SO much on the subject of Private Judgment in matters of Faith which, when legitimately exercised, may hold its own against the claims of Church authority, for the two do not, in principle, interfere with each other. The Church enforces, on her own responsibility, what is an historical fact, and ascertainable as other facts, and obvious to the intelligence of inquirers, as other facts; viz., the doctrine of the Apostles; and Private Judgment has as little exercise here as in any matters of sense or experience. It may as well claim a right of denying that the Apostles existed, or that the Bible exists, as that that doctrine existed and exists. We are not free to sit at home and speculate about everything; there are things which we look at, or ask about, if we are to know them. Some things are matters of opinion, others of inquiry. The simple question is, whether the Church's doctrine is Apostolic, and how far Apostolic. Now if we could agree in our answer, from examining Scripture, as we one and all agree about the general events of life, it would be well; but since we do not, we must have recourse to such sources as will enable us to agree, if there be such; and such, I would contend, is Ecclesiastical Antiquity. There is, then, no intricacy and discordance in the respective claims of the Church and Private Judgment in the abstract. The Church enforces a fact, Apostolical Tradition, as the doctrinal key to Scripture; and Private Judgment expatiates beyond the limits of that Tradition;—each acts in its own province, and is responsible within it.
I have said the Church's Authority in enforcing doctrine extends only so far as that doctrine is Apostolic, and therefore true; and that the evidence of its being Apostolic, is in kind the same as that on which we believe the Apostles lived, laboured, and suffered. But this leads to a further and higher view of the subject, to which I shall devote the present Lecture.
Not only is the Church Catholic bound to teach the Truth, but she is ever divinely guided to teach it; her witness of the Christian Faith is a matter of promise as well as of duty; her discernment of it is secured by a heavenly as well as by a human rule. She is indefectible in it, and therefore not only has authority to enforce, but is of authority in declaring it. This, it is obvious, is a much more inspiring contemplation than any I have hitherto mentioned. The Church not only transmits the faith by human means, but has a supernatural gift for that purpose; that doctrine, which is true, considered as an historical fact, is true also because she teaches it.
In illustration of this subject I shall first refer to two passages in our received formularies.
First; in the 20th Article we are told that the Church has "authority in controversies of faith." Now these words certainly do not merely mean that she has authority to enforce such doctrines as can historically be proved to be Apostolical. They do not speak of her power of enforcing truth, or of her power of enforcing at all, but say that she has "authority in controversies;" whereas, if this authority depended on the mere knowledge of an historical fact, and much more, if only on her persuasion in a matter of opinion, any individual of competent information has the same in his place and degree. The Church has, according to this Article, a power which individuals have not; a power not merely as the ruling principle of a society, to admit and reject members, not simply a power of imposing tests, but simply "authority in controversies of faith." But how can she have this authority unless she be so far certainly true in her declarations? She can have no authority in declaring a lie. Matters of doctrine are not like matters of usage or custom, founded on expedience, and determinable by discretion. They appeal to the conscience, and the conscience is subject to Truth alone. It recognizes and follows nothing but what comes to it with the profession of Truth. To say the Church has authority, and yet is not true, as far as she has authority, were to destroy liberty of conscience, which Protestantism in all its forms holds especially sacred; it were to substitute something besides Truth as the sovereign lord of conscience, which would be tyranny. If this Protestant principle is not surrendered in the Article, which no one supposes it to be, the Church is to a certain point there set forth as the organ or representative of Truth, and its teaching is identified with it.
Our reception of the Athanasian Creed is another proof of our holding the infallibility of the Church, as some of our Divines express it, in matters of saving faith. In that Creed it is unhesitatingly said, that certain doctrines are necessary to be believed in order to salvation; they are minutely and precisely described; no room is left for Private Judgment; none for any examination into Scripture, with the view of discovering them. Next, if we inquire the ground of this authority in the Church, the Creed answers, that she speaks merely as the organ of the Catholic voice, and that the faith thus witnessed, is, as being thus witnessed, such, that whoso does not believe it faithfully, cannot be saved. "Catholic," then, and "saving" are taken as synonymous terms; in other words, the Church Catholic is pronounced to have been all along, and by implication as destined ever to be, the guardian of the pure and undefiled faith, or to be indefectible in that faith.
If it be inquired whether such a doctrine does not trench upon the prerogative of Scripture, as containing all things necessary to salvation, I answer, that it cannot; for else, one portion of our formularies would be inconsistent with another. And, in truth, there is obviously no inconsistency whatever in saying, first, that Scripture contains the Saving Faith; and, next, that the Church Catholic has, by a Divine gift, ever preached it; though, doubtless, it would be inconsistent to say, first, that the Church Catholic has ever preached the Saving Faith; next, that each individual is allowed to draw his Faith for himself from Scripture; but this our formularies do not say.
We do not, therefore, set up the Church against Scripture, but we make her the keeper and interpreter of Scripture. And Scripture itself contains what may be called her charter to be such.
Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church
The Via Media volume 1, lecture 8