My family has entered into a period of reconsideration regarding the principle of sola Scriptura, and in general the claims of Protestantism vs. Roman Catholicism vs. Eastern Orthodoxy. I would like here briefly to articulate why we have done so and what we are finding thus far in a few points. This will provide a basic outline for further discussion. Any of you are welcome and invited as you wish to contribute comments, questions, arguments, etc., on any of these issues or any related issues. I am sharing this with you to give you that opportunity and to make use of anything you might have to say as we continue to engage in this process. It seems unlikely we will stay in this period of reconsideration for a very long period of time, given our need to come to some conclusion combined with the intensity and rapidity with which we are pursuing our investigation. We will not cut the process short arbitrarily, before doing all that we feel needs to be done, but we are hoping at this time to reach some resolution soon. At this time, the investigation seems to be leaning towards Roman Catholicism, but there is still a good bit of work to do before coming to any conclusions. In the last section below, I will mention a number of specific issues related to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy that we are currently looking at or planning to look at. I would very much appreciate any additional ideas of issues to look at in terms of concerns or objections to these points of view, as well as in support of sola Scriptura, or with regard to any other related issue. Please do not share this with anyone without asking me first, since this is not yet a fully public matter. Also, if you send things or thoughts to me, please be aware that, as you can hopefully see below, we are not proceeding in complete ignorance of these issues. Probably the most helpful sorts of responses would be specific arguments or questions that engage some specific issue directly, recognizing the understanding we already have of these issues.
For the past couple of years or so, I have increasingly felt a great burden in connection with sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura teaches that God's Word is in the Bible, and there is no infallible guidance given to the church or to individuals to interpret it correctly. But the Bible is a large book, full of very complex literature. There are an astounding number of issues in doctrine and practice that we must get right in order to obey God, and in order to preserve the unity of the church. I have felt an increasing sense of inadequacy over the years in terms of my ability to successfully navigate the Scriptures such as to ensure doctrinal accuracy. Not only do I have to get things right for myself, but also for my family, and for all those to whom I become an example or a teacher in various ways. And I must regard my decisions as binding not just on me but on every human being on the earth. For example, it is my responsibility to decide whether infants should or should not be baptized. Whatever I decide, not only must I practice it myself (along with my family), but I must tell all others that this is the truth that they should follow as well, and I must judge others on the basis of this doctrine, even to the point of advocating the continued separation of churches. This is a heavy burden! And I must do this not only with infant baptism, but with the question of head coverings in worship, the timing of infant baptism, communion theology, ecclesiology, the role of women in the church, when children should be allowed to take communion, whether infants should receive communion, how church discipline should be carried out, whether family worship should occur mornings and evenings, whether we should kneel or stand or both in worship, how we should worship, whether we should observe holidays, whether the Lord's Day is mandatory for Christians, whether it should be observed the whole day or only in a worship service, whether we should sing psalms alone or hymns in worship, to what extent Old Testament moral law is still binding on the church, the foundations of civil law, whether dialogue with unbelievers is a good thing, whether churches should discipline on the basis of “lesser” doctrines, how much diversity should be allowed in the church, whether we should watch movies and read fiction, whether images of Christ are allowed in worship or simply as a form of teaching or for no reason, whether reciting the Nicene Creed in church is acceptable, whether the Revolution Settlement was justified or not, and so on, and so on, and so on. God commands us to believe his doctrines and obey his commands, and to keep unity in the church. In order to do these things, I must—we all must—get all of these things and many more things right without any infallible guidance outside of simply being handed a large and complex book, with many literary genres. The book is notoriously hard to interpret, requiring knowledge of Greek and Hebrew to get fully right, as well as a knowledge of history, the church fathers, an ability to weigh arguments successfully and with great nuance, to read very well, to be an excellent literary critic, etc. While some of the central doctrines of Christianity are fairly plain to understand from the Bible, one doesn't have to go too far before running into a need to define many doctrines that the Bible does not speak to directly or with simple clarity. One must not only read the plain text, but make inferences that sometimes turn on a very careful, and sometimes very debatable, interpretation of the meaning of certain words, certain sentence structures, certain hints in the text, etc. It is almost as if the Bible is a giant puzzle, where we are required to successfully piece our doctrine together using bits and pieces scattered throughout, fitting them together using subtle inferences and deductions, without any infallible guidance by which to check our work. And it is not only myself that must do this, but all of us must do this, every one of us individually, and we must do it well enough to get our doctrine right and to maintain unity. (We begin to be less surprised at the number of Protestant denominations!)
Some would suggest that I am making this harder than it needs to be. “We don't need to understand everything the Bible teaches,” they say, “or agree on everything. We simply need to understand the essential, core ideas that are easy and plain to see and grasp.” I used to think this way, but then I realized that this is incompatible with the view of the entirety of the Bible as a divine revelation. If God has given us a revelation of his will, it follows that he intends it to be understood, to be believed, and to be followed—all of it, not just the “essential,” “core” parts. Of course, as sinful human beings, we will often fall short of this, but we must not be hindered from it by what Jonathan Edwards would call a natural impossibility—that is, an impossibility not arising from our own sinful shortcomings but from the nature of the task itself, as would be the case, for example, if God commanded us to jump to the moon. It will not do to say that need not bother with all the Bible but only with parts of it, for to say that the Bible is, all of it, God's revelation is to say that all of it can be understood by us and followed by us. If not, God has failed in his attempt to communicate to us. A “revelation,” by definition, involves an attempt to communicate—an attempt that has failed if we cannot understand and follow it. For example, Paul is attempting to tell us something regarding what we should do in the famous head covering passage in 1 Corinthians 11. Surely, then, we must be able to understand what Paul is telling us to do, and we are required to do it. It makes no sense to say, “Well, Paul seems to be trying to tell us something, but we can't understand what he means, so I guess we don't have to bother about that. We can just let people do what they want with regard to it.” To say this is to deny that this passage really is a divine revelation to us at all. Imagine what Paul would have thought of the Corinthians who received this letter if they had responded in this way! Clearly, Paul would not have given a command here if he did not expect it to be understood and followed. But the book is written just as much to us, it is just as much a revelation to us, as it was to its first receivers.
I have increasingly felt that the burden sola Scriptura puts upon us of being our own ultimate interpreters of Scripture without any infallible checks or context is too great for me to bear, and my self-confidence in my ability to sustain this task has been slowly diminishing. Now, I am prone to over-worrying about such things, so no doubt no matter how objectively feasible my task in these matters is, I would still worry too much. But the sense has grown increasingly that more than just that is going on here. I have grown in the feeling that there is something objectively wrong with this way of doing things. Certainly, this is just a feeling, and not a proof in itself, but enough of such a feeling can lead one to feel it is time to reconsider whether one is on the right path, and that is what we are now doing.
The whole issue has been compounded by the fact that as my understanding of my need to get biblical doctrine right has grown over the past few years, and correspondingly my attempt to get it right has increased, I have found myself more at odds with other Christians. A few years back, I came to certain conclusions regarding presbyterian church government and how worship should be conducted that led me into eventual conflict with our OPC church (of fourteen years), to the point of eventually being banned from attending it and seeking membership in a small Scottish denomination with only one congregation in the US—in Texas. A few weeks ago, it was suggested to me by an elder in that congregation that I would not be able to have my newborn child baptized, or be able to receive communion, unless I agreed to give up all reading of fiction, all watching of movies, and apparently a great deal of different kinds of music permanently (and try to bring my family along with me in this). This incident served as a “final straw” sort of catalyst that made me feel, finally, that the time had come for a reexamination of sola Scriptura. For now, it seemed that not only would we only be able to be members of some small denomination in Scotland, but we would not even be able to be members of that denomination, leaving us literally nowhere to go (for all other churches, we came to believe, require sin as well as a term of communion in various ways). For we did not feel that we could agree to give up all fiction, etc. Storytelling seems to me to be a natural part of created human nature, an expression of the image of God in us, and not something that should be cut off entirely. We would thus feel ourselves required to sin in order to comply with this demand. (Now, I should say that the opinion of this one elder doesn't necessarily represent the entire position of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and it might be that within some years we would be able to find a way to be members, but the more important thing is that the situation has served as a catalyst for our current project of reconsideration.) When I brought this up to my wife, she said that she had been thinking along the same lines. How could it be that following the right path to understanding and obeying God should lead to a situation where we would be cut off from every existing denomination on earth? It seemed that surely we must be doing something wrong! And if this sola Scriptura burden is difficult for us, how difficult it must be for those who don't have nearly the same education, the same time availability, the same resources, the same literary ability, the same logical ability, etc.? (See this article by Jimmy Akin, who articulates some aspects of this feasibility problem very well.)
I should add that I don't think this feasibility concern functions as a complete or self-sufficient argument against sola Scriptura. It rather functions as an oddity that might cause us to ask further questions.
The Default Position
There are two basic paradigms in consideration here: 1. Sola Scriptura (SS) – the idea that the Bible alone is infallible and that there is no infallible guidance given to the church to interpret it and apply it. 2. The Infallible Catholic Tradition paradigm (ICT) – the idea that the Bible is an infallible revelation, but it is meant to be understood in the context of God's infallible guidance of the church, in light of the living practices of the church handed down from the apostles, to interpret and apply Scripture rightly. In the SS paradigm, Christ brought the definitive revelation after Old Testament times, and he appointed the apostles and gave them infallible guidance through the Holy Spirit to “unpack” and apply his life and teachings to form the foundation of the early church. After this time, there has been no more infallible guidance, and the church is left fallibly to work out, apply, and live the revelation encapsulated in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. In the ICT paradigm, we likewise have Christ bringing an infallible revelation, and appointing the apostles to unpack and apply it in building the foundation of the church, but we also have God giving the post-apostolic church, all through history, infallible guidance through the Holy Spirit to continue to unpack and apply the apostolic deposit for the people of God through the ages.
I had previously thought of the SS paradigm as the “default” paradigm, or as a “safe” paradigm. What that means is this: If all the data we have from the Scriptures and the church fathers leave us without a clear conclusion regarding whether we should follow the SS paradigm or the ICT paradigm, we should go with the SS paradigm, because both paradigms accept Scripture as an infallible revelation. Since both paradigms accept Scripture, we know that it is safe to accept as a revelation, and so, in the absence of any further evidence to accept the ICT paradigm, we should stick with Scripture alone (SS). But, in the course of our reconsideration period thus far, I have come to believe this previous view to be mistaken. It is mistaken because it commits the fallacy of confusing the fact that Scripture is a divine, infallible revelation with the idea that Scripture can function on its own without the context of infallible interpretative guidance from the church. Both paradigms accept Scripture as inspired, but they disagree as to how we are to use it. SS is no more a safe, default position than ICT, because both SS and ICT go beyond simply the assertion that Scripture is inspired and add an additional assumption regarding how it is to be interpreted. If we were to follow SS while ICT turned out to be true, we would likely go seriously astray. Likewise, if we were to follow ICT while SS turned out to be true, we would likely go seriously astray. Neither of these paradigms, therefore, is “safer” than the other in actuality. Discussing a very different issue, law professor Stephen D. Smith (Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Constitutional Principle of Religious Freedom [New York: Oxford University Press, 1995], 89), articulates the fallacy of confusing “Scripture” with “Scripture alone”:
In more familiar contexts, we would immediately spot the common denominator strategy as fraudulent. Suppose Dad and daughter are discussing what to have for dinner. Daughter proposes: “Let’s just have dessert.” Dad suggests that it would be better to have a full meal, with salad, mean, fruit, vegetables, and then dessert. Daughter responds: “Obviously, Dad, we have some disagreements. But there is one thing we agree on; we both want dessert. Clearly, the appropriate solution--the “neutral” solution--is to accept what we agree on. So serve up the dessert.” Dad is not likely to be taken in by this ploy. The supposed agreement is spurious because Dad wants dessert if and only if it is preceded by other, more nutritious food.
Scripture alone is not neutral between the two paradigms because the ICT paradigm says that Scripture is not intended to function alone.
In order to illustrate the dangers inherent in going with SS if ICT should turn out to be the correct paradigm, let me provide a little example I came across in the class I substituted for just this past Friday. On the board in this class, there were these instructions:
- Read pages 8-9-10-11 in the N.G. Ultimate Field Guide of Photography.
- Take notes while you read (about 1 sentence per paragraph).
- Turn in your notes to the teacher. The teacher will give you a green worksheet/quiz. Do it and turn it in.
- After you turn in the green sheet, pick up the blue assignment, use the internet to complete it.
- All three are due at the end of the class.
Now, let me ask a question: Assuming this is the all the information you have, would you conclude that students should be able to use their textbooks when completing their green worksheet/quiz, or would you conclude that students should not be able to use their textbooks? You have to make a decision, and you have to make a decision using only this information, deriving the best answer from it. What would it be? . . . My reading would be that the students should not be allowed to use their textbooks, for a couple of reasons—the green sheet is a “quiz,” which most naturally (though admittedly not always) suggests something that should be done without open notes, and after turning in the green quiz the students are to do a blue worksheet, and they are told specifically that they can use the internet. Since the green sheet is called a quiz and the blue sheet is not, and since the teacher has specifically mentioned an allowance of an outside source with the blue sheet but not with the green, I would argue the most likely reading of the text is that the students should not be using their textbooks when doing the green quiz. If I had to decide based only on these instructions, I would not let them use their textbooks.
But it turns out, in this case, that another set of instructions were given to me, in my sub lesson plan:
- Have the class read pages 8-9-10-11. In the Ultimate Field Guide to Photography. Instruct them to take notes (at least half a page) while they read.
- When they are done reading and note taking trade their notes for the green worksheet and have them complete it. They may use the text to complete the worksheet.
- When they are done with the green worksheet and they have given it to you give them the blue worksheet and they may then use the computers to complete it.
- All three mini-assignments should be handed in by the end of class.
As you can see, the situation looks a bit different when we see this new set of instructions. Our inference based only on the earlier set of instructions (or at least my inference) turned out to be wrong. If I had been following an SS sort of paradigm here, then, I would have gotten the wrong answer, and I would probably have even seen the new set of instructions as wrong on the grounds that they contradicted the best reading of the older set. But following an ICT sort of paradigm, I come to a different, an opposite, conclusion. Following SS, then, is not a safe, default position, any more than following ICT is.
So is there a default position? Yes, I think there is. I think it is not SS, but ICT. Why? Two reasons come to mind:
1. We are commanded to obey the teachers who are set up over us in the New Testament, those appointed by the apostles (the bishops/elders). We are also commanded to maintain the unity of the church and not split into separate factions. These commands imply that we have a duty not to defy our teachers and break the unity of the body at least unless we find that we have a good reason to do so. But if we are up in the air in terms of whether the data supports SS or ICT, and the church teaches ICT (as the historic church always has, so far as we can see), so that supporting SS must involve defying our teachers and breaking the unity of the body, we ought to defer to the church and follow ICT until further evidence comes up warranting a different action. Since God has given us a revelation of his will, and therefore expects us to be able to find it and follow it (no natural impossibilities), we can conclude that in doing our duty God will not lead us astray and thus that the church's position is the right position.
2. This may actually be the same or a very similar argument to #1. Think of the Book of Jude in the Bible for a moment. How do you know that it is supposed to be in the Bible? All kinds of arguments might be made about the book being accepted from an early time (though its canonical authority was at times disputed in some places in the church), etc., but, in the end, we cannot really be sure from historical analysis that the Book of Jude is really supposed to be in the Scripture. From a purely human point of view, it is entirely possible that the church came to accept Jude without it being intended originally as Scripture. After all, other false ideas were able to creep into the beliefs of various parts of the church very early on (I could give examples, but won't for now for the sake of brevity). So how do we know if it belongs there or not? Our only choice is to trust that God providentially guided the church to get the right books included in the canon. In short, in the absence of some other way of checking, we trust God's guidance of the church. We don't rebel against the church and break its unity, asserting (without proof) that Jude doesn't belong in the Bible. We follow the church, having no good reason not to, trusting that since God wants us to know what his Word is so that we can follow it, he will have ensured that the church got it right since there would seem to be no other way to tell. Similarly, if the data is ambiguous regarding SS vs. ICT, and the church teaches ICT, we should trust God's guidance of the church and go with ICT rather than rebelling against the church for no good reason. So ICT, not SS, is the natural default position.
SS and ICT in the Bible and the Church Fathers
I'm going to be very brief here, because there is much data that could be discussed. From my readings thus far of the church fathers, it seems to me that they held basically an ICT paradigm, and that that paradigm has always been the one held by the “catholic” churches—that is, the mainstream churches that succeeded from the apostles (at least until the Reformation). It is true that the fathers have great reverence for the Scriptures and see them as the source of Christian doctrine, but it is also true that their practice and constant statements tells us that they believed that Scripture should be understood not by itself, but in light of God's reliable (infallible) guidance of the church through the Holy Spirit and in the light of the living practices (tradition) of the catholic church. Here are some articles on this, the first two from the Protestant and the last from a Roman Catholic point of view:
It seems to me also that the Bible does not teach SS. The biblical writers express high esteem for Scripture, and see it as the foundation of doctrine and practice, but it seems to me they fall short of affirming SS. In the Old Testament period, there was never (or at least almost never) any time when Scripture functioned alone with the people of God. There was continuing revelation throughout this period (prophets, Urim and Thummim, etc.) that always functioned along with the written Scriptures. The comment at the beginning of the Book of Hebrews sums up the OT period: “God . . . at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets.” In the NT period as well, SS was never practiced. Jesus and the apostles constantly appeal to the Scriptures as containing the foundation for doctrine, and as the corrective against false doctrine and false traditions (such as those of the Pharisees), but Scripture never functioned alone. Jesus appeals to Scripture, but at the same time he himself is giving new oral revelation by his own authority, including in his interpretations of Scripture. The Holy Spirit opens the minds of Peter and the apostles to understand the Scriptures. The apostles likewise appeal to Scripture as containing the foundation of doctrine, but they too are giving new revelation as they do so, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jude speaks of the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” while at exactly the same time writing further Scripture. In short, there are passages and practices in Scripture that may sound somewhat SS on the surface, but fit even better within an ICT paradigm. At the very least, they do not require SS. This is all the more clear when we avoid circular reasoning by not assuming from the outset that Scripture is meant to function alone when we interpret it. As I discussed above, it is very difficult to be sure of the correctness of inferences made on the basis of little and/or ambiguous data in a book as complex and large as the Bible, when we don't even know if we are supposed to be attempting to interpret it without a larger reliable and infallible context. I plan soon to do an inline commentary on Greg Bahnsen's article here which will, I think, bring out further what I am saying here. If you want me to send this to you when I complete it, let me know.
In addition, it seems to me the Bible contains passages and themes which suggest the ICT paradigm, and even suggest it with a significant degree of force. The argument to SS from the Bible seems to me to rely primarily on inferences from texts which simply talk about the great importance and foundational nature and role of Scripture (which both paradigms accept) and oppose Scripture to false revelations or the traditions of men (which both paradigms agree exist). But there are other passages which call into question, I think, the SS conclusion. We have, for example, the parable of the vinedressers in Matthew 21:3-46. One of the main points of the parable seems to be that Israel has failed and must therefore be replaced by the church. The previous organizational body of the synagogue, with its leaders (the vinedressers), fails, and is replaced by the church (the new nation) which will bear the fruit of the vineyard. That is, it will not fail as Israel failed. What does that suggest? It seems to me to suggest that we should never have a situation where the organic body of the church, with its established leaders, fails the way Israel did, needing to be replaced by yet another body. And yet isn't that what happened at the Reformation from a Protestant point of view? The parable is not so much focusing on the change of dispensation between Old and New Covenants, but on the break between the synagogue and the church rooted in the former's failure. (Of course, the reason why the former fails and the latter succeeds is intimately connected to the differences between the Old and New Covenants.) The Protestant response will involve pointing out that the Reformed church (but which one?) is in continuity with the old catholic body, that it is intended as a true continuation rather than as a replacement. And Protestants will also point out that there was a good deal of organic continuity, with leaders in the old church coming to be leaders in the new, etc. But the same things could be said about the break with the synagogue. In that case, also, there was ultimate continuity (think of Paul's discussion of the olive tree in Romans 11), and there was also a good deal of organic continuity (“many of the priests became obedient to the faith,” “there were many of the party of the Pharisees,” etc.). So where is the difference? What happened with the synagogue? The organic body failed, and a new organic body needed to form based on a break with the old because of the old's refusal to repent. Isn't that exactly what Protestants claim regarding the break of the Reformed church from the older Roman Catholic body? But it seems that the parable suggests strongly that we should not expect such a break. The new body, the church, will succeed and not need to be replaced like the synagogue was. If we combine this with many other Scriptural passages and considerations, I think this case becomes even much stronger. “The gates of hell will not prevail against the church” (mentioned, interestingly, in the same context as the “Peter is the rock” saying). The gates of hell prevailed against the synagogue, at least in terms of the faithfulness of the current organic body (though it, too, will be saved in the end—Romans 12), but this will never happen to the church. Why? Because Christ has come, and Jesus is with his church to the end of the age, and he will not leave the church an orphan but will send the Spirit, who will guide the church into all truth. He will give his Spiritual gifts, in accordance with the New Covenant which will not fail, not being ultimately ineffective in itself like the Old Covenant. The Spirit was there in the OT, but not to the same degree and in the same way. The ICT paradigm affirms that Christ continues to be with his church to the end of time, in the Holy Spirit, and that the Spirit continues to guide the church infallibly in its continuing to unpack and apply and live the apostolic deposit. There is not perfection, but the church is kept from the fate of the synagogue. (And yet even in the OT, there is never a time when the people of God are to break away and form a new organization—think of Moses's response when God suggested something like that after Israel's sin with the golden calf. It seems that God regards breaking off and forming a new body very seriously, and as a rejection of the previous body to be replaced by a new one.) It does seem a little strange that the people of God should have God's presence with them in an infallible way, to check their interpretations of previous revelation, through all of human history, but now, when the Son has come and the fullness has come and the New Covenant is here and the Spirit has been given, we are left only with a book with no infallible checks or guidance, and told to get it all right and carry it out (each of us individually, not being able to trust implicitly anyone else). (And look at how that has worked in Protestant history!) It seems like this leaves us in a worse situation than we were in before in the OT period! Some of this is more firm in terms of argumentation than other parts, but the whole thing together at least strongly calls into question the SS paradigm and should make us consider whether we've got it right, especially in light of other points discussed in this document.
Concerns and Issues with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy
If SS is wrong, and the ICT paradigm is right, that would seem to lead us to either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. So issues and concerns related to these need to be examined. I will not, here, try to deal with all of them, but mainly to point out issues we are aware of and are looking into. To start out, I ought to observe that I think the issues tend to fall into two main categories: issues that are issues in themselves, and issues that become issues at least in the main only when we have assumed SS. I think these are not as often kept as distinct as they ought to be, and it causes some confusion. For example, the Eastern Orthodox Church seems to teach as official doctrine, accepted by the whole church, a position on predestination, free will, and grace that is similar to the Arminian point of view, in that it refuses to acknowledge an absolute unconditional predestination or efficacious grace, but insists on a libertarian way of looking at free will and a synergistic approach to grace. This seems to me to be an “issue in itself”--by which I mean that this teaching is problematic regardless of whether or not we hold to SS, because this teaching is simply logically incompatible with what everyone (in this controversy at least) takes to be core Christian doctrines. Taken to its logical conclusions, this view leads to a salvation rooted in merit and not grace and even to Atheism. (As my EO friends are agitated at this point, and my Arminian ones as well, let me say that I don't intend to prove that right now, but it is a belief I hold and claim to be able to prove. :-)) This, then, to me, is a serious unresolved issue with Eastern Orthodoxy. But, on the other hand, take the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practice of “praying to saints.” Understood in the full light of RC and EO teaching, I don't think it can be proved from the very nature of things or from clear Scripture that this practice is wrong. (It is often a misunderstood practice, so the issue must be examined carefully and without undue prejudice.) Scripture certainly requires us to worship God alone and trust him alone in an ultimate sense, but it never really addresses whether we could ask dead saints to pray for us. On earth, we often ask others to pray for us, and we often say things like, “I thank you for your prayers, which have been very beneficial to me,” and so on, when God answers those prayers. “The prayer of a righteous man is very effective.” To pray literally means simply to ask for something. “I pray thee, please hand me that book,” etc. Now, if we assume SS, we can say that there is no clear biblical warrant for praying to saints in this manner, and therefore we have no warrant from God to do it. I think that is a good argument. But if we do not assume SS, we find that there is insufficient data in Scripture to condemn the practice, if the practice is approved by the interpretation of Scripture in the light of the living practice and infallible guidance of the church. On the other hand, the Bible is so clear on other things that it would be at least exceedingly difficult to read it any other way. Jesus rose from the dead, for example. But an argument against praying to saints must rely on inferences regarding a subject simply not addressed in the text, and thus falls prey to the issues discussed earlier. So, as I said, I think that most of the issues and concerns with RC and EO doctrine fall into one of these two categories--“issues in themselves” and “issues assuming SS,” and it will be very helpful to keep these straight.
One of the major Protestant objections to both the RC and the EO churches will be about the core gospel itself. So let me say some things about that. First, I have no intention whatsoever of abandoning the gospel. If that was a condition of becoming RC or EO, I would never do either, for I believe I have conclusive reasons to believe the gospel. The gospel is basically this: God created the world, and is sovereign over it. Man has fallen into sin and come to deserve hell. Man merits hell, and can never remove his sin or its consequences from himself by his own power or merit. God sent his Son into the world to take upon himself a human nature, to take our sins upon himself, to suffer under those sins and die in order to merit forgiveness and righteousness for those who believe. He rose from the dead on the third day, ascended into heaven, and will come as judge at the last day. Our salvation is entirely from Christ and not at all from ourselves, and so our faith must be entirely in him. In taking our sins upon himself, he removes them from us, and his righteousness is counted ours in place of that sin, so that we are justified entirely by the righteousness of Christ alone. As a result of being given Christ's righteousness, we are indwelt and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, who applies the merits of Christ within us and makes us holy. It is the Holy Spirit who causes his elect to persevere to the end, to receive the fullness of the salvation of Christ. That's the basic gospel, and various points of it can be unpacked to various degrees. I will add that I am committed to unconditional election and predestination and to efficacious grace in salvation, and I understand these in the way Augustine did. If I were required to give up any of this, I could not be an RC or an EO. In fact, one of my strongest (and, I fear, fatal) objections to the EO church is, as I mentioned, that it seems that it condemns some of these things, particularly predestination and efficacious grace. But I cannot give them up, for logically they are essential to the gospel and to reason itself.
The RC church affirms this core gospel. (I realize, of course, that this is a controversial claim, and you can challenge it as you wish.) One of my concerns with it, however, has been that with regard to predestination and efficacious grace. While the RC church allows the Augustinian understanding of these, it also allows people to hold a more “Arminian” position associated with the Jesuits. This has troubled me. Why does the RC church not simply condemn the Jesuit position, since, if we take it to its logical conclusion, it leads to the abandonment of salvation by grace and even to Atheism? But if I have good reason to trust the church as infallibly guided by God, should I not put such a matter into its hands? I may not know why the church has not officially condemned the Jesuit position, but can I prove that it absolutely must do so? In continuing to think about this, in fact, I have come to see a possible wisdom in the RC way of dealing with this (thus far). The RC church is absolutely clear on the core of the gospel. Particularly, as part of this, the church affirms two things (among other things): 1. Free will. That is, the existence of true, voluntary choice, including in connection with salvation and damnation. 2. The absolute graciousness of salvation. Even the response of faith in the gospel is explicitly affirmed to be a work of grace in the heart. There is nothing we have that we have not received. (See, for example, here, and throughout this section of the Catechism.) The church allows both the Jesuit and the Augustinian positions on predestination and grace to be held by people in the church, and for people on both sides to argue with each other and support their own system, but they cannot deny these core elements of the gospel. The Jesuits think (wrongly) that the Augustinian position, taken to its logical conclusion, destroys free will. The Augustinians think (rightly) that the Jesuit position, taken to its logical conclusion, destroys the graciousness of salvation (and the supremacy and sovereignty of God, another point affirmed clearly by the RC church). Looking at things from the Augustinian point of view (that is, the right point of view), what the church has done is allow people who are confused on predestination and efficacious grace to continue to live in the church, but it does not allow them to affirm the full logical consequences of their position, thus showing care and charity for individuals while maintaining the graciousness of the gospel and the sovereignty of God. Looking at things from the Jesuit point of view (that is, the wrong point of view), the church has likewise shown charity and tender care by allowing those confused Augustinians to continue to live in the church while forbidding them to take their position to its logical conclusions, thus preserving the doctrine of the true voluntariness of human actions, including in connection with receiving or rejecting the gospel. If the RC church condemned the Jesuit view, the Jesuits would be forced to conclude, looking at things from their theological perspective, that the church had condemned voluntary human agency. If the RC church condemned the Augustinian view, the Augustinians would conclude that in rejecting these ideas logically bound up with and implied in the gospel, the church had rejected the gospel (and they would be right). So the church balances the purity of the gospel with charity towards individuals. Here are some articles which shed further light of some of the things I've mentioned (the last link is to a book arguing an Augustinian, Thomist view of predestination and grace, which I read last year):
There are many issues relating to the RC and the EO churches that we are aware of and have been and will be seriously examining. I don't want to talk about them all here, but here is a list of a number of them: praying to saints, transubstantiation, purgatory, marriage and divorce, miracles, relics, papal contradictions, self-consistency of EO epistemology, specific forms infallibility takes in the RC church, assurance of salvation, mortal and venial sins, conversion and perseverance, crusades and inquisition, alleged contradictions (such as with religious freedom), images, holidays (and worship in general), communion in one kind, arguments for sola Scriptura, indulgences, penance, confession, etc. I could no doubt list more if I continued to think about it (I've got written lists, but don't have them in front of me at the moment). Any of you are welcome to comment further on any of these things, on anything discussed in this document, or on any related issue at all. One reason for sending this to you is so we can avail ourselves of any additional input any of you may have. And please pray for us. Thank you in advance for all that you do!
Mark Hausam (on behalf of the Hausam family)
P.S. Here is an article by Charles Hodge, the great Presbyterian theologian, entitled, “Is the Church of Rome a Part of the Visible Church?”
Catholic vs. Sola Scriptura Paradigm on Scripture, Tradition, and the Church
Scripture: Scripture is the written compendium of God's revelation, infallibly written and preserved. In the Old Testament, it contains the law given to Moses, the central stories of the patriarchs and Israel, a collection of psalms and collections of other wisdom writings, and collections representing the prophets. In the New Testament, it contains the gospels (basic accounts of Jesus's life, death, and resurrection, and the meaning of them), an account of the history of the church in the apostolic period, letters from various apostles addressing various matters (especially Paul), and a prophetic book looking towards the end of the world. For both Old Testament and New Testament times, the Scriptures contain the core ideas of the faith. They are the written compendium documenting infallibly the law, the prophets, the gospel, the Apostolic application of the gospel in the early church, etc. They are the foundation of the faith.
Tradition: Tradition represents the un-written (or at least un-enscripturated) passing down of ideas, memories, and other things, in the oral tradition of the people of God, or in their living practice. It contains the same information contained in Scripture but also supplementary information. Tradition thus forms an important context for the interpretation of the core ideas of Scripture, and it is also the foundation of the canon of Scripture itself, as the canon is not stated in Scripture but is learned from tradition. In the Old Testament, information is passed down through the living tradition of the Jews that is not in Scripture but which provides supplementary information and context for what is in Scripture. For example, there are questions about how to perform certain actions prescribed in the law that would have been learned from the passed-down living practice of the priests and the people. When David gave instructions for the Temple worship, much of that instruction is referred to but not contained in Scripture--It would have been passed down in the living tradition of the people. The NT refers to certain information that is taken as true but is not in the OT, such as Paul's mention of the names Jannes and Jambres, his mention of the rock that followed the Israelities in the desert (coming from Rabbinic tradition), the mention of Satan arguing with Michael about the body of Moses, etc.
In New Testament times and thereafter, the church continued to possess living memories passed down from Jesus and the Apostles, such as the reference in the Book of Acts to Jesus's statement that "it is better to give than to receive." After the apostles, the church, particularly the bishops and presbyters whom the apostles had appointed, continued to practice the form of worship and church life that they had learned from the apostles. The oral memories and living practices passed down form an important context for Scripture. For example, should we baptize infants? This is never addressed in Scripture (although there are principles there which are relevant to the question), but the living practice of the church would reveal the practice established in the apostolic age (if there was one). Various church fathers often mention various particular un-written traditions that are authoritative because they illustrate how the worship and life commanded in Scripture is to be done in various particulars (like Tertullian and Basil mentioning the sign of the cross).
Magisterium: In the Old Testament, God guided the magisterium of the church (the Levites, priests, and scribes), but he did not prevent them from falling into heresy or even apostasy. But with the New Testament dispensation, God has given his Holy Spirit in such a way that the church (particularly the bishops of the church) is guided into truth reliably and cannot fall into heresy or apostasy as a whole. (The Parable of the Vinedressers.) The magisterium does not receive new revelation, but it is guided by the Spirit to infallibly gather, preserve, interpret, unpack, and apply the revelation it has received in Scripture (in the context of tradition). So the church infallibly gathers and preserves the text of Scripture, the canon of Scripture (distinguishing what should be there from what shouldn't be there), the authentic living memories and apostolic practices of the church (distinguishing them from false traditions or at least un-authoritative ones), etc. It interprets all of these accurately, develops the proper implications, and accurately unpacks and applies it all to the life and message of the church. The apostles exercised this kind of office in New Testament times, and we see them throughout the New Testament interpreting, unpacking, and applying the teachings of Jesus (in fulfillment of his command to "teach whatsoever I have commanded you") in which is contained "the faith once for all delivered to the saints" because the Son brings the final word from God. For example, we see them concluding that Gentiles are not to be circumcised, that believers should not divorce unbelieving spouses, that the Lord's Day should be celebrated each week, that there should be particular churches in various cities with their own elders/bishops, etc. They unpack the theology embedded in Christ's teaching and in his life, death, and resurrection. The apostles handed on magisterial authority to their successors, the bishops. The difference between them is that the job of the apostles was to apply Jesus's revelation to establishing the first foundations of the church in the world (and a compendium of their acts and works is contained in Scripture), whereas the job of the bishops will be to preserve the foundation the apostles have established and continue to interpret, unpack, and apply it as the church continues to grow in the world. We see this happening as the councils of the early church help to decide major theological and practical questions, such as the Trinity, the nature of the Incarnation, how the church should be organized as it grows, how worship should be conducted, how grace and works relate to each other, how free will and predestination relate to each other, how philosophy should relate to faith, etc.
Scripture, because it is the infallibly written compendium of revelation, is the core foundation, but it must be interpreted and applied in light of information embedded in the living traditions and memories of the church and the interpretative and applying authority granted to the magisterium.
Sola Scriptura Paradigm:
The SS paradigm agrees with the Catholic Paradigm that Scripture is the infallible compendium of divine revelation and thus the core and foundation of the faith. But it disagrees in that it denies the authoritative role of the living tradition of the church to function as a context for Scriptural interpretation, and it denies that any infallibility has been granted to the church's magisterium to reliably interpret, unpack, and apply divine revelation. The traditions of the church, and the teachings of the magisterium, can be used as helpful guides to Scriptural interpretation, but they are not to be relied upon as an inherently trustworthy and authoritative guide to interpretation. So, while sometimes they might help us to apply Scripture rightly, sometimes it might be right to interpret Scripture contrary to the teaching of the magisterium or the traditions of even the whole church. And claims of apostolic traditions that are unwritten and have been passed down by the church (such as the claim that the sign of the cross was learned from the practice of apostolic times) are dismissed as being without adequate warrant.
Some Key Themes in the Catholic Doctrine of Salvation
Adam and Eve, at their creation, were given a supernatural gift of grace (original holiness and justice/righteousness) by which they were able to love God supremely and obey him. However, they were tempted and fell into sin, rebelling against God, preferring their own ways to him. As a result of this, Adam and Eve entered into a state of mortal sin, which consisted of the guilt of their rebellion and consequent desert of eternal damnation, as well as a new fallen condition in which, without a new grace given, they would be unable to love God supremely and would forever prefer inferior goods to him. Their basic human constitution (consisting of natural human characteristics such as reason and will) were not destroyed by their fall, but their faculties were bent away from God and their will became inclined to sin. Since their will was not destroyed, they were still responsible for their choices, but they were so bent towards sin that they would never be able to be reconciled to God or turn back to him as their chief good (and nor would they be able to overcome the other effects of sin, such as alienation within themselves and with others and with the rest of creation) without new grace from God. Nothing in their human nature, without grace, could at all remedy this situation.
When Adam sinned, he lost his state of original justice and holiness and entered into a fallen condition, but his sin did not affect him alone. As father of the human race, his fallen condition was passed down from him to all his natural descendants. As a result, all humans are naturally conceived and born in a state deprived of original justice and holiness and subject to all the disorders this state naturally brings. Because of the fact that this fallen condition inevitably (without grace) inclines to sin and damnation, it came to be called the state of "original sin." In those (such as very young children) who are incapable of engaging in moral activity of their own (due to lack of ability to reason abstractly, etc.), this fallen condition does not result in personal sin and guilt immediately (because they are not capable of it), but it will inevitably lead to a personal state of mortal sin once an adequate capacity to reason and engage in moral actions develops (such as when children reach such a capable age). Thus, we can distinguish between "original sin" which is the condition that leads to sin and "personal sin" which inevitably results from it in those capable of such. As a result of the Fall, then, grace aside, all human beings who have reached the age of reason and personal moral actions are in a state of mortal sin that it is impossible they should emerge from and which will lead inevitably to eternal damnation (the worst part of which consists of the infinite loss of God and his blessedness and the fullness of misery that accompanies this).
This fallen condition can only be overcome by the supernatural grace of God, merited by the sacrifice and righteousness of Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit. God offers his grace to all men, and so all are without excuse for not turning back to God in reliance on that grace, and yet no one will ever have the will to turn back unless they are moved by grace to do so. When God's grace converts a soul (looking specifically at the soul of an adult), he applies actual grace to the will, turning it back to God so that the person comes to repent of his sins, love God above all else for who he is, and sincerely and fully receive Christ and his mercy. Thus, moved by grace, the convert leaves his state of mortal sin and enters into a state of grace, into a state of forgiveness of sins and holiness. While this transition occurs by means of cooperation between God's grace and the man's will, yet the entire transition, including man's very change of will, must be ultimately attributed to the grace of God, for man's good will is itself a result of grace and without grace man can do nothing. There are some to whom God gives grace only temporarily, without the gift of final perseverance, and so they only taste of Christ temporarily and do not ultimately attain to eternal salvation. But to God's elect, chosen from eternity, God gives the fullness of his grace, including the gift of final perseverance and the full fruition of eternal salvation in the enjoyment of God. God's grace also often works on infants, who are rescued from original sin (though the inclination to sin is not wholly removed from them, or from adults in this life) and restored to a state of justice, though the personal moral fruits of this will only appear later in life.
In the next life, the saved will be fully purified of all sin permanently, but in this life Christians still must struggle by the power of grace against their remaining inclination to sin, and they often fall into various sins. Sometimes God allows them to fall out of a state of grace entirely (mortal sins), and then moves them by his grace to restoration. Other times he allows them to fall into sin to a lesser degree, such that while they experience a sinful disorder it is not to the extent that it disrupts or destroys their overall relationship of love to God (venial sins). All sin by nature is in opposition to God and its natural fruit is alienation from God and misery, and yet not all sins are such as to remove one from a habitual state of grace. (To use an analogy, think of the difference between a fatal infection and a non-fatal infection. By its very nature, all infection tends to death, but not all infection actually infests the body in such a way as to bring destruction to the body overall and therefore bring death.)
God's grace works above and beyond his sacraments (such as his prevenient grace that moves the will to resort to the sacraments in the first place), and yet God's habitual communion with his people takes place (ordinarily) not in a condition of isolation from Christ's church but in communion with the rest of it and through the reception of the sacraments. For example, when a person is moved by grace to repent and turn to Christ, his reconciliation with Christ is liturgically enacted in his baptism (or in the Sacrament of Reconciliation if he has already been baptized). This is not to say that the grace of God is tied to the sacraments--for example, a person who has turned to God and desires baptism but is not able to receive baptism (perhaps he dies before this is possible, or he is kept from it by some external obstacle) is still saved by the grace and Spirit of God (this is usually called "the baptism of desire")--but that God's grace and his communion with man is ordinarily facilitated largely through the sacraments.
Along with the eternal consequences of sin and grace, such as eternal damnation and its forgiveness and the fundamental conversion of the soul, we must also take into account temporal consequences of sin and grace. Those who are forgiven of their sins and have entered a state of grace are not always necessarily freed from all the temporal consequences of their sins, and God's grace works not only to grant eternal salvation but also to wean man from sin through various trials and penances in this life (and also oftentimes in purgatory after death, which completes the purification of the regenerated soul so that he is fully fit for the full enjoyment of God).
Those who belong to the Augustinian and Thomist traditions within the Catholic Church go on to develop what they see as certain biblical and logical implications of the above doctrines: If the converted man's good will is entirely the result of God's grace, so that God works in us "both to will and to do" his good pleasure, then it follows that those who have come to God have done so because they have been given a special grace not given to those who refuse to come to Christ. And those who persevere to the end must likewise have been given a special grace that is not given to those who fail to persevere. Thus we must distinguish between the sufficient grace given to all men (which makes men inexcusable for not turning to Christ in reliance on his grace but which does not in itself turn man from sin to God) and the special efficacious grace which, of its own efficacy, actually turns men to God. From all eternity, God has chosen some out of the mass of fallen humanity to bring to eternal salvation. These are not chosen for any goodness they have over and above the rest, but solely by God's good pleasure and mercy. To these elect, God has chosen freely to give the efficacious graces that will lead not only to conversion but also to eternal salvation. To the rest, the reprobate, God has chosen to pass over them and not give them all the same graces (which is not unjust, for no one deserves these graces; they are an unmerited, gratuitous gift), and therefore they do not actually come to Christ, or, if they do temporarily, they do not persevere to the end. All of this follows from the fact that God's grace is the ultimate source of all good in man, and it also follows from the full sovereignty of God over all the creation, both fundamental doctrines of the Catholic faith.
Some Thoughts on Why Roman Catholicism Over Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy
So here's my two main concerns with Anglicanism at this point:
1. The view of the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and what I take to be the pretty much unanimous view of the early church fathers, is that the church Christ founded was not just a loose, informal connection of Christians or individual churches, but was a unified visible body consisting of Christians in communion with their bishops and the bishops in communion with each other. One could be a part of this body, or one could break off from it (by, for example, rebelling against a legitimate ecumenical council). This view can be clearly seen throughout the fathers, such as in Cyprian's famous treatise and Augustine's treatise on the unity of the church. The fathers, and the Catholic and Orthodox churches, also held and hold that Christ gave the Holy Spirit to this church in such a way that it would never fall away such as to create a need for faithful men to break from it and form a new church, a new "denomination."
I think a good case for this position can be made from Scripture. Throughout the Old Testament, God's people often went astray, but there was never any time when the faithful were called to separate from the established denominational body of Israel and form a new body. God actually proposed this once to Moses as a test, and he rejected it. However, the coming of Christ did bring such a break. This is discussed clearly in Jesus's parable of the vinedressers (Matthew 21:33-46). The Jewish leaders failed to preserve, and so finally, after thousands of years, God authorized a break from the Jewish denomination. God would raise up a new nation, with new leaders, who would break from the old and do things right where the old nation had failed. (And even then, God promised that the cutting off of the Jews would be temporary, and they would be restored at the end.) This new nation--the Christian church--would not fail as Israel had failed, because they would have the Holy Spirit in a new way who would preserve them. They are the people of the New Covenant, which succeeds because it brings a power the Old Covenant did not possess. The gates of hell will never prevail against the church (as they did, at least temporarily, against Israel), for God has given the keys to Peter and to the apostles. Therefore, there will never need to be a denominational break with the original denomination of the church as there was a break with the Jewish denomination. All of this would be common fare for the church fathers.
My "default argument" in the original thing I sent to you all argued that because we are commanded to preserve the unity of the church and submit to the leaders of the church, we ought not to break that unity or rebel against those leaders unless we have good, conclusive reasons to do so. That is, we should not form a new denomination unless there is good, conclusive reason to do so. But the churches which have a plausible claim to be the original denomination (particularly the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches) hold the ideas I've just articulated above, so that to reject those ideas would require a break from these churches. (There are also the other earlier churches to consider, such as the Oriental Orthodox--but I need to do more research on these before saying too much about them.)
The Anglican church is clearly a new "denomination," started in the sixteenth century. I know they claim to be the recovery of the early church, but the fact remains that they are obviously not denominationally the same body as the early church. The Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches are organically descended denominationally from the early church--that is, if we stay with the early catholic church through ongoing history and don't break denominationally from it, we end up with the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches. We don't end up with the Anglican church, because, as a distinct denominational body, it came into existence in the sixteenth century by breaking off of the Roman Catholic Church. So, if it is the case that we ought not to break denominationally with the early church, we will have to be either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox (though, again, we also need to think of the Oriental Orthodox, etc.). If Anglicanism can provide a conclusive reason justifying such a break, so be it. But if they can't, we shouldn't follow them out of Roman Catholicism. (It is helpful to avoid personal provincialism in thinking through these issues. Since Anglicanism came out of Roman Catholicism, if we are going to be Anglicans we should think of ourselves as breaking off from Roman Catholicism. We should ask ourselves if we would have followed the Anglicans out of the RC church or not at the time. If we wouldn't think it justified then, it cannot be more justified now, even though it might be easier to consider since we don't have to personally go through a break from a former church. I think it would alter the perceptions of a lot of Protestants if, instead of provincially taking their Protestantism as a given, they came to think of themselves as having broken off from a previous church and so had to justify to themselves their reasons for breaking off.) I don't think the Anglicans can provide a sufficient justification for breaking the unity of the church or renouncing obedience to the Roman Catholic Church. (Remember, the bishops of the Church of England became bishops partly by submitting to Rome--that was a part of their commitment. So when they broke off, they renounced something they had previous sworn to. Before the break, they acknowledged that their authority was conditional upon their remaining in communion with Rome--this was understood by all sides when they were ordained. Thus, in continuing to claim authority after the break, they had to go back on what they had previously acknowledged and create an argument for themselves as to why they still had authority even though they had abandoned the previously acknowledged basis of their authority. In some ways, then, it is kind of like a manager of a local Walmart deciding to ignore headquarters, being stripped of his authority by headquarters, but instead of giving up the authority creating a new foundation for it in order to justify continuing to claim to be the manager. This doesn't in itself prove they were wrong--after all, if they were doing God's will, surely they were justified--but I think it helps to realize just how radical their break was and how much the default lay in staying with Rome and not breaking off. It does seem to me that Anglicans sometimes whitewash that too much--not necessarily intentionally, of course.)
So, in short, I don't think Anglicanism can adequately justify forming a new denomination in the sixteenth century.
2. I am concerned that Anglican epistemology is self-referentially inconsistent and self-refuting. I think it shares this problem with the Eastern Orthodox. Anglicanism seems to me to be a bit confused as to what its foundational system of authority is. Is Scripture alone infallible, or is the early catholic tradition infallible as well? If it is Scripture alone, that is the Sola Scriptura position, and my response to that then would be that I don't think they can justify their distinctive positions or existence adequately from Scripture alone (including justifying Sola Scriptura from Scripture alone). But sometimes Anglicans talk as if something like the "nearly unanimous consent of the early fathers" is also infallible, such that it could not be wrong and so cannot be disagreed with--you're definitely wrong if you go against it. When speaking in this vein, the Anglican claim seems (often) to be something like this: The tradition shared by the whole of the early church is infallible, but since the times of the early church the Catholic Church has broken into (at least) three main branches--the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Anglicans. All three of these together constitute the Catholic Church, and none of them alone constitute the Catholic Church. To illustrate this, the guy on the Anglican podcast I've been listening to talked about ordaining women as priests. He said that the Anglican church should not make that change because the Anglican church should not make decisions and changes like that unilaterally, but only with the agreement of the rest of the Catholic Church--the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox.
Now, here's the problem: The Anglican distinctives, including their "branch theory" of the church and their distinctive way of deciding theological truth, in short all the things that make them Anglicans and not Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox, were never a part of the unanimous consent of the early church and are not today agreed upon by the other two supposed branches of the Catholic Church. So, according to their own epistemology, these things should not be embraced and insisted upon. But Anglicans have obviously embraced and insisted upon them to such an extent as to form a new denomination in the sixteenth century and to have continued to exist in separation from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches down to the present day. In short, the Anglicans say, "As Anglicans, we believe we should only hold to and insist on those things that the whole early church held to and which are unanimously agreed upon by all three branches of the Catholic Church today," while Anglicanism itself is something neither the whole early church agreed upon nor do the other two alleged branches of the Catholic Church today (or ever in their history). (In fact, it seems evident to me that the Anglican branch theory of the church and their epistemology were embraced by virtually no one in the early church. The early church unanimously repudiated anything like the branch theory, all holding to the impossibility of the dissolution of the visible unity of the Catholic Church, and they all seemed to hold that the church was guided by God infallibly such that there would never need to be a "reform" of the church requiring a break from all presently-existing churches in order to "recover" the lost tradition of the orthodox church.)
In short, if Anglicans should not embrace and insist upon distinctives that cannot be proved to be biblical, or were not held by the whole of the early church, and they should not go beyond what the three current branches of the Catholic Church agree to today, then they should not be Anglicans and there should be no Anglican Church. That is what I mean by saying their epistemology is self-refuting. The Eastern Orthodox do something similar. They say that the infallible tradition of the church (which they hold, along with Roman Catholics, to be something that God continues beyond the days of the early church) is to be found in the opinions/teachings of the whole Catholic Church, and they complain against Rome for doing things without them. But the problem is that the distinctives of Eastern Orthodoxy (such as over against Roman Catholicism) have never been agreed upon by the whole Catholic Church, and so their own epistemology undermines itself. They cannot provide any reason from within their own system as to why we should believe in their system. (They're actually generally up-front about that in my experience, often admitting that they really don't have a clear worked-out way of telling how true doctrine is determined. When you complain about it, they accuse you of being "too rationalistic"--a good way of deflecting attention away from the problem. :-) ) My impression thus far--though I need to do more research on this--is that the Oriental Orthodox and other early groups (like the Nestorians) are in basically the same epistemological position. The only church that isn't is the Roman Catholic Church. They have a clearly worked-out way in their system of determining who to follow when not everyone agrees on something (while the other groups seem just to want to ignore the problem and pretend it isn't there)--you stick with the Bishop of Rome. They can make a plausible biblical case for this, or at least show a plausible biblical foundation for it in the keys being given to Peter in the gospels, etc. (I don't mean to say it can be proven conclusively only from Scripture, but only that there is at least a plausible foundation for it.) Their position goes back as far as we have records in the early church. It has apparently always been advocated for by Rome, and is often, throughout early church history, advocated for by many others as well, including many eastern bishops who are the ancestors of the modern Eastern Orthodox or other eastern churches. (See here for some examples.) There really was no other system of deciding disputes between bishops that was systematically or clearly worked out in the early church besides the Roman one, which many explicitly subscribed to and which is arguably often played out in the practice of the early churches. (There were certainly some who opposed the Roman view, but not as many as you might think--Fermillian being probably the earliest and one of the most vigorous opponents.)
Anyway, those are probably my two biggest concerns with Anglicans, and some of my central reasons for favoring Roman Catholicism. My default argument leads me to want to remain denominationally connected with the original denomination unless there is a good reason not to, and I don't think there is. The churches that can claim to be that denomination affirm a view of the church in which there are never to be breaks from it to form new denominations because it is ever guided by the Holy Spirit to not fail. Among these churches, only Rome has a self-consistent epistemology and a worked-out biblical and theological foundation for its own position.
Another Description of the Two Paradigms
Sola Scriptura Paradigm:
God has revealed his will in general revelation and special revelation. General revelation refers to knowledge that can be gained through reason, logic, the senses, general experience, etc. Special revelation refers to knowledge that comes through God revealing things to individuals or groups in a way not generally available to all (and so for all to gain that knowledge it must be communicated by the people to whom it was given). General revelation and special revelation must be interpreted in light of each other.
Special revelation has been given to the people of God, and it has been passed on by them and communicated to the world. It is delivered in two ways--”Scripture” and “Tradition.” “Tradition” refers to the revelation of God as it is fallibly handed on by means of oral transmission, passed-down memories, liturgical practices, in the teaching and preaching of the church, etc. “Scripture” refers to the revelation of God as it is infallibly handed down in special written documents—the Old and New Testaments (consisting of 66 books). Tradition contains everything that Scripture contains, but also provides a context for Scripture and its interpretation, shedding light on it by means of illustrating its meaning or application (such as in the church's liturgical practices). The church (particularly in the office of its teachers) has been given authority by God to fallibly gather, preserve, interpret, unpack, and apply the revelation of God, and its teachings that it develops as it does this (enshrined in creeds, statements of doctrine, etc.) become a part of the Tradition.
God has revealed his will in general revelation and special revelation. General revelation refers to knowledge that can be gained through reason, logic, the senses, general experience, etc. Special revelation refers to knowledge that comes through God revealing things to individuals or groups in a way not generally available to all (and so for all to gain that knowledge it must be communicated by the people to whom it was given). General revelation and special revelation must be interpreted in light of each other.
Special revelation has been given to the people of God, and it has been passed on by them and communicated to the world. It is delivered in two ways--”Scripture” and “Tradition.” “Tradition” refers to the revelation of God as it is infallibly handed on by means of oral transmission, passed-down memories, liturgical practices, in the teaching and preaching of the church, etc. “Scripture” refers to the revelation of God as it is infallibly handed down in special written documents—the Old and New Testaments (consisting of 73 books). Tradition contains everything that Scripture contains, but also provides a context for Scripture and its interpretation, shedding light on it by means of illustrating its meaning or application (such as in the church's liturgical practices). The church (particularly in the office of its teachers) has been given authority by God to infallibly gather, preserve, interpret, unpack, and apply the revelation of God, and its teachings that it develops as it does this (enshrined in creeds, statements of doctrine, etc.) become a part of the Tradition.
The difference between the two paradigms is that in the Sola Scriptura paradigm, Tradition is not infallible, while in the Catholic paradigm it is. In the Catholic paradigm, infallible light is shed on Scripture by Tradition, so that Tradition is a sure guide to the right interpretation and application of Scripture. In cases where Scripture is capable of multiple plausible interpretations or applications, if the personal interpretation or application I come up with (after considering all the available evidence—apart from relying on Tradition as infallible) differs from that of Tradition, I should follow Tradition. In the Sola Scriptura paradigm, fallible light is shed on Scripture by Tradition, so that Tradition is a helpful but not sure guide to the right interpretation and application of Scripture. In cases where Scripture is capable of multiple plausible interpretations or applications, if the best interpretation or application I personally can come up with (after considering all the available evidence—including taking into account traditional interpretations and analyzing the likelihood of myself being right and traditional readings being wrong) differs from that of Tradition, I should follow my own personal interpretation over that of Tradition.
St. Francis de Sales on the Catholic Paradigm
The Christian faith is grounded on the Word of God. This is what places it in the sovereign degree of certainty, as having the warrant of that eternal and infallible Truth. Faith which rests on anything else is not Christian. Therefore, the Word of God is the true rule of right-believing, as ground and rule are in this case one and the same thing.
Since this rule does not regulate our faith save when it is applied, proposed and declared, and since this may be done well or ill,--therefore it is not enough to know that the Word of God is the true and infallible rule of right-believing, unless I know what Word is God's, where it is, who has to propose, apply, and declare it. It is useless for me to know that the Word of God is infallible, and for all this knowledge I shall not believe that Jesus is the Christ, Son of the living God, unless I am certified that this Word is revealed by the heavenly Eather (sic): and even when I come to know this I shall not be out of doubt if I do not know how this is to be understood,--whether of an adoptive filiation in the Arian sense, or a natural filiation in the Catholic.
There is need, then, besides this first and fundamental rule the Word of God, of another, a second rule, by which the first may be rightly and duly proposed, applied, and declared. And in order that we may not be subject to hesitation and uncertainty, it is necessary not only that the first rule, namely, the Word of God, but also the second, which proposes and applies this rule, be absolutely infallible; otherwise we shall always remain in suspense and in doubt as to whether we are not being badly directed and supported in our faith and belief, not now by any defect in the first rule, but by error and defect in the proposition and application thereof. Certainly the danger is equal,--either of getting out of rule for want of a right rule, or getting out of rule for want of a regular and right application of the rule itself. But this infallibility which is required as well in the rule as in its application, can have its source only in God, the living and original fountain of all truth. Let us proceed.
Now as God revealed his Word, and spoke, or preached, by the mouth of the Fathers and Prophets, and at last by his own Son, then by the Apostles and Evangelists, whose tongues were but as the pens of scribes writing rapidly, God thus employing men to speak to men; so to propose, apply, and declare this his Word, he employs his visible Spouse as his mouthpiece and the interpreter of his intentions. It is God then who rules over Christian belief, but with two instruments, in a double way: (1) by his Word as by a formal rule; (2) by his Church as by the hand of the measurer and rule-user. Let us put it thus: God is the painter, our faith the picture, the colours are the Word of God, the brush is the Church. Here then are two ordinary and infallible rules of our belief: the Word of God, which is the fundamental and formal rule; the Church of God, which is the rule of application and explanation.
I consider in this second part both the one and the other, but to make my exposition of them more clear and more easy to handle, I have divided these two rules into several, as follows.
The Word of God, the formal rule of our faith, is either in Scripture or in Tradition. I treat first of Scripture, then of Tradition.
The Church, the rule of application, expresses herself either in her universal body by a general belief of all Christians, or in her principal and nobler parts by a consent of her pastors and doctors; and in this latter way it is either in her pastors assembled in one place and at one time, as in a general council, or in her pastors divided as to place and time, but assembled in union and correspondence of faith; or, in fine, this same Church expresses herself and speaks by her head-minister.* And these are four explaining and applying rules of our faith;--the Church as a whole, the General Council, the consent of the Fathers, the Pope.
Other rules than these we are not to seek; these are enough to steady the most inconstant. But God, who takes pleasure in the abundance of his favours, wishing to come to the help of the weakness of men, goes so far as to add sometimes to these ordinary rules (I refer to the establishment and founding of the Church) an extraordinary rule, most certain and of great importance,--namely, miracles--an extraordinary testimony of the true application of the Divine Word.
Lastly, natural reason may also be called a rule of right-believing, but negatively and not affirmatively. For if any one should speak thus: such a proposition is an article of faith, therefore it is according to natural reason:--this affirmative consequence would be badly drawn, since almost all our faith is outside of and above our reason. But if he were to say: this is an article of faith, therefore it cannot be against natural reason:--the consequence is good. For natural reason and faith, being supported on the same principles, and starting from one same author, cannot be contrary to each other.
Here then are eight rules of faith: Scripture, Tradition, the Church, Councils, the Fathers, the Pope, miracles, natural reason. The two first are only a formal rule, the four following are only a rule of application, the seventh is extraordinary, and the eighth negative. Or, he who would reduce all these rules to a single one, would say that the sole and true rule of right-believing is the Word of God preached by the Church of God. (St. Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy [Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1989}, pp. 83-87)
More Response to Anglicanism
Here is the definition of Sola Scriptura given in the Westminster Confession:
"The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture."
The key idea is that Scripture alone is infallible, and so it is the supreme standard. We should listen to the theologians of the church, we should listen to the church fathers, we should listen to the councils, etc., but we should not trust them implicitly because they are not infallible but should ultimately rest in the judgment of the Scriptures.
It seems to me that your article agrees with this, but also says things that contradict it or call it into question. So I wonder if it is coherent. (I've noticed this coherence issue in lots of other Anglican stuff I have seen). The article says this: "Anglicanism uniquely asserts the authority of all three sources of authority while maintaining that scripture holds the highest place, leaving open the possibility for error in the teaching of the Church or even errors in the interpretation of the Fathers, but not in the Bible." But then it also says things like this: "It would be wrong to say that Protestants universally do not turn to the Fathers, since many of them do, particularly those schooled in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, but most Protestants do not see the Fathers as an authority, certainly not as one that trumps what the Holy Spirit might be saying to the individual believer or even what the Spirit might be saying to an individual church."
Let's think about this for a minute. If the Bible alone is infallible, then how much can I trust the church fathers? Can I take them very seriously? Yes. Should I be counseled by them? Yes. Should I be suspicious of my own Scriptural interpretations when they go against what many fathers have said? Yes. Should I trust the fathers implicitly when they say something I cannot see proved in Scripture? Wouldn't the answer here be no? If the fathers can be wrong, maybe they are wrong sometimes! Maybe they are wrong altogether sometimes. Fads can get established that can bring consensuses even when there is no good basis for them. For example, take the sign of the cross. All the fathers say we should do that. They all think it is a non-negotiable apostolic tradition (and they all think there are such things as non-negotiable apostolic traditions--see Basil's thoughts in Chapter 27 of his book here). But how do we know that this didn't originate in the second century or even as a custom in the first century but without any apostolic command, and so it should not be considered a divine requirement (contrary to the fathers' view)? It is not absurd to think that this might have happened. So what do we do? Do we command it (following the fathers) or not? It seems to me that, if the Bible alone is infallible, if we follow this custom and require it, we are adding to the commands of God on a flimsy basis (because we really don't have any good reason to think that the practice is apostolic, considering the other plausible possibilities--after all, Tertullian said that it was an apostolic tradition that people shouldn't take a bath for a week after being baptized and that everyone knew it, but nobody so far as I know believes that today). This is why I feel that Sola Scriptura leads much more naturally to something like Presbyterianism than to Anglicanism--to a minimalist approach to worship, etc. I didn't hold that view because I didn't care about tradition or the fathers, but because I didn't consider them infallible. The article says the authority of the fathers trumps the individual's interpretation of Scripture, but I don't see how that makes any sense on the assumption that the Bible is infallible but the fathers are not. I do see how it would make sense to defer to the fathers, in the sense of being suspicious of one's ideas when they are contrary to them; but if, in the end, after as much careful research, prayer, and thought as possible, it really seems that the Bible goes one way and the fathers another, wouldn't we go with the Bible if the Bible is infallible and the father's aren't? Wouldn't we have to go with our own interpretations, since the only alternative is to trust implicitly in those who are not to be implicitly trusted? To trust in the fathers implicitly is to treat them exactly the same as if they are infallible.
I really don't see how the Anglican position on the authority of Scripture in principle differs at all from that of the Westminster Confession. I think the idea of "Protestantism" the author describes is largely a myth invented by Anglicans who want to be distinct. Yes, sure, there are lots of uninformed Protestants who just go with "my Bible and me" in a superficial sense, but I am not aware of any Protestant tradition that would deny that great deference should be given to the fathers and church tradition. You've just read Jason Wallace's response to me. Did you notice that he told me I'd misunderstood Sola Scriptura because it doesn't mean to ignore church tradition, etc.? There's a Presbyterian telling me the same thing the Anglicans say. (And I already know it, despite everyone's insistence that I don't! That seems to be one of Sola Scriptura's main lines of defense--deny that anyone understands it so that it can escape all critique.) Everyone thinks we should defer to the fathers. Calvin was a great patristic scholar. You'll not find a more patristically-rooted book than Calvin's or Turretin's Institutes. Anglicans just aren't special here like they think they are. What seems to be special about Anglicans is that they want to have their cake and eat it too in this area. They want to affirm the Bible alone as infallible, but then to treat the fathers (or rather their own ideas of what "the fathers say" which disagrees with other people's ideas about what they say) as infallible anyway (when it suits them). The Reformed tradition is, I think, more consistent--they affirm that the Bible alone is infallible and then they actually act that way by not putting implicit trust in traditions that can't be proved from Scripture. Again, that's why they tend to be more minimalistic in worship. Or take another example: the role of bishop. It seems to me pretty indisputable that the Bible does not distinguish between bishops and elders. The terms are interchangeable (in terms of describing an office). That's why I held to presbyterian church government--episcopalian government separates bishops and elders (presbyters, priests) into two offices and puts one over the other without adequate biblical warrant. The episcopalians can claim a long tradition, going back to Ignatius of Antioch, but how do they know that their view has apostolic warrant? It may be that the apostles appointed only elders/bishops, but that soon afterwards it become customary to make a bishop above the elders. How do we know that was right? Just because the whole church quickly came to accept it in the second century doesn't prove they were right; people can go wrong in such ways easily enough. The Catholic position, of course, is that God guided the church infallibly to develop its government, but I don't see how that option is open to Anglicans. It seems it is only an open option if we grant infallible guidance to the tradition of the church, but that would contradict the Anglican belief that only the Bible is infallible. Anglicans can't very well affirm an infallible guidance of the church and its tradition because that would obviously knock them out of having any right to exist, for they are a break-off that has to insist the whole church went astray to justify their existence. If God guided the Catholic Church infallibly, they would have to have remained Catholic. Again, it seems to me that wanting to have one's cake and eat it too is a good description of the Anglican ethos overall--they want to be Catholic and have the traditions, the sense of continuity, etc., but they don't want to submit to the Catholic Church and so are forced to adopt something like Sola Scriptura and be Protestant. So they end up trying to force the two together unnaturally and incoherently. (Of course, I'm talking as if there is any actual coherent thing called "Anglicanism." I'm skeptical that there actually is, since there seems to be no universal, official Anglican view of what Anglicanism actually is--the groups you guys like differ from other parts of the Anglican movement.)
ADDENDUM 5/21/16: I talk about the Jesuit position above and the Church's views on efficacious grace and predestination. My understanding of the Church's position has changed since I wrote this, as I have come to see that the Church takes a much more specific and explicit stance in favor of Augustinian predestination and grace than I had previously thought. For more, see here and here.