Saturday, January 16, 2010

Armstrong, acorns, and other mixed nuts

I’m continuing my response to Armstrong. Armstrong’s basic contention is that modern Catholicism is the oak tree which sprang from the apostolic acorn.

No doubt there’s something sufficiently nutty about his reasoning to make that analogy irresistible to squirrels and chipmunks, but whether it commends itself to higher animals is a different question entirely.

Much of Armstrong’s reply consists of nothing more than derogatory denials rather than actual counterarguments. Therefore, much of what he says can simply be ignored.

I’ll try to isolate the few statements which bear a passing resemblance to a rational argument from all his bluff and bluster.

“Well, by looking at the history! Its not rocket science. But there is also the biblical evidence regarding indefectibility, strongly implying that God will preserve His Church in faithfulness to true doctrine, which in turn implies infallibility.”

i) When Protestants look at the history of Roman Catholicism, they don’t see evidence of an indefectible church. Rather, they see evidence of an apostate church.

ii) Why does fidelity imply infallibility? There were faithful Jews in OT times, even though the religious establishment was often quite compromised.

“This displays Jason's lack of understanding of the Catholic view of development. He tries to make this elaborate argument from silence. But he misses the forest for the trees. Cardinal Newman, in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine gives several proposed (and quite plausible) explanations for the relative early silence or lack of specificity: things that are perfectly consistent with his theory and altogether to be expected.”

The problem with Armstrong’s appeal to the argument from silence in relation to Catholic ecclesiology is that we could redeploy the same argument in relation to the canon. There might have been unanimity on the canon at an early date, but until someone like Marcion came along, there was no occasion for early church writers to enumerate all the books of the NT canon.

“I know; this is the problem. Tunnel vision and historical revisionism have this blunting effect after so many years of doing that. By this I mean "equivalent" in terms of being consistent with Catholicism in kernel form, and inconsistent with Protestantism. It's not equivalent in terms of his views being as fully developed as they were later on. But that is our view, so it is no problem for us.”

An obvious problem with the “kernel” metaphor is that it can be applied to Protestant development as well as Catholic development, viz., Protestantism is to the ear what Catholicism is to the kernel. And that’s more than a metaphor, for Protestantism does, in fact, represent a historical offshoot of the Latin church. Organic metaphors are too flexible for Armstrong’s purpose.

“As usual, the fathers (with some exceptions, as always) overwhelmingly favor the Catholic position.”

But if the status of the Deuterocanon was an open-and-shut case in the church fathers, then why was this such a contested issue at Trent? Why did Trent only affirm the Deuterocanon by a plurality? Not even a majority? Much less a unanimous vote?

“What is not often mentioned by Protestant apologists, however, is the fact that when he listed the Old Testament books, they were not identical to the Protestant 39…F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture.”

Of course, citing Bruce is a double-edged sword since Bruce defends the Protestant canon to the detriment of the Catholic canon.

“In the same fashion, the disputes about the papacy and Roman primacy and the authority of same are about the ‘edges’ and particulars: but not about the thing itself. There was such a thing as a central authority in the Church and an apostolic See and a pope: how the authority was exercised in particulars, and its exact extent and nature were debated, as we would fully expect.”

Of course, the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, who also know their way around the church fathers, don’t seem to think the dispute is limited to “edges” and “particulars.”

On the one hand, Armstrong says: “This is a strange place for Jason to try to make some sort of case for proto-Protestantism in the fathers, for the canonical disputes of those times are exceedingly complicated.”

On the other hand, he says: “If Jason wants to dichotomize the development of the canon with the development of the papacy and Roman primacy (and infallibility), he is in a no-win situation. Either he will prove the validity of the former by analogy (once the broad scope of facts are examined, rather than Jason's carefully hand-picked prooftexting), as no less indicated than the canon, or he will show that the process concerning the canon has more difficulties than the ecclesiology questions, in which case it is a counter-productive argument for him. But above and beyond all that, always lurking in the background in the canon dispute, is the question of the deuterocanonical books, where he loses (in terms of disputational ‘points’) again, because the Church accepted these books that Protestants reject.”

But if, by Armstrong’s own admission, “canonical disputes of those times are exceedingly complicated,” then how can he turn around a few sentences later and assure us that “the Church accepted these books that Protestants reject”?

Why isn’t that a “no-win” situation for Armstrong?

“He [Jason] wants to separate everything into airtight compartments, so that if we discuss apostolic succession and the certainty claimed to be obtained thereof, he simply dismisses that as off-topic, as if it has nothing to do with felt certainty, that is the very essence of infallibility and its reason for existence. His game-playing only reveals, in the end, how shallow and revisionist his analysis is.”

Seems like Armstrong wants to separate into one of those airtight compartments his claim that “the Church accepted these books [e.g. Deuterocanon]” from his prior admission that “canonical disputes of those times are exceedingly complicated.”

“Why would I trust him [Jason] for what these men believe? He's no scholar.”

Yet Armstrong admitted at the outset of his mini-series that “I don't claim to be a scholar; never have. I'm not; I'm merely a lay apologist, who writes on a popular level.”

i) So why should we trust Armstrong for what these men believe?

ii) Moreover, there’s a difference. Armstrong relies on whatever sources he can scavenge from the Internet. By contrast, Jason invests serious money in the purchase of standard monographs and reference works on patrology. Therefore, Jason is far better informed on patristic scholarship than Armstrong.

“One had to cling to Rome in order to know for sure what was orthodox and what wasn't. That was the gold standard. Rome faithfully kept the faith of the Bible and the apostles.”

Really? Did the heresies of Liberius and Honorius represent the gold standard of orthodoxy? Even if Catholic apologists think that they can successfully explain away these aberrations, that would be in spite of the papacy, and not because of it. If you were just “clinging to Rome” at the time, you’d be a heretic.

“Everything goes back to the Bible.”

I’m gratified to see Armstrong vouch for the Protestant rule of faith.

“If there is such a thing as priests, bishops, and popes, and hierarchical ecclesiological structure in Scripture (as there assuredly are), then those things are worthy of belief as well, as part of the apostolic deposit…How do we do that? By following the line of apostolic succession and determining what was believed everywhere and by all, and the true line of development of doctrine.”

Notice the bait-and-switch. On the one hand he baits the reader by claim that those things are “assuredly in Scripture.” But having said that, he suddenly switches to apostolic succession and the Vincentian canon.

But in that case he can’t actually find those things in Scripture. At best, he can only find them in church history, then read them back into Scripture via some auxiliary principles like apostolic succession. Not only is this at odds with his original claim, but his auxiliary principles are among the very things in dispute!

“He resides, after all, in the ‘much different position’ of the 21st century. He knows better than those old fuddy-duds 1500 years ago. What do they know, anyway?”

But 21C Catholics also reside in a much different position than 16C Catholics.

“If cornered, he can appeal to the oh-so-cool fetish of uncertainty and nuanced relativistic theology and ecclesiology. That's the cure-all. It's the timeworn Protestant slippery fish / moving target routine (like the ducks at a carnival sideshow), in a clever new guise. It's also a curious mix of fundamentalism and postmodernist mush.”

Aside from the mixed metaphors, I’d note that Catholics like Armstrong also retreat into degrees of certainty and “relativistic” nuances. Take the following analysis, by Fr. William Most, which Armstrong plugs on his own blog:

First level:

a) Solemn definition. LG 25: No special formula of words is required in
order to define. Wording should be something solemn, and should make clear
that the teaching is definitive. Councils in the past often used the form:
"Si quis dixerit. . . anathema sit." That is: "If someone shall say. . . .
let him be anathema." But sometimes they used the formula for disciplinary
matters, so that form alone does not prove. Further, they also could define
in the capitula, the chapters. Thus Pius XII, in Divino afflante Spiritu
(EB 538) spoke of such a passage of Vatican I (DS 3006 -- saying God is the
author of Scripture) as a solemn definition.

The Pope can define even without the Bishops. Of his definitions LG 25
said: "His definitions of themselves, and not from consent of the Church,
are rightly called unchangeable, for they are pronounced with the
assistance of the Holy Spirit, an assistance promised him in blessed Peter.
So they need no approval from others, nor is there room for an appeal to
any other judgment." So collegiality even in defining is not mandatory. Yet
most definitions of the Popes have been taken in collegiality, that is,
with consultation of the Bishops. Even the definitions of the Immaculate
Conception and the Assumption were such, for the Popes did poll the Bishops
by mail.

b) Second level: LG 25: "Although the individual bishops do not have the
prerogative of infallibility, they can yet teach Christ's doctrine
infallibly. This is true even when they are scattered around the world,
provided that, while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves, and
with the successor of Peter, they concur in one teaching as the one which
must be definitively held." This means: (1) The day to day teaching of the
Church throughout the world, when it gives things as definitively part of
the faith, (2) If this can be done when scattered, all the more can it be
done when assembled in Council. Thus Trent (DS 1520) after "strictly
prohibiting anyone from hereafter believing or preaching or teaching
differently than what is established and explained in the present decree,"
went on to give infallible teaching even in the capitula, outside the

To know whether the Church intends to teach infallibly on this second
level, we notice both the language -- no set form required - and the
intention, which may be seen at times from the nature of the case, at times
from the repetition of the doctrine on this second level.

c) Third Level: Pius XII, in Humani generis: "Nor must it be thought that
the things contained in Encyclical Letters do not of themselves require
assent on the plea that in them the Pontiffs do not exercise the supreme
power of their Magisterium. For these things are taught with the ordinary
Magisterium, about which it is also true to say, 'He who hears you, hears
me.' [Lk 10. 16]. . . If the Supreme Pontiffs, in their acta expressly pass
judgment on a matter debated until then, it is obvious to all that the
matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be
considered any longer a question open for discussion among theologians."

We notice: (1) These things are protected by the promise of Christ in Lk
10. 16, and so are infallible, for His promise cannot fail. Though that
promise was first given to the 72, it is certain that the Apostles were in
the group, and as the trajectory advanced, it became clear that the full
teaching authority was only for them - the mission given to the 72 was
preliminary, and the full meaning was made clear later when the Apostles
were given the authority to bind and to loose. This was part of the broader
picture: Jesus wanted only a gradual self-revelation. Had He started by
saying: "Before Abraham was, I am", He would have been stoned on the spot.
(2) Not everything in Encyclicals, and similar documents, is on this level
- this is true only when the Popes expressly pass judgment on a previously
debated matter, (3) since the Church scattered throughout the world can
make a teaching infallible without defining - as we saw on level 2 -then of
course the Pope alone, who can speak for and reflect the faith of the whole
Church, can do the same even in an Encyclical, under the conditions
enumerated by Pius XII. Really, on any level, all that is required to make
a thing infallible is that it be given definitively. When a Pope takes a
stand on something debated in theology and publishes it in his Acta, that
suffices. The fact that as Pius XII said it is removed from debate alone
shows it is meant as definitive.

In this connection, we note that LG 12 says: "The entire body of the
faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of
belief." This means: If the whole Church, both people and authorities, have
ever believed (accepted as revealed) an item, then that cannot be in error,
is infallible. Of course this applies to the more basic items, not to very
technical matters of theological debate. But we note this too: If this
condition has once been fulfilled in the past, then if people in a later
age come to doubt or deny it -- that does not make noninfallible what was
once established as infallible. Many things come under this , e. g. , the
existence of angels.

This does not mean, however, that the Pope is to be only the echo of the

d) Level 4: LG 25: "Religious submission of mind and of will must be
shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff
even when he is not defining, in such a way, namely, that the judgments
made by him are sincerely adhered to according to his manifested mind and
will, which is clear either from the nature of the documents, or from the
repeated presentation of the same doctrine, or from the manner of

We note all the qualifications in the underlined part The key is the
intention of the Pope. He may be repeating existing definitive teaching
from Ordinary Magisterium level - then it is infallible, as on level 2. He
may be giving a decision on a previously debated point - as on level 3,
then it falls under the promise of Christ in Lk 10. 16, and so is also
infallible. Or it may be a still lesser intention - then we have a case
like that envisioned in Canon 752 of the New Code of Canon Law: "Not indeed
an assent of faith, but yet a religious submission of mind and will must be
given to the teaching which either the Supreme Pontiff, or the College of
Bishops [of course, with the Pope] pronounce on faith or on morals when
they exercise the authentic Magisterium even if they do not intend to
proclaim it by a definitive act." If they do not mean to make it
definitive, then it does not come under the virtue of faith, or the promise
of Christ,"He who hears you hears me". Rather, it is a matter of what the
Canon and LG 25 call "religious submission of mind and of will." What does
this require? Definitely, it forbids public contradiction of the teaching.
But it also requires something in the mind, as the wording indicates. This
cannot be the absolute assent which faith calls for - for since this
teaching is, by definition, not definitive, we gather that it is not
absolutely finally certain.

How can anyone give any mental assent when there is not absolute
certitude? In normal human affairs, we do it all the time. Suppose we are
at table, and someone asks if a dish of food came from a can, and if so,
was it sent to a lab to check for Botulism. It is true, routine opening of
a can would not detect that deadly poison. Yet it is too much to check
every can, and the chances are very remote, so much so that normal people
do not bother about it - yet their belief takes into account a real but
tiny possibility of a mistake. Similarly with a doctrine on this fourth
level. And further, the chances of error on this level are much smaller
than they are with a can of food. Similarly, in a criminal trial, the judge
will tell the jury they must find the evidence proves guilt beyond
reasonable doubt. He does not demand that every tiny doubt be ruled out,
even though it may mean life in prison or death.

If one should make a mistake by following the fourth level of Church
teaching, when he comes before the Divine Judge, the Judge will not blame
him, rather He will praise him. But if a person errs by breaking with the
Church on the plea that he knew better - that will not be easily accepted.

Continuing with Armstrong:

“They're like a suicide bomb strapped to his entire argument. It just went up in smoke.”

And are the gradations of authority in Catholicism a suicide bomb as well?

“That was Arius' method, because it was precisely the heretics who adopted sola Scriptura. Arius agreed with the Protestant rule of faith, and he did so for the same exact reason: if one can't trace his beliefs back through an unbroken chain of apostolic succession and tradition (Arius, being a denier of the Trinity clearly couldn't dop that), then one must become a-historical and pretend to arrive at one's heresies by Scripture Alone. Arius did that and his followers today: Jehovah's Witnesses and Christadelphians and The Way International, continue to do it. Church history is their enemy. JWs only utilize history in order to engage in wholesale lies about it, such as that Arius' position was the original one, and trinitarianism was the corrupting innovation.”

This is just another example of how Catholic apologists are closet heretics. By their own admission, the only thing that stands between them and rank heresy is the pope.

“The Deuterocanon is the elephant in the room.”

Yes, a rogue elephant.

“Or the dark family secret.”

Like the priestly abuse scandal?

“Worship at a Catholic Church: this is some novelty for a Church father to say? In other words, if he were here today, he would tell me to separate from a Protestant pastor if he doesn't adhere to the succession of unbroken doctrine, and teaches heresy. He would recognize Jason as a heretic insofar as he espouses false doctrine. But he would recognize me as one of his own party: a Catholic.”

Protestants are heretics? I thought modern Catholicism classifies Protestants as “separated brethren” who belong to “ecclesial communities.”

“J. N. D. Kelly also writes about this: Not that Vincent is a conservative who excludes the possibility of all progress in doctrine…But this development, he is careful to explain, while real, must not result in the least alteration to the original significance of the doctrine concerned.”

And does Catholicism abide by that exacting restriction?

“Therefore, the Catholic Church was not itself corrupted (as he makes clear in 1-3, and in the two appearances of "attempt" in the other excerpt).”

At the risk of stating the obvious, no church father was vouching for the 21C church of Rome.

Schismatic persons are always around:

1 Corinthians 1:13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

1 Corinthians 11:18-19 For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, [19] for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.

Jude 1:17-19 But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; [18] they said to you, "In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions." [19] It is these who set up divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.

We are also told in Scripture that there will be those of counterfeit faith who will infiltrate the true Church. But this does not lead to corruption of doctrine, which is a different thing (indefectibility). Hence we read:

Matthew 7:15 (RSV) Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

Luke 8:11-15 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. [12] The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. [13] And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. [14] And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. [15] And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.

Acts 20:27-30 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. [28] Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son. [29] I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; [30] and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.

2 Timothy 3:1-9, 14 [1] But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. [2] For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, [3] inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, [4] treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, [5] holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people. [6] For among them are those who make their way into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and swayed by various impulses, [7] who will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth. [8] As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith; [9] but they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men. . . . [14] But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it

1 John 2:19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.

Once again, we see Armstrong’s implicit faith in the perspicuity of Scripture. No magisterial interpretation required. Just quote chapter and verse. Case closed.

Armstrong is never more Protestant than when he attempts to oppose Protestants.


  1. I’ll try to isolate the few statements which bear a passing resemblance to a rational argument from all his bluff and bluster.

    Bingo!! I’ve noticed this from Armstrong for years. He always uses the boldest and strongest language as if that proves his point. You can go back and read his discussions over the years and it is always the same thing.

  2. Mr. Hays,
    I've been enjoying your posts on Catholicism, and look forward to each round.

    Forgive me if this seems simplistic, but it seems a Protestant just shrug and say something like, "Until Rome says something in condemnation of Popes like Alexander VI (and the rest of his ilk), they have no moral high ground from which to dictate my behaviour and beliefs."

    Is there anywhere that any Vatican has suggested these men were wrong when they spoke/behaved "infallibly?"

  3. "...ii) Moreover, there’s a difference. Armstrong relies on whatever sources he can scavenge from the Internet. By contrast, Jason invests serious money in the purchase of standard monographs and reference works on patrology. Therefore, Jason is far better informed on patristic scholarship than Armstrong....".

    I don't know Jason, I don't know you but what I read in here.

    What I gather as well is Jason fully relies upon the Sanctification of the Spirit when defending the Faith once delivered to the Saints. And I might add, it does seem to me you do too!

    But really, cannot you leave the acorns to us Indians? :)

    We truly converted Indians can claim the land the acorns sprout from! You visiting foreigners don't go back that far, or not?

    Oh, by the way, is there any room in here for a mustard seed?