Universal and Particular – 3

 

First such an authority would need to be historical. In order to give me a Jesus that was

bigger than me this church’s teaching and experience had to be rooted in history.

Through her roots in history I could share in a Christian experience which transcended

my own personal feelings and cultural background.

 

Secondly, this authority had to be objective. In other words, it couldn’t be subject to my

personal whims, the whims of my local pastor or any local prophet or teacher. The

authority had to operate above the interests and concerns of the church itself. To prove

its objectivity, this authority had to be spread out over a large number of people over a

long period of time while remaining consistent in its themes and purpose.

Connected with the criterion of objectivity is that this authority should be universal. It

cannot be the voice of just one person, one nationality, one theological grouping or one

pressure group. This authority has to transcend geographical, cultural and intellectual

boundaries. Not only does this authority have to be universal in geographical terms, but

it has to transcend time as well. It has to be universal down through the ages-connecting

authentically with every age.

 

But if this authority is universal it must also be particular. This fourth trait means the

authority must be specified in a particular place and through a particular person. It

cannot be just a vague “body of teaching” or some kind of “consensus of the faithful”. To

speak to me personally it must speak with a clear, particular and authentic voice. If it is

particular, then it also has to be able to speak to particular problems and circumstances.

A particular authority will apply the universal truths of the gospel to particular problems

with confidence.

 

Fifth, this authority should be intellectually satisfying. While it must be simple enough

for every person to understand and obey, it must also be challenging enough for the

world’s greatest philosophers. As Jerome said of Scripture, “it must be shallow enough

for a lamb to wade and deep enough for an elephant to swim.” This authority must be

intellectually coherent within itself, and it must be able to engage confidently with all

other intellectual religions and philosophical systems. Furthermore, if it is intellectually

satisfying it must offer a worldview that is complete without being completely closed. In

other words, there must be both answers and questions that still remain.

 

Sixth, this authority needs to be Scriptural. Since Scripture is a primary witness to the

revelation, this authority should be both rooted in Scripture, and founded by Scripture.

If it is Scriptural it will also look to Scripture continually as a source of inspiration and

guidance. While this authority will flow from Scripture it will also confirm Scripture and

offer the right interpretation of Scripture with confidence-never contradicting Scripture,

but always working to further illuminate Scripture.

If an authority can be shown to fulfil all six of these traits, then these are a good

confirmation that the authority is not ephemeral and merely human but is of divine

origin. If this authority can be found then it would be able to give my personal

experience of Jesus Christ the universal depth and breadth which lifts me out of that

worship of that Jesus in my own image, which is essentially the worship of myself.

The only place such an authority even claims to exist is in the Catholic Church. As a

result of my reasoning, I now accepted that my faith had to be Catholic if it was to be

universal. However, I still felt that I could be a good Catholic while remaining an

Anglican. According to my Evangelical viewpoint, since denominations didn’t matter

one could subscribe to Catholic views while remaining in another denomination.

But something still ate away at me. How could I claim to be “Catholic” while I was

rejecting one of the basic definitions of being Catholic—that being Catholic means being

in full communion with the head of the family of the Catholic Church, the Bishop of

Rome? I was denying the authority of the Pope, and F.D.Maurice’s phrase now started to

echo as a condemnation, not a force for liberation. Was I wrong in this denial? How

could I claim to be Catholic while rejecting the rock on which the Catholic Church was

built? I then came across Cardinal Newman’s famous Essay on the Development of

Christian Doctrine. In a logically clear, but dense passage he says,

“If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must, humanly

speaking, have an infallible expounder, else you will secure unity of form at the loss of

unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose

between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties; between

latitudinarian and sectarian error… You must accept the whole or reject the whole…it is

trifling to receive all but something which is as integral as any other portion. Thus it

would be trifling indeed to accept everything Catholic except the head of the body of

Christ on earth.”

 

In other words, if I wanted the universal Jesus that Catholicism offered I had to have

Catholicism too. And to have Catholicism I couldn’t pick and choose. How can you have

fullness of the faith when you are still the one who is choosing what is “full” and what

isn’t? To accept the body of Christ in its fullness one has to accept it all. That’s what

fullness implies. If you want to be Catholic you have to accept the ministry of the Bishop

of Rome.

 

By now I was married, and we had two young children. I had been in the parish for

seven years. The Isle of Wight was a beautiful place to live and bring up a family. Not

wanting to give up my ministry and my beautiful home, churches and congregations, I

agreed to “accept the Pope” but remain in the Anglican Church. Before long it became

clear that I could not “accept the Pope” without submitting to his teaching, and that a

vital part of his teaching was that to enjoy the fullness of the faith one has to be in full

communion with the faith. Read More


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