Protestantism and Relativism: the Conclusion

Addressing the remainder of TurretinFan’s post about this blog, he says that the claim ‘All of Christendom c. 1516 and before, you all misunderstand Christianity!’ is an absolutist claim, and hence, not relativistic. And indeed, he’s right on that. But that’s why I said that the seeds of relativism are found in the Reformation, not that the Reformation was itself a movement for moral relativism. In fact, I argued the opposite here: that Luther attempted to present a counter- Absolute Truth, but failed.

So here’s what we have:

  • “Ecclesial Deism.” I hadn’t heard this term, but it’s perfect. Just as the Deists claim that God the Watchmaker wound the springs of Nature and let ‘er rip, the Protestants claim that Jesus established His Church, and let Her wander into and out of Apostasy. Principium Unitatis introduced me to the term, and gives a very compelling account to support the idea here.
  • The creation of the “Invisible Church.” The early Church universally believed that the True Church was visible. Certainly, there may be those who were invisibly attached to it (like an American in Paris who is still authentically American), but the Reformation creation of a primarily or exclusively invisible Church eliminated the only referee in the religious debates. Now, when parties feud, who gets to definitively say who is right and wrong? The entire enforcement system envisioned by Matthew 18:15-18 is impossible without a visible and binding authority.
  • The creation of the doctrine of sola Scriptura, which makes the individual the ultimate authority over the interpretation of Scripture. I know that some, like Keith Mathison, have argued persuasively that the Reformers intended Scripture to be read only in harmony with the Church and the Creeds, but with no identifiable Church (and various denominations making incompatible truth claims), this was a pipe dream. Besides that, it makes no sense to say “bishops and elders are the same thing” (as Calvin did) and “respect the decisions made by the Ecumenical Councils,” as they were made by bishops who were quite sure they weren’t just elders. To reject the office that gave the assembled bishops their authority is to undermine the authority for them to even meet in Council. Of course the Magisterial Reformation was going to short-circuit. It ate its own tail.
  • Conflicting Truth Claims. Like I said here, Calvin claims that if you’re guided by the Holy Spirit, you’ll know the books of Bible. Luther says he doesn’t know the books of the Bible. Both Calvin and Luther reject the Radical Reformers. Luther, for example, described his enemies as “Romanists, Radicals, and Reformers.” With so many different religious factions saying so many different things, people conclude, “No one really knows the right answer.” When there are two sides to an argument, an individual generally feels that they can render a judgment between the two. When there are hundreds, they don’t. So they just think, “if the right answer is out there, who knows where it is?”
  • No Claim to Absolute Truth. Because the various Protestant denominations don’t claim to be the Church, but only part of the Invisible Church, they don’t (and can’t) claim to be the One True Church. Within Catholicism, there was a heresy called Feeneyism that said that only those within the visible bounds of the Roman Catholic Church were saved. Within Protestantism, such a heresy would be laughable — it would render everyone before a rather late date in history damned. So Calvinism, Lutheranism, et al, claim to be the best conclusion from the evidence, not the One True Church guided for all time by the Holy Ghost, as promised in John 14. That’s a huge difference.
  • A House Divided. In John 17:21, Jesus prays for the Apostles and (explicitly) for future generations, “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” It turns out the converse is true, as well. When schism and heresy occurs and oneness breaks down, and each party treats the other uncharitably, the world stops believing in the goodness or truth of the Christian message.
  • No Holds Barred. The Reformation created a total heyday for every crackpot theory someone had quietly held previously: everything from “sex is a sin,” to “Jesus is St. Michael.” But they didn’t stop there. After all, if Luther can remove the Deuterocanon from the Bible on his own authority, why can’t Joseph Smith add the Book of Mormon on his? Or why can’t Karen Armstrong add the “Gnostic Gospels”?

My point isn’t that the Reformers were moral relativists themselves. But they threw everything into doubt. Even while claiming to hold to “Scripture Alone,” Luther questioned which books were in Scripture, and since Scripture alone doesn’t answer that question, he took out numerous books, putting some of them back in later. So who’s right? Luther, the Catholic priest who believed in the full Bible, with Deuterocanon? Luther, the early Reformer, who tore out the Deuterocanon, James, Revelation, etc.? Or Luther, the later Reformer, who put the New Testament books back in? And how do we know who’s right? When Scripture itself is on trial, who is the judge?

In Luther’s case, it’s clear from his writings that he judged the validity of individual books of the Bible from their compatibility with sola fide. In other words, he based the Bible on his theory, not his theory on the Bible. That’s been the precedent followed by countless, like the famous Jefferson Bible, which just included the parts that Thomas Jefferson liked. That’s relativism.

Ah yes. One final thing from the post. He writes: “The blog is aptly titled, no doubt, and despite the link for those wishing to verify the accuracy of the quotation, I don’t endorse his post or blog in any way.” I’m not exactly surprised that the blog title seems fitting to him. It was titled by a Dutch Calvinist friend, himself an enormous Turretin fan, with a biting sense of humor. Of course, he was joking. As for the rest of the sentence, the absurdity of the rigorous Calvinist Purity Test got me thinking about my own absurdity. I’m a big fan of John H. Armstrong’s blog, and have mentioned it positively earlier, but because it isn’t Catholic, I’ve been hesitant to link to it. No more. As of today, I’ll include it, and any other worthwhile religious blog, even if they don’t pass my Catholic Purity Test.

EDIT: This is the conclusion of a multipart series. Feel free to jump back to part one, part two, or part three.

5 Comments

  1. I’ve been following this series and continue to be impressed. I’ve been linking to them on my Facebook and making a few comments there. Thanks.

    Had lunch today with Dr. A and several others (including Chris Castaldo, author of Holy Ground, Walking with Jesus as a former Catholic) listening to a paper re: catholic evangelicalism (ancient future stuff). It was good, and I made some good connections.

    I think John would be glad to hear about you now linking to him. Peace brother. Keep up the good work.

    DJ|AMDG

  2. BTW…do you know of a RCC doctrine stating that if an ordained deacon is present at a liturgical service, he must be allowed the opportunity to preach the sermon/homily…even if the presiding liturgist is the Pope?

    DJ|AMDG

  3. DJ/AMDG: that would not be a question of doctrine, but of liturgical rubrics (and possibly canon law). I think someone is confusing “preaching the gospel” with “proclaiming the gospel”. If a deacon is serving a liturgy, regardless of who is presiding, part of the deacon’s role would be to proclaim the gospel, meaning that he would read the section of the gospel assigned for that Mass. Bible readings are an integral part of every Mass (or, outside the Latin Rite, Divine Liturgy, Qurbana, etc.) and the reading from one of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) is always the final climactic reading.

  4. I understand, Father. Thanks. The difference is clearly important in RCC liturgy, and it makes sense to me given I was recently at mass and the deacon “read” the gospel, but the priest gave the sermon – which by the way was a solid and convicting Christ-centered sermon that to me was quite impressive.

    DJ|AMDG

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