The Catholic and Protestant Authority Paradigms ComparedJun 24th, 2012 | By Guest Author | Category: Blog Posts
This is a guest post by Ray Stamper. Ray lives near Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife Amanda and five children. After an early conversion to Christ, Ray began pursuing Old Testament studies at Oral Roberts University. However, being unprepared to cope with the skeptical philosophical bias latent in much of the “higher critical” literature in biblical scholarship, Ray drifted away from Christianity and embraced agnosticism for several years. Eventually Ray became convinced of theism on strictly philosophical grounds leading to a reassessment of Christianity generally and culminating in his reception into the Catholic Church at Easter of 1999. He is the CEO of Petwow, a forty staff member company that provides mobile and traditional veterinary care in the Greater Cincinnati region. In addition, he is currently pursuing a Master’s in Theology with a focus in Church History through Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.
Here at Called To Communion, much has been said about the epistemic problems with sola scriptura and the way in which the Catholic paradigm is not subject to those criticisms. In addition, much has been written by Bryan and others in response to the tu quoque rejoinder brought to bear on the Catholic position.1 Nevertheless, the refrain seems to keep recurring, even from the pens (keyboards) of well regarded Reformed theologians. For example, in a recent article written by Michael Horton titled “Which Church Would the Reformers Join Today? Avoiding a False Choice,” Dr. Horton wrote the following in the second to last paragraph:
And make no mistake about it: Anyone who does convert out of a desire to surrender responsibility for interpreting Scripture in exchange for the infallible certainty of an earthly teacher is making a very “Protestant” move. At least that first leap is a personal judgment and interpretation of Scripture, every bit as individual as Luther’s “Here I stand.” The decision to embrace any confession or ecclesiastical body is a personal commitment that involves (at best) one’s own discernment of the plain teaching of Scripture.
In fact, having read Dr. Horton’s recent articles, as well as “Keith Mathison’s Reply” to Bryan and Neal’s article “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority,” it seems to me that the general approach of Reformed theologians to the Catholic authority critique of Protestantism reduce to the following 1-2 response: 1.) “tu quoque,” namely, the claim that the Catholic epistemic approach fares no better than the Protestant approach, and 2.) The Catholic position must be false because there is either zero or grossly insufficient New Testament or early evidence in the sub-Apostolic writings to warrant the embrace of Catholic (and especially Petrine) ecclesiology.
While I think response number 2 is worthy of a broad and substantial response by Catholics, I would like to offer some thoughts that might clarify further why response #1 fails. In particular, I take my lead from Bryan’s recent response to the Horton quotation provided above. In Bryan’s recent post titled “Some Thoughts Concerning Michael Horton’s Three Recent Articles on Protestants Becoming Catholic,” he responded to Horton’s quote as follows:
“. . . Horton here conflates the role and position of human reason in coming to faith, and the role and position of human reason after discovering divine authority. His claim presumes that because we must rely on human reason in coming to faith, therefore human reason must remain the ultimate arbiter once we are in a state of faith. But surely he himself does not believe that. He knows that even if one must use human reason in coming to believe that the Bible is God’s word, that does not entail that human reason must remain the authority to which Scripture is subject. Of course Horton doesn’t believe that. So likewise, the fact that the use of human reason and private judgment are necessary in order to come to discover the divine authority of the magisterium of the Church Christ founded, it does not follow that human reason must remain the ultimate arbiter standing in judgment over magisterial teachings on the basis of one’s own interpretation of Scripture.” (emphasis mine)
What I wish to do in this post is expand upon that last line of Bryan’s response to Horton, in an effort to clarify further why it is that the Protestant tu quoque challenge to the Catholic authority paradigm fails, and, therefore, why the Catholic and Protestant authority paradigms are not epistemic equivalents.
Persons and Books: A Thought Experiment
The tu quoque challenge has been met repeatedly by Catholics who point out the crucial difference between the role of human reason before and up to the moment of recognizing a locus of some divine authority; and the role of human reason after having recognized such authority. Both Catholics and Protestants use (as they must) fallible human reason in coming to embrace the claims of some purported divine authority. For instance, both Catholics and Protestants use reason as it considers the motives of credibility for the claim that Jesus of Nazareth was sent from God. Further, I think both Catholics and Protestants would readily admit that if Jesus Christ were physically still walking the earth, we would all face a lesser quandary differentiating between orthodoxy and heresy.
We could go straight to Jesus and ask for clarification on any given issue. It is true that we would still have to use our fallible intellect to understand whatever responses He might give to our doctrinal questions. But even if we were unclear as to His exact meaning with reference to some point, He would be personally available such that we could come back to Him again and again for further clarification until the precision of His responses reached something approaching a yes/no level of simplicity. In other words, with a living, speaking, Jesus Christ right in front of us, we could ask first order, second order, third order, fourth order questions (and so on) until simple clarity was achieved. And this is possible because the fact that the human intellect is fallible does not entail that it must, or always, does fail. With sufficient clarification, the human intellect is perfectly capable of reaching such clarity – we do it all the time in common areas of life.
As a thought experiment, imagine that Jesus Christ personally and directly began commenting on the Called To Communion site. Further, imagine that both Catholic and Reformed Christians acknowledged that it was indeed He who was submitting combox responses. Is there any doubt that the very best Catholic and Reformed theologians could join the discussion and begin asking Him precise questions about a highly divisive doctrine like justification (questions about semi-pelagianism, synergism/monergism, grace as infused versus imputed, merit, cooperation, etc., etc.) in such a way that after “x” amount of entries we would know, with certain clarity, whether the Catholic or Protestant (or neither) position was correct? Under this scenario no one is going to enjoin theological blog debate with Jesus! There will simply be a sequence of clarifying questions, at the end of which, there will be a definitive, precise resolution. And this brings me to the key point with reference to the Catholic versus Protestant authority paradigms.
Why will no one in such a scenario use their reason to argue with Jesus? Or asked another way, why will all parties in the discussion (both Catholic and Reformed) restrict the use of their reason simply to gaining a clarified understanding of Jesus’ position? Why will all theological argument or dispute with Jesus be off the table? It is because, having used reason to arrive at an acceptance of Jesus’ divine authority, thereafter whatsoever He says – no matter how counterintuitive or contrary to our previous confessional commitments – simply must be accepted as the truth – as theological orthodoxy.
Comparing the Authority Paradigms
With that scenario in mind, we can temporarily set exegetical and historical debates aside and ask how the Catholic and Protestant authority paradigms compare – as paradigms. Given what I have just said above, the paradigm difference becomes clear. Both Catholics and Protestants use (as they must) their fallible intellect in coming to an acceptance of the real-world locus of some divine authority based on various motives of credibility. In the case of Catholics, we use our fallible reason to assess the motive of credibility and thereby come to accept that Jesus is from God, that Scripture has divine authority, and that the Catholic Church was founded and organized by Christ and invested with the Holy Spirit such that she can act as the living voice of Christ in the world. Protestants use their fallible intellects to come to an embrace of the first two propositions, but not the third.
Keeping the above scenario in mind, let us explore the Catholic and Protestant authority paradigms (again, prescinding from exegesis and historical quarrels). Jesus Christ has ascended to heaven and is no longer among us in the same way as He was in first century Palestine. So in what way – from a communicative point of view – is He still with us? The Catholic paradigm claims that by leaving us with a living, personal, communicative authority that can speak repeatedly and definitively in His name, we therefore, still have a means of reaching clarity and certainty regarding the orthodox understanding of revealed data, not entirely unlike if Christ were still personally walking among us. Hence, Christians can repeatedly ask clarifying questions and arrive at doctrinal clarity and certainty over time – and that is just what the history of Magisterial pronouncements and the development of doctrine entail.
Therefore, similar to the scenario mapped above, the Catholic use of reason changes radically after having come to recognize the locus of Divine authority in the living voice of the Magisterium centered in the Petrine office. There is no theological arguing with the Magisterium about the content of her definitive statements, because she speaks with the authority of Christ in such instances. Yet, we necessarily use our reason to understand what the Magisterium teaches. And, in fact, the people of God, across time, have required repeated input from the Magisterium to gain clarity on this or that issue, as will continue to the end of time. But there is no question of “holding our own” in matters of theological doctrine, over against the definitive teachings of the Magisterium. That notion would be as bizarre as a Reformed theologian having a combox dialogue with Jesus Christ, and after reaching a clear understanding of Jesus’ position on some theological matter, then beginning to offer exegetical and/or historical arguments to rebut Jesus’ theological claims!
The Protestant paradigm, on the other hand, insists that the sole remaining divine communicative authority after the ascension of Christ and the death of the last apostle is a book. However, a book cannot answer for itself; it cannot respond to second, third, fourth order questions, and so on.2 No doubt there are sections of Scripture (“Thou shall not kill”) that are already so precise that no second order questions are necessary, because the compact quality and clarity of such passages fall easily within the competence of human reason to understand without error (remember fallible means only that we are subject to the “possibility” of failure).
But given the diversity of authors, genres and historical epochs from which, and out of which the various books which comprise the biblical codex are derived, it is no surprise that other questions – often of great theological and salvific import – simply evade the possibility of clear, certain, understanding in the absence of some means of asking second, third, fourth order clarifying questions and receiving some definitive answer. This is the only reasonable explanation of the widespread disagreement among Christians who do not follow the magisterium but instead rely on Scripture alone. It is implausible and ad hoc to assume that all who disagree with one’s own interpretation of Scripture are either not intelligent enough to understand what is plain in Scripture, or so depraved as to deny the truth they see plainly in Scripture. The bible is no systematic theology text.
Here again the controverted doctrine of justification provides an excellent example of just the sort of crucial theological doctrine that does not lend itself to a simple, clear, grasp by the intellect upon first reading of scripture. As anyone who has engaged in high-level Protestant – Catholic debates about the correct Pauline understanding of justification knows, it is a theological matter which simply begs for answers to second, third, and fourth order clarifying questions. The hard truth is that scripture is only partially perspicuous and that perspicuity – quite frankly – does not cover all the essential doctrines of salvation. For however the “essential” doctrines might be defined, justification is clearly one of those essential matters, if not the penultimate case. Yet, the biblical data pertaining to the doctrine of justification, perhaps more than any other doctrine, requires assimilation and coordination of more texts from more authors and from more biblical books than any other. Moreover, each one of those texts, in turn, are open to serious scholarly disagreement as to the proper “context” in which the text itself is to be interpreted. Hence, from a strictly exegetical point of view, the doctrine of justification is possibly the most synthetically difficult doctrine known to theology – but it lies at the soteriological core of Christianity!
However, according to the Protestant authority paradigm there is no magisterium that acts as a personal, living voice imbued with Christ’s own divine authority, to offer second order, third order, fourth order (and so on) communicative clarification. As a result, the Protestant is left to his own fallible resources in concert with the fallible resources of his coreligionists to achieve clarification and definition with regard to such a difficult theological matter. When faced with the necessity to ask second, third, and fourth order questions in order to achieve clarity and certainty about some crucial theological matter – such as justification – he must appeal to a person rather than the book, for only persons can provide that kind of clarification. But within the Protestant authority paradigm, there is no person recognized as possessing divine authorization to speak with the infallible authority of Jesus Christ so as to achieve the sort of clear, certain, and binding clarifications that one could expect within the context of my thought experiment above. Any and all persons working within the Protestant authority paradigm specifically deny such authority so that they must carry with them – so to speak – their rational fallibility with each order of theological precision they attempt. No matter how many second, third, or fourth order questions are asked within the Protestant authority paradigm, whatever clarifying responses are given always carry with them the explicit qualification of fallibility.
It is for this reason that no matter how much theological precision goes into the drafting of a Protestant confessional creed, nor how much deference is given to the ecumenical councils of the first millenium, all such theological clarifications must remain forever provisional and open for debate in principle. In the Protestant paradigm, there is no dogma, because there can be nothing like the thought experiment discussed above, where the theological argument is off the table and the role of reason humbly limits itself to attempting to understand through asking second, third, fourth order clarification questions concerning the authoritative teaching of Christ. But the role and limits of reason in the Catholic authority paradigm essentially mirror the role and limits of reason in the thought experiment discussed above. And that should reveal something important about the difference between the two paradigms.
Like the Catholic, the Protestant theologian must use his fallible intellect to locate the source of divine authority. Also like the Catholic, the Protestant theologian must use his fallible intellect to construct clarifying questions regarding the content of divine revelation. But unlike the Catholic, the Protestant theologian must also utilize his fallible intellect to construct clarifying answers to whatever second, third, or fourth order questions must be asked in order to arrive a definition or determination of the content of a revealed doctrine. For in order to clarify or determine the content or scope of some theological matter, such as justification, one must necessarily seek answers to second, third, and fourth order questions as described above.
The problem with this last move, wherein human reason is utilized to provide answers to clarifying questions asked about the content of divine revelation, is that human reason has neither the competency nor the authority to provide such clarifications. In order to entertain and answer a series of increasingly precise clarifying questions, the person providing clarifying answers must have a sufficiently comprehensive grasp of the subject matter so as to guide the questioner to the point of intellectual clarity. But when the subject matter is divine revelation, only God can possibly possess such comprehensive knowledge. For according to the very notion of divine revelation, if revealed articles of faith were not knowledge that transcends the capacities of the human intellect, they would not need to have been divinely revealed. But clear and certain knowledge of crucial matters of faith such as justification require that human beings ask and receive answers to second, third, or fourth order questions.
Further, as I have argued, only persons, not texts, are capable of supplying such answers. Further still, only God ultimately (or remotely as the scholastics might say) possesses a sufficiently comprehensive knowledge of divine revelation to answer a series of increasingly precise clarifying questions with regard to any matter of revealed truth. Therefore, in seeking to gain clarity and certainty regarding crucial matters of faith, unless God invests His own authority and guidance in a proximate, living, personal authority that can speak in the world on His behalf, we are left with either fallible human opinions or a gratuitous and unfalsifiable appeal to bosom-burning or direct divine illumination.
But within the Protestant authority paradigm, no persons are recognized as possessing divine authority when offering clarifying answers regarding crucial matters of faith. Therefore, such answers can only be the product of fallible human reason – they are at best educated guesses. As such they remain perpetually open to educated debate. Within the Catholic authority paradigm, however, a living, personal voice is recognized as the very voice of Christ, such that second, third, and fourth order questions can be asked and answered with increasing clarity and even finality.
Reply To An Objection
Protestants sometimes claim that their submission of reason to Scripture is equivalent to the way in which a Catholic submits to the living teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Yet, that claim is not defensible because a book has absolutely no means of answering second, third and fourth order questions in the repeated, clarifying manner that a person can. And in lacking any recognition of a living personal authority vested with the authority of Christ to answer such questions, the Protestant is forced to clarify and determine his understanding of the orthodox content of divine revelation by means of his fallible reason as just described. He can attempt to play down this fact by reading widely the clarifying answers of other fallible persons who themselves deny any divine authorization. This may give the illusion that his doctrinal positions are arrived at in a more democratic or intellectually sophisticated manner – but this does not make the problem go away. When it comes to divinely revealed truths, his use of fallible reason does not end with the task of asking second, third, or fourth order questions designed to gain clarity with respect to answers offered with divine authority (as is the case with the Catholic). He must go further and deploy fallible reason not only to ask the clarifying questions, but also to provide the clarifying answers! That is the crucial epistemic difference between the two paradigms. And that is why, contrary to Horton’s claim, Luther’s famous “Here I Stand” speech simply takes reason into domains which no Christian had taken it before.
The bottom line is that by placing a book, rather than a divinely authorized living authority, at the center of his epistemic paradigm, the Protestant not only must use his fallible human reason to arrive at the locus of divine authority and to ask clarifying questions regarding the content of divine revelation, as the Catholic also must do. He must continue the use of fallible reason to construct the clarifying answers to the questions he asks. But as I explained above, fallible human reason has neither the authority, nor the competency to supply such answers. Hence, the Protestant cannot escape the fallible interpretive spiral that does not allow him to achieve clarity and certainty on some crucial matters of faith (such as justification). Such is the problem with any “religion of the book” or any other system which exclusively places a text at the fundamental base of its epistemic edifice.
The Catholic, while in the same boat up to the point of locating the source of divine magisterial authority in the world, leaves that boat (for the solidity of dry land) after having located such a divine source. For the Catholic discovers a divine magisterial authority, thereby placing a divinely authorized, living, personal, voice at the center of his epistemic paradigm. And the ability of such a voice to provide clarifying responses to second, third, forth (and so on) order questions over time, removes the requirement for the Catholic to continue utilizing his fallible intellect to define or determine the orthodox content of revelation, a job description for which fallible human intellect has no competency as discussed above. For while the clarifying questions must necessarily arise from the fallible intellect, the clarifying answers that provide the clarification, definition, and determination of a doctrinal matter arise from a divinely authorized source. Within the Catholic authority paradigm, in order to know the orthodox content of revelation with certainty and clarity, a Catholic need only utilize his reason to gain an increasingly clarified understanding of the Magisterium’s definitive teachings. He can do this by researching the Magisterium’s responses over twenty centuries, where such clarification has often reached a significant level of perspicuity, and this activity of the intellect does indeed fall within the competency of fallible human reason because “fallible” human reason which is merely able to fail, does not generally do so when the questions it asks and the answers it receives have reached a sufficient level of simplicity or perspicuity.
For all these reasons, the tu quoque response fails to achieve its goal. The two paradigms are simply not epistemic equivalents. Therefore, if there be even equal persuasive force to the exegetical and historical arguments for the Catholic and Protestant authority paradigms, the Catholic paradigm would remain manifestly superior because of its fundamental epistemic superiority even prior to an assessment of the data. If the exegetical and historical data should, in addition, weigh in favor of the Catholic paradigm (as I think it does), that would only solidify the warrant for embrace of the same. As stated at the beginning of this post, a successful reply to the Protestant tu quoque rejoinder only addresses one of the two principal lines of objection generally brought to bear against the Catholic position by Protestant theologians. To further the cause of Christian unity, it remains for Catholics and Protestants to survey and discuss charitably the question whether or not Christ did indeed establish a living, personal, enduring teaching authority in His Church.