Saturday, October 16, 2010

Individualism vs. Individuality

I'm continuing a discussion from a previous thread with Nick:

This also touches upon the notion of hierarchy, which is just as decisive as the other issues. If you assert a genuine hierarchy, you're self-condemned since Luther and Calvin (and others) weren't hierarchy. If you assert no hierarchy, then each man's authority to judge/interpret is by *definition* equal.

This is a bit confusing. It doesn't follow that because Luther and Calvin "weren't hierarchy," Protestant belief is "condemned." I can still hold to a belief in hierarchy and say that the hierarchy of the Church during the Reformation was mistaken on critical issues. That's within the possible appropriate evaluations of a subordinate authority. It's also congruent with Scriptural precedent (e.g. Apostles disobeying the valid Jewish hierarchy in the New Testament, Old Testament prophets disobeying the divinely established monarchy and its temple priests and prophets, etc.).

And Luther's ultimate "middle finger" was when he said: "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils" How is this not individualism at it's bedrock?

Let's assume your quote is in context and that we can conveniently ignore all the other statements Luther made regarding the authority of the Church (or, for that matter, the good that came from the Papacy). It seems you're simply trading on different senses of what it means to be individualistic. That someone can disagree with an authority figure (or that someone ultimately does disagree with an authority figure) does not entail individualism in the sense of thinking all authority is rooted in the individual. The former is describing a basic fact of being an person with a will--that individuals can ultimately attempt to do whatever they wish within the pool of talents, resources and opportunity they've been given by God. That's a different (metaphysical?) concept than what is meant by individualism in the post-Enlightenment West. Granted many Evangelicals, products as they are of a country deeply influenced by Enlightenment, engage in individualism as properly construed, this does not reflect the attitudes and preferences of the Reformers and their faithful followers.

Also consider that lay-Catholic apologists disagree with priests and scholars within their denomination from time to time, even though these figures (who are sometimes even bishops and scholars at the same time and appointed by other bishops to commissions with oversight from the Magisterium) are authorities (in various sense of the word) above them. They do this because they believe these priests and scholars are not accurately representing the teachings of Tradition; they are failing in their roles as subordinate authorities. (And sometimes they are correct in this assessment, e.g. Luke Timothy Johnson on homosexuality.)

Likewise, Protestants can also speak of rejecting certain manifestations of hierarchical structures if it seems they have over stepped their bounds of authority or violated the principles of Scripture, God, etc. to which they have sworn allegiance as officers of the Church. How this entails individualism as construed by the post-Enlightenment conception of a self-determined identity (and all of its philosophical baggage) is unknown. Indeed, the very idea of disagreeing with an authority means that a valid authority already exists. But radical individualism denies the presence of authorities outside of man (or Scripture, in the case of the Anabaptists) from the beginning; it's not even part of the discussion.

In other words, the approach of Luther and Calvin is decidedly different than the idea that all authority ultimately rests in the individual—that the individual decides first and foremost without any respect or regard or deference to the established structure of the Church, whether in elders, councils or pastors.

Don't be simplistic in confusing similar results in some cases, where, for example, someone in the PCA who decides that Sartre's philosophy is to be preferred to the standards of the WCF, with someone who was born into a deeply anti-authority Evangelical culture and lives her entire life deciding that she'll live however she pleases. The structures are significantly different, especially when we consider the threats of excommunication and discipline--which constitute authoritative action--on an individual in a properly functioning Reformation church.

I'd be interested to see how you'd reconcile deeply individualistic approaches to Scripture with the measured approach Turretin outlines should someone find himself unable to accept the teachings of the church under which he submits:

...they ought to undertake nothing rashly or disorderly and unseasonably, so as to violently rend the body of their mother, but to refer the difficulties they feel to their church and either to prefer her public opinion to their own private judgment or to secede from her communion, if the conscience cannot acquiesce in her judgment. Thus they cannot bind the inner court of conscience, except inasmuch as they are found to agree with the word of God (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 3 [Phillipsburg: P&R, 1997], 284).

Consider also how Turretin distinguishes between various kinds of judgments:

Three types of judge must be carefully distinguished. The first is the ultimate and authoritative who decides authoritatively and absolutely, as supreme ruler, and from whom there is no appeal. The second is that of a functionary or minister, who gives a decision as a public official. The third is personal or private-the individual's decision regarding either the law or its interpretation. In the first case, the decision is final and absolute. In the second, it is official, but subordinate and limited by the law. In the third case, it is a personal opinion without official standing (The Supreme Judge of Controversies and the Interpreter of Scripture).

In the radical individualistic approach, at the very least, the second kind of judge is completely removed from the picture.

As for Calvin, I've read Institutes 4.9, and he clearly reserves the right to object or toss out anything he thinks doesn't conform to (his interpretation) of Scripture. I've also read where he went line by line on the Council of Trent (especially on Justification) and single-handedly rejected anything he didn't agree with.

And you reserve the right to object or toss out anything you think doesn't conform to your interpretation of the Magisterium's official documents—Tradition.

This isn't unique to Protestantism, and it isn't unique to those outside of Catholicism. You are inconsistently applying the simple fact of life that all people are ultimately free to disregard whatever anyone says. If it's a problem for Protestantism, it's a problem for Catholicism.

I'd also add that your picture of Calvin doesn't square with what I've already quoted from him in the previous thread and what he wrote on the authority of the church elsewhere (cf. Institutes, IV.x.18). Consider also what I've quoted from him in this thread.

Nick writes elsewhere:

The *catch* is that the (pretend) Reformers' actions paved the way for radical individualism since in principle each layman could fall back on their own interpretation of Scripture, just as Luther and Calvin did when they disagreed with someone else.

This eventually led to watering down the Christian Gospel as a whole, and where the radical individualism really began to show - and eventually became so common that most Protestants see it as "normal" in Christianity.

In the sense you're using the concept, it seems everyone could "fall back on" whatever interpretation of Scripture they hold. I don't see how you connect that with the Reformers in a meaningful fashion; it's not as if people didn't engage in this kind of behavior before the Reformation.


Viisaus said...

"But radical individualism denies the presence of authorities outside of man (or Scripture, in the case of the Anabaptists) from the beginning; it's not even part of the discussion."

Many Reformation-era agitators who called themselves Anabaptists or were called as such did not actually allow even the authority of Scriptures to limit their "individualism":

"As Philip Schaff puts it: 'Protestantism had reached a very critical juncture. Reformation or revolution, the written Word or illusive inspirations, order or confusion. That was the question.' There was the Roman Catholic Church with all its corruption. The Reformers appear on the scene. But there was competition. Two groups vied to be the one which would 'restore' the Visible Church. Both claimed that their desire was to restore it to its rightful condition. One group rested on Biblical authority, the other on mystical promptings of the Spirit through direct revelations. All the while that the genuine Reformers were at work on this process of restoration, they were regularly plagued by various sects and characters who claimed they had received 'words from the Lord' about this, that and the other matter.

Martin Luther called them schwarmer, (swarm is derivative), fanatics, enthusiasts. This continued right through into the Puritan period in the seventeenth century and beyond. The essence of 'enthusiasm is the subjective Inner Light versus the objective external Word of God. This was one of the principal controversies at the time of the Reformation. And this is epitomized in Luther's dealings with the revolutionary Thomas Muntzer, who was instrumental in the Peasant's War in 1525. He believed that justification by faith alone was an invented doctrine, and he was violently opposed to the notion of sola Scriptura, saying, like any good enthusiast, that 'they poison the Holy Spirit with the Holy Scripture'."

Heretics like this did NOT believe in the Sola Scriptura principle, but in very "continuous revelation" indeed! To them, even the Bible itself had no authority if it opposed their own subjective-mystical "inner light" - some of these wild types could openly badmouth the written Scriptures (as versus "the living word" within themselves) as "an idol of paper and ink."

Viisaus said...

It is largely to the "Radical Reformation" that we must look for the spiritual ancestors of modern hyper-individualists.

Simply put, Biblical Protestants were "the golden mean" between Romanist despotism and sectarian anarchism. Rome detested them for being rebellious, for having "gone too far" and schwärmers for not being permissive enough, for "not going far enough".

Some of these Reformation-era cultists, btw, did not have only purely spiritual ambitions - many of them had downright proto-Communist revolutionary attitudes, and were thus considered as dangers not only to spiritual but also secular order:

Some “Anabaptists” back then had seriously heretical reputation, going far beyond the mere issue of infant baptism!

For example, William Whitaker in his opus (which has been quoted here a lot) listed them among people who had scoffing, "Higher-Critical" notions about the Scriptures - the following does not exactly remind us of modern fundamentalist Baptists, right?

pp. 31, 32-33, 298-299,

"The Nicolaitans and Gnostics ejected the book of Psalms from the sacred canon, as Philaster informs us, (in Lib. de Haer. c. 127); which heresy the Anabaptists have renewed in our times."

"We care little for the impious Anabaptists, who reject this book (the Song of Solomon) with contempt; nor can we at all excuse Castalio1, if he really wrote what some object to him — that this book is nothing but a conversation which Solomon held with his Sulamith.

The Anabaptists are said, at the present day, to reject and ridicule the book of Job, and some have written that it is called by those heretics a Hebrew Tragi-Comedy. This they would seem to have learned from the wicked Jews: for certain rabbins, authors of the Talmudic fables, affirm 2 that it is a fictitious story, and no such man ever existed."

“Do you yourself deem him a Christian who denies the whole scripture? Certainly, he replies; for he affirms that some Christians deny the scriptures, such as the Schwenkfeldians, Anabaptists, and in England the Familists 1 and Superilluminati. I answer, our question is about real Christians. These are not Christians truly but equivocally, as the papists are equivocal catholics. It may indeed happen that there may be some Christians who are ignorant of the canon of scripture, or have even not seen some books of it, but yet assent to the doctrine contained in the canon of scripture; for otherwise they certainly cannot be called Christians.”

It seems clear that Whitaker considered Anabaptists to be among those heretics who gave more credit to their own “Inner Light” (superilluminati) than to the Bible. Perhaps not with entire justification, there could have been some confusion at work, but rumors like this do not rise without some cause.

Matthew D. Schultz said...

Very good, Viisaus. I had forgotten about these extreme elements.

Viisaus said...

Here is more about those "Familists" whom Whitaker lists alongside with Anabaptists:

"The primary goal of the Familist was the reaching of that state of the ultimate form of perfect love with God revealed through the Family of Love, and the works of "N. H.". This state of perfection as in Christ would guarantee its members the salvation that the Church or Scriptures could not offer. The Spirit was superior to the Scriptures in authority.

Some commonly held themes include: "All things come by nature". The gifts of the earth came from God's bounty or nature, so everything should be shared as communal property, or everything belongs to everyone in common.

Familists were charged with practicing the perfectionist theology known as Antinomianism, a natural state of Grace without Sin in the true believer. The Laws of Moses and Man no longer held any validity for those who attainted this state of perfection according to the believers. Antinomians were deemed to be immoral and without any religious virtue by its critics as being non-biblical. "

Viisaus said...

In his reply to cardinal Sadoleto, John Calvin explicitly identified contempt towards Biblical authority as the trademark of Anabaptists.

Calvin also compared the Romanist position to theirs, saying that the Reformed were being attacked from two different extremes; Anabaptists belittled the written Scriptures in order to glorify their own private revelations, Romanists to glorify their "unwritten traditions" and church's control over the Bible:

"We are assailed by two sects, which seem to differ most widely from each other. For what similitude is there in appearance between the Pope and the Anabaptists? And yet, that you may see that Satan never transforms himself so cunningly, as not in some measure to betray himself, the principal weapon with which they both assail us is the same. For when they boast extravagantly of the Spirit, the tendency certainly is to sink and bury the Word of God, that they may make room for their own falsehoods. And you, Sadolet, by stumbling on the very threshold, have paid the penalty of that affront which you offered to the Holy Spirit, when you separated him from the Word."