Tuesday, January 15, 2008

12 Principles of Protestant Catholicity: A Response

I would like to draw attention to a post over at the new Evangelical Catholicity blog that is very helpful in understanding the mission and thinking of the modern ‘catholicity movement’ for lack of a better term. This post by Mr. Bonomo has 12 principles for Protestant Catholicity. I find them honest and the post is a great starting point for discussion regarding Protestant Catholicity. I hope that this response will be seen as an attempt to further that discussion by asking some refining questions and making a few comments on each of the 12 Principles.

1. The Centrality of Jesus Christ – I do not have any disagreement with this one. I do question the need to add the phrase ‘and not mere speculation about him’, but I agree with the point. We are unified only in Jesus Christ, He alone is our center.
2. The Essential Unity of the Church – Again, I have no objections here. Another good point.
3. The Diversity of the Church – Here again I agree. However there is a problem. That problem is in how one defines ‘secondary matters’. I agree that secondary matters should be left up to the individual and should not bar union and unity with fellow believers. I also know of no one who does not agree with that statement. The problem lies in defining ‘secondary matters’.
4. The Supremacy of Historic Creedal Orthodoxy – Here I must depart for a moment. The argument here is that the original historic creeds of the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Chalcedonian creeds should be the basis for unity. I suppose this is the attempt to define what is an essential and what is a secondary matter of faith. I have two main objections: one historical and one theological. The historical objection is that those creeds were not meant to serve that purpose ever. The Apostle’s Creed was originally a baptismal creed and the other two were written in response to specific heresies, not as a source of unity. Plus, which Nicene Creed are we talking about. Do we include the Filoque clause that teaches the Spirit proceeds from the Son or not? This is a serious matter to the Eastern Orthodox church. This, in my opinion , is forcing something on these creeds that they were not made to do, namely be the definition of the essentials of the Christian faith. My theological objection is that I do not believe these creeds sufficiently cover the basics of Christianity. Paul makes clear in Galatians 1:8-9 that the gospel is essential and those who reject it or pervert it are to be accursed. That book goes on to talk about the gospel and deals mainly with justification by faith, a subject not covered in any of those three creeds. Thus, if I am to be faithful to Paul’s words, I need more than those historic trio of creeds.
5. The Heinousness of Schism – Here I will claim ignorance. The claim is made by Mr. Bonomo that division in the body of Christ is as bad as propositional heresy. This I have not thought over enough to comment upon. I also would like to investigate the idea of schism without some sort of underlying sin and/or heresy being involved. Is it possible for a schism to occur without some deeper issue being involved? I prefer to ask for more time to study this issue before I agree or disagree with this one.
6. The Hope for Inter-Confessional Unity – To this one I must strongly object. Mr. Bonomo argues “All Christians ought to hope for a day when believers in Christ from all the various orthodox confessional traditions can exist in one visible Body while yet retaining their confessional identities. This may seem impossible from our perspective, but with God all things are possible.” What I do not understand is why? Why cannot I hope for a day when people from various confessional traditions exist in one Body and share the same confession? I believe that Baptist churches are Christian churches. However, why would I ever hope to have a church where some people believed in baptizing children and some did not? Why should we not hope for a day when Baptists give up their position and join in agreement with the Heidelberg Catechism? As Mr. Bonomo says, ‘with God all things are possible’. I do not think that visible unity should come at such an obvious theological disunity. Can real unity be based on so little? I don’t think so.
7. The Catholicity of the Reformation – Here we are reminded that the Reformation was a movement within the catholic Church. Now, if ‘catholic’ here means ‘universal’ or ‘historic’, then I am in agreement. If it is meant ‘Roman Catholic”, then I disagree. I do not believe the Reformation was really a movement within the Roman Catholic Church. Luther burned the papal bulls, which is just revolutionary as it was reformatory. Others left their monastic vows being convinced they were completely wrong. Other disobeyed their bishops and ran the churches according to the Word of God rather than the word of the bishops. There were plenty of reform movements within the Roman Church. See the Cluniacs for example. They never rejected the fundamentals of their church such as the primacy of Rome, and they were successful reform movements. The Reformation was not like that at all.
8. Non-Protestant Communions are Christian Churches – Again this I believe is wrong. Perhaps this one goes back to my earlier disagreement about the nature of the essentials of the gospel. However, I do not believe that the Eastern Orthodoxy nor the Roman Catholic have valid ministries of the word or sacraments. While some in those churches may trust Jesus Christ for their salvation and be saved, it does not validate the system of those churches just as God speaking through Balaam’s donkey does not validate taking advice from farm animals.
9. Sola Scriptura not Solo Scriptura – Here I would like to see some clarification. Things that concern me in this section are the tendecy to talk about the Church as an institution and not as people. If the Scripture is given to the Church for Her to interpret, how is that different from saying that Scripture is given to the people of God for them to interpret? Are we saying that only the professionals of the Church have the right to make applications and interpretations from the Scripture? Are we saying that the Church is something different than the people of God called out from the world? This phrase also concerns me, "The Scriptures are for the Church, to be interpreted and expounded upon within the context of the church’s life, as she is led along by the working of the Spirit to reveal to her the glorious truths contained therein." Here it seems like one is arguing for theological development throughout time, but it is unclear especially when considered next to the claim that we should hold historic truths in reverence. I would like this phrase parsed out more. I am against the idea that new truths within the word will be revealed that previous generations could never have known or understood. I am not against the idea that new technologies will lead to new applications of age-old truth.
10. The Need for an Apologetic for Our Times – An apologetic for unity is not a bad idea, but this list is a search for exactly what that means. Also I see the verses listed where unity is commended, but there are also verses where disunity is commended. ‘What fellowship does Christ have with Belial?’ or that Jesus came to ‘divide mother and daughter, brother and sister’ or that the Word is ‘sharper than a two-edged sword able to divide bone and marrow’. The Word is a sword and swords cleave not unite. I wish that would be taken into consideration more in any future apologetic for unity.
11. The Need for a Proper Christian Epistemology – I am all in favor of sound Christian Epistemology. I do not consider myself a follower of Enlightenment thought nor do I think I am a Foundationalists. These are popular critiques right now. However, what confuses me is this phrase, "From a proper Christian perspective, truth ought to be conceived irreducibly as an incarnate, crucified, resurrected, divine Person, through faith in whom all of our seeking of understanding must be mediated." What exactly does that mean? Is this a denial that truth is propositional? Is it stating truth is only relational? What exactly is in view here?
12. Moving Past a Hermeneutic of Suspicion – I can agree with this. We need not always think the worst of one another. Christian brothers and sisters ought to be given benefit of the doubt at all times and that Reformed People can find great biblical insights in the words of a Baptist minister or a Presbyterian pastor. It should be pointed out that part of the disagreement here is over who exactly should be considered Christian and that debate has impact in this section, but I can agree that too often people glory in controversy.

I hope that this post furthers and prompts much discussion. I will try to make sure and send a trackback to the Evangelical Catholicity blog in an attempt to have a fruitful discussion about some of these principles. I look forward to any comments.


Jonathan said...


Thanks for taking the time to interact with my list of principles. Obviously, we both have some fundamental disagreements on a few things, so I won't belabor any points where I think those different principles are the real issue.

Just to touch on a few things that stand out to me:

1. I was clear at the outset that I was not trying to make any arguments, but just to summarize certain principles which condition my ecumenical concern. A defense of the principles was not intended, and I don't intend to enter into a formal defense of them here.

2. I disagree with you about the Creeds never being unifying documents. They were meant to distinguish the orthodox, catholic believers from the unorthodox heretics. In this way they have always served as symbols of catholic, orthodox, Christian union. This is even the case with the baptismal formula of the Ap. Creed, as the baptizand was entering into union with the catholic church by being baptized into the one body which professes the apostolic faith.

3. With regard to the Nicene Creed and the filioque, I don't think the filioque ought to be considered an essential article by the Western churches.

4. With regard to the relation between schism, sin, and heresy: there is always underlying sin where schism is involved. And yes, heresy and schism are also intertwined. In my view, the great sin of the Roman communion is her schism: making unbiblical doctrines obligatory upon the entire church and supporting this with an appeal to infallibility is about as schismatic as it gets, in my book.

5. As for inter-confessional unity: yes, I agree that it is to be supremely desired that all Christians agree on everything. Problem is that this will not happen unless we first acknowledge our oneness in Christ, which is the basis for my saying that inter-confessional unity is to be desired. If your debates were "in house" rather than "us vs. them," then eventual agreement would be much more realistic.

6. When I use the word catholic, or catholicity, I never, ever, mean "Roman Catholic." I always without exception mean the historical, universal, orthodox church. In the Western church of the sixteenth century prior to the Reformation, the only churches which were part of this catholic Church were in communion with the Roman pontiff, but after the Reformation this was not so. But in being excommunicated by the Roman pontiff the Reformers were not excommunicated from the catholic (that is, the universal, historical, orthodox) church. This is the basic point. It works similarly against Rome and against revolutionaries who want no part of the historical church.

7. Regarding the passages like "what fellowship has Christ with Belial," I of course agree that these need to be heeded. But in my view, these imply the need for Christians to separate from non-Christians and non-Christian practices, not from other Christians. Of course, we disagree on what exactly consitutes a Christian, but that's another topic for another day.

8. In my view, truth is not propositional in nature but it always takes on propositional form. Thus, propositions are right and necessary, but they are not the *essence* of truth.

Again, thanks.