Monday, March 14, 2005

Out of his depth

James White may have had his heart in the right place, but this post provides some pretty clear examples of why he simply can't interact meaningfully with Catholic or Orthodox dogma. In point of fact, he doesn't even understand Catholic or Orthodox dogma.

I have often thought back, with a smile and the feeling of incredulity, at the scene which unfolded in Denver, Colorado in 1993. It was the second night of the debate on the Papacy with Gerry Matatics. Gerry was really scrambling. He had never been hit with so many patristic citations in his life, that was obvious. During the break he ran up into the choir loft and madly scribbled notes for the second part of the debate. Then at one point he actually stood before that crowd (oh how I wish it had been video taped!) with the first volume of William A. Jurgens' The Faith of the Early Fathers in his hand, opened to the "doctrinal index" in the back. And there he stood, reading names of early writers as if the appearance of their names in a Roman Catholic historical work means they in fact believed what he believed concerning the Papacy and Petrine primacy. I was dumbfounded. I had often found Jurgens a biased or, at best, incomplete source, and to cite such a secondary source as if it had relevance in debate surely would have resulted in his immediate disqualification under formal rules.

I have no idea what Matatics was even arguing, so I can't meaningfully interact with White's account of the debate. But what is noticeable is that someone with no qualifications (viz., White) is making judgments about Jurgens (an expert by anyone's lights) being a "biased or, at best, incomplete source." Implicit in such a statement and White's reference to "many patristic citations" is that White perceives himself to be a competent handler of primary sources despite having no training in the field. Perhaps one might actually sustain such a belief when there isn't an overwhelming weight of people who are actually trained in the field contradicting one's uninformed opinion. However, in such a situation, it is simply unreasonable to maintain the contradictory opinion without a compelling reason. I've analogized such thinking to the irrationality of people who adopt conspiracy theories, from those as innocuous as the belief that the Moon landing was faked all the way to much more pernicious ideas, like denying the Holocaust or accusing President Bush of having orchestrated 9/11. By definition, you can't reasonably interact with such beliefs, so the only course is to ignore them. I've demonstrated this mentality in action with Eric Svendsen, and I believe it will become apparent here with White.

And yet, for a large portion of Roman Catholics today, the simplistic citation of an early writer, without the first attempt to contextualize or prove that the language he used carries the same meaning as the modern era, is enough to satisfy, and substantiate the oft-repeated phrase, "to go deep into history is to cease to be Protestant." Ol Newman could write a line, but folks like Salmon sure did put him in his place.

This is perhaps the most telling indication that one ought to be suspicious. I'd expect that White isn't at all familiar with Newman's qualifications, but some well-respected non-Catholic scholars consider Newman to be one of the greatest (if not the greatest) patristic scholar of the nineteenth century, so the notion of dismissing Newman as some foolish "proof-texter" who simply grabbed quotes out of context is ridiculous. It simply indicates a profound ignorance of Newman's theory of development, frequently echoed in the shallow criticism of less thoughtful commentators (including Salmon) but rejected by people who actually study Newman's work in any depth. On the other hand, citing the much-criticized Salmon as an example of a competent historian given the current availability of patristic scholarship is practically a public profession of incompetence. Might as well cite Darwin as an authority against modern evolutionary theory or Newtonian mechanics as an argument against relativity. Salmon was simply wrong on numerous points of criticism against Newman (in fact, his work was definitively rebutted by B.C. Butler, and no modern scholar would take it seriously). If you want to talk about taking works out of context, a great example would be ignoring the vast influence of Newman in reputable modern scholarship as compared to the utter absence of Salmon in those same circles in determining which source is reliable.

In any case, both Roman and Orthodox churches "do battle" on the field of history for the simple reason that their respective claims of authority necessitate it. And yet, if there is anything you learn from reading, fairly, the first four centuries of currently extant "Christian" writing, it is this: there is no consistent, universal position on almost anything, outside of, possibly, the fact that there is only one true God (over against pagan polytheism) that can be derived from these writings. The idea that there is, in fact, this kind of unanimity, is almost always born from the most selective reading of the texts.

No, the idea that this kind of unanimity exists is nonsense. That's why no one argues for it, be they Catholic, Orthodox, or otherwise. White appears well-disposed to "do battle" with a straw man.

What should concern our pilgrim on the road to Antioch, if what he once believed is still relevant at all, is whether he finds the writings of those early centuries compelling on biblical grounds. We know that there were false teachers in the days of the Apostles. We know apostasy was a real problem even while apostles ministered in the primitive church. We know they warned us of the continuation of that problem in the coming generations (Acts 20, 2 Tim. 3, Jude). So the real question our pilgrim must consider is, given the manifold contradictions and inconsistencies between early writers (and, at times, within the extant writings of a single person), and their acknowledged non-inspired status, what is, in the final analysis, the only sure word he has from God today? Peter warned that untaught and unstable men would plague the church: and they wrote books, too. Should we not hold ancient writers to the same touchstone as a person in the modern period?

At least this gets to the real heart of White's position, which is that there were no such thing as Christians until well after the Reformation (assuming that White's Reformed Baptist position is purported to be Christianity). Notice the sheer inconsistency of simultaneously arguing for the reliability of Scriptures and historical evidence of Christ while making this argument. The Scriptures somehow arrive without ever intersecting history in any way, but the intervening people are all just a fountain of error.

I liken the almost starry-eyed view of the early writers to a person who would rummage through the wreckage of a modern Christian bookstore after it has been hit by a force five tornado. If one attempted to recreate the theology of Christianity in America by reference to a jumbled sample of what would be found in such a mess, what would the result be? Piecing together a tangle of T.D. Jakes, Zane Hodges, Jerry Jenkins, Rick Warren, the Dake Study Bible, Benny Hinn, and maybe a few pages of good stuff in the process, would result not only in utter theological pandomonium, but it would also create a representation that would have no meaningful connection to the actual historical situation. When one considers the fact that we have but a small sampling of the actual beliefs of the earliest generations of believers (it is sort of hard to develop a full body of doctrinal writing while hiding from armed Roman soldiers and being fed to lions), and even then, the later generations exercised a "filtering" influence at that (look at what happened to Melito of Sardis' writings for just being on the "wrong" side of the Quartedeciman controversy!), how can we even say we have a meaningfully balanced view of that period, let alone one that can provide us with such "uniformity" on issues as later sacramental theology?

This is simply a spurious argument. White can reject the notion of ancient history if he wants, but no reasonable person would take a view so extreme.

Turning this body of literature into the filter through which we are to view the qeo,pneustoj ("God-breathed") scriptures is to enslave the Scriptures, not to aid in their interpretation. While we may well be able to learn from a "Clement of Rome" (i.e., the writer of the letter representing the plurality of elders at Rome to the church at Corinth), or the writer of the epistle to Diognetius, or Athanasius, etc., we find ourselves more often learning what happens when untaught and unstable men are put in positions of leadership than otherwise.

Again, the Scriptures must have come magically from nowhere. But notice the "untaught and unstable" reference once again. These guys are evidently hopeless apostates who deny the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith, and yet they are the only ones who appear in the historical record.

So the real question that should concern our pilgrim is the same that concerns us to this very day: when examining any man's teaching, its value is to be determined solely by its fidelity to the plumbline that is the God-breathed Scriptures.

No, the real question is why anyone with a brain would believe in the Scriptures given White's account of history.

Does this one handle the Word aright? Does he cut it straight? Is he consistent in this matter, or is tradition his Master? Just as one cannot serve God and mammon, one cannot serve the Word and "tradition."

If that's true, then White's interpretive methodology (which is nothing more than "tradition," unless it originated magically from nowhere) puts him outside of the scope of serving the Word. That, or this statement is ridiculous, the latter of which is my estimation.

And when you begin examining the early writers on that basis, very few pass the exam with very high grades. The reasons are many. Some in the very early period did not have a full canon of Scripture upon which to base their teaching, leaving them subject to imbalance. Very, very few, from what we can see, functioned within a biblical view of the church, and hence did not have the maturing, corrective structure of a plurality of elders. Given the cultural context, many brought massively unbiblical influences from their philosophical backgrounds and forced the Scriptures into the mold of their philosophy (Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr). Their writings provide a veritable handbook on exegetical error, yet, for those looking to substantiate an unbiblical dedication to an "ancient tradition" they are given a "pass" on the exegetical issue, their inconsistencies are swept under the rug, all so as to create some kind of unanimous view "of the Fathers."

I greatly appreciate the admission from White that his view is completely and totally incompatible with historical Christianity and that his argument is based on the existence of literally no Christians for more than a thousand years ("very, very few" is literally zero, BTW). It also highlights the elevation of human reason above God's Word. White's entire analysis of what Scripture is and what it does is made in terms of human reason, and what's even worse, White's low view of Scripture conditions Scripture's effectiveness on human reason. If that's not idolatry of man, I don't know what is. And that "corrective structure" that is alleged to maintain orthodoxy certainly isn't doing its job either.

So I would ask our pilgrim just what it is he seems to be "missing" from the proclamation of the inspired Word? There must be a reason to be "looking" for something else, something in the smells and bells that is more attractive than the spiritual, miraculous, incredible activity of the Word working in the hearts and minds of believers as it is proclaimed within the context of the Body of Christ.

It's that "proclaimed within the context of the Body of Christ" that is exactly what's missing. Protestant churches don't fall within that context, although individual people within Protestant churches are certainly within the Body of Christ. But they aren't participating fully in the Body of Christ. Consequently, the work of the Word is stunted and hindered by the elevation of man and man-made traditions above the Word.

Granted, us Reformed Baptists have a long, wide streak of Puritanism in us, and a person given to ceremony and ornate liturgy might end up comatose in our company. But doesn't the accurate, consistent, God-honoring handling of the sacred Scriptures trump censers and candles and bells and icons?

If the handling of Scriptures in Protestant churches were more "accurate, consistent, and God-honoring," then there might be a point here. Unfortunately, Catholic and Orthodox churches have Protestant churches beat in both respect for Scripture AND liturgy.

None of those things change you, none of them conform you to the image of Christ.

And this statement is the best elucidation of exactly why White is completely and totally outside of the scope of historical (or even Biblical) Christianity. Heck, this is outside the scope of the Reformation. In fact, the liturgical and Eucharistic worship is exactly the context of the Body of Christ in which the Word conforms you to the image of Christ. White has essentially given up everything necessary to give the Word meaning, and thus, he has stripped the Word of its life.

And very importantly, is it possible for a faithful Orthodox priest, for example, to engage in exegesis of the text on those issues where Orthodoxy has defined a traditional belief through its liturgy and prayers? How can Scripture function as a corrective in that kind of situation?

Scripture functions as a corrective by its coherence, obviously. If Scripture and Tradition contradict one another, then either your interpretation of Scripture is wrong or your interpretation of Tradition is wrong. But since the people of the tradition in question are constantly in dialogue with the Scripture, the odds that a contradictory position are going to overwhelm the Church are extraordinarily slim. Even if those rare instances when heretical beliefs spread widely, there has always been a significant bastion of resistance, and the error became apparent after an ecumenical council. Indeed, it is far more likely that the true meaning of Scripture would be lost when someone neglects Tradition than that a constant dialogue between Scripture and Tradition would allow error.

In reference to our pilgrim's question about the "true" church being a minority, I do wonder if that is not how John felt when he wrote 1 John. Sure sounds like it to me. And did Paul wonder if the truth had become a minority in the churches in Galatia? Things could not have been overly rosey in Jude's day, either. I truly wonder about those who think truth should be determined by majority vote. Look at the situation in the Lord's day: the Scriptures were readily available, yet the very ones with the most access to it overlaid it with the dead crust of tradition, bringing the strongest words of condemnation from Christ (Matthew 15, 23). In Christ's day, had it not been for Luke's recounting of Simeon and Anna, we would have not even know of this "remnant" in Israel, just as Elijah despaired in his day. When our pilgrim speaks of an "unheard of minority," is he seriously thinking that if you have the truth, your writings will prevail over error in the long run? If the Word of God brings reformation while the bent of man is always toward error and suppression, will there not be times when following his viewpoint will lead solely to error? And is it not equally true that following the Word of God will always provide you a firm foundation?

If it were simply a question of occasional error, this might be a valid argument. But when we actually deal with the reality of the situation, the Word of God would have returned void if White were correct. This account fails for reasons both historical and theological. The historical reasons are obvious; we have much better historical records of the last two millennia than we do of previous times. While it might be plausible to plead that there was no record of the remnant in ancient Israel, there is absolutely no way that historical evidence of such a remnant could fail to exist if such a remnant existed. We have significant evidence about even relatively minor heretical sects, yet somehow, all trace of this one particular "remnant" would have to have been eradicated. Like I said, this is "conspiracy theory" history. The theological reasons are equally obvious. By White's theology, the unregenerate consider the Word of the Cross foolishness, and yet, they continued to preserve Scripture faithfully for centuries, despite not a single person in recorded history having accepted its message according to White's view of the Gospel. Analogies are often drawn to the Jewish people having accepted Scripture without understanding it entirely, but those analogies break down in light of the contrast between the New and Old Covenants. Unlike Israel, the New Covenant people form around the Word, so that it would make zero sense to have a universally apostate group of people preserving and cherishing Scripture without having sufficient capacity to discern the Gospel within it (according to White's theology). Thus, one must either reject universal apostasy and accept the completely unbelievable hypothesis of a "remnant without records," or one must accept a concept of universal apostasy more harmonious with Mormonism than Christian theology.

If I were to sit down with our pilgrim, I would want to know how it is that once he would have confessed justification by grace through faith, and the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, as his sole ground of peace with God, and now he is willing to abandon that for...the mystery of liturgy?

The only thing in that list that would actually be abandoned is imputed justification, which is simply an invention of late medieval nominalism that has zero connection to Scripture or history. Sacrificing that for a true liturgy seems like a pretty good trade.

Isn't it the Word which gives life, light, and wisdom? Isn't the only thing that animates any and all liturgy the truth of the Word? How can you give up the very focus of your peace with God for a sacramental system that cannot offer you that same biblical truth?

Easy. Because it gives you more Biblical truth.

Maybe our pilgrim will stop in the way and think about his priorities. Maybe not. All I know is that Christ never fails to bring His own into His kingdom, and in the long run, the pilgrim's soul is in His hands.

Yep. That's exactly why the truth of the traditions of the Christian Church is speaking to him. We can only pray that White will meditate on the same matters and receive such a blessing.


Anonymous said...

Dear Jason,

I really enjoyed your interaction with Mr. White's comments. I had no idea he viewed Christian history in such a jaundiced manner. I'm plodding through the entire patristic corpus at the present moment (At least what's translated into English) and I have not found these writings to be a jumbled hodgepodge of contradictory notions such as White portrays them. Conspiracy theory history is a good term for that kind of benighted approach to the faith. Why bother calling Christianity historic in the first place?

I love reading you. Keep up the good work!

In Christ,

James Caputo:)

Anonymous said...

White: None of those things change you, none of them conform you to the image of Christ.

Prejean: And this statement is the best elucidation of exactly why White is completely and totally outside of the scope of historical (or even Biblical) Christianity. Heck, this is outside the scope of the Reformation. In fact, the liturgical and Eucharistic worship is exactly the context of the Body of Christ in which the Word conforms you to the image of Christ. White has essentially given up everything necessary to give the Word meaning, and thus, he has stripped the Word of its life.

These men do not know anything about recapitulation. As the One Logos recapitulates the many logoi, so do we recaptitulate these virtues through prayer, purification of the heart, and the sacraments of the Church. Their idea of Grace is a voluntarist relation that is cashed out in terms of appropriation. It can either be viewed as Nestorian or Monophysitism depending on how they understand that union. It is also Arian, since grace is not the very being of God. Recapitulation cuts at the heart of any doctrine of Limited Atonement.

For Svendsen: Is the nous a person? What is an hypostasis Eric?


Anonymous said...

The question is wether you will use the Theopneustos writings of God to interpret the writings of men, or the writings of men to interpret the Theopneustos writings of God. I am going to put my faith in the hands of an infallible God, rather than the writings or traditions of fallible men.

CrimsonCatholic said...

-- Jonathan :-)

"I am going to put my faith in the hands of an infallible God, rather than the writings or traditions of fallible men."

I imagine that you are putting your faith in fallible men without knowing it, which is a far worse thing.

Anonymous said...

Johnathon says to me:

"I imagine that you are putting your faith in fallible men without knowing it, which is a far worse thing."

I agree that putting you faith in infallible men without knowing it is a far worse thing. So which of the two of us is putting our faith in men instead of God? Pray that God will help you to see the truth, then read the scriptures. Compare how the scriptures vary from what the men you follow are told. Compare how allegedly infallible men you follow have contradicted each other. The answer is plain for someone who seeks the truth.

Anonymous said...

Scripture is not an end in itself, but it is a means to an end. Strictly speaking vision of God IS revelation and that end, and scripture is ABOUT that revelation. That is why those who have experienced God's glory can guide you to theoria but can never describe what theoria is because there is absolutely no similarity between the created and uncreated and that "it is impossible to express God and even more impossible to conceive Him"--St. Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus) Second Theological Oration, IV. Scripture is clear and perspicuous to those who have co-operated with God in purifing their heart and have attained theoria. Gregory the Theologian points to the revelatory experience of the prophets, apostles, and saints in order to set the theological grid that confutes the Arians, Eunomians, Macedonians, etc., but also his own same experience as well: What is this that has happened to me, O friends, and initiates, and fellow lovers of the truth? I was running to lay hold of God, and thus I went up into the Mount, drew aside the curtain of the Cloud, and entered away from matter and material things, and as far as I could I withdrew within myself. And then when I looked up, I scarcely saw the back parts of God; although I was sheltered by the Rock, the Word that was made flesh for us. And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not the first and unmingled Nature known to itself, to the Trinity I mean; not that which abideth within the first veil, and is hidden by the Cherubim; but only that (Nature), which at last even reaches to us. And that is, as far as I can learn, the Majesty, or as holy David calls it, the Glory which is manifested among the creatures, which It has produced and governs. For these are the Back Parts of God, which are after Him, as tokens of Himself..." (Second Theological Oration, III)

This is why someone like an Athanasius, Basil, Gregory the Theologian, Maximus are safe guides and equal in authority to Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul the apostle, John the apostle, and all the rest. They've had the same experience of the divine uncreated glory.

Those who know nothing of this are simply quack doctors.

Daniel Jones

Anonymous said...


Once again someone has decided on their own authority that non-inspired authors should be held on the same plane as inspired Scripture. Despite a lengthly quote, you are wrong to assume that these other men should be follwed the same as Scripture.

Anonymous said...

It's more like I'm following the witness of the holy Fathers then my own autonomous authority. It sounds like to me anyway, you don't know what a church Father is.

If you think I'm saying these men's writings are canonical, of course not. But to say that they aren't inspired you are dead wrong. There is no higher inspiration then vision of God's uncreate glory, that's what makes one a theologian in the fullest sense like a Gregory Palamas, Symeon the theologian, or a Maximus the Confessor--which is why you don't have any since your views are rationalistic, even if buttressed with divine preemption, about what you THINK about God. This is why you can't have formal doctrine. Doctrines are just the views of men, since they are built on the back of what you think about Him and not grounded in experiencing and being united with the very BEING of God: God's energies. Every doctrine is in PRINCIPLE revisable because of this. There just isn't formal doctrine that can be infallible.

Your ideas are also Arian, since all you can be united with are voluntarist *created* relations--which would also say something about how you view revelation in the first place.


CrimsonCatholic said...

"Compare how the scriptures vary from what the men you follow are told. Compare how allegedly infallible men you follow have contradicted each other. The answer is plain for someone who seeks the truth."

I agree that the answer is plain for someone who seeks the truth. Someone who seeks the truth sees that Scripture supports historical Christianity. Someone who seeks the truth recognizes that the "contradictions" allegedly identified by skeptics in both Scripture and Tradition are based on worship of human reason above everything (including God). Someone who seeks the truth inevitably returns home to the successors of the Apostles. We can only pray that God will one say give everyone the gift of seeking the truth. Peace.