Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Only one John can be correct!

A searching challenge to my last post was made in this comment which I reproduce in full:

"Dear Peter

Disagreements on this site exemplify the problem with your reduction to Scripture as the supreme, final authority on matters of faith and practice. Such reduction is little more than wishful thinking – how you might like to organise things if you were God.

Christians using the Bible as their final authority are in disagreement about everything except that the Bible is the supreme, final authority on matters of faith and practice! They disagree on basics like who to baptise and how, who leads communion and what it means, what in the Bible is historical and what is metaphorical, and how to apply teachings concretely in areas of money, sex, politics, economics, war,… In short, there is no thing where Christians agree on what the Bible teaches. Far from being a positive argument, yours is the strongest argument against the Protestant approach (Shawn’s attempt to make all others into his own image notwithstanding). 

You have just powerfully demonstrated the inadequacy of Protestantism. And worse, if your equation can be read in both directions, you have just powerfully demonstrated the inadequacy of your God.



Excellent responses have been made by MichaelA. Here I have my own go ...

I am going to set aside this statement, "there is no thing where Christians agree on what the Bible teaches." which strikes me as a heat of the comment assertion which is obviously false. There is plenty Christians agree on which is taught in the Bible.

The serious charge within the comment is whether 'my' view which by implication is a or even the 'Protestant' view is nonsense: "such reduction is little more than wishful thinking"; worse "how you might like to organise things if you were God"; worst "you have just powerfully demonstrated the inadequacy of your God".

Further, with "everything" substituted with the phrase "many things", the following is a quite fair description of Protestant reality: "Christians using the Bible as their final authority are in disagreement about [many things] except that the Bible is the supreme, final authority on matters of faith and practice!"

My response

Wishful thinking?

Is it wishful thinking to take John 1:18 as a cue for thinking about Scripture? I suggest the debate over John 1:18 is whether it is a true statement or not; then, if it is a true statement, what are the implications of the statement.

As best I can tell, Christians are agreed that John 1:18 is a true statement. My question is then to ask whether Christians (Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox) have then pursued the implication of the statement for our understanding of the texts we have agreed are Scripture.

Indeed, that question is the great Protestant question to other Christians, but particularly to the Roman Catholic church with its claims of two revelations from God, 'Scripture' and 'Tradition' (noting an observation made to the post below in a comment by Alison). Turning John's question in a Roman direction, Is there a basis, an authority from God for making the Roman claim about Tradition as a separate revelation? Is this also 'wishful thinking' on the part of Roman theology?

At best the basis for such claim itself lies in Scripture, with its words about Petrine authority and apostolic authority, about the Holy Spirit's role in teaching the church. A Protestant point about Scripture as supreme, final authority is that even when Christians disavow such a claim, it is hidden within the theology of the disavowers!

Importantly, for my argument in the post below, and overlooked (it seems to me) by commenter John is that John 1:18 implies the final authority of Scripture on matters of faith and practice as those matters of faith and practice respond to Jesus Christ as the full revelation of God. Far from 'wishful thinking' I am simply trying to follow the logical implications of John 1:18.

If my logic is wrong, it is wrong. But the matter (as I have posted it) has nothing to do with wishful thinking. Other 'Protestant' arguments about Scripture may involve wishful thinking. Mine involves logic. Is my logic wrong?

Nevertheless, commenter John makes a good point (in my words): suppose the logic of Peter's argument re John 1:18 and scripture is accepted, it has not led to mutually agreed submission to the authority of Scripture, just to debates and divisions over the meaning of Scripture, so what is God up to by proceeding in the way he apparently has?

Inadequacy of God?

At first sight this seems like quite a compelling objection, particularly if we omit discussion of alternatives. Here is why I do not find it compelling.

1. My focus, on Scripture as the revelation of God in and through Jesus Christ, ties Scripture to Jesus Christ. If we think of Jesus as an outcome of the 'organisation' of God then how did that work out when Jesus lived and taught on earth?

Not too well! What he said was misunderstood (even by his disciples), opposed (by religious leaders he considered should have known better) and capable of diversity in the remembering (four gospels).

That is, if Scripture and the divisions which ensue among its readers imply that in Scripture God has offered a flawed way of speaking to the church of God and that this reflects badly on God, is the situation any the worse for the plan of God to speak to us through Jesus of Nazareth?

2. The comment made by John could (in my reading) be the comment of an atheist (i.e. highlighting general weaknesses in the Christian case for God, "Look! How inadequate your God is, because ...") or it could be the comment of a fellow Christian with an alternative commitment to authority in the church (e.g. as a Roman Catholic or as an Eastern Orthodox) and thus the comment focuses on an apparently Protestant set of weaknesses: "Look! How inadequate the Protestant view of God is ... (with some implied superiority of another or other view(s) of God)". Here I am going to assume the latter and not the former. That is, I am going to ask in response: are alternative views of Scripture and the God of Scripture better than a Protestant 'full, supreme authority' view, measured by the criterion of division?

(Since writing the above paragraph I have realised a very long answer is possible, indeed necessary, so, causa brevitatis, the next few sentences are an outline not an essay).

1. Other approaches to authority in respect of belief have not saved the church from division: Rome and Constantinople split in 1054.

2. Other approaches to authority/belief can obscure hidden division: e.g. many Roman Catholics simply do not follow Rome's teaching on contraception. No division as in 'schism' has occurred; but the practice of daily life is divided from the abstraction of Humanae Vitae. A virtue of Protestantism is that schisms reveal actuality of belief and practice rather than obscuring it.

3. Other approaches to authority/belief can cover over corruption in leadership: for several hundred years Rome has had non-corrupt Popes (good!) but that should not obscure the historical fact that commitment to papacy as a model of authority to ensure good leadership has not guaranteed sound leadership. The Reformation was triggered by a deep theological corruption which tied the selling of indulgences to the costs of building a splendid church in Rome. If we head East we note that the great virtues of Eastern Orthodoxy concerning unchanging doctrine, guarded by bishops and patriarchs has not saved Orthodox churches from arrogant, high-handed episcopal leadership.

4. More importantly for the approach I am taking, vesting the authority of Scripture in the authority of Christ, the question before us is less about whose or which authority and much more about where is the true source of revelation from God for the church today. On this matter all roads lead back to Scripture. For the claim, for example, that Tradition is a second source of revelation, the backing or basis of it lies within Scripture and its testimony to the authority Christ gave the apostles re binding and loosing. The debate between the two Christian streams which place most weight on Tradition, Rome and Constantinople, is most sharply divided over the procession of the Holy Spirit. In the end, this is a debate about what Scripture says and not what Tradition says.

But in which church or set of churches lies the greatest freedom to explore what truth is? Here the risk factor of Protestant division needs to be weighed alongside the freedom of Christians to think publicly about difficult matters. Again, we can easily forget as we admire Rome's doctrinal unity (and, by the way, I do admire it) that Rome has flip-flopped through the centuries on important matters of truth. One day Galileo is consigned to doctrinal outer darkness, the next he is hailed as a true scientist. Almost in living memory Rome proscribed against 'critical biblical scholarship' (at the beginning of the 20th century) and a few decades later reversed the interdict. Key theologians at Vatican 2 just a few years previously had had their teaching licences suspended.

Disagreement among Christians?

There is a lot of disagreement among Protestant Christians, including those invoking the authority of Scripture: agreed, accepted, acknowledged. But there is also a lot of agreement. The experience of many Protestants working together in gospel mission is that what we agree on (Jesus is Lord and Saviour, God is gracious, believers together constitute the body of Christ, etc) outweighs what we disagree on. Together we (say) study at a non-denominational theological college, acclaim the works of international scholars (or dispute them from shared presuppositions), cherish saints and heroes of the faith, and, most importantly, say the Nicene Creed together.

Only one John, commenter or gospel writer, can be correct. What do you think?

Tuesday a.m.: am publishing what is written to date ... may revise as time allows.


Father Ron Smith said...

Yours, Peter, with all due respect, is the perfect defence of the 'Sola Scriptura' school of theology. It belongs to those who could deny the place of revelation through Christ and his presence in His Church of today.

Because mine is an evolving understanding of God's interaction with God's world today, I have to align myself with those who have believe that God has not ceased 'speaking to the Church' - through the Holy Spirit - to us today and into the future.

This does not deny that Jesus, the Christ, is the source of ALL truth (vide his statement, from Scripture: "I AM the Way, The Truth, and I AM Life"; but rather; to acknowledge that Jesus is still with us, through the witness of His Church, to bring "Good News", (and not bad).

Jesus cannot be confined to the scriptures. However, His ways have been made known to us through the Scriptures - "In the beginning". Nevertheless, we need the ongoing teaching of the Holy Spirit to inform us on our journey towards integration with His Father.

None of the current teaching of Jesus through the Holy Spirit will deny the efficacy or veracity of His message in Scripture. However, the Spirit is still needed for a contextual interpretation, today.

The Word has become flesh, and still dwells among us - "full of grace and truth!" Deo gratias!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron
Let me respond by saying thank you for the (flattering) use of the word 'perfect' to describe my post!

Then by saying where I agree with you. Namely, "the Spirit is still needed for a contextual interpretation, today." A role of the Holy Spirit is to inspire the writing of Scripture; another role is to illuminate its meaning.

I think a key point of difference between us is the nature of the Spirit speaking to us today: 1. is that speaking a new revelation or a new understanding of the familiar revelation? 2. how do we know what the Spirit is saying today? (You are more confident than I am that an individual can make that discernment!)

Anonymous said...

I share our concern, Peter, with the idea that we can be confident that we are accurately hearing the voice of Jesus in his church today.

Some years ago a Pentecostal pastor friend confidently shared with me his 'word from the Lord' about what Christ was calling me to do. Unfortunately, this word did not coincide in any way with my own sense of call from the Lord. Was I right? Was he right? And how were we to know?

This, of course, was a matter of individual guidance, not of new understandings of scripture meant to be shared with the whole church. Personally, I don't disagree that those new understandings of the original revelation can take place. I'm just very sceptical about the process by which we 'weigh' them, to hold fast to what is good.

Father Ron Smith said...

" (You are more confident than I am that an individual can make that discernment!)"

Not really, Peter. I agree that no one person - as different from, say, Saint Paul in N.T. times - in the Church today can claim sole unique understanding of "Whatt the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church.

However, I do believe that "Where two or three are gathered together in Christ's name" - Jesus can still be 'in the midst' to teach and to inform an interpretation of the scriptures that has immediate relevance in our situation.

I. too, like 'tachesterton' here,
have noted the misleadings of individual pentecostal people who claim to have 'the mind of The Lord', which can turn to disaster for those to whom it is delivered.

I am mindful of the biblical "It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to US." But 'words of knowledge' is one of the spiritual gifts. It just has to be verified in the assembly of the Church catholic.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the 'tachesterton' moniker, Ron - I've started using my Wordpress account to sign in, and that's my blog address there. But believe me, it's me.

Tim Chesterton

Father Ron Smith said...

Good to know that, Tim. I'm glad we are at agreement on more than one issue.

By the way, Tim Stevens, the bishop of Leicester, features on a BBC interview with Andrew Brown, on 'The Death of the C. of E.' - appearing in my last post on kiwianglo)

Agape, Fr. Ron

Anonymous said...

I have never met a hardcore Liberal who was capable of discerning the Spirit in the first place. So how can they possibly know what the Spirit is saying? Discernment is a spiritual practice that is, outside the Charismatic renewal, a lost art in the AC, and totally ignored by Liberals.

It is not the Spirit who is calling for homosexual marriage, it is a political ideology.

Liberal politics is not the voice of the Holy Spirit, and Ron's notion of new revelations is not held by any church, including the RC and Orthodox churches, neither of which are Sola Scriptura.

Progressive, evolutionary revelation is an invention of Liberal theology, and has nothing to do with the ongoing work of the Spirit.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I have received a Word of the Lord, either personally or from someone else, it has always been a blessing. Yes, gifts can be misused, but so can the work of the Spirit when it is claimed that the Spirit is contradicting His own words in Scripture.

Using the Holy Spirit as a cover for Liberal politics has been a disaster for the Church.

MichaelA said...

"1. Other approaches to authority in respect of belief have not saved the church from division: Rome and Constantinople split in 1054."

Or the First Great Schism in the 5th Century AD - the Oriental Orthodox Churches split from the rest of the Church. To this day, the Oriental Orthodox generally do not have communion with the Eastern Orthodox or with Rome.

Father Ron Smith said...

"I have never met a hardcore Liberal who was capable of discerning the Spirit in the first place. So how can they possibly know what the Spirit is saying?"

There is no natural equivalence in the two parts of your sentence here. And anyway, the fact that YOU haven't met a 'hardcore liberal' who was capable of discerning the spirit, does not rule out the fact that such a person may actually exist.

A non-sequitur should never be used to try to prove a point.

Anonymous said...

"Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Note that: "speech of God as it is put down in writing"

Not a mere guide. Not merely a "mystical guide"

Not partially the Word of God, but all of it fully.

The Word of God written.

ALL branches of the Church, Eastern, Roman and Sola Scriptura Protestants are in agreement. Scripture is the Word of God written, and both foundational to, and regulative of, God's special revelation through Jesus Christ.

The relation between Scripture and Tradition may differ in each, but all accept the Bible as foundational and absolutely necessary to revelation.

Evolutionary revelation with the Bible reduced to a mere guide and the surrounding culture elevated to a source of authority, is a recent liberal invention that has nothing to do with the catholic tradition as Ron claims.

The divide in the Church is not between the catholic tradition and sola scripture, but between the sola scriptura/scripture and tradition majority against a minority of largely Western, urban, academically trained liberals in the tradition of Spong, Cupitt and Geering.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
1. Please give your name; especially if you wish to make cheap wisecracks
2. Don't make cheap wisecracks here.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron,
Thank you for your comment beginning, "Peter, I know there are very few commenters on your blog of the same or similar views as mine,"

I am happy to receive it as a personal message to me, a challenge to the fairness of my moderation.

I am not happy to publish it in full as it does nothing to constructively aid "issues" focused conversation here.

I take exception to your charge that I favour views to which I am sympathetic and fail to moderate them.

A cursory glance across many moderated comments (if not comments complaining about my moderation) would show that I am accused on all sides of favouring those from other sides. Perhaps that is a sign that I am fair on some occasions!

What I am trying to moderate is not views on issues, but views on commenters.

Moderating views on commenters is tricky.

I can easily spot (say) "X is an ignorant bigot".

I readily admit to failing to spot the subtlety of "Y cites Barth, Bultmann and Brunner in response to the claim that such and such is the way to solve the issue at hand. But in doing so Y fails to see that he demonstrates his lack of a sound theological education." [The first sentence is "issues", the second sentence is "personal": it could have been expressed, "But in doing so I wonder if a better understanding would be reached if we also considered the views of Bauckham.")

My challenge is a moderator is sometimes to find the time to redact a comment of the second kind so that the first sentence is published and not the second ...

Father Ron Smith said...

Peter, I do appreciate the facility you have given us on ADU to discuss theological matters in the Church at large.

I'm sorry if I cause you more trouble than others, that is not my deliberate intention. I will try to engage only with those comments, and commenters, that I consider worth engaging with in the future. I am not interested in mere points-scoring for the sake of it. Our common life in Christ is much to important for that.

I hope your new home is comfortable by now. Agape, Ron