Making My Way to the Church Christ Founded

Feb 13th, 2012 | By | Category: Featured Articles

Readers of Called To Communion will recognize the name Fred Noltie, since in July of last year he wrote a guest post for us titled “The Accidental Catholic.” Recently we invited Fred to join the CTC team, and we’re delighted that he has agreed. Fred was in the Presbyterian Church in America for twenty years, attending both Covenant College and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. On the Easter Vigil of 2005 he, his wife Sabryna, and their son were together received into full communion with the Catholic Church at St. Lawrence parish in Monett, Missouri, where they are presently members. In this article Fred tells the story how he and his family became Catholic. Fred, welcome to CTC! -Eds.

In The Accidental Catholic I described how I realized that Protestantism’s proposed means for discerning revealed truth in the Bible do not afford us any basis for certainty about what that truth actually is. This fact, which struck me like a bolt out of the blue, forced me to realize that I could not remain a Protestant. But on the day that I decided that I was no longer Protestant I was equally certain that I would never become Catholic. I was just not interested in that at all, because – after all – it was the Catholic Church, and I just “knew” it was wrong! Why did I change my mind?


The Nolties

The short answer to that question is that there aren’t very many alternatives. In setting aside Protestantism I also rejected any sort of individualistic approach to Christianity—and for the same reasons. If Billy Bean decides he is going to make his way in the world as a sort of Lone Ranger Christian, and if I do the same, how are we to know which of us is right about what the Bible teaches when we disagree? We can’t know that, for the reasons I described in The Accidental Catholic. So if I set aside Protestantism as unworkable, I likewise had to set aside any sort of idiosyncratic or individualist Christianity; consequently I had no choice but to consider historic Christianity. It took a little while, but I slowly began to realize that I would have to consider the claims of the Catholic Church.

The first step I necessarily had to make in that direction was to grasp fully the consequences of the question that I mentioned near the end of The Accidental Catholic: If I believe X about a certain doctrine, but the Church (not necessarily the Catholic Church yet, in my thinking at the time) says Y about it, who is right? I don’t recall if I was ever faced with that question as a Protestant, but I think it’s an important one. Is it not just obviously absurd to suppose that I could be right, and that Christ’s Church could be wrong — to suppose that the Holy Spirit would guide me to the truth in some important doctrinal matter, but not the Church? It was easy to see that to ask the question was practically the same as to answer it: if the Church and I disagree about some dogma or other genuinely important doctrine, it’s obvious that I must be the one who is mistaken, and consequently I need to change my views to match the Church’s. If the Church could be wrong — if the Holy Spirit does not protect the Church from error somehow — then there is certainly no reason to believe that I am right either. Because if the Holy Spirit does not protect the Church from error, why on earth would He protect me from error? And as I wrote in The Accidental Catholic, it’s not enough for me to say that my exegesis (or that of some modern scholar whose brilliance I happen to appreciate) just obviously is correct while the Church’s is not. Given that brilliant and godly men stand on every side of practically every theological question, the appeal to mere scholarship proves nothing.

So far so good. But that doesn’t help so much with identifying where the Church is. It confirmed my decision to abandon Protestantism, since no Protestant denomination (none of which I was aware, anyway) claims that its doctrine is certain to be true; they all acknowledge that they can and do err. As I was slowly coming to realize, though, a necessary attribute of the Church must be that it cannot err – some how, some way, in some manner, the Church cannot err with regard to at least some things, and those things must include doctrine. Because if that’s not the case, then the answer to my question becomes absurd. It becomes possible for me to be right about some dogma or important doctrine and for the Church to be wrong about it. It becomes possible for the Holy Spirit to have allowed the Church to fall into doctrinal error, but to have protected me instead! And once again, that was and is absurd even to imagine. It seemed, then, that it was definitely reasonable to suppose that the Church must possess infallibility in some fashion or other, even if only because the alternatives are simply untenable.

I soon realized that there was also Scriptural warrant for believing the Church to be infallible. Two passages came to mind: Matthew 16:19 (and similarly in 18:18):

And whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.

And John 20:23:

Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them: and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.

As I contemplated anew the significance of these passages, it became clear to me that implicit in them is some form of a guarantee. Why? Because these promises are unconditional: whatsoever you bind…whatsoever you loose; whose sins you shall forgive…whose sins you shall retain. These are not promises to honor what Peter and the Apostles do only when they bind or loose rightly. These are promises that whenever or whatever they bind or loose, it will be honored in heaven. There must, then, be some sense in which God protects them in the exercise of their authority, so that they do not exercise it in such a way as to make it impossible for Him to fulfill His promise. So I concluded that there must be some sense in which the Church must enjoy an infallible exercise of authority. Obviously more would have to be said in order to connect a promise made to the Apostles with the Church of today, but the point for me at the time was that at least the argument for infallibility could credibly be made from Scripture.

So here I had two grounds for thinking that some form of infallibility could very reasonably be understood as an attribute of Christ’s Church: first, the alternative seemed clearly to be doctrinal chaos, which I now knew to be intolerable; secondly, there were at least some passages of Scripture that support a claim of infallibility for the Church. And so, over the course of a few months, I was forced to concede that I probably ought to investigate the Catholic Church just because it claimed infallibility of some sort, which was precisely what it seemed the Church that Christ founded ought to have.

And so my investigation of the Church began. In the Lord’s providence I was unemployed at the time, and this gave me the opportunity to spend a lot more time studying than I could otherwise have done. I read thousands of pages of books and countless web pages about the Catholic Church. And as I read, two things gradually came into focus for me. The Church’s claims were coherent and consistent. She did not contradict herself. On the other hand, She also had reasonable answers to the charges and criticisms made by those those who opposed Her.

It was serendipitous for me that a former pastor gave me an unabridged copy of Salmon’s Infallibility of the Church at about this same time, since infallibility was such an important subject in moving me to investigate the Church in the first place. Unfortunately it wasn’t hard to see that Salmon’s argument rested almost entirely upon a straw man. Ignoring what the Church actually teaches about infallibility, he formulated an entirely different version of it (on grounds that his version was stronger than the actual Catholic doctrine) and then refuted that. His straw man thus included the following:

  • Agents of the Magisterium (and not just the Pope or ecumenical councils) should be infallible under certain circumstances (p. 249-250)
  • Any official utterances of the Pope should be infallible (pp. 250, 435)
  • Infallibility should (under certain circumstances) apply to private communications of the Pope (p. 438)
  • Church discipline should be infallible (p. 250)

None of this has anything to do with what the Church actually teaches. On the other hand, it certainly made it easier for Salmon to throw dirt on the Church, because by saying that infallibility should include the points mentioned above, it becomes child’s play to find instances of error. And those errors would then refute the Church’s claimed infallibility. But in reality, what the Church teaches about infallibility simply doesn’t match what Salmon says.

In the end, Salmon’s book had exactly the opposite of its intended effect on me. Its best arguments were sufficiently answered by Catholics. Its straw-man treatment of infallibility was essentially worthless. Its invective and outright falsehoods against the Church and Catholics completely undermined any claim to scholarly detachment he might otherwise have merited. The Church’s teaching concerning its infallibility emerged unscathed.1

After a period of initial study, when it became obvious that there were no glaring red flags popping up in my reading, it became reasonable to think about attending RCIA — not because we had already decided that we wanted to become Catholic but as an additional way to learn more about the Church. So with some trepidation we made our way to a nearby parish. Well, one of the first things we discovered was the truth that refuted an old canard about the Church. Protestants often like to say that the Catholic Church hates or fears the Bible, but in one of our first RCIA2 classes the priest said that if Catholics are unable to answer Protestant criticisms, it is because Catholics do not read the Scriptures! Here was a priest who, right off the bat, encouraged parishioners to read the Bible! And so it went. As months went by and our study (now both private and in RCIA) progressed, our objections to the Church were being answered at every turn. Protestant errors and misconceptions about Her crumbled; the truth became clearer and clearer to us.

Eventually it became pretty obvious that we really should join the Church, but I at least struggled with a few things — primarily the Marian dogmas. After all, there was nothing explicit in the Bible concerning them (at least, not the way that I had been trained to read the Scriptures in college), so I was really forced to take the Church’s word for them. I could see that they didn’t contradict the Bible, and they certainly passed the argument of fitness, but was that enough?

I didn’t put it this way at the time, but I think an excellent summary of how I became settled in my mind with respect to these dogmas may be found in one of the Pontificator’s Laws: “If a Catholic cannot name at least one article of faith that he believes solely on the basis of the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium, he’s either a saint or a Protestant.”3 The point is that we’re talking about articles of faith here, and not mere theological niceties. Remember The Question above: if I say X about Mary, and the Church says Y, who is right? Well, who am I to sit in judgment? I had no reason left to doubt that the Catholic Church is indeed the Church that Christ founded, so I really had no reason left for doubting the truth of these dogmas. Certainly I had no grounds whatsoever for doubting them on the basis of the Protestant paradigm. If the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded — as I had already come to believe — then there was no good reason to hold back just because I didn’t understand some doctrine or other. The truth of a dogma isn’t measured by my comprehension. God expects me to receive as true what He has revealed; He does not expect me to understand things that are above my pay grade, so to speak.

It’s probably worth pointing out what the reader may have noticed already: I haven’t spoken solely about my investigation of the Church, but also about our investigation. Fairly early on in the process I made my concerns about Protestantism known to my then-equally-Reformed wife. She would undoubtedly have more to say about this if she were writing this article, but when I explained my thinking about it to her she recognized that indeed there were serious problems with the way that Protestantism proposes that we find revealed truth. Before very long she was investigating things on her own, and so it happened that we began seeking the truth about the Catholic Church together, and we entered the Church together at Easter, 2005.

  1. A more complete reply to Salmon may be found here. []
  2. “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults,” which is the course of education and procedures by which inquirers are instructed in the basics of the Catholic Faith []
  3. The full list of the Pontificator’s Laws may be found here. []
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  1. Fred,

    Thanks for the great article! I enjoyed how you said this line…”The truth of a dogma isn’t measured by my comprehension. God expects me to receive as true what He has revealed; He does not expect me to understand things that are above my pay grade, so to speak.”

    I am sure there are many who would interpret this line of thinking as having blind faith, but I see it as having just plain faith and trust in the Church that Christ founded. Since I became Catholic, my heart has absolutely become more engaged and that does not mean checking my brain at the door of the Church. But, I have the freedom in my spiritual life to seek charity and not feel like I have to be “up” on all the interpretations and new ideas out there.

    Blessings!

  2. Fred, welcome to CTC and more importantly, to the Catholic Church. Happy to have you as a contributor.

  3. Thanks Tim!

  4. Hello Cindy,

    Thanks very much for reading, and for your kind words. Yes, we do not exercise a blind faith; rather, we believe what the Church teaches because it was founded by Christ and is vested with His authority. “He that hears you hears Me” (Luke 10:16).

    Peace,

    Fred

  5. Oh, and welcome to the Church, Cindy!

  6. Y’all couldn’t have picked a nicer or more thoughtful defender of the Faith. Glad to see you here, Fred!

  7. Hello Mike,

    Thanks very much! I’m very happy to be here!

    Fred

  8. Yesterday, I was looking through an art history book with my young daughter and we were noticing how funny the statue of Pepi II, an Old Kingdom Egyptian Pharoah, looked sitting on his mother’s lap in full regalia, being depicted as not a child, but as a full grown man. Maybe this was because the artist lacked the skill to depict a child, or it is meant to symbolize that his mother is his regent, since he came to power as a child, or the statue is meant to serve as symbols of the goddess Isis and her son Horus; or both. Anyways,while we laughed at the funny art work, I being stumbled by Mariology,saw the similarities in some of the Church’s depictions of Christ on His mother’s lap. Admittedly, I was/am stumbled by The Mother of God Cult that exists in history. But, I’m stuck, because the art work doesn’t precede the doctrine of Mary as Co-Redemptrix. I can either think, “Man, those Catholics have a fully developed doctrine for every thing in Holy Scripture. Don’t they know that they are imposing a pagan idea into Christianity?” or ” Geez, this is all very weird, but what the heck do I do with the fact that Jesus did tell John at the foot of the cross, “Behold thy mother”, the same woman who was prophecied in Gen 3:15, the same women who told the servants at the wedding feast of Cana, ‘Whatever He says, do it’. Do I adopt only what I happen to find palatable to my modern, reductionist mind, or am I forced to take it all, based on authority?” Seriously, did Mr. Marshall really say in one of his closings, “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother” referring to Mary? I’ve been singing The Beatles, “Let It Be” quite often lately. So continues, my dilema and my goad kicking…

  9. Mr. Nolte,

    You said: ” If I believe X about a certain doctrine, but the Church (not necessarily the Catholic Church yet, in my thinking at the time) says Y about it, who is right? I don’t recall if I was ever faced with that question as a Protestant, but I think it’s an important one. Is it not just obviously absurd to suppose that I could be right, and that Christ’s Church could be wrong — to suppose that the Holy Spirit would guide me to the truth in some important doctrinal matter, but not the Church? It was easy to see that to ask the question was practically the same as to answer it: if the Church and I disagree about some dogma or other genuinely important doctrine, it’s obvious that I must be the one who is mistaken, and consequently I need to change my views to match the Church’s. If the Church could be wrong — if the Holy Spirit does not protect the Church from error somehow — then there is certainly no reason to believe that I am right either. Because if the Holy Spirit does not protect the Church from error, why on earth would He protect me from error?’

    Thank you for the article. This is exactly where I am cornered.

  10. Alicia (#’s 8 & 9),

    You beat me to it, because I was going to reply to your #8 by referring to that exact part of my article (which you quoted in #9). I think this is an important thing for you to consider.

    Perhaps it would be helpful for you to take a look at my post The Accidental Catholic. In particular I think the further thoughts I offer in this paragraph near the end might be useful to you as you think about where you say you are cornered:

    If I say that I am right, I have to ask how it is possible that the Church could be wrong. If the Church could be wrong, then we are left with ecclesial deism: I am forced to conclude that God does not preserve the Church (however it is defined) from error. But if that is the case there is likewise no reason to suppose that I have been preserved from error. Consequently there is no principled reason to suppose that I am right rather than the Church. But if this is the case, then there seems to be no way that I can know what God has revealed, and Protestantism’s claims about how we know revealed truth do not work. Consequently they are false.

    May God bless you as you seek to be faithful to Him.

    Fred

  11. Fred,

    I look forward to reading more of your contributions on here. I’ve also subscribed to your blog. A mutual friend of ours personally recommended your writings. I am a Catholic revert and it’s a choice that I am more at peace with by the day. When I made the choice to return to the faith, I had to believe that it was the church Christ personally founded. I was so zealous that I announced this decision as widely as possible and it didn’t come without backlash. I honored to meet with some Protestants who spouted nothing but garbage about how Constantine founded the church or that there’s no visible church that Christ intended – just an invisible one. Honestly, I wasn’t ready to handle each objection with love, specificity and clarity.

    Called to Communion, in a sense, is a lot like studying game film. The readers are the players and the editors are like our defensive coordinators, linemen coaches, linebacker coaches, DB coaches, etc. (Bryan Cross can be Bill Belichick.) It’s helped me see Protestant arguments from different commenters and stated in different ways. Eventually, you become a Ray Lewis and can read the play before the snap. But this analogy isn’t perfect because CtC is not an adversarial site. I’m amazed at the brilliance of the contributors but their charity is something to be exemplified, above all. I trust that forum is one of many places that will bring about the union of Catholics and Protestants.

  12. Hello Andre,

    Thanks for your kind words. Welcome back to the Church! God is good. The game film analogy is hilarious.

    Fred

  13. Fred,

    Welcome to CTC! Thanks so much for your contributions. This blog was crucially helpful in my return to the Catholic Church in 2010. I am deeply grateful to all of the CTC authors and to so many who write in the comment boxes! What a service to Christ all of you are rendering here (and those works alone can’t save us, but they *do* please Him, when they are done in love for Him)!

  14. Thank you very much, Christopher :-)

    Fred

  15. Welcome home Fred and Cindy!

    Is it not just obviously absurd to suppose that I could be right, and that Christ’s Church could be wrong — to suppose that the Holy Spirit would guide me to the truth in some important doctrinal matter, but not the Church? It was easy to see that to ask the question was practically the same as to answer it: if the Church and I disagree about some dogma or other genuinely important doctrine, it’s obvious that I must be the one who is mistaken, and consequently I need to change my views to match the Church’s. If the Church could be wrong — if the Holy Spirit does not protect the Church from error somehow — then there is certainly no reason to believe that I am right either. Because if the Holy Spirit does not protect the Church from error, why on earth would He protect me from error?

    Mr. Noltie, this is a great argument. Indeed, to ask the question is to answer the question. What you have said here was in my mind when I read this on web:

    Top 5 Heresies I Would’ve Believed Without the Authority of the Church

    By Jennifer Fulwiler

    … Based on what I’d absorbed from mainstream American Christianity, I thought that if I simply read the Bible that I would then have the answers I needed. I skimmed the Old Testament, and carefully read every word of the New Testament. I was sincerely trying to deduce the correct meaning from these Scriptures, and even said a bumbling prayer (one of the first I’d ever said) asking God to guide my understanding. Yet I would later find that the conclusions I came to based on my personal read of the Bible were a departure from the traditional Christian view; in fact, they were heresies. Here are a few that seemed to make perfect sense to me …

    http://www.ncregister.com/blog/top-5-heresies-i-wouldve-believed-without-the-authority-of-the-church/

  16. Fred,
    What makes you think that Matthew 16:19 (and similarly in 18:18) and John 20:23 has anything to do with infallibility? I don’t see anything in these passages that Jesus promised infallibility.

    Thanks

  17. Hello James,

    I discussed that in the article, in the first paragraph below the quotation of John 20:23. Perhaps I was unclear though. If so, please let me know what I need to clarify and I will attempt to do so.

    Peace,

    Fred

  18. James,

    The logic is not direct but if you take an example it becomes clearer. The apostles, in Act 15, used their authority to declare that circumcision was not binding. That is they loosened that requirement on earth. By Jesus’ word we know that loosing also applied in heaven. So we know heaven is OK with Christians not being circumcised and not circumcising their sons. How can that decision then be a doctrinal error? It can’t. Otherwise heaven would be OK with doctrinal error.

  19. Fred,
    I’d like to chime in on your response to James. You claim the RCC has to be infallible in matters of faith and morals. Have you read about Joan of Arc where the RCC condemned her as a heretic and later reversed itself years later to make her a saint? If the RCC was protected from error in matters of faith and morals, then this would not have happened.

  20. Hello Henry,

    The Catholic Church does not claim—nor has she ever claimed, as far as I know—that the gift of infallibility extends as far as you propose, so your conclusion does not follow. Your proposal is one that Salmon made in his book, and I briefly discuss in the article why I did not find his argument persuasive.

    Peace,

    Fred

  21. Fred,
    Did you not claim that the RCC has been protected from error when you write “So I concluded that there must be some sense in which the Church must enjoy an infallible exercise of authority.” Was not the condemnation of Joan of Arc and exercise of authority?

    For a more modern example from the catechism, do you believe that Muslims and Roman Catholics worship the same God?

    Blessings

  22. Hello Henry (#21),

    Did you not claim that the RCC has been protected from error when you write “So I concluded that there must be some sense in which the Church must enjoy an infallible exercise of authority.”

    The context from which you took that one sentence answers your first question. I was not talking about the Catholic Church at that point in the article, nor at that stage in my journey. I was discussing my conclusions concerning Christ’s Church (wherever it might be), and I had concluded (both on grounds of reason and from the Scripture I quoted) that some form of divine protection must exist for the Christ’s Church in its exercise of its authority. Because I reached this conclusion, I later deemed it reasonable to investigate the claims of the Catholic Church. When I did so, I learned that the particular form of protection claimed by the Church extends to its authority as a teacher of faith and morals.

    Was not the condemnation of Joan of Arc and exercise of authority?

    If you are asking this because you are continuing to pursue your argument from #19, then the answer remains the same as I said before in #20. The Catholic Church does not claim that its infallibility extends to matters of discipline. If that is not your reason for asking this question, please explain, because I do not see its relevance. Sorry.

    Your third question is not relevant to my article. I would like to stay on topic as much as possible, please. Thanks.

    Peace,

    Fred

  23. Fred,
    Joan was condemned as a heretic. She is a good test case for the claim that the RCC cannot err in matters of faith and morals. The condemnation of Joan of Arc was a theological matter and not just mere discipline. It is impossible to separate discipline and theology in the church. It was years later that the church reversed itself and now calls her a saint. The fact that the church reversed itself demonstrates it did err.

  24. Henry, re:23

    The “RCC” as you’re using the term (which would comprise the Magisterium) did not condemn Joan of Arc.
    She was tried at Rouen by a tribunal presided over by the infamous Peter Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, who hoped that the English would help him to become archbishop. This was the evil act of a very small group of men who had no authority beyond their own limited, local power.

    When the RCC did act, it was to canonize her as a Saint. So your charge against “RCC” is based on a false premise and therefore invalid.

    Frank

  25. Henry (#23),

    This is entirely off-topic, because the post is autobiographical and does not pretend to offer an argument in favor of the Catholic Church’s definition of its charism of infallibility, nor an explanation of it.

    You’re welcome to interact in this combox with what I’ve written in the article. Please set aside the off-topic material.

    Thanks again.

    Your assertion that discipline and theology are inseparable is not true. Orthodoxy does not imply orthopraxy (and vice versa).

    Fred

  26. Fred,
    I nodded my head throughout your article. I believe I am the mutual friend Andre was referring to who recommended your writing. I was at the Cathedral of St. Paul for Andre and his wife’s Rite of Election yesterday. Congradulations to them for their courage to do the right thing.
    I think I speak for Andre, and I know I speak for me when I say it is an incredible blessing for us to have godly, theologically trained men like you from our Reformed tradition to blaze the trail home. And I find it ironic that we have atended the same PCA and had some of the same friends and mentors, and both have ended up Catholic for similar reasons.

    I am convinced that particularly in the Reformed world, there are necessarily a few different classes of men. There are the “supers” who are highly trained and nationally influential who are the default Reformed ‘magisterium’ if you will. Then there are those who are no less trained, but are influential on a local level, and are the teaching and ruling elders in general. Then there are the laymen, who are in various lesser states of training and knowledge and who are extremely self conscious of their reliance on the minds of the men above them to lead the way doctrinally. And they expect good, strong leadership for their loyalty.
    When I was Reformed, I was in the last category. It was a very frustrating place to be. When the Reformed ‘magisterium’ has multiple voices, who do I obey? Who is correctly interpreting the Book, and how do I know they are? I remember desperately wanting to just bow the knee to one voice and feeling true despair at times that I would leave my children in such epistemic individualism.
    Thank God I found this website. From what I have read here, I consider you contributors to this site to be members of the Reformed magisterium who have voluntarily laid down your crowns and led the way to the true magisterium. You could have been teaching and ruling elders but istead have given up much to follow Christ.
    To all the contributors here, I will never stop saying “thank you”!

  27. To add to David #26, I had trouble identifying the default Reformed Magisterium. Was it Michael Horton, NT Wright, Peter Leithart, David Van Drunen, John Piper or Norman Shepherd? Let’s just say they won’t be golf buddies anytime soon. One of the seeds sown for me returning to Rome was a Tabletalk issue in 2010 with many Reformed heavyweights taking shots at NT Wright’s teachings. I had to check out NT Wright for myself and determined that he was not the boogeyman the Reformed world made him out to be. I was gradually being pulled to a covenantal idea of church structure and that ecclesiology is a lot closer to soteriology that a reformed person would care to admit. I was still in super denial when it came to reading Called to Communion and David Meyer’s blog. Eventually, I concluded that there is only one church (so NT Wright was wrong, too) and that unity is not just important but essential if Christ is to be trusted (John 17).

    I left a similar comment for Jason Stewart’s post. When you think about Peter Leithart’s “heresy” trial, by what standard was he really judged? Word of God, Confessions of Faith? Ultimately, he was judged on an interpretation. Who in the Protestant world can speak for Protestantism? What’s heresy in one Protestant denomination may be perfectly acceptable in another.

  28. Earlier I wrote:

    Was it Michael Horton, NT Wright, Peter Leithart, David Van Drunen, John Piper or Norman Shepherd? Let’s just say they won’t be golf buddies anytime soon.

    I apologize if I created an impression that there is mutual hatred among all of them, which is clearly not the case. Horton and Van Drunen probably agree on 99 percent of the issues. Wright and Leithart agree with each other 85 percent. Leithart and Shepherd would probably have similar views. But where there are opposing schools of thought are here: Wright vs. Piper; Van Drunen vs. Shepherd.

  29. David & Andre,

    I agree about the existence of one or more default Reformed magisteriums. It seems that they fall into a couple general camps: the academic and the pastoral. But it would be difficult to draw strict lines about such things, both because the camps frequently overlap and (most importantly) because the final say remains with the individual, who chooses his own magisterium (which will be one with which he agrees). And I think that this inevitably places one face to face with what I consider to be a serious scandal of Protestantism. As Andre says, “What’s heresy in one Protestant denomination may be perfectly acceptable in another.” If a man disagrees with what is taught in his present congregation or denomination, he is completely free to move along to a new one where they agree with him, and where he won’t be considered to be in error at all. Those who remain in his former ecclesial community may (and probably will) cast aspersions on him, but there is no principled reason for them to do so: he has done nothing more than exercise the rights of conscience, which are considered sacrosanct in Protestantism. And as soon as a Protestant congregation or denomination proposes to limit that freedom of conscience, Protestantism itself is fatally undermined. This goes back to something that Daniel-Rops observed:

    For three centuries Protestantism has been unable to escape the dilemma: either the freedom of the Spirit which leads to anarchy, or else the acceptance of an orthodoxy which in substance is contrary to the spirit of the Reformation.

    It is the subjectivity surrounding all this that compelled my departure from Protestantism.

    Peace,

    Fred

  30. Fred Noltie writes: I agree about the existence of one or more default Reformed magisteriums. It seems that they fall into a couple general camps: the academic and the pastoral. But it would be difficult to draw strict lines about such things, both because the camps frequently overlap and (most importantly) because the final say remains with the individual, who chooses his own magisterium (which will be one with which he agrees).

    If the final say remains with the individual, then, it seems to me, that the individual is the magisterium, since the individual has primacy when it comes to determining what doctrines he or she will, or will not, accept as being orthodox. Scholars and Pastors may help shape what an individual believes to be true, but the final say always rests with the magisterium that holds primacy.

    Those who remain in his former ecclesial community may (and probably will) cast aspersions on him, but there is no principled reason for them to do so: he has done nothing more than exercise the rights of conscience, which are considered sacrosanct in Protestantism.

    I know that some Protestant denominations openly affirm the principle of the primacy of the individual conscience. For example:

    Staffordshire Unitarians

    Principles and Values

    Individuals of this community uphold the following principles

    1. The primacy of the individual conscience in the search for personal and spiritual growth;
    2. The inherent worth of all people;
    3. Fairness and equality of opportunity;
    4. Valuing community as a way of being; and
    5. Reverence for the interdependent web of existence.

    Ref: https://sites.google.com/a/staffordshire-unitarians.net/staffordshire-unitarians/values-and-principles

    Mr. Noltie, I would love to see an article from one of the CTC writers about the sacrosanct nature of the liberty of conscience, particularly as the Reformed Christians uphold that belief. In that article, I would very much desire to see an analysis of where the Reformed Confessions actually uphold this belief, and why those who hold to these Reformed Confessions must necessarily assent to a belief in the principle of the primacy of the individual conscience.

    If there was a CTC article dedicated to this topic, it could be referenced when a member of a Reformed sect denies in a combox comment that the Reformed Confessions implicitly teach the primacy of the individual conscience.

  31. Hello Mateo,

    You wrote (#30):

    If the final say remains with the individual, then, it seems to me, that the individual is the magisterium, since the individual has primacy when it comes to determining what doctrines he or she will, or will not, accept as being orthodox.

    I don’t disagree. My intent was to say that there is something of a grey area, in that many or most Protestants trust their pastors (or, alternatively, some scholars or other) to guide them in their understanding of their faith. They retain a veto, but in my experience it is not often exercised. So formally speaking you’re correct. Materially speaking, the ordinary case finds the average Protestant layman resting for the most part in the judgment of his chosen shepherd(s).

    Fred

  32. Mr. Noltie, thank you for your reply to me in your post # 31.

    I can certainly understand that “the ordinary case finds the average Protestant layman resting for the most part in the judgment of his chosen shepherd(s).” As a child growing up as a Catholic, I also trusted the judgement of our shepherds. If the priest told us children something, we didn’t question him!

    What we were never taught as Catholic children, was that adult laity had veto power over what the Catholic Church officially taught. There was no conceivable circumstance where the laity could change the de fide dogmas of the Catholic Church. For sure, I never conceived of the Catholic Church as being a democracy where, when I grew up, I could eventually have say in what she was going to officially teach as dogma. There simply was no grey area about where primacy was located (it wasn’t with the laity), so I can’t really grasp where the average adult Protestant layman sees the grey, not having been brought up as a Protestant.

    Most of the Protestants that I know would have no qualms at all about going church shopping if they came to believe that their Protestant church was teaching something that wasn’t “scriptural”. The big exception to that rule are the Mormons that I know, since they generally believe that what is scriptural is what the Prophet of Salt Lake City tells them is scriptural. The Mormons missionaries that I have talked to recently are hot on the topic of authority. Usually, they can give a pretty good argument from the Old Testament about how God has always sent prophets that spoke with authority.

    They retain a veto, but in my experience it is not often exercised. So formally speaking you’re correct.

    The formal foundation of the individual’s veto power is what I am interested in learning about. Wouldn’t that foundation be something that is laid out in the Reformed Confessions? Where else would one look for that foundational belief? Would it be more of a tradition that is passed down within the community? Certainly, there is no scriptural basis that can be made for the individual layman having veto power of what the church teaches!

    Jason Stewart, in his CTC article, An OPC Pastor Enters the Church writes this:

    … as a Presbyterian I recognized there were leaders in the Church to whom obedience was due (Heb. 13:17) — being a pastor, I was one of them — but obedience to such leaders was dependent on whether or not they themselves were obeying the voice of the Apostles in the writings of the New Testament. Like the noble Bereans, each believer was to evaluate their leaders and their teachings by the Bible. To use the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, ”The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”

    It is quotes like these from Jason Stewart that give me the impression that the Reformed Confessions of Faith formally teach the doctrine of the primacy of the individual conscience. It seems to me that there is also a tradition among Presbyterians that the individual has an obligation to study the scriptures to discern whether or not his Pastors are being “scriptural. But I have never been a Calvinist, so I am only forming my ideas on what I read from those who have been Calvinists.

  33. Hi Mateo,

    What Jason quotes from the WCF is part of the picture for that primacy of conscience of which we are speaking—at least for the Reformed. The obvious question that must be asked is, “What does the Holy Spirit say in Scripture, and who decides what it is?” The WCF denies that any ecclesial body of any sort can be relied upon unconditionally for that:

    All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. [XXXI.iv]

    If they may err, it is obvious that their judgments are not ipso facto reliable, and therefore must be judged by something else…which brings us back to Jason’s quotation from I.x.

    Another relevant passage from the WCF is this:

    God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. [XX.ii]

    And this:

    All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. [I.vii]

    If a man believes that councils may err, and if he believes that they must be judged by appeal to Scripture, and if he believes that he is not conscience-bound to things which councils may teach if they have erred in them, and if he believes that he doesn’t have to be educated in order to discern necessary truths in the Bible…it’s pretty easy to see that he’s not exactly going out on a limb if he supposes that he can decide for himself whether some doctrinal statement or other is true or false. What else is he likely to do, since he can’t trust councils but he can (so he is told) learn everything from the Bible that he needs to learn, without even an education?

    I do not say that this qualifies as a logical demonstration; obviously it isn’t, at least not as I’ve presented it. But I think the force of it is pretty hard to deny.

    I think that Luther’s “here I stand” example also plays a part for the average Protestant, because it is frequently held up as a model for them.

    Fred

  34. Thank you again, Mr. Noltie.

    I do not say that this qualifies as a logical demonstration; obviously it isn’t, at least not as I’ve presented it. But I think the force of it is pretty hard to deny.

    I don’t see why what you written said isn’t a logical demonstration, but for now, let me just call what you have written in your last post a reasonable interpretation of the WCF (reasonable to me anyway). Which just brings us back to the question of interpretive authority. Who is that can say with certainty that your interpretation of the WCF is NOT correct?

    All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred.

    This would mean that the first seven Ecumenical Councils accepted by both the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches may, in fact, have taught erroneous doctrine. If these seven Ecumenical Councils are suspect because they may have promulgated error, then certainly it must be the case that no one can know for sure that your interpretation of the WCF is in error. Perhaps the WCF is itself loaded with error – who could ever know with certainty that it isn’t?

  35. Fred in #33:
    “he’s not exactly going out on a limb if he supposes that he can decide for himself whether some doctrinal statement or other is true or false. What else is he likely to do, since he can’t trust councils but he can (so he is told) learn everything from the Bible that he needs to learn, without even an education?”

    This is the tension that I could not shake in the PCA. On the one hand, the requirement of me and desire by me to obey the Church, on the other hand, when serious doctrinal confusions happened in my soul, the Church (in the end) telling me to figure it out for myself. Huh? Isnt that why there are elders who have studied the Bible and can tell me what to believe? These two pulls are mutually exclusive, and that tension just never let up for me, but intensified. If I tell my 4 year old to cook dinner, they will loose respect for my judgement. When elders tell laymen to do the job of the Church, those laymen know something is seriously wrong.

  36. Mateo (#33),

    Who is that can say with certainty that your interpretation of the WCF is NOT correct?

    The courts of a Reformed denomination would provide the authoritative interpretation of the WCF for purposes of that denomination. Of course, no other Reformed community would be bound by that, and since (as the WCF itself says) any such court may err there is no reason to grant such interpretations more strength than this: “We may be mistaken about this, but this is how things are going to work in our denomination.”

    This would mean that the first seven Ecumenical Councils accepted by both the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches may, in fact, have taught erroneous doctrine.

    I think it’s important to keep in mind the WCF’s actual wording: may err. I’ve never heard of a Presbyterian who thinks the Nicene Creed contains errors, for example. So I think the idea is that in the WCF’s view councils are not specially protected from error. This does not imply that any given council’s decrees necessarily contain error. Their rule for deciding that is, of course, to judge the council by Scripture. But if a council is not protected from error, then of course there is no principled reason for supposing that any judgment about a council is protected from error either. Certainty about the truth is the victim here, as I showed in The Accidental Catholic, and when I realized this I was compelled to abandon Protestantism.

    Fred

  37. David writes (#35):

    This is the tension that I could not shake in the PCA. On the one hand, the requirement of me and desire by me to obey the Church, on the other hand, when serious doctrinal confusions happened in my soul, the Church (in the end) telling me to figure it out for myself. Huh? Isnt that why there are elders who have studied the Bible and can tell me what to believe?

    Yes, that is the dilemma Daniel-Rops is talking about in the quotation I provided in #29.

    Fred

  38. I think it’s important to keep in mind the WCF’s actual wording: may err. I’ve never heard of a Presbyterian who thinks the Nicene Creed contains errors, for example. So I think the idea is that in the WCF’s view councils are not specially protected from error. This does not imply that any given council’s decrees necessarily contain error.

    Right, the Nicene Creed may contain error, but it is highly unlikely that it does.

    The words of the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed begin with the words, “We believe in …”. One way to interpret those words is to say that they should be read as, “We think it highly probable, but we are not absolutely sure that …”. But this interpretation, from a Catholic point of view, is an interpretation that substantially changes the meaning of the Creed.

    I wrote the above, because I was mulling over this doctrine from the WCF that you posted earlier:

    All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. [XXXI.iv]

    Last night, it struck me that this is a very strange thing to assert. This doctrine is saying that after the last apostle died that there is no source of teaching for Christians that has a guarantee from God to be free from error. Which immediately raises the canon problem, since the apostles never declared the canon. But suppose that we brush the canon problem aside for the moment, and concede that what is written in the Protestant Bible is inerrant. It still remains a fact that there is nothing in the Protestant bible that asserts what WCF XXXI.iv is asserting. So if WCF XXXI.iv is not taught in the Protestant bible, where does this doctrine come from? It comes from men who lived over a thousand years after the last Apostle died! But, according to WCF XXXI.iv, these are the very men that can never teach doctrine that has a guarantee from God to be inerrant. Therefore, it seems to me that WCF XXXI.iv should be read as:

    “We protesters think that all synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred … but then again, we can’t really be certain that this is true, because we, the men that are making up this doctrine, are writing down this doctrine a thousand-five-hundred years after the last apostle died. Therefore, to be consistent with what we are saying, there is no guarantee from God that anything that we are teaching as doctrine is free from error.”

    But if a council is not protected from error, then of course there is no principled reason for supposing that any judgment about a council is protected from error either.

    Exactly so. There is also no principled reason to think that that a Protestant doctrine that asserts that all Ecumenical Councils may contain error, is itself a doctrine that cannot be completely wrong in what it is asserting.

  39. Everyone,

    This is the tension that I could not shake in the PCA. On the one hand, the requirement of me and desire by me to obey the Church, on the other hand, when serious doctrinal confusions happened in my soul, the Church (in the end) telling me to figure it out for myself. Huh? Isnt that why there are elders who have studied the Bible and can tell me what to believe? These two pulls are mutually exclusive, and that tension just never let up for me, but intensified. If I tell my 4 year old to cook dinner, they will loose respect for my judgement. When elders tell laymen to do the job of the Church, those laymen know something is seriously wrong.

    David Meyer writes above of the theological and practical tension that he faced in the PCA. I faced this tension too, as a member of two different Protestant bodies (at different points, respectively), that were not part of the PCA, but might as well have been, for how exegetical differences were resolved there.

    The congregation was told to submit to the elders, but in truth, *we,* as individual members of the congregation, interpreting Scripture for ourselves, were still the ultimate *authority* for ourselves– as evidenced by the fact that if anyone read Scripture and came to the honest conclusion that the elders were sufficiently wrong on an important matter, he (or she) could be counseled, in good conscience, to leave, go to a different church and “submit” to the elders there!

    To be fair, the leadership *did* help us to determine, from their interpretations of Scripture, which matters were “essential” and “non-essential”– but if we came to believe that the elders were sufficiently incorrect on some “secondary,” but still important, Biblical matter (such as baptism, in the thinking of these churches), we could still leave and go elsewhere… with blessings from the elders! This is “submitting” to leadership within a Protestant ecclesial framework, at least from what I experienced.

    The above scenario is a strange combination of personal autonomy (in the form of personal interpretation of Scripture, finally unanswerable to anyone or anything else other than the personal conscience) and heavy, heavy responsibility… and the simple fact is, most of the laypeople in a church, who have to work regular jobs, raise their children, and attend to various other responsibilities in their lives, do not have the time nor the skills to “be their own elders”– yet that is finally what they are asked to do in the PCA and other Protestant denominations, no matter how much the official language speaks of submitting to their elders!

    This reality came home to me when I made the mental decision, while still a member of a Protestant body, to simply “step outside” of the basic, five-point-Calvinist theology that was taught there. For years, based on my own interpretations of the Bible, I had held to that theology. However, there *were* very strongly worded Biblical passages which appeared to refute it… what if I was wrong?

    When I decided to seriously look at the whole of the Bible, and very seriously consider other, competing, non-Calvinist theologies, in light of the Bible, that was the beginning of the end– for my Calvinism and (though I didn’t know it at the time) for my basic Protestantism. The enterprise of building one’s theology from one’s personal interpretation of the Bible can lead one in a thousand different directions– many of them heretical.

    As serious, Bible-loving, five-point-Calvinists, we didn’t want to admit this uncomfortable reality. Actually, at a certain level, we truly thought that our theology was the “clear teaching of the Bible,” and that if others (such as Arminians) would only utilize “proper exegetical and hermeneutical principles” (i.e. *our* principles), then, by God’s grace, they would see that five-point-Calvinism is the “clear teaching of the Bible.”

    However, in retrospect, I, at least, was quite prideful in my theological understanding and did not seriously consider that *other* competing theologies might be right. When I began to actually do that, I saw just how many schools of theological thought are out there, in the Protestant world (not to mention other, non-Trinitarian theologies, such as Oneness Pentecostalism, which also claims to be the *real* Biblical Christianity!). It slowly began to dawn on me that, perhaps, this is not how God means for us to discern truth– via our own, personal exegetical skills, with the help of commentaries and such– in other words, Sola Scriptura.

    *This* possibility (the possible wrongness of Sola Scriptura as a means to discern truth) was shown to me, in an especially striking way, when a friend, a Jewish convert to “Reformed Baptist” Christianity, revealed to me that he had been studying with a Oneness Pentecostal pastor and was seriously considering that non-Trinitarianism might be Biblical!

    I was stunned! My friend, whom I believed, for all the world, to be a serious follower of Christ, questioning whether the Trinity is Biblical! I knew that I could go through various various Biblical passages with my friend, reasoning with him that, indeed, the historic, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity *is* taught in the Bible. I also knew that he could point to passages which appeared to refute that historic, Nicean Creed formulation of the Trinity, accepted by Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox.

    How to deal with *this* impasse? I was a bit shaken– and though I wouldn’t really admit it to myself, at the time, as a convinced Protestant, I knew that part of the reason I accepted the Trinity as “Biblical” is that the ancient creeds *set it out as such*. I did believe that the Bible teaches the Trinity– but I was seeing that it was not taught in an undeniably clear way, there, that sincerely studious, “exegetical” Christians could not end up being led into heresy.. through the practice of Sola Scriptura!

    In all of the above comment, I have basically described “signposts,” markers along the way, in my journey as a Protestant, which brought me to the conclusion that Protestantism could not be what God intended for His church. He would not leave us to such chaos– and He did not. He left us an authoritative, teaching Church– the Catholic Church. I know, from my own painful experience, that it is very humbling– even a bit disorienting– for a Protestant to reach this conclusion. However, it is the truth.

  40. All,

    I used to have this discussion with a Protestant friend (while I was deep in Reforamtion theology) who contended that every Christian must become a scholar in both Biblical Hebrew and Greek in order to properly exegete scripture and avoid being ‘mistatught’. But this just leads to the problem that Christopher (and many others) have described. It elevates and complicates the discussion about the true composition of the deposit of faith, not to mention begs the question of Sola Scripture (and some other Solas), and does not break the impasse of ecclesial authority since there isn’t one. How truly beneficial it is that the leadership of the Church can devote themselves to prayer and the word on our behalf while the rest of us can wait tables on their behalf as the book of Acts says.

  41. I’m coming a year late to the party here, so apologies for the late comment on this very interesting posting. I am not a Catholic, and I am not at all a scholar. Just a guy who is very interested in following Christ and in doing everything I can to make sure that I am adhering to sound doctrine and hence to develop a better understanding of the arguments for Catholicism so that I can feel more confident that I am not failing to accept them through negligence.

    I think we all, particularly in areas of religion or politics, have the frustrating experience of reading essays from an opposing perspective and wishing you could interact with the author to try to figure out what the heck one of you or the other is missing. I don’t say this as an indictment of the author, because I know that it’s always hard to write something that will seem persuasive to an outsider. But I think the part of the essay that was most frustrating for me was the discussion of Salmon, because his book has extensive arguments about the certainty question, and when I saw the reference to it I was really looking forward to seeing how you would respond to those arguments on the merits. Perhaps such a response would have been impractical in a short essay, but the curt dismissal nonetheless left me with some degree of frustration. I’ve read the Butler response you link carefully, and when I did I thought that nobody but a hardened partisan could find the Butler book the more persuasive of the two. And the author of this post’s brief discussion of false premises go to arguments wholly separate from Salmon’s arguments regarding the propriety of asking for certainty and the propriety of arguments for an infallible or certain guide to religious truth. Those, as you know, were predicate arguments directed to the general question of certainty that came before page 249, where the author’s citations start, and do not depend on any of those premises (about which a lot more could be said, incidentally). I wish there were a way I could interact with someone from the Catholic side about particular arguments in Salmon’s book in particular, and Butler’s responses to those particular arguments, and try to get a better understanding of what I am missing. But I understand that sort of labor-intensive discussion is impractical in individual instances.

    Anyway, I don’t know what the point really is of any of this beyond offering a candid reaction from an informed layperson outside your fold. It’s more of a general frustration than anything specific to this particular posting. I know of lots of friends and writers who are Catholic and very intelligent. Which makes it very frustrating when I honestly and sincerely try and cannot see as meritorious the key arguments made by these smart and sincere people. I’m sure the feeling is largely the same from the other direction.

    Best regards,

    CThomas

  42. Hello CThomas,

    Thank for your comment and for taking time to read my article. I’m thankful, too, that you recognize it is impossible to be all things to all men in the space of a short article. I am sorry I fell short in some ways for you. With respect to Salmon’s arguments concerning certainty my recollection is that that they proved too much. If they held against the Church, they also held against Protestantism. I’m afraid I can’t offer more than that at this time; like you I am a layman, neither an academic nor a cleric.

    In reviewing my notes from reading the book, a few things stand out.

    Salmon insists that his hearers (fellow Protestants) “should have learned the strongest case that can be made” by Catholics; and that his hearers “must be careful, also, to distinguish the authorized teaching of the Roman Catholic Church from the unguarded statements of particular divines, and not to charge the system as a whole with any consequences which Roman Catholics themselves repudiate”; and that they ought to “beware of bad arguments, the fallacy of which, sooner or later, is sure to be exposed”; and that his “object is not victory, but truth; for the subject is one of such importance, that a victory gained at the expense of truth would be one in which we ourselves would be the chief sufferers” (see pp. 13-14 for the quotes here).

    This is all well and good, but my notes unfortunately make it distressingly clear that he means something else by this scholarly detachment which he rightly lauds. As I wrote in the article, he insists upon arguing against a formulation of papal infallibility that the Church does not hold. This is neither scholarly nor detached, it seems to me. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and suppose that perhaps his feelings ran away with him, but there are enough “whoppers” in the book that I can hardly take him more seriously than Boettner:

    • he says that papal infallibility has a “benumbing effect” on Catholics’ intellects, and that it “stunt[s] men’s intelligence” (pp. 106-108).
    • he claims that Catholics worship Mary despite our constant denials (p. 11).
    • he claims the Church “feels the Scriptures are against her” (p. 11-12), yet this is the same Church which produced the Douay Bible before the KJV and which has a long history of Bible translation.
    • he refers to conversion to The Catholic Church as “perversion” (one of several examples: p. 13).
    • he describes the Catholic believer’s faith as “credulity” (p. 15) but on p. 441 says (as if it is a matter of no significance) that most Christians just follow their leaders when it comes to difficult doctrine. So the Catholic is to be scorned for doing so (he is credulous) but it is okay for others.
    • he criticizes problems in the Church’s history repeatedly, denying that in His providence God might use human sin for the sake of the advance of His Kingdom, but he ignores the rather appalling facts about the birth of his own Anglican Communion. But he cannot have it both ways. If he can say that God used the lecherous Henry VIII for the sake of advancing Protestantism, he cannot at the same time criticize alleged analogous events in Catholic history.

    More could be said. Suffice it for now that in the face of such partisanship coming from one who wants us to believe he is offering an unbiased argument, and from an academic who has made quite a few glaring errors of fact, I was not inclined to grant him the benefit of the doubt on any count. I was not Catholic at the time I read the book, and I did my best to give him a fair reading, but these and other problems made it difficult for me to take him seriously. I know you feel otherwise.

    You wrote:

    I know of lots of friends and writers who are Catholic and very intelligent. Which makes it very frustrating when I honestly and sincerely try and cannot see as meritorious the key arguments made by these smart and sincere people. I’m sure the feeling is largely the same from the other direction.

    I appreciate very much the spirit in which you write. What is important in dialogue is that we see each other as honest, sincere seekers after truth and approach each other in a spirit of charity as we seek it.

    There are probably other, better articles here at Called to Communion than this autobiographical one for discussing the subject of certainty. Perhaps this one by David Anders?

    Peace,

    Fred

  43. Thank you very much for taking the time to write that kind and charitable response, particularly given what I fear was a slightly obnoxious comment from me (although I didn’t intend it that way). It’s funny — even though I’m brand new to this web page, I did happen by chance to read the David Anders piece you link. After I read it, I searched for the word “Salmon” in the search box which is what led me to your article. I do realize that it was essentially autobiographical and hence unfair of me to expect much in the way of detailed argument. I will say just as one quick point on Salmon, that I have never seen a (to me) persuasive response to Salmon’s very first argument in his book, which to me by itself is completely dispositive of the certainty question. This is Salmon’s very simple point that even if a guide truly is infallible, that guide cannot provide certainty to a greater degree than your individual, fallible grounds for accepting that infallibility. You and every other Catholic convert has accepted that the modern Catholic Church is authoritative for Christians, infallible in certain matters, etc., but you cannot be any more certain about any infallible pronouncement of that Church than the degree of certainty you have that the Church is, in fact, authoritative and infallible (in the matter in question). Therefore, unless you yourself are infallible as an individual (which none of us believes of himself), it is strictly impossible for even a genuinely infallible guide to give you total certainty about any conclusion whatsoever. Because you are fallible in your own reasoning powers, your conclusion that the Catholic Church is authoritative and infallible on certain matters cannot itself be certain, so any conclusion based on that authority or infallibility is itself inherently no more certain than this predicate fallible belief itself. I would love to know the answer to that argument. I was not able to discern one in Butler’s response to Salmon on this point, and in fairness to Mr. Anders, his article really was not directed to this sort of thing.

    Anyway, I’m off on another rant. I’ll leave you alone, but I sincerely do appreciate your thoughtful response and your very apt comments about charity in dialogue which (despite my comments here) I do share with you entirely. And I intend to read some other articles on this site in that spirit.

    Best regards,

    CThomas

  44. Dear CThomas,

    I was following your exchange with Fred and saw your latest comment. If Fred is not able to respond, I am happy to take a look at the section of Salmon you reference and get back to you later this week. As you stated his argument, there is no challenge here for the Catholic which does not also strike at the vitals of Protestantism, too. I can explain later, but I want to make sure that I read Salmon first. I am sure you are fine with a delayed response, given how understanding you have shown yourself to be so far.

    pax,
    Barrett

  45. Thank you Barrett. That’s generous of you. If you do end up having time, the relevant part of the book is the lecture entitled “The Argument in a Circle,” which appears at pages 47-61 of the edition that appears in full text on Google Books. I’ll try to check back periodically in case you end up having time to write something on the argument.

    Thanks again and best regards,

    CThomas

  46. CThomas,

    It seems your main hang up (Salmon’s first argument) is what CTC has termed the “Tu Quoque” objection, which is the subject of several articles here. Sorry I can’t provide a link to them (don’t know how to do that yet on an iPad), but you should be able to find them easily yourself.

    I agree with Fred and Barrett; this line of argument attacks the infallibility of Scripture as much as that of the Church, and ultimately leads to agnosticism, not Protestantism.

    – dp

  47. Dear CThomas,

    My apologies for taking longer to get back to you. I had to write in a hurry, so please forgive rough edges.

    I’ve taken the time to read Salmon’s third chapter, “The Argument in a Circle”. His basic argument is that the Catholic can have no more “certainty” in the infallibility of the Church than he has in his own fallibility (his “private judgment”), which means that he will forever be less than certain of his own submission. Thus he is in no better place than the Protestant. On this, I will second commentator dp’s recommendation of the Tu quoque article, including section III, questions 4 and 7.

    Salmon’s correlative argument is that the argument for arriving at an infallible Church by appeal to the inerrant Scriptures is circular. This everyone would admit, and the Catholic argument does not depend on this. In what follows, I will lay out what I see the issues are in Salmon’s general critique and where he does not yet understand the Catholic Church’s claims or her understanding of faith.

    Under the term “private judgment”, Salmon conflates three separate things: the rational act of an individual, the “fallible” certainty of one’s knowledge, and judging by natural reason among the parts of divine revelation (rationalism). The first is what Catholics ask Anglicans (or anyone) to do when considering the claims of the Catholic Church for her divine authority. One cannot but do this. See Q1 of part III of the Tu quoque article above.

    The second sense of “private judgment” is vague and refers to a mental or psychological state of certitude. The vagueness is compounded when Salmon further equivocates on the term “infallible”. At some points he seems to mean by “infallible” that whatever is infallible would yield a maximally high level of certitude in the knower. But if that were true, then God–whom I hope you will agree is infallible–would cause maximal certitude in the minds of all men as to his existence, his truthfulness, his love, justice, etc. Yet this is not the case and it cannot be the case on Salmon’s logic. Salmon could never believe in God’s infallibility on his own logic, for he would only in the end be appealing to his “private judgment” in this second sense. Salmon almost exclusively treats “infallibility” in this certitude-granting sense. In the typical Catholic meaning, an authority is infallible if it teaches without error, without reference to whether that authority grants a psychological state in the mind of those whom it teaches. Right there he has a difficulty, in that he thinks Catholics are talking about the certitude of the knower rather than the limits on knowledge put on reason by the objects known (e.g., the aspect of reality within the grasp of human reason vs. that which is known to God [“mysteries”]). Someone can have knowledge of the former but only opinion of the latter, apart from God revealing. The concept of certainty is unhelpful because the primary benefit of an infallible magisterium is the fact that the human mind is not able to know the mysteries that God reveals on its own power, and thus needs them taught without and defended against deviation or domestication. The Catholic argument is not to press skepticism tout court but to argue that faith concerns a formal object to which human reason is not naturally proportioned (e.g., God and his creation under the aspect of that which is required for salvation but above arriving at just by human reason) and thus private judgment cannot arrive at–let alone guarantee–knowledge of such mysteries.

    The third sense of “private judgment” is to make one’s finite mind the measure of accepting anything. This I will contrast with being able to accept something unseen by faith in the First Truth who reveals it (as in the case of divine revelation). This sense of “private judgment” makes God’s authority less than the limits of one’s own human reason, even after one has the warrant to accept that God is speaking. Ultimately it reveals that one’s faith is actually human opinion all the way down and founded on the individual’s will, for reasons St. Thomas Aquinas explains in Summa theologiae IIaIIae q. 5 a. 3. Catholics do not deny private judgment in finding the Church in the first sense and even the third, for Catholics are not fideists who insist that the authority of a divine messenger must simply be accepted without any reasons given. Once God’s messenger is identified, however, then private judgment in this third sense must cease. And Catholics do not say that the individual act of faith is not an intellectual act of an individual, though it is by grace. When Catholics decry private judgment is when it is used to pick and choose what the divine messenger relays, as though one will accept what is above reason’s grasp only if reason can grasp it. The absence of these distinctions leads him into alleys very quickly.

    The absurdity of Salmon’s position on private judgment may be shown by the following example. Take someone recently converted by St. Thomas or any other apostle at the beginning of the Church. The New Testament had not yet been completed, let alone assembled, and all were bound to the word of the apostles. The apostles went preaching as messengers from God, and to show their authority they were granted power to perform signs. Someone believes and is baptized. Now on Salmon’s account, that person cannot have faith in divine revelation because that person’s identification of the divinely-authorized messengers depends on his fallible judgment. Yet the first century convert has discovered something actually there: a divine messenger, through whom the convert comes to divine knowledge which the convert could not have by his own reason. So the convert discovers the teaching authority Jesus sent into the world, but it is not for the convert to then “pick and choose” what he will believe about that message.

    It is in this last sense of “private judgment” that Salmon enjoins on his hearers to use their reason to gauge the truth of the various Catholic doctrines (e.g., Purgatory), in addition to whether the Catholic Magisterium infallibly proclaims divine revelation. But this would be absurd advice if it were given to a recent convert listening to the apostles. If a convert were to accept some divine teachings from an apostle but not others, all according to the convert’s private judgment, it would only show that the convert does not have faith.

    It is for this reason that I suspect Salmon does not understand the concept of faith as taught by the Catholic Church. Faith is the virtue by which we believe things that are above reason and depend directly on God’s knowledge of himself and the world. The doctrine of the Most Blessed Trinity depends not only any human knowledge arrived at by the powers of human reason. It depends utterly and completely on God’s knowledge of himself communicated in human language, revealing a mystery which we cannot even comprehend by our finite intellects. Yet Salmon goes on writing as though one could get all the contents of divine revelation if one just thought long enough. There is no sense in his writing that faith believes in unseen mysteries on God’s authority alone. Instead he offers inapt analogies about blind men asking blind men to lead them. The problem is that the Catholic does not say reason is blind. To the contrary! The Catholic merely points out that, even without factoring in the effects of the fall, reason can only see so far. And if God were to say that something is over the horizon, it would be a devil who would insist on sailing out to see it before believing.

    For another reason Salmon is in a bad spot. His identification of divine revelation depends on accepting an already-compiled canon of Scripture to be the exhaustive deposit of faith. In his treatise, he treats the divine origin of the Bible as obvious to all (p. 59: “the conviction we all feel that the Bible comes from God”). See pp. 53-54 where he implies that the individual may discern by private judgment which books are the Word of God. What would he say to a Protestant theologian who doubts the inspiration of the pastoral epistles? Or to a skeptic who simply doubts that these books are divine revelation infallibly communicated by authorized divine messengers (i.e., the apostles)? One may have reasons for one’s own opinion on the matter (e.g., that the Gospels are otherwise historically reliable documents), but nothing will be settled between the contending parties. After all, if the identification of divine authority depends on a fallible judgment, then Salmon cannot believe that the Bible comes from God except by fallible premises. But later (p. 57) he argues that if one can doubt any premise in a line of argument, then any authority grasped at the end of that argument is of doubtful quality. This applies equally to God himself. After all, to modify Salmon at one word, “when men profess faith in [the Triune God]‘s infallibility, they are, in real truth, professing faith in their own” (47). What Salmon’s project means is that in Christianity one does not submit to God through the Church. One cannot even submit to God, for one is only in the end submitting to oneself.

    What the Catholic Church actually teaches is different. The Church does not say to someone, “Believe the Church for the Bible commands it,” and then says, “Believe the Bible for the divine Church commands it.” That would be circular, but Salmon is wrong to claim that the Church urges this. Rather, the Church proclaims the Gospel of Jesus with all its sacred teachings. This proclamation has accompanying reasons for accepting the authority of those who proclaim (the apostles, the Church) as authorities from God. These are miraculous signs, the fulfillment of prophecy regarding the Messiah, the sanctity of the saints, the unity of the Church, etc. Once the divine authority is discovered, then the message from the divine messenger deserves the assent of faith with no doubting (e.g., no exercise of private judgment as though revelation were a connatural object to the human intellect). One must use reason to discover a divine authority, but once one finds a divine authority one does not use reason to judge realities which are beyond the natural scope of reason. And thus Catholics may not exercise private judgment as regards the Gospel without losing their faith. But the realization that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, that he was from God, that he constituted a visible society to follow after him to proclaim his teaching through authorized men, that the Church is a divinely authorized teaching authority–these are discovered by investigation. Insofar as the Bible is used to arrive at these and discover that the Catholic Church is that society, the Bible is not used as a the fully inspired Word of God but as historical records to what Jesus did and said. But the way is open in principle, especially to unbelievers to come to faith without Salmon’s argument obtaining.

    Now Salmon, beginning on p. 57, wants to argue against this mode of evangelizing by saying that each step is “contestable”. I am not sure what he hopes to do with this, which seems to be just outright skepticism. Arriving at the books of the New Testament or identifying any divine authority involves “contestable” steps. “Contestable” does not mean irrational, and the fact that someone could “contest” a premise does not mean that the person has good reason to do so. If this is an argument against the Catholic position, then it is one against the Protestant position, too, unless one holds to a rationalistic Protestantism which offers no revelation but only what could be accepted by the natural powers of reason anyway. Arguments like Salmon’s were why Newman would say that the logic used against Catholicism also destroys Protestantism.

    If I failed to arrange my reply clearly, I can only say that I ran out of time to make it shorter and more concise. Also, if I am unable to reply promptly to your questions, please know that I am not avoiding you but am terribly busy. Hopefully others can correct my errors and keep engaging with you.

    pax,
    Barrett

  48. CThomas,

    In clarifying the Catholic position over against Salmon’s presentation, Barrett wrote:

    One must use reason to discover a divine authority, but once one finds a divine authority one does not use reason to judge realities which are beyond the natural scope of reason.

    That point forms the very center of the argument which I made last year in a CtC article comparing the Protestant and Catholic authority paradigms. You may find that it dovetails with Barrett’s reply here.

    Pax Christi,

    Ray

  49. Barrett, thank you very much for taking the time to read Salmon’s lecture. That’s very generous of you. Thanks also to Ray (and to dp). I have now read (1) Bryan Cross’s 5/24/10 article on “the Tu Quoque,” (2) Ray’s article touching on some of these points, and (3) Barrett’s direct response to Salmon. I have not read the voluminous commentary underneath the first two of those articles. The good news is that, for what it’s worth, I’m not sure we’re all that far apart on these questions. I wholly agree that there is no valid tu quoque with respect to the nature of the authority exercised by the Catholic Church. It is of a fundamentally different nature than that claimed by the Protestant Churches. This seems to be the main point of all three arguments (thus, e.g., Cross’s conclusion that “[t]he difference lies fundamentally in the nature of that which is discovered”). Having become a Catholic, the individual Catholic believes that the magisterium of his Church possesses attributes of authority that is not claimed by the Protestant Churches. There is a basic difference here, and nobody can validly conflate the two simply by virtue of the fact that individuals come into the Catholic Church by using their private judgment as to the validity of the Catholic claims.

    If I understand right — and I’m not 100% sure that I do, because I found some of the discussions on this point difficult to follow, which may well simply reflect my own intellectual limitations — I believe we also agree on the epistemic point that there IS, in fact, a valid tu quoque on the question of believers’ psychological certainty. That is, it is correct to say that someone becomes a Catholic by accepting certain arguments using his own fallible judgment. It follows that any subsequent belief based on that decision (e.g., any pronouncement by the Catholic magisterium) can be no more certain than is the initial fallible decision that Catholicism is correct. I take this from Cross’s response to Q4, which I believe concedes this point, and from your (Barrett’s) discussion of psychological certainty of believers. This, to my understanding, is the entirety of Salmon’s argument on this point and in any event it is the one I’m interested in.

    Now this may seem like a small point — it is not a refutation of Catholicism, and it is consistent with someone having a high degree of confidence that Catholicism is true. But it strikes me as important with respect to some claims of some Catholics. For instance, in the article above, Fred states that he was influenced to become a Catholic by his conclusion that Protestantism “do[es] not afford us any basis for CERTAINTY about what that truth actually is.” (emphasis in original). Similarly, the David Anders article linked by Fred in a previous comment argues in favor of “desir[ing] certainty in our act of faith,” and suggests that Catholicism is superior to Protestantism in this regard. I think — and I welcome correction if I’ve misrepresented anybody — that we all agree that whether or not the Catholic Church has the authority and (in some instances) infallibility that she claims, it is nonetheless true that individual Catholics, just like individual Protestants, do not possess absolute epistemic certainty (i.e., freedom from the doubt attendant to private fallible judgment). The Catholic’s degree of confidence in any Catholic dogma cannot be any greater than his fallible conclusion that the Catholic Church’s authority claims are correct.

    So thank you again, very much for your help with this. I always like coming to the conclusion, where possible, that we may actually agree more than I initially thought. If anyone has the time and feels like answering, either to confirm that I am understanding correctly or (perhaps more likely) to say that I misunderstood, I would be happy to review any counter-arguments. Best regards.

    CThomas

  50. CThomas (re: #49)

    That is, it is correct to say that someone becomes a Catholic by accepting certain arguments using his own fallible judgment. It follows that any subsequent belief based on that decision (e.g., any pronouncement by the Catholic magisterium) can be no more certain than is the initial fallible decision that Catholicism is correct. I take this from Cross’s response to Q4, which I believe concedes this point, and from your (Barrett’s) discussion of psychological certainty of believers. This, to my understanding, is the entirety of Salmon’s argument on this point and in any event it is the one I’m interested in.

    Nothing in my response to Q4 in “The Tu Quoque” article entails that conclusion. See comment #77 in the “Wilson vs. Hitchens” thread. The motives of credibility indicate the location and identity of the Church Christ founded, and they are accessible to human reason. But the act of faith is not a merely natural act. Its principle is the movement of the Holy Spirit upon the heart, because this movement is ordered to what exceeds the ability of man to see and assent to through natural human reason. By reason we can see the Church only in her human dimension, in her historic and sacramental connection to Christ through the Apostles and the line of bishops. By the supernatural gift of faith, however, we see her participation in Christ’s divinity and imbued by the Holy Spirit, as only by the Father’s revelation was St. Peter able to see Christ’s divinity. Otherwise we would be rationalists, unable to assent to anything beyond the reach of human reason’s natural power to ascertain. This is why in 1679 the Church condemned the following error: “The will cannot effect that assent to faith in itself be stronger than the weight of reasons impelling toward assent.” (Denz. 1169). That is an error precisely because the act of faith is supernatural, not merely natural. Nor does the act of faith come as the conclusion of a deductive argument.

    In the peace of Christ,

    - Bryan

  51. Bryan — thank you very much. I really do appreciate all the kind responses and efforts to discuss this with me. But your response does leave me puzzled. If the response is that the Catholic enjoys absolute certainty by virtue of a supernatural gift to the individual believer from the Holy Spirt, then I do not understand how you are able to offer a principled answer to the Protestant who believes that the Holy Spirit has supernaturally led him to a different conclusion. As Salmon says: (at 82) “When a [Catholic] claims to have been taught by a supernatural gift of faith to trust his Church, and when a Protestant claims, equally under the guidance of God’s Spirit, to have learned that she is unworthy of confidence, and when neither can prove, by miracles or any other decisive test, the superiority of the spiritual guidance which he professes to have himself received, what remains but to own that no certainty can be got from trusting to such supposed supernatural guidance, unless this illumination at the same time so enlighten the understanding as to enable it to give reasons for its faith which other men can perceive to be satisfactory?” I have been under the impression that Catholics as a general matter are very adamant about denying the sufficiency of a perceived individual supernatural ability to discern truth.

    Best regards,

    CThomas

  52. CThomas,

    You wrote:

    The Catholic’s degree of confidence in any Catholic dogma cannot be any greater than his fallible conclusion that the Catholic Church’s authority claims are correct.

    A few notes about this statement, by way of clarification.

    By way of reason alone, prescinding from supernatural faith

    1.) The possibility of achieving perfect subjective certainty is not blocked, ipso facto, by the fact that human beings are fallible. First principles and careful metaphysical demonstrations, for instance, can be certain – full stop; despite being arrived at by fallible agents. Their denial would entail a situation of universal unintelligibility. 100% subjective certainty is not precluded by human fallibility, even within the ambit of merely natural science. Moreover, mathematical and metaphysical demonstrations can be embraced with 100% subjective certainty by some persons, while others remain uncertain about those very demonstrations, for having not yet understood (or attempted to understand) the principles, premises, logic, conclusions, etc

    2.) There are different forms of subjective certainty such as metaphysical or mathematical (mentioned above), as well as moral certainty. Some authors list still other forms of certainty which persons may experience. Moral certainty obtains when a convergence of evidence regarding some truth claim is so strong that one would be morally culpable for not acting in accord with the truth as known via those evidences – even though a formal, absolute, demonstration of said truth claim is lacking. Catholics do claim (pace Vatican I) that one may achieve subjective moral certainty with respect to the truth of Catholicism, based on the convergent array of evidences (motives of credibility) which support a reasoned embrace of the Catholic faith. In other words, given a sufficiently clear and coherent communication of the evidence, one can come to a moral certainty concerning the truth of Catholicism, such that denial of the Catholic claims would be morally culpable.

    There is an analogy to this position within Protestantism. Generally speaking, protestant Christians tend to hold something similar with respect to the claims of Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah. The motives of credibility with respect to Christ, do not amount to metaphysical or mathematical demonstration, but are nonetheless sufficiently strong or convergent, such that one who has surveyed and understood the totality of the evidence would be morally culpable for rejecting the claims of Christ. Hence, subjective moral certainty may obtain in some persons, while lacking in others, with respect to one and the same truth claim. Since this is true with metaphysical and mathematical demonstrations as mentioned above, a fortiori, it is true with respect to moral certainty.

    In both 1 & 2 above, the evidence is public and open to all, yet that evidence may engender varying degrees of subjective certitude within different subjects, depending upon their access to, and understanding of, the relevant evidence. The key points are that a.) human fallibility does not necessarily preclude the enjoyment of perfect certainty with respect to some truth claims, nor moral certainty with respect to different sorts of truth claims; and b.) because some persons may enjoy perfect certitude with respect to a truth claim, while others lack it respecting the same claim; subjective certitude cannot serve as a criterion of truth – that’s the most important point I wish to emphasize.

    With respect to supernatural faith

    3.) Through the supernatural gift of faith, God can elevate one’s subjective moral certainty in the truth of Catholicism gained through reason, to a perfect subjective and interior certainty. But that involves the gift of faith, is known only by God and the persons who experience it, and resolves nothing in the arena of public knowledge, since there would be no way of adjudicating the truth of a matter in the public square when faced with two claims to perfect certitude respecting incompatible truth claims. Nevertheless, though unhelpful epistemologically, it remains possible on the ontological level, for a fallible person, through a supernatural gift, to enjoy perfect interior certainty with respect to divine revelation, despite his intrinsic human fallibility.

    4.) If Christianity entails making an assent of faith in truths revealed by God, and if such truths must be revealed precisely because they are unreachable via discursive reason; then the only way one might assent to some truth as an instance of divine revelation, is if that truth is delivered with or on divine authority. If someone were to say: “Here is a truth which human reason cannot attain by its own discursive efforts – you should believe it!”; the natural question should be this: “Since you [the one proposing the revealed truth] are human, yet maintain that the truth presented cannot be derived by any human effort, how did you come by it?”. The answer must ultimately be that such truth was communicated by the only One who could possibly be in a position to disclose it; namely God. To point back to another human or group of humans would be to point to persons who are intrinsically incapable of producing revealed truth(s) on their own.

    The point is that the very notion, idea, and nature of divine revelation entails that revealed truths be received by persons on divine authority. I think many folks suffer from a failure to keep the wider cosmological context of revealed vs, natural religion at hand when discussing doctrine, orthodoxy, etc. The primary philosophical trouble with Protestantism, over against Catholicism, is that it provides no credible account as to how the doctrines which it offers to the world can qualify as truths of revelation per se, in light of the fact that all of those presenting said truths, explicitly deny any present-day communicative modality by which revealed truths could be distinguished from theological postulates – by which the voice of God could be distinguished from the voice of man. Hence, whatever limitations human fallibility places upon our search for the voice of God; in so far as one claims to have discovered, and also to champion, a revealed religion; the epistemic framework of Protestantism simply won’t suffice. If one is content to put forward religious doctrines as something plausible or even probable – but less than revealed per se; then the critiques and comparisons that I and others have made matters little. But that is a jagged pill.

    Pax Christi,

    Ray

  53. CThomas, (re: #51)

    First, I didn’t say that the Catholic “enjoys absolute certainty.” The Catholic having the supernatural virtue of faith enjoys the “certainty of faith.” See, for example, St. Thomas’s explanation in Summa Theologica II-II Q.4 a.8.

    Second, even if there were no answer to your “how you are able to offer a principled answer” question, what I have written in comment #50 already answers the Salmon objection you raised in comment #43, namely:

    This is Salmon’s very simple point that even if a guide truly is infallible, that guide cannot provide certainty to a greater degree than your individual, fallible grounds for accepting that infallibility.

    Regarding your most recent question, the Catholic claim is not that God is unable to give divine faith (and the “certainty of faith”) directly to a person in an unmediated way, apart from the instrumentality of the Church. We affirm that God is omnipotent. Nor do we claim that there is some a priori argument demonstrating that unmediated private revelation given directly to an individual must of necessity or de jure be known with lesser certainty than is divine revelation as known through the Magisterium of the Church.

    Here instead we bring various pieces of evidence, among which are the following three: empirical observation, an argument from fittingness, and an argument from Tradition, in order to show that in fact the economy of redemption according to which the truth of Christ’s gospel is either delivered directly by the Holy Spirit apart from any instrumentality of the Church, and either apart from Scripture or on the occasion of each individual’s study of Scripture, such that through this economy all such persons come to hold the very same faith, independently of each other, is not the one Christ established. There so much evidence to corroborate this claim one hardly knows where to begin. Perhaps start by looking at the “Christ Founded A Visible Church” thread, and the commenter there who recently claimed sincerely to be hearing from the Holy Spirit in his interpretation of Scripture, while at the same time denying the Trinity. And other Protestant commenters on CTC have made the same claim (to being led by the Spirit) and come to contrary claims both to him and to each other. And Mormons make the same claim, as I pointed out in comment #29 of the “Wilson vs. Hitchens post. I addressed it also in a post titled “Play church” in response to Presbyterian pastor Rick Phillips, who made a similar claim regarding being led by the Holy Spirit. The point is that one does not even need to leave this website in order to find sufficient evidence that this just isn’t the way the Holy Spirit has chosen to lead us all into the unity of the truth. This theory of redemptive economy fails the empirical test. If Christ wants all men to be saved, and come to a knowledge of the truth, and is willing to endure the cross and shed His blood in order to bring His saving gospel to the whole world, how much more would He surely establish a means by which His sheep could know clearly what is His gospel, and not leave them to a bosom-burning method of discernment that, by the very fact of such widespread disagreement among those who utilize this method, shows an error rate of at least 90%?

    There is also an argument from fittingness, according to which because man is a social animal, it is fitting that man be saved through and in a society, and that as parents are given the great gift, opportunity, and responsibility to raise and form children in truth and virtue, so men and women in the Church are given the great gift, opportunity, and responsibility to be instruments to our fellow men and women of God’s redemption through Christ. This is fitting in that it glorifies Christ to give us a share in His redemptive work, and it ennobles man, as Christ ennobled man in the incarnation. Much more could be said here regarding the arguments from fittingness, but I’ll stop there.

    And then there’s the argument from Tradition. Where do we see this thesis of an unmediated direct pipeline to God? In the heretics, specifically the Montantists, (and Pepuzians), Euchites, and later in the Free Spirit heretics, etc. Those disciples of the Apostles closest to the Apostles, such as St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch, show clearly that they believed the Apostles had instituted a hierarchical Church, such that to listen to the bishop was to listen to God. If you haven’t already read through St. Ignatius’s letters, then see for yourself whether he taught that the truth of Christ is known in a direct, non-ecclesially-mediated way by the Holy Spirit speaking immediately to the heart of each individual, or whether he taught that the Spirit operates through the hierarchy of the bishop, priests, and deacons.

    Given this empirical evidence, and given that Christ intended to establish a Church whose members hold in common the “one faith” He revealed, in a unity that the whole world is supposed to see (cf. John 17), the notion that we are to appeal to private bosom-burning as the means of assuredly knowing Christ’s revelation makes public dogma impossible. It would be possible only if we all, upon gazing at the Scriptures (assuming that apart from the Church’s activity in the determination of the canon we each, upon reading all the possible candidates for inclusion in the canon, came independently to the very same conclusion regarding which books belong to the canon), came independently to the very same conclusion regarding what we all must believe regarding the meaning of the books of Scripture. But since it is clear that we do not live in the ‘possible world’ in which that economy of redemption has been divinely established, and since the evidence points instead to a divine economy in which Christ’s revelation, both in the determination of the canon and in the determination of the meaning of the books belonging to that canon, comes to us through the Church He established, therefore we should look for the Church He founded, and seek to enter her in order to know what is the gospel He established in her and sacrificed Himself to bring us.

    I don’t presume that this is the “principled answer to the Protestant who believes that the Holy Spirit has supernaturally led him to a different conclusion” for which you were looking. But it is how I would answer those who appeal to the inward guidance of the Holy Spirit and place this inward guidance above the teaching authority of the Church, thus making the Church’s teaching authority superfluous. In the Catholic paradigm, we do not have to choose between the inward guidance of the Spirit and the guidance provided by the Magisterium of the Church, because He is the same Spirit in both places, He is the Spirit of Truth and not of contradiction, and Christ has established a redemptive economy according to which the Holy Spirit operates in and through the Church He established, and through the shepherds He authorized to lead His sheep until He returns.

    In the peace of Christ,

    - Bryan

  54. Bryan, thank you. I understand what you’re saying and agree with parts of it, including the first sentence of your last paragraph. This exchange has been very helpful to me in helping me get a better handle on the “state of play” in terms of Catholic vs. Protestant positions on this issue. Obviously there has been a good deal of back and forth on this for a long time on this web page and elsewhere, so I appreciate your willingness to help me as I step into the middle of the conversation here and cover well-tread ground. Glad also to see (on the biography page) that you’re a University of Michigan guy. So we’ve got that — and undoubtedly more — in common.

    Ray, I appreciate your clarifying points, many of which I agree with. Thanks again for all your help. As it happens, I also lived in Cincinnati for many years, so I believe we have that background in common. Hope you get over to Skyline Chili now and then.

    Best regards,

    CThomas

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