Protestant Denominations: the "Luck of the Draw"
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See Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five. This paper responds to Part Eight and Part 8B of Michael Patton's multi-part series in defense of sola Scriptura (the last two parts: though he says the series is incomplete, as of this writing). His words will be in green.
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The fifth argument against sola Scriptura:
Without the infallible authority of the Church, the Church would be hopelessly divided on matters of doctrine and morals. This would not be the Church that Christ started.
The idea here is that when doctrine is left to the “private interpretation” of the individual, this leads to doctrinal anarchy. Catholics and Orthodox alike often appeal to the thousands of Protestant denominations as a witness against the doctrine sola Scriptura.
. . . which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, based on the biblical data and what God expected to be the case in His one undivided Church.
There are a few problems that I see with this argument. I will deal with the first two in brief and spend more time on the last one in the post that follows.
Fair enough. Best wishes! I sure wouldn't want to be in a place to have to defend denominationalism.
Problem 1: We don’t advocate “private interpretation”This argument often assumes that sola Scriptura promotes an unbridled “private interpretation” that gives no authority to tradition. This is not the confession of sola Scriptura, but of nuda Scriptura, which I have spoken about previously.
Correct. As I have pointed out, however, numerous times in these replies and in other ones, the principle of sola Scriptura, however sophisticated is the understanding of one who holds it, still inevitably logically reduces to the individual having the final say. He can bow to some tradition or creed or confession and voluntarily place it in an "advisory" capacity, but because binding, infallible authority is ruled out from the outset, he obviously can change his mind, according to the foundational principles of sola Scriptura: and no Protestant can consistently forbid him from doing so, because in the Protestant system of belief, the individual always has the right to dissent in good conscience, just as Luther did against the Catholic Church.
Every Protestant, in other words, has the "right" to act exactly as Luther did, and to be, in effect, a "mini Luther." If Luther can dissent against much of Catholic tradition, while continuing to abide by other parts of it (and we are constantly told that he respected patristic tradition and much of Catholic tradition and had no desire to rebel or leave, etc.), then any Protestant can dissent against any particular brand of Protestantism: which will always have less rationale than Catholic tradition in the first place, as it is only one of many such Protestant traditions: all arbitrarily begun by some person who claimed an authority that he did not intrinsically possess.
So sure, thoughtful Protestants give some credence and weight to various Christian traditions: some harmonious with Catholic tradition and others not (being late-breaking denominational traditions: often grounded in things other than Holy Scripture). But because they are neither binding nor infallible, he can always consistently dissent and split for another denomination that is more to his personal liking, or else start his own new denomination.
Advocates of sola Scriptura do not believe in this sort of private interpretation. We must interpret the Scriptures along with those who have gone before us, even if we might have warrant to question or disagree with their theology from time to time.
Exactly. The latter loophole is a mile wide and explains much of the difficulty with the Protestant position. It's almost as if it has a "death wish" to destroy itself via the incoherence of its first premises. Protestant history provides ample example of this self-destructive tendency.
Those who read the Scripture, as Alexander Campbell once advocated, “As if no one has read them before” are not following in the tradition of the Reformed view of sola Scriptura. Those must be judged on their own merit without association to the doctrine of sola Scriptura.
True as far as it goes, but it will break down eventually. It just takes a bit longer than in the case of the adherents of solo Scriptura or nuda Scriptura.
Problem 2: Everyone has divisions.
Protestants disagree about what the Scriptures say, Catholics disagree about what the Church says, and (as the saying goes) the Orthodox don’t say enough to disagree! Simply because one is put under a more definite designative umbrella does not make true unity.
That's correct, but unfortunately it misses the essential point. There is a fundamental difference between Catholic divisions on the ground (dissenters, liberals, modernists) and Protestant divisions. The latter achieve a formal status, as indicated by the formation of yet more denominations. And Protestant denominations actually change their doctrines and become more liberal, as we see in the tragic upheavals of Episcopalianism right now, as I write. This is a recurring and constant tendency in Protestantism.
Catholic doctrine, on the other hand, has not changed. So if a Catholic dissents against some Catholic doctrine, he is clearly not acting as a consistent Catholic. Everyone knows what the Catholic doctrines are. They don't change. There will always be some dissenters in any given school of thought (and every such school has to determine how they will be dealt with or censured). But they don't reflect what the school of thought is.
That's not the case in many Protestant denominations (especially over the course of history). If an Episcopalian is in favor of a practicing homosexual bishop, then his denomination now agrees with him, because there was a vote and the practice was adopted as fine and dandy. The Presbyterian Church USA ("PCUSA") (see my article on it) recently "nullified proscriptions against sexual behavior outside of marriage and called for a vote to delete the church’s constitutional standard requiring fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness. It also initiated a process that could remove mention of the Bible’s prohibition against homosexuality form the Heidelberg Catechism."
Corporate doctrinal unity in both Protestant and Catholic circles is achieved by doctrinal formulations that are adopted by the communion and regarded as dogma or as the orthodox belief of the group in question. One can only (in the final analysis) go by what those books say. If they change (as in Protestantism), then the dissenters can become the new "orthodox" faction, while the older adherents of what was thought to be denominational orthodoxy and the "mainstream" are now regarded as "fundamentalists" or "fuddy-duds" or "reactionaries" or "hyper-conservatives" or "retrogressive" or "those who are stuck in the past and want to turn back the clock," or whatever the fashionable epithet among the oh-so-relevant liberals may be.
But in the Catholic Church there is an unbroken historical tradition of what is true and untrue: what is orthodox and what is heterodox or heretical. People may be ignorant of these matters (millions are today), or think they have a "right" to openly dissent against what they know to be Catholic teaching, based on a so-called "progressive" or heretical evolutionary understanding of doctrine (where doctrines can actually change over time).
But it is what it is and it has not changed and will not. That is why Catholic teaching has a unity that Protestantism will never have, no matter how many Catholic liberals are running about, complimenting and priding themselves on how relevant and trendy and fashionable they are, or looking down their condescending noses at us low-life orthodox Catholics.
I've written about this before: Dissident Catholics and Catholic Doctrinal Unity: A Contradiction? (+ Matatics, Catholic Answers, Etc.).
I, for example, have witnessed just as many disagreements among Catholics about what the Church means by “outside the Church there is no salvation” as I have among Protestants about any issue.
Not at all. There is a small faction of so-called Catholic "traditionalists" who don't get this teaching. It is quite clear what it means, according to the mind of the Church. I have many papers about it:
Dialogue on "Salvation Outside the Church" and Alleged Catholic Magisterial Contradictions (Particularly in the Middle Ages; With Emphasis on St. Thomas Aquinas's Views)
All one has to do is to go spend some time on the Catholic Answers forum and see that they don’t function with much more unity than a Protestant forum.
This proves absolutely nothing, since it is a bunch of individual lay Catholics. They (speaking of individuals) may be right or wrong, according to the standard of Catholic orthodoxy, or ignorant, or openly dissenting, or "traditionalist" (which is sort of our equivalent of Protestant "fundamentalists"). But Catholic teaching is what it is, and is one, whereas Protestants are all over the ballpark. There is no comparison whatever.
One can point to liberals in either environment, but this poses no problem for the system itself being what it is, as explained above. Protestant liberals (such as Unitarians or Open Theists) no more represent historic Protestant evangelicalism than Catholic liberals represent Catholicism. But evangelicals themselves (not the liberals who infiltrate them) have deep divisions: such as over baptism or the Arminian-Calvinist never-ending divide. These things are never resolved: nor can they be, because the Protestant rule of faith makes it impossible to achieve.
There would seem to be just as many disagreements, differing interpretations, and needless anathmatizing among Catholics as among Protestants. The point is that simply because one functions under a unified name or confession does not mean that you have a unified belief.
Dealt with above . . . Michael is laboring under a huge fallacy. I knew this argument would be made, because it is almost always the Protestant recourse when trying to "defend" the scandal of rampant sectarianism. Besides being fallacious, it is yet another version of the "your dad's uglier than mine" mentality. Rather than even attempt to defend the indefensible, the Protestant immediately switches the topic over to Catholics: to a fallacious "immoral equivalence" argument that doesn't fly, as shown above. Even the attempt to divert the topic is fallacious and illogical. Once the false premise involved is exposed, the "argument" collapses. The Protestant still has to defend his own system, whether the Catholic alternative is the most ridiculous and false worldview the world has ever known. No amount of critique of us (fallacious or not) will alleviate their own difficulties.
The understatement of the century . . .
but I would not say that this is the case with Evangelicals to the same degree as other Protestant traditions.
They have plenty of internal divisions, too. I mentioned some. There are also factions of fundamentalism, KJV-Only, the hyper-excesses of Churches of Christ and others from the Campbellite theology (who also believe in adult biblical regeneration); there is the division over the charismatic gifts, and the Lordship salvation controversy, and the Emerging church business, and the reconstructionists, and liberal vs. conservative political understanding (after all, most black churches are doctrinally conservative but overwhelmingly liberal politically), divisions over women pastors, over whether a Protestant should be formally anti-Catholic, and hold that Catholicism is not form of Christianity, divisions over whether Scripture is inerrant / infallible. That's just a few major ones . . .
See this article for more on the overstatement of Protestant divisions.
That is from the anti-Catholic apologist Eric Svendsen. On this particular point I actually thought he made a good argument, and I was persuaded by it, as I noted in my paper, 33,000 Protestant Denominations? It didn't alleviate the Protestant problem, however, since whether the number is in the hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands, it is still scandalous. Hence I wrote in that paper:
I think we can safely refer to "hundreds" of Protestant denominations, using a cogent doctrinal definition, not merely jurisdictional or superficial (though institutional unity is not an unbiblical characteristic, either, if we want to get technical about it). Biblically-speaking, any more than one "denomination" or "Church" is a scandal. The Catholic continues to assert that there is one Church and that the Catholic Church is the fullest institutional expression of that one Church, with other Christians implicitly connected with it to more or less degrees. This (agree or disagree) at least lines up with the biblical witness as to the nature and definition of the Christian Church, rather than being blatantly contrary to the Bible, as the very notion of denominationalism (wholly apart from later disputes about numbers) is.3. Division is not always a bad thing
So, yes, I agree, Svendsen's clarifications of Barrett's meaning and his rebuke are worthwhile, and to be heeded accordingly; it does not follow, however, that the scandal of Protestant denominationalism is therefore alleviated. It is scandalous because it entails a false, unbiblical definition of what the Church is, no matter how many of these sects one arrives at, or by what calculation and criteria.
I, as a Catholic apologist, can easily admit that Svendsen is right about wrongheaded definitions concerning denominations, but that doesn't have any ill effect whatever on the overall Catholic apologetic. On the other hand, Protestant apologists like Svendsen and White (even ecumenical Protestant apologists and other thinkers) have a huge problem trying to biblically justify denominationalism and sectarianism and in determining the internal causes of same (which we Catholics would identify as: sola Scriptura, private judgment, so-called "supremacy of conscience," the sectarian and exclusivistic mindsets, anti-institutionalism, anti-sacerdotalism, rejection of a binding apostolic tradition and Church, and of apostolic succession, episcopacy, even American cultural individualism running rampant within American Protestantism, etc.) that they have by no means ever resolved or even squarely faced.
I am a Calvinist, others are Arminian. I believe in a premillenial eschatology, others are amillinial. I am a traducianist with regards to the creation of the soul, others are creationists. I believe in inerrancy, others believe that this is an archaic naive doctrine. There are many points of doctrinal division that I am going to have with people, some of which are much more important than others.Exactly what I was nothing above: and all these further divisions occur within evangelicalism.
But we shall see Michael now attempt to rationalize these divisions rather than concede the rather obvious point that they are scandalous, because falsehood is necessarily present where contradictions are: and falsehood is not a good thing, any way one wants to look at it. God likes truth. He wanted His followers to know and identify this truth. Falsehood comes from the devil's domain and helps no one.
Why doesn’t everyone agree with me? Who is causing this disunity in the body of Christ, them or me?
Rather than blame people, it is better to at least recognize the problem and start working towards resolving it.
Do these division demonstrate the doctrinal bankruptcy of sola Scriptura?
Yes. The more falsehood there is, the more questionable is the system that directly led to it, by philosophical and historical causation.
Should we elect of a Pope of Protestantism?
Luther and Calvin filled those roles, and y'all have been hearkening back to them in various degrees for almost 500 years. But every Protestant is in effect his own pope, anyway and can make doctrinal decisions completely on his own that no pope in his wildest dreams would have dared to implement.
There are a few different ways that I could answer this.
- Others don’t agree with me because they have not studied deep enough (lack of scholarship).
- Others don’t agree with me because they have not studied broad enough (lack of perspective).
- Others don’t agree with me because they have not studied long enough (lack of wisdom).
- Others don’t agree with me because their traditional prejudices have created a learning disability that keeps them from the truth (lack of freedom of thought).
- Others don’t agree with me because they have sin in their life that is blinding them to the truth (lack of holiness).
- Others don’t agree with me because we don’t have an infallible authoritative interpreter of Scripture that would bring doctrinal unity?
- Others don’t agree with me because they are not Christian. If they were, well . . . they would agree with me! (lack of salvation).
Generally speaking, I do not default to these possibilities.
Okay; then I won't interact with them.
Don’t get me wrong, these are all possibilities. It could be that people deny the truth (assuming that my position is such) due to ignorance, lack of perspective or wisdom, traditional bindings, sin, lack of authority, or a presupposition of godlessness.
But I think we need to be careful about any negative prejudgments about people motives and the ultimate reasons for disagreements.
Yes; for purposes of discussion, but it isn't necessary to deny that these factors do cause divisions, to whatever extent.
Here are the considerations that I would aspire to make before I draw upon the former possibilities.
Others don’t agree with me because they are right and I am wrong.
Granted, I am convicted I am right. If this were not the case I would simply change my position. But the possibility always exists that I am the one who is in error, being misinformed, motivated by false pre-understandings, traditionally bound, or lacking perspective. I must consider this with great humility, as hard as it is to do.
And how does one make an objective judgment as to who is right and who, wrong, without a truly authoritative Church and tradition? We've seen that the Bible alone is in no way sufficient to resolve actual differences on the ground in Protestantism, because each side appeals to Scripture. They start with the same premise (biblical infallibility or inerrancy and inspiration), yet arrive at different conclusions based on the biblical data.
The Protestant can, therefore, only fall back on the subjective experience of the Holy Spirit confirming to him that he is right or wrong, which may indeed be a legitimate thing, but as always, the problem comes when two Protestants claim this same confirmation, with the Holy Spirit supposedly verifying two contradictory understandings. Someone is wrong, and the Protestant has no final objective answer to the question of which person is wrong, or in fact, that both of them are and that the actual doctrinal or ethical truth lies outside both alternatives.
There are some things that I am more sure of than others. For example, I am less likely to be wrong about the existence of God than I am about the doctrine of inerrancy.
That's right. One can certainly accept gradations of certainty.
It is much more plausible that there is an error in the Scriptures than it is that God does not exist.
Especially if one grants copyist / manuscript errors that crept into the inspired original manuscripts.
As well, I am humbled by the fact that there are many things that I used to believe that I no longer believe.
Me too! I used to be, for example, an evangelical Protestant. Now I am an evangelical orthodox Catholic.
I held to these former beliefs with (what seems to be) just as much conviction as many of the beliefs that I hold to now.
I did as well. But I changed my principles from sola Scriptura to the acceptance of a tradition far larger than myself: larger than I could ever hope to work out on my own. The apostles and fathers already did that work for me. It's called apostolic tradition. I found it in the Bible and in the fathers, and that was good enough for me.
What do I do with that? In most of those cases, the evidence, or lack there-of, militated against my previous doctrinal commitments forcing me to make hard adjustments. For example, I used to believe that if someone did not accept the doctrine of inerrancy, they were not Christian. This was due to my fundamentalist presuppositions no doubt, but when faced with the evidence that there are many people out there who do not hold to inerrancy, yet loved and trusted the same Christ as me, my position had to either change or slumber in the bedroom of naivety. I still have those decisions to make. It is called learning.
Sure; we all learn and grow, of course.
What I must realize is this: there is not one belief that I hold to which is protected by infallibility.
But this is why Protestants emphasize the infallible Bible. If something is truly taught in this Bible, it can be trusted as infallible and true. The trick, of course, is to determine if it is actually biblical or not. And Protestants can't resolve those differences.
Infallibility is the other side of the coin of absolute certainty. Absolute certainty can only be held by those who have all the information and are interpreting it correctly. To be infallible means that you cannot fail. Since I am not infallible, by definition, I can fail. All of my beliefs are subject to my attribute of fallibility. There is no one who possesses infallibility.
No one possessed inspiration in and of themselves, either, but God somehow used fallible, sinful men to write an inspired Scripture. It's God's work, not ours. If God can do that miracle (which is a far greater one than infallibility), he can protect men in certain circumstances, and churches from error, in order to preserve His truth, that He promised to lead His Church and His disciples into. Truth is not relative. God doesn't look lightly on error. God says we can know the fullness of truth, with the aid of the indwelling Holy Spirit and His grace.
I don't see anywhere indicated in Holy Scripture that only some can know the whole truth of Christian doctrine, or that no one can, or that there are competing schools that contradict each other, rather than one unified Church, or that doctrinal dissensions and disagreements are to be expected and tolerated, let alone praised and glorified as open-mindedness or the status quo, etc. Jesus and the Bible writers (St. John and St. Paul above all) all assume that there is one truth ("the truth"), one tradition, one doctrine: that can be known with God's help, and the Church's guidance:
That denominationalism is utterly false to the biblical vision, and incommensurate with it, is a truth I have dealt with many times:
Luke 1:4 that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.
John 1:17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
John 4:23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.
John 8:31-32 Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
John 14:6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.
John 15:26 But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me;
John 16:13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
John 17:17,19 Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. . . . And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.
John 18:37 . . . For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice."
John 19:35 He who saw it has borne witness -- his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth -- that you also may believe.
Romans 9:1 I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit,
1 Corinthians 2:13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 13:8 For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.Galatians 5:7 You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?
Ephesians 1:13 In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,
Ephesians 4:25 Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.
Ephesians 5:9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true),
Ephesians 6:14 Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,
Philippians 4:8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Colossians 1:3-10 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love which you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing -- so among yourselves, from the day you heard and understood the grace of God in truth, as you learned it from Ep'aphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit. And so, from the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.
1 Timothy 2:4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
1 Timothy 3:15 if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.
1 Timothy 4:3 . . . those who believe and know the truth.
2 Timothy 1:14 guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.
2 Timothy 2:25 God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth,
2 Timothy 3:7-8 who will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth. As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith;
2 Timothy 4:4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.
Titus 1:1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to further the faith of God's elect and their knowledge of the truth which accords with godliness,
Titus 1:14 instead of giving heed to Jewish myths or to commands of men who reject the truth.
Hebrews 10:26 . . . the knowledge of the truth, . . .
James 5:19 My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back,
1 Peter 1:22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth. . .
2 Peter 1:12 Therefore I intend always to remind you of these things, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have.
1 John 2:21 I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and know that no lie is of the truth.
1 John 2:27 but the anointing which you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that any one should teach you; as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie, just as it has taught you, abide in him.
1 John 3:19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him
1 John 4:6 We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
1 John 5:7 And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth.
2 John 1:1-2 The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth, because of the truth which abides in us and will be with us for ever:
3 John 1:3-4 For I greatly rejoiced when some of the brethren arrived and testified to the truth of your life, as indeed you do follow the truth. No greater joy can I have than this, to hear that my children follow the truth.
3 John 1:12 Deme'trius has testimony from every one, and from the truth itself; I testify to him too, and you know my testimony is true.
Compelling Biblical Evidence Against Denominations and "Primary vs. Secondary" Doctrines
Protestant Civil Wars Are Alive and Well (Can a Leopard Change Its Spots?)
Even Roman Catholics, as we have said, who try to alleviate themselves of this reality by trusting in the dictates of an infallible magisterial authority such as the Pope inevitably face the same problem since their own trust in the infallible authority of the Pope is fallible.
This is untrue. I've already demonstrated the biblical teaching of infallibility, as seen in the Jerusalem Council. There are many indications of the authority of Peter and the papacy that Jesus built His Church upon, in the person of Peter (that I've presented in many papers and in books).
The same holds true for Evangelicals and our infallible Bible. Our belief in the Bible is fallible, even if the Bible itself is not.
That's a distinction without a difference, in practice. We can trust what is in the Bible to be God's inspired word. What the epistemological status of that trust may be is another discussion. The fact remains that the Bible is what it is, and that we can trust it to guide us into spiritual and theological truth. The only problem comes in interpreting it. The Catholic believes that God also gave us a Church that He guides and protects form error, to help us in that task. The Protestant is ultimately on his own.
No one can escape their own fallibility. Therefore we all could be wrong. We are left to rely on a process of examining and weighting the evidence and following it wherever it leads. This will often cause us to change our beliefs.
Great. Then Michael might convince me to become a Protestant again (if he ever replies to this series of responses), and I might persuade him to become a Catholic (unless he has ruled that possibility out altogether). Praise God!
Therefore, serious consideration must always be made of the proposition that people don’t agree with me because I am the one who is wrong.
And this wrongness might include the false Protestant principle of sola Scriptura, that leads to many other erroneous conclusions.
Others don’t agree with me because God does not want us to agree, irrespective of who is right.
This may sound odd,
It certainly does, and that is because it is untrue.
but we must consider it. I said earlier that I was a Calvinist. While this does not give me exclusive right to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, it does require me to consider what part it might play in the question Why doesn’t everyone agree with me? What I am really asking is this: Why isn’t everyone unified around the truth?I believe that it is a real possibility—even likely—that God does not want absolute doctrinal unity.
I submit that there is nothing whatsoever in the Bible that would lead anyone to believe this is the case. Perhaps that is why Michael doesn't educate us with even a single biblical passage in favor of his notion. How odd, that he believes in sola Scriptura, yet here is yet another completely unbiblical, nonbiblical, anti-biblical, man-made doctrine, used to shore up the utterly unbiblical reality of denominational sectarianism. And there is much biblical data to the contrary, as I noted in my brief summary paper on the topic:
Virtually nothing is more strongly and repeatedly condemned in the Bible than divisions, sectarianism, and denominationalism. The Bible teaches that there is one Church only, with one truth and one unified apostolic tradition.
Doctrinal contradiction of any sort is absolutely at odds with biblical teaching, which repeatedly urges unity and forbids divisions of any kind among Christians. Our Lord Jesus prayed at the Last Supper for Christians to be "one even as we [the Father and the son] are one" and "perfectly one" (Jn. 17:22-23) and viewed the Church as being "one flock" with "one shepherd" (Jn. 10:16). St. Luke described the earliest Christians as being "of one heart and soul" (Acts 4:32). St. Peter warned about "false teachers" among Christians, who would "secretly bring in destructive heresies," which go against "the way of truth" (2 Pet. 2:1-2).
St. Paul, above all, repeatedly condemns "dissensions" and "difficulties" (Rom. 16:17), "quarreling" (1 Cor. 1:11), "jealousy and strife" (1 Cor. 3:3), "divisions" and "factions" (1 Cor. 11:18-19), "discord" (1 Cor. 12:25), "enmity" and "party spirit" (Gal. 5:20), and calls for Christians to be "united in the same mind and the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10; cf. Phil. 2:2). He expressly condemns party affiliations associated with persons (1 Cor. 1:12-13: "Is Christ divided?"; cf. 3:4-7). His strong teaching on this topic is well summed up in the following two passages (emphases added):1 Timothy 6:3-5: "If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain."
Titus 3:9-11: "But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile. As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned." . . .
As to the general notion of "essential" or "central" and "secondary" doctrines, this is an unbiblical distinction. Nowhere in Scripture do we find any implication that some things pertaining to doctrine and theology were optional, while others had to be believed. Jesus urged us to "observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19), without distinguishing between lesser and more central doctrines.In fact, practically speaking, I think it would do more harm than good. I believe that doctrinal disagreements are healthy for the church.
Likewise, St. Paul regards Christian Tradition as of one piece; not an amalgam of permissible competing theories: "the tradition that you received from us" (2 Thess. 3:6); "the truth which has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit" (2 Tim. 1:14); "the doctrine which you have been taught" (Rom. 16:17); "being in full accord and of one mind" (Phil. 2:2); "stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel," (Phil. 1:27). He, like Jesus ties doctrinal unity together with the one God: ". . . maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, . . ." (Eph. 4:3-5).
St. Peter also refers to one, unified "way of righteousness" and "the holy commandment delivered to them" (2 Pet. 2:21), while St. Jude urges us to "contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). Luke 2:42 casually mentions "the apostles' teaching" without any hint that there were competing interpretations of it, or variations of the teaching. Denominations and all that they entail (particularly, doctrinal contradiction or any sort of theological relativism) are thus clearly ruled out by Scripture.
That's the exact opposite of the truth, according to the biblical worldview, outlined above.
When there is conflict between opposing options, the issue at hand is understood at a more profound level than is possible in the absence of the conflict. Conflict, in the end, can bring about a deeper conviction of the truth. When there is no conflict, there is no iron sharpening iron.
I agree insofar as this refers to the process of heretics dissenting, and the orthodox Church then clarifying true doctrines, but that is not the sense that Michael means to convey. He wants to justify (or rationalize) divisions as a good thing (his original title for the paper being critiqued was "Doctrinal Disagreement to the Glory of God"), whereas the Catholic would say that it is always bad, but that God can bring good out of the doctrinal clarifications that come as a result of the reiteration of opposition to whatever heresy or falsehood is in play.
Michael is a Calvinist, but John Calvin: the very man who started the school of thought that Michael is part of, wouldn't agree at all with this justifying of division and disagreement. He was referring in the following letter to the disagreement about free will and limited atonement:
. . . But it greatly concerns us to cherish faithfully and constantly to the end the friendship which God has sanctified by the authority of his own name, seeing that herein is involved either great advantage or great loss even to the whole Church. For you see how the eyes of many are turned upon us, so that the wicked take occasion from our dissensions to speak evil, and the weak are only perplexed by our unintelligible disputations. Nor in truth, is it of little importance to prevent the suspicion of any difference having arisen between us from being handed down in any way to posterity; for it is worse than absurd that parties should be found disagreeing on the very principles, after we have been compelled to make our departure from the world. I know and confess, moreover, that we occupy widely different positions; still, because I am not ignorant of the place in his theatre to which God has elevated me, there is no reason for my concealing that our friendship could not be interrupted without great injury to the Church . . .I am not in any sense trying to relativize the truth, but to help us to understand that wrong beliefs, even our own, could be serving the purpose of God and bringing Him more honor than we recognize.
And surely it is indicative of a marvellous and monstrous insensibility, that we so readily set at nought that sacred unanimity, by which we ought to be bringing back into the world the angels of heaven. Meanwhile, Satan is busy scattering here and there the seeds of discord, and our folly is made to supply much material. At length he has discovered fans of his own, for fanning into a flame the fires of discord. I shall refer to what happened to us in this Church, causing extreme pain to all the godly; and now a whole year has elapsed since we were engaged in these conflicts . . .
[Letter CCCV (305), written to Philip Melanchthon on 28 November 1552; Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters: Letters, Part 2, 1545-1553, vol. 5 of 7; edited by Jules Bonnet, translated by David Constable; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House (a Protestant publisher), 1983, 454 pages; reproduction of Letters of John Calvin, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858); pp. 376-377; the entire letter runs from pages 375-381; bolded emphases added]
God's possibly bringing good out of evil in these Christian divisions (just as he did in the situation of the patriarch Joseph being sold into slavery: Genesis 50:20) does not mean that the bad, evil thing thereby becomes good, or that we should, therefore, justify and promote it.
It is often said that heresy is God’s gift to the church. Why? Because when a false option is presented the truth becomes much clearer. In contrast there is clarity. In clarity there is conviction.
That's true, as I stated above. But in Protestantism, most if not all of the conflicts are never resolved, because they are not able to be resolved by Protestant principles and authority structures. Catholicism resolves these conflicts, but in Protestantism they go on and on forever and are never resolved. People over time then tend to consider the doctrines where there are disputes to be unimportant, whereas from a biblical point of view, all spiritual and theological truth is important.
It is for this reason that we must be continually engaged with alternative options. As hard as it is to engage in beliefs that go against our present convictions, we need to recognize the value of the struggle. Herein lies what I believe to be one of the greatest strengths of the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura—it presents the opportunity to wrestle with the issues at a level that is not allowed for in magisterial based traditions.
I consider this to be justifying a bad thing (doctrinal falsehood) in order to achieve a good thing (doctrinal clarity and reaffirmed orthodoxy), which is situation ethics or relative ethics: "the end justifies the means."
What I am saying is this: it may actually be God’s sovereignty that brings about division over the doctrine of God’s sovereignty!
We have no reason to believe, based on the biblical revelation (at least that I am aware of), that God ever does this. So what is this: another non-biblical tradition of men that we are asked to be excited about and rejoice over?
This does not mean that wrong belief is always justified. Neither does it mean that we need to be content with agnosticism or lessen our conviction about any doctrinal issue. To the contrary. It means that we engage in it more vigorously than we did before, being confident that God has a dignifying reason for conflict resulting from diversity.
Once again: God's sovereignty, which brings good out of evil, does not justify the evil that good was brought out of, in any way, shape, or form. This stuff is utterly foreign to John Calvin, and he was pretty big on God's sovereignty.
We have learned to celebrate diversity in every area of life. We celebrate the diversity of the sexes. Men: We know that we are always right, but can you imagine a world where women did not contribute to a balanced perspective? That is horrifying. Women, can you imagine the opposite (don’t answer that!). Think of the diversity among personalities, nations, political parties, age groups, and cultures. While we may believe that our opinion is correct (and it may be), from a certain perspective we can appreciate the allowance for a dissension in values, beliefs, and practices. Understanding diversity can often cause us to see that the answer to many issues is going to be more of a both/and rather than an either/or. We could both be right and we could both be wrong.
This is exactly how liberals and secularists speak: "diversity," etc., because in their mind that bolsters their false opinions that no truth can be found, or that all opinions are on an equal plane and equally valid, because they are subjective to the person rather than objective. Cultural and ethnic diversity is great. But in matters of theology, it seems utterly clear to me from the Bible that God wants the Church to be completely unified. Truth can be known. The Church can declare on what is true and what is not. But once one eliminates an infallible Church, then no one can definitely resolve the conflicts.
In the end, if God is in control then the answer to my question is relatively simple. Why doesn’t everyone agree with me? Because it is not God’s will for them to. It is to His glory. Why? His will is better accomplished through diversity. In this I think we can learn to celebrate diversity without yielding to the postmodern matrix of relativism or apathy.
This very thought is arguably a caving into the very postmodernism that Michael wishes to oppose. He has been unwittingly influenced by it. The biblical writers or the fathers or great doctors throughout history did not think in these terms. Even Martin Luther and John Calvin did not. This thinking comes from theological liberalism. It has to be weeded out.
Advocates of sola Scriptura appreciate disagreements, but we also need to be careful about making the division created by such too wide.
They have to rationalize somehow the massive disagreements that the principle has caused to come into being. This is one way to do it, but I think it completely fails and falls flat. It can't be justified from the Bible. Michael didn't even try. He couldn't do it even if he did want to try, because it ain't there. What's there is the huge amount of biblical data I have provided: and it confirms Catholicism at every turn, and not Protestantism and sola Scriptura.