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.