"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Protestantism "left only with opinions"

The recent discussion on De Regno Christi has helped make clear the biblicism of the Federal Vision, as I argued here.

But the debate has also further revealed the groundlessness of the FV opponents' appeals to magisterial authority. Last month, R. Scott Clark came very close to exposing the fact that the Protestant 'emperor' is wearing no clothes, as I pointed out here. And a few days ago Darryl Hart's appeals to magisterial authority in opposition to the FV were so explicit and pointed that they naturally elicited examination of the grounds of that supposed authority, an examination revealing that Hart's position is ultimately no less biblicistic and individualistic than that of the FV.

Where does this leave Reformed Protestants? With the individualism and biblicism of the evangelicals and fundamentalists, without any authoritative doctrine or dogma, but only with opinions. Today I saw that the 'Pontificator' recently wrote:

"The question is when, if ever, does theological opinion become doctrine that requires the unreserved assent of faith. Catholicism and Orthodoxy have answers to this question; but as far as I can determine, no Protestant body does, for no magisterial organ exists within Protestantism. It is easy for me to assent to a proposed doctrine when I agree with it. The problem arises when I am confronted with a doctrine (and here let us specify a doctrine proposed with the full authority of the Church) with which I disagree. Newman rightly objected to subscription to confessions because they require the subjection of conscience to mere opinion. Conscience may only properly assent, Newman writes, to "teaching which comes from God."

Michael Liccione followed that discussion with an article showing that modernism (i.e. theological liberalism) and fundamentalism are the only two alternatives when sacramental magisterial authority is rejected. He wrote:

The point is that, in order to recognize and assimilate the revelation in Jesus Christ, we need a visible authority to speak in his name, and we need to submit to that authority when it claims to speak in his name. Otherwise we are left only with opinions—and, inevitably, institutionalized disunity.

As usual, the Pontificator and Liccione are precisely identifying the problem and exposing the situation for what it actually is. Many Protestants believe that there is such a thing as authoritative Protestant doctrine, and live as such. But in actuality there is no such thing, nor can there be apart from sacramental magisterial authority. For that reason Protestants must either embrace their individualism and abandon the pretense of authoritative confessions and doctrines, or they must recover sacramental magisterial authority.

11 comments:

Joseph said...

How many centuries have Catholics been repeating this?

Since the Lutheran revolution there are now 9,000 or 33,000 Protestant denominations, whichever number you care to use.

If it's 9,000, then, since 1517, on average, approximately 18 (rounded down) new Protestant denominations per year were spawned. That's one new religion every month for six months then two for every month after that per year!

If it's 33,000, approximately 67 (rounded down) new Protestant denominations per year were spawned. That's more than 5 new religions every month!

Obviously, denominationalism didn't grow at a steady pace however. It was more exponential.

What's my point? Self-autonomy is always more attractive to the defective human will than submission. You are repeating the same thing that has been repeated now for centuries and the numbers are only growing.

Keep repeating it though! Hopefully people will listen, even one at a time.

Tim Enloe said...

Bryan,

I always find posts like this puzzling, especially from converts to Catholicism. (I thought I read somewhere that you were a convert; if not, my post doesn't directly apply to you, but does to many others who think like you). I mean, really, how did YOU come to the Catholic Church without making a PERSONAL decision about what was in accord with Scripture and whatever other sources YOU thought were normative? At every step of the way in YOUR conversion process, there were three things operating to make the final decisions about truth: YOU, YOURSELF, and YOU. Please, let's dispense with this whole "I used the latter of my judgment to get to the Church, and now that I'm there I can just kick the ladder down and pretend like I was pulled up by Truth Alone." That's not the way it happened.

Furthermore, all this talk of the necessity of sacramental magisterial authority is just smoke and mirrors in a world in which the truth claims of Catholicism are NOT widely thought (as they were in the Middle Ages) to be self-evident, a world in which Catholicism, just like everything else, has to market itself to the masses of religious choosers. So what if Darryl Hart chose which confession to believe? You did the same thing, even if the authority in which you placed your confidence is somewhat different in character from Hart's. Do you think that Hart DOESN'T think about the Westminster Standards in a similar manner to the way you think about Trent? Really, all this intellectual snobbery from someone who came so late to "the Truth" is really not becoming. Wasn't it just yesterday that you thought something entirely different about "the Truth"?

Tim Enloe said...

Er, "the latter of my judgment" in the previous post should have been "the ladder of my judgment." How embarassing.

Principium unitatis said...

Hello Tim,

Thanks very much for your comments. The objection you raise has been addressed by others. Father Kimel, for example, addressed it not infrequently on his old blog (Pontifications). I addressed it in my post titled "The alternative to painting a magisterial target around our interpretive arrow", which can be found here. Of course, those who come into the Catholic Church make a personal decision in order to do so. But one does not rightly become a Catholic because one believes all that the Church teaches, although one must "believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God" in order to become Catholic. Rather, one rightly believes all that the Catholic Church teaches (even if one does not fully understand it, or does not understand the theological basis for it) because one recognizes the sacramental magisterial authority of the Catholic Church.

Sacramental magisterial authority is something distinct from formal agreement between the doctrines of an institution and the individual's interpretation of Scripture. The person who discovers doctrinal [formal] agreement between his own interpretations of Scripture and the doctrines of the Catholic Church, but has not discovered the Catholic Church's sacramental magisterial authority, is still a Protestant at heart. One has not discovered the Catholic Church until one has discovered the sacramental magisterial authority of the Catholic Church. That is the deeper meaning behind "Where the bishop is, there is the Church." And one discovers sacramental magisterial authority not by its agreement with one's own interpretation of Scripture, but by its sacramental succession from the Apostles. Once one discovers sacramental magisterial authority, then one subordinates one's own interpretations of Scripture to the teaching and interpretation of the sacramental magisterial authority. So the relevant difference between the Catholic convert and Hart is that Hart (presumably) chose his confession (and thus his ecclesial community) based on his interpretation of Scripture, whereas the Catholic rightly chooses the Catholic Church based on the sacramental succession of its magisterial authority from the Apostles.

By the way, how are you enjoying UoD?

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Mike L said...

Bryan, you are almost too civil.

Tim writes:

At every step of the way in YOUR conversion process, there were three things operating to make the final decisions about truth: YOU, YOURSELF, and YOU. Please, let's dispense with this whole "I used the latter of my judgment to get to the Church, and now that I'm there I can just kick the ladder down and pretend like I was pulled up by Truth Alone." That's not the way it happened..

That's a lot less generous to people like yourself than most Catholics, including you and I, are to Protestants on a journey of faith. Tim seems to take for granted that God had nothing to do with your conversion. I don't know how he can know that, unless he holds a priori that to become Catholic is to reject God, which would be question-begging to say the least. OTOH, I have family members who have left the Catholic Church and attend Protestant churches, and I don't think they have rejected God. For all I know, that may be a necessary stage of their journey of faith. I've known a fair number of people who didn't hear the Gospel until they left the Church; eventually some return, like Francis Beckwith. But I cannot judge individuals who don't return, because I cannot know how the Holy Spirit works with their choices and their consciences. That is the attitude that the Church adopted at Vatican II, and it is a good development.

Tim also writes:

Furthermore, all this talk of the necessity of sacramental magisterial authority is just smoke and mirrors in a world in which the truth claims of Catholicism are NOT widely thought (as they were in the Middle Ages) to be self-evident, a world in which Catholicism, just like everything else, has to market itself to the masses of religious choosers.

If that had been addressed to me, it would have sorely tried my patience. Of course the claims of the Catholic Church are not "self-evident"; if they were, it would not require the virtue of faith to believe them, and thus to believe God. Many medievals professed the Catholic faith as a matter of course, given their cultural and political milieu; but I hardly think one can establish a one-to-one correlation between instances of such profession and instances of the virtue of faith. Faith is always a choice, which is why the medievals were wrong to believe that forcing people to profess the Catholic faith, and thus to lie, was necessary for the common good.

Accordingly, it's not such a bad thing that the Catholic Church can no longer enjoy a religious monopoly and must therefore find herself in competition with those who reject her. She must now propose, not impose. That's how it was in the first few centuries of her existence, and that's how it should be.

Best,
Mike

J.M.W. said...

You should spend some time evangelizing unbelievers, Muslims and others instead of endlessly debating Protestants.

Principium unitatis said...

J.M.W.

Thank you for your thoughts. I consider working to effect Christian unity to be congruent with the task of evangelism. Christ Himself seems to relate the two in his prayer in John 17. Christians are presently divided against each other into many sects and factions, and that hurts evangelism. We are three months and thirteen years from the Protestant-Catholic schism being 500 years old. Imagine what it would be like for Protestants and Catholics to be reconciled and reunited. Imagine what effect that would have on evangelism, if we were all speaking the same message, sharing the same sacraments, and following the same shepherds.

Those in schism are unbelieving in a certain respect; they are not believing in the Church. St. Augustine thought it worth his time to reconcile the Donatists with the Church, though they had been in schism for a hundred years. He didn't seem to think that his efforts at reconciling them were less important than his efforts to evangelize pagans. And I think he is a good example to model.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Joseph said...

Bryan,

I agree with you completely. A shattered and deformed Christianity (from an outsider's perspective) is scandalous. The same arguments we repeat constantly about how many differring voices the Holy Spirit has (in regards to interpretations of the Sacred Scriptures) do not go unnoticed by those who are pagan or atheist.

We should first love each other enough to want unification, to speak with one voice, before we can be a light to the world. How much more powerful would Christ's Gospel be to the world coming from one unified mouthpiece? How much harder would it be for the wicked to slander and attack the power of God in His Church?

Joel said...

Well, unity would be great, but it's not going to happen as long as folks are bowing to statues and crosses, or talking to the dead. And bowing to statues is not going to help evangelize Muslims.

Josh S said...

Even "recognizing the sacramental magisterial authority of the Church" puts you in an epistemological bind, because you have to judge for yourself whether or not Rome's claims to be that authority are valid using some kind of standard that you decide on yourself. Either you resort to a circular argument (Rome is the authority because Rome says so), or you engage in self-determination and authoritative critique.

There simply is no way out of Protestantism without using your reason and personal judgment.

Principium unitatis said...

Hello Josh,

Thanks for your comments. I don't think anyone is claiming that it is false that "there simply is no way out of Protestantism without using your reason and personal judgment". The discovery of sacramental magisterial authority does not itself have to be grounded on sacramental magisterial authority. One can be convinced, say, by the fathers, that the early Church held to the idea of sacramental magisterial authority. That can occur even if one does not initially recognize the sacramental magisterial authority of the fathers.

The fact that the person who discovers sacramental magisterial authority uses his own reason and personal judgment in doing so does not mean that he has as a result nothing but his own opinion. He also has the authoritative decisions of that sacramental magisterial authority, say, for example, the decision of the Council of Nicea. If beforehand it was merely his own opinion (from his study of Scripture) that Arianism is false, after discovering sacramental magisterial authority he can know that the Church authoritatively condemned Arianism as heretical. So after discovering sacramental magisterial authority, he has more than his own opinion; he also has the authoritative decisions of that sacramental magisterial authority.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan