Monday, October 16, 2006

Paul Owen: Tractarian, not Reformed

I will offer a final response to Paul Owen's confusion on Scripture, Authority, and the views of the Reformers. Owen's statements are in block quotations. I have left all other quotations from writers in regular paragraph format but in quotation marks.

Svendsen is correct in noticing that I do not list the heirs of the Radical Reformation among the congregations of Christ’s visible Catholic Church on earth. Svendsen and his evangelical brethren do indeed have a noble tradition of their own, stemming backwards in time to Smith Wigglesworth, Billy Sunday and Charles Finney, and further still to the Prophet Joseph Smith, Fausto Socinus, Michael Servetus, Caspar Schwenckfeld, Menno Simons, Conrad Grebel, Balthasar Hubmaier and the Zwickau Prophets, and yet beyond to the Montanists, Novatians, Donatists and various Gnostic sects of the early centuries of the Church. But it is a trajectory of figures and movements of varying doctrinal orthodoxy outside the Catholic Church (though of course containing many faithful believers in Jesus within their ranks).
This statement, as much as any other he has issued, succinctly summarizes both Owen’s ignorance of Evangelicalism and its beliefs, and his willful downplaying of his own questionable orthodoxy. I am not an Anabaptist (at least not in its formal sense); and to pile on a mixture of evangelicals and heretical figures in the same list is a gross, gross distortion of what Evangelicalism is. The figures Owen has listed here have no affiliation to each other. Why does he add these (Joseph Smith? Mormonism more approximates Owen's view of authority than my own) while neglecting the more important forerunners—Spurgeon, Edwards, Bunyan, and the like? He apparently (and quite erroneously) thinks “Evangelical” is some kind of “catch-all” phrase that includes everyone not associated with a mainline reformed church. And why does he neglect to mention here that as an anglo-catholic, his forerunners are not Cranmer and Bucer (much less Calvin and Luther), but men like Pusey, Keble and Newman?

Has Owen never read a document like the London Baptist Confession, which outlines in detail orthodox Baptist belief (over against the heretics he has listed)? It is nearly identical in content to the WCF. As difficult as it may be for Owen to conceive of such a thing, there are organized evangelical churches outside the fold of his narrow and idiosyncratic notion of what constitutes a “church,” who uphold orthodoxy more vigorously and repudiate heterodoxy more fervently than he does, and they have been there since the days of the Reformation. In fact the framers of the LBC specifically repudiated the beliefs many of the figures mentioned by Owen above, and I defy Owen or anyone else to find fault with any part of this confession (aside from the normal idiosyncratic convictions). Having 32 articles (or 52 in the case of the 1644 edition) it is just as comprehensive and just as committed to orthodoxy as any Reformed confession of its day, including the Anglicanism that Owen pretends to hold.

The only real difference between us is that I can actually assent to the main tenets of all these confessions, even though the framers of those confessions hold no special authority over me (the confessions, as always, are authoritative insofar as they align with Scripture). By contrast, in spite of Owen’s feigned submission to Anglican authority, he manifestly does not believe in many of the articles of his own religion. I have already cited the relevant portions of the Thirty-nine Articles that Owen could never sign as a statement of faith. Why? Because as a Tractarian (not Reformed as he claims to be) he simply does not believe them. He does not believe of Scripture that “whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” He does not believe that “the visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men.” He does not believe that “things ordained by [ecumenical councils] as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority.” He does not believe that “the Romish doctrine concerning Pugatory, Pardons, worshipping and adoration as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saint, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture; but rather repugnant to the word of God.” He does not believe that it is a “thing plainly repugnant to the word of God and the custom of the primitive Church, to have public prayer in the Church, or to minister the sacraments in a tongue not understood of the people.” He does not believe that Rome’s sacraments are partly a result of “the corrupt following of the Apostles.” He does not believe that Transubstantiation “is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.” He does not believe that “the sacrifices of Masses” are “blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits.” As a Tractarian, he is far too busy courting Rome to take the stanch position the Articles take. Indeed, as a Tractarian his primary goal is to show compatibility between Trent and the 39 Articles and to downplay any differences. As such, he is no heir of the Reformation, but rather of the Oxford movement and such stalwart “Reformers” as John Henry Cardinal Newman, Eddy Pusey, and Johnny Keble.

Martin Luther did not exalt his private judgment above the authority of the Church. He was merely echoing a widespread pastoral consensus as to the need for ecclesiastical reform that had been building within the Church for centuries. He is not a prototype of the modern evangelical Bible-onlyist.
No, of course not; here are Luther's own words:

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

No “Bible-onlyism” there, right? Nor can we detect “individualism” or subjectivism” here, can we? And Luther clearly defers to the authority of councils here, doesn’t he; and he does not dare rely on his own contrary understanding of what Scripture teaches, does he? Luther’s Reformation, you see, was done with the pre-consent of his bishop and pope. As it turns out, there was just a huge misunderstanding about that. The pope sent out a mail blast to all the faithful telling them that the coffers were “prime for donation,” and the ink on the page smeared a bit, making it difficult to read. Luther thought it read “time for reformation,” and the rest is history. So you see, Luther didn’t operate on private judgment at all; and the “true heirs” of the Reformation recognize that it was really just much ado about nothing. And as for all those historic differences; well, they were all just silly misunderstandings—semantic, nothing more. In fact, there really aren’t any differences between “true” Protestants and Roman Catholics at all!

I believe Owen has actually convinced himself that his anglo-catholicism is somehow representative of the Reformed. To say it is not is to engage in an understatement.
He believed the proper solution to the Church’s ills was to call a general Church council (in which the Protestants would be included) to resolve the dispute (see the opening comments on this matter in the Smalcald Articles for just one illustration), not simply to go with J. Vernon McGee “back to the Bible.” On Luther’s views, see D.H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition, pp. 73-74, 121.
Fine and dandy; who isn’t for general councils in which hope is held out that the other side will be convinced of your arguments so as to preserve unity in the church? That should always be the first step in reformation to prevent splitting a church wide open. But apparently the Roman Catholic side had other ideas. And lest it be assumed that Luther’s goal for such a council was that he might be instructed by the church’s authority through the Roman catholic bishops, we should let him explain it:

“But to return to the subject. I verily desire to see a truly Christian Council [assembled some time], in order that many matters and persons might be helped. Not that we need It, for our churches are now, through God's grace, so enlightened and equipped with the pure Word and right use of the Sacraments, with knowledge of the various callings and of right works, that we on our part ask for no Council, and on such points have nothing better to hope or expect from a Council. But we see in the bishoprics everywhere so many parishes vacant and desolate that one's heart would break, and yet neither the bishops nor canons care how the poor people live or die, for whom nevertheless Christ has died, and who are not permitted to hear Him speak with them as the true Shepherd with His sheep. This causes me to shudder and fear that at some time He may send a council of angels upon Germany utterly destroying us, like Sodom and Gomorrah, because we so wantonly mock Him with the Council.”

Luther's goal for this council was to have the opportunity to reform his superiors; not so that he himself might be convinced of their position. This was not an "ecumentical council" he had in mind, but a debate so that his ideas might win the day.

Svendsen apparently cannot see that his solo Scriptura method is not the view which the Reformers held to.
Cute phrase, but entirely meaningless. There is simply no such thing as “solo scriptura” over against sola scriptura (at least not in the present case). Either one holds to sola scriptura in a responsible way (i.e., in a way that is informed by the larger Christian community), or one does not. In the latter case, sola scriptura is still active; it’s just misinformed. In the former case, one must then decide what constitutes the “Christian community.” For Luther, Owen argues, it was the creeds and councils. Fine; I often refer to those as well when speaking to Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who think the church ceased to exist for 1800 years. As I have mentioned before, I am in fundamental agreement with the conclusions of the creeds and early councils (not necessarily their rationale, language, or side points), and accept them as part of that larger Christian community—but only as a part. The Christian community extends well beyond those councils, both before and after, and I prefer to look at the whole rather than a mere part. At the same time it absolutely excludes those who are wolves among sheep and shepherds who feed only themselves.

Sola Scriptura was not intended by the Reformers to replace the authority of Church Creeds and Councils, though of course Scripture was the supreme and final authority
Here is the precise point at which Owen’s view of this fails on an epistemological level. He wants to argue—simultaneously, no less—that “the authority of Church Creeds and Councils” reigns supreme over the individual, AND that Scripture is “the supreme and final authority.” But how would the latter point ever prevail within the context of a corrupt church, or councils and creeds that are in error? For Martin Luther, a mere individual, the issue was his own understanding of Scripture over against that of the entire Roman Catholic magisterium. If Owen wants to argue, “no, he looked to the creeds and councils,” it changes nothing since it is evident that Luther still exercised his own private judgment and understanding of creeds and councils over against that of the entire Roman Catholic magisterium. There’s simply no way around this. Owen wants to articulate a principle of sola scriptura that is operative for the church but not for the individual. The problem is, Luther appealed to this principle as an individual and against the established church! Hence, Owen’s version of sola scriptura is not only epistemologically impossible, but is in fact a historical novum. All the Reformers, without exception, acted as individuals and trusted their own understanding of Scripture, creeds and councils over against the understanding of the governing church of their day.

Scripture was the supreme and final authority (a view which has always been well-represented even among Roman Catholic theologians).
Notice Owen’s persistent and irresistible Tractarian tendency to sneak Roman Catholic theologians into the camp of the Reformers’ view of Scripture, as though there is no difference between what the Reformers believed about Scripture and what Roman Catholics believe(d). This is classic Tractarian revisionism, not Reformed history.

My appeal to the consensus of the first five centuries is not arbitrary. It was standard among all of the Reformational theologians (like Jewel, Calvin, Bullinger, and Luther)
Standard what? Certainly not the regula fidei, for that category is reserved for “sola Scripture.” If by “standard” Owen intends something like “the Reformers believed that the creeds and councils restate the teaching of Scripture” then fine. If instead he means the Reformers believed that the councils and creeds define orthodoxy and act in addition to Scripture as some separate but unifed regula fidei, then he is sadly mistaken and is engaging in still more revisionism of the Reformers.

From the time of Gregory onwards, it was understood that the first four councils (those of the first five centuries) held pride of place in establishing the foundational boundaries of Christian doctrine. St. Gregory said: “I confess that I receive and revere, as the four books of the Gospel so also the four Councils . . . These with full devotion I embrace, and adhere to with most entire approval; since on them, as on a four-square stone, rises the structure of the holy faith; and whosoever, of whatever life and behavior he may be, holds not fast to their solidity, even though he is seen to be a stone, yet he lies outside the building
Yada, yada, yada. Fine and dandy for “St.” Gregory. Where is a statement from the Reformers that mirrors this sentiment? Here is what Luther says:

“Years ago all the pope's pronouncements were called Christian truth and articles of faith, yet this was simply based on man. And then it happened that people sank into the abyss and lost everything that pertains to the Word of God and Christ. Therefore, we must now declare: 'Pope, council, and doctors, we will not believe you; but we will believe in the Divine Word."

"When anything contrary to Scripture is decreed in a council, we ought to believe Scripture rather than the council. Scripture is our court of appeal and bulwark; with it we can resist even an angel from heaven - as St. Paul commands in Galatians 1(:8) - let alone a pope and a council."

"[As regards the church fathers] I do not reject them. But everyone, indeed, knows that at times they have erred, as men will; therefore, I am ready to trust them only when they give me evidence for their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred"

"A Christian soon smells from afar which is God's and which is human teaching. He sees from afar that the schismatic spirits are speaking their own human mind and opinion. They cannot escape me, Dr. Luther. I can soon judge and say whether their doctrine is of God or of man; for I am doing the will of God, who sent Christ. I have given ear to none but God's Word, and say: 'Dear Lord Christ, I want to be thy pupil, and I believe thy Word. I will close my eyes and surrender to thy Word.' Thus He makes me a free nobleman, yes, a fine doctor and teacher, who is captive to the Word of God, and is able to judge the errors and the faith of the pope, Turks, Jews and Sacramentarians. They must fall, and I tread them underfoot. I have become a doctor and a judge who judges correctly."

As one observer notes: “Luther did believe that much of the conciliar decisions did contain truth, but only in so far as they correspond with the written Word,” and “Luther did indeed accept the creeds, not because the councils of the Church had accepted them, but because he believed they conformed to the teaching of Scripture.” This is very much the Evangelical view of creed, councils, and Scripture, and very far from Owen’s view.

Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are not two religions (as is the case with Anabaptism). It is one thing to say that the Roman Catholic Church needs reform (the Protestant view); it is another thing to say that the Roman Catholic Church needs to be replaced (the Radical Reformation view).
And this is the just kind of misunderstanding for which Owen is notorious. Take for example Owen’s stance on the Reformer’s view of Rome. He goes to great lengths to show that Luther and Calvin still considered the RCC a legitimate church, and on that basis promotes the pope, the RC bishops, and RC priests as brothers in Christ with whom he has some minor disagreements. But the statements from the Reformers that Owen typically cites do not make that point. They are usually sacrament-based statements, not “Christian-brother” based. In other words, for Calvin and Luther the nature of the sacraments forces them to accept RC baptism as valid, even if the minister of that baptism is anti-Christ himself. To be sure, their views on the sacraments would disagree with mine and most of Evangelicalism on that score. But neither Luther nor Calvin took the further step that Owen takes by regarding the pope as a brother in Christ. Far from it; the Reformers uniformly viewed the pope as the anti-Christ. They were much more Evangelical in this regard. This embarrasses Owen immensely, who (as a Tractarian) would rather just downplay those statements, or eliminate them from consideration altogether. But the reason we cannot eliminate them or even downplay them is because they weigh heavily in our understanding of just what the Reformers intended by other statements they make regarding the “papists.” Hence, if some statements of the reformers seem to lend legitimacy to the Roman Catholic Church (such as the baptism statements), we need ever to keep in mind that the Reformers do not intend to imply what Owen and his ilk want to milk out of these statements—namely, that the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed Church are one, and there’s really only a dime’s difference between them.

And if Owen really believed what he wrote here, he’d be Roman Catholic. The very fact that he attends an Anglican church and abstains from a Roman Catholic mass indicates clearly that he has indeed “replaced” Rome with Anglicanism. To argue otherwise is to engage in ridiculous double speak.

I am not going to keep vainly repeating myself on the matter of the Articles of Religion (articles 8 and 21). Article 8 (and the Book of Common Prayer in general) gives pride of place to certain Creeds, but nobody in their right mind thinks this means that the Creeds and statements of the early Ecumenical Councils somehow lack binding authority.
At least no one of Owen’s anglo-catholic heritage, whose express purpose it is to promote the authority of creeds and councils. Owen’s “explanation” is baffling. Here again is Article 21: “Wherefore things ordained by [General Councils] as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture.”

Here is Owen: “nobody in their right mind thinks this means that the . . . statements of the early Ecumenical Councils somehow lack binding authority.”

Here is Article 21: “Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority.”

Owen: “nobody in their right mind thinks this means that the . . . statements of the early Ecumenical Councils somehow lack binding authority.”

Art. 21: “Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority”

Get it? It is only revisionistic tractarian sophistry that can make article 21 mean the opposite of what it plainly states.

Yes, general councils may err, and many have erred; but general councils is a broad category which embraces more than just the early Catholic Councils. Nowhere will one find in the Anglican sources a claim that Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus or Chalcedon did in fact err in matters pertaining to God (i.e., doctrine as opposed to discipline). Svendsen is so out on a limb with this claim that I am just not going to spend any more time talking about it.
Here again is a case of Owen not reading carefully what I said, nor what Article 21 is asserting. I have not contended that Article 21 teaches that the Nicene council erred in its definitions. I have contended only that Article 21 states that the councils, conducted by mere men, are prone to error, not that they have in fact erred. Because they are prone to err, they “have neither strength nor authority” in matters of definitions necessary to salvation. We may very well conclude they are right—but only because we can see for ourselves that they affirm the teaching of Scripture. That is what Article 21 is getting at.

Finally, Svendsen just does not understand why we need to maintain the supreme human authority (even if supposedly subordinate to God’s word) of Ecumenical councils. He does not understand this because he does not understand the nature of the Church, nor sadly, of the orthodox Christian faith itself. The Church is a visible society on earth, the community of God’s kingdom among his people. We are the eschatological commonwealth of Israel (Eph. 2:12-13). Because Svendsen simply sees the Church as the collective number of the elect, gathered into local congregations, the idea of an authoritative Catholic Church council simply makes no sense to him.
Owen has already been corrected on this point by one of the contributors on his blog (Peter Escalante), who chimed in on his article and had this to say:

“Your points on catholic continuity are well taken, but when you say of Svendsen that he “simply sees the Church as the collective number of the elect, gathered into local congregations”, it is very difficult for me to see how this differs from the essential points of the Reformers’ doctrine of the church. You may think that they were wrong, of course, but they pretty expressly denied that any of the qualities which were essential to, and definitive of, the invisible church, could be essentially predicated of the visible churches, which latter stand to the former as sign (admittedly, a very robust kind of sign). By the way, this is Hooker’s doctrine of the church as well. Where the folks you’re arguing against, insofar as I understand your representation of their ideas, would differ from Hooker and the Reformers, is not in the central points I just mentioned, but in denying that the true visible church has any real continuity through time, or any ability to authoritatively witness to and pass on true understanding of God’s Word through historically continuous media. But one can affirm these latter points completely, without giving up at all the Reformers’ doctrine of the Church, which makes a strong distinction between the invisibility of the church and its invisibility, and denies that the essential predicates of the invisible church are essential predicates of the visible church. Hooker’s whole argument against the separatists-in whose lineage you situate Svendsen- turns precisely on this point.”

As for the biblical reference Owen cites to support his contention that the church “is a visible society on earth, the community of God’s kingdom among his people [and] the commonwealth of Israel,” if he is somehow under the illusion that Eph. 2:12-13 is a proof text for his view, then let me disabuse him of that. This passage has nothing to do with whether or not “visible church” is to be identified with "invisible church." Paul’s point in this passage is simply that whereas God once worked exclusively with Israel, he has now included the Gentiles as a target of his grace and grafted the two peoples into one in Christ. If Owen thinks this means unbelievers and apostates are included in that grafting then he is sorely mistaken. Nothing could be further from Paul’s mind. Indeed I do see the invisible church as the collective number of the elect; but with the Reformers I also view congregations that faithfully proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as manifestations of the visible church. It is not necessary that each member of the visible church be converted for that church to be a legitimate church—only that the gospel and truth are faithfully proclaimed. If Owen thinks differently, shame on him; he has no fellowship with the Reformers on that point. As Calvin once put it: “it is certain that there is no Church where lying and falsehood have usurped the ascendancy.” As for my not understanding the concept of a “catholic church council,” Owen is as badly misinformed on that as he is about almost every other view I hold.