Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Firm Foundation? Knowledge of Revealed Religion

The other day Evan and I got into a discussion about proof of religion, and I wanted to bring it over to the blog. The spark for the discussion was this post about a blogger who decided to convert from the Presbyterian Church of America (a more conservative brand of American Presbyterianism) to Roman Catholicism. Evan actually has a very good comment on the blog critiquing the fault that the convert found with the Presbyterian Church. My bigger concern was this statement (again, from the convert):

“Should I just continue to form opinions and interpretations
with lots of prayer and reflection? Should I just do my best to be part of the
group I feel conforms most closely with Scripture? No, I can't because any
options within this paradigm of Sola Scriptura lead to the same fateful
conclusion that I am my own authority.”
My concern with this approach – and the implicit claim that Catholicism would remove this autonomy – is the fundamental problem that it doesn't recognize that all revealed religion is self-referential and its “own authority”. If we take revealed religion at its word, then the self-referencing authority is a being of some sort. If it’s an all-powerful being, then perhaps that’s reason enough to submit. But the point is, what we’re trying to get at the truth of is precisely the reality of this being. If we’re unwilling to take revealed religion at its word (which presumably we aren’t if we’re asking the question “what is true?” in the first place), then what is self-referencing is the revelation itself. Having lost the author of that revelation we come back to this convert’s initial conundrum: any conclusion based on revelation is going to be a conclusion derived from our own authority, our own interpretation – from ourselves. This is the heart of what it means to have "faith" - it is to trust in your own authority and assessment of something that you have no other evidence for. If you have faith in something someone else told you, then you are authorizing them to provide you with truth, but you are still the source of any authority that you actively or passively ascribe elsewhere (to a text, to a cleric, etc.).

Standard Epistemological Foundation 1: Rationality

Traditionally, standards of what is considered "knowledge" have had to be based on more external foundations. We derive knowledge logically that is indeed contingent knowledge, but it is still independent contingent knowledge. Given a set of axioms and given a set of rules, we say that a deduction is true. This knowledge is contingent on these givens, but it is independent insofar as (1.) the axioms are not argued from authority, but from consensus and mutual agreement, and (2.) there is consensus and mutual agreement on the rules of logic. Nobody can assert axioms or rules on his own authority or on the authority of some magisterium. Moreover, the useful knowledge that we derive in this way is derived. We don't consider the axiom itself to be useful knowledge so much as tautological or definitional knowledge. In Real Analysis, you start with the "field axioms" - all the various real number properties, the existence of the additive identity, the existence of the additive inverse, etc.. Likewise, we axiomatically claim things like "all bachelors are unmarried". The claims of revealed religion (authority of scripture, apostolic succession, reality of God) are treated as axiomatic in this sense (and we can think of theology as the body of knowledge derived from these axioms), but there is a problem with this. Axiomatic claims are supposed to be simple, basic, tautological or definitional if possible, and a starting point of broad agreement and concurrence. Or, if not broadly agreed upon at least useful assumptions (neoclassical economics, for example, is built up from some dubious axioms that we explicitly assume - but then the conclusions we derive are tested for veracity).

With revealed religion or theology, the axiomatic presupposition is in fact exactly what we want to prove! God is assumed. The authority of scripture is assumed. And details are derived from there. This, of course, is backwards. It's a way of churning out volumes of doctrine, but it's not a way to find assurance of the most important questions: is there a God? and has He interacted with us? These important questions are just asserted and the less important questions are the ones that are derived or proven (if we choose to think of the tenets of a faith as axiomatic).

Standard Epistemological Foundation 2: Empiricism

Another epistemologically valid option is inference from empirical observation. This doesn't necessarily have to be rigorous if we're willing to attach an element of doubt. In other words, we can make valuable, useful inferences about the nature of water fowl without strict falsification if we keep in mind the possibility of a black swan. "Almost all swans seem to be white, but I guess there could always be a black one" is a piece of knowledge that we can work with and use in every day life, that is based on empirical evidence, even if it is weaker than the definitive "all swans are white". Revealed religion isn't based on this form of knowledge either. To the extent that people cite empirical evidence, it is exceedingly vague. It is a feeling or an intuition. For a moment we can put aside everything we know about brain chemistry and moments of euphoria, and simply observe that even if this intuition or feeling is genuine, it can't be conclusively attributed. Did it come from the Holy Spirit? Or did it come from Allah? Even assuming that it is a genuine external force acting on us, how do we have any confidence in attribution? Often, the confidence for believers comes from corroboration. An intuition is consistent with Scripture, for example ("test the spirits"). But what value is it to be consistent with Scripture? Again, the authority of Scripture is ascribed (either by oneself or by an institution to whom one attributes authority), not inherent. What revealed religion does is take a prefabricated understanding of the universe and overlays that on top of feelings and intuitions that on their own could not be ascribed to any source. There is something that objectively exists - a feeling, an intuition. That's not the problem and the observation of that feeling or intuition is not the problem. The problem comes from what sort of knowledge is derived from it. To put it in swan terms, revealed religion says "I see many, many white swans and I conclude that the white swans are black swans that have painted themselves white". The problem here isn't the observation per se (the observed white swans are analagous to the spiritual feelings or intuitions that I'm not trying to deny happen) - it is the fact that every important element of the knowledge that we try to derive from these feelings and intuitions is brought to the experience or speculated, and not inherent in the experience itself. Approaching our knowledge of revealed religion as an empirical endeavor is problematic for much the same reason that approaching it as a rational endeavor is: every informational contribution that meets epistemological standards (either rational or empirical) is vague and unattributable to any god, much less a specific god; every informational contribution that provides clarity, specificity, and significance is information that is assumed or self-referential.

This is all obviously extremely problematic. We like to think that the strength of an argument for the truth of a claim should be proportional to the significance of the claim we are making. "I am the Son of the one true God and I have come to Earth to be sacrificed, an act which will absolve your sins" presumably requires considerably more evidence than "the sky is blue". A casual, unscientific empiricism suffices for the latter. And yet the former many of us treat as axiomatic! Why? How? Scripture? That just regresses the problem back one step - what is the authority of Scripture? That too is axiomatic. The convert from Presbyterianism to Catholicism cited earlier is concerned with the shakiness of this step back to Scripture. His solution? The magisterium! But from whence does the magisterium derive its authority? God. And how do we know the magisterium derived its authority from God? Two ways: Scripture and that the magisterium told us so! It's all axiomatic! And unlike definitional axioms like the associative property or “all bachelors are unmarried”, these axioms are complex, specific, and ultimately precisely the points that we wanted to verify!


This may sound harsh to revealed religion, but it shouldn’t be understood that way. What I’m being harsh with are the claims of individuals who make inappropriate claims for revealed religion. Ultimately where all this leads us to is the self. Belief in revealed religion is belief in something that you authorize yourself to consider “true,” not belief in something that any established epistemological standard (either rational or empirical) allows you to claim is true. In terms of the truth-claims of revealed religion all authority is vested in the believer. Now, if those claims are indeed true, then perhaps other types of authority reside elsewhere – perhaps with God. But the claim itself by the believer is made on the authority of the believer. And that believer may delegate authority to a text or to a cleric or to a magisterium. This is what faith is – it is the self-authorization to believe something that you have no justification for believing aside from your own self-authorization to believe it (of course we can mix faith and evidence. I can say “I have faith that my wife won’t cheat on me”, which is based on observational evidence of her past behavior as well as a hope that I authorize myself to maintain for sentimental reasons, or just to keep myself sane).

Being serious and honest about the epistemological problems with revealed religion actually reinforces a lot of what (at least Christianity – particularly Protestant Christianity) has to say about itself. Whether faith is a wise choice is another question entirely, and I’m not even sure how one would answer that question.

I’d conclude with another hesitation – the point that what we are trying to understand here (the existence and nature of God) by definition eludes epistemologically sound verification. We are talking about an invisible or spiritual being that wants to let humans have a substantial degree of free will and free reign. It is a singular being supposedly – we don’t have lots of them to compare and look at, as we do with the classic case of the swans. It is a being that withholds judgment for quite a while. It is a being that said his piece two millennia ago and let a Spirit take the initiative from there. This is a being which, if we were trying to pursue empirically, we would not expect to get very far with. The noise swamps the signal. The appropriate response to this situation isn’t to declare its non-existence, but to say that we “fail to reject the null hypothesis”. We can’t make a claim one way or another, but we do declare that we are unable to embrace the affirmative.


  1. Whenever the subject turns to religion this is my bit of boilerplate:

    I'm an atheist; via long experience in dealing with and discussing this and allied subjects I've come to the conclusion that as long you don't advocate that I be killed, imprisoned, etc. for that viewpoint, I in the main don't care what you believe.

  2. I guess this could be viewed as rather close minded, but I've heard, read, etc. every theist argument that can be mustered; none were convincing. If you do not believe in "God" no "rational argument" regarding an "uncaused cause," etc. is going to convince you of that.

  3. I agree, and to be fair to Evan (see subsequent response), I don't think he puts much stock in those sorts of "proofs of God" either. If he sees any value in them (perhaps he does), I highly doubt he sees them as decisive or air-tight or something to build a worldview on.

  4. Informed Catholics do not believe that the Pope and the Magisterium are authoritative simply because they say so, or even because they (we) believe that there is evidence for their claims from Scripture (which we do believe). John Henry Cardinal Newman, a Catholic convert from the Church of England: "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." It's not a matter of merely accepting axiomatic claims. It's a matter of reaching conclusions from careful study of *many* different kinds of data, that of history being a crucial one.

  5. In the first sentence of my comment, the second "they" actually refers to "we" Catholics. I apologize for the lack of clarity there.

  6. Daniel,

    Belief comes first, then the justifications for it.

    Christopher Lake,

    "It's a matter of reaching conclusions from careful study of *many* different kinds of data, that of history being a crucial one."

    Well, my careful study of religion (including religion) tells me that religion and/or theistic belief is a human made construct. Anyway, the Catholic Church has moderated its own view of its history in recent years; particularly with regards to its foundations (partly because there is no evidence for such claims that doesn't start with the "Church Fathers" - and they came along long after that supposed founding). See the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission's statements on these matters.

  7. (Sorry for the extra long comment, I even had to break it up into two!)

    Hi Daniel - I won’t try to touch on everything in your (very clear and good) post but I’ll try to make a few (sort of) meta-epistemological considerations. Evan, if you paid at all attention to the conversation we were having on Tony’s thread this will look familiar.

    “This is the heart of what it means to have "faith" - it is to trust in your own authority and assessment of something that you have no other evidence for. If you have faith in something someone else told you, then you are authorizing them to provide you with truth, but you are still the source of any authority that you actively or passively ascribe elsewhere (to a text, to a cleric, etc.).”

    Even if the way you’ve construed the practice of self-authorization by authorizing an external authority to deliver truth is correct (and I’m not sure yet, honestly) it would be trivially correct to this discussion because it would also be true of vast amounts of our knowledge; that is knowledge gained by testimony.

    I take it that I know my social security number - this seems like a clear case of knowledge. But I know it because I authorized my card to bring me truth - that’s testimonial evidence. I could find my social security number in some government database - that would be more testimony. I could find the original clerk or system that assigned the number - that would be more testimony. I highly doubt there is way to reason from “axioms” up to knowledge of my social security number and I don’t see any way to get more empirical about it - I’ll still be relying on testimony. This would hold true for my own name, the city I live in, that your name is Daniel and have a brother named Evan and loads of other beliefs that we’d reasonably call knowledge (or at least I would, given your epistemological criteria you may be intentionally limiting what can count as knowledge). My point here is not that revelation is akin to my social security card only that your way of defining faith is actually a very common doxastic practice (and this gets us closer to Evan’s comment about faith being a more normal epistemic state) and not something specific to religious belief. If you intend for the doxastic practice of self-authorizing a testimonial authority (as you construed it) to be unique to religion than I think an argument to why that is the case is in order if it’s not unique to religion than it seems to me its trivially true in this discussion.

  8. I think in your discussion of rationality as an epistemological foundation you’re really articulating something like foundationalism albeit with a Kuehnian twist. In classical foundationalism what can serve as a basic belief and so a foundation (or axiom in your terminology) for knowledge would be 1) self evident truths (such as “all bachelors are unmarried”) or 2) immediate sense perception (such as I seem to see a tree or I’m being appeared to treely). All other beliefs would need to be derived from those axioms. In Kuehnian foundationalism axioms should be 1) simple, basic, tautological or definitional if possible (and I’m not exactly sure what that means, does it just mean self evident?) and 2) based on broad agreement. So Kuehnian foundationalism is a little more giving (I think anyway) than classical foundationalism but I think it suffers the same fate.

    Classical foundationalism fails because its basically incoherent, self referentially inconsistent. With classical foundationalism to count as knowledge a belief would have to be self evident, a case of sense perception, or derivable (deductively, inductively, etc) from those foundations. But of course that belief itself - that knowledge needs to be construed that way isn’t basic - it isn’t self evident or known by sense perception - and no one has ever been able to come up with an argument for it based solely on basic beliefs. So it can’t live up to its own standards. It isn’t difficult to see how the same will be true of Kuehnian foundationalism. What we would need for Kuehnian foundationalism to succeed would be 1) tighter definitions and criteria for the axioms and 2) an argument that proceeds from those axioms that can support the idea itself and that happening anytime soon seems implausible to me.

    All that is to say is that it isn’t so easy to determine what counts as a basic (or axiomatic) belief. Why are we so sure that its somehow wrong or irrational to believe in God in the basic way (or axiomatically)? Wy must God be believed in at the end of a chain of reasoning for that belief to be rational? Presumably you would say because its not basic or simple (again self evident I guess) or doesn’t have broad agreement (how broad? the vast majority of people throughout history have believed in God) but I don’t see any reason to limit what can server as an epistemic foundation to that criteria.

    I’m already afraid this is too long of a blog comment so I’ll cut the discussion of here.

  9. Christopher -
    But what does history tell you? That there is a long succession of self-style apostles that make the same claim for themselves?

    I'm not saying it's an illegitimate belief to hold - I'm saying it's a belief that you've authorized yourself to hold. It's not a belief that you can justify.

    You mention "ceasing" to be Protestant, but how would that study of history convince anyone outside any Christian tradition? Ultimately belief in religion is self-authorized. It is not knowledge that we obtain, it is a system that we choose to adhere to. It doesn't matter how much history you harken back to - Protestants harken back to the church fathers too.

  10. RE: "And how do we know the magisterium derived its authority from God? Two ways: Scripture and that the magisterium told us so! It's all axiomatic!"

    The proof that organized religion offers suffers from circular logic. To prove they have the word of God, they cite books that say so. It's a logical fallacy, as you vehemently imply, to offer as evidence the very subject we are debating.

    You spoke about about rational theistic arguments (St. Aquinas' cosmological, and the like). I remember discussing these in my philosophy class and how absurd they all were. Ultimately, all "logical proofs" of the existence of God are fallacious because they all invoke serious errors.

    Reminds me a bit of the beginning to this video:

    The first 2 minutes are most relevant, but it's all good information.

  11. Xenophon & Daniel,

    Regarding theistic arguments I don't put a ton of stock in them either - that is as a believer I wouldn't say I believe based on any of the traditional theistic arguments. However, they are often held to a standard that no other philosophical arguments are held to. They're rejected because to don't "prove" the existence of God, because there are ways out, because the conclusion doesn't necessarily follow from the premises.

    But all of that is true of virtually every interesting philosophical argument that exists. It's exceedingly difficult to "prove" anything at all in the way that people often expect theistic arguments to prove the existence of God to be useful as arguments.

  12. Christopher Lake, the quote you bring up from Newman was posted earlier today at the Ignatius Press blog as well... do they teach you this in catechism or something?

    It's cute, if odd... but mostly it's just a load of crap. I really don't know how to respond to it other than that.

  13. I'd agree with mike on the theistic arguments... they are perfectly true, convincing, and appropriate... if one understands to what use they should be put and what sort of scrutiny is appropriate for them.

    So with regard to Daniel's guess on my approach to something like the ontological proof, I actually do find it compelling as a speculative statement about the existence of God. I don't think that means that a non-believer will go through the argument and be compelled to affirm the existence of God.

    ...also, I've posted a response to Daniel. I don't know if people are just congregating here for comments or if there's more to discuss of Daniel's original post, but just so you know.

  14. mike d,

    "However, they are often held to a standard that no other philosophical arguments are held to."

    That's partly because many theists treat them 'slam dunk' arguments (I've actually had a theist tell me this on numerous occasions).

    But as I said above, I'm perfectly happy with a theist believing what they want (provided the limits I put on that). In some ways - and this is really the influence of Spinoza on me coming out here I will admit - I think there are just more interesting things to be in controversy over than religion.

  15. OK, I have a lot of comments to work through. First this one, mike d -

    "it would be trivially correct to this discussion because it would also be true of vast amounts of our knowledge; that is knowledge gained by testimony."

    I would argue that much of the parallel you're trying to draw probably isn't quite comparable. Yes, we do rely on testimony for knowledge. But there is an ultimately underlying question of the quality of the testimony. I will believe the testimony of a physicist because I believe they have access to knowledge that I don't - and I will use their testimony as a source of knowledge. The same goes to the testimony of the witness of an event. But the testimony of a spiritual authority doesn't have the same access to the knowledge that they testify to for precisely the reasons that I outline in the post. You are relying on their own expression of faith which you have faith in them to give. But neither of you are supplying knowledge of anything.

    So testimony is certainly valid, if in need of scrutinization. But the quality of the testimony and the reasons why we expect testimony to provide valid knowledge are important.

  16. As for the rest of what you call "knowledge" in that post (SSNs, our names, etc.) - you've observed things and you have reason to believe that that information is valid.

    What reason do you have to believe that an old man in robes knows anything about the mind of an awesome being called God? Seriously ask yourself - why would you ever assume that he would know anything about such a thing?

    You'll come up with a couple answers - but interogate them. Scripture? What is the source of authority of any given text? Work through them all.

    And then ask yourself - on a question as momentous as this, is the quality of that testimony strong enough? I call myself Daniel and everyone else calls me Daniel. That is quite strong truth that the label "Daniel" is attached to my person. Do you have anything that valid butressing your idea of God? Ultimately no - it's something you allow yourself to claim. It's something you have faith in.

    Because what I'm labeled is a relatively trivial thing. For a more important thing, like who God is, you would presumably want to guard even more carefully against being lead astray.

  17. Mike d -
    One of the problems I had writing this post was that I really didn't feel philosophically qualified - but you were privy to that original facebook discussion and we just thought it was worth giving it a shot. Anyway, part of my lack of qualification is that I don't really have the chops to evaluate what you said on classic foundationalism. I suppose I'm being a foundationalist of sorts if you say so. I simply understand knowledge to be derived from two sources: reason and observation. Knowledge derived from reason is contingent on the truth of your axioms, while knowledge derived from observation is contingent on the validity and true interpretation of your observations. They seem to both fall into foundationalism together, so fine - I'm a foundationalist.

    So what is your solution? To knock foundationalism down? More on that in an upcoming post.

    One more point on why I don't think God is a good axiom. He is broadly agreed upon to a certain extent - but WHICH God is agreed upon? That's one major problem. But the bigger problem is simply that you don't assume that which we're interested in proving! We don't claim to have KNOWLEDGE of axioms - we just assert them. They may have a degree of empty knowledge if they are definitional ("all bachelors are unmarried"), but they don't offer anything of importance on their own. They are assumed. So nobody in this discussion should be assuming God anyway if the whole task is to prove him, and if anybody does insist on assuming him it really proves my point - that we authorize ourselves to believe - we are not justified in belief. And that's fine. Again - that's faith.

  18. Xenophon,

    "That's partly because many theists treat them 'slam dunk' arguments (I've actually had a theist tell me this on numerous occasions)."

    I don't doubt it, there is plenty of triumphalist pop apologetics out there. On the other side though its not as if we theists don't hear the problem of evil pulled out as if its some magic theistic belief killing tonic, or some vague mention of noodle monsters as if that settles all matters. The annoyance of such (all too quick) claims probably depends on where you sit.

    I guess what I was commenting on is almost more institutional. I remember the philosopher Peter VanInwagen noting that the famous W.K. Clifford paper The Ethics of Belief which includes the quip "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." has traditionally been included in philosophy of religion anthologies but not in epistemology anthologies (in recent years that has change, I think).

    The demand for demonstrably valid arguments for belief in God in a constant refrain from unbelievers even though they (how could they not) accept all sorts of philosophical arguments (about important things even) without that sort of proof.

  19. I think the Clifford quote is exactly what Daniel has offered, too, at the end of the post:

    The appropriate response to this situation isn’t to declare its non-existence, but to say that we “fail to reject the null hypothesis”. We can’t make a claim one way or another, but we do declare that we are unable to embrace the affirmative.

    In this sense it seems quite relevant not just to Xenophon, but also to Daniel (who seems to take a more open stance towards theological knowledge). The question, I suppose, is whether we should take our lead from the epistemology anthologies that do not emphasize this standard so prominently, or the philosophy of religion anthologies that continue to do so.

  20. mike d,

    "On the other side though its not as if we theists don't hear the problem of evil pulled out as if its some magic theistic belief killing tonic, or some vague mention of noodle monsters as if that settles all matters. The annoyance of such (all too quick) claims probably depends on where you sit."

    Oh, I agree. I can't stand the behavior of many of my "brethren." Of course most thinking atheists do seem to grow out of that phase - the evangelical atheist phase.

  21. RE: "The question, I suppose, is whether we should take our lead from the epistemology anthologies that do not emphasize this standard so prominently, or the philosophy of religion anthologies that continue to do so."

    I don't read straight epistemology, but I think you're much more likely to find "reject the null" rather than "disprove" language in the empirical literature than in the theological literature.

  22. Evan,

    I was not raised as a Catholic, or really, even as a conscious, informed Protestant. For over a decade, I was a skeptic, regarding *any* Christian claims. I certainly did not take catechism classes as a child, and as an adult convert to the Catholic faith, the "catechism classes" that I took were not accurate, regarding official Catholic teaching. For better or worse, I had to read the official Catholic Catechism and the early (and later) Church Fathers, in order to find out what the Church actually teaches (and what, in context, she has *always* taught).

    All of the above is in reply to your "question," as to whether Newman's quote, "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant," is taught to Catholics in catechism classes. I found the quote myself and confirmed it to be true through my own study, as a skeptic towards Catholicism.

    Have you read the writings of the early, pre-Nicene, Church Fathers? If you have read them (in context, that is, not as often quoted by Protestants), I am curious, as to how you find Newman's quote so easy to dismiss.

    The earliest centuries of writings from the early Fathers (from Ignatius of Antioch, circa 106, A.D. to, say, Ambrose, in the 380s) show that the early Church was clearly not "Protestant" in doctrine and practice but Catholic (or at least, Eastern Orthodox-- but definitely *not* Protestant).

    If you truly think that Newman's quote is "a load of crap," you might want to visit "Called to Communion," a site set up by largely seminary-trained former Reformed Protestants who did the Scriptural and historical research and were ultimately convinced by the claims of the Catholic Church.

  23. Christopher Lake -
    I'm not going to speak for Evan, but I think you're discounting the extent to which one can:

    1. Read the early church fathers
    2. Recognize their Catholicism
    3. Respect them deeply, and
    4. Still take issue with at least part of their interpretation of the faith

    And this is even accepting your intepretation of the early church fathers, which I'm not qualified to evaluate one way or another.

  24. I was joking about the Newman quote being taught in catechism... I figured it wasn't, I was simply amused that it had been making the rounds yesterday on the blogs in anti-Protestant polemic.

    Perhaps you've quoted Newman out of context yourself and so I don't know what he was getting at, but I'm not clear on why the identification of a continuity between the present Roman Catholic Church and early church fathers would make Newman more difficult to dismiss. I'm not denying that there are significant continuities present, and I'm not saying that the early fathers approximated something like American Evangelical Christianity. Not by a long shot. So? Does that mean I've ceased to be Protestant? I don't get it.

    All that said, and granting as much of the patristic patrimony to Rome as you like, it's also worth pointing out the close ties of Protestantism with the Patristic heritage. The Reformers were constantly drawing from the early fathers to critique what they found to be more recent deviations from that norm. And interestingly, many renewals of interest in patristic (and specifically Augustinian) thought by Roman Catholics have been met with skepticism by the hierarchy, specifically because such a focus seemed too Protestant... think Pascal, or De Lubac. While I certainly wouldn't deny that the Roman Catholic Church is "deep in history", I'm not clear on why you (or Newman) think this is somehow lacking in Protestantism.

    On Called to Communion and other converts from Protestantism, I'd only say that I don't doubt people cease to become Protestant for historical reasons. That doesn't mean there's some sort of essential link between historical depth and Protestant defection the way that Newman posits it, however. Plenty of people have become Protestants because of historical consciousness. Plenty of people who were born and remain Protestants are quite historically conscious, formed, and informed (I'd be bold enough to include myself in this number). In light of this, I'm curious about how you find Newman's quote so easy to accept.

  25. I highly recommend Bart Ehrman's "The Corruption of Orthodox Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament."

  26. Ugh. I think I'd prefer Lake's recommendation on Newman, but thanks.

  27. Xenophon and Daniel,

    Respectfully, we disagree on basic foundations of epistemology, without even getting into Christian/Catholic/Protestant claims, so we are really speaking different languages. I respect where you are coming from (though I radically disagree), but I came here mainly to engage with Evan, in response to comments that he left elsewhere, on the blog for Ignatius Press, a Catholic publisher. I'm not really up for a foundational epistemological debate, regarding any claims of revealed religion. I settled that issue, to my satisfaction, years ago.

    I am here to discuss issues that Evan raised regarding Catholicism and Protestantism. If you would like to consider epistemological claims for the truth of Christianity, you might want to try Reason to Believe: Why Faith Makes Sense, by Richard Purtill, an emeritus professor of Philosophy at Western Washington University (Bellingham, WA).

  28. Christopher -
    My epistemology might be clarified in my subsequent post, but I imagine there are still differents. Xenophon is a hopeless cook (jk). Ultimately I made a point that was virtually identical to Evan's, so I'm not sure what all your fuss is about.

    Xenophon -
    Never read Ehrman personally - he's always intrigued me though. You're not going to convince Evan on it, though - we've discussed him before. That textual criticism stuff is ultimately something an outsider has a tough time critiquing. Ehrman seems to know his stuff. Other people seem to think Ehrman is completely wrong. But he's obviously intelligent and well read. How can we really arbitrate? I can't at least. But he always seems to raise interesting points, regardless of where it ultimately takes anyone.

  29. *kook

    he may be a cook as well, I really don't know

  30. Ehrman knows his stuff, sure... and if Lake wants to bring up the ante-Nicene fathers, he'd be interested to know (not to imply that he doesn't, of course) that Ehrman edited the new edition of the Apostolic Fathers volumes in Loeb. He's also edited the new edition of Metzger's classic work on New Testament criticism. What frustrates me about Ehrman is that for such a genuinely smart guy, he sure panders to the most sensationalist aspects of the field. So it's not that he hasn't done good work... it's that he chooses to write crap as well.

  31. ...also interesting to note, while we're on the topic of emigrants from Protestantism... Ehrman went to my evangelical alma mater (Wheaton College), but apostatized in grad school because of... of all things... historical criticism.

    So yes, being "deep in history" can do a lot of things to you, and sometimes these things lead you away from Protestantism. To all sorts of exotic destinations.

  32. OK... but if he's right, isn't it everyone else that's pandering?

    I mean - there's a point where your interpretation of how sensational he is is going to be dependent on your interpretation of how accurate he is.

  33. Are you asking whether I disagree with some of Ehrman's conclusions? Yeah.

    The sensationalist stuff has to do with his thoughts on things like the Gospel of Judas and other apocryphal texts, or biblical inspiration, or the legitimacy of the orthodox (lower-case "o") tradition, etc. I think a lot of this is distinguishable from the legitimate historical work that he does.

  34. dkuehn,

    I'll be cooking a strawberry cake for midsummer.

    Oh sure. Anyway, I think one of the tasks Ehrman has put before himself is to bring that textual criticism out of academia and to the general public. That's certainly his avowed goal in "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why."

  35. I thought the legitimacy of the orthodox tradition and what they did with the text was a point of a lot of his historical work.

    The Judas stuff may be speculative, but I thought it was fairly in keeping with his scholarly work.

    Isn't a lot of the Judas work new? It seems like something that you HAVE to be speculative about to a certain extent. Didn't they just find it this century?

  36. dkuehn,

    JordgubbstÄrta is the name of the cake in Swedish.

  37. While I'm no expert on apocryphal literature, what I understand of the whole Gospel of Judas thing is that it was sort of marketed into the ground by National Geographic (or whoever published the popular-level stuff on it) simply because it was a hot topic (and Dan Brown fits into this whole phenomenon), and people like Ehrman and Pagels were happy to jump on the bandwagon. The extent to which lost gospels and other apocryphal work has been bloated in importance by the media, general public, and popularizers like Ehrman is way out of proportion to its actual historical or theological significance, to an extent that I think can't be explained away simply by the fact that it's new and attracts a bit of speculation.

    On the legitimacy of the orthodox tradition... it certainly fits into his historical work, but charting historical transmission and speaking on theological legitimacy are two quite different tasks... I'd think that a recognition of the strong distinction here would actually go along pretty naturally with the epistemological point of your post.

  38. Evan,

    My road to, away from, and back to, the Catholic Church has been a very long one, involving much more study than is apparent by the fact that I know Cardinal Newman's quote. For years, I was a convinced Reformed Protestant who attended a church with teaching elders who had advanced degrees in church history (all from Cambridge, I believe). The level of ecclesiastical knowledge, among the parishioners of this church, was also, in my experience, higher than what one would find in many Protestant churches. These facts are in addition to my own personal study of church history. I am not a former Protestant who simply read Catholic claims somewhere, found some sources to "verify" them, and then decided to reconcile myself to the Catholic Church.

    This has been a process involving both serious study (of, in part, conflicting historical claims by Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and "secular" scholars) and prayer. I did not quote Cardinal Newman out of context. He was a leader in the Church of England, at a time when Anglicans simply did not convert to the Catholic Church. To do so was unthinkable, among Anglicans, and meant loss of reputation, friends, and possibly, one's livelihood. However, Newman studied Anglican and Catholic claims, in light of history, including the writings of the Church Fathers, and found that in order to keep his intellectual and spiritual integrity, he had to come to the Catholic Church. His books, "Apologia Pro Vita Sua" and "An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,"
    respectively, tell the story. Said story is worth considering for any Protestant.

    Obviously, one *can* read the Church Fathers without coming to believe that they verify the truth of the claims of the Catholic Church. Theoretically, one can read *anything* and not reach *certain* conclusions, regarding said reading. However, in my time of study, discernment, and ultimately, returning to the Church, I have encountered so many honest, very well-read and well-educated, former Protestants (many of them ordained ministers in Protestant churches) that, knowing what I now know, it seems strange for other Protestants to *not* want to seriously study what these men and women have studied, to see if their conclusions are, in fact, true.

  39. But we do study what these men and women have studied! I don't know where you've gotten the idea that we haven't! Is it simply that there hasn't been a mass exodus to Rome? I'm not sure what to tell you, Christopher. Evangelicals, of all people, are flooding PhD programs in patristics these days... Catholic universities can't attract enough Catholics to fill these programs, but Protestants are doing a fine job of filling the ranks. I simply don't understand why some anecdotal evidence of historical depth as a cause for conversion to Rome (which I've never denied!) leads you to assert certain things about Protestantism.

  40. Also, Evan,

    If you want to interact with some (certainly not all, by any means!) of the formally educated and trained former Protestants, and now Catholics, who I mentioned in my previous comment, go to

    A few of the *best* articles there are a bit lengthy, and the comments sections can also become *quite* lengthy (and lively!), but there are many other articles at the site which do not take much time at all to read but which *do* contain much relevant historical and/or theological food for thought.

  41. Thanks... I am familiar with Called to Communion and have read their stuff for a while, if not regularly.

  42. By way of shameless promotion, Christopher, you may be interested in reading a recent article of mine about Protestant-Catholic issues: "Fullness of the Spirit and Fullness of Catholicity in Ecclesial Communion". It's a bit more theological than historical, painting a pretty broad brush for the historical background, but you might find it interesting. Email me if you'd like a pdf.

  43. Evan,

    Did I assert, anywhere in my previous comments, that Protestants *do not* study early Church sources? Actually, I asserted just the opposite-- which makes your protestations (no pun intended!) simply seem odd here.

    I already mentioned that for years, I was a member of a Reformed Protestant church in which two of the elders had advanced degrees in Church History, and the parishioners (some of whom also had seminary degrees) were also much more widely read than the average, everyday Protestant. Would that not mean, by simple virtue of logic, that they (both the church leaders and parishioners) studied many of the same sources which other Protestants study, and which, sometimes, lead them honestly to the Catholic Church?

    The question is, therefore, not simply reducible to which people have studied which sources. What I *have* heard, from the mouths of seminary-educated Protestant ministers, is that in their seminaries, they studied early Church sources (such as the writings of the Fathers) but often in part, not in whole, and/or in a highly "slanted" way, as taught by Protestant professors. Why not read complete early writings of the Fathers themselves, from the original sources, and *not* as taught/interpreted from within a Protestant framework? Why not read Cardinal Newman's writings and engage with his careful reasoning, which led him out of Protestantism and into the Catholic Church?

  44. Well, I can't speak for folks who are taught the history with a Protestnat ideological slant. This sort of education wasn't what I was referring to above (I even mentioned Protestants earning terminal degrees in Catholic institutions!).

    So yes, why not read complete early writings of the Fathers and of more recent Catholic lights? I've got no problem with that.

  45. Evan,

    I will definitely e-mail you for that pdf. Thanks!

    By the way, you're in the Wheaton, IL area-- are you familiar with Dr. David Anders? He graduated from Wheaton College (and later, received an M.A. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) and specialized in Calvin studies. He became a Catholic in 2003. If you haven't already read it, he wrote an article, "How John Calvin Made Me a Catholic," which can be found here:

  46. Evan,

    Let's be blunt; one of the main reasons that Ehrman gets a lot of bad press by those who do not like his work is due to his agnosticism. That shouldn't be that surprising; much of biblical study is done with the specific agenda to "prove" the verity of the Bible.

    Anyway, do you really consider agnosticism to be "exotic" (which is just an absolutely off the wall notion from my perspective)?

    Finally, it isn't as if Ehrman's thoughts come out of nowhere; they are in many ways an extension of the work of Walter Bauer.

  47. Evan,

    The tricky thing about studying in many contemporary "Catholic" universities, in our strange and interesting times, is that in more than a few of these universities (Georgetown, Notre Dame, Loyola, Boston College, among others), some (not all) of the professing "Catholic" theologians are actually *hostile* to the Church and her historic claims and teachings. There are genuinely Catholic universities out there, but they often aren't the "big names." Ok, I'm off to e-mail you for that paper! :-)

  48. Anyway, I think it is good for Christians to finally be uncomfortable in matters like this - goodness knows they've claimed a monopoly on truth and been bullies about it for long enough.

  49. The tricky thing about studying in many contemporary "Catholic" universities, in our strange and interesting times, is that in more than a few of these universities (Georgetown, Notre Dame, Loyola, Boston College, among others), some (not all) of the professing "Catholic" theologians are actually *hostile* to the Church and her historic claims and teachings. There are genuinely Catholic universities out there, but they often aren't the "big names."

    I just don't buy this. I mean, sure, there are some. But I think this is a criticism taken entirely out of proportion by people like those who congregate on the Ignatius Press blog. I think it's more ideologically driven than accurate.

  50. Evan,

    In regard to my negative claims about "Catholic" education, I speak from first-hand knowledge and experience, not from any kind of "Catholic ideology." One of the reasons that I left the Catholic Church, fifteen years ago (becoming an atheist, essentially, and then, later, a Reformed Protestant, and now, back to the Catholic Church, finally understanding her accurately for the first time), is that in my catechism classes to enter the Church, I was taught by a priest who misrepresented and contradicted official Church teaching.

    He told me that I didn't even need to bring the Catechism to my classes-- which makes sense, considering that he himself didn't seem to believe much of what was in it. That priest may have helped in driving me to atheism, but it wasn't because of my disagreements with Catholicism. He simply didn't *teach* me Catholicism.

    I have heard too many other, similar stories about "Catholic" higher education to believe that they are (in your words) "more ideologically driven than accurate."

  51. Xenophon,

    As a skeptic, growing up in the "Deep South" region of the U.S., I am all too familiar with "Christian" bullies. In light of what I endured there in those years, it is a near-miracle that I ever even decided to study Christianity objectively-- much less become a Christian myself (elsewhere and years later).

  52. Xenophon,

    Sorry-- I should have written, "As a skeptic, who *grew* up in the 'Deep South'...." Many years ago now, and many scars later....

  53. To clarify for the curious or the (understandably!) confused, my spiritual trajectory is as follows:

    1. Nominal, largely cultural, "Christian" childhood (Christian in name only though).

    2. Over a decade of skepticism/agnosticism.

    3. Brief journey to/embracing of the Catholic Church in college.

    4. Many more years of outright atheism/skepticism.

    5. Several years as a convinced, studied Reformed Protestant.

    6. Now, this year, returning to the Catholic Church, from serious, careful studying of her own documents (Bible, church Fathers, other historical/church documents).

    7. Death (hopefully a good while away though!). :-)

  54. That priest may have helped in driving me to atheism, but it wasn't because of my disagreements with Catholicism. He simply didn't *teach* me Catholicism.

    This strikes me as a problem with the Roman Catholic priesthood, rather than with historical studies in higher education.

  55. ...nevermind the fact that it's far afield from our original point, which was the extent of Protestant engagement with the historical tradition.

  56. Evan,

    It's not really "far afield from our original point," given that this "Catholic" priest was educated and ordained at a "Catholic" seminary-- but yet, he basically taught me *Protestant* theology in my catechism classes. He was, seemingly, a Protestant in Catholic clothing. At least self-confessed Protestants are consistent.

  57. Well, the deck seems rather stacked in your favor when you dismiss all historical work done by Protestants and all historical work done by Catholics that strikes you as crypto-protestantism. It's becoming more clear to me why you've taken Newman's quote so much to heart. Who wouldn't, given these standards? Of course we Protestants seem historically shallow to you! How could we possibly seem otherwise?

  58. I'd also recommend the work of Robert M. Price.

  59. Evan,

    I don't dismiss "all historical work done by Protestants"-- not at all. Respectfully, I ask you to please think through what I am actually saying in my comments. At times, you seem to want to quickly jump to conclusions that are not warranted by my actual comments.

    Many Protestant scholars have researched the early Church Fathers, as I have, and have found, as I have, that their view of theology and ecclesiology is quite "Catholic." *However*, having said that, many of these same Protestants don't reach "Catholic-friendly conclusions" (or Catholic conversions!) as a result of their research-- and that fact *does not* mean that I dismiss all of their research.

    Some of these Protestant scholars reach other conclusions from their work, such as that dangerous heresy (two examples being, baptismal regeneration and a belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist) crept into the early Christian church and was not rectified until some time during the Protestant Reformation. Other Protestants also find these beliefs in the early Church Fathers, but they believe that there are other, conflicting, contradictory statements from other Fathers. I haven't reached these conclusions, but other Protestants have, and the fact that they have done so does not cause me to "dismiss" all of their historical work.

    The current 38 volumes of the complete English translations of the Church Fathers is published by Eardman's, a Protestant publishing company, and it contains anti-Catholic footnotes about "Romanists." Does that mean that I will not buy this set and avail myself of the work that Protestants have done therein? Of course not. Actually, many Protestants whom I know of, who *have* converted to Catholicism, have done so, partially as a result of buying this very set of the Fathers, translated, footnoted, and published by Protestants. Obviously, in that light, Catholic converts from Protestantism are not so blithely dismissive of historical work done by Protestants.

  60. Is your problem simply with Schaff's use of the term "Romanist"? I think that can simply be chalked up to generational nomenclature. He had doctrinal disagreements, of course, so of course he (and others working on the project) would bring up these when they were relevant... but scholarly disagreement isn't the same thing as base prejudice. They even use some of Newman's translation work for the set, as I recall. I'd hardly call it anti-Catholic simply because it's non-Catholic.

    But the point remains that you'd use it rather than dismiss it. Fine. I guess I'm still trying to figure out, then, what you take Newman to mean when he says "to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant". Was Schaff not a Protestant? Or not deep in history? You seem to be saying that he was legitimately deep in history (at least to an extent that you'd make use of his Church Fathers series). And you certainly seem to say that he's a Protestant. Doesn't this mean that Newman is wrong?

  61. Evan,

    Sorry for not responding earlier. I didn't see your most recent comment until today.

    About the term "Romanist," its use is not the only problematic issue with Schaff's footnotes, but it is indicative of a larger anti-Catholic mindset in said footnotes. Anyone who is very familiar with Reformed (Calvinist) Christian writings from, say, the 1600s until the 1950s, and Christian fundamentalist writings up to the present day, will recognize the term "Romanist" as an anti-Catholic slur. It is never used in a merely neutral way. A closer equivalent would be the use of the "N word" for African-Americans, but that is obviously not a perfect analogy, as Catholicism is not an ethnicity.

    As I mentioned above though, Schaff's use of "Romanist" is not the only problem to be found in the footnotes of this otherwise helpful 38-volume set. There are passages in which the Fathers are describing beliefs and practices of the early Church which are much more "Catholic" (or Eastern Orthodox-- EOs and Catholics are historically tied and share many of the same beliefs and practices) than *anything* resembling almost all Protestant churches. However, in the footnotes for these passages, one sometimes finds comments along the lines of "One can clearly see that this is not a Catholic practice" or "This is not to be taken to refer to the Romanist church," when in fact, the passages are anything *but* clearly not "Catholic!" In fact, merely by examining the beliefs and practices of Catholicism, and comparing and contrasting them with those of Protestant churches, the passages do appear to be clearly describing Catholic beliefs and practices. In this light, there does seem to be an anti-Catholic bias in the footnotes.

    However, I still use the set, as it is, for the most part, historically and theologically helpful-- in an objective sense, not merely for confirming anyone's presupposed bias for or against the Catholic Church. When I began my re-investigation into the claims of the Church, I was still a Reformed Baptist, so I was not "looking" to find a presupposed Catholicism in the early Fathers. I did find Catholicism there though, and cumulatively, the evidence became overwhelming. I could only ignore the conclusions that I was reaching at the expense of my integrity and at the risk of harm to my soul. The fact that other people reach other conclusions-- well, ultimately, that is not my call.

    When Newman writes, "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant," I *think* that what he means is, if a Protestant is deep in history and is studying that history as consistently and objectively as he/she can, then if that Protestant is honest, he/she will cease to be a Protestant. As to whether any individual Protestant is being honest with him/herself about the historical conclusions that he/she reaches, again, that is not my call.

    Newman's statement, then, is obviously not a statement of literal truth about every Protestant who studies "deep(ly) into" history. It is more a statement of what he, as former, very committed, anti-Catholic Protestant, believed would be the case if more Protestants were more knowledgeable about Church history and more objective in their study of it.

  62. I *think* that what he means is, if a Protestant is deep in history and is studying that history as consistently and objectively as he/she can, then if that Protestant is honest, he/she will cease to be a Protestant.

    It seems difficult to say this and then refuse to make a call on whether Schaff is being dishonest. It seems to me that the only ways to remain Protestant under the terms of your understanding of Newman's comment are 1) to be shallow in history (through ignorance, stupidity, lack of resources, whatever) or 2) to be dishonest. I don't see how you can't conclude that someone like Schaff was dishonest, either with the implications of the facts or with his own conscience. You've granted that he knows his history, so there doesn't seem to be any other recourse for him.

    What I find inadequate about all this is that it simply psychologizes away any real disagreement. If those with whom I disagree seem to know the bare facts well enough, then it simply must be some character flaw that is preventing them from seeing the light. It can't simply be that my own conclusions might possibly be put in question by their criticisms, or that there is another way of looking at this, or that they have reached a reasonable (though different) conclusion from the same data.

    I also wonder, since you seem to be throwing around the phrase "anti-Catholic" to describe anyone who strongly disagrees with certain Roman Catholic assertions... would someone like me qualify as "anti-Catholic"? Or, to flip it around... is the Roman Catholic Newman "anti-Protestant"? He seems, after all, to be saying that depth of historical responsibility and Protestant commitment are essentially antithetical, in general if not for particular people. If I were to say the same thing about Roman Catholics (and many Protestants do!), I imagine something like that would strike you as grossly "anti-Catholic". So are we dealing with a double-standard here, or is there some reason I'm missing for why you don't seem to be applying the "anti-" style prejudice very objectively?

  63. Evan,

    I wrote a much longer comment, but I kept getting a message that it exceeded the character limit for the blog. I shortened it, and then, there was an error, when I logged into Google, to post the shortened comment under my name. I'm posting what I could salvage of the original comment here. Sorry that it couldn't be more. Some of it may not even make much sense, because of what I tried to post and could not. Do with it what you can. :-)

    About my use and application of the word "anti-Catholic," let me be very clear here, I do *not* intend to apply it to (in your words), "anyone who strongly disagrees with certain Roman Catholic assertions..." I wrote above about how people can come to different conclusions, for different reasons, studying the Fathers, and that I don't automatically assume "anti-Catholicism" from their conclusions.

    The term "anti-Catholic," at least as I understand it, and am using it here, means a presupposed bias *against* the Catholic Church, and an apparent, as evidenced over and over again, *unwillingness* to read texts from the early Fathers and see even the *reasonable appearance of* Catholic doctrine. I see this tendency in some (not all) of Schaff's footnotes to the writings of the Fathers. Therefore, I think it is quite fair to describe those notes as "anti-Catholic" footnotes.

    Then, you ask me if, on my terms, "Would someone like me qualify as "anti-Catholic"?
    Evan, my brother (I write this sincerely and with a smile), the reality is, I don't know you at all! :-) We are simply interacting on a blog here. How could I know, from our interactions here thus far, if you are, or are not, "anti-Catholic"? I simply don't know.

    Now, as to your comment from the Ignatius blog post! :-) You write, "Whenever someone makes an argument that Protestantism is 'parasitic' upon the Catholic tradition, I always think, "Well, duh. I consider myself a part of the Catholic tradition. Why wouldn't I make extensive appeals to it?"

    What makes this view problematic-- that Anglicans are part of "the Catholic tradition"-- is that, as an Anglican, "the Catholic tradition" becomes, finally, a bit of a self-defined thing. Within certain limits (not completely, I know, because Anglicanism is confessional), Anglicans are free to pick certain parts of "the Catholic tradition" which agree with their understanding(s) of Scripture and Tradition, and not "pick" the rest, because they disagree with their understanding of Scripture and Tradition.

    This mode of interpretive and assenting operation is simply not amenable to the "Catholic tradition," as it objectively exists to be found, and understood, in the writings of the Church Fathers. These writings show the "Catholic tradition," and the tradition is not one which encourages a principle of "pick and choose doctrines and teachings, according to one's interpretation or understanding of the Scriptures and Tradition."

  64. Okay, first, I couldn't publish the original comment at all, and now, the radically shortened comment is posting multiple times... grrr! :-)

    Evan, I addressed this question of yours at length in my original, unpost-able comment, but I don't think that any and every Protestant who studies the Bible, the Fathers, and Church history, and *does not* reach Catholic or Orthodox conclusions, is necessarily being "dishonest," in research, or with him/herself.

    For many reasons (which I, again, gave in my original comment), I will say that it is objectively clear, from reading the early Church Fathers that Newman is right in his statement, "The Christianity of history is not Protestantism." The evidence which *proves* this statement is abundant to be found in the Fathers, in what they believed about Church authority, the Eucharist, Purgatory, Mary, and many other issues.

    However, what a particular Protestant *concludes* from, and *does with* this evidence, might, or might not, be a matter of dishonesty on his/her part. There are multitudes of reasons for why people conclude certain things. With the Fathers, sometimes, it seems to me, that some Protestant scholars just don't read widely enough in patristic writings, and/or they read them through fairly obvious "Protestant lenses," as I myself once would have, as a Protestant. Okay, enough typing for a bit....

  65. Evan, my brother (I write this sincerely and with a smile), the reality is, I don't know you at all! :-) We are simply interacting on a blog here. How could I know, from our interactions here thus far, if you are, or are not, "anti-Catholic"? I simply don't know.

    Well, sure, but you only know Schaff through his NPNF footnotes and perhaps a few other of his writings depending on how far you've worked into the Mercersburg tradition. I'm only asking on that level. Surely I've been just as opinionated about Catholic thought in blog comments and the article I sent you as anything Schaff said in a footnote.

    What makes this view problematic-- that Anglicans are part of "the Catholic tradition"-- is that, as an Anglican, "the Catholic tradition" becomes, finally, a bit of a self-defined thing.

    Forget for a moment my current Anglican affiliation; I've been a part of other Protestant churches in the past and there's a significant chance I'll be a part of others in the future. In any case, what you say about Anglicanism likely applies well enough to any other Protestant church.

    I find your response pretty incoherent. The Catholic tradition has always defined itself, hasn't it? If the point in question is whether my sense of myself as a Catholic is merely "self-defining", how are you advancing any sort of argument? Doesn't your affirmed catholicism as a Roman Catholic define itself in terms of certain traditions and against others? Aren't some teachings of the Fathers rejected by the churches in communion with Rome, and others not regarded as firm dogma but rather as opinions indifferent for orthodoxy?

    What's most self-referential here is your sense that my standing as a Catholic is uniquely a "self-defined thing"... you appeal to supposedly objective justification of historical doctrines, and that's fine as far as it goes, but this Deposit is not objectively transferred to the identity of "Catholic Tradition"... this process is entirely one of self-definition by the Church in concert with the Holy Spirit.

  66. If the point in question is whether my sense of myself as a Catholic is merely "self-defining", how are you advancing any sort of argument? Doesn't your affirmed catholicism as a Roman Catholic define itself in terms of certain traditions and against others?

    That is... you may be correct about me not being a Catholic, but the argument as you've put it forward here is basically, "Your discernment of catholicity is not my discernment of catholicity, therefore your conclusions are not truly Catholic". It is an argument that I could just as easily offer against you (although I wouldn't, because I do think that you stand well within the Catholic tradition).

    It is an argument that doesn't make an argument, but simply re-establishes that we disagree about this.

  67. Evan,

    About Schaff's anti-Catholic footnotes, again, as I've written here earlier, in another comment, the term "Romanist," which Schaff uses, is not a mere matter of earlier generational nomenclature. Anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with Protestant literature from the 1600s to the 1950s (which I am assuming that you do, my brother, given that you are in divinity school!), knows that the term "Romanist" was used in a sweeping, pejorative way against the Catholic Church, Catholic theology, and individual Catholics.

    As I also pointed out earlier, there are passages in the Fathers' writings, for which Schaff includes footnotes along the lines of "This is not to taken to refer to the Romanist practice" or "This is claimed by the Romanist Church as their practice, but...," when the passages in question are clearly affirming points of Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox) theology and/or ecclesiology that are *not* affirmed by Protestants. This strongly indicates a presupposed bias against the Catholic Church on Schaff's part.

    I will concede, on one point, that some of the many passages in the Fathers about the Eucharist being Christ's actual Body amd Blood might be able to be affirmed by Lutherans, as their doctrine of "consubstantiation" is close to (but *not* the same as) the Catholic understanding of transubstantiation, but there are other passages from the Fathers that won't fit any Churches other than Catholic or Eastern Orthodox-- and *some* of the passages won't even fit with the beliefs of EO churches... only the Catholic Church, of that time and our time.

    I'll address your other statements in a separate comment.

  68. Evan,

    In regard to your other statements, which I quote here...

    "I find your response pretty incoherent. The Catholic tradition has always defined itself, hasn't it? If the point in question is whether my sense of myself as a Catholic is merely "self-defining", how are you advancing any sort of argument? Doesn't your affirmed catholicism as a Roman Catholic define itself in terms of certain traditions and against others? Aren't some teachings of the Fathers rejected by the churches in communion with Rome, and others not regarded as firm dogma but rather as opinions indifferent for orthodoxy?

    What's most self-referential here is your sense that my standing as a Catholic is uniquely a "self-defined thing"... you appeal to supposedly objective justification of historical doctrines, and that's fine as far as it goes, but this Deposit is not objectively transferred to the identity of "Catholic Tradition"... this process is entirely one of self-definition by the Church in concert with the Holy Spirit."

    Now, my reply. About the matter of the "Catholic tradition" is that is your use of the term "Catholic tradition," and your sense that you belong to it, as a Anglican (or any kind of Protestant), makes the term a matter of self-definition. You are defining, here, what constitutes the Catholic tradition. This is problematic for the following reasons.

    As early as the second century, the Fathers are found to be writing, in clear terms, about 1. the one, united Catholic Church (the actual term is used), 2. about the Church using the principle of direct (not simply in a "spiritual" sense) *apostolic succession* in disputes about Scripture with heretics, *rather than* appeals to Scripture alone (as the heretics appealed to Scripture for their beliefs too), and 3. the fact that all churches, everywhere, were to be under, and obedient to, the Bishop of Rome.

    This is what the Fathers understood to be the "Catholic tradition"-- whatever the Fathers taught, *as in accordance with the Bishop of Rome*, was to be accepted by faithful Christians in all local churches everywhere. If any teaching of an individual Father *contradicted* the Bishop of Rome, on matters of faith and morals, it was not to be accepted by the faithful. I have read of certain cases where Fathers contradicted the Bishop of Rome-- but the Fathers often later recanted their view and/or at least admitted the Bishop's primacy over them.

    This is the "Catholic tradition," in history and today-- primacy of the Bishop of Rome and acceptance of what the Fathers taught (and what the Magisterium teaches today) *in accordance with him*.

  69. Sorry, Evan, I was re-reading and revising that last comment, and before I posted it, I forgot to go back change one significant sentence. In the sentence after "Now, my Reply, the sentence that begins with "About the matter of the Catholic tradition...," what I should have written is as follows:

    About the matter of the "Catholic tradition," what is problematic about your use of the term, and your sense that you belong to it, as a Anglican (or any kind of Protestant), is that both (both, meaning, your use of the term, and your sense that you belong to it) ultimately make the term a matter of *your personal* self-definition.

    (That is, your self-definition, as opposed to way that the "Catholic tradition" has been objectively defined by history, as the teachings of the Fathers, teaching *in accordance with* the Bishop of Rome (and not against him), as I described in my above, second comment, in reply to your most recent comment). By the way, I hope that you have a great Fourth of July weekend!

  70. Man, even in the last comment, there was a typo! The immediacy of the internet has not helped my proofreading skills...

  71. That's all well and good, Christopher, but you're still missing my point... a basic self-definition of the Church Catholic is something that we both affirm, and there is a dispute about the implications of conflicting historical witnesses. Who is to arbitrate between your "objectively defined" Catholic tradition and mine? The bishop of Rome? But you're assuming your conclusions! This doesn't mean you're wrong, but it does mean that you can't appeal to any of this as objective if it has first been subjectively received as true teaching. Why stand in the tradition that affirms the patristic witness to Roman centrism? Why privilege the Fathers at all as voices that have once and for all established the contours of the Church Catholic? Not because Rome said so... Rome apparently had not been confirmed as the arbiter of true doctrine until certain Fathers taught this and fellow believers received it personally as that which defined their communion. Granting your points about the teachings of the Fathers wouldn't defeat my argument... it would confirm it!

    The extreme "romanism" that you set up here also seems to be a bit of a flat rendition of true Catholicism, even as Roman Catholics would understand it... is it true that any teaching contradicting the Bishop of Rome is not to be accepted? Surely there are some doctrinal matters that are not settled to such a degree. The man who sits in the seat of Peter on any given day surely holds theological opinions on matters indifferent that differ with various theologians, doesn't he? And what of disagreements between different pontiffs through the ages?

    You seem to extend the dogma of infallibility indefinitely, and for that matter overly concern yourself with right teaching as the basis for catholicity... and I must say, such a focus does strike me as being "more Catholic than the pope" in a way that converts from Protestant often are. My sense is that your own account of catholicity is quite peculiar to personal self-definitions of your own.

  72. Dude - you're starting to sound like me in that last post!

  73. Evan,

    I think it might be helpful for our discussion if I learn some things about you, to try to better understand what you know about Catholic theology and where you are coming from, philosophically and epistemologically, and to, hopefully, establish what the "common ground" between us is and is not-- because it seems like in a sense, we keep talking past each other.

    Therefore, I hope it is okay with you if I ask the following questions, so that I can know how to best engage this conversation, as it continues:

    First question: Do you have a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

    Second question: if so, how familiar are you with it?

    Third question: In your view, is it possible for historical writings (such as those of the Church Fathers) and events to "tell us" things objectively, from which we should logically draw certain conclusions?

    Fourth question: Do you believe that the Bible is the word of God?

    Fifth question: If so, how do you go about the task of interpreting the Bible?

    Sixth (and last, for now) question: What role do you believe that historical writings have in interpretation of the Bible?

    Honestly, I'm really beginning to think that we're speaking different "languages" here, in a sense, because we have different ideas about epistemology and about history. You mentioned reading (not regularly but from time to time) some of the material at Called To Communion. One of the writers for CTC, Bryan Cross, is a formally trained philosopher (well, he is working toward a doctorate in philosophy), and he might be a helpful person to engage with on some of the issues that you seem to have about the "subjectivity" of Catholic claims. Understand-- I'm *not* trying to hand off this discussion to him (otherwise, I would not have asked the above questions, to try to establish what the "common ground" is between us), but Bryan is very adept at addressing people with widely varying philosophical views. He may ultimately be a more fruitful conversation partner for you, on Catholic/Protestant issues, than I appear to have been thus far... but I'm not throwing in the towel yet! :-)

  74. Two other, related questions that just occurred to me, Evan:

    Does the fact that the earliest Church Fathers personally knew at least some of the apostles give their writings any kind of special status in your eyes?

    What is your understanding of the concept of apostolic succession?

    Okay, *those* are the last questions (for now)! I don't ask these questions to be tiresome but to re-establish the conversation on hopefully better, more clear grounds.

  75. If we're really talking past each other and speaking in a different "language" here, I'm not sure how any of these questions will help us towards further understanding, Christopher. Disagreements over these sorts of things aren't necessarily the same thing as deeper, architectonic disagreements of thought. I'll answer some of these as best as I can for your sake, but I suspect that this is a distraction, for the most part. If I can, I'll discuss why after I address your questions. If I don't answer the questions to your satisfaction here, I think you're just out of luck, though. These are not the substance of what we're talking about, and I'm not going to go on and on with this. As I said above, I think you're largely missing my point, and going down this route is, I'm afraid, merely leading further away from it rather than to a place where you can better understand it.

    I own a Catechism and use it for occasional references as needed; I don't have any substantial familiarity with the work as a whole. It is possible for historical writings to "tell us things objectively", and logical conclusions can be drawn from these things. What they tell us, and what conclusions follow logically from these things that they tell us, must always be received critically, however. The Donatists and Augustine both tell us objective things about the nature of the Church, for instance, and there are logical consequences to these objective things, but we still need to judge the merit of each.

    I do believe that the Bible is the Word of God. I interpret these texts using various hermeneutical tools and largely as I would any other text... the unique aspect of Biblical interpretation, as I see it, comes in the recognition of its divine inspiration and authority. I think that historical writings have all sorts of interpretive roles for the Bible. While not inspired, historical readings of the text inform us and guide us because of the wisdom and faithful rendering of other commenters. Many of these historical witnesses can be taken as authoritative in a more relative sense; following Augustine, insofar as the interpretation is edifying for leading one to Christ.

    As for your last two questions, I'll answer the last and then the penultimate.

    In the New Testament itself and continuing into the early Fathers, there are numerous references to passing on the doctrine that has been given, and to the centrality of the apostles and those who were taught and consecrated in ministry by them for preserving this deposit of doctrine. I take this to be the heart of apostolic succession; it is, and especially so earlier in the life of the Church, a concrete succession of bishops and elders inaugurated to preserve right teaching and order the churches. I believe, however, that this succession- while concrete and visible- is ancillary to the preservation of the gathering of the Church as community of the Gospel. Therefore I do not think that a priest or other minister who cannot trace a pedigree of ordination back to the apostles fails for this reason to retain valid orders. I think that the earliest Fathers' close and even immediate connection to the apostles does invest in them a special sort of status, because at this point the Church stood in a formative stage, where the canon was being written and established, the creeds were being developed, and ecclesiastical structures were emerging. So yes, the early fathers do have a privileged place as far as I'm concerned, but tis of course this doesn't grant them some sort of infallibility. As I say above, we still must judge historical witness... this judgment isn't nullified by apostolic precedence. Paul judged Peter, the fathers judged one another, and we as believers continue to take part in such discernment.

    This, I hope, in some way answers your questions. I'll continue with why I'm not sure how relevant this is, and perhaps with some questions of my own for you.

  76. The problem, Chris, is that one can affirm Roman primacy and an objective, historical, sub-apostolic witness to it without affirming that such primacy means anything in particular. Simply affirming a universal primacy doesn't explain anything about what is required with regard to doctrinal or sacramental allegiance, and these things developed over time, were taken to be of different significance by different fathers, etc. This doesn't mean that one can't be a Roman Catholic with good, substantial, objective evidence for that position; it simply means that there is good, substantial, objective evidence for a number of different positions, and deciding between them is a task of discernment. Therefore, I could have answered all of your above questions with the same answers that good old Benedict himself would have, but this doesn't change the fact that such a conclusion is not of a different sort, as a judgment, than one that a Protestant would come to. This is why I don't think asking these questions matters... because these are just disagreements between us-- they are not underlying "languages" of any sort that disallow a constructive exchange of reasons between us.

    If I were to ask you a few questions, I'd first direct you back to my previous posts that you haven't yet responded to. Maybe I'll throw in another question or four here as well... just some interesting ones, and a bit less bland and predictable than the ones you've asked me. I'd be intrigued to know what you think:

    If I, a Protestant, were to come to doctrinal conclusions identical with those affirmed by the magisterium in accordance with the Bishop of Rome... but came to these conclusions by means of my own personal scriptural and historical studies, would this make me a faithful Catholic Christian, or must I come to beliefs in accordance with Rome by means of Rome for them to truly be in accordance with Catholic teaching?

    If your answer to the above question is something like, "Well, that's great, but coming to the conclusions of the Bishop of Rome would mean the next logical step is submitting yourself to the Bishop of Rome, whether or not you came to that conclusion by yourself"... if your answer is something like this, how would such a belief-- affirmation by submission to the pope that the pope's affirmations are authoritative-- not be self-defining?

    If your answer to the above question is something like, "Because there is objective historical witness to such primacy from the Fathers and the Scriptures"... how would conclusions based on such historical witnesses be made over against conflicting historical witnesses? And how would the Roman pontiff's arbitration between conflicting historical witnesses be different than anyone else's arbitration? What distinguishes it as uniquely authoritative, or objective, or beyond critiques of self-definition?

  77. ...another interesting question: If I were to go ahead and grant that the faith of a Catholic is not self-defining the way that the faith of a Protestant is, would the pope be a glaring exception to this rule... the only Catholic for whom this is not the case (because any affirmation of his own authority must accord with his own authority?)? Is the pope, perhaps, the black hole in the middle of the Catholic galaxy (at least on your understanding of Catholic legitimacy)? Must all Catholics, on your understanding, be truly "more Catholic than the pope"? Must the pope in fact be an anti-pope?

    You see, I'm trying to avoid these sorts of conclusions. I want a situation where Roman Catholics can in good conscience live out a Catholic faith under Rome. I'm not trying to dispute Roman primacy, actually, although you seem perhaps to over-defensively think that I am simply because I don't personally affirm it... all I'm trying to say is that your understanding of Roman primacy seems to be quite devastating and problematic, and if I were a Roman Catholic, I'd steer clear of what you're affirming at all costs.

  78. Evan,

    Thank you for answering my questions. In all candor, it is frustrating to me that you felt the need to call them "bland and predictable," when they were perfectly reasonable questions, in terms of trying to see where you stand, in relation to my positions, but nonetheless. They were also not meant as a "distraction" but, again, nonetheless.

    As a Catholic, I do accept what the Pope teaches publicly, on matters of faith and morals, without question. However, I did not get to that place by an act of fiedism. On a more fundamental level, I did not reach a place of accepting the Catholic claims *about* the papacy through fiedism. I searched through the conflicting historical claims, and found that the Protestant objections to the papacy (and to a lesser extent, the Eastern Orthodox objections) were simply refuted by the objective, cumulative historical evidence that is found in clear, historically based statements that the early Fathers make about the Bishop of Rome, and the source, nature and extent of his authority.

    From our conversation this far, I imagine that you then might say, "But you're still *subjectively judging*, and then subjectively receiving, those claims of the Fathers!" The fact is, Evan, the academic discipline of history would be reduced to subjectivism itself, if one could not thoroughly study objective evidence, conflicting historical claims, and then, on the basis of the objective evidence, come to certain objective conclusions about historical events.

    If you ask, why should I take the Fathers' claims over those of other people of the times, I answer thus: Because the earliest of the Fathers, who accepted the primacy of the Bishop of Rome (and from their writings, they did so with a *Catholic* understanding of that primacy, not with the "first-among-equals" understanding of the Eastern Orthodox-- for more on this, read the patristic anthology, "Faith of the Early Fathers," or "Four Witnesses: The Early Church In Her Own Words," by Rod Bennett, or simply read the ante-Nicene Fathers at length on the subject)-- these earliest Fathers can be traced back to the apostles, and for at least some of the Fathers, were *discipled* by them.

    Yes, there are conflicting historical claims, but when the earliest Fathers are making statements that Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom to Peter, and that he is the one upon whom Christ built the Church, and they are *understanding these things* to mean that Peter, and his successors (Linus and Clement are mentioned in the Bible) as the Bishops of Rome, have teaching and correcting authority over the worldwide Church, one must give the earliest Fathers' claims precedence over the conflicting claims of later writers-- because the earliest Fathers had direct ties to the apostles.

  79. On your statement that I, and many other Catholics, seem to be "more Catholic" than the Pope, Evan, I have received my understanding of Catholic ecclesiastical authority, and Catholic theology, from the Catholic Church Fathers, the Bible, as understood in light of those Fathers (the way that, historically, it was understood by Christians), the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the living, teaching Magisterium, as headed by the Pope, and the Bishops, as teaching in accordance with him.

    How can I be possibly be "more Catholic than the Pope" when "my positions" are those of the Catechism, which was both authorized and accepted by the Pope?

    To answer an earlier question of yours, studying one's way into the Catholic Church, as a Protestant, and not simply accepting the authority of the Pope, and thus, becoming Catholic, may indeed be a "Protestant" way of doing things, but this is not illegitimate. The Church understands that modern-day Protestants are not exactly in the same position as the ones who broke away from the Catholic Church during the Reformation. There are many widely differing claims, on many different subjects, as related to Catholic/Protestant issues, and in most cases, for Protestants, serious study (as opposed to simply "accepting" the Pope's authority) *is* required, before Protestants can even begin to accept Catholic claims. I went through this process myself.

    Of course, though, one cannot study Catholic claims and doctrines with "Protestant lenses" and expect to likely come to "Catholic conclusions." If one insists on evaluating doctrines that the Church herself states are not explicitly found in Scripture (such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary), using the principle of Sola Scriptura, one will likely not ever accept those doctrines and the Church that teaches them.

    Personally, I would also say that if a Protestant wishes to understand and accept every single *aspect* of Catholic doctrine, before he/she will become Catholic, this is probably an *unfairly* Protestant way to proceed, as a matter of degree. As far as the course of studying objectively, and then becoming Catholic, possibly making someone an "unfaithful Catholic (convert)," such a claim would be unreasonable and unfair.

    Now, after a Protestant *becomes* Catholic, that person is to accept the teaching authority of the Pope and Magisterium, and not scrutinize the authoritative, public teachings (the Catechism being a primary source), on faiths and morals, to see if these teachings fit his/her *personal interpretations* of Scripture and Tradition. The failure to obey here leads to laity (and even some clergy) claiming the so-called "spirit of Vatican II," in order to justify heterodox theology-- often without even having read the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

  80. Long list of comments on an old post...but I can't resist adding just this:

    The internal experience can never be used as evidence for anyone except the person who had the experience. That's a problem. The internal experience is 'real', and so it actually can inform one about reality. But it can't be shared, and the honesty and objectivity of the person who reports (and interprets) an internal experience is always open for question. So it isn't shareable evidence, i.e. your experiences aren't likely to be accepted by me as reliable evidence for anything.

    This isn't just a problem for people who have 'spiritual' experiences, but it's even a problem for people having simple bodily experiences, e.g. when seeking disability for lower back pain.

  81. Quite true - and I would imagine the pragmatic approach would be to require some sort of parity between claim and evidence.

    Because ultimately nothing stands in this sense. We could all be brains in vats.

    Really - this is just the "science as ratio" concept I was promoting in the more recent post.


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