Tuesday, April 03, 2018

"Ecclesial deism"

I'm going to revisit an old argument by Bryan Cross:

Ecclesial deism is the notion that Christ founded His Church, but then withdrew, not protecting His Church’s Magisterium (i.e., the Apostles and/or their successors in the teaching office of the Church) from falling into heresy or apostasy. Ecclesial deism is not the belief that individual members of the Magisterium could fall into heresy or apostasy. It is the belief that the Magisterium itself could lose or corrupt some essential of the deposit of faith, or add something to the deposit of faith, as, according to Protestants, allegedly occurred in the fifth, sixth, and seventh ecumenical councils.

i) Bryan begins by coining an ominous sounding label, but when he defines it, "ecclesial deism" is just a fancy, misleading label for the belief that God doesn't protect the pope from heresy/apostasy, or "ecumenical councils" from heresy/apostasy. Of course, when you put it that way, when you spell it out, there's nothing disturbing about that denial for anyone who's not a member of Bryan's sect. It just means non-Catholics don't believe God protects his denomination from heresy or apostasy. But that's hardly "deistic". Does Bryan think it's deistic that God doesn't protect Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans et al. from falling into heresy or apostasy?  

So "ecclesial deism" is at best "papal deism" or "prelatial deism". But even that's silly. It's hardly deistic to deny that God protects Bryan's preferred denomination.   

ii) Apropos (i), Protestants don't believe Christ founded the Roman Catholic church, but then withdrew, not protecting the Roman Magisterum from falling into heresy or apostasy–since we don't believe the premise. We don't believe Christ founded the Roman Catholic church in the first place. So it's not as if he first founded the Roman church, then subsequently withdrew, not protecting the papacy or Catholic church councils from falling into heresy or apostasy. Once you recast Bryan's claim from the viewpoint of an outsider (non-Catholic), his prejudicial characterization becomes manifest. 

iii) Notice the bait-n-switch, where he begins with Christ's church, then substitutes the Roman Magisterium. Of course, Protestants don't classify the Apostolate as a Magisterium. There never was a continuous teaching "office" in that sense. 

iv) Bryan is a selective "deist". He's deistic about everything except the Magisterium. 

v) Protestants like me don't believe that God withdrew his protection of his people from apostasy. To the contrary, God preserves the elect from apostasy.

From a Reformed perspective, there's a sense in which the church is indefectible. Not in reference to a teaching office, but in the sense that God preserves his elect from damnable heresy. The Spirit is active in the life of his people. Of course, individual Christians can and do fall into error, but God doesn't allow the Christian faith to be extinguished. It continues from one generation to the next until Jesus returns. 

A few weeks after I graduated from seminary, some Mormon missionaries came to our door. My wife invited them in, and we started talking. But we were just getting into the important questions when we ran out of time. So we agreed to meet with them the following week. They ended up coming weekly for the rest of the summer. Since I had just completed four years of training in biblical theology, Greek and Hebrew, I was quite confident that I could persuade these teenage missionaries by exegetical arguments from Scripture that Mormonism is false and that the Gospel, as we understood it then, is true.

Over the course of our discussions with these Mormon missionaries, when I argued that their teachings were contrary to Scripture, they would counter by appealing to the Book of Mormon, and I would respond by saying that the Book of Mormon is contrary to Scripture. But they viewed Scripture through the Book of Mormon, that is, in light of the Book of Mormon. They claimed that very shortly after the death of the Apostles (or maybe even before the death of the last Apostle) the Church fell into utter apostasy, and that the true Gospel had been preserved in North America where Jesus had come to preach to certain peoples living here at that time. For that reason, according to the Mormons, the Bible had to be interpreted and understood in light of this additional revelation that Joseph Smith had recovered, and not according to the teachings and practices of the early Church fathers. That was because in their view the early Church Fathers had corrupted Christ’s teaching by incorporating into it both Greek philosophy and pagan rites in syncretistic fashion. So our conversation at some point reached fundamental questions such as: “Why should we believe the Book of Mormon over the early Church fathers?”, and “How do you know that the Church fathers corrupted Christ’s teaching?”

I realized at the time that I too, as a Protestant, could not appeal to the early Church fathers or the councils in a principled way to support my position against that of the Mormons. Of course, at that time I agreed with Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology, but like the Mormons I too believed that shortly after the death of the Apostles the Church had begun to fall into various errors, minor at first but progressively more serious. So in my mind, everything any Church father said had to be tested against [my own interpretation of] Scripture.

Protestants I respected had told me that they questioned or rejected parts of the Nicene Creed (e.g., saying that Christ was “eternally begotten”) as being both extra-biblical and based on Greek philosophy. I knew that Greek philosophy had been quite influential in Alexandria, and I believed that this is where the allegorical method of interpretation was introduced. This was a method, in my mind, that was at least in part responsible for the Church’s departure from the Gospel, and the subsequent need for the Reformation. From my sola scriptura point of view, there was no difference between bishop and elder, no basis for the papacy or even Roman primacy, not even a real distinction between clergy and laymen. So the whole hierarchical organization of the early Catholic Church seemed to me to be a corruption, a departure from what was taught in the New Testament.

Similarly, I believed that the Catholic liturgy, holy days, almost everything in the liturgical calendar, vestments for clergy, veneration of saints and their relics and icons, prayers for the dead, and prayers to departed saints were all accretions from pagan holidays and practices. Even the idea that some Christians are saints in some greater way (with a capital ‘S’) than that in which all Christians are saints was, in my opinion, a corruption, because I thought that egalitarianism followed from our being saved by grace. This was epitomized, in my view, by the Catholic Church’s veneration of Mary, treating her as “Mother of God,” and claiming that she remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus, as though marriage and sexual intercourse were evil.

From my point of view at that time, the early Church had somehow been led astray from the finished work of Christ and come to believe in what I thought was a magical conception of the sacraments, presumably also imported from paganism. This magical way of conceiving of the sacraments explained why the bishops who wrote the creeds treated baptism as forgiving sins, why at some point they came to believe that the bread and wine really became the Body and Blood of Christ, and why they transformed the agape love-feast into the “Eucharistic sacrifice.”1 That, along with their failure to adhere to sola scriptura, explained why they treated things like confirmation, marriage, penance, and ordination as sacraments. From the sola scriptura point of view, all these ‘additions,’ like purgatory, the exaltation of celibacy, mysticism, monasticism, and asceticism, had to have come from paganism, and were therefore a corruption of the purity of the Church and the Gospel, just as Israel of the Old Testament had played the harlot with the gods of the other nations. 

So when the Mormons claimed that a great apostasy had overcome the Church by the time of the death of the last Apostle, I had no ground to stand on by which to refute that claim. The Mormons believed that the true gospel was recovered in the early nineteenth century by Joseph Smith. I believed, as a Reformed Protestant, that the true gospel was recovered in the early sixteenth century by Martin Luther. But we both agreed (to my frustration) that the early Church fathers and the councils were suspect and not authoritative in their own right. Over the course of our meetings with the Mormon missionaries that summer I realized that with respect to our treatment of the early Church fathers and ecumenical councils, there was no principled difference between myself and the two young Mormon missionaries sitting in my living room.

i) To borrow and adapt a distinction by Roderick Chisholm, there are, in theory, two ways to respond to cults and heresy like Mormonism. One strategy is "methodism". Attempting to refute Mormonism by appeal to some general, multipurpose principle that isn't specific to Mormonism. Bryan is a methodist.

The alternative is particularism. The most direct way to refute Mormonism is to impugn the credibility of Joseph Smith–which is ridiculously easy to do. Smith was a transparent fraud. Even prior to his claim that an angel appeared to him, Smith's reputation preceded him. He was known to tell whoppers and tall tales, dabble in folk magic, cheat clients, &c. And in his subsequent religious career, he made demonstrably false claims, like his claim to translate an ancient Egyptian document (the Book of Abraham). 

By the same token, you can be a particularist in refuting other cults, heresies, and false religions like Islam, Buddhism, Scientology…and Roman Catholicism! It isn't necessary to have some general, all-purpose shortcut to winnow religious claimants. It's possible to assess them on a case-by-case basis. 

ii) For instance, I used to ask Mormon missionaries how their god could answer prayer. How could a finite humanoid god, living lightyears from earth on the planet Kolob, sense Mormon prayers and process Mormon prayers? Likewise, how would he be in a position to answer them? How does a finite, humanoid god have the power to answer prayer?  


  1. Another example of how Catholic doctrine substitutes the Bible and the Holy Spirit for the Magisterium. Functionally, the Magisterium's supposed teaching office and infallibility supplies the church with truth and then makes sure that that truth remains in the church. The Magisterium is effectively a substitute for the Scriptures and the Spirit. The Catholic apologist would, of course, deny that and say that it is the means by which the Spirit's ministry is carried out. But this runs into the wall of Christ's clear moral test: "by their fruits you shall know them", a problem that Catholic apologists can apparently only "resolve" by circular appeal to their unprovable axiom that the Magisterium has not failed to preserve true doctrine because it's the Magisterium and the Magisterium can't fail to preserve true doctrine. It's also clear that since the data of Biblical revelation is not subject to change over time (only to better understanding of what was once-for-all revealed), such an office as the Magisterium, to be a means of preserving revealed truth in the world, is entirely redundant, and hence the Magisterium can only ever be a substitute, not a means.

  2. So his position is a type of Roman Catholic presuppositional apologetic: unless I assume Rome I can't refute Mormons. Or maybe something like "I need Rome to refute the Mormons."

    But this is an argument I would use. How do you get to the point you go with Rome? Why not the Mormons? Eastern Orthodox? Muslims, etc?

    //So when the Mormons claimed that a great apostasy had overcome the Church by the time of the death of the last Apostle, I had no ground to stand on by which to refute that claim. //

    You had Scripture and you could show Mormon teaching don't line up with the apostles. Nor did he have to go with "the church was completely obliterated". Why are our choices "the church is protected from all error" and "the church was completely gone"? Why are Catholic converts prone to this type of all or nothing false dilemmas?