Monday, January 18, 2016

Some Concerns about Anglicanism

During our transition period (Summer of 2015) as we were deciding whether or not to become Catholic, I had some correspondence with some others who were considering Anglicanism, and those conversations helped me as I was trying to wade through the merits of the claims of the various Christian traditions--Presbyterianism, Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, Catholicism, etc.  In the context of that conversation, I wrote out some concerns I have regarding Anglicanism.  I've already posted these elsewhere on the blog, but I wanted to give them their own post as well.  There are two parts to what is laid out below, corresponding to two different emails I wrote.  The main problems with Anglicanism I deal with are how Anglicanism can justify itself as a "break-off" denomination--that is, as a new institution coming into being in the sixteenth century by means of breaking off from a previously-accepted Roman Catholic Church and tradition--and my observation that Anglicanism seems to take a "have your cake and eat it too" mentality when it comes to how to think about the authority of Scripture and tradition.  They like to see themselves, sometimes, as having a more sophisticated version of Sola Scriptura than other Protestants (like Presbyterians), but I question whether there is really anything there besides rhetorical fluff.

Since these were written as emails, they sometimes use the second person to address those to whom I was writing.

For more on similar issues and on criticisms of Anglicanism, see here and here.  Also, while I'm here, I should mention that another Protestant who has taken an approach to Sola Scriptura similar to Anglicanism is Keith Mathison.  He has written a number of things trying to show that one of the major Catholic objections to Sola Scriptura--that it makes us ultimately to rely on our own personal interpretations of Scripture over and against the rest of the Church--is a straw-man argument, and that Sola Scriptura doesn't in fact throw us back onto an ultimate reliance on personal interpretation.  Here is an example of his writing.  Here is an excellent response to it from the Catholic point of view, showing, I think very well, clearly, and conclusively, that Mathison's distinction between a more sophisticated "Sola Scriptura" and a sillier, more individualistic "Solo Scriptura" has no real substance to it, but that Mathison's position is really just a way of articulating Sola Scriptura that tries (not necessarily intentionally, of course) to mask the ultimate reliance on personal interpretation of the Bible that Sola Scriptura necessarily implies.

Part I

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.

Part II

This is a useful article for explaining the Anglican point of view. [The article referred to is here.] As such, it provides a nice foundation for some questions to be asked and some critique.

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.)

ADDEMDUM 1/18/16:  I just wrote up another response to someone today asking my opinion of Keith Mathison's position on Sola Scriptura (which is basically the same as the Anglican desire to "have their cake and eat it too" in terms of the authority of Scripture and tradition).  I thought my main criticism came out pretty well, so I thought I'd paste it here:

What articulations like Keith Mathison's seem designed to avoid, however, is the recognition that when all is said and done, when we've done all our research, listened to the traditions, the Fathers, the councils, and the theologians, our ultimate reliance has to be on our own personal biblical interpretations.  Sola Scriptura must mean that if the whole church thinks the Bible says X, but, after extremely careful consideration I am convinced it says Y, I have to go with Y over X.  I have to go with my own interpretation over everyone else's.  The only alternative to this is to put implicit faith in the traditions of the church, to treat them as if they are infallible, which is to give up Scripture as the sole ultimate rule of faith.  People like Keith Mathison seem to want to have their cake and eat it too--affirm Sola Scriptura, while at the same time refusing to own up to the full implications of it.

In the end, I think that Sola Scriptura cannot end up doing anything different than its founder, Martin Luther, did, who was prepared to stake everything on his own personal interpretation of Scripture, no matter what popes or councils or Church Fathers or traditions or historic customs opposed him.

ADDENDUM 6/30/16:  See this dialogue concerning the claims of Anglicanism I have just written up.

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