Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How to Keep the South ‘Solid’

Thus far the enemies of the South have not been able to splinter her into various warring factions, and by so doing further their conquest of her.  The South has remained stubbornly united.  But as the experiences which welded the Southern people together recede further from our memory (by our own carelessness and by the scheming of our enemies), that threat grows immeasurably as all the disintegrating forces of godless materialism come to bear on us. 

One thing can keep us united, as it has other countries even during times of the greatest trouble (Serbia under the Turks, Romania under the Communists, etc.): Christianity.  Reverence for the Bible and its life-giving words by Southerners has already done much in this regard.  But this is not yet true unity in the Holy Spirit, the fulness of the Faith.  As we noted earlier (‘The South and the Scriptures - Part II’), making the Bible the final authority in the Church’s life spreads the plagues of relativism and sectarianism, as each man decides for himself what this or that passage means, and thus what is true doctrine and what is not.

In the past there were enough dangers outside and within (war, grinding poverty, etc.) that we turned a blind eye to doctrinal differences (although every step away from the Truth will bring harm to society in the end).  However, as we daydream now in the soft comfort provided by the new trinity of Science, Industry, and Technology (Wendell Berry), those forces mentioned above that drive people apart are beginning to act more strongly upon us:  Atomistic individualism rears its monstrous head, and it will take more than a watery ecumenism among Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and so on to overcome it.

What the South needs if she is not only to endure as a distinct nation (or confederation of State-nations, to be more accurate) but also to attain the perfection of the gifts, the realization of her unique personality (separately as States and together as a whole cultural region), and the fulfilment of the ministries she has been given to perform in the world by the Lord, as we come to maturity in Him, is a return to the Ancient Faith, the Orthodox Faith, and repentance for the unfortunate deviations from the Truth by the Catholic and Protestant churches.

Father Andrew Stephen Damick has written an essay that will hopefully get us somewhat further down that path, ‘Protestants and a Churchless Tradition: “Sola” vs. “Solo” Scriptura’ (posted 4 Oct. 2014, accessed 21 October 2014).  The first section we will post here.  The reader is highly encouraged to read the entire work:

One of my ongoing fascinations is what I have come to refer to in my head as “the Evangelical appropriation of tradition.” Charismatics are celebrating Lent. Baptists are talking about the Eucharist. The inscrutable maybe-universalist and now Oprah-darling Rob Bell is even using the phrase the tradition. Maybe this tradition stuff isn’t so bad. I can branch out a little. I can line up some Athanasius next to my MacArthur, and a volume or two of Gregory of Nyssa next to my Bonhoeffer. Osteen still goes somewhere preferable near the bottom. (Who gave me that book, anyway?) Maybe we’ll put Origen down there with him. Both are questionable, right?. Oh, hey, I’ve heard Ratzinger is kind of interesting. And that “wounded healer” Nouwen guy’s onto something. Has anyone heard of someone named “Schmemann”?

Welcome to the club, the Lutherans and certain Reformed types say. We’ve been waiting for you. Help yourself to some creeds. We hope you’ll stay for some liturgy.

And we hope you’ve discovered the difference between sola and solo scriptura.

Solo scriptura, it is argued, is what most Evangelicals would probably understand as their basic matrix of church authority—the Bible is above everything. Some might say that the Bible is the only authority in church life, while others might say it is the primary authority in church life, but it’s still over everything. What the Bible says trumps anything some teacher or cleric or council might say. They’ve all been wrong, but the Bible is always right.

Hold on now, say the sola scriptura adherents. The Church has a place. The tradition has a place. They’re not above the Bible, mind you, but they can inform how we read the Bible. The Church has to interpret the Bible, and the vast resources in Christian history can inform that interpretation. To summarize that position, let me quote a passage from a 2013 essay by Reformed Baptist writer Matthew Barrett (“‘Sola Scriptura’ Radicalized and Abandoned”):

I wish I could say that all evangelicals today have a crisp, accurate grasp of sola scriptura. I am hopeful that many understand how a Protestant view of Scripture and tradition differs from Rome’s position. However, I am less confident that evangelicals understand the difference between sola and solo scriptura, for in some cases the latter is assumed to be the identity of the former.

Consequently, some evangelicals, intentionally or unintentionally, have followed in the footsteps of Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) who said, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them today, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.”

Ironically, such a view cannot preserve sola scriptura. Sure, tradition is not being elevated to the level of Scripture. But the individual is! As Keith Mathison laments, in this view everything is “evaluated according to the final standard of the individual’s opinion of what is and is not scriptural.” To be sure, such a view lends itself more in the direction of individual autonomy than scriptural accountability.

So how do we correct such a mistake? First, we must guard ourselves from an individualistic mindset that prides itself on what “I think” rather than listening to the past. In order to do so, we must acknowledge, as Mathison points out, that “Scripture alone” doesn’t mean “me alone.”

Second, tradition is not a second infallible source of divine revelation alongside Scripture; nevertheless, where it is consistent with Scripture it can and does act as a ministerial authority. The historic creeds and confessions are a case in point. While the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed are not to be considered infallible sources divine revelation, nevertheless, their consistency with Scripture means that the church spoke authoritatively against heresy. Therefore, it should trouble us, to say the least, should we find ourselves disagreeing with orthodox creeds that have stood the test of time. Remember, innovation is often the first indication of heresy. Hence, as Timothy George explains, the reformers sought to tie their “Reformation exegesis to patristic tradition” in order to provide a “counterweight to the charge that the reformers were purveyors of novelty in religion,” though at the end of the day the fathers’ “writings should always be judged by the touchstone of Scripture, a standard the fathers themselves heartily approved.”

Abandoning solo scriptura does not require us to go to the other extreme, namely, elevating tradition to the level of Scripture. But it does require the humility to realize that we are always standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. For the reformers, the early church fathers were valuable (though not infallible) guides in biblical interpretation. In that light, we would be wise to listen to Luther this Reformation Day: “Now if anyone of the saintly fathers can show that his interpretation is based on Scripture, and if Scripture proves that this is the way it should be interpreted, then the interpretation is right. If this is not the case, I must not believe him” (LW 30:166; WA 14:31).

I’m overjoyed, of course, that Baptists, Lutherans, Calvinists and others should want to read the Church Fathers, sign onto the ancient creeds, and so forth. This is very good news, and I can only believe that it is likely they will thereby move closer to the faith that I hold as an Orthodox Christian.

At the same time, in reading this, even though it is certainly far more nuanced than the “no creed but the Bible” homespuns one usually finds in a Baptist church, I am nevertheless left with the sense that this “sola” vs. “solo” business is really a distinction without a difference.

 . . .

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