Saturday, October 01, 2005

Utopians in Dystopia

Like C. S. Lewis before me, I come to bury a great myth. This is a myth which has achieved canonical status, not only in Roman Catholic circles, but in many evangelical circles. It is attained the same axiomatic standing among many Christians as evolution, the “Constitutional right to choose,” and the solemn duty of California taxpayers to educate illegal aliens has among the liberal establishment.

This unquestioned dogma goes under such opprobrious designations as the scandalum denominatus and the tragoedia Reformatum. Mere mention of one or another phrase is sufficient to make brave men weak of knee and watery of eye--with much attendant sighing and head-wagging, breast-beating and self-flagellation.

As I’ve often had occasion to say, good ideas come and go, but bad ideas are here to stay. That the Reformation was, at best, a necessary evil; that denominationalism is a scarlet letter upon the fitful bosom of the Protestant faith—a well entrenched and thoroughly bad idea.

It doesn’t even occur to many Evangelicals to doubt this axiom, and even if they did…well, that’s just not the sort of thing that is discussed in polite society. Why, that would be as onerous a faux-pas as suggesting at a PETA fundraiser that human babies were more valuable than baby seals.

Once a bad idea gets a foothold, it takes on the status of sacred tradition, to be handed down reverently and thoughtlessly from one generation to the next. It becomes part of the intellectual air we breathe—or choke on.

But ecumenism is of a piece with a perfectionist philosophy of history. An ecumenist is to the church what a liberal is to the world. Liberals are an unhappy lot. They are unhappy with the world. There is always something, somewhere that leaves them deeply dissatisfied, and they cannot rest content until they fix it. For folks who believe in evolution, the liberal is remarkably ill-adapted to his natural environment.

In a sense, the liberal is right. Of course, his diagnosis his wrong. And his cure is wrong.

Likewise, the ecumenist is unhappy with the church. They act as though the church had fallen from some former state of innocence. In every generation, they say the same thing. They pen their Jeremiads. They join hands with their like-minded mourners and sing a round of Kumbaya.

All the while, the church bumps along just as she did before they were born and after they die. Nothing changes but the date on the calendar.

There are several reasons for this state of affairs.

The most obvious thing they overlook is how we got to where we are in the first place. People could make the world a better world were they better people.

It is within our power to make the world a better place if we really wanted to. The conclusion is irresistible: the world is pretty much the way we want it to be. The same holds true for the church.

The state of the church is not like a law of nature—something imposed on us, over which we have no control. We are the church. The church is just a bunch of people under the headship of Christ.

You notice how often folks complain about a situation when they could either change it or remove themselves from the situation? So even if there’s something they don’t like, they don’t dislike it enough to make a change.

It’s like what passes for poverty in America. No one wants to be poor, but it generally accompanies a certain lifestyle, and while one may not like the consequences, as long as one likes the lifestyle, there’s no great incentive to change—especially when the state makes it possible to maintain that lifestyle despite the consequences.

There is just no collective will to change, for were there such a will, there would be a change. The very fact that we have certain social ills goes to show that there is no practical solution for the simple reason that we wouldn’t have all these social ills in the first place were it not for the fact that most folks don’t care that much.

The mere existence of the problem is enough to render the problem is insoluble—not because the situation could not be improved, but because the situation would not exist but for the tacit consent of all parties concerned.

Oh, there are exceptions, but the exceptions are limiting-cases of the norm. If things get bad enough, and if a natural leader comes along, it may be possible to turn things around.

Another reason is that many people positively like the status quo. Have you noticed that everyone who bitches about all the denominations belongs to one? His idea of ecumenism is that everyone should belong to his own denomination. The ecumenist is not dissatisfied with his own theology, such as it is, but just with everyone else’s.

Why is a Lutheran a Lutheran? Because he likes to be a Lutheran, that’s why. If he didn’t like to be a Lutheran, he’d be something else. There are plenty of alternatives.

Does an ecumenists seriously believe, at this stage of the game, that Baptists are going to cease being Baptist, Lutherans desist from being Lutheran, and so on and so forth?

No one is putting a gun to their heads. Every denomination is a voluntary association.

In order for the ecumenist to succeed, he’d first need to create a problem in order to solve it. He’d have to begin by making most Christians terribly depressed over the political map of Christendom. The problem for the ecumenist is that he sees a problem where no one else does.
Wherein lies the scandal of denominationalism? It is only a scandalous state of affairs if you think that everyone should believe the same thing. If so, then what should everyone hold in common? Is the scandal that every Christian is not a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church? If not that, then what?

I’m a Calvinist. I’d like every Christian to be a Calvinist. I think it’s important to make my case. But having done so, that’s about it.

If I had a son, I’d teach him the doctrines of grace. I’d take him to a Reformed church.

Now, before I get to my illustration, if you have any young children, you may wish to send them out of the room at this point.

But suppose, just suppose, that at the age of 16 he became a…a…(gulp) Lutheran! Sorry about that, but sometimes we need the shock-value of a really extreme worst-case scenario to drive home the point!

Seriously, though, would that be a scandal? A family tragedy? Would I have to begin wearing dark glasses to the grocery store? Should I throw him out of the house? Cut him out of my will? Take out a full-page age in the NYT disowning him?

How is it that so many Christians work themselves into such a ridiculous state of mind that they fling around abusive terms like “scandal” and “tragedy” to brand an honest difference of opinion? As long as the lifeboat is a sturdy vessel that can safely transport its occupants to the heavenly harbor, surely we can spare ourselves the outpouring of ecumenical grief and mourning. In my humble opinion, a flotilla of seaworthy lifeboats is a considerable improvement over one sinking cruise ship.

For that matter, how do you think we developed all these denominations in the first place? Because there was a market for them.

And the marketplace also has a way of weeding out most denominations. For most denominations are fly-by-night operations that come and go. Very few survive and grow prosper.

Moreover, denominations don’t merely proliferate. Many denominations are pining on the vine. Market forces promote some denominations while demoting others. If churchgoers don’t like the product, they go elsewhere.

The reason we have so many different denominations, independent churches, and cults in America is both because America is an immigrant nation and because we have no national church. Instead, we have a free marketplace of ideas. Such theological competition is not to be reviled and decried. It is, to the contrary, a good thing.

National churches and mainline denominations turn into dying institutions because the clergy come to be increasingly out of touch with the values of the laity. The clergy assimilate withthe worldview of the liberal establishment. But in the words of Niebuhr, a church that preaches a God without wrath bringing men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross is a dying church, and deservedly so. It is inwardly dead and outwardly moribund.

The fact is that there are only so many things that Christians want in a church. Different Christians want different things, but the basal combinations are few in number. The market is quickly saturated.

That’s why the original denominations which pioneered the Reformation are still around. They got there first and for the most part they cater to the various personality-types. Some churches are more doctrinal (e.g. the Reformed), others more atmospheric (e.g. the Orthodox), still others more existential (e.g. the charismatics), while some others mix-and-match.

Like the principle of irreducible complexity, you’re never going to boil down denominations to anything simpler than the number of personality-types to be serviced. High-church types don’t go for low-church worship, or vice versa.

Even if everyone had the same creed, they would not have the same taste in worship. If everyone were a Calvinist, you’d still have Puritan types and Anglican types and people in-between.

Denominations are like ecological zones. Down Under, you have marsupials instead of mammals. But the marsupials fill all the same ecological niches as the mammals do elsewhere. You have herbivorous, omnivorous, and carnivorous marsupials, predatory marsupials and marsupial prey species.

An ecumenist is like Darwin on the H.M.S. Beagle. When he sees some finches with smaller and others with bigger beaks, he sees speciation, he sees macroevolution at work. But when a schismatic sees the same finches, he sees microevolution; all he sees are cyclical variations which revert to type.

Just look at fundamentalism. It began with a rather radical dichotomy between Israel and the church, between one dispensation and another. But over time fundamentalism has become ever less distinctive in relation to the preexisting traditions. Like a recessive gene, fundamentalism is blending back into the gene pool from whence it came.

Denominations are a gift, not a scandal. If a group breaks away from a church for the wrong reason, then the church it leaves behind is purified by the process. For if the breakaway group left for the wrong reason, then those who remain behind are likely there for the right reason.

Conversely, if a group departed for the right reason, then that is also a winnowing process in reverse. They leave behind a corrupt body, like a useless husk or outer shell. It will shrivel without their presence and support.

We often hear that the divisions within Christendom mar our witness to the world. Do they?

To begin with, there’s no direct correspondence between creedal and institutional unity. Just look at the Catholic church.

Likewise, the world wouldn’t like the church any better were she to present a united front in her commitment to the gospel and Bible ethics.

So the time is long overdue to bury this particular myth. It’s a-molderin’ somethin’ awful. Dig a hole, hold your nose, toss it in, cover it over, and be done with it.

Friday, September 30, 2005

The Decline & Fall of Fox News

I started watching Fox News back when I moved to California in ’99. We were living in a river valley with poor reception, so cable was the only way to go—either that or satellite TV.

Having Fox News instead of the network news was certainly a relief heading into the 2000 election and Bush’s first term.

Can you imagine getting your news from Dan Rather or Peter Jennings or the BBC or The News Hour during the Bush administration?

Over time, though, it does seem to me that Fox has gone downhill. Now, maybe that’s just an illusion caused by moving into a different time zone as I relocated from the West coast to the East coast.

Mind you, I was never glued to the TV. It was always something in the background while I was busy with other things.

I quickly tired of Hannity & Colmes. It was a calculated scream-fest. The format was always the same: a staged debate involving a liberal and conservative guest moderated by the liberal and conservative host—punctuated by commercial breaks.

I would sometimes switch to Hardball. Before the ramp up to the Iraq War, Chris Matthews had occasional moments of lucidity, but after Bush turned his attention to Iraq, Mathews reverted to his primal partisan reflexes.

Several factors have rendered Fox increasingly worthless as a news outlet or even news analysis outlet:

i) One-minute interviews. Literally, that’s all they seem to allot now for an interview. I suppose the theory is that a TV audience has such an attenuated attention span that this is all they will sit for.

Actually, what taxes the attention span is when the pace becomes so hectic and choppy that no one can finish a sentence, much less a paragraph. You can’t absorb anything when everyone is talking over everyone else and speaking at the pace of an auctioneer.

ii) Apropos (i) is the two-minute debate. This is where you have the liberal guest and the conservative guest square off for a one-minute debate before the commercial break, following by a one-minute follow up debate after the commercial break, at which point the moderator jumps in and tells the audience that he’s run out of time.

BTW, this excuse is a patent lie. Sure, they may be coming up on hard breaks. But when you have an hour or more for each show, you can hold a guest over for as many segments as you please. You could schedule one or two guests for the whole hour.

iii) Fox has also taken to interrupting its regularly scheduled programs for a “Fox News Alert.”

The idea is that live, “breaking” news is more exciting that the scripted stuff. What this usually consists of is a news conference in which the local sheriff is introducing and congratulating all of the agencies that contributed to the apprehension of the suspect. Or it may be a car chase. Or perhaps an airplane is experiencing technical difficulties. I realize that has some photo-op potential, but why not cut away from regular programming when you actually have something to show.

iv) Apropos (iii), Fox constantly seizes on some essentially local story and blows it up into a national story, which it will run for hour after hour, day after day, week after week, as if it can only report on one thing at a time, and on something which really isn’t a national news story. You know what I mean—a kidnapping or murder or shark-attack.

v) Then you have wall-to-wall cover of a non-event, of what hasn’t happened, but is going to happen, or may possibly happen, or may never happen.

What is Bush going to say in his speech? Who is he going to nominate? What verdict will the jury render?

Of course, the reason for all this is supposedly ratings. But I have to wonder what brain-donor of a TV producer is making the judgment call. Does Fox ever poll its TV audience to find out if that’s really what they want to hear about?

Do they want a scream-fest? Do they want a one-minute interview or a two-minute debate or the pervert of the week? Who is making these editorial decisions?

I get the impression that you have some TV producer who is listening a TV consultant rather than the actual audience. It’s as if they simply intuited that this must be the sort of thing which the average viewer craves to hear and see.

Ultimately, the problem is that Fox, even though it’s coverage is center-right, consists mainly of secular conservatives rather than Christian conservatives. You can tell from their priorities.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Evangelical or Orthodox?


The Three Great Churches: Comparing the Beliefs of Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox

by: Kerby Rials

Orthodox Bishop Timothy Ware writes, “The Orthodox Church has never formally endorsed any particular theory of atonement.” 1
With that said, let us look at the differences between the three great branches of Christianity on salvation (soteriology), followed by an explanation of the Catholic/Orthodox viewpoint, and then an explanation of the Protestant viewpoint.
First it should be noted that any short statement of differences is bound to be a distortion. It is not possible to summarize all the positions on salvation in a few sentences. Nonetheless, in order to help clarify these issues, below are short summations of the major differences:2
1) Catholic/Orthodox teaching says certain works (rituals or sacraments) are needed to be saved. Protestants say sincere faith is all that is needed.
2) Catholic/Orthodox teaching emphasizes the process of salvation. Protestants emphasize salvation as an event.
3) Catholic/Orthodox doctrine speaks little or not at all about assurance of salvation. Protestants teach that we can be sure we are saved.
4) Orthodox doctrine, and to some extent Catholic, often treats justification and sanctification as one thing. In effect, little is said about justification. Protestants treat them separately, and put great emphasis on justification.
5) Catholic/Orthodox leaders say that other things may be required to be saved, such as membership in their churches, use of icons, priests, and gifts and prayers for the dead. Protestants do not believe these are required to be saved.

Difference one: Faith is not enough
As mentioned, Catholic/Orthodox teaching says that belief alone is not enough to be saved, based on James 2:14-26: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? ...You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith without deeds is dead.”
The Catholic Council of Trent condemns those who say that faith alone justifies us to God: “If anyone says...that it is that trust alone by which we are justified: let him be anathema.”3
Orthodox Bishop Timothy Ware says faith plus sacraments save us: “Our salvation is founded first and foremost on baptism and the Eucharist (communion). It also involves the sacrament of confession.”4
Orthodox and Catholic leaders teach that these sacraments, or rituals, change the person, and contribute to his salvation. Without them, they both say, it is impossible to be saved.
“The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation.” (Catholic Catechism 1129)
Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff writes, “These sacraments are ... redeeming man from sin and death and bestowing upon him the glory of immortality.”5
Catholic and Orthodox churches observe seven sacraments, although they differ somewhat from each other.
The Catholic sacraments are:
• Baptism
• Confirmation/Chrismation
• Communion (Eucharist).
• Repentance (penance).
• Ordination.
• Marriage
• Anointing of the sick (formerly called last rites).
The Orthodox sacraments are the same as the Catholic except chrismation replaces confirmation. Chrismation (anointing with oil for receiving the Holy Spirit) occurs during infant baptism, after which the infant is given communion. Catholics do not offer communion, usually, until age 7. (See the chapters on communion and chrismation/confirmation.)
These sacraments, especially baptism, communion and confession, grant salvation: “...A human being ... is introduced to new life by partaking of baptism, chrismation, and holy communion.”6
However, even though the Catholic church states that the sacraments and baptism “are necessary to salvation,” (Catechism, 1277) they also say a person can be saved without baptism in exceptional situations (1281, 1258, 1259): “Those who die for the faith, those who are catechumens, and all those who, without knowing of the Church but acting under the inspiration of grace, seek God sincerely and strive to fulfill his will, are saved even if they have not been baptized.” If a person willingly refuses baptism, however, they will not be saved (1257).

Difference two: Salvation is a process
Catholic and Orthodox doctrine emphasizes the process of salvation, while Protestant teaching more often refers to salvation as an event in time when we were forgiven (justification), followed by the process of becoming holy (sanctification).
Orthodox Bishop Timothy Ware says: “Our salvation is a process...and not a single event...I cannot speak as if its successful termination was already certain and secure, and for that reason.. I prefer to answer, not ‘I am saved,’ but ‘I am being saved.’”7
Catholic doctrine shows this also, referring to baptism as the beginning of the process: “The faith required for baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop... Preparation for baptism leads only to the threshold of new life.” (Catechism 1253,1254).
In both Catholic and Orthodox writings, the concept of salvation as a process is often assumed more than it is spoken of doctrinally.
This may be because salvation as a process naturally follows infant baptism — if the infant is already forgiven and justified before God by baptism, only the process of sanctification remains.
Salvation as an event is rarely seen, as most rely upon their infant baptism and the other sacraments for making them acceptable to God. Most who were baptized as infants cannot look to a certain day (event) when they made a decision to follow Christ, as would be the case if they had made a conscious decision to repent later in life.

Difference three: No assurance of salvation
Perhaps because of the emphasis on salvation as a process, Orthodox doctrine (and to a lesser extent Catholic) tends not to speak about assurance of salvation, until life is over. Protestants, by contrast, emphasize that since their salvation rests wholly on Christ, they can be sure they are going to heaven as long as they continue in repentance and faith. (For a fuller explanation of this topic, see the next chapter: “SALVATION: Can we be sure we are saved?”)

Difference four: Justification combined with sanctification
Orthodox teach that justification (forgiveness) and sanctification (becoming holy) are one process which they call theosis. (See the chapter on theosis.) Bishop Ware says, “...When we Orthodox speak about salvation, we do not have in view any sharp differentiation between justification and sanctification. Indeed, Orthodox usually have little to say about justification as a distinct topic... Orthodoxy links sanctification and justification together, just as St. Paul does in 1 Cor. 6:11: ‘You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ...’” 8
Catholic teaching, while not as strongly stated, also mixes justification (forgiveness of sins) with sanctification (becoming holy): “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” (Catechism 1989)

Difference five: Other factors affecting salvation
1) Some say that a person must be a member in either the Catholic or Orthodox church to be saved. Bishop Ware writes: “The Orthodox Church in all humility believes itself to be the ‘one, holy, Catholic (universal) and Apostolic’ church, of which the Creed speaks.... Many people may be members of the Church who are not visibly so; invisible bonds may exist despite an outward separation..... But there also exists in the Orthodox Church a more rigorous group, who hold that since Orthodoxy is the Church, anyone who is not Orthodox cannot be a member of the Church.” 9
Orthodox Archimandrite Amvrosi agrees: “The Lord did not found many churches. He founded only one Church, only one faith. And these 22,000 sects were not founded by God, but by people, specifically human wanderers. These are not churches, but associations of people. There is no salvation there, no fullness of grace, only the grace of the call to repentance, which exists everywhere... We must keep the faith of Orthodoxy. In her only is there salvation, because the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth.” 10
The Catholic Church, while not as strong in its statements, says similarly that it is the only true church and that full salvation is only through it: “The sole Church of Christ is that which our Savior... entrusted to Peter’s ... care... This Church subsists in the Catholic Church. For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone....that the fullness of salvation can be obtained.” (Catechism, 816)
“The Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation... Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it.” 11
This, however, seems to contradict the following statement in the Catechism (818) stating that non-Catholics can be saved: “All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; They therefore have a right to be called Christians, and...are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”
2) A person can be saved through the prayers or money given for them by others. Catholic and Orthodox leaders accept the apocrypha as scripture, which teaches that money or prayers for the dead can save them:
“For alms doth deliver from death, and shall purge away all sin. Those that exercise alms and righteousness shall be filled with life...” (Tobit 12:9. See also Tobit 4: 8-11, 14:10-11)
“Water will quench a flaming fire, and alms maketh atonement for sin.” (Ecclesiasticus 3:30)
The Orthodox churches, like the Catholic, believe that prayers and good deeds done for the dead, even if they are in hell or purgatory, can result in their salvation: “The usefulness of prayers, public and private (at home), for souls — even if they are in hell — is written about in the lives of the saints and the ascetics, and by the holy Fathers.”12
The Catholic Catechism (1479) says similarly regarding the dead, “one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted.”
Indulgences are the forgiving of punishment for sins in purgatory (“temporal punishments,” — see the chapter on purgatory). They can be obtained from the Catholic church by “works of devotion, penance and charity,” such as praying for them, or asking that they be mentioned in the liturgy or mass by the priest. (Catechism, 1478). (See the chapter on prayer for the dead.)
3) A person can have their sins forgiven by the priest. This is related to the sacrament of penance, but includes the belief that priests have a special power to forgive sins that others don’t. Some go so far as to say that it is impossible to be saved without a priest. (See the chapter on the priesthood).
4) A person must honor or venerate icons or statues in order to be saved.
This statement may be offensive to some Orthodox or Catholics, who may have never heard such a statement. In all fairness, this is a condition to salvation that is rarely or never spoken, but is nonetheless part of official Catholic and Orthodox teaching. This is because both accept the seventh ecumenical council rulings (787 A.D.) as foundational and infallible. (See the chapter on the ecumenical councils.) That council stated, “...We salute the venerable images (icons and statues). We place under anathema those who do not do this.”13 (Anathema means a person is cut off from God and will go to hell unless they repent.)

1 Ware, Timothy, How are we saved?, p. 49
2 Another distinctive of Orthodoxy is an emphasis on salvation as a restoration of a relationship ruined by sin. “ to be viewed not primarily in juridicial terms, as the transgression of a moral code...It is above all else a loss of relationship,” (Ware, How are we saved?” p. 10) Sin in Orthodoxy is not seen as much as offending God as simply falling short of God’s glory. “To sin is first and foremost to miss the mark.” (ibid, p. 8) Catholic and Protestant doctrine puts more emphasis on sin as an offense to God, and salvation as atoning for those offenses through Christ’s death. Protestants agree that salvation is a restoration of a lost relationship with God, but also believe the Bible stresses juridicial salvation. Col. 2:14 says: “... having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 1 John 4:10 says: “...He loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 1 Peter 3:18 illustrates both the reconciliation and atonement: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”
3 Session 6, “Decree on Justification,” canon 12.
4 Ware, How are we saved?, p. 79
5 Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, p. 19, as cited in Biola report.
6 Ibid, 192-193
7 Ware, How are we saved? p. 6, 7, 14
8 Ibid, p. 66
9 Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 315-317
10 O vere i spacenii (About Faith and Salvation), p. 42
11 Second Vatican Council, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”, no. 14
12 U Boga vse zhivi (With God all are alive), Akafist, p. 17
13 Nicene/Post Nicene Fathers, Ser. 2, Vol. 14, p. 1326-1327
14 The Gospel According to Rome, p. 50


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.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy

A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy
by Jack D. Kinneer

During my studies at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, I was often asked by students, "Are you Orthodox?" It always felt awkward to be asked such a question. I thought of myself as doctrinally orthodox. I was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. So I thought I could claim the word orthodox.

But I did not belong to the communion of churches often called Eastern Orthodox, but more properly called simply Orthodox. I was not Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Antiochian Orthodox. As far as the Orthodox at St. Vladimir’s were concerned, I was not Orthodox, regardless of my agreement with them on various doctrines.

My studies at St. Vladimir’s allowed me to become acquainted with Orthodoxy and to become friends with a number of Orthodox professors, priests, and seminarians. My diploma was even signed by Metropolitan Theodosius, the head of the Orthodox Church in America. From the Metropolitan to the seminarians, I was received kindly and treated with respect and friendliness.

I am not the only Calvinist to have become acquainted with Orthodoxy in recent years. Sadly, a number have not only made the acquaintance, but also left the Reformed faith for Orthodoxy. What is Orthodoxy and what is its appeal to some in the Reformed churches?

The Appeal of Orthodoxy

Since the days of the apostles, there have been Christian communities in such ancient cities as Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Corinth in Greece. In such places, the Christian church grew, endured the tribulation of Roman persecution, and ultimately prevailed when the Roman Empire was officially converted to Christianity. But, unlike Christians in the western half of the Roman Empire, the eastern Christians did not submit to the claims of the bishop of Rome to be the earthly head of the entire church. And why should they have done so? The centers of Orthodox Christianity were as old as, or even older than, the church in Rome. All the great ecumenical councils took place in the East and were attended overwhelmingly by Christian leaders from the East, with only a smattering of representatives from the West. Indeed, most of the great theologians and writers of the ancient church (commonly called the Church Fathers) were Greek-speaking Christians in the East.

The Orthodox churches have descended in an unbroken succession of generations from these ancient roots. As the Orthodox see it, the Western church followed the bishop of Rome into schism (in part by adding a phrase to the Nicene Creed). So, from their perspective, we Protestants are the product of a schism off a schism. The Orthodox believe that they have continued unbroken the churches founded by the apostles. They allow that we Reformed may be Christians, but our churches are not part of the true church, our ordinations are not valid, and our sacraments are no sacraments at all.

The apparently apostolic roots of Orthodoxy provide much of its appeal for some evangelical Protestants. Furthermore, it is not burdened with such later Roman Catholic developments as the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences, the immaculate conception of Mary, and her assumption into heaven. Orthodoxy is ancient; it is unified in a way that Protestantism is not; it lacks most of the medieval doctrines and practices that gave rise to the Reformation. This gives it for many a fascinating appeal.

Part of that appeal is the rich liturgical heritage of Orthodoxy, with its elaborate liturgies, its glorious garbing of the clergy, and its gestures, symbols, and icons. If it is true that the distinctive mark of Reformed worship is simplicity, then even more so is glory the distinctive mark of Orthodox worship. Another appealing aspect of Orthodox worship is its otherness. It is mysterious, sensual, and, as the Orthodox see it, heavenly. Orthodox worship at its best makes you feel like you have been transported into one of the worship scenes in the book of Revelation. Of course, if the priest chants off-key or the choir sings poorly, it is not quite so wonderful.

There are many other things that could be mentioned, but I’ve mentioned the things that have particularly struck me. These are also the things that converts from Protestantism say attracted them.

The Shortcomings of Orthodoxy

So then, is this Orthodox Presbyterian about to drop the "Presbyterian" and become simply Orthodox? No! In my estimation, the shortcomings of Orthodoxy outweigh its many fascinations. A comparison of the Reformed faith with the Orthodox faith would be a massive undertaking, made all the more difficult because Orthodoxy has no doctrinal statement comparable to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Orthodoxy is the consensus of faith arising from the ancient Fathers and the ecumenical councils. This includes the forty-nine volumes of the Ante- and Post-Nicene Fathers, plus the writings of the hermits and monastics known collectively as the Desert Fathers! It would take an entire issue of New Horizons just to outline the topics to be covered in a comparison of Orthodoxy and Reformed Christianity. So the following comments are selective rather than systematic.

First, in my experience, the Orthodox do not understand justification by faith. Some reject it. Others tolerate it, but no one I met or read seemed to really understand it. Just as Protestants can make justification the whole (rather than the beginning) of the gospel, so the Orthodox tend to make sanctification (which they call "theosis" or deification) the whole gospel. In my estimation, this is a serious defect. It weakens the Orthodox understanding of the nature of saving faith.

Orthodoxy also has a real problem with nominal members. Many Orthodox Christians have a very inadequate understanding of the gospel as Orthodoxy understands it. Their religion is often so intertwined with their ethnicity that being Russian or Greek becomes almost synonymous with being Orthodox. This is, by the way, a critique I heard from the lips of Orthodox leaders themselves. This is not nearly as serious a problem in Reformed churches because our preaching continually stresses the necessity for a personal, intimate trusting, receiving, and resting upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Such an emphasis is blurred among the Orthodox.

Second, the Orthodox have a very inadequate understanding of sovereign grace. It is not fair to say that they are Pelagians. (Pelagius was a Western Christian who denied original sin and taught that man’s will is free to choose good.) But they are definitely not Augustinians (Calvinists) on sin and grace. In a conversation with professors and doctoral students about the nature of salvation, I quoted Ezekiel 36:26–27 as showing that there is a grace of God that precedes faith and enables that human response. One professor said in response, "I never thought of that verse in that way before." The Orthodox have not thought a lot about sin, regeneration, election, and so forth. Their view of original sin (a term which they avoid) falls far short of the teaching of Paul. Correspondingly, their understanding of Christ’s atonement and God’s calling is weak as well. Their views could best be described as undeveloped. If you want to see this for yourself, read Chrysostom on John 6:44–45, and then read Calvin on the same passage.

Third, the Orthodox are passionately committed to the use of icons (flat images of Christ, Mary, or a saint) in worship. Indeed, the annual Feast of Orthodoxy celebrates the restoration of icons to the churches at the end of the Iconoclast controversy (in a.d. 843). For the Orthodox, the making and venerating of icons is the mark of Orthodoxy—showing that one really believes that God the Son, who is consubstantial with the Father, became also truly human. Since I did not venerate icons, I was repeatedly asked whether or not I really believed in the Incarnation. The Orthodox are deeply offended at the suggestion that their veneration of icons is a violation of the second commandment. But after listening patiently to their justifications, I am convinced that whatever their intentions may be, their practice is not biblical. However, our dialogue on the subject sent me back to the Bible to study the issue in a way that I had not done before. The critique I would offer now is considerably different than the traditional Reformed critique of the practice.

Finally, many of the Orthodox tend to have a lower view of the Bible than the ancient Fathers had. At least at St. Vladimir’s, Orthodox scholars have been significantly influenced by higher-critical views of Scripture, especially as such views have developed in contemporary Roman Catholic scholarship. This is, however, a point of controversy among the Orthodox, just as it is among Catholics and Protestants. Orthodoxy also has its divisions between liberals and conservatives. But even those who are untainted by higher-critical views rarely accord to Scripture the authority that it claims for itself or which was accorded to it by the Fathers. The voice of Scripture is largely limited to the interpretations of Scripture found in the Fathers.

There is much else to be said. Orthodoxy is passionately committed to monasticism. Its liturgy includes prayers to Mary. And the Divine Liturgy, for all its antiquity, is the product of a long historical process. If you want to follow the "liturgy" that is unquestionably apostolic, then partake of the Lord’s Supper, pray the Lord’s Prayer, sing "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs," and say "amen," "hallelujah," and "maranatha." Almost everything else in any liturgy is a later adaptation and development.

A Concluding Assessment

But these criticisms do not mean that we have nothing to learn from Orthodoxy. Just as the Orthodox have not thought a lot about matters that have consumed us (such as justification, the nature of Scripture, sovereign grace, and Christ’s work on the cross), so we have not thought a lot about what have been their consuming passions: the Incarnation, the meaning of worship, the soul’s perfection in the communicable attributes of God (which they call the energies of God), and the disciplines by which we grow in grace. Let us have the maturity to keep the faith as we know it, and to learn from others where we need to learn.

Orthodoxy in many ways fascinates me, but it does not claim my heart nor stir my soul as does the Reformed faith. My firsthand exposure to Orthodoxy has left me all the more convinced that on the essential matters of human sin, divine forgiveness, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice, the Reformed faith is the biblical faith. I would love to see my Orthodox friends embrace a more biblical understanding of these matters. And I am grieved when Reformed friends sacrifice this greater good for the considerable but lesser goods of Orthodox liturgy and piety.

Dr. Kinneer is the director of Echo Hill Christian Study Center in Indian Head, Pa.

Protestantism is out!

"I do think Jordan is right, though, that Calvinism (and perhaps even Protestantism) is out," Tim Enloe.

Okay, Enloe has already denied that he's an Evangelical. Now he denies that he's either a Calvinist or even a Protestant.

The word "Catholicity" has an inclusive ring to it. A big tent affair.

But when you peel away the label and look underneath, nothing could be more provincial.

"Societas Christiana" also has a big airy sound to it. That's before you discover that his discussion board has, at last count, all of 15 registered members.

Perhaps he should rename his blog Societas Minutiana.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Holy war

Is holy war relevant to the church age? Many Christians simply relegate the category of holy war to the old dispensation. Little or no argument is ever offered beyond the invidious contrast between law and grace, or nationalism and evangelism.

Another popular objection is that, unlike the Jews, we have no direct divine command to wage holy war on our neighbors.

But all this is far too facile. So what are the pros and cons of this issue?

The first question is how we should broach the issue. A. A. Hodge offers one criterion:
“A careful examination of the reason of the law will afford us good ground of judgment as to its perpetuity. If the original reason for its enactment is universal and permanent, and the law has never been explicitly repealed, then the law abides in force” The Confession of Faith (Banner of Truth 1983), 255.

So what is the causus belli for holy war in the OT?
“They would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods…You are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the people on the face of the earth” (Deut 7:4,6; ESV).

On the face of it, this causus belli would seem to be germane to the church age. Just as members of the OT covenant community were tempted by unbelievers to forsake the faith, this also happens in the life of the church.

In addition, just as the Jewish nation was consecrated to God, so is the church. V6 goes back to Exod 19:5-6, as a preamble to the Decalogue.

Perhaps, though, Deuteronomy has ritual purity or cultic holiness is view. If so, that would belong to the types and shadows of the ceremonial law. Yet this sort of language is reproduced in the NT (Rom 11:16; 1 Cor 7:14; 1 Pet 2:5,9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).

Another possible objection is that holy war presupposes the land-promises (Deut 20:16-18). Yet the precise force of this objection depends, in part, on your eschatology. For a postmil, the land-promises are expanded and extended to the NT church.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the amil is right. This would not automatically abrogate the underlying reason for holy war. Rather, it would merely mean that, in adapting the law to our own time and circumstances, certain adjustments must be made. But recontextualizing the message is often necessary when we apply the Bible to our own situation.

In the minds of many, the hallmark of holy war is the “ban” (Heb.=”herem”), according to which all POWs were put to the sword—women and children included.

But the ban was a tactical means to a higher end, not an end in itself. It was simply one way of securing a strategic objective, and not the essence of holy war. The guiding principle is spiritual separation.

Even in Deuteronomy itself, provision is made for resident aliens (e.g., Deut 1:16; 5:14; 10:18-19; 14:21,29; 16:11,14; 23:7; 24:17-21; 26:11-13; 27:19; 28:43-44; 29:11; 31:12). So the separation was not absolute.

What we have here is similar to the Christian balance between consociation (1 Cor 5:10), which is allowed, and fellowship (2 Cor 6:14-7:1), which is disallowed.

The underlying principle was written into the Westminster Confession, when the following duties were assigned to the magistrate:
“That the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies are suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered and observed” (WCF 23:3).

The methods by which his duties are discharged are left to the discretion of the magistrate. In addition, unbelievers are under no compulsion to act like believers. Rather, they are only restrained from openly opposing the religious establishment—just as citizens of one country residing in another land are subject to the laws of the host country.

Here, the force of law is proscriptive, not prescriptive. Unbelievers are not commanded to do certain things, but forbidden from doing certain things.

And this, I suggest, is the sense in which OT holy war is still applicable under the New Covenant. Those that resist should be deported—just as OT apostates were exiled from the community of faith.

Federal revisionism

Jim Jordan has been writing of late about the Federal Vision. Since he probably has the best mind of the bunch, he’s a good candidate to take as one’s representative for purposes of exposition and analysis. I’ll begin by excerpting what I find most important in what he’s written on the subject:


But because Wright does not say everything precisely the way these sectarians are used to hearing it, he is regarded with deep suspicion and even as an enemy of Biblical religion.


He [an ordinand] could say that pitting good works against grace was not true to the genius of the Reformed faith, or to the Bible. He could point out that there is no “merit theology” in the Bible. He could say that he preferred to speak of being united to the whole risen Christ rather than speak in the abstract about an imputed righteousness separated from that union.

But, that’s to be expected. As I maintained in Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future, the Protestant age is coming to an end. That means that the Reformed faith and Presbyterianism are also coming to an end. The paradigm is exhausted, and the world in which it was worked out no longer exists. We must take all the great gains of the Calvinistic heritage and apply them with an open Bible to the new world in which we are now living. We must be aware that there is far more in the Bible than the Reformation dealt with, and that many of our problems today are addressed by those hitherto unnoticed or undeveloped aspects of the Bible. Those who want to bang the drum for a 450-year old tradition are dooming themselves to irrelevance. Our only concern is to avoid being beat up by them as they thrash about in their death-throes.


For some reason mysterious to me, the association of the FV speakers with the NPP has stuck, even though there are no grounds for it. Those of us being called FV have been discussing these issues for 25 years, long before any of us had ever heard of Tom Wright. Almost all the issues that are being shrieked about were set out in writings published by me and my associates at Geneva Ministries during the 1980s in issues of the journal Christianity and Civilization.

To be sure, people interested in renewing covenant theology have read N.T. Wright, James Dunn, Jakob van Bruggen, and others who write in the NPP vein. We have also read David Yaego and Tuomo Mannermaa and the other Finnish writers who have been reinvestigating Martin Luther. But that does not put us into the pocket of the New Finnish School, any more than reading Alexander Schmemann makes us Russian Orthodox, or reading The Banner of Truth or Modern Reformation makes us Baptists, or reading First Things makes us Roman Catholics.

This is olde hatte for me. During the 1980s, when I was involved with Geneva Ministries in Tyler, Texas, we used to recommend Alexander Schmemann’s remarkable book For the Life of the World. Since, being Calvinists, we differed with a few things in the book, we included a short reader’s guide with the copies we sold. But predictably it was not long before certain churlish voices were raised around the country accusing me and others of being “on the road to Eastern Orthodoxy.” Similarly, when it became known that we were singing the ancient hymns of the Church in our worship in Tyler, the same infantile voices accused us of being “on the road to Rome.” Curiously (duh!) it’s the same people who led the attack on the AAPC Conversation.

It’s time for certain people to grow up.

But the main problem that is generating controversy is actually fairly well put by the Mississippi Valley report: “Proponents of the FV identify themselves as Reformed. Most appeal to the writings of the sixteenth century Reformers in support of their views. Many regard the Reformed thought of the British Puritan and American Presbyterian traditions to have capitulated to the Enlightenment, what is termed revivalism, and what is termed baptistic theology.”

Well, that’s about right. The Protestant Reformation in all its branches was a sacramental, liturgical, musical, and bibliocratic movement. Prior to the Reformation, people attended the Lord’s Supper once a year, if that. For Calvin and the other reformers, Jesus had promised to meet objectively with His people at His table, and so all the reformers believed very strongly in weekly communion, and they strove to implement it.

They believed in baptismal regeneration. They understood by “regeneration” a new life in the kingdom of God, in the church, not a kind of permanent internal change in the heart (which is how “regeneration” later came to be understood). For Calvin, “regeneration” is pretty much a synonym for sanctification.

About a century later, however, came what those who liked it called the “Second Reformation” in Scottish, English, and Dutch Calvinism. Supposedly this reformation completed what was lacking in the original one. In fact it was to a considerable extent a Medieval reaction against the Reformation. To be sure, the Puritans and others did not go back to the idolatries of the Middle Ages, but they did reject musical and liturgical worship, seeking to restore the almost complete passivity of the Medieval worshiper. And within a generation or so, those in these movements had settled into a kind of church-only pietism that ignored bibliocratic national reform. And later on, these same movements wound up in the kind of anti-sacramentalism that came to characterize 18th, 19th, and 20th century Calvinism.


The "vacuum" (to use Dr. Fesko's term) created by removing the "active obedience" of Jesus is "filled" by the imputation of Jesus' post-resurrection Spiritual life. Our obedience does not stem from some kind of union with Jesus' pre-cross life, but from being in union with His glorified life.

A Response to "The Federal Vision and the Covenant of Works," A Lecture by Dr. J. V. Fesko.


By way of comment:

1.Absent further explanation, I don’t find his comments about N. T. Wright convincing.

It may be that some of the elder statesmen of the FV movement have been thinking along the same lines before Wright came on the scene. But they, or the younger generation, also seem to find in him a very congenial source of supporting arguments.

Tim Enloe, for one, has a list of Federal revisionists who expound and defend N. T. Wright at length.

Why would they bother to do that if his connection with the FV movement is as tangential as Jordan makes it out to be?

Moreover, as Jordan well knows, wasn’t Wright a keynote speaker at this years Auburn Avenue Pastor's Conference?

Furthermore, to say that Wright is viewed with hostility in Reformed confessional circles simply because he “does not say everything precisely the way these sectarians are used to hearing it” doesn’t strike me, for one, as either an accurate or candid statement of the differences at issue.

The new perspective has a completely different take on the doctrine of justification. Bishop Wright has no use for imputed righteousness. And how anyone can read his commentary on Romans and still refer to him as a “Calvinistic Anglican” (“Misusing the Westminster Confession”) is hard to credit.

If Jordan is trying to be persuasive, he has a whole lot more explaining to do. As it stands, what he says about the relationship between the Federal Vision and the new perspective savors of special pleading.

2.It appears that Jordan himself rejects imputed righteousness. This is a central plank in the Westminster doctrine of justification.

In its place, Jordan talks about “the imputation of Jesus' post-resurrection Spiritual life.” That doesn’t sound like any form of imputation to me. Rather, it sounds like some form of infusion or impartation—sanctification. One wonders why he continues to use the word “imputation,” unless it’s for tactical reasons. But perhaps he can explain himself.

3.I also don’t know where he draws the line on “merit theology.” I agree that merit plays no role in Adam’s relation to God—much less the relation of fallen man to God.

But does Jordan still have a place for merit in the work of Christ? Does Christ merit our salvation?

4.I recall reading that, sometime before his death, David Chilton seriously contemplated conversion to the Orthodox Church.

When Paul Owen says that we’re still under the Pope, and when Tim Enloe cozies up to the Crowhill crowd, maybe their not really Romeward bound, but I see nothing wrong with pointing out the direction in which they’re moving—even if they don’t go all the way.

I’d add that there’s more than one worse case scenario. To judge by what David Chilton had to say in “Ecclesiastical Megalomania,” the Tyler Church was just as bad in its own way.

5.Jordan chooses to define or redefine baptismal regeneration as baptismal sanctification, which he traces back to Calvin.

i) It is misleading to use Confessional language contrary to Confessional usage. If he and others (Paul Owen?) are going to substitute a more primitive import, that needs to be stated at the outset.

ii) They also need to admit right up front that their position on this and other issues—such as sola fide—is counter-confessional.

iii) From a Reformed Baptist standpoint, baptismal sanctification is just as objectionable as baptismal regeneration. In fact, it seems to be an intensification of baptismal regeneration—a front-loaded version of sanctification.

6.It also looks increasingly like the Reformed Catholics and Federal revisionists have been using Reformed Baptists as a stalking horse to distract attention away from the real target.

What Jordan is proposing appears to be nothing short of a theological revolution:

“The Reformed faith and Presbyterianism are also coming to an end. The paradigm is exhausted”;

“About a century later, however, came what those who liked it called the “Second Reformation” in Scottish, English, and Dutch Calvinism. Supposedly this reformation completed what was lacking in the original one. In fact it was to a considerable extent a Medieval reaction against the Reformation.”

In other words, he and other like-minded individuals are repudiating the Puritan tradition, the Reformed Baptist tradition (London Baptist Confession), the Westminster Assembly, and the Synod of Dordt, as well—I suppose, as Welsh Calvinist Methodism. That is to be swept aside for something both older (e.g. Calvin, Bucer) and newer (e.g., N. T. Wright).

So this isn’t a fight between “sectarians” or “radical Baptists” or Joe Morecraft, on the one hand, and Old School Presbyterians, on the other.

I agree with Jordan that these debates should come down to sound exegesis. But let us be clear on what is at stake.

And I hope he won’t be so condescending as to suppose that adherence to sola fide or imputed righteousness is motivated by nothing more than blind creedalism.

7.Jordan also says that the Westminster Standards have been misused because they’ve been put to a use to which they were not originally intended:

“The writers were not under the illusion that their document could substitute for the decisions of the living Church…The Standards would he used as a guideline, and an important and necessary guideline, but would not substitute for the decisions of individual presbyteries of dioceses in the national church…if a presbytery were convinced that a man was a sound pastor, fit for ministry, they would not be bound to insist that he subscribe to every jot and tittle of the Confession, only that he agree to live under it.”

This may all be true, but he misses the irony of his own appeal. If various Reformed denominations, seminaries, colleges, and other suchlike choose to adapt the Westminster Standards to a different use than was originally foreseen by the framers, then that, of itself, represents a decision of the living Church.

I agree with him that there is more to the Bible than the Reformed confessions. But is there less to the Bible than the Reformed confessions?

Jordan is a man of principle. So I’m sure that he is able and willing to offer principled answers to principled questions and objections.

Intellectual suicide?

Today, Dave Armstrong posted the following comment on my blog:

“Why am I required to debate people who holds positions that I consider intellectually suicidal and the height of absurdity?”

This is his justification for refusing to debate with “anti-Catholics.”

Notice the viciously circular character of the appeal. It assumes what it needs to prove, i.e., there is no need to argue with “anti-Catholics” because “anti-Catholicism” is intellectually suicidal. But what is the argument for the thesis that “anti-Catholicism” is intellectually suicidal?

And even if he had such an argument, what about the counterarguments? There is more to apologetics that simply saying: “here’s my argument: take it or leave it.”

That’s is only the preliminary step in apologetics. The next step is to entertain objections and rebut them.

So, what is his argument?


Open Letter to Anti-Catholics

I would say that the "anti-Catholic" position, which maintains that Protestantism is Christian while Catholicism is not, is self-defeating, incoherent, and intellectually dishonest, if thought through properly (which is rarely the case). I never had this outlook as a Protestant for these very reasons. Among the many insuperable difficulties of anti-Catholicism:

1) The Canon of the Bible was determined by the Catholic Church. Thus, sola Scriptura necessarily requires a Tradition and Catholic (conciliar and papal) authority - not to mention the preservation of Bible manuscripts by monks.

2) At what moment did Catholicism become apostate? At John's death? In 313? With Gregory the Great and the ascendancy of papal power? In the "Dark Ages" of c.800-1100? With the Inquisition or Crusades? Or at the Council of Trent? And how can anyone know for sure when?

3) 23,000 denominations and the scandalous organizational anarchy, schism, and theological relativism inherent therein virtually disproves Protestantism in and of itself.

4) Protestantism has only been around for 483 years!

5) Protestantism inconsistently and dishonestly appeals selectively to Catholic Church Fathers such as (above all) St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, St. Ignatius, St. Irenaeus, St. Justin Martyr (and also later Catholics such as St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas a Kempis).

6) Likewise, it inconsistently appeals to Church Councils which it likes (generally the first four) and ignores the rest, on questionable theological and ecclesiological grounds.

7) Development of doctrine is accepted to an extent, but then incoherently rejected where it leads to un-Protestant conclusions. This is largely what made me a Catholic, after reading Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.


Let’s run back through this sevenfold argument in the same numerical sequence.

1.The Canon

i) In what sense was the canon determined by the church? And in what sense was the canon determined by the Roman Catholic church, rather than, say, the Orthodox Church?

It wasn’t until the Council of Trent,, in reaction to the Protestant Reformation, that the extraordinary magisterium even got around to “determining” the canon.

ii) What does it mean to “determine” the canon? Are the books of the Bible intrinsically canonical or only extrinsically canonical? If intrinsically canonical, then they don’t require the services of the an external authority to authorize their canonicity. At most, the acknowledgement of the church would be a formal recognition of their intrinsic canonicity. It adds nothing to the canon except to defer to the canon.

If, on the other hand, they are only extrinsically canonical, then it is simply by some arbitrary ecclesiastical fiat that certain books were canonized and others not. In principle, more books or fewer books could have been canonized. There is nothing authoritative in the book itself.

iii) I myself have argued for the canon on the basis of intertextuality.

iv) Textual transmission has nothing to do with sola Scriptura as a rule of faith.

2. Apostasy

Dave is posing a trick question. There is no magic moment when the RCC became apostate. Institutional apostasy is a gradual process. Up to a point, the remnant preserves the institutional church. But the process certainly accelerated with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.


i) The “23,000” figure is a rubbery statistic.

ii) It also fails to distinguish between a given theological tradition and a given denomination. That often involves a one-to-many relation. We should be counting theological traditions, not denominations.

iii) I’d rather have a plethora of denominations, some good and some bad, rather than one great big apostate church.

iv) Catholicism is just one more denomination among many.

v) There was a great diversity of Jewish sects in the 1C. If God didn’t feel the need for a magisterium under the OT to keep doctrinal diversity in check, why is it necessary under the NT?

vi) The reason we have a lot of denominations is because we no longer have an Inquisition to compel submission. Is Dave waxing nostalgic for the rack and the thumbscrews?

4.A Theological Innovation.

i) Protestantism is part of a theological continuum, just as Catholicism is part of a theological continuum. In both cases, there are continuities as well as discontinuities with the past. How long has Trent been around? How long as Vatican II been around?

5.Church Fathers.

i) A selective appeal to the church fathers or church doctors is only inconsistent or dishonest if this were an argument from authority rather than an argument from the truth. There is nothing inconsistent or dishonest about appealing to those you happen to agree with when they have a good argument, and ignoring those you disagree with—unless you’re mounting an argument from authority.

ii) Another reason the Reformers appealed to tradition was to expose the fact that the Catholic church was very selective in her own appeal to the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

iii) Is the Orthodox Church inconsistent and dishonest because it favors the Greek Fathers over the Latin Fathers?

6.Church Councils

i) Same argument as (5). A selective appeal to the church councils is only inconsistent or dishonest if this were an argument from authority rather than an argument from the truth. There is nothing inconsistent or dishonest about appealing to councils you happen to agree with when they happen to get it right, and ignoring those you disagree with—unless, again, you’re mounting an argument from authority.

ii) Ironically, this is a good argument against Anglo-Catholicism, not anti-Catholicism.

iii) Is the Orthodox Church inconsistent and dishonest because it draws the line at the first 7 councils?

7.Development of Doctrine

Here, Armstrong is guilty of equivocation. Evangelicals affirm the progress of dogma when it draws from Scripture what was there all along, consistent with original intent and logical implication.

That is quite different from the Catholic development of doctrine, itself a theological innovation, in which original intent is abrogated and elementary canons of logical consistency, much less implication, are violated.

Damning at the drop of a hat


People don't want to follow such a system (a worldview which would damn Billy Graham and James Dobson at the drop of a hat). They want something positive and uplifting.


Armstrong is painting with quite a broad-brush here. When he speaks of “damning” Dobson and Graham, I don’t know if he’s speaking literally or figuratively.

It is true that I and others are quite critical of aspects of their theology.

But I, for one, am certainly not damning these two individuals to hell. I have no reason to doubt that both of them are genuine Christian believers.

Graham, in particular, although he has a long track-record of foolish statements which he has to retract the next day, is a very godly and saintly man. He’s a model of Christian piety, but not a model of Christian theology. I could say the same about Moody. The same may also be true of Dobson, but I've had less exposure to him that to Graham.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

More & more about less & less


And so, quite consistently, I have made exceptions in some cases. I attempted to discuss why I decided not to try to dialogue with anti-Catholics (because that was not a theological debate but merely a clarification), with your big buddy Steve Hays, but he refused to interact with my reasoning

When you are an anti-Catholic and find yourself unable to reply to rational, fact-based, documented arguments (often with the aid of Protestant scholars) from a Romanist . . .oops, Catholic . . . ooops, ROMAN Catholic, what do you DO? Well, that's easy! You flee for the hills in terror and insult the Papist and make out that he is a highly disturbed individual, etc. (IOW, massive use of the ad hominem fallacy, complete with repeatedly insulting comic book graphics), and then ultimately ask your readers if you should ban said person from your environs. This is an old story, folks: I've observed it firsthand in Svendsen, White, Engwer, Webster, King, Hays, Ankerberg: all the leading anti-Catholic "lights" - as soon as they run out of "answers".


Thus far I’ve chosen to sit out Armstrong’s temper tantrum over Frank Turk, in large part because it’s all so incredibly trivial, and in small part because it’s only tangentially about me.

But since it’s getting too late to write anything serious, I’ll indulge myself in a few comments.

i) I don’t know of another man who has such an inexhaustible capacity for going on and on about absolutely nothing.

The historical etymology of “anti-Catholic” is irrelevant to this debate. All that’s relevant is Armstrong’s self-serving usage.

ii) The record will show that I did interact with Armstrong’s diversionary tactic by exposing it for the diversionary tactic that it was.

What I refuse to interact with is a Catholic epologist who wants to “reason” about his own precious motives instead of reasoning about Catholicism.

iii) To my knowledge, I’ve always been consistent in my use of synonyms, employing “Catholic,” “Romanist,” “papist,” “popery” and the like interchangeably for purposes of stylistic variety and euphony.

My usage isn’t normative for anyone else.

Armstrong is of the stated view that you should call folks whatever they want to be called. I disagree. We should call people what they are. I value truthful speech over PC speech.

Mohammedans prefer to be called Muslims. Mormons prefer to be called Christians. Sodomites prefer to be called gay or families. Witches prefer to be called Wiccans. Arab terrorists and suicide-bombers prefer to be called martyrs and Palestinians. Illegal aliens prefer to be called undocumented workers. Hyperpreterists prefer to be called full preterists. Abortionists prefer to be called health-care providers. And so it goes.

I’d just note that Armstrong’s ecclesiastical superiors do not play by Armstrong’s own rules.

For example, they refuse to dub any Protestant denomination a “church.” They reserve that term for their own communion and analogous denominations.

According to the Vatican Fathers, the Lutherans don’t have a real church. The Baptists don’t have a real church. The Presbyterians don’t have a real church. Instead, we’re merely “ecclesial communities.”

BTW, I, as a Calvinist, have no hesitation in calling a Lutheran denomination like WELS or LCMS a church. I don’t consider it any less a church than some Reformed denomination like the OPC or PCA.

Now, the Vatican Fathers aren’t trying to be offensive. They have a principled reason for their linguistic discrimination: they view the Church of Rome as the only true church, although they extend their penumbra over the Orthodox Church and other suchlike.

I’m not offended by this linguistic discrimination. But, by the same token, I have an equally principled reason for my own usage.

iv) Finally, I understand why Armstrong doesn’t find me especially likable.

But he’s exactly the same way with nice, polite guys like Steve Jackson and Jason Engwer. When you’re not nice to those who are nice to you, then you forfeit any right to take umbrage when others treat you the way you treat them.