Friday, December 26, 2008

Polycrates: Proto-Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox?

Patiently crawling through Jurgens' The Faith of the Early Fathers, I came upon a fascinating dispute between two ancient bishops of the Church, Polycrates of Ephesus and Victor of Rome (c. 190 A.D.) (Jurgens, Vol. 1, at 82).  Particularly interesting are the sources of authority to which these men appealed or upon which they apparently acted.

According to Eusebius (Church History, Book V, Ch. 23), the bishops of Asia [Minor] followed a tradition dating Easter on the 14th day of Nisan, the date of the Jewish celebration of Passover.  This occurred regardless of the day of the week on which Passover fell.  However, this was "not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world," who instead celebrated Easter on the day "of the Resurrection of our Savior," Sunday (Id.).

St. Victor, the late-second century Bishop of Rome, desired unity in the worldwide Church's observance of Easter (Catholic Encyclopedia: Pope St. Victor I).  He called together the Italian bishops in what is the earliest known Roman synod.  He also "wrote to the leading bishops of the various districts, urging them to call together the bishops of their sections of the country and to take counsel with them on the question of the Easter festival." (Id.).  In the east, he wrote to Bishop Polycrates, leader of bishops of Asia Minor, to induce him to call a council of Asian bishops to address the matter. 

Responses from all fronts but Asia affirmed the celebration of Easter on Sunday.  Bishop Polycrates rejected Bishop Victor's instruction to change the celebration date (Jurgens, at 83).  Eusebius records that Victor excommunicated the Asian bishops in response, and for this strong-arm tactic, received the reproof of several (Church History, Book V, Ch. 24).  Jurgens states that information of this excommunication is "held in considerable suspicion," and that the likes of St. Irenaeus, who pleaded for toleration for the sake of unity, may have held Victor to a mere threatening of excommunication (Jurgens at 82).  

Little else is known about this early dispute, but much of informative value can be derived.  Some have cited the episode as evidence that Polycrates represents a proto-Protestant Bible Christian, and that the Roman Bishop holds no special authority.  (Note that for such Christians it inexplicably does not follow that we must celebrate Easter on Nisan 14.)  But the events surrounding Polycrates' letter of rejection have also been interpreted as showing the opposite proposition, i.e., Victor's headship over "Catholic Christendom" (Cath. Encyc.: Pope St. Victor I). 

So was Polycrates' view of authority proto-Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox?  In his letter rejecting Sunday Easter, he clearly states the authorities by which he refuses Victor's instruction.  He first cites the Nisan 14 Easter tradition in Asia, held by the likes of the Apostle Philip, the Apostle John, Polycarp, and other departed saints, as well as his own bishop-kinsmen who preceded him.  He then states that this traditional observance is "according to the Gospel" and an adherence "to the rule of faith."  He notes his seasoned age, his acquaintance with "the brethren throughout the world," and his having "read through the entire Holy Scriptures," and declares that he is not afraid of the threats of men, but must rather obey God.  Finally, he relies upon the consensus of the "most numerous" bishops he called together upon Victor's request, who approved of Polycrates' own view (Church History, Book V, Ch. 24). 

Polycrates' appeal to having read the Holy Scriptures, and his chiding use of Acts 5:29 ("We must obey God rather than men.") notwithstanding, it seems hard to mistake his view of authority for the Protestant one.  He relied upon tradition and other authorities before Scripture, and he lived in an age of an open canon.  Polycrates hardly can be claimed to have abided by the rule of sola Scriptura.  Whichever of these two adversaries one fancies in this dispute, one is fancying some view of authority other than the Protestant one.

Far more from Polycrates' letter resembles the Orthodox view on authority: a primary reliance on tradition, including an invocation of named Apostles preceding him in his particular church; adherence to the "rule of faith"; the supposed universality of the held belief; the Holy Scriptures; and the agreement of a council of bishops (see Tradition in the Orthodox Church, available here).  Indeed, the authority to which Polycrates appealed in rejecting Victor seems distinct from the Catholic view only in his rejection of the universal authority of the Bishop of Rome.

But whatever we say of Polycrates, we must not lose sight of Victor -- calling for councils, ruling on a divisive matter, receiving obedient rebuke (save for Polycrates).  And ultimately, although the details are lost to history, one must take note of the fact that Victor's determination carried the day.  It is interesting that papal primacy has not been so self-evident as to be a sine qua non of faithful catholicity throughout the ages, especially in the east.  Rather, its necessity in the face of heresy or adversity seems to have propped up progressively germinating forms of the doctrine.  Whatever the lesson of Polycrates and Victor for today, it is much nearer an analogy to the dispute between the separated Orthodox and Latin Churches than to the dispute between the Latin Church and Protestant groups. 

Friday, December 19, 2008

Individual vs. Collective Authority

In the third part of my Authority series I wrote:  "Likewise, when we perform acts as the Christian Church, unless we believe these acts flow from our individual capacities, we need authority from God (because we act as agents of His capacity)."  One challenger noted that Catholics recognize baptisms done even by 'infidels'.   Another, that Jesus approved of a man driving out demons in His name, even though he had not received apostolic approval to do so (Mark 9:38-41).

St. Nicholas casting out demons from idol shrines

With these comments and separate conversations I had with friends, I encountered no dispute with the basic principle that one must have authority before one can act on another's behalf.  The challenges were that my basic principle didn't make sense in practice.  How can we say that Christ can't choose to call an individual today to do acts for the good of His Church?  E.g., how do we know Calvin wasn't given the authority that we believe God gave to the Apostle Paul?

In light of this, I believe my principle requires a distinction between individual and collective Christian authority.  I mentioned this in the third Authority post, but perhaps too much in passing.  I said "when we perform acts as the Christian Church, unless we believe these acts flow from our individual capacities, we need authority from God (because we act as agents of His capacity). It might have been better stated another way: if we presume to act on God's account on behalf of (and over) other Christians, we must identify positive authority to do so.

Certainly when I blog, I do so as an individual Christian.  I do not claim to act on account of a group of other Christians (e.g., my local church, or my denomination).  I do not believe that any of my assertions are binding on other Christians because I have asserted them.  That is why I do not need to identify positive authority to blog about the Faith.  If this were the blog of my XYZ Presbyterian (PCA) Church, then I would need positive authority to speak on that body's behalf.

Likewise, when others show hospitality, or raise a child in the faith, or speak in foreign tongues, or the like, they are fulfilling their individual place in the overall body of Christ.  Most Christian acts, then, are individual acts of the believer, not requiring this immediate assignment of authority from Christ.  When people perform individual acts in the name of Christ, we must let them put their talents to use.

But this is distinct from those who claim to act on behalf of (and over) other believers, or on behalf of the Christian Church.    The talents of driving out demons or speaking in tongues are distinct from the talent of 'apostleship' (cf. 1 Cor 12:28), which inherently involves authority over others. When an overseer claims to exercise Christ's authority over the Christian Church, he must be positively authorized to assume this role.  It is essential that our Church leaders be able to articulate their positive source of authority to exert power over the body of Christ.  This is necessary assurance that the rest of the body is not being led astray -- has not been commandeered by false shepherds.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


I have decided to take a Sabbatical from this work on Ecumenicity until the end of the current semester.  With the possible exception of one post I have in the works, I will add nothing new here until December.  May God bless you in your own efforts at seeking Christian unity, and may he bless us all inasmuch as we sincerely desire to be one as Christ is one with the Father.  Besides focusing on my final year of law school, and my 'real, live' clinical client, I plan on spending my free time discerning God's will through a Catholic inquirer's class, and contemplating my role as the spiritual head of my family.  I want to catechize my household.

Following this short break, I would like to consider a minor reformatting of this blog.  I would like to write in a more logical fashion from post to post.  That is, I would like my posts to follow a more deliberate course, even if I write less (as less can often be more!).  I am also considering accepting thoughtful written submissions from contributors, so if anyone would be interested in letting me post their work on ecumenicity here, start giving that some thought.  As always, please feel free to reach me by e-mail (my address is available through my "profile" page).

Peace in Christ,

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ecumenical Rules of Engagement

Peter H. Burnett, 1st Governor of California, Lawyer and Catholic Convert

The introduction to the late Peter H. Burnett's The Path which Led a Protestant Lawyer to the Catholic Church contains something that resonates with me, regarding the discernment of the proper constitution of Christ's Church:

To form a clear, accurate, and just conception of a subject is the legitimate end of all fair and honest investigation. And no end can be attained, without the use of proper means, and no correct solution of any question arrived at, but by adopting the proper method. "The human mind is so limited," says Dr. Johnson, " that it cannot take in all the parts of a subject ; so that there may be objections raised against any thing." This being true of our limited capacity, it is only by confining our attention to one particular at a time, and carefully estimating its force, and then passing to others in succession, that we can arrive at any clear conception of a subject. The mechanic who constructs a chain, makes each link separately.

But it is not only absolutely necessary to use the proper means, and pursue the proper method, but we should carefully remove all obstacles that may weaken the legitimate force of any argument that may be presented to the mind. And nothing is more important for this purpose than calm impartiality. All prejudices should be manfully cast aside, and no one should enter upon the investigation of any subject with any preconceived antipathies against it. He had better not investigate at all, for then he will at least save his labor.
(emphases added)
I recently said in a discussion at De Regnis Duobus that "I believe that it takes a lot of hard work from all parties to a discussion to agree on even a narrow proposition -- much of that work being dedicated to coming to agreement on language and meaning behind language. This makes ecumenical discussions either a labor of love, or a waste of time." I believe this sentiment is similar to what Mr. Burnett was expressing.

Too often in online ecumenical discussions, I see people respond to a challenging narrow proposition (i.e., a matter at issue) with a broad "shotgun" critique of their interlocutor's overall position. This dodging of a narrow issue with a 'litany of doubt' does not help anyone in the truth-seeking function. Instead, explicitly or implicitly, it "seeks to pick off the intellectually lethargic, before they get sucked in by what the litanizer perceives to be error" (as I said here).

Could you imagine if our courts allowed such tactics? It might look like this: suppose a defendant attempts to vindicate himself by demonstrating that the bloody glove from the crime scene does not fit him very well. Then suppose that the prosecutor replies that the defendant had stolen gloves and socks in his house, that the defendant has poor tastes in clothing, and that his hands are really quite soft, like he hasn't worked much manual labor in life. This reply does not address the matter at issue, but to a lazy, inattentive, or incompetent jury, a valid defense could be lost because of it. Such prejudice to the court's essential truth-finding function would not be permitted.

Because our ecumenical truth-seeking efforts should similarly demand a rigorous process of discussion, I encourage my brothers and sisters to respond only in kind, concluding each narrow issue raised in turn. Also, if you take someone up on one point, have the moral commitment to stay with them on that point until you both are in agreement, or can agree on what it is that causes your disagreement. I intend to hold myself to this standard, and hope that other Christians would also, both on this blog and 'abroad'.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Pick Out the Bad Ones

My waitress tonight explained that a relative of hers had several boys and wanted a girl before she and her husband "quit". To this end, they had been considering going to a "special doctor" to have the "bad ones" "picked out". My wife later explained to me that the "bad ones" to which the waitress referred were not conceived male Homo sapiens (i.e., boy babies), but Y-chromosome carrying sperm. While my shock subsided somewhat, my concerns of sex selection and IVF abortive harvesting methods remain.

But I wonder, how does a Christian respond to these things, and particularly, to what extent do we get 'preachy'? We live in difficult times, and I believe that I handle these moments in a badly flaccid manner. I console myself with the thought that every time we go out the door with our boys, we are an implicit witness of God's graciousness.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Authority, Authority, Authority, Part III

Mr. Merrick relieving Capt. Queeg, The Caine Mutiny (1954)

In my previous two posts, here and here, I discussed two difficulties I have with the confessional Reformed view of sola Scriptura: that it inherently requires subjective interpretation of Scripture, and that it is uses post hoc rationalizations in defense of its tenets about the Bible. In this post I will address a third problem, more to the root of the Reformation. While I put it third, I believe the thoughts in this post have been the most influential to me as I have reflected on the Protest, on Catholicism and on Orthodoxy.

3) Reformational ecclesial acts require authority from God, the "Principle".

Even if there is a principled distinction between the Biblicist and the confessional Reformed positions, and even if the reformational tenets about the Bible do not require post hoc rationalizations, the confessional Reformed system still seems deficient for want of proper authority. In other words, I am not certain that the confessional Reformed system has God’s authority to be at all.

I cannot overstate how fundamental to a discussion of the Reformation is our understanding of Authority. Caveat: I have been schooled by civilian seafarers, by military men, and most recently by professors of law, all of whom heavily stress matters of authority. Therefore, the possibility does not escape me that I might have an inflated view of authority in any system -- I pray that I remain open to correction and truth. However, I do believe that the principles of authority are universally true; because we see them reflected in places like the (secular) law does not mean that they derive from the (secular) law.

Black's Law Dictionary defines authority as "The right or permission to act legally on another's behalf...; the power delegated by a principal to an agent". At law, then, when I act on another’s account, I must have authority in order for that action to be valid. This is the purpose of the “power of attorney”; it is a legal document which authorizes another to act on one’s own account. If someone seeks to act in my name by writing a check from my bank account, but they do not have my authority, their conduct is invalid. If they do have my authority, then I have to honor the check they wrote, even if I disagree with their decision to write it. In the law’s eyes, it is as if I wrote the check myself.

Likewise, when we perform acts as the Christian Church, unless we believe these acts flow from our individual capacities, we need authority from God (because we act as agents of His capacity). Could anyone act in God’s name without authority? Could someone baptize their children in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in the bathtub one quiet afternoon because they want to do so? I believe that would be analogous to someone writing a check on my account without my proper authority, without a power of attorney.

The Protestant, then, must maintain that his acts are authorized by God based on the authority to act that God granted through the Bible itself. He must maintain that Luther and his followers were authorized to reject the authorities of their time, and to establish their own authorities, based on the Bible’s authority (for the sake of the Gospel).

But does the Bible authorize us to overthrow our authorities (which we know are all established by God, be they good or bad (Rom. 13:1)) and set up our own authorities? It seems, rather, that we are to submit to authorities (Rom. 13:1-5, Titus 3:1), and to pray for their righteousness (1 Tim. 2:1-3). God the Son did not usurp the Jewish authorities of His earthly time on account of their being in doctrinal or practical error, but He articulated the authority He had been given to teach the New Covenant ("All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me..." (Matt. 28:18b)). He delegates or transmits that authority to his Apostles ("Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (id., v. 19-20b; cf. 2 Cor. 10:7-8, 13:10, 1 Thes. 4:1-2)).

This is a befuddling problem for us in reformational churches. The Apostles were given authority for acts such as conducting baptisms immediately by Christ (who Himself said He had authority from the Father). What happened to that authority? We certainly can agree that it did not die with the Apostles, or else there would be no authorized baptisms after the first century, upon John's death. Therefore, either the authority was given to all, or to a finite group of Christians. But it is obvious that it was not given to all, because I am not authorized to baptize anyone (see WCOF ch. XXVII, sec. 4)).

So the Apostles must have passed on their own delegated authority from Christ to a finite group of individuals within the early Christian community. Who were they? I tend to think Timothy was one, for Paul tells us that Timothy received the "gift of God" through Paul's laying on of hands (2 Tim. 1:6). Titus was, as well, who had “all authority” to speak, exhort, and reprove (Titus 2:15). So we know there was some delegation or transmission of authority from the Apostles on.

Clement was one also, and he gave an interesting discussion of authority matching what I have said above:

The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labors], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe (Letter to the Corinthians, ch. 42).
The Clementine (and Catholic) derivative authority scheme for the Church thus looks like this: God > His Son > the Eleven (Apostles) > those they appointed subsequently. Apart from this, no act is properly authorized, be it discipling the nations, baptizing, etc. But the Reformational derivative authority scheme for the Church is like this: God > His Son > the Eleven > those they appointed until they fell into some degree of apostasy, and then to an educated disciple approved by the faithful. Some problems I can see with that scheme are: 1) that it requires a reliable body to articulate when the appointees of the Apostles (who had real authority from Heaven) fell into the requisite degree of apostasy; 2) that its rule allowing for self-assumption of authority is not found anywhere in Scripture, but arguably the opposite rule is (see supra); 3) that it places the authority to make new authorities in the subjective hands of the faithful, and 4) that it is indistinguishable in structural form from the various Christological, Trinitarian, and other heresies of the early Church.

I mean no disrespect or challenge to my elders (teaching or ruling) with this post, but mean the inquiry in a more academic manner. I believe my pastor is devoted to God, and that God uses him for His glory. But I must ask these questions because my conscience compels me to be assured that I am properly submitted to the proper authorities of His Church.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Authority, Authority, Authority, Part II

2) The sola Scriptura position appears to have been reached by post hoc rationalization.

In my previous post, I discussed the difficulty I have in articulating a principled distinction between the Biblicist position and the confessional Reformed position vis-à-vis subjective interpretations of scripture. In this post I will consider another intellectual difficulty I face in remaining in the confessional Reformed camp.

Even if there is a principled distinction between the Biblicist and the confessional Reformed methods of interpreting Scripture, the latter position still seems to require post hoc rationalization to conclude that all revealed truth has been inscripturated into 66 books in the Bible.

Notice the two integral claims of the confessional sola Scriptura position, that a) all revealed truth has been inscripturated, and b) our confessions have the proper listing of books (i.e., canon). These are the sine quibus non of the Reformation -- that is, without these two claims being true, the Reformers would be mere dissidents, with no unifying claim to the possession of truth or authority. If these two truth-claims are to be the foundation of the believer's authority structure, binding his conscience above all else, they must be demonstrable and supportable. If they cannot be demonstrated, or are unsupported, then the entire system fails for want of authority to bind the conscience.

Complete Inscripturation.

To maintain the reformational position, the confessional Reformed must be able to articulate that God's revelations of absolute truth have been completed (i.e., have ceased), have been recorded in writing, and are to be reliably found no where else but the Bible. I have previously described why I see circularity in this position. Briefly stated, the critique with which I wrestle goes something like this: only Scripture contains revealed truth, but the claim that 'revealed truth is only in Scripture' is itself not in Scripture, so that claim is not a revealed one. The confessional Reformed may respond that this is a problem only for the Biblicist view. They may say (though I disagree that this is the Westminster Confession-al position) that their claim is actually that the early Church was reliable to determine truth, and it determined that only what is in the Bible is revealed truth, so that claim is reliable.

However, the early Church was far from clear on this matter of revealed truth having been completely inscripturated (see my reply to Keith Mathison's claim about this seminal matter here). Scripture itself seems to point in another direction (e.g., 2 Thes. 2:15, "So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings [traditions] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter."). The irony, then, is that complete inscripturation is the opposite conclusion of what one might reach from a plain reading of Scripture.


The Canon Question seems like a deeper example of the problem of necessary extra-biblical truth claims in the sola Scriptura paradigm. Obviously, the 66-book canon is not revealed within a book of the Bible, so one must look to an external, or extrabiblical source of truth to determine which books contain revealed Truth.

When I first heard the Catholic critique of sola Scriptura, I was intrigued by the claim that without a visible Church possessed of divinely-granted authority, the canon could not reliably be defined. My intrigue turned to dismay when I could not get a uniform answer from Reformed pastors and scholars as to why we have the 66 books we have. I was not dismayed that there were no answers, but rather that there were a variety of theories explaining why the 66-book canon is right. That rationales have been derived from a common conclusion (i.e., our particular 66 books) evidences post hoc rationalization.

Here are various rationalizations of the common conclusion with which I am familiar:

  1. Our 66 books are in the Bible because the inward work of the Holy Spirit bears witness in “our” hearts (WCOF).

  2. Our O.T. books are those which were accepted by the Jews in Hebrew in the early Church era.

  3. Apostolic authorship determines N.T. canonicity.

  4. Our N.T. books are those which received widespread acceptance by the early church, which was divinely reliable in its conclusions until the 4th century.

  5. Under the Lutheran variant of #4, we have a homolegoumena (universally accepted books) for establishing dogma , and an antilegoumena (disputed books, e.g., Jude or Revelation) to corroborate disputed dogmatic claims.
I believe that each of these variants has problems and inconsistencies (i.e., that each one might not reach the same 66-book conclusion under its own terms if strictly applied). However, the larger point to make here is that the use of a plurality of rationales (justifications) evidences that a bedrock reformational truth-claim (that our 66 books contain revealed truth and none others) -- the only truth-claim able to bind the Protestant's conscience -- is reached through post hoc rationalizations. Why is it that we can debate infant baptism under the terms of sola Scriptura, but not debate whether Jude belongs in the Scripture's corpus? Why is the meaning of communion open for discussion, but not the placement of Ecclesiastes in Holy Writ? What is the principled distinction between a debate over the truth of a doctrinal matter, and a debate over the truth of the listing of canon?

If the rationale that informs us that we have 66 books containing the complete inscripturation of God's revelations cannot bind our consciences (because there isn't one rationale at all), then neither can the conclusion. And if the conclusion can't bind our consciences, then the matter of canonicity seems like Protestant fair game for debate.

(To be continued...)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Authority, Authority, Authority

Zrim and I recently interacted in some posts at De Regnis Duobus. We got to discussing authority and the church, at which point he asked about my wrestling with a particular Protestant via media, "yours is a more specific quest to find the via media between T0 and T2/3? Is it that T1 is not good enough or that you are trying to unpack T1 in order to understand it?" I replied in part, but would like to do so more fully here.

The "T0", "T1", and "T2/3" scheme to which Zrim refers is that presented by Keith Mathison in his The Shape of Sola Scriptura (I have previously discussed that book in a series here, here, here, and here). Stated simply, "Tradition Zero" is shorthand for the Biblicist position on revelation and authority, and "Tradition Two" is shorthand for Catholic and Orthodox positions allowing for two repositories ("sources") of revelation, one the Scriptures, and one the Church's Tradition (T3 is a later variant of T2). "Tradition One" is the magisterial Reformed position that strikes the proper middle way (via media), the argument goes, on authority and revelation.

I have had (now years) of ongoing difficulty defending that there is this logical middle way between individualism and authoritarianism in church structure. The following are my thoughts:

1) I find it difficult to articulate a principled distinction between the confessional (magisterial) Reformed position and the Biblicist position.

I previously described the Biblicist position as a belief that all revelation is contained within the Bible, and that there is no authority apart from the good Book itself. This is a subjective system that says "no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible" (which, as I have previously noted, is itself a creed).

While it has several variations, I will address the confessional (magisterial) Reformed position as articulated by Mathison, as I believe it is a fair archetype. This position is a belief that "Scripture was the sole source of revelation; that it was the final authoritative norm of doctrine and practice; that it was to be interpreted in and by the Church; and that it was to be interpreted according to the regula fidei [(rule of faith)]" (Mathison at 256).

I think the claimed distinction, which is necessary to avoid the criticism of individualism, is this: the Biblicist reads his Bible subjectively and individualistically, so making up his own interpretation as he goes, whereas the confessional Reformed reads the Bible in the light of Reformed teaching, giving himself over to its tenets. I will examine this distinction in practice and in theory.

In practice, this seems like a fair distinction. The Reformed man teaching his family the Gospel will do so generally in accordance with the Reformed faith whereas the Biblicist will feel at liberty to handle the texts of Scripture as seems fitting to him (subjectively). However, my experience with "Biblicists" has been that they do actually submit themselves to a tradition (something objective) when handling the Bible, often the Baptist free-church position. This tradition has a feel to it that is often characteristic of "unaffiliated" Christian charitable and missionary organizations. When one is with these Christians, there is a certain presumptive way to discuss the faith and to handle the Scriptures. They may have a lesser quantum of deference to objective materials (like formal confesssions or the opinions of venerable scholars), but they still do not pick up their Bible with a traditionless tabula rasa. They are not the proverbial man isolated on a tropical island, never having seen a Bible until one washes up on the beach. Their objective standard is simply less articulated, historical and rigorous.

And on the other side of this 'in practice' coin, I observe a lack of Reformed-minded people reading their Scriptura with much deference to the objective distinctives of the Reformed faith. Individualism seems the norm in American Reformed churches. I know of one (non-PCA) pastor teaching on "the five points of Calvinism" receiving almost no interest from the congregation. I remember visiting one PCA church where I was asked by a regular, "what's the PCA?" I was once a member of another that had baptistic (Baptist?) elders. I doubt those of the larger PCUSA are more commonly found reading their Bibles "with the Church" under a confessional Reformed light. The Tradition One-er may be partly in the imagination. At any rate, while I am comfortable granting that the confessional Reformed are less (or even much less) subjective in their handling of the Bible, this is not a distinction of principle, so much as one of degree. And the degree may not be so large.

In theory, the distinction between the two camps is harder for me to see. Today's Reformed subscriber may read his Bible with deference to an objective system (the Reformed confessions and scholarly teachings), but that system lacks an objective lineage. Just because many today give deference to opinions of the past does not mean those opinions were not reached individualistically. (A claim of a Holy gift of truth given to historical consensus or to present majority consensus would make for a conversation worth holding.) Using Mathison's verbiage, I would say the Reformed version of the regula fidei, by which Scripture is to be interpreted, is not an originally objective criterion, but an originally subjective one, having been made the subject of opinions five centuries ago. It is thus an objective system subjectively reached. If that is so, while we are many generations removed from the problem, we are no different in principle from the hypothetical Biblicist. I should note that something being "subjective" does not make it inherently bad, just as something that is "objective" is not inherently good. But for comparison purposes, if one is characterized by subjectivism (so individualism), so is the other, at least at its roots.

Take an example: if the Jimmy Stewart Fan Club only listened to music that Mr. Stewart is known to have admired, we would have an objective system subjectively reached. Anyone picking tunes for a fan club meeting knows what tunes are approved for listening (so objective), but the tunes that Mr. Stewart liked were textbook subjective matters of his taste. The tunes wouldn't be inherently good, only inherently tunes Jimmy Stewart liked. Likewise, while I may subscribe to a clearly articulated system, and may allow that system to inform my reading of Scripture, someone at some point in history had to have created such a system from their subjective (individualistic) reading of Scripture (e.g., "Calvinism" and "Lutheranism"). However, there's a big "or" that could go here: or the confessional Reformed has to claim that their reading of the Bible, their objective system, is the true and original (objective) regula fidei from Christ that had been lost from about the year 400 until 1520 or so. I believe that the Reformed system contains at least some novelty by Calvin and his peers (e.g., Calvin thought that he was taking Augustine's views on Predestination to their natural conclusions), so it does not have objectively evidenced objective lineage throughout the history of Christianity -- it contains at least some subjective conclusions.

I see another point of commonality between the confessional Reformed position and the Biblicist position in their theories. This commonality is that the individual believer is ultimately (not penultimately) bound to his conscience's interpretation of Scripture. So his deference to an objective system reaches its limit when the reader's conscience conflicts. To put it another way, the confessional Reformed system is objective until its subjective limit (or trump, or governor, etc.) has been reached. In that case, subjectivism necessarily prevails (though one could go a lifetime without this happening, of course). If the subjective conscience of the believer does not hold a trump over the Reformed articulation of the regula fidei, one has to contend with one's justification for the Reformation itself. That is because the Reformation was built on the sentiment ascribed to Luther at the Diet of Worms, "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of popes or councils, for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God." Clearly conscience, the conscience of each individual, holds the trump.

Those are my thoughts on the lack of principled distinctions. The Biblicist does not read the Bible without his own "Tradition", the confessional Reformed often reads his Bible without deference to his own "Tradition", these traditions are not without subjective, individual interpretations of Scripture at their origins (unless you grant that the Reformed regula fidei is what was delivered by Christ), and in either case, the individual's conscience holds the ultimate trump over allegedly objective doctrines which demand deference. For these reasons, the confessional Reformed position seems to lack a principled distinction from the Biblicist 'Tradition Zero' position.

(To be continued...)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Liturgical Order

I've been on-again-off-again picking away at Jurgens' The Faith of the Early Fathers. I was riveted last night while reading the First Apology of St. Justin the Martyr, penned some time between 148 and 155 A.D. To put this in chronological perspective, Justin was born as little as four years after the Book of Revelation was written (but no longer than within one generation). I was struck in particular by Justin's account of Christian worship (which Tim Troutman noted a while back is the earliest record of the order of a Christian service). [Note: I realize I'm not covering new ground with this post, but still want to make note of it.]

He describes a Christian baptism before beginning his discussion of the liturgical order of his day. "We, however, after thus washing the one who has been convinced and signified his assent, lead him to those who are called brethren, where they are assembled. They then earnestly offer common prayers for themselves and the one who has been illuminated and all others everywhere, that we may be made worthy, having learned the truth, to be found in deed good citizens and keepers of what is commanded, so that we may be saved with eternal salvation. On finishing the prayers we greet each other with a kiss. Then bread and a cup of water and mixed wine are brought to the president of the brethren and he, taking them, sends up praise and glory to the Father of the universe through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and offers thanksgiving at some length that we have been deemed worthy to receive these things from him. When he has finished the prayers and the thanksgiving, the whole congregation present, saying, "Amen." "Amen" in the Hebrew language means, "So be it." When the president has given thanks and the whole congregation has assented, those whom we call deacons give to each of those present a portion of the consecrated bread and wine and water, and they take it to the absent."

He then describes the Eucharist, how it is only for members of the believing community who have been baptized, and how "the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by [Christ], and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished [i.e., our assimilation of food into our being], is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus."

He then continues, with some repetition, "And on the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president in a discourse urges and invites [us] to the imitation of these noble things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers. And, as said before, when we have finished the prayer, bread is brought, and wine and water, and the president similarly sends up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the congregation assents, saying the Amen; the distribution, and reception of the consecrated [elements] by each one, takes place and they are sent to the absent by the deacons."

I have summarized the two overlapping accounts of the liturgical order of Christian worship:

1) Prayers for perseverance unto salvation;
2) Greeting with a kiss;
3) Bread and Cup of Water and Wine taken to the "president";
4) President offers praise and thanksgiving for these things;
5) Congregation assents with an "Amen"; and
6) Deacons distribute elements (and take some away to those absent).

1) Memoirs of Apostles [Gospels] and Prophets read;
2) President delivers discourse on what is read;
3) All stand and offer prayers;
4) Elements of bread and cup of water and wine brought forward;
5) President offers thanksgiving and prayers for these things;
6) Congregation assents with an "Amen"; and
7) Deacons distribute elements (and take some away to those absent).

Without speculating about the precise order of the first few things in each list, we can see the general pattern of a) Scripture reading, b) Homily, c) Prayers, d) Eucharistic elements presented, e) elements consecrated, f) elements distributed. This seems remarkably close to the Mass, as I recall it, and less similar to anything I experience on any given Sunday.

But St. Justin the Martyr is not without problems. Jurgens notes some questionable Christological language (which he is willing to excuse on account of the primitive state of Christological doctrines at that time). Also, I do not believe I could distinguish Justin's statements on works and righteousness from at least semi-Pelagianism (but the same excuse would be availing). It is also interesting how central the "Amen" of the congregations assent seemed to be for the consecration. I do not know if that survived in some form in the mass.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

If I Were a 2nd Century Christian

Issue. I think this might be a helpful intellectual exercise: where would I have looked to know what to believe about the faith and the Gospel if I were alive as a Christian in the 2nd century of the Church? [My comments are a rephrasing of those I made recently here.]

Rule. The properly ordained bishops taught the true faith and the Gospel in the 2nd century. Irenaeus tells us, "It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics [the Gnostics] rave about" (Against Heresies, 3:3:1 [A.D. 189]).

Analysis. Since properly ordained bishops held the truth, I would have believed about the faith and the Gospel what my local bishop taught me.

While the successor-bishops taught the true Christian faith, they did not do so infallibly (indeed, even the Apostle Peter could err, as Paul made plain in Galatians 2:11 ff. ("When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.")). If I had doubts about my bishop's teachings, I would assure myself that all proper authorities are given by God (cf. Matt. 10:1, 2 Cor. 10:8, 13:10, 1 Thes. 4:2, Titus 2:15), and that we are to submit to our proper spiritual authorities (as Paul tells us in Heb. 13:17 "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you."). Therefore, if in fact my bishop were in doctrinal or practical error, I would have remained submitted to him as my proper authority (trusting that any culpability for such error would rest with him and not me). I would trust that his fellow bishops, speaking for the Church, would eventually call him to correction.

What would my alternate be?
- Declare myself a bishop? I would lack the authority to do that, if the proper authority is one ordained by a successor-bishop of the Apostles.
- Declare myself without a bishop, until my bishop came around to what I understood to be the truth? First, this would not be true submission, but conditional submission ('I submit under my terms'). Second, by what standard would I determine that I would again 'submit' to him? Scripture (as it existed at that point)? Even the heretics argued from Scripture (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:3:6, "And it is not only from the writings of the evangelists and the apostles that they endeavour to derive proofs for their opinions by means of perverse interpretations and deceitful expositions: they deal in the same way with the law and the prophets, which contain many parables and allegories that can frequently be drawn into various senses, according to the kind of exegesis to which they are subjected.").

Conclusion. In the 2nd century, I would have believed that our God loves us enough to give us shepherds on earth, easily identifiable, that we can follow with trust and confidence. I would have followed the local bishop's explication of the Gospel, and submitted myself to his God-given authority.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Exclusion and Private Revelation

Courts exist as truth-finding bodies. One of the primary tools for determining the truth is to carefully control the pieces of information, or evidence, that are presented to the "finder of fact" for consideration. Is the fact-finder allowed to know that the defendant committed the same crime of which he is accused years before? That the witness has a history of lying? Often evidence will be excluded because its 'probative value is outweighed by its prejudicial effect'. That is, it makes for a greater hindrance in the truth-seeking process than it is a help. If evidence that should have been excluded is admitted, you have a mistrial on your hands, and need a new, untainted fact-finder.

Stuck in this mindset as I am, I often consider parallels or analogies between what is done at law, and what is done by the Christian Church.

The Catholic Church asserts that it (or she) does not consider private revelation in reaching its general doctrines. Its Catechism says that private revelations, even if recognized by the Church "do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith" (Para. 67). While general (public) revelation "ended with the preaching of the Apostles and must be believed by all," the Church imposes no obligation on the faithful to believe private revelations (Catholic Encyclopedia, Private Revelations).

The skeptic in me wonders whether this is so, or if the Catholic Church has (rather) imposed private revelations on the faithful via the back door, as influential evidence in the formation of a general doctrine or dogma. (I admit I am being a skeptic, which entails my skepticism of the Catholic claim that the Holy Spirit preserves the Church from error -- Lord willing, I will overcome my skepticism soon.)

In writing this post, I tried to give a few examples that had come to mind related to the more famous Marian apparitions and the two most recently proclaimed Marian dogmas. In both instances, I had my factual chronology mistaken -- the private revelations I had in mind occurred just after the proclamations were given by the Church. I take that as a sign against my premise of the influence of private revelation, but would appreciate any contributions noting where private-revelation-induced popular support for a dogma possibly led to a dogmatic formulation. Toward the contrary, I welcome any contributions noting how my premise is false.

I believe what drives my inquiry here is my difficulty with the claim that Catholics can disbelieve any particular private revelation, in light of the widespread and official use of things like the image of Mary from Guadalupe. It seems these private events have been subsumed into the psyche of the Catholic faithful. I suppose psyche does not equal regula fidei...

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

De Regnis Duobos

I recommend the blog of PCA pastor Jason J. Stellman, De Regnis Duobos: Concerning the Two Kingdoms. My first few encounters there have led me to believe that Pastor Stellman is charitable and like-minded in matters of ecuminicity. We would be a stronger Body of Christ if we could have sincere and charitable discussions about the matters that divide more often (me thinks)!

He has been taking up some themes that are common on this blog, like the canonicity of Scripture, and the authority of creeds, and he promises to take up others soon, like the visisble/invisible church. God speed!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Protestant Conversions Critique: Church Envy

[This will conclude my previous two posts, here and here, discussing Mr. David Hagopian's article analyzing Protestant conversions to Catholicism.] Mr. Hagopian wraps up his analysis of why Protestants convert by pointing out instances from conversion stories where converts appear to have been taken in by glimmer over theology.

Church Envy. Under his heading "Liturgical Longings", Mr. Hagopian describes the converts' "hysteria" over what they perceive to be beauty (even sublimity) in the mass. A liturgy-is-beautiful claim fails to be a persuasive ground for conversion in several ways.

First, for many people taken in by this liturgical luster, "it is the kind of worship with which they have grown up." But "just because we are accustomed to something, just because we have a fondness for something, or just because we may long for the good ol' days, doesn't mean that what we are accustomed to, fond of, or long for is necessarily right." I completely agree, but this was not the claim of the converts (that they were seeking to return to the familiar). Rather, the claim was that the liturgy and the mass have inherent beauty, and as Mr. Hagopian does not deny this here, I presume the point remains unmoved.

Second, he observes, Neocatholics claim to be drawn to the liturgy because "the liturgy, for the most part, is the same no matter which Catholic church a parishioner attends." But "[s]ameness, however, is no guarantor of propriety. After all, something can be the same and yet be erroneous...". I completely agree, but I doubt that any converts were arguing that the liturgy is true because it is the same everywhere. My observation has been that converts claim, rather, that the Catholic Church's liturgical practices are beautiful in part because they are consistent across the Church. That there is a laudable quality to Christians worshipping in unity remains unmoved.

One argument briefly noted, and a decent one, is that love of liturgy is no reason for conversion, because other churches have liturgy too (he noted the Orthodox, Episcopals and Lutherans). I wonder though how Mr. Hagopian feels about those other bodies, or why he would be more opposed to a brother converting to Catholicism over Orthodoxy (or Episcopalianism!).

Under the heading "All That Glimmers", Mr. Hagopian describes how several converts were taken in by the physical beauty of Catholic church buildings (columns, stained glass, candlelight and all). He notes a common claim of metaphysical experiences along the road to conversion. But these experiences "do not prove that Catholicism is true". Also, they do not prove Protestantism false, as the liturgical Protestant denominations have qualities of physical beauty as well.

This argument confuses the burdens of proof. Indeed the claimed beauty of Catholic services or buildings does not prove it to be true, but I have never heard any convert claim that is was such a proof. I have heard them say that this beauty drew them in enough to consider the Catholic theological claims of truth. Those claims are what should be weighed when deciding whether Catholicism is true or false. When tracing the Church from the time of Christ and the Apostles to the present, the burden is on the believer to prove the point at which Catholicism became false, and not the opposite. If one must prove Catholicism remained true at each moment in history, then one is facing a perpetual presumption that it is false. Such a standard both leads to fallacy and is uncharitable.

Mr. Hagopian considers other reasons for conversion, but I will stop here to mitigate the risk of going on for too long. I believe we can learn from his discussion of conversions (which is implicitly a portion of a larger discussion on ecumenicity) that default positions and burdens of proof can wreak havoc on the goal of unity. It is so easy to lay waste to an opponent by setting a high bar of proof against his position, and asserting that he has not met it (in our own judgment). I believe that this does not meet the charitable standard of fraternal conduct by which we are bound to treat one another in the Body of Christ. I see this failure on all fronts, and pray that I could avoid this myself in the future (for I have certainly failed in the past).

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Protestant Conversions Critique: Sola Scriptura

[This continues a previous post.] Mr. Hagopian continues his efforts at helping "Protestants to come to grips with the reasons why [ ] Neocatholics have set their compasses toward Rome" (internal citations omitted), by turning to the relation of tradition to Scripture.

Sola scriptura. Mr. Hagopian's says that "Neocatholics not only appeal to apostolic succession and to the antiquity of the Roman Catholic Church; they also claim that Scripture was never intended to be the believer's sole guide for all of faith and practice"; they claim they need Scripture and tradition. Christ left a church, not a book, their argument goes, and the very act of defining a canon "requires and presupposes an infallible church."

While the Canon Question shook me from my Sola Scriptura upbringing more than any other, Hagopian dismisses it in two sentences which each repeat the same thought: "The church didn't create Scripture; it simply recognized" its divine character. The Neocatholics are guilty of failing to distinguish between recognition of Holy Writ and its creation.

Frustratingly, he offers no explanation of why this distinction is relevant. It is not evident why an infallible church, which would be required to produce infallible Writ, would not also be required to produce an infallible identification of Holy Writ. Would Mr. Hagopian agree with Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul's conclusion that the Bible is a "fallible collection of infallible books"? Would he agree with Protestant Keith Mathison's view that the church was authoritative to define canon, but only until the 4th century (see The Shape of Sola Scriptura)? In terms of needing an infallible authority, I think writing Scripture and recognizing it is a 'distinction without a difference.' I discussed various Protestant views on the Canon Question here.

Having summarily dismissed that the Church was needed to identify canon infallibly, he turns to the need for the church as an interpretive authority. A Neocatholic analogy here, that the church is needed to interpret something as complex as the Bible because even our simple Constitution needs a Supreme Court to interpret it, is also summarily dismissed. The Supreme Court has "arrogated" (assumed without justification) powers to itself, and become a judicial tyrant. He then implies that the Catholic Church has done the some, and become an ecclesial tyrant. Besides his curt dismissal of one analogy, he does not take up the Neocatholic belief that the Church is somehow needed to interpret Scripture. This is unfortunate. What is one to do when one's interpretation of a biblical text, say on a matter like divorce, does not line up with that of his church? Change churches? Sit unhappily in dissent?

Finally, he takes up the charge of the Neocatholic that "the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura leads necessarily to an "incipient subjectivism"" (citation omitted) because each man becomes his own individual interpretive authority. This position "is riddled with error", I am reassured, because it relies on the "fallacious assumption that a plurality of interpretations necessarily entails subjectivism." The "many interpretations competing in the Protestant marketplace of ideas" are not all false. Indeed, "[t]hey can't all be false, since we know that Christianity is true."

Mr. Hagopian is certainly right that some individual Protestants' interpretations of Scripture are objectively true, even if subjectively derived. I believe his implication is that a group of people (in this democracy of ideas) will be able to corporately identify an objective truth. But this is of little moral comfort for the millions of Protestants whose individual interpretations of Scripture lead them, say, to use contraception or have themselves sterilized. Does the open marketplace of ideas excuse their morally erroneous conclusions? (Note: I am assuming ex arguendo that contraception is objectively immoral.)

He next denies that there is objectivity in Tradition. Rather, he says, Catholicism is at best a system of replacing the individual's subjective views with the subjective views of one man, the Pope, or perhaps a few men, the Magisterium. This, of course, presupposes that the Catholic claims of receiving infallible direction and guidance from the Holy Spirit are false. With the likes of John 14:26 in mind ("But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you"), I wonder if this is a completely fair denial to make.

Mr. Hagopian's discussion on Sola Scriptura continues, but I will wrap it up by noting that without his admitting the possibility that the Holy Spirit could preserve a visible, actual Church, the conversation is a bust. He rejects the Sacred Tradition of Catholicism because it invariably tends to displace Scripture. By displacing Scripture with Tradition, the Neocatholics have accepted that Scripture is not necessary. But this position falls apart if one accepts that the Holy Spirit may work within a Church in ways other than through Scripture alone, if one accepts that Christ's authority could have passed to a visible, actual Church, and not to certain preserved writings alone.

This serves as yet another reminder to me of how vital it is that ecumenical discussions burrow down into the foundational layers of dispute. To bash our opponent-brothers over our surface differences may be to aggravate our divisions, and further offend the will of Christ expressed in John 17: "I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me."

Conversion Ratios

Awhile back I inquired whether there were any reliable statistics of Christian conversions between Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism. This was prompted by my wondering if there were many Protestants who had made the move, or instead just a few isolated but well publicized such moves.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things, in his Public Square section of the August/September 2008 edition, shares some news of a possible answer (here, subscription required):

"That “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” issued by the Pew Research Center last February continues to be sliced and diced by various analysts [Thos.: I recently discussed some of its information here], including Robert Benne, who writes in The Cresset, a magazine published by Valparaiso University. “Continuing the list of surprises about Catholicism,” Benne writes, “ten percent of all Protestants are former Catholics but eight percent of Catholics are former Protestants. That eight percent represents a considerable number, around five million. Converts to Catholicism usually are far more intense about their faith than cradle Catholics, so I suspect that this eight percent injects new vigor into the Church.” He also notes that a striking number of Catholic converts are prominent intellectuals. A young man who is active in Catholic ministries at an Ivy League university speaks warmly of their cooperation with evangelical ministries such as Campus Crusade for Christ. Ecumenical cordiality, however, does not preclude an element of evangelistic rivalry. “The big difference,” he says, “is that they aim at the weakest Catholics while we aim at the strongest evangelicals.” The claim is that evangelicals who are more theologically versed and religiously committed are more open to Catholicism, while Catholics who become evangelicals were, for whatever reason, alienated from Christianity. Put differently, religiously serious evangelicals are more likely to become Catholic, while religiously lapsed Catholics are more likely to become evangelicals" (emphasis added).

I, for one, was surprised that the "delta" between conversions to X and conversions to Y was only 2%. It would be interesting to compare fertility rates of these two pools of Christians (and perhaps other factors that a statistically savvy person could hammer out) to make some forecasts if present patterns were to continue. I mean, it is not a given that a +2% in favor of Protestants = long term Protestant growth. I'd still like to know the Orthodox rates, though they are a much smaller pool for statistical purposes.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Protestant Conversions Critique: Tradition

Pardon my being nearly two decades late, but a loved one recently brought to my attention an article by David Hagopian, Esq., entitled Romeward Bound: Evaluating Why Protestants Convert to Catholicism. It was originally published in an OPC church's magazine Antithesis, and is available here (at 11), and here. I would like to comment on this article; as near as I can Google, no one else has.

Mr. Hagopian analyzes, and asserts the fallacy of, a plethora of conversions from Protestantism to Catholicism. His goal is to help "Protestants to come to grips with the reasons why these Neocatholics [(his term)] have set their compasses toward Rome, because only then will Protestants be able to see some of the shortcomings of their espoused faith..." (internal citations omitted).

Tradition. Hagopian cites tradition as that which Neocatholics embrace "above all else". They think Catholicism is far "richer" because of its unique claims to living tradition and the teaching authority of the Apostles' successors.

He attempts to show the fallacy of this reason for conversion by first taking up the Catholic claim that the Church was founded on Peter, the rock. While conceding that "some Protestants" handle Matthew 16 ("for thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church") poorly, he addresses the Neocatholic's "unconvincing", question-begging interpretation of this passage. Even if Peter is the "rock" to which Christ referred, "Neocatholics simply assume that Christ thereby gave Peter papal authority" (emphasis in original). They "also assume that this passage grants a right of succession". Finally, "[u]ntil and unless Neocatholics can prove that Christ, in Matthew 16, specifically granted Peter papal authority and that Christ thereby intended to establish an unbroken chain of apostolic succession from Peter onward (both of which are read into the text), they have not met the exegetical burden that is incumbent upon them."

The last sentence speaks of an essential matter that I was surprised to see a lawyer presuppose. His argument is this: Catholics assume that Matthew 16 gave to Peter the papacy, and that this involved a right of succession, but since they cannot prove these assumptions, their position is false. His surprising presupposition is that the "burden" here is "incumbent" upon Catholics. But, I wonder, why would the onus probandi be on Catholics in their interpretation? If the Church Fathers refer to Peter as having some form of primacy over all the Bishops, and if the Church has maintained throughout the centuries that the Petrine See involved a type of succession, it seems instead that the onus is "incumbent" upon the party proferring an alternative understanding of Christ's designation of Peter as "rock" (if one insists on having burdens of proof at all). Perhaps Mr. Hagopian disagrees with this view of history, but in that case he would do well to address the matter, instead of presupposing that Neocatholics bear any burden in interpreting Matthew 16. Also, his argument presupposes that Catholics, or at least Neocatholics, look to prove their positions from Scripture alone.

He does address history enough to dispute Catholicism's claims to be the Church dating back to "antiquity". In a few sentences he seeks to debunk this claim. He tells us that, "along with dispensationalism, Catholicism simply assumes that the church sprang up in the first century A.D.", but that the proper "truly covenantal view" sees that the Church did not begin on Easter, but when God declared a covenant people for Himself (i.e., the Jews). "Thus", to be connected with antiquity, one should be Reformed Protestant.

I believe this is a non sequitur: if one believes that one should be affiliated with the church where it has ties to antiquity, since antiquity began with the Jews of the Old Covenant, one should be Reformed Protestant. How is Reformed Protestantism more affiliated with covenantal Jewish antiquity than, say, Orthodox Judaism? I believe Mr. Hagopian's position is that since the Reformed recognize the spiritual nature of the church as the new covenantal People of God, they therefore share in that nature. And since they share in it, they are the proper tie to "antiquity". But I believe Catholics also recognize that God has maintained a Covenant People from the Old Covenant onward (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1093). Therefore, they would seem to have a claim to "antiquity" either under the Neocatholics' purported view (back to the first Easter) or Mr. Hagopian's view (back to the Covenant with Abraham).

Also, Mr. Hagopian did not discuss how a 3rd or 10th or 14th century Christian would feel about this proposition on antiquity. I believe Christians of those eras would have held as today's Neocatholic does, namely, that their ties to the Christ-commissioned (new) Church validates their orthodoxy. As Christ is the culmination of the Old Covenant, a proper line of affiliation with Him is a line of affiliation to all of redemptive history.

To be continued (next up: Sola scriptura)...

Bryan Cross on Sola Scriptura

For a cogent argument that Sola scriptura necessarily entails an elevation of the individual Christian to the position of authoritative biblical interpreter, read this post at Principium Unitatis.

This is the argument to which I have continually returned, no matter how frustrated I have felt over other Catholic practices which have seemed wrong to my understanding, like Catholic Marian practices, what I perceived to be its universalistic tendencies, et cetera. This authority argument is the sine qua non of many conversions from Protestantism to Catholicism, it seems.

I have wrestled with it on numerous occasions, like here, and here.

I believe I have looked fairly far, and fairly wide, but have not seen a rebuttal to Bryan's position. That, in and of itself, seems indicative of something. It could mean his position is so absurd that it does not merit reply, but I doubt that. It could mean that his position is unassailable, and that may be.

Monday, July 14, 2008

NFP Works

I believe that to be true. My newest edition of the Couple to Couple League International magazine, Family Foundations, featured an interview with an NFP blogger. Jessica Smith writes at Natural Family Planning, and I hope you will check it out. She is the full-time "Family Planning Coordinator" for the Diocese of Madison. Some of her other writing is available here.

While I'm at it, I have a few thoughts on NFP. If possible, learn NFP before you're married. It's harder to come off of contraceptive use, or post-partum periods and learn while 'on the go'. But please don't mistake me as offering an excuse to continue your contraceptive use. I would never do that.

Don't learn planning methods from secular sources. Learning from a mere book, and a secular one at that, cannot compare to the depth of instruction available from Couple to Couple League teachers. Also, these sources tolerate (e.g., Taking Charge of Your Fertility) or even promote the Fertility Awareness Method, which encourages condom use during likely fertile periods (which may be the best way to find out if your condom use is defective).

Finally, most importantly, husbands, learn these things along with your wives. I've learned the hard way that putting the whole process on your wife's shoulders is not a loving act, and is not effective either. If you're going to be a player, be a team player.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Capitalistic Eugenics and Downs Syndrome

"Recent US studies have indicated that when Down syndrome is diagnosed prenatally, 84% to 91% of those babies will be killed by abortion. " Susan W. Enouen, Down Syndrome and Abortion, available here.

I looked this bit of research up after reading in the June/July edition of First Things that 90% of all diagnosed Downs babies are euthanized in utero. Caitrin Nicol, All Too Human, available here ("For those with Down syndrome, the rate is upward of 90 percent"). Much has been said lately about progressions made in the Pro-Life movement. For example, see here. But if nearly 90% of Downs babies whose mothers test for the condition are euthanized, and if well over 80% of Americans believe abortion should be legal at least some of the time, then we have a long way to go. Time Poll, June 15-18, 2008, available here.

Incidentally, perhaps, even if every other religious group in America were in favor of legalized abortion, the 26.3% of Americans who identify themselves as Evangelical Protestants should yield a better statistic than the one holding that 84% of Americans believe abortion should be legal at least some of the time (as 100 - 26.3 = 73.7, and 73.7 is less than 84). The Pew Forum, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, see here. But then again, I could say that about the 23.9% of the country who are Catholic. Id. That the two combined (over 50% of America) cannot (all on their own) make for more than 20% of the country opposed to all abortions is sad. Alas, I guess the moral clarity of the Bible, or the supposed oligarchical power of the Roman Magisterium are not what some claim them to be. We must win people with reason, compassion and love, and not rely on some clear power or other to call others in line. In the language of my professional world, we must be our own "action officers."

To address my title for this post, I will briefly say this. We have not needed an ideological eugenicist government, like Nazism, to euthanize those with Down syndrome en masse. The economics of raising a disabled child in a Capitalist society that favors dual-income households, combined with an open expression of views from groups promoting 'testing' for the 'burdensome' (like the American College of OB/GYNs), have done it on their own. The problem, however, is not Capitalism or Free Speech, but rather our willingness to use our freedom for the glory of God. If the 50% of Americans who are Evangelical Protestant and Catholic could work to steer people to use their freedoms well, that would effect wonderful changes in abortion practices in America. We are called to co-laborate with God in sharing His love for the poor, the hungry, the naked, and (I believe) those affected by Down syndrome. We have much work to do; we have many broken people to love.

If anyone is thinking of aborting their Down baby, please let me know. I want to help you, perhaps with the help of loving groups such as the Sisters of Life. Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." Matthew 19:14. At least 50% of Americans should notice an imperative in this statement.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Always-Church and Physical Manifestation

From the "So-Called Second Letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians" (ca. A.D. 150) (as provided in Jurgens' Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume 1, at 43):

"I presume that you are not ignorant of the fact that the living Church is the body of Christ. The Scripture says, "God made man male and female." The male is Christ, and the female is the Church. Moreover, the Books and the Apostles declare that the Church belongs not to the present, but has existed from the beginning. She was spiritual, just as was our Jesus; but He was manifested in the last days so that He might save us. And the Church, being spiritual, was manifested in the flesh of Christ."

The proposition that the always-Church was spiritual throughout history until the incarnation, when it was made physically manifest seems contrary to my Reformed paradigm.

The Westminster Confession of Faith tells us that the Church before Christ's incarnation ("as before under the law") was "visible" only in one nation. Since then, it has become visibly manifest in all those throughout the world who "profess the true religion." WCOF, Chapter XXV, Sec. 2. I take this manifestation by profession to be a spiritualized manifestation; we are spiritually members of Christ's body, not physical members. While membership in the Church was through genetic lineage, a manifestation by descent, it is now passed on through the spiritual condition of professing the true religion. In other words, there is no more physical manifestation of the visible Church, only a spiritual manifestation.

Thus the Reformed view seems to be that the always-Church was physical (with the Jews) throughout history until the incarnation, when it was spiritualized for all peoples.

But the letter I quoted, thought to be the oldest extant Christian homily, does raise an interesting point. It would be an unusual irony if Christ's appearing in the flesh put the Church out of its own.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


Bryan Cross has an excellent post called "Monocausalism, Salvation, and Reconciliation". He did a better job than I ever could discussing some philosophical aspects of causation as it relates to salvation and divisions within Christianity.

He also linked to an older post he wrote, about Mary and monocausalism, here. One might conclude that I plagiarized his thought in my most recent post.

He said, "so much of what worries Protestants about Catholic treatment of Mary is based on a philosophical monocausalism. For example, the Catholic hymn "Salve Regina" involves calling on Mary to pray for us and have mercy on us. In the Protestant mind, only God can receive prayer and show mercy. Therefore, in the Protestant mind, this hymn deifies Mary, and is thus blasphemy or idolatry."

I said, "If I believe that God is the sole actor within His creation, then teachings of the historical merit of Mary's co-laboration, and of the continuing benefit of Mary's co-redemptive works seem particularly anathema. Since the Marianist has attributed to Mary a portion of what is for God (the monergistic force) alone, he has conflated Mary with the Divine."

It seems that, without my realizing it had happened, the seed of Bryan's thought took root some time in the last month.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Participants in or Objects of Redemption?

I have believed for many years that Marian doctrines are a major source of Christian disunity. The matter continues to be a challenge to me, and my loved ones believe that Marianism is so clearly wrong that they refuse to see merit in Catholicism's or Orthodoxy's authority claims.

Is it Mary that divides? Today I pondered whether there is a deeper dispute, a deeper presuppositional disagreement, that causes the Marian division. I hint at my hypothesis in my title to this post. Are we participants in, or merely objects of Christ's redemption of Creation?

The monergist of my Reformed upbringing tells me that we are not participants, in an active sense, of redemption. Rather, we are objects and not subjects. We are that upon which the one monergistic force, God the Holy Spirit, acts. The constant danger to the Christian is a pride that says he has some role to play in his salvation, that he 'merits' even an infinitesimal quantum of his justification. Therefore, any claim that we are participants in redemption is a prideful step toward conflating ourselves as creatures with the Divine.

The synergist, or one who believes that Christians co-laborate with Christ in His redemption of Creation, might come to a very different conclusion. Under their paradigm, we are both objects and subjects within the world (I apologize if this is a philosophical error). We are acted upon by God and His grace (so objects), and yet simultaneously called to heal the sick and, clothe the naked (so we are subjects). We are members of the Body, with a role to play. We are to act upon this fallen creation, and through us (though not exclusively through us) God graces other objects.

I should come to my point. If I believe that God is the sole actor within His creation, then teachings of the historical merit of Mary's co-laboration, and of the continuing benefit of Mary's co-redemptive works seem particularly anathema. Since the Marianist has attributed to Mary a portion of what is for God (the monergistic force) alone, he has conflated Mary with the Divine; he has taken to treating Mary as a demigod. On the other hand, if I believe that God uses his faithful creatures to co-redeem His creation, then Mary is not nearly such a problem. Indeed, the unique labor she provided to God's redemptive plan stands out as worthy of special praise. I would then only have to bridge the gap of believing that the faithful departed are not as 'departed' as the Protestant paradigm maintains.

If this is accurate, it would help me to understand why converts to Catholicism who hail from an Anabaptist background have not highlighted Marianism as the challenge it seems to have presented to formerly Reformed converts.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Eucharist, Episcopal Authority, Relics

I have encountered many a quote from a Church Father on the internet. I recently purchased William A. Jurgens' Faith of the Early Fathers, in the hopes that reading the Fathers in actual print would be more informative; reading ancient texts on an LCD screen somehow provides a disruptive contrast. I have not been disappointed.

I will share an especially meaningful quote here, but primarily want to note that if you've only ever read it on a computer screen, you may be missing something. Buy the Fathers in print!

St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Smyrnaean Church c. 110 A.D. In this letter, he says:

"Pay close attention to those who have wrong notions about the grace of Jesus Christ, which has come to us, and note how at variance they are with God's mind. They care nothing about love: they have no concern for widows or orphans, for the oppressed, for those in prison or released, for the hungry or the thirsty. They hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer, because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which, in his goodness, the Father raised. Consequently those who wrangle and dispute God's gift face death. They would have done better to love and so share in the resurrection. The right thing to do, then, is to avoid such people and to talk about them neither in private nor in public. Rather pay attention to the prophets and above all to the gospel. There we get a clear picture of the Passion and see that the resurrection has really happened."

I simply note that, if I am permitted to take this text at face value, it seems little concerned with a common critique of Catholic Eucharistic practice. I have read and heard Protestants explain that the sacrifice of the Mass is false because Christ can't be both on the altar and risen in heaven. Ignatius says that the Eucharist is the flesh, and the same flesh which was crucified and was raised. If the Protestant critique is valid, it seems unlikely that St. Ignatius of Antioch would not have thought of it within a century of Christ's resurrection.

He continues:

"Flee from schism as the source of mischief. You should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father. Follow, too, the presbytery as you would the apostles; and respect the deacons as you would God's law. Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop's approval. You should regard that Eucharist as valid which is celebrated either by the bishop or by someone he authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. Without the bishop's supervision, no baptisms or love feasts are permitted. On the other hand, whatever he approves pleases God as well. In that way everything you do will be on the safe side and valid. It is well for us to come to our senses at last, while we still have a chance to repent and turn to God. It is a fine thing to acknowledge God and the bishop. He who pays the bishop honor has been honored by God. But he who acts without the bishop's knowledge is in the devil's service."

Contrary to the common Protestant characterization of Church under the verse "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:20)", Ignatius characterizes Church and the validity of its practices by submission to a ruling Bishop (overseer).

Jurgens' compilation then goes to a later writing (The Colbertine Martyrdom of Saint Ignatius, see page 27), likely from the 4th or 5th centuries, which discusses Ignatius' death. Jurgens had already told us that Ignatius died during the reign of Emperor Trajan (likely 110 A.D. also), having been sentenced to the beasts in the arena in Rome, as a martyr. I did not realize the principle of Holy Relics went back so far:

"Only the harder parts of his holy relics were left, and these were conveyed to Antioch and wrapped in linen, as an inestimable treasure left to the holy Church, on account of the grace that was in the holy martyr."

Considering this quote, it has an odd (i.e., foreign to me) sensibility. Grace stays with the body of a holy Christian at their death. If we are both a body and a soul, and if God's grace is with us in life, then why would it evaporate from the body at death? Or, why do we believe that the grace of God that is with us, with what we are, is only with our soul? We do, after all believe that our very-same body will be reunited with our soul. We should expect positive authority before asserting that the grace of God does not inhere in physical matter.

These are my thoughts on Eucharist, Episcopal Authority and Relics, gleaned from an in-print reading of the Fathers.