There are two parts to this post. The first is a response to Stellman's response to my previous post (link to previous post)(link to response: part 1 - part 2). The second part is a response to comments he had made earlier in the same comment thread.
I. Dividing Word from Scriptures
Jason J. Stellman wrote: “So to TurretinFan’s statement that “To divide the Word from the Scriptures, as Stellman is doing, is dangerous ground (although it is one of the approaches that the Romanists use),” I would simply answer that I am doing nothing other than what Horton is doing in the citation above.”
Paige Britton had written: “Whoa, I don’t think you need to pin some insidious Romanism on Jason’s thought, there.”
On this point, I want to clarify that I’m not pinning Romanism on Jason’s thought. I do think his argument is dangerously imprecise, but I don’t think he’s a Romanist. My comments (at great length) were aimed at showing him the danger, as well as helping to steer him clear of that danger.
I appreciate the quotation from Michael Horton. The quotation states: “Of course, God’s Word was at first delivered by oral tradition and was only later committed to writing. None of the Reformation theologians held that the Bible as we now have it preceded the church! However, the Reformers argued that the Word of God preceded both Scripture and the church.”
I don’t have the full context for this quotation, which makes it hard to respond to it. With that enormous and important caveat, I’d like to venture a few responses.
1) If Horton is simply referring to the fact that God’s word came orally from Adam to Moses, he’s right. No one can doubt that.
2) If Horton means that God’s word sometimes came orally from Moses until Malachi and again from John the Baptist to John the Beloved Disciple, he’s right. No one can reasonably deny that.
3) If Horton is simply trying to repeat what the WCF 1:1 says:
I. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation; therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.
… then of course, Horton is right, and his point can’t reasonably be denied. (However, note that the confession itself teaches that the Church is founded (“establishment”) on the Scriptures.)
4) However, Horton’s comments could be taken another way. If Horton’s comments were taken as suggesting that the Scriptures themselves are simply a transcription/condensation of prior oral tradition (and without context, I have no reason to think that Horton meant his words that way), then they would seem to be wrong.
In that regard, Horton’s characterizations would be imprecise. For example, Paul’s epistles were not examples of prior oral tradition being committed to writing. Indeed, it is rare in Scripture that we are told that something is an oral tradition being committed to writing.
Finally, I note that the rationale/explanation provided in Stellman’s original comment, namely “but it was not founded upon ‘the Scriptures,’ for the obvious reason that decades elapsed during which the church was growing, and no NT books had even been written, let alone collected and recognized as canonical,” is still problematic, but since he’s not continuing that (and has already acknowledged that there was some imprecision there), I figure the point has been sufficiently made for everyone concerned. Indeed, the point that the Scriptures were given for the establishment and comfort of the church is simply Scripturally and Confessionally the undeniable fact. And Paige Britton has already noted that: “[Stellman]’s steady-on re. the mother-daughter thing (Church as mother of Scriptures v. Scripture as mother of Church).” So, I suppose the clarification is at an end, unless I’ve misunderstood Stellman’s responses above.However, there is another issue I’d like to address.
II. The Authority of Councils
I wonder what Stellman means when he writes:
Were ministers in the post-Acts 15 church free to disregard the conclusion of the Jerusalem Council? Or, are we free today to disregard the Nicene formulation of the Trinity or the Chalcedonian definition of the hypostatic union?
You may answer (1) no and no; (2) yes and yes; (3) no and yes; or for the sake of argument, (4) yes and no.
My instinct is to opt for option #1. Now, if the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon were so authoritative that they actually define orthodoxy, my question is, “Are the Westminster Assembly’s conclusions that authoritative, and if not, why not?”
And is there a church or branch of the church today that can still make Nicaea-like pronouncements? If so, where is it? If not, where did it go?
The specific question mark in my mind is his expression: “free to disregard” which isn’t really a defined theological term.
There are two possible senses to his comment. I’ll give the sense I hope he meant first. The sense I hope he meant is the sense of WCF 31:3:
III. It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially, to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his Word.
In this sense, Christians are not free to utterly disregard the decisions of councils. If that’s all that Stellman meant (and to be clear, I am charitably presuming that’s what he meant), then I agree with him.
However, there is a possibility that what he said could be understood to mean that Nicaea and Chalcedon are our regula fidei – our rule of faith. That is to say, their definitions are not something that we can even consider questioning on the basis of Scripture.
If Stellman’s expression were to be understood in that light, then it would be both wrong and contrary to our (his and my) confession, namely WCF 31:4:
IV. All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both.
Notice that the Confession (which in Section 2, had specifically indicated the Scriptures as the rule of faith) explicitly indicates that councils are nor our rule of faith/practice (even councils that were right).
In this regard, I am concerned that Stellman's view of the Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura may sound closer to Keith Mathison's presentation of it (in The Shape of Sola Scriptura) than the presentation we find in the Westminster Confession of Faith. While it may sound that way, please note that I'm not accusing Stellman of denying the WCF in favor of a more Mathisonian approach.