Saturday, 23 May 2009

If not private judgement, then what?

A couple of days ago I posted about the ideas I explored at the Oak Hill Annual School of Theology on the subject of ‘Truth, Unity and Schism’.

I began by acknowledging Robbie Low’s critique of Protestantism published a few years ago in New Directions, and agreed that Protestants do indeed suffer from divisiveness. Contrary to Low’s suggestion, however, I do not believe the problem is sola scriptura. Indeed,‘sola scriptura’ may be seen as part of the gospel itself. Thus Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures ... (1 Cor 15:3-4)

It is only as the death and resurrection of Christ are understood “according to the Scriptures” that faith is able to save us from sin and coming judgement.

The difficulty, of course, is in deciding what Scripture says, particularly in cases of dispute. And it is a Reformation principle that we cannot simply say that the Church tells us what Scripture says. Article XXI, ‘Of the Authority of General Councils’, recognizes that,

... when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God.

This is where private judgement tends to come in, but as I argued last time, that is also not enough —indeed, if it makes the individual the final arbiter of truth, it is positively dangerous.

Our first need is rather to see that we do indeed enter the Church (which is to say, we become Christians) as learners —as disciples.

And the second thing to see is that there are those given by Christ to his Church to be its “pastors and teachers” (Eph 4:11). Indeed, the New Testament reveals a community in which teaching and being taught were key elements of the Church’s daily life. Paul describes the Christian life as ‘learning Christ’ (Eph 4:20) and being “taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus” (Eph 4:21).

That being the case, we need to set aside any idea that you can give a new convert a copy of the Bible and rely on them finding their way to the truth. Instead, we must recognize that the teaching ministry is a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Cor 12:7,28) and that teaching is a singular gift of the few, not the many:

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (Jas 3:1)

By all means, let us encourage people to use their critical faculties. Like the Bereans of Acts 17:11, we must all learn to ‘search the Scriptures’. Nevertheless, the Bereans’ noble character consisted not in their scepticism but in their receiving Paul’s message “with great eagerness”, and they examined the Scriptures not to refute what they heard but to confirm it.

In short, we need to generate a new culture in which we value learning in others and in which we have humility towards our own opinion. Specifically, in the Church we are not all entitled to our opinion when it comes to matters of belief.

It is worth reading John Wesley’s ‘Address to the Clergy’, written in 1756. He makes this challenge, for example, about the minister’s need for a grasp of biblical languages:

Do I understand Greek and Hebrew? Otherwise, how can I undertake, (as every Minister does,) not only to explain books which are written therein, but to defend them against all opponents? Am I not at the mercy of every one who does understand, or even pretends to understand, the original? For which way can I confute his pretence? Do I understand the language of the Old Testament? critically? at all? Can I read into English one of David's Psalms; or even the first chapter of Genesis? Do I understand the language of the New Testament? Am I a critical master of it? Have I enough of it even to read into English the first chapter of St. Luke? If not, how many years did I spend at school? How many at the University? And what was I doing all those years? Ought not shame to cover my face?

Other subjects with which the minister should be acquainted included history, Ancient Near Eastern culture, biblical chronology and geography, sciences, metaphysics and the Church Fathers. On the subject of basic philosophy, he had this to say,

Can I even reduce an indirect mood to a direct; an hypothetic to a categorical syllogism? Rather, have not my stupid indolence and laziness made me very ready to believe, what the little wits and pretty gentlemen affirm, “that logic is good for nothing?” It is good for this at least, (wherever it is understood,) to make people talk less; by showing them both what is, and what is not, to the point; and how extremely hard it is to prove anything.

We have become a Church in which ‘Jack’s as good as his master’ (and, of course, every Jane is as good as her mistress), in stark contrast to Judaism and Islam where the learned teacher still warrants respect.

Many Protestant churches have what I would call a ‘charismatic’ view of the ministry (although quasi-Roman might be a better term), where the qualification to minister to, and especially to teach, others is given through the laying on of the bishop’s hands on the candidates head, rather than through what George Carey once described to a tutorial group I was in as the application of the seat of the trousers to the seat of the chair.

The ‘ordained’ are then entitled to direct and govern congregations, despite them having fairly minimal qualifications to do this in the way that the Anglican Ordinal directs:

And seeing that ye cannot by any other means compass the doing of so weighty a work, pertaining to the salvation of man, but with doctrine and exhortation taken out of the Holy Scriptures, and with a life agreeable to the same; consider how studious ye ought to be in reading and learning the Scriptures, and in framing the manners both of yourselves, and of them that specially pertain unto you, according to the rule of the same Scriptures; and for this self-same cause, how ye ought to forsake and set aside, as much as ye may, all worldly cares and studies.

Expertise in the Scriptures is not all we need to be effective ministers, but it is essential to effective ministry. Paul’s instruction to Timothy provides a sound basis for any ministerial work,

set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. (1 Timothy 4:12-13)

If there were more acknowledgement that this is the backbone of the Church’s life, there might be less divisions in the Church —but that will only work if the ministers are themselves reliable, and that is a topic to which I will return later.

John P Richardson
23 May 2009

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  1. Excellent post, John! The Romans have a point ... often represented among evangelicals when we have referred to the Evangelical Magisterium of Stott, Tyndale Commentaries, The Lion Handbook of the Bible, Packer, and just about anything published by IVP (at least in a former generation) ... today it's not so easy to define the EM!

    PS: Are the Galatians as the addressees of 1 Corinthians 15 your 'private' resolution of various traditional issues re the Corinthian correspondence?

  2. Thanks Peter - my mistake about the 'Galatians'.

    You've anticipated a point I will make later about publishing houses - that we do indeed trust them as providing an (unofficial) imprimatur, and have no problem with that.

    Why should we not, then, expect Church's to give a nihil obstat verdict on works by those who occupy its teaching office?