Thursday, April 07, 2005

2nd Reply to Anglican Edwin Tait on Historical Ecclesiological Arguments and Development of Doctrine (Complete)

Previous installments:

Part III (final section) is below.

Edwin's words will be in blue. Any past words of mine will be in green. Past words of Edwin's will be in red.


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

It doesn't mean simply "decision-making." It is a technical term for a particular epistemological outlook. This state of affairs that you describe is not at issue. But I deny that it is private judgment.

Indeed, it seems axiomatic that everyone exercises it all the time.

Yes it does.

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

I don't mean that, either.

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

I agree again.

Finally, you may mean that the individual is responsible for more than simply determining the validity of an ecclesiastical authority (such as the Catholic Magisterium) and the degree of weight the Magisterium itself intended a given pronouncement to have, but rather must analyze each decision of the Magisterium against a background other than its own pronouncements and expressed intentions. This probably is what you mean, and it is a meaningful distinction.

Yes; that "background," is, of course, Scripture, in this system, which is the only infallible authority. But that has to be interpreted, etc. Who authoritatively interprets if there is no binding authority other than Scripture? It seems obvious to me that in the end, in such an individualistic system, the individual decides, in some very real sense.

I've dealt with the nature of private judgment in at least four lengthy papers:

The Logical Circularity and Hidden Premises of Sola Scriptura and Private Judgment (with Brent Arias)

Catholic vs. Protestant Conceptions of the Meaning and Consequences of Private Judgment (Including Lengthy Citations From Reformed Protestants Arthur W. Pink, Archibald Bruce, and Charles Hodge, Four Protestant Confessions, and Catholic John Henry Newman)

Private Judgment: Its Meaning and How it is Viewed by Protestants and Catholics

Private Judgment and "Reformed Catholicism"

But I don't think I'm presupposing it. I'm saying that anything else seems hopelessly circular in a way that really does vitiate Catholic claims (in a way that the alleged Orthodox circularity doesn't vitiate Orthodox claims, because they aren't resting so much on it). If the Magisterium is the only interpreter of itself, then of course you wind up theoretically with internal consistency, because the current Pope can always explain away any conflict. As a matter of fact, the problem you face is that the Pope doesn't choose do to this. He allows Cardinal Ratzinger to say that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is infallible instead of saying it himself, for instance. He allows apologists and historians to speculate about the intention of Boniface VIII and reconcile it with Vatican II, instead of issuing a pronouncement himself (as far as I know).

Exactly! So much for the opinion that the pope is telling us how to think and what to do regarding everything but whether to blow our nose and what color socks to wear. :-) Furthermore, the magisterium is more than just the pope.

The relative reticence of the Papacy (which I find commendable and a strong argument for its claims) makes necessary the kind of private judgment you're arguing Catholics find superfluous.

No, because you're still utilizing an incorrect definition of private judgment. It is not synonymous with merely "thinking." It's a particular system of authority or a rule of faith, closely allied (if not intrinsic to) sola Scriptura. This is not just my Catholic opinion. I have backed it up with Protestant sources as well.

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

I agree that it is a judgment, but it is an improper use of the term private judgment.

The Protestant can't simply presuppose all this stuff, analyze Catholicism by using it and then declare victory. And that is because Catholicism operates on a different rule of faith and a different epistemology than does Protestantism.

I'm not declaring "victory."

I know; I was speaking generally.

I'm simply saying that the kind of logic games we get involved in when the issues are put in this way are totally unconvincing to me.

Yeah; me too.

Of course if I accepted your presuppositions it would all make sense.

You can do that by utilizing reasons exterior to those presuppositions, so that they are not circular. The truly circular stuff comes far prior to these considerations: "does God exist,?" "do I exist?," etc. You can't absolutely prove either of those propositions, nor a host of other things, if we want to get philosophically technical about it.

The purpose of my blog was to try to sketch why I don't accept your presuppositions.

And I have tried to clarify my position and show why I don't agree with your reasoning where we disagree. It's been an excellent and stimulating dialogue. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have.

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

I don't find that the kind of Catholic position you're outlining (one that attempts to exclude "private judgment" in sense 4) meets these tests, frankly. I think it fails historically and it's not workable. You can say that that's because I'm working with Protestant presuppositions--of course I am.

You need to specifically deal with these things and make arguments of each type, to convince me of your position and refute mine.

Similarly, you're analyzing Protestantism with Catholic presuppositions.

No doubt I have that bias, but I maintain that my arguments against Protestantism primarily depend on its own internal inconsistency and failure to meet the tests of reason, history, and (I dare say) Scripture (where it disagrees with us). In other words, my counter-argument neither depends on adopting Catholic presuppositions, nor is it circular. Anyone could make the analysis. You have shown that in a few major areas now, you have misunderstood my position and premises (not intentionally, of course). That has affected even this present paper of yours, because you end up trying to "reply" to something I don't hold in the first place (just look and see how many times I have entirely agreed with various of your statements). Now that those things have been explained further, this can be an even more interesting dialogue. I only hope you have the time in the near future to continue it, just as it is getting really fascinating and constructive. If we wait three-four years again, we'll have to start from square one and go through the whole process . . .

One obvious example--Protestantism fails from history if one assumes that there must be an infallible ecclesiastical authority.

That's not my argument. One doesn't have to depend on that. One merely has to accept the premise that there is one Christian truth, which is quite biblical, and until recently in history, a completely uncontroversial belief held by pretty much all Christians. The so-called "reformers" didn't believe in theological relativism or (to use a milder term) "healthy theological diversity". They each believed that their version of Christianity was the true (or most true) one, and that the others were seriously wrong. But many Protestants today try to explain away their continuing internal differences by relegating all sorts of theological areas to de facto (usually not self-understood) selective relativism, holding that it simply doesn't matter if folks disagree on a, b, and c. This would have been completely foreign to Luther, Calvin, and, I think, even Martin Bucer (though probably a bit less so for him than for the other two).

But if ecclesiastical authority is fallible, then those teachings of the Fathers that point toward infallibility may themselves be mistaken.

Well how do we determine if God intended infallible Church authority or not? You tell me. I say that it is clearly expressed in Scripture, and that one reasonably believes in faith that a broad consensus among the Fathers in one direction is highly indicative that something is true. Both require faith. One exercises faith (with reasons) that Scripture is revelation, and that patristic consensus indicates a likely divine stamp of approval.

I don't think this is any more circular or self-serving than the Catholic position--maybe less.

Easy to assert, I say; much more difficult to prove once it gets down to particulars: trying to show the superiority of one system over others, by this method.

My claim is that the need for an infallible authority is not itself a convincing reason to become Catholic. At least I have not found it so.

As stated above, I would prefer to say that the question is better stated as a need for a binding authority that can overcome the de facto theological relativism that the Protestant system inevitably produces. If we accept logic, we must admit that it is certain that error absolutely exists in Protestantism wherever there is doctrinal contradiction. Both parties might be wrong in such instances, or only one, but both can't be right. Therefore, error exists. And if it exists, then millions of people are being falsely led insofar as they are following false teachings (whose existence are certain due to contradiction).

This is not a good thing (I think you'd agree). There must be some way (it seems quite reasonable) to resolve these difficulties. But history shows that Protestantism is intrinsically incapable of doing so. Therefore, it is fundamentally flawed, because it produces error by its very nature and (even worse) cannot find an internal method for alleviating the resulting relativism and sectarianism. It's always been this way and always will be. I think 500 years is more than enough to demonstrate that the system has failed in its well-intentioned purpose of uniquely preserving and/or restoring true Christian doctrine.

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

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

Yes; it's circular; therefore utterly non-compelling. Yet if such a person saw instance after instance where the Bible was shown on external grounds to be true, they could generalize that it all was true, and revelatory; therefore Christianity is true. There is an at least partially non-circular way to go about that.

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

How does one make such a judgment? What's the basis for it? Do you not agree that the necessary existence of doctrinal error is a very serious problem that needs to be solved?

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

I don't recall anywhere where St. Paul says that all doctrine is non-negotiable. I can find plenty of places where right doctrine is considered highly important--but I can find at least as many (probably more) where holiness of life is considered highly important.

First of all, there is no need to pit holiness against doctrine. No one is denying the supreme importance of holiness. But that has no relation to whether Paul held to the notion of one true body of teaching that should be held in its entirety. I would contend that he suggests this in the following passages:

1 Corinthians 11:2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.

No qualifications here; no common Protestant distinction between "primary" and "secondary" issues (baptism, the nature of the Eucharist, Church government, etc.). It's very cut-and-dried. If you think you can locate the usual Protestant distinctions of non-negotiable and negotiable doctrines in this passage, by all means, show me how you do that.

2 Thessalonians 2:15 . . . stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth, or by letter.
2 Thessalonians 3:6 . . . keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.

2 Timothy 1:13-14 Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me . . . guard the truth which has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.
2 Timothy 2:2 And what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Again, no qualifications or distinctions are made. If we take the last two passages, for example, and utilize the illustrative technique of re-writing the Bible so it is more in conformity to (current-day) Protestantism, then they ought to read as follows:

2 Timothy 1:13-14 Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, regarding the central doctrines of the faith . . . guard the truth of those doctrines which has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. You are free, however, to hold a diversity of views with regard to the secondary doctrines.

2 Timothy 2:2 And what you have heard from me regarding the central doctrines before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Exercise your own private judgment concerning the secondary doctrines, which are not able to be determined or resolved without contradiction. Do your best . . .

Non-Pauline Scripture presents the same picture:

2 Peter 2:21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.
Jude 3 . . . contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

Matthew 28:20 teaching them to observe ALL that I have commanded you . . .

I think it's harder to prove from Scripture that infallible doctrine is a necessary mark of the true Church than it would be to prove (from the Pastorals especially) that uniformly holy bishops are a mark of the true Church.

With a few very straightforward deductions from passages such as the above, and others which discuss the Spirit guiding us into all truth, etc., we arrive at something very close to, if not identical with, infallibility. That doesn't trouble me, though, because much of Christology and trinitarianism requires much the same sort of deduction and further reflection. "Holy bishops" involves human weaknesses and all that goes with that, so it is not a valid comparison to a doctrine that -- if true -- is easy to ascertain as part of revelation, and true whether or not human beings fail in holiness or not.

Of course this second view is false--we both agree there. I don't see why the first is any truer. Bishops are supposed to be characterized by certain moral qualities. They are also supposed to maintain the deposit of faith without the slightest error. I don't see anywhere in Scripture where divine assistance is promised to the latter more than to the former. Neither holiness nor truth will fail utterly from the Church--that's about as much as I can see in Scripture.

I think this is presupposed and able to be deduced from the above passages. It's common sense that if there is such a thing as a Church that has the power and prerogative to bind men, that it should and would be protected from error, by the power of the Holy Spirit; lest men be bound in conscience to falsehood. I can't see why God would desire that frightful state of affairs.

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

That's simple: one is a set of doctrines that are uniformly true. God is able to both communicate that and to preserve it by His omnipotence and will. The other involves human behavior, which will always fall short of the mark. It can't be perfect like a set of true doctrines because human free will is just that: free to rebel against the right and the good (God can't compel us to be perfect). I've always said that this ultimately comes down to faith. The Catholic believes that God could and would do such a thing. Protestants seem to think it isn't possible for God to infallibly preserve doctrine because of human sin. To me that is a despairing conclusion, and not in accord to what we know about God from Scripture.

The fathers would have said: "the Church decrees thus-and-so. Who are you to disagree, and on what basis? You don't decide these things. The Mind of the Church does."

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

Yes. Well now we have the hindsight and wisdom of many centuries of theological reflection, don't we?

I wouldn't say I decide "as an individual." I would say that I decide as a member of the Body of Christ.

But unless you apply that in the context of an authoritative Church, it's a distinction without a difference. You can say that you are acting in some corporate sense, but if that sense isn't binding on that group, then what is the difference? You just find so many people who all agree, call it "the Church" and adopt some opinion. That's far from catholicity . . .

I deny that epistemology is itself part of the content of the Faith. I deny that the Faith must itself deliver to me a valid epistemological framework in order to be true. Of course every attempt to decide what is true is epistemological by definition.

I agree with all three sentences.

That is what Protestants and Orthodox are objecting to--a view of papal authority that makes convincing the rest of the Church unnecessary.

This contradicts what you just stated, for "convincing" is epistemology or, if you will, apologetics. But you just told me that epistemology is not itself part of "the Faith." So why the objection to a decree handed down without all the rationales for why it is true? The latter is not always required. I agree, it is a good thing, and should be present very often. But it's not intrinsic to authority, nor a disproof of same where it is absent.

And this is what we see Catholic apologists trying to short-circuit by lumping a diverse collection of epistemological positions together as "private judgment" and condemning them.

I haven't overlooked anything. I've written more on this issue of authority than on any other topic, in my apologetic writing. You may say I'm an exception to the rule, but I think it's a possibility that I've written more on these particular topics than virtually any Catholic apologist now writing.

In other words, it may be perfectly right for a Catholic to be certain about contraception, but equally right for me as an Anglican (given the different stance of my ecclesiastical authorities) to be uncertain. That doesn't mean that there is no right or wrong, only that our access to absolute truth is not always immediate or obvious.

This gets back to my earlier comments about doctrinal contradiction. I can't see how this would be what God desires for His people and Church. Why would He want millions of people to be in error? What good could that bring? The devil is the father of lies (and, I say, falsehood), not God.

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

May God grant you peace and comfort as you continue to seek His will (a good wish for all of us!).

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

You're welcome, and the pleasure has been all mine. It's a breath of fresh air to be able to engage in a meaty, interesting, stimulating dialogue with a very sharp, conscientious, educated Christian such as yourself, with complete ecumenical amiability and mutual respect. Oh, how I wish dialogue could be like this so much more often! It's such a joy to me; I absolutely love it (which is one reason that God called me to do what I do). But I'll take what I can get. Thanks for your time and your helpful challenges towards me as well.

Now, if we could only get the massive group participation in the discussion that regularly occurs on the Pontifications blog. . . how does he do it??!!

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