Carl Trueman: The Papacy Is Not *That* Obvious…

CarlTruemanOften-times in modern conversations between Catholics and Protestants, the challenge of the apparent chaos of Protestant interpretive pluralism is wielded against the idea that Scripture is “perspicuous” or clear enough with regard to the issues of salvation and so forth. The idea is that Protestants opened up a Pandora’s box with the doctrine of sola scriptura, that scripture alone, ultimately, is our final norm for theology. Of course, there’s the usual misunderstanding here that for the early Reformers this didn’t mean ignoring tradition entirely, but even when that is conceded, the point is still raised that Protestants have made a mess of things. It should be obvious given all of our denominations, and all of our theological disputes, that the “clarity” of Scripture isn’t all that clear, and that’s one more reason we need Papal authority, and the teaching magisterium of the Roman Church in order to give us something solid to stand on. It’s one, or the only, check we have against the sort of interpretive anarchy we see in all of our “Well, I feel like this means…” Evangelical Bible studies.

In a review of Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation, which, among other things, argues along these lines, Carl Trueman argues that this line of thought tends to forget one key issue: the perspicuity of Scripture was put forward as a response to the mess of the Medieval papacy:

I wonder if I am alone in finding the more stridently confident comments of some Roman Catholics over the issue of perspicuity to be somewhat tiresome and rather overblown. Perspicuity was, after all, a response to a position that had proved to be a failure: the Papacy.  Thus, to criticize it while proposing nothing better than a return to that which had proved so inadequate is scarcely a compelling argument.

Yes, it is true that Protestant interpretive diversity is an empirical fact; but when it comes to selectivity in historical reading as a means of creating a false impression of stability, Roman Catholic approaches to the Papacy provide some excellent examples of such fallacious method.  The ability to ignore or simply dismiss as irrelevant the empirical facts of papal history is quite an impressive feat of historical and theological selectivity. Thus, as all sides need to face empirical facts and the challenges they raise, here are a few we might want to consider, along with what seem to me (as a Protestant outsider) to be the usual Roman Catholic responses:

Empirical fact: The Papacy as an authoritative institution was not there in the early centuries. 

Never mind.  Put together a doctrine of development whereby Christians – or at least some of them, those of whom we choose to approve in retrospect on the grounds we agree with what they say  – eventually come to see the Pope as uniquely authoritative.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was corrupt in the later Middle Ages, building its power and status on political antics, forged documents and other similar scams. 

Ignore it, excuse it as a momentary aberration and perhaps, if pressed, even offer a quick apology. Then move swiftly on to assure everyone it is all sorted out now and start talking about John Paul II or Benedict XVI.  Whatever you do, there is no need to allow this fact to have any significance for how one understands the theory of papal power in the abstract or in the present.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was in such a mess at the beginning of the fifteenth century that it needed a council to decide who of the multiple claimants to Peter’s seat was the legitimate pope.

Again, this was merely a momentary aberration but it has no significance for the understanding of papal authority.  After all, it was so long ago and so far away.

Empirical fact: The church failed (once again) to put its administrative, pastoral, moral and doctrinal house in order at the Fifth Lateran Council at the start of the sixteenth century.  

Forget it.  Emphasise instead the vibrant piety of the late medieval church and then blame the ungodly Protestants for their inexplicable protests and thus for the collapse of the medieval social, political and theological structure of Europe.

Trueman is no rabid Rome-hater, but points these things out in blunt form because he’s:

...simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity.  These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer.   One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Of course, none of this is an actual argument for the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, or sola scriptura. For that, I’d commend Mark D. Thompson’s fine book A Clear and Present Word.  All that same, these are points ought to be kept in mind the next time the papacy, or the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, is presented as an obvious answer to the issue of Protestant interpretive pluralism.

It’s not that obvious.

Soli Deo Gloria

God of Strength

We know that the Lord is the one who gives strength to the weak, right?

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:28-31 ESV)

This is good news, right? Isaiah points us to the God who has life in himself, who brought forth the world from nothing, as the one that gives power and life to those who trust in him. What comfort! When we are weary and laid low, the Lord has energy to spare that he freely gives to those who will call on his name. This is supernatural strength too–eventually even the seemingly tireless youth gives out at some point, but God’s strength isn’t tied to human limits, though. So even when it seems like there is nothing left for us to give, God supplies vitality to his people to accomplish the tasks he’s set them. Surely we can sing about this?

What we don’t often give thought to is the inverse truth: God can remove the strength of the strong.

“Behold, I will press you down in your place,
as a cart full of sheaves presses down.
Flight shall perish from the swift,
and the strong shall not retain his strength,
nor shall the mighty save his life;
he who handles the bow shall not stand,
and he who is swift of foot shall not save himself,
nor shall he who rides the horse save his life;
and he who is stout of heart among the mighty
shall flee away naked in that day,” declares the LORD.
(Amos 2:13-16 ESV)

While Isaiah points us to the life-giving God, Amos reminds us that those who oppose the Lord through the arrogance of their own might, will find it failing come the day of judgment. No one is fast enough, strong enough, clever enough, or brave enough to withstand the coming of the one who is the source of all these things. We who are tempted to trust in our own muscle, our chariots, our horses, to accomplish our own ends apart from or opposed to the Lord, will soon find ourselves weak in the knees.

As ominous as that sounds, contained within Amos’ judgment is a comfort as well. All too often in this world, might makes right, and the wicked prosper because it seems that righteousness never has the bigger guns. Eventually, though, the tireless God will tire of his patience towards their oppression. The words of the Lord remind us that ultimately our hope isn’t in power measured by human standards, but in the righteous God whom even the mightiest tyrants cannot stand.

Soli Deo Gloria

Pastors Aren’t Born, But Formed (TGC)

calvin as scholarCruising through Bruce Gordon’s masterful biography on Calvin, I’ve been struck to see that pastors aren’t born but formed. It’s easy when reading the final edition of the Institutes or the later commentaries, at such a historical remove, to forget the development and the formative influences involved in turning the proud young legal scholar into a mature churchman and theologian.

As a young pastor myself, one theme that caught my attention was the formative influence of mentors and friends. In what follows I’d like to highlight three lessons on mentorship for both younger and older pastors drawn from Calvin’s early years.

You can read the rest of my reflections over at The Gospel Coalition. Pastors especially, I’d ask you to click through and read.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity Podcast: The Trinity and the Bible w/ Fred Sanders!

fred sandersThis week’s podcast we had the honor of having Fred Sanders on the show. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s one of my favorite people and an excellent trinitarian theologian working over at the Biola Torrey Honors program. We talked with Fred about what goes into developing the doctrine of the tradition based on the Bible, tradition, and so forth. As usual, Fred’s great. If you like the discussion and are interested in Fred’s work, you can check him blogging at Scriptorium Daily or his excellent book on the Trinity The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything.

A couple of things to note, though. First, the sound quality on my end is a bit shoddy. It’s mostly fine, but the first minute there is rough. We’re working on it.

Second, please do take time if you can to rate and if possible review the podcast over at our iTunes RSS feed. Also, feel free to subscribe.

Soli Deo Gloria

Death Without Hope in Japan’s Valley of the Dolls (Think Christian)

Japan-valley-of-dolls-150x101There’s a village in Japan where there are more dolls than people. Fritz Schumann’s short documentary Valley of Dolls, embedded below, tells the story.

Nagoro, a small town situated in the Shikoku valleys, once was prosperous and lively, thriving off of the local industry connected to the nearby dam. Hundreds dwelt there. When Ayano Tsukimi returned to her home village 11 years ago, though, she found it dwindling, as older residents had passed away and the young had moved out to the cities in search of work.

In order to fill time on her return, Tsukimi decided to make a life-size scarecrow based on her father. Now, 10 years later, she’s made more than 350 of these beautiful and haunting dolls to replace the people who have died or moved away. The figures fill the town.

You can read my reflections on this town over at Think Christian.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Fiery Breath of Pentecost

pentecostToday we celebrate the coming of the Spirit upon the Church at the feast of Pentecost. Luke gives us the account in Acts:

The Coming of the Holy Spirit When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

While there’s much to draw our attention here, the connection with the feast of Pentecost, the giving of the Law, the divided tongues connecting to the preaching of the Gospel in diverse languages, one feature in particular deserves our attention today: fire.

Why is it that the Spirit’s gift appears in the form of flaming tongues? As usual, Calvin’s comments are wise and instructive:

Without all doubt, it was a token of the (force and) efficacy which should be exercised in the voice of the apostles. Otherwise, although their sound had gone out into the uttermost parts of the world, they should only have beat the air, without doing any good at all. Therefore, the Lord doth show that their voice shall be fiery, that it may inflame the hearts of men; that the vanity of the world being burnt and consumed, it may purge and renew all things. Otherwise they durst never have taken upon them so hard a function, unless the Lord had assured them of the power of their preaching. Hereby it came to pass that the doctrine of the gospel did not only sound in the air, but pierce into the minds of men, and did fill them with an heavenly heat (and burning.) Neither was this force showed only in the mouth of the apostles, but it appeareth daily. And, therefore, we must beware lest, when the fire burneth, we be as stubble. Furthermore, the Lord did once give the Holy Ghost under a visible shape, that we may assure ourselves that his invisible and hidden grace shall never be wanting to the Church.

Commentary on Acts 2:4

Without going into the biblical-theological appropriateness of associating the work of the Spirit with fire in the OT and so forth, Calvin cuts to the heart of the matter: “the Lord doth show that their voice shall be fiery, that it may inflame the hearts of men.”

The giving of the Spirit at Pentecost is what gives life to the preaching of the Gospel through the church. Without the efficacious work of God’s own Spirit, we should have no confidence in our own faulty and paltry voices. Yet now, because of Pentecost, we are called to preach the Gospel boldly, with great power because through it, God is working to “purge and renew all things.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity is Finally on iTunes

Mere FidelityHey everybody, I’m pleased to announce that our podcast has finally been approved by iTunes and is now up for streaming, downloading, and so forth, with the four previous episodes up for grabs. You can go here to do so:

This is the link to click on. I am being very, very explicit with this so that you will actually click on it.

Also, if you’ve already listened to it, or once you’ve listened to it, please go ahead and rate it for us and maybe give it a review. We think the conversations we’re having are really valuable for the church and for our culture, so we want to get the word out. A podcast with actual reviews and (good) ratings is more likely to get noticed beyond the circle of reach of the four of us participating.

Finally, if wouldn’t mind share the podcast feed, please do so.

Soli Deo Gloria