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.