"Mere Christianity," Paleo-Orthodoxy, and the question of catholicity

Proudly brought to you from Oxford (where I am this moment and the reason for my not proofreading it in case there is anything important left out), sometime home of John Wesley, John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, N.T. Wright, and others.

"If any man is tempted to think - as one might be tempted who read only contemporaries - that 'Christianity' is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages 'mere Christianity' turns out to be no insipid inter-denominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognize, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante..."

- C.S. Lewis from "On the Reading of Old Books"

I was struck when I read this quote, describing "mere Christianity," particularly because the same week I also read Pontificator's very long and thorough rejection of Sola Scriptura and even of the Anglican use of Tradition to interpret Scripture as unworkable - the reason, I suppose, for his conversion to Roman Catholicism (the Pontificator, Fr. Alvin Kimel was once an Anglo-Catholic). The Pontificator's article is complex and thorough and I recommend reading it.

The Pontificator (Al Kimel) is correct that Sola Scriptura, if taken literally, must inevitably lead to individualistic readings of Scripture (when the individual is the reader of Scripture) and that this by definition cannot therefore serve as an authority for the community of the Church. However I think some of is critique is more of a dismissal than a real argument - after all the Scripture is quite clear about many things so that Christians of all stripes who earnestly accept that Scripture is authoritative over them (and not the other way around) agree on many things. He says that the crisis in the Episcopal Church is related to the unclarity of Scriptural authority if left to individual readings, but it seems clear than an intellectually honest reading of Scripture cannot allow for legitimating homosexual practice, as even some liberals on this issue (including my own NT professor in seminary) have admitted. The problem of the ECUSA is not necessarily one of hermeneutics (though that is not entirely unrelated), but also of simple honesty and humility before the Word. Yet even among those who are honest and Bible-believing Protestants, significant and church-dividing disagreements over Biblical interpretation do exist.

The Pontificator points out the importance of Tradition and of the Early Church Fathers in Biblical interpretation to many of the Protestant Reformers, especially the Anglicans.
So Anglican Lancelot Andrewes (the lead translator of the KJV) speaks of authority as: "One canon reduced to writing by God Himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of fathers in that period–the three centuries, that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith."

This approach was shared by other major Anglican divines such as Jeremy Taylor, Richard Hooker, and E. B. Pusey, and even John Wesley (a good Anglican) advocates this approach when he says that the Early Church Fathers are "the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given (WJW, X, 484)." And similar ideas were shared by the Continental reformers such as even THE Reformed Reformer himself John Calvin (as Pontificator points out in another place) who wrote: "In this way, we willingly embrace and reverence as holy the early councils, such as those of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, Chalcedon, and the like, which were concerned with refuting errors–in so far as they relate to the teachings of faith. For they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture, which the holy fathers applied with spiritual prudence to crush the enemies of religion which had then arisen."

As you may notice there is an propensity among Protestants to focus on the authority of the first four truly Ecumenical Councils (for The United Methodist Church the importance of the theology of Nicea, the first council, and Chalcedon, the fourth, is cited in The Book of Discipline 2004, para. 101, p. 42). Though some Protestants, such as Anglicans and Lutherans, are willing to accept all seven but give primacy to the earlier ones, especially the first four (see sections 13-14 of "The Moscow Agreed Statement (1976)" between the Orthodox and the Anglicans for a discussion along these lines). Though the Orthodox do not like this prioritizing approach, I think you can see hints of it even in The Decree of the Seventh Ecumenical council which endorses all of the previous six and then adds "especially that which met in this illustrious metropolis of Nicea, as also that which was afterwards gathered together in the God-protected Royal City" (NPNF 2 XIV, p. 549). So that the Fathers at the Seventh council themselves may affirm a sort of primacy of the first 2 councils - at Nicea and Constantinople - which formulated what we call the Nicene Creed. It is also true that the earlier the council, the wider the acceptance - only Roman Catholics accept more than seven councils, the Orthodox (generally, I am aware of the exceptions) accept only seven, many Protestants accept only 4 and classically the Oriental Orthodoxy accept only 3, though in the last 200 years many have begun to accept Chalcedon (#4) and move closer to the mainstream of Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.

The Pontificator argues, however that this approach (using the early councils and the consensus of the Fathers during the first few centuries to interpret Scripture correctly), especially as articulated by the Anglicans, does not work and that the Episcopal Church's current crisis demonstrates this. He also points out that there is no reason to stop at 5 centuries of Fathers as authoritative guides (as opposed to the 10 centuries of the Undivided Church at the very least). The only really coherent thing to do, he argues, if one is to achieve true catholicity of faith and practice is to accept the Roman Catholic understanding of Magisterium as the Spirit-led teaching office of the whole Church. This the only way to clearly know what is and is not genuinely Biblical faith rightly interpreted.

Yet I disagree; the real key is not whatever the latest thing the Magisterium or Pope "ex cathedra" has said (in a strange way, the Roman Catholic understanding makes the most recent "traditions" to be the most authoritative, so that Vatican II is in practice their most important council) but rather the key is "consensus." The Early Fathers rightly looked for a clear consensus among the various parts of the Bible within the context of the one whole canon, rather than pitting texts against one another, as contemporary "liberals" like to do in order to obscure the teachings of the Bible and allow greater license for individual interpretation (and therefore, for practice). There is also a consensus within the various parts of the whole Tradition, as St. Vincent of Lerins famously said Orthodox faith is that which as been believed "Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus " - everywhere, always, by all believers. This is of course an approximation since nothing - not even the existence of God - has been believed by every single person who called himself a "Christian." Yet the overall consensus of all believers is exactly that something that C. S. Lewis is talking about above. It is that "mere Christianity" that we are now in the habit of calling "paleo-orthodoxy" or "post-modern orthodoxy."

This is the Tradition - the consensus, running across denominations, cultures, and ages - that helps us to interpret Scripture rightly, and saves us from idiosyncratic or individualistic or (our) culturally-dictated understandings of the Scriptures, that clearly are not the one faith of the whole, the Spirit-baptized, Spirit-led, the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. So, by this understanding of Tradition as consensus it is in a sense true what G. K. Chesterton said - that "tradition is only democracy extended through time...Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead" (Orthodoxy, chapter 4). But not simply because democracy is intrinsically good (which may have been the assumption of Chesterton's audience), but rather because the Spirit was promised to the whole Church to lead her always into the truth and we take the largest possible sampling to see what the Spirit has taught to the whole Church.

"I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." Eph. 3:18-19, NRSV

"Sola Scriptura" will only work if the entire covenant people of the Church is the reader of Scripture (rather than the illumined individual, or any particular "demographic/agenda group" of the liberationist theologies), and we as individuals must begin to learn Scripture not only by opening our Bibles, but by opening wide our ears and listening to what the saints across times and places have to say to us about the Bible. All of our interpretation or understanding of Scripture must be seen as tentative at best, until we find the weight of the Tradition behind it (this is one more reason to reject the TULIP formulation of the Synod of Dort as well as the "Arminianism" [neo-Pelagianism?] of some of the 19th Century American revivalists). We intelligent American individuals with our NIV Bibles might think we know what Scripture says, but who are we anyways? Maybe we should ask the martyrs, or the Early Fathers, or the Reformers, or - yes even - the popes and the mystics what they think? Maybe we should ask those who experienced stigmata or who glowed with uncreated light before whom the demons fled or who led whole countries to embrace Christ? Perhaps we should strive to comprehend with all the saints?

This tradition is perhaps most prominent in the great Creeds, Liturgies, and Hymns that are shared by the Church (this points to one of the real theological deficiencies of top-40 style 'disposable' worship songs that are here-today-gone-tommorow), as well as the great Theologians. In every case it is those theologians (such as Athanasius or Augustine), those liturgies and Creeds (such as the Great Thanksgiving or the Nicene Creed) that recieve the most widespread consensus or endorsement that are the more authoritative guides. We know what they are precisely because they have recieved the endorsement of the whole Church (so everybody reads - or at least quotes - Augustine and only a few read Pelagius for merely academic reasons). So the reason that the Early Fathers of the first 5 centuries and most especially the Nicene Creed are emphasized by the Protestants becomes clear: they have been recieved on the most universal level. However, there are many more recent teachers who are widely acknowledge across denominational, chronological, or linguistic/ethnic lines - including Aquinas, the major Reformers, and even C. S. Lewis himself - who are therefore important parts of this consensus; it is after all the consensus of the whole Church (or, the closer approximations of it) that is authoritative Tradition. We see the same thing with hymnody, so that hymns by Charles Wesley, for example, are sung in Roman Catholic and even certain English-speaking Orthodox Churches in addition to every kind of Protestant denomination - that is consensus. That is what the Episcopal bishops departed from in the election of a self-avowed practicing homosexual man to the episcopacy, as anyone with eyes can see (unless they wear ideological blinders).

Is this "Ecumenical/historical Consensus" method as "clean" as what the Pontificator suggests (simply accepting what the Roman Magisterium says)? No, it is not. Nor does it work as quickly when a controversy arises as a simple appeal to the pope, but it does work (I believe the coming decades will even show this to be true for the Anglicans). And it is more historically credible than some papal claims (which, because they are rejected by the Orthodox and Protestants do not have the consensus of the whole Church) and it takes into account the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit among Protestants and Orthodox as well as Roman Catholics (seeing that all 3 can be seen as legitimate heirs of the Early Church, being directly descended from it), and it is even more similar to what the Early Fathers, like St. Vincent, themselves believed about Church authority than is the post-19th Century Roman Catholic position that the Pontificator has embraced. And I remain convinced that it is possible to see relatively clearly (never absolutely, as we would like) just what this consensus is - what the core of the Christian faith everywhere and always is, if we are intellectually honest about our theology, submitting it always to the judgment of the whole Church.

I think what the Pontificator fails to take account of is the sort of deliberate self-deception that occurs when those who hold an un-Christian belief (usually derived from culture and not from the Bible) seek to "make it Christian" against the grain of the plain meaning of Scripture and the plain Ecumenical Consensus about that plain meaning. This will not prevent errors for occuring, but in time it will sort them out. If the Anglicans use this historical consensus method then it is clear that the radical Episcopal bishops who pushed the Pontificator (and many others) to Roman Catholicism are themselves not being consistent with Anglican methodology, so it can hardly be said that their actions are the natural result of it and that it is therefore deficient (as many Anglicans-turned-Roman Catholic now argue to justify the switch to family and friends).

There will always be arguments within the Church Catholic (for its members are not yet glorified) - and for our part we must show Christian love to all, "hold fast to the faith once delivered to the saints," and constantly exhort the Church to gaze across history at the Ecumenical Consensus that Lewis calls "positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible" to continually deepen, humble, and clarify our grasp of the Word and work of the Lord. By doing so we really will be able to interpret Scripture with ALL the saints for our docrtrines. So my interpretative position is similar to the Eastern Orthodox - who emphasize that the Ecumenical Councils are authoritative precisely because they are Ecumenical - the whole Church was, in a sense, gathered there - and therefore led by the Spirit, according to the promise of Christ. Such a consensus does characterize the "mere Christianity" that Lewis describes. The same cannot be said about the dogmatic status of the Emmaculate Conception or the infallibility of the pope ex cathedra and other Roman innovations that the Pontificator must subscribe to as fundamental elements of Christianity though the Fathers, the Eastern Churches, and the Protestants never did. And a catholic consensus certainly cannot be claimed for the "revisioned" views offered by a handful of well-off Westerners under the misleading name of "progressive Christianity."

Further Reading:
For more along these (methodological) lines I recommend:
Rebirth of Orthodoxy, by Thomas Oden and Ancient-Future Faith by Rob Webber.
For good introductions to the content of the Ecumenical consensus you might try (the shorter) Pastoral Theology or (the longer) Systematic Theology by Oden. If (better still) you prefer primary sources - then the more comprehensive and theological Christian Classics Library Series or the shorter and easier and more spirituality-oriented Upper Room Spiritual Classics series are good places to start. Excellent day by day or selection readers include: From the Library of C.S. Lewis: Selections and Day By Day with the Early Church Fathers. As are the "Wesley Studies Library" and "Christian Classics Library" links on the side bar of "Gloria Deo."

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


Good post among other good posts, including the old one on William Willimon and self-help in 2005.

Go tigers!

Dayne S.

8:22 AM, June 02, 2007  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I'm just elated someone made it all the way through! The links to the pontificator's arguments are at the moment, not all correct, since he closed shop and just posted some of his archive at a less-cool site. I'll try to eventually find the links, but if you want, you can get to his archive by taking the "Pontifications" link on my sidebar.

11:49 AM, November 20, 2007  
Blogger rob said...

Wow, I can't digest all of this in one sitting, but I want to read it carefully. Can I buy a few days' extra free time to go over this? Sigh...

9:20 AM, September 27, 2011  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

sure Rob, you should be able to access it by date from the "posts by date" down on the right side bar (this one is dated 5/24/07); or you can click the "CS Lewis" category and scroll down.

8:39 AM, September 28, 2011  

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