Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Where I Sit with Churches of Apostolic Succession

As those of you who know me know, I've been expressing a certain affinity with Roman Catholicism for awhile now. Indeed, my encounters with the Church of Rome and to a lesser though still important degree my brushes with Eastern Orthodoxy have resulted in a rather significant shift in my theological outlook. I've gone from being a dogmatic Protestant to a confused one of the kind that should scare the be-Jesus out of all dogmatically convinced anti-Catholics.

I must admit that some of this arises from a felt need to embody the prevailing cultural fascination with novelty and thus one could say that to some degree I question and challenge conventional Protestant convictions simply because that's my background. Thankfully, that rather suspect and dangerous motivation is not my primary one. I may be a rebel, but I'm no rebel without a cause. My peculiar fascination arises from that point in my spiritual development when I began to feel a strong desire to see Jesus Christ in the face of the Christian other but found that my Protestantism was of a far too narrow character to admit that those Christian believers who differed significantly from me in any way could even rightly be called Christians.

In order in my mind to rescue the vast majority of Christian believers who have ever lived from the fires of hell, my theological outlook got "all messed up," as some would undoubtedly describe it. In that messy process, I've spent some time studying Church history—the undivided Church of ancient times, the medieval Church—and the great figures—the Church Fathers, the Protestant Reformers. As I had suspected, historic Christianity, including classic Protestantism, looks and sounds peculiarly Catholic.

I have also spent some time studying the character of Christianity as it currently exists throughout the world. To view the contemporary global Church through my former narrow separatist Protestant lenses would be to cast off the greatest part of Christ's body as chaff, whereas to view it through the more charitable eyes I believe God has given me is to see a miraculous God-wrought diversity in Christ's Kingdom as it advances ever gloriously on to the ends of the earth.

What exactly is my theological and ecclesiological identity at this point, then? As I said, I'm a confused Protestant; I have a strong dose of Reformed but I find myself even more captivated by forms of Christianity that value the sacraments and the mystical side of faith and hold the Church and its continuity of life and thought in highest regard.

Yes, I recognize that for many this place where I am at is the beginning of the road that leads to Rome or to Constantinople. Even as I write this, I am thinking of a friend who is well down that road and wrestles with whether to continue on to Rome or to remain a Protestant. I am praying for him that God grants him peace as he wrestles with this question that I myself have spent some time considering. I take this opportunity to take stock of my own thoughts as to where I sit in regard to those venerable churches that claim apostolic succession as a mark of the true Church.

1. The strongest and most compelling link in the apologetic chain for either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy is that the line of succession of bishops down to the time of the apostles has been regarded since the beginning of the Christian movement as a mark of the true Church. Indeed, the first time in Church history that we see significant numbers of Christian people not under the authority of bishops within lines of succession from the apostles being regarded as genuine Christians is at the Reformation, and even then, it is only the Protestants who regard themselves as genuine Christians.

So what? It's no matter of small consequence that the apostolic succession of bishops in the period of the early Church was vital to the Church's preservation of theological orthodoxy against the claims of the heretics.

So much, in fact, did the Reformers value apostolic succession that they were initially very reluctant to break with it but later rejected the doctrine in no uncertain terms. Was this because they could not substantiate it based on Scripture or because apostolic succession became an impediment to the Reformation when few bishops sided with the Protestants?

That we call ourselves Protestants seems to imply to me that, at some level, reunion with Rome was the stated objective of the Protestant movement. Considering that the division of churches is a scandal to the Gospel and that unity between Christians is a command of the Savior, if all the doctrinal issues that separate Protestants and Catholics were to be resolved tomorrow, even if the Catholic Church still maintained its administrative structure intact, I would say that individual Protestants and all Protestant communities would be obligated to at least give the possibility of reunion with Rome serious consideration. For me, even if we were to pare that down to most or even half of the doctrinal issues that separate us, I think it would still be "Rome sweet home" for me!

2. Like the apostolic succession claim, the inability of Sola Scriptura to produce a consistent, principled hermeneutic for interpreting Scripture hits right at the heart of the conversions from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. It's high time that we Protestants admit that the Scriptures are not nearly as perspicuous in a broad systemic sense as we have been saying they are.

Due to the privileging of private interpretation over any kind of tradition (except for that of one's own Protestant tradition), not to mention the limits of human perspective in regard to any text, using Sola Scriptura as a biblical hermeneutic always results in interpretations of Scripture that are ultimately unfalsifiable. When a private interpretation or the interpretation of a group of Protestants has been opposed (even with other Scripture verses), the invariable response has always been, "You are stiff-necked and wicked people! If you would just listen to the Holy Spirit and approach the Scriptures objectively, you too would see what we see. You obviously do not listen to the Spirit or to reason because you do not see what we see; therefore, we are going to separate from you!" Thus goes the standard justification for our countless schisms.

Even when we push past the pop Protestant, "solo Scriptura," just me and my Bible distortion for the true, historic Sola Scriptura of classic Protestantism, i.e. Scripture as the final and sufficient doctrinal authority when interpreted in light of the historic Rule of Faith, we are still operating with a degree of subjectivity sufficient to shipwreck the prospects for doctrinal unity, since 1) Anglicans, Lutherans, and Reformed did not arrive at confessional consensus, and 2) the Rule of Faith Tradition 1 Protestants appeal to includes a great many items, like apostolic succession and Marian devotion, for instance, we would eschew out of hand.

The problem, however, for the Roman Catholic position on final doctrinal authority, is that appeals to an infallible teaching Magisterium and infallible Pope, even when limited to those circumstances in which papal and magisterial infallibility are said to apply, also result in pronouncements of Christian truth that are ultimately unfalsifiable. Indeed, for Catholics there is the conviction that when the Pope has ruled ex cathedra or when an ecumenical council or the Sacred Magisterium has ruled infallibly on a matter pertaining to faith or morals that Jesus Christ has spoken with His own authority. That being said, one still cannot help but fear that the line between "The Church has so ruled because it is true" and "It is true because the Church has so ruled " can easily disappear if the inability of the Church to be wrong is a given right from the get-go.

A great deal of misrepresentation has settled in with regard to the self-purported infallibility of the Pope and the Roman Magisterium—no, papal infallibility does not mean the Pope is incapable of personal sin or that all his public statements are to be viewed as infallible, nor does the infallibility of the Sacred Magisterium mean that everything the Church teaches or has ever taught is to be regarded by Catholics as infallible. I do not wish to add to the misinformation, but I can sincerely say that the degree of un-falsifiability insulating Roman Catholic dogma from critique is as great a logical shortcoming for Roman hermeneutics as the subjectivity and un-falsifiability inherent in Sola Scriptura is for Protestant hermeneutics. However, in light of the sheer weight of 2000 years of official Roman Catholic teaching that the Magisterium and the papacy must avoid running afoul of, there is little room left in their procedure, at least at this point in history, for the subjectivity and innovation that has so often plagued Protestant teaching.

The Eastern Orthodox position on Church infallibility appears somewhat more tenable to me than the Roman Catholic position, as it centers on the authority of the entire Church represented in the gathered bishops of an ecumenical council. In effect, then, the Eastern Orthodox Church speaks infallibly only when it speaks with the voice of the entire Church. This is not all that different from the way confessional Protestantism has strived to work, but it has not worked to preserve Christian unity the way it has in Eastern Orthodoxy. Stay tuned for more to come.

1 comment:

Dustin said...

Hey Jamie,

Good to hear from you again, and Merry Christmas!

It's interesting that you ID one of your major reasons for looking into Catholicism and Orthodoxy to Apostolic Succession. Actually what's interesting about it is that you look at it from a western scholastic definition. John Zizioulas has identified two ways Apostolic Succession has been viewed in history. One is historical (linear succession as you think of it, which is also grounded in the idea that each apostle broke from the group to go out and evangelize - in other words those who follow Christ). The second view is eschatological (the idea of a college of apostles, or a convocation of dispersed people who come from the ends of the earth to one place - those who surround Christ). It is from these two definitions that he is able to form conclusions as far as continuity of apostolic kerygma, apostolic ministry, so on and so forth.

It was also Zizioulas who did an interesting study into what it meant to be a "Church." After discussing the way "Church" was defined in history, he turns his attention to problems in the current Orthodox situation and then he asks the question, "Has a confessional body per se the right to be regarded as Church?"

You may find Zizioulas (Metropolitan of Pergamon) interesting. If you haven't read any of his books I suggest: "Being as Communion" (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1985).