First Principles and Individual Judgement
The Perspicuity of Scripture
The Exclusive Infallibility of Scripture
The Visible and Invisible Church
The Fallibility of Ecumenical Councils
The Protestant Reformation
I have come to understand that my last article was deeply challenging to some people and forced them to grapple with questions they had not previously considered. Based off his response, Cory Byrum was so challenged by my article that in his attempt to refute its conclusion he ended up only misrepresenting me, contradicting himself, and undermining the very foundation of Protestantism.
My article argued that Sola Scriptura, which is the formal principle of the Reformation, means that only Scripture is infallible, and therefore, Ecumenical Councils can err. If these Councils can err, then they cannot claim to bind our consciences, and they must be subject to the truth of Scripture. Now, if all this is the case then it leads to the inescapable conclusion that the individual has the freedom to interpret what Scripture objectively means, because there is no other way to ascertain whether fallible Councils have erred than by personally judging them against the infallible Scriptures. Unfortunately, many Protestants today, particularly of the Anglican variety, would prefer this to not be the case, and deny the fact that their entire theological system necessitates the validity of private judgement. However, this denial is mistaken, and it has been shown time and time again to be incapable of withstanding the scrutiny of not only Roman Catholic apologetics but also post-Enlightenment critiques. Moreover, my last article showed that great Protestant thinkers like Martin Luther, Herman Bavinck, and J.I. Packer very much accepted the principle of private judgement (and later in this essay we shall see R.C. Sproul argue the same) however Mr. Byrum’s article never responded to any of these theologians.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the individual can or should disregard authority in general, and follow his own path entirely. I cannot see how I could have made that point any clearer in my original article, and yet, Mr. Byrum has misrepresented me as though I was saying just that. Mr. Byrum seems to think that because I argued our conscience is our final authority in interpreting what Scripture says, I must therefore believe it is our only authority and that we should not listen to anyone else, however, his own article then goes on to also affirm we are in fact our final authority. Moreover, it needs to be emphasised that by saying we are our final authority, and that we can use our private judgement, I am not saying that truth is subjective and that every man can have his ‘own truth.’ Rather, truth is objective, and there are right and wrong ways of understanding Scripture, but individuals can use their private judgement to ascertain what those right understandings are.
It should have been clear from my last article that I oppose as much as anyone else an individualistic belief that all one needs is a Bible and their own understanding. Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I revere and utterly submit myself to the teachings of the Anglican Formularies. Ironically, we shall see that I submit to these Formularies more faithfully than Mr. Byrum does! My last article maintained the power of the Church and her role as a guide, saying:
“The Church has a Divinely commissioned teaching office… Without doctrines and dogmas, or Creeds and statements of faith, total anarchy and disunity would ensue and the Church would have utterly failed to be a teacher, guide, and unifier… We do not despise things like the Nicene Creed then, but uphold them with all due reverence because they have been found to be a sure guide to Scripture.”
“If the Church’s map proves to be a reliable guide, one that warns me of danger, draws my attention to things I would otherwise not have noticed, and keeps me on the right path, then the map is to be praised and kept in my possession. Indeed, I will come to rely on the map above my own experience.”
“The fact is, that while the Church may stumble, she will never fall, for the Gates of Hades shall not prevail against her (Matt 16:18)… The Christian, therefore, is not permitted to say: ‘I reject the whole Church!’ for the Church is the cloud of witnesses guided by the Spirit.”
However, Mr. Byrum has caricatured me as rejecting the Church altogether, as though I was an unbridled individualist. We shall see below that while I believe the teachings of the visible Church may be rejected at times, the common beliefs of the invisible Church can never be rejected because she is guided by the Holy Spirit.
All that being said, what I also oppose is the dangerous belief that there are concrete sources other than Scripture which are infallible and binding on the conscience. An example of how this plays out in real life is the fact that many people, believing that we must submit to Nicaea II, think it is acceptable to adore religious images, despite what Scripture has to say about it. It is precisely this issue which prompted me to start writing these articles in the first place. However, Mr. Byrum stated that he wants to avoid the debate over Nicaea II, which is strange since that debate is the absolutely crucial context for my last article. No one in this debate denies that Nicaea I, for instance, should be (freely) submitted to and followed, but what is at issue is how to respond when what is commonly regarded as an Ecumenical Council (Nicaea II) seems to have contradicted Scripture. It was therefore ill-judged for Mr. Byram to have entered this debate while ignoring its context.
2. First Principles and Individual Judgement
In order to understand some of the finer points of what follows, we need to talk about first principles. First principles are things that cannot have and do not need a logical justification because they are the starting point and are taken on faith. For instance, René Descartes would say that the first principle of life itself is that ‘I think’ because, well… I just do. Now, nothing can refute a first principle. For instance, if the first principle of life is that ‘I think therefore I am’ then no philosophical conclusion can ever be allowed to negate this. The first principle must remain intact, because it is the ground for everything else.
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; we believe, first and foremost, that Scripture reveals God, and because it is our faith’s first principle we do not need a reason for it. We believe in the Divinity of Scripture because we just do; ultimately, it belongs to the mystery of faith, which is a gift of God (Eph 2:8 ; 1 Cor 12:3). Now, whatever comes next in the chain of faith must proceed from this first principle or else it will be arbitrary and all other subsequent truths must be normed by Scripture. Ergo, we do not say ‘I believe in Scripture and also this particular church,’ for that would be arbitrary, and it could be contradictory if that church is found to negate Scripture, instead we say: ‘I believe in Scripture and therefore I also believe in this particular church.’ An Anglican for instance believes in Anglicanism because of Scripture, and judges Anglicanism to be true only insofar as it agrees with Scripture. Moreover, as an Anglican, the reason I do not affirm Mormonism is because of Scripture, and if I was raised Mormon and came to see that its teachings contradicted Scripture, I would have to reject it, because I cannot deny my first principle. All other beliefs must be generated by the first principle and tethered to a causal chain, or else they are arbitrary and potentially contradictory.
So far this is hardly controversial, at least for Protestants, but the logical conclusion to it for some reason seems to be. If Scripture is used to norm all subsequent beliefs, and if Scripture is by its very nature in need of interpretation, then the individual must become his own final authority for whatever else is true, based off his understanding of what Scripture is objectively saying. (As a side note: private interpretation does not mean we arrive at a subjective notion of what Scripture means to us, rather, it means using our gifts of reasoning, and listening to tradition and the Spirit’s guidance, to ascertain what Scripture is truly and objectively saying.) I believe Confessional Anglicanism is true, because of how I understand Scripture, and I believe Mormonism is untrue, because of how I understand Scripture. I cannot believe in Anglicanism because I ‘just do,’ without that being arbitrary, or Anglicanism itself being the first principle of my faith; rather my assent must originate from the first principle.
Now, this is to be perfectly honest, an indisputable fact of the Protestant system. If someone were to object and say ‘no, you must believe in the Church for its own sake,’ all I need to do to prove how fallacious this is, is ask: ‘and who is the Church?’ The answer they give will either be circular and question-begging (the Church is whoever the Church says the Church is), arbitrary (it is this Church just because I say so), or will be derived from the first principle of Scripture and thus will put that person in the position of being their own final authority (I believe the true Church is this one because I believe it accords most with Scripture). Of course, one might indeed make their particular Church the first principle and ground of their faith, and this is indeed the logical conclusion of Roman Catholicism, but that is to stand outside of Protestantism and is in any case misguided, as the Church itself is founded upon the Divine words of the Apostles and Prophets (Eph 2:20). Remember, someone may well listen to other people and be influenced by them in deciding that a particular church is the True Church, but ultimately his conscience and understanding will be the final decider.
Logically then, if one has Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) as the ground of his faith, then he will become his final authority for what comes next. However, and this cannot be overstated enough it seems, this does not mean the individual is his only authority. While my assent to Anglicanism is ultimately hinged on my personal judgement, Anglican apologists can very much influence my judgement. Moreover, I may come to trust in Anglicanism to the degree that I totally submit my judgement to its doctrines from then on. Nevertheless, my assent was still based upon my decision and my judgement. Even if I come to believe that the Ecumenical Councils are infallible and I therefore submit all my judgement to them, I am still my own final authority. I had to both choose to submit and decide which Councils are even Ecumenical (more on this below).
Despite making all of this clear in my last article, Mr. Byrum has misrepresented me as thinking that individuals are indeed their only authority in arriving at truth. I believe just as much as Mr. Byrum does that Christian believers should follow the guidance and teaching of the Church, and yet he says: “Mr. Devereux… would have us use no other means [of arriving at truth] but (our own understanding of) the written Word of God.” It really is strange to read statements like this when I spent hundreds of words outlining the visible Church’s “Divinely commissioned teaching office,” (my words) and explaining how the Church is our guide and map for understanding Scripture. Mr. Byrum could not possibly have missed this, and so the only explanation is that he has misunderstood my argument. Indeed, he repeatedly claims that I argued our consciences are our only authority, that I believe “the individual can disregard any authority over himself,” and that I deny that the conscience “needs to be shaped and formed” by others. Of course, this is untrue and I fervently believe that as Christians we should listen to higher authorities in how we interpret Scripture, but this does not mean we are not ultimately our own final authority. Mr. Byrum appears to not understand this point. Again, he asks, as though I would disagree “are there not times when reason leads us to subjecting our conscience for correction under the authority of those placed over us?” I, like anyone else, would answer that there most certainly are times like this, but I would ask him: are there not times when reason leads us to reject an authority placed over us? Mr. Byrum almost seems to think that all authority figures are perfect (indeed, he will later imply that the visible Church is inerrant). Moreover, he says, rightly, that our reason and conscience may err, and that this is why “God has put believers into the community of the Church.” Did I not emphatically make this very point when I said believers cannot be lone wolves but must be in the community of faith?
What is even more strange is that Mr. Byrum makes the same points that I did, seemingly without realising it, and then goes on to not understand what he himself is saying. He affirms that it is a “practical necessity and moral duty” to consider for oneself what we are to believe, but then says this does not make us “arbiters for what truth is to us.” Actually, Mr. Byrum, it does. If one proceeds from Scripture, no matter how much he then humbly submits his beliefs to the Church, he is still his own final authority. I have to finally be convinced and I can only believe what I believe. It is a moral duty to listen to our teachers and superiors, but the fact of the matter is that what we end up believing will ultimately be what seems most believable to us. Our conscience and understanding will always be the final decider, and this does make us an arbiter for what we believe is true. I will once again make the analogy of the Roman Catholic who has submitted his judgement to Rome, but who only did that because he personally judged Rome to be worth submitting to. No matter how desperately Mr. Byrum tries to escape himself, he ultimately cannot, or else Mr. Byrum would have to say that we should believe what we personally find unbelievable, which is absurd.
Mr. Byrum says: “in the end, one must follow his own conscience, but he must make every effort to have his conscience properly formed by the authorities placed over him.” I wholeheartedly agree with this statement in its entirety, but I wonder if Mr. Byrum has really thought through the implications of his claim that “in the end, one must follow his own conscience.” Does not “in the end” mean final? This is the very point I have been making, that while a Christian should ensure that he follows the Church, when it comes to a point where he finds – despite much reflection and study and pondering – that the Church has gone against what seems to him to be the plain sense of Scripture, his conscience must become his final authority, and he must side with Scripture’s plain sense according to his conscience and not the teachings of the visible Church. Of course, Mr. Byrum appears to not believe that such a thing could ever happen, and he also has failed to even acknowledge the importance here of the key doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity, but we shall turn to both of these points later.
To his own question: “what if someone were to reject the teaching that Jesus is of the same substance as the Father? Is one in his own conscience permitted to disagree with this truth?” Mr. Byrum replies with the rather weak and non-committal “sure,” but immediately, as though embarrassed by what he has just affirmed, he adds: “but at great peril to his soul!” Mr. Byrum’s prose truly does give away the fact that he really is struggling with the logical conclusion to all this. How much stronger could one possibly be in affirming the final authority of the conscience than to permit someone to follow it in denying the Divinity of the Son? Not even I was so explicit! Mr. Byrum has ended up articulating my own position clearer than I have, but still thinks he disagrees with me.
Let me recap what I have just stated. Thinking logically, we begin with a first principle: ‘X,’ then we proceed from that principle towards other affirmations of truth, which must be connected to that origin. So, ‘because I believe X, therefore Y, and therefore Z.’ Moreover, ‘because I believe X, therefore I cannot believe A, and therefore I cannot believe B.’ In Protestantism, the starting point, ground, and first principle of faith is the Word of God, because that is how God reveals Himself. We begin with ‘I believe Scripture.’ Based off how we understand Scripture, which can and should be influenced by traditional teaching, we then arrive at other affirmations. Thus, ‘because I believe Scripture, therefore I also believe there is a Church, and because of my understanding of these Scriptural texts, which have been influenced by these teachings, therefore I also believe the Anglican Church is to be assented to.’ In this logical chain, I have utterly surrendered my judgement to the first principle, but from thenceforth my understanding of that principle dictates what follows and I am my final authoritative interpreter, even though I can, should, and do listen to the interpretations of others. I am quite convinced that Mr. Byram would agree with this, unless he has made a particular notion of ‘the Church’ his first principle (which would go against Protestantism entirely) but he seems to have not understood that my last article was teaching this.
3. The Perspicuity of Scripture
In Protestant theology, having begun with the premise that Scripture is God’s unique self-disclosure, we then proceed to attribute the following qualities to Scripture: authority, infallibility, sufficiency, and perspicuity. We believe that Scripture’s teachings are authoritative and must be believed, infallible and utterly true, sufficient and in no need of supplementation or addition, and finally, perspicuous, clear and easily understandable. Therefore, the individual, so long as he is regenerated and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, does not find himself utterly lost and bewildered by Scripture so that he cannot in any sense understand it without the help of others. This is a crucial point, and it is one that despite my lengthy explanation and defence was completely ignored by Mr. Byram in his article. Mr. Byrum continuously undermines the individual’s ability to understand Scripture, saying “there is implicit in Mr. Devereux’s view an idea that every believer’s conscience is well equipped for discerning supernatural truth… [however] the conscience isn’t always a stable guide in these matters.” Indeed, as individuals we often are wrong, and thus I have said we need to follow a guide (the Church), however, that is not to say we cannot use our judgement at all, which would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. By casting such doubt on the individual’s ability to understand Scripture, Mr. Byrum is not only denying that the Spirit can and does lead individual Christians into the truth, but more importantly, is denying the fact that Scripture itself is clear enough for an individual to discern the truth from it.
To deny the doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity is to stand against the Reformation, and Luther said that it is a “shameless blasphemy” to not believe in it. Luther goes on to say that Scripture is so perspicuous that by it “one enjoys complete certainty in judging of and deciding between the doctrines and opinions of all men as they affect oneself and one’s own personal salvation.” Notice that Luther is saying the individual is afforded the freedom to judge traditional teachings here, which necessarily makes him his own final authority, and moreover, his judgement is tethered to the perspicuous meaning of Scripture. What this doctrine means for us, and this is very important, is that while the individual Christian should indeed listen to and follow the guidance of traditional teaching, he is nevertheless fully equipped to be able to find potential fault in that teaching because he can easily ascertain if it is contrary to Scripture.
However, Mr. Byrum seems to be saying that in fact, we are so reliant on the Church to interpret Scripture for us, that even when it seems that the visible Church has misinterpreted Scripture, we are to assume that it is we who have misinterpreted it. Mr. Byrum has therefore made the Church a more reliable source of truth than Scripture itself. He claims that Scripture is too difficult to be understood by an individual, but Church teaching is not, and so the Church has the final say. The Protestant belief that it is the Church which is normed and Scripture which is the norm has been totally jettisoned. This, dear readers, is not Protestantism, it is Roman Catholicism. Mr. Byrum has made the Church the object and ground of our faith, and not God’s Word. Moreover, implicit in this view is that the Church must be infallible, but we shall return to this error later. Not only is Mr. Byrum’s logic antithetical to Protestantism, it also strangles and suffocates our minds, forcing us to abandon our gifts of reasoning and instead blindly follow whichever notion of ‘Church’ Mr. Byrum has decided to have. I would ask Mr. Byrum directly: using your logic, how can you justify Jan Hus and Martin Luther standing up to the whole Church of their day? If Luther’s protest cannot be justified, then neither can the Reformation and Anglicanism itself must subsequently be declared heretical. What Luther’s protest hinged on was his ability to correctly ascertain what Scripture taught and then be justified in his rejection of Church teaching, and therefore it was hinged upon Scripture’s perspicuity.
Now, if Scripture is perspicuous, we can then add to our logical chain the following assertions: ‘I believe Scripture, and I can easily understand it, and therefore, I can easily perceive if a particular traditional teaching is false.’ Moreover, and this point is particularly crucial, ‘if a traditional teaching contradicts Scripture’s plain sense, then it must be false.’ This last point is valid because if Scripture’s plain sense must be wrong in order for another teaching to be true, then its perspicuity is undermined, however, in the Protestant system Scripture’s perspicuity is logically prior to any of its possible interpretations. The Protestant is therefore in a strong position to be able to reject any teaching he understands to negate Scripture’s easily intelligible plain sense. While someone may disagree with all this, the fact remains that it is standard Protestant teaching.
4. The Exclusive Infallibility of Scripture
With the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, Protestantism holds that only Scripture can be trusted as infallible. This belief has been understood as a vital part of Protestantism since the beginning, and without it the entire Reformation falls apart. However, in recent years it has sadly been common to hear self-professed Protestants (particularly Anglicans) assert that Ecumenical Councils are infallible too. We will move on to the issue of Ecumenical Councils in due course, but for now, it must be stated emphatically that if you believe that something else is infallible, then you do not believe in Sola Scriptura, period. Since Sola Scriptura is the formal principle of the Reformation, it could also be claimed that to reject it is to reject Protestantism itself. Sola Scriptura means that Scripture alone is the ground of our faith, Scripture alone is infallible, and Scripture alone can therefore bind our conscience.
When we say only Scripture is infallible, we do not mean it alone says nothing but the truth. Saying something like ‘the Earth revolves around the Sun’ is infallible in the sense of being utterly true, and one could write a whole book filled with nothing but such statements. What we mean is that only in the God-breathed words of Holy Writ can we have the assurance that their contents are free from error, and are so true that they in fact uphold truth and create truth. This is because only the words of Scripture can be trusted as the words of God Himself, breathed out by the Spirit of Truth. Therefore, while we may say, and I certainly would, that the Nicene Creed is ‘utterly true and free from error,’ we cannot, according to Sola Scriptura, believe that its words were God-breathed and thus we cannot trust that it possesses the quality of infallibility. One may affirm and assent to what the Nicene Creed teaches, but one cannot place their faith in it, like one would with God’s own words. The Nicene Creed is not God’s self-revelation, it does not create and uphold the very fabric of truth itself, it is not Divine in its origin, and its author is not the One Who spoke the world into being. Rather, it is merely the words of men, albeit words that we have judged to be accurate in setting forth the content of Scripture. What this means however is that we must, under Sola Scriptura, concede that the Nicene Creed has the potential to be wrong. Only Scripture can be trusted as not having this potential because its author is God. We cannot trust anything else in this way. We must concede that the authors of the Creed may have been mistaken. Personally, I do not believe the Creed is mistaken and I have never doubted that fact, but I also recognise that it is of human origin and is only true insofar as it agrees with the Divine Word. It is true in a relative sense, but not in and of itself.
The simplest analogy I could make to explain all this is that when we are laymen in a parish, we should in general submit to our Priest. When our Priest gives a sermon, we should believe what he says. When our Priest gives us spiritual direction, we should follow it. However – and as Anglicans we should know all about this – when our Priest gives a sermon and it seems to us to have gone severely against Scripture, we open up our Bible and reflect on it, and find that sure enough our Priest was wrong, then we should reject our Priest’s teaching. In short, we do submit to and acknowledge authority, but when we reach a crisis point, we follow our own understanding. It is tyranny to say otherwise; tyranny that I shall never tire of opposing. Sadly, Mr. Byrum does not seem to be aware that such bad situations could ever occur, at least not in the Church!
Returning to our logical chain then: ‘I believe Scripture is the only secure standard of truth, therefore, whatever is in agreement with it is also true and whatever is in disagreement with it is untrue. Moreover, because Scripture is perspicuous, I can easily ascertain what does and does not agree with Scripture and if anything undermines its plain sense it is to be automatically rejected. Hence, because as I read Scripture I find it to cohere with the Nicene Creed and find that the Creed even clarifies Scripture’s meaning, I will continue to assent to it. Nevertheless, if from my reading of Scripture I found, even after much study and reflection, that the Creed conflicted with Scripture, I would be forced to reject it.’
5. The Visible and Invisible Church
Having raised the issue of infallibility, it is now time to turn to Mr. Byrum’s treatment of the Church, which he appears, as far he can reasonably be understood, to believe is itself infallible. I must say it was frustrating to find Mr. Byrum misrepresenting me to such an egregious extent when he claimed that I believe the Church has no teaching authority or duty to be a guide when my article made that point as clear as day. He asks: “how then are we to suppose that it is only through the Scriptures that we come to know divine truth, when Christ Himself has given His Church for the purpose of being a guide and instructor for the attainment of this truth?” and “without Philip there as a guide, what would Mr. Devereux say the eunuch was to do? Make sense of it on his own and follow his own understanding?” Frankly, I do not think it is worth wasting time and space defending myself against these strawman arguments as I have already provided quotes from my last article that show them to be utterly false and disingenuous. What does need to be addressed, however, is Mr. Byrum’s failure to distinguish the visible from the invisible Church.
Mr. Byrum, sounding identical to Johann Eck against Martin Luther, says “to reject that which the Church has defined as necessary to believe is to place ourselves at odds with the Church, and to bring forth confusion.” Indeed, it was because the Reformers rejected and placed themselves at odds with the entire Western Church of their day that confusion did arise, and hence why there are multiple Protestant denominations who were formed during the Reformation. However, let us not unfairly place the blame on the Protestants, for it would be better to say that what truly creates confusion, and forces all genuine Christians to be at odds with a particular church, is when she teaches what is false. More importantly, Mr. Byrum does not define for us who this Church is and for all we know he could be talking about the ‘Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints,’ which I am sure he would allow us to reject and be at odds with. So while the individual must use their private judgement to determine who the Church even is, Mr. Byrum would have us surrender our private judgement to that Church once we have found it. Mr. Byrum must surely believe the true Church is infallible, for why else could we not reject one of her teachings?
Mr. Byrum says that since the Church possesses the Spirit, she can never go against Scripture, but the Church and Scripture are in fact “sweet friends directed to the same end and purpose.” It all sounds very lovely, and it is indeed true of the invisible Church made up of regenerated believers, but it cannot be true of the visible Church. The Anglican Formularies point out that not everyone in positions of authority in the Church have the Spirit (Article XXI), and so, the pronouncements of any visible ecclesial body can never be trusted as infallible. Did Pope Leo X have the Spirit? Did ‘Empress’ Irene have the Spirit? If they did not, then we cannot trust the decrees they oversaw. This is the very point Luther makes in the Bondage of the Will, where in response to Erasmus’s argument (which sounds a lot like Mr. Byrum’s) that Luther must not go against what the whole Church has said, Luther replies that the invisible Church comprised of true believers guided by the Spirit cannot err (in their beliefs), but the visible Church which is made up mostly of reprobates most certainly can and indeed has. So let me be clear then, no Christian can ever oppose what the true Church – that is, the invisible Communion of Saints enlightened and guided by the Holy Spirit and predestined for salvation – believes in unity. If we ascertain that all true believers and all God’s elect have always affirmed the contents of the Nicene Creed, for instance, then those beliefs can never be rejected because that is to reject the regenerative guidance of the Holy Spirit.
However, the visible Church – that is, ecclesial bodies run by positions of authority – can err and has erred before. Here we get to the root of the problem, which Mr. Byrum seems not to have noticed. Mr. Byrum believes that to reject the visible Church is to defy the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Far from it! We uphold the Spirit’s guidance, which is to be ascertained in Scripture and in the consciences of all those He has regenerated, but we cannot know for sure who these people are. For Mr. Byrum to believe that the visible Church is guided by the Spirit, he must also believe the Spirit has guided the appointments of the Bishops who run the Church, such as the shining examples of Jefferts Schori and Gene Robinson! Just because a group of prelates gather around a table, that does not mean they actually speak for the invisible, Spirit-led Church.
Scripture indeed promises us that the Holy Spirit will lead the elect into the truth, but it does not promise that the leaders of the visible Church will always have the correct teachings, in fact, it promises the very opposite of that when it explicitly prophesises that false teachers will enter the Church (1 Tim 4:3-4 ; 2 Pet 2:1 ; Acts 20:29 ; Rev 2:14-15). Mr. Byrum might counter that what the Spirit does ensure is that the visible Church will only universally accept that which is true, but then we circle back to the one issue Mr. Byrum does not want to discuss – Nicaea II – because at the time of the Reformation this council was indeed universally accepted. Moreover, it is worth noting that Luther at the very least thought he was protesting against the entire visible Church of his day and its teachings which had been accepted for hundreds of years. However, I simply cannot see how using Mr. Byrum’s logic Luther was not deserving of condemnation for his protest. To those who would deny our freedom and have us submit to the corrupt teachings of man, let us cling to the words of our Lord that we cannot ‘break the commandment of God for the sake of… tradition’ or ‘teach… as doctrines the commandments of men’ (Matt 15:3, 9).
In a perfect world where Councils never make mistakes and the visible Church was never divided, Mr. Byrum’s nice sentiments would hardly need saying, but sadly, that is just not the world we live in. We live in a world mired by sin, where everyone is wrong about something, where power is quite often abusive, and where only God’s Word is always true. However, in order to maintain his rosy view of the Church, Mr. Byrum has had to avoid discussing Nicaea II, or the Western Church on the eve of the Reformation, and has thus swept the failings of the visible Church under the rug.
6. The Fallibility of Ecumenical Councils
My biggest (and only truly major) disagreement with Mr. Byrum concerns his treatment of Ecumenical Councils. First, he admits that Article XIX says “churches have erred both in doctrine and in practice” but then says: “what is in view here… [is not] the universally accepted rulings of an ecumenical council, but individual and national churches.” However, unfortunately for Mr. Byrum, a mere two articles later it is said that Ecumenical Councils “may err and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God”! (Article XXI). Building off of this, the Homily on the Peril of Idolatry unequivocally rejects the Second Council of Nicaea, which had been universally accepted in the Church and regarded as an Ecumenical Council for hundreds of years, and my first article has already shown that the Formularies do not hold the fifth and sixth councils in any high regard either. Mr. Byrum has totally ignored the fact that the Formularies deny any infallibility to Ecumenical Councils so that he can continue to press his case. Ironically, I – the alleged unbridled individualist! – have submitted more faithfully to the Anglican Formularies than Mr. Byrum has.
Mr. Byrum does indeed go on to, as far as he can be understood, suggest that Ecumenical Councils are infallible, though he craftily avoids using that word. Apparently, these councils speak “with the voice of Christ,” are “governed by the Spirit of unity and truth,” and have the same authority as the Jerusalem Council that Scripture records in Acts 15. However, this Council was convened by the Apostles of Christ, and it was precisely because the Apostles have departed, along with their special authority, that we no longer can regard anything as Scripture. Moreover, the Council is found in Scripture after all, so his logic that all subsequent non-Scriptural councils are also infallible is totally circular. The reason why we regard the Jerusalem Council as infallible is because it is affirmed by God’s Word.
When Mr. Byrum says Ecumenical Councils speak with the words of Christ, cannot be rejected, and are on par with the Biblical Jerusalem Council, how else can we interpret this other than that he thinks Ecumenical Councils are on the same level of Scripture? Whatever else one might think of this view, it certainly is not Protestant, no matter how much Mr. Byrum might want it to be. (In fact, as an aside, it is rather telling that while my article had 40 references, and all of its claims were supported by quotes from Reformation heroes like Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer and modern Protestant authorities like Bavinck and Packer, Byrum’s article has a single reference: Thomas Aquinas). The fact of the matter is that Sola Scriptura means only Scripture is infallible, and frankly, I am tired of hearing otherwise. If you do not believe in Sola Scriptura, fine, you are free to do so but do not try to distort what it means. If only Scripture is infallible, then that means Ecumenical Councils can err, and thus, they cannot, should not, and will not, bind my conscience. Only the words of Christ Himself and those of the Apostles He chose and breathed upon can be called the words of Christ, and it is Him I serve as Lord, not a committee of prelates. If something is not infallible, it has the potential to be wrong, and how else is someone supposed to ascertain if it is wrong besides using their private judgement? Mr. Byrum wants to have his cake and eat it too by thinking he can affirm Sola Scriptura while also believing in the infallibility of Ecumenical Councils, but I am sorry to say that one simply cannot believe in these two things at once.
It also needs to be pointed out that even judging which Councils are Ecumenical is not an easy matter. Was Nicaea II, for instance, an Ecumenical Council? We still do not know Mr. Byrum’s thoughts on that matter. The Anglican Formularies, however, followed by Fr. Ben Jefferies and I, have judged Nicaea II to not be an Ecumenical Council. Meanwhile, Fr. Mark Perkins believes it was an Ecumenical Council. So who decides? Eventually, one has to use his own private judgement to come to a decision about which Councils should overrule his private judgement! Mr. Byrum says that an Ecumenical Council is one where “the Church agrees in undivided unity,” but this only begs the question of who the Church is. The Roman Catholic Church says the Council of Trent (1545-1563 A.D.) was Ecumenical and represented the undivided Church, are they wrong? If so, why? Why should we consider those who rejected that Council as being part of the Universal Church and not heretics or schismatics? Was the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) an Ecumenical Council, even though it is rejected by the Oriental Orthodox Church? Why can we not consider the Oriental Orthodox Church to be part of the Universal Church, and hence for Chalcedon to not represent it? We could go on like this forever until Mr. Byrum finally admits that even the Church he assents to has to ultimately be the one he decided in his private judgement and conscience was worth following. Otherwise (and I have heard this a lot from people) he must say that the Seven Councils represented the whole Church because ‘the Church’ says so, which begs the question. As we have already seen, unless one is to be totally arbitrary, he must either say the Church is whoever the Church says the Church is, which is fallacious, or decide in his judgement who the Church is. In my case, I freely admit that my understanding of Scripture informs who I personally believe the Universal Church is, and it is that body which most agrees with Scripture as interpreted by the first Four Ecumenical Councils and the Reformation in general, why? Because I have so judged those authorities to be in most agreement with Scripture. Remember, only the invisible Church is guided into the truth and is truly undivided, united by one Lord, one faith, one Baptism (Eph 4:5), but because it is by nature invisible, we have to use our private judgement to decide which visible bodies represent the invisible Church.
The tragic consequences of Mr. Byrum’s view that Ecumenical Councils are infallible are manifold, but I will point out two. The first, as I stated in my introduction, is that poor souls like my former self have been encouraged to adore religious images, even ones depicting Saints and Angels, despite Scripture’s clear and emphatic condemnation of that practice as idolatry. So much for Councils working for “the edification of the Church toward the blessing of eternal life”! Second, this view can only lead to despair. If the Spirit united the visible Church and empowered her to be able to make infallible decrees and settle disputes with all the authority of Christ, indeed to speak as Christ, then why on earth has this not happened for 1,235 years? One would think that a Spirit-inspired Council during the Reformation would have been helpful! But of course, this is precisely what Rome claims about Trent. So either Rome is right, or we despair that the Spirit of Truth has abandoned us and allowed the Church to be torn asunder and lose her infallibility. This is exactly what John Henry Newman realised, and guess where it led him. Of course, there’s another solution: the Protestants were right and only Scripture is or can be infallible, and it is sufficient and clear to establish all that we need to know. Ultimately, however, Mr. Byrum’s view has denigrated Scripture’s value and defied the formal principle of the Reformation.
7. The Protestant Reformation
Above all, I believe that the principles of private interpretation and the final authority of the individual are fundamental to Protestantism as they are derived from the Reformation itself. My last article quoted a myriad of Protestant thinkers to show the historical support for my thinking, and indeed, my thinking was actually inspired by these men. I will not quote them again, but I will add R.C. Sproul’s voice to the matter:
Two of the great legacies of the Reformation were the principle of private interpretation and the translation of the Bible into the vernacular… Luther himself brought the issue of private interpretation of the Bible into sharp focus in the sixteenth century. Hidden beneath the famous response of the Reformer to the ecclesiastical and imperial authorities at the Diet of Worms (his trial for heresy) was the implicit principle of private interpretation. When asked to recant of his writings, Luther replied, “Unless I am convinced by Sacred Scripture or by evident reason, I cannot recant. For my conscience is held captive by the Word of God… Notice that Luther said “unless I am convinced…….” … [Luther] believed that he could be wrong but maintained that the Pope and councils could also err. For him only one source of truth was free from error. He said, “The Scriptures never err.” Thus, unless the leaders of the church could convince him of his error, he felt duty-bound to follow what his own conscience was convinced Scripture taught. With this controversy the principle of private interpretation was born and baptized with fire.
Contained in the very word ‘Reformation’ is the principle that the visible Church must be reformed in accordance with the teachings of Scripture. However, in Mr. Byrum’s idealistic vision of the visible Church, he seems to think that it would never even need reforming. Does Mr. Byrum not realise that the arguments of his article are exactly the ones used against men like Hus, Luther, Wycliffe, Calvin, and Cranmer? None of those men believed the individual should have no authority other than himself and his Bible, and I certainly do not believe that, but what we do uphold is that when push comes to shove, and we find the visible Church to be in error, our conscience, as bound to Scripture alone, is our final authority. When Hus and Luther realised that the entire Western Church, with all its Priests, Bishops, Cardinals, Popes, and even the Emperor, was in conflict with their conscience as bound to Scripture, they ultimately sided with their understanding of Scripture. This was my point, and to deny it is quite simply to deny the Reformation itself. Following Mr. Byrum’s logic, Luther and Hus should never have stood against the visible Church but should have kept quiet and obeyed. Thankfully, they did no such thing.
If we agree that the visible Church can err, and that it should be reformed by Scripture, this necessitates the individual being afforded the freedom to compare Church teachings with Scripture and come to the conclusion that some of its teachings are wrong and should be rejected. As an Anglican whose tradition came out of the Reformation, Mr. Byrum is forced to concede this. Of course, he may counter that “individual and national churches” can err, and it was these that the Reformation protested against, but the so-called “undivided” Church cannot err. However, we have already shown that Mr. Byrum cannot define who this ‘undivided Church’ even is. At the time of the Reformation, however, valiant heroes like Martin Luther were under the impression that the undivided Church was that body in visible unity with the Bishop of Rome (which, by the way, is at least an actually workable definition, hence why Mr. Byrum’s position naturally leads to Rome). All throughout Western Europe, the Priests, the Seminaries, the Monasteries, the Bishops, the Cardinals, the Kings, the Princes, and even the Emperor himself maintained this unity. This was not the intangible, circular, and goalpost-shifting definition Mr. Byrum might provide of the universal Church, rather, this was one that truly made sense and was perceptible by all. Yet, when Luther realised that this undivided Church had contradicted his own understanding of Scripture’s plain sense, he rejected it. I cannot see how Mr. Byrum’s arguments could possibly allow for Luther to do this, and indeed, his arguments are the very ones that were volleyed against Luther.
For Mr. Byrum to believe that Ecumenical Councils cannot err and must be obeyed, they must therefore become the first principle of his faith. Ultimately, the ground that Mr. Byrum’s faith stands upon is the teaching of these Councils, not Scripture alone, because he has made the Councils the norm, and has made Scripture what is normed. If the Councils teach something (such as the adoration of religious images!) that contradicts Scripture’s plain sense, he would by necessity have to reject that plain sense. Mr. Byrum does not believe such a thing would ever happen, but that is only because he has decided to ignore Nicaea II, which is the only Council I have ever taken issue with. Put simply, to say that a Council’s decrees cannot be rejected whatsoever, and to therefore make Scripture’s meaning subject to those decrees, is to have denied Sola Scriptura and hence Protestantism itself. Anglicans come from a tradition that has rejected Ecumenical Councils in its own Formularies, and yet, after writing my article it was Anglicans like Mr. Byrum who came after me. It does not worry me though, for while I am sitting firmly upon the branch, men like Mr. Byrum are busy cutting their part of the branch off from beneath them.
Let me now restate my position, indeed the position of Protestantism itself, as clearly as I can. Because Scripture alone is God’s Word, it alone is infallible and it alone can claim to bind me to servitude. Moreover, believing in these Scriptures is the first principle of our faith and nothing can be allowed to contradict it. Subsequently, while we acknowledge the infallibility of the invisible Church whose members are guaranteed to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and while we affirm that the teachings of the visible Church are in general good and helpful and worthy of being followed, we believe they are sometimes in error. Thus, although a Christian should follow the teachings of the visible Church, and may even in general assume that she is right, if he finds that in fact one of her teachings cannot be reconciled with Scripture, he is obliged to then reject that teaching. You simply cannot judge Church teaching against Scripture without allowing individuals to use their private judgement. An appeal to Scripture against something else, is always an appeal to one’s own understanding of Scripture, because Scripture is by its nature something that needs interpretation. The Church cannot be reformed without private judgement, and as people who follow the ‘Reformers’ and the ‘Reformation’ we, therefore, are required to allow for private judgement. This is precisely what the Reformation is hinged upon and as Anglicans we would do well to remember it.
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 1:597. ↑
- Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 128. ↑
- Luther, Bondage of the Will, 124. ↑
- Luther, Bondage of the Will, 120. ↑
- R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, Revised Edition (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 36-37. ↑