In my post last night The death of evangelicalism? I dealt only with John Richardson’s post relevant to this topic and with the first part of the paper of his own which he linked to in his comments there. I didn’t discuss the remainder of the paper because my post was already rather long, and because it was nearly midnight.
In a comment John rightly took me to task for not dealing what he wrote about J.C. Ryle’s position as well as about J.H. Newman’s. He denied abandoning Newman’s second approach in favour of his first one, and wrote:
Rather, I have laid out two approaches – Newman and J C Ryle’s – each of which has something to commend it (Newman in his negatives, Ryle in his positives) but each of which is also problematic (Newman in his positives and Ryle in his negatives).
I responded to John with a long comment. But it was so long that it probably works better as a post of its own. So I am now publishing it again, slightly edited, as a new post.
Ryle’s position is indeed much more acceptable to me than Newman’s. But I read John Richardson as accepting it only “In the wider world of human inquiry” but rejecting Ryle’s words
You are not to believe things in religion merely because they are said … by Churches, Councils, or Synods …,
stating instead that we should not
set our private judgement against the Church’s collective witness.
I could have gone on to express my shock (anticipated by John) that a Protestant and self-declared evangelical could write:
it is entirely appropriate for any Church to operate something like the Roman nihil obstat—a declaration that a work contains nothing contradictory to its doctrinal standards.
I take John’s point about how publishing houses in effect do this. However, publishing houses are mostly independent and people can choose which to buy their books from. This is quite different from the entirely un-Protestant, un-Anglican approach which John proposes of giving some kind of a power of censorship to a body of
those charged with guarding the Church’s teaching ministry not just for its skill but for its orthodoxy.
To whom would such a body be answerable? Would it too be expected to have
the humility to say to other Christians, “Do you think I have got this right?”
It is this attitude of John’s which makes me think he would be more at home in Rome.
Let me go on to this question which John asks:
What is the point of being a denomination if the disagreements amongst ourselves are greater than our differences with those outside our supposed ‘boundaries’?
What indeed? Is there any point in being a denomination? It still seems to me that there are two logical positions here, the same ones Newman outlined. One is to follow the authority of tradition which leads to Rome, or perhaps to Eastern Orthodoxy. The other is to follow the authority of sola scriptura which leads, whether we like it or not, to the kind of free for all which Robbie Low caricatured.
There is, it seems to me as it did to Newman, no logically tenable middle way by which, for example, we reject the authority of the church up to 1517, accept the right of a few Reformers to their private judgment, and then imply that suddenly in about 1611 or 1662 everything changed and we have to abandon sola scriptura and follow the authority of a new Protestant magisterium and inquisition.
Then we have to ask, is Robbie Low’s caricature really a fair one? Yes, I know that there have been cases of individuals setting themselves up as “a pope in his own parish or in his own front room”. But since John and I agree that “gospel unity cannot be preserved by legal impositions” we cannot stop this happening.
What we should look at instead is how for nearly 500 years since the Reformation, and in a smaller way even before that, there have been (at least where they have not been persecuted out of existence) successful more or less informal associations of more or less independent congregations which have got on reasonably well. Sometimes they have been nominally within denominations but have remained at arm’s length from formal denominational structures and doctrinal standards – as for example the majority of evangelical and many other congregations of the Church of England. Most Protestant churches in the UK and in North America more or less fit this picture.
It is of course very sad when these informal groupings start bickering in public, and they should be encouraged not to. Nevertheless the system is not disastrously bad. Of course some of them have come off the doctrinal rails. But this is where the Gamaliel principle comes in: in most cases congregations which have become seriously liberal gradually decline and die, even though Anglican system tries its hardest to keep these dying congregations alive. The congregations which grow and divide are almost always those which are faithful to the word of God.
So, to summarise, while the current system has its problems, it isn’t completely broken. So let’s stop arguing publicly about second order issues, like the details of the Atonement or ordination of women, show love to one another, and get on with proclaiming the gospel.