Saturday, January 24, 2015

The big Roman Catholic apologetic thumb on the scales

“See? We win. We have ‘the authority’”
This is going to be the most important thing I have ever said on this topic.

It is of course well known that there is an imbalance between the supposed “unity” that Rome offers, vs the seeming disarray that Protestants are in. However, the “unity” that Rome offers is merely an illusion, (and that illusion is not based on any truth or historical evidence), while Protestant “disunity”, while frayed around the edges, is truly based upon doctrinal unity, and as Steve Hays describes this process:

But what if catholicity is something we should achieve indirectly? Instead of aiming at catholicity, what if catholicity is the effect or end-result of something else? For instance, Christians have a duty to understand God's word, believe God's word, and live obey God's word. The more that more Christians live according to God's word, the more they converge.

Keep this in mind as we discuss how “unity” works. The unity of Rome is a false unity. As Francis Turretin described it, it is based on one large, but false, and unprovable claim:

Thus this day the Romanists (although they are anything but the true church of Christ) still boast of their having alone the name of church and do not blush to display the standard of that which they oppose. In this manner, hiding themselves under the specious title of the antiquity and infallibility of the Catholic church, they think they can, as with one blow, beat down and settle the controversy waged against them concerning the various most destructive errors introduced into the heavenly doctrine…

Nothing can be more unfair than this method of acting because the very thing in question is imposed upon us as the principle of faith to be believed…

For since the church of Rome is asked concerning itself whether it is a church of Christ (the head and mistress of the rest), they think that they settle the whole matter if they obtrude in place of an indisputable principle what is in the highest degree disputable. And that they “may not be convicted of error, they impudently vociferate with those scribes in Jeremiah (8.8) that the church is infallible, and is with them, and that they alone are wise. Thus in the definition of the church (from which fountain they draw their positions with the insane fraud of the false apostles), “they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Cor 10:12). And as if the matter was settled, they condemn as schismatics and heretics all those who withdraw themselves from obedience to that church, which they cover with treacherous fraud…. (Turretin, “Institutes”, Vol 3. pgs 2-3).

Please, please, please, don’t miss this. Turretin, states, in summary form, … that Protestants (rightly) look to Scripture, and they determine what “the true faith” is by studying and understanding what the Scriptures say on a doctrine-by-doctrine, or point-by-point basis. And this needs to be done.

But Catholics, Turretin says, simply sweep all of this aside with one motion. They say, “We are The Church, and we decide what ‘the true faith’ is.”

This imbalance in this form of argumentation accounts for many of the misunderstandings that continue to occur in these types of discussions in our day.

In Turretin’s time, at least, Roman polemicists attempted to prove their position [not that they accomplished it]. They argued, for instance, that the Roman church had never changed, that it was the Protestants who introduced novelty into the ongoing sweep of church history.

Cardinal John Henry Alfred E Newman
But by Newman’s time, Newman was realizing that Rome, too, had (“seemingly”) introduced “difficulties” — that neither Rome nor the Protestant churches adhered to the 5th century Vincentian rule: “what was believed always, everywhere, by all.” In fact, he summarily dismissed this as unworkable for both parties.

However, the position that Turretin noticed Roman polemicists were arguing for, “We are The Church, and we decide what ‘the true faith’ is,” was in Newman’s formulation, merely an assumption. That is, Newman assumed (and taught his fellow Roman polemicists to assume) that the authority structure that was present in his day, was “in some way” the same authority structure that was in place in the 2nd, 7th, and subsequent centuries.

This is the assumption that the “Called to Communion” crowd routinely makes. Here are various examples:
Bryan said: “Regarding John 16:13, the unanimous tradition of the Church has been to understand that Christ’s promise (regarding the Spirit guiding into all truth) was not limited to the Apostles but also applied (through them and their successors) to the whole Church.” But as I noted at the time, There is implicit in this statement that “the Church” in this statement was, and continues to be, “The Roman Catholic Church and the Visible Hierarchy.” But Bryan doesn't tell you that's his definition of “the Church”. He merely assumes that to be the case.” “Successors” are simply assumed, despite the fact that even Roman Catholics scholars studying the issue say “The claims of various sees to descend from particular members of the Twelve are highly dubious” and that “whatever succession there was from apostleship to episcopate, it was primarily in reference to the Pauline type of apostleship, not the Twelve.” Which includes any “successor to Peter”. Ratzinger even tacitly admitted this, as I’ve cited him, “he himself can only say that the papacy was ‘faithfully developed’ during the first five centuries of the church.” There was no actual “succession”. And yet, the assumption persists:
Bryan said: “We identify the true Church by going back to Jesus. We know that Jesus founded a Church. Now the key is to keep your finger on that thing that Jesus founded, and move forward through history, century by century, until you reach the present day…” My [unanswered] question: “How do you ‘go back to Jesus’? Where is that ‘Church that Christ founded’ to be found?” Bryan doesn’t answer, because he will either have to say “we only know what the early church was liked from the New Testament”, or he will have to assert some unwritten “tradition” for which there is no direct evidence.
Bryan said: “…ideally an adult would come to seek full communion with the Catholic Church only after a careful study of Church history, the Church Fathers, and Scripture. He would start with the Church in the first century at the time of the Apostles, and then trace the Church forward, decade by decade, to the present day. As he traced the Church forward through the centuries, he would encounter schisms from the Church (e.g. Novatians, Donatists). In each case he would note the criteria by which the party in schism was the one in schism from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Christ founded, and not the other way around. By such a study, and by the help of the Holy Spirit, he would discover that the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that Christ founded in the first century, and that has continued to grow throughout the world over the past two millennia.” How does he propose to get there? What does he suppose (imagine, etc.) he would find, regarding the church's leadership, authority structure, etc. Does he want to argue that what he would find back there in any way resembled a gub’ment structure he’d find in a church today?
Here is “the first linkage I’ve seen that, in his mind, provides some kind of evidence that the Roman Catholic Church is what he always simply assumes it to be: The ‘motives of credibility’ indicate the location and identity of the Church Christ founded, and they are accessible to human reason. This is not direct evidence in any way about what the early church was. This involves looking at “the Church herself, …, by her marvellous propagation, her wondrous sanctity, her inexhaustible fruitfulness in good works, her Catholic unity, and her enduring stability, a great and perpetual motive of credibility and an irrefragable witness to her Divine commission”. In other words, “we’re here, we’re here, get used to it”. Therefore, we’re infallible.
Bryan asks, “What if Protestantism has forgotten that its original intention was to return to full communion with the Catholic Church when certain conditions were satisfied?” Of course, Martin Luther said, “everything hinges on the purity of the Word. I have succeeded only if I have taught correctly.” Bryan, however, makes the assumption that the Roman Catholic Church always has had “the purity of the Word”, and that “Protestantism has forgotten that its original intention was to return to full communion with the Catholic Church when certain conditions were satisfied?” But Luther’s conditions never were satisfied, and with the Council of Trent anathematizing the Gospel, the Marian dogmas, “papal infallibility”, and now Vatican II, Rome has only gotten worse.

Those are just for example. Many more could be pulled up.

On the one hand, if you don’t hold to Bryan’s assumption, he says “you’re begging the question”. On the other hand, he never gives direct evidence for his position. He merely assumes it and then challenges any evidence you put forth as being “fully compatible with” … whatever it is he’s assuming.

What he doesn’t tell you is, being “not incompatible with” or “fully compatible with” in no way gives any evidence in support of what it is he’s saying. He simply is saying, "you don’t provide a 100% airtight deductive logical argument that disproves 100% what I’m actually saying”, and the implication is, “therefore, the Roman Catholic position is true.”

Bryan’s whole case for Catholicism rests upon this method.
Over the centuries, other Roman Catholic apologists have adhered to this methodology to one degree or another. But because of Bryan’s pure and rigorous logic, it is easily distilled in this way.

Plainly, it is all just smoke-and-mirrors. It is an assumption that is endlessly made, and it seems to be acknowledged, that no actual historical evidence can be provided, or argued from. From the Protestant side, in Bryan’s magisterial viewpoint, doing so is to engage in “begging the question”. It is the big Roman Catholic apologetic thumb on the scales.

And yet, the flip side of this coin is, as Stephen Wolfe points out:

For the Roman Catholic, a text can only be considered Holy Scripture after the Roman Catholic Church has declared it to be Holy Scripture. [Similarly, if a writing from the early church is deemed to be “evidence”, it is only because Rome has said it is so.] This means that when a Roman Catholic cites a text as scripture he is implicitly acknowledging the Church’s authority to declare a text scripture and that the Church has declared the cited text to be scripture. So when Roman Catholics cite a text as scripture in support of Roman Catholicism they must already assume Roman Catholicism.

This implicit form of circular reasoning abounds in Roman Catholic apologetics, but it isn’t simply a mistake on their part. Roman Catholicism, when on public trial, always teeters between self-refutation and circularity, as I will show. When Protestants encounter such reasoning, there is no need to respond other than by simply pointing out the fallacy. Fallacious arguments do not require anything of you other than calling them what they are. This just-point-out-the-fallacy approach might seem insufficient on our part because, as Protestants, we care about the claims of Scripture. Still, we must only call out the fallacy. A Roman Catholic argument by scripture not only demands that you consider the text cited but also its assumption: A text can only be considered scripture after the Church has declared it to be scripture. Again, a fallacious argument requires nothing of us other than a declaration that it is fallacious.

Now, if the tactic of the Roman Catholic is to jump into the Protestant paradigm to show that it is internally inconsistent, there is no necessary fallacy. But even if the Roman Catholic is successful in showing some inconsistency, this does not constitute any direct support for Roman Catholicism. It only provides support against Protestantism. Too often Roman Catholics think that disproving Protestantism means proving Roman Catholicism; and, unfortunately, many former Protestants seem to think that disproving Protestantism means proving Roman Catholicism. It does not work that way.

The Protestant position – the one of proving doctrine by doctrine from Scripture, does not run into that difficulty:

The situation is different for the Reformed Protestant apologist. The Reformed Protestant always has reasons to believe what he believes apart from some magisterial church authority. His belief is not based on reason, that is, from natural theology or philosophy. He has sufficient reasons to believe given all of God’s revelation to the world (general and special). The Protestant has public and sufficient reasons to believe such that anyone in his proper mind would come to accept them.

In the Reformed Protestantism, special revelation is just as self-authenticating as general revelation. Those in their right mind—those who have been renewed to see the handiwork and handwriting of God—see Scripture as God’s inscripturated self-disclosure to the world. Scripture, then, is public evidence. God has condescended in a special and direct way to the world in creation and Scripture: he reveals himself to humans immediately, not mediately through some earthly institution. Humans, when seeing the world as humans ought to see the world, will recognize the evidence of the God who has condescended with reasons to believe. Grace renews people to naturally see the evidence of God’s work in creation and redemption in Christ; and this evidence is sufficient to believe apart from some earthly authenticating authority.

True neutrality, then, is admitting all the handwriting of God as reasons for faith.

For the Protestant, evidence is evidence, and by the accumulation of this evidence, an inductive case is made, and as I’ve cited Steve Hays, above, “The more that more Christians live [and are taught] according to God's word, the more they converge”. (By the way, this inductive methodology was an important component in the Reformation overcoming the Medieval Thomism of its day.]

See also:

I say all of that, so that this is clear to everyone, because I’m about to respond to some objections that have been made regarding Gregg Allison’s work on Roman Catholicism, “Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment”.

I’ll discuss that next time – and in doing so, I’ll be referring back to this particular blog post.


  1. Thanks John. I really appreciate what you and Steve have written here. Could the methodological argument from CtC, as you've outlined, be called Fideism? I mean, it takes a blind faith on one level, and a rejection of the NT on another.....

    One thing though, that we should see assuming the inevitability of "The more that more Christians live [and are taught] according to God's word, the more they converge” is actual, physical, converging - i.e., merging of churches.

    Not only is this what it means to converge in a physical, flesh and blood world, but only such unity can fulfill the NT ethic of loving one another and ministering our gifts to one another. I've written on it here:

    In your opinion, is that kind of converging taking place?

    Thank you for all you do. - T

    1. Hi Ted -- Thanks for your comments here and on the other thread. I truly appreciate it.

      I haven't had time to read your entire article, although I've looked at your website earlier. I am not quite comfortable with the word "mandate" -- I understand you may be using it rhetorically -- and let me give you an example. I have gained a tremendous amount of respect for "the Reformed confessions". However, I do think that there are some who use the confessions as a tool to coerce behavior in one way or another. A good thing, and maybe even with the best of intentions, used in ways that people can be harmed. I also think that "unity" (in a sense beyond the way that Steve defined it above) may be going too far. It is Christ who "build[s] my church". It's his job, and when we presume to be doing his job, I think problems can result from that.

      I'm going to get into that in the next piece about Allison's work. I continue to disagree with you that Allison was "dishonest" in claiming that his assessment was "an evangelical assessment". He does not claim it is "the" evangelical assessment -- and he even allows that there may be other "evangelical assessments". It's not his role, in the space of this work, to say what every evangelical assessment might be. He's simply saying, "I'm an evangelical, these are my beliefs, they are fairly representative, but not totally representative, of evangelical beliefs. But here is what we say about Rome". And in the process, Allison has done a service for the church, has provided something for the contemporary church, that nobody has ever done before. And people can (and will) build on his work. There are small flaws, but I can't really take issue with them.

  2. Thanks John. Without answering the question, you answered it.