Private Judgment

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Dear Joel,

Thank you for bearing with my delay as I have been doing two things. First, I have been assembling my thoughts on this complicated issue, and secondly, I have been looking for an opportunity to lay them out in systematic fashion. In the letters that follow, I am not assuming that every issue I address will have necessarily been a concern of yours, but I still want to do this in a way that covers the entire waterfront. This is important because something might not be an issue now, but still arise later. I would like to approach this with systematic thoroughness, while at the same time assuming an organic interconnectedness. For this reason I decided to begin with the whole issue of private judgment.

What I would like to do is write various letters in succession. I am not assuming that you will answer them, but if you do, I will attempt to address any questions you raise in my next letter before moving on to the next area of discussion.

Obviously, the Protestant Reformation cannot be defended apart from an explanation and defense of what has come to be called “private judgment.” But as with many aspects of Reformed doctrine, this one has to be rescued from the anabaptist construction that (since the Reformation) has come to be placed upon it. Private judgment does not mean individualistic judgment. Private judgment, rightly understood is an epistemological question, and not a question of final or ultimate authority.

On the question of authority, classical Protestants and Roman Catholics agree that the whims and views of private spirits are not to be considered the ground of any authority whatever. The Christian soul is, by definition, a humble soul in submission. But in submission to what? The classical Protestant answer is that the individual Christian, together with the entire Church, is to be in submission (ultimately) to Scripture. The Roman Catholic answer, in effect, is that the individual Christian is to be in submission to the magisterium of the Church, with no interpretation accepted which is contrary to that magisterium. In the former, the Church is fallible, and in the latter, the Church is capable of infallibility. In both cases, the individual submits to something outside himself. By way of contrast, the ethos of anabaptistism tends toward the inherent authority of private judgment. I think we would agree that reason is an eyeball, and not a source of light. God created us with a faculty for rational weighing and sifting of evidence so that we could submit to light from outside. Every form of religion and secularism that tries to make the eyeball shed light is therefore doomed to failure. So Rome and Geneva both agree that the light must come from outside.

But this agreement only goes a limited distance. It would be false to say that submission to external authority eliminates the need for private judgment. As an epistemological question, private judgment is an inescapable concept. The only question is whether we will exercise it poorly or well, with knowledge or in ignorance. Roman Catholics exercise private judgment as much as the stoutest Protestant. But for various reasons, they just won’t admit what they are doing.

These various reasons include the formal rejection of private judgment by Rome. For example, the Council of Trent declared, in order to restrain petulant spirits, that no one “relying on his own skill, shall-in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edifications of Christian doctrine,-wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,-whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures . . .” (Trent/Session IV).

Vatican I agrees with this, rejecting the heretics that Trent rejected, those heretics who “allowed religious questions to be a matter for the judgment of each individual” (Session II, 3). With this, Vatican II also agrees: “But the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church . . . (Dei Verbum, II, 10). Consequently, Roman Catholics who therefore deny that they have the ability to interpret apart from the aid of an infallible interpreter are, in my (private) judgment, understanding the intent of these decrees. But these statements go farther than just saying that private individuals cannot cook up their own truths-the statements have an epistemological force. And this leads to problems.

As you are considering a return to Rome, I want to urge you to remember all the different ways in which private judgment will necessarily still be exercised by you. First, as you know, Rome requires you to “come home.” But, as your minister, I have required that you not go there, that you remain a faithful Protestant. Now, who makes the decision between these two competing authoritative voices? Who decides which voice is not genuinely authoritative? And incidentally, there are far more than just these two choices. Countless other groups beckon you as well. In all this, the ultimate decision will be made by you. This means that this is a dilemma that cannot be escaped. If I were to be asked by a Roman Catholic how I know my private interpretation is correct (over against the hubbub of all other private interpretations out there), I can reply with the same question. “Assume for a moment that we agree that we sinners all have need of an infallible interpreter. How do you know that you have picked the right infallible interpreter?”

Second, if you were to return to Rome, you would discover that you had not left the pandemonium of having to make choices in our Baskin-Robbins Protestant world for the plain vanilla solitary choice in the Roman fold. Multiple choices still confront you. These choices include what “denominational” faction within the Roman church you will align with. Will you be a Latin rite family, ultramontantists, middle of the road nearest Catholic church advocate, part of the “let’s ordain women as priests” faction, cheerleaders for liberation theology, etc.? These are not hypothetical questions-you will have choices to make, and the magisterium of the Church will not necessarily help you make them. For example, the pope is unlikely to say, any time soon, that all nuns should leave the liberal Maryknoll order. And, if he did, the likely absence of subsequent discipline would lead many to believe that he didn’t mean it. Authoritative teaching is impossible without authoritative action.

Third, let’s assume that you do the normal average thing and simply begin attending the local parish church. As you continue to read your Bible, you still have as many interpretive choices as you did when Protestant. The teaching office of the Church has not produced an authoritative set of commentaries on the Scriptures, verse-by-verse. A few key passages have been authoritatively interpreted, but that is all. When it comes to the vast majority of the Bible, you are still on your own.

Fourth, private judgment has to engage in a strenuous effort to submit to the magisterium and “unanimous consent of the fathers” because the first thing it has to do is find it. In other words, there is a vast mountain of teaching and conflicting voices to sort through, and one thing the magisterium has not done is give us a table of contents to identify the precise boundaries of that magisterium. Where can I go and get a leather-bound set of all the infallible determinations of the Church?

For just one particular example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that Muslims as Muslims can be saved. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.” (p. 223). So Muslims are said to worship the same God. Is this right? More importantly, is it part of the magisterium? If not, what is it doing there in the catechism? If so, then do you think it would be possible to find another authoritative statement from another era in Catholic history which contradicts this, Unum Sanctum for example? Is Unum Sanctum part of the magisterium? Who sorts these apparent conflicts out? The Protestants have a defined rule of faith, the Scriptures. The Table of Contents is fixed; the Protestants are committed. But the faithful Roman Catholic is told that he cannot interpret the fixed Bible without the aid of non-stipulated, non-fixed magisterium. It is like being told that you cannot read the map rightly without being given the key — but then the key is hidden.

Fifth, assume that a Roman Catholic has a written document from the Church which is (beyond dispute) part of this magisterium. How does the individual interpret these words? If he cannot interpret the words of Scripture, then how can he hope to interpret the far more complicated words of, say, the Catechism of the Catholic Church? And if he can rightly interpret the words of the Catechism, then why can he not understand the book of Romans? The Catechism says “Christ’s Resurrection is the fulfillment of the promises both of the Old Testament and of Jesus himself during his earthly life” (p. 170). Paul says that God declared Jesus to be the Son of God with power by His resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4). Why do I have the ability to understand (on my own) the first set of words from God, but I need help for the second set?

Sixth, private judgment must be used in order to sort through disputes within the Roman Catholic church concerning the meaning of a particular place within the Church’s teaching. For example, Verbum Dei says that since “therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confined to the Sacred Scriptures.” Conservative Roman Catholics point to this passage to defend their (correct) view of the infallibility of the Scriptures in their entirety. But liberals in Rome point to the same passage to show that the Scriptures are infallible on matters concerning our salvation. Who settles such disputes?

Seventh, private judgment needs to frame the question before it rightly. The choice is not between the countless Protestant groups that hold to sola Scriptura on the one hand and then Rome on the other. The comparison must be made between equivalent formal principles. In other words, the first decision that necessary private judgment must make is between groups that affirm sola Scriptura on the one hand and groups that affirm Scripture together with an infallible interpreter on the other. And if our concern is schism it should be noted that a far greater degree of unity exists between different groups that affirm the former than those groups which affirm the latter. Of course, once that choice is made, further downstream choices must then be made. Once Protestant, one must decide whether to be baptistic or paedobaptistic for example. But it is simply a category mistake to present the basic Roman approach as monolithic over against the fragmented Protestants.

With all this said, I would like to spend just a little time pointing to relevant Scriptures. We are told to emulate the Bereans. “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few” (Acts 17:11). Having heard the word preached from apostolic mouths directly, the Bereans turned to the law and the testimony.

Paul commands the Galatians to exercise private judgment if apostles or angels show up teaching anything contrary to the true depositum fidei (Gal. 1:8-10). The Word they had already received was authoritative, and the Galatians were commanded to hold fast to the understanding they had once had, regardless of the rank held by one who contradicted it. Paul also tells the Thessalonians to “prove all things; hold fast that which is good (1 Thess. 5:21). This is not a scriptural anomaly. “I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say” (1 Cor. 10:15). We find this kind of exhortation in many places. “Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind” (Col. 2:18).

The apostle John also expects believers to have their wits about them, and to use them. “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). The same thing applies when dealing with itinerant missionaries with bad credentials. “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed” (2 John 10)

Jesus speaks the same way: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit” (Matt. 7:15-17).

When dealing with Gnostics and JWs, it seems that our duties are clear. But do we have be careful lest our use of private judgment lead to schism? Obviously, Scripture warns us to avoid both the sin of schism and the sin of unity. It would be nice if everything were simple, but alas, it is not. We are told to maintain unity in the strongest possible terms, and we are also commanded to separate from error in terms equally strong. How can both these requirements be observed? How can we submit to the ministerium of the Church, and at the same time exercise private judgment? The Bible gives us the parameters. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17). We are to obey them. Obey them as they do what? As they build on the essential foundation. “And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:20-22).

Every humble piece of wood in the building must reject false carpenters. Every living stone has the responsibility to reject spurious stone masons. “Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge” (Prov. 19:27). This is true private judgment. Such injunctions can be obeyed by us-it is not an impossibility. Humble private judgment can be made to sound like arrogance, but only if we say that comparable passages in the Bible are also arrogant. “I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts” (Ps. 119:99-100).

Some last few objections, and then I’ll be done.


Private judgment has been abused.

Granted. What glorious thing hasn’t been? This would includes marriage, alcohol, tradition, and more. We have to distinguish between righteous things which can always be abused in a fallen world (like wine), and those things which in themselves are an abuse (like drunkenness).

Private judgment has led to the chaos of the modern divided Church.

Why do we say this? Why do we not go back a step further, and say that Rome’s refusal to acknowledge lawful private judgment made it impossible to exercise godly private judgment within the fold of the Church? This objection is a version of the post hoc fallacy, and says that since the modern fragmented world came after the Reformation therefore the Reformation caused the modern fragmented world. Why do we not say that the Renaissance popes were the culprit? The schismatic is the one who actually caused the schism. John the Baptist didn’t have a cushy office set-up at the Temple. He preached in the wilderness, but this did not make him the schismatic separatist. They were all back in Jerusalem.

Private judgment has done more divisive harm than good.

Here I would simply issue a flat denial. No, it hasn’t. While I agree that the divisions in Christendom are greatly to be lamented, I would also say that the situation is not as bad as it is frequently portrayed by Roman Catholic apologists (e.g. “25,000 Protestant denominations”). The actual figure is much lower-and most likely comes from David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia. As of 1982, he identified seven major ecclesiastical blocs, and some 22,190 denominations fall under these seven blocs. The first bloc is Roman Catholic, which contains 223 denominations. The Orthodox give us 580. Non-White Indigenous gives us 10,956. Anglicans account for 240. Marginal Protestants (Mormons, JWs, etc.) add up to 1,490 denominations. (Non-Roman) Catholics give us 504 denominations. Coming in at #2 would be the Protestants with 8,196.

But wait, we’re not done. This Protestant figure counts (necessarily) independent Baptist jurisdictions, so that if a city has seven different independent Baptist churches, this counts as seven different denominations. The same skewed effect happens with the 194 Latin-rite denominations. Countering this optical illusion, Barrett goes on to break the seven major ecclesiastical blocs into what he calls “major ecclesiastical traditions,” where I think we come up with an accurate number. So that I don’t bore you, let me just focus on the division of three of the major blocs. The Orthodox are divided up into nineteen traditions, the Roman Catholics have sixteen, and the Protestants have twenty-one. If we throw the Anglicans in, they account for another six. Far from Bedlam, this appears to be simply the cost of the gospel doing business in a fallen world. But whichever door you choose, you have lots of work for private judgment to do in following up that choice.

Finally, at the final day of judgment, God does not count by twos or tens. Each individual will stand before Him to give an account, and if that individual sat under the ministry of lies, then that individual will be judged accordingly, and all in full accordance with the Scriptures.

Enough for now.

Cordially in Christ,


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