Sunday, October 19, 2014

Controversies in the church: The Basis of Doctrine

I have long wanted to return to the series on controversies in the church, but have reached a point where I do not know both sides equally well, having never seen some of them from the inside. This post is an attempt to move forward all the same, with a simplified format that makes some progress possible. The hope is that, if readers comment or later reading expands my knowledge, more could be added. 

The controversy: The Basis of Doctrine

One of the largest controversies in the Western church -- at the heart of the divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics -- is the question of how the church forms its beliefs and teachings. On the Roman Catholic side, the view is that the Church wrote Scripture as an instrument for teaching. On the Protestant side, the view is that the Scripture records what the apostles taught. In the earliest decades of the church there is very little difference between those views because the earliest decades were marked by the apostles and those who learned directly from them. But as the voice of the apostles faded from living memory and was preserved in writing, the two roads diverged.

The basics:

Roman Catholics

(From the outset I'd like to be clear: I would be glad for suggestions from Roman Catholic readers if there is any way in which I can be more accurate about their teaching.) On the Roman Catholic view that the Church wrote Scripture as an instrument for teaching, it follows that the Church has the key position in deciding what is taught and how it is interpreted. The Roman Catholic church claims the continuing authority to develop teachings, and to teach them with the same authority as Scripture: the authority of the church.


There is some variety among the Protestant groups about the exact role of Scripture, but in general there is agreement that the Scripture records what the apostles taught. This is not to say that all books were written by apostles, but that all books were written in the earliest church and were faithful to what the apostles, still contemporaries, were teaching. The church has the duty to remain faithful to what the apostles taught, neither adding to it nor subtracting from it.

The weaknesses:

Roman Catholics

Rome does claim the authority to go beyond what is written in the Bible. But does the Church have authority to go against something in the Bible? The question becomes more interesting if we view the Bible as a record of what the Church taught. If the Church wrote the Bible as a teaching instrument, then why would there come a time when the Church needed to teach something different? If the authority for the Bible is the Church, and if the authority for the later teachings is the Church, then how and when and why did the teachings of the Church change?

There are other kinds of questions too, that involve either questions of church practice or questions of actual historical events: Since Peter was married and is considered the first Pope, why can't other popes be married? Or if nobody ever asked Mary whether she remained a virgin until the end of her life, on what basis is there a teaching involving that?


The most obvious Achilles' heel of the Protestants is the doctrine of the Trinity. While it is easy enough to find verses that support the idea of the Trinity from the Bible, and it is common to extrapolate the Trinity from those verses, the fact remains that the Trinity is nowhere explicitly taught in the same way as things like the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead. If the Trinity is accepted without being explicitly taught, why not other things?

Another, less obvious issue again has to do with questions of changing doctrine. Take, for example, the previous discussion of controversies over creation and evolution: many Protestants have decided that it is a mistake to believe in a literal six-day creation. Is that "literal six-day creation" to be considered a mistake in the Bible, or a mistake in the early church's interpretation? On the view that it is a mistake of some kind, how does someone hold that view without savaging those who hold to the ancient interpretation (or, as those groups would say, hold to the plain meaning of the text)? Is there any way to come to an authoritative agreement over interpretations of the Bible, if the authority resides in the Bible or the apostles or God but not in the church? Is there any way to preserve unity with those who disagree?

Common Problems

In the early years of the Christian church, the two views were not so different: whether the Bible teaches what the church teaches, or whether the church teaches what the Bible teaches. At this point, while Roman Catholics and Protestants have gone down their different roads, we are both meeting the same kinds of problems. Some problems have to do with changing teachings: the question of whether we should change, and on what authority. Other problems have to do with claiming that there is an unchanging basis, in the face of these kinds of changes. And the question of making a change is a question that both groups face: if we don't have some unchanging basis, then what defines us?

As Christians, we are ultimately Christ's people. But can we agree on what that means for what we teach?


Martin LaBar said...

Solid thinking.


Kevin Knox said...

Your question is part of a larger scheme you've built, one with which I'm not familiar. I'm going to tangent off it, if you'll excuse me, because it lands square in the middle of some new questions I'm asking myself. I'm questioning my long-standing relationship with doctrinal discussion.

Deut 30:12+
For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.

I hear these words to say the necessary concepts in the choice between life and death are not highly technical. The words of life are literally so simple, 1,000,000 Jews knew them by heart (they are in your mouth.)

"Trinity" is simply not one of those words.

In the checks and balances of Christianity, I once believed the theological branch (and at another point in my life, the mystical branch) have legislative, executive, and judicial power all rolled up in one. The argument you present here would have seemed meaningless to me without assigning implicit, final authority to the theological branch.

I cannot think of once Jesus discussed the efficacy of right belief. He was satisfied to say the Jews knew better than the Samaritans, when the Jews themselves would have damned the Samaritans. He noticed the Pharisees were right and wrong about things, but cared they didn't provide for their parents.

You've heard me argue for theological points, and I still value them. I'm just asking myself new questions, mostly about Philo of Alexandria and his intellectual descendants. It seems Philo gave both Augustine and the desert fathers a Platonic, transcendent view of God, and we've retained that view even through the Reformation.

What if God, all of God, is truly immanent? What if the presence of the Holy Spirit makes God viscerally immanent and He is primarily known through relational acts, as opposed to any kind of study? The Catholics and Protestants can be unequally right, but can know God equally well by acting in the Spirit.

Terms like "Trinity" elevate God to the place of Summum Bonum and make Him out to be ineffable. What if He just isn't?

Aron Wall said...

Not a Roman Catholic, but since they don't seem to be responding...

While clerical celibacy has been in place for many centuries, technically the RC's view it as a rule imposed by the Church which could in principle be changed at any time, not an unchangable dogma. Peter was before the rule was imposed.

Although some conservative Catholics would argue on the basis of Luke 18:28-29 that the apostles, though married, refrained from marital relations after their ordination. But this seems strikingly improbable to me, in a 1st century Jewish milieu.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Kevin

Good to see you again.

I don't know that I'd ever imagine the theological branch has that kind of power. But they tend to assume they do, and lots of people go with that. Boggles the mind, at times.

Let me put two of my "touchstone" quotes on the table before I comment further. The first one is from RF Capon (not necessarily my favorite theologian but he did have his moments): he said theology has never saved anybody, despite the near-homicidal intensity with which it's often practiced. (Paraphrased, though I think "near-homicidal intensity" was a direct quote.)

Another one of my touchstones that you reminded me of, is when Pascal said "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the philosophers" (like Philo).

Frankly: I don't believe in the ineffability of God. I don't believe that there is a "transcendent" God which eludes us and is somehow unknowably distinct from the immanent God. (Am I imagining it, or is it really a trend, that the people who argue most strongly that God is unknowable tend to be those who have no solid relation with God-the-immanent, and would probably deny that others could.) Where I look to see God in his immanence is Jesus, because that's the clearest place to look. And I think you're living in the Spirit of God when you love someone from the heart. That's knowing and living God in our own lives.

When we look at "controversies over where you form doctrine", that's the next question up the scale: What place does doctrine have? Or (better) what place should doctrine have?

Questions that deserve more thought than they get, really ...

I'm curious ... if you don't mind me asking ... what made you question God's ineffability? Keep in mind that I'm very sympathetic to that view, & was just wondering if you traveled the same road that I did.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Aron

Welcome back. Hope you're in good health & all settled in etc.

One of the more amazing things I've done over the years is talk to a number of Roman Catholics about what, exactly, is infallible. The answers I've gotten have been ... worthy of a politician on election day. I know there's a distinction drawn between dogma and practice. But I think -- just speaking for myself here -- that they define "infallibility" so narrowly that it's nearly moot; it's not claimed for much. And yet many Catholics don't question things like priestly celibacy -- and don't entertain serious discussion of it -- because of the authority of the church. Which works out to: they really do see it as part of the same question of whether the church is really right, even if there might be a theological hair to split (face-saving?) over whether any particular thing is actually "dogma".

I'm rambling ... it's late. ;)

The few Roman Catholic commenters I used to have -- they seem to have gone inactive, unfortunately.

And I have to join your skepticism about the claim that the married apostles refrained from marital relations. "Be fruitful and multiply" was actually seen as one of the mitzvoh, and (as you can tell from Paul at some points) husbands & wives were told *not* to hold out on each other (more elegantly phrased but the point was made all the same). So, yeah, I don't really see "married but celibate" as a plausible argument.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Kevin Knox said...

Curious what your road might have been, WF. I'm a slow learner, personally. It was all hard knocks and failure for me.

I bought into works young, and they nearly killed me. I switched to doctrines (of grace, no less), and they were a big step up from works. They still felt like a mess, so I evolved to a new church practice and pretty heavy Christian mysticism. That came up completely dry (after 10 years of honest experience), but doctrine was too hollow for me to retreat to it. I holed up in believing the core of Christianity was more about relating than anything else (Familyhood Church), but couldn't really make that mesh with the reality I was living.

That left me at a stalemate. I couldn't move. As a programmer, I tend to try new strategies after a certain point, so I started unwinding the steady rise of mysticism in the church. Back in the '90s a Christian mystic was still cutting edge, but these days it seems to be as prevalent as tongues in the eighties. I tracked mysticism forward from the captivity in Babylon and backward to the desert fathers, but couldn't find the connection. I'm satisfied, now, the link up is in Philo. Then I found out Philo influenced Augustine, and a lot of the commonalities between what I experienced as an '80s theology nerd and a '90s mystic wannabe took shape. It was the transcendence they shared in common, so went looking for what might be the opposite of transcendence. (Scripture's not devoid of transcendence, just replete with immanence.)

I'm thinking you're of a vastly more direct and analytical bent and probably traced it through scripture. :-) Would I could say as much. I don't actively *try* to make every mistake, but it does seem to be my forte.

Weekend Fisher said...

Y'know, lessons learned at HardKnocksU are usually thoroughly learned and not soon forgotten; the school doesn't get enough credit, even if the tuition's a bit steep.

I came in through ... an unconventional route, I think. Here I was, minding my own business as a kid, growing up in an unchurched home, when a friend of mine invites me to church with her. So I go, and I read some Bible, and pretty soon I'm hearing things I've never heard before about kindness and beauty and God's love and all kinds of things, and I want to know more. ...

So I start going to this church, and it's Lutheran, which means the official theology is basically "Christ, and him crucified": if you want to know God, that's where you look.

So when I was first introduced to the idea of an unknowable God, I thought, "Where did you get an idea like that?" And "How do you reconcile that with Jesus?" And the answer has always come back: a) from philosophy, b) you don't.

So it's been a non-starter for me, that whole idea. Now, if it weren't for Jesus -- and I did look around at all the major players for world religions and came to the conclusion that if it weren't for Jesus, it would be either "Unknowable God" or atheism, either way probably with a side of Tao or Buddhism for me.

For me, Jesus isn't just the deal-changer, he's the deal. And I honestly don't understand how a Christian can think in terms of "ineffable God". That amounts to saying the incarnation wasn't actually bona fide in some way ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Kevin Knox said...

It may be unconventional, but it's pretty great. Praise the Lord for simple truths. :-)