Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Another Argument for Berkeleyan-Style Idealism

This is from my book Why Christianity is True, Chapter 3, pp. 64-66.

First of all, let’s talk a little more about the issue of consciousness being irreducible to non-consciousness.  I made the argument that consciousness must be traced back to the First Cause, because you can’t get consciousness from non-conscious stuff.  This might have raised a question in your mind:  “If consciousness cannot be derived from non-consciousness, then wouldn't it work the other way as well?  Wouldn't non-consciousness be irreducible to consciousness?  And if this is the case, then wouldn't the First Cause have to have two parts which are irreducible to each other, making him divisible?”

This would indeed be a problem if we were to affirm that consciousness and non-consciousness are completely and ultimately distinct things.  But I don't think that is the case.  (And in fact it can't be the case, because God must be simple/indivisible!)

Since God is a mind (the Mind), and since God is simple, we must conceive of creation as being produced by the mind of God.  In this way, as in many others, God is like an author who writes a novel.  How does the novelist produce the novel?  She does so by imagining a world—full of events, characters, places, etc.—and thus bringing it into being by her thinking of it.  (She will probably then write it down, but it exists in her mind first.)  The world of the novel—particularly before the novelist writes it down—is completely dependent for its existence on the novelist and the novelist's sustaining that world in being by her thinking of it.  We cannot draw any absolute distinction between the existence of the imaginary world of the novel and the author's perceiving of or keeping in mind that world.  To use a phrase from 18th century British philosopher George Berkeley, as far as the world of the novel goes, “to be is to be perceived.”

This is a good analogy for how God creates the world, with a few adjustments:  1. Unlike a human novelist, God can keep the whole universe with all its details—past, present, and future—in his mind at once (and timelessly, since he is outside of time).  He has no need to write it down.  In fact, “writing it down” is a meaningless concept in this context, for it implies a physical being with space outside of himself and other materials—paper and pen—with which he records his thoughts.  God is not in time or space, so there is no place “outside of God” for God to write anything down.  Rather than being simply one being in a reality in which he is surrounded by other objects, he himself is the full context of all of reality.  2. A human world-creation is going to lack much reality and substance, because human imagination is very limited and weak.  When you create an imaginary character, that character is real to an extent—he really exists in your mind insofar as you imagine him.  But he is a mere spectre, a ghost, in comparison to yourself and the rest of the external world.  But God's mind is unlimited and full of power.  When he “imagines” or perceives a world, that world is full of substance and reality from its overall form down to the smallest details.

So what I'm suggesting is basically what the Apostle Paul said about our relationship with God in the Bible, in Acts 17:27-28:  “He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being.”  God created the universe and keeps it in being by his thinking or perceiving of us.  This means that material reality is not some thing that exists ultimately independently from mind/consciousness, but is ultimately a part or a mode of consciousness.  We should not think of a chair, for example, as a totally independent object made of some substance that is irreducibly distinct from consciousness, but as an object existing ultimately in God's perception and thus as an aspect of that perception.  There are not two fundamental substances—consciousness and non-consciousness—but one substance—consciousness—in which is contained the forms and relations of matter.

This makes sense, if you think about it.  If you consider the properties of a material object—like a chair—it becomes apparent that they are dependent for their existence on being perceived.  What are the properties of a chair?  It has texture, color, taste (not a good taste, I presume, but some kind of taste nonetheless), smell, form, dimensions, etc.  All of these properties are defined only in relation to perception.  Texture is relative to the sense of touch.  Color is relative to the sense of sight.  Taste is relative to the sense of taste.  Smell is relative to the sense of smell.  Form and dimension are relative to an observer who is in a particular location.  If you think about a chair, you will notice that the different parts of it, which allow it to be an extended object in space, only exist in relation to a grid, the center point of which just happens to be the center point of your own point of view.  The dimensionality of the chair is made possible only relatively, in reference to your viewpoint, as you look at the chair from your particular location.  This is the case with real chairs, as well as chairs you might imagine in your mind.  Look at any picture or piece of art, and likewise you will see that there is always a point of view implied.  Form and dimension are inseparable from perception and a perceiver.  The very concept of a “material object” makes no sense independent from the concept of the object's being perceived.  Matter, by its very nature, is a mode of perception/consciousness. 31

31  I mentioned the philosopher George Berkeley above.  While I don't agree with everything in Berkeley's metaphysics, I think he was onto something in his development of his theory of “idealism” (not to be confused with Hegelian or Kantian concepts of “idealism” which are a whole different matter).  In his works he tried to articulate and argue for the idea that matter is not fundamentally distinct from consciousness but is an aspect of it.   His Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge and his Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous are a good source for reading more about his ideas on this topic.  Jonathan Edwards, the famous Puritan theologian and philosopher, also developed similar ideas.

For more, see here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

195 AD: No Sola Scriptura in Sight

A few months ago, I read an article by Dr. R. Scott Clark who runs the Heidelblog, a well-known Reformed theology blog.  The article is promoting the Reformed "Regulative Principle of Worship" (which I talk about and respond to from a Catholic point of view in this article).  In the article, Dr. Clark talks about the famous debate in the early Church over the timing of the celebration of Easter.  You can read the short account of this controversy from the early Church historian Eusebius here (chapter 23-25).  Basically, there was a dispute that took place in the 190s AD (about one hundred years after the end of the age of the apostles) over two different dating systems for the celebration of Easter.  The whole affair came close to causing a schism in the Church, but the intervention of peacemakers (particularly St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons) helped it reach a peaceful end.  In the course of discussing this controversy in his article, Dr. Clark says this:

The date for Easter was controversial was because both sides were arguing over which date was more biblical. No one was arguing in the early 2nd century that the church has authority to impose practices and observances that are not imposed in Scripture.

I found this comment striking because it is precisely dead wrong, and its dead-wrong-ness helps to illustrate precisely the opposite point from the one Dr. Clark was attempting to make.  In actuality, no one in the Easter controversy was arguing that their date was more biblical.  They knew better than to try that, since it is obvious that the feast of Easter isn't even mentioned in the Bible.  Rather, each side was arguing their position from an alleged unwritten tradition coming from the apostles.  One side cited the practice of the Apostle John, and the other side cited a different tradition (perhaps one stemming from Peter and Paul in Rome).  Dr. Clark thinks that no one in the early 2nd century (actually, this controversy took place in the late 2nd century) believed that the Church had the authority to "impose practices and observances that are not imposed in Scripture."  But, actually, everyone believed that, and this controversy illustrates it.  No one in this controversy, so far as we have any record of, advocated a Sola Scriptura approach to the issue, or (as Dr. Clark and other Reformed theologians would have done had they been there) objected to the whole controversy as wrongheaded because of its lack of a biblical foundation.  This shows well just how absent the idea of Sola Scriptura was from the consciousness of the entire Church just one hundred years or so after the days of the apostles.  The early Church was Catholic in its view of Scripture, Tradition, and Church authority, not Protestant.

I'll close with a couple of quotations from two early Fathers--St. Basil of Caesaria and St. Vincent of Lerins--which articulate the Catholic view of the early Church, a view which continues to be articulated by the Catholic Church today.

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us "in a mystery" by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation?  (St. Basil of Caesaria, On the Holy Spirit, Chapter 27--from the New Advent website, embedded links removed) 
But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.  (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, Chapter 2--from the New Advent website, embedded links removed)

For more, see here and here.

Published on the feast of St. Benedict.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Why Does the Skeptical Argument Seem So Plausible?

In this article, I attacked an argument for total skepticism.  "Total skepticism" is the idea that no one can know anything.  The argument I attacked went like this:  Since we have been wrong in the past, and we didn't know we were wrong when we were, we cannot know if we are wrong or right about anything in the present, and so we can never know anything at all.

In the article, I showed that this argument is self-refuting and contradictory, relies on question-begging and selectively-applied reasoning, and ignores the evident reality that we can and do in practice evaluate claims and come to knowable conclusions.  But it should be acknowledged that the argument has a kind of apparent ring of plausibility to it.  It does seem like it ought to be true.  When we're wrong, we don't know we're wrong, for if we knew we were wrong, well, we wouldn't be wrong!  So if I think I'm right right now, how could I possibly know if I am wrong or not?  I may think I'm right, but I've thought I was right before and been wrong.  It does seem like this presents a logically watertight case for the impossibility of knowledge.  How could we possibly justify the idea that knowledge can truly be had?  We know from the absurdity and evident falseness of the argument (as pointed out in the previous article) that there must be something wrong with the reasoning here; but where, specifically, does it go wrong?

I think this case is parallel to the famous question of how we know we are awake and not dreaming.  When we're dreaming, we often don't know we're dreaming; we think we're awake (insofar as it crosses our minds to think about this one way or the other).  If, in my dreaming, I sometimes think I'm awake and don't seem to be able to know I'm not, how can I know this isn't happening right now while I think I'm awake?

The answer is that there are epistemological resources available to me when I am awake that aren't (typically) available to me when I'm asleep and dreaming.  When I'm awake, I have the ability to examine my own state of consciousness and its contents much more carefully and thoroughly.  I can compare my current state to my dream states that I remember, and I can see that they are very different.  My dream states lack the degree of detail, the ongoing, coherent narrative, the full range of conscious, critical reflection upon myself that I typically have in my waking state.  Because I am aware of what my dream state is like, and how it differs from my waking state, I can determine that I am not currently dreaming but awake.  But when I am dreaming, my consciousness is limited, and I am typically not capable of making these observations and comparisons, and so I don't typically find out that I am dreaming.  (Perhaps some people have sometimes found themselves more fully conscious while they were dreaming and have been able to perform these observations.  I have never had this experience, at least not to a great extent.  I think it would be fascinating to examine my dream-state with that level of criticalness, to observe its patchy character, its lack of detail, etc., while actually in such a state.)  In short, it seems at first glance to follow, but upon further examination really doesn't, that if I can't tell if I am awake or dreaming when I am dreaming I must not be able to tell if I am awake or dreaming when I am awake.

I think the same sort of realization applies to our current subject as well.  When I am wrong, I am lacking some perspective, some bit of knowledge, some piece of the puzzle, that I don't realize I am lacking.  But when I find out I'm wrong, what happens is that I suddenly attain that missing puzzle piece.  When that happens, I can see where I went wrong and (often) which way is the right way.  On the latter side of this divide, I have more information, a greater vantage point, then I did before, and so I am in a better position to see accurately what is going on.  Otherwise, I couldn't even know that I was wrong before!  The very idea of "I was wrong before, and I just realized that" implies that I consider my current perspective a better, more accurate perspective than my previous one.  Otherwise, I would have just as much reason to say, instead, "I was right before, and now I'm wrong."

Just as with the case of dreaming and being awake, it is often the case that when I am right, I have a basis to see that I am right that I am lacking when I am wrong.  I can't assess my condition accurately when I am wrong, but it doesn't follow from this--though it seems to at first glance, and from here arises the apparent plausibility of the skeptical argument--that I can't assess it accurately when I'm right either.  Once we've realized this, we have unconvered the fallaciousness of the skeptical argument and can see how what we know to be true--that the skeptical argument is absurd and flies in the face of what our clear, practical experience tells us--is in fact true.

And so we can reiterate the practical conclusion of the previous article.  Instead of allowing ourselves to be hoodwinked by the fallacious reasoning of skepticism, we should continue to come to conclusions on the same basis all of us (including skeptics) always have anyway--by examining the evidence and embracing the conclusions that it seems to support.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Cutting Off the Flowers: How Sola Scriptura Distorts the Reformed View of Worship

Reformed Christians often complain about the excessive ritualism of the Catholic Church.  All those holy days, cathedrals, images, Latin phrases, altars, priestly robes, the sign of the cross, etc.  They like to contrast all of this with the "simplicity" of Reformed worship, which avoids anything except the reading and preaching of the Bible, the simple administration of baptism and the Lord's Supper, prayer, and singing of songs.

This attitude ultimately stems from a couple of major points in the Reformed interpretation of Scripture.  Reformed Christians follow the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which teaches that the only infallible source of special revelation is the Bible.  Church tradition, and the teaching authority of the Church, are fallible and not to be implicitly trusted.  The practical effect of this view is that Reformed Christians feel justified, and at times required, to pit their own personal interpretations of the Bible over and against the interpretations and applications of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic view is that Scripture comes to us as part of a package deal, which includes also the tradition of the Catholic Church as this has been handed down in the teaching and practices of the Church, and the authority to authentically interpret and apply God's revelation granted by Christ to the bishops of the Church.  This is the historical position of the Catholic Church, which the Reformation had to rebel against in the sixteenth century in order to establish itself.  From the historical, Catholic point of view, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura makes no sense, as it involves ripping the Bible out of its historical context without justification and trying to use it in a way it was never intended to be used.  The result of this is the creation of numerous churches all establishing themselves on the basis of their own private interpretations of the Bible in opposition to the Bible's own natural context in the Catholic Church.  G. K. Chesterton described this situation very memorably in his book, The Thing (London: Sheed and Ward, 1929), in the essay, "Is Humanism a Religion?"

Every great heretic had always exhibit three remarkable characteristics in combination. First, he picked out some mystical idea from the Church's bundle or balance of mystical ideas. Second, he used that one mystical idea against all the other mystical ideas. Third (and most singular), he seems generally to have had no notion that his own favourite mystical idea was a mystical idea, at least in the sense of a mysterious or dubious or dogmatic idea. With a queer uncanny innocence, he seems always to have taken this one thing for granted. He assumed it to be unassailable, even when he was using it to assail all sorts of similar things. The most popular and obvious example is the Bible. To an impartial pagan or sceptical observer, it must always seem the strangest story in the world; that men rushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes inscribed "Psalms" or "Gospels"; and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures? Yet it was long before it even occurred to those who brandished this one piece of Church furniture to break up all the other Church furniture that anybody could be so profane as to examine this one fragment of furniture itself. People were quite surprised, and in some parts of the world are still surprised, that anybody should dare to do so.

The Reformed View

One area in which Sola Scriptura has had problematic effects is in the area of the worship and aesthetics of the Church.  Reformed Christians, reading the Bible, find two ideas:

1. The Regulative Principle of Worship.  This is the idea that we should only worship God in ways that he has prescribed, as opposed to worshiping in unauthorized ways.  This is actually a good idea, but if it is combined with the idea that the Bible gives us everything we need to know about what is authorized by God, it is going to lead us into trouble.

2. Christ is the substance and the fulfillment of the Old Testament ceremonial system, which has been done away with since his coming.  This, too, is a good and right idea, but the application made of it by the Reformed is problematic.

These two ideas are the source of Reformed objections to "Catholic ritualism."  The basic theology goes like this:  In the Old Testament, God prescribed all sorts of rituals and ceremonies for his people.  These rituals and ceremonies pointed towards Christ, who was their fulfillment.  (For example, the whole Old Testament sacrificial system pointed towards Christ who would be the true sacrifice that would take away sins.)  When Christ came, these rituals and ceremonies were abolished (or most of them, at least).  Since Christ has come and we therefore now have the substance, we don't need rituals or ceremonies anymore, except for those very few rituals described clearly in the New Testament, such as baptism and the Lord's Supper (communion).  We have no authorization to add any additional rituals or anything else for the practice of the Church, because God, in the Bible, has not authorized anything else.  And to attempt to add additional rituals or ceremonies is to attempt to go back to Old Testament Judaism and involves a denial of the sufficiency of Christ, and so is to be condemned.

So take a major Catholic holy day like Christmas, for example.  The strictest of the Reformed have historically opposed celebrating Christmas, because it is not prescribed in the Bible.  The Reformed Directory for Public Worship of 1645 puts it this way:

There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.  Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.

In the Reformed view, if we were to take up the celebration of Christmas, we would be "Judaizing"--abandoning Christ for something akin to Old Testament ceremonies.

A pamphlet entitled What is the Reformed Faith?, put out by a conservative Presbyterian denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, describes the Reformed view clearly:

Some churches today are returning to ceremonial worship. They call it liturgical revival. If they were serious in their claim to be biblical, they would go all the way, adopting the whole Old Testament system. They would even advocate rebuilding the Jerusalem temple. And, if they did, we could at least respect them for consistency. But, of course, these "weak and miserable" (Gal. 4:9) elements of Old Testament worship have no legitimate place in the new covenant church. We need no purple robes, candles, incense, dancing, or dramatic performance. Why? Because these shadowy representations only get in the way of the reality: the privilege of going each Lord's Day—in faithful, commanded worship—right into the heavenly places (Heb. 12:18-29). 
Are we, then, to do as we please—fashioning our own style of worship (while the Old Testament saints had to be careful)? No, we above all should abhor and shun all human inventions. Is this not what underlies the following warning? "See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused ... how much less will we....? Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our 'God is a consuming fire' " (Heb. 12: 25, 28-29). 
Worship under the new covenant has been instituted by Jesus. Admittedly, there are few commands regarding, or examples of, corporate worship in the New Testament. The closest thing we have to a formal worship service is found in 1 Corinthians 14, and it focuses on speaking in tongues and prophecy, elements that were appropriate only in the apostolic age (cf. WCF, I:1). Nevertheless, we are able to identify prayer, the reading of the Scriptures, preaching, the singing of praise, the gathering of offerings, and the administration of the sacraments as "all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God" (WCF, XXI:5). . . . 
Reformed worship is beautiful, but it does not have the beauty of sensual things. Rather, it has the beauty mentioned in several of the psalms. "Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness" (Ps. 29:2).
It is for this reason that Reformed worship has always been marked by what some have called "a stark simplicity." The beauty is found in the faithful preaching of the Word of God, in the simple, unadorned, but faithful administration of the sacraments, and in the maintenance of faithful discipline. Reformed people find their delight in truth and in the spiritual things that Christ spoke of when he said that we must worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

The Catholic Response

Catholics would accept the fundamental idea of the "regulative principle of worship."  Of course we should only worship God in ways he has authorized.  But God's authorization is not only to be found in a private interpretation of Scripture outside its context within the authoritative tradition of the Church.  We don't get to simply read the Bible, find no mention of Christmas, find no justification that we can see to have Christmas, and then declare Christmas illegal because it is without God's authorization.  If the Church's authoritative tradition has interpreted God's revelation such that holy days like Christmas are to be received as a good thing, then this is God's will.  When the Church celebrates Christmas, or uses "purple robes, candles, incense," etc., it is not adding to God's worship without authorization.  It is doing precisely what God has prescribed.

But what about the idea that Old Testament ritualism, feast days, etc., have been done away with because Christ, the substance, has come?  If we are to have rituals in this New Testament age, why are they not prescribed in the New Testament?  After all, God gave very specific instructions about worship in the Old Testament age.

It is here that Sola Scriptura really trips the Reformed up.  According to Catholic teaching, the Holy Spirit has been given to the Church to guide her into all truth.  In Old Testament times, although the Holy Spirit was not entirely absent, yet the people of God were at an earlier stage of development.  A great deal more "spoonfeeding" was going on.  So in the Law of Moses, we see immensely detailed commands regarding worship, politics, and many other things.  The New Testament has no comparable exhaustive law code.  Rather, we see the Church being guided by the Spirit as she works out, over time, the application of what Christ has left to her.  We might say that whereas the worship and life of the Old Testament people were primarily imposed externally through explicit commands, the worship and life of the Church come much more through an internal development as the Holy Spirit guides the Church to apply discerningly the deposit of revelation.  It is in some ways like the difference between a younger child and an adolescent or young adult.  A young child must be given a great many, very specific instructions in every area of life.  As the child gets older, more and more this specific external instruction is replaced by habits of internal discernment.  Parents grant more and more freedom to their children to discern for themselves what is right and best, to apply the principles taught to them over the years, and to manage their own lives.  St. Paul uses this very analogy (Galatians 3:23-25; 4:1-6) in his discussion of the people of God under the Law of Moses vs. the people of God in the new age of Christ:

But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. . . . 
Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.

The Church describes her own view in the Vatican II document Dei Verbum, Chapter 2, Section 8 (footnotes removed):

And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3). Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes. 
This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51), through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her. 
The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church. Through the same tradition the Church's full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe and makes the word of Christ dwell abundantly in them (see Col. 3:16).

A good example of this is the Church's position on the circumcision of Gentiles.  In the Old Testament pattern, we might have expected a law authorizing the non-circumcision of Gentiles to be given very explicitly to the people of God by means of prophets.  But in the New Testament, we find that Christ never even mentions this idea or gives the apostles any specific instructions on the matter.  What we find instead is the Church, over time, being confronted with this issue, calling a council, deciding in that council what is right and best, and announcing her decision with the preface (Acts 15:28), "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . ."  Here we see the development of the Church's rules and practices over time by means of the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The Reformed look in the Bible, and they don't see Christmas.  They conclude that God has not authorized Christmas, and that we should therefore not have it.  They conclude that the reason Christmas and other holy days and rituals are not spelled out in the New Testament is because God wants New Testament worship to be simpler than Old Testament worship, because Christ the substance has come.  But this whole scheme of interpretation is not actually spelled out in the Bible.  The Reformed infer it from the New Testament's lack of many specific instructions regarding worship combined with its abolition of Old Testament ceremonies.  This is a good example of how reading the Bible outside its proper context in the Church's tradition can lead to erroneous conclusions being drawn.

The Catholic faith, interpreting Scripture within its proper context, has a different reading.  The Catholic view is that Old Testament rituals and holy days were done away with not because the people of God should be without such things for the rest of the time of her pilgrimage upon earth, but so that she could develop a new set of rituals and ceremonies appropriate to New Testament times, when Christ, the substance, has come.  For although Christ has come, we are not yet in heaven.  We still await the second coming.  In the meantime, we are not without need of tangible reminders of the presence of God, just like the Old Testament people of God.  Whereas the ceremonies of the Old Testament pointed forward to Christ who would come, the ceremonies of New Testament times point to Christ who has come and Christ who will come again.

We see this development of the worship of the Church already underway within the New Testament itself.  We see that Christ's coming did away with sacrifices, since he was the substantial fulfillment of the sacrificial system, but it replaced them not with no ritual but with the Lord's Supper.  We see that circumcision is done away with, not so that it could be replaced with no ritual, so that we should only focus on the spiritual alone from here on out, but to make room for physical baptism as well.  We see the Church establishing the pattern of meeting on Sunday, which comes eventually, in the last book of the New Testament, to be called "the Lord's Day"--a new, Christian holy day to replace and fulfill the Old Testament Sabbath.  But the Church's development did not cease at the completion of the New Testament.  The Holy Spirit has continued to guide her into all truth and into the application of all truth.  Thus, we see through history new customs, new ceremonies, new rituals, new holy days, being established.  Sometimes we see old customs retired and new ones arise in their place.  There is an ongoing, organic development, like the growth and changing of a living organism, guided by the animating principle within--the Holy Spirit.

The Reformed attempt to restrict the development of the Church to what was already completed within the New Testament is like a person who is given a small, young plant, but instead of allowing the plant to grow and flower, he tries desperately to keep it young, cutting off flowers as soon as they appear, trying to prune it to keep it small, believing that he is protecting his plant from unnatural mutations, while what he is really doing is unnaturally hindering its divinely-designed process of development.  The Reformed attempt to protect the worship of God is well-intentioned, but it works within a context of ignorance and false inferences forced upon it by the unbiblical and unhistorical doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

For more on Sola Scriptura, see herehere, and here.

Published on the feast of St. Thomas More (my patron saint!) and of St. John Fisher

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Reformed vs. Catholic: Is the Pot Calling the Kettle Black?

Robert is a Reformed Christian.  He is concerned for one of his friends, Alfred, who is a Catholic.  Robert knows that Catholics believe in works righteousness and empty rituals and have abandoned the simplicity of Christ and the purity of his Word for man-made traditions and human mediators.  Robert is concerned for Alfred's salvation in such a corrupted system.  He decides to go and talk to Alfred and try to help him understand and accept the freeing truths of the simple gospel of Christ.

On his way to see Alfred, Robert runs into another friend of his, Greg, who is a non-denominational Christian.  After hearing that Robert is going to talk to Alfred, Greg decides to come along, since the weekly praise and worship meeting at his church has been canceled this week.  Robert is not particularly thrilled about this, as he and Greg do not always see eye to eye theologically, but he doesn't want to be rude, and so the two go to see Alfred.

Alfred: Hello, Robert!  Hello, Greg!  It's nice to see both of you today!  What brings you here?

Robert: Hello, Alfred.  Actually, I was wondering if we could talk about God and the gospel.  You've always said that you welcome intelligent and civil conversations on religious matters, so I thought I'd take you up on it.

Greg: And I thought I'd come along as well!

Alfred: Well, that sounds great.  I'm always glad to discuss God and his gospel!

Grace and Works

Robert: One of my biggest concerns about the Catholic religion, Alfred, is that it teaches a man-centered works righteousness.  The Bible says that we are saved by the grace of Christ, not through human works or efforts.  The Apostle Paul says in Galatians that if we seek to be justified by our works, Christ will be of no use to us!  We must rely humbly on his grace rather than trying to work our way to heaven.

Alfred: Robert, I totally agree with you.  We are saved not by human effort but by the grace of God in Christ.  Why do you think we Catholics think otherwise?

Robert: Well, the Catholic Church teaches that grace is a power that enables us to do good works, and if we cooperate with that grace and do good works, we can merit God's favor and get to heaven.  The Bible, on the other hand, says that God's favor and eternal life are gifts of grace, not earned by human merits.

Alfred: You've misunderstood Catholic teaching.  Our view is that Christ's death on the cross has purchased for us grace which forgives our sins and makes us holy.  The inward holiness produced in us by God's grace is pleasing to God and receives his favor, and he rewards it with an increase of grace and eventually, if we continue to the end, eternal life.  But all our holiness and the good works that proceed from it are a gift of God's free grace in Christ.  We've done nothing to earn that gift, nor can we contribute any good thing towards our salvation on our own that is not given to us as a gift.  So it's all grace!

Robert: But, in the Catholic view, don't you have to cooperate with grace and respond to it and live it out in order to be saved by it?  And doesn't that mix human will and works with the free grace of God?

Alfred: Sure, we must cooperate with God's grace and respond properly to it.  As St. Augustine put it, "Although God created us without ourselves, he does not choose to save us without ourselves."  He does not bring us to salvation without our will and our works.  He does something far better!  He changes us and makes us holy, so that we will choose to follow him and do works that are pleasing to him, works that are fit for his reward.  It is the greatest privilege to be holy, to love God with all our hearts, to please him with our lives, and that is the gift God has given us in Christ.  But it is all a gift of grace.  Even the cooperation of our will with grace is itself a gift of grace!

Robert: But you say that you can merit salvation with your works, don't you?

Alfred: The Catholic position is that our works, produced in us by grace, are truly pleasing to God and warrant his favor.  He cannot but love his own image he has stamped upon his people by his grace through the Holy Spirit!  But you must remember that our holiness and its works are a gift of grace.  We cannot take ultimate credit for any of it!  Consider an analogy:  A friend gives you money as a gift so that you can buy groceries.  When you buy your groceries with that money, the grocer gives you your groceries as a "reward" for the money you have given him.  But that doesn't change the fact that the money was a gift, and so the groceries you bought with the money were a gift as well.  Similarly, God will reward his own work in us, but that doesn't change the fact that it is his work!  We cannot boast of it.  As St. Augustine, once again, put it, "When God crowns our merits, he is crowning his own gifts."

Robert: But that's not good enough!  You are still making your works necessary for salvation!  In the Bible, we are justified only by Christ's righteousness imputed to us.  No human works, even works done through grace, can merit anything with God, for all our works are as filthy rags!  In your view, Christ is not enough.  We need Christ plus our works.  Christ's righteousness imputed to us is not enough to justify us.  We need Christ's righteousness plus our own (grace-influenced, but still our own) works and righteousness.

Greg: Teach it, Robert!  You put that beautifully!  All we need is Christ!  He saves us by his grace!  We don't need human works to add to that!  But you know, Robert, you Reformed people are just like the Catholics on this point.

Robert: What do you mean we are just like the Catholics?

Greg: Well, you Reformed people teach that Christ is not enough!  You talk a lot about grace, but then you still say we need good works.  You say that no one who is "living in unrepentant sin" can be saved unless they repent, and that we have to live holy lives.  Now, don't get me wrong.  It's good to live a holy life.  But it's not necessary!  We are saved by grace!  If we add our works to God's grace as necessary for salvation, we are not trusting in Christ alone!  If I come to Christ and accept him into my heart, hopefully I will live a holy life to please him.  But if I don't, my salvation is still secure, for it is all of grace!  By saying holiness of life is required, you Reformed people take away with one hand what you seem to give with the other.  You mix human works with the pure grace of Christ!  You're just like the Catholics!

Robert: Now wait a minute!  Yes, of course we say that holiness of life is necessary for salvation.  The Bible teaches that clearly.  But that doesn't mean we are mixing human works with grace!  Remember that our works are a gift of grace to us.  They don't add to God's grace; they are a work of God's grace, produced in us by the Holy Spirit.  So God gets all the glory!

Greg: That's exactly what the Catholics say!

Robert: Well, yes . . . but we also add that although we must have good works and holiness of life (produced by grace!), even these works produced by grace do not justify us.  Only Christ's righteousness imputed to us, credited to our account, justifies us, makes us acceptable to God.  Human works, even works produced by grace, play no role in that at all.  That's what makes our view totally different from that of the Catholics!

Greg: But if human works (even produced by grace) do not justify us, then why are they required?  If God finds us totally acceptable without them because Christ's righteousness is imputed to us, why would he require more?  You see how you take away with one hand what you seem to give with the other?  You say that Christ's righteousness is enough, that it's all we need to be fully justified, fully acceptable to God; but then you turn around and say that actually it's not all we need, that we also need to be sanctified, to be holy and do good works, and if we don't we will go to hell!  Imagine if I were to give you a ticket to a concert, telling you that this ticket is all you need to totally satisfy the concert doorkeepers.  But when you get to the concert and hand in your ticket, the doorkeeper tells you that you also need another separate ticket to get in.  You would be angry with me for misleading you, and rightly so!  If all we need to be acceptable to God is Christ's righteousness, then you can't turn around and insist on the contrary that God won't accept us without something additional--namely, holiness of life!  You say you rely only on Christ's righteousness, but in reality you add human works (though produced by grace) to Christ, just like the Catholics do.

Robert: But saying that sanctification is required is not to add to Christ, because sanctification is not really an addition; it is merely the fruit of Christ's righteousness applied to our lives.  It is the fruit of justification.

Alfred: But that's just what we Catholics would say, Robert.  Our holiness and good works do not add to what Christ has done or to his merits.  They are simply the fruit of Christ's merits applied to our lives.  God requires holiness of us, but that holiness is nothing more than the grace of Christ's sacrifice and merits applied to our lives.  So it is all grace!

Greg: There, you see how Catholic you are, Robert?  I'm the only one here who really believes the word of the Scriptures that we are saved by grace alone!  Even carnal Christians who have asked Christ into their hearts will be eternally saved!

Robert: But you Catholics say that we can fall away from grace, so where is the assurance of salvation?

Alfred: If we do not continue to follow Christ through our lives but instead decide to reject him, he will honor that choice.  That is why we must be diligent to stir up the grace of God that is in us, so that we can persevere to the end.  But we must remember:  Those who persevere to the end do so entirely by God's grace.  Just as initial conversion to Christ is a gift of grace, perseverance in grace to the end is also entirely a gift of grace.  We can be sure that Christ will help us, and if we are living in him we can have confidence that his grace is with us, and that he will help us to continue to grow in his grace.  But it is true that we cannot be absolutely certain of our eternal salvation in this life, for we must finish the race before we can count the crown to be ours with infallible certainty.

Robert:  Aha!  You see what I mean?  Catholics have no assurance!

Greg: But Robert, don't you Reformed people say as well that we have to persevere to the end in order to be saved, and if we fall away we will not be saved in the end?

Robert: Yes, but we add (unlike the Catholics) that God will make all the regenerate truly persevere to the end, so that everyone who is regenerate can be assured that he will be eternally saved.

Greg: But how do you know if you are truly regenerate?

Robert: Well, you look inside yourself to see that you truly love God, choose to follow him, etc.

Greg: But lots of people seem to follow Christ, or follow him temporarily, but then, as the gospel says, "the cares of the world rise up" and choke him out.  How do I know I'm not one of those temporary believers who will fall away?

Robert: You know because you truly love God in a deeper and more ultimate way than the temporary believer.

Greg: I'm not sure what that means, Robert!  I'm not feeling terribly confident here!

Alfred: And I should add, Robert, that though in the Catholic view there cannot be an absolute certainty of eternal salvation, there can be a great confidence when one looks at the grace of God in one's life.  If God's grace is working in us, and we are cooperating with that grace and growing in it, we are building a foundation of grace within ourselves which will help us continue to grow in the future.  So the more we live holy lives, the more confidence we can have.  We can "make our calling and election" more sure, as St. Peter says.  And we must also remember that God will always help us.  He will never abandon us unless we reject him; and whenever we come back to him, he is always willing to receive us.

Greg: Sounds pretty much like the same thing to me, Robert!  In my view, we don't have to worry about these things at all!  I rely entirely on Christ, and not on what I will do in the future!  If I've accepted Christ into my heart, I'm eternally secure!  The future can't hurt me!  Christ alone!  Solo Christo!

Robert, feeling frustrated with the direction of the conversation, decides to switch to a different subject.


Priests and Confession

Robert: I admit you Catholics are wily when it comes to salvation, but I think I've said enough to make my point.  Let's switch topics a bit and talk about the Church.  You Catholics are not content with Christ.  You add the Church in as another mediator between God and man!

Alfred: Can you be more specific?  What do you mean?

Robert: In Catholicism, the priests stand between the people and Christ.  Catholic language even calls the priest "alter Christus"--another Christ!  He is a mediator between the people and God.  But the Bible says that Christ alone is the one mediator between God and man.

Alfred: Of course, Christ is the one mediator between God and man.  Priests are not mediators in the sense that Christ is.  The term "alter Christus" doesn't mean that the priest replaces Christ or is on the same level as Christ.  That would contradict all of Catholic theology!  Rather, the idea is that the priest is Christ's ambassador, the one sent by Christ to represent him to the people.

Greg: You Reformed people have the same idea, Robert.  I was just in one of your church services the other day and they were having communion.  I heard the pastor say this:  "Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, as I, ministering in his name, give this bread to you."  You have pastors (you don't call them priests, but it's the same thing) who stand between Christ and his people!  For my part, I don't believe in pastors who stand between Christ and his people.  Sure, there are people who are good at teaching, and so we listen to them, but our relationship with Christ is direct!  We don't need any human mediators!  We don't have to submit to pastors and obey them or listen to them!  We only have to listen to Christ!  Chirst told us to call no one on earth father or teacher.

Robert:  No, our views are not the same as the Catholics'!  Sure, we Reformed believe that Christ has appointed pastors to minister in his name, and we have to obey them, but that does not mean that they stand between Christ and his people!

Alfred: It's kind of in the terminology, isn't it, Robert?  If you mean by "stand between" that the priest (or pastor) replaces Christ, or blocks the people from Christ, then I agree with you that no priest stands between us and Christ.  But if you mean by "stand between" simply that Christ sends his pastors, his priests, as his ambassadors, to shepherd his people, then I think we're on the same page here, Robert.  We both agree that Christ has sent ambassadors to shepherd his people, and his people are required to listen to them and submit to them.

Robert:  No, there is a great difference between our views and yours!  I'll show you by being more specific:  The Bible says that only God can forgive sins.  When we sin, we are privileged to go directly to God to confess our sins, and he forgives us!  But you Catholics say that we have to confess our sins to a human priest in order to be forgiven.  You've replaced Christ with the priest, making the priest a mediator between God and man when there is only one mediator!

Alfred: The priest does not replace Christ or become another mediator along with him.  Again, the priest functions not as a replacement for Christ or an addition to Christ but as an ambassador of Christ.  The priest is Christ's ambassador to pronounce his forgiveness of sins on the penitent (or to withhold that forgiveness from the impenitent).  This is the authority Christ gave his priests when he gave St. Peter and the apostles the keys of the kingdom, which, as St. John says, includes the authority to retain or remit sins.

Robert: That's a nice-sounding way of putting it, but it's still replacing Christ with the priest as the one who forgives sins!

Greg: But Robert, you Reformed people have exactly the same doctrine.  While you were talking, I was just looking up your Westminster Confession, chapter 30, section 2, which says this, speaking of church officers:

To these officers, the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed: by virtue whereof, they have power respectively to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel, and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.

You see!  You've got the same teaching as the Catholics!  It even uses the word "absolution"!!  Your pastors stand as intermediaries between the people and God, just like Catholic priests!  I've seen this in action.  Just the other day, your church excommunicated one of your former members for living in unrepentant sin!  And you told him that if he repented, he could come back to you and be forgiven and received into the Church again.  You pronounced judgment on him!

Robert: This is not the same!  We do not have private confession, where one person confesses his sins secretly to a priest.  The elders of our churches only deal with public matters.

Greg: OK, so you don't do things exactly the same way.  But in both cases, your ministers are standing in the place of Christ, ministering judgment and forgiveness!  It's fundamentally the same thing, even though the Catholics do it a bit more than you do.

Robert: No, it isn't the same thing!  Another important difference is that we do not believe that the elders of the church are actually forgiving or condemning anyone.  They are simply pronouncing Christ's forgiveness or condemnation, and that fallibly--for after all, they cannot see into people's hearts to determine their inward moral condition.

Alfred: We'd say the same thing, Robert.  When a person confesses sins to a priest, the priest is not originating Christ's forgiveness, or forgiving instead of Christ, but merely pronouncing Christ's forgiveness as his ambassador.  Likewise, when the Church issues a judgment like excommunication.  As you say, these judgments are fallible.  If I go to confession and lie to the priest, saying I am repentant when I am really not, he may pronounce absolution upon me according to my appearance; but God, who sees my heart, still holds me guilty, and I have not received forgiveness.  The priest's absolution assumes, but cannot guarantee, that my words express the true state of my heart.  Similarly, the Church might excommunicate a person, and yet, in that person's heart, he may have mitigated culpability for some reason or another.  God knows.  The judgment of the priests and the Church does not replace the judgment of Christ, but it pronounces it and makes it tangible, though imperfectly, on a human level.

Robert: But we can go to God directly and confess our sins!

Alred: We say the same.  We should go to God directly.  But we should also go to the priest, for our sins put a breach not only between us and God, but also between us and the rest of the Body of Christ.  And God has appointed priests for our help and comfort, to make his grace more tangible to us.

Greg: Robert, you Reformed people say the same thing!  You say we can go to God directly, but then you require people to submit to some human "session of elders."  We can't just say we're sorry to God alone (if our sin is public enough); we have to confess to the elders and receive absolution from them.  They get to say if we're accepted back into the Church or not, as if they are the gatekeepers of Christ's Church instead of Christ!  How repugnant to the Word of God, which allows no human mediators to be added to the unique mediation of Christ!  My view is the true biblical one:  Away with "pastors" and "elders" and "sessions" and "priests" and all other human fabrications that add to the simple relationship of the soul to Christ!  Paul says we should not become servants of men, for we are servants of Christ.  That's why I don't believe in "formal church membership," or "submission to elders," or "ministers in Christ's name exercising the keys."  I don't believe that I have to confess my sins to a priest or to a session, or submit to "censures" from men.  I belong to Christ!  Christ alone accepts me or condemns me!  And he always accepts me, for unlike you two, I believe that I am saved by the grace of Christ alone, and I don't add human works to it and condemnation for "unrepentant sin," diluting the gospel of grace with additional human works and additional mediators.  Solo Christo!  Sola Gratia!  Soli Deo Gloria!

Robert, wishing very much that Greg's praise and worship night had gone on as planned, decides to make one last try.

The Sacrifice of the Mass

Robert: Alfred, I've tried very hard to help you see that you should abandon all of this human tradition for Christ alone, but I don't seem to be getting through to you.  Perhaps one more example of Catholic perversion of the simple gospel will help.  Consider the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist.  You believe that in the Eucharist, Christ is sacrificed again and again in order to save us from our sins.  You don't believe Christ's one sacrifice on the cross was enough.  But the Bible says that he sacrificed himself once for all to take away sin.  You say that Christ is really present in the appearances of bread and wine, and that your priests have the authority to sacrifice him daily, making true atonement for our sins!  How blasphemous!  Christ alone is our mediator, and his priestly work and sacrifice are sufficient!

Alfred: You've seriously misunderstood Catholic teaching on the Eucharist.  We do not believe that Christ is sacrificed over and over again in the Eucharist.  As you say, Christ was sacrificed once for all, and that one sacrifice is fully sufficient to take away all sin.  What happens is the Eucharist is rather that Christ makes himself and the fruits of his sacrifice to be present.  The priests, as Christ's ambassadors, offer up that one sacrifice to God for the forgiveness of sins and give the elements to the people as a means of their receiving and feeding on the one sacrifice of Christ.  Christ's sacrifice on the cross is all we need; the Eucharist is simply God's appointed way in which the Church comes to receive and to share in the fruits of that sacrifice.

Robert: But why does Christ's sacrifice need to be offered up again by the priests if he already offered it up to God on the cross?

Alfred: God chooses to work through means.  Christ's sacrifice was fully accomplished on the cross.  But God likes to use tangible means to bring us in contact with his grace.  He used apostles to write his words in the Bible.  He uses pastors to teach his word to us.  He uses sacraments to provide tangible means of grace to us.  If God has chosen to "activate" the sacrifice of Christ and apply it to his people by means of the sacrament of the Eucharist, who are we to complain?  Again, the Eucharist does not replace the one sacrifice of Christ or add to it; it merely makes it present and applies it.

Robert: Hmm, that's not what I've heard before.

Alfred: It's always wise to consult with original sources.  Also, consider the biblical doctrine of Christ's intercession for us before the throne of God in heaven.  If Christ's sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to take away our sins, why is Christ's intercession in heaven necessary?

Robert: Christ's heavenly intercession does not add to the merits of his sacrifice.  He merely presents that sacrifice before the Father on our behalf.

Alfred: And we would say something similar about the Eucharist.  The priests, on Christ's instructions, lift up Christ's one sacrifice on the cross, made present in the Eucharist, to the Father on behalf of the sins of the world.  This does not imply that Christ's sacrifice was insufficient.  Rather the contrary.

Robert: But you think that the bread and wine actually turn into Christ!  And then you worship the bread and the wine!  Isn't that blasphemous?!

Alfred: You just said we believe the bread and the wine turn into Christ.  If that's so, then when we adore the Eucharistic elements, what are we adoring?

Robert: Well, Christ, I guess.  But it's pretty superstitious to say that what looks like bread and wine really isn't, but is Christ instead!

Alfred: Why is it superstitious to say that what looks like ordinary bread and wine is something more than what it appears to be?  I suppose many have said this with regard to proclaiming Jesus, who looked like a mere human, to be God.  Sometimes we have to go beyond mere superficial appearances in order to follow the evidence.  But let me clarify:  It is not that the Eucharist creates a deceptive illusion.  All we ever experience with regard to bread and wine (or any other physical substance) are the empirical characteristics of those objects--color, texture, taste, smell, shape, etc.--for that is all our senses are designed to sense.  But these empirical characteristics truly remain when the bread and wine become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, when Christ chooses to manifest his presence in them in a unique way.  The substance, or the essential identity, of the bread and the wine have changed fundamentally, for what before was mere bread and wine is now the presence of Christ, but Christ is present under the remaining empirical characteristics of bread and wine.  So we are not seeing an illusion when we see these empirical characteristics; they are just as truly there after the change as they were before.

Robert: But you worship the bread and wine!

Alfred: No, we worship Christ, who is present under the "species"--that is, the empirical characteristics--of bread and wine.  We do not worship the empirical characteristics themselves.

Greg: You know, Robert (Robert groans), you Reformed people really believe the same thing as the Catholics!  Don't you say that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine in communion, and that you truly feed on Christ and receive the benefits of his death on the cross in that sacrament?  I was just reading the Westminster Confession, chapter 29, and it seems to be saying that:

1. Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein He was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of His body and blood, called the Lord’s Supper, to be observed in His Church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of Himself in His death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in Him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto Him; and to be a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body. 
7. Worthy receivers outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.

Robert: No, it's not the same!  We do not say that the sacrament of communion is a sacrifice, but only that it is a means of grace that makes present to believers Christ and his one sacrifice on the cross!

Greg: But that's just what Alfred was just saying.

Robert: But we don't call it a sacrifice!

Greg: OK, but if it's the same thing, well, "a rose by any other name . . ."

Robert: But we say that Christ is only spiritually present, not physically present!

Greg: But the Catholics say that Christ's body is glorified, and so it transcends space and time.  So how is his physical presence different from his spiritual presence?  And that misses the main point anyway, since you both still say that Christ is truly present, and that something real actually happens in communion.  You both think you really feed on Christ and receive grace from his death through this ritual!  You both think that Christ's sacrifice is not enough, but we need this additional ritual to bring its benefits to us.  That's the main thing!

Robert: But we would say that Christ can save us by his cross even without communion--say, for example, if someone can't get to it.  Communion is simply one of the main ordinary ways in which Christ communicates the grace of his sacrifice to us.

Alfred: We say the same, Robert.

Greg: Well, it sounds to me like, just as on the other issues, you guys are birds of a feather!  But I don't play along with all this superstitious nonsense!  In my view, nothing happens in communion.  It's just a way of remembering that Christ died on the cross for us.  It doesn't actually mediate grace.  I trust in Christ alone, and in his death on the cross!  That's all I need.  I don't need some ritual added to Christ and his sacrifice to give me grace.  Christ gives me grace, because he died for me on the cross!  Solo Christo!

Figuring that he's given Alfred enough to think about for one day, Robert decides to call it a night and heads home.  But I think that after this conversation, Robert's view of Catholicism was just a little more sympathetic than it had been before.  Greg, on the other hand, continued to consider them both nuts.

For more, see here and here.

Published on the feast of St. Aloysius Gonzaga

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Role of Hyper-Pietistic Exaggeration in Protestant Thinking

As I've observed the workings of Protestantism over the years, both as an insider and an outsider, one of the things I've noticed is that when Protestantism goes wrong (from a Catholic point of view), it often does so by means of what might be called "hyper-pietistic exaggeration."  What I mean is this:  Various forms or expressions of Protestantism will often latch onto some true doctrine of the Catholic faith, being extremely zealous for that doctrine, and in their zeal they exaggerate that doctrine to the point that the doctrine ends up self-destructing.  Along the way, false dichotomies are often created which pit the true doctrine latched upon against other true doctrines, creating competition where there should rather be complementarity.  The Catholic response, then, is to recognize the good being defended, but to try to help restore some balance.

I will provide a few examples below to illustrate this phenomenon.  However, I would also note that, of course, not all Protestants share all or any of these errors.  I think these are tendencies within certain mainstream Protestant circles, but they are certainly not universal.  Also, in some cases I think it is possible to construe Protestant teaching in ways that avoid these errors.  Sometimes Catholics have too harshly judged certain expressions of Protestantism, not allowing for better interpretations.  This is the case in particular, I think, when it comes to classic Protestant formulations of predestination and free will and justification, as I mention below.  Nevertheless, I think the "hyper-pietistic" tendency is alive and well in much of Protestantism and helps account for many theological conflicts between Catholics and Protestants.

1. Justification.

Whereas Pelagianism and its mitigated sister heresy Semipelagiansim deny the necessity or the sufficiency of the grace of God for our salvation, Protestantism has often tended rather to emphasize the grace of God in our salvation to the point that this drowns out other important true doctrines.  This can be seen in the classic Reformed/Lutheran doctrine of justification.

Catholics hold that no one can be righteous on his own.  Since the Fall of Adam, we are all born in a fallen condition in which we are inclined to sin.  Left to ourselves, we are doomed.  Our only hope is that God sent his Son to die for us, so that his sacrifice and merits might purchase for us forgiveness of sins and the grace necessary to be holy.  That grace is applied to us by the Holy Spirit, who changes our inmost being and makes us holy.  Thus, we can become righteous before God by a gift of his grace.

A good portion of mainstream Protestantism, however, has issues with this scheme.  In their opinion, if we can become truly righteous by grace, this takes away from the glory of God and gives us too much to boast of.  What they want to say instead is that our sins are so great that we can never be righteous before God in our personal lives.  Rather, what happens in justification is that Christ forgives our sins and credits his own righteousness to us, so that his righteousness counts for ours.  We never get to be righteous enough to be acceptable to God, but Christ is righteous for us so that that's OK.  The Holy Spirit does sanctify us and change our lives, but this change does not make us any more acceptable to God, because if there is one sin on our record, no internal righteousness matters at all.  We are still fit only for hell.  So when God looks at us in terms of our personal lives, he sees people who are fit only for hell.  But Christ, as it were, stands in front of us, and God sees that Christ is righteous and acceptable, so he accepts us too because of him.

In this Protestant view, what should have been complementary has become contradictory.  In Catholicism, through the grace of God we can become truly righteous and pleasing to God.  All the glory goes to Christ because it is through the merits of Christ alone that we receive the grace to be righteous.  Christ is holy, and therefore, by his gift, we too can be holy.  But in the Protestant view, it must be either Christ or us.  If Christ is righteous and gets the glory for our salvation, this must imply that we cannot become righteous, for if we could actually become righteous, the glory would proportionably be taken away from Christ.  In its zeal to uphold and defend (and rightly so) the graciousness of our salvation, Protestantism has ended up gutting that salvation by taking away from it the ability to truly make us pleasing to God.

To make an analogy:  When an artist creates a sculpture, we normally say that the artist's praise increases along with the quality of his art.  But the Protestant view is like saying that to the extent that the sculpture becomes beautiful, this takes away praise from the artist; so in order to ensure the praise of the artist, we must maintain that the sculpture is ugly.

2. Grace and free will.

In the Catholic view, grace is the source in us of all our good.  But grace does not do away with our free will.  It is by grace that we become righteous, but we must voluntarily choose to cooperate with grace.  This cooperation itself is a gift of grace, so all is grace, but our free choice is still essential.

Mainstream Protestantism, however, has historically reacted strongly against this view, insisting that if our salvation is owing to the grace of God, there can be no place for the cooperation of free will.  Again, what should be complementary is made contradictory and competitive.  Instead of the Catholic position of "grace, therefore free will," Protestantism has "grace, therefore no free will."

But by undercutting free will, this Protestant view has undercut the very glory of grace.  For it is to the praise of God's grace that it can make the ungodly become godly.  Without free will, however, there can be no moral responsibility.  There can be no sin or righteousness, because these moral qualities belong to the will.  Where there is no will, there is no morality, whether good or bad.  So once again, in its zeal to protect the grace of God, Protestantism ends up protecting grace from its own best fruits and therefore ends up trivializing it.

(Now, as I alluded to above, I should say that in these two matters of justification and free will, there are more positive ways of interpreting Protestantism which do not commit it to these absurdities.  See here and here, for example.  However, many Protestants have indeed held to one or both of these absurdities to one degree or another; and even in cases where the substantial doctrine may be sound, Protestants have maintained arguments with Catholics over the language of Catholic doctrine--such as objecting to the word "cooperation" in connection to free will and grace--and have often created imbalances by means of their own distinctive language.)

3. Sola Scriptura.

The revelation of God is often called in Scripture "the word of God."  In the Catholic view, God has given us his word in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  He has also handed down his word through the teaching and practices--that is, through the Tradition--of the Church.  He has entrusted the Church with the authoritative teaching of the word of God.  So we need all three--the Bible, the Tradition of the Church, and the teaching authority of the Church--in order to rightly understand and apply the word of God.

But instead of seeing these three elements as complementary, Protestantism, since Martin Luther, has pitted the Bible against the other two.  The Protestant attitude tends to be that we must choose between the authority of the Bible and the authority of the Church.  In its zeal to defend the authority of the Scriptures, Protestantism has rejected the authority of the Church and its Tradition.  In this view, if we appeal to the authority of the Church or its Tradition, we must be denigrating the Scriptures and therefore the word of God itself.  The historical result of this false dichtomy has been the splitting of the Church as Protestants pitted their own private interpretations of the Bible against the authoritative teachings of the Church handed down through the ages, causing rifts in the unity of the Church that continue to this day.  Also, although the goal has been to defend the Bible, the result has been the undermining of biblical authority.  Once the Bible has been taken out of its proper context in the Church, it becomes unable to provide what is needed for the maintenence of the people of God.  The Bible simply wasn't designed to function without a context of authoritative interpretation.  It doesn't answer all the questions that need answering.  Therefore, Protestantism's defense of biblical authority has resulted in endless divisions among Protestants as different groups reject the biblical interpretations of others in the name of their own interpretations.  Since everything seems to be interpretation, and often very stretched interpretation as different groups and individuals try to make the Bible answer doctrinal questions it simply doesn't answer, people feel free to dissent from everyone else's interpretations and simply go their own way, making the Bible a wax nose to justify whatever theology has been preferred or adopted.  In many cases, a kind of relativism has resulted as well, as many people to some degree or another have given up hope that clear, conclusive doctrine can be established in many areas, and they have settled down to accepting multiple contradictory doctrinal opinions with apathy.  In fact, I think it is clear that much of the relativism and agnosticism of modern western culture gained ascendency directly as a result of the shattering of Christendom by the Protestant Reformation.

4. The intercession of the saints.

In the Catholic view, God alone is to be worshiped.  But God shares his grace with us, lifting us up to share in his divine life.  He redeemes us from sin and makes us holy.  He adopts us as his beloved children.  Because of God's graciousness to us, we humans can be truly pleasing to God, and God hears our prayers as a Father hears his children.  Therefore, part of a proper honoring of God is an honoring of God's work in his redeemed people.  We honor the saints--those made holy by God's grace.  All of us who have received and followed the grace of God are saints, but some are further along the path to holiness than others.  Some--like the apostles, or Mary the mother of Christ, or those who have died and been perfected by grace and are in the presence of God--are particularly close to God.  We should pray for each other, and ask each other for prayer.  We should especially seek the prayers and intercession of those who are especially close to God.  God listens to our prayers and the prayers of others in this world and often does great good in response to them.  He also responds to the prayers of those made perfect in heaven, to the prayers of the holy apostles and martyrs, and to the prayers of his blessed mother.  God alone is to be worshiped, but we should honor his work in his saints.  Christ alone is the true intercessor--in the sense that he alone has merited all the grace that unites us to God--and yet the saints are also intercessors under him, because Christ has honored us by making us co-workers with his grace.  There is a complementary relationship here.  Christ is God and is the source of all grace, and therefore the saints, through grace, are made holy and praiseworthy and able to intercede for each other under him.

But Protestantism has tended to take this complementarity and turn it into competition.  In the classic Protestant view, if we speak to the saints in heaven and ask for their intercession, we are derogating from the glory of Christ as the one mediator between God and man (although, for some reason, this is not held to be the case if we pray for each other here on earth).  If we honor Mary the Mother of God and the saints, we are taking away the proper worship due to God.  In order to safeguard the worship of God alone and Christ's unique intercessory role, Protestantism abolishes or downplays the glory of God's grace in his redeemed people.  Instead of honoring (on a divine level) Christ and therefore honoring (on a creaturely level) the saints, we must honor Christ and therefore not honor the saints.  Instead of looking to Christ as our mediator with God and therefore also looking for the intercession of God's people redeemed and empowered by Christ's grace, we must look to Christ as our mediator and therefore avoid looking to God's people as subordinate intercessors.  Once again, instead of allowing the stream to be honored by praising how it flows out and gives life to the world, Protestantism tries to honor the stream by stopping up its exits, keeping it underground, and trying very hard to make sure it never gets anything wet.

5. Temptation and sin.

In the Catholic view, Adam's Fall has affected us all, in that we are all born into this world with an inclination to sin which is insurmountable without the grace of God in Christ.  This condition is called "original sin."  In the state of original sin, we no longer have the grace of God given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden which kept them in a right relationship with God.  God's grace enabled their will to be in a right relationship with God, and also enabled their reason to reign over their passions and inclinations.  After the Fall, man has been without this help (apart from Christ and his work of redemption, which brings grace to us once again), and so his will has been averse to God and his reason often falls to his passions.  We are subject to all sorts of disorders which make it difficult for us to be holy and which draw us into sin.  But Catholicism distinguishes between our corrupted condition which makes us prone to sin and sin itself.  Our fallen condition makes us susceptible to various temptations and inclines us to sin, but personal sin, properly speaking, only occurs if our will consents to the temptation.  If, by grace, we resist these temptations, we may still be subject to our fallen corruption, but we are not committing personal sin.

We might illustrate this by referring to same-sex attraction.  In an unfallen condition, people would presumably not be subject to the disorder of same-sex attraction.  In our fallen condition, however, it seems that some people are subject to this.  Our passions have become corrupted such that we are often inclined towards that which is wrong or harmful in all kinds of ways.  However, in the Catholic view, merely having a disordered inclination to same-sex attraction is not itself a personal sin on the part of the person attracted.  If the person resists the temptation and fights against it, choosing to pursue holiness, the temptation can actually become an occasion for the development and expression of great virtue.  If the person chooses with his will, however, to forsake the good and embrace the disorder, now a personal sin has been committed.

Mainstream historic Protestantism, however, has tended to reject the distinction between disordered inclinations (in theological language, "concupiscence") and personal sin.  According to this view, the mere fact of having a disordered inclination constitutes a personal sin.  Just in the past couple of days, I had a conversation with a Reformed Protestant about same-sex attraction.  He maintained that same-sex attraction is itself a personal sin, and therefore anyone who feels attraction to another person of the same sex is by that fact alone engaged in committing personal sin, even if with his will he rejects and refuses to cooperate with the inclination or the attraction.

This position seems motivated by a zeal to honor God by taking sin seriously and refusing to excuse it or mitigate condemnation of it.  But this zeal is taken to such an extreme that it ends up actually undercutting a sense of the seriousness of sin.  If all disordered desires are sins, then it becomes very difficult (to understate the case) to maintain a distinction between temptation and sin.  Inclinations beyond our control are now labeled "personal sin" and we are told we should feel personally guilty for them.  But if I can't do anything about committing sin (because at least some sin is no longer fundamentally voluntary), then I cease to be motivated to do anything about it.  Lack of belief in the possibility of overcoming something naturally leads to apathy about attempting to overcome it.  So the natural end result of this is a kind of apathy towards sin and an excusing of it.  "Oh look, I sinned again!  Well, I do this all the time anyway, and there's nothing I can do about it, so there's no need to worry about it."  With this kind of thinking, it is easy for patterns of real sin to become established in a person's life, since it is believed that there is no moral difference between a person who resists temptation and a person who gives in to it, or at least that the moral difference is greatly diminished because both are still guilty.

If I see sin as something I do from time to time but not all the time, and I can pinpoint particular sins that I have committed, and I have a hope of avoiding these sins by the grace of God, then I might be motivated to fight against sin and work to avoid it.  But if I see sin as something I am always committing all the time, in every action, and there is nothing I can do about it, then it becomes much easier just to let sin slide as an inevitability not worth bothering about.  God will forgive me anyway and let me into heaven whether I stop or not, since otherwise no one could be saved!  Especially if we combine this with the doctrine of justification discussed earlier, this way of thinking can be a potent motivation to trivialize sin.  Thus, once again, an overzealous but not-well-thought-out attempt to protect a true good ends up undercutting that very good.

(When I was a Protestant, I tended to avoid the kind of thinking I am describing here.  I think that one can certainly be a Protestant and avoid it.  But many Protestants have fallen into it.  Even when I was a Protestant, I felt that a lot of people in my Reformed circles tended to have some distortions in this direction.  It is therefore a good example of a common tendency.)

6. Sacraments

In the Catholic view, God often relates to us through means that unite us to him and to his grace.  Certainly the greatest illustration of this is the sacraments.  In the sacrament of Confession, for example, we confess our sins to a priest, who exercises authority from Christ to declare his forgiveness of those sins.  In the Eucharist, or Communion, the fruits of Christ's sacrifice on the cross are made present to us and Christ himself is made present to us through bread and wine and the partaking of bread and wine.  Catholics call the Eucharist itself a sacrifice because in it Christ's one true sacrifice on the cross is offered up to God and its fruits are received by us.

Protestants have historically expressed great concerns over these Catholic ideas.  They have rejected the sacrament of Confession altogether, declaring that since God is the one who forgives sins, there can be no need for confession to a priest.  With regard to the Eucharist, most of them have kept this sacrament, but some of them have turned it into a mere memorial of Christ's death which does not really and truly make present Christ and the fruits of his sacrifice.  Others have kept more of the Catholic idea, but are still greatly uncomfortable when Catholics start talking about how Christ is truly present--body, blood, soul, and divinity--in the sacrament and how the sacrament is a kind of sacrifice in which we truly receive the fruits of Christ's sacrifice and offer that sacrifice up to God.  They say that if the Eucharist is a sacrifice, that must mean that Christ's sacrifice on the cross was insufficient.

Again, we see here the Protestant tendency towards false dichotomies resulting from overzealous protection of real truths.  There is a desire to protect God's sovereignty as the one who forgives sins, and to protect the status of Christ's sacrifice on the cross as the only sacrifice that takes away our sins.  These are good intentions.  But confession to a priest is not a replacement of God's role as the forgiver of sins, but rather a means through which God exercises that role.  The Protestant view is as if one were to say that if a king sends an ambassador, the very existence of the ambassador takes away from the authority of the king.  "So, which will it be?" they ask, "Does the king have authority to give orders, or does the king's ambassador have the authority to deliver the king's orders?"  "Well," we reply, "there's no need to make a choice here.  The answer is yes.  The king has authority to give orders, and he exercises that authority partly in authorizing an ambassador to deliver those orders."  Another analogy:  If I authorize my 17-year-old daughter to give orders to her younger siblings while babysitting, is this the same as abdicating my own authority as a parent?  This seems to be the Protestant way of thinking.  If I have to confess my sins to a priest as God's representative, and he has authority to pronounce God's absolution, then this somehow implies that God's role as the forgiver of sins has been usurped.

With regard the Eucharist, the Protestant view seems to be that either Christ's sacrifice on the cross was the one true sacrifice sufficient to take away our sins or the Eucharist is an offering up of that one sacrifice to God and a partaking in its benefits.  But why make a competition between the source of our salvation and the application of that source to us?  It is like saying that since someone has written me a check, there should be no need for me to cash that check in; and that if I have to cash the check in, that is the same as saying that the check didn't provide for me a sufficient amount of money.  This just doesn't make any sense.  It is a false dichotomy arising out of a less-than-adequately-thought-out pious zeal.

7. Presuppositional apologetics.

"Presuppositional apologetics," at least under that name, is something that was invented by Cornelius Van Til, a Reformed thinker from the first half of the twentieth century.  This narrow school of thought is certainly not representative of the broad spectrum of Protestants.  However, the kind of general attitude expressed in many forms of presuppositional apologetics has often been expressed in Protestant thought in various other contexts as well.  The presuppositionalist attitude thus provides another good example of the Protestant tendencies we've been discussing.

Presuppositionalists point out that God is the Supreme Being.  He is the First Cause, and there is no being behind him, no being from whence he came.  One cannot find anything more ultimate than God.  God is the source of all reality.  God is a necessary being.  Therefore, the existence of God is necessary to posit in order to be able to make sense of any other aspect of reality, even the foundations of reality itself down to the basic laws of logic.

All of this is well and good.  In fact, I think that presuppositionalists have done a great service by calling attention to these crucially important truths and emphasizing them.  But, as with the other examples we've seen, what starts out well ends up going badly as a well-motivated pious zeal becomes unbalanced and ends up creating exaggerations and false dichotomies.

Many presuppositionalists, starting from the propositions mentioned above, argue that it is impermissible to make arguments for the existence of God.  We should instead just assume God's existence without argument.  To make an argument for God's existence, they reason, one would have to place the reasons of one's argument above God.  One would have to start with something before God and derive God from that.  But God can't be derived from anything, they say, because he's God!  So the very attempt to make an argument or to give a reason for believing in God's existence is in its very nature a betrayal of God.  Piety towards God demands that we simply accept him, and that is that.

The problem here is a confusion between ontology and epistemology.  In other words, these presuppositionalists are confusing God's status as the Supreme Being with our need to have a reason to believe that the Supreme Being exists.  It is as if someone were to argue that if we make any attempt to prove that Queen Elizabeth is the rightful queen of England, we have thereby put ourselves above Queen Elizabeth, giving ourselves a higher place of authority than she.  But this is, of course, absurd.  If I give reasons to think that Queen Elizabeth is the queen, this is not the same as actually making Queen Elizabeth the queen.  To examine the evidence to see if Queen Elizabeth actually has the authority she claims to have is not the same as positing some authority higher than Queen Elizabeth which gives her her authority.  Similarly, examining evidence to see if there really is a Supreme Being is not the same as positing the existence of something above the Supreme Being which gives existence to the Supreme Being.  If I say, "If X, then God.  X, therefore God," I am not saying, "X makes God to be God."  X is not usurping God's position.  Rather the reverse.  If X requires God, that means that X is dependent upon God.  I am examining X and determining that X needs God to exist in order for X to exist, and then reasoning that since X exists, God must exist.  Rather than undermining God's supremacy, such an argument simply gives me grounds for recognizing the truth of God's supremacy.

Once again, this very Protestant (and particularly Reformed) movement of presuppositional apologetics starts out with a very well-motivated zeal to emphasize the supremacy of God.  It rightly points out that God is the supreme and necessary Being and that this has fundamental implications for every aspect of reality.  But then it allows that zeal to become unbalanced and to undercut itself.  If God's supremacy means that we are not allowed to examine reasons to believe in God's supremacy, then we can never have any reasons to believe in God's supremacy.  The result is that we must hold the idea of God's supremacy to be groundless (so far as we can see) and therefore foolish to believe in.  So we destroy the idea of God in order to protect the idea of God.

The Catholic view, on the other hand, has a rich tradition of classical apologetics which makes rational arguments to show that God exists (and that he is the Supreme Being), keeping distinct the fact of God's supreme being from how we know that he is.

(I should add that not all forms of presuppositional apologetics make the mistake I discuss here.  Some forms of it are more sound than others.  But the tendency towards overzealous exaggeration remains.)

In conclusion, I think it is valuable to explore and to articulate the tendencies that seem to lie behind many of these Protestant errors.  If we can recognize the causes and the characteristics of erroneous thinking, it makes it harder for that thinking to go undetected and easier for those infected by it to understand alternative points of view.  It is also valuable for Catholics to understand the motivations and concerns that lie behind various Protestant objections to Catholic teaching--which, without such understanding, can often seem mystifying--so that they can address those concerns more effectively.

There are a number of links embedded above for further reading.  In addition to those, for more on the general Catholic doctrine of salvation, see here.  For more on justification, see here and here.  For more on grace and free will, see here and here.  For more on Sola Scriptura, see here and here.  For more on the sacraments, the intercession of the Saints, Mary, and a bunch of other things, see here, here, here, here, and here.