Friday, December 07, 2012

The Epistemological Foundation for “The Roman Catholic System”

Before I begin to discuss Möhler’s work, I thought it would be better to provide some epistemological background, so to speak, on the concept of “development”. Paul Helm’s small work, “The Divine Revelation” (London, UK: Marshall Morgan & Scott ©1982) contains a “critical examination” of what it means for something to be “God’s revelation” [from the Editor’s Preface].

As you know, the Roman Catholic Church holds to an account that “Tradition” is what has “transmitted” “the entirety of the Word of God”. Here we see that “system” or “worldview” of Roman Catholicism displayed (according to De Chirico), especially with respect to what he calls “the self-understanding of the [Roman Catholic] Church”.

81 "Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit."

"And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching."

82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, "does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence."

Thus “[Holy] Tradition” is the conduit by which “the Church” [through the process of “apostolic succession”] supposedly has “handed on” “all that she herself is” “to all generations” [including our own].

“The Church” itself is “part of the divine revelation that was handed on”.

Note this well. It is described in the document Dei Verbum :

8. And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3). Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.

I’ve added the emphasis in the above paragraph; this is to note, as De Chirico has stated, “the system” – it is a constant thing, that thing we see today – it has been “handed on” in its entirety. This is how the Roman Catholic Church maintains its illusion of semper eadem. Essentially, “what you see today” is “what it was at the beginning”. Always the same. All of it, in essence, is “handed on” “faithfully”.

It is the Roman Catholic Hermeneutic writ large. It is “the big lie” that Rome wishes you to believe. The “essence” of “the Church” is today what it always has been. What you see today is what the Apostles were all about when they were preaching. How do you know this? Because we say so.

The implication is, not anything that we see in Rome today was lacking in the church of the Apostles. There is a mechanism by which all that is fundamentally “Roman Catholic Church” has remained so from the beginning, even though it looks different to us on the outside. Continuing with Dei Verbum 8:

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop[(s) -- typo in the Vatican edition] in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

Several things are evident here then:

1. “The Church” today is what it always has been.
2. We just understand it better now, because
a. Many believers have “treasured things in their hearts” and …
b. Bishops in “succession, through “the sure gift of truth” preach …
c. The whole “Church” this way “moves toward fullness and complete fulfillment”.

So, not only is “the Church” today what it has always been, but it is more nearly today what it will be at its complete fulfillment, than it was at the time of Christ and the Apostles.

What is the source of this particular line of thinking? Well, it is Newman, and his “theory of Development”.

Newman introduces the concept of an “idea”, and how an “idea” over time “may be said to have life, that is, to live in the mind which is its recipient”. Some ideas take root in “many minds”, in which case the idea is “carried forward into the public throng of men”, at which point it is “not merely received passively in this or that form into many minds, but it becomes an active principle within them, leading them to an ever-new contemplation of itself, to an application of it in various directions, and a propagation of it on every side.”

In this way, an “idea” takes on a life of its own. And in the life of “the Church”, an idea, expressed as a proposition, may, through further “contemplation” and “study” and “penetrating understanding” “move forward”, “constantly”, and “the Church itself”, thanks to the episcopal “sure gift of truth” moves forward toward an ever-increasing understanding of the truth of “Divine Revelation”.

Helm says, “the development of an increased understanding of special revelation, is the development of an original impression [emphasis in original]. It consists in a succession of explanations (in the form of propositions) of what God has originally communicated to men” (91). Here he cites Newman’s own description of this process:

The mind which is habituated to the thought of God, of Christ, of the Holy Spirit, naturally turns with a devout curiosity to the contemplation of the object of its adoration, and begins to form statements concerning it, before it knows whither, or how far, it will be carried. One proposition necessarily leads to another, and a second to a third; then some limitation is required; and the combination of these opposites occasions some fresh evolutions from the original idea, which indeed can never be said to be entirely exhausted. This process is its development, and results in a series, or rather body, of dogmatic statements, till what was an impression on the Imagination has become a system or creed in the Reason [from pgs 52–53 of the Notre Dame edition].

Helm explains and challenges this progression:

So an original idea [perhaps a proposition from Scripture] is elaborated in a succession of propositions. According to Newman the process of development is a progressive description, which is always partial and incomplete, of the divine reality Christians experience. The absence of explicit dogmatic confession is not a proof of the absence of the experience of the divine reality. The propositions which express this experience are always logically dependent on the experience.

But what, more exactly, is the relation between the idea of the divine reality that is experienced, and propositions about that reality? Newman does not seem to give an unambiguous answer to this question. At times the development of doctrine seems to be entailed by the original idea, for he says that ‘This process will not be a development unless the assemblage of aspects, which constitutes its ultimate shape, really belongs to the idea from which they start’, while at other times he says that this process is due ‘to the unconscious growth of ideas suggested [Helm’s emphasis] by the letter and habitual to the mind’. Which is it to be? Are the propositions merely suggested by the idea, or do they really belong to it? [JB emphasis in bold].

Helm here notes that some have criticized Newman’s mode of expression, that of Hume’s British empiricism, but that “the defects of his account, to which we shall shortly come, do not seem to be due to it” (92).

The weakness comes in the way that Newman “tests” whether these some of these patterns represent corruptions or “how are healthy developments to be distinguished from pathological conditions?”

These tests, according to Helm, tend to breed both skepticism and arbitrariness:

The first note is what Newman called ‘preservation of type’. To illustrate it he uses analogies drawn from organic growth. But illustrations of this kind are dangerous for there are clear, objective tests of what counts as health or corruption of a plant or animal. Whether or not there are similar tests in the case of doctrinal developments is precisely what is at issue.

One may say here – “Bryan Cross Method Alert” – that Newman is “begging the question”.

Matters are not helped by Newman saying that the criteria are ‘subtle’ and ‘mysterious’. To say, as he does, that when Rome changed from a Republic to an Empire this amounted to a ‘corruption’ seems to be extremely questionable except under conditions that would cause Newman’s own theory of doctrinal development grave difficulties. In a similar way the second and third of the ‘notes’ consist of a mass of analogies and illustrations. In the case of what he calls ‘assimilation’ Newman seems oblivious to the fact that assimilation is compatible with corruption for an organism for an organism can be corrupted by the assimilation of some foreign body.

The fifth ‘note’, ‘logical sequence’ is the most important Newman rightly emphasises that the historical process of a development is not to be confused with the logical, and that it cannot be ‘faith to adopt the premisses and unbelief to accept the conclusion’ of a valid argument. But the example that Newman gives of logic at work is not encouraging, for he claims that the deity of Christ entails the worship of angels. This is hardly an obvious case of entailment.

I would urge you to check out that link on the worship of angels. Newman really says this.

The sense in which Newman uses ‘logical’ is a weak one: ‘Of no doctrine whatever, which does not actually contradict what has been delivered, can it be peremptorily asserted that it is not in Scripture.’ That is, any proposition might be a part of the special revelation that is not explicitly contradicted by some proposition in the revelation. This is a very imprecise criterion. It would follow from it that since the proposition that Henry Ford revolutionized the production of cars is not explicitly contradicted by any proposition in Scripture it could be in Scripture. Surely we can ‘peremptorily assert that it could not?

I need to pause here, because this is one of the roots of the issues between Rome and the rest of us.

We say that Rome teaches things that are not in Scripture. Someone like Bryan Cross will deny that’s the case, because of this type of statement from Newman. The mere fact that Rome “teaches” something that does not “actually contradict” something in Scripture, means that we Protestants, to their way of thinking, cannot “peremptorally assert” that it is not in Scripture.

Helm’s use of the Henry Ford statement is an excellent example of why this “note” cannot be operational in the real world.

And yet this is foundational to the way that Roman Catholics (especially of the CTC variety) defend their doctrines. Unless the Roman Catholic Church can be shown to be actually contradicting itself, then any “apparent contradictions” are not real contradictions. This is the fundamental principle by which they operate. There is no limit upon what can be seen to be “divine revelation”. Especially not if “the Church” says it is “divine revelation”. [Maybe some day “the Church” will make it a dogma of Scripture that “Henry Ford revolutionized the production of cars”. They have the authority to do it!]

Thus Roman dogmas which are not found in Scripture, such as Transubstantiation or the Assumption of Mary, which do not “explicitly contradict” what is in Scripture, cannot said to be “not in Scripture”. The flip side of this “note” is that, since these things are not “explicitly contradicted” in Scripture, they are therefore “implicit” in Scripture.

This is the epistemological foundation of the Roman Catholic “System”, especially “the self-understanding of the [Roman Catholic] Church”.

This is at the root of the notion that anything that Roman authority says, goes. This is how they get away with saying “A” and “~A” at the same time.


  1. John,

    I think that this is largely accurate. I think this could be clearly seen to come out in my debate with Dave Armstrong (though Dave proved to be a very civil debating partner I must say)about Martin Chemnitz's view of Church history/reception of doctrine/ecclesiology (his views can also be seen in Flacius, who developed Luther's thoughts, and after Chemnitz came Gerhard's magisterial treatment of the topic).

    At issue in my debate with David is the distinction between those traditions which conform to Scripture and can be seen to do so (albeit sometimes only after paying attention to the Fathers as well), and those traditions which are useful, promote good order, and are done for the sake of brotherly love, and insisted on for salvation.

    This argument was summarized and taken to new levels (dealing with objections and fleshed out with more historical detail) in my ongoing discussion with a RC gentelman named Nathaniel:

    I note all of this because I think this also highlights differences in how the Reformed and the Lutherans developed their own understandings of ecclesiology and church history.


  2. and insisted on for salvation.

    should be:

    and not insisted on for salvation.

    1. Hi Nathan. I will try to take a look at your conversation with Nathaniel when I have time. Interesting, in what were among Luther's first words of the Reformation, he says, "say what a thing is".

      Can you provide some references, either online or print sources, for the Flacius and Gerhard works you mentioned?

      Finally, how do you perceive the differences between the Reformed and Luthetan ecclesiologies that you mentioned in your last paragraph?