In a recent debate with an atheist, I was asked why I was a Christian. I replied that it was because my mother had spanked me. But I admit that this needs to be filled out a bit, and when we do, we will discover that the explanation is releveant to our discussions over the last week about private judgment.
I have asserted that to bring in an authoritative interpreter solves no problems at all. It fails to do so on two levels. The first is that we still have the problem of how to read and interpret the interpretations. The Scriptures are given to us in words, and interpretations of those words arrive packaged in words. If God can’t make Himself clear to me in the book that He wrote, how can I expect that fallible (or purportedly infallible) humans can do so? At this point, we might learn from the words of the old country preacher — “this here Bible sheds a lot of light on them there commentaries.” But I am not arguing here for solitary individualism in interpretation; we live in interpretive communities and in interpretive traditions. More about this anon, as I would have said if I lived when anon was in more common use.
The second problem is that there are a large number of authoritative interpretations, just as there are “it seems to me” opinions at evangelical Bible studies. To react away from the latter because you have to decide which one is right, and to go to a place where you have to decide which pope, patriarch, or bishop is right, is to change nothing whatever. This is the basic point I have made, and which has attracted quite a bit of attention in the comments section.
Now, to push this into new territory. To insist, as I have, that private interpretation is inescapable is not to fill up that word interpretation with philosophical rigor. I was made to trust in the Lord from the womb, and from my mother’s breast. As I was being brought up this way, an interpretive grid was being established in my heart and soul, and this was not because my mother was telling me about hermeneutical spirals when I was eating mashed peas in the high chair. So when I was growing up in an evangelical Christian home, with parents who loved me, disciplined me, taught me, and who lived consistent Christian lives in front of me, I learned one of the first lessons of epistemology, which is personal loyalty. Loyalty to my parents, loyalty to their God, who is my God also, loyalty to the church in which I was nurtured, and loyalty to the gospel which contains the words of my salvation. That is why I said I was a Christian because my mother had spanked. Now I acknowledge that later, when I grew to maturity and joined the Navy (which is not a bastion of righteousness) certain challenges where presented to me, both intellectual and moral, and I had to learn how to answer the questions and challenges. But I did so . . . why? Because God had poured His grace out upon me in the family I had grown up in.
This was brought home to me a number of years later when our youngest daughter was sitting on my lap (she was about two), and she was busily telling me all about Jesus, and the cross, and salvation. She was authoritatively telling me all about it, and it struck me with great force that on this subject there was not a thought in her head that we had not put there. She was simply “parroting,” a critic might say. But a second thing struck me, with equal force. And that was that this was a design feature. God did not create us to grow up religiously neutral until we are twenty-one, and then stick us in a divine library so that we could make up our own minds “objectively.” God intends for us to learn our religious convictions on parental authority, long before we have any way to defend ourselves against parental heretics.
Now we have rebelled against this because it doesn’t seem fair to us, and because we want to trust in our own native abilities. And it must be admitted that God requires us to walk away from the faith of our fathers when our fathers have bowed down to a false god. And He expects us to be loyal and to worship the God of our fathers when they have been faithful. Personal, religious loyalty to whatever you were born in is, and has been, the cause of much superstitious religious observance, mindlessly repeated over the course of centuries. But it is no solution to rebel against how God made the world, and to try to say that each person must come up with their own Christianity, each generation, from scratch.
In other words, good traditions are good, and bad traditions are bad. But how can we tell?Well, a moment’s reflection will show that none of us can get a vantage point from which we can see the whole and make an authoritative decision. This was my earlier point. By myself, I can get no traction. In order to have any confidence at all, I must entrust myself entirely to the grace of God, for He is the only one who can give this gift. Now it happens that I have been born and reared in the Protestant stream of Christendom, which, as it also happens, is the stream which emphasizes the sovereign, gracious, efficacious, overflowing grace of God.
When we baby Protestants grow up to the level of discussion with our friends in Rome where we must produce arguments and scriptural exposition, we do so gladly. But please note that the arguments that I am asking you to consider persuasive are persuasive to me because I was loved by parents who lived the life of Christ in the home, and brought up in a church where the gospel was preached and the Scriptures honored and loved. I am, as the dippy poster of a generation ago exhorted me, blooming where I was planted. These are my people, and have been my people for generations. This is not absolute, because there was a point when my Protestant fathers did not walk in the way of their fathers, and they abandoned the idolatry in the mass. And before that, there was a time when my medieval fathers turned from their pagan gods to serve the triune God preached to them by itinerant monks. And they did right in that. Tradition is to be honored and accepted, but never absolutized, and never privileged above the plain statements of the Word of God.
Ah, gotcha, you might think. Plain statements of the Word of God according to whom? According to the grace of God mediated to me through all His kindness, and that kindness includes loving parents, faithful and communing churches, open Bibles, and honorable confession. In other words, I am vulnerable and dependent. I am not autonomous, and cannot get free by myself, or off to myself. If I give thanks to God the Father for the Lord Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and do so in the midst of His congregation, I have every confidence that He will save me. He has promised, and I believe Him. “But what if He doesn’t?” somebody asks. Well, if I perish I perish — but I know beyond disputing that if God does not save me, I will certainly not be able to scramble off somewhere else to save myself, or find a savior on my own who will authoritatively bypass my need to trust in Jesus, receiving all His covenant blessings. No, it is all grace, grace upon grace, and grace that saves to the uttermost.