Friday, April 13, 2012

Catholic blinders

Here’s a Catholic response to my recent post:

Peter Sean Bradley The Triablogue argument is confusing oral tradition with inerrancy.

No, I didn’t confuse them. Rather, I demonstrated how an oral tradition of the highest pedigree turned out to be unreliable.

It also ignores the fact that John 21 offers an example of the Church’s teaching authority in action.

Actually, it offers an example of the Bible’s teaching authority in action.

First, there is nothing in John 21 that says that anyone misquoted or misremembered anything. Jesus actually said, ““If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” in reference to the Beloved Disciple.

Jesus made a statement (21:22) that gave rise to a false rumor (21:23). How did his true statement give rise to a false rumor? I can only think of two possibilities: it was misreported or it was misinterpreted.

“Brothers” actually speculated that John was not to die until the Second Coming.

That’s the false rumor. They attributed to Jesus something he didn’t say. They misquoted him. So John corrects the rumor:

“22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 23 So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?””

Note the relationship between v22 & v23.

Where in that is there anything involving “faded” memories or erroneous memories of events? There simply isn’t.

I already explained that. Why is Bradley unable to follow a simple lucid argument. I drew attention to Jn 14:26 (“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you”).

Why would Jesus send the Holy Spirit to bring to remind them of everything he said if unaided memory was sufficient? Why can’t Bradley draw an elementary inference like that?

Second, the Triablogue account engages in a bad bit of historical anachronism. Namely, because we now know that the speculation about John remaining alive until the Parousia is now known to be false, the writer retrojects our present knowledge to the past when John was alive and no one knew that the speculation was wrong! The speculation could have been correct, after all. So, the Triablogue critique that seems to assume that the speculation was lame or insipid or clearly wrong is nonsense.

i) It’s not clear what Bradley is alluding to. Is he saying the narrator retrojects our present knowledge into the past? Is he saying the narrator is guilty of a historical anachronism?

In the nature of the case, John is writing after the rumor spread, to dispel a false rumor that was circulating in the early church. But that’s not anachronistic.

Is Bradley saying the Johannine account is unhistorical? That this is an etiological fable, a just-so story? If so, attacking the credibility of the Bible is an odd way to defend the credibility of oral tradition, or the church of Rome. For one thing, Jn 21 is the source of a standard papal prooftext (vv15-17). But even if (arguendo) we grant the Catholic interpretation, if Jn 21 is a fictitious backstory, if Jesus never said that, then so much for the traditional Petrine text.

ii) Or by “the writer,” does he mean me? But I’m not adding anything to Jn 21. I’m merely drawing some obvious logical inferences. My arguing is only “anachronistic” if Jn 21 is anachronistic.

We can compare the speculation about the Beloved Disciple to the various rumors that whip up excitement among certain sects of Protestants. For example, will there be a “rapture”? No one thought there would be until around 1850. Does that mean that speculation about the rapture is “wrong”? Probably, but we really won’t know until it doesn’t happen. Is that an example of the “failing of oral tradition”? Not hardly.

i) Actually, the notion of a rapture goes back to 1 Thes 4:17. Of course, how that event should be understood is a different question.

ii) Apropos (i), that’s not based on oral tradition. That’s a misinterpretation of Scripture.

Third, John died without the return of Christ. That left the question of how to explain Jesus’ accurately remembered statement with the reasonable bit of theological speculation. When similar things happen with Protestants, entire new churches are started. (See e.g., the Seventh Day Adventists.)

That’s one explanation for Jn 21. Another explanation is that Peter’s death, rather than John’s death, occasioned this postscript.

Moreover, even if John's impending death were in view, that doesn't mean John can't correct the rumor before he dies. 

In Catholicism, in contrast, there is a teaching magisterium aided by the Holy Spirit to…you know…teach!

That assumes what he needs to prove.

That means that the Church can explain authoritatively that Jesus hadn’t meant that John would live to the Parousia.

We didn’t get that from “the Church” or the Magisterium. Rather, we got that from the text of Scripture (i.e. Jn 21).

Of course, if it was a modern Protestant church, there would have been a dozen different interpretations leading to a dozen different new churches.

One erroneous interpretation isn’t preferable to several erroneous interpretations. Contrasting an erroneous Catholic interpretation to one or more erroneous Protestant interpretations is not an argument for Catholicism.

Finally, consider how silly this argument is. All of this occurred before the Gospel of John was written!
And, yet, they got it right!
Without a written text!

i) Who got what right? The “brothers’ didn’t get it right. They got it wrong.

The narrator got it right. And the narrator wrote it down.

ii) What does Bradley mean when he says “all this occurred before the Gospel of John was written?” The event recorded in Jn 21 took place before the Gospel was written. And the rumor took place before the Gospel was written.

But “getting it right” didn’t take place without a written text. For the text is the medium by which John corrects the erroneous rumor. John doesn’t first correct the rumor by word-of-mouth, then later write down what he said. No, this is the occasion when he corrects the rumor. Through this very chapter.

We know that this happened before the writing of the Gospel of John, by the way, because the Gospel of John is talking about how the Beloved Disciple didn’t live to see the Second Coming…

Notice how Bradley is turning the prospective viewpoint of the narrative description into a retrospective viewpoint. But the text never says the Beloved Disciple didn’t live to see the Second Coming. The text isn’t cast in the past tense. It transcribes a conversation about the future, not the past. About what will or won’t happen, not what has already taken place.

…and how this misunderstood but accurately remembered oral saying of Jesus…

It’s just the opposite of an “accurately remembered oral saying of Jesus.” Rather, it corrects an inaccurately rumored statement.

…an oral tradition that would not have been recorded in writing but for the fact that the Beloved Disciple had inconveniently died before the Gospel of John was written – was floating around “Christendom.”

i) Bradley is systematically confusing the dominical statement in v22 with the rumored statement in v23. V23 is a distortion of v22.

ii) Bradley is also assuming that Jn 21 is a posthumous addition by a different hand than the narrator of Jn 1-20. That’s hardly the traditional Roman Catholic position. Rather, that’s the modernist position.

iii) He also ignores arguments to the contrary.

My big objection with this article is obviously its anachronism. It somehow assumes that there was a written Gospel of John to act as some kind of check on things – as if everyone was confused until some author wrote down the Gospel of John and then – poof! – all doubt was cleared up.

And why do I assume that? Because that’s right there in the text of Jn 21! That’s one of the functions of Jn 21.

It’s striking to see how Bradley’s unconditional allegiance to his denomination blinds him to what’s staring him right in the face. Jn 21 is a text. I’m quoting from a text. Jn 21 explicitly “acts as a check on” the false rumor in question. It’s written, in part, to “clear up” that misconception. This isn’t something I made up. This isn’t something I’m projecting onto the text. You can see it for yourself. 

As if for the first 60 years of Christian history, Christians were just sitting on their thumbs waiting for a inspired writing because if it’s written it must be true, but if it’s just an oral statement it can’t be trusted.

Notice how Bradley is utterly impervious to the explicit counterevidence. 

Incidentally, I’m inclined to date John’s Gospel to the 60s, not the 90s. But however we date it, we can’t disregard the data in Jn 21 because it doesn’t comport with our preconceived theory of “the Church.

Think about that last, and you see “chronological snobbery.” Protestantism develops after the printing press and so incorporates a human tradition that could only have developed after the invention of the printing press – namely that writing is trustworthy and oral tradition is not.

Notice how he disregards my qualified statement about testimonial evidence.

That, however, is a perspective that the First Century Christians would never had recognized. See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.

Several problems:

i) Catholic culture is not an oral culture. Catholic culture is profoundly textual. Catholic teaching is disseminated through the written word as well as the spoken word. Patristic writings. Conciliar documents. Lectionaries. Catechisms. The Vulgate. Canon law. Papal bulls, encyclicals, &. Monks transcribing texts. All this antedates the printing press by many centuries.

Catholicism doesn’t operate like Alex Haley’s Roots, where bards pass along oral lore from one generation to the next by telling stories. So Protestant textuality is no more anachronistic than Catholic textuality.

ii) Why does Bradley think (or rather, not think) we have a New Testament–or an Old Testament? Why does he think (or rather, not think) we have Bible writers who committing things to writing for posterity? Why does he think (or rather, not think) we have Scripture in the first place? A written record? A documentary account?


  1. Of course, if it was a modern Protestant church, there would have been a dozen different interpretations leading to a dozen different new churches.

    This is an interesting statement in light of the "Nestorian" thread over at Green Baggins. One might as well say, "Of course, if it was an ancient "one true church" with precisely the correct "interpretation",there wouldn't have been a dozen different splinters in the fifth century Christological schisms." Not to mention lots of dead bodies.

    Oh ...


  2. "That means that the Church can explain authoritatively that Jesus hadn’t meant that John would live to the Parousia"

    Of course, the Vatican has never bothered to infallibly interpret the passage, even though they've had plenty of time to do so. What good is an infallible interpreter if they don't actually interpret anything?