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Catholicism/Reformation

Is Doctrine a Matter of the “Wisdom of the Crowd?”

Posted by M.Ferris on

The recent quincentennial of the Reformation brought a passel of celebration within Protestantism. For the most part, this has been a reaffirmation that whatever else he failed to reform, Luther’s recovery of justification by faith alone a thing to be cherished.  Even Pope Francis, speaking of Luther’s view of justification by faith alone said, “On this point, which is very important, he did not err.”[1]

But as the Twitterati were rejoicing over these Reformation truths, not all agreed. Some still view the Reformation not only as a mistake but as innovation, the introduction of new doctrine previously unknown and not held by any believers. In the midst of such a conversation, someone made this statement on social media:

“Please point me to one Christian community in the first millennium that has salient Protestant beliefs (none exist).”

There are a couple of assumptions behind this statement, and they are worth examining. These are as follows:

  1. No one held to salient Protestant beliefs before the Reformation.
  2. For a belief to be valid, one must demonstrate that some early community of believers held the belief.

I’ll take these in reverse order.

A demonstrable community holding to a truth is a kind of “Wisdom of the Crowd” for what constitutes the body of doctrines Christians should believe. While it’s not called this in Roman Catholic teaching, the elements of it are there in the sensus fidelium, or sense of the faithful. When the whole body of the faithful adheres to a teaching, this gives it validity. But this is manifestly false on a number of counts. It is an inversion of authority. It represents the people themselves dictating what is right and true, rather than the Scriptures being the source of truth.  The Catechism may claim “The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it to daily life”[2], but the many instances where the people were wrong show the fallacy of this. There was a time, as Jerome wrote, “The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.”[3] Arianism held sway, and had many adherents. One could point to communities that believed in Arianism, but it is heretical doctrine – despite how many may have held to it. Some may answer that there was a course correction. Arianism was vanquished and the orthodox doctrine of Christ prevailed. I would argue the same thing about justification by faith. The Reformation represented a course correction, and the orthodox doctrine of justification prevailed. The Pope himself admitted as much.

Moreover, the “sense of the faithful” does not prevail today either.

A 2005 Gallup poll of Catholics found only 41.9% of respondents agreed that the teachings of the Vatican are very important. Some 42% disagreed that Catholicism contains a greater share of truth than other religions. When asked who should have the final say as to a divorced Catholic remarrying without getting an annulment, 41.8% replied that this should be up to the individual, rather than church leaders. And 22.5% said that a person can be a good Catholic without believing that Jesus rose from the dead.[4]

In February 2008, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University conducted a survey of US Catholics to ask them about all aspects of their faith. About six in ten Catholics (57%) agree that Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. The remaining 43% said the bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but that he is not truly present.[5]  Both of these surveys demonstrate that the faithful are not unfailingly holding to what the hierarchy says they must.

The other assumption behind my interlocutor’s statement is that for a belief to be right it must be ancient, that is, it must be traceable to the first millennium. As it’s been put in the vernacular, “What’s true isn’t new, and what’s new isn’t true.” I concur with that, but with some distinctions. I would say the first millennium is far too late. The body of apostolic doctrine was finished with the apostles. Sub-apostolic writings have no Scriptural authority. They may be interesting history, but they carry no authority. When that standard is applied to many later doctrines, they fail the test. Things such as the Treasury of Merit, Papal Infallibility, the assumption of Mary were all unknown in the first millennium of Christian history. On the latter, Father Joseph Mitros says, “Thus the definition of the Assumption of Mary has created particular difficulties (to take only one example), since neither scientific exegesis nor a history of the first centuries of the Church has been able to discover even traces of this doctrine.”[6]

This is where the argument about the origin of doctrine cuts both ways. The Church often says that later doctrines were there in nascent form very early on. But even were we to say that were true, it surely does not constitute these things being held as salient beliefs by a Christian community. In fact, as Father Mitros points out, it isn’t the case that this doctrine was found at all in the earliest centuries of Church history.

When it comes to something such as justification by faith, would early examples of the teaching be enough to establish it? Nathan Busenitz’s recent book, Long Before Luther, contains a plethora of such examples.

  • Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130-202) “The Lord, therefore was not unknown to Abraham, whose day he desired to see; nor, again, was the Lord’s Father, for he had learned from the Word of the Lord, and believed Him; wherefore it was accounted to him by the Lord for righteousness. For faith towards God justifies a man.”[7]
  • Marius Victorinus (ca. 290-364) “Only faith [sola fide] in Christ is salvation for us.”[8]
  • Hilary of Potiers (ca. 300-368) “Wages cannot be considered as a gift, because they are due to work, but God has given free grace to all men by the justification of faith.”[9]
  • Ambrosiaster (4th Century) “They are justified freely because, while doing nothing or providing any repayment, they are justified by faith alone as a gift of God.”[10]
  • Jerome () “We are saved by grace, rather than by works, for we can give God nothing in return for what he has bestowed on us.”[11]

These are a handful of the many, but it demonstrates justification by faith was no novelty of the Reformation. That the theological barnacles needed to be scrubbed away from the ship of faith is without question, but that is a different thing than saying a teaching is brand new.

What then, is the difference between this “Wisdom of the Crowd” stance, and how Protestants understand doctrinal development? All Christians have the right (and privilege) of searching the Scriptures to find the truth. Some like to chide Protestants for reading the Bible with an individualism that results in all kinds of division. But that is a caricature of how Protestants read Scripture. Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey address just such a misconception. “Even if one can deconstruct Protestantism this way, this radical democratization of interpretation is a principle only. It does not actually work out this way because most learn to read the Bible within an interpretive tradition that exercises considerable heft.”[12]  Protestantism doesn’t ignore history, but Protestants recognize that the Scriptures are sufficient in themselves to guide us into all the truth.

Most certainly, there is within Protestantism and evangelicalism plenty of doctrinal malfeasance; Christians believing what they should not, simply because it is popular or comfortable. What I describe is how Protestantism has historically understood Scriptural authority. Do many facets of evangelicalism need to repent of carelessness when it comes to the truth? Absolutely, But the solution that is not to substitute biblical authority for an ersatz, man-made authority.

The historical Protestant understanding is very different from the Roman Catholic model. Doctrine does not need to be tied to Scripture, nor be provable from it. The shifting sense of the magisterium from century to century means that what’s new can be declared true. For example, in 2008, five cardinals sent a petition to Pope Benedict XVI asking him to proclaim Mary as “the Spiritual Mother of All Humanity, the co-redemptrix with Jesus the redeemer, mediatrix of all graces with Jesus the one mediator, and advocate with Jesus Christ on behalf of the human race.”[13]  If this catches on with enough people, does it then dictate by the “sense of the faithful”, it is now dogma? Nothing would prevent this in Roman Catholic teaching.

The question, then, of whether “salient Protestant doctrines” were held in the first millennium is a misleading one. To make the church or a Christian community’s reception of truth, the measure of what is true is to turn authority upside down. Roland Hanson and Reginald Fuller aptly summarize the fallacy this encompasses: “It is not Scripture, it is not even tradition in the strict sense that is the test of belief, but ‘the sense or sentiment of the faithful’, ‘the instinct’, the ‘present thought of the Church’, ‘the intention of the heart’, ‘the feeling’ of the faithful. Within certain very broad limits and under given conditions, in matters doctrinal, whatever is, is right – because it is.”[14]

 

 

[1] https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-text-pope-francis-inflight-press-conference-from-armenia-45222

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 93.

[3] Jerome, “Dialogue Against the Luciferians”, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.vi.iv.html

[4] http://www.thearda.com/Archive/Files/Codebooks/GALLUP05_CB.asp.

[5] “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among US Catholics”, http://cara.georgetown.edu/sacraments.html.

[6] Joseph Mitros, S.J, “The Norm of Faith in the Patristic Age, in Theological Studies, 29.3, (1968), p. 469.

[7] Nathan Busenitz, Long Before Luther (Chicago, Moody Publishers, 2017), p. 170.

[8] Ibid, p. 171.

[9] Ibid, p. 172.

[10] Ibid, p. 173.

[11] Ibid, p. 178.

[12] Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey, Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy (Waco, Baylor Univ. Press, 2008), p. 219.

[13] “Cardinals Hoping for a 5th Marian Dogma,” http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/z5mardogm.htm

[14] Richard Hanson, Reginald Fuller, The Church of Rome: A Dissuasive (London, SCM Press, 1950), p. 69.

Catholicism/Reformation

The Fragile Doctrine of Justification

Posted by M.Ferris on

As all but cave-dwellers know, this coming Tuesday, October 31st, is the 500th anniversary Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to door of the castle church in in Wittenberg. Many have commented that the Reformation is over, and that the similarities between Rome and Protestantism are such that the two sides should pursue a shared future. But this is wishful thinking at best, and willful ignorance at worst. The two sides are by no means in agreement on fundamental issues of salvation and grace, to say nothing of ecclesiology.  What has changed is that individual Roman Catholics and even the Pope himself have declared solidarity with Luther on justification by faith. But due to the nature of authority in the Church, this has created an odd situation. Who speaks for the official church? If it is the hierarchy and the magisterium, then Rome and Protestantism are still very far apart. If it is the Pope and his pronouncements, these are in contrast to official teaching. In short, Rome has its own authority problem.
For any who may wonder about th
e difference in justification, the following diagram illustrates this.

 

Justification for the Protestant/Evangelical believer is a crisis followed by a process. We are justified by faith in Christ. This faith is personal and individual. Each believer must exercise it. This is why baptism follows faith. It is a picture of dying with Christ, being buried with him, and being raised to new life. Baptism is not saving, it does not put one into the body of Christ. It is a picture, a powerful one to be sure, of a spiritual reality. But it does not impart grace or spiritual life. It is a step of obedience on the part of a believer.

Sanctification is the process of making us more like Christ. It is a life-long process, but importantly, while it makes us more like Christ, sanctification does not alter our standing with God. It alters our condition, but never our position with God. Our position is based on the finished work of Christ, and can never be altered. This is why salvation is often portrayed as new life, new birth, a new creation. Eternal life is just that – never-ending. NO man can pluck us from Christ’s hand, nor can our sin. Our sin – all of it – was paid for on Calvary, and the resurrection is God’s resounding affirmation of his satisfaction in his son.

The Roman Catholic understanding of salvation is very different. Baptism starts this process, and indeed, puts one into the Church, and imparts eternal life. Without this rite, salvation is not possible. The fact that an infant cannot express faith is entirely unimportant.   Grace is infused throughout the life of a believer as they partake of the sacraments, and as they persevere in works the Church has defined as necessary.  The chart above shows references from Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), but it should be noted, the Catechism is a passel of ambiguity and contradiction. Some things can be read as entirely congruous with evangelical doctrine, other things are wholly at odds with biblical teaching. This is, no doubt, by design, because the Church ultimately reserves the full understanding of any teaching to itself, to its hierarchy.

The most striking difference is that with Rome,  righteousness is not imputed to the believer as a once and for all act, following which we grow into greater likeness to Christ. Rather, righteousness is granted to the believer as a result of cooperating with grace throughout a life of obedience. In other words, it is by works, by what we do, can be lost. It is therefore not eternal life, but probational life. One’s position in heaven will only be attained if one’s condition is good enough. Justification and sanctification become intertwined, and if you’re not sanctified enough, then you will not in the end be justified!

This is exactly the opposite of the New Testament teaching on what it means to be “In Christ.” When we are in Christ, our position is with him in the heavenly places. If we sin, we grieve the Holy Spirit, our fellowship is broken, but we do not lose our eternal life.  Because our position is based on his work and not ours, our sins do not put us outside of Christ. Nothing can.

When people tell you that Catholics and Protestants really believe the same thing about salvation, don’t believe it.  This is a reminder that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is always – and once again – under attack. I do not say Roman Catholics are attacking it, but the enemy of our souls is because he hates these truths and the freedom and peace that they bring. It is a fragile doctrine if we are not good stewards of these truths. At this half-millennium anniversary of the Reformation, let everyone who understands these truths re-commit to their clear proclamation.

A word to any Roman Catholics reading this – I pray that you would consider what the Scriptures say about eternal life. Regardless of what the Church may say, search the Scriptures and see if these things are so. Those of us who understand and value the incredible truths of justification by faith pray that you, too, would understand what Jesus has already done to purchase your salvation.

 

Catholicism

Both conservative and liberal Catholics agree – Pope Francis is changing church teaching

Posted by M.Ferris on

Is the pope playing a theological shell game?

Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation, is a document that offers pastoral guidance for Roman Catholic clergy toward the reintegration of Catholics into congregational and sacramental life. Specifically, those Catholics who are divorced and remarried, or who are in other situations referred to as “Irregular unions.”  Damon Linker refers to Francis as a ‘stealth reformer’, and charts the path of how he is undoing previous doctrinal positions ever so quietly. A stealth reformer such as Francis, “keeps the doctrines intact but invokes such concepts as mercy, conscience, and pastoral discernment to show priests that it’s perfectly acceptable to circumvent and disregard those doctrines in specific cases. A doctrine officially unenforced will soon lose its authority as a doctrine. Where once it was a commandment sanctioned by God, now it becomes an “ideal” from which we’re expected to fall short. Before long it may be treated as a suggestion. Eventually, repealing it is no longer controversial — or perhaps even necessary.”

Linker has no doubt about Francis’ methods, nor his goal. He means to change doctrine by turning a blind eye to enforcement, and to leaving it to the discretion of parish priests as to whether it is acceptable to admit people to the sacraments. The pope is, in a way, covering his ears and shouting “la! la! la!” He doesn’t want to know or hear about what goes on at individual parishes. Linker expresses consternation with conservative Catholics who are upset by the apostolic exhortation, referring to their “retrograde intransigence.” Where he once espoused the conservative position, Linker seems ready to be done with a Church that refuses any dialogue on issues. Francis has broken this mold, and is a man very different from his two predecessors.

While Linker finds this encouraging and refreshing, others such as Michael Brendan Dougherty, find it a betrayal of the ancient faith. Dougherty agrees with Linker in this: Pope Francis is changing doctrine, if only by obfuscation and evasion. For those who believe this is an impossibility (“As the church teaches and has always taught”), what Francis propagates in the apostolic exhortation is, according to Dougherty, cowardice, confusion, and recklessness. Conservatives recalling the halcyon days of John Paul II and Benedict, doubtless find the current papacy hard to stomach. Convert Luma Simms is also one who all but declares Francis is peddling bad doctrine. She, too, accuses the pontiff of obfuscation, waffling, and of casting believers back on individual, private judgement. Those who insist that the church never changes its doctrinal positions are faced with difficult choices.  One matter on which conservative and liberal Roman Catholics are agreed, even as they quibble about method: the pope is changing the teaching of the Church. 

Catholicism

In Defense of Ross Douthat

Posted by M.Ferris on

The “laity” are not welcome in doctrinal discussions.

Perhaps I should refer to this less as a defense, and more an identification of an irony. New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat has come under fire from an unlikely source – fellow Roman Catholics. But these are Catholic academics and theologians who essentially feel that due to his status as an uncredentialed layman, he is unqualified to comment on theology and doctrine as he has done many times in his columns.  Douthat is among those I write about in my book Evangelicals Adrift, and is a prime example of a convert to Catholicism who upholds his expatriate faith with a zeal that the native-born, as it were, do not.

Before converting to Catholicism, Douthat was part of pentecostalism (my memory is Assemblies of God, but I cannot find the reference, but it is not so important). No doubt he there became accustomed to reading his Bible for himself, thinking about doctrine, and within pentecostalism, so sharp a division between clergy and laity did not exist, to the extent it does in Catholicism. To suggest, as these theologians do, that Douthat is not qualified to write on matters of theology or doctrine is simply ridiculous.

Douthat is well-educated and literate, he is a critical thinker, and therefore he has pretty much all the equipment he needs to weigh the evidence for or against various doctrinal positions within his Church. He can read the source material for these discussions just as anyone else can. The suggestion that determining these things should be left to the “professionals”, should be insulting to any and every member of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, part of the reason for the current troubles of the church is due to this professionalizing of what belongs to everyone.

I by no means think that if the Catholic Church adopted a flatter structure, this would solve their problems. Their doctrinal issues run far deeper than a democratization of the church hierarchy can solve. But within the confines of the structure he is working with, Douthat is doing what one would think Catholic academia would want. As a layman, he is taking profound interest in what the Church teaches, and where it is going.  The pope himself said as much in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium: “Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world.” Ironically, Douthat is doing what the pope he often opposes is suggesting, and it is this very thing, which these theologians say is not in Douthat’s purview, that the pope they defend is encouraging.

Catholicism

Is the Pope Catholic?

Posted by M.Ferris on

Previous generations might not have thought that the current pontiff is.

I remember this rejoinder from childhood as a sarcastic retort when you asked a question that had an obvious answer, but it’s been interesting to see how various constituents from within the Roman Catholic Church are asking the question not in jest, but in earnest.  Francis has certainly struck a different course and tone from his predecessor, Benedict XVI, (aka “God’s Rotweiler” for his ferocity in holding the line on conservative dogma).  Conservatives have not been happy with moves such as making annulments easier – a move the guardian termed a “stunning departure” from his predecessors, to his olive branches to those outside the church. These have led to lots of storm and stress within the church. Liberal catholics tend to be encouraged by him, but conservatives are chagrined.

It has always been the case that factions exist within the Catholic Church, but for the long pontificate of John Paul II and the shorter one of Benedict, the liberals were on the outside looking in. Now, it’s the conservatives who have been set back on their heels by Francis. Michael Brendan Dougherty asks with true sincerity whether the Pope is leading the Church into apostasy. Whether open schism erupts is still a question, but one wonders, how much dissent can there be before it’s just called for what it is? The answer, then, to the question of whether the Pope is Catholic all depends on which side of the aisle you’re on.