Wednesday, September 23, 2009

John Calvin And The Use Of Icons

On The Well of Questions an interesting dialogue has ensued from what began with MG's take on one of my questions about icons, Scriptural authority and the seventh council. Many people responded as a result. The first comment I will list here is one of MG's examples (a classic) offered as Scriptural indication that one should venerate icons. The next will be fromDisposableSoul who had been conversing with MG on the subject in order to gain insight. In response I will be offering an exerp from John Calvin's Institutes and leaving the whole thing open for dialogue in order to gain a better grasp on the argument.

MG says: "An example of the veneration of icons is Psalm 99. In this Psalm, instructions are given to 'Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool'. The word 'footstool' seems to be talking about the Ark of the covenant, given the context (99:1 speaks of God enthroned upon the cherubim) and usage of the phrase 'footstool' elsewhere (see 1 Chronicles 28:2 'I had planned to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, for the footstool of our God'). The word for 'worship' is the same as the word in Exodus 20:5; it is talking about bowing down in front of things. So here we have instructions mandating that Israelites bow down before the Ark of the Covenant. Naturally an Orthodox Christian will want to transfer this Psalm into its Christ-revealing, New Testament meaning. The ark was a type of the cross of Christ, the tomb of Christ, and the Virgin Mary; so this Psalm is talking about bowing down to the cross and tomb of Christ, and the Virgin Mary, and worshiping the Christ who is within these."

DisposableSoul Responds: "Iconography is indeed a powerful expression of the Gospel, to be sure. I, however, never saw icons as anything worthy of veneration; to be respected, surely. Could it be that ‘footstool’ is indeed just a footstool?... Certainly the Sons of Israel revered the ark, but they worshiped the creator of the universe, not the gold and acacia that made the ark. To esteem wood and metal to the point of veneration seems, in my mind, to be in exact opposite of what scripture teaches."

MG draws our attention to the footstool or Ark of the Covenant and says that God commanded the Israelites to bow down in front of the Ark of the Covenant. From there he extends the whole thing to the necessity that we as believers do the same to the Virgin Mary and other signs because Christ is within these as well. DisposableSoul agrees that icons are a powerful expression of the Gospel but doubts whether the icons (or Ark) are to be venerated on the grounds of what MG brought up. He asks whether a "'footstool' is indeed just a footstool".

John Calvin says in his Institutes "The mercy seat from which God God manifested the presence of his power under the law was so constructed as to suggest that the best way to contemplate the divine is where minds are lifted above themselves with admiration. Indeed, the cherubim with wings outspread covered it; the veil shrouded it; the place itself deeply enough hidden concealed it; the veil shrouded it; the place itself deeply enough hidden concealed it [Ex. 25:17-12]. Hence it is perfectly clear that those who try to defend images of God and saints with the example of those cherubim are raving madmen" (Book 1 XI 3).

From what MG provides from Psalm 99 it doesn't seem as though there is any clear command by God to venerate the footstool (or the holy mountain) itself. The place where the footstool was contained was where God would on occassion make Himself known. It was the established place of worship after all. But do we have indication that the footstool itself was being venerated? Not in what MG provides. From what John Calvin provides it also seems the construction of the Ark itself leads us away from such a practice.


I realize there are other arguments offered in favor of the veneration of icons. I ask that comments be limited to this specific argument or extended to evidences that would help or dissuade one from accepting veneration of icons on the basis of Psalm 99 and Exodus.

Of Further Note

One might also consider the words of Jesus in John 4:21-24

"Jesus declared, 'Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Does The Church Have Authority?

At the Eastern Orthodox blog, The Well of Questions, blogger MG has been arguing for some time (most recently, here) that Protestants do not in fact believe that the church has any authority. Rather, we merely believe that the church has been right in those doctrines which it has affirmed at all times and in all places (the “catholic” faith) and that it is better to read the Bible in the light of tradition and the history of doctrine than in isolation. But, MG says, this only amounts to a belief that the church is accurate, not that it is authoritative. In order to be truly authoritative, MG contends that the church must have the inherent power to bind people’s consciences (in other words, an average Christian would be required to abide by the decisions of church councils and hierarchs, regardless of their personal opinion on the matter).

Why is this a problem for the Protestant? Well, frankly, for many Protestants it is no problem at all. Most evangelicals seem to assume that the “church” (which they rarely identify with any particular institution or denomination) has no authority whatsoever. The Pastor is equipped to teach his congregation because he usually knows more about the Bible (and therefore, in MG’s words, he would be more accurate in understanding it), but everyone’s opinion about Scripture is treated as equal. If a member of the congregation disagrees with the pastor there is little sense (if any) that he or she should submit to the Pastor’s judgment. And since so few evangelicals actually subscribe to any creed or confession, it becomes every person, Bible in hand, standing alone on equal interpretive ground.

Historic Protestants such as Lutheran and Reformed, however, would argue that the church does indeed have some measure of authority. Lutheran and Reformed denominations subscribe to creeds and confessions that all professing members must affirm. This is not because the creeds and confessions are believed to be infallible or on equal ground with the Bible. Rather, they are seen as binding because they were produced by official synods (or councils) of the church and are believed to accurately reflect what the Bible teaches. It is here that MG might point out my use of the word “accurately.” Indeed, we do believe that the church is accurate, but do we really believe, when the chips are down, that it has authority?

I would like to suggest that MG has set up something of a false dilemma here. It is true that Protestants do not believe that it is inherently a sin to disobey your pastor or synod, because we believe it possible that both could err. However, it does not follow from this that the church possesses no authority whatsoever. I would like to suggest that, in fact, accuracy produces authority. For example, a doctor is not inherently authoritative in medical matters because he is still human and can err in his diagnoses. However, his medical training makes him far more accurate at diagnosing, and with that accuracy comes a degree of authority over others who lack such training. We would be far wiser to accept the medical advice of a doctor over that of an accountant. This is not merely because the doctor is more accurate at diagnosing medical problems than the accountant, but because that accuracy grants the word of the doctor a level of authority that the accountant’s does not have.

This authority is a derivative authority, then, because it derives from the degree of accuracy that the church body has in interpreting Scripture (which means, of course, that the authority ultimately derives from Scripture). At this point the objection seems to be that the individual Christian is still granted a greater authority than the church, because he or she can simply choose to disobey the church if they feel that their own interpretation is better than the church’s. In such a case, however, I find it likely that the person does not truly believe that the church is accurate, let alone authoritative. If a person truly believes that his church (say, the PCA) is accurate in its interpretations of Scripture, then he ought to give her the benefit of the doubt and adopt an attitude of humility. This would be especially true for lay members of the congregation, who lack the theological training that their pastors and elders have. If a person’s conviction is unshakably strong and the issue is important enough, then they ought to concede that they do not truly believe that their church is on the whole accurate, and they should either find another church or continue to study and seek council from their elders. However, I’m confident that 99% of the time the issue can be resolved with humility. If a lay person (or even a clergyman) would simply adopt an attitude of humility and not immediately assume that they must always be right and everyone else (synod or not) be wrong, then there would be relatively few times in a person’s life where he or she would feel compelled to seriously disagree with their church.

The final question would seem to be, why should a Protestant ever adopt such a humble attitude? Why should a Protestant ever submit to a church’s decision on anything, when the church is not inherently more authoritative than the average lay person? Again, this question seems to presuppose that only an inherent authority can be real authority. But if indeed accuracy can bestow a derivative (and fallible) authority, and human beings are finite and fallen and therefore each individual cannot possibly know everything perfectly, it makes quite a lot of sense to speak of submitting to the church’s authority, even though that authority is neither inherent nor infallible.

If it is argued that the individual still has greater authority than the church because he or she can choose which church to follow and submit to in the first place, I would simply point out that the same is true for those who choose to follow either Rome or Constantinople.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Response to MG (2) On "Private Judgment"

I get the impression that we will continue to speak past each other and not see eye to eye. You limit my options too much in your first response. Only a or b? Two simple choices are not enough to adequately explain or define the terms. How about a third option: (c) only has the power to do this when its interpretation, is not at odds with Scripture or does not make something essential that is not according to what is clear in Scripture.

What is "Private Judment"?
Maybe clarity on the way I am using “private judgment” is in order. In your questions and other comments you continually make private judgment out to be one’s own authority rather than that of the Church’s so that if the individual decides (or judges) the Church is at odds with Scripture and acts accordingly, he or she is the one with the authority (at least this seems to be the implication) and more explicitly by you, the Church then has no real authority.

Your use of “private judgment” as a technical term indicating the absence of intrinsic Church authority (and the implications you also give) maybe is too misleading of a statement and I am not sure it even is a Protestant technical term (?). In fact, most protestants (a good number who are Reformed and informed) have never heard of the doctrine of “private judgment” though they understand the concept I am putting forward. Maybe an explanation on why you chose to make this a technical term would help.

In my view, private judgment is being used as a tool. If I were to see that the Church practice was at odds with Scripture, I would be using my “private judgment” to make this call. This does not mean I am correct or am not bound by true authority in any way. It is simply one of several tools used in personal decision (something that is not used exclusively by Protestants).

Private Judgment= Sola Me?
Does the act of the individual deciding whether or not a given Church has the correct interpretation (private judgment) mean he or she has now become the authority? I think your example in another post is helpful here. You used the analogy of a parent and child relationship. In your use, there are some commands that should be obeyed simply because the parent said so but also brought up an interesting exception. If the child’s parent begins acting insane, then the child may not have to obey his or her parent since the parent is not acting *as a parent*. This concept carried over to the Church in some sense.

You said: “The cases in which it is legitimate to disregard the normative force of what our parents say are when they are obviously being prevented from acting *as parents*. We can describe these as cases of “insanity”, which means severe malfunction of a person that clearly prevents them from properly using the powers vested in them by nature (such as with our biological parents) or grace (as with our spiritual parents).” Still, CLEAR indications are needed in order to properly judge them to be insane or not.

This statement is remarkable. The child or churchgoer can actually use their private judgment to decide whether or not the significant other is insane or not and by consequence whether or not he or she should obey the parent. Does this mean authority is ultimately located in the child or churchgoer? Does this idea defy either’s “intrinsic” authority?

If it is at all possible one be permitted to judge a parent or church to be insane why can’t one make a judgment call about either not aligning with Scripture? If both Sola Scriptura and Prima Scripture believe Scripture is sufficiently clear, then it seems the individual checking the Church’s claims against the final authority (Scripture) as well as what other Christians in those early years believed, could use the tools of reason and judgment to identify a counterfeit form of Church authority or rightly identify the Church’s interpretation as clearly in error.

You said: “…lets say we recognize who the leaders of the Church are, and virtually all of them get together and pronounce a judgment about what we ought to believe, and there are no signs of insanity. They appeal to earlier Church leaders and point out that the greatest teachers of the Church all agreed with the doctrine they are telling us we’re obligated to believe (call it “x”). From what we can tell, they are functioning in their roles and exercising the powers vested in them by grace. In *this situation*, should we obey them? Does the fact that I can tell with a considerable degree of confidence that “the Church said x is true” serve as a motivating reason to believe that x? I think the instructions about Church obedience in Paul’s epistles should be taken this way, even if we don’t grant the infallibility of the Church.”

Again we see the judgment of the individual come into play. He first recognizes the Church is indeed sane- considers the appeal made by the Church to what always has been believed by the Christian community and decides “yes, they do appear to be functioning in their proper roles and exercising their God-given authority.” This does not seem so unlike the route the Reformers took except they reached a different conclusion. They recognized that the Church was not living in accordance with Scripture or what the Christian community believed at all times. At least, this is what they claim to have done.

In the End...
What does all of this mean for Sola Scriptura? Well, in the context of this discussion, it seems the use of one’s private judgment does not make the person reasoning the authority but rather one using a gift from God. It also reveals what he is measuring the present church up against to be the final authority and the others derivative. In addition MG, at least in your examples it looks like a similar private judgment still abounds. It has been a joy conversing with you and I look forward to your response.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Response to MG (1) On the Perspecuity of Scripture

The following is a response to MG who commented on a post titled "Cyril of Jerusalem (2)" in addition to some other ones. I have responded to him topically and would like to see other people voice their opinions. In particular, MG seems to think the idea of "private judgment" is key to Sola Scriptura. He may also view it in opposition to Church infallibility or to a lesser degree, even the Rule of Faith.

In order to save space I will be responding to this entire post topically and not in the order of what was first said since there is a lot of overlap. Let us begin.

Church Authority
You are right to say that we do not believe the Church has an inherent authority. Instead, as Protestants we believe the Church has a derived authority from Scripture (tracing back from the apostles from Christ). Under this model does the Church have real authority? Absolutely, unless you define real authority as infallible authority. A prophet has no authority in and of himself; however he is considered an authority because he speaks the Words of God. In another sense, the Church preserving and proclaiming the Word of God has authority in a derived sense. They are not communicating their own invention but rather what they received from the apostles and the apostles from God. If they decide to teach that God is actually four persons in one, then they stop having authority since they are no longer deriving it from the Word of God and have been cut off from the source. Another way in that the Church can be authoritative is thus: someone within the Church teaches that Jesus was not God and therefore the Church can kick them out. On what grounds? The apostolic word that comes from God Himself. This apostolic word is in Scripture and reflected in the Rule of Faith.

Many Reformed Protestants point towards one tradition committed to the Church in oral form and later in written form (the apostles spoke to them and then later put words into writings). The content is identical. The Rule of Faith and Scripture. The former was written into the later.

You asked: “Why should we accept the Church’s inferences from Scripture about what the New Testament teaches, if there is nothing inherently normative about the Church’s inferences?”

Because it goes back very early to the key apostolic source and the writings we have now, it all seems to line up strongly with it. Sadly, there is no one hundred percent certainty here since our judgments themselves are not infallible and so recognizing which is the derived authority (or infallible if EO is right) is not absolutely full proof. Still, in order for the Church to hear what the apostles spoke and wrote and preserve it, she does not necessarily need to have the inherent authority within herself.

It is my belief that the Church of the first four centuries did not believe the Church in of itself was inherently authoritative (or containing infallible authority). If this is the case then it would seem as though the Church could function authoritatively without being so inherently. For this I am still in the process of research but I am open to any other Church father quotes you wish to provide here for inspection on this matter.

Private Judgment and Conscience
How does private judgment and conscience play into this?
You defined private judgment as the denial of the believers’ conscience being bound by the inherent interpretative authority of other Christians. Since this is what you meant I apologize and agree with you that we deny the Church’s inherent interpretive authority. This mostly comes from the context of the Roman Catholic Church and situations surrounding her exercise of authority. It might also apply to the EO in that we do not think the Church has the inherent authority it claims to have.

However, this outlook does not put the inherent authority in the individual believer either. Rather, he has the task of judging and searching for the inherent authority. He must decide and be held responsible accordingly. If for some reason he decides that God is actually five chimpanzees in two essences then he will be held accountable for his beliefs and judged by the Church as a heretic – or possibly a mere loon. The Church rightly judges him too because she is deriving her authority from the Word of God. There is a correct interpretation of Scripture and its essentials are clear enough that the Church and the individual believer studying within her can come to a unified understanding.

Question for clarity: are you defining private judgment in a way that puts it at the absence of Church infallibility or inherent interpretive authority?

Perspicuity to Authority?
You said: It does not follow from the perspicuity of Scripture that the Church has authority.

Again, the Church only has authority in a derivative sense. Its authority comes from the apostolic and prophetic word (contained in Scripture). The idea is that God is communicating His very Words (which are infallible) in Scripture in order to bring about the salvation of the world. He wants to be understood and has made Himself clear enough.

Here is where perspicuity interacts with the Rule of Faith (two ways you can go):

1) People hear or read these words and understand them well enough to give their lives to God, and that all of these people are in agreement on these essential matters (Rule of Faith). They may express the exact same ideas in different words but the content is all the same more or less. Because the content is identical to the apostolic word, the authority is derivative.

2) The apostles communicate orally what ought to be believed and then write their words down as well in a manner that is understandable. The people listen, understand it and pass it on – checking the writings the apostles gave them and even checking with the apostles themselves while they were alive. The content is the same. Because the content is identical to the apostolic word the authority is derivative.

The idea I am trying to express here is that the Church’s authority is derived from the apostolic word and that this word ultimately coming from God is the source of understandable authority.

Patristics and SS
What indication does one need from the Church fathers in order to accept SS and reject RC or EO on a merely patristic basis?

So far as my studies have taken me (and I still have a long way to go), it seems the following are needed for SS:

 Indication that Scripture and Tradition are not mutually exclusive ideas in the early period of the Church (same content).
 The material sufficiency of Scripture.
 The ultimate authority of Scripture.
 The formal sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture.
 Maybe the self-interpreting nature of Scripture.
 An absence of a widely held belief in Church infallibility.

I think the first four centuries are the best place to start because they are more near to the apostles. There are other conditions that need to be in stone in order to accept an EO or RC model, but for now I think it is enough to cast serious doubt on their positions if one can not find a clear indication of a belief in Church infallibility within these early periods.

Specific Questions and concerns:
1) I said: “If you want to just talk about whether interpretations are inherently normative to bind consciences go for it. I have yet to see anything unambiguous out of the early church fathers or anything convincing by ways of reason…even less so from Scripture.”

You said: I’m just trying to show that your quotes do not exclusively support SS. I think that when we supplement the quotes that you give with quotes that affirm the binding authority of hierarchs’ judgments, and the infallibility of the Creed, the infallibility of the Ecumenical Councils, etc. we get the conclusion that the Fathers taught Prima Scriptura, not Sola Scriptura. I will continue to argue for this slowly but surely.

Yes, some of the quotes may be elements needed for another Tradition model. These quotes are aimed at supporting SS (this includes these) and ultimately dismantling the claim that SS is unhistorical or without Church father support – an invention of the Reformers. If all of the essential elements of SS are in place and there is an absence of early support for Church infallibility, then the critique might cut the other way.

2) I said: “Rather, the expectation is that if an individual studies the Scriptures he will gain what he needs for salvation because the Scriptures have what is needed…this same thing will also be reflected in the Rule of Faith. For those who are illiterate and unable to study the Scriptures a summary creed was provided in line with what everyone else agreed the Scriptures said was needed for salvation.”

You said: Okay, perhaps, but how does any of that show that Cyril denied the normativity of some interpretations of Scripture?

So far, I suspect there are no unambiguous texts from the early periods of the Church that support Church infallibility or the infallibility of her interpretations. One does not need a quote denying it from a given period if the concept did not exist yet. This would be on your end to support and mine to consider.

3) You said: The specific doctrinal formulation of the Rule of Faith is not contained in Scripture, which does not state the words that Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others used. Surely the words are distinct, even if the concepts are the same.

Yes, but the concept is what we are looking at. If it said something different from what Scripture claimed then we might have to choose between the two. But that might cause problems for the two of us – we might have to acknowledge a more Roman Catholic two-source tradition concept or, if the two are actually at odds with one another (it not being confirmed in Scripture as Cyril says) then we might suppose that we have been given a fraudulent Rule or Faith or that somehow the Word of God (in whatever form that might take) is not understandable (this goes for oral tradition and church statements as well) and perhaps God does not wish to be known in any significant way.

4) You said: “The fact that the specific words are not in the Scriptures means there are two distinct things that may or may not be authoritative: Scriptural teaching that is conceptually identical to the Rule of Faith, and the doctrinal formulation of the Rule of Faith itself.

Even if you agree with the concepts taught in the Rule of Faith, and think they are authoritatively taught in the Bible, this doesn’t entail that you think the *specific formulation* of these concepts in the Rule of Faith is inherently authoritative. So there is a distinction between the Rule of Faith and Scripture, even though there is no opposition."

Either way, the Rule of Faith is derivative. They are not the very words of the apostles. The concepts within are authoritative in a derivative sense. Maybe this might be one way to look at the practice of the individual when interpreting Scripture: he uses several tools at his disposal including his reason (something even one from a high church uses) as he participates with the Christian community when looking at the text. Keep this in mind while considering Luther's statement about there being no salvation outside of the Church. Not all interpretations are equal and on key matters we have no excuse because these things are clear to all.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

John Chrysostom

The Perspicuity and Formal Sufficiency of Scripture

“All things are clear and open that are in the divine Scriptures; the necessary things are all plain. But because ye are hearers for pleasure's sake, for that reason also you seek these things. For tell me, with what pomp of words did Paul speak? and yet he converted the world. Or with what the unlettered Peter? But I know not, you sub the things that are contained in the Scriptures. Why? For are they spoken in Hebrew? Are they in Latin, or in foreign tongues? Are they not in Greek? But they are expressed obscurely, you say: What is it that is obscure? Tell me.”

-John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Second Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, Homily 3.