Sunday, May 02, 2004

Back to Babylon-2

7. Power-sharing in the NT church:

To assert Petrine primacy is also a selective exercise that ignores contrary evidence of a power-sharing arrangement in the Apostolic Church (Acts 15; Gal 2). The Council of Jerusalem presents a hands-on case of the collegial form of NT governance. Both the Apostolate and the eldership are in on the proceedings (Acts 15:6,23). Peter makes a speech (7ff.), then Paul and Barnabas make a speech (12ff.). Paul was not one of the Twelve and Barnabas was not an apostle. Then James hands down the ruling (19ff.). James was neither a member of the Twelve nor of the Apostolate. Yet it is he, and not Peter, who presides and decides. Then the entire church is involved in choosing the delegation (22,25).

Even with respect to the primary Petrine text, Protestants have often pointed out that the prerogatives ascribed to Peter in 16:19 ("binding and loosing") are likewise conferred on the Apostles generally in 18:18. The image of the "keys" (v19a) is used for Peter only, but this is a figure of speech—while the power signified by the keys was already unpacked by the "binding and loosing" language, so that no distinctively Petrine prerogative remains in the original promise. In other words, the "keys" do not refer to a separate prerogative that is distinctive to Peter. That confuses the metaphor with its literal referent.

For that matter, 18:18 doesn’t even limit the disciplinary jurisdiction to the Apostolate or the eldership, for the context has a larger and less structured body in view (vv15-20). As John Meier, a leading Catholic scholar, has observed,
"we should notice that, in this whole process of discipline, there is no intervention by a single authoritative leader. When the church acts authoritatively, it acts as a whole, though Matthew certainly knows the existence of church leaders (Cf. 23:34; 13:52; and of course 16:17-19). For Matthew, church leadership does not swallow up the authority of the assembly of believers acting as one body. That is why Matthew can assign to the local church in 18:18 the power to bind and loose that is given to Peter in 16:19. Whenever the church leader acts, he activates and concretizes the authority which resides in the church as a whole," The Vision of Matthew (Crossroad, 1991), 132.

The collective reference is also an embarrassment when the power to bind and loose is taken as a prooftext for papal infallibility. For if, in 18:17-18, this power extends to the local congregation, then that entirely undercuts papal primacy.

That disciplinary authority extends to the laity is further confirmed by the practice of the Pauline churches (cf. 1 Cor 5:4-5; 6:4).

By way of reply, it is sometimes said that 16:18 has reference to the universal church whereas 18:17 has reference to the local church, so that we can’t equate the Apostolic prerogative with the Petrine prerogative. However, 18:17 also applies to the universal church. The passage (18:15ff.) is dealing with church discipline, which is necessarily a local affair since it addresses individual infractions. But Christ is laying down general norms that are valid in any case of church discipline. There is, therefore, a functional equivalence between the collective identity of the church in 16:18 and the distributive identity of the church in 18:17, for 18:17 presents a paradigm-case.

Catholicism glosses 18:18 by saying that the collective apostolic prerogative in 18:18 must be exercised in consultation with the Petrine prerogative in 16:19. But there is no textual warrant for drawing this connection. It assumes the very point at issue.

The letter of Hebrews is unaccountable on the traditional Catholic claim. According to Raymond Brown, a premier Catholic scholar, this letter was addressed to a 1C congregation in Rome (Cf. An Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday, 1997), 697-701.

This house-church, situated in the imperial capitol, is facing a mortal doctrinal crisis. So why didn’t the author simply refer the matter to the Bishop of Rome? At this early date there can’t have been many congregations in Rome, so this should have fallen under the direct supervision of Peter or his immediate successors. The "Pope’s" administrative responsibilities were quite limited at this time. Or he could have delegated the matter to some deputy under his own roof. So how does an outsider like our author presume to intrude on papal jurisdiction? Instead of addressing a letter to the Hebrews he should have addressed a letter to the Bishop of Rome! Where does he get off trying to intervene on his own authority?

8. Papacy falsified by Petrine texts:

When Catholicism assures us that the promises made to Peter extend to his successors, and that God always makes good on his promises, a natural way of testing the claim is to see if, in actual fact, the papacy makes good on its claim. Now can anyone seriously contend that the Renaissance papacy lived up to the terms of Lk 22:32 or Jn 21:15-17? Instead of feeding the sheep it starved the flock and poisoned the grain. Instead of edifying the brethren, it unsettled their faith.

For that matter, if Jn 21 proves the primacy of the Roman See, why doesn’t the equivalent wording in Acts 20:28 prove the primacy of the Ephesian See (cf. 1 Pet 5:2)?

9. Titular Foundation

If Catholicism is so eager to build its church on the "foundation" of Peter, why has it never made any concerted effort to build on the "theology" of Peter? Why has the actual teaching of Peter in Acts and the Epistles figured so little in the development of Catholic doctrine? Why does the Roman Church lay exclusive claim to the name of Peter but ignore his teaching? Isn’t it a pretty empty claim to erect a grand edifice on the name of Peter while leaving his doctrine out on the sidewalk?

10. Vicar of Christ or Antichrist?

Mt 16 actually presents a dilemma for the Catholic apologist, for if we
Identify the Petrine office with the papacy on the basis of v18, then—by parity of argument —we ought to identify the Antichrist with the papacy, based on the malediction of v23. Catholic theology has penned entire libraries on v16 while remaining strangely silent on v23.

VIII. Denial of Ipsissima verba:

Trent and Vatican I were based on a precritical view of Scripture. But Vatican II has loosed this requirement and allows for a critical view of Scripture. Continued appeal to the words of Jesus when the ipsissima verba or even the ipsissima vox of Christ in the Gospels is denied is duplicitous and disingenuous.

IX. False Decretals:

Yet this is characteristic of Rome. For example, the Roman See acquired no small measure of preeminence by playing up the False Decretals. Yet even after the fraud was exposed several centuries ago, Rome has yet to relinquish her ill-gotten gain. If Rome had any sense of honor, she would vacate the premises, now that the spurious character of the title-deed is plain for all the world to see. But indicted of trespassing, she puts in a plea for squatter's rights. Lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead; if you're caught red-handed, mouth an apology after the fact; but keep the loot. Is this the policy of the true church, founded by Jesus Christ?

Let the Church of Rome have her marble and brocade; let her take away all the fine china and silverware—if it means so very much to her. As for me and my house, we have no abiding city here-below, but seek a better country above (Heb 11).

X. Dynamic tradition:

Nowadays a Catholic scholar or theologian would admit that recognition of papal prerogatives was a gradual affair. But this reasoning has got matters exactly backwards. The closer in time we come to Peter and his immediate successors, the more surely we should expect an acknowledgement of their divinely ordained status, for who would be better positioned to know than contemporaries of the Apostle? Indeed, this is a standard rule of historical evidence. It’s a patent ploy to reverse the standard of evidence and pretend that the absence of full recognition—or any recognition—early on is somehow consistent with the original claim.

Rahner concedes that the form of the Roman Church, with its monarchal episcopate and Petrine office, is the result of frozen historical accidents rather than a direct dominical institution:
"this community has its origins in Jesus and in this sense was founded by Jesus even if in the course of its development and through historical decisions this community adopts structures that are selected from a broad range of genuine possibilities which are possible in themselves and in the abstract, but structures which are nevertheless irreversible and binding on future epochs...These structures can be understood this way even if they cannot be traced back to a specific, unambiguous and historically identifiable saying of Jesus which founds them," Foundations of the Christian Faith, 331.

" is not basically and absolutely necessary that we would have to trace back to an explicit saying of Jesus the more concrete structures of the constitution of the (Catholic) church which the church now declares are always obligatory," ibid., 332.

"...It is ultimately unimportant whether this or that element of the church as it is being formed in apostolic times can be traced more or less directly back to the historical Jesus, or whether it is to be understood as a historical but still irreversible decision of the church which lies within the genuine possibilities of the original church...we grant her merely the possibility of free and accidental changes depending on the concrete situation in which she finds herself, and no one denies this," ibid., 332

But this is a classic case of redefining the terms of victory in the face of defeat. Having lost the historical argument, which was the original rationale, he would have us believe that this never made any difference. Traditionally, the monarchal episcopate, Roman primacy, and papacy were justified as a direct dominical ordinance. Rahner switches from an Athenian to a Darwinian defense after the jury has returned its verdict. Sorry, but it's time to pass sentence—a sentence of guilty as charged.

Yet another problem with moving the boundary stone is that two can play at this game. If historical contingencies can acquire normative force, then this justifies a Protestant polity as much as it does the rise of Rome.

Although the Magisterium is traditionally defended on theological grounds, this is in the nature of an ex post facto justification that has nothing to do with its historical origins. The Roman church came of age during the era of authoritarian government. Hence, the Roman hierarchy parallels the political command-structure of the day. The Pope takes the place of the emperor while the episcopate takes the place of the patriciate or nobilitas. The point is not whether this is good or bad, but it's clearly a culture-bound arrangement, having no more authority than any other culture-bound arrangement.

XI. Apostolic succession:

Catholicism has insisted on a seamless succession from Peter all the way down to the latest papal incumbent. This is in the nature of a historical claim. Yet it defies historical verification.

1. Without NT precedent:

There is no precedent for apostolic succession. Although Mathias was chosen to replace Judas, no one was chosen to replace James (Acts 12:1). So it was a temporary institution rather than a dynasty.

2. Impediments to valid ordination:

Since there is only one sacrament of holy orders—and how this allows for three gradations is itself a point of tension in Catholic theology—I assume that a prerequisite for being a valid pope is that the candidate must have been a valid priest—if not bishop. Yet there exists a large class of irregularities or impediments to the right reception of holy orders. And this gets to be quite dicey since many of these disqualifying conditions are indetectable. For instance, it is stated that "the lawful reception of Orders demands outstanding and habitual goodness of life, especially perfect chastity. Solid possession of this latter virtue is an indispensable condition of a clerical vocation and its presence must be positively evident," New Catholic Encyclopedia, 7:89a.

For my own part I find myself at somewhat of a loss in knowing how exactly the Roman Church proposes to verify the satisfaction of the prerequisite conditions, viz., "Mere conscious rejection or unconscious repression of sexuality is not chastity, for neither constitutes a moral moderation of sexuality but only warps and frustrates it," ibid., 3:516a."

What is the positive evidence for male virginity? How do you verify the presence of a privative condition? And is the church even privy to the subliminal state of mind of the prospective candidate?

3. Rigged elections:

Regarding the election of popes, another authority candidly admits that
"From the 4th to the 11th century the influence of temporal rulers in papal elections reached its zenith. Not only the Roman emperors but also, in their turn, the Ostrogoth kings [who, we might add, were outright pagans]...attempted to control the selection of the Roman pontiff. This civil intervention ranged from the approval of elected candidates to the actual nomination of candidates (with tremendous pressure exerted on the electors to secure their acceptance), and even to the extreme of forcible deposition and imposition," ibid., 11:572b.

In other words, many of the papal elections were rigged. Consider as well that what we learned about holy orders also applies to the papal electorate. Wouldn’t a papal election be invalid if the margin of votes putting him over the top were cast by cardinals (or bishops) whose own ordinations were invalid due to one or more of the many impediments and irregularities above mentioned? When one begins to factor in what percentage of the upper clergy during the Renaissance fulfilled the condition of "habitual goodness of life," the margin of doubt amounts to more than just bare possibilities, doesn’t it? Again, this also applies, not merely to the recipient, but to the officiating minister as well—"the sanctity and dignity of the Sacrament [of holy orders] demands for its lawful and worthy administration that the minister be in a state of grace, free of ecclesiastical penalties," ibid., 7:88a.

And if that were not enough, wouldn’t an antipope further corrupt the electoral process by whom he elevated to the College of Cardinals or consecrated to the episcopacy—some of whom would be promoted to the College of Cardinals by his successor? For, as an antipope, all his official acts would have been unlawfully exercised—yet it was confessed that the quality of sources prevents us from deciding in certain cases which was pope and which anti-pope.

4. The Great Schism:

In an entry under "Antipope," one authority freely grants at the outset how "it must be frankly admitted that bias or deficiencies in the sources makes it impossible to determine in certain cases whether the claimants were popes or anti-popes," ibid., 1:632. The entire article is quite informative.

Cardinal Ratzinger admits that "for nearly half a century the Church was split into two or three obediences that excommunicated one another, so that every Catholic lived under excommunication by one pope or another, and, in the last analysis, no one could say with certainty which of the contenders had right on his side," Principles of Catholic Theology (Ignatius, 1987), 196.

This coming from the Prefect for the Faith, no less! And, as a special case of that impossibility, we might consider the Council of Constance. Now to qualify as ecumenical, a council must be "convoked by the pope...[be] under the presidency of the pope or his personal legate...[and receive] his final approval," NCE 4:373a. But since the very purpose of Constance was to resolve the Great Schism, none of these conditions could be met. And for that reason its canonical status has always been left officially indeterminate, for it confronts the papacy with a hopeless dilemma—Constance can’t be formally ratified without affirming the primacy of council over primate (even apart from the "Sacrosancta" decree), while it can’t be dismissed without reopening the Great Schism. (Cf. NEC 4:221a,222b-223a)

Let us pause for a moment to take stock of where this leaves us. I’m not talking about the outside chance of a breakdown somewhere along the line. No, the burden is otherwise. Given the number of independent variables that would all have to line up in just the right direction, it's a near certainty that the line of succession broke down on many occasions. And just one breach triggers a ripple effect.

Moreover, this is not just a question of hypothetical odds and imponderables. The state of the record strongly suggests that the succession was, in fact, interrupted and disrupted many times, not only with reference to the Great Schism, but all the rigged elections along the way.

Again, keep in mind that I'm not imposing a standard of my own making in coming to this conclusion. I'm not judging Catholicism by sola scriptura. Rather, I'm applying Catholic criteria to Catholic church history.

And at this point I ask myself, why do devout Catholics go on trusting in the Magisterium with so much evidence stacked against it? I can only imagine that in the back of their minds is the assurance that God just wouldn’t let that happen because God is faithful to his Church and would never allow the worst case scenario to play out.

But if that’s what they’re clinging to, it’s both question-begging and self-defeating. Question-begging because it assumes that there’s no alternative to the Roman Church. Yet God is quite prepared to let a Christian denomination go under. This wouldn’t be the first or last time. Again, what prior reason is there to assume the identity of the Roman Church with the institution founded by Jesus Christ?

Self-defeating because the magisterium was supposed to be the quality control mechanism by which God guaranteed the indefectibility of his Church, and by which the people of God learned his will. But it seems that Catholics are really relying on a providential backup system that operates independently of the magisterium, and secures the indefectibility of the magisterium itself.

But, apart from the magisterium, how would they know that such a providence is operative? Wasn’t the magisterium supposed to be the fail-safe? But if they’re resorting to something ulterior to the Magisterium, and more ultimate than the magisterium, then why not eliminate the middle man altogether?

What’s the source of confidence in this background providence when any such confidence must be prior to the teaching of the Church? And why identify or limit the work of providence to the Church of Rome?

Remember that apostolic succession is not a self-evident proposition. It must be verified by historical, as well as exegetical, evidence. Since one cannot simply intuit the necessity of this office, it lacks any initial presumption in its favor, and must, in fact, dig itself out from under an avalanche of countervailing evidence.

I suspect what is really at work is that Roman Catholics are conditioned to identify God’s promises with their peculiar communion. When awkward objections are raised, they take refuge in this assumed association. But how do they know that those promises belong to their denomination in the first place? Because the magisterium says so? Isn’t that a tad self-serving? How do they know that the promises refer to the magisterium?

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