Mathison’s Reply to Cross and Judisch: A Largely Philosophical CritiqueFeb 18th, 2011 | By Guest Author | Category: Blog Posts
This is a guest post by Michael Liccione, who is well known to regular readers of Called To Communion. Michael earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and his B.A. in philosophy and religion at Columbia University. He has taught at a number of institutions, including UPenn, St. Francis College, the Catholic University of America, and the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He currently teaches critical thinking at Bryant & Stratton College in Syracuse, NY, where he moved last year to be closer to his family of origin. His previous job was assistant to the editor at First Things, for which he is preparing a feature article on the development of doctrine.
In November 2009, two of this site’s co-authors, Bryan Cross and Neal Judisch, posted what has become its best-known contribution to Catholic-Protestant dialogue: the article “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority.” It was devoted mostly to a critique of Keith Mathison’s argument, in his book The Shape of Sola Scriptura, that there is a principled difference between solo scriptura (henceforth ‘solo’) and sola scriptura (henceforth ‘sola’) as ways of upholding the primacy of the Bible and interpreting it so as to expound the true doctrinal content of the “faith once given to the saints.” Since then, the article’s combox has run to well over 1,200 entries conducting debates about both the central issue and the numerous ones related to it. In defense of the article’s main thesis, I gladly contributed to those debates. But much of it had the feel of a busy conference hall awaiting a speaker’s arrival. For it was over a year ago that Mathison promised a considered reply. Now that he has delivered that reply (see here for the links), I shall deliver a critique of my own. My page references will be to the PDF version of Mathison’s paper.
The main thesis of the Cross-Judisch article is that, pace Mathison, there is no “principled difference” between solo and sola, inasmuch as the latter requires as much as the former that the individual’s interpretation of Scripture be the ultimate interpretive authority. Mathison of course denies that and, in his reply, backs his denial with many arguments. Now my aim is not to speak for Cross and Judisch — who are quite capable of defending themselves, and doubtless will — but to focus attention on what I believe to be the fundamental issues needing to be addressed directly. Those issues are philosophical, and so far have not been seen or addressed as such. Largely for that reason, I shall not discuss in detail most of the subsidiary arguments Mathison makes in a paper that runs to over 50 pages of double-spaced text. They are quite uneven in quality, ranging from the historically well-informed to the downright fallacious. Many who follow this site are well able to assess most of Mathison’s arguments piecemeal; if they do, I think they will verify for themselves what I have just said about those arguments. Instead I shall frame the broader context of debate, summarize and criticize Mathison’s main argument, and point up how it illustrates the radical difference of interpretive paradigm (henceforth ‘IP’) between Catholicism and conservative Protestantism (Reformed or otherwise) quite generally. At the end, I shall explain what is involved in assessing those paradigms against each other so that the uncommitted inquirer may determine which is the more reasonable. The unavoidable need to determine which IP is the more reasonable is the most important philosophical issue in the debate.
I say “conservative” Protestantism because, unlike liberal Protestantism, it shares two basic assumptions with Catholicism that allow us to specify a clear context of debate. First, the divine revelation in and through Jesus Christ is public, definitive, once-for-all, consistently and authoritatively identifiable through time, and expressible as the doctrinal content of the “deposit of faith.” Second, the ultimate “material” object of faith is God. That is to say, what we have faith in when we make the assent of faith is ultimately a who: God, as revealed in and through Jesus Christ. It is ultimately on divine authority that we must believe what we do as belonging to the deposit of faith “given once for all to the holy ones.” The main difference between Catholicism and conservative Protestantism as a whole is not about that, but about the proximate, “formal” object of faith. In other words, the two represent different answers to the question: Just which ensemble of secondary authorities must we trust, and in what relationship with each other, in order to reliably identify all and only what the primary object of faith wants us to believe, namely the deposit of faith? Now as a theologian of the Reformed tradition, Mathison is committed to a way of answering that question that not all conservative Protestants would accept. But the points I shall make at the end, after I have addressed his main arguments directly, apply to conservative Protestantism generally.
A conservative Protestant would say that inspired Scripture is the highest authority, the authority-beyond-appeal, in what I have called the “ensemble of secondary authorities.” Of course some Protestants deny that there is any other secondary authority, but that should not be taken at face value. Protestants as well as Catholics rely to some extent on other secondary authorities such as tradition, churches, pastors, scholars, and the experience of believers. Protestants disagree among themselves about the weight such authorities have relative to each other and to Scripture, and we will need to consider one aspect of Mathison’s understanding of that relation. For now, though, note that Catholicism too acknowledges the primacy of Scripture in a certain sense.
Catholic theologians generally understand Scripture as the divinely inspired norma normans for other secondary authorities, including the Church. That means that, once the biblical canon was formed, whatever was admitted from other authorities had to conform to and cohere with Scripture. No authority may introduce anything as de fide that is logically incompatible with Scripture or otherwise fails to cohere with it. Other authorities are thus norma normata: they are “normed” by Scripture rather than vice-versa. Many Catholic theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, have also held that Scripture is “materially sufficient,” in the sense that it somehow contains, either explicitly or implicitly, all the doctrinal content assent to which is necessary for salvation. But given that it’s not a definitive teaching of the Catholic Magisterium, the material sufficiency of Scripture is considered only an acceptable opinion among Catholics rather than a doctrine binding on the conscience of believers. On the material-sufficiency view, even though the Church affirms extra-scriptural Tradition as another “source,” older than and concurrent with Scripture, from which we receive the Word of God, Tradition does not convey any revealed truth that is not “somehow” contained in Scripture. Of course many conservative Protestants would go further and claim that the canon is formally as well as materially sufficient, thus obviating unwritten Tradition as a source of knowledge of revealed truth. But that too is only an opinion, one which I regard as at best conceptually confused and at worst as actually self-refuting, depending on how it’s formulated. And of course, Protestantism diverges from Catholicism and Orthodoxy in holding that only the Masoretic canon of the Old Testament, rather than the larger Septuagint canon, is truly inspired. That difference will also be important later in my own argument. For now, the main point to keep in mind is that both parties to the debate accept some version of the biblical canon as the norma normans among secondary authorities, in virtue of its being the inspired, inerrant Word of God in fixed, written form.
Accordingly, the main focus of disagreement between Catholicism and conservative Protestantism is less about the importance of Scripture as a secondary authority — both receive it as the norma normans in some sense — than about the importance of other secondary authorities relative to it and to each other. This is where Mathison’s distinctively “confessional” conservative Protestantism — in his case, the Reformed tradition — becomes relevant. According to confessional Protestantism of whatever brand, ecclesial creeds and confessions are very important secondary authorities for identifying the deposit of faith as the proximate object of the assent of faith. The authority of the churches that produce them is correspondingly important. Ecclesial authority is seen as scripturally justified, even necessitated; and as Catholics, Cross, Judisch, and I would agree. And here is where we find the main difference between solo and sola within Protestantism itself. Let us now consider Mathison’s own view of that.
Mathison agrees with Cross and Judisch that all reading of Scripture, like “communication”” generally, “requires interpretation.” But the questions naturally arise: Whose interpretation of Scripture is authoritative for Christians, and to what degree? Any answer to those questions will identify a secondary authority in addition to, but not opposed to, Scripture. And in a paragraph that Mathison does not gainsay, Cross and Judisch wrote:
[Mathison] is arguing that solo scriptura undermines legitimate ecclesial authority established by Christ. It does so by denying the “authoritative teaching office” in the Church, and the “hermeneutical authority” of those holding that office. How does it do that? Mathison is explicit: “the individual measures his teacher’s interpretation of Scripture against his own interpretation of Scripture.” For Mathison, God did not establish the Church as a democracy; rather, He gave specific gifts to men to teach and govern His Church.
For Mathison, then, what’s wrong with solo is that “the individual measures his teacher’s interpretation of Scripture against his own interpretation of Scripture.” If it’s the individual being taught who is the interpreter-beyond-appeal, that is only an ersatz authority, since the individual cannot claim authority greater than, or even as much authority as, that of something called “the Church,” understood as the “assembly” (ecclesia) of God’s people as a whole. Solo is thus untenable. It amounts to saying “I submit to the Church only when I agree,” which is no submission at all. We must rather adhere, in good confessional-Protestant fashion, to sola. We must indeed affirm that Scripture is the sole inerrant rule of faith, because unlike the deliverances of any other secondary authority such as ecclesial creeds and confessions, Scripture is divinely inspired and thus inerrant; but Scripture cannot be authoritatively interpreted by individuals. The authoritative interpretation of Scripture belongs to something called “the Church.” On that score too, Cross and Judisch agree with Mathison.
This suggests, correctly, that getting the true identity of “the Church” right is pivotal for interpretation of Scripture that is truly authoritative, not just personal opinion, no matter how many people may share a given interpretive opinion at any given time. So on one level, it would seem that the disagreement is only about which body now constitutes “the Church” that Christ founded and to which he gave authority. And indeed there is sharp disagreement about that. But it is at just this point that I find Mathison’s argumentative strategy so curious.
He does not argue that his Reformed denomination, or indeed any particular church body today, is “the Church” that Christ founded. Instead, Mathison takes up more than the first half of his paper with a sprawling, surprisingly strident argument that the Catholic Church is not that Church. In due course, I shall review and criticize his most important subsidiary arguments against Catholicism; but as we shall see, the interest of that is primarily what it reveals about the general quality of Mathison’s arguments, not how it contributes to debate about the immediate point at issue. Next, he briefly summarizes his book’s argument — against the Cross-Judisch interpretation of it — as to how to identify “the Church.” He begins with the assertion: “I defined the church in terms of the rule of faith, and I as an individual did not determine the content of the rule of faith” (p. 36). He goes on to explain both what that means and how it can be supported by historical inquiry. On that account, the “rule of faith” in terms of which “the Church” is to be “defined” is embodied in the creeds that developed progressively out of the early church’s baptismal formulas and confessions of faith, culminating in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed of 381. I see no reason to doubt that Mathison’s account of early creedal development is substantially correct.
Now those creeds were clearly backed by the authority of something calling itself even at the time “the catholic church” (I use the lower-case ‘c’ intentionally). So one might think that, given the importance Mathison attaches to getting right the identity of “the Church” as a secondary authority, he would argue that such creeds were true and authoritative regulae fidei because they were propounded with the authority of a body identifiable as “the catholic church.” But that is not quite what he argues. And on reflection, that is understandable, because Mathison’s actual position forbids him to argue it.
He argues instead that such rules of faith were authoritative inasmuch as they were, and were regarded by the self-described catholic church as, “uninspired summaries” of the plain teaching of inspired Scripture. But they were only thought necessary because some people, for whatever flimsy reasons, didn’t “get” the plain sense of Scripture. In other words, the rules of faith could be known to be authoritative less because the-Church-as-secondary-authority propounded them than because they plainly were correct interpretations of Scripture, which is why they were regarded as such by the early “catholic church.” So “the Church” as secondary authority is to be identified as that body of believers whose rules of faith conformed to Scripture, by virtue of clearly summarizing and correctly interpreting Scripture in her rules of faith, and doing so in a way that can be validated even without invoking her authority. Accordingly, it’s not as though we have to get the identity of “the Church” right before we can know the correct interpretation of Scripture. We must first get the plain sense of Scripture, so that we can go on to identify “the Church” as that body of believers whose rules of faith clearly reflect it. Only then do we have reason enough for saying that “the Church” is authoritative as interpreter. That is how Mathison “defines” the Church, and the authority of the Church on the sola view.
Frankly, how Mathison could suppose that that argument rebuts the Cross-Judisch thesis is beyond me. He is in fact doing precisely what they criticize him for doing in his book. He has not managed to depict “the Church” — be it the post-apostolic, “catholic” church or any church today — as an indispensable measure of any particular person’s interpretation of Scripture, which is what his version of sola would require. Rather, he holds that a certain interpretation of Scripture, embodied in the Creed of 381, is plainly correct, and supports that view by arguing that the early church took it that way too. Citing the creeds and the attitude of the early church is supposed to reinforce the point that the correct interpretation is plain, without thereby suggesting that its being plain logically depends on its being endorsed by the authority of the church. So if the early church was authoritative in the sought-after sense, that is only because her relative closeness to the time of the apostolic tradition’s “inscripturation” in the canon makes it likely that she got the interpretation of Scripture right — not that said interpretation can be known to be right only if she says it is. And so, for the purpose of identifying the doctrinal content of the deposit of faith, the authority of “the Church” as interpreter is dispensable in principle, even though in practice it is always needed for the disciplinary purpose of calling out the errant and recalcitrant.
Thus it would seem that sola reduces to solo after all. For as individuals, we are to identify “the Church” as that body of people whose leadership has got Scripture essentially right. We needn’t and shouldn’t say that the true identity of “the Church” Christ founded must be known before we can identify the correct interpretation of Scripture as such; indeed, on Mathison’s account, any attempt to approach the matter that way would get it backwards. Rather, the inquirer into these matters must learn the identity of “the Church” by means of exegetical and historical arguments that the early “catholic church” got Scripture right in her summary rules of faith. “The Church” today is thus identifiable as whatever collection of people attends church and adheres to such rules as the correct interpretations of Scripture. But of course, no visible body today is co-extensive with that collection; therefore, no set of authorities within any such body can be identified tout court as the authorities of “the Church.” The Church, such as it is, has authority because it is right about Scripture; accordingly, the individual churchgoer cannot know that “the Church” has interpretive authority without his already knowing the correct interpretation of Scripture. But that destroys any principled difference between solo and sola. Which, of course, is just the Cross-Judisch thesis.
So much for the second half of Mathison’s main argument. Its first and far lengthier half, which concludes that the Catholic Church is not the Church, fares no better. But before getting to the substance of that case, we need to consider why Mathison finds it necessary to make such an argument.
He finds it necessary because, according to him, the “difference” between solo and sola “becomes invisible only when one begins by assuming the correctness of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the church” (p. 1), so that it’s necessary to demolish such an “assumption” in order to uphold the difference. But in Mathison’s paper, I can detect no explanation why Cross and Judisch must assume, for purposes of their own argument, that the Catholic Church today is the Church, or even an argument that they actually do so. The closest they come to doing so is in this statement: “Our point is to show that implicit within the claim by proponents of sola scriptura to be submitting to the Church, is always a prior judgment concerning which body of persons count as the Church, and a theological assumption about how that judgment is to be made.” That, of course, is true of anybody who would appeal to something called “the Church” for the sake of authoritatively interpreting the “sources” by which divine revelation is transmitted to us. For if an appeal to the living authority of something called “the Church” over biblical interpretation is to be anything but circular, we need an extra-biblical reason for saying which church is…well, the Church. The extra-biblical reason Mathison gives for his definition of ‘the Church’ is his interpretive opinion, which is by no means shared by all in the fourth century or today, that the Creed of 381 promulgated by the church of the time was only conveying the plain sense of Scripture. That is not the same as saying something that Cross and Judisch would agree with, namely that said creed’s was the correct interpretation of Scripture. For his purpose, Mathison must adopt such an extra-biblical premise, because to argue that we don’t need anything beyond statements of the Bible to identify which church has the authority of “the church” mentioned in the Bible would be justified only by the sort of reasoning that would make the church dispensable for the purpose of authoritatively interpreting the Bible quite generally. The philosophical problem for Mathison is that, although he needs and wants to avoid that result, it is exactly the result his argumentative strategy yields.
Still, what is of interest for the debate here is not the question which church today actually is the Church — on that, agreement will obviously not be reached — but whether the identity of the Church today must be established prior to determining whether sola does, in fact, collapse into solo. That’s the sort of epistemological question philosophers love to consider. From that point of view, Mathison’s main argument requires showing that sola does not collapse into solo because we can reliably identify the early “catholic church” as the Church, and thus as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture. But of course, Cross and Judisch would agree with the identification itself; they too believe that the church that promulgated the Creed of 381 is in fact the Church. So the question whether the church then was in fact the Church is not the question we need to consider in order to get at the root of the disagreement. The root of the disagreement is about not whether the early “catholic church” was the Church or even that she had interpretive authority, but about the method by which that church is to be so identified, a method which would also identify which church is the Church even now. Cross and Judisch say that the right method is to discover which church enjoys “apostolic succession,” which is probably why Mathison says that they must assume, for purposes of their argument, that the Catholic Church is the Church. But for the reasons I’ve already given, their commitment to that method as Catholics is not needed as a premise for their argument against Mathison’s thesis.
To be sure, Mathison makes much of the fact that Catholics and Protestants today view history and Scripture through quite different lenses. That indeed has been a fact since the 16th century. But as I shall show later after completing the review of Mathison’s main argument, he doesn’t get the difference of IP between Catholicism and conservative Protestantism quite right either. And that is a severe defect of his argument against Catholicism.
Mathison makes his argument against Catholicism (or what he prefers to call ‘Rome,’ as if the Latin Church were all there is to the Catholic Church), on historical, exegetical, and logical grounds. But he takes virtually no account of the fact that many highly intelligent and scholarly Catholics have disagreed and do disagree with him, using far more thorough arguments of precisely those sorts — for example, Yves Congar and Joseph Ratzinger. With only one exception I shall discuss below, Mathison’s foil is not thinkers of that caliber, but only unnamed Catholic “apologists” who aren’t really scholars. And he concludes his argument with this bold claim: “…there is absolutely zero evidence that the leadership of the local church of Rome is uniquely protected and abundant biblical and historical evidence that it is not” (p. 22).
The question to raise here is: “Protected from what?” If the answer is “sin,” Catholics willingly grant that “the local church of Rome” is by no means protected, uniquely or otherwise, from sin. At certain points in its history, the papacy would have been grist for tabloid newspapers, had there been any. All one has to do is read Chaucer or Boccacio, and listen to weightier Catholics from the era who criticized the abuses but never left the Church. The Reformation, whether itself justified or not, was in part a response to justified grievances, and most Catholics, including the present and the previous pope, have acknowledged as much. As far as I know, nobody claims that the members of any church, including popes, have ever been protected from sin, even grave sin; indeed, the Apostles themselves, including Peter, were not so protected. What is at issue is whether any church is ever divinely protected from doctrinal error, not moral error, under certain conditions. In other words, is any church ever gifted by God with doctrinal infallibility, and if so under what conditions? The Catholic Church claims that she is, and the claim is supremely relevant to a discussion of the nature of ecclesial authority to interpret whatever “sources” transmit divine revelation to us.
But even though Mathison is well aware of that claim, and its logical difference from any claim of impeccability that would be a mere straw man, some of the evidence he cites against that claim is moral. Thus he argues that, prior to the Reformation, the papacy and the bishops had “abandoned the flock,” thereby and obviously forfeiting their claim to be successors of the Apostles. But even assuming that the pope and the bishops were often poor pastors, that sort of pastoral judgment is irrelevant to the issue at hand. The relevant question is: In what way is “the Church” necessary to reliably and authoritatively interpret the sources by which divine revelation is transmitted to us? The question is not whether the rulers of the Church, at any given time, are otherwise ruling well. If it were manifest that the claims of the Catholic Magisterium for itself are false for that or any other reason, than most Catholic prelates and theologians for at least a millennium would have to be either poor scholars or willfully blind, and every faithful Catholic layman an illiterate or a willing dupe. Depicting one’s opponents as either incompetent or in bad faith, mostly by ignoring the best among them, is not an effective argumentative strategy.
To be fair, I note that Mathison does adduce some relevant arguments against the Catholic Magisterium’s claim to infallibility under certain conditions. One is the standard Protestant argument that some Catholic doctrines are contrary to Scripture — especially the papal claims themselves. But regardless of any particular example it may use, that sort of argument is radically question-begging. A good part of what is at issue here — indeed, the main part — is the question how Scripture is to be interpreted authoritatively. To argue that Scripture interpreted authoritatively goes against Catholicism requires already premising one particular answer to the very question at issue — which of course is precisely what Mathison charges Cross and Judisch with doing for their own purpose. And so I shall ignore this sort of argument from Scripture against Catholicism.
Another of Mathison’s arguments is that there’s no evidence of mono-episcopacy in Rome until the late second century, and that some Catholic scholars agree with that judgment, which indeed they do. That requires arguing, as he does, that St. Irenaeus and one of his sources, Hegisippus, misstated the evidence from the post-apostolic Church of Rome, even though Irenaeus himself had been to Rome and known St. Polycarp of Smyrna personally, who in turn had been to Rome and had himself known the Apostle John personally. Such an argument would have us believe that, roughly 1,900 years after the fact, we can understand the meaning and reliability of the late first-century sources better than people who had lived less than two generations after the fact and had known eyewitnesses to it. That dubious sort of move is rather common among liberal scripture and patristic scholars; it’s just special pleading when made by a conservative theologian who would often find liberal scholarship dubious on just such grounds. The argument in question, which is fairly common, also trades on an ambiguity in the use of the word ‘presbyteros’ in the early Church. And it has been vigorously contested on that and other grounds by Catholic scholars whom Mathison simply ignores. The selective use of secondary scholarly sources is not a reputable form of argument. So Mathison’s present argument doesn’t merit more attention here either.
Needless to say, Mathison has many other arguments. Indeed, he seems to have thrown almost all the tomatoes at the target, hoping some will stick. I shall focus on the most important, which alas are not made with the care they require.
One is that the course of Catholic doctrinal development (henceforth ‘DD’) has yielded significant internal inconsistencies, which could not obtain if the Magisterium’s claim to infallibility under certain conditions were true. But that argument isn’t enough for Mathison’s purpose. For no party to the debate denies that some Catholic teachings have changed, yet it doesn’t follow that that poses an insurmountable logical problem for the Magisterium. Doctrinal change would be an insurmountable, internal logical difficulty for the Magisterium only if at least one of the changes involved negating a doctrine which the Magisterium had deemed irreformable, i.e., infallibly set forth, by its own criteria. But Mathison makes no argument to that effect — at least none that I can detect.
Another argument from Mathison on this score is, in effect, that the very notion of DD is a deceptive name for unwarranted additions to or corruptions of the deposit of faith: essentially, a con job. I’ve heard that a lot in my time. Of course DD would be exposed a con job if Mathison had shown what I have just said he’s made no argument to show. But pretty much all he has to offer is the following ill-considered remark centering on John Henry Newman, the primary advocate of DD in the 19th-century Catholic Church:
…the Roman Magisterium has lost and corrupted and changed her theological and moral teachings over time. It takes the genius and ingenuity of a Cardinal Newman to blind one to this fact. The doctrine of papal infallibility itself is one of the most obvious examples of an invented doctrine that was never believed always, everywhere, and by all, but more on this below. (p. 22, emphasis added.)
So according to Mathison, Cardinal Newman used his admitted “genius” to blind not only himself, but a host of later Catholic scholars, to an obvious truth that he, Mathison, has by no means made obvious. Res ipsa loquitur. The only good part is that one real Catholic theologian is actually cited, and acknowledged as a genius. But of course, the genius does not begin or end with Newman.
Mathison also cites against the Catholic Church what’s known as “the Vincentian Canon,” stated in the fifth century by St. Vincent of Lerins: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” Thus:
…Rome’s version of apostolic succession ultimately led her to replace the Vincentian canon with the “magisterium of the moment.” Instead of that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all, the Roman standard is whatever Rome happens to be teaching today. If she teaches it now, it must have been taught by the apostles and the early church, even if there is no evidence of that in Scripture or the history of the church. The Vincentian Canon is an inductive principle based on the evaluation of evidence. The Roman standard is a deductive principle based on a bare assertion. (p. 50)
That argument too is sloppy. For one thing, Rome does not claim that “whatever” she now teaches was actually taught by the Apostles. She claims only that what she teaches as de fide, and thus as irreformable, belongs to the apostolic deposit of faith, whether or not we happen to know, on independent grounds and in every case, that the Apostles themselves would have said the same. Of course, as a Protestant Mathison would reject that claim too, but it is a much narrower claim than the one he formulates, and arguing against it requires much more care than he devotes.
Notice also that the Vincentian Canon is not true without careful contextual qualification. It is not true, without qualification, that every doctrine St. Vincent professed as a Catholic had been held “always, everywhere, and by all,” even if we take the ‘all’ to be quantifying only over people who had been baptized as Catholics. As I argued here on textual grounds, to understand and apply the VC as St. Vincent did, one must already know what the phrase ‘the Catholic Church’ refers to, and even then limit the VC’s use to those with some sort of authority in said church — which must in turn be weighed by the statements of the highest ecclesial authorities. Acccordingly, citing the VC against the Catholic Church today just begs the question.
I could go on and would enjoy doing so in such a target-rich environment, but I’ve said enough to paint a fair picture of the quality of Mathison’s case against Catholicism — a case which he needn’t make anyhow, because for the reasons I’ve given, one needn’t assume that Catholicism is true in order to show why the solo-sola distinction ultimately collapses. Rather than dwell on the disservice Mathison had done himself, I now turn to the deepest root of the debate.
In many comments on this site as well as old posts on my own blog, I have argued that there is an irreconcilable difference between the respective “hermeneutical paradigms” of Catholicism and Protestantism, meaning conservative Protestantism. Here I shall call the difference one of ‘interpretive paradigms’ (IPs) so as to lighten the jargon. An IP is a systematic framework for interpreting the data that is “underdetermined” by the data, meaning that the data do not dictate it, but are themselves are interpreted by means of it, and that more than one IP is logically consistent with the data. Now when the dataset is as large as that of theology, no interpretation of the data that’s alleged to yield the doctrinal content of the deposit of faith can be made without bringing some IP to the data. In fact, given the size and complexity of the dataset, more than one IP can be at least rationally plausible, even though no two such IPs are entirely consistent with each other. Now in my experience, no debate between Protestants and Catholics, including the one that’s occasioned this contribution, makes any genuine progress without directly addressing what amounts to that difference of IP. And so I shall now characterize the difference so that the debate can be fruitful, and the uncommitted inquirer accordingly better positioned to discern which is the more reasonable of the two.
I shall omit consideration of any liberal-Protestant IP for a reason I gave at the beginning: none share with Catholicism two crucial assumptions, which I set forth, that frame a clear context of debate. In fact, I would argue that any “liberal” IP reduces religion straightaway to a matter of opinion, thereby making it impossible to identify anything as divine revelation rather than as mere human opinion about how to interpret sources that have been alleged to transmit divine revelation. Now according to the conservative-Protestant IP, the only way to reliably identify the formal, proximate object of faith — which means identifying the correct ensemble of secondary doctrinal authorities and their proper relationship to one another — is to study the written sources from early Christianity, mainly but not limited to Scripture, and make the correct inferences from them. Inconsistencies in such a body of inferences can only be resolved, when they can be resolved, by appeal to inspired Scripture, which trumps anything to the opposite effect in the other, uninspired sources. Hence the slogan ad fontes, a rallying cry of the Renaissance humanists who so influenced the early Reformers. On this approach, the doctrinal content of the deposit of faith consists in what is (a) explicitly asserted in Scripture and (b) what can be inferred from those assertions with valid deductive and inductive arguments, such as those made in the early “catholic church” to yield Nicene orthodoxy. Once we’ve identified a set of such statements, we’ve learned all we need to know about which doctrines are revealed and apostolic, which in turn are all and only the doctrines we must believe. Anything beyond that is human opinion masquerading as divine revelation, and thus a deception. So much for DD as the Catholic Church has come to understand that idea.
But according to the Catholic IP, such a methodology is insufficient for reliably identifying the formal, proximate object of faith as distinct from human opinion. Though necessary, studying the early written sources and making inferences from them can only yield human interpretive opinions, unless validated by some clearly identifiable authority whose interpretation of the relevant data is divinely protected from error under certain conditions — a gift which, all sides would agree, is at least logically possible, given what and who God is. That interpreter is, of course, understood to be the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, which consists in the “college” of bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome. The Magisterium is not only the divinely appointed authority that distinguished which early writings were divinely inspired from which were not, but is also the authoritative custodian and interpreter of the inspired books and all else that has been handed down from the Apostles, which includes extra-scriptural Tradition such as the liturgy, creeds, and certain pious beliefs and practices. Those are taken to cohere with Scripture to form one “deposit of faith,” even though, in many cases, they are not inferable from Scripture by rules of logic alone. Hence, as Vatican II says:
Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers, so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort.
But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission; and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.
It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (Dei Verbum §10; references omitted, emphasis added).
The general conditions on infallible teaching are described in another document of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium (§25 ff). Now as a matter of history, only rarely does a pope infallibly teach unilaterally. A more common way in which infallibility is exercised is in the issuance of dogmatic as distinct from disciplinary “canons” of “ecumenical” councils. And ordinarily, the college of bishops as a whole teaches infallibly when “though dispersed throughout the world, they are in agreement that one position is to be definitively held.” That was the situation for the entire time before the first ecumenical council, that of Nicaea in 325, and remains the situation in many cases of doctrine today.
Now there is a certain sense in which a “confessional” Protestant such as Mathison could accept the formula: “Sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church are so linked… that none can stand without the others.” That may be seen in how Mathison argues for sola as opposed to solo. Even though his argument is unsuccessful, he does consider all three secondary authorities — Scripture, Tradition, and the Church — severally indispensable and mutually interdependent, together forming the proximate, formal object of faith. The fundamental disagreement that confessional Protestants have with the Catholic Church should thus be seen as over (a) which body of people forms the church with the requisite teaching authority, and (b) how that church is to be identified. The answer to (a), whatever that is, derives from the answer to (b), whatever that is. Unsatisfactory though it is, we’ve at least seen Mathison give an answer to (b), and accordingly to (a).
Now I do not say that Mathison’s argument for his answer to (b) is the only or the best that a confessional Protestant can give. But it is evident that, on the Protestant IP, the only way to answer (b) with anything more than provisional human opinions is to construct a rationally unassailable set of inferences from Scripture and from other early sources that enables us to grasp what is, and can readily be seen as, the plain sense of Scripture. “The Church,” both then and now, is accordingly identifiable as whatever collection of people faithfully assents to what is thereby grasped. But under no circumstances is she to be considered infallible. Given as much, the question fairly arises: How to explain the fact that many baptized, churchgoing people don’t agree about what the plain sense of Scripture is, or even that it’s always and necessarily inerrant even when agreed to be plain? If the proximate, formal object of faith can be clearly identified by a rationally unassailable set of inferences from the pertinent early sources, the primary one of which is assumed to be inerrant, does that tell us that those who don’t find that set rationally unassailable are either unlearned or willfully irrational? Remember: the “rationally unassailable” set of inferences is not itself inerrant, because nobody holding it can be considered an infallible interpreter, even if at least one of the sources is itself inerrant.
The historical and scholarly evidence, which I have no time to review in detail, would suggest that the answer to the above question is no. Even during those intermittent periods over the last two millennia when there was relative consensus about what Christian orthodoxy is, there never has been a time when all dissenters could be fairly dismissed as either unlearned or willfully irrational. Wrong, yes; disobedient to what is, in fact, duly constituted ecclesial authority, yes; but not unlearned or willfully irrational. In these matters, some people just don’t see as “plain” what others do, and that is not always a vice, because revealed theology is not like mathematics or natural science — where what is obvious in itself, but not obvious to many people, becomes obvious to the person who has been fully initiated into of the discipline. Yet unlearned or willfully irrational is how we would have to view dissenters, if the conservative-Protestant IP were itself the one most rational to adopt.
Along that line, I am reminded of 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. But 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; emphasis added).1
I would add that Schwenckfeld made his wry observation thirteen years after Luther had nailed his theses to the door, and two years after the ill-fated Colloquy of Marburg.
To see Protestant theological antagonists treating each other, as well as Catholics, that way is evidence that the Protestant IP is not the most rational one to adopt. For treating all determined opponents as either unlearned or willfully irrational is itself unreasonable — even when Catholics do it, as not a few have done in the past, including but not limited to the Arian controversy. Yet Mathison treats Catholicism as though Catholics would have to be unlearned or willfully irrational to believe it. If he doesn’t treat all non-Reformed Protestants similarly, that might be because, now that centuries have passed, Protestants can find it in themselves to treat charitably any Christian who is not a Roman Catholic. The Catholic Church has got beyond the old, insultingly dismissive attitude toward Christians who do not accept her claims; other Christians, especially the Reformed, would do well to reciprocate. Fortunately, some have.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that Reformed Protestants have what seems to them good reason for such hostility, which is why it’s hard to blame them for their attitude. That reason would be that the conservative-Protestant IP is itself, unlike the Catholic, rationally unavoidable for anybody who share the two assumptions which I said, near the beginning, “frame a clear context for debate.” And they have what qualifies as an argument for that belief. I shall conclude by outlining that argument, which is now common among Protestants, and showing why it fails.
In various forms, the argument that the conservative-Protestant IP is itself rationally unavoidable (for anybody who shares the two above-referenced assumptions) appears in what Cross has called the tu quoque objection to the Catholic Magisterium’s claims for itself. Mathison himself uses a version of the tu quoque against Cross’ advocacy of apostolic succession as the way to identify “the Church” as interpretive authority. But particular examples are not important here, for the argument takes pretty much the same form regardless of which particular doctrine is at issue, and its primary application is to the Catholic Magisterium’s claim to infallibility under certain conditions.
The argument is that, even if we suppose arguendo that some ecclesial authority is in fact infallible under certain conditions, such an authority cannot be infallibly known to be infallible, so that infallibility cannot in any instance supplant private judgment, which of course is fallible. In other words, supposing for reductio that the Catholic Magisterium can’t be wrong under certain conditions, the only reasonable basis for believing as much would be an argument that can only be made fallibly, and is therefore not certain. If one argues that the Catholic Magisterium, being infallible under certain conditions, infallibly teaches under those conditions that it is infallible, one is merely arguing in a circle. So one cannot rely on ecclesial infallibility to make the Magisterium’s claim to infallibility credible — a conclusion I readily accept as a Catholic. Now according to the objector, one must argue instead, but of course fallibly, that a study of early Christian sources makes such an affirmation rationally unassailable as an inference from those sources. For absent infallible arguments, that’s the only way to approach the requisite level of certainty. Yet such an affirmation is far from rationally unassailable, as the history of doctrine amply demonstrates. So there is reason enough after all to believe not only that the Catholic IP is rationally avoidable, but that the conservative-Protestant IP is rationally unavoidable. For the Catholic himself must make use of its characteristic methodology to support his own position, and that use is performatively absurd, because it commits the Catholic to making precisely the sort of judgment that the Catholic Magisterium is supposed to obviate.
Now the authors of this site have produced their own responses to that sort of argument, and I do not want to criticize those responses here, because I believe they are substantively correct. But to bring out more clearly why the above argument fails, I shall frame the rebuttal a bit differently.
Nobody disputes that “arguments” of whatever kind in theology can only be made fallibly, even when they are made by councils or popes. But in view of that fact, consider two things. First, the proponent of the Catholic IP is not committed to claiming that his IP is rationally unavoidable, because he is not committed to claiming that the Magisterium’s claims for itself, as part of the formal, proximate object of faith, are rationally unassailable given a study of the early “sources.” He is committed to claiming only that, when interpreted in light of the Catholic IP, the sources make the Magisteriium’s claims for itself seem reasonable enough, which is not in dispute. On the other hand, the proponent of the conservative-Protestant IP is committed to claiming that his way of identifying the proximate, formal object of faith is rationally unassailable, given such a study. So the Protestant IP here entails making a stronger claim than the Catholic, and accordingly requires stronger support. But that support is not forthcoming, for if it were, then dissenters could only be unlearned or willfully irrational — a dyspeptic conclusion that cannot be justified on independent grounds that would corroborate it. So the methodology to which the conservative-Protestant IP commits its user is not only fallible, but also does not yield rationally unassailable conclusions.
For example, the Protestant has no way, other than fallible arguments, to secure his account of what belongs in the canon, which account, in the case of the OT, runs counter to what the older traditions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy eventually concluded. Therefore, he has no way, other than the use of fallible arguments, to show how the canon should be identified. And if he doesn’t have more than that, then he has no way of making certain that the way he identifies the norma normans for the other secondary authorities is correct.
Second, there is a positive reason for holding that the Catholic IP is the more reasonable one to adopt for somebody who shares the two basic assumptions framing the debate. That reason is that, if the Catholic Magisterium’s claims for itself are true, then we have an authoritative interpreter whose judgments, though not unassailable from the standpoint of reason alone, are nonetheless secured by divine authority. Of course that by itself in no way shows that said claims are true. What it shows, in conjunction with the reason I’ve already cited against the conservative-Protestant IP, is that, if said claims are true, then there is a principled as opposed to an ad hoc way to distinguish the formal, proximate object of faith from fallible human opinions about how to identify it in the sources. And that is the way in which the Catholic can distinguish the assent of faith from that of opinion. Eschewing any interpretive infallibility from any quarter, ecclesial or individual, the advocate of the conservative-Protestant IP has no principled way to make that distinction.
For the above two reasons, the tu quoque objection fails. The Protestant IP is rationally avoidable because it cannot present the conclusions reachable by means of it as rationally unassailable. And the Catholic IP is rationally preferable, even though also rationally avoidable, because it offers a principled way to make the distinction that the two basic assumptions framing the debate call for making. By contrast, just as sola appears to be just solo waiting to show itself, conservative Protestantism appears to be liberal Protestantism waiting to happen all over again. That is why the inquirer who shares said assumptions, but isn’t sure whether to become Protestant or Catholic, does better to choose the latter.
Of course nothing I’ve said so far shows that that the Catholic IP is superior to the Eastern-Orthodox IP. Both are committed to ecclesial infallibility, and thus do not share the basic defect of any Protestant IP. Both are committed to apostolic succession as a necessary condition for identifying “the Church.” And both are rationally defensible. In my opinion, answering the question which IP, the Catholic or the EO, is the more reasonable depends on subtler considerations of the development of ecclesiological doctrine than I’ve broached here. But that is a task for another time and place.
Feast of Blessed John of Fiesole (Fra Angelico)