In my previous post on this I discussed some of the downsides of the kind of “me and my Bible” approach to authority towards which sola scriptura tends to lead us. Rugged spiritual individualism (like any go-it-alone approach to life) looks like freedom, but it’s a lonely road, and it’s easy to get lost.
I’d like to do something a little more difficult than deconstructing sola scriptura and argue for the necessity of a living interpreter as the final source of authority and unity in times of crisis.
By way of analogy, let’s remember together a famous bit of Seahawks history.
(If you’re not from around here, the Seahawks are our local American football team.)
Playing at home against the Packers, the Seahawks are down 12-7. It’s 4th and 10 and the ‘Hawks are 24 yards from the endzone. There’s just 8 seconds left on the clock, and the only way to win is to score a touchdown. I wish I could embed the video but the NFL is strict about these kinds of things, so you can watch what happens here.
Well, what do you think? Did the refs make the right call?
That’s debatable. From one angle, it looks like Green Bay intercepted the ball in the endzone, which would make it a touchback and give Green Bay the game, 12-7. But Golden Tate, the Seahawks receiver, had two hands on the ball, too, which could arguably make it a touchdown, and the Seahawks would win 13-12. You could argue about this for days, and in fact, NFL fans did exactly that. It was an enormously controversial call, still known as the “Fail Mary”.
Now, what do you think? Who won the game?
The Seahawks, unquestionably. Why? Because in an NFL game, the referee is the living interpretive authority. The Seahawks won because, on a play that was both high-stakes and controversial, the referee called a touchdown.
Again by way of analogy, let’s talk about how professional football doesn’t work.
First, we might note how there’s no appeal to the rulebook here, although the referee is obligated to make a judgment in accordance with the rules of play. But the rulebook cannot, in and of itself, render judgment on a particular play. The rulebook needs to be interpreted by a living authority in order to apply to an ambiguous situation.
Second, Green Bay doesn’t get to say, “We strongly disagree with the call, so we’re starting our own league.” They can’t take their ball and go home. If they want to play in the NFL, they have to accept the rulings of the referees, like it or not.
Finally, we can note how the referee doesn’t say, “Well, hey, let each team interpret the game how they prefer. Green Bay, you can call this a win and we’ll put it in your record as such. Seahawks, same goes to you.” The players are not free to interpret the rules for themselves or to decide whether they won or lost. There would be no NFL at all if that’s how it worked, because it would be impossible to know which team really won or lost.
Imagine trying to have professional football without referees. It would never work! While you can certainly play backyard football without refs, anytime you want to play a high-stakes game on a large scale, you need that living authority to be an official arbiter. And you have to continue to accept that authority even if you disagree with a particular judgment. Without that, you don’t have a league at all.
I hope the analogy here is obvious: the referee here is what Catholics call the magisterium, a Latin term for the teaching authority of the pope together with the bishops. The magisterium is the living interpretive authority that makes the tough calls and keeps the league together.
Let me also suggest that this is actually what most Protestant traditions are actually doing. All the Protestant denominations have a person or body, whether that’s the General Assembly or the Board of Elders or the Queen of England, that make the final call on contentious issues. And while there’s an obligation to discern what Scripture says, that body has the authority to make a call within that denomination.
So the question has never been, “What does the Bible say?”
The question has always been, rather, about who has the authority to interpret, and where such authority comes from.
The question the chief priests ask Jesus in Mark 11 is still the right one:
“Who gave you authority to do this?”