Thursday, August 15, 2019

"Protestantism is not a church"

I'm going to comment on something by an Eastern Orthodox apologist:

The EO/evangelical debate is underdeveloped on both sides compared to traditional debates like the Catholic/Protestant debate, the Calvinist/Arminian debate, &c., because evangelicalism wasn't a contender in the East while EO wasn't a contender in the west. So it's useful to engage EO arguments from time to since since that's the trail less taken. I won't comment on everything he says because some of his objections are identical to Catholic objections, and I've discussed those ad nauseam. 

He's interacting with a document called “Reforming Catholic Confession”. I might agree with some of his criticisms, but that just means I disagree with how the “Reforming Catholic Confession” frames certain issues. I can disagree with both of them: Eastern Orthodoxy and the “Reforming Catholic Confession” alike. 

I thought about that last month, when something called the “Reforming Catholic Confession” was released...As I read about that, it occurred to me that here was a useful moment to discuss what really is the biggest problem with Protestantism—it simply is not a Church.

Depending on how you define the "church," there's a sense in which that's true. It's not a church but a family of faith traditions which find expression in ecclesial communities. That's only a "big problem" if you use EO as the yardstick, but since that's not the Protestant yardstick, it's not a "big problem" from a Protestant perspective. 

This confession is actually not about unity in canonical order nor even unity in doctrine, and even if it were, it is explicitly non-binding. It is therefore not really like the creeds of the Ecumenical Councils, which really were about canonical and dogmatic unity. What is the difference? The Ecumenical Councils set boundaries and actually anathematized those who did not sign on to them.

There's no particular point in anathematizing those who don't sign on to them unless there's something to back up the anathema. If it's just a juicy word, what difference does that make?

This confession basically passes over these problems in silence, but isn’t it pretty important whether or not one really is eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ or just a symbol thereof? Or what about baptismal regeneration? 

If the eucharist "just is a symbol," then the fact that you're not really is eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ is unimportant. If the eucharist "just is a symbol," then you weren't supposed to be eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, so the fact that you're not means it's doing what it was designed to do. Same thing with baptism. 

This confession, despite its similarity to those creeds and to historical Reformation confessions, is actually of that modern genre of Protestantism, the “agreed statement.” Agreed statements are fine, of course, if you’re willing to accept the limitations of what they’re actually for. They basically say, “Hey, we agree on the following things.” But agreeing on things is not the same thing as doctrinal unity, and it definitely does not make for a common canonical order. 

It's doctrinal unity for those who agree with it. And that's true for EO creeds. 

I join with the authors in lamenting the disunity of Protestantism, but I am amazed that they’re not only not willing to suggest a path toward unity (even among Protestants) but continue to affirm that which disunifies Protestants to begin with, that they do not really believe in a catholic Christian faith.

I don't lament the disunity since God could eliminate doctrinal disunity if he wanted to. The fact that he doesn't means that doctrinal disunity serves a purpose in God's economy. 

Here, the first four Ecumenical Councils (why only those?) are held to be authoritative, “orthodox,” representing a “catholic consensus,” but they are normative only if they are “true to Scripture.” But whose reading of Scripture? Not the councils’, surely, because they’re the ones under scrutiny. So we are left with councils whose authority to tell you how to interpret Scripture is binding only if they are found (by whom? me?) to be true to Scripture. We have to assume that Ecumenical Councils 5-7 are just the “traditions of men.” But who says so? The constitution of those councils is made on the very same basis as the first four.

i) There's nothing illogical about saying the ecumenical creeds are derivatively rather than intrinsically authoritative.

ii) It is true, though, that this reflects evangelical inertia. Singling out the first four ecumenical creeds is somewhat arbitrary, and there's a kind of circularity in the way high-church Protestants appeal to tradition to oppose "biblicism". Their position is apt to be ad hoc and unstable. 

Prior to modern Protestant ecclesiology, the Church (however perceived) could actually tell you if you were wrong about the Bible. 

Only if we take EO ecclesiology for granted. So that's unpersuasive. Indeed, it makes no attempt to be persuasive. It simply begs the question. 

But in this vision, who can tell you that? 

That's a classic example of how Catholics and Eastern Orthodox miscast the issue. It's not a question of who tells you something, but which position has reason and evidence on its side.

You could theoretically reject Nicea itself (which predates the canon of the New Testament) if it is found not to be true to Scripture, and this despite the fact that those who canonized the Scripture were already adherents of the Nicene creed and no doubt had that in mind as they produced their canonical lists.

i) There's some equivocation here. The Council of Nicea doesn't predate the books of the NT. 

ii) We don't require someone's list of books. We can examine the candidates and the evidence for the candidates for ourselves.  

The glaring omission here is any reference to the Church as the “pillar and ground [or foundation] of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). There is not even a reference to the Church’s authority to “bind and loose” (Matt. 16:19, 18:18) in forgiving sins. I understand that Protestants haven’t simply missed those verses and have their own interpretations of them, but these clear statements in Scripture about the authority of the Church ought at least to be interpreted in some way in an article on the Church. 

i) So he rolls out his prooftexts, which he says are "clear statements". But in that event, we do need "the Church to actually tell you if you were wrong about the Bible"?

ii) 1 Tim 3:15 says nothing about the "authority" of the church, much less its authority to forgive sins. It uses two architectural metaphors, which need to be deciphered. 

iii) Mt 16:19 doesn't say the church has the authority to forgive sin. It uses a figure of speech–"binding and loosing"–which needs to be decrypted. It says nothing about auricular confession to an EO priest who wields the authority to absolve the penitent's sins. 

iv) On the face of it, v19 doesn't refer to "the church" Rather, it ascribes "binding and losing" to "you". Is the church a "you"? A second-person singular pronoun would be a strange designation for the church.

vi) Mt 18:18 doesn't say anything about the church's authority to forgive sin. Rather, it discusses church discipline and shunning or excommunication. Nothing about receiving absolution from an EO priest in auricular confession. In context, "the church" includes the entire congregation. The entire congregation shuns the defiant brother.  

The Church is therefore reduced to a group of like-minded believers. I was glad to see that they included some specific things that those like-minded believers ought to be doing together, but it’s still little more than people who come together on the basis of, well, an agreed statement.

i) You mean, like EO adherents? 

ii) Actually, that's overly generous. What percentage of EO church members are even theologically like-minded? How many are nominal churchgoers? 

1 comment:

  1. --That's a classic example of how Catholics and Eastern Orthodox miscast the issue. It's not a question of who tells you something, but which position has reason and evidence on its side.--

    They assume that the councils have ONTOLOGICAL authority to determine dogma, simply by being 'the church'. Protestants reject that assumption, and instead base correctness on FUNCTIONAL authority - whether the decrees match the Biblical plumbline.