Cutting Off His Hair to Spite his Head

If Jason Stellman is correct in his latest post, then people like himself could not have converted to Roman Catholicism prior to a full-blown theory of papal supremacy (which depending on the historian may not have happened until 1200). His minimalist account of apostolicity leads him to this:

What, then, needs to have occurred in antiquity for the bare historical claim of apostolic succession to be established?

My suggestion is rather minimal: all that needs to have taken place is that from the time of St. Peter until the papacy of Francis, there has always been a leader of the Roman church with full ministerial powers. It doesn’t matter if he used the title of “Pope,” it doesn’t matter if he had a full understanding of the extent of his own authority, and it doesn’t matter if he worked closely with, or more independently from, the other ecclesiastical leaders within his region.

But a leader of the Roman church with ministerial powers would not give you Jason and the Callers since their conversion narratives rest upon their own awareness of a supreme, infallible ecclesiastical authority, fully visible to the whole world, who can decide between what is true and false. Now Stellman proposes an ecclesiastical deism of his own — a time when the Bishop of Rome hypothetically had no awareness of his authority or scope of power. Jason should be thanking the Lord he lives now in the light of a fully developed theory of papal supremacy. Without it, he would not have known of the pope’s wonder working authority.

Stellman makes another curious point, one that fits nicely with his rather gnostic like approach to history — that is, theory completely independent of historical circumstances. He claims that no historical evidence can possibly undermine this theory of papal authority:

And what set of historical circumstances need to have transpired to delegitimize apostolic succession?

Given what I suggest above, such an invalidation would only have occurred if, say, a bishop of Rome died and not only was there no immediately chosen successor, but even the validly ordained body of men with the authority to appoint one decided, for some unknown reason, not to. And after this gap in the line of succession had lasted long enough for all the Church’s bishops to die, some self-appointed man came along who successfully re-established the entire Christian Church by illicitly assuming authority he did not have, and then passing that pseudo-authority along to others (whose heirs are all the current Catholic bishops today) in what turned out to be perhaps the most elaborate hoax ever foisted upon the people of this planet, one that somehow escaped the notice of any historian then or since, as well as duped both the people of its own generation as well as billions of others since.

If Jason actually read church and European history, he might have come across this rather messy time of the Avignon Papacy when the Vatican faced a crisis of such proportions that Europeans began to wonder about the popes’ claims to apostolic succession. As Carl Trueman argued, simply reasserting the papacy’s authority in the light of Protestant diversity does nothing to clear the historical record or make the papacy any more a solution than it was at the time of its greatest power:

Yes, it is true that Protestant interpretive diversity is an empirical fact; but when it comes to selectivity in historical reading as a means of creating a false impression of stability, Roman Catholic approaches to the Papacy provide some excellent examples of such fallacious method. The ability to ignore or simply dismiss as irrelevant the empirical facts of papal history is quite an impressive feat of historical and theological selectivity. Thus, as all sides need to face empirical facts and the challenges they raise, here are a few we might want to consider, along with what seem to me (as a Protestant outsider) to be the usual Roman Catholic responses:

Empirical fact: The Papacy as an authoritative institution was not there in the early centuries.
Never mind. Put together a doctrine of development whereby Christians – or at least some of them, those of whom we choose to approve in retrospect on the grounds we agree with what they say – eventually come to see the Pope as uniquely authoritative.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was corrupt in the later Middle Ages, building its power and status on political antics, forged documents and other similar scams.
Ignore it, excuse it as a momentary aberration and perhaps, if pressed, even offer a quick apology. Then move swiftly on to assure everyone it is all sorted out now and start talking about John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Whatever you do, there is no need to allow this fact to have any significance for how one understands the theory of papal power in the abstract or in the present.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was in such a mess at the beginning of the fifteenth century that it needed a council to decide who of the multiple claimants to Peter’s seat was the legitimate pope.
Again, this was merely a momentary aberration but it has no significance for the understanding of papal authority. After all, it was so long ago and so far away.

Empirical fact: The church failed (once again) to put its administrative, pastoral, moral and doctrinal house in order at the Fifth Lateran Council at the start of the sixteenth century.
Forget it. Emphasise instead the vibrant piety of the late medieval church and then blame the ungodly Protestants for their inexplicable protests and thus for the collapse of the medieval social, political and theological structure of Europe.

Perhaps it is somewhat aggressive to pose these points in such a blunt form. Again, I intend no disrespect but am simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity. These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer. One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

I know Bryan Cross will counter (Jason doesn’t respond to tough questions these days) by saying this isn’t an argument. It is simply hand waving and doesn’t have the philosophical panache his encounter with the papacy possesses. But the hand waving actually comes almost exclusively from Jason and the Callers. They wave good-bye to history, not to mention good sense, and expect folks to ignore what happened.

Postscript: Nestorian alert! Jason even has the audacity (which seems to go with the papal turf among the Jason and the Callers) to liken the development of papal theory to Christ’s own developing self-awareness as the Son of God:

Insisting upon the criterion that unless a bishop of Rome wrote a treatise outlining a fully-developed doctrine of the papacy then therefore the papacy is a corruption, is to insist upon something that the Church does not even demand. Such an expectation is as silly as saying that unless Jesus of Nazareth could have given a Christologically erudite account of his own divine identity and mission when he was four, then therefore his subsequent claims were late, and thence illegitimate, developments. No, if Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, then there’s no reason why the same could not be true of his mystical Body and its own self-awareness.

36 thoughts on “Cutting Off His Hair to Spite his Head

  1. D.G. Hart quoting Jason Stellman: Such an expectation is as silly as saying that unless Jesus of Nazareth could have given a Christologically erudite account of his own divine identity and mission when he was four, then therefore his subsequent claims were late, and thence illegitimate, developments.

    RS: Aaarrrrgggghhh, but that is not the same thing at all. Jesus said through Paul many things about the Church, but nothing about the pope. John said many important things about the Church, but nothing about the pope. Jude tells us to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” By the way, do we know that Jesus could not have given us all that when he was four? I have heard of a four year old that was very impressive in her knowledge of her own sin and of Christ, but Hart doesn’t give a Phoebe about that.

    D.G. Hart quoting Jason Stellman: No, if Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, then there’s no reason why the same could not be true of his mystical Body and its own self-awareness.

    RS: Where is Bryan Cross with Aristotle when you need him. Jesus was sinless, so there is no reason why the Church couldn’t be sinless? The world was created through Jesus, so…? My mind balked at the sheer blindness the man must have to make that statement.

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  2. Jason just said that one does not have to establish the full-blown papacy in the first centuries of church history to validate a traditional view of apostolic succession. He’s right to some degree, of course, but how does he miss that for centuries Rome taught and even now encourages the idea that the full-blown papacy did exist from day one? Do these people lose all their reasoning ability when they study church history?

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  3. But, Richard, Phebes was only fully human and her account isn’t gospel. That even the God-man had to grow in wisdom and stature should maybe put more restraint on the Bartlett testimonialism.

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  4. Rs as docetist. Who knew?

    Hebrews 5: 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,

    Our hope is union with Christ’s FINISHED obedience. What Christ did for the elect had a beginning and an end.

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  5. Come on, Jason’s right and prots have to admit it.
    Papal history is perspicuous in a way something made out of a pulverized dead tree could never be.
    Inspiration/illumination, nah that’s just personal case of performative and anarchic hand waving.

    But FTM I am still waiting for him to “lay a glove” on the theme of Romans, instead of trying to find justification by (faith plus) works cozily snuggled into chapt. 2, a theological bombshell concealed from the church ever since the days of Pelagius Pope Luther.

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  6. Dr Hart,

    Is there a good 1-2 volume book on the history of the papacy that you could recommend? Particularly the early papacy if possible. I know of several such books from the RC perspective but nothing in particular from a critical standpoint.

    Many thanks

    Ed

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  7. Ed, I am about to read Eamon Duffy’s Ten Popes that Changed the World, or something like that. He also has a larger book, Saints and Sinners, that provides a good overview. For the modern papacy, Owen Chadwick seems to be the go-to guy, with two substantial books on the papacy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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  8. D.G.,

    It’s impossible for any Reformed person to seriously engage the Church Fathers without being shocked by the enormous gap between the faith and practice of the ancient Church and that of their own. It’s safest for the Reformed person to ignore the shock and throw some rocks at the ugly chapters of Catholic history instead. Well played. I’m admittedly “not academic” (C/B student here), but even as the non-academic type I couldn’t sit in an Ancient Church History class without thinking, “hmm, nothing about these characters or their writings seems Protestant.”

    You’re commentary on Stellman suggest Cardinal Newman got it backwards (“to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant”). But why do so many people, across the academic spectrum, from dim wits like me to brilliant minds like Scott Hahn and Bryan Cross, keep coming to the same conclusion as Newman? Why are there so few Catholic Historians (I know of none) who come to the odd conclusion that somehow “messy” events like the Avignon Papacy proves the truth of a uniquely reformed version of Protestantism?

    Peace in Christ, Jeremy

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  9. Ed,

    “Papal Sin” by Gary Wills.

    Welcome back, Tater.

    “It’s impossible for any Reformed person to seriously engage the Church Fathers without being shocked by the enormous gap between the faith and practice of the ancient Church and that of their own.”

    Likewise Post-Vatican II Catholics.

    “But why do so many people, across the academic spectrum, from dim wits like me to brilliant minds like Scott Hahn and Bryan Cross, keep coming to the same conclusion as Newman?”

    Because you’re dim wits? (your suggestion, not mine)

    “Why are there so few Catholic Historians (I know of none) who come to the odd conclusion that somehow “messy” events like the Avignon Papacy proves the truth of a uniquely reformed version of Protestantism?”

    Because they’re Catholics?

    I try to quit this place but this low-hanging fruit is just too tempting.

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  10. Jeremy – “But why do so many people, across the academic spectrum, from dim wits like me to brilliant minds like Scott Hahn and Bryan Cross, keep coming to the same conclusion as Newman?”

    The serious answer is that you’re at the end of the road with religion. It’s either Catholicism with an ultimate authority figure (the Pope) to “resolve” your nagging doubts, or atheism, and you’re not yet ready to deal with the implications of atheism.

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  11. Jeremy, you’re kidding, right? You think modern day Rome is like Rome circa 100 AD? Rome of today isn’t even what Rome was under Pius XII. It is not my problem if you are surprised by the past. You should have done more homework. Protestants have no trouble admitting there was a break — a break with an institution that had worldly ambitions of global conquest (think Crusades and Spanish Inquisition). That’s not the Rome of today and I’m sure you’re thankful. So am I. If you are, don’t start blabbing to us about discontinuity with the past. The only continuity Jason and the Callers are finding is in the gnostic realm of their philosophy.

    The truth of Christ, dgh

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  12. Jeremy Tate: It’s impossible for any Reformed person to seriously engage the Church Fathers without being shocked by the enormous gap between the faith and practice of the ancient Church and that of their own.

    RS: It is impossible (apart from an enormous blindness and deception) for any Roman Catholic to seriously engage the Church Apostles without being shocked by the enormous gap between what Rome teaches and that of the Bible.

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  13. Thank you Dr Hart and Erik,

    I guess I’m particularly thinking about statements like this one from Dr Trueman:

    “Empirical fact: The Papacy as an authoritative institution was not there in the early centuries.”

    The use of the words ‘Empirical fact’ seem to imply this isn’t a controversial claim amongst academics and I’ve certainly encountered it loads of times before. Is there a good documentation of what was there in the early centuries and how it came to be what we see today?

    Ed

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  14. Jeremy, for example, just try reconciling this statement from Pious IX, with how the guys at CTC try to parse down papal infallibility to a wafer thin sectioning, pay particular attention to the caveat from Pious IX about the conditioning of faith and morals. The traditionalists are literally having to make it up as they go along and like I’ve told you, the prot-catholics are an apology all to themselves. They’ve taken on an endeavor that will not give itself to their interpretation of continuity. Vat II happened for a good reason, Rome’s claims were not going to be able to hold up in the light of modernity. Modernity is going to own Rome eventually, your down to about 110 acres and a population of 800. Everything else is hoping, wishing, praying. Kung is right. The spirit of Vat II is right. You have a shot if paganism and magic come back in force as a cultural phenomenon and certainly there’s pockets of it. Outside of that, you’re noumenalists or liberals.

    Pious IX;

    “Nor do they blush openly and publicly to profess the maxim and principle of heretics from which arise so many perverse opinions and errors. For they repeat that the “ecclesiastical power is not by divine right distinct from, and independent of, the civil power, and that such distinction and independence cannot be preserved without the civil power’s essential rights being assailed and usurped by the Church.” Nor can we pass over in silence the audacity of those who, not enduring sound doctrine, contend that “without sin and without any sacrifice of the Catholic profession assent and obedience may be refused to those judgments and decrees of the Apostolic See, whose object is declared to concern the Church’s general good and her rights and discipline, so only it does not touch the dogmata of faith and morals.” But no one can be found not clearly and distinctly to see and understand how grievously this is opposed to the Catholic dogma of the full power given from God by Christ our Lord Himself to the Roman Pontiff of feeding, ruling and guiding the Universal Church.”

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  15. Ed, from J. N. D. Kelley’s Early Christian Doctrines:

    The crucial question, however, is whether or not this undoubted primacy of honour was held to exist by divine right and so to involve an over-riding jurisdiction. So far as the East is concerned, the answer must be, by and large, in the negative. While showing it immense deference and setting great store by its pronouncements, the Eastern churches never treated Rome as the constitutional centre and head of the Church, much less as an infallible oracle of faith and morals, and on occasion had not the least compunction about resisting its express will. (407)

    That’s just from a google search.

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  16. Bryan allows C/B students to post at Called to Communion? How do they get past his logic gauntlet initiation?

    “Animal House” is so appropriate for so many of the things we confront here.

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  17. Jeremy Tate posted April 26, 2013 at 9:34 am: “It’s impossible for any Reformed person to seriously engage the Church Fathers without being shocked by the enormous gap between the faith and practice of the ancient Church and that of their own. It’s safest for the Reformed person to ignore the shock and throw some rocks at the ugly chapters of Catholic history instead. Well played. I’m admittedly ‘not academic’ (C/B student here), but even as the non-academic type I couldn’t sit in an Ancient Church History class without thinking, ‘hmm, nothing about these characters or their writings seems Protestant.’ You’re commentary on Stellman suggest Cardinal Newman got it backwards (“to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant”). But why do so many people, across the academic spectrum, from dim wits like me to brilliant minds like Scott Hahn and Bryan Cross, keep coming to the same conclusion as Newman? Why are there so few Catholic Historians (I know of none) who come to the odd conclusion that somehow “messy” events like the Avignon Papacy proves the truth of a uniquely reformed version of Protestantism?”

    Jeremy, I did my senior thesis on John Henry Cardinal Newman. I am not unaware of the internal logic of his argument. Those who grant his premises will come to a conclusion much like his, and end up either as high church Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholics.

    Newman’s logic is responsible for significant numbers of people in the modern conservative movement deciding that evangelicalism is theologically unstable, logically incoherent, and incapable of making any serious claim to be the faith of the ante-Nicene fathers, or even the Apostolic Fathers.

    The problem with Newman is not his logic but his presuppositions.

    If we start with the belief that people are totally depraved, and that everything we do apart from “alien righteousness” will be not just tainted with sin but so twisted by sin that we cannot possibly get where we need to be of our own volition, what developed under Irenaeus and his followers will be viewed as well-meaning efforts to fight heresy that went in the wrong direction of elevating an apostolic succession of ecclesiastical authority rather than an apostolic succession of right doctrine.

    Take that presupposition of the utter horribleness and wickedness of mankind and go back and read the New Testament. Can it be found there? Yes. Can it be found in the Apostolic Fathers? Yes. Can it be found in the ante-Nicene Fathers? Usually, but not always and less consistently as time went on.

    Then ask, if we are totally depraved, whether we should expect that well-meaning efforts of men to safeguard orthodoxy will sometimes go seriously wrong.

    Then apply that logic to Newman’s development of doctrine hypothesis.

    I’ve yet to find a Roman Catholic who can answer that chain of argument against Newman.

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  18. By the way, when I say that “Newman’s logic is responsible for significant numbers of people in the modern conservative movement deciding that evangelicalism is theologically unstable, logically incoherent, and incapable of making any serious claim to be the faith of the ante-Nicene fathers, or even the Apostolic Fathers,” I didn’t mean to disagree with that point.

    Broad evangelicalism has no logical answer to Roman Catholic theology. It may have good answers to Roman Catholic praxis — i.e., the typical Roman Catholic parish is obviously composed of large numbers of people who don’t take their faith seriously and are clearly presuming on their church membership — but broad evangelicalism can’t address Roman Catholic arguments effectively.

    The Reformed faith can do so. We can make a fair claim to hold the same faith as Augustine and (at least in principle) the Apostolic Fathers.

    Newman’s response is to say that Augustine would condemn his “Augustinian” followers in Lutheranism and Calvinism as Donatists. I’m not convinced of that, though I do agree that Augustinian followed in the line of Irenaeus who advocated far too high of a doctrine of the pastoral office, leading inevitably to the episcopacy of the 200s and 300s as well as Augustine’s anti-Donatist writings which centered right doctrine in the teaching authority of the episcopacy.

    If somebody ends up deciding that Augustine was right about church government, fine. Go stand in the line of Archbishop Ussher and Archbishop Cranmer and become an Anglican in polity and Augustinian in theology. It’s wrong, but I can live with that.

    But to affirm Augustine’s ecclesiology, which Augustine affirmed explicitly for purpose of preserving right doctrine, by affirming the semi-Pelagian theology which was rejected by Augustine but which is now held by the Roman Catholic church, is to affirm those things which are less important while repudiating those things which are most important, and which were most important to Augustine himself.

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  19. Erik,

    I actually graduated from RTS with a 3.3 (not bad for somebody who “doesn’t really understand Reformed Theology”) My point is, you don’t have to be brilliant to see the holes.

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  20. Jeremy – “My point is, you don’t have to be brilliant to see the holes.”

    You mean the holes between Catholicism & Scripture?

    Anyone who finds continuity & consistency in human history is reading history selectively in their quest for QIRC.

    Since when is 3.3 C/B? Sounds like a solid B/B+

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  21. “You think modern day Rome is like Rome circa 100 AD?” — Rome is a sewer. I suggest we take up a collection and send Stelly to Rome for the summer. If that doesn’t cure him nothing will. The dogma and the data just don’t match.

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  22. Erik Charter posted April 26, 2013 at 11:58 am: “DTM, Are you trying to get back in our good graces? Leave it to the CTC crew to foment Reformed reunion at Old Life.”

    Not at all.

    I am Italian. I’m an adult convert to evangelical Christianity who became Reformed several years later. I deal with Roman Catholics all the time in politics. Connect the dots.

    What I wrote here is essentially what I’ve been saying for more than twenty years, with the added factor that the Roman Catholic church is making significant inroads in politically conservative circles. There was still a stigma about being Catholic in the Republican Party of the 1980s and earlier that today is all but gone.

    I understand the allure of Rome to conservatives who are frustrated with liberal Protestantism and nonsensical evangelicalism, but it leads to a false security based on a false foundation.

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  23. DTM, you’re right. Can’t swing a dead cat (sorry, DGH) without hitting a socially conservative papist in the Fox News canteen.

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  24. Jeremy, one may not have to be brilliant to see the holes, but what about being honest about the claims of unbroken apostolic succession in light of all the holes? And so I’m not sure the point is that events like the Avignon Papacy prove the truth of a uniquely Reformed version of Protestantism. I think it’s that they make the Catholic claims about succession a lot harder to swallow.

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  25. Jeremy Tate: I actually graduated from RTS with a 3.3 (not bad for somebody who “doesn’t really understand Reformed Theology”) My point is, you don’t have to be brilliant to see the holes.

    RS: Jeremy, the information you have provided is not sufficient to show that you understand Reformed theology.
    1. Just because a seminary has Reformed in its title does not make it Reformed (historically or biblically).
    2. Just because a seminary is Reformed in general does not mean that all the professors are teaching Reformed truth.
    3. Just because a seminary is Reformed and the professors are teaching Reformed truth does not guarantee that the students will understand Reformed theology.
    4. Just because a student does well in regurgitating factual information does not mean that the heart of the student understands Reformed theology.
    5. B.B. Warfield say that a Reformed man was one that had seen the glory of God. No, Bobby, he did not mean by using a bottle of spirits.
    6. Reformed teaching cannot be taught by a means of academic succession. It can only come by the Spirit of the living God.
    7. Even if a student had a 4.0 (assuming that standard) at a thoroughly Reformed seminary does not guarantee that the student has seen the glory of God and that the Spirit has illuminated the truth to that student. There are still those gigantic truths about the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man.

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  26. The value of that RTS degree to Jeremy is akin to the friend I had at Northwestern College (Orange City) who majored in Christian education, did a stint on an Indian reservation for the RCA immediately after graduation, and then became an atheist.

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  27. Six months from now you guys will rediscover me as the featured columnist at Bayly Blog & Cosmic Eye. What can I say, I fought the Theocrats & Neocalvinists and they won…

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