Friday, February 01, 2013

Called Out Of Confusion

I received this unsolicited email yesterday:

Hi John,

You don't know me, but I wanted to thank you for the work you are doing on Triablogue and in comment boxes on various reformed blogs across the internet.

If you don't mind, I'd like to try to encourage you and share what a positive impact your writing has had on me over the past few months.

I'm almost 30, with a wife and two small children. I grew up in a pretty solid evangelical church, but didn't receive very good theological teaching partially because the emphasis of the church was on theological diversity, and partially because my parents were still pretty new believers when I was born and didn't have solid Christian family backgrounds growing up. When I was 15 I encountered Reformed theology for the first time at the Christian school I attended thanks to a Bible teacher and a friend whose father was a PCA pastor. I immediately saw the truth of it, and have considered myself reformed since then.

Fast forward 15 years to last summer and I found myself confronting the possible failure of my software start-up business and I was looking for surety of God's providence really for the first time in my life. The Bible teacher who helped introduce me to Reformed theology was a Presbyterian minister now, and still a friend, but was being "seduced" by the Called to Communion site, and kept sending me links and books. Having never encountered RC apologetics arguments, my wife (who had grown up PCA) and I became very disheveled and confused. The early church writings are a very disturbing thing to encounter if you've never had any exposure to them and if you've spent your whole life as an "evangellyfish". I started getting sucked down the rabbit hole -- all of the arguments "made sense", somehow. I remember the moment that my wife and I were contemplating attending a mass to see what it was like, and we were on the verge of leaving the house to do so in about 15 minutes, when the Holy Spirit arrested me and I became physically ill with the thought of it. I immediately began reading the copy of Calvin's Institutes that had been sitting on my shelf, unread, and came across various church father quotes that I had never encountered and couldn't find English translations for. I started piecing together an amateur translation from Latin and realized that those guys at Catholic Answers and CtC seemed to be guilty of cherry-picking and prooftexting to the nth degree. Then I came across Triablogue and Reformation500 and /devoured/ the content, and it helped bring about a robust restoration my faith in the True Gospel and dispelled the doubts that had been planted by the kind of people at CtC. Many of your articles played a significant role in helping bring me back from the brink, and I am very grateful for your research, experience and insight.

Keep up the good work!

Moving out of Roman Catholicism is a process – it took me years. The question in my mind was always, “what if they’re right?”

Those are the kinds of doubts that Rome plants in you [which are amplified, in a strange sort of way, by the Called-to-Communion crowd]. The main doubt they put forward is, “has God really said …?” They question your ability to trust God in the Bible.

The thing that people forget when they become involved with Roman claims, is that Rome has had centuries to put together a story that coheres with itself.

This writer, in mentioning the “cherry-picking and prooftexting to the nth degree”, did correctly identify Rome’s method – “The Roman Catholic Hermeneutic” – evidenced by the Medieval practice of florilegia, which actually were books, or lists of patristics citations. The one whose list of citations was more authoritative carried the day.

The Medieval Historian Jacques Le Goff describes this practice:

Some of the sureties were especially favoured and referred to as ‘authorities’. Obviously it was in theology, the highest branch of learning, that the use of authorities found its greatest glory, and, since it was the basis of spiritual and intellectual life, it was subjected to strict regulation. The supreme authority was Scripture, and, with it, the Fathers of the Church. However, this general authority tended to take the form of quotations. In practice these became ‘authentic’ opinions and, in the end, the ‘authorities’ themselves. Since these authorities were often difficult and obscure, they were explained by glosses which themselves had to come from an ‘authentic author’ [or, an “authentic interpreter” who could “tell us what this means.”]

Very often the glosses replaced the original text.
Of all the florilegia [collections of quotations] which conveyed the results of intellectual activity in the Middle Ages, the anthologies of glosses were consulted and ransacked the most. Learning was a mosaic of quotations or ‘flowers’ which, in the twelfth century, were called ‘sentences’ (sententiae or opinions). The collections or summae of sentences were collections of authorities. Robert of Melun was already protesting in the middle of the twelfth century against according credit to glosses in these sentences, but in vain. [The 20th century Dominican theologian] Pere [Marie-Domenique] Chenu acknowledged that the sentences of the inferior thinker Peter Lombard, which was to be the theology textbook in universities in the thirteenth century, was a collection of glosses “whose sources can only be discovered with difficulty”, and furthermore that, even in the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, “one can see a largish number of texts acting as authorities which can only be identified through the distortions of the glossae.”

Of course the men who used authorities stretched their meanings to the point where they barely impeded personal opinions. Alain of Lille, in a saying which was to become proverbial, stated ‘the authority has a wax nose which can be pushed in all directions’… (Jacques Le Goff, “Medieval Civilization,” (First published in France as La Civilisation de l’Occident Medieval, © 1964 by B. Arthaud, Paris) English Translation, © 1988, 1990, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pgs. 325-326.)


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    1. Thanks for this explanation of the glosses! I thought these were a little too air tight. I too saw how Calvin and Luther went back to the originals and found more agreement with the Rule of Faith than the Medieval Theology.

      I wanted to raise another trap that I have also seen, the so-called "Anglo-Catholic" movement. I was initially pulled into what I thought was a "Reformed" Anglican movement. When I tried to meet pastors, I came across one that a friend of mine was now attending (he had changed from being an PCA Elder to this "Anglo-Catholic" church).

      I went with him for Ash Wednesday service and I overheard the "pastor" talking about a shrine to Mary that they kept in the basement. I confirmed this with a Diocese leader that this pastor had been a RC Priest before so this made more sense to me.

      In England, a special Diocese has been cotemplated by the Pope as a refuge for the Anglo-Catholics there. The last straw for me was when reading a magazine from one of their Anglo-Catholic Seminaries, they were advertising courses on higher criticism (in complete support of it!). I was devasted and felt deceived!

      Having a desire to have an "Ancient Faith" that is connected to the early church has sometimes pulled me dangerously close to the Road to Rome. I have to remember that the RC has been high-jacked by scholastics and the Marians

    2. Hi SamWise, there have been a number of the kinds of movements that you discuss. I'm quite convinced that moving closer to Rome (without them swallowing you) is impossible. I've got a blog post sort-of together, that I hope to put up tomorrow, that attempts to put that into perspective.

      Meanwhile the "ancient faith" really is the New Testament faith. I'm more convinced of it all the time. The notion of a "monarchical bishop" (over the various churches of a whole city) may have been useful in combating second century heresies, but it was neither "divinely commissioned), nor "of the permanent structure of the church", nor useful after the point when corruptions crept in.

      The Reformers were right to throw it off.

  2. Having followed the debate with CtC for a while there's a sense in which it's a bit dizzying. And keeping up with combox is a real chore.

    Yet a few days ago I was reading the comments on a recent post over at Greenbaggins and (once again!) Stellman was waxing wise about the epistemic conditions of God speaking; unless interpretation of Scripture is divinely protected under certain conditions all we can have is mere fallible human opinion. Grasping what this claim means and what it entails, that anyone could find the CtC proposal appealing is incredible. Called to Communion is smoke and mirrors.

    John, thanks for your continued writing on this issue.

    1. Thanks Andrew. I do have some trouble keeping up with all the comments coming from over there; the email subscriptions to the comments are helpful; I try to read all the comments that are addressed to me, and to respond to most of them, but I don't read some of the other conversations.

  3. Many of your articles played a significant role in helping bring me back from the brink, and I am very grateful for your research, experience and insight.

    John, for every person who personally thanks you for your apologetical efforts, there are many more who've also been blessed but haven't had the courage or time to thank you. I'm sure I'm not the only one who praises God for you efforts and diligence. From me and the others who feel the same way, Thank You for defending and preserving the true and pure (undiluted) gracious Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We pray God's blessing to continue upon you, your wife and the rest of your family!

    1. Hi Annoyed -- thanks for your friendship and your prayers.