Friday, August 12, 2005

Response to Critics of My Post Below

In replying to the various comments (largely negative, from both sides) to my post below, I would like to remind people how it all started. Shari DeSilva (aka "Clueless Christian") in explaining why she became Catholic used what apparently all sides recognize to be a grossly over-inflated doctrine of Catholic/Orthodox church authority to slam all Protestant churches as obviously erroneous. She also used the same argument as a put-down in the comment box on a Pontifications post. So since she used what all sides seem to recognize as mistaken arguments to ridicule Protestant churches, obviously someone needs to repent of his bad manners: me! Well, I will just assume that my commentators are motivated by chivalrous feelings when they see a lady attacked; I respect those feelings, but I am defending a lady too, that is, my church.

A number of commentators also feel I am slandering the Catholic church by responding to this attack as if it represented Catholic teaching. I think I made it clear that I was referring to popular, but widespread, Catholic apologetic arguments. If some one wants more examples of what I am talking about, read on. The following are some typical quotations all of which imply that there was such a fog of hundreds of books contending for scriptural authority up to the fourth century that Christians before then could not be sure that any book was Scripture:

"Not only sixty-five years did Christ leave the Church He had established without a Bible, but over three hundred years. The Church of God was established and went on spreading itself over the whole globe without a Bible for more than three hundred years. In all that time the people did not know what constituted the Bible."

"The Catholic Church didn’t compile the Bible until almost 400 A.D. and until that point various churches (all Catholic) had various pieces of the Bible. How did these Christians function without the entirety of Scripture?"

"This, therefore, draws our attention to another deep problem with sola scriptura. Not only is the Bible itself impotent to prove its own inspiration or ensure its own interpretation, it could not specify exactly which of the hundreds of books were to be considered inspired Scripture."

"Without an INFALLIBLE authority, we cannot even know what books are the Word of God and which are works of Satan!!! Here is the gist of the question: How do you know that the Gospel attributed to Matthew is true and the Gospel attributed to Thomas is false?"

"Who, then, decided that [the book of Philemon] was Scripture? The Catholic Church. And it took several centuries to do so."

"The Catholic Church existed before any of the books of the New Testament were written. The Catholic Church is the mother of the New Testament. It was written in its entirety by Catholics. If she had not scrutinized carefully the writings of her children, rejecting some and approving others as worthy of inclusion in the canon of the New Testament, there would be no New Testament today. If she had not declared the books composing the New Testament to be the inspired word of God, we would not know it."

"By the year 390 A.D. many spiritual books were in circulation among the various local churches, so the Church convoked the Council of Hippo in 393 A.D. to determine which books were the inspired ones. After diligent study the council accepted some as inspired, rejected others, and finally issued an official list of books which today comprise the New Testament. This official list was later confirmed by the Council of Carthage in 397 A.D. This declaration of the Catholic Church is the sole authority for all Christians for their belief in the inspired character of the Bible."

[UPDATED NOTE: In my half-hour or so search for the above comments, I found large numbers of similar comments from comments and forums, but restricted myself to those appearing on reasonably well-designed, permanent-looking web-sites. There's plenty more where these came from.]

Now, I think I have dealt with the issues raised by the quotes already in the previous post, which no one seems to challenge. To review: 1) at several points NT writers (Paul, John in Revelations) claim authority for his letters entirely independent of that of any church council or apostolic college as a body; 2) Philemon, the Gospel of Matthew, and over 85% of the New Testament were universally accepted as Scripture before any formal church council, let alone those of the fourth and fifth century; 3) Doubt over the canon was not free-floating but restricted to a few books; and 4) The number of non-canonical books attested as read in churches was not in the hundreds - - indeed it doesn’t pass 10 - - and none was treated as beyond controversy the way the core of the NT canon was. If Catholic apologists would take note of these fact and refrain from suggesting otherwise it would advance the arguments further. Dave Armstrong would like me to take down my post. Well, I will -- after the above sites (plus Shari DeSilva) take down or modify their demonstrably false statements listed above. Is it a deal, Dave?

The Pontificator adds a whole other element to this discussion. (Side issue: yes, as he notes, my critique of the Catholic position also applies to the Orthodox. In writing this up I referred at one point to "Catholodox" arguments but I edited that sentence out for space. If Orthodox writers who think their church wrote the Scriptures want to feel insulted too by what I wrote, they are welcome to do so.) He raises three issues: 1) that two of the Gospels (Mark and Luke) were not written by apostles; 2) the anonymity of Hebrews, whose authorship is not stated in the text and was never clearly known in the ancient church; and 3) the issue of pseudonymy, or the possibility that certain NT books ascribed to the apostles were not in fact written by them.

The first two issues are not so complicated. In Eusebius and the sources he cites, we see that the early church believed Mark was written up as the content of Peter’s preaching of Christ, while Luke-Acts was written as the content and history of Paul’s preaching. The close association of these two with the apostles (found in Scripture itself) was justification for treating their message as apostolic. (Modern critics may see the links as a church legend created by the felt necessity for NT authors to have a close link to the apostles.) Similarly, those who argued for the canonicity of Hebrews attributed the matter to Paul and the style to Clement or Luke. I am no expert, but that these arguments have not been refuted today is argued by Lutheran experts such as Paul L. Maier (and many others, evangelical and Catholic) and I'll take their word for it. In any case, Luke-Acts, Mark, and Hebrews are certainly texts that even the most critical modern scholars agree are from the apostolic era (i.e. the first century), nor is there any reason to doubt their association with the apostles.

On the third question, the Pontificator is playing with very dangerous fire. His argument seems to be that since modern critical scholarship is in favor of the Ephesians-Colossians and the Pastoral Epistles being pseudonymous (i.e. were not really written by Paul), this indicates that the Catholic-Orthodox church’s imprimatur of them as Scripture is their only reliable basis of canonicity. His language is carefully couched, but it seems that he is more than half willing to accept these conclusions of critical scholarship and to say that yes, the Pastoral Epistles were not written by Paul, but that doesn’t matter because the church accepted them.

If this is the case, the Pontificator’s view of church authority is far stronger and more troubling than that of Shari DeSilva. What he is implying is that pious frauds written in the second century to "nail" Gnostics and deceitfully attributed to Paul to enhance their authority - - for this is what critical scholarship takes these epistles to be - - can be turned into inerrant and unimpeachable writings by church authority. Not only that, since the letters in question were universally accepted as genuine by the early church, the Pontificator will be forced, if he continues to hold this view, to accept that the process of canonization proceeded by a kind of strange ex opere operato in which documents mistakenly assumed to be genuine by the church and approved on that basis do really become inerrant and unimpeachable as a result of church decision. Wow! What now remains of the church’s supposed infallibility? Dishonesty turned into inerrancy by the mechanics of a church council; the cheated church hierarchy imposing the document that cheated them on the world at large - - and having God’s approval to do so!

I know it is attractive to use church or traditional authority to get around the problems posed by critical scholarship; the Pontificator, followed Dom Gregory Dix, has toyed with this option before. People in ELCA do it as well (see the critique here). But to do so lays the charge of fraud, knowing or not, first on the church and then on the Holy Spirit. I say this in all seriousness: I would rather look like an ignorant, pre-critical, ahistorical, Bible fundamentalist in this life today, than go before the judgment seat of God with that on my conscience.

UPDATE: There is a non-answer answer to my comments here.

UPDATE II: I hadn't remarked that Kevin Vogts's piece on ELCA, higher criticism, and the Lord's Supper linked above takes as its target the Pontificator's most often cited Lutheran source, Robert W. Jenson. Vogts's citations highlight the synergy of Catholicizing trends with higher criticism.

UPDATE III: As I noted in an update to the original post, after reconsidering, I now realize the "big lie" (shades of Nazism, etc.) language was over the top and uncalled for. But I still think that what Shari deSilva wrote is common, wrong, and worthy of refuting.

UPDATE IV: Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong has a post in which he addressed the issue I was addressing, entitled "The Canon of Scripture: Did the Catholic Church Create It Or Merely Authoritatively Acknowledge It? (with Kevin Johnson) ." He still disagrees strongly about whether my reading of the quotations above is correct, but his comments in the "Canon of Scripture" article are definitely worth reading, particularly if one still does think the Catholic Church created Scripture.

Originally posted at Here We Stand