Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
Defending the sufficiency of Scripture, part 3

Continued from part 2 « This is the final part of my response to the first letter in this correspondence, although further responses may be forthcoming as the correspondence continues. My Catholic apologist writes— Tradition is not about handing on a lot of teachings that are totally different to the teachings found in the Bible. […]

Continued from part 2 «

This is the final part of my response to the first letter in this correspondence, although further responses may be forthcoming as the correspondence continues. My Catholic apologist writes—

Tradition is not about handing on a lot of teachings that are totally different to the teachings found in the Bible. Tradition is the handing on of the teachings of the Bible, interpreted correctly through the ages by the authority set up by Christ – the popes and those bishops in union with him. The history of Protestantism shows what happens when Tradition is ditched and only the Bible, individually interpreted, is followed: a huge multiplicity of denominations (of which the one to which you belong is a splinter of an offshoot of a branch from a branch from the trunk, which is the Catholic Church) which teach contradictory doctrines regarding the value of the Atonement, the nature of baptism, the symbolic or real nature of the Eucharist, how salvation is obtained and if it can be lost, etc. etc.

I reply in three parts:

The epistemological suicide of tradition

I know that you are referring to tradition in the specific context of scriptural interpretation, but it must be pointed out that, broadly speaking, the state of Catholic tradition today does make it “about handing on a lot of teachings that are totally different to the teachings found in the Bible.” I am not speaking pedantically here about the way in which tradition teaches wrong things about topics which are found in the Bible, such as the sufficiency of Scripture, or the means of salvation. I am speaking, rather, of the way in which tradition teaches all sorts of things which are literally not to be found anywhere in Scripture at all. I made reference, in my previous response, to the Marian dogmas. These simply are not found in Scripture; there is not even the hint of them. There is no disputing this, and Catholic apologists do not actually try to deduce these dogmas from the Bible, because they recognize that it is impossible. Rather, they try to show that the dogmas and Scripture are congruent with one another. In other words, they seek not to show the explicit agreement of tradition and Scripture, but merely that there is no explicit disagreement. Even in this, I maintain that they fail—but that is a topic for another time.

Similarly, the doctrines of purgatory, of praying for and to the dead, of indulgences, of papal infallibility, and so on, are not found in Scripture. I do not mean that they are merely not stated explicitly, but rather that they cannot even be deduced by good and necessary consequence from scriptural propositions. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is deducible from Scripture even though it is not stated explicitly. But I am referring to doctrines which literally are not found in Scripture at all. There are plenty of these in Catholic Tradition. As cardinal Joseph Ratzinger put it, some time prior to becoming pope, “no one is seriously able to maintain that there is a proof in Scripture for every catholic doctrine” (‘The Transmission of Divine Revelation’, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol 3, p 195 (Herder and Herder, 1969); cited from James Swan, ‘Material Sufficiency and Joseph Ratzinger’).

However, regarding the more specific kind of tradition you have in mind here—the tradition which “is the handing on of the teachings of the Bible, interpreted correctly through the ages by the authority set up by Christ – the popes and those bishops in union with him”—there are other comments which must be made. For one thing, how do you know that tradition constitutes the correct interpretation of Scripture, passed on over time? Not from Scripture, it would appear; rather, from tradition itself. Thus we again run into the epistemic priority problem, where the authority of tradition must be presupposed logically prior to the authority of Scripture. This is summed up quite aptly in your assertion that Scripture is a part of tradition.

Returning to 2 Timothy 3:16, the problem with this view is not merely epistemological, in that tradition, rather than Scripture, must be presupposed as a first principle (although this is a problem also)—but also metaphysical. 2 Timothy 3:16 say that all graphe, the written Scripture, is theopneustos: breathed out by God. That is, Scripture is the word of God. That being the case, Scripture is the highest authority possible: it is the most authoritative source regarding any topic on which it speaks. Your view, however, makes tradition the actual voice of Scripture, and thus at least equally authoritative with it. Logically, then, tradition must be theopneustos as well.

However, when we look at the actual state of tradition, we do not find any evidence of it being God-breathed. It is, largely, highly heterogeneous, with a great many able theologians believing various and contradictory things on all manner of doctrines, even from the earliest times. The only parts of tradition which are at least superficially homogeneous would seem to be the councils and perhaps some encyclicals and bulls. But here we run into a problem. Even if I grant you that the decrees of councils and popes may be theopneustos, can you name for me which ones are, and which ones aren’t? If you cannot, then how can you have any confidence that what you believe is indeed the infallible interpretation of the Church; rather than merely a fallible and possibly errant one? When you turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for guidance and education, do you have confidence that this Catechism is infallible? Is it breathed out by God? If it is not, then how can you be certain that there are not errors in it; perhaps serious ones? And if you cannot be certain that there are no errors, then how could you be sure that what you are reading it accurate, if not by comparing it to Scripture?

There is also another problem that you face. Assuming for a moment that the Church’s teachings are infallible; assuming that they are required to correctly understand Scripture; what this basically means is that tradition adds additional contextual information to Scripture. When we read 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the plain meaning of the text in the Greek is that Scripture itself is sufficient as a rule of faith. However, this is because we have insufficient context. When the additional contextual information of tradition is added, the true meaning of the passage becomes clear (whatever it may be). Note that this contextual information need not be immediate, in the sense of adding historical or grammatical data to the passage, which we would otherwise not know. It may instead be remote, in the sense of adding additional presuppositional data which is not otherwise available, but which alters the meaning of the text.

This being the case, it must be asked how your epistemic position is better than mine. It is more complex, certainly, because you must take tradition into account when exegeting any given passage (since most passages in the Bible are not infallibly interpreted by the Church). But this simply means that there is an additional way in which you can err. Not only must you understand the passage correctly so as to exegete its full meaning, but you must also understand tradition correctly. But what confidence can you have that you are understanding either? You have already made it clear that you consider Scripture to be non-perspicuous; that is, it cannot be adequately interpreted without the teaching authority of the church. So presumably no Christian layperson is qualified to interpret Scripture directly. They require tradition to assist them. But then, how do you know that Christian laypeople are qualified to interpret tradition itself, so as to interpret Scripture? Is tradition more perspicuous than Scripture, which is breathed out by God himself and is therefore a perfect reflection of his own mind? That seems a very remarkable statement to make.

So it would appear that you are not qualified to be telling me what a given passage of Scripture does or does not mean—but even worse, you are not qualified to be telling me what a given teaching of the Church does or does not mean either. Only the teaching authority of the Church may do that. For how do you know that you are infallibly interpreting the Church’s infallible interpretation? Who will infallibly interpret it to you? But then who will infallibly interpret the infallible interpretation to you? And who will infallibly interpret the infallible interpretation of the infallible interpretation to you? Perhaps this is why Pope Alexander IV decreed that laypersons are not to engage heretics in debate? I gather you have your own private interpretation of this decree, since you are engaging me, and I am certainly a heretic.

Even more troublingly for you, though, is that if you cannot know you are correctly interpreting Church tradition, then you also cannot be sure that the conclusion you have drawn about me being unable to interpret Scripture privately, apart from Tradition, is correct. Even if you were told directly by one of the Church’s teaching authorities, it would appear you are in no better a situation to be sure you are interpreting their words correctly than if they were written down in a bull or encyclical by the pope himself. And certainly, I might not be interpreting your words (or theirs) correctly either. We might both misunderstand the actual teaching of the Church, yet in two entirely different ways. This is absurd. This sort of skepticism should only be found in unbelieving worldviews. By denying the perspicuity of Scripture, which is God’s communication to us, you are starting an epistemic cascade that logically plummets into a denial of our ability to communicate whatsoever.

The unbiblical structure of the Catholic Church

Now, let me put these concerns aside for a minute, so as to consider your comment that “Tradition is the handing on of the teachings of the Bible, interpreted correctly through the ages by the authority set up by Christ the popes and those bishops in union with him.” Ignoring the fact that Christ’s setting up of such an authority structure is by no means explicit in Scripture, but rather is only present in the tradition which claims said authority (which is therefore rather unconvincing), the fact is that the structure of church government revealed in the New Testament is entirely at odds with the notion of bishops and popes.

In the New Testament churches, we see that the term bishop or overseer (episkopos) is used along with elder (presbuteros), to refer to the same people, but depending on the function in view. In Acts 20:17, for example, Paul calls together the elders (presbuteros) of the church at Ephesus; then, in his address to them, he exhorts, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos].” Similarly, 1 Peter 5:1-2 speaks of elders, among whom Peter counts himself, exercising oversight (episkopeo) of the flock. And Paul instructs Timothy regarding the qualifications for overseers, and of their ministers or servants, the deacons (1 Tim 3:1-13). He does not reference a third office apart from them, of presbuteros, but in fact explicitly indicates that presbuteros and episkopos are one and the same when writing similar instructions to Titus:

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach (Titus 1:5-7).

This raises yet another point at which the structure of Catholic clergies is at odds with Scripture: not only do you have the additional office of priest, apart from the overseer or bishop, but you have one bishop to several churches, instead of several bishops to one church! Notice how in the New Testament we always see a plurality of overseers within each church. In addition to the passages already cited, I would draw to your attention the following others:

Why, then, does the Catholic Church have such a very different structure—a structure, in fact, not merely different (as if it had evolved out of the biblical one), but really contradictory to that which the apostles themselves instituted? The obvious answer is that the Catholic Church is not apostolic; though perhaps I should not be too harsh—the structure of the church seems to have become distorted into quite a dubious shape from very early on, starting perhaps in the second century even. But this merely goes to show that historicity does not imply authenticity. If such an obvious error could enter the church so soon after its inception, it seems hardly surprising that such vastly more obvious ones should have been built on top of it.

A final question which occurs to me is why, if “an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,” Catholic bishops (and priests) must be unmarried. It makes little difference to the situation if we assume from the context that Paul is not making a positive statement in favor of marriage itself, but rather is making a negative statement about any elder who is married—that he must be “a man of one woman”, as the Greek puts it, rather than polygamous. Even if this is so, which seems remarkable since we can hardly imagine Paul permitting any convert to continue to live a polygamous lifestyle, it remains that he explicitly mentions marriage as at least being an option for elders of the church. Probably a good option; more desirable than not. Yet the Catholic Church forbids its elders to marry. In these very significant ways, then, the Catholic Church is thoroughly unapostolic in its structure; it is, in fact, anti-apostolic. If Christ did indeed institute an authority on earth which was to last “through the ages”, it certainly cannot be the Catholic Church, because it does not remotely resemble or follow the structure of authority which he instituted.

The alleged chaos of Protestantism

Lastly, you speak of a “huge multiplicity” of denominations, of which the one to which I belong is “a splinter of an offshoot of a branch from a branch from the trunk, which is the Catholic Church.” Let’s work backwards. If the trunk is the Catholic Church, the branch would be the Church of England, which officially separated from Rome in 1534. If I am charitable and don’t jump immediately from there to the Particular Baptists, we could say that the next branch would be the early English Baptists. They, of course, wanted to reform the Church of England from within, but since they were thwarted by the political goals of Henry VIII, and could not in good conscience remain in a church which taught what were perceptible falsehoods, they chose to suffer persecution by separating themselves from it. The Baptists then became involved in what seems to have been a relatively amicable but nonetheless serious dispute around soteriology. They therefore separated into the Particular and the General Baptists. As you will see from the articles I have posted recently on my blog, there are firm arguments against the General Baptist position—but since the rule of individual conscience was recognized as extremely important, and since the dispute was irresolvable, they went their separate ways. The Particular Baptists formulated a confession of faith which we know as the 1689 London Baptist Confession (although it was never published in 1689), and it is to this confession that both my church and myself adhere.

So, at worst, the denomination to which I belong (although, really, denomination is not an accurate description) is I an offshoot of a branch of a branch from the trunk. But since this idea of a “trunk” presupposes a healthy, solid growth, and since I have already shown that the Catholic Church can by no means be described in such a manner, your analogy is a bad one. A better metaphor might be that the Catholic Church, having become hardened and petrified, dropped a seed which germinated into the Church of England, which in turn dropped a seed which germinated into the Baptist churches, of which my church is a branch (albeit a small one!)

Be that as it may, it should be obvious—yet I feel compelled to point it out—that this idea of multiplicity and separation that is so criticized is actually precisely the same principle that the Catholic Church uses all the time. When there is disagreement within a Protestant church, ultimately the parties either must find a way to reconcile their differences, or separate. The same thing happens in the Catholic Church. The only difference is that, in Protestant circles, the separation does not necessarily involve excommunication (since we have this important doctrine of freedom of conscience), and the original party does not claim to be the one true infallible church and thus make everyone else the separatists. Protestants are not as swift to say, “You are anathema because you disagree on such-and-such a doctrine!” And that is because we do not claim centuries of inerrant tradition and apostolic succession—for reasons I have already in part elucidated.

Besides this, you really are in no better a situation yourself. In Australia, only about 15% of people who call themselves Catholics even attend church. Of this weak number of church-goers, fewer than 80% believe in the virgin birth, well over one in five don’t believe in transubstantiation, and about half to one-fifth of them (depending on age) are not Christians by any measure of the word, denying the Trinity! In the survey I am referencing, ‘Catholic beliefs and practices: the challenge ahead for Australia’, “In regard to premarital sex, only 20 per cent of Mass attending 15-17-year-olds considered this to be always morally wrong, 27 per cent of 18-24-year-olds thought so, and this rose to 65 per cent for those over 56″—leaving still 35% who thought it was morally right. And as regards murdering babies in the womb, between a third and two-thirds of the congregations, by age, had no problem with it. So it is not as if the Catholic Church is genuinely united in doctrine, if you consider all these people to be Catholics, as I believe you do since they have been baptized and even attend Mass. It is merely that vast numbers of its members don’t openly disagree with the establishment.

If the Catholic Church really is the trunk of which you speak, then it is doing a lousy job of keeping its bark on. On the other hand, if one does not presuppose that it is, and if one evaluates its teachings in light of both the clear teachings of Scripture, and certain logically necessary facts about reality (I have done both in the past, both to you and on my blog), then it simply appears to be another cult making grandiose claims about itself. If we work according to the assumption that communication is possible, and that words have meaning; and therefore assume that God’s word is indeed comprehensible to us apart from “infallible interpretation”; it is clear which is the case.

Continued in part 4 »

1 comment

  1. orthodox

    Bnonn: “Similarly, the doctrines of purgatory, of praying for and to the dead, of indulgences, of papal infallibility, and so on, are not found in Scripture. I do not mean that they are merely not stated explicitly, but rather that they cannot even be deduced by good and necessary consequence from scriptural propositions. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is deducible from Scripture even though it is not stated explicitly.”

    O: How are we defining deducible here? While one might deduce the doctrine of the trinity from scripture, many have deduced completely different doctrines from the same data. And people have deduced from scripture that one may pray for and to the dead. Certainly those deductions are contestable from scripture alone, but so has the trinity.

    Bnonn: “For one thing, how do you know that tradition constitutes the correct interpretation of Scripture, passed on over time? Not from Scripture, it would appear; rather, from tradition itself. Thus we again run into the epistemic priority problem, where the authority of tradition must be presupposed logically prior to the authority of Scripture. This is summed up quite aptly in your assertion that Scripture is a part of tradition.”

    O: Yes, scripture is a part of tradition. So haven’t you quoted your own refutation? What does trying to find priorities within the body of tradition prove?

    And who says that scripture doesn’t tell us that tradition holds the correct interpretations? Those holding to tradition don’t think that’s the case.

    Bnonn: “However, when we look at the actual state of tradition, we do not find any evidence of it being God-breathed. It is, largely, highly heterogeneous, with a great many able theologians believing various and contradictory things on all manner of doctrines, even from the earliest times.”

    O: But the opinion of individual theologians is NOT tradition. So congratulations on burning a straw man.

    And what of the “actual state of scripture”? From an objective point of view, no two churches agree on what the scriptures are. By the same criteria as you judge tradition, scripture looks bad as well.

    If you want to say only the true scriptures should be so judged (where true presumably is the ones YOU agree are scripture), I guess we can say only the true traditions should be so judged.

    Bnonn: Even if I grant you that the decrees of councils and popes may be theopneustos, can you name for me which ones are, and which ones aren’t? If you cannot, then how can you have any confidence that what you believe is indeed the infallible interpretation of the Church; rather than merely a fallible and possibly errant one?

    O: We await your infallible proof that Esther is God-breathed scriptures.

    Bnonn: “Not only must you understand the passage correctly so as to exegete its full meaning, but you must also understand tradition correctly. But what confidence can you have that you are understanding either”.

    O: Your epistemological navel gazing has blinded you to the obvious. What is clearer: that the bible teaches infant baptism (or believer baptism, if that is your bent) or that the tradition of the catholic or orthodox church teaches infant baptism? Any objective judge knows it is the latter.

    Bnonn: “You have already made it clear that you consider Scripture to be non-perspicuous; that is, it cannot be adequately interpreted without the teaching authority of the church.”

    O: No, it can’t be interpreted outside of the cultural context of the community in which it was born, i.e. the church. You should not be surprised, this is quite typical for documents written for particular communities. Go to any internet forum or community discussing a specialised area of interest and you will find the same thing.

    Bnonn: “So presumably no Christian layperson is qualified to interpret Scripture directly. “

    O: False conclusion.

    Bnonn: “Even if you were told directly by one of the Church’s teaching authorities, it would appear you are in no better a situation to be sure you are interpreting their words correctly”.

    O: A nonsense argument. The reason for problems interpreting scripture is that the apostles did not anticipate what confusions would arise. The reason tradition is clearer is that it is the result of the church (a) passing on things that the apostles didn’t explicitly think to write down and (b) sorting out in the life of the church any other likely confusions.

    The only time your complaint would be valid is if you think up a brand new problem that no-one thought of before.

    Bnonn: “In the New Testament churches, we see that the term bishop or overseer (episkopos) is used along with elder (presbuteros), to refer to the same people, but depending on the function in view.”

    O: All you have shown is the terminology employed in the NT church. You haven’t shown anything about the actual structure of the NT church. That the terminology evolved, doesn’t show that the structure evolved.

    If we look to the actual structure, we can see evidence of a different picture. That James was the sole bishop of Jerusalem for example is generally acknowledged. That Timothy was asked by Paul to appoint elders in every city also makes him look more like a bishop than just one of the gang of elders.

    Bnonn: “Similarly, 1 Peter 5:1-2 speaks of elders, among whom Peter counts himself”

    O: Right, but because Peter calls himself an elder, you would hardly argue that Peter’s authority was equal to all the other elders would you? You just refuted yourself.

    Bnonn: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you”

    O: Great, you just refuted yourself. A super-elder called Timothy appoints other elders. That the terminology became refined, doesn’t refute the existance of the super-elder.

    Bnonn: “you have one bishop to several churches, instead of several bishops to one church!”

    O: You just refuted yourself with super-elder Timothy appointing elders in multiple churches.

    From Ignatius writing around the end of the 1st to beginning of the 2nd century, the church has always taught having a head bishop. There is no clear evidence from antiquity that any church ever had it any other way.

    Bnonn: “Apparently, they were supposed to read and understand it by themselves.”

    O: And I’m sure they could understand the surface meaning by itself. But were they all as individuals able to therefore enunciate the doctrine of the trinity from it?

    Bnonn: If the laity is expected by Paul to understand his letters, I wonder why a similar expectation is not held today by those who claim to have succeeded him.

    O: The laity can understand it on the basic level. But can every individual understand it at the level that they can differentiate which sect of protestantism teaches the true doctrine? Obviously not or we wouldn’t have multiple sects of protestantism. Protestantism is its own refutation.

    Bnonn: “A final question which occurs to me is why, if “an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,” Catholic bishops (and priests) must be unmarried.”

    O: Correction: only priests in the latin rites are generally unmarried.

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