Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Book Review: The Benedict Option

Dear Reader,

I recently finished reading The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. I am not very up on contemporary Christian culture but I had heard about or seen this book in a few places so my impression is it is quite the in-thing these days.

My short take on this book is that I would recommend it, with some caveats. In fact, I plan to have my 12th grader read it in the upcoming school year. There is a lot here that is good and that the church needs to hear. Sad to say, a lot of it is probably common sense or basic Christianity, but nonetheless we need to hear it.  There are points at which I disagree with the author, or perhaps just have a different take on things; these differences arise on large part from our differing backgrounds and affiliations.

The subtitle of Dreher’s book is “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” His audience seems to be first and foremost conservative Christians who have been thrown for a loop by the recent legalization of gay marriage and who are finding themselves floundering, wondering how things could have gone so far astray and why right doesn’t seem to be prevailing in America today [the book was written after the election of Trump but gay marriage seems to be the crisis that fostered it; it is clear Dreher doesn’t like Trump (p. 79), but he does not dwell on him]. This is a book for people in crisis who are in panic mode and wondering how their culture got this way and what they can and should do about it.

Which is not to say that the ideas in this book can’t benefit others, but it seems to be directed mainly at the overwhelmed Christian. I don’t find myself in this category, for various reasons, and I don’t have quite as negative a prognosis for our society so there is some extent to which I can say that I don’t even agree with the premise of the book. That is not a good place to start with a book, and there was a point early on when I considered just dropping it altogether.  As Dreher gets going, however, he has a lot of useful things to say that relate to living in a society that does not always (ever?) embody our beliefs and I am glad I persevered with his book.

Before we go too far, we need to ask the most basic question: What does the title of this book mean? What is “the Benedict Option”? The phrase seems to be one Dreher coined — I could not find other references to it, apart from his book — though at times he makes it sound as if it is a larger movement to which he became attached. The “Benedict” part refers to St. Benedict, a relatively well-known monk who established a religious order based on a set of particular guidelines known as the Rule of St. Benedict. This rule, as Dreher describes it, orders daily life; it is meant to bring God into every part of life and to be freeing rather than restrictive. Dreher’s thesis is that in this time of crisis, when our culture has turned so far from Christianity, that we as Christians need to live deliberately in a way that is modeled upon the Benedictine communities. This is not to say that we should all become monks. Dreher’s idea, rather, is that we should have Christian communities in which we support one another but also through which we can reach out to the world.

Dreher uses the Benedictine Order as kind of a disguise for presenting what is really just a lesson in how Christians should have been living all along. This is a point which John Jalsevac makes in his review of the book for Life Site News . I agree with his assessment that Dreher’s ideas might have gained more of a foothold with evangelicals if he didn’t present them in such a seemingly Catholic guise.

There are a lot of ideas in this book as Dreher treats issues from pornography to politics to worship, and I will not address each one, but I would like to highlight a few.

Politics is the elephant in the room though it by no means is the only subject of this book. The problem, which Dreher makes clear (though I wish he had been more explicit about it earlier in the book) is basically that American Christians have put their faith in the political process and it has failed them. They have been like the Israelites trusting in their chariots or sending to Egypt for help against Assyria (my comparison; not his). Though Dreher says we must not abandon the political process altogether, his main solution seems to be to step away from it and build small subcultures instead.

I understand that there are a lot of Christians who had put their faith in the political process and they are probably those most in crisis and who most need to hear what is in this book. But, coming (by adoption) from a tradition which until the mid 20th century did not even allow its members to vote, I find myself holding two contradictory ideas: on the one hand, it was foolish of Christians to ever believe this was a Christian nation and that somehow they could rely upon its processes to accomplish the will of God, and, on the other hand, I am not quite so willing to abandon the process we have as Dreher seems to be. So while I am glad to hear Dreher say that we cannot rely upon the political process to accomplish godly ends, I am at the same time not as negative as he is on the whole subject nor as willing to abandon that arena.

Dreher writes his book for any orthodox (little “o”) Christian who adheres to a traditional form of Christianity. He himself is Eastern Orthodox. His book is broad in its basis — seeking to appeal to the Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. Not too surprisingly, this produces some weaknesses. In general, in the areas that most concern me, which are worship and education, I can say that Dreher has good principles but that he seems to see only one way to apply them.

When it comes to Protestant worship, Dreher adddresses evangelicals who are drawn to a very seeker-friendly, contemporary form of worship. And I would agree with him that this kind of worship needs reformation but disagree strenuously on what that reformation should look like. Oddly enough, the principles he espouses are often ones I can heartily agree with; their application is where we diverge. He says:

“. . . the concrete form in which information is delivered is itself a message . . . ” (p. 105)

Liturgy should follow ” . . . a basic pattern derived from Scripture.” (p. 107)

” . . . in the Christian tradition, liturgy is primarily, though not exclusively, about what God has to say to us.” (p. 108)

” . . . there can be no doubt that the form worship takes is a powerful weapon . . . against modernity . . . ” (p. 113)

All of these are good principles. Dreher uses them to argue for a liturgical form of worship, that is, a traditional liturgy that is not “low-church” (p. 112). Reformed Christians, those of us who adhere to the Westminster standards, would use these same arguments to argue for a simple worship– without the Book of Common Prayer; without man-made songs, whether we call them hymns or praise choruses; and with the Psalms of God.

On the topic of education, one on which I write extensively on this blog, Dreher sees the problem — but again latches on to one solution, and not the one I would advocate. I agree with his statement that: “Every educational model presupposes an anthropology: an idea of what a human being is” (p. 147). In fact, that is one of the major premises of this blog — that we have to consider the views of man and God that are behind our philosophies of education (see, for example, this very extensive series on approaches to education). While I am not a fan of the public schools, however, I would not go so far as he does in saying that “it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system” (p. 155). I do think parents need to think seriously about how their children are educated and what ideas are underlying their education. Dreher treats homeschooling as a last resort (p. 165), a view which I completely reject. His method of choice is classical Christian education. I say his method of choice, but, in fact, he shows no awareness of other approaches to education. His take on classical education seems to be right from the modern classical movement. He refers to Sayers’ famous article (of which I am not a fan), CIRCE Institute, and the Great Books Movement. He speaks of the need to return to classical education, noting Greek and Christian sources, but does not address the very real issue of how and why we should incorporate these Greek (read: pagan) sources.

In short, having rejected our society’s norm (the public schools), Dreher seems to latch onto what is a very popular approach in the world of  Christian education, but nowhere does he consider other approaches or explain why this approach is the best one.  In the area of education, then, as in his discussion of worship, I think Dreher starts with good principles but doesn’t actually go far enough in researching and evaluating all the options out there. He accepts what presents itself as “traditional,” namely high-church liturgy and classical education, and does not delve deeply into what is truly biblical or what God desires.

I went back and forth as I read through The Benedict Option. At times I liked the book; at others it irked me. I would recommend it in the end because I think Rod Dreher raises some issues we need to consider. I think that his title and the way he frames his subject are a little gimmicky and that, while they may initially draw some people in, they can also work against him. But he does raise some good points about how Christians should live and his book serves as a call for the church to return to a more basic understanding of what it is. When it comes to specific application of his principles, I think he often does not go far enough and needs to consider even more radical, more counter-cultural options and  above all to ask what is truly biblical.

Nebby

 

 

Advertisements

Book Review: The Liberated Imagination

Dear Reader,

I recently finished Leland Ryken’s The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts. This is my third (I think?) Ryken book and my overall impression of it is much the same as the others — a pretty good book that made me think but the author and I are not 100% on the same page when it comes to things Christian and theological.

I am not very informed when it comes to art, and especially to art criticism and the theory behind it, but I have one child who is  a born artist; my intention is to have her read this book next school year (she’ll be in 10th grade then; this is high school level or above). Though I’m sure I didn’t get all of what Ryken was saying since I am not familiar with other Christian works on art, this was not a very hard read. It was just newer material for me. There is a lot of what Ryken said, about education and literature particularly, that I liked and agreed with. I don’t know if he has ever heard of Charlotte Mason but I think he’d like her educational philosophy.

I’ll start with the negatives so as to not end on a down note. My sense from this and the other books I’ve read by Ryken is that his Christian slant is different than mine. In this context, discussing art and the Christian, it becomes clear that we have very different views of how worship should look. This is not a huge surprise since my view, and that of my denomination, the RPCNA, is pretty counter-cultural these days. I adhere to the regulative principle which says we should only worship God how He has told us to. What this means is no modern music (only psalms a capella), no statues, no pictires, etc. Obviously, this is going to lead to some difference when we start talking about using art to the glory of God. I believe art, of all kinds, can still be done to the glory of God, but most of it is going to happen outside of the corporate worship of the Church. Ryken doesn’t spend a lot of time on how art can and should figure into worship an dperhaps it is unfair to expect him to devote too much time to this topic but it is an issue Christians need to consider.

Beyond this, I think there is a deeper theological divide between us. Ryken, as he has in other books, seems at time to disparage the truth of the Bible. He speaks of “fantasy” in the Bible (p. 45). I will admit that many prophetic passages are fantastical, but when we label them “fantasy” with no caveat we imply that they are not true. I do believe such passages are true on at least the level that the prophet truly saw what he reports.

Near the end of the book Ryken speaks on people as being “capable of moral and spiritual choice” and even “capable of redemption” (p. 235). As a reformed Christian, I would not speak this way. His language goes even beyond the idea common in our day that people are free to choose the salvation provided by Christ. When he talks of being “capable of redemption” he implies that we have a hand, at least, in our own redemption, an idea which I utterly reject.

Despite these differences, Ryken does have  a lot to say that I like. His view of the role of art is good. When he mentions education, he is right on target, and his view of leisure time is quite interesting. I may come back to these ideas in future posts.

By far my favorite part of this book is how Ryken relates ideas and art. This is where he sounds particularly CM. “Art,” he says, “aims to convey not primarily the facts of life but the truth and meaning of those facts. Art is not about things as they are, but about things as they matter” (p. 26). He makes an intriguing and well-taken point that if we could boil down a work of art (I term I use broadly here to include music and literature as well) to just a list of ideas than we could just read those ideas, we would not need the art (p. 128). But this is not the case. We cannot remove the ideas from their casing, if you will. This is why, in a Charlotte Mason education, we give ideas in the form of living books (and art and music). It is not just a candy coating that makes the ideas palatable. The form, the environment the ideas come in, is just as important as the ideas themselves. You cannot take one without the other. The picture I get is not of ideas, like vitamins, in a sugary coating that is the art or living books, but of two vitamins which the body cannot absorb wthout each other. Both are vital but they must enter together.

But I am digressing but Ryken’s book. Here is how he puts it:

“Exactly what is it that enables the arts to express enduring truth? What do they add to the facts that the news does not? They give us the event plus the meaning. A science textbook gives us the physical facts about nature; a Constable landscape painting or a nature lyric by Wordsworth gives us a sense of the moral meaning of a landscape.” (p. 34)

Thus art (and again I speak of it here in all its forms) illuminates reality (p. 110); it opens is to new experiences (p. 36); it teaches us to cope with our problems (p. 27).

Ryken goes beyond this and, acknowledging that not all ideas are good and true (p. 126), gives us tools to analyze and consider art from a Christian perspective (see pp. 145, 152-53, 169-70, 172-73). Here I find his work very valuable on a practical level, especially as I have children who will be looking at and evaluating nay kinds of art.

Though Ryken and I might not see eye to eye on a number of very important issues, his book was quite helpful and I did enjoy reading it. More than that, I am quite happy to have found it for my daughter as it is a quite accessible, practical and helpful introduction to the topic of art and art criticism from a Christian perspective.

Nebby

The Invention of Childhood

Dear Reader,

I am intrigued by this quote from “Deschooling Society” by Ivan Illich (read my review of the article here):

“Childhood as distinct from infancy, adolescence, or youth was unknown to most historical periods. Some Christian centuries did not even have an eye for its bodily proportions. Artists depicted the infant as a miniature adult seated on his mother’s arm. Children appeared in Europe along with the pocket watch and the Christian moneylenders of the Renaissance. Before out century neither the poor nor the rich knew of children’s dress, children’s games, or the child’ immunity from the law. Childhood belonged to the bourgeoisie. The worker’s child, the peasant’s child, and the nobleman’s child all dressed the way their fathers dressed, played the way their fathers played, and were hanged by the neck as their fathers were. After the “discovery” of childhood by the bourgeoisie all this changed. Only some churches continued to respect for some time the dignity and maturity of the young. Until the Second Vatican Council, each child was instructed that a Christian reaches moral discernment and freedom at the age of seven, and from then on is capable of committing sins for which he may be punished by an eternity in Hell. Toward the middle of this century, middle-class parents began to try to spare their children the impact of this doctrine, and their thinking about children now prevails in the practice of the Church.” (p. 21)

Illich is not a Christian and this idea is a small part of his article, but I am intrigued by it. In fact, I would place the age of accountability well before seven. Children, like adults, as much as adults, are called by worship and acknowledge their Creator. Jesus suggests to us that perhaps they do this at times more ably than adults. But does this mean we should become as children? I think rather we bring them along with us. We expect them to worship, to repent, to believe, to think even. My observation has been that children who are excluded from the public worship of God’s people, sometimes even until age 12 or 13, are not more but less ready to take their place with God’s people when the time comes. Jesus himself argued with the teachers at age 12. John the Baptist leapt with joy at his Savior’s presence while still in the womb. Faith, we are told, can come to nursing infants and unborn children. So why then do we treat them as something different and separate them from the body of Christ?

Nebby

Authority in the Church: Biblical Evidence (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

This is the second part of my examination of what the Bible has to say about authority in the church. Read part 1 here to see my method and conclusions thus far.

The remaining questions we have to address are:

  • How are leaders in the church chosen?
  • What gives leaders authority?
  • Are there circumstances in which a leader’s authority can be abrogated?
  • Who has authority to interpret the Scriptures?
  • How can we know true from false teachers?

Leadership in the Church

In part 1, I said that though the office of apostle does not continue that the apostles did appoint elders to care for the church and to teach and that these elders would in turn appoint others and so on. The authority of these church leaders (who may variously be called elders, bishops, overseers or presbyters, depending on one’s denomination) is then from above in that it comes from the previous leaders of the church and is conveyed through he laying on of hands.

In his pastoral epistles (his letters to Timothy and Titus) Paul gives qualifications for elders. These include both tests of ability (can they teach?) and morality (are they sober? are they good family men?). The implication is that these are the criteria which Timothy and Titus (and others) should use in choosing elders.

The question then arises: Can such authority be lost? If there are  qualifications for an elder, it makes sense to say that one who fails to live up to such criteria might be disqualified. I am not going to spend a lot of time arguing this point because it seems that all Christian churches agree that a church leader can be deposed. Even the Roman Catholic church, which believes that a pope (the bishop of Rome) cannot lose his authority, will depose a bishop. The only real question then is not whether a leader’s authority can be abrogated, but if the pope has special status in this regard which gets back to whether the bishop of Rome has special status at all, an issue I addressed in my previous post. I will only say in this regard that we are told that false teachers will be within the church (Acts 20:29-30; 2 Pet. 2:1) and that Paul says that he even he himself were to come with a different message that his audience should reject his message (Gal. 1:6-9).

The Legacy of the Apostles

There is one more big issue before us which is how the human successors of the apostles relate to the Scriptures of the New Testament, which we might think of as the apostles’ written successors. Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches give the people authority over the word. Both say that the Scriptures (Old and New Testaments) can only be rightly interpreted by the successors of the apostles, thus giving the people power to say what the written word means. Protestants take the opposite view, saying that the word is the primary legacy of the apostles and that once Christ’s message was written down that the human authority became less important and must always be ruled by the written word.

To begin to get at this issue, I’d like to look at a use of the word apostle which we haven’t addressed yet. A number of passages speak of “the prophets and the apostles.” As we look at these occurrences, we must understand that the word “prophet” in the Old Testament has a broader meaning than we usually associate with it. A prophet is not just one who tells the future but one who speaks for God. The Hebrew Bible has traditionally been divided into three sections: the Torah (the five books aka the books of Moses or the Pentateuch), the Prophets, and the Writings. The Writings are those books we may also call Wisdom Literature including Psalms and Proverbs among others. The Prophets include not just those books we think of as prophetic but also the historical books, known in Hebrew tradition as “the Former Prophets.” If we consider that Moses, the traditionally ascribed author of the Torah, was also a prophet himself, we can see that most of the Old Testament could be called “prophetic.”

We first find the phrase “the Prophets and the Apostles” in the book of Luke in which Jesus says,

“Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute.'” (Luke 22:49)

While the people are clearly here in mind, the association with Wisdom makes me think that it is the human authors of God’s written word who are in view here.

Paul in Ephesians tells us that:

“In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” (Eph. 3:5)

And from Peter:

“. . . that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken through your apostles.” (2 Pet. 3:2)

Note the emphasis on words here. The words spoken through the prophets correspond to the OT and the commandment of the Lord through the apostles to the New.

And then Peter speaks of Paul’s epistles specifically, equating them with “the other Scriptures”:

“So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability.” (2 Pet. 3:15-17)

I don’t think anyone really disputes this point, but I cite these passages to show that the apostles’ legacy include not just human successors but also the written word, which we now call the New Testament, and which stands beside the Prophets, that is the Old Testament.

The real question is not whether we have the written word of the apostles but how their written legacy relates to their human one. In the quote above from 2 Peter we see that Peter says that Paul’s writings are at times hard to understand and can be twisted by lawless men. Though Peter’s immediate conclusion is only that his readers should be forewarned and not be led astray, he does say in his earlier epistle that “you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders” (1 Pet. 5:5). I think it is reasonable to conclude that one way to keep from being led astray is to listen to one’s elders (elders in the technical sense of the church leaders called elders) but Peter stops short of connecting the dots and saying that only the elders may then interpret Scripture.

Another passage from 2 Peter is often used to show that individuals may not interpret Scripture for themselves. It reads as follows:

“20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (1 Pet. 1:20-21)

Usually the first verse above (v. 20) is taken to mean that individuals may not interpret Scripture for themselves. I think, however, that, in context with v. 21, this is not what Peter is saying. He is not making a point about who may interpret Scripture but about how Scripture itself came to be. In v. 21 he tells us that the human authors of Scripture were not speaking on their own authority but that their message comes from God. His point in v. 20, then, is that the Prophets and Apostles were not giving their individual interpretations but were speaking as God led them. This is the same point Paul makes in 2 Timothy when he says, as the NIV translates, that Scripture is “God-breathed.”

In fact, if we look at the entire context of this passage from 2 Timothy, we find that Paul presents the Scriptures to Timothy as the antidote to both persecution and deception:

12 Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 13 But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is[b] useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:12-17)

Though Timothy to whom the letter is addressed is an elder, Paul does say that “everyone who belongs to God” should be equipped by Scripture.

Personally, I don’t see any indication that Scripture is to be interpreted only by the leaders of the church. On the contrary, Scripture is good for everyone and is to be treasured by all:

 This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful.” (Josh. 1:8)

 The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
    and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
    and drippings of the honeycomb.

11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.

(Ps. 19:7-11; I know I said I would not get into the OT, but I couldn’t resist these quotes.)

Conclusions and More Questions

To bring it all together, I’d like to return to the nine questions I posed at the beginning of my first post. Here they are again, with the conclusions I have come to:

  • Who were the apostles? What makes one an apostle? There were 13 apostles, Christ’s 11 closest followers (Judas having been lost) plus Matthias and Paul. Others may be spoken of as apostles as well though these references are not as clear. An apostle is one who has seen Christ in the flesh and has gotten his authority directly from God.
  • Is there a continuing apostolic authority or apostolic succession? The office of apostle does not continue but the apostles appoint elders who continue their ministry though their work is not backed up by signs and wonders as the apostles’ was. These elders in turn appoint other elders and so on.
  • What is Peter’s role relative to the other apostles? Does he have greater authority? Peter is a leader among the apostles and is prominent in the earliest days of the church, as depicted in Acts 1-12, but there is no evidence that he has authority above and beyond that of the other apostles.
  • If Peter does have any greater role, does he pass this on to his successors? Even if Peter did have more authority, there is no evidence within the NT that Peter passes this authority on to anyone.
  • How are leaders in the church chosen? Elders are appointed first by the apostles and then by other elders. Authority is conferred through the laying on of hands. Lists of qualifications for elders, both having to do with their abilities and their character are given.
  • What gives leaders authority? See above.
  • Are there circumstances in which a leader’s authority can be abrogated? Yes. With the exception of the Roman Catholic view of the popes, all agree that a leader can lose his authority through doctrinal or moral error. This seems to be a reasonable conclusion based on the lists of qualifications given.
  • Who has authority to interpret the Scriptures? Scripture can be misused and twisted and we must be on our guard against these things. Christians are urged to listen to their elders and to respect their authority. However, I see no evidence that the interpretation of Scripture is the exclusive prerogative of the church leadership, rather, we are told that Scripture is “for everyone,” that it is a delight and a help to the believer.
  • How can we know true from false teachers? I didn’t really touch on this but I will say, briefly, that false teachers may be known both by their fruits, that is their deeds and morality (Matt. 7:15-20; Matt. 12:33; Luke 6:43-44), and by their teachings, whether their message (2 Cor. 11:3-4; Gal. 1:6-9; 1 John 4:1-3).

If these things are true, then I think the Roman Catholic Church, whose authority depends upon that of its popes, has gone astray and is in a very dangerous position. On the other hand, most, if not all, Protestant churches, including my own, also have to answer the question of where their leaders’ authority comes from. If it cannot be traced back to the apostles is it valid? The Eastern Orthodox may cheer at these conclusions, but I cannot fully support their position either. They, like the Catholics, exalt the church leadership (and Tradition, but that’s another issue) above the Scriptures, and I do not see that this is biblical either. I don’t honestly think that there is a perfect answer or a perfect system. This should not surprise us, perhaps, since we are not perfect people. I have been going round and round in my own head and though there are certain aspects of my own chosen tradition which I am not completely comfortable with, I am no more comfortable with the others. In the end, I come back to where I began — I would rather have a choose the church with a written standard as my ultimate guide than one that relies upon men to tell me what that standard says. Part of the controversy comes down to whether we are even able to understand Scripture without outside interpretations and it may be others look at what I have written and see all my biases and preconceptions and reject my conclusions. But for myself I feel like I have gone back to the biblical text, I have tried to approach it honestly and not to read into it what I want it to say, and it has not let me down. It speaks pretty clearly, I think, on most of these issues. And, beyond that, the more I study the Scriptures themselves, the more I am impressed with them and even love them. I have no desire to choose otherwise.

Nebby

Authority in the Church: The Biblical Evidence

Dear Reader,

I thought I was done with this topic but I guess I am not. I have been going back and forth with a Catholic friend on authority in the church, how it works, where it comes from, etc. I tend to think through issues as I write. To catch up and see how my thinking on this issue has developed, you can read these earlier posts:

Rocks and Popes

Sources of Authority in the Catholic Church

Sacred Tradition in Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy

Apostolic Authority in Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism

Scripture and Tradition– Sorting through All the Issues

Book Review: The Shape of Sola Scriptura

Object and Method

Perhaps, being a good Protestant, I should have come to this first, but I am getting to it last. I’d like to look now at all the biblical evidence I can find on the issue of authority in the church. A few caveats before I begin: I am here acting like a Protestant. I understand that if you are Catholic or Orthodox or other that you will not approach the Bible as I do so you may not accept my conclusions. But this is my method, and it is simply this: When someone says something about God or the Bible or a theological issue that strikes me as funny or wrong, then I find every verse I can on the topic, look it up in context, and try to discern what the text actually has to say. I have done this, for example, on dinosaurs and on the glory of God.  Today’s topic is authority in the church. Second caveat: I am not actually looking at the whole Bible, but only the New Testament. It is an interesting question what we might learn of the church from the Old Testament but since the church as such did not exist in OT times it is a bit of a trickier issue. I do think there are conclusions that could be drawn about God and His people and how He deals with them but anything we would say is going to be more debatable so I am not touching that aspect of the issue at this time. I chose to use a Catholic translation, the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE), for this study to make sure that I am being fair and not biasing my argument with an anti-Catholic translation.

The Issues

Based on my previous studies (see all those links above), here are some of the issues that need to be addressed:

  • Who were the apostles? What makes one an apostle?
  • Is there a continuing apostolic authority or apostolic succession?
  • What is Peter’s role relative to the other apostles? Does he have greater authority?
  • If Peter does have any greater role, does he pass this on to his successors?
  • How are leaders in the church chosen?
  • What gives leaders authority?
  • Are there circumstances in which a leader’s authority can be abrogated?
  • Who has authority to interpret the Scriptures?
  • How can we know true from false teachers?

What does the New Testament have to say about Apostles?

There is not much we all agree on when it comes to authority in the church, but one point that the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants all concede is that there were men the Bible calls apostles who had authority in New Testament times.

Who were the apostles? The simplest and most common answer is that the first apostles were Jesus’ closest 12 disciples (Matt. 10:2; Mk. 3:14; 6:30; Lk. 6:13; 9:10; 22:14; 24:10). Of course, this list includes Judas Iscariot who later betrayed Jesus and died. He was then replaced by Matthias (Acts 1:26) making a nice even 12 again.

But then Paul (aka Saul) was also added to the number, bringing it up to 13 again. Paul makes very clear that he is an apostle, beginning most of his letters by self-identifying as an apostle (Rom. 1:1; I Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1; I Tim. 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1; Tit. 1:1) and also giving an extended defense of his apostleship in Galatians (Gal. 1:11-19). These 13, then, make the generally accepted list of apostles and no one seems to doubt their position.

However, there a few places in which others are called as apostles. In Acts 14 and I Corinthians 9, Barnabas seems to be called an apostle as well as Paul.  Acts tells us that:

“. . . where Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers . . . But the residents of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles.” (Acts: 14:1, 4)

And again later it says “when the apostles Paul and Barnabas heard . . .” (Acts 14:14; cf. I Cor. 9:6).

At the end of Romans Paul concludes his letter by saying:

“Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” (Rom. 16:6-7)

This passage may be calling Andronicus and Junia apostles or it may be saying that they are well-known to or esteemed by the apostles. The NRSVCE, NIV and KJV prefer the former interpretation, the ASV and ESV the latter.

It should be noted, however, that Paul also seems to call himself the last of the apostles:

“Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (I Cor. 15:7-9)

This brings us to our next question: What makes one an apostle? When Matthias is chosen, we are told that the qualifications are:

 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22)

Which is to say, an apostle is one who has literally and physically seen Jesus. This may then make some sense of Paul’s (possible) designation of Andronicus and Junia as apostles if they too had seen Jesus firsthand — we are told at least that they came to faith before Paul himself did — though he counts himself as the last of the apostles since he saw Jesus in a vision after His death. Since, as he says, he was the last that Christ appeared to in the flesh (and that in a vision), he becomes the final apostle.

So then we may say that an apostle is one that has seen Jesus in the flesh. To this we may add one further qualification: an apostle gets his authority directly from Christ. In his defense of his own apostleship, Paul says,

“11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 1:11-12)

Though Paul appears before Peter and the other apostles, he does not do so till 3 years after his conversion and he makes very clear that his authority comes not from them but from Christ. And again he says that:

” . . .he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles.” (Gal. 2:8)

Thus the other apostles did not give Paul authority but only recognized the grace which had been given him (Gal. 2:9). Matthias also was chosen by God. Though the 11 remaining apostles (at the time) cam up with a list of candidates, they cast lots to decide who would get the position and so left the decision up to the Lord (cf. Prov. 16:33).

Before moving on, we can say a few words about the works of an apostle. The apostles, we are told, teach (Acts 2:42), do signs and wonders (Acts 2:43; 5:12; 2 Cor. 12:12), make major decisions affecting the church (Acts 9:27ff; Acts 15:2ff), accept money given to the church (Acts 4:37), lay on hands for the purpose of conferring authority (Acts 6:6; 8:18), and send people (including Peter and John) on missions (Acts 8:14).

Apostolic Succession?

Having looked at who they apostles were and what defines an apostle, we may then ask if there continue to be apostles. Based on the above criteria — that an apostle has seen Jesus in the flesh and has been appointed directly by God– I think we would have to say that, no, there are no more apostles after Paul (who, as I said above, speaks of himself as the last).

This is not to say that the authority of the apostles does not continue, however. We have also seen that the apostles lay hands on others as a means of conferring authority. We can add to this that they appointed leaders in the churches:

“And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.” (Acts 14:23)

So too Paul tells Titus to “appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (Tit. 1:5; cf. 2 Tim. 2:2). He also gives both Timothy and Titus extensive lists of qualifications for elders  (1 Tim.3:1ff; Tit. 1:7ff). It should be noted that the word for “elder” in these passages may be translated as “bishop,” “presbyter, or “overseer” depending on one’s inclination. I am not worried here about which word we use but about the role of these men, whatever one calls them.

The role of an elder is to teach and argue for the faith (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9; 1 Tim. 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:2) and to care for the church (1 Tim. 3:5; James 5:14). There is evidence as well that they, as the apostles did, can practice the laying on of hands for the purpose of conferring authority (1 Tim. 4:14). Even while the apostles are still around they are involved in the big decisions of the church as we are told that the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 consisted of the apostles and the elders. It is notable that signs and wonders, the mark of an apostle, are not mentioned in connection with the elders.

Is there then an apostolic succession? If we mean by that term that there continue to be apostles through all generations, I would have to say no. But there is a passing on of authority from the apostles to the elders who would then appoint more elders and so on. Inherent in the idea of apostolic succession is the notion that those who stand in such a line have exclusive authority over the church, particularly in matters of scriptural interpretation. So I think this issue needs more study before a firm conclusion can be reached. For now I would like to set it aside and look instead at the primacy of Peter.

Peter among the Apostles

What really sets the Roman Catholic Church apart from all others is the doctrine of the primacy of Peter and his successors. So we must now look at what the Bible has to say about Peter’s role specifically.

I’d like to think about the passages relating to this issue in two groups: those that seem to confer authority in Peter and those that show Peter’s role in the early church. When asked to defend the primacy of Peter, Catholics go immediately to the former group and particularly to Matthew 16. I’d like to begin instead with the latter.

There is no doubt that Peter takes a prominent role in the early church and particularly in the events recounted in the first half of the book of Acts. When Christ has ascended, we are told that “Peter stood up among the believers” (Acts 1:15). He speaks first and he takes charge. Early in the book of Acts, Luke often speaks of “Peter and the apostles” (Acts 2:14, 37; 5:29). Peter takes a prominent role at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:7) and  is given a significant vision (Acts 10). He heals Aeneas and raises Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9). His fame seems to precede him and to be widely known since the people believe that even his shadow will heal them (Acts 5:16).

Though there us no doubt that Peter is singled out most often in the early chapter of Acts, John, we are told, is often with him (Acts 3-4). James also takes a prominent role at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13ff). The three of them — Peter, James and John — are called by Paul “pillars of the church” (Gal. 2:9). Paul and John are sent by the apostles, implying that that body has authority over them (Acts 8:14).  In defense of his own apostleship, Paul equates himself with Peter (whom he calls Cephas; Gal. 2:8) and he urges Christians not to consider themselves followers of one apostle or leader, naming specifically himself, Peter (Cephas) and Apollos, but of Christ alone (1 Cor. 1:12-13). He even tells of a time in which he opposed Peter publicly, accusing him of hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11-14).

From this collection of passages, I conclude that while Peter took a leadership role in the early church and was clearly the most prominent apostle up until Acts 13, when Paul’s ministry become the focus, that there is no evidence that he had any authority over the other apostles or any greater authority than they did.

We turn then to those passages from the gospels in which Jesus is believed to have conferred special authority upon Peter. Twice Christ seems to give Peter special instructions to care for others. In Luke 22, when He is predicting Peter’s betrayal, Jesus tells him, “‘You, when you have once turned back, strengthen your brothers'” (Luke 22:32). And after his resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Him and three times tells him (in various ways) “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19). The three-fold repetition of this scene has been connected to Peter’s three-fold denial of Christ. That is, having to say he loves Jesus three times undoes the three times he denied his Lord.

The primary passage used to defend the primacy of Peter is Matthew 16:17-19. I have blogged on this passage once before (here), but I will go over it once again. The passage reads as follows:

“17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

There are really two key bits to this passage: “upon this rock I will build my church” and “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” As you hopefully know, Peter’s name was originally not Peter but Simon. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus changed his name to Peter which means Rock when He first called him to follow Him (John 1:42). Here He makes a play on that name. Catholics understand the rock of Matthew 16 upon which the church is to be built to be Peter himself; others take it to be Peter’s declaration about Christ.

There is an interesting contrast here with the passage which comes right after it, Matthew 16:21-23. (I am indebted to my 15yo for this observation:) In vv.17-19 Jesus tells Peter that what he has said has come from God (v.17) and makes a play on his name, speaking of the rock as a foundation stone upon which the church is built (v. 18). In vv. 21-23, Jesus tells Peter that what he has said comes from Satan and again plays on his name, this time calling him a stumbling block (v. 23). The contrast between these two passages, juxtaposed as they are, is so marked that I do not see how we can take the one literally without taking the other in the same manner.

There is an interesting connection here to Revelation as well in which we are told that the foundations of the New Jerusalem are written with the names of the apostles:

 And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:14)

It is hard to know just how literally to take this since, with Paul, there are not 12 but 13 apostles, but to me it would seem to argue that all the apostles might be considered foundational, not just Peter.

We turn then to the second half of the passage in which Jesus tells Peter, “‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’” (Matt. 16:19). I take this to be one idea — that Peter is being given authority, symbolized by keys, and that that authority is to bind and loose. Though Jesus is addressing Peter here, he uses the same wording regarding binding and loosing in Matthew 18:15-20. It is worth looking at that passage as well:

“’If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’”

As you can see, the same language of binding and loosing is used here, but the audience seems to be all the apostles (or perhaps even a larger group of Jesus’ followers). The context is discipline within the church and the instructions seem to be for the church (“two or three”) rather than the individual.

These are the main passages which are used to support the primacy of Peter. There are  a few others of lesser impact. For example, when Peter is listed first in the list of apostles this is taken to indicate his primacy. However, tis alone does not seem to be terribly significant.

My opinion would be that while Jesus may well be calling Peter himself the rock in Matthew 16:18 that he is making a play on words which is of no more lasting import than the similar (but negative) pun he makes in Matthew 16:23. The authority he seems to give Peter in Matthew 16:19 does not seem to be exclusively for him but for the church in Matthew 18. I think if all we had were these passages, one could make  a reasonable (but not conclusive) argument for Peter’s primacy, but when we include also the evidence from the rest of the New Testament which seems to show that Peter, while a leader, had no greater authority than the other apostles, that there is not a very strong case for the doctrine of the primacy of Peter.

The authority of the popes (and through them also of the Catholic Church itself) rests not just on the primacy of Peter but also on the primacy of his successors, the bishops of Rome. For this I find no biblical evidence. We are told that the apostles appointed elders (or bishops) and it seems clear that these also appointed successors and that they carried on the work of the church. But nowhere does there seem to be a one-to-one correspondence between an apostle and his successor. Instead, multiple successors are appointed as the church grows. In fact, Peter is not even associated with Rome in the New Testament; only later traditions place him there.

Conclusions

I’ve gotten through 4 of the 9 questions I began this post with, and those four the most fundamental I think for all that follows. As frequently happens, one post leads to another, so I will call this “part 1” and continue the topic in my next post.

To sum up what I have found thus far:

  • There are people termed apostles in the NT who have special authority. The two qualifications seem to be that they have seen Crist in the flesh and are appointed directly by God. There are probably 13 of them (including Matthias who replaced Judas and Paul) with Paul being the last to become an apostle though occasionally others, notably Barnabas are referred to as apostles.
  • The apostle appoint elders who succeed them. They take on most of the tasks of an apostle though they are not associated with signs and wonders. They are not themselves apostles but whether they constitute and “apostolic succession” is not (yet?) clear.
  • Peter appears to be a leader among the apostles after Jesus ascension though his prominence wanes after Paul comes on the scene. There is no indication that he had authority over and beyond that of the other apostles, however. Nor is there evidence that he appointed specific successors who would inherit his primacy (if he had any).

Until next time

Nebby

 

 

 

 

Scripture and Tradition — Sorting through all the Issues

Dear Reader,

I would like to once again revisit the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. I gave my own thoughts on this topic previously when I discussed sources of authority in the church (see here and here). Since then I have read and reviewed (here)  Keith A. Mathison’s book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Reading Mathison’s book both clarified and muddied my own thoughts. My purpose now is to try to do some sorting of all that is buzzing around in my head.

As Mathison states in his conclusion, the real question is not if we refer to tradition but what tradition(s) we make use of. Even those who claim to rely upon Scripture alone (what Mathison calls the Tradition 0 or solo scriptura position) come to the text with preconceived ideas which they have gotten from other sources, whether their own imaginations, their parents, their teachers or their favorite rock anthem (the possibilities are endless). I am not going to spend a lot of time critiquing the so-called solo scriptura position. It has one fatal flaw which I think is pretty obvious which is that it leads to utter subjectivity and no way to discern right from wrong or orthodoxy from heresy.

Instead, I’d like to turn to the three other positions which Mathison defines (though I am not overly enamored of his categories). He calls them Traditions 1, 2 and 3. You can find a little more detail on them in my review of his book. I’ll begin with a brief review of these positions and then discuss the pros and cons of each.

The Positions

Tradition 3, as Mathison defines it, places a person or group of people above both Scripture and Sacred Tradition. This is the view of today’s Roman Catholic Church. For a more in-depth look at the Catholic position, with quotes, you can look back out those previous posts. The condensed version is that the Catholic Church holds that Scripture and Tradition are two branches of the teaching passed down from Christ to the Apostles. They are complementary but not identical. Christ also gave authority to his disciples, and especially to Peter, which was also handed down through the ages (this is known as the Apostolic Succession). These men, the leadership or Magisterium of the church, are given the authority to tell us what is contained in Sacred Tradition and also to rightly interpret both Scripture and Tradition. Ordinary believers, even local priests, are not able to do this. In this way, the Church (big “C”) is evelated over Scripture and Tradition both as it is the only one with the authority to tell us what they are and what they mean.

By Mathison’s definition, “Tradition 2” is that in which Tradition interprets Scripture. That is, Tradition tells us what Scripture means. I find this position somewhat of a straw man. Because Tradition in the church (whatever church you are speaking of) is oral tradition, it must necessarily be passed down by someone. And if there is a someone telling us what Tradition is, then there is a someone telling us what that Tradition means and therefore also what Scripture means.

The Eastern Orthodox church makes Scripture subject to Tradition. It believes that Christ gave one body of knowledge, Sacred Tradition, to His apostles. The most important parts of this were written down and became the New Testament. Scripture then stands as a part of Tradition. However, the Eastern Orthodox still believe in Apostolic Succession, saying that the bishops as a group show apostolic authority when they agree with one another.  Thus, they recognize the authority of the church councils. This is not really then Mathison’s Tradition 2 since there is still a body of people who are charged with preserving Sacred Tradition and interpreting it.

Tradition 1 is the position Mathison himself adheres to and which he says was that of the early Protestant Reformers (like Calvin). It is what they meant by sola scriptura, that Scripture is the only infallible rule but that it must be interpreted by the church (not the individual) in the context in which it was intended. This context is really a very narrow version of tradition (which Mathison himself would acknowledge). He speaks of the regula fidei or Rule of Faith as the guide by which we must interpret Scripture. He makes clear in his book that this rule is found on the creeds of the church, paryicularly the Apostles’, Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds. As I tried to make clear in my review of his book, I feel that Mathison is selecting just one possible rule (actually a few, since he doesn’t pick just one creed) and that though he makes a lot of good points in his book, he fails to explain this particular choice, defend it, or show that it is the rule that the Reformers would have used.

The main difference I see between Mathison’s position and that of either the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches is that his tradition is tangible and finite. he can point to it and say “here it is” and we can know the whole content of it. Having defined it, he can’t come along later and add to it or detract from it. Though to be honest, since he doesn’t pick one creed, or even one set of creeds, it is not as tangible and finite a position as I would like it to be.

Critiquing the Positions

Christianity is a diverse enterprise these days. Mathison tries to define four positions, but though his categories are helpful in framing the discussion, they don’t truly reflect the range of beliefs out there.  As I see it, there are really two extremes. On one side we have the Tradition 0, solo scriptura, crowd which, though few would acknowledge it openly, says that whatever Scripture means for you is what it means.  There is no outside standard, whether traditions or people, by which to judge an interpretation’s correctness. On the other side, we have something like the modern Roman Catholic Church which acknowledges that the authority to rightly interpret lies ultimately in one person (though even the Roman Catholic Church does not really go quite so far as this or as it could). Really the question seems to be: How many people can interpret Scripture? Another way of asking this might be: How many truths are there? Solo scriptura says that we have as many interpretations as we have people. Unfortunately, this leads to a world in which we cannot judge what is The Truth. On the other hand, if we have one person telling us what is true then we can have One Truth. Of course this is only  valuable insofar as that truth is, well, true. And in between we have an almost limitless number of permeations of those two positions.

I’ve gone back and forth on how to write this section. I want to say something about the problems with each major position, but I don’t want to be petty, I don’t want to get bogged down in the details or side-tracked on smaller issues, and I don’t want to repeat myself. And, honestly, what I find when I think about it is that the criticisms that apply to one position tend to apply to most if not all of the others.

So let me say it this way — Here is the problem: While we would all love for the Bible to be 100% clear and unarguable, it is clear from the present situation that those claiming its authority can still believe vastly different things and all back up their positions (to varying degrees perhaps) with biblical arguments. Even Satan uses biblical proof texts (Matt. 4:6) so it should come as no surprise to us that almost anyone can use the Bible to support their position.

Given this circumstance, we must then have some means of discerning between true and false interpretations of Scripture.  We might come up with principles (“Scripture interprets Scripture”), outside information (Sacred Tradition) or people (bishops, the Magisterium, the “Church”), but somewhere, somehow we need to refer to something else. The alternative is to say that there is no absolute truth, that the Bible can mean one thing to you and another to me (in which case Satan’s take is just as good as Jesus’). I’ll concede a slight variant to this — we could say that there is absolute truth but that we just can’t know it in this life. But then really what is the point of Scripture if it is not God telling us what He wants is to know? If we can’t know what it means, He might as well have not communicated at all.

As Mathison points out, everyone, everyone comes to the Word with some preconceptions. Even if we acknowledge no outside standard, we have a whole host of influences in our past which inform our own thinking. No one can truly hold to the solo scriptura approach. The question we all have to answer is: Why do you believe whatever or whomever you believe? The Roman Catholics, for example, would say that Protestants are subjective because they have no one standard of interpretation. But if we were to ask them why they believe the Scriptures mean one thing or another ultimately the answer is “because the pope says so” (there may be layers in between which involve words like “Tradition” and “Magisterium,” but ultimately this is what it comes down to). So then we may ask, Why do you believe the pope? One answer which is given is “Well, Jesus gave Peter special authority in the Bible and that has been passed down through the generations to his successors.” But Protestants and Eastern Orthodox and really everybody else look at the same texts and do not see the primacy of Peter. So how do we know that this is what the Bible means? Again, we are back to the same question. Another response might be that it is the tradition of the early church or that the church fathers tell us about the primacy of Peter and of the successive bishops of Rome. But here we are just really pushing off the problem again because there is no less debate over what the church fathers say than over what the Bible says. If anything, because there is even more material available and because it is a less well-defined body of material, it is even harder to say what the early fathers said (and that is if we even care, which many Protestants don’t).

In the end, almost everybody uses circular reasoning at some point and everybody hits that wall where they have to say “I believe it because I believe it.” In other words, we are all subjective. Today more than ever we are all “cafeteria Christians.” We have a wide array of choices before us and even if we never abandon the tradition we were raised in, we are to some extent choosing what to believe and what church to be affiliated with.

Evaluating the Options

If we all to some extent pick our church, we must before we do so have some criteria by which to choose. The catch-22 here is that our church tells us by what criteria to judge but we must first pick a church so we need some criteria before we officially subscribe to one set of criteria.

How we initially judge will be informed by a number of things. We are reasoning creatures, and while I personally believe that our sense of reason was corrupted in the fall, it does still remain. We also have consciences, inborn senses of right and wrong, which may steer us one way or anther. We have feelings (also created good but fallen) which may tend to sway us, and we have past experiences which may tend to make us gravitate toward one choice or away from another.

The questions we have to ask and which any scheme of biblical interpretation has to answer are:

  • Who can rightly interpret the Bible? — and a follow-up question: Where does their authority come from?
  • What outside sources are used?
  • What principles are used?

I am going to concentrate on the first two of these because it is in them that all the major differences between the branches of the church on this issue seem to lie.

Catholicism

As to the who, the Roman Catholic Church says the Pope (with the Magisterium, but if you read the specifics the Magisterium cannot disagree with the Pope) interprets the Bible. It should be remembered that (at least while all is going well) there is only one legitimate pope at a time, there are multiple popes over the course of history and the past ones have as much authority as the present one and so in some sense there is a body, albeit a small one, of people who interpret. Their authority is due to their apostolic succession. It comes ultimately from Christ who appointed apostles who appointed successors and so on.

The main advantage of the Catholic position is that it claims a clear line of authority and has one living ultimate authority to which to appeal. Its main drawback is that it has to maintain and defend its consistency. If a pope contradicts himself or a previous pope, it undercuts the Catholic claims. If a pope behaves poorly or says something which is later contradicted, a shadow is cast upon his legitimacy. And without this legitimacy, the Catholic position has little ground upon which to stand. I would add, with Mathison, that having one authority is only valuable insofar as that authority is correct. The consequences if that authority is wrong are dire indeed if no dissent is allowed.

Sacred Tradition, though it is relied upon by the Catholic Church, does, as Mathison says, become subservient to the human hierarchy because it is they who tell us both what the traditions are and what they mean. The fact is that almost 2000 years after Christ’s ascension, there is no definitive statement of what Sacred Tradition contains and therefore we rely upon those to whom it was entrusted.

Eastern Orthodoxy

In the Eastern Orthodox churches, there is a group of people, the bishops, who, as long as they agree with each other, provide right interpretation. Their authority is due, as in Catholicism, to their apostolic succession but also to a right adherence in matters of faith and morals since apostolic authority can be lost in Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Eastern Orthodox get around some of the problems the Catholics face by not concentrating authority in one person (who could then let one down by going astray) and also by allowing that apostolic authority can be abrogated. The problem for them is that whenever there is a disagreement among bishops there must be some way to determine who is orthodox and who is the heretic. Since the general test is agreement with one’s fellow bishops, one would assume that if one bishop disagrees that he is the rebel. But what if there is a larger split? I honestly don’t know anything about the history of orthodoxy since 1054, but we can look back at the early church councils which were called to deal with heresies. Though in retrospect we are able to say that Arianism, to take one example, was an error and has since been suppressed, at the time it would have been very hard to say who was right and who was wrong.

Though they have different understandings of the nature and status of Sacred Tradition, the Orthodox are open to the same charge the Catholics are — that a purely oral tradition necessarily becomes subservient to those who maintain it. Both of these branches, then, really depend in their views upon the legitimacy of their claims of apostolic succession. If we are not convinced that Christ established a continuing line of authority through the apostles (and in the Catholic case the primacy of Peter as well) or if we believe that such a line was at any time broken, then there is no legitimacy for the authority of either of these branches of Christianity. Both branches acknowledge that the line continues in the other though the Orhtodox believe that the bishops of Rome (that is, the popes) long ago abrogated their authority so that that branch is effetivley wiped out. The Catholics believe that apostolic authority continues in the Eastern Orthodox bishops but that they are outside of the proper church since they don’t submit to the pope as the successor of Peter. How then do we know that apostolic succession and the primacy fo Peter are real? Well,the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches tell us so; they tell us that the right interpretation of Scripture shows these things. Protestants, of course, would disagree and say that the Bible  and the history of the early church show no such thing and that apostolic authority ended with the first generation of apostles.

One final observation before we turn to the Protestants — though both claim to hold the Tradition passed down from Christ, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus between them as to what that Tradition is. As I said, though neither defines it well, they seem to view it quite differently which would lead to the conclusion that one or the other (at least) must not have the actual Sacred Tradition.

Protestantism

Protestant churches vary. Many give at least greater authority to interpret the Bible and determine right doctrine to either the leaders of the church or the church as a whole. A few, like the Anglicans, will claim apostolic succession, but most do not and therefore have to answer the question of where authority in the church comes from. Though it is my own branch, I think this is a weak point in the Protestant position. There is usually some sort of passing down of authority, as when hands are laid on at an ordination. Sometimes leaders are chosen by other leaders; sometimes they are chosen by the congregation or by some combination of these two. Usually there is some recognition that one is fit for leadership because he (or she) has gifts or qualities given by God which are then recognized by the leaders or the people. One might say that authority in Protestant churches (for the most part; it is hard to generalize with Protestants) comes from right adherence in matters of faith and morals combined with some sort of recognition by others of this reality.

With no clear line of authority to be traced beyond a certain point, Protestants are faced with a problem of origins — that is, where did the authority of the first Protestant ministers come from? And if their authority is based upon having right doctrine then we must first know what that doctrine is. But it is the leaders of the church (often) who tell us what that right doctrine is. So as we trace a line back we will ultimately reach a point where we must ask who first determined what was right and how did they determine it?

Without apostolic authority to fall back on, having the right beliefs becomes even more important in Protestantism. So then having standards by which to judge what is right also becomes more important. Most Protestant denominations do not claim to have Sacred Tradition. While some do take the extreme position of saying “the Bible only” (what Mathison calls solo scriptura), many others pick a certain standard or set of standards on which to base their doctrine. Mathison himself picks the early church creeds (though not specifying which). My own denomination relies upon the Westminster confession combined with its own Testimony which responds to the confession. Perhaps because they have no clear line of human authority to maintain traditions, Protestants tend to choose written standards on which to base their theologies. The advantage of this position is that there is something anyone can refer to and which is not inherently dependent upon people. The disadvantage is that any such standard is arbitrary (why this creed or that confession?) and likely open to interpretation itself.

Conclusions?

What conclusions can we come to then? I agree with Mathison that it is impossible to come to the text without presuppositions and biases. There is no solo scriptura and to try to hold such a position leads to a multiplicity of interpretations and ultimately to a state in which whatever anyone believes is right and therefore nothing is truly right or wrong.

On the other hand, all the major branches of Christianity at some point use circular reasoning. There is always a point beyond which we cannot get or at which we must say “it is this way because I say it is.”

One option at this point is to abandon the whole thing. One could easily conclude that because there is no unanimity in Christianity that it cannot be true. I don’t think we need to go there, however. Looked at from another angle, one can actually be amazed how many different churches and denominations agree on some pretty central truths — that there is a God who created everything we know, that man sinned, that God sent His Son in the person of Jesus to die on a cross, rise from the dead and ascend to heaven and thus in some way to redeem us from our sins and restore us to our Creator and that there is a resurrection of the dead and that there will be eternal life for those whom Christ redeems. Though we may disagree on some other issues which may seem important as well — like how salvation happens and what is necessary for salvation and even how the two natures of Christ interact (which was the dispute at the Chalcedon and separates the Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Church of the East from their brethren) yet there is still agreement on the basics that I have listed above. Is this enough agreement? It really depends on your perspective. It is reminiscent of Paul’s description of a Christian confession in Romans:

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9; cf. I John 4:2)

While I personally hold a fairly low standard for what is essential, both for salvation for an individual and for a church to be considered a “true church,” I also think that ideas matter very much. So while on one hand I would say that I am impressed by how much agreement there is on these essentials even 2000 years later, on the other I do not think that this means that it doesn’t matter which church we choose. The specifics of what we believe about who God is, who we are, and how we are saved are going to play out in other ways. In other words, while I may believe there are a large number of “true churches,” I also believe that some are better, that is closer to the truth, than others.

A church near me had a sign out front recently which amounted to “whatever you believe is okay here” (I can’t recall the exact words). The extreme position is out there. But for the rest of us, I think we are making some assumptions which are so basic we don’t even think about them. One is that there is a Truth, that there are right and wrong interpretations of Scripture. This, I think, is essential to our understanding of what Scripture is. If it is the Word of God, if it is how He chose to communicate with us, then we must believe that it is understandable by humans (which humans is another question). If God’s communication to us is of any value, we must be able to comprehend it.  Likewise, if it has no specific meaning, I would argue that it is worthless. One could argue (and the church near might well do so) that God might want to communicate one thing to you and another to me and to a certain extent this is true, but ultimately God must be one thing or another. Either Jesus is God or He isn’t. Either Moses parted the Red Sea or he didn’t.

A second assumption we are all making is that uniformity is to be expected, that if Christianity is true then we should all be believing basically the same things. This comes out in our criticism that the solo scriptura position leads to too much diversity in opinion. I happen to agree that it does, but does this mean that our message is always undercut if we can’t present a unified front? Scripture does lead us to believe that Christians will have unity (Phil. 1:27, 2:2; I Peter 3:8) though it also tells us that there are matters on which we may disagree (Rom.14:5). Determining which matters it is necessary to agree on again gets us back to the subject of discernment and how we can judge what it true and what isn’t.

What then are the answers? I think that is something we each must decide. And I think that even those who choose the Catholic Church with its claim that only the Magisterium can interpret Scriptures are themselves first making judgments about what is true. They may choose to submit themselves to another’s authority (as most Christians do to some degree) but they are choosing which means they are making determinations and judgments of their own. I can’t tell anyone, even my children, what they should believe and who they should submit themselves to. But I can suggest some questions we should all consider:

  • Where does authority in the church come from? What makes it legitimate?
  • Can that authority be lost and if so, in what circumstances?
  • Do I believe in apostolic succession? The primacy of Peter?
  • Do I believe that there is a body of knowledge known as Sacred Tradition which has been passed down from Christ to the apostles and their successors?
  • Whether I accept Sacred Tradition or not, what other standards do I use and why choose them over other options?
  • What principles should be used to interpret Scripture?
  • Who am I submitting myself to and why?
  • To what degree I am submitting myself? Am I free to leave this body if I choose to? Or are there certain circumstances which make it alright to leave? Do I want to be able to leave?

The Role of the Holy Spirit

Why after 2000 years is there any Christian church? Why do we still adhere to some fundamental truths, though there may be much we disagree on? Christ promised that He would preserve His church.

When I make criticisms like that placing the authority for interpretation in the hands of one man seems like a bad idea, I understand that the Catholics themselves would not see it this way. For them the pope is the successor of Peter to whom it was said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).  If a pope is infallible, in the Catholic view, then it is not because he is a sinless or wise or perfect individual but because God preserves him from error (at least when he speaks ex cathedra in matters of faith and morals).

Similarly, Protestants will say that they don’t need apostolic succession because God raises up leaders. When a congregation votes to call a pastor, it is not just the individual opinions of how ever many separate people, it is the Holy Spirit working in hearts and minds and providing unity.

The problem is, of course, that one cannot really judge another’s claims regarding the work of the Holy Spirit. We all put Him in the process somewhere but it is a very easy thing to claim “God told me so” and a very hard thing to prove to another’s satisfaction.

So I suppose I could add to my list of questions above, Does this seem like the work of God to me? Is He at work here? Of course to know what the work of God looks like, I must read and rightly interpret His Word which brings us back full-circle to our initial problem. In the end, I don’t think any one of us is going to be able to fully defend his or her choice, but we do have to make one.

Nebby

 

 

Book Review: The Shape of Sola Scriptura

Dear Reader,

I have spent a long time on Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura. It is not a thin book, but beyond that there is also a lot to absorb from it. I had come to this book after many unfruitful and frustrating discussions with a recently turned Catholic friend. A large issue for him is authority in the church — Where does it come from? Who decides what the Bible means? I hoped that this book would provide some coherent answers to his questions and mine.

I am going to spend a couple of posts (at least) on The Shape of Sola Scriptura. In this first one I will attempt to give you more of a classical book review — what the book is about, what works in it, what doesn’t. In my next post I will delve deeper into Mathison’s arguments and give my own responses to them.

Mathison defines four views of the relationship between Bible and tradition. He calls them Tradition 0, 1, 2 and 3. He is a proponent of Tradition 1 which he defines as the reformation view of Sola Scriptura which views the Bible as the ultimate authority for God’s people but takes it in the context of the regula fidei, or Rule of Faith (we’ll come back to the specifics of what this means). Tradition 0 is, by his definition, a corruption of Sola Scriptura which he calls solo scriptura. It takes the Bible as the only authority, the result of which is that each Christian interprets the Bible for him or herself with no guiding principles and ultimately no uniformity in doctrine within the church. Tradition 2 adds Sacred Tradition to Scripture, a position which Mathison would say leads to the supplanting of Scripture by tradition as it is tradition which tells us what Scripture means. Lastly, Tradition 3 makes the church the authority over Scripture and Tradition, telling us what both mean. This is the view of the modern Roman Catholic Church with its Magisterium and papal infallibility.

Mathison divides his discussion into three main parts. He begins with the historical evidence from the early church on, asking what the church fathers had to say about tradition, and then moving on through the Medieval church, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, discussing ideas which arise in the process (like papal infallibility). Mathison then truns to what Scripture has to say about tradition and about its own authority and then to more theoretical arguments for sola scriptura in a section he calls “The Theological Necessity of Sola Scriptura.” The very end of the book is devoted to some common objections to the Tradition 1 view.

Mathison is really trying to do two things in this book: to present and defend the view he subscribes to and to critique competing views. While my own view is very similar, though not identical to Mathison’s, I felt that he did a much better job of critiquing the positions of others than of presenting his own.

As I said, Mathison begins with the historical evidence from the early fathers. I found this section quite convincing as it is presented. I did wonder, however, if what he gives us is an accurate and complete account of the evidence. Everybody (or almost so, some “Tradition 0” Protestants don’t care) in this battle wants to trace their own position back to the church fathers. The ones Mathison cites seem to expound a view similar to his. The problem is that the Catholics and Orthodox will both give a different series of quotes, or perhaps even different takes on the same sources, that seem to support their view. I find this one of those subjects that it is very hard for me to draw a conclusion on, like global warming and evolution. “Experts” on both sides seem to present convincing evidence until you talk to the other side’s expert and find his evidence sounds just as convincing. While the body of writings from church fathers should be a finite one, it is nonetheless a large one and is itself subject to interpretation so it is hard for me as a lay person to take it all in and say “yes, this is what the church fathers thought” or “no, that is what they thought.”

Beyond this, there is the problem of being anachronistic, of reading our modern understandings into ancient writings. When we use or read the word “tradition,” we must always ask how it is being used. The early fathers did not have the arguments we are having so they weren’t setting out to answer our questions for us. We are left trying to look back and discern how they would have seen the issue when they never framed it the way we do. Here I should say that I have some problems with how Mathison frames the whole issue. His use of the labels Tradition 0, 1, 2, and 3, I find to be a bit oversimplified and to leave out some legitimate options. I do understand that it is helpful for a book like this to be able to boil it all down, but there is a fine line between giving us helpful terms with which to discuss an issue and oversimplifying or even misrepresenting an issue through one’s terminology. I actually really liked the categories Oberman uses which Mathison briefly references in a footnote on p. 86, but Mathison himself does not choose to use them.

As Mathison moves on from the early church period into the Middle Ages and beyond, he shows how new views of the interplay of Scripture and Tradition developed. His focus is really on the Roman Catholic position and though it is not his direct object at this point in the book, he (at least as far as I am concerned) raises a lot of legitimate questions about the Roman Catholic position and its origins. In fact, I think the strongest part of the book is the questions Mathison raises about the Catholic view. I will treat these specifically in my next post on the content of the book.

Though he devotes a short section to it, Mathison does not talk much about the Eastern Orthodox view and even admits that it does not really fit his categories. Neither does he discuss other, admittedly less widely held, views or address other branches of the Christian tree such as the Oriental Orthodox churches.

A main purpose of this book is to distinguish Mathison’s Tradition 1 view from the common Protestant position which he calls Tradition 0. Proponets of the latter accept no authority other than Scripture, and Mathison does a decent job of showing that this position is quite problematic because it so very subjective and because it leads to many, many divisions in the church and undercuts any attempt at defining absolute truth.

The weakest part of The Shape of Sola Scriptura is Mathison’s defense of his own position. He does acknowledge some of the problems inherent in his own position, most notably that it is quite dependent on our definition of what the church is which is another huge can of worms. Though he defers this discussion of this issue till near the end of the book, he does attempt to address it. I did not find his arguments very convincing at this point, however, nor his definitions of what a true church is very helpful. Though he uses Charles Hodges’ definition of a true church to attempt to define the issue, I was not enamored of Hodges’ approach and Mathison does not bring the issue of apostolic succession into it at all. One can argue that there is no such thing as apostolic succession, of course, but I don’t think we can ignore the question altogether. The fact is authority in the church has to come from somewhere, and Mathison does not address where it originates or what makes the authority of a given church legitimate. His only reference to this issue is a brief statement in passing that “The corporate judgment of the Church normally operates through those who have been especially gifted by the Holy Spirit with leadership and teaching gifts” (p.272). He does not expand upon this, however, and I am left wondering how one can discern the presence of these gifts, who gets to say whether an individual has them or not, and whether there are any other criteria he would use to establish legitimate leadership in the church.

Mathison says a number of times that the only time in history when we have seen Tradition 1 as the established view of the church for any length of time is in the early church. Though he believes Tradition 1, as he defines it, is the view of Reformers like Calvin he also says that it quickly degenerated into Tradition o. As I have noted, while I personally found Mathison’s evidence on the point convincing, there is no consensus on what the view of the early church was as every group wishes to claim it for their own side. We are left then with only a brief period when Tradition 1 clearly held sway to any degree in the early days of the Reformation. If this view did not last, I am left wondering if it is at all sustainable or if it inevitably becomes supplanted by what Mathison calls a Tradition 2 view in which tradition reigns over Scripture or degenerates into a Tradition 0 view in which every man’s opinion is his only guide. And if Tradition 1 is unsustainable, is it then untenable?

My last major criticism of Mathison’s  expounding of his position has to do with how he defines the Rule of Faith, or regula fidei, by which he believes Scripture is to be interpreted. As Mathison says, “The Reformers did not reject tradition; they rejected one particular concept of tradition in favor of another concept of tradition” (p. 345). The concept they favored, or at least which Mathison, proposes is found in the creeds. This, for him, is the Rule of Faith, that standard by which we are to discern orthodox from heretical interpretations of Scripture and also by which we are to discriminate between true and false churches. Mathison does not argue this point; he does not suggest that there might be other rules or embodiments of tradition. Nor does he spend time showing particularly that this is the standard the Reformers used. That is assumed rather than shown in this book. Mathison also does not pick a creed. He mentions the Apostles’, Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds but does not pick between them. It is worth noting that the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Assyrian Church of the East do not accept the creed of Chalcedon. I assume that by his definition, then, Mathison would not consider them true churches. Personally, I am not comfortable with doing so and the Roman Catholic church, which Mathison does believe is a true church, has in recent years said of the Oriental Orthodox churches at least that their differences are minor and that they share a common faith.

Mathison at times refers to “essential doctrines.” These he finds, again, embodied in the creeds (again undefined as to exactly which creeds are included and which are excluded). In addition to using these as the regula fidei by which we are to interpret Scripture, he also uses them as the test of a true church. But the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and (most) Protestant churches all accept these creeds. If we are to look at only the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, we can add the Oriental Orthodox churches and Assyrian Church of the East to this list. And yet with this common confession we do not end up with much common belief. The whole point of this book is to show that how we view tradition relative to Scripture, what Tradition we use and what role we give it, are important. And yet in the end, Mathison picks a standard which all these churches accept though they end up in very different places on so many, many issues. The creeds themselves are open to interpretation to some degree and they provide little guidance for us in interpreting Scripture. They rule out extreme positions like that Jesus was not God, but they still leave quite a lot of room on other issues. So my biggest difference with Mathison’s position is that I do not find his definition of what Rule of Faith (which for him is the whole embodiment of tradition) we should be using very hepful. While I do agree with him in a general way on the relationship between Scripture and tradition, I am left still wondering what tradition we are to look to. Mathison’s deferral to the creeds I find very unsatisfactory. I am honestly not sure at this point how exactly I would define my own position. That is something I hope to get closer to working out in my next post in which I will delve more into the content of the book.

To sum up, then, my reactions to the book itself, I would say that The Shape of Sola Scriptura is well worth reading. It raises a lot of issues that need considering. While I am not 100% happy with Mathison’s categories, they do help us to think about the issues. He is strongest in his critiques of others’ positions, particularly of the Roman Catholic and solo scriptura positions, but he falters when it comes to defending his own position.  Ultimately, there is a lot here I agree with, but I am uncomfortable with his deferral to the creeds, and these only generally speaking, as the sole regula fidei by which we are to discern true from false interpretations.

Nebby

 

 

Sabbath Mood Homeschool

Desiring That a Sabbath Mood Rest on Your Homeschool

dayuntoday

my musings, wise or otherwise

Festival Fete

locally grown art, food, and merriment

StrongHaven

A Literary Homestead

journey-and-destination

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Harmony Fine Arts

Blogging about education, theology, and more

The Common Room

....Blogging about cabbages and kings since 2005.

Sage Parnassus

Blogging about education, theology, and more

A peaceful day

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Living Charlotte Mason in California

Blogging about education, theology, and more

weeklywalrus

Weekly Walrus Whatevers

Creations by Maris

Handwoven Textiles

Fisher Academy International ~ Teaching Home

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Afterthoughts

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Leah's Bookshelf

Book Reviews You Can Trust

Duxbury Art Boosters

Supporting the visual arts in Duxbury Public Schools

Just Right Porridge

... you'll lick your bowl clean...