Sunday, April 10, 2005

Papal bull

We're going to be treated to saturation coverage of Catholicism for six weeks or so. There was the wall-to-wall coverage of JP2's final illness and death. This will be followed by wall-to-wall coverage of the funeral and the conclave. And that will, in turn, be followed by wall-to-wall coverage of the new pope.

This constitutes a free commercial and running advertisement for Catholicism. So I'll take this occasion to briefly explain why I, for one, am not a Catholic.

On the face of it, the comparison between Catholicism and Calvinism, or even Evangelicalism, is pretty invidious. On the one hand you have this sprawling denomination whose membership numbers some 1.1 billion, give or take. By contrast, Calvinism must look like a rather Mickey Mouse affair, consisting in tiny handfuls of believers, scattered hither and yon.

Catholicism is a many-layered thing. Is there some way of getting to the bottom of things?

Every theological tradition is a historical accident. Catholicism is no exception. But Catholicism is a frozen accident.

1. I'd suggest that the historical foundation of Catholicism is sacerdotalism.

This began innocently enough. And at least two factors contributed to that foundation.

i) It was natural for the early church to turn to the upper classes for leadership. Ambrose is a perfect example. He was a Roman aristocrat and provincial governor. This meant, among other things, that he was an educated man, and a man used to giving orders.

The RCC has an aristocratic polity because it came of age during, and was modeled upon, the Roman aristocracy. It is a sacred parallel to the Augustan age.

Roman society was hierarchical, stratified by social class--imperial, patrician, equestrian, plebian, with decurions, peregrini, free men, citizens, and slaves. The elevation of Ambrose to the episcopate was what you might call a horizontal promotion to the sacred counterpart in social rank, just as the patriciate was in charge of the old pagan priesthood. This would not be so bad were it seen for what it is--a culture-bound adaptation.

ii) Another factor in the foundation was the early church's response to heresy and schism. This took the form of a polemical shortcut. Appeal was made to an Apostolic See as the repository of apostolic doctrine.

Again, this began as a fairly innocuous appeal. At the same time, it was naive. After all, most of the NT letters are addressed to churches planted by the Apostles. And yet many their letters are occasioned by some lapse in doctrine and morals. If that could happen to an Apostolic See during the lifetime of the Apostles, it wouldn't take any time for the sub-Apostolic church to go off the rails.

In addition, this apologetic maneuver vested the true interpretation of the Scriptures in the teaching office of the true church. For this reason, Rome can never accept sola Scriptura and the right of private interpretation. To do so would be to concede to heretics and schismatics the right to appeal directly to Scripture.

There is, of course, a regressive or circular quality to the Magisterium. If the true interpretation of Scripture is only to be found in the true church, then where is the true church to be found? Presumably, the true church is true to Scripture. But if you are hereby forbidden to measure the teaching of the church against the yardstick of Scripture, then all that's happened is to resituate the question of a criterion rather than ever answering the question.

And, indeed, it didn't take very long for a rather obvious problem to emerge. For there was more than one Apostolic See. And over time, these began to diverge in doctrine and practice.

So you then have the question of which Apostolic See speaks for the Apostles. Is it Rome? Jerusalem? Antioch? Alexandria? Carthage? Constantinople? Moscow?

Indeed, you even had the question of what see has an authentic claim to apostolicity. For that, too, is a question of tradition, and competing traditions at that.

Enter the False Decretals. The claim of Roman primacy was trumped upon on the basis of what are now admitted on all hands to be forgeries.

Sacerdotalism is committed to apostolic succession. For the authentic transmission of the deposit of faith is contingent on the valid administration of holy orders.

Notice how something that was begun with the best of intentions can take on a life of its own. And there are several essential problems with apostolic succession:

i) It has no Scriptural warrant.

ii) It has no historical warrant.

Consider the Great Schism (1378-1417). Consider rigged papal elections. Remember that you only need one broken link in the chain to invalidate every succeeding link.

iii) And when fraud was insufficient to win the argument, brute force was employed. Consider the Inquisition, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day, Bloody Mary, &c.

The Church of Rome became so big and rich and grand because it was the church of the Roman Empire, of European royalty, of European colonialism, and of all the royal subjects, domestic and foreign, under the heel European rule and European imperialism. That too, is a historical accident, and in many respects a standing won and wrung by might rather than by right--a de facto rather than de jure status.

St. Peter's was erected on the dunghill of the indulgence racket. Imagine the different psychological effect if, instead of the marble and brocade and sheer scale of the thing, this were held in a storefront church in Chicago, with elders dressed in black-and-white business suits!

2. Having laid the foundation, the first floor is sacramentalism.

Sacramentalism builds directly on the foundation of sacerdotalism. To begin with, a priestly caste or class was also ubiquitous in the ancient world. You had it throughout the ANE (e.g., Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine). And there was a pagan precedent in Roman society at the very time the early church was formalizing its polity. Indeed, the papal title of "pontiff" is on loan from the Pontiff Maximus, who was the chief priest at Rome.

if you have a priesthood, then what does a priesthood do? Well, one thing it does is to perpetuate itself by ordaining successors. So the valid administration of the sacraments is a logical corollary of a priesthood.

In addition, it was only natural, under this arrangement, to funnel the grace of God through the sacraments--like a magic potion. Indeed, magic was another fixture of pagan priestcraft. Twas but a short step from a heathen cultus (e.g. Acts 14:13) to the sacrifice of the Mass. It is no great leap of logic to go from belief in magic spells and incantations to the belief, in Russell's words, that a man can change a piece of bread into the Body of Christ by speaking Latin to it.

What we have in Catholicism is a classic case of syncretism, whereby NT concepts and categories were assimilated to preexisting pagan concepts and categories. To some extent, this operates at a subliminal level. A convert associates the new and the unknown with the old and the well-known.

A textbook example is the "conversion" of Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24). Or just consider the seamless transition from patron gods to patron saints, as well as the continuum from Magna Mater to Mater Dei. Superstition is subconscious. When it becomes self-conscious, it ceases to be superstitious. Unfortunately, the Church of Rome has canonized superstition.

Remember that sacerdotalism was, in large part, a rearguard action in response to heresy and schism. So the priesthood functions as the quality control-mechanism to ensure the orderly and reliable dispensation of grace, just as apostolic succession functions as a chain-of-custody to ensure the orderly and reliable transmission of primitive tradition. In theory, that is.

This development is perfectly understandable. But it suffers from a couple of fundamental problems:

i) It is more pragmatic than principled--an artifact of apologetic expediency.

ii) It lacks Scriptural warrant. Indeed, it runs contrary to Scripture.

3. The second floor is penance, Purgatory, indulgences, the cult of the saints, &c.

You see, if grace is funneled through the sacraments, and yet a state of grace is not effected in every recipient, then grace alone saves no one. There must be some x-factor that makes the difference. And the x-factor is freewill.

For Catholicism, it is necessary to strike the right balance between divine grace and human merit. Synergism is taken for granted. The only quibble is over the relative order and percentage points.

When Catholicism reads the Bible, it imposes a sacramental grid on Scripture. The interpretation of Scripture must make room for this antecedent agenda, for freewill, for the merit of man.

4. The third floor of Catholicism is modernism.

The problem with a frozen historical accident is that you cannot foresee the accidental consequences of your prior dogmatic pronouncements. So you need to find some face-saving way of admitted error without appearing to admit error, without losing face.

For example, Catholicism used to stake its claim in oral tradition (at Trent and Vatican I). But, over time, this became unsustainable. It was codified at Trent, but quietly abrogated at Vatican II, to be supplanted by the development of dogma, a la Newman.

Likewise, Catholicism used to affirm the plenary inspiration of Scripture (at Trent and Vatican I), but that was also surrendered at Vatican II. Here I'd say that it bartered an original truth for a subsequent falsehood.

To take another example, the Church of Rome traditionally lays claim to be both the one true church and the universal church. Yet, as a practical matter, the world is not Roman Catholic. The original claim was easier to sustain when the Roman Church was roughly conterminous with the Roman Empire, but over time this provincial outlook became increasingly incredible, even ridiculous. The visible church cannot very well be both inclusive and exclusive in time and place.

The Roman Church barters depth for breadth, barters sanctity and apostolicity for unity and catholicity, and juggles unity with catholicity by lowering the membership bar to ground level. And if its sacraments are, indeed, a means of grace, then why is there such a disconnect between the availability of grace and the assailability of grace?

Having said in Unam Sanctam (1302) that there was no salvation outside the church, Vatican II did an audacious about-face, extending salvation to unnumbered multitudes outside the church (Nostra Aetate).

Likewise, the Pope is said to be infallible whenever he speaks ex cathedra. But this bold claim turns into a vacuous tautology. For whenever the Pope is caught in a palpable error, the original claim is salvaged by saying that he was not speaking ex cathedra. So he's infallible--except when he's fallible, and he's fallible--except when he's infallible. So the claim is made unfalsifiable by rendering it unverifiable as well.

When the Roman Church had temporal power, it used its power to wage war and persecute dissent. Now that the Roman Church is impotent, it makes a virtue of pacifism, mercy, and tolerance.

Calvinism is also a many-layered thing. Is there some way of getting to the bottom of things?

1. The foundation of Calvinism is revelation. For Christianity is a revealed religion. Only revealed truths enjoy dogmatic authority.

2. The first floor of Calvinism is sola Scriptura.

Some critics of Calvinism can't find sola Scriptura in Scripture. That's because sola Scriptura isn't "in" Scripture, as a part or subset of Scripture. Rather, sola Scriptura is the whole of Scripture.

The critic is like a man who can't find his glasses because he's wearing them. He cannot see his own glasses because he sees with them and through them. So he forgets he has them on. Sola Scriptura is correlative with the identity of the Christian faith as a revealed religion, where revelation is progressive and epochal, achieving its denouement in the Christ-Event.

3. The second floor of Calvinism is sola gratia. For a Calvinist, exegesis matters because Scripture, and Scripture alone, is the historical record of historical revelation. And the sovereignty of God is revealed in Scripture. God is sovereign in revelation (sola Scriptura) and redemption (sola gratia) alike.

4. Everything else in Calvinism--the third floor of Calvinism, is erected on this substructure (revelation) and superstructure (sola Scriptura; sola gratia). Calvinism has its own historical accidents. Some of these enjoy Scriptural warrant, and are therefore cemented into the Reformed belief-system. But others are culture-bound, and subject to revision or retirement.

It is, of course, tempting to make ourselves look good by making the other guy look bad. The Calvinist has no cause for complacency. The danger to contemporary Calvinism is the danger to ancient Judaism. Although salvation is of the Jews (Jn 4:22), many Jews were unsaved, and Israel was a poor witness to the world. Just as many Jews lived below their Jewish creed, below their blessings, while many pagans lived above their pagan creed (Rom 2)--many Calvinists live below their Calvinist creed while many Catholics live above their Catholic creed. The elect are a remnant, but to be a remnant is no assurance of election.


  1. Exellent. I'm the choir, but if I were Roman Catholic I can see how I wouldn't want to defend any of that either (speaking of RC apologists)...

    I should say, wouldn't want to defend it on a field grounded in reality and honesty.

    Regeneration is 'the root of the matter' (as Cromwell put it, in between..well, you know Cromwell...)

    Regeneration makes one not only want to know the truth but ABLE to know the truth. What you've described regarding Roman Catholicism can only stand if its adherents don't care about the truth and are not even able to know the truth.

    Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God...

    We can only present the Word of God to them. A farmer can plant a seed, but only God can make it grow...

  2. I know you'll probably read my comment and say, "Yes, but..."

    Because you're a thinker, and you're independent, and you're uncomfortable when someone agrees with you.

    Well. Sorry. Here's some disagreement: your book lists show that you 'might' be a little bit infected with seminaryitis. And all those individual book Bible commentaries... We can get understanding of the whole (see the parts in relation to the whole) without reading a library of commentaries. And, anyway, I'm surprised I didn't see any Witsius or Kline...

    Don't respond. Go back to your piano practice.

  3. Supposing that "sola Scriptura" IS the Scripture, how is it that those who apply it come to such different conclusions about both doctrine and practice? If Rome's approach to authority is invalidated by its errors of application, how is it that sola Scriptura is above such scrutiny?

    Your glasses analogy applies better, IMO, to Holy Tradition than to sola Scriptura. Those who affirm Scripture are affirming the process by which it was written, preserved, assembled, canonized, and defended.

    Just a couple fly-by thoughts,

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  8. Relevant to this discussion are Steve Hays' critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura, "By Scripture Alone," and Blosser's rebuttal, "Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses)."