Yet Another Rant From Yet Another Protestant.

When Protestants get tangled in theological debates with Catholics or Orthodox Christians, it always inevitably leads to an impasse. For proof, all you have to do is read the comment thread here. That’s a post from my favorite Catholic blog, Called to Communion, regarding the question of Sola Scriptura. It’s in response to a piece by Keith Mathison of the Reformed Christian group Ligonier Ministries, in which he bemoans that modern evangelicals (and Catholics) far too often conflate the historical doctrine of Sola Scriptura — the claim that scripture is the only final authority on questions of doctrine — with one he smirkingly terms Solo Scriptura (note the “o”), the claim that scripture is so clear and authoritative that Church history and tradition can be completely ignored. Obviously, there is a key difference between these two outlooks, but CtC’s Catholic writers argue there is no “principled” difference between the two, since the individual believer is still free to decide what he believes. Then, of course, the obligatory Catholic-on-Protestant fistfight ensues in the comments, with the Protestants insisting that there’s also no “principled” difference between Sola Scriptura and Apostolic Succession, and the Catholics dismissing this as a simple tu quoque.

Of course, I don’t see it as a tu quoque, else I would probably be Catholic. (Or Orthodox. Maybe both, to hedge my bets.) In any of the three cases, the individual ultimately decides what he or she believes to be true. I’m presently a member of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, in part because I’m a Sola Scriptura guy and I think the Book of Concord lays out the clearest and most accurate explication of what Scripture teaches, particularly when understood through the lens of Church history. However, were I to become convinced otherwise, I would most likely abandon the Lutheran tradition and go elsewhere. But what of it? The Catholic becomes and remains Catholic because he or she is convinced — for one reason or another — that the Catholic Church is the Infallible Church that Christ founded. If he or she were to become convinced otherwise, he or she would leave the Catholic Church; conscience would demand it. And so it becomes clear that the individual always ultimately decides for his or herself what he believes.

This is an inescapable reality for all knowledge. I read about gravity in a physics textbook, and I experience it on a day-to-day basis, but ultimately decide whether I’m going to accept its reality or not. The human mind is not the arbiter of reality, but it is the arbiter of which ideas it accepts. And thus it becomes clear why Protestants and Catholics are always talking past each other, despite agreeing on so much, and why they’ll argue dizzying circles around each other ad infinitum, as they do in the comment thread linked above. All Protestant arguments begin by presupposing Scripture; all Catholic (and Orthodox) arguments begin by presupposing the Church. If you can’t start a debate on common ground, you have no hope of changing your opponent’s mind.

When I started this blog, I had no intention of starting a big ol’ debate about ecclesiology, and I guess I technically didn’t. My first post generated all of eight comments, but that was eight more than I expected. (I guess that’s what I get for linking to other people’s blogs.) I ended up in a brief debate with one Chris Jones, who was probably more cordial than I deserved. Still, I ended up abandoning the discussion because I knew it was impossible to win and it had probably been done to death elsewhere on the Internet already. Either there is one True, Infallible Church or there’s not — and how can we decide without simply presupposing one possibility or the other?

I certainly don’t have a definitive answer to the question, but I can give a brief explanation of why I reject the idea of Church Infallibility. In short, I see no evidence from history or the Scriptures that back up the idea of an Infallible Church. The Scripture verses cited by proponents of the idea (such as Matthew 18:18) are relatively ambiguous, and the Catholic and Orthodox churches have both “infallibly” introduced theological novelties with no basis in either the Old or New Testaments, such as Papal Infallibility and the veneration of icons — not to mention their rejection of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone that is so clearly taught by the Apostle Paul. (The fact that I have to go outside the Apostolic Churches to find Apostolic doctrine is an obstacle that, for me, both Rome and Constantinople have yet to overcome.)

I know that that list of reasons is far from original, and is unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with me, so perhaps I can put a finer point on things with a brief discussion of the Nicene Creed, one of the few formulations that Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Protestants all look to with roughly equal reverence. It was drafted to combat the heresy of Arianism at the First Council of Nicaea, allegedly one of the “infallible” assemblies of bishops. And it’s a phenomenal explication of the nature of Christ and the Trinity, but it can also be easily proven with Scripture. The council itself had no need to be declared infallible, because its declarations were consistent with infallible Scripture. At the time, however, the findings of the Council were considered far from authoritative, and Nicaea was actually followed by a handful of councils that endorsed Arianism and declared the previous “infallible” council to be heretical. In fact the only reason that the Nicene Creed survives to this day at all is the work of the Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius.

Athanasius’s orthodox views were so unpopular in his time that he was removed as bishop from his diocese at least five times; one of the catchphrases of the day was “Athanasius against the world.” However, he remained steadfast in his support of the Creed, not because he regarded the Council that drafted it as more infallible than the ones that followed, but on the grounds that it was in agreement with Scripture. That the Son was one substance with the Father was taught throughout Scripture (particularly in the Gospel of John); Athanasius didn’t have to explain why one Council was infallible and the rest weren’t. The First Council was right because it was in agreement with the Bible.

This pattern of conflicting “infallible” councils is actually repeated throughout Church history. The Second Council of Nicaea, for instance, gave official approval to the veneration of icons, but had no choice but to repudiate the previous Council of Hieria, which had declared said veneration to be anathema. If assemblies of bishops are infallible, they are inconsistently so.

From the perspective of a Protestant, it is hard to see the present state of the Church as anything other than similar to Athanasius-against-the-world. Christ prayed for unity in the Church, and I am less than thrilled to have awakened in an era where this unity doesn’t exist; however, only Christ can heal his Church, and I have no intention of abandoning Biblical doctrines like salvation by grace alone in an egoistic attempt to accelerate this bit of revealed will. It does not matter if more than half of the Church endorses salvation by works — like it once endorsed Arianism — even if they claim infallibility for themselves. As long as the Bible says what it does, I have no choice but to stand with Martin Luther and say:

Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

I have no doubt in my mind that Christ will one day put his Church back together, and I look forward to that day. Hence my original endorsement of Open Communion — it is Christ’s table, not yours or mine, and I have no desire to usurp his authority. Similarly, I would much rather be ecumenical and open-minded than sectarian and separatist. And yet, I cannot endorse doctrines that are not supported by history, and I certainly can’t endorse those that are at odds with Scripture. I have a deep desire to see the wounds in the Church healed — but I have my convictions, and those must come first.

13 thoughts on “Yet Another Rant From Yet Another Protestant.

  1. Hi Joseph. Welcome, and thanks for the link. I read a handful of posts on your blog, and I’m really enjoying it. 🙂

    You are correct, of course, about the “grace alone” thing. I was arguably a tad reckless with my words there. Still, I do hope you understand that when you say that one must “cooperate with God’s grace,” that to Presbylutheran ears it sounds an awful lot like “God graciously gives you the opportunity to earn your salvation.” And I know you’ll say you’re *not* saying that, but then we’re back to where we started. Alas, perhaps Sola Fide was a silly basis for a schism in the first place, but from where I’m standing, it looks a lot less silly than the Filioque. 🙂

    I agree with you that Catholic and Protestant doctrines of salvation are not really all that different in practice, and if that were the only obstacle I might consider climbing the steps to Rome. For me, though, it’s not — I don’t think I could ever embrace the veneration of icons, for instance. If it’s not a direct violation of Exodus 20:4-6 (and I know you’ll tell me it’s not), it does seem determined to inch as close to it as it possibly can.

    • The best analogy I can think of to the Catholic understanding of salvation — and this has made all the difference in my life and in my Christian walk — is that we are trapped in a pit of our sins, and entirely unable to do anything to get out of it. Then God lowers us a rope (grace), and by that rope God can pull us out. But we have to take the rope first.

      Another one is this: we are little children taking our first steps — or alternately, we are old and decrepit, or in rehab — in any case, we can’t walk on our own. We can’t even take the first step under our own power. But Christ takes hold of us (by his grace), and as long as we hold on to him, we have the power to stand. If we let go even for an instant, or try to do anything without Him, we go tumbling. But as long as we let Him hold us and help us, we are able to take steps forward. He is the one doing all the heavy lifting — we are just moving our legs, inching slowly toward our sanctification. (The old and decrepit person may work better, because unlike the child, we’ll never have the strength to walk on our own. The only good thing about the child metaphor is the paternal aspect.)

      Yeah — sola fide is a silly thing to argue about, especially when the end result is the same. That wasn’t the only thing that was going on then, but it seems to be the main sticking point now — mainly because Protestants misunderstand the Catholic position, and they are so tempered to react violently to anything that smells like “works’ salvation,” as you said.

      As for the veneration of icons: I know very little about that. We don’t have icons in my church. That’s more an Eastern thing. I was given an icon for my Confirmation, by my very Italian Catholic sponsors. It sits in my house and it’s beautiful, but I don’t know anything about “venerating” it. I try to remember that it’s an image of my Lord, not just a decoration, and to think of Him and honor Him when I see it — but that’s all the “veneration” there is. We do have statues (only two or tree: Mary and Joseph, and then Christ on the Cross) — but there’s no “veneration” to those, either. It was explained to me as having pictures of your loved ones to remind you of them — and that’s basically the only way anybody treats them.

  2. I see no evidence from history … that back up the idea of an Infallible Church

    With respect, if you don’t see any evidence of an infallible Church from history, then your model of Church history is defective. Of course, history as such can never “prove” that the Church is infallible; but history can certainly prove that the early Christians believed that the Church is infallible. Starting with the council in Acts 15, Church councils have always acted as if they were protected from error by the Holy Spirit (“it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us …”).

    The most basic historical fact that does not fit your rejection of infallibility is the fact that it is only through the historic Church that we can even have the Scriptures. Without the Church, we would have the text of the Old Testament (because it is preserved among the Jews), but without the interpretive lens of the Church’s rule of faith we should never be able to recognize the Old Testament’s witness to the crucified and risen Messiah — and so the Old Testament would be useless to us. But without the Church, we would never have the New Testament at all. It is the Church which preserved, copied, and faithfully handed down the New Testament to us. It is the Church which faithfully used the New Testament in her liturgical worship, and it was the Church which recognized and authenticated the Apostolic authorship and the Apostolic content of the New Testament writings.

    The one point on which all Sola Scriptura Protestants are willing to grant the infallibility of the Church is when the Church gathered, published, and handed down the books of Scripture. If that was not done without error, then the Scriptures are not to be relied upon. But if we grant that the Church is reliable in her preservation and transmission of the Scriptures, why can we not grant that the Church is reliable in her preservation and transmission of her rule of faith and her authoritative interpretation of the Word of God?

    I see no evidence from … the Scriptures that back up the idea of an Infallible Church

    Really? No evidence at all? What, then, does St Paul mean when he describes the Church — not the Scriptures, but the Church — as the pillar and the bulwark of the Truth?

  3. I acknowledge the quote from Paul, Chris; however, it’s a bit of a leap for me from “the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the Truth” to “the Church will always be infallible.”

    As to the argument regarding the Canon, I would posit that we’re both arguing in circles there — it’s just that your circles are a bit bigger than mine. From where I’m standing, Scripture is infallible because Scripture is infallible; you’re arguing that Scripture is infallible because the Church is infallible, and the Church is infallible because the Church is infallible. In other words, we’re both making a leap of faith and we’re both begging the question. You’ve just pushed your source of infallibility back a step.

    In any case, I would point out that the New Testament Canon was more or less taken for granted long before it was established officially, and was even more-or-less the same among schismatic sects like Jacobites, Nestorians, Copts, and Syriacs (‘The Lost History of Christianity’ by Phillip Jenkins argues this point quite well). I believe Calvin, for his part, argued that determining which books were inspired is akin “distinguishing night from day” for the believer. You don’t have to agree, of course (I’m not sure I do), but my point is that there are ways to endorse the Canon without endorsing broad Church infallibility.

    In any case, you seem to be ignoring the crux of my argument here, which is that Church councils have historically contradicted other Church councils, which for me calls for serious scrutiny regarding their infallibility. If you have a response to that, I’d very much like to hear it.

  4. it’s a bit of a leap for me from “the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the Truth” to “the Church will always be infallible.”

    Well, sure. But if there is some distance to be covered between “pillar and bulwark of the truth” and “the Church is infallible,” there is even more distance between “pillar and bulwark of the truth” and “the Church is not to be trusted; only the Scriptures are infallible,” which seems to be how Sola Scriptura works out in practice in modern Protestantism (including, sadly, our own Missouri Synod). In any case I offered the “pillar and bulwark” verse not as a slam-dunk proof of the infallibility of the Church (it’s not), but as an argument against your assertion that there is no evidence at all in the Scriptures for the infallibility of the Church. To me, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” provides some evidence for infallibility — not evidence enough to prove it all by itself, but some evidence for it. So I think you are wrong when you say “I see no evidence from the Scriptures” for an infallible Church.

    And when I asked what St Paul meant by “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” that was not a rhetorical question. If it does not refer to the infallibility of the Church, then what does it mean? The Holy Spirit would not allow the Apostle to write something in the Scriptures that did not bear some significant meaning. How, then, do you interpret that verse?

    As to the argument regarding the Canon, I would posit that we’re both arguing in circles there

    I don’t think so. In fact, I wasn’t making an argument primarily about the canon of Scripture (and I didn’t explicitly mention the canon). I was making a more general argument about two things: the role of the Church in delivering the Scriptures to us; and the way in which the Church historically has used the Scriptures. In particular I am not arguing that “the Scriptures are infallible because the Church is infallible.” What I would say instead is that when the Scriptures are used by the Church in accordance with her rule of faith to impart the Gospel, then, and only then, the Scriptures become a reliable means of grace. The Scriptures simply as a compendium of data and information, apart from their use by the Church as a means of grace, are not infallible at all. (For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith.)

    the New Testament Canon was more or less taken for granted long before it was established officially

    Yes and no. The core of the New Testament (the four Gospels, the Acts, and the principal Pauline epistles) were in use in the Church from very early times. The more controversial writings (the Johannine epistles, Hebrews, the epistles of Peter, and the Apocalypse) were not being used universally by all Churches. Local Churches which did not receive and use 2d Peter (for example) would not have regarded 2d Peter as infallible Scripture and doctrinally binding on them. If Calvin was right that it was easy to distinguish inspired Scripture from other writings, then surely all the books of the New Testament would have been recognized, received, and used by all the local Churches from the beginning. In the real world of Church history, discernment and the guidance of the Holy Spirit is not nearly so cut-and-dried. (BTW, quoting Calvin carries no weight with me. Calvin was a heretic, full stop.)

    But notice what it means to say that the NT was “more or less taken for granted.” It means that the local Churches had been given (i.e. “granted”) the New Testament books by tradition by earlier generations of the Church. And it means that those books were being used, liturgically, to impart the Gospel and the Apostolic Tradition to the faithful.

    I didn’t mean to ignore the “crux of your argument” and I apologize for doing so again now. But it is late, my eyelids are drooping, and I have blathered long enough for one comment. I will make another comment tomorrow that addresses the role of the councils in the grand scheme of things.

  5. Re: the Church an infallibility.

    We Lutherans accept an infallible Church, insofar as she is the Church. This is much like the “new man” does not need the Law, but I as a Christian, sinner and saint, do indeed need the law. I do not need the law, insofar as I am a “new man.” But as sinner and saint, I need it very much.

    So, sure, we can agree that the Church is infallible – but will the real Church please stand up? And what about times, as in the 360’s, when Jerome notes that the world awoke somewhat startled to find itself Arian?

    Thus, I tend to find this sort of argument rather tedious (as a Lutheran). If you can read the whole history of the Roman church (with Honorius and Liberius and Tetzel and all the rest) and see infallibility there – well, then you are certainly a Roman Catholic, probably with a vanishingly small little acreage left for infallibility to play its role. As for me and my house, we acclaim the spotless bride of Christ in the same way we acclaim the spotless soul of each baptized Christian. Doesn’t we don’t sin in our day to day life. And it doesn’t mean that “popes and councils” won’t err.


    • Fr Curtis,

      Your version of the infallible Church seems rather abstract, and only concretely realized in the eschaton. As such, it is not all that useful. An abstract or invisible Church does not provide much of a stake in the ground or (as St Paul might have put it) much of a bulwark.

      A touchstone has to be concrete and recognizable to actually function as a touchstone. If I were to say that I accept the infallible Scriptures, insofar as they are the Scriptures, without any assurance as to which books are truly canonical, or even without a commitment to which chapters or which verses are truly inspired, then I could say “Sola Scriptura” all day long and it would mean nothing.

      That is why grounding our ecclesiology and our theology in concrete historical reality is so important. An a-historical abstraction cannot communicate the Gospel. An a-historical abstraction cannot exercise the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Only the Church, the one founded by Jesus Christ, to which He committed the Apostolic ministry, can carry out the ministry of Word and Sacrament, through which the Holy Ghost is given who works faith. If we Lutherans do not claim, and cannot claim, that our Church is not just “a Church” but “the Church,” then we have no business exercising Word and Sacrament ministry in His name.

      • This is what I mean by tedious. Where did I say that I was not part of the Church? But that does not mean that men in the Church will not err. Nor does it mean that Fr. Ratzinger or a Baptist is not a member of the Church. “A seven year old child knows what the Church of God is. . . ”

        So what is the upshot? What do you think I’m denying that you hold to? Can you give me an example of where the rubber hits the road?

        The canon? Different areas in the Church have received books differently at different times in history. Trent made its peace with this historical fact in its customarily authoritarian way, those council fathers thinking as they did about their own authority. I find Chemnitz’s response regarding the canon in the Examen persuasive.

        The Church as the Bride of Christ is indeed truly infallible. On that we agree. But I say that this does not mean that men in the church cannot and will not err. Do you disagree with this? Not even Rome disagrees with that (see Honorius) so I don’t see how you could.

        I think these are uncontroversial statements. You seem to be arguing for something between these uncontroversial statements and Rome’s definition of when the magisterium cannot err. But I am not sure that you have defined it at all; or at least I am sure that I have not understood exactly what you are arguing for.


  6. Chris (and I’m sorry for dipping in and out of this discussion, but this blog is far from my top priority at this point in my life), I’m actually fairly surprised to see you identify yourself as a Lutheran, given that you’ve previously rejected my claim of “invisible” Church unity. The “Lutheran Church” is hardly a visibly united one, with divisions both across and within national borders — and that doesn’t even begin to deal with small and large doctrinal differences. Heck, the LCMS and the Lutheran Church — Canada are two distinct entities, despite historical connections. Even if you’re going to sincerely make the claim that the Lutheran Church is the “One True Church,” how do you do so without subscribing to at least some sort of invisible unity? (Or alternatively, I guess, suggesting that the True Church only exists within U.S. borders?)

  7. I agree with Fr. Curtis (surprise, I know). The Sacred Scriptures themselves witness that individuals within the Church err – one thinks of St. Peter being rebuked by St. Paul as recorded in Galatians. The NT foretells that there will be time of great apostasy before the end. Certainly “the Church cannot err” is a statement that Luther himself defended in his book on the Councils, but within the parameters that Fr. Curtis discussed above.

    That false teaching can at times be found in the hierarchy should not be a matter of serious dispute but of established fact; that false teaching may at times prevail over wide sections of the Church also should not be a matter of serious dispute. One thinks not just Jerome’s statement as above, but of the stunning confession of St. Basil the Great in On the Holy Spirit: “I learned from the example of the children in Babylon that when there is no one to support the cause of true religion, we must accomplish our duties alone. They sang a hymn to God from the midst of the flame, not thinking of the multitudes who rejected the truth, but content to have each other, though there were only three of them. Therefore the cloud of our enemies does not dismay us, but we place our trust in the Spirit’s help and boldly proclaim the truth.” On the Holy Spirit, par. 79 Or another great Cappadocian who proclaimed: “WHERE are they who reproach us with our poverty, and boast themselves of their own riches; who define the Church by numbers, and scorn the little flock; and who measure Godhead, and weigh the people in the balance?” – Gregory of Naziazus, Oration 33

    We go back to the wise works of Augustine that infallibility is granted to the writers of the canonical Scriptures, not to others. And as for the statement about the Church being the pillar and ground of the truth in St. Paul, I find it most curious how St. Irenaeus offers his “gloss” (I suppose you might call it) on that, where he refers to the apostolic Scriptures in the possession of the Church as the pillar and ground of the faith.

  8. Pingback: Hey Guys, I’m a Young Person and I Have Opinions (Rachel Held Evans, Millennials, Etc.) | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

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