Sunday, October 23, 2005

Jonathan Prejean, Tertullian, and Roman Catholicism

In a recent blog entry, less than a day after discussing scripture with a Protestant (Paul Manata) on Steve Hays' blog, Jonathan Prejean wrote:

"The moral of the story for Catholics: it is pointless to dispute the Scriptures with those who don't even claim apostolic succession, including most prominently Protestants. To concede their authority to interpret Scripture is to yield more than they deserve."

Those familiar with Prejean's past behavior will know that this sort of inconsistency isn't new for him. He frequently claims to be finished interacting with Protestants, only to go on to interact further with them, sometimes later that same day. How many times now has Prejean "retired", only to come out of retirement, then retire again?

He also changes his mind a lot on other issues. On October 6, Prejean dismissed as "fundie hicks" all people who subscribe to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. In recent days, Biblical inerrancy has been the latest Heresy of the Month for which Prejean has been criticizing Protestants, with his usual references to how this latest Protestant heresy allegedly undermines the foundations of Christianity. Prejean advises people to not even have discussions with those who hold the Chicago view of inerrancy. He then goes on to appeal to the guidance of recent Popes on such issues. Some of Prejean's fellow Catholics hold a view of inerrancy similar to what Prejean is denouncing, and many Catholics, including Catholic leaders, carry on discussions with Protestants who hold a view of inerrancy like what Prejean is condemning. But, as Prejean tells us elsewhere, these Catholic leaders probably don't understand the issues as well as he does:

"As in the case of Nestorianism (with which is bears a disturbing resemblance if not identity), there are large numbers of Catholics and Orthodox Christians who do not seem to perceive that what conservative Evangelicals teach is a negation of the apostolic kerygma....Quite honestly, I’m not even sure if they [Popes and other Catholic and Orthodox leaders] are aware of the problem."

On October 11, just a few days after his October 6 blog entry quoted earlier, Prejean had changed his mind:

"On further reflection, I have another clarification on my preceding post, 'Fundie Hicks.' I suppose that technically, it isn't the affirmation of the Chicago Statement, but the affirmation of the Chicago Statement as a necessary condition of Scriptural truth that defines the fundamentalist mindset."

This past August, in a discussion on Greg Krehbiel's board, Prejean said the following about what position he'd take on the historicity of the Bible:

"I'm indifferent as between the two [an Evangelical view of Biblical inerrancy and Raymond Brown's view] as a theological principle, actually, although I think it more likely than not that there is historical truth in the Bible."

Clear as mud? It should be, since Prejean apparently doesn't want people to know what position he holds on some of these issues, and he frequently uses vague or incoherent language. He's repeatedly refused to make a case for Roman Catholicism. He frequently changes his arguments in the middle of a discussion. At one point, he'll say that the infallibility of the church is "axiomatic" for him, and he'll acknowledge that he doesn't have an argument for Catholicism, yet at another point he'll criticize Evangelicals for allegedly being fideistic and not supporting their beliefs with evidence. He'll demand that his opponent document scholars agreeing with his views while, in that same post, Prejean will himself make many claims without any attempt to document any support from scholarship. He tells us that we should interpret scripture allegorically because Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria did so, yet he acknowledges that he doesn't agree with all of the allegorical interpretations of those men, and when asked he doesn't give us any verifiable standard by which to determine how to arrive at the correct allegorical interpretation.

Anybody who has read Prejean's exchanges with Steve Hays and me this past summer, which led to Prejean's "retirement", will have seen many examples of Prejean's irrationality, inconsistency, and short temper. In a reply to me last month, in a post he titled "Lowering the boom on Boy Engwer", Prejean wrote (see my response here):

"You dishonest, conniving lowlives don't deserve any more of my time, and I refuse to give it to you."

Of course, this resolution to no longer respond to me came after Prejean had repeatedly broken prior resolutions. We'll see how long his latest resolution, posted just yesterday, lasts. Even when he doesn't respond directly to Protestants, he still looks for opportunities to respond to them indirectly by working in references to them in his blog entries or in posts in other forums. Prejean often comments on how little he's concerned about Protestants and how disreputable they are, yet he so often writes about them. Judging from the comments he continues to make in various forums, it seems that Prejean reads blogs like this one and Steve Hays' just about every day.

What Prejean's blog entry yesterday consists of is a quotation from Tertullian, followed by Prejean's comments quoted at the beginning of this post. Much of what Roman Catholicism teaches is absent in or contradicted by Tertullian, and I've repeatedly given Prejean examples of Tertullian and other church fathers contradicting his view of apostolic succession. In his discussion with me on Greg Krehbiel's board this past summer, Prejean argued that the church fathers always agreed with his view of apostolic succession. Then, when I gave some examples of the earliest fathers not agreeing with Prejean's view, he changed his argument to the claim that there was agreement among the fathers after Nicaea. And, no, he didn't document that claim either. Of course, these fathers, including the ones after Nicaea, made their comments in historical contexts significantly different from ours and with qualifiers that we never hear from the likes of Jonathan Prejean.

Was Tertullian a Roman Catholic? No. Did he define the terminology he has in common with Jonathan Prejean the same way that Jonathan Prejean does? No. Does Prejean add the same qualifiers that Tertullian added? No. Is our context radically different from Tertullian's context, writing about 100 years after the apostle John had died? Yes, it is.

This past August, I wrote a response to Prejean in which I gave examples of Tertullian contradicting him, including in the treatise of Tertullian that Prejean is now quoting. In other words, when Tertullian makes references to the church, tradition, the rule of faith, etc., he's not only defining his terms differently than Prejean, but even in a way that contradicts what Prejean believes.

Jonathan Prejean's denomination claims to be the one true church founded by Jesus and the apostles, and it claims to have maintained all apostolic traditions in unbroken succession throughout church history. Thus, under the Catholic view of church history, the church Tertullian refers to is supposed to be the Roman Catholic Church. I, on the other hand, don't suggest that Tertullian had been a member of my denomination. My view is that the church fathers held a large variety of doctrines and rules of faith, sometimes even being inconsistent with themselves. However, there is much in Tertullian that I agree with, and when we take more of his comments into account, we see that Prejean's quote is misleading.

What he quoted was chapters 15-19 in Tertullian's The Prescription Against Heretics. As you read through this treatise, if you have the claims of Catholicism in mind, one thing that should quickly come to your attention is that Tertullian doesn't argue as a modern Roman Catholic would. The editors of the Roberts and Donaldson translation of this treatise rightly ask why Tertullian doesn't say "Rome is the touchstone of dogma, and to its bishop we refer you." The church of Rome is mentioned in chapter 36, along with other churches, but the bishop of Rome isn't singled out, much less is he referred to as the foundation of orthodoxy, and the reasons mentioned for the Roman church's importance are non-papal. Modern Catholic apologists, like Jonathan Prejean, will dismiss this fact with a reference to development of doctrine or some other excuse, but it is significant that Tertullian says nothing of the foundational doctrine of Roman Catholicism.

And Tertullian contradicts some of the teachings of Catholicism in this treatise, such as the sinlessness of Mary. "For to the Son of God alone was it reserved to persevere to the last without sin." (3) Elsewhere, Tertullian describes some of the sins he thinks Mary committed (On the Flesh of Christ, 7).

Prejean quotes Tertullian referring to the rule of faith of the churches, but he doesn't quote Tertullian defining that rule of faith for us. Here, below, is Tertullian's definition. Notice the absence of the papacy, the veneration of images, prayers to the dead, the Assumption of Mary, etc.:

"Now, with regard to this rule of faith - that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend - it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen 'in diverse manners' by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; then having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics." (13)

There's nothing in Tertullian's description that Evangelicals reject. And he goes on to explain that the heretics he's writing against not only contradict such doctrines, but also accuse the apostles of teaching error (23). Evangelicals are not comparable to these heretics. To the contrary, since Evangelicals agree with this rule of faith Tertullian puts forward, Tertullian's assessment can be applied to them: "For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions." (19)

Tertullian did believe in a form of apostolic succession, but he defined it in a way that contradicts Jonathan Prejean's beliefs. Keep in mind that Tertullian was living just several decades after the death of the apostle John. Historical successions carried far more evidential weight during Tertullian's day than they do today. Yet, even living as early in church history as he did, Tertullian added qualifiers that Jonathan Prejean rejects. For Tertullian, historical successions are significant, but they aren't necessary. Bishops are proven by the faith rather than the faith being proven by bishops. He explains that the heretics would be refuted by their doctrines even if they had an apostolic succession. Tertullian tells us that we can test the churches by consulting scripture, a practice that Jonathan Prejean rejects and condemns:

"But what if a bishop, if a deacon, if a widow, if a virgin, if a doctor, if even a martyr, have fallen from the rule of faith, will heresies on that account appear to possess the truth? Do we prove the faith by the persons, or the persons by the faith?...We, however, are not permitted to cherish any object after our own will, nor yet to make choice of that which another has introduced of his private fancy. In the Lord's apostles we possess our authority; for even they did not of themselves choose to introduce anything, but faithfully delivered to the nations of mankind the doctrine which they had received from Christ. If, therefore, even 'an angel from heaven should preach any other gospel' than theirs, he would be called accursed by us....When, indeed, any man doubts about this, proof will be forthcoming, that we have in our possession that which was taught by Christ....But should they [the heretics] even effect the contrivance [of producing a list of bishops from the apostles], they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own diversity and contrariety, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man; because, as the apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory, so the apostolic men would not have inculcated teaching different from the apostles, unless they who received their instruction from the apostles went and preached in a contrary manner. To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine....Since this is the case, in order that the truth may be adjudged to belong to us, 'as many as walk according to the rule,' which the church has handed down from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God, the reason of our position is clear, when it determines that heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the Scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures. For as they are heretics, they cannot be true Christians, because it is not from Christ that they get that which they pursue of their own mere choice, and from the pursuit incur and admit the name of heretics. Thus, not being Christians, they have acquired no right to the Christian Scriptures...I hold sure title-deeds from the original owners themselves, to whom the estate belonged. I am the heir of the apostles....Now, what is there in our Scriptures which is contrary to us?" (3, 6, 9, 32, 37-38)

Jonathan Prejean has said in the past that we can't derive theological conclusions from scripture if we read it apart from the church's interpretation. But if Tertullian is using scripture to test the churches, and the Christian status of churches is a theological issue, then Tertullian is using the scriptures in a way that Prejean's line of reasoning would have to condemn. See also my response to Jonathan Prejean this past August, in which I give more examples of Tertullian disagreeing with Prejean.

Tertullian did believe that historical successions carried a lot of evidential significance, and he believed that the widespread acceptance of a doctrine was significant. These are old arguments that predate Tertullian and predate Christianity. Arguments from succession and popularity have been used by all sorts of groups in all sorts of contexts. Modern Roman Catholics do sometimes selectively appeal to similar arguments, but without the same qualifiers that Tertullian and other patristic sources added.

I don't know if Prejean will keep his latest commitment to not interact with Protestants. I don't know if he'll change his arguments again so as to avoid some of my criticisms in this article. Whatever he does on those matters, we can be sure that he'll continue to criticize Protestantism without making a case for Catholicism, since no such case is to be had.