Monday, September 05, 2005

Short Dialogue on Binding Conciliar Authority (vs. "Josh")

"Josh" is a Reformed Protestant. His words will be in green. This exchange took place in May 2004 on my blog.
I'd just like to comment upon the concept of binding councils and Church authority. Classical Protestants, with the Reformers (and, I believe, the early Church), assert that Scripture is our only inherently infallible authority and thus our final authority in faith and praxis. This Scripture is to be interpreted in and by the Church according to the regula fidei.

Three questions:

1. What do you mean by "binding"?
2. What is the Church?
3. How do you determine what the rule of faith (regula fidei) is?

On this view, the Church functions as a ministerial Supreme Court, whose interpretive decisions have binding ecclesiastical authority.

How does this work in Presbyterianism? Who is the Chief Justice of this Supreme Court? The President of PCUSA or PCA?

The Church exercises this power in submission to Christ her Husband and Head (Eph 1:22). Her decisions are thus accountable to the Word of Her Husband: Holy Scripture.

Of course they are.

Thus, while we recognize the God-ordained authorities of Church and the Spirit-led tradition of faithful interpretation, we believe that these authorities are co-joined with the Word of God, receive their authority from Christ speaking in Scripture. Scripture is the covenantal charter of the Church, being built upon the foundation of the prophets and the apostles. Thus, the Church exercises her authority in submission to Scripture, which judges her.

How does one determine when Scripture has "judged" the Church (however you define that term)? By what process does this take place? On what grounds do the folks who make this judgment have authority?

I believe that this concept of an authoritative Church who may be err is taught in Scripture. For example, the OT scribes and Church officials had teaching authority over the people of Israel (Neh. 8:8). The scribes and priests were entrusted with the guardianship of interpretation of Scripture (though their was a communal element as well; cf. Neh. 8:13), yet we also see in the OT the scribes and priests misuing their God-given authority and teaching error. Indeed, in Matthew 23:1, our Lord said that these very teachers sat in Moses' seat! He told the disciples to listen to them, but not follow their works. But the Pharisees had bad doctrine as well; they rejected the Messiah, and so they apostisized from the covenant. The teachers of Israel did not exercise their authority in submission to the Word of God incarnate.

But they did not have the Holy Spirit, nor the promise of indefectibility (Mt 16:18), nor the Spirit's guidance "into all the truth" (Jn 16:13), and overseeing function at councils (Acts 15:28). These were all new developments of the New Covenant. So it is not proper to compare the Church in all respects to the Jews in the OT, because we have been given much greater gifts and promises, and possess a fuller revelation, after the Incarnation.

The pastors and councils of the new covenant Church (which is the new Israel) have ministerial authority over the Church (Heb. 13:17).

Why do Protestants keep splitting, then? Whoever heard of a pan-Protestant council that had any authority at all, let alone binding nature on the faithful?

Through their ministry, the Triune God is moving to build up the Church into a prefect Man in Christ (Eph. 4:12-16). Church councils authoritatively decide issues of faith and praxis (Ac.15). But these councils, these bishops can err

You miss the point. Where was the error in the Jerusalem council? That decision was absolutely binding, and true. This is our model of a Church gathering that made a decision, to which all believers were bound. Protestants simply don't believe this: they have moved away from the biblical model. And you demonstrate that above. You mention the council in one sentence and then say that it can err. Of course some councils do err, and the task is to determine which ones are legitimate and which are illegitimate. In Catholicism, the pope has that role. Who has it in Protestantism? We believe that the legitimate councils are infallible insofar as they bind the faithful and proclaim dogmas which all must believe and adhere to.

(witness St. Peter in Galatians,

Peter was acting hypocritically. This is crystal clear (2:11 ff.), since Paul accuses him of insincerity and speaks of his behavior: eating with the Gentiles in one instance and not doing so in another. It has nothing to do with doctrine. Peter was contradicting his own beliefs, for fear of men.

the warnings of false teachers in the epistles to Timothy), as did the scribes and priests in the OT.

The existence of false teachers does not prove that no council can be infallible in its authoritative decrees.

The promises of the Spirit to the new covenant Church only strengthens the penalities for apostasy and error; it does not establish perfection.

The fallacy here is the one I mentioned in my last comment.

That this applies to the Church of Rome is taught in Romans 11:16-24. The Apostle Paul tells the Church of Rome that they, if they fall into haughtiness and unbelief, may be cut off (v.21).

This is an interesting and clever argument, but I think it fails because Paul is not really addressing the Roman church as an institutional church (which is what indefectibility applies to); rather, he is addressing the individuals who make up the church (1:7: "all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints"). Any given individual can fall away if he is not vigilant, just as Paul stated about himself. This nature of the book is made clear in verses such as 12:1: ". . . present your bodies as a living sacrifice . . . " or 12:3: ". . . every one among you . . . " or 13:8: "Owe no one anything, except to love one another . . . " or 15:7: "Welcome one another . . . ", etc.

Our Lord warns the churches of Revelation 2 that their lampstands may be removed.

From those particular regional churches, yes.

Yes, the Church as a whole will not fall away; yes, she will grow up into fulness of truth as the Spirit sheds new light on the Word of God.

But according to you, she can fall into error and bind believers to error from the pit of hell. That doesn't sound like the Holy Spirit or the power of God the Father and God the Son to me. If they can preserve the Bible from error, they can do the same with the Church, in terms of binding teaching. I don't find the second scenario any less plausible than the first (in fact, MORE plausible).

But the Church is to walk by faith, and that faith includes submitting herself to Holy Scripture in fear, not haughtily asserting some charism of infallibility.

What is haughty about simply believing God's promises, and having faith that correct teaching can be passed down and received? I don't find that the slight bit "haughty." But one might make a good argument that it is "haughty" to assume that God is not able to do such a thing, and that we are all at the mercy of the usual follies and errors of men, since we can't trust any particular "church" to give us undiluted truth in matters of the apostolic deposit.

But of course, how can a Protestant conceivably accept such a doctrine, given the state of affairs in their own ranks, with hundreds of competing denominations? To accept it is to cease to be Protestant because it only makes sense within an Orthodox or Catholic framework. It's ridiculous to assert such a thing within Protestantism where rampant contradiction absolutely proves that millions of Protestants are adhering to error and falsehood no matter WHAT the full truth is (by the very presence of contradiction).

And I would add that this goes as well for all the individual 'popes' of modern evangelicalism and modern Presbyterianism or Lutheranism.

And I would add that this includes Luther and Calvin. So why should we accept their word when they contradict received doctrine?

We must submit to Church authority in faith

That's ultimately meaningless and absurd unless such authority is binding and infallible.

while both we and faithful pastors and councils submit to the Word of Christ our King as found in Holy Scripture and interpreted according to the Creed.

Amen to that . . .

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