Sunday, October 14, 2007

Reformed for the Sake of Obedience to Scripture, Not Reformed for its Own Sake


There are a lot of question marks in “Orthodox”’s latest post. I’ll address them essentially sequentially.

Question regarding alleged "stated goal"

“Francis, how does a Church balance Church discipline in keeping the Faith, against the stated goal of the reformed churches: "Semper Reformanda", to be "always reforming"?

In point of fact, “Semper Reformanda,” while Latin, was not one of the mottos of the Reformation. However, some (though certainly not all, and probably not even most) “Reformed” churches have latched onto the motto. The usual interpretation of that motto is the slightly longer rendition: “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est secundu Verbum Dei?” (The Reformed Church is also reforming according to the Word of God.) It is interesting to note how the more well-explained motto ties back into the topic. The way that the Church balances Church discipline with such a goal is to abide continually in the Scripture, always submitting to its authority. It is never enough to say in the Reformed Church, it is a tradition, seek no farther.

Thus, as a matter of principle the Reformed churches have never asserted that their church's doctrine is irreformable: instead they have asserted that their church's doctrine is correct, because it is Scriptural. If you will deny our doctrine, say they, show us from Scripture.

Question regarding God's plan for the church

“Is that God's big plan for the church? Either to annoint some reformers in 1646? Or to keep splitting churches and having people bounce from church to church in a continuing power trip on who can force their ideas on the church?”

There’s a beautifully revealing aspect to this objection. The goal of Reformation was not (and never ought to be) to impose men’s ideas on the church, in the model of “Orthodoxy” and “Catholicism.” Instead, we humbly submit to God’s Word as the only binding authority. Men leave their churches (or associate with different churches) in accordance with the dictates of their conscience, always humbly seeking to follow the truth once given and provided to us in Scripture. After all, that is why God provided the Bible: so that it could be used for doctrine, discipline, and the like.

And, of course, it should be clear that in God’s providence it has been His will for the churches to keep splitting, both sides seeking to glorify God in the truth.

Now it does not always happen the way it ought: sometimes men split because they reject the truth, because they are not interested in submitting to the truth. But this too is God’s plan, that those who are not of us, will go out from us. That’s why, for example, we are in no ecumenical hurry to join the “Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints” with any of the Reformed Churches. We are glad to bear testimony for the truth to her members, as we are also to members of other bodies, but we see no value in political unity with her.

The "anointed in 1646" option is too absurd to merit more treatment than this sentence.

An Argumentative Question on the Matter in Issue

“How can you say this is workable?”

Perhaps it would be enough to answer this question with the response: “How could you say it is not?” People having the freedom to go separate ways not only worked for Paul (who ended up going on his mission trip with Silas) and Barnabus (who ended up going on his mission trip with John Mark), but it works even today. Furthermore, we know why “Orthodox” would think it is not: because it does not result in people being able to exert a “continuing power trip” (his words).

But to answer the question more directly, the gospel becomes unstoppable, for if heretics attempt to silence it one church, it springs up in another, for the Christian only submits to the lawful, Scriptural authority of the church, and not to the church’s authority without regard for Scripture.

An Odd Mixture of Metaphors, Rats Jumping out of a Tower into the Water

“Aren't you just living in an ivory tower of theory whilst the rats jump ship to the safe waters of Orthodoxy?”

No. Certainly there are people (whom I’d be loathe to call rats) that do jump ship, and that ship-jumping is not one-sided. Also, the “waters of Orthodoxy” are not “safe.” But a full exposition of the dangers of “Orthodoxy” would go beyond answering your question.

To follow your analogy: those that jump from Evangelical churches to churches where the gospel is not to be found are jumping from a tower on the rock of Scripture, to their watery grave amidst the treacherous currents of man's tradition.

Will you obey men or God?

“Where are you going to go when it's your congregation's turn to either fall off the rails, or else not listen to your sound advice to reform?”

As a Presbyterian, I have recourse to a Presbytery if my congregation were to start to go “off the rails.” Of course, not all Reformed churches are Presbyterian in government and not all are Presbyterian beyond the congregational level.

But, should the church go into error, the answer, of course, is that I must fear God rather than man. That is the once-delivered example of the Apostles against apostate church leaders. If one cannot submit to God and to the church, one must obey God rather than man. Scripture says it, and I believe it.

How much of the Sun has your Iceberg seen?

“Do you have a cracking point where you are going to have had enough, or are you lucky enough to be on one of the larger icebergs heading towards the equator, and haven't had to face it yet?”

The truth divides. The Scriptures say it and I believe it. If your church has not had to struggle with unity over the truth, perhaps it is because your church so little values truth. The Reformed churches have frequently divided in order to obey God. And it is intuitive: a church that does not care about doctrine will not debate doctrine.

Following "Orthodox"'s analogy, if one's Iceberg has not seen some fracturing as the Light of God's Word exposes errors, perhaps it is because one's Iceberg is in the darkness.

A Loaded Question about My Feelings

“In this land of confusion do you really feel better off than the Fathers who said "it is Tradition, look no further"?”

This question is loaded. The land of the confusion is the land of trying to hold to both the traditions of men and the Word of God. No man can serve to masters. The Scriptures say it, and I believe it. The land of confusion is criticism of personal interpretation of the relatively concrete and well-preserved Scripture by someone who makes personal interpretation of the relatively amorphous and ill-preserved “traditions.” Yes, of course, we feel better off following God’s Word than the traditions of men.

But it is important to note that there is another loading in the question: if one uses "tradition" the way that "Orthodox" does, Chrysostom himself is in what "Orthodox" has called the "land of confusion." After all, Chrysostom himself was twice excommunicated and exiled, because he followed the dictates of conscience rather than those that had ecclesiastical power over him.

Moreover, even if the saying "it is a tradition, seek no farther" is authentically Chrysostom's work, to say that it is a saying of "the Fathers" (plural) is rather stretched, if one cannot locate even a single father in the 300 years before Chrysostom who taught such a maxim.

A Brief Antidote to some of the Argument/Assertion in, under, and around the Questions

While “Orthodox” adds much argument and assertion between the several questions. I’ll skip lightly over those assertions and anecdotes, addressing only the last sentence:

“Only the Orthodox Church has stability because only it recognizes no mechanism for change. Never reforming. Ever.”

Recalcitrance is not a virtue, but recalcitrance is not a vice unique to “Orthodoxy.” Most notably, the Roman Catholic Church also recognizes no mechanism for change, no possibility of reformation, ever. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church can gladly assent to the maxim, “It is a tradition, seek no farther.”

Recalcitrance may (and there is no need to decide this just yet) yield stability, but stability is not more valuable than truth. A church that refuses to reform according to the Scriptures is a church in which error can remain hopelessly ingrained for centuries. Such a church places its own tradition in a place of practical authority above the Bible, feeling free to interpret the Scriptures, but not submitting to the authority of Scriptures when the interpretation is objectively wrong.

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