Protestant Epistemology and Historic Theology

Russian Ikon of St. Michael.
Russian Ikon of St. Michael.

Russian Ikon of St. Michael.

By: Jay

The torture is about to commence, as we will soon be subjected to an endless barrage of dispensationalist and millennialist advertising and propaganda, as the Left Behind series makes its way to the big screen.  A genius move by Nic Cage and the filmmakers, the ridiculous, utterly unbiblical films will make hundreds of millions, and are sure to launch an endless series of sequels as annoying and nonsensical as all those endless books were.  In Amerika, the Baptist and neo-Catholic ethos works itself out into dialectic convergence, where the dialectical opposition of individual private interpretation (Protestant) comes up against another form of individual private interpretation (the papacy).  Both churches have now declared their open rejection of historic Christian interpretation of the text, as both simultaneously see the secular state of Israel as the fulfillment of Christian biblical texts.  Most Jews find this absurd contradiction laughable, and rightly so.  The majority of Amerikan Christian theology is a heaping mass of contradictory nonsense that plays itself out in a circus sideshow.

Why would anyone reconsider their religious and textual assumptions?  There is a billion dollar market for millennialism and its profit$ and the coming Left Behind gobbledygook is something those of us in historical religious settings will have to suffer through.   Given my own dread for this garbage, and given that at one time as a young chap I believed in literal millennialism with all its absurd rapture trappings, I want to give a basic overview and critique of why this theology is fundamentally flawed, incoherent and irrational, given what Christianity has confessed historically in its creed and dogma.

The main problem with all premillennial and dispensationalist rapture theology are its hermeneutical assumptions.  The hermeneutics of almost all evangelicalism is generally a form of eisegesis, where the believer prays and reads his bible in his bed, hoping, over time to piece together in a coherent fashion a large, difficult book that came together thousands of years ago, that was never intended on being a privately interpreted work.  While well-intentioned, this perspective is so wrong-headed and ahistorical, it’s very difficult to correct because its born of a largely uneducated populace.  While there is absolutely no reason to think the Bible toppled down out of heaven for them to interpret without any aid, it’s also not a biblical view itself.  Even more incorrect, this idea itself is relatively recent, as it emerged at the time of the Reformation, where the stress on the individual’s private interpretation and “conscience” was the basis for the reformers countless and varied reactions against Rome and the papacy.  When Luther described his hermeneutical principle, it was “what the Word of God spoke to me.”  Where there was “Gospel,” Luther found solace, and where there was “Law,” Luther saw rigor and divine wrath.  Western dialectics never cease to manifest in the history of western theology: Bible versus pope, Rome versus reformers, law versus Gospel, sola fide versus works, and on and on.  As I’ve detailed many times, this heritage itself was the progeny of older errors that were implicit and explicit in Western anthropology and theology.

Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos accurately comments on this heritage and its dialectics:

“Western theology, however, has differentiated itself from Eastern Orthodox theology. Instead of being therapeutic, it is more intellectual and emotional in character. In the West [after the Carolingian “Renaissance”], scholastic theology evolved, which is antithetical to the Orthodox Tradition. Western theology is based on rational thought whereas Orthodoxy is hesychastic. Scholastic theology tried to understand logically the Revelation of God and conform to philosophical methodology. Characteristic of such an approach is the saying of Anselm [Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093-1109, one of the first after the Norman Conquest and destruction of the Old English Orthodox Church]: “I believe so as to understand.” The Scholastics acknowledged God at the outset and then endeavoured to prove His existence by logical arguments and rational categories. In the Orthodox Church, as expressed by the Holy Fathers, faith is God revealing Himself to man. We accept faith by hearing it not so that we can understand it rationally, but so that we can cleanse our hearts, attain to faith by theoria and experience the Revelation of God.

Scholastic theology reached its culminating point in the person of Thomas Aquinas, a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. He claimed that Christian truths are divided into natural and supernatural. Natural truths can be proven philosophically, like the truth of the Existence of God. Supernatural truths – such as the Triune God, the incarnation of the Logos, the resurrection of the bodies – cannot be proven philosophically, yet they cannot be disproven. Scholasticism linked theology very closely with philosophy, even more so with metaphysics. As a result, faith was altered and scholastic theology itself fell into complete disrepute when the “idol” of the West – metaphysics – collapsed. Scholasticism is held accountable for much of the tragic situation created in the West with respect to faith and faith issues.”

While many of my theological articles of the last couple years have focused on Roman Catholic theology and Thomism in particular, it is worth examining evangelical theology, given the dread I feel as Left Behind lurches towards us.  Metropolitan’s comments on theological errors can also be applied to the hermeneutical assumptions referred to above.  For evangelicalism, as an offspring of Rome, the “faith” one accepts is essentially an intellectual adherence divorced from works, in order to protect the doctrine of justification apart from works, which then produces good works, when the “regeneration of the Spirit” is authentic.  As a former Protestant, I am well aware of the textual justification for this view, which is a series of texts marshalled together from Paul’s epistles.  My intention here is not to deal with every text utilized to support the various Reformation positions for justification, which contrary to Protestant mythology, are all over the board – there is no single doctrine of justification Protestants can refer to, but rather a host of versions, from Bucer to Luther, running the gamut.  For a scholarly treatment of this, I recommend Alister McGrath’s Iustitia Dei and Heiko Oberman’s Harvest of Medieval Theology, where one learns the ahistorical character of sola fide, as well as the philosophical presuppositions that undergird the doctrine: Nominalism.

Heiko Oberman's Harvest of Medieval Theology

Heiko Oberman’s Harvest of Medieval Theology

Having read Calvin’s full 1559 Institutes and a large number of Luther’s major works, as well as a decade of philosophy research, I can say it is unquestionably the case that the entire Reformation milieu is grounded in certain philosophical assumptions in the late medieval era that prepared the way.  While Luther may have been a committed nominalist, allowing God to “speak” anything into being, regardless of what the nature of that thing was (thus, wicked men are nominally “righteous”), the opposite error for some Calvinists and reformers was radical realism.  Realism is the opposite end of the spectrum from nominalism, and while perhaps more correct from a metaphysical standpoint, realism for other reformers allowed the natures of things to also be recreated through divine fiat, contrary to appearance.  Similar to the Roman view of transubstantiation, the realist perspective allowed for God to remake anything in re into some new nature through fiat.   In this regard, Luther is somewhat of a realist, as his Christology allowed for the human nature of Christ and thus the Eucharist to become omnipresent.  For other reformers, the sacraments need only be an invisible, “spiritual” signifier, akin to their view of the church – an invisible “spiritual” entity composed of the elect alone, that inhabit a visible institutional ecclesia.

Metropolotain Hierotheos comments again on the sources of the preparation for the Reformation in the scholastics themselves:

“Scholastic theology reached its culminating point in the person of Thomas Aquinas, a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. He claimed that Christian truths are divided into natural and supernatural. Natural truths can be proven philosophically, like the truth of the Existence of God. Supernatural truths – such as the Triune God, the incarnation of the Logos, the resurrection of the bodies – cannot be proven philosophically, yet they cannot be disproven. Scholasticism linked theology very closely with philosophy, even more so with metaphysics. As a result, faith was altered and scholastic theology itself fell into complete disrepute when the “idol” of the West – metaphysics – collapsed. Scholasticism is held accountable for much of the tragic situation created in the West with respect to faith and faith issues.”

The "Bible" in context - ancient Greek Lectionary 298. A thousand years older than most Protestant Bibles.

The “Bible” in context – ancient Greek Lectionary 298. A thousand years older than most Protestant Bibles.

The unifying presupposition in all this is the anthropology of post-Augustinianism, where man is a duality of body and soul/mind/psyche, where mind is chiefly identified with intellect.  Western thought culminates in this duality with Descartes, where Augustinian and platonic metaphysics and epistemology works its way out in full dualism.  By the time of the Reformation, another tradition known as humanism, which had its origins in the Renaissance, focused on returning to the original texts, and was exemplified in men like Erasmus.  Calvin, too, was a humanist, seeking to exposit the original Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture, displacing the liturgical context which previously formed the housing by which Scripture was heard.  The key point here is that for all Reformation thought, the issue is not so much the divorce of Scripture from Tradition, but specifically in divorcing the Scripture from the liturgy.  For Jewish theology, it was much the same, as the texts were read aloud in the Synagogue and heard in connection with the feasts and the liturgical year.  Christian theology from its earliest days also inherited this same pattern, where the textual reading are part of a lectionary and liturgical year, not a pocket Gideon you carry home to figure out on your own.

Hierotheos continues:

“The Holy Fathers teach that natural and metaphysical categories do not exist but speak rather of the created and uncreated. Never did the Holy Fathers accept Aristotle’s metaphysics. However, it is not my intent to expound further on this. Theologians of the West during the Middle Ages considered scholastic theology to be a further development of the teaching of the Holy Fathers, and from this point on, there begins the teaching of the Franks that scholastic theology is superior to that of the Holy Fathers. Consequently, Scholastics, who are occupied with reason, consider themselves superior to the Holy Fathers of the Church. They also believe that human knowledge, an offspring of reason, is loftier than Revelation and experience.”

"Am I elect, or self-deceived through my depravity???!!!"

“Am I elect, or self-deceived through my depravity???!!!”

With this in mind, we can see how the counter-reaction from the Reformers to the scholastics led directly to the opposite error of radical individualism, coupled with the rationalist emphasis in regard to anthropology.  It was not merely a matter of erroneously thinking man could determine the difficulties of hermeneutics and Christology on their own, but the definition of human nature itself in the West had long ago rejected the doctrine of the nous, where man was body, soul and spirit.  With Augustine and his successors, anthropology was intellect-focused, and the mind functioned as a mirror of the exemplars in the divine essence.  Man’s duty was to traverse this labyrinth of mirror reflections back to the One, through passionate love of the One, the Highest Good, resulting in the final beatific vision.  Reformation theology dropped the beatific vision, focusing its soteriology on here and now, temporal justification by faith alone.  While God has a secret elect, it is unknown in time who those elect are, and therefore the doctrine of sola fide is something that can only be had through psychological self-assurance.  The difficulties of this doctrine are especially evident in the famous Puritan struggles with doubting one’s election.  While the Calvinists all confess the doctrine of assurance in their confessions, whether the individual Calvinist actually possesses it or is self-deceived can never be known, given the simultaneous doctrine of total depravity, which necessitates that one’s psychological state can be the result of demonic or self-induced delusion.

The same question of certainty must therefore also apply to Calvinist formulations of dogma and their psychological state of “certainty.”  And what applies to Calvinists here, must also apply across the board to evangelicalism, which may have dropped many of the Calvinist assumptions, but still retains a vague association with all the Reformation assumptions of atomistic individualism, ahistorical textual approaches, intellect-focused anthropology minus the nous, as Vlachos explains:

“Having given a framework to the topic at hand, if Orthodox spirituality is examined in relationship to Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, the differences are immediately discovered.  Protestants do not have a “therapeutic treatment” tradition. They suppose that believing in God, intellectually, constitutes salvation. Yet salvation is not a matter of intellectual acceptance of truth; rather it is a person’s transformation and divinization by grace. This transformation is effected by the analogous “treatment” of one’s personality, as shall be seen in the following chapters. In the Holy Scripture it appears that faith comes by hearing the Word and by experiencing “theoria” (the vision of God). We accept faith at first by hearing in order to be healed, and then we attain to faith by theoria, which saves man. Protestants, because they believe that the acceptance of the truths of faith, the theoretical acceptance of God’s Revelation, i.e. faith by hearing saves man, do not have a “therapeutic tradition.” It could be said that such a conception of salvation is very naïve.”

The Reformation produced two metaphysical starting points for theology in the West: Roman analogia entis and Protestant analogia fide. Fr. Romanides comments on these two positions:

“This teaching of archetype kinds in the mind [which is the divine essence for the West] of God essentially abolishes Divine freedom and comprises the entire gnosiological basis of the so-called Scholastic theological and philosophical tradition; in other words, the theology of Papists, wherein it is believed that there is an analogy of being and an analogy of faith between the created essences and the uncreated archetypes of ideas or reasons that supposedly exist in God’s mind. Thus, according to this theory of theirs, one can trace that which pertains to the Divine essence,  by penetrating the essence and the overall meaning of beings, through human logic.”

And,

“The aforementioned Platonic perception of God was embraced by Augustine and the entire Western tradition. William Ockham however did not abolish the   analogy of faith, which, to him, is the Holy Bible. To him, the Holy Bible contains everything that pertains to God in reality. And, he maintains, that it is only through the Holy Bible that one can come to know God.

According to the analogy of faith, there  is an analogy between God and creations;  not according to philosophical thought however (which is the analogy of being), but through revelation by God, as recorded in the Holy Bible.  In other words, the analogy of faith says that God reveals to man those things that pertain to Him, inside the Holy Bible, and that man cannot learn anything correctly about God through philosophy. Of course here, Ockham launches an attack against Augustine’s philosophical method, but not against the theological method that is based on the Holy Bible, in other words, the analogy of faith.

This analogy of faith was also followed by Luther, the founder of Protestantism. Luther had of course taught that there are two faiths.  The one faith is the intellectual type, of logical acceptance. According to this faith, man accepts something with his logic and believes in that which he has accepted. But this is not the faith that vindicates man; when the Holy Bible says that man cannot be saved through faith alone, it doesn’t imply the faith of a logical acceptance, but an intimate, inner faith.  Luther observed that the Holy Bible mentions that there really is another faith that is a gift of God and that this faith is activated inside the heart. However, he reached this point but didn’t go beyond it. He didn’t complete this topic, by going in-depth into the Patristic perception on the intimate kind of faith.”

Maybe someone will "rapture" this script away.

Maybe someone will “rapture” this script away.

The individual Protestant is playing out his presuppositions, just as the Roman Catholic does, as the Protestant approaches the Bible texts with the belief it contains all that is needed for faith and life, and the traditional Roman Catholic in sifting through papal encyclicals and seeking to make reparations through Mass.  Neither of these positions matches up to historic patristic theology, and ironically neither are biblical.  They are both born out of unquestioned philosophical assumptions.  This is not to say Catholics and evangelicals are unable to attain any truth or that their reading of Scripture are always wrong – they often do, but that is because both possess a portion of Tradition – the Bible itself.  Written Scripture is thus a portion of a larger context of Tradition that extends back to even the Patriarchs, prior to the Apostles, even.   Christ references this when he says, “Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.” (Matt. 23).  St. Paul as well made this point in 2 Thess. 2:15: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.”

With these ideas in mind, we can see how the Post-reformation West has become a haven of bizarre, contradictory beliefs and practices, between the Roman ecumenically-minded new mass, which followed Vatican II into its own internal institutional self-destruction, and the atomistic, ahistorical evangelical approach of DIY theology, where countless pastors, ministers and elders have little to no knowledge of historic theology, where the canon of Scripture came from, or what to do in worship.  This is why, over time, the more intelligent among them move gradually towards older versions of Christianity, recognizing their presuppositions were not “biblical,” but part of a Reformation philosophical tradition – a tradition that necessitated individualism, atomism, rationalism and nominalism.   Their positions lead to the utterly irrational conclusion that all of Christianity got it wrong for 1,500 years, until a mad monk with potty issues “discovered” Paul.

This is why over the last few decades, a sizeable exodus occurs, leading many of them to Eastern Orthodoxy.  This is the root error of the entire Protestant hermeneutic and epistemology – the assumption that man is an ahistorical, individual entity that “finds God” through his private, intellectual search through endless books, tapes, conferences, pastors, denominations, etc.  God is found in the liturgy and the texts of the Bible are merely texts.  Yes, the Spirit of God can speak through those texts, but the entire import of the Incarnation is that the Logos took on a body, and that body has a historical, covenantal manifestation in an apostolic succession.  Just like the priests of Israel had a temple and a levitical ministry within history, so for Christian theology, the New Israel that is the New Covenant, is a historic Church where the covenant has been opened to the Gentiles (Rom. 11).  This historical Church is a single, visible unity, not an invisible, “spiritual,” unknown unity (Eph. 4).

The Apocalypse cannot therefore be interpreted as outside the liturgical context within which preterism becomes self-evident.  The Eastern liturgy (and even the western liturgies in places) make it clear that the fulfillment of the Apocalypse in its most relevant sense is 70 AD, where the covenant comes to fulfillment and the realities are established in the historic Church.  This is not to say there is no possible future fulfillment, but rather that the whole evangelical approach does a disservice to present realities found in the actual liturgy, which is the liturgy of the Apocalypse.  In other words the liturgy one sees in the Apocalypse, according to historical and liturgical theology, is the liturgy, in its full power and strength, at the actual Orthodox Church.  Without this vital truth, evangelical idiocy makes all of this irrelevant and useless, aside from money-making speculation from moronic authors and televangelists.

Metropolitan Hierotheos concludes:

“And indeed we cannot find in all of Latin tradition, the equivalent to Orthodoxy’s therapeutic method. The nous is not spoken of; neither is it distinguished from reason. The darkened nous is not treated as a malady, nor the illumination of the nous as therapy. Many greatly publicised Latin texts are sentimental and exhaust themselves in a barren ethicology. In the Orthodox Church, on the contrary, there is a great tradition concerning these issues, which shows that within it there exists the true therapeutic method.

A faith is a true faith inasmuch as it has therapeutic benefits. If it is able to cure, then it is a true faith. If it does not cure, it is not a true faith. The same thing can be said about medicine: a true scientist is the doctor who knows how to cure and his method has therapeutic benefits, whereas a charlatan is unable to cure. The same holds true where matters of the soul are concerned. The difference between Orthodoxy and the Latin tradition, as well as the Protestant confessions, is apparent primarily in the method of therapy. This difference is made manifest in the doctrines of each denomination. Dogmas are not philosophy, neither is theology the same as philosophy.

Since Orthodox spirituality differs distinctly from the “spiritualities” of other confessions, so much the more does it differ from the “spirituality” of eastern religions, which do not believe in the Theanthropic nature of Christ and the Holy Spirit. They are influenced by the philosophical dialectic, which has been surpassed by the Revelation of God. These traditions are unaware of the notion of personhood and thus the hypostatic principle. And love, as a fundamental teaching, is totally absent. One may find, of course, in these eastern religions an effort on the part of their followers to divest themselves of images and rational thoughts, but this is in fact a movement towards nothingness, to non-existence. There is no path leading their “disciples” to theosis-divinization (see the note below) of the whole man.

This is why a vast and chaotic gap exists between Orthodox spirituality and the eastern religions, in spite of certain external similarities in terminology. For example, eastern religions may employ terms like ecstasy, dispassion, illumination, noetic energy, etc. but they are impregnated with a content different from corresponding terms in Orthodox spirituality.”

14 Comments on Protestant Epistemology and Historic Theology

  1. Yep. And Brian Tierney is good on the dubious origin of Papal Infallibility.

  2. Jay,
    This is excellent. Thank you for your writings and podcast’s as they have been instrumental in my exodus from Reformed Christianity, with a strong Rushdoony Reconstructionist bent, toward the orthodox faith.

    • I had a similar trek, as well as investigating Rome and other groups. Glad to hear I’ve been a positive influence. Feel free to donate a few bucks, if you’re able!

    • Jay I think many of your readers would be interested in a formal critique on reformed theology, written from whatever viewpoint (philosophically, theologically, hermaneutically, etc) you think most powerful.

    • Hey if that’s you that subscribed, I need a valid address to send advanced and extra content.

  3. Jay, love your blog. I disagree with a lot of what you have written here. I particular, I don’t think that scholastic metaphysics, at least in its Aristotelian/Thomistic form leads, (at least logically), to Cartesian dualism (hylomorphism, yes, but that is different from rejecting that man is bod, soul, and spirit. Aquinas himself certainly would not have rejected this.) Unfortunately, I don’t have time to argue the point. Out of curiosity, are you familiar with Edward Feser’s work. His recent Scholastic Metaphysics rescues the entire discipline in my eyes. Your results may differ.

    I would just say, though this is only tangential to your main point, that the Catholic position is that the Church is the new Israel. The secular state of Israel is of no import in Catholic doctrine.

    James L. Kelley,

    I loved Anatomizing Divinity.

  4. The best “therapy” the Church has to offer is the Eucharist. What could possibly top It? Philosophy and Theology are of course excellent, but in the end what Aquinas and Basil think are much less important than the Gospels and the Eucharist. Would you mind spelling out why exactly you think what you do about the Mass? Also, what about the primacy of Peter, and the fact that Jesus said, “I pray Father that they all may be one”? And, “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me.” (Luke 10:16) Thanks, Jay.

  5. Huh.Those films were done years ago.Didn’t know until now they were redoing them in Hollywood.

    One thing missed by evangelicals is that there are two perspectives or vantage points in Revelation.Read the seals,tru,mpets and vials and it is clear one vantage point is from heaven and another from earth.Also,many prophecies are manifold either in the near/far sense or numerous times over.Just as mistakes are made with allegorizing Scripture,so too can mistakes be made by hyperliteralizing like Lindsey,La Haye and others.Then too the whole Israel issue is where false foundations for eschatology come into play.

  6. Please credit the iconographer: Deacon Matthew Garrett of http://www.holy-icons.com for the icon image of the Mystical Church that you are displaying. Thank you.

  7. Jeff Marshalek // December 26, 2015 at 7:11 pm // Reply

    Kate Hankey knew of what you write about “a faith that is therapeutic .”

    4 I love to tell the story;
    For those who know it best
    Seem hungering and thirsting
    To hear it, like the rest,
    And when, in scenes of glory,
    I sing the new, new song,
    ‘Twill be the old, old story,
    That I have loved so long.
    I love to tell the story,
    ‘Twill be my theme in glory
    To tell the old, old story
    Of Jesus and His love.

    Jesus and His love is an old old story known in each generation by those who live a faith like Abraham. God spoke to him and Abraham obeyed. Through this relationship, God proved to Abraham that His word to Abraham was true. And His promise worked out in Abraham’s life, enabled Abraham to love His Creator.

  8. Lovely piece! I too dread to go anywhere near that ‘left behind’ imbecility! It is nauseating!

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