Tuesday, October 03, 2006

What Fellowship Hath Cranmer with Owen?

It’s been a while since I jumped into the fray of blog debates. But, as I have an upcoming debate in May 2007 (details will be announced here as soon as I receive the “official” announcement from the debate coordinators), I thought it might be beneficial to get back into the swing of things by responding to a recent entry by Paul Owen at Communio Sanctorum. I have been able to conduct calm, cordial debates with Dr. Owen in the past; and since we hold a field of study in common (we both have our Ph.D. in New Testament), there is at least some common ground on which to base an appeal. If Dr. Owen responds, I will respond in turn. But I want to make it very clear from the start that I have absolutely no interest in responding to the musings of the lesser representatives of his viewpoint who co-post at that website. Here is the link to Owen’s article. Dr. Owen’s statements will appear in blocked italic quotations, and my responses will follow:

1. Sola Scriptura is only true if the Bible is viewed as the possession of the Church, and not the possession of the individual. It is the early Church which published the Bible (the same Church which wrote the early Creeds), and therefore it is to that Church that we must first look to guide our understanding of the deposit of faith found in Holy Scripture.

I do not see how any of this follows. Certainly we can agree that the Bible is the “possession of the church, not the individual.” But as we read on, it soon becomes clear that what Owen means by “the church” is something like “the church from medieval times to the Reformation,” and nothing more. He seems unconcerned not only by the fact that much of what was affirmed by the medieval church was explicitly or implicitly denied by the ancient church (and vice versa), but also that much of what was affirmed by the post-Reformation church is a repudiation of what was affirmed by the pre-Reformation church. Moreover, Owen seems to downplay the fact that “the church” exists as much today as it did in medieval and Reformation times, and a persistent failure to acknowledge this point is what drives much of the “reformed catholic” anti-evangelical agenda.

So where does that leave us? Each successive manifestation of the bride of Christ is charged before God to cast away man-made traditions that strive to choke truth like a clinging vine—a principle advocated without exception by all the reformers and reformed movements, including Dr. Owen’s Anglican church—and the challenge and responsibility faced by Luther, Calvin, and the rest of the Reformers in this regard is little different from that faced by all manifestations of the body of Christ in every generation. It is a demonstrable fact that the manifestation of the church that collected the canon differs in its biblical interpretations and theological opinions from both the manifestation of the church that preceded it and the manifestation of the church that succeeded it—just as the biblical interpretations and theological opinions of the manifestation of the people of God who collected the OT canon (in this case, Israel) differed from the beliefs and practices of its preceding and succeeding manifestations. That is why Jesus himself called us to condemn the choking vine of extra-biblical tradition that does not accord with Scripture. Unless one is prepared to argue for some form of ecclesial infallibility (in which case, one has also crossed over to Rome and now has much greater problems), then at the end of the day no belief of “the church,” in whatever manifestation—ancient, medieval church, reformation, or modern—is exempt from biblical examination by the current manifestation of the church.

Moreover, this in large part was the Modus Operandi of all he Reformers and reformed movements. Certainly, some of those ancient beliefs are quite easy to affirm—the deity of Christ, the triune God, etc. (such beliefs are outlined in the early creeds) —because they so readily conform to Scripture and “ring true” in the hearts and minds of the people of God everywhere (the latter test is the direct implication of passages such as 1 John 2:19-27; which, as much as some might dislike it, teaches a decidedly subjective and individual element in determining what to believe and what not to believe as a Christian). Other beliefs (such as the Marian doctrines) of the “early” church (though not the earliest church) are so at odds with the New Testament witness that they must be rejected even if they are affirmed by later manifestations of the church. Even Dr. Owen’s own Anglican Church (in its Thirty-Nine Articles) goes so far as to suggest that the ecumenical councils themselves may have been populated by unregenerate men, and so their decisions cannot be wholly trusted. Owen continues:

Sola Scriptura simply means that the Bible contains the only divinely revealed (and therefore infallible) statement of our Faith, so that public revelation is not to be sought outside of Scripture. It means that the authority of the Church is to be expressed through a reverent submission to Holy Scripture, neither adding to it nor taking from it.
So far so good . . .

But sola Scriptura is a principle for the Church, and not a hermeneutical rule for the individual in his Bible study. For an individual to employ a sola Scriptura principle (I base my belief on the Bible alone) is a sure recipe for subjectivism, heresy and disaster. Such is the heresy of the Radical Reformation and much of today’s “evangelical” Baptistish Bible-onlyism.
Owen has here wedded several issues together that are best treated separately; and there are several errors at play in Owen’s treatment of them. The issues, broadly speaking, are individualism, subjectivism, and the source of authority one decides to adopt. On the one hand, no one can escape the charge of individualism—including Owen—when deciding what his authority will be. I have argued this elsewhere when addressing the epistemological double standard of Roman Catholics (for which see the epistemological section of the Catholic Corner of this website). Owen has decided upon the Church of England as his authority. But why not Rome, or Eastern Orthodoxy? I suspect it’s because, in his “individual and subjective” opinion, Owen has decided that one’s authority should be a combination of the Bible and church history (an individual and subjective opinion in and of itself)—but not just any combination. He did not become Roman Catholic, after all; and he has apparently decided against Eastern Orthodoxy. Both of these groups claim to hold the same combination of authority as Owen (Scripture and the interpretation of Scripture); and with the same exact emphasis, I might add (the Scriptures have formal priority over the church). But both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy reject the very idea of sola Scriptura, while Owen confesses it.

So, then, it becomes evident at the end of the day that what is really at stake here is not simply a bare-bones difference between those who hold to an Evangelical version of sola Scriptura and those who hold to a “reformed catholic” version; or that the former is plagued by “individualism and subjectivism” while the latter is somehow not. Any view of this issue is necessarily “individualistic and subjective”—how could it not be given that the individual must decide among competing options? This is true even for those who claim some combination of Scripture and the historical church’s teaching as their rule of faith, for they must then decide among competing and mutually exclusive options for just what that combination should look like. Will it be the Roman Catholic combination? The Eastern Orthodox combination? The Anglican combination? The Presbyterian combination? The Lutheran combination? Something else? (Arguably, all but the first two formally hold to sola Scriptura). Owen has ended up in the Anglican camp—which incidentally officially repudiates much of what can fairly be considered the long-standing “church’s teaching” in previous generations of the church. Oddly enough, in many cases Owen ends up siding with the teachings of those earlier generations contra the Thirty-Nine Articles which repudiate those same teachings.

So, the issue is not whether one can escape “individual and subjective” judgment in his choice of authority—he can’t, of course, and Owen is no exception. Nor is the issue whether the Evangelical view of sola scriptura operates in an “individual and subjective” vacuum while the other view somehow does not. Owen has terribly mischaracterized the Evangelical situation (or “Baptist” situation, if you wish) of sola scriptura. No responsible Evangelical operates in a vacuum in regard to scriptural interpretation. If that were the case, then why is there so much general agreement among Evangelicals regarding the essentials of the faith? Can it be that each individual opened his own Bible and arrived at these beliefs independently? If so, then that method is vindicated since it has resulted in so much unity of belief, and the question of “private interpretation” becomes moot.

But, of course, that is not how it’s done in Evangelicalism Proper. By and large, Evangelicals are not mavericks in regard to checks and balances of what constitutes acceptable belief, but constantly look to each other for the authentic interpretation of Scripture. I am not here referring to Joe Sixpack in the Evangelical pew (nor would it be fair to include this contingent, since there are equally uneducated laypersons in the pews of every denominational church, and we do not thereby make them the spokespersons for that denomination’s beliefs), but to pastors and scholars. Certainly, some media-induced high-profile Evangelical pastors have decided to operate in a vacuum, and certainly some Evangelical scholars propose questionable interpretations (which denomination’s scholars do not?), but this is not the norm. In no case are these questionable interpretations held out as essential to salvation or binding on the conscience of the believer.

So then, the issue is not whether Evangelicals practice “solo scriptura” over against Owen’ brand of “sola Scriptura.” All but the most backwoods Evangelical would reject the former. The issue is rather which manifestation of the church one looks to for guidance in interpretation. Clearly, Owen dismisses the current manifestation (the Evangelical church) out of hand as that guiding light, and opts instead for the “historic” church. But the options do not stop there; for once Owen chooses the “historic” church as a category, he must then choose not only which manifestation of that historic church is authoritative (it is beyond dispute by all impartial observers that church fathers and councils have contradicted each other), but also which interpretation of that authority should prevail (the Roman Catholics have one interpretation; the Eastern Orthodox have another; and Owen seems to disagree with both of those interpretations).

Further, Owen’s resistance to sola Scriptura conceived apart from the interpretation of “the historic church” fails to account for Luther’s actions in the Reformation, not to mention the actions and decisions of all the Reformers and reformed movements, all of whom repudiated centuries of “the church’s interpretation” in favor of their own. Why does Owen’s standard apply to Evangelicals but not to the Reformers, whose interpretations of Scripture and views of the early church most certainly seemed “individualistic and subjective” to the established church authorities of their day?

Owen’s seemingly constant and unqualified praise of the "historic church"--most particularly in the form of the Roman Church and its pope, even going so far at one point to state in writing that the pope is still the head of the church (as though he ever was)—is completely at odds with not only the views of the Reformers, but also with the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Owen’s own denomination and its Reformers, such as Cranmer. The articles constantly make reference to the teachings of the Roman church and issue unqualified repudiation of them. If the reader has not read these, he may access them here. Notice, for example, how the Articles deal with the sacraments (Article XXV):

"There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord. Those five, commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not the like nature of Sacraments with Baptism and the Lord's Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God."

The Anglicans reject five acts that had for a long time been assumed to be sacraments by Rome. On what basis did they reject these? Article XX (“On the Authority of the Church”) states:

"The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies and authority in controversies of faith; and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God's word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ: yet, as it ought not to decree anything against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation."

And on General (Ecumenical) Councils, Article XXI states:

"General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of princes. And when they be gathered together, forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and word of God, they may err and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture."

It is on this basis that the Anglican church feels free to reject five of the seven sacraments of Rome, Purgatory, relics and images, the Apocrypha as Scripture, Supererogation of merit, transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the Mass, the sinlessness of Mary, forced celibacy of ministers, justification by works, the Mass conducted in Latin, and the like. But, per Owen’s principle, shouldn’t they have rather deferred to the “teaching of the church” on this? After all, to reject the long-standing teaching of the church is to operate on the principle of “individualism” and subjectivism,” is it not? Owen clarifies his beliefs in his second point: “the boundaries of the Christian faith are entirely contained in the Bible, and are defined in the Ecumenical Creeds of the early Church.” By “creeds,” Owen apparently means “Councils,” since not only does he number them at seven, but (later in the same point) he uses “council” interchangeably with “creed.” But the Thirty-Nine Articles rightly distinguish creeds from councils, commending (in Article VIII) only “three creeds”; namely, “Nicene Creed, Athanasius' Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles' Creed.” These “ought thoroughly to be received and believed; for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.” But of ecumenical councils, the Articles (as we have already seen) have this to say:

“When they be gathered together, forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and word of God, they may err and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture.”

This is much different from Owen’s view, who oddly enough professes the Anglican faith. The Anglican church is officially wary of ecumenical councils as a regula fide, opting instead for the three creeds as an expression of the Christian faith and the teaching of the Scriptures. But Owen states that the Ecumenical Councils act as that regula fide, contra the teaching of his own denomination.

How exactly, then, does Anglicanism differ from Evangelicalism in its modus operandi? Certainly, the Anglican church has adopted some beliefs that are at odds with the beliefs of Baptists (particularly with reference to operation of the sacraments); but they claim to do so based on Scripture, not on the commands of councils. So where is Owen’s stated principle operative in all this? Owen wants to argue that when the Anglican church repudiates the long-standing church teaching on transubstantiation, they stand as great Reformers. But when the Evangelical (or, more particularly, Baptist) church repudiates the long-standing church teaching on, say, the veneration of Mary, they are being “individualist and subjective” according to Owen.

Owen’s first principle (which acts as the basis for many of his other points) is unsuccessful due to its self-defeating nature. If it applies to Evangelicals (the manifestation of the body of Christ today) then it also applies to Anglicanism and the other movements that sprang from the Reformation. Indeed, how does Owen justify Luther standing virtually alone in his opposition to the “teaching of the church”? What starker example of “individual subjectivism” could one ask for than Luther, who opposed nearly the entire “Christian” world of his day based solely on the authority of Scripture and his “individual and subjective” assessment of the extent to which councils and creeds lined up with that Scripture—“Here I stand; I can do no other”?

Stay tuned for a response to Owen’s point # 2.