Occasionally, on Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!
Answering Questions about Christian Doctrine from Biblical Language Alone?
I’ve started to read a massive work on the development of the doctrine of the Trinity during what is called the Arian Controversy: The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God : The Arian Controversy 318-381 by R.P.C. Hanson. It’s already been eye-opening in a number of ways, and I thought a quote to help illustrate one of those points would be helpful. As the early church began to dispute the doctrine of the Trinity in earnest, it became clear that simply appealing to biblical language was not enough:
The theologians of the Christian Church were slowly driven to a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself. (xxi)
Hanson’s point here is that each side of this controversy appealed to biblical language and even tradition to support their claim to be orthodoxy. When faced with such discord, the Christian church was forced to come to a decision point, and Hanson notes that this decision was “to form dogma” (ibid). The Christian Church had to come to realize the necessity of coming to agreed upon interpretations of the biblical language, because the questions that were being raised were about that language itself.
This raises, of course, many additional questions, some of which are uncomfortable. For example: If such hugely important doctrinal questions could not be resolved simply by appeal to the biblical language, what does this mean for some forms of sola scriptura? It seems that some formulations of that doctrine clearly allow for tradition and even dogma to decide questions of interpretation, but more extreme forms surely cannot adequately defend orthodox Christian doctrine. Another question that it raises is: What kind of controversies does the church have now that each side appeals to biblical language on but can find no ultimate resolution there?
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God has already been challenging and enlightening. It’s a behemoth at 900+ pages, but it seems well worth the time investment.
On Christian Music– I wrote a post about the label “Christian music” and how that can lead to a number of difficulties with discernment.
Christian Discernment Regarding Music: A Reflection and Response– I reflect in depth on how we can use our discernment properly when it comes to music.
Sunday Quote– If you want to read more Sunday Quotes and join the discussion, check them out! (Scroll down for more)
Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for my writings on science fiction, history, fantasy movies, and more!
I’m pretty excited to offer you, dear readers, another round of Really Recommended Posts this week. These should give you some nice diverse topics to explore! As usual, be sure to let me know your thoughts on the links, and let the authors of the posts know themselves!
A Short Defense of Sola Scriptura– Here is some insight into the defense of the doctrine of sola scriptura against those who would allege that there needs to be some authenticating authority for the books that make up Scripture. What do you think of this argument?
“I can’t help you” – What Should Never Be Heard at Church– The way we invite (or don’t) others into the life of the church matters. What ways might we best provide an environment that welcomes others into our community? Here’s an example of how not to do it.
Beware of Prayer–New Apostles and Prophets on the National Day of Prayer– Some insight into the documents that are being passed around by leadership for the National Day of Prayer. I think this is pretty unfortunate. However, I don’t think this needs to interrupt your own participation in said day. For some insight into spiritual warfare (including the view of “warfare prayer” and the like), see my review of Understanding Spiritual Warfare: 4 Views (and the book itself, of course!).
5 Changes Elementary Sunday Schools Need to Make ASAP– How might we better equip our children to engage with the challenges they will face against Christianity? Here are 5 important points for changing Sunday School to set children up for success.
LOL Interwebz: Putin the Memes Away– Here’s a challenging post on the use of memes, what they do for us (and to us) and the relation of free speech and Christianity.
The Question of Authority
One cannot question that perhaps the most central issue which divides the Roman Catholic Church from Protestants is the question of authority. The issue touches upon a number of others. Who has the authority to interpret Scripture (ultimately)? What is the structure of a church? How do we learn doctrines? It must be acknowledged by all that the Roman Catholic Church’s claims to authority are paramount. It is possible for the Church to claim infallible authority for its teachings, however few claims they have actually made.
The question of authority persists in its importance today. If one church body–the Roman Catholic Church–is capable of infallibly defining doctrine for the whole of the Christian world, and some deny these doctrines, then that automatically means that those who deny these doctrines are in some sense denying God. It is important to note what the Church itself has said regarding this doctrine. Here is part of the definition of infallibility from the First Vatican Council (Section 4, Chapter 4):
[W]e teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.
What is to be said about those who deny any teaching that the Pope declares infallible? Again, I’ll allow the Church to speak for itself:
So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.
Because I personally do reject some of the infallible teachings of the Church (such as the Marian Dogmas of perpetual virginity, immaculate conception, and the asumption), I, by virtue of this teaching, am anathema. Thus, it should be clear that the authority of the church is at the core of the divide between Catholics and Protestants.
The problem of authority is often pressed by Roman Catholic thinkers as a kind of argument against Protestantism. The way in which it is is presented is often through an argument for unity. For example, the claim is made that the Magisterium is capable of preserving doctrinal unity to a higher degree than the Protestant denomination. The claim is also often accompanied by an offhand remark about the number of Protestant Denominations. What is the implication? The discordant voices within Protestantism are, in some way, to be viewed as a discrediting piece of evidence when it comes to the nature of the truth claims of these churches. The implication (as quoted here) that some Roman Catholic apologists draw is that this proves the necessity of an infallible interpreter of doctrine/Scripture.
Initially, the claim sounds a bit appealing. One may trust in the infallible Church to settle the debate on various theological topics once and for all. One need not try to draw out the implications of specific texts for themselves, leading to any number of diverging interpretations and arguments and ultimately, the splitting of the church into ever-smaller units each warring against each other and saying they have the truth.
There’s one major problem, though. By whose authority does one make the decision to trust in the infallible magisterium? This question should be on the mind of any individual who chooses to join the Roman Catholic Church based upon the argument from authority. After all, it is the decision of the individual to trust the Church which leads to accepting the Church as the infallible authority.
One must then ask the question: are you infallible? That is, is your [fallible] decision to make the Roman Catholic Church your infallible authority itself an infallible decision? Could you be mistaken? If the answer is that you are indeed fallible and you may be mistaken, then it must follow that any trust placed in the allegedly infallible Church must be equally fallible and stand upon shaky ground. For it is the person who joins the church who has joined the Church, not vice versa. The decision rests upon the individual, and it is therefore a fallible decision to make the Church infallible for one’s faith.
This argument therefore tears down any grounds one might have for asserting that one should trust the infallible Church in order to eliminate the discordant voices of Protestantism or choose-your-own-theology which may be the case outside of the Roman Catholic Church.*
*This is not to mention the often discordant voices within the Roman Catholic Church itself and the fact that fallible persons must interpret allegedly infallible statements in order to discern what they mean. Are you an infallible interpreter? Surely not.
Moreover, suppose it is correct that the Church is the infallible interpreter of the Bible and tradition. Does this not mean that any allegations that one is under the authority of the Bible, Tradition, and the Church really boil down to the authority of the Church? After all, the last and final authority in interpreting the Bible, Tradition, or the Church is the Church. If one has a dispute about the meaning of a biblical teaching, the Church may (but does not have to) make the ultimate, infallible decision regarding its meaning. If one argues that tradition hints at something which the Church does not teach, the Church is the ultimate arbiter of tradition as well. Thus, it seems like the final authority in every case lies with the Church. The system, I would argue, ultimately boils down into sola ecclesia.
A Final Note for my Roman Catholic Readers
I want to end with a call to my Roman Catholic readers. First, I would note that in this post I have not sought to insult or denigrate Roman Catholics or their beliefs. I have allowed the Vatican to give its own definitions and presented them, I hope, without distortion. Second, I think that we need to be honest about the differences that we have rather than covering them up. Third and finally, these differences should not, I hope, lead us to be incapable of working together in social and yes–at times–even theological issues. I hope that you will be comfortable interacting with me on this topic and others. I appreciate whatever insight you would like to share.
The Church Universal- Reformation Review– I discuss the possibility of maintaining a universal church in light of the breakup of the church into ever smaller groups. I place this discussion against the background of Reformation theology.
“20,000 denominations”– an in-depth analysis of the claims of those who wish to use denominationalism as an argument against sola scriptura. The link for the article the author evaluates is now down.
Much of the argument found herein has been learned from listening to or reading James White, and although I do not directly quote his work I am greatly indebted to him. A particularly helpful work was The Roman Catholic Controversy.
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After a brief hiatus, “Really Recommended Posts” are back. This go-round I have found for your reading/viewing pleasure a debate on sola scriptura, Buddhism, fear, the Shroud of Turin, and presuppositional apologetics. As always, let me know what you liked/didn’t like! Send me your own recommendations!
Is the Bible the only infallible rule of faith? Tim Staples vs. James White (Video)- A (lengthy) debate between a Roman Catholic and a Calvinist regarding the rule of faith. Should we hold to sola scriptura, or do we need the Magisterium in order to preserve teaching? The debate is really worth listening to.
A Comparison of the Ethical teachings and Impact of Jesus and Buddha– A brief insight into comparative religions between Buddhism and Christianity. What of truth in other religions? I found this a very interesting post.
Fiction and Fear– A really excellent post over at Hieropraxis which notes the importance of an element of fear in fiction. The post ties this back to the relevance of the Christian teaching of Christ’s redeeming work.
Shroud of Turin Blog– I am not convinced that the Shroud of Turin is authentic. However, I do find some of the work being done regarding its authenticity is very interesting. This blog has a constant string of posts related to various evidences in favor of the Shroud’s authenticity. I recommend it for those interested in reading on the topic, with the caveat of my own (hopeful) skepticism.
What is pre-suppositionalism? What is presuppositional apologetics?– Over at Wintery Knight, this interesting post turned up with a critique of presuppositionalism as an epistemology (largely based on this post at The Messianic Drew). I found it interesting, though I do not fully agree with all the critiques leveled therein. For balance, I would also direct readers to Janitorial Musings for a counter-argument to the first major contention against presuppositionalism- Presuppositionalism and Circularity. I think readers should read all the posts involved for a more complete picture. Judge for yourselves what to think of the presuppositional “worldview” (to use Drew’s term–I would lean towards saying “epistemology” instead).