Monday, September 05, 2005

The Problem of Authority: Luther, Calvin, and Protestantism, Part II (vs. Kevin Johnson)

By Dave Armstrong (9-5-05)

Kevin's words will be in green.

* * * * * 

Hi Kevin,

Nice to see you.

Interesting post. One question that lingers in my mind regarding what you have written is this…How does Roman Catholicism escape from the same dilemma you pose for the Reformers (that "obvious causal connection between their new principles and the rapidly growing number of Protestant sects") when it is quite clear that the Reformers (and all their "children") were birthed out of Roman Catholicism? After all, both Calvin and Luther were baptized and ordained as Roman Catholic priests.

It depends on how you are defining historical or theological "causation" and "birthing." There is a consistent and an inconsistent way to do that. If you take the view that one group which simply comes out of a milieu of another, following it chronologically, is related to the former group ideologically, or (particularly) consistent with it in principle, you run into all sorts of absurdities. You would have to say that the Gnostics (whom scholars believe even St. John may have been partially responding to in his Gospel) can be explained by early apostolic Christianity, which somehow must "take the blame" for their arising.

Notice that I made my distinction based on "principles" (in the words of mine you cite above). Your argument fails because the "Reformers" clearly changed the principles of authority. That is the bottom line underneath all Protestant-Catholic discussion. We believe in apostolic succession (with emphasis on patristic views), episcopacy, conciliarism, sacerdotalism, the papacy, and the binding nature of sacred Tradition, in harmony with Sacred Scripture.

Protestants changed the rule of faith to sola Scriptura and private judgment, with the corollaries of perspicuity of Scripture and the primacy of the individual conscience over ecclesiastical binding authority, which meant that the highest authority was Scripture as interpreted by the individual (hopefully illumined by the Holy Spirit, etc., but still the primacy of the individual over against ecclesial bodies, when push comes to shove).

You'd have to say that the Monophysites were "caused" (in the sense of "blame") by the Chalcedonian Christology from the Council of 451, which decisively rejected the false theology, or the Sabellians in the same fashion, or the Arians as a result of the Council of Nicaea. This is illogical. Those groups clearly departed from orthodox Christianity, and therefore, cannot be considered as part of it. They either rejected the Trinity or crucial platforms of Christology.

Protestantism is a different case insofar as it remains Christian (Niecene Creed, trinitarianism, Chalcedonianism). But because it changed the principle of authority (I see Luther's statement at Worms in 1521 as the decisive break), it is something fundamentally different, institutionally and authority-wise. This is what my above "dialogue" with Luther is driving at.

We see clearly that sectarianism is directly a result of the new Protestant principles, because every new sect that arises can consistently appeal to the same principles, and no one can say that they are not "allowed" to do so. Protestants have no internally coherent way to resolve these divisions and splits, because they flow from the Protestant rule of faith, and to deny the "right" to split would be to deny the very rule of faith which distinguishes Protestantism from Catholicism. That's the heart of the dilemma, and why it cannot ever be resolved unless the principles underneath are greatly modified or discarded (which in turn would precipitate a Protestant crisis of self-identity).

Martin Luther could oppose Zwingli and Carlstadt and the Anabaptists, but he could not do so on the basis of sola Scriptura and private judgment. He had to do so on autocratic, "I am God's prophet; how dare you disagree with me, you damned blind heretic!" grounds, or else he had to (somewhat inconsistently, as indeed fellow "Reformer" Bullinger pointed out) appeal to Sacred Tradition, in cases where he agreed with it (such as, largely, the Eucharist, and baptism).

The Anglican, "Pontificator" recognizes the same problem, from his perspective, and courageously faces it head on:

Thus the evangelical and Anglo-Catholic share in common the elevation of private judgment over against the authoritative Church.

And this, of course, is precisely what every orthodox Episcopalian shares with every revisionist Episcopalian–the elevation of private judgment over the Tradition and Magisterial teaching of the Church. This is, I am now convinced, the source of our present crisis. Our fatal problem is not the rejection of biblical authority. Our problem is the dual Protestant assertion of sola scriptura and private judgment. This is why the churches of the Reformation have been unable to maintain the catholic faith in the confrontation with modernity. The private individual will always be able to justify to himself and others a new interpretation of the Scriptures. Where did the revisionist learn to pick and choose his doctrines? From the Reformation, of course.
Thus, Protestantism, in terms of its authority structure (not ALL its theology, by any means), is a corruption of Catholicism and historic Christianity (if we include also Orthodoxy), as opposed to a consistent development. Reversal of what came before is not development; it is revolution or rejection. Protestantism is a different animal. And because it is, we see a vastly different history than we have seen in post-16th century Catholicism.

You guys keep splitting and cannot resolve your differences. You can't even do so in denominational sub-groups such as Presbyterianism. It is impossible because your first principles won't allow it. At some point there has to be a final say; a final court of appeal, where an authoritative decision is made. We have such a method. You do not. It is, then, nonsensical to blame us for the new principles developed by Protestantism, which we never accepted in the first place. It would be as irrational as blaming the Council of Nicaea for Arianism or the Council of Chalcedon for Monophysitism.

It would seem fair at least to admit that if we grant the legitimacy of the primacy of the bishopric of Rome that the other side must be prepared to lay blame for the division present in modern-day and historical Christianity squarely on the feet of those who claim that ultimate authority for themselves—namely, on the historical Roman Catholic Church.

Precipitating causes for the division, based on corruption, etc. are entirely distinct factors from the change of principle which is entailed by Protestantism. We readily accept blame for the historical circumstances which helped bring about the tragic division. But we accept no blame for the new principles which Luther adopted; throwing the baby out with the bath water. We are blamed for not interacting with Luther at all at the Diet of Worms, but whatever one thinks of the Catholic "performance" there, one thing that is very clear and indisputable is that we didn't agree with his new notions of private judgment and sola scriptura at all. We rejected them so strongly that we wouldn't even discuss them. So one can blame the Catholic Church for being "overly-dogmatic" or "stubborn" (from their perspective; I don't agree with that), but not for the introduction of the novel rule of faith that was previously-unknown in Christian history.

Yves Congar admitted as much in his work entitled "The Mystery of the Church"—noting the Reformation as a "terrible catastrophe" (see page 92 ff. of that work).

Of course it was, but that is an entirely different discussion from the one at hand.

I'm just wondering if you are willing to come to similar conclusions by carrying your argument out to its logical conclusions.

My argument entails no such conclusions, as explained. It is not (IMHO) affected in the least by your counter-reply. But you have offered no response whatsoever to your own internal dilemma. I have never seen a Protestant do so. At best, they can only honestly acknowledge that it is a serious difficulty indeed (as Pontificator did). You can't solve it by immediately switching the topic back to the Catholic Church (which is almost invariably what Protestants try to do, because they really have no answer to this). That only suggests a desperation of one who has no conceivable answer to a difficulty in his own position, as seen by an outsider.

The subject at the moment is Protestant internal incoherence. Whether the Catholic Church is the most inconsistent, absurd, nonsensical, ridiculous institution in world history has nothing to do with whether or not Protestantism can resolve this particular internal difficulty. To paraphrase a common saying, "if your dad is ugly, he remains so no matter how ugly mine is. And if mine is uglier than yours, that doesn't make yours any more handsome. He is what he is."

I would also be very interested to learn if you have interacted at all with Keith Mathison's book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura,

I've probably written more on this topic than any other. I have heard that it is a good book.

[Later, I did a critique of some of it]

which presents a decidedly more balanced view of the Reformation doctrine than what is currently touted by some of the more virulent anti-catholic apologists out there. If so, I would love to review and/or hear your comments on the work.

Again, this is another topic. It's a good one, and should be discussed (and I would be happy to in due course), but it is different, because no matter how fine-tuned one's notion of sola Scriptura is (it can include all sorts of respectful nods to Tradition and precedent and the Fathers, etc.), it is still a fundamentally different system of authority from Catholicism and Orthodoxy. I understand that many current-day Protestants adopt a radical solo Scriptura position that is a corruption of Luther's and Calvin's views. I was noting that back in 1991, by citing Bernard Ramm and R.C. Sproul's criticisms of extreme "Bible Only" views (originally part of my first book in its much-larger version). But that doesn't overcome the difficulties I pose above. If you think otherwise, then by all means present your case as to how you believe my objections can be overcome.

Thank you, also, for the comments you left regarding the paper I wrote on the Passion. It was very encouraging to read your response.

You're welcome. I was delighted to read your opinions also. I replied to your piece on "Para-church" groups, too, shortly after you took your break for Lent.

I hope we can have many more good discussions. I spent years on the Internet trying in vain to find Reformed Christians who weren't anti-Catholic, to have some intelligent discussions with. I almost despaired of ever meeting any (though I believed there must be persons like that out there somewhere, because I had read books by Reformed folks whom I greatly respected). Now (to my great delight) I have finally found many ecumenical Calvinists with whom I have had some wonderful, edifying dialogues.

The blog world is obviously on a much-higher level than the "Reformed discussion boards" world, where I was always generally approached like a slug under a slimy rock. :-) On one such board, I was atrociously treated in the worst manner that I have ever experienced from fellow Christians in my 27 years of being a committed disciple of Jesus — even to the extent that one Pharisee stated that I was damned and urged people there to not even pray for my salvation (!!!). It's weird being literally hated (or at least highly detested and despised) by fellow Christians. One has to experience it to believe it.

God bless,



Whether or not Luther wanted a council is a separate question from how he would regard the authority of such a council. Would it be binding and final? If so, then he has to explain why Trent and all the earlier councils were not so, while this one was, and why he stated otherwise about councils in his passionate rant at Worms. If it wasn't binding, then it doesn't contradict the existing rule of faith of sola Scriptura. It is simply a gathering of respectable worthies whose opinions are to be highly respected and spoken of in hushed, reverential terms, but not binding.

It becomes merely a meeting somewhat akin to the Anglican Lambeth Conferences, or whatever conventions or gatherings the Presbyterians (but which ones?) have every year or every ten years. This does not overcome my objection at all. So Protestants have some notion of corporate doctrine. So what? Good for them. But it's still not the traditional ecclesiological structure of historic Christianity (Catholicism or Orthodoxy).

Secondly, if I remember correctly, Luther's council would not be presided over by the pope, whereas in the Tradition before that was the norm. So Luther's council would entail a different conception of the council. As with his other innovations, this has to be defined and defended on some grounds. That lands us right back in the difficulty of my original post. If the papacy is to now be ditched, why? Why should Luther's ecclesiology be deemed superior to Catholic ecclesiology? On what grounds? On what basis would all the various Protestants be represented in such a "council"? Many gave up the notion of bishops and/or apostolic succession. Councils traditionally consisted of bishops because they preserved the line of apostolic succession. That's why they were there. They represented the personification of Tradition. But lacking that, what do we do: vote for the most eloquent preachers? How many groups are represented? What is the pecking order? Etc., etc. This only creates many more problems.

Thirdly, Luther showed little willingness to compromise or reason with anyone who differed from him in the few little gatherings and attempts at "unity" that he did attend (such as Marburg, etc.). I see little reason that he would be much different in an actual "council" (either real or akin to the "Robber Council" of 449).

Fourthly, we observe the behavior of Protestants in the quasi-conciliar gatherings such as the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, where the Emperor asked them to give back the property they stole from Catholics (ostensibly a most reasonable request, and a basis for good will and a conciliar outlook) and they refused, on the basis of "conscience." Moreover, they refused to allow the Mass to continue in their territories. This is some "conciliarism," Tim, when the Catholics' end of the "deal" is to have Protestants refuse to return plundered properties and to refuse the very right of Catholics to worship as they please.


[responding to someone else]

Are you contending that the Westminster Confession overturns the system of sola Scriptura as the rule of faith? Of course, this is not the case, so your very objection is a non sequitur in the context of my particular argument. You can make your own case as you wish, but when you purport to be offering some sort of "answer" to mine, then you are obligated (by the usual rules of scholarly and quasi-scholarly discourse) to stay on topic. WC expressly denies the traditional rule of faith (in the same exact sense that Luther did at Worms) in the same chapter you cite:

"IV. All synods or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both."

Catholics and Orthodox do NOT believe this. We believe that ecumenical councils are infallible and binding upon the faithful, as the Holy Spirit supernaturally protects them from error. The Protestant rejection of that notion is precisely what is at issue.

WC makes its anti-traditionalist standpoint clear in its first chapter, on Scripture:

"IV. The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God."

"VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them."

"X. The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture."

WC throws out the infallible church along with infallible councils, in its chapter 25 on the Church:
"V. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error: and some have so degenerated as to become apparently no Churches of Christ. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to his will.

VI. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God."

If no council (and no official Church doctrine) is absolutely binding, because no council or Church is guaranteed to be free from error, then the responsibility for determination of true doctrine must necessarily fall back on the individual (or at least a smaller body than a council). The same problems again arise:

1) Who decides whether the council or church has "erred" or not?
2) On what basis is this decided?
3) If it is based on tradition, why we should we accept the word of the few, judging truths in tradition, rather than the many?
4) From whence derives these "critics"' authority to make such a decision in the first place?
5) If disagreement is based on biblical interpretation, how to we resolve the problem based on Protestant principles (take, for example, baptism)?
6) If there are, say, three parties of different opinion, how do you suggest that the "man on the street" decides who has enough "authority" to side with?
7) Now, multiply that confusion by hundreds of Protestant denominations today.

In the end, it will always reduce to Protestants disagreeing amongst themselves endlessly, and Catholics and Orthodox proceeding as they always have, accepting the wisdom and truthfulness of the received Tradition.

. . . The principles were corrupted right after Calvin died (as if he were some sort of latter-day apostle)? You still haven't shown how any given Protestant group is fundamentally contradicting the principles of authority of Protestantism when they go the way they do. So you appeal to Calvin and a more sophisticated "medieval Protestant conciliarism" or what-not. One immediately asks (as I did, above):

"Why is it that I must trust Calvin's understanding to be the de facto infallible, superior one?"

"What makes him the expert in cases where he overthrows the accumulated wisdom of 1500 years, and the witness of the Fathers and the medievals?"

"Why should he be trusted over Luther, where they disagree, and vice versa?"

These problems cannot be solved, because they go to the roots. You can squeal and scream and protest all you like, but your task remains: how do you overcome this difficulty without reverting back to some form of Catholic ecclesiology? Even your scenario you have been developing for a year now is rejected by probably 99% of Protestants. Of what practical use is a system that is practically non-existent among those whom you are sure ought to adopt it? It is absurd because authority by its very nature needs to be exercised; to be real. It's foolish to simply tal about it in an idealistic, pipe-dream fashion. We have it (whatever you think of our system); you do not, except on the local (and thus, culturally insignificant) level.


I seem to be having the greatest difficulty getting people to INTERACT with my actual arguments rather than describing them (or mere caricatures of them in some instances) and talking about my supposed thought in the broadest possible terms (what might be termed "meta-discussion" rather than "discussion"). I'm sure you understand this distinction, as you are a sharp guy.

This is why I am an advocate of dialogue: you carefully read your opponents' sentences, paragraphs, and arguments so as to get inside of their mind and then try to answer them directly. When conversationalists simply write "competing essays" with only passing reference to the other guy, this keeps them each within their own little thought-worlds, and no particular progress is made, because there is little contact between them. I ask tons of hard questions but they are ignored. You haven't cited a single word of mine in your response.

I was hoping you would try to answer some of my hard questions directly. Perhaps you will. But I express my frustration. In these cases, I fall back by necessity to an even more blatantly "socratic" method: asking of very short questions, in hopes that they will be replied to, so that the discussion can move forward and hopefully obtain some increased understanding on both sides.

This is no great novelty. I shouldn't think it is controversial, nor that it even needs to be argued. When, for example, two persons are talking face to face, if one asks a question, the other will attempt to give some answer, if only in common courtesy. They don't just ignore it and go right on talking about their own concerns, as if the other hadn't said anything. That's the nature of conversation. Unless one is a super-talker, who has the greatest difficulty listening (my wife's younger sister immediately comes to mind!), the usual process in discussion is not for one person to talk for a half hour, followed by the other's half-hour lecture. Yet this is, in effect, what so many Internet "conversations" amount to. It's what I call "mutual monologue."

That said, I barge ahead where angels fear to tread, and try once again to get some simple answers to my questions, and clarify where I myself have been misunderstood.

I think what Tim is trying to say (and what I was attempting to infer by directing you back to the Roman Catholic Church and her own dilemma) is that you are not necessarily describing the tenets of the Reformation fairly—or at the very least satisfactorily enough for your friends on the other side of the fence over here where we are.

I hope you will show me specifically how you believe I have done this.

While your technique and arguments may work with sola-slogan-TULIP-carrying-fundamentalist-anti-catholics, the job is much harder with those of us who do see some commonality between communions.

Okay. What you need to do right off the bat is give me a succinct, short-as-possible-without-lacking substance definition of 1) the Protestant rule of faith, and 2) the Catholic rule of faith. Since you think I have misrepresented your view, then by all means, give me the definition that we can work with. You do agree there is a difference, right?

If "y" (Roman Catholicism) has the same problem as "x" (Protestantism) in regards to authority—after all, both arguments are ultimately circular

How so? I, of course, think your view is, but I deny that ours is. I gave a number of arguments explaining why I think that, but you have chosen to "overlook" them.

—then the dilemma is either something that both systems must face together or we must recast the arguments to better handle the specifics of each situation.

I don't see the circularity in my system. I see, however, a system that Protestants find difficult to accept in faith. requiring relatively more faith is not the equivalent of logical circularity or contradiction.

Your creative conversation in the blog entry details a conversation I could see you having (you have probably had many similar ones) with fundamentalists like the ones mentioned above. I think you are right in noting that their argument falls short.

Okay; how, then, does "non-fundamentalist" Reformed Christianity overcome the difficulties I outlined? You need to demonstrate this with argument; not merely assert it.

It is not enough to say that individuals alone are able to interpret the Bible. That is a popular understanding of sola scriptura in fundamentalist (particularly Baptist) circles.

I agree with that, so no need to clash on that one. But there is still a sense in which the individual has a supremacy in Protestantism that he doesn't have in Catholicism, because of the different rules of faith.

But, the problem is that I don't think your caricature accurately reflects the actual Reformed view of authority regarding Scripture and the Church.

Please give it to me. I quoted some six paragraphs of the WC. I don't see that I have misrepresented anything at all. If you disagree, then by all means, demonstrate it.

The Reformers clearly argued that there was a teaching office inherent in the Church, that ministers were responsible to teach the Scriptures and the Gospel it contained to the Church, and that individuals were responsible to submit to their leaders within the Church.

I agree with that, but that is not our present issue, which is the difference between the two rules of faith. We don not accept sola Scriptura, no matter how it is defined, all along thew spectrum from "fundamentalism" to the most sophisticated Calvinist who makes a thousand fine-tuned distinctions..

After all, it's quite clear historically that the Reformers accepted the canon of the Bible, the creeds, the ecumenical councils, and even worked to preserve an ecclesiastical unity that would make your caricature of sola scriptura impossible for them to maintain were it what they truly believed. In addition, Calvin and others were students of the early Fathers and stood with them in what they felt was the catholic faith of the fathers of the first six centuries or so of the Church (however right or wrong you feel they may have been in that estimation, it is still historically accurate regarding how they viewed the fathers—whether they were accurate in that opinion is another question).

I have no problem with any of this and it is not in question. But it does not address my questions. I presuppose all this. The difficulties still remain in your position.

Even as late as 1561 (i.e. post Trent) Reformation scholars sat down with Roman Catholic scholars to try to work toward an ecumenical outlook at the Colloquy of Poissy regarding the presence of Christ in the Supper.

What happened?

I mention all of this to point to the fact that the magisterial Reformers recognized the authority of the Church when it came to interpreting and applying Scripture. The Reformers, though, rightly recognized that Scripture is the final authority and that its authority is based upon God Himself since He is the author. But the Reformers never viewed the Scriptures as separate from the Church.

I agree. This is, again, beside the point. We can make more progress, when I get your definitions of where the two rules of faith agree and disagree. One must always define one's terms.

In other words, the dilemma you have posed for your Protestant brethren is false (though I will grant it perhaps applies to certain fundamentalist sectors of Protestant world),
You haven't shown that it doesn't apply to non-fundamentalists because you simply haven't interacted with my reasoning. You may think it is atrocious, groundless reasoning, but please, PLEASE, interact with it. Do I have to beg on my knees?

especially when we examine the quote you provide of Calvin in its context where he actually in the next paragraph (which you did not quote) expounds on his actual view of the text of 2 Peter 1:20 rather than the mere critique of his historical opponents:

"However, another sense seems to me more simple, that Peter says that Scripture came not from man, or through the suggestions of man. For thou wilt never come well prepared to read it, except thou bringest reverence, obedience, and docility; but a just reverence then only exists when we are convinced that God speaks to us, and not mortal men. Then Peter especially bids us to believe the prophecies as the indubitable oracles of God, because they have not emanated from men's own private suggestions."

In other words, Calvin is saying that one cannot use 2 Peter 1:20 to support the idea that the Scriptures are not to be interpreted by individuals or that the passage somehow gives authority to church councils in the place of individuals. Noting this negative in no way impinges on the proper role of the authority of the Church as the Reformers cast it in their writings. He is here merely denying that this passage speaks to these matters and instead takes the passage to mean that the prophecies of old didn't come from the private thought of man.

I have no problem with that. I want to know, however, the prior question of why Calvin felt he had authority to set up a new ecclesiastical institution? All of that has been completely ignored by you and Tim. I need to know HOW and WHY you think my reasoning fails.

So, I applaud you for combatting the misunderstood caricature of sola scriptura that is prevalent in certain circles

Than you. . . . when I was on Catholic Answers Live, discussing sola Scriptura, I specifically made it a point to state that Protestants do NOT deny any role to Tradition, and that it was a caricature to believe so.

but even Roman Catholic scholars of our own day are beginning to move toward understanding the authority of the Scriptures in a way that recognizes the value of the Reformers' actual take on the issue. I take great courage in this fact.

You'd have to be more specific what you mean.

I am hopeful our own fundamentalist Reformed brethren avoid their own 'monophysite' look at the issue of sola scriptura as well and do not avoid including the role of the Church in protecting and proclaiming the Scriptures to the faithful.


Pelikan called the Reformation a "tragic necessity"—and in some cases many of the differences that both sides discussed can seem like minor points to us today. Both sides must work harder in understanding each other better—even after five hundred years I am not certain that we are listening to one another as we should.
I couldn't agree more.

However, I look forward to continued discussions. Thank you for your efforts.

You too! Thanks.

In Him,


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