Apparently Jason Stellman thinks the historical arguments about Roman Catholicism are unfair if Protestants themselves don’t also have to answer arguments against their brand of Christianity. He might have a point if such Protestants were converts from Rome and continually banged the drum for the superiority of Protestantism to Roman Catholicism, all the while skirting such issues as the lack of institutional unity, the variety of interpretations of the Bible, or acting as if Augustine passed the torch directly and in the flesh to Luther. So far, I haven’t seen those blogs.
What I have seen, though, are Jason and the Callers ducking for cover whenever unpleasant historical incidents from Roman Catholicism show a less than attractive side to the church (and so make the conversion narratives look — let’s say — incomplete). Jason and Bryan Cross claim that they have repeatedly answered these objections. Jason does so by pointing to one — ONE!!! — post (too numerous to count) and Bryan does it by linking to a series of other links which take readers the same place the the Condor’s phone calls did when he re-patched the wires in Three Days of the Condor — for the cinematically illiterate — that is, nowhere. Jason and the Callers do not interact with the direct changes between, say Unam Sanctam and Vatican II on religious freedom and the separation of church and state, or with the conciliar tradition that antedates (according to leading medieval historians who are supposed to have the right paradigm) their preferred high (read: audacious) papalism, or anything about Edgardo Mortara and the Vatican’s place in Italian and European politics, or the Inquisition, or the Index of Books, of the Avignon Papacy and the Western Schism and the crisis of the papacy. Granted, they don’t need to answer each and every one. But talk about hand waving. When you promote something as the best there ever was, and then you find that the best was also responsible for some of the worst in Christian history, maybe you want to change your story?
So let’s clarify the issue. We have a blog, known as Called to Communion, where converts from Reformed Protestantism talk about the woes of Protestantism and how Rome solves all those problems. The converts who have posted there make historical claims but their history almost never includes the dark side of Roman Catholic history. Perhaps they don’t know the history. Or perhaps they are so keen to justify their switch that they cherry pick from the past. Here’s a sampling:
From Stellman himself:
Historically speaking, the idea that the written Word of God is formally sufficient for all things related to faith and practice, such that anyone of normal intelligence and reasonably good intentions could read it and deduce from it what is necessary for orthodoxy and orthopraxy, is not a position that I see reflected in the writings of the early Church fathers. While there are plenty of statements in their writings that speak in glowing terms about the qualitative uniqueness of Scripture, those statements, for them, do not do away with the need for Scripture to be interpreted by the Church in a binding and authoritative way when necessary.
From David Anders:
I began my Ph.D. studies in September of 1995. I took courses in early, medieval, and Reformation Church history. I read the Church Fathers, the scholastic theologians, and the Protestant Reformers. At each stage, I tried to relate later theologians to earlier ones, and all of them to the Scriptures. I had a goal of justifying the Reformation and this meant, above all, investigating the doctrine of justification by faith alone[…]
My first difficulty arose when I began to grasp what Augustine really taught about salvation. Briefly put, Augustine rejected “faith alone.” It is true that he had a high regard for faith and grace, but he saw these mainly as the source of our good works. Augustine taught that we literally “merit” eternal life when our lives are transformed by grace. This is quite different from the Protestant point of view[…]
No matter where I looked, on whatever continent, in whatever century, the Fathers agreed: salvation comes through the transformation of the moral life and not by faith alone. They also taught that this transformation begins and is nourished in the sacraments, and not through some individual conversion experience[…]
From Jason Kettinger:
I have made two perhaps frustrating assumptions: that the Church of Christ is visible, and that the Catholic Church today is that Church. I can only say that Petrine primacy was rather easily established from the Fathers, and that patristic authors on the Eucharist and apostolic succession cast more than a reasonable doubt on both the authority of my community to believe otherwise (and still be the Church) and the antiquity of those particular beliefs. Some might say that I have been a rebel from day one, and there is some truth in that. However, even as I actively investigated Catholic claims, and explored Catholic life, I never lost sight of Christ Jesus. I found Him there as I went; I pleaded with Him to guide me. I gave Jesus every question.
From Jason Stewart:
Going into this I had to admit that my familiarity with the actual works of the Fathers was limited. Thumbing curiously through a random volume from Schaff’s Patristics collection or culling a quote from Ignatius or Augustine or reading a history of early doctrine text for seminary coursework exhausted my contact with these ancient Christian authors. I had known for a long time that the Church Fathers did not share my Reformed theological vocabulary. But such was to be expected, I guessed. The Protestant Reformation with its precise theological formulations was many centuries away when these men wrote. So what (my thinking went) if Irenaeus or Justin or Augustine didn’t sound exactly like our Reformed creeds and catechisms? Yet now in examining their writings I began to sense that indeed there was something more profound at work than a mere difference in expression or emphasis. Was the Catholic claim right? Continued reading suggested that the actual theological substance of the Fathers was different. Certainly the Fathers didn’t seem at odds with the positive elements of the Reformation. But I noticed in my reading that they thought differently than did the reformers. Their approach to the Christian faith took another route. They seemed to cut an early theological path that when traced did not exactly connect to the one blazed by the reformers in the 16th century. I began to consider whether a person would naturally pick up the distinctive trail of the Protestant Reformation if one started with the writings of the early Church? The answer increasingly seemed to be no.
The pattern is pretty clear. Throw Protestantism aside by examining the past. The past in view is invariably the early church fathers, against which Protestants come up short. Then elide right into the idea that “this is the church Christ founded” and you have the early church as no different from Benedict XVI. Let’s just say, this is not very good history, but history is pretty crucial to the Callers’ understanding of their conversion. In which case, bringing up other parts of the past is entirely fair, and if the Callers can’t answer, then call David Barton.
In the conversion narratives I examined I saw only one that conceded Rome’s defects. Joshua Lim admitted:
As many Protestants warn, there are certain difficulties that the Catholic convert must necessarily face. The contemporary Catholic Church in America is far from perfect. Liturgically, there are, at least in Southern California, very few parishes that celebrate Mass the way Catholics should; there are numerous liberal Catholics who don’t submit to the Magisterium (to the delight of Protestants), the list seems endless.
That’s a pretty contemporary list (like Stellman’s), suggesting to me Joshua doesn’t have any idea about the difficulties between theory and reality from Roman Catholic church history.
Even so, Lim goes on to make it all better:
. . . none of this is actually new for the Church; things have always been so. These issues have not moved me from the conviction that the Catholic Church is the true Church; on the contrary, they have only increased my faith that this must be the true Church. If Christ could continue to work to build his Church with such a history of failings on the part of the laity, various priests, bishops, and even popes, surely this Church must be sustained by God himself. . .
By that logic, (and I’ve seen it several times at CTC in the comm box — this must be the true church because it is so flawed), Protestantism wins the argument. What, with 40k denominations, our fractured state has to be evidence that God is at work among us. You know, you will know them not by their love but by their errors and divisions?
But even then, Lim cannot avoid appealing to history:
. . . despite the passage of over two millennia, the Church continues to hold and to teach in substance what it has always held and taught. Unlike much of Protestantism which no longer believes what even the magisterial Reformers once held to be fundamental tenets of the faith (Trinity, inerrancy, etc.), the Catholic Church remains unmoved, not by virtue of her own strength, but by virtue of the grace of the Holy Spirit preserving the Church.
I understand the appeal of wanting to have it both ways — appeal to history but no responsibility for historical claims. But I had not heard that Rome’s authority extended to re-writing maxims that say you can’t.