Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Ecclesial Deism"

That is the title of an insightful piece authored by Bryan Cross at Called to Communion. Here's an excerpt:

[Albert] Mohler[, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary] claims that we have an “objective standard” by which to define what is and what is not Christianity. That objective standard is “traditional Christian orthodoxy.” But this subtly pushes back the question: What is the objective standard for what counts as “traditional Christian orthodoxy”? Mohler appeals to the early creeds, and the first four ecumenical councils. He seems to think that the end of the fifth century is roughly the cutoff for “traditional Christian orthodoxy.” But picking the fifth century as the cutoff for “traditional Christian orthodoxy” is no less ad hoc than picking the first century. If one thinks that the Church fell into heresy or apostasy, there is no more principled reason to think the ‘apostasy of the Church’ did not begin for five hundred years than there is to think it began in the first century.

Moreover, the first five centuries of Christian tradition are replete with beliefs and practices that Mohler rejects. I described some of them above, in laying out those points concerning which I, as a Protestant, believed that the Church had been corrupted. The bishops who wrote the Nicene Creed, which Mohler treats as part of the orthodox tradition, were the bishops at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea in AD 325 and at the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in AD 381. But Baptists such as Mohler reject both the doctrine of apostolic succession and the episcopal form of Church polity which all those bishops believed and practiced.4

Baptists reject what all those bishops believed and taught as being essential to the Christian faith regarding baptismal regeneration: “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”5 Many of the canons of the Council of Nicea (AD 325) do not even make sense from a Baptist point of view. Mohler is critical of the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (AD 431) in its declaration of Mary as the ‘Theotokos,’ claiming that doing so “brought ill effects upon the Catholic Church.”6 He accepts the Christology taught by the Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon, AD 451), but rejects the teaching of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, 553 AD) which affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary,7 claiming that it “moved Roman Catholic theology and devotion increasingly away from the Holy Scriptures and toward human innovation.”8 And he rejects the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea, AD 787) in its condemnation of iconoclasm.

The problem here is that Mohler’s position faces a very serious dilemma regarding the tradition to which he is appealing as the basis for “Christian orthodoxy.” On the one hand, Mohler cannot reject the tradition of the early Church, because that would make his own position fail to count as “traditional Christian orthodoxy,” and thus fail to count as “Christian,” by the very same argument he uses to claim that Mormonism is not Christian. On the other hand, Mohler cannot embrace the tradition of the early Church, because, as shown above, in many important ways that tradition is incompatible with his own Baptist theology.

How does Mohler deal with this dilemma? He adopts a pick-and-choose approach. This approach attempts to avoid the dilemma raised above by methodologically, though not explicitly, counting as ‘traditional’ [as in "traditional Christian orthodoxy"] only whatever the Church said and did that agrees with or is at least compatible with one’s own interpretation of Scripture. ‘Tradition’ becomes whatever one agrees with in the history of the Church, such as the Nicene Creed or Chalcedonian Christology.

This pick-and-choose approach to the tradition shows that it is not the fact that an Ecumenical Council declared something definitively that makes it ‘authoritative’ for Mohler. What makes it ‘authoritative’ for Mohler is that it agrees with his interpretation of Scripture. If he encounters something in the tradition that seems extra-biblical or opposed to Scripture he rejects it. For that reason, tradition does not authoritatively guide his interpretation. His interpretation picks out what counts as tradition, and then this tradition informs his interpretation.

The problem with the pick-and-choose approach is that it is entirely ad hoc insofar as one picks and chooses from among Church Fathers and councils only those statements one agrees with, to be ‘authoritative.’ In this way Mohler is engaging in special pleading: he criticizes Mormonism for selectively rejecting the Christian tradition, while he himself selectively rejects the Christian tradition. So in order to serve as the standard for “Christian orthodoxy,” the distinction between what counts as tradition, and what does not, must be principled. Yet Mohler’s theology has no conceptual space for a principled basis for this distinction. The result is that Mohler identifies tradition in the same way that an archer might paint a target around an arrow he has already shot into a wall.

So the dilemma is this: either he makes an ad hoc appeal to tradition, and thus commits the fallacy of special pleading, or he gives up his appeal to tradition, and thereby loses that by which he tries to draw a principled distinction between the methodologies whereby Baptists and Mormons determine whether particular traditions are in line with Scripture or are ungodly accretions.

A further and particularly significant implication of this ad hoc approach to the tradition is that it undermines the basis for believing the canon of the Bible to be correct. If the Church erred in so many doctrines and practices, then we have no basis for believing that the Church got the canon right. It would be ad hoc to trust that the Church got the canon right while believing that the Church got so many other things wrong during that same period of time.9

In that case we cannot justifiably use our interpretation of Scripture to determine which traditions agree with our interpretation and which traditions do not, because we do not know which books are Scripture. Nor, for the same reason, can we use our interpretation of Scripture to determine which books of the Bible belong there, because that would be to assume at the outset precisely what we do not know, i.e., the canon. As a result, those who claim that the Church deviated from orthodoxy at an early point in history, and use Scripture to show this, undermine the very basis for their assurance that the book they hold in their hand is canonically inerrant. They must either turn to critical scholarship, or resort to some internal voice that they perceive to be from the Holy Spirit, in order to verify the canon, before they can use the canon to evaluate the tradition of the early Church.

Read the whole thing here.

1 comment:

Geoffrey Miller said...

Mormons believe there are infinitely many gods who are in reality super-powerful alien warlords ruling over multiple star-systems; it doesn't take a meticulously worked-out hermeneutic of Church history to know they aren't Christian.

The author of the quoted article is needlessly complicating matters, in the extreme.