Monday, September 06, 2004

Dialogue on Catholic Soteriology: Specifically, Grace (vs. Phillip Johnson)

By Dave Armstrong (late 1996)

Phillip Johnson is the Executive Director of popular expositor John MacArthur's Grace to You radio and tape ministry, and oversees extensive theological web pages, including the Hall of Church History. The following dialogue took place on the public Theology List. Phillip's words will be in blue.

I'd like you to show me where the Catechism of the Catholic Church says anything about God securing our cooperation by grace.

Gladly: #1989, 1992-1993, 1996, 1998-2003, 2007-2010, 2018, 2022-2023, 2025-2027, pp. 482-487, 489-490.

#1996 reads:

Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.


No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion . . .

But, Dave, not one of those passages teaches that God secures the sinner's cooperation.

I disagree (what else is new?). I think #1996, 1998, and 2001 in particular do precisely that, and more, since they speak of eternal life as a gift of God, entirely unearned by man apart from God. The immediate question above had to do with God securing our cooperation, not salvation, and I answered it, 25 times. If you meant "secure our salvation" (a different proposition), then -- in my humble opinion -- you should have made that more clear.

Read my post again. I did not merely ask you to cite where the Catechism refers to divine grace. I asked you to show me where it describes grace as something that actually secures either 1) a positive response from the sinner, or 2) ultimate salvation for anyone.

In the immediate context above, you referred to the sinner's cooperation, not "ultimate salvation." In fact, we Catholics do hold that God elects persons to eternal salvation. Right now in my debate with [a Calvinist], you'll note that he often refers to the Thomist position on predestination as very similar to his own Calvinist position (at least where the elect are concerned, I would hasten to add).

. . . and that does not demonstrate what I asked for. It doesn't even come close. Note that it describes grace as "help." So it's saying grace is something that assists the willing sinner. This does not suggest that grace secures anyone's willingness.

The Catechism wisely refrains from elaborate expositions of predestination. Catechisms are not systematic theologies. They are written for laymen attempting to understand and live out Catholic Christianity, not philosophers, theologians, or impractical people like us who have nothing better to do than sit around and discuss stuff like supralapsarianism, transubstantiation, and antidisestablishmentarianism. Even so, I think the three citations above -- rightly understood -- provide the stricter answer you are looking for.

Even semi-Pelagians believe that grace is a necessary aspect of salvation. No one has disputed that Roman Catholicism believes that much.

Not even Jack Chick or Tony Alamo et al?

But, Dave, the simple fact is that Rome does not believe grace actually secures the salvation, or even the willingness, of anyone.

And Bah humbug!!!!!!!!!!!! Patent falsehoods . . .

Indeed, this is a major point on which Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Semi-Pelagians, and Arminians all agree against the Reformation: all these views deny that God has any control whatsoever in gaining the sinner's cooperation and assent. Instead, conversion is left to "free will." Therefore your God is helpless to save someone who is determined to pursue sin and rebellion.

This is abysmally ignorant and astonishing in one so learned and otherwise eloquent. Aside from the citations above, anyone can readily verify the outrageous falsity of these charges (at least with respect to Catholicism), by reading the following chapters from the Decree on Justification from the Council of Trent: 3, 5, 7, 8, and also the Canons 1-3. Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott states that the following proposition must be believed by all orthodox Catholics (a de fide dogma):


Ott says that the doctrinal definitions of Trent presuppose this.

Well, I urge anyone who really thinks I might be wrong to read those documents and see for yourself that there is nothing here to suggest that grace actually secures a positive response from the sinner. The grace described by Trent cannot ensure even the repentant sinner's ultimate salvation. On the contrary, if you read the whole document, you will note that the Decree on Justification (chap. 15) teaches that those who receive grace can lose it by committing a mortal sin.

Of course. Just as in Calvinism, someone who goes to hell (due to mortal sin, in Catholicism) is obviously not among the elect (but even so, we can't know that for sure, as we don't know the eternal destiny of anyone -- excepting instances such as Elijah). Calvinists have no more "assurance" than we do because when someone falls away, you simply say that proves he was not divinely elected. We simply can't know with certitude who is to be saved, and who damned, whatever the deluded self-confident claims are to the contrary. It reduces to an epistemological, not theological, problem. Believers in both parties, however, can certainly have a very high degree of assurance of being in right relation to God, especially if they are living righteous, upright lives, which is a sign of election in both systems.

[Snip stuff on Catholicism and predestination. I'll leave all that to someone else.]

Very convenient for you! This is precisely what is most relevant to the discussion, and you want to "leave all that to someone else." I assume, then, that you'll "leave" the response to my predestination post to "someone else" too?

[he did, but no one else in a list of 100 or so Protestants -- I was the lone active Catholic -- ever took up the challenge]

You have in effect claimed that the Council of Trent affirmed the Calvinistic doctrine of Irresistable [sic] Grace.

No, you're putting words in my mouth. But my predestination post ought to be of great comfort and use to you, when you see how similar we really are, just as I have been pleasantly surprised about Calvinism, the more I learn about it, from people who have been patient enough to explain it carefully.

My God [note the implication that Catholics, and even Arminian Protestants, worship a different God] on the other hand, can even effect the total turnaround of someone like Saul of Tarsus--or worse yet, Phillip Johnson.

Mine, too. We worship the same Lord.

I believe that Roman Catholicism, since Trent, has so seriously corrupted the doctrine of justification that it does not deserve to be regarded as authentic Christianity (cf. Gal. 1:8-9). I deplore Catholic doctrine, just as I deplore Mormon doctrine.

Then you are one confused individual indeed. This is self-defeating and ludicrously incoherent and thus unworthy to be adhered to by any educated Protestant.

That does not mean I dislike Roman Catholics, any more than it means I dislike Mormons. I have great love and concern for people trapped in the darkness of both systems.

Yes, your love, affection, and concern for me is evident in your every post to me! They are so gracious, charitable, conciliatory, etc. . . .

[this was obviously sarcasm -- his letters were stock full of bitter ad hominem attacks]

And for that very reason I would no more assume a Roman Catholic is a brother or sister in Christ than I would make such an assumption about a Socinian [non-trinitarian] "Protestant," a gnostic new-age "Christian," or anyone else who denies that Christ's righteousness alone is the sole and sufficient ground of our justification.

What about John Wesley, or C.S. Lewis, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Soren Kierkegaard? Are they equally as suspect in your eyes, on the same grounds? Mother Teresa and St. Francis of Assisi quite possibly in hell . . . ? This is so absurdly asinine, one wonders how to respond. I haven't figured it out yet, obviously so in my dealings with you!

I believe Romans 4:4-5 makes a crystal-clear dichotomy: "To the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness." Verse 4 describes those who are working toward ultimate justification. Verse 5 contrasts them with true Christians, who refuse to work for any part of their justification -- but instead they rest their whole confidence on a righteousness that is imputed to them. (See also Phil. 3:7-9.) I'll leave it to you to declare which category you fit into.

I'm in the category of those who "work out" their "own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in [me], both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil 2:12-13 -- NRSV; cf. Mt 5:20, 7:16-27, 16:27, Lk 14:13-14, Acts 6:7, 10:31,35, Rom 1:5, 2:5-13, 6:17, 10:16, 15:18-19, 16:25-6, 1 Cor 3:8-9,13, 4:5, 15:10,58, 2 Cor 5:10, Gal 5:6, 6:7-9, Eph 2:8-10, Col 3:23-25, 1 Thess 1:3, 2 Thess 1:8,11, 1 Tim 6:18-19, Titus 1:15-16, 3:5-8, Heb 11:8, Jas 1:22-27, 2:14-26[cf. Ps 106:30-31], 1 Pet 1:2,17, 2 Pet 1:10, Rev 22:12).

You think "works," even those wholly wrought by God's enabling grace, have nothing to do with justification and salvation. I think the Bible (per the above evidences) perspicuously teaches otherwise, which is why sola fide was unknown, according to Norman Geisler, between the times of Paul and Luther.

* * * * * 

Saturday, September 04, 2004

33,000 Protestant Denominations? A Re-Examination . . .

Recently, the anti-Catholic Pied Piper James White chided me on his Dividing Line webcast for not immediately speaking out against this figure (or similar ones; 23,000 is also often heard) when I was on the radio, after a caller mentioned it (mainly due to lack of time). A friend also wrote, asking for documentation, as to where these kinds of numbers can be found and substantiated. It so happens that I have dealt with this question before, and co-wrote a paper with my good friend Al Kresta, on the topic (dated 19 March 2000): "23,000 or More Protestant Denominations: a Myth of Catholic Apologists or a Documented Fact?"

To summarize the gist of the paper; the following charges were made against myself or Al Kresta, from Protestants:

. . . you are LYING about your "separated brethren."

I want to know if we as Christians are justified in inflating information to combat those we disagree with?

The claim that there are 28,000 Protestant denominations is absurd on its face. It is one of the favorite red herrings of pop Catholic apologists, yet has neither basis in fact, nor acceptance by serious theologians of either the Catholic or Protestant persuasion. I have yet to meet anyone who can back this claim by an even partial enumeration of the supposedly 28,000 different

. . . the usage of the 28,000 number by Keating and other pop apologists is arbitrary and capricious at its onset, and is a red herring in any substantive dialogue of this nature.

The 33,000 (or whatever it is today) denominations argument really ticks me off every time I hear it. I could see some cradle Catholic sourcing a text and sticking with this, but to hear former evangelicals do it just [makes me very angry]. My point? You know better.

These were the accusations made against us and against Catholic apologists in general. They are false, and most unfair. There are indeed sources for these numbers and they are neither Catholic nor unscholarly. The article above can be read in full for all the details, but again, to summarize briefly:

According to the Dictionary of Christianity in America [Protestant] (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1990): "As of 1980 David B. Barrett identified 20,800 Christian denominations worldwide . . ."
("Denominationalism," p. 351). I have this book, so I have seen this with my own eyes. Barrett "classified them into seven major blocs and 156 ecclesiastical traditions." This is from Oxford World Christian Encyclopedia, 1982, of which he is the editor.

Also, according to United Nations there were over 23,000 competing and often contradictory denominations world-wide (World Census of Religious Activities [U.N. Information Center, NY, 1989]). This was cited in Frank Schaeffer's book Dancing Alone (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Press, 1994), p. 4. Schaeffer is Orthodox.

The 1999 Encyclopedia of Christianity has this to say: "In 1985 David Barrett could count 22,150 distinct denominations worldwide." {edited by E. Fahlbusch, et al., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999, vol. 1, p. 800, s.v. "Denomination." David B. Barrett is the statistical editor}

Citing the Oxford World Christian Encyclopedia, 1982: ". . . a projected 22,190 by 1985 . . . The present net increase is 270 denominations each year (five new ones a week)." {pp. 15-18}

The definition Barrett worked with was that a denomination was "an organized Christian Church or tradition or religious group or community of believers or aggregate of worship centers or congregations, usually within a specific country, whose component congregations and members are called by the same name in different areas, regarding themselves as an autonomous Christian church distinct from other denominations, churches and traditions."

Now, this is where the figures ultimately come from. No doubt some Catholic apologists (even more well-known ones) use them as a kind of "folk truth" -- having heard them bandied about, and we will examine some serious problems with them below. But that doesn't mean the numbers were entirely made-up and arbitrary. As we see, this is untrue: they come from these sources.

One may indeed question the criteria by which "denomination" was defined. This ultimately led to my own skeptical position, and caused me to change my opinion only a short while after I wrote my paper, upon further reflection (and to remove the paper from my website). Strangely enough, one person who helped convince me to change my mind was the anti-Catholic Eric Svendsen (who despises my work and thinks little of me even on a personal level). But I don't care where truth comes from: truth is truth. Eric made a good argument, that I found compelling. Here are a few excerpts from it ("30,000 Protestant Denominations?") -- his words in blue, with some commentary of my own, in black:

I have posed this question over and over again to many different Roman Catholic apologists, none of whom were able to verify the source with certainty. In most cases, one Roman Catholic apologist would claim he obtained the figure from another Roman Catholic apologist. When I would ask the latter Roman Catholic apologist about the figure, it was not uncommon for that apologist to point to the former apologist as his source for the figure, creating a circle with no actual beginning. I have long suspected that, whatever the source might be, the words “denomination” and “Protestant” were being defined in a way that most of us would reject.

As usual, Svendsen paints with too broad a brush. He hadn't checked with me, or my friend Al Kresta (both published Catholic apologists). He states that this is from his book Upon This Slippery Rock, dated 2002. My paper was online in March 2000 and my withdrawal of it occurred not long afterwards. Granted, we can't all see everything that is happening in the apologetics controversies. But at least two apologists cited their sources with great particularity and accuracy. One would never know this by reading Svendsen's characterization (it would ruin the image of the "ignorant Catholic apologist" that he is trying to project). Ironically, then, I was chided by Svendsen's friend James White for not correcting the figure (even mentioning Svendsen), when in fact, I did so over four years ago, whereas Svendsen's book appeared some two years after my paper, and he shows no signs of being aware that any Catholic apologist had so concluded, or that they cited any reputable sources at all. Ironies never cease where anti-Catholics are concerned.

I have only recently been able to locate the source of this figure. I say the source because in fact there is only one source that mentions this figure independently. All other secondary sources (to which Roman Catholics sometimes make appeal) ultimately cite the same original source. That source is David A. Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World A.D. 1900—2000 (ed. David A. Barrett; New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). This work is both comprehensive and painstakingly detailed; and its contents are quite enlightening.

Good. And as we see, this is the work that Al and I cited. Now here is where Eric starts to make a good point about denominational criteria:

Barrett identifies seven major ecclesiastical “blocs” under which these 22,190 distinct denominations fall (Barrett, 14-15): (1) Roman Catholicism, which accounts for 223 denominations; (2) Protestant, which accounts for 8,196 denominations; (3) Orthodox, which accounts for 580 denominations; (4) Non-White Indigenous, which accounts for 10,956 denominations; (5) Anglican, which accounts for 240 denominations; (6) Marginal Protestant, which includes Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, New Age groups, and all cults (Barrett, 14), and which accounts for 1,490 denominations; and (7) Catholic (Non-Roman), which accounts for 504 denominations. According to Barrett’s calculations, there are 8,196 denominations within Protestantism—not 25,000 . . . 
. . . Barrett indicates that what he means by “denomination” is any ecclesial body that retains a “jurisdiction” (i.e., semi-autonomy). As an example, Baptist denominations comprise approximately 321 of the total Protestant figure. Yet the lion’s share of Baptist denominations are independent, making them (in Barrett’s calculation) separate denominations. In other words, if there are ten Independent Baptist churches in a given city, even though all of them are identical in belief and practice, each one is counted as a separate denomination due to its autonomy in jurisdiction. This same principle applies to all independent or semi-independent denominations. And even beyond this, all Independent Baptist denominations are counted separately from all other Baptist denominations, even though there might not be a dime’s worth of difference among them. The same principle is operative in Barrett’s count of Roman Catholic denominations. He cites 194 Latin-rite denominations in 1970, by which Barrett means separate jurisdictions (or diocese). Again, a distinction is made on the basis of jurisdiction, rather than differing beliefs and practices.

I accept this (and urge people to read his entire article, linked above, to fully understand the considerable force of his objection), and I reject Barrett's calculations (as he defines and categorizes them), just as Eric does. In any event, the criteria of the definition of "denomination" is a different question from whether or not Catholics have pulled it out of thin air in order to embarrass Protestants. I am convinced by Eric's explication of the former, from Barrett himself, but I reject the latter characterization.

Be that as it may, I think we can safely refer to "hundreds" of Protestant denominations, using a cogent doctrinal definition, not merely jurisdictional or superficial (though institutional unity is not an unbiblical characteristic, either, if we want to get technical about it). Biblically speaking, any more than one "denomination" or "Church" is a scandal. The Catholic continues to assert that there is one Church and that the Catholic Church is the fullest institutional expression of that one Church, with other Christians implicitly connected with it to more or less degrees. This (agree or disagree) at least lines up with the biblical witness as to the nature and definition of the Christian Church, rather than being blatantly contrary to the Bible, as the very notion of denominationalism (wholly apart from later disputes about numbers) is.

So, yes, I agree, Svendsen's clarifications of Barrett's meaning and his rebuke are worthwhile, and to be heeded accordingly; it does not follow, however, that the scandal of Protestant denominationalism is therefore alleviated. It is scandalous because it entails a false, unbiblical definition of what the Church is, no matter how many of these sects one arrives at, or by what calculation and criteria.

I, as a Catholic apologist, can easily admit that Svendsen is right about wrongheaded definitions concerning denominations, but that doesn't have any ill effect whatever on the overall Catholic apologetic. On the other hand, Protestant apologists like Svendsen and White (even ecumenical Protestant apologists and other thinkers) have a huge problem trying to biblically justify denominationalism and sectarianism and in determining the internal causes of same (which we Catholics would identify as: sola Scriptura, private judgment, so-called "supremacy of conscience," the sectarian and exclusivistic mindsets, anti-institutionalism, anti-sacerdotalism, rejection of a binding apostolic tradition and Church, and of apostolic succession, episcopacy, even American cultural individualism running rampant within American Protestantism, etc.) that they have by no means ever resolved or even squarely faced.

* * * * * 

Did the Catholic Church Change the Ten Commandments to Bolster its Alleged Gross Idolatry?

Eric Landstrom, an evangelical (Arminian) Protestant, with whom I have had some contact, made an atrocious argument, grounded in ignorance and an unChristian willingness to quickly make a harsh judgment, without doing the proper research, commensurate with the astounding charge. He knows better. He is theologically-educated, and a sharp guy. There is no excuse for this. But this is what irrational prejudice against Catholicism produces, even in otherwise fairly-reasonable folks. It's a classic case.

His article was entitled, "Catholic Religion Purposely takes out one of God's Ten Commandments." He listed alternate numbering of the Ten Commandments as follows:

The Catholic Deception* ["CD"] / The King James Bible ["KJV"] First Commandment [CD]
I, the LORD, am your God...You shall not have other gods besides me.
First Commandment [KJV]
I am the LORD thy God...Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Second Commandment [CD]
You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain.
Second Commandment [KJV]
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.
Third Commandment [CD]
Remember to keep holy the sabbath day.
Third Commandment [KJV]
Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.
Fourth Commandment [CD]
Honor your father and your mother.
Fourth Commandment [KJV]
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Fifth Commandment [CD]
You shall not kill.
Fifth Commandment [KJV]
Honor thy father and thy mother.
Sixth Commandment [CD]
You shall not commit adultery.
Sixth Commandment [KJV]
Thou shalt not kill.
Seventh Commandment [CD]
You shall not steal.
Seventh Commandment [KJV]
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Eighth Commandment [CD]
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Eighth Commandment [KJV]
Thou shalt not steal.
Ninth Commandment [CD]
You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.
Ninth Commandment [KJV]
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
Tenth Commandment [CD]
You shall not covet your neighbor's house.
Tenth Commandment [KJV]
Thou shalt not covet.
I suggest that, next time Eric wants to make a "slam dunk" against the Church, that he do a bit of rudimentary study and "homework" first. I found the following information by simple recourse of a fifteen-minute perusal of my own library. I believe that Eric (again, a theologically-educated man) could have easily discovered the same, with a minimum of effort.

First of all, let's get one thing straight right out of the "starting-gate": the Bible itself does not lay out with precision, the numbering of the Commandments. In fact, it does not do so at all. The set is indeed referred to as "ten" (Ex 34:28, Deut 4:13, 10:4), but the exact numbering is not given in the two slightly different versions of it recorded in the Bible (Ex 20:2-17 and Deut 5:6-21; see also an expanded elaboration of the principles in Ex 34:11-28). This is as true of the King James Version as of any other. Therefore, no one has any license to be dogmatic about the exact numbering and division, based on the Bible alone -- let alone to make a charge of dishonesty and "removal."

This being the case, Christian groups have differed through the centuries, as to numbering. This is no "Catholic conspiracy." Thus, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2nd ed., edited by F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, 1983, "Commandments, The Ten," 318-319), notes:
. . . in the prohibition of covetousness, Ex. classes a man's wife with his other domestic property, whereas Deut. treats her separately.
. . . There is a difference in the enumeration in the different Churches. In the C of E [Church of England] as well as in the Greek and the Reformed (Calvinist and Zwinglian) Churches the prohibitions relating to false worship are reckoned as two, whereas the RC Church and the Lutherans count them as one. Thus the enumeration of the subsequent Commandments differs, e.g., the fourth (Anglican, etc.) Commandment on the sanctification of the Sabbath is reckoned as the third by those following the RC method. The number ten is made up by splitting up the last Commandment forbidding covetousness into two.
So immediately we find that Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, and the Lutherans (no Catholics, they) are in on the "Romish" conspiracy to subvert the Ten Commandments. That makes Eric's elegant conspiratorialism not quite as simple and straightforward as he makes out. Perhaps he forgot to include Martin Luther in his condemnations. We can forgive this small oversight, as long as he is willing to make a note of it in future versions of his article. We all make mistakes, after all.
The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (edited by Allen C. Myers, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1987) -- also no organ of the Catholic Church, in its article on the Commandments (p. 993), concurs:

At what points the Decalog is to be divided into precisely ten commandments has long been a matter of disagreement (e.g., some traditions regard v. 2 as the first commandment, combining vv. 3 and 4-6; others take vv. 3-6 as the first and divide v. 17 into two commandments). Debate also focuses on just where to divide the commandments into "two tables" (cf. 32:15; 34:4,28; Deut 4:13) . . .

The Protestant New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (edited by J.D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, rev. ed., 1978, 243) sheds further light on the differences in enumeration:

The Talmudic tradition held that the commandments against idolatry and the forbidding of images formed one long, indivisible unit. Augustine, who was followed by the Roman and Lutheran traditions, accepted this suggestion and found two commandments under the rubric "thou shalt not covet." A further tradition, following the lead of Origen, separated the commandment against images from that against idolatry; this is the view of Calvin and the Reformed tradition.
(cf. #2066 in Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Ah; how the plot thickens now! Or, rather, how many unanswered questions arise! The great St. Augustine: practically the patron saint of all Protestants, now has espoused (and it looks like he actually originated) the great plot to change the Commandments, so as to allow idolatry to flourish in Catholic ranks. Eric's choices here reduce to only a very few:

1. Boot St. Augustine out of the pantheon of Protestant heroes, due to his joining in the "wicked" conspiracy (or at the very least, include him, when making the condemnation).
2. Admit that he started this, but that the theory itself is bogus, and drop the charge altogether.
3. Claim that he was hypnotized by evil "Romish" priests and wrote what he did under compulsion; it wasn't his true view on the subject.

Of course, the same would apply to Martin Luther and Lutherans to this day, which creates even more obviously thorny problems for a Protestant making this (ridiculous) charge. Another absurdity of his analysis derives from the fact that the Orthodox follow the non-Lutheran Protestant enumeration, yet they fully accept veneration of images, just as Catholics do. So they apparently missed the "trick" that the Catholics devised, to hide their devious practices. Luther was against such veneration (in the main), yet followed the Catholic tradition on this score. Go figure.
Thus in his famous Large Catechism (my version is from Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1935), Luther's numbering (like Augustine's before him) is precisely that of the Catholic Church (what Eric calls "The Catholic Deception" above). The relevant section can be found on pages 44-112). The Small Catechism is the same. Both are normative for Lutherans; they are included in the confessional Book of Concord (1580). The First Commandment is written in these works as: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." The Second Commandment is listed as: "Thous shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain; for Jehovah will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain" (pp. 44, 53 of Luther's Large Catechism). Eric described this numbering as "What deception! What deceit! What guile! . . . mumbo-jumbo gumbo . . ."

Let Eric have his opinion, but let him also include St. Augustine and Martin Luther as recipients of his ire, since the former started this practice, and the latter did not change it. Anti-Catholicism always involves this sort of outrageous double standards and hiding of the full truth of the matter. But I do not charge Eric with "conspiracy"; only with ignorance and prejudice.
Finally, Eric claims that Catholics "deleted" the Commandment about "graven images" and "idols." But this is understood (by Augustine, Luther, and Catholics) as included within the first commandment. It is not excluded at all. There is merely a "shorthand" to remember the first commandment, in the shorter version, just as "Thou shalt not covet" in the non-Lutheran Protestant versions is shorthand for the longer, more explicit biblical version.
There is no subterfuge here at all. Why don't we go back to the 16th-century Catechism of the Council of Trent to prove this (my version is translated by John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan, published in New York by Joseph F. Wagner; second revised edition, 1923). Part III, the section on "The Decalogue," runs from pages 357-477. On page 366 "The First Commandment" is written out in a very long form (even longer than Eric's claim for the KJV): it covers the entirety of Exodus 20:2-6. This is quite strange if the Council of Trent was in on this conspiracy to keep the Catholic unwashed, ignorant masses ignorant of the basic theology of monotheism and prohibition of idolatry. Didn't they know that the Catholic Church was supposed to "kill people with Bibles"? This great Catechism explains the rationale for the numbering of the Catholic First Commandment:

Some, supposing these words which come next in order to constitute a distinct precept, reduce the ninth and tenth Commandments to one. St. Augustine, on the contrary, considering the last two to be distinct Commandments, makes the words just quoted [Ex 20:4-5a, or the non-Lutheran Protestant 2nd Commandment] a part of the First Commandment [Super Exod. quaest. 71, and in Ps. xxxii, serm. ii]. His division is much approved in the Church, and hence we willingly adopt it. Furthermore, a very good reason for this arrangement at once suggests itself. It was fitting that to the first Commandment should be added the rewards or punishments entailed by each one of the Commandments.
(p. 373)

Augustine's (and the Catholic) outlook is not quite the reason that Eric would have us believe (deceit, deception, etc.) . . .
Likewise, the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church, in listing the First Commandment (#2083; cf. #2128-2132) incorporates Exodus 20:2-5a (including the "graven image" material"). So we see that the writers of this hugely influential work are in the dark as to the conspiracy supposedly at play here to suppress one of the Commandments.
We can even go back to St. Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century. His catechism has the long version of the First Commandment [see link to the left and further elaboration by St. Thomas].
Here is an objective look at the differences, without the silly polemics and charges of dishonesty.
The entire theory is ludicrous. This is some of the most ridiculous "reasoning" I've ever seen, even by rock-bottom anti-Catholic standards of "scholarship" and fairness. Perhaps the whole thing is a put-on, though. Maybe I missed the joke . . . If Eric was showing the absurdity of the theory by merely presenting it, he has my apologies, and I will promptly re-write this paper to reflect that reality, immediately upon being informed of it.

* * * * * 

Thursday, September 02, 2004

The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:6-30) vs. Sola Scriptura and James White

By Dave Armstrong (9-2-04)

This is a continuation of my series of responses to anti-Catholic luminary James White's response to a talk I gave on Sola Scriptura on the radio show, Catholic Answers Live.

I have decided to provide a lengthy response to White's "rebuttal" of just one of the ten points I presented in that appearance. Remember (as I noted before), my talk was a mere summary. I estimated that I had about three minutes to elaborate upon each point, due to radio time constraints. So this was no in-depth analysis (which the extremely multi-faceted and complex topic of sola Scriptura ultimately demands). It doesn't follow, however, that I am unable to provide a much more in-depth treatment of the topic.

White, after dodging my critiques of his work for nine years now, seized upon this great "opportunity" of my introductory talk on the radio to pretend, on his Dividing Line webcast, that I have "no clue" what I am talking about and "not a bit of substance" (his stock "responses" and insults where I am concerned). In his eyes, I am a complete ignoramus, a pretender, and utterly over my head in this discussion. White was trying to turn this into a half-baked "oral debate" and (as always, as with all his Catholic opponents) to embarrass me as a simpleton and lightweight apologist. We know he thinks this, because he made a statement like the following on his second show:

The problem, of course, is that this is, quite seriously, one of the things I've said about Mr. Armstrong and about many Catholic apologists, from the very beginning. They don't do exegesis, and they don't know how to. Um, of course, I could argue that they're not allowed to.

Be that as it may, for my part, I replied that I have dealt with most or all these points (agree or disagree) in lengthy papers elsewhere, which he is most welcome to attempt to refute as he pleases. This one point is no exception. Here is the material upon which I based my radio presentation (I added just a little on the air, but rather than do more tedious transcription, I will cite the original "notes": indented):

* * * * * 

In the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:6-30), we see Peter and James speaking with authority. This Council makes an authoritative pronouncement (citing the Holy Spirit) which was binding on all Christians:

Acts 15:28-29: For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity.
In the next chapter, we read that Paul, Timothy, and Silas were traveling around "through the cities," and Scripture says that:
. . . they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem. (Acts 16:4)

This is Church authority. They simply proclaimed the decree as true and binding -- with the sanction of the Holy Spirit Himself! Thus we see in the Bible an instance of the gift of infallibility that the Catholic Church claims for itself when it assembles in a council.

That's it! Obviously, this is a bare-bones summary of one argument, that can be greatly expanded, with many aspects and facets of it examined. Also, it is important to note that I was writing a refutation of sola Scriptura, not an apologia for the full authority of the Catholic Church, and papal infallibility, etc. The two things are logically and categorically distinct. One could easily reject sola Scriptura without accepting the authority of Rome and the pope. Many Christians, in fact, do this: e.g., Anglicans and Orthodox. The subject at hand is "whether sola Scriptura is the true rule of faith, and what the Bible can inform us about that." I made a biblical argument that does not support sola Scriptura at all (quite the contrary). But White, using his usual illogical, wrongheaded, and sophistical techniques, which he has honed to perfection, tried to cleverly switch the topic over to Catholic ecclesiology.

Beyond that, he also foolishly (but typically) implied that my intent in this argument was some silly notion that I thought I had demonstrated all that (Catholic ecclesiology, the papacy and magisterium, etc.) by recourse to this reasoning. This is part of his opinion that I am so stupid that I am unaware of such elementary logical considerations. Vastly underestimating one's opponent makes for lousy debates and embarrassing "come-uppances" when the opponent proceeds to demonstrate that he is not nearly as much of a dunce and clueless imbecile as was made out. The Democrats have used this tactic for years in politics. It is disconcerting to see anti-Catholic Baptists follow their illegitimate model in theological discourse.

He is way ahead of the game, of course, and this is a straw man, since I believe no such thing at all. Sola Scriptura means something. It has a well-established definition among Protestant scholars. In the next excerpt, we will see it defined by the well-known, influential Reformed Presbyterian R.C. Sproul. The question at hand is whether sola Scriptura is indicated in the Bible. I gave ten reasons in my talk which suggest that it is not. This particular case, in fact, offers not only non-support, but also direct counter-evidence.

This argument concerhning the Jerusalem Council was used in expanded form in my just-released book, The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants. Here is that portion of the book, in its entirety (indented):

Acts 15:28-29: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

Acts 16:4: “As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.”
These passages offer a proof that the early Church held to a notion of the infallibility of Church councils, and to a belief that they were especially guided by the Holy Spirit (precisely as in Catholic Church doctrine concerning ecumenical councils). Accordingly, Paul takes the message of the conciliar decree with him on his evangelistic journeys and preaches it to the people. The Church had real authority; it was binding and infallible.

This is a far cry from the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura -- which presumes that councils and popes can err, and thus need to be corrected by Scripture. Popular writer and radio expositor R.C. Sproul expresses the standard evangelical Protestant viewpoint on Christian authority:

For the Reformers no church council, synod, classical theologian, or early church father is regarded as infallible. All are open to correction and critique . . .

(in Boice, 109)
Arguably, this point of view derives from Martin Luther’s stance at the Diet of Worms in 1521 (which might be construed as the formal beginning of the formal principle of authority in Protestantism: sola Scriptura). Luther passionately proclaimed:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me, Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.

(in Bainton, 144)
One Protestant reply to these biblical passages might be to say that since this Council of Jerusalem referred to in Acts consisted of apostles, and since an apostle proclaimed the decree, both possessed a binding authority which was later lost (as Protestants accept apostolic authority as much as Catholics do). Furthermore, the incidents were recorded in inspired, infallible Scripture. They could argue that none of this is true of later Catholic councils; therefore, the attempted analogy is null and void.

But this is a bit simplistic, since Scripture is our model for everything, including Church government, and all parties appeal to it for their own views. If Scripture teaches that a council of the Church is authoritative and binding, then it is implausible and unreasonable to assert that no future council can be so simply because it is not conducted by apostles.

Scripture is our model for doctrine and practice (nearly all Christians agree on this). The Bible doesn’t exist in an historical vacuum, but has import for the day-to-day life of the Church and Christians for all time. St. Paul told us to imitate him (see, e.g., 2 Thess. 3:9). And he went around proclaiming decrees of the Church. No one was at liberty to disobey these decrees on the grounds of “conscience,” or to declare by “private judgment” that they were in error (per Luther).

It would be foolish to argue that how the apostles conducted the governance of the Church has no relation whatsoever to how later Christians engage in the same task. It would seem rather obvious that Holy Scripture assumes that the model of holy people (patriarchs, prophets, and apostles alike) is to be followed by Christians. This is the point behind entire chapters, such as (notably) Hebrews 11.

When the biblical model agrees with their theology, Protestants are all too enthusiastic to press their case by using Scriptural examples. The binding authority of the Church was present here, and there is no indication whatever that anyone was ever allowed to dissent from it. That is the fundamental question. Catholics wholeheartedly agree that no new Christian doctrines were handed down after the apostles. Christian doctrine was present in full from the beginning; it has only organically developed since.

John Calvin has a field day running down the Catholic Church in his commentary for Acts 15:28. It is clear that he is uncomfortable with this verse and must somehow explain it in Protestant terms. But he is not at all unanswerable. The fact remains that the decree was made, and it was binding. It will not do (in an attempt to undercut ecclesial authority) to proclaim that this particular instance was isolated. For such a judgment rests on Calvin’s own completely arbitrary authority (which he claims but cannot prove). Calvin merely states his position (rather than argue it) in the following passage:

. . . in vain do they go about out of the same to prove that the Church had power given to decree anything contrary to the word of God. The Pope hath made such laws as seemed best to him, contrary to the word of God, whereby he meant to govern the Church;
This strikes me as somewhat desperate argumentation. First of all, Catholics never have argued that the pope has any power to make decrees contrary to the Bible (making Calvin’s slanderous charge a straw man). Calvin goes on to use vivid language, intended to resonate with already strong emotions and ignorance of Catholic theology. It’s an old lawyer’s tactic: when one has no case, attempt to caricature the opponent, obfuscate, and appeal to emotions rather than reason.

Far more sensible and objective are the comments on Acts 15:28 and 16:4 from the Presbyterian scholar, Albert Barnes, in his famous Barnes' Notes commentary:

For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost. This is a strong and undoubted claim to inspiration. It was with special reference to the organization of the church that the Holy Spirit had been promised to them by the Lord Jesus, Matthew 18:18-20; John 14:26.

In this instance it was the decision of the council in a case submitted to it; and implied an obligation on the Christians to submit to that decision.
Barnes actually acknowledges that the passage has some implication for ecclesiology in general. It is remarkable, on the other hand, that Calvin seems concerned about the possibility of a group of Christians (in this case, a council) being led by the Holy Spirit to achieve a true doctrinal decree, whereas he has no problem with the idea that individuals can achieve such certainty:

. . . of the promises which they are wont to allege, many were given not less to private believers than to the whole Church [cites Mt 28:20, Jn 14:16-17] . . . we are not to give permission to the adversaries of Christ to defend a bad cause, by wresting Scripture from its proper meaning.

(Institutes, IV, 8, 11)
But it will be objected, that whatever is attributed in part to any of the saints, belongs in complete fulness to the Church. Although there is some semblance of truth in this, I deny that it is true.

(Institutes, IV, 8, 12)
Calvin believes that Scripture is self-authenticating. I appeal, then, to the reader to judge the above passages. Do they seem to support the notion of an infallible Church council (apart from the question of whether the Catholic Church, headed by the pope, is that Church)? Do Calvin’s arguments succeed? For Catholics, the import of Acts 15:28 is clear and undeniable.

Bainton, Roland H., Here I Stand, New York: Mentor Books, 1950.

Barnes, Albert [Presbyterian], Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, 1872; reprinted by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI), 1983. Available online.

Boice, James Montgomery, editor, The Foundation of Biblical Authority, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978, chapter four by R.C. Sproul: "Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism."

Calvin, John, Calvin's Commentaries, 22 volumes, translated and edited by John Owen; originally printed for the Calvin Translation Society, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1853; reprinted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI: 1979. Available online.

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge for the Calvin Translation Society, 1845 from the 1559 edition in Latin; reprinted by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, MI), 1995. Available online.

Now let's examine White's reply to my argument on his Dividing Line webcast, and see if it can stand up under scrutiny. Let's see how cogent and biblical it is, and how well the good, exceedingly-wise Bishop White can survive (what he calls a) "cross-examination" (he, of course, claims that I would utterly wilt under his sublime, brilliant questioning, which is supposedly why I refuse to debate him orally). I have given my argument in summary, in depth; I've responded to some historic Protestant objections to it; the argument is in print in a published book from a reputable Catholic publisher: Sophia Institute Press) and now I will counter-reply to White's own sophistical commentary. Whether he wants to respond back, or flee for the hills as he almost always has before, for nine years, when I critique him, remains to be seen. Let his followers closely note his actions now, if they think he is so invulnerable and unable to be "vanquished."

[White's words below will be in blue. I am directly citing his words from the Dividing Line webcast of 8-31-04]:

[start from the time: 23:00. This portion ends at 25:00]

Hello, Mr. Armstrong! Acts 15, apostles are there; the Holy Spirit is speaking; the New Testament's being written; hellooo! This is a period of inscripturation, and revelation! The only way to make that relevant is to say, "you still have apostles and still receive revelation," but you all believe the canon's closed, so that doesn't work. This isn't some extrabiblical tradition! This is the tradition of the Bible itself! It's revelation! Uh, again, see why, as long as you don't allow anyone to cross-examine you; remember Proverbs 18. The first one to present his case always seems right, until his opponent comes along and questions him. That's what live debate allows to take place. [mocking, derisive, condescending tone throughout]

This is White's entire answer. On the next Dividing Line of 9-2-04, which I just listened to live, he also added a few brief comments about the same argument:

. . . [the Jerusalem Council is binding] "as a part of Scripture."

"The Church does have authority; not infallible authority."

Now let's see how this stands up, when analyzed closely. I shall respond to each statement in turn:

Hello, Mr. Armstrong!

Hello, Your Eminence, the Right Reverend Bishop Dr. James R. White, Th.D.!

apostles are there

So what? How does that change anything? Are not apostles models for us? Of course, they are. St. Paul tells us repeatedly to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16, Phil 3:17, 2 Thess 3:7-9). White would have us believe that since this is the apostolic period and so forth, it is completely unique, and any application of the known events of that time to our own is "irrelevant." He acts as if the record of the Book of Acts has no historical, pedagogical import other than as a specimen of early Christian history, as if it is a piece of mere archaeology, rather than the living Word of God, which is (to use one of Protestants' favorite verses) "profitable for teaching . . . and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16-17). So now the historical passages of the New Testament are "irrelevant"? Only the straight-out doctrinal teaching can be used to ascertain correct doctrine? If so, then where is that taught in Scripture itself, etc.? Passages like Hebrews 11, which recount the deeds of great saints and biblical heroes, imply that they are a model for us.

White's viewpoint as to the implications of the Jerusalem Council is theologically and spiritually naive or simplistic because it would force us to accept recorded, inspired apostolic teaching about the Church and ecclesiology (whatever it is), yet overlook and ignore the very application of that doctrine to real life, that the apostles lived out in that real life. We would have to believe that this council in Jerusalem had nothing whatsoever to do with later governance of the Church, even though apostles were involved in it. That, in effect, would be to believe that we are smarter and more knowledgeable about Christian theology than the apostles were. They set out and governed the Church, yet they were dead-wrong, or else what they did has no bearing whatsoever on later Christian ecclesiology. Since this is clearly absurd, White's view that goes along with it, collapses.

Moreover, this is a foolish approach because it would require us to believe that Paul and other apostles were in error with regard to how Christian or Church authority works. The preached a certain thing in this instance. If they believed in sola Scriptura (as models for us), then they would have taught what they knew to be Scripture (in those days, the Old Testament), and that alone, as binding and authoritative (for this is what sola Scriptura holds). If they didn't understand authority in the way that God desired, how could they be our models? And if the very apostles who wrote Scripture didn't understand it, and applied it incorrectly in such an important matter, how can we be expected to, from that same Scripture? A stream can't rise above its source.

Lastly, White implicitly assumes here, as he often does, that everything the apostles taught was later doctrinally recorded in Scripture. This is his hidden premise (or it follows from his reasoning, whether he is aware of it or not). But this is a completely arbitrary assumption. Protestants have to believe something akin to this notion, because of their aversion to authoritative, binding tradition, but the notion itself is unbiblical. They agree that what apostles taught was binding, but they fail to see that some of that teaching would be "extrabiblical" (i.e., not recorded in Scripture). The Bible itself, however, teaches us that there are such teachings and deeds not recorded in it (Jn 20:30, 21:25, Acts 1:2-3, Lk 24:15-16,25-27). The logic is simple (at least when laid out for all to see):

1. Apostles' teaching was authoritative and binding.
2. Some of that teaching was recorded in Scripture, but some was not.
3. The folks who heard their teaching were bound to it whether it was later "inscripturated" or not.
4. Therefore, early Christians were bound to "unbiblical" teachings or those not known to be "biblical" (as the Bible would not yet be canonized until more than three centuries later).
5. If they were so bound, it stands to reason that we could and should be, also.
6. Scripture itself does not rule out the presence of an authoritative oral tradition, not recorded in words. Paul refers more than once to a non-written tradition (e.g., 2 Tim 1:13-14, 2:2).
7. Scripture informs us that much more was taught by Jesus and apostles than what is recorded in it.
8. Scripture nowhere teaches that it is the sole rule of faith or that what is recorded in it about early Church history has no relevance to later Christians because this was the apostolic or "inscripturation" period. Those are all arbitrary, unbiblical traditions of men.

One could go on and on about the falsehood of White's opinion here. His view is simply wrongheaded and not required by the Bible at all. It is an unsubstantiated, unbiblical tradition within Protestantism, that has to exist in order to bolster up the ragged edges of another thoroughly unbiblical tradition: sola Scriptura. As the latter cannot be proven at all from Scripture, it, and all the "supports" for it such as this one, are all logically circular.

. . . the Holy Spirit is speaking . . .

Exactly! This is my point, and what makes the argument such a strong one. Here we have in Scripture itself a clear example of a Church council which was guided by the Holy Spirit. That is our example. It happened. White can go on and on about how these were apostles, but the apostles had successors. We know from Scripture itself that bishops were considered the successors of the apostles.

There was to be a certain ecclesiology. The New Testament speaks of this in relatively undeveloped ways (just as it speaks of fine points of Christology and trinitarianism in an undeveloped sense, which was developed by the Church for hundreds of years afterwards).

If the Holy Spirit could speak to a council then, He can now. Why should it change? This doesn't require belief in ongoing revelation. That is another issue. The disciples were clearly told by our Lord Jesus (at the Last Supper) that the Holy Spirit would "teach you all things" (Jn 14:26) and "guide you into all truth" (Jn 16:13). This can be understood either as referring to individuals alone, in a corporate sense, or both. If it is corporate, then it could apply to a church council. And in fact, we see exactly that in the Jerusalem Council, after Jesus' Resurrection and Ascension.

Of course, if white wants to assert that the Holy Spirit can't speak any more, after the apostolic age and the age of revelation, that is up to him, but that is equally unbiblical and unnecessary. He can give us non biblical proof that this is the case, anymore than some Protestants (perhaps white himself) are "cessationists," who believe that miracles and the spiritual; gifts ceased with the apostles also.

. . . the New Testament's being written . . . This is a period of inscripturation and revelation!

So what? What does that have to do with how these early Christians regarded authority and how they believed that councils were binding? Where in the Bible does it say that this period is absolutely unique because the Bible was being written during it? The inspired Bible either has examples of historical events in it which are models for us, or it doesn't. If it does, White's case collapses again. If it doesn't, I need to hear why someone would think that, based on the Bible itself, which doesn't even list its own books, let alone teach us that we can't determine how the Church was to be governed by observing how the first Christians did it .

The only way to make that relevant is to say, "you still have apostles and still receive revelation" . . .

On what basis is this said? I don't see this in the Bible anywhere. Why do we have to still have apostles around in order to follow their example, as we are commanded to do? What does the ending of revelation have to do with that, either? Therefore, it is (strictly-speaking) an "extrabiblical tradition." If so, then it is inadmissible (in the sense of being binding) according to the doctrine of sola Scriptura. If that is the case, then I am under no obligation to accept it; it is merely white's arbitrary opinion. Nor is White himself. He contradicts himself, and this is a self-defeating scenario, involving the following self-contradiction:

In upholding the principle which holds only biblical teachings as infallible and binding, I must appeal to an extrabiblical teaching.

This is utterly incoherent, inconsistent reasoning, and must, therefore, be rejected.

You all believe the canon's closed, so that doesn't work.

The question of the canon is irrelevant to this matter as well. Protestants and Catholics agree as to the New Testament books. So what is found in the New Testament is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. That's why I cite it to make my arguments about ecclesiology and the rule of faith, just like I defend any other teaching I believe as a Catholic.

This isn't some extrabiblical tradition! It's the tradition of the Bible itself! It's revelation!

Bingo! Why does he think I used it in the first place?! Exactly!!! Dr. White thus nails the lid on the coffin of his own "case" shut and covers it with a foot of concrete. This "tradition of the Bible" in Acts 15 and 16 teaches something about the binding authority of church councils, and it is not what sola Scriptura holds (which is the very opposite, of course). Case closed. White can grapple with this portion of what all agree is inspired revelation all he wants, and offer pat answers and insufficiently grounded, circular reasoning all he likes; that doesn't change the fact.

Then White stated that the Council is binding "as a part of Scripture."

This is equally wrongheaded and off the mark. It was binding, period, because it was a council of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit (a fact expressly stated by inspired Scripture itself). It would have been binding on Christians if there had never been a New Testament (and at that time there was not yet one anyway). Whether this was recorded later in Scripture or not is irrelevant. If Dr. White disagrees, then let him produce a statement in the New Testament which teaches us what he claims: that it was only binding because it later was recorded in Scripture. If he can't, then why should we believe him? I am the one arguing strictly from Scripture and what it reveals to us; he is not. He has to fall back on his own arbitrary opinions: mere extrabiblical traditions of men.

Of course, the Church later acts in precisely the same way in its ecumenical councils, declaring such things as that those who deny the Holy Trinity are outside Christianity and the Church, or that those who deny grace alone (Pelagians) are, etc. They make authoritative proclamations, and they are binding on all Christians. The Bible and St. Paul taught that true Christian councils were binding, but Martin Luther, James White, and most Protestants deny this. I will follow the Bible and the apostles, if that must be the choice, thank you.

The Church does have authority; not infallible authority.

Sorry to disagree again, but again, that is not what the Bible taught in this instance. Here the Church had infallible authority in council, and was led by the Holy Spirit. This is clearly taught in the Bible. Period. End of discussion. I think White senses the power of this argument, which is why he tried to blithely, cavalierly dismiss it, with scarcely any discussion (an old lawyer's trick, to try to fool onlookers who don't know any better). Knowing that, he has to use the "this is the period of inscripturation and the apostles" argument, but that doesn't fly, and is not rooted in the Bible, as shown. We are shown here what authority the Church has. If White doesn't like it, let him produce an express statement in the Bible, informing us that the Church is fallible. One tires of these games and this sort of "theological subterfuge," where the person who claims to be uniquely following the Bible, and it alone, invents nonsense out of whole cloth, when directly confronted with portions of that same Bible that don't fit into their preconceived theology and arbitrary traditions of men. Our Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul dealt with this in their time. Sadly, we continue to today.

Addendum: Dividing Line of 9-2-04

This was more of the same silliness, with even less solid reply. It was remarkable (even by White's low standards) in its sustained juvenile, giggly mocking of Catholics, especially as White sat and listened to the advertising on the Catholic Answers Live show. I found this to be a rather blatant demonstration of the prejudiced mindset and mentality of the anti-Catholic. But as I have known of this tendency in the good bishop for many years, it came as no surprise at all. He started out with the obligatory digs at me:

[dersive laughter throughout]

Dave's just playin' along with the game; you know what I mean?
How can you self-destruct two times on your own blog?
. . . I feel sorry for old Dave . . .
We didn't have a postal debate . . . absolute pure desperation . . .

White even went after Cardinal Newman later on:

[Newmanian development of doctrine is a] convenient means of abandoning the historical field of battle.

He went on to state that this involves a "nebulous" notion of doctrine whereby it can be molded and transmutated into almost anything, no matter how it relates to what went before. Of course, this is a complete distortion of Newman's teaching (which is an organic, continuous development of something which remains itself all along, like a biological organism), and shows profound ignorance of it by Dr. White, but that is another topic. Those who are familiar with Newman's thought will see how bankrupt this "analysis" is. But this comes straight from the 19th-century Anglican anti-Catholic controversialist George Salmon (it is almost a direct quote from him). Nothing new under the sun . . .

I hope readers have enjoyed another installment of my writing which has, of course, no substance whatsoever, and where I exhibit yet again my marked characteristic of not having a clue concerning that of which I write. And I'm sure you will enjoy White's lengthy written reply, too (just don't hold your breath waiting for that, please!).

* * * * * 

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Reply to Bob Hypes' Article: "Religion and How I lost It"

By Dave Armstrong (8-31-04)

The following article was published in atheist Farrell Till's The Skeptical Review (1995, Number One). I will notify Hypes and/or Till or someone else connected to this magazine about this reply, and anyone is welcome, of course, to counter-reply. Mr. Hype's words will be in blue. His article appears here in its entirety.

* * * * * 

"Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so." These lyrics constitute one of my earliest memories of religious instruction or the concept of religion. They may formulate the base experience for many others as well.

One would expect a very young child to be taught in this way. And of course this particular song is well-known as being a sort of "child's hymn." So what? When children grow up, one would expect them to be a bit more sophisticated. St. Paul talks about moving from milk to solid meat. The very subtle implication, expanded less subtly throughout this article, is that Christians remain on the level of an infant in terms of the intellectual vigor of their religion. Granted, many (even a great many) do, from apathy or misinformation or the bankruptcy of religious liberalism or societal pressure against faith, but Christianity is not intrinsically childish or juvenile or unsophisticated. I think the more sophisticated atheists are well aware of this, and hence a cynic (or at least a critic) might submit that they dwell on "fundamentalists" or "young earth creationists" in the attempt to ridicule and dismiss all forms of Christianity (and to rationalize their own disavowal of it). This is, of course, a straw man, as these groups represent only a tiny portion of Christianity today, and historically.

Even if the song itself does not elucidate such a memory, the concept implied in these lyrics may. This may comprise the primary religious training of the preschool child, a training based on unqualified love directed from this brotherly figure, Jesus, to the lowly little child, a source of warmth and comfort, a contrast to the child's own fragility.

And what is wrong with that, as far as it goes? The child clings to its parents for the same reason. By analogy, it is not unreasonable to suppose that there may be a supreme being (I argue from initial plausibility, not any sort of demonstration at this early stage) Who serves as father and/or mother to all of humanity. It is not immediately absurd to speculate in such a manner. Beyond even the infant / parent relationship, most married men will say that "I couldn't have done so-and-so without the support of my wife." We all need such human support. So if that is true on a human level, it may be on a cosmic level as well. This is not as silly a notion as atheists make out.

Indeed, psychologist Paul Vitz has shown a close correlation and connection between a great many famous atheists' bad relationships with their earthly fathers and their atheism itself. They are projecting their domestic situations onto the universe and theology. This might be called a "reverse crutch" argument. It turns the tables on one of the most-beloved "arguments" against theism: that it is a mere psychological crutch based on feelings of relative helplessness in the face of a cruel universe, etc.

No matter where we go or what we do the rest of our lives, that image will remain in some part of our being. It may be the one feeling that is hardest to shake when we grow to question and doubt this religion called Christianity.

Precisely. I am answering as I read, and I was almost sure the author would argue that the childlike sentiments in "Jesus loves me" would set the tone for a lifetime of Christianity. Again, it may for some fundamentalists or misinformed and underinformed Christians of any stripe (Catholic, Orthodox, etc.) but this does not disprove Christianity. The initial rejoinder to this indirect "argument against Christianity by virtue of testimony," then, is simple: "one does not refute Christianity or religion generally-speaking by recourse to a warped, simplistic, minority expression of it. The sub-group does not represent the entire group, or the worldview." The criticism of the sub-group would serve fine if the subject matter were "fundamentalism," but ostensibly the topic is the much larger "religion," and the explanation for why it is untenable and unworthy of belief by rational men. Thus, it is wholly insufficient for its purpose. Either the author doesn't comprehend these points of logic, or he wishes to merely explain his own gross intellectual deficiencies and ignorance in matters of religion, in which case the article is wrongly titled (being much more about himself than about religion per se). I don't claim that he is being merely a clever propagandist, utilizing illogical axioms for his purposes (but this would be a possibility, too).

We next learn that God is the creator of all that we behold and all that we will never understand. He is the grandfather many of us never knew or an extension of the grandfather on whose knee we sat when young.

I see nothing intrinsically implausible or unreasonable in that, per the above. Atheists are the ones who are more irrational, by dismissing the possibility or existence of God simply because their earthly fathers were scoundrels. One bad father has nothing whatsoever to do with the classic philosophical question of God's existence.

We also become aware of God's propensity for wrath, and we are told not to tempt him or displease him.

If God created everything, He is Lord of everything, and is perfectly entitled to become angry about how His creation is abused for evil purposes. If a father left his property in the control of one of his son, and that son reduced it to chaos and a wreck, no one would think it was absurd for the father to be angry, since the property was his, and his son would not exist but for him and the son's mother. Yet when the same general idea is applied to God, all of a sudden, atheists get this silly notion that it is immediately absurd and unreasonable for God to be Judge of the universe that He created. I say that many of these common skeptical notions flow from simple prejudice and lack of solid thinking, rather than from detached reason and proper, fair analysis.

Then we are introduced to the Holy Spirit and the unfathomable tale of the Trinity. That three can equal one is totally outside of our ability to understand. In fact, few, if any, adults can comprehend this one. The story continues to become more muddled and confusing, and yet we are told we must believe, and we oblige.

It is not "unfathomable at all. Difficult, yes; not able to be adequately or fully comprehended based on our own experience, yes, but not logically impossible. Nor is it "three equals one." It is not "there are three gods and there are one god" (which would be a contradiction). Rather, it is: "there is one God Who subsists in three Persons." This is not a contradiction because persons and God are not the same thing. One God can have three Persons just as one person could theoretically have three brains or three hearts. That is not "three equals one"; it is "three x's in one y." So again, no argument is really given, that can be dissected and examined and scrutinized. The author blithely assumes that all rational, "non-brainwashed" men know the Trinity is absurd, and dismisses it. He may do that if he wishes, but what he may not do is pretend that such a thought process is rational argumentation.

Belief becomes a habit driven by fear of the unknown or the fear of rejection if we doubt or question, so our questions are internalized, and we begin to feel guilt.

More pop-psychological pablum; unworthy of serious attention, as it is again merely assumed as some grand explanation for religious belief.

We now learn a more rigid set of moral values. We learn that thinking a wrong thing is the same as committing the act.

That's correct. There is a certain moral equivalence, as Jesus taught, because all evil acts begin in the will. This is why we have different degrees in murder charges. The notion of premeditation is a legal concept which holds that an act is more blameworthy if it is planned and thought out beforehand (as opposed to a momentary loss of temper, an act of passion, temporary insanity, a half-accident, etc.). I think this is quite sophisticated ethics and psychology, and it is thoroughly Christian. But Mr. Hypes seems to think it is silly and unwarranted. I don't think he has adequately thought-through these issues. or at least so it appears, going by this article alone.

Our guilt grows, and our ability to deal with it overwhelms us.

Guilt is a great thing if we have done something wrong. It's only bad if it is a false or unnecessary guilt.

The feelings of inadequacy wash over us, challenging the depth and the coldness of the baptismal immersion.

Interesting poetic flourish . . . not sure what it is supposed to mean, but it sure sounds impressive, doesn't it? This would require a lengthy reply itself, but suffice it to say that it is hardly conducive to a feeling of "inadequacy" to believe that we are creatures of a marvelous, loving God, in Whose image we are made. Apart from whether theism is true or not; the notion itself does not lend itself more readily to "feelings of inadequacy" than, say, atheism, where we are merely random products of meaningless physical processes. If that is all we are, I could fully comprehend how one might feel utterly "inadequate," in light of the grandeur and largeness of the universe and even the earth. But all things being equal, "inadequacy" is a hugely complex topic which would incorporate background experiences, cultural conditioning, birth order, temperament, even something like income, as well as many other factors. To tie this in simplistically with Christianity is ridiculous.

Thoreau said it well: "They think they love God! It is only his old clothes, of which they make scarecrows for the children. Where will they come nearer to God than in those very children?"

So Thoreau is unable to make a rational argument too, and must resort to mocking? Perhaps he did make such an argument somewhere, but it is not present in this quote, which helps us not a whit in our pursuit of the truth with regard to the questions of theism and religion.

Theists base their belief on faith, belief based on emotion and culturalization.

Clearly, this is a gross generalization, and as such, is of little value in moving the discussion along. Hypes assumes that reason and intellect play little or no part in religious belief, without in the least establishing this. I understand that his own testimony is personally valuable to him, as some sort of sentimental or self-rationalizing thing, but I am under no obligation to accept all his unproven axioms and statements. Thus, ironically -- judging by his methodology -- he is the one who is playing the game with all faith propositions and unproven premises. I, the Christian, have been using my reason and intellect throughout this critique, showing how the author is not dong so in this article. I am demonstrating in my very reply that here is one "theist" at least who is not opposed to reason at all. And I am by no means alone in that. Nor, I assert, does Christianity or the Bible, correctly understood, rather than parodied and caricatured.

When reason and rationale challenge that faith, then the reason can have no value and the rationale must be incorrect. Faith is irrefutable and errorless because it must be in order to validate all in which they believe.

This is quite unfair as well. Everyone believes in some things without fully understanding them: no exceptions. I have made this point a hundred times. Even the greatest thinkers, like Einstein, freely admit that there is a wonder or mystery to the universe. No one can explain everything. Granted, many less-sophisticated Christians fall back on a sort of irrational faith, immune to reason, but so do a great many "sophisticated" thinkers. I could write on this all day. It is simply not a matter of "the unreasonable, gullible, irrational Christians vs. the reasonable, clever, understanding, educated atheists and skeptics." The author must know that his statements are far too broad if he has met any theists at all (folks like philosophers, scientists, etc.). if he knows this, then he is obligated to not absurdly generalize, as he is doing.

They then raise their children into the habit of accepting absurdities, mysteries, convoluted thinking, and supplication. They do this while the children's minds are supple and moldable. They know that the habits of thought thus formed stand a good chance of lasting a lifetime.

Again, all parents raise their children according to what they believe to be true about life and religion and ethics, or whatever. There is nothing immediately wrong about that. One has to determine what is true before we get to the question of child-rearing. I could argue that children's "supple and moldable" minds are just as harmfully brainwashed in our public schools today. I attended those my entire childhood, and I didn't learn the slightest thing about God (and many other topics, either). I came out a good, secular humanist and practical atheist (the idea that even if God exists, He is irrelevant to daily life and relegated to a private, inconsequential sphere). Why would I not be as justified in protesting that state of affairs, as the atheist would protest a fundamentalist raising his child to believe that the earth goes around the sun, or that the earth is 6000 years old, etc.? At least that is the parent in control of his or her own family, whereas the state school system presumes to know "truth" and to propagate it down to its little citizens, so they can be fine and dandy liberal, libertarian secularists (as I was, until I actually started thinking on my own). Even when I got to college, I continued to be subjected to manifest historical absurdities, like Marxism, or psychological absurdities, like Freudianism. There is plenty of error and nonsense to go around, and it is by no means confined to Christian circles.

Belief existing in such a vacuum serves to alienate the faithful of each new generation from the world around them. They either live in judgment of anyone who does not believe as they do, or they begin to question their own values. The following poem by John Dryden may best express this phenomenon:

By education most have been misled;
So they believe, because they were so bred.
The priest continues what the nurse began,
And thus the child imposes on the man. 

I don't see such things as intrinsically Christian. Isolation from the world or judgementalism is just as possible in a secular worldview as in a Christian one. These are simply attitudinal and cultural problems that need to be avoided by all and sundry.

What I thought of as an honest and critical look at the religion I had embraced all of my life had gone on for years as a halfhearted effort.

I can see that. Would that the author would give us some rational argumentation, since he claims to have attained such an exalted state of enlightened reason, due to his having cast off the shackles of antiquated and groundless religion.

I wanted to find the truth, yet I wanted that truth to support that in which I had always believed. In other words, I was front-loading my search by trying to find corroborating evidences, not by searching for the real truth.

We all tend to do that because we all have our existing beliefs, and they inevitably influence our further searches. This is why we must compare and contrast: looking at the most able proponents of any given position (not the worst ones) and make up our own minds as to truth.

As I delved into the questions raised by rational thought, I increasingly found more questions. Each answer ended up raising dozens of other questions. I finally had to face the fact that the only way I would ever find the answers I sought would be to let the truth lead me to its destination. I then stumbled onto the following quotation. It is known as the Maxim of Freethought: "He who cannot reason is defenseless; he who fears to reason has a cowardly mind; he who will not reason is willing to be deceived and will deceive all who listen to him." This struck home. I realized my cowardice and resolved to overcome it. I threw myself anew into research but with a new approach.

All this shows is that Mr. Hypes' own Churches of Christ version of Christianity was devoid of reason; not at all that Christianity, period, or theism, are devoid of reason. So I have been given nothing whatsoever here to cause me to cease believing in God or Christianity. All this piece can accomplish, as far as I am concerned, is to give comfort and solace to other atheists who are former Christians, so that they can rationalize their loss of faith and feel good about themselves (much as testimonies of conversion serve in many Christian communities). Ironically, then, the author falls back on the same sort of non-rational mere emotionalism and sentimentality that he purports to be criticizing. Touting reason, he continues to communicate non-rationally when "explaining" his rejection of Christianity.

Biblical literalism and inerrancy appear to be enemies to the truth, and subsequent study on my part has led me to believe this to an absolute degree. Biblical literalism, as defined and interpreted by various denominations and individuals, has produced such things as the Amish shunning of modern lifestyles and snake handling to prove one's faith and refusing medical treatment to oneself or one's family. Biblical literalism has led to prejudicial actions against nonbelievers, including imprisonment, censure, torture, death, and even wars. Religion, says Feuerbach, is self-estrangement. There is the separation of the world into one spiritual and one earthly. Man sees himself, first, as an individual with limitations, then as a self without limits, empowered by his God.

This is taking the most jaded approach imaginable. Some of the extremes and distortions of historic Christianity are set up as reasons to "throw out the baby with the bathwater." Obviously, Hypes is still reacting strongly to his own background (just as many well-known atheists had rotten fathers and projected that onto the "God" they no longer wished to believe in). But, you see, his background is not every Christians' experience or rationale for their belief. And he is foolish to think that it is. This is the most fundamental flaw of his article. He hasn't uttered a word about Catholicism or Orthodoxy or High Church Anglicanism. Those things don't even enter his radar screen. Instead, he is on a crusade to excoriate his own past fundamentalism. Many of us never went through such a phase, so it doesn't dominate our thinking and emotions as it seems to do in Hypes' case. My own intellectual and spiritual odyssey was quite otherwise: I started out as a religious liberal (to the extent that I knew anything at all about my religion), then went on to virtual secular humanism and practical atheism, then evangelical Christianity, then Catholicism. At every stage, I was thinking through the issues. Background had little to do with it, as I was religiously nominal as a child.

A major purpose of fundamentalist religions is to supply a safe harbor for those who are insecure, fearful, lost or lonely, by justifying a way of life with narrow, defining principles and prejudices. The authority of the Bible is the final arbiter of any question. The inerrancy of the Bible is the final argument to justify or indemnify, becoming the central focus of such a life. The main philosophy of fundamentalists is one of constancy in which they find solace against an outside world filled with questions. They insulate themselves against such assaults by finding answers in these words and ideas, no matter how flawed they may prove to be.

There is some truth to this. As long as fundamentalism is seen as a distortion of Christianity, I wouldn't object to much of it. But the distinction is not as prominent as it should be here. There is indeed a sort of infantile, irrational, insular version of Christianity that is indeed open to much of the criticism Mr. Hypes' sets forth. My only point is that this is a distortion of Christianity, rightly-understood. If one rejects the distortion of something, he is not rejecting the thing itself. As for solace and comfort, etc.: those make perfect sense if there is a God Who can offer same. Therefore, the question goes right back to the existence or nonexistence of God.

To be human means we are doomed to explaining our world, not simply and directly, but only indirectly, through these interpretations. We dwell in our interpretations. In explicating a phenomenon, we always put it in terms limited by our ability to understand, always based in our own prejudices and preconceptions. This means that we will understand things partially and inadequately, through language rather than a godlike omniscience.

I agree. This is true for atheists and theists alike. Theists; however, claim to be in possession of revelation: which is God explaining the world and spiritual truth to us. It is an additional source of knowledge. If it exists, it is supremely important; if it does not, then it is a big joke and a farce.

Therefore, we internalize our belief structure, i.e., that which causes and enhances our beliefs.
At the same time, we externalize its effects on our lives and that of those about us. This duality of nature does not lead us to understanding or knowledge but to faith. Faith in an improperly arrived at conclusion based on illconceived thought processes becomes so entrenched that it is often thought to be the truth even when it flies in the face of reality.

Here again is the dichotomizing of faith and reason. It need not be so at all. But this is never pointed out.

No reasonable person can believe that the guesses of preliterate man, upon which the myths of gods and the supernatural are based, were true. The beliefs of these primitives, however, were more reasonable in terms of their limited and insignificant knowledge, than the beliefs of today's religionists who have masses of information available to them.

Biblical revelation (in the Old Testament) is not "preliterate." Moses could write. The question is whether God revealed Himself or not, to the Jews, the chosen people. If He did, when it happened is irrelevant. The knowledge revealed would have relevance for all time.

It is apparent that such faith is based upon emotion, rather than reason.

This is not apparent at all. It is only apparent that some folks pit reason and faith against each other, as if they were fundamentally hostile.

Emotion needs no proof and rejects all questioning. Reason demands answers, questions conflicts, and objectively studies the issues from every available source and viewpoint. Reason is fearless thought, undeterred by legal, spiritual, or social penalties. Dissenting viewpoints do not alarm those who seek truth. The knowledge seeker who has a passion for truth fears nothing except error.

Amen! I am very muich in agreement with this sentiment. My reason has led me to theism, the Christian God, and to Catholicism. And it has shown me how atheism is untrue. One may disagree with my conclusions, but they can't claim that reason did not play the crucial role in my belief-system.

I have found the average skeptic to have a much broader knowledge of the Bible and theological issues than the average Christian.

I don't know what sort of Christians Mr. Hypes has been talking to. I have found just the opposite. In fact, atheists are abysmally ignorant of even rudimentary biblical exegesis and hermeneutics. I have demonstrated this on several occasions in the course of my apologetics.

Whether led to skepticism by knowledge or led to the knowledge by their skepticism, the truth of the skeptic is that he is ultimately led by a search for truth.

They have no corner on that search; nor is it immediately evident that the search for truth characterizes the motivations and goals of all skeptics and atheists. Aldous Huxley, for example, admitted that his rejection of Christianity was due to basically a desire for sexual freedom. He was honest. And I dare say this sort of "reason" is quite widespread. 

Few Christians can delineate the reasons and evidences for their faith. Almost any attempt to elucidate qualitative responses on the subject elicit catch phrases and incoherent babbling.

I am an apologist, whose field is defending the Christian faith and giving reasons for why we believe what we do. I have had no problem offering sound answers to atheists. They are a challenge, but by no means an insurmountable one.

If one believes, based on naivety or innocence, it may appear charming or quaint, such as a child believing in Santa Claus. If one believes culturally, because he was raised to believe certain things, it can be understood, even if there is no other basis. If one believes as a result of erroneous information or faulty study, it is lamentable. When one defends, propounds, and propagates such error as fact and refuses to examine other information objectively, it is intellectually reprehensible, and I will challenge that type of belief every time.

I agree. Well-stated. I'm all for challenges and dialogue. Bring them on! But not many people are truly interested in that. 

Biblical literalism presents more questions than answers. It offers a god we cannot respect or understand, a god who changes vastly from passage to passage and event to event, a lack of consistency in what should be consistent if our faith is not to be shaken. What is impossible for our minds to believe our hearts cannot worship.

First of all, "biblical literalism" is not the whole of biblical interpretation. Hyper-literalism characterizes fundamentalist Protestantism, but not historic Christianity. Secondly, biblical so-called "contradictions" are often not that at all, once scrutinized. Often, statements such as the above (about God changing, and this being a biblical teaching) flow from ignorance of Christian theology and the Bible, and of Hebraisms and Ancient Near Eastern expressions, idiom, and culture.

Bob Hypes, P. O. Box 305, Howe, IN 46746.) 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Bob Hypes' letters have appeared in previous issues of The Skeptical Review. He is a former Church-of-Christ preacher, and he tells a familiar story. He grew up believing what he had been taught in his childhood, but when he engaged in serious Bible studies as an adult, he found things in it that made it impossible to continue believing what he had been taught as a child. Many former fundamentalists will say that the Bible is its own worst enemy. If we could just get more Christians to study this book that they claim to believe in so much, the inevitable result would be fewer Christians. The Christian religion thrives on ignorance of the very book that is its foundation.