Friday, February 13, 2009


Justin Taylor recently did a post on indulgences which drew fire from some Catholic commenters:

Jason Engwer has already responded to some of what was said, both here and there. For my part I’ll comment on some of the statements made by Bryan Cross:

Principium Unitatis said...

“You can't use sola scriptura to evaluate a Catholic doctrine, if you care about avoiding begging the question.”

If Bryan is going to turn this question into an issue regarding the burden of proof, then both sides have their respective burden of proof to discharge. Bryan must justify his own rule of faith to avoid begging the question. Although Bryan has attempted to do that in the past, I've subjected his effort to analysis and found them wanting.

“First you would need to find sola scriptura in Scripture, but it just isn't there.”

We don’t even need to defend sola Scriptura to attack indulgences. We can attack indulgences on other grounds.

i) How would we be in a position to know this dogma (indulgences) is true? What’s our source of information?

Indulgences assume a certain view of the afterlife. They posit a condition which we must satisfy to gain admission to heaven.

So that raises the question of how and what we know about the afterlife. It’s not as if this is a matter of ordinary observation or experience. Most of us only live once or die once. Even if we credit NDEs, these are too brief to attest Purgatory. The patient is clinically dead for just a few minutes.

So it’s not as if we have sufficient empirical evidence to verify the postmortem presuppositions which underlie the dogma of indulgences.

I suppose we could hold a séance. But that’s not a very reliable source of information. There’s a reason why necromancy is condemned in Scripture.

ii) Put another way, claims about Purgatory (which is a presupposition of indulgences) is analogous to claims reincarnation. Both Purgatory and reincarnation posit certain facts about the afterlife. But since the afterlife isn’t available for direct inspection, how is the Hindu or Catholic in a position to make these pronouncements?

iii) By the same token, the dogma of indulgences is making certain assumptions about the will of God. The conditions under which God is prepared to admit someone to heaven.

But we lack direct access to the mind of God. God must reveal his will to us.

How does Bryan establish the revelatory status of indulgences?

“Where does Scripture say that Christ paid all our *temporal* punishment? __I don't see that in Scripture anywhere.”

Where does Scripture say you can’t murder your wife?

Scripture contains a general prohibition against murder. That covers specific instances of murder.

Likewise, if Scripture teaches the general sufficiency of the atonement, then that would cover specific sins.

“That's why it seems to me that you are trying to get Scripture to say what it doesn't directly address (i.e. whether Christ already paid the debt of temporal punishment for all believers.)”

Even if we accept Bryan’s distinction for the sake of argument, the lesser is included in the greater. If Christ atones for mortal sin, then he atones for venial sin. If he atones for eternal guilt, then he atones for temporal guilt.

“In Catholic theology, temporal punishment is that penalty that we justly deserve for turning inordinately toward a mutable good. In every act of sin, a disordered disposition toward the mutable good chosen in that act of sin is formed or enhanced. The debt of temporal punishment must be paid, and the disordered dispositions must be removed, in order for us to enter heaven.”

Keep this definition in mind. Indulgences assume a theory of retributive punishment, not remedial punishment. The demands of divine justice must be met. The assignment of a just punishment. Just desert.

“Protestants typically do not make a distinction between temporal punishment and eternal punishment.”

That’s true—since, by Bryan’s own admission, both forms of punishment involve the same principle: retributive punishment. Therefore, if the atonement satisfies the justice of God in reference to the greater guilt of mortal sin, then it also satisfies the justice of God in reference to the lesser guilt of venial sin. That follows from the logic of Bryan’s own assumptions.

“Catholics, however, believe that in the sacrament of baptism all past and present sins are forgiven, but not future sins. So, for Catholics, at baptism all eternal punishment is removed *and* all temporal punishment is removed. This is why there is no penance assigned in the sacrament of baptism.”

Notice that Bryan is appealing to one Catholic dogma to prop up another Catholic dogma. But that begs the question twice over.

“But, for Catholics, a person after his or her baptism can, by sinning, accrue a debt of temporal punishment (by venial sins) and/or eternal punishment (by mortal sins).”

Did Christ not atone for postbaptismal sins? If not, then Bryan admits the insufficiency of the atonement. But if he did atone for postbaptismal sins, then why the rigmarole of penance, indulgences, and Purgatory?

“But since baptism cannot be repeated…”

Yet another Catholic dogma. Yet another question-begging appeal.

“And since the sacrament of penance removes eternal punishment by absolution but does not itself remove temporal punishment, therefore penance (for the payment of temporal punishment) is assigned to the penitent by the priest in the confessional.”

Still another Catholic dogma (penance). Still another question-begging appeal. Bryan is piling on Catholic assumptions, each of which requires a separate argument.

An exposition of Catholic dogma is no substitute for a defense of Catholic dogma.

“Catholics believe that God uses the sufferings of temporal punishment to bring us into conformity to the image of His Son, and that it is more perfect for Him to do this, and let us cooperate in our salvation, than simply to zap us and make us immediately and eternally perfect without our participation.”

i) Notice the bait-and-switch. The original rationale he gave for indulgences was predicated on the theory of retributive punishment: temporal guilt incurs just punishment. The sinner must cover that debt. On this view, Purgatorial suffering is retributive rather than remedial.

Now, however, Bryan is swapping out retributive punishment and swapping in remedial punishment. That’s a fundamentally different rationale.

ii) Even if we accept the remedial punishment as a supplementary rationale for Purgatory, Purgatory would still imply the insufficiency of the atonement on the retributive grounds that Bryan also gave. If we suffer in Purgatory because we deserve to suffer—then that is retribution rather than remediation.

“When you take these three points into consideration, then you can see how the need for temporal punishment does not imply that Christ's sacrifice was insufficient.”

To the contrary, when you take Bryan’s equivocations into account, you can see how the need for temporal punishment entails the insufficiency of the atonement.

iii) Moreover, Catholicism does believe that God can zap us and thereby produce an instantaneous, subjective change. Both baptismal regeneration and holy orders are supposed to effect an instantaneous change in the soul.

“From the Catholic point of view, the satisfaction made by Christ is sufficient for all punishment: eternal and temporal. In fact, our suffering of temporal punishment is satisfactory only by the merits of Christ, because our sufferings are united with His, such that we are allowed to (privileged to) be united to Him not only in His resurrection but also to share in His sufferings.”

i) If I must suffer to pay the debt of temporal punishment, then the suffering of Christ is insufficient to pay the debt of temporal punishment on my behalf and in my stead.

ii) Hovering in the background of this debate is Bryan’s tacit allusion to Col 1:24. Let’s quote Moo’s exegesis at this juncture:

Paul is not, of course, suggesting that the redemptive suffering of Christ requires any supplementation. As 1:19-20 and 2:15 in this letter make clear (quite apart from the evidence of other Pauline letters), Paul is convinced that Christ’s death on the cross is completely and finally capable of taking care of the human sin problem. It is not that there is anything lacking ‘in’ the atonement suffering of Christ but that there is something lacking ‘in regard to’ (TNIV) the tribulations that pertain to Christ as the Messiah as he is proclaimed in the world. The difference may even be suggested in the vocabulary that Paul uses, since he shifts from sufferings’ (Gk. pathema) to ‘afflictions’ (Gk. thlipsis), this latter word never being used in the New Testament for Christ’s redemptive sufferings,” D. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Eerdmans 2008), 151.

“Jewish literature speaks of the ‘messianic woes,’ tribulations to be endured by God’s people in the days immediately before the coming of the Messiah. Jesus and New Testament authors use similar language to describe the ‘last days,’ initiated with Christ’s first coming and awaiting their fulfillment with the glorious return of Christ (see esp. Mt 24:4-14 and par.). The early Christian consciousness, surely shared by Paul, that Christ’s coming had inaugurated the ‘last days,’ is an important backdrop to what Paul is saying here,” ibid. 151.

“Strictly speaking, indulgences are not necessary to alleviate temporal punishment, because it is not *necessary* that temporal punishment be alleviated. It is necessary under justice that the debt of temporal punishment be paid, but not that it be alleviated.”

I quote this to reinforce the retributive character of Purgatory suffering. “Necessary under justice” that the “debt be paid.” That is not equivalent to remedial punishment. There’s a categorical difference.

“If Christ has already suffered for you, and His suffering is completely sufficient, why then does He ‘mete out’ suffering to you in this present life? If you think the Catholic position is ‘contradictory’, then your own position has the same 'contradiction'.”

i) Why assume that a Christian even suffers for his own benefit, rather than the benefit of others? The analogy to Purgatory would be if I suffer for my own benefit—to pay the debt of temporal punishment which I incurred. But it’s quite possible to suffer for the benefit of others.

I might undergo a painful bone-marrow extraction to donate bone-marrow to my cancerous son.

I might hide my Jewish neighbors during WWII. If the Nazis find out, they’ll cart me off to the concentration camp.

ii) Notice, once again, the equivocation. What kind of suffering are we talking about? Retributive suffering? Remedial suffering? The two examples I gave in (i) don’t fall under either domain.

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