Religious Autonomy, The Scripture, and the Church

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…Deism makes human beings independent of God and the world, teaches the all-sufficiency of reason, and leads to rationalism. Pantheism on the other hand, teaches that God discloses himself and comes to self-consciousness in human beings and fosters mysticism. Both destroy objective truth, leave reason and feeling, the intellect and the heart, to themselves, and end up in unbelief or superstition. Reason criticizes all revelation to death, and feeling gives the Roman Catholic as much right to picture Mary as the sinless Queen of Heaven as the Protestant to oppose this belief. It is therefore noteworthy that Holy Scripture never refers human beings to themselves as the epistemic source and standard of religious truth. How, indeed, could it, since it describes the “natural” man as totally darkened and corrupted by sin in his intellect, … In his heart, … in his will, … as well as in his conscience. For the knowledge of truth Scripture always refers us to objective revelation, to the word and instruction that proceeded from God,… And where the objective truth is personally appropriated by us by faith, that faith still is never like a fountain that from itself brings forth the living water but like a channel that conducts the water to us from another source.

Rome, understanding perfectly well this impossibility of religious moral autonomy, bound human beings to the infallible church on pain of losing the salvation of their souls.  For Roman Catholic Christians the infallible church, and so in the final analysis the infallible pope, is the foundation of their faith.  The words Papa dixit (the Pope has spoken) is the end of all back talk.  History teaches, however, that this theoretical and practical infallibility of the church has at all times encountered contradiction and opposition not only in the churches of the Reformation but inside the Roman Catholic Church as well.  It is not unbelievers primarily but the devout who have always experienced this power of the hierarchy as a galling bond to their consciences.  Throughout the centuries there has not only been scientific, societal, and political resistance but also deeply religious and moral opposition to the hierarchical power of the church.  It simply will not do to explain this opposition in terms of unbelief and disobedience and intentionally to misconstrue the religious motives underlying the opposition of various sects and movements.  No one has been bold enough to damn all these sects because they were moved to resist the church and its tradition. Even Rome shrinks from this conclusion.  The extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the church) is a confession that is too harsh for even the most robust believer.  Accordingly, the “law” we see at work in every area of life is operative also in religion and morality.  On the one hand, there is a revolutionary spirit that seeks to level all that has taken shape historically in order to start rebuilding things from the ground up.  There is, however, also a false conservatism that takes pleasure in leaving the existing situation untouched simply because it exists and—in accordance with Calvin’s familiar saying—not to attempt to change a well-positioned evil (malum bene positum non movere).  At the proper time everywhere and in every sphere of life, a certain radicalism is needed to restore balance, to make further development possible, and not let the stream of ongoing life bog down.  In art and science, state and society, similarly in religion and morality, there gradually develops a mindless routine that oppresses and does violence to the rights of personality, genius, invention, inspiration, freedom, and conscience.  But in due time there always arises a man or woman who cannot bear that pressure, casts off the yoke of bondage and again takes up the cause of human freedom and that of Christian Liberty.  These are turning points in history. Thus Christ himself rose up against the tradition of the elders and returned to the law and the prophets. Thus one day the Reformation had the courage, not in the interest of some scientific, social or political goal, but in the name of Christian humanity, to protest against Rome’s hierarchy…

Herman Bavinck Reformed Dogmatics Volume I pp.80-82

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