What “Difference” Does the “Vowel Make”?
As many of you surely know, the Reformed distinguish themselves from evangelicals on the issue of the relationship between Scripture and the church by highlighting the all-importance of a single vowel. “We are not like those Bible-only, no-creed-but-Christ evangelicals,” we hear. “On the contrary, we believe in the genuine authority of the church — but that authority is derivative and penultimate, always secondary to our only infallible source of revelation, namely Scripture.” In other words, the difference between the evangelical and Reformed position comes down to the difference between Solo and Sola Scriptura: the former disregards ecclesiastical authority while the latter greatly respects it.
The objection that the Catholic raises at this point goes like this: “Sure, the Reformed position claims to respect church authority, but the minute those so-called authorities say something that departs from your interpretation of the Bible, you reject it. Therefore your eccleiastical authority is only a farce, a thin veneer of submission masking the exact same individualism you fault the evangelicals for.”
The Reformed completely reject this charge, of course. But given the response on the part of confessional-leaning Presbyterians to the highest court of the PCA’s refusal to find the teachings of Federal Visionist Peter Leithart to be out of accord with the Westminster Standards (which I think they clearly are), the rejection of the Catholic charge, and the supposed difference between Solo and Sola Scriptura, begins to ring hollow.
For example, in response to Doug Wilson’s remarks on the PCA’s decision, my friend Lane Keister has recently written:
His point to the critics is that [we] should dial down the rhetoric against the FV because a court of the church has spoken. . . . Alas for Doug. . . this critic will certainly not dial down the rhetoric (although I try to avoid rhetoric, actually, preferring straight logic).
Even though a church court has spoken, that doesn’t mean that I have to agree with it, nor does it mean that church court decisions are above criticism. Or will we start saying that Machen should just have stayed quiet and been a good boy? Not to mention Luther.
Lane’s reaction is perfectly understandable given his ecclesiology: only the Bible has infallible authority, and therefore the decisions of church courts are to be followed only when they conform to Scripture. When they do not, Scripture must trump the church.
My point is not to criticize Lane for inconsistency, but is rather to use his position to illustrate the validity of the Catholic charge that church authority within Protestantism, even if spoken of with humbly submissive rhetoric, is a mirage. My suspicion that I raised a few weeks ago has been confirmed (as I knew it would): the side that won in this dispute is saying, “The church has spoken, we are orthodox,” while the side that lost says, “Yes, but in this instance the church got it wrong, so you’re still heretical.”
This is further illustrated by a comment in the thread cited, in which Tim Harris writes:
What makes the Leithart case interesting is that he is ordained in a true church. That is why the case was important.
The CREC is not a church. It does not have the ordination, thus it does not have the sacraments, thus it does not have the marks of a true church, hence it is not a church. When you see “CREC,” substitute “CROCK.” Or, more charitably, “Starbucks Bible Fellowship.”
For the confessional Presbyterian, the reason the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches is “not a [true] church” is that its theology disagrees with the interpretation of the Bible espoused by confessional Presbyterians, and therefore CREC pastors are not truly ordained and thus “don’t have the sacraments.” But of course, this is completely circular: “Our view is that the marks of a true church include properly understanding the gospel [or, agreeing with our interpretation of the Bible concerning what the gospel is], and since the CREC falls short in this regard, it therefore fails to meet our criteria of what a true church must be.” But this is a perfect recipe — indeed a license — for anarchy and schism. Any fallible group of people can now gather together, decide what counts as a true church, and then dismiss from that category everyone else who disagrees with them.
This is why Sola Scriptura — even in its more churchly expressions — ultimately fails. As long as there’s some sincere, Bible-believing Christian who disagrees with the church on some issue, all that will result from an ecclesiastical decision on that issue (even from a church’s highest court) is a never-ending “yeah-huh!” / “nuh-uh!”, he said / she said dispute.
In fact, it’s not just that this may be the result, it’s that it must be, for the irresolvability of any theological controversy is built into the whole Protestant system from the get-go. So even if the proper formula is not Solo but Sola, the “A” at the end still stands for Anarchy.