Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Simple Fact of Life

Here's a reply I gave over at Jason J. Stellman's blog:

Bryan Cross writes:

If I may ask, in your opinion, how does Protestantism not reduce to submitting to the Church only when the Church's teaching sufficiently agrees with one's own interpretation of Scripture?

I first need to clear some philosophical brush in order to address the issue you're raising.

1. We need to have in mind a particular definition of Protestantism. I don't know what you have in mind, but we need to be specific; we can't speak of how Protestantism, broadly defined to include anyone not Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, reduces to X since, as I've asserted in the threads I linked above, and implied here, there is something fundamentally different about how a certain subset of Protestantism approaches hermeneutical concerns as compared with how the Reformers and their modern adherents approach the same issue. (This is not to mention the fact that more than just these two paradigms find their home under this broader umbrella of Protestantism.) There's no prima facie reason to lump them together and assume both paradigms "reduce" to the same kind of individualism. That would require a substantial argument; I dispute the implication that Reformed Protestantism assumes the burden of proof.

2. That said, it would depend, in part, on what you mean by "reduce." I suspect you have in mind a definition of the term I would either reject as false or find equally problematic for the Roman Catholic denomination's epistemological and theological claims.

3. The other part of the question is the practical application of the sola Scriptura paradigm to questions of conscience. If we think something essential to the Church's teachings, as formulated in its creeds and confessions in the particular denomination of which we are members, is objectionable, we can either act like modern, Western Evangelicals and immediately go "church shopping" for something which agrees with us or, as Turretin advised, carefully and respectfully seek resolution within the proper Church channels. (Here I am speaking of how this works itself out at the local level within a local church, which is an expression of the Church.) If this course of action progresses for sometime (ideally, in one sense, until the very end) without a satisfactory resolution, we will eventually have to either submit to the authority of the Church (as expressed in the local congregation or larger body of local congregations, e.g. as in a Presbyterian paradigm) and trust it has properly handled the issue despite our concerns or remove ourselves from its communion.

4. The whole process of #3 is what fundamentally differentiates Reformed Protestantism from various individualistic approaches to Scripture. Deliberation is careful and cautious, it is done within the proper confines of the Church and its aim is to serve the unity of the Body. There is no such process or thought in some modern Evangelical approaches. The individualist might, at best, ask some friends for advice. But then she will choose for herself without even entertaining the idea that she should also consider submitting to the judgments of the Church as expressed by her local pastor and elders even though she has unresolved concerns at that time.

5. In the event an individual eventually decides to leave, she has not done anything any denomination can prevent. The best a denomination can do is both establish impediments to hasty action and implement a disciplinary structure. If someone perseveres through these impediments and eventually decides to accept the consequences of discipline (and ultimate excommunication) then the local body, if it has faithfully implemented these measures, has done all it can and the blame for the separation rests not on the Church but on the individual. For example, would you say Catholicism reduces to individualism because some Catholics attempt to have women or unrepentant, practicing homosexuals ordained as priests and then, when these attempts are refused and denounced by the Magisterium, either try to claim themselves as Catholic after having self-excommunicated themselves or leave the denomination? No, since what we're driving into is a simple fact of life--people are free to do whatever they want with whatever resources they have. Diotrephes sat under John, yet fell away from the faith. Does that mean discipleship under John reduces to individualism? Judas followed Christ, yet ultimately betrayed him. Does that mean following Christ reduces to individualism? No on both counts. So also does it seem unreasonable to fault sola Scriptura for whatever individuals decide to reject the teachings of the Church as expressed through the local congregation of which they are a part.

Whatever argument you're going to make on this entire point should take into account: (a) the different authority paradigm under which Reformation theology is deliberated and the place of the layperson within that paradigm, (b) the practical outworking of this paradigm at the local level (properly practiced) as compared with the actions and attitudes of individualistic Evangelicals in similar situations, and (c) the practical problem of the sinful will with which every communion of professing Christians must deal.


Jason Engwer said...

In addition to the points Matthew has made above, I would make an observation that needs to be repeated so often in response to Catholics. Before they use an argument, they ought to think about the implications of applying that argument consistently. What implications would their argument have if applied to Catholicism or if applied to other areas of life outside of Protestantism?

On issues of submitting to authority, one of the questions Catholics should ask themselves is how they approach other authorities in life, such as parents and the state. Or how do they choose which denomination and which local church to attend, and what are the implications of the fact that they make such choices as individuals? Does the state have to be infallible in order for Biblical passages about submission to the state to make sense and be significant?

If the state commands something the individual Catholic considers immoral, will he place authorities like scripture and the church higher than the state in his hierarchy of authorities? Yes. Does it follow that state authority doesn't make sense or has no significance for a Catholic? No. Does it follow that Catholics only submit to the state when the state agrees with them? No. A Catholic may disagree with a high tax rate or a low speed limit, yet submit to both, given that neither violates a higher authority. Similarly, a Protestant would submit to his church's decision to hold Sunday services an hour earlier than he'd prefer, his church's decision that he won't teach a Sunday school class that he wants to teach, etc. Protestants often submit to their church on issues they disagree with the church about. But they don't believe their denomination is infallible, much as Catholics don't believe the state is infallible.

Viisaus said...

The known phenomenon of "Cafeteria Catholicism" could well be interpreted as truly individualistic chaos that the sacramentalist RC system is unable to control, its pretensions to the contrary. The clerical bosses simply have no guts to perform some radically effective actions like forbidding all pro-abortion RCs from joining the Mass.

Moreover, as some Protestants have pointed out, the whole logic of the Romish sacrament of Penance and Absolution makes a mockery of the necessity of holy living that is supposed to be the RC trump card against loose Protestant easy-believism:

pp. 8-9

"Suppose a man to have lived in a course of wickedness for fifty or sixty years, and being now upon his deathbed, to be attrite for his sins, that is, heartily to grieve for them only out of the fear of hell, (and he is a bold man indeed that will not in earnest fear hell when it gapes upon him, and is ready to devour him,) and in that fear to purpose amendment of life, if God restore him, and to have a hope of pardon; (and in so comfortable a Church as the Roman, who hath any reason to despair?) this man, according to the doctrine of the Council of Trent, though he cannot be saved without the sacrament of Penance, yet with it he may.

If he hath but breath enough to tell the Priest the sad story of his vicious life, and beg absolution, he can do wonders for him more than God Himself ever promised: he can, by pronouncing only a few words over him, presently translate him from death to life; and make him, that was all his life before a child of the devil, in one moment the son of God, and an heir of salvation.

Let not, therefore, the Church of Rome boast any more of the strictness and severity of her doctrine; and that she especially presseth good works, and the necessity of a holy life; when it is apparent, that by such loose propositions as these, she utterly destroys that necessity. Indeed it may be truly affirmed, that there is no society of Christians in the world, where Antinomianism and libertinism more reign, than among the Papists, into whose very faith they are interwoven, and men are taught them by the definitions of their Church. It is no wonder so many vicious persons, especially when they come to die, turn Papists, and no visitants are so welcome to them as the Roman Confessors. They find them very easy and comfortable doctors for men in their desperate case, and admire their rare invention, who have found out a shorter way to heaven, and a readier one to escape hell and damnation, than the Scriptures ever discovered, or their former Ministers of the Church of England, following the guidance of the Scriptures, durst warrant to them."

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"I first need to clear some philosophical brush in order to address the issue you're raising."

You did a fine job in clearing away the philosophical brush for Mr. Bryan Cross.

I hope he'll be able to see and understand the issue better once the self-induced haze has been lifted from his eyes, mind, and heart.