Friday, October 15, 2004

Pattern, principle, Protestant, Popery, and the like [UPDATED]

I have added a paragraph, the penultimate one, to this post. Please have a look.

Maniacally devoted readers of FCA may recall the discussion about Scripture and Tradition that has (sort of) taken place in the past few days. Two of my most vocal commenters have been the inimitable Tom R and Kevin Johnson.[1]

Now, I am more than a little distressed by Tom's possible descent into deism.) That prayer concern notwithstanding, I want to draw your attention to an important tension at work between Dr. James White, Kevin and Tom.

Dr. White's position is straightforward and fairly well known: Rome egregiously flouts the clear teaching of Scripture on almost every front, and is therefore a sacralized, man-centered, pharisaical (not to mention out-dated) bureaucracy utterly inimical to the Gospel. Roman Catholicism is wrong because it’s anti-biblical. Period.

As a self-confessed Reformed Catholic, Kevin has a more nuanced position. To adapt his own words, he “take[s] the claims of Rome seriously yet still maintain[s] some amount of distance from her.” Keeping this safe distance rests largely on the belief that Roman Catholicism (and, perhaps to a less flagrant degree, Orthodoxy) not only violate the Scriptures (a la White), but also have wandered from the Tradition of the Church they claim to exalt. Roman Catholicism is wrong because it is anti-biblical and anti-traditional.

Now, I readily admit Ref Cath is not urging a novelty. Claiming, in fact reclaiming, the "catholic" Christianity is the essence of the magisterial Reformation. The magisterial Reformers did indeed want to return to the earlier, purer orthopraxis of the Church catholic. Far from rejecting Christian tradition *in order to defend* the biblical truth, as Dr. White is always ready to do, the Reformers claimed merely to be resurrecting the catholic tradition from Rome's privations and perversions.[2] This is Kevin’s position as well. He is assured that an honest look at the Living Tradition of the Holy Catholic and Orthodox Church will betray the bodies that claim those epitaphs. He is entirely confident the Tradition accords not only with the Bible but also with Reformed theology.

And then, there's Tom. Tom is, by my dim lights, in a very tough spot. He admits he now rejects the (Reformed/Baptist/Protestant) claim that the Church of history was always Protestant (and, perhaps, just waiting until the Reformation to come into its own). He admits the Church never lived or worshiped in way that sola scriptural Protestantism dictates. On the one hand, he agrees with Dr. White that the pre-Reformed Church strayed massively from the biblical truth. On the other hand, he disagrees with Dr. White that there ever was a Church that lived biblically. . “Now I see it [i.e., the Church] was paganised from the very time of the Apostles,” he laments.

White's (and Svendsen’s and Webster’s and Engwer’s, etc.) patristic research centers on mining out the few, slim traces of biblical gold in the post-apostolic Church. Their work does not, make no mistake, aim to vindicate the Church’s tradition. At the end of the apologetical day, they are satisfied to say the early Church was not Roman Catholic, *even if that means admitting it wasn’t Protestant either.*[3] But Tom's new position forbids even this back-handed compliment. Apparently, Tom thinks, all truth was lost immediately after the death of the apostles and that the paganized ecclesial hierarchy kept this secret until Luther and the Renaissance broke it all wide open.

Not until closer to the second than the first millennium after Christ was any serious attempt made to harmonise denominational traditions with the supposed holy book. Protestants may be willing to argue that God abandoned the church hierarchy to its self-chosen apostasy, but they recoil from saying that the entire body of believers was affected. Yet this is what history shows. Even in Elijah's time, God preserved five hundred who would not bow to idols. Post-33 AD, He doesn't seem to have preserved any.

Tom’s very unfortunate impasse signals a deep flaw in the Protestant outlook. Simply stated, Protestantism is fundamentally schizophrenic about its heritage. The Reformation exploded as it did with two competing aims, and this tension persist today. On the one hand the Reformers stood above the countless errors of the Fathers with the burning might of a perfectly perspicuous and printable Bible. On the other hand they stood with the Fathers against the countless errors of Rome with the burning might of the testimony of Tradition. Tom has become a cynical Anabaptist; James White and Kevin are, in their own ways, triumphal classical Reformeds; both are authentically Protestant. Kevin may want to console Tom with Reformed catholicity; he may want to assure him his beleaguered Protestantism is but the true voice of Tradition; but Tom sees behind the curtain. He knows the early Church was not Calvin's Church; unfortunately, he also thinks the early Church was not the Bible's Church. Tom cannot explain why he accepts the “core beliefs” of Christian Tradition since he once stood over it with the burning might of a holy book. Kevin, for his part, cannot explain why he rejects many aspects of the Tradition since he stands above it with the burning might of a holy book in its holy tradition. This is the Reformation come home to roost.

Every attempt by, say, Keith Mathison, or William Webster, to defend Protestant distinctives based on patristic testimony is subject just as viciously to the complaints of patristic ambiguity leveled against Catholicism and Orthodoxy. If the tradition speaks so clearly in favor of some Protestant distinctives, why do these get the pass from contradictory patristic claims, while clear Catholic doctrines must fight for some idealized hermetic unanimity? Reformed Catholics (or classical Protestants) are just as “bad” as fundamentalists: the latter bind the Scriptures to a narrow, extra-ecclesial exegesis while the former, admitting intra- or sub-ecclesial exegesis, just as narrowly bind the tradition.

I’m certainly willing to be dissuaded, but Only Rome, in my eyes, has a sufficiently incarnated principle of orthodoxy by which and with which the Scriptures can be understood in the Church. Fundamentalists forbid any scriptural ambiguity. Eastern Orthodox and, to a lesser degree, Reformeds forbid patristic ambiguity. But then Rome, old Rome, strides into the debate with an annoying air of authority. Fundamentalists cannot tolerate personal uncertainty since their regula fidei (rule of faith) resides solely in their personal conscience. Solo Scriptura. Tradition 0. Heroic, populist, pious – but inevitably sectarian. Who has the right exegesis of Scripture?

In turn, magisterial Reformeds (and I’m inclined, hesitantly, to say Orthodox, as well) cannot tolerate uncertainty in the Tradition because their regula fide resides in a fixed statement of faith by which Scripture must be read. They have the upper hand on the fundamentalist in that they accept Christian tradition as an exegetical (not to mention inspirational) guide for living by the Scripture. But they suffer from the fact that nothing but the Scriptures are infallible. Sola Scriptura (or maybe sola Traditio). Tradition 1. August, magisterial, rich – but only more slowly sectarian. Who has the right exegesis of tradition?[4] Whether construed as a primitive cluster of creeds (K. Mathison, D.H. Williams, et al.), or as a complex theory of conciliarism (Querini, T. Enloe, et al.), a *fallible* regula fidei is worthless. If the regula fidei – formally distinct from, but essential along with, Scripture – was infallible in the early Church, it must be similarly infallible today. But who has this regula fidei?

Much is made (by White, Mathison, King & Wesbter, et al.) of the fact that Rome apparently dichotomizes what the early Church always held together, to wit, the Scriptures and the apostolic Tradition. The intent is to show how UNpatristic Rome's Tridentine (partim-partim) theory of revelation is. But even the staunchest partim-partim view of tradition does not undermine the unitary authority of the Scriptures in Tradition. Trent's insistence on the dual nature of the sources of revelation stresses a simple fact: Tradition and Scripture are not numerically identical. They are *conceptually differentiable* precisely in virtue of the fact we can conceive of them separately. Precisely by agreeing the early Church held the *two* things together demonstrates there are two things, and not merely one material source of revelation. Asserting that fact in no way negates the more Vatican II-style view of the organic, dynamic and *spiritual unity* of Scripture and Tradition. By analogy, my eyes are two distinct things at an anatomical (conceptual) level, but they still *function as one* at a neurological {spiritual) level. They are numerically distinct but they -- *and only they together* -- render the same single image *in focus*. Blurriness in either eye is the ambiguity of life as we know it.

And it seems to me only Rome can tolerate both scriptural and traditional ambiguity (not to mention gnostic arbitrariness) by having a *clearly identifiable means or principle* of navigating both verbum Dei and the regula fidei. No magisterial Reformer today would dare claim to have *the* truth on an ecclesial matter, since, by his own admission, he must defer his interpretation to that given more wholly (kata holos) *in* the Church. Reformeds claim to have the *source* of truth, but only Rome (and Orthodoxy, but differently) dares make the claim it *really* has the irreformable truth itself. Rome has all that the others offer, but synthetically, organically, harmonically. It has the guidance of conscience; it has the guidance of infallible tradition; and it has the unassailable authority of the Scriptures, breathed of God, to authorize both conscience and council. A person facing ambiguity in its declarations has the advantage of expecting continued guidance, not merely encoded and given to our predecessors.

For an excellent discussion of this idea, see Greg Krehbiel’s review of Mathison’s _The Shape of Sola Scriptura_.[5]

[1] It should go without saying everything in here is my opinion and I do mean to insinuate any smug, secret insight into any of the persons I discuss. They are just material examples I've spoken with before. And hey, I'm fair game, too. ;)

[2] Cf. Calvin’s preface to King Francis (section 4) in his _Institutes_ and his Reply to Cardinal Sadoleto.

[3] It is this nimble, utilitarian condescension toward Christian tradition that I find so repugnant in most Protestant patristics. I liken it to enduring your grandfather’s confused rambling just to get the dirt on your odious father. If the early Church shows anything, it shows that, if it was sola Scriptural, that doctrine could not produce and has not ever produced unity.

[4] I've never quite "gotten" the thrust of the Orthodox (Khomiakov/ Meyendorff/ sobernost) critique of the papal infallibility (or austere conciliar infallibility, for that matter). The claim is that Catholicism and Protestantism are just flip sides of the same ecclesial virus: a search for absolute, external authority. The further claim is that in this pursuit, the papacy doesn't resolve anything over against Protestant mayhem since it too is viewed as a "text," also in need of interpretation.

Well, to use a technical term, "duh." I hope we can all agree we must interpret the sources of faith. The question is not *whether* we interpret; nor is it, excepting fundamentalist rejection of all tradition, *what* we must interpret, to wit the Scriptures in the Tradition. The question is *by what means* we interpet. Seems to me Orthodoxy is actually more susceptible to the accusation of "textualizing" the Church precisely by treating the Tradition as another text alongside the Scriptures. Both are living, and both speak, after a fashion. But *how* do they speak? I am still unconvinced the pattern of orthodoxy, whether purely scriptural or scriptural-traditional suffices without a divine principle of orthodoxy.

[5] I originally linked to Greg's review via Dave Armstrong's blog, the only palce I could find it online until Greg reposted it from his old blog.

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