Sunday, September 5, 2004

Currently reading...

D.H. Williams's Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Great title!)

A solid book. I highly recommend it to anyone curious about (some of) my reasons for (possibly) "poping."

I was stunned how frankly Williams, a Baptist pastor, admits what most Evangelicals and Reformeds deny with spittle-flinging zeal, to wit, far from an austere basis of sola Scriptura, the apostolic and post-apostolic Church knowingly, happily and effectively functioned on a three-legged stool of authority and orthodoxy: the Scriptures, the living Tradition and the safeguard of the episcopacy (bishops). That is, the original basis of teaching and living in Christ was a tri-unity of the apostolic writings, the liturgical witness they passed on to the churches, and the divinely established guidance of the bishops. This is exactly what the Catholic Church claims (CCC 76ff.):

In keeping with the Lord's command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways:

—orally "by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received—whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit";33

—in writing "by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing."34

"In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them ‘their own position of teaching authority.'"35 Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time."36

This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, "the Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes."37 "The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer."38 ...

"Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move towards the same goal."40 ...

"Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit."42 "And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching."43

As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, "does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence."44 ...

"The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ."47 This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

"Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith."48

Further, Williams explicitly admits the Bible was never the sole rule of the Church's faith; it was, he says, in fact never meant to be. Williams is not a liberal, and he's certainly no Roman Catholic. He's just well informed and honest about the patristic and biblical record. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but grimace at his attempts to deny the infallibility of even the most august councils (viz., the Big Four: Nicea (AD 325), Constantinople (AD 381), Ephesus (AD 431) and Chalcedon (AD 451)). He rejects the "infallibility" of the councils choosing instead to call them "faithful conductors" of the Faith.[1] This is claptrap. Williams whole books aims to defend the councils as *vital* guides for believers of *all* ages. He makes every effort to defend their enduring and completely orthodox value, and yet won't submit to the logic of what conciliar faithfulness means. The councils are faithful only because they are infallible and they are infallible only because they are faithful. It's a sad Protestant reflex that Williams effectively affirms the latter clause while rhetorically denying the former. He needs his bluff called. I'd just like to see him pinpoint the fallibility of Nicea, et al. and still honor them as faithful.

Despite this unfortunate ambiguity, one of the greatest strengths of the book is Williams's quite unambiguous insistence on the early Church's need for locating God's authority in the Church. It may sound offensive or simplistic, but, in my own experience, when Protestants mention "the church," they usually mean a basically moral, generally worshipful, but almost totally invisible entity somehow allegedly gathered around the Bible in the unity of the Spirit.

This is well and good, but it is little more than a gnostic abstraction. The spiritual unity spoken of in the NT hinged on the completely concrete *koinonia* of the Apostles with their established churches. That is, Paul mentions in his epistles that he was unified with his various addressees "in the Spirit" *because* he'd already been unified with them in a concrete, incarnate, basically sacramental manner. He had seen their faces, baptized their families, laid his hands on their bodies, anointed their sick, and so on. This reinforces what I meant in my coming out post by the equal importance of the pneumatic and incarnational dimensions of the Church. The Spirit made His most radical intervention in our world (with the grace enabled consent of the virgin Mary)*by means of* concrete, localizable humans. God reached us as a man, not an idea, and He does the same today with alarmingly tactile sacraments and alarmingly human ministers of them.

The question in the early Church as well as for us now is not what is God's word, but what does it mean? And how can we know? Where can we go? Without nullifying the essential authority of Tradition, it is beyond question that the Bible is meant to guide and sanctify our lives in Christ in a superior way. It's analogously true that the husband is the head -- the leader and sanctifier -- of the family, but is but a shell of what God means for the family without his wife. Scripture is the husband, Tradition is the wife, and the Church is the family. God's given us the Bible -- but has God given us concrete creatures any concrete means to guide and, so to speak, sanctify our reading of the Bible? If not, I cry negligence. If so, I need to know where to go. That's what the early Church needed, and that is precisely what the bishops provided: concrete, localizable and living links to the faith of the Apostles. It is then only a short step to admitting and locating the need for a single head of the bishops themselves, which is quite likely the reason Christ placed Peter as head of the apostles (see Matthew 16 and Acts 1-10).

At this point, someone might object that the need for locating the truth is completely antithetical to Christ's intentions, insofar as He told us not to look here or there for the Kingdom. He said "the Kingdom is among you"; He said God's true worshippers will worship neither here nor there (In Jerusalem nor Samaria), but in Spirit. This is true, but off the mark for three reasons.

First, it is a false dichotomy to say the Church can't be localizable because it is spiritual. The whole point of God's immanence is that the tactile, more often than not, *is* the spiritual. We may just as well deny Christ had a physical localizable body because He was God -- technically known as the docetic heresy -- as to deny Christ's Body, the Church, is unlocalizable because it is spiritual. The Church is dually present, visible and invisible, because it is patterned after Christ. The trick is knowing where both sides of this dual being can be found. The trick is knowing the most basic marks and limits of the Church, even if knowing its farthest and msot mysterious borders is beyond us.

Second, the point of the "Kingdom is among you" and "worship in spirit and truth" passages are not to discount the concrete, local nature of Christian worship. They teach the complete opposite, in fact! By saying the Kingdom is among you, Christ placed His work completely in the world, in space and time, among real people -- and real people have real locations. That same Kingdom presence persisted when Christ sent His Apostles to establish Churches in all the world. Thus, the Kingdom being among us means that, by the internal work of the Holy Spirit, the Church becomes more and more "placed."

Similarly, the point of the dialogue with the woman in Cana was not to discount the locality of worship, but to wrest worship from the ethnic (i.e., racist) bear trap the Jews and Samaritans had trapped it in. Jerusalem was a metonym for Jewish religion, Samaria a metonym for Samaritan religion. Neither had a monopoly on God, because His worshippers, of all races and nations -- and hence *locations* -- worship Him in spirit and truth.

Third, the more fundamental error in denying ecclesial localizability based on the non-localizable grandeur of the Kingdom (a la Christ's "look neither here not there") is that the two things are not identical. The Kingdom is bigger than the Church; the Church is but God's chief implement in forming His Kingdom. Thus, while the Kingdom is among us in a mysterious, supra-geographic sense, we must admit we are among the Church in a meaningfully concrete way. If Christ did not meant to establish a physical Church -- albeit also with unfathomably mystical dimensions -- He should not have redeemed by His Body and Blood, and certainly should not have built it on a man named Rock.

[1] I suspect Williams is confusing inspiration with infallibility. This is very important distinction, and I recommend your read James Akin's very helpful article on it. (A related and equally important distinction is that between canonicity and inspiration, a discussion I'll avoid for now, instead referring you to David Palm's very lucid explanation of it.) Only the Scriptures are inspired by God (cf. 2 Tim 3:15-17), but not they alone are infallible. The Church's awareness and acceptance of the canon of the Scriptures is not inspired (as a biblical table of contents is nowehere *in the Bible*), but nevertheless it is infallible. Likewise, no council is technically inspired, but it is, under the right conditions, truly infallible.

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