Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Tell me what's true

Some years ago a student came to me in anguish, confessing that he intended to convert from his Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. He was in anguish because, of course, this would cause some consternation, if not disruption, within his family and among his friends. I asked him why he planned to convert and he said “Because I need someone else to tell me what is true.” He clearly meant (and said) he wanted the pope to decide truth for him. First, with tongue in cheek, I offered to be his desired arbiter, decider, of truth. He declined my offer. Second, I pointed out to him that by deciding to convert he was deciding for himself what to believe about truth. He had not thought of that.

Although this stands on its own two feet, it's worth making some additional points:

i) What's the goal? Is it to avoid believing falsehoods? But suppose the institution you choose to tell you what's true is unreliable? If the Roman Magisterium or Eastern Orthodox tradition is not a reliable arbiter of truth, then there's certainly no presumption that you will believe fewer falsehoods. If you rely on someone else to tell you what's true, and you pick the wrong horse, you can easily end up believing more falsehoods that if you use your own judgment. 

ii) What makes some people think they have the right to contract out their beliefs to a second party? What if you are directly answerable to God for what you believe? What if God takes a dim view of people who give a religious institution a blank check? What if God didn't authorize you to delegate those decisions to someone else? 

iii) Joining the church of Rome or the Orthodox church is not an alternative to denominationalism. Rather, you've decided to join the Roman Catholic denomination or the Eastern Orthodox denomination. 

iv) Even if, hypothetically, the idea of a magisterium sounds preferable, if the actual candidate is demonstrably unreliable, then that's a nonstarter. 

v) Does God hold you accountable for having false beliefs, or does God hold you accountable for why you believe it? Suppose you make a good faith effort to believe what's true. Will God condemn you if you made an innocent mistake? If you made the most of your limited opportunities, but failed to get it right, is that culpable? Is that what God cares about? Or was the fact that you were conscientious, that you did the best you could given your natural aptitude and the available evidence, praiseworthy even if you happen to be in error? How does Scripture prioritize our duties? For instance: Love God with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices (Mk 12:33). Here the key consideration is the motivation.


  1. Now with Pope Frankie on the throne causing confusion everywhere I am sure converting to Rome is at the very bottom of anyone's agenda.

    1. It sounds plausible, but I'm not so sure. After all, the same thing could've been said after Vatican II.

  2. Certainly, to have a divinely appointed arbitrator of theological claims would be a good thing. But if that arbitrator is a human then by what principled means does he/she know its opinions are true? How do they decide which of the theological claims it has is the truth?

    As I see it the RC person or prospective convert to RCism, effectively sub-contracts their doubt out to someone else... BUT the person they do that with is in the same position as they are! The 'epistemological hole' that RCism claims to fill is actually only transferred to someone else, who, like all of us, can't fill that hole.

  3. Is Roman Catholicism a Christian denomination or non-Christian cult?

    1. SP, I would say that the Roman Catholic religion (not the institution) contains with itself the essentials of Christianity. They are just so far buried under specifically Roman accretions and practices, they are hard to find. But I would suggest that Roman Catholics have the name of Jesus and they have the ability to "turn and be healed" (Acts 28:27). But Rome officially obscures the true Gospel and superimposes itself in between Christ and mankind. That is why it is so hateful.

    2. John,
      I would suggest that while Rome has added to the faith Protestantism has done a pretty good job at subtracting from the faith.

      Ultimately, both are the result of the same thinking - a search for one authority to decide the truth for them. Roman Catholics eventually developed the Papacy as their authority and Protestants invented sola scriptura as their authoritative tool.

      Most of the time ( even if most Protestants deny it) a Baptist ends up a Baptist because that is how they were raised and that is how the Bible was packaged and presented to them. A Reformed Christian is a Reformed Christian because they were told which verses to underline while they were growing up. An Evangelical is presented the Bible a certain way so that is the lens through which they read the Bible. Of course, they ALL decide for themselves, not like those Catholics who are told what to believe.