Saturday, May 29, 2010

The gates of hell shall not prevail

Michael Liccione has left some comments over at CTC (, which helpfully compare and contrast Catholic and Protestant methodology, as he understands it. Let’s evaluate his statements:

Michael Liccione May 25th, 2010 3:09 pm :

Prior to the assent of faith in the Catholic Church’s claims for herself, the most that the sincere, objective, but uncommitted inquirer can do is study the dataset and reach an opinion about which version of Christianity it best supports. If one forms the opinion that the dataset best supports the claims of the Catholic Church for herself, then one has good reason to make the assent of faith in them. Even so, that is not the same as intellectual compulsion, as though one could only hold such an opinion as something perfectly obvious. The assent is a free choice which, as such, is not compelled by the dataset itself or by any particular interpretation of it.

i) One problem with this statement is the vagueness of the “dataset.” For surely one of the preliminary issues is just what dataset represents the most relevant dataset. There are rival candidates for the relevant dataset.

ii) Beyond the identification of the relevant dataset, there is also the question of one’s hermeneutical approach to the dataset. Do we interpret the dataset according to original intent? Or do we interpret the dataset diachronically and retrospective, as a developing trajectory?

iii) It’s also unclear what he means by the “asset of faith.” Is that synonymous with merely believing the claimant? Or does this represent a stronger conviction and/or commitment?

Yet, once said assent is made, one cannot but see the dataset as making said assent more reasonable than the alternatives. For by making the assent, one has ipso facto adopted what is, in effect, a hermeneutical paradigm (HP) within which all the relevant data are altogether explicable in Catholic terms. Prior to the assent of faith, the Catholic HP only appears as one opinion among others that also have a certain plausibility; after the assent, the Catholic HP can no longer appear just as an opinion, but as a way of understanding the dataset that, in certain areas, is divinely protected from error. That’s what it means to adopt the Catholic HP.

i) It’s hard to see how his bootstrapping methodology can avoid a vicious circle or vicious regress. It’s true that once you adopt the package, you are committed to the entire package. If you accept an authority source, then you accept whatever the authority source may authorize.

Yet this is contingent on your personal assessment of the evidence. On your interpretive procedures. The edifice can’t overbuild on the foundation.

Even if you now view the evidence through the prism of the Magisterium (or “Catholic HP”), that is only as solid as the underlying, non-magisterial prism which supports it. So Liccione needs something over and above this linear progression to get beyond mere “opinion” (as he puts it).

To take a comparison, suppose I need to pick an oncologist. I do some research in Best Doctors. I pick the oncologist with the best credentials.

Having done so, I may now take his word for the best course of treatment. I trust his judgment. He’s an authority in the field.

Yet my faith in him is still no better than his credentials. No better than my own research.

ii) It’s also artificial to claim that by making this assent, “all the relevant data are altogether explicable in Catholic terms.”

Either the dataset appear to be altogether explicable in Catholic terms or they don’t. It’s not as if they suddenly fall into place the moment you make the asset of faith (whatever that means). The assent of faith can’t alter appearances. They are what they are.

A Protestant as such always reserves to himself the right to judge the orthodoxy of something called “the Church” (in light of Scripture and whatever he also takes to be normative) even when he has joined what he takes to be either “the” Church or some branch thereof. Choosing to be Catholic means surrendering that putative right. If and when one comes to see the Catholic Church as the Church, and makes the corresponding assent of faith in her claims for herself, then one has chosen to have one’s orthodoxy is measured by her teaching, not vice-versa. Accordingly, a Catholic cannot see the definitive teaching of the Church as just one set of opinions over against others; nor can he see “Rome” as just one denomination or sect among others. Choosing to be Catholic means abjuring the very idea that religion is a matter of opinion, because choosing to be Catholic means joining what one has come to see as the Body of Christ, sharing in his teaching authority as her head through the bishops in apostolic succession, and thus as divinely protected from error when teaching with her full authority.

i) But this still suffers from the bootstrap methodology. For his level of commitment is underdetermined by the level of evidence which led to his membership in that organization. Frankly, it’s an exercise in make-believe. He will act as if this organization warrants a higher claim on his allegiance than the evidence warrants.

ii) It’s also hard to distinguish this from the unconditional and unfalsifiable loyalty of a cult member. What if Liccione backs the wrong horse? On his methodology, there’s no backing out. The initial asset of faith is immune to correction, even if it happens to be dead wrong.

Accordingly, the key premise of Bryan’s argument in the above post is, in effect, that the object of Catholic assent is fundamentally different in kind from the object of Protestant assent, even if the process of inquiry leading up to the assent is otherwise very similar in form and diligence. To put it in succinct technical form: the terminus ad quem is radically different even when the terminus a quo is the same. The terminus ad quem here is ecclesial infallibility, which is the pivotal feature of the Catholic HP, and requires as a correlate that some visible body is “the” Church outside of which there is no salvation. If and when one adopts that HP, then one is committed to rejecting any interpretation of the data that would falsify the Catholic Church’s claims for herself. That is the stance which various Reformed critics are reacting against when they accuse Catholics like Bryan and me of “presuppositionalism” and of trying to make Catholicism “unfalsifiable.”

Which is a valid concern.

What such critics take to be the intellectually respectable alternative to our stance as Catholics is tantamount to treating religion as ultimately just a matter of opinion; for on the Protestant HP, nobody’s teaching or profession of faith is admitted as infallible, hence all are provisional and open to future revision—by the individual, if not by the institution itself.

That oversimplifies the Protestant alternative (see below).

Epistemically, what distinguishes Catholicism from Protestantism is the sort of assent each involves. Since the Protestant recognizes no individual or ecclesial authority as infallible under any conditions, even when he considers Scripture inerrant (which not all Protestants do), the Protestant must inevitably regard as provisional any assent he might render to doctrinal statements, whether those statements are offered as mere expositions of Scripture or go beyond that. If he considers Scripture inerrant, he will of course say that his assent to the truths contained in Scripture is absolute not provisional. But to the question what the truths we can extract from Scripture actually mean or imply for doctrinal purposes, he can answer only by citing expositions and interpretations that represent his own or others’ opinions. Affirming that Scripture is inerrant, therefore, affords the Protestant as such no basis whatsoever for saying that we know what, exactly, God is revealing to us through Scripture in a manner that can be expressed by doctrinal statements. He might of course glean, from his own reading of Scripture and the work of his preferred scholars, a pretty fair idea of what the human authors of Scripture intended by their words. But given his rejection of infallible interpretive authority, the Protestant leaves himself in no position to distinguish reliably between de fide doctrines—i.e., the doctrines to which God calls for our assent—and the theological views of both authors and interpreters. Hence the Protestant as such has no way in principle to distinguish clearly the assent of faith, which is a divine gift involving assent to statements made with divine authority, from mere human opinions about what various “sources,” primarily Scripture, actually transmit to us as divine revelation.

i) One problem is this is the way that Liccione simply begs the question. He frames this as if it were a problem for the Protestant faith. But even if his characterization were accurate, where’s the supporting argument to show that this consequence is unacceptable?

ii) At the risk of repeating myself, how does this situation differ from the situation of God’s people in OT times or the Intertestamental Period?

This means, among other things, that the Protestant sees something called “the Church” in a fundamentally different way from Catholics. Given how he conceives assent to divine truth, the Protestant cannot see something called “the Church” as a sure guide to discerning it. Since “the Church” is fallible under all conditions, her orthodoxy is to be judged by what this-or-that person or group takes to be the doctrinally correct interpretation of Scripture (and other sources too, on some accounts), rather than vice-versa. Ultimately, the Protestant’s assent involves submission not to “the Church” but to himself as his most reliable guide to discerning divine revelation. “The Church,” from this point of view, is simply the set of people who ascribe to the “correct” interpretation of the sources, where what’s “correct” is what the individual believer provisionally accepts as such.

Well, that’s overstated. “The Church” doesn’t have to get everything right to be “the Church.” Consider the situation of Jews in the time of Jesus. Was there any one Jewish party which got everything right? No.

The claims of this-or-that church to a certain kind of authority thus form no part of the deposit of faith; rather, what counts as “the Church” depends on its conformity to the deposit of faith, when said deposit is understood in a manner logically independent of any ecclesial claims to authority.

And that’s what enables us to distinguish a church from a cult.

Thus “the Church” is not strictly necessary for knowing Truth himself. It might be educationally useful for some, and is certainly pastorally useful for many. But that’s about it. In principle, it’s quite possible to read the Bible alone in a room and thereby learn all that God wants us to know for our salvation.

And what’s wrong with that, exactly? What about Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist living in a country where there is no church? Is it possible for him to come to a saving knowledge of God by reading the Bible all by himself?

Of course that sort of thing yields a variety of opinions whose holders like to call “doctrines” given by the Holy Spirit. Many of those opinions are, of course, mutually incompatible. That’s why we have more Protestant denominations and sects than anybody, including Protestants themselves, can agree on how to count.

But there was great diversity in 1C Judaism. Indeed, the diversity was probably greater than our fragmentary records preserve.

When the Catholic, on the other hand, makes his assent of faith, he is among other things assenting to the claims made by a visible, historically continuous body that it is the Body of Christ on earth, authorized by him as her Head to teach in his name and thus, when speaking with her full authority, protected by his Spirit from requiring belief in propositions that are false. Accordingly, the Catholic does not, because as such he cannot, claim to know the deposit of faith in a manner logically independent of the claims the Church makes for herself. He does not, because he cannot, claim to know the “true doctrine” from the sources without depending on the authoritative certification of the sources as such by the Church, and the authoritative interpretations thereof by the Church. Thus for the Catholic, faith in the risen Christ, acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God, and faith in the teaching of the Church as that of the Body of Christ are logically inseparable from each other. And so the Catholic does not judge the orthodoxy of the Church; rather, he submits to the Church as, among other things, the judge of his orthodoxy.

What prevents a Mormon from constructing a parallel argument?

We are now in a position to address the question why the Catholic mode of assent should be preferred to the Protestant’s. But we cannot settle that question just by learning the historical dataset and deciding, with our own human judgment, whether it best supports Catholicism or some version of Protestantism. Most people are in no position to take in all the relevant data, and even those who are in such a position disagree on how to interpret it for the purpose at hand. From a historical point of view, the question is which hermeneutical paradigm to adopt for the purpose of interpreting the data: the Catholic, or some Protestant version.

i) But didn’t Liccinone originally indicate that this was a necessary, preliminary step in the process?

ii) And if most folks are in no position to take in all the relevant data, then what’s wrong with the suggestion that a man can come to saving faith by merely reading the Bible on his own?

Now the question which HP to adopt cannot be answered by appeal to the dataset itself, for the question is precisely which manner of interpreting the data is preferable. The question can only be answered, I believe, by asking ourselves which HP is better suited to distinguishing the propositionally expressible content of divine revelation itself—assuming there is such a thing as divine revelation—from mere theological opinions, and thus to facilitating the assent of faith as distinct from that of opinion. Now as you say, if Catholicism is true, the answer to that question is obvious. But if Catholicism is false, we are left only with provisional opinions. And if we are left only with provisional opinions, then we have no reliable way to distinguish from human opinion that which God actually wants us to believe.

But why is that the right question to ask? Has God told us that this is the all-important question to ask?

Doesn’t this boil down to Liccione’s personal, individualistic criterion? All he’s done is to relocate the right of private judgment.

That result is the epistemic aspect of the Protestant HP. History amply demonstrates that it doesn’t leave us with any single, self-consistent body of doctrine; it yields a variety of mutually incompatible ones. Now on the assumption that there is such a thing as a definitive divine revelation, and that even (or especially) the simple person can identify and assent to it by faith, such a result is hardly satisfactory. One would only feel obliged to accept it if one were convinced there was no alternative but to accept the idea that the Christian religion is just a matter of opinion. But there is such an alternative: Catholicism. And that fact, by itself, is a good reason to prefer Catholicism’s epistemic stance to Protestantism’s.

Notice how often Liccione talks like a deist. As if God made the world, then withdrew.

i) But what any individual believes is ultimately the result of what God causes him to believe, by giving him his unique personality and life-experience. What I believe is ultimately dependent on my personal aptitude and opportunities. My cultural conditioning. My psychological make-up. My formative experiences. My social network. My intellectual resources. And all that is ultimately traceable to God’s providence.

ii) If God wants my opinions to be revisable, then he will create, arrange, or rearrange the variables to occasion me to revise my opinions. Or if God wants my opinions to be unrevisable, then he will arrange the variables to reinforce my opinions.

iii) Revisability isn’t either good or bad, per se. Considered in isolation, revisability is neutral. If you happen to be right, then revisability is disadvantageous. If you happen to be wrong, then revisability is advantageous.

iv) Suppose I don’t come to faith in Scripture through Liccione’s schematic methodology. Suppose that God directly granted me the faith to believe in Scripture? Is that mere opinion?

I agree that Matt 16:18 does not mean that each and every bishop will remain “faithful to the principles” of the apostolic church. In fact, nobody ever said it does mean that. What it does mean, among other things, is that whichever communion of churches was once the OHCAC will always, by divine promise, remain faithful as a whole to the principles of the apostolic church–a church which, it cannot be denied, was itself the OHCAC.

i) Is that what the promise of Mt 16:18 means? How could it possibly mean that? To interpret Mt 16:18 according to the Nicene marks of the church is clearly anachronistic. That can’t very well be what it meant to Matthew’s target audience.

ii) The meaning of the Matthean/dominical terms would have to be rooted in the past, not the future. In pre-Christian Jewish usage, not 4C conciliar usage.

iii) In addition, Liccione’s inference is fallacious. For it turns on a particular definition of the church.

Liccione is defining the church in process terms, like a copy machine. Once the copy machine is put in place, it replicates the same product. Likewise, if you define the church in terms of apostolic succession, then the promise must apply to every stage of the process.

iv) But why should we define the church in process terms? Is that how Matthew or Jesus define it?

Suppose we define the church as the faithful–in union with Christ? To what does Mt 16:18 then apply?

Clearly it’s not the same bunch of people from one generation to the next. There’s a steady turnover rate, as some of the faithful die while others take their place. So the promise follows the faithful. God’s promise goes wherever his people go. And his promise keeps them faithful.

The promise is not attached to lineage, like a succession of bishops, who reproduce their own kind through ordination. Liccione’s inference would only follow if Mt 16:18 referred to a chain of incumbents, where every link in the chain is covered by the promise. But that is hardly something that Liccione can exegete from his prooftext.

So, if we can identify some later, visible communion of churches as the OHCAC, we know that that visible communion is continuous with the apostolic church and has remained faithful as a whole to its principles. But as a Protestant, such a move is not open or even, apparently, conceivable to you. You cannot first identify some visible communion of churches as the OHCAC and then, citing Matt 16:18, infer that that communion has remained faithful to the principles of the apostolic church. No, you first have to determine for yourself what those principles are, then you have to decide which church is faithful to them, and then you infer that that church is the OHCAC. (That’s assuming, of course, that you can specify any visible body or communion as “the” OHCAC, which I’ve never seen you do, despite having been asked more than once by more than one of us.)

i) To begin with, I reject Liccione’s operating framework.

ii) But let’s adapt his question. Suppose I were a pagan, living in contact with the Jews, sometime between the Mosaic era and the 1C. Suppose I were to ask myself, where can I find the true faith? Where can I find the true God?

Is there one place I should go? Well, there are times when I could go to the temple or synagogue to find the true faith. On the other hand, there were times in Jewish history when the religious establishment was corrupt. Unreliable.

Yet I could still find the true faith among the faithful. In private homes and villages. On the lips of the faithful. In the lives of the faithful.

And, of course, there was always the written revelation of God–from Moses onward. The “church” is far more decentralized, in time and place, than Liccione’s monolithic paradigm allows for.


  1. Liccione does make one thing clear, at least the way I read it: Romanists put their faith in the Roman church; we put ours in God's written word. Everthing that happens after that point should always be viewed with that first principle in mind.

  2. Some of the church fathers commented on their own recognition of scripture as the word of God apart from any church hierarchy. See the examples I discuss here.

    For those who don’t know, I wrote a series of posts on the subject of apostolic succession earlier this year, and that series addresses some other issues of ecclesiology along the way. The series can be accessed here.

    Another series on church infallibility similarly documents a wide variety of views of the church and its authority during the early centuries of Christianity. There was widespread belief in some sort of high ecclesiology during the patristic era. But those high ecclesiologies were often inconsistent (self-inconsistent and inconsistent with the views of others) and non-Roman-Catholic.

  3. I would say Liccione accurately reflects the "truth" of the matter for both of us, Catholics, I was one, and now am Reformed; and Reformational Protestors.

    I would cite a couple of elementary Proverbs and a word picture for effect.

    First a quotation from above:

    "....It’s true that once you adopt the package, you are committed to the entire package. If you accept an authority source, then you accept whatever the authority source may authorize....".

    Pro 1:23 If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you.


    Pro 16:20 Whoever gives thought to the word will discover good, and blessed is he who trusts in the LORD.

    I went to Coco Beach once checking into a hotel there around 11 p.m. at night. It was a clear, starry night and as I was driving along to the hotel from the airport in Orlando you could see afar off Cape Canaveral and on one of the launch pads a delta rocket lit up being readied for launch.

    During check in they blasted that rocket up up and away. Night turned day after blastoff until the rocket made its way into orbit. We all stopped, checkers and checkees and ran outside to watch this rocket fly out beyond earth's orbit. The delta rocket has a series of booster rockets at its base that push this device, several several tons of a circular tube full of electronics and high technologies. When they have served their purpose these booster rockets at the same time are jettisoned. It's a beautiful sight and amazing to see them jettisoned and then, like a circle of balletrinas falling down in unison on stage, fall back to earth or rather the Atlantic as the primary rocket carrying the payload continues with the after burners burning at the base of the singular rocket pushing it out of sight, burning that long bright flaming tail going going gone!

    Afterall, Faith is the evidence of things not seen.

    Our created being, you might say, is connected to the combination of the payload, the soul of man, the primary rocket, the body and the boosters, the flesh of mankind. It's the science inside the payload that is useful out in the unseen realm, space.

    Without God's ignition there would be no use for either the boosters or the rocket. With His ignition, Pro. 1:23, the rocket "makes" good, Pro. 16:20 and gets the payload, our soul, to its prepared intended target, eternal Life through Jesus Christ Our Lord, where the God of Heaven and earth operates from.

    Now, of course, having it both ways is impossible. You are either a Roman Catholic or a Reformed Protestor and it then becomes important to know, by God's Hand of Mercy and Grace, which presupposition you blast from? Is it God through Christ's Church or is it as Liccione's package asserts, Rome's??

  4. Oh yes, one other thing this article makes clear. It makes perfectly good sense now what Paul meant, here:

    Gal 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--
    Gal 1:7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.
    Gal 1:8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.
    Gal 1:9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
    Gal 1:10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
    Gal 1:11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel.
    Gal 1:12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.