Sunday, December 30, 2007

CRC + RCA = ?

Rev. Bob De Moor, an editor of the Christian Reformed Church's magazine, The Banner, gave a wish list of things he hopes the Lord will do with that denomination over its next 150 years (Now What?, November, 2007). This was done on the occasion of the celebration of the denomination's first 150 years.

Before he gave his list, Rev. De Moor stated, "One safe guess is that the CRC will be as different from what we are now as we are from those original five churches that started us off a century-and-a-half ago. In a changing world, that’s as it should be. (emphasis added)"

This conclusory statement seems to rest on the presumption that the Church, or perhaps just particular faddish denominations of the Church Invisible, ought to change with the times. I would risk reading too much into his statement if I started talking about the birth control pill, gay marriage, or pop theology, so I won't.

One wish in particular was noteworthy for this, my blog on ecumenicity, namely that the CRC of AD 2157 will "have merged back with the Reformed Church in America, from whom we should never have broken away in the first place". This statement drew fire from Adrian Van Geest in the January, 2008 edition of The Banner (Merging Back with the RCA).

After noting several serious obstacles to reunion, she ends her criticism with a powerful one-two:
"I’m not sure how much leadership on exploring these issues with the RCA we can expect from the Banner editor in light of his belief that we should never have broken away from the RCA in the first place. That, incidentally, raises the question of how much we should have celebrated the CRC’s 150th birthday. Perhaps we should have mourned 150 years of schism instead.

"But where would we have been had there not been a CRC these 150 years? Where would a never-separated Reformed Church have been today? I doubt if that would have been a more orthodox church. And would undoing this split make us increasingly more bland—which I believe we have become too much already? Are we content to settle for a lower common denominator to make it work? (emphasis added)"

The perhaps-unintended pun about church denominations and lowest common denominators is catchy. That aside, her question that I have embolded is an excellent one. I might reach the opposite conclusion.

I've often wondered where the liberal PCUSA would be if the Southern Presbyterians and other forebears of the evangelical PCA had never left it. My personal opinion is that where strict adherents to a principle leave the less strict, the principle collapses. And with Protestantism, it always seems to be the strict that leave, for the sake of "purity". This seems to be a derogation of Christ's High Priestly Prayer on unity (cf. John 17). Perhaps for the sake of purity of the Gospel, the CRC left a generation of RCA'ers bereft of their "right" anchor. This broken body, subsiding mostly in centrists and a "left" anchor, did just what one might expect. I prefer unity.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Man's Chief End

Question and Answer One of the Westminster Shorter Catechism states that man's "chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever".

I came across what I believe to be the Roman Catholic answer to the same question (i.e., "What is the chief end of man?"). Man "alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God's own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity" (Catholic Catechism, 356).

The difference between these two is interesting. The Calvinist sees man as existing for God's glorification and man's enjoyment of Him. The Catholic sees man as existing to share in God's life. It seems straightforward that this difference follows from the respective positions Calvinists and Catholics hold on man's free will. The Calvinist admires God's monergistically sovereign decree to salvation and reprobation, and feels thankful for happening to be in the former camp (of salvation). The Catholic sees an ongoing call to cooperation with and love of God.

The Catholic Catechism notes that "sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him" (ibid., 387). I find this idea that there can be no love when there is no freedom simple and persuasive. If this idea and the Catholic view of the chief end of man are right, then of course man has free will.

If God's glorification requires receiving love from His (predestinated) elect creatures, and if there can be no love without freedom, then the Shorter Catechism's First Q&A is at loggerheads with Calvinism's double-election teaching. In other words, if His glory requires love, and love requires freedom, then our living out this Great Predestinated Drama will fail to meet our chief end.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Palmetto Stater

To read about a South Carolina main-stream Protestant lawyer pondering the claims of Catholicism, who happens to identify himself as a liberal (and who loves hiking!), see here. His blog makes for an excellent read so far - I went cover to cover.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Descended Into Hell

Awhile back I noted the early 20th century work of Arthur McGiffert, "The Apostles' Creed: Its Origin, Its Purpose, and Its Historical Interpretation" (1902), available from Google Books. That earlier post discussed whether or not current Protestant uses of the Apostles' Creed match the "original intent" of the church that created it. To repeat the words of a Creed, but not its substance, is to fail to subscribe to that Creed.

The Apostles' Creed tells us that Christ "descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead."

The Reformed circle teaches that Christ went to hell to suffer the torment of damnation on our behalf, in order to be a sufficient substitutionary atoning sacrifice. Calvin taught this, particularly noting that, "If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 16, Sect. 10)" and later, "surely, unless his soul shared in the punishment, he would have been the Redeemer of bodies alone. (ibid., Sect. 12)" These Reformed teachings are deeply woven together with the notion of Christ's substitutionary atonement, His standing "accused before God's judgment seat for our sake." At any rate, this has been my life-long understanding.

So I was none too surprised to learn from McGiffert that "The idea that Christ went down to suffer the torments of the damned in order to complete thereby his expiatory work arose first in the middle ages. (196, emphasis added)" I learned here that a 3rd Century Syrian Creed teaches that Jesus "departed in peace, in order to preach to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the saints concerning the end of the world and the resurrection of the dead." McGiffert notes several early theories of what Christ did upon His descent to Hades, none of which match Calvin's theory.

Theologians of my Reformed circle criticize many Orthodox and Catholic doctrines as inventions of the Middle Ages. But Calvin's view, that Christ descended into the Hell of the damned to be a substitutionary atonement because his physical death and resurrection were insufficient to redeem His people, came from the Middle Ages. Perhaps, on a more philosophical level, this stemmed from Calvin's separation of spirit and matter. One could say that if the earlier teaching were correct, Calvin's could be a big enough theological change to merit the title "heresy", no?

On Continuity Of Principles

The entire second half (aka "Part II") of John Henry Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine is devoted to distinguishing between doctrinal Developments and Corruptions. This follows Part I, which readily established that Christians believe in a multitude of 'developed' doctrines. To make the development/corruption distinction, Newman creates seven "Notes", and spends the second half of the book giving them flesh. His second Note, that "There is no corruption if it retains... the same principles," I find profound.

Principles lie deep in an entity's psyche. They are it's First Things, and make for a better test of heresy than does doctrine. "The life of doctrines may be said to consist in the law or principle which they embody. (Ch. V, Sec. 2(1))" Unlike doctrines, which are concrete and specific, and which grow over time, principles are abstract and permanent.

This section of Newman's may seem largely academic, but I wonder if it contains a new way of articulating that which divides Western Christianity (new for me, that is). A Protestant and a Catholic will have one heck of a time trying to discuss the doctrine of papal infallibility, for instance, as they do not agree in principle. The conversation is fruitless until it turns to debate principles.

The same can said of intra-Protestant discource, for that matter. A major principle of my Reformed denomination is "Covenant", with many doctrines flowing therefrom. To stay "Reformed", varied developments are allowed, so long as the Principle of "Covenant" remains intact. Some Baptists accept and others reject Calvinism, all while remaining Baptist, because their unifying principle is credo-baptism.

Consider what makes one "Evangelical". With the swelling of liberalism within mainline denominations, those who did not abandon faith in the Gospel became united. The doctrines of baptism, predestination, and continuing revelation fell as secondary doctrinal victims to the great principle of faith in the Bible's truth. Some will even extend this titular courtesy to Roman Catholics! It became our defining feature.

For proper Ecumenicity, does it not seem fair to say that we must articulate the underlying principles of our beliefs before we can challenge one another on our doctrines and their development?

[UPDATE: See here for a term paper written by blogger Danny Garland Jr. (of Franciscan University of Steubenville) applying Newman's seven Notes to the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.]

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Unauthorized Edition?

Two Christians were recently discussing the Church. One said to the other, "I don't understand how you can be comfortable remaining within Protestantism." The other said, "You've been in my shoes. What's so hard to understand?" And the first said, "When I was in your shoes, there were two questions to which I had never given thought. Once I did, and as I've found no satisfying answers, I am unable to go back."

Q1. What authority gave the rule that the Bible is the sole source of Authority for God's Church?

Q2. What authority defined the Bible's canon as containing these 66 particular books?

[I variously considered these questions in these two posts: here and here.]

The comfortable Protestant often falls back on observations of the grave depravity of the Western Church at the time of the Reformation. The uncomfortable one is not even able to appreciate the strength of sentiments a faithful Christian would have felt in Luther's time, watching their Bishops and Pope lay waste to the holy visage of the Church. However, the questions above still stand.

Who sent you (cf. Acts 15:24)? By whose authority do you declare this new teaching?

But then, the comfortable Protestant fairly asks, "Where does it say in Scripture that the Church would be preserved from all error?" Any takers?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Harvest Truly Is Great

Last night I watched the movie "Amazing Grace", the chronicle of MP William Wilberforce's efforts to ban the slave trade in the United Kingdom. This was my second viewing of it. I get indescribably uncomfortable watching this film. The analogy to the work the Christian Church has before it of ending abortion is unmistakable.

The movie left me restless, upset, unable to sleep. It reminded me of Christ's words, "The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest. (Luke 10:2, KJV)" When I was an unexposed-to-Catholicism Evangelical, I lived as though life were about spreading the Gospel (i.e., instructions on how to become saved). Now, as an exposed-to-Catholicism Christian, I realize that life is about the Gospel (i.e., that God is Love). Living out the Gospel (vice a focus on merely spreading it) will entail painful work until my life is complete. Before I sought rest and comfort in this life (since I had already checked off the "Saved" box). Now I seek to make my calling and election sure by satisfying my convictions to do Kingdom Work.

What have I done for women seeking to make use of the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic up the street from my law school? Perhaps I'd better get to the work of sharing the Gospel of love up there. What have our pro-life Senators done to imitate the efforts of Wilberforce? They wring their hands and blame the Supreme Court. That's a quitter's excuse. If you have a "Pro-Life" Senator that has not introduced legislation to end abortion-on-demand, please kindly inform him that he's a quitter. And send him a copy of "Amazing Grace" while you're at it.

Can we not put our minds together and come up with a bill that will help stem the tide of infanticide? We cannot wait for 5 Justice Scalia's to be appointed to the High Court before expecting our Pro-Life Senators and Congressmen to take action. The Court may be (presently) as good as it's going to get for the Pro-Life movement in some time. There must be something our elected officials can do. I would much rather see them lose the good fight, then not take up its standards to begin with.

I propose the following, and would love to hear other suggestions (unfortunately, being under Maryland Senators, I would have no more success than a voter in any other traditionally Catholic, Pro-Choice state): a Bill allowing the States to define when life begins, and requiring the courts to apply the 14th Amendment's protections of life, liberty and property to all persons who are on the "begun" side.

Seems too good to be true, and I feel all over that it would never work; but not working at it doesn't work either. Roe v. Wade was built on this foundation: If the fetus is a "person" within the meaning of the 14th Amendment, Ms. Roe's case collapses...but the Court "need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins"...doctors, philosophers and theologians can't reach consensus, so the judiciary won't be able to...therefore, the states may only claim an interest in "the potentiality of life". O'Connor's Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision upheld Roe, without touching this foundation and with lots of talk about stare decisis (respecting precedent).

A new law by Congress, passed after an extensive period of findings where they could call medical doctors to explain the advances in neo-natal medicine and radiology since 1973, could have the staying power that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act had with the post-O'Connor Carhart court. That case showed a willingness to defer to Congress's judgment. Should Congress adjudge that there is strong evidence of life beginning before half the fetal trunk passes through the cervix (our present standard), they could hand off this social determination to the States. And if the States are empowered to determine when life begins, Roe is undermined. Casey's stare decisis rambling would also be undermined by new statutory law.

But you may need to pardon my idealism.

I think it could fail because the court could say that it's not for the Federal Congress to grant to States the power to determine when life begins. But this would have the marvelous impact of forcing the court to face dead-on the weakest (and most crucial) aspect of the Roe decision. Every discussion I've had with a Pro-Choicer involves carefully avoiding the question of when life begins. Almost all of them, when pressed have had to conclude (I think as post hoc rationalization) that life doesn't begin until birth. And that is becoming, thanks to medicine, an increasingly tenuous position to take.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Half a J.D.

Finals are done! Praise the Lord for seeing my family through another tour de force, made difficult exclusively because of my pride -- pride that the grades turn out better than the next guy, so I can continue to act nonchalant about beating others. Does "many who are first will be last, and the last first" apply to law school? Gasp!?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Mathison Cont. (Tertullian)

[Read my prefatory piece on Mathison's "The Shape of Sola Scriptura" here.]

It's been a little while since I've addressed the underlying research and analysis used by Keith A. Mathison in his articulation of the doctrine of sola Scriptura. I've noted that the entirety of his popular work is centered around the principle that the Reformers sought to return the Church to a view of Scripture that he calls "Tradition I". This is contraposed against, inter alia, "Tradition II", which is defined as "the concept of tradition that allows for an authoritative extra-biblical source of revelation. (p. 39)" [Note: the Apostolic Churches do not claim to rely on continuing general revelation in order to teach authoritatively.]

So far I have considered his treatment of Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria. I am unpersuaded by Mathison's claims that the early Church Fathers proffered a view that the Regula Fidei was "inscripturated" into the Bible to be the sole norm and authority of the Christian Faith.

That dusting off having been accomplished, let me take up Mathison's discussion of Tertullian, the 2nd Century ecclesial author (later turned heretic).

Mathison says. Like Irenaeus, Tertullian taught that the oral preaching of the Apostles was written down in Scripture. He rebuffed a teaching of Docetism by saying that "there is no evidence of this, because Scripture says nothing." He condemns the idea that the Apostles did not reveal all to all men but instead disclosed some of their knowledge only to a few and in secret.

Tertullian believed that the Scriptures furnish us with a rule of faith, and this rule of faith is the "hermeneutical context for a proper interpretation of Scripture." Because the Scriptures and the Regula Fidei both have the apostles as their source, they are mutually reciprocal and indivisible.

My analysis. Tertullian rebuffed an aspect of a certain heresy by saying that it lacked evidence in Scripture. It does not follow that Tertullian believed that all Truth is contained within Scripture (i.e., sola Scriptura). Any adherent to Tradition II could equally criticize for lack of evidence a heretical belief on account of Scripture saying "nothing" of it. Crudely stated: Scripture contains Truth; many derivative Truths can be deduced from Scripture; therefore, a teaching that is not derivable from Scripture lacks evidence. This accounts for Tertullian's view, without requiring Tradition I.

That Tertullian condemned the Gnostics for claiming that there were secret written teachings of the Apostles speaks nothing to Tradition I or II. The Catholics and Orthodox do not maintain that they derive teachings from any secret revelations given only to Bishops.

A little digging through Tertullian's work has been revealing. He taught that the Holy Spirit sat in Office over the churches, not permitting them to understand or believe differently than that which He (the Spirit) was "preaching by the Apostles" (On the Prescription of Heretics, Ch. XXVIII). He famously said (with sarcasm) that the heretics could validate their claims of having Apostolic teaching by unfolding "the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such manner that their first bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles." The Bishops he called "transmitters of the apostolic seed" (Ibid., Ch. XXXII). Finally (of my brief surveillance of his work), he notes the double honor of Rome's apostolic authority (Ibid., Ch. XXXVI).

Lastly, Mathison's view that the Regula Fidei is particularly authoritative (though "indivisible" from the Scriptures) because it derives from the Apostles is nothing short of fascinating (and enticing). The view seems necessary to prevent rejection of the early Creeds. But this rule of faith exists nowhere in writing -- it is notional, and at best made analogous to the Apostles' Creed by Mathison. So he acknowledges that there is a deposit of all Truth in the Church, that it is properly handled and interpreted within the Church, but then maintains that the early Church Fathers recognized its as no more than co-extensive with Scripture. Up until that last part, Mathison's is a very Catholic sounding view.

Conclusion. Mathison has yet to show a belief from the early Church that the Bible, the "inscripturation" of the Regula Fidei, had any authority independent of the Apostolic Successors within the Church. Such independence has to be shown though for sola Scriptura to stand.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Anticipating Sabbath Rest

[Note: I use the term "Sabbath" as referring to my day of rest on Sunday, but realize that this is not the universal use of the word even within Christianity. I don't mean to state an opinion as to whether other Christians should call Sunday "Sabbath".]

A movie very dear to me is the 1971 classic, "Fiddler on the Roof." I was fascinated when I first saw it (in entirety, as an adult) by Tevye's earnest expressions as the Friday sun begins to set. "The Sabbath is coming!"

I am not unusual in the PCA for having certain Sabbatarian beliefs. I try to keep my Sabbath observation fairly low-key, and primarily see my obligation as refraining from money-making non-essential labor (note: my subjective belief).

Some Reformed Protestants maintain that observing the Sabbath is no longer a binding moral law, as they believe that our "Sabbath-rest" has come in Christ, thus satisfying the 4th (aka 3rd) Commandment. But even if my observance is for the sake of a mere prudential rule, it offers much reward.

One small thing I have learned from this rest is that I am much more mindful to take care of work due on Monday in advance of Sunday. Beyond fending off procrastination, there is a more enduring lesson to be gained. Today, I have work to do, for the harvest is plenteous (cf. Mat 9:37). Tomorrow, I may be dead, or Christ may have returned; I may soon enter my Sabbath-rest. So I best prepare today, I best tend to what needs tending. My weekly rest helps me to remain mindful of my coming eternal rest, and the work I need to do in preparation of it. As Tevye knew, "the Sabbath is coming!"

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Credo Epilogue: Anticredalism

All churches have Creeds. Creed, of course, is of the Latin word "Credo", or "I believe". I've said before that the non-denominational utterance "no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible" is itself a creed. Some churches believe that no one set of beliefs can be right; that too is a belief. The PCA has its own little creed. All churches have a set of beliefs, so all churches have Creeds.

Protestants necessarily teach that all statements of belief are valid (i.e., Truthful) only insofar as they agree with the Scriptures. [I will set aside for now the antecedent problem that this belief follows a priori a belief subject to untruthfulness.] If formulations of belief are only valid where they agree with the Bible, then their worth is as a forum for discussion, an opportunity to strive toward the Truths within the Bible.

Consequently, creeds should always be open to debate, handling, picking apart, and modifying. And that means that no one should be bound ever to subscribe to a belief in one system of theology as Truth. No one should be bound ever to submit to a particular form of ecclesial governance. These things can only be right insofar as they agree with the Bible, and whether they agree with the Bible needs to remain open for debate (for the individual's determination). To lock one into a particular fallible articulation of Truth locks one out of considering that that articulation may be inaccurate, which locks one into a belief that it is accurate, which conflicts with the protestant view that nothing but Scripture is infallible. Phew.

So, to the Protestant mind, no vows for church membership or officership should be taken, other than a vow to the Prior of Priors, that the Bible is God's only Authoritative Revelation. And how the Prior of Priors obtained to infallible status is (as I humbly see it) the great logical flaw of the Reformation.

Credo III: The Man Jesus

Do protestants properly treat the Godhead? Trinitarian teachings are complex and nuanced, nearly impossible for me to discuss without saying something that is probably (unintentionally) heretical. Our prayers made to "God" almost always mean to "the Father", and we usually pray in "Jesus name" alone. (Note: Christ prayed with particularity to "Our Father").

I was struck when I read 1 Tim 2:5-6 the other night: "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men. (NIV)" This is not language that the majority members of the Council of Nicea would have chosen. "God" and "the man" Jesus appear quite distinct.

In principle, protestants should accept and adhere to the ancient ecumenical formulations regarding the Trinity and the Nature of Christ only insofar as we find them to agree with Scripture. But these points do not seem to be truly open for debate. If salvation, baptism, continuing revelation, et cetera, are open for debate, why is not the nature of Christ or His relation to the Father?

I suspect that if I were put to the task of determining the nature of the Godhead using nothing but the Scriptures, without reference to later doctrinal development, I would have to argue for a position differing from the ancient creeds. Protestants must accept that we inherently subscribe to a model of doctrinal development, or else let the creeds be fair game for debate.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Seekers Abound

It seems I am not the only person infected with curiosity, and having a difficult time accounting for the challenges that the Ancient Apostolic Churches have posed to Protestantism.

Do visit The Lutheran Seeker.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Credo II: Athanasian Creed

It is interesting that Auburn Avenue PCA, a controversial church to say the least, expressly embraces the Athanasian Creed, where its parent denomination is less enthusiastic.

I can guess at why the Athanasian Creed is disfavored within the PCA. To my recollection, I've never heard it spoken in any Reformed Church. It says in part, "From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies; and shall give account of their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved."

At least on its face, this exposition on the Last Judgment is hard to reconcile with either a Lutheran or a Calvinistic-Reformed view. Certainly, the case is made more difficult in the context of Calvinists, who hold that God strictly predestined all of mankind to Salvation or Perdition, not based on some type of foreknowledge of one's deeds or heart, but by His Sovereign decree alone (what Calvin dubbed the 'Horrible Decree'). Such a view makes virtually senseless this line of the Athanasian Creed.

I imagine that the PCA would be hard-pressed to condemn the use of the Creed, but it's no surprise that it is not falling over to get the Creed recited in its churches. Those of the Auburn Ave Theology persuasion, on the other hand, are more comfortable admitting that works are in same antecedent way a necessary component of the calculus of salvation. It is fitting, then, that Auburn Ave PCA would choose to use the Athanasian Creed.

(to be continued...)

Navy Chaplain Faces Court-Martial

UPDATE: Read here about Chaplain Lee's guilty plea.

The Navy Times reports that a Navy Chaplain, a Catholic Priest, will be court-martialed for certain counts related to sexual misconduct this week in Quantico, Va. Both homosexual conduct and his HIV-positive status are claimed in the article.

I have on good authority that he was likable and there were no indicia that these allegations are true. This may be a good reminder that one should not expect Liberachi-like behavior from those in sensitive positions of trust who might act in a sexually improper way. We are all prone to various temptations. We can neither give up our guard, nor take for granted that a "normal" fellow is not facing the trials of the Temptor. We must all be on guard, for ourselves and for one another.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Credo I: Binding or Not?

On a recent visit to the website of Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA), I saw that they "embrace the ancient catholic creeds (the Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostles' creeds) as defining the doctrinal boundaries of the Christian faith."

The PCA website admits to no formal position on these three ancient creeds, but its Book of Church Order tells us "[i]t is proper for the congregation of God’s people publicly to confess their faith, using creeds or confessions that are true to the Word, such as, the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, or the Westminster Standards."

The "such as" leaves much to be desired. It reminds me of the Congregationalist tendencies (where each particular church decides for itself what to believe) of the PCA. The Auburn Ave Controversy serves as a clear exemplar. Each church may make use of creeds that are "true to the Word", but who is to decide which are true?

Is the Athanasian Creed a proper interpretation of scripture or not? Are its expressions mandatorily binding on a Presbyterian, is this a matter of conscience, or are its expressions anathema to the Presbyterian interpretation of the Word of God?

The Presbyterian system binds no consciences, but merely attempts to filter what is taught. It narrows ecclesial discourse to be within its boundaries, but does not and cannot narrow belief to those same bounds. Its authority is strictly over the outward act of teaching, not over internal belief. Since I am saved strictly by right intellectual belief and not by overt acts, the role of the church in my salvation is thus made narrow. Unless its filter of teachings is set just right, it may not act to push me into the right intellectual camp.

(to be continued...)