Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Evangelicals Adrift by Matthew E. Ferris – Book Review

Matthew Ferris has provided an examination of Evangelicals who have left their traditions in order to join with Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, which leads to the subtitle Supplanting Scripture with Sacramentalism.  The author begins by identifying the eclectic nature of Evangelicalism and recognizing the identity crisis and concomitant questions brought about as a result of the variation in belief systems:
  • •  Where do we come from?
  • •  How do we relate to the historical church?
  • •  Why are there so many denominations?
  • •  How do we know we have true doctrine?
  • •  Are we interpreting the Scriptures correctly?
  • •  What’s with sacraments?  What are they about?
These questions are important, and Ferris attempts to answer them through the remainder of the book by showing why the move to RCC or EO practices is a move embracing the ecclesiastical hierarchy and magisterium rather than the truth of Sola Scripture.  The author labels the underlying problem “Sacramentalism”—the system of multiple sacraments as means to earn righteousness.  As good as this identification is, he goes completely awry by misusing the historical data and Scripture texts to make his arguments.  The following are some of the errors the author makes in his attempts.

Church hierarchy – Ferris rightly lays out New Testament leadership structure as being flat with multiple overseers/elders in each church which morphed into what became highly structured systems.  Within this, he attempts to demonstrate the gradual progression to a monarchical episcopate but makes missteps along the way.  For instance, he identifies Ignatius of Antioch as the first to argue unswerving obedience to the bishop (i.e., overseer, επισκοπος) in his epistles to the Ephesians and Magnesians.  While the quotes are accurate, Ferris noted Ignatius’ use of color, flamboyant language for which he was noted in his correspondence, but never considers that Ignatius’ understanding was likely similar to Cyprian of Carthage.  Indeed, had the church in Antioch been entirely out of line in this regard, there likely would have been corrections made in correspondence or later councils.  None exists.  Nor does Ferris consider that the office of overseer or bishop became more focused out of need.  The man with the best biblical knowledge and moral character was recognized and installed to that office in order to deal with both persecution and heresy.  There was no deliberate promotion of hierarchy, but a recognition that there were few copies of Scripture and those who could study and teach them were placed in authority.  Only later did the system evolve into a monolithic, irrepressible behemoth.

Church authority – RCC and EO doctrine both teach that salvation comes through their respective ecclesiastical bodies.  Ferris demonstrates that this came about more through the use of hierarchical pressure and political maneuvering than through biblical instruction.  True, the mixture of church and state from the time of Constantine forward allowed political pressure to be exerted, this was not always the case.  In order to mark these paths to absolute authority, the author looks at the doctrine that the church is necessary for salvation using Cyprian of Carthage from his statement: “He cannot have God as his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”  Evangelicals bristle at this notion, pointing to Peter’s confession that there is no salvation except in Jesus (Acts 4:12).  While this is certainly true, Ferris mishandles his cause here by failing to mention that the Church was the only organization that had the Scriptures.  In this regard, Cyprian was correct to say the Church was necessary for salvation.  Sadly, this was misconstrued or twisted for gain to centralize power into the established hierarchy.

Ferris also addresses the Ecumenical Councils by noting that though there were doctrinal issues to address, the councils themselves were run more for political positioning.  While politics played a part in convening these councils and, to some part, in forcing anathemas against heterodoxy and heresy, they also went overboard in addressing them, anathematizing where it may have been unnecessary.  From a modern view, Origen and Nestorius may have avoided this condemnation if a more temperate approach had been used, but this ignores unknown forces in play that may have required the extreme actions.

Authority of Scripture – Whether or not admitted, tradition and canon law has effectively been the authority over Scripture for several centuries in the RCC/EO realm.  A combination of the seven Ecumenical Councils and a purported oral tradition comprise the basis for this shift that occurred in the medieval period.  RCC/EO dogma depends on the extra-canonical traditions to continue much (most?) of doctrine and practice.  Are there traditions that should be placed on par with Scripture or be used to help?  Ferris contends that Scripture should always be given preëminence, and this is correct.  However a caveat must be given, since the early church recognized a tradition in doctrine (1 Cor. 11:2) to safeguard against heresy.  Both Irenaeus and Tertullian refer to the “Rule of Faith” (Latin, Regula Fidei) which was a basic outline of doctrine.  Faithful teaching of Scripture defines the rule, and the rule helped against new doctrine.  If the new doctrine was in accord with this rule, it passed muster; if not, it failed.  Tradition, therefore, is a vital as it follows Paul’s admonition to Timothy to instill God’s Word in “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).  So proper use of tradition—systematic theology, creeds, catechisms, etc.—is good if it remains within the parameters of Scripture itself.  Ferris discards these notions in favor of going to the source, recognizing but largely bypassing the findings and practices of the early church.

Certainty – How certain are we that our doctrine is correct?  Do we know that the Rule of Faith is correct?  Vincent of Lérins attempted to set down his canon (i.e., rules) by which the Church is to be aligned.  This was a more detailed description of systematic theology than that given above by earlier fathers.  Ferris takes issue with Vincent’s statement:
Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.  That is truly and properly 'Catholic,' as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally.  We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality [i.e. ecumenicity], antiquity, and consent.  We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, bishops and doctors alike.
Notice especially the phrase “we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”  Since there were heresies and heterodoxies prior to and commingling with the church of  that day, how can Vincent posit that these had such universal adherence?  Ferris fails to account for rhetorical language and persuasion.  Vincent is not ignorant of false doctrine but writes in a way to bolster the Church catholic.  Is certainty built on tradition?  No, but as stated previously, it cannot be jettisoned because by the tradition of doctrine passed through faithful men, we are properly instructed.

Role of Hermeneutics –Ferris rightly identifies twos main schools of interpretation in the early church: allegorical view of Alexandria and literal view of Antioch.  The allegorical view is examined and found wanting while the literal is promoted as preferred.  While I largely agree, the generalities are faulty.  Ferris purports that the allegorical hermeneutic is incorrect because it allowed a fanciful interpretation of Scripture (see Clement, Origen, and Augustine) and because it allowed easy rise to Sacramentalism.  There could have been a correlation with the latter, however it appears to be more like post hoc, ergo propter hoc than sound reasoning.  Promoting the school of Antioch over Alexandria ignores both the importance of Alexandrian hermeneutics in properly defining the doctrine of God and the Christological heresies that arose in Antioch.  Neither school of interpretation was entire correct or incorrect, but needed each other working together to arrive at the truth.

Sacraments – Ferris reviews Baptism, Eucharist, and Confession in familiar credobaptist, Zwinglian Protestant fashion, however in doing so he inadvertently maligns the Reformation churches begun through the efforts of Luther, Calvin, and Knox.

In his discussion of baptism, Ferris goes through the biblical texts to build his case for credobaptism in a way that misapplies the text.  Some instances are noteworthy.
  1. He purports that infant baptism could not be possible because infants do not display faith.  This is a questionable argument since the degree of faith is not mentioned as a factor in salvation.
  2. If babies gain salvation at baptism, then Paul's instruction “Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Cor 7:14) is nonsensical since baptism saves them. This simply ignores the context of the verse which says that the husband is unbelieving and therefore would not allow such a thing to happen in that culture.
  3. Lastly, in categorically stating that baptism is only symbolic, Ferris appeals to Romans 6:3-4, which plainly states that baptism results in newness of life, not the other way around.  If he wishes to make a strong argument, a better source text needs to be used.
In his discussion of the Eucharist, I find the lack of biblical texts to be telling.  Instead of dealing with doctrine, Ferris uses this section to opine on the Jewish customs that entered the early church after the temple’s destruction.  While the influx of some elements can be documented, there is good documentation that the early church was carrying over elements of synagogue and temple worship from the beginning.  The overuse and misuse of these forms seems to be more the issue.  In much the same way, confession is not addressed according to Scripture, but reviewed in relation to RCC/EO misuse.  This is unfortunate since proper confession of sin is a vital part of the Christian life.

As mentioned in the beginning, Matthew Ferris presents a good understanding both the issues and weaknesses of Evangelicalism and Sacramentalism.  The problem lies in his misconstruing the latter by inadvertently lumping those with a high view of Sacraments into the RCC/EO camp.  Three main confessional, reformation groups—Lutheran, Reformed, and Presbyterian—hold to a high view both of Scripture and Sacraments.  Though not deliberately lumping these into the Sacramentalist side of the journal, readers can be left with the notion that these three denominations fall into Evangelicalism or Sacramentalism at their heart, which they do not.  I realize that this was not the intent of the book, but the author did a disservice by it.  This book does have good information—I agree completely with his two chapters covering Veneration of Mary/Saints and Schism/Unity—but the poor argumentation leaves much to be desired.  Perhaps a second edition could fix the weaknesses and make this a first rate selection.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free of charge.  I was not required to write a positive review, and the opinions are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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