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Friday, June 15, 2012

 The reason there's an existential crisis in the hermeneutical process enshrined in Sola Scriptura is that the humility of submission to God is undercut and obscured by the fact that the final arbiter of what the Bible says is the individual. We can have lots of mediating authorities--the church as we understand it, creeds, and whichever parts of church history we choose to accept, but it's still on us, in this setting. The Westminster Confession of Faith says it this way: "The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture." [The Holy Spirit! See! Not me, not you!--ed.] Ah, but that's exactly where the Noltie Conundrum comes in, and makes the crisis acute. What Christian is going to say he lacks the Spirit's guidance? Especially when he is interpreting the Scriptures, he'll depend on this. But it won't take him long in dialogue to realize that there's a disagreement on some fundamental matter. If it wasn't, you and he wouldn't attend different churches. You can account for this ecclesiologically to a point, but only to a point. You may think that Bob is utterly wrong on whether to baptize his infant children, but you concede that he's not damned. What if he doesn't? Is the "Church" still one? Who asked you, anyway? Who asked any of us? None of this is new. Some of you are refusing to face it, but it isn't new. It highlights this irreconcilable problem: Your ecclesiology undercuts your doctrine of revelation. And vice versa. Insofar as you have to tolerate the doctrinal differences between you, you lack dogmatic certitude on precisely those points. The possibilities are endless. This doesn't bother people as it should. To put it more simply, you can't distinguish between a branch of the "Church" and a schism. Schism has a more technical meaning than we tend to think. It means an unlawful separation from Christ's Church. I won't hector everyone about which Church that is. How many of you are content to define a "schism" as a separation, but not as one where guilt can be definitely placed? I know you do, because I was you. You can't define schism if you can't define 'Church.' And you can't define Church, because you've said already it's invisible. But without Church, you have no dogma. The Church cannot be the pillar and foundation of the truth if you can't find her. If you don't agree on the meaning of a term, the rules of logic and dialogue dictate that you can't move forward. That's why all the dialogue and shared cultural battles and everything in the evangelical world are fruitless, if it takes place on these terms. It will either result in the relativization of doctrine for the sake of 'unity', or the absolutizing of doctrine within (ever-smaller) communities, no unity, and no real authority.
Heck, over on the visible Church side of the ledger, we're upsetting your project, because we flat-out do not consent to a unity based upon doctrine alone, but on a succession from the apostles. The problems I mentioned in the previous paragraph are not new; they are not 21st century evangelical concerns; they are not convert concerns. You can dismiss my story and journey (which isn't even in view here) as the emotional rantings of a person who got tired of making hermeneutical judgment-calls (or something) or you can face the fact that the operative principle of Protestantism contains the seeds of the demise of Christianity itself.
But by the mercy of God, truth persists, even in this most tenuous of situations. Every Christian has to identify that strand of timeless truth he knows, finding the origin and the principled basis for holding it. Once he does, he need only do what that truth requires of him. I'm sorry; it's hard. Many sacred cows will die.
You want to say that God is true, but every man is a liar. Yet this movement doesn't make man a liar, but rather accuses God. What is truth? We're back to Pilate's question, because no one knows. You want to hide your disagreements in the mystery of God, but the mystery of God leaves a man in wonder, not frustration. If the Incarnation really took place, if Jesus came to rescue man from himself and the judgment of his God, then the means of Christian truth since then are as visible, as tangible as He is. I'm not asking the wrong question to ask where the Church Christ established is; that's exactly the right question, because Christ is God who took on flesh, who shows us the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And it comes to this: Why should I follow you as opposed to someone else? If you're not willing to give your life for every last article of what you believe, you'd better get rid of what doesn't qualify, and find what does. As a Christian, I have an obligation to find the fullness of what belongs to Christ. If I can't know, how can I be a Christian? Tell me how you live with the truth of faith in more than reasonable doubt. Better yet, are you willing to start at the beginning, to trace the Church from the beginning as a visible community? That's the way out of Noltie's Conundrum. To this people assembled in this structure has been given the gift of truth. In them, we find truths we have always known and treasures innumerable we thought lost.

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