Maybe not among the Eastern Orthodox bishops or the Anglican ones, but it’s not as if Protestants don’t regularly meet to find a consensus on what the Bible means. Even so, Alan Jacobs and Rod Dreher repeat the Roman Catholic charge that you need tradition to augment Scripture (when in fact tradition comes all balled up in the magisterium — read bishops).
The elevation of method to magisterial principle was supposed to make it possible for scholars to discern, and then agree on, the meaning of biblical texts. Instead it merely uprooted them from Christian tradition and Christian practice — as Michael Legaspi has shown in a brilliant book — and left many of them unequipped to understand the literary character of biblical texts, while doing nothing to promote genuine agreement on interpretation. In fact, the transferring of the guild of interpreters from the Church to the University, given the University’s insistence on novelty in scholarship, ensured that no interpretative consensus would be forthcoming.
But if Christians are supposed to take their cues less from the university and more from churches, the latter still exist and provide interpretive consensuses. Maybe the mainstream media and scholars who identify with the academic guild are not impressed by church synods and councils (though they sure were attentive to the Ordinary Synod of Rome; maybe you need special get ups to gain journalists and scholars’ attention, or you need to meet in buildings suffused with Renaissance art — so much for poor church for the poor). But it’s not as if those assemblies even among Protestants have gone away. Given a recent reminder about the illusion of respectability, maybe the work that existing churches still do could receive more credit.
Rod makes Jacobs’ point with flair:
what Protestant churches and organizations are really doing in these debates are trying to find out if its membership wants to change, and if so, how much change will it accept. The truth is, says Beck, is that Protestantism is a “hermeneutical democracy,” in which the individual consciences of believers determine what is true and what is false. This, he says, is the “genius of the tradition,” and having to do all this “relational work” is a key part of what it means to be Protestant. The Bible doesn’t speak for itself; it has to be interpreted, and for Protestants, that means that everybody gets a vote.
“Own your Protestantism,” he says. “The ultimate authority in Protestantism isn’t the Bible, it’s the individual conscience.”
Well, it’s not as if hermeneutical democracy doesn’t afflict churches that have episcopal authoritative structures (where exegeting the Bible is not as important as reading the times’ signs). All churches, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox are in the same boat of having members who regularly pick and choose, cafeteria style, what they believe and that they don’t. Having tradition, bishops, or councils doesn’t fix any of this. What would fix this is having magistrates who enforce religion and where civil penalties are bound up with religious teaching and practice. But wouldn’t that be Islamic?
At least give Protestants credit for trying to discern what God revealed through the prophets and apostles. Adding tradition to Scripture has generally meant the dog of tradition wagging the tail of the Bible.