For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
One of the problems with debates about Church “authority” is that people tend to use the word ambiguously to refer to many kinds of authorities which actually has little to do with each other.
Especially after Reformation, the word “authority” has been primarily been used in the sense of scholarly or epistemic authority, that is, authority in determining what is true in the midst of ignorance. Unfortunately as I’ve discussed many times before, the pyrrhonian skeptic argument that one cannot grasp any theological truth outside of a positivistic legal mechanism would lead to total epistemic nihilism. As R.M. Burns notes in his study of the British Enlightenment debate on the reasonableness of miracles:
It was at this point that many Catholic apologists turned to what they termed a “new machine of war” in order to demolish the claim that any individual could reliably trust his own judgement to interpret Scripture. This “new machine” was Pyrrhonistic Scepticism, which had been recently rediscovered by humanist scholars, and the major reason for the growth in interest in this form of scepticism in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century was undoubtedly the use which Catholic apologists decided they could make of it in their attacks on Protestantism. In particular, they developed arguments at every kind of epistemological level to prove that the individual could not trust his own interpretative ability. They demanded to know how any individual could know for certain which books were truly Scripture and which were not; how he could know that the Scriptures had been handed down unaltered throughout the centuries by men whom he admitted were fallible; how he could be sure that he had grasped the real meaning of a single sentence; how indeed he could be sure that he had correctly understood the meaning of any single word.
After having reduced the individual, by this Pyrrhonistic “machine,” to a state of complete cognitive despair, the Catholics would then suggest that the only possible source of certitude – which was the mark of true faith – was by abandoning himself in an act of total fideistic submission to the Church. In 1864, in the Syllabus of Errors, Catholicism officially adopted a negative attitude to Fideism, but this should not hinder recognition of the fact that in the early seventeenth century, with papal encouragement, what we would now call “Fideism” became so widespread that it became almost the characteristic Catholic position, especially in France and among the missionaries to England.
It soon became clear to many Catholics, however – e.g., to Descartes – that Pyrrhonism was unsuitable as an apologetic base for Catholicism, because it could just as easily be used by Protestants against Catholics, and it could also be used as the basis of an argument for suspension of religious belief. Indeed many of the Pyrrhonists who claimed to be Catholics were accused of being covert “libertines,” and late in the century, Pierre Bayle, perhaps the most famous of all the Pyrrhonists, was to raise the same suspicions when –ostensibly at least- he used it as a philosophical justification for adherence to Protestantism. Long before Bayle, however, Protestants were turning the arguments of the Catholic Pyrrhonists against them; it was argued that, if the individual had only to make an act of submission to the Church, this still involved individual decision about what constituted the true Church, and who could be sure as an individual that he had received and understood correctly the teachings of any Church Father, Council, or Pope?
So it was that both Catholics and Orthodox Calvinists were tending to embrace an irrational fideism as the basis of their belief. The distinction of the English Churchmen whom we have been discussing is that they broke entirely with these tendencies which were so deeply characteristic of the spirit of the age.
-R.M. Burns, The Great Debate on Miracles from Joseph Glanvill to David Hume
If we cannot use our reason to understand our Bibles, neither can we employ it to understand papal decrees or conciliar documents, completely eviscerating our ability to read any text by making nonsense of natural revelation and reason.
Therefore there is only one infallible epistemic authority with regards to theological truth and that is the Holy Scriptures which alone reveals infallibly the divine will and character. And within the Church God has provided experts in theology and biblical exegesis who are scholarly authorities in theological controversy. Epistemic difficulties requires epistemic authorities, that is, scholars and learned man whom God has given gifts of learning and teaching, not a positivistic legal mechanism. As Romans 1:18-19 points out, people deny the truth, not because they are ignorant and are unable to attain theological truth, they because they are unrighteous and wicked and willfully suppress what they know to be true “because God has shown it to them”.
Church Authority as Practical Authority
Since the problem of suppressing of truth does not so much have to do with ignorance or lacking epistemic access to divine revelation but with willfulness and unrighteousness. There is therefore an entirely legitimate exercise of Church authority, which the Church has both a right and a duty to exercise. And that is in practical authority in deciding who are in and out of the visible church with the instruments of censure and excommunication.
As far as discovering the Truth is concerned, we need scholarly authorities, theologians and learned man. However as far as the spiritual health of the visible church is concerned, its public morals, it confessional orthodoxy, and for the avoidance of scandal to consciences, we need practical authority with the power of coercively compelling members to conform to God’s will or be excommunicated. Thus, the Scriptures enunciate divine truth and epistemically everyone exercising their own reason, and occasionally in concert with scholarly experts, can attain unto those truth. However, the problem for which Church authority exists is not to reveal any new truths which cannot otherwise be known. Church authority exists for a practical end, to safeguard the morals and the conscience of the visible church, and as such, has both the right and the duty from God, to command repentance and threaten censures to safeguard the spiritual well-being of the visible church.
Some Concluding Practical Observations
The interesting thing is that the Roman Catholic Church is in fact not authoritative at all when it comes to this sense of practical authority. The canons are rarely enforced and most Roman Catholics can in fact pretty much do anything and believe anything and they would never be excommunicated or even refused communion. Ironically some Protestant denominations and churches which exercises “Church discipline” are much more authoritative in this practical sense than most Roman Catholic parishes.
Therefore in Protestantism it is understood that Church Authority simply refers to practical authority, authority to include and expel members from the Church for the practical end of safeguarding the visible church’s spiritual health. Practical authority to decide membership is not to be confused with epistemic authority, which is what Roman apologists harp on when they speak of “church authority” but is not “authoritative” in the practical sense of the word. Traditionally the practical authority which the Church ought to exercise has simply been known as “church discipline”. Therefore the Scriptures enunciate theological truths, and the Church has both the duty and the right to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture and to apply appropriate censures and even excommunications to safeguard the spiritual health of the Church in accordance to the will of God.