Saturday, November 18, 2017

The mirage of 30,000 denominations

A stock objection to the Protestant faith is "30,000 denominations". That's a figure that Catholic apologists pull out of thin air. I've discussed this before, as have others. But I'd like to revisit the issue. 

1. To begin with, doing a headcount of denominations is a dumb way to analyze the issue. Let's compile a theological list, in no particular order:

i) Predestinarian theism or freewill theism

ii) Is the Bible fallible or infallible?

iii) Are OT narratives historical or fictional? Are the Gospels historical or fictional? 

iv) Is God inside space and time or outside space and time?

v) Does God know the future?

vi) Is everyone saved?

vii) Annihilation or everlasting misery?

viii) Is lying always wrong?

ix) Is vicarious atonement/penal substitution true?

x) Is regeneration causally prior to faith?

xi) Is justification forensic or transformative?

xii) Can a Christian lose his salvation?

xiii) Is baptismal regeneration true or false?

xiv) Is the real presence true or false?

xv) Is there an intermediate state?

xvi) Amillennialism, premillennialism, or postmillennialism

xvii) Did Christ die to atone for everyone or just the elect?

xviii) Do miracles happen?

xix) Are there permissible grounds for divorce and remarriage?

xx) Is baptism for infants or believers?

xxi) Can women be pastors?

xxii) Cessationism or continuationism 

xxiii) The fate of those who never heard the Gospel

xxiv) Were Adam and Eve real people?

xxv) Is Tobit apocryphal? 

I'm up to 25 disputed issues. That's just a sample. The list could be extended. However, it can't be reasonably extended to 30,000 disputed issues. Or even a fraction of that. 

2. Moreover, the list is somewhat misleading. There are more general or more specific versions of the same issue. If you think Genesis is history, then the presumption is that Adam and Eve are historical figures. Although you could discuss that issue separately, the genre of Genesis selects for the answer as well. 

Likewise, only freewill theists believe that born-again Christians can lose their salvation. By the same token, only (some) freewill theists deny that God knows the future. So some of these issues are interrelated. Which side you come down on regarding one issue logically predetermines which side you come down on another.

3. What generates a large number of possible theological movements or traditions is not the number of the individual factors, but how these might be combined. There are many more possible combinations than the individual factors that comprise any particular package. It's the size of possible combinations that's great, and not the number of constituent factors. 

So there's a difference between totaling the combinations and totality the constituent factors. The way that Catholic apologists quantify Protestant denominations is misleading and simpleminded. 

It's like two dice with six faces. Just two dice with numbered faces generate a larger number of combinations (36). Yet you can factor that into something much simpler and smaller. 

It comes down to how you'd answer a list of theological questions. It may not be a long list. But if there are two or more answers to each question, then different answers generate different combinations. Yet it's illusory to think that's something over and above the underlying list. For every combination is reducible to the underlying list.

4. At present, there's a plethora of concurrently running Bible commentary series. If you spend much time reading major Bible commentaries, there's a great deal of overlap. Many Bible verses are self-explanatory. If it's a verse-by-verse commentary, then it will comment on every verse for the sake of completeness, but not because the meaning of this or that verse is in reasonable doubt.

Then you have the disputed passages. But in many or most cases, the commentator will list two or more stereotypical options. Different commentaries on the same book will list the same stereotypical options. It boils down to the leading contenders. 

With some exceptions, it's quite possible that we're approaching a limit on our understanding of the Bible. We only have so much new information. There are only so many plausible interpretations. We've got good answers for many verses. For some verses we can't be sure. And that's that.

A new archeological discovery may revise a received interpretation. Or a brilliant scholar may come up with a novel, but plausible interpretation. Yet there will always be some ambiguities in the interpretation of Scripture, so there comes a point where we understand it about as well as we are going to, given the available information, and we have to put what we know into practice. 

In my experience, most Catholic apologists don't read commentaries by mainstream Catholic Bible scholars. If they did, they'd discover that there isn't any essential hermeneutical difference between Catholic and Protestant commentators. That's because the Vatican no longer requires Catholic Bible scholars to rubber-stamp traditional interpretations. Freed from the necessity of defending a predetermined interpretation, they ask the same questions their Protestant counterparts do. Appeal to the same methods and evidence. Primary difference is that mainstream Catholic scholarship is liberal. 

5. Speaking of which, for the past 500 years, the Catholic church has been a major frame of reference. However, it's been liberalizing ever since Pius XII. If it becomes just another mainline denomination, and it's already far along that trajectory, then it will cease to be a significant alternative. Catholic distinctives can only be justified by the authority of the magisterium. If, however, it becomes increasingly evident that the church of Rome was never infallible or indefectible, that then will snip the string keeping that particular set of beads together. 

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