Thursday, August 11, 2005

Can Armstrong change his spots?

As I’ve noted before, Dave Armstrong is running out of good material. So he’s presently padding his blog with filler on the “Protestant civil wars.”


Let's briefly note a few of these "worse than absurd" disagreements between fellow Protestants currently taking place on the Internet (obviously nothing has changed in 488 years: Protestants fought each other then and they continue to do so, and split and form new denominations). The following are not mere examples of gentlemanly disagreement: they are uncivil, acrimonious exchanges characterized by personal remarks at the expense of the other's honesty, sincerity, intelligence, basic knowledge, etc.

The discord largely derives from the bankruptcy of the notions of private judgment and sola Scriptura.


A few comments are in order:

i) To say that all these disagreements are “worse than absurd” simply begs the question.

ii) I try to avoid characterizing my opponent’s intelligence. I’ve never seen the point of that.

iii) On the other hand, a theological opponent may well be ignorant or dishonest. And it’s perfectly proper for me or others to point that out. It isn’t enough to “say” that your opponent is ignorant or dishonest. If you’re going to say so, you need to document the fact.

But since some theological opponents are, in fact, ignorant or dishonest, and since their ignorance or dishonesty skews their depiction of the opposing position, documenting their ignorance and dishonesty is simply a way of correcting their caricatures.

iv) As to a “gentlemen’s” code of honor, Dave doesn’t say what he means. He singles out my exchange with Holding. I’ll grant that Holding’s resort to barnyard language was certainly ungentlemanly, but that wasn’t emanating from my side of the exchange.

No doubt it’s more gentlemanly for bishops to conceal an underground culture of priestly pederasty than expose the unseemly details to public scrutiny. But some of us value candor above concealment.

v) There is no doubt that some of the acrimonious tone is due to sin. I’m a sinner. So are my fellow Reformed bloggers. Rumor even has it that Dave Armstrong is a sinner—but he would doubtless regard that innuendo as ungentlemanly.

vi) Speaking for myself, I’m actually pretty selective about my choice of targets. I’ve had precious little to say about fundamentalism or Pentecostalism or Lutheranism or Anglicanism or vanilla-gray Evangelicalism.

I have my disagreements with each of these, but they are not very high on my priority list, and so I’ve only said enough to explain where and why I disagree with each.

And there are a couple of reasons for this:

a) As long as a given theological tradition can furnish a credible profession of faith, I’m not, as a rule, prepared to expend a whole lot of ammo attacking it.

As long as it’s a sufficiently seaworthy vessel to get most of its passengers safely into heaven, I have better things to do with my time than shoot it up and bring a lifeboat alongside.

b) I choose, instead, to concentrate my fire on those doctrinal deviations that are either closest to my end of the theological spectrum or the farthest way.

Whatever is good in the mediating options is good because of what they share in common witht the doctrines of grace.

And whatever is bad is bad because of some they have in common with the more extreme deviations--and in commenting on the extremes, I implicitly comment on what’s wrong with the more moderate options.

c) I critique aberrations of Reformed theology because those are attacking the benchmark of orthodox doctrine. And once we lose the yardstick, we lose the capacity to measure any degree of declension—be it wide or narrow--from sound doctrine.

d) I critique Christian heresies because, like juvenile delinquents, they turn the signpost so that it no longer points in the right direction, but rather, directs the driver to a washed-out bridge.

vii) Dave attributes this discord to the Protestant rule of faith. That’s is a half-truth:

a) It is true that freedom of dissent issues in dissent. Mind you, the Catholic rule of faith did nothing to hinder dissent. The Church of Rome never relied on its rule of faith to ensure doctrinal conformity. Rather, it relied on the State or the Inquisition to enforce outward conformity. Is dear old Dave waxing nostalgic for the rack, the Iron Maiden, the thumbscrews and scarpines?

b) Freedom of dissent doesn’t initiate dissent, but merely exposes the fault-lines which were there along, but plastered over by coercive conformism.

c) Freedom is a good thing. Division is a good thing. For if everyone is made a member the same church, then the reprobate and unregenerate dilute the sanctity of the church.

Freedom of dissent enables the faithful to separate from the faithless and form a true community of faith.

c) There were dozens of Jewish sects in 1C Palestine. Yet the old covenant community was far more regulated than the new covenant community. But if God did nothing under the terms of the Old Covenant to hinder such diversity, then the a priori insistence that God would never countenance the Protestant rule of faith is flatly opposed to divine precedent.

d) As a practical matter, Catholicism tolerates any amount of private dissent and informal diversity as long as it doesn’t go public and directly challenge the authority of the Magisterium.

So the only unity that Catholicism really cares about is institutional unity; not a unity of faith—not a common bond of belief--but unity in the externalities of faith: of fellowship without faith.

Dying trees often look healthy enough on the outside until a windstorm snaps them in two and you can see the hollow, rotten interior. That may be Dave’s ideal, but it’s hardly my own. I prefer a vigorous variety of seedlings and samplings to one big dead tree—leafy on the outside, but worm-eaten from within.


  1. Steve: Armstrong is trolling. He wrote his book, and now because nobody will do anything but laugh at his randy assertions like "the traditional stigma of divorce has lessened greatly in Protestant circles as it has in the secular culture, and divorce is permitted under more and more circumstances," (as if divorce in Catholicism is not something the current Pope notes as a sign of the death of the church in the West) or his impossible execresis (certainly not exegesis) of 1Cor 15 re: Paul's point regarding the baptism "on behalf of" the dead, Armstrong finds himself with nothing left to say.

    Except to mutter jealously that I have a halo and he doesn't even have haloscan.

  2. Catholics such as Dave love to attack the supposed lack of unity among protestants as intinsically wrong and as promoting secularism. Yet look what happened to Spain - after 40 years of reactionary Catholic rule, 30 years later they legalize same-sex marriage and abortion.

    Notwithstanding the oft-repeated claim of "one billion catholics," I imagine Dave would have to admit that the number of true Christians among them is relatively small. Yet the situation in protestantism isn't quite so bad. For example, is there any doubt that there are more Christians at a secular university in the South than a Catholic institution such as Notre Dame or Georgetown? Is even a (relative) conservative such as Benedict going to insist that Catholic universities require their students to follow catholic moral teachings, go to mass, etc. and if they aren't prepared to do so they should disassociate from the church.

    Incidentally, when a traditionalist catholic points out to dear old Dave what JP II and now Benedict permit in the church, Dave refuses to answer on the grounds that he doesn't dialogue with "so-called traditionalists." Last I checked, Dave still had as one of his reasons why he is a catholic that higher criticism has made inroads into protestantism and even evagelicalism.

  3. Steve Jackson --
    You should start a blog.

    However, you are forgetting a coupla things which DA uses to wiggle out of the objections you make. The first is that he accepts the idea that all people baptized are rightly called Christians -- unless, of course, they are Mormons or JWs (and that doesn't make him a donatist, btw). That's a catechism thing which he falls back on regularly enough to make it predictable.

    The second thing that might be of note is that DA rejects the idea that anyone is actually saved in the present tense -- he is an advocate of the idea that we are not saved except in the final account, so being a Christian and being saved are not the same thing for him. That's important because that is how he would handle the matter of whether the fans of the Fighting Irish are all "Christians" or not -- the baptized ones are Christians without regard to their willingness to accept the rigors of, say, weekly mass or periodic confession. Whether they go to heaven or not at death is 100% not related to their status as Christians but is related to whether they have enough grace from the treasury of merit applied to them through works and the prayers of others to make it out of purgatory and into the happy hunting ground (so to speak). And the Eucharist. Somehow.

    Last but not least, DA claims not to dialog with all kinds of people, but because he can't stand the silence those affirmations always lead to, he interacts with all kinds of people all the time. If you're a traditionalist Catholic, or know some who have been treated anathemaciously by DA, tell them to blog about the man and eventually he will respond. He can't help himself.

    Nice to meet you. :)