I’ve commented briefly at Called to Communion, just simply having made a recommendation of Canon Revisited. In the very next comment, someone named Randy said “It seems like it suffers from the phantom argument fallacy”.
He also referred me to Tom Brown’s article on the Canon Question as sort of a model of how someone ought to treat arguments. Before I get into detail on the meat of the argument, I’d like to point out something that Tom Brown slips in, as if it were an established fact, which impugns Calvin where Calvin most likely is correct.
The Called to Communion guys are fond of saying things like “remember one of the cardinal rules in ecumenical inquiry: Don’t get your Catholic theology from Protestant hearsay–and vice versa. Go to the source, if you want to learn the truth”. This is certainly wise advice, especially if one is tempted to listen to Roman Catholic hearsay about John Calvin from a Roman epologist like Tom Brown. Brown cites Calvin, of course, just to appear to be above board:
“But a most pernicious error widely prevails that Scripture has only so much weight as is conceded to it by the consent of the church. . . . For they mock the Holy Spirit when they ask: Who can convince us that these writings came from God? . . . . Who can persuade us to receive one book in reverence but to exclude another, unless the church prescribe a sure rule for all these matters?”20
The footnote (20) is to “John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book I, ch. 7, sec. 1.” That’s fine as far as it goes. Then Brown says matter-of-factly, “As an initial matter, Calvin misstates the Catholic position by stating that, according to the Catholic Church, Scripture has its authoritative weight accorded to it by the Church. Rather, the Catholic position is that Scripture has divine authority because it is God-breathed, the Holy Spirit having inspired the texts’ authors. That is, Scripture has divine authority because of its divine author, not because of the role of God’s Church in producing it…”
But the Battles version of Institutes footnotes this statement, [among other references] to “John Eck, Enchiridion (1553), ch i., fo. 4a-6b”.
Now, it’s true that Eck was not an “official” source of Roman teaching at the time, but one might assume that, given his position as a papal emissary, he’d be a pretty good source. Someone might also suggest that Calvin has misrepresented what Eck was saying, but that’s not likely. First, Calvin was fairly scrupulous about getting his opponents arguments correct. And second, Battles himself translated the Eck document from which he cites.
I’m not going to spend the $35.00 at this point to see what Eck says. But I’d be willing to surmise that Battles wouldn’t have spent the time translating this work if there weren’t something in it that he wanted to show.
I’ll suggest further, that a Reformed writer like Battles translated an Eck document, simply because Rome wanted to hide what its Reformation-era apologists were saying.
After all, wasn’t someone like Robert Bellarmine the great champion of Roman Catholic doctrine at the time of the counter Reformation? And yet, it’s impossible to get English translations of Bellarmine’s polemical works, unless you consult a source such as Turretin.
If any Roman Catholic thinks that this is just a bit too skeptical, consider the “Dialogus de Potestate Papae” of Silvester Prierias (1518). Bernhard Lohse, in his 1999 “Luther’s Theology” (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press) notes of this writer and this work:
[Prierias] was a member of the Roman Commission entrusted with introducing canonical proceedings against Luther in the spring of 1518. He composed the Dialogus as an expert opinion for the commission in the spring of 1518, and may have submitted it as early as April or May 1518. On August 7, 1518, Luther received the Dialogus together with the summons to defend himself in person at Rome on suspicion of heresy. The Dialogus, obviously, cannot be regarded as a particularly brilliant theological treatise on the papacy. Still, as evidence of the view then dominant in Rome and of the aggravation it caused in Luther’s dispute, it has a significance scarcely to be overestimated. Here we see how those who set the tone at Rome thought of the church and the papal office, above all what they had to find fault with in Luther. (107-108).
James Swan has reproduced portions of this document, and in fact, he discusses the whole issue of question “the Holy Scripture receives its authority or power from the Roman see” from Luther’s perspective. So you can get the flavor of how “official Rome” represented itself at the time of the Reformation:
1. Essentially the universal church is the assembly in divine worship of all who believe in Christ. The true universal church virtually is the Roman Church, the head of all churches, and the sovereign pontiff. The Roman Church is represented by the College of Cardinals; however, virtually it is the pope who is the head of the Church, though in another manner than Christ.
2. As the universal church cannot err when it decides on faith and morals, so also a true council cannot err if it does its best to know the truth, at least not in the end result—and that I understand under the inclusion of the head. For even a council can initially be mistaken so long as the investigation of the truth is still in process; indeed a council has sometimes erred: nevertheless it finally knows the truth through the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, the Roman Church and the pope cannot err when he in his capacity as pope comes to a decision, i.e., when he comes to a decision in consequence of his office and thereby does his best to know the truth.
3. He who does not hold the teaching of the Roman Church and the Pope as an infallible rule of faith, from which even Holy Scripture draws its power and authority, he is a heretic.
4. The Roman Church can establish something with regard to faith and ethics not only through word but also through act. And there is no difference therein, except that the word is more suitable for this than the act. In this same sense custom acquires the power of law, for the will of a prince expresses itself in acts which he allows or puts into effect. And it follows that as he is a heretic who wrongly interprets Scripture, so also is he a heretic who wrongly interprets the teaching and acts of the Church in so far as they relate to faith and ethics.
Corollary: He who says in regard to indulgences that the Roman Church cannot do what she has actually done is a heretic (Michael Tavuzzi, Prierias (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997, p.111).
Lohse concludes, “Prierias not only represented the view of infallibility to which some gave expression toward the close of the Middle Ages, but with his third proposition actually set the Roman church over Scripture”.