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

Friday, January 11, 2008

Questions for Protestants

In preparing for this Octave of Church Unity, I'm drawing attention here to what I believe to be the fundamental, meta-level source of all the divisions between Christians: the issue of authority. I'm not ignoring, of course, the role of the world, our concupiscence, and the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places that seek without rest to divide Christ's Mystical Body no less than they did when they unleashed their twisted fury on His physical body during His passion. I write these words during those three hours [noon - 3 pm] today (Friday), the day of the week perpetually consecrated by His crucifixion and death. Father, forgive us, for we did not know what we were doing, when we divided Your Son's Mystical Body.

Questions for Protestants

1. Whose determination of the canon of Scripture is authoritative? (If your answer is "the Scriptures testify to their own canonicity", then, since persons disagree about the content of this testimony, whose determination of the content of this testimony is authoritative?)

2. Whose interpretation of Scripture is authoritative? (Again, if your answer is "Scripture interprets Scripture", then, since persons disagree about the content of Scripture's interpretation of Scripture, whose determination of the Scripture's interpretation of Scripture is authoritative?)

3. Whose determination of the identity and extension of the Body of Christ is authoritative? (If you deny that Christ founded a visible Church, then skip this question.)

4. Whose determination of which councils are authoritative is authoritative? (If you deny that any Church councils are authoritative, then skip this question.)

5. Whose determination of the nature and existence of schism is authoritative?

6. Whose determination of the nature and extension of Holy Orders (i.e. valid ordination) is authoritative?

7. Whose determination of orthodoxy and heresy is authoritative? (If your answer is "Scripture", then go to question #2.)

8. If your answer to any of questions 1-7 is "the Holy Spirit", or "Jesus" or "the Apostles", then whose determination of what the Apostles, the Holy Spirit, or Jesus have determined is authoritative?

9. Given your answers to the above questions, how does your position avoid individualism and the perpetual fragmentation that necessarily accompanies it? (If your answer appeals to the "fundamentals of the faith" or the "essentials of the faith", then whose determination of what are "the essentials of the faith" is authoritative?)

10. Does not even nature teach you that a visible body needs a visible head? If so, then does grace therefore destroy nature, or does grace build upon nature?

11. Why do you think that your present [Protestant] pastor has more authority than the successor of St. Peter? In other words, why do you "obey" and "submit" (Hebrew 13:17) to your Protestant pastor rather than the successor of St. Peter?

12. Whose determination of the nature of "sola scriptura" is authoritative?


Tim A. Troutman said...

1. The Scriptures testify of their own canonicity. It is their apostolicity that makes them authoritative.

2. Scripture must interpret Scripture. We must read Scripture in the light of other Scripture with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

3. No one on earth can point to the body of Christ since it is the collective body of all true Christians everywhere.

4. All councils may err and many have. Therefore councils are only authoritative in so far as they line up with the Bible (see point 2 on how to interpret it and point 1 on how to know what it is)

5. The only meaningful schism is spiritual. Though not to be taken lightly, if a church begins to teach doctrines incompatible with the bible (again see 1 & 2) we are spiritually obligated to "schism" (if you want to use that word). The Reformers taught us that the true church is constantly reforming since her members are fallible men.

6. Holy Orders aren't in the bible.

7. The early church described in the New Testament is the litmus test by which to measure orthodoxy.

8. N/A

9. The divisions in the body of Christ are caused by man's sinful nature and are not part of God's plan. While various denominations have different styles of worship and worship preference - the important thing is that we all agree on the fundamentals of the faith which we find in the Bible alone. All true Christian churches adhere to biblical doctrine.

10. Well that's only IF you agree that the body is visible. As Luther & Calvin taught us, the church is all true Christians regardless of denomination. We only have one head: Jesus Christ.

Those were ten answers that absolutely don't work (but surprisingly the very ones you will hear time and time again from the top Protestant theologians and apologists).

My brain literally hurt saying such things. I can't grasp how anyone can miss the circular logic and utter failure of these arguments.

Principium unitatis said...

Thanks very much Tim. I added some follow-up questions in light of your answers.

Let's keep praying for the reunion of all Christians.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Joe said...

In case you're unaware you should know that you are getting answered over at the Boars Head Tavern:

Thos said...


A very fair effort on your part, I must say. Let me try my hand at the two newer ones:

11. I obey and submit to my pastor, as is the case with Creeds and Councils, only insofar as he agrees with Scripture. While Hebrews 13:17 is a call for obedience to my earthly ecclesial shepherds, when my shepherd teaches what is contrary to scripture, he crosses some jus cogens lines -- to follow would be to enter into error with him.

12. Whose determination about sola scriptura? Any formulation of "sola scriptura" is only valid insofar as it agrees with God's Word entirely enscripturated in 66 books of the Bible (see Keith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Ch. 1).

But I'm counsel-in-training, Bryan, so my mind is becoming geared to answer anything. My heart may not be in the answers though.

These are questions I've been at pains to answer with vigor for years. If I could come to a good answer, I could call you and Tim and other Catholics from the yoke of Romanism! Unfortunately, the Reformed people I've taken these questions to have 1) figured they were confusing the truth of the gospel, or 2) sluffed them off. But if my church is in the light of Truth, these should be easy to answer, and with vigor.

I'm surprised by the tone at Boar's Head Tavern (where I would comment if they accepted comments, but they don't).

The Scylding assumes that Orthodox and Catholics are not in schism, so that no proper council could be held after the Great Schism. And he then expresses that only what was formally declared can be a "development of doctrine" if it was so declared by all the Church (which he defines as Orthodox and Catholic). These are immense issues that don't answer your questions; they don't tell me why the PCA or the Westminster Divines have True authority.

Philip Winn says that your questions have nothing to do with following Christ. To me, knowing which books are in the Bible, and what rules of interpretation to apply to the ones that properly are in the Bible is *central* to my following, and giving up my life for Christ. A simple discussion on disparate soteriological beliefs would explain my point. He then criticizes Catholicism's expressions of grace in the last millennium, and expresses doubt about Popes with "genuine faith." I can only guess that he is defining genuine under a subjective norm. But even if we can agree, ex arguendo, that Catholicism is the Great Whore of Babylon, should we not as Protestant saints be able to articulate the basis of our own claims of authority? I perceived one reply, that Paul in the Bible tells us the Church's one head is Christ. Unfortunately, all agree on this point, and the Catholics introduce their understanding that the Pope acts in personum Christi. The point only addresses the Protestants' onus in that it explains Christ as the source of all authority. But so long as Christ did not give the canon of Scripture to a (subordinate) authority, I am left feeling challenging.

Josh S seemed to answer with a humorous tone, so I'm not sure how far to take his reply. He identifies Jesus as the source of most authority questions. However, on the identification of canon, he identifies the Apostles. Unfortunately, the early Reformational articulation of canon did not subscribe to this view, and a majority of Protestant scholars believe that the Apostles did not write all of the New Testament (even if you include books written by their amanuensi), e.g., James. And since books not included were contenders for inclusion, and books included were often left out of various canon formulations by the early church fathers until the late 4th century, one does not have the luxury of pointing to the apostles as the authority who identified which books exactly where God-breather (i.e., inspired), and which were not. He ends by opining that it is usually the "uneducated evangelical" left unable to answer the questions. I regret that he said this, as I believe it does not build the body of Christ up. My own vanity is no doubt dinged, as I'm a life-long-believing son of a devout and scholarly Reformed pastor who studied under some of the greats, and I'm no academic clod in other realms. Alas, after several years I've heard no answers to questions on authority that withstand scrutiny; I have heard much counter-fire though.

Please, may we all consider Christ's prayer in John 17, and reflect on whether these criticisms merit further fleshing out. Please let's have critical discourse.

Peace in Christ Jesus, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit is our sole hope for unity,

Principium unitatis said...


I've become more and more convinced that a key (if not *the* key) to productive ecumenical dialogue is charity, which is expressed by sincerity and a genuine desire for reconciliation and full unity. It is of the nature of charity to seek unity, in giving of oneself, and in opening oneself to listen to and receive the other. He who cares little about unity, lacks charity. So, I appreciate your openness and real interaction; it manifests charity. Charity is proactive; it reaches out, taking the initiative. I think if we all recognized that our general lack of concern about our disunity was a reflection of a lack of charity, we might be rushing to pull up chairs at the ecumenical dialogue table. Generally speaking, there seems to be very little concern about the present disunity of Christians. This problem of general apathy (about our divided state) seems to be universal, in Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. Where is the widespread righteous passion among believers to rid us of this disunity, to do whatever it takes, for however long it takes, to get to the root of our disunity and reconcile with each other?

Before we can even get to discussing the matters that divide us, it seems that we must somehow show (1) that we are actually (and not merely externally) divided and (2) that our disunity is contrary to the will of Christ, and (3) that we must reconcile with each other and restore the unity that Christ gave to the Church at the beginning. Since we are commanded to love one another, and since love seeks to be united to the object of its love, it follows that we are commanded to seek unity with each other. This isn't an option.

My wife thinks the primary reason for the general apathy about our disunity is due to this spiritual view of unity that I discussed here just recently. If we are already all united spiritually, and if that is where unity really lies, then institutional unity is merely something 'external', and therefore unnecessary. "Christ looks at the heart; and at the heart level, we're all perfectly unified." That gnosticism/dualism prevents people from seeing the importance of institutional/governing unity. But if we don't need any governing unity, then our congregations don't need pastors, and we can embrace our individualism (and invisible/spiritual unity) with complete consistency.

Perhaps another reason why we seem to care so little about Church unity is that we have mistaken division for mere diversity. So often I hear appeals to the "fundamentals of the faith" or to "mere Christianity", as if there is such a thing. (See here and here.) As for who gets to determine what that is, apparently that's for each person to decide for himself, until you get the lowest-common denominator, which is roughly "inviting Jesus into your heart". And that can't possibly be a ground for the unity that is one of the four marks of the Church.

We used to talk about prolegomena to apologetics (back when we studied Schaeffer in seminary). Now it seems we must engage in prolegomena to ecumenicism, just to get us all to the table, resolved and determined to be truly united in one Body.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

CMWoodall said...


I really like your blog-site. You're asking the right questions. Your charity is a model for me.

Tim- I thought you were serious until the disclaimer at the end. I was getting red in the face!

I admit, as Anglican, these are tough questions. I do think, however, that my Anglican counterparts would have much better responses than those over at the boar's-head. Maybe what I should say is that Anglicans (most anyway) are willing to pull up to the ecumenical table. Ironic it is that I see none posting responses, but plenty of radical reformation ideas abound in the replies (most could not care less about ecumenism).

Keep asking those questions. I'm listening.

Benjamin said...

My response would be Matthew 23: 8-12. There is certainly value in hearing the responses of others to scriptures, especially of those who spend considerable time in the Word and in prayer, but, in the end, the only authority is God. Read the scriptures and pray. We do not need to place another man between ourselves and God - Christ has already done that.

Principium unitatis said...


Thanks for your comment. I wonder, how do you reconcile your interpretation of Matt 23:8-12 with Hebrews 13:17? How does your position differ from that of 'David' in the combox of this article?

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Principium unitatis said...

Hello Kevin,

Thanks for taking the time to discuss these questions. I didn't reply to all your answers, only the ones I thought were most important.

1. It is not clear to me from your answer whose determination of the canon is, in your opinion, authoritative, whether it is "the Church's" or "no one's".

2. If we have no principled way of identifying where the Church is, and who speaks for the Church, it does us no good to know that the Church's interpretation of Scripture is authoritative. You identified the Church as "the people of God – the ones with whom the New Covenant was made". But that just pushes back the question: Where are these "people of God" and who speaks for them, and what is the principled way of determining who they are? Your answer to that question, I suspect (though please correct me if I am wrong) will end up being, "They are those who interpret the Scripture pretty close to the way I do." That answer, in my opinion, is not a *principled* way of identifying where the Church is. It is intrinsically individualistic and therefore disposed to fragmentation. It is what I have called "painting a magisterial target around one's interpretive arrow".

3. Of course I agree that Scripture is authoritative in this matter, but Scripture must be interpreted. So just pointing to Scripture doesn't answer the question, and in fact pushes us back to Question #2.

4. Your reply does not tell us whose determination of which councils are authoritative is authoritative. Implied in your reply, however, is that you, according to your own interpretation of Scripture, determine which councils agree with your interpretation, and then pick those councils as 'authoritative'. That too is painting a magisterial target around one's interpretive arrow.

5. Your reply to this question does not specify who is (and speaks for) the "Communion of Christ". If we don't know who is and speaks for the "Communion of Christ", then we have no access to any authoritative determination of the nature and existence of schism. In that case those whom the Apostles excommunicated could simply turn right around and say back to the Apostles, you are the ones in schism, not me. Who is to say?

7. See my reply to #5. Your position leaves us with no authoritative determination of what is orthodoxy and what is heresy. One man's orthodoxy is another man's heresy, and there is no one to provide the authoritative adjudication. If no one can provide the authoritative determination of orthodoxy and heresy, then we are left with theological relativism. If, however, you do think there is someone who can provide the authoritative determination regarding orthodoxy and heresy, who are these persons, and how do you determine in a principle way (as opposed to a mere self-serving way) that they are the ones with the authority to provide such authoritative determinations?

9. When each person is his own interpretive god, since you think there is no such thing as Holy Orders, then your claims to support full visible unity rest on an assumption that grace does not build on nature. Even in your own church in Arizona, presumably it is not the case that each person has equal authority. You, presumably, exercise some governing authority there that the laymen in your church do not possess. Otherwise, in practice it would be impossible for your congregation to function as a unified body. Bodies require heads. Someone has to take or be given authority (whether formally recognized or not) in order for a plurality to become a unity. For that reason, if you claim to desire full visible unity, then you need to acknowledge the need for some kind of ecclesial hierarchy. If you reject the idea of a hierarchy, then you are rejecting the possibility of full visible unity.

10. Given what you say in reply to this question, I don't see how your position is much different from that of the Montanists. You seem to have created a false dichotomy: we are governed either by the Spirit or by a hierarchy. In making this false dichotomy, you seem not to realize a third possibility, i.e. that the Spirit ordinarily comes to us through matter, i.e. through the hierarchy and through the sacraments.

Regardless of our disagreements, Kevin, I hope that we can agree to pray this coming week (the Octave of Church Unity) for the full unity of all Christians, and the healing of all divisions between us. I will be praying for that.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

John Bugay said...

Bryan, not sure if you are aware of this, but Steve Hays is responding to your recent posts, here: http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2008/08/trick-questions-for-protestants.html

There are basic, foundational questions that must be asked of your underlying assumptions. For example, why should we take you at what YOU BELIEVE is the "fundamental, meta-level source of divisions"? How do we know that YOU have characterized this issue properly? How does anyone know that dividing the Christ's "visible" body is the same thing as dividing his "mystical" body?

There is a very good case to be made, at multiple levels, that, on the global stage, it is the boastfulness of Roman claims to authority which divided the body. After all, the Roman church was merely a missionary outpost for the much more developed Eastern church, during much of the earliest history of the church. Initial claims to Roman authority rested on the claim that Peter founded that church in Rome. Contemporary Catholic historians today agree that much of what circulated about Peter for CENTURIES (and it was circulated as truth by many in various places of authority at the time) that Peter actually was a bishop in Rome. However, there is irrefutable historical evidence now, put in place by even the best Catholic historians, that these stories about Peter were "pious fictions," (in the words of Eamon Duffy).

What I am saying is that your foundational assumption that the pope is who he says he is, rests not on the truth, but on something that is more akin to "pious fiction."

Tim Troutman -- If you don't think that the first 10 responses you gave here don't work, I would hope that you would not consider that you have provided something that is representative of the best of Protestantism.

For example, in response to your first response, I don't know that I've seen anyone say that "the Scriptures testify of their own canonicity." The Scriptures themselves were self-attesting, in the sense that there were various collections, very early on, of the four gospels, the letters of Paul, the Catholic epistles. These were, in fact, circulating as "scripture" in the time Peter was writing. Peter considered Paul's letters to be "Scripture," for example, (2 Peter 3:14-16).

In fact, Steve Hays, who has done a very thoughtful job of responding to these initial "questions. You all may sit here and pat yourselves on the back for "hurting your own brains" or you can genuinely interact with real Protestants who ask real, genuinely hard questions of you.

CD-Host said...

John --

the sense that there were various collections, very early on, of the four gospels, the letters of Paul, the Catholic epistles. These were, in fact, circulating as "scripture" in the time Peter was writing. Peter considered Paul's letters to be "Scripture," for example, (2 Peter 3:14-16).

I'd love to know where these collections were. I don't know of any collection containing the 4 gospels, the Pauline epistles the catholic epistles without other books added until the 4th century. Who was circulating them? Where do we get copies of these lists of books? As for 2Peter it doesn't even seem to be aware of gospels (and for that matter it has terrible historical attestation).

I think we need to use the same criteria for the historicity of everything.

CD-Host said...

OK I'll do my 10.

1) The Christian community at large.
2) The community to which the person is a member
3) The ecclesiology of the church to which the person belongs
4) The Christian community at large.
5) The two bodies in question. I.E. a schism has occurred between A and B if A and B agree it has occurred.
6) The membership
7) The leadership of the particular church. That is orthodoxy and heresy are relative to a denomination not absolute.
8) Holy Spirit -- each individual
Jesus -- theology
apostles -- secular history and/or church myth
9) Because of the requirement of consensus. Individuals can hold opinions but collections of individuals are required for doctrines
10) Don't understand the question
11) Pastors have authority in the same way the police do. They have the authority to act in accord with law (of God / or the state respectively). They both lack legislative authority.
The question confuses the two.
12) Luther's.