Monday, August 15, 2005

Gimme an "R" ! Gimme an "O" ! Gimme an "M" ! Gimme an "E"! [Let's Clarify --- Part 2]

In the context of dealing with a commentator named Patrick, I had mentioned in the previous thread that I have no problem at all with RC's who want to argue denominationally --- i.e. their denomination is closer to scripture than is mine. The problem arises when they make all sorts of claims regarding a privileged epistemic position, an infallible arbiter, Protestant disunity, as well as blanket claims against sola scriptura, claims that seem to be missing argumentation despite the great enthusiasm and smugness accompanying such claims.

Lest anybody think I'm setting up an imaginary straw man here, it doesn't take long to provide some explicit examples of internet Romanism of the triumpahlistic flair. The following samples are taken from Mr David Armstrong's blog from a recent thread titled "How Does One Decide Which Church is True?" These samples are not posted because I disagree [though you can guess my stance on the samples]; they're here strictly for the purpose of showing that, yes, there are people who instantiate the unpleasant properties mentioned above and in the previous thread.

Mr David Armstrong's blogsite is at for those who want to follow, btw.

(1) This comment is courtesy of Randy:

I don't think it is fair to say there is no way to choose between churches for the non-Sola Scriptora crowd. Remember Sola Scriptora itself prevents the choice because it has scripture alone as a rule of faith. If you accept sacred tradition as binding then you can make the choice and be logically consistent. You just need to figure out which one is true to sacred tradition. Which has legitimate apostolic and papal succession. Those questions are not dead simple but if you answer them honestly you arrive at the Catholic church.

According to Randy:
(i) SS "prevents the choice because it has scripture alone as a rule of faith."
(ii) The acceptance of Sacred Tradition as binding allows one to make a choice [for a church] and be logically consistent.
(iii) Being honest means one arrives at Rome.

These are sweeping claims. Observe the following:

(i) Randy doesn't make an argument his mutant version of SS prevents a logically defensible choice of churches.
(ii) Randy doesn't make an argument that the acceptance of Sacred Tradition as binding allows one to make a defensible choice.
(iii) Randy doesn't make an argument that those who oppose Rome are dishonest.

Apart from the fact that Randy doesn't have a single argument, Randy makes a strong case.

(2) Our next tidbit also comes from Randy. In response to a poster not quoted here, Randy states

Who is comparing? Dave was simply stating that the divisions in the Sola Scriptora camp proved Sola Scriptora could not be true. If it was true then there would be agreement on what the clear teaching of scripture is. Since there is no such agreement we need something else to show us how to get God's truth from scripture. Sola Scriptora rules that out but it is clearly needed.

The unity or lack of unity outside the Sola Scriptora camp is a red herring. It means there is disagreement on what besides scripture is needed. That is another discussion. It does not alter the fact that Sola Scriptora cannot get out of the corner it has painted itself into.

Let's turn on the objective exegesis machine and isolate some propositions here. Randy is stating that

(i) Divisions between those who hold to SS prove SS's falsity. That is, the condition of SS's truth is sufficient for Protestant unity.
(ii) Without agreement, we need something else to ascertain scriptural truth.
(iii) A purported lack of unity outside the SS camp is a red herring, irrelevant to the discussion of defending SS. In other words, my pointing out that there are all sorts of functional differences in Romanism and hence the unity issue, applying to both sides, ceases to have argumentative force, is irrelevant to defending SS.
(iv) SS has painted itself into a corner.

Pretty big claims once again, I'd say! Once again though, there are just some very minor details that need some attention:

(i) Randy provides no argument that divisions are somehow fatal to SS.
(ii) Randy provides no argument for his philosophical dictum that we need something else --- an Infallible Arbiter perhaps? --- to ascertain scriptural truth.
(iii) Randy provides no argument that a tu quoque response doesn't make the objection pointless.
(iv) Randy provides no argument that SS has painted itself into a corner.

All that is missing from Randy's assertions are arguments, but other than that, he almost has me ready to kiss Benedict XVI's ring.

(3) The next sampling of triumphalism comes from a poster named M.Z. Forrest. Not knowing if Forrest is male or female, I'll have to curtly refer to the poster as Forrest, no disrespect on this point being intended.

Forrest gives a list on which Catholics and Orthodox agree.

1) The Baptism of infants.
2) The Sacrifice of the Mass.
3) It's okay to call the priest father.
4) The "Our Father" is not a vain an repetitious prayer.
5) The Eucharist should be celebrated regularly.
6) Christ is substantially present in the bread and wine.
7) You can confess your sins to a priest.
8) Mortal sin can take away your salvation.
9) You are to submit to the rightful teaching authority of the Bishop.
10) Works are efficacious.
11) Minsters are ordained by Bishops.
12) Miracles still occur.
13) Statutes are okay.
14) You can pray to those saints that have passed to heaven.
15) Beer can be consumed in moderate quantities.

After this list, he states:

The list could be a lot longer. There isn't a single issue I listed that Protestants agree upon across the board. Protestants are only universally united in one thing, and that is that Rome is wrong. Even that unity is becoming undermined by some the new non-denom nonsense.

Again, retreating to the Mark V Super Exegete-O-Matic 4000 that I keep by the desk and study table, let's unpack some specific propositions here advanced by Forrest:

(i) Protestants are only universally united in one thing.
(ii) The one thing in which Protestants are united is that Rome is wrong.
(iii) The sole area of our purported pathetic unity is undermined by nondenominationalism "nonsense."

What does Forrest mean by "Protestants" ? We have some serious equivocation here. But, given that Romanists often read passages about Peter as papal passages and passages regarding churches as statements about the RCC, I suppose equivocation at this stage fits like a broken-in comfy pair of leather shoes.

In response, following the order above:

(i) Protestants under SS are united, say, in affirming the Deity of Christ and the Resurrection, among other things. They're united in recognizing the sinful nature of men. They're united in upholding the Trinity. These minor points of doctrine aren't worth registering in Forrest's book.

Now if Forrest wants to retreat and lump in liberal Protestants [who do anything but follow SS] to undo the above reply of mine, noting that many of the libs are practical atheists who probably blush in embarrassment at the doctrines mentioned above, that too is fatal to his claim, for then I'll just point to liberal Catholics, nothing that they too are practical atheists who probably blush in embarrassment at much of traditional Catholic doctrine. And has Forrest forgotten about modernists, sedevacantists, liberationists, etc, all in the Catholic fold? Does he adopt a simian see-no-evil pose here and pretend they don't exist?

Any sort of mudslinging along the lines of (i) undercuts Forrest's starry-eyed Romanism rather quickly if Forrest wants to consider liberal Protestants.

(ii) If Forrest wants this point to hold, he has to equivocate on what he means by "Protestant". If he takes "Protestant" to mean conservatives who adhere to SS, then he might have a chance of bringing the bacon home on (ii), but then of course (i) is false as mentioned above. On the other hand, if he wants to include the libs under the "Protestant" banner, then he seems unaware that a good portion of "liberal Protestantism" doesn't even hold to propositional truth nor make any pretense to take scripture seriously, so they never get around to saying that anybody is wrong. If some other libs criticize Rome, it is because Rome isn't, in their eyes, some sort of institution which will help them promote their leftist ideology.

(iii) Forrest gives no argument to his contention.

(4) Next, we have a poster named John H. I'll handle his two paragraphs separately.

Unity = one. Sola Scriptura provides no means to positively distinguish between correct or incorrect interpretations. Any time the ultimate authority to make the call cannot be localized to one person, the unity Our Lord desired for His Church is in practice unachievable. Did Jesus leave us orphans or did He provide for a visible ultimate "referee" in the structure of the Church He founded? The tradition and magisterium is exactly what keeps errors from growing and spreading by weeding out opinions that diverge from the original deposit of faith given to the apostles. Without a gardener, the weeds take over the yard. The Catholic Church is the only Church that has such a structure with an unbroken history that traces back to Christ to Himself. I think that's a strong indicator in itself.

What is John H. saying?

(i) SS provides no mechanism to distinguish between interpretations.
(ii) Unity is unachievable when "ultimate authority" cannot be localized to one person.
(iii) The statements "Jesus leaves us orphans" and "Jesus provides a visible ultimate referee in the structure of the Church He founded" are mutually exclusive and exhaustive, and hence one and only one of the statements holds.
(iv) The Magisterium is a mechanism to keep error from increasing.
(v) The Magisterium is completely in line with the original deposit of faith.
(vi) The RCC is the sole church that has a structure with an unbroken history that traces back to Christ.

We respond as follows:

(i) John H. makes no argument that a principle regarding the locus of authority, which is what SS is, somehow logically entails that the principle is itself a mechanism.
(ii) John H. makes no argument that unity is unachievable when authority cannot be localized to one person.
(iii) John H. makes no argument that the the negation of one statement entails the other.
(iv) John H. makes no argument that the magisterium is a mechanism to keep error from increasing.

BTW, from our side of the fence, we'd contend that the magisterium has achieved quite the opposite!

(v) John H. makes no argument that the Magisterium is completely in line with the original deposit of faith.
(vi) John H. makes no argument that the RCC is the sole institution with the property he states.

Now somebody on my side of the fence would think that, if the RCC is so great as claimed, and if the RCC does so many things in problems dealing with unity, epistemic issues, and whether Catholics should choose the soup or the salad with their sandwich order, there would be some obvious sort of argumentation that just shuts the door on us once and for all. But all we have are a bunch of promissory notes and IOU's, yet to be redeemed.

I'd also consider continuity in doctrinal development as another hallmark of the true Church. The Protestant Reformation was not continuity in development, but a radical and novel departure claiming to harken back to the early Church. I find it unreasonable to believe that the Church could have been so fundamentally derailed for so long. If Christ promissed to be with us all days, even unto the end of time, he would have had to have been on a long vacation.

More selected assertions:

(i) A true church is characterized by continuity in doctrinal development. Implied is the idea that "doctrinal development" may not be a true concept is not a possibility.
(ii) The Reformation was a radical departure that falsely claimed to harken back to the early Church.
(iii) It is unreasonable to think that the Church was wrong for 1500 years.

At this point, one needs a hotkey that, by virtue of a single keypress, enters the words "No argumentation is given" into the text editor. We reply:

(i) No argument is given that a doctrinal development is even a true concept.
(ii) No argument or evidence is given for the claim that the Reformation is a radical departure.
(iii) No argument is given that an institution couldn't be wrong for so long.

In (ii), when he says that the Reformation was a "radical departure," he fails to specify a referent: from what exactly was the Reformation a radical departure? He also throws the term "radical departure" around as if it were some sort of argument. Sometimes radical departures are good, sometimes they're not. In (iii), he's similarly diffuse on what it means to be "wrong." Are we talking about being wrong on everything? On some things? If so, which things?

But we shouldn't let these questions intrude on a good RC support session.

(5) A poster named Jon states in response to John H.:

Amen! And, sadly, that's why we have so few non-Catholics in this combox answering the title of Dave's article: "How Does One Decide Which Church is True?" One can point out a city on a hill—especially of it's Vatican Hill:)—but one would be hard pressed to hear another denom tossed up as an serious alternate candidate.

Some assertions, explicit and implied:

(i) Only one church could be true.
(ii) This church is Rome.
(iii) One would be hard-pressed to make a case against Rome.

At this point, one begins to wonder whether the Cheer Coach is overworking the squad here.

A response goes as follows:

(i) Are different church bodies/denominations that agree on doctrine viewed as one body or as multiple bodies? Consider an independent Bible Church in Peoria IL, and suppose that it is 100% doctrinally accurate. Now consider another independent Bible Church in Cheyenne WY that is 100% doctrinally accurate. Are these two church bodies or one church body? It depends on how Jon defines "church."

(ii) & (iii) So Romanists say. Where's that aforementioned special hotkey again for the text editor? Oh it is: no argumentation given.

BTW --- just how does one decide whether a church is true? As a public service, I'll state the profound answer from my side of the fence: a church body is true if it is completely normed by scripture and is faithful to scripture. Of course, given the fact that I'm a radical benighted schismatic who, besides lacking an infallible arbitration mechanism that is localized in one person, looks positively back at the Reformation and has the audacity to think that his exegesis of scripture makes Roman claims for scriptural support rather vapid, perhaps people shouldn't be taking my advice!

(6) The miniskirts and sweaters with the Church logo probably need a good Martinizing session at the local dry cleaners by now.

John H. again posts in the combox.

If you strip away Sola Scriptura you realize it's not about the Bible at all, but about authority. Authority resides in people, not in books. A Bible without a reader is just a pile of paper. Like any tool, it has no power outside those who wield it. The principle of Sola Scripture assigns authoritative interpretation ultimately to self. The Catholic Church says the authority resides outside of self and is invested in the Catholic Church by Christ Himself. It is He who set up the stucture and invested it with authority through the Holy Spirit. If you step outside, all bets are off. The choice is whether to claim authority for yourself or to defer to the authority of the Church. Which choice is grounded in pride, and which in humility? That was Luther's blind spot and has been Protestantism's blind spot ever since. When you read about the Bereans, you read about their choice. After researching their Old Testament scriptures, they found no obstacle and plenty of evidence to support what the Church was authoritatively teaching in the person of Paul. They took the leap of faith and chose to submit even though most of what Paul was teaching with regard to what Jesus directly did and taught could not be found in their scripture.

Two can play the obnoxious triumphalism game:

If you strip away Sola Ekklesia you realize it's not about the Bible at all, but about authority. Authority resides in scripture, not in popes and councils. A Bible to a starry-eyed Romanist is just a pile of paper. Like any tool, the papacy has no power outside of gullible and lazy Romanists who are too lazy and incompetent to study scripture on their own. The principle of Sola Roma assigns authoritative interpretation ultimately to popes and a Magisterium that claims to be scriptural. Protestants say that the authority resides not in popes or a paper trail of documents whose original meaning is wiped away, redefined, recontextualized, or ignored, but in God's revelation to us outside of the man-made Roman Church that falsely claims to be instituted by Christ Himself. If you step outside scripture, all bets are off. The choice is whether to claim authority for Rome or to defer to the authority of scripture. Which choice is grounded in the obsessive need for a visual institution that provides certainty, and which in God's providence? This was Rome's blind spot and has been ever since. When you read about the Bereans, you read about their choice. After researching their Old Testament scriptures, they found no obstacle and plenty of evidence to believe Paul. They let themselves be normed by God's revelation, "infallible arbiter" be damned.

If this parody sounds silly, just remember the origin of the parody.


What was the sole point of this post? Answer: to give some specific instantiations of Roman triumphalism as described in the earlier thread, thereby heading off any criticism that I was creating a straw man. There are actual, living, breathing Romanists who herald their epistemic advantage [that "something extra"] and so-called unity.

This evidence took about a minute or so to find. And be assured that there's a lot more out there.


Blogger patrick said...


To begin, in part, with your reply to my comments in Part 1, let me say that I don't find it at all ungracious that your earlier remarks were prompted solely by a commitment to fairness. I wish such a commitment were to be found among more bloggers. Second, I'm no longer occupied with Steve, having realized (again) that I certainly don't have time for discussions with him. Third, I do wish to move on--the semester is starting soon and I have a new prep to deal with--but that wish is usually trumped by my having either (a) something interesting to talk about (as may be the case here) or (b) something particularly irritating to deal with.

As to my willingness to disavow the claims made by some commenters at Dave's blog, I'd say that it's always easy to find members of a certain group--in this case, Catholics--who don't make the most compelling case in support of their group. Imagine a co-religionist of yours making an argument like the following: "The Bible says 'call no man "father,"' but Catholics call priests 'father,' therefore Catholics don't believe the Bible." Or, to take another favorite, "Trent added the apocrypha to the Bible to try to 'prove' their teachings about praying for the dead." (This one is bogus on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start.) Or, how about "The Catholic Church involves certain elements that resemble pagan practices; therefore it is nothing more than a paganization of the Gospel."

Now, I happen to think these particular arguments are far worse than the examples you list above. My point in mentioning them is simply to say that Protestant "apologists" make their share of incredibly bad arguments against Catholicism. I imagine you realize that the arguments I mentioned above--and many, many more--are indeed very bad arguments, and I imagine that you'd disavow them (in your heart, at least). Thus, I imagine you'd be willing to grant that the problem in internet religious polemics is not so much "Triumphalistic Roman apologists," but, rather, with bad arguments much more generally. since bad arguments are pandemic.

As far as the specific claims made by Dave's commenters, I think that I agree with a good deal of what they say; but with three caveats.

First, and most importantly, they say at least some things that I have already explicitly denied. Randy's claim that any honest person will come to see the truth of Catholicism is, in effect, the same heresy I already talked about, and said I'd seen in the writings of an evangelical convert to Catholicism. I imagine that if I turned on my objective exegesis machine, I could probably find some other claims made by these commenters that I completely reject.

Second, I would want to distinguish sharply between the usefulness of a certain argument for apologetics, and truth of that arguments premises. For example, the modal ontological argument turns crucially on the premise that a greatest conceivable being is possible. While a theist, obviously, grants that premise, there is no particular reason for an atheist to grant it (once the sense of "possible" is properly understood in its metaphysical, rather than its epistemic, sense); indeed, the fact that once the atheist grants that premise, he's committed to theism, provides as good a reason as any for the atheist to grant it. For this reason, the ontological argument isn't necessarily a useful tool for apologetics. I don't deny that some atheists might be convinced. But certainly, a theist needn't disavow the argument. I myself think it quite sound. But, then, I'm a theist. The point of this caveat is to say that even if their arguments are taken to be sound by a Catholic, that's not necessarily any good reason to think they'll be taken to be sound by non-Catholics. This is, in a sense, the point I was making about the passages from the First Vatican Council. The fact that the unity of the Church quite properly serves as a support for my already Catholic faith does not imply that the unity of the Church can serve as a premise in a useful apologetical argument. This is not because that premise would be _false_. It's simply because seeing it as helpful probably presupposes certain other beliefs about the Church. This is one good reason for rejecting "triumphalistic" claims such as that any honest person will have to be moved by the unity of the Church in comparison with the disunity of Protestantism. I myself, as a Catholic, _am_ so moved. But others, who don't share the various background beliefs that I happen to have, might well be both honest and unmoved.

Third, some of the kinds of things that are said here would, as you point out, need considerably more support to be interesting arguments, even as supports for a pre-existing Catholic faith. That is, these arguments are not as fully developed as they could be. Again, this problem is pandemic. It can be found even among professional philosophers, many of whom publish arguments that need considerable disambiguation and/or supply of suppressed premises and/or further argument in defense of various premises.

So when I say I find much to agree with, it should certainly be understood that I also find a great deal to disagree with. And I will insist that holding up commenters like myself or Randy or MZ Forrest as examples of Catholic apologists may be a little unfair. We're just random schmucks with computers. Just as you wouldn't want Protestant blogdom to become associated with the folks who just boldly proclaim the "call no man father" argument as though it conclusively proved that Catholicism were a false religion, so I don't think it's fair to hold up the less capable internet Catholic polemicists as somehow being exemplars of Catholicism. I suppose this is why you make your fourfold distinction between types of Catholics. That's fine. I don't read your stuff frequently enough to know if you are always clear about drawing that distinction when you polemicize against "Romanist apologists." If you do, great. If you don't, shame.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005 7:42:00 AM  
Blogger patrick said...

Two other things. First, one typo that actually changed the sense of what I was saying (as opposed to being merely irritating) was: "...provides as good a reason as any for the atheist to grant it." Of course, I meant "...for the atheist to reject it."

Also, I should say that in calling myself and Randy and MZ Forest "shcmucks," I meant no disrespect to either of those other gentlemen.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005 7:46:00 AM  
Blogger Pedantic Protestant said...

Patrick ---

(1) I'm much harder on Protestant inanity than RC inanity, though you'd think I have a thing for RCism as of late. About the arguments you mention, I'd have to lay some serious smackdown on anybody who associated with me who put out garbage like the garbage you point out.

(2) You gave some ordinal points. By way of reply:

(a) Your "first" point: just to be sure here, I'm not collapsing what you say/think/believe with what these posters have said into a soppy wad.

(b) Your "second" point: I share the same sensibilities.

(c) Having been a tenure-track prof at a rather big school, and, more generally, having seen the humanities fields decline, I could fill your ears with instances of what you cite!

(3) About your closing statements: I don't hold the people cited up as exemplars of RC apologetics. And I too consider myself not too much above random-schmuckdom myself. Finally, I'd contend that I make the distinction you mention and thus avoid being shamed. A post called "Let's Clarify" rather assumes that a point [that I make the distinction] already exists --- if it didn't exist, there wouldn't be anything to clarify.

I could also glean triumphalist examples from some "real" RC apologists as well, though I'm starting to get a bit burnt out from all the long posts as of late. [So much for a detached hobby.] These examples aren't much different than the citations of the posters above --- they merely consist of a lot of tendentious terms and self-selecting criteria.

Finally, God willing, I'll put up a discussion of SS within the next month. The idea as it exists in my head is to parry the common objections to SS and to outline the type of argument against SS that I could accept.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005 12:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Randy said...

I guess my posts are a lot harder to understand than I thought. It seems like everyone who read them misses the point. I apologize for being unclear. I don't have the time to write the long posts that some folks write so I try to make a point in just a few words. Apparently I failed.

Let me try and example. In the protestant church I was raised in there was a big controversy about women in office. I looked at scripture and read some exegesis on both sides and I really could see both arguments. One saying women should not be banned from office and to ban them would violate their rights at people and generally paint Jesus falsely as a hater of women. The other side was saying that the essential differance between man and women required the church to keep the sacred offices all male. To do otherwise would create a disfunctional and disobedient church.

Now the church was splitting up over this issue as protestant churches tend to do. So what is a good Sola Scriptora boy like me going to do? Most people I knew were simply choosing the side they felt most comfortable with based on their upbringing or prejudice or life situation. That didn't seem right. I needed to follow God's will. I could see that being wrong could have serious consequences either way. Still Sola Scriptora did not allow any way to make the choice. Scripture was not clear yet I needed an answer. My own discernment was hard to trust because there were so many emotional things on both sides. I wanted God's will.

Do you understand the problem? You need another rule of faith. Now if you abstract this out and ask yourself how often does this happen. Well, it happens every time you have a serious issue that has totally defendable scriptural positions on both sides. Then everyone must choose a side because the issue is serious and therefore unavoidable. What do they base their choice on? Usually tradition. Sometime sinful desires. Sometime they follow their pastor. The point is they are not following Sola Scriptoa. They can't. It is impossible because there is no way to choose between 2 reasonable interpetations of scripture.

Is that coming clear now? I tend to think abstractly and I guess not everyone does. I can give another example if you want. It may take a while because my wife is die with twin any day.

Thursday, August 18, 2005 3:42:00 PM  

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