Study, But Lean Not On Your Own Understanding

I found the article Why Catholicism Is Preferable to Protestantism to be quite thought provoking. It addressed a question that I personally had wrestled with for some time in my spiritual journey. The question is one of authority. Since I am the one that ultimately decides which church to align myself with, does that not make me the ultimate authority? Aren’t Catholics and Protestants both doing the “same thing” in that regard? How can either of us claim to have different, ultimate authorities (i.e. Church vs. Bible) if the final authority is ultimately the individual?

The answer lies within the following statement from the article:

“How is the Catholic’s judgment different from a Protestant’s, if at all? The difference lies in the conclusion, or finishing point, of the inquiry they make. Whereas the Protestant can ultimately submit only to his own judgment, which he knows to be fallible, the Catholic can confidently render total assent to the proclamations of the visible Church that Christ established and guides, submitting his judgments to its judgments as to Christ’s.”

Another way to approach the issue is to ask, “What is being let go of?” When we let go of something, we relinquish control over it. We relax our grip. We hand over control to someone or something other than self. We submit. There, then, is the essence of the “finishing point” mentioned in the article.

Both Protestant and Catholic must use reason to come to a final conclusion. “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2Tim 2:15)  God expects us to use our brains. On the other hand, we can go too far with our use of reason and trust in it more than we trust in God. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” (Prov 3:5)

There comes a point where one must “let go of” one’s own understanding in order to trust and obey God. That is the finishing point for the Catholic. It is not the total absence of reason, but the reasonable response to trust in God. One cannot “trust” without “letting go.” Hence, the Catholic sees that the way to trust and obey Christ is to trust and obey the Church given by Christ. The Catholic ultimately “let’s go of” the trust in personal understanding where doctrine is concerned.

A perfect example can be found in John chapter 6. None of Jesus’ followers understood why they must eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ in order to have eternal life. However, some stayed with Jesus and others stopped following Him at that point. Those who stayed did so, not because they understood Jesus, but because they trusted Jesus. Peter said it best: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter did not scrutinize Christ’s words against scripture and render his own, personal conclusion. He submitted to Christ. Those that left remained constrained by their inability to make sense of Christ’s words. They tried to “figure it out” and, ultimately, clung to their personal authority.

The Protestant must continue to cling to personal understanding of Scripture in order to insure that the truth is being “rightly divided.” Personal interpretation of Scripture must rule the day in order to guard against heresies. If I, as a Protestant, disagree with the direction my church is headed, I can switch to a different denomination more closely aligned with my personal interpretation of Scripture. Even though I may “search the scriptures to see if these things are so,” I still make my decision based upon my personal interpretations of those scriptures. Ultimately, there is never a “letting go of” my own understanding where doctrine is concerned. Either the doctrine aligns with my personal interpretation, or, I find a new church.

The Catholic ultimately makes a decision to give up personal authority in favor of Christ’s authority. The Catholic submits to Christ by submitting to the teachings of Christ’s Church (even when those teachings are “hard sayings” not easily understood through diligent study). This is not blind faith void of reason. It is a reasonable trust in the authority of Jesus.

The Protestant must ultimately cling to personal, fallible authority in order to claim submission to the authority of the Bible (an authority the Bible does not claim for itself). Unlike the Catholic, there is not a “letting go of” personal authority for the Protestant. The personal authority must remain in order to empower any potential “protest.” This dynamic may serve democracy well, but the Church is not, and never has been, a democracy. For the Church, it results in continuous fragmentation as people do what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25).

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