Thursday, March 03, 2011

What Qualifies a Person as an Authority on Scripture or Theology?

I just received, as I am sure a lot of others did as well, several catalogs from the major theological publishers this week.  Browsing through this year's offerings, I found books by experts on every conceivable branch of theology promising to tell me what the "church" really ought to do, and what this or that portion of the bible "really" means.  I began to wonder to myself, what really makes a person an authority in these matters? 

Getting good grades and fellowships in grad school?

Landing a big contract with Brazos, Fortress, etc.?

An ivy league degree?

Being very rhetorically persuasive?

Getting a lot of speaking engagements?

Landing a "cherry" position at a major university or seminary?

What qualifies a person to understand and mediate the divine mysteries?  Is our "system" really designed to do that?

Yes, I know the sword cuts in all directions, because I've been part of the "system" myself!

Feel free to comment below.


Michael Barber said...

What is required?

Good hair.

CM7 said...

If you mean by "authority" something binding on the faithful, then I would say the Holy Spirit is required. Only the Church can have such teaching authority to bind and loose.

It is my understanding that no theologian alone has such authority, except Pope Benedict XVI.


Nick Norelli said...

To piggyback on Michael's comment, I'd say, good hair and a beard.

A. T. Wallace said...

A beard? See evidence here:

A. T. Wallace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A. T. Wallace said...

In all serious, I think we should reexamine Donum Veritatis:

Evan said...

Ummm, the Holy Spirit?

GuruManuel said...

The Holy Spirit qualifies the mind, yes, of course!
Though I would like to be more specific. The fullness of Truth is found in the Church, right? Equivalently, the fullnes of the Holy Spirit is found in the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Therefore the ultimate authority rests with the Church--no big surprise there--as was mentioned in an earlier comment.
This all boils down to the Analogy of the Faith. One can claim "theological" authority if one's theology is consistent and unequivocal with said Faith. Prefacing it with an expression of humility--e.g. recognizing the limit of one's own capacity to reason and discern--is a good indication that the author is willing to submit, obey and faithfully represent the Faith.
In sum, authority has its roots in service, not power. But we all knew that already, right?

Luke said...

This post raises a good question: what is the role of the Theologian/Scripture scholar? I don't think it's either repeating magisterial documents or flying solo and critiquing the Church at will. I think GuruManuel is right. the role of the Theologian must be one of humble service for the Church. He (she) must recognize the legitimate parameters of the faith but also continue to reflect on it, leading the church deeper into the mysteries. Any thoughts?

Paul Rodden said...

Could it be that this very problem has a long history and, although we sometimes disdain the way catechetics meant, by and large, simply the memorisation of the Baltimore Catechism (the Penny Catechism here in England), to the exclusion of anything else, there was a hidden wisdom in it, based in experience?

The difficulty with that approach is, as we have seen in recent history, that the reasons or supporting foundations (like the Jewish roots of many of the doctrines) can get lost and, as a result they can float about in the mind with no chain holding them together.

But, is this a unique problem for the 'modern' mind (post-Ockham!), in the sense that, the further we move away from Being towards Epistemology, the more the 'aut-aut' takes precedence over the 'et-et', and becomes rooted in personal pontifications (Protestantism)? (i.e., few vocations to the priesthood, but no shortage to the papacy, as often quoted!)

In essence, is the key to authority based in the docility and surrender of the theologian, rather than the extremes of dissent or 'Mottramism'?

But, an additional question is how one discerns this? Is it simply how much it 'points North' when placed within the Hierarchy of Truth?

It's a fascinating question. Thanks for raising it!

Tom said...

The 1993 Pontifical Biblical Commission document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, has an overview, in paragraphs 173-180, entitled Roles of Various Members of the Church in Interpretation.

Paragraph 180 says, in part, "If, as noted above, the Scriptures belong to the entire church and are part of 'the heritage of the faith,' which all, pastors and faithful, 'preserve, profess and put into practice in a communal effort,' it nevertheless remains true that 'responsibility for authentically interpreting the word of God, as transmitted by Scripture and tradition, has been entrusted solely to the living magisterium of the church, which exercises its authority in the name of Jesus Christ." (cf. Dei Verbum 10).

All members of the faith, including theologians, must keep this teaching of the church in mind at all times.

Anonymous said...

Freedom qualifies anyone to speak. Time (preferably centuries) verifies that the person is an authority.

Some Doctors of the Church had very few, if any, of the qualities listed.

Paul Rodden said...

Related, and interesting piece, published on Ignatius Insight today:

"The Logos in Seminary Formation and Teaching" | Deacon James Keating, Ph.D. | March 5, 2011

Paul said...

Speaking about Tertullian, Pope Benedict gives us a an answer:
"One sees that in the end he (Tertullian) lacked the simplicity, the humility to integrate himself with the Church, to accept his weaknesses, to be forbearing with others and himself. When one only sees his thought in all its greatness, in the end, it is precisely this greatness that is lost. The essential characteristic of a great theologian is the humility to remain with the Church, to accept his own and others' weaknesses, because actually only God is all holy. We, instead, always need forgiveness." (General Audience May 30, 2007)

Scott Hahn uses this quote above in his book "Covenant and Communion: The Biblical Theological of Pope Benedict XVI". He also dedicates the last chapter in this book to this topic.

Another attribute Pope Benedict gives is prayer. The theologians "richness of thought" should never be purely academic but should be "founded on the experience of prayer, of contact with God." He also says there is "no authentic scientia Christi without falling in love with him (God)."

John Bergsma said...

This discussion has been very good, and I thank everyone for their contributions. My personal feeling is that our dominant "academico-publishing system" rewards theologians and bible scholars for qualities that have nothing to do with their life of prayer, relation to God, depth of true wisdom, manifestation of virtue, etc.--all of which, I think, are essential to understanding the Scriptures and Theology. Some people who have been successful in the "system" do have all these qualities--but the "system' rewards a person based on much different criteria.

Micah said...

We're all just students of theology. I'm wary of anyone who goes out of his way to call himself a theologian or an expert (even if he is a theologian or expert). The only real authority is Christ's, and the only people on earth who bear it have a special mark.

That's not to say folks like you, Doc, can't be brilliant and have great thoughts worth considering (you certainly bear more weight than I!), but it's not really authority, is it? I always appreciated that you didn't see yourself as an authority, but as a student with a lt more training. I remember once in class when you took a 20 minute detour on a whim to look through your Hebrew OT to see if the word "nahash" (forgive me if I mistransliterated) was used to tie together several different verses. In the end, the theory being explored was wrong, but we all appreciated your willingness to see us as co-students of God's word. That is the attitude theologians need to have.

Galactic Catholic said...

This line of questioning rocks!
My opinion:
A well-formed conscious can read another well-formed conscious clearly.

Paul Rodden said...

@Catholic Conspiracy
It’s an interesting point of view, and sounds very plausible, particularly as it’s merely a form of tautology, isn’t it?

But, is the well-formed conscience of the reader a sufficient condition to judge the author’s conscience, as if by intuition?

If we take those with a well-formed conscience as at point ‘B’, what about those who are at point ‘A’, who, for the purposes of this example, we can assume do not have a well-formed conscience?

How do those at ‘A’ discern who’s an authority? That is, how can they tell which ones are ‘B’, and which ones are ‘not-B’?

This is surely where the question is most pressing?

For example, why has Ignatius pulled Fr Eutenuer’s book on Exorcism? I’ve heard it argued they said there were no plans to reprint, yet it sold like hot cakes. Seems very strange for such an overwhelmingly popular book, don’t you think?

Does his ‘romantic involvement’ invalidate what he’d written, or is it a publishing house dropping him like a hot-potato in case it affects their business: i.e., through guilt by association?

What about the Legionaries of Christ? How were so many outstanding and well-catechised Catholics, priests included (who’d even been through the PhD ‘system’), supposedly duped by am an they considered on the verge of sainthood?

There was I expecting an answer in Dr Bergsma’s response to the question :) but it’s such an important one, as most of my lay friends are ‘like sheep without a shepherd’, or to change the metaphor, ‘blown about by every wind of doctrine’, and it’s a real problem as they don’t know where to turn as there are too many voices clamouring for their attention, all claiming to be ‘faithful’, whatever that means...

John Bergsma said...

@Micah: You're right, I don't have authority. I make suggestions and offer some of my small amount of learning to the members of the Church, but the ones who have authority are the guys who have the hands laid on them. The closest thing to authority I have is a letter from Bishop Conlon hanging on my wall that authorizes me to teach in communion with the Church. That means more to me than my degrees.

Benedict XVI said, "When Scripture is disjoined from the living voice of the Church, it falls prey to the disputes of experts." The latter phenomenon is amply in evidence when you read the catalogs from the major theological publishers. It is all the disputes of experts. I became Catholic in part to escape that, because in my old environment there was, in many instances, no authority higher than the currently-most-persuasive theologian.

Paul Rodden said...

@ Dr Bergsma

Maybe a book entitled, Whatever Happened to the Nihil Obstat?, is in order. :)

Seriously, I think you have raised a very important (and depressing) question. Censorship seems to have been muted by a form of 'creeping Protestantism (Modernism)', even amongst 'the great and the good'.

Why do most Ignatius Press Books lack formal censorship, for example? Are we to assume everything they publish is 'kosher', so they don't need it?

It's as if the editors of the publishing houses, who publish books only promoting their own 'slant', are the new censors. It's as if one is expected to judge 'orthodoxy' by the publishing house, not the content.

Years ago, even Catholic Truth Society publications - and even if they were Encyclicals - were given formal approval by the censors.

And, why are there books published in the latter part of the 20C which brandish a NO and an Imprimi Potest, but contain dissenting drivel? (That's certainly the case here, in England, although hardly anyone seems to bother with them at all now.)

It's as if they're now 'not worth the paper they're written on'.

Does this come down to the chaos and lack of docility in the hierarchy, who were the predominant censors?

In essence, is it a question about what it means to be 'faithful'? Has the word has become utterly vacuous? Or, is it one of 'censorship' being a dirty word (and the image of 'mediaeval' Indexes of Prohibited Books) in such 'enlightened times'?

Jeff said...

I would simply say, holiness of life...Why? Theologians like Rahner and Kung were incredible minds and worked closely at the Second Vatican Council. Their authority, however, was misused and led to many problems that still show up in our seminaries (Fundamental Option morality, eucharistic theology errors: transignification, transfinalization, ect.) If you read Peter Seewald's book, Benedict XVI An Intimate Portrait, there are excerpts from "authoritative" theologians who were collegues of then Fr. Ratzinger. These "theologians" mocked Fr. Ratzinger for his holiness...but I bought his books, not theirs

John Bergsma said...

The Church is dealing with several relatively new phenomena. One is the novelty of the "lay theologian." Whereas previously in the Catholic Church, only clergy studied theology and its sub disciplines, now laity are doing so in large numbers. However, laity do not necessarily have the spiritual formation that priests receive, and they are not answerable to a bishop, superior, or other ordinary in the same way that a priest is.

Another issue is the explosion of the print media. There are simply too many books of theology out there for the magisterium to keep track of. I do believe we should attempt to get the NO and Imprimatur, as a sign of fidelity, but the whole system was designed for an age when there was greater cohesion within Catholic society, and the pace of publication was much slower.

At some point, the Church will have to take steps to ensure that lay theologians have some substantive spiritual formation, and are under some kind of spiritual authority. Spiritual "lone ranger-ism" is the heart of Protestantism. Everyone needs to be a relationship of accountability.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm weighing in later here. John's previous comment about prayer and lifestyle is an interesting one.

Perhaps church and artistic history has a lot in common. A lot of artists don't become famous until they have died...

In the same way - perhaps its those who are hidden in a life of ministry and prayer who are those who will become future generations hero's of the faith.