Reply to Gavin Ortlund: Confession & Authority

Reply to Gavin Ortlund: Confession & Authority April 11, 2024
Dr. Gavin Ortlund is a Reformed Baptist author, speaker, pastor, scholar, and apologist for the Christian faith. He has a Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary in historical theology, and an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary. Gavin is the author of seven books as well as numerous academic and popular articles. For a list of publications, see his CV. He runs the very popular YouTube channel Truth Unites, which seeks to provide an “irenic” voice on theology, apologetics, and the Christian life. See also his website, Truth Unites and his blog.
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In my opinion, he is currently the best and most influential popular-level Protestant apologist, who (especially) interacts with and offers thoughtful critiques of Catholic positions, from a refreshing ecumenical (not anti-Catholic), but nevertheless solidly Protestant perspective. That’s what I want to interact with, so I have issued many replies to Gavin and will continue to do so. I use RSV for all Bible passages unless otherwise specified.
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All of my replies to Gavin are collected on the top of my Calvinism & General Protestantism web page in the section, “Replies to Reformed Baptist Gavin Ortlund.” Gavin’s words will be in blue.
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This is my 29th reply to his material.
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I am responding to a video from Gavin, entitled, “Cameron Bertuzzi’s Conversion to Rome: Protestant Response” (11-20-22).
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Be Nice and Don’t Attack
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0:42  You want to be friends, and that doesn’t change at all when someone becomes Catholic. Friendship can remain, even amidst strong disagreements. That is one thing actually I’ve been dismayed at seeing in both directions. When there’s a change, . . . people can be very uncharitable and I think it’s something we need to be very careful about. What happens is people experience negative emotions. For one thing, people can feel hurt or even betrayed. For another, people can feel threatened; people can feel shaken. It really happens and so the emotions could be legitimate, but then in responding to that, it’s so easy to be led into uncharitable speech. One of the big ways it happens is we judge motives. People say, “so-and-so just did this for that reason or he just did this for that reason.” . . . We don’t know anyone’s heart. We don’t. Only God knows the heart. We don’t know people’s motives. We need to be so careful, but I also think it’s okay to lay out our concerns and our disagreements and debate these things and debate the theology, especially.
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Agree 100%. I never question people’s motives, but I have done analyses of conversions, where I think the reasoning that the person gives is simply in error, or incoherent, etc. That’s not attacking people or motives; only the ideas they have espoused. But these critical analyses have to be done in the right manner, per Gavin’s comments above.
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On a related note: if conversions are “put out there” in public, then the writers should and ought to expect to receive equally public critiques. And if someone objects to that, then I highly suggest that they don’t publicly write about it. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” It seems to me that this is a rather elementary point, but so many seem not to understand it, because today, everything is “subjective and personal.” If you critique a person’s ideas, very often they take that as a “personal attack.” This drives me absolutely batty as an apologist, but it is what it is. We can thank ongoing massive secularization for it. That’s mostly where it comes from.
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Studying Classical Protestantism
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2:53 I know this sounds kind of simple, but unfortunately historic mainstream classical Protestantism is not well understood generally, but especially [not] by those who’ve grown up in a low church evangelical context in a place like the United States, where Evangelical Protestantism is often kind of assumed. It sounds strange to say, but it’s kind of like if you grew up in a democracy, you might actually not know the best arguments for democracy, or the history of how democracy came about. You just kind of assume it because it’s what you’ve known. This happens a lot with Protestantism. People conflate contemporary evangelical Protestantism — particularly in some of its less robust expressions — with Protestantism as such, and the result is that Protestantism is massively misrepresented and the differences between Protestantism as a system and the alternatives is misframed.
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This is all very true, and (maybe surprisingly) I concur, but I immediately go on to note that one can understand “classic” or “Reformation” Protestantism perfectly well, yet they will still nevertheless be faced with the extensive and self-defeating difficulties that all Protestantism suffers from. It’s a case of “best” vs. “inferior” Protestantism, but it still doesn’t get the Protestant off the hook if they follow the “best” track.  All of the essential and main problems inherent in the system as a whole will still be there, and as a Catholic apologist, I have written extensively about them.
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See especially my Calvinism & General Protestantism and Lutheranism and Luther and Calvin web pages. Conversely, Catholics who become Protestants are very often woefully unacquainted with Catholic doctrine and history, let alone apologetic reasons for same, so they are susceptible targets for Protestant evangelists. They often reject things that aren’t even Catholic teachings (many straw men). They never grasped them at any time. Proper and extensive education is needed on all sides.
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Confession and Priestly Absolution
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5:49 the overall impression given [by what Cameron said about this] is that in Protestantism you confess sin to God alone, where in Roman Catholicism it’s the “both/and.” You get confession to God and human beings, but this is that misframing [the] thing.
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It’s perfectly valid as a general observation. Catholicism has formal confession to a priest and absolution from sins (as a sacrament). Only a very tiny portion of Protestantism has that (high church or Anglo-Catholic Anglicans, mostly). They simply kept one of the aspects of Catholicism that other Protestants rejected. As an example, Luther tried to retain some vestige of this, but his version was Lutherans confessing to one another. That’s fine and dandy. It’s simply a heart-to-heart talk including confession of shortcomings, but it’s not a formal arrangement, as we argue it is laid out in the Bible. But let’s see how Gavin argues the point (I answer as I am going along reading the transcript).
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Gavin notes that folks like John Wesley and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (two of my Protestant heroes; I compiled the former’s quotations in a book of mine; published by a Protestant publisher, too!) got together and confessed to one another. Since Wesley was brought up, here is what he wrote about Catholic confession:
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Although it is often of use to confess our sins to a spiritual guide, yet [for Catholics] to make confessing to a priest necessary to forgiveness and salvation is “teaching for doctrines the commandment of men.” And to make it necessary in all cases is to lay a dangerous snare both for the confessor and the confessed. (Popery Calmly Considered; in Coll. iii, 482; 1779)
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Gavin mentions James 5:16 (“confess your sins to one another”) but that is in an institutional and sacramental context. James 5:14 reads: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord”. This is our basis for the sacrament of anointing  (aka “Last Rites” or Extreme Unction). So we have the element of going to a leader of the Church. That’s the context where confession is mentioned. Then in 5:16b, it states, “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.”
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James goes on to give the example of the prophet Elijah, who “prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain” (5:17). The idea here is that the holier a person is, the more effective is his or her prayer. This is analogous to going to the priest, who has the God-granted power of absolving sin on God’s behalf. The prophet has power to help through extraordinary intercession; the priest helps and aids by granting forgiveness of sins in God’s name.  The bottom line in this whole discussion is whether there is such a thing as formal absolution. We say yes (and we say that the Bible teaches this); probably more than 95% of Protestants say no. We’re more biblical.
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7:51  the protest concerned with the Catholic view is not about confessing to human beings, but it’s the sacerdotal and sacramental context of how confession works in the Roman Catholic system . . . the sacrament of penance specifically and the concern is with this whole system that evolves throughout Church history and we would say lots of accretions on top of James 5:16 that have lots of specific features where these are the specific things we need to talk about for where we differ.
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It developed to an extent like everything else, but it was already plainly stated in the Bible. Absolution and penance come straight from the lips of Jesus, commissioning the apostles:
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John 20:22-23 . . . he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. [23] If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
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Likewise, we see St. Paul doing both things. First here he is in effect issuing a (rather stern) penance:
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1 Corinthians 5:1-5 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. [2] And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. [3] For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment [4] in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, [5] you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
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Then he offers — to the same person — forgiveness and absolution (and actually what we mean by an indulgence as well):
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2 Corinthians 2:6-10  For such a one this punishment by the majority is enough; [7] so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. [8] So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. [9] For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. [10] Any one whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ,
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I would ask Gavin and Protestants: why are the original disciples and Paul forgiving people who have nothing directly to do with them? Why can’t God simply do that and leave the disciples and Paul out of it? It’s clearly, again, an institutional framework of sacramental confession and absolution (which virtually no Protestants practice).
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Once Cameron discovered that this sort of system is entirely biblical, then his choice was either Anglicanism (which thinks abortion, contraception, divorce, and so-called “gay marriage” are perfectly fine and dandy) or Orthodoxy (which thinks contraception and divorce are perfectly fine and dandy) or Catholicism. So it was really no choice at all, in other words, if we’re discussing conformity to biblical and early Church theological and moral teachings. Therefore, his reasoning here is perfectly plausible and valid. Bringing up personal confession among friends does not overcome Cameron’s reasons for wanting biblical confession and absolution, because it’s “apples and oranges.”
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8:20 one example would be the necessity of confession after a mortal sin in Roman Catholic theology. If you commit a mortal sin and you do not confess to the priest and then you die, guess what? You do not go to heaven or purgatory, you go to hell, and that’s magisterial teaching the Council of Florence. . . . mortal sin was not just like cold-blooded murder. In Catholic theology you can read through the Catechism about things like gluttony or masturbation or not going to Mass or using contraceptives . . . 
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It’s also quite biblical teaching; that is, the basis of it is very biblical. Many sins, if not repented of, will cause one to go to hell (thus, Catholicism offers the solution: a certain absolution from a priest to the repentant):
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1 John 5:16-17 If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. [17] All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal. [KJV for 5:16: “There is a sin unto death”; many translations have “death”; sometimes, “eternal death”]
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1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, [10] nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
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Galatians 5:19-21 Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, [20] idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, [21] envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
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Revelation 21:27 But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, . . .
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Catholics didn’t create the scenario whereby an unrepentant sinner who indulges in serious and grave sins will wind up in hell. That was already in the Bible. We merely offer the solution. It’s not biblically impermissible at all to say that “certain serious sins will land one in hell if the sinner refuses to repent.” Read the passages above! The blame ought not be on us, for offering the solution to or remedy for the problem. The blame lies on unrepentant sinners. But in any event, the “mortal / venial” distinction is explicitly biblical.
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Christian Authority
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12:00 this is illustrative of again — just in general — how people think and how many people will imbibe that video. They’ll think, “okay, so the difference is [in] Protestantism you believe whatever you want. [In] Catholicism, you submit to what the church teaches. Here we’ve got individualism; here we’ve got authority. Draw a thick line down the center and that’s the difference.
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As a broad statement, this is indeed accurate. Protestants placed their allegiance in private judgment and sola Scriptura from the outset. They rejected the infallibility of both sacred tradition and the magisterium of the Church and of ecumenical. Having done that and practiced it for over 500 years, they can’t now turn around and claim, “oh no! We’re not saying that the individual has the freedom to believe and choose whatever they wish in theology!” But yes, that is what it boils down to; the bottom line. That’s the inherent nature of the system. It necessarily leads to theological relativism and ecclesiological chaos. The latter result is patently obvious; the former also is, with just minimal reflection.
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Luther proclaimed at the Diet of Worms in 1521: “unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, here I stand.” But of course, people have all kinds of different exegetical opinions and reasonable arguments. The key here is that Luther was saying that he could stand there (private judgment and ultimate subjectivism) and choose whichever one he wanted; tradition be damned, if it goes against his own individual opinion!
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The Catholic, on the other hand, recognizes that there is an accumulated spiritual and theological heritage: laboriously and lovingly built up by saints and holy Christian thinkers for 2,000 years. Most things are solved and known. So we bow to that, and accept in faith that God protects the Church from theological error. He’s big enough to do that. Protestants don’t have faith enough to believe that God could preserve an infallible Church and tradition. They think He only has the power and desire to make a book infallible. If he can do the one thing, He can just as easily do the other. We simply have more faith and we’re more biblical.
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12:35  it’s massively unfair as a representation of Protestantism as a system, okay? There are points where we differ about how authority works but it’s not this individualism idea where private judgment reigns.
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The way I argue it (and have for 33 years now) is that private judgment and subjectivism and de facto relativism are both the logical reductions and result in the real world of Protestant ideas. The fact remains that most historic Protestant denominations have almost entirely caved into modernity and radical secularism (supporting abortion, “gay marriage” etc.). That’s a demonstrable fact. So the authority has broken down somewhere there.
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I would say it was all entirely predictable the moment Luther framed it in the way he did at Worms in 1521 and also how he was backed into subscribing to sola Scriptura at the Leipzig Disputation in 1519. That’s where the essence of Protestantism began. In the meantime, Luther already expressed his personal disagreement with fifty beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church in 1520 before he was ever excommunicated. Merely noting how Protestants have confessions and creeds (yeah, everyone knows that) doesn’t overcome this point of fundamental allegiance and worldview and presuppositions and premises of Protestantism.
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13:05 here’s article 34 from the Anglican 39 articles: “whoever by his own private judgment openly, willingly, and deliberately breaks those customs and forms of worship of the church which do not contradict the word of God and are approved by Common authorities to be openly rebuked.” That’s a Protestant document.
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This brings about no solution at all to the self-defeating nature of Protestant thinking regarding authority. It breaks down as soon as we ask, “who determines what doesn’t contradict the Bible, and how?” Here the answer would be, “the Anglican Church does.” Then the Catholic asks, “so Anglicanism is infallible?” And the Protestant replies; “no, only the Bible is, according to our rule of faith, sola Scriptura.” So we retort, “therefore, one can dissent against it if they feel it is contrary to the Bible?” And they must say yes, by their own professed principles. That’s how every new denomination began.
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And so in this way, we’re already back to private judgment and rugged individualism, just as I stated. There is no way to escape it in the Protestant system (correctly — not incorrectly — understood). In the final analysis, the individual is king. And this is why Luther is so lionized (including by myself in the past), because he represents that paradigm of the heroic individual opposing the Big [supposedly] Bad and Corrupt Church. Gavin is engaging in a pipe dream that can never be. His system won’t permit it. It has too much internal stress and self-contradiction.
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13:48  There’s such an ignorance of historic Protestantism.
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Again, that’s true, but noting this isn’t the solution to the Protestant problem of incoherence, because that lies also (in fact, primarily) in historical Protestantism, however one wishes to define that entity.
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13:54 evangelicalism is huge in the United States. We’ve grown up in this sort of assumed background, but we’ve never actually studied what historically Protestantism is.
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I did long before my own conversion, and I did much more intensely when I seriously considered Catholicism. The thing was, in 1990 I actually read not only Protestant self-reports of Church history, but Catholic versions of the same thing. Finally, I was fair in terms of looking at both sides. It seems elementary but it rarely happens. People read only their own side. And that became a key to my conversion. When I did what Gavin is calling for, it was all over.
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14:19 the vast majority of churches have statements of faith. They have church membership, and if you’re a member of the church you have to adhere the to the church’s statement of faith, so you’re not just free to believe anything you want.
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This doesn’t solve the problem. We all know about this. What I’m talking about is the ability and “freedom” of the individual Protestant to dissent from these creeds and confessions and go somewhere else; even start a new denomination, one of the many hundreds (which is needed like a hole in the head). No one can deny that they have the “right” to do so, by the same principles Luther used to leave the Catholic Church.
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Something in my own life illustrates how this works. I attended Assemblies of God from 1982 to 1986. The statement of faith of that denomination includes the notion that all who are filled with the Holy Spirit speak in tongues. I never believed that, based on what St. Paul wrote about how all don’t speak in tongues. Therefore, I never signed the membership form, because I was honest. But no one could tell me — assuming Protestant premises —  that I didn’t have the freedom to do that. That’s my point. The individual reigns supreme.
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Commenter Van Nordstrom strongly supports this point with several historic Protestant quotations in the combox.
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Photo credit:
Leipzig Disputation, by Julius Hübner (1806-1882) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
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Summary: I reply to Baptist apologist Gavin Ortlund’s critique of the reasons for why evangelicals become Catholics, concentrating on confession & Christian authority issues.
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