Why Protestants Converting to Orthodoxy Are Not Doing the Same Thing as Protestants Practicing Private Interpretation

Doug Wilson, classical education advocate, writes about an evangelical convert to Orthodoxy:

I recently heard a very nice gentleman give his testimony about his pilgrimage from various forms of evangelical Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy. He was obviously sincere, intelligent, well-read, and spiritually hungry for God, but I was really concerned about the central hinge in his argument. . . .

After his talk, I presented my question to him in several different ways, and he did not seem to understand my question at first. But as we talked, he appeared to get what I was pursuing, but was still not able to answer the question. This was unfortunate because it is a question that everyone has to answer, and not just evangelical Protestants.

It goes like this. The problem he faced as an evangelical was caused by the various and contradictory doctrinal “grids” he had adopted over the course of his life, and at the end of the day he realized that all he had was a “just me and my Bible” approach. He didn’t have “just the Bible” (what he thought was the doctrine of sola Scriptura), which sounded reliable, but rather he had the Bible and his own private understanding of it. So in his hunger for something outside himself, he began to read the early church fathers, and was bowled over by what he read. From this fascination with the church of the first millennium (which he did not think existed anymore), he finally came across Eastern Orthodoxy and identified it with what he had been reading.

But notice what happened. He moved from recognizing that private interpretation of the epistle of Romans was “inadequate,” but then fully trusted himself to his private interpreation of Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, et al. He read these men and thought he had a reasonable idea of what the early church was like, and it was all done with “just me and Ignatius.” . . .

When this gentleman had read the early fathers, he had taken them in a particular way. But just about every church father he mentioned I had also read and had come away with a different interpretation that he had. And the Roman Catholics have scholars who are no slouches when it comes to patristics, but they have a different take, a third one. This can be multiplied many times over. During the Reformation, the most notable patristic scholars in Europe were the Reformers, not the Roman Catholics. That emphasis is part of what the Reformers meant by ad fontes, back to the sources.

Now if we are not to trust the Bible because of “all the interpretations,” it seems that it would follow that we are not to trust the church fathers either — because there are so many interpretations. We are not to trust church history because there are so many interpretations. We have RC church historians, Mennonite church historians, Reformed church historians, and Baptist church historians. If the argument is sound, then we ought not to trust church history.

Okay, so we need an interpretive community. Fine. Which one? And who decides which one? At the end of the day, the searcher has to trust his own judgment when he is determining which interpretive community to trust. We have RCs, EOs, confessional Presbyterians, Copts, Armenian Orthodox, Byzantine Rite, Lutherans, and on and on, over the horizon. In other words, despite the effots to make it appear otherwise, no one of these communions is privileged when it comes to the basic hermenuetuical issues. These communions are not outside the interpretive clamor. They are not “above the fray.” And the individual, in the presence of the God who will judge the hearts of men, is the one who has to decide.

To which the estimable Perry Robinson responds over on this thread:

Wilson is utterly confused. The question isnít epistemic. It isnít how canI know what the Bible means, but rather, how can I know what the Bible means with a specific and appropriate level of obligation? I cannot produce such obligation and neither can a group of people together making a decision. We lack something to produce formal theological statements sufficient to bind the conscience. So Protestants can get the interpretation right but still lack something that is requisite to produce binding and hence unrevisable theological statements.

Consequently, the Catholic or Orthodox Christian just isnít in the same boat. Granted that in picking Catholicism or Orthodoxy he uses his private judgment to KNOW the facts. What matters there are arguments. That is what makes one scholar better than another-if the arguments are good or not. But in the realm of doctrine and its consequent ability to bind the conscience, that goes far beyond the level of obligation of mere knowledge, because I am bound there even if I donít know it to be true, agree with it or understand it. The level of normativity increases with doctrine, which is why meeting the conditions on knowledge is something lots of people can do, but meeting the conditions on doctrine is something only someone divinely authorized can do.

Growing up, I always felt that I was obligated to believe the Creed, even if I didnít understand it. Even when argueing with the local Jehovahís Witnesses when I was 14 and they could best me, I still l would not give up because I was bound by the church to believe the Trinity even if I didnít understand it. And I think most lay people function this way, even in Protestant circles, even though on Protestant principles they arenít entittled to.

And continues here (link added):

The Most Excellent Pontificator wrote,

ďIf a Church cannot, in the name of the Holy Trinity, bind the conscience, mind, and heart of its members, then there is nothing else for us but private judgment. Ē

Thatís it. For Protestants everything is at the level of knowledge and nothing at the level doctrine. Everything is a matter of knowing with respect to theology. Doctrine just is nothing more for Protestants than an object, the access to which only requires that the conditions on knowledge be met because it is as a formal entity, a purely human creation. And nothing that is a human creation can bind the conscience and finally adjudicate disputes.

See also Perry’s comments on ecclesial infallibility and the ensuing comments following the post.

One thought on “Why Protestants Converting to Orthodoxy Are Not Doing the Same Thing as Protestants Practicing Private Interpretation

  1. Good post, an interesting challenge and nice responses. The issue in my mind is what is alluded to, that the issue is not ultimately epistemic nor “dogmatic” in a propositional sense. The issue is “the life in Christ”. The “life in Christ”, and the existence of the Church and the movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of persons is antecedant to propositional knowledge and theorizing about God or expositing the meaning of the Scriptures. The early Fathers taught WITHIN the Church, not outside it, and did not sit OVER the Church but IN it. Dogmas were ABOUT the Church and its life in Christ, not TO the Church as if from outside it. So it is a false dichotomy to ask
    “Which Fathers?” or “Which epoch?” or “Which interpretation of which Father?” The real question is “Which Church were those Fathers members of?” then place yourself in it, and THEN read them within the same culture, context and spiritual life that they wrote within and they will make sense.

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