A few years ago before I had started making theological explorations I used to participate–to my utter shame–in the conversations on PuritanBoard. I’m going to try to avoid the temptation to simply complain about how myopic and parochial they are. In one of the numerous threads on the Federal Vision, someone commented, “The Church has ruled that the Federal Vision is heresy.” I asked the obvious question, “Which Church: Rome, Constantinople, the SBC, or simply the OPC and PCA?” I then received a private message that I had been faithless to the Westminster Standards and the to vows of my church (it must be stressed that Puritanboard is not a church, even if some of the mods forget that).
It’s a good question, though. Without a visible, authoritative “episcopal” (not in the USA denominational sense) structure, on what grounds can a “church” body call someone else a heretic? If they say “on the Bible,” then why can’t the heretic say that he, too, is basing is contrary beliefs on the Bible? In fact, if the “heretic” turns around and does word-for-word the same stunt as those accusing him of heresy, why is his new pronouncement of heresy less valid.
A good Calvinist can then respond, “We base our judgment of heresy on the ministerial authority of the Church (I think that is WCF chapter 31).” That’s a start in the right direction. The judgment of heresy is not based on any one individual’s interpretation but is a communal judgment.
There are a few difficulties with this position, however.
1) In all practicality, it is hard to see where the true authority is: is it in sola scriptura or in the communal judgment of the Church. Contrary to many Roman and Eastern apologists, sola scriptura does not mean the Bible is the Church’s only authority. It means it is the Church’s ultimate authority. Here is where it gets tricky: if Scripture has the right to reform our worship and doctrine, who gets to make the Reforming decision? If one says “one’s Church,” while this removes the problem of individual interpretation as the ultimate factor, it simply defers it back a step. Now, if there were only two or three alternatives (Rome, Russia, or Geneva), this wouldn’t be so bad an issue. Indeed, Calvinists might even win that debate. Unfortunately, that is not the situation. There are thousands of alternatives, and if even only twenty were reasoning in the communal manner above, we would still have a major problem. If each church is representing the teaching of Scripture, and each church is exercising a proper communal reading of Scripture, then we have no way of knowing which is the right reading.
unless we have an episcopal authority (that doesn’t give us the proper reading, but it gives us a good start).
2) Even assuming the best case scenario for (1), another question arises: why is the communal judgment of 1630 to be preferred to the communal judgment of 381? And that’s not even the biggest issue. If we say “Because 1630 is more biblical,” then we are back to the problems of (1).