Friday, January 01, 2010

Catholic Judaizers

I'm posting some email comments I may about Andrew Preslar's response to Jason Engwer. The anachronistic orientation of Catholic theology turns historical narratives like Jn 3 into fictitious allegories about Catholic church history:


Andrew Preslar

“(1) We variously evaluate the significance of the fact that the gift of the Spirit in justification can precede the reception of baptism. (2) This (among other things) leads to different readings of ‘faith’ passages that do not say anything about baptism.”

That’s one reason, but not the only reason. It’s an indirect reason.

It is, however, true that if we have specific cases of prebaptismal justification, then there’s no obvious link between baptism and justification. In that event, baptism seems to be superfluous to justification–although it might still have a rationale apart from justification.

“You read them as excluding baptism. I see no logical reason to do so…”

There are at least five logical reasons to do so–of which I’ll mention three, and save the rest for later:

i) Besides the phenomenon of prebaptismal justification, we also have:

ii) Paul’s argument in Galatians. Paul classifies circumcision as a work. He says Abraham was justified apart from the work of circumcision. And he’s mounting an argument from analogy between OT justification and NT justification. So, by parity of argument, it would be inconsistent of him to turn around and say that Christians are justified by baptism (cf. Col 2:11-12).

iii) This is reinforced by the fact that if baptism were justificatory, then Paul could have dispatched the Judaizers in one crisp sentence: “No, Christians aren’t justified by circumcision; rather, Christians are justified by baptism!”

Let’s put it this way: If Paul were Roman Catholic, isn’t that how we’d expect him to make his case in Galatians?

“Given what Sacred Scripture says about baptism, in particular, baptism in relation to faith and the gifts of initial salvation.”

i) Which fails to take into account the nature of symbols and metaphors. If baptism were a symbol or metaphor of salvation, then saving properties would be symbolically attributed to baptism. Preslar needs to explain why that interpretation is untenable.

ii) Notice how he implicitly distinguishes between “initial” salvation and (I guess) “final” salvation. But is that distinction given in any of his prooftexts?

iii) And not just a distinction, but a potential dichotomy between initial and final salvation, where someone can be initially saved/justified, but fail to be finally saved/justified.

iv) Catholics don’t believe you have to be baptized to be saved. In fact, they don’t even believe you have to be Christian to be saved. So their actual paradigm for salvation is inconsistent with either justification by faith or justification by baptism.

It reminds me of something Feynman said about physics. He said it was very difficult to introduce a new theory into physics since any new theory had to fit in with all of the established theories.

And that’s a problem when Catholics appeal to Scripture. For their interpretations have to find a place within the preexisting cubicles of Catholic theology. Each interpretation has to be consistent with everything else in Catholic theology.

“(3) I recommend a synthetic reading of both (a) the justification by faith and benefits of baptism passages and (b) the Spirit & forgiveness of sins given before baptism and the Spirit & forgiveness of sins given in baptism passages.”

One of the problems with his “synthetic” approach is that he’s not simply combining different kinds of passages. He’s also introducing harmonistic devices like “proleptic“ gift and “initial” justification to make them go together. And his harmonistic devices are not something he directly adduces from any of his prooftexts. Rather, that’s something he introduces from the outside.

“In my approach, the ‘faith’ passages are not automatic pretexts for interpreting the ‘baptism’ passages as merely symbolizing indwelling/forgiveness/union/justification, rather than actually conferring the same.”

That’s not the only reason to treat the baptismal passages as “merely” emblematic of the spiritual benefits in question. Given the nature of symbol and metaphor, he needs an independent argument for why we should take these ascriptions literally.

That’s actually a preliminary question, even before we get to other data which are difficult to reconcile with baptismal justification.

“Without this premise, you would, I think, interpret the baptism passages differently, and more naturally, in accordance with their respective contexts. You would also feel less pressure to exclude the actual sacrament of baptism from those passages that ascribe some spiritual efficacy to ‘baptism.’”

That begs the question of whether it’s unnatural to construe these passages symbolically and/or metaphorically.

Is it unnatural to construe Jesus’ statement about the vine and the branches figuratively?

If, for the sake of argument, baptism were merely symbolic of certain blessings, like forgiveness, then it would be quite natural to ascribe spiritual efficacy to baptism. It would be quite natural to describe forgiveness in the figurative imagery of “washing away” sin.

“I think that if you were convinced that the faith passages do not automatically exclude baptism then you would read the baptism passages differently.”

He takes for granted that there’s a standing presumption in favor of sacramental realism, and it takes some strong counterevidence to override that default understanding.

Speaking for myself, I don’t agree. The Bible is studded with symbols and metaphors. Sometimes these are purely literary metaphors. At other times they are concrete metaphors, in the sense of symbolic actions or objects. As such, I don’t think there’s any reason to assume sacramental realism unless proven otherwise.

“I have tried to facilitate such a reading on your part in a variety of ways, including invoking the principle of not judging the nature / efficacy of something based upon passages that do not mention that thing.”

But he himself does that very thing with his extraneous harmonistic principles.

“Rather, we should form our views about baptism based upon what Scripture says about baptism.”

The question is not what is “says,” but what it “means” by what it says. What does Jn 15 say about the “spiritual efficacy” of the vine? Doesn’t the vine “confer” life on the branches? Yet Catholics haven’t added a sacramental vineyard to their list of sacraments.

“A related issue is that you seem tempted to read certain ‘baptism’ passages, including the ‘born of water’ and ‘washing of regeneration’, as excluding the sacrament–which would be a really strange way to teach rebirth/justification by faith sans baptism, especially since the sacrament figures so prominently in Christian initiation in the NT and beyond.”

i) To begin with, Christian baptism wasn’t prominent for Nicodemus. Indeed, it didn’t exist at that time. Catholics simply deactivate the historical context.

ii) As for Tit 3:5, if the “washing of rebirth” denotes baptismal regeneration/justification, then what does “renewal by the Holy Spirit” denote? It’s strange that Paul would use two phrases rather than one if only one stands for baptismal regeneration/justification. And it’s equally strange that he’d use both phrases for baptismal generation/justification when only one phrase employs aquatic imagery.

Catholics quote these prooftexts, but they don’t pay close attention to the actual wording or historical setting.

“I have given some reasons for not doing that, e.g., it is an argument from silence, such an approach seems to be pretty clearly falsified in the case of, e.g., repentance…”

That doesn’t falsify it at all.

i) To begin with, “justification by faith” (and verbal variants thereof) is a Pauline idiom. I wouldn’t expect other NT speakers or writers to reproduce a Pauline idiom. And, indeed, James is the only other NT writer who uses that phraseology. Yet that’s actually a study in contrast since he means something very different by that form of words.

ii) Repentance and faith are not two fundamentally different emotions. It’s just a difference in emphasis. Both reflect a change of heart and mind.

iii) Moreover, I doubt the NT always intends to draw a conceptual or psychological distinction between the two. I expect that much of the time these function as stock terms and stylistic synonyms.

“And, yes, the most straightforward reading of the baptism passages seems to indicate that they really are about baptism…”

If he’s still referring to Jn 3:5 and Tit 3:5, that begs the question.

What’s apparent is that he can’t take the opposing position seriously even for the sake of argument.

“And that the effects of this sacrament are truly foundational to life in Christ, in terms of both inward changes and new relationships.”

i) How is baptism “truly foundational” if, by his own admission, there are many cases of prebaptismal justification?

ii) And, of course, he doesn’t take the baptismal passages straightforwardly, since they generally make faith a precondition of baptism, whereas infant baptism is the norm in Roman Catholicism.

“Now, to revert to the timing issue: My position here is the result of my synthetic reading of the passages in question, in which there is no need to pick one or another passages as ‘normative.’”

But if he just told us that baptism is “truly foundational,” then that makes baptism normative. And he introduces harmonistic devices to square the other types of passages with the baptismal passages. That’s another mark of what he views as normative.

“In any event, questions about the timing of the effects of the sacrament of baptism and the moment of a conscious act of faith depend greatly upon the subject of baptism, such as whether the subject is an older child/adult or an infant, or, in cases of the former, whether or not the sacrament is received with the right disposition.”

And where do his baptismal prooftexts draw those distinctions?

“If Scripture does not make a major issue of the timing of the gift of the Spirit/justification and the reception of baptism, then neither should we, at least, not in the interpretation of those scriptures. There are passages in which the timing of justification is central to an argument, but these are not addressing baptism. For instance, St. Paul makes a big deal of the timing of Abraham’s justification viz circumcision.”

And isn’t baptism the counterpart to circumcision? Both are covenant signs of covenant membership.

“One reason that this is not parallel to the timing of justification and the (non)efficacy of baptism is that faith and baptism both belong to the New Covenant…whereas circumcision did not belong to the covenant that God made with Abraham when he was initially justified.”

Circumcision did belong to the Abrahamic covenant. But it was separable from his justification.

“Baptism, however, does belong to the covenant in which we are justified, the New Covenant in Christ’s blood. So faith and circumcision, in the covenantal theology of Romans 4, can be temporally distinguished in a way that faith and baptism cannot.”

i) Faith and baptism are temporally distinguished in Acts, since there is no fixed sequence.

ii) Moreover, he’s blurring two different issues:

a) Are faith and baptism temporally distinguished?

b) Are faith and justification temporally distinguished?

“According to St. Paul, baptism is the means by which we are identified with Christ, the foundation of our new life in the Spirit (Romans 6–8).”

Which sidesteps the question of whether that connection is symbolic or constitutive.

“Paul simply says that we are identified with Christ by baptism.”

And if Paul were a Baptist or Zwinglian, he’d simply say the same thing. That’s in the nature of symbolism. What is said of the significate can be said of the sign, and vice versa. What is said of Christ can be said of the vine, and vice versa–within the limits of the intended analogy.

Preslar never gets inside the logic of symbolic reference or emblematic denotation. So all he ends up doing is to repeat himself by paraphrasing his question-begging claims time and again.

“When an event is bound up with something eternal, its efficacy need not be in every way bounded by its temporal placement.”

In theory, no. But Paul makes a big deal about the timing of justification in relation to a covenant sign.

“There is also a sense in which the full effects of initial salvation await the actual reception of baptism…”

And his prooftext for that is what?

“…without which one is not, for example, inwardly configured to participate in the Eucharist.”

Was Ted Kenney inwardly configured to participate in the Eucharist whereas William Booth was not?

“This is a further claim, but it indicates one of the reasons that Catholics can hold that there is a distinct and foundational effect in the actual conferral baptism, even when spiritual life has already begun prior to baptism, in anticipation thereof.”

But if baptism confers regeneration, then how does regeneration precede its sacramental cause?


  1. Don't forget, if you sin after baptism, as you inevitably will, you will then have to submit to their sacrament of penance. So even baptism doesn't actually justify.

    Penance, of course, "is made not in the secrecy of the penitent's heart... but to a duly ordained priest with requisite jurisdiction and with the 'power of the keys', i.e., the power to forgive sins...." (cath. encyc.).

    As Luther said, they actually reduce baptism "to such small and slender dimensions that, while they say grace is indeed inpoured by it, they maintain that afterwards it is poured out again through sin, and that then one must reach heaven by another way, as if baptism had become entirely useless."

    The whole sacerdotal system gives rise to "endless burdens... works, satisfactions... indulgences" and ultimately aims "to lead the people as far astray as possible from their baptism."

  2. Mark 16:16 "He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned"

    Here is Jason Engwers argument:

    Mark 16:16 is an extra-Biblical source. It has some significance as an early text, but the readers should keep in mind that it’s an extra-Biblical text.

    This is an actual argument from Jason Engwer. i can see why this 'triablogue' is referred to as the Black Hole of Christian Blogs. The amount of Sophistry is cosmic

  3. tap said:
    "i can see why this 'triablogue' is referred to as the Black Hole of Christian Blogs. The amount of Sophistry is cosmic"

    Is this a joke? It is well known that the long ending of Mark is not found in the earliest manuscripts and is missing from many of the major later manuscripts (Sinaiticus, B, Sinaitic Syriac, etc). Clement of Alexandria and Origen appear to not have known about it. Eusebius, Jerome, and Severus also record that it was not found in the majority of Bibles in their day.

    I guess that the longer ending of Mark is one of Catholics' favorite Bible passages that's not in the Bible.

  4. Since mainstream Catholic Bible scholars freely admit that the Long Ending of Mark is a scribal interpolation, the onus is hardly on Jason when he's debating a Catholic layman like Bryan Cross.

  5. tap,

    Do you think that all of the Bible publishers, New Testament scholars, textual critics, etc. who agree with my conclusion are also engaged in "cosmic sophistry"? Does that include the many Catholic scholars, clergymen, etc. who agree with me? What about the church fathers and other early sources who also considered the passage inauthentic?

    What's your alternative? That we ignore the historical evidence against the authenticity of the passage? By that logic, should we also ignore the evidence against every other false ending of Mark (there were multiple false endings) and ignore the evidence against every other textual variant? Do you accept all passages that have ever appeared in any Bible? Or do you follow some other standard? If so, what is it? Wouldn't an explanation of your standard make more sense than simply referring to my position as "cosmic sophistry"?

    Just after my comment you quoted, I cited a parallel case in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. Scholars regularly distinguish between the authentic and the inauthentic texts of Ignatius. I can cite scholars, including scholars who specialize in the study of Ignatius, making the same sort of distinction I've made. Are they also guilty of "cosmic sophistry"?

  6. Jason Engwer said:
    "What's your alternative? That we ignore the historical evidence against the authenticity of the passage? By that logic, should we also ignore the evidence against every other false ending of Mark (there were multiple false endings) and ignore the evidence against every other textual variant?"

    There's also another problem. If we can't trust the data from the early church historians such as Eusebius, why should we trust the church fathers in general and 'Sacred Tradition' at all?

  7. "Eusebius, Jerome, and Severus also record that it was not found in the majority of Bibles in their day."

    This should say: "in the earliest manuscripts known to them in their day."

  8. Saint and Sinner wrote:

    "If we can't trust the data from the early church historians such as Eusebius, why should we trust the church fathers in general and 'Sacred Tradition' at all?"

    Yes, and there are many examples of Catholic disagreement with the church fathers and patristic sources and earlier church tradition in general.

  9. Not only that, but Mark 16 is part of the canon infallibly recognized by Trent. But what does it say about the decisions of an infallible council when it goes against the best facts at hand?

  10. Mathetes:
    You should know by now that when it comes to Papal infallibility, the order of emphasis is Pope first, history second.

    Unless it's Papal election time, then it's all about which Pope brought the most donkeys laden with the most gold (a la Alexander VI)