Thursday, 21 May 2009

Unity, schism and private judgement

I’ve not touched the blog for the past couple of weeks as, between other commitments, I’ve been preparing a paper for the Oak Hill School of Theology, which this year was on the subject of ‘Truth, Unity and Schism’.

My brief was to look at some of the practical issues from a ‘grass-roots’ level. What I presented in the end was an attempt to look at the issue of unity and schism from an ecclesiological perspective. How we live the life of the Church, I suggested, affects fundamentally how we handle and, if possible prevent, division.

My starting point, however, was an acknowledgement of the divided nature of Protestantism, observed by my old friend Robbie Low in an article he wrote for New Directions, back in 2004. “The curse of Protestantism,” he declared then, “is division.” And this is because, according to him,

The very nature of [Protestantism’s] origins, self-understanding and approach to the Word of God are inherently schismatic.

And this he blamed on Protestantism’s problem with authority:

In rejecting the authority of the Pope the Western reformers did not abolish autocracy but rather set in train a process the logical end of which is that every man is a pope in his own parish or in his own front room.

The chaos resulting from this is familiar to many:

The upshot is hundreds of ‘churches’, most of them with their own bizarre subdivisions (low, strict and particular, Southern, open etc, etc). In addition, there are thousands upon thousands of one-man band conventicles brought about by the falling out of Brother Smith with Pastor Jones. Pastor Smith, as he has now appointed himself, has the ‘real’ truth and hopes shortly to be needing to rent a bigger Scout Hut than the gravely misled Pastor Jones, his former guru.

Robbie blamed this on the principle of ‘sola scriptura’ —the Bible alone as the Church’s authority. I’m sure this is one reason why he and his wife Sara have now become Roman Catholics. Whilst his criticisms are fair, however, I find myself disagreeing with this part of his analysis. I am sure the problem has to do with our understanding of the truth. However, I find myself rather more drawn at this point to the critique of another Anglican turned Roman, namely John Henry Newman.

In 1849 Newman had published a collection of Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations (‘mixed’, in this context, meaning ‘made up of Catholics and Protestants’). In one of these, ‘Faith and Private Judgement’, he made this stark assessment:

Protestants, generally speaking, have not faith, in the primitive meaning of that word ... and here is a confirmation of it. If men believed now as they did in the times of the Apostles, they could not doubt or change.

But, as Newman observed, people (or at least Protestants) undoubtedly do change their beliefs, and this he attributed directly to the combination of Scripture and private judgement:

Since men now-a-days deduce from Scripture, instead of believing a teacher, you may expect to see them waver about; they will feel the force of their own deductions more strongly at one time than at another, they will change their minds about them, or perhaps deny them altogether; whereas this cannot be, while a man has faith, that is, belief that what a preacher says to him comes from God.

Once again, the criticism seems fair enough —and not least when it comes to evangelical Protestants, who fancy themselves to be completely committed to the ‘authority’ of Scripture, but who seem to be rather prone to change their minds about what Scripture ‘authoritatively’ says. Now it teaches penal substitution, now it doesn’t. Now it is anti-homosexuality, now it isn’t, and so on.

By contrast, according to Newman, the primitive Apostolic preaching called for obedient faith:

Immediate, implicit submission of the mind was, in the lifetime of the Apostles, the only, the necessary token of faith; then there was no room whatever for what is now called private judgement.

Compare this, Newman argues, with the person who goes by their own estimation of the Bible:

Now, my dear brethren, consider, are not these two states or acts of mind quite distinct from each other; —to believe simply what a living authority tells you, and to take a book such as Scripture, and to use it as you please, to master it, that is, to make yourself the master of it, to interpret it for yourself, and to admit just what you choose to see in it, and nothing more?

Is this not exactly what we see in many Protestant churches and amongst many evangelical individuals? Previously ‘received truths’ about what Scripture says have been in overturned as a person has ‘seen the (new) light’ and decides they can no longer believe as they once did.

There is much about Newman’s approach which may be criticized, but there is something in it, and particularly in what he wrote about the attitude of new converts and the rôle of the Church in relation to them:

... when they entered the Church, they entered it in order to learn. The Church was their teacher; they did not come to argue, to examine, to pick and choose, but to accept whatever was put before them.

This is not, frankly, an attitude much in evidence today. Instead, we have taken as our guiding principle that advocated by J C Ryle, writing at almost the same time as Newman:

Reader, this is private judgment. This is the right you are to exercise if you love your soul. You are not to believe things in religion merely because they are said by Popes or Cardinals, —by Bishops or Priests, —by Presbyters or Deacons, —by Churches, Councils, or Synods, —by Fathers, Puritans, or Reformers. You are not to argue, “Such and such things must be true, because these men say so.” You are not to do so. You are to prove all things by the Word of God.

Now I am much more a fan (and a reader) of Ryle than Newman, but I think Ryle is mistaken. It is true that we mustn’t believe something just because someone ‘in authority’ says so —the Apostle Paul gives the same caution in Galatians 1. And it is also true that we must “prove all things by the Word of God.” But we cannot always and invariably look, finally, to our own private judgement for a verdict.

On the contrary, as Gerald Bray has recently written,

What is easy to overlook in the history of Christian doctrine, though it becomes clear once it is pointed out, is that no individual has ever been given the authority to determine what orthodoxy is.

That being the case, we must surely check our private judgement against the authority of the wider Church, rather than the other way round.

Our problem, in other words, is not that we give too much credence to the Bible, nor is it (as Newman and Low both suggest) that we don’t give enough to the Pope. It is rather that we give too much to our own opinions. After all, if not just those naughty popes and cardinals, but bishops, priests, presbyters, deacons, churches, councils, synods, the Fathers, the Puritans and the Reformers all come down one way, and I come down another, where does the balance of probability lie?

I hope to post later on what I went on to say this means in practice.

John Richardson
21 May 2009

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  1. Dear John,
    a storming return to the blogosphere!
    I agree with much of what you say; it is useful material for reflection on how evangelicals read scripture in community, rather than on their own (in "quiet times"). Perhaps I should say, though, and here's the rub, that they tend not to do this, and tend as you say to rely rather too much on individual rather than corporate faith. Newman would perhaps have preferred the latter.

    Overall though, what has been missing from your thoughts on this matter is how faith is not a matter of assent to doctrine (Scriptural or human) but of a relationship with God in Christ.

    Tim Goodbody

  2. Thanks for these comments, Tim. My response to your last point, however, would be that faith in response to Scriptural teaching ('doctrine') is a relationship with God, since Scripture is the word of God which calls us into relationship with Him.

    Peter Jensen puts this very well in his The Revelation of God, where he shows how Scripture acts in this way.

  3. While appreciating the urgent needs of Oakhill, your world readership have missed your erudition. But the wait has been worth it ... you are putting your finger on an endemic and deep problem, not just for Protestantism, but for Christianity. I have been interested, recently, in reading the claims of Eastern Orthodoxy, which at face value are 'the answer': stick with the NT and the development of theology to 500 AD(-ish), with need for neither pope not private judgement. But they offer little which is persuasive for Roman Catholics to jettison the Pope (who does make for unity, at times sorely lacking in EO), and one wonders about their engagement with the realities of life as it changes. At least Protestantism tries to keep pace with the latter!

  4. John,

    I agree with you. I came across a case of "private judgement" yesterday. A lady told me that while she thought homosexual practice was wrong, nevertheless it was a private matter between the individual and God, and the church should not exercise discipline. However, some further thoughts:

    First, if "private judgement" merely means that any Christian can open their Bible and hear God speak to into their lives and feed their souls without the mediation of priest, scholar, or tradition then that is that unobjectionable. The ancient practice of "Lectio Divina" would affirm this view of "private judgement."

    Secondly, what happens an individual Christian has a view that is at variance with ancient church tradition? Take the case of Luther at Worms. Luther saw the force of the appeal of his opponents to the authority of the Pope, church, and tradition, but ultimately preferred his own view of Scripture to these other authorities.

    We would want say that, at least concerning justification, Luther was right. Thus, as the Articles put it, it is possible, in principle, that Churches, tradition, and Councils are wrong. Thus, in Scripture, Jesus upholds the OT but denounces the views/traditions of the Pharisees, yet Paul does appeal to apostolic traditions. Thus traditions and "private judgement" can be both good and bad.

    How then does one adjudicate between a new and novel interpretation and church tradition?

    A possible answer would be that any new interpretation must be tested by the church. Others must agree that the new interpretation is a sound exegesis of Scripture and a legitimate development of church tradition. Thus, Luther's doctrine of justification was approved by many others as in line with Scripture and seen as a refinement of the Augustinian doctrine of salvation by grace.

    Thanks for your blog and your further comments would be welcome.

    In Christ,

    Ro Mody

  5. Thanks for the lecture on Wednesday John- it was very good. Can I point to a few resources that might help with this question?

    1. Anglo & Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, sometimes make the (very understandable) mistake of thinking that Protestants have no place for tradition in their hermeneutics. A quick reading of the Articles and Homilies will show that this is not the case. To reject tradition entirely is Anabaptism, not Protestantism (interesting that open evangelicals are now becoming interested in the Anabaptists...). The trouble is that a lot of what we might call 20th century-nontheological-publicschool-English evangelicalism has tended to Anabaptism, having in Gerald Bray’s words, replaced sola scriptura with sola exegesis. Chapter 1 of Christopher Ash’s new book The Priority of Preaching (Christian Focus / Proclamation Trust 2009) is vital reading in this regard. He criticizes the contemporary reliance on small-group, interactive Bible studies, and suggests instead that the authority of God is mediated to his people not by the written word alone (the nuda scriptura of the Reformers?) but by the written word preached. In my words, our reaction to scripture should not be to discuss it, but to shut up and listen.

    2. Tim Ward has given one of the best recent defences of the Protestant doctrine of scripture in Word & Supplement (OUP, 2002- he has just had a more “popular” work on the subject, Words of Life published by IVP). Anybody involved in this debate must read this book. Tim makes the point that sola scriptura- especially the sufficiency of scripture- is the only way for the church to avoid idolatry. Otherwise it will mistake sinful human desires for the voice of God- which is exactly what has happened in the USA, as TEC has said time and time and again that they are setting aside scripture to follow the leading of the Spirit.

    3. Catholics often point to the unity given by Rome, as opposed to the divisions of Protestantism- and they have a fair point. However, I think that unity under the Roman magisterium is a false unity (and anyone who knows anything about the history of RC religious orders knows that there divisions have been just as internecine as those of Protestantism). Rome offers an institutional unity. What we should have in Protestantism is a unity of virtue. The particular virtue in question is humility, expressed in continual repentance. It is not always realised that in classical Protestantism humility functioned as the vital counterweight to the principle of private judgement. For a very good example, see the first homily “A fruitful exhortation to the reading and knowledge of holy scripture”. Peter Jensen calls for a “hermeneutics of humility”, and Tom Wright for a “hermeneutics of love”, by which I think he means something similar to Jensen. Humility for a start will make us suspect our own judgements, and listen to the judgements of other Christians, living and dead.

    4. Let me give an example: I know of at least one Anglican Evangelical church that will give communion to people who are not baptised. It may be possible to defend this from scripture. But this church is going against the whole of Christian tradition: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and even Anabaptist! It may be that tradition is wrong. But humility would suggest that a reading of scripture that allows this is almost certainly wrong- at least that private judgement should be suspended.

    Stephen Walton, Marbury

  6. Hi John

    It was good to see you on Wednesday and to hear your perspective on unity. Thank you for provoking discussion and thought.

    I am with you when you say "we give too much too our own opinions". It is true that we make matters of doctrine, law or wisdom issues to divide over when these belong to sanctification, as Jim Packer pointed to in Ephesians 4.

    Biblical unity is by justification, so anyone who has been humbled by Christ and loves him as Saviour is "in" and the arrogant, self-dependent Christ-hater is "out". Our personal opinions must, then, never divide.

    Divisions, occur, because we want others to be like us, equally obedient or wise, equally sanctified. I've written a couple of blog posts which I have found really useful in matters of unity. The first looks at the relationship between justification, wisdom and obedience and the second at the relationship between love of Christ, knowledge of Christ, obedience to Christ and Faith in Christ.Seeing division as caused by a deficiency in the person, Paul prays for the divided church in Philippi (cf Phil 4:2), for all Christians to grow in love, wisdom, knowledge and righteousness (obedience) (Phil 1:11-12), precisely because they are united by the death of Christ for sin, no matter how unsanctified they are.

    Your brother

    Neil Robbie

  7. Neo-Puritan site; please visit, comment.

    And forget "conservatism." It has been and is, operationally, de facto, Godless and thus irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God they are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson's Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

    ”[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It .is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth."

    Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

    John Lofton, Editor,

    Recovering Republican