Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Unsound Sticks, or Arguments Catholics shouldn't use

(original post found here)

The following is a list of arguments against Protestantism which, in our judgment, Catholics should not use, either because they are not true, or because, while they might be true, it is impossible to prove that they are, for a plausible alternative explanation of the data exists. This is certainly not a complete list: it is merely one missive fired for intellectual honesty. Neither is it an infallible list: it is possible that one or more of these arguments might be saved.

1. Do not allege that there are 33,000 Protestant denominations. This tally comes from the 2001 World Christian Encyclopedia, and it includes all denominations and paradenominations which self-identify as Christian, including Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Old Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Gnostics, Bogomils, etc. And even so, the number is too high. The World Christian Encyclopedia artificially inflates the number of Catholic "denominations" by counting Eastern Churches in communion with Rome as separate denominations. It likewise inflates the number of Eastern Orthodox "denominations" by counting Churches in communion with each other as distinct.

This reference lists 8,973 denominations under the heading "Protestant," and 22,146 more under the heading "Independent." Some, but not all, of the "independent" denominations may justly be described as Protestant. Still, these numbers may be inflated similarly to the numbers for Catholics and Orthodox. Suffice it to say that there are thousands of Protestant denominations.

Moreover, even if we could arrive at an accurate tally for Protestant denominations (20,000?), we still could not blame the whole of that number on Sola Scriptura. Some of these churches share substantial unity in faith, even if they are juridically independent (perhaps due to geography). And much of the disunity of faith within Protestantism, at least in the developed world, stems from efforts to subordinate the authority of Scripture (e.g., to various sexual perversions). In reality, if every Protestant denomination were serious and consistent in affirming and applying the rule of Sola Scriptura, the spectrum of Protestant belief would be significantly narrower. It bears emphasizing: the only thing for which we can directly blame Sola Scriptura is the extent to which it fails to provide unity in true faith and morals to those who sincerely adhere to it, e.g., "orthodox" Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Campbellites, etc.

2. Avoid the term "anti-Catholic." The term is ill-defined. If it refers to a form of bigotry or prejudice then it could only be applied to individual Protestants (or other non-Catholics) on a case by case basis, and that only after they had exhibited a demonstrable pattern of bad faith. If, on the other hand, it refers to theological opposition to Catholicism, then it ought not to be used as a term of disdain. For Catholics are theologically opposed to Protestantism. Indeed, according to Dominus Iesus, Protestant "churches" are not, properly speaking, churches. The distinctives of Protestant theology are heresy, and the Council of Trent has pronounced anathema upon them. If, then, Protestants who believe Catholicism to be heretical are anti-Catholic, by the same standard Catholics who believe Protestantism to be heretical are anti-Protestant.

3. Do not justify lack of charity by appealing to the example of St. Jerome. Not everything a saint does is necessarily worthy of emulation. St. Cyprian was insubordinate to the Pope. St. John Chrysostom said some indefensible things about Jews.

4. Do not exaggerate the inadequacy of Sola Scriptura, as if it were not possible to understand the Bible at all without the Magisterium. In reality, if one, without help from any external authority, gives the Bible a diligent, sincere, and attentive reading, it will be possible to achieve the right answer to a fair number of questions. Sola Scriptura is inadequate because it cannot give the Church definitive answers to every question which she needs answered in order to function as the Church. For example, it cannot give the Church a definitive answer regarding whether Christian marriage is dissoluble. On the other hand, the Bible is clear enough that the text alone suffices to tell the Church that homosexuality is evil, among other things. If one fails to recognize this then it will be impossible to come to terms with the patristic witness to the clarity of Scripture.

5. Do not insist that Protestants need to know, as a matter of faith, that Matthew wrote Matthew. According to the internal logic of their system, they do not. It suffices that the book of Matthew be inspired by God, regardless whether the traditional attribution is correct. As such, there is a limited value in asking Protestants the question, "How do you know that Matthew wrote Matthew?" If a particular Protestant does in fact accept the traditional authorship of Matthew, one might ask him on what basis he does so. If he replies that he does so on the basis of the patristic testimony, this can be an opportunity to expose any double standards he might hold as to the reliability of the patristic testimony at large. Nevertheless, it is fallacious to argue that, since Protestants need to know that Matthew wrote Matthew, and since Sola Scriptura cannot provide that knowledge to them, therefore Sola Scriptura is false.

6. Do not think that it suffices, for falsifying Sola Scriptura, to demonstrate that inspired oral Apostolic Tradition existed during the Apostolic era (2 Thess 2:15, etc.). Protestants grant this. One must proceed to demonstrate the perduring presence of this Tradition within the Church throughout all ages. Or at least, one must justify laying the burden of proof on Protestants to demonstrate that all oral Apostolic Tradition was eventually inscripturated.

7. Do not argue that since St. Paul knew that the magicians who opposed Moses were named Jannes and Jambres (2 Tim 3:8), these names must have been preserved in the old covenant equivalent of Apostolic Tradition. According to the Catholic dogma of the inspiration of Scripture, God furnished the sacred authors with an infallible judgment in evaluating the truth of non-inspired and hence fallible historical records (Pius XII, Humani Generis, 38). As such, judging by the standard of Catholic theology (which conservative Protestants share on this point), it is possible that St. Paul learned these names from ordinary human historical records, and not from Jewish Sacred Tradition. To establish the presence of Sacred Tradition within the old covenant a Catholic must look elsewhere (e.g., 2 Chron 29:2).

8. Do not cite 2 Peter 1:20-21 against the Protestant principle of private interpretation of Scripture. St. Peter explains, in the preceding verses, that the Apostles did not invent their claims about the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, but saw it first hand when He revealed it to them in the Transfiguration. He then exhorts his readers to heed the "prophetic word." He continues, "No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men borne by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." In context, the "interpretation" which St. Peter refers to is on the part of the prophet, not the reader. That is, St. Peter's point is that no prophet made up his own prophecies. The prophets spoke what they received from God to speak, just as the Apostles spoke what they received from God to speak on Mount Tabor. Hence, their words rest on divine and not human authority.

9. Never attack the textual integrity of the Bible. The manuscript tradition is sufficiently robust that it is possible to reconstruct, to a moral certainty, the original reading of the vast majority of the New Testament. Instances where the original text is indeterminate, although they are significant, are far between and are not determinative of any major theological debate.

10. Never compromise biblical inerrancy in order to score points against Protestantism. For instance, Protestants will often allege that the books of Maccabees cannot be inspired Scripture because they contain contradictory accounts of the death of Antiochus Epiphanes. And unfortunately, sometimes Catholics, instead of defending the books of Maccabees by harmonizing their data, will retort that by that standard the books of Samuel and Chronicles cannot be inspired Scripture either since they contain contradictory accounts of the death of Saul. This defense is thoroughly inadmissible: it invalidates the authentic Catholic standard regarding the necessary characteristics of Scripture (one of which is inerrancy) just as well as Protestant standard.

11. Do not jump to James 2:24 in order to counter every Protestant proof-text for justification by faith alone. Given that Catholic theology is true, it ought to be able to account for every text of Scripture on its own terms and in its own context. Hence, there is no escaping the duty to do exegesis, even of, especially of, Romans. It will not satisfy any Protestant to object to his proof-text that "it can't mean that because then it would contradict this other passage over here." The Protestant will have his own understanding of that other passage over there as well. Again, there is no escaping the duty to read the Protestant proof-texts closely and carefully and to furnish justified interpretations which are consistent with Catholic dogma.

12. Do not descend into arguments over whether we should give priority to Jesus or St. Paul as our teacher of the doctrine of justification. Granted, some Protestants err in claiming that Jesus left it to St. Paul to teach the Church the theology of salvation. However, it is no sound rebuttal, but simply the photographic negative of the Protestant error, to boast that Catholics give primacy to the Gospels.

13. If you wish to cite Acts 7:51 against the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace, be forewarned that there exists a cogent rebuttal. St. Stephen tells the Sanhedrin, "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose [Gk., antipiptete] the Holy Spirit." Literally, they fall against, meaning they fight against or oppose, the work of the Holy Spirit. Those who quote this passage against the doctrine of irresistible grace assume that this means they are resisting and hence rendering ineffectual that which the Holy Spirit is trying to work in their own souls. I.e., the Holy Spirit is working on converting them, but they are resisting Him. However, in context this passage more probably means simply that they are fighting against and opposing the work which the Holy Spirit is accomplishing in others, by killing the prophets in attempts to silence the word which God is speaking through them and persecuting the saints who hear it. "Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute?" (Acts 7:52) The devil resists the Holy Spirit in the same sense.

14. Similarly, if you wish to cite Matthew 23:37 against the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace, be forewarned that there exists a cogent rebuttal. Jesus says, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!" Before one could validly apply this text against irresistible grace, one would have to prove the identity of the ones whom Jesus willed to gather together and the ones who would not. For if they are different people, then, as above, all this text means is that the wicked are opposed to God's saving action in others. And in fact, context indicates that they are different people. "Jerusalem" refers to the Jewish leadership, the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Matt 23:13, 31, 34-35), whereas "your children" refers to innocent Jews suffering underneath them.

15. Do not cite Ephesians 2:10 against justification by faith alone. This passage, even rightly interpreted, contains nothing inconsistent with Protestant theology. Having been saved by grace through faith, we ought to do the good works which God prepared beforehand for His children to do. This statement does not require that these good works should themselves be salvific, but is consistent with the supposition that these works are merely the necessary outgrowth of a salvation already completed. In order to establish that good works are salvific, the Catholic must look elsewhere.

16. Avoid making hay about Martin Luther adding the word "alone" to Romans 3:28. While the word is indeed absent from the Greek text, Luther was not the first to regard it as a justifiable gloss. That it is not in fact justifiable makes Luther's addition an exegetical error, but this is not the same thing as a blatant perversion.

17. Never ask, if a Protestant believes his salvation is eternally secure, what motivation he has to do good and avoid evil. The answer is obvious (and embarrassing to the Catholic who asked the question): the love of God. The love of God is sufficient motivation to pursue holiness with all vigor, absent any considerations of self interest. The most that a Catholic can argue in this respect is that Catholic theology, which furnishes men with both the baser motive of self interest and the loftier motive of the love of God, is superior in the practical order. For, in many cases, the baser motive will effectually turn a man from evil to good whereas the loftier motive, even though it should have, did not.

18. Do no otherwise than reference ancient documents for what they are. If a document is of probable authenticity (i.e., its author is probably the person it is attributed to), reference it as probably authentic. If it is of possible authenticity, reference it as possibly authentic. If it is spurious, reference it as spurious, and use it simply to document the beliefs of an anonymous ancient Christian author.

There are so many good arguments for Catholicism that the religion will do just fine without the arguments on this list.

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