Controversies of Religion

Sep 20th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

I. The Reformed Position:

The claim in the Westminster Confession of Faith that all controversies of religion ultimately are to be determined by the Holy Spirit speaking in Sacred Scripture contradicts the testimony of the Church Fathers, who repeatedly teach the necessity of judging such controversies by way of the Church and Sacred Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith is a classic restatement of Reformed theology born in the 17th century from an assembly of ‘Divines’ convened by the British Parliament. In its Chapter One, the Divines took up what is perhaps the clearest point of distinction between Protestant Reformers and Catholics, namely the locus of ecclesial authority to settle the doctrine of the faith.

The Westminster Confession addresses the matter this way:

The supreme judge by which 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.1

Robert Shaw, in his Exposition of the Westminster Confession, expounds upon this point:

That the Supreme Judge, by which all controversies in religion are to be determined, is no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture, is asserted in opposition to the Papists, who maintain that the Church is an infallible judge in religious controversies; though they do not agree among themselves whether this infallible authority resides in the Pope, or in a council, or in both together. Now, the Scripture never mentions such an infallible judge on earth. Neither Pope, nor councils, possess the properties requisite to constitute a supreme judge in controversies of religion; for they are fallible, and have often erred, and contradicted one another. Although the Church or her ministers are the official guardians of the Scriptures, and although it belongs to them to explain and enforce the doctrines and laws contained in the Word of God, yet their authority is only ministerial, and their interpretations and decisions are binding on the conscience only in so far as they accord with the mind of the Spirit in the Scriptures. By this test, the decisions of councils, the opinions of ancient writers, and the doctrines of men at the present time, are to be tried, and by this rule all controversies in religion must be determined.2

That is, for the Reformed subscriber to the Westminster Confession, every controversy of religion, and every theological decree, opinion, or doctrine, is to be put to one test: the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. This is meant to avoid ultimate reliance upon human ecclesial authorities (specifically, the Catholic Magisterium) who, from the Reformed perspective, can, and have, erred on religious matters.

Given the finality with which the very Word of the Third Person of the Trinity must be taken, it might seem straightforward enough to rely on this Word to settle controversies. With this rule, the English Reformers were marking out a bright dividing line between the Church of England and those Churches in communion with Rome. The reformational church authorities were not over the Bible, could not declare contrary to it, and would not be taken as having a voice against the Holy Spirit. But how does this work practically, this putting a controversy of religion or theological doctrine to “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture”?

Shaw explains that it works this way: a controversy may properly be put to the Church or her ministers, who, acting as ‘guardians’ of the Scriptures and enforcers of the law contained therein, yield ‘ministerial’ authority. However, he also cautions, their decisions on any given controversy are only binding on the believer’s conscience insofar as the decisions are in line with “the mind of the Spirit in the Scriptures.” The believer may, under this scheme, try the word of the ministerial authorities in an effort to ensure it is sound.

Because a believer-disputant can cross-check his ministerial authorities before being bound by their settlement of any given controversy, these authorities offer “final judgment” on nothing. The relationship is one of ‘guardianship,’ but the guardians are followed only to the extent that the guarded are in consent and agreement with the guardians’ interpretations. But the believer-disputant, too, is a fallible and often-erring authority, so fails the very test Shaw attempts to apply to Catholic authorities. This leaves the believer-disputant in no better position than his guardian to render “final judgment” on a controversy of religion. Given these deficiencies, what the ministerial authorities and believer-disputants cannot do individually, they cannot do in conjunction. As both authorities who could determine what the Holy Spirit has said have failed the test Shaw believes he has properly applied to the Catholic Church, there is no practical way in the Reformed scheme to settle a controversy of religion with certainty through “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”

With that background, I would like to explore how the Church Fathers treat the question of whether the final judge of controversies of religion, or of theological decrees, opinions, or doctrines is Scripture or the Church, or whether there is a third way. I will also briefly identify what the Catholic Church itself officially teaches on this matter.

II. Church Fathers

A great deal of extant writings from the early Church Fathers have “controversies of religion” as their very topic or subject matter. The early Church Fathers penned these works, which were mailed and passed amongst the early Churches with great zeal, to combat a host of disputes, controversies, and heresies. From them we can glean an understanding of how the early Church resolved controversies, or measured theological decrees, opinions, or doctrines. This makes for a useful comparison to the conclusion on the same subject drawn by the Westminster Divines.

The works of St. Ignatius of Antioch provide a fine example. He lived from around the year AD 50 to approximately AD 107, and wrote on the subject of resolving controversies of religion on the way to his martyrdom, just a few years after the Apostle St. John died. He wrote that:

For, all who belong to God and Jesus Christ are with the bishop. And those, too, will belong to God who have returned, repentant, to the unity of the Church so as to live in accordance with Jesus Christ. Make no mistake, brethren. No one who follows another into schism inherits the kingdom of God. No one who follows heretical doctrine is on the side of the passion.3

For St. Ignatius, returning to one’s bishop is identical with returning to the unity of the Church. One lives in accordance with Jesus Christ by way of seeking unity with the Church. There is no apparent place for conflict between belief necessary for unity with the Church and belief in accordance with Jesus Christ.

Elsewhere, he writes:

Let all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father, and the priests, as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Apart from the bishop, let no one perform any of the functions that pertain to the Church. Let that Eucharist be held valid which is offered by the bishop or by one to whom the bishop has committed this charge. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.4

From this text we see how inextricably intertwined are the authorities of the Church and the Word of God. Theirs is not a non-binding guardianship over Scripture. Rather, they have the shepherd’s authority to lead. Consider St. Ignatius’ claim that “whatever has [the bishop’s] approval is pleasing to God.” Of course St. Ignatius does not have in mind a bishop who invents novel doctrines that are contrary to the deposit of faith. But nor could he mean to say that whatever has the bishop’s approval is pleasing to God only insofar as the bishop is ruling in a way that is subordinate to and fully consistent with the Bible. Since one could say the same of the determinations of non-bishops (i.e., that their decisions are pleasing to God insofar as they conform to Scripture), this incorrect interpretation of St. Ignatius would leave the Bishop with no ruling authority at all.  A third way to view this question of final doctrinal decretal authority starts to emerge – the Church and revealed truth resolve controversies of religion together; they are the inseparable, final authority.

To take up just one other brief example, the works of St. Irenaeus provide a helpful perspective on this subject. St. Irenaeus, born in the early second century, speaks with great clarity in identifying what is a proper authority to settle controversies of religion. He does not teach that the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture is our final authority in controversies of religion, as the Westminster Confession claims. Rather, he says:

Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man depositing in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account we are bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the things pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?5

For St. Irenaeus, “[t]he supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined” for the individual Christian is not the Holy Spirit speaking in Sacred Scripture. In cases of controversy of religion, we should “have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question.” In helping to shed light on how to resolve a dispute about an important question among the Christians, St. Irenaeus argues from a hypothetical scenario wherein the Apostles had left us with no writings (that is, imagine if there was no New Testament by which to judge a matter). In that case, he argues, Christians would be left to turn to the traditions handed down by the Apostles to the most ancient Churches. Likewise, for disputes that persist even though all disputants have the Apostolic writings in hand, his argument concludes that we must “lay hold of the tradition of the truth,” which was passed on through the apostles.

These examples are from just two of the early Church Fathers, but each of them would support this recurring theme. These are not cherry-picked snippets from the early Church Fathers, but exemplary of early discourses on this question. And this question is one that came up routinely as the early Church struggled with settling the proper procedure necessary to address substantive theological debates in a binding fashion. We learn from the ancient Church that controversies of religion are resolved by ecclesial authorities expounding upon the Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Tradition together.

III. Catholic Teaching

There are noteworthy similarities between the Reformed and Catholic doctrines on Sacred Scripture. Both would agree that Sacred Scripture is the word of God.6 God is its author.7 He chose human authors, and inspired them to write what He wanted, and nothing more.8 The inspired books that make up the canon teach truth, and are truth without error.9 The Church venerates Scripture as she does the Body of Christ itself.10 In Scripture, “the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children and talks with them.”11 The concept of personal communication from God to believer in Scripture is not antithetical nor even foreign to a Catholic understanding. The Catholic Church’s teaching and the Westminster teaching coalesce even insofar as they teach that the Holy Spirit is our interpreter of Scripture.12

But there is certainly a difference between Protestants and Catholics when it comes to belief about Sacred Scripture, and this difference relates to the section of the Westminster Confession I began by quoting. The Catholic Church teaches that Christianity is not a “religion of the book,” but rather a religion of the Eternal Word, a “Word which is incarnate and living.”13 While the Holy Spirit interprets Scripture, He does so for the Church and through the Church, not in a private-yet-authoritative fashion.

This contrast highlights an essential feature of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church does not believe that the Holy Spirit ordinarily operates directly and immediately in the heart of the individual Christian to teach Scripture and illuminate its meaning. If the Holy Spirit ordinarily operated in this way, the individual would not have need for the Church as a teaching agent of God. This view denies that Christ established a visible organ through which the Holy Spirit ordinarily operates. Such is the view of the Montanists. The Catholic Church, against Montanism, believes that Christ did establish a visible organ through which the Holy Spirit operates, including the key operation of illuminating revealed truths for the Church’s benefit so that she can, in turn, reliably and authoritatively teach the faithful.

In regard to the roles of the Church and Sacred Scripture in resolving controversies of religion, the Reformers seemingly had to reach the conclusion articulated in the Westminster Confession because they subscribed to a false dichotomy between the Scripture and the Church as the final doctrinal authority. For the Westminster Divines, and for Calvinists today, the starting point for analysis is that either the Magisterium or the Bible can settle controversies of religion, or bind upon believers a theological decree, opinion, or doctrine. It could not be both together because, they believe, any human agent cooperating with Scripture qua Word of God would compete with or detract from its Divine character.  (And it goes without saying that, for Calvinists, it could not be the Magisterium.)

According to the Catholic Church, all interpretations of Scripture — and we could say all attempts at resolving controversies of religion — are “subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God.”14 While believers can and should read Sacred Scripture with great devotion, listening for the voice and guidance of the Holy Spirit while they do so, their conclusions are always subject to the guidance and correction of the Church’s teaching authority. Without Her divinely given authority, there is no safeguard on the deposit of faith from dilution and admixture of human or sinful error.

There is no middle ground between this divinely given authority of the Church to guide scriptural interpretation, on the one hand, and complete individualism in interpretation which leads to unceasing division, on the other. This is because the method dependent upon individual interpretation cannot compensate for the admixture of sinful error without resort to the Montanist’s view of the Holy Spirit’s action in guiding each individual’s interpretation of Scripture — a view which experience with diverse interpretations of Scripture betwixt the faithful, if nothing else, has proven invalid. The early Church Fathers saw the need for having resort to the Church’s teaching authority in settling controversies of religion, and they addressed this need time and again. It is this the Catholic Church sees today while it stands firm on its own teaching authority while simultaneously yearning for reunion with the separated eastern churches and Protestant ecclesial communities.

IV. Conclusion

The Westminster Confession’s claim that every controversy of religion, and every theological decree, opinion or doctrine is to be taken to none other than the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture is ahistoric. The primary subject of the extant writings of the early Church Fathers is precisely controversies of religion; this is far from an alien topic to them. And the recurring answer they give is that controversies of religion are settled ultimately from the Church and Scripture in inseparable unison. Only this position allows for binding answers to disputes within the faith. The Catholic Church has held this position steadfastly through two millennia.

  1. WCF, ch. I, sec. 10. []
  2. Robert Shaw, Exposition of the Westminster Confession, ch. 1, available here. []
  3. Letter to the Philadelphians, ch. 3, MG 5, 700; FC I, 114. []
  4. Letter to the Smyrnaeans, ch. 8, MG 5, 713; FC I, 121. []
  5. Against Heresies, bk. 3, ch. 4, MG 7, 855; ANFI, I, 416. []
  6. Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 104. []
  7. Id., para. 105. []
  8. Id., para. 106. []
  9. Id., para. 107. []
  10. Id., para. 103. []
  11. Id., para. 104. []
  12. Id., art. 3, sec. III. []
  13. Id., para. 108, quoting St. Bernard, S. missus est hom. 4, 11: PL 183, 86. []
  14. Dei Verbum 12, sec. 3. []
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15 comments
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  1. While believers can and should read Sacred Scripture with great devotion, listening for the voice and guidance of the Holy Spirit while they do so, their conclusions are always subject to the guidance and correction of the Church’s teaching authority. Without Her divinely given authority, there is no safeguard on the deposit of faith from dilution and admixture of human or sinful error.

    This really sums it all up, does it not? Well said. Thanks for the article.

  2. Long time lurker, first time commenter.

    I recently had an online exchange with a PCA pastor and Tabletalk contributor about the issue of justification and Gal. 5:6, and I came away pretty dejected, mainly because the Protestant claim that Scripture is our sole and final arbiter ended up sounding pretty hollow, judging by the way I was treated.

    Click my name and read about it for yourself.

    Rick

  3. Great subject to discuss. I would add one critical detail that I believe should have been covered a lot more, and that is to judge the Westminster’s teachings by it’s own standards. For example, in This Article, I point out the Westminster Confession makes many GRAND claims, yet these claims are not even taught in Scripture itself! Yes, a solid argument can be made that the Westminster isn’t approaching things in a manner consistent with the Fathers and Tradition, but in the Protestant mind those are expendable if they believe Scripture is saying something different. In that regard, the Protestant might be ignoring history, but they’re not being logically inconsistent. Thus, in this case, going straight for Scripture is going for the Westminster’s Achilles’s heel.

    EVERY significant point the Westminster Chapter 1 makes is totally without Scriptural warrant, and that should be warning sirens to anyone examining the situation.

    Here are a couple points worth mentioning:

    (1) The WCF Ch1:1 says that although God gave divine revelation through various mediums throughout history, at the close of the Apostolic age this Divine Revelation was committed “wholly unto writing” (i.e. inspired oral teaching was inscripturated), yet the Bible says nothing of the sort.

    (2) The WCF Ch1:2-3 goes to list all the books of Scripture, including giving footnotes, yet we’re all aware the Bible gives no canon. This has been discussed ad nausium, but shouldn’t be given a pass.

    (3) The WCF Ch1:6-7 says “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” Nowhere does the Bible ever come close to teaching this dogma.

    (4) The WCF Ch1:9 says: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture, it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly,” yet this alleged built-in-truth-finding-algorithm nowhere taught or suggested by Scripture.

    (5) And the very passage you focused upon, WCF 1:10, saying the supreme judge for all controversies is Scripture, which is something Scripture never teaches.

    So before we even examine the WCF’s claims for any historical veracity, I suggest we point out how the claims of the WCF don’t even have Scriptural support and to ignore that is to try and discuss reasonably when the deck is clearly rigged in the WCF’s favor.

  4. There are noteworthy similarities between the Reformed and Catholic doctrines on Sacred Scripture. Both would agree that Sacred Scripture is the word of God. God is its author. He chose human authors, and inspired them to write what He wanted, and nothing more. The inspired books that make up the canon teach truth, and are truth without error. …

    In regard to the roles of the Church and Sacred Scripture in resolving controversies of religion, the Reformers seemingly had to reach the conclusion articulated in the Westminster Confession because they subscribed to a false dichotomy between the Scripture and the Church as the final doctrinal authority. For the Westminster Divines, and for Calvinists today, the starting point for analysis is that either the Magisterium or the Bible can settle controversies of religion, or bind upon believers a theological decree, opinion, or doctrine. It could not be both together because, they believe, any human agent cooperating with Scripture qua Word of God would compete with or detract from its Divine character.  (And it goes without saying that, for Calvinists, it could not be the Magisterium.)

    “A false dichotomy” – well said! The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura is not essentially a doctrine about the authority of scriptures. The Catholic Church teaches that that Sacred Scriptures have Almighty God as its author, and because of that, what the scriptures teaches us is the truth without error. This is what the Catholic Church taught before the so-called “Reformation”.

    What the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura is really about in its essence is an all out assault on the teaching authority of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. This protest by some European men against the teaching authority of the Magisterium is what puts the “protest” into Protestantism.

    These examples are from just two of the early Church Fathers, but each of them would support this recurring theme. These are not cherry-picked snippets from the early Church Fathers, but exemplary of early discourses on this question. And this question is one that came up routinely as the early Church struggled with settling the proper procedure necessary to address substantive theological debates in a binding fashion. We learn from the ancient Church that controversies of religion are resolved by ecclesial authorities expounding upon the Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Tradition together.

    The scriptures themselves testify to what the early Church Fathers believed. It is sadly ironic that the protestors had to embrace the false doctrine of sola scriptura to deny the authority of the scriptures that teach that the Church that Christ founded is the pillar and the foundation of the truth, and that all Christians must listen to what the Church that Christ founded teaches or be excommunicated.

    Both the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura and the novel opinions of the Westminster “Divines” that support this false doctrine are explicitly contradicted by the scriptures themselves, and that is why it is not surprising at all that the early Church Fathers don’t teach the peculiar novelties of the Westminster “Divines”.

  5. Dear Rick,

    Welcome! I am glad that you have stepped out of lurking status, which I know from experience can be difficult.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom B.

  6. Dear Nick,

    Thank you for your comment. I think hyperbole or sweeping statements can be off-putting to Reformed readers (e.g., “EVERY significant point the Westminster Chapter 1 makes is totally without Scriptural warrant,“). I don’t think the points you raised were missed, but rather would form a separate article.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom B.

  7. Hello Tom,

    I had no intention of making sweeping comments nor using hyperbole. I’m sorry if it came off sounding like that.
    In my post, I made sure to focus on doctrine/documents rather than persons. The “EVERY” was for genuine emphasis on the fact that every decisive point (i.e. that Catholic would not agree with) in the WCF Ch1 is without any good Biblical warrant, including the very Biblical footnotes the WCF gives.

    For example, when the WCF says all inspired teaching the Apostles preached orally was eventually “confined wholly unto writing,” here are the biblical proofs it cites:

    [4] PRO 22:19 That thy trust may be in the Lord, I have made known to thee this day, even to thee. 20 Have not I written to thee excellent things in counsels and knowledge, 21 That I might make thee know the certainty of the words of truth; that thou mightest answer the words of truth to them that send unto thee? LUK 1:3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, 4 That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed. ROM 15:4 For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope. MAT 4:4 But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. 7 Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. 10 Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. ISA 8:19 And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead? 20 To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.

    That’s a pretty grand claim to make, and one which is critical for Sola Scriptura, yet these texts don’t come anywhere close to saying or suggesting all inspired oral teaching was eventually written down for the post-Apostolic church.

    When it comes to teaching Scripture is perspicuous for all necessary doctrines, “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture,” the only biblical proof it cites is this:

    [16] PSA 119:105 Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. 130 The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.

    This comes nowhere close to proving such a grandiose claim.

    Even the very section your article was built around only gives this as Scriptural support:

    X. The supreme judge by which 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.[24]
    —————————
    [24] MATT. 22:29,31. Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying. EPH. 2:20. And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone. ACTS 28:25. And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spake the Holy Ghost by Isaiah the prophet unto our fathers.

    Do these Biblical citations suggest anything along the lines of what WCF 1:10 dogmatically lays down, especially enough to overturn the Christian legacy that came before?

    This is what I mean about the extremely dubious and unfair approach of assuming such dogmatic principles are true and having to argue against them rather than first having them show such dogmatic principles are even Biblical in the first place (i.e. traditions of men).

  8. If you look at the typical non-scholarly Presbyterian, I don’t see that they see a dichotomy. They’re a lot closer to the Ethiopian Eunuch.

    They think, “If I had enough time to go to seminary, I could go deep in scripture and understand the finer points of the Bible, but I don’t, so I have to trust my pastor and other experts who have done so….But I can still learn things from the Bible on my own and argue with people at my own level.”

    How do you know if your experts are trustworthy? The same way you know anyone is trustworthy, you get to know them and see if they are right more times than not in their councils.

    Things have changed since Calvin’s time. The trust factor is key now and people will shift denominations (and consequently theology) solely on this factor, which is why Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are able to attract people to their strange theologies and still convince their people that they are Christians.

    But even for the scholarly, your quote from the Westminster Confession is extremely problematic. It means that everything including the existence of the Trinity is up for grabs. IMO, the Biblical case for the Holy Spirit being Divine isn’t that strong. Yes, I’ve read the cited passages, but they could equally be applied to another being who expected worship (e.g. Michael the Archangel). The Trinity can be taken apart in many other ways (see Arius’s exegesis for some examples). This statement will immediately be balked at by any Christian worth his salt, but that’s only because flies in the face of they have been taught from the tradition that was handed down to them. Show the passages to a sympathetic unschooled in Christianity agnostic and ask them to tell you how they interpret these passages. If it were so straightforward, there would not have been any need for the first half dozen councils to iron out the Trinity.

    Given that the foundations of the faith can be debated and changed, I don’t see any way that any given denomination can avoid being swept up with the spirit of the age. Even the U.S. constitution with all its checks and balances has been. It’s all a matter of when change happens. The more faithful you are to the traditions passed down, the safer you are (at least you won’t be too much more wrong than your parents). But there’s always pressure to change, and some change is legitimate and necessary (e.g. Presbyterians had to do a mea culpa on support of slavery). Unless you have a way of enumerating infallible doctrines (the “essentials”) that can never be changed so that fallible opinions can be changed with the times (the “non-essentials”), a denomination is either abandoning the essentials and betraying the faith or in schism and possibly becoming extinct because of non-essentials.

  9. Nick writes: … a solid argument can be made that the Westminster isn’t approaching things in a manner consistent with the Fathers and Tradition, but in the Protestant mind those are expendable if they believe Scripture is saying something different.

    Nick, I agree with your contention that the Calvinsts are making claims in the Westminster Confession that are not backed up by the scriptures. The Calvinists would disagree, of course, but the essence of that disagreement is a disagreement over interpretations of the scriptures, and not with the scriptures themselves.

    For the Calvinists, the “right” interpretation of scriptures is what John Calvin says it is. The same thing goes with the Early Church Fathers. It isn’t so much the case that the ECFs are ignored by the Calvinists, it is more the case that the writings of the Early Church Fathers must first be filtered through the lens John Calvin before they can be accepted by “the church”. If the ECFs agree with John Calvin on a particular point of theology, they are right because they agree with John Calvin. If the ECFS contradict John Calvin, they are wrong because they disagree with John Calvin. So the Calvinists would argue that their interpretations of the scriptures are consistent with the writings of the Early Church Fathers, but in reality, that “consistency” can only be had by granting to John Calvin a supremely elevated status among men.

    That Calvinists grant this elevated status to John Calvin was made rather well, I think, in a podcast that CTC has listed in its index: “The Trouble with Calvinism” – Catholic Answers Live Interview with David Anders. (http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2011/04/the-trouble-with-calvinism-catholic-answers-live-interview-with-david-anders/)

    Catholic Answer’s host Patrick Coffin begins the podcast with a quote by Charles Spurgeon:

    Among all those who have been born of women, there has not risen a greater than John Calvin; no age before him ever produced his equal, and no age afterwards has seen his rival. In theology, he stands alone, shining like a bright fixed star, while other leaders and teachers can only circle round him, at a great distance,—as comets go streaming through space,—-with nothing like his glory or his permanence.

    Ref. C.H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography: Volume 2, 1854-1860; p. 372; by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Susannah Spurgeon; London, Passmore and Alabaster 1898
    (facsimile electronically reproduced as a Google e-book)

    Patrick Coffin returns to the Spurgeon quote at 04:32 minutes in his interview with Dr. Anders, and notes that Charles Spurgeon was being serious. Patrick Coffin expresses a bemused incredulity about the hubris contained in Spurgeon’s quote. It would be easy to just ignore Spurgeon, but I think that would be a mistake if one is trying to understand the essence of Calvinism. The more I see practicing Calvinists interacting with CTC, the more I am realizing that Spurgeon’s extremist view of the elevated status of John Calvin is an essential element of the religion of Calvinism. Without first granting John Calvin a place elevated above all men and women in Christendom, the religion of Calvinism cannot stand against the weight of Christian history that contradicts Calvinism’s novel teachings.

    A reasonable man might grant that when John Calvin disagrees with St. Augustine, that John Calvin might be right, and St. Augustine might be wrong. But when John Calvin disagrees with so many of the Early Church Fathers, a rational man would have good reason to think that it is John Calvin that is wrong, and not all the Early Church Fathers. Since I do not believe that John Calvin is the supreme teacher in all of Christendom, I find many of the claims of Calvinism to be not supported by a reasonable reading of history.

    Nick: Do these Biblical citations suggest anything along the lines of what WCF 1:10 dogmatically lays down, especially enough to overturn the Christian legacy that came before?

    Not that I can see. But, again, the problem is that Calvinists filter everything first through the lens of John Calvin. For the Calvinists, the Christian legacy that came before John Calvin is filled with the corruptions of “Romanism” – corruptions that needed to be purged by the mighty John Calvin. The dogma laid down in the WCF is John Calvin’s dogma, so we Catholics need to remember “ … there has not risen a greater than John Calvin; no age before him ever produced his equal, and no age afterwards has seen his rival. In theology, he stands alone shining like a bright fixed star, while other leaders and teachers can only circle round him, at a great distance,—as comets go streaming through space,—-with nothing like his glory or his permanence.”

    See also the CTC article Which Lens is the Proper Lens? by Sean Patrick:
    http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/09/which-lens-is-the-proper-lens/

  10. Hello Mateo,

    I understand what you’re saying, but my point is actually more “radical” than that. My point isn’t about ‘interpretation’ but rather about the total absence of Biblical proof for certain key WCF claims.

    In other words, when the WCF says X and points to a passage in Scripture for support, quite often that Scripture says *nothing* supporting X at all. This isn’t about interpretation, but rather about the plain meaning of words. So lets consider the point under consideration again:

    X. The supreme judge by which 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.[24]
    —————————
    [24] MATT. 22:29,31. Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying. EPH. 2:20. And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone. ACTS 28:25. And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spake the Holy Ghost by Isaiah the prophet unto our fathers.

    The Matthew 22 text is only speaking on the Resurrection, and Jesus’ authority and insight. Nothing do with the Bible being “supreme judge of controversies”. The Ephesians 2:20 passage says “apostles, prophets, and Jesus,” but that says nothing about Scripture, much less supreme judge, only persons. Acts 28:25 is about Paul referencing the OT in prophecy predicting the Jew’s rejection of the Gospel, speaking nothing about doctrine or controversies.

    In other words, I’m literally taking the words of those prooftexts at their plain, face-value. There is nothing in them that the unbiased reader would see that would amount to what the WCF says. Instead, this is a situation where doctrines have been scandalously forced upon us, but with no actual Scriptural backing.

  11. If the Scripture is the sole rule of Authority for the prots then why do they need WCF? Why do they need their pastors and churches? Since all are found in Scripture, what are those for? These are all extra-biblical sources anyways that they also believed might almost certainly contain errors, prot’s position doesn’t really make any sense.

  12. AJ,

    The WCF is an extra-biblical source. I think that a faithful Reformed Christian would agree with you, and not see any sting in the critique. What are things like the WCF and pastors for? To the Reformed, they are articulations of Scripture, useful to bring a believer to a better understanding of God’s Word, but completely subordinate to it, and corrected (in case of inconsistency) by it. The WCF is a useful summary or restatement, an articulation that can be a source of unity, but which is not independently authoritative or binding.

    I hope that makes sense of the Protestant’s position in this regard.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom B.

  13. Tom,

    Thanks for reply. Although you are right on prot’s justification of these extra-biblical sources however it still doesn’t make sense in a way even if they claim that it’s only for “articulation” or for better “understanding” the Scripture. They are always saying about the perspicuity or “clearness” of Scripture, don’t they? So why the need for these “inferior” sources if they believe in the “clearness” theory and thus might be influenced by the errors contained in these sources, why not go the Ultimate Authority right away, does it make sense?

    And if it’s non-binding so what is the use? It’s like saying we have the book of Constitutional Laws but they are not binding to the U.S. citizens. It just defeats the purpose.

    Just my thoughts of the unattainable prot’s position. Thanks again, God Bless!

  14. Rick, re comment#2
    I am seriously intrigued by your comments (here and at your blog). Frankly, I think you’ll find, among Catholics, a certain openness to what the Bible really says APART from theological systems, etc. This is the place for you to be, no crickets chirping here. Bring your questions here to c2c. But don’t hold back on your insights!
    Herbert
    Ps- I tried to comment on your blog, but was struggling with it (I am still not used to either my iPad OR my iPhone).

  15. Nick #10,

    Although I don’t necessarily disagree with you regarding the fundamental content of your argument, in regards to the specific passage of Matt. 22:29-31, Jesus is pretty clearly stating that if the Pharisees knew the Power of GOD they would rightly interpret the scripture. The Power of GOD is released through the Holy Spirit.

    Although I agree with you that the WCF is essentially extra biblical statements, It does not take too much of a stretch to see the connection between the statement and the proof text….

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