Why the Claim that Catholics Don’t Understand Reformed Theology is not Uncharitable

Sep 30th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Suppose a Catholic is discussing Reformed theology with a Reformed Protestant and that the Catholic is explaining to the Reformed Protestant why he doesn’t agree with particular aspects of Reformed theology.  And suppose the Reformed Protestant tells the Catholic that he (the Catholic) just doesn’t understand Reformed theology, and that the Reformed Protestant’s evidence for this (so it would seem) is simply that the Catholic doesn’t agree with every aspect of Reformed theology. 1  What could be more insulting, condescending, than this?  Isn’t this the height of uncharity?  Shouldn’t the Catholic get justifiably upset?

I argue in this post that the Catholic should not consider this claim – the claim that Catholics who reject Reformed theology just don’t understand it – to be uncharitable.  The Reformed Protestant who registers this charge need not be behaving uncharitably; the Reformed Protestant who registers this charge may instead be moved to register it precisely because he is motivated by genuine charity.

*          *         *

Dunce_Cap

Remember that debate between Greg Bahnsen and Gordon Stein?  Probably you’ve either listened to the debate or have heard about it.  It’s supposed to be a shining example of how presuppositional apologetics laid to waste the futile atheistic objections of folks like Gordon Stein.  I’ve got no present interest in evaluating what happened in the debate, but there is something relevant to the present discussion which occurred in that debate that is worth remarking upon.  At one juncture, Bahnsen pointed out to the audience that Stein’s PhD dissertation was about whales.  Sperm whales, I think.  (Maybe some other kind; it’s been a while.)  Stein was a biologist.  And the point (I guess) Bahnsen wanted to make was that persons who write dissertations about whales can’t expect to be accorded expert status when it comes to questions about the existence of God.

Stein fired back, later on: “Well, you wrote your dissertation on the concept of Self-Deception,” he said.  And the point (I guess) was that persons who write their dissertations about psychological/epistemological phenomena like self-deception should not expect to be accorded expert status when it comes to questions about the existence of God.  Tu quoque.

Bahnsen was wrong to tell the audience that Stein was just a biologist in hopes they’d infer that Stein didn’t have anything very interesting to say about God.  That looks pretty much like a desperate measure, and all the more so when it’s undertaken by an avowed presuppositionalist.  (Did Bahnsen want his audience to conclude that Stein’s arguments were bad and that his arguments were good just because of their disparate academic specializations?  Is there any presuppositionalist in the known universe who’d endorse such a rhetorical strategy upon reflection?)  But Bahnsen was on firmer presuppositionalist ground when he defended himself against Stein’s tu quoque: the phenomenon of self-deception is relevant to the current debate, he said.  “Very relevant,” he said.  And the reason why is just that atheists (according to Bahnsen) are in the grip of self-deception, and this point is the point that Bahnsen had all along really been wanting to make.

It’s a nice question whether Bahnsen’s subsequent remarks were apologetically useful, but whether or not they were I think we can at least recognize this: self-deception is a real phenomenon, and it’s something that the evangelist should know something about.  Since the apologist just is (or had very well better be) some sort of evangelist “at the core,” the phenomenon of self-deception is relevant to the task of apologetics, or is at least something that apologists should spend some time thinking about.

This isn’t a specifically “presuppositionalist” insight, mind you.  It isn’t news to any Christian that some persons may suppress the truth in unrighteousness, nor that the effectiveness of their apologetical efforts with individuals is going to depend not just upon the cognitive condition but also the conative states of the individual being evangelized – those motivational states beyond the power of rational argumentation itself directly to manipulate or guide, at least in the present postlapsarian situation. 2  It’s weird that some people think this was a discovery of Van Til’s.  It wasn’t.

In any case, the phenomenon of self-deception is as peculiar as it is pervasive.  Think about it.  Typically, to deceive another person about X, it requires that you know X not to be the case and that you wish (for whatever reason) to make another person believe that X is the case.  Some theorists want to analyze self-deception along these same lines – along the lines of interpersonal deception.  They are called “intentionalists” about self-deception.

What they’ll say is that self-deception occurs when a particular person knows that X is not the case and then tries to get himself to believe that X is the case.  But that’s weird.  To successfully deceive another person, it seems, you have to get them to believe something to be false that you yourself know to be true, and that they themselves don’t know antecedently to be true.  (Else how could you get them to believe it’s false?)  But if you’re trying to deceive yourself, then you must already know that the thing you’re trying to deceive yourself about is true.  So it seems that you couldn’t possibly deceive yourself about it.  That is the “static paradox,” as it’s sometimes called, concerning self-deception: self-deception requires both that you believe X and also that you believe not-X, and this seems psychologically impossible.

Another paradox is called the “dynamic paradox.”  It points out that in order to deceive another person about X, you need to adopt the intention to deceive them: you need intentionally to adopt a course of action that you believe will eventuate in their belief that not-X.  This requires, of course, that you (the mendacious party) already know the truth about X.  But what about the case of self-deception, in which the liar and the victim of the lie are the same party?  In which the deceiver and the deceived are the same?  It looks, in this case, as if one and the same person needs to adopt the intention to get himself (perhaps later on, through various mediating circumstances) to believe something he knows already to be false.  But that’s weird.  It’s weird because if another person were to make known to you his intention to deceive you, and then ask you to go through a certain process at the end of which you’d end up believing something you presently know to be false, then the “cat,” so to speak, would already be “out of the bag.”  Since you know the other guy’s intent on deceiving you, whatever process he asks you to go through so as to render you deceived would be a process that you antecedently know would issue in false beliefs, and so would be an ineffective process.

You can’t deceive someone like that.  If you want to deceive someone, you’ve got to keep your deceiving intentions hidden from them.  But if the deceiver and the deceived are one and the same person, if the person trying to hide his intentions is the same as the person he’s trying to hide them from, then it looks, once again, as if self-deception is an impossibility.

But it is a possibility, isn’t it?  Self-deception is possible.

So suppose we adopt a non-intentionalist approach to self-deception.  What we’ll say, then, is that there are certain sub-conscious or sub-intentional processes at work in the person – processes concerning which they aren’t explicitly aware – and that these processes have the effect of making them consciously believe something to be false which they either (simultaneously) sub-consciously believe is true or (consciously) believed at one point to be true. 3

This seems less fraught with paradox, but there is the following concern.  In cases of self-deception, it is typical for us to extend moral evaluations – specifically, judgments of disapprobation or blameworthiness.  Very often when people deceive themselves via putatively sub-conscious or sub-intentional processes, we still find them culpable for those acts of self-deception.  The person who forces herself against all evidence to believe in her spouse’s fidelity, or who believes against all evidence that her children really aren’t being abused by her lover, and who believes these things only because it would disturb her greatly to believe otherwise – such persons we may well pity, but we do not typically exculpate them.  The mother still should have ensured the safety of her children, even if it meant kicking out the new (and apparently abusive but otherwise suitable) boyfriend.  The betrayed spouse should still have looked the facts square in the face.  We still, in other words, consider such persons morally responsible for the beliefs that they acquire via self-deceptive processes, and for the actions they undertake (or omit to undertake) on the basis of self-deceptively induced beliefs, despite the reactive attitude of pity engendered in us by awareness of their unenviable circumstances.

Non-intentionalist theories of self-deception may avoid the static and dynamic paradoxes, but they apparently do not explain why it is intuitively right and fitting, at least in some cases, to hold persons morally responsible for their self-deceptions when they are sub-intentionally induced delusions.  This is so because we typically do not hold people morally responsible simply for being deceived, for being tricked.  And if the sub-intentional processes at work in the person are beyond the range of their awareness or conscious control, it isn’t obvious why self-deceived persons aren’t just straight-up victims of non-rational processes they know nothing about and couldn’t do anything to thwart.

Christians are, however, so far as I can see, committed to the reality of cases of self-deception, and committed to the claim that self-deceiving persons are in some cases morally responsible for what they believe and do. 4

One way to allow for this is to adopt a stance according to which “the will” has a certain primacy or independence with respect to “the intellect.”  That is however not the only option.  Even as strong an “intellectualist” as Aquinas apparently made room for the reciprocal influence of will upon intellect, of a kind that might direct the intellect to consider some ends that the agent would not otherwise have considered as goods to be pursued, and this is consistent with the claim that intellect is in general primary over will in the sense that will of necessity follows whatever the intellect presents to it as the good (under some description, in some circumstance) to be pursued.  And Calvin evidently did the same thing, at least in his discussions about the will/intellect relation in prelapsarian man. 5  But the point is just that Christians need some way to allow for instances of morally culpable self-deception.

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However best to understand it theoretically, a question worth asking at this point is whether or to what extent the propensity for self-deception survives in regenerate persons, in Christians.  Plausibly it does, to some extent.  (Why shouldn’t it?)  But if it does (to some extent), there is a question to be asked about how disagreeing Christians should relate to one another, how they should view one another within the context of disputation.

What should the Reformed Christian make of the Arminian Christian, for example?  It’s worth noting that Reformed Christians typically think of Arminian Protestants as genuine Christians, despite the confusions that the latter have (according to the former) fallen into.  “Felicitous inconsistency,” it’s sometimes called.  Here’s why: the Arminian Protestant may well endorse justification by faith alone (and let’s just put aside the fact that some Wesleyans, following Wesley, reject what confessional Reformed Christians mean by this), and this may be enough to gather them into the fold.  What they’re confused about is this: they don’t understand that if they’re really to embrace sola fide they must also embrace every other sola you wish to name, and that they can’t do this unless they’re five point Calvinists.  They don’t see how the thing hangs together as a package.

In other words their systematic theology is inconsistent – but the crucial thing is that they just don’t recognize this, and not necessarily through any moral fault of their own.  They’re good Christians, not good systematicians.  It’s an intellectual problem.  But we don’t typically evaluate others in a morally unfavorable way simply for being unintelligent or torpid.

It could be otherwise.  Suppose that the Arminian’s beliefs are generated through some fault of their own: perhaps they like the idea of sola fide, but they think the rest of Reformed theology takes too much control away from them, makes God too sovereign, makes God too exclusive, gives too much control to God, or makes them out to be morally worse than they want to believe they are.  In each case the Reformed Christian will stand ready to explain to them why their theology is illicitly shaped by a distorting and morally depraved stance: they want to usurp the place of God (like Adam), or they don’t want to believe that they’re really all that bad (like everybody, I guess.)  And so here the problem will be identified as a moral one as opposed to an intellectual one: they don’t want to give God the glory, and they want rather to give themselves the glory; that’s why their systematic theology is screwed up, and that’s why their religious beliefs are screwed up too.

This is different from felicitous inconsistency because the intellect has been clouded by an immoral will, even if only sub-consciously.  At some deep (possibly sub-intentional) level they know the truth but have set about the business of suppressing it in unrighteousness, deceiving themselves thereby into believing that, say, Jesus died for everybody, when they know darn well that He didn’t, because they’re fully aware of the implications of affirming that He did.

Question: If you were an Arminian, how would you prefer the Calvinist view you?  As felicitously inconsistent?  Or as engaged in outright moral rebellion against God, expressing itself in truth-suppression and morally blameworthy self-deception?  Who wouldn’t rather be called confused, muddle-headed, inconsistent, given the alternatives?  I would.  Wouldn’t you?

But compare now the case of the Catholic and the Reformed Christian.  It remains that there are two alternatives to consider: the Reformed Protestant may consider that the Catholic’s beliefs are the result of an immoral will clouding the intellect’s judgment, or he may not.

Suppose the Reformed Protestant were to diagnose the Catholic’s distinctively Catholic beliefs as having been formed by way of a morally culpable self-deceptive process.  The Catholic’s failure to embrace Reformed theology will then be chalked up to a moral problem, an intellectual one only secondarily.  But notice, if this were the diagnosis of the Reformed Protestant, then the last thing he’d say is that the Catholic just doesn’t understand Reformed theology.  For the problem here is that the Catholic doesn’t believe Reformed theology, has rejected as false particular aspects of Reformed theology.  Maybe the Catholic has deceived himself (culpably) into believing that these things are false when he knows full well (“in his bones”) that they are true, but that is not the same thing as simply not “understanding” the content of the theological beliefs that he has culpably deceived himself into believing false. (Indeed, so as to reject them, he evidently needs to understand what they say.)

What then might the Reformed Protestant mean by suggesting, to the Catholic, that he just does not understand Reformed theology?  Might there be any other negative moral evaluation implicit in this allegation?

One might think so.  Suppose for instance that the Reformed Protestant follows Charles Hodge in thinking that (i) the “Church” is to be identified with “all true Christians,” that (ii) “all true Christians” are to be identified with all Christians who agree about the “essential teachings of Scripture,” and that (iii) the “essential teachings of Scripture” include some subset of the distinctively Reformed beliefs held by Charles Hodge and others like him.

Given (i)-(iii), the Reformed Protestant may follow Hodge in arguing that since (iv) “the Bible be a plain book,” and since (v) “the Spirit performs the functions of a teacher to all the children of God, it follows inevitably that they must agree in all essential matters in their interpretation of the Bible,” this entails that (vi) “all the true people of God in every age and in every part of the Church, in the exercise of their private judgment” do indeed “agree as to the meaning of Scripture in all things necessary either in faith or practice,” which amounts to “a decisive proof of the perspicuity of the Bible, and of the safety of allowing the people the enjoyment of the divine right of private judgment.” 6

And given (iv)-(vi), finally, the Reformed Protestant is in a position to conclude that the Catholic’s failure to understand Reformed theology (or the subset of Reformed essentials) entails that the Catholic does not have the Spirit as his teacher, and therefore is neither a true Christian nor really a member of the Church.  And surely some negative moral judgment lurks here?

Not necessarily.  Again, it is much more natural for the Reformed Christian to explain why the Catholic does not believe these things (the “essentials”) in this manner; but failure to believe isn’t equivalent to a failure to understand, especially given that “the Bible be a plain book,” “intelligible by the people.”  If he says that the Catholic just doesn’t get plain stuff that normal people find intelligible, he isn’t thereby making any negative moral judgments about the Catholic.

More plausible, I think, is to view the Reformed Protestant as doing all he can to explain why the otherwise apparently intelligent and godly Catholic Christian does not believe particular aspects of Reformed theology without committing himself to the claim that the Catholic is culpably deceiving himself in unrighteousness.  That is to say, the Reformed Christian who assumes that the Catholic just does not understand Reformed theology is straining to give the Catholic the benefit of the doubt, straining to explain (to himself and to the Catholic) why the Catholic does not believe something that is on the whole perspicuous to every reasonably intelligent (or at least Spirit-led?) person – and he’s doing it all precisely in an attempt to avoid rendering the kind of outright moral condemnation implicit in the assessment that apparently informed Catholics are simply self-deceptively suppressing the truth in ungodliness out of willful moral rebellion.

He is in other words straining to identify the Catholic’s problem as just an intellectual problem, and not necessarily a moral one.  This is not an exercise in uncharitable name-calling; it is not an abandonment of charity.  It is actually an attempt to stretch charity to its very limits.  For if the Reformed Protestant does believe that Scripture is perspicuous on all the essentials, and also perceives that the Catholic is not an absolute idiot and has spent some time with the Biblical texts, then surely the easiest, most tempting, and seemingly even inevitable conclusion is that the Catholic is in the grip of sin – that the Catholic’s failure to believe is fundamentally a moral problem and not a simple failure to understand.  But failing to understand may for all that simply owe to an intellectual deficiency in the Catholic’s head and not to a moral one in his heart.

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I conclude that Catholics who are told that they do not understand Reformed theology should take it as a compliment of sorts, and should take it as an expression of their Reformed interlocutors’ favorable moral appraisal of and limit-stretching charity toward them.  They shouldn’t get all uppity about it.  The Reformed Protestant has, given the alternatives, chosen the more loving and gracious explanation for the Catholic’s failure to believe in various Reformed distinctives.

It would of course be Pollyannaish in the extreme to suppose that every Reformed Christian who’s ever said anything like this to any Catholic on planet earth was doing it out of charity.  But so what?  Catholics should still suppose that this is what the Reformed Christian is doing with them in any particular instance in which they hear the familiar charge: “You just don’t understand our theology.”  Charity, at least, demands that Catholics not instinctively suppose otherwise. 7

  1. Here I assume for the sake of convenience that there is a monolithic Reformed theology (MRT), such that any Catholic who disagrees with any aspect of MRT must eo ipso disagree with something that every Reformed Protestant believes to be true.  There is, of course, no such thing as MRT, but it facilitates discussion if we pretend that there is. []
  2. Cf. the remarks of “Arminian-classical-apologist” William Craig: “In the absence of the work of the Holy Spirit, our best arguments will fall like water on a stone, for the natural man suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:21) … Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, he will do all he can to resist the argument, even adopting extreme and outlandish beliefs rather than yielding to the truth of Christian theism” (“Classical Apologetics,” in Stephen Cowan et al eds., Five Views on Apologetics, Zondervan (2000), p. 53). []
  3. Pascal is sometimes referenced here, because he argued that even if there weren’t evidentially sufficient grounds for belief in God it was still most rational practically to believe in Him on the basis of egocentric or self-interested calculations regarding the expected utility of belief over disbelief.  Pascal was of course aware that a person could be brought to recognize that believing in God was on the whole most practically rational without thereby forming a belief that God really does exist.  And he counseled such persons to behave as though they did really believe: they should go to Mass, say their prayers, and so forth.  They should enter into a Christian form of life.  Eventually, this form of life would (or at least could) engender within them the virtue of genuine belief.  This is, according to some people, an instance of adopting a course of action aimed at making oneself believe something to be true that one either believes to be false or does not as yet believe to be true, and so is an instance of self-deception. []
  4. Compare Augustine’s moral condemnation of his former self-deceiving self in the Confessions VIII –

    Ponticianus told us this story of [a conversion] and as he spoke You, O Lord, turned me back in on myself.  You took me from behind my own back, where I had placed myself because I did not wish to look upon myself.  You stood me face to face with myself, so I might see how foul I was, how deformed and defiled, how covered with sins and sores.  I looked, and I was filled with horror, but there was no place for me to flee from myself.  If I tried to turn my gaze from myself, he still went on with the story he was telling, and once again you placed me in front of myself and thrust me before my own eyes, so that I might find out my iniquity and hate it.  I knew what it was, but I pretended not to; I refused to look at it and put it out of my memory.

    See Mark Johnston’s pertinent discussion of the kind of state evinced by Augustine here in “Self-Deception and the Nature of Mind,” in Brian McLaughlin et al eds., Perspectives on Self Deception, University of California Press (1988). []

  5. For discussion and helpful references see Dewey Hoitenga’s John Calvin and the Will: a Critique and Corrective, Baker Books (1997). []
  6. See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology vol. I: Theology, Eerdmans Publishers (reprint 1997), pp. 183-184, 188.  Yes: I know that many Reformed Protestants will want to argue that they don’t rely upon a “private judgment/perspicuity” hermeneutic, and that this is really a version of “solo scriptura” as opposed to “sola scriptura,” the latter of which is not objectionably individualistic.  But this just buttresses my point: the Reformed Christian who backs away from Hodge here will view Hodge simply as misunderstanding what Reformed theology actually teaches on this point; but he will hardly conclude thereby that Hodge must be in the grip of morally culpable self-deceptive sin.  He’s just making an honest intellectual mistake. []
  7. I wish to thank my friend and sparring partner Andrew McCallum for causing me to reconsider what Reformed Protestants may have in mind when they say that Catholics don’t understand Reformed theology.  He has taught me that my former Reformed self was insufficiently charitable towards Catholics.  I dedicate this post to him and others like him. []
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  1. Neal,

    I agree that this is the charitable approach. When I speak to a fallen away Catholic I think the same way, “they do not really understand Catholic theology.” I am reminded of Archbishop Sheen’s, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.” Charity demands that we give the benefit of the doubt and that we speak the truth in love and love in truth! Good post.

  2. Neal,

    Funny to read your article. Last week I had a fairly intense phone conversations with one of my RTS Professors over my decision to seek full communion with the Catholic Church. He insists that I do not understand the most crucial aspects of Reformed Theology. It was inconceivable to him that somebody could really get what reformed theology is saying and still disagree. The irony was that I never would have considered the Catholic Church if I had not gone to seminary. If I had not studied Reformed theology in depth I never would have seen the disconnect between the testimony of Scripture and the ideas of the Reformers.
    I especially appreciate your boldness in writing; “…and he’s doing it all precisely in an attempt to avoid rendering the kind of outright moral condemnation implicit in the assessment that apparently informed Catholics are simply self-deceptively suppressing the truth in ungodliness out of willful moral rebellion.” My professor (whom I am very close with), eventually did abandon the “you don’t understand reformed theology approach” and painfully suggested what you also mention, that I am simply in rebellion and suppressing the truth.

    Thanks Neil, Jeremy

  3. I am yet another member of the Axis of Ignorance. But for me, it’s worse: I have been accused of not understanding Protestant or Catholic theology. I guess that makes me ecumenically ignorant, sort of like being illiterate in two languages.

  4. Frank,

    That might just mean that your accusers are being superduper charitable with you!

    Jeremy,

    I hear you; the same kinds of things happened to me. One reason, possibly, is that there exists no “critical distance” between your professor’s Reformed commitments and the Bible. Theoretically he/she may recognize that the Bible is one thing, interpretations of the Bible another. Still, there is considerable pressure to collapse a particular Reformed interpretation of the Biblical texts to the Biblical texts themselves (in the name either of perspicuity or presuppositionalism), such that any attempt to question or criticize a given Reformed interpretation will be viewed as an attempt to question or criticize the very Word of God itself — and this despite the fact that all human opinions about what the Bible says are, according to the Reformed, supposed to be subject to Biblical scrutiny!

    Tom,

    I was reminded of that famous Sheen quote, too. Andrew P. also pointed out to me that there is perhaps an analogy here with the doctrine of invincible ignorance, which is an interesting point to consider.

    Neal

  5. Neal:

    Were you attempting to formulate an apology (and I mean that in both senses of the word) for the folks at Beggars All?

  6. Hi, Roma. No, I wasn’t. I haven’t read anything over there.

    Best,

    Neal

  7. Just thought you were attempting to provide for us a charitable understanding for why they act the way they typically do and, at the same time, by some proxy, apologize for how they behave.

    It would appear that your friend, Akin, remains a target of theirs. In fact, there’s still a category dedicated to him.

    I figure, it won’t be long now until they do the same with your other pal, Beckwith.

  8. Roma,

    Do you mean James (Jimmy) Akin? I don’t know him personally. I’m really not attempting to explain the behavior of any particular person or group of people, just trying to say why Catholics should not be upset when it is assumed that they do not understand Reformed theology adequately. I can’t speak to anything going on at the site you mention, since I know nothing of it.

    Best,

    Neal

  9. Hello Neal,

    It’s been a long time since I have heard the Bahnsen/Stein debate too. I thought it was an interesting debate but Bahnsen raised issues which Stein thought were irrelevant. That was pity because some of the philosophical issues Bahnsen brought up really were apropos for such a discussion. I remember Bahnsen bringing up the challenge of Hume’s problem of induction and Stein dismissing it. I think the problem here was the same problem that so often happens when the philosopher of science speaks to the practitioner of science. The typical trained scientist has never studied the philosophical roots of his discipline, and the scientists assumes that the way he does things are true because they work and have worked for as long as anyone in his discipline can remember. So Bahnsen was bringing up an elegant but rather convoluted argument concerning “deception” that Stein just could not get his mind around. My experience is that those in the hard sciences generally don’t make for good defenders of topics that hinge on a working knowledge of basic philosophical issues.

    Anyway, I see I get an honorable mention in the footnotes. So how is it that I have “taught” you? I hope that I have never made a blanket statement that Catholics don’t understand Reformed theology or even that a particular Catholic does not understand Reformed theology. What I have said many times is that we Reformed folks often spend much time in these discussions trying to persuade our Catholic friends as to what Reformed theology says and means on a given topic. Perhaps you have taken these individual statements (from me and others) and come to the general conclusion that we believe that Catholics writing here don’t understand Reformed theology?

    Often I try to bring a debate back to its historical roots and sometimes I get resistance or dismissal. As an example, I got into a discussion on the Reformed understanding of Assurance once (not sure if it was here). The Catholic writer wanted to tell me that we could not be assured because there was no guarantee that we would not fall away at a later time. No of course this is true, but it does not speak to the issue. I quoted from Berkhof (and I often pick him because he is generally very succinct) as to what the Reformed understanding of Assurance is and what it is not, but I was dismissed. In the end we never did establish what the Reformed understanding of Assurance is. And I think that if the writer had really understood, we would not have gotten into the discussion to begin with. So I think it is fair in this instance for me to say that the Catholic writer did not understand.

    Now the other thing that sometimes happens is the Catholic writer will start with a quote or a series of quotes form modern and historic Reformed scholars, but will draw conclusions that don’t reflect Reformed consensus. The classic example is Catholics who begin with Luther and his understanding of the book of James when discussing canonicity. The Catholic will correctly quote a Reformed source and correctly understand the source, but will draw a conclusion that does not reflect anything in the Reformed world. And in this case as well, I think it is fair to say that the Catholic here does not understand.

    I’m not sure that there are any more cases of us Reformed folks getting told that we don’t understand RC theology than the vice versa. We get told that we don’t understand even when we have started with a recognized RC source. From my standpoint I can’t say I have any pride in my understanding of RC theology and am happy to be corrected. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I get on sites such as this one. But maybe there is some defensiveness when we tell Catholics here that they don’t understand some aspect of Reformed theology, because they were Reformed (sometimes even attending seminary) and are quite sure that they do understand. Is this a possibility, Neal?

    Since I’m on a committee that reviews incoming pastors in their application to be approved as TE’s, I get to hear the specifics of what pastors do and don’t know of Reformed theology. This past week we interviewed and approved such a pastor. His knowledge of the Bible, sacraments, history, BCO, etc was exemplary. I would love to say that he was typical, but I find that especially with the younger folks there are often significant gaps in their understanding even after three years of study. I understand that you are somewhat miffed at me for suggesting that there might be a lack of understanding on given issues, but for me this is common even in folks who have not had any crisis with Reformed theology. For discussions like those on this blog, I just hope that I will be allowed to represent the historic Protestant side unless it is obvious that my understanding is incorrect.

  10. Hey, Andrew.

    I think what’s happened is that you have taken my post to be an insincere jab, motivated by a wounded ego or something else miff-generating! But I honestly wasn’t doing that; I was writing/saying what I believed to be true — that Reformed Protestants who charge Catholics with misunderstanding often do so because they are adopting the more charitable stance given the alternatives. (It goes without saying that, sometimes, various Catholic people really do misunderstand Reformed theology, or are drawing bad inferences. I don’t think this happens all the time, though.)

    Sorry if you perceived this post as a (longwinded) attempt to mock you, anyone else, or to get back at you because I feel miffed. I honestly wasn’t writing it for that reason. Frankly, I was just thinking about self-deception one day, thinking a bit about other things in the neighborhood (wish-fulfillment, e.g.), and then it occurred to me that this relates to the Catholic/Protestant discussion. It is true that Catholics are very frequently told that they do not understand Reformed things on seemingly slight provocations, not always justifiably, and that they are sometimes told this by people who (seemingly) don’t know as much about historical theology as they do. (*Not* talking about you here, okay? No insult — don’t read into it.) Putting those things together, it occurred to me that the most charitable interpretation of this is to see the Reformed Protestant as doing what I indicated above.

    As to what you “taught me.” Like I said, you taught me that my former Reformed self was insufficiently charitable with Catholics. I was much quicker than you apparently are to chalk it up to a moral problem or just to think ill of, stare incomprehendingly at, the Catholic. You don’t act that way with us. You’re nice. Examples like this (like you) make it a lot easier to adopt a frame of mind or orientation that seeks to put the most charitable face on another’s actions or statements. That’s how you came into the picture.

    Sorry again if you thought I was trying to insult you, I really wasn’t.

    Best,

    Neal

  11. Neal:

    More plausible, I think, is to view the Reformed Protestant as doing all he can to explain why the otherwise apparently intelligent and godly Catholic Christian does not believe particular aspects of Reformed theology without committing himself to the claim that the Catholic is culpably deceiving himself in unrighteousness. That is to say, the Reformed Christian who assumes that the Catholic just does not understand Reformed theology is straining to give the Catholic the benefit of the doubt, straining to explain (to himself and to the Catholic) why the Catholic does not believe something that is on the whole perspicuous to every reasonably intelligent (or at least Spirit-led?) person – and he’s doing it all precisely in an attempt to avoid rendering the kind of outright moral condemnation implicit in the assessment that apparently informed Catholics are simply self-deceptively suppressing the truth in ungodliness out of willful moral rebellion.

    Protestants that believe in the “perspicuity of scriptures” straining to give me “the benefit of the doubt” as a Catholic … yikes!

    Ironically, I find myself straining to give the Protestant that is professing a belief in the perspicuity of scriptures the benefit of the doubt, because it strains my credulity that anyone can actually believe this doctrine. IMO, the greatest argument that one give refuting the doctrine of the perspicuity of scriptures is Protestantism itself.

    If Protestantism stood as some sort of monolithic entity speaking with one voice and with a non-conflicting interpretation of scriptures, then I could see where the doctrine of the perspicuity of scriptures would have to be seriously addressed. But Protestantism is anything but a monolithic entity that speaks with one voice; Protestantism is thousands upon thousands of divided, bickering, and contentious sects – with most of these sects all reading from the same Bible, and all claiming the perspicuous nature of the Bible! Do I think that the Protestant that believes in the perspicuity of scriptures is morally culpable for self-deception? I don’t know if I have ever thought that – but I am baffled why sincere Protestants even speak about the perspicuity of scriptures given the reality of Protestantism.

    I was thinking about this thread before I went to Mass this morning (10/1/09). This is from the first reading:

    On the first day of the seventh month, therefore, Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, which consisted of men, women, and those children old enough to understand. Standing at one end of the open place that was before the Water Gate, he read out of the book from daybreak till midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand; and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law. … Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read. Nehemiah 8:2-3 & 8

    … Ezra the priest reading “plainly from the book of the law of God” and then interpreting what he is reading so that the assembled gathering “could understand what was read” – where does scripture teach the doctrine of the perspicuity of scriptures?

  12. Mateo,

    Hi there. Perspicuity is a big topic in its own right, one I’d like to offer something on in the future. I’m sympathetic with your overall concerns, but I think that nowadays, as a theoretical matter, many Protestants would want to shield perspicuity against criticism, by claiming that it deals only with a few areas of “core doctrines.” This is a weaker claim than the claims made by many of the Reformers and their followers concerning the perspicuity of Scripture and the function of that doctrine as it relates to Church unity, and is therefore easier to defend. I do think, though, that it still has problems. (See A.N.S. Lane’s discussion about perspicuity in “Scripture, Tradition and Church,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.)

    We should remember that there is a good sense according to which the main message of the Bible is perspicuous in some sense, though. I hope to offer some thoughts on these matters at a later date here.

    Neal

  13. Neal:

    Perspicuity is a big topic in its own right, one I’d like to offer something on in the future. I’m sympathetic with your overall concerns, but I think that nowadays, as a theoretical matter, many Protestants would want to shield perspicuity against criticism, by claiming that it deals only with a few areas of “core doctrines.”

    I have heard the argument that perspicuity of scriptures entails “unity in core doctrine”. But it seems to me that that is a weak argument, and the greatest argument against this alleged unity in core doctrine is, again, Protestantism itself.

    When one moves from the general statement alleging “unity in core doctrine” to the specifics of defining what those “core doctrines” actually are … there is no unity within Protestantism. For example, does the perspicuity of scriptures lead most Protestant sects to a unified interpretation about what scriptures say concerning Baptism or the Eucharist? Of course not. Does the “perspicuity of scriptures” reveal to us that correct doctrine concerning Baptism and the Eucharist are minor matters and not major matters of “core doctrine”? If not, why not?

    We should remember that there is a good sense according to which the main message of the Bible is perspicuous in some sense, though. I hope to offer some thoughts on these matters at a later date here.

    I am looking forward to your thoughts on this topic – I want to know how the perspicuous “main message of the Gospel” is related to “core doctrine”!

    God bless you, and keep up the good work.

  14. Mateo,

    Thanks for your thoughts. In respect of a viable Catholic doctrine of perspicuity, I’ve really got in mind a few of the things that Ratzinger has said about it — things that seem intuitively plausible to me — and also some of Congar’s apt warnings against overstressing the role of the ordinary Magisterium specifically as regards the development and overall shape of tradition. These are, as you noted, topics for another day. I do think however we should have some of these considerations in view as we think through perspicuity and allied topics.

    As to your first point, again, I’m in agreement that even the “perspicuity of essentials/core doctrines,” which is weaker and more defensible (in hindsight) than stronger historical formulations of perspicuity, is still problematic on a couple of different levels. Aside from the question about which doctrines count as essential and which do not, there is on the one hand an admitted need to get the “core doctrines” with a respectable degree of specificity and depth, and on the other a need to do this in a way that achieves the result that mainline conservative Protestants are generally speaking in agreement about these things, but Catholics are not. The doctrine of justification by faith, for example, which must plausibly count as core and essential from the Reformed perspective, is not something that all Reformed folks (still less all Protestants) understand precisely similarly. The trick will be, then, to say that at a certain level of abstraction the doctrine of justification by faith is perspicuous, and that this understanding of it, at least, is perspicuously seen and endorsed by all mainline conservative Protestants; but it cannot be stated at such a high level of abstraction that, say, the Catholic signers of ECT or the writers of the Joint Declaration or (for a Protestant example) Charles Colson has a properly Protestant view about it.

    More to be said about all this, of course, but now (for me, unfortunately) is not the time.

    Thanks again,

    Neal

  15. Neal:

    The doctrine of justification by faith, for example, which must plausibly count as core and essential from the Reformed perspective, is not something that all Reformed folks (still less all Protestants) understand precisely similarly. The trick will be, then, to say that at a certain level of abstraction the doctrine of justification by faith is perspicuous, and that this understanding of it, at least, is perspicuously seen and endorsed by all mainline conservative Protestants; but it cannot be stated at such a high level of abstraction that, say, the Catholic signers of ECT or the writers of the Joint Declaration or (for a Protestant example) Charles Colson has a properly Protestant view about it.

    The Catholic Church speaks about a “hierarchy of the truths of faith”:

    CCC 234 The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the “hierarchy of the truths of faith”. [56]

    56 GCD 43.

    I think that the trick would be to show how the perspicuous nature of the Bible reveals the dogmas of the Trinity to the Church, and how the rest of the doctrines in the “hierarchy of truths” follow from that starting point. :-)

  16. Sorry again if you thought I was trying to insult you, I really wasn’t.

    Neal,

    And sorry to take so long to answer you. No, I did not take this as an insult. I did take this as an inquiry into what the Reformed folks might be meaning when they say that their Catholic inquisitors don’t understand them. But as I read it again, I think I may have also taken it in a more negative light than what you intended. Sorry for that.

    Cheers for now,

    Andrew

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