The Problem with Cessationism

Cessationists apparently have the reputation of not believing in miracles after the apostolic age:

No issue has been more controversial among Protestants in the past 40 years than the charismatic gifts and the role of miracles in the post-apostolic age. The issue was controversial in previous eras of Protestant history, too, although theological lines were not usually drawn as hard and fast as they are between “cessationists” and “continuationists” today.

In the 1700s and 1800s, suspicion of claimed miracles was connected to anti-Catholicism. Protestant critics saw the Catholic tradition as riddled with fake claims of miracles. Ridiculing the fake miracle claims of Catholics (such as icons bleeding a liquid that turned out to be cherry juice) became a staple of Reformed polemics against the Catholic Church. So when seemingly miraculous events happened in Protestant churches, even sympathetic observers warned against the threat of bogus miracles.

Odd, but the cessationists I know all affirm the ongoing reality of miracles. How could you ever believe in people lost in sin becoming regenerate without resorting to the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit?

The real problem comes with the “gift” of speaking in tongues. Why do we need ongoing revelations from God if scripture is sufficient?

1. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased. (CofF 1.1 emphasis added)

6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. (CofF 1.6 emphasis added)

Continuationists who want to defend tongues are in the same predicament as Roman Catholics who defend the continuing infallible teaching of the magisterium and the authority of tradition. Does God’s word have all we need for salvation and godliness? Or do we need ongoing revelations for becoming right with God? If you make an infallible pope or a Spirit-filled Christian the arbiter of Christianity, you deny the sufficiency of Scripture.

Selah.

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Return of the Bible Thumper

Bill Smith tries to pull the church calendar out of the solar year:

Does Dr. Hart really think that the solar year and the interadvental age are at odds with one another? Does not the interadvental age consist of some finite number of solar years? Does living in this interadvental age mean not recalling the works of Christ by which the corner of history was turned and we entered the last age? And how is focusing one’s mind on the redemptive works of Christ by following the Christian year contrary to setting one’s mind on Christ?

Well, what does the Bible say?

Jesus told us how to remember him, right?

18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22)

Isn’t it enough to remember Christ weekly in Word and Sacrament?

I seem to recall Paul also saying something about where we should direct our thoughts. I remember. It’s about Christ in heaven not Christ on earth.

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is youra life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col 3)

Passages like these may not be slam dunks, but can’t the church-calendar people at least interact with scriptural injunctions about remembering and thinking, or is it the case when the church calendar comes in the Bible goes out?

Here’s the thing: when I think of my beloved parents, I have lots of memories to which I might turn. My mother behind the driver’s wheel, my father rubbing my cherub face on his two-days of stubble while he recovered from surgery, my parents’ singing duets to enraptured cousins, aunts, and uncles during summer vacations (yikes!). I also sometimes think of what their intermediate state might involve (and I know it doesn’t involve looking “down” at me or hearing my prayer requests).

But my parents aren’t Jesus. Duh. How I think about my Lord is on a different order of importance. And get this — the Bible gives some instruction about how I should remember and think about Jesus. Replaying his life and participating in it (Lent) or thinking that I’m preparing for the savior’s birth (Advent) don’t make sense.

Grammatico-Historical Interpretation of the Constitution

Lots of posts out there about Antonin Scalia as the faithful Roman Catholic. But the man sure sounded like he learned how to read the Constitution from Protestants:

Nonetheless, there is no escaping a verdict on his influence on American jurisprudence, and that verdict is not affected by the fact that he was a good buddy to prominent liberals. He was an advocate of two judicial ideologies, neither of which is intellectually tenable and which conflict with each other. Originalism was Scalia’s core ideological commitment, the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted as it was understood at the time of its ratification. He employed Originalism to question the idea that the Constitution is a “living document,” as liberal jurists held.

To be sure, there was a need for a conservative corrective after the high court starting snooping around the “penumbras” of the Constitution. As Justice Elena Kagan said in mourning Scalia’s death, “His views on interpreting texts have changed the way all of us think and talk about the law.” But, whether the Constitution is alive or not, the people whose government it intends to frame are most certainly alive and their circumstances change. Laws that cannot change with the lived circumstances of a people soon become disconnected from reality, and that disconnect will lead to the law being held in derision or ignored. . . .

Scalia’s other ideological commitment was to Textualism, the idea that the actual words must be interpreted in a kind of fundamentalist manner. This could conflict with Originalism. For example, an originalist would, like an historian, search for explanations as to what was intended by the drafters of a given text, to confirm that original intent and guarantee against latter day misinterpretations. But, Scalia famously loathed citations to legislative history. Textualism rests on the supposition that the Constitution is a self-interpreting text and if that were true, why would we need a Supreme Court? In practice, Textualism resulted in the conclusion that any given text meant exactly what Antonin Scalia thought it meant.

Of course, it’s not clear that Scalia’s hermeneutic was all positive. But it hardly sounds like it’s a product of deferring to the magisterium or to the development of dogma.

The License of Moral Authority

Moral authority is a phrase that some have used to describe Pope Francis’ recent public appearances. For instance, the always insightful historian, Leslie Woodcock Tentler, writes:

The longest and presumably most consequential of those addresses was delivered to the joint meeting of Congress. The pope spoke slowly, in heavily accented English, and with an air of humility. (He did not use the papal “we.”) But his moral authority was palpable.

When you think about any authority the papacy might have upon citizens and residents of the United States, you begin to scratch your head. Wasn’t the point of anti-Catholicism that Roman Catholics would not be good Americans since they were subject to a foreign prince? But now we learn that the pope has moral authority. Doesn’t this raise the stakes? Not only does he have authority over Roman Catholic officials and citizens, but since morality of some kind is binding on all people, now Pope Francis even has authority over President Obama. Which is odd because Woodcock Tentler includes in her essay a frank acknowledgment that the papacy lost authority at Vatican 2:

The Church itself has changed. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) made official Catholic peace with religious liberty and the religiously neutral state, liberating popes from what had become a pointless ritual battle against nineteenth-century liberalism. Catholic immigrants to the United States saw their children and, more frequently, their grandchildren become socially mobile. Especially after 1945, a rapidly growing Catholic population—fully one-quarter of the nation’s total by 1960—moved in large numbers into the ranks of the middle and upper-middle class. Newly affluent Catholics were less reliably Democratic in their voting behavior than their immigrant forebears, emerging in recent decades as a crucial swing vote in national elections.

Not to worry about papal supremacy in a more conciliar church. Even more than temporal or spiritual authority, the papacy has moral authority. Or is it a function of the man who is holds the papal office? Does the pope have moral authority or does Jorge Bergoglio by virtue of his manner and conduct? Did Ratzinger have moral authority? (And why does a pope need a new name when a bishop doesn’t? Rowan Williams was still Rowan Williams when he was Archbishop of Canterbury? Fancy shoes and funny hats. . . )

So if a pope has moral authority which gives him license to address climate change, economics, international affairs, what does a Protestant minister have? Does a Protestant minister even have authority? The traditional answer was always that by virtue of ministering God’s word, the minister has authority. His office implies some authority, but even more the authority whose word he ministers, adds even greater weight to his authority.

But Andrew Wilson thinks that pastors have as much scope in their jurisdiction as the papacy:

A pastor, by contrast, is a generalist and does not have the luxury of specializing. The people that pastors serve do not restrict their concerns according to their areas of expertise, so neither can pastors. No pastor collared by an anxious congregant who wants the Christian take on divorce, the state of Israel, spiritual gifts, or same-sex marriage can deflect by muttering, “It’s not my field.” They can do their best in the moment and then promise to learn more. But they cannot duck an issue because they don’t know much about it. Their people look to them for theological guidance, and since all of life is theological, they have to know something about everything.

Wow. So much for the sufficiency of Scripture.

That understanding of a pastor’s scope of concern may explain why the press, Roman Catholics — observant and non-observant, and onlookers were so overwhelmed by Pope Francis. If an ordinary pastor gets to speak on everything that his church members bring him, how much more a pastor with universal and moral authority?

The funny thing is that of the oldest legal professions, attorneys and physicians have much more leverage when telling your average Christian what to do either about legal affairs or health. Generally speaking, when my professional advisers tell me what to do, I follow their counsel. The reason has a lot to do with their speaking on the basis of their professional authority and competency.

So why do pastors think they have the competency to talk about everything in the world? Might they not be in danger of compromising their real authority? Maybe pastors should go back to ministering God’s word and priests should go back to liturgy and canon law and let the rest of us lay people figure out the material (as opposed to the spiritual) world.

The Bible Can't Speak To All of Life

That’s why you need the Roman Catholic Church.

That, anyway, is the logic of a golden-oldie from U.S. Roman Catholic teaching about the dangers of fundamentalism:

Biblical fundamentalists are those who present the Bible, God’s inspired word, as the only necessary source for teaching about Christ and Christian living. This insistence on the teaching Bible is usually accompanied by a spirit that is warm, friendly, and pious. Such a spirit attracts many (especially idealistic young) converts. With ecumenical respect for these communities, we acknowledge their proper emphasis on religion as influencing family life and workplace. The immediate attractions are the ardor of the Christian community and the promises of certitude and of a personal conversion experience to the person of Jesus Christ without the need of church. As Catholic pastors, however, we note its presentation of the Bible as a single rule for living. According to fundamentalism, the Bible alone is sufficient. There is no place for the universal teaching church—including its wisdom, its teachings, creeds, and other doctrinal formulations, its liturgical and devotional traditions. There is simply no claim to a visible, audible, living, teaching authority binding the individual or congregations.

A further characteristic of biblical fundamentalism is that it tends to interpret the Bible as being always without error or as literally true in a way quite different from the Catholic Church’s teaching on the inerrancy of the Bible. For some biblical fundamentalists, inerrancy extends even to scientific and historical matters. The Bible is presented without regard for its historical context and development. . . .

We observed in biblical fundamentalism an effort to try to find in the Bible all the direct answers for living—though the Bible itself nowhere claims such authority. The appeal of such an approach is understandable. Our world is one of war, violence, dishonesty, personal and sexual irresponsibility. It is a world in which people are frightened by the power of the nuclear bomb and the insanity of the arms race, where the only news seems to be bad news. People of all ages yearn for answers. They look for sure, definite rules for living. And they are given answers—simplistic answers to complex issues—in a confident and enthusiastic way in fundamentalist Bible groups.

The appeal is evident for the Catholic young adult or teenager—one whose family background may be troubled; who is struggling with life, morality, and religion; whose Catholic education may have been seriously inadequate in the fundamentals of doctrine, the Bible, prayer life, and sacramental living; whose catechetical formation may have been inadequate in presenting the full Catholic traditions and teaching authority. For such a person, the appeal of finding the “ANSWER” in a devout, studious, prayerful, warm, Bible-quoting class is easy to understand. But the ultimate problem with such fundamentalism is that it can give only a limited number of answers and cannot present those answers, on balance, because it does not have Christ’s teaching church nor even an understanding of how the Bible originally came to be written, and collected in the sacred canon, or official list of inspired books.

Our Catholic belief is that we know God’s revelation in the total Gospel. The Gospel comes to us through the Spirit-guided tradition of the Church and the inspired books: “This sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testament are like a mirror in which the pilgrim church on earth looks at God” (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, 7).

A key question for any Christian is, Does the community of faith which is the Lord’s church have a living tradition which presents God’s word across the centuries until the Lord comes again? The Catholic answer to this question is an unqualified yes. That answer was expressed most recently in the Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council. We look to both the church’s official teaching and Scripture for guidance in addressing life’s problems. It is the official teaching or magisterium that in a special way guides us in matters of belief and morality that have developed after the last word of Scripture was written. The church of Christ teaches in the name of Christ and teaches us concerning the Bible itself.

The basic characteristic of biblical fundamentalism is that it eliminates from Christianity the church as the Lord Jesus founded it.

Notice that a desire for certainty in all of life’s dilemmas is not wrong. Neo-Calvinists take heart. The problem is asking the Bible to supply all the answers. The Bible only goes so far. After that, the church and tradition need to kick in.

A similar dynamic may very well be at work with neo-Calvinism. You need the Bible but you also need philosophy which provides the rudiments of w-w, which in turn yields the answers to life’s questions.

Both Rome and neo-Calvinism give a living tradition that augments Scripture. Both also like philosophy — a lot.

2kers should also take heart. The idea that the Bible doesn’t speak to all of life is like what we’re sayin’. We’re also saying, live with the uncertainty. To which the Romanists and Amsterdamists reply, “that’s not inspiring.”

Logocentrism is Good

(What does it mean for sacerdotalism?)

. . . this short list will identify some reasons for words’ preeminence throughout time as the highest form of communication:

#1. The ability to communicate through words makes us human.

Any monkey can take a picture with a smartphone. Point and click. But the ability to encapsulate a moment in nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs – only a human can do that. It is the height of linguistic and cognizant evolution to the evolutionist, the sacredness of humanity to the Christian (“In the beginning was the Word”).

#2. Words give expression to the abstract in a way that image cannot.

“To be or not to be – that is the question.” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)

The moment you can take an Instagram photo that captures this sentence, with all its philosophy, anguish, and transcendence, perhaps you will convince me that an image can properly replace words.

#3. Word gives us the full story: its context, background, beginning and ending.

Humans love story. We always have. It enchants the two-year-old and 70-year-old, binds the angst-ridden teenager and wizened professor. While pictures can capture a beautiful moment in story, they cannot capture narrative in its entirety. Story at its best includes words.

#4. Words connect us to the other.

In story, we lose ourselves to the beauty of another’s story. We explore the memories and thoughts of people long dead. Words open our souls to human thought and feeling beyond our own, in a way that an image cannot. They connect us to human nature and to an entire history.

#5. Words awaken our imagination.

Taking a picture of a waterfall or a sunset is a good thing. Writing a Facebook status about your wonderful evening with friends is good. But read these words:

Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. (Jack Kerouac)

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun. (Shakespeare)

Precious are the dead that lie there, every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them; though I’m convinced in my heart that it’s long been nothing but a graveyard. And I shall not weep from despair, but simply because I shall be happy in my tears, I shall steep my soul in emotion. I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky — that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach. (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

And he knew, also, what the old man was thinking as his tears flowed, and he, Rieux, thought it too: that a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart. (Albert Camus)

Reading such words, one cannot help feeling a connection beyond the sensory to timeless truths explored, forgotten, and explored again. Eteraz’s article references Stendhal, who once said writing holds a mirror to the world. Eteraz surmises this “is no longer appropriate (especially as smartphone screens reflect better).”

But perhaps we have merely been entranced looking in one mirror – a fun, but rather pixelated one. And with time, perhaps our imaginations will seek out those inky, mysterious, beautiful word mirrors once again.

The Bible's Forked Tongue?

Put simply, the Bible speaks narrowly to the church but broadly to believers. This, at least, is the unexamined logic of neo-Calvinism.

Two-kingdom proponents and neo-Calvinists both distinguish between the institutional church and its members. This distinction allows us to recognize that Christians properly do things that the church can’t do. Christians work as artists, parents, plumbers, bankers, and bakers. The church does not produce or rear children, lacks its own currency, uses bread from common sources for the Lord’s Supper. So far so good.

But the hiccup for neo-Calvinists comes when they insist that Christians must have biblical warrant or use the lens of Scripture for all that they do. In Kingdoms Apart, Timothy R. Scheurers, puts it this way:

Where . . . proponents of the Two Kingdoms perspective go wrong, however, is in their failure to distinguish adequately between the work of the church (as an institution) and the cultural activity of Christians who are simultaneously citizens of heaven and earth (church as an organism). The Two Kingdoms doctrine neglects the biblical command that in every area of public living, believers should apply the principles and values that shape their distinctiveness as Christians. If fails to provide a biblical and helpful paradigm for cultural living by limiting the unique identity and spirituality of believers in this world. . . .

Scripture nowhere hints that we are to live a compartmentalized life in which we relegate our Christian convictions to Sunday observance only. Romans 12:1 declares that for those who have been renewed by the Spirit of God, it is entirely reasonable and fitting for them to offer up to God their whole person, both body and soul, in an act of worship. . . . If we accept the Two Kingdoms assertion that the Christian’s secular activities are “thoroughly common,” and that it is improper to “apply” the gospel to our work in the common realm, it would seem a type of Sunday Christianity remains for us. However, if we are transformed by the gospel, then it is profoundly relevant for how we conduct ourselves as Christians in the civil realm, for “the very essence of Christian faith includes a grace-produced identity that comes to manifestation in the way we live our lives every day of the week.” (144-45)

And thus we see another example of neo-Calvinism’s bloated rhetoric for admirably pious reasons.

Here is the rub: if the essence of the Christian faith is a grace-produced identity for every area of human existence, then the church (institute or institutional) lacks this Christian essential. After all, the corporate church does not take stands on matters in which Christians engage throughout the week — plumbing, baking, banking, gardening, ditch-digging. No Reformed church has produced a chapter or chapters in its creeds about algebra, Greek, or photosynthesis. That does not seem to bother neo-Calvinists since the work of the church is different from that of the believer.

But if neo-Calvinists are content with churches that lack the essence of Christianity, why do they demand more of believers than of the church? Churches don’t confess articles of faith about hydrogen or dangling prepositions because the Bible does not speak to such matters. The Reformed creeds summarize biblical teaching and if Scripture taught trigonometry or Asian history, churches would be expected to teach what God’s word reveals.

And yet, under the logic of the comprehensive sweep of Christianity and biblical testimony, neo-Calvinists claim powers for believers what the church lacks, namely, the ability to apply biblical norms to all walks of life. We do not let ministers preach sermons on tax rates, rotation of crops, exercise, or television game shows. But now along come neo-Calvinists to tell us that any Tom, Dick or Mary, who has no training in biblical exegesis or may not even be catechized, is going to tell us how the gospel transforms cat litter, Alfred Hitchcock movies, and meteorology?

And people wonder why the institutional church ends up suffering in neo-Calvinist contexts, or why the convoluted notion of kingdom-work has given every member a ministry.

As I say, neo-Calvinists intentions may be admirable. But Calvinists, who put the T in TULIP, were not supposed to be suckers for good intentions.

Old Life New Year Revelries

Celebrating New Year’s Day is always mixed with sobriety (talk about paradoxes) thanks to January 1 being the anniversary of J. Gresham Machen’s death (1937). He died of pneumonia at 7:30 Central Standard Time in a Roman Catholic hospital in Bismarck, North Dakota.

To honor the man, here is an excerpt from his defense of his vote against a motion before the Presbytery of New Brunswick to support Prohibition (which by the way bears on this matter of the Bible speaking to all of life and the flip side of Christian liberty):

In the first place, no one has a greater horror of the evils of drunkenness than I or a greater detestation of any corrupt traffic which has sought to make profit out of this terrible sin. It is clearly the duty of the church to combat this evil.

With regard to the exact form, however, in which the poser of civil government is to be used in this battle, there may be difference of opinion. Zeal for temperance, for example, would hardly justify an order that all drunkards should be summarily butchered. The end in that case would not justify the means. Some men hold that the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act are not a wise method of dealing with the problem of intemperance, and that indeed those measures, in the effort to commplish moral good, are really causing moral harm. I am not expressing any opinion on this question now, and did not do so by my vote in the Presbytery of New Brunswick. But I do maintain that those who hold the view that I have just mentioned have a perfect right to their opinion, so far as the law of our church is concerned, and should not be coerced in any way by ecclesiastical authority. The church as a right to exercise discipline where authority for condemnation of an act can be found in Scripture, but it has no such right in other cases. And certainly Scripture authority cannot be found in the particular matter of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act . . .

In making of itself, moreover, in so many instances primarily an agency of law enforcement, and thus engaging in the duties of the police, the church, I am constrained to think, is in danger of losing sight of its proper function, which is that of bringing to bear upon human souls the sweet and gracious influences of the gospel. Important indeed are the functions of the police, and members of the church, in their capacity as citizens, should aid by every proper means within their power in securing the discharge of those functions. But the duty of the church in its corporate capacity is of quite a different nature. (“Statement on the Eighteenth Amendment,” J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, 394-95).

The Lens of Scripture

I continue to be befuddled by the neo-Calvinist claim that Scripture speaks to all of life (of course, in general terms, never in specifics). A discussion has ensued over at Matt Tuininga’s blog that is better than a previous one at Dr. K’s shop. Still, in both cases, some claim that it is natural and ordinary for Calvinists to claim that we view all of life and everything in the world through the lens of Scripture.

So to test this I turned to the Kuyper Reader that James Bratt edited around the time of the centennial celebration of the Stone Lectures. In an essay against uniformity (political, cultural, and religious), which I like very much and that resonates with a localist strain of American conservatism, Kuyper writes this:

. . . do I need to argue the point that all such striving for a false uniformity, the leveling principle of modern life, the demand for one people and one language, run counter to the ordinances of God? You well know the divine word, full of holy energy, that Scripture opposes to that striving: “Else nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” [Gen. 11:6b]. That all life should multiply “after its kind,” after its own, unique, given character is the royal law of creation which applies to more than seed-bearing herbs. That everyone who has been born from above will someday receive from the Lord a white tablet on which will be written a new name that no one knows except the one who receive it [Rev. 2:17]: what else is this but a most forceful protest against all the conformity into which the world tends to pressure us? (“Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life,” 34)

So there we have the Bible as the lens through which Kuyper regards the problem of cultural uniformity. Though it needs to be said that Kuyper’s writing is not rife with biblical citations, nor are his invocations of Scripture, like this one, the most compelling exegetically. So I am not sure that Kuyper exemplifies what Kuyperians claim — that Christians need to look at the world through the lens of Scripture. Self-consciousness, epistemologicial or psychological, might call for a Christian to be careful about attributing his opinions to the revealed words of God.

But then Kuyper goes on in a different part of this essay/speech to state some notions that surely most modern day neo-Calvinists (especially those without Dutch surnames) living in North American would not support (even though I again laud Kuyper’s Dutch chauvinism as a way of resisting globalism and universalism):

Hold the Dutch national character in honor. Drive out our national sins but still love our national ways. Be true to your nature as Hollanders, ladies and gentlemen! Remove from your midst the spineless tendency to bestow extravagant accolades on everything that comes from abroad, and in your appraisals give preference to the things that are made at home. Uphold Holland’s fame in learning foreign languages but let there be no language you would rather speak, and especially write, than that splendid, rich mother tongue in which alone Dutch people can express what a Dutch heart feels. Do no just feed your mind with what has been thought and sung abroad but drink of the vital stream of Holland’s life also from your own poets. Daughters of the Netherlands, do not make yourselves ridiculous by being old-fashioned but also have the good taste and modesty never to present yourselves in a foreign outfit conceived in the capital of France by Dutchmen who no longer understand the honor and dignity of being a Dutchman . . . .

May the illustrious history of your ancestors be more to you than a monument to the past; let it be for you the current of national life that you feel pulsating in your own veins. Yes, just let us be who we are: Hollanders! — in every circle and sector of life. Though our flag no longer dominates the seven seas, still we shall regain the rightful influence by which the legacy entrusted to our people may be made a blessing for all humanity. Let the Dutch people, standing on the blood-soaked soil of our fathers, rise again from its grave. . . .

Would that God gave us such a national will — but then a will anchored in his will. While every nation is subject to the deep truth that it strikes itself from the roster of nations by devaluing its piety, this applies all the more to the national existence of the Netherlands which owes its origin to a religious movement. . . . Without religion there can be no patriotism; where religion is most intense, there the love of country and people is most robust: so history teaches us on every page. (42-43)

Kuyper’s appeal to Dutch hearts, Dutch minds, and even Dutch fashions seems curious from a fellow known for putting the anti in antithesis. If Hollanders have a Dutch heart or mind simply by virtue of growing up on the “blood-soaked soil” of the Netherlands (sorry Dutch-North Americans of the 1.5 generation and beyond), then what happens to the idea that Christian Hollanders by virtue of regeneration share more in common with Protestant Canadians who hail from France? Where are Brazilian Calvinists supposed to go for dress fashions?

But aside from this hiccup in Kuyper’s mental digestion, where exactly is the method of viewing the world through the lens of Scripture? Sure, Kuyper was fallible and made mistakes (as we all do). But would not a biblical perspective on patriotism call for important qualifications to such nationalism? To be clear, what is wrong with this excerpt in (all about me) my estimate is not Kuyper’s reveling in Dutch culture and history — even exceptionalism. A person’s attachment to his people, country, and land is basic to being human — that is, part of the created order. It is not essential, however, to being redeemed. What is wrong, then, is thinking that such an argument is the product of a Christian w-w, in other words, the result of some form of epistemological self-consciousness. I could imagine any number of Dutch patriots, not members of a Reformed church, seconding Kuyper’s call for loyalty to Dutch traditions. I cannot imagine that Kuyper’s logic would appeal to someone who regarded the speaker not as a fellow-Dutchman but as a fellow believer.

Of Paradigms, Persons, and Popes

Another theme that comes up in the Called to Communion ecclesiology is the superiority of Rome because of — surprise — the pope. This is not some form of papal infatuation but a genuine recognition of the difficulty of interpreting the Bible. If you have no way of determining which interpretation is correct, you wind up with lots of denominations. CTCers don’t consider that when nation-states were confessional, parliaments and kings also did a good job of keeping denominations down in the single digits. Then again, CTCers seem to like authority in the abstract rather than in its hands on (or hands off as the case may be) instances.

An example of CTC logic comes from Bryan Cross in the previously discussed post about sola scriptura where he tries to answer several objections to the idea that a Roman Catholic convert is doing the same thing as a Protestant when he decides to join the correct church. He makes the distinction, repeated often at CTC, that a book is one thing, a person is another:

The problem with this dilemma (one where a person supposedly needs a series of authoritative interpreters ad infinitum to determine which interpreter is correct) is that it ignores the qualitative ontological distinction between persons and books, and so it falsely assumes that if a book needs an authoritative interpreter in order to function as an ecclesial authority, so must a living person. A book contains a monologue with respect to the reader. An author can often anticipate the thoughts and questions that might arise in the mind of the reader. But a book cannot hear the reader’s questions here and now, and answer them. A living person, however, can do so. A living person can engage in genuine dialogue with the reader, whereas a book cannot. Fr. Kimel talks about that here when he quotes Chesterton as saying that though we can put a living person in the dock, we cannot put a book in the dock. In this respect, a person can do what a book cannot; a person can correct global misunderstandings and answer comprehensive interpretive questions. A book by its very nature has a limited intrinsic potency for interpretive self-clarification; a person, on the other hand, by his very nature has, in principle, an unlimited intrinsic potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification. This unlimited potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification ensures that the hermeneutical spiral may reach its end. A book cannot speak more about itself than it does at the moment at which it is completed. A person, by contrast, remains perpetually capable of clarifying further any of his previous speech-acts.

Right away, any Protestant with a well-informed doctrine of Scripture will notice the implicit (though likely unintentional) insult done to the author of Scripture — that would be God himself — in this distinction between a mere book and a person. God is three persons and also omnipotent and omniscient. For some reason, he decided to reveal himself in the pages of holy writ, and he did not then simply stand back and let the interpreters have at it (another instance of canonical deism?). He also gave his Spirit to guide his interpreters into all truth (would Cross’ neglect of the Spirit be an instance of pneumatological deism?). So the mere book that Cross uses in this contrast is the very word of God. As Hank Kingsley might say, “hey now!”

But this contrast is complicated further by a strange notion that persons are better understood than books. To understand a person, we need to hear them speak or write. In which case, a person uses the same medium of communication as a book — language. And language, whether spoken, written, or blogged, needs to be interpreted. Yes, a person may be able to follow up and explain how an interpreter was mistaken about what was said or written. But even here the explanation may need several iterations of additional explanations. So the ontological point misses entirely the linguistic reality. The problem with books and persons is that the language of both, even in authoritative occasions — a father, the Constitution, a papal encyclical, a school district superintendent — is capable of misinterpretation or misunderstanding. This is not hypothetical given John Paul II’s apostolic letter, Ad Tuendam Fidem, along with the then Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary on the letter (more below).

One last curiosity of this contrast between a person and a book is that the pope technically is not a person. The papacy is an office. That distinction between person and office is important for the sake of infallibility as I understand it. A pope gets to say and do a lot of things. When he greets his butler (if he has one) in the morning, he is not speaking infallibly. He only does that when certain conditions are met and those conditions go to the heart of what the papal office is (as opposed to the person occupying the office; since not every pope becomes a saint, not every person who becomes pope has the same spiritual worth). And when an authority is more official than personal, then the capacity to explain interpretations drops and may even vanish. According to wikipedia, 265 persons have occupied the office of pope. Whether all of those persons would interpret the Bible or each other the same way is doubtful. Even more dubious is the notion that an officer overseeing the kind of bureaucracy the Vatican is would take the time to explain to sit down with the average Roman Catholic and explain infallibly how to resolve her disagreement where her priest over the correct interpretation of John 3:16. It would be like the Secretary of Health and Human Services responding to Hillsdale County’s coroner about the latest guidelines on tabulating causes of death. If the Secretary were to try to explain to all such questions, she would be on the phone 24/7.

This may explain John Paul II’s Ad Tuendam Fidem (1998), an apostolic letter designed to clarify church authority and what Roman Catholics must believe.

TO PROTECT THE FAITH of the Catholic Church against errors arising from certain members of the Christian faithful, especially from among those dedicated to the various disciplines of sacred theology, we, whose principal duty is to confirm the brethren in the faith (Lk 22:32), consider it absolutely necessary to add to the existing texts of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, new norms which expressly impose the obligation of upholding truths proposed in a definitive way by the Magisterium of the Church, and which also establish related canonical sanctions.

With all the singularity of persons or officers at the top of Rome’s hierarchy, one might think a letter like this was unnecessary. But if you read the letter or Ratzinger’s commentary, you may still be scratching your head on the clarity of interpretations coming from the papal office. For instance, the commentary says a lot more about the criteria for what is authoritative than what the actual content of the faith is. From explanation number five:

5. The first paragraph states: “With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the Word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.” The object taught in this paragraph is constituted by all those doctrines of divine and catholic faith which the Church proposes as divinely and formally revealed and, as such, as irreformable.

These doctrines are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and defined with a solemn judgment as divinely revealed truths either by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks ‘ex cathedra,’ or by the College of Bishops gathered in council, or infallibly proposed for belief by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

These doctrines require the assent of theological faith by all members of the faithful. Thus, whoever obstinately places them in doubt or denies them falls under the censure of heresy, as indicated by the respective canons of the Codes of Canon Law.

To see how complicated this business of binding interpretive authority is, check out Ratzinger’s clarification number nine:

9. The Magisterium of the Church, however, teaches a doctrine to be believed as divinely revealed (first paragraph) or to be held definitively (second paragraph) with an act which is either defining or non-defining. In the case of a defining act, a truth is solemnly defined by an “ex cathedra” pronouncement by the Roman Pontiff or by the action of an ecumenical council. In the case of a non-defining act, a doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Bishops dispersed throughout the world who are in communion with the Successor of Peter. Such a doctrine can be confirmed or reaffirmed by the Roman Pontiff, even without recourse to a solemn definition, by declaring explicitly that it belongs to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium as a truth that is divinely revealed (first paragraph) or as a truth of Catholic doctrine (second paragraph). Consequently, when there has not been a judgment on a doctrine in the solemn form of a definition, but this doctrine, belonging to the inheritance of the depositum fidei, is taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, which necessarily includes the Pope, such a doctrine is to be understood as having been set forth infallibly. The declaration of confirmation or reaffirmation by the Roman Pontiff in this case is not a new dogmatic definition, but a formal attestation of a truth already possessed and infallibly transmitted by the Church.

So what are those instances of infallibility, the doctrines that Roman Catholics must believe? You finally reach in Ratzinger’s eleventh point:

11. Examples. Without any intention of completeness or exhaustiveness, some examples of doctrines relative to the three paragraphs described above can be recalled.

To the truths of the first paragraph belong the articles of faith of the Creed, the various Christological dogmas and Marian dogmas; the doctrine of the institution of the sacraments by Christ and their efficacy with regard to grace; the doctrine of the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacrificial nature of the eucharistic celebration; the foundation of the Church by the will of Christ; the doctrine on the primacy and infallibility of the Roman Pontiff; the doctrine on the existence of original sin; the doctrine on the immortality of the spiritual soul and on the immediate recompense after death; the absence of error in the inspired sacred texts; the doctrine on the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being.

And even here the requirements are not altogether clear since there may be a lot more to be believed.

For all CTC’s confidence in the explanatory powers of a single person, it looks again like their exaltation of Roman Catholicism over Protestantism is more hype than substance.