You Gotta Exegete Someone

Reformed Protestants may be a tad hung up on Scripture, though it is supposed to be the very word of God. But if you begin to waffle on that canon notice how you begin to add to the authoritative texts.

For Roman Catholics, the doctrine of development has a hard time nurturing content with the Bible (even including the Apocrypha):

The deepest reason for the identity of Revelation in its ecclesial continuity is given in the hypostatic union, i.e., in the unity of the human and divine natures in the one divine person of Jesus Christ. The many words he spoke, revealing God’s plan to us through the medium of human language (cf. Joh 3:34; 6:68), are united in the hypostasis or person of the one Word that is God and has become flesh (cf. Joh 1:1, 14). The Word of God comes to us through the preaching of human beings (cf. 1 Thess 2:13); it is made present through human words, with their grammar and vocabulary. Therefore, it is possible and necessary to grow individually and communally in our understanding of the revelation that has been given to us once and for all in Christ. It is clear, then, that Catholic theology has always recognized the fact and necessity of the development of dogma. It is part of Christianity’s essence as the religion of the incarnate Word—the religion of God’s self-revelation in history—to affirm the identity of the doctrine of the faith along a continuous process by which the Church comes to an ever more differentiated conceptual comprehension of faith’s mysteries.

Make of that what you will about the potential problems of development but here you see an affirmation of continuity between the incarnation, divine revelation, and the ongoing revelation of divine truth in the doctrines of the church. Finding a distinction there between the prophets and apostles, and the teachings of the bishops and councils becomes fairly murky when the word incarnate, the word inscripturated, and the mystical body of Christ (the church) are all pieces of ongoing understanding of truth.

Unfortunately, it seems that Lutherans have a similar problem distinguishing between the apostles and the church’s theologians or pastors:

From a very practical standpoint, we have, as Lutheran pastors sworn to uphold the theology of the Book of Concord of 1580, also consequently, committed ourselves to the hermeneutic of reading the confessions we find in the Formula of Concord, and that is, if ever a question arises within the Lutheran church, the writings of Luther are to be consulted for the answer. In other words, the confessions understand themselves not to be so much a theology in and of themselves, but a summation of Luther’s theology:

“Since Dr. Luther is rightly to be regarded as the most eminent teacher of the churches which adhere to the Augsburg Confession and as the person whose entire doctrine in sum and content was comprehended in the articles of the aforementioned Augsburg Confession and delivered to Emperor Charles V, therefore the true meaning and intention of the Augsburg Confession cannot be derived more correctly or better from any other source than from Dr. Luther’s doctrinal and polemical writings.”[1]

Thus the confessions are not the bottom of a theological well from which Lutheran theologians thereafter would draw, but instead the confessions are the peak of the mountain, the mountain which is the theology of Martin Luther. But if that mountain remains unknown to us, how then are we to understand our task as pastors today in view of the Lutheran confessions?” (Paul Strawn, “Rediscovering the Theology of the Small Catechism, i.e. Martin Luther”)

Luther was great and is always edifying to read. But he did not approach salvation by following a great theologian, unless you consider (as some do) Paul the church’s first great theologian. Here, though, Paul had an advantage over Luther. He was infallible.


Today's Topic for the Epistemology Seminar

Mark Powell’s new book Papal Infallibility: A Protestant Evaluation of an Ecumenical Issue shows that the path from papal infallibility to epistemic certainty is hardly uniform or successful.

First, maximal infallibility:

[Henry Edward Cardinal] Manning’s maximal infallibility, which stressed the problems of private judgment in theological reflection, looked to the pope to decisively settle theological disputes and secure doctrinal unity. . . . However, Manning’s maximal infallibility is fraught with problems. His position is dependent on a strong foundationalism with unfeasibly high standards for knowledge that has been largely abandoned in contemporary epistemology. Rather than rescuing Manning from the problem of private judgment, maximal infallibility only continues his pursuit of epistemic certainty on an endless cycle. Infallible papal pronouncements must be properly identified, and then they too, like scripture and tradition, are subject to private interpretation. In this regard, papal pronouncements bring no more certainty than scripture and tradition do. (202-203)

Second, moderate infallibility:

[John Henry Cardinal] Newman’s moderate infallibility and his theory of doctrinal development were proposed to address many of the problems that result from maximal infallibility. The moderate position substantially limits the number of infallible papal pronouncements, and the theory of doctrinal development explains the lack of historical support for recent Catholic doctrines. Newman, though, shares many of Manning’s assumptions in epistemology. Like Manning, Newman is seeking epistemic certainty, and this certainty is required for religious claims to qualify as knowledge….

However, the complexity of Newman’s proposal subtly undermines the epistemic certainty he seeks. To avoid papal absolutism, Newman highlights the problem of identifying and interpreting infallible papal pronouncements. For Newman, the church as a whole has a part in adopting infallible papal pronouncements, and theologians in particular play a crucial role in interpreting infallible doctrines. While Newman recognizes the problem of past papal errors, some of which are quite inventive, in an attempt to preserve papal infallibility. When he considers the possibility of future papal errors, he employs a number of epistemic resources, primarily conscience, to counter these potential errors….

While the theology of doctrinal development worked in Newman’s favor for the doctrines he supported, it was also used against him by proponents of doctrines he opposed. Suddenly, Newman could no longer appeal to historical problems in contemporary doctrinal proposals since such doctrines could be legitimate doctrinal developments. Further, proponents of theological liberalism could appeal to doctrinal development to bypass historical beliefs like the Trinity and Chalcedonian christology. (203-204)

Third, minimal infallibility:

[Han’s] Kung’s minimal infallibility, which is actually a rejection of papal infallibility, refuses to engage in the epistemic practices of moderate infallibility. Kung does not call doctrinal change a doctrinal development, and he does not retain the term “infallibility” when he is in fact speaking of indefectibility. Kung admits historical problems in the doctrinal history of the Catholic Church without attempting to explain these problems away. And he is not interested in retaining the notion of religious certainty. . . .

The debate over Kung’s Infallible? An Inquiry demonstrates once again the inadequacy of doctrines of infallibility. In Infallbie? Kung gives the example of Humanae Vitae, which bans the use of artificial contraception, as an example of erroneous teaching of the Catholic magisterium that has the status of an infallible doctrine. Kung’s example, though, sparked a substantial debate over whether Humanae Vitae is indeed an infallbile exercise of either the extraordinary papal magisterium or the ordinary universal magisterium. The debate clearly shows the problem of identifying infallble doctrines by the foremost officials and theologians of the Catholic Church. Obviously, doctrines of infallibility have not brought the epistemic certainty first envisioned by Manning and even Newman. (206)

Powell’s conclusion is that with out infallibility, the pope “could still exercise primacy in the Catholic Church while exercising a different role of leadership in any potential ecumenical union, as the bishop of Rome did in the first millennium of the church’s existence.” (213)

Development of Loophole?

While Jason and the Callers continue to lay it on thick with the Protestantism-equals-individualism-and-anarchy-and-Roman-Catholicism-represents-everything-that-is-glorious-and-certain meme, the history of Roman Catholicism continues to yield considerations that render Jason and the Callers virtually gnostic in their quest for a visible church. Today’s stroll into things to which Jason and Callers don’t pay attention is John Henry Cardinal Newman, the Blessed John Henry Newman by the Callers’ reckoning.

It turns out that Newman was not so keen on Pius IX’s efforts to raise the stature and authority of the papacy. He gave the “audacity of the papacy” a whole new meaning. Look, for instance, at his comments on the Syllabus of Errors:

What does the word “Syllabus” mean? A collection; the French translation calls it a “Resumé;”—a Collection of what? I have already said, of propositions,—propositions which the Pope in his various Allocutions, Encyclicals, and like documents, since he has been Pope, has pronounced to be Errors. Who gathered the propositions out of these Papal documents, and put them together in one? We do not know; all we know is that, by the Pope’s command, this Collection of Errors was sent by his Foreign Minister to the Bishops. He, {277} Cardinal Antonelli, sent to them at the same time the Encyclical of December, 1864, which is a document of dogmatic authority. The Cardinal says, in his circular to them, that the Pope ordered him to do so. The Pope thought, he says, that perhaps the Bishops had not seen some of his Allocutions, and other authoritative letters and speeches of past years; in consequence the Pope had had the Errors which, at one time or other he had therein noted, brought together into one, and that for the use of the Bishops.

Such is the Syllabus and its object. There is not a word in it of the Pope’s own writing; there is nothing in it at all but the Erroneous Propositions themselves—that is, except the heading “A Syllabus, containing the principal Errors of our times, which are noted in the Consistorial Allocutions, in the Encyclicals, and in other Apostolical Letters of our most Holy Lord, Pope Pius IX.” There is one other addition—viz., after each Error a reference is given to the Allocution, Encyclical, or other document in which it is proscribed.

The Syllabus, then, is to be received with profound submission, as having been sent by the Pope’s authority to the Bishops of the world. It certainly comes to them with his indirect extrinsic sanction; but intrinsically, and viewed in itself, it is nothing more than a digest of certain Errors made by an anonymous writer. There would be nothing on the face of it, to show that the Pope had ever seen it, page by page, unless the “Imprimatur” implied in the Cardinal’s letter had been an evidence of this. It has no mark or seal put upon it which gives it a direct relation to the Pope. {278} Who is its author? Some select theologian or high official doubtless; can it be Cardinal Antonelli himself? No surely: anyhow it is not the Pope, and I do not see my way to accept it for what it is not. I do not speak as if I had any difficulty in recognizing and condemning the Errors which it catalogues, did the Pope himself bid me; but he has not as yet done so, and he cannot delegate his Magisterium to another. I wish with St. Jerome to “speak with the Successor of the Fisherman and the Disciple of the Cross.” I assent to that which the Pope propounds in faith and morals, but it must be he speaking officially, personally, and immediately, and not any one else, who has a hold over me. The Syllabus is not an official act, because it is not signed, for instance, with “Datum Romæ, Pius P.P. IX.,” or “sub annulo Piscatoris,” or in some other way; it is not a personal, for he does not address his Venerabiles Fratres,” or “Dilecto Filio,” or speak as “Pius Episcopus;” it is not an immediate, for it comes to the Bishops only through the Cardinal Minister of State.

Development of doctrine, indeed, with a splash of Jesuitical casuistry?

I am not competent to know what Newman was up against in England, nor do I know the workings of canon law regarding a Cardinal who dissents from his pope. I don’t have the right paradigm (even if I do have the right chromosomes). But Newman hardly seems like the model of conservative Roman Catholicism, even if he does serve as a model of Roman Catholic reasonableness in the face of the Vatican’s attempt to double-down on its supremacy. In fact, Ian Ker’s biography of Newman gives much more evidence that the Cardinal was hardly the font of conservatism that some contemporary Roman Catholics assert. Just after Vatican I, Newman was figuring out how to reconcile himself to the doctrine of infallibility. According to Ker:

Privately, [Newman] confided to Ambrose St John that he would not know what to say to anxious enquirers if the Pope did in fact take advantage of what was “a precedent and a suggestion to use his power without necessity, when ever he will, when not called on to do so.” He was so concerned, [Newman] admitted, at the danger of an attempt to extend the definition, that “we must hope, for one is obliged to hope it,that the Pope will be driven from Rome, and will not continue the Council, or that there will be another Pope.” (656)

Ker adds that Newman’s hope was that things would get so bad they could not get any worse. In Newman’s own words:

We have come to the climax of tyranny. It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years. It is anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contract him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it. For years years past my only consolation personally has been in our Lord’s Presence in the Tabernacle. I turn from the sternness of external authority to Him who can immeasurably compensate trials which after all are not real. . . (659)

Some have tried to explain Newman’s views, though Jason and the Callers are not among them. It does make you wonder if the development of doctrine notion is really a way to explain away aspects of papal teaching that converts find troubling (a version of Protestantism within the Roman Catholic fold). It also raises questions about whether Newman really is a model for Protestant converts to Rome since you don’t find any of Newman’s reservations about the papacy among the Callers. And then we have the matter of Protestant “interpretation” and Roman Catholic “reception” of infallible teaching. If Jason and the Callers followed Newman’s example, they might be questioning the magisterium as much as Cumberland Presbyterians dissent from the Westminster Assembly.

Canonical Deism

Further discussion of Protestant conversions to Rome and Jason Stellman’s views over at Green Baggins have set me thinking about a curious feature of the Called To Communion paradigm (how do you like them apples?). Jason is trying to give a biblical account for Bryan Cross’ understanding of agape and he has challenged Reformed Protestants to show where Calvinism’s idea of imputation is found in the gospels or Christ’s own teaching. His point is that if Paul’s teaching on justification were so basic, you’d expect to see it in the accounts of Christ’s teaching and ministry.

My counter to this is that if Paul’s teaching is consistent with Christ’s, then Paul’s views of justification may very well be what he learned from Christ. Doctrinal development being what it is, you surely wouldn’t want to imply that Paul was making this stuff up. Jason says he’s not positing a red-letter edition of the Bible, or Jesus against Paul, but the tensions are there in his view. He can read Jesus through the lens of Paul or he can read Paul through the lens of Jesus. (Or you try to harmonize.)

Either way, this discussion has made me wonder if CTCers are guilty of their own form of deism. According to Cross’ idea of ecclesiastical deism, Protestants have no way to explain convincingly how the true church popped up after 1,000 years. So to counter the Protestant and Mormon view of church history, he doubles down and insists that the church was there all along. And to do this, CTCers put great emphasis on the early church fathers as a body of teaching that reflects what the apostles handed down to the church from Christ. Hence the continuity, authority, and infallibility of Rome’s teaching in the CTC paradigm.

But there is a gap here that is quite startling when you think about it. Consider three important Roman Catholics beliefs, the primacy of Peter, the status of the virgin Mary, and the authority of the papacy. You may be able to find biblical support for these in the gospels. But where do you find in Acts or the epistles a stress upon Peter, belief in the import of Mary, or signs of the bishop of Rome? The New Testament after the gospels is virtually silent on these matters.

So how do CTCer’s account for the gap between Christ and the Early Church Fathers? Do they suffer from a deism of their own? Did the Early Church Fathers all of a sudden pop up with the teachings found in the gospels after the New Testament epistle writers neglected them? Of course, CTCers will deny any gap exists. But two can play this game.