Friday, December 3, 2004


Alas, I'm back only long enough to report I won't be back until Chinese New Year. (I've also given up browsing until then.) My life offline is going well. Dane (my dog) is a handful (literally). My German and Chinese are improving slowly but surely. I recently finished Keith Mathison's _The Shape of Sola Scriptura_ and Roald Dahl's _Skin_. (Take a guess which I found more interesting and better written.) My update photos for the SAIBAT (Second Annual Beard-A-Thon) are available on my earlier blog. You have been warned.

I enjoyed Mathison's book but am still largely unconvinced. [This review may be incoherent and redundant at times. It’s late, I'm tired and I just wanted to get this “on paper.”] His book is thorough, impressively well researched and surprisingly non-polemical. The style is, however, painfully repetitive at times.

My basic objection is that sola scriptura does to the creeds what solo scriptura does to the Bible. Also, while Mathison does a good job of highlighting the coinherence of the regula fidei and the Scriptures in the early Church, he ignores the importance of sacramental succession of bishops as the third leg of the pillar of truth in the post-apostolic and ante-Nicene Church. Admitting the mechanism by which the Church guarded its regula fidei and the Scriptures seriously compromises his argument, an argument that basically relies on the (shoot me: semi-gnostic) assumption that the regula fidei can just be extracted from the patristic period by "serious" historical research and exploited by Reformeds who have no connection to the concrete sacramental lines of succession in which that regula fidei germinated and blossomed.

Perhaps my largest disappointment was with his attempts to "pinpoint" the Church based on the "common" primary dogmatic consensus across the many secondary denominational lines. His approach is, despite all his nuanced claims, very naive and simplistic. In effect, Mathison made the most commonly agreed upon tenets of Christianity the criterion for the whole truth of Christianity. But this quickly implodes because the points of "essential" agreement allow points of dissension to count just as strongly against otherwise settled doctrines. Any tenet we use to find a confessional unity, across time or space (and thus legitimize an allegedly Christian group) backfires by giving that Christian voice a footing to disqualify the consensus of tenets they reject.

For example, if Trinitarian baptism, the salvific crucifixion of Christ and the acceptance of the Bible are "essential" Christian beliefs, then Mormons are Christians. Yet, if they are Christians by these criteria -- and insofar as they also claim the title "Christian" -- their other heresies only nullify the "common" consensus of all Christians across time. The seat their agreement on essentials gives Mormons at the table of Christianity only allows them to undermine the consensus of otherwise. As a second example, if we use the same criteria, the rejection of Nicea by Arians and Chalcedon by Oriental Orthodox (both of which are otherwise ardently and deeply Christian groups) disqualifies the divinity of Christ and his hypostatic union as "universally accepted" doctrines. Of course, if we place those doctrines among the so to speak "essential essentials," then the necessity of baptism (as the sacrament of regeneration) is itself jettisoned as the tie that binds, say, Protestants and Catholics. At every turn, giving a slice of the Christian pie to a "fringe" group only takes slices away from the "mainline" groups. Mathison criticizes Orthodox and Catholics for being unable to explain the exact mark of an ecumenical council or an infallible papal decree, respectively, but he himself never gets around to explaining what the essential mark of confessional consensus is.

He criticizes the Orthodox for their "wait and see" approach to the validity of an allegedly ecumenical council, but he himself never explains why all generations haven't so far merely missed the boat and that the truth is yet to emerge. This immediately leads us to think "God betrayed his Church," but this does not follow, by Mathison's own logic. God totally committed his revelation to the Church and he most certainly will keep his promise to guide them into all truth. He just has his own timing for it. And it happens, sadly, we have yet to see the exact crystallization of the kerygma in the future "truly true" creeds. All our current creeds may LOOK correct and true because they are so universally accepted, but they are not infallible and could very well be rejected.

Further, I completely reject Mathison's denial of the infallibility of the early councils. His basic error is trying so hard to protect the inherent inerrancy of God's Word that he sacrifices the contingent but irrevocably infallibility of his Church. Mathison spills pages and page of ink insisting on the necessity of the creeds (as the crystallization of the early regula fidei to guide the Church under Scripture), but he seems to miss (or evade) the fact that treating them as fallible decrees about the (ex hypothesi) infallible deposit of faith immediately makes them reformable and revocable. The irrevocability of the creeds that Mathison swears upon demands their infallibility. The whole point of the regula fidei is, according to Mathison, to guide and balance our interpretation of Scripture. In turn, the whole point of the creeds is to guide and balance our knowledge of the regula fidei. But if the creeds are not infallible, then they really are just opinions and we quickly slide back into solo scriptura. For, if the creeds protect the regula fidei and the regula fidei protects our understanding of Scripture, then the latter surely cannot stand if the former falls.

A final objection I have is to Mathison's often startlingly facile treatment of papal history and the development of doctrine generally. First of all, he totally misrepresents the case of Pope Sixtus IV (1585-90), who never in fact promulgated his bull on the Vulgate. Second, he, like most critics, ignores the fact that Honorius's condemnation by the Sixth Ecumenical Council was received by the subsequent pope, Leo II (?), with the revised clarification that Honorius was guilty of failing to teach the truth, NOT for actually promulgating error. This papal revision was accepted by the Church as the standing canon of that council.

Third, one of Mathison's biggest points is that when the idea of papal infallibility was first introduced (by radical Franciscans in the 12th century), the then-pope rejected it as a novel heresy. Has Mathison never heard of the reception of "homoousios"? This too was rejected by numerous bishops and theologians as a novel, unbiblical concept, even though the Church ultimately decided it was true. Thus a clear innovation clarified and preserved a deeper, more subtle truth held from the very beginning. The irony is that this innovation was rejected by the very people that worshipped according to its truth! "We don't believe in the 'homoousios', we believe Jesus is God! Oh, wait, I see. We do believe in the 'homoousios'!" Why should it be any different in the case of the papacy? "I'm the pope, I don't believe in papal infallibility! Oh, wait. I see. I do believe in papal infallibility!" Must we expect every pope to be aware of every facet of his apostolate? No. We may as well expect every Christian to be aware of every facet of his own faith in Christ.

Thus, Mathison is amazingly arbitrary about legitimate doctrinal development. He admits the canon developed into its present form and that other features of the Church "emerged over time," so clearly the Church can “evolve” new and more precise normative boundaries (what I'll call "structures of authority"). What is Mathison’s criterion for discerning such developments? That silly consensus idea again? Even the canon is up for grabs if we take seriously the rejection of Revelation, i.a., by various early Christian groups. Worse, what are we to make of the more than one billion Christians that do accept the papacy as Christian revelation? Does that stunning consensus count for nothing?

It's a truism to say the early Church said to follow the Scriptures; the key is what that meant for concrete communities in terms of the CANON of the Scriptures. And the painful reality is that "the Scriptures" meant very different things for different canonical communites for centuries. Likewise, it's a truism to say the early Church was trinitarian. Before Nicea, Ephesus, Constantinople and Chalcedon, however, that brute trinitarianism meant very different things for different eucharistic communities. Mathison's chest-beating reliance on the "earliest" early tradition (Tradition I) over against Rome's reliance on Tradition II (ca. fourth century) sounds disturbingly like Mormons' and Jehovah's Witnesses chest-beating return to the pre-Nicene (ie., pre-Constantinize, pre-paganized) Church.

Moreover, it all looks a little silly when Mathison clings in one breath to the earliest (and thus less clearly articulated) views of tradition when he in the next breath clings to the later (and thsu more exactly articulated) views of the Trinity. It's just as much a truism to say the early Church said to follow the apostolic tradition. The key is what that meant over the course of many centuries. Strangely, Mathison accepts the later development of the canon and the Trinity, but rejects the later development of the idea of tradition. A peculiar and telling inconsistency, one that places the burden of proof on Mathison to explain why the basic flow of orthodoxy is toward progressive expansion and precision, while his view of tradition is static, vague and atavistic. Why should I accept the development of primitive Trinitarianism along later Nicene lines but reject the development of tradition along later partim-partim lines? Why did the Church, as a matter of plain fact, grow to accept a full-blown monarchial tripartite episcopacy but not grow in the same spirit of truth into Tradition II?

I repeat: my basic objection is that sola scriptura does to the creeds what solo scriptura does to the Bible.

Having said all that, I should make it clear Mathison’s book gave me many good pauses about key issues. More grist for the conversion mill! Sleep time! Bye till January or so!

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