The need for authority
Who – if anyone – has the authority to teach the Christian message in our time, and where does the source of that authority lie? This goes to the heart of the differences between Catholic and Protestant teaching: the Catholic Church claims a God-given authority as true upholder of the Christian faith whereas Protestants generally rely on “sola scriptura” – the concept that all authority is contained within the Bible itself.
In matters of teaching the complexities of the faith, both commonsense and experience show that many different interpretations will be made if Christians are simply left to their own devices. There are numerous difficult and apparently contradictory passages in the Bible and it would be absurd to claim that it contains no ambiguities or difficulties requiring an authoritative interpretation. Indeed, there is scriptural authority that the Bible does need an interpreter, as in this passage in which the apostle Philip had set off on a journey:
“… Now an Ethiopian had been on pilgrimage to Jerusalem … . He was now on his way home; and as he sat in his chariot he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit said to Philip, 'Go up and join that chariot.’ When Philip ran up, he heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, 'Do you understand what you are reading?'
He replied, 'How could I, unless I have someone to guide me?' So he urged Philip to get in and sit by his side.” (Acts 8:26-31)
So there is recognition in the Bible itself that an interpreter is needed and that one of the apostles was considered competent to carry out that role. Elsewhere, we hear how Christ Himself chooses to teach in parables, and often explains the full meaning of the parables in private (see, for example, Matthew 13). And in the second letter of St Peter we are warned that “the interpretation of scriptural prophecy is never a matter for the individual” (2 Peter 1:20).
© Ray Chidell 2010