Friday, August 01, 2008

DEBATE: Is Protestantism Heretical?

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About This Debate


In 2006 I gave two talks on church unity, in which I argued for the necessity of a robust ecumenical approach to Protestant ecclesiology. Central to this schema, I argued, was the need to engage in dialogue across denominational lines. Where Christ is the centre, I suggested, we should be able to debate our differences without it undermining the unity we have through Him. Since then, I have attempted to put this into practice by inviting members of other Christians churches to engage in debate on this blog. I have been particularly keen to forge links with our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brethren (who incidentally, do not see themselves as simply one more denomination, but the true church in an exclusive sense).
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On July 3rd, my brother Patrick and I had a discussion with Patrick Barnes of the Orthodox Christian Information Center. This discussion built on Patrick and my earlier debate What and Where is the Church? At the end of the discussion Patrick Barnes expressed the desire to pursue some of these issues in more detail at another time. We eventually did so through an email debate which focussed on the question, "Is Protestantism Heretical?" After the debate, both Protestant and Orthodox scholars were invited to write brief evaluations of the exchange, which have been published as part of the debate. Since then, I have written a response to one of those evaluations, which has been published HERE.

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About the Contributors

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Patrick Barnes is a convert to Orthodoxy from a Reformed Episcopalian background and a Reader in the Orthodox Church. He is a member of the Serbian Orthodox Dormition of the Theotokos Orthodox Church in The Dalles, Oregon. He holds a B. S. in Aerospace Engineering from the U. S. Naval Academy and a Licentiate in Orthodox Theological Studies from the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies. He is the author of The Non-Orthodox: The Orthodox Teaching on Christians Outside of the Church, published by Regina Orthodox Press (1999), and in Romania in 2005. He runs the Orthodox Christian Information Center.
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Robin Phillips earned his B.A. [Hons] in liberal arts from the Open University, where he graduated summa cum laude. Since then he has served as a researcher and political journalist for the UK pressure group Christian Voice in addition to spending time as a history teacher at a classical Christian school in the Pacific Northwest. Robin is a regular contributor to the Kuyper Foundation’s quarterly Journal Christianity and Society, operates a blog at http://www.robinphillips.blogspot.com/ .
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David McIlroy has Master’s degrees in law from the Universities of Cambridge and Toulouse and a PhD. in the theology of law from the University of Wales. His doctoral thesis was entitled ‘A Trinitarian Theology of Law: in conversation with J├╝rgen Moltmann, Oliver O’Donovan and Thomas Aquinas’ and will be published by Paternoster Press in 2009. He is also the author of A Biblical View of Law & Justice (Paternoster, 2004) and of numerous articles on the subject of the relationship between Christianity and law. He is a practising barrister and an Associate Research Fellow of Spurgeon’s College, London.
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Perry Robinson has been a member of the Orthodox Church (GOARCH) since 2000. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from CSUF and has pursued graduate studies in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Saint Louis University. He resides in Saint Louis, MO with his wife of 11 years and his three children. He runs an Orthodox blog entitled Energetic Procession.

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Is Protestantism Heretical?

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Robin 1: Thank you, Patrick, for agreeing to join me in this debate. Before we can begin discussing whether Protestantism is heretical, it will be useful to define our terms. While the terms ‘Protestantism’ and ‘heretical’ have been used in a multiplicity of ways, for the purposes of our debate I define them as follows:Protestantism = that movement within Christianity which had its origins in the reformation, at which time large numbers of Christians protested against the authority and teaching of the Roman Catholic church.
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Heresy = a belief or doctrine at variance with the standard tenets of Christian orthodoxy (‘right belief’).
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Are you happy to proceed with these definitions?
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Patrick 1: And thank you, Robin, for inviting me to participate.
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I would modify your definitions a bit. Protestantism is not just a movement. In fact, it's not really a movement any more. It's simply a broad umbrella under which thousands of Protestant denominations can be placed, with each group having its own unique set of firmly held tenets. A core set of tenets runs through most but not all of these denominations. You haven't stated those tenets.
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Your definition of "heresy" also raises a question related to what I just wrote: What are the standard tenets of Christian orthodoxy? Orthodox Christians do not to accept a standard and reductionist set of tenets such as the Lambeth Quadrilateral for determining "orthodoxy". Our measuring rod is the dogmas of the Orthodox Church, which we believe to be the one, true Church, "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). For us, heresy is any belief held defiantly in opposition to the Church's dogmas. If the Church teaches X and someone believes Y, they are embracing heresy.
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Is it possible for us to agree on the "standard tenets of Christian orthodoxy"?
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Robin 2: Yes, Protestantism has become pretty diluted since the reformation. The core tenants of historic Protestantism were the five Solas: Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria, Solo Christo, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide.

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For a historic Protestant the standard for determining the tenets of Christian orthodoxy is ultimately the Bible, interpreted in the light of apostolic faith and the subordinate authority of the Church’s wisdom.
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If your measuring rod for heresy is the dogmas of the Orthodox Church, what is your measuring rod for knowing what the dogmas of the Church are? Do you use your interpretation of Church councils as the measuring rod of Orthodox dogma? Do you use your interpretation of the first thousand years of Church history as the measuring rod of Orthodox dogma? Do you use your interpretation of the writings of the saints as the measuring rod of Orthodox dogma? Do you use your interpretation of the Orthodox Church’s current teaching as the measuring rod of Orthodox dogma? I would like to know.
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Patrick 2: I think it's best to quote Metropolitan Kallistos on this:
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"Orthodox are always talking about Tradition. What do they mean by the word?... [T]o an Orthodox Christian, Tradition means something more concrete and specific than this. It means the books of the Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons — in fact, the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages. The Orthodox Christian of today sees himself as heir and guardian to a great inheritance received from the past, and he believes that it is his duty to transmit this inheritance unimpaired to the future....
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"Orthodox, while reverencing this inheritance from the past, are also well aware that not everything received from the past is of equal value. Among the various elements of Tradition, a unique pre-eminence belongs to the Bible, to the Creed, to the doctrinal definitions of the Ecumenical Councils: these things the Orthodox accept as something absolute and unchanging, something which cannot be cancelled or revised. The other parts of Tradition do not have quite the same authority."
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Robin 3: It is circular for Kallistos to define Orthodox tradition as “the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages.” Of course Orthodox tradition includes everything which the Orthodox church has articulated through the ages, but that is a tautology.

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Even more problematic is the suggestion that the Ecumenical Councils are as absolute as Holy Scripture. The trouble here is that it leaves us with no measuring rod for determining which Ecumenical Councils to accept and which to reject. For example, on what basis does your church reject Vatican I?
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Jesus condemned the scribes and the Pharisees for nullifying the very Word of God with their traditions (Mark 7:13). Paul warned similarly that false teachers would arise out of the very church planted by the apostles and turn people away (Acts 20:29-30). Clearly this suggests that tradition can become heretical, even in the church. However, by making scripture and church tradition co-equal in authority, you have left us with no measuring rod for knowing when tradition has begun to distort rather than safe-guard the truth.

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For a Protestant this is not a problem since Holy Scripture is the ultimate authority.

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Patrick 3: I don't see the circular reasoning. Metropolitan Kallistos is simply stating what comprises Tradition.

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The famous Orthodox lay theologian Vladimir Lossky once wrote, "Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church." Saint Paul wrote: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle." (2 Thess. 2:15) This is what we're supposed to do: hold to and live by Holy Tradition.

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The Church has always taught that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church ("Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth..." St John 16:13). Thus, Holy Tradition is divinely inspired and preserved. Whatever the Body of Christ, as represented chiefly by the Orthodox Holy Fathers and other Orthodox Saints (whether from a consensus found in their writings, Oecumenical Synods, hymnography, etc.) has affirmed as true over time is Holy Tradition. Take the Holy Spirit out of this equation, or teachings such as 1 Tim. 3:15, and rationalistic arguments are more appropriate. But such is not the case.

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Orthodox dogma is contained within Holy Tradition, which is the measuring rod for all Christian Truth. Whatever teachings are inconsistent with Holy Tradition is heterodox.

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We reject (ignore?) Vatican I for at least two reasons: 1) The Roman Catholics are not the Church. They broke off from the Orthodox Church a millennium ago. They are not somehow still part of the Orthodox Church. They are simply a heterodox body. So their Councils have no authority. 2) This Council espoused numerous heresies. By definition a Council cannot be a true Council if it formulates heterodox doctrines.

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Concerning St. Mark 7:13: Traditions of men are not the same as Tradition guided by the Holy Spirit. Study the topic of "Tradition" in the New Testament. You will see. Was St. Paul contradicting St Mark in 2 Thess. 2:15?

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Robin 4: Your answer to my question about Vatican I actually proves the point I was trying to make. Your first reason for rejecting Vatican I is because that Council was held by a heterodox body which broke off from the true church a millennium ago. However, from the Roman Catholic perspective, you are part of a heterodox body that broke off from the true church a millennium ago. How do you adjudicate between these (and various other) competing tradition systems? Only by having a standard of authority higher than tradition can the problem be solved. (This does not mean that tradition plays no part in leading us to truth. I have had debates with modern evangelicals in which I vigorously defended tradition as a subordinate authority.)

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A similar point can be made about your second reason for rejecting Vatican I. In Patrick 2 you said that the doctrinal definitions of the Ecumenical Councils are as absolute as scripture. Yet in Patrick 3 you assert that “by definition a Council cannot be a true Council if it formulates heterodox doctrines.” This implies that there is some plumbline external to the Councils themselves whereby the formulations of Councils can be evaluated. And that is exactly what I have been arguing all along.

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Put another way, if Councils are the measuring rod of truth, and if a Council has to be true in order to be a Council, then that amounts to saying that true Councils are the measuring rod of truth. Such a statement only begs the question.
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Metropolitan Kallistos’ definition of Orthodox tradition begs the question in a similar way. To state what Orthodox tradition is by appealing to that which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages, would be similar to saying “Vegetarianism is the thing which vegetarians have practiced throughout the ages.” Statements like that are true in form but do not actually communicate any content.

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Finally, you have said that Holy Tradition is comprised of what the Orthodox Holy Fathers and Saints have affirmed as true over time. You go on to say that Orthodox dogma is contained within Holy Tradition. This raises the question: by what standard are you determining who the Orthodox Fathers and Saints are? That standard cannot be Holy Tradition, since your own words show that in order to know what Holy Tradition is you have to first know who the Orthodox Fathers and Saints are. Help me out here.

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Patrick 4: How does one adjudicate between competing traditions? By finding the True Church. Your reasoning underscores a point I made in my previous reply: "Take the Holy Spirit out of this equation, or teachings such as 1 Tim. 3:15, and rationalistic arguments are more appropriate." As a Protestant you have a low view of the Visible Church (The Church Militant): it can be divided, contain an admixture of truth and error (hence the many denominations), and is not seen as the pillar and ground of truth. Rather, the Scriptures alone are this pillar. As such, you fail to see the role that the Visible Church, as guided by the Holy Spirit, plays in preserving and teaching the Truth. For Protestants there is no true, visible Church, and no continual, trustworthy corporate guidance from the Holy Spirit (i.e., the guidance is only for each individual Christian).

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Finding the True Church is a process that involves prayer and reason. I suggest a study of Church history, the dogmas of these two Churches, visiting parishes, etc. As a Protestant I compared the two and concluded that the Roman Catholics had changed or added many things to the Faith (the Filioque, the Papacy, etc.), and thus had departed from the Church through schism in 1054 and ultimately heresy. So I adjudicated through prayer and reason. Orthodox are certainly not opposed to reason, personal study, and a belief that the Holy Spirit can lead to the Church a person who is outside of the Church.

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But once I found the Church I believed as She taught. I believed that Her dogmas were all true, that the Holy Spirit has infallibly guided and preserved Her since Pentecost. (The Holy Fathers of every Ecumenical Council believed this. Why don't you?) And I believed as Vladimir Lossky wrote: "Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church." Thus Tradition does not stand over the Church; rather the Church preserves, passes on, and proclaims Her Tradition. From our perspective Protestants reason as if Holy Scripture fell from Heaven like the Koran, and that the Church is just some fallible, human organization which is accountable to an external Book. This demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of how the Church has always seen the Bible, and how the New Testament even came to be.

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There is no external plumbline. The Holy Spirit leads the Body of Christ into the Truth, helping the Faithful to recognize and affirm that which has been officially decided in a God-pleasing Council. This is a mysterious process that can take time, and it requires faith to believe that the Holy Spirit does this. This is a reason why we believe in the Church, as the Nicene Creed states.
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There is no external standard to determine who the Orthodox Fathers and Saints are. They are simply those men and women who are united to Christ in the Church (i.e., members, mainly through Baptism), and who have been recognized and honored as holy people who theologize correctly about God. This recognition happens through the mystical activity of the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ. This is a rather complex and nuanced topic which cannot be properly addressed in a forum like this. I highly recommend that you read some of the
articles about Holy Tradition on my Web site.
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In closing I remind you of what I wrote in my essay critiquing Protestant ecclesiology: In short, accusations of "begging the question" will fall on deaf ears. The Church—as it has been historically expressed and understood in the Nicene Creed—is an object of faith. In this sense, belief in the Church is no different than belief in God. The Church as an infallible "pillar and ground of the Truth" cannot be proven empirically. We are simply to believe in it. Thus, my appeal to those men who have been hailed throughout the centuries by countless Christians as Doctors and Teachers of the Faith par excellence ultimately stems from my belief, or faith in, an indefectible Church—a Church that has an authoritative Mind and Tradition which has been formed and preserved by the activity of the Holy Spirit.

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Robin 5: Before I can adequately respond to the issues you have just raised, which I would like to do, it would be helpful if you could reply to my response in Robin 4 to the two points you raised about Vatican I in Patrick 3. It would also be helpful to have a reply to my response in Robin 4 to your assertion in Patrick 3 that Metropolitan Kallistos’ definition was not circular. The logical inconsistencies I was addressing in those points need to be cleared up before I am in a position to offer a reply to what you have just written.

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Having said that, a few preliminary comments are in order for purposes of clarification. Much of your critique of Protestantism only applies to a particular kind of Protestantism – what you might call “modern evangelicalism.” As a Protestant within the historic reformed tradition, I can wholeheartedly agree with you in affirming that the visible Church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) and that the Holy Spirit has led the Church over time. I also enthusiastically embrace the Scripture’s teaching on the role that the Visible Church, as guided by the Holy Spirit, plays in preserving and teaching the Truth over time. For modern evangelicalism, it is true that there is no reliable, visible Church, and no continual, trustworthy corporate guidance from the Holy Spirit because the guidance is only for each individual Christian. But that is not the historic Protestant view and it is certainly not my view.

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It does not necessarily follow from what I have just said that “the Holy Spirit has infallibly guided and preserved [the Church] since Pentecost.” The key word here is “infallible”. Although you acknowledge that certain groups have embraced heresy at various times (e.g. the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions), as soon as that happens you are committed to maintaining that those groups are, by definition, no longer part of the Visible Church. Having thus stipulated a priori that the true Church is corporately infallible, it follows that all incidents of heresy have not occurred within the true Church. This allows you to continue to maintain the Church’s perfect record. That would be like if I had a chess club and every time a member of the club lost a game, I said that this proves they were not really a true member of the club. Using such sophistry, I could claim that my chess club has been undefeated for its entire existence and will necessarily remain so throughout the future. Ultimately we would need to consider how the Bible uses the term Church. However, in order to have a platform on which to make such an inquiry, we need to be agreed in our epistemological principles, which brings us back to the points mentioned above in the first paragraph of this entry.

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Patrick 5: Concerning Vatican I, I don't see how my answer proves your point. Of course the Roman Catholics think they are the one, true Church. They have developed the doctrine of the Papacy, papal infallibility, etc. which were not known in the Church of the first millennium and which the Orthodox have never accepted. According to their ecclesiology the See of Peter (the Roman pontiff) is the rock upon which the Church is built. Therefore, because they have the Papacy, they are the true Church. (That's quite simplistic, but I think accurate.) So we have these "competing tradition systems", as you call them.

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I answered your question about how one adjudicates, which was the more important question in Robin 4. I don't see why my answer is insufficient. We believe we are the one, true Church. I believe this. Therefore, from my perspective the Orthodox Church's teaching is thus the standard by which all things are judged; and belief in the Church and Her teaching is an article of faith. The Roman Catholics disagree. So what? Each person has to decide for himself whether the Orthodox or Roman Catholic claims are true. I suggested how you might go about doing that.

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I also answered your second question concerning Vatican I to the best of my ability. I don't know what else to say. There is no "external plumbline." The internal plumbline is Holy Tradition, which is the apostolic deposit preserved in the Church. It is the Mind of Christ, the Head of His Body. It is not all written down. The Ecumenical Councils were convened not because some Holy Fathers wanted to write down more about what the Church believed, as if to systematize it for posterity. They convened to defend the faith, to articulate what the Church already believed, so that heresy threatening the Church could be condemned. It was a defensive measure.
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The "consensus of the Holy Fathers" is an important related concept. "As Jaroslav Pelikan, citing St. Maximus the Confessor (d. 662), has observed of seventh-century Byzantine theology, 'In any theological argument, therefore, it was necessary to produce the "voices of the fathers as evidence for the faith of the church." This same appeal, an appeal to the consensus patrum, is the foundation of Orthodox theology to this day. It is the source of the resolution of the problem of Scripture and Tradition as authority." (Scripture and Tradition, by Archimandrite [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos, p. 19).

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There are no logical inconsistencies here. If you still think there are, I don't know what else to say except please read the articles I have mentioned earlier. I've said all I can about this.
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I have limited space remaining so I'll just reply that, yes, "those groups are, by definition, no longer part of the Visible Church." As for heresy in the Church, your charge of sophistry does not stand. Recall the wheat and tares. Or the sheep in wolves clothing. Or St. Paul's statement "there must be heresies among you" (1 Cor. 11:19). There will always be heretics in our midst. But the Church eventually roots out those who threaten Her (others may be "private heretics"); and She never adopts heresy as part of Holy Tradition. In other words, the Church is infallible, but Her members are not. Heresy can survive for a time in the Church as things get hammered out and fought over, but eventually the truth prevails by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Such is the history of the Ecumenical Councils.

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Robin 6: Thanks Patrick. Hopefully I can clarify for you exactly where the logical inconsistencies are located so that you are in a position to respond more specifically to my concerns.
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You write that “the Roman Catholics think they are the one, true Church” whereas “from [your] perspective the Orthodox Church's teaching is...the standard by which all things are judged.” (Patrick 5 – first paragraph) In order to adjudicate between these competing tradition systems, you suggest that we should first find the True Church (first two sentences of Patrick 4). However, because you maintain that the true church is characterized by correct traditions (Patrick 2), this creates a vicious circle: in order to know the true Church, we need to identify the true tradition, and in order to indentify the true tradition, we need to know the true Church. Since this circularity allows us to do neither, it follows that your statements about the Church throughout this debate (not least in the last paragraph of Patrick 5) are incoherent. This leaves us with neither the Church Militant nor the Church Victorious, only the Church Ambiguous.
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As an historic Protestant, things are neither so difficult nor so complicated: the Visible Church is simply the people of God, as identified by the twin sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist.

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Just as your view leaves us with no way to know what is meant by the Church, so we also have no way of knowing what is meant by “tradition.” This follows from the fact that “there is no external standard to determine who the Orthodox Fathers and Saints are” (Patrick 4). In Patrick 4 you suggest studying Church history as one of the ways to discover the True Church. However, since by ‘Church History’ you mean Orthodox Church History, and since you acknowledge that there is no external method for a non-Orthodox to identify the Orthodox Fathers and Saints, your suggestion collapses into incoherence. This is not helped by your statement in Patrick 4 that “the Orthodox Fathers and Saints are...simply those men and women who are united to Christ in the Church (i.e., members, mainly through Baptism), and who have been recognized and honored as holy people who theologize correctly about God” since this presupposes that we have a prior knowledge of the True Church and correct theology; however, because the Orthodox Fathers and Saints are one of the standards by which we know what is correct theology is (see your comments about the "consensus of the Holy Fathers" in our earlier discussion), this again invokes the vicious circle articulated in the first paragraph of this entry.

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Given these anomalies, at the end of the day, all you can appeal to is a subjective standard: private judgment exercised through “a mysterious process”, personal belief and a go-away-and-the-Holy-Spirit-will-show-you type of approach which has been used to justify everything from Montanism to Mormonism. As you write, “There is no external plumb line. This is a mysterious process that can take time, and it requires faith to believe that the Holy Spirit does this.... Each person has to decide for himself whether the Orthodox or Roman Catholic claims are true.” (Patrick 4 & 5) Your appeal to faith and the Holy Spirit, to the degree that it is unhinged from the ultimate authority of the Bible, leaves us with no way to test all or any person or spirit who makes a claim on our allegiance (see Gal 1:8-9; 1 John 4:1).
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Your approach to Ecumenical Councils is equally subjective. While acknowledging that some Councils got it right (i.e., the first 7 Ecumenical Councils plus numerous Regional Councils, such as the First-Second Synod of 879, which some Orthodox call the 8th Ecumenical Council) and that some Councils got it wrong (Vatican I), your measuring rod for distinguishing between the two is the personal leading of the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit leads the Body of Christ into the Truth, helping the Faithful to recognize and affirm that which has been officially decided in a God-pleasing Council.”

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My question to you would be: how do you know that it is the Holy Spirit and not your own feelings are leading you? As a Protestant, my way of knowing would be to test everything against the yardstick of God’s Word.

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In an article on your website, you criticize the “stubborn resiliency” of contemporary American Protestants in the face of their numerous contradictions. This debate is causing me to increasingly wonder if the shoe is actually on the other foot. Your own entries have shown an amazing resiliency to the numerous contradictions inherent in the various positions you have adopted, together with an indifference to refutation. When challenged in Robin 3 about a circular definition, you replied in Patrick 3, not with a counter-argument, but simply by announcing that you didn’t see any circular reasoning. Similarly, in Patrick 4, your response to my charge of question-begging was not to offer a systematic counter-argument to my claims but to simply announce that “accusations of ‘begging the question’ will fall on deaf ears”
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Would it also fall in deaf ears to suggest that your underlying method seems to be that of starting with your conclusion and then reasoning out from there?

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(Forgive me if I have come across as provocative. Such is not my intent.)
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Patrick 6 (Final): You made my head spin with your last reply. I perceive such a disconnect between us that I'm truly at a loss for words. I really have no desire to debate you on these issues. If you are convinced you should be a Protestant, fine. God be with you. I am happy to answer specific questions after a person reads Orthodox materials in an effort to seriously consider the claims of the Orthodox Church; but I have no desire to debate people who are firmly entrenched in their position and won't even take the time to read serious articles or books on the topics of discussion
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At the risk of repetition and more accusations of incoherence, I will try one last time to give you the essence of my reasoning by way of a little testimonial:
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The Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church each claim to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, i.e., the one, true and visible Church of Christ.

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When I heard this as a Protestant seminarian who was seriously grounded in historic Protestantism (mainly Calvinism and Anglicanism), I took it seriously. I asked myself, "The two largest Christian bodies in the world are making these exclusive claims? If they are right, I'm not in the Church! Who is right? Did the Church prior to the Great Schism—five hundred years before Protestantism even existed—believe as I do in my (then) current Anglican beliefs? I need to find out!"

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Driven by the questions "What is the Church?" and "Where is the Church?" I read Yves Congar's Tradition and Traditions. I was blown away by that book. It convinced me that Protestant ecclesiology was wrong, never taught by the "undivided" Church of the First Millennium, and that Protestants grossly misunderstand the importance of Holy Tradition and the concept of a Patristic consensus. I also read two other important books: Against the Protestant Gnostics and The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism.
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Having intellectually ceased being a Protestant, my heart and mind were fully open to believing that one of the two Christian bodies, Orthodox or Roman Catholic, were right in their claims. I had to enter into the one, true, visible Church. But which one was right?

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I studied the claims of both, using my own God-given reason and the Holy Scriptures as interpreted what I could ascertain as the consensus of the Holy Fathers. (Books such as Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition series, Jurgen's Faith of the Early Fathers series, Quasten's Patrology and others were instrumental in this endeavor.)

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I prayed. I trusted God to lead me. I didn't worry that my feelings might be leading me astray because I kept my search grounded in the Holy Fathers, not how I felt about this or that issue I ran across, what my friends or family might think, etc.

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I came to the conclusion that the Roman Catholics had greatly added to or changed the apostolic faith in many, many ways as I wrote earlier in this exchange.

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I entered the Orthodox Church.

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There is nothing vicious, incoherent, illogical or ridiculous about any of this. Well, perhaps if you are a Protestant who clings to sola Scriptura it does appear suspect. But this was never a problem for me because after reading Yves Congar and a few other books on tradition that are listed on my Web site, I had a very high view of the writings of the Holy Fathers throughout the ages. I reasoned that what the Holy Fathers have taught consistently over many hundreds of years, and which is preserved today in the Orthodox Church, is absolutely authoritative.

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You disagree. Fine. But have you studied them? I think no. I find it highly illogical that anyone would cling to doctrines such as the "Five solas" when the Church never taught such things.

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So I came to believe that the dogma of the Church was infallible, as She claims and always taught, and thus who was I to think otherwise? Who was I to stand in judgment of the first thousand years of the Church?! How can Protestants think they are right when they hold to so many doctrines that are completely foreign to the Church of the First Millennium? (That this doesn't trouble you astounds me. You are blinded by the heretical doctrine of sola Scriptura and an unwillingness to bow in humility before the Saints who so consistently taught over the centuries doctrines which are contrary to your beliefs.)

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In short, for me it was pretty simple, despite how contorted you make everything seem in this exchange. Let the reader judge whether my logic is sound. If you disagree and think I'm simple-minded, I can live with that. He who has ears to hear... I don't wish to debate this any more. Feel free to have the last word.

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Robin 7: Thank you Patrick for sharing your testimony. It may help to clarify that my charge of illogicality and incoherence has been directed against the various arguments you have employed to defend your theological truth-claims, but I am not saying that there has been anything vicious, incoherent, illogical or ridiculous in your personal journey of faith. The latter has not been the subject of our debate.

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Rather than reiterating my earlier points, I’d like to use my final reply to also share something from my personal experience.

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Throughout my life I have been involved in various groups before who took the approach: “there isn’t anything to debate because you have to just let the Holy Spirit show you.” Sometimes this was used as a cloak for heresy, sometimes as an excuse for intellectual laziness. Still other times this approach was adopted because it was thought to be more “spiritual.” For whatever reason, this created an unbiblical bifurcation between the heart and the head, or between the leading of the Holy Spirit through personal experience, on the one hand, and vigorous debate and analysis on the other. I frequently encountered this false dilemma among modern evangelicals as well as whenever I was visited by members of heretical sects such as the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. There is a large Mormon population where I am currently living, and they are always telling me that instead of debating whether their theology is scriptural, I should visit their churches, pray about it and then see if I get a “burning in my bosom.”

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My understanding of the Bible, on the other hand, has been that the personal leading of the Holy Spirit in the heart cannot be artificially divorced from vigorous debate and analysis of the scripture’s teaching. When I discovered the reformed tradition, one of the many things that resonated with me was the emphasis that the truth can stand the test of objective debate without needing to default to unbiblical red hearings like “go pray about it and visit parishes and the Holy Spirit will show you.”

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Because you agreed to have a debate in the first place, I assumed you also shared this more holistic approach to epistemology. I was obviously wrong. My next project will be to find out to what extent, if at all, your subjective epistemology is characteristic of the Orthodox tradition as a whole.

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I have some good former-Protestant friends (including my own brother) who have been greatly blessed by the liturgical richness, solidity and Trinity-centred approach found in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, especially after spending so much of their lives in the shallows of modern evangelicalism. There is much that reformed Protestants can learn from the Orthodox just as there is much that the Orthodox can learn from us (see Stephen Garver’s article Calling and Freedom). I can say this without contradiction since I do not dispute that the Orthodox are part of the true church; rather, my contention has been with your claim that they are the only part, with the corollary that Protestants are outside the visible Church. That is the point I have been trying to defend through a reduction ad absurdum line of counter-reasoning, and unfortunately your final response answers none of my arguments. Saying that I won’t even take the time to study and read the right books and articles is hardly an adequate answer to my charge that your truth-claims are incoherent (although, contrary to your assumptions, I am quite happy to read and publically review any or all of the books you have mentioned.) Similarly, telling me that I am blinded by the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is hardly an adequate refutation of my arguments supporting the doctrine. Finally, criticizing my alleged attitude of “unwillingness to bow in humility” says nothing either way about whether my truth-claims are false. In each of these three areas, you have adopted an ad hominem approach which is antithetical to healthy debate. Now that the discussion has descended to criticizing me instead my arguments, you are perhaps right that further continuation would be unprofitable.

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Thank you again for participating.
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David McIlroy’s Evaluation of the Debate


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At the outset of the debate between Robin and Patrick heresy was defined as being a belief or doctrine at variance with the standard tenets of Christian orthodoxy. But how are those standard tenets to be determined? For Protestants, the Bible is the supreme authority. However, there are, and have been throughout the history of the Church, heretics who deny that the Bible teaches that God is triune. For many Christians, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, Christian orthodoxy is that understanding of the Scriptural faith which was laid down in the universally accepted ecumenical Councils and which finds expression in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.

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Patrick defines Christian orthodoxy more specifically, however, as agreement with the dogmas of the Orthodox Church (Patrick 1, 3 and 5). This assumes that the Orthodox Church is the true Church (Patrick 4). This clearly begs two key questions. First, which is the true Church and how is that to be determined? Second, even assuming that there is one true Church which has preserved most accurately Christian truth, are there deviations from the complete belief system of that true Church which nonetheless do not amount to heresy?

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I dislike the term “Protestant” because it seems to me to be vulnerable to the criticism that these churches are historical novelties, emerging in the early modern period. The Reformers sought to reform the Church Catholic. Reformed Christianity stands in a tradition of thought, a tradition that draws on the thought of the Church both before and after the Great Schism. Men like Aquinas and Church fathers like Augustine, Irenaeus, Tertullian and the Cappadocians are part of the tradition of Reformed Christianity. Reformed Christianity claims to represent the true Church, in continuity with the teaching of the Apostles and the Church Fathers. Reformed Christianity does not read the Bible as if it was given to us today as if we were the first generation ever to receive it; we read it as the divinely inspired word of God the Father, given by the Spirit, and witnessing to God the Son, and we read it in the light of the teaching of the Church down the ages. What Reformed Christians insist, however, is that the Church’s teaching is to be judged by its faithfulness to Scripture.

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Where Reformed Christianity differs from Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy is that it does not believe in the infallibility of the Church’s tradition (compare Robin 3, 5 and Patrick 4) and it does not insist that the unity of the true Church be manifest in a continuity of institutions and bishops (see Patrick 4). Put at its highest, Patrick’s claim is that Protestantism is heretical because it does not take seriously that part of the third article of the Nicene Creed which says “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” However, believing in the fallibility of the Church and of its teaching is not a historical novelty of Reformed Christianity. Reformed Christianity’s belief that the Visible Church can be divided and contain an admixture of truth and error is the teaching of Augustine and also the witness of the New Testament records of the early Church. Like Patrick, Reformed Christianity believes that the true Church is an object of faith. Reformed Christianity claims that it is not given to human beings to determine definitively which Christians are members of the true Church.

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Patrick also suggests (Patrick 6) that the Reformation doctrine sola scriptura is a historical novelty. If this slogan meant that Scripture was the only authority and no account should be taken of the witness of the Church Fathers, the ecumenical Councils and the tradition, then he would be right. It did not and has not meant that. The affirmation sola scriptura was the affirmation that Scripture is the highest authority we have, and all other witnesses to Christ are subordinate to it. This was the view of Scripture held by Aquinas, Augustine and many others.

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Modern evangelicalism and fundamentalist Protestantism are, perhaps, vulnerable to the complaints, not of heresy, but of forgetfulness and exclusiveness which Patrick raises against them. Reformed Christianity, mindful of the fact that it stands in a tradition of witnesses to Christ going back to the time of the Church Fathers and the Apostles, is not.

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Perry Robinson’s Evaluation of The Debate

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General Overview
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The debate between Robin Philips and Patrick Barnes is concerning the question, Is Protestantism heretical? Robin takes the negative and Patrick takes the affirmative. The debate suffers from a moving of the question from the one above, to, are the Orthodox in an epistemically adequate position to adjudicate the question? Other questions that should have been discussed at the outset are such as, what, if anything, essentially characterizes Protestantism? Even between classical Protestants such as the Lutherans and the Reformed, neither have ceased to accuse each other of heterodoxy in core areas of theology. Certainly some forms of Protestantism are heretical on Protestant principles alone.
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Consequently, Robin should haves stuck to defending the negative by giving positive arguments, which he alludes to at points but never develops. Patrick I think could have for the sake of argument conceded the epistemic problems but still pressed Robin for a non-circular and self serving criteria to adjudicate the question.
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Specific Criticisms-Robin
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To clarify, the classical Protestant standard for determining what is right teaching cannot be the Bible as interpreted in light of the apostolic faith and the belief of the church as historically witnessed. There is simply far too much included in the regula fidei that obviously conflicts with classical Protestantism, specifically the Reformed variety which Robin seems to adhere. (Episcopacy, baptismal regeneration, etc.) Further, it cannot be the case for the simple reason that the Bible prior to Protestantism included books that Protestantism rejected on the basis of Protestant theology. It is consequently core Protestant doctrines as taught by originating teachers that function as the criteria for right teaching.

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Robin’s main line of attack seems to be an epistemological argument to the effect that one cannot have the Church as the criteria for orthodoxy and heterodoxy without knowing independently from the church what constitutes orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Muddled with this is a subsidiary argument concerning private judgment. There is clearly a difference between meeting the conditions on knowledge and meeting the conditions on producing normative and binding judgments. I can do the first to know that the Orthodox Church is the true church without being able to meet the second. The first does not historically refer to private judgment. (See Newman’s two essays written as an Anglican, 'The Use of Private Judgment', and, 'The Abuse of Private Judgment', in his On the Prophetical Office of the Church.) Consequently I can fail to meet the conditions on knowledge when reading any historical source and all that follows from that is that I do not meet both sets of conditions and cannot meet the second.
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A subsidiary objection made by Robin, which is off topic, is that the Orthodox are not in a position to know which councils are normative. Of course in various places, the church has given criteria for what constitutes a legitimate synod. The call must be open. There is to be no compulsion. The discussions must be open and free of imperial or political control. It must be an assembly of bishops. It must be ratified by all of the major sees. These are some of the most prominent ones. Vatican I fails some of these conditions as well as others I did not articulate. These were given form in the sixth session of 2nd Nicea in 787 A.D. So it is simply not the case that the Orthodox are left with subjectivism in ascertaining which councils are in fact legitimate. Furthermore, tradition functions as a criteria for councils since councils are intended to articulate the already existing tradition, rather than to introduce new dogmas through a process of development. If the latter were true, tradition as such would cease to matter at all. So for the Orthodox, consistency is a major test of councils in relation to past professions. Robin objects that there is no external test for councils. Even if this were so, it doesn’t follow that if there is no external test that there is no rational or internal test. Part of the problem is that Robin is supposing some theory neutral realm of facts that he can measure his models against. I am not sorry to say that there is no such thing. This doesn’t mean that I reject the idea of objective reality, but rather I reject the idea that objective reality is theory neutral.

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Specific Criticisms-Barnes

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Barnes’ replies are fine as far as they go, but they are inadequate to stave off the core objections that Robin proffers. While it may be true that a legitimate council cannot formulate heterodox doctrines and that the faithful are helped to recognize it as Spirit inspired, this is not a persuasive or direct answer.

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Addendum-Recommended Reading


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Rupert Davies, The Problem of Authority in the Continental Reformers
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Some questions for Robin for reflection

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You write that there is a visible church that has been guided by the Spirit in preserving truth over time. What visible society of people would you cite as an instance prior to the Reformation?

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If the church is not infallible under any conditions, could the whole visible church teach heresy and fall away or is that impossible?

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If the bible is the only infallible rule of faith, who is the judge to apply that rule? And with what authority does such a person apply the rule?
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In 2 Tim 3 concerning Scripture’s inspiration, who is denoted in the phrase “the man of God?”

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Is there a vicious circularity in arguing that the gospels are reliable and record the resurrection and then the resurrection confirms the gospels as inspired? If not, why not?

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If you adhere to the Reformed teaching, then you believe it is possible for God to predestine you to think that you are elect and in fact not be. If this were so, every piece of evidence you appealed to, to falsify the idea that you were reprobate would be compatible with the above state of affairs. How then does the Reformed doctrine of predestination support an objective assurance and not lapse into the kind of subjectivism you find problematic?

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FYI-The Eigth council was universally assented to by East and West for 120 years.





My Reply to Perry's Questions

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I wasn't planning on replying to the evaluations of the debate, but since Perry Robinson has asked me a number of excellent questions, I will try to succinctly answer. Following my answers, I will offer a response to some of the main criticisms Perry makes about my position in the debate.

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Perry's 1st Question: "You write that there is a visible church that has been guided by the Spirit in preserving truth over time. What visible society of people would you cite as an instance prior to the Reformation?"
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My Answer: Prior to the Reformation, those societies which are now referred to (retrospectively and anachronistically) as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church would be two examples of the visible Church prior to as well as following the Reformation. I'm quite happy to acknowledge the Orthodox Church as the true church; what I dispute is its claims to exclusivity.
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Perry's 2nd Question: "If the church is not infallible under any conditions, could the whole visible church teach heresy and fall away or is that impossible?"
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My Answer: It would be impossible for the whole Church to fall away because of Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-14).

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Perry's Third Question: "If the bible is the only infallible rule of faith, who is the judge to apply that rule? And with what authority does such a person apply the rule?"
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My Answer: All Christians ought to correctly judge and apply the rule of Holy Scripture in obedience to 2 Timothy 3:14-17. Since God commands this, it is therefore with God’s authority that a person applies such a rule. Eastern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, asserts that Christians ought to correctly judge and apply the infallible rule of "church tradition" (which includes Holy Scripture).

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Perry's 4th Question: In 2 Tim 3 concerning Scripture’s inspiration, who is denoted in the phrase “the man of God?”

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My Answer: The "man of God" in 2 Tim. 3:17 refers generically to all to whom Scripture is given.

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Perry's 5th Question: "Is there a vicious circularity in arguing that the gospels are reliable and record the resurrection and then the resurrection confirms the gospels as inspired? If not, why not?"

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My Answer: First of all, I wouldn't argue that resurrection confirms that the gospels are inspired since that would entail that all the secular texts testifying to the resurrection are also inspired. However, the question remains whether it would be circular IF we said that, and I do not think it would. I’m not a logician, so I hope readers will correct me if I am incorrect here, but isn't circularity a feature applying either to arguments or to definitions? Saying "the gospels are reliable and record the resurrection and the resurrection confirms the gospels as inspired" is neither to state a definition nor to construct an argument and therefore it cannot be assessed for vicious circularity.
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Perry's 6th Question: "If you adhere to the Reformed teaching, then you believe it is possible for God to predestine you to think that you are elect and in fact not be. If this were so, every piece of evidence you appealed to, to falsify the idea that you were reprobate would be compatible with the above state of affairs. How then does the Reformed doctrine of predestination support an objective assurance and not lapse into the kind of subjectivism you find problematic?"

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My Answer: Okay this is getting interesting. Let me begin by saying that on any theological system, our thoughts are caused by something. It should be axiomatic that if our thoughts are uncaused then they could not occur, including the thought that our thoughts are uncaused; but since our thoughts do in fact occur, they must be caused by something. Now for the purposes of your question, it makes little difference whether our thoughts are caused by God's predestining activity, by our heredity, by our desires, by our environment, by a Cosmic Giant sitting up on another planet typing our thoughts into his computer or by the beef I had with my dinner last night, because at any point we could jump in with the hypothesis and say, “what if the thing that is causing my thoughts has caused me to think that I am a Christian when I am really not.” Since the problem remains whether the thing causing my thoughts happens to be God or anything else, it follows that this objection cannot be used specifically as an argument against predestination.


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My Response to Perry's Evaluation of the Debate
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"Robin’s main line of attack seems to be an epistemological argument to the effect that one cannot have the Church as the criteria for orthodoxy and heterodoxy without knowing independently from the church what constitutes orthodoxy and heterodoxy."
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You left out a crucial premise, Perry. I am only saying the above argument applies IF the heresy test is being used to distinguish the church from heterodox bodies, which it was in Patrick Barnes' case. Thus, IF someone says or implies that the test of heresy vs. Orthodoxy is the measuring rod of the Church, at the same time as simultaneously saying or implying that the church is the measuring rod which defines what heresy vs. Orthodoxy is, then we have a problem because such vicious circularity could be used to defend any heretical sect claiming to be the church.

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"Muddled with this is a subsidiary argument concerning private judgment."
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I am not aware of constructing any subsidiary argument concerning private judgment for the fact that Protestantism is not heretical.
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"There is clearly a difference between meeting the conditions on knowledge and meeting the conditions on producing normative and binding judgments. I can do the first to know that the Orthodox Church is the true church without being able to meet the second. The first does not historically refer to private judgment. (See Newman’s two essays written as an Anglican, The Use of Private Judgment, and, The Abuse of Private Judgment, in his On the Prophetical Office of the Church.
) Consequently I can fail to meet the conditions on knowledge when reading any historical source and all that follows from that is that I do not meet both sets of conditions and cannot meet the second."
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I agree that there is a difference between meeting the conditions for knowledge and meeting the conditions for producing normative and binding judgments. However, in order to know the second (that is, if we want to know what a normative and binding judgment happens to be), we must meet the conditions of the first (knowledge). You haven’t specified what kind of normative and binding judgments you are referring to, but let us take the example of a judgment from our legal system to illustrate how this might play out in practice. The conditions which have to be in place in order for the law to pronounce that it is illegal to speed are not the same as the epistemological conditions which have to be in place in order to have knowledge about the speed limit or anything else for that matter; however, if we want to KNOW that it is illegal to speed, then at some point the conditions for knowledge will have to be met. Similarly, in order to know what the normative and binding judgments of the Orthodox Church are, or even to know that there is an Orthodox Church issuing normative and binding judgments, certain conditions for knowledge must be met.
Patrick Barnes did not even come close to meeting these conditions since he failed to provide a non-circular definition of the Orthodox church, let alone show that Protestantism is heretical (more worryingly, he failed even to see the need to do so).
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You suggest that meeting the conditions necessary to know that the Orthodox Church is the true church does not historically refer to private judgment. Let me ask you a question Perry: when you decided to leave Protestantism and join the Orthodox tradition, were you exercising your private judgment? When, after reading the church fathers, you realized that God wanted you to leave Anglo-Catholicism and join the Orthodox Church, were you exercising private judgment that your interpretation of the fathers was correct? When you realized that because we are all sinners we need an infallible interpreter, how do you know that you picked the right infallible interpreter? You may have had good reasons for choosing the Orthodox Church as the right infallible interpreter, but in the end you exercised private judgment in making an informed choice. If you didn't, then why are we having this conversation? (For a good defence of the necessity of private judgment, see
In Defence of Private Judgment.)
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"A subsidiary objection made by Robin, which is off topic, is that the Orthodox are not in a position to know which councils are normative."
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This is not quite my argument and it is certainly not off topic. My argument was that based on the circular criteria given by Patrick Barnes no one is in a position to know which councils are normative. He did not give the more specific criteria you have presented, and had he done so my argument would have taken a different route.
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Robin objects that there is no external test for councils. Even if this were so, it doesn’t follow that if there is no external test that there is no rational or internal test. Part of the problem is that Robin is supposing some theory neutral realm of facts that he can measure his models against. I am not sorry to say that there is no such thing. This doesn’t mean that I reject the idea of objective reality, but rather I reject the idea that objective reality is theory neutral."
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I agree that just because there is no external test it doesn’t necessarily follow that there is no rational or internal test. This is the position I would take with regard to Holy Scripture: we cannot get outside the categories of scripture to a theory neutral realm where we can objectively reason our way to the truth of scripture (even if we could, it would lead to an infinite regress of epistemological conditions), but there remains rational and internal means by which the truth of scripture may be tested. However, Patrick Barnes failed to provide even rational and internal tests.
Further Resources
Questions About the Great Schism
My Reply to Perry's Questions


Sola Scriptura in the Early Church

In Defence of Private Judgment


Debate about Church Tradition


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