Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Arian wolves in papal vestments

[Michael Liccione] Like many Reformed types I’ve debated before, you have misunderstood my position. I do not hold that Nicene orthodoxy has no basis in Scripture or that it is not rationally defensible in scriptural or other terms. What I do hold is that, in the absence of appeal to church authority, there is no way to establish it as de fide rather than merely as one rationally defensible opinion among others. I could generalize the same point to many other theological positions that either have been or are controversial. 
This is why I am a Catholic not a Protestant. As I read church history, Protestantism of whatever variety has no way, even in principle, to distinguish consistently between propositions that call for the assent of divine faith and propositions expressing plausible opinions which might well turn out to be wrong. 

This sort of argument is commonplace among Catholic apologists. I only bring it up once again because Liccione is several notches above the average Catholic epologist, so it’s instructive to see what the cream of the crop have to say.

Is this a good reason to be Catholic rather than Protestant?

i) He seems to take the position that whether or not we interpret NT Christology in Arian terms or orthodox terms comes down to an arbitrary choice between equally plausible or rationally defensible positions. And it says something about Catholic psychology that Catholics find that comparison at all persuasive.

It’s also revealing when they think that’s a selling point for Catholicism in debating Protestants. Speaking for myself, what this reveals to me is that even sophisticated Catholics like Liccione have no more theological discernment than little old ladies passing out Watch Tower tracts on the street corner. Now, if that’s how the balance of the argument appears to Liccione, then it’s quite possible that he’s better off in the church of Rome than the Kingdom hall.

Still, it reminds me of a serial killer who turns himself into the authorities, pleading with them to lock him up before he kills again. Sorry, but I just can’t see how claiming that the interpretation of a Jehovah’s Witness is just as plausible or rationally defensible as the orthodox interpretation does much for your credibility. The only message this sends is that Catholics ought to be Catholic because their theological judgment is no better than a cult member’s.

Okay, who am I to take issue with their dismal self-assessment? That, however, is not a very compelling motive for me to be Catholic.

ii) And that’s not the only problem with his argument. As we know from the NT, the apostles had to deal with false teachers. Seems to me that their opponents could make excellent use of Liccione’s argument.

Take John’s opponents in 1 John. He writes a letter to the church of Ephesus to squash the heretical views of the false teachers who were bleeding away some of the Ephesian church members.

But imagine one of the false teachers patiently explaining to a wavering church member that 1 John is subject to more than one rationally defensible interpretation. Yes, it’s plausible to interpret 1 John as condemning Docetism and antinomianism, but it’s no less plausible to interpret 1 John as commending Arian Christology.

So even though 1 John was written with the express purpose of authoritatively settling a theological controversy, it does not, in fact, command our assent.

What if Liccione were a member of the Ephesian church in receipt of 1 John? What would he say to the false teachers? “You have your interpretation and I have mine, which may or may not differ from yours.”

For Liccione’s 1C counterpart in Asia Minor, 1 John would resolve nothing at all. The members of the Ephesian church couldn’t appeal to 1 John for reliable guidance.

As far as Liccione’s concerned, the apostle John wasted his time writing 1 John–just as St. Paul wasted his time writing Galatians. In Liccione’s mind, their letters have no functional authority. For him, 1 John would be dead on arrival.

And that’s a graphic example of just how far removed the Catholic mindset is from the outlook of the NT church.

Catholicism does have such a way, and has followed it consistently. I defend that assertion rationally by arguing, case by case, that there is no instance of doctrinal development in which theological propositions which end up being rejected had still managed to satisfy the Church’s stated criteria for infallible teaching.

i) To begin with, I don’t see how that exercise is any more certain than the uncertainties which he attributes to the exegesis of Scripture. Why is the interpretation of Scripture reducible to a variety of rationally defensible opinions, but the interpretation of dogma is exempt from the same pluralism?

ii) And even if, for the sake of argument, we were to credit his claim, a basic problem with the theory of development is that one’s understanding of de fide teaching, as well as the teaching to be understood, ranges along a sliding scale depending on when you happen to be born. For although you can view the past in light of the present, but you can’t very well view the present in light of the future.


  1. "What if Liccione were a member of the Ephesian church in receipt of 1 John? What would he say to the false teachers? “You have your interpretation and I have mine, which may or may not differ from yours.”"

    Isn't that the position he alleges us to be in? Wouldn't he simply say that he would accept 1 John because of who wrote it?

    I think the problem that he really has is that he can't know which authority is the true authority -- there being many plausible and rationally defensible claims to authority -- in any more "principled" a way than we can determine true doctrine.


    "Wouldn't he simply say that he would accept 1 John because of who wrote it?"

    No, he wouldn't simply say that, because it's not simply a matter of accepting it. It's also a matter of interpreting it.

  3. Well, if you had disagreements over interpreting it, you could just go back and ask John what he meant.

  4. The point of John writing a letter is that he wasn't on site to address the crisis directly. The letter itself takes the place of his viva voce. So the letter itself must be authoritative.

  5. Ok. Thank you for your work, brother.