Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Reflections on the Church of Christ: Biblical Positivism

In a prior post, I said a little about a certain doctrine that holds sway in the Church of Christ (CofC from here on). I called it Biblical Positivism and described it thus:
It [the CofC] treats Scripture like a great storehouse of spiritual and moral truth, and thinks that all the Christian may say is already explicitly said there. Thus in the CofC, all that one may do is gather together texts. One does not attempt to discern how they hang together; one does not attempt to state the Bible's most important doctrines in the form of creeds, and (heaven forbid) one does not attempt to engage in scriptural interpretation if that requires that one do more than simply restate (perhaps in a folksy way) what's already said there in exactly the way it's said. In the church of Christ, one just assembles verses, without, I should add, much regard for context.
If we carve through to the heart of the doctrine, we find that Biblical Positivism is this: in the interpretation and promulgation of Scripture, all that one is allowed to do is state what Scripture already says in the ways that it says it. One cannot introduce distinctions not already there. One cannot introduce language not already there. Instead one just says what it says in the language and with the conceptual apparatus it says it.

Biblical Positivism of course assumes the inerrancy and the sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture, it assumes, contains not even a hint of error, and is sufficient to answer all questions of a moral or spiritual nature. But it also assumes more than inerrancy and sufficiency. It is at bottom a linguistic/conceptual sufficiency thesis. It says not only that Scripture is sufficient to answers all moral/spiritual questions. It says also that mere repetition of Biblical assertions, in the very language that they're made, is sufficient to answer all moral/spiritual questions. One then never need extend the Biblical vocabulary in any way. Indeed to do so is to fall into serious error.

This doctrine may be attacked in various ways. One may for instance ask for the Scriptural sanction for this principle. (There is none. Nowhere in the Bible will you find the claim of the linguistic sufficiency of Scripture. Thus Biblical Positivism seems to self-refute in much the way that Logical Positivism self-refutes. Apply the doctrine to itself and you find that it must be rejected.) But I wish to consider Biblical Positivism's consequence for Christian doctrine.

Consider first the doctrine of the Trinity. It surely has Biblical roots. (The Gospel of John stands out in this regard. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word was God" is but one of may assertions found there relevant to the doctrine of the trinity.) But those Biblical roots are not linguistically sufficient to generate the orthodox doctrine of the trinity, for they do not tell us the precise sense in which the three persons of the trinity are one. Might Father, Son and Spirit be one in the sense of essence only? If so, they need not be one in number, for essence is something that can be shared among a number of entities. (You and I share an essence - humanity - but are two, not one.) Might they be one in the sense of some shared property - perhaps of goodness, power or some such thing? Again if so, they need not be one in number, for goodness is something that can be shared among a number of entities. Scripture provides no explicit answer to these questions. Indeed it nowhere states the orthodox doctrine, that Father, Son and Spirit are one in substance and so in number. The language of substance is foreign to Scripture. The result is that if one assume the linguistic sufficiency of Scripture, one does not even have the vocabulary to state the orthodox doctrine.

This state of affairs is dangerous, for it can very easily descend into heresy. If we cannot say that the three persons of the trinity are one in substance and so in number, the possibility is left open that they differ in substance and so in number. But if this possibility is embraced, monotheism has been abandoned. So too is the possibility left open that only the Father is God, and that Son and Spirit are mere creations who have no share in the Godhead.

The same can be said about the Incarnation. The orthodox doctrine - shared in common by Catholic, Orthodox, and most Protestants - is that Christ is the hypostatic union of divine and human nature. But you will search in vain for this language in Scripture. No doubt Scripture alludes to this truth; no doubt it naturally - indeed I would say inevitably - leads to this truth when interpreted properly. Nonetheless, it does not explicitly state it. Thus heresy lurks. If we cannot say of Christ that he is the hypostatic union of divine and human nature, many possibilities are left open: that Christ was merely human, that he was merely divine, that he was two natures, as it were, side by side but not joined into a single human-divine nature. All are heretical, and all are to be rejected.

Now, I don't doubt that the CofC does for the most part reject these heresies. But this shows not that Biblical Positivism is sufficient for the articulation of a fully orthodox Christian world-view. On the contrary all it shows is that CofCers do not consistently adhere to Biblical Positivism. They take over many of the conclusions of past Christian thought - that Christ is fully human and fully divine, and is of one, undivided nature; that God is one god but three persons; etc. - but do not acknowledge the origin of these conclusions. As I said, these conclusions are not extra-Biblical; rather they represent inevitable conclusions derived from reflection upon Scripture. But they do go beyond the language of Scripture.

11 comments:

jdavidb said...


Consider first the doctrine of the Trinity. It surely has Biblical roots. (The Gospel of John stands out in this regard. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word was God" is but one of may assertions found there relevant to the doctrine of the trinity.) But those Biblical roots are not linguistically sufficient to generate the orthodox doctrine of the trinity, for they do not tell us the precise sense in which the three persons of the trinity are one. Might Father, Son and Spirit be one in the sense of essence only? If so, they need not be one in number, for essence is something that can be shared among a number of entities. (You and I share an essence - humanity - but are two, not one.) Might they be one in the sense of some shared property - perhaps of goodness, power or some such thing? Again if so, they need not be one in number, for goodness is something that can be shared among a number of entities. Scripture provides no explicit answer to these questions. Indeed it nowhere states the orthodox doctrine, that Father, Son and Spirit are one in substance and so in number. The language of substance is foreign to Scripture. The result is that if one assume the linguistic sufficiency of Scripture, one does not even have the vocabulary to state the orthodox doctrine.


But this is a good state of affairs, as far too often the church has divided over such quibbles. All of the fulness of deity is available bodily in Jesus Christ. If we have Jesus Christ, we therefore have all the fulness of deity in Him, even if we do not fully understand the Trinity (and we certainly do not), and even if our own personal understanding is mistaken.

This state of affairs is dangerous, for it can very easily descend into heresy.

But a lot of those heresies have been defined after those divisions, by the people who won out on the division.

But if this possibility is embraced, monotheism has been abandoned.

False dichotomy, and the same one Muhammad used.

So too is the possibility left open that only the Father is God, and that Son and Spirit are mere creations who have no share in the Godhead.

Obviously this doctrine of "Biblical positivism," as you define it, would put a stop to that, and so if you're writing against this doctrine you seem to have lost that focus at this point.

Franklin Mason said...

David,

I'll pick out a few of your points to comment on.

I did not mean to say that we fully comprehend the Trinity. We surely do not. But there are mistakes that can be made with regard to it, and it is about these that I meant to warn.

Consider, for instance, your claim that the fullness of deity is available bodily in Christ. I do not dispute this. Indeed it seems to me true, but I would ask what you mean here by "available". One might take this to mean that, though Christ is not divine, he yet acts as a channel, or conduit of divinity; one might also take it to mean that Christ was the most perfect human exemplar of divine perfection but was nonetheless only human. Both interpretations certainly seem possible; they do no violence to the word "available" but rather seem natural ways to take it.

But both interpretations are heretical, and I think surely mistaken. One simply must move from language of "available" - and from language of "deity in Christ", for it may be interpreted in similar ways - to the language of identity. Christ is God, and he is human. Moreover, he is not these, as it were, side by side. Rather he is of one, undivided nature that consists in the perfect union of humanity and divinity.

Second point: I need the point about Mohamed explained to me. I don't follow you.

Third: the definition of the heresies has, I think, served to unify the Church, not divide it; and on them there is nearly universal agreement. They are not mere "quibbles". They cut to the very heart of Christianity, and to the degree that belief in them has been enforced, unity has been created.

Franklin Mason said...

David,

I wish to say a bit more about your post.

First, I do understand that a great part of the impetus for the creation of the church of Christ was to unify a highly divided Christian community; and it thought that it had found a means to achieve that unity in its Biblical hermeneutic. But I would suppose that history has shown the attempt to be a failure. The church of Christ has fractured multiple times in the past, and it continues to fracture as we speak. There are the most conservative congregations - called somewhat pejoratively the "antis" - the moderates and the ecumenical progressives. The unity is an illusion.

I would assume that this is just what we should expect given the lack of inter-church hierarchy. Each congregation may goes its own way, and go their own way they often did - and do. It is an indisputable fact of human community that, to the degree that there is separation of groups, there is a resultant creation of diversity of views. The lack of inter-church hierarchy in the church of Christ invites doctrinal diversity.

jdavidb said...

One might take this to mean that, though Christ is not divine, he yet acts as a channel, or conduit of divinity; one might also take it to mean that Christ was the most perfect human exemplar of divine perfection but was nonetheless only human. Both interpretations certainly seem possible; they do no violence to the word "available" but rather seem natural ways to take it.

But since the Scripture says that Jesus is God in such passages as John 20:28, both of those interpretations do in fact do violence to the word available, unless you limit yourself to just the immediate context. So you haven't found here an example that proves your assertion that more than just Scripture alone is needed to refute these mistakes.

The point about Muhammad is that Muhammad heard the Catholic Church define the Trinity, even using all the right words, and he still insisted that what they were teaching was not monotheism. The Catholic Church has given the Western world a great legacy of theological hairsplitting, and even though that sounds like a derogatory term I am not saying that it is all bad. But somehow other groups, like say the Orthodox, seem to get by with much less of this. For example, they believe the process of consecration is a mystery rather than a process you can dissect to find the very moment of transsubstantiation, and for that matter they get by with much less technical jargon about the nature of the event.

I called it a false dichotomy because you seem to be saying "We have to rigorously define this, or else we could be committing heresy." An alternative would be to confess that we do not fully understand and that multiple understandings are possible. In the case of the Godhead, we could say that understandings which do not contradict known facts (such as monotheism) are completely reasonable although not necessarily inspired and correct.

So too is the possibility left open that only the Father is God, and that Son and Spirit are mere creations who have no share in the Godhead.

To repeat: "Biblical positivism," as you define it, does not leave open the possibility that the Son is a mere creation, since He is identified as God in multiple passages of Scripture and is identified as having existed with God from the beginning in John 1, and is identified as being everlasting in Micah 5:2. It wouldn't surprise me if you can't find another example that proves your claim, but I don't think this is it. :)

Third: the definition of the heresies has, I think, served to unify the Church, not divide it; and on them there is nearly universal agreement. They are not mere "quibbles". They cut to the very heart of Christianity

Well so far I'll agree the issues you're mentioning aren't mere quibbles, but I could easily say that that is because Scripture itself proves that the viewpoints you're mentioning are incorrect.

Now I know that neither of us are saying that one must fully understand the Trinity in order to be saved. But consider two mutually incompatible doctrines: the Catholic Church teaches that baptism is not valid unless the Trinitarian formula is recited. Meanwhile, there is at least one group out there that teaches that Trinitarian formula baptisms are not valid, and that a baptism is only valid if the words recited at it are "in the name of Jesus Christ." SINCE "all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form" in Jesus (Colossians 2:9), and SINCE "the one who confesses the Son has the Father also" (I John 2:23), those whose baptisms did not include the complete trinitarian formula are nonetheless not therefore excluded from entering into a relationship with God in all of His fulness, the entire Trinity. They don't understand this is what they have, they may even mistakenly believe, as many children do, that Jesus IS God the Father and that God is one in number, substance, AND person/identity, that is, one being with multiple names. But if they have come to God through Jesus Christ, they still receive both the Father and the Son.

And therefore the hair splitting and over defining has served only to divide. I personally see no problem with us using whatever language we need to to try to explain what we think is the case about open questions. But when we pin down our language as definitive we run the risk of excluding people that God Himself does not exclude.

It is most certainly possible to have a unified church which contains differing, even mistaken opinions. There are three whole chapters on the subject in the New Testament.

I was reading the Athanasian Creed today, which I've basically never seen before. And I see that the whole premise is basically "This is the correct understanding of God. If you do not believe it exactly this way, you will be lost." I cannot agree with that. Seems like the whole practice of creeds would be more effective if they were statements of Christian teaching to non-Christians, rather than statements of one version of Christian teaching to try to clarify where other Christians are mistaken. The Athanasian Creed is quite obviously of primary interest to settling questions internal to the church (which I'm not saying is valueless), but it tries to say that the faith is all about getting this understanding correct, rather than the faith being all about yielding to the rule of Christ which authority He won through His sacrifice on the cross.

Speaking of unity, I understand that the primary theological point of dispute between the Orthodox and the Western Catholic Church was two little words in a creed. And the Orthodox accepted them; they just didn't believe they should have to say them in the creed. Unity, indeed.

Anyway, mainly I hope I prompt you to find some more robust examples to try to prove your case. :)

jdavidb said...

I would assume that this is just what we should expect given the lack of inter-church hierarchy.

But unless you are contending that the ends justify the means, this still doesn't justify an inter-church hierarchy. The burden of proof is on you to justify such, if you want to assert that it is justifiable.

Franklin Mason said...

Point taken.

But let me ask you this. I assume that you seek a New Testament justification for every form of inter- and intra-church organization. But we have in the example of the New Testament apostles who by their letters (Paul is our best example) show that they not only took an active interest in many congregations but also sought to exercise a measure of control over them. Doesn't this look to be the seeds of an inter-church hierarchy that attempts to make individual congregations tow the party line, as it were?

jdavidb said...

Certainly the apostles took an interest in making sure that the churches kept the faith correctly. It was required that the churches "stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us." (II Thessalonians 2:15) And the standard Paul applied to many a question was "But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God" (I Corinthians 11:16), "as in all the churches of the saints" (I Corinthians 14:33), "as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also" (I Corinthians 16:1).

But you're jumping from that to "seeds of a hierarchy" (and of course from "seeds" to the full-grown hierarchy, as well). Burden of proof is on you: were the apostles starting a hierarchy, or serving their role in starting the church throughout the world by teaching the tradition to enough churches that it could continue to be taught by independent churches after they were gone? And are there any apostles today who are authorized to do as they did?

(Personally, I'd say any missionary is responsible for the role of communicating with the churches he established to see that they keep the tradition of the apostles. But even then those churches are to be submitting themselves primarily to God's authority, even bypassing the teaching of their founding missionaries if necessary, and this seems to be in complete accord with what Paul said in I Corinthians 11:1.)

Burden of proof still seems to be on those who want to justify something beyond what that early church had. Burden of proof; not burden of finding seeds. ;) Or things that look like possible seeds. :)

Seems to me that the standard "we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God" argues for local churches with local bishops and that's it unless you've got an apostle somewhere in the wings who can correct those bishops.

Franklin Mason said...

In one regard, I think that it's difficult to determine who really has the burden of proof here. Is it me, or is it the one who wishes to replicate the practices of the 1st century church? Such a one seems to assume that those practices are law for today's church, but surely that's something in need of proof. (I would of course admit that some of what the early church did is law today - the Eucharist, for example. But the cofC doesn't assume that only some is. They assume that all is, and that very strong assumption does stand in need of proof.)

I of course do admit that there's no explicit endorsement in Scripture of the sort of hierarchy we find today in the CC. But I'm not at all troubled by that, for as I say elsewhere I reject Sola scriptura. My only point was that Apostolic activity does seem to suggest that it's legitimate for someone outside a particular church to exercise authority over it. I would assume that you do think that the Pauline epistles are authoritative not only for today's church but for the early church too.

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