Protestantism’s biggest problem: on whose authority do we interpret the scriptures?

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On Saturday I joined a group of Anglican and Methodists in our village to walk around its familiar landmarks offering prayers. We started at the (pre-Reformation) Anglican church, moved on to the war memorial, then to the village school, thence to our popular local pub. A Methodist lady whom I know well told me sotto voce that she wasn’t going to join in praying for the pub to flourish. I remembered that Methodists forswear alcohol. Sotto voce I responded, “But what about Jesus’s first miracle at the marriage feast of Cana?” She replied, half-resigned, half-humorous: “Why do people always bring up Cana!”

Why indeed? It was not only Jesus’s first recorded miracle and a heavenly blessing on matrimony; it was also a sign of God’s lavish generosity and of the complete trust Our Lady had in her Son’s divine powers. The deeper question is: on whose authority do we interpret the Scriptures; John Wesley’s or the Church? To be fair to Wesley and as the Methodist lady and myself agreed, he was condemning the “demon drink” of his day rather than inventing a dogma. Yet at some stage in the spiritual life of a thoughtful Christian the question must arise: “Is private interpretation enough?”

These thoughts are prompted by my reading From Atheism to Catholicism: Nine Converts Explain their Journey Home” published by EWTN with a foreword by Marcus Grodi. I have only read two chapters so far, the first by John L Barger, whose Catholic wife gently nudged him out of his atheistic complacency, and the second by Holly Ordway, an American professor of English literature. Barger admitted that after discovering the Church to be right in so many areas (such as her opposition to abortion) and “seeing the virtues that blossom in those who follow Her teachings, I found it impossible to believe her to be the proud, mendacious caricature presented by Her enemies.”

Ordway, whom I interviewed for a blog I wrote in November 2014 after the publication of her own conversion story, Not God’s Type, explained that her love for the great Christian poets such as John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins and TS Eliot helped to prepare the imaginative ground for her eventual conversion, As she observes here, one might disagree with them (alongside prose writers such as CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien) “but you can’t call them stupid or uneducated!”

Ordway, not unlike Derya Little, who moved from Islam to atheism, then to evangelical Christianity and from there to the Church and whom I blogged about recently, moved from atheism to the Episcopalian Church in the US and thence to Catholicism, over the issue of authority: whom can one trust over a particular interpretation of the Bible?

Walking around our village with my fellow Christians we were all aware that beyond our own denominational disagreements we are in a tiny minority amid a sea of indifference and wholesale rejection of Christianity. In my 2014 interview with Ordway, she told me: “We need to ask: why has atheism become so entrenched in modern culture? What are the false ideas that have taken root in this culture that are bearing such poisoned fruit?” She sees her task as “harnessing the imagination to communicate truth” in a world where “people simply don’t connect with the language of Christianity.”