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

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Denominational Renewal": Part 1



In February I attended three sessions of the "Conversation on Denominational Renewal" conference here in St. Louis. The bios of the speakers, along with downloadable MP3s of their talks, are listed here. I went to seminary with three of the speakers: Bill Boyd, Jeremy Jones, and Greg Thompson, and with Kevin Twit, who led the music for worship. Not only that, but the conference was held at Memorial Presbyterian Church, where my family and I worshiped for about six years; I actually preached there a few times during my internship. (This was just before it reshaped its image and worship style to be more attractive to college students and young people.)

Being back there was surreal, just for those reasons. But in addition, here I was, now a Catholic (probably the only Catholic there) surrounded by familiar faces and friends from my Presbyterian seminary, and immersed again (for the first time in about seven years) in the very palpable PCA culture (in the manner of speech, the manner of prayer, and the manner of worship). That too made the experience surreal. How strange to feel [at least initially] somewhat like an outsider, among a community of which I had been a part only a relatively short time ago.

But then I began to listen to the talks. In all I heard Jeremy Jones' theological reflection, Bill Boyd's talk on worship, and Matt Brown's talk on ecclesiology. Overall, I was very pleased with and pleasantly surprised by the talks, and impressed by the kind of conversation that was taking place. Not only do these men obviously and deeply love God from the heart, and not only are they diligently pursuing the truth even in Christian traditions outside the Reformed tradition, they are also laying down their lives daily to serve God in the positions and places where they are. I genuinely admire them for all those reasons, and I'm proud that they are my brothers in Christ, very proud. [Sidenote: Anthony Bradley was there as well (we graduated together from CTS), and when I saw recently that Fr. Zuhlsdorf linked Anthony's article on black liberation theology, I was delighted.] During Bill Boyd's talk, I was sitting about two pews ahead of Bryan Chappell, the President of Covenant Theological Seminary, and I heard him lean over to somebody next to him and say, "This is not your father's PCA". I concur. For me, it was a kind of PCA 'aggiornamento', a call to think more broadly than the limits of a particular ecclesial 'ghetto'.

I have divided my comments on this conference into two parts. In this first part, I will write about Jeremy Jones' talk titled "On Renewing Theology". In the second part, I will write about Matt Brown's talk on ecclesiology. As for Bill Boyd's talk, I think it was excellent, and I recommend listening to it. In it he lays out the biblical account of the place of food and eating in community and worship. But I'm not going to say anything more here about Bill's talk.

There is so much I can agree with in Jeremy's talk, but I'm going to say little about that, and focus only on a point of disagreement. This creates a misleading impression, as though I primarily disagree with Jeremy, or as though I think Jeremy is mostly wrong. That's not true. There is a great deal of common ground. And I'm very grateful for all of these men, and for the gifts and talents and passion they are bringing to this discussion, both within the PCA and to the broader ecumenical discussion. My reason for focusing on the point of disagreement is precisely to help bring us to unity, by attempting to cast light on that which divides us. So I write this with charity in my heart for my brothers in the PCA, and affection as well.

Jeremy Jones began his talk by criticizing sectarianism. He defined 'sectarianism' as "the practical or theoretical identification of your tradition or some subset of it as the true Church." Sectarianism, he said, is the notion that

"We are the Church and others aren't". "At its root sectarianism is a sin." "It is the ecclesial form of the sin of pride." "Sectarianism is the sin of legalism: we functionally elevate human theological opinion to the level of Scripture. Sectarianism is the sin of idolatry: we worship our past, our tradition, its men, and movements, our theology, Confessions."


Later in his talk he talked about the importance of understanding the incarnation for contextualizing the Gospel, saying, "Our ultimate model for contextualization is the incarnation". As I see it, there is a tension between Jeremy's incarnational conception of spreading the Gospel and his non-incarnational conception of the Church. I say "non-incarnational conception of the Church" because he seems to hold a non-institutional conception of the Church. This non-incarnational conception of the Church treats the Church as per se invisible, being visible only in that her embodied 'members' are visible. For a more detailed explanation, see my post titled "Christ founded a visible Church" as well as (at least) the last four pages of my "The Gnostic Roots of Heresy" paper.

Jeremy's notion that sectarianism is a sin assumes that no existing institution is the institution that Christ founded. Of course the notion that, say, the PCA is the Church Christ founded is obviously false, since it was founded in 1973. The conception of the Church as invisible per se, and thus non-institutional per se, is intrinsic to denominationalism, for denominationalism by its very nature sees no need for any institution, including one's own denomination, to have been founded by the incarnate Christ. In this way, denominationalism is constantly in tension with itself, for either a denomination conceives of itself in the sectarian manner Jeremy describes above, in which case it runs into the problem that it was founded at least 1500 years after Christ ascended into heaven, or it conceives of itself as a part of a whole that is not itself an institution. But if the whole need not be institutionally organized, then neither does the part, hence the tension (to put it mildly). This seems to me to be an inescapable dilemma for denominationalism.

In the classroom, I not infrequently encounter student comments of the following sort: "Nobody has the whole truth; everybody just has a little part." Typically the conversation is about religion or ethics. Implicit in the student's comment is a kind of skepticism masked as egalitarianism and/or pluralism. It just wouldn't be right, goes this line of thought, to think that one group has the whole truth about x, and another group doesn't have the truth about x. They all must equally have the truth, or they all must have an equal share of the truth. I agree that in many if not most cases one person or group doesn't have the whole truth about a matter, but some students falsely tend to move from that premise to the conclusion that therefore all persons or groups have an equal share of the truth about that matter, or that everyone's opinion on a particular subject is of equal worth. Implicit in Jeremy's anti-sectarianism is a similar notion applied to religious institutions. It just can't be that one institution is the right one, the original one, the orthodox one -- that's elitist and neither egalitarian nor "catholic". This mentality serves almost as an a priori presupposition in his ecclesial methodology. Now, I myself believe that the various Protestant traditions have certain gifts and strengths that Catholics lack. So I agree that the Catholic Church doesn't have everything that Protestant traditions and persons have to offer. But I cannot rationally justify moving from that premise to the conclusion that the Catholic Church is therefore not the institution Christ founded. Moreover, loaded into the use of the word "catholic" [small 'c'] as supporting anti-sectarianism is a 'mere Christianity' glossing over of the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy, and all that is necessary to make that distinction.

If Jeremy's objection to sectarianism is an objection to the treatment of institutions that were not founded by Christ as though any particular one of them is the institution founded by Christ, then I agree with him. But it did not seem to me that he intended his condemnation of sectarianism to be qualified in that way. He seemed to present his critique of sectarianism in an intentionally unqualified way. In that case, his condemnation of sectarianism would carry with it one of two assumptions: (A) Christ founded an institution but then it fell to pieces and no longer exists, or (B) Christ did not found an institution. But (A) is a kind of ecclesial deism, which I have previously discussed. If unity is a mark of the Church, then the Church cannot lose visible unity, even in the event of schism. (See "Has Christ Been Divided?".) On the other hand, (B) calls into question the formation of denominations (including the PCA) as organizationally outdoing even what Christ Himself saw fit to do in organizing and establishing His Church. If Christ did not found an institution, then the very justification for the existence of any denomination or ecclesial institution is undermined, as is the justification for forming a single overarching ecclesial institution. (See here.)

This internal self-contradiction is the reason that denominationalism must necessarily collapse in the long run into an anti-sacramental Evangelicalism in which institutionalism is eschewed (for sacramentality is directly tied to an hierarchical and institutional conception of the Church), and the conception of the Church as per se invisible is explicitly embraced. Denominationalism is an untenable middle position between Catholicism on the one hand and the ecclesial individualism and anti-sacramentalism of Evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and biblicism on the other hand. Jeremy is most definitely right to see that there is a treasure-trove of theological riches in traditions outside that of the PCA. So, his effort to encourage Reformed Christians to allow themselves to be enriched by these treasures is most definitely a step in the right direction. But at that point (i.e. the point of having rejected sectarianism), how are Reformed Christians any different from Evangelicals and their invisible "Christian Church"? At that point one must either embrace Evangelicalism as one's ecclesiological destiny, or begin to seek out the institution that Christ founded.

20 comments:

Todd Gwennap said...

Bryan,

I’ve been a reader for a few months, but haven’t yet commented. I have really appreciated your posts—they are always well-thought and insightful. I’m an Mdiv student at Covenant with a good number of Catholic friends and a love for Church History. I do, though, have some slight disagreements with you, particularly in terms of ecclesiology.

I would be the first to admit that evangelicals and Reformed-types have too often collapsed into a kind of radical individualism, but to take the worst examples and make those the norm seems irresponsible. As a Reformed Christian myself, I am happy to condemn radical individualism not only as theological error but as antithetical to the point of the gospel itself. And yes, I do believe that Christ founded a physical, visible institution. However, I would also be quick to add that the problem of human sin and depravity render an absolute form of unity all but impossible, even as the Church has always had to distinguish herself against those groups of Christians with irreconcilable differences. I don’t even just mean heretics here, but groups like the Greek Orthodox church. I am familiar with Benedict’s recent ecumenical dialogue with the Greek church.

It seems to me, though, that we would be well-served to consider the church in larger perspective than the New Testament. In this, it seems that using Israel as a paradigm for understanding the nature of the church is helpful. Israel was a visible, corporate entity, and yet not every member of the people of God (Israel) was a true member. True membership in the people of God requires embracing the covenant from the heart (circumcision of the heart) and not mere external covenant keeping (circumcision of the flesh). There has thus been a constant “remnant” theology throughout Scripture. This is the visible/invisible distinction. I would suggest that a similar dynamic exists with the church. The church is not made up of those people who keep the covenant outwardly (baptism, eucharist, etc.), but who have embraced the covenant in their heart (faith in Christ). To be sure, those who have embraced the covenant inwardly will also keep it outwardly.

What of institutional unity? Sin reduced Israel’s effectiveness as the people of God to the point that 10 tribes were destroyed and scattered. I might suggest a similar phenomenon with the church. Sin led to the dissolution of the church’s institutional unity. We should strive for such unity, but what will guide our strivings? The answer to that question, I believe, is what prevents the unity of the church. I would argue that Scripture should be our guide, as interpreted by the people of God, the visible church. I assume you would argue similarly, only adding that the visible church is the magisterium, a concession that I will not make. The image works on a deeper level, but I’ll just leave it as a surface-level reading of ecclesiology for now.

Also, you accuse Reformed traditions of radical individualism by emphasizing the importance of the individual conscience, when in reality, the insistence on conscience places the Reformed churches squarely within the stream of orthodox medieval theology. Scholastics like Abelard used to affirm the synteresis, that last remnant of the pre-fallen human nature. As such, humans were able to know and do the will of God. Because of the synteresis, it was affirmed that humans should not act against their consciences. Reformed types would obviously reject the notion of synteresis, but would argue similarly that, for Christians, the guiding of the Holy Spirit means that Christians should not act against their consciences. This is not radical individualism, more an effort to preserve the peace, purity, and unity of the church.

Anyway, I know that’s a lot. Like I said before, I always enjoy and appreciate your thought-provoking posts. I’d love to have some dialogue here.

Principium unitatis said...

Hello Todd,

Thanks very much for your comment. I appreciate your willingness to dialogue. And I'm always glad to meet [if only virtually] another Covenant student.

I agree with you about there being goats in with the sheep in the visible Church. I also agree that treating examples of radical individualism as if they were the norm would be irresponsible; I hope I haven't done that. In my comments on individualism, I have tried (here, for example) to use not examples but arguments showing that in principle, individualism inevitably follows (even if the process is slow), apart from what I have called sacramental magisterial authority.

As for sin making "absolute unity" impossible, I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "absolute unity", but I'm not so much worried about mere hypotheticals (e.g. is it possible for all Christians to be perfectly united before Christ returns?) Rather, I'm trying to write about what God wants us to do, in light of what Jesus says in John 17, and what Paul says in 1 Cor 1:10:

"Now I exhort you brothers through the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, that all of you confess the same thing, and there be no schisms among you, but you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose."

If Paul can exhort us to have no schisms among us, then it must be possible for us (with the help of grace) to be reconciled to each other, and thereby remove the schisms from among us, even though we are sinners. And so it seems to me that seeking to be reconciled with each other, and thereby removeing these schisms, is something we all should be doing. (I'm trying to do my part!)

Regarding your proposal of using Israel as a paradigm of the Church in order to interpret Christ's promises to the Church regarding e.g. the gates of hell not prevailing against her, His being with her even to the end of the age, the Holy Spirit guiding her into all truth, etc., I wonder if you know of any Church fathers who used the paradigm of OT Israel to qualify these NT promises in this way. The reason I say that is because of what Tertullian says here, and what St. Vincent of Lerins says here. I don't want to beg the question by imposing on Scripture an interpretive paradigm that the Church itself did not hold or approve.

But I think that pushes us right back to the fundamental point of disagreement. You wrote:

I would argue that Scripture should be our guide, as interpreted by the people of God

The difficulty for this position is that it assumes that the identity of the "people of God" is widely known, but that's just not the case. So then, who gets to decide who are the "people of God"? The term "people of God" is an abstraction, not an actual set of people that all humans can just pick out and identify. If you were to pick out who are the "people of God", it might not be the same group that I pick out as the "people of God". In short, each person would pick out (to be included among the "people of God") those who think mostly like himself. And so we would have no more prospect of unity than we do right now, with hundreds and hundreds of various sects and denominations. It seems like any groups, even heretical groups, could call themselves the "people of God". And the result would be absolute chaos, with each group claiming to be the "people of God".

But how is that any better than the present situation, fractured and fragmented into so many divisions? Were the Arians part of the "people of God", the Novatians, the Donatists, the Marcionites? If not, then on what grounds? They appealed to Scripture to justify their interpretations, just as you do. My point is that the reason we know that those groups were heretical is only because the leaders of the Church authoritatively determined that those positions were heretical. Not only does the Church give us the Bible, she gives us the authoritative determination of the interpretation of the Bible (i.e. distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy). Otherwise, if there is no ecclesial authority, then I don't see how our situation would be anything other than each man for himself (regarding the interpretation of Scripture, and determining what is orthodoxy and what is heresy). In other words, without ecclesial authority, we would be left with individualism. And the same is true if anyone can just start his own 'church' and accumulate for himself teachers and preachers that teach and preach what he wants to hear. Without sacramentally determined Church authority, one man's orthodoxy becomes another man's heresy, because no man's interpretation is authoritative.

I don't claim that "the visible Church is the magisterium", but I do believe that the magisterium forms the organizing structure of the Church. "Where the bishop is, there is the Church", to quote St. Ignatius. I don't think we can have ecclesial unity apart from the recognition of sacramental magisterial authority. See my recent post titled "Is the Church a Democracy?"

As for your comments about conscience and synderesis, I don't think anything I have said (so far as I know) is incompatible with our responsibility to follow our conscience. The Catholic Church teaches that it is sin to disobey one's conscience. And yet, the Catholic Church also teaches that a person who is following a malformed conscience can be sinning even in the following of his conscience. So, according to the Catholic Church, we have a responsibility to inform and educate our conscience. (See the CCC, starting at 1776, especially 1783-1785.) I'm not asking anyone to violate his or her conscience, nor is the Catholic Church. I'm talking and writing at the level that has to do with informing our conscience, helping it to discern and know what is the right thing to do.

Thanks again for your comments Todd.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Todd Gwennap said...

Hey Bryan,

I appreciate your thoughts. You give some good food for thought. I would have some more questions for you though. I’ve read through your posts where you argue that there is no mediate position between individualism and sacramental magisterial authority. I’m not sure that I can accept that premise, for Scripture itself shows that there is a corporate and an individual dynamic to membership in the covenant people. God calls to himself a people, but that people is constituted of individuals. The health of the corporate body requires the health of the individuals and vice versa. I am not able to accept the magisterium of the Roman church as the sole interpreter of Scripture and tradition for the same reason that I am not able to accept George W. Bush as the final interpreter of the Constitution. I am uncomfortable having the final “court of appeal” being sinful men. Of course, my comfort does not dictate truth.

Ultimately, I’ll agree that interpretation and theology is never a merely individual activity. Theology is done by the church, the corporate, visible body of Christ. Theology is true based on how closely it comports with the Word of God. So the PCA is a facet of the visible church, but its doctrinal proclamations never speak for the Church. Its doctrinal proclamations are true, again, insofar as they comport with Scripture. Ahh, but whose interpretation of Scripture? God’s. Perhaps that is not a very helpful statement, as ultimately, we do not “have” God’s interpretation of Scripture. I am essentially arguing that the covenant people of God are charged with living as the redeemed humanity, formulating theology and practice in accord with how they, in their particular cultural and historical milieus, understand Scripture under the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Different members of the church may critique particular theological formulations based on their own (corporate) readings of Scripture, but God himself is ultimately the judge of particular theological truths.

We use Scripture to form theology and the witness of the historic church to supplement. But we must not think that the early church will speak to every area in which we continue to formulate doctrine as cultural and historical milieus continue to change. Overall, for systematics proper, I believe that we must look to the witness of the church fathers. Sola Scriptura is not Solo Scriptura. It is not a license for every man to be his own pope. It is simply a license for every man to examine for himself whether theology comports with Scripture. He may misunderstand or be ignorant of Scripture and doctrine, but that is why the Lord left teachers and pastors for his people. I think the idea of the hermeneutical spiral is helpful in this regard. Scripture, theology, and practice are in constant, dynamic conversation, moving closer and closer to God’s intended meanings.

Two other quick thoughts. First, I am happy to agree with both Ignatius (“Where the elder is, there is the church”) and Cyprian (“He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the church for his mother”). God does not call us to individualism but to individual participation in a corporate identity. He left an ordained leadership structure (which we are bound to disagree on the nature of) apart from which Christians cannot fulfill their created purpose as intended. To be in the church is to be under authority, the authority of Christ as mediated by his officers. Second, I did not think to check the early fathers for an Israel/church paradigm, because Paul and Peter both make the connection in the New Testament. Instead of looking to early church interpretation, I think we are better served by looking to Old Testament backgrounds. If we, the church, are the holy nation (1 Peter 2:9), then we must understand our ecclesial identity as in continuity with Old Testament Israel. Christ is the true covenant representative of this body, the true Davidic king, the ideal Israelite. I think that the promises to which you refer, without discussing the specifics of each one, are quite comprehensible in this context.

Again, I appreciate your thoughts. I am enjoying the dialogue.

Principium unitatis said...

When I argue that there is no middle position between individualism and sacramental magisterial authority, I do not mean that individuals lose their individuality when they are submitted to sacramental magisterial authority, any more than we lose our individuality when we are submitted to Christ, or to the Apostles. I simply mean that ecclesial authority is either held in an egalitarian fashion, or is transmitted from the 'top-down' through sacramental succession from Christ and the Apostles. I understand your discomfort with the final 'court of appeal' being sinful men, but I assume you would have accepted the decision of the Jerusalem council of Acts 15. There is a monocausalistic assumption implicit in the notion that whatever is done by sinful men cannot also be guided by the Holy Spirit, and that seems inconsistent with the Reformed view of the dual authorship of Scripture.

When you say that "Theology is done by the church, the corporate, visible body of Christ", what exactly are you referring to by the term "visible body of Christ"? It seems to me that you don't intend it to refer to any definite body. These kinds of terms are used often, but it seems that they have no intended referent. Such terms make us think we are referring to an actual entity, when we are in fact just using a handy term that refers to a plurality as though it were a single entity.

Regarding you statement, "Ahh, but whose interpretation of Scripture? God’s. Perhaps that is not a very helpful statement" – I agree, that's not very helpful, because, as you point out, it just backs up the question: who has access to God's interpretation? You then say:

I am essentially arguing that the covenant people of God are charged with living as the redeemed humanity, formulating theology and practice in accord with how they, in their particular cultural and historical milieus, understand Scripture under the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

This too backs up the question, because we need to know whose determination of what the illumination of the Holy Spirit is showing is the one we should follow. See my reply to Rick Phillips.

[Sola scriptura] is simply a license for every man to examine for himself whether theology comports with Scripture.

There are two different ways to take that line. If you simply mean that everyone should follow his conscience regarding what Scripture teaches, then the Catholic Church agrees. But if you mean that the decisions of ecumenical councils (for example) have no more authority than my opinion (or your opinion) about what Scripture teaches, then that goes against the whole first 1500 years of Church belief and practice. Ecclesial egalitarianism with respect to interpretive authority is precisely the individualism that makes each man his own pope. The decision of the Jerusalem council (of Acts 15) was definitely more authoritative than any Bob or Joe's interpretation of Scripture opposing that council's decision. (I'm hoping that we at least agree on that point.)

He may misunderstand or be ignorant of Scripture and doctrine, but that is why the Lord left teachers and pastors for his people

I agree, of course, but that too pushes back the question: How do we determine who are the rightful teachers and pastors [shepherds]? If we answer: "Those who teach according to my interpretation of Scripture", then we simply have people accumulating teachers according to their itching ears. That would leave us in the dark regarding who the rightful teachers and pastors are, and hence what the authoritative interpretation of Scripture is, and what is orthodoxy and what is heresy. This is why "Apostolicity" has been a key mark of the Church. (See the 'apostolicity' label on the left.)

I think the idea of the hermeneutical spiral is helpful in this regard.

It is a great idea, but take a look around. There are 44 Reformed denominations just in the US. How's that hermeneutical spiral been working out for you? :-)

. First, I am happy to agree with both Ignatius (“Where the elder is, there is the church”) and Cyprian (“He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the church for his mother”). God does not call us to individualism but to individual participation in a corporate identity. He left an ordained leadership structure (which we are bound to disagree on the nature of) apart from which Christians cannot fulfill their created purpose as intended. To be in the church is to be under authority, the authority of Christ as mediated by his officers.

Good, we agree on that. If the early Church messed up so badly so early regarding bishops, how can you trust anything coming out of the early Church, including the selection of the canon of Scripture, and the decision of the council of Nicea? In other words, how does your position avoid "ecclesial deism"?

Second, I did not think to check the early fathers for an Israel/church paradigm, because Paul and Peter both make the connection in the New Testament. Instead of looking to early church interpretation, I think we are better served by looking to Old Testament backgrounds.

I agree that Peter and Paul make the connection. That wasn't the question. The question was whether anyone (either a NT author or a Church father) uses the Israel/Church paradigm to so *qualify* those promises of Christ regarding the Church, or whether this qualification of these promises is an interpretive novelty arising more than 1500 years after Christ. Just because the Church is the new Israel in the New Covenant, it does not follow that whatever was true of OT Israel must be true of the Church. That's a very dangerous assumption, because if it is a false assumption, then you can imagine how heretics and schismatics could use it to defend their being separated from the Church in doctrine and government. I mean, the Arians could have used such an assumption to dismiss the Council of Nicea. The Nestorians could have used it to dismiss the Third Ecumenical Council. The Eutychians could have used it to dismiss the Fourth Ecumenical Council, and so on.

When you say "we are better served ...." I wonder who the "we" is. Clearly, we want to avoid doing self-serving hermeneutics, i.e. determining hermeneutical principles by seeing whether they serve our own views. That's not a hermeneutical spiral; that's a hermeneutical circle. So, I wonder where you are getting this interpretation of Christ's promises regarding the Church, whether it is from yourself, or from some Church authority. And since this interpretation goes against what Catholic authorities have always taught, it seems prudent to avoid it. St. Augustine says:

"This same is the holy Church, the one Church, the true Church, the catholic Church, fighting against all heresies: fight, it can; be fought down, it cannot. As for heresies, they all went out of it, like unprofitable branches pruned from the vine: but itself abides in its root, in its Vine, in its charity." (On the Creed: A Sermon to Catechumens, 1:6)

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Todd Gwennap said...

Bryan,

Again, you have some good thoughts. I have to read a bunch of books for an upcoming summer school class, so my posts might get a bit less involved from here on, but I still have some thoughts about your last response.

As for the monocausalistic charge: I am happy to agree with you that things done by sinful men CAN also be done by the Holy Spirit. In fact, that was my whole point with how we “do” theology. Men guided by the Holy Spirit...As for the Jerusalem Council, I have no problem accepting it, as you expected. However, this council occurred at a unique redemptive-historical moment. The apostles themselves were determining—from Scripture, I might add—the relationship of Gentile Christians to Torah (again with the Israel/Church continuity). I have no problem saying that they were guided by the Holy Spirit in that decision, but I also have no problem saying that, as the actual apostles, their deliberations are uniquely binding.

That being said, I earnestly embrace the decisions of the early ecumenical councils. I would emphatically agree that these councils, composed of men who were guided by the Holy Spirit, reached decisions based on both the logic of men and the Holy Spirit. Their decisions, though, are authoritative insofar as they comport with Scripture. I am completely comfortable saying that their interpretation is the correct interpretation. This is not me lending individual support to a tradition that needs my assent to be authoritative. Rather, the historical testimony of the church (the unified church until 1054, the fragmented church since then) has shown that these interpretations are, in fact, what Scripture says.

As for the question of who the “visible body of Christ” is: I agree that my conception of the visible, covenant people is more nebulous than yours. But, I would ask you a question: Who is the visible body of Christ? The Roman Church? Do you write off the Greek Church? Just those two? What about the other orthodox traditions? My point is this, if the Greek church is a valid communion, who gets to decide that they are valid? The Roman Church? It seems that your fundamental presupposition is that the Roman Church is the very institution that Christ founded and any other communion is valid insofar as it was previously affiliated with this one, true church. Of course, Joseph Ratzinger made this very point in Dominus Iesus (echoing Augustine’s dealings with the Donatists). If there is more than one “valid” church, why not more than that?

I will agree that visible, institutional unity is the ideal and even the goal. But I also believe that the church (both my nebulous and your mono-institutional) must be willing to be checked and corrected by Scripture. Reformed-types have much to learn from our Catholic brothers and sisters. But frankly, I think that goes both ways. We both have much to learn from the global church.

As to the individual/corporate question: You write, “If you simply mean that everyone should follow his conscience regarding what Scripture teaches, then the Catholic Church agrees.” How does this approach avoid mere individualism in the light of the magisterium? That is what I meant by the statement that you quoted. Doctrine is decided on a (nebulously) corporate level. Teachers are to help individual members of the church bring their conscience into line with Scripture, as interpreted by the church, but they should never violate the consciences of the faithful.

Frankly, I think that having denominations is helpful, for it allows different members of the body of Christ to check one another. The unfortunate consequence of allowing Scripture itself to be the final court of appeal (and thus a plurality of interpretations) instead of the magisterial interpretation is a visible lack of unity. But few of these denominations actually would consider themselves the “one, true church.” The global process of the hermeneutical spiral may eventually lead to corporate, institutional, visible unity (I’m optimistic), but the continuing reality of our own finitude and sin may prevent that. The Roman church has no such check on its interpretations, and frankly, I think this has been proven dangerous.

I’m not necessarily advocating a democratic view of the Church. Doctrine is never decided by popular vote. I am instead arguing for a plurality of “top-down” authority structures, each under the authority of Scripture, and each under the authority of Christ.

As for the Israel/Church distinction: Again, you ask me to find early interpretations explaining the nature of Christ’s continuing commitment to his church in light of the Old Covenant promises. And again, I can’t. I still maintain, though, that the bulk of the New Testament explores that very question (at least the epistles of Paul, Peter, and Hebrews).

That ended up being quite a bit more than I hoped to write. This will probably be my last big response, so I’ll let you have the last word. I’ve enjoyed the dialogue, and I’ll be sure to keep reading and post comments as I get a chance.

Thanks again for the irenic spirit in which we have been able to speak.

Todd

Principium unitatis said...

Todd,

Thanks for your reply. You wrote:

this [Jerusalem] council occurred at a unique redemptive-historical moment. The apostles themselves were determining—from Scripture, I might add—the relationship of Gentile Christians to Torah (again with the Israel/Church continuity). I have no problem saying that they were guided by the Holy Spirit in that decision, but I also have no problem saying that, as the actual apostles, their deliberations are uniquely binding.

Do you make sure there is no blood in your meat? There are some dishes more popular in other countries in which blood is an ingredient. Think of blood soup for example, or the black pudding you can get in London. Is it wrong for Christians to eat those dishes? Do you make sure that the meat you eat comes from animals that were not killed by strangulation?

We [Catholics] think the decision of the Jerusalem council is presently *not* binding on Christians, because the Church had the authority to determine that this was a contingent directive, not a perpetually binding dogma. But the truths taught in the Creed resulting from Nicea are, according to the Catholic Church, universally and perpetually binding, infallible, (and irrevocable) dogmas. To deny them is to become a heretic. But to have a bowl of blood soup is not to become a heretic. :-)

From what source are you getting the notion that the uniqueness of the Apostles makes *their* decisions binding but not the decisions (in general council) of those bishops in succession from the Apostles? I mean, which of the early fathers taught that notion? None that I know of. If you bring in a notion that was entirely unheard for 1500 years in the Church, then I'm suspicious of it. It appears to be a novelty. It looks like a candidate for a tradition of men, introduced long after the Apostles, not a candidate for a tradition passed down from the Apostles.

The bishops of the early Church did seem to believe (given various things they said) that if they met together in ecumenical council, their decision would be binding on the Church. They were saying this long before Nicea. They were prevented from holding such a council by persecution, until the time of Constantine. So their long-standing and widely held belief that their decisions, in an ecumenical council, would be binding, seems to be a much better candidate for being a part of Apostolic tradition than the notion that you are proposing. St. Augustine says, "But, regarding those other observances which we keep and all the world keeps, and which do not derive from Scripture but from tradition, we are given to understand that they have been ordained or recommended to be kept by the Apostles themselves, or by plenary councils, whose authority is well founded in the Church."

Their decisions, though, are authoritative insofar as they comport with Scripture.

According to whose interpretation? That of the Arians? The Nestorians? The Eutychians? Monophysites? All those holding those positions interpreted Scripture too, but they did not interpret it the way the Councils did. If you say that the decisions of Councils are only authoritative insofar as they comport with Scripture, and you don't specify whose interpretation of Scripture is authoritative, then you take back what you just gave. If an ecumenical Council's decision only has 'authority' insofar as it agrees with my own interpretation of Scripture, then I don't see how it has any authority at all.

Rather, the historical testimony of the church (the unified church until 1054, the fragmented church since then) has shown that these interpretations are, in fact, what Scripture says.

If you trust the testimony of the "unified church until 1054", then you may have some difficulty with the unified testimony of the Church until 1054 that only bishops can ordain, not [mere] presbyters, that there are seven sacraments, that baptism regenerates, that valid ordination requires a bishop having valid orders in sacramental succession from the Apostles, that Mary was a perpetual virgin (as taught in the 5th Ecumenical Council), that icons are permissible (7th Ecumenical Council), that relics are holy, that praying to saints is good, that praying for the dead is good, etc. But once you start crossing off such things with your red pen, then it seems that the "unified church until 1054" is not actually authoritative at all, but only a cafeteria from which we can pick and choose at will.

Who is the visible body of Christ?

The Catholic Church (see here.)

Do you write off the Greek Church?

There are approximately fourteen autocephalous Orthodox Churches, not one "Greek Church". The Catholic Church does not "write off" these Orthodox Churches. The Catholic Church believes that these Orthodox Churches are in schism from the Catholic Church, but the communion of those Churches with the Catholic Church is "so profound that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord's Eucharist". (CCC 838)

What about the other orthodox traditions?

You mean the Copts, Armenians, Syriacs, the Assyrian Church of the East, and these other groups which separated from the Catholic Church at some point before 1054. These the Catholic Church also considers to be in schism (given the definition of schism in the Catholic Catechism), though the Catholic Church considers their orders valid, on account of their preservation of Apostolic succession. There is dialogue underway to reconcile these groups with the Catholic Church.

My point is this, if the Greek church is a valid communion, who gets to decide that they are valid? The Roman Church? It seems that your fundamental presupposition is that the Roman Church is the very institution that Christ founded and any other communion is valid insofar as it was previously affiliated with this one, true church

I recommend reading Stephen Ray's book Upon This Rock. The primacy of the Holy See has always been recognized, as he makes very clear in that book. It is not a "presupposition" on my part; it was existing belief and practice in the first millenium of the Chuch.

If there is more than one “valid” church, why not more than that?

We need to be clear on the different senses of the word 'Church'. I'll start at the smallest and work to the largest:

(1) The 'Church' in the sense of the local parish (this is a colloquial usage)
(2) The 'Church' in the sense of the local diocese (also called "local particular church").
(3) The 'Church' in the sense of the aggregations of dioceses (also called an "autonomous particular church"
(4) The 'Church' in the sense of Matthew 16:18, i.e. the universal ("Catholic") Church

See, for example this Wiki entry on what is a "Particular Church".

There is only one 'Church' in sense number (4). This the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that Christ founded. But there are many Churches in senses (1), (2) and (3). In fact, there are twenty-two (actually twenty-three now, I believe) Churches in sense (3) within the Catholic Church, in full communion with the bishop of Rome. See my diagram in this post.

So to answer your question, there can be many valid Churches in sense (3), but only one Church in sense (4). According to the Catholic position, the Pope is the bishop of the diocese of Rome, and so he is the bishop of the Church [sense (2)] at Rome. He is also the head of the Latin Church [sense (3)], also called the Western Church [sense (3)]. He is also the head bishop of the Catholic Church [sense (4)]. According to the Catholic Church [sense (4)], Orthodox Churches are Churches [sense (3)]. They are not in full communion with the Catholic Church [sense (4)].

I will agree that visible, institutional unity is the ideal and even the goal. But I also believe that the church (both my nebulous and your mono-institutional) must be willing to be checked and corrected by Scripture.

I agree. But if we don't have some sense of whose interpretation is authoritative, then heretics could accuse the Church of not being checked and corrected by [their own interpretation of] Scripture. Obviously the Church shouldn't be "checked and corrected" by heretics' interpretations of Scripture.

But frankly, I think that goes both ways.

I agree.

: Bryan wrote: “If you simply mean that everyone should follow his conscience regarding what Scripture teaches, then the Catholic Church agrees.” Todd replied: How does this approach avoid mere individualism in the light of the magisterium?

When the early Christians obeyed and submitted to the Apostles, they didn't do so in violation of their conscience. Their conscience told them that obeying and submitting to the Apostles was the *right* thing to do. If you wanted to obey Christ, you obeyed the Apostles. (That was not a situation of ecclesial egalitarianism!) The situation remained the same as the Apostles ordained bishops as their successors, to the end of the first century and continuing. If you wanted to obey the Apostles (and through them, Christ), you obeyed the bishops whom the Apostles had ordained. (This is what is meant by the term "Apostolic" in the four marks of the Church referred to in the Creed.) And the situation remains the same to this day in the Catholic Church (though in the US, unfortunately, many more Catholics are also now individualists, picking and choosing for themselves among the Church's dogmas). To obey Christ is to obey those bishops whom Christ, through His Apostles, sent. In other words, to trust and obey Christ is to trust and obey His Church.

To become a Catholic requires that one's conscience tell one that trusting the Church is the right thing to do, that one trusts Christ by trusting His Church. (This requires the gift of faith.) That is how those being received into the Catholic Church can, in good conscience say, "I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God", even if the one being received doesn't know all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God. If their conscience does not show them that trusting the Church is the right thing to do, then they cannot (and should not) become Catholic, just as the early Christians could not join the Church unless they submitted themselves to the authority of the Apostles, even if these catechumens did not yet know all that the Apostles might teach.

Teachers are to help individual members of the church bring their conscience into line with Scripture, as interpreted by the church, but they should never violate the consciences of the faithful.

I agree completely.

Frankly, I think that having denominations is helpful, for it allows different members of the body of Christ to check one another.

That's a pragmatic way of thinking, as though we can re-structure the Church, from the ground up, according to how *we* think the Church should best be structured. It seems to me, however, that we should be seeking out the way Christ Himself set up His Church, even if it doesn't have all the 'checks and balances' we [moderns] would feel comfortable with. If you read all the epistles of St. Ignatius (d. 107 AD), you have fairly clear idea of how the Church was structured by the end of the first century.

. The unfortunate consequence of allowing Scripture itself to be the final court of appeal (and thus a plurality of interpretations) instead of the magisterial interpretation is a visible lack of unity.

We [Catholics] don't just call that an "unfortunate consequence"; we call it schism, and believe it to be the result of sin (often on both sides). It is something St. Paul exhorts us not to have among us. (1 Cor 1:10)

The Roman church has no such check on its interpretations, and frankly, I think this has been proven dangerous.

It was 'dangerous' to entrust the Gospel to twelve sinful men. Trying to structure the Church according to a criterion of minimization of danger is (in my opinion) a man-centered way of thinking. The Church is Christ's. He is the one who gets to decide how it should be structured. If we take post-Enlightenment ways of thinking about government, and try to impose them on the Church, we're treating the Church as if it were a man-made structure, not a divinely initiated and instituted community.

I appreciate the discussion. I see you are taking E&E this summer. Are you taking Dr. Peterson? I remember reading Clowney in that class. I enjoyed that class. Maybe I'll post some thoughts on Clowney's book at some point. Thanks again for your comments and gracious spirit throughout.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

jsa said...

I just wanted to thank the two of you for this discussion. Very interesting for this (very recent) Covenant grad to observe.

Josh A.

Principium unitatis said...

You're welcome Josh. Thanks for your comment.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Todd Gwennap said...

Hi Bryan,

I had one or two more questions for you, and they are essentially ones of hermeneutics. My first question deals with the Israel/Church paradigm. I should note, first, that I have not meant to sound like a theonomist. There is a real discontinuity between Israel and the church, but there is also a fundamental continuity there. Anyways, what is the Catholic understanding of the Old Testament? What was its purpose? How is it to be understood and used, etc? I'm asking because of the position that the church was the author, or compiler of Scripture, when the Jewish canon was clearly set before 367, when we find St. Athanasius's 39th festal letter and his list of the modern NT canon. I was just curious about this.

Second, I wonder if you might give me the Catholic perspective(s) on exegeting for authorial intent? I ask this because, in Reformed circles anyways, this is how we judge the strength of biblical interpretation, if it makes sense in the author's original context. Again, we would make no monocausalistic assumptions here, and we would affirm that Scripture is written also for the people of God and not merely the original audience, but those two groups (us and them) are never mutually exclusive.

Just some questions I thought of as I reflected on our conversation over the past few days. Thanks again!

Todd

Principium unitatis said...

Todd,

Anyways, what is the Catholic understanding of the Old Testament? What was its purpose? How is it to be understood and used, etc? I'm asking because of the position that the church was the author, or compiler of Scripture, when the Jewish canon was clearly set before 367, when we find St. Athanasius's 39th festal letter and his list of the modern NT canon.

Regarding the Catholic understanding of the Old Testament and its purpose, you may wish to look at CCC 120 - 123. Regarding the "Jewish canon", the Church pre-existed the council of Jabneh (Jamnia) which took place in 90 AD. The Church's authority about what is Scripture and what is not, is Jesus and the Apostles, not the Jews. The Apostles and the early Church used the Septuagint (which included the deuterocanonicals) in their debates with the [non-Christian] Jews, and this was one of the factors leading to the decision at Jabneh (Jamnia), a rejection of the Disaspora canon as found in the LXX. Stephen Ray has a helpful article on this question titled "The Council That Wasn't".

As for "exegeting for authorial intent", I have no training on this subject *from a Catholic point of view*. The Catholic Church agrees that we have to be "attentive to what the human authors wanted to affirm" (CCC 109). I can say that the Catholic Church reads Scripture through the eyes of the fathers. What did those who received these texts say about them? What did their immediate successors say about them? We can't treat the Bible as though it fell from the sky and we can just take it to a laboratory and do scientific experiments on it to make it tell us authorial intent. The Bible was written to a people in a narrative context, and to understand the Bible we need to understand how they understood it. That's why trying to do exegesis without knowing the fathers is not a good idea, in my opinion. Catholics believe that the truths of the faith (i.e. the "deposit of faith") were already given to the Church by the Apostles. So we don't have to try to *discover* it in Scripture as if it is encoded or hidden there; we simply have to receive it from those who are passing it (and Scripture) down to us. The early Christians understood what the NT authors were intending.

The Church also recognizes that because the Holy Spirit is also an author of Scripture, the meaning can extend beyond what the human author intended. (We agree here, I assume.) That is why the Catholic Church recognizes different 'senses' of Scripture. (See CCC 115-119.) We also recognize that our [i.e. the Church's] understanding grows and deepens over time, as the Holy Spirit continues to lead us into all truth. So there is always new insight in our understanding of Scripture, but this is not newness in the sense of novelty, but newness in the sense of development, a deepening of the understanding that does not overturn what has been passed down, but penetrates more deeply into it, making explicit what was implicit, bringing out treasures that are both new (in one sense) and yet old (in another sense).

To get an overall sense of the Catholic understanding of Scripture, I recommend reading sections 101-141 of the Catholic Catechism.

I hope that answers your question.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Kim said...

Wow! What an excellent conversation! Bryan, you will make me a Catholic yet. ;)

Tim A. Troutman said...

Great discussion. Just a few comments here. First, Todd I noticed that you replaced "bishop" with "elder" in Ignatius' text. That is not a fair rendering of the Greek, you can read the letter for yourself here.

The Church at the turn of the 2nd century was (one) bishop > priests > deacons. Changing the word "bishop" because we don't like that system doesn't affect the reality of what we know from history. As I understand it, Calvin rejected the Ignatian epistles as spurious. He could not conceive of a one bishop system. Now that they've been proven authentic, his follower say - "Well I'll be.... I guess Ignatius really wasn't talking about a bishop after all" (Instead of what we would have expected from any rational person > 'oh ok they had one bishop at that time')
Bryan said:
"From what source are you getting the notion that the uniqueness of the Apostles makes *their* decisions binding but not the decisions (in general council) of those bishops in succession from the Apostles? I mean, which of the early fathers taught that notion? None that I know of."

The only early father that I know of (if one can call him a father) is Tertullian (and he was well into the Montanist heresy by the time he did so). In his work "On Modesty" he criticized Pope Callistus for having the audacity to argue that his authority to 'bind and loose' (especially in the context of forgiveness of sins) was derived from Jesus' words to Peter when clearly (according to Tertullian) it was meant for Peter alone. This is the first and only instance I know of such an argument among the early Church - but we must remember first that Tertullian was so far outside of orthodoxy by this time that he considered the whole Catholic Church apostate more or less. Protestants generally still pretend that they agree with the Church up until this point in history (and much later) while Tertullian is in the very midst of condemning (what we would call) orthodoxy altogether.

I argued here against his errors in this passage.

Principium unitatis said...

Thanks Kim,

I pray that we all may be made one in full visible unity. When the world sees us in that unity, the world will "know" that the Father sent Christ (John 17:23), because such unity and community can only come from God. When man attempts to build such unity apart from God, he must inevitably fail; it can only be a pseudo-unity, as the example of the Tower of Babel testifies. (For man can no more create unity ex nihilo than he can create being ex nihilo; unity is always a gift from above, just as being is a gift from above. That is why full visible unity must be found, not made.) Through our incorporation into the Body of Christ we are brought into the eternal community of the Most Holy Trinity, as I discussed here.

I eagerly look forward to being in full communion with you Kim. May the Holy Spirit continue to lead us into true unity.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Todd Gwennap said...

Tim,

You are right. For some reason, I was thinking that the Greek was πρεσβυτερος, not επισκοπος. Elder would be a fine translation of the former, but not the latter. My bad. I could thus translate, "Where the overseer is, there is the church."

I have no problem, though, admitting the historical reality of the episcopacy. Ignatius was the Bishop of Antioch, after all.

Thanks for the correction. I'll try not to do things like that in the future.

Todd

liturgy said...

Greetings

IMO the search for the perfect denomination is fundamentally flawed. It manifestly results in moving denominations every few years and espousing the new denomination with enthusiasm.

It is akin to those searching for the perfect spouse, the perfect religious community. It misses that the Christian community is an imperfect pointer to God - and it is God that ultimately satisfies, not the denomination.

Similarly the search for a complete list of indisputable beliefs to which one can assent and tick every box again confuses means and end.

The fiction that the an infallible complete list of truths can be produced epistemologically falls with the realisation that those making the list are fallible human beings. Roman Catholics themselves are in dispute about what is included in infallible and what is not. So are other fundamentalists in their biblical lists.

Asking Roman questions, inevitably will lead to Roman answers. The repetition above that where the bishop is there the universal church is was not explored sufficiently to the realisation of a eucharistic and episcopal ecclesiology which bypasses the doomed quest for certainty and agreement in every area, and uniformity in every approach.

The universal jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome is a relatively late addition, and the cardinals spread throughout the world as being parish priests of Roman parishes clearly a concomitant dodge.

These last 40 years have seen the delayed Reformation hitting what was the Latin-speaking section of Christianity. For them it is early days in that venture. Other denominations are certainly enriched by what the Roman Catholic denomination offers - but the idea that all current thought and practice of Roman Catholicism is beyond further reform and renewal is contrary to its history. Whenever you think that started.

Blessings

Oso Famoso said...

Great conversation. Enlightening. Todd brought up questions and viewpoints that I had not previously thought about.

Cheers.

Principium unitatis said...

Hello Bosco,

Thanks for your comments.

Your comments seem not to address whether anything I wrote is false. Rather, they are 'deconstructive', in the sense of avoiding the truth or falsity of what I said, and re-characterizing my post as a manifestation of something flawed in me, i.e. an attempt to "search for the perfect denomination". And technically, that is an ad hominem, which is a fallacy. My post is not a manifestation of a "search for the perfect denomination". My post is an argument, with premises, and a conclusion. To engage that argument, you would need to show which of the premises is false, or how the conclusion does not follow from the premises. I have never claimed that the Catholic Church is "perfect". It is obvious to anyone that it is not perfect. Being perfect is not a necessary condition for being the Church that Christ founded. If you think anything in my post was false, please point this out. I mean that. If anything I wrote is false, please show that. But if you think everything in my post is true, then there is no reason for you to disagree with it.

In the peace of Christ

- Bryan

Taylor Marshall said...

Great conversation. Good job Bryan.

Taylor Marshall

Kim said...

Bryan, he's probably responding mainly to my post. He had said almost the exact same stuff in a comment to me, but I haven't approved the comment yet as I was unsure of how to respond.

Todd Gwennap said...

Bryan,

Sorry for my silence over the past few days. I am preaching this weekend and trying to pre-read some books for my "Ecclesiology and Eschatology" class that begins next week.

I am actually reading Clowney right now, so maybe I'll come back early next with some more "ammo." My wife, son, and I are heading out of town to visit family for a few days, but I genuinely hope to continue our conversation in the coming weeks.

Thanks again for the great dialogue.

Todd