[*] from communiosanctorum.com ...

This note is in reference to the article, authored by Tim Enloe. It was sent to the folks at communio sanctorum as a letter to the editor.
Tim said: “Sola” Scriptura does not mean that we cannot have Councils and that they cannot lay down definitive rulings on matters of doctrine and practice; it just means that “definitive” cannot itself mean “irreformable”.
There is no doubt that this is true – and I’m not sure that anyone who is an advocate of sola Scriptura (even those with whom Tim seems constantly at odds) would disagree with him. There are certainly those who claim to use “the Bible alone” to form their doctrine, but those misinformed evangelicals and post-evangelicals are not the ones Tim is talking to or about here – because many of them would be the ones who agree with him that it’s unfair and frankly unchristian to disqualify the teachings of Rome as Christian in the sense that it is a false gospel.

The question, really, is whether “definitive” can mean “reformable” at all. This seems to be a stacked deck to me. In the first case, we have Tim’s assertion (which, broadly speaking, I can agree with) that just because some body makes a “definitive” statement doesn’t mean that statement has no flaws. But the corollary Tim seems to draw is that his adversaries want to assert (as he does later in his essay as a negative example), “The only reality in which a ‘no tradition / no mediation / no publicly binding proclamation’ scenario could even possibly work would be a solipsist (only one person existing) universe, and if solipsism is true…well, let’s just not even go there.” That is to say, there is nothing “definitive” about authority in the church.

There is a “third way” (at least; there may be more than just one more way) which Tim seems to overlook, and that is the matter of clearly distinguishing between the essentials of the faith, the derivative primary attributes of the faith, and the derivative secondary and tertiary attributes of the faith.

Now what does all that mean? Well, in the first place, it means that there is a core set of beliefs that are necessary to be called a “Christian” – I am sure you guys can agree with that since, so far, I haven’t seen you endorsing Millet’s new book from Eerdman’s (oh wait: you just did) or running out to group-hug TD Jakes (…). So what is that core set of beliefs? It has to be “the Gospel”. If it is not “the Gospel” – the good news God has revealed to man through Jesus Christ – then whatever you are talking about has nothing to do with whatever it is I’m talking about.

But what is “the Gospel”? The apostle Paul sums it up in 1Cor 15, qualifying his statement thus: “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” The Gospel “by which you are saved” is that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”. The list of appearances Paul tallies after that are the underscoring of the point that Christ rose from the dead – that there is a multitude of witnesses to the fact.

Now we can demand a lot of unpacking from this place – Who and what is “Christ”? What does “died for our sins” mean? Who is the “us” implied in “our”? Why is it relevant that this is “according to the Scriptures”? Why is “raised on the third day” a matter of core doctrine? I think we can agree that these presuppositions are essential to what Paul is saying – and it is in those matters that we disqualify guys like Joseph Smith (well, most of us anyway) and Arius and Pelagius from orthodoxy (or, perhaps in your terms, catholicity).

But we are faced with the matter that some things are derived from this summary of the Gospel which are also essential to the Gospel. For example, Paul himself says that the resurrection of the dead is a necessary derivative belief of the resurrection of Christ: it is a cornerstone of hope for the believer. But look what he says in that same context of 1Cor 15: we can see the hope that some people have in the resurrection because they are baptizing themselves for the sake of the dead in the hope it might do them some good.

Let’s admit that we probably don’t know for sure what Paul means by “baptism for the sake of the dead here”, yes? But wouldn’t you (all of you at Communio Sanctorum) deny that baptism for the benefit of the dead is not an orthodox practice? Another explanation which seems popular in commentary on this passage is that Paul means “baptism for the sake of the testimony of the martyrs”. That seems to fit systematically a little better within the normal bounds of orthodoxy, but its interpretation of what “huper” here implies is rather strained. Whatever the meaning of this statement, here Paul points out that even these people who do such a thing, they are doing it because of a strong confidence in the matter of the resurrection. That is to say, Paul underscores the essential nature of the matter of the general resurrection but indicating how important it is even in the errors it causes some people to make.

So the Gospel itself is the work of Christ; a primary derivative is any result for the believer (sanctification, repentance, resurrection, etc.). But what about secondary and tertiary derivative matters? For example, what about the matter of baptism – which is apparently one of the bases for Tim’s inclusion of all Roman Catholics in the “catholic” (small “c” noted) church? Let me be clear as always when I bring this up that in no way am I saying that Baptism ought to be skipped, or that it is “optional” for Christians. What I am saying is that while Baptism is required of the believer – that no believer should be unbaptized – the matter of “why” is frankly open to discussion between those who have faith in the Gospel. But because it is open to discussion, it cannot be the basis for establishing the catholicity/orthodoxy of any particular sect or denomination.

And my point in detailing this out is that there is a difference between making orthodoxy/catholicity a matter of “either all of the pronouncements of a set of councils or men gave out or nothing but a Gnostic fairy tail”, and making orthodoxy a clear-cut division between what the Apostles taught (which we receive in Scripture) and what attempts to displace that teaching.

It is a grave error to take any of the derivative matters of the faith and, placing the cart before the horse, make them a pass/fail criterion for accepting the Gospel. For example, when a Baptist says that Baptism is for the believer only and is an outward manifestation of an inward truth, but some other person says that this view of Baptism is “Gnostic” and heretical because it denies intrinsic matters of efficacy in the sacrament, there is a pretty clear problem. It may be true that the Baptist has too-narrow or too-simple a view of Baptism which excludes something important about the act (though as a Baptist I think that’s not true), but for the other party to call this view of Baptism “Gnostic” is, in the first place, placing the matter of Baptism inside “the Gospel” as presuppositional truth and not a derivative truth (therefore adding to the Gospel). In the second place it is overlooking that there is no action taken by undisputed councils which ever calls this view of baptism “heretical”. Making the stand that Baptism is for the believer is, in fact, the view espoused by Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon – and I would be glad to make that case with any of you under any circumstances.

Let me say it with clarity: “definitive” acts of councils are themselves not eternal decrees – and while we are certainly obligated to understand them, examine them, and accept them as artifacts of the intermediate authorities that have ruled the church in time, we are not obligated to take any of them as unquestionable, and must subject them to the final arbiter of doctrine, which is God through His word.
Tim said: I am not sure that any Bible-loving Christian (and is there any other kind of Christian?) could have any sort of problem with Whitaker’s “proviso”, for unless one holds that all of divine revelation is not contained in the Scriptures (whether 66 or 73 books is, at this point, irrelevant), then it follows that the Scriptures must be the final verification of anything in the Christian religion since they are the very voice of God Himself.
The first thing to say here is that Tim betrays himself pretty badly here – because it is actually important what constitutes God’s word (66 or 72 books) if we adopt Whitaker’s proviso. Rome itself even thinks this is so in its anathemas against those who would not count the books Jerome would not count.

But one of the very interesting things Whitaker also wrote was a treatise entitled “THE ROMAN PONTIFF IS THAT ANTICHRIST whose presence scripture prophesied”, 1582. Just in case I have taken his title out of context, Whitaker explained his purpose in that treatise thus:
    It is my primary purpose and hope that, after I have presented my case, there will be no room for doubt, but that the distinct officeholder of the Papacy, its Pontiff who boasts so much, is the true and only Antichrist. As such, those who do not wish eternal perdition ought to curse him and flee from his fellowship. Moreover, I shall proceed according to the prescribed rules of debate. In this way, if there are contrary arguments which may appear to dispute my initial arguments, I will not pass over them that I may demonstrate scriptural authority has already satisfactorily answered them, leaving no possibility of a differing interpretation. That being said, I now set forth to prove the matter at hand, refuting the arguments of our adversaries in my response.
So whatever “proviso” Whitaker was setting forth, it was not in pursuit of “communion sanctorum” with Rome: he thought that anyone who did not flee Roman authority would be subject to “eternal perdition”.

At any rate, it is interesting that Tim here affirms that all Christians are “Bible-loving”. I am certain that I can find right now examples of people Tim would call Christian – by virtue of their Roman Catholicism and baptism – who demean the value and truth of Scripture. Is it possible that if we use this definition which Tim has supplied we can start to make an in-road into the reason it is problematic to call a Roman Catholics “Christian” in the exact same way that it is problematic to call all “Protestants” and “Evangelicals” “Christians”?
Tim said: Whatever errors Rome may or may not embody in her praxis on the matter of Scripture and Tradition, it is just as impossible for we Reformed folks to get away from some concept or another of a “Churchly interpreter” as it is for the Roman Catholics. The only reality in which a “no tradition / no mediation / no publicly binding proclamation” scenario could even possibly work would be a solipsist (only one person existing) universe, and if solipsism is true…well, let’s just not even go there.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the Protestant accepts the institution of the church – any who do not ought not to be rightly called “Protestants”, because the point of protest, the matter of reformation which they took up and which we take up today, was and is a matter of protesting dubious authority being exercised in the church, and reforming the church itself to a standard of ruling authority which does not usurp God’s position as God.

One does not have to be a solipsist to admit that the church does not have the same kind of authority Christ Himself has – but in making that admission, one also has to have a care to say that Christ Himself does call the faithful into communion and into one body for the sake of the Gospel and God’s glory. Even the worst Campingite finds himself in a “church” of sorts, unified under the one droning voice of Harold Camping’s interpretation of prophecy; even the contextless “exegesis” of Dave Hunt finds itself being promulgated through the independent entities that use him as a doctrinal standard which we can only call “churches”. How much more charity can we have, then, for the poor uninformed “evangelical” that thinks the most important thing for him is that he own enough Bibles to get the right translation-plus-notes to hear Jesus’ voice clearly in Scripture, but attends his local assembly and participates in ministry there in one form or another?

I think the people Tim is here exhorting against are not actually in evidence – and the few that we can identify as clearly trying to say what he says here are not at all consistent in their view or practice of such a doctrine.
Tim asked: What does it mean to say that a doctrine is “wholly” in line with Scripture?
It means that a doctrine taught conveys the scope/depth of clarity, meaning and gravity conveyed by Scripture on the given topic. I would go so far as to say that doctrine is often the contemporary translation of moral/theological concept into actionable directives.
Tim asked: Who decides on the historical plane that we all inhabit if a doctrine is “wholly” in line with Scripture, and how is such decided?
On the “historic plane”, I think the answer is “no one” – because no person exists on a “historic plane”. That is not to say that some person must decide the point: it means that the decision is moot unless some person is living it out. I have provided an example of this to Tim in the context of the council of Chalcedon, but due to my inability to read all he publishes I have not seen his final response on the matter.

It is not a matter of radical, solipsistic individualism to say that decisions made by a council which are “definitive” or even “binding” have a final epistemological hurdle to overcome – and that is the hurdle of the individual accepting the verdict not just as “binding” or “authoritative” but as “just” and “relevant”. For better or worse, Doug Wilson says this to a person considering/advocating Roman Catholicism over at his blog, and while I do not agree with all of it (Can I admit I don’t understand all of it?) he makes a great point. Affirming that some authority is “infallible but only in special cases” is far worse than admitting some entity has authority but has the ability to make mistakes. If I understand his point (and I may not), an authority which confesses fallibility possesses the means of correcting its mistakes, while the other leads those in its charge into a far-worse situation where those who are supposed to follow don’t really know when to follow and when not to follow.

That applies to this situation in a specific way: even in Tim’s definition of “societas Christiana” and the application to corrupt rulers, Tim himself admits that the individual has no onus to submit to authority which is itself unjust or immoral or tears down the fabric of the context of the authority.

If that’s true, the Baptist who says, “I have read Chalcedon, I admit it had authority in its historical context to deliver this verdict, but I reject that verdict as irrelevant because it is not ‘wholly in line with Scripture’” is not victimizing himself through a solipsism. He is demonstrating the principle which Tim Enloe says he endorses – which is that there is a standard apart from the authority of human leaders, gathered even in the church, by which these men can and should rightly be judged – but the ones who are called to follow them.

I have said it elsewhere, but I say it here for clarity and emphasis: that doesn’t make every redecorating choice at the church or every word uttered by the teaching pastor subject to 95 theses on the cathedral door. But it does say that human leaders are subject to correction in relationship to the scope of the error.
Tim asked: Has anyone in the history of the Christian religion ever held a complete theology that is “wholly” in line with Scripture?
The answer is transparently “no” – except for Jesus Christ – and if Tim would answer “yes”, then he should name them here.

However, I suspect that he would also answer “no” (in spite of his next question), in which case the matter is whether there are some errors you can make without being called a Gnostic Anabaptist or a pelagian or a docetist or donatist. And undoubtedly the answer there is “yes”, but it goes back to the matter of the scope of the essential Gospel and the distinctions between primary and secondary derivative doctrines.
Tim said: How should we respond to others who approach our “wholly in line with Scripture” theologizing with rather different conceptions of what “wholly in line with Scripture” entails?
I don’t know anybody who thinks their whole theological system is “wholly in line with Scripture,” Tim. I think we are all under the impression that we have harmonized the hard parts the best that we can, but that the hard parts still have not been addressed with no questions to be answered. The real problems – the ones people like me are willing to draw the dividing line over – are when people take relatively-clear (if advanced) passages of Scripture which teach doctrine and simply do not read these the way they would read any other passage. The perfect – unquestionably the best – example of this is John 6, if you want to understand what I am saying.
Tim Said: Mistaking the Reformation of the 16th century for a “starting from scratch and always starting from scratch” phenomenon whose greatest purpose in life is to always point out everybody else’s sins, it deforms Reformed theology and hands the cause of the Reformation to the Roman Catholics on a silver platter.
I think that Tim here demonstrates his last mistake, which is lumping people together. See: in Tim’s argument, David King, Harold Camping, James White, Dave Hunt and Eric Svendsen are all alike – all the same kind of ignoramus with different kinds of rhetoric. The problem is that all of these men represent a lot of different things – not the least of which is points on the line between traditional beliefs and idiosyncratic beliefs, and points on a line between studied and educated opinions and randy, institutionalize shilling. There’s no difference to Tim between David King’s research on the substantive definition and history of sola Scriptura and Dave Hunt’s inane murmurings about Hebraic redactions of Acts 1-14; there’s no difference between Eric Svendsen’s accredited thesis on the Lord’s table and Harold Camping’s unjustifiable call to flee the local church because the Holy Spirit has left the world.

Excuse me: there is one difference. Tim doesn’t care to address Hunt or Camping but does care to confront Svendsen, White and King – even though the former are representative of the things Tim claims to abhor and the latter cannot be found expressing these faults except through exaggeration.


Note to all: I got sick of looking at the typos. Hope I caught them all.