Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ecumenical Rules of Engagement

Peter H. Burnett, 1st Governor of California, Lawyer and Catholic Convert

The introduction to the late Peter H. Burnett's The Path which Led a Protestant Lawyer to the Catholic Church contains something that resonates with me, regarding the discernment of the proper constitution of Christ's Church:

To form a clear, accurate, and just conception of a subject is the legitimate end of all fair and honest investigation. And no end can be attained, without the use of proper means, and no correct solution of any question arrived at, but by adopting the proper method. "The human mind is so limited," says Dr. Johnson, " that it cannot take in all the parts of a subject ; so that there may be objections raised against any thing." This being true of our limited capacity, it is only by confining our attention to one particular at a time, and carefully estimating its force, and then passing to others in succession, that we can arrive at any clear conception of a subject. The mechanic who constructs a chain, makes each link separately.

But it is not only absolutely necessary to use the proper means, and pursue the proper method, but we should carefully remove all obstacles that may weaken the legitimate force of any argument that may be presented to the mind. And nothing is more important for this purpose than calm impartiality. All prejudices should be manfully cast aside, and no one should enter upon the investigation of any subject with any preconceived antipathies against it. He had better not investigate at all, for then he will at least save his labor.
(emphases added)
I recently said in a discussion at De Regnis Duobus that "I believe that it takes a lot of hard work from all parties to a discussion to agree on even a narrow proposition -- much of that work being dedicated to coming to agreement on language and meaning behind language. This makes ecumenical discussions either a labor of love, or a waste of time." I believe this sentiment is similar to what Mr. Burnett was expressing.

Too often in online ecumenical discussions, I see people respond to a challenging narrow proposition (i.e., a matter at issue) with a broad "shotgun" critique of their interlocutor's overall position. This dodging of a narrow issue with a 'litany of doubt' does not help anyone in the truth-seeking function. Instead, explicitly or implicitly, it "seeks to pick off the intellectually lethargic, before they get sucked in by what the litanizer perceives to be error" (as I said here).

Could you imagine if our courts allowed such tactics? It might look like this: suppose a defendant attempts to vindicate himself by demonstrating that the bloody glove from the crime scene does not fit him very well. Then suppose that the prosecutor replies that the defendant had stolen gloves and socks in his house, that the defendant has poor tastes in clothing, and that his hands are really quite soft, like he hasn't worked much manual labor in life. This reply does not address the matter at issue, but to a lazy, inattentive, or incompetent jury, a valid defense could be lost because of it. Such prejudice to the court's essential truth-finding function would not be permitted.

Because our ecumenical truth-seeking efforts should similarly demand a rigorous process of discussion, I encourage my brothers and sisters to respond only in kind, concluding each narrow issue raised in turn. Also, if you take someone up on one point, have the moral commitment to stay with them on that point until you both are in agreement, or can agree on what it is that causes your disagreement. I intend to hold myself to this standard, and hope that other Christians would also, both on this blog and 'abroad'.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Pick Out the Bad Ones

My waitress tonight explained that a relative of hers had several boys and wanted a girl before she and her husband "quit". To this end, they had been considering going to a "special doctor" to have the "bad ones" "picked out". My wife later explained to me that the "bad ones" to which the waitress referred were not conceived male Homo sapiens (i.e., boy babies), but Y-chromosome carrying sperm. While my shock subsided somewhat, my concerns of sex selection and IVF abortive harvesting methods remain.

But I wonder, how does a Christian respond to these things, and particularly, to what extent do we get 'preachy'? We live in difficult times, and I believe that I handle these moments in a badly flaccid manner. I console myself with the thought that every time we go out the door with our boys, we are an implicit witness of God's graciousness.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Authority, Authority, Authority, Part III

Mr. Merrick relieving Capt. Queeg, The Caine Mutiny (1954)

In my previous two posts, here and here, I discussed two difficulties I have with the confessional Reformed view of sola Scriptura: that it inherently requires subjective interpretation of Scripture, and that it is uses post hoc rationalizations in defense of its tenets about the Bible. In this post I will address a third problem, more to the root of the Reformation. While I put it third, I believe the thoughts in this post have been the most influential to me as I have reflected on the Protest, on Catholicism and on Orthodoxy.

3) Reformational ecclesial acts require authority from God, the "Principle".

Even if there is a principled distinction between the Biblicist and the confessional Reformed positions, and even if the reformational tenets about the Bible do not require post hoc rationalizations, the confessional Reformed system still seems deficient for want of proper authority. In other words, I am not certain that the confessional Reformed system has God’s authority to be at all.

I cannot overstate how fundamental to a discussion of the Reformation is our understanding of Authority. Caveat: I have been schooled by civilian seafarers, by military men, and most recently by professors of law, all of whom heavily stress matters of authority. Therefore, the possibility does not escape me that I might have an inflated view of authority in any system -- I pray that I remain open to correction and truth. However, I do believe that the principles of authority are universally true; because we see them reflected in places like the (secular) law does not mean that they derive from the (secular) law.

Black's Law Dictionary defines authority as "The right or permission to act legally on another's behalf...; the power delegated by a principal to an agent". At law, then, when I act on another’s account, I must have authority in order for that action to be valid. This is the purpose of the “power of attorney”; it is a legal document which authorizes another to act on one’s own account. If someone seeks to act in my name by writing a check from my bank account, but they do not have my authority, their conduct is invalid. If they do have my authority, then I have to honor the check they wrote, even if I disagree with their decision to write it. In the law’s eyes, it is as if I wrote the check myself.

Likewise, when we perform acts as the Christian Church, unless we believe these acts flow from our individual capacities, we need authority from God (because we act as agents of His capacity). Could anyone act in God’s name without authority? Could someone baptize their children in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in the bathtub one quiet afternoon because they want to do so? I believe that would be analogous to someone writing a check on my account without my proper authority, without a power of attorney.

The Protestant, then, must maintain that his acts are authorized by God based on the authority to act that God granted through the Bible itself. He must maintain that Luther and his followers were authorized to reject the authorities of their time, and to establish their own authorities, based on the Bible’s authority (for the sake of the Gospel).

But does the Bible authorize us to overthrow our authorities (which we know are all established by God, be they good or bad (Rom. 13:1)) and set up our own authorities? It seems, rather, that we are to submit to authorities (Rom. 13:1-5, Titus 3:1), and to pray for their righteousness (1 Tim. 2:1-3). God the Son did not usurp the Jewish authorities of His earthly time on account of their being in doctrinal or practical error, but He articulated the authority He had been given to teach the New Covenant ("All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me..." (Matt. 28:18b)). He delegates or transmits that authority to his Apostles ("Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (id., v. 19-20b; cf. 2 Cor. 10:7-8, 13:10, 1 Thes. 4:1-2)).

This is a befuddling problem for us in reformational churches. The Apostles were given authority for acts such as conducting baptisms immediately by Christ (who Himself said He had authority from the Father). What happened to that authority? We certainly can agree that it did not die with the Apostles, or else there would be no authorized baptisms after the first century, upon John's death. Therefore, either the authority was given to all, or to a finite group of Christians. But it is obvious that it was not given to all, because I am not authorized to baptize anyone (see WCOF ch. XXVII, sec. 4)).

So the Apostles must have passed on their own delegated authority from Christ to a finite group of individuals within the early Christian community. Who were they? I tend to think Timothy was one, for Paul tells us that Timothy received the "gift of God" through Paul's laying on of hands (2 Tim. 1:6). Titus was, as well, who had “all authority” to speak, exhort, and reprove (Titus 2:15). So we know there was some delegation or transmission of authority from the Apostles on.

Clement was one also, and he gave an interesting discussion of authority matching what I have said above:

The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labors], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe (Letter to the Corinthians, ch. 42).
The Clementine (and Catholic) derivative authority scheme for the Church thus looks like this: God > His Son > the Eleven (Apostles) > those they appointed subsequently. Apart from this, no act is properly authorized, be it discipling the nations, baptizing, etc. But the Reformational derivative authority scheme for the Church is like this: God > His Son > the Eleven > those they appointed until they fell into some degree of apostasy, and then to an educated disciple approved by the faithful. Some problems I can see with that scheme are: 1) that it requires a reliable body to articulate when the appointees of the Apostles (who had real authority from Heaven) fell into the requisite degree of apostasy; 2) that its rule allowing for self-assumption of authority is not found anywhere in Scripture, but arguably the opposite rule is (see supra); 3) that it places the authority to make new authorities in the subjective hands of the faithful, and 4) that it is indistinguishable in structural form from the various Christological, Trinitarian, and other heresies of the early Church.

I mean no disrespect or challenge to my elders (teaching or ruling) with this post, but mean the inquiry in a more academic manner. I believe my pastor is devoted to God, and that God uses him for His glory. But I must ask these questions because my conscience compels me to be assured that I am properly submitted to the proper authorities of His Church.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Authority, Authority, Authority, Part II

2) The sola Scriptura position appears to have been reached by post hoc rationalization.

In my previous post, I discussed the difficulty I have in articulating a principled distinction between the Biblicist position and the confessional Reformed position vis-à-vis subjective interpretations of scripture. In this post I will consider another intellectual difficulty I face in remaining in the confessional Reformed camp.

Even if there is a principled distinction between the Biblicist and the confessional Reformed methods of interpreting Scripture, the latter position still seems to require post hoc rationalization to conclude that all revealed truth has been inscripturated into 66 books in the Bible.

Notice the two integral claims of the confessional sola Scriptura position, that a) all revealed truth has been inscripturated, and b) our confessions have the proper listing of books (i.e., canon). These are the sine quibus non of the Reformation -- that is, without these two claims being true, the Reformers would be mere dissidents, with no unifying claim to the possession of truth or authority. If these two truth-claims are to be the foundation of the believer's authority structure, binding his conscience above all else, they must be demonstrable and supportable. If they cannot be demonstrated, or are unsupported, then the entire system fails for want of authority to bind the conscience.

Complete Inscripturation.

To maintain the reformational position, the confessional Reformed must be able to articulate that God's revelations of absolute truth have been completed (i.e., have ceased), have been recorded in writing, and are to be reliably found no where else but the Bible. I have previously described why I see circularity in this position. Briefly stated, the critique with which I wrestle goes something like this: only Scripture contains revealed truth, but the claim that 'revealed truth is only in Scripture' is itself not in Scripture, so that claim is not a revealed one. The confessional Reformed may respond that this is a problem only for the Biblicist view. They may say (though I disagree that this is the Westminster Confession-al position) that their claim is actually that the early Church was reliable to determine truth, and it determined that only what is in the Bible is revealed truth, so that claim is reliable.

However, the early Church was far from clear on this matter of revealed truth having been completely inscripturated (see my reply to Keith Mathison's claim about this seminal matter here). Scripture itself seems to point in another direction (e.g., 2 Thes. 2:15, "So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings [traditions] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter."). The irony, then, is that complete inscripturation is the opposite conclusion of what one might reach from a plain reading of Scripture.


The Canon Question seems like a deeper example of the problem of necessary extra-biblical truth claims in the sola Scriptura paradigm. Obviously, the 66-book canon is not revealed within a book of the Bible, so one must look to an external, or extrabiblical source of truth to determine which books contain revealed Truth.

When I first heard the Catholic critique of sola Scriptura, I was intrigued by the claim that without a visible Church possessed of divinely-granted authority, the canon could not reliably be defined. My intrigue turned to dismay when I could not get a uniform answer from Reformed pastors and scholars as to why we have the 66 books we have. I was not dismayed that there were no answers, but rather that there were a variety of theories explaining why the 66-book canon is right. That rationales have been derived from a common conclusion (i.e., our particular 66 books) evidences post hoc rationalization.

Here are various rationalizations of the common conclusion with which I am familiar:

  1. Our 66 books are in the Bible because the inward work of the Holy Spirit bears witness in “our” hearts (WCOF).

  2. Our O.T. books are those which were accepted by the Jews in Hebrew in the early Church era.

  3. Apostolic authorship determines N.T. canonicity.

  4. Our N.T. books are those which received widespread acceptance by the early church, which was divinely reliable in its conclusions until the 4th century.

  5. Under the Lutheran variant of #4, we have a homolegoumena (universally accepted books) for establishing dogma , and an antilegoumena (disputed books, e.g., Jude or Revelation) to corroborate disputed dogmatic claims.
I believe that each of these variants has problems and inconsistencies (i.e., that each one might not reach the same 66-book conclusion under its own terms if strictly applied). However, the larger point to make here is that the use of a plurality of rationales (justifications) evidences that a bedrock reformational truth-claim (that our 66 books contain revealed truth and none others) -- the only truth-claim able to bind the Protestant's conscience -- is reached through post hoc rationalizations. Why is it that we can debate infant baptism under the terms of sola Scriptura, but not debate whether Jude belongs in the Scripture's corpus? Why is the meaning of communion open for discussion, but not the placement of Ecclesiastes in Holy Writ? What is the principled distinction between a debate over the truth of a doctrinal matter, and a debate over the truth of the listing of canon?

If the rationale that informs us that we have 66 books containing the complete inscripturation of God's revelations cannot bind our consciences (because there isn't one rationale at all), then neither can the conclusion. And if the conclusion can't bind our consciences, then the matter of canonicity seems like Protestant fair game for debate.

(To be continued...)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Authority, Authority, Authority

Zrim and I recently interacted in some posts at De Regnis Duobus. We got to discussing authority and the church, at which point he asked about my wrestling with a particular Protestant via media, "yours is a more specific quest to find the via media between T0 and T2/3? Is it that T1 is not good enough or that you are trying to unpack T1 in order to understand it?" I replied in part, but would like to do so more fully here.

The "T0", "T1", and "T2/3" scheme to which Zrim refers is that presented by Keith Mathison in his The Shape of Sola Scriptura (I have previously discussed that book in a series here, here, here, and here). Stated simply, "Tradition Zero" is shorthand for the Biblicist position on revelation and authority, and "Tradition Two" is shorthand for Catholic and Orthodox positions allowing for two repositories ("sources") of revelation, one the Scriptures, and one the Church's Tradition (T3 is a later variant of T2). "Tradition One" is the magisterial Reformed position that strikes the proper middle way (via media), the argument goes, on authority and revelation.

I have had (now years) of ongoing difficulty defending that there is this logical middle way between individualism and authoritarianism in church structure. The following are my thoughts:

1) I find it difficult to articulate a principled distinction between the confessional (magisterial) Reformed position and the Biblicist position.

I previously described the Biblicist position as a belief that all revelation is contained within the Bible, and that there is no authority apart from the good Book itself. This is a subjective system that says "no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible" (which, as I have previously noted, is itself a creed).

While it has several variations, I will address the confessional (magisterial) Reformed position as articulated by Mathison, as I believe it is a fair archetype. This position is a belief that "Scripture was the sole source of revelation; that it was the final authoritative norm of doctrine and practice; that it was to be interpreted in and by the Church; and that it was to be interpreted according to the regula fidei [(rule of faith)]" (Mathison at 256).

I think the claimed distinction, which is necessary to avoid the criticism of individualism, is this: the Biblicist reads his Bible subjectively and individualistically, so making up his own interpretation as he goes, whereas the confessional Reformed reads the Bible in the light of Reformed teaching, giving himself over to its tenets. I will examine this distinction in practice and in theory.

In practice, this seems like a fair distinction. The Reformed man teaching his family the Gospel will do so generally in accordance with the Reformed faith whereas the Biblicist will feel at liberty to handle the texts of Scripture as seems fitting to him (subjectively). However, my experience with "Biblicists" has been that they do actually submit themselves to a tradition (something objective) when handling the Bible, often the Baptist free-church position. This tradition has a feel to it that is often characteristic of "unaffiliated" Christian charitable and missionary organizations. When one is with these Christians, there is a certain presumptive way to discuss the faith and to handle the Scriptures. They may have a lesser quantum of deference to objective materials (like formal confesssions or the opinions of venerable scholars), but they still do not pick up their Bible with a traditionless tabula rasa. They are not the proverbial man isolated on a tropical island, never having seen a Bible until one washes up on the beach. Their objective standard is simply less articulated, historical and rigorous.

And on the other side of this 'in practice' coin, I observe a lack of Reformed-minded people reading their Scriptura with much deference to the objective distinctives of the Reformed faith. Individualism seems the norm in American Reformed churches. I know of one (non-PCA) pastor teaching on "the five points of Calvinism" receiving almost no interest from the congregation. I remember visiting one PCA church where I was asked by a regular, "what's the PCA?" I was once a member of another that had baptistic (Baptist?) elders. I doubt those of the larger PCUSA are more commonly found reading their Bibles "with the Church" under a confessional Reformed light. The Tradition One-er may be partly in the imagination. At any rate, while I am comfortable granting that the confessional Reformed are less (or even much less) subjective in their handling of the Bible, this is not a distinction of principle, so much as one of degree. And the degree may not be so large.

In theory, the distinction between the two camps is harder for me to see. Today's Reformed subscriber may read his Bible with deference to an objective system (the Reformed confessions and scholarly teachings), but that system lacks an objective lineage. Just because many today give deference to opinions of the past does not mean those opinions were not reached individualistically. (A claim of a Holy gift of truth given to historical consensus or to present majority consensus would make for a conversation worth holding.) Using Mathison's verbiage, I would say the Reformed version of the regula fidei, by which Scripture is to be interpreted, is not an originally objective criterion, but an originally subjective one, having been made the subject of opinions five centuries ago. It is thus an objective system subjectively reached. If that is so, while we are many generations removed from the problem, we are no different in principle from the hypothetical Biblicist. I should note that something being "subjective" does not make it inherently bad, just as something that is "objective" is not inherently good. But for comparison purposes, if one is characterized by subjectivism (so individualism), so is the other, at least at its roots.

Take an example: if the Jimmy Stewart Fan Club only listened to music that Mr. Stewart is known to have admired, we would have an objective system subjectively reached. Anyone picking tunes for a fan club meeting knows what tunes are approved for listening (so objective), but the tunes that Mr. Stewart liked were textbook subjective matters of his taste. The tunes wouldn't be inherently good, only inherently tunes Jimmy Stewart liked. Likewise, while I may subscribe to a clearly articulated system, and may allow that system to inform my reading of Scripture, someone at some point in history had to have created such a system from their subjective (individualistic) reading of Scripture (e.g., "Calvinism" and "Lutheranism"). However, there's a big "or" that could go here: or the confessional Reformed has to claim that their reading of the Bible, their objective system, is the true and original (objective) regula fidei from Christ that had been lost from about the year 400 until 1520 or so. I believe that the Reformed system contains at least some novelty by Calvin and his peers (e.g., Calvin thought that he was taking Augustine's views on Predestination to their natural conclusions), so it does not have objectively evidenced objective lineage throughout the history of Christianity -- it contains at least some subjective conclusions.

I see another point of commonality between the confessional Reformed position and the Biblicist position in their theories. This commonality is that the individual believer is ultimately (not penultimately) bound to his conscience's interpretation of Scripture. So his deference to an objective system reaches its limit when the reader's conscience conflicts. To put it another way, the confessional Reformed system is objective until its subjective limit (or trump, or governor, etc.) has been reached. In that case, subjectivism necessarily prevails (though one could go a lifetime without this happening, of course). If the subjective conscience of the believer does not hold a trump over the Reformed articulation of the regula fidei, one has to contend with one's justification for the Reformation itself. That is because the Reformation was built on the sentiment ascribed to Luther at the Diet of Worms, "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of popes or councils, for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God." Clearly conscience, the conscience of each individual, holds the trump.

Those are my thoughts on the lack of principled distinctions. The Biblicist does not read the Bible without his own "Tradition", the confessional Reformed often reads his Bible without deference to his own "Tradition", these traditions are not without subjective, individual interpretations of Scripture at their origins (unless you grant that the Reformed regula fidei is what was delivered by Christ), and in either case, the individual's conscience holds the ultimate trump over allegedly objective doctrines which demand deference. For these reasons, the confessional Reformed position seems to lack a principled distinction from the Biblicist 'Tradition Zero' position.

(To be continued...)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Liturgical Order

I've been on-again-off-again picking away at Jurgens' The Faith of the Early Fathers. I was riveted last night while reading the First Apology of St. Justin the Martyr, penned some time between 148 and 155 A.D. To put this in chronological perspective, Justin was born as little as four years after the Book of Revelation was written (but no longer than within one generation). I was struck in particular by Justin's account of Christian worship (which Tim Troutman noted a while back is the earliest record of the order of a Christian service). [Note: I realize I'm not covering new ground with this post, but still want to make note of it.]

He describes a Christian baptism before beginning his discussion of the liturgical order of his day. "We, however, after thus washing the one who has been convinced and signified his assent, lead him to those who are called brethren, where they are assembled. They then earnestly offer common prayers for themselves and the one who has been illuminated and all others everywhere, that we may be made worthy, having learned the truth, to be found in deed good citizens and keepers of what is commanded, so that we may be saved with eternal salvation. On finishing the prayers we greet each other with a kiss. Then bread and a cup of water and mixed wine are brought to the president of the brethren and he, taking them, sends up praise and glory to the Father of the universe through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and offers thanksgiving at some length that we have been deemed worthy to receive these things from him. When he has finished the prayers and the thanksgiving, the whole congregation present, saying, "Amen." "Amen" in the Hebrew language means, "So be it." When the president has given thanks and the whole congregation has assented, those whom we call deacons give to each of those present a portion of the consecrated bread and wine and water, and they take it to the absent."

He then describes the Eucharist, how it is only for members of the believing community who have been baptized, and how "the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by [Christ], and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished [i.e., our assimilation of food into our being], is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus."

He then continues, with some repetition, "And on the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president in a discourse urges and invites [us] to the imitation of these noble things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers. And, as said before, when we have finished the prayer, bread is brought, and wine and water, and the president similarly sends up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the congregation assents, saying the Amen; the distribution, and reception of the consecrated [elements] by each one, takes place and they are sent to the absent by the deacons."

I have summarized the two overlapping accounts of the liturgical order of Christian worship:

1) Prayers for perseverance unto salvation;
2) Greeting with a kiss;
3) Bread and Cup of Water and Wine taken to the "president";
4) President offers praise and thanksgiving for these things;
5) Congregation assents with an "Amen"; and
6) Deacons distribute elements (and take some away to those absent).

1) Memoirs of Apostles [Gospels] and Prophets read;
2) President delivers discourse on what is read;
3) All stand and offer prayers;
4) Elements of bread and cup of water and wine brought forward;
5) President offers thanksgiving and prayers for these things;
6) Congregation assents with an "Amen"; and
7) Deacons distribute elements (and take some away to those absent).

Without speculating about the precise order of the first few things in each list, we can see the general pattern of a) Scripture reading, b) Homily, c) Prayers, d) Eucharistic elements presented, e) elements consecrated, f) elements distributed. This seems remarkably close to the Mass, as I recall it, and less similar to anything I experience on any given Sunday.

But St. Justin the Martyr is not without problems. Jurgens notes some questionable Christological language (which he is willing to excuse on account of the primitive state of Christological doctrines at that time). Also, I do not believe I could distinguish Justin's statements on works and righteousness from at least semi-Pelagianism (but the same excuse would be availing). It is also interesting how central the "Amen" of the congregations assent seemed to be for the consecration. I do not know if that survived in some form in the mass.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

If I Were a 2nd Century Christian

Issue. I think this might be a helpful intellectual exercise: where would I have looked to know what to believe about the faith and the Gospel if I were alive as a Christian in the 2nd century of the Church? [My comments are a rephrasing of those I made recently here.]

Rule. The properly ordained bishops taught the true faith and the Gospel in the 2nd century. Irenaeus tells us, "It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics [the Gnostics] rave about" (Against Heresies, 3:3:1 [A.D. 189]).

Analysis. Since properly ordained bishops held the truth, I would have believed about the faith and the Gospel what my local bishop taught me.

While the successor-bishops taught the true Christian faith, they did not do so infallibly (indeed, even the Apostle Peter could err, as Paul made plain in Galatians 2:11 ff. ("When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.")). If I had doubts about my bishop's teachings, I would assure myself that all proper authorities are given by God (cf. Matt. 10:1, 2 Cor. 10:8, 13:10, 1 Thes. 4:2, Titus 2:15), and that we are to submit to our proper spiritual authorities (as Paul tells us in Heb. 13:17 "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you."). Therefore, if in fact my bishop were in doctrinal or practical error, I would have remained submitted to him as my proper authority (trusting that any culpability for such error would rest with him and not me). I would trust that his fellow bishops, speaking for the Church, would eventually call him to correction.

What would my alternate be?
- Declare myself a bishop? I would lack the authority to do that, if the proper authority is one ordained by a successor-bishop of the Apostles.
- Declare myself without a bishop, until my bishop came around to what I understood to be the truth? First, this would not be true submission, but conditional submission ('I submit under my terms'). Second, by what standard would I determine that I would again 'submit' to him? Scripture (as it existed at that point)? Even the heretics argued from Scripture (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:3:6, "And it is not only from the writings of the evangelists and the apostles that they endeavour to derive proofs for their opinions by means of perverse interpretations and deceitful expositions: they deal in the same way with the law and the prophets, which contain many parables and allegories that can frequently be drawn into various senses, according to the kind of exegesis to which they are subjected.").

Conclusion. In the 2nd century, I would have believed that our God loves us enough to give us shepherds on earth, easily identifiable, that we can follow with trust and confidence. I would have followed the local bishop's explication of the Gospel, and submitted myself to his God-given authority.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Exclusion and Private Revelation

Courts exist as truth-finding bodies. One of the primary tools for determining the truth is to carefully control the pieces of information, or evidence, that are presented to the "finder of fact" for consideration. Is the fact-finder allowed to know that the defendant committed the same crime of which he is accused years before? That the witness has a history of lying? Often evidence will be excluded because its 'probative value is outweighed by its prejudicial effect'. That is, it makes for a greater hindrance in the truth-seeking process than it is a help. If evidence that should have been excluded is admitted, you have a mistrial on your hands, and need a new, untainted fact-finder.

Stuck in this mindset as I am, I often consider parallels or analogies between what is done at law, and what is done by the Christian Church.

The Catholic Church asserts that it (or she) does not consider private revelation in reaching its general doctrines. Its Catechism says that private revelations, even if recognized by the Church "do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith" (Para. 67). While general (public) revelation "ended with the preaching of the Apostles and must be believed by all," the Church imposes no obligation on the faithful to believe private revelations (Catholic Encyclopedia, Private Revelations).

The skeptic in me wonders whether this is so, or if the Catholic Church has (rather) imposed private revelations on the faithful via the back door, as influential evidence in the formation of a general doctrine or dogma. (I admit I am being a skeptic, which entails my skepticism of the Catholic claim that the Holy Spirit preserves the Church from error -- Lord willing, I will overcome my skepticism soon.)

In writing this post, I tried to give a few examples that had come to mind related to the more famous Marian apparitions and the two most recently proclaimed Marian dogmas. In both instances, I had my factual chronology mistaken -- the private revelations I had in mind occurred just after the proclamations were given by the Church. I take that as a sign against my premise of the influence of private revelation, but would appreciate any contributions noting where private-revelation-induced popular support for a dogma possibly led to a dogmatic formulation. Toward the contrary, I welcome any contributions noting how my premise is false.

I believe what drives my inquiry here is my difficulty with the claim that Catholics can disbelieve any particular private revelation, in light of the widespread and official use of things like the image of Mary from Guadalupe. It seems these private events have been subsumed into the psyche of the Catholic faithful. I suppose psyche does not equal regula fidei...

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

De Regnis Duobos

I recommend the blog of PCA pastor Jason J. Stellman, De Regnis Duobos: Concerning the Two Kingdoms. My first few encounters there have led me to believe that Pastor Stellman is charitable and like-minded in matters of ecuminicity. We would be a stronger Body of Christ if we could have sincere and charitable discussions about the matters that divide more often (me thinks)!

He has been taking up some themes that are common on this blog, like the canonicity of Scripture, and the authority of creeds, and he promises to take up others soon, like the visisble/invisible church. God speed!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Protestant Conversions Critique: Church Envy

[This will conclude my previous two posts, here and here, discussing Mr. David Hagopian's article analyzing Protestant conversions to Catholicism.] Mr. Hagopian wraps up his analysis of why Protestants convert by pointing out instances from conversion stories where converts appear to have been taken in by glimmer over theology.

Church Envy. Under his heading "Liturgical Longings", Mr. Hagopian describes the converts' "hysteria" over what they perceive to be beauty (even sublimity) in the mass. A liturgy-is-beautiful claim fails to be a persuasive ground for conversion in several ways.

First, for many people taken in by this liturgical luster, "it is the kind of worship with which they have grown up." But "just because we are accustomed to something, just because we have a fondness for something, or just because we may long for the good ol' days, doesn't mean that what we are accustomed to, fond of, or long for is necessarily right." I completely agree, but this was not the claim of the converts (that they were seeking to return to the familiar). Rather, the claim was that the liturgy and the mass have inherent beauty, and as Mr. Hagopian does not deny this here, I presume the point remains unmoved.

Second, he observes, Neocatholics claim to be drawn to the liturgy because "the liturgy, for the most part, is the same no matter which Catholic church a parishioner attends." But "[s]ameness, however, is no guarantor of propriety. After all, something can be the same and yet be erroneous...". I completely agree, but I doubt that any converts were arguing that the liturgy is true because it is the same everywhere. My observation has been that converts claim, rather, that the Catholic Church's liturgical practices are beautiful in part because they are consistent across the Church. That there is a laudable quality to Christians worshipping in unity remains unmoved.

One argument briefly noted, and a decent one, is that love of liturgy is no reason for conversion, because other churches have liturgy too (he noted the Orthodox, Episcopals and Lutherans). I wonder though how Mr. Hagopian feels about those other bodies, or why he would be more opposed to a brother converting to Catholicism over Orthodoxy (or Episcopalianism!).

Under the heading "All That Glimmers", Mr. Hagopian describes how several converts were taken in by the physical beauty of Catholic church buildings (columns, stained glass, candlelight and all). He notes a common claim of metaphysical experiences along the road to conversion. But these experiences "do not prove that Catholicism is true". Also, they do not prove Protestantism false, as the liturgical Protestant denominations have qualities of physical beauty as well.

This argument confuses the burdens of proof. Indeed the claimed beauty of Catholic services or buildings does not prove it to be true, but I have never heard any convert claim that is was such a proof. I have heard them say that this beauty drew them in enough to consider the Catholic theological claims of truth. Those claims are what should be weighed when deciding whether Catholicism is true or false. When tracing the Church from the time of Christ and the Apostles to the present, the burden is on the believer to prove the point at which Catholicism became false, and not the opposite. If one must prove Catholicism remained true at each moment in history, then one is facing a perpetual presumption that it is false. Such a standard both leads to fallacy and is uncharitable.

Mr. Hagopian considers other reasons for conversion, but I will stop here to mitigate the risk of going on for too long. I believe we can learn from his discussion of conversions (which is implicitly a portion of a larger discussion on ecumenicity) that default positions and burdens of proof can wreak havoc on the goal of unity. It is so easy to lay waste to an opponent by setting a high bar of proof against his position, and asserting that he has not met it (in our own judgment). I believe that this does not meet the charitable standard of fraternal conduct by which we are bound to treat one another in the Body of Christ. I see this failure on all fronts, and pray that I could avoid this myself in the future (for I have certainly failed in the past).