Friday, June 03, 2005

Response to "CPA" (Lutheran) on Christian Unity and Ecclesiology

This is from his reply in BlogBack to my last argument in our previous dialogue: Honor Thy Denominations Rather Than Thy Church Fathers? (Lutherans, Sola Scriptura, & the Fathers).

OK, having read your post, you do seem to be not arguing the purely epistemological problem of 3 (although I think given what you wrote at first I was not wrong to think you were; I don't think you expressed yourself very clearly).

Quite possibly; sure. That's why lengthy dialogue and clarification is always helpful, because we can always be more precise in our language and expression.

Your position is not that an interpreter is necessary epistemologically in order to know the truth, but it is necessary practically in order for the truth to be made sufficiently plain that it will in actual fact prevail among people.

That's an excellent way to put it in one sentence; thanks. I've had entire debates with people, where they never understood this distinction. Hence, they wound up arguing against a view that was not my own, and they never figured out that they were warring against a straw man, not my position or the Catholic one (which I hope are the same).

Here are what I take to be your key passages:


As I have stated repeatedly, binding Church authority, is a practical necessity, given the propensity of men to pervert the true apostolic Tradition as taught in Scripture, whether it is perspicuous or not. The fact remains that diverse interpretations arise, and a final authority outside of Scripture itself is needed in order to resolve those controversies. This does not imply in the least that Scripture itself (rightly understood) is not sufficient to overcome the errors. It is only formally insufficient by itself.

Even if Scripture is in fact clear on a matter (say that God declares that it was perfectly clear, when we get to heaven and ask Him about it, which would be absolute certainty), that doesn't mean that Christians will agree. And since contradiction necessarily involves error, it is important for all of us to have some way of resolving these disputes. And that brings us right back to Church authority and/or some form of tradition. It's unavoidable. It's inevitable. Anyone who denies this is living in unreality and self-delusion. All Christians have to resolve this dilemma in some fashion. The solutions differ, and that is what we are debating presently, but the problem is the same for all.

Indeed. You understand my position well. And that's the prerequisite for any good, constructive debate.

But to this argument my position is that the problem is, in earthly terms, insoluble. The only solution is the Last Judgment when God will reveal the secrets of men.

I don't know why you would take this position, which I find to be a "counsel of despair" (i.e., insofar as concerns this particular problem), and most unbiblical.

In point of fact, the Catholic Church has not practically been able to make the gospel teaching sufficiently clear so as to insure the unity of all Christians (defining Christians here as those who confess the Trinity and the Incarnation of Jesus).

I was not so much discussing actual, concrete unity of all Christians. I think that is exceedingly unlikely, short of a massive supernatural conversion to one view. What I advocate as a Catholic is the view that the principle of attainable unity (for those who seek it) is available: not just theoretically, but in actuality, in the Catholic Church and the papacy, and apostolic Tradition or "deposit" passed down through apostolic succession. I would argue that this was God's will for ecclesiology and unity, under this "umbrella," so to speak.

Not only that, arguably it is the inflated claims of the Papacy, intended to secure total unity, which played a big role first in the Great Schism and then in the Reformation.

That's another question entirely. But (as a logical point) because people leave one group, does not prove (by that fact alone) that said group is not the most correct or divinely-willed, or the closest in doctrine to actual God-given truth. To use an analogy: if next year half the world ceased believing that 2 + 2 = 4, that would not at all make that mathematical truth less true. It would only prove that now less people believed in the truth. Or another way to put it is that "truth is not determined by head counts."

The Biblical solution to your problem, as I see it, is "Let God be true and every man a liar." We all believe what we believe for reasons we don't even know, and God will reveal in the end on the Last Day, who has believed correctly, who was a true prophet and who a false, who was walking the narrow way and who the broad way to destruction.

Certainly, but I find it extraordinary that you would resign yourself to the fact that we can't attain to the full truth of biblical, apostolic Christianity, with the certainty of faith, till Judgment Day. I've often critiqued Protestantism as being a sort of "perpetual quest," where one spends their entire life trying to "figure out" what the truth is about various doctrines. I don't believe that this is how God intended things to be at all.

What I think the "biblical solution" is, is an authoritative Church. Where do we find that in Scripture? Easy: the Jerusalem Council. Here's what the Bible says about that council and its binding authority (RSV):


Acts 15:28-29: For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.

Acts 16:4:
As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.

But since Protestants believe that no council is infallible (let alone led by the Holy Spirit), then we have to provide the Revised Protestant Version of the Bible (RPV):

Acts 15:28-29 (RPV): For it has seemed good to the hundreds of other synods and denominations and us (but of course not the Holy Spirit) to lay upon you no greater burden than these entirely optional things and secondary doctrines; matters of individual conscience: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will probably do well (at least until the future when another council may reverse this decision). Farewell.

Acts 16:4 (RPV): As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for consideration and a vote (and the possible veto of scholars) the edifying suggestions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.

One could do the same with the many Pauline commands to follow the tradition that he passed down to his churches. For example:

2 Timothy 1:13-14: Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

It's obvious (perspicuous) in Scripture, then, that the Church was to have binding authority of this nature. One could know the body of true doctrine, because the Church guarded it, and was entrusted with it, and protected by the Holy Spirit. I don't see how it can be denied. I wrote in my book, The Catholic Verses (which dealt with these passages and some historic Protestant responses to it (I cite my manuscript draft, which may be slightly different):

One Protestant reply to these biblical passages might be to say that since this Council of Jerusalem referred to in Acts consisted of apostles, and since an apostle proclaimed the decree, both possessed a binding authority which was later lost (as Protestants accept apostolic authority as much as Catholics do). Furthermore, the incidents were recorded in inspired, infallible Scripture. They could argue that none of this is true of later Catholic councils; therefore, the attempted analogy is null and void.

But this is a bit simplistic, since Scripture is our model for everything, including Church government, and all parties appeal to it for their own views. If Scripture teaches that a council of the Church is authoritative and binding, then it is implausible and unreasonable to assert that no future council can be so simply because it is not conducted by apostles.

Scripture is our model for doctrine and practice (nearly all Christians agree on this). The Bible doesn’t exist in an historical vacuum, but has import for the day-to-day life of the Church and Christians for all time. St. Paul told us to imitate him (see, e.g., 2 Thess. 3:9). And he went around proclaiming decrees of the Church. No one was at liberty to disobey these decrees on the grounds of “conscience,” or to declare by “private judgment” that they were in error (per Luther).

It would be foolish to argue that how the apostles conducted the governance of the Church has no relation whatsoever to how later Christians engage in the same task. It would seem rather obvious that Holy Scripture assumes that the model of holy people (patriarchs, prophets, and apostles alike) is to be followed by Christians. This is the point behind entire chapters, such as (notably) Hebrews 11.

When the biblical model agrees with their theology, Protestants are all too enthusiastic to press their case by using Scriptural examples. The binding authority of the Church was present here, and there is no indication whatever that anyone was ever allowed to dissent from it. That is the fundamental question.

That the Gospel will be challenged and torn apart (but not vanquished) by heresies is something Christ and the apostles foresaw,

Yes, because that would be the sad reality (and the result of human sin and misinformation). But that doesn't mean that it is, therefore, impossible for a seeking Christian individual to attain to the full apostolic deposit by means of an authoritative Church.

and something against which they prescribed not a single teaching magisterium,

Does not the Jerusalem Council contradict this notion? Also, how the Bible describes bishops would also, on a smaller scale.

but Spirit-taught vigilance of individuals and clerics alike (Mat. 7:13-27; John 10:5, 1 John 2:20-23; Acts 20:28-31, Gal. 1:6-9, 2:11ff, Col. 2:16ff, 1 Tim. 4, 2 Tim. 2-3; 1 Peter 5; 2 John 7-11).

Okay, now you're making me work; I gotta look up all these Scriptures. But it's my pleasure. This is, of course, a rather typical Protestant (and also typically American, I might add) presupposition of individualism, which, I would argue, is entirely foreign to the biblical and ancient Hebrew worldview.

Matt 7:13-27. Jesus is speaking proverbially, so it is addressed to individuals. But then, so is every sermon (this is from the Sermon on the Mount). This doesn't prove that an authoritative Church and a communal Christianity with all of one mind, do not exist. I've often argued that Jesus' statement at the Last Supper: "that they may be one, even as we are one" (John 17:11) presupposes and entails a doctrinal unity, since the Father and the Son do not disagree on doctrine or anything else. This is extraordinary unity. If Jesus prayed for it, it must be possible, and there must be a way to attain it (for those who obey and seek this unity). That doesn't mean that everyone will do so, but it means that a way is made for unity, for those who seek and find and see it, by God's grace.

John 10:5: Ditto; proverbial language is not to be construed as sanctioning a radical individualism to the exclusion of the group. To read such a notion into it is eisegesis, I think.

1 John 2:20-23: this passage is already communal in nature, suggesting an existing unity: verse 19: "They went out from us" ("us" is repeated twice more in the verse). Verse 20: "you all know."

Acts 20:28-31: This is written to bishops (RSV: "elders" / Gk. presbuteros); hence the language of "overseers [Gk. episkopos], to care for the church of God" (v. 28). Paul wrote to Titus, "appoint elders [presbuteros] in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5) -- regional, rather than congregational. Referring to the same office ("bishop": 1:7 [episkopos] ), he wrote that they were to "give instruction in sound doctrine and . . . to confute those who contradict it" (1:9). This is, again, a communal notion of doctrine, not an individualistic one. The bishops were in control, not the single person and his perspicuous Bible, figuring out what is true and what isn't. Of course, historically, episcopal government prevailed in the early Church, and local and ecumenical councils were held. Catholics still do both, but Luther and Lutheranism wanted to replace the bishops with the secular princes, and I don't see them holding true councils anymore. So who is more biblical? Clearly Catholics are.

Gal 1:6-9: Paul is writing to "the churches of Galatia" (1:2), not to individuals.

Gal 2:11 ff.: Paul rebukes Peter for his hypocrisy; this has nothing to do with doctrine or ecclesiology.

Col 2:16 ff.: "let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink . . ." Yet this is precisely what the Jerusalem Council did (which decree Paul himself proclaimed to his hearers, as seen above), so this didn't rule out Church authority.

1 Timothy 4: this is a communal passage. 4:1 mentions "some will depart from the faith," not "some will depart from various denominations and form other equally valid (based on Protestant presuppositions and its rule of faith) denominations, which operate on individualistic private judgment" (RPV). 4:14 refers to a "council of elders."

2 Tim 2-3: this must be understood in light of Paul's other teachings, as seen above, and particularly in Paul's first letter to Timothy, where he refers to "the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15).

1 Peter 5: the preeminent elder of the Church, commissioned by Jesus to lead the Church (Matt 16:18-19) is exhorting other elders.

2 John 7-11: John presupposes that there is one truth, that can be known and followed (what you seem to deny): "the truth" (1:2,4), "the doctrine of Christ" (1:9) .

I see nothing in any of these passages which rules out a Catholic or episcopal understanding of ecclesiology, and much that suggests and supports it.

The church (built on Peter, the apostles, the prophets, and the faith of even two or three gathered in His name) as a whole is the pillar and ground of the truth, but I see no promise in these passages a guaranteed transmission of the truth in one place and one succession.

If indeed it's "built on Peter," then clearly, his successors would also be the guardians of the deposit. Since Paul and Peter both went to Rome and were martyred there, it seems fairly clear that this was God's plan. The Roman church quickly became a leader in early Christianity (as evidenced by Paul's lengthy letter to it). Peter and Paul possessed this apostolic deposit (I don't think anyone would deny), so it is common sense that they would pass it down to their successors in Rome. That's not to say that other cities could or would not also possess it (they would, because they were also evangelized by apostles). But Rome definitely would.

God didn't do that in the Old Covenant (the high priests were anything but guardians of orthodoxy, and challenged on occasions beyond count by righteous prophets and teachers of the law) and I see no reason from history or Scripture to believe He has done that in the New.

There are abundant indications of an authoritative body of teaching in Old Testament times that would serve as a model for NT and Catholic infallible authority. For example:

1) Deuteronomy 17:8-13: The Levitical priests had binding authority in legal matters (derived from the Torah itself). They interpreted the biblical injunctions (17:11). The penalty for disobedience was death (17:12), since the offender didn't obey “the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God.” Cf. Deuteronomy 19:16-17, 2 Chronicles 19:8-10.

2) Deuteronomy 24:8: Levitical priests had the final say and authority (in this instance, in the case of leprosy). This was a matter of Jewish law.
3) Ezra 7:6,10: Ezra, a priest and scribe, studied the Jewish law and
taught it to Israel, and his authority was binding, under pain of imprisonment,
banishment, loss of goods, and even death (7:25-26).

4) I think all Christians agree that prophets, too, exercised a high degree
of authority, so I need not establish that.

That is sufficient for now. If you would like to pursue individual aspects of this reply, that would be worthwhile, I think.

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