Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Catholicism and restorationism

One of the stipulative truth-conditions for Catholicism and Orthodoxy is historical continuity. This is exemplified by their dogma of apostolic succession.

They deploy this as a criterion to distinguish the true church from false claimants. Seamless continuity with the past is a mark of the true church. If you can’t trace your ecclesiastical pedigree through unbroken succession, then your church is a false church. A bastard church.

Ecclesiology as genealogy. You have to have the right family tree (as it were).

But one of the oddities of this appeal is that, from an apologetic standpoint, it’s so insular and question-begging. And that’s because there’s a rival paradigm with diametrically opposing assumptions.

Within church history we also have a restorationist strain. This ranges along a continuum. Examples include Anabaptists, Puritans, Plymouth Brethren, Campbellites, Mormons, &c.

The rival paradigm accentuates discontinuity with church history as a mark of the true church. Put another way, it regards continuity with the past as a mark of institutional apostasy.

For the moment I’m not debating the pros and cons of this paradigm. And there are many different variations on this paradigm.

My immediate point is that Catholic and Orthodox apologists are trying to prove that their church is the one true church by using historical continuity as a primary criterion.

But, ironically, even if they were successful in establishing their continuity with the past, their proof would actually be disproof to someone who operates with a restorationist paradigm.

The very type of evidence which Catholic or Orthodox apologists adduce to prove their position is the same type of evidence which a restorationist could adduce to disprove their position.

For if you think the institutional church took a wrong turn at some point in the past, then historical evidence of continuity in the wrong direction is a self-defeating way to vindicate the claims of your denomination. All it amounts to evidence that, having taken a wrong turn, you have pigheadedly continued further down the wrong road. But the greater the movement in the wrong direction, the further removed you are from the right orientation.

If you were supposed to be heading north, and you’ve been heading south for centuries, then that just goes to show how utterly lost you are. You never stop to ask for directions. You never turn around. You just keep putting more miles between you and true destination. At first the true destination lies a few miles behind you, then hundreds of miles, then thousands of miles.

Conversely, for a Catholic or Orthodox apologist to discredit the competition by pointing out that this or that “sect” or “schismatic” movement broke ranks with the status quo is worse than useless since someone with a restorationist criterion regards that as a strong point in his favor. A necessary, midcourse correction. There’s no virtue in toeing the party line if the party bosses moved the border stones.

For now I’m not attempting to evaluate the respective merits of each paradigm. And I’m not arguing for any particular variant thereof.

I’m merely pointing out that Catholic and Orthodox apologists have a blinkered way of taking for granted something which they need to establish at the outset. They are a busily making a case for their position on a presumptive criterion. But they fail to make a case for their presumptive criterion.

And their presumptive criterion is counterproductive, for what they deem to be a mark of the true church many of their opponents deem to be the mark of an apostate church.


  1. All it amounts to evidence that, having taken a wrong turn, you have pigheadedly continued further down the wrong road.

    I'm wondering if any Catholics will dare bite on this one. They can't, because then they'd have to arguing in such a way to prove their a priori assumption, and they don't want to give that up.

  2. Their prior presumptive criterion is that Christ founded a church based on succession. And this church cannot fail. Therefore, historical continuity shows the true church.

  3. Of course it's circular, though, because the only evidence you have for the first premise is the testimony of the church they are arguing for in the first place.

  4. "They are a busily making a case for their position on a presumptive criterion. But they fail to make a case for their presumptive criterion.

    And their presumptive criterion is counterproductive, for what they deem to be a mark of the true church many of their opponents deem to be the mark of an apostate church."

    I've never seen this argument before. It seems quite original. It does highlight the self-serving circularity that Louis points out for those who hold to apostolic succession for The One True Church.

  5. Moreover, restorationist groups often like to point out that the "true Church", wherever it might be, is described in Scripture as a "little flock" because only a few will be saved (per their interpretation of passages like Matt. 7:13-14). In contrast to an obscure Church, institutional denominations like the Catholic Church are worldwide.

    They will point out that the Catholic Church has ties with the political world of this Age (Popes sometimes having greater sway than emperors and kings), when in contrast to that, Jesus' Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). In fact, he refused to be set up as a political King at the present Age in John 6 (btw, I'm not at this time arguing for or against theonomy).

    Often their eschatological views see the present as the "end times" in which Scripture predicted would be a time of massive apostasy (1Tim 4:1; Matt 24:4) where the whole world (including the religious world) is deceived by Satan (Rev. 12:9).

    They often would also argue that the Scriptures predict a massive EARLY apostasy as well.

    1 John 2:18
    "Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour."

    Acts 20:29-30
    "I [Paul] know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them."

    But besides restorationists, there are the esoteric groups that claim to have the true and secret teachings of Jesus. There have been Gnostic-like groups in every generation that have claimed to have either rediscovered (like the restorationists) or have preserved (like Catholics) down through the ages the true and hidden and/or lost teachings of Jesus.

    Steve is right. The Catholic criterion of continuity shouldn't go unchallenged.

    The following is what I suspect has actually been happening historically. I've included Scriptural passages that might lend support to my suspicion. My view is that Scripture might seem to predict doctrinal development in which the Church will historically grow in it's understanding of the implications of the Gospel (and other Biblical truths) up to the 2nd Advent when the Church will be doctrinally (if not also pratically) pure (Eph 4:11-16). That this will often occur providentially as theological controversies in the Church arise (1 Cor. 11:19) to force the Church to determine which views correctly reflects the Biblical data. But that this refinement will not be limited to only one denomination/group (Luke 9:49-50).

  6. So, for example, the first few centuries the Church needed to hammer out the truth concerning the PERSON of Christ (Arian, Sabellian, Apollinarian, Nestorian and other Christological controversies).

    Later, Augustine (and eventually Orange II) dealt with the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian heresies. Even the Donatist controversy had an impact on how we should view perseverance, repenantance and baptism after apparent apostasy and/or backsliding.

    Then the Reformation dealt with the WORK of Christ in the doctrine of the atonement(with the help of Anselm the) as well as with the nature of justification. The Reformation also refined the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (similar to what what I would call and hold to, Summa Scriptura). Something many of the Early Church Fathers practiced, even if they never formally taught it (see King and Webster's 3rd volume of their work for amazing quotes).

    Later, the Holiness Movement helped refine the doctrine of sanctification. And most recently the Pentecostal Movement, then Charismatic Movement (with all their problems), and the (more balanced) Third Wave Movement have helped move us along in our understanding of pneumatology and the Holy Spirit's role and willingness to still do the supernatural.

    Then 20th century, on the heels of 19th century atheistic skepticism as well as higher criticism and form criticism lead to an explosion in Christian apologetics with the copernican revolution in presuppositional approaches by Van Til, and Clark and others.

    I'm not suprised that it's happening this way. Even the NT Church grew in her understanding as is recorded in the pages of Scriptures itself. At first the Church limited the gospel preaching to only Jews. Only to later realise (and recall) that the Lord's teaching was that they were to share it to the goyim (gentile nations). They grew in their understanding that the ceremonial laws were no longer required to be obeyed; that the 7th day sabbath need no longer be strictly observed. At the council of Jerusalem the eating of foods sacrificed to idols was forbidden (Acts 15:19-20). But later, as Paul explicated the Gospel, he showed how, with the proper understanding and intention, it would be permissible to eat them ( 1 Cor. 8). There's even a hint in the NT Scriptures that the Church gradually (not by Apostolic injunction, but rather by Apostolic example) switched from worship on the 7th day to the 1st day of the week. The gospel of John, which was written near the end of the Apostolic era, mentions Jesus reappearing after 8 days (most likely the 1st day of the week). This seems to be a veiled hint of the origin of why Christians by that time were worshipping on the 1st day.

    Some scholars have even argued that the phrase "the Lord's Day" in Revelation 1:10 might refer to the same thing. Though, others have argued tha it refers to the OT concept of the coming "Day of the LORD".

    Anyway, these two posts are too much already.

    But, yeah, Catholics shouldn't be allowed to operate as if their criterion for identifying the "true church" is self-evidently true.

  7. Truth Unites... and Divides said...

    I've never seen this argument before. It seems quite original.

    Steve has made this great point before. Though, I don't think it's original with him. Others must have used it before too. I know I've used it a number of times myself because, being Filipino, most of my family are Roman Catholic with some being Seventh Day Adventists and Iglesia Ni Cristo. So, I've had to deal with which criteria is actually Biblical.