Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Tale of Two Niceas

Here is an excellent lecture presented by Craig Blaising (one of my favorite theologians) to a chapel program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, on Reformation Day, October 29, 2009. The message consists of a powerful call to the authority of the God-breathed Scriptures, a stark comparison of the two Councils of Nicea (325 vs. 787), and, by implication, a rejection of the authoritative claims of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Blaising, a member of the North American Patristics Society who engages Roman Catholics and Orthodox in dialogue, is at the end of the day an eloquent and firmly-rooted defender of evangelical faith and sola scriptura.

Update: Thanks to Andrew Preslar for providing the video link above.


Andrew Preslar said...

Hey Chuck,

I am about half-way through the message, but wanted to let your readers know that it is available in video format here:

SWBTS Chapel (10/29/2009)

I will add some comments after I've finished viewing the message. In the meantime, I will say that I am always happy to find Protestants discussing the claims of the historic churches.

To the end of pursuing unity, even critical remarks are welcome. Addressing the issues that divide us is one antidote to an all-too-prevalent ecclesial myopia, which is often a form of shallow self-satisfaction, which is a kind of hatred.

No one who is convinced that the Church is the Body of Christ can be content with the deep, ecclesial divisions among those who call upon Jesus as Lord and Christ.

To the end of pursuing unity together, I recommend, in addition to Dr. Blaising's "Reformation Day" message, this website:

Called to Communion

I will get back to you with some observations concerning the SWBTS chapel message.

Chuck said...

Andrew -- good to see you here again, and thanks so much for the video link. You're way ahead of me on the techno stuff.

Andrew Preslar said...

OK. I finished watching the video. obviously, I have to pick my spots, since to comment on all 43 minutes would make this comment unbearable. Here are the things that jumped out at me (part one of two):

(1) Dr. Blaising has a high view of Sacred Scripture. His comments concerning the inspired word are moving. The Catholic Church says similar, even more exalting, things about Sacred Scripture, and has been saying them for almost 2000 years. So this is not the critical point of departure for Protestants.

(2) Blaising cites several verses to the effect that some will wander into myths, heap up teachers to themselves, depart from the faith, etc. I think that he is driving at the notion that the Church, or a bunch of folks claiming to represent the Church, go off the rails at Nicea II, or at some point, because of their explicit dependence upon Tradition, especially unwritten Tradition, as an authoritative repository of the Apostolic Faith.

Of course, if one takes this line, you have to conclude that the Church, or those claiming to be representatives of the Church, went off the rails way before 787 AD. In fact, we have the Apostle Paul, back in c. 50 AD, writing the following to the church in Thessalonica:

"So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter." (2 Thessalonians 2:15)

Blaising does not quote this passage. Nor does he quote from the pre-Nicene fathers, or Nicene fathers, who actively encourage us along these same lines: Hold the traditions, do not depart from them. Thus, the final anathema of Nicea II is deeply biblical and patristic:

"If anyone rejects any written or unwritten tradition of the church, let him be anathema."

Contrary to Blaising (c. 38:00 minute mark), Nicea II does refer to Sacred Scripture, twice. One instance is by way of direct allusion. This is the anathema Blaising cites while failing to recognize its biblical basis: 2 Thessalonians 2:15.

Of course, this biblical principle undermines Blaising's entire criticism of Nicea II and, by implication, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches.

(end part one)

Andrew Preslar said...

(part two of three)

(3) But I agree with Blaising about many folks heaping up teachers, wandering off from the faith and into "faiths" of their own devising (i.e., myths). Here are some examples, in more of less chronological order:

Judaizers, Gnostics, Montanists, Arians, Nestorians, Monophysites, Monothelites, Iconoclasts, Hussites, Wycliffites, Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Anglicans, Mennonites (Anabaptists), etc., etc. You will know that the sects proliferate, almost beyond numbering, after the principle of sola scriptura was invented in the 16th century.

(4) Blaising wonders what the antidote is to the phenomena, well attested throughout history, of people running off and doing their own thing, according to their own desires. He rejects out of hand two deeply biblical solutions (c. 17:30 mark in his messsage):

(1) Consult with Peter.
(2) Form a Council.

Those who are interested in biblical solutions, as opposed to Blaising's sola scriptura "solution," might consult these passages:

"Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days....

"Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up by revelation; and I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain." (Galatians 1:18, 2:1-2)

"When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses." The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them...." (Acts 15:4-6a)

I'd say that consulting with Peter and forming a Council (in consultation with Peter) to resolve disputes over the Gospel is definitely the biblical way to go. But it is just as definitely not the sola scriptura way.

(to be continued)

Andrew Preslar said...

(part three)

(5) Around the 25:30 minute mark, Blaising quotes this bit of Scripture: "Whoever does not listen to my words, I will hold him to account." He goes on to discuss the warning against presumptive speech on the part of prophets who have no commission from God.

The really interesting thing is what Blaising says immediately after this. Going back to his select texts from the NT, Blaising says:

"Now what God is saying to Timothy is that...."

What follows is not a quote from Sacred Scripture. It is Blaising's own words. Which raises the question: "Who authorized Dr. Blaising to speak for God?"

This little incident is an inadvertent exposure of the hubris that lies just beneath the surface of the proclamations of self-described sola scripturists; namely, when they say, "such and such is biblical," what is implicitly being communicated is that such and such agrees with my interpretation of the Bible (that is, the ancient writings that cause a burning in my bosom), and I speak for God.

Now that is papalism (with huge does of subjectivism) a hundred million fold!

The alternative to papalism, i.e., an authoritative interpreter of Sacred Scripture who really does have a divine commission to interpret the word on behalf of the Church, is skepticism. I notice that many Protestants are taking the skeptical route. Blaising, to his credit is not one of them. But neither is he the (real) Pope.

(6) Last and quickest: Logically, 2 Timothy 3:16 entails the necessity of studying Sacred Scripture (amen to that), but not the sufficiency of studying Sacred Scripture. Blaising simply assumes the sufficiency of Scripture, in the sense of sola scriptura, but he does not prove it from this verse, which does not, in fact, teach sola scriptura.

Other, perhaps more recondite, matters of principle lies behind Blaising's message and my comments. But I am already running long. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to return some criticism for criticism. Hopefully, we can all use the remarks in a constructive way, in the hope of eventually being united in the Faith.


Chuck said...

When Paul was called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ by the glorified Lord Himself he did not go directly to see Peter. He went to Arabia then spent three years in Damascus, presumably studying the Hebrew scriptures and receiving revelations from the Lord, before going up to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:15-18). His visit with Peter lasted 15 days. He doesn’t tell us what transpired during that visit, but it is unlikely that Peter trained Paul, or added to or modified anything the Lord had taught him during those three years.

Fourteen more years passed before Paul returned to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus. The occasion for this visit was the circumcision party (Acts 15:1, Galatians 2:4). I do not get the sense that Paul came up to Jerusalem to get its seal of approval for his ministry. He would have “run in vain” (v. 2) if the circumcision party, under the guise of representing Jerusalem, had been able to undermine his work among the Gentiles. Titus was brought along to demonstrate that God was receiving the Gentiles apart from the works of the law. That was the point of the visit – to ensure that all, including those “who seemed to be pillars” (Galatians 2:9) were on the same page.

When Peter later went down to Antioch Paul had to give him a tongue-lashing for his hypocritical conduct toward the Gentile brethren (Galatians 2:11-22).

The fact remains that when Paul bid farewell to the Ephesian elders he commended them to “God and the word of His grace” (Acts 20:32), not to Peter or Jerusalem. Dr. Blaising is correct in this. It anticipates a day when the men who knew Jesus personally (including Paul) were no longer available for consultation. Moreover, as an elder in his own church and a seminary instructor Blaising is authorized to speak “as the oracles of God…with the ability God supplies…” (1 Peter 4:11) i.e., to relay what God’s word has said, enabled by His grace.

Regarding 2 Thessalonians 2:15, your argument depends on the certainty that the traditions conveyed orally contained things essential to salvation that were not written down. Now, this seems highly unlikely, given the pains to which the Old Testament details the requirements of the Law. Why would the New Testament authors leave vital revelation unwritten? Is not the God of the Old Testament the God of the New? It is more reasonable to believe that what was essential for salvation was indeed written down, and that whatever the apostles taught orally and displayed in manner of life was consistent with what was written.

Andrew Preslar said...


You cite the fact that Dr. Blaising is an elder "in his own church."

That is precisely the problem. I can start my "own church" tomorrow, find a few people who agree with my interpretation of (the books I choose to regard as) Scripture, and have them recognize me as elder. That sort of thing gives me zero authorization to speak for God. Same goes for Dr. Blaising.

Our Lord founded only one Church, and it is his Church. Their is no such thing as one's own church. Such a thing simply a sect.

When you write that "he commended them to “God and the word of His grace” (Acts 20:32), not to Peter or Jerusalem", you are making a false dichotomy.

This is exactly the same mistake that Blaising makes when he says that in cases of doctrinal questions or divisions, one consults the Bible rather than consulting with Peter or forming a Council.

None of your comments on the Paul/Peter interaction in Acts account for the necessity of the Jerusalem Council, which rendered a decision that was binding upon everyone.

Paul did not simply do his own thing irrespective of Peter or the other Apostles. The church in Jerusalem did not simply do its own thing irrespective of the church in Antioch. There were no denominations. There where no competing confessions of faith, structure on ministry, etc. There was no Protestantism in the NT Church, just as there is no sola scriptura in Sacred Scripture.

Regarding 2 Thess 2:15, my argument depends upon Paul saying what he meant, and our obligation to believe and obey. He would not have told Timothy to hold the unwritten traditions if he had not handed on any unwritten traditions. Your gloss on this passage is an obvious and blatant rationalization. Sola scriptura is not taught in Sacred Scripture. Quite the opposite.

The Church is the Body of Christ, the indivisible, indestructible pillar and foundation of truth, in which those things delivered to the Apostles, by Christ and Holy Spirit, the source of all being God the Father, and that which the Apostles received they handed on their successors, and so on throughout the ages. Nothing has been lost. Christ's promises to the Church are better than that.

My position, regarding Holy Tradition, is predicated upon two things:

(1) Christ and the Holy Spirit are with the Church always-- Ecclesial Deism is false.

(2) "The Church" is not comprised of me and whoever sufficiently agrees with my interpretation of whatever writings I choose to regard as Sacred Scripture-- Christ founded a Visible Church.

Obviously, Dr. Blaising holds neither of these things, else he would not stand up in chapel and read the solemn decisions of an ecumenical council of the Church in a mocking tone of voice, setting aside that decision, and therefore setting aside the teaching of the Church, thus (ironically) fulfilling St. Paul's predictions to Timothy concerning those who would depart from the truth.

Chuck said...

To be more precise, I should have said that Dr. Blaising serves as an elder in the church to which he belongs -- my mistake for leaving any impression that he started his own church. By the way, if we assume that that church was set up by some man ex nihilo we assume too much. Most churches I have known were built upon the work of others, on and on back through time.

As far as my setting up a "false dichotomy," I assert that Paul commended to the church at Ephesus the best resources available -- ones that Peter and the church at Jerusalem would have surely affirmed. The Lord Himself countered Satan in the wilderness with "It is written...".

Nor do I suggest that Paul "did his own thing" -- rather, that he was commissioned directly by Christ and did not need another man's confirmation. The Jerusalem council rendered a verdict consistent with the nature Paul's mission.

Andrew Preslar said...

My comments have been pretty scatter-shot, and, ranging over so much ground, in so little time, have been abrupt. I deplore that kind of thing. I was a little piqued by Blaising's posturing, sarcasm, and non sequiturs. I guess I haven't heard a Baptist sermon in a long time. In response, I just went right to what I believe are the underlying differences between Blaising's sort of Christianity and that of those who, like myself, accept Holy Tradition as an authentic repository of divine revelation, including, but not limited to, Sacred Scripture. Sorry about the haste, which does not expedite reunion.

To come down, and slow down, to the particulars, i.e., the specific matter at hand, the Definition of Faith promulgated at Nicea II can be found here, along with the four anathemas and the disciplinary canons (the definition itself is not very long).

But I did the Council Fathers a disservice when I wrote that they quoted Scripture only twice. In fact, I count Seven references to Scripture, in a document that runs about two-and-a-half pages in my printed version. Those references are:

Eph. 5:27; Mt 28:20; Jn 17:20; Jer. 12:10; Ezek. 22:26; 2 Thess 2:15; Zeph 3:14 (LXX)

These are not direct references to Scriptures supporting the use of images in divine worship. Those references (e.g., images used in temple worship in the OT) can be found in the biblical and theological arguments made by, most famously, St. John of Damascus (676-749)in Three Treatises on the Divine Images.


Andrew Preslar said...


I just saw your last comment. I don't think it answers my statements and objections at all. Paul, with everyone else, was obliged to submit to the decision of the Council, in accordance, first of all, with Peter's teaching (which brought the debate to an end), and with the letter of James to the church in Antioch. All of this, like Paul's own mission, proceeded according to the will of one Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28).

Protestant's like to appeal to St. Paul as some sort of individualist maverick, a prototype of the Protestant minister. But the facts are that he always understood his apostolic calling to be extraordinary, and that it was accompanied by signs and miracles. As you noted, this exceptional circumstance did not mitigate against the Apostle's obligation to work for the good of the one Church, in accordance with Cephas, the Twelve, and their ecclesial subordinates (the presbyters).

The call of St. Paul is not the model of ecclesial ordination/commissioning. I know of no Protestant ministers who have received such a call, directly from the risen Christ, accompanied by miracles and then confirmed by the Church as a whole.
Dr. Blaising has no such call, nor does he have any ordinary call to speak for God to the Church (i.e., sacramental apostolic succession).

As I indicated in my last, the differences between us concerning the relationship of Church and divine revelation, Church authority and individual charism/judgment, the nature of the Church, the nature (and source) of the ordained ministry, and the repository of revelation, are too great to deal with in scatter-shot manner. I tried to respond to a lot of what I take to be grievous errors in Blaising's overall approach to the Catholic Faith, but that was too big a task to do rightly, in so short a space.

Blaising sort of got down to specifics at the end of his speech.
I take it that he, and you, reject the actual teaching of Nicea II concerning Christian images. But his focus, as you noted, was on the authority to which the Council appealed--Tradition.

In light of what St. Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Thessalonians (among other reasons), I believe that both written tradition (e.g., the Bible) and unwritten tradition are authoritative for the Church.

The Gospels omit many things concerning Our Lord (John 20:30). The Epistles are, as the genre suggests, of an occasional nature, written to specific people for specific reasons. They are not intended to be systematic or exhaustive to the end of giving specific directions for the entire life of the Church through time.

One of the great arguments for Tradition is the fact that the Church is not built upon writings, but upon persons, the cornerstone being the Word of God, Jesus Christ, together with the Apostles and Prophets (Eph, 2:20; cf. Rev 21:10-14).

Sacred Scripture is among the chief treasures of the Church, and has a unique kind of authority in the Church, but it does not stand on its own outside the Church. A book must be read and interpreted in context, and the life of the Church (the Body of Christ), which is what "Tradition" ultimately means, is the context in which Catholic and Orthodox Christians read Sacred Scripture.

Scripture is not a dead letter, a book sitting around on someone's endtable, nor a mere literary object, to be dissected by scholars, precisely because it lives in the life of the Church, which is the life of Christ, communicated to his mystical Body.

To pit Scripture (the inspired word about Christ) against Tradition (the life of the mystical Body of Christ) is to opposed Christ to Christ, which is to divide him, which is to crucify him again, and put him to an open shame. But now I am waxing polemical, again.