Enloe strikes again! Here’s a sample of his latest missive:
Toward a Truly catholic Theory of Authority
One aspect of a Reformational contribution to catholicity (the goal of this site) is a workable and catholic theory of authority. One can go to a thousand Reformational websites and find ten thousand articles on the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and their accompanying polemics against “traditions of men,” but few are the Reformational websites that spend any significant time talking about the ministerial authority of the Church catholic, both in history and today. Typically the subject of sola Scriptura is treated as if Scripture is in an ultimate sense dichotomized from flesh-and-blood mediation in time–particularly mediation by a “the Church” which is bigger and more influential than a voluntary society of self-defined, self-regulating disciples.
For those who wish to present a truly Reformational contribution to catholicity this sort of view must be repudiated, and it must be repudiated on the basis of a deeper appreciation of the historical resources which we have at our command as Protestants
The question I want to ask in this post is what did Luther mean by that statement? Was this a prototypical statement of today’s “Protestant” theory of the absolute primacy of the individual to do his own thing against all authority so long as he can find “plain Scriptures” to back him up? Was this the practical outworking of “sola” Scriptura understood as an epistemological-hermeneutical blueprint for denying the mediating influence of external authorities, traditions, and sanctions upon the private soul communing alone with God via intellectual contemplation of a naked text that is “objectively” understood?
For if it is not enough to observe that in the above quote from Luther the stipulated reason why there should be no General Council convoked to handle the question at hand at that time is not “No one can tell my private soul, communing alone with God via contemplation of the Objective meaning of Scripture as plainly presented to my own mind without any intermediary factors.”
If we Protestants are to contribute significantly to catholicity in our age, it is very important that we stand for the full-bodied understanding of authority and reform that actually drove our 16th century fathers, and not merely the reductionistic program of “Five Solas” and “soteriology” which seems to characterize many sectors of Modern Protestantism. We must seek to articulate and defend anew the truly catholic theory of authority upon which the Reformation sought to base its call for repentance and reform.
By way of comment:
1.Speaking for myself, I have no particular interest in contributing to “catholicity.” I’m a Biblicist, not a lower case catholic--much less an upper case Catholic.
2.But suppose, for the sake of argument, that I did regard this as a spiritual priority. One way of impeding any progress towards the goal of catholicity is to caricature the opposing side.
<< Typically the subject of sola Scriptura is treated as if Scripture is in an ultimate sense dichotomized from flesh-and-blood mediation in time–particularly mediation by a “the Church” which is bigger and more influential than a voluntary society of self-defined, self-regulating disciples. >>
<< Was this a prototypical statement of today’s “Protestant” theory of the absolute primacy of the individual to do his own thing against all authority so long as he can find “plain Scriptures” to back him up? Was this the practical outworking of “sola” Scriptura understood as an epistemological-hermeneutical blueprint for denying the mediating influence of external authorities, traditions, and sanctions upon the private soul communing alone with God via intellectual contemplation of a naked text that is “objectively” understood? >>
<< Not “No one can tell my private soul, communing alone with God via contemplation of the Objective meaning of Scripture as plainly presented to my own mind without any intermediary factors.” >>
1.This is a classic straw man argument. For it presents the opposing position in its weakest possible form. There may be a few street preachers who think this way, but that’s hardly the only version or the best version of the opposing thesis.
Protestant scholars and theologians listen to the past. They listen to the history of interpretation. They study the cultural matrix in which the Scriptures were originally revealed.
What does Enroe hope to accomplish, assuming he hopes to accomplish anything at all, by starting off with a completely artificial description of the opposing position?
If his aim is to contribute to a growth of catholicity in Christendom, should he not make some good faith effort to reach out to the opposing side and bring them in rather than dispatch their position out of hand with this deliberate, simplistic distortion?
Enloe has a very one-sided idea of catholicity. Is his notion of catholicity to only enter into dialogue with those who already agree with him—more or less? To judge by this and other performances, his idea of “Reformed-Catholicism” is to snub the Reformed and embrace the Catholic. Hyphens aside, only one term of the compound is operative.
2.The real question is whether we define “ministerial” authority as something over and above the application of Scripture itself.
Unless you happen to be Plymouth Brethren, most Evangelicals will grant that God has given teachers to the church. They will grant that there is such a think as church office in the NT.
That’s not the issue. The issue, rather, is whether ministerial authority is a limited, conditional authority--contingent on its fidelity to the truth of Scripture,--or whether it’s something above and beyond a direct extension of Biblical authority. Is ministerial authority authorized by Scripture--authorized to that degree, and to that degree only, that it reproduces the teaching of Scripture itself? That’s the question.
Or is it a kind of implicit, proxy faith, in which the layman believes whatever the pastor believes? Is the pastor the official Christian? Is he deputized to believe on behalf of and instead of the layman, is the sense that the layman has delegated to the pastor the sole responsibility of interpreting God’s word? Can our spiritual duties be contracted out to a second party? Is Enloe recommending a return to blind ecclesiasticism? That’s the question.
3.The so-called right of private judgment, which is, after all, just a slogan, is not an end in itself, but only a means to an end. Freedom is a power for good and evil alike. This right is not a moral absolute.
4.The point, though, is that the freedom to be right carries with it the freedom to be wrong. If you are not free to be wrong, then you are not free to be right.
5.Put another way, the Bible must be free to be heard, and we must be free to hear it. Scripture has its own authentic voice—to be heard on its own terms.
6.Such freedom can be abused. Such freedom will be abused. And it can be or will be abused by whoever may have the freedom to abuse it. It matters not where you locate this freedom. In the laity. In the pastorate. In the episcopate. In a hierarchy, the hierarchy has the freedom to abuse its power because the hierarchy has the power.
There is no mechanism which will save us from ourselves. Any review process can be abused by the reviewer.
7.The way a church council used to work in the past is that conciliar creeds, decrees, and canons had the force of law. That is how they achieved “catholicity.” It was through coercion, not consensus.
Unless Enloe would like to go back to the days of a legally imposed doctrinal conformity, then an evangelical ecumenical council would achieve nothing. It would be like one of the endless stream of forgettable interfaith statements issued with great fanfare by ecumenical commission of blue-ribbon clerics and theologians, which makes no dent on the life and faith of the laity.
I have no objection to church discipline, but if a man feels free to sin against God with impunity, then he has precious little to fear from the “ministerial authority” of his local pastor. If he’s prepared to defy the Judge of all mankind, he’s quite prepared to defy the judgment of the elders.
8.As it stands, we have confessional traditions already. It isn’t just me and my Bible. We wouldn’t have a variety of Evangelical traditions in the first place if Enloe’s caricature held true.
9.In addition, Evangelicals of various theological persuasions do come together to issue joint-statements on questions of common concern and common consent. But that’s the point. They already agree with each other on these particular issues.
10. At an informal level, Christendom is already about as “catholic” as it’s going to get. Informally, there already exists a fraternal comity among Bible-believing Christians of various stripes.
11. At a formal level, Christendom is already about as “catholic” as its going to get. The “Reformational” traditions are here to stay. There is, indeed, a remarkable degree of stability in Protestant theology, claims to the contrary notwithstanding.
Within about a century of the Reformation, the three or four basal traditions—Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Anabaptist—had firmed up to resemble their classic and enduring contours right down to our own time.
Incidentally, if Enloe is going to appeal to “Reformational” theology, he cannot peremptorily disqualify the Anabaptist tradition from a seat at the table.
Since that time there have been a few offshoots, such as the Baptist tradition and the Wesleyan tradition.
Likewise, the congregational overlaps with the Baptist, except that congregationalism centers on polity while the Baptist tradition centers on theology.
Some tradition was bound to exemplify the Arminian outlook, for that’s a modification of the Pelagian heresy, and in every generation there is a constituency for a more androcentric belief-system. It’s just a question of who gets there first.
The Reformed tradition occasionally took up residence under the Anglican roof. Or it exemplified itself in a more exclusively Reformed association, such as the Presbyterians.
Reformed Baptists appropriate both the Reformed and Anabaptist wings of the Reformation.
The only innovative theological movements of any real consequence are fundamentalism and Pentecostalism. Fundamentalism is attracted to the Baptist tradition, while Pentecostalism is, in some respects, an offshoot of the Wesleyan tradition.
For it’s part, the Lutheran tradition is fairly fixed and self-contained. You have liberal Lutherans, but they are Lutheran in the same sense that a nominal Christian is Christian.
Denominations and independent churches come and go, but the theological traditions they exemplify are quite stable over time.
12.It is, in fact, striking how essentially unreceptive the Evangelical tradition is to radical change. Over the decades, a number of quite creative and intellectually impressive new syntheses have been proposed as offering a competitive alternative to the status quo, viz., Schleiermacher, Whitehead, Barth, Bultmann, Moltmann, Pannenberg. But none of these has caught fire—in part because they’re too liberal and pointy-headed to enjoy mass appeal. No new Luthers or Calvins or Cranmers.
Much as we may reshuffle the deck, we’re play with the same deck of cards dealt us at the Reformation. Different combinations have been tried. The more popular have survived. The existing options pretty much exhaust what Evangelical Christians are looking for.
13.You have the occasional personality-cult like Mormonism, which survived and prospered as a result of persecution and social isolation. Or a theological cult like the Watch Tower, which satisfies the marketing niche of a perennial heresy.
14. Lutherans are here to stay. Baptists are here to stay. Presbyterians are here to stay. And, for that matter, Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox are here to stay. There are some defections either way. There’s some traffic across the bridge. But the riverbanks remain in place.
There’s nowhere to go, but in circles. Just make sure you choose the right circle.