High-churchmen typically claim that an authoritarian church confers an epistemic advantage over the Protestant rule of faith. But does it?
1. Are we talking about a hypothetically advantageous situation, or a live option? Hypothetically speaking, it would be advantageous if all Christians were divinely. Indeed, Pentecostals think that’s a live option. But converts to the high-church tradition don’t think that Pentecostalism is a live option. Indeed, they regard Montanism—the ancient counterpart to Pentecostalism—as a heresy.
2. As far as the high-church tradition is concerned, most prospective converts either opt for Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.
Even this is rather arbitrary. Why not Oriental Orthodoxy?
3. As a practical matter, its not as if either the Catholic church or the Orthodox church has listed a 1-800-ANSWERS number where you can receive specific, timely, divine guidance in life. Neither church operates a hotline where you can receive God’s answer to such basic, personal questions as:
“Should I marry Betty or Debbie?”
“Which college should I go to?”
“What should my college major be?”
“What school should I send my kids to?”
“Where should I live?”
“How many kids should I have?”
“How long will I live, so that I can plan for the future?”
“Will I ever be diagnosed with a degenerative illness, and—if so—at what age?”
“Which form of cancer therapy should I undergo?”
“Should I put my dad in a nursing home?”
“Which stocks and bonds should I invest in?”
“What should I do in a ticking timebomb situation?”
“If my wife goes shopping this afternoon, will she be killed by a drunk driver, leaving me widowed with four kids to raise on my own?”
“Should I quit my lucrative, full-time job, take a part-time job, go to seminary, and have my wife work outside the home?”
“What can I do to keep my son from getting hooked on drugs?”
“Which candidate should I vote for?”
“I’m on a jury. Should I vote to convict or acquit the defendant?”
You can add your own queries to the questionnaire. Point being: there are ever so many morally freighted, life-changing questions for which the high-church tradition doesn’t even pretend to offer an answer.
4. There’s a tradeoff between Catholicism and Orthodox. And each tradition has its own problems:
i) Catholicism lays claim to a living teaching office in a way that Orthodoxy does not. Orthodoxy is more decentralized, tradition-bound, and backward-looking.
So, the Catholic magisterium would be closer to what some converts are looking for in terms of topical, time-sensitive answers, if they credit its grandiose claims, and ignore what I said under (3).
But this, in turn, creates a tension between the past and the present. It’s very difficult to honestly reconcile past magisterial teaching with modern magisterial teaching. So the very contemporeity of the Magisterium generates internal conflicts between modernity and antiquity.
ii) By contrast, Orthodoxy has undergone less internal development. It’s more rooted in the past. But that, in turn, means that, by definition, it doesn’t have traditional, real-time answers to modern questions. Tradition is bound to be silent on questions peculiar to modernity.
And, ironically, this leaves Orthodoxy wide open to modernism in all those situations where it doesn’t have a set of pat answers from the past. So we see that Orthodoxy is susceptible to evolutionary biology and German Bible criticism.
5. Some Evangelicals who are tempted to cross the Tiber or the Bosporus are asking good questions. I respect their questions. There are bright young men who are posing intelligent, worthwhile questions. And sometimes they don’t get good answers from the Evangelicals they happen to read or question.
What I find, however, is that those who do convert to Orthodoxy or Catholicism stop asking the same questions. They don’t hold Rome or Constantinople to the same standard as they held Geneva to.
They don’t keep pressing the same tenacious questions, or demand the same rigorous answers, of their adopted, high-church tradition. They are relentless on Geneva, but easygoing on Rome or Constantinople.
Where Geneva is concerned, a facile, but fallacious answer won’t do. They can see right through that. That leaves them dissatisfied.
Mind you, the answers you get are only as good as the individuals you ask. Likewise, the answers you get are only as good as the questions you ask.
But in the end, they settle for easy answers. The past of least resistance.
They settle for a shortcut. An ecclesiastical shortcut.
And they stop asking themselves whether the ecclesiastical shortcut is does the job. Indeed, they change the job description.
They also stop asking themselves whether there is any compelling evidence for the ecclesiastical shortcut—not to mention evidence to the contrary. Convenience becomes the only criterion.
So they collapse halfway through the journey. They start out on their own two feet when they examine the Protestant rule of faith.
But then they thumb a ride on the Catholic or Orthodox bandwagon for the rest of the journey, and they hop on that vehicle before they even establish if it’s roadworthy or headed in the right direction. Instead, they simply get tired of walking and hitch a ride on whatever they see coming down the road.
Tough questions for Geneva. Go hard on Geneva. Don’t let up for a minute. Evasive answers won’t do.
Softball questions for Rome or Constantinople. Gloss over all of the historical gaps and forgeries and discontinuities and infighting.
6. Their primary question is predicated on a false expectation. The expectation of exhaustive guidance.
But consider the OT law. This was a divinely inspired code of conduct for personal and social ethics.
What did it amount to? A general set of moral norms (the Decalogue) along with a set of case-laws. The case-laws illustrated the way in which the moral norms were to be applied in some representative situations.
And that’s it, folks. It was left to the Jews to infer the rest. That’s where their duties to God and man began and ended.
It was the duty of OT Jews generally, and Jewish judges in particular, to extrapolate from general norms to specific applications—as well as extrapolate from case laws to analogous situations. And although the Decalogue and case-laws were inspired, their interpretation and application by Jewish judges was not. That’s why, in Second Temple Judaism, you had rival schools of thought (e.g. Hillel v. Shamai).
The high churchman invokes the appealing claim that an infallible revelation requires an infallible interpreter. Well, that equation has a catchy, symmetrical ring to it, but it's not the ring of truth. That’s not how God governed his people in Bible times. God’s word in tandem with God’s providence were sufficient to realize God’s purpose for his people.
And no high-church tradition even ventures to give every Christian instant, heaven-sent answers to our daily decisions in life—many of which are weighty and momentous. Not even close. By the same token, no high-church tradition presumes to offer God’s own interpretation of every verse in Scripture. Not even close.