Saturday, August 23, 2008

God Said It, I Believe It, But What Settles It?

As we wrap up the Sola Scriptura installment of our ongoing discussion of Catholicism and Protestantism, I beg your indulgence (ahem) as I post something a bit longer than usual (my normal goal is for the entire text of each post to fit on your screen at once). That won’t happen with this one. Some of you have referred to my recent performance as devil’s advocate for Rome as being truly worthy of an Academy Award nomination (and you haven’t all meant it as a compliment either, but have half-convinced yourselves that I have taken up the rite of French-kissing my new statue of Joseph Ratzinger). I offer no apology, though. Who better to welcome the tough questions than the Calvinist, and what better forum to ask them than a blog? (Insert sarcastic-looking emoticon here.)

Before I weigh in directly I want to thank all of the Catholics who have braved these Protestant, two-kingdoms waters over the past couple weeks (especially Bryan Cross, Tim Troutman, Oso Famoso [a.k.a. Sean], Louisiana Catholic, Thos, and Peter Sean Bradley). I was impressed that, for the most part, this dialogue has been charitable and honest, producing more light than it did heat. As we turn our attention to Sola Fide on Monday, I trust the same peaceableness and humility will be demonstrated from both sides.

To cut to the chase, I have come to doubt whether “Sola Scriptura” is a helpful way to describe the Reformed position concerning the role that the Bible plays in the life of the Christian individual and the life of the church. My reasons are as follows: First, Reformed Christians believe that the Bible is the church’s book and must be interpreted in conjunction with, and not in isolation from, our forefathers in the faith as well as those who have authority over us presently. Consider these two passages from the Westminster Confession of Faith:
The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God (I.4).

It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially, to determine controversies of faith… and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his Word (XXXI.3).

Now, while a Catholic may scoff at these statements for several reasons, an evangelical would not simply roll his eyes, he would wag his fundamentalist finger in our face and accuse us of denying the sole authority of the Bible. And you know what? He is right, we do deny the sole authority of Scripture, as do all heirs of the Reformation.

A second reason why the language of “Sola Scriptura,” when weighed in the balance of our Reformed confessions and catechisms, is found wanting is that we have always placed a higher premium on the believer’s hearing the preached Word than upon his own personal Bible reading. Again, the Westminster Standards:

Question: How is the Word made effectual to salvation?

Answer: The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation (Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 155).

Unto this catholic and visible Church, Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world; and doth by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto (XXV.3).
Notice that preaching is exalted above quiet times, and that the means of grace which perfect the saints in this life unto the end of the world are given to the church, not to the individual. Under the Heading “The Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God,” the Second Helvetic Confession teaches:

Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.
It would obviously be anachronistic to insist that believers during the ministry of Clement of Rome listened to his preaching with leather-bound, thumb-indexed versions of the New Geneva Study Bible in their laps. Unless the Lord tarries another thousand years, the majority of saints in heaven will have never owned a Bible, but learned the gospel from duly ordained ministers gifted to the church by the risen Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12).

The third and final reason why “Sola Scriptura” in an unhelpful term is rooted in the Reformation’s doctrine of the two kingdoms. The synod or the council, we are told in Westminster Confession XXXI.5, is not to opine on any matter that is not specifically ecclesiastical, nor may it “intermeddle” in civil affairs. The obvious reason for this is that the Bible is not intended—and is therefore not sufficient—to address issues such as how a bill should become a law or whether pitchers should be made to bat in the American League.

The Bible, therefore, is our primary authority on matter concerning religion, but it is not our only authority.

What is the nature, then, of these secondary sources of authority such as preachers and synods? Ecclesiastical councils, argues Calvin, should “have the majesty that is their due; yet in the meantime Scripture would stand out in the higher place, with everything subject to its standard.” He writes:

However it may be, we cannot otherwise distinguish between councils that are contradictory and discordant, which have been many, unless we weigh them all in the balance of all men and angels, that is, the Word of the Lord (Institutes 4.9.9).
Does this, as our Catholic friends insist, leave us every bit as adrift in the sea of individualism as the evangelicals are, having no more hope of safe harbor than they?

Well on one level it is true: though we decry it with no small measure of smugness, we must admit if we’re honest that the Reformed are less afraid of individualism than Catholics are (although we all look alike to the evangelical). But when we have a properly hierarchical understanding of divine authority, this becomes less irksome (or at least it should). Consider Paul’s twofold approach with the Galatians who were so quickly turning away from the gospel of grace: first, he spends a chapter and a half touting his credentials as an apostle whose authority is to be taken seriously. But he doesn’t stop writing once his credibility is established, he actually goes on and seeks to convince the Galatians that his gospel is the authentic, not the counterfeit, one.

Why would a duly ordained apostle with the power to open and shut heaven stoop to the level of trying to prove to a bunch of former pagans that his message is not a sham?

Well, if the sole question concerns the who, as Rome claims, then it would seem that Paul spilled his ink in vain. After all, he’s Paul for crying out loud, isn’t that enough of a reason to believe him? As I highlighted above, church authority is indeed “an ordinance of God,” but only insofar as it conforms to the norma normans non normata, which is Scripture. In other words, the who, if he is a duly ordained who, is to be heeded as the very spokesman of Christ himself. But the ultimate authority of the who is the what, meaning that even the ambassador is bound by his treaty, even the judge is a servant of the law, and even the herald of the divine gospel is, when all is said and done, but a minister of the Word. Hence the bold apostle’s solemn oath at the beginning of this epistle:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9).
Paul’s willingness to subjugate himself to the true gospel, his potential anathematizing of the angels of heaven who preach a false one, and, perhaps most startlingly, his solemnly charging his own hearers with the responsibility to know the difference, all demonstrate that no authority in heaven or on earth has the power to tinker with, modify, take away from, or add to the glorious gospel of the blessed God.

In conclusion, I have been tremendously challenged by the Catholic position and have actually grown to appreciate it and look upon it with a measure of wonder. Part of me wishes it were true that the church of the apostles had continued on in an unbroken succession of leadership and doctrinal fidelity from that day to this. But at the end of the day I, along with millions and millions of other Christians over the past five centuries, believe that the what, somewhere along the way, got swallowed by the who. In a word, the message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone was compromised, only to be recovered in the sixteenth century by men who recognized, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, that the gospel trumps popes, the gospel trumps councils, and that the true church of Christ only exists where the grace of God is preached without mixture or dilution.

Setting that issue aside (at least until next week), I believe that the passion for unity I have seen on the part of the Catholics I have met is both commendable and humbling. For my own part, I wish that every Reformed and Presbyterian denomination, both here and abroad, would come together under the banner of a common confession of faith to which all ministers and members would strictly subscribe, even if a fresh one needs to be drafted for the occasion. And however miserably we may fall short of it, I do wish we Protestants, together with all believers, would grow ever closer to fulfilling the wish of our Savior, expressed on the eve of his betrayal:

“… that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).