Saturday, November 18, 2017

A Conversion In Two Distinct Stages

I had a theological and intellectual problem in 2008: What is true about God, and how do I know whatever I find is true? The thing I kept running into, the thing that cannot be overstated, is that there are too many good, holy, smart people to dismiss them all as heathen, or morons, when you happen upon an impasse or a disagreement. This is even harder to do when we share some fundamental agreements of deep conviction and methodology, such as the inerrancy of Scripture, and that Scripture alone is the only infallible rule for faith and practice. If you hand the Scriptures to someone like me, and say, "Learn these. Study these. Learn how to teach and preach the Scriptures to others" that's exactly what I'm going to do. By all means, give me commentaries. I want as much background information as I can get, so that when I begin to prayerfully prepare to exposit them, I can rightly handle the word of truth.

I don't really think it's shocking that we read books and training manuals from people who weren't necessarily Reformed and Presbyterian. In the spirit of "taking every thought captive," we'll take any truth we can find and affirm it. More than that, we'll use it. As small a world as conservative Reformed theology can be, we'd be using a clip or an illustration from your favorite movie or show faster than you can say, "Kuyperian sphere sovereignty." Every inch of creation has been claimed by Christ, and counterclaimed by the Enemy, and you get the idea.

It starts as a half-thought, in the middle of doing something else: "I wonder why that guy wasn't/isn't Reformed?" The thought-train continues. "Hasn't he read [prooftext] in the light of [topic]? Well, anyway, these insights are great, despite what he got really wrong." Reformed seminarian kid chuckles to himself, as he thinks about what arguments he'll use later to convince his friends in the half-serious discussion about C.S. Lewis, and how he was really Reformed. In the end, you brush the thoughts aside, because you've got a Greek exam, and a Bavinck response paper in two days.

"Evangelicals" is how we described ourselves. It serves a dual purpose, mind you: We can let people know we are Protestants, without conceding anything to the Catholic Church, and we can affirm the personal conversionism of the Great Awakening. But we're not those thoughtless "broad" evangelicals; goodness, no. We're "confessional."

It's a rite of passage to read Chesterton's Orthodoxy at some point. It's actually a selling point that he's Roman Catholic. If you're Reformed, and you don't actually wrestle with the claims of the Catholic Church, Catholics just seem like crypto-Reformed bohemians who made a mistake. Especially the writers. Also, anyone British gets a pass. Why? We didn't know.

I must have had, or heard, 300 conversations that start out, "The Church should..." "We as the Church aren't very good at..." Does anyone know to what we were referring when we said, "Church"? Frankly, I think we just assumed we knew what each other were talking about. Isn't that weird?

Now, I wasn't one to consign all non-Reformed to the fires of Hell, and I never knew anyone who did. We're united by the things that matter: Faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone. Amen? The problem is, those are slogans, not points of dogma. It leaves me with no answer to dogmatic questions, as such, and as a member of a "Church" whose only common tenet is non-Catholicism.

The Roman Catholic Church isn't on the radar. Other than those writers we really liked, Catholics are those weird superstitious people who only go to church on Christmas and Easter, if that, and who haven't actually heard the saving gospel. Let me drop the guard a second here, and speak as a Catholic now: We'd have already converted most of you Reformed, if we didn't have two generations plus of dead "cultural Catholicism" and the prejudice it engenders, to overcome.

"What is the Church?" When you start to really ask this, you're probably past the point where any Reformed can help you. "What is the mechanism by which dogma is preserved and known?" Let me know if you find a Reformed answer.

I picked up "The Shape Of Sola Scriptura" in 2009, because I had a relativity problem. What's true, and how do I know? If you're going to promise to "save" Sola Scriptura from bad practice and misunderstanding, you'd better bring the goods. Well, he tried. Maybe the principles of Protestantism have no "goods." What if the methodology itself, applied consistently, destroys knowledge of supernatural things?

When I say, "There is no principled distinction between Sola Scriptura, and "Solo" Scriptura," I'm not actually speaking as a Catholic, or an apologist, as if that's some heinous crime. I'm still in fact speaking as the guy who had to sit and cry for hours in 2009, because Mathison destroyed his own argument. God bless his intellectual honesty; it's the best part of the book. If he's got mountains of anti-Catholic prejudice to surmount, that's sad, but it's not an argument. At that point, I did not accept the authority of the Catholic Church, or its Magisterium. That was 2 years away. If I ask for an argument against the claim that begins this paragraph, you'd better bring me something better than your antipathy for the Catholic Church. Because I didn't have prejudice then, and I certainly don't now.

You may readily accuse me of bias in my assessments of history, current papal statements, and all manner of things now, because I do accept the Church's authority. This changes theological methodology, by its very nature. But the question of whether a Reformational methodology is actually workable can be asked by any observer. It is not, strictly speaking, simply a point of Catholic apologetics.

I regard the motives of credibility for the Catholic Church as the Church Christ founded to be an entirely separate discussion from that of the dogmatic principle, and how it may be found. The fact that the two discussions arrive in the same place oftentimes is no excuse to be a lazy coward, if I may be so bold.

I still regarded three groups as distinct, as an enquirer: 1. the early Church; 2. the Catholic Church today; 3. the Christian communities birthed in the Reformation. It only makes sense to consider becoming Catholic, if and only if reason suggests that (1) and (2) refer to the same reality.

Most of the profitable Reformed and Catholic dialogue is going to turn on the organs of infallibility, and the conditions under which it is exercised. Even as an uncommitted enquirer, the gravest problem with Sola Scriptura seems to be an inability to distinguish in a principled way between private opinion, and divine revelation. To bring myself back to the beginning of this story, it seemed wholly unreasonable to prefer my judgment, and my subsequent adherence to a secondary doctrinal standard (and an ecclesial authority subject to Scripture and that secondary authority) to that of another person's. Our alleged reliance on the aid of the Holy Spirit did not appear to be dispositive. It seemed also to be the case that our differences on major issues would persist, even if the secondary authorities did not exist. Hence the claim that Sola collapses into Solo. If I decide how and when the authorities function as authorities, their number is not particularly significant. The true authority is me.

It is indeed a great mercy that Reformed and Catholics agree that the definitive revelation of God is in Jesus Christ. Ecumenism does not consist in merely celebrating and affirming what is held in common, but rather, inquiring as to the basis for that commonality, and building upon it. True ecumenism is dialogue concerning matters of revealed truth, in order to reach agreement in that truth.

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