On August 24, 2011, Robin Phillips sent five lengthy responses to my blog posting: Response To Robin Phillips’ ‘Questions About Sola Scriptura’ (August 1, 2011). Rather than burying the dialogue between Robin and me in the comment section, I decided to use Robin’s responses as a basis for this posting. I propose to present the issues raised by Robin in the form of a question to which I will give an answer. Due to the length of the disucssion I plan to post Robin’s response in two postings.
Robin Phillips — Reply #1
I want to thank Robert for taking the time to write such a detailed reply to my questions and also for the fair summary of where I was coming from. Despite some of the ad hominems thrown at Robert in the discussion, I think he is doing a great job here with this site in opening up discussion (and through it, hopefully increased mutual understanding) between the reformed and the Orthodox. It is within that spirit that I wish to throw some more questions onto the table for discussion.
The alternative Robert provided to the model I found problematic is much more satisfying and avoids most of the practical problems associated both with Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura and Branch Theory (I will respond in a moment to Kevin’s contention that Robert’s ‘solution’ hinged on a false caricature of Protestantism). However, I do wonder sometimes if the architecture of Robert’s argumentation often implicitly hinges on making the non sequitur leap from (A) the EO model is more pragmatically satisfying; that is, it works better, to (B) therefore the EO model is true. He never made this progression explicitly but I did detect it implicitly a number of times. But Robert, how would you respond to someone who said that maybe the truth just is unsatisfying? As human beings we want things to make sense, and it would be nice to be able to say that the ecumenical councils cannot error or to make the type of claims about Mother Church that EO makes. But merely because a position is pragmatically superior doesn’t mean it is true. Or if it does mean that, we would have to first establish that through priori argumentation.
Consider, it may be pragmatically superior and satisfying for a man to believe that his wife is faithful when she is not, but he’s better off believing the cold truth about her than not. In a similar way, one could argue that Protestantism is realistic (painfully and uncomfortably realistic) to the reality of human sin and the types of potential for corruption that we find suggested in verses such as Acts 20:25 and elsewhere.
Taking this and applying it to some of the epistemological problems behind the discussion (which I want to look at more closely momentarily) what would you say, Robert, to someone who claimed that the best we can do is a probabilistic approach to theological knowledge which recognises that the finitude (and therefore partial relativity) of the knowing human subject makes indubitable certitude not only impossible but unrealistic (and maybe even idolatrous). We note the way that we trust and love and operate without certainty; we note the bankruptcy of the alternatives; we delight in the stronger certainties (but never indubitable) of the cross and resurrection; we anticipate greater clarity with the passage of time; and we “get on with it.”
Robert wrote, “This is why apostolic succession matters so much for the Orthodox. Continuity in episcopal succession and continuity in teaching are two important means for safeguarding the proper reading of the Scripture. Continuity in teaching can be verified through reading the Church Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils. This means of verification guards us from the secret knowledge of the Gnostics and heretical innovations. Formal apostolic succession is not enough; there must also be continuity in teaching — fidelity. The Church of Rome can claim formal episcopal succession but after the Schism of 1054 its theological system became increasingly removed from its patristic base.”
OK, but again, just because something is essential to guard us from error doesn’t mean it’s true. Israel didn’t have apostolic succession but they were still the people of God or the ‘true church’ if you will, so we would have to first establish that the New Testament promises to guide the church into all truth actually mean successfully safeguarding the proper reading of scripture in the way claimed by EO. But that would have to be an exegetical argument and not an appeal to church teaching or else the EO apologist is begging the question.
Robert Arakaki’s Response
Question #1.1 — Did I structure my argument along pragmatic lines?
I am not familiar with William James’ pragmatic theory of truth so I would not claim that I structured my argument along those lines. I do not endorse James’ pragmatic theory of truth, nor do I reject it. Any resemblance to William James’ theory is unintended.
Much of my arguments: catholicity, apostolic succession, and biblical exegesis, can be found in Irenaeus of Lyons’ Against the Heretics. Keep in mind that what Irenaeus attempted to do was to construct a framework for determining theological truths for Christians. It is an approach not suited for the natural sciences, nor for social sciences. To invalidate the approach I took entails invalidating one of the key church fathers.
In addition, I took an empirical approach. Irenaeus’ theological approach can be subjected to empirical verification, e.g., his claims about apostolic succession and canon formation. Apostolic succession in the form of faithful transmission of the apostolic teaching has an equivalent expression in the criminal justice system’s “chain of custody” in which a paper trail relating to evidence seized to be used for a court trial is expected and required. I doubt these form part of the Jamesian pragmatic approach.
In short, I dispute Robin’s claim that I am making a Jamesian pragmatic argument. If anything, I would say that I am making an argument based upon Irenaeus of Lyons and other church fathers like Augustine of Hippo and Vincent of Lerins. It should be noted that the observations about the benefits I experienced in being Orthodox was made in the last paragraph, not in the body of the posting as would be the case if I were pursuing a Jamesian pragmatic argument.
Question #1.2 — How would I respond to someone who says that “the truth just is unsatisfying?’
My first response would be: Are you a skeptical post-modernist who assert an “epistemological impossibilism”? If you are, then further discussion would be a waste of time.
If you are asserting that church history is not as clear cut as I assumed it to be or that the evidence do not support the claims made by the Eastern Orthodox Church, then my response is: “Good! Present the historical evidence and let’s have a reasoned and rigorous debate.”
For a discussion of “epistemological impossibilism” see Pauline Marie Rosenau’s Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences, p. 109 ff.
Question #1.3 — How would I respond to someone who says that the best we can do is a probabilistic approach to theological knowledge and that finitude and partial relativity makes indubitable certitude impossible, unrealistic, and possibly idolatrous?
There are two major approaches to doing theology: Orthodoxy views theology as a received fixed apostolic tradition; the Protestant way is to view theology as part of a scientific enterprise based upon experimentation and hypothesis testing of the data found in Scripture. That is why apostolic succession to doing theology in the Orthodox approach to doing theology. If apostolic succession no longer exists then we are left with the Protestant approach. These differences emerge in the social process that underly the two theological systems. Where the Orthodox approach is authoritarian, the Protestant approach is based upon mutual contestation of theories, which makes the Protestant model inherently conflictual. It should also be noted that the Protestant approach is a modern innovation and anyone who takes this approach must recognize that if one is a Protestant one does not stand in direct continuity with the historic church.
Your question about a “probabilistic aproach to theological knowledge” makes sense in the context of the Protestant approach to theology but is at odds with the Orthodox approach. The dogmas of the Ecumenical Councils reflect the mind of the Church catholic and are absolute. One cannot challenge these findings without risking being cut off from communion with the one Church. This does not rule theological reflection and exploration in Orthodoxy but the Church has set the parameters for what is Christian theology.
Implicit in a “probabilistic approach to theological knowledge” is the assumption that theological is developmental, progressive, and even evolutionary in nature. This is evident in your statement: …we anticipate greater clarity with the passage of time; and we “get on with it.” I believe that Brad Littlejohn has something similar in mind when he wrote on August 27:
There is, in short, an objective truth to the Christian faith. But it is an object so great, so large, so multi-faceted that each of us can only see certain parts of it at any given time, so we must always be ready to compare what we have grasped of it with others have grasped, seeking to gradually put together a mosaic that will capture more and more of the whole picture (emphasis added).
This developmental understanding of theology provides the basis for Protestant Liberalism. Keith Mathison has made a good point when he notes that solo scriptura is not what the original Reformers believed but in sola scriptura which allowed for extra biblical sources while Scripture was primary. This openness to extra biblical sources opened the way for Christian theology to be shaped by modern science, the Enlightenment Project, and cultural modernity. I have seen these results first hand as a member of the liberal mainline denomination, the United Church of Christ.
Brad in his August 27 comment conceded that I may be right in that his tentative and humble understanding of theological truths “seems to give no simple, straightforward basis for combatting ‘liberalism’” but also noted that the search for some kind of “magic weapon” that would defeat all forms of liberalism was a “fool’s errand.” I have to admit to being amused by his brandishing of the colorful phrase twice in his comment. I was also amused by his protecting his position through the insertion of extreme conditions like “will level all forms of liberalism with one well-placed blow.” I’d like to know where he thinks I was looking for the perfect cure that would treat all forms of spiritual ills. What he should have done was say: “Here is an effective approach for combatting and possibly even reversing the trend towards theological liberalism in mainline denominations like your UCC. It won’t be easy but it has a good chance of working.” It bothers me that none of my Reformed interlocutors has taken seriously my experience in the UCC. It was these practical concerns that led to theoretical questions about Protestantism that precipitated my theological crisis. If I read Brad’s response correctly, the result of a developmental approach to theology is a denomination in which theological conservatives and liberals intermingle in tension, if the situation deteriorates the only response for the conservative is to withdraw and start a new denomination, but that is the way of schism, retreating in the wake of suffering a major defeat in war.
The magisterium of the Seven Ecumenical Councils is not a magic wand for the Orthodox Church. It is like a court ruling on a litigated issue. Once a formal decision is rendered by the court it is binding on all parties involved. If one belongs to another jurisdiction or a foreign country then the rulings of the court are instructive but not necessarily binding. It is important to understand that the Orthodox Church is fundamentally a concrete social reality, if you like a commonwealth; it is not a theory one is free to embrace or discard according to one’s opinion. Either one agrees with the Church and lives in her, or one rejects her teachings and lives independently of her. One could counter: But how can the Orthodox Church be so certain about the truthfulness of her dogmas? The answer is that the teachings of the Church is based upon divine revelation, that the Son of God came down from heaven, taught his disciples, authorized them to be his ambassadors to all the nations passing on his teachings till the end of time. The certitude of the Church rests upon a faith response to divine initiative, not autonomous human reason.
I’ll close this response with a question to Robin: “You speak about incertititude and tentativeness in Protestant theology. But surely you don’t intend that for all doctrines? What about certitude and confidence? If so, then what for you constitute the essential non-negotiable dogmas of Protestantism and how would you respond to a fellow Protestant who deny these dogmas?”
Second, the fact that in this reality we live in is marked by finitude and partial relativity means that we operate on the basis of trust in much of our social relations. Robin seems to imply that I view the church councils through rose colored glasses when I hold the Orthodox Church to be infallible. I would note that infallibility is a property that belongs to the Holy Spirit and that the Church is infallible only because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. As a church history major I am painfully aware of the notorious actions that marred the later Councils but I believe that the Holy Spirit guided the final outcome of the council decisions. In the Nicene Creed is the line: “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” This is the fourth of the four articles or sections of the creed. In the Nicene Creed the early Christians confessed their faith in God the Father, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, and in the Church. The Greek word for “believe” can also have the sense “to trust in.” As I reflected on the fourth article of the Nicene Creed I was forced to abandon my Protestant reading in which I acknowledged the existence of the church to taking the stance that I was trusting or relying on her as a Mother (cf. Calvin’s Institute 4.1.2).
Three, Robin claims that Protestantism is realistic when it comes to the reality of human sin. I would say that the Orthodox Church is also realistic when it comes to human sin. We don’t deny the ugly things that went on in church councils. We admit that we have had patriarchs who lapsed into heresy and thus were deposed. Robin seems to be alluding to the Protestant belief that the early Church fell into apostasy early on in his analogy about the unfaithful wife. Ironically, he uses it to refute the Jamesian pragmatic theory of truth which I disavowed. My response to him is: “Let’s be empirical about this. Present the historical evidence that shows that the early Church broke from the teachings of the original apostles and fell into apostasy. On what doctrine did they apostatize? Who led the apostasy? Give us the sources.”
As far as Robin’ mention of Acts 20:25 (actually verse 28) is concerned, just throwing out chapter and verse is not enough. He has to exegete the passage and show how it applies to the matter at hand. I have no problem agreeing with the point that evil men, even bad leaders, will arise and inflict harm on the church. Does Robin mean to imply that Orthodox Christians deny that such a thing happened? But if he wants to assert that a major break took place in doctrine or worship early on with the result that the early church fell into apostasy then the Orthodox Church would have a problem, a major problem. If Robin want to assert the latter, my response is: “Show me the evidence.”
Question #1.4 — Did the nation of Israel have apostolic succession or anything resembling apostolic succession?
I think Robin’s implied answer here is too glib, i.e., that ancient Israel had nothing like apostolic succession. It had the Aaronic priesthood. To be part of the Jewish priesthood required that one was able to provide proof of descent from Aaron (cf. Exodus 29:29-30). That is why genealogical records were so important for the Jews and especially the priests. Genealogical descent in the Aaronic priesthood is an Old Testament type of the New Testament apostolic succession.
Another marker of orthodoxy in ancient Israel was the designation of one place for worship of Yahweh and the offering of sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:4-7). Ancient Israel was united by a common sacrificial center and a unified priesthood. That is why the construction of an alternative place of worship was such a grievous sin. This act of schism by the northern tribes eventually led to heterodoxy then to outright apostasy. This trajectory is analogous to what we see in modern Protestantism, especially in the mainline denominations. Similarly, Orthodoxy is united by a shared liturgy which stands in contrast to the liturgical chaos of Protestantism.
Question #1.5 — Did the New Testament promise of the church being led into all truth mean the safeguarding of the proper reading of scripture as claimed by Orthodoxy?
This questions calls for two kinds of response: (1) a biblical reference and (2) a reasonable explanation of the meaning of that passage. I offer three biblical references:
(1) I Timothy 3:15 — …which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
Calvin wrote: “By these words Paul means that the church is the faithful keeper of God’s truth in order that it may not perish in the world.” (Institutes 4.1.10; emphasis added)
(2) Matthew 16:18 — …on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
The second part of the quote has been understood to refer to the superior power of the Good News of Christ’s resurrection against death, the promise of the forgiveness of sins in the Gospel as greater than the power of our sins, and I would add it can also be taken to mean that Christ’s church which is based upon the truth of the Gospel cannot be vanquished the powers of Hell.
(3) Ephesians 2:20 — …built on the foundation of the apostles with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
This verse is part of a larger passage in Ephesians 2:19-22. Here Paul draws a picture of Jesus Christ as the master builder and the church as a house he builds upon a firm foundation. This is the true Temple of God united in truth, not the Tower of Babel that collapsed into a confused cacophony. To put it another way, did Paul ever teach that the church would eventually decay and crumble into confusion?
Please keep in mind that “indefectability” is a Roman Catholic term, so far as I know the Orthodox Church does not use this term. Rather we stress apostolic continuity and faithfulness in safeguarding the apostolic teaching. I believe this the intent behind the Nicene Creed’s: “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” If you want to test a church claim to apostolic continuity, I suggest you read Irenaeus of Lyons’ Against the Heretics and compare Irenaeus’ ecclesiology against that of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism.
Robin Phillips — Reply #2
“I found sola scriptura to be a heavy burden because I was compelled to assess the latest theological fads against my study of Scripture. I gave up on sola scriptura when I concluded that it was incapable of producing a coherent theology capable of uniting Protestantism. I found the branch theory espoused by Keith Mathison of very little practical value. I often felt like I was standing under a leaking umbrella in the pouring rain wishing that I was safe and dry in a house. I found a roof over my head and a spiritual banquet — the Eucharist — laid out every Sunday when I became Orthodox. To become Orthodox I had to renounce sola scriptura but in its place I gained the true Church founded by the apostles. Orthodoxy’s theological system has a stability and coherence unmatched by the best Protestantism has to offer.”
I can relate to everything Robert wrote above (I will respond in a moment to the contention that this is a caricature of Protestantism) and I can see that Orthodoxy’s theological system has a stability and coherence unmatched by the best Protestantism has to offer. But where does that actually get us? To establish that the EO church has theological stability and coherence is not necessarily to establish that it is true. It might, for example, possess the stability of stagnation and the coherence of heterodoxy, so we would need argumentation to show that this wasn’t the case.
It has been suggested in the preceding discussion that these alleged problems in Protstantism which create this sense of psychological uncertainty which Kevin has so scorned arise because of a half-hearted gnostic caricature of Protestantism which is quite distinct from classical Protestantism. Properly understood, the argument goes, Protestantism is not a leaky umbrella in which rain can come in, but a safe house since it does actually preserve a high Ecclesiology. However, as I pointed out in the original post that Robert was interacting with, if you carry the axioms of Protestantism far enough you end up exactly with the type of leaky-umbrella situation that Robert described experiencing when he was a Protestant. A reformed Presbyterian Bible teacher and author once told me that if I privately concluded that Jesus isn’t God, then as a good Protestant I would be bound to also infer that the Arians truly represented the apostolic tradition and that all the early councils were heretical gatherings. Apart from the problem of circularity, it is hard to see what is the practical cash value for contending, as Sola Scriptura apparently does, that we must interpret scripture through the lens of the subordinate authority of historic tradition if our interpretation of scripture is what defines the boundaries of that tradition in the first place. If we extrapolate the implications far enough, how can we keep Sola Scriptura from collapsing into the Anabaptist doctrine of Solo Scriptura? This throws us back to the question of whose understanding of the Word of God ought to be normative in measuring the traditions that are meant to serve as subordinate guides beneath the authority of scripture? Is my own personal understanding of God’s Word meant to be the yardstick? In that case, we are back to the radical individualism of the Anabaptists and the modern evangelical movements. Or is the reformed church’s understanding of God’s Word meant to be the yardstick by which traditions are measured? If yes, then I have either reached that position by studying scripture, in which case it is self-contradictory, or I have merely assumed it, in which case I am question-begging. Of course, everyone, must exercise private judgment in satisfying the conditions of knowledge (after all, the choice to follow the Pope or embrace EO tradition is itself a judgment that must be made by the private individual), just as every mathematician exercises individual judgment when answering math problems. However, in math there are normative standards that can guide individual judgment and determine whether my personal judgment is correct or not. Sola Scriptura doesn’t seem to provide any such normatives since even the subordinate authority of church tradition has boundaries that are up for grabs should my interpretation of scripture change. Putting the problem another way, since all traditions on the Protestant view must conform to our personal understanding of the Word of God in order to be legit, then saying that we interpret the Bible through the lens of a legitimate subordinate tradition (i.e., the apostolic faith) is simply another way of saying we interpret the Bible through the lens of our interpretation of the Bible. And again, the Arian might use that argument with equal consistency. Nor would it be easy to know how to answer the Arian if he went on to parody Luther’s famous appeal to individual conscience: “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God…it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” Of course, Luther believed that his convictions had continuity with the historic teaching of the church. But ultimately, it was his interpretation of scripture that enabled him to identify what was in fact the historic teaching of the church. Ergo, the only reason a Protestant doesn’t feel the type of leaky umbrella syndrome that Robert describes is because the Protestant isn’t being completely consistent. The fact that Protestants like Kevin exist which do not feel the same problem does not mean that the problem is not objectively inherent to the axioms of Protestantism, only that some Protestants exist which are not 100% consistent with their Protestant presuppositions.
But why should we even be expected to be completely consistent, given Robert’s criticisms of Western “syllogistic reasoning and the insistence on logical consistency”? There are many areas of life where we have to hold competing truths in tension without carrying such truths to their logical conclusion, as Chesterton showed in chapter two of Orthodoxy. Real life is often fuzzy and messy, and this seems to echo the perilous dialectic at the heart of classical Protestantism.
Robert Arakaki’s Response
Question #2.1 – How do we determine whose understanding of Scripture is normative? How do we avoid the circular argument that all interpretations are really just individual interpretations?
My response is that there really is no such thing as individual interpretation of Scripture; every one of us belongs to a particular circle of friends. We are influenced by what we read and where we worship. As individuals with inquiring minds and free will we can also act independently of our social circle but if we hold to beliefs at odds with the group then tension arise which must eventually be resolved through exit, expulsion, adjustment, or jettisoning the belief from the group ideological system. I recommend that you read:
(1) Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality,
(2) Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and
(3) George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine.
What sets Orthodoxy apart from Protestantism is that belonging to the Orthodox Church entails submission to her teaching authority. That is why potential converts must carefully examine the claims of the Orthodox Church and count the cost of converting to Orthodoxy. To become Orthodox is to promise to obey her teachings and her disciplines; it is not a cerebral act done in the privacy of one’s intellect but a commitment that involves one’s beliefs, one’s worship, and one’s lifestyle. I struggle with the Orthodox Church’s teachings on fasting but I accept it because this is the teaching of the Church.
The point I am trying to make is that doctrinal orthodoxy cannot be confined to logical consistency but must also be assessed against its social consequences. As Christians we are faced with three basic theological systems and their resultant ecclesial realities: (1) Eastern Orthodoxy with its adherence to Tradition, (2) Roman Catholicism with its monarchical Papacy, and (3) Protestantism with its theological pluralism and many denominations to choose from.
Let me present an analogy. Being a Protestant is much like being at a food court at a shopping mall. One hangs out with one’s friends and one has the freedom to eat Southern fried chicken while another friend opts for hamburgers and other goes for Thai vegetarian. Being Orthodox is like belonging to a family and coming home to dinner and eating what mom puts on the table. At the family dinner table you are certanly not going to ask mom for the menu!
Question #2.2 – But what about the claim that Protestantism like the field of mathematics is comprised of individual mathematicians who follow normative standards?
Even mathematicians belong to a math department in a university. Robin’s use of individual reasoning brings to mind the picture of an eccentric genius who lives by himself cut off from the outside world in a house filled with math books and a blackboard covered with arcane symbols. Would you want to study under the eccentric isolated math genius or would you rather enroll at a local university and register for class?
But to address the issue more directly, given that Protestantism is comprised of many individual theologians what are the “normative standards” that guide them? Also, assuming that there are “normative standards” in place, are the actual results consistent, inconsistent, or do we see heated arguments about who’s right and who’s wrong? Let’s bring up a very recent example. In 2011, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) dropped its prohibition on gay clergy. Were there “normative standards” in place that led to this significant decision? Can one claim that the major shift was the result of “normative standards”? In short, Robin’s asserts that there are “normative standards” in place in Protestantism, but in light of the recent developments in the UCC, the PC (USA), and Lutheran ELCA, I would give a skeptical: I don’t think soooo.