Friday, March 31, 2006

What Is this "Private Judgment" Business Really About?

After reading this comment box exchange at "Pontifications," followed up by this post, I think I know what is the real point of all this "private judgment" talk. Since it is rolls off the back of most Evangelical and Reformed believers like water off a duck, I've never understood why its proponents think it such a big gun.

But observing the context in which it is rolled out, I think I see against whom it works like a thunderclap: against persons in Protestant churches who have manufactured a private understanding of what their church believes (usually in an "evangelical catholic" or "Anglo-Catholic" direction) and are then rudely brought face to face with the fact that their church as a body does not actually teach that. Since of course, most of the big proponents of the "private judgment" argument spent time as committed "evangelical catholics/Anglo-Catholics" in Reformation churches, they naturally feel its force.

Christopher Jones had the fact that the LCMS endorses lay (=presbyterian) celebration of Holy Communion under certain unusual circumstances shoved in his face, with the Pontificator then drawing the conclusion: "See? You may be truly catholic in the Lutheran church, but that is only one option among many in your church -- you are exercising PRIVATE JUDGMENT" (cue Darth Vader music). I'll let Chris Jones speak for himself on how he'd respond (you can go look at the thread), but against me this has no emotional force whatsoever. The difference is, unlike Chris, I do not implicitly or explicitly judge the LCMS by fidelity to some model of "catholicity". For me, presbyterian celebration of Holy Communion is simply one of a couple of models for handling the distressing emergency of Christians lacking pastors (another is the chorepiscopus model of ordained semi-pastors for remote parishes). But if you think that "catholicity" absolutely prohibits celebration of the Eucharist by the unordained/consecrated, then what the private judgment argument is doing is not making some complex, epistemological point: it's simply saying that "The church you belong to doesn't actually agree with what you see as necessary to true orthodoxy." And when that is empirically true, it is a powerful argument.

But if you actually assent fully not only to what the church you belong to teaches, but to its claim to be truly well-founded on Christ (as I believe of the Evangelical Lutheran church), then excoriating "private judgment" amounts to simply abstract arguments about epistemology, which no one takes seriously. It's like Zeno's paradoxes proving that motion is impossible: most people refute them simply enough, by just moving away).

So it is the actual concrete contradiction between how certain "evangelical catholics" understand their religion, and how (for example) the Evangelical Lutheran church actually understands it, that gives the "Private Judgment" attack its emotional force. Of course, that shouldn't be a surprise since in the beginning, it was the contradiction between the imaginary phantasm called Anglo-Catholicism conjured up by the revisionist Oxford Movement and the reality that the Anglican church was founded as a Reformed church that led Newman to formulate the argument about "Private Judgment" in the first place. Had he actually been able to accept the Reformed foundation of the Anglican church, the paradoxes of "private judgment" would have struck him as nothing more than a lecture room curiosity.

So how do people respond to the Private Judgment argument? Of course as with every contradiction between two positions, they can resolve it in two ways (or of course, they can continue to just live with the contradiction). Those attacking Private Judgment demand that the "evangelical catholics" leave (say) the Evangelical Lutheran church, whose self-understanding they do not accept.

But "evangelical catholics" have another option: they can bring themselves fully in line with how the Evangelical Lutheran church understands herself, and recognize that the pre-Reformation views of faith and works, for example, are no more authoritative over the Evangelical church, than, for example, the pre-Constantinopolitan views of the Holy Ghost (most of which were "unorthodox" -- see here) are over the post-Constantinopolitan church.

UPDATE: Just saw this post, in which Pastor Fenton complains of "self-determination," in ways that make it clear he is feeling the emotional tensions of the "private judgment" charge. But note that the real basis of it is not some irreducible fact of Protestant identity, but the fact that he just disagrees with the decisions of the LCMS and yet remains in the church. If he agreed with the LCMS, he wouldn't feel that way, and the question of "self-determination" would be about as disturbing to his ecclesiastical identity as the curious fact that both he and the Pope put on their trousers one leg at a time.

UPDATE II: Watersblogged! has comment on the substance of the issue (lay celebration of Holy Communion) here, with a very good discussion. As he points out, the current LCMS position on this seems an awful lot like a de facto adherence to the WELS position, which is funny.