Neal Judisch is an evangelical convert to Catholicism. As a philosophy prof., we’d expect him to do a bang-up job defending Roman Catholicism. Let’s see how well he acquits himself.
“The basic idea, as it turned out, was nothing new, nor even anything particularly surprising. For the Lord Himself had promised to remain with the Church until the end of the ages.”
i) False. That’s an allusion to Mt 28:20. But that’s not a promise to the “Church.” Rather, it’s a promise to the eleven remaining disciples.
ii) Perhaps Neal would say it’s a promise to the church because the apostles died many centuries ago, yet Jesus said he would be with them until the end of the age. So it must extend to their successors, right?
The problem with that inference is that it reflects the chronological perspective of a modern reader. As he reads this, 2000 years down the pike, he takes the long-range view.
But that interpretation is clearly anachronistic. The verse itself doesn’t say anything about the duration of the church age, beyond the immediate promise to the eleven disciples.
iii) Moreover, when a Catholic apologist says “the church,” that’s code language, not for the church, but for a tiny subset of the church: namely, the papacy or episcopate.
“He Himself had guaranteed that the gates of death, the forces of hell, would never overcome her.”
i) True, but irrelevant. That’s an allusion to Mt 16:18. And that’s a metaphor. What does the metaphor mean? You can’t take a metaphor like the “gates of hell,” and pour a Catholic definition into that metaphor without further ado.
ii) Moreover, that’s a promise to what church, exactly? The church of Rome? It doesn’t mention the church of Rome.
Why not the church of Jerusalem? Or Philippi? Or Smyrna?
“He Himself had prophesied that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth.”
False. That’s an allusion to Jn 16:13. In context, it’s a promise to the eleven remaining disciples.
“That He would gather all who were scattered abroad and knit them together in Love.”
I guess that’s an allusion to Jn 11:52. But Jn 11:52 doesn’t mention the church of Rome. There’s no explicit reference to the church of Rome. What is more, there’s no implication to that effect.
“And He Himself had established a chair. So, clearly, if the Pope really does sit on Peter’s chair, and will thus sometimes be called upon to voice the final say, or make binding judgments for the Church at large, it had better be the case that the Holy Spirit is there to protect him from going wrong when he exercises this capacity of his office.”
i) Where does the NT refer to a Petrine “chair” or Petrine “office”? Where does the NT refer to someone who sits on Peter’s chair?
Did Peter have the final say, or make binding judgments, for the church at large? How can you reconcile that claim with Acts 15 or Gal 2:11-14?
So often, arguments for Catholicism involve a cumulative error rate, where the Catholic apologist piles one error atop another in an escalating series of fallacies.
ii) However, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that these prooftexts prove what Neal needs them to prove. Hasn’t he backed himself into a dilemma?
On the one hand, he says you can’t have a canon without a church to justify the canon. On the other hand, he’s citing canonical prooftexts to justify his high-church ecclesiology. So is the church logically prior to the canon—or is the canon logically prior to the church? If he needs canonical prooftexts to justify his high-church ecclesiology, then he can’t have the church without the canon. In that case, the canon takes logical precedence over the church.
“The fundamental conviction here is really quite straightforward: Catholics think that we’d better not be left to our own devices, or else we’ll probably screw things up.”
In terms of church history, where’s the evidence that Catholics are any less likely to screw things up than other professing believers?
“Think again, for example, about our reflections on the Biblical canon. As we’ve seen, Catholics have trust that the canon of Scripture we’ve received is the right one, because they believe that God Himself infallibly guided the Church to receive and recognize the right texts.”
And when, in Catholic church history, did that take place, exactly? Even at the Council of Trent, the Tridentine Fathers were still debating the scope of the canon. And when the vote was taken, there was nothing resembling unanimity on the subject.
“Yet from a Catholic perspective this gets things backward. For the Protestant alternative is to say that since the Scriptures alone are infallible, that means the Church cannot claim to have recognized infallibly which books belong in the Bible.”
“At the same time, we know we cannot simply leave the task of determining the canon to each individual Christian, for the individual Christian clearly cannot claim to possess some sort of infallibility which he refuses to attribute to the Church.”
That’s misleading. It’s not as though it comes down to two alternatives: either an infallible church or else each individual Christian must revisit the issue from scratch.
God has given teachers to the church. Scholars and theologians. We can study their arguments.
And, in fact, that’s what happened at the Council of Trent. The Tridentine Fathers argued over the state of the evidence. There was no divine illumination which made them think alike. We’ve seen the way bacon is made at church councils.
“Thus we are left with the question of how we can know, how we can decide with confidence, what belongs in the Bible and what does not if we have no guarantee that the Spirit won’t let us run off the rails – hardly a trivial issue, if the Bible is supposed to be (as the Pope likes to say) the ‘trustworthy ground of our existence.’”
i) One problem with this objection is the unquestioned assumption that God can’t guide his people by using ordinary means. That God can’t put sufficient evidence at our disposal.
Instead, Neal operates with the unquestioned assumption that God can only guide his people by using extraordinary means.
But one of the problems with that contention is that even extraordinary means rely, in some measure, on ordinary means. For example, Neal is using a fallible argument for infallibility. After all, Neal is not, himself, infallible. So, unless, in the providence of God, we can be reasonably confident of arriving at the truth through ordinary means, then Neal’s objection is self-refuting. Neal is using his fallible powers of reason to fallibly argue for infallibility. If he can do that, why not a Protestant?
ii) And suppose, for the sake of argument, that we were mistaken? All this amounts is that God allowed us to be mistaken. Why should I live in fear of being mistaken if God allows me to be mistaken? If it were so catastrophic for me to make an honest mistake, why would God allow it to happen?
And at the risk of stating the obvious, isn’t it obvious that God allows human beings to be mistaken about many things? Sometimes these are honest mistakes. Sometimes these are willful errors.
iii) Incidentally, didn’t the Holy Spirit let the Catholic church run off the rails during the Great Schism, when no one could tell a pope from an antipope?
“Ultimately, in this instance, the Protestant approach leaves us with a collection of writings and fallible humans who are supposed to decide which of them count as God’s Words.”
i) And suppose, as a matter of fact, that’s exactly how God arranged it? Suppose that, most of the time, God guides his people by ordinary providence. Why is it that a philosophy prof. like Neal can’t even entertain that possibility?
ii) Suppose the Great Schism had never happened. Don’t you think a Catholic apologist would argue, a priori, that God would never permit a disruptive event like the Great Schism to occur?
Of course, a Catholic apologist isn’t free to mount that argument since it really did happen. But given their fondness for aprioristic proofs of the papacy, infallibility, &c. isn’t that exactly the sort of argument you’d expect a Catholic apologist to use if only he could? Isn’t it antecedently improbable, on Catholic assumptions, that God would leave apostolic succession in a state of utter turmoil?
But, as it turns out, didn’t fallible Catholics have to decide, with extreme uncertainty, which pope was the true pope? Disputes over the outer limits of the canon are minor compared to the total chaos triggered by the Great Schism.
History is like a story. God’s story, written in the medium of time and space. In a story, every character contributes to the plot. Every character does something to advance the storyline.
Yet every character doesn’t have to get things right. The only person who has to get things right is the narrator.
The narrator can make his characters make mistakes. He can use their errors to advance the action in the direction which he wants to take the story.
That may be a problem for one of the characters. He may make a harmful mistake. A mistake which is injurious to himself or another character.
But that’s not a problem for the narrator. The mistaken actions of his characters don’t derail the narrative. To the contrary, these are instrumental in the course of the narrative.
To drop the metaphor, and discuss some real life examples, Pharaoh made a number of grave mistakes, even fatal mistakes. But that didn’t throw God’s plan off-track. To the contrary, that was part of the plan. Same thing with Caiaphas and Nebuchadnezzar.
“To be sure, the Spirit is thought to be involved in some way; but it’s never entirely clear exactly what the way is.”
And it’s never entirely clearly exactly how the Spirit is supposed to be involved in the extraordinary magisterium. At Trent, the vote on the canon went 24 to 15 with 16 abstentions. So the motion didn’t even carry by a majority vote. Is that the way the Holy Spirit works?
And how does Neal distinguish that “inspired” result from an uninspired process? Ordinarily, if a motion were debated, and its passage fell short of a majority vote, would we attribute that result to divine inspiration? Why was inspiration limited to only 24 of the 55 Tridentine Fathers? Was the Holy Spirit unable to persuade the other 31 Tridentine Fathers?
“For the Protestant alternative is to say that since Scripture alone is infallible, that means the Church cannot claim such authority when it comes to Scriptural interpretation. At the same time, we know we cannot simply leave the task to each individual Christian, for neither the individual Christian nor the tradition to which he belongs can claim to possess some sort of authority that he refuses to attribute to the Church. So, we are left with the question of how we can know, how we can decide with confidence, which of the endlessly diverse and contradictory Christian traditions has things right – hardly a trivial matter, if it might mean heresy on the one hand or fidelity to the Faith on the other.”
What about deciding on the basis of which side has best evidence, or the best argument? After all, Neal is making an individual case for Catholicism. Aren’t we left to individually judge his individual case by weighing the quality of his argumentation?
“But what follows inevitably is this: to the extent that we have full trust and confidence in our own ability to understand Scripture, or in the deliverances of our theological tradition, to that extent we exalt the human’s ability to figure things out for themselves – with no guarantee that the Spirit will protect them from error.”
i) Why do I have to place full trust in my ability to interpret Scripture? What I trust is the providence of God. He put me here, at this time and place, with all the opportunities and limitations that come with my particular situation. My duty is to make the most of the circumstances he’s put me in.
ii) If God wants to protect me from error, he will. If he doesn’t protect me from error, that’s because he didn’t want to do so. The point is to do the best that God has enabled me to do with my time and talents.
God guarantees some things (e.g. Jn 3:16; 6:37). But everything important in life doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee. We walk by faith, not by sight.
“This, I think, is really where the rubber meets the road. For the gut response of most Protestants at this point (including my former self!) is to assert that they do not put their faith in any ‘tradition,’ but rather in the Scriptures themselves, and that to whatever degree they follow a ‘tradition’ they do so only because it ‘faithfully reflects’ the teaching of the Bible. But everyone can see that this simply pushes the question back a step. For where, exactly, have they come by the crucial information that their tradition is the one which ‘faithfully reflects’ the teaching of Scripture over against all the others, unless they have either accepted this on the authority of their tradition, or accepted it on the authority of themselves?”
You know, Neal can only talk about the theological options because he’s a 21C American. Imagine if he were a medieval peasant? Whether he’d be Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox or Waldensians is a historical accident beyond his control. We’re all circumscribed by our sitz-im-leben. We must all play the hand that God has dealt us. The question is how we play our cards—whether well or badly.
Neal’s problem is that he’s not making the most of his opportunities. He’s making poor use of his aptitude and opportunities.
“But every Christian in every tradition can do the same thing. So how does that make him right; how does that make his tradition the uniquely privileged one; how does that mean he sees things so much more clearly than everyone who happens to disagree?”
I think that most evangelicals admit a lot of truth in “rival” traditions, viz. Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians.
“One admits, moreover, that there are such things as interpretive ‘filters’ through which he understands the Bible, and which could in principle lead him astray without his realizing it, despite his most sincere efforts.”
i) Does that include Catholic filters? What filter did Neal use before he became Catholic to evaluate the claims of Catholicism and convert to Rome?
Was his pre-Catholic filter reliable or unreliable? If the pre-Catholic filter by which he evaluated the claims of Catholicism was unreliable, then he converted under false pretenses. But if his pre-Catholic filter was sufficiently reliable to rightly evaluate Catholicism, then in what respect does he even need a Catholic filter?
Why is a philosophy prof. so oblivious to the obvious?
ii) And suppose I am mistaken despite my best efforts to the contrary? What conceivable alternative could there be to that state of affairs?
What’s the point of his question, really? Why ask someone who’s unaware of his error if he’s aware of his error? The premise of the question is that he’s unaware of his error. So why doesn’t Neal apply that premise to himself? What if he’s unaware of how mistaken he is? As long as he remains in that state of mind, then, by definition, there’s nothing he can do about it.
Unless he thinks that people can become aware of their mistakes, he has generated a conundrum which applies, with equal force, to his Catholic convictions.
If he has so little confidence in reason, why is he trying to reason his readers into Catholicism? Is reason only reliable for Catholics? But, in that case, no one could reasonably convert to Catholicism. Only unreasonable people could convert to Rome, beginning with Neal.
“Yet in defiance of these theoretical concessions there remains in all of us, by God’s own design, a desperate need for assurance, for certainty, for stability, and God does not wish His children to lapse into a skepticism which says we cannot know the truth, or (worse yet) a relativism which makes ‘truth’ so easy to come by that it isn’t even worth the pursuit.”
But Neil plays both sides of the fence. He’s a sceptic about Protestant theology, but a rationalist about Catholic theology.
“What happens then, inevitably, is that the ‘space’ or critical distance which should exist between your own theological convictions and the Bible itself completely collapses, with the result that the confidence and certitude which should be directed toward God’s Word only is illicitly transferred in its entirety to a particular theological system.”
Of course, that’s a portable allegation. If it applies to Protestant theology, it also applies to Catholic theology.
“First, one of my chief complaints against the Protestant tradition was its intrinsic inability to hold truth and unity together, which the Bible specifically demanded of the Church and for which the Spirit had specifically been given – and my response was to join a different Protestant communion whose constituents are, even as we speak, in the middle of yet another split? How could such a move be Biblically, theologically or rationally defended? If the sola scriptura principle as originally formulated had been falsified precisely because of such divisions, how could I convince myself that ‘Scripture, Tradition and Reason’ was any better off?”
i) You know, when I read about NT churches, I don’t see a whole lot of truth-in-unity on display. I either see a lot of disunity, or unity-in-falsehood. I mean, was the church of Corinth a paragon of truth-in-unity? What about the churches of Galatia? Remember Judaizers? What about the churches of the Lycus valley. Remember the Colossian heresy? You can run through letter after letter of the NT epistles, including the letters to the seven churches of Asia minor, and what you’ll find is that truth-in-unity is exceptional instead of typical. And these were churches founded by apostles and overseen by apostles.
ii) To say the Catholic church holds truth and unity together massively begs the very question at issue.
iii) Where the NT speaks of unity, it’s generally in the form of imperatives rather than indicatives. That implies a need to work towards unity, not a preexisting state of unity.
iv) Moreover, even the few indicatives need to be taken with a grain of salt. For example, Luke is fond of hyperbole. So you need to make allowance for his literary conventions.
v) As I’ve often pointed out, invidious comparisons of this sort beg the question by taking Catholicism as the frame of reference. The church of Rome in contrast to all those other sects and denominations. But why wouldn’t we include the church of Rome among the other sects and denominations?
vi) What does Catholic unity-in-truth actually amount to? Are Roman Catholics required to sign a doctrinal oath every year as a condition of membership? Are members of the Catholic church like-minded in their adherence to the truth?
What the claim boils down to is that official Catholic teaching is true even if no Catholic on earth actually believes it. Is that how the apostles defined Christian unity?
“Second, one of the problems with the Protestant position which had become increasingly difficult for me to ignore dealt with the formation of the canon of Scripture. Specifically, it seemed to me that the only satisfying response available to the question of how we knew, with certainty, what belonged in the Bible and what didn’t was the Catholic response. For their response relied essentially on the Catholic insistence that thanks to the Apostolic Tradition, the Holy Spirit and the promise of indefectibility, the decisions reached by the Church in Council could not be in error, which is something that all Protestants including the Anglicans deny. But there is no Scriptural support at all for the idea that “Reason,” still less an individual’s ‘private judgment,’ was exempt from error when it came to crucially important questions like this.”
i) Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we must settle for probability rather than certainty? Why is that beneath consideration?
ii) It’s also ambiguous to say we could be wrong about something. For example, suppose I believe that Napoleon was probably born in 1769. That’s either true or false. It’s not probably true or false.
So what we mean by probability is that it’s possible I’m mistaken about this, not that I am mistaken. To say I could be wrong doesn’t mean I’m actually wrong. As long as I’m right, what does it matter if I could be wrong?
Just to say you don’t know for sure if you have the correct canon doesn’t, of itself, cast any doubt on your canon. It doesn’t furnish any tangible evidence that your canon is incorrect. So it’s a very weak objection. Indeed, it’s the sort of fallback objection we’d expect from someone who has no tangible evidence to challenge your position. So he resorts to hypothetical defeaters. What if?
iii) But hypothetical defeaters cut in more then one direction. What if the pope is really an antipope? Does Neal know “for sure” that Benedict XVI is the true successor to St. Peter? After all, he didn’t attend the papal conclave. And these are very secretive proceedings. Deliberately so. The College of Cardinals goes out of its way to shield the process from public scrutiny. No outside observers are allowed in.
So Neal must rely on hearsay information. He has no independent corroboration. From a philosophical standpoint, evidence for the valid election of Benedict XVI falls far short of certainty. Yet that’s a “crucially important question” for a Roman Catholic.
“The question is this: since the Bible doesn’t itself tell us which books belong in the Bible and which do not, where does that information come from?”
Of course, I’ve often addressed this objection:
i) Neal acts as if the Bible is a miscellany of 66 self-contained books. But, in terms of intertextuality, the Bible has a lot to say about itself.
ii) Beyond that, Protestants don’t deny the value of testimonial evidence for the canon. But testimonial evidence needs to be sifted. And it’s not as if testimonial evidence for the canon is limited to Roman Catholic sources.
“If we had (and somehow knew we had) an inspired list in the Bible which provided this information then the question would be at an end and we could be certain about what God wanted in and what He wanted out. But we don’t, so, apparently, we can’t – or rather, we can’t unless the Holy Spirit had infallibly guided the Church in the Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397), e.g., where the canon was decided upon, and had seen to it that the decision in question was infallibly made. That’s the Catholic contention, and it solves the problem cleanly.”
i) First of all, since when is it the Catholic contention that local councils are infallible? Does that include the Westminster Assembly or the Synod of Dordt? What about the Niagara Bible Conference? Does that count, too?
ii) How does his appeal to conciliar authority solve the problem cleanly? As Neal is fond of saying, doesn’t that push the problem back a step? How does he distinguish an orthodox council from a heterodox council?
“For how can we consistently ‘accept by faith’ that God infallibly guided a Church Council just long enough to get our canon established...”
i) Since I reject that characterization, my own position is perfectly consistent.
ii) And why should we assume that the formation of the canon awaited a church council? Neil is looking for a theological shortcut. A top-down solution. So he doesn’t bother investigating the actual circumstances. Just compare Stanley Porter's essay on "Paul and the Process of Canonization," in C. Evans & E. Tov, eds. Exploring the Origins of the Bible (Baker 2008), chap. 6 (pp173-202), to Neal’s armchair approach, and you’ll see the difference between a factual theory (Porter) and a paper theory (Neal).
iii) Incidentally, does Neal think the Jews had no OT canon before a church council demarcated the OT canon? Why did God sanction the Jews for breach of covenant if they didn’t know where to find the word of God?
How would Jesus and the Apostles cite messianic prophecy if the Jews had no recognizable canon?
“And how could our belief in the exclusive infallible authority of the Bible be consistent, if our certainty about what makes up the Bible in the first place inevitably borrows from a piece of Catholic doctrine…”
Of course, that’s one of those loaded questions which smuggles a question-begging premise into the question.
“And finally, exemplified in the second fact is what I now believe to be an unworkable and un-Biblical view of ecclesial authority. Put bluntly, Jesus’ charge to St. Peter was ‘Feed My sheep;’ ‘Tend My flock;’ ‘Strengthen your brethren.’ He did not say, ‘Tally up the votes and take the sheep wherever they feel like going that day,’ and He didn’t say that because He knew perfectly well what happens to sheep without a shepherd – they either wander from the Great Shepherd en mass, or they scatter to the four winds in accordance with their own ideas about where He might be found.”
Didn’t they tally up the votes at Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II? Don’t they tally up the votes at a papal conclave?