Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Catholic vs. Protestant Ecclesiologies

By Dave Armstrong (originally uploaded on 5 June 2003)

This exchange took place on a public Catholic Discussion Board, with a Reformed Protestant.

* * * * * 

Are we to believe that the Bible presents or teaches no single ecclesiology? Is the governance of the Church of Christ is strictly a matter of relativism and individual choice and happenstance (sort of like secular democracy)?
I find it fascinating that our Lord Jesus and the apostles could not (in this scenario) come up with a scheme of government that would hold for all time in Christianity. They couldn't even devise a system as "absolute" and continuous as, say, the American form of government or as self-evidently necessary as the organization of any company, city, or state whatever.
What about the Jerusalem council? Was that meant to be some sort of ongoing model or merely a one-time event?

What about Nicaea and Chalcedon and other generally-respected early ecumenical councils? If they were so important why would we think today that we can make do with the Bible alone and no longer need authoritative, binding councils? By what criterion did the conciliar principle change so that it is no longer relevant to any Protestant body in the present time (or for that matter, episcopacy)?

How and why did the normative patristic principle of apostolic succession change or get thrown out as a binding authority? Does the Bible (applying the principle of sola Scriptura) teach authoritatively about ecclesiology or are we all on our own?

If the latter, how many other aspects of doctrine in Christianity are also not authoritatively determined by Holy Scripture?
And if it is up to groups and individuals, how does the individual determine which is the best tradition of ecclesiology? And how can such necessary contradictions (e.g., episcopacy vs. congregationalism) indicate the presence of ecclesiological truth, since a contradiction necessarily entails a falsehood, and all falsehood is not of God?

I think it is good to discuss the fundamentals of ecclesiology, so people can see that the issue is not simple, but quite complex. Here are yet more questions that Protestants need to answer:

1. If ecclesiology is not based on biblical teaching (or, similarly, if the Bible is not sufficiently clear enough for Christians to arrive at a conclusion concerning what it teaches on ecclesiology: a sort of "hermeneutical or systematic theological agnosticism," if you will), then on what is any particular brand of ecclesiology based?
2. If it is fundamentally (if not entirely) based on your "whole lot of tradition and history," then haven't you already left the realm of sola Scriptura because you have admitted that the Bible cannot tell us which ecclesiology is correct, so that you are forced to rely solely or primarily on tradition and history (much like the Catholic rule of faith, over against the Protestant)?
3. If it is based on a "whole lot of tradition and history," then you have to identify which history and tradition it will be based on, since (as you love to point out) there are competing schemas or at least interpretations of Church history. How does one do that? How do you arrive at the conclusion of which history is the "orthodox" one or most "respectable" one?
4. How is this not merely "traditions of men" if you can't trace this to the Bible and are forced to rely on men's traditions apart from the Bible, which cannot resolve this issue? How many other such exceptions are there to the principle and modus operandi of sola Scriptura?
5. If these matters are merely contingent, and not at all a matter of biblical revelation, or unable to be determined by that revelation, whence comes your constant objection to the papacy-as-developed-in-actuality and/or the Catholic position on the papacy and ecclesiology in general, since I think even you would agree that at least we have one schema of Church history that has some credibility and plausibility (agree or disagree)? 

In other words, how can you argue and rail against our ecclesiology, if indeed all ecclesiologies are merely tradition-based and not biblically-based, so that they are all (in the final analysis) epistemological equivalents? How can one be better than another? On what basis can one judge between them, apart from an ultimately arbitrary recourse to subjective personal opinion?
Further comment on question #5: It seems to me you would have to then treat the Catholic conception of the papacy with equally as much respect as non-denominational congregationalism (where the pastor is too often a de facto dictator) or Anglican episcopacy or the Landmark Baptists, who claim to trace their lineage through people like the Cathari and Albigensians (i.e., anyone they can find throughout history who isn't a Catholic).
6. If indeed ecclesiology is merely a "contingent" matter, where differences are allowed by God and that's all fine and dandy and normative, and to be expected, can you point to a biblical passage which verifies that stance? In other words, is ecclesiological "diversity" (I say, "relativism") expressly taught in Holy Scripture? Is theological diversity, period, taught there? If not, what does it teach about ecclesiology? Will you contend that we can learn nothing in Scripture about these matters?
7. This would seem to be the case, according to Protestantism, with regard to a number of areas; the most notable (besides ecclesiology) being baptism. Protestants are forced to conclude that the Bible has no clear or perspicuous teaching on baptism, since they can't agree, and split into five major camps:
a) Infant, non-regenerative baptism (Presbyterians)
b) Infant regenerative baptism (e.g., Lutheranism and Anglicanism)
c) Adult non-regenerative baptism (Baptists, most pentecostals and non-denoms)
d) Adult regenerative baptism (e.g., Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ)
e) No baptism (Quakers and Salvation Army)
But, of course, that takes us into deep waters of the self-defeating nature of perspicuity itself (to which I have never received even a remotely satisfactory response from Protestants).
It seems to me that at some point -- given all these unresolvable difficulties -- sola Scriptura and perspicuity themselves need to be seriously questioned, or else (even more fundamentally) one is left with a weakened view of biblical authority, whereby Scripture cannot teach us truth in so many areas, and is thus (practically-speaking) insufficient for the purposes of establishing Christian orthodoxy.
These are, in a nutshell, the objections I would have to the Protestant notion of permissible "diverse" ecclesiologies. We need to get down to the premises of all this. I always do that, and am now asking for responses to my questions.
Unless axioms and presuppositions are examined, the danger for all is to build castles of sand, with questionable foundations. I think any Protestant ecclesiological system can be shown to be disturbingly incoherent, per my questions and whatever answer a Protestant could give. If you guys play along with me on this, I'll be happy to demonstrate exactly why I feel that way, by going through the process of examination with you.


William said...

Just a couple of points, what about our Orthodox Brothers who endorse a conciliar approach.

The biggest issue with many evangelical friends is that they won't man up to the historical point that the Bible came from the Church not the other way around.

CD-Host said...

Neither ecclesiology nor baptism are huge areas of interest but I do think this post deserves a response.

The core passage for ecclesiology is 1Tm 3 which is repeated again in Ti 1:7. The church is to be governed by people who command respect by their virtues. This means that forms of government which depend argue that people have authority based on position are out. That is the biblical verse that bans an episcopal form of government, except in a culture that has a high degree of respect for hierarchy.

For a relatively free people the political structures that they develop generally express their opinions about what sorts of decision making processes they believe command respect. Given that the west is democratic, a reasonable (though not mandatory) approach to achieving the goals of 1Tim is an elected eldership and that eldership to appoint a pastorate.

Beyond that of course comes the question of levels beyond the local church. Americans currently like

a) Large scale projects that require massive use of resources being operated via. a free market approach. Hence the rise of parachurch organizations that are corporate: Zondervan, Tyndale, Crossway, EMICMG...

b) They like associations of interest within a celebrity culture. Hence groups like T4G having cross church doctrinal authority.

But the important thing is the ecclesiology is determined by the political opinion of the membership. The principle of respect is eternal the specific implementation is cultural.

With this in mind I'll hit your questions.

CD-Host said...

Answers to questions

1 -- What based) It is biblical, see above.

2 -4 -- If based on tradition...) Not applicable to answer

5 -- objection to papacy)

There are two objections to the papacy. The objection as it existed in the early 16th century and the objection today.

Today I mentioned the problem. Absolute monarchy, meets none of the moral criteria listed by Paul for leaders. Pope's historically have failed on many of those specifics given. But more important in the West there is no distinction made between an absolute monarch and a tyrant / dictator. Such a leader simple fails to to command the respect of the governed. The church is still suffering substantial ongoing harm from the fact that something like well over 1/2 of American Catholics believe Paul VI betrayed the legacy of John XXIII and that this betrayal continues to today.

Westerners do support the idea of constitutional monarchy, so a papacy is not non biblical were it properly reconstructed. Father Andrew Greeley used to write about this topic and how powerful doing things like bringing back election of Bishops would be for restoring legitimacy to Catholic government.

During the time of the Reformation there was the belief that the Pope was a tyrant not a good monarch. There was a distinction between the two that simply doesn't exist today.

CD-Host said...

6 -- biblical verse that verifies tolerance for multiple forms)

1) Leviticus where God presents the creation of a ceremonial priesthood based on inheritance. A caste system, essentially.

2) The use of prophet kings. (Moses / Joshua)

3) The use of judges, mixing the judicial and the executive. (Judges)

4) The use of a hereditary monarch with prophetic advisors. (Samuel)

etc... A long string of different forms of government for the church and pre-church. And this continues into the time of the church itself.

You yourself constantly point to the whole "Pharisees in Moses" seat. But that form of government is an educational meritocracy based on forming a consensus among experts (similar to how academic issues are decided today). The very verse you use to grant authority to the RCC, points to a form of government totally different than the one used by the RCC.


7 -- baptism) I think baptism presents a good example of Protestantism coming a doctrinal consensus. 20 years ago your list was accurate. What is starting to happen today is a consensus position is emerging. Here is what I think the emerging consensus looks like:

Baptism is a divine command. But it gains effectualness through faith. That is regeneration is accomplished through faith in Jesus expressed in baptism, the water itself and the ritual does nothing other than possibly assist in that faith.

Baptism is a divine command. Adult baptism is preferable to paedobaptism. However if a person believes their infant baptism was effectual, than since baptism is effectual through faith it is effectual for that person. Hence people coming from mainline church should be encouraged but not required to re-baptize.

For mainline congregations, that reject the notion of regenerate membership, baptism is ritual and cultural. It is designed to bring the family closer to God. That is not going to happen in a family that sees paedobaptism as sin. Hence families should be encouraged but not required to baptize infants.

Baptism as an ordnance not a sacrament is becoming the norm. At the same time a more nuanced understanding of the cultural role of baptism exists. I don't own a crystal ball, but it is pretty easy to see how that forms into a total consensus of something like dual baptism with strong support of individual conscience. You can also see how the regeneration issue you mentioned is being handled.

sola Scriptura and perspicuity themselves need to be seriously questioned, or else (even more fundamentally) one is left with a weakened view of biblical authority, whereby Scripture cannot teach us truth in so many areas, and is thus (practically-speaking) insufficient for the purposes of establishing Christian orthodoxy.

Which is why the idea of para-church consensus about the bible is establishing orthodoxy. Which gets back to my first part.

CD-Host said...

Well this strong of posts proves what a dummy I am, thinking I could respond to this whole thing in a few paragraphs.


The last point that deserves expansion is the issue of the Reformers with absolute monarchy. Since clearly the Reformers were not 21st century Americans, with their hatred of kings; nor even 21st century Europeans with their belief constitutional monarchy i.e. a monarch with a wealth of symbolic functions but no real power.

I think a fair definition of tyranny in use at the time would have been "the exercise of power beyond right, particularly use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private, separate advantage".

Which is relevant to Luther since that was his primary claim against Leo X. Luther and the reformers believed that Leo X had been manipulating Christian doctrine (his area of legitimate authority) to fund construction project, his family (the Medici) private political ambitions and a lavish lifestyle for a huge group of retainers. That was the point of the objections to indulgences.

This guy had blown through the entire vatican treasury in 2 years. At which point
borrowed huge sums of money
focused heavily on the sale of indulgences
sold precious jewels and classic statuary from the vatical collection

He was a tyrant in their mind the same way that a an American president who was robbing the US treasury and using the army to suppress Democracy in the USA would by a tyrant.

Under the political ideology of the Reformers, tyranny justified insurrection. So claiming the Pope was a tyrant was not a generalized attack on the monarchy but was an attack the specific monarch.

The Catholic apologetic, seems to argue that there is no distinction between a tyrant and legitimate monarch. That the Catholic masses do not have the right to judge the pope unfit for office and remove him. Interestingly enough refusing to distinguis between a monarch and a tyrant is the argument made by later democratic reformers, though coming to the opposite conclusion.

Dave Armstrong said...

To delve into all these highly complex topics would be a huge expenditure of effort, and I see little point, if you don't have a stake in Protestantism, per my last comment in another thread.

CD-Host said...

You laid down a challenge. "I think any Protestant ecclesiological system can be shown to be disturbingly incoherent, per my questions and whatever answer a Protestant could give. If you guys play along with me on this, I'll be happy to demonstrate exactly why I feel that way, by going through the process of examination with you."

I gave you the Protestant ecclesiology I grew up with and quite likely the one most Protestants (Baptists and Pentecostals which are this point the far majority) hold to as a counter. That's a 1/4 billion people. You are seriously telling me when you wrote this, you weren't ready for someone to play the standard arguments for congregationalism with a loose para-church back? Someone who supports the system that is the dominant system in Protestantism throughout the Americas? Or that 1 Tm 3, and Titus 1:7 right out of the Pastoral Epistles the 3 books about how to structure a church came up. Why wouldn't you expect the far and away most detailed verses about Overseers / Bishops, to come up in your request for a biblical defense?

So your theory that there doesn't exist a biblically sound Protestant ecclesiology is going to be disproven by my citing the most common one on the entire planet, the one the pilgrims who hit Plymouth rock used; combined with the most explicit collection of verses for church leadership in the whole bible?

It has generally been my experience with Catholic apologetics that they involve these chains that sound plausible but once you attack the chain at any point it falls apart into a series of assumptions. You aren't obligated to respond. But this is starting to get stupid.

And frankly I think I'm more invested in the Protestant ecclesiology than you. I think they are right. You belong to an entirely different wing of Christianity which treats ecclesiology as a matter of dogma. I think you are the kettle calling the pot black.

OK this argument refuted, moving on.

Dave Armstrong said...

God bless you!