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

Friday, September 28, 2007

Nevin on Catholic Unity

In June I wrote these comments on Nevin's article "Catholic Unity". What I appreciate so much about Nevin's article is that he is deeply aware of the fragmented state of Christendom, and deeply aware of it as something deplorable and lamentable. He would be willing to give his life to bring about some increase in Christian unity. That awareness and that willingness stand in tremendous contrast to the common indifference to the present state of fragmentation. But as I point out in the link above, Nevin did not have the philosophical training to recognize what was necessary for "organic unity".

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Branches or Schisms?

In July of this year I wrote about the possibility of schism as a test of ecclesiology. Recently I came across Keith Mathison's "branch theory of the visible Church" in his book The Shape of Sola Scriptura. His branch theory is the notion that "the one invisible Church is found scattered throughout numerous visible 'fragments' or 'branches'." The problem with Mathison's theory is that it seems to eliminate the possibility of schism. All schisms are now just "branches". We know it is wrong to be in schism* (see below), but being in a 'branch' seems quite innocuous, even natural and organic. So what is the difference, for Mathison, between forming a branch, and forming a schism? Between forming a branch, and forming a division or a faction? Between remaining in a branch, and remaining in a schism? If in Mathison's ecclesiology there is no possibility of schism, that suggests that something is seriously wrongly with his ecclesiology. But if 'branches' are actually schisms, then they should not be called 'branches'; they should be called what they are: schisms. Neither forming a schism nor remaining in schism should be euphemized or treated as innocuous. Schisms should be healed by way of reconciliation, and those who are in schism should be striving daily to effect and achieve reconciliation. One of Satan's chief ways of preserving schisms is by deceiving us into believing that we are not in schism. And the easiest way to do that is to redescribe schism with a pleasant euphemism. Then, blinded by our euphemism into believing that there is no more schism, we see no need to seek to restore unity. Schism, apparently, was only something that occurred long ago; now there is just branching.

But when our ecclesiology has no room for the possibility of schism, Scripture's many warnings about schism should raise a red flag that we have defined unity down:

"I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions..." (Romans 16:17)

"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." (1 Corinthians 1:10)

God has composed [the body of Christ] ... that "there should be no schism in the body". (1 Cor 12:25)

"Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are:, ... disputes, dissensions, factions." (Galatians 5:19-20)

"In the last time there shall be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts. These are the ones who cause divisions ..." (Jude 1:18-19)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Protestantism "left only with opinions"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reformed Theology's View from Eternity

I wrote this in June of this year, but I'm posting it here now because I want to applaud and affirm Peter Leithart's article posted today on the subject of time and apostasy.

Reformed Theology's View from Eternity
June, 2007

One of the main problems with [contemporary de facto] Reformed theology is that it attempts to look at everything from the point of view of eternity. The "eternal decrees" serve as the foundation on which the rest of the theology is built. Salvation, for example, is understood fundamentally in relation to election [to glory]. That is why actual apostasy is thought to be impossible; those who 'fall away' were faking it the whole time, and so do not actually fall away. Christ's action on the cross is interpreted through the lens of the "eternal decrees". Assurance is described in relation to election [to glory]. Even the efficacy of the sacraments is determined by the doctrine of the "eternal decrees", because "salvation" is already understood in terms of being elected [to glory]. The effect on the sacraments of this 'view from eternity' is to undermine their efficacy. It is this, in my opinion, that makes Reformed theology intrinsically non-sacramental. The sacraments are only accidentally or stipulatively related to grace and salvation.

The Catholic Church recognizes the truth of election to glory, but does not make this doctrine the paradigm through which everything else must be understood. We are in time, and we necessarily see through time; we cannot see from the point of view of eternity. We see the divine through the human; we see God most clearly through the incarnate Christ, through His human nature. In this way, the incarnation is the antidote to Reformed theology's attempt to peer down from the heavens. Jesus tells Peter, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matt 16:19) Notice the order of relation. What the Church binds here on earth, shall be bound in heaven. And whatever the Church looses here on earth, shall be loosed in heaven. Reformed theology turns this backwards, limiting the Church to the eternal decrees, making the efficacy of the sacraments dependent on the recipient's election [to glory] status. But we cannot *see* from the point of view of eternity; attempts to do so result in misconstruing it as fatalism. That is why we are not to attempt to peer down from eternity. Rather, Jesus has given to the Church the keys of the kingdom. Reformed theology functions as though the keys are still in heaven, as though the Church does not *really* have them. But the Magisterium of the Church has the authority to forgive sins: "If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained." (John 20:23). Jesus does not say, "If you forgive the sins of any, then if their election [to glory] status allows, their sins will be forgiven." If I want to know whether I am saved, I am not to try to peer into the divine decrees, but to look at my relation to the Church. If I want to know whether Christ's work on the cross applies to me, I am not to try to peer into the divine decrees, but seek to receive the sacraments. And if I want to know whether I am decretally elect, the Church tells me I must wait until the end to find out, which makes the status of my decretal election essentially irrelevant right now. Right now, what I am to be concerned about is my relation to the Church; when the Magisterium says to me, by the authorization of Christ, "Your sins are forgiven" I can know that my sins are forgiven.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Darryl Hart on the need for sacramental magisterial authority

On September 20, 2007, Darryl Hart, an adjunct faculty member at Westminster Theological Seminary in California, and an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, wrote:

But to appeal to the Bible instead of man-made creeds is really to appeal [to] JMyers or James Jordan.

Two days later he wrote the following:

[W]hat is John Frame's biblicism except a man-made, historically conditioned perspective that has NOT gained ecclesial sanction. If it did we would not have a binding creed. And if the creed binds, you can't be a biblicist.

But if the ground for the creed's 'binding authority' is that it agrees with one's own interpretation of Scripture, then you can be a biblicist and have a binding creed. So if Hart picked the WCF to be his binding authority because it agrees with his own interpretation of Scripture, then he too is a biblicist. The defenders of FV simply need to come up with their own creed or confession (presumably a revision of the WCF), and they will be in no different a state than Hart is in relation to the WCF.

Hart continues:

Why are FVers, with all of their interaction with modern and post-modern thought, unaware of the hermeneutical problem? It's as if Frame, Vos, or Leithart do not suffer from the historical/cultural limitations from which the WCF suffers. And it is also as if you can have the Bible free from interpretation. WG Shedd put the matter very well:

"Of course Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith. But this particular way of appealing to Scripture is specious and fallacious. In the first place, it assumes that Calvinism is not Scriptural, an assumption which the Presbyterian Church has never granted. . . . Secondly, this kind of appeal to Scripture is only an appeal to Scripture as the reviser understands it. "Scripture" properly means the interpretation of Scripture; that is, the contents of Scripture as reached by human investigation and exegesis. Creeds, like commentaries, are Scripture studied and explained, and not the mere abstract and unexplained book as it lies on the counter of the Bible House. The infallible Word of God is expounded by the fallible mind of man, and hence the variety of expositions embodied in the denominational creeds. But every interpreter claims to have understood the Scriptures correctly, and, consequently, claims that his creed is Scriptural, and if so, that it is the infallible truth of God. The Arminian appeals to the Articles of Wesley as the rule of faith, because he believes them to be the true explanation of the inspired Bible. . . . The Calvinist appeals to the creeds of Heidelberg, Dort, and Westminster as the rule of faith, because he regards them as the accurate exegesis of the revealed Word of God. By the 'Bible' these parties, as well as all others who appeal to the Bible, mean their understanding of the Bible. There is no such thing as that abstract Scripture to which the revisionist of whom we are speaking appeals; that is, Scripture apart from any and all interpretation of it. When, therefore, the advocate of revision demands that the Westminster Confession be "conformed to Scripture", he means conformation to Scripture as he and those like him read and explain it. It is impossible to make abstract Scripture the rule of faith for either an individual or a denomination. No Christian body has ever subscribed to the Bible merely as a printed book. A person who should write his name on the blank leaf of the Bible and say that his doctrinal belief was between the covers, would convey no definite information as to his creed."

If all interpretations suffer from this problem that Shedd recognizes, then who is to decide which interpretation is right? I thought FV would answer "the church." Instead, their answer is "the Bible." Hello American, evangelical, individualistic Bible-onlyism.

But since what counts as "the church" is, for Hart, determined by his own interpretation of Scripture, this is like responding to the question "Who is to decide which interpretation is right?" by answering "Those who agree with my interpretation of Scripture". How is that in principle any less individualistic than the "Bible-onlyism" Hart condemns?

A few comments later Hart writes:

[H]ow exactly does the Bible "decide"? Is it a soft-ware program into which we pose our questions? You have once again dodged the question of who interprets and who determines which interpretations are fitting. Actually, the WCF says more than 1.10. 31.2 says:

"It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word."

Notice, it says that the church's decisions are to [be] received with reverence and submission not on if they agree with the Word, but as being an ordinance of God (which happens to go along with 20.4 about the real power of the church.

Hart himself, however, presumably, rejects all the Ecumenical Councils after the fourth. He also rejects the Council of Trent. Why? Because these councils do not agree with his own interpretation of the Word. So how is that different from the biblicism he is attributing to the FV defenders?

A few comments later Hart writes:

Why do you think that simply saying the Bible settles it, a la Billy Sunday, settles it? Doesn't the Bible have to be interpreted by somebody? And aren't some somebodies more authoritative than others? And while I'm at it, what are the bodies of Presbyterian denominations like the OPC and the PCA, chopped liver? Where is the high view of the church that I've heard so much about as the FV's means for addressing the problems of Billy Sunday?

The problem for Hart is that he determines which bodies are more authoritative by seeing if they agree with his own interpretation of Scripture.

A few comments later Hart writes:

I believe the WCF is one piece of the Reformed tradition, historically speaking. It is part of a larger development. But at the same time, the OPC's confession of faith is binding on me and that it is because it is the teaching of the Bible. A part of the body of Christ has affirmed it as the teaching of the Bible. No church has done this with Frame, Hart, or Leithart. And if Frame, Hart or Leithart teach contrary to their communion's teaching, they get in trouble. That's the way churches work.

Hart claims that the OPC's confession of faith is binding on him, because a "part of the body of Christ has affirmed it as the teaching of the Bible". But how many people does it take to be a "part of the body of Christ"? If two or three are gathered together, is not Christ in the midst of them? Are not Wilson and Myers and Leithart a "part of the body of Christ"? If they are, and they affirm P as the teaching of the Bible, then how would P be any less authoritative [to those who agree with it] than the OPC's confession of faith [to those who agree with it]?

Hart continues:

Churches may draw on a variety of things to settle a controversy. Protestant churches better draw upon Scripture in their resolution but again the human vs. divine rhetoric here is astounding. A creed is not merely man-made if it is written by men who have been called by God and led by the Spirit and are acting in their capacity as a council or synod of the church. I find the "man-made" appeal to be so incredibly modernist and anti-ecclesial.

Apparently, for Hart, the Lutheran and Anglican and Baptist confessions were written by men who were not called by God and not led by the Spirit, because Hart rejects them and follows the WCF. How does he determine that the authors of the WCF were called by God and led by the Spirit, while the authors of those other confessions were not? Apparently, by determining which confession most closely agrees with his own interpretation of Scripture. But if one determines who counts as a man "called by God and led by the Spirit" by seeing if his interpretation agrees with one's own, then this is just an under-the-table way of seeming to add divine support to one's own interpretation, as I have discussed here. The logic starts with P, then finds a group that teaches P, and from that concludes that this group was called by God and led by the Spirit. One might just as well say "I myself am called by God and led by the Spirit." But that is too obvious. So this seems to me to be a way of covering over one's individualism by giving it the appearance of conciliarism. What makes it more puzzling is that Hart is calling out the FV defenders for individualism. Their biblicism is more obvious, but for the reason I am pointing out, Hart's position is no less biblicist and individualistic. His individualism is simply hidden behind a document, i.e. a creed made by those whose interpretation agrees with Hart's.

Finally in this thread Hart writes:

Peter, I submit however humbly that I did not misread WCF 31.2. It says the decrees are to be received with reverence and submission "if consonant with the word of God." A biblicist would stop there. Sure, I’ll believe the church as long as she teaches what the Bible teaches. But the paragraph goes on to say that we receive these decrees and determinations, "not only for their agreement with the word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word." This clause not only assumes that churches should teach what the Bible teaches, but it also assumes the church has power which itself is an ordinance of God. In which case, you disagree with the church you do so at some peril (also stated in WCF 20.4). How could the Divines have said otherwise. Parliament would have cut their heads off if they told the English only to believe and submit to the church when they thought the church’s views accorded with their own reading of the Bible.

This may not mean that we receive UNBIBLICAL teaching with reverence and submission, but it does suggest that we give an ordinance of God the benefit of the doubt. And if we do disagree, we do so knowledgeably, humbly, and willing to be corrected.

Again, I ask where’s the high ecclesiology?

So if according to our own interpretation the Church is teaching something "unbiblical", then we do not need to receive that teaching. But if what the Church is teaching matches our own interpretation of Scripture, then we should 'submit' to it. Hart gives away everything in his second paragraph that he advances in his first paragraph. He wants to affirm Church authority over the individual's interpretation, but as soon as he acknowledges in his second paragraph that we should not receive "unbiblical teaching" (where what counts as 'unbiblical' is determined by the individual), he places himself squarely in the individualism of biblicism.

There is no middle position between the individualism of biblicism on the one hand, and sacramental magisterial authority on the other. Hart is [rightly] decrying individualism and biblicism, but because he has no recourse to sacramental magisterial authority, his own position is no less guilty of biblicism and individualism. He hides this from himself by speaking of submitting to the Church and a creed. But what counts as "the Church" and which creed has 'binding authority' is entirely determined by his biblicism.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Whose Tradition? Which Orthodoxy?

UPDATE (September 9, 2009): Neal Judisch and I have posted a more thorough evaluation of Keith's book here.

I just finished reading Keith Mathison's book The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Canon Press, 2001). His article titled "Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes" appeared in the March/April 2007 issue of Modern Reformation. In May of this year, I wrote a response to that article, and posted it here. Now, having read Mathison's book, I can say that the fundamental problem with the thesis of that article is also the fundamental problem with the thesis of this book.

The fundamental flaw in the book is that it is written as if there is not and never was any such thing as sacramental magisterial authority. I have argued previously that there is no middle position between sacramental magisterial authority and individualism. Since Mathison does not recognize any sacramental magisterial authority, therefore his sola scriptura position is essentially individualistic. But the thesis of his book is that while solo scriptura should be rejected because of its individualism, sola scriptura avoids individualism and should be accepted. So the heart of the problem is that Mathison is rejecting a position for its individualism while proposing another position that is, unbeknownst to him, in essence no less individualistic.

Throughout the second half of the book Mathison continually and repeatedly tries to distinguish sola scriptura from what he calls solo scriptura. According to Mathison solo scriptura is the notion that the Bible is the "sole basis of authority" -- Scripture does not need to be interpreted by the Church, and the Church's interpretation has no authority. Nor does tradition have any authority or provide any necessary context for the proper interpretation and understanding of Scripture. Sola scriptura, by contrast is, according to Mathison, a position that recognizes the actual but subordinate authority of tradition, affirms that Scripture must be interpreted in and by the Church, and acknowledges that the Church's interpretation is authoritative.

Mathison recognizes and rejects solo scriptura because of its intrinsic individualism. But because Mathison writes as though there
is not and never was any such thing as sacramental magisterial authority, he has no way of offering a non-individualistic manner of determining where is the Church and which tradition is authoritative. So "the Church" ends up being 'all those who interpret the Bible like I do'. Mathison writes:

"It is only within the Church that we find the Scripture interpreted rightly, and it is only within the Church that we find the gospel." (p. 268)
But Mathison does not think this calls into question the correctness of Luther's interpretation and Luther's gospel. That is because "Church" is, for Mathison, picked out by "gospel". So there is an immediate tension here. Mathison claims that we should identify the "right interpretation" and the "gospel" by locating the Church, but Mathison himself identifies the Church by its adherence to the "right interpretation" and the "gospel" as determined by Mathison himself. He recognizes that this is a problem. He writes:

"[T]he true interpretation of Scripture is found only in the Church. Yet the true Church is identified largely by its adherence to the true interpretation of Scripture. How then do we identify the Church when there are numerous communions claiming to be the Church? Is it possible to answer the question without falling into radical subjectivism or logical circularity? ... How does one even begin to proceed when the criteria for discerning the true Church and the criteria for determining the true interpretation of Scripture are largely reciprocal." (p. 319)
In trying to answer this question Mathison seems to show no awareness of the concept of sacramental magisterial authority. (see page 320) He tries to answer this question by saying that we must appeal to the "corporate witness of the Holy Spirit". (p. 321) He then acknowledges that this requires that we know what are the Christian churches. (p. 321) So how do we determine which are the Christian churches? Mathison's answer is that we see whether they adhere to the "apostolic regula fidei", which he defines as the Nicean and Chalcedonian creeds.

But without sacramental magisterial authority, the early creeds have no more authority than one's own interpretation of Scripture. One can appeal to one's own interpretation of Scripture to reject the results of those councils the way Mathison himself appeals to his own interpretation of Scripture to reject the fifth, [sixth?], and seventh Ecumenical Councils. Mathison appeals to the "unanimous witness" within Christendom that was "miraculously" produced by the Holy Spirit regarding the Nicene Creed. (p. 321) But Mathison seems unaware that the formation of the Nicene Creed involved anathematizing and excommunicating no small number of persons, namely, the Arians and Pneumatomachi who denied the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, respectively. Christendom was united around the Creed because those who disagreed with the Creed were excommunicated by sacramental magisterial authority. The unity regarding the Creed was not based on a miraculous corporate burning in the bosom; it was based on sacramental magisterial authority. Mathison then writes:

Christ's sheep hear their Shepherd's voice in the true books of Scripture, and they hear His voice when His truth is confessed in the churches. What this means practically speaking is that believers may immediately rule out such communions as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons, which reject the Holy Spirit's corporate testimony to Christ's sheep throughout history. (p. 322)
But without sacramental magisterial authority, nothing but one's own interpretive preference for the decision of Nicea over that of the Arians makes the Arians not part of the fold of Christ's sheep. (One learns this quickly if one appeals to the Nicene Creed in a debate with Jehovah's Witnesses.) Without sacramental magisterial authority, the historic creeds have no authority; the creeds merely agree or disagree with one's own interpretation of Scripture. And in that case, Mathison's appeal to the "Holy Spirit's corporate testimony to Christ's sheep" is an appeal that any individulist can affirm, for the persons identified as "Christ's sheep" will still be determined by each individual's personal interpretation of Scripture, not by any sacramental magisterial authority.

I have described [here and here] this individualism as analogous to each person shooting an arrow into a blank wall, and then painting the target around their arrow. Each person decides what is orthodoxy and where is the Church based on his own interpretation of Scripture. That is no less individualistic than not even pretending to submit to a Church or a tradition. But it is more self-deceptive, because it allows one to seem to be submitting to something other than oneself, when in actuality it is a submission to an 'orthodoxy' and 'Church' of one's own making. The fact that two or more arrows can land on the same spot does not make the process any less individualistic than if I am the only one in the world with that particular interpretation.

Mathison rightly rejects individualism. He also deplores the fragmentation of the visible Church. But because his position does not recognize the existence of sacramental magisterial authority, what he offers is no less individualistic than the solo scriptura position that he rejects. There is a way to avoid individualism (see here). It does not consist in finding "those who interpret Scripture like me", but requires finding those with the sacramental magisterial authority (derived from the Apostles) to say how Scripture should be interpreted, what is orthodoxy, what is heresy, and which traditions are authoritative. Without sacramental magisterial authority, "sola scriptura" necessarily reduces to "solo scriptura".

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The individualism of the Federal Vision

In this thread it looks like the participants in the De Regno Christi discussion on the Federal Vision are starting to see that there is no middle position between individualism and sacramental authority, as I argued here. The discussion is helping to bring out the intrinsic contradiction in the FV position between its denial of individualism and its individualistic foundation in biblicism. Will the FV defenders continue to deny that they are individualists (see, for example the combox discussion here), or will they openly embrace and acknowledge their individualism, or will they turn away from individualism by finding sacramental authority? Ad hoc positions always eventually collapse into what they are in essence. Here too, FV must either collapse into the individualism that it is in essence, or seek out the sacramental authority it needs to ground sacramental community and sacramental life.

In May of this year, Rick Phillips responded to Michael Liccione with an article titled "Beckwith, Trueman and the Holy Spirit". (My response to Phillips can be found here.) Phillips wrote:

I suppose that if I had to choose between the witness of the Church and the witness of private interpretation, I, too, would reluctantly submit to Rome. Fortunately, I am faced with no such dichotomy, because in step with the Reformed faith for the last half-millennium I may rely on the Spirit's authority for both the church and the private individual.
Today at De Regno Christi, Jeff Myers wrote:

You asked "then who is to decide which interpretation is right?" The answer can be "no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture." If that sounds too Evangelical, then I don’t know what to say.
I do not see any principled difference between Phillips' and Myers' positions here. If each person's determination of what the Spirit is speaking in the Scriptures is equally authoritative, then how is this anything other than gnostic individualism, the very thing Myers tries to distance himself from here?

Justification by faith

Faith is not merely a generic "trusting in Jesus". First, faith includes believing a set of propositions, i.e. the whole truth God has revealed to the Church, the "one faith" which we profess in the Creed, and which the catechumen confesses before the Church just prior to being baptized (CCC 1237). Second, faith also includes the act of receiving the sacraments, and trusting what the Church says about them. The person who claims to have faith but refuses the sacraments does not have faith. As the Catechism says, the "response of faith" is "inseparable from Baptism". (CCC 1236) Third, faith also includes trusting those through whom the propositions and sacraments have come to us, that is, the magisterium of the Church. This is what St. Augustine means when he says, "For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church." And this is what St. Cyprian means when he says, "He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church as a mother." In this way, true faith includes all three bonds of unity. We often seem to interpret St. Paul's statements about "justification by faith" as meaning that we are justified by a generic "trusting in Jesus". But the faith of which St. Paul is speaking is not a mere "trusting in Jesus", but a rich full faith that includes all three aspects mentioned above. That is, in fact, the fullness of what it means to "trust in Jesus".

Since faith is something thicker and fuller than a merely subjective and inward "trusting in Jesus", we do not need to treat "justification by faith" and "justification by baptism" as mutually exclusive. Peter Leithart writes:

This is, I think, what Paul means in Romans 6:7 when He says - in a context having to do with deliverance from the power of sin, and, not incidentally, with baptism - that we are “justified from sin.”

The fuller conception of faith that St. Paul and the Church hold allows us to read the epistle to the Romans without worrying that "justification by baptism" intrudes upon or detracts from "justification by faith". Being baptized is part of what it means to have faith, and so being justified by baptism is part of what it means to be justified by faith. The entirely modern, entirely individualistic, entirely subjective, entirely internal and entirely phenomenological conception of faith that is common in American evangelicalism is not the faith of St. Paul or the Church. Recovering the faith that was handed down to the saints will help us overcome the individualism that presently hinders the reunion of all Christians.

"I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints." (Jude 1:3)

UPDATE (09/23/07): I have modified this post. My original comments here were critical of Leithart's comment, but a gracious reader pointed out that I had misread him, and that he was actually saying just the opposite of what I had thought. So I am glad now to be able to retain the quotation as a positive example of this fuller conception of justification.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Charge of Idolatry

I already mentioned here my recent discussion with Jeff Myers prompted by his claim that the Catholic Church is "guilty of serious liturgical idolatry". Two days ago Doug Wilson, in his post "The Ur-Puritan", spoke of "the need for the Vatican to repent of her idolatries". In a later post defending his own Federal Vision position, Doug wrote: "Being a full-tilt superstitious sacramentalist is a problem; looking like a superstitious sacramentalist to a typical American evangelical isn’t." I replied:

Your token call for "the Vatican to repent of her idolatries" could be benefited by your own observation: "Being a full-tilt superstitious sacramentalist is a problem; looking like a superstitious sacramentalist to a typical American evangelical isn’t."

Doug replied:

Bryan, I don't think it can be called a "token call" if I really believe it. But I also believe, as I noted, that true ecumenism will only be accomplished if repentance occurs across the board, and it would include us repenting of our sins. If I take your point, I would be the typical American evangelical looking at Rome and seeing superstitious sacramentalism where there isn't any, but then we would have to explain how it is that I (being so typical) manage to get myself accused of creeping Romanism so often.

I sent a reply, but the moderator (understandably, given the context) decided not to post it. So I e-mailed it directly to Doug. Here's what I wrote:


Thank you for your reply (on De Regno Christi). I fully agree with your claim that ecumenical unity must be preceded by repentance by all sides. I also believe, with Peter Kreeft and with you, I think, that ecumenical unity has to be based on truth, not compromises that sacrifice truth, or misconceptions concerning the truth.

By 'token' I didn't mean to suggest that you don't believe your claim about the Vatican. I meant only that it is the kind of claim that is frequently repeated within a particular community or tradition as an obvious given about another community or tradition, but almost never substantively defended in genuine ecumenical dialogue with informed representatives of that other community or tradition. In that way it is a kind of "ghetto-talk". Catholics do this too; we do it without realizing we are doing it. We 'get away with it' by talking only in our ghetto. New forms of communication, such as De Regno Christi and the internet in general, are bringing Christians from various traditions into greater social proximity, and forcing us to be more self-conscious about our basic presuppositions regarding those Christian communities from which we have long been estranged. On the whole I think that is a good thing, even though I disdain the impersonal and entirely formal (as opposed to material) nature of electronic communication.

As for how you can be accused of "creeping Romanism", when I was a child there was a garbage truck that regularly drove by my house having the following slogan painted on its side: "Your garbage is our bread and butter." You can imagine how I interpreted that as a child. There are degrees of Catholicity. It is not all or nothing. Your being accused of creeping Romanism is fully compatible with your 'seeing' idolatry in the Vatican when in actuality what you are seeing is not idolatry. Your rightful opposition to gnosticism is another man's "creeping Romanism". But the seventh Ecumenical Council's decisions regarding iconoclasm are, to another man, endorsements of "idolatry". "Idolatry" and "Romanism" simply become terms describing any position more Catholic and sacramental than one's own. What is needed instead, in my opinion, is an open ecumenical discussion aimed at revealing, explaining and evaluating the principled reasons underlying the differences between our respective conceptions of idolatry.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

In Essential Things: Unity

A recent article by Mark Shea in the NCR.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Stigmata

Yesterday, September 17, was also the day that St. Francis received the stigmata (the five wounds of Christ; cf. Galatians 6:17). So yesterday was also the Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis, celebrated by the Franciscans.

[CORRECTION: September 14 is the day St. Francis received the stigmata; but the Church celebrates this event on September 17.]

There have been at least three hundred persons who have received the stigmata. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on this subject gives more details.

One of the more well-known stigmatics is the late St. Padre Pio. He is a modern day Catholic saint, who died in 1968. His life is quite amazing, and the stories told about him are remarkable. The most amazing thing about him is that he bore the stigmata for 50 years. The wikipedia article on Padre Pio is here. Videos about him can be viewed here and here. Video clips from his last mass can be seen here.

St. Francis and St. Padre Pio, please pray for the unity of the Church. Please pray that our divisions would cease, and our schisms reconciled. Lord Jesus, may we bear in our bodies the wounds you suffered, that the wounds in your mystical Body might be removed. May we carry our cross, and die to ourselves, that we might live in true unity in your Body, the Church. Amen.

Monday, September 17, 2007

"Hammer of heresies"

Today, September 17, is the memorial of St. Robert Bellarmine, who died 386 years ago today (October 4, 1542 - September 17, 1621). He was given the title "Hammer of heresies" by Pope Benedict XV. He is also now one of the thirty-three "Doctors of the Church". In an age when 'heresy' is often reduced to "any interpretation of Scripture that doesn't line up with my straight-forward non-interpretation of what the Scripture itself says", St. Bellarmine shows that heresy is such only in relation to the Church's magisterium. Since doctrinal unity is an important step in achieving full visible unity, understanding what is the principled distinction between orthodoxy and heresy is essential for Church unity. His Disputationes de controversiis christianae fidei is the standard and still unmatched response of the Catholic Church to certain Protestant errors. The contemporary Protestant leaders recognized the significance of this work, and set up academic chairs devoted exclusively to attempting to reply to it. St. Francis de Sales drew extensively from it in his discussions with the Calvinists in Geneva. To read more about St. Bellarmine, see here and here, and here.


St. Bellarmine's fifteen marks of the Church are as follows: (HT: DOTCC)

(1) The Church's Name, Catholic, universal, and world wide, and not confined to any particular nation or people.

(2) Antiquity, in tracing her ancestry directly to Jesus Christ.

(3) Constant Duration, in lasting substantially unchanged for so many centuries.

(4) Extensiveness, in the number of her loyal members.

(5) Episcopal Succession, of her Bishops from the first Apostles at the Last Supper to the present hierarchy.

(6) Doctrinal Agreement, of her doctrine with the teaching of the ancient Church.

(7) Union, of her members among themselves, and with their visible head, the Roman Pontiff.

(8) Holiness, of doctrine in reflecting the sanctity of GOD.

(9) Efficacy, of doctrine in its power to sanctify believers, and inspire them to great moral achievement.

(10) Holiness of Life, of the Church's representative writers and defenders.

(11) The glory of Miracles, worked in the Church and under the Church's auspices.

(12) The gift of Prophesy found among the Church's saints and spokesmen.

(13) The Opposition that the Church arouses among those who attack her on the very grounds that Christ was opposed by His enemies.

(14) The Unhappy End, of those who fight against her.

(15) The Temporal Peace and Earthly Happiness of those who live by the Church's teaching and defend her interests.

St. Robert Bellarmine, please pray for us that we would all be united in doctrinal purity and in peace and unity under the successor of St. Peter, that the Bride of Christ might shine with beauty and radiance at the return of the Bridegroom.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

On the authority of creeds and confessions formulated by those without sacramental magisterial authority

Consider the creeds and confessions formulated by persons without sacramental magisterial authority. The practice of treating such creeds and confessions as authoritative raises a particular dilemma. I will use the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) as an example, but the same dilemma arises for any of them. If a person grounds his belief that the WCF is authoritative on its agreement with his own interpretation of Scripture, then it would be arbitrary for him to treat as less authoritative than the WCF any text or sermon that agrees fully with his own interpretation of Scripture, ceteris paribus. (See the combox discussion of this post.) But why think that agreement with one's own interpretation of Scripture makes something authoritative in the first place?

Here's the dilemma. If each individual has equal interpretive authority, then the very notion that one's own interpretation of Scripture is authoritative for all other persons violates Kant's categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." The maxim, "All others should submit to my interpretation of Scripture", if universalized [i.e. made a maxim that each person could live by], would make hash of the notions of authority and submission. Each person's interpretation would be authoritative for all others, thus entailing that no person's interpretation would be authoritative for others. That would be individualism. So in order to hold the WCF to be authoritative on the grounds that it agrees with one's own interpretation of Scripture, one must hide from others why one thinks it to be authoritative, for as soon as one reveals that the grounds for its 'authority' is that it agrees with one's own interpretation of Scripture, it is by that very fact shown to have no authority.

But if some people have more interpretive authority than others, then on what grounds do they have more ecclesial/interpretive authority? If the answer is that their interpretation of Scripture agrees with one's own interpretation of Scripture, then again the illusion of authority is exposed. Excepting an appeal to academic authority (see the link above), the only remaining grounds for ecclesial/interpretive authority is sacramental (i.e. the handing on of apostolic authority from the Apostles to their successors the bishops through the laying on of hands), as I have argued here.

So, either such creeds and confessions have no authority, or only those creeds and confessions have authority that were formulated by those having sacramental magisterial authority. Either way, it seems, creeds and confessions formulated by those without sacramental magisterial authority have no authority.

UPDATE: Here's the argument in syllogistic form:

1. Either each individual has equal interpretive authority or not.

2. If each individual has equal interpretive authority, then any creed or confession has authority only insofar as one shares the interpretation of those who wrote it.

3. If any creed or confession has authority only insofar as one shares the interpretation of those who wrote it, then no creed or confession has any actual authority and individualism is true.

4. If each individual has equal interpretive authority, then no creed or confession has any actual authority and individualism is true. (From 2 and 3)

5. If it is not true that each individual has equal interpretive authority, then the individual(s) with the highest interpretive authority acquire their interpretive authority either from academia or from the apostles through sacramental succession.

6. But the highest interpretive authority cannot be acquired from academia (as argued in the combox here).

7. If it is not true that each individual has equal interpretive authority, then the highest interpretive authority is acquired from the apostles through sacramental succession. (From 5 and 6)

8. Either no creed or confession has any authority and individualism is true, or the highest interpretive authority is acquired from the apostles through sacramental succession. (From 1, 4, and 7)

9. If the highest interpretive authority is acquired from the apostles through sacramental succession, then any creed or confession written by those not having sacramental authority from the apostles has no actual ecclesial authority.

10. Either no creed or confession has any authority and individualism is true, or any creed or confession written by those not having sacramental authority from the apostles has no actual ecclesial authority. (From 8 and 9)

11. If no creed or confession has any authority, then any creed or confession written by those not having sacramental authority from the apostles has no actual ecclesial authority.

12. Any creed or confession written by those not having sacramental authority from the apostles has no actual ecclesial authority. (from 10 and 11)

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Finding the Church

At this post, I came across the following quotation from John Calvin:
Therefore, he who would find Christ, must first of all find the Church. How would one know where Christ and his faith were, if one did not know where His believers are? And he who would know something of Christ, must not trust himself, or build his own bridges into heaven through his own reason, but he must go to the church, visit and ask of the same. . . for outside of the church is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.
So how exactly do you "find the Church"? One approach is to find those who share your own interpretation of Scripture. The primary problem with that approach is that if your interpretation is heretical, then you will identify a heretical group as the Church. So this approach implicitly assumes either that all interpreters are infallible, or that some sort of ecclesial relativism applies (i.e. "the Church" is "whatever it is to you" -- i.e. there is no heresy), or that your own interpretation is uniquely privileged in that it (but not any other interpretation) picks out all and only the members of "the Church".

Of those three assumptions, the most common, in my experience, is the last. According to that assumption, the way in which you "find the Church" starts with defining your own personal interpretation of the Bible as the "true gospel" and continues by declaring that the preaching and practice of the "true gospel" is the mark of the Church (see the combox here). Thus by finding those who preach and practice your own interpretation of Scripture, you "find the Church". Painting the Church around your own interpretive arrow is no less individualistic than painting a magisterial target around your own interpretive arrow. But doing so while decrying individualism, is a performative contradiction.

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Seduction of Presumed Authority

I have written frequently here on sacramental magisterial authority. Now I wish to look at the privation of sacramental magisterial authority.

In a post titled "
The Priesthood of All Believers – Part 2" Jeff Myers first offers a quotation from Lesslie Newbigin which I have discussed here. In the comments of that post Jeff writes:
The pastor's words come with more authority because Christ through his church has given the pastor the authority to read and preach the Word in the congregation. Not everyone in the assembly has been given this authority. The very fact that some men have "hands laid" on them means that they have delegated authority (1 Tim 4.14; 5.22; 2 Tim 1.6; Heb 1.10). That's not all it means. But it does entail that. ... God has given men authority. It's delegated authority. It's only to be used ministerially, that is "in Christ's stead." Even so, it's real authority. Paul tells pastor Titus to "declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority" (Titus 2:15). ... Christ has all authority and he shares his authority, he delegates his authority to men.
I agree with that. But the question I wish to consider here is this: Does it matter who lays hands on the ordinand?

The Catholic Church, for almost 2,000 years, has said yes. Valid ordination requires at least two things: (1) that at least one of the persons laying hands on the ordinand is a bishop (if not an apostle), and (2) that the bishop himself was ordained either by an apostle or by a bishop in a sacramental succession of bishops that extends back to an apostle.

Protestants, however, denied both criteria. (Anglicans, some Methodists, and a few Lutheran communities in Europe retained the episcopacy.) First, on the basis of sola scriptura, Protestants rejected the distinction between bishops and elders, primarily because they did not find the distinction explicit in Scripture. Second, they rejected the sacramentality of ordination, redefining 'apostolic succession' from its Catholic conception as "the handing on of apostolic preaching and authority from the Apostles to their successors the bishops through the laying on of hands, as a permanent office in the Church" (CCC 77) to "agreement with the doctrine of the Apostles". (I have discussed the Protestant conception of 'apostolic succession' in "Protestantism and Sacramental Authority", and the Catholic conception in these other posts.)

What does it matter who is right about ordination? It matters because any person can claim that Christ has given him authority. Any group of people can claim to speak for Christ or speak for the Church. Any group of people can claim to act on behalf of Christ in giving Christ's authority to an ordinand. Anyone can claim to have the Apostles' teaching. The sacramentality of ordination helps guards the unity and doctrinal purity of the Church. In order to preach in the name of Christ, one must be sent by the legitimate authorities of the Church, i.e. those in sacramental succession from the apostles, just as the apostles could not send themselves but could only be sent by Christ. (cf. Acts 15:24; Romans 10:15; 2 Cor 5:20) The growth and expansion of the Church was always organically derived from and organically connected to the Apostles. Because the Church is a Body, it must grow as a Body, with magisterial authority derived from magisterial authority, not by gnostic montanism. The Life of Christ flows sacramentally from Christ to the Apostles, and flows sacramentally from the Apostles to the bishops and from the bishops to the whole Church, through each successive generation. In the same way, the authority of Christ develops and extends itself in the same organic manner over time, as the Body grows. The sacramentality of ordination grounds Tertullian's response to the heretics. Protestants had to change the definition of 'apostolic succession' from something essentially sacramental (inherently material, organic and temporal), to something entirely formal (in the Platonic sense) in order to justify being separate from the Catholic Church.

Does it matter who lays hands on the ordinand? Yes. Because if ecclesial authority is not derived from the one laying on hands, then anyone can 'ordain' anyone, and ordination is just "presumed authority", in actuality nothing more than permission from a group of persons to speak to them. No one then has actual authority. But if ecclesial authority is derived from the one laying on hands, and the one laying on hands has no authority to give, then again the ordinand has only presumed authority, not actual authority. So actual ecclesial authority can be acquired in ordination only if the one laying on hands has the authority to give. But the same truth applies to the one laying on hands; he can have acquired actual ecclesial authority at his ordination only if
the one who laid hands on him had the authority to give. And this shows that either no one has actual ecclesial authority, or only those ordained in sacramental succession from the apostles have actual ecclesial authority.

Did St. Ignatius bishop of Antioch have presumed authority? St. Irenaeus bishop of Lyon? St. Cyprian bishop of Carthage? St. Augustine bishop of Hippo? St. Gregory the Great? If they had actual ecclesial authority and not presumed authority, then why think that their sacramental successors have only presumed authority?

And the question for the Protestant pastor is: Who sent you, and what authority did they have to send you? Where did they derive their authority? If their authority did not derive by sacramental succession from the apostles, then why think that they had any authority to give when they laid hands on you? Regarding the early Protestants, they could not have derived ecclesial authority from the Catholic Church, for they said of her that she was apostate, otherwise they would not have been justified in leaving her. But if they conceded that an apostate Church had the authority to ordain, then they should have submitted to that authority, because the one who ordains has greater authority than the one ordained. So either they had only presumed authority and/or they rejected their rightful authorities.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

While it is still Today; Night is Coming

I recently participated in a discussion in the combox of Jon Barlow's post regarding Matt Yonke's, "On How The Federal Vision Made Me Catholic". In that discussion, Jeff Myers, the senior pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church, claimed that the Catholic Church is "guilty of serious liturgical idolatry". That led to a discussion of the proper religious use of images and statues, and whether we may ask the saints in heaven to pray for us.

Jon also put up a link to Rick Phillips' [Reformation21] article on Mother Teresa titled "Mother Teresa's Redemption". My reply to Phillips' article is accessible here.

Yesterday, a dear friend of mine said something to me very notable concerning community. Community, she said, is formed over meals. But there is a Meal that is the source of true Community. That Meal is the Eucharist, the very Body and Blood of our Lord. That Meal makes us one by incorporating us into Christ's mystical Body. I was reminded of my recent discussion (here and here) with Lane Keister, at Green Baggins, regarding "Church Unity". His position, which is not an uncommon position among a certain strand of Protestantism, is that we are all already united, spiritually, simply in virtue of believing in Christ. And that's the only sort of ecclesial unity that really matters, in his view. Efforts to increase institutional unity are unnecessary, according to that point of view, because the Church is not an institution, but merely a spiritual union spiritually united, an invisible Body with some visible members. But I am not fully united with Lane, because we do not partake of the same Meal. We are not in full communion because we do not both partake of the Eucharist. "
The wound is still more profound in those ecclesial communities which have not preserved the apostolic succession or the valid celebration of the eucharist." (Commentary on Responsa ad Quaestiones) Surely we cannot deny that the kind of unity Jesus prayed in John 17 that we would have includes the unity effected by sharing the Eucharist.

In early May, I wrote two things on Church unity that I have not yet linked here. The first is a theoretical evaluation of the four possible ways of unifying Catholics and Protestants. That is accessible here. (For the sake of simplicity, I use the term 'Catholic Church' there in a way that includes the Orthodox in the Catholic Church -- an expression of my faith that we will again be one in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.) The second is a sober look ahead, based loosely on St. Augustine's City of God. That is accessible here.

Let us keep striving, brothers and sisters, for full visible unity through our prayers, and through our charitable deeds, and through our dialogues with all those with whom we are not yet in full communion. "With God all things are possible" (St. Matthew 19:26) My own heart feels something like that expressed by Oscar Schindler at the end of "Schindler's List", when he keeps thinking, looking back, that he could have done so much more, until he is reduced to weeping. That is how I feel about the wounds and divisions in the Body of Christ. I could have done more. But we have today, to do what we can do today, right now, with what we have been given, to heal those wounds. Let us not grow weary in doing good. (2 Thess. 3:13).