Which Lens is the Proper Lens?

Sep 10th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

The Reformed blog Green Baggins has been running a series on the Reformed Confessions as the lens through which the faithful read Scripture and receive the teaching of the faith.

magnifying-glass

The first entry found here is summarized by the following quotations:

The question is not whether one will have a lens through which to interpret Scripture, but rather which lens is the correct lens?

The reason this becomes important is that there are really only two alternatives. Either one takes the lens of a church’s confession, in which case one is entering into the collegiality of the church’s reading of Scripture, or one is inventing one’s own lens that will be on a par with the standards of the church, yet separate from it. At the very least, it could be said to be bordering on arrogance to think that one’s own lens has the same kind of authority as what the church has said.

The author then goes on to argue that one should submit to the Reformed confession(s) because the confessions come from ‘the church’ and the alternative would be inventing one’s own lens.

The author concluded:

The Reformers loved the church and highly respected her opinions. They respected her opinions above their own, in fact. And this is really the point. In submitting to the confessions, we acknowledge that the church is our mother.

The obvious question for a Catholic minded person is, “Which church is your mother?” Or, “How do you know this lens is the correct lens and not some other lens?”

Called to Communion contributor Bryan Cross summarized the problem with his comment early in the combox:

You say you reject biblicism. But then you use a biblicist way of defining ‘church’, and then say “We love the church and highly respect her opinions”. Well, if ‘church’ just means those who agree with your interpretation of Scripture, with marks determined by your own interpretation (or those whose interpretation you share), then, of course it is no big surprise that you “love and highly respect” the ‘church’, because, it is no surprise that you love and highly respect your own interpretations of Scripture. Apart from the biblicist-determined ‘marks of the Church’, what the early Protestants did in the sixteenth century viz-a-viz the Catholic Church (e.g. Luther publicly burning the papal bull) is quite indistinguishable from not highly respecting the Church, even rebelling, against the Church, whether or not their treatment of the Church is verbally described as loving and highly respecting the opinions of the Church, and whether or not the early Protestants had well-intentioned motives (which I generally think they did).

If the FV folks said they loved and highly respected the opinions of the Church, and defined the marks of the Church so that it included themselves, and justified their disregard of the rulings of the PCA, OPC, etc., you would be all over that, immediately. But that’s just what your claim [that I quoted above] looks like, from a Catholic point of view. So your position is, in that respect, ad hoc, accepting biblicist defining of the marks when it suits you (i.e. in the case of the early Protestants), and rejecting it when it doesn’t (i.e. viz-a-viz the FVers).

To understand how the position that Bryan describes is different than the position of the Catholic please read our article on ecclesial deism.

This original Green Baggins thread sparked about 1,000 comments and the conversation is not over yet. A follow up thread was posted several days later by Bob Mattes called The Lens of Confessions Revisited.

Mr. Mattes’ entry laments that the original thread became a conversation about authority. However, it seems almost impossible to avoid a conversation about authority when talking about which lens is the proper lens through which we view the faith.

Mattes writes:

I thought that I would try to bring the discussion back on point with this post and address the Federal Visionists’ blatant biblicism.

Here the author makes it known that a major purpose of submitting to a Reformed confession is to avoid biblicism.

It did not take long for somebody to ask, “Which lens?” An interlocutor asks:

If all of us come to the Bible with lenses, Lane asked the obvious question — which lens?

Are we really left with a Sophie’s Choice? On the one hand, if the church lens is the final authority, the question becomes which church? On the other, if the individual lens is the final authority, which individual has the correct lens?
[…]
But what would you say to the Romanist who, according to his lens, says that your so-called church is autonomous and unaccountable to the true Mother church?

In their view, God has mercifully shown Romanists the true lens, has overcome the hubris of Protestant individualism, who like Marcion mold the Bible to their own false stand-alone views.

The answer the interloctor received demonstrates that ultimately the position of the Reformed confessionalists is no different than biblicism.

Bob Mattes answered thus:

I centered my post on the PCA in particular, but I believe that it applies generally. When you say that one’s lens determines one’s church, I agree to a point. By the grace of God, though, He is a great lens grinder. I grew up in the RCC. God mercifully took His divine Dremel to my lens and fixed it. I remain eternally grateful for the regrinding. I think that He calls His Dremel ’sanctification’…

I don’t want this thread to go the way of the other one – a Protestant vs. RCC sink hole. I’ll simply say that Scripture doesn’t support their lens. Our Standards are solidly and solely based purely on Scripture as the only rule for faith and practice, their catechism and theology aren’t.

According to Mattes’ response, the individual must select which confession he believes is most biblical and then submit to it. However, Mr Mattes here demonstrates that his position does not avoid biblicism.

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  1. I can’t wrap my mind around why this isn’t plain to some people. Another commenter took up the same biblicist position in the thread on sola fide saying:

    The reason I’m willing to trust an excommunicated Monk is because his doctrine matches Scripture. I’m unwilling to follow Trent because (it consciously ignored Reginald Pole et. al.) and didn’t.

  2. Tim A. Troutman: as I understand it, it is not plain to some because they do not construe the relationship between church, scripture, and individual as you do.

  3. rfwhite.

    Then why does Mattes say, “The Reformers loved the church and highly respected her opinions. They respected her opinions above their own, in fact. And this is really the point. In submitting to the confessions, we acknowledge that the church is our mother.”

    Or do you disagree with Mattes?

  4. Rfwhite, that’s exactly the point. They say “We believe X” we say “no you don’t because of Y” and I say “I can’t understand how they dont see that Y proves that they dont believe X” and you just answered “it’s because they don’t believe X.” That is, I know they don’t “construe the relationship between church, scripture, and individual” as I do. What I don’t know is why they insist that they do.

  5. Sean: Thanks for the interaction. Incidentally, I am engaging with you men on this topic because I sincerely appreciate your probing of these questions. I won’t pretend to speak for Mattes, but I expect his answer to your question lies along these lines: he says what he does because for him submission to the church and her opinions is not the same as submission to Scripture.

  6. Tim A. Troutman: thanks for the clarification. Perhaps in #5 you see an initial attempt to analyze Mattes’s thinking. To put it in your wording, if a Mattes were to think that he does construe the relationship between church, scripture, and individual as you do, my response is, “well, no, you really don’t.”

  7. Rfwhite – then we’re in agreement on this point.

  8. Tim A. Troutman: well, since we’re agreed on that point, where does that leave us on your opening remark? That is, what’s left to get your mind around? Is it that you don’t think Mattes understands that he construes the church-scripture relationship differently than you do?

  9. Am I correct in locating the issue here is that Prots think that special revelation ends just before the maps, but RCs understand it as continuing in the church tradition? Prots see the tradition(s) of the church as a helpful and necessary guide to Scripture. RCs see the Scripture as a starting place for tradition, which in turn interprets Scripture.

    I’ve just printed off Yonke’s article “Hermeneutics and the Authority of Scripture” – I’m looking forward to reading it!

    Happily,
    Tim

  10. I wonder, which lens was Bob Mattes using when he determined the Catholic lens to be deficient?

  11. Tim P – we don’t view Scripture as the starting point of Tradition, we view the apostolic teaching as the starting point of both Tradition and what would later be recorded in Scripture. That said, there is a certain primacy of Scripture in Catholic teaching which we will discuss soon.

  12. rfwhite – I still don’t understand how the Reformed think they believe in Church authority as opposed to biblicism since, as Sean showed in this article, the version of “church authority” they hold to relies on biblicism.

  13. TAT: Ok. Well, we’d agree that the answer most likely lies in how they define biblicism and how you define it.

  14. Since the beginning of my little blog (August 2007), on the right side-bar, under “GETTING HISTORY RIGHT”, I have provided the following germane quote:

    >>The Reformers unequivocally rejected the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. This left open the question of who should interpret Scripture. The Reformation was not a struggle for the right of private judgement. The Reformers feared private judgement almost as much as did the Catholics and were not slow to attack it in its Anabaptist manifestation. The Reformation principle was not private judgement but the perspicuity of the Scriptures. Scripture was ‘sui ipsius interpres’ and the simple principle of interpreting individual passages by the whole was to lead to unanimity in understanding. This came close to creating anew the infallible church…It was this belief in the clarity of Scripture that made the early disputes between Protestants so fierce. This theory seemed plausible while the majority of Protestants held to Luthern or Calvinist orthodoxy but the seventeenth century saw the beginning of the erosion of these monopolies. But even in 1530 Casper Schwenckfeld could cynically note that ‘the Papists damn the Lutherans; the Lutherans damn the Zwinglians; the Zwinglians damn the Anabaptists and the Anabaptists damn all others.’ By the end of the seventeenth century many others saw that it was not possible on the basis of Scripture alone to build up a detailed orthodoxy commanding general assent. (A.N.S. Lane, “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey”, Vox Evangelica, Volume IX – 1975, pp. 44, 45 – bold emphasis mine.) >>

    Grace and peace,

    David

  15. rfwhite,

    Well, we’d agree that the answer most likely lies in how they define biblicism and how you define it.

    What definition of ‘biblicism’ are they using when they accuse FV folks of being biblicists?

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  16. rfwhite,

    Let’s examine carefully the last three paragraphs in Lane’s post:

    Let’s put it this way: everyone has lenses of some sort when they come to Scripture. No one can interpret Scripture from a completely clean slate. Let me repeat this: everyone has lenses through which they read the Scriptures. The question, then, has been racketing about in the wrong quadrant for a lot of people. The question is not whether one will have a lens through which to interpret Scripture, but rather which lens is the correct lens?

    The reason this becomes important is that there are really only two alternatives. Either one takes the lens of a church’s confession, in which case one is entering into the collegiality of the church’s reading of Scripture, or one is inventing one’s own lens that will be on a par with the standards of the church, yet separate from it. At the very least, it could be said to be bordering on arrogance to think that one’s own lens has the same kind of authority as what the church has said.

    So far so good. Then he writes:

    I can hear the objection already: “You sound Roman Catholic.” On the contrary, for I assume the difference between Scripture as the norming norm, and the confessions as the normed norm. Therefore, the confessions are not infallible and may be changed (as they were when they came across the Atlantic into America in the 18th century). The problem here is that anything other than a biblicistic understanding of Scriptural understanding is often taken to be Roman Catholic. This is simply not the case. The Reformers loved the church and highly respected her opinions. They respected her opinions above their own, in fact. And this is really the point. In submitting to the confessions, we acknowledge that the church is our mother. The irony of all this is that there are some today who claim that confessionalists are not being very courteous to the church. As a matter of fact, it is the non-confessionalists who are being discourteous to the church’s opinion.

    Lane makes a distinction between a biblicist understanding of Scripture, which he [implicitly] defines as reading Scripture apart from a confession, and a confessionalist approach to Scripture, which refers to reading Scripture with a confession. He claims that being a confessionalist does not necessitate being Catholic; Protestants can be confessionalists too, and therefore being Protestant does not ipso facto make one a biblicist.

    This would be true in the abstract, if the Church had no history, and did not exist through time. But the Church exists in time. And Christ founded only one Church, and yet Protestants and Catholics are now separated. So that brings us to the event of the separation of Protestants and Catholics during the sixteenth century. All of Protestantism has its origin in that event. Did or did not biblicism ground the Protestant separation?

    In order to understand what’s wrong with biblicism, we need to understand the difference between essence and accident. Any biblicist can pull together a group of fellow biblicists, create a confession, and instantly cease being a biblicist, given Lane’s definition of the term ‘biblicist.’ In that sense of the term, the error of the biblicist is not that he is his own final interpretive authority, but that he’s lazy or preoccupied, or shy, and just hasn’t gotten around to finding or assembling a group of persons who share his own interpretation of Scripture, and constructing a confession. Perhaps he doesn’t even know that she should do so. (Such an error is so much easier to avoid these days, given the internet, where you can easily set up highly nuanced selection criteria by which to link up with other Christians holding exactly your unique interpretation of Scripture.)

    But from a Catholic point of view, the biblicist’s not having or using a confession is not the essence of the error of biblicism; it is merely an accident of the error of biblicism. We can see that, because the error of biblicism is not avoided simply by congregating with like-minded interpreters and coming up with a shared confession. Anyone can do that, even FVers. The essence of the error of the biblicist is taking to himself final interpretive authority. And the biblicist is doing that even if he and a bunch of his like-minded friends, create a confession. But when we apply this to the separation of Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century, we find that the Protestants took to themselves final interpretive authority. This is exemplified by Luther’s statement at Worms:

    Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.

    And all the other Protestants took this same stance, subjecting the Church’s teaching, councils, and interpretive tradition to the standard of their own interpretive of Scripture, separating from the Catholic Church, and then subsequently constructing their own confessions. So we find that Protestantism is not only rooted in biblicism in its fuller sense, but that all the Protestant confessions are the product of biblicism.

    Lane thinks that the reason being a confessionalist does not necessitate being a Catholic is that for Protestants, confessions are not infallible. As he claims, “I assume the difference between Scripture as the norming norm, and the confessions as the normed norm.” Here Lane takes back with one hand what he gave in the first three paragraphs of his post, because here Lane treats Scripture as that by which the [Protestant] confession is checked or normed or evaluated. But if we cannot but read Scripture through a lens, then the lens cannot be used to evaluate itself. Yet, if we can evaluate a confession, then we can see Scripture without the lens. So in this way, Lane’s position is contradictory. He’s going to have to go one way or the other.

    I should also say that if the [Protestant] confession is evaluated by Scripture, and since this must be done by persons, then it follows that without apostolic succession, each individual holds highest interpretive authority by default, because his interpretation judges the [Protestant] confession, and no one has greater interpretive authority than does he. So in the act of judging the [Protestant] confession, as Lane thinks must be done continually if Scripture is to be the norming norm, and the confessions to be the normed norm, the Protestant is acting as a biblicist, both in Lane’s sense of the term, and in the sense in which I am using it, as taking highest interpretive authority to oneself.

    Lane then says (in his last paragraph),

    The problem here is that anything other than a biblicistic understanding of Scriptural understanding is often taken to be Roman Catholic. This is simply not the case.

    If he means ‘biblicist’ in the “we haven’t bothered to cobble together a confession” sense, then, sure, Protestants are not ipso facto biblicists. But that way of using the term ‘biblicism’ is hardly valuable, because it defines the term by reference to an accident, and not to its essence, as I explained above. When defined according to its essence, as taking final interpretive authority to oneself, then one cannot be a Protestant and not be a biblicist, because of the biblicism intrinsic to the event by which Protestantism and its confessions came into existence.

    Lane then writes,

    The Reformers loved the church and highly respected her opinions. They respected her opinions above their own, in fact. And this is really the point. In submitting to the confessions, we acknowledge that the church is our mother.

    By making themselves their own highest interpretive authority (and thus acting as biblicists), and without the authorization of the Church’s established teaching and ruling authorities, the first Protestants redefined the marks of the Church according to their own interpretation of Scripture. Then, having redefined the marks of the Church so that ‘church’ referred to those who shared their own interpretation of Scripture, they were free to do or say whatever they wanted against the Catholic Church, while telling themselves (and others) that they “loved the church and highly respected her opinions,” even “above their own”. Then they constructed their own confessions, and ‘submitted’ to them, and claimed that by doing so they were acknowledging that the church is their mother. But since they themselves had fashioned these confessions with their own hands, in ‘submitting’ to them they were in actuality saying, “We are our own mother, thank you.”

    Finally Lane says,

    The irony of all this is that there are some today who claim that confessionalists are not being very courteous to the church. As a matter of fact, it is the non-confessionalists who are being discourteous to the church’s opinion.

    The problem here is that Lane’s position is ad hoc / special pleading. He accepts and applauds the Protestant rejection of the Catholic Church’s opinion in the sixteenth century, but when other Protestants do the very same thing to his Protestant denomination, he cries ‘foul.’ There are two options, if he wishes to be consistent: either (1) do not complain, when Protestants dissent from Protestant confessions, leave their Protestant denominations and/or start their own denominations, etc. or (2) make right the wrong that was done in the great schism of the sixteenth century.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  17. If I were selecting a pair of “glasses”, I think I would begin trying each pair available to me: actually looking through them to see what I could see. I would try each of them one at a time, remembering to remove the glasses I was already wearing so as not to wear two pairs at the same time.

    After engaging the question of “What can I see through each pair of glasses on its own?”, I think two observations and immediately present themselves. First, the glasses-swapping exercise reveals another set of lenses much closer to my face. These other lenses are my culture and my personal experience. These closer lenses work with the “glasses” I’m wearing and condition what I see.

    Second, I become aware the some glasses were actually designed with other glasses in mind. Some glasses were designed to correct other glasses (charitable interpretation) or deliberately distort what one sees through other glasses (cynical interpretation).

  18. Bryan Cross: thanks again for your thoughful comments. On your question of what definition of biblicism is being used to respond to FVers, I understand it to be something on this order: no respect for confessions, creeds, and past theologians; insistence on ignoring these and going back to the Bible to build up doctrinal formulations from scratch. On your longer post, I appreciate your analysis; I do find it helpful for my understanding of your views and for the degree to which you highlight places where Lane’s post needs strengthen or correction or where he does not anticipate objections adequately. I am very interested in your analysis of the essence of biblicism as claiming final interpretive authority for the individual. Three questions for our mutual understanding. One, what does “interpretive authority” entail? Two, what is it that makes an interpretive authority “final”? Three, to what extent does the character and conduct of any interpretive authority matter?

  19. rfwhite,

    One, what does “interpretive authority” entail?

    It means authority with respect to interpretation. Those having interpretive authority can, in virtue of having this authority, give the authoritative interpretation. Denying the existence of interpretive authority is the equivalent of claiming that everyone has equal interpretive authority.

    Authority can be acquired by demonstrated proficiency; it can also be acquired by special divine appointment (where by ‘special’ I do not mean in the ordinary way in which God providentially directs all things, but by a supernatural act, or following from a supernatural act). When I am speaking of interpretive authority, I am not speaking of authority in the sense of demonstrated proficiency, but in the sense of special divine appointment, though the possession of the latter type of authority does not preclude also having the former type of authority. The authority of the Magisterium is not just because of demonstrated proficiency, but primarily because of special divine appointment, through (what we believe to be) the sacrament of Holy Orders.

    Two, what is it that makes an interpretive authority “final”?

    What makes an interpretive authority ‘final’ is that there is no higher interpretive authority (who is human and still embodied on earth).

    Three, to what extent does the character and conduct of any interpretive authority matter?

    That’s a somewhat open-ended question, and that makes it harder to answer. Does the committing of a mortal sin remove this authority? For Catholics, the answer is no. This is in large part what the Donatist schism was all about. The Donatists started their schism because they believed that the legitimate bishops had lost ecclesial authority, by certain acts of unfaithfulness (hence the Donatists called these bishops traditores). For this reason they questioned the validity of the sacraments celebrated by these bishops. And St. Augustine helped resolve this schism 100 years after it began, by, among other things, showing that for the Church the validity of the sacrament did not depend on the state of the soul of the priest or bishop administering that sacrament. (Otherwise, we’d all be questioning the validity of our baptism.)

    A bishop’s moral authority, however, can obviously be lessened or destroyed by unfaithful or immoral behavior. His jurisdictional authority remains until he is deposed by the pope and/or by the pope and other bishops, for whatever reasons they may have. His sacramental authority, i.e. his authority to confer Holy Orders (and celebrate the Eucharist and the other sacraments), is not removed by mortal sin, even though, without jurisdictional authority it would be illicit (illegal, i.e. against Church law) for him to confer Holy Orders. A bishop’s interpretive authority (and here I’m not talking about the uniqueness of the episcopal successor of St. Peter) belongs to him not as an isolated individual, but in communion with all the other bishops in full communion with the episcopal successor of St Peter. This authority is exercised especially in ecumenical councils, but also even when “dispersed through the world”, as Lumen Gentium says in LG 25,

    Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.

    I hope that helps!

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  20. Dr White: May I ask why, in the final analysis, you read Scripture through the lens of the WCF? Could you explain how your answer avoids making you ‘the master of your own fate’.

  21. Bryan Cross: thanks for your comments. Given their length and soberness, let me review them and get back to you.

    Richard: cheers again. As I am on a break from a household project, allow me a brief response with the hope of returning later. Your first question most likely presumes that I am happy to concede that “reading Scripture through the WCF lens” is what I or others do. I’m not persuaded that the lens metaphor describes adequately how people do relate to confessions or how they should relate to confessions. So, as a first response to your questions, I say, the more I think about it, the less happy I am with the metaphor of a confession as a lens chosen for reading Scripture. Hopefully, more later.

  22. Bryan C: what are the means by the church may properly enforce its interpretive authority?

  23. Richard: I take that the “why” of my reading of Scripture, regardless of its relation to a confession, is the same of others: it is a product of a particular relationship between God, Scripture, church, and individual, a relationship in which God and Scripture bear a relationship of “self existent” or “original” authority to church and individual.

  24. rfwhite,

    The Magisterium almost never definitively declares the specific interpretation of a particular verse. It exercises its teaching and interpretive authority by stating what must be believed and what must not be believed, so as to give positive and negative boundaries for rightly interpreting and understanding Scripture. In the space between those two boundaries, however, there is much room for holding various interpretations. And the Church does not discipline or enforce any particular interpretation in that [theoretical] space. But, with regard to what must be believed, and what must not be believed, the Church does enforce its teaching and interpretive authority, by way of discipline.

    Here’s the preceding context of the relevant section of canon law:

    Can. 750 §1. A person must believe with divine and Catholic faith all those things contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium which is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatsoever contrary to them.

    §2. Each and every thing which is proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church concerning the doctrine of faith and morals, that is, each and every thing which is required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith, is also to be firm-ly embraced and retained; therefore, one who rejects those propositions which are to be held definitively is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

    Immediately after that, it explains what formal heresy is:

    “Can. 751 §1. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same.”

    Notice the repeated word ‘obstinate’. This involves a person who isn’t merely accidentally or unknowingly denying something that the Church teaches must be believed with divine and catholic faith. (Doing so unknowingly or without an awareness or understanding that the Church taught otherwise, would be material heresy.) In a case of formal heresy, the person is told clearly what the Church teaches must be believed with divine and catholic faith, and he obstinately denies it or obstinately doubts it.

    Formal heresy incurs automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication:

    Can. 1364 §1. … [A]n apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.

    The word ‘heresy’ there is being used as it was defined in Canon 751. In other words, it is referring to formal heresy, not material heresy.

    The person in the excommunicated state, is not permitted to receive the Eucharist.

    Can. 915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

    Nor is he permitted to receive the sacrament of the anointing of the sick:

    Can. 1007 The anointing of the sick is not to be conferred upon those who persevere obstinately in manifest grave sin.

    So the short answer is that in matters that have been definitively determined by the Church’s Magisterium, her interpretive authority is enforced by way of Church discipline.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  25. Bryan Cross: so does the Church have authority to coerce compliance with its teachings and bind the conscience?

  26. How can different confessions which disagree with each other on multiple points be one lens? I’ve read the scriptures through the “lens” of the Reformed confessionS, and I still don’t know, among other things, whether infants should be baptized, whether hymns should be sung in worship, whether congregations should be independently governed, whether the civil magistrate should be allowed to convene synods, whether grace is conferred in baptism, whether justification can be lost, or whether Christ is somehow really present in the sacrament of Communion. Is the “teaching of the faith,” then, that doctrine which the confessions hold in common? Which confessions count, anyway?

  27. rfwhite, (re: #25)

    In order to answer that question, we have to qualify the terms ‘coerce’ and ‘bind the conscience’ and make some distinctions. So, first, in an unqualified sense, no one has the right to coerce someone to embrace the Catholic faith against their conscience.

    Can. 748 §2. No one is ever permitted to coerce persons to embrace the Catholic faith against their conscience.

    Nor must a man ever be forced to act against his conscience.

    Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters. [within due limits] (CCC 1782)

    “Nobody may be forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others, within due limits.” This right is based on the very nature of the human person, whose dignity enables him freely to assent to the divine truth which transcends the temporal order. For this reason it “continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it.” (CCC 2106)

    In fact, every man is duty-bound to follow his conscience:

    In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. (Dignitatis Humanae, 3)

    That is true even though a man’s conscience may be in error. So man has a duty to seek to inform his conscience.

    Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.(CCC 1783)

    But, there is a qualified sense in which, a man may be both coerced and bound in conscience.

    Can. 1311 The Church has the innate and proper right to coerce offending members of the Christian faithful with penal sanctions.

    The Church has the right to coerce her members, in the sense of imposing penal sanctions for violations of Church law. This is why excommunication is possible. This is the very nature of law. Law binds the conscience. It does not bind the will, but it does bind the conscience, in this sense. Once you know the law, then you know it is wrong for you to act against it. Likewise, once you know the Church’s authority, and her doctrines and laws, then your conscience is bound. You know that to disbelieve the Church’s dogmas is heresy and sinful, because you know that what the Church has definitively determined, the Holy Spirit has ipso facto spoken. If one’s conscience is in error, then a third option (besides following the errant conscience and violating the errant conscience) is to seek to inform one’s conscience. This is the third option typically overlooked in claims that Church law sometimes forces persons to violate their conscience.

    So, in sum, (1) the Church may not force anyone to act against their conscience. (2) The Church teaches that all men must follow their conscience. But, (3) in addition, the Church has the right to make Church law, and declare dogma, which, by the Church’s authority as derived from Christ through the Apostles, binds the conscience insofar as the hearer knows both the content (of these dogmas and laws) and the divine authority by which they are determined. And lastly, (4) the Church has the right to enforce her laws, in that sense coercing her offending members with penal sanctions. An offender under these penal sanctions must still follow his conscience, though he should by all means seek to inform his conscience, to determine whether or not he is in error. If he truly believes that the Church has no divine authority, then his conscience is not bound by the Church’s laws and sanctions. But insofar as he knows that the Church has divine authority, then his own conscience tells him to submit to the Church, and the penal sanctions in that case only provide an incentive to *follow* his own conscience.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  28. Dr. White: You said

    I’m not persuaded that the lens metaphor describes adequately how people do relate to confessions or how they should relate to confessions.

    That is fair enough, would you mind explaining the way in which people should relate to confessions. What I was trying to understand is whether you would agree that if one was to argue that “I agree with the WCF because it is what I believe scripture teaches” then the WCF actually has no authority, rather authority resides purely in the subjective interpretation of the individual. For myself, I believe in the Nicene Creed not because it agrees with my subjective interpretation of some biblical verses but because of the authority of the Church, i.e. the locus/loci of authority resides not in me but in the Church. On this I would certainly side with the Catholic position even if I wouldn’t go along with them wholesale.

  29. Richard: it looks to me that you want to escape the subjectivity of individual interpretation. As I understand it, this is not possible before the final judgment. In the example you cite, I do not see what makes your interpretation any less subjective than mine or that of any other: the fact that the object of your interpretation became the authority of the group who issued the creed, rather than the authority of the creed itself, does not make your interpretation any less subjective. If subjectivity is inescapable in this life, the occupation of this life, in a manner of speaking, becomes the mortification of the effects of subjectivity by the individual’s identification with and accountability to others. That mortification, it seems to me, is a consequence of the interplay between groups, their “confessions,” and the individual conscience. Presuming that individual freedom of conscience is recognized but cannot be recognized as absolute; and presuming that identification with a group is voluntary, the basis of the individual’s identification and accountability to a group depends on a constellation of shared commitments, on a network of shared assumptions, sources, methods, standards, and sanctions. In other words, the basis of the individual’s identification with and accountability to a group is ordinarily a shared belief, purpose, or practice or a combination thereof, sufficiently defined to serve as a defining locus — a “confession,” if you will. Ordinarily, the loci of the confession will have at its heart shared commitments, assumptions, sources, methods, standards, and sanctions that pertain to God, Scripture, church, and individual. Adherence to these loci is what distinguishes those in the group from those outside the group; it is what distinguishes those admitted to the group from those excluded from the group.

  30. Dr. White,

    When you are speaking of the WCF, are you speaking of the original 1646 Confession or a later revised version? My brother in law’s Reformed Church in the U.S. (http://www.rpcus.com/)
    defends and upholds the original in it’s entirety. The above website above explains why.

    I appreciate your clarification. I am a Catholic Convert praying for grace and charity in dialogue with my former Protestant brothers and sisters, especially family.

    The peace of Christ be with you,
    Teri

  31. 27 Bryan C: thanks very much for your extensive comments. Your comment that “the Church has the right to enforce her laws, in that sense coercing her offending members with penal sanctions” raised another question. Are there penal sanctions other than excommunication that the Church may rightfully use to enforce her laws and to coerce her offending members?

  32. rfwhite,

    Are there penal sanctions other than excommunication that the Church may rightfully use to enforce her laws and to coerce her offending members?

    Yes. You can read about them in the section of canon law from 1311 through 1399. But none of them is as severe as excommunication, and I’m guessing that that is what you are wanting to know.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  33. 30 Teri: I am referring to the American revision of the WCF.

  34. Dr White: Thanks for #29 I’ll respond when I’ve digested it.

  35. On 16, 19, 24 Bryan: If I may, I’d like to go back and pick up on your contention that “The essence of the error of the biblicist is taking to himself final interpretive authority.” My question is whether and, if so, how you would distinguish “the final interpretive authority of the individual within the church” from the right and duty of the individual to interpret a communication for himself. I continue to appreciate your taking the time and effort to respond.

  36. Think of the ” positive and negative boundaries for rightly interpreting and understanding Scripture. ” that Bryan Cross talked about in this sense:
    A sort of Garden of Eden where you have 2 trees at each end of the garden, eat of whatever fruit you want within those boundaries. Eating of one tree might represent a historical interpretation, of another tree might be allegorical, another figurative, another anagogical , but eating beyond the boundaries would be venturing into heresy.

    So in the scripture we have texts like: “..for the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28). ‘I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30).

    The Church has a boundary. Christ is not a “lesser god” or a created quasi-god nor is Christ a different “mode” of God. Arianism and modalism would be examples of going beyond interpretive boundaries, even though surface, the text might seem to agree with their interpretations.

  37. rfwhite, (Re: #35)

    My question is whether and, if so, how you would distinguish “the final interpretive authority of the individual within the church” from the right and duty of the individual to interpret a communication for himself. I continue to appreciate your taking the time and effort to respond.

    We live in a society in which it is now common to assume that if some people do something, then all persons have a natural right to do it. Rights language is used everywhere. People think they have a natural right to marry persons of the opposite sex, or to have an abortion, or to purchase pornography, or to receive free healthcare, etc. When such claims are made, in my opinion it is important to back up, and ask how we know that we have such a right. In other words, we need to examine the basis for knowing that the practice in question is truly a right.

    Interpreting any form of communication takes place in our mind. It is hard to imagine how someone could interfere with the act of interpreting, except by not allowing access to the communication, or by preventing people from acquiring the skill necessary to interpret it, or by creating a context in which thought was impossible (e.g. jackhammer outside your window, or screaming baby two doors down). But that’s not the issue here, when we are talking about final or highest interpretive authority.

    The exercise of interpretive authority by the Magisterium, say at an ecumenical council, does not prevent believers from interpreting Scripture or any other communication. Nor does it withhold from them the skill by which to interpret Sacred revelation. On the contrary, the exercise of this teaching and interpretive authority provides a supernatural light by which the believer ought to interpret Scripture. We ignore or disregard that interpretive authority at our peril, because it is God-given authority, for our good (Heb 13:17).

    We do have a duty to learn Scripture. But we have no duty to interpret Scripture-apart-from-the-guidance-of-the-Church or to interpret Scripture in defiance of the guidance of the Church. Instead, our duty in interpreting and understanding Scripture is to approach it very much as we approach the Eucharist offered to us by the Church: in humility and gratitude, and with a recognition that Christ, through the instrument of His Church, is giving this gift-of-Self to me, not so that I can do my own thing, but so that I can participate in something His Body is already doing, and has been doing for almost two-thousand years. For this reason, the responsibility of the student of Scripture should not be seen as in tension with the divinely-established interpretive authority of the Church, just as the responsibility of the Ethiopian eunuch to seek to understand the book of Isaiah was not in tension with the interpretive authority of Philip the deacon. The eunuch would have been acting against his responsibility had he ignored Philip or insisted that he knew better how to interpret Scripture than did the apostles and deacons. It was precisely the eunuch’s obligation to seek to understand Scripture that called him to receive in humble submission the guidance and instruction of those whom Christ had authorized (through ordination) to teach in His Name. And so it is for us today. Tertullian’s words are relevant here:

    “Our appeal [in debating with the heretics], therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures; nor must controversy be admitted on points in which victory will either be impossible, or uncertain, or not certain enough. For a resort to the Scriptures would but result in placing both parties on equal footing, whereas the natural order of procedure requires one question to be asked first, which is the only one now that should be discussed: “With whom lies that very faith to which the Scriptures belong? From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule by which men become Christians? For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions” (Tertullian, On Prescription against the Heretics, 19)

    “Since this is the case, in order that the truth may be adjudged to belong to us, ‘as many as walk according to the rule,’ which the church has handed down from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God, the reason of our position is clear, when it determines that heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures. For as they are heretics, they cannot be true Christians, because it is not from Christ that they get that which they pursue of their own mere choice, and from the pursuit incur and admit the name of heretics. Thus not being Christians, they have acquired no right to the Christian Scriptures; and it may be very fairly said to them, ‘Who are you?'” (Tertullian, On Prescription against the Heretics, 37)

    The reason the heretic does not have the “right” to the Christian Scriptures, is that these Scriptures were not entrusted to him. The heretic is, in a sense, trespassing on someone else’s territory when he deigns to say what Scripture means. According to Tertullian, to acquire the ‘right’ to Scripture, one must be a Christian. Who then, was a Christian? St. Augustine explains:

    Ask a man, Are you a Christian? His answer to you is, I am not, if he is a pagan or a Jew. But if he says, I am; you inquire again of him, Are you a catechumen or a believer? If he reply, A catechumen; he has been anointed, but not yet washed. (Tractates on the Gospel of John, 44)

    In other words, to acquire the right to Scripture, one must be either in the Church, or at least a Catechumen (in preparation for baptism). And that meant recognizing the teaching and interpretive authority of those bishops who had received the Scriptures and the apostolic tradition from their predecessors, back to the Apostles themselves.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  38. Bryan Cross: Here is what I’m taking from this exchange, which I again want to say I have appreciated. As analyzed here, the crux of the differences between Caths and Prots is focused in the points of intersection between the doctrines of Church, Spirit, and Scripture (Word). The Cath charge of biblicism against Prots carries weight to the extent that it depends on certain beliefs about Church and Spirit. That is, granted that the Spirit of Christ has indeed made His Church’s teaching office infallible in the interpretation of Scripture, Caths are right and Prots are wrong. In this way, the accuracy of the Cath charge of biblicism against Prots is traceable to the accuracy of the Cath claims about the “ecclesial deism” of Prots. Is this a fair summary?

  39. rfwhite,

    If Christ has promised to abide with His Church in such a way that she is protected from definitively teaching error in matters of faith and morals until His return, then indeed “Caths are right and Prots are wrong.” But your question is, essentially: Does it all boil down to infallibility/ecclesial deism? That’s an interesting question. The infallibility issue is fundamental, I agree. But a Protestant can affirm that the gates of Hades will not prevail against Christ’s Church, that Christ will be with the Church to the end of the age, that the Spirit will guide the Church into all truth, and that the Church is the pillar and ground of truth. A Protestant can affirm all that by referring these promises to the visible catholic Church, and/or to the invisible catholic Church (i.e. the set of all the elect). However, in my other recent post, “Why Protestantism has no “visible catholic Church”, I show that within Protestantism there is no visible catholic Church. Therefore, Protestants cannot apply these promises to that entity, because Protestant ecclesiology does not have such a thing, references to it not withstanding.

    But Protestants can apply these promises to the invisible Church. In my ecclesial deism article (or at least in the comments there) I pointed out that my argument presupposed recognizing that Christ founded a visible Church. So another key point of difference here, between Catholics and Protestants, concerns the nature of the Church Christ founded. Did He found a visible catholic Church, or did He found only an invisible catholic Church? Because if He founded only an invisible catholic Church, then the visible one that we find in the fathers of the first three or four centuries is a man-made counterfeit, an earthly substitute for a spiritual entity, and in that case there is absolutely no reason to expect that man-made abomination to be teaching orthodoxy at all, let alone be protected from error. But if Christ founded a visible catholic Church, then the promises regarding the Church attach to it. In that case it is that visible catholic Church that will remain and prevail through the rest of the age, until Christ returns, and that is the pillar and ground of truth, and so forth. And in order for the visible catholic Church to be that sort of thing, until Christ returns, it needs to be protected from falling into heresy or apostasy. And that means that her teaching office needs to be protected in this way. It also means that her authority must derive in an organic way from Christ, and hence a visible catholic Church requires apostolic succession, otherwise, there is no divinely authorized teaching office (apart from miracle-working prophets showing up from time to time).

    So, I agree with you that the infallibility/ecclesial deism difference is fundamental, but I also think that the respective ecclesiologies are playing a role as well, as well as the respective ground of ecclesial authority whether through apostolic succession or through apostolic doctrine as determined by our own interpretation of Scripture. If we [Catholics] had no good reason to trust the teaching office of the Church, then it seems like our position and practice would by default be like that of Protestants. We would subject every teaching and declaration of the Church to the judgment of our own interpretation of Scripture, and we would congregate with other believers who taught that form of doctrine and worship which most closely matched our interpretation of Scripture, etc. It would be the anti-thesis of catholicity; it would be more like Babel. But, without trust in the Church, we would not know with certainty which books truly belonged to the canon. (And yes, I read Ridderbos’ book in seminary.) And without knowing the canon of Scripture, we could not subject the teachings of the Church to the test of our of own interpretation of Scripture. So, without trusting the Church, at least in some respect, whether ad hoc or not, we could not even be Christians.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  40. Bryan: I think we’re tracking. My chief interest is not to agree or disagree but to understand the structure of the argument you have endeavored to set forth. Thanks.

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