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

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.

1 comment:

Mike L said...


We're sounding the same tune. See http://mliccione.blogspot.com/2007/09/between-fundamentalism-and-modernism.html