The Holy Spirit or the Zeitgeist? The Bible, The Church, and The Christian

A few days ago I had the privilege of introducing the Anglican tradition to teachers at The Ecclesial School at St. Alban’s. The faculty are a mixed bunch — Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists. Afterwards I had a wonderful conversation with a sincere and devout Baptist who wanted to understand more about Anglican sacramentology. Why is the Eucharist the climax of our service? What do we think about baptism? (Reader, you may be relieved to know that I deftly avoided discussing any other “commonly called Sacraments.”) She was politely aghast that Anglicans affirm baptismal regeneration and simply could not understand the biblical basis for our belief. For my part, I have a hard time remembering how my former Baptist self understood phrases like “repent and be baptized for the remission of sins” or “born anew of water and the Holy Ghost.” It seems to me that Scripture speaks perspicaciously indeed of baptismal regeneration. Our Anglican forebears likewise described baptism as “generally necessary to salvation,” while also requiring ordinands “to teach nothing, as necessary to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture.” I did not cross my fingers when I made this promise. When it comes to baptism, I am so persuaded.

Yet here was a sincere, intelligent, biblically literate Christian, firmly persuaded otherwise. If “God’s Word alone” and “on its own” is “sufficient for the knowledge of everything of importance” — if it really is “easy to understand, at least regarding the subjects of critical importance” — how am I to explain my interlocutor’s disagreement? It seems to me that there are but three possibilities. My Baptist conversation partner must have been stupid, mendacious, or simply unbiblical — not so much misinterpreting Scripture but, rather, not interpreting Scripture at all, instead relying on extrabiblical authorities. This is a problem, given that I know her to be intelligent and believe her to be sincere. And as our entire conversation was rooted in differing readings of various biblical passages, I would be hard-pressed to prove that she was not in fact attempting to interpret Scripture. Under any notion of Scripture being “easily understood” — “alone” and “on its own” — I am left with choices that are not only highly implausible but also profoundly uncharitable.

The quotations in the previous paragraph come from River Devereux’s recent foray into the debate around iconography and the Second Council of Nicea (A.D. 787, “Nicea II” hereafter).[1] Though I am hesitant to continue this seemingly interminable conversation, Mr. Devereux’s theory of biblical interpretation is too calamitously misguided to ignore. It is not simply that he is wrong — though, for the most part, he is — nor even that his argument is poorly conducted, though parts of it are. Straw men, misunderstandings, and false dichotomies abound. It is that the radical individualism he unwittingly affirms is toxic to faith and acidic to the Body of Christ. It is also, as we will see, paradoxically destructive to the authority of Scripture itself.

I do not question Mr. Devereux’s sincerity or his intelligence, but I will not equivocate. The spirit of this present age — self-defining individualism — suffuses his essay. Wherever this malignant spirit takes hold, the Church withers. By making the individual his own final authority on Scripture and doctrine, Mr. Devereux transforms the Body of Christ into a libertarian confederation of sovereign citizens. The Christian in this confederation is not an organic member of a Spirit-filled organism. Rather, in keeping with the spirit of the age, his Christian is an atomized, autonomous, choosing modern self.

Clarifying the Nicea II Debate

As Cory Byrum has recently pointed out, the principles Mr. Devereux outlines go far beyond debate over iconography. But before diving into the heart of the matter — which Mr. Devereux rightly identifies as biblical interpretation — I would like to clear up some misunderstandings about Nicea II and my own essay. I will not relitigate the Iconoclastic Controversy; my goals are more modest. I would simply like to clarify the basic terms of the debate, so that Mr. Devereux and others can be sure that what they reject is, in fact, Nicea II — and not a fiction of their own constructing.

Mr. Devereux makes much of my admission that Scripture apparently offers no consistent verbal distinction between veneration and worship, despite the conciliar fathers’ attempt to argue otherwise. He seems to assume that, if no verbal distinction exists, then no conceptual distinction can be made. This does not reflect how languages function. Are we to believe that the sarx which “the Word became” in John 1:14 is the same sarx which “sets its desire against the Holy Spirit” in Galatians 5:17? There is, after all, no verbal distinction whatsoever between Christ’s Incarnate “flesh” and the demonic power that St. Paul names “Flesh” (J. Louis Martyn 485).

Nor is it the case that Nicea II “hinged its arguments” on a verbal distinction. As I stated in my previous piece, “the basic conceptual distinction between veneration given to many, on the one hand, and worship given only to God, on the other… is more than enough to sustain the distinction made by Nicea II, regardless of the fathers’ particular digressions into vocabulary.” The biblical arguments put forward against veneration largely beg the question, assuming rather than demonstrating that prohibitions on worship also ban veneration.[2]

But I did admit probable error in part of the Council’s biblical interpretation, prompting a parenthetical scoff from Mr. Devereux — “so much for infallibility.” Alas, this comment only reflects Mr. Devereux’s inadequate understanding of the debate. Fr. Ben Jefferies and I have a longstanding disagreement about whether or not the anathemas of Nicea II bear the same authority as the Definition.[3] But there is no ambiguity about the biblical reasoning Mr. Devereux attacks. It is unquestionably part of the broader conciliar proceedings, which no one views as inherently authoritative, much less infallible. Confusing the (non-authoritative) proceedings and the (authoritative) promulgations of the Council is something akin to being unable to distinguish between the records of a Congressional debate and the actual bill passed by that body. It betrays a very basic incomprehension of the view that he intends to reject.

Further, Mr. Devereux’s focus on conciliar infallibility is something of a red herring. It is not a straw man — many do hold to the infallibility of Ecumenical Councils. (For instance, Mr. Byrum’s excellent entry into this debate implies but does not outright claim infallibility for Ecumenical Councils.) But that is not the position I have staked here. The relevant question is not so much whether Councils speak infallibly but whether they speak authoritatively. Legitimate authority in the home, the parish, and the polis need not be infallible in order to merit our obedience. Mr. Devereux fails to engage this position, instead pressing a false dichotomy: either Nicea II must be infallible and equivalent to God-breathed Scripture, or it must be just another opinion with no inherent authority.

Even more significant than his persistent misconception of conciliar authority, Mr. Devereux also misunderstands the basic shape of the biblical debate over images. “Nicaea II and Fr. Perkins,” he says, “will happily retort that” the condemnations of “religious images… in countless places” in the Old Testament “are about ‘idols.’ However, Isaiah and Jeremiah’s condemnation of images would seem to apply to even images depicting YHWH Himself.” He seems to think that the iconodules staked their position on the notion that the Old Testament prohibition on images would not apply to images of God. This precisely inverts their view. Perhaps the only unambiguous Old Testament teaching on images is that depicting God is absolutely forbidden. As far as the Old Testament debate goes, the noteworthy question is whether the second commandment also bans images of natural creatures. (As I noted last time, the proliferation of creaturely images in the Temple suggests otherwise.) What was never in any doubt was the prohibition on images of the unportrayable God. On this, the iconodules and iconoclasts fully agreed. As St. John of Damascus wrote, “If we were to make an image of the invisible God, we would really sin; for it is impossible to depict one who is incorporeal and formless, invisible and uncircumscribable” (82).

The iconodules’ central argument is incarnational. God is Spirit, and yet God became Incarnate. As a result of the Incarnation — of the hypostatic union and the communication of idioms — God became portrayable. “If we make an image of God,” St. John of Damascus wrote, “who in his ineffable goodness became incarnate and was seen upon earth in the flesh, and lived among humans, and assumed the nature and density and form and color of flesh, we do not go astray” (82). For the iconodules, to deny that divinity can be seen in depictions of the carnal flesh and blood of the incarnate Christ is to say that our Lord lied in John 14:9.

Mr. Devereux emphasizes that the New Testament never rescinds the second commandment. Once again, this misunderstands the debate at a basic level. The classic iconodule position has never been that the second commandment was rescinded but rather that it is irrelevant to depictions of the Incarnate Christ.[4]

These failures surely do not reflect a lack of intelligence on Mr. Devereux’s part, but they do reveal his superficial grasp of the subject. My request for continued engagement in the debate is to engage in the debate. That might mean stepping back from the fray to read more deeply. I do not assume that rightly understanding Nicea II necessitates agreement, but it is a prerequisite for disagreeing coherently — most especially for doing so in a public forum.

From the particular issues of Nicea II, we can now move to the heart of the matter: authoritative Bible reading.

The Bible, the Church, and the Christian

In upholding the Church’s authority to interpret Scripture, I have been accused of a kind of epistemological nihilism — a strange charge, given Mr. Devereux’s rather nihilistic rejection of any knowledge of God outside Scripture. “Only through the God-breathed Word spoken by the Prophets, the Christ, and the Apostles, is God revealed,” he declares. “There is simply no other source through which we can know about God’s Covenant or anything that our Lord ever said, did, or promises to do.” This is an odd claim, considering that the Church was baptizing Christians and celebrating the Eucharist before one jot or tittle of the New Testament was set down.[5] And of course it was the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, that set down in writing the “unwritten Word of Christ and His Apostles.” It was the Church that, guided by that same Spirit, rightly identified the canonical Scriptures.

I have not and do not deny that Scripture is God-breathed and our final authority for matters of doctrinal dispute, but I most certainly deny that it is the sole means of knowing God. Are we to believe that God is not known in his sacraments? When Cleopas and the unnamed disciple returned from Emmaus to Jerusalem, breathlessly recounting how Christ “was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35), should the other disciples have corrected the error? Their hearts burned within them as Christ unpacked the Scriptures — but they only knew him in the breaking of bread.

Our most intimate and indeed salvific knowledge of Christ comes not through biblical erudition, as important as that is, but rather through the saving union with him effected in those sacraments “generally necessary for salvation.” Obviously, this sacramental mode of knowing will not resolve our impasse around Nicea II. It would be a category error to suggest that faithfully partaking of the Eucharist automatically settles doctrinal dispute. But we must not sever the reading of Scripture from the sacramental, praying life of the Church. The Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers (Acts 2:42) form a seamless and integrated whole. God is known in his sacraments and in his Church — not as separate from, much less in opposition to Scripture, but in an organic unity with the written Word.

In his latest piece, Mr. Devereux writes, “In Protestantism, the first principle of our faith is understood to be Scripture alone. The starting point of our faith is that we have come to believe in the Divine origin, inspiration, and truth of Holy Scripture.” This may well be a distinctive first principle of Protestantism — I will let those more invested in the label sort that out among themselves — but the first principle of Christianity writ large is faith in Jesus Christ, attested to both in the Scriptures and in the praying, sacramental life of the Church.

For Mr. Devereux, however, it is not just that Scripture “alone” is our source for knowing God; Scripture is also known “on its own.” It is hard to decide how literally this is meant. In the first half of “To Reject a Council,” he seems determined to justify my (admittedly snarky) description of his hermeneutical principles as the Bible “viewed from nowhere” — a strange epistemology, a Bible known with no knowers to know it.

Ultimately, though, Mr. Devereux confirms the accuracy of my sense that, in his first essay on Nicea II, “the specter of an unidentified authoritative interpreter of Scripture floats behind every line,” and he affirms the identity of that supreme authority:

the individual Christian does indeed become his own authority…. For Luther to have rejected the teachings of the Church… in favor of the ‘testimony of the Scriptures,’ means that he placed his understanding of that testimony above the Church’s…. One cannot say to another Christian ‘I stand with the Scriptures, you do not,’ without actually meaning, ‘I stand with my interpretation of the Scriptures against yours.

Hence, it is not so much Scripture that is “alone” and “on its own” but rather the individual Christian. Alone and on his own, he authoritatively interprets Scripture.

Mr. Devereux salvages some use for the Church in the latter part of his essay. The Church’s “Divinely commissioned teaching office” includes “the duty of writing and formulating Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms.” He even affirms the right of particular jurisdictions or ecclesial authorities to demand adherence from her members — but, paradoxically, the individual Christian is not obligated to submit to the Church’s teaching office but, rather, to take it under advisement.[6] Thus, despite his protestations otherwise, his Church acts not as an authority but as an advisor. She may supplement the individual Christian’s reading — or she may become superfluous or even contrary to the knowledge of Christ solely achieved through the individual study of Scripture. Mr. Devereux says that Christians should not “see themselves as lone wolves,” but when it comes to authoritative biblical interpretation, we are very much alone.

All of this depends upon Mr. Devereux’s theory of Scripture’s easy perspicacity — the idea that Scripture is both “clear and easy to understand, at least regarding the subjects of critical importance.” But easy for whom? To whom is Scripture perspicacious — and when? Need Tyndale’s ploughboy be an adult before achieving easy perspicacity? Need he be literate? Educated? Free from severe intellectual disability? A Christian?

Even if we were to agree upon some basic standards of responsibility, competence, intelligence, or education, we would still have to ask why we should trust ourselves rather than the Church. The history of doctrinal and denominational proliferation and division — perhaps most apparent in those traditions which jettison “tradition” in favor of a Bible-and-me individualism — lends no credence to the idea. In the face of dissenting interpretations, the only way to salvage easy perspicacity is to embrace the trichotomy with which I began: disagreement over core theological principles can only issue from stupidity, mendacity, or the placing of unbiblical traditions over the Bible itself. Certainly, some disagreements do flow from one or more of those three errors, but to assume that they must do so in any and every instance is implausible and uncharitable.

Undoubtedly the greatest problem with Mr. Devereux’s view is that Scripture itself never says, explicitly or implicitly, that the individual Christian is the supreme authority for the interpretation of Scripture. Quite the contrary, as Mr. Byrum’s essay shows! The Bible verses Mr. Devereux cites only support his position if — leaning into certain Protestant clichés — one adds the modifier “alone” to them: “Thy Word [alone] is a lamp unto my feet” (cf. Ps. 119:105). “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is [alone] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God [on his own] may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17). No one doubts Scripture’s profitability, and I do not doubt that Scripture speaks clearly. But our Lord (Matt. 13:10-17) and St. Paul (1 Cor. 1-2) agree that the Scriptures are not perspicacious to those outside of the family of God. Neither tells us that, once in the family of God, each family member is individually and equally empowered to interpret the Scriptures authoritatively. To the contrary, the promise of the Spirit’s leading into all truth (Jn. 16:13) was not given to a collection of individuals but rather to the nascent gathered Church.

Judgment and Authority, Trust and Knowledge

I am not advocating epistemological nihilism. My view of Scripture is no lower than that of Mr. Devereux. And, although I have a higher view of the Church’s teaching authority, as well as a relatively chastened view of private Bible reading, I do not deny the gift of human reason nor the necessity of personal judgment. As I wrote some time ago in a piece critiquing the Roman tendency to dismiss personal judgment:

Who or what is most worthy of your trust? Using your personal judgment to place trust in someone else’s judgment is no contradiction. You do it every time you accept the advice of a physician. Because of this act of trust — which is necessary for all knowledge — judgment is inevitably personal and yet never truly private… You cannot avoid responsibility for your own judgment.

For Mr. Devereux, though, the exercise of personal responsibility and judgment makes me my own final authority.[7] If I must judge, then I must be my own final authority. But this simply misunderstands what authority is. It conflates the conditions of knowing (epistemology) with the obligation to obey (authority).

Legitimate authority is that to which obedience is owed within its legitimate sphere, regardless of personal opinions. Consider our obligation to submit to governing authorities (Rom. 13). This submission does not eliminate personal judgment, because we must first identify the legitimate governing authority to obey and then place that duty in right relation to our duties to other authorities and ultimately to Christ. When political institutions function healthily, there is little cause to question their legitimacy. Amidst dysfunction or crisis, however, determining the identity and proper limits of political authorities becomes, at one and the same time, much more important and vastly more difficult. For instance, at one point during Covidtide, our parish faced county mandates that directly conflicted with directives from state officials. We had to decide which authority was legitimate — but this did not mean that we were therefore the final political authority for our parish. Likewise, we must judge if and when an authority oversteps its bounds. If county officials ordered us to stop preaching the Gospel, we would be compelled to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). But if they ordered us to add more handicapped parking spaces in keeping with county ordinance, we would be hard-pressed to argue that this was not within their legitimate scope of authority. We would be obligated to obey, regardless of our opinions about the prudence or necessity of such a measure.

The same principles hold for ecclesial authority. If your rector orders you to sing the Te Deum and not the Benedictus at your parish’s Morning Prayer service, you are duty-bound to obey, regardless of your personal preferences or views. If, however, your rector tells you to preach that Jesus Christ is not born of a virgin, he has overstepped his authority. You have a filial obligation to disobey — not because you are the final authority but because you and he both submit to the greater authorities of the Creed and the Scriptures. You are obligated to correct him in private and, if necessary, to petition the bishop for redress. But you do not suddenly become your own rector. In your relationship with your rector, you are responsible for submitting to his legitimate authority, but this responsibility does not make you your own final authority.

Mr. Devereux, however, seems to think that the very act of submission — following as it does from a prior act of judgment — implies the final authority not of the one submitted to, but of the one submitting, which is nonsensical.[8] By conflating authority with the basic epistemological conditions of knowing and judging, Mr. Devereux makes it impossible for anyone to obey, in any circumstances. According to Mr. Devereux, the fact that I must decide whether to submit to the Church means that I am the final authority. But since I must always decide in all circumstances, I must always be the final authority. Consider Scripture itself. If I must decide what Scripture means, then I am not under Scripture’s authority either but rather the final authority standing over it, at least for myself. Likewise, since I must judge whether Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Trinity to whom my obedience is owed, well, that very act of judging makes me and not Jesus Christ my own final authority, according to the principles elaborated by Mr. Devereux. If, by contrast, the act of discerning Christ’s divinity and the meaning of Scripture makes us responsible for our own judgments but not authoritative over Christ and Scripture, then the same must hold true for our relation to the Church. To discern the nature and shape of the Church does not mean that we are final authorities over the Church. Within her rightful sphere of authority, we must obey her.[9]

Hence, we must ask whether the interpretation of Scripture falls under the authority of the Church Catholic or of the individual. As noted above, Scripture never identifies the individual as the ultimate authority in Bible reading, and it strongly affirms the Church’s role in safeguarding truth. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church wrote, received, authorized, and perpetuated the canon. In his latest piece, Mr. Devereux avoids confronting the obvious implications of this historical reality by arbitrarily declaring the canon itself to be a first principle — less a rebuttal of contrary evidence than a refusal to engage it. He even says that the Church does infallibly interpret Scripture, but he reserves this for the (unknowable) invisible Church. Excising the Church’s tangible historical role from consideration while relocating the Church’s authority to the invisible (and thus irrelevant) Church — this is special pleading.

Granted, to affirm the Church’s authoritative reading does not settle matters. We must discern when, where, and how the Church has spoken authoritatively. If the Church were functioning healthily, discerning her voice would not be particularly difficult. But the Great Schism has put the Church into a perpetual state of crisis and dysfunction, such that ecclesiological agnosticism, while unacceptable and unsupportable, is understandable. Ironically, those who (wrongly) accuse me of epistemological nihilism when it comes to interpreting Scripture are themselves complete nihilists when it comes to identifying and submitting to the voice of the Church. Here I simply want to affirm that seeking to submit our personal, particular, and idiosyncratic understandings of Scripture to the judgment of the Church Catholic, both now and historically, is a basic duty of the Christian.[10]

We do so not because we trust the Church over the Bible, as though the two were antagonists or rivals. Rather, we recognize that the Church, as the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, is filled by that same Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of Scripture. To have ears to hear and eyes to see, we must read Scripture not as unaccountable individuals but, rather, in line with the voice of the Church as a member of that Spirit-filled Body.[11]

I do not deny that Scripture speaks clearly — but I do deny that it can be viewed from nowhere. I do not deny personal responsibility nor the gift of reason — but I do deny that the individual is his own authority. I do not deny the difficulty of the ecclesiological questions alluded to above — but I do deny that they are unanswerable or irrelevant, or that the difficulty excuses us from the task.

Reading the Scriptures is a gift and a joy and a duty of the Christian. We all ought to “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,” but we never do so as autonomous individuals. We do so, first and foremost, amidst the gathered local parish — and finally as members of Christ’s own Body.

The Christian in the Church

“God would not abandon us,” writes Mr. Devereux, “by leaving us to seek that knowledge [of everything of importance] from a fallible and untrustworthy source.”[12] But it is Mr. Devereux’s own view that leaves us starkly abandoned — left to our own interpretive devices, without even the comfort of an established canon. The Church discerned the canon of the New Testament. We receive that canon as a gift. But if the Church cannot be trusted to interpret her own canon faithfully and authoritatively, then we have no reason to submit ourselves to the Church’s judgment about the scope of the canon itself. Nothing but an arbitrary act of will prevents the authoritative individual interpreter from rejecting part or all of the canon, as so many heretics have done in recent and in ancient times.

Praise God, he did not abandon us! We are not alone with the Bible and our fallible brains, left to muddle through Scripture as Lone Rangers without even Tonto to guide us. To the contrary, he has made us members of the Spirit-filled, Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church. That Body merits our trust and our confidence — and she demands our obedience.

“Every man his own pope” — this jibe is frequently a caricature and a straw man but here it is accurate. Mr. Devereux’s Church, as a collection of sovereign individuals, can exercise no true authority and demand no submission from her members. Even the canon itself becomes logically subject to individual judgment. This is not the biblical picture of hierarchy, order, authority, and submission within a sacramental organism.[13] The Scriptures do not present Christians as independent selves, standing over the Church in judgment.

But modernity does.

The specter floating behind this latest essay is the modern self — the autonomous, rational, choosing individual. Unwittingly and unintentionally, River Devereux’s ecclesiology is that not of the Holy Spirit but of the Zeitgeist. The question we must answer is not and never has been the falsely dichotomous, “Should we trust Scripture or the Church?” To the contrary, the object and ground of our faith is neither the Church nor Scripture, “alone” and “on its own.” It is Jesus Christ the Righteous, who is known in the Scriptures and in his Church. The relevant question for our conversation is whether I should trust the Church’s interpretation of the Scriptures or my own personal reading of it. To answer that question, I must decide whether I am a member of the Spirit-filled Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, or whether I am a modern self.

Notes:

  1. I originally submitted this piece prior to the publication of Mr. Devereux’s response to Cory Byrum. I have since made some revisions, but the bulk of my essay responds to the second of his three essays, “To Reject a Council.”
  2. See my larger argument here, particularly the long citation from St. John of Damascus. No one has effectively answered the biblical examples of veneration offered by the Damascene. (Fr. Ben Jefferies’ engagement, while more substantive, was insufficient, as I explain in the comments of his piece.)
  3. You can make your way through our previous back-and-forth here.
  4. Interestingly, Mr. Devereux’s own failure to grasp the nub of the iconodule position closely mirrors John Calvin’s insufficient engagement with Nicea II, as I have previously pointed out (following James R. Payton, Jr.): “Despite the first-millennium iconoclastic controversy being almost wholly christological in nature for both parties, Calvin’s only consideration of Nicea II in his definitive 1559 edition of the Institutes is restricted to Book 1 on God the Father. He does not even acknowledge that the Council saw Christ’s incarnation as transformative for understanding the second commandment.”
  5. At least not in its final form — I assume some of Christ’s disciples were taking notes during his ministry, and that these made their way into the Gospels in due course.
  6. Mr. Devereux insists in his followup piece (and in a clarifying comment added to that piece) that he does not deny Church authority. He is clearly aware of the tension between making the individual his own final authority and the Church’s biblical and historic role. Such tensions certainly can be fruitful, as E. L. Mascall emphasizes, but in this case they are not so much fruitful as irreconcilable.
  7. This paragraph and the four that follow were added in response to his latest piece.
  8. I owe the insights in this paragraph to Charles Carman.
  9. The invocation of conscience is also a red herring, since the question is not whether we must follow conscience but rather how a well-formed conscience should guide the Christian if his own Bible reading conflicts with the Church’s. A few years ago, my then-four-year-old daughter rejected the Trinity because, in her mind, Jesus could not simultaneously be the Son of God and God Himself. In college, a friend told me he did not believe in the Trinity because he did not see it in Scripture. Meanwhile, Wayne Grudem rejected the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son for a time based on his biblical scholarship. Were these profound acts of faith in Scripture over the traditions of men? Or were they acts of hubris and presumption? In each case, the question is not whether one should follow one’s conscience but, rather, what a well-formed conscience should advise — whether to maintain one’s own opinion in defiance of the Nicene Creed or to trust the Church’s reading, despite misgivings.
  10. I lay down some principles for discerning and applying the voice of the Church in my essay on Anglican Formularies and Ecumenical Councils, and I describe the (historically limited but ecclesiologically monumental) significance of the Great Schism here.
  11. Compare, for instance, Vladimir Lossky’s essay “Tradition and Traditions” with Richard Hooker on Scripture, reason, and tradition. Hooker’s “reason” is arguably closer to (though far from identical with) Lossky’s “Tradition” than to Enlightenment rationalism, while Hooker’s “tradition” largely corresponds with what Lossky calls “traditions.” (I first made this connection in reading through an unpublished paper by Jordan Stewart titled “Law and Order: Hooker’s Paradigm for Scripture, Reason, and Tradition.”)
  12. Again, we should reject the false equivocation between fallibility and unworthiness. When parents leave their children in the care of fallible but trustworthy teachers, they are not abandoning them.
  13. I expand on this in the latter portions of this essay, beginning with the section titled “Hierarchy and Order in the Church.”

 



Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.


'The Holy Spirit or the Zeitgeist? The Bible, The Church, and The Christian' have 26 comments

  1. August 29, 2022 @ 12:14 pm Jonah M. Saller

    Simply excellent post, Father. Thank you!

    Reply

  2. August 29, 2022 @ 12:25 pm Dave

    As another former Baptist, a very good piece.

    “I should trust the Church’s interpretation of the Scriptures or my own personal reading of it. To answer that question, I must decide whether I am a member of the Spirit-filled Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, or whether I am a modern self.”

    A further question might be how much of the modern self came into being actually as a result of certain ways of reading scripture and rejecting the legitimate authority of Christ’s Body. ‘True Protestantism’ for what it is worth was a popular self-descriptor among those dissenters ejected from the COE after 1662. Mr. Deveraux’s view have more to do with them and their legacy than anything Anglican, something also shown by the sources he draws his arguments from.

    Reply

  3. August 29, 2022 @ 12:54 pm Brad Kafer

    This article misrepresents River’s postition.
    Also, Mark seems to be saying that the Church is before Scripture. Since according to him the Church wrote the Scriptures and discerned the canon which suggests that the Church is the first authority and that Scripture is normed by the Church rather than the Church is normed by Scripture.
    He also suggests that the church is to be implicitly trusted which makes aense with his rejection of Sola Scriptura and his confusion of Sola Scriptura with Solo Scriptura. Where in Mark’s understanding is the place for Reformation? How do you explain the many schisms within the visible church? And the Apostles’ warning that the church will be full of wolves and false teachers? Even now there are many antichrists.
    River is not pushing two extremes between infallible councils and sovereign individualism. Rather he is saying that the Reformation era rightly concluded that councils may err, have erred and are authoritative in so much as they agree with Scripture.
    The various Reformed confessions including the 39 Articles defend a Scriptural understanding of authority and the place of Scripture as the only rule of faith and the sole authority for the binding of the conscience of the saints.
    The lesser authority of councils is not dismissed outright based on an individuals interpretation but rather the lesser authority is normed by Scripture and may even bring rejected by Scriptural reasoning and conviction. Therefore the Protestant and Reformed Church of England rejected Nicea II in her formularies. The Reformers rejected transubstantiation even though it was established through a church council because it “cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.”
    Lone ranger Biblicism is a problem. Especially among Baptists and American evangelicals. The modernist impulse of sovereign individualism is not what sparked the Protestant Reformation nor is it what River is arguing for. His point is that the individual Christian has the right and duty of private judgment in knowing Scripture and its teaching and may search the Scriptures to see if these teaching of various Fathers and councils are so. Nicea II cannot bind the conscience of Christians merely because it is an “ecumenical council” though it’s status as such was shown to be suspect in this series already.
    The Anglican formularies receive the Creeds because “they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.”
    We do not accept the church’s interpretation simply because she is the church, nor do we dismiss it because we prefer our own authority. The formularies say that church bodies have the right to make judgments and that individuals should submit, yet when a church errors “not only on matters of Ceremonies but in matters of Faith” it is right and good to obey God rather than man. When Luther’s conscience was bound to the word of God it was right for him to go against the lesser authority of the Roman Church and not violate his conscience.
    We do receive Nicea I as normative. And when sound doctrine is developed that is Scripturally sound we should abide by it. But when the church errs we have a duty to search the Scriptures and see if these things are so.

    Article 19 – Of the Church
    The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

    As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

    Article 20 – Of the Authority of the Church
    The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

    Article 21 – Of the Authority of General Councils
    General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

    Reply

    • August 29, 2022 @ 11:26 pm River Devereux

      Well said, Brad!

      Reply

    • August 30, 2022 @ 7:11 am Fr. Mark Perkins

      Mr. Kafer,

      You write, “Also, Mark seems to be saying that the Church is before Scripture. Since according to him the Church wrote the Scriptures and discerned the canon…” Assuming that “before” is a chronological marker, these are just literal historical facts. Fortunately your conclusion does not follow. The Church and the Scriptures are not rivals.

      I address some of your concerns in response to Mr. Devereux below, but I wonder how Mr. Devereux’s view of Scripture being “alone” and “on its own” avoids conflating Sola and Solo?

      Reply

  4. August 29, 2022 @ 6:31 pm RonH

    I, for one, am enjoying this “seemingly interminable conversation” immensely. There are serious and difficult issues in play… ones I wrestle with myself, though merely as a rank amateur and with nowhere near the erudition on display on this blog.

    I think there’s a difference between *final* authority and *sole* authority. And maybe “final” isn’t even the right word. When I submit to an authority, I am deferring my own judgment to that of the authority. However, I cannot escape the reality that I’m only deferring that judgment because I *chose* to submit to that authority in the first place. After submitting, I am no longer technically the “final” authority on the issues to which I’m deferring judgment… but I will always have the option of choosing to defer (or not) in the first place. This seems to be an inescapable fact.

    We can all diligently search Scripture. We can submit ourselves to Church authorities. We can weigh tradition. And we can *still* all end up in quite different positions because we have different temperaments, experiences, and perspectives that cause us to perceive and weigh the same “facts” quite differently. There is no *single* council anymore to say “It seems good to us and to the Holy Spirit…” This is apparently a state of affairs the Holy Spirit is willing to tolerate, and perhaps we err in thinking it would be better if it were otherwise. Here we frustratedly stand, and cannot go back. But surely there must be some way forwards.

    Reply

    • August 29, 2022 @ 11:32 pm River Devereux

      Good point, Ronh. We simply cannot escape our own private judgement. Even if one believes that the Church is infallible, the individual has to judge which self-proclaimed “Church” is the true one! I sense that you are somewhat frustrated by all this, but remember, ‘let God be true and every man a liar’ (Rom 3:4). The Word of God is a our safe refuge.

      Reply

    • August 30, 2022 @ 7:09 am Fr. Mark Perkins

      Ronh,

      I think the problem with your thinking is not so much that “final” is the wrong word for what you’re describing but that “authority” is the wrong word. Conflating personal judgment with personal authority is the error, in my view.

      Blessings,
      Fr. Mark Perkins

      Reply

      • August 30, 2022 @ 2:33 pm River Devereux

        Fr. Perkins, I think your reply here helpfully points out an issue where we seem perhaps to be talking past each other with a different understanding of how a certain word is being used. I would be comfortable saying, for instance, that if Someone has to use their private judgement to decide whether A or B is true, then they are their own final *authority* for whether A or B is true. However, where things get complicated is that I would also say that an Expert or the Church are *authorities* as well for whether A or B is true due to their learning and age (one of them is 2000 years old!) and so Someone should listen to these authorities in deciding whether A or B is true. So Someone is not his *only* authority. I think it is at this point where I can now see how my use of the word is confusing. Perhaps I should say that Someone is the final *arbiter* or *decider* or even just *judge* for what is true? Basically, Someone has to weigh the judgements of his own interpretation and the interpretation of the authorities and then decide what is true. Does that make him an authority? I would have thought so but again, perhaps that word is unhelpful. I hope this clears a few things up.

        Reply

        • August 31, 2022 @ 12:02 am RonH

          (This reply is actually to Fr. Perkins’ response to my comment above, but when I click on the “Reply” box to *that* comment, my response never appears. Trying a different approach….)

          Fr. Perkins…

          That’s a helpful response. I don’t think I’m conflating the two, but I will admit to perhaps being sloppy or unclear. I see judgment and authority as necessarily intertwined. I can only really judge in a scope in which I have authority to do so. Perhaps that authority is what makes the difference between a “judgment” and an “opinion”. I may think the accused is guilty… but that is inconsequential if I’m not a juror on the case. If I grant the claim to authority of the Roman Church, then I indeed no longer have authority to judge on matters of the immaculate conception of Mary or the infallibility of the Pope or transubstantiation. However, I *do* have the authority to grant (or not) those claims of authority in the first place because *that* is a subjective judgment (and I am the subject). “But wait”, one might say, “the claims of the Roman Church aren’t subjective — they are objectively either true or false”. “In principle, yes”, I will reply, “but in reality it’s not that simple, since the evidence offered in support of the claims *itself* is subject to interpretation.” I *am* the final authority on whether or not I’m willing to relinquish my judgment on areas in which I accept the authority of the Roman Church. However, the authority claimed by the Roman Church is basically just the authority to interpret Scripture; and as a non-Roman, I’m still in effectively the same boat: I ultimately have to decide for myself *which* interpretations I will grant to be authoritative. I am the authority on what is persuasive to me. This is why in any debate between two well-equipped opponents you’ll inevitably hit a point at which one of them says something like “I just don’t see it that way”. That’s as far as one can go… and in fact such a statement might well be considered “final”.

          I think the upshot of all this may be that in light of this modern predicament in which authority seems next to impossible to sustain and all arguments except the least interesting ones appear ultimately impotent, a new approach may be called for.

          Reply

          • August 31, 2022 @ 10:55 am Fr. Mark Perkins

            I certainly agree with the nub of your point about authority and modernity. I will probably fold in a broader response to your piece to River’s comment below.

  5. August 29, 2022 @ 6:42 pm Josh

    As a child growing up in the Baptist Church every Wednesday night at Bible Class and at Vacation Bible School we were idolaters of the first degree according to the interpretation that there’s really no difference between veneration and worship. We all placed our hand over our hearts (some saluted) and pledged allegiance to the American Flag, the Bible and then the Christian Flag. This was practiced at public school each morning as well, when we were led in Prayer before venerating the Flag.

    Reply

  6. August 29, 2022 @ 11:23 pm River Devereux

    I won’t write another yet another article in response to this piece from Fr. Perkins, as I have already said most of what I need to say.
    I found this article to be a good challenge, and it helpfully pointed out how I did perhaps confusingly use the word “authority” in my essay. A fair bit of this essay revealed that Fr. Perkins, like Mr. Byrum before him, has misunderstood my position but I see that another comment has already dealt with some of those issues. I was also saddened to see that Fr. Perkins totally ignored the Protestant Reformation, which looms over this whole discussion, but based on a few remarks it would seem that he does not harbor much love for Protestantism anyway, which I must say is always a strange thing to find in an Anglican. Anyway, there are two points I would like to briefly touch on.

    1. Nicaea II
    I am well aware of the role the incarnation plays in the Nicaea II debate, but I have not spent much time on it because, first of all, it actually does not come up in the Nicaea II proceedings in much detail, and most importantly, it does not matter. Why? Because even if you say that one can depict Jesus through imagery and venerate that image, that still does not mean one can venerate the images of apostles and angels, which Nicaea II says you can.
    Even leaving aside the fact that Jesus is no longer regarded from a human point of view (2 Cor 5:16), dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16), and we are yet to see Him as He is (1 John 3:2), just because God has become Incarnate does not mean we can then venerate a lifeless representation of that Incarnation. If Jesus Himself has an image, it is us, His people.
    Nevertheless, one still cannot get around the fact that Acts 10:25-26 condemns venerating and prostrating before apostles, and Revelation 19:10 forbids the same veneration to be shown towards angels in Heaven, so why would we be able to bow down before an *image* of these if we cannot even do it to them in person? Yes, because of the Incarnation God has been revealed bodily, but why would that mean we can now suddenly adore images of men and angels, which we were previously forbidden to do?

    2. The Church
    The biggest problem with Fr. Perkins’ piece, aside from its misrepresentation of me (but I am used to that by now and admit that I must surely have some responsibility for it) is his vagueness about who this “church” he demands us to submit to and obey even is. Is it, perhaps, the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints? Is it the Roman Catholic Church? Is it the Anglican Province of America? I could go on.
    From Fr. Perkins writings elsewhere, it would seem that his answer would be the (so-called) ‘undivided Church,’ as known by the Seven Ecumenical Councils. The problem with this, as I have said before, is that it leads to despair because one understandably wonders why God allowed the Church to be split apart and then lose its infallibility (this is not an issue if one has a proper distinction between the invisible and visible Church), and, it is circular and question begging. Why are those Seven councils considered to represent the universal Church, and not Trent or the Synod of Dort? How can a council like Nicaea II claim to represent the undivided Church when a large chunk of the Church (the Reformed Churches) do not accept it? Even a Council I do accept, such as Chalcedon, poses problems because it was rejected by the Oriental Orthodox, but why do they not count as part of the Church? Eventually, Fr. Perkins has to believe “the Church” defines who “the Church” is, which is circular. Or, he has decided on his own who she is, and then wants us to obey that notion.
    Something that perhaps should be made clear is that my articles make more sense once one understands that I do not believe there is a structurally/institutionally undivided and visible Church. There is *one* invisible Church, but as for the visible Church, there are many of them and they are simply wherever the invisible Church gathers around word and sacrament (Article XIX).

    There are some more criticisms I could make (such as the red herring about knowing Jesus through the Sacraments, or the ad hominems about modernity), but I want this to remain a mere ‘comment’ rather than an essay in itself, and so I shall stop here.

    Thank you Fr. Perkins for the dialogue, it’s been fun and fruitful.

    – River

    Reply

    • August 30, 2022 @ 6:54 am Fr. Mark Perkins

      Thanks to you as well for the conversation, and particularly for this gracious comment here. 

      It is true that I am not invested in the “Protestant” label. I’m not one of those ACs who hate the label, nor am I unmindful of my debt of gratitude towards the Reformers. But, when it comes down to it, I really don’t care about adhering to “True Protestantism.” I want to know Jesus Christ in the Scriptures and in his Church, and I am grateful for the elements and strands of our Reformation heritage that enable me to do that more deeply.

      Per point 1, not to belabor the point, but, again, your reading of Acts and Revelation depends upon veneration and worship being the same thing.  As the Damascene points out, angels accept veneration from Joshua (Jos. 5:14) and Daniel (Dan. 8:17). As Fr. Jefferies himself points out, Jonathan venerates David. The typical responses — that the angelic commander is in fact the pre-Incarnate Christ and Daniel isn’t worshiping, just “falling down” — beg the question, since the reason they are read that way is not because of any textual or verbal clues but solely because of an a priori conclusion that angels cannot accept veneration because veneration = worship.

      Per the incarnational point, I suppose I am finding the theological/biblical opposition to N2 pretty hard to pin down. Sometimes it seems like all images are forbidden (your first piece), but then it’s just images of the invisible God (your second), and then it seems like maybe it’s just venerating them (this comment). And then, with Fr. Jefferies’ latest entry, it seems oddly like it’s not even veneration that’s a problem but veneration of images rather than people. At some point it starts to feel like a conviction in search of a justification.

      It seems to me, by the by, that the post-Resurrection appearances of our Lord (and especially the post-Ascension appearance to St. Paul) are intended to confirm that Christ remains fully incarnate, against any notions otherwise. The iconodules believed the question, “Is Christ portrayable?” was synonymous with “Does Christ remain fully human?” This conversation only deepens my conviction of their rightness.

      Per point 2 (“one understandably wonders why God allowed the Church to be split apart and then lose its infallibility”), let me, just one more time, reaffirm that the pertinent question for us is not whether the Church can speak infallibly (very possibly so, but I have not claimed that position) but whether she can speak authoritatively. Yes, I have avoided overly long digressions into the nature of the visible Church, but I have tried to direct folks to places where I’ve discussed it before. More to the point, the question I am trying to highlight is whether Christians have a duty to submit to the Church. If so, then the difficulties you and others describe must be faced, and the best answers pursued. If so, then an agnostic and nihilistic throwing-up-off hands is simply unacceptable, even if it is perhaps understandable. (If not, then of course ecclesiological questions can be safely categorized as “second order.”)

      Incidentally, though, I wonder if many fear asking the question because they are afraid that that way lies Rome. They shouldn’t, because it doesn’t. I’m not going to unpack a full ecclesiology here, but I will say a few words of guidance for those who decide that they must seek the voice of the Church, whatever the difficulties.

      The Church has not and cannot be ontologically split — the Church’s unity is in fact the internal unity of the Trinity, as our Lord suggests (Jn. 17 — our Lord’s prayer, being a Divine Word, effects what it asks). So in her deepest essence the Church is unbroken, and the Church therefore remains entirely capable of authoritative proclamation, even though her practical disunity means that such ecumenically authoritative proclamations are unlikely to occur in the near future.

       All baptized Christians are grafted into the Church, and therefore wherever Christians gather, in some sense the Church is there. But the fullness of the Church is, as you suggest, where Christians are gathered around Word and Sacrament. I would add, following Mascall, that the sacraments are linked to the apostolic hands of the bishops. Hence, the full local instantation of Christ’s Church is the diocese gathered round the Bishop, proclaiming the Word and celebrating the Eucharist. In truth and in deepest reality, all such local instantiations are in communion with one another and visibly constitute the unbroken Church. The shame, tragedy, and scandal of the Church is that she does not live out existentially what is always already true of her ontologically.

      As for the difficulties with all Councils (*someone* dissented from each of them), I would simply make the admittedly circular argument that, from the Second Council up through the Seventh, the conciliar fathers clearly did not believe that such dissensions impacted her ability to speak authoritatively. Both the Mock Council of Hieria and N2 assume the validity and authority of the previous six. But, after the Great Schism, that has changed. Yes, Rome has claimed ecumenical status for her councils, but — again, using the circular guide of the early Church — I do not find this persuasive. But, as I admitted, this is all circular, in that it requires an initial act of trust in the Church as the Body of Christ.

      Last comment. For whatever it’s worth, I did not intend the modernity comments to be ‘ad hominem.’ If I attacked your character in any way, I apologize. My intent was to highlight what I believe to be latent influences in your thinking. I do think modernity is a malignant spirit that is cancerous for the Church, and your ecclesiology is modern (as you acknowledged in the comments of your last piece). But, as I said, I don’t question your intelligence or your sincerity, and I am especially appreciative of your gracious engagement here.

      Blessings,
      Fr. Mark Perkins

      Reply

      • August 30, 2022 @ 3:10 pm River Devereux

        Hi Fr. Perkins, thank you for your reply. I will respond to a few things but then, depending perhaps on your response, maybe I will leave it there, because as I think everyone acknowledges, this really could go on forever!

        Let me just clarify my argument about images. In my first article I conceded that images are not in and of themselves wrong (and you may be heartened to know that I have several icons in my own home) but said throughout that the issue was specifically venerating them. In your first response to me there seemed to be a misunderstanding (I think it was my fault) about what I was saying about the second commandment. I wasn’t interpreting this to mean that we cannot make images, but was trying to say only that the commandment forbids venerating *images in general* and not idols/images of *false gods specifically* which is how Nicaea II interpreted it. I hope that makes sense. However, I do also think that depictions of the Trinity/First and Third Persons are unacceptable, which I believe is not a controversial point anyway, and, that depictions of the enthroned/ascended Christ are unwise too for the reasons I’ll touch on below.

        Jesus is very much still incarnate and fully human, but what I was trying to say in my comment is that His true likeness is unimaginable. When Jesus was Transfigured, I believe that was the revelation of His true image, but this is unable to be depicted. As also was His appearance to St Paul, this cannot be depicted.
        The appearance of God to Daniel and Ezekiel are, in my view, Jesus Himself as well, in His glorified state, but just as these cannot be depicted (even though, by the way, they are actually are very detailed visual description as opposed to the total lack of description of Jesus in the Gospels) so also I would say we cannot depict the enthroned and glorified Jesus Who dwells in unapproachable light.
        Moreover, I do indeed believe that the cases in Jos. 5 and Dan. 8 are appearances of the Angel of YHWH/The Son of God, so, they don’t work for me, and I do have a few other reasons to believe that besides the circular logic that they involve veneration.

        Your question “whether Christians have a duty to submit to the Church” simply cannot be tackled or even answered until one makes clear who this Church is. In my ecclesiology, I still say that the Church must be submitted to *as long as one remains joined to her*. So, as long as one remains, for instance, in the APA, they must submit to the Formularies of the APA. But there is no universal visible Church that can bind an individual in the abstract, outside of their assent to a particular visible Church. All of this by the way stems in part from Luther’s Two Kingdoms theology. In the invisible Kingdom, only Scripture rules over me. In the visible Kingdom, I have the duty to submit to my lawful rulers. In the invisible Church, Scripture alone binds the conscience, but wherever that invisible Church gathers around word and sacrament and becomes visible, that community has the authority to impose Creeds, Confessions, and Formularies.

        I appreciate your admission of your circularity. I would say that you are either being arbitrary, making yourself your own judge, or are actually making the Church the first principle of your faith. Either you are saying “I believe in Scripture, and also this particular Church,” which is arbitrary. Or, you are saying “I believe in Scripture and because of how I understand it I also believe in this Church” which makes you the judge and is my own admitted position. Or, you are actually saying, “I believe in this particular Church (hence it is the ground/first principle) and therefore I also believe in Scripture, and Scripture as interpreted by this Church.” But this undermines the fact that the Church is grounded on Scripture (Eph 2:20).

        Finally, my ad hominem point wasn’t to suggest that you personally attacked me – which you didn’t! – just that, logically, since you did not really engage with the idea it came across as one. You said my perspective was modernist (which I have already admitted it is) but then left it there, as though for it to merely be modern is inherently bad. For it to not be in essence an ad hominem, you would need to justify why my view is modern, and, why that is a problem, otherwise you are just tossing the term at my position willy nilly as though it were an insult. (again, I’m not insulted though!)

        In Christ,
        River

        Reply

        • August 31, 2022 @ 1:54 pm Fr. Mark Perkins

          Dear River,

          Very good clarifications, all — thanks. Lots of it is just \”agree to disagree\”-type stuff, but I will hone in on some points that maybe are still worth fruitful engagement.

          I understand better what you meant by \’ad hominem.\’ I confess that, in my first piece, I rather assumed that making the individual his own authority would be self-evidently bad — and in this one, I assumed the self-evident \”badness\” of modernity\’s autonomous individualism. I\’m not sure if that actually makes me guilty of an ad hominem (begging the question, maybe?) — but it certainly makes my argument less rhetorically effective.

          You write, \”But there is no universal visible Church that can bind an individual in the abstract, outside of their assent to a particular visible Church.\” I agree, insofar as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church demands our submission *through* local instantiations of the Church. And I actually think there\’s nothing incoherent about submitting your personal views about, say, Nicea 2, to the judgment of your jurisdiction. In general, I think folks should be faithful to their faith communities unless and until they become persuaded that their \”church\” is not actually a local instantiation of the Catholic Church. I am grateful to be in a jurisdiction that submits to the 7 ECs, I can understand other Anglicans in different bodies choosing to trust their own jurisdiction\’s judgment on the matter — and that\’s even if they are personally inclined to believe N2 is ecumenical and correct. But I would simply say that, just as the individual is obligated to submit his judgment to the Church, every jurisdiction should seek to conform to the Church Catholic.

          I am also glad to see here and in your other replies that some of our disagreement on authority is semantic. If the individual\’s \”final authority\” means nothing more or less than that the individual is the judging subject — well and good. Though at that point it\’s almost just a tautology (“an agent is agential”).

          But some of our disagreement is more substantive. We both agree that the individual is personally responsible for judgment (though had I more time and energy, a longer discursus on trust and context would be helpful, insofar as knowledge begins not in skepticism but in trust, and personal responsibility is not universal but waxes and wanes over the course of life and on the basis of many factors [age, education, intelligence, vocation, etc.], such that we really should strive to think not of individual private judgment but rather of persons-in-community etc etc). But where we would disagree, I think, is that you view each Christian as personally responsible for rightly interpreting Scripture and judging churches on that basis, whereas I would say the individual is responsible to read Scripture under the authority of and through the eyes of the Church. It seems to me that your view places the individual over the Church as judge of the Church\’s reading of Scripture, whereas I would say the individual is responsible for judging the nature of the Church *so that* he can submit his reading to the judgment of the Church.

          To use my example from footnote 9 again, when my daughter and my college buddy and Wayne Grudem find themselves personally unpersuaded of the biblical foundation of Nicene orthodoxy, what should they do? Under your view, their consciences obligate them to trust their own readings — otherwise, based on your (IMO false) dichotomy, they have trusted the Church *over* the Scriptures. Whereas I would say they should submit their views to the judgment of the Church Catholic, trusting that the Church\’s reading of Scripture is better than their own (the true choice being, “my judgment or the Church’s?”). We do this in just the same way that we are obligated to obey other authorities, regardless of personal qualms.

          Of course, ththeis individual only \”gets to\” the Nicene Creed through a local instantiation of the Church — and the individual in a non-Nicene \”church\” is thus in a pickle! In that case, I would simply affirm that the Gospel of Jesus Christ implicitly carries with it an affirmation of the Scriptures and of the Church — and that an individual in such a case should seek out the voice of the Church. That is, we should ask ourselves if our jurisdiction is part of the Church Catholic — and to what extent our jurisdiction is aligned with the Church Catholic.

          But let me reframe my circular statement about trust in the Church. As I said in the essay, faith in Jesus Christ is the bedrock of Christianity, and what naturally follows from that faith is trust in the Scriptures which witness to him and trust in the Church as the Body of Christ which faithfully manifests him — \”in the Apostles\’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers.\” So while the Church, understood as a human institution, is fallible, it also, as a Spirit-filled Body, faithfully manifests Christ — most fundamentally in proclaiming the Word and in celebrating the Sacraments. So, for instance, where the Eucharist is rightly celebrated, Christ is certainly present — and we can be as certain of his Real Presence in the Sacrament as we are of the reliability of the Scriptures. To cast the Scriptures and the Church as rivals is a false dichotomy. (And, again, I view any affirmation followed by a resort to the invisible Church as a form of special pleading; the Church\’s historical role in writing/identifying the Scriptures and ongoing role in promulgating them and in celebrating the Sacraments is not invisible.)

          That is therefore the ultimate basis for listening to the early Church\’s self-testimony as a guide for understanding the Church. It is circular insofar as, in order to understand what an Ecumenical Council is and in what ways it exercises authority, we ask, \”How do the Ecumenical Councils\’ seem to understand themselves and the previous ECs?\” And the answer is that the ECs had a clear self-conception of their authority as binding on all Christians, and that (based on their affirmation of prior ECs) they did not view the various minor and even major dissensions from the ECs as grounds for doubt about that authority. But it seems to me that if you should trust the Church — and if you will not resort to an embarrassing \”trail of blood\” subaltern-style history of The True Church™… then I don\’t know how you could ignore the ECs self-testimony.

          I suppose it’s also worth nothing that the circular argument was part of the \”few words of guidance for those who decide that they must seek the voice of the Church\” — i.e. for those persuaded that the Church has spoken authoritatively, here\’s how you might listen for it.

          Anyway, I have enjoyed this conversation, especially in the comments here.

          Blessings,
          Fr. Mark

          Reply

  7. August 29, 2022 @ 11:56 pm Antti Saarilahti

    I agree wholeheartedly with everything RonH said in his comment. This has been an incredibly educational and thought-provoking experience. I would like to offer my sincere thanks for all involved in this debate.

    Fr. Perkins, I have two questions:

    1. You acknowledge the difficulty of recognising which visible church to submit to in our present day and age, but you go no further. On what grounds do you choose your ecclesial authority? One would imagine faithfulness to Scripture to be the main criterion, but that cannot be so in your scheme because it would necessitate placing a private interpretation of Scripture on a higher level to begin with.

    2. You may rightly accuse Mr. Devereux of refusing to tackle with the problems in his seemingly arbitrary choice of making Sola Scriptura the axiom, but your view likewise has uncomfortable implications which you refuse to tackle with. And they seem greater to me. How, in your system, does an individual ever have the right to disagree with the visible church in your system? What is your take on Martin Luther and the Reformation? Why are you Anglican instead of Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox? Clearly, you accept ecclesiasiastical rebellion on some level. How does that not boil down to private interpretation of Scripture?

    Many questions, perhaps, but two clear themes. Thank you already for your time.

    Reply

    • August 30, 2022 @ 7:07 am Fr. Mark Perkins

      Excellent questions!

      I answer them in part in response to Mr. Devereux’s comment above. Extrapolating on that, I could not remain in a jurisdiction that lacked apostolic succession. I would direct you to this essay, particularly the section of titled “The Bosphorus, The Tiber, and The Thames” to explain why I am not Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic. https://www.earthaltar.org/post/enfolded-within-some-great-living-being-whose-tracks-we-see-everywhere Despite some folks, here and there, encouraging me to swim the Bosphorous or the Tiber because they would prefer I not claim the label “Anglican,” I am quite happy to be where I am. I do not personally agonize over being Anglican.

      Individuals can, of course, disagree! Perhaps I should have been more clear that obedience does not require personal agreement. (Indeed, it is precisely when we disagree that we discover what we think about the scope and nature of authority — when we “obey” authorities with whom we agree, we’re not really obeying… we’re just agreeing.) Moreover, if you do not accept Rome’s conception of apostolic authority (which essentially makes Peter the sole apostle, with everyone else being sub-apostles), then the English Church’s rejection of papal claims does not present insuperable difficulties.

      The real question is whether, when, and how an *individual* can not merely disagree but defy authority. I have mixed feelings about Luther — I place the direct blame for the Protestant schism on the Roman church’s decision to excommunicate him. If you become persuaded, of course, that your bishop is apostate and your jurisdiction is fraudulent, then, yes, you have a duty to leave it — but not because you are your own final authority, but because you must seek out the Church itself and submit to her. Again, personal judgment is inevitable and only tangentially connected to authority questions.

      I hope that helps somewhat.

      Blessings,
      Fr. Mark Perkins

      Reply

      • August 30, 2022 @ 3:17 pm River Devereux

        Hi Fr. Perkins, this is a good example of how we are maybe talking past each other with different understandings of words. You said:
        \”If you become persuaded, of course, that your bishop is apostate and your jurisdiction is fraudulent, then, yes, you have a duty to leave it — but not because you are your own final authority.\” I was saying this makes you your final authority in the sense of being the final *judge* for what is true.

        Reply

      • August 31, 2022 @ 2:54 am Antti Saarilahti

        Thank you for the answers, Fr. Perkins.

        I am not sure if I understand correctly your position on disagreement and defiance, agreement and obedience. You see, I have a hard time imagining a visible church I would feel bound to obey if I disagreed on a dogmatic issue. Lesser matters, sure – Laudable Practice recently wrote an article commending the English church’s decision to enforce her ceremonies and vestments on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1662, and that is an excellent example. I am in complete agreement there with Laudable Practice. But dogma? No. How could anyone in all sincerity believe that something pertaining to faith or morals, taught by a visible church, was wrong, and still feel bound to obey that church? Even you seem to be in agreement there, although you conspicuously avoided using terms which would spell it out – you talk about an “apostate bishop” and a “fraudulent jurisdiction”, although you could just as well have talked about your private interpretation of Scripture differring from your church’s. (For how else could such a situation arise? What else has the authority to challenge a church’s teaching besides Scripture?)

        In other words, “disagreement” in the only relevant sense (= disagreement about dogma) inevitably leads to defiance… or hypocrisy.

        You will notice I am talking about “a (visible) church” rather than “the church”, and that is because I think here lies the crux of the matter. You think it is possible to identify “the” church, or at least the “voice” of the church. I fail to see how you could possibly come up with criteria for such identification that are neither 1) arbitrary nor 2) based on Scripture. But even more importantly, no matter what your personal criteria are, they have placed you in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of Anglicanism. That is a very small church within a church, in worldwide terms. There is no way around it: that means you must surely have placed a lot of trust in your own ability to correctly identify the church. How is that not just the kind of modernist individualism which you abhor?

        All in all, it seems to me that every person involved in this debate who is in disagreement with Mr. Devereux’s core claims is in a way trying to run away from themselves, trying to avoid the inevitable conclusion of having to make a crucial decision all alone, about which authority to follow in good conscience and how to identify it in the first place.

        Reply

        • August 31, 2022 @ 10:52 am Fr. Mark Perkins

          Good points!

          I will have more to say about dogma and disagreement shortly in response to River\’s comment in the thread above, but just one quick autobiographical note here may help. I did not become a convinced Anglo-Catholic and then go hunt out the parish or diocese that suited my convictions. I was a Baptist who randomly started attending an Anglo-Catholic parish in college (lost my ride to my church; my buddy\’s parish was a five-minute walk), and then also somewhat randomly ended up in another AC parish (the only Anglican church in the area at the time). For many years I was basically a Baptist attending an Anglican parish. And that experience has, slowly and through deliberate engagement on my own part, transformed me into an Anglo-Catholic. But, for better or worse, I have never had the anxious search for the One True Church that seems to characterize the experience of so many Young & Online Christians. I have in fact been persuaded of Anglo-Catholic ecclesiology and what-not, but it happened through a process of me being reshaped by the parish and diocese into which I was planted.

          I know this is a very convenient narrative for my own claims just now, but it happens to be true (and verifiable by many). I would add — and I\’ll expand this in my comment to River — that I am increasingly convinced that folks should endeavor stay where they are planted, unless they become persuaded their bishop/jurisdiction lack the Catholic Faith, i.e. not just wrong but so grievously wrong or insufficient that the communion cannot be a valid instantiation of the Church. (Granted, there are exceptions in grievous circumstances — particularly if one is responsible for the faith of others, e.g. your children.) But if the Word is being preached and the Sacrament rightly administered, most folks should just stay put and be faithful communicants.

          Having said that, I can honestly say I don\’t think I have shied away from the need to exercise personal judgment to discern authority. That was a central facet of my undergraduate work in John Lukacs\’s historical philosophy, and it\’s the fourth of Lonergan\’s Transcental Imperatives (Be Responsible), which were my only \”classroom rules\” in my teaching career. It\’s just that, at least in the last 5-10 years, I have understood myself to be discerning within a context and as a member of a Body.

          Blessings,
          Fr. Mark Perkins

          Reply

  8. August 30, 2022 @ 10:56 am Connor Perry

    Ironically, the best way I can describe this article is to use a quote from it:
    “Straw men, misunderstandings, and false dichotomies abound.”
    Seeing as your position will not change, I believe it’s more essential to address the debate at large than any particular point you’ve brought up.
    This is the end, the responses to this debate haven’t changed. Whereas there was an advancement of perspectives until this point, this seems like just another repeat of arguments and grievances that have already been addressed.
    What I will say is that both in the articles and the comments and Anglicanism at large there is a constant assault on the shadowy figure of “individualism” and “fundamentalism”, more than one person implicitly or explicitly grieving about growing up in the American Bapticostal milleu.
    I cannot escape what seems to be the clear conclusion that the primary undertone in this entire debate (and, unfortunately, even in many Anglican parishes) is the fear of being seen as normal, as not being “traditional” enough, as being too modernistic, and as being seen as “Protestant.” No, rather we want a special identity, a unique middle-way, a “correct” moniker to differentiate our selfs from perceived theological-bumpkins.
    This specter, I believe more than any logical argument or point of faith, is what separates Anglicans on this issue and many others. Not in what is true, but rather what one is seen as by others and oneself, as somehow being “unapostolic” or “uncatholic”, “non-traditional” or “radical” due to not doing what a perceived holy group of people do, whether that be rites, ceremonies, or doctrines considered essential for salvation (or at the very least for orthodoxy).
    As much as one attempts to justify this fearmongering as being perfectly valid according to the Church or exactly what the ancient divines would’ve approved of, this doesn’t promote healthy Christianity (and the evidence is obvious, the state of the Anglican Church). It might promote a concrete identity or sectarian denomination, but as the modern world proudly shows, the search for a “special identity” usually leads contrary to God.

    Reply

  9. August 30, 2022 @ 12:13 pm Bruce

    I have enjoyed this back and forth and it has helped me think through some of my own perspectives as well. I lean towards River’s perspective. As soon as one starts talking about deferring to church authority, my mind keeps stumbling over the question “which church?” I know Fr. Perkins tries to address this, but frankly it all seems too theoretical. I imagine the scenario of an agnostic American who was not raised Christian who decides to check it out. He goes online to look for churches in his town and tries a few: Episcopal, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Baptist, etc. We all know that what he might encounter in those churches is a complete crapshoot. There is a high likelihood he will encounter many types of lunacy. If I were advising him, I would tell him to start by reading the Bible and then to find a church that takes the Bible seriously. As an Anglican, if he can find an Anglican Church that does that, I would think that is great, but I would rather him be Baptist than to go to an “Anglican” church that shoves the Bible aside for faddish teachings about social justice and the latest cause. There is really no point in submitting to a church institution that does that. In fact, it might even be dangerous for the soul if it creates confusion about the content of Christian faith. And frankly, these days that sort of confusion is just as likely to be found in Roman Catholic or even Eastern Orthodox churches.

    So perhaps that makes me Protestant at heart, but I just don’t see any practical way around the primacy of Scripture and an individual’s engagement with it to discern truth over and above what church institutions may teach.

    Reply

    • September 1, 2022 @ 10:20 am Bruce

      If I might add one more observation, Fr. Perkins accuses River of following the spirit of the age with regard to self-defining individualism, but it seems to me that Fr. Perkins has it backwards. The spirit of the age in our time is far more often to be found in our church institutions. It is the laity who read their Bibles and try to interpret them in good faith who are standing in the way of the leaders of the churches who would like to do on an institutional level the very thing that Bible-reading Protestants are often accused of doing on an individual level, namely coming up with private, novel, inaccurate interpretations of the Bible. However, when this is done at an institutional level, the potential for damage is much greater. As a Protestant, I believe that wrong interpretations permeated the Roman Church prior to the Reformation, and we can see that today as well in many of our church institutions.

      Certainly in the past the church has gotten things right at an institutional level, and we depart from longstanding consensus on doctrinal matters at great risk, but I don’t think one can create a clear delineation between which bits of church history and tradition are authoritative and which aren’t without an appeal to scripture as the referee, and appealing to scripture means appealing to an individual’s interpretation which means he must be capable of interpreting it due to it’s perspicuity. Without scripture and the assumption that scripture is perspicuous, by what criteria do we distinguish between the authority of Nicea I, Nicea II, or General Convention 2022?

      Reply

      • September 1, 2022 @ 2:15 pm Josh

        Bruce,

        Good afternoon and good points that made me think more about my position. I for one, propose we return to the place where the Church protects the Scriptures. Where interpretation and translation of the Scriptures occur within the Church, and the translating is based in readings from the Church, The King James Version is a good example. Take a look at the notes of the translators, the devotion that was given to translate and produce according to God and for the Church was extraordinary. There were measures taken for translating passages according to antiquity and consensus of prior translations as opposed to novel, individual translator readings. One necessary and key part however will have to be authority for the Church, call it secondarily normative authority if you like. Martin Bucer was a proponent of that understanding.

        Now, take a look at the list of \”Bibles\” TEC has:

        The translations of the Bible authorized for use in the worship of the Episcopal Church are the King James (Authorized Version), together with the Marginal Readings authorized for use by the General Convention of 1901, the English Revision of 1881, the American Revision of 1901, the Revised Standard Version of 1952, the Jerusalem Bible of 1966, the New English Bible with the Apocrypha of 1970, the 1976 Good News Bible (Today’s English Version), the New American Bible (1970), the Revised Standard Version, an Ecumenical Edition, known as the “R.S.V. Common Bible” (1973), the New International Version (1978), the New Jerusalem Bible (1987), the Revised English Bible (1989), and the New Revised Standard Version Bible (1990)

        The new NRSVue will no doubt soon be added in the future to this list. If you aren\’t familiar with this translation, look it up it is pernicious. Last, I do agree with Fr. Perkins on the modernistic paradigm that the young gentleman displays throughout his thesis. But I would add that there is an issue also with not distinguishing properly Law and Gospel. This leads to other issues like contradictions and inconsistencies. For instance, he still hasn\’t (that I\’ve seen) defended, from Scripture, why the Church people (especially in the South) with vacation bible school are idolators for venerating and pledging allegiance to the Star Spangled banner, the Christian Flag, and the Bible. These are just a few things I noticed throughout this whole discourse. In the bigger picture, one thing I appreciate about Anglicanism is the continuity with the historic Church, with the faith once delivered to the saints and the significant and necessary contributions from the Reformation.

        Blessings In Christ,
        Josh

        Reply

  10. August 31, 2022 @ 11:26 am RonH

    Just as an aside…

    As a devotee of St. GKC, I must say that “Earth & Altar” is as fitting a name for an Anglo-Catholic site as I can think of.

    Reply


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