Thursday, December 21, 2006

Interpretive authority among Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses

Check out these two quotes:

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 intrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. [emphasis is my own]

All who want to understand the Bible should appreciate that the "greatly diversified wisdom of God" can become known only through Jehovah's channel of communication, the faithful and discreet slave. [emphasis is my own]
Remarkably similar, aren't they? You can tell by the uses of the word "Tradition" and "Church" that the first is Catholic, and by the use of the words "Jehovah" and "faithful and discreet slave" that the second comes from Jehovah's Witnesses. The first is published in the Catholic Catechism, 85. The second is from the Watchtower magazine, dated October 1, 1994, page 8.

Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses both criticize the rest of us for the same reason. The problem with the rest of us is that we have no authoritative interpreter of the Bible. We're left to interpret the Bible ourselves. The result has been a massive number of schisms and denominations. Catholics and Johovah's Witnesses both maintain unity because they have a centralized source of authority for teaching and revealing truths.

Of course they are right. Jehovah's Witnesses have done a great job of maintaining unity because of the way they are organized. Catholics haven't done quite as good of a job as Jehovah's Witnesses have done, but there is more unity within Catholicism than there is within Protestanism. I've never heard a Catholic say this, but I've heard several Jehovah's Witnesses say that their unity is one evidence showing that they are the true church or the true followers of Christ or something along those lines.

I've never found that particularly compelling because anybody could make the same claim merely by redefining "us" and "them." For example, I could gather around me five other people who believe exactly as I do about almost everything. Surely there are five such people out there. And since all six of us were in perfect unity, we could say, "Well since we are in perfect unity regarding our interpretation of the scriptures, and since they (referring to everybody else) all disagree with each other, that proves that we have the truth, and they don't." That argument is pretty much exactly what I've heard many Jehovah's Witnesses argue, except that in their case "we" refers to Jehovah's Witnesses, and "they" refers to everybody else.

I've never heard a Catholic put it quite like that, but they do point out that we (Catholics) are united because of the Church's authority, whereas they (everybody else) are divided because of a lack of authority. They point this out to show the need for the kind of authority they claim their Church has.

There is one interesting difference between Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses. Catholics claim their Church is the only infallible interpreter of the scriptures, but that other people, through study and proper hermaneutics, can understand the Bible. Jehovah's Witnesses, on the other hand, do not claim to have an infallible interpretation, but they say other people cannot understand the Bible without the help of the faithful and discreet slave class. Nevertheless, in both cases, they have an authoritative interpreter of scripture, and whether you try to understand the scriptures on your own or not, your interpretation must be checked against the authority.

It seems to me there's a real problem with that. It's a practical problem. If you've got two competing organizations both claiming to be the sole authoritative interpreter of the scriptures on earth, how do you go about determining which one (if either) is correct? I mean let's assume for the sake of argument that there is such a thing as a sole authoritative interpreter of the scriptures on earth, and let's suppose it's one of these two organizations. How would you go about proving which one it was?

Well first of all, the whole idea that there is a sole authoritative interpreter comes from the Bible. One proof text Jehovah's Witnesses use is Matthew 24:45-47. One proof text Catholics use is 1 Timothy 3:15. If it's true that there's this authoritative organization, how can I tell which one it is? Catholics and Johovah's witnesses don't agree on what these passages refer to. I can't just take the Catholic's word for it, because the Jehovah's Witnesses might be right. I can't take the Jehovah's Witnesses' word for it because the Catholics might be right. The only way I can really tell which one is right is if I'm able to understand these passages on my own, which is precisely what both deny I can do. Catholics, as I said above, believe I can understand them on my own, but my interpretation must be checked against their's. That is, if mine differs from theirs, then mine is wrong. So I could never conclude that theirs is wrong and therefore falsify their claim to authority.

Even Mormons have their own version of this. A mormon friend of mine, several years ago sent me a list of 17 marks of the true church. He said if a church is in line with all 17 of these points, that's the correct church. I found that totally useless, because the only way I could know that these 17 points were really signs of the true church is if I took the Mormons' word for it. After all, they arrived at the 17 points by interpreting the Bible.

It's circular reasoning, basically. X is the sole authoritative interpreter of the Bible. How do you know? Because the Bible says so. How do you know that's what the Bible means? Because X says that's what it means, and X is the sole authoritative interpreter of the Bible.

I used to debate on the Jehovah's Witness forum on beliefnet. There was one particularly intelligent chap there named Adam who defended Jehovah's Witnesses better than most. I pressed him on this issue once. I asked him how he would ever know if the Watchtower Society printed some false information about the meaning of Scripture. If a person cannot get the correct meaing of the scriptures without the help of the Watchtower publications, how could he ever know if those publications were wrong about anything? It's not as if he could read the Bible for himself, come up with a contrary opinion, and then say the Watchtower was wrong. If he came up with a contrary opinion, his theology would demand that he was wrong, not the Watchtower magazine. So how could a person ever know that the Jehovah's Witness organization really has the authority is claims to have? If they are right about the authority they claim to have, then you can never know it. The same is true with the authority of the Catholic Church.

Gosh, you could even take it a step further. Who gets to interpret the interpreter? I mean suppose you've got a few people sitting around reading a Watchtower magazine, and each gets a different idea about what the author is trying to say? My point is that you can't escape interpretation. Interpretation is just the process by which you derive meaning from words. You can't get anybody's meaning--whether the Bible or the interpreter--without interpreting what they are saying. Having authoritative interpreters, then, is just redundant. It puts another step in the process and only postpones the problem. You could put a dozen authoritative sources between the Bible and the reader, and you'd still have the same problem.

As a protestant, I'm glad I can live with a certain amount of uncertainty. I can live with the fact that I could be wrong about a lot of things. Pointing out the endless number of different interpretations doesn't cause me a lot of anxiety. It used to before I had really studied the Bible in any kind of depth. When I first began, I thought the enterprise was hopeless because so many other people had done the same thing and yet all disagreed. But through studying, I've formed opinions that I'm fairly confident about, other's I'm not so confident about, and I've suspended judgment on a few things, too.


At 12/23/2006 5:27 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

I am a bit puzzled as to why you think that the Jehovah's Witnesses have done a better job of maintaining unity than the Catholics, since the Catholic church has been going a lot longer and has survived more interesting times.
It won't be a surprise to you that I don't consider the epistemological problems concerning scripture to be solved or even significantly altered by having each person take some responsibility for exegesis, although I agree with the central point of your post.

At 12/23/2006 1:31 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

psiomniac, what I mean by "unity" is unity in belief. If you got a bunch of JW's together, they'd all believe pretty much the same things. Most of them know what their organization teaches, and they believe it.

Not so with Catholics. You can get a group of Catholics together, and half of them won't even know what transubstantiation is, much less believe in it. There seems to be much more diversity in belief among Catholics than there is among JW's.

At 12/24/2006 7:24 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

I see what you mean. The Jehova's Witnesses have a precise graduation process which they can afford to enforce because they are a relatively small and recent organisation. I doubt that they will ever have mass appeal.

Merry Christmas!

At 12/24/2006 10:18 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Merry Christmas!

At 12/27/2006 6:25 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

Merry Christmas, and I hope you have a happy new year.

At 1/02/2007 6:37 PM , Blogger Paul said...

It seems to me that the diversity in the Roman church lies far deeper than they'd like to admit. There are Evangelical Catholic and Charismatic Catholics in addition to the run-of-the-mill uninformed Catholics that you mention. Being formally under the umbrella of the "Roman Catholic Church" is the main claim to unity.

I've heard Catholics who reject certain teachings and doctrines of the Popes and Councils, which, to me, seems to negate the foundation of that denomination. The main reason I would seek to join that body is if I were convinced that they had the theological and priestly authority that they claim for themselves. (They certainly fail to win me on comparison against the plain reading of Scripture.) Once that dyke has been cracked, I'm not sure why one would continue to be self-consciously identified with a church found to be in significant error and which adds to that error the hubris to insist that there can be no mistake by virtue of its own identity. I'm with Luther on this one. And I think that Rome has put itself into a position where it is irreformable due to its doctrine of infallibility.

Regarding the J.W.'s, it seems that the many changed doctrines and failed prophecies would undermine their credibility before even resorting to the Scriptures themselves. They also must give a fair answer as to where the true church was all these years before their own organization came along in the late 1800's. I know, I know, they can point to the Arians and pull some proof-text quotes from church history, but I think they are absent any solid stream of theological tradition that substantially mirrors what they now teach.

At 1/02/2007 6:38 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Oh, and another thing: good post!

At 1/02/2007 9:38 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...


You said:

They certainly fail to win me on comparison against the plain reading of Scripture.)

There is no such thing as a plain reading of Scripture that can produce a coherent position. There is your reading, that you call plain and then there are the thousands of other offshoots of the Lutherian paradigm shift who also claim tht their reading is plain.

At 1/03/2007 3:53 PM , Blogger Paul said...

I admit that there is room for dispute (the Bible is a big and diverse book, after all), but there is a difference between speculation over, say, heaven, hell, and the resurrection (which are discussed in Scripture) and a debate over purgatory (which is not mentioned and which does not even seem to be theologically justified by what is mentioned).

And, by the way, even though I am Protestant and have much against Rome, I still have an enormous amount in common with them (well, the conservative ones anyway). In fact, some of my favorite apologists are Roman Catholic (Peter Kreeft, for example), since we are all defending the same basic historical claims.

At 3/30/2008 7:51 AM , Blogger pearena said...

there are big differences between catholics and jws. one of them is that they do not have a pope. they only rely on the bible as their source of info. there is no other source. the bible itself tell us not to rely on our own understanding and it also tells us that no scriptures lends itself to private interpretation. Another is catholic change their laws just to attract more people into their ranks. jws keep it just as the bible says. they hate what is bad in God's eyes. the faithfull and discreet slave is there to guide just like the apostles and like them, they pray for Holy Spirit and receive it the same way. most religions now a days are united. just as most of the pagan religions in Jesus's day were united. but Jesus told them that they have made God's word invalid because of their traditions. one of the biggest traditions we have today is Jesus birthday. He never asked any of his disciples to celebrate it. but yet he asked for his death (not His resurection,) to be conmemorated. and most religions have been celebrating along with the catholics the pagan roman festival of saturnalia and they call it christmas. we all can find God by the help of his Holy Spirit and I pray God helps you find Him in the same way He has help me.

At 3/30/2008 8:04 AM , Blogger pearena said...

about where was the jws before all the chirches. well, we all know how powerful God is. He can use any means to bring His purpose through. and he use every means possible. read the Bible from begining to end including Deteuronomy, Numbers, Kings and all those considered boring. you will be amazed at His awesome power. Did you know that everything on earth is His and He uses it as He pleases? how can someone be so pretentious as to think that God is so finite? don't we all know He is Infinite? and yet He gives simple information free of big pretentious words. how bless are we and grateful we are of His mercies!!

At 10/02/2008 12:31 PM , Blogger weeminx said...



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