Saturday, December 15, 2018

Bryan's stalled chess game

Bryan Cross recently reviewed Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation, by Kenneth Collins & Jerry Walls, in Faith and Philosophy 35/4 (October 2018), 485-491. 

i) It's worth noting who didn't write the review. It wasn't written by a cradle Catholic. It wasn't written by a graduate of a Catholic seminary. It wasn't written by a Catholic Bible scholar or church historians at a Catholic seminary or pontifical university. It wasn't written by a Catholic theologian. It wasn't written by a priest, monsignor, or bishop. It wasn't written by the prefect for the CDF. 

Rather, it was written by a Catholic layman and evangelical convert to Catholicism. It was written by a self-anointed spokesman for Catholicism. Whenever I read Bryan, I'm struck by how he presumes to pontificate (pun intended) for Catholic theology. But how representative are his views within the hierarchy or mainstream Catholic academia? Or is this an idealized abstraction that's out of step with official currents in Roman Catholicism? 

ii) I've skimmed the book Bryan is reading. I read the parts that interested me. For purposes of this post, I'll assume that Bryan accurately represents the stated positions of Walls and Collins in the book. I won't go back to compare his representations with theirs. They can do that on their own if they choose to respond to him. I did reread their section on the sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture before writing this post. 

iii) It's somewhat roundabout to review a review. I don't necessarily frame the issues in the same way as Collins and Walls. And Bryan wasn't responding to me, so he can't be faulted for failing to engage my arguments, since that wasn't his aim. So my response is orthogonal to this particular exchange. I speak as an interested third party, overhearing their exchange. 

They claim that because there were Christians in Rome before St. Peter and St. Paul came to Rome, therefore St. Irenaeus is obviously mistaken in his claim that Sts. Peter and Paul founded the Church in Rome. But in the Catholic paradigm, there is no particular Church until it is established by an Apostle or an episcopal successor of the Apostles, even if Christians are present and meet regularly.

That takes it back to the presuppositional issue of ecclesiology. Although the dogma of apostolic succession may require Bryan to say that, it's striking to see him deny that 1C Christian communities weren't real churches unless and until they were "established by an Apostle or an episcopal successor of the Apostles." But apart from Catholic dogma, is there any reason to believe it? Bryan operates with a priest-sacrament paradigm whereas I operate with a word-Spirit paradigm. 

I'm not suggesting that the onus lies one-sidedly on Bryan to justify his Catholic paradigm. Both sides have a burden of proof. But I've never seen Bryan make anything like a full-blown case for why we should accept his paradigm. In my experience, his modus operandi consists of expounding the Catholic paradigm (as he construes it), comparing and contrasting the Catholic paradigm with the Protestant paradigm, then drawing attention to what he deems to be the unacceptable consequences of the Protestant paradigm–which are only unacceptable if you regard the Catholic paradigm as the lodestar. Yet that's the very issue in dispute. Maybe I missed it. Maybe there's somewhere Bryan makes a noncircular case for Roman Catholicism. In my experience, Bryan's M.O is to set up the chess pieces on the board, make a few opening moves, and that's it. 

Similarly, in their claim that the Eucharist unavoidably implies that Christ has two bodies, and that the tabernacle in each Catholic sanctuary is not an appropriate place for Christ, they fail to recognize the significance of a concept in Catholic theology, namely, distinct modes of presence. 

While it may be possible to save appearances by positing distinct modes of presence, where's the justification for supposing that metaphysical overlay is what Jn 6 or Lk 22:19 means? 

As for their claim that the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception “in effect denies that Jesus was truly human simply because he was not born of a woman who was herself really human” (306), they presuppose something Catholic theology does not presuppose, namely, that being conceived with original sin is essential for being human. 

On the face of it, that's a valid criticism. There are, however, some basic problems with the immaculate conception:

i) The logic is regressive. If the mother of Jesus must be immaculately conceived so that she doesn't transmit original sin to Jesus, then the same principle applies to the mother of Mary, and Mary's grandmother, and great-grandmother, &c. Conversely, if God can simply intervene to prevent the transmission of original sin, then Mary's immaculate conception is superfluous, because God could skip over Mary by to intervene one step further down the line at the conception of Jesus.

ii) Short of divine revelation, how would anyone be in a position to know that Mary was immaculately conceived? Where's the evidence that such a revelation was ever given? To whom? And if it wasn't given, it has no warrant. To all appearances, the immaculate conception is a legend that hardened into dogma.  

And that would do injustice to the term “Theotokos” embraced by the Church in large part to protect orthodox Christology according to which Mary’s unique relation to Jesus is that of mother, not mere carrier or incubator.

Mary undoubtedly had a unique relationship to Jesus. Every mother has a unique relationship to their children. Each of us only has one mother.  

In some cases their argumentation is ad hoc, as for example, in claiming that the pre-Reformation saints and history of the Church are theirs too, but then using the embarrassing parts of that same Church history as reasons to oppose the Catholic Church. 

That's possibly but not necessarily inconsistent. Church history is not an all-or-nothing offer, where you either accept it in toto or chuck it. The appropriation of church history always calls for sifting. Roman Catholics are no exception. It's not unprincipled to distinguish between heroes and villains, saint and heretics in church history. That's only ac hoc if it lacks a consistent criterion. 

Against biblicism they affirm the authority of tradition and the Church fathers, but then use their own interpretation of Scripture to determine what does and does not count as tradition, what are the essentials, and what counts as authentic development. 

i) That may or may not reflect a point of tension or vicious circularity in their method. I'd have to go back and check the book. Ultimately it's up to Collins and Walls to respond for themselves. 

ii) Speaking for myself, it's not a question of authority. On the one hand, some traditions, if they have good pedigree, might count as historical evidence for the claim. On the other hand, it's not a question of patristic opinion, but the quality of the arguments they adduce in support of their opinions. That doesn't require us to treat church fathers as authority figures. The question, rather, is whether their claims are well-reasoned. 

Similarly they recognize the problematic character of theologically loaded methodology in the domain of Scripture scholarship, but make indiscriminate use of scholarship in Church history as if the latter is immune to such a possibility.

That may be a valid criticism, but what about Catholic church historians who agree with Protestant church historians that the traditional narrative of the Counter-Reformation apologetic is a historical fiction or retrojection? Bryan acts like this represents conflicting interpretations between the Catholic side and the Protestant, conveniently disregarding the fact that the Catholic side, among Catholic academics, has caught up with Protestant criticisms of the traditional Counter-Reformation narrative. 

The primary weakness of the book is that it approaches the numerous Protestant-Catholic disagreements as if they are not paradigmatic, and therefore as if Catholic doctrines can be evaluated rightly as abstracted from the Catholic paradigm, and by way of the central principles of the Protestant paradigm. This leads to numerous cases where the authors’ argumentation presupposes a point that is in question at a more fundamental level. I counted 178 such cases. Among the central principles of the Protestant paradigm are notions of Scriptural perspicuity and sufficiency that are not part of the Catholic paradigm, whereas among the central principles in the Catholic paradigm are authoritative sacred tradition and magisterial authority. As a result, what gets counted as authoritative tradition is different in both paradigms, because what sometimes is rejected as unbiblical according to the Protestant paradigm is within the Catholic paradigm viewed as part of the authoritative Tradition that normatively guides the interpretation of Scripture. Likewise what within the Catholic paradigm is seen as definitive teaching by the Catholic Magisterium can be treated under the Protestant paradigm as unbiblical on the basis of a more fundamental disagreement regarding perspicuity. The disagreements at the level of soteriology, sacramentology, Mariology, ecclesiology, and what counts as authentic development of doctrine hang on these more fundamental disagreements. But in their approach to these questions the authors make use of a perspicuity criterion which is itself central to the difference in paradigms. For example, according to the authors, to support sola Scriptura one need only show that it can be derived from
Scripture. However, since this derivation itself presupposes perspicuity, such an argument for sola Scriptura is question-begging. Similarly, the authors think “theological paradigms” have to be evaluated by whether they are “biblical.” But what goes into their idea of being “biblical” already includes a theological paradigm presupposing perspicuity.

i) Speaking for myself, a Protestant case against Catholicism doesn't require a commitment to the general perspicuity of Scripture. Suppose for argument's sake that Scripture is generally unclear. Suppose it's unclear on many things but clear on some other things. 

Catholicism is a package deal. If even one Catholic essential is wrong, that falsifies the entire paradigm. To use a cliche metaphor, Catholicism is a house of cards in that regard.

If according to Scripture, just one Catholic essential is clearly wrong, then that's enough to disprove Catholicism. Even if Scripture wasn't generally perspicuous, as long as they overlap, so that one or more Catholic essentials are clearly at variance Scripture, then that's all you need. In theory, Scripture could be unclear much of the time, yet a Catholic essential might clearly be contrary to Scripture, on those occasions when a Catholic teaching collides with a lucid moment in biblical teaching. When Catholic teaching and biblical teaching intersect, if Biblical teaching happens to be clear on that point, and if that runs counter to Catholic teaching, then the game is up. Even if it's just a coincidence that they occasionally overlap at points where Scripture is clear, and Catholic teaching unambiguously diverges from Scripture, that's the coup de grâce for Catholicism. 

A priori commitment regarding the scope of biblical perspicuity is irrelevant so long as cases like that exit. A Protestant doesn't have to take a position in advance on the perspicuity of Scripture. It's enough to wait and see if in fact Catholic teaching sometimes conflicts with a clear teaching of Scripture. 

ii) Then there's the issue of sufficiency. Even if a Catholic tradition is consistent with Scripture, in the sense that Scripture doesn't address that issue one way or the other, the extrabiblical Catholic teaching can easily be unwarranted if it suffers from a lack of proper extrabiblical evidence. 

We believe many things not contained in Scripture. But we still require suitable evidence. To revert to the example of the immaculate conception, that's not based on good historical evidence but raw church authority. Indeed, an ecclesiastical fiat is a necessary makeweight to compensate for the lack of credible historical evidence.  


  1. Is Bryan's review available anywhere for free?

    1. Not that I'm aware of.

    2. Steve has posted “the business end” here. Much of the review was a chapter-by-chapter summary, without comment.

  2. Bryan is just as a-prioristic as ever. Its like the Catholic version of Sye-Ten-Brugencateism.

  3. Bryan Cross’s review is not at ?

    1. It was published in Faith & Philosophy. He made not have permission to post it at Called to Communion.