Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Epistemological Deficiencies of the Postmoderns Formerly Known as Protestants (Part 2)

The Postmodern formerly known as a Protestant writes:
Notice Whitaker's remark that Church councils are a highly convenient way of finding the true sense of Scripture...yet with this proviso, that they govern their decision wholly by the scriptures." (emphasis mine). This is similar to Westminster's phrases "the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself" (1.9) and "All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err...Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both" (31.3). It is also the sentiment about Scripture expressed in the Belgic Confession, "...we reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule" (Ch. 7) and the Second Helvetic Confession on the authority of councils, "we do not admit any other judge than God himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what to be avoided" (Ch. 2), all emphases mine.
And so (with the exception that the historically uninformed writer omits from consideration the London Baptist Confession which was written during the same time period as the other Reformed Confessions, and which states the same things in regard to Scripture), the writer openly acknowledges as the historic Protestant position that holding church councils is a “convenient” way of finding the true sense of Scripture, so long as their decisions are governed “wholly by the scriptures.” Why is it “convenient”? Because heresies and heretics are more effectively repressed that way. Yet, there is no guarantee that the councils themselves will actually get it right, for “all synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err.” And because they may err, they “are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.” The sole rule of faith and practice for the Christian is the “infallible rule” of Scripture. No “other judge than God himself,” whose sure word may be found only in “Holy Scripture,” may decide “what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what to be avoided.”

In other words (to quote myself from yesterday’s blog):
As I have argued in the past, I think consulting a bunch of dead guys is fine, so long as no more is made of it than the practice of consulting biblical scholarship at large when seeking to understand a passage of Scripture. But past biblical scholarship (in the form of, say, the creeds) is no more “holy” or useful than is consulting contemporary scholarship; and indeed, contemporary biblical scholarship (to the extent that it is evangelical scholarship) has every advantage over the old in terms of insight and avoidance of mistakes committed in the past. Most of the ancient creeds (by which I mean fourth and fifth century) are far too dependent upon Aristotelian and Platonic categories to be all that helpful for arriving at a truly biblical understanding of concepts such as the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ (among other things), and as such go well beyond the Scriptures in articulating what is essential to orthodoxy.
I affirm exactly and in every detail what the Postmodern formerly known as a Protestant admits was the view of Whitaker, the Westminster Confession, the Belgic Confession, and the Second Helvetic Confession. Yet when they say it, it’s “Reformation theology”; but when I say it, it’s a “hilarious” and I’m nothing more than a “shameless intellectual thrall of Locke and Descartes” who “pretends to have a freedom from philosophy that the Fathers didn't,” and as such I am “blind.”

I followed yesterday’s quotation with a link to a previous series I did on Historical Theology, which link summed up the entire series this way:
It is my opinion that both councils attempted to explain the inexplicable and went far a field in their dogmatic pronouncements and attendant condemnations. No one can explain the unity of the person of Christ and the relationship between his natures beyond what the Scriptures affirm because it is inexplicable beyond what the Scriptures affirm. The most we can safely affirm is that Christ is both fully God and fully man. But the moment we attempt to explain just how those two statements fit together—or worse, to go beyond that and proclaim Mary as “mother of God” is some kind of ramification of all that, or that it acts as a test of orthodoxy—we end up in error. Why? Because at that point we end up abandoning discussion on the communication of attributes in Christ and start down the path of discussing the communication of attributes in Mary.
So, contra the screed you may be reading at some uninformed and historically naïve Roman Catholic discussion forum (which was partly fueled by the inane comments of the Postmodern formerly known as a Protestant), I do not deny the Incarnation, the full humanity, or the full deity of Christ. The denizens of that discussion forum are just sadly misinformed about (1) the historical meaning and significance of theotokos, (2) the fact that what I wrote reflects the majority belief in Evangelicalism: NEWSFLASH to the Apparently Uninformed: Evangelical churches at large DO NOT confess Mary as "Mother of God"! Hence, to call me a heretic is to call Evangelicalism at large heretical--I'm perfectly fine with that label coming from Roman Catholics, by the way, (3) the fact that one can fully affirm the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ yet deny the ongoing ontological "motherhood" of Mary once Jesus himself has replaced all biological relationships in the kingdom for eschatological ones, (4) that fact that affirming theotokos (a term adopted by Ephesus and Chalcedon) is not the same thing as affirming mater theou (a Cyrillian term considered and rejected by both councils), (5) the fact that (at least) Chalcedon qualified theotokos in the very same way I do ("as regards his humanity"), (6) the fact that Nestorius expressly rejected the term theotokos (a term not even I have rejected in its historical sense) for precisely the same reasons I reject the phrase "mother of God," and yet all contemporary patristic scholarship--contra the condemnation of the councils who erred on this!--recognizes Nestorius' position as completely orthodox (gasp! How can that be, since he denied that Mary is the "mother of God," after all, and therefore denied the Incarnation! WARNING: Untrained minds should not attempt to address this issue, or others like it), and (7) that the real evangelical concern is not with the title theotokos or "mother of God" per se, but with the presumed "privileges" that the untrained mind always thinks should attend that title.

But the larger point to all this (for the Postmodern formerly known as a Protestant) is that I have applied what the Reformed confessions teach. “Gasp! Well, you’re not supposed to actually apply that principle! Yes, we all believe the confession with all our hearts and uphold it with all our strength, but we never dreamed someone might actually take is seriously enough to act on it! Why, such a notion is ‘hilarious,’ after all, and only a ‘thrall of Locke’ would actually do something about our confessed belief in this area! You see, ours is a STATIC belief; a set of MERE PROPOSITIONS beamed into our minds by the Westminster Confession, but SEPARATED ENTIRELY from what we actually PRACTICE.”

Who’s the “Enlightenment-enslaved Gnostic” now?

Once again we see evidence to suggest that the crowd at “confusio sanctorum” thinks “Reformed” means rote, mental assent to the STATIC PROPOSITIONS of the Westminster divines rather than following the operating principle they themselves articulated and followed. They did not practice rote obedience to any council of creed, and indeed expressly warned against such a practice.

Who’s the “Enlightenment-enslaved Gnostic” now?

But here’s the real kicker. The Postmodern formerly known as a Protestant—who in the past has taken pains to show how we “babdists” are not “REALLY, REALLY Reformed”—now expressly repudiates what all the Protestant Confessions with one voice affirm. These statements from the Confessions, we are told, “look very good on paper,” but are basically “unworkable” as a modus operandi. Now he doesn’t state this overtly—just yet—but presents it in a disingenuously subtle way:
Rightly does the Protestant tradition, building as it does on substantive strains of the larger catholic tradition, say that no authority under God is absolute. This is why, for instance, we conceive of the Church (particularly in her Councils) as being the minister and not the legislator of the Word. "Sola" Scriptura does not mean that we cannot have Councils and that they cannot lay down definitive rulings on matters of doctrine and practice; it just means that "definitive" cannot itself mean "irreformable".
Notice the subtlety. The Protestant tradition “rightly” says that “no authority under God is absolute” (I will assume Scripture is represented in the “God” part of this statement); but only so far as that Protestant tradition “builds on substantive strains of the larger catholic tradition.” What? Where is that qualification found in the statements of Whitaker, the Westminster Confession, the Belgic Confession, or the Second Helvetic Confession? The writer goes on to say that the principle of sola scriptura “does not mean that we cannot have Councils and that they cannot lay down definitive rulings on matters of doctrine and practice.” No one says we can’t have councils (I will return to this point momentarily). But notice that the writer has slipped in something else on the coattails of that principle; namely, that there is nothing to say that those councils “cannot lay down definitive rulings on matters of doctrine and practice.”

But this lies in direct contradiction to the statement of the Westminster Confession: “All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err...Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.” The writer wants to make councils “definitive” (normative) for determining the “rule” for “doctrine and practice.” The Westminster Confession expressly warns against this by stating that they “are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice.” They may be used as a “help” to find what the teaching of Scripture is in this regard (in the same way I have always affirmed all biblical scholarship—including church councils—may and should be consulted); but they themselves are not that rule. The Westminster divines wisely wanted to avoid trading one brand of Roman Catholicism with their own brand—a wisdom that escapes some of their self-styled twenty-first century heirs.

The writer continues:
This brings us to qualifications such as the ones Whitaker gives--that a Church council "is a highly convenient way of finding the true sense of scripture" but "with this proviso, that they govern their decision wholly by the scriptures." Let me be frank. I am not sure that any Bible-loving Christian (and is there any other kind of Christian?) could have any sort of problem with Whitaker's "proviso", for unless one holds that all of divine revelation is not contained in the Scriptures (whether 66 or 73 books is, at this point, irrelevant), then it follows that the Scriptures must be the final verification of anything in the Christian religion since they are the very voice of God Himself.
Let me first address the author’s throw-away statement intended to garner Roman Catholic sympathy: “whether 66 or 73 books is, at this point, irrelevant.” Irrelevant? To whom? Certainly not to the Confessions cited by the writer at the beginning of his article, every single one of which thinks it’s vitally important to insist that there are only 66 books that constitute Scripture. Such a statement may seem innocuous enough on a cursory reading; but in fact it betrays the decidedly non-Reformed sentiment of our “REALLY, REALLY Reformed” writer. None of the Reformers or the Confession framers would have dreamed of using such a throw-away statement so as not to alienate Roman Catholics! But that is precisely the reason the Postmodern formerly known as a Protestant includes it here. Notice, he states his doubts that “any Bible-loving Christian could have any sort of problem with Whitaker's ‘proviso’.” How do we know he intends to include Roman Catholics here? Because of what he says next:
No, the problem does not seem to lie with the allegation that some Christians (the "Romish" ones, in Reformed-Speak) thinking the Scriptures are not of final authority, but rather, with the fact that not all Christians agree as to what God is saying in the Scriptures.
This statement cannot be allowed to stand, not only because it betrays (once again) that the writer is not “Reformed” in the classical sense, but because it misrepresents the official Roman Catholic line to which the Reformers and Confession framers were responding when they wrote with utter insistence that the Scriptures are indeed the final authority! The official Roman Catholic line during that time was that there are two sources of revelation: one springing from the Scriptures and the other springing from Tradition. That is precisely what is known as the “partim-partim” view. That view made its way into the first edition of Trent in statements that were later revised (to read more ambiguously) so as to make allowance for the other view that all revelation is found in Scripture and all of Roman Catholic Tradition is found in seed form there. Hence, it is just plain historically naïve to assert that the real problem is one of how each group understands Scripture, and not one of “some Christians” rejecting Scripture as the final authority.

It is at this point the writer wraps up with a statement I quoted in yesterday’s blog:
So if none of us--not even us thoroughly convinced sola Scriptura types--can get away from a concept of a "Churchly interpreter", what can we make of statements such as the ones I opened this entry with? What can we make of statements that say the decrees of Councils must be "wholly" in line with Scripture, and that the final judge of what Scripture means can only be the Holy Spirit Himself speaking in Scripture? Now we are getting into some pretty deep epistemological and historical waters, so to keep from making this blog entry a tome, I'll stop it here with a few questions which will hopefully generate some discussion over on the new discussion board.
The writer then asks a series of questions that, while fully qualified as not being the “questions of a skeptic,” nevertheless leave the reader with the impression that he is asking these questions with the intent of overturning the principle articulated by the Reformed writers he quoted earlier:

(1) What does it mean to say that a doctrine is "wholly" in line with Scripture?

(2) Who decides on the historical plane that we all inhabit if a doctrine is "wholly" in line with Scripture, and how is such decided?

(3) Has anyone in the history of the Christian religion ever held a complete theology that is "wholly" in line with Scripture?

(4) How should we respond to others who approach our "wholly in line with Scripture" theologizing with rather different conceptions of what "wholly in line with Scripture" entails?

The first three questions are irrelevant because (1) and (2) are matters of conscience (as even the Confessions themselves suggest), and the answer to (3) is, of course, ridiculously self-evident. Of course no one has ever held a “complete theology” that is “wholly in line with Scripture.” But that fact should not dissuade us from the pursuit of the ideal, anymore than the fact that no one but Christ has ever lived a completely sinless life should dissuade us from the pursuit of a sinless life. The writer’s implicit suggestion (not so implicit elsewhere) that such a pursuit of “doctrinal purity” represents some kind of "Gnosticism" stems from a decidedly unbiblical mindset; a mindset that was rejected by past Reformed writers but unfortunately adopted by some who claim to be their heirs.

It is really only (4) that is relevant here because the issue is one of deciding who is in and who is outside the faith. The way Christian communities who seek to be “wholly in line with Scripture” (and I do not include Roman Catholics in this category, nor did the Reformed writers of old) deal with each other is the same way the NT churches did it and the same way we’re doing it now. We “bear with one another” and strive for the “unity of the Spirit” based on the gospel itself. I will not have time to develop this theme now, but very briefly: Paul drew lines centered along the gospel vs. distortions of that gospel. John drew lines centered along the right view of Jesus and the right way of living. The rest of the NT writers drew similar lines. Paul entreats us to bear with each others’ weaknesses outside of these categories. The process of discovering just what those lines of demarcation are, and just how to incorporate them into inter-denominational relationships, is not as difficult as the writer makes out. The reason that it is so difficult for him is because he’s got the starting point wrong. For him, the starting point is the bevy of Reformed Confessions. For the authors of those Confessions, the starting point was Scripture. For the true heirs of the Reformation, the starting point is Scripture.

When you have the starting point right, bearing with one another is not so much a problem. There are Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, etc., who embrace each other as brothers in Christ, but who bear with one another in their differences. I personally have friends on all sides of that issue whom I embrace as genuine brothers in the Lord (which embrace is reciprocated) even though I disagree with some of their theology (which disagreement is reciprocated). In my experience, it has really only been the self-styled “heirs of the Reformation” that emphasize Confessions over Scripture, and as a result separate themselves in cult-like fashion from the rest of Evangelicalism, ironically proclaiming everyone else to be “Gnostic, sectarian radicals,” while they romance Rome and deny what the Reformers always affirmed; namely that Rome officially teaches a false gospel. Most of us learned a long time ago the right way to approach this issue. It's really only the Postmoderns formerly known as Protestants that want to start again from scratch.

I will continue with the implications of the writer’s suggestions for “churchly authority” in the form of councils next time.