“A word of God for all things we have to do”

The long-promised discussion on Elizabethan theonomy, although it turns out to be a rather short one, developed amidst a discussion of Puritan biblicism more generally—adapted from the draft of ch. 3 of my thesis.

Unfortunately, Cartwright does not rest content with asserting the supremacy of our duty to God’s glory and our brethren’s salvation over civil concerns.  Indeed, how could he, after long battles in the Vestiarian controversies had ended indecisively, with conformists earnestly insisting that God’s glory and the salvation of the brethren was not in fact at stake?  A more certain rule for resolving the doubtful conscience and adjudicating clashing loyalties was needed—Scripture.

“No man’s authority . . . can bring any assurance unto the conscience,” Cartwright concluded.  Perhaps in “human sciences” the word of man carried “some small force” but “in divine matters [it] hath no force at all.”  Of course, whether the matters in question were “divine matters” or “human sciences” was precisely the point at issue between him and Whitgift.  Whitgift would concede that in divine matters, Scripture alone was our guide, but if the disputed orders and ceremonies were merely civil ordinances, Scripture did not necessarily have much to tell us.  When pressed, then, Cartwright would go so far as to insist that in all actions of moral weight, Scripture was our guide: unless we “have the word of God go before us in all our actions . . . we cannot otherwise be assured that they please God.”  Recognizing the boldness of this claim, Cartwright offers a syllogism to back it up: “But no man can glorify God in anything but by obedience; and there is no obedience but in respect of the commandment and word of God: therefore it followeth that the word of God directeth a man in all his actions.”  Whitgift, breathless at such a declaration, answers that this would make not merely the matters in question, but all civil matters as well dependent on the Word, indeed, any action whatsoever, even “to take up a straw.”

Cartwright happily swallows the reductio, acknowledging that the guidance of Scripture is needed for the taking up of a straw.  Why?  Because although a class of action may be indifferent in itself, any particular action takes on the moral quality of goodness or badness based on the motive, and the motive, says Cartwright, must always be a desire to please God; since he has already argued that no man may be confident he pleases God except when acting in adherence to the Word, Scripture must in some sense go before us even in the most trivial of actions.  Cartwright has thus, under pressure to find some certain rule for guiding the Christian amidst doubtful and disputed moral decisions, collapsed any distinction between indifference epistemologically construed and morally construed, with the result of rendering the concept largely meaningless.  Since no action is morally neutral, and since the Christian must have guidance in all moral matters, and since Scripture is the Christian’s surest guide, Scripture must be taken to pronounce positively or negatively on all matters.

Even the relative indifference of the adiaphora, it would seem, would have to come from the positive permission of the Word.  And indeed, when Whitgift expresses concern on this score, Cartwright confirms that this is his meaning: “For even those things that are indifferent, and may be done, have their freedom grounded of the word of God; so that unless the word of the Lord, either in general or especial words, had determined of the free use of them: there could have been no lawful use of them at all.“  This is a remarkable transformation of the doctrine of adiaphora; no longer is Scriptural silence regarding a matter demonstrative of its moral lawfulness, but it is constitutive of it, so that this silence is to be construed as a positive act of  permission, without which the matter would have remained morally illicit. 

 

The fundamental difference between the conformist and the precisianist, then, is not merely that the precisianist considers that fewer matters have been left indifferent than the conformist does, although that is certainly the case; nor is it merely that the precisianist considers Scriptural guidance on matters that are indifferent to be more detailed and constraining than the conformist does, although that is certainly the case; rather, it is that the precianist considers all the relevant moral criteria to derive from Scripture, rather than merely being expressed in it.  We may see what this difference of approach entails by considering the role of the Mosaic judicial laws in Cartwright’s system.  Whitgift, worrying that the precisianist principle of Scriptural direction for every action would lead not merely to the abridgement of the magistrate’s freedom over ecclesiastical matters, but over strictly civil matters as well, was met with a curious waffling on the part of his adversary.  On the one hand, Cartwright and other precisianists would frequently insist that as ministers of the Gospel, they disclaimed all interest in merely civil and political matters, leaving those to the lawyers; moreover, they denied that the principles they advanced regarding ecclesiastical polity necessitated a similar reconfiguration of civil polity.  On the other hand, however, they at times forthrightly admitted that the laws of England ought to take the laws of Moses as their guide, and were to be condemned as unjust whenever they failed to do so.

This emphasis on the abiding validity of the Mosaic judicial laws has frequently attracted the interest of scholars for its idiosyncrasy among the Protestant Reformers (with the exception of the Scotch Presbyterians, who were in this of a similar mind as their English brethren), and its lasting influence on later Puritan theonomic/theocratic aspirations.  Paul Avis, in his instructive article “Moses and the Magistrate,” has shown that even where they used similar language, there was a compelling difference between a Calvin and a Cartwright on this issue.  The former, although much more emphatic about the positive uses of the law than Luther was, took a fundamentally similar tack on the judicial laws.  Luther believed that the while the Ten Commandments summed up the natural law, the latter temporally and logically preceded this formal expression, and the same principle applied to the rest of the Mosaic laws.  They were expressions and applications of natural law in a particular polity, and so, although its accuracy as a good application was, by virtue of its divine revelation, more assured than that of the law of Solon, it was not intrinsically more binding.  Only inasmuch as our own circumstances were the same as those of the Hebrews should we expect our own judicial laws to be similar to theirs.  Calvin’s argument is similar, viewing the natural principle of equity, perfected in the gospel principle of charity, to be instantiated in the Mosaic judicial laws, but to exist independently of them, so that it might and often should be instantiated quite differently in a contemporary Christian polity.  Cartwright, however, while he will use Calvin’s term of the “general equity” of the law, understands this as something posterior, rather than prior, to the particular positive law, extracted from it, rather than instantiated in it.  Accordingly there is some room for flexibility in application, but not a great deal:

“And as for the judicial law, forasmuch as there are some of them made in regard of the region they were given, and of the people to whom they were given, the prince and the magistrate, keeping the substance and equity of them (as it were the marrow), may change the circumstances of them, as the times and places and manners of the people shall require.  But to say that any magistrate can save the life of blasphemers, contemptuous and stubborn idolaters, incestuous persons, and such like, which God by his judicial law hath commanded to be put to death, I do utterly deny.”

 

This is because, for Cartwright, as Joan O’Donovan says, “the particular command . . . is the perfect form of law because it ‘leave[s] as little undetermined and without the compass of the law as can be.’”  Accordingly, we ought never to rest content with a mere general moral intuition if a clear Scriptural directive can be found; indeed, the latter is the only basis upon which the former can be valid.  This conviction leads Cartwright to a preposterous dependence on Scriptural prooftexts at many points in his debate with Whitgift where mere common-sense would have more than sufficed.  For instance, when complaining that in the Prayer Book service, the minister cannot be clearly heard by the congregation when he stands at the far end of the chancel, Cartwright feels the need to allege a Scriptural positive law for the principle, and resorts to Acts 1:15: “Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples.”  When Whitgift raises his eyebrows, Cartwright holds his ground: “The place of St. Luke is an unchangeable rule to teach that all that which is done in the church ought to be done where it may be best heard, for which cause I alleged it.”  At another point, discussing the requirements for elders, he says “The holie Ghost prescribing by Jethro what officers are to be chosen doth not only require that they should fear God . . . be wise and valiant, but also requireth that they be trusty.”  Jethro’s counsel to his son-in-law can no longer be read merely as prudent counsel, the prudence of which ought to be obvious in similar situations, such as the choosing of church officers, but must appear as a specific prescription of the Holy Spirit, intended for use as a positive law for the church.

This style of reasoning permeates the writings of Cartwright, Travers, and other precisianists, and is undergirded by two syllogisms that we find frequently repeated.  The first finds perhaps its most amusing expression when Whitgift queries the Admonition’s statement that in the Apostles’ time, there was always a careful examination of communicants before they were permitted to receive the Supper—how, he asks, do they prove this in Scripture?  “After this sort,” replies Cartwright: “all things necessary were used in the churches of God in the apostles’ times; but examination of those whose knowledge of the mystery of the gospel was not known or doubted of was a necessary thing; therefore it was used in the churches of God which were in the apostles’ time.”

It should not surprise us to find this sort of reasoning given the precisianist obsession with finding certainty; for the Christian convinced that he must please God in all actions, it was clear that the Church needed detailed guidance in all its practices, and since God must love and favor His church, it stood to reason that he must have provided such guidance in Scripture.  Moreover, since the most specific form of law was the most perfect, the more God loved his Church, the more detailed legislation we should expect.  Accordingly, we frequently find the following form of a fortiori syllogism:

“To prove that there is a word of God for all things we have to do: I alleged that otherwise our estate should be worse, than the estate of the Jews.  Which the Adm. confesseth to have had ‘direction out of law, in the least thing they had to do.’  And when it is the virtue of a good law, to leave as little undetermined and without the compass of the law as can be: the Answerer in imagining that we have no word for divers things wherein the Jews had particular direction: presupposeth greater perfection in the law, given unto the jews, then in that which is left unto us.  And that this is a principal virtue of the law may be seen not only by that I hade showed that a conscience well instructed and touched with the fear of God seeketh for the light of the word of God in the smallest actions.”

In a remarkable early passage of his Full and Plaine Declaration, outlining the Scriptural plan of Presbyterian polity, Walter Travers manages to combine both syllogisms side-by-side.  God’s care for his people, he says, is apparent in the precise and detailed legislation for the building of the tabernacle in the Old Testament; even though Scripture describes David and Solomon’s changes to the worship and building of the temple without narrating God’s prescription of them, we may safely conclude, given the obvious approval of their actions, that they would have only made such changes by express divine command.  “And,” concludes Travers, “how absurd and unreasonable a thing is it, than especially to think the love and care of God to be diminished towards his Church” that he would omit such express commands in the New Covenant?  

 

In their quest to safeguard Christian liberty, then, the precisianists have so hedged it in with unchangeable divine law that even Whitgift’s cold call to submission seems a charter of freedom by comparison.


One Small Step to Rome

Jason Stellman’s announcement on Sunday that he was resigning from the Presbyterian Church in America and headed toward Rome has struck the narrow Reformed world like a bombshell, setting heads and tongues wagging over the past couple days.  As a noted representative of the most arch-conservative Confessionalist wing of the PCA, priding itself on its staunch adherence to Reformed standards, and as lead prosecutor for several years against Peter J. Leithart (largely on the basis that Leithart’s theology tended toward Rome), Stellman’s volte-face is so layered with irony that it would be richly amusing if not so sad.  

In his resignation letter, Stellman cites (not untypically for converts) his loss of confidence in sola Scriptura and sola fide.  A number of excellent responses have already gone up—from Doug Wilson, from Peter Leithart, and from Steven and Peter at TCI.  I have little to add to these excellent thoughts, so I’d like to just highlight a couple of the key points and add perhaps one significant point omitted.  

Wilson argues that Stellman has, as is usual, caricatured both sola Scriptura and sola fide in his rejection of them, and goes on to suggest that it may have been the PCA’s disciplinary failure (in his eyes) to condemn Leithart that led to his disillusionment with Protestant disciplinarianism and turn toward someone wielding a bigger ecclesiastical stick.  Leithart, in his post, hones in on the sola Scriptura issue, suggesting that here, at any rate, the transition of hyper-Reformed confessionalism to Rome has perhaps been a comparatively smooth one for Stellman.  Stellman’s brand of confessionalism, shared by many within conservative Reformed denominations, and most notably by “Escondido theologians” Scott Clark, Darryl Hart, David VanDrunen and (more temperately) Michael Horton, attributes a level of regulative authority to the Westminster Confession and other Reformed standards that functionally denies sola Scriptura, although continuing to do lip service to it.  Among many Reformed confessionalists, the confessional standards, and the ongoing teaching authority of the ministerium that follows these standards, wield an authority that is almost beyond appeal and is not dissimilar to that claimed by Catholics for the magisterium.  This suggests Stellman was not so much reacting away from a hyper-Protestant individualism, as Wilson suggests, but rather that he never had a real Protestant sense of the authority of the individual believer’s conscience before Scripture to begin with.  

 

This is a point that Escalante and Wedgeworth develop at considerable length in their response, arguing that Stellman’s recent move confirms what they (and I) have been arguing for some time about the inner unity between de jure divino Presbyterian two-kingdoms theory and Catholicism.  Stellman, unsurprisingly, has been one of the most vocal exponents of VanDrunen-style two-kingdoms theology, writing a book on the subject, Dual Citizens, in 2009.  By equating the spiritual kingdom of Christ with a juridical model of the visible church, its boundaries rigorously policed by ordained authorities, these men undermine the Protestant teaching of the priesthood of all believers, substituting a heteronomous visible authority to mediate between the believer and God.  As they put it in their post, “Its disciplinarian center cannot accept a mere political and prudential submission to recognized authority for the sake of external order, or a voluntary submission to moral and intellectual authority in wisdom and charity.  Instead it demands that the mechanism of church polity serve as a rule of faith and the precondition for pious exegesis and faithful church membership.”  Their post goes on to sketch the outlines of what the alternative—Reformed irenicism—looks like, with a properly-defined role for Scripture, authority, and individual reason.    

 

To all this, I want to merely briefly add a thought on the second concern Stellman voices, that of the incoherence of sola fide.  Wedgeworth and Escalante say that the answer to that “question is actually predetermined by Mr. Stellman’s heteronomy,” and I suppose I just want to make more explicit here what is implicit in their post.  Here again, Wilson has suggested that Stellman is perhaps simply reacting against an aberrant nuda fide version of the doctrine, and that perhaps he just needs to be acquainted with a more robust, meaty concept of faith.  Perhaps there is something to this; I have frequently heard the accusation that the Escondido theology is antinomian.  But my own impression of the disciplinarian confessionalist wing of Reformed theology (within which I grew up) is quite the contrary—namely, that it has little real grasp of the spirit of sola fide to begin with.  Here again, then, I would suggest (without knowing Stellman, his work, or his background in any detail) that perhaps the transition to Catholicism is a surprisingly smooth one, a change more in letter than in spirit.  If discipline is of the esse of the Church, then participation in the life of the grace is dependent upon adherence to moral rules tightly policed by “spiritual rulers,” and the freedom of a conscience justified by faith alone is replaced by either a nervous or an arrogant legalism.  Of course, there are plenty of Protestant legalisms besides presbyterian ones, no doubt about that.  But it would be foolish to deny that institutionalizing the moralistic impulse, in the form of the consistory, tends to intensify it.  In any case, the solas hang together.  The disciplinarian abandonment of the priesthood of all believers entails an abandonment also of the freedom of all believers.  And those moves having been made, the most consistent ideological resting place is Rome.  (Richard Hooker understood this all four hundred years ago, of course.)


Libertine Legalists

(This is an excerpt from a thesis chapter I am drafting, “Richard Hooker and the Freedom of the Christian Commonwealth”–it explores the paradoxically libertine yet legalist implications of the Puritan rejection of human authority)

For Hooker, the problem with Puritanism is a warped doctrine of Christian liberty which will assuredly destroy the liberty of the Church (and along with it, the State and the individual).  As we have seen already, the doctrine of Christian liberty declared that Scripture alone had authority over the conscience, and that therefore, no other authority outside Scripture could bind the believer.  Given the original thrust of this doctrine as a weapon against papal authority, it is no wonder that it should tend to abridge the liberty of the Church, pitting against it the freedom of the individual and the authority of Scripture.  Rightly qualified, of course, this exclusive authority of Scripture applied only in matters of faith and salvation, in “the spiritual kingdom” into which, by definition, no man could reach, and the doctrine did not need to pose any threat to suitably humble human institutions.  But as the Puritans had made Church discipline and ceremonies to be matters of faith and salvation, a clash was inevitable.  

The problem this posed for the Church of England is revealed in a fascinating passage in Book V, chaper 71, where Hooker, discussing the particular case of the Church’s power to command holy days, takes the opportunity to unfold the alarming implications of Puritan biblicism:

“It is not they saie in the power of the Church to commande rest because God hath left it to all men at libertie that if they thinke good to bestow six whole daies in labor they may, neither is it more lawfull for the Church to abridg anie man of that libertie which God hath graunted, then to take awaie the yoke which God hath laid upon them and to countermande what he doth expreslie injoigne.  But without some expresse commaundement from God there is no power they saie under heaven which may presume by any decree to restraine the libertie that God hath given.  Which opinion, albeit applied here no farther then to this present cause, shaketh universallie the fabrick of government, tendeth to anarchie and meere confusion, dissolveth families, dissipateth colleges, corporations, armies, overthroweth kingdomes Churches and whatsoever is now through the providence of God by authoritie and power upheld.  For whereas God hath foreprised thinges of the greatest waight, and hath therein precisely defined as well that which every man must perform, as that which no man maie attempt, leaving all sortes of men in the rest either to be guided by their owne good discretion if they be free from subjection to others, or els to be ordered by such commaundementes and lawes as proceed from those superiors under whome they live, the patrons of libertie have heere made sollemne proclamation that all such lawes and commandementes are voide, in as much as everie man is left to the freedom of his owne minde in such thinges as are not either exacted or prohibited by the law of God, and because onlie in these thinges the positive preceptes of men have place, which preceptes cannot possiblie be given without some abridgment of theire libertie to whome they are given, therefore if the father commaund the sonne, or the husband the wife, or the Lord the servant, or the Leader the souldier, or the Prince the subject to goe or stand, sleepe or wake at such times as God him selfe in particular commaundeth neither, they are to stande in defense of the freedom which God hath graunted and to doe as them selves list, knowing that men maie as lawfullie comaunde them thinges utterly forbidden by the law of God, as tye them to any thinge which the law of God leaveth free.  The plaine contradictorie whereunto is unfalliblie certaine.  Those thinges which the Law of God leaveth arbitrarie and at libertie are all subject unto possitive lawes of men, which lawes for the common benefit abridg particular mens libertie in such thinges as farre as the rules of equitie will suffer.  This wee must either maineteine or els overturne the world and make everie man his own commander.”

Here Hooker attributes to the Puritans the claim that, in all matters on which Scripture is silent, the individual is left free, and human authority cannot claim to interpose itself.  Although not explicitly stated, the comparison with Anabaptism, which was a standard of conformist polemics and which makes an open appearance several times in the Lawes, is clear enough.  The Puritans would have vociferously denied it, to be sure, and with good reason–they certainly held that the magistrate, in properly “civil” matters, could bind by positive law on matters which Scripture left at liberty.

  Nonetheless, when it came to “spiritual” matters, and the public order of the Church, many Puritans certainly held something like what Hooker attributes to them here–and since Hooker will argue that laws of ecclesiastical polity are of the same nature as civil polity, he is not unfair in here drawing out the Anabaptistic implications of their doctrine.

 

Clearly, however, this apparent libertinism was not incompatible with the starkest legalism.  It is this latter which Hooker is seeking to combat in III.11.  In the Admonition Controversy, Cartwright had argued that if God had given through Moses a thorough constitution for the people of Israel, then how could he omit this gift to the much greater new Israel, the Church of Christ?  The more laws given, the more blessed, reasoned Cartwright, so we must assume that Christ gave to the Church more and stricter laws than ever Moses gave to Israel.

When Whitgift objected that on the contrary, it appeared that the opposite was the case–whereas the political organization of Israel was strictly determined, little or nothing was said of civil matters in the New Testament, Cartwright retorted that 

“the leaving of us at greater libertie in things civill is so farre from proving the like libertie in things pertaining to the kingdome of heaven, that it rather proves a streighter bond.  For even as when the Lord would have his favour more appeare by temporall blessings of this life towards the people under the Lawe then towards us, he gave also politique lawes most exactlie . . . so his care for conduct and government of the life to come, should (if it were possible) rise, in leaving lesse to the order of men then in times past.” (255)

Since divinely-given law is the key to receiving blessings, then just the temporal blessings of Israel’s commonwealth were provided for by detailed divine law, so the spiritual blessings of the Church cannot come except by detailed laws.

Hooker responds by refusing to accept Cartwright’s presupposition that God must have blessed the Church with detailed laws, insisting on the simple empirical fact that he didn’t: “it is manifest that our Lord and Saviour hath not by positive laws descended so far into particularities with us as Moses with them . . . [therefore] to us there should be freedom and liberty granted to make laws.”  Here then it is Hooker arguing that we are “left at liberty” when Scripture is silent; only the liberty is that of an institution to make laws, not of an individual to be free from law. 

The strange dynamic between legalism and libertinism that Hooker identifies in Puritanism was a recurrent one in various forms of radical Reformation movements.  On the one hand, the Puritan platform asserts the absolute authority and massive scope of Biblical law, regulating in detail the conduct of a believer and leaving him, it would seem, very little liberty before God.  On the other hand, so all-encompassing is this divine law that it muscles out of the way all other forms of authority–since it leaves no matter in need of legislation untouched, we are to assume that no further legislation is permissible where it does not speak.  The believer is thus left a great deal of liberty before man.  By failing to distinguish the different planes on which divine and human authority operate, so that freedom of conscience before the one can coexist with bondage before the latter, the Puritan has imagined the two to be competing for territory on the same plane, necessarily in conflict, and with the latter sure to give way before the superior claims of the former.  Thus the assertion of Christian liberty strikes directly at the foundation of institutional liberty.

On the contrary, says Hooker, those things left uncommanded by divine law, being matters of adiaphora, are grants of liberty to political societies to frame positive laws “for the common benefit,” not chains restricting them from any legislation.  If we do not say this, then nothing is left to the authority of such institutions, but all to the individual or to Scripture.

The result of this, Hooker is convinced, will be the crippling of any capacity for corporate action and hence the destruction of society. 


Why I Won’t Convert

In the wake of my post “Honouring Mary as Protestants,” I found myself drawn into an amicable Reformed-Orthodox dialogue of sorts on Orthodox-Reformed Bridge.  In the discussion, I was challenged to explain my rejection of the idea that any tradition preserved intact and entire the timeless essence of true Christianity–did this not make me postmodernist, rejecting the objectivity of truth?  Was this not just an excuse for Protestant subjectivism, picking and choosing my own little mix of traditions as I saw fit?  In my replies, I summarized my view on the relationship of Protestantism and tradition, and why I see the call to “submit” to “the Church” as a cop-out, fuelled by a desire for easy solutions to doctrinal corruption and division.  The following is adapted from those comments: 

I am not a “postmodernist”–I do not think that all we have are “fragments of the Gospel.” I believe that the Gospel once delivered to the saints is a rock upon which the Church is built, and from which it can never depart. I believe that the heart of that faith remains constant over the millennia, but as history moves forward, the Church grows (and occasionally backslides) in its understanding of that faith, and that, so profound is the truth to which we are called to witness that no single formulation of it can claim to have captured it fully; on the contrary, all we can claim is to have testified to an aspect of it, and must be ready to consider that other Christians, or other eras of the Church, may have testified to another aspect, which we should not immediately rule out simply because it doesn’t line up exactly with our own. I also believe that under the guidance of the Spirit, the Church is advancing, and that we can be confident that on the whole, our grasp of the truth of God in Christ will grow rather than shrink.

There is, in short, an objective truth to the Christian faith. but it is an object so great, so large, so multi-faceted that each of us can only see certain parts of it at any given time, so we must always be ready to compare what we have grasped of it with what others have grasped, seeking to gradually put together a mosaic that will capture more and more of the whole picture. This is not postmodernism, because it presupposes that we all are actually looking at the same object, and seeing something real there outside ourselves. But it is not naive objectivism, which assumes that the object simply is what we have perceived–no more, no less.

You may be right in being concerned that this seems to give no simple, straightforward basis of combating “liberalism.” I believe that the search for some kind of magic weapon that will level all forms of liberalism with one well-placed blow, leaving only orthodox forms of the faith standing, is a fool’s errand. I believe that the kind of patient and humble submission to Scripture that I have described does give us the ability to identify and defeat inauthentic forms of the faith, false testimonies to Christ, but it will always have to be a patient and careful struggle. The magic weapons of the Magisterium or the Seven Ecumenical Councils are illusory–they are themselves embedded in the ambiguities and vicissitudes of history from which they claim to rescue us. The latter may provide a reliable guide to the issues that confronted the Church in that time, but new issues are always confronting the Church. The former may promise an authoritative answer to all of these new issues, but at the cost of its own consistency over the centuries, and without escaping the problem of interpretation–think of how many contradictory forms of Catholicism right now claim to be in submission to Vatican II.

 

The alternative is a commitment to semper reformanda.  This need not mean, as critics will say, opting for a self-indulgent “continual smorgasbord” and “convenient selectivity.” Rather, it’s about a constant wrestling with the voice of Scripture, and the voice of its interpreters through all the ages of the Church, a willingness to never rest satisfied that we have all the answers, and instead to always allow ourselves to be interrogated by the Word. In this, we must always be open to the possibility that our understanding will grow and lead us to new theological insights, but in confidence that God does not change, and he has been faithful in leading his Church into truth in the past. Therefore, we may rest confidently upon the historic creeds of the Church, determined that even as our growing comprehension of the truth of the Gospel may shed new light on these foundations, it must never lead us to contradict them. 

It’s hard to see how this can be dismissed as “convenient selectivity.” To my mind, this posture is a far more difficult and uncomfortable one than that which seeks the comfort of some ossified and de-historicized tradition that will decide in advance all questions, so that we can simply rest on, say, the determinations of the first 700 years of the Church (or some idealised compendium of them), without having to wrestle with the Scriptures ourselves.

The critic may respond that this makes us each into our own popes, listening to no authority but ourselves. I would suggest, on the contrary, that it requires us to listen to authority even more. Instead of simply taking one set of authorities from one period of the Church, we have to take seriously the authority of Augustine, of Athanasius, of Gregory Nazianzen, of Anselm, of Gregory Palamas, of Aquinas, of Luther, of Hooker, of Newman, of Schmemann, of John Paul II, of our own parents and pastors and all those that God has put into our lives. We have to do our best to listen respectfully to all these voices, instead of just one or two, and to submit our own judgments to their greater wisdom, seeking to find harmony when they disagree with one another, and when we cannot harmonise, making painful decisions about who to follow. And let me tell you, this is a hard thing to do. It cannot, in any case, be rightly done in an individualist, me-and-my-Bible way, but only in constant dialogue with other Christians, waiting patiently for the Spirit to guide us through the wisdom of our communities.

I should add, moreover, that this should always be done from a standpoint of submission to a particular tradition in which one has been called, using the language and categories of that tradition as one’s starting point and interpretive grid. For me, that’s the Reformed tradition. I have all kinds of problems with that tradition, but that’s where God has put me, and I believe therefore that I am called to, as much as possible, critique and revise that tradition where necessary from within itself (while listening attentively, as I have said above, to other voices from Church history), not by constructing a personal postmodern smorgasbord that contains pieces of all traditions but the heart of none.



Some Ramblings on Sola Scriptura

In a blog post a week and a half ago, Peter Leithart addressed the issue of Sola Scriptura in relation to Christian Smith’s recent book How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps.  His defence there of sola Scriptura rightly understood was solid stuff, emphasising the importance of distinguishing between Scripture as sole authority and sole final authority.  Tradition may be a very important authority, may even be a guide to the interpretation of Scripture, but when the chips are down, tradition must always be revisable by Scripture, in a way that cannot be vice versa.  This line of argument is a reasonably familiar one, and yet it seems to me that there are really two distinct issues that have to be addressed when we are talking about sola Scriptura–the “intensive” question and the “extensive” question.  

The first concerns the “strength” of the sola–just how alone is Scripture, and how much is it aided by tradition?  What respective roles do the two play in establishing the rule of belief, and how much can each one do taken by itself?  The second concerns the scope of the sola–just how broadly does it reach?  On just how many issues are we claiming Scripture’s authority?  Is Scripture the authority over, say, mathematics?  This is the sort of idea that gets R2Kers all worked up.  Leithart’s notion of “final authority” is of course of some help here, for this allows that other authorities can command our respect in this field as much as they want, so long as they do not contradict Scripture, which, given how little Scripture has to say on the subject of mathematics, will be pretty rarely, if ever.  

This was of course how the Reformers explained the doctrine, according to their distinction between “things necessary for salvation” and “things indifferent.”  In things necessary, Scripture is the only authority; in things indifferent, it is the final authority.  Which means that, if Scripture is silent on a subject, you can believe whatever you want to, so long as you don’t say that it is necessary for anyone to believe thusly.  (At least, in theory that was the doctrine; pretty soon Protestants were saying that it was necessary not to believe in or do any number of things about which Scripture was silent.)  

This qualification also applied to the Reformation’s notion of the “perspicuity of Scripture,” a concept that has been much misunderstood and misused today.  The perspicuity of Scripture meant that God did not leave us so little guidance in His Word about the path of salvation that we needed other authorities and other information to repent and believe and be saved.  All the essentials, the bare necessities, were there in Scripture clear enough for the lowliest peasant to comprehend and act upon.  Of course, there were many matters in Scripture not so clear, and open to dispute; but the fact that they were so, according to the doctrine of perspicuity, was conclusive evidence that these were not matters necessary and essential.  

 

This, I take it, is the point on which Protestantism (or the varieties of it with which I am familiar), has veered so dangerously off-track, inciting a reaction away from its fractious dogmatism that often takes the form of a rejection of sola Scriptura altogether.  For, if one applies the doctrine of perspicuity too broadly, then potentially any doctrine can become the article of a standing or falling faith, potentially any doctrine can be a legitimate occasion for schism, since “it’s a matter of the authority of Scripture.”  If, for instance, I am convinced of Calvinism, and I am convinced it is demonstrated in Scripture, and I am convinced that Scripture is perspicuous, then if you reject Calvinism, this must be a rejection of the authority of Scripture.  It couldn’t be a difference of interpretation or application, since Scripture is clear.  Therefore, it must be because you refuse to accept Scripture’s authority.  Therefore, you have abandoned the material principle of the faith, and are on the brink of apostasy.  So the argument could run (although I’m not sure that’s how it has generally run in the case of church splits over Calvinism, which have usually proceeded on even more dubious theological logic).  

It is this theological breakdown that has contributed to the vitriol of recent debates between “liberals” and “conservatives,” and that distinguishes such recent debates from their counterparts a century ago.  Back when Machen left the PCUSA, it was, ostensibly at least, because the deity, resurrection and exclusivity of Christ were being rejected or at least quietly abandoned.  Nowadays, our great church splits and controversies occur over issues like Young Earth (or even Six-Day) Creation, women’s ordination, and homosexuality.  Now clearly none of these issues concern in themselves the essentials, the Gospel (although if one is Catholic, women’s ordination raises extremely serious issues about the apostolic succession, validity of the priesthood, and therefore ability to receive the means of grace–and so, presumably, affects salvation; and on the Creation issue, one can argue that the evolutionary narrative would have domino effects on key Christian doctrines that would ultimately undermine the Gospel).  And yet in many quarters, one, two, or all of these are considered make-or-break issues?  Why?

The rhetoric is clear enough most of the time–“It’s a matter of the authority of Scripture!”  Perhaps these “liberals” don’t reject the deity or resurrection of Christ, but they’re rejecting the Bible, and these other doctrines are thus sure to fall by the wayside soon.  Scripture, we are told, is clear on these points, and therefore, there is no way to deviate on these points without openly flaunting Scripture.  By this means, each of these issues, and potentially any number of others, can become automatically just cause for a breaking of fellowship.  

 

But of course, we can’t be so quick to dismiss this as a failure to distinguish between things necessary and things secondary.  Because that distinction does not map straightforwardly on to “things clear in Scripture” vs. “things not clear in Scripture” (as Hooker sometimes seems to imply). Obviously, there are plenty of secondary, indeed, plenty of completely unimportant things that are quite clear in Scripture.  For instance, that Paul spent three years in Ephesus.  Does it matter?  Well, not really.  But since Scripture seems clear on the subject, then how do we respond if someone were inclined to deny this fact?  Presumably this denial (or pick your own crystal-clear example) would be a matter of great concern.

So then, I suppose, what this distinction forces us to do is ask again whether the matters debated really are so crystal clear that to reject them is to reject Scripture, instead of simply assuming that they are.

 

Of course, it is also worth noting that some issues currently under debate, particularly the Creation issue, also pertain to what I have called the intensive authority of Scripture, and perhaps raise similar questions to those of the relationship of Scripture and tradition that proved so crucial at the Reformation.  For what we are now forced to ask is whether Scripture can stand on its own, or whether we need to listen to the testimony of Scripture and science (or, Scripture and historical studies) together in order to find truth, whether science must function as the interpreter of Scripture on certain points in the way that tradition once claimed to.  For many, yielding an inch to science to science seems like a rejection of sola Scriptura.  But could we apply Leithart’s same logic here–science may exercise authority over our interpretations, so long as Scripture remains the final authority, in light of which, if push comes to shove, science must be revised and not vice versa?

 

All of these are but musings, thinking aloud, so to speak.  How they all fit together, and cash out in practice, I’m not at all sure, and I’d welcome any input.