I wouldn’t ordinarily be bothered with Dave Armstrong’s trifles. However, Victor Reppert has plugged one of Armstrong’s articles, so I’ll comment on it, even though Armstrong has nothing original to say on the subject, and I’ve addressed this topic ad nauseum.
“Most conservative, classical, evangelical, ‘Reformation’ Protestants agree with Luther’s sentiments above totally or largely and hold to the view that—when all is said and done—the Bible is basically perspicuous (able to be clearly understood) in and of itself, without the absolute necessity for theological teaching, scholarly interpretation, and the authority of the Church (however defined).”
This is a caricature of the actual position. Consider the carefully caveated statement of the Westminster Confession:
“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (1.7).
“But what could possibly be imagined as more fatal to this abstract view than more than 20,000 denominations?”
Of course, that inflated figure includes the Roman Catholic denomination.
“Yet Protestant freedom of conscience is valued more than unity and the certainty of doctrinal truth in all matters (not just the core issues alone).”
I’m not a Protestant because I value freedom of conscience. This is simply a question of how God has chosen to govern his covenant community. When Armstrong sees “20,000 denominations,” he’s aghast. He’s scandalized. He’s horrified.
He’s like a child who disapproves of his parents’ childrearing methods. When he grows up, he’s going to do a better job of raising his own kids. His kids will never bicker with each other.
When I see “20,000 denominations,” I say to myself, I guess God wants a world with 20,000 denominations! And if that’s good enough for God, then that’s good enough for me.
Ultimately, this is God’s world, not mine. It’s none of my business how God conducts his business. If God wants a world with “20,000 denominations,” I’m game with that. Who am I to take issue with God’s administration of the universe? I’m just along for the ride.
Unlike Dave, I don’t think I could to a better job of running the world than the Almighty. I actually think that God has a pretty good idea of why he does what he does. And I don’t think the world would function any better if David Armstrong sat in the big chair for a day. In fact—and forgive me for saying this—but I suspect that things might work out rather less well if Armstrong were God for a day.
I’m a Protestant, not because I value freedom of conscience, but because I’m resigned to reality. God hasn’t directed us to the church of Rome as the wellspring of doctrinal truth.
“The inquirer with newfound zeal for Christ is in trouble if he expects to easily attain any comprehensive certainty within Protestantism.”
I don’t stipulate to a prior expectation regarding religious certainty. We are entitled to as much certainty as Scripture has entitled us to, under the conditions stated in Scripture.
Let’s remember, though, that the Church of Rome explicitly denies that a Catholic can ordinarily enjoy the assurance of salvation. So if your looking for certainty, then the Church of Rome has already opted out of that particular quest. Look elsewhere.
“All he can do is take a ‘head count’ of scholars, pastors, evangelists, and Bible Dictionaries and see who lines up where on the various sides of the numerous disagreements.”
This is a really stupid statement. What a reader can do is see which side has the best argument. If Armstrong lacks confidence in the power of rational persuasion, then why is he a Catholic apologist?
“Or else he can just uncritically accept the word of whatever denomination he is associated with.”
And sometimes a Christian will find himself in that situation. Depending on when and where he’s born, his opportunities may be severely limited. It’s often a historical accident that you’re a Lutheran or Baptist or Anglican or Abyssinian or Presbyterian or Russian Orthodox or Catholic or Pentecostal. Catholicism is not exempt from cultural conditioning. And it’s not as if a Catholic longshoreman has worked his way through the Five Ways of Aquinas or subjected the Great Schism to searching historical scrutiny.
Mind you, I think that divine providence is guiding these historical “accidents.”
“In effect, then, he is no better off than a beginning philosophy student who prefers Kierkegaard to Kant—the whole procedure (however well intentioned) is arbitrary and destined to produce further confusion.”
Well, since Armstrong is so bothered by doctrinal confusion and “20,000 denominations,” I’m prepared to meet him halfway. If he’ll drop Catholicism along the other high-church traditions, then I’ll drop all Protestant denominations except for Calvinism. That way we’ll just have one big Reformed denomination. Perhaps he can email Richard Neuhaus while I email Timothy George and we’ll see how far we get with our initial overtures.
“The usual Protestant reply to this critique is that denominations differ mostly over secondary issues, not fundamental or central doctrines. This is often and casually stated, but when scrutinized, it collapses under its own weight. Protestants will often maintain that the Eucharist and baptism, for instance, are neither primary nor essential doctrines. This is curious, since these are the two sacraments that the majority of Protestants accept. Jesus said (John 6:53): Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. This certainly sounds essential, even to the extent that a man’s salvation might be in jeopardy. St. Paul, too, regards communion with equally great seriousness and of the utmost importance to one’s spiritual well-being and relationship with Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:14-22, 11:23-30). Thus we are already in the realm of salvation - a primary doctrine. “
i) Of course, this is tendentious. Armstrong is simply presuming the Catholic interpretation of his sacramental prooftexts. Needless to say, many Protestants would deny his interpretation. So he’s generating a specious inconsistency by imputing to them an interpretation which they would reject in the first place.
ii) Moreover, his tactic his at odds with his own theology. Modern Catholicism doesn’t take the position that you can’t be saved unless you’ve been baptized or attend Mass. In modern Catholicism, you don’t have to be Catholic to be saved. You don’t have to be Christian to be saved. So Armstrong is dissembling.
“Protestants also differ on other soteriological issues…These are questions of how one repents and is saved (justification) and of what is required afterwards to either manifest or maintain this salvation (sanctification and perseverance). Thus, they are primary doctrines, even by Protestant criteria.”
Armstrong is equivocating. There’s a difference between what God must do to save you and what you must believe that God must do to save you. Christians can be saved despite a certain amount of defective theology. It’s ultimately a question of whether the individual is regenerate or unregenerate.
“The same state of affairs is true concerning baptism, where Protestants are split into infant and adult camps. Furthermore, the infant camp contains those who accept baptismal regeneration (Lutherans, Anglicans, and to some extent, Methodists), as does the adult camp (Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ). Regeneration absolutely has a bearing on salvation, and therefore is a primary doctrine.”
Once again, Armstrong is equivocating. Regeneration is essential to salvation. And if baptismal regeneration were true, then baptism would be essential to salvation. But if baptismal regeneration is false, then baptism is inessential to salvation. And “accepting” baptismal regeneration doesn’t make a primary doctrine.
“Scripture seems to clearly refer to baptismal regeneration in Acts 2:38 (forgiveness of sins), 22:16 (wash away your sins), Romans 6:3-4, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Titus 3:5 (he saved us, . . . by the washing of regeneration), and other passages.”
One of the reasons we needed a Reformation was to emancipate ourselves from this sort of Mickey Mouse prooftexting.
“The doctrine of baptism in particular, as well as other doctrinal disputes mentioned above, illustrate the irresolvable Protestant dilemma with regard to its fallacious notion of perspicuity. Again, the Bible is obviously not perspicuous enough to efficiently eliminate these differences.”
So what? How does that pose a dilemma for the Protestant? There were doctrinal disputes in the time of Jesus. It isn’t God’s will to eliminate all these differences. If God had wanted more doctrinal unity, he could jolly well have made a world with more doctrinal unity. He had plenty of possible worlds to choose from. But he chose to create this world. This messy world of ours. God obviously values some things more highly than doctrinal unity. So he created a world to reflect his scale of values. I can live with that. Dave cannot. I think that God got the world he wanted—complete with “20,000 denominations.”
“Unless one arrogantly maintains that sin always blinds those in opposing camps from seeing obvious truths, which even a ‘plowboy’ (Luther’s famous phrase) ought to be able to grasp.”
Since I’m not a Lutheran, I’m not bound by Luther’s formulation of perspicuity. For that matter, I don’t think that Lutheran’s feel honor-bound by every word that fell from Luther’s lips. You need to turn to the Lutheran confessions if you’re going to critique official Lutheran theology.
“Obviously, an authoritative (and even infallible) interpreter is needed whether or not the Bible is perspicuous enough to be theoretically understood without help. Nothing could be clearer than that. Paper infallibility is no substitute for conciliar and/or papal infallibility, or at least an authoritative denominational (Creedal / Confessional) authority, if nothing else.”
There was no Pope in OT times. No ecumenical councils back then. There was no Pope during the Intertestamental Period. No ecumenical councils back then. There was no Pope when Jesus walked the earth. Or ecumenical councils. How did the people of God survive for all those centuries without the Magisterium? God had other arrangements.
“The conclusion is inescapable: either biblical perspicuity is a falsehood or one or more of the doctrines of regeneration, justification, sanctification, salvation, election, free will, predestination, perseverance, eternal security, the Atonement, original sin, the Eucharist, and baptism, all ‘five points’ of Calvinism (TULIP) and issues affecting the very gospel itself—are not central. Protestants can’t have it both ways.”
Actually, we can have it both ways since Armstrong’s “inescapable dilemma” is riddled with fallacies.
“Since most Protestants are unwilling to anathematize other Protestants, perspicuity dissolves into a boiling cauldron of incomprehensible contradictions, and as such, must be discarded or at the very least seriously reformulated in order to harmonize with the Bible and logic.”
No, it just means that we regard the church as a family, and members of the same family have been known to disagree with one another. Now maybe that’s alien to Armstrong’s personal experience. Maybe he’s the only child of doting parents. Maybe he’s married to a mousey, wallflower wife. But most of us, who grew up in normal families, have learned by common observation that husbands, wives, and siblings occasionally have a difference of opinion. I know that may come as a shock to someone as insulated from reality as dear old Dave, but there’s a lot of empirical evidence to bear out my contention. And the church is just an extension of the family. The family of God.
“Whether one accepts the Tradition and teachings of the Catholic Church or not, at least it courageously takes a stand on any given doctrine,”
I don’t see much evidence that the Catholic church has courageously taken a stand on unpopular issues. For example, when is the last time that Armstrong’s church excommunicated a high-profile, pro-abortion Catholic politician? I see the Catholic church using a lot of words without any actions to back up the rhetoric.
“And refuses to leave whole areas of theology and practice perpetually up for grabs, at the mercy of the ‘priesthood of scholars’.”
I prefer a “priesthood of scholars” to a priesthood of charlatans. Not to mention a priesthood of child molesters.
“And the individual’s private judgment—which in turn often reduces to mere whim, fancy, or subjective preference, usually divorced from considerations of Christian history and consensus.”
“Considerations of Christian history and consensus”? Funny. Isn’t that how Robert Sungenis has defended geocentrism? But I don’t recall Armstrong deferring to Christian history and consensus at that juncture.
Oh, and Catholicism is all about whim, fancy, and subjective preference. The difference is that Catholicism simply elevates the private judgment of a particular pope or church father to the status of dogma.
“For this so-called ‘dogmatism’ and lack of ‘flexibility,’ the Catholic Church is often reviled and despised. But for those of us who are seeking to be faithful to Christ within its fold, this is regarded, to the contrary, as its unique glory and majesty, much preferable to the morass of competing truth-claims (i.e., relativism) which prevail within Protestantism (even among the subgroup of evangelicals).”
Yes, a majestic church whose glorious membership includes Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, Cardinal Law, Cardinal Richelieu, the Mafia, the Borgia papacy, and other luminaries of note.
“Orthodox Catholics believe that Christians can place full confidence in the firmly-established Tradition which is found not only in Holy Scripture, but in the received doctrines of the Catholic Church, appointed by our Lord Jesus Christ as the Guardian and Custodian of the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).”
Unfortunately for Armstrong, Jude forgot to mention the Roman Catholic church.
And how does Armstrong propose to verify the chain of custody? How does he verify every link in a 2000-year-old chain? How does he verify the valid administration of holy orders? How does he verify the valid administration of the Eucharist?
Papal conclaves are held in secret. How does he verify that a pope is not an antipope? That no voter fraud took place?
How can Dave be sure he is correctly exegeting his Catholic prooftexts? He can’t very well appeal to the authoritative interpretation of his church if he’s using these verses to verify the authoritative claims of his church. So he must be able to interpret these verses apart from his church. But, in that event, the Magisterium is expendable.