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.