I’ve been asked to comment on a post by Bryan Cross:
“His article starts by distinguishing between ‘Protestant Catholics’ and ‘Roman Catholics’. This is odd for two reasons, first because he uses titles that each side generally does not use for itself. Protestants generally do not refer to themselves as Catholics, let alone ‘Protestant Catholics’. And Catholics do not generally refer to themselves as ‘Roman Catholics’. We are Catholics, and if we are in the Latin Rite Particular Church within the Catholic Church, we are properly ‘Latin Rite Catholics’, not Roman Catholics.”
I assume Godfrey draws this distinction because he wishes to deny to the Church of Rome its monopolistic claim to be the “universal” church.
“Second, Dr. Godfrey's terminology suggests that both Protestants and Catholics are members of a larger genus, i.e. Catholic.”
That might be a valid criticism. Depends on what Godfrey meant. However, this semantic quibble is of no consequence. I doubt most people think of “Catholic” as a synonym for “universal.” For them, it’s just a brand name, like Bayer, or Kleenex or Xerox. So I myself don’t have any objection to calling papists Catholics, or the church of Rome the Catholic church.
“Dr. Godfrey says here that the Protestant conception of sola scriptura is that ‘Scripture alone is our authority’. If we took this statement at face value, it would imply that no Protestant pastor or session or presbytery or general assembly has any authority over any Protestants. But of course in practice such Protestant offices and bodies do exercise some sort of authority over those persons who have placed themselves under them. So either Dr. Godfrey is not being careful here, or he is endorsing the individualism of private judgment and solo scriptura.”
Here I think Cross is being pedantic. Godfrey is speaking, not in absolute terms, but in the context of the historic conflict with Rome.
“Rather, the Catholic Church teaches that the oral tradition and teaching authority of the Church already existed, from the day of Pentecost on, in the teaching and preaching of the Apostles. The New Testament Scriptures were eventually added to the oral tradition and to the teaching authority of the Church.”
Actually, that formulation assumes a two-source theory which modern Catholicism denies.
No, the Scriptures weren’t “added to oral tradition,” as if these two modes of transmission continued on parallel tracks. Oral tradition dried up. The written word supplanted the spoken word. The spoken word was committed to writing.
What is more, it’s misleading to treat orality as prior to textuality. 1C Jews didn’t belong to an illiterate or preliterate culture. Speaking and writing could coexist side-by-side. For example, Paul was both a preacher and a writer. Cross is peddling the position of the liberal German form critics.
It also overlooks the fact that orality frequently presupposes textuality. Orality is a mode of textual transmission. You can transmit a text orally. Commit the text to memory, then quote it from memory. Bible writers do this all the time.
“But the Church has never existed without her teaching authority, and without the oral tradition in the form of the preaching of the Apostles.”
And the church has never existed without Scripture. The Apostles were preaching from the OT scriptures. From Messianic prophecy.
It’s also misleading to speak of the church’s “teaching authority” in the abstract, as if there’s some sort of free-floating entity called “teaching authority.” Rather, that authority was grounded in the Apostolate. It’s not something you can treat as detachable and transferable.
“It is not difficult to show that since Scripture is the Word of God, and obviously nothing can have more authority than the Word of God, that therefore the Scripture must be the "ultimate" [i.e. highest] intrinsic authority in the Church. But no one disagrees with that. That is not what the Protestant-Catholic disagreement concerning sola scriptura is about. The Catholic Church teaches that her leadership is the servant of the Word of God. (CCC 86).”
This is one of those dishonest tactics that Catholic epologists like Cross resort to. They pretend that Protestants just don’t understand the nature of the claim.
But we’re perfectly aware of what Rome says on paper. In practice, however, Rome pays lipservice to the final or ultimate authority of Scripture. At a functional level, Rome subordinates the authority of Scripture to the authority of the Magisterium.
“So the point of disagreement (between Protestants and the Catholic Church) regarding sola scriptura is not primarily about which authority in the Church has the most or highest intrinsic authority, but is rather about who has final or highest interpretive and teaching authority, and on what ground or basis these persons have such interpretive and teaching authority.”
That’s a purely formal distinction which doesn’t obtain in a real world situation. Interpretive or teaching authority is the functional equivalent of the most or highest intrinsic authority because you can’t appeal the Magisterial teaching or interpretation to the higher court of Scripture. Rather, the Magisterium presumes to speak for Scripture. Scripture means whatever the Magisterium says it means. Therefore, Scripture has no authority over the Magisterium.
“(The disagreement between Protestants and the Catholic Church regarding whether the Word of God was also passed down as oral Tradition depends for its resolution on who has interpretive and teaching authority to give the authoritative ecclesial judgment on this question.)”
The equation of sacred tradition with oral tradition is obsolete. Catholicism now operates with a concept of living tradition. Oral tradition is static. It can’t develop.
If Jesus really said things to the Apostles which were never committed to writing, but were, instead, passed along by word-of-mouth, then that’s a fixed deposit.
“Bound up in the [Protestant] concept of sola scriptura is much more than the mere notion that Scripture is the highest intrinsic authority in the Church. The Protestant conception of sola scriptura includes the assumption of perspicuity, namely, that the Scripture is sufficiently clear and plain that whatever is necessary to be believed for salvation can be known by everyone who reads it.”
That’s a simplistic caricature of the actual position. For example, “Perspicuity does not exclude the means necessary for interpretation (i.e. the internal light of the Spirit, attention of mind, the voice and ministry of the church, sermons and commentaries, prayer and watchfulness). For we hold these means not only to be useful, but also necessary ordinarily,” Turretin, Institutes, 1:144.
“This perspicuity assumption is taught nowhere in Scripture or Tradition; it is a novel assumption imported by Protestants from outside Scripture and Tradition to the process of interpreting Scripture. We do not find it in the first 1500 years of the Church, just as if the Apostles did not teach any such doctrine to the Church.”
In public debates with the Jews, as well as writing to Christians, the Apostles appeal directly to the OT Scriptures. They assume their audience can follow an exegetical argument. They assume their audience can decide for themselves which side has the better of the argument.
Whether or not “Tradition” teaches perspicuity begs the question in favor of Bryan’s Catholic ecclesiology.
“Nor would the Apostles likely have done so, given that the printing press was not invented until the fifteenth century.”
Two problems with that objection:
i) That objection would cut, with equal force, against Magisterial documents. Textuality isn’t limited to Scripture. It includes the church fathers, papal bulls, canon law, &c.
ii) The absence of the printing press didn’t prevent Jesus and the Apostles from constantly referring their audience to the OT scriptures—just as it didn’t prevent OT prophets from constantly referring their audience to the provisions of the Mosaic covenant.
“So the Catholic response to the sixteenth century Protestant claim regarding perspicuity is ‘Who told you that perspicuity is true?’”
Jesus, the Apostles, and prophets.
“And what ecclesial authority did he have?"
That begs the question in favor of Bryan’s Catholic ecclesiology.
“I want to focus not on the origin but on the implications of the perspicuity assumption. The perspicuity assumption implies that we do not need any interpretive authority, if by 'need' we are referring to only what is necessary to know and believe for salvation.”
Two more problems:
i) As the quote from Turretin illustrates, this is a straw man argument.
ii) Bryan also rigs the issue by casting the issue in terms of interpretive “authority.” But why should we accept that framework?
For example, Bryan is attacking perspicuity in the context of a post on his blog. Do his readers require interpretive authority to correctly interpret his objections to sola Scriptura? Has the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith issued an authoritative interpretation of Bryan’s post? Can we find that on the Vatican’s official website? I don’t think so.
So Bryan’s objection to perspicuity is self-refuting. For his objection to perspicuity presupposes perspicuity. He applies perspicuity to his own statements. He conveniently exempts his own statements from his general argument. And he is banking on the competence of his readers to correctly interpret his statements.
If we were to apply his objections to perspicuity to his own statements, his exercise would be futile.
You don’t need an authoritative interpretation to have a correct interpretation. If you got it right, then authority is irrelevant.
“And whatever else might be good to know, we can decide for ourselves whether we want to learn it.”
That attitude isn’t limited to Protestant circles. It’s just as prevalent in Catholic circles. You can resist any authority, whether Biblical authority or ecclesial authority. Simply shifting the locus of authority changes nothing.
“So right here, in an implicit assumption hidden behind the more obvious and explicit definition of sola scriptura, is the basis for the individualism that makes each Protestant interpreter his own final interpretive authority.”
Once again, he frames the issue in terms of authority: individual authority over against ecclesial authority. Why should we accept that framework?
Consider the dustup between the blind man and the Pharisees in Jn 9. Which side had more authority? The Pharisees were the authority-figures in that exchange. So what?
He was right and they were wrong. Authority is irrelevant. He wasn’t making himself the final authority. It was never a question of who was in authority. It was simply a question of who was right and who was wrong.
In fact, pulling rank is a typical tactic on the part of those who are losing the argument. When the argument doesn’t go their way, they invoke their authority as a last-ditch appeal.
“But what if salvation is more complicated than that? What if there are gradations of happiness in heaven, and our measure of happiness in the life to come has something to do with how we live in this life? What if we are called to be saints in this life, to be perfect, and yet we only do the very minimum, squandering a life-time of opportunities for acts of heroic virtue? In that case, the minimalistic and nominalistic approach to Christianity that seeks to do whatever just gets people inside the pearly gates is a misleading theology that potentially detracts from our eternal happiness.”
Noting is more minimalistic than Catholic piety. Fornicate Monday through Saturday. Go to confession. Arrive late at Mass. Skip the hymns. Skip the prayers. Skip the homily. Trust in a wafer for your salvation. Light a candle to the BVM when you get in trouble. Pay a priest to recite a requiem Mass for you’re after dead.
In Catholicism, the Mass is a mousetrap. Trap Jesus in a piece of bread for long enough to swallow him. That way, you have Jesus inside of you. That way, God can’t damn you without damning Jesus.
“If as perspicacity implies we do not need an interpretive authority, then there is no point to a Magisterium having authority in perpetual succession from the Apostles.”
“Perspicuity makes the Church's Magisterium both superfluous, obsolete and presumptive, for surely Jesus would not have established an enduring interpretive authority if we did not need such a thing.”
“Therefore, given the perspicuity of Scripture, it follows logically that those persons claiming to have interpretive authority from the Apostles are at best mistaken and at worst presumptive, having at some point arrogated to themselves an authority that they do not have.”
“Perspicuity in this way is incompatible with the Catholic Church's long-standing teaching regarding the role and authority of the bishops in succession from the Apostles.
Bryan is on a roll here. This is the best part of his post.
“The Protestant notion of perspicuity entails and grounds the ecclesial consumerism that in practice leads to the vast proliferation of sects, for since there is no given interpretive authority, then by default we are left to accumulate to ourselves teachers who teach according to what we believe. (2 Tim 4:3).”
Of course, Bryan himself is an ecclesial consumer. He’s a product of the American religious supermarket. He himself has strolled down various aisles of spirituality, buying one product, and then another. He decided for himself from whom to learn what’s necessary for salvation. He ended up accumulating to himself teachers who teach according to what he believes. The only difference is that his teachers are Catholic teachers. He has hired Catholic masseurs to rub his itching ears.
“And both the explosion of competing Protestant sects and their inability to reconcile with each other over the past five hundred years undermines the notion that we have no need [if not in the sense of personal salvation, at least in the sense of corporate unity] for a living interpretive authority.”
Of course, this sort of invidious comparison pivots on a fallacy of arbitrary selection. He takes his own church as the frame of reference, then wags his finger at all the other Christian “sects.”
Needless to say, that begs the question. Why should Rome supply the standard of comparison?
Bryan is arguing from his position. But you’re not entitled to argue from your position before you argue for your position.
Bryan is like a marble that deplores the vast proliferation of other marbles. There are too many marbles in the world. A veritible explosion of competing marbles.
But Bryan is just another marble. What makes his marble so special? Even if there are too many marbles in the world, that doesn’t make his marble the one true marble. As one marble to another, he’s in no position to be so disapproving. If we have too many marbles, then maybe his marble should be melted down to lessen the proliferation of competing marbles.
Let’s also remember that sola Scriptura is not the only reason for the proliferation of “sects.” The Inquisition impeded the explosive growth of denominations. Does Bryan think we should go back to the good old days of Torquemada?
“Protestant history testifies that we need a perpetual interpretive authority in order to maintain ecclesial unity.”
That begs the question of whether we need to maintain ecclesial unity. And how we define it. There was a lot of ecclesial disunity in 2nd Temple Judaism.
“So in this way Protestant history testifies against perspicuity, and in favor of what the Catholic Church has always taught about her bishops and the nature of their authority as passed on through sacramental succession from the Apostles.”
It only testifies against perspicuity if you buy into Bryan’s gratuitous assumptions. And even if you buy into his gratuitous assumptions, Catholicism is not the only alternative. Why not become Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox?
Moreover, Bryan hasn’t established sacramental apostolic succession. His skipping over many crucial steps in the argument.
“But already he has begged the question, possibly without realizing it. Consider what is implicit in his claim that ‘it can be shown that [my] position is the clear position of Scripture’. He is implicitly assuming here that no heretic could show [to that heretic's own satisfaction, and to those likeminded to him] that his own heresy is ‘the clear position of Scripture’.”
How does that follow from what Godfrey said? And how is that an implication of sola Scriptura?
Bryan has smuggled a subjective condition into Godfrey’s statement. The question at issue is not whether a heretic can prove something “to his own satisfaction.”
If Bryan is going to relativize every interpretation merely on the grounds that someone else can *claim* to show otherwise, then Bryan’s scepticism applies with equal force to his own interpretations.
He is also committing a level-confusion. The point at issue is not how we apply the rule of faith to a particular question (e.g. Christology), but the identity of the rule of faith itself. Whether we correctly apply the multiplication tables, and whether the multiplication tables are the correct standard to apply, are to very different issues.
“For if heretics can in principle do this, then the fact that someone can show [to his own satisfaction and that of those likeminded to him] that his own position is ‘the clear position of Scripture’ does not show whether that position is heretical or orthodox, in which case we would need the living Church authority to adjudicate the question for us.”
If, ex hypothesi, the arguments and counterarguments are equally matched, then how would the church adjudicate the question? That’s not a principled resolution to the dispute. That’s invoking the church has a makeweight. The church has no new evidence to shift the balance in one direction or another. Unless the church can argue for the superiority of its interpretation, this is a purely arbitrary show of force. Take it on our say-so even though we can’t give you a good reason to believe us.
BTW, it’s interesting how often, in their desperation, Catholic epologists take the side of Arians and other heretics. They concede that Arian exegesis was as plausible as orthodox exegesis.
How they think that playing the Arian card when debating Protestants is a good strategy has always struck me as self-defeating. All this tells me is that Catholics are no better than Arians.
It’s like a guy who’s a serial killer at heart, but he contents himself with watching splatter flicks instead because he’s afraid of getting caught. If the only thing that restrains Catholics from becoming Arians is faith in Mother Church, then that’s not much of a recommendation.
“Therefore, Dr. Godfrey's methodology, if it is to be consistent with Protestantism, must assume at least implicitly that in principle no heretic can show [to that heretic's his own satisfaction and to that of those likeminded to him] that his own heresy is ‘the clear position of Scripture’.”
This is such a dumb statement. It’s like saying that if I can’t prove to a conspiracy theorist that 9/11 wasn’t an inside job, then his explanation is just as good as mine. Or if I can’t prove to a ufologist that little green men didn’t crash land at Roswell, then his explanation is as good as mine. Whether you can persuade someone else is irrelevant to what is true. And if the evidence lies on one side of the ledger, then the church can’t drag it over to the other side of the ledger by ecclesiastical fiat. Authority is no substitute for truth.
“To approach Scripture as though each individual has the authority to determine definitively for him or herself what it says, is not to approach the Scripture in a neutral manner.”
Another straw man argument. Sola Scriptura isn’t predicated on the *authority* of the individual—much less the ability of an individual to determine *definitively* what Scripture means.
Because Catholics don’t expect to find answers in Scripture, they don’t bother to see what Scripture had to say on the subject. What interpretive process does the Bible hold believers to?
Take OT judges. Judges had to interpret the Mosaic law in order to apply the Mosaic law to a particular case. And, if you want to bring authority into the discussion, OT judges even had the judicial authority to do that.
Yet their judicial rulings weren’t infallible. They didn’t *definitively* interpret OT case law. It was a fallible judicial process. Innocent men could be convicted. Guilty men could be acquitted.
“It is to approach Scripture as though the first 1500 years of Christianity were deeply misguided, and Protestantism is true.”
“In order to talk about the issue of sola scriptura, therefore, we have to step back from debating the interpretation of the Scriptures themselves. That is the point Tertullian made here, and St. Vincent of Lerins made here.”
Citing Tertullian and Vincent begs the question in favor of Bryan’s ecclesiology.
“We have to examine how exactly the Church has operated from the beginning regarding the resolution of disputes over the interpretation of Scripture.”
“From the beginning” would have reference to the NT church. It’s hard to come up with any examples of disputes over the interpretation of Scripture in the NT church. There were various disputes in the NT church, but were there any disputes over the interpretation of Scripture?
Moreover, “the church” is a vague descriptor. Who was disputing with whom? What does Bryan have in mind? Apostles? False teachers?
“Only if the practice of the early Church...”
Notice that he’s shifting grounds. The “early church” is not synonymous with “the church from the beginning.” Even if the early church is inclusive of the NT church, that designation also postdates the NT church.
“Only if the practice of the early Church was to treat Scripture as self-interpreting, and as though there was no need for adjudication of interpretive disagreements by the Apostles and bishops would we be justified in approaching Scripture as though we ourselves have the authority to determine definitively for ourselves what it says.”
Now he begs the question by smuggling bishops into the process, as if episcopal authority is interchangeable with apostolic authority. That may represent his own viewpoint, but it’s no way to argue with a Protestant.
“If, however, the Church did not treat Scripture as self-interpreting, but relied upon the decisions of the bishops to determine what is the orthodox and authorized teaching of the Church and the authoritative interpretation of Scripture, then for us to approach Scripture as though the bishops are not the interpretive authorities of Scripture is performative, if not propositional, heresy.”
Notice the bait-and-switch tactic. Apostles have now dropped out of the process entirely.
“There is no neutral interpretive starting point here. Either we come to Scripture recognizing and submitting to the ecclesial authority of the bishops, or we come to Scripture rejecting [knowingly or unknowingly] the ecclesial authority of the bishops.”
True. At the same time, that’s a false dichotomy since there’s no reason we should cast the issue in prelatial terms to begin with.
What about recognizing and submitting to the final authority of Scripture while also consulting the history of interpretation—including modern commentaries?
“So the impossibility of neutrality here concerns those who know that the Apostles appointed bishops and gave them perpetual authority in the Church.”
Bryan is trading on equivocations.
“If we wish to know how to approach the Scriptures, we must determine what those bishops taught about their own authority in relation to the deposit of faith and the interpretation of Scripture. Otherwise, we will beg the question and talk past each other in the Protestant-Catholic ecumenical dialogue.”
To the contrary, it begs the question to insist that we must first determine what bishops said about their own authority. And, by definition, a bishop believes in episcopal authority. He’s not a “neutral” witness to his own office.
Moreover, even if we accept this prelatial framework for the sake of argument, Bryan is skipping over a number of preliminary steps.
You have to identify the true bishops. Before you can do that, you have to identify the true church. You must also verify the valid ordination of a bishop. If his ordination was invalid, he’s not a true bishop. And there are many impediments to valid ordination. Even if he’s a true bishop, you must also sift the true statements from the false statements since, even on Catholic ecclesiology, the average prelate is not infallible.
Bryan has a very lopsided view of ecumenical dialogue. He assumes everything he needs to prove, then imposes his tendentious assumptions on his Protestant conversation-partner. For someone who’s pursuing a doctorate in philosophy, he has a remarkably blinkered outlook.