Monday, April 23, 2012

On the historical and ongoing need for reform movements

I’ve recently, and happily, come into the possession of a copy of Bavinck’s 4 volume Reformed Dogmatics. While I’ve read Berkhof and Reymond, I have to say I greatly appreciate the added dimension that Bavinck brings to his studies, and that is, the historical dimension. (Both of the others, to some degree, bring this in, but Bavinck takes it upon himself to comment upon the entire sweep of Christian history, which gives a perspective that one doesn’t often see.)

In the spirit of Carl Trueman’s request for “a thoughtful, learned Protestant response” to Roman Catholicism, I’d like to share some of these portions from Bavinck. One key problem with Bavinck is that he’s so 1900 – but that’s also a strength, in that he knew, and was an accurate reporter of what the Roman Catholic Church was in his day. [A second component to this, I suppose, will be a critique of what Roman Catholicism, post Vatican II, has become. And don’t mistake it: Roman Catholicism is two different things before and after Vatican II. It is the Roman Catholicism of today that we must deal with today. But the historical background is enlightening and important.]

From Bavinck’s “Prolegomena”:  

Although in the earliest period the authority of Scripture was decisive for the doctrine of the church, gradually the tradition developing alongside of it gained independent status as a source of knowledge. Soon, with the rise of the episcopacy and over against a wide range of sects and heresies, the idea surfaced that the bishops were the lawful successors of the apostles and the bearers of truth. Consequently, in virtue of the “grace of truth” (charisma veitatis) given them, they were entitled to decide what was the pure apostolic Christian truth. Through this process, the teaching of the bishops became the “rule of truth” (regula veritatis), and the authority of Scripture increasingly receded into the shadows. Tradition became a force alongside of, and, not long afterwards, superior to, Holy Scripture. Finally, when tradition even received its own infallible organ in the person of the pope, it also, in fact, took the place of the Word of God, for “the auctoritas interpretive is invariably the supreme and the true authority” …

Already in the Middle Ages, and later especially during the Reformation, many movements rose up in opposition to this devaluation and neglect of Scripture. The Reformation again squarely took its position in the original gospel, just as Jesus returned from the tradition of the elders to the law and the prophets and restored to Scripture the place of honor due to it. And later, each time tradition in the Protestant churches again threatened to become a freedom-suppressing force, a movement arose that, turning its back on scholasticism, sought its moorings in Holy Scripture. (Vol 1, pgs 62-63).

In the first paragraph here, in taking this period from “the earliest period” through the “development” of “the episcopacy” to a point at which there is a “person of the pope”, Bavinck is looking at generally the first four or five centuries. Still, he gets the sweep of it correct. In our archives here, we’ve broken out this period and given it a much more granular look; from the house churches in the earliest century, and in Jason Engwer’s look at the rise of the monoepiscopacy and the development of “apostolic succession”.

It should be clear to most that these were “developments” and in no wise part of the organic structure of “the church that Christ founded”. “The church that Christ founded” had nothing at all of the look of later “catholicism”. Some of these “developments” were useful for a period, but they were not a “structural component” of the church, nor were they “established for all time” by Christ. They may have been expedient arrangements, but the fixing of these things proved more harmful than good.

It is … noteworthy that the Holy Scripture never refers human beings to themselves as the epistemic source and standard of religious truth. How, indeed, could it, since it describes the “natural” man as totally darkened and corrupted by sin in his intellect (Ps. 14:3; Rom 1:21-23; Rom 8:7; 1 Bor. 23; 2:14; 2 Cor 3:5; Eph. 4:23; Gal 1:6, 7; 1 Tim 6:5; 2 Tim 3:8), in his heart (Gen 6:5; 8:21; Jer 17:9; Ezek 36:26; Mark 7:21); in his will (John 8:34; Rom 7:14; 8:7; Eph 2:3), as well as in his conscience (Jer 17:9; 1 Cor 8:7; 10, 12; 10:28; 1 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:15)? For the knowledge of truth Scripture always refers us to objective revelation, to the word and instruction that proceeded from God (Deut 4:1; Isa. 8:20; John 5:39; 2 Tim 3:15; 2 Pet 1:19; etc.). And where the objective truth is personally appropriated by us by faith, that faith still is never like a fountain that from itself brings forth the living water but like a channel that conducts the water to us from another source.

Rome, understanding perfectly well this impossibility of religious and moral autonomy, bound human beings to the infallible church on pain of losing the salvation of their souls for Roman Catholic Christians the infallible church, and so in the final analysis the infallible pope, is the foundation of their faith. The words Papa dixit (the Pope has spoken) is the end of all back talk. History teaches, however, that this theoretical and practical infallibility of the church has at all times encountered contradiction and opposition, not only in the churches of the Reformation but inside the Roman Catholic Church as well. It is not unbelievers primarily but the devout who have always experienced this power of the hierarchy as a galling bond to their conscience. Throughout the centuries there has not only been scientific, societal, and political resistance but also deeply religious and moral opposition to the hierarchical power of the church. It simply will not do to explain this opposition in terms of unbelief and disobedience and intentionally to misconstrue the religious motives underlying the opposition of sects and movements …. 

At the proper time everywhere and in every sphere of life, a certain radicalism is needed to restore balance, to make further development possible, and not let the stream of ongoing life bog down. In art and science, state and society, similarly in religion and morality, there gradually develops a mindless routine that oppresses and does violence to the rights of personality, genius, invention, inspiration, freedom, and conscience. But in due time there always arises a man or woman who cannot bear that pressure, casts off the yoke of bondage and again takes up the cause of human freedom and that of Christian liberty. These are the turning points of history. Thus Christ himself rose up against the tradition of the elders and returned to the law and the prophets. Thus one day the Reformation had the courage, not in the interest of some scientific, social, or political goal, but in the name of Christian humanity, to protest against Rome’s hierarchy. Frequently, even in the case of the sects and movements that later arose in the Protestant churches, that religious and ethical motive is undeniably present. So-called biblical theology also defends an important part of religious truth. When a church and theology prefer peace and quiet over struggle, they themselves trigger the opposition that reminds them of their Christian calling and task. Rome, in the nature of the case, can never approve of such opposition and has to condemn it in advance. The Reformation is itself the product of such opposition and cannot withhold from others what it assumed for itself. And Holy Scripture, though far removed in spirit from all revolutionary resistance, nevertheless, in Peter’s regal statement “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), legitimates the right to oppose every human decree that is contrary to the Word of God (Vol 1, pgs 80-82).

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