Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Response to Luther’s assertion; Can the Truth we believe be discovered by reason alone

"Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."
Von Balthasar makes an interesting observation on the effects of the reformation in which he claims that the reformation made legitimate religion based primarily on reason not Apostolic authority. Hence the need for the primacy of a written scripture which could be used to as case law to legitimize or condemn ideas and denominations. This took the power out of the hands of the clerics and placed into the hands of … the educated.
[If anyone thinks the correct answer is ‘the laity’ see me after class! Though that is what we have been told.]
The tools and power of the reformation lie in the ability to critically analyze text. This skill is only developed in Universities. The common person in those times could not do this; the common person today can not do this. [See Biblical Interpretation in Crisis; Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger]. The claim that scripture is revelation becomes hollow when the text is subject to this kind of rational analysis.
“If Rudolph Bultmann used the philosophy of Martin Heidegger as a vehicle to represent the biblical word, then that vehicle stands in accord with his reconstruction of the essence of Jesus' message. But was this reconstruction itself not likewise a product of his philosophy? How great is its credibility from a historical point of view? In the end, are we listening to Jesus, or to Heidegger, with this kind of an approach to understanding?” [Ratzinger/Benedict]
In the final analysis the interpretive philosophy becomes the revelation with the text simply a vehicle with no meaning of its own. Scripture alone is a meaningless phrase.
Because of this the end result of the reformation was to push people away from each other and the push God away from the people. The reaction within Protestantism is polarization. On the one hand the Jesus seminar, John Shelby Spong liberals for whom Christianity is an academic curiosity, on the other the many mostly conservative bible churches which exist because most know that Christianity is something more than curious. It is noteworthy that this polarization continues in the bible church denominations with a split between the revelation based Pentecostal’s and the reason based evangelicals. This polarization is the result of people seeking God with no clear direction or boundaries. They find the edges.
At the heart of the protestant problem is the question of authority which manifests in polarization. Is reason primary or revelation? Modernism sought to answer the question by claiming the answer was reason [Boundary 1]. The post-modern response was “how can this be so?” “Look at reasons limits!”. [Post-Modernism finds the other boundary!]
The reformation was really the renaissance occurring in the church and the renaissance laid the foundation for modernism by elevating reason above revelation Protestantism is a child of modernism and as such contains in its doctrines all of the assumptions common to the modern paradigm. I will not list them all here but only comment that one of the more difficult for Christianity is the dis-belief in miracles. For a protestant theologian or philosopher to believe in miracles they must step outside their modern based [reformation based] model. They must borrow from something else; eastern mystics, Catholic theology, whatever. They find no support in their own backyard because of the modern foundation. Hence the tendency of Pentecostal churches to charge headlong into errors which have long since been settled. [Though this is changing see Thinking in Tongues article in First things March or April issue]. Evangelicals do not even bother. They claim all revelation is found in scripture and that is it. Once again the drift is to the edge and to extremes.

So, back to Luther; His question was one of authority. Look at the statement above. He demands that the proofs and arguments must meet his criteria. Since they did not he will not retract. What he is really saying is that he will not believe. He will not believe that the Apostolic Church hands on the teachings of Christ. He believes that the teachings of Christ can be ascertained through textual analysis and philosophical inquiry. To Luther Christianity was an academic endeavor. The Church was right to condemn his teaching because he was wrong, the Truth we believe can not be discovered by reason alone.


TheGhost said...

Sweet post, Germanicus

David Peterson said...

As a pastor of a Reformation Church (roots in the Evangelical Synod) I agree with you that one of the paths Reformation churches have taken is that of making a magisterium of the guild. This is certainly the case among the liberal oldline, at least unofficially (the pastors tend to follow every new trend).

But this is not the case with every church, and in fact I think we're seeing what Luther envisioned come to pass. He held that if people had the Bible in their own language (something Rome forbade in Luther's day) many of them would read the Bible for themselves and reject the false teachings of their pastors. Something we see today. Oldline churches continue to decline the more they deviate from Scripture and churches which hold more closely to Scripture grow.

Here is the quote from Luther:
"If the laymen read the Scriptures, the preachers would have to study so that they would not be reproved and overcome [from Scripture by the laymen]...."


"Human authorities and teachers have decreed and ordained that the judging of doctrine should be restricted to the bishops and learned and councils... Christ takes the opposite stand ... and instead gives it to each individual Christian and all of them collectively when He says, John 10:4: 'My sheep know My voice,' likewise v. 5: 'A stranger will My sheep not follow ... Bishops, Pope, the learned, and everyone has power to teach, but the sheep are to judge whether they teach the voice of Christ or the voice of strangers ... Therefore we let the bishops and councils resolve and decree what they will; but where we have God's Word before us, it is for us to decide, and not for them whether their teaching is right or wrong; and they shall let us rule and shall obey our word" (St. L. X:1540 quoted in F. Pieper).
(St.L. IX:1235 f., quoted F. Pieper).

I think Luther was essentially right. The Bible remains a brute fact that will not go away. Various forms of historical criticism, demythologizing, etc. will come and go but the Word of God in Scripture will stand and churches will either stand strong on that word or be broken by it (for ultimately this inscripturated word mediates the Word who is the stone upon which we stand or are broken).

As you can see, I am an old-fashioned Protestant who adheres to the Scripture principle (A good modern articulation of this position is Kevin VanHoozer's "The Drama of Doctrine")--but I can appreciate many of the commonalities I have with you RC folk.

God's best to you!

Germanicus said...

Thanks for the response Dave,
Feel free to disagree you are good friend.

I mentioned a First Things article titled Thinking in Tongues. I will make a copy and send it to you. He articulates something that I have been trying to grasp for awhile. The similarity between formal RC theology and informal Pentecostal theology; That both are based on the expectation that God will do something extraordinary. From the RC perspective this occurs during every Mass when the elements become the body and blood of Christ. For Pentecostals it occurs in every worship service when the congregation becomes the in-filled body of Christ. I am of course generalizing but the idea is that is should be normative that God moves. Anyway I thought you would find it interesting.


Malcolm XYZ said...

let's not forget that Luther discovered a reading of the Apostle Paul that really really needed to be rediscovered, one that not only made Jesus' message available in a new way but also made it available at all to many people at the time. we should keep in mind also that every culture, whether it be 8th century Byzantium or 19th century China, is going to take the Gospel message as it can and will do so through its own lense. The Renaissance was the Renassance and Luther is a product of it.

I was also stuck by your use of the term Apostolic Church. Having been an amateur ("Lover" cf. amo, amas, amat) student of the early church for some time, I am convinced that the Roman See was only one among several, and had no greater authority than the others. If you can prove me wrong, please do. If we turn to arguments about references to Peter in the new testament and his connection to Rome and see this as proof that the Aposolic Church does hold and held the only worth while interpretation, then I would remind you that Rome was the administrative seat of the empire. Finding it central in 1st century texts is no more strange and surprising than seeing New York city as the center of the Jazz world in the 1950s and 1960s. That was just the city where things happened, and it does not mean jazz can't be made elsewhere or that Jesus was a Roman Catholic. sorry to sound harsh, but sometimes we gotta' call it like we see it.

Joshua 24:15 said...

Didn't the Catholic Church essentially decide what is meant by Sacred Scripture? How can one claim to follow the "brute fact that will not go away" when the only reason it's considered inspired by God, is that the Church decreed it many centuries before Luther's birth?
Seems to me that the "scripture only" theologies are kind of like taking a picture of yourself dunking a basketball, but denying the real "brute fact" that you were standing on a ladder....

David Peterson said...

Joshua 24:15 said:
"Didn't the Catholic Church essentially decide what is meant by Sacred Scripture?"

As a Reformation Christian I can appreciate this RC perspective. However, the Reformation Christian would say that ultimately God decided what is Sacred Scripture and the church merely received a word imposed upon it.

Scripture (from a Reformation perspective) is self-authenticating.

But I agree that the church receives that word and passes it on, and I am indebted to the church as my mother. Here I'm in agreement with the magisterial reformers (Luther, Calvin, etc.) over against Protestants of the low church variety.

Many practitioners of the historical-critical method seek to undermine the teaching of Scripture but fail to realize that any interpretation that goes against the plain sense meaning won't last. It takes too much work to maintain that perspective. What will remain 100 or 200 years from now is Scripture and so it is best to put forth interpretations that further the understanding of Scripture. Only these interpretations will last.

This is what I meant by the brute fact of Scripture. Interpretations come and go but the text will remain.

God's very best to you!

Joshua 24:15 said...

David, thanks for your comments-- I appreciate the exchange.

I guess I'm not sure what "self-authenticating" means. It sounds to me like an unnecessarily fancy term to justify the denial of 2000 years of Church authority and Apostolic succession, as if the Canon fell from the sky one day. It didn't.

I know it's unlikely either of us will suddenly join another faith, and I've still got a lot to learn about the Church. So far, my topline reaction is that a lot of "reformers" have jettisoned the parts of Christianity they didn't (or don't) like, for various reasons.

Thanks again for your input on the blog-- it's fun to debate and learn things all at the same time.

d.peterson said...

joshua 24:15,

You're right we probably won't change each other's minds.

Church authority and apostolicity for Protestants mean conformity to the teaching of the apostles (as found in the New Testament--see Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent)so Protestants don't see themselves denying these things.

Instead they see themselves as rejecting aspects of the tradition that stand in contradiction to the apostolic witness.

Scripture is magisterial and tradition is ministerial. This is based on the conviction that in these last days God has spoken his final Word in his Son (Hebrews) and appointed witnesses (the 1st century apostles).

Protestants see no need for further revelation in the way RC people view it (assumption of Mary and stuff like that). In the past God spoke through the prophets but today he has spoken in Son and his apostles bear witness. (Charismatic gifts of prophecy add no new dogmas).

I think recent Catholic dogmas (like the assumption of Mary) have created a new barrier to church unity even as there has been progess on the doctrine of justification (see the Joint Declaration with the Lutheran World Federation).

God's grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Joshua 24:15 said...

OK. There might be a fair amount of space between us, but I do appreciate and respect your talents and Christian brotherhood. Thanks again for the dialogue.

Germanicus said...


"we should keep in mind also that every culture, whether it be 8th century Byzantium or 19th century China, is going to take the Gospel message as it can and will do so through its own lense. The Renaissance was the Renassance and Luther is a product of it."

What you are arguing is relativism. That absolute truth can only be known through the lens of personal perception. That is not what Luther was trying to argue. To be sure he introduced more of the “subject’ into exegesis than other before him, but that certainly does not lead to his rejecting the absoluteness of the gospel.
My thesis is that Luther argued for the subjective authority of the individual over but not necessarily against the objective authority of Rome; While Catholics maintain the objective authority of Rome over but not against the subjective authority of the individual.
We [Catholics] really do take seriously apostolic succession. We believe that Christ passed on His authority to the Apostles who in turn preserved it and passed it on. Some it was written down. Some of it was not. The part that is written is called Sacred Scripture and part that was not is Sacred Tradition. Both make up what we call the deposit of faith.

Germanicus said...

I agree with your assertion that not all bible churches have fallen into historio/critical interpretive trap and all that comes with it. I know ELCA [Luther] and BGC [Bethel] have. It was the price Bethel had to pay in order to be “taken seriously”. The evangelical movement as a whole is heading in this direction.
I still maintain that neither modernism nor post-modernism will accommodate faith in Christ. The best option is Pentecostal [perhaps my memory is too short] but then it’s hit or miss and the theology is horrible!
As far as the sheep hearing the shepherd I also agree. The Church has not always acknowledged the concept of sensus fidelium as she should. On the other hand I think my kids often feel that I do not consider their opinions often enough. I suppose it depends on the people and their sense and of course not all bishops are good men just like not all 12 disciples were good men. But it sounds like what you are talking about in you response is the sense of the faithful. That the Holy Spirit not only speaks to the leaders but to the sheep;
“Christ . . . fulfills this prophetic office, not only by the hierarchy . . . but also by the laity. He accordingly both establish them as witnesses and provide them with the sense of the faith [sensus fidei] and the grace of the word” CCC 904

And again in CCC 907
"In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, [lay people] have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons."
So, you see it is not as defined as one would think.

I have no problem with scripture being self authenticating. After all that is how the Church recognized the gospel of Luke as being inspired and the gospel of Thomas or Mary Magdalene as not. But even so it can not be denied that the Church produced scripture not the other way around.

David Peterson said...

I think we are agreement about Scripture (at least the New Testament--the inclusion of the duetero-canoncial books is another matter I'm sure).

Again, I have no problem saying that the church is my mother, and even that outside the church there is no salvation. (Of course we define the church differently.)

On the misuse of the historical-critical method: this problem has not been confined to Protestants.
I remember that Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio was rife with this in the 1980's such that it had a reputation for its liberal theology and its lax attitude towards homosexual acting out(It gets named in the book "Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption Into the Catholic Church").

Catholics have not been immune to the destructive power of unbelief. RC polity has not kept the church from experiencing the destructive power of unfaithfulness.

But I rejoice in the ascendancy of Pope Benedict XVI and his teaching ministry. I think the movement towards confessionalism among Protestants (Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, etc.) is a similar movement towards faithfulness on the Protestant side.

Indeed, I believe the answer for both RCs and Protestants is the power of faithfulness proclaimed and lived out. I think this blog is one such place of faithfulness.

Peace to you!