Peter Leithart and the Return of Pontificator’s Laws

Since starting Eclectic Orthodoxy three years ago, I have generally tried to avoid ecclesiological debates and churchly apologetics. I know from personal experience how spiritually destructive these polemics can be. We want to prove to others why we were right to leave _____ and become _____. We want to demonstrate the moral, theological, spiritual superiority of our new denominational (or non-denominational) home. When I left the Episcopal Church and became Roman Catholic, I did so in a very public way. I wanted to emulate my then-hero John Henry Newman. Well, things didn’t work out as I hoped. I am no Newman. Within two years my spiritual world was crumbling around me, within me.

Apologetics is a thin reed on which to justify a conversion. No matter how strong you think your arguments are, there’s always someone out there who can offer persuasive counter-argument. One thing I learned: ecclesial zeal can quickly become a deadly ideology that kills the soul.

Yet while I have tried to avoid ecclesiological polemics, I am neither a doctrinal nor ecclesiological relativist. I have a great deal of respect and affection for Protestant Christianity, but I remain convinced that it is a doomed experiment that cannot withstand the nihilistic winds of modernity.

A couple of weeks ago Peter Leithart contributed an article to the “What I Want From Catholics” series over at the Ethika Politika blog. His subtitle tells it all: “Become More Protestant.” Nothing surprising, of course. I would expect a Presbyterian to want the Roman Catholic Church to become … well … more Protestant, just as the Orthodox wish the Roman Catholic Church would become more Orthodox. But when Leithart says “Protestant,” he really means it. I used to be a Protestant (Anglican), but I was never a Protestant-Protestant. Let’s quickly go down his list:

1) The Catholic Church needs to abandon the claim to papal infallibility. Check. Can’t disagree. This is an ecumenical stumbling block, not just for Protestants but also for the Orthodox.

But is Leithart also demanding that the Roman Church (and by implication the Orthodox Church) abandon all notions of irreformable dogma? I suspect he is—sola scriptura and all that. No thank you. If the history of Protestantism reveals anything, it is that the Church cannot do without dogma. The practice of sola scriptura inevitably leads to the dilution of catholic substance and identity. As Richard John Neuhaus astutely observed several years ago: “Almost five hundred years after the sixteenth-century divisions, the realization grows that there is no via media. The realization grows that orthodoxy and catholicity can be underwritten only by Orthodoxy and Catholicism.”

2) The Pope needs to give up his claim to exclusive primacy.

I presume that Leithart is here referring to the claim of Vatican I that the Pope enjoys ordinary, immediate, and episcopal jurisdiction over all the Churches. Check. Can’t disagree. This is another ecumenical stumbling block that is hard to justify on the basis of either Scripture or Church history. But to Leithart’s reduction of Roman primacy to an honorary “first among equals,” an Orthodox counter-proposal may be offered (see, for example, the article by Met Elpidophorus Lambriniadis, this interview with Met John Zizioulas, and Adam Deville’s book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy). The Catholic Church grievously over-reached with Vatican I, but God may have bigger plans for the Pope than just being the bishop of the Diocese of Rome.

3) The Catholic Church needs to regard its convictions regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary as speculative opinions. Leithart is blunt:

I want Catholics to stop spreading pious falsehoods about Mary. Protestants have unjustly neglected Mary’s central role in the Bible and redemption, but Catholic Marian dogmas are a cure worse than the disease. I want Catholics to honor Mary by giving up inventions like the immaculate conception and the assumption. Failing that, I would be content if these speculations were treated as speculative opinions rather than dogmas.

Oh my. How Protestant indeed. The deeply-held convictions of catholic Christians regarding the Blessed Virgin are nothing but “pious falsehoods”? This is what happens to churches that are divorced from the liturgical and spiritual life of the catholic Churches. Orthodox Christians have their own questions and complaints about the papal dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but they stand with Roman Catholics in their love and veneration of the Theotokos (see my series on this topic).

Leithart has more to say, but I think I’ve said enough to give you the gist of his critique.

About a decade ago, when I was blogging as the Pontificator, I invented a hendecalogue of axioms. (Why I stopped at eleven, I do not know.) I called them “Pontificator’s Laws.” They weren’t intended to be taken too seriously but rather to provoke debate—and to that end they succeeded admirably.  I would probably want to reformulate some of them today, but it’s probably best to allow them to stand as they are, as historical witness to my ecclesiological state of mind back then.

The first law generated the most discussion, and I was reminded of it when I read Leithart’s article:

When Orthodoxy and Catholicism agree, Protestantism loses.

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38 Responses to Peter Leithart and the Return of Pontificator’s Laws

  1. it would be interesting to see how you’d revise your ‘pontificator’s laws’ at this point.

    Myself, i’d offer the following modification to your third law: You wrote, “It’s one thing to read Scripture and the Fathers; it’s quite another thing to read Scripture through the Fathers.”

    I’d suggest adding, “and yet another to read the Fathers through the Scripture.”

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  2. I can’t help but think that Pope Francis is trying to do some of the very things mentioned in reforming the church for the future. As a suspicious protestant myself, I can’t help but think that while Protestants try to take the splinters out of the Roman Catholic Church’s eye, they continue to miss the beam in their own eye which is why they can not see that “fullness” and “catholicity” are the way forward for us all.

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  3. I think I’ll go to the “doctrinally sound” church. What good is free coffee if there’s no air conditioning?

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  4. Jehan says:

    A few late entries:
    When the Saducees and Pharisees agree, someone’s about to get crucified.
    When the Bible alone is our authority, we might try actually reading it.
    The pope is infallible. Can I get some rice now?
    When Orthodoxy and Catholicism agree, Protestantism loses … what exactly?
    a. its patience b. its lunch c. Mrs. Zebedee’s namecards at the right and left hand d. its long-running correspondence game of scrabble with the Coptic pope e. its chance to finally unify the st. thomas christians f. its bourgeois respectability or g. all of the above.

    Francis: “Hey let’s have a church picnic in Nicea in ten years”
    Bartholomew: “Sounds good”
    Martin Luther: “You sunk my battleship!”
    Bartholomew: “Pollution–not a fan”
    Francis: “Laudato si!”
    Martin Luther: “There goes my carrier, that’s definitely going to leave a slick.”

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  5. Nabi Safl says:

    Lol. Now that you bring it up, I suppose the history of the Saint Thomas Christians is itself proof of the need for primacy.

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  6. Edward De Vita says:

    With regard to papal primacy, the teaching of Vatican I needs to be placed within the broader context of episcopal collegiality, as expressed in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The following words of David Bentley Hart from his essay “The Myth of Schism” are apropos here:

    “As regards the doctrine of papal infallibility, and especially the claim that the definition of dogma by the pope proceeds ex sese et non ex consensu ecclesiae, two comments seem worth making. The first is that, taking the doctrine again in its most minimal form, the claim of infallibility is inoffensive: if indeed the Holy Spirit speaks to the mind of the church, and the church promulgates infallible doctrine, and the successor of Peter enjoys the privilege of enunciating doctrine, then whenever he speaks ex cathedra of course he speaks infallibly; this is almost a tautology. It is the question, obviously, of how one gets to that point that is all the object of our contention. As for the claim that it is not reached ex consensu, the only real question is whether this is a prior or a posterior condition. That is to say, what does it imply regarding the authority of councils, or other patriarchates, or tradition? Obviously Rome denies that the pontiff could generate doctrine out of personal whim. And, after all, clearly it is true that no doctrine could possibly follow from the consensus of the church, if for no other reason than that the church is not democracy, and truth is not something upon which we vote. That said, I do not wish to conjure this issue away, and I would that the definition had never been pronounced; but this I can say: it is not clear to me that, as formulated, the doctrine destines us to perpetual division. It can, I suspect, be integrated into a fully developed teaching regarding conciliarity, one that can accommodate a certain magisterial privilege that is unique, but not isolated from the charisms of episcopal collegiality.”

    The manner in which the Church has historically made decisions with regard to doctrine is somewhat more messy than many Catholics think. At the same time, I do believe that history does bear witness to a unique authority held by the bishops of Rome. But, as DBH states above, this authority does not imply any power of the bishop of Rome to simply generate doctrine out of a personal whim (though, the way some of my fellow Catholics sometimes speak, one would think that this is indeed the teaching of the Catholic Church). Historians of the First Vatican Council will tell you that all of the Fathers of that council were aware that there were limits to papal authority, but did not expressly state what these limits were. Hence, as even Blessed John Henry Newman admitted, Vatican I cannot be taken as the last word on all things papal.

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    • Dustin says:

      Thank you so much for putting Vatican 1 in its proper context, Edward; great quote from DBH!

      Due to the Franco-Prussian War, the Council never officially closed, and what got laid on the table concerning the Bishop of Rome, was one chapter of a larger treatise on the nature of the Church. The rest of the material found its way into subsequent Encyclicals and ultimately into the Vatican 2 documents (e.g., Lumen Gentium). Some prominent Eastern Catholics and Orthodox helped influence the ecclesiology espoused in the documents. What’s ironic and sad is that some Catholics and non-Catholics alike both promote the strawman/caricature of the Pope/Papacy as a one-man-show, running things from high atop his pyramid, making up things on a whim.

      I like what Pope Francis is doing right now with regard to an emphasis on synodality; he seems to be on the trajectory of Pope St John Paul II and Pope Benedict, both of whom called for reform – specifically in the context of Catholic-Orthodox reunion.

      That is something I pray for every day, and will continue to do so. It’s something that’s very heavy on my heart.

      Again, thank you so much for contextualizing things fairly. I appreciate that.

      God bless you.

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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Does the Herr Leithart consider himself – and what he seems to consider “Protestants” – as holding “speculative opinions” regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary? If not, why not? Whence and when has the Gnosis descended upon him that so distinguishes him from, e.g., Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Bullinger?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You’ll have to ask Leithart, David. I would imagine that he would invoke the authority of Holy Scripture at this point.

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      • Cal says:

        If you really want to understand Leithart, read Jim Jordan.

        And though I dislike Leithart in someways, I don’t see necessarily how odious this piece really is. He replied, and it was posted, what an “evangelical” (so broadly defined! He is hardly the standard voice!) thinks about Rome. Leithart may come off rather authoritative in a capacity that makes no real sense (he really has no authority), but these are just his opinions

        Why not capitalize on the similarities than the dissonances? Orthodoxy denies Papal Infallibility, exclusive primacy, and certain dogmatic statements regarding Mary. Why become the cartoon you post above? Why not be able to appreciate the right Protestants have, in whichever in the varied positions, and the right Rome has, and not pick a side. The Pontificator Law is silly. Why not take St. Gregory the Theologian’s point ala the honey bees?

        peace,
        cal

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          What I find curious is how far so much of (“Reformed”) “Protestantism” has moved from capitalizing on the similarities where certain dogmatic statements regarding Mary are concerned.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I don’t know I have heard of, or read anything by, Dr. Leithart before, and have no sense of the scope of his “like the” in the sentence “I want Catholics to honor Mary by giving up inventions like the immaculate conception and the assumption.” Or, for that matter, the force of “dogmas” in his phrase “Catholic Marian dogmas”. Is he solely objecting the the promulgation of the Immaculate Conception in Ineffabilis Deus and of the Assumption in Munificentissimus Deus as necessary to be believed? It does not seem so. But how would he “invoke the authority of Holy Scripture”? In a way that Richard Hooker generally shows unconvincing? I have yet to encounter a convincing argument that the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are inescapably incompatible with Holy Scripture.

        It would be interesting to see what his response would be to John McHugh’s The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament (1975).

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Thank you for this with its additional details! It seems to show him as (for whatever reason) pretty much on the (odd) contemporary (Reformed) “Protestant” side of the divide from Swiss Reformers (Zwingli, Calvin, Bullinger) as well as others, and indeed (for whatever reason) exhibiting no awareness that he is attributing to Rome – as errors – things that are shared by the Orthodox and (many of) the (most prominent) C16 Reformers. Again (for whatever reason), rather than making any case for any of the things he lists being errors, he simply in a bizarre hyperpontifical manner declares them so. Leithart locuta, causa finita!

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    • Perhaps the “speculative opinions” that Leithart has in mind are the ones based on the non-canonical Protoevangelium of St James and the very unlikely Augustinian construal of eph ho at Romans 5:12. They are speculative in that the whole undivided Church of the M1 did not canonize the Protoevangelium as scripture and in that the Church in the East embraced a radically different understanding of the Fall, leaving the opinions without an agreed foundation. What the undivided Church did not teach is indeed speculative when compared with what the undivided Church did teach. Whether local churches should give up their speculative opinions pending reunion of the Church is another matter.

      The question when the Gnosis descended is a worthwhile historical problem. By intuition or temperament, the most traditional voices in the C16– Luther on his side, certain Italians at Trent on their side– were often more nearly correct than their Swiss and German allies, but no side had the accurate and comprehensive historical knowledge of the tradition that we might accept as an epistemic ground for their views. So the Gnosis surely had not descended then, and both sides were partially wrong on such central ecclesiological questions as the self-understanding of the Church in the East and the nature of the sacrament of ordination. Nor had the Gnosis descended on the patrologists and Byzantinists of the C17-C18, important as their researches would later prove to be. French and German scholars had other concerns; Protestant scholars worked in a paradigm of ahistorical scholasticism. Throughout this period, polarization between the northwest and the southwest of Europe deepened, and both *sola scriptura* and *scripture and tradition* were progressively radicalized.

      However late in the long C18, the influence of the Greek fathers on the Wesleys– however extensive that actually was– showed the pattern of the future. By the turn of the C19, the Gnosis had begun to descend on archives, libraries, and presses, forcing honest scholars and the rare clergy who read them to acknowledge continuities and discontinuities subversive of the polarization in the West. Among the Reformed, to stick with the present case, the mid-C19 Mercersburg-Princeton controversies over the Real Presence are precursors of the still controversial catholicism of James Jordan and Peter Leithart today. Indeed– Cal knows Jordan better than I do– Leithart might well have written several of the Pontificator’s Laws in his own huge body of work. Which answers the question, but poses another.

      Since Catholics and Orthodox do not recognize each other’s M2 innovations, then it would seem that both agree in practice with Protestants who regard them as suspect. So given that every proposed doctrine that divides Christians is from the divided Church of the M2, why should these proposals not given a lower status– “speculative opinions” seems harsh but does indicate the problem– than the agreed doctrine of the M1, pending the reunion of the Church? And until the Church is reunited, what is actually wrong with resorting to the scriptures to evaluate M2 innovations, as the first Reformers did? After all, the Augburg Confession affirms the Pope’s role as a convenor of ecumenical councils just as many Orthodox do, affirms the ancient traditions of the Church, and assumes that they agree with scripture; it only draws the line at Article XXII– the use of papal power to impose recent innovations in the north of the West. Rejection of this irenic position did not restore the unity of the Church. Why not accept it?

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thank you for the detailed response, much of which I am too ignorant of particulars to evaluate – for example, as to “the still controversial catholicism of James Jordan and Peter Leithart”.

        I don’t think there is anything “actually wrong with resorting to the scriptures to evaluate M2 innovations, as the first Reformers did”, but something like the Assumption as compatible with Scripture is not an M2 innovation, of which the first Reformers seem to have a better grasp than many (or even most?) contemporary (Reformed) “Protestants” – when and why did that grasp slip, to be too often replaced by an unpersuasive unexamined pseudo-certainty?

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        • A return to apostolic order was probably the most popular reforming ideal of the late medieval West, though not of all of the reformers. As realized among the C16 Swiss Reformed, this return was effected by applying the methods of literary humanism to the authenticated apostolic writings to establish a replicable model of the C1 church. Following that method, a tradition that was *compatible* with the canon but was not explicitly in it was not included in the model. The Assumption is such a tradition. Objections to that omission were (and still are) met by appeal to the intrinsic authority of the witnesses of the Resurrection and the rationality of the exegetical method. In general, those following the Swiss Reformed more or less closely have understood the incarnation in a way that obliquely undercuts sacramental realism, the visibility of the Church, and marian devotion. Some of them abolished Christmas.

          In principle, C16 Lutherans and Anglicans (= English Reformed) agreed with the appeal to scripture, but practiced reform as the elimination of abuse rather than as a return to a lost ideal, and used the gospel known to the ecumenical councils rather than the Swiss reconstruction from the NT as their criterion. By that criterion, the incarnation is an evangelical doctrine that is well served by some minimal marian devotion. Following the liturgical understanding of the age, Luther’s Deutsche Messe was a mess, but it still had an Ave Maria. Cranmer’s calendar still includes the Annunciation. Among both Lutherans and Anglicans, traditionalists of later centuries have broadened their marianism to include a liturgy on August 15.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            I think it is fair to say that the sola scriptura rule, as exercised in the Reformed and evangelical traditions is ultimately reductionistic, which is why these traditions have such a difficult time holding onto the fullness of the Church’s sacramental life. From time to time reformers within the Reformed tradition, like Schaff and Nevin, come around and advocate a return to patristic theology and practice, yet the sola scriptura principle always trumps their reforming proposals. We see this at work in Leithart, e.g., with his rejection of eucharistic adoration and the veneration of icons.

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          • Cal says:

            Fr. Aidan,

            There is a difference between sola scriptura meaning ‘Scripture is the final authority’ and meaning ‘Scripture is the only authority’. This is a major rhetorical distinction that had effects on future theologizing (for both camps both goods and bads).

            I’m sorry, but your quick comment ironically is itself reductionistic of the complexity that the Reformation unleashed. The Westminster Confession operates as a secondary authority for many Presbyterians, but is itself a product of a strangely optimistic, rationalistic era, fully saturated with Aristotle and certain paradigm-shifts in the sciences.

            The problem with Schaff and the Mercersburg theology was that it was highly intellectualized. It was not publicly resourcing the patristics as much as using Hegelian metaphysics to make sense of today (i.e. synthesizing). For most people, what they said really didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and was not truly communicable (that’s my read anyway).

            This is the same problem with Leithart in many ways, though he’s trying to break out of it. For the longest time, his effects were limited to a well-read cadre of Reformed minded people who were willing to change (hence his ‘doctor’ status amongst the CREC).

            You have to read Leithart if you want to know why he has those particular problems. It is not an aftershock of slippery-slope of sola-scriptura so-called.

            cal

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Cal, I’m aware of the difference between sola scriptura and solo scriptura (see, e.g., the articles I wrote on the topic in 2004-2006); but in Reformed and evangelical practice, I suggest, it really doesn’t make a great deal of difference, as I think is evidenced in Leithart. Leithart ends up rejecting catholic beliefs and practices that any Reformed Christian would reject (eucharistic adoration, invocation of the Theotokos and the saints, veneration of icons and sacred artifacts, etc., etc.). Needless to say, both Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy construe the relationship between Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition very differently. And that is the polemical point of Pontificator’s First Law.

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          • The diagnosis is complicated by a coincidence of symptoms. The patient does exhibit very pronounced *sola scriptura*, but also a grave *testimonium internum*, and an advanced stage of *electio particularis*. Were the patient an epistemological reliabilist (Lutheran), or an ecclesiological incorporativist (Lutheran, Anglican), or both, his *sola scriptura*, especially if mild, might not be so injurious to his health. And it may be that the comorbidity of *testimonium internum* and *electio particularis* would be enough to make him sick with or without an aggavating *sola scriptura*.

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          • Cal says:

            Fr. Aidan,

            I’m not trying to defend Leithart on this count, but relying on an atmospheric similarity between Rome and Orthodoxy to bounce away potential Protestant objections/complaints.

            Leithart is an oddball, hardly representative of Reformed or evangelical (so-called) Christianity though this is a role he is trying to fill. In regards to eucharistic adoration, his complaint would probably look similar to Anglican complaints against Rome, i.e. namely, that veneration and gazing substitutes for participation (the ‘Take-and-Eat’).

            I don’t know if you read Leithart at all. This is a very strange place for him. He and Jim Jordan (and others like them) are at a strange place. At once, they try to re-present the voice of Magisterial Protestantism from the 16th century, which is very different than any body that would call upon them as their descendents. In another, they take a very Post-Millenial stance, almost a psuedo Right-Heglianism. In this they are actually much closer to people like Cardinal Newman. They’d dispute the history, but they’d both argue in terms of developing doctrine and growing church.

            I know on paper Rome denies this argument, but functionally many of Rome’s ablest defenders adapt and use this (particular I’m thinking of Bp. Robert Baron). This is a place I thought Orthodox and some other Protestants would be able to agree, since Rome is slipping down this way. In someways, some of Rome’s overreaches can only be explained in this way.

            For this reason, lumping Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in this way does disservice to the very particular nuances and differences that Holy Scripture and Tradition interact. Pontificator’s Law #1 elides the different trajectories. It seems overly polemical when there are deeper problems at stake.

            And, pen-finally, maybe I’m an idiot, but why continue to allow the concept of ‘sola-scriptura’ to divide? Every Christian calls Scripture ‘Kanon’, meaning ‘rule-stick’, meaning that this is a written arbiter of the Faith. The argument is how this ‘Kanon’ is deployed, where it is deployed, and why it is deployed. The Protestants trumpeted ‘sola-scriptura’ in part because they were convicted that a) every man ought to read Scripture, if possible & b) Scripture is the ‘final’ authority on what constitutes our understanding of God, ourselves, and the world.

            Neither of these are bad in-and-of-themselves (this is where how-where-why questions come into play) and we all profit from them.

            Ultimately, there are serious divisions between Rome, East, and non-Rome West. Let’s not turn this into trying to move two points against one.

            PS. Bowman: I’m sure you have particular formulations and histories in the till, but I don’t see what is horrible distorting about an ‘electio particularis’? In an essence, it affirms God’s particular call upon our life, His predestinating love out of eternity. God’s particular choosing does not entail a zero-sum game, erase notions of Christ’s primary election, or necessitate all sorts of speculative madness of particularly Calvinistic flavors. Can we not assert a particular-election that looks like Augustine’s Confessions? One that includes the Church as our mother? St. Augustine was taught by St. Ambrose!

            cal

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Cal, I accept your criticism that Pontificator’s First Law elides the differences between Roman and Orthodox construals of Scripture and Tradition. I understood that ten years ago when I first proposed it. It was intended as a whimsical way to challenge Protestant rejection of practices and beliefs that are shared in common by Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Died-in-the-wool Protestants aren’t fazed by it in the least, of course; but they were not my conversation partners eleven years ago. At the time my conversation partners were principally evangelical catholics (Anglican and Lutheran), like myself, who were struggling with the question whether they could faithfully remain within their respective Protestant communities.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            You ask, Cal, why continue to allow sola scriptura to divide? I guess it all depends on how it is defined and employed. It will always divide if Protestants employ it to reject beliefs and practices that are shared by Orthodox and Catholics. In addition to the old articles on sola scriptura to which I directed you yesterday, also take a look at my old articles on Sacred Tradition. I haven’t look at them in years, so I don’t know what I would now affirm and what I would not; but I know that I would still affirm, with Richard Swinburne, that the sola scriptura rule is hermeneutically incoherent. It just doesn’t work.

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          • Cal, my concern is not with any one of the three in its best form, but with an antisacramental effect of some interactions among their usual forms. For example, the combination of an internalist epistemology with particular election has made a realist understanding of baptism rather difficult. This is why, with respect to baptism, the Federal Vision encourages a reliabilist epistemology and rounds out the decretal elect with the covenantal elect. We could discuss this offline if you like.

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          • Fr Aidan, in Peter Leithart’s original article about what he wants from Catholics, he is mostly wishing that the Catholic church would drop anything whatsoever that supposes that people in church are peasants rather than citizens. The Reformed do offer a polite sola scriptura rationale for their aniconic devotion, but since St John of Damascus offered a better scriptural rationale for icons, that hardly reflects any deficiency in scripture. Rather, it reflects the way a different normative ethos has influenced their reading of the Bible.

            In the C16, even Lutherans and Anglicans, to say nothing of Catholics and Orthodox, adapted the patron-client relationships essential to more aristocratic societies to religious uses. Those relationships are still the models of the Lutheran and Anglican understandings of ministry, the Catholic and Orthodox invocation of saints, and everybody’s liturgical ceremonial from The Ritual Reason Why to the Sabaite typikon. Less obviously, the favor of one’s patrons was and is necessary to getting proficient iconographers to paint a church, and the space they paint is decidedly not thereafter a public accommodation. In contrast, the Reformed have taken as the universal norm an urban bourgeois ethos in which the household of faith is not the imperial court of an organic society but a civic space open to likeminded individuals. As Benjamin B. Warfield rightly discerned, particular election, not sola scriptura, is the doctrinal center of this Reformed ethos.

            So under their skins, when a Catholic disagrees with a Calvinist over eucharistic adoration, the Catholic argues mainly about the Host but the Calvinist’s unspoken resistance is mainly to the kneeling. Conversely, when they debate sola scriptura, the Catholic maintains that there is no daylight between what the canon says and what the popes teach, while the Calvinist views a mind untransformed by its own immediate immersion in the Word as pitiable and somewhat unclean. There is a crank around here who warns evangelicals against the evils of the Jesus Prayer. “It sounds pious. Who can object to the words? But did you know,” he whispers, “that they say this doing ritual prostrations like you would make to an idol? Hundreds of them! Some do thousands!” So even an aniconic devotion to Jesus Christ himself can feel ominously creepy to someone for whom court ceremonial is as forbidden as a bacon cheeseburger at a bar mitzvah. What began as a clash of social orders in pre-revolutionary Europe survives today as the tension between two social metaphors of the worshipping self.

            http://postbarthian.com/2015/07/11/george-hunsinger-on-the-pathogenicity-of-rationalistic-calvinism/

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          • Thank you, Fr Aidan and Cal, for your thoughts and links to interesting reading. Many are rethinking their notions of sola scriptura and basing life decisions on them.

            My gut tells me that churches have been unsetttled, not because their close readers of scripture have been agreeing too little on what the scriptures say and mean, but because their synods have evolved from administrative bodies overseeing institutions without controversy into politicized bodies perpetually revising the standards of doctrine, discipline, and practice that support koinonia among Christians. Because politics and exegesis do not procedurally mix, sola scriptura is never tested. Rather, as those standards become targets for organized campaigners demanding changes, the standards lose their organic legitimacy. Gradually, all Christians disrespect them, and some abandon the koinonia altogether. Sola scriptura per se has not caused this sort of unsettling.

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          • Cal says:

            One final thought though this discussion has died down:

            Fr. Aidan,

            I guess this is the whole point. On the one side, you’re completely right. A heavy-handed appeal to sola scriptura (not necessarily its practice per se) will break down conversation. It’s the same approach that has birthed liberal Protestantism, and all of its many woes.

            But here is the great opportunity! I am not a Newmanite (I am the Jerry Seinfeld in this situation ;)), I do not think that the Deposit of Faith evolves, though I do believe it ‘incarnates’ (thus requiring attention to context, word choice and order etc.) The Ecumenical Councils represent both a firm articulation of Gospel truths, but (and this is important) they represent the conquest of the Hellenic world. The Patristics successfully (with slips along the way) retooled the best of the Greeks for the purposes of the Bible.

            But we don’t live in a Greek world anymore. This isn’t to say we need to trash the Councils (God forbid), or that they are unintelligible (one philosopher (Whitehead?) said all Western philosophies since Plato are his footnotes). But how do we keep rearticulating?

            Evangelicalism is at a great spot. The Magisterial State-Church Captivity is mostly dead, and the ideas of the Reformation have to fend for themselves. Many are trying to return to the Scripture (as we all must do, individually and corporately) and understand. Here Matthew Levering, for example, is trying to make a biblical appeal to understand Roman Catholic Mariological claims. No Christian can possibly deny that the Scripture is Canon, the ‘rule-stick’ under which we stand (this is a little bold). Of course, one must use a ruler and be taught to use a ruler.

            Orthodoxy needs to recognize that the Spirit is moving amongst the Non-Roman West and be patient to teach and instruct. Orthodoxy has treasures to share and unleash. There are many benefits to understanding the Virgin Mary properly. There must be time to teach and understand, even if many sneer or wag their heads.

            The reason why I first started writing comments here is the same: to use Pontificator’s Law 1 is only going to force a circling of wagons. Appeals to strength (in age or numbers) can only bring up walls and burn down bridges. If Mary is who the Orthodox say she is, the Scripture will testify to this.

            I do not think sola scriptura is a hermeneutical claim, but an epistomelogical one. I think Augustine is right to say Scripture is shallow enough for a child to wade, deep enough for an elephant to bathe. The problem is a rejection of a canonical logic, witnessed in many a father, in moving into deeper and deeper waters. I think Tyndale was right that a ploughboy can open the Scriptures and understand the point (i.e. Jesus is Lord), but that’s not the end point or sum-total reality. The Church stands upon the Apostolic Tradition, along with the Law and Prophets, that the Scripture contains. It is for reproving, rebuking, instructing, encouraging that St. Paul told St. Timothy. This is the wedge to enlighten those who stand outside Orthodoxy and bring a fullness of truth.

            cal

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          • Cal says:

            Addendum: I didn’t go over and say all that I said as if I was telling you something you didn’t know. I just rehashed to make a point. It’s hard to convey tone in writing, so I don’t mean condescension or harshness or attack. I only seek to know the Truth better and dialog helps me know Him.

            cal

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Thanks for your constructive comments, Cal. I appreciate your participation in the conversation.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          By the way, Cal, did you catch my series on St Vincent of Lerins? You may find it of interest.

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  8. James Bonaire says:

    Fr. Kimel,

    If his claims on the papacy are so clearly obvious to you now… I have to ask, what on earth ever would have convinced you to hold a view on the contrary. Meaning, if what Leithart says about the papacy makes so much sense to you why was there ever a time, when you were Roman Catholic, that you would have agreed with the nature and role of the papacy?
    I mean, did you just over look that there was even a papacy when you first became Catholic?

    Yes, there is a bit of snark in my comment…. but I don’t think it’s unwarranted. You yourself admit to having a very public conversion to Catholicism. Sometimes, at least to me, it seems like your current view is more of a ‘rebellion against’ than a ‘thoughtful disagreement with’.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You are right, James, your comment does qualify as snarky and ad hominem. You might want to ask yourself whether you possess the kind of data that would be necessary to any kind of diagnosis and evaluation of my “inner state.”

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    • Any port in a storm. Refugees cannot be blamed for where they find safety.

      The substantive question is whether it is wrong to be a Catholic while believing that the Church in Rome is (1) the focus of global Christian unity, but is not (2) the administrative head of every local church? Probably not. In practice, (2) remains provisional even in Rome, and a believer does not gravely err in picking the wrong side in an ongoing power struggle.

      On the notion of justifiable snark, St Matthew 5:22.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Sometimes, at least to me, it seems like your current view is more of a ‘rebellion against’ than a ‘thoughtful disagreement with’.”

      I thought that I could simply ignore the above statement, but I find I cannot. I have been blogging here on Eclectic Orthodoxy for more than three years. Where, James, either here on EO or elsewhere, have I entered into polemical argument with Catholicism? What have I said that might lead one to reasonably infer that my present convictions are “more of a ‘rebellion against’ than a ‘thoughtful disagreement with'”? The accusation of rebellion implies that deep down inside I believe that the Catholic Church has a claim on my allegiance. But that is just so far from the truth as to be silly, as my family and close friends know. I respect the Roman Catholic Church greatly, as I think my many postings here on EO demonstrate. I just couldn’t survive (personally, spiritually, intellectually, liturgically) within her. That was not an eventuality I anticipated when I became Catholic, but it happened. I am neither angry with the Catholic Church (it wasn’t her fault that I discovered I could not live out my promises) nor am I living (at least in my own eyes) in any kind of rebellion against her. I am embarrassed by the fiasco, but that’s about it.

      I realize that I lost credibility in the eyes of manyRoman Catholics when I left the Catholic Church, just as I lost credibility with many Anglicans when I left the Episcopal Church. That does not concern me. What concerns me is unwarranted public speculation about my psychological and spiritual states.

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      • James Bonaire says:

        My comment was inappropriate and a knee-jerk reaction. My words are a reflection of my weakness, not of yours, Fr. Kimel.

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  9. Karen says:

    The question of the locus of spiritual authority–specifically the nature of the Scripture’s authority and especially *what constitutes the proper interpretive authority* for the Scriptures hit home in a very personal way for me this week.

    My son, who is a freshman in college, has been raised for the last eight years in a hybrid Christian world between my husband’s (and my former) Evangelical church and my Orthodox one where I have had to tread a very careful line to figure out how to nurture his faith in the Reality of Christ and not in a merely nominal understanding of the faith (whether Orthodox or Evangelical). My son is a great guy, faithful in his way, but (like his dad) rooted in the concrete and not at all philosophically or theologically inclined or curious and, in fact, easily intimidated by discussions wading into this territory (unlike his nerdy, bookish mom!).

    This week on campus he was approached by a guy inviting him to a “Christian Bible study” (which he couldn’t attend because he had class). Instead, he met with this guy a couple of times. After the first meeting, he was describing to me what this guy was explaining to him about the meaning of the Scriptures (and set of red flags screaming “cult” went off for me). We encouraged him to get information about the church this guy belonged to, and I cautioned my son it sounded like a cult interpretation of the Bible, not genuinely Christian. Sure enough, exploring their web site and other information on the Internet, it turned out to be a pretty exotic “Western cult” (i.e., using Christian terminology and Scriptures) based in Korea and a lot like the Moonies in many respects! It became clear to me in our discussion my son has been steeped in the nominalism that is so prevalent in popular Evangelical teaching and culture (i.e., “They believe in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior, so they’re Christian, right?” And, “If you believe in Jesus as Son of God and Savior, you’re ‘saved’, right?”), and faces a real struggle of discernment when faced with language that is “biblical”, but which, especially when the full context is exposed, is loaded with an altogether different meaning than that of Christ Himself, Who is the real Meaning of the Scriptures.

    The limits of “Sola Scriptura” as it is predominantly practiced and understood by the average “Bible-based” Protestant Christian in this country becomes distressingly obvious in such a situation!

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    • How providential, Karen, that the mother of your son is so nerdy and bookish 😉

      The refreshingly concrete example of your son sizing up a Korean sect that uses language found in the Bible helpfully illumines why online discussions of sola scriptura are usually not very productive. To some, sola scriptura is a rather narrow but robust epistemological claim, and to others a leveling, populist, authority-averse way of being an American Christian to others.

      To me, and probably to Cal, sola scriptura entails that proficient readers of scripture will normally find consensus on whether the novel doctrines or practices of the Korean sect have been required for salvation by God. If your son is a proficient reader of scripture, or consulted one, we might think sola scriptura relevant to the story. Otherwise, not.

      But to many other able online discussants, sola scriptura entails the opposing idea that the Bible means whatever it might plausibly mean to people who do not know much about it. To them, sola scriptura is the charter not only for whatever quirky novelties the Korean sect proposes, but also for the idea that your son should decide the truth of them by buying a Bible and puzzling over it alone under a tree.

      These are not two sides in a debate; they are positions in two altogether different conversations.

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