Thursday, May 27, 2004

Dialogue: Martin Luther the "Super-Pope," de facto Infallibility, and Protestant Tradition (vs. Dr. Edwin Tait)

A Philosophical and Analogical "Turning the Tables" Argument in Reply to Certain Protestant Rhetoric Against the Papacy

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 13 November 2002 from public dialogues.

Dave Armstrong vs. Edwin Tait

(Anglican; words in blue)

The early Protestants were claiming infallibility (in the sense that will be explained below) in far more sweeping and revolutionary terms than any pope ever did. And it will do no good to act as if Luther has no relation whatsoever to Protestants today. It's not that simple, and thoughtful Protestants know it. The entire Protestant experiment starts with the axiom that Luther was right when he dissented from the Catholic Church.

Catholics are considered impolite, obtuse, and contentious when we dare to ask the obvious question: "why should anyone think Luther was right and the Catholic Church wrong; by what authority and precedent does he act? Who made him everybody's judge?" Then the Protestant says that his views were obviously biblical and Catholic views obviously not, and it's back to the dog races of sola Scriptura and perspicuity, the supreme rights of the individual conscience, and private judgment, etc., etc. History, however, cannot be gotten over that easily.

Catholics who make this argument are told that Protestants don't believe in infallibility (as if we didn't know that already). The point is not: "Protestants (formally) believe in infallibility (or, believe that Luther was infallible), just like we Catholics do, with regard to the pope" (which is, of course, untrue, and a manifestly silly and falsifiable claim).

The point is (philosophically; epistemologically-speaking): Luther's "certain" claims are in fact (however he or his followers may characterize it) far more "infallibilist" than any Catholic claims, and less based on precedent, and without any rational basis for belief a priori, etc.

I don't follow that. Yes, Luther made extravagant rhetorical statements about his authority as some kind of prophet.

That was my point. You got it in your first sentence, then you proceed for the rest of your post saying that you have little or no idea what I am talking about. :-) A prophet is more infallible than a pope.

But basically he claimed that people should agree with him because what he said was faithful to Holy Scripture and to the analogy of faith.

I understand that. What I was asserting was that Luther had no plausible justification for either his claim as "some kind of prophet" (your description), or for the novel beliefs he introduced. One of these was sola Scriptura. Subsequent Protestants adopted that as their formal principle, so in effect, how he introduced that novelty and how it has been unquestioned ever since (as if it is a biblical teaching), is every bit as "authoritative" as a papal ex cathedra definition, yet with far less rationale, and little or no precedent in Church history. This is the double standard I see. And that makes Luther a "super-pope." I won't take that terminology back, because I regard it as literally true.

But Protestants are blind to this because when it comes to sola Scriptura, they are like fish in water (with sola Scriptura being the water). They don't regard the principle itself as the vulnerable, altogether questionable, and dubiously biblical thing that it is, but rather, as self-evident, and they view anyone who questions it as automatically "unbiblical" and a slave of mere traditions of men.

And that is what very many intelligent Christians concluded.


These people were not conceding Luther any kind of infallible authority--in fact they were willing to criticize him quite vigorously on many points.

Luther's basis for his truth claims was no different in essence than any heresiarch's truth claims. All offered some biblical rationale and claimed that their hermeneutic was right and everyone else's wrong. So if the methodology of the Fathers for discerning error was correct (apostolic succession and appeal to "what has always been taught"), then it should be applied to Luther. If apostolic succession is wrong, on the other hand, then those who reject it need to explain why, and to show how the Fathers got it wrong, and how they could have discerned heretical error in a better fashion than they did, by simple recourse to the "plain teachings of Scripture."

Probably I just don't understand what you mean by "epistemologically infallibilist." From where I stand what you're calling "infallibilism" is just claiming to be right--which everyone does any time they make any assertion whatever.

No, not at all; it is Luther's outrageous pretense of claiming to be a self-anointed prophet, God's man for the hour, against whom no one could disagree without being damned. I am saying that philosophically or logically, Luther's claims and his assumed authority are much greater in both degree and kind than that of any pope. Therefore, the ecclesiological differences make no part of my argument, which is why it is always a non sequitur when the Protestant replies (as they invariably do), that "we don't make Luther infallible." I am presupposing the formal difference in authority structure in both systems. That doesn't affect my argument, because it is a philosophical and logical one.

Secondly, his novel innovations were taken up by Protestants as if they were new dogmas, but with no basis other than the impulse to differ from Catholicism and apostolic succession, and to offer some alternate scenario and authority-structure: . . .

I'm not sure what this means either. It looks as if you are saying that
Protestants accepted Luther's teachings simply out of the desire to believe
something other than what the Catholic Church taught. But I find it hard to
believe that you would say anything so patently silly, so presumably I've

I should have worded this better. What I was trying to say was not that Protestants' own rationale was what I had in the parentheses (they would simply appeal to the Bible), but that sola Scriptura began in Luther's dissent against popes and Councils and apostolic succession. Once one does that, then they must obviously fall back on Bible Alone, since the limb of Tradition has just been cut off (i.e., as binding and authoritative).

. . . primarily sola Scriptura, which changed the formal principle in Protestantism . . .

Actually, the Protestants did not think they were doing any such thing. On the
contrary, Luther claimed that his principle of scriptural authority (he did not use
the term sola scriptura) was simply what he'd been taught as a nominalist. It
isn't that simple, of course. The Protestants were certainly using scriptural
authority in a more radically subversive way than it had ever been used before.
But they were appealing to a principle that they understood to be the historic
teaching of the Church, and there were currents in scholastic theology that led
them to think this.

I think it is very simple. Luther at Worms came to the conclusion that popes and councils could err. That is already radically un-Catholic. His substitute for that was "Scripture and plain reason." That was the change of principle; the sea change. Every subsequent Protestant distinctive (i.e., the authority or rationale for them) flows from that moment, as I see it.

In my opinion the root of the error of sola scriptura is the scholastic tendency to
see texts as the fundamental basis for all authority. But that's my own

Interesting. I still say it arose out of Luther's determination to dissent against all prior Tradition on some points. To do that he had to do exactly what he did at Worms: eliminate Church and Tradition as obligatory binding authorities and adopt Scripture Alone (and a supposedly clear, plowboy-level Scripture).

. . . That [sola Scriptura] is, in effect, a new binding, de fide dogma in Protestantism, which had far more import and influence in Protestant day-to-day life and modus operandi than the dogma of papal infallibility has for the day-to-day life of a Catholic.

With all due respect to my evangelical brethren in Christ, I've never heard an adequate response to this objection.

I don't really understand how it is an objection, unless it's simply the traditional
(and effective) "sola scriptura isn't in the Bible" argument.

No, it's far more subtle than that. It is a philosophical (epistemological) argument and an attack on the Protestant principle at its very roots. I'm delighted about this exchange because it has given me the opportunity to clarify this argument in much greater depth than I ever have before, to clear up all the misunderstandings.

And I don't understand how this is a claim that Protestants hold some kind of infallibility.

Explained above.

Another way to look at this is to say that no Christian gets their doctrine "pure" and unfiltered, straight from the Bible (and the Holy Spirit). We're all influenced by traditions of men to one degree or another. These can be good traditions or bad traditions, biblical or not, apostolic or not, infallible or non-infallible, binding or optional, heretical or orthodox. But we all have them (Protestants included).

You won't get any argument from me on that.


That being the case, it is reasonable and not at all improper to ask why Luther's traditions and novelties are to be granted more weight than anyone else's?

Those who do grant them weight do so out of a belief that they are in agreement with Scripture and the faith of the historic Church,

The former can at least be argued; the latter cannot be shown, at least not where Luther differed from Catholicism. He did agree on many things, too, of course, such as baptism, the Eucharist (largely), and many Marian doctrines, including even the Immaculate Conception.

and that indeed they shed light on the tradition in new and helpful ways.

Not if they were corruptions of the Tradition. Ditching five sacraments in one fell swoop in one of his polemical tracts is hardly a development of precedent; it is a revolutionary overthrow of a lot of it. That's why I refuse to grant the title of "reformer" to Luther, Calvin et al. These folks were clearly revolutionaries.

One might ask, why should Augustine or Aquinas be granted more weight than anyone else, and the answer would be the same.

They didn't radically overthrow existing Christian Tradition and teaching. Nor did they claim the infallibility that Luther did.

(Actually I think Augustine's doctrine of predestination is as much of an innovation as anything in Luther.)

Naw; it was simply a much deeper delving into the issues of soteriology, election, free will, etc. No one had done much of that before. But it didn't radically reverse what came before it.

Luther is simply treated as a Father and Doctor of the Church. I can understand why you disagree with this, but not why you think it's obviously a priori problematic.

It is if a consistent criterion of legitimate vs. illegitimate development is adopted. Whenever Luther radically innovates, he violates the principle of apostolic succession that Fathers and Doctors always possess (or acknowledge, even when they are in doctrinal error).

Catholics contend that they are groundless and rendered null and void insofar as they depart from received Christian Tradition, just as every heresy in the early Church was opposed by recourse to what has been "passed down."

But frequently this appeal to what has been "passed down" is judged by
contemporary scholars to have been far more innovative than, say, Athanasius
thought at the time. It just isn't that simple.

Alright; no particular comment. As you know, that is a huge issue in itself.

Also, as any good Protestant apologist can point out, what Athanasius and
other heresy-fighters would in fact have claimed first and foremost was that
heresy contradicted Scripture. Certainly they also believed that the Church's
historic teaching was on their side, and we can see in hindsight that they were
influenced by non-Biblical presuppositions far more than they realized.

Well, they did both. The fight against heresy is biblically-based, but ultimately it had to be grounded in the correct and one Christian Tradition, because the heretic's argument was also biblically-based. Therefore, Tradition was the clincher, because that is what clearly distinguished the Christian position from the heretical.

They all appealed to Scripture Alone to justify their errors; the Church responded with biblical arguments grounded in authentic Apostolic Tradition. That was the clincher for the Fathers. Luther can show no such connection with regard to his novelties and innovations, which is why Protestantism has had a prominent a-historical streak ever since, later adding an anti-incarnational tendency which even Luther would have detested.

To a certain extent I agree with you. Some of Luther's teachings are hard to
justify, and Luther's own attitude toward the Fathers was often cavalier. But in
fact Protestants have historically believed that Luther's teachings can be justified
as expressions of the historic faith of the Church.

Believing it and demonstrating it are two different things.

Certainly there are legitimate reasons for questioning this, and insofar as the contrary can be shown Protestants are obliged by their own principles to abandon Luther's teaching.

Ah, but if they only would . . .

I don't really even know what we're arguing about here, or how we got here from the question of infallibility. So I'll shut up and let you clarify things.

Hopefully, I've made myself more clear. I suppose the argument has some subtleties that are not obvious, and so I'm happy to have had the chance to explain it further.

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