Thursday, December 03, 2009

Responding to Nathan from "Called to Communion"

Over at the Roman Catholic blog Called to Communion (the link was this, though it seems to be broken at the moment), a commenter going by the name "Nathan" provided the following comment:
Thus far your attempt to rebut the claims of this article seems to be simply a restatement of sola scriptura as including a recognition of “the true but subordinate authority of the church and the regula fidei.” The article addresses this by explaining that the proponent of sola scriptura reserves the right to determine from the scriptures what is or is not the Church prior to submitting to its "true but subordinate authority." This is the inconsistency of the sola scriptura proponent: submission to the interpretation of the church is wholly dependent upon an initial, overriding, non-submitting interpretation. If the identity of the Church cannot be discovered independently of scripture, one's submission is always predicated upon one's interpretation.
I answer:

1) It should be noted, of course, that the Sola Scriptura position is actually that the Scriptures themselves are the regula fidei. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter 1, Section 2) state, after identifying the canonical books, "All which are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life."

Similarly, the Westminster Larger Catechism, Question/Answer 3 states:
Question 3: What is the Word of God?

Answer: The holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience.

Article VI of the 39 Articles states this, albeit slightly clearly:
Holye Scripture conteyneth all thinges necessarie to saluation: so that whatsoeuer is not read therein, nor may be proued therby, is not to be required of anye man, that it shoulde be beleued as an article of the fayth, or be thought requisite as necessarie to saluation
And in more modernized spelling:
Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite as necessary to salvation.
Similarly, the Belgic confession similarly states:
Therefore we reject with all our hearts everything that does not agree with this infallible rule, as we are taught to do by the apostles when they say, "Test the spirits to see if they are of God," and also, "If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house."
Finally, we may also point out the Formula Consensus Helvetica:
The Hebrew original of the OT ... forms, together with the Original of the NT the sole and complete rule of our faith and practice ... .
This is the Reformed position on Sola Scriptura and the regula fidei or "rule of faith." We are aware, of course, that sometimes the term regula fidei was used in connection with creeds even from an early time. However, properly speaking, that dignity belongs only to the Scriptures from which the orthodox creeds are rightly derived.

2) The idea of determining from the scriptures what is or is not the Church prior to submitting to its "true but subordinate authority" is not a bad thing. It is a noble thing.

Acts 17:11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.

It's a bit puzzling to see a practiced praised in Scripture set forth as an objection to the apostolic doctrine of sola scriptura.

3) The idea that it is inconsistent to submit to the interpretation of the church dependent upon an initial, overriding, non-submitting interpretation is also a confused objection. It's necessarily the case that one's submission to any subordinate authority is contingent on submission to the higher authority.

If this doesn't make sense to you, put yourself in the place of the captain of a ship. If you give an order, and one of your subordinate officers gives a conflicting order, would you want the sailors under your command to follow your order or the subordinate officer's order? Or to put things in a different perspective, surely you are aware that "we were just following orders" is not considered a legitimate justification or excuse for committing atrocities in war time.

For yourself, as a Roman Catholic, if your bishop tells you to believe [X], and the pope tells you to believe the opposite, which one are you going to follow? I would presume that you'd follow the pope, and I trust that I do not presume too much.

In every one of the examples above, the person making their decision about who to obey has to interpret the commands both of their subordinate and ultimate authorities. The fact that they have to interpret is just a fact of human existence. It is the way that we work: we form judgments based on interpretations of the evidence.

4) What is really fascinating about your comment, though, is that you state: "If the identity of the Church cannot be discovered independently of scripture, one's submission is always predicated upon one's interpretation." This comment is fascinating, because it seems to suggest that if the identity of the church can be discovered independently of Scripture, one's submission might not be predicated upon one's interpretation.

That simply can't be, though. Even if one attempted to discover the identity of the church independently of Scripture, one is still going to have to interpret something. If one seeks the identity of the church by historical investigation, one must interpret the data of history: the ancient writings, archaeological evidence, etc.. One's interpretation is going to be involved.

Furthermore, regardless of what one picks as their way of identifying a true church, if they do not base it on Scripture, they will be basing it on something less sure than Scripture. Scripture is, after all, the Word of God. The writings of Irenaeus and Augustine are very interesting to read, but they are not the Word of God, and God has made no promise to preserve them. We can be sure that the Scriptures are infallible, but we can demonstrate the fallibility of the church fathers. Scriptures never lie, but sometimes historians do.

In short, by trying to identify the true church from some other source than Scripture, one is exchanging a more sure way for a less sure way.

Nathan continued:
All of this is explained in IV.A of the article, particularly under No Middle Ground: Solo Scriptura or Apostolic Succession. To say the church has authority begs the question: what is the church? If individuals have authority to define the church then the answer may be derived from scripture (or any other standard one might prefer, such as gnostic writings). But if they do not, the church has a self-understanding and identity which can be seen in history.
As a minor aside, one of my pet peeves is the use of "begs the question" for "raises the question," as here. The substance of this comment is addressed above, only now we are told what this alternative to Scripture is: history. There are two main responses:

1) History actually isn't Rome's friend on this. History shows Rome to be a false church that fell into apostasy and departed from the apostolic doctrines, as have many other churches.

2) We are told by God that the Scriptures are lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105). We are not given any similar assurance regarding "History." Furthermore, as difficult as it may be to interpret Scripture at times, interpreting history is at least an order of magnitude more difficult since it involves interpreting numerous documents rather than a single united one.

Nathan continued:
If the church's self-definition is, "one, holy, catholic, apostolic," there are a few avenues for refuting this definition. You could assert the novelty of the construct (300 years later than the apostles (381), adding the word "one," which was not asserted in 325), but you run up against the near-universal assent of Christendom to the first two ecumenical councils. This would mean that the church has been universally wrong in her self-understanding, for which reason many might be inclined to question the sanity of one who wants to be a part of such a group, even if one is only "reforming" it.
1) The objection begs the question by assuming that the church is already identified even while allegedly seeking to identify the church.

2) The interpretation of "one, holy, catholic, apostolic," is something that your comment assumes but doesn't establish. The term "catholic," for example, means "throughout the world," and the term "one" is a term of conceptual, not hierarchical unity. That is to say, it refers to a unity of faith, not a unity of human leadership. If, however, we assume that it referred to a unity of human leadership, there would be no church that qualified, for a long time, since the split between the Eastern sees and Rome by God's providence prevented there from being any single institution that could claim global coverage.

There's one more objection, which we'll see when we consider Nathan's penultimate comment:
You can claim that a particular group claiming to be the church is not one (witness the Great Schism, Nestorian schism, etc.), but those schisms have left groups that each claim to be one. You can claim that a particular group that claims to be the church is not holy, which could very well lead you to side with the Donatists. You can claim a lack of catholicity (getting back to the schisms here), however apostolic succession is undeniably catholic (universal) so that should help narrow the field in terms of which groups to evaluate. You could claim that a particular group is not apostolic by falsifying their claims to succession. Another route would be to claim that their ordained minsters somehow have invalid ordinations, but that also tends toward putting interpretation before submission.
The final objection is that "apostolic" does not eliminate the Donatists, the Nestorian, or the East-West Schism, or even the Reformation if the term "apostolic" refers to a "chain of ordinations." But, of course, the term "apostolic" probably was not intended to carry that sense.

Nathan's final comment anticipates some of the above and states:
If no group matches the historic self-definition of the church, one could easily conclude that the church does not exist (but then, how would I join any church? I would be starting my own). Of course the easiest route is to simply redefine what is meant by "one, holy, catholic, apostolic," such that it agrees with one's interpretation of scripture. But either option puts us back at the beginning, where the one who gets to define the criteria for authority really is the authority themselves. The church has her own criteria (one, holy, catholic, apostolic) and we either accept that definition (and not some redefined meaning for it) or we make our own definition, and ourselves the ultimate authority.
Well, saying that "The church has her own criteria" presupposes that one has identified the church, as noted above. Furthermore, calling an alternative interpretation of "one, holy, catholic, apostolic" a "redefinition" is unjustified. Before one applies the "one, holy, catholic, apostolic" standard one has to know what the standard means, which means that one has to interpret the standard. This is just the inescapable reality of using standards of this kind.

One can actually see what, for example, Cyril of Jerusalem, thought that "one holy catholic church" meant, and one will notice an absence of reference to the papacy or to any institutional unity (although Cyril does use the term "Catholic Church" as a sort of sectarian designation):
22. The Faith which we rehearse contains in order the following, "And in one Baptism of repentance for the remission of sins; and in one Holy Catholic Church; and in the resurrection of the flesh; and in eternal life." Now of Baptism and repentance I have spoken in the earliest Lectures; and my present remarks concerning the resurrection of the dead have been made with reference to the Article "In the resurrection of the flesh." Now then let me finish what still remains to be said for the Article, "In one Holy Catholic Church," on which, though one might say many things, we will speak but briefly.

23. It is called Catholic then because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men's knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned; and because it universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gifts.

24. And it is rightly named (Ecclesia) because it calls forth and assembles together all men; according as the Lord says in Leviticus, And make an assembly for all the congregation at the door of the tabernacle of witness. And it is to be noted, that the word assemble, is used for the first time in the Scriptures here, at the time when the Lord puts Aaron into the High-priesthood. And in Deuteronomy also the Lord says to Moses, Assemble the people unto Me, and let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me. [Deuteronomy 4:10] And he again mentions the name of the Church, when he says concerning the Tables, And on them were written all the words which the Lord spoke with you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the Assembly; as if he had said more plainly, in the day in which you were called and gathered together by God. The Psalmist also says, I will give thanks unto You, O Lord, in the great Congregation; I will praise You among much people.

25. Of old the Psalmist sang, Bless ye God in the congregations, even the Lord, (ye that are) from the fountains of Israel. But after the Jews for the plots which they made against the Saviour were cast away from His grace, the Saviour built out of the Gentiles a second Holy Church, the Church of us Christians, concerning which he said to Peter, And upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. [Matthew 16:18] And David prophesying of both these, said plainly of the first which was rejected, I have hated the Congregation of evil doers ; but of the second which is built up he says in the same Psalm, Lord, I have loved the beauty of Your house; and immediately afterwards, In the Congregations will I bless you, O Lord. For now that the one Church in Judæa is cast off, the Churches of Christ are increased over all the world; and of them it is said in the Psalms, Sing unto the Lord a new song, His praise in the Congregation of Saints. Agreeably to which the prophet also said to the Jews, I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord Almighty [Malachi 1:10]; and immediately afterwards, For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same, My name is glorified among the Gentiles. Concerning this Holy Catholic Church Paul writes to Timothy, That you may know how you ought to behave yourself in the House of God, which is the Church of the Living God, the pillar and ground of the truth [1 Timothy 3:15].

26. But since the word Ecclesia is applied to different things (as also it is written of the multitude in the theatre of the Ephesians, And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the Assembly [Acts 19:14]), and since one might properly and truly say that there is a Church of evil doers, I mean the meetings of the heretics, the Marcionists and Manichees, and the rest, for this cause the Faith has securely delivered to you now the Article, "And in one Holy Catholic Church;" that you may avoid their wretched meetings, and ever abide with the Holy Church Catholic in which you were regenerated. And if ever you are sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord's House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord), nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God (for it is written, As Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for it [Ephesians 5:25], and all the rest,) and is a figure and copy of Jerusalem which is above, which is free, and the mother of us all [Galatians 4:26]; which before was barren, but now has many children.

27. For when the first Church was cast off, in the second, which is the Catholic Church, God has set, as Paul says, first Apostles, secondly Prophets, thirdly teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, various kinds of tongues [1 Corinthians 12:28], and every sort of virtue, I mean wisdom and understanding, temperance and justice, mercy and loving-kindness, and patience unconquerable in persecutions. She, by the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honour and dishonour [2 Corinthians 6:7-8], in former days amid persecutions and tribulations crowned the holy martyrs with the varied and blooming chaplets of patience, and now in times of peace by God's grace receives her due honours from kings and those who are in high place [1 Timothy 2:2], and from every sort and kindred of men. And while the kings of particular nations have bounds set to their authority, the Holy Church Catholic alone extends her power without limit over the whole world; for God, as it is written, has made her border peace. But I should need many more hours for my discourse, if I wished to speak of all things which concern her.
You will notice an almost complete lack of emphasis on "one," except to distinguish it as the second church, distinct from the church of the Jews, which has been cast off (Vatican II's ecumenism seems to undermine this a bit, but that's for another day).

I don't post Cyprian's view to say you must agree with it, but to give you an ancient perspective. After all, I don't necessarily agree with everything he says. My point is mostly to note that you shouldn't assume that the definitions that your church presently gives to the creed are the same definitions that those 1500 years ago did. Furthermore, of course, I've presented only one author's opinion as to the meaning of the creed - there may be several different views, and we'd expect that from the way that Cyprian gives several senses in which the church is "catholic," for example.


Hopefully this post has demonstrated that the objection that we must interpret Scripture to use it as an authority is a misplaced objection. It's simply a necessary consequence that we must interpret our authorities in order to use them. Incidentally, I've dealt with a similar objection previously, under the topic of the so-called "Spiral Argument" (link to my original post - link to my interaction with one objection to the original post).

UPDATE: Also note that one might wish to compare Nathan's proposed approach of finding the church by history, with Augustine's approach of finding the church by Scripture (link to post reflecting Augustine's view).

To the glory of God,


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