Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Word and Spirit

A while back a Catholic apologist tried to PM me this:

The only Authority on Christian doctrine is Christ, as I'm sure you'll agree. You'll also agree that the Church and Christ are one. The only question is, how to identify the One True Church among all the candidates. There are marks and attributes that enable us to identify the Church. This is not difficult, and you can discover the Church quite easily. It is not a problem of the intellect, but a problem of the will. God help us all. 

Let's run back through this:

Let me know if you want to pursue this discussion.

I've not going to conduct a private theological debate with a Catholic apologist. Why would I invest lots of time in a futile debate with somebody who won't be persuaded, and no one else in the world gets to see it? How's that a responsible use of my time? 

The only Authority on Christian doctrine is Christ, as I'm sure you'll agree. 

No, I don't agree.

i) I don't consider one person of the Trinity to be a higher authority than another. 

ii) And in any event, I don't have direct access to the mind of Christ. He doesn't appear to me in weekly interviews. 

iii) My authority for Christian doctrine is biblical revelation. That's something I do have access to. 

iv) There's a metaphysical sense in which the Son is more ultimate than Scripture, but that concerns the order of being, not knowing. 

v) Moreover, Scripture is a product of the Spirit. So it's not as if Christ outranks the Spirit. They are coequal persons. 

You'll also agree that the Church and Christ are one. 

He sure is confident about my agreement in advance! The statement is equivocal in several respects:

i) "One" in what sense? Christ and the church aren't one and the same thing. They're not identical. 

ii) Perhaps he means "one" in the sense that the church is in union with Christ. In a sense, that's true.

iii) That, however, becomes a question of how to define the church. He has a centralized definition while I have a decentralized definition. I'm a nondenominational Calvinist. 

The only question is, how to identify the One True Church among all the candidates.

I don't grant the assumption that there's One True Church in contrast to multiple candidates. Rather, the church is multiply-instantiated in Christians. Where the Spirit is, there is the church. A one-to-many relation. It's like color. Red can be exemplified in many different objects and in varying shades. 

There are marks and attributes that enable us to identify the Church. This is not difficult, and you can discover the Church quite easily. 

i) This illustrates the problem when you get off on the wrong foot. I don't concede that that's where we should be looking in the first place. That's not my starting-point. 

ii) There's no agreed-upon list of what constitutes the marks of the church. Catholics typically default to the four Nicene marks, but Bellarmine, the premier Catholic apologist of the Counter-Reformation, said there were fifteen. Confessional Calvinists have a different list. For instance:

“The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing sin” (Belgic Confession, Article 29).

On that definition, the Roman church is not a true church, much less the One True Church. 

But speaking for myself, I'd use a Word and Spirit rubric rather than a Word and Sacrament rubric. 

iii) I don't grant the authority of the Nicene council to dictate the marks of the church. That's not my standard of comparison. And it's a circular appeal. The Nicene bishops only had the authority to dictate the marks of the church if you view them as authoritative representatives of the One True Church–which assumes the very issue in dispute.

iv) And it's circular in another respect inasmuch as Catholic apologists always define the marks of the church to include the church of Rome while excluding Protestants. 

v) Even if, for argument's sake, I used that frame of reference, it's doubtful that all the Nicene bishops defined "one," "holy," "Catholic," and "apostolic" the same way. 

vi) In theory, I might be able to operate within the Nicene paradigm if I glossed the marks with necessary caveats, but the four Nicene marks are arbitrary, and it's highly inefficient to tweak a flawed paradigm. 

This illustrates the challenge of reasoning with so many lay Catholic pop apologists. They have so many layers of assumptions to peel away.

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