Friday, October 01, 2010

Berkhof on the community-oriented interpretation of Scripture

Roman Catholic lay-apologists enjoy characterizing Protestant Bible interpretation as an event in which an individual runs into a closet, closes the door and reads the text for himself, coming to whatever conclusions he pleases, without consulting any relevant commentary or individuals in his Christian community, let alone the Church in its authoritative teaching capacity. This, it is said, is what generates the endless multitude of denominations within Christianity, as every Protestant acts as his own little Pope.

What I don't understand about this characterization is how it applies to Reformed Protestantism. Since when have the Reformed been known for promoting an individualistic interpretation of the Bible, the kind practiced by various fundamentalists with strong Anabaptist tendencies? Consider how the highly influential Louis Berkhof describes the formulation of dogma (emphasis mine):

The Church does not find her dogmas in the finished form on the pages of Holy Writ, but obtains them by reflecting on the truths revealed in the Word of God...it is not merely the individual Christian, but rather the Church of God as a whole, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that is the subject of this reflective activity. The spiritual man is the only one that is fit for this work, and even he can obtain a proper and adequate understanding of the truth in all its relations, and in all its fulness [sic] and grandeur, only in communion and in cooperation with all the saints...The formation of dogmas is not always a short process, nor is it a simple one. Its course is frequently determined more or less by long-drawn controversies. These are not always edifying, since they often generate a scorching heat and frequently lead to unholy antagonisms. At the same time they are of the greatest importance, and serve to focus the attention sharply on the question in debate, to clarify the issue at stake, to bring the different aspects of the problem into the open, and to point the way to the proper solution. The Church is largely indebted to the great doctrinal controversies of the past for its progress in the understanding of the truth.1

Note that these profitable controversies could never, of course, occur in the mind of one individual sitting alone in a closet with his Bible. And Berkhof continues after this point to discuss the role of the Church in formally accepting the formulation of dogma, again rejecting the idea of supremely individualistic interpretations of Scripture holding any sort of higher or final interpretive weight.

Roman Catholic lay-apologists should appropriately characterize the Reformed approach to Biblical interpretation by treating it as fundamentally distinct from other groups with certain Anabaptist tendencies. Perhaps then their appeals to unity arguments can be reworked and taken as credible objections to the Reformation and its principles.

_____________________________

1. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, New Combined Edition (Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1996), 23.

18 comments:

Ikonophile said...

I wonder if a case might be made for the outcome of these disputes as opposed to this "one man in a closet anabaptist" strawman. I mean, how does one know if he is adhering to the correct side of the dispute? Often these arguments do not leave everyone one the same side (for if they did then there would never have been schism from the Church) and both often claim Scriptural support (Arians and Trinitarians both used the Scriptures as well as Nestorius)as well as the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Generally, smart people are on both sides. Pious people are also on both sides. If your concept of the Church is one that does not make Her infallible, then how can you say that you know for sure which side of the outcome of any particular dispute is the right one?

If you've answered these questions elsewhere (here or anywhere else online) please link it for me.

Also, I am not a Roman Catholic so please do not think of me as such.

Thank you,
John

EBW said...

A.A. Hodge comments on the WCF:

" All synods and 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. That is, these synods and councils, consisting of uninspired men, have no power to bind the conscience, and their authority cannot exclude the right, nor excuse the obligation, of PRIVATE JUDGEMENT. If their judgements are unwise, but not directly opposed to the will of God, the PRIVATE MEMBER should submit for peace' sake. IF their decisions are opposed plainly to the Word of God, the PRIVATE MEMBER SHOULD DISREGARD THEM AND TAKE THE PENALTY."

Now it is common knowledge among the Reformed to exercise the power of the keys, sometimes through discipline.
1)Private admonition
2)Public admonition
3)suspension
4)excommunication

In your Reformed community, when a disagreement concerning things touching the interpretation of the scriptures reach these levels, a clash occurs between the the Private and the Public.
Should this Private Judge take the penalties and declare the Scripture excommunicated or submit to the ordinace of Christ in the power of the minister ?

Matthew D. Schultz said...

Ikonophile,

You ask a good question. (It has been answered before, but since this is probably one of the more critical objections to Protestantism, it is covered often in a variety of contexts, and I have no objection to discussing it again.) The short answer is that I don't think the problem can be overcome (even though I still think reliable and confident conclusions can be reached).

With respect to your proffered solution (and I think I properly understand it, but you are welcome to correct me if I am wrong), I'm not sure appeals to an infallible body resolve the problem of human fallibility. If the objection to certainty is grounded in the epistemic fallibility of the human mind, this position needs to be applied consistently to whatever solutions are offered. If an infallible body speaks, I must interpret the infallible material it produces using my fallible mind. How then can I be sure (as you are using the term) my fallible interpretations of the infallible body are correct? It seems the question of confidence is not answered, only merely pushed back one level.

A standard rejoined at this stage is to suggest that the Magisterium (or, in the case of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Church) is living--that it can issue corrections, form councils, exercise official teaching authority, etc. What I don't understand about this rejoinder is how it overturns or corrects or helps alleviate human fallibility. Human fallibility would apply just as equally in every case of correction and guidance as it did when reading the Scriptures. The analogy of the door-to-door salesman trying to peddle his wares to people speaking a different language applies well in this situation; regardless of how loud the salesman speaks or how many corrections he issues, understanding is not accomplished.

Consider a real life example: if you were alive during one of the Christological controversies of the early church, how would the concept of the infallibility of the Church have helped give you sure confidence that your Christology was correct? Perhaps you would say that validly appointed bishops attended an ecumenical council that ruled on the subject, and you could therefore trust its conclusions. But this trust would depend on your proper identification of the Church and who constitutes its proper representatives. This, of course, would be no small task, and would necessarily invoke your fallible interpretations of both Scripture and history. The kind of confidence you're suggesting we should have seems either impossible to obtain or no substantially different than the Protestant's position.

If we cannot gain reliable or confident access to the meaning of God's Words in Scripture by virtue of our fallible nature, I do not see how this is resolved by an appeal to an infallible body. We must be as equally skeptical of our interpretations of the infallible body as we are of our interpretations of Scripture.

Matthew D. Schultz said...

EBW,

It would be helpful to provide a source for your quotation.

You ask:

Should this Private Judge take the penalties and declare the Scripture excommunicated or submit to the ordinace of Christ in the power of the minister

I'm having some difficulty discerning your question. What do you mean by "declare the Scripture excommunicated"? It would also be helpful to explain the general nature of your inquiry in more detail.

EBW said...

Mr. Shultz,

The quote is taken from AA Hodge's commentary on WCF of Chpt 31 Synods and Councils. Finding the text on line is fairly easy. Sorry for the absent source.

I agree with your recommendation toward RC lay-apologists. RC should see the great chasm between Anabapist/Reformed approach to the Scriptures. In fact, Calvin was careful to ride the middle between Anbpts and RC concerning the Spirit and the written Word.

This chasm is seen in the case of those who are encouraged to practice private judgement, but not at the expense of the public creed. According to the WCF, the Church has a right to compose a creed and make public confession.
If the PJ interprets scripture in a way "not consonant to the Word of God", then he must receive
penalties. But if the decisions of the ecclesial court are not "consonant", then the PJ may need to endure penalties while he can disregard the decision.

It seems the PJ may see HIMSELF and SCRIPTURE being excommunicated. If this is the case, then what should he do ?
Submit to the public creed and the power of the keys or take his stand and imitate the great reformers before him ?

Remember that being "consonate to the Word of God" is the only lawful justification to oppose Christ ordained authority.

Matthew D. Schultz said...

He should do whatever constitutes following the will of God.

Ikonophile said...

Matthew:

So what you are offering is no better than the RCC or the OC.

"The short answer is that I don't think the problem can be overcome (even though I still think reliable and confident conclusions can be reached)."

If the problem can't be overcome then I have no assurance of any particular belief that I hold whether I'm RC, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox. I'm not sure how reliable and confident conclusions can be reached, as you believe they can be if the problem cannot be overcome.

Take one comment by a blogger on another post on this site. I will paraphrase: When asked when he thought the Catholic Church went downhill he said it was at the seventh ecumenical council when the "establishment" of images was dogmatized. I'm putting words in his mouth from this point on but I can only assume that he might well agree with the sixth ecumenical council's dogmatic statements but not the seventh's. Why would he (or myself or anyone) agree with the sixth if he does not also agree with the seventh? Both councils were, as the post says, "the Church of God as a whole, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit". At least those Christians then would have claimed such. If one doesn't accept the seventh or even the sixth, then why the third, second or first? Why should I be a Trinitarian at all? If the Body of Christ cannot in some capacity make dogmatic statements that we can know to be true, then why am I even a Christian?

I'm not going to pretend that my post is very consistent in thought. Forgive me, these are just somethings that come to mind as I read your comments and the post. I have much more digging to do before I can answer these questions thoroughly.

Thank you for taking the time to answer what you have.

John

Matthew D. Schultz said...

Ikonophile writes:

So what you are offering is no better than the RCC or the OC.

That is what I'm driving at with respect to claimed infallible leadership. I don't see the problem of human fallibility resolved through this method.

If the problem can't be overcome then I have no assurance of any particular belief that I hold whether I'm RC, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox. I'm not sure how reliable and confident conclusions can be reached, as you believe they can be if the problem cannot be overcome.

Would you apply this reasoning to other fields of knowledge? For example, do you think we can't have "reliable and confidence" conclusions about scientific, historical, ethical, etc. fields?

Obviously I'm speaking about those fields in which the Church offers no infallible guidance. For example, let's suppose you stumble across the following two sentences in the course of one day:

a) Il fait du neige.
b) Caramel is delicious!

Do you need an infallible body to allow you to arrive at reliable and confident conclusions about the nature of these sentences, such as (a) being a French objective statement about the weather or (b) being an English subjective statement about the taste of a kind of confection?

It doesn't seem you would. Unless you argue that the kind of knowledge in religious (or similar) fields is so fundamentally different from the kind of knowledge available in other areas, I suspect it reasonable to say we can also come to reliable and confident conclusions about theological issues, e.g. the Trinity, without an infallible interpreter.

Why would he (or myself or anyone) agree with the sixth if he does not also agree with the seventh? Both councils were, as the post says, "the Church of God as a whole, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit". At least those Christians then would have claimed such. If one doesn't accept the seventh or even the sixth, then why the third, second or first?

There are a lot of issues here. Broadly they fall under two categories: 1) What makes a council Ecumenical? 2) What supporting evidence and arguments can be used to justify that criteria as valid?

If we accept as valid Eastern Orthodox criteria for what constitutes a valid ecumenical council, then it would (ostensibly, at least) make sense to ask these kinds of questions. But if we judge the validity of ecumenical councils by a different standard, then it's quite possible to end up accepting some or rejecting others.

If the Body of Christ cannot in some capacity make dogmatic statements that we can know to be true, then why am I even a Christian?

The question, I think, is whether infallible dogmatic statements are required. Berkhof thinks dogmatic statements can be made in some capacity.

I'm not going to pretend that my post is very consistent in thought. Forgive me, these are just somethings that come to mind as I read your comments and the post. I have much more digging to do before I can answer these questions thoroughly.

Take what time you need. There's no expectation that you force answers to questions or issues you're not ready to tackle, or that every thought you offer should be a finely polished jewel ready for scrupulous inspection.

Thank you for taking the time to answer what you have.

Thanks for your thoughts as well.

Jae said...

" If an infallible body speaks, I must interpret the infallible material it produces using my fallible mind. How then can I be sure (as you are using the term) my fallible interpretations of the infallible body are correct?"

We don't need to be rocket scientists to just plainly comprehend the infallible Teachings of the Church.

This is what ultimately the lame "defense" of what Prots could come up. (probably from James White).

The Church says, Jesus is both God and man, died on the cross to redeem us and whoever denies this is anathema....which part of the sentence we don't understand?

The Church says, a free and deliberate act of artificial contraception is against the will of God and anyone who commits such an act is guilty of grave sin...which part of the sentence we don't understand?

If you can't even be 100% "infallibly" sure of the first one (as you have admitted by your own logic) then there is absolutely no quarantee to the truthfulness of the things you have said.

Jae said...

" I SUSPECT IT REASONABLE to say we can also come to reliable and confident conclusions about theological issues, e.g. the Trinity, without an infallible interpreter"

Revealed Divine (Christian) doctrine is to be ascertain and establish by confident guessing?

Is this the certainty of the truth of the protestant "faith"?

And what is the infallible source of truth (Bible) for if one couldn't able to make an infallible interpretation then???

It just defeats the purpose.

Matthew D. Schultz said...

Jae, thanks for demonstrating, yet again, that you can't be trusted to debate in good faith.

We don't need to be rocket scientists to just plainly comprehend the infallible Teachings of the Church.

Then we don't need to be rocket scientists to just plainly comprehend the infallible teachings of Scripture.

And then it follows we don't need an infallible interpreter.

This response simply ignores the discussion I've had with Ikonophile. I don't know why you think it reflects well on you to simply jump into a conversation you give no evidence of having followed.

This is what ultimately the lame "defense" of what Prots could come up. (probably from James White).

Let's play a game Jae. It's called Find the Fallacy. I'll be nice and let you go first.

Revealed Divine (Christian) doctrine is to be ascertain and establish by confident guessing?

Nice weasel wording. Maybe you should consider a career as a defense attorney.

And what is the infallible source of truth (Bible) for if one couldn't able to make an infallible interpretation then???

And of what use is the infallible Magisterium if one is not able to make an infallible interpretation of it?

EBW said...

Now what should others do when they see the disagreement ? Both can't be following the will of God ? At least not the will of precept and command ?

Matthew D. Schultz said...

EBW,

I would appreciate if you would be explicit in making your point.

EBW said...

Mr. Shultz,

I can see your dissatisfied with my comments. My pattern of thoughts and questions seemed natural to the post.


Explicit:

Approach to Scripture is different between Reformed and Anabaptist.
The difference rests more so in Reformed ecclesiology -vs hermeneutics. So, the example of the PJ -vs- lawful ministers should have highlighted this.

More explicit:

The words of AA Hodge and WCF show that the PJ really suffers during the disagreements. The Reformers, Calvin in particular, are more consistent with Anabaptists in their disagreements with lawful authority.

Does all this mean that asking questions is not desired ?

Thanks for your time.

Matthew D. Schultz said...

Does all this mean that asking questions is not desired ?

You can post what you want. I am trying to be faithful to both my time constraints and answering the questions you've directed at me.

John Bugay said...

EBW coyly suggested Approach to Scripture is different between Reformed and Anabaptist.

So what?

The difference rests more so in Reformed ecclesiology -vs hermeneutics. So, the example of the PJ -vs- lawful ministers should have highlighted this.

As a Reformed believer, I do appreciate some of what the Anabaptists were doing -- it was a call to further holiness in the lives of their co-religionists. As in my "junk drawer" post, they were very much interested in throwing out the garbage and calling people to Christ and to repentance. That in itself is a highly worthy thing to do.

God is the potter; he has crafted these things.

No, I don't believe they got everything right. But who is to say that their call (that is, the call they put forth) wasn't precisely the message that God intended for the growing Protestant churches at that moment.

EBW seems to be in the mode to say "Protestants disagree, therefore Catholicism is infallible." But that doesn't follow at all.

EBW said...

Mr. Shultz,

Again, thanks for your time and responses.

EBW

Mr. Bugay,
coyly ? I began with "explicit", SO WHAT are you talking about ?
Maybe cooly ? But I've never been to Asiatic lands!

Agreements depend on disagreements
like truth-bearing depends on false witness. It shows the stronger as truly vital. Even you are forced to conclude that the visible catholic church founded by Christ, under the gospel, is "infallible".
Rom. 14:4
WCF Ch.XXV V.
..nevertheless, there shall be ALWAYS a church on earth, to woship God according to his will

If I were an Anabaptist, then thanksgiving would pour from my lips on account of your private judgement toward my more/less purity under the gospel.
As a RC, I'm thankful that your judgement, consonant to Word of God, reveals my synagogue of Satan status. Of course, you know these things like your father Calvin who
enjoyed professing the TRUE RELIGION (WCF ChXXV II.)

John Bugay said...

EBW, you said: Even you are forced to conclude that the visible catholic church founded by Christ, under the gospel, is "infallible".

Christ founded a church, Christ builds the church, but it is not clear at all that it is (a) "a visible church," (b) a "catholic" church, or (c) that it is infallible.

Don't forget the first part of WCF 25: I. The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.

Neither of the items you cited in support of the idea of infallibility actually gets there, except by leap of faith. You cited Romans 14:4:

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

And also WCF 25:5:

V. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error: and some have so degenerated as to become apparently no Churches of Christ. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to his will.

What these items say is that Christ will always support his people. That "invisible" church you conveniently ignored. It says nothing about a group of bishops being able to infallibly decide doctrines that are binding for all times, as you suggest.

And whether Protestants disagree on things or not, has nothing to do with the weakness of the claims of "infallibility" that Rome claims for itself.