Friday, January 17, 2014

Roman Catholic “presuppositions” on the early papacy are in retreat

Galileo: “If I can do it, Bergoglio can do it”
Galileo: “If I can do it, Bergoglio can do it”
A “presupposition” is an elementary assumption in one’s reasoning or in the process by which opinions are formed… [In the case of Protestant/Catholic discussions], a “presupposition” is not just any assumption in an argument, but a personal commitment that is held at the most basic level of one’s network of beliefs. Presuppositions form a wide-ranging foundational perspective (or starting point) in terms of which everything else is interpreted and evaluated. As such, presuppositions have the greatest authority in one’s thinking, being treated as one’s least negotiable beliefs and being granted the highest immunity to revision. (

That’s a fairly simple and standard definition given by Greg Bahnsen, early on in his work on “Van Til’s Apologetic (Phillipsburg: New Jersey, P&R Publishing, ©1998, pg 2).

Whatever level of “immunity to revision” one’s presuppositions may have, there are simply times and events which force that simply force one to modify one’s presuppositions. Galileo’s study of the solar system was one such occasion, forcing the Roman Catholic Church to modify its own “presuppositions”. (“The matter was investigated by the Roman Inquisition in 1615, and they concluded that it could be supported as only a possibility, not an established fact”. Over time, Roman Catholicism later modified these views even further, and in the 20th century, described Galileo as being among the “most audacious heroes of research”).

I believe that historical research into ancient cultures and “Earliest Christianity” is having the effect similar to Galileo’s on Roman Catholic doctrine, especially with respect to the papacy. In 1995, Pope John Paul II issued a statement Ut Unum Sint, in which he was asked (by whom?) “to find a way of exercising the [papal] primacy which … is … open to a new situation”

He positions this search for “a new situation” as “a request made of me”.

I can’t say who made the request, but in the past I have pointed to a growing body of historical literature (and this blog post only touches the surface) – it certainly seems as if this type of work has, in the growing pressure it puts on the papacy over the last century, “made the request”. It is similar to the pressure that Galileo’s work put on Roman Catholicism to change its views on science.

But these changes with respect to “the earliest papacy” have much to do with the “doctrine” of the papacy, which in turn is at the heart of Roman Catholic doctrine and epistemology.

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In turn, this evolution in papal doctrine has a direct bearing in showing precisely how some scientific and historical research is affirming one aspect of Christianity – and affirming some of the presuppositions that some Christians have held – in this case, the development of the canon of the New Testament – while seriously challenging the presuppositions that Roman Catholics hold about the foundations of their own belief something.

Both of these beliefs are held as presuppositions, or “precommitments”, by conservative Protestants and by Roman Catholics, respectively. This was illustrated in a discussion that I had recently:

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Cletus van Damme
Posted January 14, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Link to this comment

So when “the People of God” who recognized the canon also held beliefs you reject, what does that mean? Why do some of these people of God hold to different OT than you which speaks directly to the canon question? How do you determine the “people of God” and who isn’t? Who gets to count in the vote?

In asking this question, you fail to recognize God’s sovereignty, and his ability to communicate precisely what he wants to communicate, and to whom.

Just because “the People” are a befuddled mess doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have everything under control.

You ask, “who gets to count in the vote?” There is only one vote: God’s vote. We can trust it.

And don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that in the midst of all this, God did not call his own people, using the flawed means that were floating about in the early centuries of the church.

But their earliness does not make them smarter or truer to God’s word.

Think of the phrase “may God be true, and every man a liar”. Rome’s claims to authority, however they “developed”, are just so much blowing in the wind compared to the things that God has done in history, and his “interpretation”, which is Scripture.

The number of extant manuscripts we have today is supplemental and outside the canon itself. You can’t defend the canon with a posteriori arguments that were not used in its original recognition.

Again you fail to understand. The manuscripts we have aren’t “supplemental and outside” the canon. They ARE the canon. Or rather, they WERE the canon in the years that they were in active use.

Kruger’s argument is not an a posteriori argument -- it’s an argument to people today, (and the manuscript evidence confirms what Protestants have been saying all along) that we can trust God through the process that has delivered to us the 27-book canon of the NT. Take a look again at what Kruger is saying:

“Christians have a rational basis (or warrant) for affirming the twenty-seven books of the New Testament canon because God has created the proper epistemic environment wherein belief in the canon can be reliably formed”.

We don’t throw out “the church” (as distinguished from “the Church”) as a means that God has used to create the canon of the New Testament.

The manuscripts we have today are tangible evidence of the process of “canon development” in the second and third centuries.

JB: “This is not “ever-shifting criteria”. This is truly an instance of “increasing knowledge” — and as usual, for Protestants, this “increasing knowledge” genuinely sheds more light.”

CVD: It sheds more light because it agrees with your precommitments. If archaeology or historical analysis disagrees with your viewpoint of the biblical record, then it cannot be genuine development or knowledge.

“Precommitments” can be affirmed, or they can be challenged. They should be challenged. Nobody wants to base his life on a lie.

But just as conservative Christian “precommitments” have been confirmed, as in the case of Kruger and the manuscripts above, the Roman Catholic “precommitment” has found itself to be severely challenged at its core, essentially by the same method of historical investigation.

I’ve written about this extensively. In all of the “critical biblical scholarship” of the last 200 years, what we’re seeing is that the “precommitments” to the Christian faith have been confirmed. That is, there are no longer (or not many) “Biblical scholars” who continue to say “Christ never existed”. Even the skeptic Bart Ehrman now is having dialogues with atheists, defending that Christ did live and die in first century Palestine, and that there were real Apostles who believed and preached that very real message in history.

On the contrary, one of the key “precommitments” that Roman Catholics have (which may be found in this statement):

“The sole Church of Christ [is that] which our Savior, after his Resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it. . . . This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.”

Roman Catholics will recognize that statement as being a foundational ecclesiological statement. I grew up believing something very similar to that -- but the same kinds of historical analysis have affirmed core elements of conservative Protestantism have eroded the notion that there was anything at all like a “successor of Peter”.

Growing up, I understood that (to quote one author I’ve cited) “The primacy of Peter and his appointment to succeed him as the head of the [visible] Church are accepted by the Catholic Church as the indubitable word of inspired Gospel, in its only possible meaning. That Peter went to Rome and founded there his See, is just as definitely what is termed in Catholic theology a dogmatic fact”.

That is the definite sense you get reading Vatican I and its proclamations. Here is just some of the pompous boast put out by that council:

he endowed his institution [the “visible” church with the visible—from the beginning Roman Catholic hierarchy) with clear notes to the end that she might be recognised by all as the guardian and teacher of the revealed word… her unconquerable stability, is a kind of great and perpetual motive of credibility and an incontrovertible evidence of her own divine mission….

all faithful Christians are forbidden to defend as the legitimate conclusions of science those opinions which are known to be contrary to the doctrine of faith, particularly if they have been condemned by the church …

Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by holy mother church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding ...

That which our lord Jesus Christ, … established in the blessed apostle Peter [that is, the papacy which looked like Pius IX], for the continual salvation and permanent benefit of the church, must of necessity remain for ever …

As I say, you get a certain sense from all of that. Reading it just now, I find it laughable, -- in fact it makes me Chortle quite heartily – at the sense of self-importance that these men had, but you know, this was “The Catholic Faith” from maybe 461 AD down through the 1950’s and into the 60’s (for those of us who had devout Catholic parents). This was the “precommitment” beyond all other “precommitments”.

But back to critical scholarship challenging “precommitments” – “recognized by all”, “unconquerable stability”, “perpetual motive of credibility”. Etc., etc.

Some time between 1960 and today this “dogmatic fact” that Peter went to Rome, founded a See, and had “perpetual” visible successors has changed to reflect more recent historical study that there likely was not even a monarchical bishop in Rome until late in the 2nd century.

The factual accounting of this has since changed to “Peter likely visited Rome (but not for long), probably died there. The church at Rome continued to function as a network of separate locations, with a network of elders and presbyters who likely were known among each other and around the city – some of whom were truly leaders in their respective churches, but others who, according to Hermas, fought among themselves as to who was greatest …

This historical study has in turn prompted the navel-gazing by which “John Paul the Great” found himself hanging out a shingle, in search of a new situation for the papacy.

We should not discount the role of the historical in forcing the hand of the doctrinal retreat here.

However, while Ratzinger says, on the one hand, “an attentive co-operation between historical and theological methods is essential to enable theological reflection”, he also tries in every way to discount this historical input: “the true meaning of historical facts … unfolds only in a light that comes from elsewhere”. This “elsewhere” consists of the following:

the collaboration between history and theology can be fruitful if the growing knowledge of historical (and exegetical, with reference to the Bible) facts leads to a deeper theological vision of the Roman Primacy and its ecclesiological function, which helps to distinguish better and better what is necessary and cannot be renounced, from what is accidental or non-essential to the truth of faith. Moreover, this collaboration requires that the question of the doctrinal evaluation of historical facts be made in the light of Tradition, as me locus and criterion of the self-verifying consciousness of the Church's faith.

In other words, we only take “the true meaning of historical facts” at their word only when the history supports Roman Catholic Tradition. Or, when it supports Roman Catholic presuppositions.

“The true meaning of historical facts” is much less “true” when these “historical facts” contradict what Roman Catholic Tradition” has said of this “primacy”.

This is as clear a statement as any Roman Catholic prelate will make that Rome will hold its “precommitments” in a dogmatic way – alternative scenarios will not be considered, even though they are historically more likely.

And yet, even as Rome affirms its “precommitment” to Roman Catholic “Tradition”, it seeks to massage the “dogmatic statements” of that “Tradition” to better fit the facts. We see that precisely in the “new situation” searched for by “John Paul the Great”.

The “precommitment” for the Roman Catholic during the last 50 years has moved far, far away from what it was in the 1950’s (or the 1860’s), to a point at which “the Successor of Peter” and all his power and jurisdiction existed somewhere within that bunch of men who were elders and presbyters in ancient Rome, but (contra the notion that it was “recognized-by-all perpetual motive of credibility”) somehow existed in “seed form”, and the “developments” by which the “trickle” (Newman’s word) became a mighty river, WAS merely a trickle, and somehow, all are left to reconcile Vatican I with the later accounting that yes, Peter was important (but only in certain ways), that there were “successors” as “bishops in a college”, and that the current pope is “the successor of Peter” but didn’t quite get here via the grand and bold “unbroken succession” that Vatican I laid out.

This sharp distinction in how “precommitments” work – in one case they are supported by historical study, and in another case, they are contradicted by historical study – is one of the primary reasons why I felt compelled to throw Roman Catholicism out of my life.

This unfolding of the papacy has consequences for Rome, given that a papacy and a magisterium graced with “infallibility” (at several levels) holds an epistemological key for Roman Catholic dogma as well.

The list of “certain conditions” (in the words of Michael Liccione) under which “divine revelation may be distinguished from mere human opinion” dwindles to nothingness, and in this instance, two things become clear:

First, the body of “What Catholics know for certain through this process of infallibility” is smaller and smaller, and second, “the actual things that Catholics know for certain are more and more easily recognized for their origins in “fiction and speculation”.

So, as even these things are cast off with less and less importance, the one thing that has remained true, at least for Roman Catholic converts, has been to assert the authority of the papacy.

JB: “As compared with the kinds of “increasing knowledge” that took the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary — which have their beginnings in fiction and speculation”

CVD: That doesn’t matter to you – you reject doctrines the early church held that you don’t consider had their beginnings in “fiction and speculation” just because they clash with your interpretation of Scripture.

No, I consider the origins of these doctrines “fiction and speculation” as even your best, most favorable scholars (who are Roman Catholic) claim that they are fiction and speculation.

And I say this not because of any “interpretation of Scripture”, but because the earliest traces of them are, in fact, found in fiction and in speculation.

They certainly are not found in Scripture. And they certainly are not mentioned in any of the earliest documents of the church. The Protoevangelium of James, where we learn of the “Immaculate Conception” of Mary, is a work of fiction. There is no other testimony or mention of this, and it is your precommitment which says “well, there must have been something about it in earlier tradition”, even though you reach the end of your line with this spurious document.

It’s true that Mary had some theological importance as the mother of Jesus, but so much of her true importance became very much embedded in myth and legend – to the point that the myth and legend became Roman Catholic dogma.

As our entire world becomes more and more sophisticated (through the wonders of technology) about history and philosophy and theology and science, Roman myth becomes more and more marginalized in favor of the elements of Christianity that are becoming more and more sharply focused.

Is it time for Protestants to say, “Thank God for a pope who sees this process and is trying to accelerate it”? To do so would put “the papacy” back to the “situation” it was in in the second Christian century.

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