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...)


Barrett Turner said...


Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate your insight into the trump-card of conscience. To be fair, most Reformed teachers would say that conscience is only a valid card to play when the Bible is unclear. For example, it is not permissible to play trump on avoiding regular church attendance because you think the services should be held in the evenings. However, I ultimately agree with you because no one is able (in Trad 1) to say what matters are essential and which are non-binding. Liberal Protestants will allow for trump on homosex and abortion while conservatives will allow trump on paedobaptism (thus allowing families to neglect the sacramental inclusion of their children into the Body of Christ). This latter failure is ironic given the teaching of the WCF that neglecting the baptism of covenant children is a sin.

So that leads to an interesting development: how does the Reformed community decide what baptism is when the Reformed Baptists dissent? Do we pretend that we are "together for the gospel," trying for some common denominator understanding of baptism? Or do we acknowledge that sola scriptura gives us no final resources for settling the issue of the place and importance of baptism?

A problem for excluding Trad 2/3 from the individualistic critique is the possibility of certain apostles having access to teachings from our Lord that others did not (e.g., Peter and the vision of the sheet; cf. how his individual testimony influences practice in ch. 11). Additionally, later majorities that decided theological opinions were aided by the theologizing of individuals (e.g. the Cappadoceans' work before Nicea-Constantinople). I'm sure the Arians had majorities in certain geographical areas at times...

I wonder if the debate about authority doesn't come down to Christ's guarantee of his presence and guidance by his Spirit. That is, which ecclesial majority has the gift of interpreting the Scriptures? Not so much whose tradition has origins in some individual's interpretation (after all, we have one individual Lord); but whose body has the authority to declare truth and bind the conscience.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Rather who has the keys? The "you" was singular when Jesus said to Peter "I give you the keys" while the authority to bind and loose was given to "you all" (apostles).

Rome holds the keys.

Nice post Thos.

Canadian said...

Good post again.

You said:
"the individual's conscience holds the ultimate trump over allegedly objective doctrines which demand deference."

So true. And yet this is lauded in Protestant circles under the maxim "Semper Reformanda"--Always Reforming. Even if it comes under the guise of Tradition 1. This amounts to saying: "If a convincing exegete scientifically interprets the text with a conclusion that is logically plausable to us, we will submit and change our creed." It appears noble, but is not the methodology of the apostolic or patristic church.

Thos said...


Thank you for commenting. "To be fair, most Reformed teachers would say that conscience is only a valid card to play when the Bible is unclear." I think this depends on the context. In the example you gave, I agree with your point. We often say that since the Bible is unclear on contraception, it is up to the individual Christian's conscience to decide what to do. Here we are not saying that that church is wrong about their view and opposed to truth, but that the church has no jurisdiction to bind the conscience on this matter.

I was referring to instances where conscience trumped a decision of the church because the conscience informs the individual that the church is wrong in its conclusions. For instance, if the church pronounced that everyone is saved by good works, and the conscience informed the individual that it was the opposite, they would let their conscience trump. In this case, unlike the case of 'no jurisdiction', I would hope a believer would want greater clarity in the Bible, and not lesser. I hope you agree, now that I've been able to clarify a bit what I mean by the trump of the conscience -- I think this latter sense is what Luther meant too.

Your point about distinguishing between the "essentials" of the faith and the non-essentials is well made. I have been in conflict with (PCA) church leadership over having baptistic elders, and the argument was precisely that infant baptism was a non-essential of the Reformed faith (the presbytery ruled against the church). I was upset because it was those in a teaching office, but you're really right that we've let all the laity decide with their conscience whether they want to follow this belief. So it is in practice largely relegated to a non-essential (or we're relegated to being a non-disciplining church).

"I wonder if the debate about authority doesn't come down to Christ's guarantee of his presence and guidance by his Spirit." I agree. When we keep in mind doctrines like "total depravity", we should be skeptical of any claim that the church can hold together apart from immediate distributions of the Holy Spirit's grace. I am particular confused by the regular appeal to consensus of the faithful (Mr. Mathison does this) -- in the absence of any guarantee that the Holy Spirit is 'with the majority'. Maybe more on that later.

Peace in Christ,

Thos said...


Thank you for the compliment. Following up with what I just said to Barrett, when Mathison speaks (generally) about the truth of the gospel being preserved by some type of consensus, he notes the CHURCH was given binding and loosing authority, was given the authority to teach and make disciples of all nations (p. 267). By this he means some kind of consensus or group think from the covenant community (he's particular to note that he doesn't mean each individual in isolation is so authorized). But as you noted, those things were given not to a consensus or the covenant community writ large, but to the "the eleven" (or Peter specifically). In a section headed "Ecclesiastical Authority" that seems like too important a point to pass by.

Peace in Christ,

Thos said...


(My wife is singing "Oh Canada" right now, so it's funny that I see your post.)

Semper Reformanda must be able to appeal to an objective criterion to be legitimate - this must be widely admitted. So, as I think you were saying, if the conscience is the final test of the Reformanda *objective* it is not in appeal to an objective criterion.

To your point about scientific textual analysis, I would like to tie in what I just said to Tim. Just as the consensus is not (explicitly) given a charism of truth, neither is the work of scholars. So can we spurn authorities on account of our conscience when it is informed by voices that are assured to have the Holy Spirit working through them? No.

Peace in Christ,