The other evening I was thinking about Christian diversity and how to explain the differences between Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions to new believers and interested enquirers. Now, I am sure there are many ways to approach this but after some reflection I am inclined to suggest that the critical difference comes down to different understandings of apostolic authority. What is authoritative for the church? Who is an authority within the church?
In contrast to Buddhism, where different traditions within it literally have different scriptures, within Christianity different traditions still affirm the same scriptures as authoritative, at least for the most part. We all affirm the same New Testament scriptures, and even the same ecumenical Creeds. The differences don’t arise from there. Instead the differences arise through differences in the way we interpret scripture and tradition – What part does tradition play in interpretation? What part does the church play in interpretation? Who has authority to interpret?
The context in which revelation is interpreted shapes how we understand it.
Catholic Christians have a very hierarchical approach; they emphasise Papal authority and link apostolic authority to Papal succession. Orthodox Christians have a more consensus approach; they emphasise the authority of the ancient ecumenical councils and link apostolic authority to the church acting as a whole, within parallel jurisdictions. Protestant Christians have a more tradition-critical / individualistic approach; they emphasise the Bible’s authority over later tradition and accord apostolic authority to any church or Christian acting in harmony with the apostle’s teaching in scripture.
How does this work out in practice? Well for starters we all agree with the Nicene Creed, but for different reasons. Catholic Christians accept its authority because the Pope presided over it. Orthodox Christians accept its authority because it was ecumenical (except for the filioque bit). Protestant Christians accept its authority because, while it goes beyond the Bible, it is fully consistent with it.
Where the traditions disagree, it is often for similar reasons. Protestants will disagree with other traditions where there is insufficient New Testament support for them. At its best this can be a useful check against cultural accretions and theological drift. Orthodox will disagree with other traditions where there is insufficient consensus with the wider church over its long history. This can be a useful check against overly ahistorical or eccentric readings. Get the idea?
But what this led me to consider is the shape of the church in a post-Christendom world. You might recall that I have previously suggested that the distinction between clergy and laity is not nearly as significant as the distinction between disciples and non-disciples in a post-Christendom environment. I am inclined to extend this and say the distinctions between Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox pales into insignificance when compared to the distinctions between Christians and non-Christians – and its time we start remembering this forgotten truth. Whatever our differences, we all worship Jesus as God, we are all disciples of Jesus.