Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dialogue with Tim Prussic

Copied from here:
I am certain that you missed my point: God’s word, the Bible, is complete and unchanging. It is authoritative, as it is expired by God (2 Tim 3:16). Each part is in agreement, and it is subject to and interpreted by itself. The gospels are subject to Paul’s epistles and Paul’s epistles subject to the gospels. On a subjective level, we must interpret the word, to be sure. The objective authority resides in the standard, the deposit of divine revelation, which (unlike the church) has not changed. You want, it seems, to apply the attribute of the divine word to the church. But God’s written word is one thing and God’s church another. God’s word is infallible and inerrant, but the word NEVER predicates that to the church in the way that you so easily do.

I don’t doubt I am not understanding you. You say the bible is complete. That is your belief. I think you are missing a few books. Be that as it may, it makes by question about which section is subordinate nonsensical. The same can be said about scripture and the church. If they are 2 parts of the complete word of God the question becomes nonsense. I am not sure if you are aware but Catholics say the Word of God consists of scripture, tradition, and the magisterium. When you say “the church” I assume you mean tradition and the magisterium. So those are part of “the deposit of divine revelation”. Does it change? It does grow. But many elements of tradition, for example the statements of the councils, cannot change.

Does the bible indicate the church will be in some sense infallible? Mt 18:17 says, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Does it sound like Jesus expects the church to get the wrong answer?

As to avoiding other brother by division, it’s simply not so. I disagree with, say, a charismatic brother and choose not to worship at that local body, but I affirm that we are brothers. I have had scores of conversations, meals, beers, whatnot with my charismatic brethren. Protestantism has a wide variety of diversity in it, to be sure. Catholicism has no less of a variety of diversity in it, though. I think we’re more honest about our differences, as we find our unity in Christ, not in a visible hierarchy. Do you, Randy, work closely with the homosexuals in the Roman communion? I doubt it. How about (less offensively) the charismatics in the Roman communion?

Having “conversations, meals, beers, whatnot” with a few members of a community is not unity. It is affinity. We can’t have affinity with every believer in Christ. We are commanded to have unity with them. It is not hard to figure out. It means doctrine. It means sacraments. It means governance. Saying you find unity in Christ sounds nice but it means nothing. I can be the biggest schismatic and still say we have unity in Christ. It turns the command into empty words by simply ignoring what the words mean. This is the problem with using scripture as the final authority. It is too easy to make the word of God your plaything.

Actually I am pretty charismatic. I used to be much more so in my younger years. The charismatic Catholics were the first ones I fellowshipped with long before I dreamed of converting. As far as homosexuals go. I do get those questions in prison ministry. Most homosexual Catholics stay in the closet unless they are planning to leave the church. They just live as singles. We have many of those in my parish. I don’t ask if they experience same-sex attraction. I dealt with it a lot when I was in youth ministry but that was a few years ago.

With the manifest diversity in your communion, I think this applies equally to the RCC:

The other problem with your solution is that nobody arrives at truth. Everybody agrees to disagree and the faithful are basically told their leadership has no clue what the gospel of Christ actually is. They can follow you or they can follow the [magisterium -TP]. But what if they want to follow God? Then they are on their own.

No, the orthodox position is clear even when there is widespread dissent. There is no need to wonder whether contraception is immoral. The number of people committing the sin or condoning the sin does not make it any less a sin. The magisterium makes clear God’s revelation. So if they want to follow God they can. In fact, the solid stand of the bishops and the pope on issues like that is quite remarkable in the face of widespread dissent. So your point about “manifest diversity” is manifestly false.

Liar, Lunatic, Lord, or Legend

CS Lewis has the most famous version of this argument in Mere Christianity. Forms of it go way back but it is essentially asking a person to look at Jesus and take seriously His claims. Lewis didn't list the legend option among his choices but many modern people think it belongs. Certainly Mohammad went there. He changed the Jesus story to make it more acceptable to him. Jesus was a good man and not God. His claims to be God were just legend along with the crucifixion. Sounds like another possibility.

If you think about it, this ends up being an extension of the liar or lunatic options. If the Jesus story is largely false then where did it start? Remember Christianity spread very far, very fast. Certainly by the time we have St Clement of Rome and St Ignatius of Antioch the story of Jesus is well known. The book of Acts was almost certainly written before the death of St Peter and St Paul sometime in the 60's. Luke was written before that. Likely Matthew and/or Mark was written before that. So this legend needs to have been manufactured just a few years after the death of Jesus. It is the only way you don't have to have thousands of people involved. But a legend that is created that quick is not a legend. It is really a lie.

So what we are talking about is the apostles lying or the apostles being lunatics. That is quite a stretch given how impressive they were and how much they were willing to sacrifice. But it becomes an even bigger stretch when you think about St Paul. The 12 could have been bamboozled by Jesus. That would make Jesus a liar or a lunatic but you can imagine it. But Paul never met Jesus until after the resurrection. Is he lying about the road to Damascus story. What is his motive? What the legend option does is essentially moves the liar or lunatic option down to the apostles. But now you don't have one liar or lunatic.

The story of Jesus is not like the legend of King Aurthur. A bunch of stories that happened at some ill defined and poorly documented point in history. We have evidence of many people close in time to Jesus changing their lives in a serious way because they believed this story. The documents are amazing. There simply are no historical documents as frequently and as accurately copied as the New Testament. You can say they are false but you have to answer why such falsehoods were told and why they were so widely believed.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Crusades and Evangelism

I wonder about the Crusades. What to make of them. The first crusade seemed to have the hand of God on it. It succeeded because of several supernatural interventions. It was a miracle. But after that things went bad. There were 7 more crusades and none of them were entirely successful. Most of them were complete failures. So what are we to learn?

For one thing, if God does something once it does not mean He will do it again. Today's reading reminded me of that. God save Paul from the mouth of the lion. Great. But many Christians were send to the lions and not saved. Sometimes God does miracles to save us from suffering and death. More often He does not. If God prevents the first crusade from failing it does not mean they all enjoy the same. God can and did let them get destroyed.

I do wonder what the Christians were supposed to do after the first crusade. If you accept that God wanted it to happen then what should they have done after winning? My thinking was to focus less on building fortifications and more on evangelizing the Muslims. They were in an exposed position. They had a few decades of safety when the Muslims were divided. But they had nowhere near enough soldiers to defend such a big territory. So what did they do? They essentially did nothing assuming that God would protect them from any attack. They built some fortresses and created some orders of knights. But they Christian faith did not really get re-established in the area.

If they had seen the conquest of Jerusalem as the beginning of the process of making these Christian nations rather than the end of the process there may have been a different outcome. A few centuries earlier they evangelized France and Germany. They seemed to have forgotten how to do that. Christianity should grow. At that time Islam was growing but Christianity was not. It seemed like Christians were copying Muslim tactics and trying to grow by pure military power. Might makes right. But you can't use Muslim tactics to defeat the Muslim faith. You need to show how Christianity has a better story to tell.

The other think they needed to do was patch up their differences with Eastern Christians. By this time they were schismatic. The first crusade was undertaken to prevent the fall of Constantinople. But again, a military victory had the potential to lead to better relations but it didn't happen. The crusader states relied completely on western powers to protect them. But the logistics of moving soldiers from England, France, and Germany all the way to Jerusalem was one of the key reasons for the failure of many crusades. They needed allies that were closer and the Eastern Christians were the obvious choice. But often the crusaders ended up fighting the Eastern Christians as well as the Muslims.

Anyway, things got quite ugly. But the question of how to deal with an aggressive religious group like the Muslims of that time is a hard one. If we didn't fight them and eventually win they would just take over everything. But at what point do we say enough is enough? We have seen a few similar quandaries with other aggressive movements.

The Papacy and History

Yesterday's post was actually a sidetrack from what I wanted to write about. So I shall try again. The comment I wanted to focus on in terms of development of doctrine is something a protestant church history professor said. I don't remember his name or the exact quote but it was along the lines of the pope having an amazing ability to be on the right side of every heresy. One of the themes of church history is a string of heretical ideas. Protestants accept these as heresies. They don't think the Monophysites or the Nestorians had it right. So this guy was remarking how important it was that none of these heresies were embraced by the pope of the day. That would have been a disaster. He even went so far as to call that providential. That is that the grace of God was helping the pope get on the right side of one controversy after another.

What he is saying is that the catholic method of arriving at doctrinal truth worked. It worked when you would not expect human effort to work. That is a hard thing for many to grasp. Protestants agree with the answers the popes arrived at so that helps. Often they just see arriving at the right answer as being quite easy. Just open your bible and there it is. So they don't see it as remarkable that the papacy did not lead the whole church into any of these heresies. This is why you need to be deep in history.

Heresies don't last unless there is some reason why people believe them. Why would those reasons not apply to the pope as much as to anyone else? There were some human reasons. The pope often has an outsiders perspective. He often has better understanding of the tradition of the church. But that has been true of many protestant leaders and many of them have fallen for false teaching anyway. If there is anything 500 years of protestantism has taught us is how easily a church can go wrong. There is a lot of talk about 30,000 existing protestant denominations. The reality is there are many more that no longer exist. They all had leaders that tried to follow the bible. It isn't that easy.

Then there is the point where one must notice that the empirical evidence is not only remarkable but it is exactly the kind of remarkable evidence you would expect if what the Catholic church teaches about the papacy is true. Being grateful for God keeping His church from error in the past is good. But thinking about how God has done that is important because we know God is consistent. He is not going to be faithful to a principle for many centuries and then abandon it.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Development Overview

Getting back to development of doctrine, we have seen that it is possible to argue the believability of Israel as God's chosen nation by looking at the religious and moral history of Israel and comparing it to that of other nations at that time. We have seen that the difference between protestant Christianity and historical Christianity is apparent on so many issues that protestants can't really think about history too often or too deeply.

But Newman took it a step further. He tried to show Catholicism did not suffer from the same problem. That is hard to do. First of all, he is trying to prove a negative. He is arguing something does not exist. Secondly, he is trying to evaluate the logical flow of doctrine for consistency independently of whether they are true or not. That is almost impossible for most people to do. They get so powerfully influenced by whether they believe or disbelieve the doctrine itself they cannot honestly evaluate whether their was development or corruption. Newman tries to help by introducing some structure into the process. But if people want to arrive at a certain answer they generally can. The question is whether they can put aside their personal agendas long enough to hear God speak.

Perhaps an example is useful. One instance of development in the world of science was the move from the theory of the planets orbiting the earth in circular orbits to the planets orbiting the sun in elliptical orbits. Now if you wanted to argue this was a corruption you could. An ellipse is not a circle. So the old theory was false. The orbits are almost circular but they are not. So you could see an approximation being replaced by a better approximation. But if you didn't want to see that you could see a false theory being replaced by a true one.

So if you understand how much history there is. How many doctrinal categories and how many changes that occurred. Then you think about how each one of these is going to be a struggle to be objective because every person is going to come to the matter with a ton of baggage on all of them. Can a protestant assess the development of the papacy or the Marian dogmas without being overwhelmed by what his tradition has taught him about these matters? For me it took time. Ideas that seem absolutely obvious to me now took me years to arrive at.

It is hard work but it is worth it. I think once you get Newman's concept this is the closest thing to absolute proof of the truth of Christianity. Newman understood that his analysis would be a strong argument for Catholicism or atheism. The good new is the consistency of Catholicism is a powerful evidence in favor of a supernatural power being behind the Catholic church. It is something so far beyond what humans are capable of. Logically it could be an evil supernatural power but that seems like a stretch. Even if you are tempted to believe that you can apply Pascal's wager and discern there is no good reason to believe that.

Development of Doctrine and Theology of the Body are two ideas so amazing that anyone who understands them will become Catholic. The trouble is they are hard to understand. We have many biases around sex and religion. They are like those old 3D pictures you had stare at for a while before you could see anything. Then you saw it and it was like Wow! They are like that but you need to contemplate them a lot longer.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Is God Ignorable?

A while back I read this post suggesting God is ignorable. Jennifer id on to something but I think it is not quite that simple. The trouble is we can't ignore God forever. Eventually the question of God comes back. So in some ways He is the only one who isn't ignorable. But God never forces us to encounter Him either. He always invites but never compels. So he is ignorable in the sense that we always have a rational out. If we want to say No we can.

But then there are the times we try and get close to Him. That is always a struggle. Adoration is amazing that way. Both rewarding and frustrating. As a protestant you get worked up with powerful music and eloquent speakers. I could feel close to God pretty easily. But was I really close? It could have been human stimulation. Adoration is just silence. A whole hour of silence. You experience God more deeply but you desire more.

I guess that is a big difference. With the charismatic worship experience you never really feel inadequate. The adrenalin is flowing and you feel like you are on top of the world. Long term you feel like there must be more to Christianity than feeling that high over and over. But on the night it is satisfying.

Adoration often has me hungrier for God when I leave then I was when I came. Why is it so hard? Ignorable? Sure. I know by faith that He is there but only by faith. There is something in me that thinks God should give me more proof. But faith is not just for the neophytes. Faith is not strengthened by eliminating the need for faith. It is like lifting weights. We get stronger by making the bar heavier. So the more we desire God the more He become ignorable? Sometimes. I'm glad it isn't always.

Deep down inside I think God owes me something because I do a few devotions. Like God should be impressed because I showed up for adoration and give me some kind of vision. Instead He gives me the gift of being able to believe having not seen a vision. We walk by faith and not by sight. That is not a sad second choice. Faith is God's way because it is the best way. It gives us the dignity of choosing Him.

Then there is the idea of seeing God with the eyes of faith. When you know God has done great things in a certain situation but you also know someone without faith would not see it at all. Pope Benedict once said every theist is often uncomfortably on the edge of atheism and every atheist is often uncomfortably on the edge of theism. That we are always looking for something to close the deal. Something to keep our minds from ever going there. God just does not give that to us. Even if we get a vision we can question whether we made it up.

What keeps us from going over that edge? Love. Faith grows into hope and then into love.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

History and Carolyn Arends

Carolyn Arends is a singer who wrote something about church history. It is good to see protestants pay attention to church history. You will encounter God when you do. But encountering God is not always comfortable.
Hungry for context, I delved deeper—and soon realized why we don't share much church history with our kids. Yes, there are bright lights in the story. But there are also dark moments ...
Cardinal Newman says to be deep in history is to cease to be protestant. Arends' idea of deep is much shallower than Newman's idea of deep but it already has her understanding why most protestants don't go there. There are things that don't make any sense to a protestant. She calls the "dark moments" but the term is wrong. We are talking about things that continued uninterupted for centuries. Hardly a moment. Are they dark? If you buy into protestant thinking they are.

In so many ways church history is full of beautiful Christians but when it comes to sacraments or the authority of the pope they seem so dark. Actually they seem Catholic. How does that make any sense? Where are all the evangelicals?

Then there is another scary thought:
How do we process these stories? I open my Bible, and I recognize my debt to those who fought for the accessibility and authority of Scripture. My church holds a baptismal service, and I think of those who were drowned for claiming the right to be baptized as adults.

I recognize, too, that without dissenting voices, there would have been no Reformation. This tempers my response to fellow Christians whom I believe are doctrinally unorthodox. I disagree with them as my conscience dictates, but I must also respect them as potential sparks in a reforming fire. As long as the church is made up of humans, it will need reform, and reform will require dissent from the status quo.
Where have we gone here? Because I need to understand church history in the light of my protestant doctines I cannot see heresy and schism as bad things. If I must make those who rejected infant baptism as heros of the faith then how can I reject theological liberalism today? Arends is not a liberal and she would reject those ideas but she says here that such a rejection would run counter to what logically flows from her reading of history. So again we have a choice. Stop thinking deeply about history or stop thinking like a protestant. Guess which is easier? But God's way is often way harder. Still it is worth it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Regensburg Revisited

After reflecting on the Muslim history I blogged about I decided to re-read the Regensburg talk from Sept 2006. The one thing that stands out is how it is not about Islam at all. He takes as a negative example the Muslims at Constantinople around the year 1400. But that is just one place and time where most would concede the Muslims behaved badly. They attacked Constantinople. They did it for the purpose of spreading the faith through the use of force.

His point was that the best defense against the spreading of faith through force is to point our the irrationality of it. His complaint is not so much against Muslims for being Muslim. It is against western scholars for excluding religion from their scholarship. That the wall that we have erected between faith and reason has done a great disservice to both sides. That the marriage of faith and reason that we see in Hellenized Christianity allows us to insist on a rational God and allows science to understand where it fits into the bigger picture. Here is a quote:

This gives rise to two principles which are crucial for the issue we have raised. First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity. A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.

I will return to this problem later. In the meantime, it must be observed that from this standpoint any attempt to maintain theology's claim to be "scientific" would end up reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self. But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science", so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.
So what he is saying is not so much that Islam is bad. It is. What he is saying is that Western Christianity is headed in the same direction as Islam. That the marriage between faith and reason is breaking down and we will get an irrational religion and science disconnected from meaning and purpose. If you see theology as the queen of the sciences then the whole world is open to the rational mind. If you make logic and empirical observation the queen of the sciences then you either have to make the humanities fit or exclude them from scholarship. You end up not only losing theology but losing the hard sciences as well.

There is a reason why christian scientists are so devoted to their pursuit of the truth. Even if they are not very good Christians they often have enough of the christian world and life view that they believe in an ordered creation. They believe in the inherent good of learning about that order. It is really a desire for God even though many would not use that word.

Doctrine Matters

There is a theory that doctrine does not matter that much. That religion is simply man's way of connecting with his moral self and different religions do it slightly differently but those details are unimportant. Ironically that is a statement about doctrine and it does matter. It causes the secular world to be very confused by much human behaviour because they refuse to take into account the religious beliefs of the people involved as primary motivators for their behaviour. Those who do actually act on their belief are called radicals. Pope Benedict and Osama Bin Laden are both in this category because their behaviour cannot be understood without seriously considering their religion. Obviously no self-respecting intellectual can do that so it is best to just think of them as unenlightened people who behave erratically.

This struck me as I was listening to this especially a section on Muslim history. He talked about Mohammad breaking moral laws and rather than defending his actions with any kind of moral reasoning he simply said it was God's will. In one case he broke a cease-fire and attacked convoys during a holy month. He was a brutally violent man but many religious leaders were back then. This made him worse than any of them by breaking the annual time of peace everyone else was respecting. So he said it was God's will. But he didn't feel the need to explain why God was not evil for giving Mohammad such evil commands. Christian leaders would feel that need. God's revelation should not contradict what we know to be right and wrong. Mohammad believed God did not have to avoid contradicting Himself. He could command anything anytime and was above rational scrutiny.

Similarly when Mohammad wanted to marry his daughter-in-law. Again he claimed God told him that he should do it. Another objectively immoral act that God willed for no reason. It has profound effects on the way Muslim's think about God versus the way Christians think about God. The Christian God can be surprising but He is always surprising in a beautiful and loving way. He is never surprising in an arbitrary and evil way that Muslim's believe he can be.

So if young men are told it is God's will for them to strap explosives to themselves and blow themselves up in a crowd of people then this difference is huge. Christians could discern that God would never command such a brutal killing of innocents. Muslims cannot know that. There is nothing in their understanding of God that excludes it. Does that mean any Muslim would do that? No. They do have the option of questioning their leader and deciding he does not speak for God after all.

But what about all the bad acts by Christians over the centuries? They do exist. But there are degrees of morality. You cannot say that nobody is perfect therefore Hitler and Gandhi are pretty much on the same moral level. It does not follow. You need to talk about the number and kind of sins committed. There is also the notion of development. Christians have come to realize that executing heretics is immoral. Muslims have not even come to recognize killing random people is immoral. They can't. Every moral principle has to have this gigantic loophole of "unless it is God's will."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Counter Factual Conditionals

Ryan over at CtC makes a comment:
The person who believes ‘once-saved-always-saved’ must believe that the warning passages are counter-factual conditionals. I’ll explain those terms (in case you’re not familiar w/them). A counterfactual asserts that some statement is true, where that statement describes something that isn’t the case (or won’t be the case). For example, ‘if I wasn’t writing this comment, I would be doing something else.’ A conditional is an ‘if..then…’ statement. So a counter-factual conditional statement, is an if-then statement about would would happen if something else happened.

The best way for the person who believes ‘once-saved-always-saved’ to interpret the warning passages is as a counter-factual conditional statement. In other words, the warnings would be interpreted as making a claim about what would happen if one apostatized. So they are true statements; if one apostatized, then x occurs. It’s just that they are counter-factual because the believer won’t apostatize (per the once-saved-always-saved view). It’s not that it’s somehow *impossible* for the believer to apostatize. It’s just that the true believer won’t do so.
I think this is a bit to simple. If a conditional is contrary to empirical fact that is very different than making a conditional based on an impossible premise.

If McCain had won the election then he would appoint pro-life judges.
That is a counter-factual conditional based on a possible premise. It is always going to be true in the trivial sense because the if condition didn't happen. But there is a sense in which this could be false. McCain could say he would not have appointed pro-life judges. That would not make it false in the strict logical sense but the statement is trying to convey something beyond the strict logic. That something could be true or false. If it is false then calling the statement true is quite perverse.

If the holocaust was a hoax then the Jews have a lot of explaining to do
That is a counter-factual conditional based on an impossible premise. So it logically true. But it is offensive. Why? Because making such a statement seems to imply the possibility that the if clause might be true. It does not say it but it implies it.

 So when a passage of scripture says "if one apostatized, then x occurs" the Calvinist cannot escape by just saying the statement is trivially true because the if clause is false. There is an implication that this case can happen. If that is not the case it should be made clear that this is a pure hypothetical. Like Paul talking about "if Christ was not raised ...". He makes clear that he does not think this possibility is real. If he did not it would be a very perverse way of speaking.

Now if you only claim scripture is inerrant you can use this tactic to get around these passages. But if you claim scripture is inspired or God-breathed you have a problem. Inerrant simply claims no errors. It can be unclear. It can be a deeply flawed way of expressing an idea. That is all consistent with inerrant.

Inspired means God is the author. It should not be perverse. It should not be misleading. It should not be confusing. That is a much stronger statement than inerrant. Counter-factual conditionals where the if clause is absolutely impossible should not appear in something with God as it's principle author. It would mean God is implying falsehood without technically speaking falsely. It means God speaks like Bill Clinton and hides behind what the word "is" could possibly mean.

Catholics can do this with infallible documents because they don't claim they are inspired. They are merely protected from error. They could contain misleading statements. They just cannot contain false statements. They cannot do it with scripture. Scripture is something we need to be constantly reading and contemplating. It does not obfuscate simple truths. It gives insight into great mysteries.

Talking About Sex

The Christopher West controversy is on again. West is taking a sabbatical. Dawn Eden has taken same shots while he is gone. Marcel from Mary's Aggies has responded in his absence. I think a lot of what is behind all the critique of West is his style. The content is mostly quite orthodox. He opposes contraception, premarital sex, gay marriage, masturbation, pornography, female ordination, etc. So why does he get so much heat from conservative Catholics? It has to do with the way he talks about these matters.

Look at any news story about anything related to sex. What happens? The story tries to exploit sex as it talks about sex. It tries to be pornographic while still having the guise of news. People want the titillation of sexual talk and sexual pictures without the guilt of watching something clearly pornographic. News shows get ratings when they do such sexual pseudo-news so they do a lot of it. Look at any major news website and you will see a few stories that have very little news value but give an excuse for injecting some smut into the show.

A good example of this was Nightline's piece on Christopher West. ABC didn't think it's viewers would be interested in a new development in Catholic theology. They thought people would watch because it was about sex. But West plays that game too. He mentions pop culture icons like Hugh Hefner and tries to do it in a shocking way. He explains it so that what he is saying is Catholic but the initial hook is designed to appeal to our baser instincts. It is not to surprising that ABC did not make all the right distinctions. They summarized his position by saying Hugh Hefner was one of his heroes. He claims he never said that and I believe him. But a comment like that is to much for a reporter to resist in this kind of a piece.

I am not saying the bulk of what West says has this problem. Every now and then he crosses a line. It bothers people. It causes them to view their entire message with extreme suspicion. It is a message they really should embrace. The church needs the laity to understand and defend Catholic sexual morality. He has done more to help with that then anybody I know over the last 13 years. He has made mistakes but I would say they are fewer and further between than most people who teach on the topic.

One of the unfortunate effects of getting people excited about Theology of the Body is they share what they have learned before they have really understood what is being taught. They often get it wrong. The line that West crosses once in a while they go way over. They have an immodesty to their sexual talk and they give West full credit. We need to rejoice in the good that has been done and help them to mature in that area as well. We do not need to write off the whole thing as evil. I mean they are following a teacher approved by bishops using material written by a pope. They could do worse. They could do a lot worse.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Obama and Catholic Unity

The American Papist offers some opinions on Obama's strategy with regards to Catholics and what it means for the Catholic Church in the US. Here is a quote:
To provide a couple brief parallel (and purely hypothetical) examples, what if Obama sent a message to a group of orthodox jews who violate kosher laws and praised them for supporting his domestic initiative of promoting American pork consumption?

Or again, what if Obama sent a message to a group of Jehova’s Witnesses who practice blood transfusions and thanked them for their support of National Donate Blood Day?

In both these hypothetical cases, Obama is praising “political” actions with deep religious connotations that, when chosen by those who claim to practice each faith, violate what it has traditionally meant to be Jewish or a Jehovah’s Witness.
I can see his point. I just don't think his conclusion is justified. Obama may be trying to split Catholics. The fact is he is doing the opposite. The way to Catholic unity is not enforcing good behaviour. It is in challenging dissenting Catholics to return to the fullness of the faith of leave. Don't be luke warm. Be hot or cold. With the strong divide between Obama and the bishops we are getting exactly this challenge.

It was not long ago when Democrats could count on the support of most Catholic bishops. During the health care debate Obama didn't even try and reach out to them. He counted them as strong opponents. Instead he reached out to Sr. Carol Keehan. This is common in church history. Catholics have to choose between their bishops and their king. It is good that people have to make a stand. It forces them to reflect on who they trust. Do they trust the wisdom of God or the wisdom of man. Often the stark choices lead to better decisions. If we think it a small matter than we tend to indulge the world more. If the matter is obviously very serious we have a harder time justifying opposing the church. So the more battles Obama has with the bishops I think the better it will be for the church. It will lose some members but the ones that stay will be so much stronger.

Development of Doctrine and Baptismal Regeneration

Getting back to the idea of Development of Doctrine. It is a complex argument with multiple threads and many points where someone might challenge you. Still when you grasp the whole of it there is a sense of awe. One thread is being discussed at CtC. It has to do with baptismal regeneration. The pattern is always the same. The argument is to show that a particular doctrine is a corruption of historical Christian teaching. That is to say the reformed teaching on baptism cannot be reconciled with the belief of the church at a certain time in history. Bryan Cross puts it this way:
According to PCA pastor Wes White, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is “impossible in the Reformed system.” By noting this, he intends to show that we should reject the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. But if the evidence for the truth of the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is stronger than the evidence for the truth of the “Reformed system,” then the incompatibility of the doctrine of baptismal regeneration and the Reformed system serves as evidence against the Reformed system.
Dr Cross does a good job of finding quotes from many early church fathers showing they did believe the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. There is some work to do here because protestants have an amazing capacity to avoid some of the most obvious truths about the early church fathers.

But Newman goes further than this. He finds that showing protestant Christianity in any of it's forms is different from historical Christianity is the easy part. Protestants often fail to contemplate the significance of that. Just like they fail to ask how they can know they have the right flavor of "biblical" Christianity. It is just as easy not to ask if Christianity was wrong once why can't it be wrong now? But to the extent they do think about these questions the answer is mostly a response of, "Sure there are problems but I believe in Jesus and this is the best I can do as far as doctrine goes."

Newman tackles that question. Is there really no Christian faith that can say it has never been corrupted?  If that were true it would be a pretty good reason to doubt the divinity of Jesus. Why did He allow His gospel to become such a mess? If the gospel really is the power of God for our salvation then would God not want to preserve it?

Now, in the simplest form, the question of has the Catholic faith or the Orthodox faith changed since the time of the early church has to be answered with a Yes. Certainly the council of Nicaea changed the faith. It clarified the doctrine of the trinity. But clarifying is not a problem. Even teaching a deep and fuller version of the same doctrine is not a problem. We get a problem only when it becomes impossible to hold that the previous teaching was right. Paul never corrupted the teaching of Jesus because it is possible to hold they were both teaching truth. Nicaea never corrupted the teaching of the New Testament for the same reason.

Newman called these changes that don't corrupt the faith "developments". So the question Newman asked could be phrased as:
Can any Christian faith be understood as an unbroken series of developments from the time of Christ to the present?
Now Newman knew there would be some subjective judgements involved in answering this question. But he wanted to keep that to a minimum. So he introduced a series of criteria or notes to more objectively determine what is a corruption and what is a development. Things get quite complicated from there. But if you understand the difference between a corruption and a development you can remove a lot of the complexity.

So the attack on protestantism is not enough. Protestants are used to having their beliefs attacked. What is needed is to show the Catholic faith passes the test that you would expect the true faith to pass. That is the test of non-contradiction.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

70's Nostalgia

Ross Douthat has pointed out some people seeming to be pining for the sexual climate of the 1970's.  That was when the sexual revolution was exciting. Everything was new and shocking. Sin is like that. It is basically a lie. You can believe the lie for a while but eventually the truth becomes plain. It reminds me of my kids playing with toys. They make a mess. They don't clean it up. Works great. Then you have to live in a mess. But if life is already a mess then you can't find any joy in more messing. In fact, it is hard to enjoy much of anything. Eventually you might see the wisdom of keeping the house neat and tidy. Or maybe you just pine for the time when you created that first mess and had so much fun.

There is an idea the sexual revolution has gone too far but the solution is no to undo it completely. That the expectation people would remain a virgin until marriage was just to extreme. That somehow we can retain the sacredness of sex without actually expecting self-control. It comes out of a muddled thinking. There is not a clear idea of what is the goal of sexual morality. Is it there just to add some spice to life when you break the rules? Why does it exist? The writers sense something has gone dreadfully wrong in this area. They just can't really analyze what it is.

The problem is they start at the wrong point. They start with sex. It is hard to make sense of why you would want any rules if your focus is on the physical pleasure of sexual stimulation. Where they need to start is not with sex but with procreation. The question people need to ask is not who do I want to have fun with but who do I want to raise a family with. Then the idea of marrying a virgin seems to make more sense.

Obama and the Pope

Over the last few months there have been many media outlets treating the pope unfairly. Blaming him for any bad act by any priest ever. Lots of blogs have come to his defense. Pointed out that the connections between him and the incidents in question are very remote. They bemoan how so many big name news organizations do so little thinking and so little research. They are right. News today has gotten quick but they often get their facts wrong and even more often mess up their analysis.

But then we get the story of the BP oil spill. Guess who these same bloggers blame? Obama. I think the connection between Obama and an offshore drilling accident is about as strong as the connection between Pope Benedict and a pedophile priest in Milwaukee. Both men happened to be in charge when the mess was discovered. Both are blamed for two reasons. One is a pre-existing hatred that people both in the media and the population as a whole have for the person. Secondly, there is a desire to blame somebody and they happen to be the most visible person connected.

People love to blame big institutions. Big oil, the US government, the catholic church. The reality is that serious problems can happen because of a few isolated issues and not a systemic failure. But people want to see heads roll. That is almost never the prudent thing to do. Do we want prudent leaders? We do and we don't. There are times when we get impatient for action.

The Catholic church has done a lot to clean up the problems of sex abuse among priests. They will continue to do more. Certainly in Ireland the process will run for quite some time. But the process has worked. The church is stronger because of it. It will take some time before people understand the new reality but holiness is its own reward. If the priesthood is purer, and I think it is, then the primary reward will flow from the fact that this is pleasing to God. The secondary reward of repairing the church's damaged reputation will be slow in coming.

The oil spill can be the same. I live in an oil town so maybe I am not a cynical about oil compnies as most people. But I do think we will see better behaviour from oil companies over time. Yes, it will be base don shareholders worrying their stock will take the BP plunge but good things will come of it. It will take a few years.

Will people see the bigger picture and realize they are too dependent on oil? I doubt it. But there might be some baby steps along that front as well.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Progress and Tradition

Looking at today's world you see a desire to embrace progress. This is a good thing. We want human society to advance. We want our children to have a better life than we have. We cannot be afraid of innovation and advancement. Sure the past has some wisdom for us to respect but the really exciting stuff is the new ideas.

Of course we have to be smart about things. We cannot just jump on every idea out there. We need to wait for society to become reasonably certain of ideas before we embrace them. How does that happen? Well, there are intellectual elites who vet new ideas. Then there are early adopters. Schools are important. The young will accept change and eventually the old won't matter.

There is a process that is describable but it is not like anyone designed it. It just started happening that way. There are leaders and there are followers. Eventually everyone who matters is on side and nobody questions it anymore. That is how societies progress.

But what part of this progress is different in churches than it is in other segments of society? In the protestant model of church there is very little difference. Certainly the desire for progress is not as strong. There is more respect for tradition. But that has been changing. It was quite strong 100 years ago. It seems to be much less so now. Certainly the protestant intellectual elites are quite focused on new ideas. Not to the same extent as they are in the secular world but it is hard to find a principled difference. They are moving in that direction and what will stop them?

Think about the contraception issue. What was the difference between how that innovation was embraced by protestants and how secular society accepts new ideas? Not really that much. Sure there were some decisions by synods and assemblies that were involved but by then the key opinion leaders were mainly onside. Since those decisions are made by voting they were not going to resist the tide of shifting opinion.

In both the secular and church scenarios there is an implicit assumption that the consensus arrived at is going to be right. That new ideas that gain widespread acceptance can be trusted. That churches or societies won't make any huge errors. What is the basis for that trust? Basically the lack of any alternative. We don't actually believe human group think is infallible. Just that it is inevitable. We can't reject a source of truth without having a better source of truth to support us.

This brings us to the pesky notion of dogma. Some protestants have dogmas, even though they don't call them that. They do work. For example, many view scripture as inerrant. The ones that do will limit their excitement over new ideas to exclude those that involve some correction of errors the writers of scripture may have made. But where does the idea that scripture is inerrant come from? Is it really stronger than the source of the notion that modern thinking can correct scripture?

Not every new idea is bad. Many, if not most, are good. The trick is to get the dogmas right and to know why they are right. Then you know what innovations to embrace and which ones to fight. You need to know you are not just acting on your own prejudice and convincing yourself it is God's will. Then you can pick the right battles.

Friday, June 11, 2010

More Like a Soccer Match ...

Interesting comment by the LA Times reporter. The pope was celebrating mass with 10,000 priests to mark the climax of the year of the priest. The Holy Father did address the abuse crisis at some length. Rocco has the text here. The priest in attendance, quite possibly the largest gathering of priests ever, showed their encouragement and support for him and his office. It seemed strange to the reporter that such loud displays of affection would be given to the Vicar of Christ when we all know sports arenas are the more proper place to behave that way.

It is interesting the point the pope made in his homily. That the year of the priests could have been focused on the human talent of the priests. We have many wonderful priests and we could easily have made that the central message. But the rehashing of the sex scandals made that impossible. When people were talking about such unholy acts by priests nobody could respond by saying their parish priest gives wonderful homilies. The focus had to move to the priest's holiness that transcends his personal holiness. The grace he has to bring us God through the sacraments.

The point is this is a good thing for us to focus on. We are always better focusing on God than on man. So we can count it a blessing when the human weaknesses of priests are highlighted. That just makes clear that if God is not real the priesthood makes no sense. Here is a quote:

It was to be expected that this new radiance of the priesthood would not be pleasing to the "enemy"; he would have rather preferred to see it disappear, so that God would ultimately be driven out of the world. And so it happened that, in this very year of joy for the sacrament of the priesthood, the sins of priests came to light – particularly the abuse of the little ones, in which the priesthood, whose task is to manifest God’s concern for our good, turns into its very opposite. We too insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again; and that in admitting men to priestly ministry and in their formation we will do everything we can to weigh the authenticity of their vocation and make every effort to accompany priests along their journey, so that the Lord will protect them and watch over them in troubled situations and amid life’s dangers. Had the Year for Priests been a glorification of our individual human performance, it would have been ruined by these events. But for us what happened was precisely the opposite: we grew in gratitude for God’s gift, a gift concealed in "earthen vessels" which ever anew, even amid human weakness, makes his love concretely present in this world.

The Early Chruch

From Nero in 54 AD until Constantine in 313 AD Christianity was illegal. Many people died for being Christian. Many slanderous things were said about Christians and their leaders. Somehow the church kept growing and growing through it all. In the end the Roman Empire became Christian. How did that happen? As Christians we can say that God poured out His grace on them and made his church powerful. There are human reasons as well. There always are. For example, Christians showed great love for each other and even for those persecuting them. That draws people. But why didn't any other group show similar love? Religious groups today copy each other's formulas all the time. Didn't any pagan cult try and copy those fast growing Christians? If they did it didn't seem to work.

What about skepticism? Often you hear about people in this time period as being quick to believe anything. It isn't really true. We have records of Roman skeptics making all the arguments one would expect against the reasonableness of Christian doctrine. How can God become man? How could he be crucified? Why would He spend his whole life in some obscure country and never even rule there? So all the questions were asked. People were not easier to fool back then. The truth is there were many pagan gods out there. The Greek schools of philosophy were quite active. Christianity didn't grow by avoiding the questions but by answering them. The answers were not accepted because the people were stupid but because they were compelling and stood up to scrutiny.

For natural explanation you can pull on the string a little and end up back at a question that can only be answered by God. Where did they get the live? Where did they get the answers? Why were so many willing to die for this homeless Jewish man? Miracles? Sure. But that brings us back to God again. If you aren't willing to accept God as real this isn't a good period of history for you to look at.

One thing the church of that day refused to do was accommodate other religious ideas. Emperor worship was firmly rejected no matter what the cost. Same with gnosticism and any attempt to reconcile Christian teaching with the sexual permissiveness of the day. They were not afraid to be offensive. They didn't expect to get along with everyone. They expected the cross. Nobody had to tell them the cross was an instrument of torture and execution. That was still very much their reality.

Do we dare teach that today? Do we have modern versions of emperor worship that we just don't have the guts to reject because we fear confrontation? Society has gotten softer but has the church gotten softer too?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Nominalism and Justification

I have been interested in the thinking of Ockham around nominalism and how it sowed the seeds of the reformation (for a short introduction to nominalism try this). That their nominalist philosophy caused the reformers to read the bible in a different way. That is why they not only came to different conclusions but could not possibly fathom how anyone could come to any other conclusion. That is their assumptions were so deeply ingrained in their thinking they did not recognize them as assumptions and therefore didn't question them. But I have had trouble understanding the connections in it all. Guys like Louis Bouyer assert in The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism that this is so. But how does the logic flow? Well it is starting to make more sense. Looking at this article about how our thinking about the essence of God influences how we understand scriptures talking about God's judgment. Then connecting it with this video:

that I found on Mark Shea's blog. It is beginning to make more sense.

What Scott Hahn talks about is the arbitrariness of God's actions in the nominalist view. Ockham said Jesus could have come down as a donkey instead of a man. That the logic saying He needed to be man was somehow binding God and making Him less. But God allowing us to understand some things about His essence does not diminish Him. It just makes us more amazed.

Still, if you start with the idea that God could judge the way humans judge. That is starting with no opinion and examining evidence and arriving at a conclusion. Then the Lutheran idea that the examining phase might only involve an examination of a person's faith makes some sense. But God is all-knowing and unchanging. So he cannot actually start out not knowing and arrive at a state of knowing though some process. That can only be understood as an analogy.

The same goes for the doctrine of penal substitution and the idea of reprobation. They don't line up with what we know about the essence of God. So they need to be limited to analogy and we need to be careful not to push the analogy too far. But if you start with the idea that the essence of God is unknowable then you can easily see some passages as absolute rather than analogy.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Development of Doctrine and Israel

One of the things we can see when we study religions of the period from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus is that the religion of Israel stands out. They had some doctrines that were quite different but many nations had beliefs we would consider unusual. Theirs was more unusual but it is hard to pin down exactly what was different in the nature of the teachings. What is easiest to notice is how little that religion changed over that 1500 year period. They had times where they strayed but they always came back. They had additional prophesy, especially about the Messiah, but they didn't seem to leave big pieces of their faith behind. You follow other people groups of the time and you find gods came and went. Morals changed. Stories about creation and whatever else they had changed. The Israelites stuck with the same 10 commandments, the same creation out of nothing (which was unique to them all this time), the same story of the promised even the same liturgies and feasts. Even today the Jews practice basically the same religion. It is quite remarkable.

But if you ask the question about the various religions of that time. If you wonder which one could be basically the true religion while the others are lesser attempts to arrive at truth. One thing you would expect if one such faith existed would be that it should be remarkably immutable. So if we don't assume all religions are the same but examine them to see if one stands out as having truth claims that are inherently more believable then we are likely to focus in on the teachings of Moses and the Israelite prophets.

Now some would argue that Israel was unique and that it's religion was remarkably unchanging but there are other explanations for that. That is other than God actually revealing Himself to Israel in a special way. That is a logical possibility. Often their ability to pass on information accurately from one generation to the next is cited. There are a few problems with that. One is that it describes what was unique about Israel but does not explain it. Why did they have an ability to pass on information without distortion? We don't know. We are just sure it was not a grace from God. Is that rational thinking?

The other problem with this theory is it proves too much. If Israel is good at passing on information accurately then we should believe all the stories about God's miracles? They don't want to go there. They want to say most of the stories are false. But how do you say the source of the information is good and yet the content is all wrong? We are not talking about one or two miracles. There is basically a constant stream of these stories over a long period of time. Some involved a small number of witnesses but many involved battles that would have been witnessed by thousands. Could such good record keepers record all these events if they didn't happen?

This is the essence of development of doctrine. That God's truth should logically have a certain character. It is going to look different from man making up stuff about God. It is going to transcend time and place. If we find such character where we would not humanly expect it then we can rationally argue that God is working in some special way. Most of the time development of doctrine is applied to the New Testament era. The argument is exactly the same. I shall go there in another post.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Protestants and Atheists

One thing I have noticed over and over again is the parallels between the conversations Catholics have with protestants and the ones they have with atheists.  Newman talked about atheism simply being a more extreme form of protestantism. That they have gone down the same road. Just the atheist has gone down it further. He rejects more of God's revelation and substitutes more of his own ad hoc assertions. Both value truth and reason. That is why you can have arguments with them. They think their position is rational and true and they are willing to try and prove yours is not. That is different from the popular SBNR (spiritual but not religious) crowd. They could not care less about truth or reason. They are just about experience. So we have quite a bit in common with both atheists and protestants in that we have not given up on the idea of our intellect seeking truth.

But where do these arguments go? There are a few common areas. First of all, we go to history. For atheists we try and show the first Christians had good, rational reason to be Christian. For protestants we try and show the first Catholics had good, rational reason to be Catholic. Now most atheists don't think Jesus believed about Himself the things that Christians believe about him. Namely that He is God and He came to save sinners and He demands absolute obedience from every person. If they believed that they would be caught in the liar, lunatic, lord trilemma that CS Lewis posed. So they assert that modern Christology was invented by somebody sometime after Jesus. Never mind who or how or when. Just assert it must have happened because I don't want to believe the alternative.

Similarly, most protestants don't believe the first Catholics believed things about the church that Catholics believe about her today. Namely that she is the visible body of Christ, that she is protected from error by the Holy Spirit, that she has legitimate authority from God that we are to obey. So they assert modern Catholicism was invented by somebody sometime after Pentecost. Never mind who or how or when. Just assert it must have happened because I don't want to believe the alternative.

Then there is the moral argument. Essentially saying that their system allows people to simply disagree with any morality that might flow from it. That can create a dangerous trend towards gradual moral decay. They argue that they are moral people and they don't see how one could logically question basic morality. But they won't address the question directly about what could be done if somebody does. If you have an atheist like Adolf Hitler or a protestant like David Koresh what reason is there to say they are wrong? Are all opinions equal or do we have an objective standard to declare some moral codes to be inadequate? These arguments are always hard because people don't understand the difference between something being objectively wrong and something being wrong in their opinion. Both atheists and protestants have themselves as the center of their thinking and have trouble reasoning from any other perspective.

There is also talk about atheism and Protestantism being unworkable. This is a combination of history and morals. What has happened to protestant communities? What has happened to atheist regimes? There is a huge double standard here. Catholics are chastised for not delivering utopia. All the standard sins are repeated ad nauseum. Galileo, the crusades, the inquisition, the priest abuse scandal, etc. Never mind about whether atheists or protestants have done better because they haven't. Just throw mud and maybe nobody will notice your system has never worked. Sure it works for individuals to justify what they want to justify. But as a long term foundation for society these belief systems have failed frequently.

Now the biggest problem with Protestantism is schism. The biggest problem with atheism is genocide. Even though the logic is parallel it is important to note that genocide is a much worse problem than schism. Atheism not only ends up in a worse spot but in generally gets there quicker. Atheist regimes generally need very few years before they start filling up internment camps. Protestants often need decades before they start to experience schism.

The parallels continue but I am starting to get a bit long. The point is that the fights between protestants and atheists can confuse us. We tend to think of them as two different beasts. Worse yet, we let protestants handle the atheists and we focus exclusively on protestants. Atheists see themselves as the new protesters. If getting rid of the church was progress then getting rid of the bible is more progress. They see the hypocrisy in protestants objecting to one and embracing the other.

Angelina Jolie and Sacraments

There is a post on CtC about Angelina Jolie. I don't follow her as much as the author assumes but I thought I would add my $0.02 anyway. The point is a person's certainty of salvation. Are we sure we are really and truly in the family of God and that we will be there when we die? In the reformed view people can be sure they are in the family of God if their lives have been transformed by God's saving grace. But how transformed do their lives have to be? There is no way to know. Real people can feel transformed some of the time and still feel pathetically untransformed at other times. So which do they listen to? Certainly they know if they are in God's family they are in forever. But if they are out they are out forever. So their is no urgency. So Calvinists tend to assume they are in most of the time. But they have their doubts. This is a good thing. If they didn't it would be the sin of presumption.

Catholics can be sure they are in God's family because they are in sacramental union with the visible church. The sacraments are very important here. Nobody wonders whether they were baptized or not. If you were you are in. Now Catholics don't believe that guarantees you will die in a state of grace. But there can be no doubt whether you are holy enough when you are baptized. You are holy enough by grace alone.

But then what? There is the possibility of mortal sin. OK, but that is much more precisely defined than any Calvinist notion of being transformed by God's grace. They explicitly deny any correlation with actual acts. Acts that look holy can be done by those headed for hell. Acts that are sinful can be done by the elect. So the connection between holy living and assurance of salvation is quite vague. Catholics have it much easier. Mortal sins are pretty well defined. So assurance based on having not committed a mortal sin is pretty solid.

The sacrament are the key difference. When a Calvinist repents he never really knows if his repentance has been good enough. Especially when it is a serious sin or he continues to struggle with that same sin. They brag that they don't have to go to confession. The truth is confession is a grace. It give us something we can do to show we are serious about repenting. If we do it God gives us that assurance by having His priest speak words of absolution. We can distinguish the insincere "sorry" that does not involve true repentance from the truly repentant heart.

The biggest thing about Catholic assurance is they believe people can lose their salvation. It is a paradox but it is true. What scares a Calvinist? When someone who seemed very holy and sincere about their faith falls away. They have to believe that person either was never a Christian or continues to be a Christian. They can't base their assurance on a simple choice not to commit apostasy like this person did because they can't believe he committed apostasy. They have to believe that somebody that seemed so solid was really a false Christian. Then how can they be sure their own commitment is solid? They can't. They could believe it was a case of temporary backsliding but that is often hard. Either way they have to accept this huge gap between a persons actions and his spiritual state.

Catholics keep it simple. If people seem to go from saved to unsaved it is probably because they did. If we participate in the sacraments and avoid mortal sin we don't need to worry about whether we are saved or not. Does that mean we don't need grace. Not at all. It just means we know what our life looks like when we are receiving saving grace though faith. That gives us assurance.

Friday, June 4, 2010

2 Tim 3

Today's first reading is a favorite one to use as an alleged biblical proof of Sola Scriptura. 2 Tim 3:

10You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. 12In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
In verse 14 Paul talks about "what you have learned and from whom you have learned it." The preceding verses remind Timothy of some of the things Paul and Timothy went through. Notice Paul does not appeal to an objective impartial reading of scripture. Before he mentions scripture he mentions reasons to trust him as a man of God. Remember Jesus didn't say, "Here is the truth." He said, "I am the way, the truth and the life." Paul is following that. He is not focusing on a plan but a person, himself. He contrasts himself with those "having the form of godliness but denying it's power(vs 5)". Essentially Paul is saying Timothy should listen to him because he is a saint.

Then he talks about scripture. What does scripture means here? Probably the Septuagint. Timothy knew them as an infant. Paul does not hint at any books being added. So neither Paul nor Timothy have the New Testament in view here. Did the Holy Spirit have it in view? You can make that assumption but it is an assumption. It is not clear in the text. Catholics do apply what these verses say to the New Testament as well but that does not flow trivially from this verse. We base it on other statements the church has made about the bible that clearly apply to the New Testament.

Then we get down to the verses protestants actually quote, verses 16 and 17. What do they say? First of all, scripture is God-breathed or inspired by God. This is amazingly important. It is stronger than saying it is inerrant. It means God chose these words to make Himself known. It means we need to read them. We need to memorize them. We need to reflect on them. When Catholics deny Sola Scriptura they do not deny the importance of the bible. Quite the opposite. What Catholics say is it is so important it must be read in the right light so it does not get distorted. It is so good that if we twist it to our own desires we can do great evil.

So it says it is inspired and then it says it is useful. Useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. Does that imply that nothing else is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness? No. This was obviously written before Paul was killed around 66 AD. So there would still be people who had heard Jesus preach. Certainly there were many who had heard Paul preach. Would those words be useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness? Of course. Paul is not denying the usefulness of everything else God has done. So the Sola part of Sola Scriptura just isn't here. There is no hint of it. To say it is is to twist the word of God.

Then we have the phrase "man of God". This could mean an ordained person. It certainly does not mean a novice Christian. It means somebody who has been formed in the faith to some degree. But then such a person needs to be taught, rebuked, corrected and trained in righteousness. By whom? By the scriptures? Hardly. Somebody has to use the scriptures to do that. That is how people get equipped for every good work. Timothy was to use the scriptures to form other men of God? Does that exclude the passing on of tradition? On the contrary, it is assumed that Timothy's way of interpreting scripture would be passed on.

Language and Schism

Reading a couple of discussions at Called to Communion again, here and here, I was struck by the comments about the reformers using terms to mean different things. Now, I am used to Catholic language and protestant language being quite different. Protestants think the doctrine of merit is a terrible heresy and the idea of sowing and reaping is a true spiritual principle. When you get past the language they are almost the same thing. So those diferences exist. But where do they come from? I kind of assumed they grew up over time. Theological cultures separate and they develop new language over time. But you find these language differences right in the reformers. Luther and Calvin were raised and educated as Catholics. Why should they use terms in a different way than Catholics used them?

One reason I can see is not actually wanting the difference to be seen as small as possible. When you are in the same church and making every effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit then there is no advantage to adding confusion. But when you have already split. Then you have to justify that split. So you look at faith. Bryan Cross says:
Just a quick point of clarification. The Reformed conception of faith is not intellectual assent, but fiduciary faith. (Fiduciary faith is a novelty, something unknown before the sixteenth century.) From a Catholic point of view, fiduciary faith is a conflation of the theological virtues of faith and hope.
So why does Calvin use the term "faith" in a new way? He has split the church over the slogan "faith alone". With further reflection he might come to think it is not faith alone but rather faith and hope alone. But that would be a huge admission of defeat. That the slogan of the reformers is wrong and they are moving to a more Catholic position even if they are still not completely at the Catholic idea of faith, hope, and love. I can see how it is rhetorically much more attractive to "clarify" what you really mean by faith. People play with words to avoid admitting a mistake.

This is why schisms are so hard to fix. Even when the substance of the schism has been reduced by the spirit working on both parties you have a lot more pride involved. It would be diffcult for Calvin to admit that he claimed huge spiritual authority without adequate justification. So he has a vested interest in making that theolgical difference seem large. If he was arguing from within the church then he would likely have limits on his teaching that he would want to have removed. So the incentive would be to make the differences seem as small as possible. 

The opposite temptation can be seen on the Eucharist. David Anders says:
However, I completely agree that these very same terms – real, substantial, local – are given a different signification in Catholic theology. Knowing that, Calvin can be accused of some dissimulation for using terms that had already acquired a technical precision in the academic theology of his day.
But the point is why would Calvin engage in this dissimulation? On this issue there were many ideas out there. Luther and Zwingli were fighting each other. Calvin seemed to look for middle ground. Even then he saw that if the reformers didn't unite around one faith then nobody should believe they had the truth. So word games are used to try and avoid schism not with Catholics but with other protestants. That seems like a noble goal. The trouble is that covering differences with carefully chosen words is no way to deal with them. Look at the Anglican church if you doubt that.

So both the fact of schism and the threat of schsim tend to cause us to change our language and not deal honestly with our theological opinions. What we need is unity that does not depend on uniform theological opinions. A unity that depends on obedience to something higher than someone else's theological opinion. When that is established then we don't need to play these politcal games.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Why Ephesians 4

Ephesians 4:11-16:
11It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

 Ephesians 4 has been an interesting chapter for me. When I was contemplating the claims of the church I was struck by verse 14. I was struck by it because I could see I had been blown around by winds of teaching. I could see many others were worse than me. Chasing around the latest hot fad in Christianity. Verse 14 calls that a mark of immaturity. But what will be the answer? The word "then" indicates the preceding verses tell us how to avoid this trap. It talks about unity. It talks about serving the body of Christ. Doing the job Jesus wants us to do. Not the job we want but what builds up the body. That is how we become mature. That is how we get the fullness of Christ.

What do we do instead of being tossed back and forth by the waves? We speak the truth in love. How are those opposites? We don't fly around thinking maybe this guy has the truth or maybe that guy has the truth. We can speak the truth. We must speak it in love. That is how we grow into Christ. The head of that body.

Pauls uses the phrase "in Christ" a lot. What does that look like? It involves being joined with other Christians who all play a role. Some are ligaments. So close unity is important here. Paul has just talked about one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Every time I thought about the rock from Matthew 16 I was struck by how it seemed the exact opposite of "being tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching". That if we wanted to really grow up we needed a solid foundation. Not chasing something better but standing firm and letting Jesus build His church.

The Canon and Consensus

Responding to Alex over on Dave Armstrong's blog. He started by quoting JI Packer:
A non-Catholic, such as J. I. Packer would say, "the church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by his work of creation, and similarly he gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up."
My new comments are in black. My original ones are in purple. Alex's are in green.

Randy: The analogy to the law of gravity is flawed. Scientific theories are inherently empirical. They exist because they are useful in predicting experimental results. The moment something more useful comes along then that theory is discarded.

Alex: The point with the analogy is that physical laws, however they are understood, are given by God by His act of creation. Surely, you should have understood it as such.

Creation is given by God. Scientific laws describe the behaviour of the creation. Anyone could describe gravity and have his description verified and accepted as accurate. Jesus is different. He gave us a gospel that nobody else could discover on his own. If the New Testament got it wrong then we would not have no way of knowing.

Randy: The canon is nothing like that. It cannot be checked empirically. It is revelation from God.

Alex: If the Canon is a revelation from God, is it not experienced and witnessed? “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes , which we have looked upon , and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;” (1 John 1:1)

It is highly empirical as that. Christianity is not an esoteric mystic religion, but highly situated in this empirical world by a God who is the God of History and Communication. He is not a deist god, but an active God in our empirical world, and who even experienced the vulnerable human nature when He bodily died on the cross.

This seems quite off point. We cannot check the canon. Either God protected those books from error or He didn't. If He didn't, how would we know? Are you saying they are self-authenticating?
Randy: One can empirically recognize people's opinion about the cannon but that presupposes that a strong consensus of human opinion is the basis for the canon. That could be right but you need to state that as the real foundation of the canon.

Alex: This applies for all aspects of our human affairs. Ultimately it depends on what we choose to believe, for there are various consensuses in our multicultural society, and sometimes we are confronted to choose which consensus to accept: Evolutionist vs. Creationist, Atheist vs Theist, etc. The point is that in our western society, we have large groups of people operating within different kinds of paradigms. However, I do not hold to the Consensus Theory of Truth, but that the formation of our beliefs depends, among many things, on some consensus. And that's why we discuss right now. I belong to another tradition of consensus than you do.

But my tradition acknowledges the way God uses consensus. It has the notion of Sacred Tradition which makes very precise exactly where you should look for consensus. Your tradition explicitly rejects that. So are you making an exception here? When you say consensus do you mean a consensus of Catholic bishops expressed by the pope? I assume not. What precisely would you say makes a consensus something we should accept as revelation from God?
This means that either one of our consensus is true, or that none is true. After all, Christianity might be a false religion and that Jesus' bodily resurrection is a myth. (I certainly do not endorse such view, because I believe in Christ's bodily death and resurrection and that He was God manifest in the human flesh.) That's why we must question our traditions and put them under test in order to verify/falsify them.

So how do we test them? Who does the test? You? Is not the tester in some way greater than the scriptures being tested?
Randy: The problem with the consensus theory is twofold. One problem is that other consensus existed. For example, a consensus developed around apostolic succession. Why is that consensus not an accurate reflection of God's mind when the canon is?

Alex: Well, from my hermeneutic standpoint, the consensus around apostolic succession has not enough biblical evidence. Here it is not question-begging to appeal to the Bible, even though we discuss the nature of the formation of the NT Canon, because the Bible is our common indisputable ground that we can both appeal to.

It is question begging. If scripture can stand firm on a foundation on some consensus of Christendom then why can't apostolic succession stand on the same foundation. This is where it is important to be precise about what you mean by consensus. Otherwise it becomes just arbitrary. Consensus matters when you want it to and does not matter when you don't.
Now, concerning the question of which canon is the right one, whether we should include the OT apocrypha or not, I would say that there are very good reason why they should be rejected, reasons that I am sure you have heard in your numerous discussions with Protestants :-)

I haven't heard any protestant give a good reason why they should be rejected.

So, let us not dwell much in this issue, which is quite a different one and logically independent of the real issue here. The real issue is whether the Catholic Church through her councils established the Canon. I can even accept the Catholic apocrypha, but disagree on the view that the Catholic councils gave us the canon.

This takes the arbitrariness to a new level. To use one method to arrive at your OT canon and another to arrive at your NT canon. To say the NT canon is as obvious as gravity and then claim those same people got the OT canon wrong. Consensus matters when you want it to and does not matter when you don't.
Kind regards,


Thanks so much for replying.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Icons and Idols

Just thinking about how much of life can be seen as a choice between and icon and an idol. Take anything at all. Say the sun. Either you see it as an icon for God. A reminder of the way God gives us energy and light. The way God can be too much to look straight at but without him we would see nothing at all. If we don't see the sun that way we make it an idol. It sounds hard but we start to appreciate the sun as a thing without acknowledging God as the creator of that thing. It becomes sun worship. Talk about the weather with enough people and you will run into sun worship.

But the principle has many examples. Lust is nothing more than seeing sex as a thing rather than as an icon for God. Greed is nothing more than seeing material wealth as a thing rather than as an icon for God. Pride is really seeing ourselves as something to focus on rather than something that points to God as our creator. We can see so much of life as a choice between seeing God or just seeing the thing as a thing. Either seeing an icon or seeing an idol.

This thought makes the protestant notion of icons leading to idolatry quite strange. The truth is they are the only antidote to idolatry. Statues and relics teach us how to see the spiritual significance in objects. They are the low hanging fruit that we can start out with. The concept is to learn to see God in everything and everyone. But if we can't get the easy ones right what chance do we have?

As a protestant it was OK for us to have posters of sports heroes or music stars. It was not OK to have a poster of the Virgin Mary. Which is more likely to be an idol? Which is more likely to teach a teen to see God in their hero? You can insist on Christian heroes but that is not really right either. The point is not the stars personal relationship with Jesus or lack thereof. The point is the music is not the end. The sport is not the end. It is all there and desirable because it is an icon for God. If said celebrity leads people in the sinners prayer that is great. It just does not address the deeper question of what does love of sport or love of music or love of movies tell us about God? Every desire in our heart is really a desire for God in disguise. True worship is seeing through the disguise. It is not avoiding the desire.

Predestination and Perspicuity

One final stab some protestants make to solve the problem of so many seemingly good Christians coming to believe so many bad doctrines is the idea that God might not make scripture clear to everyone. He just makes it clear to the elect. This is kind of a separate topic but some Calvinists try and explain the plethora of different teachings this way.

Now most Christians would say bad exegesis comes from a lack of faith. They would say many liberal Christians are not first of all lousy interpreters of scripture but that is something that flows from their unwillingness to accept some of the counter-cultural nature of the gospel. So all the scriptures about sin darkening the intellect and God giving wisdom to the simple do explain how people fail to understand scripture. But the people in view are not Christians. The people we are wondering about seem to be Christians. They profess faith in Jesus. They seem serious about studying the bible and doing what it says. They just disagree on important matters of doctrine.

So you get the spectacle of people saying St Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa are in hell. They are forced to go there because everyone who does not arrive at a Calvinist interpretation of the bible is not elect. Dave Armstrong described this kind of thinking as intellectual suicide. You can't make any sense of Christian history with this view.

The problem does not go away. There are so many branches of protestantism that a Calvinist want to agree with most of the time but sees a few areas where they appear to be in error. How does he explain them? They are either elect or they are not. They can't be elect on 80% if the issues and not on the other 20%. So the model does not fit the data.

The only thing that does fit the data is that the bible is not clear unless it has something to keep it in the proper light and focus. That something is missing from many Christian traditions. It does not prove that something is what Catholicism suggests but it does prove that Sola Scriptura is false. It fails on empirical grounds. What it has produced does not have the character of truth but rather has the character of the gradual loss of truth.