April 11, 2007  

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