Saturday, July 31, 2004

Private Judgment and "Reformed Catholicism"

Response to a post on the Reformed Catholicism blog: "Americanized Protestantism's Egalitarianism," by Derrick Olliff:

Hi Derrick,

Fascinating post. I must say that I am unable to resist pointing out a rather amusing irony. I was criticizing the extremity in Pink's arguments for private judgment over three years ago (Nov. 2000).

Thus I find it a bit personally "vindicating" to see you making a lot of the same criticisms that I made as a Catholic long before the recent Reformed Catholic movement seems to have gotten off the ground. Not to say, "I told you so." I merely see some irony and humor in that, given the multitude of charges thrown my way from some quarters about how I am supposedly so in the dark about the nature of true "Reformational" Protestantism.

You wrote:

Institutions can and do err, and the solution to this is the RPJ. But this presupposes, whether Pink likes it or not, the infallibility of the individual. Pink directly says, 'God has given me that precious Book for the very purpose of making known to me what I am to believe and do, and if I read and search it with a sincere desire to understand its meaning and be regulated by its precepts, I shall not be left in the dark.' Either 'sincere' individuals are infallible or Pink has made a major mistake here. Obviously individuals are not infallible, so this whole line of argumentation is self-refuting. Individuals can make small, medium, and large theological errors just like institutions can, so the RPJ does not solve the problem of institutional error or insure that the individual will be 'in the light' as Pink says.

This is a great observation. I was trying to do much of the same, way back when, in, e.g., my paper: "Response to Tim Enloe's Counter-Reply on the Matter of Private Judgment" . 

The discussion is very complex, but my own critique of Protestantism on this score has been radically misunderstood by many. In another of my papers on this topic (Dialogue: Catholic vs. Protestant Conceptions of the Meaning and Consequences of Private Judgment) I wrote:

Private judgment - again, in its standard meaning, defined below - inevitably tends to lead individuals and groups down the primrose path of separatism and an undue influence of the traditions of men (oftentimes that of the founder of the group) - despite the obligatory warnings of the more sophisticated and nuanced expounders that such division is evil, etc. The principle (like so many heretical ideas, in their incoherence and ultimate falsity) has its own inner dynamic and logic, and people consistently follow it. Pink's own 'blot' or 'blemish' of refusal to affiliate with church groups at all later in his life, is a clear and classic example of a dynamic and a corruption or degeneration that has been repeated countless times. He says the 'right things' about the teaching; he acts differently, and a bit more self-consistently (though not entirely so). He says one thing and does another, because the teaching is self-defeating in the first place.

One cannot assert private judgment and pretend that this does not and will not have many negative ramifications for ecclesiology. Luther and Calvin never understood this, and it seems that a great many Protestants to this day do not, either. As is so often the case, the most penetrating insight, analyses, and criticism of sola Scriptura and its corollaries of private judgment and perspicuity (clearness) of Scripture come from those who have self-consciously rejected these false notions as unbiblical, illogical, and unhistorical, as well as absurdly impractical. This is no novel concept. People who reject Darwinian evolution can see its faults and flaws more clearly than most proponents of the theory. Those who oppose the pathetic system of American public education, see its glaring (and obvious) failures much better than the National Educational Association, who must say it is a good and successful system, simply because it is their system, and they do not wish to change it (don't upset the apple cart; let the sleeping dog lie).
I fully understand the distinction between sola Scriptura and solo Scriptura. I always have. I was writing about that as early as 1991, right after I converted to Catholicism, citing Bernard Ramm and R.C. Sproul and G.C. Berkouwer. I am quite aware of the difference between "magisterial Reformation" and the radical Reformation, or covenental Reformed vs. "Reformed Baptists" (my severest critics have never understood this about my position).

That being the case, it is still a separate issue as to the nature of private judgment, and how it is understood within magisterial Protestantism. I'm one with you guys in criticizing the individualistic and sectarian excesses. Where we differ fundamentally is with regard to my critique of private judgment as applied to the very roots and founding principles of Protestantism: Martin Luther himself.

My argument is that his own point of view (expressed in no uncertain terms, of course!) leads inexorably to the excesses found in Pink and other more individualistic, Americanized" Protestants.

You guys can deny this all day long, till you're blue in the face, but I have not been convinced at all that Luther's thought does not inevitably lead to such an individualism as we observe all around us. In other words, what I have never been shown (hardly anyone has even tried) is a convincing argument that Luther's principles do not and cannot lead to an individualism of the sort Reformed Catholics have been excoriating as of late. If anyone wants to try to do so now, I would be delighted to interact with that.

All I've gotten thus far in these kinds of discussions are charges that I am equating the different schools of Protestantism (noted above) with each other, and confusing categories, or collapsing one school into the other (painting with too broad a brush).

This is absolutely untrue, of course. I am merely following the logic through to what I believe is its conclusion: constructing a reductio ad absurdum argument, just as you and others of your comrades have done to some extent.

What I was trying to grapple with were the implications and principles which flow from a certain type of statement from Martin Luther such as the following:

Therefore, I now let you know that from now on I shall no longer do you the honor of allowing you—or even an angel from heaven—to judge my teaching or to examine it. For there has been enough foolish humility now for the third time at Worms, and it has not helped. Instead, I shall let myself be heard and, as St. Peter teaches, give an explanation and defense of my teaching to all the world -- I Pet. 3:15. I shall not have it judged by any man, not even by any angel. For since I am certain of it, I shall be your judge and even the angels’ judge through this teaching (as St. Paul says [I Cor. 6:3 ]) so that whoever does not accept my teaching may not be saved — for it is God’s and not mine. Therefore, my judgment is also not mine but God’s.

[Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope and the Bishops Falsely So-Called, July 1522; from: Martin Luther, Luther's Works, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (vols. 1-30) and Helmut T. Lehmann (vols. 31-55), St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House (vols. 1-30); Philadelphia: Fortress Press (vols. 31-55), 1955. This work from Vol. 39: Church and Ministry I (edited by J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, and H. T. Lehmann); pages 239-299; translated by Eric W. and Ruth C. Gritsch; citations from pp. 248-249]

Further Remarks from Luther's Tract Against Henry VIII, King of England (1522)

Through me Christ has commenced His revelations concerning the abominations in the holy place.

I am certain that I have my dogmas from heaven, . . .

[From: Martin Luther: His Life and Work, Hartmann Grisar, Adapted from the 2nd German ed. by Frank J. Eble, edited by Arthur Preuss, Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1950 [orig. 1930], 261 / from Werke [Weimar], Vol X, II, pp. 180 sqq., 227 sq. Opp. Lat. Var., pp. 385 sqq., and Werke, Erlangen ed., Vol. XXVIII, pp. 343 sqq.]


Against all the sayings of the Fathers, against all the arts and words of angels, men and devils I set the Scriptures and the Gospel . . . Here I stand and here I defy them . . . The Word of God I count above all else and the Divine Majesty supports me; hence I should not turn a hair were a thousand Augustines against me, and am certain that the true Church adheres with me to God's Word.

(From: Luther, Hartmann Grisar, tr. E.M. Lamond, ed. Luigi Cappadelta, 6 vols., London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1915; volume 4, 391 / from Werke [Weimar], Vol X, II, p. 256 f.)

Elsewhere, in the same year, Luther wrote:

Each man must believe solely because it is the word of God and because he feels within that it is true, even though an angel from heaven and all the world should preach against it.

(From: Luther, Hartmann Grisar, tr. E.M. Lamond, ed. Luigi Cappadelta, 6 vols., London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1915; volume 4, 391 / from Werke [Weimar], Vol X, II, p. 90; Von Menschen leren tzu meyden, 1522)

From: An Argument in Defense of All the Articles of Dr. Martin Luther Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull (1521):

I say not that I am a prophet, but I do say that the more they despise me and esteem themselves, the more reason they have to fear that I may be a prophet . . . If I am not a prophet, yet for my own self I am certain that the Word of God is with me and not with them, for I have the Scriptures on my side, and they have only their own doctrine. This gives me courage, so that the more they despise and persecute me, the less I fear them. There were many asses in the world in the days of Balaam, but God spake by none of them save only by Balaam's ass . . .

(From: Works of Martin Luther, Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Co. and the Castle Press, 1930; rep. by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1982 , Volume 3, 12-14,17; translated by C.M. Jacobs)


All who shun us and attack us secretly have departed from the faith . . . Just like Zwingli . . . It pains me that Zwingli and his followers take offence at my saying that 'what I write must be true.'

(From: Luther, Hartmann Grisar, tr. E.M. Lamond, ed. Luigi Cappadelta, 6 vols., London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1915; volume 4, 309)

Now, I'm sorry; maybe I am dense and obtuse, maybe my logic is flawed, or I am blinded by my "Roman" bias and tunnel vision, but for the life of me I swear that I can't see any essential distinction between the extreme individualism and "sectarianism" of these remarks by Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, and the less extreme views of folks like James White: folks whom Reformed Catholics have excoriated as of late.

It seems to me, again, that White and his compatriots and sycophants can draw at least as much support from Luther and Calvin as you guys can. This is true both with regard to the question of the status of the [Roman} Catholic Church and the present consideration of private judgment.

If you say that Pink, White, and scores of other individualized, atomistic, "Americanized" Protestants have departed from the measuring rod of "magisterial Protestantism" (which presumably includes Luther among its number), then please, PLEASE (I BEG YOU) show me where the distinction lies. I don't get it. How do they depart from what Luther said above?

Most of what I've gotten so far is abuse, misrepresentation, name-calling, false charges, and a lot of yelling and running from my Protestant friends when I dare to bring up such uncomfortable considerations as these. They clearly don't like it. But obviously their discomfort and rage at my abominable behavior in actually citing Luther's words are not arguments, and provide me with no reason to change my opinion.

If, on the other hand, you concede that Luther (and also Calvin, I suspect -- properly scrutinized) believes at bottom, the same things about private judgment (at least in some key respects, over against Catholicism and the previous tradition and rule of faith), then the distinction upon which "Reformed Catholicism" is based, largely collapses -- at least in this respect.

My view, again, is that there are VERY major distinctions to be drawn between various Protestant camps on the authority issue. I recognize these, and have for the entire 13 + years since I have converted. But that doesn't prove that Luther's and Calvin's original positions do not suffer from grave defects, nor that they can be totally distanced or disconnected from the excesses in subsequent Protestant history that we all dislike and detest.

If you disagree, please show me how and why, particularly regarding Luther's statements above (with a minimum of polemical and merely "party" rhetoric, if possible). How is one to interpret those? Luther had a bad day, and raved like a madman? Literary style? We simply discount them, or take them with a grain of salt, knowing of Luther's uncontrollable tongue, etc.?

Thanks for reading and may God abundantly bless you.

[See my post on the other blog, along with subsequent comments from others]

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