Sunday, December 24, 2006

Jonathan Prejean's Strange Catholicism

Jonathan Prejean has once again entangled himself in a discussion he could not sustain, and so, backed into a corner (as usual), decided to backpedal, restate a new position as though he's always held it, and then cut and run (see here and here). A discussion then ensued in the comments section of the latter link. I originally posted a brief comment to some claims he made about his dialogue with me, and this caught the attention of Prejean, who responded to my comments. Here is a fuller response to his starnge catholicism. Prejean's recent comments will appear in red text, followed by my response in black text. All past dialogue with Prejean will appear in block quotes, with Prejean's comments in green:

“I'd have to be an idiot to advertise my own defeat”

Well, okay, we’ll go with that explanation then.

“If I were "desperately attempting to redeem myself," then I would be trying to provoke some sort of rematch, not simply repeating what I have been saying.”

Why would you try to provoke a rematch if you know you can’t win? The only option you have at this point is the same one that all RC apologists fall back on; simply repeat the same tired arguments over and over again, in the hope that by repeating them enough times they will eventually seem to be good arguments to your target audience. It’s a technique that has been used by RC apologists since the beginning.

“Which only shows that you and Hays both follow the same pattern: misinterpret me, make statements based on your misinterpretation, and then act as if I changed my mind when you got me wrong in the first place. The funny thing is that neither of you actually show from my words where I contradicted myself; you simply assume that I said what you interpreted me to have said.”

Is that a fact? Here’s what Prejean stated in one post in our past dialogue:
“To respond to Dr. Svendsen's query of 3/14/05, I refer to my post here, which clearly points out Svendsen's Christological errors (fundamentally based on the complete inability to make a distinction between person and nature, an error that was shared by Arius and Nestorius).”
Note here that Prejean does not say, “an error that was erroneously attributed to Nestorius.” He instead says, “an error that was shared by Arius and Nestorius.” Then, in a later post, after I corrected him on his understanding of what scholars believe about Nestorius, he wrote this:

“After having read Dr. Svendsen's first couple of forays into this area, I'm going to say a couple of things strictly in the interest of saving both his time and mine. Everybody with any familiarity in the relevant history knows that it is somewhat doubtful that Nestorius was Nestorian.”
Here's how I responded at that time:
“Which will it be, Mr. Prejean? Shall we proceed with the pop-apologetic understanding of the historical events that you undoubtedly possessed before I began posting my series; or with your new understanding of historical events which, forced by my citations of Brown, you quickly acquired when you scrambled to your patristic sources looking for contradictions to my position only to find it confirmed? I am not anxious to waste my time interacting with that kind of disingenuousness on your part; the kind that strongly and consistently asserts an erroneous position about the historical events, and ridicules and derides my comparatively accurate understanding of those events in the process, only to backpeddle once the evidence comes out and then pretends the issue was never about my understanding of events to begin with.”
Anyone interested in reading the full article can access it here:
“Why would I respond to a summary? The conclusions are nothing other than what you said before.”
Precisely because it is the summary, and precisely because it ties the series together and issues conclusions that reveal the thrust of the point of the series. Since you clearly got my intent for the series wrong, it would have helped you to understand what that intent was. Here again is what I concluded:
“It is my opinion that both councils attempted to explain the inexplicable and went far a field in their dogmatic pronouncements and attendant condemnations. No one can explain the unity of the person of Christ and the relationship between his natures beyond what the Scriptures affirm because it is inexplicable beyond what the Scriptures affirm. The most we can safely affirm is that Christ is both fully God and fully man. But the moment we attempt to explain just how those two statements fit together—or worse, to go beyond that and proclaim Mary as “mother of God” is some kind of ramification of all that, or that it acts as a test of orthodoxy—we end up in error. Why? Because at that point we end up abandoning discussion on the communication of attributes in Christ and start down the path of discussing the communication of attributes in Mary. As I stated in an earlier post in this series, the term theotokos, rightly understood as a Christological affirmation, is not objectionable in itself. It becomes objectionable in the hands of RC apologists who would use it to exalt Mary’s status over against the consistent testimony of the very Scriptures to which they purport to acquiesce in the concilliar definitions of Chalcedon and Ephesus about the person and natures of Christ. Indeed, they eagerly seek to defend the Cyrilline Apollinariani-Monophysite view of Christ’s person and natures from the Scriptures--not so they can uphold the deity of Christ, but as a pretext for finding a basis for exalting Mary by somehow proving from that fact that she’s the “mother of God.” I think that much is self-evident in their writings. But in so doing, they ignore the clear statements of Jesus that such a relationship—even if true—avails nothing. Indeed, I am convinced that they would, if they thought they could get away with it, happily throw out the qualifier of the councils that Mary is theotokos only “as regards his manhood,” and that “the difference of the natures [is] by no means removed because of the union, but the property of each nature [is] preserved and coalesced in one prosopon and one hupostasis,” and use the term in an unqualified way to exalt Mary instead of Christ. After all, that is the sense in which they use the term today, completely oblivious to the fact that the title has a historical context. So are Roman Catholic apologists wrong in their views? I believe so. Are they in Christological heresy on this point? If the councils are to act as our rule of faith, I don’t see any way around it [for the sake of clarification, this is only to the extent that they follow Cyril’s view—which most of them do; this point is affirmed by many scholars, including McGrath, Brown, Pelikan and Kelly]. But Scripture is much more forgiving on this point than are the councils. If Scripture is to act as our rule of faith, I don’t see how any view that affirms the full deity and full humanity of Christ as well as the unity of his person can be labeled as heretical given the fact no one knows exactly how the person and natures of Christ relate to each other, or even whether those categories are ones the biblical writers would deem legitimate in the first place. The councils use Platonic concepts and Aristotelian categories that are foreign to Scripture; and Scripture simply does not bother to elaborate on these things, no doubt because they are inexplicable to finite minds. Hence, my major complaint on this particular issue insofar as Roman Catholic apologists are concerned is not their Apollinari-Monophysite view of Christ; it is the application they think they can make to Mary.”
As any fair reader can see, the entire point of my series was to address Prejean’s implicit Marian agenda. His charge of Nestorianism was intended solely to bring us back in line with his cyrillene Mariolatry in the hope that we would be forced logically to grant Mary all the privileges Prejean perceives accompany the title “mother of God.” I cracked his foundation, and he has been struggling ever since to overcome that crack. As a result, he has gotten stuck in the mud of Ephesus rather than proceed to his hoped-for Marian ramifications.
I wrote: “Prejean has consistently refused to address this issue from a biblical standpoint.”
Prejean responded: “And quite proudly I might add. I reject your concept of Scriptural authority, so it would be thoroughly inconsistent of me to debate you on a ground I don't recognize.”
This is what is at the core of the issue. Prejean isn’t “proud” he in incapable of exegesis—he’s embarrassed by it. Notice what he’s forced to say here—he doesn’t recognize Scripture as an authority. Yet, at least on paper, Roman Catholicism has always recognized the primacy of Scripture; and it explicitly states that it is subject to and subservient to Scripture. And notice I have not asked Prejean to adopt sola Scriptura—I’m merely asking him whether his view is biblical. But for the sake of argument, let’s not grant Scripture any authority. Let’s just take it as a historical document, the same way we take the councils as historical documents. Let’s just see if we can determine what the writers of the New Testament have to say about Mary’s status and role. Is it Prejean’s view they share, or is it mine? I think the answer in obvious, and I think Prejean knows this very well—which is why he is terrified to venture into that arena. He knows he would be quickly cured of his Mariolatry.
“You call it "speculative" sophistry; Sts. Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril, and Thomas Aquinas would have called it exegesis.”
Augustine called your cyrillene concept of the incarnation vis-à-vis Mary’s status “exegesis”? Where? Irenaeus called your cyrillene concept of the incarnation vis-à-vis Mary’s status “exegesis”? Where? Irenaeus expressly denied Mary’s perpetual virginity as well as her immaculate conception and sinlessness. Are you sure you want to go with Irenaeus’ exegesis? Augustine also denied your cyrillene understanding of Mary’s status.
Here is what Augustine said: "At that time, therefore, when about to engage in divine acts, He repelled, as one unknown, her who was the mother, not of His divinity, but of His [human] infirmity" (Tract. in Ioannem CXIX, 1).
Here is what Augustine said: "It was as if [Jesus] said [in John 2], ‘You did not give birth to my power of working miracles, it was not you who gave birth to my divinity. But you are the mother of all that is weak in me" (Tract. in Ioannem VII, 9.)
Here is what Augustine said: "Why, then, said the Son to the mother, "Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come?" Our Lord Jesus Christ was both God and man. According as He was God, He had not a mother; according as He was man, He had. She was the mother, then, of His flesh, of His humanity, of the weakness which for our sakes He took upon Him. But the miracle which He was about to do, He was about to do according to His divine nature, not according to His weakness; according to that wherein He was God not according to that wherein He was born weak. But the weakness of God is stronger than men. His mother then demanded a miracle of Him; but He, about to perform divine works, so far did not recognize a human womb; saying in effect, "That in me which works a miracle was not born of thee, thou gavest not birth to my divine nature; but because my weakness was born of thee, I will recognize thee at the time when that same weakness shall hang upon the cross." This, indeed, is the meaning of "Mine hour is not yet come." . . . How then was He both David’s son and David’s Lord? David’s son according to the flesh, David’s Lord according to His divinity; so also Mary’s son after the flesh, and Mary’s Lord after His majesty. Now as she was not the mother of His divine nature, whilst it was by His divinity the miracle she asked for would be wrought, therefore He answered her, "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" (Tract. in Ioannem VIII, 9).
“This just points to the fact that our concepts of Scriptural authority are fundamentally opposed to one another.”
No; what it points to is that one of us is engaging in exegesis, and the other is engaging in eisegesis. Prejean states this as though he can avoid exegesis of the documents of the fifth-century councils. Why are they any more “obvious” in meaning than the Scriptures? Both are historical writings, after all. What makes one comprehensible and the other somehow incomprehensible? The answer is, nothing. The Scriptures are just as plainly written—rather, refreshingly more plainly written—than the convoluted speculations of men too influenced by aristotelean categories to be of much help in expressing theological concepts in a biblically constrained way.
“The people on whose interpretation I am relying were hardly "Biblical neophytes." The idea that Cyril or Augustine didn't perceive the wisdom of God in Scripture is certainly a thesis that you can advance, but as between you and they, I'll take them over you.”
The problem for Prejean is that Augustine did not share Cyril’s view of this. Indeed, Cyril represents a Monophysite (or Apollinarian) school of thought on this that was rejected by many in his own day. Prejean’s attempt to pit some kind of “monolithic patristic view” over against mine fails because there was no monolithic view on this historically.
“Nothing personal. Besides, if I am a "Biblical neophyte," then that would make you a "patristic ignoramus," so I'm not really sure you want to go here.”
Yes, I do in fact want to go there, and will. I think it needs to be clarified here that Jonathan Prejean lacks requirement one to speak on these issues. He has no theological training to speak of; he has no patristic training to speak of; he has no knowledge of the primary languages to speak of. He has absolutely no training in any related discipline. Yet I am the “ignoramus,” and he styles himself as some sort of “expert.” Prejean is a lawyer. His area of specialty is patent law. While my field is not patristics, my formal training in biblical exegesis and theology required my immersion in historical texts and languages of classical antiquity. Prejean has no training in this—not even in a related discipline. He doesn’t seem to understand that whatever “exegesis” one uses to understand some historical documents (viz., the councils) is no different than that used to understand other historical documents (viz., the New Testament). One cannot appeal to the “plain teaching” of one historical document (viz., Ephesus) and at the same time arbitrarily appeal to the incomprehensibility of another (viz., the New Testament). But that’s just what Prejean does, and that’s just what makes him a biblical neophyte.
“The Fathers do plenty of exegesis, and they give plenty of explanation of their concepts of Scriptural authority. It's not my fault that you haven't read it. Someone well-versed in patristic theology would know the exegetical basis for my arguments. My apologies for assuming that you actually were a big enough boy to do your own reading, but I can't really do your homework for you.”
Once again, we have an appeal to some “monolithic” view of the fathers on this issue as though there is such a thing. And once again we have a view on this issue that is conspicuously ill-informed by Scripture.
“When I say that you are a "joke," I am speaking of your qualifications in patristic theology, which are laughable. Let's see how well your patristics bookshelf stacks up against mine.”
What is “laughable” is that these words come from the pen of a man whom I have already shown has zero qualifications to speak on this—not even in a related discipline!
“I'll take your use of the term "odd" as an admission that even you recognize it wouldn't make sense for me to advertise my own defeats.”
This is true only if we are dealing with a rational person. There’s no accounting for what some people will do to pretend and convince others that they won a debate.
“As for the appeal to my own authority, to who else's authority would I appeal? Ultimately, we all reason individually and we all give assent of the will freely; we are the ultimate arbiters of where our will is directed.”
Exactly; well, at least he doesn’t deny he is Protestant in practice.
“Nobody can represent a belief system other than his own;”
And at least we now know that we aren’t here dealing with the RC position.
“In Protestantism, of course, there are no such people. Hence, private judgment.”
I guess the apostles aren’t really people. If I were as disingenuous and desperate as Prejean, I think I might use this statement as a full-blown frontal attack on Prejean’s inherent Gnosticism: “Look everyone; Prejean doesn’t really believe the apostles are people—in his view they only ‘seemed’ to be people; hence, he is a Docetist at heart. Therefore, we may rightly reject anything further he might say.” This is just the kind of idiotic, jack-chick style rationale Prejean engages in when he accuses Protestants of denying the incarnation or the divinty of the second person of the Trinity. And it is just the kind of rationale that was turned back on him recently by James White and then by Steve Hays. He rejects the charges against him, of course, but thinks he can still level them against everyone else with impunity.
“Anyway, your misunderstanding on Catholic authority is somewhat beside the point. I have nothing to hide; I have never been anything other than willing to yield the field if you want to discuss matters of Biblical exegesis, because I don't share your concept of Scriptural authority. From my perspective, it's about as interesting to me as an argument from the Book of Mormon or the Qu'ran; we might as well be reading different books.”
Amazing. Prejean has just admitted he relegates Scripture to the status of the Book of Mormon and the Quran; and yet he can still call himself Catholic--much more, a Christian!--and insist that he shares the views of the fathers. I would contend that this hits at the very heart of the matter. Prejean will gladly throw out and nullify Scripture for the sake of his tradition (Mark 7)—something the early-church writers would not dare do. But that’s just the problem with Prejean’s position. He admits here that there is no biblical basis for his view—or at the very least that it’s not important to have a biblical basis for it. This is certainly not the official Roman Catholic view, whose practice of prooftexting these matters (although erroneously) at the very least demonstrates they think it important to have a biblical basis for the belief. Prejean admits he has no need for Scriptural support of his views; his staggering intellect can figure out the divine all by itself!
I’ll go farther here. By this statement, Prejean has just defined himself out of biblical orthodoxy. Here is how the apostle John puts it: “We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 Jn 4:6). Prejean has admitted he just does not care what the apostles have to say. He has admitted their voice is irrelevant to him. He has thereby placed himself in the category of “the spirit of error” and of those who are “not from God.” Hence, Prejean is a heretic, biblically defined; and as such his voice is to be utterly rejected by all truth-affirming people, irrespective of denominational affiliation—whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox. He has disqualified himself to speak on these matters.
But there’s an even more important point in all this. Again, I am not asking Prejean to adopt my view of Scriptural authority—I’m just asking him to show historically that those who walked with Christ on this earth and knew Mary personally affirmed Prejean’s views. He can’t do that, of course, because it is quite evident that the apostles did not share Prejean’s view on this issue. Quite the contrary; they are manifestly “Evangelical” in their view. But if that’s the case, then the councils also just as manifestly erred in their definitions because they “ran ahead” of the apostles in the doctrine of Christ (2 John 9).
“I just want you to withdraw the inaccurate historical claims. There is a real historical belief system called Nestorianism, and you hold it. Perry knows it; I know it; why not just admit it? It makes no difference, and the admission doesn't even hurt you because you don't concede the authority of the councils anyway.”
First of all, I gladly affirm Nestorius as completely orthodox—and always have—as do most patristic scholars and historical theologians, including Kelly, Pelikan, McGrath, and Brown. What Prejean is really asking me to do is concede what he and his cronies inanely and absurdly think are the attendant ramifications of that view, including a denial of Christ’s divinity—something I simply do not do. It is sophistry, plain and simple, that leads Prejean to assert that his ramifications are somehow “necessary consequents” of the measured view that we risk crossing a bridge too far if we attribute “divine motherhood” to Mary by virtue of her title as theotokos. Nestorius’ burden in his proposed use of the more accurate “Christ bearer” rather than the apollinarianesque “God bearer” was to promote Christ as God-Man rather than mere God—something Cyril was just too marian-zealous to understand rightly. And just as Nestorius did not concede Cyril’s sophistry, so also I will not concede Prejean’s sophistry in this. Nestorius’ overall position, as reported by mainstream patristic scholars, was orthodox, and he was mush more biblically careful than Cyril.
“[Biblical exegesis has] been done by many Catholics before me, and whenever it is done, the Catholic gets accused of eisegesis, because we think that a number of external criteria can be used that you do not.”
Yes, like anachronistically appealing to a belief defined five hundred years after the biblical writers wrote. That’s somehow hailed as “sound exegesis. Prejean is a lawyer. Imagine if we treated the Constitution that way—that is to say, the Constitution must have intended to uphold a woman’s right to an abortion because just look at all the people who hold to that view today! Yeah—that’s a sound approach to interpreting a historical document.
“Well, sure, if the issue being judged turns on something in which knowledge of the original language is actually pertinent, but in that case, you have to be far more than simply competent in the language; you have to be a legitimate scholars of the period and that author's writings."
Since Prejean is neither, one wonders why he even attempts it.
“Contemporary Biblical scholarship isn't a passionate interest for me; I'm more interested in how Scripture has been understood over history than how it was understood at the time.”
And how does Prejean know that contemporary biblical scholarship isn’t part of that historical understanding? For all we know, we’re still in the early church age; and someone reading this dialogue ten-thousand years from now may see Ephesus as a mere blip on the radar screen of theological development. Outside of his gratuitous presup that Rome is somehow infallible, on what basis does Prejean assume otherwise? And what if even those in the fifth-century held to Prejean’s attitiude; to wit, “Contemporary Biblical scholarship isn't a passionate interest for me; I'm more interested in how Scripture has been understood over history than how it was understood at the time.” Obviously, the fifth-century church did not view itself as the “historic church.” The early church, for them, was the New Testament church. Hence, their definitions are mere commentaries and theological formulations of what they believed the New Testament teaches. To view them in the romantic way Prejean does is to miss the point that these are mere men who did their best to understand Scripture and to put down formerly unknown contrary beliefs of their day, but who could and did err—not so much in their main definitions as in the baggage they attached to those definitions.
“MY point was solely historical. In response, Eric Svendsen made a gratuitous claim that this was because I had no exegetical basis, and I'm entitled to simply deny it and demand proof, meaning he would actually have to dig into the patristic exegetical arguments and interact with them.”
Here it is clear that Prejean is confusing exegesis with argument. Cyril and the defenders of his view make arguments; but that does not necessarily translate into exegesis. One can argue about the difference between homoiousis and homoousis, and he can do so in a biblically informed way; but one cannot exegete that difference biblically, because Scripture simply does not address such a thing. One can argue whether hypostasis or person is the more appropriate term to use in reference to the union of man and God in Christ, but one cannot exegete that question biblically. One can argue whether the hypostatic union took place “from two natures” (Cyril’s view) or “in two nature” (the Antiochene view), but one cannot prove either one from Scripture. It’s based, rather, on sophist speculation.
And my assertion that Prejean has no exegetical basis for his idiosyncratic views is far from gratuitous. He has admitted he is uninterested in what Scripture has to say about this matter, and if he were familiar with the biblical exegesis employed by Cyril and company why not just cite it? Why instead does Prejean dismiss the biblical evidence as irrelevant? I suspect it is because even if he has read the biblical rationale of Cyril and company, he doesn’t really understand those arguments well enough to reproduce them—and if he does not understand them, then he cannot simply claim them as his own by proxy. The onus remains on Prejean to produce an exegetical basis for his beliefs on this if he is to remain within the bounds of biblical orthodoxy.
“As I said, I can't do homework for people; to some extent, they have to be self-motivated if they want to get involved.”
It seems this applies to everyone but Prejean.
"All questions of purely historical interest go to the truth and falsehood of the purely historical claims, so if you are interested in the truth of purely historical claims (as I am), then this would be sufficient motivation.”
If Prejean were really interested in “the truth of purely historical claims,” why does he consistently refuse to engage the “purely historical claims” of Scripture regarding this issue? After all, the New Testament is nothing if not a historical document, filled with historical claims. Why is this not “sufficient motivation” for him? Methinks he knows what he would find, and that he wouldn’t like it very much. He would then be forced to deal with the very real disparity between the teaching of Scripture and the traditions of men he has been promoting for so many years.
“But anyway, to be consistent with your reasoning, Svendsen should withdraw his arguments (including Apollinarimonophysitism), Jason Engwer should withdraw his articles as well, and James White never should have said a word about Nicaea. You say you're not a relativist, but it sure seems like you have a "goose-gander" problem here. All I want is a withdrawal of the dubious historical claims. It serves no one to have the scholarship and the historical facts being obfuscated by poor handling.”
Listen to me very carefully, Mr. Prejean. Scholarship does not consist of ignoring the established, published, and unrecanted views of the heavy hitters in favor of a decidedly partisan work (from what I’ve read of McGuckin, he has a vested interest in exonerating Cyril) that coincidentally—surprise!—happens to support your idiosyncratic views on this. Even Edward Oakes, who is otherwise sympathetic to McGuckin’s thesis, rejects the notion that Ephesus (Cyril) and Chalcedon (Antioch) are in agreement. There’s just too much evidence to the contrary. Hence, he affirms what modern patristic scholarship has always affirmed; namely, that Ephesus is pro-Cyril and Chalcedon is pro-Antioch. Indeed, he goes on to affirm that Cyril’s successors, detecting the pro-Antiochene theology of Chaldedon, rejected the council altogether and became Monophysites—and this is in spite of hs familiarity with the dazzling “unassailable” brilliance of McGuckin’s work!
Here’s what might convince me of your position, Mr. Prejean: Write to the Kelly’s, the Pelikan’s, the McGrath’s, and the Brown’s of the world to correct their “obfuscation” and “poor handling” of historical facts. Once you do this, and once you secure from them letters of repentance indicating they have recanted their published views, then I will happily do the same. As it stands, yours is nothing more than a “my scholars vs. yours” argument.
And then keep in mind that even if you were able to accomplish all this, it proves nothing in regard to my own views. If Protestantism is Nestorian, it is on the Kelly-Pelikan-McGrath-Brown understanding of what Nestorius affirmed—all of whom affirm the orthodoxy of that position—not your understanding of it. If your understanding of the views of Nestorius wins the day, your charge is still unfounded since I do not subscribe--nor have I ever subscribed--to what you think Nestorius believed. Hence, whether your view on the history or mine ends up being right has absolutely no bearing on your false charges of Nestorianism. No Evangelical I know believes Christ was two persons (nor, according to most scholars, did Nestorius himself believe that). Rather, most (like me) simply prefer not to speculate about how the union between God and man takes place in Christ beyond what the Scriptures affirm, because these are areas that are simply unknowable in this life. So you’re left explaining how one is “unorthodox” who refuses to go beyond Scripture in his affirmations about the unknowable. In the meantime, you’ve defined yourself entirely out of the biblical definition of “Christian” by placing the authority and relevance of Scripture on par with the Quran.
“If I think a Catholic is making a dubious historical argument, then I certainly will address that. I do it all the time.”
Except that Prejean is completely blind to his own “dubious historical arguments,” such as that Protestants deny the incarnation and divinity of Christ. No responsible patristic scholar would ever make that connection. Yet Prejean clearly does. Doesn’t integrity mean anything to Prejean?
“I've found that most objections of this sort misunderstand the Catholic claim being made. In other words, the Protestants thinks the Catholic is making a certain sort of claim, but the Catholic isn't.”
Well now, isn’t this familiar? Now substitute every instance of “Catholic” for “Protestant,” and vice versa, and you have Prejean in a nutshell—a eminently appropriate place for someone like Prejean.