Bryan Cross, “Ecclesial Deism,” etc.

Every once in a while I spend an exorbitant amount of time posting a comment on someone else’s blog. It is a weakness with which I persistently struggle to overcome. Alas, I have succumbed to it once more.

This time, however, I have decided that, rather than simply casting it into the abyss of soon-to-be forgotten combox limbo, I will post it on my own eventually-to-be-forgotten web site.

The comment to which I refer was originally made as #238 to post titled “Determining the Doctrine of the Church” on Lane Keister’s Green Baggins blog. As can be easily gleaned from a quick perusal of  the post’s four paragraphs, it concerned a topic of interest primarily to those who affirm Reformed theology: the relative authority of the Scriptures vis-à-vis the Reformed confessions of faith. It made no reference whatsoever to Roman Catholics or Roman Catholicism.

All that, however, didn’t prevent the Romanist gadfly (and ex-Pentecostal-cum-Reformed-cum-Anglican) apologist Bryan Cross from immediately hijacking the comment thread (as in, with comment #1) and quickly turning it into a Protestant-versus-Roman Catholic debate.

As for me, I jumped into the fray with comment #9, followed by 15, 44, 45, 50, 80, 89, 110, 121, 128, 144, 156, 169, 179, 193, 200, and 203 before composing the one that I have copied below. (I know, I know: I need to get a life.) That comment was my response to Cross’s comment #208, which was Cross’s response to my comment #110. If you look at comment #110, you’ll see that I was responding to a comment by Cross (#97) that was not addressed to me but to someone else.

Update: For this particular comment I have since received some rather flattering email, and so I am especially glad that I have taken steps to preserve it.

Ron Henzel said,

May 9, 2010 at 7:58 am


First of all, let me thank you for taking the time to respond to me so thoroughly in comment 208. Secondly, I need to note that, as detailed as your response is, your concept of “ecclesial deism” rests on a highly problematic set of assumptions that lack the support of the sources to which you appeal.

You wrote:

In comment #97 I was explaining that ecclesial infallibility is the great conservative principle of the Church over the past two millennia. Your response in #110 was to claim that papal infallibility is a recent innovation of the nineteenth century. But papal infallibility is not the same thing as ecclesial infallibility, as can be shown by the fact that the Eastern Orthodox also believe in ecclesial infallibility.

No, you did more than claim that ecclesial infallibility has been the great conservative principle of the Church. You specifically declared that it “protects the sheep from…every theological innovation…” If a dogma that was only defined 140 years ago is not a theological innovation, I don’t know what is. That is the point to which I was responding.

As for your claim that the Eastern Orthodox also believe in ecclesial infallibility, that it a vast oversimplification camouflaging quite substantive differences. Consider the following:

Infallibility belongs to the whole church, and not just to the episcopate in isolation. As the Orthodox Patriarchs said in their Letter of 1848 to Pope Pius IX:

Among us, neither Patriarchs nor Councils could ever introduce new teaching, for the guardian of religion is the very body of the Church, that is, the people (laos) itself.

Commenting on this statement, Khomiakov wrote:

The Pope is greatly mistaken in supposing that we consider the ecclesiastical hierarchy to be the guardian of dogma. The case is quite different. The unvarying constancy and the unerring truth of Christian dogma does not depend upon any hierarchical order; it is guarded by the totality, by the whole people of the Church, which is the Body of Christ.

[Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, Rev. ed., (New York, NY, USA and London, UK: Penguin Books, 1963; 1993), 251.]

And also:

Infallibility rests with the church as a whole, the “pleroma” of all the clergy and people. The Eastern patriarchs stated this most clearly in an encyclical letter of 1848: “infallibility resides solely in the ecumenicity of the Church bound together by mutual love;…the unchangeableness of dogma as well as the purity of rite [is] entrusted to the care not of one hierarchy but of all the people of the Church, who are the body of Christ.”

[Daniel B. Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Books, 1994), 101. Emphasis is Clendenin’s.]

This key difference between Romanist and Eastern approaches to infallibility obviously has immense implications. One rather obvious feature of the Eastern approach is the fact that it rests on a definition of the church that is closer to Protestantism than Roman Catholicism.

You wrote:

Ecclesial infallibility has been something the Church has believed since long before the Catholic-Orthodox schism.

Yes, but how long has “the Church” believed in such infallibility would seem to be a good question to ask. It would seem to be a more recent development than, say, the fifth century, when we find Augustine writing:

For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the MS. is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. As to all other writings, in reading them, however great the superiority of the authors to myself in sanctity and learning, I do not accept their teaching as true on the mere ground of the opinion being held by them; but only because they have succeeded in convincing my judgment of its truth either by means of these canonical writings themselves, or by arguments addressed to my reason. I believe, my brother, that this is your own opinion as well as mine. I do not need to say that I do not suppose you to wish your books to be read like those of prophets or of apostles, concerning which it would be wrong to doubt that they are free from error.

[Letter LXXXII (82) to Jerome, “Letters of St. Augustin,” in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, (Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., reprinted 2004), 1:350.]

If there was another infallible authority beside Scripture, Augustine seemed emphatically unaware of it. But what did he do when he “failed to understand” something in Scripture? Did he resort to the magisterium (of which he was supposedly a part) for the proper interpretation? No, he applied a very Protestant-sounding methodology to this problem:

Accordingly the Holy Spirit has, with admirable wisdom and care for our welfare, so arranged the Holy Scriptures as by the plainer passages to satisfy our hunger, and by the more obscure to stimulate our appetite. For almost nothing is dug out of those obscure passages which may not be found set forth in the plainest language elsewhere.

[“On Christian Doctrine,” 2.6.8, ibid., 2:537.]

Augustine not only compared Scripture with Scripture as a bishop, but he urged others to do so as well, rather than urging them to resort to bishops like him for their answers.

You wrote:

So it does no good to point to the relatively recent formal definition of papal infallibility as some kind of defeater for my claim about the Church’s longstanding belief in ecclesial infallibility.

I think I’ve already demonstrated how you missed my point about papal infallibility, but it’s worth noting here that a longstanding belief is not the same as a belief that is true, or even the same as one that goes back to the apostolic period—which, of course, “ecclesial infallibility” does not.

You wrote:

You also take issue with the notion that Protestantism is built on ecclesial deism. You write:

historic Protestantism has uniformly agreed that the Holy Spirit has continued to be extremely involved with His church down to the present time

I understand, and I agree that Protestants have claimed as much. But so has every heresy in the history of the Church; they claim the Holy Spirit for themselves.

To “claim the Holy Spirit for themselves” is not the same as denying ecclesial deism—at least if we stick with the normal meaning of the word “deism” that you would seem to be applying here. You understand that meaning well enough, for you accurately supply it in your article titled “Ecclesial Deism” as follows:

Deism refers to a belief that God made the world, and then left it to run on its own. It is sometimes compared to “a clockmaker” winding up a clock and then “letting it run.” Deism is distinct from theism in that theism affirms not only that God created the world, but also that God continually sustains and governs all of creation.

Fair enough, so far. Thus one might naturally expect that you will define “ecclesial deism” as a subset of—or at least in keeping with—standard deism, i.e., that just as deism denies any kind of divine involvement or intervention in the continuing existence of the world (except, in some brands of deism, for the most basic providential kind), so also “ecclesial deism” should deny any kind of divine involvement or intervention in the continuing existence of the church. But that’s not quite what we find with your definition, which reads:

Ecclesial deism is the notion that Christ founded His Church, but then withdrew, not protecting His Church’s Magisterium (i.e., the Apostles and/or their successors) from falling into heresy or apostasy.

[Bolding of text mine.]

It turns out that, thanks to a not-so-subtle sleight-of-hand, your “ecclesial deism” does not apply to the church per se (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church §752, 777), but only to “the Apostles and/or their successors” (cf. CCC §891 for a more precise roster of the Roman magisterium). You have essentially committed an equivocation based on the ambiguity of the word “ecclesial” and based both your definition and all the arguments that flow from it on that equivocation by illegitimately assuming the standard (but spurious) Roman Catholic distinction between ecclesia docens and ecclesia discens (‘teaching church” and “learning church”).

You wrote:

The key word in your statement is ‘involved.’ The term is sufficiently weak that any event can be claimed to have the Holy Spirit’s involvement — both sides of a schism, all the various denominations holding incompatible doctrines. Those contradictions are of no concern, so long as the Spirit is merely ‘involved.’

You are very correct: the key word is “involved”—i.e., if you want to understand the concept of deism. From the very beginning deism was essentially a denial of God’s ongoing involvement with His creation (cf. M.H. Macdonald, “Deism,” in W.A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., [Grand Rapids, MI, USA and Carlisle, UK: Baker and Paternoster, 2001], 329-330). And your objection to the word “involvement” is demonstrating that your equivocation extends beyond the word “ecclesial” to the word “deism.” You want the “deism” part of your definition to go beyond the commonly-understood sense to only refer to a very limited kind of divine non-intervention, as you write:

Christ’s promise, however, was much stronger than that His Spirit would merely be “involved” with His Church. He promised that His Spirit would guide His Church into all Truth, as the cloud guided the Hebrews by day and the pillar of fire by night.

But since the cloud and fire-pillar that guided the Israelites was (a) not a component of the leadership’s (i.e., Moses’) didactic ministry, and (b) lasted only for the duration of the Israelites’ 40-year wandering in the wilderness (Neh. 9:19), it is a very poor analogy to what you are trying to defend. The cloud-pillar did not guide the Israelites “in every century,” as you write:

The ecclesial deist denies ecclesial infallibility because he does not belief that the Spirit has always been guiding the Church in every century. That’s why such a person is willing to call into question anything and everything that the Church has believed and taught, unless he finds it stated explicitly in Scripture.

I think that by questioning the things that are not found in Scripture we are simply fulfilling the command of Scripture to “test everything [and] hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21, ESV; cf. 1 Jn. 4:1), and “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn,” (Isa. 8:20, NASB).

You wrote:

Your response is to distinguish the Church’s magisterium from the Church. Your claim, presumably, is that the Spirit is promised to guide the Church, not her magisterium.

Once again, your argument is viciously entangled in Roman Catholic assumptions, viz., that the church that Christ established actually has a “magisterium”—i.e., an indefectible teaching authority as opposed to a biblically-defined teaching ministry—which is predicated on the following set of interdependent assumptions:

1) that there was an apostolic succession, also of indefectible authority, and not merely of office, of which this magisterium consists,

2) that there is a holy oral tradition that constitutes a source of revelation separate from Scripture, which this magisterium preserves, and

3) that there is a canon of Scripture that is neither sufficient nor perspicuous, which this magisterium interprets.

I don’t recall where you have argued these points; it seems you have simply assumed them, even though without them the entire structure of your “ecclesial deism” argument dissolves in the solvent of Scripture.

You wrote:

And who then might the Church be? The answer turns out to be: Whoever sufficiently agrees with one’s own interpretation of Scripture. You see how convenient that is.

And what has the Roman Catholic church done? It has simply substituted the following as the answer to your question: “Whoever sufficiently agrees with our interpretation of Scripture.” Do you see how convenient that is?

You wrote:

What would otherwise be equivalent to the rebellion of Korah, is transformed into being led by the Spirit away from the mere ‘traditions and structures of men’, simply by redefining the term ‘Church’ to refer not to those old fogies (and all those in communion with them) in their old lines of succession from the Apostles, but to those who are in sufficient agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture.

Do you see what you’re doing here? Right here, in this paragraph, you’re essentially admitting that your working definition of “the Church” is not “the whole universal community of believers” (per CCC §752), but “those…(and all those in communion with them) in their old lines of succession from the Apostles.” You’re defining “the Church” as the Magisterium!

You wrote:

This is precisely how the angel of light leads persons into heresy and schism from the Church — he deceives them into thinking that they are upholding orthodoxy.

So much for, “Our aim is to effect reconciliation and reunion between Catholics and Protestants, particularly those of the Reformed tradition.” Unless, of course, “reconciliation” is strictly on Rome’s terms. Your rhetoric is beginning to take on a rather nasty tone at this point.

You wrote:

They become so convinced of this that they leave their rightful shepherds, and set up an imitation which usually in some way bears the name of the person who founded their heresy or schism.

And, of course, you’re not referring to names like “Thomism,” “Dominican,” or “Franciscan,” are you?

You wrote:

Christ’s promise to guide the Church into all truth would be worthless to know if it does not apply principally the Church’s magisterium.

This statement is true only if we assume that the written revelation of Scripture is insufficient because it must be supplemented by oral tradition, and that it is not perspicuous and therefore requires infallible human interpreters.

You wrote:

That is because if the promise didn’t apply to the Church’s magisterium, we could know only that among the various sects of self-described Christians in the world, at least one set of persons (though which set we know not) is being guided by the Holy Spirit.

Yeah, it’s amazing how that works. Who alone is being guided by the Holy Spirit? The magisterium. Just ask them!

You wrote:

This is how St. Cyril of Jerusalem could say:

“And if thou should be in foreign cities, do not simply ask where is the church (kyriakon), for the heresies of the impious try to call their dens kyriaka, nor simply where is the Church (ekklesia), but where is the Catholic Church, for this is the proper name of this holy Mother of all” (Catecheses 18.26).

And yet you will look in vain in Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures for any trace of a magisterium. How does he define “the Catholic Church?” He explains in 18:23 that he essentially means “universal church” rather than “indefectible magisterium.” It’s difficult to see why you think this citation from Cyril supports your position, although it may be somewhat easier to see how you think you find support in your next citation:

And St. Augustine could say:

“You know what the Catholic Church is, and what that is cut off from the Vine; if there are any among you cautious, let them come; let them find life in the Root. Come, brethren, if you wish to be engrafted in the Vine: a grief it is when we see you lying thus cut off. Number the Bishops even from the very seat of Peter: and see every succession in that line of Fathers: that is the Rock against which the proud Gates of Hell prevail not.”

Such statements would make no sense if Christ’s promise to guide the Church into all truth by His Spirit did not apply to the magisterium, but only to the laity.

On the contrary, I think Augustine’s statement here makes perfect sense without importing the later Romanist notion of an indefectible magisterium into it. You are providing a good example of something I find to be quite common among Roman Catholic apologists: the notion that if they find a church father referring to the succession of bishops from the apostles they read into it all the Romanist baggage that accumulated during the Middle Ages. But if you read this excerpt from Augustine closely you’ll see that all he’s doing is citing the succession of bishops as evidence of the fulfillment of Christ’s promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church.

You wrote:

You wrote:

Why did God not provide such a magisterium for His Old Testament people?” Is it because “ecclesial deism” was God’s actual policy from Adam until the apostles?

No. Under the Old Covenant there was magisterium of prophets; that was not “ecclesial deism.” But under the New Covenant, there is a new economy, a new measure of the Spirit, and a far greater magisterium, suited for a universal Church spread over the whole world.

Even if I were prepared to concede that the Old Testament prophets filled the role of a magisterium in addition to being writers of Scripture, there were considerable stretches of time prior to the coming of Christ in which no prophet ministered.

Now the young man Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.

[1 Samuel 3:1, ESV]

This was especially true during the time we Protestants refer to as the Inter-Testamental period.

They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, so that it would not be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar, and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them.

[1 Maccabees 4:44-46, NRSV]

And, of course, there is no record of any prophet providing such instruction. So simply dubbing the Old Testament prophets as a “magisterium” does not solve your problem; there are still significant gaps when your “ecclesial deism” had to have been in effect prior to Christ’s first advent.

You wrote:

I agree that many Catholics can and do disagree with other Catholics over the interpretation of various passages of Scripture. For most such passages the Magisterium has made no formal statement about how they must be interpreted, though for many of them there is an interpretive tradition which is authoritative. But you seem to think that these kinds of in-house disagreements are equivalent to the doctrinal disagreements between Protestants.

You are obviously questioning my statement, and yet you provide no evidence that the disagreements within historic Protestantism (by which I mean that which constituted Protestantism during the Reformation) have been any more severe or more closely touching matters essential to salvation than the disagreements within Roman Catholicism. Instead, you simply go on:

You write:

They [Protestants] are in harmony on what they mutually agree to be essential matters, thus they obviously do not consider having a single ecclesiastical hierarchy to be essential.

I agree that Protestants do not consider having single ecclesiastical hierarchy to be essential. That’s because they don’t believe the Church to be essential.

I find it difficult to believe that anyone who would write such a thing was ever a Protestant. Protestants don’t consider the church to be essential? Have you never read WCF 25.2?

The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

If I didn’t know any better, I might think you’re trying to insult my intelligence.

You wrote:

If there were no one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, but only persons, nothing in Protestant practice would change.

Now you’re just being silly. You need to read the entire WCF 25, and then further acquaint yourself with the basics of Reformed ecclesiology.

You wrote:

Protestant ecclesiology has no way of distinguishing between a schism from the Church and a branch within the Church.

And, of course, we would respond that we most certainly do. It’s called the word of God.

You wrote:

Since Protestantism has no magisterium, what counts as “essential matters” is ultimately (at least in this life) up to each Protestant to decide.

This is positively false. There is complete unanimity among historic Protestants that the essentials of the faith include the Trinitarian theology and Christology of the early church councils along with the principles of sola Scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fide. There is no disagreement on the nature of God or His salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

You wrote:

So the only reason you can claim to have ‘agreement’ on the essentials is because the essentials are whatever you yourself decide them to be, and thereby pick out those other persons who share them with you as ‘the rest of the Church,’ all agreeing on the essentials.

So on the one hand, we leave it up to every individual to decide what is essential, but on the other hand we all agree on what is essential? You can’t have it both ways. First of all, we never left it up to every individual decide what is essential. That is a complete fabrication on your part. Second, the reason we agree on what is essential is due to the perspicuity of Scripture.

You wrote:

However, every Arian in the fourth century could have done the same thing, picking out what beliefs he thinks are essential, and then identifying the Church as those who share those beliefs. Every heretic in the history of the Church could have done the same thing. That’s why such a conception of ‘essential’ is worthless, because it is entirely relative.

Those of us who are historic Protestants totally agree with you here, which is why we reject the Council of Trent. They picked and chose which beliefs they considered “essential” in direct opposition to the clear testimony of Scripture.

You wrote:

In the Catholic Church, by contrast, what is essential is not ultimately up to each individual to decide, but up to the Church’s magisterium to decide. For that reason, in the Catholic Church there is an objective difference between what is essential and what is non-essential.

You fail to demonstrate how adding the element of a human magisterium is any more objective in determining what is essential to believe for salvation than a perspicuous Scripture.

You wrote:

That’s why it is not accurate to claim that agreement and disagreement among Protestants about essentials and non-essentials (respectively) is equivalent to agreement and disagreement between Catholics about essentials and non-essentials (respectively). The claim is an equivocation.

I’m not enthusiastic about making a pot-calling-the-kettle-black observation, but the only reason it seems like an equivocation to you is because of the equivocation in your own terminology, which I believe I’ve amply demonstrated here.

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