Friday, November 04, 2005

Some thoughts on Catholicity and Evangelicals

This is in part a responce to a post at the Pontificator by Alvin Kimel, OHHGA, though it is also continuing to work out my thoughts on the relationship of the Reformation to the church and the tradition. I do not claim to be original in these thoughts and it may very well be that Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson argue along these lines better than I ever will. In any case I take my inspiration from these two scholars.
Alvin Kimel claims that evangelicals in the Anglican Communion have no reason to wish to claim catholicity for themselves. They are evangelical because they affirm Sola Scriptura and thus since they have the Bible have not need for claims to catholicity. Now as is obvious I am not Anglican (neither in church affiliation nor in culture or ethnicity, Kamphausen should be a dead give away.), so I am somewhat unconcerned and in no position to speak to the internal workings of the Anglicans, though my wife and number of my good friends are Anglicans. However, this facile characterization of evangelicals, while (depending on how broad or narrow ones definition) in certain cases true does not in fact reflect the meaning of Sola Scriptura. This particular author also seems to have forgotten that Sola Scriptura was not in fact an invention of the Reformation but was itself a scholastic phrase, though it never stood alone like it did in the Reformation. Whether or not so so's characterizations of holding to Sola Scriptura are correct depends on the characterization of that doctrine. I would argue that there are catholic and non-catholic (heretical) ways of articulating the doctrine. Now certainly there are those who describe themselves as evangelicals that take Sola Scriptura in a non-catholic sense, that is Scripture is all you need to get back to the New Testament Church, and really every thing after the apostles is fallible at best and generally untrustworthy, if one doesn't find it in Scripture then it is obviously a compromise of the Gospel. I was not taught this meaning of Sola Scriptura and find it to be a hornets nest of problems and leads to all sorts of private opinions some conservative others liberal. I think I am on fairly firm ground when I say this is not how Luther understood the doctrine and certainly is not how my teachers in the Covenant have understood the doctrine.
There is a catholic articulation of the doctrine and it goes something like this: The faith that was once delivered to the saints is found in the Scriptures Old and New Testament in which we find the perfect rule of faith and all that is necessary for salvation. Along side scripture are the creeds and the doctrine of historic Christianity. The Creeds and doctrines of the church, the writings of the Fathers expound what is found in the Scriptures. If there are contradictions between a teaching and Scripture are final court of appeal is Scripture. Read carefully one finds Tradition in this text while having a distrust for tradition at the same time, while never using the term tradition. Given the schism and its nature this reluctance to us the term tradition is understandable but does not imply a rejection of catholicity. This articulation of Sola Scriptura does not deny the ongoing work of the holy spirit nor does it deny that the deposit of the faith that is handed on precedes and exists outside of Scripture but claims that Scripture in the community of faith is the final court of appeals when it comes to disputes about the nature of t he deposit of the faith. It does not mean as some seem to think that on the settled disputes that we are to reopen them with reference only to Scripture as if the Church has never confronted these issues before. Numerous theological propositions I accept and was taught to believe that have no explicit and direct articulation in Scripture in a literal sense, but I was also taught to see how the are founded upon the Revelation of God in Scripture. This is not a rejection of catholicity, nor of tradition properly understood, but using Scripture as the Tradition has in fact used it as the Revelation of God in Christ and the source of truth and life. Certainly the catholic tradition has never claimed that its doctrines are too be understood separate from the revelation of God in the Scriptures. The Tradition is meaningless without reference and reliance upon the Scriptures.
Distortions come upon both sides when either Rome or Orthodoxy is accused of subordinating the Scriptures to human reason and Protestants/evangelicals are accused of thinking they can understand the Scriptures without reference to the churches teaching and reflection upon those Scriptures. I put forward that the one can find on both sides of this fence those who would gladly accept the accusation as the truth of their positions, but I would put forward that the more astute and catholic minded on both sides would in the end want to claim that those who have shoes that fit the accusations distort the faith.
There is a wonderful little collection of essays entitled The Catholicity of the Reformation, edited by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson. In their introduction they make the claim that Luther never intended to deny the catholicity of Rome, and they quote Luther from his commentary on Galations, in which he says that the Church of Rome is holy because "She has the holy name of God, the Gospel, the Baptism etc."(pg. vii,) The also lay the blame of the discontinuities of Protestantism with the Tradition at the door step of enlightenment, and wish to contextualize various Protestant renewal movements as attempts to reconnect what Englightenment Protestantism sought to disconnect. They do of course make the claim that there are degrees of catholicity. (pg. vii) They describe this as manifest and do not argue for this besides an appeal to the eschatological dimension of the Church, in which I would elaborate means that catholicity is both esse and telos of the Church. This degrees of catholicity can certainly and probably should be argued out, but as this text shows and its various articles the genuine desire of evangelicals and Protestants to be catholic should not be dismissed as inconsistent nor presented as merely a smoke screen. Jenson and Braaten admit that not all Protestants have valued catholicity or sought to maintain the continuities inherent in catholicity, but they do want to say that "[the Refomrers].. aim was to return to the Scriptures and Ancient Church Tradition, to increase rather than decrease the church's catholicity." Of course implicit here is the continued insistence that the Papacy of the 16th century and the hierarchy of the Roman Church of the time itself had already compromised the catholicity of the Tradition by not holding to it and the Scriptures. I will admit that from my study this accusation holds; in the individual popes and many of the hierarchy we seem to have an unfaithful lot (not entirely certainly but in large numbers). Now what also holds is an impatience on the Part of Luther and the Reformers, as David S. Yeago, admits in concluding his essay arguing for a catholic Luther. (pg. 34).
This all suggests to me that schism of the Reformation (though it has spawned a good deal of heresy) was as much an issue of personal sin and ego on both sides as it was about doctrine and possible heresy. (Such a description could also apply to the Great Schism as well). This suggests that simply continuing to bat around accusations of perceived or real heresy will only ever partially deal with the reality of these schisms. And for those of us evangelicals who do regard catholicity as important telling us that Sola Scriptura renders catholicity meaningless certainly isn't going to win us over. Now arguing over the meaning of catholicity and whether or not it can come in degrees is a worthy discussion, but please take me seriously when I say as a Protestant, as an evangelical as a Lutheran Pietist that I value catholicity and see it as an essential component of the church and of my faith. I may not completely understand what I claim in this and it may lead me out of Protestantism but don't disparage our desires and longings, take us seriously. I think we at least are trying to take the church catholicity and Rome and Orthodoxy seriously in their claims. In this sense Protestantism is different from Arianism or Gnosticism and numerous other heresies, we don't simply claim Scripture and our interpretation but seek to understand it within the historic church and according to the church Fathers. Though I will admit there are those in our midst that are repeating Gnostic and Arian and other heretical moves.
Lastly take seriously the complexity of Protestant and evangelical movements, and even if it may be true that we don't understand what we are saying at least take seriously our desires and longings. If we are in fact mistaken in our claims to be catholic and our sense that there are degrees of catholicity, don't try to convince me that I don't really desire to be catholic but argue with me about what catholicity means without disparaging what I articulate about my faith when I claim catholicity.
So what of the possibility that Luther as he was finding himself under pressure and attack was seeking the Tradition and attempting to articulate his theology in Sacramental terms and that he never really abandoned that sacramental understanding, as David S. Yeago argues? Or What of the alleged catholic intentions of the Refomers. This seems to be where Orthodox and Roman's who concern themselves with us Protestants should turn their powers rather than brow beating me with caricatures of my beliefs. I may be mistaken in my sense that Sola Scriptura is a catholic doctrine, but I certainly don't mean by Sola Scriptura (and can't find this articulation in Luther either) that Sola Scrip