The Roman Catholic Controversy: Tradition and the Magisterium

The Roman Catholic Controversy

This sixth post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy. I am really getting bogged down with this. White’s chapters aren’t getting longer, but my responses to them are. I reckon his accusations are growing more and more onerous and his tone more and more condemning, and I feel there is a lot more that needs to be answered. My response to this chapter, “The Thousand Traditions,” is expanding to monumental proportions; so I’ve decided to split it up into segments. I regret that anyone who reads this chapter will not have my full review in one succinct piece; but I am sure my readers will be thankful that I don’t dump the whole tome on you at once.

In this chapter, “The Thousand Traditions,” White seeks to undermine the Catholic concepts of Sacred Tradition and doctrinal development. As he has throughout the book, White continues to demonstrate a lack of understanding of basic Catholic positions. He attempts to equate the undeniable doctrinal confusion among the diverse Protestant sects with differences of theological opinion among orthodox Catholics regarding the origin and function of Tradition. In comparison to the many interpretations that result from sola scriptura, according to White, “statements of Rome are not only equally as liable to various interpretations, but often more liable.” “Even on the issue of tradition itself,” White argues, “there are a thousand ‘traditions,’ a thousand different ways of understanding the ‘final’ word on the matter.” White in fact discusses two positions, neither of which has any bearing on the interpretation or finality of the Magisterium’s rulings. [I will get to these in the next post, hopefully.]

Tradition and the Magisterium

White continues to struggle with a basic definition of Tradition. He believes, as he argued in previous chapters, that “tradition” is something nebulous and undefined, until it is defined by the Church itself. In examining the Church’s claims that both Scripture and Tradition are necessary for the authentic interpretation of the Word of God, White charges that “not only is Rome claiming the exclusive right of interpretation of the Scriptures but the exclusive right of both definition and interpretation of tradition.” White asserts that Tradition is effectively whatever the Church says it is. “When we ask to see the contents of tradition, we have to depend upon the veracity of the same Church that bases her doctrines . . . on those very traditions!” White once again accuses the Church of “circular reasoning” in its claims to authority. “Because Rome defines tradition itself, you have ‘Scripture and Church,’ not ‘Scripture and tradition.’”

The Church does not define tradition. The Church receives tradition. Tradition is not something vague and nebulous, but something real and substantial. Tradition is the entire body of knowledge that has been passed down through all the ages of the Church. It subsists in the writings of the Fathers, thinkers, theologians; music, hymnody, and liturgy; monuments and inscriptions; art and architecture — documents of all kinds; whatever exists that sheds light on that which has been passed down by Christians before. These documents are visible, tangible, and accessible, not just to the elite circle of the Magisterium, but to anyone who seeks them. Increasingly, the documents that define the Tradition on which Catholic dogma rests are published and available online.

What the Church does is select and interpret tradition. Out of this vast body of received tradition, the Magisterium chooses out the elements that are relevant and applicable to the questions of faith that are being asked, and interprets what they mean. White charges that “Rome has a ‘supreme rule of faith’”  that “does not exist outside of her own realm of authority” — that “the Roman Catholic Church defines and interprets the rule as she sees fit.” The Church’s rule of faith is Scripture and Tradition, read and interpreted by the Magisterium. Scripture and Tradition are received, immutable, and eminently authoritative in and of themselves. (White charges also that since the Church defines the canon of Scripture, the Catholic Church nullifies the authority of Scripture, since it can effectively pick and choose what it wants. This is a preposterous claim, since the canon of Scripture is itself immutable and has existed unchanged since the Church defined it originally.) The interpretations of the Magisterium are defined and limited by the truths that Scripture and Tradition reveal: it cannot create, produce, define, or present what isn’t there.

But by the act of selecting the elements of tradition that are relevant, isn’t the Church “defining” tradition? Can’t the Church pick and choose only what supports the conclusions it wants to arrive at? In theory, it could — but it would be guilty of dishonesty and deception. And since the entire body of tradition is open for all eyes to see, its dishonesty and deception would be transparent and self-evident. If the Magisterium arbitrarily ignored or dismissed conflicting evidence without cause (some conflicting evidence is in fact dismissed with cause — for example, the Gnostic gospels), then any observer or critic would have ample ammunition to attack the Magisterium’s decisions.

There is a clear analogy between the work of the Magisterium and the work of a scholar — for in fact the principles which guide the modern Magisterium are scholastic principles, invented by the Church and only borrowed by secular scholars. Let us suppose an historian, since I am most familiar with that discipline. Just as an historian chooses the sources from the body of accumulated knowledge with which to build an argument, the Church chooses sources from tradition on which to base dogma. The Church is no guiltier of “defining” tradition than the scholar is of “defining” history. The historian meticulously documents his sources, giving the reader the trail by which to check his sources and verify that his arguments are correctly founded and reasoned. If he has built a specious or poorly founded argument, his peers and critics will recognize it. Likewise, the Magisterium meticulously documents the sources of its dogma, and even publishes them and makes them freely available, so that anyone can follow the trail of its arguments and verify that they are well founded. Rather than being opaque, nebulous, and esoteric, the Tradition of the Church is eminently transparent, solid, and public.

White charges that “Rome loudly proclaims her fidelity to the Scriptures and insists that the Church is subject to the Scriptures” while actually “[making] statements that plainly elevate her own Magisterium to the highest position of authority.” White fails to present these “plain” statements. In fact, the Magisterium is subject to and bound by what Scripture and Tradition reveal; its authority is only as interpreter, arbiter, teacher, and servant, to read Scripture and Tradition and discern the truth that it reveals. It can neither promulgate truth not revealed by Scripture and Tradition nor contradict that truth.

White complains that in the Catechism (CCC 83), “Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time,” and that these “lesser” traditions “can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.” He argues that the Magisterium is free to dismiss what it doesn’t wish to be authoritative as not “real” tradition. But there is a clear, qualitative difference that White fails to grasp between these local traditions — for example, the Benedictine tradition or Franciscan tradition — and the Tradition that binds the entire Church.

White believes that the Catholic Church claims “no one else can properly interpret [the] Scriptures” — but in fact the claim is that only the Magisterium can interpret the Scriptures properly and with binding authority. The Church encourages exegetes and theologians to study Scripture and interpret it to the full extent of their ability. Their judgment informs and supports the Magisterium. Because the Church also claims to be “the sole guardian of ‘Sacred Tradition,’” White argues, there are “no external checks and balances . . . that could correct her should she err.” Of course, the very idea of an ultimate authority precludes the notion of “checks and balances.” But the Church believes the Magisterium does not err. We are taught that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13). Practically, the possibility of error is limited by the necessity of consensus among all the assembled bishops for an authoritative ruling.

In the end, White insists “that the Magisterium, by its own teachings, cannot logically maintain that it is a servant of the Word of God.” The only logical position it can take, he claims, is that of “‘overseer’ of the Sacred Scriptures, a position that demands a superior authority than that vested in the Bible itself.” White’s logic is flawed. How does the claim of the Magisterium to have authority in interpreting Scripture require that it be a “superior” authority over Scripture, any more than the individual, sola scriptura believer’s claim to have authority in interpreting Scripture require him to be a “superior” authority? In both cases, a party is exercising informed judgment to interpret Scripture. In both cases, Scripture has the superior authority, and the interpreter is bound and subject to the words and truths it contains.

White charges that the Church’s claim to “only [be] teaching what has been handed to her” is patently false. Suggesting such doctrines as the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of Mary, and Papal Infallibility, he intends to demonstrate that this claim is false, and that “such doctrines were not ‘handed on’ by the Apostles, and . . . were unknown to the early Christians.” “It is obvious” (emphasis mine), “that Rome has drawn from traditions that are not Apostolic.” White offers no such evidence of these claims here — in fact, it is not “obvious” at all. Later in the chapter he addresses Catholic epistemology and doctrines of theological development; it will be more expedient for me to address these claims there.

The Roman Catholic Controversy: Sola Scriptura

The Roman Catholic Controversy

The fifth post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy.

I said in beginning this review that I was prepared to give praise where it was due. It is due here: James White has constructed a really splendid and solid case in favor of the doctrine of sola scriptura — “by Scripture alone,” the cry of the Reformers, which White calls the formal principle of the Reformation. His argument is finely honed and well oiled, almost as a mathematical proof, and snaps shut like a steel trap. I must confess, it left me rather stunned.

I will, however, point out a few assumptions on which White rests his argument that I believe weaken it. But I was asking yesterday how any reasonable Christian could read the same sources from the Early Church that I am reading and maintain a Reformed system of belief. This is how: with arguments like this. I see no adequate way to refute this, assuming the premises that White assumes; so I can therefore only question the premises, which to me are indeed questionable.

What Sola scriptura is not

White begins by presenting six points of what sola scriptura is not — none of which I thought it was:

  1. Sola scriptura is not a claim that the Bible contains all knowledge (e.g. scientific, historical, political).
  2. Sola scriptura is not a claim that the Bible is an exhaustive catalog of all religious knowledge. (It’s not a catechism or compendium, as I’ve pointed out before — but, according to sola scriptura, it has everything the believer needs.)
  3. Sola scriptura is not a denial of the Church’s authority to teach God’s truth.
  4. Sola scriptura is not a denial that God’s Word has, at times, been spoken (e.g. the preaching of the prophets and Apostles).
  5. Sola scriptura is not a rejection of every kind or use of tradition (only the ones that can’t be supported by Scripture are not binding).
  6. Sola scriptura is not a denial of the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church.

Regarding the third point: White explains that there is “a vast difference between recognizing and confessing the Church as the pillar and support of truth (1 Timothy 3:15), and confessing the Church to be the final arbiter of truth itself.” “The Church, as the body of Christ, presents and upholds the truth, but she remains subservient to it.” Catholics too agree that the Church remains subservient to the truth — that is, she serves Christ and His truth and the divine revelation of God — but the Catholic Church believes that part of her service to the truth, her responsibility, is to properly interpret that truth and teach it to her people. This is as much the Church’s God-given duty and mission as it is her authority. White charges that “Rome has gone far beyond the biblical parameters regarding the roles and functions of the Church.” He needs to define, and expound from Scripture, what he believes these biblical roles and functions to be. “The Apostles established local churches. They chose elders and deacons” — and bishops too (1 Timothy 3:1-7), I must again add, if he is in fact teaching the biblical organization of the Church — “and entrusted to these the task of teaching and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Indeed they did; and invested them with the authority to teach. As any teacher knows, the truth — even Scripture — involves interpretation, breaking down ideas and conveying them to the student in an understandable way. I don’t know what White thinks “teaching” is, if not this. The “truth” he teaches in his church, too, is an interpretation. White misunderstands what the Catholic Church believes her role to be. He assumes, despite his statement to the contrary, that the Christian Church in fact has no inherent authority to teach the truth.

What Sola scriptura is

White next approaches a definition of what sola scriptura is.

  1. Scripture is the sole, infallible rule of faith (regula fidei); Scripture, and Scripture alone, is sufficient to function as such.
  2. All that one must believe to be a Christian is contained in Scripture.
  3. That which is not found in Scripture — either directly or by necessary implication — is not binding upon the Christian.
  4. Scripture reveals those things necessary for salvation.
  5. All traditions are subject to the higher authority of Scripture.

“The doctrine of sola scriptura, simply stated,” says White, “is that the Scriptures alone are sufficient to function as the regula fidei, the infallible rule of faith for the Church.” Proceeding from the very nature of Scripture as “God-breathed” (θεόπνευστος, theopneustos) revelation, Scripture is infallible and sufficient for salvation.

The Catholic Church fully agrees and affirms that Scripture is divinely inspired, inerrant, and authoritative:

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired [θεόπνευστος] and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” [2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text] (Second Vatican Council, Dei verbum III.11).

White’s argument that Scripture’s authority and sufficiency proceed from the very nature of Scripture itself strikes a chord with my argument from yesterday about the “actual authority” inherent in historical sources by virtue of what they are. Scripture too has this actual, historical authority, even aside from its divine inspiration.

White asserts that Scripture’s sole, infallible authority is not dependent on any man, church, or council, but proceeds from the nature of Scripture itself — for indeed Scripture attests to its own inspiration by God (2 Timothy 3:14-17), and everything God says must be authoritative and infallible. This argument does have one limitation, however: for it was the Church, by Tradition, that established the canon of Scripture, over several successive generations. It is only by the Church’s actions of collecting, preserving, and transmitting Scripture that we have an authoritative collection of Scriptures at all. It was through the discernment of the Church Fathers, guided by the Holy Spirit, that the canon of the New Testament was formed: the truly inspired books selected, and others excluded. Otherwise, we would not have a New Testament to be our “sole rule of faith.” I presume this is an issue which White will address later in the book.

White claims that Scripture is “self-consistent, self-interpreting, and self-authenticating” — and doesn’t really expound on these assertions. With these claims on their face, I have a serious problem. Nothing is “self-interpreting.” Language, by its very nature, has to be received and understood and processed mentally. As Dei verbum states, “Since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words” (III.12).

This is not even to mention that the Scriptures are written in ancient languages that are the native tongues of no one living today. Even English translations of the Scriptures must be interpreted; but to even create the English translations from the original languages requires a great deal of interpretation, in many cases when the meaning of the Greek or Hebrew words themselves is unclear or obscure, let alone the syntax and grammar. Translation is a monumental task of interpretation. To say that Scripture is “self-interpreting” undermines the hard work of both translators and teachers, and implies that the interpretation of the one making the statement is the only obvious and possible one.

Likewise, among the extant early manuscripts of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures, there are thousands of textual variants — cases in which letters, words, or whole verses were left out, added, changed, transposed, misspelled, miscopied, or otherwise corrupted in the course of textual transmission. It is only by the arduous work of textual critics and paleographers that we have the authoritative, critical texts of the Scriptures on which grounds sola scriptura is even possible. To say that Scripture is “self-authenticating” undermines their labors.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) writes of the doctrine of sola scriptura:

VI. The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and the government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

The claim that doctrines that are not themselves in Scripture, but “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture,” and still meet the demands of sola scriptura, troubles me. This statement seems a catch-all for any doctrine that Protestants want to work out from Scripture, “by good and necessary consequence.” As I have pointed out before, the five solas are themselves found nowhere in Scripture, but proceed only “by good and necessary consequence” of a certain interpretation of Scripture. Likewise, the tenets of Calvinism — total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, et al. — are not written on the face of Scripture at all, but were worked out by Calvin and his followers through a considerable amount of interpretation and exegesis; they are nonetheless, to a Calvinist, a “good and necessary consequence” of Scripture. Other Protestants whom White, I presume, would accept as orthodox, may not find these doctrines to be “good and necessary consequences” of Scripture at all. For something that is “perspicuous” and “self-interpreting,” there is a considerable degree of interpretation and even disagreement as to its meaning.

White admits that “some measure of effort must be expended in reading and understanding the Scriptures” — but apparently, this effort does not involve “interpretation.” He notes, however, because of this required “effort,” “surely many of the disagreements people have over the meaning of the Scriptures are due not to any lack of clarity in them, but to unwillingness of people to make use of ‘ordinary means.’” We Catholics could not agree more. If Protestants would only use the “ordinary means” that would put the Scriptures into the proper historical, theological, and ecclesial context — that is, Tradition — then we could resolve our disagreements.

The Steel Trap

White’s biblical proof for sola scriptura hangs almost entirely on the interpretation of a single passage — 2 Timothy 3:14-17 (this is White’s translation):

14 But you remain in what you have learned and have become convinced of, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and that from your childhood you knew the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise unto salvation by faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction, for training in righteousness, 17 in order that the man of God might be complete, fully equipped for every good work.

White seems to know his Greek (he likes to show it off; I guess I do too), but one thing I would point out, that doesn’t particularly affect the sense of the passage, is that the main verb in the first verse, μένε (mene) is imperative — it’s a command, not an indicative statement. Most published translations read “But you, remain in what you have learned . . . ” Also, the word he translates “Scriptures” in verse 15 and the word he translates “Scripture” in verse 16 are two different words — the former being γράμμα (gramma), which can be any kind of writing (the ESV translates this phrase “holy writings”), and the latter being γραφή (graphē), which in the New Testament is only used of Scripture. In any case, the translation of this verse, so far as the words themselves, is clear.

White’s proof follows like so (I am simplifying it and presenting it as a logical proof; White does not):

  1. The Scriptures, by their very nature as God-breathed, are able to make one wise unto salvation. Scripture in itself is sufficient for salvation.
  2. The Scriptures, being God-breathed, i.e. breathed by God, have their origin in God, and therefore as the Word of God have God’s authority.
  3. The Church, in Scripture, has and hears God’s Word, which has God’s authority. Therefore the authority of the Church to teach, rebuke, and instruct is derived from Scripture itself; the Church has no authority that does not derive from Scripture (“despite Roman Catholic claims to the contrary”).
  4. Because Scripture is God’s voice, it is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction, for training in righteousness, in order that the man of God might be complete, fully equipped for every good work.”
  5. Therefore the man of God can be both saved and made complete with Scripture alone. Nothing else is necessary, or Paul would have mentioned it.
  6. Therefore Scripture alone is sufficient to make the man of God complete for “every good work.” No man of God needs anything else for the purpose of ministry.
  7. The Roman Catholic Church teaches doctrines that are not found in Scripture, either directly or by any logical deduction of implication — for example, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (the belief that the Virgin Mary was bodily assumed into Heaven at the end of her earthly life).
  8. If these doctrines were true, it would be a “good work” to teach them.
  9. Since Scripture equips the man of God to be complete for every “good work,” and Scripture does not equip the man of God to teach the Assumption, then it follows that teaching the Assumption is not a “good work.”
  10. Therefore, the doctrine of the Assumption, and other non-biblical doctrines taught by the Catholic Church, are not necessary to be taught, or Scripture would equip the man of God to teach it. These doctrines are not necessary for salvation, or Scripture, being able to make one wise unto salvation, would teach them.

And the trap clangs shut.

“Hence,” says White triumphantly, “the Protestant says the doctrine is not binding upon the Christian; the Roman Catholic, having accepted the doctrine on the authority of the Roman Church, is forced to conclude the Bible is insufficient as a source of all divine truth.”

But wait. White isn’t done there. He proceeds to another leg of his argument, based on Matthew 15:1-9:

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for following the tradition of the elders — which the Pharisees believed to be God-given and authoritative, though it was not written in the Law — even though it broke the commandments of God, what was given as the Law, and were written in Scripture. Therefore all “tradition of the elders” is subject to Scripture, and it is to be tested against the known standard of Scripture.

White assumes that Sacred Tradition is contrary to or contradicts Scripture — but it isn’t and doesn’t. I assume, though, I will hear more about this later.


These are the questions I have with White’s argument.

The Nature of Scripture – The Old Testament

First, when Paul was writing to Timothy, the Holy Scriptures he was referring to were only the Old Testament; the New Testament had neither been written nor collected. White acknowledges this much. “No one would wish to say that the Old Testament is wholly adequate and the New Testament is superfluous and unnecessary,” he admits. “The thrust of the passage is the origin and resultant nature of Scripture and its abilities, not the extent of Scripture (i.e. the canon),” argues White. “That which is God-breathed is able, by its very nature, to give us the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (‘all things necessary for man’s salvation’) and to fully equip the man of God for the work of the ministry (‘all things necessary for . . . faith and life).'”

White continues to press this argument. Even acknowledging that Timothy would have heard and been brought to faith by the Gospel through hearing oral preaching, not through Scripture at all, he asserts that “the content of the teaching Timothy has received is identical with, not separate from, that found in the Word of God.” White insists that this oral preaching of the Gospel is the same content Timothy would received in the Holy Scriptures which he “had known from childhood.” “The message he has received in the Gospel is to be found in the Sacred Scriptures themselves” — in the Old Testament. Really?

Does White really mean to say that all Scripture, being God-breathed, is sufficient and able by its very nature to bring one to salvation in Christ Jesus? Is, say, the Book of Leviticus? What about Esther, which doesn’t even refer directly to God? Every book in the Old Testament, it’s true, is laced with metaphors and types and prophecies pointing to Christ — but are these prophecies, these precursors, sufficient in themselves to bring one to faith in Jesus? How could they be, if they don’t even mention Him? I’ve never heard of someone (other than Paul himself) “getting saved” reading only the Old Testament, with no other knowledge of Christ. Doesn’t faith in Christ necessitate knowledge of Christ? For “how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14).

If Paul, referring to the Old Testament Scriptures, said “all Scripture is God-breathed” and “able to make wise for salvation in Christ Jesus” — and yet the Old Testament Scriptures aren’t able to bring one to faith in Christ Jesus — then it follows that Paul meant something else other than the way White and Protestants have interpreted this statement.

The Nature of Salvation

This raises another important point: The Scriptures are able to make Timothy wise unto salvation. According to the Protestant view, isn’t Timothy already “saved”? Isn’t justification by faith a once and for all experience, a done deal? Does this passage not suggest the Catholic view, that salvation is a process? Reading the Scriptures, then — any Scriptures, including the Old Testament (even including Leviticus, which I found illuminating) — would make the believer, who already has faith in Jesus and is already on that road, “wise for salvation.” They would add wisdom and foster spiritual growth and further him along the path — and we believe they do.

Oral Preaching and Tradition

No, in fact Timothy wasn’t brought to faith in Christ by Scripture at all, but by oral preaching. That preaching was sufficient to bring him to faith, along with every other believer during the Apostolic Age and before the New Testament was canonized. They didn’t have Scripture pertaining to Jesus. The preaching and teaching of the Apostles was transmitted orally by tradition for at least the first several generations of Christians; it was that tradition that brought the earliest believers to faith in Christ, not Scripture. And if that tradition continued — as we in the Catholic Church believe it did — would it not remain sufficient to “make wise for salvation”?

White stated earlier that “the content of the teaching Timothy has received is identical with, not separate from, that found in the Word of God.” He made this argument for the Old Testament Scriptures, to which Timothy had access, and this seems to fail on its face. But suppose White were arguing instead that the content that would be contained in the New Testament was identical with the message Timothy heard — which seems to be more logical and consistent with his thesis; that God breathed all that was sufficient for man to be saved into Scripture, and so the message Timothy heard is what God would have caused to be written. This argument, too, seems to make an unreasonable assumption. White acknowledges that God’s Word, at times, was spoken rather than written. How does White know — how can he assume — that there was no more to the message God spoke through the Apostles orally, that was not later written into the New Testament, the Sacred Tradition that the Catholic Church teaches? White assumes, by sola scriptura, that Scripture is all there is; but he cannot prove sola scriptura using sola scriptura. Scripture itself attests that not everything that was taught by spoken word was written (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

According to Protestants, Scripture contains all the Word of God that’s necessary to bring one to faith in Christ. The rest, according to their view — the other doctrines in Tradition that aren’t in Scripture — aren’t necessary. Even supposing that were true, it doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that because they are not necessary, they are not good, or are necessarily false, or should be discarded. God is a God of overabundance, not just “enough.” Why would I want only what was sufficient for salvation? Our Catholic faith is overflowing in its fullness — and every bit of it is good and worthy and “makes us wise unto salvation” — by my definition above, of furthering us along that path.

“All Good Work”

Okay, I changed my mind. I would like to take exception to one point in White’s interpretation of the Greek of the 2 Timothy 3 passage. For the Greek phrase he translates “every good work” — πᾶν ἔργον (pan ergon) — another possible reading is “all kinds of good work.” In fact, this is the reading preferred for this verse by the BDAG, the premier, most authoritative lexicon of New Testament Greek, which White himself calls to support his translation of another word. πᾶν ἔργον could, instead of every, mean every kind of or all sorts of.

White takes a very narrow, strict, legalistic reading of the word πᾶν — but Paul was not constructing a legal or logical argument here, but exhorting Timothy about doing good works. Just as we would say in English, “The Bible is useful for all kinds of things,” without meaning that the Bible is literally useful for all, each and every kind of thing, the same sense of the word πᾶν was common in Greek. While White does attempt to limit the scope of Paul’s “every good thing” to only those good things that pertained to Christian ministry, this sense isn’t at all clear from Paul’s language. But suppose for a moment that’s what Paul meant. “Scripture fully equips you for all kinds of good work in ministry.” White is very careful to make clear that the word complete (ἄρτιος, artios) is to be understood in the sense of “fitted, complete; capable, proficient; able to meet all demands.” Does Scripture literally make one fully equipped, “able to meet all demands” of “all kinds of good work” in ministry? Does it, say, teach you to preach a rhetorically good sermon? Does it provide you with a workable geography of Asia Minor? Does it teach, in plain terms, the Trinity, or the hypostatic union of Christ, or the five solas, or even its own canon? So, not quite “all kinds of things.” Paul is speaking as a rhetorician, not a logician.

Also, can Scripture be used for anything besides “good work” in ministry? Certainly. It can even be used for evil, such as justifying slavery or rape or genocide. So clearly Paul’s statement here is not meant to be taken as a legalistic, limiting, exclusive statement that “Scripture equips you for all, each and every good work you will ever need to do in ministry — and nothing else that would possibly be not so good.”

The Sufficiency of Scripture

Even if we were to accept White’s interpretation that Scripture in itself is sufficient to “make one wise unto salvation” — Scripture nowhere states, nor is it clear, that Scripture is the only thing that is sufficient to bring one to faith in Christ. In fact, as I have pointed out above, it is clear that the oral preaching of the Apostles — and its oral tradition, the passing of the apostolic teachings from one generation of Christians to the next — was sufficient to bring hearers to faith in Christ, before the New Testament was written, canonized, and disseminated.

That is not even to mention the oral preaching of preachers to this day — which also is sufficient to bring hearers to faith. White would argue that preachers today are preaching Scripture, that they are using the words of Scripture and the content of Scripture — but, since the oral teaching of the Apostles and their successors was also sufficient, it is clear that this Tradition also contained content that is sufficient for salvation.

White makes another unreasonable assumption about Scripture’s sufficiency. Paul says that Scripture is able to “equip the man of God for every good work.” According to White, if any other authority were necessary, Paul would have told Timothy. But we only have two surviving letters of Paul to Timothy. How do we know there weren’t other letters in which Paul gave Timothy other essential information? How do we know Paul didn’t impart other essential teachings to Timothy orally? We don’t have proof that he did (beyond the reception, through Tradition, of doctrines not in Scripture), but we don’t have proof that he didn’t. White assumes, because he believes Scripture is sufficient, that if anything else were necessary, Paul would have said so in Scripture. Because he didn’t, it must be true that Scripture is sufficient. White assumes his conclusion. It narrows to a tautology: Scripture is sufficient because it is sufficient.

The Authority of the Church

White denies repeatedly that the Church has inherent authority beyond the the authority of Scripture itself. “The authority of the Church is one: God’s authority,” states White. The Catholic Church agrees — the Church’s authority is God’s authority which Christ imparted to the Apostles. But White argues that the only authority God imparted was that contained in Scripture, His authoritative voice speaking to the Church and through the Church. “The divine authority of the Church, then, in teaching and rebuking and instructing, is derived from Scripture itself, despite Roman Catholic claims to the contrary.”

But Scripture itself very clearly presents a different picture. On numerous occasions, Christ Himself imparted authority to the Apostles, and charged them with a divine mission, and promised them power to fulfill it: to Peter, the authority to “bind and loose,” and the “keys of the kingdom” (Matthew 16:17-19); to the rest of the Apostles, the authority to “bind and loose” (Matthew 18:18); the authority to forgive sins or withhold forgiveness (John 20:22-23); the promise that the Holy Spirit will guide the Apostles into all truth (John 16:13-15); the Great Commission (Mark 16:15-18); and the promise of power from the Spirit (Luke 24:49). This is not an exhaustive list by any means. The Catholic Church believes that by apostolic succession, the authority of the Apostles descends to today’s pope and bishops. The authority of the Catholic Church derives from the authority of the Apostles, which was imparted to them by Christ. To the Church, its exercise of authority over Scripture and Tradition is God’s own authority.

The Magisterium of the Church has the authority to interpret Scripture definitively. White asserts that Scripture is the “higher authority” of Protestants, and that the individual believer has the authority to interpret Scripture for himself or herself. White asserts that Scripture is “self-interpreting,” and yet acknowledges that individual believers may come to different conclusions. Above it all, there seems to be a “correct” interpretation — the “self-interpreting” one — to which White is appealing. To what authority is he appealing? By what authority can White claim that his interpretation is right and the Catholic one is wrong?


As I said in the beginning, my arguments here do very little to argue against sola scriptura; they merely undermine White’s defense of it. There are no doubt other defenses, and even deeper, heartfelt convictions, that maintain Protestants in the belief.

This question begins, and ultimately ends, with authority. What do we believe our authority is? If we trust in the authority of the Church, her claims to authority rest on Scripture, history, and the writings of the Church Fathers. If we trust in sola scriptura, then we trust in the Protestant Reformers — whose interpretations of Scripture and doctrines ring just as true now as they did 500 years ago.

It is incumbent upon Protestants to prove that the Early Church ever believed or taught sola scriptura, that Scripture was ever their sole rule of faith. In my opinion as an historian, there is no evidence to suggest that anyone before the Reformers ever did. Even if Scripture seems to support a system of belief built upon sola scriptura, it cannot be true if no one in the Early Church ever held it. We have a sufficient store of writing from the first generations of Christians that this question — whether they adhered to sola scriptura, or also founded their beliefs on oral tradition — is answerable.

If it wasn’t held by the Early Church, then it wasn’t taught by the Apostles, and it wasn’t taught by Christ. It seems, in my historical opinion, an unlikely doctrine to have ever been taught. If it had been, the Apostles would have been much more concerned with writing, and the Early Church would have been much more concerned with preserving the apostolic letters that were no doubt written but no longer survive.

The Apostles taught by spoken word, and their spoken word was passed on to the next generations of Christians by oral tradition. The Christian faith was transmitted in such a way for several generations. Even after Scripture was canonized, the Church would not have abandoned the tradition of apostolic teachings. Over time these were written down by the Church Fathers.

The objection by educated Protestants — as it will no doubt be of James White — is that the Early Church almost immediately fell away from the true doctrine taught by the Apostles of sola scriptura. As diligent and faithful as the Early Church was, this seems unlikely; and it presumes a position of ecclesial deism.

In the end, the question comes down to whose authority we trust more: the Church Fathers, who attest to the beliefs of the Early Church, or the Reformers, who posit that the Early Church held doctrines that cannot be attested.

The Roman Catholic Controversy: Claims of Authority

The Roman Catholic Controversy

The fourth post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy.

Come on, y’all. I am actively courting controversy here. And I’m not doing it just to talk to myself. I know there are readers out there who disagree with me and with my critiques. Please don’t be shy about challenging me. This is supposed to be a discussion, not a soliloquy.

I am getting into the meaty matter of The Roman Catholic Controversy‘s charges. In Chapter 4, “Who Defines the Gospel?,” James White brings some preliminary scrutiny to bear on the Roman Catholic Church’s claims of authority. This is leading into his discussion of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, but first he wanted to present the claims of Rome as a contrast. He raises some important questions that every believer needs to consider, regarding authority, history, and Scripture. His own answers to those questions, however, are problematic.

The Interpretation of Scripture

The Roman Catholic Church claims the ultimate (final) authority in interpreting Scripture, by her teaching authority, the Magisterium of the Church (Magisterium from Latin magister, teacher; the adjective magisterial refers to this teaching authority). The Magisterium is made up of all the Church’s bishops in communion with the pope, and the pronouncements of the ecumenical councils of the Church, drawing from the sum of the ages of Church Tradition. White, however, misunderstands both the sources of the Church’s claims to authority and that authority’s implications.

According to White, the Church “maintains that only she can properly interpret the Scriptures.” This is not quite true, and neither of the council documents which he quotes out of context (from Trent and from Vatican II) indicates this. The Church fully acknowledges that believers are capable of reading and interpreting Scripture; but the Church, through the Magisterium, is a guide, a teacher, in the interpretation of Scripture and Tradition. The Church neither excludes nor discourages individual exegetes, so long as they operate in concert with the Church. To the contrary, learned exegetes contribute to the Church’s understanding. From Dei Verbum, the same Vatican II document that White quotes:

But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God. (Dei Verbum, III.12)

The bride of the incarnate Word, the Church taught by the Holy Spirit, is concerned to move ahead toward a deeper understanding of the Sacred Scriptures so that she may increasingly feed her sons with the divine words. Therefore, she also encourages the study of the holy Fathers of both East and West and of sacred liturgies. Catholic exegetes then and other students of sacred theology, working diligently together and using appropriate means, should devote their energies, under the watchful care of the sacred teaching office of the Church, to an exploration and exposition of the divine writings. This should be so done that as many ministers of the divine word as possible will be able effectively to provide the nourishment of the Scriptures for the people of God, to enlighten their minds, strengthen their wills, and set men’s hearts on fire with the love of God. The sacred synod encourages the sons of the Church and Biblical scholars to continue energetically, following the mind of the Church, with the work they have so well begun, with a constant renewal of vigor (Dei Verbum, VI.23).

The Magisterium is a teacher, not a tyrant — a guide and a guardian, to protect the believer from falling into error, as much as to protect the integrity of the faith and the unity of the Church. It is the final authority for the interpretation of passages of Scripture that are open to dispute, that might, and have, led to schism. But the Church does not arbitrarily and dictatorally make such magisterial judgments with the aim of shoring up its own doctrine, as White implies. Every decision of the Magisterium is made in consideration of exhaustive exegesis of Scripture and Tradition, and is made transparently. Read any document of the popes and councils and you will find it abounding with citations to Scripture, popes, councils, theologians, and the Fathers.

Sacred Tradition

What does the Church mean by “Tradition”? White seems to think it means “whatever the Church says it means.” He charges that the Church claims she alone is responsible for both defining what is “tradition” and for interpreting what it means; and that there is “no external means of checking [this] authority.” He seems to misunderstand the difference between tradition (little-t) and Tradition (big-T) — that is, Sacred Tradition. Tradition with a little-t is anything that is passed down from previous generations, whether it’s music, liturgy, art, habits, folk beliefs, and almost anything else. Little-t tradition holds no inherent authority. Sacred Tradition is the authoritative tradition that has been passed down from the Apostles and the Church’s Magisterium through the ages of the Church. It is visible, traceable, and transparent through the documents of the Church — and it is authoritative not just because the Magisterium says it is, but because it has actual authority.

Actual Authority

In discussions about the Apostolic Churches (Catholic and Orthodox), the word “authority” is thrown around a lot. Protestants, I’ve noticed, tend to assume this refers to the divine, infallible authority with which the Church was charged by Christ. But it doesn’t always. In considering the Church’s claims to authority, it is important to realize that the documents, Scripture, and Tradition on which these claims are based are not just authoritative because the Church says they are, but because they have actual authority.

White accuses the Church of basing its claim to authority on circular reasoning: that the Church claims authority because Scripture and Tradition give it authority, and that Scripture and Tradition have authority because the Church says they do. This charge fails to recognize the inherent, actual authority of these documents. This is analogous to the academic, historical use of the word “authority” — in fact, it’s through considering these documents as historical documents that we realize this actual authority.

Pretend for a moment that we know nothing about Jesus. The four Gospels can be conclusively and academically dated to within several decades of Jesus’s life and ministry. Based on their date alone, even regardless of any claims of divine inspiration or canonicity or even of their truth, the Gospels are authoritative historical documents attesting to what Jesus taught and to what the Early Church taught about him. This is actual authority, which these documents have inherently by nature of what they are, not authority that had to be declared or given to them externally. Likewise, the Epistles of Paul are authoritative historical documents to the teachings of the Apostle Paul and to the history, organization, and culture of the Early Church in each of the places to which he wrote.

The same goes for the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the first generation of Christian writers after the Apostles, including men like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, to early Christian apologists such as Justin Martyr, and to the works of the Church Fathers in every generation. These writings are authoritative historical documents in and of themselves. They reveal to us what the Church taught in specific locations at specific dates; they attest to the presence and prevalence of ideas and doctrines. Like all historical sources, of course, they are open to interpretation and historical criticism; but provided these documents are properly authenticated, their authority stands for itself.

This actual authority eliminates any possibility of “circular reasoning” in the Church’s claims to authority. The Church’s claims to authority are not based upon themselves, but are supported by the accumulated weight of documents that are authoritative in themselves. These documents, especially the writings of the Church Fathers, are also the foundation of the Church’s authoritative interpretations of Scripture: the Magisterium’s pronouncements about Scripture are not authoritative only because the Church says so, but because they rest on the actual authority of the Church Fathers, early councils, and learned exegetes and theologians.

So White’s charge that the Magisterium’s interpretation of Scripture ignores “what the actual text says” in favor of its “tradition” and “special empowerment” fundamentally misunderstands the purpose and function of the Magisterium. As the arbiter of Scripture and Tradition, the Magisterium considers all the accumulated evidence from Tradition and from its own learned scholars — not ignoring the text of Scripture, but rather making it paramount, as the excerpts above indicate. Tradition does not contradict or compete with Scripture in the Magisterium’s judgments: rather, it is a lamp for shedding light on Scripture and a lens for peering deeper into it. It is never a case of “Scripture versus Tradition,” but rather of “Scripture and Tradition” together forming a cogent whole. The actual authority of Tradition allows us to benefit from the insight into Scripture of the Early Church and Church Fathers, who received the authoritative tradition of the Apostles’ own teachings.

Ultimate Authority

White charges that Rome, as an “ultimate authority,” “cannot be examined by a higher standard because by definition none could possibly exist.” Once one accepts Rome as an authority, “testing of all claims must be suspended.” “Rome may condescend to offer a proof here or a supporting text there,” but how can this be meaningful evidence, he asks, when only Rome can interpret the evidence she offers? He is incorrect in the charge that one must stop testing Rome’s claims: every judgment and pronouncement of the Church is open and transparent to the examination of the believer. Rather than “a proof here or supporting text there,” the Magisterium meticulously and exhaustively documents the sources of its dogma, and publishes those very sources so that they are available for anyone, from the average lay believer to the highest scholastic theologian, to pursue them and study them. In this digital age, virtually all of these documents are available online.

White is correct, though, in the sense that the Church is the highest and final authority in matters of faith and doctrine, liturgy and practice, and interpretation of Scripture and Tradition. This authority is not founded only upon itself, as I have demonstrated above, but supported and attested to by actual, historical authority from the origins of Christianity. But the claim to ultimate authority is based even more significantly on what the Church is and claims to be: the one, holy, and apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ and the Apostles, invested with Christ’s own authority and guided by His promised Holy Spirit.

White charges that Rome’s adherents follow her blindly and idealistically into unscriptural, even unhistorical doctrines, directed only to “trust Rome” against all other contrary evidence. As I have demonstrated above, Rome never asks anyone to trust blindly, but always meticulously and carefully explains her reasoning and documents her sources, proving the truth of its judgments rather than simply claiming it. It is true, however, that Rome, our Lord’s Church, is the authority to which we as Catholic believers are called to submit. If we believe that the Church is who she says she is — and if we believe that Christ is who He says He is — then we choose to submit gladly.

A number of Scriptures — most notably Matthew 16:17–19, but also Matthew 18:18, John 20:22-23, John 16:13-15, Mark 16:15-18, Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8, and others — can only be interpreted be as Jesus explicitly granting authority to His Apostles. In Matthew 16:17-19, Jesus declared the foundation of His Church on the Apostle Peter, and invested Peter with the authority to “bind and loose” and the power of the “keys.” Historically and textually, the Gospel of Matthew originated in Judea and was neither written nor preserved nor canonized by partisans of the Church of Rome, but by the entire universal Church. If we as Christians believe the Bible at its Word, then we must believe that Jesus founded a Church, declared that it would stand against the gates of hell, invested it with His authority, and gave His Holy Spirit to guide it into all truth.

White charges that it is merely a “fallible” choice to follow the Church of Rome, no more certain than the decision to follow any other faith or sect. It is true that no one can be certain beyond rational doubt of the truth of Rome’s claims — but in the same way, no one can be certain beyond rational doubt that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, or any other truth we proclaim about Christianity. Faith in Christ is not “blind,” but supported by a wealth of testimonies, experiences, scientific, historical, and textual evidences — but in the end it is still accepted on faith, the gift of God’s grace. The claims of the Church of Rome, that it is the authoritative Church that Jesus founded, cannot be proven with absolute, scientific certainty, any more than the truth of Christ can. Rome’s authority must also, similarly, be taken on faith. But it is not a blind faith by any means. We know with a fair degree of certainty, both historical and archaeological, that Christ’s Apostles Peter and Paul were the foundation of the Church of Rome. Together with the historical evidence of the Gospels, the universal acknowledgement among early writers that Peter and Paul founded the Church, the Church Fathers’ deference to her authority, and the very fact that the Roman Church came to be preeminent, all attest to the truth of Rome’s claims.

What drew me to the Roman Catholic Church was her actual, historical authority, not her claims to infallible authority. My choice was a fallible one, it is true; I made it on faith; but I based my decision on the overwhelming weight of historical evidence. I accept Rome’s claims of infallible authority — I put my faith in the Church — not blindly or idealistically, but because all the evidence supports them.

The Church of Rome has a legitimate, historical, documentable claim to her origins and authority. Rather foolishly and provocatively, White claims that “the modern Roman Church is not the historical Roman Church.” Because she has changed and evolved over the centuries, and no longer resembles exactly the Church of the third, eighth, or eleventh centuries — because the early bishops of Rome would no longer recognize her as the Church they founded — she is not the same Church, says White. But by the same token, the Founding Fathers of the United States would no longer recognize the nation they founded. The modern Catholic Church is no less the Church that St. Peter founded than the modern United States is the nation that George Washington founded.

The Great Scandal

White also charges that believers choose to put their faith in the Catholic Church, or similarly the Orthodox Church — they choose to accept the claims of an infallible Church authority — because they fear taking “personal responsibility” for their faith and want a “higher authority” to do the work of interpreting Scripture for them, to make the hard decisions for them, to dictate their faith to them. Believers follow an authoritative Church because they desire the “infallible fuzzies,” “that comforting feeling of being ‘in’ with the ancient, unchanging, all-powerful, and infallible church.”

As I’ve written before, I wasn’t even looking for authority — or at least, I didn’t know that it was what I was missing — when I stumbled upon it and everything fell into place. Giving up personal responsibility was the last thing I was searching for — it was in fact my greatest fear about the Catholic Church. I neither desired nor expected the “infallible fuzzies” — and if I now have them, it’s only because Holy Mother Church is rightly sheltering me.

Rather, I was wandering to get away from the chaos and disorder of Protestantism — from the complete disarray and disagreement among Protestants about scriptural interpretation and doctrine; from the more than 50,000 distinct Protestant denominations and sects; from the intellectual inanity and emotionalism at one end, and the rigid, heartless dogmatism at the other. I blame all of this disorder on the very Reformation and its doctrines — on the Reformers’ severing of Christianity from any form of Authority or Tradition — most of all on sola scriptura.

Sola scriptura, a well-meaning doctrine that aims to set up Scripture itself as the ultimate authority, ultimately results in the setting up of each individual believer as his own ultimate authority. White admits as much. For it is each believer’s individual, personal responsibility to interpret Scripture for himself or herself, to arrive at correct doctrine, and make his own decisions about his faith. By the “individual priesthood of the believer,”* White declares, every believer is personally responsible for his own faith. “God holds us individually responsible for what we believe and why we believe it.” This, to White, is the “Great Scandal” of the Reformation.

* I’m not the Reformation scholar yet that I should be, but is White not grossly misinterpreting the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” — that is, the idea that all believers together are a priesthood, not each individual believer his own priest?

Of course God holds us personally responsible for our own decisions about our faith and beliefs. But that does not excuse us from submitting to the authorities that Christ established. In the Early Church, rejecting the authority and tradition of the Church to follow one’s own choices regarding belief was called heresy (αἵρεσις [hairesis], from αἱρέω, to choose for oneself). It is only by charity and a desire for reconciliation that most of us have stopped using that term of each other.

A little ironically, White steps back a moment to emphasize that this doctrine does not eliminate the need for the Church, and “does not do away with the biblically based authority of elders.” He seems to be selectively ignoring the biblically-based authority of bishops (ἐπίσκοποι) (1 Timothy 3:1-7). He declares that believers are to submit to the elders of the Church, and hold firm to the Apostles’ doctrines. So, believers are to submit to the authority of elders (πρεσβύτεροι, or presbyters — the origin of our priests) — but not a hierarchical, authoritative Church?

Sola Scriptura

In light of this “Great Scandal” — which to me, seems every bit as scandalous as White means it to be ironic — White attempts a defense of sola scriptura and the private interpretation of Scripture. He establishes that we are rational, but fallible and limited creatures, and that God entrusted to us His inspired Word in the Scriptures — and then hits the point of individual authority. “Do you really think God is shocked that human beings end up disagreeing over what His Scriptures teach?” he asks. “No, not for a moment.”

But this view seems immediately contrary to the God revealed in the very Scriptures He gave. All throughout salvation history, God installed His authority in the lives of His people, to instruct them and guide them. In the Old Testament, there was the Law of Moses; after Moses and Joshua, there were judges; then there were kings and prophets. Always there was God’s authoritative voice and leadership in the midst of His people. Then in the New Testament, God Himself came down to teach and shepherd His people, to establish a New Covenant and to enact the Gospel. And then, He left them with — a book? Open for each individual believer to interpret? With no other guidance or authority? That seems rather anti-climactic. No, Jesus never mentioned anything about a book; the Gospels do not anticipate the New Testament or a sola scriptura dependence on Scripture, let alone the individual interpretation of it. Jesus does establish a Church in the Gospels, and promise that the Holy Spirit would guide it into all truth (John 16:13).

In fact, none of Scripture was written or directed to the individual believer. Every book of the Old Testament was intended for the entire people of Israel. The books of the New Testament were meant for the whole Church (the Gospels and Catholic Epistles), for local churches (most of the Pauline Epistles), or for specific individuals (the Pastoral Epistles). When Paul addresses the collective Church, he uses the plural; he does not anticipate individual believers interpreting Scripture on their own or being their own authority.

What is more, in the Early Church, and even up until the modern age, the individual believer couldn’t read and interpret Scripture for himself. Until fairly recently, the vast majority of people were illiterate. This is not even to mention the great time and expense involved in copying the Scriptures: Very few individual believers even had private access to the Scriptures until the printing press. The Scriptures were the domain of the local church: only an entire church body could afford a copy of the Scriptures. Only in the Church could the lay believer hear the Scriptures read publicly, or could a knowledgeable teacher instruct him in their meaning. This is exactly analogous to the Jewish tradition from which Christianity descended: only in the synagogue could faithful Jews hear and be instructed in the Scriptures. When Paul wrote to Timothy and instructed him to devote himself to the Scriptures, it was to the public reading of Scriptures, and to publicly teaching them to other believers (1 Timothy 4:13), not to private study and personal interpretation; Timothy certainly didn’t have his own private copy. There was never any thought of the private ownership, readership, or interpretation of the Scriptures among the lay faithful until the days of Wycliffe and Luther and Tyndale. In the Early Church, the “priesthood of the individual believer” was not a practical possibility.

This demands the question: Would Jesus grant to His Church as its sole authority a Book of Scriptures that few could read and fewer could afford to own? That wasn’t even all written until thirty to fifty years after His Ascension? That didn’t even exist as a canon until a century or two later? Did Christ expect individual believers to take “personal responsibility” for the interpretation of Scripture for the fifteen or sixteen centuries when they had no private access to it, and when there was no reasonable expectation that they would? Did He simply abandon the majority of His faithful to be sore out-of-luck until the glorious day of the Reformers? No, this does not sound like the Jesus I know. Scripture attests that Jesus established a Church and invested it with authority to teach and guide believers, to corporately be His Body and His Bride; not to foster individualism and private interpretation of Scripture and doctrine.

The Roman Catholic Controversy: The Gospel of Peace

The Roman Catholic Controversy

The third post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy.

I must confess, this chapter, “The Essential Issue: The Gospel of Peace,” leaves me rather baffled. Despite James White’s claim that his many debates with Catholics have given him “insight into the best Rome has to offer to defend her own beliefs and to counter Protestant beliefs” (16), he shows here a thorough and fundamental misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine. To many of his claims of correct, Protestant teaching, I can only agree with him and ask, “So where’s your dispute? We teach the same thing.”

This general agreement makes his next point even more confusing: Offering no real evidence to support the claim — only a couple of misleading passages from doctrinal works taken grossly out of context — he brings out the old, stale, empty charge of “works’ righteousness,” which I have already refuted here several times. This is in line with his thesis for the chapter, that Christ’s Gospel is a “Gospel of peace” — and that the gospel taught by the Catholic Church offers anything but peace. To this, I tender my personal testimony: My entire journey as an evangelical Christian was one of turmoil, pain, and confusion. As a Catholic, I know the peace of God for the first time in my life.

Christians preach peace through Christ, White argues; “Not the mere possibility of peace, but a real, established, God-ordained peace that has already been brought about and completed in the work of Jesus Christ.” With this the Catholic Church wholeheartedly agrees. But White then suggests that the Catholic Church “[invites] people to try to make peace” or to “bring [something] in their hands in an attempt to buy peace.” Buy peace? This does not even resemble Catholic teaching, and I’m not quite sure how to refute it. Presumably, White thinks that because we have to “work” for our salvation, we have to “work” to make peace with God?

Christ, in Himself, in his finished work on the Cross, is our peace, argues White. All is found in Christ, and we add nothing to His perfect work. With this too the Catholic Church wholeheartedly agrees. “His work on the Cross is the means by which we who are sinful can be at peace with our holy God. . . . We are incapable of making peace ourselves — all sides agree to that” (emphasis mine). I thought we were trying to buy our peace? Yes, we do agree that we are incapable of making peace ourselves, of doing anything at all to approach God, our salvation, or His peace on our own. “But beyond this, we are incapable of maintaining [emphasis White’s] peace with God if, in fact, our relationship with Him is based on anything other than the firm foundation of he Just One who died for the injust.” Yes. This is why we base our faith on Christ and His work of salvation — and nothing else.

Arriving at the summit of his argument, White presents:

Justification is by faith because it is in harmony with grace. Grace — the free and unmerited favor of God — cannot be earned, purchased, or merited. By nature it is free. Faith has no merit in and of itself. It performs no meritorious work so as to gain grace or favor.

White clearly misunderstands the plain face of Catholic teaching (I cherry-pick for brevity’s sake, not to make my argument seem stronger than it is; please read the whole chapter if you’d like; you will find it is consistent):

Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life (Cf. Jn 1:12-18; 17:3; Rom 8:14-17; 2 Pet 1:3-4). [CCC 1996].

Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life (Romans 3:21-26, cf. Council of Trent [1547]: DS 1529) [CCC 1992].

White announces, “I have an abiding certainty of acceptance by God. Do you? Not a temporary state where things are all right.” He compares the Catholic view of “peace” to a “cease-fire” in wartime, in which “shooting might break out at any moment.” “If our relationship with God is such that it might break down in the next instant, resulting in enmity between us and God once again,” he asserts, “we do not have biblical peace.”

Again White demonstrates that he fundamentally misunderstands the Catholic faith — if not the Christian faith. When I sin as a Christian, that does not put me at “enmity” with God. Does White conceive of a wrathful, vengeful, monstrous God out to destroy sinners, to turn His sheep out of His fold the moment they wander? Is that the God White thinks Catholics conceive of? No. Our God is loving and merciful. And as long as I am following God, I will always have the peace and assurance that He will be there to forgive me, heal me, restore me; to catch me when I fall. The danger of mortal sin is not that it turns a wrathful God against a sinner, but that it turns a wayward sinner away from God (CCC 1855, 1856). Mortal sin, in the Catholic view, does entail a fall from grace (CCC 1861); but this is not because God has taken away His grace, but because the sinner has chosen to walk away from it. And God will always welcome us back with open and merciful arms. The analogy is not to “shooting” breaking out between opposing forces (God and the sinner), as White suggests, but to the Prodigal Son, having lost his entire inheritance, and starving in the pigpen, returning home to his merciful Father — to an endless and unconditional well of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and healing.

Since justification is a one-time event in the evangelical mind, covering all the sins a sinner has ever committed or will ever commit — since salvation, in White’s view, happens the moment one becomes a Christian and can never be lost — White judges the Catholic concept by the same all-or-nothing mentality; either one is lost or one is saved. But for the Catholic, justification is a lifelong process. We are journeying on a pilgrimage toward salvation, and we will reach it at the end of our lives, if we don’t stray from the road. Falling into sin, losing grace, losing peace is a setback. I fall and I get hurt. But I find so much more peace and security and comfort in knowing that there is a merciful Physician who will always receive me, heal me, and put me back on the road — who will bind up my wounds and restore me to grace — than in pretending, as an evangelical, that I never lost grace at all. Denying one is hurt doesn’t make the hurt go away; it only delays or prevents the healing.

The Roman Catholic Controversy: The Essentials

The Roman Catholic Controversy

The second post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy.

In James White’s second chapter, “Cutting through the Fog,” he aims to pierce through the “fog” of obfuscation that both Catholics and Protestants, he acknowledges, tend to get lost in in their debates with one another. Both Catholics and Protestants believe many things about each other that are myths or misconceptions or misrepresentations. He points out that most converts out of a faith — for example, former Catholics and former Mormons — tend to present views of their former faith in the worst possible light. In my case, I consider myself blessed to be a convert from evangelicalism who holds no bitterness for my former faith: just, I like to think, rightful and constructive criticism. More important, having been on both sides of the divide, I hold no negative myths about Protestantism, and, I hope, no rosy myths about Catholicism.

I must thank Dr. White for his honesty, forthrightness, and generosity toward Catholics on several points. In sweeping away the “fog,” he admits the falsehood of some widely-held evangelical myths and prejudices toward Catholics. The Sign of the Cross (“crossing oneself”) is not “pagan,” but is an ancient practice that even some Protestant sects do; the act is not in itself godly or ungodly, but can be wrong when it becomes “superstition.” Liturgy, to the evangelical, may seem stuffy, empty ritual — but White rightly acknowledges that all Christian worship is liturgy (λειτουργία, leitourgia, public service), that many great men of God have practiced formal, traditional liturgy, and that evangelical liturgy can be just as empty and devoid of meaning if it becomes merely religious practice without faith. He suggests that “danger” arises “when liturgy, no matter how ancient or well-intended, takes over to such an extent that the preaching and exposition of the Scriptures are minimized or completely done away with.” I wonder if White has ever attended a Roman Catholic Mass?

White narrows on what he believes are the “essentials” of this debate, and what are “nonessentials.” Forebodingly, he casts a rather wide net for what he considers “essential”: “The essential topic in the Roman Catholic/Protestant debate is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A number of issues are [so] closely related to the Gospel that, by virtue of that relationship, need to be classified as ‘essentials.’” In this definition, he manages to encompass the authority of Scripture versus Tradition, the authority of the Church, the doctrine of Purgatory, and teachings about the Virgin Mary as all “essential.” The canon of Scripture, the Apocrypha (or Deuterocanon), and “certain historic events” also have “great importance,” in the context of their relationship to the Gospel. Even the Crucifix, the display of Christ on the Cross, “leads one away from the truth of the Gospel” (acknowledging that the Protestant cross is “a constant reminder of what Christ did for us”). In short, it seems that White leaves little room for “nonessentials”: most everything he disagrees with is “essential” to the Gospel.

In a strict sense, everything the Church teaches is “essential” to the Gospel, since the Gospel is what we teach. And if we believe the truth of our doctrines, then all of these teachings are indeed “essential” (of the essence, fundamental, necessary). But some doctrines, it can’t be denied, are more marginal to the truth of the Gospel than others. The Gospel would still be the Gospel — we would still believe that Jesus saves — without the belief in Purgatory. Purgatory merely offers an extra chance for Jesus to save the sinner, so that even “if [his] work is burned up, . . . he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). The Virgin Mary is essential to the Gospel in that it is through her obedience that Christ came into the world; but even without the beliefs in her perpetual virginity, her Assumption, or her intercession, Jesus would still be able to save. The Gospel is still the Gospel whether Christ catches up believers in a sudden Rapture, or comes in glory with trumpets, or does so either before or after a time of Great Tribulation. I dare say that even whether one is baptized as an infant or as an adult believer, Christ’s ability to save is uninhibited. With the doctrines of Purgatory, or the Virgin Mary’s intercession, or infant baptism, or the Rature included, the essential message of the Gospel is unchanged; with them excluded, nothing essential is lost. We still teach that Jesus saves sinners by His grace alone, through his death on the Cross and His Resurrection. This is why, at the core, in its essence, both Catholics and Protestants teach the same Gospel.

The Roman Catholic Controversy: What is the Gospel?

The Roman Catholic Controversy

The first post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy.

Catholics and Protestants — do the differences still matter? That is the question The Roman Catholic Controversy presents us with from the start. From the very first pages, the book makes clear that the question is merely rhetorical: In the foreword, John H. Armstrong announces unequivocally that “Catholic doctrinal formulations . . . significantly conflict with the plain teaching of God’s Word” and that Catholic doctrines “actually undermine the grace of God in the Gospel.” Accidentally, Armstrong places the book in its context: The Catholic Controversy was published in 1996, amid the first in the new explosion of converts from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism, and the rising wave of conversion literature, especially from Scott Hahn (Rome Sweet Rome, 1993), Patrick Madrid (Surprised by Truth, 1994), David Currie (Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic, 1996), and Stephen Ray (Crossing the Tiber, 1997) — and the ensuing counter-wave of panicked evangelical apologetics. I sincerely hope The Catholic Controversy is not another attack book, a blunt weapon designed to stanch the flow of defections by any means necessary.

Thankfully, James White steps forward with an ingenuousness and honesty that seems to reflect a genuine evangelical concern for truth and for salvation. In a world of postmodern relativism*, as “many . . . are, perhaps unwittingly, sacrificing absolute truth on the altar of compromise and expediency,” White fears the true message of the Gospel — the truthfulness — is being lost. This truth is central and crucial — and on this truth, White argues, Protestants and Catholics have a “disagreement of a fundamental nature” regarding the most fundamental of questions: What is the Gospel?

* For what it’s worth, on my first day of grad school, one of my professors announced that “postmodernism is dead.” I am pleased to confirm that at least in the historical discipline, it has shown no signs of stirring.

In a disarming feint, White does a curious thing: He presents a hypothetical dialogue between a recent, enthusiastic Catholic convert and a shocked evangelical friend. I must admit, I nearly laughed out loud as he introduced this. “At the mall, Bill has just run into Scott, an old friend from his teenage years. He and Scott both sang in youth choir; they even passed out tracts together near the downtown mission. Bill is in for a surprise.” It smells in every way like a bad after-school special. And remember, kids, don’t accept food or drink from Catholics: it just might be the Body and Blood of Christ.

Scott, the convert, echoes so many of the arguments and claims I myself have made for the truth of Rome: that Catholic doctrine does have a firm foundation in Scripture; that Catholics don’t worship Mary; that sola scriptura has no basis in Scripture; and that coming to Rome is not to lose the Gospel, but to gain the fullness of Apostolic Truth. White acknowledges that most Protestants are not prepared to answer the claims of Rome, and he implies that this is why Scott converted: because he lacked the knowledge to defend against them. I can only presume that White will return to each of these claims, and provide a counterargument.

White then approaches the main argument of his book: not only to reject the claims of Rome, but to reject all efforts at ecumenism. Merely sharing the “bare confession” that “Jesus is Lord” is not a valid basis for Christian unity, he rightly argues. More than simply calling on the name of Jesus, “who Jesus is, what He did, and how we come to know Him” are crucial questions to the Christian identity. (All emphases are White’s.) “If unity in doctrine on the person of Christ is necessary for meaningful unity,” White asks, “is unity on the doctrine of the Gospel itself also just as necessary?” It is a telling question that I believe underpins White’s argument.

White concludes his first chapter in very certain, concrete terms: that the Roman Catholic Church is “preaching a gospel that is contradictory to that taught by the Apostles of the Lord,” a teaching that is “a dangerous error that is to be avoided at peril of spiritual loss.” Catholics very clearly teach “a different gospel” than Protestants (and with that, he sets up a thesis directly contrary to mine); he knows many Catholics who would acknowledge as much, he adds. “The Gospel message itself is an issue upon which compromise is impossible. No unity can exist where the Gospel is no longer central to the teaching of the Church,” White argues. “The Roman Catholic position on the topic of the Gospel . . . falls outside the realm of biblical truth, not just in minor, secondary issues but with reference to the very heart of the Gospel itself.”

And what, to White, is the heart of the Gospel? He does not leave us in suspense: “The fact that God justifies us freely by his grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone must, I believe, be included in the most basic, fundamental definition of the Christian faith.” It is the standard Reformed refrain that has echoed since the Reformation itself: without the five solas — sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (by faith alone), solo Christo (by Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) — there is no Gospel.

But this returns me to the essential question which White posed: What is the Gospel? Is the Gospel Reformed doctrine? Did Jesus lay out the five solas in His Sermon on the Mount? If this in itself is White’s gospel, then I have no doubt that Catholics denied sharing it. No, doctrine — both Reformed doctrine and Catholic doctrine — is teaching about the Gospel. And even though both Catholics and Protestants claim that their teachings were guided by the Holy Spirit (the Catholic Church does claim infallibly), teaching is something men do; saving is what Jesus does.

Despite White’s insistence that the Catholic Church teaches a “different gospel” than Protestants, we both agree that Jesus saves. We both agree that we are sinners in need of a Savior, hopeless in our sin without Him. We both agree that salvation is by grace alone, by Christ alone — that no one can approach God, by his own grace and merits, apart from the grace of God. We both agree that God is love — that because He loved us, Christ died for the sins of us all so that we might be saved; that we are justified by His merits alone. And yes, there are doctrinal differences between us. But is the Gospel that Jesus justifies us by faith alone (with works necessarily proceeding), upon which we disagree — or is the Gospel that Jesus justifies us by His grace alone, and nothing we have ever done or could ever do, by our own merits or efforts, could pay the price He paid — upon which we agree? Does White really mean to subjugate the love and the grace and the salvation of God to doctrine?

As often as Protestants accuse Catholics of worshipping Mary, I often wonder if Reformed Christians don’t worship their solas. Doctrine is important; I do not argue otherwise. Doctrinal relativism — the trap I myself fell into for so long — is a lie. But do our different doctrines not describe the same Truth? Is that Truth not the Christ who saves us by His grace, rather than our doctrine?

The Roman Catholic Controversy

The Roman Catholic Controversy

My new friend Julia has suggested that I read a book called The Roman Catholic Controversy, by James R. White of Alpha and Omega Ministries. As chance would have it (or as God would have it, since I’m not so sure I believe in random chance anymore), I picked up this book a few months ago on a thrifting run, and have been meaning to read it anyway. It seemed, flipping through it, to be a reasonably fair and balanced examination of a number of issues that divide Protestants and Catholics. The reviews on Amazon seem to agree — though the book’s bias and conclusions are very clear. For Roman Catholicism is a “controversy,” and the blurb on the back cover divulges that “evangelicals and Catholics share common ground on some points, yet there are crucial differences that remain regarding the Christian life — and the heart of the Gospel itself — that cannot be ignored.”

No, they cannot be ignored, and shouldn’t be. But I maintain — and assert again — that Catholics and Protestants teach the same Gospel. The subtitle of the book is “Catholics and Protestants — Do the Differences Still Matter?” My hypothesis, going into this book, is that yes, they do matter — but not as much as some would like to make them.

For the next little while, I’ll read this book with you, and let you know what I think of the arguments. If there are valid points, I will award them; if there are inaccuracies, I will correct them; if I come to see the error of my ways, you’ll be the first to know about it. I hope this review will be a critical resource to whomever should follow after me asking these questions. I pray Dr. White’s pardon, and will do my best to be fair to him, especially if he has been fair to the Catholic faith. And Julia, I do hope you’ll follow along with me and share your thoughts with me, too.

Links to posts in my posts in this series

The Other Side of Calvin

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

I’m about to enter the scriptorium exeuntis, the paper-writing cave, from which there may be no return. But I suppose I shouldn’t leave everyone (all one or two of y’all?) hanging. Here is the second half of my post about Calvin.

I have felt pretty bad about the tone of that last post. I very nearly quietly removed it this morning, but after re-reading it, I decided that it wasn’t so bad. But I have feared that I came across in too polemical a way. That isn’t what this blog is about. I do not want, I am not interested at all, in attacking anyone else’s doctrine or theology or tradition. This blog is about my journey to the Catholic faith, all the good and praiseworthy things I have found in Catholicism. As I found out early on, embracing the Catholic tradition necessarily entails rejecting some other things. But I want to be clear that my aim is not to denigrate. In that last post, it was late; I was tired; and I probably could have done with a better choice of words (not to mention a good many fewer).

The title of this book I’m reviewing is Against Calvinism — but I am not against Calvinism at all. On the contrary, I am very fascinated by it. I think it is a worthy, valuable, and thoughtful paradigm for interpreting Scripture and thinking about God. I don’t know everything about God. The Catholic Church doesn’t know everything about God, nor does it claim to. What the Church does claim, I have embraced and I will uphold. But I do respect and even admire the knowledge and thought of others.

Against Calvinism

Against Calvinism. Dead, wilted TULIPs.

Roger Olson, in Against Calvinism, does come across in a rather polemical way. That was demonstrably his commission from Zondervan: to take apart and critique Calvinism, to provide the con to Michael Horton’s pro in For Calvinism. Olson makes clear that his aim is not to attack Calvinists — he affirms his love and respect for them as brothers and sisters in faith — but when he gets down to arguing, he can come across as rather vicious.

Notably, it’s clear that Horton and Olson didn’t read each other’s manuscripts before the publication of these books. Horton provides little in For Calvinism to anticipate the criticisms of Olson — and he probably should have, since I understand they’re pretty common criticisms. Likewise, the seemingly moderate Calvinism Horton presents (he vehemently denies his support of “hyper-Calvinism”) is not the Calvinism that Olson critiques in Against Calvinism. Olson takes aim at the “radical Reformed” theology of the “young, restless, Reformed” generation.

I went to school with a lot of those people (one or two may even be reading this), so I completely understand what Olson is talking about. I admire their passion for the Gospel and for God and most of all for their re-application of the intellect to faith. Olson sadly explains — and I nod fervently — the death of theology and doctrine in much of evangelical culture, the growing anti-intellectualism that leaves so many young people feeling empty. It certainly did that to me. It was a very good thing that I found security in my Catholic faith before reading Horton’s book. If I had read it while I was still lost, I think I would have pounced on Calvinism ravenously. (Most of my exposure to Calvinism while I was lost, though, was rather frightening and distasteful. Maybe I’ll share that sometime. But Horton presented it better than anyone ever had to me.)

As Olson critiques “radical Calvinism,” though, he makes clear that nearly all Calvinism is radical, if followed to the ends of its logic. Like a vicious game of dominoes, he pursues every Calvinist argument to its logical conclusions — many painful contradictions that, as Olson presents them, impugn the character of God. One of several phrases he repeats throughout the book is that Calvinism’s conclusions make God “either morally ambiguous or at worst a moral monster.” He demonstrates how each of the “five points” of Calvinism demands each other, how no “moderate Calvinist” can affirm just four and be logically honest (usually the one they want to reject is “limited atonement”), and how the whole system is predicated upon, and proceeds logically from, the affirmation of God’s absolute, meticulous sovereignty.

One thing I appreciate about Olson’s work is the extensive quotations he gives from Calvinist thinkers and authors, demonstrating that they in fact affirm what he is accusing them of affirming. Olson quotes from both Calvin and a half dozen influential Calvinist authors, including Loraine Boettner (a favorite villain for Catholics, who penned the wildly inaccurate Roman Catholicism (1962), responsible for so much of the rabid anti-Catholicism of the past half-century; I must confess I rather enjoyed watching him be pecked apart), R.C. Sproul (of whom I’d heard, but knew little about; I didn’t realize he was so anti-Catholic, and I’m now tempted to read him), and John Piper (the paragon and spiritual leader of so much of the RUF crowd; notably not anti-Catholic; I would really like to read him).

The contradictions Olson exposes are real and problematic. In my mind, they amount to these: If God is absolutely, meticulously sovereign, decreeing every event and movement down to the smallest atom, then he is necessarily the author of sin and evil. He created Satan and caused him to rebel; he created Adam and caused him to sin — or at least, “rendered his sin certain”; he “renders certain” each of our sins and failures. Calvinists have many ways of evading the conclusion that God bears responsibility for human sins and evils, arguing that God’s ways are not our ways, that He has a sovereign plan for it all, for His greater glory. They have many ways of explaining the apparent paradox between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility for our sins. But I am convinced by Olson’s argument here — both cannot be true.

Also, and even more problematic for me, Calvinism would present that God divinely reprobates the nonelect — those whom he did not choose to be saved — for sins that He himself ordained. He created many, if not most, of humanity for the sole purpose of being damned, of suffering both in this life and in eternity. God, who has the power and sovereignty to save all effectually, chooses to reject the most, even by choosing not to save them. How could a God who is love (1 John 4:8) do that? Olson argues that “double predestination” is a necessary conclusion of Calvinism’s other doctrines; that it can’t be excluded as Horton tries. And many (most of the authors he quotes) openly affirm it. Calvinists again have many arguments to explain divine reprobation. They argue that our human concept of love is not the same as God’s concept — but if God created our concept of love, how could it not be the same? Jesus reveals to us in fullness the character of God (John 14:9) — and I do not see Jesus rejecting people in this way or consigning anyone to suffering. Piper, for example, argues that God loves the elect in special way, but being love, loves all of creation, giving even many blessings to the reprobate — but as Olson points out, this is tantamount to “giving them a little piece of heaven to go to hell in.” How does creating people for suffering and death and loss, without any hope for redemption, exhibit “love”?

And that has always been my problem with Calvinism. I have had many friends who extol the hope and assurance it gives them to believe that God is control of everything, that no matter what happens, no matter what trials and sufferings they face, God has a plan for it and will ultimately bring them to glory and salvation. But I have always tended to see the other side of that coin. Identifying, as Jesus does, with the lost and the suffering, the “least of these,” I have only seen the utter hopelessness and despair to which these propositions necessarily leave the great mass of humanity. What is the point of living, of suffering through this existence, if there is no hope for anything beyond — if those people are predestined for only more and eternal suffering? To me, it necessarily undermines the essential dignity of all mankind, one of my core beliefs as a Christian and as a human — that all people are created in the image of God, and all people are worthy of love and respect; that no one deserves death and pain, and that I should labor in service to all. But Calvinism would tell me that much of humanity is destined only for destruction, that ministering to the lost is only a salve to the dying, that God ultimately doesn’t love those people the same way he loves his exclusive, preordained flock. Calvinists argue that the reprobate earn their destruction for themselves, through their sins and their rejection of Christ — but that only makes it worse, to say that they deserve it. For Christ rejected them first; he had the power to save them too, but didn’t. God decreed the very sins for which they suffer.

*exhales* … And as I said, I’m not against Calvinism. *grins sheepishly* I, like Olson I think, tend to get a little carried away with my rhetoric. I was going to say that I thought Olson was being a little harsh, but I’m not sure I did a lot better. The bottom line: I enjoyed Against Calvinism as well, though it was a bit of a painful experience, like watching someone take a hammer to the beautiful sculpture Horton had crafted. But I do think Olson is correct to point out these paradoxes, contradictions, and conundrums. All faith necessarily has mysteries, places where faith seems even foolish — in the Catholic faith, most ostentatiously, that bread and wine literally become the Body and Blood of Christ, when the senses show us otherwise. The problem of evil, explaining the origins and causes of sin and pain and suffering, is a problem for any faith. I certainly believe — I have seen enough in my life to affirm without a doubt — that God is sovereign over this world and our lives. But I have a very hard time embracing a view that openly declares that God is the author of all sin and pain, or that our loving God is not as loving as we believe.

Discovering Calvin

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Last Christmas, I received a couple of books of theology: For Calvinism by Michael Horton and Against Calvinism by Roger Olson. I had asked for them; they had come highly recommended. I had never given Calvinism a fair shake, I felt. Every time I had tried to approach it through personal study in the past, it had left me feeling hopeless and despondent; it seemed to undermine the essential dignity of man. But I had a feeling that I probably wasn’t comprehending it fully. Other people I had talked to spoke of the hope and assurance it brought them; but I couldn’t see that at all. What was I missing? These books, I was told, were written by well-known academic theologians who presented their arguments well, so I hoped it might help me properly put the pieces together in my mind. And I was curious.

I’ve never had much of a mind for theology, especially not to discern between all the competing arguments that each seemed to have weight. Having no real foundation of my own, I had no point of reference from which to judge ideas; so more often than not, the entire discipline left me feeling frustrated and lost. But in coming to the Church, I had found my bedrock of truth, the faith passed down from the Apostles and confirmed by the generations. For the first time in my life, I knew what I believed. I was ready to tackle this.

For Calvinism

For Calvinism. See the pretty TULIPs?

Almost from the start, Horton’s For Calvinism charmed me. The picture Horton painted was not the bleak, harsh world that I had encountered before. The ideas he presented were surprisingly moderate, and seemed to follow logically. It was not a worldview at odds with the rest of Christianity (for I have met too many combative, polemic Calvinists), but a system of interpretations that sought to recover biblical truths. These interpretations, Horton claimed, were not new. They had been passed down from the Church Fathers and councils, most notably St. Augustine, but passing through a long list of great men, including my beloved St. Bernard of Clairvaux — until finally they were returned to light by Calvin. This seemed, at once, too good to be true.

To my immense surprise, I found Calvin himself, from the many quotes Horton shared from the Institutes and other writings, to be compassionate and amiable — not the cold, stern voice I was expecting. He was erudite, thoughtful, and reasonable, yielding points where I did not expect him to yield; I was expecting rigid, dogmatic pronouncements. I had to admit, I liked Calvin. One passage in particular, Horton quoted at length. Of my beloved ancients, Calvin wrote:

Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts. Those men whom Scripture, calls “natural men” were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled if its true good (Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.15, quoted at Horton, For Calvinism, 42).

The more I read, the more I was taken aback. As Horton laid out the doctrines of the TULIP (the terms of which he slightly modified), the “five points” of Calvinism, the idea began to crystallize: This is not that different than what we believe. Though Horton made fairly frequent references to what “Roman Catholics believe” — very often misunderstanding or misrepresenting what we in fact believe — his descriptions of Calvinist doctrine seemed to agree in many aspects with Catholic understandings. Total depravity — our total inability, in mankind’s fallen state, to reach to God in any way apart from His grace: certainly, the Church has always believed that. Unconditional election — without a doubt, Scripture teaches God’s election; and the way Horton presented it, it made perfect sense; when it didn’t, he appealed to mystery. I was impressed and relieved that Horton vehemently rejected double predestination. No, Horton said, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that God simply passes over those he does not choose, leaving them to the wages of their sins. I began to write extensively in the margins.

The chapter on atonement fascinated me. Horton went down a list of theories of the atonement, none of which I had studied before. But each of the ones Calvinism affirmed were consistent with the Church’s teachings; most of them, Horton admitted, were proposed by Church Fathers or even medieval theologians. In fact, Horton very frequently cited Church Fathers or church councils to illustrate or support his arguments. I met the doctrine of particular redemption (Horton’s preferred term for what is often called “limited atonement”) with considerably more resistance, but Horton explained it very well; it seemed to be logically necessary.

The way Horton presented effectual grace (or “irresistible grace”) didn’t immediately conflict with Catholic teaching. Catholics affirm that it is only by God’s grace that we are called. Though we believe that we have to assent to that grace, how do we know it wasn’t irresistible, since we who are Christians didn’t resist it? It was certainly effectual in us. Horton explained that after that initial, saving grace, Calvinists believe that in their continuing conversion, they have to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling,” cooperating with God’s grace to move toward their sanctification — an idea completely consistent with Catholic teaching.

At the very beginning of his argument for perseverance of the saints, Horton gave a hefty quote from St. Augustine. In the margin I wrote, “HA!” Following from Augustine, Horton went on to describe the “visible church” that contained both the elect and the nonelect — both those who would be saved and those who would be lost — in the same terms Catholics use. People fall away, he affirmed; people apostasize; it happens. But God never loses those whom He chose, whom He effectually called. If we do not fall away, if we do not deny Him, we will be saved.

Horton went on to relate Calvinism and the Christian life. His descriptions of a piety that emphasized public, communal means of grace over private relationships with God could be easily applied to Catholic piety. The remainder of the book, with chapters on Calvinism and missions, and a hasty summation rounded out with rude, unsupported jabs at Roman Catholicism, was unsatisfying. Horton should stick to what he does best, theology.

In the end, I was thoroughly enchanted by Horton’s book. He had sanded off the hard edges of Calvinism, and presented what on its face seemed moderate and logical and well supported. I went off jabbering about all the things it had in common with Catholicism, wondering why in the world we had been unable to resolve our differences for the past five hundred years. I didn’t realize until later — until after I’d read Olson’s Against Calvinism — where I had gone wrong. In my thinking, I mistook unconditional election for foreknowledge: since we have to assent to God’s call, how do we know he didn’t elect from the beginning those whom he foreknew would assent? But then, this election wouldn’t have been unconditional. Remove that brick, and the whole structure comes tumbling down.

Ultimately, in his efforts to be reasonable and moderate, Horton had nearly completely downplayed the absolute, meticulous sovereignty of God that Calvinists affirm. I had to go back through to look for affirmations that this is what he believes; and they were there, but subtle. All of the points of Calvinism that seemed acceptable to me had only been acceptable without the idea that God was decreeing absolutely everything. Adding this back to the mix, and following it to its logical conclusion — as Olson does in Against Calvinism — results in some truly disturbing contradictions.

But you’ll have to wait until tomorrow (or later; I can’t promise) to hear about that. Of For Calvinism, I can say that it was well written and well presented, and I enjoyed it a lot. Horton is a good theologian and a good writer and I hope to read some more from him in the future. He dispelled many of the caricatures I had of Calvinism; he puffed away even some of the bad experiences I have had with Calvinists. Above all, and most important, he brought me to an understanding of the harmony and consistency of Calvinist thought. I can at last see why my friends find it so assuring. I have a newfound respect for Calvinist theology, and for Calvin himself, and I intend to continue my study.

Postscript: For what it’s worth, I am not alone in my feeble attempt to reconcile Calvinist theology to Catholic theology. Jimmy Akin did the same thing a number of years ago, with much better results: A Tiptoe through TULIP.