05 December 2001

The other day someone related to me a conversation with a friend of his in which he was talking to the friend about some theological topic and appealed to the witness of Augustine. The friend replied, in all seriousness, "Why on earth do we need Augustine when we have Machen and van Til?"

I'm continuing to work my way through The Study of Anglicanism (edited by Sykes, Booty, and Knight). I recently finished reading the chapter on "Councils, Conferences, and Synods" as well as the earlier chapter on "Fathers, Tradition, and Councils." It seems to me that the early Anglican divines held to a well-balanced and helpful view of the relative authority and weight of the early general councils and Fathers, under Scripture. I'm reminded here of Calvin's discussion.

Calvin denies that even a general council is necessarily infallible in its teaching (Institutes 4.8.10-16). Nevertheless, he maintains that the teachers God has ordained for his church, do possess a necessary ministry and significant authority from God, individually and in council "to lay down articles of faith...and to explain them" (Institutes 4.8.1; cf. 4.3.2-3). While Calvin goes on to criticize how the church's teaching authority has been often been exercised, he insists that this "does not mean that I esteem the ancient councils less than I ought, for I venerate them from my heart, and desire that they should be honored by all" (Institutes 4.9.1). Indeed, he goes on to say,
...if any discussion arises over doctrine, the best and surest remedy is for a synod of faithful bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined. Such a definition, upon which the pastors of the church agree in common, invoking Christ's Spirit, will have much more weight than if each one, having conceived it separately at home, should teach it to the people, or if a few private individuals should compose it...And the very feeling of piety so instructs us that, if any disturb the church with a strange doctrine, and the matter reach the point where there is danger of greater dissension, the church should first assemble, examine the question put, and finally, after due discussion, bring forth a definition derived from Scripture which would remove all doubt from the people... (Institutes 4.9.13)
According to Calvin, any such decisions made in the past and appealed to in the present, moreover, should be diligently pondered and given their proper weight (Institutes 4.9.8). Thus, Calvin does not allow liberty of conscience with regard to doctrine to devolve into an individualist subjectivism, but places it within the context of a pious submission of the mind to the proper teaching authority of the church under Scripture.

I wish that American evangelicals would, with Calvin and Anglicanism, have such high regard for the catholicity of church and pious veneration for the work of the Spirit through his gift of pastors and teachers over the centuries.