Aids or Idols? The Place of Images in Worship

By Robin Phillips

In 2007, my family moved from an Anglican church in England to a CREC denomination in Idaho. The changes involved in this transition were entirely positive for us. We have been continually blessed to be involved in a church that takes Christian education seriously, is committed to faithful exposition of the Word and practices Biblical accountability, to name just a few of the many blessings we have benefited from.

But there were also some changes that were less than easy to adjust to, especially given our Anglican background. One of these was the institutionalized antipathy in American Protestantism against using visual objects as aids to worship.

The issue surfaced for me last year after my wife and step-daughter went to New Saint Andrews College to attend a lecture by visiting lecturer James Jordan. Our church had recommended the event, no doubt partly because Jordan, like Jeff Meyers, has played a seminal role in helping to shape the self-understanding of worship within the CREC.

I wasn’t able to attend the lecture, but when Esther returned she had some questions she needed to talk through with me. This is because Jordan made some confusing claims about the alleged sinfulness of using visual objects in worship. As I struggled to interact with my wife’s questions, I was forced to consider the question afresh: is it ever appropriate to use visual objects as a means of, or an aid to, the worship of God?

By ‘objects’, I mean any kind of two dimensional or three dimensional representation used in the context of public worship or private devotions. Obviously this is a huge category which encompasses an array of practices, stretching from the benign to the idolatrous. It is beyond the scope of this post to inquire into the legitimacy of any one specific practice; instead, I would like to raise the prior and more general question: what principles should undergird our thinking about this issue? 

 

Eradicating the Visual

I begin by returning to the question in its most general terms: is it ever appropriate to use visual objects as a means of, or an aid to, the worship of God?

On this question, the Protestant reformed tradition to which I belong answers with a resounding no. In discussing the second commandment, the Westminster divines not only forbad worshiping representations of God, but also “the making of any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever.” (Westminster Larger Catechism) While the Catechism does not explicitly reject representations of saints, the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 takes care of that. As our church works its way through the latter Catechism, every year one of the men stands up and asks the congregation, “may not images be permitted in the churches as teaching aids for the unlearned?” The people are instructed to answer with is a resounding: “No, we shouldn’t try to be wiser than God. He wants his people instructed by the living preaching of his Word not by idols that cannot even talk.” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 35) 

The automatic association between visual aids and idolatry does seem tenuous, as was the Westminster Assembly’s decision to support their argument against Christian iconography with proof texts that uniformly refer to Israel’s worship of false gods. Calvin seems to make the same mistake in Book 1, Chapter 11 of The Institutes, where his argument against Christian images rests on the assumption that such images are idolatry (and, of course, if that is your starting point, then it is very easy to construct a Biblical case against them!)

But this raises a legitimate question: is it even possible to eradicate all visual stimuli from the worship of God? We may be able to worship the Lord in a room with bare walls, but how many of us who can honestly claim to have sat through one church service without at some point representing God “inwardly” in our mind. If we are good regulative-principle-Calvinists, then every time we sing the Psalms are we not endorsing the use of created things as means of, or aid in, or prompt to (call it whatever you like) worship, seeing that frequently the Psalmists reach the peak of worship only after considering and meditating on the visible phenomena of the natural world? In this regard I am sad to have to inform my reader that not even the Psalmists use of the natural world measures up to a consistent application of Jordan’s strict criteria, for he writes that, “He meets man in the Word of God, in language, and because God is incorporeal, He meets man in language alone.” Jordan’s own application of this is that “God does not meet man in music. Nor does he meet man in visual art of any sort.” But if music and art are to be ruled out as legitimate means by which the Christian can “meet with God” (a position I have indirectly refuted HERE, by the way), then does it not follow that the natural world must also be ruled out? On the other hand, if we allow that we can meet with God in the natural world, since it “declares the glory of God” (Psalm 19) and moves us to spontaneous praise when we contemplate it (Psalm 97), then on what basis are we prepared to say artistic sub-creation cannot serve a similar end? If the things that God made can be so central to worship, why not the things that man makes which equally reflect the beauty of God’s holiness (Psalm 90:17)? If it is appropriate for the sight of God’s handiwork in the firmament to propel us to new heights of worship (Ps. 19:1-6), then why is it not appropriate for the sight of God’s handiwork in his saints (and I have Christian iconography in mind here) to propel us to new heights of worship? None of these questions can be adequately answered without first taking the time to develop a theology of sub-creation and to explore the spiritual function of art in the Bible. The development of such a theology is beyond the scope of this post, although enough theological work has already been done on this subject by others to convince me that such a project is in principle possible.

 

Worshiping God with Graven Images

It may be useful here to distinguish between private worship and public worship. “Of course,” one might rejoin, “there is nothing wrong with lapsing into praise of God because you have just climbed a majestic mountain or beheld a lovely sunset. In that sense, created things may certainly aid us in personally worshiping God. But public corporate worship is a different matter entirely. When gathering to worship God in the sanctuary, there shouldn’t be anything visual that assists us.

The problem with this argument is that the public worship of God in ancient Israel did include a vast array of visual objects and “graven images.” It is hard to read the descriptions of the temple and dismiss the precious stones (2 Chron 3:6), the carved Cherubim (3:7), the two Cherubim carved in the Most Holy place (3:10-13), the one hundred pomegranates on wreaths of chain work (3:16), the molten sea or bath supported by the likeness of oxen (2 Chron 4:1-5), etc., as mere decoration rather than a means of worshiping Yahweh. The people of God always understood that the plethora of images throughout the temple was fundamentally different to the images of false gods, the worship of which God had forbidden by the second commandment (Deut 5:8-9; Ex. 20:4-5). They also apparently saw no contradiction between the Lord’s command to make these carved images for the temple, on the one hand, and his prohibition of all “likenesses” in Deuteronomy 4:16-19, on the other.

In James Jordan’s book The Liturgy Trap, he writes that the second commandment “means that no pictures of God, angels, or saints are allowed. It also means no pictures of men, dogs, whales, trees, or anything else are allowed.” How do we square this with the fact that God mandated pictures of both angelic beings and animals in His temple? When writing about the temple shortly afterwards, Jordan does qualify his earlier prohibitions by saying that “We are free to make pictures and sculptures of things in the creation, including heavenly things…it is not wrong to have pictures, including faces, in the house of worship–provided we never, ever bow down toward them.”  Then later on he adds another qualification: not only are we never to bow down to the pictures in the house of worship, but we are not allowed to even look at them! As he says, “the only thing to look at in worship is other people.” I must confess that all of this seems most confusing to me. What is the point of allowing pictures in the sanctuary if people are not allowed to look at them? Are we to conclude that the art God ordered for the temple was not intended to be looked at? Even though the whole temple complex was designed to facilitate the worship of God, are we to conclude that the graven images in the temple were extrinsic to such worship?

 

Attributing Form to God

In appealing to the Old Testament temple, I do not want to gloss over the important paradigm shifts that have occurred between the Old Testament to the New Testament. But does scripture give us any explicit or implicit warrant for assuming that use of visual representations in worship is one of those changes? Does the New Testament ever abrogate the Old Testament’s use of visual representations in worship? Granted that the temple system has now been abolished, and that the symbols we use in Christian worship should reflect that important shift, are we to assume that the very principle of using visual representations in worship has changed? On the contrary, if anything, the incarnation would seem to further legitimize the use of such objects in worship. After all, the second person of the Trinity became a visual object Himself, taking on the form of one of God’s image-bearers. While this does not, in itself, suddenly legitimize the use of representations of God Himself in worship (although it should not be overlooked that Deut. 4:15-16 can no longer be truthfully said since mankind has now seen the form of God through the incarnation), it does underscore the fact that our faith needs to be robustly sacramental, rendering visible that which is invisible, even as Jesus was the image of the invisible God (John 1:18, Col. 1:15; Heb 1:3). From here, it is an easy step to the contention that visual objects can play an important role in new covenant worship, even as visual objects played an important role in old covenant worship. Only by introducing a radical discontinuity between the two covenants does it seem possible to justify the type of language used by the reformed creeds on this issue.

In his chapter in the Institutes on the “Impiety of Attributing A Visible Form to God”, Calvin considers the various times God did appear in a form, as when He appeared in the cloud, the smoke, the flame, and when the Holy Spirit appeared under the form of a dove. Conspicuously lacking in Calvin’s catalogue is the incarnation itself, although Calvin does mention the times when “God sometimes appeared in the form of a man…in anticipation of the future revelation in Christ.” Had the revelation of Christ itself qualified as an instance of God appearing in visible form, one wonders whether Calvin could still have confidently concluded that 

It is true that the Lord occasionally manifested his presence by certain signs, so that he was said to be seen face to face; but all the signs he ever employed were in apt accordance with the scheme of doctrine, and, at the same time, gave plain intimation of his incomprehensible essence

Or consider later in the same chapter of the Institutes:

“The Lord, however, not only forbids any image of himself to be erected by a statuary, but to be formed by any artist whatever, because every such image is sinful and insulting to his majesty.” 

How these statements of Calvin’s can square with the reality of the incarnation remains unclear. The Protestants who have followed in Calvin’s wake have manifested the same type of hermeneutical schizophrenia which is happy to interpret the fourth commandment through the lens of Christ’s resurrection yet fails to interpret the second commandment through the lens of the incarnation – that great event when visible form was attributed to God.

I am not saying that because of the incarnation that our church services can now become a big free for all, or that public worship can legitimately include elements that fall outside broad scriptural warrant. In this regard, I agree with the nuanced version of the Regulative Principle that Jeff Meyers has articulated in his book The Lord’s Service. But I am suggesting that if we are prepared to incorporate the denunciation of all images into the very worship service itself (which is what we are doing if we read the Heidelberg Catechism during the service), and if we are prepared to dismiss as idolatry those traditions stretching back hundreds of years which use images (which is the implication of the Westminster Catechism treating the issue under the Second Commandment), and if we are to join Jordan condemning as “apostate” all who leave our reformed churches to become a high Anglican (see below), then we need some pretty clear scriptural warrant. At the moment, I struggle to see that such warrant can be found in scripture.

The Dangers of Idolatry

In no way is it my intention to gloss over the dangers of idolatry. Indeed, the attempt of Eastern Orthodox iconographers to portray Jesus in His deity, like icons of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, does seem to run counter to Deuteronomy 4:15. Moreover, when we see our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers bowing before icons, we would do well to ponder whether the line between veneration and worship is as clear as they like to maintain. Maintaining the distinction between veneration and worship does not make one immune to the sin of idolatry since such a distinction was also a hallmark of classical idolatry (the pagans always knew the difference between the venerated statue of Diana and the goddess herself).

However, even on the issue of bowing before icons of venerated saints, it is possible that the question is not as clear cut as Protestants have typically assumed. While bowing down before someone is frequently associated with worship in the Bible (Acts 10:26; Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9), this is not always the case. James Jordon recognizes this in The Liturgy Trap and argues that bowing down before men is often Biblically appropriate. In fact, he even advocates having the pastor bow before the congregation. What Jordon will not allow is bowing before inanimate objects. Yet it is a point worthy of mention that the Bible gives examples where the saints express devotion to God by bowing down before inanimate object such as the Temple or the altar in the Temple (Psalm 5:7; 2 Chr. 29:28-30) or fire that comes from God (2 Chron. 7:3) or the reading of the Word (Nehemiah 8). I am not arguing that because of these things that it is therefore legitimate to bow before Christian artwork. But I am suggesting that these passages undermine the knee-jerk assumption that any time a person bows to an inanimate object he is automatically committing idolatry.

Certainly, when images of saints are placed in the most prominent position in the sanctuary, one may legitimately ask whether they are functioning as a distraction rather than as an aid in the worship of the Triune God. However, even here it is easy to forget that when the book of Revelation shows us what a worship service in Heaven looks like, what we find is departed saints gathered around the innermost sanctuary of God’s throne room. Imitating this Biblical model and populating the sanctuary with saints cannot be wholly without warrant. Certainly idolatry is always a danger whenever a good thing is embraced. To try to eradicate all potential for idolatry (which seems to be what motivates many Protestants to eliminate all visual aids in worship) would be to dismiss every good gift which the Lord has given us.

It also seems that we should be cautious of the tendency to guard most tenaciously against those heresies that are generally not temptations to us, while lowering our defenses against those excesses which we really ought to be guarding against. High church Calvinists like myself love to talk about the dangers of dualism just as modern evangelicals love to talk about the dangers of externalism and ritualism, while fundamentalists like to focus on the dangers of liberalism. At some level, such polemics can function to obscure the idols in our own midst. Applied to the question before us, we would do well to question whether the paranoia among American Protestants against the alleged idolatry of using visual objects in worship has obscured the Gnosticism, Docetism and semi-Manichaeism in their own camp. 

 

The Slippery Slope

This is not merely an academic concern: I have been involved in more than one Protestant group that has descended down the slippery slope from the matter/spiritual dualism of radical Protestantism (with the corollary pessimism of visual objects in worship) to Gnosticism and then finally to the New Age. Usually this process occurs over many generations. It is easy for Evangelicals to think about visual objects in worship as the slippery slope to idolatry and externalism, while being oblivious to the very real sense in which the elimination of these things can function as the slippery slope into a worse state of affairs. This was something that Dorothy Sayers was acutely conscious of when her play, The Man Born to be King, was criticized for represented Christ on the stage. At the time she wrote the play, there was a law forbidding the representation of Christ on the stage unless the producer first received a special dispensation. In her introduction to The Man Born to be King Sayers suggested that this law had “helped to foster the notion that all such representations were intrinsically wicked, and had encouraged a tendency, already sufficiently widespread, towards that Docetic and totally heretical Christology which denies the full Humanity of our Lord.” (See my recent blog post, “Dorothy Sayers and the Aliveness of all Things.”)

Along these lines, one cannot help but wonder whether the slippery slope from rationalism to liberalism and from liberalism to apostasy that has ravaged the Puritan’s American descendants may have started, in part, with an overly cerebral orientation that would never have been sustainable had the whole body (ears, mouth and eyes) been robustly participating in the worship of the Triune God. It should also not be overlooked that the dualisms of dispensational movement only came about after years of non-physical worship oriented the American church to unconsciously think of matter and spirit as divisible. We might also ask with profit whether the tendency towards a privatized religion that is pushed on us from both secularism and much of the Postmodern project (and has resulted in the apostasy of so young people from Christian homes), is made more plausible by the Gnostic and semi-Manichaean orientation that is in the very air of Anglo-American Protestant culture and for which the use of images in worship can serve as a practical antidote. This is a point that Thomas Howard makes in his excellent book Evangelical is not Enough. Howard remarks that

…the Reformation has a lively sense of how prone we all are to magic and idolatry. We mortals would much rather bob at the cross than embrace its truth in our hearts. To light candles is much easier for us than to be consumed with the self-giving fire of charity so effectively symbolized by those candles. We lavish respect on the altar at the front of the church and neglect the sacrifice of a pure heart. Evangelicalism presses home these observations, quite rightly.

But it is one thing to see dangers; it is another to be true to the Faith in all of its amplitude. By avoiding the dangers of magic and idolatry on the one hand, evangelicalism runs itself very near the shoals of Manichaeanism on the other – the view, that is, that pits the spiritual against the physical. Its bare spare churches, devoid of most Christian symbolism…be speak its correct attempt to keep the locale of faith where it must ultimately be, in the heart of man. But by denying the whole realm of Christian life and practice the principle that it allows in all the other realms of life, namely, the principle of symbolism and ceremony and imagery, it has, despite its loyalty to orthodox doctrine, managed to give a semi-Manichaean hue to the faith…

If by its practice [our religion] implies that colors and symbols and gestures and ceremonies and smells are inappropriate for the house of the Lord and must be kept outside, for ‘secular’ and domestic celebrations like birthdays, parades, weddings, and Christmas banquets, then it has driven a wedge between his deepest human yearnings and the God who made them. (To read some more quotations from this excellent book, click HERE)

Now naturally idolatry is going to slip in anywhere it can, and it would be fatal to trust to any system of worship as a safeguard against idolatry. Yet the argument that visual objects are a Trojan horse to idolatry can go both ways, as I have attempted to show. In this regard, it should not be overlooked that James Jordan’s rejection of the visual in worship does seem to have led him into a tangled theological quagmire. For example, I am still puzzled by his statement that

To the extent that there is anything at all visual about worship, however, it is found in the presence of living human beings, not in artefacts and not in the sacraments. Everything else that is visible in the place of worship is part of context, not of content.

In a strict sense, of course, only God is the content of our worship. But that has never been the issue. Not even the most icon-kissing-saint-venerating-long-beirded-Eastern-orthodox-Christian-brother would say that images form the content of what we are worshiping. The whole question is whether they are legitimate as part of the context or worshiping God who is the content. If Jordan concedes that visible objects can form part of the context, then why draw an arbitrary distinction when it comes to images? This is not the only problem with the above quotation, however, for are not the sacraments just as “living” as human beings? Am I to close my eyes every time the bread and wine comes to me, lest the sight of the body and blood of Christ pollute my spiritual worship? In fact, if we strive to be complete consistent with the position that we must never use visual objects as a means of, or an aid to, the worship of the triune God, then wouldn’t we have to get rid of church buildings, pews, musical instruments, baptismal water and the elements of the blessed Eucharistic, since these are all visual objects which, in one way or another, assist us in the worship of God?

“Sure,” someone may reply at this point. “there is nothing principally wrong with using artwork and images in the sanctuary as aids to worship, but it does lack wisdom since it could very easily lead into idolatry, especially over successive generations.” The problem with such an argument should be apparent by what I have already said. Certainly one could make an equally convincing case that the absence of images as aids to worship start ourselves and our descendants down the slippery slope towards idolatry. After all, one might argue that the attempt to remove visual apparatuses from the place of worship or to permit them only after careful marginalization of their importance, unwittingly presses home the secular axiom that religion has its locale only in the heart. Doesn’t this collude with the Gnostic notion (revived by post-enlightenment spirituality) that spiritual truth must be kept unbodied?

 

Personal Testimony

This question is not merely one of academic interest. In the Anglican church we used to attend, my step-daughter and wife would find it very helpful to look up into the vaulted ceiling and images of the saints and angels. This would comfort them and remind them of the invisible cloud of witnesses that surrounded them at all times but especially during times of worship. It would also turn their minds immediately to the scriptural descriptions of God’s throne room, in which God is never alone, but always surrounded by both the angelic hosts as well as the departed saints (Rev. 6:9-10) who continually intercede for those still on earth (Rev. 7:9-17). The stained glass pictures of Bible scenes would keep our daughter’s distractible mind on things above and help her to remain focused. The cross at the front would be an ever present aid to remind her of the grounds on which her salvation rested. During the Easter season our daughter found that the stations of the cross – like Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion — powerfully brought her to a place of deep thankfulness as she saw what Jesus had done for her, his suffering and his love. Both were aids for helping her to worship God, just as the mountains, hills and heavens were aids in the worship of God for the Psalmists.

Am I to tell my wife and step daughter that this was all idolatry? That was the question I had to wrestle with when they returned from hearing to James Jordan lecture. Jordan leaves no doubt what his own position is. In his series of articles under, “The Second Word,” on his Biblical Horizons website, Jordan refers to the entirety of Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic traditions as “idolatrous”, “semi-Christian” and “semi-pagan” precisely because of their use of images. In the same series he characterizes the worship in these traditions as being “spiritual masturbation” while those who join these communions are condemned as “apostates.” 

These men already had Christ, the Bible, the Church, the sacraments, true worship, etc.  But they wanted something else.  They wanted idols.  They have yielded to the idolatry of their hearts.  They are apostates. 

But is the issue really that clear-cut? It seems that unless the scripture is very clear on this matter, we should be very hesitant to divide the body of Christ over it, which is what Jordan is doing by implication by suggesting that anyone who joins communions with images has functionally excommunicated himself from the people of God (i.e., become an “apostate”, to use his language).

There is one point on which Jordan and I do agree: the primary purpose of worship is not edification (in the sense of good feelings), or acquiring truth. Neither is worship a tool to satisfy our own psycho-emotional needs. I am in complete agreement with James Jordan’s comments about this in The Liturgy Trap, and especially his contention that worship is a response to God. However, given that the use of symbols and reminders is inescapable in offering this response (as the Psalms so frequently testify), the case for rejecting visual symbols as a means of worship seems tenuous at best and harmful at worst. Just as objects of taste (Eucharist) and objects of touch (Baptism) and objects of smell (Rev. 8:4) and objects of sound (Eph 5:19) can play a necessary role in worship, why do we draw a line when it comes to objects of sight?

Before we were Anglicans we had been involved in a crypto-Gnostic group in which my wife and step-daughter had become thoroughly exhausted through excessive and exclusive reliance on an inner subjective “witness.” When we abandoned that sect for the Anglican church, the visible reminders in the sanctuary of God’s objective work helped to stabilize my wife and step-daughter. It helped eliminate the subjective distractions that would otherwise pull them back into the mentality of the sect we had left. They found that pictures, images, colors, architectural beauties, different bodily postures (kneeling and crossing oneself) allowed the worship of God to permeate into all of life, rather than to be kept in the subjective compartment of the “spiritual.” It helped to underscore the point that our whole salvation is outside of ourselves, as Luther reminded Melanchthon.

I know that my wife and step-daughter are not alone in the experience I have related. Calvin acknowledged that in his day there were “not a few” who didn’t want such visual aids (which, in every case, he refers to as “idols” in his Institutes Book 1, chapter 11) However, he argued that this reflected the “stupidity” of those who had not been instructed in correct doctrine. As he writes,

“Of what use, then, were the erection in churches of so many crosses of wood and stone, silver and gold, if this doctrine were faithfully and honestly preached…?… From this one doctrine the people would learn more than from a thousand crosses of wood and stone. As for crosses of gold and silver, it may be true that the avaricious give their eyes and minds to them more eagerly than to any heavenly instructor.”

 

Disembodied Religion

It is a legitimate concern whether Calvin’s attempt to devalue the role of physical paraphernalia in worship led him to undervalue the role of the blessed Eucharist. Although Calvin makes every attempt to keep Word and Sacrament of equal value, it is clear that the former occupied a place of priority in his mind. If it were not for human weakness, Calvin argues, the Gospel could stand on its own without the need for more primitive means of grace such as the Lord’s Supper. As he writes,

“Forasmuch as we are so ignorant, so given up to earthly and carnal things and fixed upon them, so that we can neither think, understand nor conceive of anything spiritual, the merciful Lord accommodates himself in this to the crudity of our senses.”

According to Calvin then, the Eucharist is merely God’s concession to our materiality! It is hard to get more Gnostic than this. We could dismiss these remarks as out of context with the entire tenor of his theology were it not for the fact that elsewhere he further unveiled his Gnostic colours. For example, he elsewhere writes, “And when Christ commended his spirit to the Father [Luke 23:46] and Stephen his to Christ [Acts 7:59] they mean only that when the soul is freed from the prison house of the body, God is its perpetual guardian. . . .    It is of course true that while men are tied to earth more than they should be they grow dull. . . .” Elsewhere Calvin refers to “this earthly prison of the body. . . .”  The latent Gnosticism behind such statements also led Calvin to suggest that Galatianism was found wherever there is an emphasis on ritual.

In his book Against the Protestant Gnostics, Philip Lee suggests that the possibility that Calvin left the Eucharist dangling, an inadequately attached appendage to his system, could well explain what has happened to the Supper among the spiritual children of Geneva. Building on this, we might also ask whether Calvin’s treatment of the Eucharist as well as his suspicion of using visual objects as aids to worship, were both symptomatic of a false divide between the physical and the spiritual – a divide which has haunted Protestantism and finds fulfilment in the Gnostic subjectivism of the modern evangelical project (See 8 Gnostic Myths You May Have Imbibed and Gnosticism in Evangelical Theology.)

As much as we might lament this false notion of spirituality, and as much as we might long to return to a more holistic and robust expression of our faith, does not the very prohibition of visual objects in the sanctuary underscore the notion that the heart is the appropriate locale of religion? By forbidding visual objects in the sanctuary, are we not unwittingly pressing home the notion that the whole world of painting, whittling, casting and sculpting is a secular arena, while the appropriate object of religion is the “heavenly” world of the unseen? (Such would seem to be a direct implication of James Jordan’s view of salvation history. In his series on the Second Word he suggests that we currently live in the era of the invisible, dominated by hearing, while sight comes at the end of eschatological history.) Further, if our practice implies that colors, symbols, gestures, smells and three-dimensional objects are inappropriate for the house of the Lord and must be reserved for “secular” occasions like birthdays, parades, weddings and Christmas banquets, then are we not driving a wedge between the deepest human yearnings and the God who made them? Are we not reinforcing the myth that Christian truth should be kept unbodied – a myth that has had enormous implications for how modern evangelicals understand the meaning of “kingdom of God” and has virtually eliminated any concept of Christendom from contemporary Protestant consciousness? I leave this question open for our readers to ponder.

67 thoughts on “Aids or Idols? The Place of Images in Worship

  1. Perry Robinson

    Brad,I understand why Rome recognizes Protestant baptisms because they are Catholic though irregular baptisms done with the proper intention by Roman lights. I do not understand, given that Protestants classically reject the doctrine of intention why you’d recognize Rome’s baptisms or ours or what exactly amounts to recognition given that Protestants do not uniformly believe in baptismal regeneration. So perhaps you can tease out exactly what you mean by a Protestant recognition.On the intercommunion front, I would think it would be more of a direct issue establishing communion with your cousins the Lutherans before trying to do so with Rome or the Orthodox.The theology of the church regarding schisms and grace is that they can avail themselves of the external graces available prior to the incarnation, but of the life of the church they are bereft. As even Augustine notes for example, "See what you must beware of – see what you must avoid – see what you must dread. It happens that, as in the human body, some member may be cut off – a hand, a finger, a foot. Does the soul follow the amputated member? As long as it was in the body, it lived; separated, it forfeits its life. So the Christian is a Catholic as long as he lives in the body: cut off from it he becomes a heretic – the life of the spirit follows not the amputated member" (St. Augustine, Sermon cclxvii., n. 4).This is fairly uniform thinking in Athanasius, Cyril and other eastern writers as well. Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to be mean or uncharitable. But the question on the table is what constitutes the church and how is schism possible on your view? I honestly do not grasp this from your perspective and await your explication.As for union with Christ, this is regularly had in baptism, but since for the Orthodox, the baptism of schismatics and heretics are not legit either in terms of form at least and always of efficacy, if it follows a valid form or rite, only becomes valid in terms of sacramental efficacy upon reception into the church and not before. Consequently, we do not recognize professing Christians who are schismatics and/or heretics as historically in the case of say the Novatians as having such union. Secretly, God can of course do so, but what the Church knows is another matter entirely. Hence the precarious and danger of schism is real.Since our sacramental theology doesn’t divide or distinguish the visible and the invisible, and hence our Christology is different as well, in the way Protestants have classically done, we don’t distinguish between the visible and invisible church. Rather, for us the invisible church are those who have died in Christ, not an imperceptible quality or property had by those predestined to glory. This is also in part because we do not understand predestination in the way the Protestants have classically done. Hence, it is not possible for us to recognize schismatics and heretics outside the Church as being part of the Body of Christ. This is why the outward/inward taxonomy doesn’t really wash with us. As for those who have left the church, they therefore leave its historical continuity in terms of sacramental life. Protestants as such were never part of the church from an Orthodox perspective, but part of Rome, which was in schism. And this is what makes Protestantism and its attending problems from a Catholic perspective, a distinctly Catholic problem, built off Catholic theological problematics.From my romp through Nevin, his stuff seems pretty much to be an organicism built off the then prevalent Idealism, either German or Greek, I am not sure which. In the end, my judgment on it seems to be that it is writing checks that the Reformation can’t in principle cash. In any case, Orthodoxy is just a different breed of cat altogether. Nevin’s stuff may serve as a bridge to low or broad church Anglicanism for example, but with respect to Orthodoxy, that dog just won’t hunt. It should be clear from my writing that I am not striving to give simplistic answer, but clear and representative answers. I always aim to produce not my own views or opinions but the teaching of the church in such matters and to grasp it as best I can. So as for how the body of Christ appears to be, your remarks would be germane if I recognized Rome or her Protestant children as participants in that body in terms of being true churches, but I don’t. So how the church appears right now in history from my perspective looks Orthodox.You seemed to be speaking of full doctrinal understanding since you used the example of persons understanding the mysteries. Hence my remarks. If you have some other example to exemplify the idea you have, please bring it forward. As for the idea that we can be in communion without doctrinal unity, I don’t see how this is possible, especially when the Reformed have rejected key parts of Nicene theology-the Father alone as autotheos, baptismal regeneration, apostolic succession, etc. and all of that is apart from the Filioque. I take these things to be heresy in major areas of theology and so I have a hard time understanding how heresy and orthodoxy can be in communion. I am not truing to be simplistic, but to understand how the eucharist can by pass these things. It seems to imply that the judgment of our respective bodies on such matters is of a lower degree of normativity than simply partaking together. But of course since the eucharist itself is constituted formally and ritually by said judgments I have a hard time seeing how that kind of subordination will work.If I believed in a Cranmerian or Virtualistic or Calvinistic view of the Eucharist in terms, which language of feeding on him by faith points to, I might agree with your point, but I don’t. (I’d also be an iconoclast necessarily if I did btw.) I also have a hard time figuring out where the Christological lines are to be drawn in your view. On my reading the Reformed have historically held to a Nestorian or Nestorianizing Christology, not to mention a form of Monothelitism and Monoenergism. If we were to admit them, we’d have to admit the Monophysites and the Nestorians too, and Rome as well. But the Reformed have historically denied inter-communion to all these bodies on the grounds that their Christology is heretical. As I’ve noted previously, the Reformed to not adhere to the meaning of a number of phrases in the Creed as was intended by its crafters and so we may recite the same, but there is an equivocation on the meaning of the terms. As I noted before, the Reformed reject the meaning of God of God and such phrases which denoted not only the eternal generation of the Son but more directly that the Father alone is autotheos, which phrases in the Creed were designed to articulate and protect. The same goes on what constitutes catholicity and apostolicity as well as the teaching of baptismal regeneration in the creed. These are all well known rejections and re-definitions by the Reformed since the time of Calvin. You can read Muller, Warfield or whomever to see say the arguments with Caroli over Calvin’s refusal to sign on to the Creed or his explicit denial of Nicene Triadology with the Father alone as autotheos. As I’ve said previously, this is all well known. The dropping of the Filioque is a step in the right direction, but it is token. We require a dropping of the theology of it too. And this would require a major re-working of your Triadology since without it, given the persons are self subsisting relations of the essence to itself, it would not be possible to distinguish the Son and the Spirit from each other. The Filioque is the last leg of the explanatory process in that model. Without it, the model collapses and so a re-working of Trinitarianism has to be done.I am not attempting to be a stick in the mud, but rather to lay things out on the table as they are. If you wish to have ecumenical discussions, it is important to recognize how others on the other side of the table frame the matter. From what I can see, your entire argument is predicated on presuppositions that are incommensurable with an Orthodox outlook and so I can’t see that they bridge the gap.

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  2. Perry, you are quite right that my “excursion into Galatians” does not tell us how we demarcate what is the visible church. It gives us a framework in which to understand Catholicity, but more theological data would be necessary before we could demarcate the boundaries of the visible church.Brad, I have a question about the following comment of yours, more to clarify your position than to actually disagree. You wrote, “We certainly all need to be able to recognize the continuing work of the Spirit and testimony to Christ…in all kinds of denominational groups, schismatic though they may be…there seem to be all kinds of people who still have some kind of connection to…Christ, who have broken away from the one visible body.”Since you are talking here about the connection that makes fellowship possible, does it follow that we can, or even ought, to have fellowship with individuals who have been legitimately excommunicated since they too “have broken away from the one visible body.” Presumably if a person was put under church discipline and barred from the Lord’s table, you would not say that we can still participate in the blessed Eucharist with them on the grounds that they have “some kind of connection to…Christ.” But then how is the matter different in principle when it comes to certain schismatic denominational groups which, because of their heretical doctrines, put themselves outside the one visible body? Given this, how far are you willing to push your inclusion “of denominational groups…who have broken away from the one visible body”? Again, this isn’t to disagree with you so much as to just seek clarification on where you stand.I liked your point Brad, about where we get “grace and the divine life” from if we, as Protestants, are outside the church. I don’t feel Perry has adequately addressed that yet. Unless we say that this “grace and the divine life” is a kind of common grace that God also gives to pagans, Muslims and heretics, it does seem to present a problem within Orthodox ecclesiology. Perry, does that in fact follow from saying that Protestants can “avail themselves of the external graces available prior to the incarnation, but of the life of the church they are bereft”? Would that apply to Muslims as well? If not, then it does seem to follow on the Orthodox view that Protestants are, in some sense, part of God’s people. Further, if the Orthodox recognize Protestant baptisms as becoming valid retroactively (assuming I have understood your comments correctly, Perry), then how does that not cut the doctrine of baptismal efficacy? Surely if it’s efficacious it has to be efficacious right from the get go. Moreover, doesn’t the view that Protestant baptisms aquire a sacramental efficacy upon reception into the Orthodox church again imply that there is some sense in which Protestants are part of God’s people, since you wouldn’t say the same thing of a Muslim or pagan baptism? If a child sprays everyone with a hose and repeats a baptismal formula, that “baptism” does not become valid upon reception into the Orthodox church. So where do you draw the line? And since your drawing of the line includes Protestants and not Muslims, Pagans or the child with the hose, then does this not underscore Brad’s contention that even within your own ecclesiology, there is some sense of inclusion extended to Protestants. This being the case, the argument for inner communion may not be as far-fetched, even within an Orthodox framework, as it may at first appear.Perry, you raised a good question of how schism is possible within a Protestant ecclesiology. The answer should already have been implicit in my earlier comments about how Catholicity necessarily involves both an inclusive and exclusive dimension. Put simply, the notion of sect and schism is possible since Protestants assert the existence of a visible church. All groups who have broken off of the institutionally credible people of God are heretical sects. The historic Protestant position about cults such as the Mormons and the JW’s is an example. It gets trickier when the Protestant is asked to explain how he knows which groups have done this and how he defines the institutionally credible people of God. Very few Protestants would disagree with Brad that “we can be in eucharistic fellowship even if we don’t have full doctrinal unity” but they all draw the lines as to what unity is necessary in different places. Just going on the basis of the people I have talked to or read there seems to be a huge divergence of opinion within Protestantism on this question. Ironically many Protestant definitions, if consistently applied, leave Protestants themselves outside the loop, as Perry has hinted at in some of his comments about the creed. As a Protestant I wish I had an answer to this question and maybe Brad could help me out here. But perhaps this ambiguity is an inevitable corollary of Protestant epistemology.

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  3. patrick

    Fr. Gregory Rogers in his pamphlet called Apostolic Succession says that the grace that people outside the Church have is ¨the Church working in the world¨, generously spreading its blessings and grace around—-spilling the energies of the incarnation to all ends of the earth. Even protestants admit that people of other religions can have access to God. From my understanding of recognizing protestant baptisms from Catechism classes, the OCA bishops said that priests are only to accept Roman Catholic and Anglican baptisms and the rest not.

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  4. Mind you, the last sentence in my last comment shouldn't be taken as negative towards Protestantism. In one of his "Doctrine of…" books John Frame presents it as an advantage that Protestantism has no final standard for determining Orthodoxy. He says Protestantism is necessarily committed NOT to have such a standard, since that would undermine the ultimatacy of scripture. Ergo, how the Protestant defines the visible church (and ergo, schism) is bound to be somewhat fuzzy.

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  5. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Perry,I’m sorry I’ve been so slow to respond…I recognized these were big questions, and wanted to address them properly. I was just marshalling the time to do so when I was hit with another, much larger barrage, this time from the hardcore-Protestant side (see the new post “Peter Takes Two Swords to My Two Kingdoms”), which required a brief response for starters, and which will require much more thorough engagement over the next couple weeks. So, I’m not going to be able to engage your questions in as much depth as they of course deserve. Were I to do so, I would be tempted to duplicity, as, in my replies to you, I would be trying to emphasize as much as possible the points I would want to grant in your direction–e.g., the necessity of the visible historical Church catholic–while in my replies to Peter, I would be trying to emphasize as much as possible the points I would want to grant in his direction–e.g., the provisionality and incompleteness of the visible Church. I sympathize somewhat with Robin’s last comment–perhaps as Protestants we can make something of a virtue out of some fuzziness in ecclesiology; we are suspicious of any notion that we can tie God down and put him in a box. Of course, I don’t want to follow that Barthian suspicion all the way out, but I do want to maintain an ever-surprising dimension to the work of the Spirit, and an ever-provisional dimension to our understanding of it. Beyond that, though, I can also claim fuzziness as something of a virtue given that I am still a student, and still trying to sort all this out, and very cautious about simply rejecting the Protestant setting into which God has put me. So I will not give you a satisfactory answer of how we can determine with precision what is and isn’t the Church. I could give you theoretical criteria of what the Church is supposed to be, and these would end up sounding, probably, quite Orthodox at many points. But every time I have tried to go down that road, I have butted my head up against what seems to me the incontestable fact that, however valid and desirable this clear-cut, thoroughly visible ecclesiology might seem, God appears quite willing right now to work with something much more complicated and messier. I do not think the Protestant condition is justifiable as a permanent condition–the Church is supposed to be one in visible communion, and not merely on some ethereal level. My sense of what I hope the Church will eventually grow back into is probably not too far off from your conception of what the Church is. I just want to say that, for whatever reason, it’s not there now, and we have to exercise rather more patience. I agree with you that the danger of schism is real, however, I also believe in a merciful God, who does not exclude 3/4 of all those who call on the name of Jesus in faith from any communion with His Body. Again, that doesn’t mean that we just brush the problem under the rug, but it means we handle it with patience.Now, it sounds like from what you have been saying that you regard Protestants as being in the same position as Jews or Muslims–as outside of the grace of Christ, but not necessarily outside the extraordinary grace of God, as possibly saved in exceptional cases, but not, as a general rule, saved. Is that seriously what you think? Cuz if so, it’s pretty hopeless to try to bridge this gap at all. But I don’t quite believe that, because why then would you even talk of “ecumenical discussions,” why would the Orthodox send representatives to the meetings of Protestant denominations, as they do, to extend a hand of fellowship? Some clarification on this would be very helpful. In reply to a few of your specific points:“So perhaps you can tease out exactly what you mean by a Protestant recognition.” I didn’t quite understand the line of questioning you were pursuing in this paragraph, but basically, it’s quite simple–if someone was baptised with water in the name of the Trinity by someone authorized to do so, at their request or that of their sponsors, then we accept them as having been marked out as a member of Christ and as participating in His life. Of course “someone authorized to do so” gets quite thorny, of course, from your perspective, but I know that Catholics allow for the legitimacy of lay baptisms in extraordinary circumstances, and it seems to me that you could argue that, even were no Protestant ministers rightly-ordained authorities, they could be authorized by their circumstances as legitimate baptizers. But we could pursue this rabbit trail for a year and a day, I’ve no doubt, without satisfactory resolution.“On the intercommunion front, I would think it would be more of a direct issue establishing communion with your cousins the Lutherans before trying to do so with Rome or the Orthodox.”The Reformed welcome the Lutheran to communion, but not vice versa, which I agree is scandalous, and this is a more pressing issue. However, progress has been made on this front, as the Lutherans and Anglicans now have full intercommunion, so far as I understand.Regarding Nevin, you are right to say that he was writing checks that the Reformation couldn’t cash (and that is well put)–he himself came to this conclusion by 1852. However, he then came to a similar conclusion that I just gave above…a willingness to wait in patience upon God to restore the Church through all the messiness of history. You’re wrong, though, I think, that his theology will not serve as any kind of bridge to Orthodoxy; I ran the chapter on Mercersburg and Orthodoxy by Donald Fairbairn, a leading Protestant expert on Orthodoxy, and by Bradley Nassif, the Orthodox scholar from North Park University, and both of them were quite impressed by the compelling similarities at points and the potential of the Mercersburg theology to provide a bridgehead for ecumenical dialogue. Of course, for all I know, Nassif is viewed as a sell-out by true-blue Orthodox people, but I hope not. In any case, I don’t know what Nevin you’ve read (I’m excited to hear that you’re familiar with him though), but I hope you give him another look…there’s some really fascinating engagement with Patristic thought there.“As I’ve noted previously, the Reformed to not adhere to the meaning of a number of phrases in the Creed as was intended by its crafters and so we may recite the same, but there is an equivocation on the meaning of the terms.” I have to rather forcefully disagree with you here–or not with this statement per se but with the implication you go on to draw–that we cannot therefore use the Creed itself as a baseline point of unity. The point of creedal statements is to provide a very succinct summary of doctrine to which all can adhere–a baseline. The evil of the Westminster Confession was that it sought to define everything quite precisely and at great length, so as to rule out people of differing views uniting under the same creed. If it is actually a thoroughly-spelled out commentary on the full and true meaning and original intent of the Nicene Creed to which we must all subscribe, then why don’t we have that commentary, rather than the mere creed, laid down as our formula of faith. Unity of doctrine, not uniformity, is our goal, and that means that we must all be able in good conscience to subscribe to a statement of the key teachings of the Church. The majority of those reciting will likely have a deficient or variant understanding of what certain clauses are supposed to mean, and that does not mean we have to root them out as heretics. Of course, if their interpretation is warped enough so as to overthrow the whole intent of the original, then God will judge them accordingly, and if they are public about it, and persistent in their error, then the Church may need to as well. I think baptismal regeneration and apostolic succession and all that (though I confess that I do not know what the dispute about the Father being autotheos is about) are all quite important, and were part of Nicene theology, so that any who profess to believe the Nicene Creed should be educated into what the full ramifications of that are. But this does not mean that their deficient profession counts as no profession. (By the way, I was unaware that Calvin rejected the use of the Creed–please elaborate.)Robin, you asked a couple of very good questions to me about how we could draw the bounds of legitimate fellowship with schismatic or heretical groups, given that we do not commune with an individual who is under discipline because of schism or heresy. This is a challenging question, not least because I have in the last year been rethinking the issue of excommunication for individual sin, and feeling that, from the sort of points you raised about N.T. Wright and Galatians, we have to be very slow to use excommunication. So, I can’t say that I have a satisfactory answer…I even started typing one, but scrapped it. I will try to say a bit more on this if my brain fog lifts sometime tomorrow and sheds some new light on the problem.I will confess, though, that all of this has at least given me considerable pause in my advocacy of straightforward open communion among all who call upon the name of Christ in faith. These are not easy problems to wish away. On the other hand, Paul was so adamant about the evil of barriers that divided at the table between “I am of Paul” and “I am of Apollos” that I am very reticent for us to erect or maintain such barriers.

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  6. patrick

    Brad, so you are comfortable living with ambiguity because God placed you in a protestant culture and now it´s time to move on to the next debate. Wow! I can´t help thinking that if the Orthodox said similar things, the reformed would be willing to pull a Pastor Wilson and say they are ellusive and don´t know how to argue.

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  7. Perry Robinson

    Robin,I am not clear how your material on Galatians gives us a framework to understand Catholicity, so please clear that up for me. In my mind Catholicity is in reference to the common faith professed by all the churches founded by the apostles and all the other churches together with them. This is what katholikos has historically meant. It was opposed to bodies that professed a faith that was local, parochial and hence non-apostolic and sectarian.As for grace outside the church, it would be helpful to talk about what constitutes grace. The term is being used as if there is a common and neutral conceptual ground which we can all occupy. I don’t think this is the case. As for grace being given outside the church, you write that this presents a special problem for Orthodox ecclesiology, but I am not clear for myself on what problem you think it presents. Could you please clarify?Initially, grace given to those outside the church is no more problematic than grace given to those outside the Mosaic Covenant. Such gifts did not annul or void the Covenant. A salient question would be on your understanding of common grace, is anything done under it not sin?As for graces available prior to the incarnation, the idea is that they were external to humanity or worked externally on humanity and so were temporary, such as the glory on Moses’ face. Given the cosmological alterations due to the incarnation, the situation is now different. Protestants would be in a position akin to God-fearers in the OT, so this wouldn’t imply that they were part of the Church. As for Muslims or any non-believer, the situation is not the same since they are not professing believers. Pat of this specific point turns on whether natural theology as a project is possible and if not, why not? That is a wider discussion.We’d need to tweak the notion of retroactive validity. It is that their baptism becomes valid in the church and not before. The problem you pose with baptismal regeneration would only be a problem on Catholic principles, namely the doctrine of intention or on Lutheran ones due to their Christology. I share neither of them. Regeneration can “fill in” the past performed rite at a later time. The Orthodox view doesn’t entail that the performance of the rite by anyone or just any baptismal rite regenerates. Secondly, various heretical groups have been received in the Church’s history without rebaptism, groups whose baptisms classical Protestants rejected. The reception of a person with or without rebaptism doesn’t imply the sacramental efficacy of the rite performed outside the church and so doesn’t imply “validity” on said rite in that sense. In general and canonically, baptisms done by Catholics, especially Eastern Rite, and Anglicans have not been repeated because their outward rite is deemed sufficient, while those of Protestants bodies isn’t always so. Part of the difficulty is a lack of Protestant ritual uniformity and also the fact that many of the canons were written long before the Reformation. In any case, the non-rebaptism of Catholics or Anglicans does not imply the sacramental efficacy of them, so even in cases of the non-rebaptism of a Lutheran or a Presbyterian would not, so much the more imply the sacramental efficacy of Protestant baptisms. So it doesn’t follow that Protestants are part of God’s people in our view.I wouldn’t say the same thing about Pagan baptisms or washings because they are not invoking Christ and their form is completely wrong and the same is true for Islam, which doesn’t even have anything comparable in terms of baptism as a rite of initiation.The drawing of the line does not include Protestants in terms of sacramental efficacy anymore than it does Catholics. The line drawn in that respect is clear. There is no “valid” sacramental rite in terms of sacramental efficacy outside of the church. If we had to include Protestants on such reasoning, then canonically we’d have to include Arians since Arians were canonically accepted without rebaptism too and no one takes their baptisms to have been valid except with respect to their form. You write that all people who have broken off of the institutionally credible people of God are heretical sects. But where is the institutionally credible people of God? Are the Lutherans? Baptists? Even if we restrict ourselves to Classical Protestants, none of them are in intercommunion with each other, nor is there full mutual recognition that they are true visible churches between the Lutherans, Reformed and the Baptists. So I have a hard time seeing how this helps. And please note that we are talking about the best cases here within historic Protestantism and not the harder cases.Second, it begs the question since it privileges Protestant distinctives as within the pale of orthodoxy. But from a Catholic or Orthodox position these distinctives are the very things that are heterodox. Nor does it seem to help to note that this is Protestant drawing of the line since it will exclude Catholic and Orthodox distinctives as heterodox as well.You write that very few Protestants would disagree with the thesis that we can be in communion without fully doctrinal unity, but this is either ambiguous so as to be useless or false. It is ambiguous since we need to know what counts as full doctrinal unity. Even say among Lutherans, they allow a certain degree of flexibility. But between Lutherans and Baptists or Reformed, they do not and the same is true vice versa. And this is why it is false because between the three historic Classical Reformation bodies, there is no recognition that both of the two are true visible churches and so can be communion with them. This has been the case for 500 years and running because in the judgment of all three, the others fail on the three marks of the church-rightly dividing the Word, rightly administering the sacraments and rightly administering polity. As for Frame, I can’t see how it can be an advantage of Protestantism that it has no ultimate judgment in this matter (or any other.) What it implies is that all doctrinal formulas are provisional and hence revisable, and this includes the formal canon of scripture itself. Consequently, it seems hard to see how such a position could privilege scripture. Second, it makes all theological and practically all spiritual and devotional commitment provisional as well.Second, given the provisional status of any protestant doctrinal formula on ecclesiology, the implication seems to me wouldn’t be that said formula must be fuzzy, but revisable. The inability to clearly define and demarcate the limits of the visible church is a product not of Protestant epistemological principles, but of the metaphysics of the church so to speak. That is, it is because of what Protestants think the church is that makes it difficult to say how schism is possible or where or what constitutes the visible church. A provisional formula isn’t necessarily unclear, it is just tentative.

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  8. Perry Robinson

    Patrick,Access to God is one thing, sacramental validity is quite another. The material from Roger's booklet then can't be used to support the idea of Protestant sacramental validity.

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  9. Perry Robinson

    Brad,Thanks for the reply. As I noted to Robin, Protestant ecclesiology doesn’t seem to imply that there are gray or indeterminate cases as to what does or doesn’t constitute a true visible church. That might be true on anyone’s take. What I am asking is what principles does one use to do so even in clear cases? How is schism possible even in clear cases? I don’t see how even on clear cases schism is really possible with the attending biblically noted consequences.Nor do I think a non-Protestant ecclesiology boxes the deity. It only commits us to thinking that God wishes to work in these ways and not in others.If our, even collective, understanding of the faith is ever provisional, it seems hard to see how the faith is once delivered or that we ever are the receivers of the one faith. The faith then as we grasp it is a human construction rather than a transported entity. Not to be polemical, but it looks like Pelagianism with respect to doctrinal formulation-theology is the product of human efforts with divine aid guiding humanity from the outside. And formally what constitutes the faith may given the rules of the system change over time, even with respect to core commitments since nothing in the system is individually privileged. Maybe it is the case not all planks of the raft can be changed out or removed all at once, but no one plank is beyond replacement or removal. That doesn’t seem like the apostolic faith to me. Such a faith seems ready made for humanism and the Enlightenment, a faith that passes the muster of reason and will admit nothing beyond what reason can demonstrate given certain material (clear and necessary inference or whatever exegetical principles or methods one wishes). Provisionality is a virtue of being a student, but the faith is not the construction of a student or a group of students. The faith is something delivered not by an instructor, but an Apostle, the chief of whom is Jesus Christ. This is not to say that such an office doesn’t imply instruction, it does, but from an entirely different position with an entirely different product, namely something ultimately normative and beyond revision.You write that whatever clear model you come up with, God seems to trump it. I’d argue that there are other possibilities. God isn’t trumping it, your model is wrong and you haven’t got the right one yet or God is working with people in ways not in contradiction to the right understanding. Those are possibilities too.I don’t regard Protestants in the same position as Jews or Muslims, but more like say Novationists, Arians or some other heretical/schismatic sect. That position isn’t any different than say Athanasius who denied sacramental life to the sacraments of all schismatics and heretics. As for their salvation, that is known to God.You ask a good question of why Orthodox would send representatives to ecumenical discussions. I’d say it is to help others think through in reverse the problems that got them into separation from the Orthodox Church and to help them find their way back again. This is clearly stated in authors like Florovsky.As for baptismal recognition, I can’t see how your gloss is correct. Not all Reformed bodies accept Trinitarian baptism. They do not all accept Roman baptisms. The OPC for example doesn’t and Rome’s baptisms are quite Trinitarian. And second, only the Lutherans and some Anglicans “recognize” regeneration at baptism. The Reformed do not.To my knowledge the Lutherans and Anglicans do not have full intercommunion. What you have is communion between some of the more extremely liberal Anglican provinces and the more extreme liberal Lutheran bodies. There is no formal intercommunion between say ECUSA and the LCMS for example. In any case, the Lutherans have never recognized the Reformed as true visible churches. I am generally familiar with Nassif and Fairbairn. Given what I’ve seen of Fairbairn’s Christology, its pretty clear he’s grossly heterodox, even by Western standards. (And yes this is easy to document.) It is clear to me that he seriously misreads the Western Christological tradition by reading back into it Calvin’s defective Christology. Hence he reads the Tome of Leo to essentially teach that the two natures come together to form or make the one person of Christ. That is not Leo’s Tome or classic Western Christology, even though it is Calvin’s view.Nassif doesn’t seem sufficiently clear on exactly what Protestant theology says. A case in point. When he has stated publically that the Orthodox Church teaches the Reformation doctrine of salvation by “faith alone” it is clear that he is seriously misinformed either as to what his own church teaches or as to what Protestants have meant from the time Luther said “Boo!” to today. I don’t think he’s a sell out, but few cradle Orthodox and even fewer evangelicals really grasp what Reformation theology teaches. Perhaps I am wrong, but Nassif doesn’t seem clear so as to be in a position to make that kind of judgment. So I am just not moved by your rejoinder. Nothing personal mind you, I am just not moved. He isn’t clear on what the categories are if you read his remarks in this area for example as he constantly conflates the thesis of sola gratia with sola fide. The two are not the same. I’ve seen it in his public remarks and in personal correspondence.We could use the Creed if we recognized that we were equivocating in using it. That doesn’t seem very helpful. In fact, it was the repeatedly failed strategy of many an emperor who tried to enforce unity during the Christological debates. I agree that the point of Creeds is to posit a base line, but the Nicene Creed wasn’t written with Protestant theology in mind and that is the point. That is why Protestants have to re-interpret it contrary to its intended meaning and why they have historically done so. And this is why the WCF stands over the Nicene Creed and not vice versa. The WCF interprets the Nicene Creed and not the other way around in Presbyterian theology. The same is true for the Lutheran confessions. This is not a controversial point as representative bodies and theologians of both Reformation traditions explicitly say so for the last five hundred years.We can discuss the “evil” of the WCF whether it was its theological specificity or just the conceptual content, but the same point could be made about the Creed of Chalcedon or the doctrinal decrees of the fifth and sixth councils too, but obviously we do not wish to rule them out of bounds and so this shows that the principle in the argument you deploy is too strong to do the kind of work you wish it to do. There is a difference in the case of laity who do not understand and get understanding wrong of phrases they recite and bodies who formally repudiate doctrinal teaching. Since there is such a difference I can’t see that the remarks really move the ball.As for Calvin and his extension of autotheos to the Father and the Son, see Warfield’s essay, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity or any work on Calvin’s Trinitarianism. It is a standard historical matter discussed anywhere a serious discussion of his Trinitarianism is. To wax Lutheran, its ubiquitous. 😉

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  10. It's been a while since we had this discussion, but I've been reading a bit in Turner's biography of Newman and it perked my interest in interacting with a point you made Perry in your last entry. You wrote:

    As I noted to Robin, Protestant ecclesiology doesn’t seem to imply that there are gray or indeterminate cases as to what does or doesn’t constitute a true visible church. That might be true on anyone’s take. What I am asking is what principles does one use to do so even in clear cases? How is schism possible even in clear cases?

    If I correctly grasp the problem you are identifying, Perry, it seems to be something like this:1) schism implies a normative standard against which deviations can be judged to be deficient.2) Without having a clear sense of what constitutes the visible church, such a normative standard cannot exist and it is “anyone’s take.”3) Protestant ecclesiology is unable to provide a clear sense for what constitutes the visible church.4) This is because Protestantism has no final fixed standard for determining the correct interpretation of the Bible (“anyone’s take” again).5) Therefore, Protestant ecclesiology is unable to sustain the notion of schism.Is the above a correct representation of your argument?If it is then I would say that while it is certainly true that Protestantism has no final standard for determining the correct interpretation of the Bible, and therefore for determining correct doctrine, and therefore for determining what constitutes schism, this is not fatal since no one has any final standard for determining truth in any area, and yet objective knowledge still exists without everything lapsing into "anyone's take." To postulate an infallible standard would surely be to implicitly assume a prior standard, and so on ad infinitum. For example, a church council like Nicaea can only be the standard for determining orthodoxy if we first have some prior idea of orthodoxy in our mind against which Nicaea can be judged to be legitimate. And the same could be ask of whatever standard gave us that prior idea of orthodoxy, and so on. The best we can do is surely to form webs of multiple reciprocities that dynamically interact with non-fatal circuity. If this is not correct, I would be eager for you to propose an alternative schema.

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  11. A few more thoughts on how the problems for determining a final standard of orthodoxy (and therefore schism) is not unique to Protestantism. This is all in response to the comment you made, Perry, about Protestants not being able to identify schisms. I know its been a while since we had this discussion, but if you're still around I’d love some critical feedback. In his article “Criteria of Truth in Orthodox Theology”, Father Thomas Hopko surveyed a great number of Orthodox theologians and concluded that there is no ultimate criterion of truth for Christians other than the Holy Spirit, least of all any authority that is “external” to the believer (which councils clearly are). Similarly, in the book Common Ground: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian by Jordan Bajis, this Orthodox writer states that “Neither Pope, Church structure, the Bible alone, ‘Apostolic Succession, ‘tradition’, or councils [note well] can be trusted to always testify to the Truth.” Bajis ends up having to default to personal experience as the ultimate criterion: “No extrinsic authority can take the place of Christ’s reign in the Church as manifested by the Spirit. …every Church member is actively involved in the process of discerning His voice, and every church member personally experiences the fruit of His government. God’s authority is real and absolute, but it can only be communicated and encountered personally.”But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that ecumenical councils can be trusted to always give us the truth and provide a barometer that is external to the believer and from which schematics can be judged to be aberrant. In that case the key is to establish which councils are truly ecumenical. Here again, there is bound to be a certain vagueness. Timothy Ware revealingly asks, “How then can one be certain that a particular gathering is truly an Ecumenical Council and therefore that its decrees are infallible? Many councils have considered themselves ecumenical and have claimed to speak in the name of the whole Church, and yet the Church has rejected them as heretical… Yet these councils seem in no way different in outward appearance from the Ecumenical Councils. What, then, is the criterion for determining whether a council is ecumenical?…This is a more difficult question to answer than might at first appear, and though it has been much discussed by Orthodox during the past hundred years, it cannot be said that the solution suggested are entirely satisfactory. All Orthodox know which are the seven councils that their Church accepts as ecumenical, but precisely what it is that makes a council ecumenical is not so clear.” In the end, all the Orthodox can do is argue in a circle: judging councils by the yardstick of correct doctrine and judging correct doctrine by the yardstick of councils. Even saying that an ecumenical council is one that is accepted by the whole church doesn’t help. Chalcedon was rejected by the Coptic Christians in Syria and Egypt: does that mean that Chalcedon is not ecumenical? Don’t forget that the whole church didn’t accept Nicaea immediately. Had the whole church never accepted it, then would Nicaea not have been truly ecumenical? Even if this difficulty could be overcome, if Catholicity is the test for orthodox doctrine, what are we to do with the time when Athanasius stood against the world? My pastor accepts certain ecumenical councils that both Rome and the East later annulled. But this raises the question: if the East can annul a council that was once considered ecumenical, as Ware affirms they have, then what is stopping them from annulling Nicaea in a few thousand years? In the end nothing is solid and Eastern Orthodoxy gives us an epistemology in which all doctrine is potentially reversible and in which theology is in a constant state of potential flux. OK, I’m kind of playing devil’s advocate here. I do actually think that in many ways the Eastern tradition gives us more solidity than either Rome or Protestantism, but there does seem to be a necessary fuzziness in whichever camp you end up, and I’m not convinced that this fuzziness of the domain only of Protestant ecclesiology.

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  12. Robin,There is no problem with playing devil’s advocate, but I can’t see how any problem with Orthodox theology is a help to answering the problem I posed to Protestantism. I think you somewhat misses my point. I am not arguing that Protestantism lacks an ultimate normative principle by which to make binding judgments in such matters, though that is a problem all by itself. Rather, it is an epistemological and metaphysical question. If we take the invisibility of the church as understood by the classical Reformation. how are we to know who is in schism and who is not? Even more deeply, I am driving at the fact that given the metaphysics of such a view, how is schism *from* the church even possible? So take whatever case you like that you think constitutes schism from the church and indicate how it is possible given the notion of the invisible church?If Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists and presumably lots of other people are in the true invisible church, how could any of them come to be in schism from it if their visible bodies do not constitute schism form the church? It doesn’t seem possible, but the NT seems to clearly indicate that it is possible. So even if we have a clear grasp of what constitutes the invisible church, the problem would still remain.As to your claim regarding epistemology, I disagree. Certainly lots of different epistemic positions claims to have a final standard for making such judgments. Second, the regress argument only works if each of the antecedents are insufficient to justify themselves, but if the mechanism for making formal judgments is divinely constituted and authorized, then there is no regress. On the other hand, even if they weren’t sufficient and only necessary, this still wouldn’t imply an infinite regress. First, the conditions could still be necessary conditions while not sufficient and so we’d only need to specify the antecedent upon which such a mechanism would depend and show that it is sufficient. And here we’d move from Apostolic Succession in the episcopate to Christ, which seems to me to form a sufficient backstop. So there is no good reason to think that my view leads to an infinite regress.I agree that that Nicea can only be the standard for determining Orthodoxy if we already have such a notion and of course the same is true regarding the canon of Scripture. This is why on Protestant principles even Scripture occupies a formally provisional position. So when you say that we’d need some prior notion of orthodoxy, the obvious question is, where does one get it? To appeal to scripture just moves the problem and doesn’t answer it since the normativity of the canon of scripture formally speaking is just a much a product of a prior notion of Orthodoxy as Nicea is.And while objective knowledge exists, what you propose doesn’t even seem to aim at explaining how that is possible. And more directly we need to be careful and divvy up the issues appropriately. On the only hand, my point about schism had at bottom to do with the metaphysics of the invisible church and how schism from it was even possible. It wasn’t predicated on some form of universal skepticism. On the other, as a general line of argumentation, the line of reasoning which takes Protestantism as false because it can make no ultimately normative judgments doesn’t turn on the possibility or impossibility of knowledge. One doesn’t have to be infallible to know. But the obligations that Christian doctrine entails surpass the normativity that knowledge could ever have. I am obligated to believe divine authority even if I do not know it is correct. The issue here is metaphysical (and ethical) in so far as a Protestant ecclesiology is metaphysically too thin to map on to intuitive (and biblical) Christian commitments regarding the nature of doctrine and belief.Turning to the kind of coherentism that you seem to propose doesn’t seem to help either. Here’s why. Coherentism is nothing more than a form of foundationalism since it only flattens out the foundational, making all beliefs essentially the foundation. Second, it is far from clear why intrinsically related beliefs convey any kind of jutisfication. Coherence may be necessary for knowledge, but not obviously sufficient for it for many false sets of beliefs can be or are coherent. And a lack of circularity doesn’t in any way imply truth or that the beliefs are justified so that even presuming that you proffer could escape circularity, it wouldn’t imply any of the things we’d want relative to a theory of knowledge and justification.

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  13. Robin,I am aware of what Hopko and the others you cite say. In part I think you’ve misunderstood them and in other respects I think they are confused, unclear and their position lacks the requisite support to make it stick. First, all of these authors are individual theologians in my Church and so they carry a certain degree of weight. But they do not for that reason carry the ultimate authority of the Church. They’ve all made theological mistakes in the past. If you could find as much in some Fathers or councils or Scripture, that’d actually move me. Further, they aren’t the only Orthodox academics to write on such matters and so I can cite others who say otherwise. And none of the sources you cite rise above introductory works. It hardly seems fair to launch a major critique of Calvinism based on a smattering of introductory works. Second, we need to understand them in context to see what their target is and what ground they are occupying to make the shot. The first thing is to realize the situation in Russia prior to the Soviet take over and then somewhat shortly after. The battles between the Slavophiles and the Westernizer’s had not ceased and the injection of German Idealism influenced both sides. ( See here for an example -> https://energeticprocession.wordpress.com/2007/02/19/was-soloviev-orthodox/http://energeticprocession.wordpress.com/2009/12/02/against-khomiakov/ )German Idealism framed and influenced much Russian thinking on the matter. This was more or less transferred to the English speaking world with émigré’s from the Soviet union to France, England and the US. From an Idealistic or Holistic perspective, the notion of an external criteria is anathema. It just isn’t possible. And this served both the right and left wing well among the Russians. With the latter (such as Khomiakov) it served as a hedge against scientific positivism and with the more theologically conservative, it gave them something to hit Rome with. For in their eyes, the papacy was not of the episcopal order but something over and above it, subordinating the episcopate. It was therefore “external” to it and hence the church. In Hopko and others you can clearly hear the echo’s of this Idealistic way of framing things (note the talk of the “Spirit”). In so far as the write this way against the Papacy, I think it is a legitimate point. The same is true if they use it against a mechanistic or scientistic understanding of such conditions. And they are all right to say that none of those conditions, pace Rome, are individually sufficient conditions. They aren’t. (Jointly sufficient conditions are another matter.) In the other direction there are a few problems here. The first is that Idealism is incompatible with Orthodoxy at a number of points so this schema of itself is incompatible with other commitments that these men have. For example, Idealism has a hard time with the existence of matter and it will imply the notion of doctrinal development, which their tradition rejects. And their position leads to exactly the problematic end that it did for Khomiakov, for which he was roundly attacked by the Russian theologians of his day. That by itself is a good reason for thinking that what is being presented here by these authors is more of a distinctly Slavophile philosophical take than something that represents the teaching of the Orthodox Church. It is a mistaken I’ve seen a fair amount of by those influenced by the Russians. I’d suggest you read some of those authors or even contemporary Orthodox authors who write against Khomiakov’s position. Further, none of the authors cited produce an argument for their position from what is considered normative in their tradition. That is, they consider the matter abstractly, rather than really taking into account how councils in fact have worked or in fact have said on the question of what makes a council legitimate and supremely normative. You will find little if any discussion by these authors of what the Fathers and councils themselves say on such matters. One must press through the veil to other writers who have done so. For example, they all ignore, to my knowledge the only place where the question of the legitimacy of councils was taken up by an ecumenical council, namely the 7th council. (Catholic apologists ignore it too, but for completely different reasons.) I can tell you that the judgment of the 7th council on the matter isn’t anything like the kind of individualistic “receptionism” that you’ve sketched above. And there are other criteria given much, much earlier in the tradition as well. 2nd Nicea is just the place where they take it up as a question.It is also a mistake to slide between external to the church and the individual believer. The part is not tantamount to the whole. The individual believer is a sinner, but the church is holy and not sinful, since it is the body of Christ. Consequently, what may be external to the believer, may not be external to the church and councils are not external to the church. As Hebrews 13 indicates, we should obey those who have rule over us. Khomiakov’s idealistic account flattens out the hierarchy of the church and so is consequently incompatible with Orthodox teaching. This is why the receptionist model is not Orthodox.As to what Ware writes, the question is whether Ware is right? I respect Bp Ware, but when the Orthodox say that we don’t have a pope, we mean it. Bp. Ware has written a number of things that are, if not dubious are outright contrary to the explicit teaching of his own church-take his remarks about the apokatastasis for example. Another thing to note is that not only are almost all of these works introductory works, but that their authors are writing about issues for which they have no special competence, namely epistemological problems. This could be remedied if they spent time giving an analysis of the patristic and counciliar material on this question, but they don’t. So when Ware talks about being “certain” this reveals his inexpert status in talking about epistemological issues. Certainty is not relevant to knowledge since it isn’t a necessary or sufficient condition for it. Start with Plato’s Meno and work your way up the historical epistemological food chain. (People were “certain” of Geocentrism and they were wrong.) The JTB account of knowledge doesn’t include “certainty” as a condition.As to the facts, it is quite true that many councils considered themselves ecumenical, like many Jewish leaders in the time of Christ considered themselves Messiah too. Not much follows from that other than to say again that the mere claim is insufficient, but we knew that already. Simply bringing up the point again bakes no bread because it isn’t an argument for anything in just the same way when I’ve argued with conservative Jews about Jesus being Messiah they point to the fact that there were a plurality of claimants demonstrates nothing. Further, the claim that many councils styled themselves as ecumenical in part and often trades on an ambiguity in the term. Ecumenical can refer to imperially convoked councils’ whose decrees had the force of law in the Empire. (Was Acts 15 ecumenical then or no?) But it can also refer to councils that were supremely normative for the church. The two sets are not co-extensive. Consequently there were many councils that were “ecumenical” in so far as they were imperially convoked but they were not “ecumenical” in that they were not supremely normative bodies for the church. Why not? To say that such councils did not differ in outward appearance is ambiguous at best and flatly wrong in a good many cases. When the emperor dictates before hand what theological conclusions are to be reached or precludes relevant topics of discussion, that is a clear difference when looking at say Nicea. And that is just one reason that is picked out in the sources for why those other councils were not ecclesially ecumenical. The problem with the sources you proffer is that they ignore all of the reasons and give no analysis of the facts as to why Fathers at those times rejected those councils. If we do look at those things, we get a very different picture.And the accusation regarding circularity turns on a straw man, both formally and materially since it leaves out tradition and how in fact councils worked relative to it. There was plenty of correct doctrine given in tradition long before there were any imperially convoked councils. The tradition had normative standing and it was from this that the councils drew and made their judgments. This is why both sides constantly appealed to it. Tradition is the material with which councils do their work and not apart form it. So the circularity charge turns on a position which I do not hold.I reject the receptionistic view that a council is ecumenical if it is accepted by the whole church for the reason you give. It is obviously problematic. By the same token, your claim that Nicea wasn’t accepted by the “whole church” immediately runs into the same problem. What constitutes the “whole church” in that claim? The claim runs into the same problem and so seems useless relative to the purposes you wish to put it. On the other hand on Protestant principles where was the visible church from 325-381? In Alexandria with Athanasius who held to baptismal regeneration, theosis, and a Christology directly contradictory to that of the Reformed tradition? Are the Orthodox (and Rome) heterodox for holding such things as the Reformers claim? If so, how could the church be with the Nicenes who would then be heretical? This is why incidentally the Reformed do not in fact subscribe to the Nicene Creed, but to their own reinterpretation of it. Since I do not agree with your implicit gloss on what constitutes Catholicity, I don’t think the argument you derive from it is a good one against my position. The church was Catholic with the Apostles, the 70 disciples, and the Theotokos. And this is because katholikos has nothing to do with geography, but with the faith according to the whole. The Catholic faith is that which is not of a particular location, faction or party, which excludes Rome as well as Protestantism. This is how Ireneaus and other early Fathers understand it-it is the faith found in all the apostolic sees together and not any one of them apart from the others. This is the test for Orthodoxy that the earliest Fathers give and is consistently maintained in the following centuries. You write that your pastor accepts councils that Rome and the Orthodox, which councils do you have in mind here? What if your pastor were to reject say the Acts 15 council and the book of Acts with it? What would be the difference if any in the two cases? On what principle basis could you object to such a move?As far as the other material from Ware on annulling councils, this turns on the equivocation and ambiguity in the term ecumenical that I outlined above. Consequently, the problem you attempt to construct is simply dissolved. Of course, you’d have luck with that perhaps with a Catholic relative to the 8th council, but not the Orthodox since we’ve never revoked it nor ever acknowledged the 869 synod as ecumenical.So nothing you’ve written here implies the conclusion that in Orthodoxy all dogma is revisable. But even if you could, best it would only show that the Orthodox have the same problem as Protestants in principle explicitly have. But if it is a problem per se, then if I’ve shown that it isn’t a problem for the Orthodox, then it is still on the table as a problem for Protestantism.

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  14. Perry,Regarding Protestants, and the truth of Ecumenical Councils:Let me see if the following represents your position on councils accurately:A council is authoritative only if it truly represents the tradition of the Fathers. This necessary condition on the authority of a council is a necessary one. Any purported set of necessary and sufficient conditions for a council to be authoritative is in fact a false set. There is no externally available standard which makes a council authoritative.Which is to say, that purely humanly speaking, every council may be overturned. It is possible (from a purely human perspective) that even Nicea be wrong.But Nicea is not in fact wrong, and justly condemned the Arians, and thus it is infallible.I believe that is the gist of the import of your point here.Now I'm not sure why a Protestant could not avail himself of precisely the same position. Yes, granted, many Protestants are more free to question whether a particular council is authoritative, but 1) they are perhaps wrong to do so (which would be my position); and 2) even if they are in the right, it only proves that Protestants give lighter restrictions to when it is legitimate to question a council which is (humanly speaking) possibly fallible than the Orthodox do. Now perhaps their laxity on this issue is a problem, but it isn't a fundamental blow to the heart of Protestantism.

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  15. "If we take the invisibility of the church as understood by the classical Reformation, how are we to know who is in schism and who is not? Even more deeply, I am driving at the fact that given the metaphysics of such a view, how is schism *from* the church even possible? So take whatever case you like that you think constitutes schism from the church and indicate how it is possible given the notion of the invisible church?"

    This is only a problem for a certain type of doctrine of the invisible church which I reject anyway; ergo, my counter-arguments are immune to this criticism. I can't remember that any of us ever appealed to the invisible church, so it may be a red herring. But Perry, what exactly is your view of the “invisible church”? Would you claim that it doesn’t exist? If so, would you concede that the invisible church is a meaningful conceptual category but that it has a population of zero, or that the category is itself incoherent?If by "invisible church" we simply mean the company of believers who have already died in the faith plus those now living who are regenerate, then yes, schism is impossible for the invisible church. But I’m still comfortable talking about the invisible church in a certain restricted sense, just like I'm comfortable talking about the church in Germany or the church in Scotland or like I'm comfortable talking about the church in the 14th century or the church in the 21st century. In fact, we could introduce an infinite number of such distinctions. For example, I could make a category to include "all the Christians in Poland whose surnames begin with N" plus "all the Christians in the third century who lived in Alexandria and who were under 32 years of age" and I could call the resulting population (made up of the collection of these two categories) "the tooooooooraglonimakal church". Provided that I defined my terms and that it is historically accurate that there was at least one person in each of the two groups that together constituted the single category, I could say accurately that "the tooooooooraglonimakal church exists." Similarly, if I define the invisible church to mean all those who are truly regenerate, then assuming that people exist who are truly regenerate, it necessary follows that it is a correct statement to say “the invisible church exists.” The problem arises when people like Charles Hodge take the notion of the invisible church and start using it as an organizing principle in their systematics in a way which displaces the visible church. It would be the same if I were to use the concept of the church in Germany to displace the importance of the international church, or if I maintained that this is what scripture meant when it refers to “the church.” Thus, the problem is not with Protestants holding to the existence of the invisible church (though don’t forget that the distinction goes back to Saint Augustine who was actually held in high regard by the Eastern Orthodox until the 20th century) but how they use the idea. As long as I don’t take the invisible church to be what scripture means when it refers to the church, but use it merely as a category for organizing a certain population of believers within restricted theological discourse, it can be a useful tool.If we’re on the same page here, then once you’ve answered Matthew’s questions, I can go on to interact with some of your other points.

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  16. Matthew,No, I do not think that that represents my position as I think here are jointly sufficient conditions. That doesn’t imply an external criteria though as those of a more Slavophile disposition seem to think. I am not clear what you mean y “humanly speaking” since I don’t think it is possible that every council can be overturned. The difference between my position and that of Protestantism is that on the latter the judgment of councils never rises above a human level of normativity, which is why it is revisable. That is, councils never rise above a question of accuracy and accuracy carries with it a lower level of normative obligation. This opens space for the right of private judgment.

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  17. Robin,I grant that it is a problem on a certain type of doctrine of the invisible church, namely the classical Protestant one. I can’t see how your statements that the objection misses its intended target amount to a demonstration that it does so. That is, I just don’t see how it is that you think I am mistaken here. It also is not a red herring since it is an objection I leveled and which I’ve argued is part and parcel of the Reformation position because of what it entails.I take the classical view of the invisible church, namely that it is those who have died in Christ. I do not take it to mean a difference between those who are secretly and invisibly elected irresistibly by God. That concept may be coherent on its own, but I do not think it is consistent with either the biblical data or patristic teaching. In your subsequent comments you essentially articulate that view of the invisible church as being those who are elected and hence concede that schism from the invisible church since you tie it to regeneration, presumably apart from baptism. Now it only needs to be shown that schism from the visible church, but not the invisible fails to make sense of the biblical data. How for example would it be possible for St. Paul or for those following his instructions, to hand someone over to Satan who was a member of the invisible church? (1 Cor 5:5) I am not clear on the point you wish to make with your “restricted” use of invisible church. If you define the invisible church as all those who are truly regenerate, which assumes a whole lot of other Protestant beliefs, it also seems to entail again that schism from the church is impossible. How can a regenerate person be separated from the church? The point here between us, what is the relation between the visible and the invisible on your understanding, or what is the same, between nature and grace. Grace can not be visible it seems and so must be taxonomic. In any case, it seems that no denominational separation could ever be the grievous sin of schism. At the least, that seems rather counter intuitive. Suppose to motivate your intuitions, someone in the church during the time of the apostles disagreed with their decision in Acts 15 and formed their own visible group. What would that be? What if any soteriological consequences would there be? Would such a person be a member of the church or no? How could such a person “overthrow” the faith of some by such an action?The Protestant view of the invisible church doesn’t of itself go back to Augustine. First because Augustine thought that baptism regenerates and so in his mind the relation between the visible nature and invisible grace was far closer. Second, the famous passage where Augustine speaks of sheep without is not about people who are presently Christian, but people God has marked who are presently outside the church that God will bring into the church via baptism. They aren’t sheep yet. While it is true that Augustine’s predestinarianism does begin to create the space for the Protestant doctrine, his view isn’t that of the Reformers. Regeneration occurs generally in baptism ex opere operato for Augustine. But his view of the relation of nature to grace is fundamentally different than that of the Reformers which is why his predestinarian and baptismal doctrine is different along with his ecclesiology.As for Augustine enjoying a high place in Orthodoxy prior to the 20th century, I think you are here the victim of propaganda. First, almost none of Augustine’s writings were available in Greek until about the time of the Reformation. The only thing the Easterners had was his anti-Manichean works and parts of his work on the Trinity. His anti-Manichean works for example enjoy official commendation by Trullo and hence 2nd Nciea. When the East becomes familiar with some of his other teachings even before that time, they reject them. This is clear in the 9th century in Photios’ remarks on Augustine’s teaching of the Filioque. Similar remarks are made during the middle ages for a number of figures commenting on Augustine’s teaching. So a rejection of his views is hardly owing to some 20th century over reaction to justify Orthodox distinctives. So the problem is, on the contrary with the Protestant doctrine, rather than its use, because the Patristic idea is not that of those secretly regenerated and elected, for which no action of theirs could place them beyond the true church. The true church for the Fathers is not a purely extrinsic affair. Rather the invisible church for the Fathers refers to those who have died and not all those regenerate. The visible church refers to the church militant in its entirety, and not merely to those so externally named.If you concede that the term isn’t what scripture means when it refers to the church, I can’t help but see that the point has been conceded. There is an inconsistency between what Scripture means by the term and how people are related to the reality picked out by that concept, and Protestant ecclesiology. For given what Scripture means by the term church, how is schism from it possible? And so we are back to the original point.

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