Thursday, July 18, 2019

Turning to Catholicism–1

I plan to do a running commentary on Faith and Reason: Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism (Ignatius Press 2019), Brian Besong, ed. I'll begin with Bryan Cross's chapter. This will be a lengthy post in part because I'm quoting Bryan, then responding to him. The actual analysis is much shorter than the post overall. A few general observations before I engage the text directly:

i) One way to interpret Bryan's strategy is that he's using a process of elimination argument, where each phase in his theological evolution falsifies the prior stage. The Reformed paradigm falsified the Pentecostal paradigm, the Anglican paradigm falsified the Reformed paradigm, while the Catholic paradigm falsified Anglican theology. Put another way, he using each phase as the standard of comparison to assess the deficiencies of the prior phase. 

A problem with that strategy, if that's his argument, is lack of continuity. He can't use the Anglican paradigm to measure the Reformed paradigm if he regards the Anglican paradigm as the wrong yardstick, and he can't use the Reformed paradigm to measure the Pentecostal paradigm if he regards the Reformed paradigm as the wrong yardstick. Ultimately he regards the Catholic paradigm as the right yardstick. Protestant alternatives fail to measure up by that yardstick, and not because they fail to measure up to different Protestant yardsticks. So the process of elimination argument fails unless there's some element of truth that carries through the Reformed and Anglican stages. 

The process doesn't lead up to and culminate in Catholicism if each Protestant alternative is a blind alley. At best, he's eliminating the Protestant competition separately, on a case-by-case basis. Yet the way he structures the presentation makes it seem like a cumulative case where these are logically interconnected stages. Where each stage builds on the previous stage. Although he denies that you can use one paradigm as the benchmark to assess another paradigm, that's precisely how he structures his presentation. 

ii) Suppose I agree with him that the traditional Protestant formulation regarding the sufficiency of Scripture is deficient. Suppose I agree with him that he raises objections which demonstrate how the sufficiency of Scripture, traditionally formulated, can't be held to consistently. Assuming that's the case, is that a reason to abandon the Protestant paradigm for the Catholic paradigm–or is that a reason to modify the Protestant paradigm? 

Suppose there are multiple reasons for me to think the Catholic paradigm is fatally flawed. Then that's not a viable fallback option. So the alternative is not the Catholic paradigm, but modifying the Protestant paradigm. There's a sense in which the Protestant paradigm can be modified in a way that the Catholic paradigm cannot. Although Catholicism can and does change, that has to receive official approval by the magisterium. By contrast, an individual Protestant is at liberty to propose a modification to the traditional Protestant paradigm. That may or may not win wider approval by fellow Protestants, but it's consistent with the individual Protestant's understanding of sufficiency. 

iii) Of course, it shouldn't be an ad hoc modification. And it can't be such a radical modification that it ceases to be recognizably faithful to Protestant essentials. 

But to take a comparison, in the history of philosophy, various positions undergo refinement in light of criticism. It's not necessarily ad hoc for philosophical positions to become increasingly sophisticated as they adapt to objections. 

Over the next few years, I started reading books on the ethics of euthanasia and assisted suicide. I went to hear Dr. Jack Kevorkian (“Dr. Death”) give a talk near campus. He was in the prime of his publicity around that time, and the issues of euthanasia and assisted suicide were hot topics for that reason. To the best of my knowledge, nobody seemed to have good arguments against his positions. Most of the books I was reading that opposed euthanasia were written by Evangelical Christians. And these books generally approached ethical questions from the point of view of sola scriptura, which was the only Christian point of view I knew at the time. I noticed that the Christian authors whose arguments were more cogent and persuasive were incorporating philosophical claims into their writing; they were not being fully consistent with sola scriptura, at least in the “sufficiency” sense of sola scriptura—namely, the notion that Scripture is sufficient in matters of faith and conduct. I could see that the merely sola scriptura approach was not sufficient to deal with moral questions about beginning and end-of-life issues, especially those involving medical technology—that is, those falling under the category of medical ethics. 

i) This goes to what is meant by the sufficiency of Scripture. Suppose we can learn from Scripture that suicide and euthanasia are wrong, but Scripture doesn't provide a philosophical justification for its answers to those questions. Does that make Scripture insufficient? Yet there's a distinction between Scripture giving the right answers, and whether its answers are philosophically justifiable by Scripture alone. Why insist that sufficiency must cover both? Why can't sufficiency mean that from Scripture I learn that certain actions are right while other actions are wrong, but defending the answers requires the use of reason, over and above what Scripture says? That's only inconsistent with sufficiency if you define sufficiency to require, not simply finding the right answers in Scripture, but finding the philosophical justification in Scripture. Yet I think that's a wholly unreasonable definition of sufficiency.

ii) Suppose I can know that suicide and euthanasia are wrong, both from Scripture and reason. Does that negate the sufficiency of Scripture? If so, how so? Assuming I can learn from Scripture that suicide and euthanasia are wrong, then Scripture is sufficient for someone who consults the Bible to find out whether or not suicide and euthanasia are wrong. That's not in competition with the possibility that I could reach the same conclusion through reason. I'll have more to say about this below.

iii) But suppose Scripture is "insufficient" to inform on about whether suicide and euthanasia are intrinsically wrong. Suppose I learn from Scripture that suicide and euthanasia are wrong under normal situations, but Scripture fails to address special situations. Does that mean Scripture is insufficient to provide necessary moral guidance?

That depends on what we mean by sufficiency. Sufficient for what? Suppose by sufficient we mean sufficient for what God requires of me. Sufficient to discharge my divinely-mandated duties. 

Suppose there are ethical questions Scripture doesn't answer. Does that mean Scripture is insufficient? Or does that mean it's not my divinely-mandated duty to have answers to those questions? God doesn't hold me to that. God doesn't require that of me. (Incidentally, that's not just hypothetical–that's my own position.)

Suppose I make the wrong choice because I didn't know any better, but I don't know any better because God hasn't revealed his will in that matter. So I'm not responsible for the choice I made, so long as I made a conscientious choice. 

iv) It isn't necessary for Christians to get it all right in this life–because this life isn't all there is. I can make innocent mistakes in this life which will be rectified in the world to come. It's a nearsighted view of Christian experience and God's providence to imagine we need all the answers here and now. 

v)  I'd add that Bryan's alternative is artificial. Catholicism doesn't have instant answers to every serious moral issue. For instance, advances in medical science generate new situations for which, by definition, there can be no traditional answers inasmuch as those situations were not on the table in the past. And it's not as if the pope is making ex cathedra pronouncements on all the cutting-edge issues in bioethics. So it's just an illusion to think Catholicism is a solution to the perceived deficiency of the Protestant paradigm.  

I also noticed that another problem with the sola scriptura approach is that in a democratic society in which the majority of citizens do not believe in the authority of Scripture, a sola scriptura Christian’s only solution to the problem of the legalization of assisted suicide and abortion is evangelism—that is, conversion. It seemed to me at the time that in order to persuade in the public square regarding such moral questions, the only recourse available to a sola scriptura Christian was to open the Bible and start pointing to verses. And if other people did not accept the Bible, the only recourse for a sola scriptura Christian was to convert them to Christianity so that they accepted the Bible as authoritative. But these problems did not cause me to doubt the doctrine of sola scriptura. At the time, they were merely difficulties, and I had no alternative paradigm. 

i) That reflects a confused notion of sufficiency. To begin with, Scripture saying something is wrong doesn't make it wrong. Even God saying something is wrong doesn't make it wrong. Bryan fails to distinguish between moral epistemology and moral ontology. From Scripture we can learn that certain actions are right or wrong, but such truths don't depend on Scripture in a constitutive sense. 

As such, we can sometimes provide supporting arguments for Biblical ethics by appeal to reason. That's not incompatible with the the sufficiency of Scripture. 

ii) There are, however, cases where revelation may be our only source of knowledge for some ethical stances. It's not irrational to believe something is right or wrong on the sheer authority of Scripture, even if you can't defend it by unaided reason. As Catholic philosopher Peter Geach has noted:
An elder sister left in charge of her little brother may have to enforce certain restrictions on his behavior; her parents have told her that certain things are forbidden; and the parents, let us suppose, had good reason for their prohibitions. If the young brother now says "Why shouldn't I?" and argues the matter, the sister's attempt to find a rationale for the prohibitions may be a failure, and the young brother may be sharp enough to defect this; but he would be a young fool if on this account he decided to ignore the prohibitions. The Virtues (Cambridge 1979), 141.

iii) In addition, while some biblical norms are justifiable by reason, reason itself requires a theistic justification. The reliability of reason is not independent of God. Likewise, moral realism is not independent of God. Indeed, many secular thinkers admit that naturalism can't justify moral realism. Those are observations we can and should press when debating social ethics with unbelievers. 

When we moved to St. Louis, we began attending a vibrant nondenominational charismatic church...On one particular Sunday morning not long after our son had died, a woman performed a voice solo at the church. She went up to the front of the church, was handed a microphone, and began to sing the traditional hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty”. But from my point of view, she sang it as if she were in a night club, with a forced gravelly voice, and sensual, bodily motions. The poignant contradiction of form and content was too much for me. I had been growing more and more disturbed by the irreverence of the form of the worship, without being able to identify consciously what it was that was troubling me. Finally, during this song the contradiction was for me directly palpable and undeniable. As we left the service that day, I decided that I could not continue to worship there. 

It's not as if contemporary Catholicism is tied to a traditional European worship style. What about black and Latino Catholics who have a more animated worship style? 

Ironically, Bryan's provincial ethnocentrism reflects his unconscious "ecclesial consumerism". People are wired differently. What one person finds appealing another person finds unappealing, and vice versa. That's one reason for the variety of denominations that Bryan deplores. Yet he's blind to his own selective bias in that regard. 

Prior to that, I was for theological reasons distrustful and suspicious of philosophy and of reason in general in any theological matters. This was in continuity from my Pentecostal tradition. From my point of view now as a Calvinist committed to total depravity, I had even more reason to believe that reason was fallen and untrustworthy. 

That's confused. In Reformed theology, everyone doesn't suffer from total depravity. The reprobate and unregenerate suffer from total depravity, but the elect experience regeneration and sanctification, which renews the mind. 

In my last year of seminary, I took a graduate philosophy class at Saint Louis University on the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas. Studying St. Thomas raised many questions regarding the Reformed tradition, particularly in those ways in which the Reformed tradition differed from the Catholic tradition. Although I could not answer those questions at the time, it was clear to me that there was at least a deep tension between the philosophical and theological positions and methods of the Reformers, and those of St. Thomas. 

My belief as an early seminarian was that other Christian traditions did not agree with us (Presbyterians) primarily because they did not know exegesis (i.e., the interpretation of the text of the Bible) as well as we did. At the seminary, we believed that exegesis was on our side—that it was exegesis that validated our position over and against that of all the other Christian traditions. I had believed that a rigorous study of the biblical languages and Scripture would provide the means to resolve interpretive disagreements dividing the various Christian traditions. So I had poured myself into exegesis with that hope, so much so that at graduation the seminary faculty honored me with the exegesis award awarded to one graduate each year. 

i) That's so simplistic and naive. If you read academic commentaries on Scripture, they list interpretive options. The commentator then tries to narrow down the options to one best interpretation by sifting the evidence for each option. Oftentimes we can identify the best interpretation of a particular passage. But sometimes it's hard to choose between alternatives. That's the case when you read commentaries by modern Catholic commentators as well. 

ii) Interpretive disagreements are sometimes due to the fact that readers may want the Bible to say more than it does. It doesn't settle some disputes because they want Scripture to speak to issues important to the reader which may not be so important to Scripture (or God). God leaves some things up in the air because it's not essential that we have a firm position on that question. Sometimes God has different priorities than the reader.

iii) Likewise, human beings are social creatures, so there's a powerful incentive to validate our sectarian religious conditioning. That doesn't mean Scripture is unclear, but psychological factors can override sound exegesis. And Catholics are hardly exempt. 

But especially in my last year of seminary, I began to see the implicit but determinative role that philosophy was playing in our interpretation of Scripture. We were calling what we were doing exegesis, as if it were an entirely objective activity, but we were tacitly importing many philosophical and theological assumptions into the process by which we arrived at our interpretations. 

The basic philosophy of hermeneutics is to read the text in the way the original audience understood it. That's not unique to Scripture. That's true for just about any text from the past, or from a different culture. 

Now I began to realize that the belief that exegesis was sufficient to resolve interpretive disagreements was protected and insulated by a prior sorting of persons into distinct groups that shared sufficiently similar interpretations. When the exegesis did not resolve the disagreement, one was supposed to have chosen another group that more closely matched one’s theology, and one was supposed to leave the nonmatching group so as not to attempt to compel even subtly that present group to accept one’s personal interpretation of Scripture. In this way, the belief in the sufficiency of exegesis and the perspicuity of Scripture was insulated from falsification by a continual partitioning and sorting of persons on the basis of their theological beliefs. When I began to see the degree to which philosophy was playing an implicit role in our interpretation of Scripture, my belief that exegesis was a neutral objective science, and that it was sufficient to adjudicate interpretive disputes, began to weaken.

That's not "philosophy". Rather, that's social psychology, and Catholics are subject to the same prior sorting process. Consider how Catholic apologists read the church fathers compared to Protestant patriologists. 

This conclusion was complemented by another experience, shortly thereafter. A few weeks after I graduated from seminary, some young 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 I 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. 

i) But that's the wrong line of attack. Begin by discrediting Joseph Smith as a false prophet. A flimflam man. There's an abundance of evidence.

ii) Or discuss the fiasco of the Book of Abraham. 

iii) Or discuss the lack of any archeological or genetic confirmation for human history in the New World according to the Book of Mormon. 

Where did I think the early Church had gone wrong? I agreed with the Mormons that the early Church had been influenced by Greek philosophy. The Church had made use of Greek philosophy with terms such as homoousioushypostasis, and physis to explain and defend the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Of course, I believed those doctrines to be true, but the use of such Greek notions worried me because it suggested an implicit syncretism. 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 extrabiblical 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 partly 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. 

Those are legitimate issues. Sometimes it is necessary to reexamine tradition. 

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 in some way evil or tainted with 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”. 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. 

Bryan was originally right. His theological peregrinations took him from greater truth to greater error. 

As I saw it, the Church had started to deviate from orthodoxy by the second century, and the pace of that deviation only accelerated when, according to this narrative, Constantine legalized Christianity through the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313 and Theodosis made Christianity the official state religion in A.D. 380. Christ had said that his kingdom was not of this world, but in my mind, the Catholic Church had tried to turn it into an earthly kingdom with bishops and popes assuming monarchical prerogatives. 

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. 

That's overstated. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition. 

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 to my frustration, we both agreed that the early Church Fathers and the councils were suspect and not authoritative in their own right. 

It's true that church fathers and church councils are not authoritative in their own right. Bryan was originally 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. 

Bryan suffers from such tunnel vision. It never occurs to him, even now, that he needed to reframe the issue. Mormonism is a target-rich environment. 

What troubled me was something I had learned in my philosophy graduate seminar on St. Thomas Aquinas. In his arguments, St. Thomas continually appeals to the tradition of the Church and to the Church Fathers. I found myself frustrated by his theological method. I wanted him to be doing exegesis from Scripture when making theological arguments, not appealing to the Church Fathers. The professor teaching the seminar responded to my objections by explaining that St. Thomas believed that divine providence guided the Church Fathers and the development of the Church. This professor pointed out that St. Thomas was not a deist about the Church (that is, God does not abandon the Church to her own devices). That short answer provoked me to do a great deal of reflecting, because I realized then that I did not share St. Thomas’ nondeistic way of conceiving of the development of the Church. My position at the time regarding this particular point was again not different in principle from that of the Mormons. 

What's so ironic is that Bryan started out Pentecostal. Charismatics also have a "nondeistic" view of divine providence. So what's the difference in principle between Bryan's hereditary paradigm and his adopted Catholic paradigm? Even if, at this stage, he was a Reformed cessationist, why go forward into Catholicism rather than back to Pentecostalism, or adopt Reformed continuationism? I'm not saying that's what he should have done. I'm just pointing out that given how he's casting the alternatives, choosing Catholicism is arbitrary. I'm responding to him on his own grounds. 

Of course, I firmly believed in divine providence, but I distrusted all the Church Fathers to whom St. Thomas appealed. That is why, in my mind at the time, appeals to the Church Fathers did not establish anything at all, because if the Church were being corrupted and falling away from the purity of the Gospel, then appealing to the Fathers was like appealing to heretics. 

Again, he seems to be treating the church fathers as authority figures rather than historical witnesses. But the church fathers are not all of a piece. 

But for St. Thomas, if the Church Fathers taught something, especially if they were Doctors of the Church or if the claim in question was held and taught widely by the Church Fathers, that showed it to be authoritative for us as a kind of patrimony precisely because the Holy Spirit was unfailingly guiding the development of the Church into all truth. 

What does Bryan mean by "development"? Is he anachronistically filtering Aquinas through Newman's lens? 

On this point, I discovered a very deep difference between myself and St. Thomas. The more I studied his writings, the more the difference was noticeable to me. St. Thomas believed that faith in Christ necessarily involves trusting the Church, because Christ cannot fail to guide and protect the development of his Church. 

Among other things, that assumes a particular ecclesiastical vehicle has a monopoly on God's providential guidance or protection. But what if denominations are just temporary vehicles? They serve a purpose for a time, but outlive their usefulness? 

At the time, I could not have explained exactly what the problem was. Anglicanism and Catholicism were not even on my conceptual horizon. But as a graduate student studying major figures in the history of philosophy, especially figures such as St. Augustine, Boethius, St. Anselm, and St. Thomas, I found that they far overshadowed the musings of any man who took the microphone on Sunday mornings.

For that matter, they far overshadow the musings of Pope Francis. 

But even there what was being served intellectually and theologically fell far short of what I could be getting reading the medieval Christian philosophers and theologians. I knew that I did not want to go to church to hear any more “man-talk”—that is, opinions of human beings. If church were primarily about “man-talk”, I could go to the library and find much more erudite thinkers and writers. From what I was learning from the writings of ancient philosophers and medieval theologians, I found myself mentally challenging and even refuting Sunday sermons point-by-point as they were being delivered during every service, and I could sense that that kind of disengaged cynical disposition was soul-destroying. 

That's terribly egotistical and elitist. Of course a Christian intellectual may get less out of the sermon than other parishioners. But what about attending church for the fellowship, corporate prayer, and music? It's not custom-made for every particular worshiper. 

That year a fellow graduate student suggested that I visit an Anglican church, so I did. I went by myself. The moment I walked in, I noticed a complete difference. It was quiet and reverent before the liturgy began. People were not talking before the service started. People were kneeling and praying silently, on kneelers. The liturgy itself was beautiful, rich, and meaningful. All the words of the service were already written down, as the liturgy, in this case the Book of Common Prayer, which is beautiful and reverent and drawn largely from Scripture. The liturgy is God’s speech spoken back to him by his people or by one representing them. The only occasion in which a person spoke his own opinion was the homily, and the homily was only about five minutes long, compared to the thirty-to forty-minute sermons with which I was familiar. Here for the first time I found freedom from “man-talk”. There was no human personality at the front of the church with a microphone saying whatever came into his mind at that moment. There was no speculative exegesis or theological argumentation that I could critically dismantle. 

i) Once again, Bryan's unconscious "ecclesial consumerism" asserts itself. What he finds reverent many Christians find boring. He's using his own aesthetic sensibilities as a theological criterion. 

ii) While liturgical prayer can be valuable, that has limitations. Consider this anecdote from John Ruskin's autobiography (Praeterita): 

Although the poetical states of religious feeling taught me by George Herbert's rhymes, and the reading of formal petition, whether in the psalter or litany, at  morning and evening and on Sunday forenoon, were sincere enough in their fanciful or formal ways, no occasion of life had yet put me to any serious trial of direct prayer. 

Ruskin was so conditioned by written prayer, corporate prayer, that he had no experience verbalizing a petitionary prayer for his own topical needs or the personal needs of other individuals. It was all generic.  

The climax of the Anglican liturgy was what was referred to as “Holy Eucharist”. We walked forward between the choir, and received the bread and wine at the front of the church, while kneeling. The very form of worship communicated something altogether different from the way of taking communion I had previously known. I found God to be present there in the beauty, reverence, and silence of the liturgy. Here was something that went beyond men’s opinions. I could not be cynical about the liturgy or critique it. This was not “man-talk”. It was nonpropositional; it was sacramental—that is, the Gospel embodied. It did not lend itself to rational evaluation or refutation. In that respect, this sacrament almost bypassed my intellect and went directly to my heart. In this sacrament, God was speaking to me not through words and propositions, but through a physical action, giving himself to me in a very intimate way. This was not something toward which I could take a critical, disengaged stance. I could only receive it and be grateful. 

I realized that this is what my soul had been craving—to be fed on God. In the sacredness of the liturgy centered around the “Holy Eucharist”, my heart, which had been starved under a diet of mere propositions, was drawn anew toward God. The form of this aesthetic and liturgy clearly fit the serving of the bread of heaven. In the liturgy, my soul was drawn up to God by its majesty and beauty. When the priest said, “Lift up your hearts,” we replied, “We lift them up unto the Lord.” The form of the liturgy and the music helped us lift our hearts up to heaven. 

i) Did he find God in the eucharist, or is that a projection of his own "cravings"? My point is not to assess the theology of the eucharist but to draw attention to Bryan's individualistic reaction. Certain experiences resonant with him that don't resonant with other Christians while certain experiences resonant with other Christians that don't resonant with him. This is all fairly subjective and person-variable–which he equates with steppingstones to the One True Church. 

ii) It also epitomizes the "grass is greener" outlook. On the one hand, people raised in nonliturgical churches sometimes feel they missed out. They gravitate to liturgical churches. But the traffic on the bridge moves in both directions. Liturgical churches have a high defection rate. Many people raised in liturgical churches find that too distant and formulaic. The deadening repetition and remoteness. They often gravitate to nonliturgical churches. So much of this is just a sociological truism about how what's familiar palls while what's unfamiliar is fresh. 

iii) And even on a subjective level, compare Bryan's nearly ecstatic experience of Anglican worship with the letdown once he settled into his Catholicism:

Bryan Cross February 17, 2016

The ordinary Catholic life just is the long dark night of the soul, the experience of the “real absence of Christ,” as you put it...I had to learn a very different way grounding and evaluating faith and growth. I had to give up seeking or expecting felt experiences.

So part of what drew him to Catholicism via Anglicanism is something he left behind when he converted to Catholicism. His Catholic experience is the polar opposite of the Anglican experience he rhapsodized about at a prior stage of his theological evolution. He was seeking "felt experiences". He failed to find that in Presbyterianism, but he encountered that in Anglo-Catholicism. And that was a bridge to Catholicism. Yet crossing the bridge burned the "felt experiences" in Anglo-Catholicism that drew him Romeward. 

To be clear, for me, in this case it was not fundamentally or primarily doctrine that moved me from the Presbyterian to the Anglican tradition; it was liturgy. Here again, as aesthetics had played a role in my move from charismatic to Presbyterian, so aesthetics again played an important role in my becoming Anglican. And yet philosophy played a role too, because it helped me see the implicit role philosophy played in the Calvinistic theology I had once held. And that removed, for me, that theology’s apparent authority, allowing me to look openly, carefully, and sincerely outside the Calvinist model. 

I'd just note that he's drawing a false dichotomy between "the Calvinist model" and the Anglican tradition. The Anglican tradition is entirely compatible with Calvinism. There are many Reformed Anglicans. It's more a distinction between Puritan Calvinism and Anglican Calvinism. However, "the Calvinist model" is in conflict with Anglo-Catholicism. 

My Anglican bishop seemed to have almost no interest in dialogue with the local Catholic bishop with a view to eventual full communion with the bishop of Rome. 

Notice the bias. Even if you think Christian reunion is an ideal to work towards, what makes "eventual full communion with the bishop of Rome" the goal? Why not the other way around? That Catholics should unite with Protestants by coming over to our side rather than vice versa? They should renounce their errors and become Protestant. 

When I asked myself why I was following this Anglican bishop, rather than the successor of St. Peter, I did not have a good answer. 

It's true that Anglo-Catholicism is a stopgap position. 

How could we pick and choose from an ecumenical council, or from among ecumenical councils? Either we should treat them all as merely good advice, or we should accept them all as authoritative. Picking and choosing from them on the basis of our agreement or disagreement with them, and then saying that the ones we have chosen are authoritative, was to my mind self-deceiving, like shooting an arrow and then drawing a target around the embedded arrow. 

But Catholicism itself doesn't treat everything stated by an ecumenical council as authoritative. There's a lot of sifting and sorting. For instance, the canons and decrees may be regarded as authoritative, but not all the other material. 

By the middle of 2004 I was trying to determine what exactly was the referent of the line in the Creed: “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” I was wondering whether what we were meaning by that phrase was what the early Church Fathers meant by that phrase. Finally, every Sunday while reciting the Creed, when we would get to the line “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”, I discovered that I could not say this line. I had to remain silent when we said it, because I was concerned that I was being dishonest if I were to say the line. My conscience was telling me that we (as Anglicans) were not saying the word “one” with the same meaning that those bishops who wrote the Creed intended it. We were treating what was a collection of groups of particular churches not in full communion with one another, as though it were a true unity. But I had come to believe from studying the Church Fathers that this was not how the early Church conceived of the unity of the universal Church. True unity included full communion of the bishops of the particular churches. And this raised the question of how, in the event of a schism among the bishops, to determine which group of bishops was the continuation of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, and how Christ intended believers to know the answer to that question. 

Here Bryan is operating within an Anglo-Catholic framework, but why cast the issue in terms of what the Nicene Creed means by "the church" rather than considering what the NT means by "the church"? Why make Nicene ecclesiology the benchmark rather than NT ecclesiology?

Of course, this question led to the consideration of the Catholic claim regarding the unique authority and role given to St. Peter and to the bishops of Rome in succession from St. Peter. Through study of the early Church Fathers, it became clear to me that they recognized the bishop of Rome to have a unique authority, not because Rome was the capital of the empire, but because they recognized that this unique authority entrusted to St. Peter, and the unique charism he had been given by Christ, had been preserved in his successors in the Apostolic See. This became evident especially in studying the various schisms, such as the Novatian and Donatist schisms, and the writings of Church Fathers who addressed these schisms. In the event of a schism, the bishop of Rome served as the principium unitatis (principle of unity) by which to distinguish the continuation of the Church from schisms from the Church.

But notice how that begs the question. What makes someone a church father? Why are Tertullian, Novatian, and Donatus excluded from that category? What makes them schismatics? Why not take their viewpoint as a standard of comparison? Is Cyprian a church father or a schismatic? 

The most important aspect of this Protestant-to-Catholic transition for me involved recognizing that the Protestant and Catholic traditions were rightly intelligible as “paradigms”—that is, as complete theological-conceptual frameworks that must be considered all together as a whole in order to be understood rightly. 

That's artificial. Theological paradigms are historical accidents. They're not logical packages in which everything is equally indispensable. Some elements of a theological paradigm are essential to the paradigm, but in other respects a theological paradigm may contain loosely-fitting elements that could be detached from one paradigm and attached to another. One of his blind spots is that as a philosopher, Bryan evaluates issues abstractly rather than historically. Too abstractly. 

This understanding of the relation of paradigms or traditions can be seen in a 1977 work of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Here MacIntyre drew from Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos to propose that Kuhn’s solution to the problem of competing scientific paradigms be applied to competing ethical traditions in moral philosophy.

Notice how theologically innovative that is. How that differs from, say, Robert Bellarmine, the paradigm Counter-Reformation apologist. 

Once that is clear, then an important conclusion follows. If we try to compare two paradigms by presupposing the truth of one of them, we are not authentically comparing them on their own terms. Criticisms of one paradigm on the basis of assumptions of the other paradigm are question-begging; that is, they are an exercise of circular reasoning, presupposing the very point in question—that is, which is the true paradigm…When one encounters other paradigms, one can come to see the same data from the point of view of those other paradigms. Seeing the data from different paradigms allows one to see weakness, failures, or problems internal to one’s own paradigm, and to see explanations for those weaknesses and failures, from the point of view of another paradigm, according to criteria mutually accessible to the paradigms in question. This allows one to compare paradigms in a noncircular way.

What was Bryan mean by "mutually accessible criteria"? Does he mean overlapping criteria which two theological paradigms share in common? Or does he mean generic criteria independent of any particular paradigm? And what are the criteria he alludes to?

The Catholic paradigm includes the authoritative role of Sacred Tradition and the Church Fathers in the interpretation and understanding of Scripture. In this paradigm these are not derived from one’s interpretation of Scripture, but established by Christ. Even the theological methodology between the paradigms is distinct. The Protestant paradigm seeks to resolve theological disagreements primarily by scholarly analysis of the text of Scripture. The Catholic paradigm turns to the Tradition and the magisterium. Moreover, the Catholic paradigm is incompatible with ecclesial deism and ecclesial consumerism. In the Catholic paradigm, what belongs to the articles of faith comes to us through the Church. That is how we know what to affirm by faith, through what the Church delivers to us, just as the early Christians would have done by believing what the apostles taught them were the truths delivered to them from Christ and the Holy Spirit. Among the articles of faith are the four marks of the Church specified in the Creed, in contrast to the Reformed marks of Gospel, sacraments, and Church discipline. From the Catholic point of view, the Protestant move of making discipline a mark of the Church was an unauthorized addition to the four marks given in the Creed. So then from the Catholic point of view, the Protestant appeal to discipline as a mark of the Church, for example, used against the Catholic Church, presupposes the very point in question between the two paradigms—namely, the possession of the authority to establish the marks of the Church and determine how they are to be understood. This was especially made clear to me by St. Francis de Sales’ The Catholic Controversy, which allowed me to see the ideas and actions of the Protestant Reformers from the perspective of the Catholic paradigm. 

Notice how in his appeal to the testimony of the church fathers, Bryan waves away all the historical challenges to his position. That's because his theological method is fundamentally a priori. He'd decided that because his paradigm must be true, the historical challenges must be reconcilable with his position, so he doesn't even need to get into the weeds. His paradigm can't be falsified by Scripture or church history because it isn't driven by Scripture or church history, but his preconceived ideal. 

By the spring of 2005, I was coming to see, first, that every single one of my Protestant objections to the Catholic Church presupposed the Protestant paradigm, and thus was evidentially and argumentatively question-begging. These objections implicitly and paradigmatically presupposed the very point in question. I was also coming to see that the Catholic paradigm was able to incorporate the patristic data in a far more coherent way, without having to adopt an ecclesial deism, and without thereby implicitly calling into question the divinity of Christ. 

Notice how that disregards the painstaking exegetical spadework of Protestant scholars (e.g. Bauckham, Elledge, Fee, Heiser, Hurtado) who defend the deity of Christ exegetically. That's because Bryan's theological method is a priori and ahistorical rather than exegetical. Bryan is in love with his own mind. 

The Catholic paradigm, unlike the Protestant paradigm, made schism intelligible and thus made intelligible what the Church Fathers said about schism. The Catholic paradigm made Christ’s atonement compatible with God’s justice. The Catholic paradigm made intelligible what the Church Fathers said about baptismal regeneration, about merit, about the distinction between mortal and venial sin, and about many other things. It was clearer to me that being in communion with the bishop of Rome was the default position, and that I needed some good (at least non-question-begging) reasons not to be in communion with the bishop of Rome. 

It's not that the Protestant paradigm renders those examples unintelligible, but that it rejects his examples. 


  1. "Once again, Bryan's unconscious "ecclesial consumerism" asserts itself. What he finds reverent many Christians find boring. He's using his own aesthetic sensibilities as a theological criterion."

    I'm surprised by how blind he is to his own consumerist, church-shopping outlook. I wonder what he would do in the face of someone saying "Don't give me these liturgies with quiet hymns and reverent kneeling, I want a church where we can handle snakes!"

  2. Steve quotes the following from Bryan Cross:

    "Through study of the early Church Fathers, it became clear to me that they recognized the bishop of Rome to have a unique authority, not because Rome was the capital of the empire, but because they recognized that this unique authority entrusted to St. Peter, and the unique charism he had been given by Christ, had been preserved in his successors in the Apostolic See."

    If people want to understand why the earliest Christians held a high view of Rome, they should read the reasons cited by the earliest sources who commented on Rome's significance. Read what Paul, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, for example, say about why the Roman church is important. None of them mention a papacy. Rather, they commend the Roman church for non-papal reasons.

    For those who are interested, here's a series I wrote several years ago about early Christian views of apostolic succession. That series discusses, among other topics, the non-papal reasons individuals like Hegesippus and Irenaeus had for viewing Peter and the Roman church as they did.

    And see here regarding how absent the papacy is in early non-Christian responses to Christianity.

  3. My impression is Bryan Cross has an odd way of thinking and making decisions.

    On the one hand, Bryan was a former med student who left med school. He has said the reason he left med school was because at the time he didn't know how to reconcile the scientific aspects of medicine with his Christian faith. He has said he felt he was forced to choose between either his Christian faith or medical science. He left med school because he couldn't give up his Christian faith.

    On the other hand, Bryan has also said at the time he believed some of his professors in med school were Christians. For example, he has mentioned he believes his anatomy profs were Christian in part due to their study of the human body and beholding its "magnificence".

    However, it apparently never crossed (pardon the pun) Bryan's mind that if he was struggling with reconciling his Christian faith with medical science that he could have asked his anatomy profs for guidance. They presumably could have answered his questions. If not, they certainly could have pointed him to others who could.

    I think this is evident in Bryan's spiritual journey as well. At many points in his spiritual journey from Pentecostalism to Reformed Calvinism to Anglicanism to Catholicism, Bryan could have sought out answers from people who could have given him reasonable answers to his questions or nagging doubts, yet he seems to neglect doing so for whatever reason. Several of his decisions seem almost arbitrary. Like if he had felt this way instead of that way at the time, then he might've chosen that theological belief instead of this theological belief.

    In a way, ironically, it seems what's driving his decisions are emotions or whims or some such. Perhaps a sense or motion of the Holy Spirit? It's as if his Pentecostalism has never left him.

    I don't know, maybe I'm missing something here.