Monday, February 4, 2013

Godfrey On The Catholic Church


There are some videos by a Dr Robert Godfrey that are being talked about quite a bit. They were posted on Triablogue. One was added to a comment on Called to Communion as well. I tried to add a comment to the Triablogue post providing the link to the CtC reaction but it didn't make it past their moderators. Another reminder of the reason I don't comment there very often.

What is striking is the confidence with which Godfrey characterizes the historical data and by extension characterizes the arguments Catholics have made about it. Few protestant historians are willing to go there. At CtC Nick points out that J.N.D. Kelly is a more respected protestant expert on church history and he says quite the opposite, that the Catholic position on the Eucharist was generally taught and never questioned in the early church.

Still Godfey's statement is likely to embolden Protestants and produce a lot of exchanges where the Catholics say the protestants are cherry picking quotes and the protestants say the same thing back. Knowing that the vast majority are not going to drill into the details you end up with a kind of stalemate.

It reminds me of my thinking about scripture as a Protestant. I assumed there was a mountain of biblical evidence for the protestant position. I knew a few proof texts but even when those were shown to be not as convincing as I thought I remained confident that the scriptures were overwhelmingly on the protestant side. This mountain of evidence never existed. The few texts I knew were all there was and there were good Catholic answers to those.

I just didn't get that. All I had left was tradition. The truth is I had always taken it as infallible tradition. I didn't believe in any doctrine of infallibility but in my heart I held certain doctrines as infallible. So even when I saw much biblical evidence against them and nothing very strong in their favor I could not really let them go. Too many people I knew and respected accepted them as bedrock truth.

The same thing happens when looking at the early church fathers. We end up at a stalemate because each side has a tradition that they are unwilling to seriously question. But what makes sense at that point? Should we just continue to hold to our previous position simple because it was our previous position? That would be ad hoc. We want the truth don't we? A stalemate is not enough to make anyone confident of truth.

So what are the options? There might be no way to tell which tradition, if any, is right. Does that really make sense? If we are Christians and we believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most important truth in the world then does it make any sense to believe that it has gotten lost in one big mass of human opinions? God would not send His son to die on the cross and allow us to mess up the project so badly that we would have no clear idea what being a Christian was supposed to look like.

So the stalemate is really a good reason to reject Sola Scriptura. It is a reason to prefer a tradition that says there is more grace provided to allow us to know the truth. There are just a few traditions that even claim such a thing. How to pick between them is another question. The key is to pick objectively. Don't pick yours because it is yours. Realize that it sounds the best to you because it is yours.


  1. There's actually a pretty simple refutation that doctrines such as the Eucharist, the nature of grace, and the Biblical canon were invented in the middle ages by Rome. Simply look at the Churches that split from Rome 1000 years ago and 1500 years ago and ask what they believe. In 99.9% of the doctrines disputed by Protestants these Churches agree with Rome and in no case do they agree with Protestants in their disagreement with Rome.

    So unless the Church went off the rails before the first Church broke off, namely before the Biblical canon was established and sola-scriptura was impossible (and thus Protestantism was impossible), the only reasonable position a sceptic can take is that all doctrines that the Coptic, Oriental, Orthodox, and Catholics share were held by the first Christians and doctrines unique to one or more of them might be questioned.

  2. Good point Anil. I have seen this argument before with respect to churches just being geographically removed from each other and unlikely to all come to the same doctrine unless they started out there. But you are right, some of them were not even in communion with Rome for much of that time. So they were removed in another way.

    Interestingly enough I have actually seen this argument used by protestants. My Christian Reformed church believes in infant baptism. They believe it was practiced by the early church. Why? Because there was no controversy. We know by the second half of the 3rd century there was at least some infant baptism being practiced. The fact that there was no record of the practice being new or unusual means it was probably well established at the time. How could the whole church move from adult baptism to infant baptism with no debate? That is not plausible so logically it must have gone back to the apostles. So they say that implies we should baptize infants even if there is no clear word on it in the New Testament.

    Somehow the exact parallel argument for other Catholic doctrines, like the Eucharist or the papacy, is mocked. How can you trust tradition over scripture? Still if they like the conclusion the argument sounds pretty good.