Monday, June 18, 2007

Lutheranism, Catholic "Absolute" Authority, and Private Judgment



From the comboxes of a post on Josh S.'s Lutheran blog:

Josh S.: The problem with absolute submission to an institution . . .

Who is in "absolute submission"? If Catholic Church dogma all of a sudden proclaims that sodomy is fine (as the Episcopalians have done), I'm out of here tomorrow. If contraception becomes fine and dandy, I'll leave [because that was a central reason that led me to be here in the first place]. It the Trinity is dumped, I'll split pronto. Etc., etc.

That's not absolute at all. But I stay (based on many many reasons; not least of which are biblical ones) because I believe it is the One True Church that truly preserves (because of the supernatural help of the Holy Spirit) the fullness of the apostolic deposit in a way that no other Christian body does. Because that is the case (as we believe) those things do not and will not happen (so we believe ultimately in faith, but firmly based on past precedent).

But if they do change [speaking merely hypothetically and philosophically now], the claim will be wrong, and I'd be one of the first to admit it. The fact that it never has in 2000 years is one of the amazing things that helped me decide to become a Catholic. But it is strongly based on reason; the very opposite of blind faith.

The religious freedom issue [alluded to in Josh's comments] is a long and very complex one. But it is not only our problem; it is yours, too. Setting aside the infallibility thing, you don't get off the hook, because now you have people (the "Reformers") who claimed to be especially guided by God; almost quasi-prophetic, yet they repeated the same errors of killing other Christians.

To me that is every bit as problematic as what you (wrongly) believe our problems to be, because it brings into question the very calling and mission of these so-called "reformers" who claimed to be so knowledgeable over against Catholic tradition, yet couldn't even figure out that it was wrong to drown an Anabaptist or burn a Servetus. So you say, "well. they got that wrong; so what?" But if they could get that wrong, how can we be sure all the innovations and novelties they also introduced are not wrong as well?

It's a long discussion, and I don't have time to really get into it in the depth it deserves, but I wanted to make some comment, anyway.

Someone said this attitude was scarcely different from Luther's. It's rather simple. In that instance, Luther (and even more so, Melanchthon) redefined (and more than that, changed) by completely arbitrary fiat and with no authority whatsoever what had been passed down through history and believed by the Church. He claimed this was patristic belief but it is easy to demonstrate that it was not. Luther was saying:
"If the Church doesn't conform to my [ultimately arbitrary], groundless revision of what it has always taught on soteriology (cuz I got a direct line to God and unique insight on biblical evidences), then I am outta here."
But my (the Catholic) view is completely different:
"if the Catholic Church changes a doctrine that had always been authoritatively taught (and this, able to be demonstrated through historiography), and starts pronouncing evil good (as many Protestants do with divorce, almost all with contraception, and the Anglicans and others with sodomy), then I shall conclude that she is not what she claims to be, and promptly leave."
Luther simply couldn't demonstrate (hardly even tried) that his novel soteriology was the heritage of the early Church, let alone uninterrupted succession, whereas I can easily demonstrate that all Christians opposed contraception as grave evil before 1930, that the early Church was quite opposed to remarriage after divorce, and did not teach a host of 16th century Lutheran novelties, etc.

All I'm doing is what the Fathers did: appealing to apostolic succession (in effect, history). I'm applying St. Vincent's dictum: "everywhere, always, by all" or however it goes. The same exact source where that famous line comes from (Commonitorium) is also the most explicit patristic witness to the development of doctrine. Cardinal Newman began his analysis right there.

At that point, it isn't all that difficult to determine what Church has continued an unbroken line of apostolic succession (with development presupposed, as St. Vincent, St. Augustine and others assume).

It's the very opposite of private judgment. The Catholic accepts the claim that the Catholic Church carries on the ancient apostolic succession and sacred Tradition in its fullness. I was received into the Church in 1991. I didn't have everything worked out to a tee back then. But I knew enough to accept in faith that the Catholic Church was the One True Church, and to accept its authority. That's not Luther's private judgment at all.

The Catholic who accepts this in faith can then proceed to do apologetics and give much more full historiographical justification for what he believes. But again, that is not Luther's method. Luther feels he can judge all by himself whether Catholic teaching is wrong. I don't do that. I accept it (in faith, with much reason) for what it is.

Nevertheless, I can imagine a hypothetical where the Catholic Church could be hypothetically shown to be not what it claims to be. Reversing the stance on contraception (the liberal renegade priests and theologians were hoping and praying for that in 1968) or women priests or adopting Open Theism any number of things of that nature would be a deal-breaker and I would be in the place that many devout traditionalist Anglicans are today, trying to figure out how their beloved church could have sunk so low as to sanction extremely serious, soul-destroying sin.

That's not "Protestant"; it's simply being in reality (epistemological or otherwise), just as St. Paul said "if Jesus is not raised from the dead we are of all men most to be pitied." He didn't think that this was the reality any more than I think it is reality that the Catholic Church will fall away from the fullness of truth and start compromising with the world, as virtually all Protestants do in one way or another. But he and I can "theorize" about such things as possible in some conceivable world.

My measuring-rod is that of the Church Fathers. If I am a "Protestant", so are they, but of course that is ludicrous. You [Lutherans] haven't demonstrated that Lutheran teaching is that of the Fathers, over against the Catholic Church. You lose every time you try to make that argument.

Perhaps that is one reason that Lutheran apologists are as rare as pro-life Democrats? It becomes too much of a hassle to war against demonstrable historical truths and so you simply retreat back to fideism, quietism, and "proclamation" and mere polemics?

James White claims I never was a Protestant (when I certainly was one: from 1958 to 1991) and then someone else on this list claimed that I am one "in effect" now (when I am a 100% Catholic, who believes everything that the Church teaches authoritatively).

See how much fun apologetics can be? More fun than a human being should be allowed to have . . . LOL

It remains true, in any event, that no Lutheran (or anyone else) can provide sufficient biblical proof for sola Scriptura. It just ain't there. I have debated this several dozen times. You can't find it. You have to deduce. And how about the canon? Where is that in Scripture? The canon is a developing doctrine, that depends on Church authority and tradition to get off the ground at all.

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