Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Holographic piety


This is what I call the "sin" explanation, which is often brought forth to account for the obvious fact that agreement on Scriptural content and meaning on many, many doctrines has never been achieved by Protestantism, to put it very mildly. It is woefully inadequate, and I assert that Luther's principle crumbles in light of the factual considerations below. One cannot invoke "sin" as the all-encompassing reason for Christian disagreement (as Luther - typically - does). That is absurdly simplistic as well as clearly uncharitable and judgmental.

Most conservative, classical, evangelical, "Reformation" Protestants agree with Luther's sentiments above totally or largely and hold to the view that - when all is said and done - the Bible is basically perspicuous (able to be clearly understood) in and of itself, without the absolute necessity for theological teaching, scholarly interpretation, and the authority of the Church (however defined).

This is not to say that Protestants are consciously taught to ignore Christian historical precedent altogether and shun theological instruction (although, sadly, the tendency of a-historicism and anti-intellectualism is strong in many circles). Rather, perspicuity is usually said to apply to doctrines "essential" for salvation.

Accordingly, it follows that whatever is necessary for salvation can be found in the Bible by any literate individual without the requisite assistance of an ecclesiastical body.

But what could possibly be imagined as more fatal to this abstract view than the multiplicity of denominations in Protestantism? The Bible is indeed more often than not quite clear when approached open-mindedly and with a moral willingness to accept its teachings. I assume this myself, even as a Catholic. But in actual fact many Christians (and also heretics or "cultists") distort and misunderstand the Bible, or at the very least, arrive at contradictory, sincerely-held convictions.

This is the whole point from the Catholic perspective. Error is necessarily present wherever disagreements exist - clearly not a desirable situation, as all falsehood is harmful (for example, John 8:44, 16:13, 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12, 1 John 4:6). Perspicuity (much like Protestantism as a whole) might theoretically be a good thing in principle, and on paper, but in practice it is unworkable and untenable.

Yet Protestant freedom of conscience is valued more than unity and the certainty of doctrinal truth in all matters (not just the core issues alone). The inquirer with newfound zeal for Christ is in trouble if he expects to easily attain any comprehensive certainty within Protestantism. All he can do is take a "head count" of scholars and pastors and evangelists and Bible Dictionaries and see who lines up where on the various sides of the numerous disagreements.

Or else he can just uncritically accept the word of whatever denomination he is associated with. In effect, then, he is no better off than a beginning philosophy student who prefers Kierkegaard to Kant - the whole procedure (however well-intentioned) is arbitrary and destined to produce further confusion.

The usual Protestant reply to this critique is that denominations differ mostly over secondary issues, not fundamental or central doctrines. This is often and casually stated, but when scrutinized, it collapses under its own weight. Right from the beginning, the fault lines of Protestantism appeared when Zwingli and Oecolampadius (two lesser Reformers) differed with Luther on the Real Presence, and the Anabaptists dissented on the Eucharist, infant baptism, ordination, and the function of civil authority.

Luther regarded these fellow Protestants as "damned" and "out of the Church" for these reasons. Reformers John Calvin and Martin Bucer held to a third position on the Eucharist (broadly speaking), intermediate between Luther's Real Presence (consubstantiation) and Zwingli's purely symbolic belief. By 1577, the book 200 Interpretations of the Words, "This is My Body" was published at Ingolstadt, Germany. This is the fruit of perspicuity, and it was quick to appear.

Protestants will often maintain that the Eucharist and baptism, for instance, are neither primary nor essential doctrines. This is curious, since these are the two sacraments that the majority of Protestants accept. Jesus said (John 6:53): Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. This certainly sounds essential, even to the extent that a man's salvation might be in jeopardy.

St. Paul, too, regards communion with equally great seriousness and of the utmost importance to one's spiritual well-being and relationship with Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:14-22, 11:23-30). Thus we are already in the realm of salvation - a primary doctrine. Lutherans and many Anglicans (for example, the Oxford Tractarians and C.S. Lewis), believe in the Real Presence, whereas most evangelicals do not, yet this is not considered cause for alarm or even discomfort.

Protestants also differ on other soteriological issues: most Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, pentecostals, some Baptists, and many non-denominationalists and other groups are Arminian and accept free will and the possibility of falling away from salvation (apostasy), while Presbyterians, Reformed and a few Baptist denominations and other groups are Calvinist and deny free will and the possibility of apostasy for the elect. In contrast to the former denominations, the latter groups have a stronger view of the nature of original sin, and deny that the Atonement is universal.

Traditional, orthodox Methodism (following founder John Wesley) and many "high church" Anglicans have had views of sanctification (that is, the relationship of faith and works, and of God's enabling and preceding grace and man's cooperation) akin to that of Catholicism. These are questions of how one repents and is saved (justification) and of what is required afterwards to either manifest or maintain this salvation (sanctification and perseverance). Thus, they are primary doctrines, even by Protestant criteria.

The same state of affairs is true concerning baptism, where Protestants are split into infant and adult camps. Furthermore, the infant camp contains those who accept baptismal regeneration (Lutherans, Anglicans, and to some extent, Methodists), as does the adult camp (Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ). Regeneration absolutely has a bearing on salvation, and therefore is a primary doctrine. The Salvation Army and the Quakers don't baptize at all (the latter doesn't even celebrate the Eucharist). Thus, there are five distinct competing belief-systems among Protestants with regard to baptism.

Scripture seems to clearly refer to baptismal regeneration in Acts 2:38 (forgiveness of sins), 22:16 (wash away your sins), Romans 6:3-4, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Titus 3:5 (he saved us, . . . by the washing of regeneration), and other passages.

For this reason, many prominent Protestant individuals and denominations have held to the position of baptismal regeneration, which is anathema to the Baptist / Presbyterian / Reformed branch of Protestantism - the predominant evangelical outlook at present.

The doctrine of baptism in particular, as well as other doctrinal disputes mentioned above, illustrate the irresolvable Protestant dilemma with regard to its fallacious notion of perspicuity. Again, the Bible is obviously not perspicuous enough to efficiently eliminate these differences, unless one arrogantly maintains that sin always blinds those in opposing camps from seeing obvious truths, which even a "plowboy" (Luther's famous phrase) ought to be able to grasp. Obviously, an authoritative (and even infallible) interpreter is needed whether or not the Bible is perspicuous enough to be theoretically understood without help. Nothing could be clearer than that. Paper infallibility is no substitute for conciliar and/or papal infallibility, or at least an authoritative denominational (Creedal / Confessional) authority, if nothing else.

The conclusion is inescapable: either biblical perspicuity is a falsehood or one or more of the doctrines of regeneration, justification, sanctification, salvation, election, free will, predestination, perseverance, eternal security, the Atonement, original sin, the Eucharist, and baptism, all "five points" of Calvinism (TULIP) and issues affecting the very gospel itself - are not central. Protestants can't have it both ways.

Or, of course, people like Martin Luther (due to his beliefs in the Real Presence and baptismal regeneration), John Wesley, C.S. Lewis, and entire denominations such as Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Churches of Christ, various Pentecostal groups, and the Salvation Army can be read out of the Christian faith due to their "unorthodoxy," as defined by the self-proclaimed "mainstream" evangelicals such as Baptists, Presbyterians and Reformed (even so the last two groups baptize infants, although they vehemently deny that this causes regeneration, whereas Baptists don't). Since most Protestants are unwilling to anathematize other Protestants, perspicuity dissolves into a boiling cauldron of incomprehensible contradictions, and as such, must be discarded or at the very least seriously reformulated in order to harmonize with the Bible and logic.

Whether one accepts the Tradition and teachings of the Catholic Church or not, at least it courageously takes a stand on any given doctrine and refuses to leave whole areas of theology and practice perpetually up for grabs and at the mercy of the "priesthood of scholars" and the individual's private judgment, which in turn often reduces to mere whim, fancy, or subjective preference, usually divorced from considerations of Christian history and consensus. For this so-called "dogmatism" and lack of "flexibility," the Catholic Church is often reviled and despised. But for those of us who are seeking to be faithful to Christ within its fold, this is regarded, to the contrary, as its unique glory and majesty, much preferable to the morass of competing truth-claims (i.e., relativism) which prevail within Protestantism (even among the subgroup of evangelicals).

Orthodox Catholics believe that Christians can place full confidence in the firmly-established Tradition which is found not only in Holy Scripture, but in the received doctrines of the Catholic Church, appointed by our Lord Jesus Christ as the Guardian and Custodian of the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).


1.I agree with Armstrong that all theological differences of opinion cannot be chalked up to sin. A lot of this has to do with social conditioning. How many of the Popes were converts to Catholicism? How many of the great Catholic theologians were converts to Catholicism? Often, though not always, in our theological affiliations, geography and biology are destiny.

2.The truth of perspicuity is implicit in the exemplary practice of the patriarchs and apostles and prophets and Jesus Christ himself. The patriarchs appeal to the covenant with Abraham. Moses directs the children of Israel to remember the covenant.

The prophets go over the heads of the corrupt religious establishment by calling on the people of Israel to remember the covenant.

Jesus and the apostles pull rank on the corrupt religious establishment by appealing directly to Scripture when they address the masses.

The apostles, when addressing churches with a large Gentile membership, who have no prior background in the OT scripture, nevertheless appeal directly to the OT.

3.In fact, it’s nothing short of remarkable how much of the Bible a layman or new convert can understand without any knowledge of the original context and culture.

4.Armstrong fails to draw an elementary distinction between what must be believed to be saved, and what must be true to be saved.

For example, a Calvinist would say that predestination must be true for anyone to be saved, but he would not say that one must believe in predestination in order to be saved—just as I don’t need to be an electrician to use a light-switch.

5.Armstrong arbitrarily separates his own denomination from the rest of the pack and then takes that as the standard of comparison, which begs the question entirely.

From the standpoint of an Evangelical or an unbeliever, the Church of Rome is just one more denomination among many. One option. One contender.

6.Apropos (5), Armstrong sidesteps the whole question of how anyone is to know that the Church of Rome is the true church. Why should anyone be a Roman Catholic? What are the reasons?

Suppose that Armstrong gives us a list of reasons to be Roman Catholic. Don’t we have to be competent to evaluate these reasons? If he appeals to Mt 16:18, don’t we have to be competent to interpret Mt 16:18 for ourselves?

We can’t just take the word of Mother Church that Mt 16:18 applies to Mother Church. For that would assume what it needs to prove. This can’t be an argument from authority when the source of authority is the very question at issue.

7.How, exactly, does the church clarify what is unclear in Scripture? If something in Scripture is objectively unclear, then the church cannot make it mean more than it actually says.

8.As far as I’m concerned, freedom of conscience is not the issue. The issue, rather, is responsible exegesis. Are our exegetical conclusions demonstrable by reason and evidence, or is this an appeal to blind authority?

9.Likewise, is our theology derived from revelation alone, or something less than revelation—which is, nonetheless, accorded the same cash-value as revelation?

10.Note the deeply anti-intellectual and ultimately irrational nature of Armstrong’s appeal. In case of disagreement, the best a poor Protestant can do is to either take a head-count or else submit to whatever church he happens to attend tells him.

Really, those are the only two options?

What about a reasoned position based on judging which side puts forth the best argument for its position?

Suppose I’m undecided on whether to be Catholic or Protestant. According to Armstrong, I can only perform a head-count. I can’t weigh the respective arguments.

11.What does it mean to say that the Protestant faith is “unworkable and untenable.” It’s been working for 500 hundred years now, has it not? We’ve had Baptists for centuries, Lutherans for centuries, Anglicans for centuries, Presbyterians for centuries, &c.

12.Notice how he simply assumes the sacramental reading of Jn 6:53.

13.In the same connection, observe his fallacious appeal to communion in 1 Cor 10-11, where the issue is not orthodoxy, but orthopraxy—not what do you believe about the Lord’s table, but how do you behave before the Lord’s table.

14.His unspoken assumption throughout is that tradition is perspicuous, but Scripture is not.

If you think that Catholic tradition is perspicuous, just read how a Catholic apologist like Shawn McElhinney labors to harmonize Vatican II with the longstanding tradition that there’s no salvation outside the Catholic church. Just look at all the disclaimers, all the hair-splitting distinctions between what’s fallible and infallible, formal and irreformable, definitive and non-definitive, the appeal to both the sitz-im-leben and the principle of development.

15.The purpose of revelation is not to eliminate division. Indeed, the purpose of revelation is, in no small measure, to instigate division (Mt 10:34-39; Lk 2:34; Jn 3:19-21; 7:40-43; 9:16; 10:19-21). Truth is a double-edged sword, uniting and dividing.

16.No, everything is not up for grabs. That’s the beauty of debate. After an issue has been thoroughly aired and ventilated, there’s really nothing more to say. The arguments and counterarguments are duly registered. You just decide who has the better of the argument.

Take the deity of Christ. Arianism is not a live option for Evangelicals because the ground has been so thoroughly canvassed. We have all the arguments for the deity of Christ. We have all the objections. And we have all the counterarguments to the objections. Guess which side won the argument?

Bottom-line: the church is a family. Now maybe Dave is an only child, but in the average family, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters have actually been known to disagree with one another. Shocking, but true!

For Armstrong and other Catholics, this is all scandalous beyond words. His prissiness reminds me of a Star Trek (Voyager) episode in which the Doctor created a holodeck program of the ideal family in which all was sweetness and smiles and sugarcoated comity—with nary a breath of sibling rivalry. But for those of us whose church does not occupy the virtual world of a holodeck, a dash of Klingon head-butting is a sign of vitality and reality.


  1. I find it interesting that Mr. Armstrong attacks protestants for the "priesthood of scholars" upon whom the masses apparently rely for theological guidance.

    Of course, this describes the Roman Catholic Church much better. Did Paul write the Pastorals? Did Peter (the first pope) write I & II Peter? Is evolution true and should Genesis be interpreted symbolically? All of these are to be decided by Scripture scholars.

    And, by the way, if John Calvin or Martin Luther kissed the Koran and held the Assisi event is there any doubt that this would be exhibit A in Armstrong's bag of tricks?

  2. Good post, Steve.

    I found this particular statement of Amstrong's quite remarkable: "Perspicuity (much like Protestantism as a whole) might theoretically be a good thing in principle, and on paper, but in practice it is unworkable and untenable."

    On the face of it, this is a blanket condementation of any doctrine of perspicuity. I doubt Armstrong meant it that way (given his parenthetical gibe), but nonetheless, every argument he levels against the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture could, in principle, be levelled just as well against the perspicuity of Catholic tradition.

    So does he believe that the teaching of the Magisterium is perspicuous or not? If not, then how does anyone figure out what the Catholic Church really teaches? Is there a second level of clarifying tradition (to set us straight on the first level), requiring in turn a third, and a fourth, and so on? If it is perspicuous, then how does this doctrine of ecclesiastical perspicuity avoid being "unworkable and untenable" in practice?

    Can anyone say "special pleading"? :)

  3. Armstrong confuses perspecuity with normativity. What he is trying but failing to argue for is that Protestant ecclesiology is insufficient to produce unrevisable and sufficiently normative formal statements. Sure, the Bible may be clear in many places and the average Joe may be sufficiently clear in his own thinking to grasp them. But the conclusions reached by Joe aren't binding. At best his conclusions attain to knowledge, but not dogma or doctrine.

  4. Waitaminit, Perry --

    You're saying that God's own words are insufficient to provide doctrine? How can it be that God's words don't have the force of doctrine but the fallible words of men can have the force of doctrine? What does one have to add to Scripture to give it the force of doctrine?

    I think I know your answer: just add water. But I could be wrong.

  5. Sure, the Bible may be clear in many places and the average Joe may be sufficiently clear in his own thinking to grasp them. But the conclusions reached by Joe aren't binding. At best his conclusions attain to knowledge, but not dogma or doctrine.

    So, Scripture itself breathed out by God Himself isn't clear enough to be binding if its interpreted by Joe using exegesis or an Joe drawing upon both exegesis and his interpretive community if Scripture is infallible and the tradition is not infallible. However Scripture which is infallible is clear enough for an infallible ecclesiastical class to understand it and formulate doctrine. If that is the case, then Scripture / doctrine is binding upon Joe.

    Pardon, but how do you know: Scripture is infallible and that the ecclesiastical class is infallible? Also, if Scripture is intrinsically infallible, then how is it clear enough to be binding enough upon the ecclesiastical class to formulate right doctrine, but not binding on the individual who is not part of that class to formulate right doctrine? After all, if the ecclesiastical class is at least attempting to formulate its doctrine from Scripture under the idea that Scripture is binding upon them, then you've said that Scripture is binding to the ecclesiastical class but not those outside of that class. In saying that doctrine, to be binding upon Joe, must be formulated by this special class of persons, then Scripture isn't binding upon Joe, the doctrines of this class of men are binding upon Joe. The locus of what is binding isn't Scripture at all; it is these allegedly infallible men in this alleged infallible ecclesiastical class.

    Is this based on the allegedly infallible ecclesiastical class? If so, then are they not attempting to serve that which they both define and interpret? How can one serve that which you define and interpret? All you've done is substitute ecclesiastical authority for Scriptural authority and ecclesiastical tradition for Biblical exegesis. That is Sola Ecclesia and your objection is directly reversable into an argument against your own position. One could say that Catholic ecclesiology is insufficient to produce unrevisable and sufficiently normative formal statements, because it requires another infallible ecclesiastical authority of some sort to interpret its formulations to make them binding upon Joe. How can the individual who is not part of this special class be sure that the ecclesiastical class' own doctrinal formulations are clear and correct and binding unless the individual himself isn't also infallible? All you've done is fallen afoul of the regressive fallacy. If it takes an infallible Scripture and an infallible teaching authority to make infallible doctrine that is binding, then it also follows it takes an infallible individual in order to understand it correctly in order to make it binding, which is a premise we all deny.

    If you acknowledge that this ecclesiastical class is not infallible, then why is what they say binding but not what Joe concludes binding, since both are infallible? Is it the fact that they are part of said class? If so, then all the same objections apply. If not, then is this just those authorities in certain contexts and times? If so, then that only inserts another layer, and the objections still apply.
    If the members of an fallible teaching authority are bound by Scripture, then so is Joe. No second layer is needed at all to make doctrine binding.

  6. To approach Perry's comments from another angle or two:

    i)I don't object to creeds. I regard that as a legitimate expression of the pastoral office.

    Let us remember, though, that in Second Temple Judaism you didn't have anything resembling the ancient Christian creeds.

    ii)As to dogma, let's take the creed of Chalcedon.

    Most-all Evangelical denominations I know of affirm the creed of Chalcedon. Yet that's rather misleading. For when they cite or recite this creed, it's an English version.

    It would be necessary to define the key Greek terms like henosis, anthropotes, theotes, idiotes, psyches, logikos, homoousios, prosopon, physis, & hypostasis.

    What precise concept is denoted by each of these terms?

    To answer that question you'd have to sift through Greek patristic usage.

    You'd also have to decide if one theologian's usage is more normative than another's.

    Not only do you need a formal creed, but a formal lexicon.

    How is that process more binding than the Bible?

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