Friday, June 03, 2005

Response to "CPA" (Lutheran) on Christian Unity and Ecclesiology

This is from his reply in BlogBack to my last argument in our previous dialogue: Honor Thy Denominations Rather Than Thy Church Fathers? (Lutherans, Sola Scriptura, & the Fathers).

OK, having read your post, you do seem to be not arguing the purely epistemological problem of 3 (although I think given what you wrote at first I was not wrong to think you were; I don't think you expressed yourself very clearly).

Quite possibly; sure. That's why lengthy dialogue and clarification is always helpful, because we can always be more precise in our language and expression.

Your position is not that an interpreter is necessary epistemologically in order to know the truth, but it is necessary practically in order for the truth to be made sufficiently plain that it will in actual fact prevail among people.

That's an excellent way to put it in one sentence; thanks. I've had entire debates with people, where they never understood this distinction. Hence, they wound up arguing against a view that was not my own, and they never figured out that they were warring against a straw man, not my position or the Catholic one (which I hope are the same).

Here are what I take to be your key passages:

As I have stated repeatedly, binding Church authority, is a practical necessity, given the propensity of men to pervert the true apostolic Tradition as taught in Scripture, whether it is perspicuous or not. The fact remains that diverse interpretations arise, and a final authority outside of Scripture itself is needed in order to resolve those controversies. This does not imply in the least that Scripture itself (rightly understood) is not sufficient to overcome the errors. It is only formally insufficient by itself.

Even if Scripture is in fact clear on a matter (say that God declares that it was perfectly clear, when we get to heaven and ask Him about it, which would be absolute certainty), that doesn't mean that Christians will agree. And since contradiction necessarily involves error, it is important for all of us to have some way of resolving these disputes. And that brings us right back to Church authority and/or some form of tradition. It's unavoidable. It's inevitable. Anyone who denies this is living in unreality and self-delusion. All Christians have to resolve this dilemma in some fashion. The solutions differ, and that is what we are debating presently, but the problem is the same for all.

Indeed. You understand my position well. And that's the prerequisite for any good, constructive debate.

But to this argument my position is that the problem is, in earthly terms, insoluble. The only solution is the Last Judgment when God will reveal the secrets of men.

I don't know why you would take this position, which I find to be a "counsel of despair" (i.e., insofar as concerns this particular problem), and most unbiblical.

In point of fact, the Catholic Church has not practically been able to make the gospel teaching sufficiently clear so as to insure the unity of all Christians (defining Christians here as those who confess the Trinity and the Incarnation of Jesus).

I was not so much discussing actual, concrete unity of all Christians. I think that is exceedingly unlikely, short of a massive supernatural conversion to one view. What I advocate as a Catholic is the view that the principle of attainable unity (for those who seek it) is available: not just theoretically, but in actuality, in the Catholic Church and the papacy, and apostolic Tradition or "deposit" passed down through apostolic succession. I would argue that this was God's will for ecclesiology and unity, under this "umbrella," so to speak.

Not only that, arguably it is the inflated claims of the Papacy, intended to secure total unity, which played a big role first in the Great Schism and then in the Reformation.

That's another question entirely. But (as a logical point) because people leave one group, does not prove (by that fact alone) that said group is not the most correct or divinely-willed, or the closest in doctrine to actual God-given truth. To use an analogy: if next year half the world ceased believing that 2 + 2 = 4, that would not at all make that mathematical truth less true. It would only prove that now less people believed in the truth. Or another way to put it is that "truth is not determined by head counts."

The Biblical solution to your problem, as I see it, is "Let God be true and every man a liar." We all believe what we believe for reasons we don't even know, and God will reveal in the end on the Last Day, who has believed correctly, who was a true prophet and who a false, who was walking the narrow way and who the broad way to destruction.

Certainly, but I find it extraordinary that you would resign yourself to the fact that we can't attain to the full truth of biblical, apostolic Christianity, with the certainty of faith, till Judgment Day. I've often critiqued Protestantism as being a sort of "perpetual quest," where one spends their entire life trying to "figure out" what the truth is about various doctrines. I don't believe that this is how God intended things to be at all.

What I think the "biblical solution" is, is an authoritative Church. Where do we find that in Scripture? Easy: the Jerusalem Council. Here's what the Bible says about that council and its binding authority (RSV):

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.

But since Protestants believe that no council is infallible (let alone led by the Holy Spirit), then we have to provide the Revised Protestant Version of the Bible (RPV):

Acts 15:28-29 (RPV): For it has seemed good to the hundreds of other synods and denominations and us (but of course not the Holy Spirit) to lay upon you no greater burden than these entirely optional things and secondary doctrines; matters of individual conscience: 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 probably do well (at least until the future when another council may reverse this decision). Farewell.

Acts 16:4 (RPV): As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for consideration and a vote (and the possible veto of scholars) the edifying suggestions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.

One could do the same with the many Pauline commands to follow the tradition that he passed down to his churches. For example:

2 Timothy 1:13-14: Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

It's obvious (perspicuous) in Scripture, then, that the Church was to have binding authority of this nature. One could know the body of true doctrine, because the Church guarded it, and was entrusted with it, and protected by the Holy Spirit. I don't see how it can be denied. I wrote in my book, The Catholic Verses (which dealt with these passages and some historic Protestant responses to it (I cite my manuscript draft, which may be slightly different):

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.

That the Gospel will be challenged and torn apart (but not vanquished) by heresies is something Christ and the apostles foresaw,

Yes, because that would be the sad reality (and the result of human sin and misinformation). But that doesn't mean that it is, therefore, impossible for a seeking Christian individual to attain to the full apostolic deposit by means of an authoritative Church.

and something against which they prescribed not a single teaching magisterium,

Does not the Jerusalem Council contradict this notion? Also, how the Bible describes bishops would also, on a smaller scale.

but Spirit-taught vigilance of individuals and clerics alike (Mat. 7:13-27; John 10:5, 1 John 2:20-23; Acts 20:28-31, Gal. 1:6-9, 2:11ff, Col. 2:16ff, 1 Tim. 4, 2 Tim. 2-3; 1 Peter 5; 2 John 7-11).

Okay, now you're making me work; I gotta look up all these Scriptures. But it's my pleasure. This is, of course, a rather typical Protestant (and also typically American, I might add) presupposition of individualism, which, I would argue, is entirely foreign to the biblical and ancient Hebrew worldview.

Matt 7:13-27. Jesus is speaking proverbially, so it is addressed to individuals. But then, so is every sermon (this is from the Sermon on the Mount). This doesn't prove that an authoritative Church and a communal Christianity with all of one mind, do not exist. I've often argued that Jesus' statement at the Last Supper: "that they may be one, even as we are one" (John 17:11) presupposes and entails a doctrinal unity, since the Father and the Son do not disagree on doctrine or anything else. This is extraordinary unity. If Jesus prayed for it, it must be possible, and there must be a way to attain it (for those who obey and seek this unity). That doesn't mean that everyone will do so, but it means that a way is made for unity, for those who seek and find and see it, by God's grace.

John 10:5: Ditto; proverbial language is not to be construed as sanctioning a radical individualism to the exclusion of the group. To read such a notion into it is eisegesis, I think.

1 John 2:20-23: this passage is already communal in nature, suggesting an existing unity: verse 19: "They went out from us" ("us" is repeated twice more in the verse). Verse 20: "you all know."

Acts 20:28-31: This is written to bishops (RSV: "elders" / Gk. presbuteros); hence the language of "overseers [Gk. episkopos], to care for the church of God" (v. 28). Paul wrote to Titus, "appoint elders [presbuteros] in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5) -- regional, rather than congregational. Referring to the same office ("bishop": 1:7 [episkopos] ), he wrote that they were to "give instruction in sound doctrine and . . . to confute those who contradict it" (1:9). This is, again, a communal notion of doctrine, not an individualistic one. The bishops were in control, not the single person and his perspicuous Bible, figuring out what is true and what isn't. Of course, historically, episcopal government prevailed in the early Church, and local and ecumenical councils were held. Catholics still do both, but Luther and Lutheranism wanted to replace the bishops with the secular princes, and I don't see them holding true councils anymore. So who is more biblical? Clearly Catholics are.

Gal 1:6-9: Paul is writing to "the churches of Galatia" (1:2), not to individuals.

Gal 2:11 ff.: Paul rebukes Peter for his hypocrisy; this has nothing to do with doctrine or ecclesiology.

Col 2:16 ff.: "let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink . . ." Yet this is precisely what the Jerusalem Council did (which decree Paul himself proclaimed to his hearers, as seen above), so this didn't rule out Church authority.

1 Timothy 4: this is a communal passage. 4:1 mentions "some will depart from the faith," not "some will depart from various denominations and form other equally valid (based on Protestant presuppositions and its rule of faith) denominations, which operate on individualistic private judgment" (RPV). 4:14 refers to a "council of elders."

2 Tim 2-3: this must be understood in light of Paul's other teachings, as seen above, and particularly in Paul's first letter to Timothy, where he refers to "the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15).

1 Peter 5: the preeminent elder of the Church, commissioned by Jesus to lead the Church (Matt 16:18-19) is exhorting other elders.

2 John 7-11: John presupposes that there is one truth, that can be known and followed (what you seem to deny): "the truth" (1:2,4), "the doctrine of Christ" (1:9) .

I see nothing in any of these passages which rules out a Catholic or episcopal understanding of ecclesiology, and much that suggests and supports it.

The church (built on Peter, the apostles, the prophets, and the faith of even two or three gathered in His name) as a whole is the pillar and ground of the truth, but I see no promise in these passages a guaranteed transmission of the truth in one place and one succession.

If indeed it's "built on Peter," then clearly, his successors would also be the guardians of the deposit. Since Paul and Peter both went to Rome and were martyred there, it seems fairly clear that this was God's plan. The Roman church quickly became a leader in early Christianity (as evidenced by Paul's lengthy letter to it). Peter and Paul possessed this apostolic deposit (I don't think anyone would deny), so it is common sense that they would pass it down to their successors in Rome. That's not to say that other cities could or would not also possess it (they would, because they were also evangelized by apostles). But Rome definitely would.

God didn't do that in the Old Covenant (the high priests were anything but guardians of orthodoxy, and challenged on occasions beyond count by righteous prophets and teachers of the law) and I see no reason from history or Scripture to believe He has done that in the New.

There are abundant indications of an authoritative body of teaching in Old Testament times that would serve as a model for NT and Catholic infallible authority. For example:

1) Deuteronomy 17:8-13: The Levitical priests had binding authority in legal matters (derived from the Torah itself). They interpreted the biblical injunctions (17:11). The penalty for disobedience was death (17:12), since the offender didn't obey “the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God.” Cf. Deuteronomy 19:16-17, 2 Chronicles 19:8-10.

2) Deuteronomy 24:8: Levitical priests had the final say and authority (in this instance, in the case of leprosy). This was a matter of Jewish law.
3) Ezra 7:6,10: Ezra, a priest and scribe, studied the Jewish law and
taught it to Israel, and his authority was binding, under pain of imprisonment,
banishment, loss of goods, and even death (7:25-26).

4) I think all Christians agree that prophets, too, exercised a high degree
of authority, so I need not establish that.

That is sufficient for now. If you would like to pursue individual aspects of this reply, that would be worthwhile, I think.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Review of my Book, "The Catholic Verses" (Stan Williams)

Stan Williams, a good friend of mine, is a filmmaker, notably of an upcoming documentary on (Reverend) Alex Jones, an African-American pentecostal pastor from Detroit (my stomping grounds), who converted, and brought many of his flock with him into the Church (I know Alex, too, and was there at the marvelous Mass when he was received). Alex Jones does a lot of speaking, and has audio and videotapes available from St. Joseph's Communications.

Stan and I also collaborated on a writing project: Dialogue on The Last Temptation of Christ and the Responsibility of Moviemakers to be Historically and Theologically Accurate + Christian Filmmaker's Creed. It's neat having him as a friend because he is sort of my "connection" into the world of film. Be sure to check out his website, if you are at all interested in a Catholic / Christian perspective on cinema. It's always a fruitful area of discussion, and he offers some great, stimulating thoughts.


Book Review

The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants

by Dave Armstrong

Sophia Institute Press

Reviewed by Stan Williams, Ph.D.

A number of former Protestant-Evangelicals, like myself, claim that the reason we became Catholic was that for the first time the Bible, as a whole, suddenly made sense. As a Protestant we were always trying to find a logical way for the “Bible Difficulties” we encountered to fit together into a cohesive whole.

Bible Difficulties

“Bible Difficulties” are what Protestant-Evangelical scholars call the result of comparing desperately different Bible texts that create paradoxes. For example, Romans 3:28 seems to says we are saved by faith not works... but in James 2 we are told that works are necessary for our salvation... and in Hebrews 11 we were are told that not only is faith necessary but that the ancients were justified by their works. For the Protestant, correlating these texts into a cohesive theology that makes the Bible capable of standing alone (without an interpreter) becomes difficult.

The crux for these Protestant Biblical difficulties is what I call the Protestant Fallacies. Protestantism cannot exist without using linguistic fallacies to force fit a host of Biblical texts into molds that crack under the slightest pressure of scrutiny. I’d like to say that Dave Armstrong’s The Catholic Verses dares to use a sledge hammer on these molds casting them to smithereens. But Dave’s style is more like a soft but relentless tapping of a rubber mallet. Nonetheless, the result is the same. Smithereens!

But I digress into hyperbole.

Fallacies, Armstrong shows, are necessary to keep the Protestant lifeboat afloat. They are like dirty rags jammed into the holes of an old wooden dingy suffering from dry rot. (There I go again.) Let me give you a few examples of Protestant Fallacies that Armstrong elucidates.

Special Pleading

To explain 1 Tim 3:15 “...the household of God, which is the church of the living god, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” Armstrong quotes Methodist commentary Adam Clarke about this verse: “Never was there a greater variety of opinions on any portion of sacred Scripture...” and then Armstrong summarizes Clarke’s special pleading that possibly the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” could refer to Timothy, God Himself, revealed truth, or the mystery of godliness.” But never can Clarke take the literal meaning... the Church... for fear of admitting that the Catholic Church just might be the literal and direct meaning of the text. (Armstrong, p. 6).

Attacking the Strawman, Obfuscation, and Appeal to Emotion

Calvin, again: “The Pope hath made such [doctrine] always as seemed best to him, contrary to the word of God.” Says Armstrong, “It is an old lawyer’s tactic: when one has no (Biblical) case, attempt to caricature the opponent, obfuscate, and appeal to emotions rather than to reason.” (Armstrong, p. 10).

False Dichotomy, Either/Or

Protestants continue to label Catholic Theology as a “salvation by works” system, claiming the correct Biblical understanding is salvation by faith alone. Armstrong quotes numerous Biblical passages showing that both faith and works are necessary and that they both are the result of God’s grace. (Armstrong, p. 63-68).

This naming of fallacies is what I believe to be long overdue in the Catholic-Protestant dialogue. Fallacies are the language of polemics, which is the art of selecting evidence and ignoring the counter evidence to support a foregone conclusion.

Unique Technique

Armstrong’s technique in The Catholic Verses is unique among the Catholic apologetic books I’ve studied. Similar to other books, the text is divided into topical chapters — The Church, Divisions and Denominationalism, Bible and Tradition, The Papacy, Justification and Salvation, Judgment and Good works, Baptism, The Eucharist, Penance, The Communion of Saints, Relics and Sacramentals, Purgatory and Prayers for the Dead, The Blessed Virgin Mary, Clerical Celibacy, Divorce, and Contraception — 16 in all.

Rather than just explain the Catholic position, Armstrong begins each section with a collection of Bible “proof” texts that do two things at the same time. They (a) support the Catholic position on the topic, and (b) undermine the Protestant position by using Protestantism’s own technique—the Bible Alone.

The uniqueness of Armstrong’s approach is what comes next. He liberally quotes Protestant leaders and commentators on these same verses and puts these quotes next to each other, and in one situation summarizes their conclusions in a table to prove that Protestants cannot interpret these passages with any consistency or assurance of absolute truth. A great deal of fundamental theology, for Protestants is “through a glass darkly.” The juxtaposition of Protestant quotes trying to explain away the difficulties in place of the explicit and plain Catholic meaning not only reveals the desperate measures Protestant theology must resort to, but is, at times, also humorous.

The implicit running joke in the book is the vision of Luther, Calvin, Clarke and a host of others arguing among themselves over what a Bible passage means, never arriving at a consensus. But even though they cannot agree between themselves, they do agree on one thing — the Catholic Church is wrong. The image pops into mind of two companies of soldiers marching in a parade, one behind the other. The company in front is marches together, each step in sync with each other and the drumbeat. But in the second company, no solider is marching in sync with any of the others; each marches to a different drummer. But, yet, as one this second company yells at the company in front, “Get in step!” Can anyone wonder at the confused look on a Catholic’s face when a Protestant, in an attempt to “save” the Catholic, tries to explain the “false teachings” of Catholicism?

Armstrong adeptly points out that the main reason Protestants, among themselves, can’t agree on doctrine is because they’re too preoccupied with not being Catholic. Protestant theology is based more on “not being Catholic” than “being a Biblical Christian.” Armstrong gives more than one example of the “logic” and “analytical” exegesis that his Protestant witnesses bring to the stand. Armstrong points out that because Protestants reject the infallibility interpretation of the Church (decreed by Christ in the New Testament), Protestants are stuck with the Bible alone. Without an infallible interpreter, Calvin, Luther, and others found using the Bible alone intellectually adequate, and so to make their point they often lapsed into fits of outrageous, unbiblical, fallacious logic. Here’s an example from Calvin writing about clerical celibacy:

The sum of it all is that pope, devil, and his church hate the estate of matrimony... that is to say that marriage is harlotry, sin, impure, and rejected by God; and although they [Catholics] say, at the same time, that it is holy and a sacrament, that is a lie of their false hearts.... Because they do forbid [priests to marry], they must consider [marriage] unclean, and a sin, as they plainly say...

(On the Councils and the Churches, 1539, in Armstrong, page 196)

[this citation is actually from Martin Luther, not John Calvin. The confusion comes from my ambiguous introduction: "Elsewhere, Calvin follows the pathetic example of Luther's many absurd and outrageous statements about the Catholic clergy"]

Changed Doctrine

An enlightening byproduct of Armstrong’s analysis is how much Protestant doctrine has reversed itself from the original Reformers to today. Anti-Catholic sentiment incorrectly claims that Catholicism has changed or reversed fundamental dogma over the centuries, leading Catholicism into corruption. While many who are ignorant of Catholic doctrine believe this, no one has ever been able to point to a single doctrine where such a reversal has occurred. But the same is not true of Protestantism, and Armstrong proves it by comparing the original Reformer’s claim with contemporary Protestant theology... well, with some contemporary Protestant theology, inasmuch as there’s little agreement.

For example, one issue debated is whether or not The Eucharist is the real flesh and blood of Christ, or symbolic, as held by most Evangelicals today? The debate here must focus on the Catholic Mass, not common communion in most Protestant and Evangelical settings where there is no debate — there, the communion elements are and can only be symbolic because there is no consecration and there is no priest to perform it. But Luther rejects the symbolic view of the Eucharist and Armstrong says that Luther would be horrified if he could see how Protestants have reversed this doctrine. Luther writes:

[S]ince we are confronted by God’s words, “This is my body” — distinct, clear, common, definite words, which certainly are no trope, either in Scripture or in any language — we must embrace them with faith... [N]ot as hairsplitting sophistry dictates but as God says them for us, we must repeat these words after him and hold to them.

(Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, 1528; in Armstrong, p. 116)

In conclusion, The Catholic Verses is an accessible explanation of why Protestants continue to sidestep, ignore, mumble, or just pretend certain Bible verses do not exist, while, at the same time claiming to hold the Bible up as the inspired, inerrant Word of God which contains everything we need to know for salvation (a belief Catholicism holds as well). Armstrong gives ample and convincing evidence that when you look at the Bible through Catholic eyes, it all fits together and makes sense, there are no contradictions, there is absolute truth, and God and Jesus become real instead of a mystical uncertainty with which Protestants, in their irrational protest, must be satisfied.


Links: page
My own info-page for this book, which contains the Introduction

Monday, May 30, 2005

Today We Honor Those Who Gave the Ultimate Sacrifice and All Those Who Have Served Honorably in the Military

Jamie Donald wrote in comments below:

Today is Memorial Day in the USA. As a member of the military, I am not asking you to condone military actions. But I do ask you to consider that military members serve in order to protect their countries and their countrymen. Many have lost their lives offering this protection. Please remember them today and pray for their souls. Thank you.

Thank you very much for your service to your country, Jamie, and also to all the men and women who have done so and are doing so, especially those reading these words. We owe more to you than we can ever express. I've always appreciated you, and am extremely grateful for your sacrifices, and those of your families (especially to those who offered the greatest sacrifice: their own lives).

As a non-military person, I've been extremely moved (to tears) at places of memorial, such as Gettysburg and the Vietnam War Memorial (both were almost mystical experiences for me; I was moved to my soul); also in watching movies like Saving Private Ryan, which show what has been involved in combat situations. My family will be watching some kind of documentary tonight about these sacrifices and heroic actions (right after I post this), because I want my children to appreciate and honor those in the military as I do.

We should all pause and remember the souls and families of those who have died in this service.
During the course of doing deliveries at my second job, I met a mail carrier who lost her husband in the war in Iraq. At that time, there were only about 49 or so soldiers from Michigan who had been killed in the war. This poor woman was working this job and seeking another, in order to support their child and mortgage. She is only about 25 years old. There are lots of families like this, who have lost a loved one, or who have heroically sacrificed in other ways. We mustn't forget them, or fail to honor them.

The United States has (for the most part, but not always: as in the wars against the Indians) fought for the freedom of others. This is not a very common act in history. We were key in liberating Europe from Nazi tyranny and genocide. We saved South Korea from Communist rule and tried to do the same in Vietnam. Sure, we had interests in each region, too, but we still were fighting for the right of people to be free. And that makes me proud of my country (even though I am extremely critical of it in many areas, such as its legal abortion and -- increasingly -- infanticide and euthanasia). Or, I should say, I am proud of our war efforts, again for the most part.

Currently, we are fighting bloodthirsty terrorists and (in the course of this crucial effort) helped to free millions of people from oppressive regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. We're not the ones blowing up civilians in a cowardly, ruthless manner (though again, our legal abortion makes us rank hypocrites in a non-military fashion). We're trying to get these murderers to stop doing these heinous acts, so that people can live in peace and govern themselves democratically.

So I tip my figurative hat to Jamie and all those serving in the military, for America, and also those in the military of other countries who are also fighting for the right cause -- and even for soldiers who are doing their best in a military situation where they cannot control the goals and overall nature of the military operations they serve in. They are still sacrificing and serving. There was many a German soldier who thought little of Hitler. But they were serving their country, and cannot be blamed for everything that happened in Nazi Germany and in its war effort.

Review of My Book: "A Biblical Defense of Catholicism"

From an anonymous Catholic:

A solid apologetic in a contemporary style that sacrifices nothing. Excellent research and documentation is presented logically. I will return to this book often. While I appreciated Karl Keating's book, I found Armstrong less anecdotal and more substantial. Another thing I appreciated was his thoughtful and accurate representation of Protestant positions on doctrine. There is no sense of better-than snobbery, only attention to detail that, while clearly presented from a Catholic perspective, invites the reader to think their own thoughts and arrive at their own conclusion. At the time I first read this book I was most interested in the very helpful chapters relating to Mary and also to the Eucharist but the whole book is excellent.

Links: page
My info-page, including Introduction and excerpts

You can purchase this book, along with ten others of mine, in electronic format (Word or PDF) for only $25.00. The "deluxe" version of Biblical Defense included in that deal has many internal links, making it very searchable and convenient to use for apologetics, and also indices that aren't even included in the paperback version. I make more royalties in selling my books this way than I do from 15 sales of this book in paperback. And you get a whole lotta material (over 22oo pages and 5.5 MB) for a very affordable price (only $2.27 per book).

Dialogue on Apostate Churches and Choosing Churches (with "BWL")

"BWL" attends a Lutheran church. These are his follow-up questions, in response to my paper (also replying to a Lutheran): Honor Thy Denominations Rather Than Thy Church Fathers? (Lutherans, Sola Scriptura, & the Fathers). His words will be in blue.


Thanks for your thoughtful reply. You are a pleasure to dialogue with.

I maintain, however, that at the end of the day Catholics also use "private judgement." The only way I could see that this would not be the case would be if Catholics would never, ever, ever under any condition dissent against their church.

As long as it remains faithful in those tenets to which we are absolutely bound (as it always has) then we do not and should not do so.

I don't subscribe to the view that Catholics are mindless robots of the pope,

Good. We aren't, anymore than any Christian is a "mindless robot" of the Bible or the Nicene Creed. Everyone believes certain things, and belief is not the same thing as "mindless following."
so I think this must be the case. To give you some examples, what would you do if hypothetically speaking the pope, along with all of the RC bishops in council declared any of the following:

1. Contraception is totally allowed for Catholics
2. "Gay marriages" are allowed for Catholics
3. The creed will be replaced by the statement "there is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet"

I would sadly conclude that I have been deceived about Catholicism as I understood it to be, and leave.

Now, of course I realize that the likelihood of any of these (esp. #3) is nil. But hypothetically speaking, what would you do?

I would immediately look for another Christian communion that held true to traditional Christianity. I would probably (I imagine) wind up back in a small, conservative non-denominational group, like what I was in for much of the 80s. I would have to ditch the (Catholic or Orthodox) notion of "one, true, institutional Church."

I know contraception is a big issue for you,

Yeah, it is, just as it was for the Church Fathers and folks like Luther and Calvin . . .

but I'm guessing you might be willing to submit to the church on it more than #2 or #3.

No. It's a very grave sin. I'm a pro-lifer and a Christian who obeys God; I don't play games with something as utterly serious and God-ordained as the transmission of life and the deepest purpose of sexuality.

But if you would dissent and even break with the church over any of these, then how have you abandoned "private judgement"?

Such a circumstance would be extraordinary. Thus far, it hasn't happened, and even you admit that the likelihood is "nil." Arguing about the remotest hypotheticals is far from abandoning or accepting private judgment. This isn't about reality at the moment. It's just a philosophical "game," so to speak. But I'm much more interested in following God in His true Church than in playing these mind games of "what if" and so forth. I answered honestly; I just don't think this proves what you think it proves regarding private judgment.

If you have abandoned it, would you say there is no reason you would ever leave the church? Even the ones above?

No; that's always been my position. I've always been willing to be convinced of other positions, too, just as I was when I converted to Catholicism. That's why I love dialogue so much. But in fact, I haven't seen anything in 15 years now that would make me doubt that the Catholic Church is what She says She is. So I am here because I believe it to be the fullest truth obtainable within Christianity.

If you Protestants think that about your own positions (I use the plural, because there are many, of course), then you ought to be willing to fully defend them, too, and also give them up if they are shown to be erroneous. But instead, I have the hardest time finding any Protestant who will look closely and honestly at these very important root-level considerations. That's why I admire you for making some attempt to do that.

Of course, you also have faith the church would never teach any of these things,

Exactly, and since it hasn't historically, I see no reason to believe that it will in the future, precisely because it has been uniquely protected by God against doing so.

but keep in mind this is all in the hypothetical.

Exactly . . .

I think Catholics are Catholics not so much because they submit to the magisterium, but because they agree with what it teaches in the first place.

Both are true.

If you hadn't become convinced of the RC teachings when you were looking into Catholicism on say contraception and divorce, would have you become Catholic?

No, because it was clear to me that this was what the Christian Church had always held, and that it was being compromised today by many if not most Christian groups. Generally speaking, I converted because I believed the Church was what She claimed to be. I had basically become convinced of the truth of everything that the Church teaches, but not exhaustively, and not in minute detail. I learned about why the Church holds what She does, right after my conversion, when I started writing, for the sake of explaining to my Protestant friends.

But the prior assumption in all this was that there was such a thing as "the historical Church, established by Christ," and that this was an identifiable entity, that could be shown to be such, by historical examination, in faith. If I had believed beforehand that no such institutional Church existed (as many Protestants do, on unbiblical, ahistorical grounds), then I wouldn't have considered converting. I could have just stayed where I was, and practiced my own brand of Christianity as I construed it. But I knew enough to know that Christianity is intrinsically historical and incarnational, so I couldn't simply do that. I knew too much and therefore had to keep searching till I found the one True Church, in the fullest sense of that term.

These things are ultimately matters of the history of the Church: the Body of Christ and the embodiment of Christian doctrine, not my choice or any individual's choice. If all Christians opposed contraception before 1930, then they did, and Christians must accept that as a hugely relevant factor. It's ludicrous to believe that no Christian understood the truth about contraception properly until the good ole Church of England in 1930, and later, the godly Sexual Revolution and its free sex message. . It's not just a matter of my opinion. I thought contraception was fine (didn't have the slightest concern about it) till I started to hear facts like that, and till I was confronted with the moral logic of a true pro-life position (as I was in the Rescue movement at the time, and wondered why Catholics opposed contraception); then I was forced to choose between my radically individualistic "choice" and the Mind of the Church, as expressed by its constant belief through the centuries.

Same questions go for converts to Lutheranism, Methodism, Baptists or whatever.


Perhaps the distinction is in applying "private judgement" i.e. that Protestants, especially those coming out of the radical Reformation (solo Scriptura types) are much more likely to use their private judgement and break with their church for the most silly reasons imaginable.

Yep. There have been splits among Amish-type groups over things like the use of buttons. I read that in Christianity Today.

As for interpeting the Scripture and the Fathers (yes, Protestants such as Chemnitz interpret the Fathers too, and both Protestants and Orthodox think the RC has departed from the Fathers), the same question applies to us all: why accept your interpretation?

Because it is consistent with the facts of history, of course. It accepts what the Fathers believed (as a matter of consensus, not absolute unanimity). I would argue that Protestant views (where they depart from Catholic ones) cannot establish their case historically, and that this is clearly, almost incontrovertibly the case.

I don't see why it doesn't apply to the Catholics just as well or how the Catholic answer is any better than the Lutheran one.

Simply put: because of our historical pedigree, and the overwhelming weight of historical argument. Now, are you prepared to answer all my questions that I asked individually or not? [in the paper referred to at the beginning] I've answered all of yours.

God bless,


Sunday, May 29, 2005

Honor Thy Denominations Rather Than Thy Church Fathers? (Lutherans, Sola Scriptura, & the Fathers)

"wildboar" (Steve Parks, a Lutheran pastor, or soon to be one) has written an interesting piece over at Here We Stand, a conservative Lutheran blog, entitled, Honor Thy Fathers? This short essay gets right to the heart of the matter, with regard to the nature of the Protestant Rule of Faith, or sola Scriptura, which (following Luther and Calvin) states that while properly biblical tradition is helpful and worthy of respect, Holy Scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith, over against any Church or Tradition. I shall cite it in its entirety, and then respond below (very slightly revised, with italics added). I posted my questions initially on that blog. Later, "CPA", another Lutheran, joined the discussion.


It has been suggested that Lutherans often find themselves uncomfortably caught in the middle of many ecclesiastical debates. Indeed, much to our chagrin, conservative Lutherans have been labeled “too Catholic” by most Protestants and “too Protestant” by most Catholics. Perhaps this tension is best illustrated by the Lutheran approach to Scripture, and consequently, to the writings of the church fathers.

The Formula of Concord identifies the Old and New Testaments as the “the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with [all] teachers should be estimated and judged” (The Formula of Concord, Ep. I.I, as found in Concordia Triglotta [Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 1999], 777). Thus, Lutherans readily confess the doctrine which has come to be known as sola Scriptura. This, however, does not mean that Lutherans make the mistake committed by many Protestants of altogether ignoring the writings of the church fathers. Indeed, as Chemnitz notes:

The safest way to educate and remedy [our] own simplicity would be to consult the fathers of the church who, in the times of the pristine purity and learning directly after the apostles, were active in expounding [various subjects] publicly and with characteristic diligence, and to hear them as they conferred among themselves and shared their well-considered and pious opinions on the basis of God’s Word.

(Martin Chemnitz, The Two Natures in Christ translated by J.A.O. Preus [St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1971], 19)

Far from contradicting the teaching of the Formula of Concord (which he helped author), Chemnitz immediately cautions:

However, the norm and rule of judgment must always be the voice of God as revealed in Scripture, to which all statements, even those of the most ancient scholars, must be subjected and according to which they must be examined and interpreted.

(Chemnitz, The Two Natures in Christ, 20)

In pithy fashion, Luther writes:

Whenever we see that the opinions of the fathers are not in agreement with Scripture, we respectfully bear with them and acknowledge them as our forefathers; but we do not on their account give up the authority of Scripture.

(Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis as found in Luther’s Works edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, Vol. 1 [St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1958], 122)

To state it succinctly, therefore, Lutherans believe that when the church fathers depart from the voice of Christ sounding forth in the Scriptures, we must depart from the teaching of the fathers.


As a preface, let me state that I like wildboar's writings, and have complimented him on them.

My questions are:

1) Who determines whether the Fathers (generally or individually) are "biblical" and "right or wrong" based on a comparison with the Bible?

2) On what grounds does this standard have more authority than the Fathers whom it / his / her deems "non-biblical? So, for instance, if Chemnitz says that Augustine or Chrysostom or Ambrose or Irenaeus are "unbiblical" concerning thus-and-such, why should I accept his opinion over against that of these eminent Fathers whom he is critiquing?

3) Now, if you say that this is determined by a vote of Lutheran scholars or pastors or something (I don't know what your answer would be; I'm just being hypothetical here), then how is that all that different from what Catholics do (i.e., applying some authority besides Scripture itself to authoritatively interpret Scripture, and correct or confirm expositors of it)?

4) How is that (the scenario in #3) still somehow sola Scriptura, while Catholic dogmatic pronouncements are not? What's the practical difference (apart from Catholic considerations and claims of infallibility, where applicable, which is a clear difference)?

5) And how is accepting some Lutheran denominational pronouncement on which patristic statements are biblical and which are not, more intrinsically authoritative than (again) what occurs in the Catholic Church?

As readers can by now surmise, my position is that sola Scriptura inevitably breaks down as internally incoherent and inconsistent. The bottom-line question (when the issue is examined at with sufficient scrutiny) really becomes: on what grounds do we accept one exegetical / hermeneutical / dogmatic authority over another? Why choose Lutheran (or Reformed) interpretations over that of the Fathers, or of Catholicism or Orthodoxy?

This Lutheran argument is, in the end, either circular, or proves and establishes nothing, and is entirely arbitrary. If someone disagrees with that assessment, I would like to hear and understand why, based on answers to my questions and any other relevant considerations that could be brought to bear.

[I will probably paste your post and this reply on my blog, too, if that's okay, because I think it's a very important discussion, especially for Protestants to consider]

In Him,


CPA made a reply on the Here We Stand blog. His words will be in red:

Dave, in practice for a great many issues (including most if not all of the ones that separate Roman Catholics and Augsburg Evangelicals) the problem is not nearly so involved as you make it. You write: "So, for instance, if Chemnitz says that Augustine or Chrysostom or Ambrose or Irenaeus are 'unbiblical' concerning thus-and-such, why should I accept his opinion over against that of these eminent Fathers whom he is critiquing?"

In so many cases, what you find on investigation is that patristic viewpoint is actually not based on sustained Biblical exegesis. When you go to the analysis, it's just not there. Let's take the issue of free will (which is one in which the fathers differ). St. Irenaeus says we have free will to turn or not to turn to God. St. Augustine denies that. Who is right? Your way of reasoning suggests that it is instantly a "he-said, she-said" problem, and so we need a single authority to decide. In reality, however, even a cursory examination shows that while St. Augustine based his view on a
serious, sustained engagement with the vital texts of Romans 9, St. Irenaeus did not (he used the Bible on other issues, but not on this, where he simply assumed a particular philosophical position--incompatibilism--and argued that lack of free will in things of God means lack of responsibility). Given that fact, sola scriptura instantly decides the issue: not so much that St. Irenaeus is wrong, but that he does not really have a viewpoint relevant to the issue. (That would be true of most of the rest of the fathers on this issue as well.)

Many similar examples could be produced as well.


It's not at all certain that Augustine denied free will, in the sense that you (and standard reformed / Lutheran polemics) are claiming (or, additionally, that all Church historians agree that he did). I dealt with this question at great length in the following paper (part II):

St. Augustine: Which Christian Body is Closer Theologically to His Teaching?: Reformed Protestants or Present-Day Catholics? {link}

So that is my answer to the particular alleged "counter-example" you have offered. Beyond that, you merely engage in more of the ultimately circular reasoning that I am critiquing, by stating:

In so many cases, what you find on investigation is that patristic viewpoint is actually not based on sustained Biblical exegesis. When you go to the analysis, it's just not there.

First of all, this is your judgment. If others disagree (whether scholars or historical institutional Christian positions), we must still decide upon what basis to choose. You have made your argument. But you are not ultimately any kind of authority (nor am I). One has to accept the interpretation of a larger institution than themselves (for me, the Catholic church, for you, the Lutheran, and historic Protestantism to some extent).

Secondly, St. Irenaeus' position is not rendered untrue simply because he personally may not have made elaborate exegetical arguments for it. Others may have, and there are other grounds for determining the truth besides exegesis, in the first place. All positions must be harmonious with the Bible; on that much we can all agree.

Conversely, Augustine may have been wrong in some of his arguments (i.e., assuming he denied free will). The Church has deemed double predestination and the denial of human free will (in a certain sense) to be erroneous positions. Individual Fathers, may, of course, be wrong on some things.

Thirdly, you have simply assumed (according to the notion perspicuity: itself severely flawed and questionable) that the Bible is clear on this question, so that it is a slam dunk for Augustine (as you interpret him) and against Irenaeus and others who take his position. But that is precisely what is at issue.

Some Christian traditions assert free will (while not denying predestination of the elect) and others deny it. We still have to choose. Why accept the historic Lutheran / Reformed position (of course, Melanchthon differed with Luther on this, so there is some amnbiguity)?

All you have accomplished, therefore, is:

1) assume that Augustine believes certain things (which are questionable).

2) assume that he is right and other fathers wrong, based on:

3) an unproven assumption of perspicuity, and

4) an unproven assumption that sola Scriptura (itself unproven and unbiblical and suffering from a host of internal inconsistencies) "instantly decides the issue."

You've made several assumptions, which themselves have to be proven, to have any weight.

In the end, I still contend that the bottom-line questions are precisely the ones I have asked. I am asking that a Lutheran make a straightforward attempt to give some sort of simple answers to my simple questions. After that, I would be happy to argue particulars, but we must grasp what our presuppositions are, and the difficulties therein (i.e., fundamental issues and premises), before rushing off to argue about what Augustine and Irenaeus believed on thus-and-so.

Wildboar's argument was very broad and "presuppositional." I answered in the same vein. I would like to see counter-replies to my honest (and I think, important) questions.

BWL has made some effort to do so on my blog (but not completely). Neither you nor wildboar really have. He has made no reply, and you have gone right to a particular, with several unproven assumptions; amounting to not much of a compelling argument at all (with all due respect).

Please, will you or anyone else try to answer the specific questions that I asked? I carefully answered all of BWL's questions, and I have given a lengthy reply to your argument also. But so far, many of the aspects of my argument have been passed over and ignored. It's still early; perhaps someone will eventually provide an answer . . .

God bless,


CPA made a lengthy reply at Here We Stand, mostly about St. Augustine, with some repetition of his earlier points. I responded:

I want to discuss the presuppositional issues, not Augustine.

Not all patristic views must be based upon Scripture Alone. There is also Tradition and reason brought to bear. You're presupposing sola Scriptura (as we would expect a Protestant to do, but that doesn't make it compelling for anyone else).

And, of course, sola Scriptura isn't taught in Scripture (where we would expect to find it if it is true, and is a statement about what all Christians should accept with regard to Scripture and its authority). So where does it come from? Well, it's a tradition of men! Thus, this position reduces (quite ironically) to a non-biblical, arbitrary one, whereas it is made out to be the only viable position.

I'll look to see if my questions were answered in the other posts, or if this is to be a wild goose chase again, as is the usual state of affairs with discussions such as these.


Let me pull back and outline where I am on Sola Scriptura, and why I keep focusing on "details":

Right now, I believe the Lutheran understanding of Scripture to be correct. Where Lutheran interpretations differ from Catholic interpretations the latter seem to me to be incorrect. I also believe that I have a moral obligation to follow my understanding of Scripture; this follows from first of all what I believe to be a general obligation of honesty to be faithful in one's interpretation of others' words, and even more from it being God's word which is in question. As a result I feel I cannot in conscience be a Catholic.

O.K., I'm sure you've heard this before. But if someone were to try to convince me to become Catholic they would have to do one of the following:

1) Convince me in detail that the Catholic interpretation of the disputed passages is the correct one.


2) Convince me that the apostles did really believe and ordain that the words they left in Scripture were to be authoritatively interpreted by their successors the bishops, esp. Peter's successors in Rome.


3) Convince that no text can be rationally conclusive in the absence of a living authority to interpret it and if such a authority exists that no interpretation contrary to that authority's interpretation can be convincing.

As I see it, 3) is what you argued for. I have put up a reply to it on Here We Stand. I find it completely unconvincing, and when taken seriously a deeply skeptical point of view. Catholic apologists would, I think, be better served by sticking to the specifically Christian arguments 1 or 2, rather than by the epistemological/hermeneutical argument of 3.

CPA then responded with another post at Here We Stand, entitled, "Does a Text, Any Text, Need an Authoritative Interpreter to Make Real the Moral Obligation to Interpret It Correctly?" I shall cite it (as is my custom) in its entirety and reply to his arguments. I thank Chris for the vigorous, thought-provoking reply. I always love to receive those:

Dave Armstrong has challenged Wildboar with the common assertion that sola scriptura cannot be valid, since it does not have an authoritative court to decide which interpretations of Scripture work.

Technically, that was not my particular argument here, though I would certainly maintain that an authoritative Church is necessary, since I think that is the biblical, Catholic, and historic Christian position, and the only non-circular one possible to take, given that same history and Holy Scripture. My concern was with, rather, the relative plausibility of claimants for proper interpretation of the Fathers, as noted in my question #5:

The bottom-line question (when looked at with sufficient scrutiny) really becomes: on what grounds do we accept one exegetical / hermeneutical / dogmatic authority over another?

To the possibility that Scripture might be read to prove a Church Father wrong he asks:

Again, this is an inaccurate portrayal of why I asked the questions. I don't deny at all (nor does the Catholic position) that Scripture could disprove a position of a Church father. Chris acts as if I question the very "possibility." Why he thinks that I would think this, would be, no doubt, a fascinating aside, but we'll move ahead for now.

[at this point, my five questions, asked in the original post above, are cited]

Here’s my problem with this, and it is one I have stated before: the underlying assumption here is that Scripture as a written document cannot ultimately speak clearly enough to make us guilty from transgressing it without a human court of authority to enforce its statements with correct interpretation.

This can hardly be my "underlying assumption" because I don't believe it in the first place! I stated my disagreement with this most recently and in the most detail (as I recall, anyway) in my paper,

The Sufficiency of Scripture and the Church Fathers (Particularly, St. Athanasius and the Trinity)

Edwin Tait, an Anglican friend of mine, made a statement with which I agreed wholeheartedly:

Of course the Fathers thought that they could prove their view from Scripture. They also thought that the historic communion of bishops in succession from the Apostles, gathered in Councils (with Rome playing some role, which I don't want to debate here), could be counted on to interpret Scripture correctly. The whole sola scriptura debate only became possible when a sizeable number of influential Christians began proclaiming that the bishops gathered in Council, in communion with Rome, had seriously erred in interpreting Scripture over a period of several centuries. Of course both sides can appeal to the Fathers, because the Fathers never thought of Scriptural sufficiency and the authority of the Church/Tradition as being at odds.
I stated my own view very precisely, later:

But is Scripture sufficient to refute Arianism on its own . . .? I think so, . . .

Nevertheless, I think it is also true that if a person was in a hypothetical situation where they knew absolutely nothing of Church history, Christian theology, and precedent in how these doctrines were and are thought about and derived from Scripture, and was tossed a Bible, that modalism (aka Sabellianism) and Arianism might seem as "plausible" to them as trinitarianism seemed. After all, the Trinity is not an easily-grasped doctrine, and it is not immediately accessible to human reason. It is a revelation and mystery which must ultimately be accepted in faith (not to undermine its scriptural proofs).

So, while wholeheartedly agreeing with you that the case can be made by Scripture, I think we fool ourselves if we don't recognize the role of Tradition and precedent as a strong influencing factor in how we all think. Most of us have grown up in cultures and/or households where trinitarianism and the Deity of Christ was taken for granted. It was the air we breathed.

But if one grew up in a secular context or was completely ignorant of historic theology, sure, I could see how they could grab a Bible and conclude that it taught
Arianism or modalism (which is quite a bit more subtle). Of course, I agree that this would be an opinion based in ignorance of the totality of Scripture teaching and proper exegesis and hermeneutics and lack of understanding of difficult passages where commentary is most helpful. But one could still do it.

And again, in the same paper (emphasis added now):

As I have stated repeatedly, binding Church authority, is a practical necessity, given the propensity of men to pervert the true apostolic Tradition as taught in Scripture, whether it is perspicuous or not. The fact remains that diverse interpretations arise, and a final authority outside of Scripture itself is needed in order to resolve those controversies. This does not imply in the least that Scripture itself (rightly understood) is not sufficient to overcome the errors. It is only formally insufficient by itself.
. . . I write entire books and huge papers citing nothing but Scripture. It doesn't mean for a second that I don't respect the binding authority of the Catholic Church or espouse sola Scriptura. St. Athanasius made some extensive biblical arguments. Great. Making such arguments, doing exegesis, extolling the Bible, reading the Bible, discussing it, praising it, etc., etc., etc., are all well and good (and Catholics agree wholeheartedly); none of these things, however, reduce to or logically necessitate adoption of sola Scriptura as a formal principle, hard as that is for some people to grasp.

These sorts of clarifications are extremely important if one is to understand my position, and that of the Catholic Church (and, I would say -- provocatively, no doubt --, also the view of the Bible and the Fathers). If a reader doesn't grasp these distinctions and positions, then I urge them to cease reading this dialogue right now, because nothing good can come of it if the two opposing positions are not properly comprehended. I can only hope that my opponent(s) will better understand the Catholic position after my explanation of it in this regard. I think it's a good thing, because here it is shown that there is more agreement than many on either side suspect. This is good news. There are differences remaining concerning Bible and Tradition, but there are also exciting areas of agreement, if only this could be more widely known.

(Note, frequently the argument is rendered with the phrase in bold as "settle disputes," which makes it absurd. Obviously a book by itself cannot stop me from misinterpreting itself. But it can, I contend, be sufficiently clear for me to be guilty before God for misinterpreting it.

I agree. Yet, sadly, the problem comes when different bodies start disagreeing on what is clear and what isn't in Scripture, and what Scripture in fact teaches regarding thus-and-so possible heresy. Even if Scripture is in fact clear on a matter (say that God declares that it was perfectly clear, when we get to heaven and ask Him about it, which would be absolute certainty), that doesn't mean that Christians will agree. And since contradiction necessarily involves error, it is important for all of us to have some way of resolving these disputes. And that brings us right back to Church authority and/or some form of tradition. It's unavoidable. It's inevitable. Anyone who denies this is living in unreality and self-delusion. All Christians have to resolve this dilemma in some fashion. The solutions differ, and that is what we are debating presently, but the problem is the same for all.

So the issue between us is: Am I morally obligated to follow the Scriptures as I understand them, even when an authoritative church body interprets them differently? I say yes, Armstrong says no.

It's not quite that simple. If the Church I am in clearly contradicts Scripture, then of course, I am obligated to leave in protest, and am fully justified in doing so. This would be the case, e.g., in the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA), where a practicing homosexual bishop was ordained. That is absolutely contrary to Scripture, and so one must follow the Scripture and conclude that this body is not doing so and must be opposed. What Catholics say is that there is such a Church (historical and institutional) which is uniquely guided by the Holy Spirit towards true doctrine and morals (Protestants deny this), and that Christians are indeed obligated to follow that Church in cases where it has authoritatively decided what is true and what is not true, in theology. We believe this in faith: that God has protected the Catholic Church from error, because He wants one Church, with authority, not hundreds, which contradict each other and cause endless confusion for the Christian flock. We think it is grounded in revelation and perfectly defensible, even from history.

I certainly accept however that I am also morally obligated to test my understanding against those of all other Christians, and especially those of distinguished reputation and holiness, and not to disagree with them without such testing.)

This gets back to your problem of why you should accept one interpretation over another, when there are disagreements.

I contend that that underlying assumption carries with it dangerous skepticism about the power of language. I know Dave Armstrong is not himself a skeptic, but I think that is the implication of his position.

It's not, because you have greatly misunderstood my premises, as shown. Thus, your counter-argument will soon collapse (as I am in the process of showing). I don't blame you for that: these are complicated matters, and we don't know each other all that well, but now having been informed of my beliefs, you will have to modify your argument and come up with something else.

Let’s use an analogy. I believe Roe vs. Wade is bad constitutional law. Quite apart from the issue of abortion itself, I believe it has no legitimate basis in the language of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Absolutely. I agree.

Let’s say I cite people who agree with me, like Stephen Carter. Now, what if someone were to say: the Supreme Court has said you are wrong, therefore as an honest man you are in conscience bound to accept that the Fourteenth Amendment doesn't say what you think it does. Amend the Fourteenth Amendment if you like, but recognize that the Constitution, like any text, needs a living authority to interpret it before it can be a legal norm at all. The Supreme Court is that living authority, and that living authority disagrees with you.

The Supreme Court is not protected by the charism of infallibility, by the Holy Spirit. The Bible teaches that God's law is above human law, and that there are times to obey God rather than man, when the two are in conflict. That's why I was in the pro-life Rescue movement (in terms of the lagal rationale). I broke laws because they were immoral laws, and I did that in order to literally save babies' lives. So the analogy is fundamentally flawed from the outset. That's too bad, because I love analogies . . . :-) It's true that the Constitution needs to be interpreted, as does law in general, but the present question is whether the Christian Church was intended by God to be infallible or not, or if Scripture is the only infallible authority (sola Scriptura). The Supreme Court has never claimed infallibility. It can reverse itself, and the people can in effect reverse its rulings by constitutional amendment. Hence, in the Dred Scott case, slavery was upheld, but by constitutional amendment, it was abolished. The people were right; the Court wrong. It's currently hideously wrong on abortion. It doesn't follow that no Church body could ever be infallible.

Couldn’t that person use exactly Dave Armstrong’s arguments?

No, and I'll now show why (though the "fatal blow" to your argument has already been delivered).

1) Who determines whether the judicial precedents are "constitutional" and "legitimate" based on a comparison with the Constitution?

Judges. This is indeed a parallel with the Church's authority to interpret Christian doctrine as orthodox or heretical. But the disanalogy comes with the divinely-instituted gift of infallibility, which earthly judges do not have. There is such a conceivable thing as a Christian Church which could always be right, on the major matters of faith and morals (which is where we claim the highest level of infallibility. This is no more implausible, in fact, than an infallible, "God-breathed" Bible written by quite-fallible and sinful men. If that is a fact (as we all believe) then an infallible Church can certainly be at least a possible fact. It's not implausible at all, and makes perfect sense.

2) On what grounds does this standard have more authority than the preceding legal decisions whom it / his / her deems "unconstitutional"? So, for instance, if Carter says that the views of Thurgood Marshall or Harry Blackmun or Lawrence Tribe are "unconstitutional" concerning Roe vs. Wade, why should I accept his opinion over against that of these eminent jurists whom he is critiquing?

By no criteria other than the legal reasoning, because they are all on the same ground, in the epistemological sense (if I may use that word with reference to legal matters). What my #2 question was designed to show was that claims of being "biblical" still reduce to human tradition at some point; therefore it is a matter of pitting one tradition against another. I think that for most people, a comparison of Augustine and Chemnitz is almost laughable. There is no comparison. But this is what is made necessary by sola Scriptura. You say that you accept a Father insofar he is "biblical." Catholics agree that all teachings ought to be harmonious with Scripture. We don't disagree so far. What we disagree on is the notion that an individual theologian in the 16th century, whether Chemnitz or Luther or Calvin, ought to be deemed (on what grounds, no one will tell me) a "super-authority" ( I have called Luther, notoriously, a "Super-Pope" for perfectly sensible reasons) over aainst the consensus of the Church Fathers, or even one eminent Father.

You say the criterion is the Bible. But then the question immediately becomes "whose interpretation of the Bible?" And that question is necessary and supremely relevant because in a practical sense (not in an intrinsic sense, as explained in my citations from another paper, above), Scripture has not always been clear (or clearly understood, one might say), historically-speaking. So your position reduces to: "the clear teaching of Scripture on topic x [unspoken premise: because this is what Chemnitz said Scripture taught]." It is a huge difficulty as soon as there is disagreement, and we all know that that is rampant in Protestant ranks. The Catholic Church has no such problem because they have the means to resolve the problem, and to do so with unquestionable authority. The Protestant doesn't believe that is possible, because they no longer have faith that God is able to preserve an infallible Church.

I've written about the radical circularity of both sola Scriptura and perspicuity:

Fictional Dialogue on Sola Scriptura

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

Protestant Ecclesiology and Epistemology is Always Ultimately Self-Defeating

The Perspicuity (Clearness) of Scripture

3) Now, if you say that this is determined by a vote of pro-life/originalist scholars or jurists or something (I don't know what your answer would be; I'm just being hypothetical here), then how is that all that different from what Roe vs. Wade supporters do (i.e., applying some authority besides the Constitution itself – i.e. the Supreme Court – to authoritatively interpret the Constitution, and correct or confirm expositors of it?)

The point of my #3 was that both sides utilize tradition of some sort. That is true here, too. There was a pro-life tradition which was formerly the mainstream in law, and now the opposite is the case. My rhetorical (but simultaneously extremely practical and realistic) question was meant to defeat the fallacious notion that adherents of sola Scriptura somehow stand outside all traditions. They do not. Therefore, it is proper and necessary to ask why we should accept Luther's or Melanchthon's or Chemnitz's opinions over the more ancient, agreed-upon ones of the consensus of the Fathers and of the Catholic Church.

4) How is that (the scenario in #3) still somehow just following the Constitution, while Supreme Court dogmatic pronouncements are not? What's the practical difference (apart from the Supreme Court’s position as the arbiter of the law of the land, which is a clear difference)?

#4 was a variant of #3. Since you have misunderstood the nature of my premises and my argument, then this is ultimately much ado about nothing. Some analogies still hold, in terms of what I was actually arguing, but the larger analogy fails because it presupposed that I presupposed what I did not presuppose.

5) And how is accepting some pro-life or originalist position on which constitutional statements are legitimate and which are not, more intrinsically authoritative that (again) what occurs in the Supreme Court?

Because the Supreme Court ought to be based on the Higher Court of God's Law. If it is not, it can be dissented against. The Catholic Church has shown itself to have far and away the best historical credentials and moral and biblical faithfulness, in its teachings, to be rightly regarded as "the Church" in a unique sense. No Protestant body can withstand this biblical and historical scrutiny. But that takes us off into far different subject matter . . . The Catholic Church is authoritative because it was founded by Jesus Christ, and has continued with an unbroken apostolic succession.

As readers can by now surmise, my position is that allowing individuals like Stephen Carter to have opinions on constitutional law contrary to existing Supreme Court precedents inevitably breaks down as internally incoherent and inconsistent. The bottom-line question (when looked at with sufficient scrutiny) really becomes: on what grounds do we accept one legal / hermeneutical / juristic authority over another? Why choose Carter’s interpretations over that of the 1970s jurists, or of the Supreme Court today?

Because it is consistent with God's law, which is pro-life. One can dissent against man's laws when they are immoral, as in this instance. But IF INDEED there is an infallible Church, by God's decree, man cannot dissent against its teachings. Thus, it is my task and the Catholic task to make various arguments suggesting that the Catholic Church is indeed what she claims to be.

Throw in reminders that I’m no constutional scholar and that it would be arrogant for me to assume that I know better than all those learned justices and the argument is complete: an individual who wants to be intellectually honest is morally obligated to defer to the Supreme Court’s authoritative interpretation of the constitution. Any denial of that body's definite decisions is intellectually incoherent and inconsistent.

Not at all, because the analogy fails, per the above reasoning.

In fact, I've heard this argument many times specifically drawn vis a vis Roe vs. Wade and to me, it has always seemed absurd.

I agree. I'm not a legal positivist, anymore than I am a logical positivist. Man's law is not the highest standard.

Quite apart from whether the Supreme Court is or is not infallible, the idea that the existence of dispute over interpretation of a text whose authority they accept means that someone does not have a moral obligation to follow their conscience in interpretation seems wrong on the face of it. Which means Dave Armstrong’s argument too must be wrong.

Catholics believe that one must follow their conscience, but also that it must be an informed conscience. So. e.g., if someone claims that they must conscientiously practice contraception (or abortion, for that matter, to follow the attempted analogy), we say that this is an improperly informed conscience, because revelation and Church teaching have taught that the practice is a grave sin. The same applies to the homosexual argument today. They appeal to Scripture, and they claim it is clear. But the slam-dunk against this serious error is historic Christian teaching. Scripture is clear on the matter, but they don't think so, so we have to appeal to authority. Whole Protestant denominations are self-destructing over this, because they have forfeited moral authority and caved in to the fashionable cultural zeitgeist. But the Catholic Church is where she has always been: opposed to homosexual practice as intrinsically disordered and a grave sin.

If Armstrong’s argument makes sense for the particular text known as the Bible, why doesn’t it work for the particular text known as the Constitution?

Because the Constitution is not divinely-inspired and the Supreme Court is not a divinely-protected infallible institution.

Armstrong’s argument makes no reference to the Bible’s nature as a religious text, so that can’t be the issue.

All orthodox Christians accept Scripture as inspired. Yawn . . .

He appears to be arguing for a living authority not because the Catholic Church has claimed to be that authority, but because such an authority is needed by the nature of Bible as a mere text, one which in practice has been interpreted differently by different people.

Not because of the intrinsic unclearness in the main of Scripture (which is not the Catholic position, rightly-understood), but because (for various reasons) people will in fact interpret it differently, and therefore we need a mechanism to achieve doctrinal and ecclesiological unity (which is presupposed as a reality in Scripture, especially in St. Paul.

And if that's the case, then his argument applies to all texts.

It can't by the nature of the case, because only one text is divinely-inspired, thus making it sui generis.

Which is obviously not held by anyone, hence Dave Armstrong's argument is wrong.

CPA's attempted refutation is wrong because it misunderstands my argument and the Catholic position, and offers "analogies" which fail abysmally. He will have to find another way to cogently, plausibly answer my five questions.

Friday, May 27, 2005

"Excus-a-Getics": James White Opts Out of Answering My Nine-Part Refutation, With Ridicule

James White is always true to his own jaded ideals and principles; of that much we can be certain. In Part VI of my nine-part treatment of the Moses' Seat issue, in reply to White's eight-part paper (link to Part I), I predicted (with great confidence) that the man would find some way to avoid responding; probably resorting to pure ridicule:

I'll be even more shocked if he actually tries to interact with my present reasoning, and either retract his opinions where necessary or fully defend them against the present scrutiny. I would love to hear a counter-response, not only to this, but to all my argumentation. I won't hold my breath, given Mr. White's abysmal past track record of fleeing from rational discussions, just when they get interesting, and when his positions look the weakest and most indefensible.

See also my recent paper, More Typical James White Braggadocio and Ignoring of Opponents' Arguments. I commented in another recent thread about White:

. . . watching now to see how (or, I should say, IF) White responds, given his past rhetoric and childish tauntings, is entirely in accord with my principles. He's making a fool of himself now, for all to see. If that's how he wants it, it's fine with me! I'm merely documenting it. If the self-professed leading anti-Catholic debater wants to self-destruct and forfeit debates left and right by default (due to no response), then clearly it is in the interest of Catholic apologetics to document this.

. . . White clearly does whatever he thinks will advance his anti-Catholic cause and make him look good, and unvanquishable. Answering my reply won't accomplish that.

. . . if he were so invulnerable to any criticism, and the Anti-Catholic Answer Man Par Excellence, as he makes out ad nauseum, he would leap at such opportunities to further his cause. He would cherish and welcome them.

. . . If White were truly unanswerable (and since he has made no such resolution, as I have, and as R.C. Sproul in effect has), then he wouldn't take such pains to avoid critics who are doing the most work critiquing his material.

(comment of 5-23-05)

And two days later, I added:

. . . he runs from written debate (particularly with me), because I expose every trick and sleight-of-hand that he tries to pull on unsuspecting readers, especially those inclined by prior disposition to agree with him and disagree with me.

. . . we see what anti-Catholics do when I refute their errors: Svendsen mounts an incredible ad hominem assault; White taunts and mocks, accuses me of dishonesty and intellectual cowardice, then runs and ignores my reply when I thoroughly answer him; others make fake blogs which are entirely made up of personal insult and slander, etc. When they can't answer, they must do SOMETHING to detract from my reply, because that ain't supposed to happen! A Catholic can never prevail in any debate with an anti-Catholic!!!

(comment of 5-25-05)

Sure enough, I was a prophet once again. I've watched how this man operates for ten years. After accusing me of being scared and unable to reply (motifs which are reflected in the current "reply"), White now decides to offer no answer, because (bottom line) he contends that I am an idiot. This is what might be known as the "[Eric] Svendsen Methodology of Dismissing Effective Critiques of One's Writing and Arguments." If I decide not to reply to White I am (no one could doubt for a second) a coward and a simpleton. When White, on the other hand, decides to not answer me, it is, of course, also because (as everyone "knows") I am a coward and a simpleton, not worth anyone's time.

One has to wonder, then: if this is true, why did White devote so much attention to me back in January? He didn't yet know that I was an imbecile and an idiot then, after almost ten years knowing me, and challenging me to oral debate maybe 15 times? Now he has suddenly figured this out? Yeah, right. . . .

Without further ado, here is his entire blog entry, trying to rationalize his decision to utterly ignore my critique, complete with yet more irrelevant childish ridicule:

The Dave Armstrong Arcade Game

A while back I took the time to engage Dave Armstrong's The Catholic Verses on this blog. The response by Mr. Armstrong was 1) bluster and absurdly silly replies; 2) full-scale retreat and a "promise" (again) to stop interacting with "anti-Catholics" like me. Since then, Mr. Armstrong has returned and, evidently, has healed from his wounds, forgotten his own promises, and is now busily non-responding to me all over again (even producing reverse-color purposefully bad pictures originally taken by Mormons). Remember that cheesey arcade game where the little animal pops up out of a hole and you have to bop it back in to get points? The kind of thing you played just because you only had one token left and the real games took two? Well, I may have played that game once, but found it completely boring and not worth even that last token. Ditto, Mr. Armstrong. There is no reason to even respond to a person who, upon being shown to be in error, will reply, "Oh, I don't have to answer that! That person is anti-me, and I take an oath not to respond to his kind...until this topic has passed, anyway, or I have had more time to come up with a response or something." Such is not apologetics, it is excus-a-getics, and is not worth the time it takes to activate the RSS feed.


Those who follow this blog and the ongoing chronicling of this man's pathetic folly and embarrassing intellectual suicide, will readily see the massive hypocrisies and self-contradictions in this reply, so I need not add anything. It's more fun to simply cite White's blog entry above the one on me, where he engages in breathtaking hypocrisy, with regard to this business of folks not answering replies. This time, it had to do with Pat Madrid:

So it seems Madrid has had to get into the fray. He's posted some articles on his equivalent of a blog. Now, very usefully, he has posted the text from his This Rock hit piece against me from 1993, the one I referred to below. Here it is. [link] Now, read that, then my response, here. [link] I'd be happy to point you to his rebuttal to my documentation of his errors, but...there is none. A decade has passed, and there has not been any reply to my knowledge.

Hey, I can match that! White has never answered the final 36-page reply in our first debate, either. That was in 1995. Now (we have his "official" word) he chooses to utterly ignore my nine-part refutation of his nonsense and smoke and mirrors with regard to the Bible and Tradition. But remember the reading points, dear readers: when someone doesn't reply to White, they are cowards. When White does the same, it's because, again, his opponents are cowards and idiots (I know; it makes no sense, but there it is). Instead of getting to work and defending his arguments against my critique, White prefers to carp on and on (like a self-obsessed playboy recounting his sexual conquests) about his debate with Madrid in 1993, and another with Art Sippo in 1991 (devoting a half-hour to the latter on his webcast, so he informs us). Can anything more ridiculous and laughable be imagined? This is priceless! Man, I was accused of undergoing a "massive meltdown" in January, simply because I was fed up with the substanceless, sophistical, insulting nature of White's "arguments." What, then, is this???!!! White asks:

I invite any semi-rational person to consider, for just a moment, the idea that debating me is like "fishing out of a barrel."

I think it is a very apt description, myself, as I sit here marveling at the man's decision to ignore my vigorous refutation of his argument. It has been no debate at all, as always with him, so, even though I ain't a fisherman, I could see an analogy to, maybe, um, trying to fish at the monkey cage at the zoo or something (I struggle to find an appropriate metaphor for total futility and exasperation, which is what it is like to try to reason and dialogue with White, because he won't interact, and he won't defend his ideas).

I have never heard any Roman Catholic apologist claim that I have lost every debate I have done. In fact, I have not heard any claim that I have lost even 50% of them.

I don't know about all these other debates, because I've only listened to part of one, years ago, but I know that he has lost 100% of his debates with me (most by default, because he simply left in midstream, just as he is currently doing), so excuse me if I am completely underwhelmed by the man's dialogical and theological prowess.

So, if I am such a push-over, why is it we have to work so hard to find opponents anymore for debates on Roman Catholicism?

Exactly my reasoning, James!!!! Why is it that if I am a total fool and easily refuted, you are so extremely reluctant to reply to my critique of your arguments? Hey, maybe if we take up a collection and offer the good bishop $10,000, he would reply? White, desperate for his debate "fix," pride and ego seemingly wounded, at the very moment he is running as fast as he can from my reply, and others now out there, such as Ben Douglass' response on justification, lowers himself to the depths of a proposed written debate (which he has assiduously avoided, for the most part, for years now, and even mocked as a totally inferior medium), and challenges Pat Madrid to that which he has frequently described in the past as "hiding behind a word processor":

Since debating me is like fishing in a barrel, how about Patrick Madrid putting his debating skills where his keyboard is? . . . since he seems to agree that debating me is like "fishing in a barrel," why not let all his Envoy readers see this as well? . . . surely the best way to prove I am such a push-over as a debater would be to engage me directly in the pages of his own magazine, right? That way his own audience would see just how good a debater he is and how bad I am. So, I am offering to help Mr. Madrid do that. I will gladly engage him in a written debate in the pages of Envoy on the exegesis of the key Petrine texts, Matthew 16:17-18, Luke 22:31-32, and John 21:15-18 (the "golden texts" of St. Peter's basilica). We can spread the discussion out over four issues, covering each passages, and even have interaction on the preceding texts, too! I would love to do this after my debate this fall with John Dominic Crossan. And I'm certain Mr. Madrid will jump at the chance.

Finally, let's cite one more example of White's blatant hypocrisy. Remember how he has just decided to ignore my elaborate, lengthy argument in reply to his, when you read these words:

Now, in case debating the Petrine texts is a bit too ambitious, how about the exegesis of 1 Cor. 3:10ff, in light of Madrid's article found here? [link] The interested reader will note that I addressed every single aspect of this article in my debate with Fr. Peter Stravinskas, and in other articles [link] on our website, and that Madrid shows no evidence of knowing anything about those replies. . . . In any case, I look forward to hearing back about Mr. Madrid participating in next year's debate on Long Island and on the written debate in the pages of Envoy.

Pat Madrid ought to consider himself almost singularly blessed that the Great White Anti-Catholic Hope is still willing to debate him! It may or not be worth his time to debate White, based on many considerations (having done so before, he has nothing to "prove", anymore than I do, and it's always a drag dealing with this man, due to his ongoing sophistry and rudeness), but one might argue that the extreme rarity of White showing some intellectual guts and chutzpah for a change is the opportunity of a lifetime, kind of like Halley's Comet coming around.