Saturday, January 20, 2018

Elevator out of order

In this post I'm going to revisit an argument for Catholicism by Bryan Cross and Michael Liccione:

This post will be deceptively long, because much of the raw length is due to verbatim quotes. 

Michael Liccione May 25th, 2010 1:51 am :

Before I go to bed, I just wanted to say that this is excellent. I will take up a few of your arguments at my own blog, where I plan a post on Newman’s doctrine of conscience. Of course, if the Reformed guys at places like Triablogue and Green Baggins takes note of your post, we will end up having some intricate epistemological debates. I say: bring it on!

Challenge accepted!

I. The authority argument

In various places I have argued previously that without apostolic succession, creeds and confessions have no actual authority.1 They have no actual authority apart from apostolic succession because without apostolic succession the only available basis for a creed or confession’s authority is the individual’s agreement with the interpretation of Scripture found in that creed or confession. Each person picks the confession of faith that most closely represents his own interpretation of Scripture. If his interpretation of Scripture happens to change, he is not bound by his prior choice of confession; rather, he simply picks a different confession that more closely matches his present interpretation. I have described this as painting one’s magisterial target around one’s interpretive arrow, i.e. the practice of choosing and grounding magisterial authority based on its agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture.2

But an important principle regarding authority is this: “When I submit (only when I agree), the one to whom I submit is me.” In other words, agreement with oneself cannot be the basis for authority over oneself. Therefore a creed or confession’s agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture cannot be the basis for its authority.3 And this is why without apostolic succession, creeds or confessions have no actual authority. That is a simple overview of the authority argument.4

Notice how Bryan prejudges the answer by casting the issue in terms of authority. His entire case is controlled by that master paradigm. So he's getting off on the wrong foot. 

I certainly don't object to authority. It's necessary in social life. And I don't object to religious authority. God is the supreme authority figure. The Bible is the supreme authority in evangelical theology and ethics. I do, however, object to partitioning authority from truth and evidence. 

II. The tu quoque objection

The primary objection to this argument is the tu quoque [lit. you too] objection, namely, that the person who becomes Catholic upon determining that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded is doing so because the Catholic Church most closely conforms to his own interpretation of Scripture, history and tradition. In other words, in choosing to become Catholic, he has simply chosen the ‘denomination’ that best conforms to his own interpretation of Scripture, tradition and history. Hence if Protestant confessions have no authority over the individual Protestant because Protestants select them on the basis of their conformity to their own interpretation of Scripture, then neither does the Catholic Church have any authority over the person who becomes Catholic, because Catholics select the Catholic Church on the basis of its agreement with their own interpretation of Scripture, history, and tradition. But if choosing the Catholic Church on the basis of one’s own interpretation of Scripture, history, and tradition does not undermine the authority of the Catholic Church, then neither does choosing a Protestant confession on the basis of one’s own interpretation of Scripture undermine that Protestant confession’s authority. In other words, just as the person becoming Catholic claims to have discovered that those in the magisterium of the Catholic Church are the successors of the Apostles, and thereby bearing divine authority, so the person adopting a Protestant confession believes he has discovered that this particular confession is in agreement with Scripture, and thus that this confession derives its authority from Scripture. But if picking a confession on the basis of its agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture entails that this confession has no authority over oneself, then picking the Catholic Church on the basis of its agreement with one’s own interpretation of history, tradition and Scripture entails that the Catholic Church has no authority over oneself. In short, the conclusion of the tu quoque objection is that either the Catholic Church likewise has no authority, or the Protestant confessions can truly have authority.

For discussion purposes, that's an adequate statement of the objection.

III. Reply

A. Deciding to become Catholic should involve study of Scripture, history and tradition.

Apart from a supernatural experience, ideally an adult would come to seek full communion with the Catholic Church only after a careful study of the motives of credibility, Church history, the Church Fathers, and Scripture.5 He would start with the Church in the first century at the time of the Apostles, and then trace the Church forward, decade by decade, to the present day. As he traced the Church forward through the centuries, he would encounter schisms from the Church (e.g. Novatians, Donatists). In each case he would note the criteria by which the party in schism was the one in schism from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Christ founded, and not the other way around. By such a study, and by the help of the Holy Spirit, he would discover that the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that Christ founded in the first century, and that has continued to grow throughout the world over the past two millennia. But as I will show below, this study of history, tradition and Scripture by which he discovers that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded does not entail that the Catholic Church has no more authority than a Protestant confession.

i) We need to clarify the burden of proof. In this regard, Catholics have a much higher burden of proof. Notice the considerations: "the motives of credibility, Church history, the Church Fathers, and Scripture."

If the argument breaks down at any point, the case for Catholicism fails. A Catholic apologist must acquit Catholicism on all four counts. By contrast, if a Protestant can show that it fails on even one count, that sinks the deal. 

ii) How many inquirers are qualified to conduct that exhaustive investigation? In fact Bryan's sidekick admits that in the comment thread:

Michael Liccione May 25th, 2010 8:43 pm :

But we cannot settle that question just by learning the historical dataset and deciding, with our own human judgment, whether it best supports Catholicism or some version of Protestantism. Most people are in no position to take in all the relevant data, and even those who are in such a position disagree on how to interpret it for the purpose at hand. 

In the combox, Bryan tries to field that objection:

Bryan Cross May 26th, 2010 12:48 am :

I agree with you here, that not everyone is able, ready or equipped to do this. It requires the resources and guidance and equipping to be able rightly to evaluate these things. Many people do not have that sort of equipping and guidance, and can easily be led into confusion and doubt by such an investigation. They need qualified guidance like the Ethiopian eunuch needed Phillip. But my claim was not that every Catholic is in a condition to do this, or that every Catholic should do this, but that in principle it can be done by Catholics.

But in that case, the vast majority of cradle Catholics as well as converts to Rome haven't actually made the discovery Bryan posits, since they haven't gone through the rigorous discovery process he outlined. 

So why is discovering the Catholic Church through the study of history, Scripture and tradition not equivalent to discovering a confession that agrees with one’s own interpretation of Scripture, and how does the difference explain why the Catholic Church so discovered can remain authoritative while the Protestant confession cannot? The difference lies fundamentally neither in the discovery process nor in the evidence by which the discovery is made, even though those may be different. The difference lies fundamentally in the nature of that which is discovered.

B. The basis for the difference between the authority of Scripture and Protestant confessions

Because every confession is made by human interpreters, and these human interpreters are neither divinely inspired nor divinely authorized, these confessions are therefore merely human artifacts, not anything to which all men must submit on account of their divine authority. Just as every systematic theology book is a product of mere men, so every Protestant confession is the product of mere men. Some might be better than others, but none binds the conscience, because the authors were mere men, as are we, without divine inspiration or divine authorization.

Even though every Protestant confession has Scripture as its material source (i.e. that from which its authors draw), yet for anything in the confession that is not an exact re-statement of Scripture itself, the more it has merely human judgment mixed within it, with no guarantee of divine protection from error, the more it is merely a human judgment, i.e. a human opinion. In other words, because Protestant confessions were crafted by mere humans not having divine authorization, to the degree they go beyond an exact re-statement of Scripture, they are essentially human opinion, and therefore have no more ecclesial authority than human opinion, even though their subject matter is the divine Word of God in written form. 

If the Protestant finds his conscience bound to a particular interpretation of Scripture, and he finds that same interpretation of Scripture presented in a confession, then per accidens his conscience will be bound to that confession (or that part of that confession) not because of any intrinsic authority had by the confession, but because the confession happens to express the interpretation that he presently holds to be necessary and thus conscience-binding. If his conscience ceases to be bound by that particular interpretation, the confession no longer binds his conscience. This shows that the confession has no intrinsic authority; it is not the confession that is authoritative over his beliefs; rather, his present beliefs make the confession to be ‘authoritative,’ by containing the interpretation he presently believes to be required of himself.11 The confession has no interpretive authority, because the individual is not required to conform to the confession. The confession, if it is to be the individual’s confession, must conform to the individual’s interpretation. He picks this particular confession because it conforms to his interpretation; it does not oblige him to conform to it, or, once picked, to remain conformed to it. And that is why no Protestant confession has any actual authority. Each Protestant confession merely contains a distinct interpretation which some individuals happen to believe (or at one time happened to believe) is not only true but necessary, and thus, conscience-binding. For this reason, neither a Protestant confession nor parts of it can bind anyone’s conscience; at most it is merely a record of what some people find or have found in their reading of Scripture to be the only way they can in good conscience interpret Scripture.

i) Notice, as usual, how Bryan frames the issue as a question of authority. Bryan suffers from tunnel vision. Why should that be the criterion? And why should that take precedence over other criteria? What makes something authoritative? 

What about truth? Truth is "conscience-binding". Truth obligates assent. We have a duty to believe what's true. So, even if I play along with Bryan's authoritarian paradigm, doctrinal authority is contingent on prior truth. 

ii) Apropos (i), I agree with Bryan that ecclesiastical creeds have no intrinsic authority. At best, they have derivative authority. Creeds are authoritative insofar as they are true. Truth has intrinsic authority. Doxastic authority. Does Bryan think creeds should be authoritative irrespective of their truth or falsehood? 

iii) Perhaps Bryan would say we need an authority source to recognize truth. But do we? What we need is evidence to recognize truth. 

And even if we needed an authority source to recognize truth, that only pushes the issue back a step since we need evidence for the authority source. And that depends on private judgment.

iv) Bryan says "the authors of Protestant confessions did not have divine authorization because they did not have Holy Orders." He's welcome to his opinion, but of course, that's not a Protestant criterion. For that matter, it's not as if Bryan has a Licentiate of Sacred Theology. He's just a layman. 

iv) The church has divine authorization to teach. To promulgate the Gospel. Teaching is a gift or office in NT ecclesiology. God gave teachers to the church. Sure, Bryan doesn't think Protestant denominations count, but his opinion is not our standard of comparison.

C. The basis for the distinction between the authority of the Catholic Church and Protestant confessions.

What the person becoming Catholic discovers in his study of history, tradition and Scripture is not merely an interpretation. If what he discovered were merely an interpretation of history, tradition and Scripture, then what he discovered would have no more authority than any Protestant confession. If his discovery were merely an interpretation, it too would be merely a human opinion. The prospective Catholic finds in his study of history and tradition and Scripture something that does not have a merely human source, either from himself or from other mere humans not having divine authorization. He finds in the first, second and third (etc.) centuries something with a divine origin and with divine authority. He finds the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and its magisterial authority in succession from the Apostles and from Christ. He does not merely find an interpretation in which the Church has apostolic succession; he finds this very same Church itself, and he finds it to have divine authority by a succession from the Apostles. In finding the Church he finds an organic entity nearly two thousand years old with a divinely established hierarchy preserving divine authority. The basis for the authority of the Church he finds is not its agreement with his own interpretation of Scripture, history or tradition. History, tradition and Scripture are means by which and through which He discovers the Church in reality. The Church he finds in history and in the present has its divine authority from Christ through the Apostles and the bishops by way of succession.

Many Protestant patrologists, theologians, Bible scholars, and church historians have conducted that very investigation. They don't discover the same church that Bryan professes to find. And not just Protestants. Many modern-day Catholic Bible scholars and church historians don't discover the same church that Bryan professes to find. The church that Bryan "discovered" is a construct of traditional Catholic theologians and apologists rather than a Biblical and historical deliverance. 

Consider the following example. Jesus says:

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me” (John 5:39).

That's ironic. As long as we're quoting from John's Gospel, what about the purpose statement: 

“but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31).

According to that statement, his Gospel gives the reader sufficient information to exercise saving faith. Just reading that one Gospel. A magisterium is superfluous.  

Through searching the Scriptures, the reader is not supposed to find only an interpretation of Christ. The one who searches the Scripture is supposed to discover, through the Scriptures, the second Person of the Divine Trinity. The reader of Scripture who discovers only interpretations of Scripture, but does not discover Christ, has not discovered that Person to whom Scripture points. Such a reader of Scripture already knows that Scripture has divine authority, but through Scripture he has not yet discovered anything greater in authority than himself. Through his reading of Scripture he is supposed to discover something (actually Someone) more authoritative than himself, and more authoritative than his own interpretation.

That's terribly confused:

i) In this life, most Christians know Jesus by description rather than acquaintance. Unless Jesus appears to someone in a revelatory dream of vision, they don't know Jesus directly. Rather, their knowledge is mediated by Scripture. And even if they had such a dream or vision, Scripture supplies the necessary background information and theological interpretation.

ii) Apropos (i), the object of faith is an interpretation. Assenting to a concept of Jesus, informed by Scripture. We believe in Jesus by grasping and believing revealed propositions about Jesus. 

iii) Bryan fails to draw an elementary distinction between true and false interpretation. We learn who Jesus true is, has done, is doing, will do, by understanding what the Bible says about him. That's an interpretive act. So long as the interpretation is correct, that's what it means to believe in Jesus.

iv) In addition, biblical teaching is redundant, so it's possible to misinterpret Scripture to some degree but still have saving faith.

The tu quoque objection does not apply to the reader who through the Scriptures discovers Christ, because in discovering Christ such a reader is not picking as an ‘authority’ something that conforms to (or agrees with) his own interpretation of Scripture. Discovering Christ through the Scriptures differs altogether from picking a confession based on its agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture. In picking a Protestant confession the individual retains interpretive authority, for the reasons I explained above. But the reader who through the Scriptures discovers the Person of Christ has discovered something more than an interpretation; he has discovered a Divine Person, Someone having authority over himself, even interpretive authority over himself. 

i) Although Jesus has authority over the reader, you can't eliminate interpretation. 

ii) Bryan skews the issue by reclassifying the interpretive act as "interpretive authority". But why should we accept that characterization? What necessarily (or even usually) makes interpretation an exercise of authority? 

Likewise, the person who reads history, tradition, and Scripture, and discovers the Church, has not merely discovered an interpretation, but has discovered something with a divine origin and hence with divine authority, and thus interpretive authority, even conscience-binding authority; he has discovered the Body of Christ.

Even if we grant the comparison, which begs the question, Bryan's claim is wrong on both counts, for reasons I just gave. 

But if through and beyond his interpretation he discovers the actual Church that Christ founded, filled with the Holy Spirit and retaining divine authority through an unbroken succession from the Apostles, spanning through twenty centuries “terrible as an army with banners,” bearing the trophies [relics] of the apostles and martyrs, and spread out over all the whole world, then he has discovered something that isn’t merely human. He has discovered the divine society on earth, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that Christ founded, to which not only his interpretation but his whole life must submit and conform. 

What's the role of relics in Bryan's argument for Catholicism? Does he think we have genuine relics of the apostles? How were they authenticated? 

This method of defining ‘the Church’ by its very nature does not allow ‘the Church’ any authoritative role in adjudicating interpretive disagreements, because for each disputant, if ‘the Church’ rules against his interpretation, for him she ceases to be ‘the Church,’ and hence he need not submit to her. 

i) In case of disagreement, the church doesn't cease to be the church. Rather, that just means one side or both sides are wrong. 

ii) Notice how Bryan opposes "the Church" to individual Christians. He's covertly uses "the Church" as a synonym, not for the faithful, but for a tiny subset of the church: popes and bishops in union with the pope. 

If, however, the church just is the body of Christian believers, then Bryan's bifurcation is nonsensical. 

Therefore the possibility of the Church having any authority, even “ministerial authority,” requires that the Church not be defined by its agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture. In this way, defining ‘the Church’ by way of agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture is nothing less than an implicit denial of a visible catholic Church. If Christ intended His followers to be united in one faith in a visible catholic Church…

i) I'd reverse Bryan's argument. Since Christians aren't united in one faith in a visible catholic Church (as Bryan defines it), that was never Christ's intention. If that was his intention, then he's fallible and mistaken. I don't think God has failed intentions. 

ii) Maybe Bryan thinks that Christ's intentions are realized in the church of Rome. If so, that would mean Jesus only intended for "Roman Catholics to be united in one faith in a visible catholic church," rather than Christians in general.

…and if there can be no such thing as a visible catholic Church simply by individual appeals to Scripture apart from the exercise of magisterial authority such as in ecumenical councils, then the Church cannot be defined by its agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture. In that case there has to be another way of locating the Church, if there is to be a visible catholic Church. And the only other way available is by a succession of magisterial authority from the Apostles.

In another post, Bryan defines visibility in terms of its hierarchical polity. But that's a Roman Catholic criterion. That has no cachet with Protestants.  

III. Follow-up Questions & Answers

Q1. But doesn’t the Protestant also claim to have discovered the Church? If so, then why doesn’t Protestantism avoid the tu quoque in this same way?

A. Protestants do believe that they have discovered the Church, but by that they mean that they have discovered other persons who have faith in Christ, or a faith in Christ that is sufficiently similar to their own.13 They do not claim to have discovered apostolic authority in an unbroken succession of bishops coming from the Apostles. And that is why they do not believe that the Church they have discovered has divine authority or interpretive authority to which all Christians should submit. From a Protestant point of view, Scripture is the only divine authority in the Church, and that is why Protestants believe that only Scripture can bind the conscience. For this reason, given the Protestant conception of the Church, the Church cannot provide divine authorization to any interpretation of Scripture, history or tradition. The individual Protestant, on the basis of his own interpretation of Scripture, always retains veto authority over whatever his ecclesial community determines, even with its highest authority.14  Because what he refers to as ‘Church’ has no divine authority, the ‘Church’ he has discovered does not and cannot give his interpretation or confession divine authorization. That is why his situation is not like that of the Catholic. The individual Protestant himself remains his own highest interpretive authority, and the particular confession he has adopted (if he has adopted one) remains subject to his acceptance or rejection of it; it has no actual authority over him. The Catholic, by contrast, upon discovering the divine authority of the Catholic Church does not remain his own interpretive authority, and the Creed and doctrines he adopts, he adopts on the divine authority of the Church that has defined them, not on the basis of their agreement with his own interpretation of history, tradition and Scripture.

Q4. But isn’t the person who becomes Catholic using his own private judgment just like the Protestant?

A. We cannot but use our own intellect and will in interpreting evidence, drawing conclusions, discovering truths, and making decisions. In that respect, inquirers who eventually become Protestant or Catholic start in the same epistemic situation, using their own intellect and will to find the truth through the evidence available to them. Using our intellect and will in coming to believe something is not what makes the Protestant confession to be without divine authority, nor is it what makes the Catholic’s faith in the Catholic Church not subject to the tu quoque objection. 

Bryan Cross May 25th, 2010 7:21 pm :

In the case of submission to a magisterium on the basis of it having divine authority by apostolic succession, there are two ‘levels,’ as it were. In the lower level, by one’s reason one makes a judgment that this group of persons is the magisterium of the Church Christ founded. In the upper level one submits by faith to the teaching of this magisterium. The person’s judgment at the lower level about the authority of the magisterium is not based on his agreement with that magisterium’s teaching, or on its agreement with his own interpretation of Scripture.

i) This goes to the nub of the issue. Bryan constantly speaks as though there's a turning-point in the investigation. Initially, an inquirer relies on private judgment to make "a careful study of the motives of credibility, Church history, the Church Fathers, and Scripture." During that preliminary stage, both Catholic and Protestant "start in the same epistemic situation, using their own intellect and will to find the truth through the evidence available to them." That's the "lower level". 

Then there's the "upper level": "upon discovering the divine authority of the Catholic Church does not remain his own interpretive authority, and the Creed and doctrines he adopts, he adopts on the divine authority of the Church that has defined them, not on the basis of their agreement with his own interpretation of history, tradition and Scripture." The end-point is supposed to be a different epistemic situation than the starting-point. 

But the epistemic switchover is illusory. For the process relies on private judgment every step of the way. There is no breakthrough, where a Catholic inquirer is finally able to bypass private judgment and directly apprehend the truth of Rome. A Catholic inquirer can never pierce through his own understanding to reach a truth that lies on the other side. Even if there were an infallible teaching office, a Catholic inquirer cannot achieve infallible knowledge of an infallible teaching office. He can never make the jump from his reasoning process to something that exceeds his reasoning process. So there's no qualitative shift in his epistemic situation. 

It can never be more than his personal interpretation. In his fallible opinion, Rome is infallible. He never enjoys direct access to the allegedly infallible source that lies behind his fallible understanding. Rather, that's always mediated by his own assessment of the evidence. Bryan's attempt to bootstrap the magisterium is viciously circular, for nothing ever really changes in the epistemic situation of the Catholic inquirer. Even if an infallible church lay in back of his understanding, his understanding constitutes a barrier to prevent verification of the allegedly infallible church. 

ii) Now there is a sense in which a Catholic convert no longer relies on his own judgment. But that's because he's given up, and not because the process of inquiry yields a flash of insight that transcends the epistemic starting-point. Rather, he relinquishes his own judgment at that point, and vests blind faith in the magisterium as if that supplies infallible teaching office. There comes an arbitrary cut-off where he decides to delegate the final decision-making to Rome. 

iii)  Bryan has mistaken a utility closet for an elevator. He walks inside. The doors close behind him. He pushes a button. It rattles inside, then the doors reopen. He walks back out into the lobby, right where he began. He didn't go up a level from a fallible to an infallible epistemic situation.

There's no divine illumination which raises his prior epistemic situation to something new and superior. Rather, he now assumes a different viewpoint. He adopts a Catholic viewpoint. He's revised his epistemic attitude, but not his epistemic situation. He hasn't achieved a state of enlightenment that enables him to objectively discern where the truth lies, compared to his prior mindset. He has no new and better evidence than when he began. He has no new faculties. 

In the nature of the case, there's a difference between pre- and postconversion perspectives. A convert assumes the viewpoint of his newfound faith. He now takes a different stance towards the authority source of his adopted faith. That's hardly distinctive to Catholicism. But unless his new viewpoint matches reality, that's no advance over his initial epistemic situation. 

Q6. If tomorrow the magisterium of the Catholic Church definitively proclaimed that Jesus was actually a mere prophet, not the Son of God, and did not die on a cross, you would not believe those teachings or submit to them. Doesn’t this show that you too only submit when you agree, and that therefore, you are your own interpretive authority, just like the Protestant?

A. The question presupposes that the magisterium of the Church could do such a thing. But part of the dogma of the Catholic Church is precisely that the magisterium of the Church cannot possibly do such a thing, cannot overturn or oppose any dogma of the faith. So the question presupposes the falsity of that Catholic dogma, and in that respect is question-begging, just as the question “If Jesus had sinned, would you still follow Him?” is a question-begging question for Christians, because Christians believe that the Son of God cannot possibly sin. Individual bishops can and do fall into heresy and schism. But Catholic faith includes the belief that the magisterium of the universal Church cannot do so. Orthodoxy and heresy are determined objectively by the magisterium of the universal Church, not ultimately by the individual’s interpretation. The authority of the magisterium in infallibly defining doctrines preserves those doctrines until Christ returns, because the Church has no authority to reverse or overturn what she has already defined with her full authority.

i) But at best that's just hypothetical. And what distinguishes that mentality from unshakable faith in a cult-leader? 

ii) Moreover, it's circular. If the evidence ever falsifies Catholic teaching, that can never be allowed to prove that "the Church" is fallible, but only that on this occasion, "the Church" didn't aim to speak infallibly. So the authority of the magisterium is untestable. When it's right it's right, and when it's wrong it's still right! 

Michael Liccione May 25th, 2010 3:09 pm :

Prior to the assent of faith in the Catholic Church’s claims for herself, the most that the sincere, objective, but uncommitted inquirer can do is study the dataset and reach an opinion about which version of Christianity it best supports. If one forms the opinion that the dataset best supports the claims of the Catholic Church for herself, then one has good reason to make the assent of faith in them. Even so, that is not the same as intellectual compulsion, as though one could only hold such an opinion as something perfectly obvious. The assent is a free choice which, as such, is not compelled by the dataset itself or by any particular interpretation of it. Yet, once said assent is made, one cannot but see the dataset as making said assent more reasonable than the alternatives. For by making the assent, one has ipso facto adopted what is, in effect, a hermeneutical paradigm (HP) within which all the relevant data are altogether explicable in Catholic terms. Prior to the assent of faith, the Catholic HP only appears as one opinion among others that also have a certain plausibility; after the assent, the Catholic HP can no longer appear just as an opinion, but as a way of understanding the dataset that, in certain areas, is divinely protected from error. That’s what it means to adopt the Catholic HP.

A Protestant as such always reserves to himself the right to judge the orthodoxy of something called “the Church” (in light of Scripture and whatever he also takes to be normative) even when he has joined what he takes to be either “the” Church or some branch thereof. Choosing to be Catholic means surrendering that putative right. If and when one comes to see the Catholic Church as the Church, and makes the corresponding assent of faith in her claims for herself, then one has chosen to have one’s orthodoxy is measured by her teaching, not vice-versa. Accordingly, a Catholic cannot see the definitive teaching of the Church as just one set of opinions over against others; nor can he see “Rome” as just one denomination or sect among others. Choosing to be Catholic means abjuring the very idea that religion is a matter of opinion, because choosing to be Catholic means joining what one has come to see as the Body of Christ, sharing in his teaching authority as her head through the bishops in apostolic succession, and thus as divinely protected from error when teaching with her full authority.

Accordingly, the key premise of Bryan’s argument in the above post is, in effect, that the object of Catholic assent is fundamentally different in kind from the object of Protestant assent, even if the process of inquiry leading up to the assent is otherwise very similar in form and diligence. To put it in succinct technical form: the terminus ad quem is radically different even when the terminus a quo is the same. The terminus ad quem here is ecclesial infallibility, which is the pivotal feature of the Catholic HP, and requires as a correlate that some visible body is “the” Church outside of which there is no salvation. If and when one adopts that HP, then one is committed to rejecting any interpretation of the data that would falsify the Catholic Church’s claims for herself. That is the stance which various Reformed critics are reacting against when they accuse Catholics like Bryan and me of “presuppositionalism” and of trying to make Catholicism “unfalsifiable.” What such critics take to be the intellectually respectable alternative to our stance as Catholics is tantamount to treating religion as ultimately just a matter of opinion; for on the Protestant HP, nobody’s teaching or profession of faith is admitted as infallible, hence all are provisional and open to future revision—by the individual, if not by the institution itself.

All this is why the tu quoque rebuttal is inapt. The difference is that Catholics as such refuse to treat everything as a matter of opinion.

The problem with that lengthy exposition is fatal equivocation. The terminus ad quem isn't ecclesial infallibility, as if that's been demonstrated. The "assent" merely posits ecclesial infallibility as the terminus ad quem. A Catholic inquirer may come to believe that his sect is divinely protected from error, but his belief isn't divinely protected from error. He can't appeal to an infallible teaching office to retroactively validate his fallible belief in an infallible teaching office. Instead, he comes to a point where he "surrenders" his judgment to the judgment of the magisterium. But he doesn't do that because reason proved the magisterium to be divinely protected from error, thereby rendering independent judgment unnecessary beyond that point. He wasn't infallibly guided to infallibly discover an infallible guide. 

Michael Liccione May 25th, 2010 8:43 pm :

But given his rejection of infallible interpretive authority, the Protestant leaves himself in no position to distinguish reliably between de fide doctrines—i.e., the doctrines to which God calls for our assent—and the theological views of both authors and interpreters. Hence the Protestant as such has no way in principle to distinguish clearly the assent of faith, which is a divine gift involving assent to statements made with divine authority, from mere human opinions about what various “sources,” primarily Scripture, actually transmit to us as divine revelation.

This means, among other things, that the Protestant sees something called “the Church” in a fundamentally different way from Catholics. Given how he conceives assent to divine truth, the Protestant cannot see something called “the Church” as a sure guide to discerning it. Since “the Church” is fallible under all conditions, her orthodoxy is to be judged by what this-or-that person or group takes to be the doctrinally correct interpretation of Scripture (and other sources too, on some accounts), rather than vice-versa. Ultimately, the Protestant’s assent involves submission not to “the Church” but to himself as his most reliable guide to discerning divine revelation. “The Church,” from this point of view, is simply the set of people who ascribe to the “correct” interpretation of the sources, where what’s “correct” is what the individual believer provisionally accepts as such. The claims of this-or-that church to a certain kind of authority thus form no part of the deposit of faith; rather, what counts as “the Church” depends on its conformity to the deposit of faith, when said deposit is understood in a manner logically independent of any ecclesial claims to authority. Thus “the Church” is not strictly necessary for knowing Truth himself. It might be educationally useful for some, and is certainly pastorally useful for many. But that’s about it. In principle, it’s quite possible to read the Bible alone in a room and thereby learn all that God wants us to know for our salvation. Of course that sort of thing yields a variety of opinions whose holders like to call “doctrines” given by the Holy Spirit. Many of those opinions are, of course, mutually incompatible. That’s why we have more Protestant denominations and sects than anybody, including Protestants themselves, can agree on how to count.

When the Catholic, on the other hand, makes his assent of faith, he is among other things assenting to the claims made by a visible, historically continuous body that it is the Body of Christ on earth, authorized by him as her Head to teach in his name and thus, when speaking with her full authority, protected by his Spirit from requiring belief in propositions that are false. Accordingly, the Catholic does not, because as such he cannot, claim to know the deposit of faith in a manner logically independent of the claims the Church makes for herself. He does not, because he cannot, claim to know the “true doctrine” from the sources without depending on the authoritative certification of the sources as such by the Church, and the authoritative interpretations thereof by the Church. Thus for the Catholic, faith in the risen Christ, acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God, and faith in the teaching of the Church as that of the Body of Christ are logically inseparable from each other. And so the Catholic does not judge the orthodoxy of the Church; rather, he submits to the Church as, among other things, the judge of his orthodoxy.

But his assent merely stipulates that the Magisterium is a sure guide to discerning divine truth. His unconditional submission to the authority of the magisterium outstrips the evidence for the claim (not to mention evidence to the contrary). What Bryan and Liccione fall back on is a last-ditch act of the will rather than discerning the truth. 

We are now in a position to address the question why the Catholic mode of assent should be preferred to the Protestant’s. From a historical point of view, the question is which hermeneutical paradigm to adopt for the purpose of interpreting the data: the Catholic, or some Protestant version.

Now the question which HP to adopt cannot be answered by appeal to the dataset itself, for the question is precisely which manner of interpreting the data is preferable. The question can only be answered, I believe, by asking ourselves which HP is better suited to distinguishing the propositionally expressible content of divine revelation itself—assuming there is such a thing as divine revelation—from mere theological opinions, and thus to facilitating the assent of faith as distinct from that of opinion. Now as you say, if Catholicism is true, the answer to that question is obvious. But if Catholicism is false, we are left only with provisional opinions. And if we are left only with provisional opinions, then we have no reliable way to distinguish from human opinion that which God actually wants us to believe.

Except that his asset to the magisterium can never rise any higher than "human opinion". Even if an infallible teaching office did exist, that lies beyond the reach of reason to demonstrate. So the vicious circularity of the Catholic appeal remains inextricable.  

That result is the epistemic aspect of the Protestant HP. History amply demonstrates that it doesn’t leave us with any single, self-consistent body of doctrine; it yields a variety of mutually incompatible ones. 

Which includes Catholicism alongside the competition. Not to mention a variety of mutually incompatible interpretations within Catholicism. There's no uniformity in Catholic teaching from either a diachronic perspective or even a synchronic perspective. Theological pluralism is rife in the big tent of Roman Catholicism. 

Now on the assumption that there is such a thing as a definitive divine revelation, and that even (or especially) the simple person can identify and assent to it by faith, such a result is hardly satisfactory. One would only feel obliged to accept it if one were convinced there was no alternative but to accept the idea that the Christian religion is just a matter of opinion. But there is such an alternative: Catholicism. And that fact, by itself, is a good reason to prefer Catholicism’s epistemic stance to Protestantism’s.

i) The "definitive divine revelation" is the Bible. 

ii) There's nothing wrong with "opinion". The salient distinction isn't between opinion and the "assent of faith" but between true and false opinion. 

iii) Moreover, what's so bad about innocent errors? Most Christians are fallible. God hasn't inspired most Christians. So disagreement ensues. God could prevent that by making every Christian infallible. He hasn't. So why presume God must be as annoyed by doctrinal disagreement as Catholic apologists? 

iv) Catholicism's "epistemic stance" isn't preferable unless it matches reality. 


  1. Steve, when I have more time I will read through the entirety of this post. I expect John Bugay will also take time to jump in as well. For starters, it amazes me that you have the patience to mine through Bryan Cross's presuppositions. May the Lord continue to be your peace.

    I really became concerned with his statement concerning succession: "...he finds it to have divine authority by a succession from the Apostles." Since he has chosen to use the plural form of "Apostles" my current understanding is that Romanism selected only *one* apostle, not all. They have disregarded Paul's devotion to other churches, and indeed every other apostle as well. I imagine Rome would make the claim that all apostles were subject to Peter willingly, a thought absent in all of Holy Writ, and in fact the other apostles give no evidence of subjection to Peter. So at that point Rome has to punt: I hear them say in the face of objection, "You can't possibly know what we know about history and Scripture." I thought the Holy Spirit rules over interpretation, not the Roman See.

    Am I missing anything here in my thinking? Or have something wrong? I'd love your input cuz I want to have a firm grasp on this (I have Catholic relatives).

    1. In my experience, most lay Catholics don't read scholarly books by modern Catholic Bible commentators and church historians. Mainstream Catholic scholarship concedes that the traditional narrative about the papacy is anachronistic. Indeed, John Henry Newman gave up on trying to derive 19C Roman Catholicism from the church fathers, so he invented the theory of development.

    2. Thanks Steve. That resonates with me. I read Rivington and Fortesque, as perplexed as ever that men like Bryan Cross just roll over and claim authority.

  2. A Catholic convert directed me to the linked piece one time, after I used the tu quoque objection that Catholic converts must also use their private judgment to determine that Rome is the One True Church.

    I concluded, after skimming it, that Bryan Cross' answer could be summed up as "And then a miracle happens, and the Roman Catholic Church is the True Church." In other words, they have no real answer other than naked assertion of the Catholic Church...the very thing in dispute. But in making that assertion, they are relying on their private judgment even still...

  3. >But the epistemic switchover is illusory.

    Yes! That's exactly what I was trying to get at in my comments (given under my real name) here. A very frustrating interaction:

    1. Bryan never allows for the possibility that a convert is sometimes justified in reexamining his conversion. Yet converts have more experience after they convert, and therefore have additional information they didn't have during the preliminary investigation. In that respect, a convert is sometimes in a better position to reconsider his conversion than an inquirer. A convert can make a more informed evaluation by virtue of his postconversion experience. This applies to conversion in general, where converts sometimes have second thoughts after they become better acquainted with the movement/institution/tradition they converted to.

  4. What are the definitions of apostolic succession?
    1. RC= both office / person of bishops & doctrine from 2 nd century onward being infallibly passed on and protected in unbroken chain. ?
    2. Protestant = seeking to guard and pass down doctrine, but church leaders fallible. ?

    What is the difference between proper doctrinal development ( Trinity, sola scriptura, penal susbstitutionary atonement, sola Fide & imputed righteousness, etc. ) vs. Newman’s improper theory ?

    1. In reality, the criterion is circular because legitimate development is whatever the current pope says.

    2. Yes, from our Protestant perspective (I agree with what you say); but how do we objectively define the difference between a Protestant sound Biblical doctrinal development (Trinity, Sola Scriptura, Penal Substitutionary atonement, Sola Fide & imputed righteousness) vs. Newman's improper theory? Do you think Newman recognized that he was making a circular argument that gave the Pope to do anything he wanted to into the future?