At present I've been working on a new book project (one of the reasons why I haven't been posting much lately). The subject is scripture and tradition. Part of my goal is to respond to the recent criticisms of sola scriptura waged by Brad Gregory and Christian Smith. Their main criticism is that Scripture alone cannot serve as a basis of doctrinal authority because everyone disagrees about what scripture means. For Gregory this takes on an indictment of the entire modern world: Medieval Catholicism provided civilizational unity, but Protestantism created disunity and thereby brought about the secular nation-state. Secularism now threats all Christians and so wouldn't it have been better had we just left the Pope in charge?
The problem Gregory and Smith's accounts are several fold. There's a lot of places where one could begin, so I'll make some of my initial criticism of their theological concept of authority. One major problem is that practically speaking the magisterial authority of the RCC doesn't accomplish much of anything. Catholics disagree with each other all of the time. Liberal and conservative Catholics dislike each other and have less in common than orthodox Lutherans and Calvinists. When the Pope speaks, people just ignore him if they don't like what he says. There's literally no enforcing it, since we now have freedom of religion, a principle validated by the RCC at the II Vatican council. In any case, most of what the Pope says (by the standards of Catholic theology itself!) lacks absolute theological authority anyways. It's part of the ordinary magisterium (which can be fallible, even if it's authoritative for the time being), and not the extraordinary (which is technically infallible). According to most Catholic theologians, the pope has only really infallible twice (1854 and 1950- when he declared the dogmas of the immaculate conception and assumption). Though technically authoritative, since the ordinary magisterium is capable of error, the message for most Catholic dissidents is clear: Just wait the ordinary magisterium out. Case-in-point, Henri De Lubac was silence for 20 years by Pius the XII for his views of grace and nature (primarily). John the XXIII then made him the leader of the II Vatican council, which based many of its decisions on his views of grace and nature which had been previously condemned.
Beyond this, there is the issue that the extraordinary magisterium has often contradicted itself. Lateran IV taught that heretics should be killed by secular governments, Vatican II said everyone had the right to freedom of religion. Trent states that virginity is superior to marriage. Vatican II says that they are equal. Vatican I says that the Church is irreformable, Vatican II says that it is always reforming.
Popular Catholic apologists often brag of the certainty that having a magisterium provides, but this is far from the truth. Most teachings are not infallibility and therefore can be changed over time. Ultimately, Catholics will have to wait-and-see if certain decision of the magisterium will hold and will ultimately prove essential part of the faith, or will give way to a "new understanding" (as it is often put). For this reason, on many issues their faith will not be infallible or final, but merely provisional- making the faith itself provision to a certain extent. Moreover, many decision of the Popes which were believed to be infallible (Una Sanctum, for example), are no longer regarded as such. In light of the theory of the development of doctrine (introduced by Moehler and Newman) it is easy to simply claim that the Spirit has now "evolved" a "new understanding" and to classify a once infallible teaching to the realm of fallibility. By contrast, orthodox Lutherans and Reformed hold to the same confessions as their ancestors and therefore the same faith as they did in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Beyond this, the same problems of interpretation holds for ordinary Catholics. Many would-be Catholic apologists have told me that I cannot have "supernatural" faith, because my faith rests not on infallible teaching (since I do not claim that anyone other than authors of Scripture were infallible), but on interpretative opinions of fallible humans (namely, Luther and Melanchthon). Nevertheless, even if one accepted their premise (my faith actually rests on the Word and the Spirit, which are infallible- that is an argument for a future post!) the problem remains that I myself am not infallible and I am the one who is ultimately interpreting when I read the decisions of the Popes and the councils. Following the Catholic apologists' premises, there is ultimately no difference between our epistemic standing. So, on the one hand, we have fallible people interpreting an infallible source (Protestants reading the Bible) and on the other hand, fallible people interpreting an infallible source (Catholics reading the teachings of the magisterium). In response, some Catholic have argued to me that "the Bible cannot clarify itself if it is misinterpreted, whereas a Prelate can!" This is false for three reasons though. 1. The Bible is the living Word of God, and God can use it to act on the believer to correct their false understanding of the Bible (again, more on this later!). 2. A Pope or Council who "clarifies" itself will do so by writing a new document, which will also be opened to interpretation- which may result in error. 3. A dead pope or other church authority can no longer clarify himself. His writings can be manipulated as much as anything written document to serve anyone's purpose. All the Catholic Church does in its magisterium is produce more written documents which are no less subject to the subjective interpretation than an infallible Bible is. This explains the strife and descensions that has always plagued the RCC. Protestantism has the same problem, but without a unified institutional hierarchy. So, everyone is in the same boat!
Lastly, the problem with the Catholic idea of the magistrium is that it rests on the premise that the Church is guided by the Spirit without any way to prove this. Most modern Catholic theologians rely on the theory of the development of doctrine, claiming that although their positions on a variety of subjects are not technically found in Scripture or any of the earlier Fathers, the Holy Spirit has prompted the Roman magisterium to develop certain dogmas over time. To outsiders, this reads like an admission of the Protestant claim that the RCC corrupted the faith over many centuries by producing new dogmas. Likewise, the difficulty is that there is no way of proving this and we are supposed to take their word for it that they weren't really corrupting the original revelation and that they were just following the prompting of the Spirit to develop new teachings. Similarly, there are several organizations which claim to have the Spirit, such as the Mormons, the JWs, Seventh Day Adventists, and the Branch Davidians. There's really no telling why one should believe the RCC claims of a Spirit-led organization over the others. Historically, Catholics have pointed to Matthew 16. Beyond the fact that people in the early Church generally interpreted the passage (which speaks of Jesus giving the keys to the kingdom to Peter) in the manner that the Reformers and EO Church later did, the argument is circular in the extreme:We know from Matthew 16 that scripture is unclear and need a magistrium to interpret it because the magistrium interprets the Matthew 16 to mean that Scripture is unclear and needs a magisterium to interpret it.
Next time I will hopefully give a positive account of an alternative view of teaching and scriptural authority.