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Jun 18th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

In May of 2007, Dr. Francis J. Beckwith, at that time the president of the Evangelical Theological Society, announced that he was returning to the Catholic Church in which he had been raised.

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This prompted some discussion on Reformation21.org, a site devoted to presenting and defending the Reformed tradition. Carl Trueman of Ref21 wrote “Beyond Chick Lit,” and Catholic philosopher Dr. Michael Liccione responded to Trueman’s post with a post titled, “Why Beckwith matters,” to which Trueman then linked. Richard Phillips, also with Ref21, chair of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and senior pastor of Second Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, South Carolina, then replied to Liccione’s post with a post titled “Beckwith, Trueman and the Holy Spirit.” There, Phillips wrote the following:

On the key issue of tradition and authority, Liccione’s main argument is that when it comes to interpreting Scripture we must either throw in our lot with the authority of the Church or the authority of private interpretation. He sees the Protestant approach relying on the latter. What he fails to appreciate, in this response at least, and what many other critics of the Reformation fail to appreciate (including evangelical postmoderns) is that we are not relying on the authority of private interpretation but upon the ministry of the Holy Spirit. This is the lynchpin of Reformed hermeneutics, our conviction from the Scriptures that the Spirit will lead God’s people into truth by the Word (Jn. 16:13). Whereas Liccione and other Roman Catholics see the divide as consisting between ecclesiastical and individual authority, Reformed theology sees a divide between church authority and the authority of the Holy Spirit. We are not relying on private interpretation, but on the witness of the Spirit to the Word in the church to the people of God.

Everyone sees the chaos in church history when it comes to Bible interpretation and each side blames the other: Rome blames individualism and Wittenburg blames tradition. I would blame both, but then I would turn to the witness of the Holy Spirit as the solution and hope. I suppose that if I had to choose between the witness of the Church and the witness of private interpretation, I, too, would reluctantly submit to Rome. Fortunately, I am faced with no such dichotomy, because in step with the Reformed faith for the last half-millennium I may rely on the Spirit’s authority for both the church and the private individual.

Phillips claims that Liccione offers a false dilemma: either we follow the authority of the Church, or we follow the authority of private judgment. According to Phillips that is a false dilemma because the Reformed faith offers a third alternative: we follow the Holy Spirit.

Phillips’ reply to Liccione is less than adequate because it does not avoid the dilemma Liccione raises. That can be seen if we ask the question: When we approach Scripture, how do we determine what the Holy Spirit is saying? Either each individual is ultimately his own highest authority regarding what the Holy Spirit is saying, or that authority belongs to something outside the individual. In the former case, we are left with “private judgment,” and the endless fragmentation that must accompany it, as history shows. But the only plausible authority outside the individual, for determining what the Holy Spirit is saying in the Scriptures, is the Church.

What seems most problematic is Phillips’ claim that “Reformed theology sees a divide between church authority and the authority of the Holy Spirit,” as though we must choose between these two authorities. It is not Liccione who is offering the false dilemma, but Phillips. If the Holy Spirit works through the Church, then we do not have to choose between “church authority” and “the authority of the Holy Spirit.” We can follow the Holy Spirit precisely by following the Church. Otherwise, no pastor (not even any Protestant pastor) could have any authority, because that authority would be in competition with the authority of the Holy Spirit.

No less problematic is granting “church authority” as authoritative when it agrees with one’s own interpretation, but then seeing “a divide between church authority and the authority of the Holy Spirit” when it doesn’t. How is such an approach anything other, in principle, than “the authority of private judgment” which Phillips claims to reject? Those who simply and explicitly embrace “the authority of private judgment” are seeing clearly what they are doing. But those who claim to reject both “the authority of private judgment” and “the authority of the Church” seem to be playing a game involving self-deception, not seeing that their whole ecclesial activity is a charade, ‘play church’ — something to prop up the illusion and make it seem as though they’re not doing what they really are doing, i.e. accumulating for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires. (2 Timothy 4:4-3-4) St. Paul wrote that the time would come when this would occur. Has anyone stopped to consider what the results of such accumulations would look like, and how exactly, they would differ from the plethora of contemporary denominations? Perhaps we should.

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  1. […] Filed under: Church — Thomas @ 3:02 pm From Called to Communion blog: . . . If the Holy Spirit works through the Church, then we do not have to choose between […]

  2. Reformed theology sees a divide between church authority and the authority of the Holy Spirit.

    What a dreadful statement.

  3. Phillips’ statement is 100% incoherent. Your comment about charades and self-deception is right on the money. It astonishes me to read something like that from someone who is supposed to be in a position of authority and carry some kind of intellectual clout.

  4. There is a certain loved one in my life whom I could see embracing Phillips’ perspective. And I don’t for one second think that this close family member is consciously insincere or self-deceptive. It’s just that he grew up in a seriously committed christian environment so far from Rome that I don’t believe he can even begin to wrap his mind around the possibility that Rome is THE Seat of Orthodoxy and proper teaching. As humans we bring so much emotional/experiential baggage to the discussion that it really does take all of one’s effort to simply see what is right before one’s nose (Orwell, right?). It’s happening, though. There is change in the air! And there are many young rather ignorant people (among whose number I include myself) who may not know too much about church history, but who can detect a lie from a mile away (I’m actually a public school teacher myself and I’d say the same of my students. They may have a lot of cheesy stuff going through their heads (see the book Twilight). But I guarantee it- you simply can’t pull a fast one on them!). Thanks for the article, Bryan!

  5. Good stuff.

    In 2007 when wife and I began seriously to investigate the Catholic Church (from PCA and Church of God), we were pretty shocked to discover that our foundation was so weak. We would have agreed with Phillips right away, even though (by 2007) we were fairly sick and fed up with denominationalism.

    It’s one thing to recognize that denominations are antithetical to John 17; it’s quite another to see that the Protestant approach (as outlined by Phillips) must necessarily create denominational schisms that completely undermine John 17.

    It was obvious to me (and everyone who knew me, really) that my Christianity was a complete mess: what I didn’t realize until 2007 is that I never was being led by the Holy Spirit as much as I was leading and the Holy Spirit was managing the fallout.

    That will read more harsh than I mean it, and I’m only speaking for myself, but… well… in the final analysis, I was the boss of me even though I would have sworn up and down that, no, it was the Holy Spirit. Right?

  6. My Evangelical friends would balk and take serious issue with this statement: “what many other critics of the Reformation fail to appreciate (including evangelical postmoderns) is that we are not relying on the authority of private interpretation but upon the ministry of the Holy Spirit.”

    Every Evangelical believes he is relying on the authority of the Holy Spirit and that there understanding of the Scriptures and truths of the Christian faith are not just their “private interpretation”.

    It seems to me that one crucial aspect of this question is the verse he cited, John 16:13.

    Who, exactly, is Jesus making this promise to (that the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth)?

    1. Was it just to the 12 Apostles, and none others, and not meant to continue when they all died?
    2. Was it to the 12 plus all his other current disciples, and not meant to continue when they all died?
    3. Was it to the the aforementioned and to every individual Christian throughout all time, such that the Spirit will individually lead each Christian into all truth?
    4. Was it to the 12 Apostles and his other disciples in the sense that He built His Church and appointed them as the leaders of it, and this promise was given to the Church and meant to continue until the end of the world?
    5. Was it to the 12 and any groups of Christian people thereafter–even if different groups believed mutually exclusive things–who gathered together and called themselves a “church”?

    You get the idea. To whom Jesus intended these words and how he intended them are enormously important questions, and it seems that, depending on your Catholic or particular Protestant belief, you can interpret it to fit what you think easily.

    I would say that #4 is to whom and how Jesus intended the words.

    #1 and #2 don’t make sense because the promise would have ended when all the Apostles died.

    #3 is true in a certain sense, which is what makes it so appealing to especially Evangelicals and which lends credence to Mr. Phillips’ accusation of private interpretation, but even if the Spirit does lead individual Christians to the truth somehow, that “how” is critical: Is it through a private burning in the bosom or is it by leading each individual Christian to the Church Christ founded, which is the pillar and bulwark of the truth?

    #5 doesn’t make sense because the Spirit is of Truth and mutually contradictory teachings about matters of the Faith mean that one or more groups are wrong; therefore, those groups, however earnest, cannot be the ones to whom this promise has been made, for they have veered from the truth and into error, even though I will caveat this by saying that these Christian Ecclesial Communities’ members do through their valid baptisms have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them and His gifts, and that God graciously does work through them to bring salvation to people, even while calling them to unity in the fullness of the truth (cf. Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio).

    Thoughts on this exploration of John 16:13?

  7. Thanks for citing me, Bryan. I never replied to Philips because his arguments are so weak that I didn’t think the benefits of pointing that out would have justified the ecumenical cost. I did notice that other commentators criticized him, though. And things are different enough at this distance in time to justify your re-opening the discussion. Good job.

    Best,
    Mike

  8. I guess Philips didn’t want to consider that the Church’s authority came from the Holy Spirit. Whom did he think it came from? A bunch of individuals? For 2009 years??????????????????

  9. I followed that conversation at the time. If anyone is interested, I posted a few blog entries of my own on two related topics, the sola scriptura principle and the concept of “plain meaning” as applied to scripture, mostly with a view towards defending Roman Catholic ideas about teaching authority and scriptural interpretation. I can’t promise that these posts will be very interesting to very many of your readers, or that they present the best possible arguments in favor of the positions that they defend. I promise only that they are long and boring.

    sola scriptura:
    http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2006/11/sola-scriptura-and-justification-sola.html
    http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2006/12/just-what-is-principal-of-development.html
    http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2007/09/pap.html

    “plain meaning”:
    http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2007/10/why-privileging-private-judgment-is-sin.html
    http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2007/10/scripture-meaning-and-interpretation.html
    http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2007/10/authorial-intent.html
    http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2007/10/witty-reading-of-history.html

  10. I followed that conversation at the time. If anyone is interested, I wrote a few blog posts of my own on the related topics of sola scriptura and the notion of “plain meaning of scripture”, mostly with a view towards defending a Roman Catholic conception of teaching authority and scriptural interpretation. I can’t promise that these posts will be very interesting to all of your readers, or that they present the best possible arguments for the positions that they defend; I can promise only that they are long and boring:

    http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2006/11/sola-scriptura-and-justification-sola.html
    http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2006/12/just-what-is-principal-of-development.html
    http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2007/09/pap.html
    http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2007/10/why-privileging-private-judgment-is-sin.html
    http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2007/10/scripture-meaning-and-interpretation.html
    http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2007/10/authorial-intent.html
    http://examinelife.blogspot.com/2007/10/witty-reading-of-history.html

  11. Faith:

    Phillips doesn’t consider that possibility because, in the sort of ecclesiology he represents, there is no such thing as a visible, unitary church that can be called “the” Church. Hence there is no such “Church” that can claim the teaching authority of Christ. Instead, visible churches are denominations with no real authority. They are bunches of individuals whose private judgment happens, for a time, to coincide, thus making it appear that the judgments in question are something more than just opinions.

    Best,
    Mike

  12. Thanks Scott. I’ll print them out and read them next week.

  13. Protestantism is not led by the Spirit but by the Word. Appeals to the Spirit are actually not so much Reformed as they are “Radical.”

    Martin Luther famously referred to the Radicals of his time as those who had a taste for feathers:

    “When we have heard or learned a few things about Holy Scripture, we think we are already doctors and have swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all…This one will not hear of Baptism, that one denies the Sacrament, another puts a world between this and the last day: some teach that Christ not God, some say this, some say that: there are about as many sects and creeds as there are heads. No yoke is so rude but when he has dreams and fancies, he thinks himself inspired by the Holy Ghost and must be a prophet.”

    In the July/August 1959 issue of Torch & Trumpet, Cornelius Van Til published his first article entitled “Calvin the Controversialist.” In it he paints a quick picture of life in Geneva up to the point at which “Calvin and his colleagues were ordered to leave the city.”

    Cardinal Sadolet wastes no time trying to do damage control. He writes to the Genevan people that it seemed good “to the Holy Spirit and to me…to write somewhat to you…of the hope in Christ…the blessing of complete and perpetual salvation…by faith alone in God and in Jesus Christ…This [Catholic] Church hath regenerated us to God in Christ, hath nourished and confirmed us, instructed us what to think, what to believe, wherein to place our hope, and also taught us by what way we must tend towards heaven.”

    He goes on to threaten the Day of Judgment against those who will not forsake these “modern novelties,” promising those who have returned to the church to meet the Day with confidence. Beza claims there is no one in Geneva who can answer Sadolet and beseeches Calvin to respond. As to this appeal Sadolet makes to the Spirit, Calvin says:

    “What comes of the Word of the Lord, that clearest of all marks, and which the Lord himself, in pointing out the Church, so often recommends to us? For seeing how dangerous it would be to boast of the Spirit without the Word, he declared that the Church is indeed governed by the Holy Spirit; but in order that that government might not be vague and unstable, he annexed it to the Word.”

    There are those today who seem to think that western Christianity is basically a story of Roman Catholicism and everybody else. If one is not Roman Catholic he must be a Protestant. They forget that the Radicals told Protestants they didn’t reform enough. This rusty history seems to be an equal opportunity afflication on the part of Catholics and Protestants alike. But just because two camps aren’t Catholic doesn’t mean they are both Protestant. And so for those who don’t seem to recall that the Reformation was indeed a battle on two fronts, which, among so many other things, was also a battle against two camps which claimed the Holy Spirit above the Word and descending like a dove on either the shoulder of the Church or into the heart of the Individual, Calvin reminds that:

    “We are assailed by two sects, which seem to differ most widely from each other. For what similitude is there in appearance between the Pope and the Anabaptists? And yet, that you may see that Satan never transforms himself so cunningly, as not in some measure to betray himself, the principal weapon with which they both assail us is the same. For when they boast extravagantly of the Spirit, the tendency certainly is to sink and bury the Word of God, that they may make room for their own falsehoods. And you, Sadolet, by stumbling on the very threshold, have paid the penalty of that affront which you offered to the Holy Spirit, when you separated him from the Word.”

  14. “For seeing how dangerous it would be to boast of the Spirit without the Word, he declared that the Church is indeed governed by the Holy Spirit; but in order that that government might not be vague and unstable, he annexed it to the Word.”

    Good for Calvin. As a Catholic, I’d point out that all Cardinal Sadolet had to add to that is this: “and in order that the interpretation of the Word might not be vague and unstable, he annexed the Magisterium to the Word.”

  15. And as a Calvinist (or an erstwhile one, anyway), I’d only point out that “the Supreme Judge by which all all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WCF I.X), so as to ensure that nobody sets up a false dichotomy between being led by the Bible and being led by the Spirit, and so as to make it plain that Calvinists look to the Word just because they believe the Spirit’s the one who authored and guides them through it. (Sort of like how Catholics think, actually, so long as we refuse to use excessively broad brush strokes on either side.)

    Neal

    (By the way, Hi. Been a while, Zrim. I get such a kick out of your blog posts.)

  16. This is so weird. I didn’t even know this discussion was going on in May 2007.

    Thanks for posting links to it. This will be helpful for the sequel to Return to Rome that I am going to begin working on in September. I’ve tentatively titled it, 49% Protestant: Further Reflections of an Evangelical Catholic.

    It will be published by Ignatius Press.

    Frank

  17. Zrim,

    There is no principled difference between following the Spirit when interpreting Scripture, and following the Spirit when not interpreting Scripture. We could call the former “being led by the Word” and the latter “being led by the Spirit.” But they are both forms of “private judgment.” And that’s why the proposed ‘middle position [between Catholicism and Radicalism] is no middle position at all, but just another form of private judgment.

    The ready objection is that there is no need to listen to the Spirit when determining the interpretation of Scripture, because one can simply discern its plain meaning. But a quick glance around is always sufficient to nullify that objection. This week, for example, Scott Clark, John Piper, Doug Wilson and N.T. Wright cannot even agree on what is the Gospel. Clark calls Piper a brother. Piper calls Wilson a brother who preaches the gospel. Clark holds that Wilson is a heretic teaching another gospel, and [gently] rebukes Piper for calling Wilson a brother. Piper and Wright cannot agree on justification. Michael F. Bird then defends Piper and Wright, against Clark. These aren’t adiaphora here. This is the “Gospel” and “justification”; it doesn’t get much more essential than that. And even highly trained (and obviously Christ-loving) scholars can’t agree.

    That’s why God gave the Church an enduring Magisterium, as Michael pointed out in comment #13, so His sheep need not be confused.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  18. The ready objection is that there is no need to listen to the Spirit when determining the interpretation of Scripture, because one can simply discern its plain meaning. But a quick glance around is always sufficient to nullify that objection.

    Another concern (less empirical and more theological) is that despite all the talk of the noetic effects of sin, of self-deception, of voluntarism, of suppression of the truth in unrighteousness, and of overall human frailty (moral and epistemic), the Zrimian Calvinist position puts a lot more stock in the ability of unaided human reason than Catholics are comfortable with. This is typically masked behind rhetoric about the clarity of Scripture, but the mask seems to let a bit too much light through it. (Thus the practical contradiction I pointed out to Andrew M. in the Self-Authentication thread.)

    Neal

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