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Sunday, January 30, 2005

Response to Dave Armstrong

I apologize yet again for being so slow to blog. I'm currently teaching three sections of Western Civ at a local state university, besides trying to finish my dissertation (at last!). Also, I've been working on two essays which will eventually find their way to this blog: a discussion of women's ordination in the format of a Thomistic "quaestio," in response to challenges from several people on the Crowhill discussion board and the comment section of Pontifications; and a long-delayed piece on the development of Protestant ecclesiology which I promised to Dave Armstrong in some antediluvian era.

Today, though, I want to try to respond to some of the comments regarding my previous posting, and I'll start with Dave's lengthy response on his blog "cor ad cor loquitur," to which I've provided a link (scroll down to last Wednesday's posting). Dave, please accept this as a temporary payment in lieu of my long-in-arrears discussion of development! If I have time, I will then try to respond to some of the many comments my post has generated, some of them here but far more of them either at Dave's blog or at Pontifications.

I appreciate Dave's courtesy in quoting my entire post. I trust he will not be offended that I don't respond in kind, in order to keep the volume of text a bit briefer. I will quote the relevant sections to which I'm responding--you can read the rest on Dave's blog. Any quotes from my original post are in blue--Dave's words are in red.

Dave wrote (in response to my argument that unity and authority are the principal reasons someone would convert to Catholicism):

I am a Catholic in part precisely because I see Catholicism as the "unchanging" faith. I see it uniquely holding to ancient Christian morality in areas such as divorce and abortion. I see it acknowledging a papacy, which certainly seems to be a strong motif in the Fathers (with even current-day Orthodox and many Anglicans agreeing that papal primacy in some form was the norm throughout Church history). In areas where Catholicism appears, at first glance, to be significantly different from earlier Christianity, I think this is able to be sufficiently explained by development of doctrine (the factor that was most important in my conversion).

And here we run yet again into the need for some kind of dialogue on development. As I said above, I've been trying to put together an argument concerning ecclesiology specifically. Our most serious attempt to discuss development, if I remember rightly, ran aground on questions of definition. Development is a vast and tricky subject and I don't claim to have a good handle on it. But it seems to me that its primary usefulness for Catholics is simply in establishing internal consistency. I don't see how it can be used to overcome the a priori impression that Orthodoxy is more like the early Church in most respects than Catholicism. If one is convinced on other grounds that Catholicism is truer--if for instance one decides that the existence of a papacy is more important than changes in how the papacy functions--then development is a legitimate explanation for the fact of considerable apparent change.

I wrote, with regard to the Papacy: a unique role does not have to mean a necessary role.

No (strictly logically speaking), but I maintain that Church history in the first millennium shows that both the papacy and ecumenical councils were permanent aspects of ecclesiology. The fact that both Orthodox and Protestants either have neither, or in theory only, is quite telling and a good argument for the Catholic position.

I agree. It is _one_ good argument, which has to be weighed as part of a complex set of arguments on both sides. It is not decisive in and of itself _unless_ one has decided already that the question of legitimate authority is the dominant question.

I wrote: It may be that Rome has in fact fallen into heresy,

Dave resonded: Who would authoritatively decide that?

If that is the first question that comes to mind, then the answer is clear--and it's the answer you've chosen. But something can be true--and can be known to be true--in the absence of some kind of formal and final judicial authority for determining it. The fact that I said "it may be" is an admission that I do _not_ think that this can be known with certainty at this point. Again, if one is putting questions of authority in the forefront, that settles the issue there and then.

I am not a Catholic in part because I don't believe that the consent of Rome is sufficient to make a group of bishops an Ecumenical Council. But I am firmly convinced that it's necessary.

Then it seems to me that Catholic ecclesiology is closing in on you . . . you can hold such a view, but you will always be an odd duck in Anglicanism or Orthodoxy. The logic here leads inexorably to Rome, where there is a consistent, coherent position on such matters (agree or disagree).

Well, there are many such "odd ducks" among Anglicans, and even a few among the Orthodox. I don't see anything incoherent or inconsistent about my position. It is not inconsistent with high-church Protestantism (it may or may not be inconsistent with Orthodoxy), and it is inconsistent with Catholicism. So I don't see that my logic leads to Rome. A sense of intellectual comfort leads to Rome, true enough. It's a delicate balance holding the position I do, and that's the single biggest argument against it--one Diane Kamer has pressed on me in the past. Can orthodox Christianity really depend on intellectual gymnastics? My response would be that in my ecclesiology, ecclesiology itself is not vitally necessary to the Christian life. Most Catholics don't understand the nuances of their own Church's position (does anyone?), but they hold to it nonetheless by implicit faith. In much the same way, most Protestants hear the Word and receive the Sacraments, and in my view this is sufficient for them to participate in the reality of the Church, even if they have what I think are muddled or downright mistaken views of what the Church is.

One can't speak of "the Church" when speaking of dogmatic definitions without speaking of Rome. Any non-Roman ecclesiology is going to find its style a bit cramped when it comes to fighting heresy and laying down the boundaries of orthodoxy.

Why is this? I would like to see this developed a bit, and reasons given why. If the reason is lack of central authority, then I would ask why it is that many people have a hard time grasping what you see as rather obvious? And, conversely, how and why do you see it as obvious, while they don't?

If the validity of my views depended on explaining why learned and devout people disagree with me, I would never have time to have any views at all. Briefly, I think that most Protestants do recognize that this is true in some sense. For some it's not a problem because either total tolerance or what I characterize sectarianism seem desirable to them. For others, reasons other than the rejection of Rome are responsible. Others would say that it is a problem but is more than made up for by other virtues peculiar to Protestantism. Quite a few would agree with me that it is a problem that we may have to live with for now but should not cease lamenting. Witness the position of Canon Heidt to which Pontificator recently referred. There are more of us "papal Protestants" than you might think. My wife had to read _Veritatis Splendor_ in her ethics class in seminary, and I think this attention to JPII by many Protestants isn't _just_ a matter of recognizing him as an important Christian thinker of our time (though it may be largely that), but also acknowledges implicitly or explicitly that his office as such demands some regard from us. Increasingly, I think would-be orthodox Protestants are being pushed in that direction.

I would also like to make the caveat that I think the problem is the lack of an authority Christ ordained for the Church--not necessarily "the lack of central authority," which is the kind of generalized epistemological argument I'm rejecting.


For me, a large part of my decision wasn't authority per se, but simply looking to see who held most closely to the Ancient Christian Faith as I understood it (through study) to be. It was more a matter of (historical) factuality than of epistemology and authority (though the latter played a
role, too). In other words, for me, the question, "What [or, Which] is the Church?" was one of plausible historical continuity, not a matter of which claimant had the best or most coherent functioning authority. Truth was paramount in my mind, not authority (which doesn't always coincide with truth).

Interesting. But why would you regard the line of development leading to Rome as more plausible than the line leading to Orthodoxy, _unless_ you saw Rome's claims of authority as decisive? I know that the contraception issue is important for you--was that (and divorce) the deciding factor?

From our previous discussion of development, I don't recall where we left this issue (which I'm pretty sure I did raise--in fact I think this was the initial claim on my part that drew you into the discussion), but one of my criticisms of Newman is that he really seems to have thought that development was some sort of discernable pattern that you could in some sense predict beforehand. In other words, he seems to be arguing that there is some sort of discernable philosophical necessity for Christian dogma to develop in the forms it did in Catholicism, and that this is a decisive reason to choose Catholicism over other forms of Christianity. His argument about the Virgin Mary being parallel to the Arian view of Christ is a prime example of this--but his belief that erroneous doctrines also have "corruptions" as opposed to "developments" is a more fundamental one. I don't think "development" can be meaningfully distinguished from "corruption" except in the case of true ideas. In other words, a development of an idea is linked to it by the fact that they are both true. Otherwise "development" is simply another word for change.

I raise this point because, as I said, in my view development is _only_ useful as an apologetic tool once one has other reasons for suspecting that Catholicism may be true. "Development" is a legitimate response to the claim that Catholicism (or, hypothetically, some other system one believes in) can't be true because it has changed over time. A theory of development shows the continuities lying underneath the change. But I think that such a claim can be made for most religious systems that command the loyalty of significant numbers of people. I don't think it's a useful way of distinguishing a true belief system from a false one--only for refuting objections to a system one is inclined to accept on other grounds.


It was the intersection of historical truths and ecclesiological claims which fascinated me and ultimately drew me in, via Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. In fact, my strong tendency was away from centralized or infallible authority, since my biggest beef was with infallibility. I fought that with all my might in the year preceding my conversion, utilizing Dollinger, Kung, Salmon: many of the most-used anti-infallibilist tracts. Cardinal Newman overcame my objection through the force of reason as applied to history, and the argument from analogy.

Interesting. Are you saying that you were inclined to become Catholic on other grounds, and Newman simply cleared away your objection to infallibility by showing that it was compatible with a theory of development? Or are you saying that Newman gave you a decisive reason to become Catholic by proving that infallible authority was necessary? If the latter, then my argument stands. But it seems that you are saying the former, in which case my critique doesn't apply to you (and since frankly you're one of the pillars of what I think of as "authority-based" Catholic apologetics, this is a major issue).



For the authority-minded, everything tends to boil down to epistemology. How do you know that you are in possession of the truth?

Yes. I think this is very important, and it is a major reason that I am an apologist. Part of our job is to try to provide answers to such questions for (in my case) Catholics, and Christians generally, in areas where we all agree. I would argue that this question, in relationship to Christianity, inevitably becomes an historical one. That's how the system was designed. The resurrection was historical. So was the Crucifixion and Ascension and Post-Resurrection appearances. How and why we believe in those things is determined by legal-historical types of evidence; eyewitness testimony and so forth. Miracles which lead us to accept Christianity are matters of historical testimony.

I recognize that there are sincere and intelligent people who become Christians on these grounds. Given that I was brought up to believe, it's a different sort of issue for me and I can't really comment. But those arguments have _never_ been primary in keeping me a Christian. Rather, arguments about the historicity of the Resurrection are in my view sufficient to make it not unreasonable to accept the Resurrection. I don't think they would convince me if I were not a Christian, and if asked why I was a Christian they would not be the answers that would first spring to mind--certainly not the answers that would lie closest to my heart. The Resurrection and the Christian story generally speaks _first_ to the human condition as I experience it. It is a story that makes sense of my life and of the world around me, and one that I receive experientially as having the ring of truth and goodness. Then I look at the evidence to make sure that I'm not fooling myself. And when I find that the evidence for the Resurrection is quite remarkably good compared to other claims of supernatural events, and when I see other assorted bits of historical evidence for the truth of Christianity, then that helps settle my faith over against arguments purporting to show that Christianity _can't_ be true. But if Christianity did not make sense of the universe as I experience it, the existing evidence would be hopelessly inadequate to convince me. You can call this post-modern or subjectivistic or whatever, but I don't know any other way to proceed in these matters.

The same is true of Catholicism. I think the historical argument for Catholicism is quite enough to permit people to remain Catholics if they are inclined to do so on other grounds. Whether it is strong enough to convince me that being Catholic (in the sense of submitting myself unconditionally to the teaching and authority of the Roman Communion) is a necessary consequence of being a Christian--that is precisely the question with which I've been struggling for years. It certainly would not, on its own, convince me if I were not already a Christian, or if I were a Christian for whom questions of ecclesiology were not primary.


Catholic online apologists jump all over this kind of thing, with great glee.

As they should, because if that is the argument, it is circular reasoning, and the heart cannot accept what the mind rejects as false. The Orthodox have to prove their "case" from history just like everyone else does. They can try to make such a case, and sustain it over against Catholicism. I think it fails, and won't withstand scrutiny, but in my opinion, this is the argument that they must make if they are to establish their own ecclesiological preeminence over against Rome.

I don't reject circular reasoning as false. Most positions wind up with some kind of circularity. (In my opinion Biblical arguments for Catholicism are completely circular, and the attempt of one Catholic Answers tract to make a non-circular argument by relying on historical evidence for the basic accuracy of the NT fails completely, because the evidence just isn't strong enough to bear that kind of weight.) Circularity isn't self-refuting, but it's not going to convince someone who doesn't accept the necessary presuppositions. The Orthodox position is not circular because it doesn't rest on this kind of argument at all. Converts to Orthodoxy discern that Orthodoxy is uniquely continuous with historic Christianity based on a whole complex of factors. Sorry to bring in Abraham again, but I think he's made the case well--everyone has _different_ epistemological reasons for accepting whatever set of canonical authorities they do accept. A standard apologetic is not a necessary part of a religious system, as you seem to be demanding.

Abraham can make the argument he does because he is philosophically what he calls a "soft rationalist" (a wonderful term which excited me when I discovered it, because it described the position I'd come to years before but hadn't had a name for). A soft rationalist holds (in contrast to a fideist) that religious truth is based on rational evidence, but (in contrast to what Abraham calls a "hard rationalist") that you can't necessarily quantify the evidence. In other words, one decides to believe in one religious view rather than another based on a whole set of converging factors--experiences of saintliness or beauty or the presence of God, historical arguments, internal consistency of teaching, and so on. There is no fideistic "leap of faith" except in the sense that at some point one says "OK, all of these things add up to enough certainty that I'm ready to make a commitment." One can't point to certain specific arguments and say "these alone are necessary and sufficient reasons." I think that's what you and many other Catholic apologists are asking for, and I don't think it's a reasonable thing to ask with regard to religious commitments.

I agree of course with your rejection of anti-Catholic Orthodoxy. Any view that depends on caricaturing another view is flawed from the start (my first encounter with this was a schoolteacher in Romania who assured me that Catholics believe that God "remains parallel to the world"; I may have misunderstood a Romanian metaphor, but this has always stuck in my mind as particularly bizarre, though I can see what she was trying to say).


A unity-minded person with no concern for the authority issue may well become Catholic without worrying about infallibility--but with a deep allegiance to the concrete reality of the Catholic community. Indeed, some such people become Catholic while disagreeing flatly with certain Catholic dogmas. This is much decried by conservative Catholics, but it happens.

It happens, but it is not in accordance with the Catholic system as it actually is. Part of what it inherently means to be Catholic (and, I think, Orthodox, as well) is to fully accept what the Church teaches, not to pick and choose. Why even be a Catholic if one thinks that way? Protestants have the right to private judgment (within denominational parameters). They can choose this from this tradition and that from that (this is what I did myself: very much so). To try to be a Catholic with the same approach is to simply be a Protestant-in-disguise. In a word, it's dishonest and deceptive at worst, and wrongheaded and misinformed at best.

Well, that's an argument that I'm afraid is going to have to take place within your own Communion. As an outsider, I can certainly judge that many Catholics have views that don't correspond to official Catholic teaching. But I am in no position to acquiesce to the view that they "aren't really Catholics." Certainly I doubt that you are willing to grant that John Shelby Spong "isn't really an Episcopalian," even though he clearly contradicts defined teaching of our Communion. In my opinion the Catholic claim that Protestants are in a different category because we have "private judgment" is a cop-out. We have looser teaching than you do, true. But I don't think we can reify "private judgment"--it's a vague and not very useful slogan used by many modern Protestants, but I don't think it's the kind of Basic Principle of Protestantism Catholic apologists claim it to be.

All churches have definite teaching of some sort, and all churches I know of have members apparently in good standing who don't accept every aspect of what appears to be the definite teaching of their communion. Certainly Catholics have a particular emphasis on this, and the Catholics I have in mind are indeed in a difficult tension between their belief that Catholicism is the necessary center of unity and their inability to accept some of its current teaching. But of course if such people remain Protestants they're in just as much tension. I choose to do that precisely because it seems the more honorable course. But I can sympathize with those who persuade themselves otherwise, and believe for whatever reason that things the Vatican teaches as defined are not in fact defined. They (the ones I know anyway) are intelligent and sincere people--argue with them, not me. As I said, it's an issue you're going to have to deal with within your own communion, and you can't blame me for observing what I see.


A unity-minded Catholic could submit quite happily to a church that got things doctrinally wrong, occasionally.

If they didn't believe in infallibility, sure. But then that gets back to my earlier point: such a perspective is not Catholic, by definition. You could only have such a view when you accept some form of non-binding, non-infallible Tradition, and still hold on to sola Scriptura as the rule of faith. In other words, Anglicanism (or "high" Presbyterianism or Lutheranism) fits the bill perfectly.

But as you pointed out earlier, if one believes in the need for unity and the historic role of the Papacy, then Anglicanism or other forms of high-church Protestantism do _not_ "fit the bill perfectly." Granted, the tension is probably less, and certainly doesn't reach the point of dishonesty. Which is why I'm still a Protestant, however uncomfortable a one . . . .


Between the difficulty of interpreting all the Magisterial documents, the questions about what is and is not infallible, and the propensity for the Vatican to demand and conservative Catholics to give a high degree of assent even to non-infallible teaching, it all got very confusing.

But that is for the Church to do! This is one big reason why God wanted there to be the Church in the first place. When an individual tries to do this himself, he is still operating within the paradigm of sola Scriptura and private judgment -- precisely the things that the Catholic system disallows. One could reject Catholicism by using Protestant epistemological methods, but it would not be an examination of the system as it views itself internally. In other words, Catholic epistemology and self-justification is not made or broken by Protestant epistemology and self-justification (this is a somewhat subtle point, but an extremely crucial one, especially when talking about conversion).

The first quarrel I have with this is the meaning of the word "Church." Even granted that it doesn't include me, as an Anglican--nonetheless I observe Catholics wrestling with the same issues. And even Catholic bishops (let alone priests) clearly do not always come to unanimous conclusions on this point. So when you mean "Church" you mean in fact "the Magisterium" as defined in modern Catholicism--the Pope and those bishops (and in some sense also those priests and laity) who agree with him on any given point. The Magisterium and _only_ the Magisterium has the right to speak; all its pronouncements are authoritative; and everyone else must simply listen. This would seem to mean that authority in Catholicism _does_ (as anti-Catholic polemicists claim) boil down to "what the Pope says." Or, as one of my best friends (a Christian Church pastor) put it, "add Pope and stir." If it doesn't simply mean that--if a lay Catholic, or even a priest or bishop, sometimes has to interpret a document and figure out just how authoritative it is--then my point stands and what you're calling "private judgment" exists within Catholicism.

It seems pretty evident to me that this is not how Catholicism functions. What you are calling "private judgment" when I do it is done routinely by all Catholics I know. (By Catholics who believe in the death penalty, for instance--they have to make the determination that the Pope's views on that subject are not in fact authoritative in the way that other teachings are.)


The Protestant methodology of critique described above involves circular reasoning in the following way: The Protestant presupposes private judgment and the rule of faith of sola Scriptura, and also assumes that all Christian belief-systems must be subject to it. But of course, this is one of the very things in dispute between Protestantism on the one hand, and Orthodoxy and Catholicism on the other (with Anglicanism betwixt and between, as so often).

I don't think Protestantism as a whole presupposes anything. I don't know if I presuppose private judgment, because private judgment can mean all sorts of things (as does sola scriptura). If private judgment means that the individual Christian has to make decisions about which things presented to him/her for belief are true and which are false, then yes, I presuppose "private judgment," and I observe all Catholics exercising it. Indeed, it seems axiomatic that everyone exercises it all the time.

If you mean by "private judgment" that the individual's decisions are ultimate, in such a way that having decided X I would never change my mind to Y because of ecclesiastical authority, then no form of Protestantism to which I belong presupposes any such thing. Certainly you find Protestants and Protestant churches who teach this. But it is not a necessary consequence of Protestantism.

If you mean that the individual's decisions are ultimate in the sense that submission to an authority depends on a prior decision that the authority is valid--a decision that might be reversed if more evidence of some kind turned up--then again, I think everyone exercises this, except those who simply believe what they believe because the religion or culture or nation in which they were educated teaches it (a position that I think has more merit than modern people recognize except when it rests on mere subservience to political power). If for instance you found _convincing_ reason to believe that all documents and artifacts of the history of Christianity before the Middle Ages were forged, you would almost certainly reexamine your commitment to Catholicism, I suspect. Of course, there is no probability that this will happen--something like it is maintained by some crackpots, but neither of us take them seriously. That, however, is the point--we both make a _judgment_ of our own that they are not worth taking seriously.

Finally, you may mean that the individual is responsible for more than simply determining the validity of an ecclesiastical authority (such as the Catholic Magisterium) and the degree of weight the Magisterium _itself_ intended a given pronouncement to have, but rather must analyze each decision of the Magisterium against a background other than its own pronouncements and expressed intentions. This probably _is_ what you mean, and it is a meaningful distinction. But I don't think I'm presupposing it. I'm saying that anything else seems hopelessly circular in a way that really _does_ vitiate Catholic claims (in a way that the alleged Orthodox circularity doesn't vitiate Orthodox claims, because they aren't resting so much on it). If the Magisterium is the only interpreter of itself, then of course you wind up theoretically with internal consistency, because the current Pope can always explain away any conflict. As a matter of fact, the problem you face is that the Pope _doesn't_ choose do to this. He allows Cardinal Ratzinger to say that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is infallible instead of saying it himself, for instance. He allows apologists and historians to speculate about the intention of Boniface VIII and reconcile it with Vatican II, instead of issuing a pronouncement himself (as far as I know). The relative reticence of the Papacy (which I find commendable and a strong argument for its claims) makes necessary the kind of private judgment you're arguing Catholics find superfluous.

When you believe Ratzinger that OS was infallible, and another Catholic doesn't, you're both making an act of private judgment, in the sense you seem to be using the term.


But this has to itself be established in order for the criticism to have any force. The Protestant can't simply presuppose all this stuff, analyze Catholicism by using it and then declare victory.
And that is because Catholicism operates on a different rule of faith and a different epistemology than does Protestantism.

I'm not declaring "victory." I'm simply saying that the kind of logic games we get involved in when the issues are put in this way are totally unconvincing to me. Of course if I accepted your presuppositions it would all make sense. The purpose of my blog was to try to sketch why I _don't_ accept your presuppositions.

So immediately the question becomes, rather: "why does Catholicism disallow these beliefs and this epistemology? And why does Protestantism accept them?"How is that resolved? Well, it's resolved in the usual way that all such disputes are: by recourse to Scripture, Church history, reason, and (I would add) practical workability. Sola scriptura and private judgment (as an epistemological approach inexorably tied to sola Scriptura) fail on all four counts. These notions cannot be found in Scripture (despite many near-ingenious attempts to do so from our esteemed Protestant brethren). They can't be found in history, either (ditto to my last parenthetical comment). Both history and Scripture also offer tons of directly contrary evidence. Nor are they reasonable or workable.

I don't find that the kind of Catholic position you're outlining (one that attempts to exclude "private judgment" in sense 4) meets these tests, frankly. I think it fails historically and it's not workable. You can say that that's because I'm working with Protestant presuppositions--of course I am. Similarly, you're analyzing Protestantism with Catholic presuppositions. One obvious example--Protestantism fails from history if one assumes that there must be an infallible ecclesiastical authority. But if ecclesiastical authority is fallible, then those teachings of the Fathers that point toward infallibility may themselves be mistaken. I don't think this is any more circular or self-serving than the Catholic position--maybe less.


Getting back to the larger question at hand: one can believe that it is difficult to interpret all these magisterial documents, and wonder about some things, yet accept the Church's authority on faith, based on a number of various criteria, which taken together, and cumulatively, convince one that the Catholic Church is what it claims to be.

I agree. That's not what I'm arguing about. My claim is that the need for an infallible authority is not _itself_ a convincing reason to become Catholic. At least I have not found it so.


As C.S. Lewis said, "the rules of chess create chess problems." Catholics can easily look at all these alleged "historical difficulties" the way a Protestant approaches alleged "biblical difficulties."

Absolutely. The analogy here is with a Protestant (there are many such) who should use a claim of Biblical inerrancy as a reason to become a Christian (the Bible is free from error, therefore Christianity is true). This seems patently wrong-headed to me.

But it now seems to me that the Church can live relatively well (though not perfectly) without the kind of authority offered by Rome.

On what basis? How does this overcome the necessary factors that you yourself outlined above?

I'm not sure how one could go about answering this. One judges the problems raised by lack of papal authority to be insuperable or not. I judge them to be not. Grave, but not fatal, given that I'm not committed to a view of the Church's perfection like that of your Communion.

It's no longer clear to me (if it ever was) that doctrinal certainty is so much more important than some of the practical issues with regard to which the Roman Communion is manifestly imperfect.


I contend that this viewpoint cannot be squared with the biblical one, where it seems to me that all doctrine is considered to be highly important and non-negotiable (we especially see this in St. Paul's writings).

I don't recall anywhere where St. Paul says that all doctrine is non-negotiable. I can find plenty of places where right doctrine is considered highly important--but I can find at least as many (probably more) where holiness of life is considered highly important. I think it's harder to prove from Scripture that infallible doctrine is a necessary mark of the true Church than it would be to prove (from the Pastorals especially) that uniformly holy bishops are a mark of the true Church. Of course this second view is false--we both agree there. I don't see why the first is any truer. Bishops are _supposed_ to be characterized by certain moral qualities. They are also _supposed_ to maintain the deposit of faith without the slightest error. I don't see anywhere in Scripture where divine assistance is promised to the latter more than to the former. Neither holiness nor truth will fail utterly from the Church--that's about as much as I can see in Scripture.

A serious, troubling line is crossed when one argues in this fashion. It's one thing to be an agnostic and say that one isn't personally sure what is true about doctrine x or competing doctrines of x. It's quite another to reach the somewhat-despairing conclusion that doctrinal certainty can be softened in such difficult areas, and that this is how things should be.

The Church reached this conclusion long ago with regard to morals. There's no doubt that modern Catholicism has nothing like the moral rigorism of early Christianity. Why is that any less damning to Catholicism than our relative doctrinal laxity is to Protestantism? With regard to morals, we have clearly discovered that even horrendous shortcomings do not compromise the validity of the Church (because _all_ churches have moral shortcomings, though small sectarian churches sometimes manage to do a little better on some fronts). What reason can you give for resisting a similar conclusion with regard to doctrine?

BTW, I don't take offense at the "liberal" charge.


You may arrive at the Catholic position by any number of doctrinal and intellectual and faith avenues which have little to do with infallibility (in my case, I started with the moral issues and questions about internal inconsistencies in Protestantism), but once you get there and have decided to swim the Tiber, you must accept this in faith, and grant even internal assent to it.

I wasn't questioning that. I'm sorry if I gave a different impression. My point was simply that infallibility is not what _drives_ me any longer. Of course it's part of the package.


That's right. They were accepted in the same way that most Christians accept the existence of God. It was on a pre-rational basis, based more on intuition and faith. It is an innate thing. Choice of a church is not quite like that, but there are certain things (the whole body of dogma and moral teaching) that are accepted on faith, and that was what it meant to be a Catholic, through the centuries. Therefore, it would have been meaningless and not an option to sit there and pick and choose what one thinks the Church got right and what it got wrong. The fathers would have said: "the Church decrees thus-and-so. Who are you to disagree, and on what basis? You don't decide these things. The Mind of the Church does."

True enough, but there was a lot of give-and-take involved in this. Origen, for instance, sorts out very carefully which Christian beliefs of his time he understood to be part of the Rule of Faith, and which were open for speculation. Eventually many of his speculations were seen as contrary to the Rule of Faith, but that took centuries.

The reasons why any given individual chose to believe the Christian faith might vary, and were not themselves part of the Faith.

Yes. I agree. But then, does this not nullify much of your own analysis above? If you say you agree with this, then it wipes out much of your contention that you can decide as an individual what you will accept and not accept. You're doing epistemology while claiming that you deny that it is ultimately decisive in matters of faith and ecclesiological adherence.

I'm not sure I get your point. First of all, I'm not sure where I said that I "decide as an individual what I will accept and not accept." I wouldn't say I decide "as an individual." I would say that I decide as a member of the Body of Christ. But yes, I do think (as I indicated in sense 4 of "private judgment" above) that I have to judge that the doctrines presented to me are the authoritative doctrines of the Church. In many cases this is a latent, implicit judgment, and in times when the Church was more unified it would have been far more so (the bishop said this in his sermon and it didn't raise any red flags in terms of what I know already, so I assume it's what the Church teaches--as a matter of fact, most Christians of whatever church proceed this way even today). But at times it has to be explicit, even for Catholics. How this relates to my claim here I'm not sure. I don't deny that I'm doing epistemology. I deny that epistemology is itself part of the content of the Faith. I deny that the Faith must itself deliver to me a valid epistemological framework in order to be true. Of course every attempt to decide what is true is epistemological by definition.


If Abraham is right, then the Catholic internet apologists who chase the Orthodox round the Golden Horn asking them "how do you know a Council is ecumenical" are pursuing a red herring.
I strongly disagree. It was crucial to know which council was orthodox and which wasn't.

The point is that it was decided on an ad hoc basis, not because of a predetermined criterion.

Otherwise, you have a situation where, e.g., the "Robber Council" of 449 in Ephesus is orthodox, and heresy is promulgated at the highest conciliar levels. But it was not orthodox, and that was determined authoritatively by Pope Leo the Great.

The evidence seems to be that Chalcedon accepted Leo's teaching because it judged it to be true, not just because it came from Leo. Leo's word was not enough. Rather, Leo took the lead in making the theological argument that showed why and how Ephesus was wrong. That is what Protestants and Orthodox are objecting to--a view of papal authority that makes _convincing_ the rest of the Church unnecessary. And this is what we see Catholic apologists trying to short-circuit by lumping a diverse collection of epistemological positions together as "private judgment" and condemning them.


I contend that the papacy is a divinely-instituted office (biblically-based) for the purpose of maintaining unity and doctrine both.

I don't dispute this. I dispute the claim that the papacy is _necessary_ and/or infallible.

449 offers a sterling example of why it is necessary. 1968 and
Humanae Vitae offers another. If Athanasius contra mundum was necessary way back when (over against Arians),

But, of course, Athanasius was not the Bishop of Rome. Indeed, the bishops of Rome didn't take the forefront in that particular fight, though on the whole they came through fairly well.

then Paulus VI contra mundum was necessary in our own age of sexual revolution.

I see no logic to this argument. The fact that a bishop of Alexandria was necessary in fighting heresy in the 4th century proves nothing about whether the bishop of Rome was right about this particular issue in the 20th. I will say this--the fact that the bishop of Rome takes the position he does is a very strong reason for _questioning_ the shift in Protestant doctrine on this subject (the same is true of women's ordination, on which I'm much more inclined to support the liberal view). But not for rejecting it automatically.

It either is a grave sin or not. If one claims that it isn't, then they have to explain why all Christians until 1930 got this wrong.

I don't think that would be a difficult task at all. There are plenty of social and theological reasons why Christians thought birth control was wrong. Of course, explaining is not refuting. The question is simply irrelevant.

If it is, on the other hand, then one must explain why almost all Christians except Catholics have gotten it wrong in the present age.

I don't think that's very difficult either. Certainly explaining why Catholics maintain a traditional position that Protestants abandon is very easy. The Orthodox wavering on the issue is more interesting, but the different authority structures and relationships to secular society (and possibly even the fact that celibacy goes much further down the Catholic hierarchy) provide pretty good explanations.

Or one simply gives up moral and doctrinal certainty, and that opens up a whole 'nother can of worms (and is unbiblical, and even illogical, for my money).

And I think this is one of my main points. I don't think a lack of certainty is illogical or unbiblical. we see through a glass darkly. Christ will never abandon us or let us fall hopelessly into error, but there may be (and clearly are) a lot of uncertain moments along the road. Furthermore (and this really opens up epistemological cans of worms) I think that a word like "certainty" really is relative. In other words, it may be perfectly right for a Catholic to be certain about contraception, but equally right for me as an Anglican (given the different stance of my ecclesiastical authorities) to be uncertain. That doesn't mean that there is no right or wrong, only that our access to absolute truth is not always immediate or obvious.

That doesn't follow. If a council denies crucial doctrines, such as christology (which the Robber Council did, being Monophysite), it is heretical; therefore, the reason it was rejected had directly to do with the Faith itself, and its maintenance.

I didn't deny that the reasons have to do with the Faith. I denied that they were _part_ of the Faith.

To resist heresy one doesn't need to have an authority one knows beforehand to be infallible. One simply needs (as Abraham has argued in his more recent book The Logic of Renewal) to have the will to exercise discipline.

You can argue that, but you still need the authority, and no one but Catholics have a sufficiently powerful and authoritative figure to do that.

That is patently false. In fact, many churches have much stricter systems of discipline than Catholics so.

You can say he isn't infallible, but unless he is authoritative enough for his decree to be binding (which, practically speaking, is scarcely different than being infallible), then Christians can always simply dissent, and the problem remains.

No, binding authority is not the same thing as infallibility. When the will to discipline is present, then dissenters (on serious issues) will have to leave. Granted, this is where unity and authority come together (something I never denied, and in fact affirmed in my initial post), since in the present state of Protestantism schism is often taken not very seriously. But it's taken a lot more seriously than Catholics realize--as anyone following the current debates in ECUSA and the UMC realizes. Evangelicals are the worst offenders here
If certain structures of authority are necessary, they are necessary simply because they are part of the tradition. They are not necessary on a priori philosophical grounds.

I say that they are necessary on biblical and practical grounds. That would be my argument. We can pursue that in due course if you like.

And that is not the kind of argument I was addressing.

After quoting part of my post "The Ecclesiology of Limbo" Dave wrote:

I must confess that I don't fully understand this perspective, inasmuch as it causes you to remain Anglican, with this more-or-less despairing attitude towards Anglican claims (whatever they are, historically and today). It seems to me that you would almost of necessity (I use the word lightly here) have to convert to Catholicism, because (so it seems to me; perhaps I have misread you) you think it has more truth than Anglicanism.

I think you've answered the question yourself above, when you said that a failure to accept certain authority claims makes conversion to Catholicism dishonest.

You could also convert to Orthodoxy, but I have seen you write that you are a "westerner," so presumably that would tip the scale (rightly or wrongly) Romeward.

And while the Orthodox don't make the kind of epistemological claims Catholics do, their practical claims of authority, and in particular their claims about dogma and liturgy, are in some ways stricter. Also, the lack of the papacy is an issue. If I'm going to give up communion with my wife and parents and all the other things I'd be giving up, I at least want to be in communion with the See of Peter . . . . (This is not a glib answer, but a subject I've thought about a lot in the year and a half since August of 2003 and the beginning of the present crisis in ECUSA.)


I find this dilemma that he describes difficult to comprehend because I was always fairly happy as an evangelical and didn't have this ongoing conflict within me. We tend to understand less those things which are further from our own experience.

Yes, that's true enough. I certainly wouldn't wish on anyone the kind of conflict I've been through in the past ten years. But I'm sure God had some reason for letting me go through it, wherever I end up . . . .

This post has taken a very long time for me to write, and if you respond quickly (as is your custom) it may be quite a while before I respond in turn. And at that point I'll try to keep things briefer. But I appreciated your in-depth critique and wanted to try to respond adequately. Thanks for keeping me accountable to thinking through the implications of my position!


2 comments:

Pertinacious Papist said...

I wish I had the time to do this discussion justice; but like the writer of the post, I'm saddled with all manner of academic obligations at the moment. However, I have posted recent discussions on the following subjects: (1) Eastern Orthodoxy's Witness to Papal Primacy: The Acacian Schism of 484-519; and (2) Papal Primacy and the Photian Schism of 879-880

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Edwin,

I'll respond to this as soon as I can. I've gotten sidetracked with lots of other debates lately (they always seem to come to me, no matter what I do LOL). I only found out about your post around Feb. 15th or so.

I look forward to further interaction with you, as always. Truly good dialogue is such a rare commodity these days.

God bless,

Dave