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July 15, 2013

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What are those "main things that all agree on, that hold them together under the heading of Christian" ?

Half of my family converted to Orthodoxy (Russian and American) and they take a dim view of the "Radical Reformation" as they would term Luther's separation from the Catholic Church. They would claim they have not changed since the Apostle Paul's teaching as they trace their apostolic authority to that root. It's compelling since Sola Scriptura seems to leave gaping holes in denominational splits over both small and large doctrinal issues. I'd be curious to have your response to this section of Christianity which frankly gets very little attention from Protestant authorities. And since I respect your opinion it would give me some interesting conversation starters at the next family gathering.

By the way, they would agree with the premise of your question and wonder how protestants can claim orthodox belief and have so many diverse opinions.

Luther claimed to have recovered Paul's teaching every bit as much as the Orthodox claim to have maintained it.

The bald claims of neither side answers the question.

Neither do questions of descent. For the descent is common. Every branch of the Christian tree can play the "I'm the true trunk" game.

None can do so with a good argument.

The hierarchical structure of the Orthodoxchurches is no proof against faction. For lo! Roman Catholicism. Nor does its hierarchy fare any better against faction: For behold! For lo! Protestantism.

Now, I agree that the way to decide the matter is to decide which church best represents the teaching of the Apostles (and thereby of Christ).

But if there is any way to determine that apart from looking at Apostolic writings, I don't know what it is.

I think WisdomLover's closing remark ("... if there is any way to determine that apart from looking at Apostolic writings, I don't know what it is") points to the core difference between disagreements in science and disagreements in religion. Actually, two core differences:

(1) Being able to use new evidence (vs. not having that option)

Resolving disagreements in science requires new evidence to be considered in combination with the evidence already on hand. Given a couple different hypotheses to explain some phenomenon, the difference between them only matters when they entail different predictions about what would be observed in some novel set of conditions that we haven't observed yet, and we can contrive to make accurate and reliable observations under those conditions. There's always room to question whether we've made enough observations, and whether they were accurate and reliable enough for us to be "sure" about the results; these days, this issue is normally handled with statements of the form: "the best explanation currently available is accurate to within +/- N percent" (where N may be a very small value, representing a known variance in the performance of the tools used for making measurements).

Resolving disagreements in religion is much more difficult, because the only "evidence" you can really work with (as WL pointed out) is a limited, partial, probably imperfect record of word-of-mouth communications (or subjective "revelatory" experiences) originally conceived in languages that are now long dead, dating from a couple thousand years ago. (Even if the preservation of original wording were assured to be "exact", the preservation of their original meanings, and conveying those meanings accurately to modern readers, is impossible to guarantee.)

(2) Being able to recognize, acknowledge and correct mistakes in previous explanations (vs. insisting that some established set of explanations must forever be accepted and maintained as indisputably perfect)

While it's there's a common tendency to describe outdated scientific theories as "wrong", the more appropriate description is that the limits of their accuracy have been found lacking as more observations have been made of relevant phenomena. A conclusion that the earth is flat is founded on observational data, which holds up to support that hypothesis over a certain range of geographical distance, but once you're able to make observations beyond that limited range, you find that the extent of inaccuracy becomes overwhelming, and a better hypothesis is needed. Likewise for concluding that the sun, planets and stars all revolve around the earth, or that the earth and universe alike are only slightly older than the oldest known written records of human language.

I've seen a discussion of Mormonism in which it was explained (by an evangelical pastor who was examining Mormon materials) that leaders of this religion have the capacity to assert "new revelations", which can supplant previous doctrine. (This may have been the method involved in revoking, a few decades ago, the tenets that did not allow 'people of color' to fully participate in the "deeper circles" of Mormon religious practice.)

If that is indeed a correct description, it's an interesting contrast to the more typical practice of religions in general; it can be a simple and sensible matter of church leaders declaring the arrival of a new revelation in order to allow a handling of novel conditions that is both "faithful" and contextually appropriate (e.g. in order to operate within the constraints of civil laws).

Resolving disagreements in religion is much more difficult, because the only "evidence" you can really work with (as WL pointed out) is a limited, partial, probably imperfect record of word-of-mouth communications (or subjective "revelatory" experiences) originally conceived in languages that are now long dead, dating from a couple thousand years ago. (Even if the preservation of original wording were assured to be "exact", the preservation of their original meanings, and conveying those meanings accurately to modern readers, is impossible to guarantee.)
Well, I question much of your characterization of the texts. However, haven't you just identified several areas where new information might arise? We might discover facts about the Biblical languages that result in a better interpretation of the texts. We might discover manuscripts that resolve some of those few real difficulties that exist in the extant manuscripts. We might find a new apostolic writing.

Any of these seem very much like new evidence to me.

Curiously, the last and final biblical text, the book of Revelation ends by commanding restraint on the notion of supplanting the message therein with additional dogma.

"I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. He who testifies to these things says, 'Yes, I am coming soon.'" Rev. 22:18-20

It would seem that we have been given all that we need.

In fairness to the Mormons and other heretical sects that add to the words of Scripture, I think the Revelation passage refers to Revelation itself. Not the to entire canon of Scripture.

The books of the OT were already established in Jesus day, and His reliance on them authorizes them as is. The books of the NT were established by apostolicity based on John 14:26.

But, as a principle, I think we have to say that if a new apostolic writing were discovered, it would have to go in. For example, there is some textual evidence to suggest that Paul wrote a third letter to the Corinthians (between one and two). Were that letter ever found, it would have to go in.

Now, in practice, I don't know how any new text could ever be authenticated at this time. Be it III Corinthians or an epistle by Mathias or James the lesser or who knows what. It seems to me that we are simply too far away from the events to make any significant judgment about the authenticity of such a text. So, while the canon is in principle open, as a practical matter it is closed.

I might also add, again in fairness, that Mormons, at least, claim that Joseph Smith and others are Apostles (so that their writings are apostolic).

And I must admit that the notion of being an Apostle is elastic enough to have included Paul. Paul counted as an Apostle because of a miraculous appearance to him by Christ which was later authorized as genuine by other already known Apostles.

So this question arises. Could there have been a sequence of Apostles each included through Apostle-authenticated miraculous appearance by Christ all the way back to the beginning?

Sure.

But the Apostolic line cannot be recovered by a solo miraculous appearance. But this is what Smith had. This could be made up, faked or caused by the devil. His appearance was, in some sense, authenticated by other men, but you need other already established Apostles, not just guys, to authorize that the appearance by Christ is real and that the prospective apostle, as a result, knows all the teachings of Christ. But this is precisely what you don't have with the Mormons. So their writings cannot count as canonical.

(And a good thing to, since they contradict well-established and central teachings, e.g. the Trinity, of the known Apostolic writings.)

BTW, you also, pretty clearly, do not have such a sequence of Apostles within the Ark of Christendom with the supposed Apostolic succession of the Roman Pope and Orthodox Patriarchs. So their teachings cannot be counted as authoritative in their own right either (especially not when they conflict with Scripture or with each other).

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