Saturday, October 07, 2006

Cranmer Revisited: A Response to Owen

As expected, Paul Owen has responded to my post here. His points will be in block quotes, followed in each case by my response:
1. By “the Church” I do not only mean the medieval and Reformation church. I mean the one, holy, Catholic Church, which has existed since the Day of Pentecost, and continues through today. This Church includes the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Old Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Continental Reformed Catholic (Presbyterian and Lutheran) churches, as well as the faithful believers within the various congregations of Anabaptists (the Baptists, Pentecostals, Mennonites, etc.). I realize that the Church existed in ancient times, and continues to exist today. I also realize that every age of the Church has witnessed a mixture of truth and error. This has nothing to do with the simple fact that the Bible belongs to the Church, not to me or any individual.
Where has Owen given us any evidence that he takes into serious consideration the decisions, beliefs, and cautions of the latter groups he mentions? All we ever read from him is how the “catholics” (however he defines this) are right and the evangelicals and “Baptists” are therefore wrong. How has he demonstrated that these latter groups are part of this “catholic consensus” he promotes? And notice how he puts it; the “church” includes the denominations of “Roman Catholic, Anglican, Old Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Continental Reformed Catholic (Presbyterian and Lutheran,” but only “faithful believers within the various congregations of Anabaptists (the Baptists, Pentecostals, Mennonites.”

The same observation may be made of conservative brands of Presbyterianism. Owen has gone on record chiding these groups and issuing epithets toward them (they are in reality Gnostic Baptists), but I have seen nothing that indicates he has given them due consideration in determining Christian belief. Where has Owen praised any of these groups in the way he, with regularity, praises Roman Catholicism; and where has he commended them as a representative of the regula fide?

I’m sticking to my guns on this one. Owen’s “church” is manifestly the medieval church through the Reformation—or more specifically, the medieval church and the reformation. These are the only sources he cites as having authority. But not all of the Reformation, of course, since he rejects the view of and attitude toward Rome and the Papacy held by the earliest Reformers. And he clearly does not share the same definition of the regula fide as his predecessors inasmuch as he places much more confidence in the councils and teachings of non-reformation groups than they did.
2. I do not believe that each successive manifestation of the Church is called to “cast away” man-made traditions, nor do I believe this is what the Reformers taught. Svendsen is assuming a Radical Reformation paradigm here.
That depends entirely on who we envision doing the calling—the Reformers or God through the Scriptures? Error can creep in during a single generation (Jude 4). If this could happen when the apostles were still on the scene, then “casting away” errors when they creep in is absolutely necessary in every generation of the church to prevent those errors from growing into something that is then held by subsequent generations of the church as some “great tradition.” That is the precedent set for us in the OT via the prophets, and it is just what we are commanded to do by both Jesus and the NT apostles.
The Reformers saw themselves as living in a unique time, when in essence, the lawful courts of the Church had become so corrupt through the illegitimate attribution of autonomous power to the papacy and attendant Magisterium that radical measures had to be taken by faithful pastors of God’s flock.
And who made the decision that those “lawful courts” had become corrupt? Owen, I presume, would commend Luther as that person—or he may now defer to another Reformer; it matters not, each one worked as an individual in this, not as a collective body. Imagine that; a single individual sitting in judgment on the entire church and calling it corrupt. So here is Owen’s principle for reform: If one is living in the sixteenth century, and he suspects the church of the past century has become increasingly corrupted, all he need do is compare his church to the church of the fifth century, and he may objectively and without danger of subjectivism denounce the current church as an error-filled institution that needs to be reformed, create a new denomination based on his personal understanding of Scripture (sola scriptura—where did that source enter the picture? I thought conformity to the fifth-century church was all that was necessary), and be hailed by the “reformed catholics” as a great man. But if one is living in the modern era and he suspects the church of the past century has become increasingly corrupted, and he compares this church to the church of the first century, he is immediately denounced as a Gnostic who is operating on the principles of individualism and subjectivism. One apparently can’t go wrong if he individually decides to look to and adhere to four ecumenical councils (except, of course, that the church Luther and the rest of the Reformers opposed also held to these councils unwaveringly—again, why the need for a Reformation?), but if that same individual looks to Scripture instead; well, he’s just being subjective and individualistic.

Unfortunately for Owen, the matters brought up by the Reformers had little if anything to do with the fifth-century church. Sola fide and sola scriptura were not products of the ecumenical councils—nor were any of the points in his “95 thesis.” So if the “boundaries of the Christian faith” had been defined in the first five centuries of the church, and the Reformers simply wanted the church to return to those boundaries, then where does sola fide and sola scriptura come into play here? The reformation, on that thinking, was completely unwarranted, and Paul Owen should now abandon the schismatic Anglican church he has joined and return to Rome.

Moreover, what makes Owen think the same (or similar) situation that resulted in the Reformation does not prevail to an even greater degree now? In fact, I maintain the situation is just as urgent now as it ever was. It does not take long at all for the seeds of man-made tradition to sprout, and the crawling vines to choke the life out of truth. In the OT, it happened within a generation of Moses and Joshua. Why should we be so surprised that it might have happened to the church just as quickly? How long had the traditions opposed eventually by Luther been allowed to germinate and grow before formal opposition took place? Why the need for the precursor in men like Hus and Wycliffe? Would Owen like to suggest that the Reformers thought men like Wycliffe and Hus were also out of line to attempt reformation in their own day?
They believed that they lived in a unique time, which called for unusual circumstances. They most certainly did not see the need for every generation to undergo such a purging, but rather saw themselves as calling the Church back to the period of pure Catholicity–the first five centuries, when the boundaries of the Faith were defined and clarified.
So . . . now that we in the twenty-first century live in an age of “pure doctrine,” we can forgo any thought that the church might need again to be reformed? And why the arbitrary criteria of the first five centuries? Was that just pulled out of a hat? And who decides that’s “pure doctrine”? Those who agree with it? Those who fall in line because they aren’t capable of evaluating it? Since when did that become the standard of truth? Where has that been revealed by God? To what did the prophets in the OT turn when they wanted to establish the “boundaries of the faith”? Was it the first five centuries of Jewish thought after Moses passed away? If so, they would have been dead wrong. It is extremely telling that the Scriptures do not act as the “boundaries of the faith” for this group.
3. I do not believe that any of the beliefs which were consensual and characteristic of the Church of the first five centuries (the period of anonical definition and Creedal orthodoxy) can be shown to be at odds with the New Testament witness.
How about Arianism, which (with the exception of Athanasius and one or two lesser bishops) prevailed unanimously among the bishops in both east and west for an entire century before finally being put down? How about the exaggerated views of Mary, such as her exalted status, her perpetual virginity, or her sinlessness? I realize that Owen subscribes to at least the status and PV of Mary based on the testimony of the medieval church; but that just serves to illustrate my point about how error-filled traditions that are completely at odds with the NT witness can creep in unchallenged. What about the “conversion theory” of the Eucharist? A magisterial priesthood? Granted, some of these things were not “officially” defined until later. But the fact that they were prevailing beliefs before the end of the fifth century should sufficiently demonstrate the absurdity of the notion there was “pure doctrine” to be had in that day.
These early Fathers did not operate on a model that would allow doctrines to be defined without accountability to Scripture. The later two-source theory of revelation was not characteristic of this period. (See Keith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, pp. 19-48, for discussion.)
Then why does Owen insist we look to non-Scriptural authorities to define our own beliefs rather than to the Scriptures themselves?
4. I do believe that some councils which have been lawfully called by princes (the so-called general councils) have erred (so art. 21 in the 39 Articles of Religion). I do not believe that this applies to any of the first four Ecumenical Councils which outline the boundaries of the Christian faith. Nor did any of the Reformers (excluding the Radicals) attribute error to those first four councils.
Once again, if these councils acted as the “boundaries of the Christian faith,” and the sixteenth-century Roman church fully adhered to them (which it did), then what was the need for a Reformation? It is evident by this statement of Owen and other statements like it that he just does not share the same mindset of the early Reformers. I suspect that if Owen had lived in the sixteenth century, he would have opposed the Reformation. How could it be otherwise, given the principle on which he claims to operate?

Even in early Anglicanism; why did the framers of the Thirty-Nine articles disavow as unreliable the same councils Owen now upholds as the regula fide? Why did they insist that only three creeds be held up as reliably representing the teachings of Scripture? Owen persists in being out of step with the Articles of his own denomination, even if individuals of subsequent generations (such as Lancelot Andrewes) add “our councils”to it.
I would also agree that any human council is in principle capable of error, but I do not believe a principle of infallibility is necessary in this connection. It is only necessary that Ecumenical Councils be acknowledged as the highest human court of appeal, much as the Supreme Court functions today.
And why is that arbitrarily necessary? On what basis exactly? Do we find anything like that in Scripture pertaining to post-revelation generations of the people of God? Do we not find rather that these “highest courts of appeal” are routinely in error? It is one thing to compare the conclusions of these councils to Scripture and conclude they were right on many important things based on the fact they were simply affirming the teaching of Scripture. It is quite another thing to uphold their decisions as somehow “authoritative.” Says who exactly? One can be right without being authoritative. What Owen consistently misses in this discussion is a modicum of proof that we are obliged to view these councils as authoritative. He simply assumes and asserts; nothing more.
5. I am not being subjective in determining what my authority will be. I am subject to the same authority which Rome and the Greeks are subject to–the consensus of the undivided Church.
And the consensus of the undivided fourth-century church was that Jesus is not God. And since the church did not officially divide until centuries later, why are we stopping at the fifth century? And, again, who says we are subject to the consensus of the “undivided church”? The very fact that subsequent manifestations of the church can disagree with those decisions proves that it was neither a “consensus” nor an “undivided church” that made that decision. Indeed, if that same principle were applied to the consensus of the “undivided church” of the fourth century, we’d all be Arians today! The moment says, “yes, but the church in the next generation corrected that decision,” one has immediately forfeited his prerogative to argue that subsequent generations of the church are not allowed to call into question any consensus belief of the church of the first five centuries.
I am subjective in determining which church I will attend, but I do not attribute to the Anglican Church any right to define the boundaries of the Faith outside of the context of the undivided Church.
But if this is true, then nothing the Anglicans defined in their Thirty-Nine Articles can be considered significant enough to bind the conscience of the believer. And if it’s not significant enough to do that, the Anglican opposition to Rome was completely unwarranted, and Owen should just return to Rome. It was an unnecessary schism in the first place; so, in the interest of “catholicity,” why be a party to perpetuating it?
And most importantly, I do not claim the right to interpret the Bible for myself outside of that consensus. That is the difference between Anglicanism and Bible-onlyism.
And how, pray tell, did “Anglicanism” ever arrive at the notion that the three creeds represent the teaching of Scripture, but that councils have erred, without interpreting the Bible as individuals and apart from those same creeds and councils? Any denomination that makes a decision about which councils and creeds are right and which are wrong stands in judgment over those councils and creeds to make that decision, and must evaluate them by Scripture alone—they certainly cannot use those same councils and creeds as guides to help them make that decision! The distinction that Owen has made between the way the first Anglicans operated and the way “Bible-onlyists” operate is as absurd as it is impossible.
6. Notice that Svendsen insists that he does not hold to solo Scriptura because unlike “Joe Sixpack,” he and other evangelicals “look to each other” for the authentic interpretation. That sort of makes my point. Svendsen does not feel that the modern evangelical church should be held accountable to any outside standard, whether it be the teachings of the Reformers, or the early Catholic Church consensus first five centuries) which the Reformers appealed to and assumed as a given.
I had a feeling that statement would be misunderstood. In reality, I view the Reformers and the early church as helpful guides in interpretation. But I hold their conclusions loosely and compare them with my own generation of scholars (along with my own understanding of Scripture) because they, too, are subject to error. There are some conclusions they have made that I agree with because they are clearly supported by Scripture. Others of there conclusions I am more tentative about, and some I reject as absolutely foreign to Scripture. The difference between Own and me is that he views these entities as the regula fide, whereas I do not.
7. With regard to the papacy, Svendsen (like others I have seen) continues to ignore the fact that my quote to the effect that we are all “still under the papacy” comes directly out of Luther’s 1528 tract “Concerning Rebaptism” (a polemic against the Anabaptists who threw the Catholic Church out with the bath water).
I’m unconcerned about where it might originate. It was (and is) promoted by Owen, and that’s really all that matters to me in the context of this discussion.
8. The reason that the Anglican Church feels free to reject Rome’s list of sacraments is because there was no defined number of sacraments in the consensus of the first five centuries. The precise number of sacraments was not systematized until the time of Peter Lombard (12th century). Thus, there is room for a variety of interpretations of Holy Scripture on this point. Neither Rome nor Canterbury is heretical. The same principle applies to the Roman doctrines outlined in article 22 of the Articles of Religion.
Why is it the more I read Owen’s explanation, the less he sounds like Cranmer and the other Reformers? After denouncing Roman Catholic doctrine, and just before he was burned at the stake, Cranmer is recorded as having made this statement: “And as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ's enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine." Cranmer went to the stake for his belief that Rome’s sacraments are heretical. Owen, on the other hand, won’t even acknowledge that Rome is heretical, but instead insists “there is room” for Rome’s view of the sacraments.
9. On the distinction between Creeds and Councils, while the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds are given a special place in the Anglican Way, so also are the doctrinal judgments (which I loosely called “creeds”) of the first four Ecumenical Councils (contained in the Nicene Creed, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Christological definitions outlined by Chalcedon and Ephesus). The standard Anglican summary is: one Bible, two testaments, three Creeds, four Councils, five centuries of foundational Tradition.
Though, of course, not the first Anglican summary, which casts doubt on the reliability of the councils and accepts only the three creeds as reliably affirming biblical truth.

Owen, it seems, has no formal objection to “Bible-onlyism,” as he puts it, because he allows it in the case of the Reformers. He will object that they did not subscribe to “Bible-onlyism” since they also affirmed that the ecumenical councils faithfully reiterated biblical teaching. To which I respond, In order for those Reformers to determine that the councils are faithful to biblical teaching, they must first compare the teachings of those councils with Scripture and render a judgment—which they most certainly did. They rendered a similar judgment against Rome on a number of other issues (sola fide, for one) completely irrespective of those councils, which did not address those issues in any case. Hence, it is entirely inescapable that the Reformers operated on the “subjective and individualistic” principle of “bible-onlyism.”

Hence, Owen does not object to the principle when used by the Reformers—he simply objects to the continuing use of it. Yet he cannot articulate a good, coherent reason for that objection. He has argued “the Reformers saw themselves as living in a unique time.” But so what? How is the way one views himself ever the standard of what principle of authority the Christian can legitimately adopt? If Owen had argued, “I believe it was a movement of God that does not apply to every generation; I can’t prove it from Scripture or reason; I just believe it,” at least there would be coherence to the argument, even if he has to admit subjectivity in his decision to believe it. But Owen has made his case as though it can be proved on objective grounds. It can’t; and Owen has done a good job of illustrating why.