Saturday, February 07, 2015

Reformed catholicity

I'm going to comment on this review:
I'm not commenting on the book. I haven't read the book. I have no inclination to read the book. My comments don't intend to represent what the book says. That's because I don't know what the book says. I'm just using the review as a launchpad. I'm accepting the reviewer's summary as accurate for the sake of argument. My comments don't depend on that, because my objective is to interpret ideas, not interpret the book. I'm evaluating certain ideas on the merits, whether or not that's actually what the authors espouse.
I'll begin with  a general observation: as I've probably remarked on other occasions, there are Protestants who suffer from an inferiority complex. Sola scriptura makes them feel insecure. They have a hankering for Mother Kirk. 
I don't think you can talk people like that out of their position, because it's temperamental. There's a certain personality type who suffers from a psychological need to have Mother Kirk hold their hand when they cross the street. That's not part of my own psychological makeup, so it's not something I can relate to–or care to relate to. 
Not surprisingly, some of these people eventually exit the Protestant faith. Not surprisingly, when they do, they usually head for the Orthodox church or the Roman church. Their center of gravity always tilted in that direction. 
Is it possible to be both Reformed and catholic? Can one stand squarely within Protestantism and yet be vitally engaged with, say, the early church? Can one be uncompromisingly committed to the Reformation solas while also visibly rooted in the patristic and medieval heritage that preceded the Reformation?
What does it mean to be "rooted," much less "visibly" rooted in the patristic and medieval heritage? Does that just mean appropriating the best of the past? If so, what makes the authors think Protestant theologians haven't already strip-mined the church fathers and scholastic theologians for their precious ore? 
Likewise, how is one visibly rooted in the past? Does that mean anything? Or is it just a nice-sounding, nonsensical metaphor? 
Their call for a retrieval of the entire Christian church…
That's a euphemism. Of all the Christians that lived and died, a fraction were writers. Of the fraction who were writers, a fraction of their writings were preserved. Of the fraction whose writers were preserved, only fraction make the cut. It's a thin upper crust of Christian writers from the middle ages and patristic era who are ever studied. Most of the "entire church" disappeared without a trace. 
...centered on the conviction that “we can and should pursue catholicity on Protestant principles, and that pursuing this path holds promise for theological and spiritual renewal.”
i) Why should we pursue catholicity? What makes that the priority? Consensus for consensus sake?
Christianity is revealed religion. Shouldn't our priority be to think and live according to God's revelation? Begin with that is true. Do my beliefs match up with reality? Do I live accordingly? That's the proper frame of reference. 
ii) Why should we look to the church fathers or scholastic theologians for spiritual renewal, rather than God's revelation? Perhaps the authors would say that's a false dichotomy. Perhaps they'd say the church fathers and scholastic theologians have valuable insights into the meaning of Scripture.
No doubt that's sometimes the case. But it's arguable that many modern evangelical Bible scholars have a far more accurate grasp of what the Bible means than church fathers or scholastic theologians. 
Chapter 1 argues the catholic church is the context for doing theology…
i) The "catholic church" is, itself, a theological category. A theological interpretation. It's not as if you can simply begin with something that's presumptively the "catholic church," then proceed to do theology. For that requires a preliminary theological judgment to decide whether the religious community in question qualifies as the "catholic church" (whatever that even means).
ii) What does it mean to "do theology"? Does that include exegetical theology? Does that mean a Maoist who happens to read a Bible on his own can't come to saving faith, since he's isolated from the "catholic church"? Is he so unable to interpret the Bible on his own that he can never become a Christian by simply reading and believing the Bible? 
...and emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit as the church’s teacher.
People who say that have a habit of acting as if the Holy Spirit retired on the eve of the Reformation. 
…while also rising above the “me and my Bible” approach that too often characterizes modern Protestants. 
That's a popular smear. But surely that's a hasty generalization. Consider all the variations. Protestants who get their theology from a study Bible. From their pastor. From their denomination. From their favorite televangelist. From church websites like John Piper's. From Christian apologists.  
Because theology is a specifically pneumatological and ecclesiological task, churchly tradition is “the school of Christ” that cannot be simply ignored by those under the authority of Scripture.
"Churchly tradition" isn't "catholic." "Churchly tradition" consists of many competing sectarian viewpoints. You have to do a lot of sifting. What is the winnowing fan, if not the Bible? 
This foundational chapter then leads into chapters 2 and 3, where the authors seek to rehabilitate the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura from its “bastardization into a ‘no creed but the Bible’ approach to faith and practice.” 
That's another popular smear. 
Swain and Allen combat several recent accounts of sola Scriptura, particularly those of Brad Gregory and A. N. Wilson, as tending towards subjectivism and individualism. 
"Churchly tradition" originates in the life and work of elite individuals. Bishops and theologians from the past who exerted a shaping influence vastly disproportionate to their numbers. The foundation of church tradition is selective individualism.  
Chapter 3 extends this discussion of sola Scriptura, arguing that the Bible itself encourages us not to read it in isolation from the entire community of believers (they call this “biblical traditioning”).
When you read the Bible with the church fathers or scholastic theologians, that's hardly reading the Bible with the "entire community of believers." The vast majority of Christians never had a voice in that process. These are vacuous slogans.  
Chapter 4 offers a distinctively Reformed perspective on how the rule of faith (regula fidei) might function as a hermeneutical guide for interpreting Scripture. In Swain and Allen’s perspective, church tradition and creed does indeed have a kind of hermeneutical authority, but it’s a “subordinate or ministerial authority” that is itself both established by and accountable to Scripture.
Yes, there's the pro forma disclaimer about how churchly tradition is subordinate to Scripture. Problem is, people who lean in the direction of Swain and Allen subordinate Scripture to churchly tradition in actual practice.


  1. This is excellent Steve, thanks for these clarifications.

  2. Did 2005 come back when we weren't looking?

    1. Yes, it does have that deja-vu all over again quality to it.