Monday, September 26, 2005

Intellectual suicide?

Today, Dave Armstrong posted the following comment on my blog:

“Why am I required to debate people who holds positions that I consider intellectually suicidal and the height of absurdity?”

This is his justification for refusing to debate with “anti-Catholics.”

Notice the viciously circular character of the appeal. It assumes what it needs to prove, i.e., there is no need to argue with “anti-Catholics” because “anti-Catholicism” is intellectually suicidal. But what is the argument for the thesis that “anti-Catholicism” is intellectually suicidal?

And even if he had such an argument, what about the counterarguments? There is more to apologetics that simply saying: “here’s my argument: take it or leave it.”

That’s is only the preliminary step in apologetics. The next step is to entertain objections and rebut them.

So, what is his argument?


Open Letter to Anti-Catholics

I would say that the "anti-Catholic" position, which maintains that Protestantism is Christian while Catholicism is not, is self-defeating, incoherent, and intellectually dishonest, if thought through properly (which is rarely the case). I never had this outlook as a Protestant for these very reasons. Among the many insuperable difficulties of anti-Catholicism:

1) The Canon of the Bible was determined by the Catholic Church. Thus, sola Scriptura necessarily requires a Tradition and Catholic (conciliar and papal) authority - not to mention the preservation of Bible manuscripts by monks.

2) At what moment did Catholicism become apostate? At John's death? In 313? With Gregory the Great and the ascendancy of papal power? In the "Dark Ages" of c.800-1100? With the Inquisition or Crusades? Or at the Council of Trent? And how can anyone know for sure when?

3) 23,000 denominations and the scandalous organizational anarchy, schism, and theological relativism inherent therein virtually disproves Protestantism in and of itself.

4) Protestantism has only been around for 483 years!

5) Protestantism inconsistently and dishonestly appeals selectively to Catholic Church Fathers such as (above all) St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, St. Ignatius, St. Irenaeus, St. Justin Martyr (and also later Catholics such as St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas a Kempis).

6) Likewise, it inconsistently appeals to Church Councils which it likes (generally the first four) and ignores the rest, on questionable theological and ecclesiological grounds.

7) Development of doctrine is accepted to an extent, but then incoherently rejected where it leads to un-Protestant conclusions. This is largely what made me a Catholic, after reading Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.


Let’s run back through this sevenfold argument in the same numerical sequence.

1.The Canon

i) In what sense was the canon determined by the church? And in what sense was the canon determined by the Roman Catholic church, rather than, say, the Orthodox Church?

It wasn’t until the Council of Trent,, in reaction to the Protestant Reformation, that the extraordinary magisterium even got around to “determining” the canon.

ii) What does it mean to “determine” the canon? Are the books of the Bible intrinsically canonical or only extrinsically canonical? If intrinsically canonical, then they don’t require the services of the an external authority to authorize their canonicity. At most, the acknowledgement of the church would be a formal recognition of their intrinsic canonicity. It adds nothing to the canon except to defer to the canon.

If, on the other hand, they are only extrinsically canonical, then it is simply by some arbitrary ecclesiastical fiat that certain books were canonized and others not. In principle, more books or fewer books could have been canonized. There is nothing authoritative in the book itself.

iii) I myself have argued for the canon on the basis of intertextuality.

iv) Textual transmission has nothing to do with sola Scriptura as a rule of faith.

2. Apostasy

Dave is posing a trick question. There is no magic moment when the RCC became apostate. Institutional apostasy is a gradual process. Up to a point, the remnant preserves the institutional church. But the process certainly accelerated with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.


i) The “23,000” figure is a rubbery statistic.

ii) It also fails to distinguish between a given theological tradition and a given denomination. That often involves a one-to-many relation. We should be counting theological traditions, not denominations.

iii) I’d rather have a plethora of denominations, some good and some bad, rather than one great big apostate church.

iv) Catholicism is just one more denomination among many.

v) There was a great diversity of Jewish sects in the 1C. If God didn’t feel the need for a magisterium under the OT to keep doctrinal diversity in check, why is it necessary under the NT?

vi) The reason we have a lot of denominations is because we no longer have an Inquisition to compel submission. Is Dave waxing nostalgic for the rack and the thumbscrews?

4.A Theological Innovation.

i) Protestantism is part of a theological continuum, just as Catholicism is part of a theological continuum. In both cases, there are continuities as well as discontinuities with the past. How long has Trent been around? How long as Vatican II been around?

5.Church Fathers.

i) A selective appeal to the church fathers or church doctors is only inconsistent or dishonest if this were an argument from authority rather than an argument from the truth. There is nothing inconsistent or dishonest about appealing to those you happen to agree with when they have a good argument, and ignoring those you disagree with—unless you’re mounting an argument from authority.

ii) Another reason the Reformers appealed to tradition was to expose the fact that the Catholic church was very selective in her own appeal to the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

iii) Is the Orthodox Church inconsistent and dishonest because it favors the Greek Fathers over the Latin Fathers?

6.Church Councils

i) Same argument as (5). A selective appeal to the church councils is only inconsistent or dishonest if this were an argument from authority rather than an argument from the truth. There is nothing inconsistent or dishonest about appealing to councils you happen to agree with when they happen to get it right, and ignoring those you disagree with—unless, again, you’re mounting an argument from authority.

ii) Ironically, this is a good argument against Anglo-Catholicism, not anti-Catholicism.

iii) Is the Orthodox Church inconsistent and dishonest because it draws the line at the first 7 councils?

7.Development of Doctrine

Here, Armstrong is guilty of equivocation. Evangelicals affirm the progress of dogma when it draws from Scripture what was there all along, consistent with original intent and logical implication.

That is quite different from the Catholic development of doctrine, itself a theological innovation, in which original intent is abrogated and elementary canons of logical consistency, much less implication, are violated.


  1. His position is understandable. One wearies of these debates. A suggestion that Catholics are not Christians can only be founded on specious rhetoric. We should focus less on being "right" in our various interpretations of the Divine Word and focus more on Christ...

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  3. Relevant to this discussion are Steve Hays' critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura, "By Scripture Alone," and Blosser's rebuttal, "Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses)."