Monday, January 25, 2010

Many Seeds And Many Trees (Part 1)

In his recent articles responding to me, Dave Armstrong makes many appeals to doctrinal development. He's often vague about it. Who would deny that a seed naturally grows into a tree or that an infant naturally grows into an adult? What's more significant, and more controversial, is whether particular trees come from particular seeds. The fact that an infant grows into an adult doesn't tell us which infant grows into which adult. Though an adult could be six feet and two inches tall, the fact that adults grow from infants wouldn't lead us to the conclusion that the adult would have that particular height. A knowledgeable Catholic would agree that specific conclusions about doctrinal development require specific argumentation, not just vague comparisons to the growth of an acorn or an infant. Dave sometimes gets into some specifics, but is he specific enough?

What we should be looking for here is probability, not just a possibility. It would be possible to take James 5:16 as a seed that develops into the tree of private confession to a priest, and it would be possible to take Revelation 11:19 as an infant who grows into the adult of the bodily assumption of Mary. It would also be possible to take James 5:16 as a seed that develops into the tree of public confession to a deacon, and it would also be possible to take Revelation 4:1-2 as an infant who grows into the adult of the bodily assumption of John. None of those passages imply such conclusions. None of those texts render such doctrinal developments probable. And an appeal to a church authority to render such interpretations probable would require that the church authority in question be shown to be probable itself. Yet, when we get to foundational issues of authority like the papacy, we often see another appeal to doctrinal development. Either the foundation has to be laid for Catholicism without an appeal to development or some sort of foundational development has to be shown to be probable, not just possible.

In our recent exchange concerning Papias, Dave told me that Papias' acquisition of information from associates of the apostles and his acceptance of oral reports about miracles and premillennialism, for example, were seed forms of the oak tree of Catholicism's apostolic succession and oral tradition. He didn't get into the necessary specifics of why we should conclude that Papias' beliefs would grow into those of Catholicism as an acorn grows into an oak. He asserted such development, but didn't demonstrate it.

As I explained in one of my responses to Dave, Papias' beliefs could develop in other ways as well. Why couldn't they develop within a transdenominational church, one that wouldn't be limited to any one modern denominational affiliation? Or why not Eastern Orthodoxy? (Remember, Dave began this discussion in response to David Waltz's departure from Catholicism, and Dave has claimed that Catholicism is the oak that grew from the acorn of early Christianity. Arguing that Evangelicalism is wrong wouldn't be enough to demonstrate that David Waltz shouldn't have left Catholicism, and it wouldn't be enough to demonstrate Dave's claims about Catholicism.) Or why couldn't the appropriate rule of faith develop into sola scriptura? As I pointed out to Dave, a period of access to reliable oral information could develop into a period in which such reliable oral transmission is no longer ongoing. Adam and Eve had access to communication from God outside of scripture. They had no Bible. And Adam and Eve's descendants could have orally passed down information about what God had said to Adam and Eve. But all that's extant to us today is God's communication to them recorded in scripture. Sola scriptura. And we don't look for ongoing oral traditions about Tertullian's beliefs when addressing what he believed, for example. Transitioning from the oral to the written is a form of development that's commonly accepted in many contexts in human life.

In my 2008 article Dave was originally responding to, I had asked, "When Irenaeus says that all apostolic teaching is known to every church and is available to the public, are we to conclude that concepts like praying to the deceased, the veneration of images, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and the papacy were accepted by all of the churches and known to the public?" And Dave responded:

Yes; in primitive form. The latter two doctrines have much explicit scriptural data in favor of them (that I have written about at length in several papers and more than one book). The former two, less so, but a fairly solid case can be made by speculating upon the doctrine of the communion of saints and the consciousness of our earthly activities of saints in heaven: seen particularly in Hebrews 12:1 and Revelation 6:10, and angels and dead saints having our "prayers" in heaven and presenting them to God: Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4, thus implying that we can ask for their prayers; and the implications of the incarnation for the holiness of images representing holy persons, whom we are to imitate, as we do Paul (1 Cor 4:16; Phil 3:17; 4:9; 2 Thess 3:9), and honor (Rom 13:7; 1 Pet 2:17).

In other words, all of this was already in Scripture, so it is apostolic doctrine, and only remained to be developed. All of this appeared fairly quickly, in the practice and beliefs of early Christians, and developed rapidly in the patristic period.

Dave tells us that he's written about those subjects elsewhere. So have I. See here, for example. A couple of years ago, I wrote a response to Dave on the subject of prayers to the dead. As I've documented, the evidence we have from the earliest sources is against doctrines like the ones Dave is addressing above, not neutral about those doctrines, much less supportive of them.

And if the alleged fact that such doctrines were "already in Scripture" proves that the doctrines "were accepted by all of the churches and known to the public", then it follows that Evangelicals also accept those doctrines. Does the Evangelical acceptance of passages like Hebrews 12:1 and Revelation 5:8 prove that Evangelicals accept the practice of praying to the dead, for example?

None of the passages Dave has cited imply the doctrines he's addressing. On prayers to the dead, Dave claims that Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4 "imply that we can ask for their prayers", but nothing in either passage suggests that the beings in those passages are objects of prayer. Similarly, the angels of Revelation 16:1 carry the bowls of wrath without being recipients of that wrath. The passages Dave is citing are addressing what goes "before God" (Revelation 8:4), what God receives. He's the recipient. The book of Revelation draws heavily from the Old Testament, and the concepts in these passages Dave is citing are repetitions of Old Testament themes regarding the worship of God. Psalm 141:2, for example, refers to prayers to God as incense. To interpret passages like Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4 as references to prayers to lesser beings, whether deceased humans or others, is perverse. And it's not what we find in the earliest patristic interpretations of the passages. See here for a further discussion of the problematic nature of Dave's use of these passages in Revelation (and others).

Some of the ante-Nicene fathers wrote entire treatises on the subject of prayer. Not only do they not mention or support praying to the deceased in those treatises, but they sometimes even contradict the concept. With some of these doctrines, like prayers to the dead, Dave is suggesting that the early Christians accepted beliefs they actually opposed, and he's doing so on the basis of his later interpretation of passages of scripture. But the early Christians can accept those passages of scripture without accepting Dave's interpretation of those passages. Why, then, should we think that they accepted the doctrines in question?


  1. Catholics often refer, as Dave does, to asking the deceased for their prayers. But Catholic prayers to the dead involve more than that. They also praise the dead, ask for the dead to do other things for them aside from praying for them, etc. Here are some examples:

    "With a still more ardent zeal for piety, religion and love, let them continue to venerate, invoke and pray to the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, conceived without original sin. Let them fly with utter confidence to this most sweet Mother of mercy and grace in all dangers, difficulties, needs, doubts and fears. Under her guidance, under her patronage, under her kindness and protection, nothing is to be feared; nothing is hopeless. Because, while bearing toward us a truly motherly affection and having in her care the work of our salvation, she is solicitous about the whole human race." (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus)

    "How grateful and magnificent a spectacle to see in the cities, and towns, and villages, on land and sea—wherever the Catholic faith has penetrated—many hundreds of thousands of pious people uniting their praises and prayers with one voice and heart at every moment of the day, saluting Mary, invoking Mary, hoping everything through Mary." (Pope Leo XIII, Octobri Mense)

    Do a web search on Catholic prayers to the saints and see what those prayers consist of.

  2. "Either the foundation has to be laid for Catholicism without an appeal to development or some sort of foundational development has to be shown to be probable, not just possible."

    This is a good point.

    I have also noticed a back-tracking of what it means to "pray to Mary." The Catholics on facebook with whom I discuss have told myself and others than these are no different than prayers one would ask a friend to make. But when you look at the actual prayers themselves, they contain, like you show, the idea that Mary herself is a mediator between ourselves and the Father. That is not analogous at all to the prayers a friend makes to God in Christ's name.

  3. I know that is an old thread, but the problem with praying to the deceased is simply because they offer praise to them, but because it is without any support by precedent or precept, and is contrary to what is stated on prayer as to the heavenly object of its address, and is unwarranted and unnecessary.

    To challenge this i have offered the following: From the Bible

    1. provide just one example, among the multitude of prayers in the Bible, where any believer prayed to anyone else in heaven but the Lord.

    2. provide one place where exhortations, commands or instruction on prayer directed believers to pray to the departed. ("i.e. "Our mother, who art in heaven...")..

    3. show where believers cannot have direct access to Christ in heaven, or where any insufficiency exists in Christ that would require or advantage another intercessor in heaven between Christ and man, besides the Holy Spirit.

    4. show where departed souls in heaven are taking prayer requests addressed to them.

    5. provide where any communication between earthlings on earth and heavenly beings besides God took place apart from a personal visitation.

    6. show where anyone else is called "Queen of heaven" other than Jer 44:17 (“But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth, to burn incense unto the queen of heaven”) who is a heavenly object of devotion and prayer.

    8. explain why the Holy Spirit only examples and instructs that the Lord is the immediate heavenly object of prayer, while only unbelievers offered things to the deceased and prayed to someone besides God.

    9. And show where such another basic necessary practice has zero positive examples and is contrary to what is instructed on the issue.

  4. *There is no express command against consensual cannibalism (whoever dies first we will have for dinner) either, among other things. And while its basic prohibition is justly derived from Gn. 9:3,5,6 which establishes the source of man's food, yet in keeping with the foundational law of love, in dire circumstance of necessity it might be allowed (and with the Andes survivors).

    But praying to the departed lacks both and example of such or evidence they could hear prayers, nor Biblically is their necessity or insufficiency in access to Christ and the Father by the Spirit. Praying to the departed thus testifies that one lacks the Spirit or the faith and communion with God in Christ that marks Biblical prayer (not that mine is not lacking). Perhaps the largest prayer meeting on earth will be to mountains. (Lk. 23:20; Lk. 6:16)