Authority and Clarity

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Dear Joel,

Thanks for your prompt reply. Let me suggest a format for our letters, if you don’t mind. I would like to respond to your letter in this one. After I do so, the ball is still in my court to move on to the next issue. If you respond to this response, then I will either save it for a response in my final summary, or I will incorporate a response with one of my subsequent letters, depending on the topic.

Thus, I will introduce a topic, you will respond (if you want), I will respond, and if you respond again, I will move one next topic, saving a second response for later. This will, I think, keep us out of cul de sacs. One other thing to note is that when I “serve” up a particular topic, the writing is necessarily less personal, but the exchanges we have once a particular ball is put into play will have to be more personal. But personal does not mean disagreeable, and I want to continue to be clear without being belligerent.

Now, first: With regard to your distinction between organic and incarnational Christianity on the one hand and propositional Christianity on the other, I feel a little like Paul in Jerusalem when he was asked to continue to remember the poor, the very thing he had come there to do (Gal. 2:10). I don’t want to say that this distinction is one that you learned from me, because I do not know whether you held to it when you moved here, but I can say that we have been living and emphasizing an organic and incarnational approach to the Christian faith for many years.

Now the irony is that all faiths (provided they last more than one generation) are organic faiths de facto, despite what they may say in their creeds. The propositional assent is given at the required time because this is their organic tradition. This creates a problem for them because the propositional creed sometimes collides with the organic reality at periodic intervals. The only way to keep a faith propositionally pure is to adopt a hard-line sectarian mentality, which has been done for a short while. But if the sect lasts more than one generation, organic realities always take over. People in differing groups will say, “Hail, Mary, the five Solas! or Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” for the same organic reason-it is part of their life.

The faithful and scriptural ideal is to have the organic life and the truth taught about that life from the Word line up. I agree with you completely: life first, then dogma. And let me note in passing, concerning your life, that you and your family are organically Protestants. You are members of a Protestant church, your children attend a Protestant school, they have Protestant friends, you have Protestant friends, you labor with Protestants in business, and so on, into countless other areas. The teaching of our church is that you should take all this organic life seriously and incarnationally-our dogma lines up with your life and ours. You are currently entertaining propositions that would take you, if obeyed, to the organic setting of another communion. This is why we should agree here that propositions and organic life can be distinguished but never separated. Every organic action can be propositionally expressed. But it is important to emphasize that you would not be leaving a “propositional” church, and your departure could be explained as obedience to a mere proposition-“The church I was in was not the true Church.”

And as I see it, the approach you are contemplating undermines the organic connection of the covenantal history of the Church prior to the coming of the Lord. For example, you say that the Bereans “were not evaluating 1500+ years of Church history, but examining the new teaching of the gospel in the light of the revelation of the Law and the Prophets.” But “Church history” is precisely what they were examining. This new teaching of the gospel was being established over the stiff resistance of the rabbis. You say that Bereans were examining the new, not the old, but it is more complete to say that they were examining the new over against those who wanted to maintain the venerable traditions of the fathers. With regard to what was claimed by their opponents, they were evaluating 1500 plus years, right back to Moses and before. Surely you would agree that church authority prior to the coming of Christ was organic, not propositional. The New Testament did not usher in an era of organic religion, supplanting the older propositions.

Related to this, you say that John the Baptist did not start a rival Temple. But actually, in a sense, he did. He was the forerunner of the rival Temple. Jesus was the one who tore down the existing Temple, and promised to replace it in three days. The old ways, the traditions of men, the ancient practices, the glorious Temple, all went up in smoke, and it was the pleasure of God. And what does Rome have in her claims that Jerusalem also did not have?

But how can the Bereans examine this way without placing themselves in the position of final authority? You said, “It seemed to us that, in the realm of Christianity, private judgment inevitably requires an authoritative Church to avoid becoming individual judgment.” You are correct in what you state, but wrong in what you are assuming. We agree that an authoritative church is necessary-a church as such that outranks individuals as such. But an authoritative church is not the same thing as an infallible church. Of course, if infallible simply means nothing more than the right to put certain subjects off limits for debate (as you mentioned in one of our conversations), then the word infallible has collapsed to mean merely authoritative. But of course, then this means that our church is infallible too-so long as infallibility is flexible enough to mean fallibility. I am not trying to abandon my irenic spirit here, but I don’t know how to deal with this kind of thing without calling it sophistry. I don’t know what to do with a scriptural infallible infallibility over against a magisterial fallible infallibility.

Allow me to highlight this with an illustration. Three neighborhood children live in three neighboring houses-the Smiths, Millers, and Johnsons. The Johnson kid is out of control, and shows no respect for the requirements of his parents. We shall call him Individualist Johnson. He is out back in the garage, holding a revival meeting, and so we need not disturb him. The Smith kid wants to be obedient (desperately) but his parents are dysfunctional and have created for him a mass of practical (organic) contradictions. He is R.C. Smith. The Miller kid wants to be obedient too, and his parents are comparatively average-right sometimes, wrong sometimes, and potentially wrong at any given time. His name is P. Miller. Now, let’s say that in a discussion with Miller the Smith kid postulates that his parents are not only his authority, but that they are infallible. Miller concedes that parents are authoritative, but he says that at any given point they are capable of error. This does not diminish their authority, but rather it shows Miller’s high view of it. For example, he is willing to submit to a decision that he believes is in error, but does so simply because his parents have required it. Smith thinks that this shows a low view of parenthood, and says that his parents are infallible-but only sometimes. This infallibility comes and goes. He says that he is required to submit to his parents’ infallible decisions, but that he is free to question their fallible ones. Now the most reasonable question in the world for Miller to ask is how to tell the difference between them. When are they being infallible? When not? This is not carping or criticizing-it is a practical organic question. If Miller want Smith to go swimming with him, it matters whether or not Smith’s parents have said that he could, or that he could not, or both in a contradictory way, or that he could not (but this decision could be questioned by the son), or that he could not (and it cannot be questioned by him), and so on. The boundaries of true authority matter to the submissive heart.

And this is where I believe you back away from your organic commitment to authority significantly. It seems serious and high-minded to say “Obey your mother,” but it is inconsistent with this injunction to then discourage any serious subsequent attempts to discover exactly what she has said to do. You say that the “idea of the Magisterium is that of a living body of authoritative interpreters of the deposit of revelation-the primary part of which is inscripturated in the Bible. It is quite misleading to consider it merely as the collection of writings left by the Magisteria of the past, although these too are part of the Magisterial gift to the Church at large . . .” But a commitment to “order, charity and submission” remembers what it was told to do yesterday, and the day before that. If I am diligently laboring to obey my mother and she told me last week that Muslims were all eternally lost and she tells me this week that they are worshippers of the true God, then what is my organic obedience supposed to look like? If I think she is fallible sometimes and infallible sometimes, this spares me from having to assert an ultimate logical contradiction here, but it does not help me decide which is fallible and which is infallible at all.

You say, “many of the problems above deal with the propositional identification of the magisterium, rather than its organic reality. The primary relationship of the Catholic with the magisterium is through the living Bishops of his day. The historic magisterium is important, but the living magisterium is the working point of contact. If there is a problem, and you identified several areas worthy of discussion, the answer is to discuss it with the current members of the magisterium . . .” But there is not a problem requiring discussion here. The catechism I quoted concerning the Muslims was intelligible enough, and I had no questions about what it meant. It was very clear. The imprimatur was by Joseph Ratzinger [now Pope Benedict], and the Holy See reserved all rights to itself. My only question is whether this Catechism is part of the magisterium. If so, then why not just submit to it? Why discuss it at all? But you say, rightly, that there is debate. This is because, apart from the assertion that it does speak with a single voice, this authority does not speak with a single voice. And if the Catechism is not part of the magisterium, then what would it take for something to become part of the magisterium? In short, there is debate on such things within the Roman Catholic church because the point I am making about the magisterium is clear, which is that the boundaries of said magisterium are unclear.

I am not saying these things because I need more precise propositions in order to make all my syllogisms happy. I am saying that submission to authority requires clarity. A geometrician in Euclidville wants clarity. Enlightenment philosophes pursue clarity, as you pointed out. But despite their propositional idolatries, obedient sons desire clarity also, but for a completely different reason.

May the Holy Spirit of God bless your prayers and Bible study together, and may He clearly show you the way so that you may walk in it.

Cordially in Christ,


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