How did God make a way for Christ's teachings to reach each generation without error or "editing"?
In the end, one question stood out from all the others: Had Christ come to bring us truth only for that truth to be lost in opinion wars? Or had God preserved that truth for each of us - literate or illiterate, Bible scholar or 8th grade drop-out?
Actually, that's two questions. But you get the idea.
Had I tossed aside the Bible as a source of this preservation of truth? Of course not. I was simply asking, "How am I supposed to use this?" The Bible, I had discovered, does not do us the favor of standing up and rightly interpreting itself.
How could a sheep know what the Good Shepherd truly intended him to know about baptism, the Lord's Supper, marriage, and so on? How?
I saw only two choices.
The first was to give up the search and join a not-so-Bible-believing congregation. In other words, "wise up." Realize that, despite Christ's repeated use of solemn phrases like "verily, verily, I say unto you," truth really is unattainable in these matters.
I had to admit Scripture does touch upon deep, unsearchable mysteries. And we honor these mysteries when we avoid a superficial satisfaction in "possessing" the truth. But taking this too far turning the Gospel into a Gnostic riddle or a rarified academic debate denies that Christ's teachings were meant for all, even for the "smallest of these." (It also tends to turn tough gospel ethics into debatable matters -- in other words, you don't have to worry about them if you can't know what Jesus really said.)
The second choice was, well ... "authority." I had seen the Christianity which left truth up to the individual. There were, however, some remaining areas on the Christian map -- the "old country" where the role of church authority in matters of interpretation was simply a given.
I am as squeamish about such matters as anyone else. Yet, complaints like "How dare you pretend to know what God is saying!" are not reserved to Catholic bishops alone; "God is speaking to us through the pastor's annointed preaching" is a conviction native to many Protestant churches. In charismatic circles, people even claim to prophecy in the Spirit, standing up in the congregation and quite literally speaking for God.
But the emphasis in these situations is "Tell us something new" a new insight, a new list of "5 principles" to "apply to our lives," etc. As I gingerly stepped into the "old country," I discovered the emphasis was upon preserving what we received from Christ in the first place -- termed "revealed truth" or "the deposit of faith." This was supposed to be protected via what Catholics call "apostolic succession."
While reading about Catholic novelist Walker Percy I discovered his journey to Rome was influenced powerfully by Kierkegaard's essay, "Of the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle." I tracked down that essay.
In it, Kierkegaard points out the difference between a "revealed truth" and a truth arrived at through human genius.
"Revealed truths" are details about reality which God reveals to us. He has to reveal them, because they are, for one reason or another, relatively inaccessible to us "higher than our thoughts." Thus, we can accept such truths only by trusting God. Our basis is His authority not our confidence that, once again, human genius has pierced the veil.
Thus, Christ was placed in the position of having to hand us mysteries, saying, "This is what is true" and, when people scratched there head, "If you can't believe because you know me and trust me, at least believe on the basis of the miracles you have seen." After Christ returned to the Father, this oddly difficult task of handing down mysteries became the responsibility of the apostles.
The difference, then, between a genius and an apostle? An apostle passes on to us what was given him. He does not presume to speak to us on the basis of his SAT scores or Mensa membership. Rather, he speaks with a very simple authority: he was chosen by God. He risks his life in order to impart a description of reality which is not his own, not a theory or hypothesis, not a guess or approximation.
Of course, Kierkegaard's definition of an apostle is exactly what the Bible Christian intends when he says, "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." They are tremendously loyal to revealed truths which Peter, Matthew, John and others put down on paper this, for the Bible Christian, is how the apostles fulfilled their duty to preserve the faith for future generations.
But I was convinced flawed interpretation of these writings gets in the way. Preservation of the deposit of faith is not possible simply by placing those truths into a book. A person can hold the Bible in the air and claim he is speaking truths based on the authority of God's Word and proceed to share his own distorted perspective of revealed truth.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, claimed the apostles never ceased being apostles and doing what apostles do. When the time came, they entrusted in a decidedly supernatural fashion their "office of apostle" to successors. These claim to pass on only what was given them with an ever deepening understanding as the centuries go by, but with no new revelations.
I had to admit this would provide a sort of "checks and balances" which Protestants don't enjoy. If a false idea was gaining ground, a bishop, as in the times of the original apostles, could speak out against falsehood with real authority.
On the other hand, this sort of "buck stops here" authority was exactly what some dislike, even vehemently despise, about the Catholic approach.
But what if truth hangs in the balance?