Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Apostolic Succession and the Definitions of "Protestant" and "Church"

By Dave Armstrong (6-3-09)


I. Definition of Protestant and the True Reformation Heritage
II. The Nature of Christian Unity: Institutional, Spiritual, Theological, All of the Above?
III. Apostolic Succession and Development of Doctrine: Arbitrary Traditions of Men or Divinely Established Criteria of Orthodox Christian Legitimacy?
IV. Presuppositionalism and Logical Circularity: Characteristic of Catholic Apologetics but not Reformed?

* * * * *

Definition of Protestant and the True Reformation Heritage

Protestantism, as it exists, goes far beyond "historic, classical Protestantism." This is simply a sociological fact, whether we like it or not. Reformed Protestants pride themselves on uniquely preserving the "Reformation heritage" intact, and indeed, to a very large extent this is true. But that does not mean that they are the lone Protestants out there. 

John Wesley (whom I greatly admire) was a Protestant. So was Bonhoeffer and A.W. Tozer, and C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers and many others who do not fit in the square circle of Calvinism, the "elite" Protestants; supposedly the only "real" or "consistent" ones. And I deal in reality and not in the internal conflicts of Protestants, by which it follows that even definitional and dogmatic issues of "orthodoxy" are unable to finally be resolved (because there is no real authority to solve the problem).

There are no "official Protestant" positions, simply because there is no institutional way to determine them, or to determine orthodoxy per se! So the Westminster Confession or Calvin's Institutes are cited. Whoop-de-doo! One has to accept them, and there is no way to demand obedience if someone is not in the Reformed denomination to begin with. If they dissent, then they go and join another group or form their own. Or they start to go liberal, as J. Gresham Machen and Francis Schaeffer have documented, with regard to "official" Presbyterianism in particular, during the 20s and 80s, respectively.

The only way to attain real, apostolic authority is to trace it back in an unbroken line to the Apostles and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and that is precisely what Protestants cannot do. They cannot show that their peculiar doctrines were present in the early Church. Just today a book by a Southern Baptist (Williams, I think) was mentioned to me, where the author agrees that sola Scriptura could not be found in the early Church (and this is a bedrock principle of all Protestants)! Norman Geisler and Alister McGrath have admitted the same concerning faith alone, or sola fide, the other pillar of Protestantism. 
There is a qualitative difference between Protestants attacking distortions of the one Catholic dogmatic position and my attacking variants of Protestantism. It is claimed that we distort "true" Protestantism? But we are not told what true Protestantism is. Right off the bat, four major strains (Lutherans, Calvinists, Zwinglians, Anabaptists), competed against each other, contradicting each other, mutually anathematizing, each claiming the glorious mantle of "true Protestantism." Calvinists want me to believe that Calvin carries more inherent authority than Luther, who (unarguably) started the movement! On what logical or ecclesiological or biblical basis can such claims be made, pray tell?

If one wants to refute Catholicism, one goes to Trent, Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. If one wants to refute mainstream Protestantism, one goes to Calvin's Institutes or respectable modern exponents such as R.C. Sproul, J. I. Packer, et al.

I deal in "official" Protestantism as much as possible, defined by what the creeds, confessions, and major theologians and exponents of each Protestant tradition say about their own beliefs. With sola Scriptura, e.g., I was careful to cite prominent authorities such as Berkouwer, Sproul, Hodge, and Ramm as to its definition. I didn't make up my own definition, based on the idiocies and imbecilities which abound amongst Joe Q Protestant with Bible in hand. I've been consistent all along in this. The urge for proper documentation has been with me ever since I was an evangelical cult researcher in the early 80s.

I am not foolish and intellectually-suicidal enough to render the Protestantism of Swaggart out of existence, as if it is not what it is. Is it different from Reformed Protestantism? Yes, of course (though not vastly so, in the scheme of things). Yet anti-Catholics will never be as hard on those folks as they will be on Dreaded Rome.  And why is that, if they are so immersed in error, also? 

Swaggart's soteriology (as far as I know; unless he has degenerated theologically as much as he has morally) is that of the Assemblies of God, the group which ordained him. This is standard Wesleyan, Arminian soteriology. I used to attend Assemblies of God myself (though I never became a member, because I disagreed with some of their tenets).

The inner logic of the exclusivistic, tunnel-vision hyper-Reformed mindset inevitably leads to equating Arminians (and Catholics) with Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. This does not follow at all. It is very shoddy logic and a slanderous blurring of crucial categorical distinctions. Yet it happens all the time. I don't waste my time running around, defining other Christians out of the category they clearly belong in. That's the anti-Catholic game; it is not the game of the serious historian or sociologist (I happened to major in sociology and have read a great deal of history on my own).

Protestants wishing to offer a serious critique don't cite and do battle with "Joe X amateur apologist" on Bulletin Board B or List C, or an elderly lady with no teeth, purple tennis shoes and a babushka at morning Mass. Nor do we go to Swaggart or Bob Tilton or a back-pew warmer in the United Church of Christ, or Clinton or Gore (good Baptists both. Ha!).

With such tunnel vision and highly exaggerated self-importance as anti-Catholic Reformed thinkers are burdened with, it is predictable that they would class any theological opponent in the same class as the all-horrible Beast of Babylon. This is the black-and-white mentality of self-defined, closed dogmatic systems. There is little understanding of fine distinctions, or of biblical paradox. "Either/or" and unnecessary false dichotomies and fuzzy definitions rule the day.

Why and how is it that a denial of free will, and an acceptance of limited atonement, double predestination, and perseverance is somehow essential for "classic" Protestantism, when even Luther didn't accept all these notions (so I guess he is in bed with Rome), nor did the supposed exemplary precursor St. Augustine (so now he was a Pelagian, even as he fought them!). Only Calvin got it right. Why? Because he said he did! That's what the Reformed argument boils down to. Luther himself is out of the fold, and all non-Reformed Protestants since. Calvin devises in the 1530s the highest version of Christianity known to man -- never known in its fullness by anyone prior to his time -- not Augustine, not any of the Fathers nor the early Councils, etc.

I acknowledge distinctions, and a mainstream of the so-called "Reformation." It does not thereby follow that I think Arminians (let alone Catholics) are Pelagians, or that they deny the "Gospel" which I believe both these parties, and Orthodox and Catholics hold in common. The "Gospel," as clearly defined in Holy Scripture and proclaimed by the first Christians so as to turn the world upside down, is neither TULIP nor sola fide. The Gospel is the incarnation, virgin birth, atoning death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our glorious Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the implications of that for the attainment of salvation and eternal life.

My own overarching definition of Christianity is: 1) those who have been baptized properly, 2) acceptance of the Nicene Creed; particularly trinitarianism and all its defined nuances -- to the extent that the person can grasp the intricacies of it.

The Nature of Christian Unity: Institutional, Spiritual, Theological, All of the Above?

I and my Church try to be biblical in our views, rather than according to man-made traditions which endure a few hundred years and then claim to be "respectable" and "Christian alternative ecclesiologies" because they have been around so long. Spiritual and doctrinal unity can only be achieved by a simultaneous institutional unity (especially involving the papacy). History bears this out very well.

What is the biblical evidence for there being no necessity for a unified, institutional, hierarchical Church? By what criteria is it claimed that the prerogative to utterly change the previous principle of authority and ecclesiology in the 16th century? Some problems are so obvious they are overlooked.

No one can deny that there are contradictions in Protestantism. Contradictions mean that there is error present necessarily. And error is not of God. It is from Satan, the father of lies. This much is absolutely certain and can't be otherwise. Therefore, one or more groups are mistaken in those areas where they clash. Luther, the founder of the whole thing, believed in baptismal regeneration and several other things closely approximating the Catholic positions.
Yet Jesus told us to be "one" as He and the Father were one. There is no end to the logical and biblical problems inherent in Protestantism. It never ends. And there is no way out of it because the whole system (i.e., its ecclesiology and formal principle) is self-defeating, ultimately a-historical and unbiblical from the outset. Diverse ecclesiologies? Diverse notions of the sacraments? Symbolism vs. realism vs. "dynamic" Eucharists? How do we  know when this principle is extended far enough and must be suspended or limited?

I can worship with fellow baptized, trinitarian Christians who no longer believe in the Eucharist because what they do do when they worship is not all that inconsistent with Catholic belief; it is just a truncated and abridged version of Catholic Christianity. I can sit there and sing hymns and pray to God and recite the Creed, etc. I can listen to a sermon and weed out the relatively small percentage of error (we have to do that with some of our liberal priests). I can participate in a "least common denominator / "mere Christianity" religion because my religion possesses virtually all these characteristics, and also many more, as it is the fullness of apostolic Christianity.

But anti-Catholic Protestants have a hard time worshiping with Catholics because they are under the illusion that idolatry is taking place, and an undue sacramental realism, with pagan accretions, superstitions, excessive sacerdotalism, vain repetition, necromancy, a Pelagian soteriology, hyper-authoritarianism, etc., etc. They don't comprehend what has been long since arbitrarily discarded from their religion. 

We are amazed that those claiming a common gospel and an alleged commonality in the "basics" or "core beliefs" or "essentials" nevertheless still feel compelled to separate from each other. In a large sense that is even more wicked and sinful than if the splits were over something truly substantial.
On the other hand, anti-Catholics deny the gospel to others in their own group. They unjustly, and absurdly place the Arminians in the Semi-Pelagian camp (along with us) and sometimes even refuse to call them "Protestants." Then they turn around and carp about this semi-mythical "unity" which is always used as an excuse to avoid real, biblical ecclesiology and the obvious superiority and biblical/historical nature of the Catholic system.

Sheer ignorance leads to chaos, but so does an accurate understanding of foundational Protestant principles, because they are self-defeating and unbiblical themselves (except in those parts where they retained the traditional view).

Apostolic Succession and Development of Doctrine: Arbitrary Traditions of Men or Divinely Established Criteria of Orthodox Christian Legitimacy?

Apostolic succession was not an explicit OT concept, except for the rough analogy of the Jews as Chosen and God's eternal covenant with David. It was much more highly developed in the New Covenant, founded upon the twin gifts of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and infallibility. When Jesus established His Church on Peter as the Rock, this was a new entity altogether. One might cite, however, the OT priestly line, coming from the same tribe as a precursor.
We interpret the Fathers based on their own presentations of their own teachings. One classic case is Augustine and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. He makes many statements about the symbolism in the Eucharist. Yet elsewhere he often teaches that the consecrated elements are the Body and Blood of Christ. This is no contradiction. Symbolism and realism can co-exist. But Protestants, of course, jump on the symbolic statements and ignore the others. This is lousy scholarship and interpretive methodology. One must understand the whole of the Father's teaching to know what they held about some particular doctrine. 
Or, see my two paper refuting William Webster and how he distorts and mangles the teaching of Vatican I with regard to development of doctrine. There is a very good reason why he never counter-replied.

What Webster engages in is what I call "historical eisegesis." He reads into historical sources, Fathers, etc. what he wants to see and presents it without the aggravation of anomalous and contradictory evidence. I don't have to claim this is deliberate. It doesn't have to be. Most people who do this aren't aware of it (like how the major media aren't "liberal," so they tell us; Gore says he doesn't deliberately lie -- I believe him). The bias will produce the desired results.
I know this procedure very well. I engaged in the exact same endeavor throughout much of 1990, trying to disprove and mock papal and conciliar infallibility. All Webster is, is regurgitated and updated George Salmon: the Anglican polemicist of the 19th century (who has been decisively refuted at least twice in lengthy rebuttals). Again, I know this, because I used Salmon's arguments also. I thought he was the greatest thing going, till I read Newman . . . . In terms of scholarship, Salmon compared to Newman is as a scribble of a child to a Rembrandt masterpiece. History speaks for itself, if we will only allow it to. That's awfully hard for an inquirer to do if he gets a Webster book which presents one-sided views of history.

I don't say that Protestants should find the doctrines full-grown any more than I think we should find ours all full-grown. What I claim is that the Protestant distinctives are so often not present at all -- whether "full-blown" or in kernel, implicit form (an entirely different proposition). 

People like R.C. Sproul -- especially him --, as on his radio show today) pretend that Augustine and Aquinas were these wonderful, spiritual "proto-Protestants" and theological ancestors and overlook the fact that they are in actuality the quintessential Catholics. These are our guys! The whole enterprise is ridiculous, laughable (if it weren't so tragic and aggravating) and fundamentally intellectually dishonest.

Lineal descent" and the historical argument is not only a patristic notion; it is already quite evident and undeniable in, e.g., Luke 1:1-4 (cf. Acts 1:1-3). Paul reiterates the same approach when he repeatedly refers to the "tradition" which is "passed down" and "received." His is a fundamentally historical criterion of Christian truth (see 2 Thess 3:6, 1 Cor 11:23, 15:1-3, Gal 1:9,12, 1 Thess 2:13, 2 Tim 2:2; cf. 2 Pet 2:21, Jude 3). All of this is absolutely obvious and plain in Scripture.
This is Christian epistemology, not the bizarre, utterly implausible scenario of some fool-idiot with delusions of grandeur, who comes around in 1517 claiming that he is God's Man of the Hour and in possession of all theological truth, whereas the whole Church screwed it up for 1500 years (and a second one who calls the first "reformer" a "half-papist" and proceeds to construct his own counter-Church, as if the one established by Jesus were insufficient). I stand with Scripture, Apostles, and Fathers on this one.

Jesus, in His high priestly prayer of John 17 stated that our oneness will show the world that He was Messiah, and that our unity should be like His with His Father (a bit more profound than the ethereal Protestant "unity").
Presuppositionalism and Logical Circularity: Characteristic of Catholic Apologetics but not Reformed?

Protestants have to rationalize the initial wicked schism somehow, and false viewpoints always seek to distort terminology from the outset, so as to justify themselves as legitimate. The way this is done is by adopting this quasi-Gnostic idea of elitist, ethereal spiritual unity, and by accepting the thoroughly unbiblical notion of the "invisible church" (to the exclusion of an institutional, historical one, or at least a relegation of same to ultimate insignificance; kind of like the monarchy in England).

Schism followed from the early Protestants' anarchical principles. They set the wheels in motion. This is what they were so blind to (among many other things). They threw the "glass vase" of Christian unity up into the air, yet they were so shocked that it fell and broke into a million pieces. It has continued to break into even more pieces as the years go by.

Many Protestants seem unable to analyze anything in its own right, from within its own premises and framework (it's called classical, Aristotelian logic). They have to superimpose their own axioms onto whatever they examine. They are like the fish in water, that can't get (or see) beyond it. We can look at all these little man-made systems and point out their internally contradictory and unbiblical natures, without having to first assume Catholic premises to do it. 



Roberto Jung said...

"Yes, I know. I have the most extensive Catholic critique of Orthodoxy on the Internet. Bring them on (but they tend to argue in a circle also, so it gets very wearisome after a while)."

It seems the link in this paragraph isn't working anymore. I'd like to know if the critique of Orthodoxy can be found elsewhere?

Dave Armstrong said...

I have a web page on Orthodoxy: