Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 5 June 2003. Revised on 20 January 2004.
[EL Hamilton's words are in blue]
[EL Hamilton's words are in blue]
I don't believe that the governance of the Church of Christ is strictly a matter of individual choice and happenstance (sort of like a secular democracy). I find fascinating the viewpoint that our Lord Jesus and the apostles could not come up with a scheme of government that would hold for all time in Christianity. They couldn't even devise a system as "absolute" and continuous as, say, the American form of government or as self-evidently necessary as the organization of any company, city, or state whatever. But what about the Jerusalem council? Wasn't that meant to be some sort of ongoing model, rather than merely a one-time event?
What about Nicaea and Chalcedon and other generally-respected early ecumenical councils? If they were so important why would we think today that we can make do with the Bible alone and no longer need authoritative, binding councils? By what criterion did the conciliar principle change so that it is no longer relevant to any Protestant body in the present time (or for that matter, episcopacy)?
How and why did the normative patristic principle of apostolic succession change or get thrown out as a binding authority?
And the question is up to groups and individuals, how does the individual determine which is the best tradition of ecclesiology? And how can such necessary contradictions (e.g., episcopacy vs. congregationalism) indicate the presence of ecclesiological truth, since a contradiction necessarily entails a falsehood, and all falsehood is not of God?
I think it is good to discuss the fundamentals of ecclesiology, so people can see that the issue is not simple, but quite complex.
That the Bible teaches authoritatively is certainly a tenet of sola Scriptura. To say that the Bible teaches authoritatively, or that it has ultimate authority is not the same logical proposition as "the Bible without any other authority."
1. If ecclesiology is not based on biblical teaching (or, similarly, if the Bible is not sufficiently clear enough for Christians to arrive at a conclusion concerning what it teaches on ecclesiology: a sort of "hermeneutical or systematic theological agnosticism," if you will), then on what is any particular brand of ecclesiology based?It seems to me that at some point -- given all these unresolvable difficulties -- sola Scriptura and perspicuity themselves need to be seriously questioned, or else (even more fundamentally) one is left with a weakened view of biblical authority, whereby Scripture cannot teach us truth in so many areas, and is thus (practically-speaking) insufficient for the purposes of establishing Christian orthodoxy.
2. If it is fundamentally (if not entirely) based on your "whole lot of tradition and history," then haven't you already left the realm of sola Scriptura because you have admitted that the Bible cannot tell us which ecclesiology is correct, so that you are forced to rely solely or primarily on tradition and history (much like the Catholic rule of faith, over against the Protestant)?
3. If it is based on a "whole lot of tradition and history," then you have to identify which history and tradition it will be based on, since (as you love to point out) there are competing schemas or at least interpretations of Church history. How does one do that? How do you arrive at the conclusion of which history is the "orthodox" one or most "respectable" one?
4. How is this not merely "traditions of men" if you can't trace this to the Bible and are forced to rely on men's traditions apart from the Bible, which cannot resolve this issue? How many other such exceptions are there to the principle and modus operandi of sola Scriptura?
5. If these matters are merely contingent, and not at all a matter of biblical revelation, or unable to be determined by that revelation, whence comes your constant objection to the papacy-as-developed-in-actuality and/or the Catholic position on the papacy and ecclesiology in general, since I think even you would agree that at least we have one schema of Church history that has some credibility and plausibility (agree or disagree)? In other words, how can you argue and rail against our ecclesiology, if indeed all ecclesiologies are merely tradition-based and not biblically-based, so that they are all (in the final analysis) epistemological equivalents? How can one be better than another? On what basis can one judge between them, apart from an ultimately arbitrary recourse to subjective personal opinion?
Further comment on question #5: It seems to me you would have to then treat the Catholic conception of the papacy with equally as much respect as non-denominational congregationalism (where the pastor is too often a de facto dictator) or Anglican episcopacy or the Landmark Baptists, who claim to trace their lineage through people like the Cathari and Albigensians (i.e., anyone they can find throughout history who isn't a Catholic).
6. If indeed ecclesiology is merely a "contingent" matter, where differences are allowed by God and that's all fine and dandy and normative, and to be expected, can you point to a biblical passage which verifies that stance? In other words, is ecclesiological "diversity" expressly taught in Holy Scripture? Is theological diversity, period, taught there? If not, what does it teach about ecclesiology? Will you contend that we can learn nothing in Scripture about these matters?
7. This would seem to be the case, according to Protestantism, with regard to a number of areas; the most notable (besides ecclesiology) being baptism. Protestants are forced to conclude that the Bible has no clear or perspicuous teaching on baptism, since they can't agree, and split into five major camps:
a) Infant, non-regenerative baptism (Presbyterians)But, of course, that takes us into deep waters of the self-defeating nature of perspicuity itself.
b) Infant regenerative baptism (e.g., Lutheranism and Anglicanism)
c) Adult non-regenerative baptism (Baptists, most pentecostals and non-denoms)
d) Adult regenerative baptism (e.g., Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ)
e) No baptism (Quakers and Salvation Army)
These are, in a nutshell, the objections I would have to the Protestant notion of permissible "diverse" ecclesiologies. One needs to get down to the premises of all this. Unless axioms and presuppositions are examined, the danger for all is to build castles of sand, with questionable foundations. I think any Protestant ecclesiological system can be shown to be disturbingly incoherent.
How many other aspects of doctrine in Christianity are also not authoritatively determined by Holy Scripture?What, you want an exact figure, or can I round it off to the nearest ten? I'd have a short list of doctrines that remain shrouded in mystery, that I could give if pressed: eschatological timeframes, the intermediate states of the soul, the ontological status of the consecrated Eucharistic elements, the salvific status of non-Christian "Abrahamic" religions. Maybe you think some or all of these are entirely resolved at a Scriptural level. Debating that doesn't interest me. I'd just point out that all of us have some doctrines about which we believe honest disagreements in theology can exist . . . The point is that some doctrines are dogmatized in Christian orthodoxy, and others are left open to discussion, and no one would seriously dispute that observation. There's no way of conducting this debate on a general level. You need to show why the specific features of your ecclesiology that you wish to defend are specifically indispensible to orthodoxy. This attempt to say "All Protestants who think ecclesiology is broad enough to permit the coexistence of a few different types of goverance are lawless relativists" is a reflection of your own conviction that the particular forms of flexibility tolerated under those models are not permissible. It's not the result of some more fundamental application of logic that transcends the debate over whether said conviction is warranted.
Thank you. I do think that ecclesiology is a thing that God would want to be free from doubt and "diversity," as it is so fundamental to virtually any organization. There was always structure, order, and hierarchy among the Jewish people, and I see no reason to believe that the NT worldview would shift to ecclesiological or governmental diversity. It makes no sense to me at all, and I don't see it presented in this way in the Bible. I would say the same about the Eucharist, since this is the central rite in Christian worship (or should be -- it certainly was for the early Christians).
And if it is up to groups and individuals, how does the individual determine which is the best tradition of ecclesiology?The whole object of debate here is whether or not there is such a thing as "the best" tradition of ecclesiology. I don't see God as being constrained by a single rigid model in the same way you do, which is precisely why I deny that there is such an obligation.
Okay; then it seems to me that if one cannot compare "better" and "best" ecclesiologies, that Anglican episcopacy or Baptist Landmarkianism or storefront "tinpot dictator"-run non-denominations or the "governmental minimalism" of Plymouth Brethren or the Quakers or the Catholic system of the papacy are all equivalents and you should cease in criticizing so strongly the Catholic system if it is no whit any better or worse than your own preference or any other preference, by your own stated criterion.
It's not going to yield a spiritual catastrophe if some of us are members of congregational churches and others are members of episcopal or presbyterial churches. God's hands will not be tied by our decision. If we accept judges, God will lead us with judges. If we demand kings, He will annoint for us kings. There are other, more serious, sources of ecclesiological error than external structural suboptimalities.
Alright. If you presuppose that Scripture teaches no single ecclesiology, this would indeed
follow. I deny your premise.
And how can such necessary contradictions (e.g., episcopacy vs. congregationalism) indicate the presence of ecclesiological truth, since a contradiction necessarily entails a falsehood, and all falsehood is not of God?I've already answered this. "Contradiction" does not indicate a falsehood, at least in the expansive way you wish to define it. The Body of Christ is diverse by nature. Some of us are hands, and some of us are eyes. We cannot both be hands and eyes at once. But it's silly to sit around arguing that since hands are better than eyes, everyone should be the former and not the latter. Nor would it even be correct to try to discern a perfect ratio of "hands" and "eyes" that should be fixed for all time, in every church. Even though one actual ratio "contradicts" another actual ratio, that does not mean that one of the two ratios is "false", just that different circumstances demand different responses.
To the same end, some eras and cultures are better designed for autocratic leadership models, and others are more amenable to more democratic models. Neither of these should be absolutized, and Protestants are as guilty of this as anyone else, frequently supposing that "democracy" is somehow a Christian value. But neither is hierarchical authority. Catholics, obviously, would contend that it is, and that there is some reason why ecclesiological structures are not intended to be variegated like spiritual gifts, but at least we have located the disagreement at someplace other than the abstracted theological fallacy you wish to infer.
This, too, follows from your premise that no single system is taught in Scripture.
1. If ecclesiology is not based on biblical teaching (or, similarly, if the Bible is not sufficiently clear enough for Christians to arrive at a conclusion concerning what it teaches on ecclesiology: a sort of "hermeneutical or systematic theological agnosticism," if you will), then on what is any particular brand of ecclesiology based?Dave, this is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Scripture definitely teaches on some matters of ecclesiology, and it definitely leaves others open. Nobody, absolutely nobody, thinks that Scripture is going to tell us whether or not we should have some certain number of patriarchates, or where they should be. On the other hand, virtually everybody short of Quakers thinks that Scripture teaches that we should have designated leaders in the Church, as opposed to organizing ourselves as some sort of anarcho-syndicalist commune. Moreover, I find the instructions regarding moral qualifications for those leaders to be remarkably clear and precise. Is someone a drunk? Well, he's inappropriate for the diaconate or the episcopacy (1 Tim 5:3). The list of standards runs on for a dozen items, all helpfully concrete.
So some aspects of ecclesiology are taught very clearly. But others aren't. Do clergy need to be congregationally affirmed by vote, or simple voice acclamation, or not at all? Should "bishops" and "presbyters" be separate offices, or interchangeable titles? Do the apostles have heirs to their "thrones" of authority? If so, who are they and how are they to be identified? Scripture, at least, is unclear on these points. Thus, our ecclesiologies are based not on Scripture, but on our developed traditions. Catholics one to absolutize one type of Tradition, and Protestants want to allow a diversity of traditions to coexist. This shouldn't be news to anyone.
2. If it is fundamentally (if not entirely) based on your "whole lot of tradition and history," thenYes. Yes. A hundred times, yes. If by "sola Scriptura", you mean the process of deducing the one perfect form of church government solely from the text of Scripture, then I'd fully concede that we have left the realm of sola Scriptura.
haven't you already left the realm of sola Scriptura because you have admitted that the Bible cannot tell us which ecclesiology is correct, so that you are forced to rely solely or primarily on tradition and history (much like the Catholic rule of faith, over against the Protestant)?
You certainly have, if (as I posited) you are in a position of relying solely on tradition and not at all on the Bible, which would be precisely the opposite of sola Scriptura, where the ultimate authority is the Bible, not tradition.
But sola Scriptura does not mean that we cannot rely primarily on tradition and history to answer certain questions.
Primarily, maybe, but when it is "solely" to the exclusion of Scripture, that is not sola Scriptura in any way, shape, or form, and this is precisely what Catholics are charged with: the "unbiblical traditions of men" canard.
It just means that we should not expect "infallible" rules of authority to be derived from them. Which is fine, because I'm proposing that there is no such thing as a single infallible model for how the church should be organized at all times.
Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer wrote:
The Reformers did not in the least mean to say that Scripture was of no value to Rome. As they saw it, however, the teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church did not seem to consider Scripture 'sufficient.' It could be demonstrated, so the Reformers thought, that certain 'truths' and 'values' had been adopted that appeared to have no essential relationship to the gospel of Scripture . . . The function of the 'sola Scriptura' in the Reformation was to focus attention on God's Word as a principle of interpretation over against human arbitrariness.
(Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975, tr. from Dutch ed. of 1967 by Jack B. Rogers, 299-300, 306)Thus (accepting the above), if you say that you find no particular teaching on ecclesiology in the Bible, how do the Protestant ecclesiologies not fall prey to Berkouwer's "human arbitrariness" since Scripture is not "sufficient" for determining ecclesiology authoritatively? The problem is not the lack of an authoritative pronouncement in Protestant tradition (Westminster or Augsburg Confessions et al) but the fact that Scripture is not at all "sufficient" to resolve what would seem to be a fundamental question: the structure and form of the Christian Church.
This is not the same as the Catholic rule of faith, which wants to change our natural dependence on the wisdom inherited from fallible traditions into unconditional submission to a hypothetical metanarrative of universal "Tradition" that iterates with monotonic convergence toward some crystallized perfection.
Of course it's not the same (leaving aside your cynical presentation of our view). I'm critiquing your view and showing, I think, the incoherence and inconsistency in it.
Likewise, Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm writes:
The 'sola scriptura' of the Reformers did not mean a total rejection of tradition. It meant that only Scripture had the final word on a subject.
(in Jack B. Rogers, ed., Biblical Authority, Waco, TX: Word Books, 1977, "Is 'Scripture Alone' the Essence of Christianity?", 116-122)Since you readily concede that Scripture doesn't have the "final word" on this subject, you have rejected your own formal principle of authority, sola Scriptura, with regard to ecclesiology. If it can be rejected on this point, how many others are in the same category? How does one determine when sola Scriptura applies and when mere tradition takes over? How many exceptions does it take for one to start questioning the formal principle itself? And how is this any different in principle or logic from Catholics adopting more or less "Tradition-alone" for doctrines such as Mary's Assumption? Or, for that matter, the papacy, if one argues that it has no basis whatsoever in Scripture?
3. If it is based on a "whole lot of tradition and history," then you have to identify which history and tradition it will be based on, since (as you love to point out) there are competing schemas or at least interpretations of Church history. How does one do that? How do you arrive at the conclusion of which history is the "orthodox" one or most "respectable" one?How does one discover that capitalism is a better economic system than communism? How does one discover that democracy is superior to a fascist dictatorship? How does one establish the superiority of modern thermodynamics over phlogiston theory? Perhaps by studying the outcomes of historical development critically, according to their operational success, and comparing them.
Those systems don't claim to have an inspired revelation from God, which is supposedly perspicuous and sufficient for the determination of all doctrinal matters.
Really, why should we expect that God would give us foolproof and immutable answers to a set of organizational questions about the Church, when He has left us to puzzle out so many other aspects of human society without much guidance from special revelation?
Because this is His Church, and it is common sense. It always was that way with His people; why should it change after Jesus came? It's utterly implausible to think that we are strictly on our own in matters of ecclesiology.
I think that God is respectful of human creativity. He endows us with His Spirit to guide us, and then turns us loose to experiment, and uncover for ourselves the best way of addressing problems. God delights in our ability to mirror His own creativity in that capacity. I don't picture Him sitting up there in heaven and saying, "Oh, how awful, they're trying something presbyterian, and that will never work". We all have a different number of talents to invest in a constantly evolving economy, and that may require a customized set of investment strategies.
God uses us, whatever our errors may be, of course. It doesn't follow from the fact that He uses us, that we have to adopt a diversity or relativist model of ecclesiology. Christianity is not a perpetual quest after theological truth. We ought to be questing after righteousness, not theology, our entire lives. Catholics (following St. Paul's own perspective on apostolic tradition) believe that there is an apostolic tradition which was passed-down. We are no more at liberty to change that than scientists are at liberty to change the laws of thermodynamics or the motions of the planets.
4. How is this not merely "traditions of men" if you can't trace this to the Bible and are forced to rely on men's traditions apart from the Bible, which cannot resolve this issue? How many other such exceptions are there to the principle and modus operandi of sola Scriptura?As noted above, the points of Protestant emphasis on sola Scriptura is not to deny our dependence on the collective accumulated wisdom of human experience over history. It is simply to recognize that this is a fallible source of information, and worthy of constant examination and critique.
And it is to be checked by the Bible, which is the standard, but if you claim the Bible is silent on something or other, it can hardly function as the standard, can it? As a Catholic, I have much more faith that the Bible speaks on all things related to Christianity than you do, as the evangelical whose formal principle is sola Scriptura. Strange, huh? I believe in the material sufficiency of the Bible. You appear not to, in this regard (and who knows how many others?).
In particular, if any amount of "tradition" contradicts special revelation (Scripture), we must revise our tradition to match the infallible rule. But there are many cases where there simply are no infallible rules, and hence the greater authority of Scripture never has an opportunity to come into play. I don't think there is any infallible teaching (in Scripture, the only source that Protestants regard as infallible) that the presbyterian model is wrong, so I don't think it's possible to justify dividing the Church over the fact that some Christians use it to organize their congregations, on the basis that it contravenes some divine law.
Exactly. Protestant ecclesiology is, then, strictly a tradition of men, in the purest possible sense. Scripture does not authoritatively speak on it, so we are told. I've been teaching this as a Catholic for 13 years, so I appreciate the confirmation that Protestantism often reduces in particulars to pure traditions of men (as opposed to apostolic tradition, which is a different concept), far more than Catholicism does.
It may be, of course, that history informs us that the presbyterian model does a lousy job of preserving unity or defending orthodoxy (not saying that it does, just an example); in that case, we should scrap it and use something that does. But that's a utilitarian argument, not an a priori that binds the Church deontologically.
Exactly, and utilitarianism and pragmatism so often become the Protestant rule of faith in practice, as opposed to a biblical basis. After all, denominationalism certainly cannot be found in Scripture, yet Protestantism is nothing if not denominational, so that is a huge, profound, ongoing contradiction right there, which cannot be countenanced for a second, yet continues to exist with no way to alleviate or eliminate the problem, given Protestant premises and principles.
In other words, how can you argue and rail against our ecclesiology, if indeed all ecclesiologies are merely tradition-based and not biblically-based, so that they are all (in the final analysis) epistemological equivalents? How can one be better than another?Just to say that there is not an infallible rule stating that one model is unconditionally true and another is unconditionally false is not the same as saying that everything is epistemologically indistinguishable.
I've made my arguments above. I think this is what it reduces to, logically. And if you choose one or another, it can only be based on mere opinions of men, rather than the Bible, once you admit that the Bible is silent on these matters, or so vague that it serves no purpose and cannot be a standard (which is contrary to perspicuity in some fashion).
I have a great many opinions on the relative merits of all sorts of systems and organizations that come from non-infallible forms of analysis. Political theory is a prime example. Science is another. You seem to be bifurcating the world into the classes of "biblically-based" and "epistemologically equivalent", when really there's an enormous amount of philosophical middle ground between those extremes.
Again, it's quite different when a system has an inerrant, infallible, inspired revelation. That makes for a massive difference in epistemology.
6. If indeed ecclesiology is merely a "contingent" matter, where differences are allowed by God and that's all fine and dandy and normative, and to be expected, can you point to a biblical passage which verifies that stance? In other words, is ecclesiological "diversity" (I say, "relativism" expressly taught in Holy Scripture? Is theological diversity, period, taught there?I see a basis for this in the national history of Israel. Sometimes patriarchs, sometimes prophets, sometimes judges, sometimes kings.
And at any stage, people knew exactly what the form and structure was. This only supports my position. That is not relativism; that is a variation over time and place, but not the uncertainty and "biblical agnosticism" that you are now claiming for ecclesiology.
As I've also said before, I also see the ad hoc establishment of a diaconate as evidence that the Church felt similarly free to develop its classification of offices, and I feel the same way about the emergent distinction between the presbytery and diaconate at the end of the apostolic era. Both of these changes were not authorized by Christ, so far as I can tell in the gospels, but they were entirely within the authority of the apostles to effect to meet specific needs.
I agree with that, but it, too, does not lead to a conclusion that no one system can be biblically-supported and upheld. If you must appeal to tradition, why not the Catholic tradition, which has a long pedigree and excellent support in history?
The whole idea of the Church being flexible enough to react to unexpected challenges is deeply entrenched in Acts, at least in my reading. This has nothing to do with "relativism", in my view, which would (properly speaking) be the theory that every model is equally good in any arbitrary situation. To the contrary, I think some models are better that others, and that it's quite possible that the model may be strongly selected by the necessity of the needs it addresses. This is a "relativism" at the level of saying that it's acceptable to kill an enemy soldier in a war, but not acceptable to kill your neighbor in his sleep!
If we need deacons to perform diaconal duties, then deacons should exist. If we don't need deacons (as apparently the Jerusalem church didn't, at least during the early months and years when the Spirit was endowing everyone with great charity), then there's no harm done in eliminating that office again and reverting to the pre-Acts 6 model. (For the record, I think the Church does need deacons, and will continue to need deacons for the foreseeable future!)
Okay, so deacons are a biblical concept. What about bishops and councils?
"7", so far as I can tell, is an argument and not a question! You already know my position. There is indeed no basis to insist that a particular model of the mode and operation of baptism can be derived from Scripture, which is precisely why I would never approve of excommunicating those who disagree with me on this issue. (Well, the "no baptism" churches are problematic even from a purely Scriptural standpoint, I think, but aside from that...) But simply to say that there is no conclusive and infallible witness of Scripture is not to say that all five approaches are equally good. There may indeed be good philosophical and historical reasons to prefer one over another, and we should maintain dialogue on that issue. It simply shouldn't become a basis for splitting the communion of the Church.
So now the central rite, historically, of entrance into the Church of Christ, and one of the two sacraments retained by virtually all Protestants in some sense of that word, is up for grabs, with no clear biblical teaching. But this should not surprise anyone, as sola Scriptura is itself an unbiblical concept, with no clear teaching to support it, either.
I'm enjoying this discussion. Let's keep it up.
Cool! Me too.
As I said before, if you missed it, I do think that, relative to a particular group of people (at a particular time, in a particular culture, with particular needs) there may indeed be some models that work much better than others. That certainly provides a basis for "preference", as opposed to the indiscriminate relativism you keep assigning to me. I just don't think that preference can be universalized.
I understand this. My point was that I thought the NT taught definitively about ecclesiology. You denied this, and I went on to make arguments about what this implies about the applicabilty of sola Scriptura. It's fine for you to give your subjective opinions on these matters, but without some objective background of a biblical basis or precedent in tradition, I don't see that the discussion can go anywhere. It is pretty much at an end, because we don't accept each others' premises and so will be talking past each other more and more.
Take the comment about 'storefront "tinpot dictator"-run non-denominations'. I certainly think that churches run by "tinpot dictators" are contrary to the will of God, and I would appeal to the passage about our obligation for leaders not to "lord it over" those under them like the Gentile rulers, but rather to become like servants.
But attitudes of leaders is a different thing from the very structures that should exist.
The problem with 'storefront "tinpot dictator"-run non-denominations' has nothing to do with storefronts or non-denominationalism, but has everything to with the objectionable qualities of tinpot dictatorships.
But again, this strays far from my point, which was that if you believe the NT teaches no particular ecclesiology, then you have little basis for deciding between competing ecclesiologies. This one has definite moral aspects, because of how I pictorially framed it, but no one would disagree that such a scenario is ethically questionable, so that is not at issue.
Really, Dave, can't you admit some middle ground between "agreeing with Catholicism on everything" and the dismal swamp of relativism?
I'm critiquing your system as you present it. There is plenty of middle ground in practice, of course. Whether it is biblically-based or traditionally-based is the important question in my mind.
Presumably you think that groups with an espicopate but not a Papacy (like the Orthodox) are better than nothing.
Of course, a Catholic would think that is far better and biblical than congregationalism.
Your position here makes about as much sense as saying that because I don't think there's any objective basis for insisting that chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla ice cream, that I might as well drink hydrochloric acid. Put away the tar and feathers, and tell me why you specifically think some particular feature of Catholic governance (like an episcopate distinct from the presbytery) is an indispensible element of apostolic tradition.
That's a different discussion (the biblical basis of my view as opposed to a logical critique of yours, which is what I have been doing). What do you think the Bible teaches about bishops? What is a bishop? Do you think this office was strictly temporary, like apostles?
I think the text of Scripture broadly recognizes the existence of a teaching/authoritative office (episkopos/presbyteros) and a serving/ministering role (diakonis). I think that the former office was established by Christ, initially vested in the apostles, and that the apostles extended it to other disciples by their prerogative as Christ's emissaries. I think this was an excellent idea, by the way! I think that the latter office emerged within a few years of the founding of the Church to meet concrete needs which have continued to exist in every generation, and so I see no basis for discontinuing the diaconate either.
I think the association of "bishop" with the president of the assembly probably happened in the last three decades of the first century, in an attempt to prevent incursions by early heretical groups. It was a sensible precaution, in an age where information was largely inaccessible to the masses, and deception was a simple proposition. People could go to their local church, see a person who was an intimate of the apostles themselves, and be reassured that they were not being lead astray. The authority of the bishop stemmed from the recognition that he was removed by a minimal number of degrees of freedom from contact with Christ (via the apostles, and other bishops) and also from his extensive period of apprenticeship. I'd argue that both of these features have diminished in importance.
There are no longer any living persons with fewer than two dozen degrees of separation from the apostles, and there are numerous examples of bishops who have been identified as heretics, so just because someone is a "bishop" no longer serves as a guarantor of fidelity to the faith. Between us and the apostolic age there was a long period during which such offices were vulnerable to simony and bribery, and although some bishops were clearly honorable men during those periods, others were not, and thus the orthodoxy of bishops cannot be assumed simply from a succession. Moreover, we live in a world of seminaries and extensive commentaries and critical scholarship and inexpensive historical literature. It is no longer necessary to rely so heavily on a single man, and the model of apprenticeship has lapsed in significance relative to more formal educational institutions. For those reasons, I would expect the monarchical episcopacy in modern society to be less critical a principle to uphold.
Fascinating comment. It's difficult to respond to this, for the reasons I mentioned above, but I would say that unless one's system is grounded in the Bible, then it runs the risk of being arbitrary or a mere tradition of men, which we find condemned in the Bible. I don't see where the office of bishop ever ceases, biblically-speaking.
How do the Protestant ecclesiologies not fall prey to Berkouwer's "human arbitrariness" since Scripture is not "sufficient" for determining ecclesiology authoritatively? The problem is not the lack of an authoritative pronouncement in Protestant tradition (Westminster or Augsburg Confessions et al) but the fact that Scripture is not at all "sufficient" to resolve what would seem to be a fundamental question: the structure and form of the Christian Church.I think that Berkhouwer's point was not that everything in Christian must be explicitly warranted by biblical support, but merely that those aspects of it that are warranted in such a way should be accorded a level of special precedence over those which are not. I would hardly dissent. And again, I don't think that Scripture teaches nothing authoritatively about church leadership. I just don't think it teaches all the things you think it teaches.
Dave, if there were a single verse in the Bible that said that "bishops shalt be distinct from presbyters, for we have nother practice in the churches of God", I'd be happy to affirm that Sola Scriptura bound me to accept it. I'm saying that there are some things affirmed by Scripture, which should be embraced as infallibly taught by all Christians, and other traditions that develop during the subsequent history of the Church, about which the Church has freedom. And I agree with you that, since the Bible doesn't specifically exclude the possibility of Mary's Assumption, say, that we ought to be accepting of Christians who accept such a doctrine. It's no different, really; I can't remember ever arguing against the assumption by quoting some verse that forbade belief in it. I just think it's insufficiently grounded in tradition. There are other traditions (say, that John died at Ephesus, or that Peter was crucified in Rome) that I have no trouble accepting, as traditions, apart from any Scriptural evidence. I'm not opposed to tradition. I'm opposed to taking tradition as a mine to be tapped for additional exclusionary dogmas by which Catholicism anathematizes Christians who are otherwise submissive to the revealed teachings of Christ and the apostles.
This is one way you habitually criticize Catholicism. I was trying to figure out how to put it in words and you did it for me.
I don't think the establishment of a diocesan episcopate, or a Roman papacy, or such other things, should be considered to be doctrinal matters. That's the whole basis of my stance in this discussion. They are administrative matters. That's not to say they aren't important in the life of the Church. It's not difficult to find analogies in Catholicism. The selection of a new Pope is a decision of momentous significance. Did Christ leave any instructions as to how Popes should be selected? Up through the eighth century, they were elected by the clergy and the laity together. Since the eleventh century, they are elected by a college of Cardinals. Was one of those models "wrong" and the other "right"? Why wasn't the revelation of God sufficient to fix a single model for Papal election? I think you'd say that it's not a doctrinal matter of essential importance for the Church, but something the Church feels free to modify based on circumstance.
Selection processes are something different from whether an office itself exists. For example, U.S. Senators used to be appointed; now they are elected. But there always were Senators in the American system of government. This is my point. We say that papacy and episcopacy are divinely-ordained and indicated in the Bible. I agree that how they are put in place and similar factors are variable, as long as the office continues to exist.
Certainly there are cases where one model is worse than another. If the participation of the laity is too susceptible to political manipulation, for example, that method can be discontinued. Doesn't mean it was wrong before. Doesn't mean that the process by which we elect Popes is "arbitrary". Just means that the Church changed, prudently, to meet changing needs.
Vatican II stressed the participation of the laity: a big theme in Cardinal Newman. I welcome this emphasis. Newman pointed out how the laity were much more faithful than the bishops during the Arian crisis.
The whole concept of the priesthood was fundamentally altered after the coming of Christ, regardless of whether or not one thinks it was altered in the direction of the strict Catholic model or something more flexible. And of course we aren't "on our own" with respect to ecclesiology. We have the Spirit, who leads us into all truth. I read the success of the Protestant movement as a blessing from God, but not an exclusive one. The fact that God has also continued to uphold the Catholic Church suggests that the "truth" into which the Spirit is now leading us is a recognition that we live in a pluralistic world, where hierarchicalism is no longer to be taken as uniquely normative. Perhaps we needed bishops ten centuries ago (I'll let those with more background in medieval history be the judge of that), but I see no reason why they should be essential today. Protestants have performed remarkably at evangelism, social service, theological education, and personal devotion, without any external assistance from bishops.
Alright. I don't know how we can possibly resolve this . . .
I assure you that if I tried to design an airplane without due regard to the principles of gravitation and fluid dynamics, it would be unlikely to display much functionality. I don't think that Christianity is a quest after theological truth either. I'm deeply grateful that millions of Catholics around the world are liberated from that duty by having the confidence that their model of leadership is comfortably beneath the providence of God's will. But you want every non-Catholic on the planet to undertake some extensive personal quest to find "the perfect ecclesiology", and that's where I won't follow you. Why should some Baptist housewife in Montgomery Alabama have to interrupt her pursuit of righteousness to read a bunch of lengthy monographs (by Dave Armstrong, et al) on the indefectibility of the Papacy? If multiple models of church government are acceptable within God's broader purpose, then no one is bound to undertake theological quests of that nature. I think I'm holding the winning end of this stick.
Are you denying that the Apostle Paul spoke of a definitive tradition that he was passing on to others? If you accept its existence, then you have to explain why such a tradition would cease, and back that notion up from Scripture. If you deny it, I want to see how you variously explain a number of biblical passages I will present to you.
You don't think it speaks on whether or not a patriarchate should be based in Alexandria.
It stands to reason that large cities should have a bishop (episcopacy is the doctrine).
You don't think it speaks on whether or not the Pope should be elected by 120 Cardinals.
No, as stated, but it speaks of a papacy, which is the doctrine.
As an evangelical, I think the Bible speaks on a smaller number of things than you do as a Catholic, and that's the nature of the evangelical understanding of the gospel message. Catholicism is a more complex and ornate theological system, and it constantly discovers strange references to the perpetual virginity of Mary in the book of Ezekiel, or what not.
That has to do with differing hermeneutical schemas; allegory and so forth.
I'd say that the Catholic tradition has conclusively established that it is possible for great saints and evangelists to emerge within a Papal model of governance, and I'd appeal to that witness of history to challenge any Protestant who wanted to universalize his own local church's model at the expense of Rome.
Excellent; just as I would point with admiration to a Bonhoeffer or Wesley or C.S. Lewis, or Kierkegaard or Billy Graham, or any number of other great Protestant figures.
I feel like I have far more respect for Catholic tradition than Catholics have for my tradition, at any rate. (Not a criticism, I realize that's just the nature of the Catholic authority model.) But you don't just want me to appeal to Catholic tradition. You want me to submit to it, and to embrace it exclusively in every instance of discord between Catholic tradition and any other tradition. I'm not so persuaded that you guys have cornered the market on tradition-revealed truth.
I see the heart of our conflict on this particular issue to be the greater ecclesiological inclusivism of Protestantism, against the greater ecclesiological exclusivism of Catholicism. That means that, in purely technical terms, we are more "tolerant" of variation in theology than you are, and as such the debate quite literally reduces to a matter of whether or not that tolerance is a good thing. I agree that tolerance is hardly a virtue unto itself, and thus that simply saying "Catholics are intolerant" should not be used as any sort of indictment of character or ethics. But at the end of the day, your position is less tolerant of a spectrum of opinions than mine is, and my contribution to the conversation is to defend the alternative of greater tolerance.
This is a well-stated summary of your position. The way I would put my view is that the Bible and Tradition do not regard ecclesiology as a topic which is subject to diverse interpretation. I think it is more clear and not open to debate than a Protestant does. That in itself is not a matter of being tolerant or open-minded per se, I don't think, so much as it is a disagreement over the nature and extent of the "data" by which we conclude whether anything is certain or subject to multiple interpretations in its uncertainty.
We all agree that the Trinity is certain, and we don't allow opinions of a Quaternity or Sabellianism (God is one Person Who assumes different "Modes"). Christians agree that Jesus became Man, and that there is a heaven, and angels, and that all men die, and that God is Creator, etc. We merely regard ecclesiology as a member of the set of things that have been resolved by the information that we have. Having said that, I quickly add that it is not as clear as the data concerning the other things mentioned, which would easily, plausibly account for the diversity, but we happen to think it is clear enough (especially taking Christian Tradition into account) to arrive at one set view as the biblical position.
Now, I perceive, from various comments made on this forum and elsewhere, that this belief of Catholics concerning ecclesiology is somehow insufferably arrogant and "intolerant" (in the negative, personal, condescending sense of that word). As I understand your position more fully, I don't think you are making this insinuation, but others definitely are. And this is what I strongly object to. I don't think merely holding the position of papal / episcopal government is -- by the very fact of its existence, and the nature of the case -- triumphalistic, intolerant, arrogant, etc.
It is simply the position we hold (what we believe ecclesiological "reality" to be), and should be able to be discussed amiably without the potshots and assumptions of internal attitudes or superiority complexes that don't follow at all by simple virtue of the fact that one believes in the papacy as a divinely-ordained institution.
It's always belief in a pope which is considered arrogant and condescending. No one ever hears people talk about how "arrogant" or "triumphalistic" it is to believe in conciliarism or in congregationalism. I think part of that comes from our natural American bias against monarchy, and our inherently democratic outlook on problem-solving. We have that animus against one man having control of anything, and we don't believe God would or could set up such a situation because it is, well, so "undemocratic."
But, of course -- rightly-understood --, the Catholic system is not at all an autocracy, as the pope is always working in conjunction with bishops and councils, and (increasingly) the laity, and he is entirely subject and bound to precedent, like a judge or a scientist (with legal and scientific traditions preceding them and guiding their activities and judgments). He doesn't operate in isolation, either historically or operationally.
He is far less "isolated," arbitrary in power, or dictatorial than men like Luther and Calvin were (as I have often pointed out). Luther wasn't burdened by anyone else's opinion, or by Tradition (if he decided that it erred on whatever point). His opinion was from God and couldn't be judged by angels, as he said. Whoever differed from his viewpoint (e.g., Zwingli, Erasmus) was obviously damned. That's easy to do. The Catholic system is much more subtle and "checked-and-balanced" than that.
One of most important topics currently in dispute is whether or not Scripture provides warrant for viewing the "episkopos" as a sort of super-presbyter, endowed with all the virtues of the presbytery and others besides. Based on the first link you provided, I assume that you believe that there is good basis for taking this meaning as already implicit in Scripture;
you mention "added responsibilities", and then cite passages that refer to only the word "episkopos" as if the intent of those passages is to discuss powers that would not be granted to presbyters.
I think there was considerable fluidity in early Christian ecclesiology (in terms of offices) and that this should be fully expected, just as there was fluidity in things like the biblical canon. The apostolic deposit has to be "worked-out" in and through history. It is a constant process of ever-expanding understanding, application, and development.
So evidently you think that there was a three-fold division of offices in the NT. Let's look, if you don't object, at Acts 20:28. You identify this as establishing a "special responsibility" to defend the faith (as an "additional" feature of the episcopate). But it seems to me that Paul is addressing all the elders of Ephesus, as established in 20:17. It doesn't say "the elders and bishops", as if there were two separate classes. In one place it uses only one word, and in another it uses only the other word. The implication is that the two titles, at this stage in the Church, were of similar usage, and made reference to the same body of leaders.
Like I said, there was fluidity, but one can still (consistently and not illogically) argue that this does not preclude a special role for those who were "overseers," a title which most accurately applies to bishops as later more defined in practice. The word in Acts 20:28 is, of course, episkopos.
Catholics believe that the episcopacy, like the papacy, is a role which is refined and defined more specifically in history, because we believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding His Church and teaching us these things (Jn 14:16-17,26). So your point about Acts 20:17 is true as well, but I don't think it rules out my point; they are harmonious with each other.
The same observation could be made of 1 Timothy. Paul clearly is aware of both the titles "elder" (5:17) and "bishop" (throughout 3:1-7), but uses only the latter title in chapter 3, as if it is adequately inclusive of all non-diaconal clergy.
It's the fluidity again. This stuff developed in history, like everything else did.
And again, the same pattern in Titus 1:5-7, with Paul starting with "elder" and then switching to "bishop". It's almost impossible to detect in any of these passages even the nascent emergence of a boundary between the two offices. Do you really think either Acts 20, or 1 Timothy 3, or Titus 1, were intended to be used in a Church where "bishop" was understood differently than "elder"? If so, why? And why would that boundary not be more clearly expressed, if it is of such critical importance in the apostolic teaching concerning church government?
I appeal to my above statements. This is where Tradition becomes so central to Catholic thought. Without Tradition, apostolic succession, and councils, and development of doctrine, one can only fall back on the Bible as the ultimate (not SOLE!)source of authority. And many things are sort of fuzzy or confusing or implicit in Scripture because it came at the very beginning of the New Covenant. Its thought (inspired and unique though it is) was meant to be developed. Hence, we have Nicaea and Chalcedon to bring Christology to its full development, three centuries after Jesus died! It wasn't all immediately clear. We only know the biblical canon definitively at the end of the 4th century as well. And so, roles and extent of authority of bishops and the pope developed, too.
Are you denying that the Apostle Paul spoke of a definitive tradition that he was passing on to others?
Of course not. I'm simply denying that the distinction between elders and bishops (among a few other teachings presently prized by Catholicism) was a component of that tradition.
At first, the distinction was much more blurred; I agree.
I think that distinction emerged a couple of decades after Paul's death, probably in Asia Minor under the guidance of the Apostle John and a number of second generation Christians, in response to the developing threat of Gnostic and docetic heresies.
With respect to aspects of Catholic ecclesiology not warranted by Scripture, but only tradition . . . You are admitting that some episcopal traditions in Catholicism are non-Scriptural, and purely a product of tradition.
Well, more accurately, that they are implicitly scriptural (as I believe in the material sufficiency of Scripture), and then explicitly developed through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
At the same time, you recognize that they are simply meta-doctrines centered on teachings that are explicit in Scripture.
Yes, that too. Directly based on implicit biblical data or deduced from direct, explicit, biblical data . . .
When you say "It stands to reason", and take that as grounds for a particular decision, I think you are being sensible in your appeal to common sense. It does indeed naturally occur to me that if one has a ranking of offices in the episcopacy, that a Patriarch in Alexandria makes more sense than one in some small French village. But you've been trying to tell me that "unless one's system is grounded in the Bible, then it runs the risk of being arbitrary or a mere tradition of men".
It's grounded in the sense as explained above. I am always presupposing development of doctrine in my thought.
Do you think that these applications of reason and experience are "arbitrary", or "mere traditions of men", that should be rejected as "condemned in Scripture? I certainly don't.
I agree. The difference is that you were denying that a single ecclesiology is taught at all in the Bible, and that these things are determined by tradition alone. The Catholic view, on the other hand, is that everything is found in Scripture, in kernel form, or deduced from explicit indications (like many of the finer points of trinitarian theology, by the way). We think the Bible teaches papacy and episcopacy (in primitive, relatively undeveloped fashion), working in conjunction, and that these things develop in history like everything else does, up to and including even the Trinity, Christology, and the biblical canon (along with Mariology, purgatory and all the other "Catholic stuff").
And now I only want to push this logic in one step further. For me, the "doctrine" is the existence of Christian leaders called elders/bishops who possess administrative authority within the Church (as distinct from the diaconate, a group of Christian leaders with a servant ministry). From that biblical center, I think we can establish that it might make sense for a certain member of the presbytery to be recognized as a bishop. That is within the Church's authority, just as it would be within the Church's authority to then recognize one bishop as a Patriarch. At no point are episcopally-minded Protestants guilty of abrogating Scripture's prohibition on "vain traditions", since they realize that these traditions are being used to serve biblically authorized purposes, and not to become "laws unto themselves" that become a burdensome yoke to be placed upon the shoulders of others. That's a fairly clean analogy, in my book. I view bishops, relative to the evangelical understanding presbytery, the same way you view patriarchs, relative to the Catholic understanding of the episcopate. Neither of us is guilty of "relativism"; we just disagree on where the boundary between constraint and liberty should be located.
I don't think the views are all that far apart, once we explain them in detail. Ours is just a bit more "certain" and less open to variability, from our perspective.
With regard to my assertion that Catholicism should not anathematize non-episcopal Christians . . . Well of course I criticize Catholicism; that's why I'm here! Habit-forming? Well, it will be quite a while before my criticism of Catholicism rises to the volume of your decade-long crusade against the "disturbing incoherence" of the Protestant world. But what you demanded I do, and I quote, is "cease in criticizing so strongly the Catholic system if it is no whit any better or worse than your own preference". I told you that I thought your words were overstated, and that there was indeed grounds for suggesting that sometimes certain systems were better than other systems. In that sense, I was quite explicit that I feel it is appropriate for Christians to diligently examine which leadership models they think would best serve the purposes of their congregations at a given historical juncture. But I emphatically told you that I thought that the episcopate, among other things, was fully in accordance with the Biblical model, and in that sense was part of the subset of models compatible with Scriptural teaching. I apologize if anything was unclear in that regard, which was assuredly again my own fault.
No problem. I find this a remarkably-tolerant position, which men of good will can discuss amiably and intelligently. It's another universe from the usual, "bishops-as-representatives-of-the-Harlot-Church-of-Babylon-that-was-corrupted-when-John-died (or with Constantine)," etc., etc.
I have absolutely no interest in "discarding" the episcopate. I just want to allow for a more flexible interpretation of what it means. I think that within the historical era of Paul's epistles, it meant an office essentially coextensive with the presbytery. I think, and I hope I have made this clear, that there is strong biblical warrant for the existence of leaders who are distinct from the laity, and I recognize that the titles "presbyteros" and "episkopos" are used for those leaders in Scripture. I have no intention of recommending that the Church abandon that system.
This is so subjective . . . unless we somehow get the discussion back to the Bible or some semblance of mutually-agreed authoritative tradition, how can we even continue to discuss this?
Why do you feel that the activity of the Holy Spirit is "subjective"?
I think it can be viewed as "objective" if tied in with a corporate understanding of the guidance of the Church and preservation of the apostolic deposit, during the usual course of development. The problem comes in where different people or groups claim such guidance and they contradict each other.
I would have assumed that you would take a much stronger understanding of the indefectibility of the Church than any Protestant!
Well yes, this ties into my understanding of it. The Holy Spirit protects and guides His Church and will not allow it to fall into heresy. It's a fundamental reliance on God, not men.
What you really mean to say is that the situation will be subjective unless we accept your tradition.
Not exactly (not in those terms); rather, that it is subjective without the objective "stuff" of authoritative, authentic apostlic tradition. One has to determine which that is. Obviously we believe that Catholic Tradition possesses the fullness. And this is considered absolutely outrageous and "anti-Protestant" as well; why, I have not the slightest idea, as all Christian traditions think theirs is the best, or else they would (or should) cease to exist and merge with another tradition considered better and more true.
Preference and firm belief in one thing is not the same as prejudice and condescension towards others. But for many people, disagreement is by nature looking down on something else, because in their experience all disagreement takes place in an atmosphere of distrust, anger, and quarreling.
I'm not surprised that you believe that, since you've simply defined "subjectivity" as any departure from the elements of ecclesiology that your tradition teaches are foundational. But I don't see that line of criticism as rising beyond question-begging.
That's because you have not presented it accurately. It isn't circular reasoning precisely because the biblical data (taking into consideration developmental considerations) is brought in. It is only circular and arbitrary when there is no definite biblical standard to which a Tradition can appeal; something outside of itself, thus making the argument non-circular and non-self-generated. Also, one can appeal to history itself, to substantiate the claims of whether one Tradition is more authoritative and plausibly the "mainstream" than another one is, just as one can appeal to archaeology to substantiate the claim of biblical inspiration and infallibility.
Catholics continue to tell me about how Protestantism is doomed to continual division and strife. It just doesn't wash with my experience.
We are speaking institutionally, not personally. Whenever a Protestant makes this point, I always say that if real differences are now inconsequential and you are all one big happy family, then institutionalize and "concretize" that marvelous "unity" and prove to the world that it is truly real. Reduce the number of denominations for a change rather than increase them. Until then, we will always see an inconsistency. The only denominations, pretty much, that merge are liberals, because they no longer believe in much, and so can easily unite.
1. Neither of us believes that the Bible provides absolutely no guidance for Christian leaders. To the contrary, we can both point to numerous passages that outline both the duties and the requirements for those who hold Christian offices, though undoubtedly we disagree about some of the interpretations.
2. I contend that certain features deemed "apostolic" by the Catholic tradition are in fact post-apostolic developments brought about by the necessary transition from the apostolic age to the post-apostolic age. I think those features emerged with some apostolic guidance, but on a contingent basis; they were designed to meet certain concrete needs that had not occured in the apostolic environment. I contend that there is no reason, however, to assert that such needs cannot be met by other alternatives in the modern world. A national synod of presbyters would have perhaps been unworkable in the ancient world, due to the difficulties of transportation and communication. Today, I think that system is far more reasonable. I also think that we live in a society with far more experience dealing with democratic leadership models, where leaders invite the participation of their constituency through less autocratic decision-making processes. Congregationalism is more accessible an approach in a world where Robert's Rules are available in public libraries. For that reason, I acknowledge that there may have been good reasons for preferring the episcopate in antiquity, but I think such rationales have subsequently eroded.
3. I seem far less concerned than you do with ecclesiological diversity, generally speaking, due to my functional orientation. I don't think it's likely to impede our salvation, or complicate my personal devotional life. I don't see much evidence that the episcopate has been uniquely advantaged in carrying out the Great Commission, or in funding charities, or in articulating criticism of secular culture (political liberals hate Dr Dobson every bit as much as they hate the Pope!) Episcopalian Protestants are notorious for their doctrinal laxity, while no one feels that the OPC, say, is at risk to apostasize any time soon. And I'm not going to bother you with defending the questionable decisions of certain Catholic bishops with respect to the handling of recent scandals. I'd be fairly amenable to someone who could convince me that the episcopate was demonstrably better at something-- anything-- than other governance models. But I just don't see it, at least not clearly enough to be persuaded. That reduces you to combing Scripture to find some absolute mandate that apostolic tradition is only compatible with episcopalian leadership. I don't think you can succeed in that task. At best, you might find some vaguely suggestive passages, but nothing that would justify to me the obligatory exclusion of non-episcopal Protestants from any hope of reconciliation to the Church Catholic.
Of course, you could back off from the argument that Protestant ecclesiology is "unscriptural", admit that the various features of Catholic ecclesiology that I think are non-essential really were developments of the post-Biblical period, and try to persuade me that "Holy Tradition" is intended to develop in authoritative ways. That might even be a stronger argument than could customarily be made for something like Mariology, since I've conceded that the monarchical episcopate probably coexisted with the last of the apostles. But I still wouldn't feel convicted that it was intended as an immutable regulative procedure, as opposed to a localized solution to a specific historical problem. (The Bible is loaded with those; do you require women to wear head coverings in your parish?) Ultimately the burden of proof must be shouldered by you, since you want to divide the Body of Christ on this issue, and I don't.
I'll let this stand, and give you the last word, as I've already commented on most of this.
No major complaints with your interaction here, and I don't see any points where I either feel I was badly misunderstood, or want to retract anything. Feel free to tighten in any way you like, and I trust your judgment to the point where I won't worry about you strategically editing out words that change the meaning.
If we continued, we'd pretty quickly need to get into development theory, and the last thing I want to do is pretend to be knowledgeable about a bunch of Newman articles I've never read, so at this point I need beg off. I still find the whole notion to be insufficiently deterministic, however. If the modern church were electing all all its leaders by lot, then Acts 1 would contain the "kernel". If new bishops were permitted to emerge from outside the succession, then Paul's Damascus road experience could be the seed. I agree that you can find instances of the Church "looking more Catholic than Protestant" in a rudimentary way, but the problem is finding which direction the derivative vectors are pointing, and whether or not there are higher order derivatives, also non-zero, that might turn the divergence around.
At some point, I just lapse into a default epistemological humility (the "skepticism" you've noted is a general feature of most ecumenical Protestants), not out of contempt for Scripture, but out of my own self-recognition that Scripture is so hard to use as a "church procedural manual" that covers all contingencies. I'm just not sure I feel comfortable turning to the Bible for guidance on how to define offices in a world full of liberal arts graduates who can teleconference over the internet, and have personal libraries closing in on a million books. We live in a world with an expanded palette of workable models, so far as I can tell, and I'm just not sure that observing "the apostolic Church did this, then" will be a source of even the "seeds" of what we do now, much less a source of regulative laws.
How to Talk About the Papacy Without Offending Catholics
We won't stop believing in the papacy, anymore than a Protestant will yield up sola Scriptura. These are bedrock principles, having to do with the Rule of faith on both sides. But I disagree that this is either "triumphalistic" or fatal to ecumenism.
Only someone who foolishly thinks that we will literally unite in some Hegelian synthesis-church would think that. Ecumenism is the effort to find common ground, rejoice in that, clear up misunderstandings and hostilities, and an effort to respect others who differ from us, and who will in all likelihood continue to do so. It is not some attempt to create hybrid-churches which will please no one.
That's not fair, and -- in my mind - it is not ecumenism. It's holding a group hostage and assuming they are inferior and not even seriously dialoguing to them until they become like "us" -- because "our" position is so reasonable and moderate and nuanced and biblical, etc., etc.
All Christians believe that their views are derived from, and/or harmonious with, the Bible. To make this sort of argument, I should think that at the very least, some familiarity with actual Catholic arguments ought to be exhibited, before launching off into the hyper-polemics. Instead, we get unhelpful comments like the following (from a Calvinist polemicist):
RC apologists deny that there is any other legitimate, non-dishonest way to view things except the way that they have come to embrace. So we think they are dishonest. But nevertheless (despite their ubiquitous dishonesty) . . .How does a rational, honest, committed Catholic possibly respond to such a charge? "Yes! Wow! You know, my friend, you have a good point there! It is a profound realization. Now that I have finally faced the fact that I am inherently dishonest, and that this is a ubiquitous shortcoming of 'RC apologists,' we can get into a good discussion. Now we can get somewhere." This is the logical fallacy of poisoning the well. It begins with the false assumption that dishonesty is so widespread in Catholic ranks as to be epidemic and fatal to all ecumenical discourse and other joint endeavors.
We don't think non-Catholics are dishonest! It sounds to me that there is a bit of projection going on here. This person apparently thinks we are dishonest and so he assumes that we think the same of our non-Catholic brethren in Christ. But 'taint so. It absolutely is not true in my case, and I am well-familiar with my own opinions and approaches to other Christian traditions.
What offends Catholics is the insinuation that we are less-than-fair-minded or rational or charitable people by simple virtue of the fact that we are Catholics and believe in outrageous, outlandish, self-evidently false doctrines like the papacy or various Marian doctrines or what-have-you. It's the old "triumphalism" charge, writ large.
If those who criticize Catholicism argue from the Bible and history and avoid making the hostile meta-assertions about internal attitudes and supposed pagan background of Catholic tenets, or "ubiquitous dishonesty," we would have no objection. We have the Bible in common. That's the whole point of my emphasis on "biblical evidence for Catholicism" on my website and in my books and articles. We can all go to Holy Scripture and make our arguments.
I would challenge Protestant apologists to overturn the biblical arguments we can produce and show us what the biblical ecclesiology is, if not papacy and episcopacy, a visible church which has councils and priests, etc. They need to deal with apostolic succession. Dialogical opponents need to back up their statements. They shouldn't have the luxury of simply making them and letting them hang there, unsupported and unproven and untested by scrutiny and close examination: biblical, historical, and logical.