A friend of mine from church Cc’d me on an email to our pastor a few days ago. It detailed a conversation he had recently had with a Roman Catholic friend of his. His accounting of the whole thing was very entertaining, but it had a deeply serious thrust to it as well. The following excerpt from his email provides the basis for some thoughts on the matter that I’ve been kicking around for awhile which I would like to share:
…I turned the tables on my Romanizing friend by telling him that he is as much protestant as I. I told him that unless he were born somehow into the Holy Roman Empire before the Reformation where the conscience of every man was bound by birth to Roman doctrine, there being no known alternatives, then he had to use his own private judgment to choose Rome as his infallible guide. I pointed out that this is no different from the protestant choosing scripture as his infallible guide. This was a tough one for him. He then tried to shift the debate by saying, no matter, the Bible that the protestant chooses with his private judgment assumes Rome’s authority since it was Rome that defined the canon, etc. Your email…helped me mightily dispute that assumption. (As a good friend who is veteran of these disputes has pointed out, the final resort of all Roman controversialists is the issue of the authority because they realize how thin the evidence is in scripture for their credenda.)
I have found this last point to be especially true in my own experience. Why is it that Roman Catholics present the authority argument as though it’s some ace-in-the-hole? I am specifically speaking of Rome’s diffidence towards the Lutheran doctrine of sola scriptura, which usually proceeds as follows:
Scripture is not perspicuous enough to be an infallible guide for faith and morals because it lacks an authoritative interpreter. So…the pope.
So, Scripture is not perspicuous, but papal decrees are. The blessed apostles need an interpreter, because it’s not clear what any of them mean, but the Bishop of Rome not only possesses total synthetic knowledge of scripture, he is also completely lucid in his expression of it. Also, infallible. You know, it’s a shame that the apostles did not possess this enviable ability. Or perhaps that’s not the issue. Perhaps they did not see it as necessary, or possible, or at all godly to presume.
Who interprets the interpreter in Roman Catholicism? The individual, of course. Now, obviously, the individual can defer to the authority of the Office of the Keys, which, according to Rome’s taxa, ultimately rests with the papacy. But this decision to defer, to submit, or not, does indeed rest with the individual. Granted, this is an overly intellectual description of a spiritual event: to the dispassionate observer any religious act, though it be performed out of a sense of obligation (if not mere obligation) as the answering of some ineluctable call, a ratifying of reality itself, looks like a simple rational decision. I get that. But this experience, this willingness to lay aside one’s own will, is not restricted to Roman Catholics, obviously (all the more reason why experience is not a sure enough guide in these matters). What is more, submitting to any organ of authority, even if it is not merely a rational decision, is a rational decision. On a deeper level, though, it is a volitional decision, because the act of giving up one’s will to another is an act of will.
In this question of the authority of Rome, if you are a Christian, you can’t not decide. Well, you can: you can be some variety of agnostic, running away from questions which demand answers until you die. (If you’re Eastern Orthodox the question of papal authority has been decided in a more developed way than it has in Protestant circles, but Roman Catholicism still remains a live option.) But, barring that, the individual always decides. I can already see my Burkean/Kirkian/po-mo con/Wendell Berry-loving, Front Porch Republic-reading friends pouncing on me in righteous indignation at my suggestion that the individual a) exists, and b) does things. Yes, I know that the individual has been fundamentally shaped by the communities which he has been born into, found membership in, and in which he lives and moves. I get all that. Let’s move on:
If you are a Western Christian, the onus is on you to know why you’re not Roman Catholic. Now, depending on which Roman Catholic you talk to (the fact that it varies is something that I just love), not being a Roman Catholic may or may not equal not being a Christian. Others will tell you that of course you are a Roman Catholic, you’re just a prodigal son. But, take heart: you can still climb back in the boat before it reaches heaven. It’s the same difference, really: you either aren’t Roman Catholic, and need to be, or you are, and just don’t know it. By this tautology, everyone who ends up in heaven is a Roman Catholic. But I digress. The argument that Rome’s authority solves and settles all questions pertaining to faith and morals is no argument at all, because the same deconstructionist acid-bath that strips Scripture of its perspicuity works on papal pronouncements as well, especially when they are, and have been, all over the map.
Where, then, is certainty? Where can I, as a Christian, get certainty? Pursuant to answering my own rhetorical question, allow me an anecdote:
Apparently “certainty” was the watchword for the late great Fr. Richard John Neuhaus who left the Lutheran Church for Rome. At some point in the early 2000s, Fr. Neuhaus came back to the LCMS seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, for a campus-wide lecture. The question was put to him by an attending seminarian, “What was the one thing that finally made you decide to go to Rome?” His answer? “Certainty.”
Now, Richard John Neuhaus was a better man than I, I admire him greatly, and I look forward to meeting him someday, but I have to respectfully suggest that the certainty he sought and later believed that he had in Rome (I would assume this on his part) is a complete and total chimera. You want certainty? You can’t have it. You can have certitude, but I have that, and I’m a Lutheran, and I have a good Presbyterian friend who’s got that, too, so that can’t be what Rome offers.
No, the truth is that it is indeed the former, certainty, which Rome offers, regardless of whether such is within its power to grant. Moreover, Rome requires certainty on any number of matters, some doctrinal, some not, which can only ever be matters of faith, viz. the insistence of the Fourth Lateran (1215) and Tridentine (1563) councils on transubstantiation being the modus essendi of the Eucharist — and if you think that the physical real presence of Christ in the sacrament is a mysterion (Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans), then, well, let you be anathema. (As an aside, for an excellent treatment of how transubstantiation is a weak defense of the real presence and proto-Calvinistic, to boot, click here.) But certainty is not in the cards for the Christian, for man’s reason is defective and we see through a glass darkly, walking by faith and not by sight until Our Lord returns or death takes us. And what is more, this same Lord does not even ask the faithful to make the confessions that Rome demands (exempli gratia, The Immaculate Conception, The Assumption of Mary…the rest of Mariology, and, well, more). No, read here the words of St. Paul, and be reminded of the confession Our Lord bids us make:
For if thou confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in thy heart that God hath raised him up from the dead, thou shalt be saved. But what saith the scripture? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart. This is the word of faith, which we preach. For, with the heart, we believe unto justice; but, with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith: Whosoever believeth in him, shall not be confounded. For there is no distinction of the Jew and the Greek: for the same is Lord over all, rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord, shall be saved (Epistle to the Romans x, 8-13).
C.S. Lewis, in his collection of essays The World’s Last Night (Harcourt: New York, 2002), writes on the difference between knowledge and belief. Rather than front-loading what I want you to get out of this longish excerpt for purposes of this discussion, I’ll simply let you read it and give my commentary afterwards. Lewis speaks best for himself:
In actual modern English usage the verb “believe,” except for two special usages, generally expresses a very weak degree of opinion. “Where is Tom?” “Gone to London, I believe.” The speaker would be only mildly surprised if Tom had not gone to London after all. “What was the date?” “430 B.C., I believe.” The speaker means that he is far from sure. It is not the same with the negative if it is put in the form “I believe not.” (Is Jones coming up this term?” “I believe not.”) But if the negative is put in a different form it then becomes one of the special usages I mentioned a moment ago. This is of course the form “I don’t believe you.” “I don’t believe it” is far stronger on the negative side than “I believe” is on the positive. “Where is Mrs. Jones?” “Eloped with the butler, I believe.” “I don’t believe it.” This, especially if said with anger, may imply a conviction which in subjective certitude might be hard to distinguish from knowledge by experience. The other special usage is “I believe” as uttered by a Christian. There is no great difficulty in making the hardened materialist understand, however little he approves, the sort of mental attitude which this “I believe” expresses. The materialist need only picture himself replying, to some report of a miracle, “I don’t believe it,” and then imagine this same degree of conviction on the opposite side. He knows that he cannot, there and then, produce a refutation of the miracle which would have the certainty of mathematical demonstration; but the formal possibility that the miracle might after all have occurred does not really trouble him any more than a fear that water might not be H and O. Similarly, the Christian does not necessarily claim to have demonstrative proof; but the formal possibility that God might not exist is not necessarily present in the form of the least actual doubt. Of course there are Christians who hold that such demonstrative proof exists, just as there may be materialists who hold that there is demonstrative disproof. But then, whichever of them is right (if either is) while he retained the proof or disproof would not be believing or disbelieving but knowing. We are speaking of belief and disbelief in the strongest degree, but not knowledge. Belief, in this sense, seems to me to be assent to a proposition which we think so overwhelmingly probable that there is a psychological exclusion of doubt, though not a logical exclusion of dispute [emphasis mine] (Lewis, 15)
Isn’t Lewis just great? Anyway, that last bit in italics — Roman Catholics have that. And so does everyone else. That’s certitude. That’s not the same as “knowing that something is true”; it’s “believing that something is true.” Put subjectively, it’s not “being right,” but rather “believing that you are right.” Now, there are certainly ways of comparing and evaluating disparate claims as to “who is right” in theological matters. I say that Scripture is the final authority. A Roman Catholic fellow will say that the Pope is. We seem to be back where we started with my friend’s email. Where to now? Well, perhaps this points us the issue of confessionalism (the word sticks in my throat like a bundle of sticks — I’ve never ingested a bundle of sticks, but it seemed a fitting metonym for bad, loaded, “ism” words that don’t go down or come up easily).
Yes, confessionalism. Since the Roman Catholic insists that Scripture is not enough, for purposes of debate and discussion he ought to know that some non-papist Western Catholics have confessional statements, which stand in a place similar to that of the pope, with the exception being that they don’t change, and then explain away the inconsistency through a dubious “synthesis” or a “hermeneutic of continuity.” A smaller number of churches take these confessions very seriously. A smaller number still will actually will go out on a limb, push their chips out onto the middle of the felt, and say, “I make these confessions my own because they are in accord with the Word of God” (Lutheran Service Book, Agenda, 179).
Because. Quia. This is a faith claim. Not insofar as (quatenus) they are in accord with the Word of God — it takes no faith, no credulity to say that: I believe in the Koran, the Upanishads and the Joy of Cooking insofar as they are in accord with the Word of God, and I will eat this piano insofar as it is a Nutter-Butter. Conversely, to subscribe to a confessional standard is to say “This is what Scripture says,” and in faith, fear, and trembling, live and die in a church which believes the same. The generic Protestant alternative is to say “I believe in the writings of (Luther, Calvin, Wesley, the pope, Jerry Falwell, Donald Miller, Brian McClaren, Ghandi) and (The Westminster Confession, The Screwtape Letters, that Newsboys album, Green Like Rumba) insofar as they are in accord with Scripture.” Of course, the owner of such a statement thinks that he, in fact, is the one who will determine just how much any of these sources are “in accordance with Scripture.” This quickly devolves into a form of fideism, which is generically translated as “faith in faith,” but in this case is more like “belief in my own ability to figure anything out,” rather than “belief that this thing that the Church’s collective historical witness of Scripture has figured out and come up with is sufficient” (***slide poker chips out on table***). Take the Reformed, for example, who never ascribe to their confessions quia, but rather only quatenus. What has to ensue from this is the belief that what one’s confessions say Scripture says and what Scripture actually says might be different, except that there then exists no possible way of knowing the meaning of Scripture by which to judge the adequacy of their confessions. So you write twenty such confessional-statements over the course of a few centuries, each one taking a new sounding of the Scriptures, presumably improving as they go on. (I don’t know if the Reformed actually believe this, but it seems like the most decent thing to assume, or else why would they have kept writing them? Also, the “they” is a bit fragmented. Yes, I am in a glass house, and that was a stone. But at least we have retained quia subscription to the Unaltered Augusburg Confession in the Missouri Synod.) Why this Reformed tendency? Because they are engaged in the same quest for chimerical certainty as Rome. (That’s why you get things like the doctrine of Eternal Security, which, as far as I can tell, is like Descartes’ inability to doubt his own existence: cogito electus sum ergo salvar, or something like that. Whatever was wrong with Baptism?)
I want to briefly, then, revisit this last point from my friend’s email before going on: “[T]he final resort of all Roman controversialists is the issue of the authority because they realize how thin the evidence is in scripture for their credenda.” Yes, the “evidence” is exactly five verses thin:
Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven (St. Matthew xvi, 15-19).
Never mind that after His resurrection Our Lord gives the Keys, the power of binding and loosing sins, not just to Peter, but to all of the disciples:
He said therefore to them again: “Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained (St. John xx, 21-23).
But disagree as one might, Rome’s self-referential authority claim will continue to trump any apparent Scriptural condemnation of, or simply lack of support for, its bizarre doctrines in the minds of its faithful. The reference is always back to “the Church,” which they think identifies the Roman magisterium, and which is above the Scriptures because it supposedly preceded them, i.e., “It doesn’t matter if you can dunk; it’s my basketball, and I’m leaving.” (Nota Bene: I’m including Fr. Charles McClean’s excellent summary refutation of this last point as an appendix to this post.)
So, what to do? I’m not sure. There is no difference between the Roman Catholic who takes papal authority as his final — yes, final (conciliarism failed, remember?) — authority and the Protestant who takes Scripture as his, setting up himself as the sole interpreter. Now, there is a difference between this same Roman Catholic, and the Lutheran who takes Scripture as his, and defers the interpretation thereof to the confessions of his church, making them his own. The authoritative organ of the first is ponderous, self-contradicting and unsearchable; of the authoritative standard of the last, it can at least be said that it is knowable and definite. It at least gives a basis on which to make a wager of faith (I speak hear of credulity, which is a wager, and active, rather than the faith which justifies which is itself passive and receptive, though fruitful unto good works; the two ought not be confused, as some suggest Blaise Pascal did with his famous wager). In any event, it has been pretty settled in my mind that Rome’s claim to infallible (and irreformable) authority is preposterous for some time; then again, I haven’t consulted Rome on the matter, but instead used my private judgment to arrive at this conclusion. I am comforted, though, by the fact that Roman Catholics end up where they are (The Church of Rome, for those of you who weren’t paying attention) by the same means, because that does indeed push the argument into the realm of Scripture, what it says, what we believe it says, and what we are willing to die believing it says.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
+ + +
The following is from Fr. Charles — and lest I be accused of self-aggrandizement, the “You” in this email refers not to me, but to my friend:
You are of course absolutely correct in maintaining that the Church simply recognized the books of the NT as apostolic. And it is not the Church’s recognition but their apostolic origin which gives these books authority. The NT is the written deposit of the apostles teaching. The process whereby these books were recognized was untidy and in a sense reaches its completion with the 39th Paschal Letter (so called because it was the letter announcing the date of Easter) of St Athanasius as bishop of Alexandria in 367 in which the great bishop lists the 27 books of the NT. He does not see himself as establishing anything or promulgating some new rule or canon for he begins by saying, “Permit me to remind you of what you already know.” And the untidy process can be seen in the citations from the NT in the church fathers, the use of the NT writings as readings in the Eucharist, and in the rejection of Marcion’s list at Rome in 140 AD.
It is a remarkable fact that the Church of the Augsburg Confession has never authoritatively defined the NT canon but has always recognized the distinction between the homologoumena (books everywhere accepted as apostolic) and the anti-legomena (books whose apostolic origin has been questioned). This is a matter of historical fact and so can never be changed. The anti-legomena are Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John, Jude, Revelation. Although this theoretical distinction remains in Lutheran teaching, for all practical purposes all 27 books of the NT are received as canonical. The late Martin Franzmann of blessed memory (1907-1969) says: “…in the last analysis, the church of God can become convinced and remain assured that they are indeed the wellsprings of salvation only by drinking of them.” p.295 in The Word of the Lord Grows: a First Historical Introduction to the New Testament (St Louis: CPH, 1961).
The whole question of the papacy is yet another issue. But even many Roman Catholic scholars now admit that it was not until somewhere in the second century that one can even speak of a bishop of Rome. Until that time the Church of Rome like Corinth seems to have been led by a corporate episcopate or presbytery.
The Word of God creates the Church, the Church does not create (but can only receive) the Word of God. The Church at most recognized the New Testament writings as the apostolic witness to Christ, the Word of the Lord in written form.
Needless to say these are issues which have been endlessly debated for centuries – and the end is not yet.