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Jordan J. Ballor on Calvin, Conversions, and Catholicity

Published on the 500th birthday of John Calvin, Jordan J. Ballor has authored a thoughtful piece on some of the problems that arise in discussions between Protestants and Catholics about catholicity, the Early Church, and the reasons provided by converts from Protestantism to Catholicism. Appearing on First Thing's On the Square, here are some excerpts:

High-profile conversions of public intellectuals, theologians, and academics have been the cause of some consternation, however, at least in ecclesiastical circles. The steady stream of recognizable Protestants heading to Rome (or perhaps somewhat less often to the East) since the 1960s has mirrored the decline of the mainline Protestant churches, as documented by First Things editor Joseph Bottum. But it is not just the mainline churches that are losing noteworthy adherents.


In 2005 the noted historian of American religion Mark A. Noll and journalist Carolyn Nystrom could seriously ask of evangelicals whether or not the Reformation was over. And in 2007 then-president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) Francis Beckwith announced he had returned to the Roman Catholic Church. (Subsequently Beckwith resigned his position amidst questions over the compatibility of Roman Catholicism and the ETS. Beckwith’s memoir had the rather provocative subtitle, Why the President of the Evangelical Theological Society Left His Post and Returned to the Catholic Church.)


Similar conversion accounts could be multiplied. But as a Protestant and evangelical theologian myself, I am more concerned to address some of the responses to such conversions by those left behind. Among these is the book, Is Rome the True Church? A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim, by Norman L. Geisler, formerly president and dean of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, and Joshua M. Betancourt, an Anglican minister. This book is undoubtedly one that as Betancourt says in an interview, “no thinking Protestant—or Catholic—should be without,” and whose whole argument ought to be considered with close attention. But here I want to focus on just one of the reasons Geisler and Betancourt cite for the conversion of evangelicals to Roman Catholicism: antiquity.


As Betancourt says, “converts appeal to the Catholic Church’s antiquity,” reasoning that “since the Protestant tradition is only as old as the sixteenth-century Reformation, then it cannot be the true expression of the early apostolic faith and tradition.” The strategy of Betancourt and Geisler to answer this reason is to contend that “truth is not determined by age. To say so is to commit the fallacy of 'chronological snobbery.’”


The problem with this kind of answer is that the Reformers themselves could be accused of just such chronological snobbery. The Zurich reformer Heinrich Bullinger published a treatise in 1539 titled Der alt gloub (translated into English by Miles Coverdale as The Old Faith in 1541). In his treatment of the topic De nova doctrina (“On new doctrine”), the Bernese reformer Wolfgang Musculus writes, “For it is so ordered by God in all cases of all things, that the truth is more ancient than the falsehood, even like as God is more ancient than the Devil.” Perhaps not surprisingly, theologians in the British Isles in particular seemed quite concerned to defend the antiquity and catholicity of the Reformed faith, as evidenced by such treatises as William Perkins’ A Reformed Catholic (1597) and the Huguenot Isaac Casaubon’s reply in 1612 to Cardinal Perron, published later as Anglican Catholicity Vindicated against Roman Innovations. In 1565 John Jewel, bishop of Salisbury, would assail “the weak, and unstable grounds of the Roman religion, which of late hath been accompted Catholic.”

For the record, I left this response in the combox:

My dear friend Norm Geisler and his co-author, Mr. Betancourt, seem to misunderstand the Catholic argument. It is not that the Catholic faith is true because it is old. Rather, it is old because it is true. That is, the argument is an argument from the organic continuity of institution, faith, creed, and Scripture over time. It is not, and has never been, an argument from mere antiquity.

Geisler himself, ironically, argues in much the same way in his defense of the authenticity and accuracy of the NT documents. He offers several arguments to show that the late dating of them by liberal scholars is mistaken. But if "old" does not equal "true," why should that matter? Unless, of course, his claim is made more plausible if the document in question is chronologically closer to the events it claims to describe, as well as consistent with, and supports, late creedal affirmations and developments by the Church, e.g., the Trinity, Christ's deity, etc. That is no more "chronological snobbery" than is the employment of math to solve a problem in arithmetic "numerical prejudice."

You can read the whole thing, including comments, here.

Comments (37)

"The problem with this kind of answer is that the Reformers themselves could be accused of just such chronological snobbery. "

Well, of course. The Reformation posited a return to the origins of Christianity, before they had been "corrupted" by the "Imperial" Catholic Church. How to explain the late realization of this in the 16th century? Easy. The evil Catholic Church had effectively suppressed that truth of "origins" by oppressing all those Wycliffites and Hussites etc. over the centuries, until finally in the 16th century they could not be repressed any more. It's basically the same model by which any conspiracy theory "explains" the recalcitrance of reality to its fantasies.

Your answer to their case is simply to label it a conspiracy theory?

The Protestants are right that truth is not determined by age. And it is true that a random Joe reading the Bible today could come up with an accurate, albeit crude, exposition of the Christian faith. And of course, you will find many protestants using the writings of, say, Augustine in their reasoning. They separate the origins of the church off from the Catholic church, and then say that they are the true line of succession.

But I suspect most people don't convert to Catholicism because of issues of theological accuracy. The antiquity reason doesn't mean that the Church is right because it is old, but rather reflects the normal human desire to be a part of something longstanding and venerable. This is especially acute in the US, as none of our political or social traditions date back very far.

It is important that we don't confuse the relatively widespread view among modern evangelicals that Constantine was a (the?) major break with Apostolic Christianity with that of the early Magisterial Reformers. And certainly we must be careful about connecting them (at least in general!) with anything resembling a "Trail of Blood" theory (that all of the ancient and medieval heretics were the forebears of the Reformation).

At best, you can call their view of the Empire ambivalent. For many Protestant historians (take Melanchthon's nephew, Peucer), the Emperor was the one bulwark against the wicked influence of the papacy in what we call Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. It's a small point, but it is important to understand the Protestant vision of history, which (in my humble Roman Catholic view) was very sophisticated, even if often driven by polemical concerns. Early Lutherans (as well as early Calvinists) wrote books with titles like "Catalogus Testium veritatis, qui ante nostrum aetatem reclamarunt Papae." And figures in this catalog were not only the Wycliffites and Hussites but included some very well-known orthodox Catholic theologians, even saints, from the Middle Ages. This is part of what accounts for the fact that theologians in the first couple of centuries of the Reformation seem to be much less uncomfortable than Protestant theologians today with drawing upon the insights of Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Bonaventure, let alone Bernard of Clairvaux, Anselm, Bede and, of course, the Early Church Fathers.

More attention to Protestant Orthodoxy would enlighten us all, I think. Just my two cents.

More attention to Protestant Orthodoxy would enlighten us all, I think.

The difficulty with paying such attention is that there is no agreement on what it would be attending to. Thus it is patent that Protestant denominations, seen as a whole, would not agree on how to spell out the criteria for orthodoxy. The most plausible candidate is probably sola scriptura; but of course there are many versions of that idea, and even those who profess adherence to some particular version don't come up with the same doctrinal results. It's all very well to say that Scripture alone is the rule of faith; but unless at least one extra-Scriptural criterion is also invoked as authoritative, there is no way to adjudicate among competing interpretations of Scripture in a doctrinally authoritative manner. All is left to a scholarly magisterium and/or the "burning in the bosom." The former leaves everything to revisable opinion, and the latter is ad hoc. We've seen where that's gotten us.

Of course there are two other candidates. One is "mere Christianity." But invoking mere Christianity only serves as a criterion of orthodoxy if two assumptions be made: (a) its doctrinal content can be ascertained by a scholarly study of history, and (b) the results of such a synthesis must be the truth. Even if (a) is true as a matter of academic fact, which is disputable, (b)is a theological criterion that can only beg the question whether mere Christianity is Protestant as opposed to Catholic or Orthodox. Once again, orthodoxy becomes a matter of opinion, which hardly suffices for yielding a criterion of, well, orthodoxy.

The third candidate would be "magisterial" Protestantism, which amounts to the "confession" of some particular Protestant denomination. But which one: Westminster, Augsburg, or some other? And by what authority? In Protestant terms, those questions bring us back to sola scriptura, whose difficulties have already been noted.

I apologize. I was speaking enigmatically, it appears. What I meant by Protestant Orthodoxy was the period of Reformed and Lutheran theology after the first generation of Reformers until the eighteenth century or so, where Protestant theology (at least in the universities) took on much of the "form" and a good deal of the "content" of medieval scholasticism. I think that this theological style and its greatest figures (Turretin, Gerhard, etc.) would shake up many of standard assumptions about Protestantism, shaped as they are by American evangelicalism.

What I meant by Protestant Orthodoxy was the period of Reformed and Lutheran theology after the first generation of Reformers until the eighteenth century or so, where Protestant theology (at least in the universities) took on much of the "form" and a good deal of the "content" of medieval scholasticism.

It seems that what you mean by 'Protestant Orthodoxy' is the sort of Protestantism that took scholasticism and neo-scholasticism very seriously. But I'm still not sure why it's important to pay attention to that. Consider this:

The Reformers unequivocally rejected the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. This left open the question of who should interpret Scripture. The Reformation was not a struggle for the right of private judgement. The Reformers feared private judgement almost as much as did the Catholics and were not slow to attack it in its Anabaptist manifestation. The Reformation principle was not private judgement but the perspicuity of the Scriptures. Scripture was sui ipsius interpres and the simple principle of interpreting individual passages by the whole was to lead to unanimity in understanding. This came close to creating anew the infallible church…It was this belief in the clarity of Scripture that made the early disputes between Protestants so fierce. This theory seemed plausible while the majority of Protestants held to Lutheran or Calvinist orthodoxy, but the seventeenth century saw the beginning of the erosion of these monopolies. And even in 1530 Casper Schwenckfeld could cynically note that ‘the Papists damn the Lutherans; the Lutherans damn the Zwinglians; the Zwinglians damn the Anabaptists and the Anabaptists damn all others.’ By the end of the seventeenth century many others saw that it was not possible on the basis of Scripture alone to build up a detailed orthodoxy commanding general assent. (A.N.S. Lane, “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey”, Vox Evangelica, Volume IX – 1975, pp. 44, 45 – bold emphasis mine.)


If that's correct as history, then in what sense is "Protestant Orthodoxy" to be considered orthodox? And if that question is not important, then what common good is to be achieved by paying more attention to Protestant Orthodoxy, other than satisfying some peoples' curiosity about history?

Well, one answer would be that I don't think history itself is useful only for satisfying our curiosity, even if it only indirectly speaks to the most pressing questions of our day.

But another answer is that Protestant Orthodoxy (I should make it clear that I didn't name it that), though I don't think that is entirely orthodox in the true sense (since I am a Roman Catholic), was a moment in the history of Protestant theology when the churches of the Reformation were basically using a common vocabulary with that of Catholic theologians, both medieval and contemporary. For Catholics versed in Thomist or general scholastic theological categories, reading the first Reformers like Luther and Calvin can sometimes be rather frustrating. I often feel that the Catholic position is not being accurately described because terms are being employed (even important ones like "faith") in a way which Thomas Aquinas, Scotus, and others would not have accepted. So, figuring out how much of the disagreement is substantive or semantic is rather complicated. In subsequent generations, however, the Protestant theologians in the universities were deeply knowledgeable about scholastic theology and "translated" Protestant emphases and distinctives into that "idiom." Although this may lead to a kind of hardening of points of disagreement, it could also provide more clarity on both sides about where the disagreements are exactly. That seems important.

More relevant to this thread is the fact that the Protestants of these centuries wouldn't have agreed with Geisler (from the quotation in the original piece) that catholicity and historicity were irrelevant to doing theology. They wouldn't have had to go with "Hesperado's description (which is what prompted my original intervention!) and say that there was some conspiracy, that Christian truth left the earth after the death of the Apostles, that all the heretics through the centuries were Protestant forebears, etc. Some saw themselves--I think wrongly, though it is still interesting--as not only the heirs of St. Paul and the good Church Fathers like Augustine; rather, they saw themselves as the heirs of all the witnesses to the truth in the Catholic Church throughout the ages like the Fathers, Bede, Anselm, Bernard of Clarivaux, Thomas Aquinas, Scotus, Gregory of Rimini, and so on. Indeed, they thought of themselves as the true Catholics. Of course, they recognized that Thomas Aquinas and Scotus disagreed with them in important ways, but they believed that was not until the Council of Trent that popery had triumphed over the churches in communion with Rome.

Again, I don't agree with this, but it is a different story than that of many American Protestants (who generally mark things either with the death of the apostles or Constantine). Knowing this historical period better, besides the ecumenical potential mentioned above, could help us come to grips with the complexity of Protestant theology as well as its greater "catholicity" when compared to much of American evangelicalism. Am I wrong to think that this is a worthwhile thing to be aware of in these sorts of conversations?

I understand a bit better now. From those interested in a reasonable accurate view of the history of theology, the movement you describe is certainly a worthwhile topic. I also see that it would also have ecumenical interest. The kind of study you suggest would have the effect of showing that Protestantism as such is not committed to a "cessationist" view of the transmission of divine revelation. That's good to know, given that we hear mostly from the cessationists. Yet, from the standpoint of somebody interested in knowing whether Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or some version of Protestantism is actually true, I regard the usefulness of such a project as very limited. I know because I was once just such an inquirer.

For that purpose, you recognize that some Protestants believe, and think it important, that it "was not until the Council of Trent that popery had triumphed over the churches in communion with Rome." I've dealt with a few academic Protestants who take that line. As I understand it, their main objection to "popery" so understood is that it renders the Catholic Magisterium "unaccountable" to anybody but itself. Yet for the sort of inquirer I've described, that only pushes the central issue back a step. Either the Magisterium (episcopal and papal together) is, as Vatican II later said, the sole "authentic" interpreter of Scripture and Tradition--which means that it alone is divinely authorized to require the assent of faith to its interpretations--or it is not. If it is, then "popery" is the truth; if it is not, then Orthodoxy or some version of Protestantism is the truth. But if one of the latter two is true, there remains the question how to determine whether ecclesial teaching authorities are being adequately "accountable" to the sources, and in whose estimation. My main point before this comment has been that Protestantism as such can give no satisfactory answer to that question. Eastern Orthodoxy, of course, can and should be taken more seriously in that regard. But I'm a Catholic because I believe the Church's way of distinguishing between binding doctrine and theological opinion is superior to Orthodoxy's. I cannot take Protestantism seriously on that score.

Best,
Mike

My main point before this comment has been that Protestantism as such can give no satisfactory answer to that question. Eastern Orthodoxy, of course, can and should be taken more seriously in that regard. But I'm a Catholic because I believe the Church's way of distinguishing between binding doctrine and theological opinion is superior to Orthodoxy's. I cannot take Protestantism seriously on that score.

Protestantism cannot do that because it is an adjective that was turned into an "ism" for the sake of argument. If you treat each major denomination as a separate religious body, they might be able to give you a more satisfactory answer.

There has unfortunately never been an authoritative body like what you seek. The Jews never had it, and they were given the prophets and messiah. It stands to reason that we should be humble if our spiritual and theological forebears could never "get it right" that we face a similar likelihood of success. Fortunately for us, salvation's cornerstone is confessing and believing in the name Jesus Christ, not having the sort of precise knowledge of accurate theology that Jesus displayed in the temple.

Anybody can "confess and believe in the name Jesus Christ." I've heard Hindus and Muslims do it, and I've heard complete scoundrels do it. Absent a reasonably "precise knowledge" of what such confession and belief must be taken to mean, and require, it's pretty meaningless.

You assert: "There has unfortunately never been an authoritative body like what you seek." That is just an assertion. I'm a Catholic because I believe the Catholic Church to be just such a body. And I believe there must be such a body if divine revelation is to be received with the sure assent of faith rather than the vagaries of human opinion. The authority of such a body is nothing for its bearers to boast of, to be sure. They have it only as a divine gift for our benefit, and are no worthier of it than you and I. But as Blessed John Henry Newman said: "No revelation is given, unless there be some authority to decide what is given."

If you care to explore this topic, try here: http://mliccione.blogspot.com/2009/07/bad-arguments-against-magisterium-part.html

It is this point on which we cannot agree, and thus the entire point is largely moot regarding the Magisterium.

What the Magisterium does claim is that it is the normative heir to Christ's promise to send the Holy Spirit to "lead you into all truth" (John 16:13)

Each believer is sealed with the Holy Spirit individually, and each believer is guided and rebuked by the Spirit. Even without the institutional church, the Spirit would guide us into all truth.

That is just an assertion. I'm a Catholic because I believe the Catholic Church to be just such a body. And I believe there must be such a body if divine revelation is to be received with the sure assent of faith rather than the vagaries of human opinion. The authority of such a body is nothing for its bearers to boast of, to be sure. They have it only as a divine gift for our benefit, and are no worthier of it than you and I. But as Blessed John Henry Newman said: "No revelation is given, unless there be some authority to decide what is given."

Your belief that there must be such a body is also just an assertion. When the prophets spoke to us, there was no authority to "decide what is given" except the Holy Spirit who guided the prophets. There was no body authorized to interpret the words of the prophets for the people. Thus I see no logical reason why now there must be such a body. I understand your desire for one, and I too share it, but I fail to see why there must be one. I see the naked assertion that there simply must be one as a perfect example of how philosophers often fill in the gaps to make their arguments (no offense).

You seem to have overlooked the fact that the post to which I linked explicitly denies that it would offer a "good argument" for the claims the Magisterium makes for itself. It was meant only to rebut one common argument against those claims. Hence, the fact that I did not offer an argument for the claims the Magisterium makes for itself has no force as a criticism of my post.

I see, however, that you do have another sort of argument against the Magisterium's claims. The argument appears to be twofold: no such Magisterium was necessary in OT days, since nobody says there even was such a thing then; and no such bodoy is necessary under the New Covenant, since "each believer is sealed with the Holy Spirit individually, and each believer is guided and rebuked by the Spirit. Even without the institutional church, the Spirit would guide us into all truth." Both aspects of that argument are fallacious.

The purpose of the Magisterium is to ensure that the deposit of faith is both preserved in its fullness and interpreted correctly, in a manner which allows said deposit to be reliably transmitted with the certainty of faith rather than of mere opinion. No such body was necessary in OT days because divine revelation was still in the process of unfolding; hence, the deposit of faith had not achieved its full and definitive form, and therefore could neither be preserved in its fullness nor interpreted "infallibly." But that does not affect the question whether a Magisterium is necessary under the New Covenant, in which divine revelation has indeed achieved is full and definitive shape by virtue of "the Christ-event."

No Christian body, including the Catholic Church, denies that "each believer is sealed with the Holy Spirit individually, and each believer is guided and rebuked by the Spirit." But it does not follow that something called "the institutional Church" is unnecessary for guiding us into all truth. That would only follow if the whole pertinent truth could be ascertained by taking a poll of individual believers. But simply as a matter of historical fact, that is impossible to do. That's because "believers" who claim the sanction of the Holy Spirit for their particular way of understanding the deposit of faith, who are many, contradict each other. For any understanding you pick, somebody can be found to claim the Spirit's sanction for the opposite. That raises the question how to adjudicate among competing understandings of the deposit of faith. Since, in the very nature of the case, no individual can do that, some sort of collective body must do it. If there is to be such a body, it too must be "sealed with the Holy Spirit" and be "guided and rebuked" by him in making its determinations. That's just what the Catholic Magisterium claims to be. And that claim is perfectly compatible with some believers' also being sealed, guided, and rebuked by the Spirit. The believers whose claim to be so led is actually true are those whose understanding of the deposit of faith coheres with that which the Magisterium, also so led, says is true.

Of course it is possible to deny, without evident irrationality, that such a body is necessary for the purpose specified. One could instead choose to trust some charismatic, individual leader or some scholarly school of thought, without seeing them as enjoying the divine gift of infallibility. In that case, however, one will have given up the claim that the deposit of faith can be transmitted with something more secure than human opinion. Said deposit can only be transmitted as a set of raw data for the forming of opinions rather than as an object for the assent of divine faith. That, I would argue, is incompatible with the very concept of divine revelation.

Mike, I am Catholic and believe in Magisterial infallibility, but I cannot quite see how your argument to Mike T works. At least not yet.

Granted that in OT times the faith that God was in the process of revealing was not yet complete. Or rather, the details of that faith were not yet fully revealed - I don't want to suggest that Abraham had an incomplete faith. But it remains true that there was a body of accepted 'authoritative'
prophets and scriptures that were considered by all Jews as certainly inspired. The Pentateuch and Isaiah were not doubted. (There were, admittedly, other books that some ascribed with inspiration while others did not, so they did not have universal approval.) But the Jews achieved that situation where there were definite books of scripture that all accepted without a definitive, authoritative body, a magisterial congress, of any sort.

The fact that God was continuing his Revelation does not somehow modify the universal acceptance of the Pentateuch, does it? Wouldn't we say that some later 'prophet' who claimed that God inspired Genesis but not Exodus would be a rejected, or at least suspect 'prophet' by that very claim? The later unfolding achieved by God does not undo the earlier unfolding - indeed part of Christ's mission was to complete the "Law and the Prophets" in such a way as to attest to the fundamental rightness of those earlier revelations.

Wouldn't we have to posit premises about God's Revelation that have not yet been posited to arrive at the conclusion: That (1) although God could be content with a partial Revelation during time, that He could not be content that Revelation should be partial throughout ALL time; and (2) upon achieving completed Revelation, God also intended humanly ascertainable accuracy for a body of truth that constituted all that must be believed to ensure salvation. I think that both of these theses are fully supportable in light of Christ's statements. (I think it is silly to suggest that God was keenly intent on achieving completed Revelation but was content with a condition where nobody knew for certain any of the boundaries of that Revelation.) But some people have a lot of issues with claiming you know what "God intends" in such a way that it so happens to support your particular version of Revelation.

Tony:

The issue here is not whether an "authoritative" source of divine revelation was available to the Chosen People before Christ. The issue is not even whether it could be recognized and followed as such. I do not for a moment dispute that at least some books of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as those of the Torah or Pentateuch, and a few of the prophets, were accepted and revered by Jews before Christ as "authoritative" divine revelation, even though the unfolding of revelation was not complete. By the same token, I would not claim that the completion of divine revelation required that the "acceptance" of such records as authoritative be "modified". In fact, the Gnostics and Marcionites of the 2nd century AD were rejected as heretics by the Church largely because they made just such a claim. Rather, the issue is whether an "infallible" means of interpreting the authoritative records of divine revelation was necessary after, but not before, revelation was complete. Given that issue, a couple of other things need to be considered.

God didn't just happen to reserve an infallible teaching authority (ITA) for the New Covenant while arbitrarily withholding it from the Jews of the Old. Reserving an ITA only for the New, but not the Old, made sense for the reason I gave: "No such body was necessary in OT days because divine revelation was still in the process of unfolding; hence, the deposit of faith had not achieved its full and definitive form, and therefore could neither be preserved in its fullness nor interpreted infallibly." What the New Covenant required was not modifying the acceptance of books recognized in the Old as authoritative, but rather modifying their interpretation in light of the Christ-event. Most Jews after Jesus' time on earth did not accept that new interpretation because they did not recognize the Christ-event as requiring it. But the Christians—i.e. those who did recognize the need for such a re-interpretation of the OT—still had to face the question how to distinguish among competing interpretations of the completed divine revelation. That's why the books of the NT were written and collected as a canon of faith. That's why the authorities of the Church claiming apostolic succession took for granted that their definitive interpretations of the received tradition, both intra- and extra-scriptural, were sanctioned by the Holy Spirit.

Thus I fully accept your (1) and (2) as required by my own position. I also recognize that, as you say, "some people have a lot of issues with claiming you know what "God intends" in such a way that it so happens to support your particular version of Revelation." In fact, they ought to have issues with anybody who makes such a claim. That is why I do not claim any "particular version of Revelation" peculiar to myself; nor do I claim that that the version I uphold as Revelation is something I reached by my own reasoning. Rather, I believe that, short of accepting an ITA as such, we have no way of interpreting even texts we consider authoritative and inerrant, as sources transmitting divine revelation, in such a way as to distinguish the propositional content of divine revelation from mere opinions. And so I put my trust not in "my" version of anything, but in what presents itself as the needed ITA.

Best,
Mike

Works for me, Mike. Thanks for the clarification.

Oh, I just wanted to say that I appreciated your last response to my post and that I think we understand each other now. I always enjoy when conversations work out that way!

Thanks, Tony and Matt.

Mike,

I am curious as to how you regard things like this. How could the RCC justify changing its position--even in degree-on an issue of salvation?

"Each believer is sealed with the Holy Spirit individually, and each believer is guided and rebuked by the Spirit. Even without the institutional church, the Spirit would guide us into all truth."

I'd quibble with the term "institutional church," but be that as it may, it seems readily apparent that the Spirit does NOT guide individuals qua individuals into all truth, else there would be no need for warnings about being led astray, carried about by winds of doctrine, etc. No, the Spirit does not guide isolated individuals into all truth, but the worshipping and confessing body of true believers -- the Church.


I'd quibble with the term "institutional church," but be that as it may, it seems readily apparent that the Spirit does NOT guide individuals qua individuals into all truth, else there would be no need for warnings about being led astray, carried about by winds of doctrine, etc. No, the Spirit does not guide isolated individuals into all truth, but the worshipping and confessing body of true believers -- the Church.

The institutional church suffers from the same problem. If any institutional church is infallible, then its every proclamation is entirely correct and never subject to revision. That is why I posted that link regarding the Roman Catholic Church "researching" what happens to unbaptized children that die. I could be mistaken, but wasn't that a controversy that was largely resolved a very long time ago except among certain Protestant denominations?

It appears yet again a case that demonstrates all the more the remarkable inability to distinguish by or even overwhelming ignorance of the modern Christian concerning reatus poena and reatus culpa; yet, I leave it to my betters to provide appropriate explication of such details concerning this particular matter less I venture into territory that would have me suffer the jeering infelicities of a Dr. McGrew and Monsieur Albert.

"The institutional church suffers from the same problem. If any institutional church is infallible, then its every proclamation is entirely correct and never subject to revision."

No, because not all proclamations the Church makes are equally dogmatic or "weighty." The Church is free to revise her teaching on non-essentials, and has often done so.

(By the way, I myself am Orthodox, not Catholic, so I'd have certain disagreements with my Catholic brethren about some points here. But as to the fact of the teaching authority of the Church, we are in agreement.)

No, because not all proclamations the Church makes are equally dogmatic or "weighty." The Church is free to revise her teaching on non-essentials, and has often done so.

You'll have to forgive me if I regard that distinction as transparently self-serving. Either the Church is infallible in its teachings, or it isn't. The Church cannot be fallible on one moral issue, but infallible on another. That is why those of us on the Protestant side don't claim infallibility for anything other than scripture.

Was everything that Peter or Paul or James said infallible? Did the apostles simply walk around spouting infallible statements? Obviously not. Well then, if an apostle can be both fallible and infallible at different times and in different respects, why can't the Church?

Well then, if an apostle can be both fallible and infallible at different times and in different respects, why can't the Church?

The apostles did not claim infallibility for themselves as men. We take it on faith that the epistles and letters are scripture in part because we assume that the Holy Spirit guided the formation of the basic canon. With regard to the Gospel, Jesus told us that the Holy Spirit would remind them of exactly what to record (John 14:26) for posterity.

The relationship between the apostles and the church was a lot like the relationship between the prophets and the Levites. Accordingly, I don't see anything that gives me reason to believe that there was a transference of authority from one to the other.

"The apostles did not claim infallibility for themselves as men."

True, but they certainly manifested it when, through, the power of the Holy Spirit they wrote the Scriptures.

"We take it on faith that the epistles and letters are scripture in part because we assume that the Holy Spirit guided the formation of the basic canon."

Yes, but the Church antedates the "basic canon," right? There was a New Testament Church long before there was a New Testament. How did the Holy Spirit guide "the formation of the basic canon" if not through the Church?

We believe that the Holy Spirit led the Church both to produce the works of the canon of Scripture, and to decide which books would be in and which books wouldn't. Further, we'd say that the Holy Spirit also led the Church in passing on the correct interpretation of those very same books; in fact, the Church's interpretation had a lot to do with which books were chosen and which ones weren't.

These things -- the writing of the books, the choosing of them, and the interpretation of them -- are all of a piece, and the Holy Spirit operated equally in them all.

You'll have to forgive me if I regard that distinction as transparently self-serving.

Well, you're forgiven. That still doesn't resolve the issue. The fact is, many people and institutions "speak" in different capacities at different times with different levels of authority attached to those statements. A SCOTUS justice's opinions in a law review article do not carry the same weight as an official denial of writ for certiorari, which in turn does not carry the same weight as a full opinion on the merits on a case decided before the court. A scientific hypothesis proposed by a certain scientist or body carries a different weight than a theory or law by that same scientist or body. This just seems rather obvious.

As far as I know, "limbo" was never an official dogmatic teaching, so there was nothing to reverse. One can be infallible on one moral teaching, and simply not have taught yet infallibly on another - this is not inconsistent. It's no more inconsistent than saying I teach infallibly that X is so, but I am still thinking about Y. Just because you haven't made up your mind on Y doesn't mean you are wrong on X. Especially when your track record on those things which you HAVE made up your mind is pretty darn impressive.

Rob G:

Although Orthodox, you seem very much a Romanist at heart! *wink*

It is no great wonder why JP II considered both Orthodox & Catholic as the two lungs of the True Church!

If the Orthodox synod in Rome last October (as well as the personal opinions of certain noble ecumenical Patriarch and one particular archimandite gave any such indication; here's looking forward to reunification (if not now, then in the future)!

Mike T:

I am curious as to how you regard things like this. How could the RCC justify changing its position--even in degree-on an issue of salvation?

I've written at length about limbo; just go here and scroll down to the heading 'Limbo'. As that indicates, the Church had never taught that the idea of limbo was an article of faith as opposed to a common theological opinion. Opinions are subject to change; doctrines said to be "irreformable," such as those on the women's ordination or contraception, are not subject to change.

As "c matt" says, there's nothing that's in general "self-serving" about making such distinction in areas other than theology. So, unless you have an argument to the contrary to make, there's nothing "transparently" self-serving about the Church's making it either.

As that indicates, the Church had never taught that the idea of limbo was an article of faith as opposed to a common theological opinion.

This is somewhat misleading. Because, while the existence of limbo is subject to debate, the Church has always taught that unbaptized infants cannot be saved; and the investigation in question suggested that they can be.

unbaptized infants cannot be saved;

I am very curious to know your corroborating evidence for what seems to me a wholly specious assertion; not even the deplorably ignorant Midiaevals ever thought thus.

George R:

...the Church has always taught that unbaptized infants cannot be saved.

That is not entirely accurate. If it were, then the Thomistic thesis of the limbus infantium itself would have been rejected as heretical. Why? According to said thesis, infants who die unbaptized are saved from the fires of hell, but can only go on to enjoy "natural happiness" without suffering any sort of pain. They are "saved" in the sense that they do not suffer, but they are not "saved" in the sense that they can enjoy the Beatific Vision.

What's the accurate account of the applicable dogmatic teaching? The Council of Florence's dogmatic decree Laetentur caeli taught as de fide that those who die "in original sin alone" go ad infernum, i.e. "to the underworld." It does not follow, however, that their doing so is permanent or involves suffering. That has always been a matter of opinion. See the combox to my article for a good discussion of what Florence's decree allows and does not allow.

Best,
Mike

More precisely, I dare wonder what's the point of the Feast of the Holy Innocents -- I mean, to commemorate within the Church all these centuries those who are essentially "unsaved"; that is, the souls of babies who had died at the hands of Herod, is rather not only risible but atrocious too.

Mike T:

I forgot to address the following point of yours: "If any institutional church is infallible, then its every proclamation is entirely correct and never subject to revision."

The Church whose Magisterium claims to teach infallibly under certain conditions has never claimed to do so under all conditions. So I haven't the faintest idea where you get the above from. If you're interested in learning more about the claimed scope of infallibility, I shall be happy to provide references.

I too have a quibble with the phrase 'the institutional church'. Any church that grows enough to occupy even a storefront has an institutional aspect, but that does not mean that something called 'the institutional church' is an entity distinct from the church. As an aspect of the church taken as a whole, it is distinct only from the individual members of the church. Since the theological significance of the phrase 'the institutional church' is accordingly unclear, there's no good reason to use that phrase.

I've written at length about limbo; just go here and scroll down to the heading 'Limbo'. As that indicates, the Church had never taught that the idea of limbo was an article of faith as opposed to a common theological opinion. Opinions are subject to change; doctrines said to be "irreformable," such as those on the women's ordination or contraception, are not subject to change.

As "c matt" says, there's nothing that's in general "self-serving" about making such distinction in areas other than theology. So, unless you have an argument to the contrary to make, there's nothing "transparently" self-serving about the Church's making it either.

I suppose you don't see how, to an outsider, the distinction between the two would seem self-serving. It is very convenient that on some points you get to say "we are absolutely certain here" and others you get to declare that it's just an opinion. That raises a question of how and when you actually know that you are operating under the Holy Spirit's guidance in these matters.

You're missing the point. If the Magisterium's claims for itself are true, then its way of distinguishing between binding doctrine and theological opinion is, itself, binding irrespective of whether any particular individual or group happens to agree with how it interprets the sources. That position would be "self-serving" only if the Magisterium were required to demonstrate, independently of its claims to authority, that its interpretations of the sources are correct. But if the Magisterium were obliged to do that, then the kind of authority it claims for itself would be demonstrably unnecessary. For the methodology by which its judgments would be justified could be applied without relying on any such claim to authority. Accordingly, the only claim that would be "self-serving" here is the claim that the Magisterium's claims are justified only if unnecessary.

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