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

Friday, September 5, 2008

Choosing My Tradition

Here I wish to continue discussing the dichotomy between the individualism of ecclesial consumerism and the unity possible only by way of sacramental magisterial authority derived from apostolic succession. Michael Brown recently wrote "Finding the Bull's Eye", as a reply to my earlier post titled "Michael Brown on Sola Scriptura or Scriptura Solo". I am very grateful to Michael for his cordial and respectful manner of responding to my post, especially given that I was criticizing his position.

So what's the point of disagreement between Michael Brown and myself? The point at issue between us, is whether there is any principled distinction between sola scriptura and solo scriptura viz-a-viz individualism. Michael says there is. I say there is not. I think that sola scriptura, so long as it denies or rejects sacramental magisterial authority, remains fundamentally individualistic, and hence intrinsically disposed to fragmentation and disunity.

Confessional Protestants such as Keith Mathison admit that there is a serious problem with the solo scriptura position. They recognize that in solo scriptura the individual is his own final interpretive authority, and thus this position reduces to individualism. And individualism by its very nature leads to disunity and division, as each person does whatever seems right in his own eyes. Unity as one of the four marks of the Church ("one, holy, catholic and apostolic") and as the most intimate expression of the desire of our Savior's sacred heart revealed in St. John 17, requires being incorporated into something greater than a structure made in our own image, or the image of our own interpretation. That is the challenge for overcoming this 500 year-old schism -- finding and coming together in the Church that Christ founded and that is made in His image as His Body.

I had claimed in my original post that the sola scriptura position functions by allowing the individual to "paint a magisterial (or ecclesial) target around his interpretive arrow". In response, Michael writes:

I reject Cross's analogy as being true for confessional Protestantism and what Oberman and Mathison call "Tradition 1" (that is, the acceptance of a real tradition, but not as a second source of revelation). Confessional Protestantism is not founded upon shooting one's interpretive arrow into a wall and then painting a magisterial target around it and calling it "church." Rather, confessional Protestantism is a target already painted upon the wall, to which individual Christians must aim their arrow.
Michael claims that while my painting-a-magisterial-target-around-one's-interpretive-arrow analogy applies to biblicism, it does not apply to "confessional Protestantism". According to Michael, "confessional Protestantism is a target already painted upon the wall, to which individual Christians must aim their arrow". What exactly does he mean by "already on the wall"? He goes on to explain:

Personally, when I became Reformed, I did not do so because I worked out Sola Fide, covenant theology, and the doctrines of grace on my own and then hunted for a church that believed those things. In fact, I don't know any Reformed Christian for whom that has happened! I became Reformed much in the same way that most people in the congregation I pastor did: I heard the gospel preached in a way that I never heard before, and followed that preaching to a very old and large target that had been painted on a wall by many people over the past two millennia. In other words, I was confronted with something much larger than myself and my own private experience. I was confronted with an old, yet living, confessional and interpretive community that clearly presented the bulls-eye of the gospel. Yet, there were many outer rings to that bulls-eye that I had never encountered before and wasn't entirely comfortable with at the time. There were "rings" of covenant theology, the Sacraments, ecclesiology, eschatology, on and on it went. Looking at the workmanship of the target, however, I could see that, over the centuries, a vast array of great artists had worked on this target, using the paint and brush of Scripture, as it were. The point I want to make by this is that, in becoming Reformed, I did not do the work of a biblicist. I had to submit myself humbly to the wisdom of those artists and archers that had gone before me. I not only had to apply myself diligently to search the Scriptures and see if their testimony was in fact true, but I also had to listen and reckon with the fact that this target was massive and exhibited the finest workmanship. Most importantly, it presented the clearest and boldest bulls-eye.
By "confessional Protestantism" being already on the wall he means that it is an already existing interpretive tradition; he didn't just make it up himself. So how does Michael's own experience show a principled distinction between sola scriptura and solo scriptura (i.e. biblicism)? According to Michael, the pure biblicist works out all his positions from Scripture alone, and then says "Ok, those who agree with me are the Church".

But that's not what happened to Michael. He heard what he terms "the gospel", and "followed that preaching to a very old and large target that had been painted on a wall by many people over the past two millenia". He found something that seemed right to him ("the gospel"), and that attracted him, and when he started investigating it, he found the whole Reformed theological tradition. He didn't work out the whole Reformed tradition from Scripture on his own. He found a small part of the Reformed tradition that was intriguing and attractive, and through it he found the rest of the Reformed theological tradition, and then determined that the Reformed theological tradition conformed to Scripture better (in his judgment) than did his previous Bible-church theology. So the "confessional Protestant", in contrast with the biblicist, finds an existing interpretive tradition, compares it with Scripture, and then if he determines it to be superior to his present interpretive tradition, he treats the superior interpretive tradition as in some sense authoritative (i.e. a secondary authority under Scripture).

The important part of the account concerns the way in which the "confessional Protestant" evaluates the interpretive tradition that he has encountered but not yet embraced, especially if he is comparing multiple interpretive traditions. There are many different ways to evaluate these interpretive traditions, according to various kinds of evaluative criteria. They can be evaluated by fit-to-Scripture, internal coherence, explanatory depth or explanatory power, simplicity, creativity, helpfulness, popularity, age, scope, personal fulfillment or attractiveness, sweetness, fruit, or even gut-level veracity, just to name a few. For example, many people are drawn to the Benny Hinn / Todd Bentley theological tradition because of its attractiveness, and its seeming fit to many passages of Scripture, as well as the hope it holds out for direct and emotionally powerful encounters with God. Such persons are not biblicists in the sense defined above; they are encountering an interpretive tradition and then determining that it better satisfies their evaluative criteria than does their present interpretive tradition. In the selection of evaluative criteria a person can pick an interpretive tradition that conforms to his own interests or desires or personal interpretive criteria. In this way the "confessional Protestant" can fashion the 'Church' in his own image, by selecting from among interpretive traditions according to the same evaluative criteria he would use to produce and evaluate his own interpretation were he a biblicist. There are certain common features, for example, among the sort of people who tend to be attracted to the Hinn / Bentley interpretive tradition. And that is also true of Calvinism. In this way the "confessional Protestant" can pick a tradition that seems best to him, submit to the 'Church' as defined and fixed by that tradition, and then deny being an individualist, claiming that he is under the authority of a tradition and "the Church".

But is there no principled difference between picking a Protestant tradition and seeking full communion with the Catholic Church? In both cases the person chooses a tradition, so aren't both actions individualistic? (This is the tu quoque objection I have discussed elsewhere.)

What makes the decision individualistic in the case of the person choosing a Protestant interpretive tradition is not that an individual is making this decision. That's unavoidable and unproblematic. What makes the decision problematically individualistic has to do with the type of evaluative criteria being used. Both the biblicist and the person choosing a Protestant tradition are typically looking for best-fit, particularly best-fit between the theology and Scripture. Both are using an evaluative criterion based on form. "Does this interpretation or this interpretive tradition have the best fit to Scripture?" If they encounter another interpretive tradition that has a better fit, that is where they will go. If you asked them, "Is your present ecclesial institution the one that the incarnate Christ founded?" their answer would be something like, "No, but I think we believe and teach what the Bible says more accurately than does any other institution I know."

The person becoming Catholic [in the non-individualistic sort of way], on the other hand, is using an evaluative criterion that is very much dependent on continuity of matter: Is this the Church that Christ founded? Are these the bishops authorized by the bishops who were authorized by the Apostles to speak and teach in Christ's name?

So the Protestant is comparing his interpretation of Scripture with the various interpretive traditions to find the form that most closely matches, so that he can be in a community of persons whose beliefs and teachings are as close as possible to what the Apostles taught in the writings preserved in the New Testament. His focus is entirely on form. He and his friends could start a church today that meets in a school cafeteria, and that's fine (in his mind) so long as its teaching conforms to the Bible.

The person who is becoming Catholic, however, is tracing matter, to ensure that he is joined to that very same Body that the incarnate Christ established on earth. He finds the [orthodox] form by tracing the matter, through the development of the Church. The church-shopping consumerist does just the opposite; he picks a body (i.e. matter) by comparing form.

The Protestant doesn't think much of "tracing matter" because he worries that matter can lose its [substantial] form and become another entity, and what he wants most of all is to retain the form found in the writings of the New Testament. He is not worried about tracing matter, because he thinks that what the incarnate Christ bequeathed was something primarily formal, not a form-matter composite. Hence there is no need to trace matter.

The person becoming Catholic, on the other hand, recognizes that false forms can seem to be true, as the existence of so many heresies through history testify. That is why he seeks first to trace matter, so that by following the succession of legitimate ecclesial authority he can be protected from schism, heresy and heretical interpretations of Scripture.

But here are some important questions. First, how do we decide, in a non-question-begging manner, between "finding where to worship by comparing form" or "finding the Church by tracing matter"? In my opinion, the only non-question-begging way to answer that question is to study the fathers, and how they would have answered it.

Second, if comparing form is the priority, then how is the preservation of the unity of the Church possible, as each person follows his own interpretation of Scripture, especially given what Tertullian says here and St. Vincent of Lerins says here? It seems to me (as I have argued above) that individualism necessarily accompanies the "comparing form" mentality, but not the "trace matter" methodology. The "trace matter" approach leaves one at most with Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and that is why we see what we see in Responsa ad quaestiones (2007).

Third, if tracing matter is the priority, then how do we distinguish (in a principled and non-question-begging manner) between genuine organic development and apostasy? (Newman's Essay on the Development of Doctrine is helpful with respect to this question, in my opinion.)

Fourth, could the differences we see between the early church and the present day Catholic Church be due to organic development, rather than the loss of [substantial] form? It seems to me that in order to be [epistemically] justified in separating from the Catholic Church and risking the sin of schism, one would have to rule out the possibility that the differences between the early church and the present day Catholic Church are due to organic development. And that means that one has to find a principled difference between the essence of the early church and the essence of the Catholic Church. Separating from that matter (i.e. that Body) can be justified only if that Body has become an altogether different identity, and not just an organically developed stage of the original Body.

Holy Spirit, Soul of the Church, unite us all perfectly into the Body that you animate.


mel said...

Your discussions are so deep, and I thank you. When I see that ad, I *do* see choice. I see a diverse Body of Christ with many body parts all doing their role in the worldwide organism that Christ founded, His Body, the Church. Many expressions of His Divinity. There's no way a human body could function well if it was full of only eyes. Or ears. Or toes. Or stomachs. All parts of the body are used to cause the message of Christ to be proclaimed to the earth. And not one part has any claim of superiority than another, not one more set-aside or authoritative than another. Christ is the head. I am grateful for a variety of ways to express faith in the Living God and His Son through the Spirit. I understand what you're saying all along, praying for a physical unity. I think that's something we'll only see in Heaven around that prophesied Supper of the Lamb. Until then, we continue to grow in our faith and do things like blogging and serving the poor among us to show them the Messiah.

Principium unitatis said...


Thanks for your comments. What do you think is the difference between a "branch" and a "schism"? I discussed this in more detail here. My concern is that we are treating as mere 'branches' things that are actually schisms; we are mistaking division for diversity. Nobody even thinks in terms of schism anymore. We just 'change traditions', or 'change denominations', or start a new church. When the ecclesiology no longer even makes room for schism (see here), it seems to me that somewhere we have made a serious mistake. If we don't think we are actually divided, then we won't care about pursuing unity. But when you and I don't share the same "one faith" (where "'mere Christianity' doesn't count"), and we cannot receive the Eucharist together (and thus be "one body" [1 Cor 10:17]), and we are not in the same institutional body under the same set of shepherds, if that's not division then what is? (See here.) What would actual division look like?

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

George Weis said...


I know of no other post that has so challenged me on this subject matter. I'm working down a lump of fear in my throat because of it!

Do you believe all the changes in form of the Catholic Church are organic developments? Here is a small and seemingly unimportant note: What of the lavish lifestyles of the Roman Bishops etc.? I struggle with this in particular (it is a very simple hurdle) as I recall Christ and the Apostles lived in a very simplistic way. This strikes me as a development that is unnecessary and would cause the Lord to cringe. How many More Orphans would be fed by selling a rich garment or furnishing? Now my puritanical thinking comes to rise.

Anyway, that is a small issue, but holds much weight for me for one reason or another, a bunny trail none the less.

Again your comments on branches and schisms has also been a continual splinter in my thumb. I don't know how anyone can sidestep that. As you mentioned some of those schisms in the first few centuries were not much different than some of the churches or communities that are in the present.

Your hammer of intelligent questions are cracking the structure of my walls down. By my own reading and thoughts from people like you, I am continually in thought on this subject and find myself circling around the walls of the Catholic Church.

Yet, a part of me is still with Mel. To accept a "greater" authority casts down the many in favor of the one claiming authority. I suppose the grooves that are worn in my heart are protestant through and through. I have a great difficulty truly accepting the idea of a physical body (church structure) rather than a purely mystical one. Is this my gnostic root of heresy?

Anyway, thank you Brian. I enjoyed this post very much. I long for the unity of all Christians. I wobble back and forth... Is that unity simply LOVE as in "They will know we are Christians by our love"? Or was there to be a formal structure and framework that Christ intended... in which case, it comes down to two options as you have mentioned?


May the peace of Christ richly dwell in your heart my friend! Be blessed for His name sake.


Principium unitatis said...

Hello George,

Thanks for your comments. I'm glad that they have been helpful to you in thinking about these things.

Regarding your question, "Is that unity simply LOVE", do we not believe that if a man truly loves a woman, he proposes to her, to bind himself exclusively to her for life, in the institution of marriage? Of course people can marry for reasons other than love. But my point is that true love is most poignantly expressed through a formal institution. This is why the notion of 'free love' (more common back in the 60s and 70s) was a diminished conception of love. That's not true love. True love is willing to vow, publicly, to bind itself for better or worse, sickness and health, hell and high water, till death, the whole shabang. So institutional unity need not be seen as superfluous to the expression of love, but can be seen as making possible the perfection of the expression of love.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Thos said...


The pastor you quoted said, "The point I want to make by this is that, in becoming Reformed, I did not do the work of a biblicist. I had to submit myself humbly to the wisdom of those artists and archers that had gone before me."

I am inclined to reply with the same thought I am attempting to convey to Pastor Stellman at De Regno Dubous right now. What about his truth-discerning process led him to the conclusion that "those [Reformed] artists" "that had gone before" held the truth? Particularly, it strikes me that one can be persuaded that the "artist" (theologian) in question either has superior intellect to his marketplace competitors, or he has superior grace from the Holy Spirit. I mean, it seems we're either saying, "I really believe God's active work is with this group, so I'll go with what He leads them to teach, for unity", or "I really believe this group has people with superior minds, so I'll go with their collective view , for unity". Divine authority, or intellectual authority? If the Confessional Reformed reply that theirs is divine authority (i.e., that they are divinely led to the correct interpretive norms), it seems that they have to assert that divine graces have worked through the intellectual processes, not through sacramental ones (and either way, a tu quoque results).

Peace in Christ,

Principium unitatis said...


Let me address your other concern: the "lavish lifestyles of the Roman bishops". I can't speak for the other bishops, because I don't know how they live. But I have some familiarity with the way in which the two Catholic bishops in the St. Louis archdiocese, Archbishop Burke and Bishop Herman live. These are men who have given up their lives to serve Christ by serving His Church. We (Catholics) want to honor Christ by treating our bishops right, i.e. making sure that they are well-taken care of. Archbishop Burke had a driver, but the car he was driven around in was a Buick. And while he was being driven, his usual custom was to pray the rosary silently in the backseat. The bishop's residence had a cook. Of course the bishop has no possessions. He has no house of his own, no car of his own, no bank account with his own money. What he uses is what we (the people) gladly offer to him as to Christ. I have eaten in the rectory with Bishop Herman, where he has his meals. I have met his cook; she cooks for the bishop and the other priests who serve at the Cathedral. She seems to be a very nice person. I don't think she's a professional cook; she seems more like a grandmother who makes great homemade meals. These are good meals; I'd be thankful to receive them daily. But they are not 5 star meals by any stretch.

Could the bishops live in a much simpler way, and could this extra money go to help the poor? Sure. But let's recall that this was also the mentality of Judas Iscariot. (Matt 26:9; Mark 14:5; John 12:5) Jesus responded to Judas' complaint by recognizing the propriety of the seeming wastefulness of anointing Jesus' feet with this expensive perfume. It was an act of worship on Mary's part. Similarly, the Church seeks to honor her bishops, by ensuring that they are fed well and have suitable (though not lavish) shelter and transportation for the tasks that they do in shepherding Christ's Church. Jesus' response to Judas shows that pragmatism is not the governing philosophy of ecclesial budgeting. What Mary Magdelene did to Jesus' feet provides a divinely approved example to us, that shows the propriety of making great works of art, music and architecture that transcend the merely useful. The Church is the Body of Christ, and therefore the Church should be treated as such, as something upon which to empty our jars of nard, in worship of Christ. If doing it unto the least of these is doing it unto Christ, then how should we treat the bishops who are appointed by Christ and stand in His place as shepherds for us until Christ returns? If you want to get a feel for this, read what St. Ignatius of Antioch says here about how we should reverence the bishops.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

George Weis said...


Thank you for both of your responses. You have handled me with care and respect, and for that I am grateful.

I certainly hope those questions didn't set you off in any way. I ask what I ask out of a real desire to understand. Which you help me to do.

I never would have thought of the parallel between my comment and Judas comment to Jesus. Mainly, because I do not have that full understanding of seeing the Bishops the way that St. Ignatius spoke of them. I actually need to get back to St. Ignatius... I left him hanging on his road to martyrdom.

Thanks again, I appreciate the excellent answers, which when I slip on my Catholic Bifocals, make perfect sense... who knows if I will get a permanent proscription?

May the Lord bless you and keep you. BTW- I love that you went to the Monastery, that must have been an exceptional experience!


Tim Enloe said...

Unlike many of your other arguments, your form / matter one is actually pretty decent. Well, it's decent if we allow you to assume that (1) "Protestants," generically speaking, are not interested in matter and that (2) Catholics are primarily interested in matter.

Both of these assumptions are fraught with difficulties. Catholics are not primarily interested in matter, or even in a form-matter composite. You are speaking as if all Catholics are Aristotelians, but this has certainly not been the case throughout history. Much of papal argumentation during the Middle Ages was heavily dependent on Platonism, and many papalists preferred to constantly ignore the material conditions of culture in favor of their axioms about the (papal) Forms hovering above all the material conditions and to which the material conditions had to conform if they were to be intelligible. Catholic reliance on Aristotle is still comparatively "new" in terms of the fact that Platonism ruled Christian discourse from early times, and at any rate, it's difficult to separate the received Aristotelianism from Platonic elements. In other words, your account of Catholic interest in matter is too simplistic.

On the other hand, Protestants are very interested in matter, just not in the same way Catholics are. Even the most radically low-church, anti-creedal type Protestant (say, a Pentecostal) can't get away from either his body, the bodies of his fellows, or the command and need to assemble bodily to fellowship. Even someone who thinks religion is primarily "spiritual" in terms of a direct connection to the Holy Spirit via say, speaking in tongues, is forced to use his body to speak in tongues.

But beyond this sort of inescapability of matter, all other Protestant traditions practice baptism and the Lord's Supper, both bodily ceremonies involving matter. They don't think of these ceremonies the way Catholics do, but they are nevertheless expressing the Christian religion materially.

This is not to mention that even the most radically "Bible-Only" person has to have constant recourse to a physical Bible passed down to him through quite physical means. Both here and in Protestant sacraments there is an inescapable element of physicality and material transmission, not least of which in terms of a physical, incarnated community of faith. This community of faith doesn't look like the Catholic one, but at this point your rhetoric devolves into simplistic apologetic slogans about "the Church that Christ founded" - all of which are quite challengeable on biblical and on historical grounds.

So your basic assumption that Protestants aren't interested in matter but Catholics are is false, or at least, relies on your own Catholic assumptions about the proper "form-matter composite." You're allowed to make those assumptions, of course, but at the same time you need to be able to defend them and not present yourself as an informed critic of Protestants while yet not taking into account such considerations as I've outlined above.