Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Roman Catholics' Selective Use of Historical Majorities

Roman Catholics often argue for their doctrines by an appeal to popularity or with a claim that the doctrine has been held for two thousand years. The argument varies from Catholic to Catholic. One Catholic may appeal to the fact that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox agree on the doctrine in question, while another Catholic will go even further by arguing that the doctrine has been held throughout church history. This sort of argumentation will often be accompanied by criticism of Protestants for their alleged historical ignorance, disrespect of their forefathers, arrogance, blasphemy, etc. When a large number of Catholics are gathered together in an online forum, with few or no dissenting voices among them, this sort of discussion can keep escalating to higher and higher degrees of absurdity.

I want to address some of the issues involved in this sort of argumentation. The closer you look at the arguments, the less convincing they become.

What does agreement between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox prove? Both groups claim a succession from the apostles. But a succession of bishops, often maintained by different standards at different times in history, doesn't prove that all of the bishops in that line of succession have held the same beliefs. To the contrary, we have many examples of one contradicting another, even within a single line of succession. There are many contradictions among the bishops of Rome, for example. And Catholicism and Orthodoxy aren't the only groups that claim a succession. Apostolic succession has been defined in different ways at different times in history, and we don't have good reason to believe that all Christians of the patristic era, for example, held to any of the modern concepts of apostolic succession. If the bishops of modern Catholicism and Orthodoxy agree about the veneration of images, for instance, that agreement doesn't prove that the bishops of the second or third century held the same view.

Some Catholics seem to realize that agreement between Catholicism and Orthodoxy isn't enough, so they make a claim about the doctrine being held throughout church history or at least from the time of the church fathers onward. How we ought to respond to this argument depends on the particular form it takes.

If a claim is going to be made about a doctrine's being held throughout church history, the apostolic Christians will have to be included. Biblical evidence will have to be addressed. Church history didn't begin after the apostles died.

If a Catholic wants to argue that the New Testament documents must be interpreted for us by some later entity, that claim will have to be demonstrated, not just asserted. Appeals to "the church", "tradition", etc. will have to take into account the fact that not all of the patristic sources commented on such subjects, as well as the fact that those who did comment gave different definitions of the terms in question. If a Catholic is going to accept only some of Irenaeus' comments about issues of the church, tradition, and authority, for example, while rejecting other elements of what Irenaeus said on these matters, then he needs to give us a verifiable standard by which he determines what to accept and what to reject. If they're going to say that we can accept a particular element of Irenaeus' view because a lot of other church fathers agreed with it, then they need to explain to us how such popularity proves correctness. If a lot of church fathers agreed about something that Catholics reject, does that patristic popularity prove correctness?

And what do Catholics mean when they claim that a doctrine has been held throughout church history? The church fathers held a variety of views of the eucharist, for example, including views that contradict Roman Catholicism. And although the perpetual virginity of Mary eventually became popular, it wasn't universal among the fathers. Even when the doctrine was widespread in the fourth century, we see many people still rejecting it. Basil of Caesarea commented that the view that Mary had other children after Jesus "was widely held and, though not accepted by himself, was not incompatible with orthodoxy" (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco, California: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978], p. 495). So, when Catholics refer to something like a presence of Christ in the eucharist or the perpetual virginity of Mary having always been held by the church, they can't appeal to universal agreement from the first century onward. Rather, it seems that what at least most Catholics have in mind is a majority opinion that arose sometime during the first few or first several centuries of church history. But does such a majority view prove the correctness of a doctrine? No, it doesn't.

And Catholics aren't consistent in appealing to such majorities. The veneration of images was so opposed by the ante-Nicene church fathers, that the conservative Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott would comment:

"Owing to the influence of the Old Testament prohibition of images, Christian veneration of images developed only after the victory of the Church over paganism. The Synod of Elvira (about 306) still prohibited figurative representations in the houses of God (Can. 36)." (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma [Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1974], p. 320)

If Protestants are historically ignorant, arrogant, disrespectful of their forefathers, etc. for disagreeing with popular belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary in the fifth century or popular belief in a presence of Christ in the eucharist among Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, for example, then should we conclude the same about Catholics when they disagree with the popular view of the veneration of images among the ante-Nicene fathers? Should we accuse them of committing "blasphemy" against "the body of Christ"? Should we accuse them of being "arrogant"?

What about the high view of scripture held by the fathers (see here, for example)? They often referred to Moses' authorship of the Pentateuch, Paul's authorship of the pastorals, a high view of the Bible's historicity, etc., concepts that are widely rejected in modern Catholicism, sometimes even among the current Pope and conservative Catholics. While the church fathers responded negatively to Porphyry's attempt to date the book of Daniel to the second century B.C., modern Catholic scholarship has hopped on the Porphyry bandwagon, and so have even some conservative Catholics. The historian Robert Wilken refers to Porphyry's arguments as "revolutionary" and "disturbing" to the Christians of his day (The Christians as the Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], p. 138). For today's Roman Catholics, on the other hand, Porphyry's arguments are acceptable and can be promoted at Catholic universities, in books bearing the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, etc.

What about the age of the earth, another issue many Catholics are willing to disagree with the church fathers about (see here and here)? The issue involves scripture interpretation and has theological implications (whether there was animal death before the fall, for example). The church fathers widely associated the age of the earth with eschatology. Should we criticize modern Catholics who advocate an old earth for their ignorance of history, disrespect toward their forefathers, arrogance, etc.?

Or what about prayers to the dead, a concept absent from and contradicted by the earliest fathers, including when they wrote entire treatises on the subject of prayer? What about the widespread patristic belief that Mary was a sinner? What about the opposition to the doctrine of the papacy among some of the ecumenical councils? Etc.

Any Catholic thinking through these issues will have to acknowledge that it's not enough to just refer to a doctrine being held by both Catholicism and Orthodoxy or to refer to the doctrine having been popular in some earlier era of church history. Because they know that such arguments aren't sufficient, some Catholics modify the arguments by adding qualifiers. They'll argue, for example, that the issue is whether a doctrine became popular under particular circumstances, such as with the approval of a Pope or an ecumenical council. But where does such a standard come from? How do you know what is and isn't an ecumenical council, and how do you know what authority it has, for example? When you ask Catholics questions like these, they resort to an appeal to popularity, ending the discussion, or doing something else that doesn't prove their case.

There's a lot of criticism these days of Protestants who take a grammatical-historical approach toward scripture and toward publicly verifying doctrinal claims. But the alternatives we're given, when any alternative is even offered, fail. Why should we abandon the grammatical-historical approach for some unverifiable, meandering, incoherent, selective appeal to historical majorities and vague references to "tradition", "the body of Christ", etc.? These critics of the grammatical-historical approach will use that approach on other matters, such as in trying to determine what a church father or Pope believed. If we're all in agreement about the reliability of the grammatical-historical approach in discerning what historical figures believed, then the ball is in the court of those who want us to go beyond that approach and accept some other method. So far, they've failed to come up with a coherent and verifiable alternative. When they come up with one, they should let us know. Until then, we'll go with what we have. And we aren't holding our breath while we wait for their alternative.