Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Catholic methodists and Protestant particularists

Roderick Chisolm drew a classic distinction between two different approaches to epistemology: "methodists" begin with criteria or paradigms, whereas "particularists" begin with concrete examples or experience.

Another way of putting this is that methodists have an a prior stating-point while particularists have an a posteriori starting-point. 

This is one way to compare and contrast Catholic and Protestant theological method. Traditionally, Catholic theologists and apologists are methodists. They begin with their theological paradigm. They take their a priori criteria as the frame of reference. 

Take examples like the principle that an infallible text requires an infallible interpreter. Hence, there must be a living teaching office. 

Take appeals to "unity" or "visibility". Therefore, the church must have whatever it takes to meet these conditions. 

Take "extra Ecclesiam nulla salus". Therefore, saving grace must be challenged through the sacraments, which must be channeled through the priesthood, which must be channelled through apostolic succession. A circuit-breaker anywhere in the transmission disrupts the current. Anything after the break is invalid. 

Or take the claim that Protestant churches can't be true churches because they lack historical continuity. To be a real church, you must have a historical genealogy extending back to the founding of the church in the 1C. 

What all these stipulative principles share in common is to begin with a preconceived idea of what must be the case; then adjust your theology accordingly. 

By contrast, Protestants take a more a posteriori approach. We don't intuit ecclesiology.  We don't resort to armchair postulates regarding God's design for the church; rather, we judge God's intentions in retrospect by observing what God actually does. 

Unlike Catholics, we don't presume to know in advance what reality is like. God's design for Christianity is something we discover, after the fact. We learn from Bible history and church history what God's intentions are. 

Unlike Catholics, we're not scandalized by the messiness of church history. 

In a sense, Protestants begin with experience. The experience of divine providence. The experience of Bible history. 

And one of the systemic problems with traditional Catholic theological method is the ever-widening chasm between the idea of Catholicism and the reality of Catholicism. The disconnect between the abstract paradigm and the facts on the ground. 

In practice, the paradigm eventually adapts to unforeseen historical developments. When the paradigm becomes overly-encumbered by too many epicycles, ad hoc adjustments are made to the paradigm. Ex post facto revisions to criteria. Take the sea-change in how tradition is defined. Instead of a historical witness to early Christian belief, it becomes "living tradition". Take reversals on "extra Ecclesiam nulla salus", the anti-modernist strictures of the Leonine PBC, the death penalty, admission of divorced/remarried Catholics to communion, &c. 

Catholic apologists are like lawyers who can argue both sides of any case, depending on whether their client is innocent or guilty. If Benedict XVI or John-Paul II is their client, they defend that position; if Francis is their client, they defend the opposite. Ironically, what started out as an idealistic paradigm has become totally destabilized. 

Both supporters and opponents of Francis resort to circular logic:

Supporters: If Rome reverses policy, then the status quo ante was never definitive, irreversible teaching in the first place.

Opponents: If a pope teaches heresy, then he was never a real pope in the first place. 

Problem for supporters: Catholics can never know what's definitive, irreversible teaching, since all they know is the past, not the future–which may abruptly reverse course.

Problem for opponents: Catholics must be able to independently interpret what's magisterial and what's heretical.


  1. Steve would you agree with me that paradigm was less abstract and more based on facts on the ground before Vatican 2 and Pope Francis? I mean you had the magisterium back then supporting the claims of the apologists and the RC church was more stable and uniform before Vatican 2. All those reversals in doctrines that you mentioned above happened at Vatican 2 and since then.

    1. I don't think it was ever based on facts on the ground. That's why Newman had to change horses in mid-stream. Roughly speaking, I think the reversals began with two encyclicals by Pius XII: Humani Generis and Divino afflante Spiritu.

  2. The living tradition change happened at Vatican 2 though and was anticipated by modernist George Tyrell. He came up with the concept of evolution of dogma.

  3. "What all these stipulative principles share in common is to begin with a preconceived idea of what must be the case; then adjust your theology accordingly."

    That is misrepresentation of Catholic position and our reasoning. It, of course, true, that we claim that Catholic epistemology, ecclesiology etc. is superior to Protestant one, but that does not mean that we believe things we believe merely because we want to suit our theology to preconceived ideas about what Christian epistemology and ecclesiology must be like. Rather, we provide Scriptural and historical arguments for all of Catholic doctrines - of course, you may disagree with these arguments, but they certainly do not constitute "intuitin ecclesiology" or "postulating armchair claims regarding what Church should be like". Sure, we often point out that living Magisterium is necessary to have any objective knowledge of God's revelation, but that does not mean that we believe the Magisterium merely because we want to have certainty about objective truthfulness our doctrines. Rather, we believe it because of Scriptural and historical arguments. Pointing out the necessity of Magisterium for objective knowledge of God's revelation serves rather pointing out incoherence and relativism of Protestant epistemology, which, as you already conceded on this blog, reduces Christian faith to probabilities.

    "Problem for opponents: Catholics must be able to independently interpret what's magisterial and what's heretical."

    In principle that is not the case. The Church can determine through official pronouncement (ideally by the Imperfect Council) that a Pope fell into formal heresy and ceased to be Pope, and subsequently depose him. That is a normative situation and that can still happen with Francis, although is presently unlikely due to large number of liberals among the cardinals and bishops (who, if formal heretics, are outside the Church as well). Same with episodes like Arian councils, Synod of Pistoia, part of Council of Constance which was later nullified etc. Yes, before they were nullified Catholics had only their private judgment do determine that they were illegitimate, but the Church possessed means to provide certainty about that and make it known with certainty.