The Crux of the Matter


In order to better follow George’s wise emendation from a comment on ECCLESIOLOGY that we not “skirmish in the woods or by the river,” I am dragging a discussion out of the murky jungle depths of Commentfeedia so that all might behold it afresh, anew, and in context.

This post picks up after the last comment on Joe’s piece, “Augustine, Optatus, and Papal Infallibility.” Keep in mind that I am speaking to Joe.

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Let me ask a better question:

You seem to imply that you did not grow up believing in papal infallibility. How did you come to believe in it? It seems to me that, if it is sound, the basis for belief which compels conversion will also be what maintains adherence.

Rome needs more than consistency with itself. Such is no basis for belief. It’s akin to getting a blood-transfusion out of your own leg. Even perfect consistency with itself would fail to meet the burden of proof which we Lutherans are claiming exists: Rome needs to prove that it is consistent with the apostolic scriptures. Even if the apostles did promulgate unwritten kerygma alongside their written dogma, as many RCs contend, it would not have conflicted with their written teaching. Therefore it is the Lutheran contention that using the Scriptures to prove or disprove the truth of Roman Catholic teaching is not only admissible, but entirely necessary.

We have a problem, however…

The basic thrust of the Lutheran critique of Roman Catholicism is that the doctrines of the latter, however consistent they may have been for 1000+ years (and that is a big hypothetical), are not consistent with the doctrine which was preached and taught by Christ Himself and His holy apostles. But the Roman reply thus far that this contention is not allowed; that is to say, you and the other RC interlocutors have treated this contention as literally unthinkable.


Because (you claim) no one can know what the apostles really meant without an infallible interpeter. Furthermore, you have disallowed reference on our part to the Church Fathers, for the same reason — their glosses of Sacred Scripture are inconsistent, and thus need a supreme umpire to say which among them are orthodox. You have already dismissed the several attempts to discuss justification with a wave of your hand as though this is some arcane matter akin to the thread-count of Jesus’s robe, a trivial debate over “competing interpretations of the Pauline epistles on justification.” And you do not participate in them! I must salute you for having the courage of your erroneous convictions.

Here is the larger context of your words:

[Trent’s] stated intention for the site was to “get to the meat of our disagreements.” From a Lutheran perspective, that’s probably going to sound like an invitation to talk about our competing interpretations of the Pauline epistles on justification.


But that starts from what we Catholics would identify as a false premise: that the final authority in the interpretation of Scripture falls upon the individual. That I, as the Christian, am responsible for interpreting Scripture and then finding a Church, Creed, or community that corresponds to the conclusions that I have already come to. We would regard this view as upside-down (just as we would regard as upside-down the ability of children to choose parents based upon how much they liked their parents’ rules).


So as Catholics, we would identify the meat of our disagreements as something more fundamental: a dispute over the question of authority (viz. the Church, Scripture, Tradition), and about our moral obligation to remain a single visible Church. In this, we’re holding to the position held to by the Church Fathers. Certainly, they (like we) used Scripture to prove the truths of the faith. But they (like we) didn’t think that was all that there was to the story.

aureliusaugustine responded:

That’s not a premise; it’s an incontestable, though subjective, description of reality. I wasn’t born into the RCC, you see, so how on earth would I ever get there except by being convinced that they were right about the interpretation of Scripture? And how could I be convinced of that fact except by examining its teachings and judging them according to Scripture? Even if I was born in the RCC, how could I know that I should stay there except by the same operation? My only other option is to assume that I was born in the right place–whether it was Roman or Baptist or whatever. Nobody submits to the Truest Denomination out of simple objective knowledge that it is the Truest Denomination. It’s either a personal assumption or a personal decision, and I can’t think of any better grounds for such a decision than Scripture.

And I commented:

This is why I suggested in my first rejoinder to Raymond over on his post on miracles that it seems that one must have a conversion experience, something sensational that will compel him to make a decision for Rome. I have thought for quite some time that this is not unlike Evangelical Protestantism, and why I am rarely surprised when a EP friend of mind goes to Rome. In the absence of this kind of psychological event (NB: I am not saying here that it is merely psychological), indeed, as Eric asks, “how on earth would [anyone] ever get there except by being convinced that they were right about the interpretation of Scripture?” For whatever it’s worth, people rarely come to the Lutheran Church on the heels of a “conversion experience” of this sort.

And what I am still saying, ever more convincedly as this discussion progresses, is that there is no logical way into Rome’s circle, whether papal infallibility is a credendum which is accepted prima facie or after long and careful induction.

Your aforementioned comment continued with a long quote from St. Jerome’s Dialogue Against the Luciferians and your explication of it:

“We ought to remain in that Church which was founded by the Apostles and continues to this day. If ever you hear of any that are called Christians taking their name not from the Lord Jesus Christ, but from some other, for instance, Marcionites, Valentinians, Men of the mountain or the plain, you may be sure that you have there not the Church of Christ, but the synagogue of Antichrist. For the fact that they took their rise after the foundation of the Church is proof that they are those whose coming the Apostle foretold.”


And let them not flatter themselves if they think they have Scripture authority for their assertions, since the devil himself quoted Scripture, and the essence of the Scriptures is not the letter, but the meaning. Otherwise, if we follow the letter, we too can concoct a new dogma and assert that such persons as wear shoes and have two coats must not be received into the Church.”


In this way, Jerome argued that we could “dry up all the streams of argument with the single Sun of the Church.” This, I would argue, is the meat of the disagreement between [Roman] Catholics and Lutherans. After all, if [Roman] Catholics are wrong about the nature of the Church, then the justification debate is the least of our problems. Conversely, if [Roman] Catholics (and St. Jerome) are right about the nature of the Church, then we’re necessarily right about questions like justification, even if non-[Roman] Catholics “think they have Scripture authority for their assertions.”

George answered, speaking for all of us Lutherans, and again striking a knell that the RC interlocutors have continued to ignore: “The question, then, is, ‘what is the Church?'” he writes, agreeing with you. “This is exactly what I had hoped to make clear before.” And in truth, he did make this clear in his initial post. Moreover, in this post he made it very clear that the questions of ecclesiology and soteriology are commingled, but not in the way that Rome would have its flock believe:

[T]o the Lutheran, there are no doctrines of this and that, of the church and of Popes and of sanctification and of justification. All these are human categories used, usefully, to comprehend the single revelation given to us, the very person of Christ. There is no faith but Christ himself, and that is not to say that the faith is about Christ, but that the faith is Christ, and that Christ is present in faith. To think of faith as belief in Christ is to already misunderstand the Lutheran concept of faith. Faith comprehends, that is, embraces, contains, and includes Christ; and not in a “relational”, “epistemological” or “spiritual” way; but in a true, real, ontological way. Christ is truly present in faith. It is for this reason that Lutherans scowl at the idea of “faith being the beginning, but love the completion,” for to us, faith is Christ, and to say such a thing would be to say “Christ is the beginning, but love is the completion.” Is not Christ the beginning and the end? The ever existing? Is he not Love itself? Salvation by Faith alone is therefore synonymous with salvation by Christ alone (and even Love alone!), for Christ is who is truly within (and not just believed in or thought on or contemplated in) faith; there can be nothing before or after Him; to have faith is to be woven into Christ, to have Christ vanquish your flesh and become your life and existence. Faith is nothing else than the phenomenon of our joining into God; or, if we are to use our Eastern brother’s preferred term, our “theosis.”

It would be cumbersome to go on to quote George’s piece at length. All should reread it. Let this be its rough summary: it is the Lutheran contention that the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, the sanctorum communionem, is all of those who are joined to Christ. To be joined to Christ is to be justified, for He is just, and all of His benefits avail before the Father on our behalf without our striving.

George summarizes the Roman objection to his position in his continued rejoinder to the comment in which you, Joe, quoted St. Jerome:

It is the opinion of the Roman Catholic that “the Church” is all those ministers and their congregations which are under the headship of the Bishop of Rome who alone is the vicar of Christ and alone is supreme over all the church, and if Unam Sanctam is to be accepted, over all kings and authorities, upon the penalty of damnation.


It is the position of the Lutheran churches that the Church can not be understood in anything but a sacramental and Christological way; that is, that the Church is the very body of Christ, glorified and mystically united to all the saints by means of His holy mysteries and His tireless and efficacious Word, which is to be thought of as nothing else than a sending forth and projection of Himself.


If it is not to be contested, then, here are where the two positions stand.

(It seems though that this might be contested: a doctrine has developed in the Roman communion which blunts the edges of Rome’s definition — what aureliusaugustine called the Vatican II teaching that non RCs are in “secret communion with Rome” and thus not damned. Perhaps this should be taken into account, leaving aside for now that Lutherans view this switch as inadmissible if the pope really is infallible, while RCs contend that both positions make sense if read as part of the “hermeneutic of continuity.”)

George continued:

In accordance with the Catholic Principle, that is, that no doctrine is to be accepted which is foreign to the witness of the Church, nor is anything to be denied which is accepted by the consensus of the Church, the question then becomes as follows: “When the fathers speak of “The Church” do they define it according to the papal definition, or according to the Christological definition? When St. Jerome speaks of the shining light of the Church, does he mean the exegetical community under the bishop of Rome, or does he mean the illuminating light of the Church as Christ working by His Spirit to bring forth the truth of His Word?” It is the Lutheran contention that the Early Church knew of no supreme bishop of Rome. It is furthermore the Lutheran contention that, by the witness of the Church, the Scriptures are to be understood as the sole infallible source of truth for the Church, by which the Church is to be judged, and moreover that within the Scriptures, and particularly within the Gospels, exists all that is necessary for our salvation, for by the Gospels Christ Himself, and no man, is made our first and only teacher and catechist. It is for this reason that St. Augustine writes in De Doctrina Christiana: “Among the things which are clearly stated in Holy Scriptures are found all things which comprise faith and morals for living, namely hope and love.” And again in his Letter to the Donatist, “If anyone preaches either concerning Christ or concerning His church or concerning any other matter which pertains to our faith and life; I will not say, if we, but what Paul adds, if an angel from heaven should preach to you anything besides what you have received in the Scriptures of the Law and of the Gospel, let him be anathema.” And again, in De bono viduitatis, “What more shall I teach you than what we read in the apostles? For Holy Scripture fixes the rule for our doctrine, lest we dare to be wiser than we ought. Therefore I should not teach you anything else except to expound to you the words of the Teacher.”




[W]e reject the position of the Roman Catholics, who argue that the Scriptures are in need of ever increasing augmentations, and that these augmentations are equal in authority to the Scriptures, and that they are required of all Christians upon the pain of damnation and anathema, and that only the Pope, and no other bishop or Patriarch, not even those of the East, may exercise this right of promulgating new teachings and damning those who oppose them, for within the Pope exists the whole authority of the Church.


It seems to be common among [Roman] Catholics to merely assume that it is agreed that they are the true Church, and that everyone else “broke away.” But by what logic are you assured that in 1054, it was the four Patriarchs of the East that forsook the Church, and not the one of the West which forsook the consensus of the four? That the Church of Rome is always by necessity the True and Only Church is in need of proof from both the Scriptures and fathers, including those fathers of the East, who can not be excluded from the proceedings merely because they are Eastern, or because they do not bear witness to the primacy of the Pope.


You are correct in seeing that the chief issue between Lutherans and Catholics is not Justification by faith, but the doctrine of the Church, or more specifically, the power and primacy of the Pope. If this can be proved, then the whole Roman system stands. If this can be falsified, then the whole Roman system must fall.

And that is what has brought us to this more recent debate. But this debate is fizzling because the RCs participating in it are engaging in pseudo-gnostic deconstructionism: the text does not convey meaning. Only the living magisterium of Rome can make the text meaningful. If you’re not part of (or under) this living magisterium, then you can’t even have a discussion. You can’t even talk about justification, or sanctification, or anything, really. These are just words. They need a value-positing force to fill them with meaning.

I call postmodernist shenanigans. I know that this critique is not going to sit well with our RC contributors, and I fully expect (indeed, I hope for) spirited rejoinders. Do know, however, that I esteem every one of you as brothers in Christ. You are baptized, and you abide in Christ the True Vine. He has you in the palm of His Hand, and because of His grace you also hold fast to Him in faith. It is not my place to judge your hearts, and I do not even wish to. I know and rejoice that you are Christians.

But you need to answer the questions which are raised. I contend the following:

  1. That George is right — the question of papal infallibility is the most important question.
  2. That you you have not answered his critiques; unless disproven or explained, they quite convincingly demonstrate Rome’s inadmissible inconsistency.
  3. That you have not done [2] because you cannot. The place to either continue that debate or contest my declaration of victory, thus disproving this contention, is this comment feed.
  4. Again, that there is no logical way into Rome’s circle, whether papal infallibility is a credendum which is accepted prima facie or after long and careful induction. It requires a leap of faith.
  5. That a careful and objective study of Scripture and catholic tradition often dampens and extirpates the inclination to make such a leap, especially in those not prone to enthusiasm. If you’d like to talk to the Rev. Fr. Roy Axel Coats, let me know; I’ll give you his contact information. Although there’s no such thing as pure objectivity, in these modern times when men are not born into the Church of Rome and when they need not fear death for leaving it, a greater approach to objectivity can be taken. If this objective quest is not embarked upon, but rather pilloried as the wielding of arrogant private judgment, what other means are there available to a man seeking the truth to be convinced of it? Mormons tell a man to read their doctrines and then pray that God would tell him if said doctrines are true. Of course, the one willing to say such a prayer has already accepted three quarters of their nonsense and is willing to interpret any of his subjective emotions as confirmation from Mormon Jesus and Elohim of the truth of Mormonism. Ultimately, I don’t see much different in the RC epistemology of faith. It is faith hinging on noetic confirmation, and thus cannot be disproven.

I need you to address these, rather than changing the subject and writing another post. Together, Joe, you and I and the other regular interlocutors have winnowed away the chaff from this debate, and for that I thank you. This is the conversation that we need to have.

Pax Christi vobiscum



One Comment

  1. Trent, in terms of #s 2 and 3, would you provide us a clear list of apparent contradictions that you would like explained or disproven?

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