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The Ideal Church


Many images are conjured up in one’s mind when the topic of the ideal church is mentioned. I’m hoping to stretch the canvass and thus broaden the image that one thinks of concerning this topic. I wish to do that in two ways. First, by ‘church’ I mean the church universal—that is, the whole body of Christ. But I also mean the local expression of the church. You’ll see what I mean shortly. Second, by ‘ideal’ I don’t mean the perfect church; we all know that no such thing exists because we’re all sinners. Now, before you get too disappointed with what I won’t be saying, let me address what I will be: I will be talking about the ecclesiastical structure and theological underpinnings for such. I won’t be talking about whether such a church has Sunday school or home Bible studies or Vacation Bible School or weekend retreats. My comments are restricted far more to theological structure. Now, I could spend the rest of this blog defining things, but I think I’ll just dive right in and hope you can follow.

First, the universal church today should be united in what it believes when it comes to the essentials of the faith. Individual churches could vary on this theme, but the core doctrines should be held by all. The church would recognize that its greatest apologetic is the love of believers for one another, by the unity of the Spirit, while confessing a common creed. Many churches confess the Nicene Creed, and I think that that’s a wonderful place to start. Both the Orthodox and Catholics confess it regularly. Protestant churches, only rarely. Perhaps if it were confessed in Protestant churches more often, there would be a better sense of what unites us all. And those who couldn’t even come close to confessing it might be treated as outside the universal body of Christ.

Second, we would all embrace sola scriptura. The question, however, that looms very large is how to access the meaning of special revelation. For this, I don’t have an adequate answer. In broad strokes, it has been answered in one of two ways: reason or tradition. The problem with tradition is that it is full of contradictions. This was Luther’s argument at the Diet of Worms. But the problem with reason is that, at least for the Calvinist, it can’t be fully trusted either. And theological liberalism grew out of the elevation of reason, not the elevation of tradition. Pragmatically, we all place something over revelation in order to access it. Traditions that we know do not have a sound biblical base or a solid historical base (that is, the ones that do not reach back to the earliest times in the history of the church) will need significant justification to be maintained. We wouldn’t simply jettison them, of course. Otherwise, we would have to get rid of pews, pulpits, hymnals, organs, communion using crackers and grape juice, etc. Many Protestants take these things for granted, but they are traditions that have minimal historical precedent. Why, then, do we condemn Catholics for having traditions that reach back for centuries?

Back to sola scriptura and how to access the meaning of scripture. It may actually be easier to talk about what I don’t like about today’s church than about what the ideal church would look like—because I don’t exactly know. What I don’t like are anti-biblical traditions, those that seem to contradict the clear meaning of the Bible. But what I also don’t like are screwy interpretations that seem to go far afield from the meaning and spirit of the Word of God. If Catholics can be blamed for the former, Protestants can be blamed for the latter a hundredfold! Frankly, every one of us is a heretic (at least with a lowercase ‘h’); the problem is that we don’t know in what areas we are wrong. Yet, many of us are equally dogmatic about both central and peripheral doctrines. Tradition and reason both have their place, but the tragic thing is that the average Christian today has to choose which one to elevate because no church is balanced.

Third, the ideal church would observe the Lord’s Table every week. And there should be rich liturgy in the service that glorifies Jesus Christ and magnifies his transcendent lordship over all. As readers of my blogs have noticed, I believe that Protestants have much to learn from Catholics and the Orthodox, and that the Orthodox and Catholics have much to learn from Protestants. One of the things that Protestants can learn from the other two branches of Christendom is the importance of the Eucharist. When Protestants say to Catholics, “How can you call yourself a Christian when you are adding to the gospel?” they make a valid point related to justification. When Catholics and the Orthodox say to Protestants, “How can you call yourself a Christian when you treat your communion with the Lord Jesus Christ in such a trivial manner?” they, too, make a valid point—this time related to sanctification. One group rightly says, “A Christian believes this,” while the other group rightly says, “A Christian does this.” And both groups have biblical precedent.

Fourth, in terms of symbolism, I would like to see the pulpit down low (as it is in Protestant churches), but off center (as it is in Catholic and Orthodox churches). I would also like to see the communion table down low and off center. The elevation of the pulpit above the congregation, though meant to represent Christ’s transcendence above his people, pragmatically elevates the priest above the people. It has the effect of denying the priesthood of the believer. In Protestant churches, the pulpit is front and center, illustrating that we are all believer-priests and that the proclamation of the Word is of central importance. I would prefer to have both the pulpit and the communion table off center with a cross between them, the only item that is elevated. Both the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper should always focus on Jesus Christ. I have yet to see any church that does this—perhaps because it’s a new tradition!

Fifth, there needs to be theological and personal accountability that reaches beyond the walls of each individual church and of each denomination. That is, there should be a worldwide hierarchy that maintains the theological and personal integrity of the church. Admittedly, there is such among Catholics. But just as admittedly, Rome has done a poor job in handling this responsibility. But among Protestants, the situation is every bit as bad. There are over 30,000 denominations! And in America there are millions of Christians in unaffiliated, independent Bible churches. What happens if the pastor goes off the deep end theologically? All too often, he takes the sheep with him. All too often, cults find their roots in rich Protestant soil. And what happens when a person in a Protestant church needs to be disciplined? He packs up and leaves and goes to another church a block away. There is zero accountability. At least in the Catholic Church, there is the semblance of accountability. To our shame, both groups have done a poor job in keeping the church pure.

Sixth, there should be a profound understanding of the priesthood of the believer. On the one hand, this doesn’t mean that we have the right to pool our ignorance (the common misunderstanding of this doctrine). On the other hand, it does mean that each of us has the right and privilege to come directly before the throne of grace. Protestants tend to make the priesthood of the believer a one-size fits all sort of doctrine—one that refers both to prayer and to accessing revelation. Catholics tend to deny both aspects. If neither one is completely right, then how does the average Christian choose?

These are just a few thoughts on the subject. As should be readily obvious, the ideal church can’t exist. And a large part of the reason it can’t is because we’ve made a terrible mess of things. I’m not suggesting that our differences are trivial or unimportant. No, I agree with Jaroslav Pelikan that the Reformation was a tragic necessity. And I believe that the Protestant faith—at least its evangelical form—comes closest to the ideal church of any. But make no mistake: it’s a far cry from ideal!

Some Protestants say that they can’t learn a thing from Catholics about the Christian faith, and some Catholics return the compliment. Such a view unmasks either that the accuser thinks that the accused is not really a Christian or that, even if a Christian, the accused has suffocated the inner witness of the Spirit. And yet (assuming that we exclude liberal Protestants and cults), all these Christian groups can affirm that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, that he bore our sins on the cross, that God raised him from the dead, and that we must believe in him for salvation. I think that may be enough to argue for essential unity.

35 Responses to “The Ideal Church”

  1. Seems to me that the “ideal” church would be based on what Scripture describes, not what has evolved over the ages. I believe that the number one problem is the clergy/laity split that established churches practice. We are all equally responsible for knowing the Word and need not rely on what comes from the pulpit This is what the Priesthood of Believers is all about. Of course gifted speakers should exercise their gift but….our ideas of what a “pastor” does is off base.

    So, let’s go back to the plurality of Elders, no large hierarchy, meet in homes, worship honestly with committed Christians, Lord’s supper weekly and truly care for one another. The closest “denomination” (that I know of) who meet these criteria are the Plymouth Brethren.

  2. ***Second, we would all embrace sola scriptura. ~DW***

    I don’t understand the draw of Sola Scriptura except that Luther coined it in opposition to the One Church and it is the main issue that separates this universal unity of Christians? I believe the doctrine of Sola Scriptura should be held to its own standard. Sola Scriptura is ITSELF a tradition. However, unlike Catholic Sacred Tradition, it is found nowhere in the Bible and nowhere in the writings of the Early Church Fathers. It is clearly a “an empty, seductive philosophy according to human tradition,” (Colossians 2:8) without support per its own dictates. If I am wrong, please point me to an Early Church Father that professes this doctrine—otherwise it is anti-Biblical and anti-historical and anti-traditional and therefore without merit and a stumbling block to true communion.

    ***….there should be a worldwide hierarchy that maintains the theological and personal integrity of the church. Admittedly, there is such among Catholics. But just as admittedly, Rome has done a poor job in handling this responsibility. ~DW***

    Many would argue that the man who ended up crucified did a pretty rotten job of handle the responsibility of his disciples. Judas wasn’t pleased—but that Man’s suffering was for a purpose unknown to his followers at the time. Catholics believe the mission of the Church is protected by God as promised by Jesus (Matthew 16:18, 28:20)—we do not have to understand every nuance of the mission of the Church to abide in Him and trust His means of accomplishing His plan for the salvation of mankind. Suffering is a mystery, and as evidenced by the cross, it has a redemptive purpose.

  3. Dr Wallace:

    Thank you for your thoughts on this matter. As one who may – may – soon be leading a small church, this is a timely post: there are new points to be considered and (happily) a few of my own that were affirmed. I need to consider and reflect on your many points more carefully, perhaps even seeking the Scriptures to see if these things be so.

    Again, thank you for your thoughts and ministry.

  4. Great post and many items worth considering.

    You said:
    “Tradition and reason both have their place, but the tragic thing is that the average Christian today has to choose which one to elevate because no church is balanced.”

    I respectfully disagree with this argument as from what I have seen, the Protestant church does not teach or promote tradition, Church history, or reason. Tradition may be practiced, but rarely if ever discussed much less justified. In my opinion, too many churches teach and preach to the lowest common denominator of “believe in Jesus” and have devolved to solo scriptura.

    In this regard, I would say the Catholic Church does a better job of at least teaching tradition in catechism classes and documenting their beliefs and the CCC. Even adult converts to Catholicism must attend catechism classes. Protestants, to my knowledge, have no unifying “Catechism of the Protestant Church” and rarely, if ever, discuss the belief statements of the denomination.

    Reason, which I would define as “challenging a person to think about and justify their beliefs”, I don’t believe is promoted in either Catholicism or Protestantism to the mainstream membership. Why?

    Respectfully,
    Bill

  5. ronquiggins,

    The problem with modeling the modern Church after the Church that Scripture describes is that Scripture describes the Church in its infancy–but even Scripture describes a living Church that grew and changed over time–this living organism called the body of Christ is ever evolving and this is not necessarily a bad thing although it can be if we allow it.

    Felicity,

    Your invective against the doctrine of Sola Scriptura leads me to believe that you aren’t all that familiar with what the doctrine actually purports. But in reference to your comment:

    If I am wrong, please point me to an Early Church Father that professes this doctrine

    I’d first like to point out that if you are looking for a formal definition of the doctrine as was recorded later in a document such as the Westminster Confession of Faith then you are looking in vain–Much like you’d look in vain to find a formal definition of the doctrine of the Trinity prior to the 1st Council of Constantinople. What I can provide you with is the very sense of what Sola Scriptura purports (namely the sufficiency and authority of Scripture) from the words of Cyril of Jerusalem and Athanasius.

    I’ll provide the references and if you are genuinely interested you can do the leg work.

    Cyril of Jerusalem. Catechitical Lectures, 4.17 [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310104.htm] and 5.12 [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310105.htm]

    Athanasius. Against the Heathen, Part 1.3; Part 3.45.2-3 [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2801.htm]

    And I would just note that even if there were no reference from patristic sources that certainly does not prove the doctrine anti-Biblical. We don’t measure the validity of Scripture on the basis of the early church fathers — we measure the validity of the early church fathers on the basis of Scripture.

  6. I am a HUGE believer in the efficacy and essential nature of Scripture (I am a Gideon, after all), but I think that much of Scripture is complex and seemingly contradictory and needs exegesis. This means that what we THINK Scripture says will necessarily develop and change as more and more people add their wisdom and consideration to the community process. At the same time, some of this exegesis will pull the other way, away from the truth, and it is not always easy to know which is which. The fact that there are no two dedicated and committed Christians who would interpret every Scripture the same, if left to their own devices.

    So, the idea of Scripture being a touchstone for the truth is great, and absolutely necessary, and we do need to continue to occasionally scrape away all the barnacles that develop and start fresh. But, there is a value to the traditions that develop because in so many cases these are developments that grew up out of Scriptural interpretation in the first place.

    When things aren’t clear (as so much of Scripture is not, no matter what we would like to think), then we are still called to make sense of it. In this process, “standing on the shoulders of giants” is very often a prudent and useful thing.

    How we go about baptism, how we practice communion, what we think about the diety of Christ, the role of the Holy Spirit, the exact concept of salvation, and how we get there. These are all things that are NOT so clear in Scripture that even the earliest Church could agree upon them. They wrestled with them (and dozens more issues), and developed TRADITIONS about how to think and talk and act regarding these things.

    If we “go back to the Scripture”, we will STILL have to develop ways of thinking and talking and acting about these things based on what we think was intended by the writers of the texts (inspired by God). And, guess what? We then have a new tradition.

  7. I have to agree with Vance. Regardless of the definition of sola scriptura, it has, as admitted in the blog, led to 30,000 denominations. Mr. (Dr?) Wallace admits that there must be some form of accountability in this ideal universal church. However, as long as sola scriptura is the lynch-pin for doctrine, there will always be those who will disagree over the interpretation of scripture and leave the church for something that agrees with their own sensibility and personal interpretation…especially in the West.

    What is needed is a true sense of accountability. Let’s say for example that this ideal universal church can make the case of it’s having been built by Christ himself, and derives its authority directly from Him. Furthermore, because the ideal church was instituted by Our Lord, it would be free from error when interpreting Scripture (for our God is not the God of confusion). Now we’re starting to get at true accountability because to leave Christ’s own church, or deny its interpretation is to pridefully turn one’s back on Christ himself.

    Oh wait, there is an ideal universal church that already makes these claims ;)

    Sadly, it is exactly because of the Protestant reformation and sola scriptura that we here in the West have lost this sense of accountability. As a result, no church which is based on sola scriptura could be universal, much less ideal.

  8. mtr01,

    Great comments! Humor is always helpful.

    I agree with you that it may be helpful to have an infallible church keep the unity, but, as you have seen, this has not happened. As well, the arguement for an infallible authority in the Catholic church seems to be simply pragmatic and sees itself working out such in history.

    Just because we would desire that their is an ultimate human head within the church that makes all the right decisions, does not make it so.

    Therefore, from a Protestant perspective, we are left with what we got, even if it does not work very well. We cannot just wish an infallible authority into existence any more than we could wish for the ultimate answer, the advent of Jesus Christ, and make it so.

    However, I do appreciate your perspective even if I don’t agree that it has the answer.

  9. Pastor Mike,

    You seem to have inferred that I was speaking of the papacy as evidenced by your reference to an “ultimate human head”. However, I was speaking of authority (the papacy being a related, yet separate issue). As I’m sure you are aware, the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox also recognize the authority of their Church as being derived from Christ Himself. It was this authority that guided the first seven ecumenical councils (which gave us the creed mentioned in the blog article).

    Essentially, what it boils down to is that there can be no accountability and no ideal universal church without first recognizing that it has authority…and moreso that this authority comes directly from Christ.

    Anything else is a “tradition of men”, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I doubt you would say that such “traditions of men” are binding on the individual Christian conscience.

  10. And, following up on mtr01 and Michael’s comments, if we CAN’T have an infallible human source of truth, whether an individual or an institution, then we MUST have the diversity of thought and the “iron sharpening iron” process to keep the entire Church from heading off in the wrong direction.

    I think we saw with the Catholic Church before the Reformation that absence of such dynamics freely exercised can allow for one bad doctrine to become a bad dogma and lead to further error. While the downside is the fragmenting of thought and diversity of belief, and a large amount of false doctrine floating around, I do see this as a necessary evil to avoid the worse dilemma of MANDATED false doctrine.

    I think that the balance of LEARNING from the past “giants” and their wisdom while not being BOUND by their conclusions is the best we can do, if we are to be “always reforming”.

  11. Dan, what IS that thing on your head?

  12. Ugh.

    I can’t believe a Protestant is perpetuating the “30,000 denomination” myth.

    Please read: http://www.ntrmin.org/30000denominations.htm

  13. Carrie, thanks for the correction. I looked at the website and it’s very illuminating. There are not 30,000 PROTESTANT denominations (because the fringe groups and sects would not be considered Protestant); there are only about 10,000 today. Thanks for the corrigendum!

  14. Somehow 10,000, rather than 30,000, makes me feel a whole lot better about Protestant denominations! We can all hold our heads a bit higher now that such a barbarous and slanderous myth is put to rest. 30,000 denominations would be an embarrassment, after all.

    With this wonderful news, can a single, unified church be far behind?

    As for the corrigendum, FWIW, I had mine removed as a child.

  15. lol…you all are great. We have thinned our ranks to the few and the proud. I feel like Lot. 30,000 to 10,000.

    Although, to be fair, for some time their was a sense of transdenominational unity that existed under the designation “Evangelical.” But now this designation finds its home from Billy Graham to Joel Olsteen to Dan Wallace :) to Benny Hinn. And the only thing you have in common with them is the hair . . . and smile . . . oh, and underware (except Billy boy).

  16. I wonder one of the evaluations behind much of the discussion is true.

    Is it true that Protestants are less unified than Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox?

    What do we mean by unified?

    Could someone explain what we are talking about?

  17. Nick N.

    ***From NN:
    Felicity,
    Your invective against the doctrine of Sola Scriptura leads me to believe that you aren’t all that familiar with what the doctrine actually purports. But in reference to your comment: ***

    RESPONSE:
    I apologize if my comment came across as “invective”—that certainly wasn’t intentional. I am familiar with the varied and sundry positions on what “sola scriptura” actually means—I believe part of the problem with the “doctrine” is exactly what Wallace describes—no authority that has apostolic credentials is in place to set an objective standard.

    ***From NN:
    What I can provide you with is the very sense of what Sola Scriptura purports (namely the sufficiency and authority of Scripture) from the words of Cyril of Jerusalem and Athanasius.
    I’ll provide the references and if you are genuinely interested you can do the leg work.
    Cyril of Jerusalem. Catechitical Lectures, 4.17 [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310104.htm] ***

    RESPONSE:
    The only thing in 4.7 that references scripture is, “7. ….remember thou what is written in the Gospels, that none knows the Son but the Father, neither knows any the Father save the Son.” In what way are you interpreting this to say that Scriptures are sufficient? You tell me to do the “leg work,” but I question whether you even read you own sources.

    ***From NN:
    and 5.12 [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310105.htm] ***

    RESPONSE:
    5.12 is about the creed—not about scriptures. And in the first line it specifically says, “12. But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to you by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures.” If anything, that reference says that the Church is sufficient because it has the been fortified by the Scriptures.

    ***From NN:Athanasius. Against the Heathen, Part 1.3; Part 3.45.2-3 [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2801.htm] ***

    RESPONSE:
    And Athanasius is talking about the LOGOS—Word of God—AKA: JESUS! Did YOU read your own rebuttal sources? One has to wonder…maybe you thought I wouldn’t read them? This is very confusing. You offer nothing of support for considering Scriptures alone sufficient and yet claim you do.

    You know, the scripture is perfectly sufficient in one thing—letting believers know that they need more than the scriptures alone. One merely has to look in the Bible to find evidence that the Scriptures alone are NOT sufficient *except* in that the scriptures clearly indicate one needs the Church and Sacred Tradition.
    1 Thess. 2:13, 2 Thess. 2:15 , 2 John 12, 3 John 13, 1 Cor. 11:2, Matthew 18:17-18…many many more.

    Hence—If the Bible clearly and repeatedly demonstrates a magisterial hierarchy, and that the followers of Christ are to hold fast to the teachings conveyed both in writing and given orally—AND the Bible demonstrates that the traditions were expounded upon when those in the teaching authority could meet with the Christians face to face, I believe I am justified in saying that Sola Scriptura is a false doctrine that is anti-Biblical. It is not offering invective, it is offering the truth. You do not have to rely on early Church Fathers to determine Sola Scriptura is false—the Bible tells you so.

  18. What I would say by “unified” is willing to separate “essentials” from “non-essentials” and embrace the common ground on those essentials sufficiently to truly treat each other as fellow Church members, even if not congregation or denomination members.

    I think it would be great if we all viewed ourselves and each other as Christians first, and Baptist, or Catholic or EO, or Assembly of God second.

  19. Vance said, “I think it would be great if we all viewed ourselves and each other as Christians first, and Baptist, or Catholic or EO, or Assembly of God second.” Yes, I agree, Vance. And I don’t know that I would WANT us all having church “services” in the same way. Some people need the rich liturgical mass. Some need the loud singing, clapping of hands and shouting types of celebrations. Others find that scary. Some need the more intellectual type of church gathering. Personally, I don’t find anything wrong with all those ways of worshipping. Like the parts of the body, they do different things but they make up the one body, the Body of Christ. God knows us and our characters and I believe he has allowed different forms of worship to develop to serve all the needs of his people. Yes, it can be confusing, especially if different congregations are teaching different things. Our God is not to be a God of confusion. I think when we talk to people about God, we need to have what we say pass the “straight face” test. Do we REALLY believe and mean what we say? Do we really have God so pinned down as to know at all times what he expects of us all? We must have compassion for all our fellow travelers on this planet. When things get confusing, as flower-child as this may sound, we may have to back up and say, “Look, I don’t understand all in the Bible and I don’t understand all of God’s ways, but I will say that God loves you and wants you to have great joy and let us focus on that and do the best we can with all the rest.”

    Joanie D.

  20. Fascinating dialogue from a variety of opinions! Someone didn’t like my view of tradition, saying that that was adding to the Bible; another didn’t like my belief in sola scriptura, saying that that was anti-biblical and against authoritative tradition. Looks like I’m stuck between Scylla and Charybdis again.

    As for the first criticism, would you say that the Nicene Creed should be jettisoned? I have repeatedly argued that theological liberalism finds its roots largely within Protestantism, an indication that something is wrong with Protestantism. And of the three branches of Christendom, only the Catholic and Orthodox consistently embrace the Nicene Creed. This, too, tells me that something is wrong with Protestantism (assuming that the Nicene Creed is pretty darn good and is focused on what matters most). At the same time, Protestantism arose because of the lack of checks and balances within Catholicism, because Catholicism had become terribly corrupt in large part because it elevated tradition above scripture. Luther recognized that above the authority of popes and councils, traditions of men, and comments by church fathers stood the Word of God. His courage and his insights along this line give me hope that more Reformations can come and that all of us—Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox—can return to the Bible as our final authority, yet with much greater respect for the most revered and consistent traditions.

    As for biblical and patristic arguments that sola scriptura is true, I would point out the following:
    1. There are numerous texts that speak of scripture as having greater authority than any person or tradition that follows. Jesus, in fact, condemned ‘the traditions of men’ even though they had a long history and a huge following.

    2. The later books of the New Testament call their readers to remain faithful to the tradition that had already been handed down to them—that is, the teaching of the apostles as found in the scriptures—rather than be deceived by false teachers. Cf. Matt 15.1-6; Acts 17.11; Acts 18.28; 2 Tim 3.16; 2 Peter.

    3. Early patristic writers recognized that their authority was not that of the apostles, and that the apostles’ writings were the standard by which truth and tradition must be measured. Cf. Ignatius, Eph 11.1; Rom 4.3; Mag 13.1; Tral 3.3; Polycarp, Phil 3.2. It is to be noted that most of these citations are from Ignatius, a man who admittedly moved the church toward monarchical episcopacy early on and had (in my view) way too high a view of the bishop and presbytery. Yet even Ignatius recognized that the traditions—if they were to be considered legitimate and authoritative traditions—must conform to the teachings of the apostles. I would argue that insofar as the traditions are in line with scripture, they are acceptable. But the Bible must be judge over tradition.

    4. The many hours I have logged examining ancient New Testament manuscripts also gives eloquent though subtle testimony to sola scriptura. Consistently, New Testament books that have patristic commentary with them mark out the difference for readers. But they do so in a way that elevates the authority of the New Testament. Most manuscripts show this in one of two ways: either the commentary is interwoven with the biblical text but the ink is rarer or more expensive for the scriptures than it is for the commentary (frequently even gold letters are used for scripture); or the commentary is wrapped around the biblical text, giving pride of place to the scriptures. Some years ago I pointed this out to a prominent Orthodox man, and he went home to read his Bible for the first time! It was an illuminating experience. Or, as one of my professors was fond of saying, “It’s amazing how much light the Bible sheds on the commentaries!”

    As I said, I think it’s quite impossible for there to be an ideal church today. We should all admit that none of our traditions has it all right. For me, the least unsatisfactory branch is evangelical Protestantism (in particular because of its doctrine of salvation), but I’m still learning many things from my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters.

  21. Okay, did you actually read the whole article I posted on denominations?

    The “10,000” (which was really 8200) is still consider a high estimate because it was based on jurisdiction:

    “In reality, Barrett indicates that what he means by “denomination” is any ecclesial body that retains a “jurisdiction” (i.e., semi-autonomy). As an example, Baptist denominations comprise approximately 321 of the total Protestant figure. Yet the lion’s share of Baptist denominations are independent, making them (in Barrett’s calculation) separate denominations. In other words, if there are ten Independent Baptist churches in a given city, even though all of them are identical in belief and practice, each one is counted as a separate denomination due to its autonomy in jurisdiction.”

    “However Barrett has defined “denomination,” it is clear that he does not think of these as major distinctions; for that is something he reserves for another category. In addition to the seven major ecclesiastical “blocs” (mentioned above), Barrett breaks down each of these traditions into smaller units that might have significant differences (what he calls “major ecclesiastical traditions,” and what we might normally call a true denomination)… In other words, the true count of real denominations within Protestantism is twenty-one, whereas the true count of real denominations within Roman Catholic is sixteen.”

    Also note that if you are to run with the high denomination number of 8200 Protestant denoms then you have about 2900 Catholics denoms.

    I have to say, I find this all very bizarre. Why would you want to stick to an erroneous statement that Catholic apologist use to smear Protestants?

  22. ***From DW:
    “ The later books of the New Testament call their readers to remain faithful to the tradition that had already been handed down to them—that is, the teaching of the apostles as found in the scriptures—rather than be deceived by false teachers. Cf. Matt 15.1-6; Acts 17.11; Acts 18.28; 2 Tim 3.16; 2 Peter.”

    RESPONSE:
    ***Cf. Matt 15.1-6;*** This is referring to the “Korban Rule”—the “tradition” made-up by the Pharisees so that they could “give” their money to the Temple and appear to be penniless should family be in need of their assistance even though in reality, they had full access to their funds. Traditions of men are not the same thing as Sacred Tradition—it the difference between “customs” and the teachings directly from Christ and his Apostles. The Jews had traditions (customs) and Traditions which were part of the Law and the revelation of God in his covenantal relationship with his people. The same is true today in both Catholic and Protestant churches. There are customs, and then there is the Tradition handed on over the centuries from the Apostles. The difference lies in that the Protestant communities lop off those Sacred Traditions that they do not see clearly stated in the scriptures.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    JOHN 5:37 Moreover, the Father who sent me has testified on my behalf. But you have never heard his voice nor seen his form,
    38 and you do not have his word remaining in you, because you do not believe in the one whom he has sent.
    39 You search 14 the scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf.
    40 But you do not want to come to me to have life.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    The scripture are a testimony—but they are not the sole authoritative voice—per the scriptures themselves.

    ***Acts 17.11;*** Those fair-minded Jews were verifying the claims of the Christians against the prophesies in the Scripture to determine if the claims had merit. Of course this should be done—and it should be done today–but I doubt any of those Jews were looking for the Scriptures of old to say “Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah!” The scriptures are such that they testify to the truth, but they are not alone in that testimony.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    2Tim.3:15 and that from infancy you have known (the) sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
    16 3 4 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
    17 so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    The scriptures are “useful” for giving “wisdom for salvation”—but they are by no means the sole authority. They clearly demonstrate throughout both the old and new testaments that the Church is the bulwark of the Sacred Deposit of Faith and holds this authority of the Faith of the Apostles in accord with scripture. When Catholics argue against Sola Scriptura—we are not against Scripture—it’s the “Sola” part that we take issue with.

    ***From DW:
    “Early patristic writers recognized that their authority was not that of the apostles, and that the apostles’ writings were the standard by which truth and tradition must be measured. “

    RESPONSE:
    I think, perhaps, you misunderstand what “authority” is claimed. Apostolic authority is not changeable—it is of the Apostles—but it is handed on in succession and the authority of the apostle is given to succeeding generations as long as those succeeding generations are in accord with the teaching of the Apostles. One who has received Apostolic Authority cannot “make-up” new revelation—he must “hold fast” to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles and serve the Church in accord with those teachings. Ignatius’ self-deprecating language reminds those who are in his position that their authority lies only in that they are servants to the Church and to their mission. I suppose this may fall under the other issue that Catholics and Protestants get in a tussle over, and that is the issue concerning the assurance one has of his salvation, but without going too far a-field, I will suggest that all humility and reverence for what was handed on to the Apostles themselves and then passed to succeeding generations of Church leaders is not at all a fault and does not point to a lack of authority—rather, it is more evidence that such teaching is in accord with the teaching of Jesus.

    Thank you for addressing this issue!

  23. Carrie, actually you proved my point: if we define a denomination as having final authority without needing to go higher up on the hierarchy chain, then there are apparently about 10,000 Protestant denominations. And by the same criterion there are certainly not 2900 Catholic denominations, not even close.

    Felicity, I think you’re missing a couple of points here. You repeatedly mentioned that scripture is not our sole authority. An earlier commentor suggested that you did not fully understand sola scriptura; this seems to be evident in your association of sola scriptura with ‘sole authority.’ That’s NOT what Protestants believe; scripture is our final authority. So, when you say that it’s not the scripture that causes you a problem, it’s the “sola” part, perhaps you’re fighting against a straw man. And again, I would say that all of the evidence you provided only confirms that scripture is our final authority: the early church recognized the scriptures as their final authority. And you are quite right that Protestants lopped off traditions that they did not see jiving with scripture. I’m not sure what’s wrong with that.

    In reality, there are many parallels between ecclesiastical tradition (some of which has been elevated to Sacred Tradition) and what the Jews in Second Temple Judaism did with scripture. They often elevated oral tradition above scripture as the authoritative interpretation of scripture; they linked their tradition back to authoritative rabbis; and they inevitably appealed to the living tradition and the magisterium (though they didn’t use this word!) to guide their lives. Jesus condemned this without mincing words.

    So, the question is: How much of ecclesiastical tradition can really be shown to go back to the apostles? Such oral tradition often has many gaps in it, is often contradictory, and often has elements that are flat-out unbiblical. Should we bow to all of this without thinking? Protestants would give a decided NO to this question.

    My problem with Protestantism is that we have inadvertently elevated reason above revelation. But the best of the Protestant tradition is that which demonstrates that certain ecclesiastical traditions are not in line with scripture. To be sure, Protestants end up having a lot more non-authoritative interpretations than Catholics do, but the best of Protestantism weeds that out. The trouble is that the average Christian is asked to choose between imperfect interpretation that can easily be corrected and an imperfect tradition that cannot. I can sympathize with Catholics very much and I recognize the problem of authority for Protestantism. But I still think that evangelical Protestantism has preserved the best of authentic Christianity.

  24. Dan,

    You said:
    “The trouble is that the average Christian is asked to choose between imperfect interpretation that can easily be corrected and an imperfect tradition that cannot.”

    Good point. I think the problem is that we often define opposing traditions by the “worst-of” illustrations. We got plenty of those to go around. But I think that so long as the “best-of” is made accessible, such as scholars like yourself, we find that the community does regulate its interpretations more than people think.

    I agree, while we have our share of difficulties, I don’t think we can responsibly give our beliefs completely over to an outsourcing venue simply because of these difficulties. We are held accountable to the rich traditions of those who have gone before us, but these traditions must be continually tested, amended, and, if need be, jettisoned by a sound hermeneutic of the Scripture which is self-regulating to some degree.

  25. My basic problem (and I know I have the bad habit of oversimplification, but I like to think of it as getting to the nub!), is that anytime you have a system of “authority” based on human decisions (whether institutional or individual), you will eventually slide off course. I can almost see a mathematical or engineering flaw built into the system.

    Start with the “touchstones” we all want to use as our static resting place, and we see that it was not as “static” as we would like, especially when you factor in our distance from the events:

    You start with documents written 2000 years ago, which are complicated even when written, conflicting on their surface, written by people who may not have agreed with each other on all points (regardless of inspiration) so that their emphases are different.

    Then you add in some organically developing traditions that we have only vague glimpses of for the first hundred years, during which the Church had a wide variety of “flavors”.

    So, we start with foundations that are up for human interpretation to begin with.

    Then we start adding layers of exegesis and tradition, and here is where the math comes in. This process will NECESSARILY involve building one doctrinal statement upon the presupposition of an existing doctrinal position which is based on an interpretation of either Scripture or early tradition. If that interpretation happens to be wrong, then all the doctrine that gets derived from that is wrong, and it begins an exponential growth in the wrong direction. I think this is the organic process that happened with the Catholic Church, since you had a linear authority which could build one doctrine upon another to create a house of cards of byzantine complexity. Until Luther, there was not enough real ability to say “HEY, wait a second, that can’t be right!”

    The only solution I can see to this is to allow for a dynamic process of check and balances, with enough free theological thinking that the “truth will out”. Now, that does not mean that the truth will be recognized or accepted by all or even most, and I think that the best we can hope for is that this process can keep us from getting too far down a wrong path.

    As an individual Christian, I would LOVE to have a human authority structure to turn to let me know what is correct. But I just don’t see that happening in a way that I can trust to be correct. The whole concept of apostolic authority for me is thrown out the window because there is no way at this point to be sure who really has such historic authority.

  26. Dr. Wallace,
    Again, thank-you for taking the time to respond—I find this exchange very interesting and informative concerning the differing perspectives.

    ***From DW:
    Felicity, I think you’re missing a couple of points here. You repeatedly mentioned that scripture is not our sole authority. An earlier commentor suggested that you did not fully understand sola scriptura; this seems to be evident in your association of sola scriptura with ’sole authority.’ That’s NOT what Protestants believe; scripture is our final authority.

    RESPONSE:
    With all due respect, I believe that I do understand the distinction this attempts to make, but I simply disagree that “sole” and “final” are in fact much of a distinction at all. In both cases, if it’s not explicitly clarified in the texts of the codified scriptures to some nebulous degree decided upon by whatever individual is reading it, it ain’t relevant (depending on the individual interpretation of the scriptures). This problem of divergent interpretations then again reverts back to the question of authority and who has the authority to discern what the scriptures in fact reveal. “Sola Scriptura” gives that final authority to the scriptures—it’s a huge logical circle where no answer is final. So, it would be convenient to say that I ‘just don’t get the distinction”—if the distinction can’t be made clear, what distinction is there? …Perhaps if someone could explain what the difference is between “sole” authority and “final” authority in actual practice rather than merely in rhetorical claims of distinction.

    ***From DW:
    And again, I would say that all of the evidence you provided only confirms that scripture is our final authority: the early church recognized the scriptures as their final authority.

    RESPONSE:
    I do not agree that the early church recognized scripture as the “final” authority—I believe there is ample evidence that they considered it co-equal and efficacious for instruction. You are aware that there is Sacred Tradition referred to in the NT not mentioned in the OT Scriptures, are you not? Some examples:
    ~~Matt. 2:23 “He shall be called a Nazarene” (That’s not in the OT—but Matthew records it as spoken prophesy. Unless you don’t accept the inerrancy of the Bible—Matthew is referring to Sacred Oral Tradition.)
    ~~Matthew 23:2 “the chair of Moses” (Jesus himself refers to this Sacred Oral Tradition of Church Authority! Jesus condemns the acts of the Pharisees, but also charges believers to follow their authority handed on by their position within the hierarchy. The Chair of Moses is nowhere in the OT, and yet the Son of God Himself advises believers to respect the authority of the Church!) –There are more…

    The fact that scripture itself demonstrates reference to Sacred Tradition that is NOT IN SCRIPTURE is indicative that Scripture cannot be the FINAL authority, but a co-equal authority with some OTHER authority accessible to the believer.

    ***From DW:
    And you are quite right that Protestants lopped off traditions that they did not see jiving with scripture. I’m not sure what’s wrong with that.

    RESPONSE:
    In my opinion, what’s wrong with that is that Protestants, although gifted with the light of Christ, are not bathed in the fullness of His light because they shade themselves from a portion of His revealed Glory because they rely on man-made doctrine such as Sola Scriptura rather than the bask in the breadth and depth of the revelation.

  27. Again, I agree with Vance up to a point. There can be no infallibility from a purely human source. However, diversity of thought is not the answer, because it only brings us back to the question of whether the final result of this process is true. Therefore, no matter how sharp the iron gets, there is still no guarantee that it cuts to the truth.

    What is needed instead is a supra-human source of infallibility, that is, from Christ Himself. Our Lord built a church, he didn’t write a bible, and He gave that church his authority to teach the faith. Since our God is not the god of confusion or lies, it makes no sense that he would let his people wallow in error for 1500 years until the reformation. No, the Church speaks for Christ, and if one wants to “stand on the shoulders of giants”, then one has no further to look than the then those ordained and sent forth by the Church, possessing valid succession from the Apostles themselves (in particular the ECFs)

  28. Felicity,

    You said:

    The only thing in 4.7 that references scripture is, “7. ….remember thou what is written in the Gospels, that none knows the Son but the Father, neither knows any the Father save the Son.” In what way are you interpreting this to say that Scriptures are sufficient? You tell me to do the “leg work,” but I question whether you even read you own sources.

    The reference was actually 4.17 not 4.7 and I will quote it for you here:

    17. Have thou ever in your mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.

    You said:

    5.12 is about the creed—not about scriptures. And in the first line it specifically says, “12. But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to you by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures.” If anything, that reference says that the Church is sufficient because it has the been fortified by the Scriptures.

    The faith is said to have been built up out of the Scriptures—the Scriptures are the foundation of the faith—not a mere fortification. This is evident as we continue in the paragraph when Cyril says: “For the articles of the Faith were not composed as seemed good to men; but the most important points collected out of all the Scripture make up one complete teaching of the Faith.”

    You said:

    And Athanasius is talking about the LOGOS—Word of God—AKA: JESUS! Did YOU read your own rebuttal sources? One has to wonder…maybe you thought I wouldn’t read them? This is very confusing. You offer nothing of support for considering Scriptures alone sufficient and yet claim you do.

    I have to wonder if you did actually check these references. Athanasius states plainly, “For although the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth…” He goes on to speak about communicating the faith as learned from his teachers but this is a clear declaration of the sufficiency of Scripture.

    In speaking about the Son/Word revealing the Father he says, “But this all inspired Scripture also teaches more plainly and with more authority, so that we in our turn write boldly to you as we do, and you, if you refer to them, will be able to verify what we say.” Athanasius is making a claim to the perspicuity and authority of the Scriptures in the matter he just spoke of. He goes on to say, “ For an argument when confirmed by higher authority is irresistibly proved. From the first then the divine Word firmly taught the Jewish people about the abolition of idols…” and then quotes the Scriptures from Exodus! He presents Scripture as the higher authority! I’d also note that the section heading to this passage reads: “45. Conclusion . Doctrine of Scripture on the subject of Part I” so I’m not sure how you missed or misconstrued that.

    And I have no interest in responding to your arguments against Sola Scriptura as I realize that this post was not about that topic per se.

  29. ***From NN:
    “The reference was actually 4.17 not 4.7 and I will quote it for you here:…”

    RESPONSE:
    My mistake—I see that 17 does reference scripture a great deal more than 7. However, in context of what is being discussed (the 10 points of Doctrine), Cyril is addressing the heretical notion that the Holy Spirit was not One in Being with the Father and the Son and to guard against such heresy by verifying through the Scriptures on that point. To generalize that single statement to his entire instruction is to disregard all the other things this Doctor of the Church communicates. One very important point to note is in the introduction of that Catechetical Lecture 4 and should (since it is in context of the entire writing) be considered generally is:

    “A most precious possession therefore is the knowledge of doctrines: also there is need of a wakeful soul, since there are many that make spoil through philosophy and vain deceit. The Greeks on the one hand draw men away by their smooth tongue, for honey droppeth from a harlot’s lips: whereas they of the Circumcision deceive those who come to them by means of the Divine Scriptures, which they miserably misinterpret though studying them from childhood to all age, and growing old in ignorance. But the children of heretics, by their good words and smooth tongue, deceive the hearts of the innocent, disguising with the name of Christ as it were with honey the poisoned arrows of their impious doctrines: concerning all of whom together the Lord saith, Take heed lest any man mislead you. This is the reason for the teaching of the Creed and for expositions upon it.” Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 4:2 (A.D. 350).
    This is clearly an indictment of those who would take scripture out of context and interpret on their own without the guidance of an authoritative teaching body.”

    ***From NN:
    “The faith is said to have been built up out of the Scriptures—the Scriptures are the foundation of the faith—not a mere fortification.”

    RESPONSE:
    The Church and the Scriptures are dependent upon one another. The Scriptures express the written faith and many traditions (though not all as I demonstrated in a prior post), the Church is the authority that interprets and teaches.

    ***From NN:
    “I have to wonder if you did actually check these references. Athanasius states plainly, “For although the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth…” He goes on to speak about communicating the faith as learned from his teachers but this is a clear declaration of the sufficiency of Scripture. ”

    RESPONSE:
    Aside from the fact that you referenced 1.3, not 1.1.3, and hence the confusion concerning what you specifically referred to ( I guess I’m not alone in reference errors ;) ) ….That next line that you do NOT quote, but rather summarize is very important. That line says, “—while there are other works of our blessed teachers compiled for this purpose, if he meet with which a man will gain some knowledge of the interpretation of the Scriptures, and be able to learn what he wishes to know,—“
    That line asserts that one must have TEACHERS with the authority to interpret the scriptures. That is the point I have been making this whole time. YES, the scriptures are sufficient in that they tell you that you need authoritative teachers found in the Church—apparently Athanasius agrees.

  30. Concerning the Nicene Creed,
    DW: and I think that that’s a wonderful place to start. Both the Orthodox and Catholics confess it regularly. Protestant churches, only rarely
    …you’ve missed the Anglican Churches worldwide that recite the Creed in every worship service. Perhaps the Episco-pagan national church scares evangelicals away, but there are many Anglicans apart from that body. My point is that there are alternatives to Catholic and Orthodox that retain protestant sympathies.

    As to the priesthood of believers, how would placing the Altar/table to the side support the priesthood of believers? Most Anglicans don’t believe the priest is exactly the same office as understood by Rome. So the priest leads the people in their priestly duties to offer sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving upon the Altar properly positioned in the center of view.

    just some thoughts,

  31. I don’t know what is referred to when it is said that tradition is full of contradictions. Like what? If it means you can dig through the church fathers and occasionally find dissenting voices on topics, well… you can find dissenting voices (more actually) on the topic of what is scripture and what is the canon. So if you can ignore that niggle and run with the consensus on the canon of scripture, why not on other topics too?

    People who throw barbs at tradition in favour of sola scriptura, don’t seem to stop and think that the barbs bounce right back on them. Sola scriptura is a non-scriptural tradition about a non-scriptural canon.

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