Saturday, April 16, 2005

A house divided

Randy Gritter, who hobnobs at Armstong's blog, as well as having his own blog, has posted the following comment on my blog:

<< Catholics have their fights for sure. I could post so much protestant dirty laundry but I won't bother. The key question: "Is there any way to know for sure who is right?". Don't say the bible because everyone has a reasonable biblical basis for their belief.
The catholics at least have a history that ties them to Jesus. They have a consistent teaching that affirms not only the bible but the church as a covenant community for all generations. Should be obey better. Yes. Still catholics have to obey God. Protestants can always just reject a doctrine they don't like. The just redefine obedience to be whatever they like. Some theologian has always written some exegesis to give you biblical cover. >>

These are fair questions that merit straight answers.

1. Is the RCC consistent in its teaching? To quote something I said in my essay on "Back to Babylon-3,"
<< i) In the papal Bull "Unam Sanctam," Boniface VIII declared there to be only one true Church, outside of which there is to be found neither salvation nor the remission of sin, and he identified this Church with the Roman communion in particular since he went on to conclude, by way of consequence, that it is altogether necessary to one’s salvation to be in submission to the Pope. This position came to be codified at the councils of Florence and Lateran IV. Similarly, the Tridentine faith, as well as the oath of papal primacy (Vatican I) are both imposed on pain of damnation. Likewise, Pius IX, in his Syllabus of Errors (3:17; cf. 3:15-16,18), denies that a good hope is to be held out for the salvation of those who are not members of the true Church.
When, however, we turn to Vatican II (Lumen Gentium 16; Gaudium et spes 22; Nostra Aeta 3); or John-Paul II’s book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope; or Cardinal Ratzinger's book, God and the World, every allowance is made for the possible and actual salvation of an indefinite number of non-Catholics and even non-Christians. And, in this, the Pope and the Prefect are merely parroting the universalism of Rahner and Urs von Balthasar.
ii) In the Council of Trent, "Sacred Tradition" is equated with an oral tradition that traces directly back to the words of Christ and the Apostles (Decree on the canonical scriptures). For the Tridentine debate, cf. D. Wells, Revolution in Rome (IVP 1972).
That distinction is reaffirmed in Vatican I. Pius XII draws the same distinction in a major encyclical (Humani generis [21]).
But by the time we get to Vatican II, the two-source model does a diplomatic disappearing act as we watch Sacred Tradition morph into a fluid and dynamic principle that is identified with the progress of dogma — scarcely distinguishable from the magisterium itself (Dei Verbum 8-10). The same tactic is on display in Ratzinger's defense of the Assumption, which is a model of historical revisionism. Cf. Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 (Ignatius, 1998), 58-59.
iii) The traditional teaching of the magisterium repeatedly and emphatically affirms the plenary inspiration of Scripture—extending to its factual inerrancy—in opposition to Modernism. Cf. Vatican I; Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors; Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus; Pius X, Lambentabili; Pascendi; Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus; Pius XII, Humani generis.
But in a watershed encyclical (Divino afflante Spiritu), Pius XII made allowance for a form of genre criticism that opened the door a dehistorical reading of Biblical narrative, and by the time we arrive at Vatican II, only a version of partial inspiration is affirmed, limiting inerrancy to those truths that God has confided in Scripture "for the sake of our salvation (Dei Verbum 11)." Cf. Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, H. Vorgrimler, ed. (Herder & Herder, 1969), 3:199-246.>>

Here we have three fundamental issues. Who is saved? What is tradition? Is Scripture inerrant? And here we see, not a logical development of dogma, but a complete reversal. At this reversal occurs at the magisterial level. Indeed, I've even given some examples from the extraordinary magisterium (ecumenical councils), which is supposed to be infallible and irreformable, right? Modern Catholicism is a house divided, and the cracks occur at the foundation, not just the upper stories.


i) Does everyone have a reasonable biblical basis for what they believe? I rather doubt that Randy is such a radical relativist as all that. The fact that everyone can appeal to Scripture does not imply that every argument is equally good.

ii) I'd add that this sort of objection, if it is indeed a problem for sola Scriptura, is at least as much of a problem for Sacred Tradition. What is the difference between exegeting Scripture, and exegeting the catechism, or Vatican II, or a papal encyclical?

iii) As to the general question of religious certainty, let us be careful that we don't fall into the trap of imposing an artificial standard on ourselves. We are not duty-bound to be equally certain about everything we believe. Our duty is not to certainty, but to God and to whatever he requires of us. God does not oblige us to be infallible. God holds us responsible for what we're supposed to believe, and he supplies evidence sufficient to oblige our belief, but he doesn't oblige us to be equally sure of every answer to every question. Duty and certainty are not the same thing.

I've offered a more detailed answer to this challenge in my 2-part essay on "Ten objections to sola scriptura."

3. Anyone can reject any doctrine he doesn't like. But there are grave consequences for flouting our duty to God. We cannot reject the judgment of God.

4. Do Catholics have a history that ties them to Jesus? This is such a compressed statement that it's hard to know what to make of it. Perhaps Randy has in mind something he posted on Armstrong's blog:
<< he [that's me!] gives a history [in my "Papal bull" post] of the first 1500 years of the church from an almost totally natural perspective. That is fine if you are an atheist. But he isn't. He believes in God. Still he believes that the entire church got corrupted and drifted deeper and deeper into corruption over the years. So why didn't the Holy Spirit do anything? He doesn't address this. What about individuals like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Polycarp, etc. Were they all corrupt? Why didn't they speak out against this corruption? >>

i) First things first. There's an equivocation of terms here. It is grossly anachronistic, from a Protestant perspective, to classify Polycarp as a Roman Catholic in the same sense that Aquinas is a Roman Catholic, or to classify Aquinas as a Roman Catholic in the same sense that Rahner is a Roman Catholic.

From a Catholic viewpoint, Rome is this continuous stream, whereas the Protestant Reformation is a tributary. But from a Protestant perspective, Romanism and Protestantism share a common stream, and both fork off into tributaries at the Reformation, with Rome going in one direction at Trent, while the Protestant parties go off in a few other directions--Reformed, Lutheran, Anabaptist, Anglican. At the risk of oversimplification, the Catholics went with Augustine's doctrine of church and sacrament, while the Protestants went with his doctrine of sin and salvation. And just as there's been additional diversification within the Protestant movement since the Reformation, Vatican II marks yet another abrupt break with the past.

5. In terms of church history, Calvinism affirms a measure of continuity as well as discontinuity. This is based on the OT doctrine of the remnant, which carries over to the church (e.g., Mt 7:14; 22:14; 25:32; Rev 2:19).

There was a remnant in the Medieval church. I have no particular reason to deny that there is a remnant to be found in contemporary Catholicism--just as there was a remnant within apostate Israel. And the principle of the remnant applies to Protestant denominations as well, which comprise a mixed multitude of elect and reprobate.


  1. Thanks for replying. As far as consistent goes you will always find superfical contradictions. People document long lists of biblical contradictions yet we believe scripture is inerrant. Why? Because of faith. Can we have this same faith that the Holy Spirit continues to lead his church into truth just as Jesus said he would? We can. The problem is then we can't pick our own doctines. Being catholic is a surrender of your will to God.

    Am I a radical relativist? No. I believe it logically follows from Sola Scriptora. I reject both. You don't so I believe you are being illogical. It is very differant from interpeting sacred tradition because the church is a living community. You can't say the church says x when the church is right there saying y.

    As for accepting uncertainty, how much can you accept? There is a core of beliefs that we need certainty about. My experience is that the core is bigger than most think. The church needs to define that core and leave freedom about the rest. That is why we have dogma. If we lose certainty about critical things then we end up with the idea that absolute truth is unimportant, unknowable, or even an illusion. That idea is common today and it is the fruit of the reformation.

    If anything can belearned from the last 500 years it is that the reformation was a complete, total, and unconditional failure. It weakened the church by splitting into thousand of competing "truths". It caused much bloodshed. It has created a long downward moral spiral especially in Europe and North America. It has removed the connection between us, Jesus, the scriptures, and the new testament church. It's all rooted in 3 words: "I am right".

    It is very hard to beleive that God could create a church that knows more than you do. We can believe the Red Sea and the resurection much easier. We just need to get over our own egos and bow before God.

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