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.