Thursday, May 28, 2009

Further Clarifications on the Matter of Private Judgment

[originally posted on 23 October 2001, from public list discussions: a dialogue with a Reformed Protestant]

The Protestant use of the term inevitably (and naturally) involves the formal system of sola Scriptura. This necessarily affects the definition or interpretation of the final clause about "Church authority," because in Protestantism -- in the final analysis --  no church or ecclesiastical authority can override the individual's own biblical interpretation if the latter deems the authority to be inconsistent with Scripture (since according to sola Scriptura, Scripture itself is regarded as the ultimate authority over against any church; whereas the Catholic refuses to accept such a dichotomy, believing that Scripture and Church teaching are preserved in harmony by the Holy Spirit).
Martin Luther made all this possible at the Diet of Worms when he basically originated the new formal principle of the supremacy of individual conscience and private judgment over against Ecumenical Councils and popes (that is, conciliar or church infallibility, and papal infallibility). At that point, he could have theoretically and self-consistently even renounced, e.g., the christological pronouncements of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which -- thankfully -- virtually all Protestants accept. His followers (i.e., Protestants as a group) have stretched his new principle about as far as it can conceivably go (though degrees of application differ widely), and have found no way to prevent further doctrinal distortions as a result of the initial false principle.
So sure, there is church authority in Protestantism to some extent -- especially in Reformed circles. I've never denied this, as it is self-evident, and I lived under it myself (at considerable personal cost in some cases, I might add). But there are issues that Protestants cannot resolve amongst themselves (indeed, perhaps cannot possibly resolve, given their first principles), and so there must be sectarian division, and a watering-down of proper, biblical, binding church authority (as seen in, e.g., the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15). 
The Catholic, however, is truly bound to Church teaching and Tradition, as well as to the Scripture which he believes in faith is entirely consistent with both the Catholic Church and apostolic Tradition, passed-down and uniquely preserved in its fullness by that Church. This is the key distinction. In other words, the Protestant use of private judgment is inextricably bound up with his formal principle of sola Scriptura, whereas the Catholic sense of the term is understood within the paradigm of the three-legged stool of Catholic authority: Scripture + Church +Tradition. As the systems are fundamentally different, so the use of private judgment as a description or exercise of the will and mind must (at least upon close scrutiny and examination) be different, not identical.

The issue is not anarchy or absolute libertinism. It is, rather, the principle of sola Scriptura and what it entails vs. the opposing formal principle of binding apostolic Tradition, a Magisterium, Councils, an authoritative papacy and infallible, dogmatic church authority, and what private judgment means within both systems.

In the system of sola Scriptura: the individual judges the preacher or the Church or the Council if needs be. And that is what private judgment boils down to in a Protestant context. It can be qualified, nuanced, made complex and sophisticated until the cows come home, but in the end, the Protestant individual is permitted to make such judgments. That is the gist of what I have been saying. And from that supposed "right" (i.e., when it is at all in conflict with received apostolic Tradition) many negative, destructive ramifications logically flow, and have indeed come about in fact, down through history, because ideas have consequences.

A. W. Pink proves my contention many times over. I shall cite a few things he said (the sources are in my earlier paper). As is so often the case in dialogue with Protestants, what they bring to bear is entirely consistent with our analysis, whereas our points logically conflict with, and cannot co-exist with theirs. 
. . . Having shown the very real need there is for each person to form his own judgment of what God’s Word teaches, we now turn to consider his God-given right to do so.

. . . every Christian has the God-given right to think for himself, to form his own opinion of what Scripture teaches, and to decide what he considers is most pleasing and honoring unto God.

. . . Now this right of private judgment, and the duty of each person to determine for himself what God’s Word teaches, is categorically denied by Rome, which avers that "ignorance is the mother of devotion," and that the highest form of service is that of "blind obedience" . . .

. . . Not only is private judgment a right which God has conferred upon each of His children, but it is their bounden duty to exercise the same . . . Not only are we responsible to reject all erroneous teaching, but we are not to be the serfs of any ecclesiastical tyranny. "Be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven" (Matt. 23:8, 9).

One can't absolutely prove a "logical necessity." One can only reason and speculate on such things. But what one can demonstrate factually is the actual history of scandalous, tragic Protestant sectarianism. Now, it stands to reason that there must be some cause for this. Things do not happen by accident. That being the case, I say that it is as plausible as any other explanation to suggest that the internal dynamic of private interpretation, private judgment, and sola Scriptura are significant causes of the course of Protestant divisions. I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to see a connection here between formal principles of authority and the ascertaining of truth, and individual and denominational and movement-wide behavior.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also presupposes that conscience is informed in good faith and in accordance with the moral law and with the utmost respect for Church authority. In #1785 it stresses that conscience must be "guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church." And in #1792, the Catechism speaks disapprovingly of "erroneous judgment" for reasons of "a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching . . . "

One need not create a dichotomy between the Church and the Bible (no one is arguing whether Scripture is inspired). This is not itself a distinction that the Bible itself would make, so it is unbiblical, and therefore untrue.

Luther was free from the horrible spiritual bondage of Rome, but it seems that he didn't regard his own followers as quite so free in conscience, if they dared to differ with him on any doctrine. For how can one disagree with God's Prophet and Man of the Hour; the restorer of the Gospel, no less? Thus anyone who did disagree with Dr. Luther (e.g., Zwingli) was inevitably consigned to hell and accused of the most base motives and stiff-necked heretical intransigence. Once again, then, we observe that ideas have consequences.

My opponent cited the glorious Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Liberty), speaking of conscience, and found it remarkable that there is so much agreement with his views. I need not cite any of those portions, as we are in full agreement. He gets as far as section 11 (of 15) in his citations, but apparently he stopped reading at that point (the entire document is only thirteen pages). For if he had read the whole thing, surely he would have noticed these words in section 14:
However, in forming their consciences the faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. It is her duty to proclaim and teach with authority the truth which is Christ and, at the same time, to declare and confirm by her authority the principles of the moral order which spring from human nature itself.
So is the teaching of the Catholic Church on conscience and private judgment identical with that of the Calvinist? Let's take the beginning of the above paragraph, modify it a little, so as to pretend that it would apply to a Protestant, as well as to a Catholic, who is solemnly bound to accept Vatican II in its entirety:
However, in forming their consciences the Calvinists must pay careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Catholic Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth . . .
Does this sound like the sort of "conscience" Pink and Bruce would abide by? Here is an excerpt from Newman's Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (emphases added):

. . . no dead-lock, such as is implied in the objection which I am answering, can take place between conscience and the Pope.

But, of course, I have to say again, lest I should be misunderstood, that when I speak of Conscience, I mean conscience truly so called. When it has the right of opposing the supreme, though not infallible Authority of the Pope, it must be something more than that miserable counterfeit which, as I have said above, now goes by the name. If in a particular case it is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question. And further, obedience to the Pope is what is called "in possession"; that is, the onus probandi of establishing a case against him lies, as in all cases of exception, on the side of conscience. Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying it. Prima facie it is his bounden duty, even from a sentiment of loyalty, to believe the Pope right and to act accordingly. He must vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit of his nature, which, at the very first rumour of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it, asks itself whether he is not exceeding his right, and rejoices, in a moral and practical matter to commence with scepticism. He must have no wilful determination to exercise a right of thinking, saying, doing just what he pleases, the question of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, the duty if possible of obedience, the love of speaking as his Head speaks, and of standing in all cases on his Head's side, being simply discarded.

If this necessary rule were observed, collisions between the Pope's authority and the authority of conscience would be very rare.
Furthermore, Newman is even more explicit and crystal-clear in his sermon "Faith and Private Judgement" from Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations (1849):
Men were told to submit their reason to a living authority. Moreover, whatever an Apostle said, his converts were bound to believe; when they entered the Church, they entered it in order to learn. The Church was their teacher; they did not come to argue, to examine, to pick and choose, but to accept whatever was put before them. No one doubts, no one can doubt this, of those primitive times. A Christian was bound to take without doubting all that the Apostles declared to be revealed; if the Apostles spoke, he had to yield an internal assent of his mind; it would not be enough to keep silence, it would not be enough not to oppose it: it was not allowable to credit in a measure; it was not allowable to doubt.

No; if a convert had his own private thoughts of what was said, and only kept them to himself, if he made some secret opposition to the teaching, if he waited for further proof before he believed it, this would be a proof that he did not think the Apostles were sent from God to reveal His will; it would be a proof that he did not in any true sense believe at all. Immediate, implicit submission of the mind was, in the lifetime of the Apostles, the only, the necessary token of faith; then there was no room whatever for what is now called private judgement. No one could say: "I will choose my religion for myself, I will believe this, I will not believe that; I will pledge myself to nothing; I will believe just as long as I please, and no longer; what I believe to-day I will reject tomorrow, if I choose. I will believe what the Apostles have as yet said, but I will not believe what they shall say in time to come."

No; either the Apostles were from God, or they were not; if they were, everything that they preached was to be believed by their hearers; if they were not, there was nothing for their hearers to believe. To believe a little, to believe more or less, was impossible; it contradicted the very notion of believing: if one part was to be believed; it was an absurdity to believe one thing and not another; for the word of the Apostles, which made the one true, made the other true too; they were nothing in themselves, they were all things, they were an infallible authority, as coming from God. The world had either to become Christian, or to let it alone; there was no room for private tastes and fancies, no room for private judgement.

. . . Now, my dear brethren, consider, are not these two states or acts of mind quite distinct from each other;--to believe simply what a living authority tells you, and to take a book such as Scripture, and to use it as you please, to master it, that is, to make yourself the master of it, to interpret it for yourself, and to admit just what you choose to see in it, and nothing more? Are not these two procedures distinct in this, that in the former you submit, in the latter you judge? At this moment I am not asking you which is the better, I am not asking whether this or that is practicable now, but are they not two ways of taking up a doctrine, and not one? is not submission quite contrary to judging? Now, is it not certain that faith in the time of the Apostles consisted in submitting? and is it not certain that it did not consist in judging for one's self? It is in vain to say that the man who judges from the Apostle's writings, does submit to those writings in the first instance, and therefore has faith in them; else why should he refer to them at all? There is, I repeat, an essential difference between the act of submitting to a living oracle, and to his written words; in the former case there is no appeal from the speaker, in the latter the final decision remains with the reader.

. . . I think I may assume that this virtue, which was exercised by the first Christians, is not known at all among Protestants now; or at least if there are instances of it, it is exercised towards those, I mean their own teachers and divines, who expressly disclaim that they are fit objects of it, and who exhort their people to judge themselves . . .

. . . Since men now-a-days deduce from Scripture, instead of believing a teacher, you may expect to see them waver about; they will feel the force of their own deductions more strongly at one time than at another, they will change their minds about them, or perhaps deny them altogether; whereas this cannot be, while a man has faith, that is, belief that what a preacher says to him comes from God. This is what St. Paul especially insists on, telling us that Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, are given us that 'we may all attain to unity of faith,' and, on the contrary, in order 'that we be NOT as children tossed to and fro, and carried about by every gale of doctrine'. Now, in matter of fact, do not men in this day change about in their religious opinions without any limit? Is not this, then, proof that they have not that faith which the Apostles demanded of their converts? If they had faith, they would not change. Once believe that God has spoken, and you are sure He cannot unsay what He has already said; He cannot deceive; He cannot change; you have received it once for all; you will believe it ever.

Such is the only rational, consistent account of faith; but so far are Protestants from professing it, that they laugh at the very notion of it. They laugh at the very notion itself of men pinning their faith (as they express themselves) upon Pope or Council; they think it simply superstitious and narrow-minded, to profess to believe just what the Church believes, and to assent to whatever she will say in time to come on matters of doctrine. That is, they laugh at the bare notion of doing what Christians undeniably did in the time of the Apostles. Observe, they do not merely ask whether the Catholic Church has a claim to teach, has authority, has the gifts;--this is a reasonable question;--no, they think that the very state of mind which such a claim involves in those who admit it, namely, the disposition to accept without reserve or question, that THIS is slavish.
They call it priestcraft to insist on this surrender of the reason, and
superstition to make it. That is, they quarrel with the very state of mind which all Christians had in the age of the Apostles; nor is there any doubt (who will deny it?) that those who thus boast of not being led blindfold, of judging for themselves, of believing just as much and just as little as they please, of hating dictation, and so forth, would have found it an extreme difficultly to hang on the lips of the Apostles, had they lived at their date, or rather would have simply resisted the sacrifice of their own liberty of thought, would have thought life eternal too dearly purchased at such a price, and would of died in their unbelief. And they would have defended themselves on the plea that it was absurd and childish to ask them to believe without proof, to bid them to give up their education, and their intelligence, and their science, and in spite of all those difficulties which reason and sense find in the Christian doctrine, in spite of its mysteriousness, its obscurity, its strangeness, its unacceptableness, its severity, to require surrender themselves to the teaching of a few unlettered Galilaeans, or a learned indeed but fanatical Pharisee. This is what they would have said then; and if so, is it wonderful they do not become Catholics now? The simple account of their remaining as they are, is, that they lack one thing,--they have not faith; it is a state of mind, it is a virtue, which they do not recognise to be praiseworthy, which they do not aim at possessing . . .

In the Apostles' days the peculiarity of faith was submission to a living authority; that is what made it so distinctive; this is what made it an act of submission at all; this is what destroyed private judgement in matters of religion. If you will not look out for a living authority, and will bargain for private judgement, then say at once that you have not the Apostolic faith.
And this is how I have used the term private judgment. My opponent has consistently accused me of trying to smuggle in a Catholic definition of private judgment and applying this to Protestantism. This is simply not the case. Previously, I provided support for my view of what this term means in both Protestantism and Catholicism, from Calvinists A.W. Pink and Archibald Bruce. Now I bring to the table Charles Hodge, an American Calvinist Presbyterian of the 19th century, who is very highly-regarded in Reformed circles.
I find especially interesting (and relevant to our dispute) Hodge's placement and titling of private judgment within the overall context of his Systematic Theology. My opponent has maintained that private judgment is essentially the same as "use of the critical faculties of the mind to ascertain truth." My contention has been that it is a corollary of sola Scriptura and perspicuity of Scripture: in other words, it is part of the Protestant formal system of authority, over against the Catholic. Pink uses it in this way, and so does John Henry Cardinal Newman, on the Catholic side. And so does Hodge; very much so.
I am citing his words from his Systematic Theology (Abridged edition; edited by Edward N. Gross, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988 [orig. 1872], 92-95,66):
Hodge has a section in his book concerning epistemology and the use of reason in theology. In his Introduction, he has the sections I. "On Method", and III. "Rationalism". The latter sub-section contains the chapters, "Proper Office of Reason in Matters of Religion," "Relation of Philosophy and Revelation," and "Office of the Senses in Matters of Faith." It seems to me that if my opponent's theory is correct, Hodge would have placed the question of private judgment within one of these sections. But he does not.
Following the next section IV, "Mysticism," Hodge presents V. "Roman Catholic Doctrine Concerning the Rule of Faith." In that portion he examines Catholic doctrine concerning Scriptures, Tradition, and the authoritative function of the Church (precisely as I have in contradistinction to Private Judgment as a Protestant principle). His methodology and categorization is, then, precisely as mine. The only difference is that he accepts the notion of Private Judgment and I do not. But as to its nature, definition, and relationship with other tenets, Hodge and I are one.
Now; Hodge's next section (VI.) is "The Protestant Rule of Faith." The six chapters of this section are:
1. Statement of the Doctrine
2. The Scriptures Are Infallible, i.e., Given by Inspiration of God
3. Adverse Theories
4. The Completeness of the Scriptures
5. Perspicuity of the Scriptures. The Right of Private Judgment
6. Rules of Interpretation
Therefore, we observe that Hodge places the question right smack in the middle of a discussion of Scripture: its inspiration, authority, and interpretation - exactly where I put it: within a framework of sola Scriptura and specifically, perspicuity. Most striking is the fact that he has perspicuity and private judgment in the very same section. This couldn't be any stronger confirmation of my entire argument on this than it is. 

Now I shall cite Hodge's own definition and description of Private Judgment, from chapters 5 and 6 above (emphases added), and an earlier remark in his "Mysticism" section:
5. Perspicuity of the Scriptures. The Right of Private Judgment

The Bible is a plain book. It is intelligible by the people. And they have the right and are bound to read and interpret it for themselves, so that their faith may rest on the testimony of the Scriptures and not on that of the Church. Such is the doctrine of Protestants on this subject.

It is not denied that the Scriptures contain many things hard to understand, thatthey require diligent study, that all men need the guidance of the Holy Spirit in order to come to right knowledge and true faith. But it is maintained that in all things necessary to salvation they are sufficiently plain to be understood even by the unlearned . . . [break in original]

If the Scriptures be a plain book, and the Spirit performs the function of a teacher to all the children of God, it follows inevitably that they must agree in all essential matters in their interpretation of the Bible. And from that fact it follows that for an individual Christian to dissent from the faith of the universal Church (i.e., the body of true believers) is tantamount to dissenting from the Scriptures themselves.
What Protestants deny on this subject is that Christ has appointed any officer, or class of officers, in His Church to whose interpretations of the Scriptures the people are bound to submit as of final authority. What they affirm is that He has made it obligatory upon every man to search the Scriptures for himself and determine on his own discretion what they require him to believe and to do . . . [break in original]

The most obvious reasons in support of the right of private judgment are:

(1) The obligations to faith and obedience are personal. Every man is responsible for his religious faith and moral conduct. He cannot transfer that responsibility to others, nor can others assume it in his stead. He must answer for himself; and if he must answer for himself, he must judge for himself . . .

(2) The Scriptures are everywhere addressed to the people and not to the officers of the Church either exclusively or specially . . . To forbid the people to read and interpret the Scriptures for themselves is, therefore, not only to deprive the people of a divine right, but to interpose between them and God, and to prevent their hearing His voice, that they may listen to the words of men.

(3) [cites John 5:39, 2 Tim 3:15, Gal 1:8-9, and Deut 13:1-3] . . . This again assumes that the people had the ability and the right to judge, and that they had an infallible rule of judgment. It implies, moreover, that their salvation depended on their judging rightly . . .

(4) It need hardly be remarked that this right of private judgment is the great safeguard of civil and religious liberty . . . [break in original]

6. Rules of Interpretation

If every man has the right and is bound to read the Scriptures and to judge for himself what they teach, he must have certain rules to guide him in the exercise of this privilege and duty. These rules are not arbitrary. They are not imposed by human authority. They have no binding force which does not flow from their own intrinsic truth and propriety. They are few and simple . . . .
[his rules are: a) plain historical sense; b) self-consistency and Scripture interprets Scripture; c) guidance by the Holy Spirit and necessity of being "spiritually minded" to properly interpret]

The fact that all the true people of God in every age and in every part of the Church, in the exercise of their private judgment, in accordance with the simple rules stated above, agree as to the meaning of Scripture in all things necessary either in faith or in practice, is a decisive proof of the perspicuity of the Bible and of the safety of allowing the people the enjoyment of the divine right of private judgment.
I could have a field day with this; write for days about the fallacies and absurdities and unproven axioms contained within it, but that is not my present purpose.
. . . the right of private judgment. This, as understood by the Reformers, is the right of every man to decide what a revelation made by God to him requires him to believe. It was a protest against the authority assumed by the Church (i.e., the bishops) of deciding for the people what they were to believe. It was very natural that the fanatical, in rejecting the authority of the Church, should reject all external authority in matters of religion. They understood by the right of private judgment the right of every man to determine what he should believe from the operations of his own mind and from his own inward experience, independently of the Scriptures . . .
James Henley Thornwell, 19th-century American Reformed theologian:
To abandon the exercise of private judgement, and intrust the understanding to the guidance of teachers arrogant enough to claim infallibility without producing the credentials of a Divine commission, is to encourage a despotism which none can sanction without the express authority of God. Private judgement, indeed, can never be wholly set aside; the pretensions of an infallible instructor must be submitted to the understandings of men, and finally determined by each man's
convictions of truth and justice.

[J. H. Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, III. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1875/1976), 493]
All of this really started with Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521 ("here I stand . . . "). He raised his private judgment to a principle of authority, over above Councils and popes, even (in fact) Sacred Apostolic Tradition. I've found at least one in-depth Calvinist paper which expressly admits that the principle began at Worms. See: Faith in Focus: The Right of Private Judgement, by Gary Milne, of the New Zealand Reformed Church. He cites portions of Hodge.
To me this has been self-evident since 1990 and my conversion. I think it is utterly obvious that Luther was bringing in a radically new principle of formal authority. He later contradicted himself (with the State Church, etc.) yet the primal principle he asserted at Worms remains the inspiration for much later Protestant thinking on authority and sola Scriptura.

Belgic Confession (1561)

My comments will be in brackets [ ] :

Article 29: The Marks of the True Church

We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God,
[Who is to discern? The individual? Seems like it to me]

what is the true church-- for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of "the church."

[Okay, there is a true Church . . . good. Now let's see what it is, and how one finds it]

We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there. But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves "the church."

[So far so good, though there is much biblical indication that the wheat and tares grow up together in the one true Church. I'll let that slide for the moment]

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel;

[What is the Gospel? What is pure preaching of it? How many errors are allowed? E.g., Luther's baptismal regeneration is anathema to the Reformed, so is his Gospel not a pure one; thus Lutherans - and many Anglicans and Methodists, etc. - are not in the true Church; therefore not Christians? What about the Reformed Baptists who don't baptize infants -some or many of whom would even deny that baptism is a sacrament at all? If the gospel is defined as TULIP or suchlike, then this is circular reasoning (the gospel is merely what these folks say it is, on the basis of their own unproven and unsupported axioms). The Bible, which is supposedly the criteria of truthfulness here, does no such thing. It defines the gospel as the birth (incarnation), life (with all its miracles and teaching), death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, not as some technical theory of soteriology and justification. One can certainly deduce some theory of soteriology from it, but my point is that this is not what the Bible describes as "the gospel"]

it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them;

[How did Christ institute them? We have seen the differences concerning baptism above. So are Lutherans and Reformed Baptists and other sorts of Baptists out of the fold? As to the Eucharist, similarly serious differences arise. Lutherans believe in consubstantiation; so their belief here is not "pure." And of course, if we look to the early Church Fathers, they unanimously accepted the Real Presence, so that one must believe that the apostasy of the early Church on this score was well-nigh universal, and that only in the 16th century was true eucharistic belief restored, and even then not by Luther (or for that matter, Zwingli), but by Calvin. Now, what authority does he have? Certainly not apostolic authority, nor the prestige of passed-down apostolic Tradition, as his view is a novelty and an innovation. So there are a host of difficulties in almost every sentence here. They may sound great and highfalutin', but they conceal myriad historical and biblical problems and contradictions, as clearly seen in this merely brief, cursory treatment]

it practices church discipline for correcting faults.

[Sure, then when someone disagrees, he simply goes to another sect, on the basis of his own judgment as to what the pure church is, based on the Word of God (first sentence above). He applies the same criteria stated here to go somewhere else, because the final authority must reside in the individual, due to unresolvable difficulties and contradictions among the various sects. These appeared at the beginning of the Protestant Revolt (inevitably) and will always remain, because of this flawed principle of how one determines theological truth. If in fact there had always been one Protestant Church and one only, then these axioms might hold at least some water, but as this has never been the case, the whole edifice collapses in a heap of self-contradictions and woeful inability to consistently apply these nebulous, ethereal standards to the real world]

In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head.

[This all sounds fine and dandy, noble and glorious, etc., but it is not nearly this simple, because there were and are foundational differences on almost every issue where Protestantism is to be distinguished from Catholicism in the first place. Until these can be resolved, then such talk within the Protestant paradigm is a pipe-dream of the most illusory sort]

By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church-- and no one ought to be separated from it.

[The only self-consistent, historically-demonstrable way to establish this is by apostolic succession and an examination of history (as the Fathers taught). No Protestant sect can pass this test. But even using their own stated criteria of authenticity above, no one can figure out which sect is the true one, because the doctrinal disagreements run too deep and are too serious]

As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith,

[What is faith? Protestants disagree on this, too. How does regeneration and election relate to personal faith? How is one assured of saving faith? Can one lose that and fall away?, etc.]

and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.

[This sounds great, too, but it has never occurred in an entire group. Since sin is present in all professed Christian groups, the absence of it can hardly be the "proof" of the authenticity of one sect over another]

Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

[Virtually all Christian groups would adhere to this notion, so it is of no help for our task, either]

As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God;

[And what would the Word of God teach about that, pray tell?]

it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ;

[What does this mean?]

it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases;

[The problems in this statement were already discussed. One can either appeal to the constant Tradition throughout the ages and apostolic succession, or else choose one of a host of Protestant options, all themselves ultimately arbitrary and man-centered and unable to be supported by Church history]

it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ;

[No Christian system is more man-centered than Protestantism, where a single man's word (Calvin, Luther, Fox et al) has the greatest authority, far greater than any pope ever dreamt of. Any local pastor has far more influence or effect on the lives of his congregation than the pope has on a Catholic, in a practical, everyday sense. That's why Protestant congregations often split in two merely because a popular pastor felt called to move on to another assembly]

it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.

[We know what they are talking about, but the sin argument resolves nothing. Protestants were at least as intolerant in the 16th century as Catholics - arguably far more, especially in light of their supposed principles of tolerance and supremacy of the individual conscience]

These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.

[Not quite. Until Protestants can answer the difficulties I raised above, and many more brought about by their utter inability to resolve their own internal squabbles, any claim to a true Church in their ranks, of whatever character, visible or invisible, institutional, creedal, confessional, or metaphysical, over against the Catholic Church, is self-defeating and unable to be taken seriously, upon close scrutiny. A bucket with 1000 holes in it cain't hold no water . . . ]

The Westminster Confession (1646)
This document faces the same insuperable difficulties. 20.4 speaks of Church authority, but the underlying premises of the nature of the Church and how one identifies it remain unsolved. The same generalized, pious, ethereal language is of little effect unless the more fundamental questions are dealt with. 20.2 states (complete citation):
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith and worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.
Now, the problem here is obvious. If God is the Lord of the conscience and no man is, then I wish whoever believes the above would explain to me how this statement would preclude a Reformed individual, based on intense, sincere, Spirit-led Bible study (with the highest principles of hermeneutics and exegesis applied) from concluding that certain Reformed tenets are merely "the doctrines and commandments of men" rather than of God (and therefore becoming an Arminian or Wesleyan or a Catholic or a Lutheran)? 

Obviously, the individual Protestant either accepts the authority of a particular Protestant denomination or uses their own private judgment to dissent from it. If the former, then it seems to me quite conceivable that the charge of "absolute and blind obedience" could be true of one of these institutions just as easily as Reformed love to apply it to Rome. Certainly both the beliefs and behavior of Luther and Calvin do not at all disabuse one from this sort of critique. They were quite autocratic and intolerant of any dissent from their opinions.
The Second Helvetic Confession (1566)
Chapter 2 - Of Interpreting the Holy Scriptures; and of Fathers,
Councils, and Traditions (complete; my comments in brackets [ ] )
The True Interpretation of Scripture. The apostle Peter has said that the Holy
Scriptures are not of private interpretation (II Peter 1:20), and thus we do not allow all possible interpretations.
[How many do you allow then?]

Nor consequently do we acknowledge as the true or genuine interpretation of the Scriptures what is called the conception of the Roman Church, that is, what the defenders of the Roman Church plainly maintain should be thrust upon all for acceptance.

[Of course not, having enthroned private judgment of individuals and traditions of men in its place]

But we hold that interpretation of the Scripture to be orthodox and genuine
which is gleaned from the Scriptures themselves (from the nature of the language in which they were written, likewise according to the circumstances in which they were set down, and expounded in the light of like and unlike passages and of many and clearer passages) and which agree with the rule of faith and love, and contributes much to the glory of God and man's salvation.

[typical high-sounding, pious, noble language with little concrete or particular content. This assumes (quite absurdly) that Protestants are in sole possession of these hermeneutical tools, and that one "true" teaching on any topic will appear and be evident to all true followers of Christ. These are pipe dreams, children's fantasies and old wives' tales . . . ]

Interpretations of the Holy Fathers. Wherefore we do not despise the interpretations of the holy Greek and Latin fathers, nor reject their disputations and treatises concerning sacred matters as far as they agree with the Scriptures;

[Who decides where they agree or disagree? There are a host of doctrines where the Fathers en masse contradict Reformed Christianity]

but we modestly dissent from them when they are found to set down things differing from, or altogether contrary to, the Scriptures.

[Who decides what the Scriptures teach? A panel of venerable, grey-bearded Reformed worthies, assembled in 1566?]

Neither do we think that we do them any wrong in this matter; seeing that
they all, with one consent, will not have their writings equated with the canonical
Scriptures, but command us to prove how far they agree or disagree with them, and to accept what is in agreement and to reject what is in disagreement.

[Yes, as judged by the apostolic Church and its authoritative Councils, and its popes, not by individuals 7,8,9,10 centuries later who count the noses of their comrades in some given sect and conclude that the majority opinion is therefore the "biblical" one]

Councils. And in the same order also we place the decrees and canons of councils. Wherefore we do not permit ourselves, in controversies about religion or matters of faith, to urge our case with only the opinions of the fathers or decrees of councils; much less by received customs, or by the large number who share the same opinion, or by the prescription of a long time. Who is the judge? Therefore, we do not admit any other judge than God himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what to be avoided.

[But of course! God will settle all the issues!!!!!!! Who could argue with that? But as we are not God, but mere men - and prophets are a relatively rare occurrence - , there must be some human Christian authority as well - binding in some sense; to some degree. One can, then, either believe that God promised to guide His Church and preserve it free from error, under a properly unified authority, with Councils and Bishops and a gift of infallibility (as Catholics believe) or that individuals ULTIMATELY decide what is or what is not true, dissenting from Councils, Tradition, the Fathers, and apostolic succession alike if needs be. These are given lip-service above and elsewhere in silmilar Protestant statements, but it is obvious that the individual retains the right to dissent from all of this ecclesiastical authority, since his conscience is supreme. It all began with Luther at Worms]

So we do assent to the judgments of spiritual men which are drawn from the Word of God. Certainly Jeremiah and other prophets vehemently condemned the assemblies of priests which were set up against the law of God; and diligently admonished us that we should not listen to the fathers, or tread in their path who, walking in their own inventions, swerved from the law of God.

[This is precisely why I became a Catholic: because Protestant innovations were merely the inventions of men. They had no pedigree in Church history, and thus, no reason to be accepted. The Catholic believes that just as the Holy Spirit can teach people today, that He could do so in the past - that Christian history of thought means something]

Traditions of Men. Likewise we reject human traditions, even if they be adorned with high-sounding titles, as though they were divine and apostolical, delivered to the Church by the living voice of the apostles, and, as it were, through the hands of apostolical men to succeeding bishops which, when compared with the Scriptures, disagree with them; and by their disagreement show that they are not apostolic at all. For as the apostles did not contradict themselves in doctrine, so the apostolic men did not set forth things contrary to the apostles. On the contrary, it would be wicked to assert that the apostles by a living voice delivered anything contrary to their writings. Paul affirms expressly that he taught the same things in all churches (1 Cor. 4:17). And, again, "For we write you nothing but what you can read and understand." (2 Cor. 1:13). Also, in another place, he testifies that he and his disciples--that is, apostolic men--walked in the same way, and jointly by the same Spirit did all things (2 Cor. 12:18). Moreover, the Jews in former times had the traditions of their elders; but these traditions were severely rejected by the Lord, indicating that the keeping of them hinders God's law, and that God is worshipped in vain by such traditions (Matt. 15:1ff.; Mark 7:1 ff.).
[Who determines which teachings are "traditions of men" and how?]

The Thirty-Nine Articles (1563)

This Anglican document suffers from the same deficiencies, as all these Protestant Creeds and Confessions do. Article 34, "Of the Traditions of the Church" does indeed condemn the sort of "private judgment" which "doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority . . . " This seems to refer mainly to liturgical matters, which have indeed "been divers, and may be changed . . . " as the Article states. The Catholic has no great argument with this, as far as it goes. The problem is how to determine what is "repugnant to the Word of God" - which brings us back to the same old Protestant conundrum of inevitable theological and hermeneutic relativism and ecclesiological semi-anarchy.

So, e.g., Article 20, "Of the Authority of the Church," informs us that "it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written . . . " Well, who would disagree with that? It resolves absolutely nothing with regard to how one discerns true from false doctrine. Is one simply to accept what the Anglicans say? Then they are open to the same charge of blind, gullible faith that Catholics routinely receive. So Protestant relativism, brought on inevitably by the so-called perspicuity (evident clearness) of Scripture "in the main" and private judgment and the absolute supremacy of individual conscience, will always come back to haunt them, in matters of ascertaining truth and discerning error, scriptural and otherwise.

The folks who wrote this creed felt themselves superior to the Fathers and the great Catholic theologians throughout history. In Article 28, "On the Lord's Supper," they state that "Transubstantiation . . . can not be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture . . . The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner . . . "

Now, why should I or anyone else believe them rather than the Fathers, who universally accepted the Real Bodily Presence, or Substantial Presence, of Jesus in the consecrated host? Why should I believe that these guys know what is "plain" or not plain in Scripture, whilst St. Ignatius of Antioch (d.c.110) or St. Irenaeus (d.c.202) or St. Augustine (d. 430) or St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) were so ignorant and brainwashed and unspiritual (along with all the Fathers) that they couldn't figure out that the Eucharist was a spiritual undertaking only and not a matter of the elements actually becoming the literal Body and Blood of Christ?

For that matter, Luther himself believed in a form of the Real Presence (consubstantiation), which is why Calvin derisively referred to him as "half-papist." But no, Calvin and his merry band of rebels know more than all these precursors. They deliver up to us - at long last - the "truth" and the "plain and evident meaning of Scripture" which virtually no one up to that time could discern. Yeah, right . . . The absurdity and massive arrogance and tunnel vision of this state of affairs is utterly evident.


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