**UPDATE 4/12** *Fixed some typos and language errors.*
My personal Christian faith has been an evolving one over the space of years, as I try to clarify the “rule of faith” by which I live. Fellow Christians often asked me, “What is your standard?” Here I give a brief discussion to answer this important question.
All of my understanding of the Early Church Fathers stems from the role of the “primitive,” “catholic,” and “apostolic” tradition that was seen to be the “rule of faith” for orthodoxy and how it developed. It mightily influenced the Canon of the New Testament and other Christian doctrines. In fact, the central authority claim of the Roman Catholic Church that raised me is centered on an unbroken succession of apostolic authority in the church. It’s even in its creed: “…we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church…” This tradition locates genuine Christian authority in Peter and the Apostles whom Christ charged with authority in the Gospel of John.
What has been a real shocker for this Catholic kid is the lack of records of these apostolic churches, save for the see of Rome whose founder the Apostle Peter is “The Rock” (Foundation of the Church) from whom the Pope would spiritually descend to lead the Roman Catholic Church. So, the apostolic claims of the Early Church Fathers can be little more than claims to an non-partial observer. Still as the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries moved on, there seems to be a catholic tradition that is generally adhered to. Of course, the victors of any war write the history. So this can be considered an open question. But ignore this for now.
I study the history of my faith because it enhances my understanding of a) Christian doctrine and dogma, and b) how this can be connected to Christ, which is the whole point of my endeavor. So I began with the the Word of God. Why is it the Word of God? How can I tell? What criteria were used to discern it? Ironically, it was by using the Protestant hermeneutic of Sola Scriptura that I understood my mother church more clearly, esp. about her warts, failings, etc. I also found the doctrine of Sola Scriptura a non sequitir. How can I attack the authority of a church whose tradition produced the very documents I claim supersede that tradition? By tradition, I mean what is orthodox in authority, biblical exegesis, and dogma. Protestants presented me with a difficult dilemma. The claim is, as I understand it, that the RC Church is not the proper authority on God’s revelation because it doesn’t align with Scripture. It’s traditions are falsehoods. Yet these traditions are what informed the canonization of Scripture in the first place! The tradition defined who was the author of a sacred book, if it told The Truth, if it had the power of God, if the people of God accepted it, etc. This was the central argument against the heretics of the early days, e.g. Marcion and the Gnostics. It’s why the Gospel of Mark is “correct” and the Word of God, and the Gospel of Thomas is not.
This left me with some tough decisions to make. If I accept the Bible as is, I must accept the tradition that drives its existence and “proper” interpretation. Otherwise, I fall into a self-serving relativism which I want to avoid. The only Church that can reasonably make a claim to a so-called authentic tradition is the RC Church through unbroken succession. (I have a full list of all Popes going back to Peter himself in my Bible.) If apostolicity is the rule of faith, then the RC Church is the only church with real authority since it has determined what is orthodox and heretical for centuries on this basis. The Reformation, while gratifying, makes precisely the same claims to authority that the primitive heretics made, that is, via God (Holy Spirit) through “proper” understanding of His Word. I agree with much of what Protestants claim about one’s personal relationship with Christ, etc. But this flies in the face of the Apostolic Tradition. If apostolic authority is the rule, then despite the beauty of what Protestants profess, they teach falsehood. They do not have the “correct,” that is orthodox, understanding of God’s revelation because this can only be correctly understood by those with the genuine authority to determine truth, i.e. the RC Church. But I am a student of history and I’m fully aware of such proud affairs as the Inquisition, the Crusades, and persecutions of scientists such as Galileo. They have proven the RC Church to be the undeniably infallible arbiter of truth that it unquestionably is. 😉 So, ultimately I was forced to look with skepticism upon the Tradition. But the correctness of the Bible depends greatly on that Tradition.
Now you might say, “This doesn’t make any sense.” And I agree with you. Here the paradox: Protestants deny the authority of an institution whose authority must exist for that denial to make sense. This is why I’m skeptical of it all. If the RC Church is fallible, then so must be tradition, and thus our understanding of canonized Scripture, particularly the doctrine of Scriptura Sola.
Any claim about Scripture is thus relativized and personalized, i.e. a matter of personal faith without an objective rule to govern rightness or wrongness. That sucks because objective rules have a strong appeal to a rational minded engineer like me. So without such a rule, I’m searching for the essence of the practicable truth that can be found in my faith. I’ve become a pragmatist. If what we practice causes life to grow and blossom, healthy and whole, then I see God and am an instrument of His Peace. This is why I believe in Jesus, because I have yet to see anything but life and love in the Christ. If we see life diminishing in the forms of fear, oppression, hatred, and unfreedom, then evil is among us. That is my hermeneutic. Rough and unseemly, but quite workable.