Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sunday Thought: the contingency of the Church

Protestant modes of thought and analysis are clearer if and only if [their] methodologies correspond to the nature of the subject of investigation; as this very thing is in dispute, appealing to them possesses the character either of a begged question or a "just because" assertion. Frankly, one of the reasons I am no longer a Protestant - one of the considerations that sent me fleeing from Protestantism, in fact - is just this presupposition that the competing claims of the churches can be resolved in some metatheological exercise, subsequent to which we examine actually-existing churches to determine whether any correspond to our idealized Christianity. The intellectual exercise itself is conducted in accordance with Protestant presuppositions, most particularly that such knowledge is itself not mediated authoritatively; in other words, implicit in the exercise is the notion that any church is the product of human deliberation, an artifact of history, a contingent manifestation of some disincarnate Christian essence. Which is merely to state that we're still debating late scholasticism, or certain tendencies thereof, and the influence of these upon subsequent religious thought.

It is true in a formal sense that anyone undertaking to adjudicate the respective claims of the churches, in the course of his spiritual journey, must possess, or develop, the capacity to articulate theological and historical claims at a high level of sophistication and subtlety; what doesn't follow from this is that Protestant approaches to the question - the alleged inescapability of private judgment - are superior - superior because unavoidable, any more than the judgement involved in such investigations entitles us to elide the distinction between private judgement and a humble quest that ends in its renunciation. Moreover, the very possibility of investigating such competing claims raises the question of sources: from what sources will we derive the criteria by which the claims will be evaluated? I perceive no prima facie reason to accept the Protestant claims of sola scriptura, and this rejection enables us to delve into ecclesiastical and doctrinal history. ...that a True Church, with magisterial authority, Divine guidance, and Apostolic succession, exists is entitled to the benefit of the doubt. This claim should function as the default position, inasmuch as it was the uniform conviction of Christendom, East and West, for nearly three-quarters of the temporal span of the Christian religion. It is not that this claim, being "positive", bears a greater burden of proof; rather, its negation bears that burden, since the negation of this claim is the attempt to argue that virtually everyone was getting it wrong for 1500 years. History does not need to justify itself; it simply is what it is. To the contrary, those desirous of overturning history must justify their undertakings; the accumulated weight and authority of history must be accorded their due. It seems to me that this is the properly (tempermentally) conservative posture.

Jeff Martin, in a long comment thread at W4.


Beth Impson said...

Thanks for posting this, Bill. It's a good articulation of thoughts that have been roaming about my (thoroughly Protestant) mind for quite some time, and is very helpful.


Anonymous said...

Thank Jeff, who put in the work. Posting it was easy. And thank you for reading it.