Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Is Protestant Unity (Oxy)Moronic?

Any talk from Reformed folk about inter- and intra-denominational unity can be viewed by some as utterly disingenuous. To Roman Catholics, for example, the very notion of "Protestant unity" is moronic at worst, and oxymoronic at best.

I've been thinking lately about the arguments of Covenant Seminary graduate Bryan Cross, whose spiritual pilgrimage has taken him from Presbyterianism to Anglicanism, and then finally to Roman Catholicism. His recent posts argue that all Protestant versions of Sola Scriptura are necessarily individualistic. Even the so-called Reformed position of "Tradition 1," which (contra evangelicalism's view of Solo Scriptura) insists that the Bible is the church's book and therefore must be interpreted collectively rather than individually, is, according to Cross, individualistic.

Here's how Cross's argument works: Even the confessional Reformed believer who submits his personal beliefs to the authority of the Westminster Standards is ultimately guilty of individualism, albeit of a masked variety. The reason for this is that before he bowed in submission to the Confession and Catechisms he determined within himself, as a result of his personal Bible study, that those documents best comported with his own individual understanding of Scripture.

In other words, one's "submission" to the church is somewhat suspect when he first spends a year on the Internet searching for the church that already agrees with him. Such submission, Cross argues, is tantamount to shooting an arrow at the wall and then drawing the target around the point where the arrow happened to land. Simply put, it's kind of hard to miss the mark that way. To interpret the simile, the Protestant understanding of Sola Scriptura makes it virtually impossible for the individual believer's theological views to actually be challenged by the church and found wanting.

There are only two real options, Cross argues: individualism or apostolic succession. All claims of Sola Scriptura necessary devolve into the former, and all true respect for ecclesiastical authority necessary demands the latter.

How would you answer this charge?


  1. Initially, we should look to our Head in order to determine the location of our unity. It may seem trite to say that our unity is in Christ, but Scripture is clear (or should I say perspicuous) that we all are members of one body and that the head of that body is Christ. As we are united to Christ, so too are we united with all those who themselves are united with Him by faith. Our understanding of the truths of Scripture may differ, but the reality of those truths as they appertain to us do not.

    As for the clarity of Scripture, I would like to quote from Bavinck (no, Josh, I knew you would not be surprised):
    It [the doctrine of perspicuity of Holy Scripture] does not mean that the matters and subjects with which Scripture deals are not mysteries that far exceed the reach of the human intellect. Nor does it assert that Scripture is clear in all its parts, so that no scientific exegesis is needed, or that, also in its doctrine of salvation, Scripture is plain and clear to every person without distinction. It means only that the truth, the knowledge of which is necessary to everyone for salvation, though not spelled out with equal clarity on every page of Scripture in such a simple and intelligible form that a person concerned about the salvation of his or her soul should can easily, by personal reading and study, learn to know that truth from Scripture without the assistance and guidance of the church and the priest. The way of salvation, not as it concerns the matter itself but as it concerns the mode of transmission, has been clearly set down there for the reader desirous of salvation. While that reader may not understand the "how" of it, the "that" of it is clear (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. I, 477).

    Bavinck goes on later to speak of how the church's interpretation is not "'magisterial' but 'ministerial'" (I 481). The church is perfectly capable of erring in its interpretation. Further, the church can:
    bind a person in conscience only to the degree that a person recognizes [the church's interpretation] as divine and infallible. Whether it indeed agrees with God's Word no earthly power can decide, but is for everyone to judge solely for himself or herself. The church can then cast someone out as a heretic, but ultimately that person stands or falls before his or her own master [Rom. 14:4]. Even the most simple believer can and may if necessary, Bible in hand, stand up to the entire church, as Luther did to Rome. Only thus the freedom of the Christian, and simultaneously the sovereignty of God, is maintained. There is no higher appeal from Scripture. It is the supreme court of appeal. No power or pronouncement stands above it. It is Scripture, finally, which decides matters in the conscience of everyone personally. And for that reason IT is the supreme arbiter of controversies (I, 481).

    So, in one sense, his charge of individualism is right on: we are individually responsible before God for the doctrine we hold to. The only priest that will stand beside us on Judgment Day is our Lord Jesus Christ. But that individualism must take into account the inward testimony and leading of the Hoy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit which was to come to lead us into all truth, not some Roman church.

    As for shooting an arrow and then drawing a circle around it, there is some truth to that. However, it again assumes that God really isn't able to speak clearly, that the Holy Spirit really isn't capable of leading people towards the truth, that the real thing to do is just give up and drop yourself down at the feet of the nearest Roman guru and submit yourself, your intellect and your God given freedom in the Gospel to another human being and say to him, "you do the really hard work for me and figure out the things I am supposed to do."

    I would ask this guy how he can square those elements of Roman dogma which contradict the plain teaching of Scripture? Are we to submit ourselves to the "apostolic church (i.e. Rome)" even where (or even just if) it were to clearly contradict the clear teaching of Scripture? What if, horror of horrors, the Pope were to claim, ex cathedra, that Jesus was not truly God? Or if he were to claim that we should begin worshiping a creature as being a co-redemptrix? Oh, wait...

  2. I would answer the charge by simply turning Cross' critique of the Reformed view back on him. Did he examine the truth claims of the Roman Catholic Church before joining (I sure hope he did)? If so, then he did the same individualistic thing he is accusing Protestants of doing.

  3. Josh,

    I'll play the devil's advocate.

    You're still thinking like a Protestant when you say that someone converts to Rome because he studied the Bible and concluded that the Catholic church is correct. Catholics are not individualists.

    The right reason for converting to the Catholic church is because her bishops and magisterium are the successors of the apostles and have been given the sacramental authority to preach and teach in Jesus' name.

    The believer, in obedience to Heb. 13:17, submits himself to the church's authority, even if he doesn't understand every single point.

  4. Jason,

    I will dance...

    Is this comment true, "her bishops and magisterium are the successors of the apostles and have been given the sacramental authority to preach and teach in Jesus' name?" If it is true, how does any person come to the knowledge of this truth?

  5. Steve,

    As devil's advocate....

    Good on ya for admitting that Protestants are individualists. So are you also admitting that there is no difference between the evangelical and Reformed ways of understanding Sola Scriptura? That's all Cross is trying to prove.

    As far as perspicuity goes, it is both practically falsifiable and also destroys the Reformed position by proving too much.

    For example, if the Bible is clear on matters relating to salvation, then why are there 30,000 Protestant denominations who disagree on the "clear" teaching of Scripture?

    And if there is no need for any interpretive authority, then why not become Quakers who reject the ordained ministry altogether?

  6. Josh,

    The patristic writing are filled with defenses of apostolic succession, according to Cross.

  7. Jason,

    Does the fact that the patristics said it make it true? If it does, how do I find that out? In other words, to know anything it must be true. You cannot know something that is false. So, how does the Catholic know something is true? Is it not by studying it?

  8. I think they would say that they accept the teachings of the church, in the same way that we accept the conclusions we reach as individuals.

    In other words, our private judgment is just as (if not more) susceptible to error than the church's corporate judgment.

    So his whole point is that Protestants claim to hold to the authority of Scripture, but since the Bible can't interpret itself, that claim is meaningless. You can either hold to the authority of the church to interpret the Bible, or the authority of the private individual to do it.

  9. Jason,

    As Being Funny

    Do I detect more than devil's advocate in your responses? o.O

  10. Chris,

    Hey, when I play devil's advocate I really get into the role, you know?

    In all seriousness, I do believe that Reformation churches are a lot more similar to Catholic ones than to evangelical ones in a lot of ways.

  11. As devil's advocate...

    Josh you wrote:

    Is this comment true, "her bishops and magisterium are the successors of the apostles and have been given the sacramental authority to preach and teach in Jesus' name?" If it is true, how does any person come to the knowledge of this truth?

    I assume you are trying to argue that Catholics only came to know this truth through individualistically studying Scripture, Church history, etc. But what would you say if they claimed they only came to this knowledge by the grace of God through the revelation of the Holy Spirit?

    They could go as far as to say that "Godly submission" to the Catholic church is a necessary fruit of regeneration, and anyone outside the Catholic church proves their condemnation because they have not received God's free gift of salvation (else they would be a Catholic and submit to its authority).


  12. Dalton,

    I would ask them, on what bases do they accept the validity of this "revelation of the Holy Spirit"? Is this concept taught in the Holy Writ? If so where? If not, why do they hold to this concept? If it is in the Bible, why do they accept it as valid?

  13. Stellman,

    Could you expound this comment for the rest of us.

    "Reformation churches are a lot more similar to Catholic ones than to evangelical ones in a lot of ways."

  14. Walker,

    If they responded with it's a teaching of the Catholic church, you have no argument. The fact that the church has "inerrant doctrine" due to apostolic succession is there presupposition. It causes circular reasoning, but it cannot be argued against. Correct?

  15. Dalton (I used your last name so as not to confuse the two Jasons),

    First, if the RC wants to admit to circular reasoning that is fine with me. The problem is, as far as I know, they do not do this and want to avoid this conclusion. That is way I was pushing in that direction because they do not like that conclusion. However, if they want to take this step they may.

    Second, if they do make this step, there are a few ways that they can still "be argued against." The most obvious is to show how the "circular system" is an incoherent system. That is, if a contradiction is pointed out in the system, then it can be shown to be false. This is one way that, if they take the step you are suggesting, they can still be shown that their view is in error.

  16. Of course, RCs would say that individualism isn't much of an alternative to circular reasoning. If the Bible doesn't interpret itself, then someone's gotta do it.

    About my statement that "Reformation churches are a lot more similar to Catholic ones than to evangelical ones in a lot of ways," what I mean is that when it comes to things like piety and ecclesiology we both (contra evangelicals) see a huge role for things like sacraments, liturgy, and creeds. Sure, our doctrine is different on some issues, but our appreciation for churchly piety is something we have in common,and which evangelicals scratch their heads at.


Before posting please read our Comment Policy here.

Think hard about this: the world is watching!