Our Educated Fog-Mongers: A Second Response to Doug Wilson

Pastor Wilson has responded a second time on the issues we’re discussing about laymen and biblical authority.

I agree with all of his principles. His original comment that we just have some differences of emphasis is correct. For instance, I think he’s right that many sophisticated hermeneutics presentations come from men hostile to basic and necessary distinctions that the Christian Faith has always upheld, and must uphold. I stand against this as much as Pastor Wilson does, and indeed, consider myself merely to be following the lead of Wilson and the other leaders in this community.

The difference of emphasis I see is that I, not being a pastor, have no burden to protect the sheep from the latest intellectual fads making inroads into the Church. I am not concerned about unbelieving scholarship whenever I write about hermeneutical issues. I am a sheep; it’s not my job to protect the sheep. That’s the duty with which my pastor and elders are charged. Now, I have read some works by unbelievers, and have profited from them. Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative, unbelief aside, is a really useful look at how and why the biblical authors wrote history as they did. But it is not unbelieving scholarship with which I am primarily concerned in my remarks. In my last post I mentioned Thomas Torrance’s book The Hermeneutics of John Calvin, which explores the influence of the nominalist tradition on Calvin’s approach to the Bible. On the basis of works like this (and others by men such as McGrath, Oberman, Ozment, etc.), I have made claims about a type of Protestant exegetical theory which I think has little critical grasp of its own origins, development, and problems, and is in unwitting captivity to purely Enlightenment modes of thought.

In these remarks I have always been talking about legitimate debate within the Christian Church. But many people have a concept of the the Christian Church and legitimate debate within her boundaries that seems unduly constricted. I have been astonished at the simplistic understanding of epistemological concerns that permeates certain Evangelical cliques. You can tell from reading their materials that although they might know his name, they have not internalized Van Til’s destruction of the Enlightenment notion of intellectual autonomy and neutrality. You wonder how they obtained advanced degrees in theology and apologetics and biblical exegesis and so forth, without showing that they are familiar with such well-established schools as the “Reformed Epistemology” of Plantinga and Wolterstorff, which vigorously attack exactly the type of naive foundationalist epistemology that prevails in much of Evangelical discourse. Is Plantinga a “postmodernist”? Is Wolterstorff a “sanctified skeptic”? Is it a “denial that truth can be known” merely to give a different account of the intellect’s place in truth-knowing than a classical foundationalist gives? Are alternative ways of thinking than the ones promoted by men whose Greek history is totally eclipsed by their mechanical skills at manipulating Greek grammar automatically heresy? Is it really possible to have a Baconian “mind washed clean of opinions”? The dogmatism and denunciation that come from such educated fog-mongers, believers though they are, starts to look like a really bad episode of The Twilight Zone after a while.

This is where some rubber needs to meet some road, and I here confess that I would like to be instructed on the point–not merely by Pastor Wilson, but by my own pastor and elders, should they happen to be reading this entry and wish to give their views. I agree with Pastor Wilson that faithful ministers “with their faithfulness in leadership established on those issues which every Christian (with eyes in his head) can see, will have then earned the trust of Christians generally when it comes time to lead them in some challenging areas.”

I note that his example here is the very clear condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1. This is a doctrinal issue, and it involves rightly dividing the Word of God and authoritatively proclaiming it in a publicly-binding fashion. Similar issues could be multiplied. I have no quarrel with the notion that the pastors of the Church are the representatives of Christ, charged directly by Him with authority to administer the Word and discipline in terms of it. Pastors are not ontologically superior to the laity (as with one understanding of the ministry in Rome, for instance), but they do possess a level of authority relative to the Word that the laity do not. The Church is not a democracy. Authority means something, and not everyone has it. Not every individual is competent to handle the Word in public because not all are called to be teachers (1 Cor. 12:29). Not many should become teachers, for teachers will incur a stricter judgment (James 3:1).

Pastor Wilson himself cited 2 Tim. 4:3 on the accumulation by the people of false teachers to tickle their ears. Paul warned the elders at Ephesus that from their own selves “savage wolves” would arise and would not spare the flock (Acts 20:29). 1 Tim. 1:7 speaks of teachers who, relative to the Divine Law, literally do not understand the things they are talking about. “[T]here will also be false teachers among you,” says the Apostle Peter, “who will secretly introduce destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1). These clear Scriptures show that false teachers can arise within the very leadership, and lead the sheep astray. Authority is not a good just because it is authority.

And yet authority is real authority even when it is abused by men who are committing errors or sins. “Do what they say, not what they do,” Christ commanded the Apostles when they asked him about those who “sit in Moses’ seat” (Mat. 23:2). Hebrews commands us to obey those that have the rule over us, as men who will give account for our souls (Heb. 13:17). There is nothing in this plain Scripture about “But what if I don’t like what the authority has said?” or “What if I don’t think what the pastor says is biblical?” Yet, what Protestant does not automatically assume, as we have seen in recent discussions, that Acts 17:11 (and for that matter, 1 Thess. 5:21) is a mandate for every private individual testing “by Scripture” everything that comes his way? Who among us does not automatically read the Apostles’ defiance of the Jewish leaders on the basis of obeying God rather than men (Acts 5:29) as a general rule applying to the common Christian individual for all time?

This takes us straight to our roots as Protestants, and to a number of myths we believe about those roots. Sed contra, the Reformation was not a democratic phenomenon. For those who examine the issues deeper than populist Protestant propaganda does, it is just false to imagine that Luther at the Diet of Worms is a paradigm for today’s Burt Layman who, because he can’t see some point the pastor made in his sermon in “the plain Scriptures,” decides it’s time for the Patrick Henry Martin Luther “My conscience is captive only to my reading of Scripture, so give me liberty or give me death” melodrama.

Nevertheless, the Reformation, by putting the Bible into the hands of the common man, did contribute to the eventual rise of the distorted populist viewpoint. Luther saw this in the Peasants’ Revolt, and repudiated some of his earlier less cautious remarks about the “clarity” of Scripture and the right of “private judgment.” Clearly, neither clarity nor private judgment are absolutes. Nor are they simple axioms which do not require their adherent to have an ability to make careful distinctions. One very proper legacy of the Reformation, against an out-of-control ecclesiastical hierarchy, was that no human authority under God is absolute. But a lot has changed in the last 500 years. In American Protestantism, especially, the problem is not absolute papalism but absolute populism. We are not in danger from an infallible pope; we are in danger from 30 million infallible popes.

What, then, is a layman supposed to do in a case of disagreement with his ecclesiastical authorities? Assuming he is not a radical who thinks of all of life under God as a constant stream of just-around-the-corner-apostasies which he himself, by himself and for himself, must bravely resist to his dying breath, what should be his attitude toward pastors operating in the public square? Given that pastors are the divinely-commissioned representatives of Jesus Christ with authority to bind and loose, and yet given the actual situation in which we live (widespread literacy, with Bibles at everyone’s fingertips, and populist egalitarianism wired right into our very spiritual DNA), what distinctions must we make about authority in public discourse about matters of theological importance?

I would like to suggest as a provisional distinction–and I am fully open to better instruction on this–that pastors should not, as a general rule, be argued with by the laity on matters of specifically doctrinal (or exegetical) content. Hunting down and eliminating the false teachers within the episcopate is the responsibility of the true teachers in the episcopate, not of the sheep. A question I would like to see answered, assuming this distinction, is what about other issues on which a layman may be trained and in which he feels a pastor is not correct? Contra the popular distortion of sola Scriptura, every issue is not doctrinal. Every issue does not involve exegeting and authoritatively proclaiming the Word. To borrow a real-life situation, if a pastor runs around the Internet claiming in word and deed to be an expert in Church history, and yet can demonstrably be shown to be in significant error by a layman who has studied the relevant issues in far more detail than he has, is it permissible for the layman to correct the pastor? Pastor Wilson has said in his earlier post that the solution to abusive lay discussions is not a simple gag order. I agree, and so I would like to ask what Wilson’s alternative to the gag order is.

As a concluding note, I would also suggest the following principle for discussion. It is not the responsibility of any of the sheep in Congregation A to condemn any of the sheep in Congregation B as “heretics” or “compromisers,” or any other nasty fighting word. The care of the sheep’s souls belongs to the elders of the church, not to the other sheep.

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