Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Catholic Authority (Biblical or Overreaching?): Various Aspects Discussed with a Reformed Protestant

By Dave Armstrong (6-8-10)

This dialogue occurred in a combox on the Reformed Protestant-dominated Green Baggins website (starting at comment #341). Reformed elder Jeff Cagle's words will be in blue.

* * * * *

I suspected you would take the umpire analogy in the direction you did.

I’m glad that we’re tracking closely together.

[describing what I thought was my opponent's position] The Catholic Church arbitrarily creates dogma, just like the umpire “created” a fake hit and ruined the perfect game . . . It’s simply not true.

No, I don’t believe for an instant that the RCC arbitrarily creates dogma; any more than umpires arbitrarily ruin games. Quite the opposite: umpires at the pro level (and below) do their best to call balls and strikes, outs and safes, according to their best perceptions of the physics and rules.
Likewise, the RCC tries, I believe, to interpret Scripture in a comprehensive way according to its assumptions.

Good. Thanks for yet another stimulating comment.

So my point was not about arbitrariness, but about fallibility.

We agree, do we not, that conscientious umpires create (or declare) outs and safes; but they cannot create or declare the actual physics of the game.

Of course. I already noted that above.

Joyce made a binding declaration of “safe!”, but he could not change the fact that the ball beat the runner.


Likewise here, a conscientious Pope might declare the meaning of the text; but he cannot change or create the original intent of the author.

No; but he could be guided by God in ascertaining the correct meaning, intent of the author, and of God through the author, by being led by the Holy Spirit, Who is God. There are only about seven texts, by the way, that are required to be interpreted in a certain way by Catholics, as a matter of dogma.

It follows therefore that it is logically possible for RCC interpretation to be in error.

It can be in error if it is not a situation where infallibility applies. We believe in faith (and with much evidence, I would say) that Scripture, Tradition, and the Church all agree: they are harmonious. This is because of the special guidance of the Holy Spirit. It could never happen under the mere power of man alone. It’s God-directed. The Catholic, in the end, is not exercising faith in “the Church” but rather, in a God Who chose to specially guide the One True Church. We believe He is powerful enough to do this, and in fact does do it.

There is a set of facts (the intended meaning of the author); the authority of the RCC cannot change these or create these; therefore, there is no logically necessary connection between the RCC interpretation and the original intent of the author.

Correct. But as I said, the Catholic Church could be led by God to correctly perceive original intent.

I think so far that you would agree, right?

In large part, but with the qualifications noted.

Sorry to move slowly, but I want to be very careful about the argument, which is quite related to canon issues.


Where we have gotten to, then, is this: the argument
(1) The RCC has the authority to make declarations;
(2) The RCC declares that the text means X;
(3) Therefore, the original author intended X.
is fallacious.

I agree. but that is not our reasoning, so it is a non sequitur. This is, rather, a caricature of Catholic authority and relation to the Bible, unfortunately held by many Protestants.


The authority to make declarations, even assuming that the RCC possesses that authority, does not convey correctness to those decisions.

Yes; the Holy Spirit does that; not some alleged “logical necessity.”

There is a set of facts on the ground (original intent), and the RCC’s ability to recognize that set of facts is not grounded in her authority, but in something else.

This is what I mean by saying that an argument from authority is fallacious.

But this is not our argument, so you have accomplished little in critiquing us, if you have not understood how we approach the matter.

(For God, not so: God defines truth, and what He says is true, is automatically true.)

But for anyone else (including the RCC), there is no logically necessary connection between authority and correctness.

What is true in Catholicism, is so because it is true, period, and God guided the Catholic Church to it.

Now, I’m guessing that you might wish to supply an additional premise (that God supernaturally preserves the church from error), that makes the argument above into an inductive argument of some sort. Am I correct? If so, then we’re tracking together. In any event, I’ll await your response.

The preservation by the Spirit is central to the whole scenario of what Catholics believe about the Church. We believe that the Church declares things because they are true (and already were), not that things are or become true simply because the Church declares them to be so. I’ve already shown how this was the case regarding the canon; citing Vatican I and II.

The Church is a servant of truth and Scripture and apostolic tradition.

Fantastic. We seem to be on the same page so far.

That’s what makes for constrictive dialogue: identify common premises and then discuss and work through why conclusions drawn from them differ.

So it is clear, then, that the authority of the church is not the ground for belief.
1) Philosophically (i.e., epistemologically), when closely examined, as a “bottom line” matter, I agree.
2) In terms of rule of faith, Church authority must be placed within the overall framework of Scripture-Church-Tradition. The Church is not proclaiming in isolation (as Protestants often falsely assume with the mythical polemical canard of sola ecclesia, etc.), but in conjunction with; in harmony with Scripture and prior (apostolic, patristic, medieval) Tradition.
3) In a practical sense, for the unsophisticated proverbial “man on the street,” I believe the whole system was designed by God to provide the certitude of faith (another huge topic itself which I don’t have time to delve into, with all else that is going on in this monster thread: see Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Grammar of Assent): “the Church has proclaimed thus-and-so regarding Theological Issue X,” and that is sufficient to end the matter, given a prior commitment in faith to believe that there is such a thing as a Church guided by God and that the Catholic Church is that Church.
The early Protestants (if not, alas, many current ones who have a relatively poor understanding of their own history) thought in the same way when they formulated their confessions: they were dogmatic declarations that were designed to end speculation and disagreement: they declared what was to be believed by those who accepted them. That is the purpose of creeds, confessions, and dogmas for both Protestants and Catholics. But ours possess more authority because we don’t deny that they can be infallible, as you do.

So that is three different ways to examine the same thing: from three separate but related perspectives.

The argument, “The Church teaches X, so it is true” is a kind of short-hand for
(1) The Church dogmatically teaches X
(2) I believe that the Church is infallible in its dogmatic proclamations, so
(3) X is true.
Correct (though I would add to #3: “. . . in the sense that one can achieve a certitude of faith”). It is a proposition of faith, not philosophy, understood in the sense of my #2 and #3 above, whereas the analysis of #1 is in a strictly philosophical realm, where to say that something can “create truth” is an absurdity, since truth already is what it is. We fully agree with you!

and authority really plays no epistemic role here, right? The actual epistemic work is done by the premise of infallibility in dogmatic proclamations.

The epistemic work is done by examining the evidences of Scripture and Tradition that led to the authoritative Church proclamation (things that I do all the time as emphases in my apologetics: showing why we believe as we do in any given matter). So that goes back to my #2 above. Authority has to do with what someone believes. Apologetics and epistemology get into why it is believed: and that is my area and responsibility.

So I’m troubled by the premise of infallibility, on several counts:

(1) What justifies it?

I’ve given many many different biblical reasons above, especially in answering Reed’s question about how the fallible can accept the infallible (#330) and in other comments throughout (many left hanging and uninteracted with).

What justifies an infallible Bible (with which we agree) and sola Scriptura (which we disagree with, and a thing that has never been demonstrated from the Bible alone, as it necessarily has to be, by its own nature)? I have provided a ton of Scripture for a strong, infallible Church authority. I’ve never seen an adequate or compelling proof for sola Scriptura, in many scores of debates about it for twenty years.

You’ve mentioned the preservation of the Church by the Spirit (which I believe in, though probably not in the same way you do), but there are missing links in the argument. Once more, with feeling:
* The Holy Spirit preserves the Church,

* ?????

* So the Church’s dogmatic proclamations are infallible.

What fills in the dots?

Scripture (see #330 above). It is not infallibility and truth that should trouble you, but the perpetual Protestant “quest for uncertainty” and watering-down theological certainty at every turn. You guys want to undermine Scriptural, dogmatic truth by relentlessly questioning it (Luther at Worms). We want to bolster it so folks can know what’s what (and we believe this was God’s will for the Church and every individual Christian: to know the truth and not be in doubt about so many things). That was the biblical, apostolic method, and the patristic and medieval. Yours is the radical innovation of de facto theological relativism and ecclesiological chaos (completely anti-biblical denominationalism).

(2) Why is infallibility so inconsistently exercised? We’ve seen many instances of papal errors in matters both of faith and morals.

Easy to say. Each supposed instance requires a long discussion and there is much misinformation.

If the Pope possesses a property of being able exercise infallibility, then why does he not exercise it more frequently?

Because of the sublime nature of the gift. By its nature it should be relatively infrequent. It is a protection against error: not a positive gift of inspiration. Popes are not prophets.

On the other hand, if infallibility is not a property of the Pope, but a working of the Spirit,

False, unnecessary dichotomy; it is both. The Spirit speaks through the pope (and councils in concert with him also).

then why should we believe that such working of the Spirit is limited to the Pope? We recall that several of the prophets (Amos, e.g.) received the Word of the Lord without any prior sacramental action.

It is in terms of being binding on others. This is essentially the distinction we make between private and public revelation, with the latter being binding upon all.

(3) Related to (2), why should there be a continuity of infallibility?

So that people can continue to know and be guided by truth. Why should the Bible be infallible today as it was 2000 years ago? Obviously, because we still need that authority.

Paul and Peter were moved by the Spirit in writing Scripture; but there was no continuation of Scripture-writing. So even if I were to hold, say, Gregory V’s pronouncements to be infallible, what would guarantee that, say, Leo VII’s pronouncements were also infallible?

It is a matter faith of faith, supported by reasoned defenses of non-contradiction throughout history. Catholics have faith that God is powerful enough (and that He wills) to guide a Church of live human beings throughout history and protect it from doctrinal error when it makes binding dogmatic proclamations for all. Protestants lack the faith that God can and would do that.

We have a much greater sense of God’s ongoing sovereignty and majesty and power and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I would say. It takes more faith to believe as we do, but God is without doubt (being omnipotent) able to do as we believe. The only question is whether in fact He chose to do so. We think He did, and we believe that by consistently applying much Scripture that suggests (and I say, virtually proves) it.

(4) If much of the entire church (EO, Protestant) fails to acknowledge papal infallibility, can that doctrine really be said to be a part of the tradition of the church?

Of course, because the roots of it go all the way back. Orthodox and Protestants chose to depart from the mainstream biblical, apostolic, patristic Tradition. That has no bearing on what the legitimate ecclesiological tradition (including the papacy) was. The Orthodox (before they split off) recognized conciliar infallibility and (many of their eminent figures) papal supremacy. Even since the split many still recognize Petrine and papal primacy. Even some Protestants do that (particularly traditional Anglicans and some Lutherans).

My summary:

(1) The RCC claim to authority vacillates between a formal acknowledgment that authority cannot create truth and a pragmatic framework that rests on its supposed ability to create authoritative declarations of the truth.
This is incoherent.
(2) The authority of Rome, to whatever extent it exists, is no ground at all for believing in the accuracy of its teachings.
[(3) -- where we were going ... The addition premises needed to fill in the argument for RCC authority all rest upon either (a) a fallible judgment of history; or (b) an acceptance of the RCC's interpretation of history. In neither case do we arrive at a justified belief that "The church teaches X; therefore X is true."]

A final thought: Dave, I’ve enjoyed our conversation, and I’m sorry for the long-windedness. You said above that your position requires greater faith. I’m reminded of Jesus: “Which is more difficult: to say, “Your sins are forgiven”? or to say “Get up and walk”?”

I ask you: which requires more faith: to believe that the unity of the church rests on everyone joining your team? Or to believe that God will in His own way bring about the unity of the church by convincing men of the truth through the word?

I think this is a false dilemma that doesn’t require a choice of one or the other, because I believe (in faith but with many supporting reasons) that the Catholic Church is indeed already (uniquely, fully) in unity with the truths of the Divine Word of revelation and with apostolic tradition: therefore unity would involve coming closer to both entities (Church and Scripture, as well as Apostolic Tradition.
In other words, your very query presupposes Protestant “either/or” categories that I reject as unbiblical and unreasonable. So I deny the premise involved in your question.


iwka said...

Could you direct me to the order of your posts, other articles online and/or books that discuss the canon of the Bible, mainly the New Testament?

Not to scholarly language (if possible, but I am ready for it all if I must), but through information in one place with most/all of the aspects of the Protestant vs. Catholic view?

Dave Armstrong said...

Sure. My own articles on the topic are collected in the relevant section of one web page:

The Bible, Tradition, Canon, and Sola Scriptura


Sophia's Lover said...

All due respect, Dave and others, this is the second time i have written and received no response in return, the first in relation to abortion. Now I do not intend to imply that this was intentional,
but I'd appreciate some commentary on my question regarding relativism and its relation to nontheism. This is especially offensive and hurtful, as I never cease telling others how brilliant I find Dave to be, as well as others on this blog, and how I always refer those having difficulty with Christianity/Catholicism in particular to Dave and blog members
Perhaps you are pressed for time or I have done something wrong; in either case, I apologize.

P.S. Let it be known that I extend my hand in genuine friendship to Dave and his fellow blog members, and would always defend you all whenever the need arises.


Dave Armstrong said...

Perhaps you are pressed for time or I have done something wrong . . .

The former. As you can see from the post at the top of my blog, I have to do lots of things besides posts on this blog, in order to feed my family: products that bring some money in. I have to make a living somehow, and I do it by writing and apologetics. But the 2500+ articles here are absolutely free for anyone to read.

What is the specific question you asked, and what does it have to do with this thread? I saw some others responding to you, and assumed that your question had been answered.

Dave Armstrong said...

And I do appreciate your kind words, and you are always welcome here, my friend.

Sophia's Lover said...

Well, if you'll go back to the thread on atheism, etc., you'll see that I'd written some reflections on nontheist ''de-converts'' and their (in my opinion) hasty adoption of moral and religious relativism upon becoming such, and invited some commentary on them. By the way, I'm aware of your financial struggles and was speaking of yesterday when I made the comment about your being pressed for time.