Sunday, April 01, 2012

a response to John C. Wright's apology

The following is an answer to an essay written by John C. Wright, one of his frequent attacks on Protestantism. He starts by explaining why he decided to become a Catholic when he became a Christian.

John, you write:
The existence of icons and statutes likewise meant nothing to me. It was clear even to an outsider that these were objects of reverence but not worship, no more idolatrous than singing a hymn.
The difference is that God does not dedicate a large proportion of the Old Testament to warning about the dangers of hymns, illustrating how singing leads people into sin, and commanding people not to make songs. In fact, singing is occasionally shown as a positive way to give glory to God. By contrast, God does dedicate a large proportion of the Old Testament to warning about the dangers of idols and idolatry, illustrating how idolatry leads people into rebellion against him, and commanding people not to make graven images. And when Aaron creates a golden calf to represent God, it is by no means treated as a positive way to give glory to God. So when the Hebrews built a statue of a calf to reverence as an image of God, it was worthy of mass killing in punishment, but when modern Catholics build a statue of a bearded long-haired man on a cross, that's just fine. This strikes me as somewhat far-fetched.
I was raised Lutheran, and to this day am not sure what the point of the contempt for St Mary
I've never heard Mary treated with anything but respect by Protestants.
So, to me, the only point in contention worthy of consideration was the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
Really? After the Catholic version of the Virgin Mary appeared to you in a vision, that didn't have any effect on your decision?
The paradox is this: the Gospels cannot have more authority, cannot be trusted, more than the Church who wrote it, compiled it, protected and transmitted it, interprets it and teaches from it.
There are two problems with this. First is the problem that you are identifying the Church with a particular centralized organization. Taken in that sense, it is not the case that the church wrote it. There is no evidence that any of the writers of the New Testament deferred to anyone in Rome or expected other believers to defer to anyone in Rome, and evidence that Paul considered himself the equal of Peter who is supposed to be the first pope.

Second, your claim that the Gospels cannot have more authority than the ones who wrote it is dealt with by the doctrine of the inspiration of scripture. According to this doctrine, the authority of the written works does not rest on the authority of the authors but on the fact that God created the scriptures by miraculously inspiring the people who wrote it and compiled it while they wrote it and compiled it. But this inspiration applies only to the scriptures and not to everything they did and said. That is why Peter could write inspired works of scripture even though he had many recorded wrong acts and beliefs.
The usual way out of this paradox is to propose that the Church at one time, the Early Church had the authority to write the Gospel, but since has grown corrupt and untrustworthy
I've never heard a Protestant suggest that way out (although I've had things that I wrote misinterpreted in that way so I suspect this is a misinterpretation that Catholics are prone to). I also don't know of any Protestants who believe there was ever a time when the Church was without error. The acts of the apostles, which describes the first few years of the Church, reveals that there were errors among the leadership.
The error with the argument about Church corruption is Donatism, namely, that if the Church is somehow held responsible for the existence, say, of the Spanish Inquisition, and is said to lack teaching authority on that ground, then once the Spanish Inquisition is disbanded, why does the authority not return? Why did the authority lapse in any territory beyond Spanish control?
The primary source of the Catholic claim to authority is as the unbroken lineage of the apostles. If that lineage was broken by a single evil pope, then why should anyone believe that it was restored in Rome? Why not in Constantinople? Why not in Canterbury? Why not in Lynchburg? Saul and David each just had to commit one sin to have the kingdom taken away from them (in the case of David the sentence was delayed to the time of his grandson).

If the Catholic Church wants to argue about the authority of individual popes, let them make the argument for each pope individually, laying out that pope's history of signs and miracles and the spiritual fruit that he bore. But if you want to argue about the authority of the Catholic Church as an institution then I don't have to prove that every single pope was evil. One example suffices to prove that the Catholic Church as an institution cannot claim special authority.
And since there is no uncorrupted denominations to which to turn in contrast, the question is moot.
If other denominations claimed authority as the Catholics do, in virtue of the very identity of the organization, then this would be true. But those that don't claim authority on such terms cannot be discredited on the same basis.
So we are left with two theories: one is that the Church became heretical beyond redemption at a particular point in time, and the other is that the Protestants are heretics no different from any others
You are leaving out the Protestant theory, which is that the Catholic Church itself is just another heretical branch of the true Church, one that gained political power through contacts in Rome and improperly used that power to lord it over other local bodies of believers and take them over, persecuting and often murdering those who resisted their power grab until they dominated all of Europe (but leading to a schism with the Christians of Asia which weakened Christendom to such an extent that the Muslim takeover was possible) and that the Reformation was simply a throwing off of this wicked religious despotism and a return to the form of Church that Christ had commanded.
What I cannot see is why the Protestant ideas are any more authentic and original than those of other break away sects.
The same may be said of the Catholic Church which is also just another sect. And in fact, the word "Protestant" itself is a bit misleading since it doesn't describe a single school of thought or even a single historical relationship. Some Protestant churches derive from the Reformation, a time when the political power of the Catholic church had waned enough that some groups felt free to follow their conscience and break away from the religious institution which had, to all intents and purposes, militarily conquered them. Then there are the Anglicans which separated simply as part of a power struggle between England and Rome with no real doctrinal dispute involved. Then there were later revivals mostly premised on better adherence to the teachings scripture and more rejection of traditions that were found to be in conflict with those teachings. The result is that except for a few big warts like the Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox, the Church today is organized more like what Christ intended than it has been since the second century --a lose collection of local bodies of believers.
The argument in favor of no Real Presence in the Eucharist or in favor of Sola Scriptura has even less evidence, in terms of proof texts from scripture or Patristic writings, than the argument for Arianism.
I don't know of any argument against the Real Presence in the Eucharist other than the fact that it has no basis in scripture except through a literalism so extreme and silly that even southern fundamentalists scoff at it. But then I don't know of anyone who condemns the Catholic Church on the basis of that doctrine. The worship of false gods gets a much higher billing. As to sola scriptura, I don't know of any Protestants who understand it the way that you do, so I've never seen any Protestant arguments in favor of that version. However, the Protestant doctrines of the inspiration of scripture and of how to test people who claim to speak for Christ, both of those are well-founded in scripture.
Worse, I do see that each and every heresy I’ve looked at in detail, with the sole exception of Gnosticism, the first and oldest, was based on political and cultural considerations
Several things: first, Gnosticism is not the first heresy. That honor probably goes to Thomas and his rejection of the bodily resurrection some two or three hours into the Christian era.

Second, Gnosticism does have cultural considerations. It is almost certainly based on the Greek mystery cults. We know every little about these cults because they were formed around the idea of secret knowledge given only to the elect few, but Gnosticism seems to have been associated with them.

Third, I can name a dozen Catholic heresies that are based on cultural and political considerations. Here are a few: (1) the very idea that the Church, which began in Jerusalem, based on a figure that never set foot in Europe, spread by a group of people, most of whom had probably never been outside of Israel, should be be centered in Rome just because that happened to be the political capitol. (2) The idea that the Church required a central authority: this is something never alluded to in scripture but politically powerful men always want a hierarchy that they can manipulate and control to their own ends. (3) Mary was made into a goddess as a substitute for Diana to appeal to women who converted to Christianity but didn't want to give up their female deity. The images in Catholic churches are just of Greek and Roman idols for people who converted to Christianity but didn't want to give up the comfort of a physical image to pray to.

Fourth, your comment on Lutheranism is not accurate. Martin Luther wanted to reform the doctrine of the Catholic Church, not create an independent organization. That is, his doctrines started out non-political. The schism itself was no doubt effected by politics. It was the political situation that made the German princes willing and able to protect Luther rather than turning him over the Vicar of Christ on Earth to be tortured and murdered in the name of Jesus.
given the painfully obvious weakness of men for heresy, the Church must have a legal process for determining what the Church teaches, such as by General Councils.
So, given the obvious weakness of men for heresy, we should have an institution which is so overwhelmingly powerful, that if it false into heresy, there is no escape from it? I would think that a free-market advocate such as yourself would recognize the importance of leaving men free to make mistakes so that they can also be free to do what is right.

On what grounds do you think that Catholic-controlled councils are better prepared to ferret out God's will than other councils of knowledgeable and spiritual Christians? We have already ruled out the idea that the Catholic Church can claim apostolic authority on the basis of history, so what is left?
So, by all means, let us embrace each in only love, as brothers, despite our differences of opinion.
A noble sentiment, and one that I very much endorse.
Let us also be aware that not just the worldly powers like German princes and English kings want to tear the Church in sunder
But it wasn't German princes and English kings who tore the Church --that honor goes to the Catholic Church which attacked anyone who didn't bow to its will. If the Catholic Church had been willing to act with love and tolerance towards those that it disagreed with then there would have been no need for any schisms.

8 comments:

D. G. D. Davidson said...

f that lineage was broken by a single evil pope . . .

This, again, is Donatism. No one is denying that there have been evil popes, but the evil of a pope does not eliminate the office of pope.

Doc Rampage said...

I don't know what "Donatism" is, but I know that giving a name to an argument is not the same as refuting it.

The Catholic claims special authority of Christ on the basis of its identity as an institution. Therefore, it is reasonable to apply the test of reliability to it as an institution, and the Catholic Church fails that test. You don't get to make up new rules for the test after you fail.

Jeremiah Evans said...

Well, Doc, that's a fine idea. Let's do that, shall we? Institutionally, mind you. Ah, but there the argument is already over, because you are not claiming about institutional inconsistency, but rather personal inconsistency, much as the donatisits did.

Yes, I know that you do not know what that word means, and no, labels are not in themselves arguments. However, the term and the heresy that it names are well documented in the internet. Even see dictionaries have possible explanations (albeit extremely brief and very high level). Since the debate started on Mr. Wright's blog, it is your spinsibili to acquaint yourself with the terms he is using.

But, back to the institutional analysis. The have been bad popes, no argument. Jesus said there would be bad shepherds. But he also said "Simon, I name you Peter (rock) and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

As we look through the ages of popes, there have even been some heretical popes, popes who held belifs contrary to church teaching. They never tried to change church teaching, or if they did try, they were completely ineffective. There were orgies in the Latteran basillica. No pe ever issued a decree that chastity was no longer a tenet of the Church. For an institution with such a rocky history of leadership, it would seem that only that institution while which Christ assured divine protection and longevity would have any chance of lasting 2,000 years with consistent theology.

Institutionally, she shines, in spite of the sorry state of her members.

I have a quick question, if we were to apply your test to Christiantiy in general, institutionally, would it not fail in the same way? Would not the first self proclaimed Christian who committed atrocities cast the entirety of this loosely organized institution? Or at the least the first pastor to commit the same. I fail to see how there is a difference.

Hospital for sinners. Even her leaders.

Doc Rampage said...

(1) I'm not talking about inconsistency I'm talking about evil. The Catholic Church has engaged in enormous evil throughout its history and that is why it has failed the test. I have no idea what you mean when you say "institutionally she shines". Institutionally, she has a horrible, bloody corrupt history.

(2) No, I don't have a responsibility to look up every obscure term someone uses to label my position.

(3) Yes, every Christian institution has had failures (though few as horrible as those of the Catholic Church), but that is only relevant for institutions that claim to be infallible and claim to be the very Church that Christ spoke of. For more humble organizations who only claim to be gatherings of fallible Christians seeking to do God's will, occasional failures do not condemn the organization.

Jeremiah Evans said...

Personal evil is different than teaching. One can teach one thing and do another. It is called hypocrisy, but does not invalidate your teaching ipso facto. Christ told the people to obey the words of the who "say on the seat of Moses," but not to imitate them. They had authority, independent of their personal lives.

In other words, I'm asking how teaching one thing (consistently) and doing another thing invalidates the teaching? That's a non sequitor. If saying one thing and doing another invalidates the authority of the speaker, then Christ was a liar when He told the Jews to obey those who sat upon the seat of Moses but to not follow their example.

Could you explain this apparent dichotomy?

Doc Rampage said...

Christ and the New Testament authors frequently told Christians to obey the authorities. That's not the same as saying that the authorities were teaching correct doctrine.

I don't know what passage you are referring to, but it if Christ told people to obey the Jewish religious authorities and at the same time preached about all of the ways that those authorities were wrong (as he did), then this would tend to prove my point.

So, teaching one thing and doing another does not invalidate the teaching, but it does invalidate any claim to spiritual authority that the teacher makes. Bad teachers can teach good doctrine, but you should not trust bad teachers because they can also teach bad doctrine.

The argument against the authority of the Catholic church based on the evil actions of the Catholic church is not an argument that they are wrong, it is only an argument that they do not have the authority that they claim to have. The arguments that they are wrong follow a different path.

Jeremiah Evans said...

But that's the thing, Doc, is that Christ confirmed their spiritual authority, "because they sit on the Seat of Moses."

He was explicitly confirming their spiritual authority to teach sound doctrine. He confirmed their doctrinal authority, as our righteousness (following of the law) is to exceed that of the Pharisees, who were known for being scrupulously fastidious about observance of the law.

So, since personal holiness is not an indicator of authority (according to Christ), then you still need to show where the rupture was, where the doctrines are that the modern Church teaches as doctrine which conflict with the doctrines found in the early church. I have yet to see concrete examples, anything beyond the claim that such contradictions exist. If you have a concrete example, I would be interested to discuss it.

Doc Rampage said...

Well, you haven't given a citation so I can't check your account of what he said, but even taking you at your word the passage does not say that the doctrines of the Pharasees are correct. That's an unsupported implication that you are adding on top of it.

In opposition to this unsupported implication, we have the question of why Jesus would imply that their doctrinal teachings are sound when he is explicitly contradicting their doctrinal teachings.

As to conflict with the early church, if by "early church" you mean post-New-Testament, then your question is moot because the errors of the Catholic church are in large part exactly the errors that one would expect to come into Christianity during the first couple of centuries, given the culture that Christianity came into. So the fact that those errors appeared early does not support the idea that they are not errors.

If you are talking about the New Testament Church then the examples are abundant. From the idolatry to the priesthood, to the prayer to saints to the godhood of Mary to the mumbling chants for prayers, to the rosary and other charms --all of these came from the pagans and all of them are opposed by scripture.