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.