Just so anyone stumbling upon this doesn't misunderstand, I'm not saying all this stuff here as some kind of arrogant rebellion against my tradition. I know the importance of being submissive and respectful to your pastors, friends, and counselors when coming to these kind of convictions, and the discussion here is part of that kind of dialogue, open to revision and correction; it is not intended as a "Behold I have found the light, now hearken, all ye."
One of the issues that my new perspective has finally helped me gain clarity on is the issue of sola Scriptura, and how we as Protestants are to understand it. Unlike most of the other issues I’m discussing here, this was not one that has been nagging me for a long time, surprisingly. It seems that somehow I thought we had it all figured out. But last month, I became greatly unsettled by some conversations I had with a friend, and then by listening to a debate between Bahnsen and a couple Catholic dudes. I hadn’t heard much Bahnsen before, but I’d heard that he usually wiped the floor in his debates. But when he tackled sola Scriptura with these two Catholic dudes, he got his butt kicked all the way back to Escondido (funny thing is, I don’t think he realized it). He completely failed to respond to many of their arguments, and didn’t really even seem to see the force of those arguments. By the end, the Catholic guys were understandably rather frustrated with him for mindlessly repeating the same maxims, heedless of all the devastating counterarguments they’d raised.
I hoped that returning to Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura might give me some comfort. After all, it was from a much higher-church perspective than Bahnsen and so was fairly balanced and respectful toward church tradition, and I remembered having loved it as a freshman. Alas, I had to depart from my earlier optimistic judgment. In the end, Mathison too collapsed into fuzziness and seemed to have few real answers to offer. I’ve been stewing on the shortcomings of his treatment for a while and planning to write something up about it, and recently, after coming to Anglo-Catholic convictions, a fairly clear solution to the quandary has finally presented itself. So I’ll first take on the problems with Mathison, and then (what I think) is the solution.
First, Mathison adopts the categories of “Tradition 1,” which is to say that Scripture alone is authoritative, but must be interpreted within the subordinate “rule of faith”—Tradition and Scripture coincide as two faces of the same authority here; “Tradition 2,” which is to say that two separate authoritative streams exist—the written Scriptures and the unwritten traditions; and “Tradition 3,” which says that only the traditions of the church are finally authoritative (supposedly the modern Catholic position). This way of putting things seems to me a bit baffling and artificial, and when he tries to put the early Church Fathers and most medieval thinkers into this mold (always fitting them into Tradition 1, mind you). After all, if church tradition as an authoritative interpretation and application of the apostolic proclamation be admitted (Tradition 1), then necessarily, this must have relied on certain unwritten traditions and practices, at least so long as the canon was still being compiled—indeed, such traditions were necessary to help decide what the canon was (Tradition 2); and, because Scripture is not to be interpreted outside of the traditional teaching of the church, many of these traditions, then, should be given full authority (Tradition 3). Or, perhaps I should just say that Tradition 3, as he explains it, would be held by very few, I think, and that Tradition 1 and Tradition 2 are not so easily distinguishable. Especially problematic are the places where he dismisses something that looks like Tradition 2 in the Fathers by saying that these unwritten traditions were simply liturgical and practical traditions, not traditions of doctrine. But liturgy is doctrine! The lex orandi was a huge way in which unwritten apostolic traditions were passed down and passed into an authoritative lex credendi.
I think John Keble puts it very nicely, so I will stop trying my clumsy attempts at clarifying the matter: “Because it is affirmed that the full tradition of Christianity existed before the Christian Scriptures, and so far independent of them, we are charged with alleging two distinct systems or words of God, the one written, the other unwritten, running as it were parallel to each other quite down to our own time. But this, by the terms of the case, is plainly unwarranted. If a man were to say that the Severn and the Wye rise separately in the same mountain, one higher up than the other, must he therefore maintain that they never meet before they reach the sea? Tradition and Scritpure were at first two streams flowing down from the mountain of God, but their waters presently became blended, and it were but a vain and unpractical inquiry, to call upon every one who drinks of them to say, how much of the healing draught came from one source, and how much from the other. On account of those who would poison the stream, it is necessary from time to time to analyse it, and show that it contains no ingredients which were not to be found in one or other of the two Mountains; and in so doing, it becomes incidentally manifest, at least in some mass; it is manifest, for example, that all necessary credenda, all truths essential to salvation, are contained in the Scripture itself; and is it not equally manifest, that many helps of greatest consequence, nay I will say generally necessary, to the right development and application of Scripture, are mostly if not entirely derivable from Tradition? And is it not a poor kind of reasoning to say, Tradition would have been worthless had we been left to it alone, therefore it cannot be of any value, now that Scripture has been all along at hand, to check, to sustain, to interpret, to rectify it, as the several occasions might require?”
Also problematic is how Mathison deals with Scripture itself in formulating his position, which is pretty important considering what he’s trying to do. Over and over, he turns to a passage commonly used in the debate and seeks to demonstrate that “you cannot simply get from this passage to the full-blown Catholic teaching on tradition and the magisterium.” So what? It’s awful hard to simply get from any given passage straight to the doctrine of the Trinity, but that doesn’t mean it’s not firmly and absolutely true. I’m not arguing for the Roman doctrine; I’m just saying that Mathison’s way of arguing against it is rather unhelpful and weak-looking. To show that other assumptions will need to be part of the argument is not an effective way of showing that the argument is necessarily wrong. Mathison spends most of his time showing what the passage doesn’t necessarily mean, but precious little time showing what it does in fact mean.
And this is my major beef with his whole book, and with our whole doctrine: it’s very focused on showing what we most certainly DON’T believe, and very weak on showing what we do actually believe. If Scripture doesn’t lead us to the Catholic position, what does it lead us to? If we don’t believe in Tradition 2 or Tradition 0 (that is, “tradition be damned”), then what does Tradition 1 really look like? I hoped to find answers in Mathison, but I found few. Basically, the position seems to be: Scripture must be interpreted by authoritative church teaching. Such an authoritative tradition existed in the early Church, and helped give us the major creeds. We call this tradition the regula fidei, and we rely on it as our foundation in interpreting Scripture. But other traditions not contained in this regula fidei are not authoritative. The problem here is that the regula fidei seems very arbitrarily limited both in scope and time. This authority of the Church appears to extend only to a few select doctrines which Mathison is comfortable including in the regula fidei—Trinity, Incarnation, etc., and it extends only till about the 5th century. In other words, the Church wields a lot of authority until it creates the canon, and then all its authority disappears. This seems rather odd. Mathison gives very little coherent account of what the continuing authority of the Church and its tradition looks like.
Now, at the risk of making Mathison’s mistake and simply saying what I don’t believe, rather than what I do believe, let me make a stab at something which seems to have become very clear to me recently:
It all comes down to burden of proof. It seems quite clear to me that our attitude even as high-church Reformed Christians is, “I won’t accept it or submit to it until it is clear to me that Scripture teaches it.” In other words, the burden of proof is on church tradition—it is assumed to be false until Scripture establishes it. Guilty until proven innocent. Is this how you treat your Mother? Dad’s off at work, Mom tells you something to do, and you say, “Well, I don’t know if Dad would agree with what you’re telling me, so I can’t obey in good conscience until he weighs in on it.” Kids try this all the time, and it is NEVER a sign that their respect for Dad is that much greater; on the contrary, it usually means they will, in the end, have just as hard a time respecting Dad’s authority as Mom’s, when the chips are down. Cyprian said, “You cannot have God for your Father, unless you have the Church for your Mother.” Christ has made promises to the Church, that she bears the truth, that he lives in her and upholds her, inspires her with his Spirit, and you dare to tell her, “Sorry, I’m not listening unless I’m certain that the Bible tells me that you’re right.” Mathison may want to try to distinguish this kind of respect for a subordinate church tradition from the cavalier individualism of popular evangelicalism, but it’s hard for me to see that the result is much different—look at the history of Presbyterianism—respect for authority lasts only as long as complete agreement.
No, the burden of proof goes the other way—if the Church has clearly taught something throughout her history, admittedly with occasional disagreements and variations, but with remarkable unity and persistence, then that doctrine is taken as true and binding unless Scripture can be shown to disprove it. Innocent until proven guilty. The Church should never refuse to go back to Scripture to make sure, when challenged, that her doctrine is not in violation of what is clearly taught there—that’s what the Reformers were originally asking for: “Ok, maybe you’re right about this, but can you please show us how it is not in violation of Scripture?” That needs to be done from time to time, but if the answer comes back, “It looks like Scripture does not condemn this teaching, and indeed, we believe it can be discerned by implication from what is there,” then no one has the right to reply, “Well, until you can prove that this doctrine or practice is absolutely propounded by Scripture, then I can’t accept it.”
This really came home to me when we were debating 2nd commandment issues with a number of the priests. A couple were a bit baffled—“didn’t the Church already settle this at the 7th ecumenical council?” Now, they went on to say, “Of course we need to be willing and able to go back to Scripture and demonstrate that we are not in violation of its teaching,” but their point was, “This has been the teaching of the Church for ages, and you’d better have a darn good reason to disagree. We must look at the 2nd commandment carefully, but we don’t start with an interpretive blank slate. That’s impossible. Our interpretive parameters must be established with submission to the Church’s historic teaching.”
Of course this can be abused. I’m not so naïve as not to see that. But, if the leaders are godly and mature and have the attitudes of servants, I am not too afraid. On the contrary, I think such teaching is a great comfort to the faithful. In my experience, there are generally two types of people in our churches, the sort who care about what they believe and therefore have to learn how to defend it and justify it at every turn against all objections, and those who don’t care, and just coast along with little concern for theology. Generally, the only “serious” Christians in our tradition are the first kind…the second kind are generally looked on with suspicion, and often rightly so. In our doctrine, everything always has to be proven and argued, because there is no clear standard to look to. As soon as I became really interested in my faith, at age 12, I found myself having to argue and justify doctrines at every turn, and though a more ecumenical attitude has prevailed in my current setting, this is still the general ethos of the Reformed tradition. If your belief is important to you, it has to be thrashed out and fought out at every step of the way. No one can say, “I really care about what I believe, I really know what I believe, and I can rest in it and focus on living out my belief; I don’t need to fight for it.” We can’t rest because there is no bosom of the Church to rest on. I’m not saying the Church need not fight for its doctrines, that it need not always carry the Sword of the Word in its hand, to fight for the Truth, but every Christian need not be a soldier. There are other roles in the body. But, if we cannot look with confidence toward the Church our mother, trusting that there are other soldiers that have fought for us and are fighting for us, then no Christian can be a committed Christian without having to fight anew each step of the way. I know I’m sounding unKierkegaardian here, and I shall probably struggle with the tension between Kierkegaard and Newman throughout my whole life, but I think that we need to have a way for a believer to have comfort and confidence in his beliefs, a confidence which does not depend on his own ability, or even his particular church community’s ability, to articulate and defend those beliefs against all comers.
There’s not much ethos in trying to become Anglican at this particular moment in the Church’s history, is there? I have to wince every time at work when we hear NPR report on the latest round of homosexual idiocy in the Anglican Communion, having recently announced to my coworkers my commitment to the Anglican tradition. It sure makes people wonder what I could possibly find so attractive in the Anglican Church as it is now that I’d be willing to ditch the admittedly attractive glories of the CREC.
Now, with a robust enough view of apostolic succession and the importance of the historical institutions of the Church, you could dismiss most of this concern: “So what if they’ve got problems—at least they have the divine commission, and we don’t.” But I don’t really see the need to go quite there, especially since that still doesn’t fully dodge the problem—apostolic succession is worthless if it’s accompanied by complete apostasy. Otherwise, why shouldn’t the Arian bishops have continued to wield authority?
Nor can such an objection be dismissed as mere rhetorical posturing. There is a serious Protestant argument lodged here—namely, “ye shall know them by their fruits.” The argument insists that the true Church is not to be identified by any simple external claim to authority via apostolic succession, but by the fruits of the Spirit. The historic churches have largely fallen into nominalism or apostasy, while we in the Protestant tradition have maintained the true faith and propagated it widely; our churches are so much more vibrant and wholesome, so the presence of the Spirit is visible among us. Why then abandon a place where the Spirit is quite obviously concretely working for a mere theoretical presence of the Spirit through apostolic succession?
Unless you insist that the proper external authority is the only thing that matters, whatever else may be lacking, then this objection is a potentially serious one. For a Protestant can even willingly accept that apostolic succession is tremendously important for the Church, and even that a church that lacks it is lacking a certain fullness of life and blessing as a Church. They can grant that, but then turn around and say, “But, the gospel, a holy Christian life, knowledge of the Word, etc., are tremendously important for the Church, and a church that lack any of these is lacking a certain fullness of life and blessing as a Church. On what basis then should you ditch a church that is deficient in one area for a church that is even more deficient, perhaps, in other areas?”
I think this is a legitimate objection and that we do have to recognize that each church has strengths and weaknesses, and that a strength in one area, however important, cannot necessarily compensate for any number of weaknesses in other areas. So we have to weigh these things, and we must do as Christ says in judging them by their fruits. So let’s try and make that judgment in the case of Anglicanism vs. Protestantism in general, and more specifically, the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. I have three responses in favor of Anglicanism and its fruits (and much of the same defense could apply to the Catholic Church as well). Then I will offer a final response specifically against the CREC and its fruits.
First, what kind of fruit are you looking for?
I think this is a much-ignored presupposition when you get into this discussion. For us in the Reformed tradition, the first fruit we take a look at is doctrinal purity. “Look,” we cry “at least we’ve held on to the faith! We still maintain the Gospel over against liberalism and feminism, and all that!” It’s self-evident to us that we have more fruits, because we’re only looking for one variety of fruit. It’s as if we look at our orchard, where we’ve planted only apple trees, and, after counting up all the apples, brag that we have far more fruit than our neighbor’s orchard, where a lesser number of apple trees are mixed in with a plentiful supply of peach and pear trees as well. But an Anglican, or a Catholic, looks out at the same scene, and says, “Look, at least we’ve stayed united! Y’all have scattered to the four winds, or rather the four thousand winds, but at least we’ve still been able to basically stay together.” From their perspective, we’re obviously the ones lacking fruit. Now, I think both are necessary, of course, and godless unity is no fruit of the Spirit. But I think Protestants need to be careful that they are not screening out any factors that may make the other side look better. While we in the Reformed tradition have undoubtedly maintained a deep and strong knowledge of the Word, and a commitment to sound doctrine (at least in many areas), and this is a fruit worth regarding and worth preserving, we are deplorably lacking in other fruits that the Church should produce—a robust understanding of sacramental grace, with all its benefits in the life of believers; a people that are shaped by liturgy, even subconsciously, and all the benefits of such a way of life and worship; a strong sense of Christian unity…nay, any sense of Christian unity; a proper respect for authority; a vigorous missional orientation, with emphasis on relief of people’s physical needs. All these and more are terribly lacking in our tradition, so how can we say that we have more fruits than they simply because we have more of a certain kind of fruit?
Second, where have you hidden all the rotten fruit?
This ties in rather directly with the previous point, but here, the point is more specifically that even in those areas where the Reformed and Protestant traditions claim to possess all the good fruit, they are hiding much of the picture and are perhaps not nearly so well off. My contention is that, in our tradition, we have simply refused to count everyone who bears bad fruit; we’re like the family that looks perfect because we refuse to associate with all the bad family members, and we cast dirty looks at the family next door that still invites all the awkward and annoying and even downright rotten family members to the family reunions.
“We Presbyterians don’t have homosexuals in the pulpit.” Oh yeah? What about the PCUSA, the largest Presbyterian body in the country? We cut ourselves off from them and stopped counting them long ago, and so we can pretend we’re pure; but the Church that has stuck together, through thick and thin, looks worse just because they’re still dealing with their ugly members. If you actually look at our tradition as a whole, and pretend for a moment that we haven’t split a gazillion times, the majority of it is liberal, apostate, universalist, feminist, supportive of homosexuals, etc, with a generous helping of Unitarians, deists, Pelagians, Arians, and the rest mixed in. Look how the Congregationalists, who basically share our tradition, went into almost wholesale apostasy. By comparison, the Anglican Communion doesn’t look so bad, especially when you look beyond our national borders and see the vast majority of Anglicans worldwide, who hold fervently to the full gospel.
Third, what are your taste buds?
This again relates closely to the first point—by what standard are you judging what is and isn’t good fruit? This is a more minor issue than the other two, but I think it is still potentially huge. If you ask your typical Reformed person what all the bad fruit is that they’re not happy with over in the Anglican tradition, they might make a few remarks about homosexuals and women and that sort of thing, but when you really dig down, you find that things like “dead liturgy” and “idolatry in worship” and “lack of good teaching” and “sacerdotalism” are all mixed in there too. Of course, if Reformed judgments about how word, sacrament, and liturgy should work are indeed correct, these are all fair objections. But this seems to be mere question-begging. We’ve trained our taste buds to identify certain practices as bad, and so we spit them right out, without ever chewing on them enough to discern if they really are bad. We’re like the kid who just knows that he doesn’t like his vegetables and only when he’s 18 or so does he discover that actually broccoli and brussel sprouts taste quite good once he gives them an honest chance. I believe that once you do get down to it and really taste the fruit offered in Anglicanism’s liturgy and sacraments, you realize that that tasty stuff you thought you’d had was no more than high fructose corn syrup with artificial flavors and Yellow 3.
The Parable of the Sower
To this argument I’d like to add a brief, more specific defense of Anglicanism vis-a-vis the CREC. A lot of people are going to ask, “Why would you leave such a thriving, prospering denomination as the CREC, where so much great theology and church-building and ministry and liturgical reform is going on? Judge by their fruits, man! Obviously God is working a lot more here right now than there.” This is potentially persuasive, and even now, I think there’s a lot of truth in it, but I think there’s a pretty simple Scriptural answer:
“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed…seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since hey had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered away….Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty….As for what was sown on the rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away….As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, in another thirty.”
I hate to be cynical, but just because the CREC’s growing fast does not mean it will yield good fruit in the long run. Weeds grow fast. The fact is, there is no root there, no foundation, and so I fear I must be pessimistic about their ability to yield long-term fruit.
Pro Ecclesia Christi,
I'll Take the High (Church) Road #2: What about the Reformation? (or the Romans 11 Thought Experiment)0 comments Posted by Brad Littlejohn at 7:56 AM
1 I say then, has God cast away His people? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel, saying, 3 “LORD, they have killed Your prophets and torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life”? 4 But what does the divine response say to him? “I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace.
Has the Catholic Church then fallen away? Has God destroyed the people that he founded and forsaken them in favor of a new people? Certainly not! For there are many faithful there, who have continued in service to God by faith.
6 And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.
7 What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded. 8 Just as it is written:
“ God has given them a spirit of stupor,
Eyes that they should not see
And ears that they should not hear,
To this very day.”
9 And David says:
“ Let their table become a snare and a trap,
A stumbling block and a recompense to them.
10 Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see,
And bow down their back always.”
Of course they did commit many grievous sins and corruptions, and therefore God cast them under judgment. Because of their blindness and folly, God chose to give himself instead to the Protestants, to the “schismatics,” and set his face against the historic Church in judgment, until they should repent.
11 I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles.
Is the historic Catholic Church then cast away for good, in favor of God’s new people, the Protestants? No! God raised up the Protestant churches to provoke the historic Catholic Church to jealousy, so that, seeing that God worked grace even through such lowly and unworthy instruments, they would be jealous that such grace was absent from them, the true sons. God used their fall to raise up a faithful seed, that the true sons might repent and return to him.
12 Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness! 13 For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14 if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. 15 For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
Their fall is not permanent—of course not! If God worked such great things through their fall, how will he not work much more glorious things by their restoration?
16 For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, 18 do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.
We as Protestants have no existence, no meaning, apart from them—they are the root, the natural olive tree. They support us, we do not support them. The historic Catholic Church, the institution with apostolic authority, is the necessary root that supports the Christian church. Many of the natural branches were broken off for their sins, and we Protestants, unnatural and unruly, were graciously made to partake of the fatness of the root, even though we did not naturally belong to it. We cannot boast against the historic Church because of our faithfulness, because we only have life because they first had life.
19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.” 20 Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. 22 Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?
You will say, O Protestant, “God cut off the unfaithful Catholic Church that we might take its place as the True Church.” Ah, but they were broken off because of their unbelief, and you stand only because of your faith. Do not be haughty about your position as God’s people, for you stand only because of God’s mercy, and if you despise that, you may be cut off. They also can be brought back into the True Church again, if they are faithful; and indeed, far more so, because they are grown from the natural root and have all the benefits of their long cultivation as the Church.
25 For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And so all Israel will be saved as it is written:
“ The Deliverer will come out of Zion,
And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob;
27 For this is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins.”
28 Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, 31 even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. 32 For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.
Recognize that they will be restored, and the Church will be one again, root and branch, and labor toward that goal. They are beloved of God for the sake of their long history as his people, so he will not cast them away. Through their disobedience, he has wrought great things for the world in spreading the gospel, but he will restore all to unity in the end. The calling and gifts that he gave them are irrevocable, and so he will restore them to faith, that they might use these gifts gloriously.
33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!
34 “ For who has known the mind of the LORD?
Or who has become His counselor?”
35 “ Or who has first given to Him
And it shall be repaid to him?”
36 For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.
Give thanks to God for his glorious wisdom in thus ordaining history, that the Church would be divided in order to be reunited more gloriously. Even though it is a mystery, it is the work of God, so give thanks for it.
Now, this is merely a thought experiment, and I’m not actually advocating this way of looking at the issue (though I think many would want to think of the relationship in terms quite similar to these). See, there are a number of ways in which I think the situation is quite different—for one thing, I don’t think Rome’s apostasy was as severe as the Jews in the time of Christ. For another, the Reformation was not a shift to a new covenant—Protestantism cannot be shown to be the authorized permanent successor to Catholicism in the way that the Church was the authorized permanent successor to Israel. So the Gentiles have a far more stable and permanent position than the Protestants do. But, this being so, it is striking how much respect Paul gives to the Jews, and how much confidence he has in their future. How much more so then, should we look with honor on the Catholic Church, which remains in a continuing covenant, whatever her faults.
So I think I can borrow some of Paul’s imagery and language to make the following points of application, though I think there are many other places where the analogy fails.
First of all, then, just as with Israel, the promises and outward blessings of the historic Catholic Church were real, valuable, and meaningful. Her liturgy, sacraments, and apostolic succession were a divine commission that she ought to safeguard. However, as with Israel, even she with all these benefits could have her lampstand removed if she broke faith grievously. As important as was her historical institution and apostolic authority, God was not bound to respect those if the rest was lacking.
Second, Protestantism was not from the natural root, but was a wild tree graftd in. This is crucial to emphasize, for those who think the outward marks and privileges of the Catholic Church, with her apostolic authority, are unimportant and meaningless, since the Church is to be identified by something vaguer or more spiritual. Protestantism was irregular, by all rights we should not have been doing what we were doing, except God graciously raised us up and grafted us onto the trunk of the Church which he had established, and from which he had pruned off many of the natural branches.
Third, God did this to provoke jealousy and repentance in the Catholic Church, not to supplant them. Because the right leaders were unfaithful, God raised up outsiders, who wouldn’t normally have the blessings. But he gave them the blessings to show the Catholic Church that they needed to get their act together.
Fourth, we cannot disrespect the root which is the only means of our life. We are aliens transplanted onto a living stalk, and the life of that stalk we wish to write off as meaningless at best. We think that we have life in ourselves, and forget that we are grafted on; if we do so, and boast against the Catholic Church, we too are in danger of being cut off.
Fifth, they will receive life from the dead, and when they do, their flowering will be more glorious than ours, because they have are the natural branches, and have all the benefits and promises that belong to that status. This means that there is something to be intrinsically valued in their apostolic ministry and sacraments, and it means that when reunion does happen, that will not mean them becoming like us Protestants, but them becoming faithful catholics.
Of course, I don’t think the Catholics have been cut off as fully as the Jews, nay, not nearly so. There has been a continuing legitimate Church there, but one with much dross that needs to be burned away. Much of it has been indeed, and perhaps we are not far from the time when they shall be grafted fully back in.
Moreover, there is a tertium quid for the time being—a faithful branch of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church—the Anglican Church.
So what's the deal with this apostolic succession business? We'll, I'll tell you how I've put it to myself for quite a while now, an analogy that has helped me a lot.
Let me say first of all that the doctrine of apostolic succession seems reasonably persuasive Scripturally, though it's hard to prove it in any final sense, if that's the sort of thing you're looking for. What really gives it the stamp of authority then is how thoroughly it seems to be assumed in the thinking of the early Church; you would think that, sitting so close to their founders, they would have some idea at least of how they were supposed to be governed.
But I'm not wanting to focus on that angle, because that never seems to be the angle from which objections come. Objectors universally say something like, "It just doesn't seem that we can put God in a box like that; the Spirit raises up leaders wherever he wants." This sort of objection has always seemed very odd to me, given the rest of our theology. After all, this is exactly the sort of objection we dismiss when it is brought against our sacraments. No, just because you think you have a personal relationship with God outside the sacraments does not mean that these are not his ordained means of grace and of granting his presence. There cannot, it seems to me, be an a priori objection to the "exclusiveness" of apostolic succession without applying the same argument to the sacraments. Now, of course, this does not mean that the same conditions necessarily apply to both. However, if apostolic succession otherwise looks biblically, historically, and theologically attractive, we can apply this analogy to make more sense of it.
So, baptism is God's ordained means of bringing people into covenant relation with him as his people; he marks them out with it and fills them with his power and grace. Just so, can we not say that the laying on of hands in ordination is God's ordained means of bringing people into covenant relation with him as his ministers; he marks them out with it and fills them with his power and grace?
Can someone be saved without baptism? Of course. It happens all the time. God enters into a gracious relationship with that person outside of his normal means. So can a minister wield true authority of some kind without apostolic succession? Well, yes, of course. It happens all the time. God graciously commissions that person outside of his normal means.
But, by the same token, is the person saved outside of baptism just as well off, all other things being equal, as the person who is rightly baptized and brought into the covenant people? I think we would generally say no. Therefore, the unbaptized believer ought to be strongly urged not to be complacent just because God is gracious, but to seek out His promised means of grace. Likewise, then, the minister appointed without apostolic authority is not, all other things being equal, as well off as the one who is. And therefore, he ought to not be complacent just because God is gracious, and should seek out God's promised means of grace (recognizing, of course, that there may be complications and delays in this process).
The analogy can go further. Sometimes people are baptized under somewhat irregular circumstances, for example, by an unfaithful minister. Sometimes this irregularity is judged so serious that rebaptism may be necessary, but usually, it is recognized that God's mercy extends to grant the benefits to those of true faith but who in ignorance received the sacrament irregularly. Therefore, I see no reason why we may not allow for the occasional irregularity in the apostolic succession...someone being ordained by a heretic, for example. God's mercy extends to grant the benefits in some cases of irregularity. But, of course this is no basis to argue that it extends to grant the benefits when there is not even any appearance of or attempt toward any kind of regularity. That would be like arguing that someone who asks their friend to spray them with a garden hose while reciting the creed can call that a baptism and thereby make it one.
And finally, baptism is a necessary, but not a sufficient cause of salvation. Of course we do not say that because God chooses to work salvation through baptism that means that all you need is baptism to have eternal life. You need faith and faithfulness as well. Just so, hardly anyone who teaches apostolic succession means to suggest that the laying on of hands by proper authority is all that you need--that as long as you can point to your episcopal genealogy you're automatically fine. No, ministers can lose the grace they have received, or rather, have it turned to judgment, if they do not use it with faith and faithfulness. But this is a falling away from grace received, not proof that there never was grace, or that the rite is meaningless.
Up next: So What About the Reformation (the Romans 11 Parable)
I'm back after a couple weeks of meditating on the amazing things I learned at the Anglican Way Institute, and waiting for all the new thoughts to settle into some kind of disciplined order. I will be starting a series of posts here called "I'll Take the High (Church) Road" tomorrow, I think, focusing on issues like sacraments, liturgy, apostolic succession, sola Scriptura, etc., from my new Anglo-Catholic point of view.
But first, on a lighter note, I wanted to state that I have regained a bit of my faith in pop culture. In fact, I have a lot more faith in pop culture. Exactly how much, I'm not sure. But it has showed itself capable of producing glorious things, and worthy of being redeemed by the kingdom.
I have been inspired by two recent developments: Coldplay's new album, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends and the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight. I downloaded the Coldplay album on Sunday evening and have probably listened to it ten times since (and that's all after 4 PM, because I work all day). The Dark Knight I saw last night and my head is still reeling in bewildered wonderment.
I won't make a fool of myself by trying to say too much about either, since I don't know enough about film to try and be a film critic, and I know far less about music. One thing I can say, though--if there is anything worth spending money on this summer, these are.
Viva La Vida takes two or three listenings before you warm up to it, but once you get a feel for what's going on, you quickly realize you are listening to a masterpiece. It is a true album, a seamless work of art full of rich variety, good fun, and melancholy beauty. The title song is, I think, Coldplay's best ever, and I've been addicted to quite a few Coldplay songs in the past. The album is deservedly becoming one of the best-selling releases worldwide in recent years.
The Dark Knight was...I don't know how to describe it. Flat-out amazing. Mind-blowing. The mark of a good movie is when you forget entirely you're sitting in a movie theater with hundreds of smelly people eating popcorn, and the only thing you experience is the movie itself. In the two-and-a-half hours of Dark Knight, only twice maybe did my attention snap out enough to be aware of my surroudings, despite the fact that I was sitting hunched over on an uncomfortable soda-stained step because there was no room for us in the seats. Another good mark is if you're speechless at the end. I sure was, and pretty much the whole theater was. The movie was dark, brutal, unrelenting, with an insanely complex, frenetic plot that kept you glued to the screen the entire time. Rays of hope were few and dim, but it was not a movie of despair. Batman, archetypal as he is, was convincingly human and tormented, as was Harvey Two-Face also. Everyone's said it already, but I will say it again--Joker was freakishly, surreally good...and terrifying. Best villain bar none. And the nightmarish postmodern nihilism he represents is as chilling to the mind as to the senses. The movie is profoundly thought-provoking, and I don't think you have to read corny symbolism in it to see some really serious issues in play. For example, as lame as it sounds to mention it, the Christ-symbolism of Batman at the end was profound and jarring to a remarkable extent. But I won't say more. I'll just post Peter Travers' wonderful review from The Rolling Stone:
"Heads up: a thunderbolt is about to rip into the blanket of bland we call summer movies. The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan's absolute stunner of a follow-up to 2005's Batman Begins, is a potent provocation decked out as a comic-book movie. Feverish action? Check. Dazzling spectacle? Check. Devilish fun? Check. But Nolan is just warming up. There's something raw and elemental at work in this artfully imagined universe. Striking out from his Batman origin story, Nolan cuts through to a deeper dimension. Huh? Wha? How can a conflicted guy in a bat suit and a villain with a cracked, painted-on clown smile speak to the essentials of the human condition? Just hang on for a shock to the system. The Dark Knight creates a place where good and evil — expected to do battle — decide instead to get it on and dance. "I don't want to kill you," Heath Ledger's psycho Joker tells Christian Bale's stalwart Batman. "You complete me." Don't buy the tease. He means it.
The trouble is that Batman, a.k.a. playboy Bruce Wayne, has had it up to here with being the white knight. He's pissed that the public sees him as a vigilante. He'll leave the hero stuff to district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and stop the DA from moving in on Rachel Dawes (feisty Maggie Gyllenhaal, in for sweetie Katie Holmes), the lady love who is Batman's only hope for a normal life.
Everything gleams like sin in Gotham City (cinematographer Wally Pfister shot on location in Chicago, bringing a gritty reality to a cartoon fantasy). And the bad guys seem jazzed by their evildoing. Take the Joker, who treats a stunningly staged bank robbery like his private video game with accomplices in Joker masks, blood spurting and only one winner. Nolan shot this sequence, and three others, for the IMAX screen and with a finesse for choreographing action that rivals Michael Mann's Heat. But it's what's going on inside the Bathead that pulls us in. Bale is electrifying as a fallibly human crusader at war with his own conscience.
I can only speak superlatives of Ledger, who is mad-crazy-blazing brilliant as the Joker. Miles from Jack Nicholson's broadly funny take on the role in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, Ledger takes the role to the shadows, where even what's comic is hardly a relief. No plastic mask for Ledger; his face is caked with moldy makeup that highlights the red scar of a grin, the grungy hair and the yellowing teeth of a hound fresh out of hell. To the clown prince of crime, a knife is preferable to a gun, the better to "savor the moment."
The deft script, by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, taking note of Bob Kane's original Batman and Frank Miller's bleak rethink, refuses to explain the Joker with pop psychology. Forget Freudian hints about a dad who carved a smile into his son's face with a razor. As the Joker says, "What doesn't kill you makes you stranger."
The Joker represents the last completed role for Ledger, who died in January at 28 before finishing work on Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It's typical of Ledger's total commitment to films as diverse as Brokeback Mountain and I'm Not There that he does nothing out of vanity or the need to be liked. If there's a movement to get him the first posthumous Oscar since Peter Finch won for 1976's Network, sign me up. Ledger's Joker has no gray areas — he's all rampaging id. Watch him crash a party and circle Rachel, a woman torn between Bale's Bruce (she knows he's Batman) and Eckhart's DA, another lover she has to share with his civic duty. "Hello, beautiful," says the Joker, sniffing Rachel like a feral beast. He's right when he compares himself to a dog chasing a car: The chase is all. The Joker's sadism is limitless, and the masochistic delight he takes in being punched and bloodied to a pulp would shame the Marquis de Sade. "I choose chaos," says the Joker, and those words sum up what's at stake in The Dark Knight.
The Joker wants Batman to choose chaos as well. He knows humanity is what you lose while you're busy making plans to gain power. Every actor brings his A game to show the lure of the dark side. Michael Caine purrs with sarcastic wit as Bruce's butler, Alfred, who harbors a secret that could crush his boss's spirit. Morgan Freeman radiates tough wisdom as Lucius Fox, the scientist who designs those wonderful toys — wait till you get a load of the Batpod — but who finds his own standards being compromised. Gary Oldman is so skilled that he makes virtue exciting as Jim Gordon, the ultimate good cop and as such a prime target for the Joker. As Harvey tells the Caped Crusader, "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain." Eckhart earns major props for scarily and movingly portraying the DA's transformation into the dreaded Harvey Two-Face, an event sparked by the brutal murder of a major character.
No fair giving away the mysteries of The Dark Knight. It's enough to marvel at the way Nolan — a world-class filmmaker, be it Memento, Insomnia or The Prestige — brings pop escapism whisper-close to enduring art. It's enough to watch Bale chillingly render Batman as a lost warrior, evoking Al Pacino in The Godfather II in his delusion and desolation. It's enough to see Ledger conjure up the anarchy of the Sex Pistols and A Clockwork Orange as he creates a Joker for the ages. Go ahead, bitch about the movie being too long, at two and a half hours, for short attention spans (it is), too somber for the Hulk crowd (it is), too smart for its own good (it isn't). The haunting and visionary Dark Knight soars on the wings of untamed imagination. It's full of surprises you don't see coming. And just try to get it out of your dreams."
Labels: pop culture
Yes, that's my first post. Hopefully many more to follow.
Or, perhaps I will say one more thing. The essential objection to apostolic succession seems to be that, taken consistently, the doctrine is so weighty that it simply cannot be thrown into the balance of other doctrines, as we wish to do, without pulling everything along with it, without completely upsetting the apple cart. We must hold it at arm's length because too much is at stake in it.
So I'm still desperately trying to chisel off pieces of it so it's not so weighty as to upset the balance, but it's proving awfully resilient.