The Dilemma

On the one hand, Roman Catholicism is nothing without the papacy:

There is nothing more distinctly Catholic than the papacy. While just about every other Catholic belief can be found in at least some other Christian denominations, our beliefs about the papacy are unique. Nobody else believes that the bishop of Rome has jurisdiction over the entire Church or that he can infallibly define dogmas; only we do. As a result, these doctrines are essentially what make us Catholic rather than Protestant or Orthodox, so they are extremely important for us.

In addition to the papacy, you need the magisterium:

There is agreement among all Christians that Holy Scripture is the Word of God. But since this Word is conveyed in human language, it does not have the evidence (quoad se—in itself) that the Protestants want to attribute to it. Rather, there is need for a human interpretation on the part of the teachers of the faith whose authority comes from the Holy Spirit. Toward those who hear the Word of God, these teachers represent God’s own authority, making use of human words and decisions (quoad nos—to us). The task of authoritative teaching and governing cannot be left solely to the individual believer who in his or her conscience comes to accept a certain truth. After all, revelation has been entrusted to the Church as a whole. Therefore, the Magisterium is an essential part of the Church’s mission. Only with the help of the living magisterium of the pope and the bishops can the Word of God be passed on in its integrity to the faithful and to all the people of all times and places.

On the other hand, you endure clericalism:

Clericalism affects the whole church. It has been accepted and even lauded by clergy as if it is an anticipation of the Kingdom yet to come. Its hold on us rests comfortably in the symbolic imagination of Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox churches of the East, at once their charm and their curse. That structure must be radically reviewed and reformed if the faith and hope and healthy life of the church are to be revived. As a Quaker colleague once put it to me: “What American adult wants to belong to a church in which he is treated as a child?” Clericalism infects the other Christian churches to a lesser degree and variously, but the Roman Church has simply collapsed under its weight.

According to some, there is nothing to be done about the crisis because the clergy-lay distinction is a matter of the divine will; in other words, “It’s Tradition, a very, very, very old Tradition!” Or could it be that there is something that can and ought to be done that is so radical and church-embracing, so chilling, that it is beyond clerical contemplation? If indeed clericalism is the problem, then the solution is the elimination of that division between clerical and lay Catholics. I am not opposed to leadership, to authority, to structure, to ministry, even to its three-tiered Roman Catholic articulation, but I am opposed to its sacrality and its sanctification. I suppose I am now advocating anti-clericalism, an instinct almost as old as clericalism itself, a historical protest against what the priesthood has done to the church (and a lot for the church, it must be said) through nearly two millennia. Can we count on the clergy to eliminate clericalism? Or the bishops? Or the pope? Not likely! They may badmouth it on occasion, much to their credit. But undo it? Never.

Protestants did not fix this, but they did localize church government. The downside for Protestants is a lack of unity. The upside is not having to act like the apostles’ successors know how to interpret the Bible better than you (as long as you know Greek and Hebrew).

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103 thoughts on “The Dilemma

  1. we should note that confessional churches are nothing without their paper papacy.

    I am not a fan of the Roman Church but there are things that we can learn from them, that is if our respective popes allow us to.

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  2. The difference between the pope and a confessional document is two-fold:

    (1) In theory, ex cathedra papal pronouncementsate infallible. Confessions never are, and can be revised.

    (2) Papal teaching are the rule of faith. Confessional documents are not (see WCF 31.4)

    The distinction is non-trivial. Protestants should at all times reject confessional positivism.

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  3. Jeff, great comment (both of them).

    The Magisterium is my #1 objection to Catholic theology. That said, the explanation quoted in this post is probably the best I’ve read, and perhaps has some Scriptural merit. On the other hand, as Jeff said, I cannot buy the infallibility bit. Is there a middle ground between exclusive reliance on the Confessions and clericalism/magisterium?

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  4. For me, the teachings are the old and new testaments. Under those teachings are the accepted creeds and confessions. Also, for me, the traditions that I have come under hold lesser sway (to the old and new testaments). Fellowships such as denominations, also are below teachings. (For me the UPCNA, IVCF, PCUSA, and ECO.) The PCUSA congregation to which I belonged had three “scruples” with PCUSA polity. I view two of these as necessary, but they were not in my view sufficient to differentiate us from PCUSA. We have come out from among them. All-in-all, it seems to me things are going swimmingly well.

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  5. @vv isn’t the confessionalism that emerged from the magisterial reformation that third way? The description of the need for a magisterium suffers above includes a few sleights of hand:

    There is agreement among all Christians that Holy Scripture is the Word of God. But since this Word is conveyed in human language, it does not have the evidence (quoad se—in itself) that the Protestants want to attribute to it.

    This sentence is a confused mess. Jesus spoke in human language. Does that mean his words did not have the evidence Protestants want to attribute to it? Secondly, evidence for what? The meaning of the Word or authority of the Word? There are two separate issues mixed up here. The sentence that follows indicates that understanding the meaning is the issue. But Protestant confessions do not insist that authorities are unnecessary for understanding God’s Word.

    Rather, there is need for a human interpretation on the part of the teachers of the faith whose authority comes from the Holy Spirit.

    It is true that all communication by humans requires human interpretation. Going back to the Pentateuch, we see that teachers were necessary to teach the law. We also see that these teachers were fallible, and that Christ commanded the people to submit to the authority of these fallible teachers. Furthermore, these teachers were judged against God’s Word the scope of which was taken for granted even though there was broad debate about what counted as scripture.

    Toward those who hear the Word of God, these teachers represent God’s own authority, making use of human words and decisions (quoad nos—to us). The task of authoritative teaching and governing cannot be left solely to the individual believer who in his or her conscience comes to accept a certain truth. After all, revelation has been entrusted to the Church as a whole. Therefore, the Magisterium is an essential part of the Church’s mission. Only with the help of the living magisterium of the pope and the bishops can the Word of God be passed on in its integrity to the faithful and to all the people of all times and places.

    Yes and no. The individual believer isn’t in her own. She is indwelled by the Spirit. Additionally, the ordinary means of learning about God!s word is the teaching function of the church…particularly elders. But people are fallible. God’s word was preserved by fallible rabbis before popes or bishops existed. They are not necessary, and judging by their track record, not sufficient.

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  6. Jeff,
    If I name a person you don’t know, what does it prove?

    My point is this, it’s not that people formally admit this, it is whether they act as if the Westminster Confession is without error.

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  7. Curt,

    It would show either that you know an important Reformed thinker whom I have not heard of (and should!) for whom the Confession is de facto infallible, or else that you do not know any such thinker.

    In which case, you would have the name of an individual who sits on the fringes of Reformed thought: he or she believes the Confession infallible, but has not read Chapter 1.

    I think the more likely scenario is that you have misunderstood the significance of quoting the Confession.

    The purpose of an appeal to a subordinate authority is not to end debate, as if an infallible source had been cited, but to present the collected wisdom of the church. To do so is to establish the likely correct understanding of Scripture and the burden of proof.

    To someone who does not wish to shoulder that burden, it might seem that a Confessional appeal us the end of the conversation, when in fact it often only the beginning.

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  8. sdb – “isn’t the confessionalism that emerged from the magisterial reformation that third way?”

    Maybe in theory, but not in practice. I might be more inclined to agree if there was more of a magisterium and more unity among Protestants, including Reformed Protestants. I would also be more inclined to agree if the Confessions were routinely and frequently re-evaluated and updated. 300+ years (and counting) is not frequent or routine.

    All that said, the confessionalism we have in the Reformed world is probably the best “way” of ensuring orthodoxy today. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better.

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  9. Curt,

    In the PCA at least, the confession is not treated as infallible. In fact, you can be ordained and disagree with portions of the confession.

    I do think that we do tend to treat the confessions as creed as de facto inerrant. I don’t think that’s a problem because you don’t have to be divinely inspired to be free from error.

    In principle, however, all of us, even the Roman Catholics, treat the confessions and creeds as revisable in principle given greater understanding of divine revelation.

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  10. Papalism is a problem because it makes people look to trust in clerics and sacramental systems versus Jesus and the Bible. That sounds cliched… until you start going to Catholic churches and looking and listening… Then you understand how totally true it is. Must be experienced to be believed.

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  11. “Maybe in theory, but not in practice. I might be more inclined to agree if there was more of a magisterium and more unity among Protestants, including Reformed Protestants.”
    What would that look like in the world we live in now? As it stands, conservative Protestants sing the same songs, read the same commentaries, and allow the free flow of members among congregations. What else is there? The range of belief among Protestants who adhere to sola scripture is smaller than among RCs.

    “I would also be more inclined to agree if the Confessions were routinely and frequently re-evaluated and updated. 300+ years (and counting) is not frequent or routine.”
    Perhaps. I think maintaining minimalist standards on issues we are most confident about is wise. If we changed too often, I think the temptation to take a stance on the issue of the day would grow too great. That being said, there is a certain dishonesty in claiming to uphold standards that command nearly universal dissent (e.g., images of baby Jesus…as an aside why are images of Christ in a manger OK while images of Christ on the cross are frowned upon… lots of nativity scenes, lots of crosses, but curiously few crucifixes).

    “All that said, the confessionalism we have in the Reformed world is probably the best “way” of ensuring orthodoxy today. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better.”
    We could certainly imagine a better ecclesiology (or economics or politics for that matter), but the better idea has to survive its encounter with reality. We don’t get to assume away curmudgeons, opportunists, contrarians, and other sinners.

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  12. sdb says We could certainly imagine a better ecclesiology (or economics or politics for that matter), but the better idea has to survive its encounter with reality. We don’t get to assume away curmudgeons, opportunists, contrarians, and other sinners.

    Imagine a better ecclesiology than from Jesus?
    “Ecclesiology is crucial to understand God’s purpose for believers in the world today. Ecclesiology helps us to understand the role of the church and our role in the church. It teaches us about the ordinances of the church, how church leadership is to be chosen and structured, and what the church is to be doing in regards to believers (worship and discipleship) and unbelievers (ministry and evangelism)…. A Biblical understanding of Ecclesiology would go a long way to correct many of the common problems in churches today…. Above all, we must understand that the church is the Body of Christ and that each of us has a specific function and role within that body…. A key Scripture on Ecclesiology is Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”…. The root meaning of “church” is not that of a building, but of people. “( excerpted from got questions)

    also…
    “The statement of faith, church covenant, and constitution are the king, queen, and prince of church documents.”… A church without good documents may be running fine right now, but without them you’ll soon find yourself distracted from the main mission. https://www.9marks.org/article/do-we-really-need-church-documents/

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  13. @ali Your comment is out of place. What’s with the accusations? Of course scripture bounds our ecclesiology, and I’m convinced that rule by a plurality if elders held accountable by regional churches is the correct way to go. But that leaves us with a lot of questions that are not addressed explicitly in scripture. The WCF allows that many issues should be determined by the light of nature.

    For example, should there be a separate instructional time in addition to worship (eg Sunday school)? Should church meet in the morning, afternoon, evening, or all day? How should elders be chosen and vetted? By the congregation? Session? Pastoral staff? Should women vote? If one disagrees with something in the standards who decides whether it is disqualifying? If the elders find that a majority disagree with something in the standards how do they change it? Simple majority vote, unanimous consensus, 2/3rd majority? What about those who dissent? Can an individual church break away or does the presbytery own the property? What about presbyteries? How errant must s Church be before leaving is warranted?

    Some of these items are admittedly trivial, but others here are not. It is not clear to me that one can reach a definitive answer in these from biblical exegesis. Determining how comprehensive and how binding standards should be and how to go about reforming those standards is the topic of discussion here. If we have overlooked how scripture bears on these questions, I am all ears. I’m skeptical that “got questions” will help though.

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  14. Robert,
    You can be free from error when adding 2+2. But to say you are free from error when interpreting God’s Word which is the rule for life and faith, nothing that God’s Word is inerrant because it is God-breathed, is a problem. It is a problem because it presents an interpretation of what God breathed as exactly representing what God said. And would imply that that the inerrant confessions are not only on par with God’s Word, it also is God breathed. If the Confessions are inerrant and they are the interpretation of God’s Word, why not quote the confessions more than God’s Word? The reason we shouldn’t is because that is what the Pharisees did with their traditions.

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  15. Jeff,
    Why would it be anymore significant to what I wrote if the person who acts as if the Confessions are inerrant if is an important Reformed thinker. Obviously, the Reformed person who acts like or believes that the confessions are inerrant at least a partial reflection the minister(s) they listen to as well as the important Reformed thinkers they read. Sometimes our actions or how we defend positions suggest to people what we don’t intend to suggest but do anyway.

    Finally, the confessions present a skewed collective witness of the Church. It is skewed by both time and particular cultures and Christian theologies. The confessions certainly have a lot to offer, but, at the same time, they can be significantly deficient while interpreting the Scriptures and in how they can be applied in today’s daily living.

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  16. sdb says: @ali Your comment is out of place. What’s with the accusations?
    -out of place? accusations? The point was, Jesus’s idea of the church needs no improvement or ‘better ecclesiology’. Scripture tells us what man needs to know, beyond that we are free to make application toward His purposes, as best we determine will carry out His purposes, seeking Him, guided by the Spirit. And yes, as you say ‘encounter with reality’ helps us always see that we always fall sort of His perfect glory.

    I’m skeptical that “got questions” will help though.
    -really? proud much sdb. Got questions is an excellent resource (I have added it to my support list.) and is often helpful to me.

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  17. Ali, Scripture does not teach that congregations need a statement of faith, church covenant, or constitution. Whether or not one should have these things and how they should be reformed are part of our ecclesiology. The Holy Spirit did not choose to reveal in special revelation everything we need to know to organize a church. As your own comment attests, these are left to guidance by what the Westminster Confession of Faith describes as “the light of nature”:

    …there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. WCF I.6

    VV and I were discussing these items – namely how often and how easy should it be to reform confessional statements. We all agree that they are not infallible (protected from error), so when we discover shortcomings (either errors, overreach, or omissions) we should reform our standards. If you have something to contribute on that front, that would be great. I’d be interested in what you have to say (iron sharpening iron and all that). I doubt that you will find much help in “got questions” though. This is not because I am proud (though I confess that I fall short here too), but because that source does not typically deal with confessionally specific topics.

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  18. D.G.,
    Considering that he did not ask a question in his last response and I did answer his question by saying that there are non important reformed thinkers who act as if the confessions are inerrant and that such people are a partial reflection of reformed teachers both big and small. I did leave out the word non in non important in my response that answered his question but the meaning was evident and Jeff picked it up.

    BTW, your logic fails to account for those who do love catechetical preaching and assumes that one must love catechetical preaching to speak and act as if the Confessions are inerrant.

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  19. sdb says: Ali, Scripture does not teach that congregations need a statement of faith, church covenant, or constitution.
    No. but it does seem like wisdom (to me).

    I know your light the wording light of nature. Speaking of revising, I think that ought be revised.

    I like the wording light of GOD.
    (I don’t have time right now to look up the origin of using ‘light of nature’, but I just prefer using God’s name.)

    If we know anything true or good, it is because of the light of GOD. In HIM, we live and move and have our being for GOD, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the ONE who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

    I know we now do not have full access to all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge that are in Christ Jesus ,according to His will and purposes, but He does say if any us lacks wisdom, to ask of GOD.

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  20. Curt,

    You can be free from error when adding 2+2. But to say you are free from error when interpreting God’s Word which is the rule for life and faith, nothing that God’s Word is inerrant because it is God-breathed, is a problem.

    The problem with this is that 2+2=4 is no less an interpretation of divine revelation than an interpretation of Scripture is. One is an interpretation of natural revelation, and one is an interpretation of special revelation, but both natural revelation and special revelation are infallible though our interpretations are not. However, in both cases we can have an inerrant interpretation. The difference between the revelation and interpretation is that the revelation is inherently inerrant and infallible, while the interpretation is sometimes inerrant but always produced through the reasoning of fallible interpreters.

    It is a problem because it presents an interpretation of what God breathed as exactly representing what God said. And would imply that that the inerrant confessions are not only on par with God’s Word, it also is God breathed. If the Confessions are inerrant and they are the interpretation of God’s Word, why not quote the confessions more than God’s Word? The reason we shouldn’t is because that is what the Pharisees did with their traditions.

    It doesn’t imply any such thing. The doctrine of the Trinity is an inerrant interpretation of what God said. But what God actually said was not “one essence, three persons.” What God actually said was “In the beginning was the Word…” At best, the interpretation is a restatement of what God said in response to new challenges, but even then I don’t think restatement is the best way to say it.

    You don’t quote the confessions more than God’s Word because they are never infallible but may be inerrant, at least selectively.

    The Pharisees did more with their traditions than claim that they were inerrant. They claimed that their traditions were an oral Torah given by Moses alongside the written Torah. They also claimed their traditions were infallible. That’s not what we’re claiming for our confessions. At most we are claiming that they are selectively inerrant, and even then we don’t generally say it that way. In practice that is how they are treated.

    But that shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, we live our lives assuming that our own personal interpretations are fallible but selectively inerrant. We trust that Christ is God incarnate, but to arrive at that conclusion, we have to interpret and we do so fallibly. But we believe that because we de facto believe that we have arrived at an inerrant interpretation.

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  21. Curt: Why would it be anymore significant to what I wrote if the person who acts as if the Confessions are inerrant if is an important Reformed thinker. Obviously, the Reformed person who acts like or believes that the confessions are inerrant at least a partial reflection the minister(s) they listen to as well as the important Reformed thinkers they read.

    Well, for two reasons.

    (1) Quality: It matters whether your claim is based off of actual writings or just your impressions.

    If someone commits in writing to “the Confessions are inerrant”, then that is a significant claim. And if it is in academic or formal theological writing, it is even more significant.

    If on the other hand, this is just Curt’s impression of what other random pew-sitters think based on informal conversations — that’s sketchy evidence.

    Not because of you in particular, but because impressions are often wrong. It took me about 35 years and marriage + kids to fully reckon with that fact.

    (2) Quantity: It matters whether your claim is based off of a widely read work or the private conversations of a few.

    If you are expressing the views of many Reformed folk, then that’s significant. If not, then you may be the “lucky lottery winner” who happens to know the two people in the Reformed orbit who think that the Confession is inerrant.

    So the quality and quantity of your evidence does matter.

    Curt: Sometimes our actions or how we defend positions suggest to people what we don’t intend to suggest but do anyway.

    *Stares meaningfully into Curt’s eyes.*

    Do you realize how often you call other people Pharisees when you disagree with them?

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  22. Curt, it’s not always “logic.” Only in Reformed (Dutch) circles is there a tradition of catechetical preaching. Among Presbyterians, you need two forms of ID and a downpayment to preach the catechism. Why? It’s not because Presbyterians regard the catechisms as infallible.

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  23. @Ali “I just prefer using God’s name” Just don’t do so vainly!

    As far as the Westminster phrasing, “the light of nature”, you might find the language of the Belgic Confession helpful for contextualizing this phrase. In article 2 it says,

    We know God by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God…

    As Jesus notes, even the lost know to love their own. Similarly, Paul notes how God reveals himself to man through creation (even though this is to their condemnation). One of the big contributions of the reformers was to validate the value of studying nature directly… as a means to understanding God’s creation. It elevated in a real sense the value of “secular work”. To get a flavor of this, here is Calvin’s commentary on Gen 1:16 (being an astrophysicist, I am particularly fond of his observations here and heartily endorse them!),

    I have said, that Moses does not here subtilely descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words. First, he assigns a place in the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed stars have their proper place in the firmament. Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise. Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from this pursuit in omitting such things as are peculiar to the art; but because he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this grosser method of instruction. Had he spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded in excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity. Lastly since the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all. If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. For since the Lord stretches forth, as it were, his hand to us in causing us to enjoy the brightness of the sun and moon, how great would be our ingratitude were we to close our eyes against our own experience? There is therefore no reason why janglers should deride the unskilfulness of Moses in making the moon the second luminary; for he does not call us up into heaven, he only proposes things which lie open before our eyes. Let the astronomers possess their more exalted knowledge; but, in the meantime, they who perceive by the moon the splendor of night, are convicted by its use of perverse ingratitude unless they acknowledge the beneficence of God.

    To refer to the “light of nature” is not to refer to something we know apart from God. Rather it is to acknowledge that we can discern aspects of his will for our common life through the study of nature since he is sovereign over every bit of it. Of course, this knowledge is not sufficient for salvation, but it is sufficient for much of what we do in this life though.

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  24. @Robert
    Thinking about inerrancy, I wonder if we might distinguish infallible, inerrant, and true. Here is my stab at definitions that might bring some clarity:

    Infallible means that it is impossible for a communication to fail to commincate what the author intended.

    Inerrancy is slightly stronger in that the infallible text has no errors in extraneous details. This would rule out accommodationalism and subtly go beyond what the reformers claimed. In fact, I think some would argue that the Chicago statement is leased nuanced here than B.B. Warfield’s “Inspiration”.

    True means that a communication accurately reflects reality. This may or may not be coincidental.

    The statement 2+2=4 is not infallible. I could have gotten it wrong. The fact that I have verified my statement and I am convinced that it is true does not make it inerrant. I could have been wrong. Similarly a broken watch is “true” twice a day. The watch isn’t inerrant though.

    The confessions are not infallible. They could be wrong. God’s Word is infallible – it cannot err. Now I might be able to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that some claim in the standards is true because it is necessarily entailed by Scripture, but that doesn’t make the standard infallible as I could have gotten it wrong.

    I find the analogy with science very helpful. Nature is infallible because God cannot lie and nature declares God’s glory. Our scientific theories are fallible. We can get them wrong, but a theory may also be true. The longer a theory stands and the more data it explains, the higher the bar is for over turning it. Similarly with theology – the bar for over turning something in the Nicene Creed is extremely high…for all intents and purposes it is irreformable even if it is formally fallible. The heliocentric model of the Solar System fits into a similar category.

    Do you think this helps?

    Do you f

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  25. SDB: Inerrancy is slightly stronger in that the infallible text has no errors in extraneous details. This would rule out accommodationalism …

    I wonder about this. The language “four corners of the earth” is accommodated, yet it is also an idiom for “over the whole planet.”

    I would argue that it’s not an error in extraneous detail so much as a metaphor.

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  26. SDB,

    I agree with Jeff. Inerrancy doesn’t rule out accommodation. Inerrancy simply means that the text affirms only what is true. You can affirm what is true with metaphor.

    I’m more interested in how we treat the creeds and confessions. De facto, we treat them as inerrant, though I don’t think that’s a problem as long as we affirm that they are not infallible. I would never say the confessions are actually inerrant, but I acknowledge that’s how confessionalists tend to treate them in practice.

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  27. Robert: De facto, we treat them as inerrant…

    The meanings tend to conflate. “Inerrant” as in, “are not wrong”? Or “Inerrant” as in, “no errors have ever been found; hence are highly unlikely to be wrong”?

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  28. @Robert and @Jeff, you both are the most reasoned solid scholars here at OL. I appreciate Robert noting that “De facto, we treat them (the confessions) as inerrant.” And, as I think Jeff was noting, you won’t find much daylight between the dictionary definitions of “inerrant” vs “infallible” to make any meaningful distinction. There may indeed be a handful of virtues to having confessions, but the practical big chink in confessional armor is that, yeah, confessions, de facto, get treated as being inerrant. And, if they indeed are so treated, I’m not clear why you don’t see that as a big problem. Or, would it be fair to say you’re prepared to live with that as a problem vs the other (allegedly worse) problems of having no confessions?

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  29. @Jeff & Robert
    Idioms and metaphors are compatible with inerrancy. Accommodationalism as I understand it is a somewhat stronger than allowing for idioms though. For example, a biblical writer may get the name of a town where someone came from wrong or the precise order of event mixed up, but the point of the text may still be true. God accommodated the author’s erroneous understanding. This would be incompatible with inerrancy but not necessarily infallibility.

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  30. @Jeff
    Our understanding of the earliest stages of Earth’s origins are undergoing steady revision as we gain more detailed data locally. Our knowledge about the specifics of the origin of our own Solar System will always be somewhat limited because of the nature of the data we have access to. I think the more interesting insights come from comparison studies of forming planets in star formation regions of various ages. This allows us to get a clearer picture of the initial conditions of planet formation, the role of environment, and the stages when various process have completed as a function of age. Currently, detailed knowledge of disk evolution and planet formation is limited to the nearest and brightest (read atypical) planet formation environments. ALMA is changing that. JWST and the age of 30m class telescopes will carry this forward and help us better contextualize the early history of our own solar system.

    As far as when and how life started, that is a really tough one. Really what we can say is that based on certain isotopic anomalies, we can say life started earlier than X where X seems to be consistently pushed back. The effect of events like the LHB and so forth are uncertain, but it is entirely possible (as the article points out) that within 100Myr life had started on Earth. Is life common or rare in the Galaxy? That is a really good question, and we should have the tools to answer that in the next 40 or so years. Of course, null detections won’t tell us much, but positive detection of biosignatures would be revolutionary.

    If planet formation is a topic you are particularly interested in, I can point you to a few papers that you might find interesting.

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  31. @Petros There are two big differences between the standards and scripture. The first is that the Westminster standards and the continental standards have been revised. The issue that VV and I were discussing originally is whether such revisions are too difficult. The second is that, all reformed denominations I’m aware of allow their elders to take exceptions on various topics within the standards. For example, I think there are more than a few elders who do not rigorously attend to the keeping of the Sabbath as described in the WLC and many think that nativity scenes are OK even if images of Jesus are condemned in WLC. No one would ever be allowed to take an exception to a passage of scripture. One can say that the reformers were wrong about no recreation on Sunday, but one could never say that Paul was wrong about submitting to the emperor. This is because we recognize the standards to be fallible while scripture is infallible.

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  32. @ Petros

    Thanks for the kind words. Truthfully, there’re a lot of well-read folk in these parts; they don’t all wear it on their sleeves.

    Here’s one practical difference. A candidate for elder will potentially be allowed to take exception to a portion of the confession. His exception and rationale would be heard and examined by committee, and allowed or disallowed.

    An exception to Scripture would be immediate disqualification.

    Here is another: If there is a controversy, there will be a lot initial talk about confessional standards. But in the end, decisions will — or should, per WCF 1 — be made on the basis of the Scripture in original languages.

    So I’m actually not in full agreement with Robert that we treat the Confession as inerrant. I would use the word “accurate.”

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  33. @sdb and Jeff, thanks. Fwiw, I do find some value in the various confessions and understand their historical genesis. And, I appreciate and understand the distinctions you both make between confessions and Scripture. But, for a lot of people, the distinctions appear to be all in the fine print. In that sense, I’m in agreement with Robert that, de facto, the confessions are treated as inerrant, at least by the masses. But, I would still root for you both to be influential and educate those masses.

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  34. Petros
    I wonder if the stasis surrounding various standards is that for the past ~500 yrs we have had the freedom and means to hash through most of the topics covered. The source material hasn’t changed and there isn’t much left to say (my long winded comments not withstanding). If you disagree with the wcf on baptism you have the London confession, if you don’t buy the stuff about Presbyterian government you have the Savoy. Not down with predestination, there are the Wesleyan standards. Want a minimalist confession there are the 39articles, want the real presence go to Concordia, don’t buy the trinity, you can be a Unitarian, and on it goes. The freedom we have today to move from sect to sect reduces the pressure for denominations to reform their standards. The social cost of changing denominations is incredibly low compared to even just 50yrs ago. The mainline is discovering that as they “reform” their people are pouring out of the pews.

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  35. D.G.,
    Isn’t it possible that what we contradicts what we confess? While formally, hardly anyone is going to say that the confessions are infallible, we speak as if they were in our conversations with others.

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  36. @Jeff, it’s more about the impression of the confessions that is left with the rest of us. When something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, etc, one can be led to think it is, or is close to being, a duck. The distinct impression that confessionalists leave is that the confessions are treated, talked about, revered, and not deviated from, with the same rigor as Scripture, and yet, Scripture is the only thing I’d ever use the adjective ‘inerrant’ with. (This is not to say that YOU, personally, think they ARE on a par.) It’s to say, generally speaking, at least in the eyes of many others, that they’re treated, virtually, or de facto, the same.

    So, why are people left with this impression? I suppose we’re left with choosing between confessionalists are bad communicators, or non-confessionalists are bad hearers.

    (It’s curious how similar this debate is to Prot vs Cat debates regarding the veneration of Mary. It sure looks to Prots as if Cats virtually worship Mary. But, Cats of course dispute that….)

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  37. SDB,

    <i.For example, a biblical writer may get the name of a town where someone came from wrong or the precise order of event mixed up, but the point of the text may still be true. God accommodated the author’s erroneous understanding. This would be incompatible with inerrancy but not necessarily infallibility.

    That kind of mistake would not be compatible with inerrancy on any current use of the term in Reformed circles to my knowledge. No errors in what the text affirms. If the author of Luke affirmed that Jesus ministered in town x and he never went to town x, then the text is errant.

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  38. Petros: Jeff, it’s more about the impression of the confessions that is left with the rest of us … So, why are people left with this impression? I suppose we’re left with choosing between confessionalists are bad communicators, or non-confessionalists are bad hearers.

    Both of those factors are possibly in play.

    Here’s one more to consider, very common in our polarized times: Those who are not confessionalists, for reasons of their own, propagate the meme that confessionalists receive their confessions as inerrant documents.

    That meme then becomes a filter through which various interactions are heard and understood.

    Here’s one typical kind of interaction that is probably confusing.

    Ref 1: What about having an altar call at the end of the service?

    Ref 2: That certainly goes against the regulative principle.

    Ref 1: Oh, well, OK then.

    To an outsider, that kind of interaction probably appears as if the “regulative principle” is being used and received as an inerrant norm.

    Actually, it’s simply a short-hand for this argument:

    Ref 2: We both agree that Deuteronomy and Colossians forbid commanding things that God has not commanded, and we both agree that in a public worship service, we are leading the congregation, thus commanding them, to perform the elements of the worship service. Hence, we should not include elements that are unscriptural. And we both know this principle by the name of “regulative principle.”

    So we actually already agree that an altar call would be counter-scriptural.

    Ref 1: I hadn’t really thought about that. OK, then.

    But to an outsider, it could seem — especially to those infected with the meme — that “regulative principle” is being used as an inerrant norm rather than as a subordinate norm, a short-hand for The Bible teaches …, but we don’t actually need to drill down into the details, since that’s all been hashed out.

    To get a clear understanding of subordinate norms, a non-Reformed outsider would need to see this kind of interaction:

    Ref 1: What about having an altar call at the end of the service?

    Ref 2: That certainly goes against the regulative principle.

    Ref 1: But is the regulative principle really Scriptural?

    Ref 2: Let’s take a look at Deut 12…

    Then, it’s clear that confessions are not inerrant, and are subordinate to Scripture. But in the absence of such interactions, an outsider might proceed with confirmation bias and see the first type of interaction as “proof” that the Reformed take confessional norms as inerrant norms.

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  39. @Jeff, your examples and recap are good ones. That’s frequently how it all plays out. But I think there’s another prominent variable at work, and that is that there are more than quite a few in your Reformed tribe (albeit, non-Cagles and non-Roberts and non-sdb’s) that lack depth of understanding (Biblically, historically, et al) of their faith. So, it’s not just how non-confessionalists (w/perhaps a confirmation bias) hear (but not understand) a Cagle short-hand comment. It’s that a lot of your average confessionalists do not demonstrate that they think, or can articulate anything about, whether either the Reg principle is Scriptural, or the merits of Deut 12 as a supporting text. So, I’m rooting for you and Robert and sdb to have ever increasing influence in the presby world.

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  40. Peter, your impression doesn’t take into account those officers who take vows to subscribe the confessions. Confessionalists expect vow takers to honor those vows. Imagine a husband saying that his wedding vows aren’t innerant.

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  41. @dgh, actually, it seems I’ve read somewhere about some presby heartburn with TKNY’s lack of adherence to his vows. My condolences. Matt 5:33-37.

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  42. @petros In my experience, most pew sitters are pretty clueless about the content of the standards. I’m in the PCA via the CRC and have no experience with any other NAPARC denominations. I am teaching an adult Sunday School class on the WSC and several mentioned that they had no idea how devotionally rich it is. A non-negligible fraction of our congregation is functionally Baptist and attend for the great preaching inspire of some of the Presbyterian weirdness. The preaching is expository rather than catechal.

    I’ve been a member of PCA churches in the southwest, Midwest, and South and the ethos has been pretty consistent. So while my NAPARC experience is limited, it is limited to a pretty hefty chunk of the confessionalist world.

    Blogs are a whole ‘nother story.

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  43. SDB,

    Oops. Let’s try again.

    You said:

    .For example, a biblical writer may get the name of a town where someone came from wrong or the precise order of event mixed up, but the point of the text may still be true. God accommodated the author’s erroneous understanding. This would be incompatible with inerrancy but not necessarily infallibility.

    That kind of mistake would not be compatible with infallibility on any current use of the term in Reformed circles to my knowledge. Inerrancy says the text doesn’t err in any way. Infallibility says it’s not possible for the text to err in any way. If the author of Luke affirmed that Jesus ministered in town x and he never went to town x, then the text is errant, and a text can only be errant if it is fallible. Infallibility produces a text without errors.

    Roman Catholics sometimes speak of infallibility in the sense that the text makes no theological or moral errors but may make some historical errors. Some evangelicals have adopted that view. It’s not compatible with the claims the text makes for itself or with most of the history of the church.

    Accommodation is more of “God speaking on our level.” For instance, it is an accommodation for God to say something like “I, the Lord, am holy.” That statement communicates truth about God in a way we can understand, but it doesn’t communicate God’s knowledge of Himself, at least not in any full way. To put it another way, there’s a difference between the theology God knows about Himself and the theology He reveals to us.

    We could also point to something like the “sun rising and setting” insofar as Scripture speaks that way. That’s an accommodation to our way of speaking. We know the sun doesn’t rise and set, but we speak in such terms anyway, and ancient peoples certainly didn’t have the knowledge of astronomy that we do. God accommodated to them by using such phrases and metaphors so that they could understand, but He wasn’t saying that the sun actually rises and sets.

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  44. Petros,

    It’s that a lot of your average confessionalists do not demonstrate that they think, or can articulate anything about, whether either the Reg principle is Scriptural, or the merits of Deut 12 as a supporting text. So, I’m rooting for you and Robert and sdb to have ever increasing influence in the presby world.

    That might be true of some laypersons who are just beginning to accept the confessions, but it’s been my experience that most ardent confessionalists know the biblical foundation of the documents. Like SDB said, most people in NAPARC denominations have very little understanding of the depths of what their churches confess. In the PCA, you don’t have to subscribe to the WCF to be a member; you simply have to give a credible profession of faith and have been baptized. Church officers are expected to know and defend the confessions. Of course, they don’t always do so and aren’t always disciplined, which should make us Presbyterians circumspect about claiming how great our polity is. I think it’s the best polity available and the most biblical, but at the end of the day, it’s only as good as the willingness of the church to abide by it. So, I’d have to say that a Reformed Baptist church that follows it’s congregational polity is actually better off than a Presbyterian denomination that ignores it’s polity even though I’d still say Presbyterian polity is more Scriptural.

    I would say in defense of NAPARC, that most laypeople in most traditions don’t really know the ins and outs of their tradition. In some ways that’s lamentable, but in others it’s not. Most people just don’t have the time to become experts in the details; they’re just trying to raise their kids and put food on the table. A basic understanding of essentials, a credible profession of faith, baptism, are enough for membership and we then try and educate them through our preaching and educational ministries as they are able to participate.

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  45. Robert says: Most people just don’t have the time to become experts in the details; they’re just trying to raise their kids and put food on the table. A basic understanding of essentials, a credible profession of faith, baptism, are enough for membership and we then try and educate them through our preaching and educational ministries as they are able to participate.

    In summary, the church is not a building or a denomination. According to the Bible, the church is the body of Christ—all those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation (John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 12:13). Local churches are gatherings of members of the universal church.

    The local church is where the members of the universal church can fully apply the “body” principles of 1 Corinthians chapter 12: encouraging, teaching, and building one another up in the knowledge and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    There are four basic forms of church government in existence today. They are episcopal, presbyterian, congregational and non-governmental, but it should be noted that those terms are by no means restricted to their corresponding denominational name (e.g., some Baptist churches use a presbyterian form of government). Although these forms are not specifically laid out in the Bible, we do have some guidelines that we can apply.

    Church Structure – Head of the church
    If we were to create an organizational chart, Jesus Christ would fill the positions of Founder, President, CEO, CFO and Chairman of the Board. In biblical language, Christ is “head over everything for the church” (Ephesians 1:22; cf. Colossians 1:18). The church is “his body, of which he is the Savior” (Ephesians 5:23). Jesus’ relationship with the church is very close and loving, for “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). He desires “to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27).

    Church Structure – Church offices
    The pastor (literally, “shepherd”) is the human head of a church. In the early church, it seems there was a plurality of elders, also called “bishops” or “overseers.” It is the elders who lead the church and are responsible for teaching the Word and guiding, admonishing, and exhorting the people of God.The other office in the church is that of deacon. Deacons are men who handle the practical concerns of the church, such as caring for the sick, elderly or widowed and maintaining buildings or other property. (See Acts 6:1-6 and 1 Timothy 3:8-12.)

    Church Structure – Relationship between the offices
    Deacons were first chosen by the church in Jerusalem (see Acts 6). The apostles, who functioned as elders there, appointed the deacons and set out their duties. Thus, deacons have always been under the authority of the elders.While the teaching pastor shares responsibility for spiritual oversight with the other elders of a church, Paul indicates the position carries an added obligation. “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). Thus, the pastor and other elders are equal in authority but not in duty.

    Church Structure – Relationships between churches
    Paul was concerned with how various churches supported each other, especially since each church is “the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Paul praised the Philippians for sharing with him “in the matter of giving and receiving” (Philippians 4:15), which means they supported him financially so he could strengthen other churches. Paul also facilitated the collection of aid for the beleaguered church in Jerusalem (Acts 24:17; Romans 15:26-27; 1 Corinthians 16:3; 2 Corinthians 8-9). Throughout the New Testament, churches sent each other greetings (1 Corinthians 16:19), sent members to visit and help other churches (Acts 11:22, 25-26; 14:27), and cooperated to reach agreements on right doctrine (Acts 15:1-35).

    Acts 2:42 could be considered a purpose statement for the church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” According to this verse, the purposes/activities of the church should be 1) teaching biblical doctrine, 2) providing a place of fellowship for believers, 3) observing the Lord’s supper, and 4) praying.

    Another commission given to the church is proclaiming the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). The church is called to be faithful in sharing the gospel through word and deed. The church is to be a “lighthouse” in the community, pointing people toward our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The church is to both promote the gospel and prepare its members to proclaim the gospel (1 Peter 3:15).

    Some final purposes of the church are given in James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” The church is to be about the business of ministering to those in need. This includes not only sharing the gospel, but also providing for physical needs (food, clothing, shelter) as necessary and appropriate. The church is also to equip believers in Christ with the tools they need to overcome sin and remain free from the pollution of the world. This is done by biblical teaching and Christian fellowship.

    So, what is the purpose of the church? Paul gave an excellent illustration to the believers in Corinth. The church is God’s hands, mouth, and feet in this world—the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). We are to be doing the things that Jesus Christ would do if He were here physically on the earth. The church is to be “Christian,” “Christ-like,” and Christ-following. (gotquestions excerpts)

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  46. @ Petros:

    Pietism: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Let’s circle back to that question.

    My experience is similar to SDB’s and Robert’s. Most of our congregation is stronger on Scripture than the Confession. They would never confuse the two in terms of authority. And they hear regular expository (lectio continua, no less) preaching. Put people into four bins: Well-educated Scripturally, or not; well-educationed confessionally, or not. Given that WCF 1 begins with such a strong and clear delineation of authority, the only group that is in serious danger of “thinking the confessions are inerrant” are the group that are non well-educated Scripturally and not well-educated confessionally. In which case, we know where to start!

    Now: When I first encountered Presbyterians (~1992), I was surprised to find that the TEs knew Scripture really well — as well as my previous pastors and mentors, who, to their credit, instilled a love of Scripture into me. That was a surprise because I had acquired the belief that Presbyterians “didn’t really believe in the Bible but in their confessional presuppositions.”

    It was very eye-opening to discover that I was wrong about that.

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  47. GotQuestions via Ali: The pastor (literally, “shepherd”) is the human head of a church. In the early church, it seems there was a plurality of elders, also called “bishops” or “overseers.” It is the elders who lead the church and are responsible for teaching the Word and guiding, admonishing, and exhorting the people of God.

    So this is ambiguous, and I would suggest perhaps deliberately so. Is the pastor the human head, or are the elders all of equal authority? The quoted material leaves room for both, probably because Baptist churches frequently (but not always) hold the pastor to be the sole human head of the church. But the Scripture leaves room for only one option: a plurality of elders, including the pastor.

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  48. @Robert I’m not sure if reformed theologians and non-reformed theologians use the same work differently. If so, then we have the boring problem of getting everyone on the same page with their terminology. “infallible” and “inerrant” aren’t biblical words pre se, but rather labels we’ve developed to describe what we deduce from scripture about itself (or from tradition in some sects). Here is an example from Roger Olson.

    As far as accommodation goes, I think you might get in trouble here… *We* all know that sun “rise” and “set” are phenomenological language because for the past 500 or so years, we have adopted a heliocentric understanding of the solar system. With perhaps the exception of the Pythagoreans, no one thought the earth was moving around the sun, and the language people used to describe the sun reflected this mistaken notion (including inspired writers). This mistaken language has evolved into an idiom and now we all know what we’re talking about. But it wasn’t always so. How many other erroneous understandings of nature can be swept under the “idiom rug” while maintaining congruency with how the Chicago statement understands inerrancy? Given the way that inerrancy is qualified, I wonder if it is so helpful? Time will tell I suppose, which is another reason to make it more difficult to revise the standards.

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  49. @Petros

    I am only somewhat familiar with how the PCA handles exceptions. I don’t know what other NAPARC denominations do. In the PCA candidates for office are compelled to articulate where they diverge from the standards. As I noted above, one can dissent from various aspects of the standards and still be an elder. You cannot dissent from scripture. The session is tasked with determining the validity of one’s exceptions for ruling elders. The presbyteries judge teaching elders (I think I have that right – Jeff or Robert can check my work). The fact that exceptions are allowed makes it difficult for me to understand how these one would get the impression that the standards are on par with scripture. The key difference between presbys and others is that there is a process by which dissent is evaluated.

    I wonder if there isn’t a connection to our form of government and arguments over the constitution. We don’t think the constitution is infallible, but you don’t get to ignore it willy nilly. If you don’t like a provision the sticklers say that you should amend it rather than ignore it or have judges make stuff up to get around laws they don’t like.

    The mainline ran with a “living confession” and ran off the rails. Those of worried about the direction of the PCA and influence of Keller et al is that by bending the standards without changing them, we undermine their ability to guard sound doctrine. No one thinks that having nativity scenes with a baby Jesus means that church is modernist. But as respect for the standards wane, I think there is legitimate concern that it gets harder to rein in churches that push the envelope further.

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  50. @ Petros:

    Your link puts a finger on something profound, and it cuts across denominational lines, reaching even into the many discussions here about the “infallible Catholic magisterium.”

    The question comes to this: What happens if we have an infallible text (Scripture) or even a fallible secondary standard (confession) that is not fully understood?

    So in that case, we have to distinguish:

    (a) What the Bible teaches
    (b) What the confession says that the Bible teaches
    (c) What I understand the Bible to teach
    (d) What I understand the confession to teach that the Bible teaches.

    Awkwardly, when examining a ministerial candidate, we then would have to add (e) and (f), and I’m sure you could guess the content of those two.

    Your Ref21 article posits that on certain topics — specifically, the Covenant of Grace — that (d) (and probably (c)) vary widely among PCA elders, and that the variance does not get explored either by the candidate, who should probably declare an exception, or by the committee, who should probably probe for exceptions. There are Hidden Exceptions.

    I agree that this is a problem. In fact, one could look at the recent Federal Vision unpleasantness as a result of the Hidden Exceptions problem.

    One could also look at the brewing storm over sanctification as a result of the Hidden Exceptions problem: Someone seems to be taking exception to the chapter on Sanctification without realizing it.

    I think there are four factors that help cause the Hidden Exceptions problem, and I would argue that they run up against fundamental things about human nature that won’t change until Jesus returns.

    (1) The confession was a consensus document.

    If you look at the problematic Hidden Exceptions, they tend to occur in chapters (Covenant, Sanctification) that show evidence of compromise in the crafting. I’m not an expert on the Westminster Assembly, but I know that, for example, Ball and Goodwin had very divergent views on both covenant and sanctification, as two representatives of a larger division.

    Their divergence has really continued to today.

    By contrast, you will struggle to find a PCA elder who has a Hidden Exception on election or justification (here, I’m assuming the best of Federal Visionaries, taking them at their word that they affirm those chapters but have additional beliefs — long story).

    (2) Preparation for ministry is long and complicated.

    An MDiv is about 100 grad hours, over 3x other Master’s degrees. That’s what it takes just to get candidates straight on the main topics, both in theory (Systematics I – IV, exegesis) and in practice (preaching, ministry).

    If we really wanted to hit the Hidden Exceptions problem, we would need to revise the confession to provide more clarity on the consensus chapters, AND THEN add more hours to teach the ministerial candidates.

    (3) Because the real norm is Scripture, there has to be room for disagreement.

    This is tricky. We want ministerial candidates to uphold what we are certain the Scripture teaches. We do not want their consciences bound to items that Scripture does not clearly teach.

    Without a cosmic Answer Key to the Scriptures, there will always topics for which Scripture may not teach absolutely clearly, but may teach clearly enough that (a) the church can confess, but (b) allow some room for dissent.

    I would argue that modes of Sabbath observance fall under that category.

    (4) Because ministry preparation and then execution is a huge personal investment and sacrifice, there is a human temptation to go along. Related but additionally, some candidates may not even be aware of nuanced differences.

    This is also tricky, because it imputes sin or ignorance to our candidates. But the truth is that there will be peer pressure to agree to things that are “close enough” to what we really believe. I’ve only watched a small number of examinations, but it is very interesting that some candidates are highly scrupulous and declare several quibbles. Committees will sometimes say, “That’s not even an exception!” Others do not.

    Does that mean that they genuinely understand the confession and agree with it? Or that they understand but want to go along? Or that they do not understand?

    That’s really the question that the Ref21 article wants to explore.

    So that’s the Presbyterian dirty laundry, so to speak. What’s the solution? Abolish the confession and be “Scripture only”? No, that would just push the problem back one level, and intensify the peer-pressure in (4). It’s kind of OK-ish to take an exception to the Confession; It’s never OK to take exception to Scripture, so abolishing the confession would increase pressure on candidates to “go along” with exceptions to Scripture. This has played out in the PCUSA, which took a much more “no creed but Christ” stance in the 20th century.

    I see the confessional system as an imperfect system that works within the limitations of human nature.

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  51. Peter, is that as great a problem as Tim Keller self-applying the evangelical label before Jim Bakker’s empire went bust? Presbyterians have mechanisms. Pietists can only burn.

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  52. Jeff, excellent summary, although 1) how would you understand TKNY’s apparent lack of fidelity to the confessions (his ignorance? Sin? Or?) and 2) while I see value in the confessions, I’m not so troubled by pushing up the discussion immediately to Scripture, as any substantive disagreement/misunderstanding needs to quickly get to the Text anyway.

    Dgh, TKNY is YOUR Presby problem, not my eeee problem. He’s an asset to the broader eeee-world. Baker was his own rogue charlatan, not unlike many through history.

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  53. Peter, if Keller is Presbyterian, why are you a Keller homeboy? If he’s not ev, then he’s illegitimate for you. (He’s also confused and has been confusing you.)

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  54. TKNY’s not my homeboy, dgh, but I’m not a hater, either. Memo: it’s ok to be a Presby and a legit evangelical. TKNY just reveals the BIG chinks in your Presby polity armor tho. Again, pls accept my pietistic condolences.

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  55. Peter, if TKNY reveals the big chinks in Presbyterianism, then why are you so surprised that Presbyterians find TKNY alarming?

    You really do equivocate like a Jesuit (pope).

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  56. Ha ha. No equivocation at all. You’ve got your confessions and presbyters all in place to ensure conformity in a way that might make Bryan Cross envious (he’s got his magesterium and pope, of course), and yet all to no avail as TKNY goes rogue and gets off Scot-free. And that’s why I don’t equivocate in extending my heartfelt condolences to you dgh. I’m sympathetic to you being alarmed and also impotent.

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  57. To be clear, he’s only rogue by your personal stds. Certainly not by either mine, or by the PCA’s, of which he’s in good standing. You’re in a lonely spot, we all understand. My condolences.

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  58. Petros and DGH – when you can actually show me where Keller “goes rogue” with regard to the WCF I might begin to take your critiques (DGH) seriously.

    sdb, Robert, and Jeff – excellent discussion! I have enjoyed reading your comments on this. I could actually accept a modified Catholic polity (they do stress the importance of councils, after all) if it weren’t for the infallibility of ex cathedra proclamations and the infallibility of the Magisterium. If they viewed the Magisterium as their fallible, best understanding of Scripture the way we view the Confessions, then their polity would be very defensible, and arguably superior to our own in some ways. I can’t accept the papacy as defined now, but if they viewed ex cathedra proclamations as fallible, I could live with it because of the benefits of the papacy, namely exceptional unity.

    Robert – “Roman Catholics sometimes speak of infallibility in the sense that the text makes no theological or moral errors but may make some historical errors. Some evangelicals have adopted that view. It’s not compatible with the claims the text makes for itself or with most of the history of the church.”

    I basically agree with you, but what about instances when a biblical author is imprecise in his description of an event? I have read reputable historians claim that Luke referring to Caesar Augustus ordering the census (Luke 2 ) was not necessarily correct, but the local Roman proconsul might have ordered it, or King Herod possibly ordered it. Since local Jews probably viewed all legal authority as ultimately coming from Caesar Augustus, they simply assumed it was from him. In other words, if Caesar didn’t personally order the census, someone under his authority did. In this case, would Luke have erred, or simply reflected the limited understanding of the local populace?

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  59. @vv isn’t what you are describing just the Anglican/Orthodox model?

    The relative success of these groups at maintaining unity is mixed to say the least. In general I think the Catholic claims of unity are overstated. The difference between a modems parish and a trad Latinmass parish is at least as wide as the difference between a mainline Church and the NAPARC. Further, Rome has been hemorrhaging members of course once baptized you are counted for life, so Vatican numbers haven’t totally imploded yet. That being said something like 25% of S/L America has shifted Protestant, the number of baptisms, marriages, and ordinations has plummeted in Catholic strongholds such as Ireland, S/L America, etc… much less the rest of Europe. Africa and Asia are harder to pin down. Many adherents are actually Pentecostal strangely enough. Rome’s caving to China on Bishops is an interesting tell.

    Given all this, I am left wondering what unity means. If people are leaving Catholicism in droves to form nano-denominations of “spiritual but not religious”, how is that better than say Evangelicalism (speaking broadly as non modernist Protestants who adhere to sola scripture and scriptural infallibility) bifurcating unto 1000’s of denominations? In the US at least, evangelicalism seems to be holding strong while Catholicism and the mainline hemorrhage members.

    A related topic is the fate of non-Christian denominations. Islam and Judaism were fairly united into just a few branches until the landed in the US.

    Perhaps proper ecclesiology is less about what “works” than it is about fidelity. Whether God causes increase or not is not a good measure?

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  60. VV: I could actually accept a modified Catholic polity (they do stress the importance of councils, after all)

    That’s what the GA is.

    If you remove infallibility, Catholic piety and polity become … Protestantish

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  61. sdb says Perhaps proper ecclesiology is less about what “works” than it is about fidelity.

    fidelity? to? His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

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  62. Old Life @oldlife twitter: catholicherald, catholics-prefer-ritual-and-consistency-at-mass-study-suggests/ …“All we are arguing, from the conclusions of the data we’ve collected, is priests and musicians need to come up with habits that encourage the social or communal ritual practices that people need,” McCallion said.

    that people together need?
    Since WE receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let US show gratitude, by which WE may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe

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  63. sdb – no, I don’t think what I have in mind is EOC or Anglican. The EOC derives their theology largely from their liturgy, so it is their liturgy that unifies them as much as anything else. Anglican polity is a hot mess. I honestly can’t make heads or tails of it, and haven’t met anyone who can explain it. Some submit to the English monarch as the Supreme Governor of the Church, while others do not. The 39 Articles is their confessional statement of sorts, but is not binding. Some are “high church,” some are “low church.” None of it makes sense to me.

    You make some valid points about unity in the RCC, but the reasons for decline in RCC membership are complex and multifactorial. I don’t think the decline can be attributed to problems within the Church itself. The major problem leading to Catholic membership decline – especially in the West – is a highly consumerist mentality. The consumer approach to church is a major reason for the outrageous number of Protestant churches and the rise of non-denoms: people want a church that will meet their individual needs and desires. Their focus is on what they can get out of church, not how they can worship and serve Christ’s Body. This has certainly affected the RCC as well, but that’s hardly the RCC’s fault. And as you point out, this mentality has impacted Judaism and Islam as well as Christianity.

    Jeff – I agree in theory. But going back to my earlier point, the extreme reticence to develop a new Confession in the NAPARC denoms demonstrates a fatal weakness in our polity. The objections to developing a new Confession would be the EXACT same as the conservative Catholic objections to developing a new systematic Catholic theology. And doesn’t that indicate a misplaced loyalty and undercut the concept of semper reformanda?

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  64. @vv regarding liturgy, I suppose you could say the same about evangelicals… they are singing the same songs, and their pastors teach the same essentials. But there is an ecclesiastical structure in the eoc, synods for resolving disputes, and the binding ecumenical councils.

    Agree that Anglicanism is a mess… perhaps the theory doesn’t work if they don’t have an infallible leader? In the US, I agree that consumerism is a big part of the problem, but RC polity has not proven any better than any other polity at resisting it. The fact that virtually all churches have failed to meet the challenges posed by modernity is very sobering. While evangelicals look like they are holding their own, that is largely due to gaining defections from dying denoms. We do not do very good at retaining our kids. One religious exception seems to be Mormonism. I’m not sure what it is that enables them to retain their own and convert outsiders. There is probably something for Christians to learn from them.

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  65. DGH – we’ve been down this road before. Yes, the dance performance in worship was unacceptable and out of line with the RPW. But 1-2 instances of RPW violation over a year ago is hardly evidence of “going rogue.” Think about it this way, the dance episodes only affirm WCF 25.5: “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error…”

    sdb – interesting observations in your last paragraph regarding Mormonism and Evangelicals holding steady while everyone else declines. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but it seems to me the churches and denoms that keep their numbers do two things: 1. Preach a pure Gospel message; and/or 2. Contextualize their message without corrupting their message. Obviously #1 does not apply to the LDS, but #2 probably does. Plus, they have a heavy emphasis on missions, so that has to help their numbers as well.

    I know I will get eye rolls from DGH and cw on this, but the success of Reformed and quasi-Reformed churches over the past 25 years in New York City illustrates this perfectly. The emphasis on a pure, Scriptural Gospel message coupled with a contextualized message without pandering and without corruption has undoubtedly led, at least in part, to the huge success of Reformed and Reformed-ish churches in NYC. Everyone else has seen declines – some of them massive (Mainline, Catholic) – while others have held steady or seen minimal growth (Mormons, Pentecostals). But the Reformed churches have seen massive growth over the same period. Whatever their faults, they have been faithful to the Word and the Gospel while other groups have not.

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  66. @VV Brooklyn Tabernacle (née Central Presbyterian) grew from ~40 to 10000 over the past 40yrs. Time Square Church was started 30 years ago and has 6000members. Hillsong NYC started in 2010 and has 9000members. Then there’s the granddaddy of them all… the Christian cultural center founded in 1978 and now with 13000 members. Not to take away anything from the remarkable growth of Redeemer, but charismatic-ish
    (bapticostal?) churches seem to be doing OK in the city too. At any rate the growth of redeemer isn’t unprecedented.

    BT and the CCC are also interesting case studies for what happens when standards are jettisoned. While both appear to have Presbyterian roots, There is nothing reformed about them now. Maybe that’s OK – if people are being converted, that’s great. But I think Presbyterian polity and reformed doctrine more generally have something important to provide the church. So when charismatic and entrepreneurial pastors set up para church groups (such as Simpson’s CMA), I get worried that we are seeing the birth of yet another denomination that was once reformed. Maybe I’m paranoid. Not being in that presbytery, I guess there isn’t much for me to do about it I suppose, but I find it helpful to think “out loud” here and read the pushback.

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  67. sdb – you are correct about BT and CCC. The interesting thing about both is that they are “bapticostal” – the perfect description – and largely composed of ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans. I would guess their numbers come largely from old Mainline churches in Brooklyn; as you point out, both were basically old Mainline at some point.

    Times Square Church and the Redeemer “network” of Reformed and quasi-Reformed churches are unique because they were planted in Manhattan. Both were started at the same time in the late 80s, but could not be more different. Times Square Church is the classic 80s/90s seeker sensitive church, Redeemer is standard PCA with an almost anachronistic style of worship (i.e. no flashy lights, hip praise bands, etc). Hillsong draws big numbers in Manhattan, but interestingly, the Assemblies of God have actually declined in membership overall.

    If you look at the Redeemer “footprint” in NYC and the surrounding area, there are tens of thousands of churchgoers – many of whom are new believers – as a result of Redeemer’s church growth and their aggressive church planting network. The numbers tell the story of massive Reformed-ish growth in NYC with Pentacostals and Mormons making modest gains, while virtually everyone else has declined. That isn’t much different from the rest of the country, where Pentacostals have largely held steady, non-denominational (mostly Baptist-ish) churches have grown significantly, Reformed churches (especially the PCA) have grown significantly, while most others have declined. I would argue that in the case of the RCC, their tendency has been to go more Mainline in terms of emphasis, which has had the exact same effect on them that it has had on the Protestant Mainline.

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  68. Petros: Jeff, excellent summary, although 1) how would you understand TKNY’s apparent lack of fidelity to the confessions (his ignorance? Sin? Or?) and 2) while I see value in the confessions, I’m not so troubled by pushing up the discussion immediately to Scripture, as any substantive disagreement/misunderstanding needs to quickly get to the Text anyway.

    Petros: Dgh, we all nominate you to be the Presby-pope and get not only TKNY but the entire PCA to comply with your wishes!

    VV: …when you can actually show me where Keller “goes rogue” with regard to the WCF I might begin to take your critiques (DGH) seriously.

    See, these comments actually illustrate the beauty (and warts) of the Presby system.

    Celebrity such as Keller’s always provides a tailwind that blows the individual past the institutional boundaries. A good institution can moderate (but not remove) those tailwinds.

    Consider:

    (1) The deviations that Petros adduces are small potatoes. I don’t mean unserious — unlike VV, I take them seriously — but we’re talking about dancing in worship and wanting to ordain women as deaconesses. Hardly striking at the vitals of religion.

    Compare that to the deviations found in the PCUSA or to, say, Hans Kung on the Catholic side, and the PCA looks pretty good at moderating the tailwinds.

    (2) Further, the PCA did in fact respond to Redeemer’s attempt to “commission / ordain” deaconesses. In 2011, the PCA made clear that women cannot be ordained to the office of deaconess, but are encouraged to serve with all their might in non-ordained capacities.

    Which was exactly the right outcome.

    Now: In a baptist system, where each church calls its own balls and strikes, celebrity has free reign. If your church likes John MacArthur, then his views shade your views. It can work as a system, much like a flock of birds figures out where to go by all watching each other, but it is highly vulnerable to fads. Keller as a baptist would have no counterbalance to his star power.

    So Petros, I think you backhandedly made the case for Presby government.

    PS: True story — we have student, a baptist, named Tim Keller.

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  69. Jeff – I agree with you about the value of Presbyterian over Baptist/non-denominational polity. I would quibble with your reference to Keller though. He wrote a piece in byFaith magazine in 2008 explicitly making the case for NOT ordaining deaconesses, and his wife was on the ad interim committee that at the most recent GA affirmed that women should not be ordained. So he has hardly needed reigning in on this issue.

    I would also say that Catholic polity is actually quite good at maintaining Catholic doctrinal integrity. Everyone who is baptized into the RCC knows the score: accept Catholic doctrine and submit to the authority of the Church, or reject it and find yourself excommunicated and your soul in mortal jeopardy.

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  70. @VV:

    That’s fair. It was also a Redeemer church that accidentally “ordained” a deaconess, then walked it back.

    Rather than try to parse all of that (accidentally – on purpose? How do you ask the congregation to yield obedience by accident? Very strange), I’m willing to accept that lines were blurred, then clarified. The system worked.

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  71. @ VV:

    Odd that you find Catholic polity effective. Huge numbers of priests dissent from one or more points in the CCC.

    Not to mention that the actual content of magistrrial teaching has uncertain boundaries.

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  72. @vv isn’t time square church rooted in the Assembly of God even if formally independent? It certainly isn’t reformed. Maybe I’m missing your point here.

    I’m not following you on the PCA’s large overall growth. My understanding is that earlier growth was driven by disaffected mainliners, but now those are headed to EPC and EOC. The national membership of the PCA is 375,000 Over the past 10 years, it looks to me that the PCA is basically treading water in terms of growth relative to the population. Given that PCA members have larger than average families, one might expect that our growth should outpace the overall population growth, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. From the stats I found, roughly 2% of New York City identifies as evangelical (the number for just Manhattan is the same), and Manhattan has the highest level of unaffiliated which stands at nearly 40%. I’m grateful for every gospel teaching church that is setup in NY and anywhere, but the claims of a reformed renaissance are overstated.

    The Assembly of God is growing overall both in the US and internationally. They claim 68M members worldwide and 37 straight years of unimpeded growth. That really is remarkable if accurate. I had no idea that they were so large internationally. They compete with the Anglican communion!

    I agree about the RCC. Adherence among white Catholics mirrors what we see in the mainline. The reason that their total attendance has not completely imploded is largely because it is bolstered by Hispanic immigration. However, adherence in L/S America has been steadily shifting from RC to Protestant for the past 40years. I think that will have serious impacts for the Catholic Church in the US with the next generation.

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  73. vv, jazz vespers was going on in the 1990s. Rogue from day one. Just look at Keller’s chapter in the Carson collection on worship. It’s explicit he doesn’t follow RPW.

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  74. VV, what has worked in NYC is what has always worked in NYC — New School Presbyterianism. It’s not strict about theology, polity, or worship, which is why Redeemer partners with Baptist, Pentecostal, and non-denom’s.

    Learn it, live it, love it. You’re not Old School.

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  75. DGH – if Keller is rogue on the RPW (I’m sure he would deny that accusation), then so are 95% of PCA pastors. I’m not Old School, and I don’t think I’ve ever claimed to be. But neither am I New School. Such rigid categories are great for historical academic discussions, but have little use in practical discussions on theology, polity, and worship.

    sdb – Times Square Church is certainly not Reformed. I was simply pointing out that Redeemer and Times Square Church are unique in that their growth was in Manhattan. My second point was that while TSC has grown to thousands of weekly attenders, Redeemer itself has a larger weekly attendance and a far greater impact on church growth due to their aggressive church planting network. If I remember correctly the PCA added new particular churches, presbyteries, and members in 2017 based on the GA report. I have no idea what their growth is relative to the general population, but it is one of the few denominations showing growth at all.

    Jeff – I think you are mistaken about both the magisterium and the priests who “dissent.” The magisterium is clearly defined as any authoritative teaching of the Church on faith and morals. Not all of the magisterium is considered infallible, but it is all considered true and authoritative. As such, no member of the Catholic Church – priests, lay persons, theologians, bishops, popes – can dissent from any part of the magisterium. Again, not all of the magisterium is considered infallible (i.e. dogma), but it is all authoritative and no dissent is allowed on any part. So if a priest actively dissents from the CCC, he should not only be defrocked, but should theoretically be excommunicated if he continues in his active dissent. I doubt this happens often in practice, but in theory it is a far better framework for unity than what we have. Lay Catholics must affirm the truth and authority of ALL of the magisterium – lay Protestants simply need to be baptized and give a credible profession of faith. I’m not defending the magisterium per se – as I said earlier, it is my primary objection to Catholic theology. But in terms of unity of faith and practice it is superior to presbyterian polity.

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  76. VV,

    But in terms of unity of faith and practice it is superior to presbyterian polity.

    But it only works when the magisterium has the sword. Since the magisterium lost the sword, there has been a sea change in doctrine and practice and nobody seems to care at the highest levels. In fact, the change is warmly embraced and then it is pretended that nothing has changed at all.

    In theory, the magisterium should work better. It just doesn’t. The reason for this I would say are at least twofold:

    1. There is sin in the world and what should work in an ideal world doesn’t work the same way in a fallen world. Contra Bryan Cross and the callers.

    2. It’s not scriptural.

    In any case, I still maintain that while Presbyterianism is the most scriptural polity, every polity works only as well as the people are willing to actually follow it.

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  77. Robert – the magisterium still has the sword, at least in theory. If a Catholic dissents on a non-dogmatic issue they are to be denied the Eucharist, which is a big deal. If they dissent on an issue of dogma, then they are considered a heretic and are excommunicated. This doesn’t happen often, at least in the US, but that is the official teaching.

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  78. @ VV:

    Have you considered why the official teaching is so rarely enforced?

    Keep in mind that good politity is not merely that which looks good on paper. I may decree (“King Geoffrey I”) that no one may sin now and henceforth, but that’s not good polity.

    If actual Catholics, including leadership, are defying church teaching (on, say, contraception) and are not being excommunicated, then the paper polity is not “good polity” — it’s bad.

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  79. @vv Your understanding of the magisterium is hotly contested by many Catholic theologians and religious. Hence the proposals to allow the divorced to the Eucharist without requiring repentance. Your understanding of RC doctrine is what many within the church would call fundamentalist. I’m not saying it is wrong, only that it isn’t so simple.

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  80. Jeff – right, I agree that RCC polity is only good if actually enacted properly. But the same criticisms of the RCC could be directed at presbyterian polity regarding the failure to convict FV proponents in the courts of the PCA, the fact that the PCUSA went off the rails, and numerous “factions” of presbyterians in the US and throughout the world. Our failures as presbyterians only gives fodder to guys like Petros who want to claim how weak it is.

    Robert – yeah, the RCC – especially in Europe – is struggling adhere to the magisterial teaching on sexual issues (and other issues as well) while at the same time trying to remain relevant to broader culture. The proposed solution in the article is some sort of compromise or accommodation. Always a recipe for disaster. There is a definite “mainline” liberal faction in the RCC, and a definite orthodox faction (overall the orthodox faction is much larger). I don’t see how Cardinal Marx’s idea of “blessing” homosexual unions stands up to even minimal scrutiny. Homosexuality is a mortal sin, and unrepentant homosexuals cannot take the Eucharist and are arguably subject to excommunication. How in the world can a priest possibly bless someone who is, by definition, cut off from the blessings of the Church?

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  81. VV,

    I think you are grossly overestimating the size of the orthodox RCC faction. Surveys routinely show that a majority of RCs dissent from magisterial teaching on sex-related matters. And Rome has a slippery way of pastorally changing the dogma. I would not be surprised at all to see Rome find a way to accommodate homosexual couples within its moral framework. Their modus operandi is to get rid of all either/or and embrace the both/and.

    The Magisterium just elected a man to the papacy who is essentially just a hair to the right of mainline Protestantism. The Magisterium is dominated by liberals. You have some orthodox RCs, mainly in the developing world, but the Magisterium has been heading away from traditional Romanism for decades.

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  82. Robert – I’m not so sure I’m overestimating the number of orthodox RCs, either laity or clergy. The clergy in southern Europe – Italy, Spain – are very orthodox theologically, and I would contend a majority in the US are as well. The Latin American clergy are generally conservative, but like Francis, have a definite liberation theology streak.

    It’s much harder to assess lay Catholics. The devout Catholic who attends Mass at least weekly, goes to Confession regularly, etc. is probably going to agree or at least acquiesce to the Church on issues like homosexuality. The nominal Catholic who basically never attends Mass other than Easter and maybe Christmas and who never goes to Confession might be all over the place theologically and morally, but does their perspective really reflect the thinking of lay Catholics?

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