Mercersberg Theology Part Two

Continuing my review of Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism.

The Formal and Material Principles of the Reformation

While not agreeing with many of Schaff’s conclusions (or at least the way he formed them), one must confess that Schaff has succinctly stated the differences between the Reformers and Rome on the questions of soteriology and scripture.  The material principle of the Reformation is how man is made right with God, and Schaff defines this principle as the justification of the sinner on the merit of Christ alone through faith (alone).[i] Schaff then gives a point-by-point analysis of Rome and Geneva on this matter.  He anticipates Roman objections to Protestant soteriology and tries to answer them.   Many of these objections and counter-objections are found in dozens (if not hundreds) of Protestant and Roman Catholic manuals, and it is pointless to retread the ground here.  I would like to make one point, though.  Much of Schaff’s argumentation relies on an outdated and distorted view of what Judaism was during the time of St Paul.[ii]

More importantly is Schaff’s defense of the Formal Principle of the Reformation, for one’s doctrine of authority will determine how one approaches the texts that determine one’s soteriology.  Like in his defense of the material principle, Schaff gives a brief discussion of sola scriptura, anticipates Roman objections, and then gives his own conclusions.   Again, I will not focus on all the objections and counters, simply because others on both sides of the issue have done so admirably.  Rather, I will focus on what I think are key weaknesses, fallacies, and clearly factual inaccuracies in Schaff’s proposal.

What is in the Bible?

Without argument Schaff assumes that the Bible = the Protestant Canon, and he rebukes Rome for incorporating the Apocrypha into the canon.   Schaff writes, “For under the written word of God, the Church of Rome understands not merely, as we do, the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, but in open contradiction to the oldest and purest tradition of an Origen, Athanasius, Eusebius, Hilary…incorporates also into it the Apocrypha.[iii]”  Whether one agrees that the Apocrypha should be in the canon or not, one must admit that Athanasius and Origen, to say the least, view the Apocrypha as Scripture.[iv]

What is Tradition?

Schaff routinely objects to Roman Catholic tradition, and some of his objections are worth noting, but he only rarely defines tradition, or notes the Bible’s own use of tradition.   Schaff defines tradition as the channel by which Scripture is carried forth into history.[v] However, he does not always allow this definition of tradition to inform his own construction of doctrine.  He approaches something akin to the Vincentian Canon (VC), and rightly notes how many Roman Catholic depart from the VC.[vi] However, Schaff wants to have his cake and eat it, too.  It appears that he formally agrees to the VC that all valid traditions must have been universally recognized.  Elsewhere in the book, though, he firmly rejects letting the VC (or any similar derivative) guide the church as a rule.  As noted earlier in his rejection of the Tractarian movement, Schaff is firmly opposed to going back to the practices of the ancient, undivided church.[vii]

Is Scripture a Free-Floating Phenomenon?

Disregarding what he (Schaff) has said elsewhere about Tradition (in the good sense), he writes, “As long as the apostles lived, the inspired bearers of the divine word, such tradition was sufficiently safe.  In case of corruption or perversion, the apostles might apply the necessary correction.  But the case must be wholly different, after the death of these unerring witnesses.  If the gospel was to be perpetuated in its purity, it became indispensable that it should be committed to writing.[viii]”  There are three noticeable problems with this argument.   The first problem is that this is an assertion, not an argument.  Aside from asserting that oral tradition is necessarily faulty, Schaff does not give us a reason why the gospel would necessarily be lost if it were not for writing.  He simply asserts that it will be lost.   The second problem (which is inherently tied with the third problem) is that if Schaff’s argument is true, then we must confess that the apostles failed to train faithful men who would be able to teach others (2 Timothy 2:2).  Following upon this, the third problem is that even granting the completion of a canon, and even granting Schaff’s argument that without written form, the gospel would necessarily be lost (which I do not grant), one must face the fact that the overwhelming majority of Christians did not have a written canon (at least nothing resembling a modern, Protestant canon) yet one must grant that the average Christian did preserve and pass down the faith, often without a complete canon.[ix]

Therefore, the question Schaff must answer is how the church was able to pass down the faith, how the gates of Hades did not prevail against the Church, and how all of this without the aid of a Protestant canon (or anything vaguely resembling a canon for many centuries).   One simple answer—and it is the answer of Sts Ignatius and Irenaeus, not to mention the lawyer Tertullian, is that of Apostolic Succession.   The bishops in visible communion with one another preserved, guarded, and passed down the faith once for all delivered to the saints.  Yet Schaff rejects this option in no uncertain terms.[x]

Therefore, Schaff must acknowledge the following realities given his own construction:   the church function without Scripture (at least in any real, formal sense) and without a visible, episcopal unity (since Schaff rejects this); therefore, on what grounds did the Church preserve the faith?  This question bears further reflection.[xi] For the answer to this question could lead the theological student down the road of “theological nihilism.”   For in negating tradition as is defined by the historic church, and in the fact that Christianity is a process, which means that other, earlier expressions of Christianity were inadequate, and coming to grips with the fact that there was no functional “Bible” for much of the early Church’s history, the theological student is confronted with a number of options:  without the Bible or a visible tradition, on what grounds can I base my faith?  Saying the “Bible alone” is inadequate for the Church was able to function quite well without “the Bible alone.”  More importantly, there was no “bible alone” for the longest period of time in the church.  Further, without tradition how am I to know what the contents of the Bible should be?  Finally, and perhaps most devastating to Schaff’s project, if Christianity is a process (or progression), on what basis am I to judge various expressions of Christianity?  This point will be pursued further in the conclusion.


[i] Ibid., 80.

[ii] Of course, I have in mind the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.”  While there is no such creature as “The New Perspective on Paul,” given that the leading representatives often disagree with one another on fairly fundamental issues, one can certainly acknowledge converging points:  1st century Judaism did not seek to “earn righteousness” by scoring merit points.   In other words, it is logically fallacious to read late-medieval Roman Catholic distinctive back into 1st century Judaism, rebut this construal as wrong, and then clearly conclude that Roman Catholicism is wrong.   Such a distortion causes numerous biblical problems, not least of which the Old Testament law did not envision itself as necessitating the adherent to “earn righteousness.”   The reader is referred to the works of Richard Hays and N.T. Wright for a clearer exposition.   Contrary rebuttals may be found by Guy Waters, Justification and the New Perspective on Paul: A Review and Response (2004).

[iii] Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, 100.

[iv] See the following:  Origen, ad Africanus, ANPF vol. 4, 391; Origen is actually giving a defense of the legitimacy of the Apocryphal books Susannah and Tobit as integral to the Church’s life and practice; Athanasius, First Discourse Against the Arians, NPNF (Second Series) p. 313, where he identifies Susanna and The Letter of Baruch as Scripture.  (Yes, I am deliberately noting the irony of using the series of Church Fathers edited by Schaff to point this out.)

[v] Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, 148.

[vi] Ibid., 102.

[vii] See especially Ibid., 161.

[viii] Ibid., 119.  Emphasis added.

[ix] And more often than not, this Christian lacked the conceptual framework for a complete canon.  In other words, it is doubtful he would have even understood what a “canon” was in the modern sense of the word.  For a very revealing discussion on the canon, consider St. Ignatius’ Letter to the Philadelphians chapter 8.  St. Ignatius identifies the canon (admittedly an historically inaccurate use of the word given modern connotations of it) as “the cross, death, and resurrection” of his Savior.  The larger context of his letter actually prefers something akin to tradition over wrangling about which texts accurately constitute “the canon.”   See ANF vo1. 1:84.

[x] Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism., 161.

[xi] Other questions along this line of reasoning could be asked:   for example, without a formal canon (and a Protestant one at that!) how was the church able to maintain a fairly uniform expression of doctrine and rites spanning from Ireland to India to Russia?



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