Wash, Rinse, Repeat


Below are comments in response to Robin Phillips. He asked me to comment on a debate that he had with Patrick Barnes on whether Protestantism was heretical. I comment first on David McIroy’s comments on the debate and then his own. You can find the debate on line here.

McIlroy wrongly assumes that  between Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox there is some common and neutral ground concerning Trinitarianism. I think this is dubious. The ground may be common, but it is not neutral.

He also speaks of universally accepted ecumenical Councils, but when we look at the canons and statements of those councils, there is so much that Protestantism rejects as to make the claim that these councils are universally accepted implausible.

He also tries to fend off the view that Protestant bodies amount to historical novelties. Given the significant differences between Classical Protestants in theology and practice, someone is a historical novelty. It is implausible to think that the early church consisted mainly of Baptists and Lutherans minus the designations. Further, historical studies by Reformed writers have in the last few decades made it clear that key Protestant distinctions are either novelties or later developments at best.


He tries to claim not only teachers like Aquinas and Augustine, but Ireneaus, the Cappadocians and Tertullian for good measure. First, Tertullian is not a church father unless we use that term in a very lose sense so as to include say Marcion. Second there are such huge differences between Aquinas and Reformed soteriology so that I can’t take a claim to him by the Reformed to be plausible. To be sure, people like Turretin rely on Aquinas in large measure at particular points, but that is different than being able to claim that one’s outlook or theology is derived from such men. Much the same could be said for Augustine. Augustine did not believe in sola fide, but he also didn’t hold to the dialectic of sin and grace essential to Reformed thinking.

As for Ireneaus and the Cappadocians, I can’t see how one can read through their works and plausibly claim then in anything but the remotest of ways for the Reformed tradition. Using Gregory of Nazianzus in proof texting is one thing, having him as a theological father is quite another. There is far more discontinuity here with the Church Fathers than I think McIlroy recognizes.

To say that the Reformed read the scriptures in light of the teaching of the church down through the ages is a mistake. Functionally, the Reformed read the Bible through the lens of their principle teachers and their disciples, and will turn to older sources for polemical purposes.  Likewise to say that the Church’s teaching must be judged by its faithfulness to the scriptures is a mistake for the following reasons. Is the church to judge itself or are those outside the church to do so? Scripture is a rule applied by a judge and so the question to be addressed is, who is the appropriate judge?

McIlroy argues via Augustine’s two city model that the belief in the church’s fallibility is not a Reformed novelty. But this is a mistake, because it doesn’t follow from Augustine’s teaching that the church, the kingdom of God was temporally a mixed bag of persons with different loves, that he believed that the church per se was not infallible under certain conditions. One can only make such a leap by reasoning perhaps from the properties of the parts to the whole.

McIlroy claims that for the Reformed it is not given to human beings to definitively determine which Christians are members of the true church. Let us suppose that this is so, it still has no direct bearing on the question of whether the idea of a fallible church is a novelty or not, let alone whether the church can be infallible. The two ideas seem compatible since infallibility could only extend to defining ideas or teachings rather than membership. St. Paul who was human certainly took himself to be in a position to determine such things via excommunication and handing people over to Satan. Jesus teaches the apostles that if someone won’t head the judgment of the church, they are to be treated as an outcast, which at the least counts as a practical determination of membership.

Aquinas did not hold to Sola Scriptura and neither did Augustine. I can’t think of any significant Augustinian scholar for the last one hundred plus years who thought as much. As for Aquinas, I’d recommend looking at Per Erik Persson’s, Sacra Doctrina: Reason and Revelation in Aquinas. Holding that Scripture is the primary authority isn’t tantamount to Sola Scriptura, since the High Church Caroline Divines, the enemies of the Puritans, adhered to such a view and they certainly did not hold to Sola Scriptura. Further, none of the parties mentioned thought that the individual had the right to be judge and be bound by only those judgments concerning the meaning of the Scriptures that he assented to. Sola Scriptura entails more than Prima Scriptura.

 Robin’s Answers

I had asked Robin some questions and I wasn’t clear that I just gave him those questions for him to consider on his own, outside of the debate. But since he was kind enough to include and post his replies, I feel that I owe it to him to address them.

Q1. Of the bodies you denoted as the visible church, which of then and during what periods did they teach the gospel as you understand it via sola fide?

Q2. If the church as a whole could not fall away, then wouldn’t in those circumstances when it spoke qua church be infallible, since the contrary would be impossible?

Q3. Where does 2 Tim 3 teach that any Christians is to act as a judge in such a way that their judgment is equal to that of the body? Or where does it teach that each individual judges for himself what he is obligated to believe? There is a difference between judging in terms of knowing that something is the case and judging so as to bind the conscience. It is not clear to me which judgment you think 2 Tim 3 has in mind.

Q4 On what basis do you conclude that the phrase “man of God” refers to any and all believers? Why is it only used of those ordained to minister in the OT and NT then?

Q5 The standard evidential arguments move from the reliability of the NT to the Resurrection and then back to the inspiration of Scriptures, with the Resurrection functioning as confirmation of the Scriptures. So the Resurrection is true because the Scriptures are reliable and the Scriptures are reliable because of the Resurrection. Is that circular or no?

Further, even if our position were circular, not all forms of circularity are problematic as Van Til points out. It may be a sign of internal consistency.

Q6. It may be a principle of reason that our thoughts are caused, but what is reasonable doesn’t necessarily map reality. Euclidian Geometry is rational, but it does not map real space since in the former, space cannot be curved, but in reality it can be so. Further, one can think that our thoughts are caused and it not be axiomatic and it also not be the case that they are not caused by anything else but ourselves.

The fact that I can use the same skeptical argument against the variety of deterministic views shows not that the skeptical argument is flawed, but rather than those deterministic models suffer from the same problem. But since you only hold to one of them, it doesn’t follow that it is not effective against the one position you do hold, since it equally affects all of them. So again, how is it that predestinarianism doesn’t undermine assurance, since God can determine you to be reprobate and think that you are elect?

My Response to the Response of my Evaluation of the Debate.

Part of your counter argument was concerning private judgment, namely that it is inescapable. That is what I was attempting to address.  While it is true that I would need to meet the conditions on knowledge to know about normative and binding judgments, but that is just to note that it is a knowledge claim. As to normative and binding judgments, I was thinking of just the kind that Protestants think that the church can’t make, namely with respect to the canon, doctrinal or moral formulations, excommunication, etc.

To continue the legal metaphor, I think it would be better to say that what I have in mind is the difference between the conditions necessary for a citizen to know about such and so law and for member of a society to pronounce a law as such, to make law and confer on statements the binding force of law. Now it may be the case that some fail to find out about such a law or fail to agree that it ought to be a law, but that is irrelevant to the question of whether it is law or not. Private judgment does not apply here in the sense that not just any member of say our society can make and pronounce law as such. Everyone uses private judgment in the first sense, but that is not in theology what the term has come to denote, which I mentioned earlier. It denotes the idea that everyone has the power via the Bible to do the second. This is entailed by the thesis that there are no infallible judgments concerning the bible’s teaching, namely that everything put forward as the Bible’s teaching is revisable.
So in order to know what the normative judgments of the church are, I’d have to fulfill the conditions on knowledge just like in any other circumstance. I agree that Barnes didn’t do enough work to support that claim but keep these points in mind. First, he can’t articulate his entire theological framework with argument in the space and topic provided, and even if he failed to do so, it doesn’t remove from you the confusing of  these two kinds of judgments.
I actually left Anglo-Catholicism for Orthodoxy. I had been a Calvinist in the Reformed Episcopal Church prior to that so I was never a member of the OPC or PCA though I had strong connections with the former. When I decided to become Orthodox, I exercised private judgment relative to knowledge claims. But as I noted above, that is not what the term historically refers to. I did not exercise private judgment so as to define doctrine and bind the consciences of other men in my decision. I am simply not capable of the latter.

You ask how do I know if I made the right decision. Well there is a difference between knowing and knowing that you know. One is one level of knowledge and the other is a different level. (See William Alston’s classic essay on this, Levels Confusion in Epistemology.) I don’t have to know that I know, in order to know. I just have to know to be said to have knowledge. I think that I know that I know, but I don’t have to be infallible to know, at least a good number of things anyhow. I think I know via a number of means, logic, historical data, philosophical arguments, theological arguments, etc. Barring direct revelation, what else could anyone appeal to? I don’t see how that implies that there can’t be an infallible judge of what scripture teaches.

The blog post you cite by Doug Wilson makes the same error, confusing private judgment necessary to produce normative statements and the judgment of individuals necessary to know. 

To argue that the Orthodox are not in a position to know which councils are normative seemed to me to be off topic, since even if true, it still would leave unaddressed the question of whether Protestantism is heretical. As for Barnes, it should be clear that I took his answers on councils to be inadequate. This is nothing personal. I do not know Mr. Barnes and I have only read one of his books. It is only to say that I think there is a better answer out there.

What is noteworthy is that you as a critic weren’t aware of the historical answer given not only by Orthodox, but others such as High Church Anglicans on this question.  I am not singling you out, but it seems far too common a mistake among Reformed apologists to either not know the position they are attacking or to not be able to think through the position in terms of where it could possibly go on this particular point. I am just suggesting that this is something worth reflecting on.

In any case, my argument was different and directly addresses and, notwithstanding any reply, refutes the objection that you leveled. I’d be interesting to see a reply to my counter-argument from you.
To be fair, Barnes did attempt to sketch or at least gesture at internal tests for councils, so it is not clear to me that his comments amount to a failure to address the point in question. To be speculative for a moment here, what would be a sufficient test at the time of its convening of say the council in Acts 15 on your view of things? It can’t be Scripture since the NT wasn’t anywhere near to completion. How would you test it?

2 Responses to Wash, Rinse, Repeat

  1. Robert says:

    My favorite apologetic trick my Anglican friends use is this one…

    The Church fathers did believe the protestant Solas, they just didn’t express it clearly enough.

  2. Sophocles says:


    Excellent reading material and great replies and probing on the debaters points.

    But why didn’t they post your picture? 🙂

    As well, I just posted the last part of my essay to Dr. Carson:


%d bloggers like this: