Saturday, September 01, 2007

Perry Robinson's bombshell

i) Perry Robinson has made an earth-shattering discovery. I hesitate to even repeat his finding because I know the utterly devastating effect in may have on our commitment to sola Scripture. But after much fasting and prayer and trepidation, I decided that it’s better if you hear it from me rather than see it splashed across the front page of the New York Times.

Sensational revelations of this magnitude can only be kept under wraps for so long. It’s only a matter of time before someone scoops his undercover story.

So what is his bombshell?

Take a deep breath. In case of cardiac arrest, keep your cellphone handy to dial 911. Or go ahead and dial 911 as a precautionary measure.

Here goes: Perry Robinson thinks that he has uncovered some evidence that some Protestants are sometimes inconsistent in their application of sola Scriptura.

Okay, I finally got the words out. Are you still with me?

But before you strip down to your tighty-whities and swim the Bosporus, I implore you to give me at least one chance to see if I can’t patch up the irreparable damage which this utterly damning admission may have had on the Protestant rule of faith.

ii) I should add that Perry has a very expansive definition of inconsistency. In his definition, it is not enough that you are personally consistent in your application sola Scriptura.

No. In his definition, you are inconsistent if someone you know or read about in a church history book is inconsistent, and you fail to respond by going on a hunger strike or picket the ETS.

The bottom line is that if anyone, anywhere, and at anytime, has ever been inconsistent in the application of sola Scripture, then, by strict implication, sola Scriptura cannot be the true rule of faith. The inexorable force of Robinson’s logic is irrefutable, wouldn’t you say?

iii) Okay, I guess it’s time for true confessions. Let’s take a personal example. Although I have been known to occasionally attend an Orthodox Easter service, I generally observe Easter according to the Western calendar.

And why is that? In a word: tradition.

I’m a Protestant. As such, I’m an heir to the Latin church rather than the Eastern church.

Is that a shocking admission on my part? Have I played into Perry’s hands?

In fact, I’ll take it a step further. In the Quartodeciman controversy, there’s no doubt in my mind which side had the better of the argument, and it wasn’t the pope.

iv) So why do I follow tradition on this point, and “Catholic” tradition in particular? Simple: the date on which we celebrate Easter is adiaphorous.

On this issue I go along with social convention because there’s no overriding reason to buck convention. It’s not as if Scripture commits us to a particular date to celebrate Eastern.

v) Which brings us to another point: these debates are often asymmetrical, for one side has bigger investment in the outcome than the other. The question of the “true” church year is a big issue in Orthodoxy. Just consider the Greek Old Calendarists.

One of Perry’s problems is that just because something happens to a big issue for him, he thinks it ought to be a big issue for everyone else. Take divine simplicity. He makes a big deal about this because it is a big deal for Orthodox theology. To Perry’s way of thinking, divine simplicity is incompatible with his dogmatic commitment to libertarian freewill.

But many Evangelicals would never make that connection in the first place. And even if they did, many Evangelicals are not committed to libertarian freewill, so they don’t have the same stake in this debate.

vi) Or take the Filioque. Why do most Evangelicals recite the Filioque? Because it’s in their version of the Nicene creed. And why is that? Because their version is a translation of a Latin exemplar. And why is that? Because (most) Evangelicals are heirs of the Latin church.

Many or most of them recite the Filioque because it’s part of their tradition. A tradition of the Western church. A tradition they inherited from the Western Church rather than the Eastern Church inasmuch as they are Western Christians rather than Eastern Christians. And, of course, you could say the same thing in reverse regarding Eastern Christians.

Now, watch Perry pounce. “See!” he will exclaim. “Steve Hays has just proven my point!”

Well, yes and no. I’m happy to concede that many Evangelicals unthinkingly conserve certain residual tidbits of old controversies which may or may not be well-founded in Scripture. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them don’t know the historical background of Double Procession.

But, of course, one could say the same thing about many or most Orthodox believers. They rubberstamp the theological tradition in which they were socialized.

If fact, Perry has even admitted that many of the Orthodox—whether converts or cradle communicants—are helpless at defending their rote belief-system:

“I think that the Orthodox had better wise up because the novlty of being Orthodox and ethnic conclave won’t protect us much longer from Protestant missionaries. They are already showing up our festivals like they did last year passing out tracts. It won’t be long till they start picking off members in large numbers.”

“As things stand the general feel of things is that one becomes Orthodox because of smell, bells and pretty pictures. I think we can do better, lots better. This is not to say that Orthodox can be reduced to a rational scheme, because it can’t. It is to say that the Fathers used arguments and there are clear logical links between the things they taught in the main. Often converts are warry of rationalism, but they don’t seem to be concerned about going into the opposite error of something like Otto’s Kantianism in The Idea of the Holy where what passes for religion is a non-rational nebulous feeling. People often favor this because it gives them a one up, a place that can’t be criticized, but it also makes them irrelevant and equalizes their positions with all kinds of non-personal religions. Such a view isn’t Incarnational but Apollinarian.”

vii) And there are a couple of obvious reasons why many Evangelicals haven’t given much thought to these questions. For one thing, Rome was the sparring partner in the Reformation, not Constantinople. The Reformation was not a movement in reaction to Orthodox distinctives, but certain Romish distinctives.

vii) In addition, the Protestant Reformers had their own theological priorities. Constantinople wasn’t setting the agenda.

The Filioque is another example of a lop-sided issue. For this is more important to Orthodox theology than it is to Evangelical theology. The issue is more important to their model of the Trinity, and it’s more important to their concept of ecclesiastical authority.

Who gets to decide: Constantinople or Rome? In the high-church tradition, that’s a vital question. Within Evangelicalism, that’s a dead question.

viii) Another problem is that Perry has a double standard. Indeed, more than one. I recently pointed out that Timothy Ware regards universalism as a live option. Perry demurred. He insisted that universalism was out of bounds in Orthodox theology.

Ware was simply wrong. But that’s okay, because Orthodox ecclesiology admits that a bishop can be wrong. Thus saith the Robinson.

So, for Perry, if an Orthodox bishop is inconsistent, that doesn’t invalidate the Orthodox rule of faith—but if a Protestant is inconsistent, then that does invalidate the Protestant rule of faith.

And this is especially duplicitous when you consider the fact that the Orthodox church is a more authoritarian institution than the Evangelical movement, so these inconsistencies should be more of a problem for Orthodoxy than they are for Evangelicalism.

ix) And here’s another one of his double standards. On the one hand he faults Evangelicals if they blindly recite creeds containing certain propositions that allegedly lack Scriptural support.

On the other hand, he will also fault an Evangelical who is prepared to buck creedal tradition in case he thinks a certain creedal statement lacks Scriptural support.

This is because Perry is an unprincipled partisan. He’s looking for emotional or political leverage (in the sense of church politics) to make Evangelicals capitulate to Orthodoxy through his use of rhetorical extortion.

x) Let’s switch from Perry’s double standards to Perry’s straw man arguments.

“Either Sola Scriptura doesn’t logically preclude the innovation and codification of major theological error or very few if any Protestant bodies have been using it correctly in relation to the doctrine of God.”

a) Since when was the case for sola Scriptura ever predicated on the assumption that sola Scriptura cannot be the true rule of faith unless it logically precludes the innovation or codification of error?

b) What “major” theological errors does he have in mind? Creation ex nihilo? But he presumably believes in that.

What about divine simplicity or Double Procession? He may, indeed, regard these as major theological errors, but that merely begs the question in favor of Orthodoxy.

c) Moreover, he’s moving the goal post. His original allegation was that Evangelicals are guilty of affirming certain doctrines that lack adequate Scriptural support.

Even if that charge were true, it doesn’t’ imply that these are major theological errors. To say there’s insufficient evidence for what you believe is hardly equivalent to saying that what you believe is positively erroneous. Insufficient evidence isn’t the same thing as counterevidence.

Suppose I think it’s going to rain tomorrow. I believe that because I read it in the newspaper. I think I read it in yesterday’s paper, when I was at the barbershop.

But I’m wrong about that. The paper was from last week. It didn’t give tomorrow’s weather report.

Clearly my evidence for believing that it will rain tomorrow is insufficient. Does it follow from this that it won’t rain tomorrow? Not in the least.

“If Sola Scriptura were true, when applied correctly not only should it adjudcate such matters but it should preclude such doctrines.”

This is circular. At most, it would preclude error when correctly applied. But it doesn’t preclude an incorrect application. For that matter, it doesn’t preclude a lack of application—whether correct or incorrect.

So even if he could identify “major theological errors” in Protestant theology, that would not invalidate sola Scriptura.

The Bible is not a linebacker or bar bouncer. It doesn’t block or tackle a heretic.

It’s simply a rule of faith. A heretic is at liberty to disregard the rule of faith—although he does so at his immortal peril.

“If Sola Scriptura were true, it should when used correctly produce only teachings that bind the conscience of a believer.”

And how does that conclusion undermine the premise?

xi) Here’s another straw man argument:

“”He [Steve Hays] just posted to articles that he thinks are sufficient to answer my challenge… What will become apparent is that Steve hasn’t done his homework if he thinks the Bray article is going to do any real work for him... If he had read anything substantial he would not have proffered the article as scriptural proof or any other kind, if he even read the article.”

But that’s not the reason I gave for citing the articles. If you go back and reread what I wrote, this is what I actually said:

“He acts as if he’s leveling novel objections which would leave a Protestant speechless. Before he raises an objection, why doesn’t he bother to do a bit of research in order to see if his objection has already been addressed? If there are preexisting answers in the public domain, shouldn’t he at least acknowledge the answers and interact with the answers?”

Perry is only now beginning to do what he should have done the first time, and he’s only doing it in response to what I wrote.

xii) Here’s another straw man argument:

“(You can see how indebted Hays is to this Platonism here).”

Except that if you click on the link, it doesn’t show you how indebted I am to Platonism. Perry has done nothing to actually demonstrate my intellectual indebtedness to Platonism.


“What was especially funny was Steve’s invocation of Platonism to deny that God’s glory is visible, even though Scripture says otherwise (Lev 9:6, Num 20:6, Ex 34:29-35) All one has to do is read Augustine’s De Trinitate books 1-6 to see the same Platonic moves to deny God’s visibility, which incidentally was the same line of thinking that the Arians employed to deny the divinity of the Son.”

a) Once more, where do I invoke Platonism to deny God’s visible glory? Did he document that claim? No.

b) And he’s also equivocating over the relation between God and God’s glory. I’ve discussed that in some detail.

xiii) Here’s another straw man argument:

“Of course, he lists no article on divine simplicity. And there is a good reason for that. Steve knows that it is not justifiable by Scripture alone.

Perry needs to use some Windex on his crystal ball.

a) One reason I didn’t list an article on divine simplicity is because I’d already explained the way in which I’d defend a version of that doctrine from Scripture in my earlier reply to Perry:

Does Perry suffer from short-term memory loss?

b) I was also confining myself to online articles for the convenience of the reader, since online articles are available to everyone who has internet access, and if they didn’t have internet access they wouldn’t be reading my blog in the first place.

xiv) One more straw man argument—indeed, several bundled into one:

“What we need from Hays via Bray is a scriptural demonstration where the doctrine is taught…In fact, I have to wonder if Hays even read the article for Bray concedes that the doctrine lacks explicit scriptural warrant... The point is that the doctrine is supposed to be justifiable on the grounds of Sola Scriptura and this article by Hays is supposed to be the proof.”
Several problems:

a) I never said if Bray represented my own position. That wasn’t the point. Rather, the point, which I clearly stated in my original post, is that Perry is accusing Evangelicals of paying lip service to sola Scriptura while they rubberstamp piece of traditional theology that cannot be supported by Scripture alone.

And the reason I cited Bray and Copan, as I explained at the time, is to show that Perry hadn’t done his homework when he leveled a charge like that—for there are Evangelicals who have made a good faith effort to do the very thing he denies.

b) I already explained my position on the Filioque in my original reply to Perry:

Does he suffer from short-term memory loss?

c) The Protestant rule of faith has never maintained that we need “explicit” Scriptural warrant for what we believe.

d) In addition, Perry can’t keep track of his own argument. With reference to divine simplicity he said: “It matters not if Steve personally subscribes to it.”

In consistency, he would say the same thing about my personal view of Double Procession or creation ex nihilo.

In that event, it doesn’t matter to Perry what I personally think of Copan’s performance or Bray’s performance. Whether I agree or disagree is immaterial to his argument.

xv) On a different note, consider this call to arms:

“(I encourage Catholic readers to start going through systematic theologies to start finding other doctrines that are specifically philosophical in content and run the same kind of argument. Go get’em boys!)”

So Perry makes common cause with the Papists. But aren’t they guilty of “major theological errors” or even heresies—some of which, according to Robinson—were passed down to Evangelicalism?

When Vlad the Impaler made common cause with the Hungarian Catholics to beat back the Saracens, he was excommunicated by the Orthodox church. Evidently, the hierarchs have gone soft on church discipline since those halcyon days.

xvi) What about this inflated claim:

“We aren’t arguing on his turf. He made a simple mistake. He came into my backyard. I pretty much know what is out there in terms of criticisms of my view. I know the Classical Protestant tradition fairly well. And I know my own tradition better and have greater resources than an outsider like Steve. Steve needs to learn to stay out of other people’s backyard. Read the sign, dude. Beware of dog.”

“His” backyard? I didn’t realize until now that Perry holds the title-deed to the Orthodox church. I’m sure a lot of money had to change hands to expedite that transaction. Reminds me of how Steven Segal became the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama.

xvii) Finally, what does Perry’s alternative amount to, anyway? Take creation ex nihilo. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Perry is right. If creation ex nihilo is not clearly revealed by God, either implicitly or explicitly, what does Orthodoxy do to make up for that alleged deficiency? There are only two possible alternatives:

a) Orthodox tradition dogmatizes a philosophical position that lacks revelatory warrant.

b) Orthodox tradition supplies a new revelation on creation ex nihilo.


  1. Steve said:

    “The Bible is not a linebacker or bar bouncer. It doesn’t block or tackle a heretic. It’s simply a rule of faith. A heretic is at liberty to disregard the rule of faith—although he does so at his immortal peril.”

    Yes, and it seems that some people reject sola scriptura because they don’t like its failure to do what they want done. It would be similar to our rejecting Eastern Orthodoxy in favor of a cult whose leader promises to give us infallible guidance on matters such as where to be employed and who to marry. The fact that we’d prefer a system of authority that includes such a degree of Divine guidance doesn’t tell us much about whether God has actually given us such a system.

    And the Bible’s failure to “be a linebacker or bar bouncer” is a failure it shares with the historical record in general. The historical record doesn’t prevent some people from concluding that the Holocaust didn’t occur. And the historical record can’t keep people from misjudging what system of authority Jesus and the apostles established. Christianity involves a historical revelation. Historical judgments have to be made. You can’t get to something like an allegedly infallible church hierarchy until after you’ve made a series of fallible historical judgments that the historical record, which is no linebacker or bar bouncer, can’t force upon anybody. If people want to avoid that sort of situation, then they need to avoid Christianity.

  2. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. It is always great pleasure to read your posts.