The Catholic Historical Method

It’s important to understand, when Catholics and Protestants approach a given topic, they approach things in different ways.

In comments to a recent posting on the question of the origin of the Bible, one Catholic writer prefaced his statement this way: “Both sides, yours and mine both can be accused of question begging.”

The dishonesty of this statement is astounding.

In his “Biblical Theology,” Geerhardus Vos discussed the Protestant attitude when approaching the Scriptures. He spoke of “an instinctive recognition that at the beginning of all Theology lies a passive, receptive attitude on the part of the one who engages in its study. The assumption of such an attitude is characteristic of all truly exegetical pursuit. It is eminently a process in which God speaks and man listens.” (“Biblical Theology,” pg. 4).

So when Reformed theologians “beg the question,” it is only at a point at which there is no way to avoid admitting one presupposes God at the beginning of such a study. Following that, the Reformed work with Scripture through a process of exegesis, that is getting out of the text what is there. The Reformed continue to follow the practice of Irenaeus, which I’ve outlined in another post. (“The parables will agree with the clear statements and the clear passages will explain the parables.”) Scripture interprets Scripture.

With regard to the Catholic Church, it is a blatant form of revisionism. This is evidenced by Pius IX’s method articulated in his Letter, “Gravissimas inter,” to the Archbishop of Munich-Freising, Dec. 11, 1862, reiterated in Pius XII’s statement in Humani Generis, “theologians must always return to the sources of divine revelation: for it belongs to them to point out how the doctrine of the living Teaching Authority is to be found either explicitly or implicitly in the Scriptures and in Tradition.”

This is further explained in a variety of sources. One Roman Catholic theologian wrote, “We think first of developed forms for which we need to find historical justification. The developed forms come first and the historical justification comes second.” (“Ways of Validating Ministry,” Kilian McDonnell, Journal of Ecumenical Studies (7), pg. 213, cited in Carlos Alfredo Steger, “Apostolic Succession in the Writings of Yves Congar and Oscar Cullmann, pg. 322.) Steger calls this type of historical revisionism “highly questionable if not inadmissible.”

Aiden Nichols, “The Shape of Catholic Theology” (253) notes that for the last several hundred years, according to these popes, “the theologian’s highest task lies in proving the present teachings of the magisterium from the evidence of the ancient sources.” One internet writer called this method “Dogma Appreciation 101” (related in a discussion of his studies in a Catholic seminary.) Nichols calls this, “the so-called regressive method,” and notes that Walter Kasper (now a Cardinal) has traced the origins of this method to the 18th century.

Prior to Newman’s “theory of development,” it was the practice of Catholic apologists (see Bossuet) to argue that the church had never changed: “semper eadem.” But in the course of further historical research, it became necessary for someone like Newman to explain the huge scope and number of the changes that Rome had effected on the church over the centuries.

In the Orwell novel, 1984, it was the job of the main character, Winston Smith, “to rewrite historical documents so they match the constantly changing current party line. This involves revising newspaper articles and doctoring photographs — mostly to remove ‘unpersons,’ people who have fallen foul of the party.”

To find precedence for this practice, Orwell had to travel no further than the Roman Catholic Church, which had made this its practice for centuries. In describing how we have come to know about the genuine teachings of Nestorius, Friedrich Loofs wrote, “The church of the ancient Roman Empire did not punish its heretics merely by deposition, condemnation, banishment and various deprivation of rights, but, with the purpose of shielding its believers against poisonous influence, it destroyed all heretical writings … a similar fortune was prepared for Nestorius.” (Loofs, “Nestorius,” 2-11).

Of course, according to Orwell, “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say this or that even, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.” (Book 1, Chapter 3)

This is precisely what the Catholic Church, at an official level, to a greater or lesser degree, has been doing for centuries, and it is the type of thing that its modern apologists continue to do today. (Especially adherents to Newman’s “theory of development.”)

Unthinking Protestants, however, let such comments as the initial commenter made go unnoticed; in my estimation, a failure to understand that this is the foundation of the Catholic side of these discussions, is all too often the reason why these discussions end up the way they do. I’m convinced it is a major reason why many “intellectuals” convert to Rome.

I have a son who likes to light matches so he can smell the smoke. Islamist terrorists investigate ways to create the maximum amount of death and terror through the use of incendiary devices. True, both could be said to be “playing with fire.” But the sheer dishonesty of that statement, with regard to proportion, must truly be understood before one can move forward with a sound understanding of what’s really happening.

Those who were alarmed by the requirement of the Chinese government that Google censor its search results, should be equally alarmed by this method of argumentation that is so widespread among Catholics. Until this basic methodology is acknowledged, examined and understood, it is useless and even damaging for Protestants to have any kind of “friendly” discussion at all with Catholics.

10 thoughts on “The Catholic Historical Method

  1. Greetings, John!
    You’ve allowed corrupt, dishonest, meddling attempts at ideologically-driven historical revisionism to characterize what you call “The Catholic Historical Method.”

    The problem that I see with your reasoning, though, lies in the fact that every group, organization, or institution has its share of corrupt, crooked members. So the differences we perceive between this or that institution are differences not of “kind” but of “degree.”

    At what point, then, is one justified in characterizing ANY particular institution by a particular method honest, crooked, or otherwise?

    Would it be right for me to judge Calvinism or Lutheranism, for example, according to the deeds of the numerous Protestant leaders who’ve succumbed to corruption? And when I finally come to the point at which I write off a whole institution as fundamentally off-track or damnable (as you have with the Catholic Church), what do my conclusions reveal of my understanding of the nature of God’s grace, not to mention His Sovereignty?

    We’re under the New Covenant in His Blood, after all. Is His Blood not sufficient to make good of the corruption, make right of the wrongdoing, and usher an entire people, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, to His Kingdom?

    If I come to the conclusion that our Sovereign God has allowed an entire Christian institution to become, at its core, completely apostate, what hope do I have for my (relatively) tiny little Christian group?

    Just a few thoughts! thanks and peace to you.

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  2. Herbert, it is not “corrupt, meddling attempts at ideologically driven historical revisionism.” I’ve cited two popes on this methodology, a Cardinal, a priest/theologian, two seminarians, all who have characterized this as the way they choose to do business. I could go further on about this, and I wish some enterprising theological students would pick up this topic and study it thoroughly.

    If I were talking about “leaders” or “members,” no one would stand. But with Catholicism, the system itself is a corruption. That is the whole point of what I do. Calvinism is not a corrupt system in any way. Calvinism approaches God and the Scriptures with the humble attitude that Vos described. Calvinism lets the Scriptures speak for themselves, and it organizes itself around that speech. Rome makes itself master of the Scriptures. Rome brings in Neoplatonism (the “donum superadditum” and “chain of being” theology), Aristotle (via transubstantiation) and even pagan goddess worship, and says, “you must accept these on the same authority as Scripture.” We are right to reject those things, and we are right to reject the supposed authority that says we must accept those things.

    There is one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ. When “an entire Christian institution” posits itself as THAT mediator, when clearly it is interpolating itself as yet another “mediator” between Jesus Christ and man, Luther and Calvin are right to protest this, and in our day, we are right to continue this protest.

    His blood is “sufficient to cover the sins,” but it doesn’t change the fact that the Roman system works to hide the free grace and salvation that he offers. It hides him with itself, as if somehow, it is not enough that “sinful man” stands boldly and nakedly before the throne of Grace on Christ’s merits alone.

    If you are going to admit that the Catholic system is corrupt, but that the blood of Christ can overcome that, “but I’m going to tolerate that corruption for the sake of the good, happy feeling of unity I get,” then you are the one with the “problem in reasoning.” It is the false Roman system, to which people like you feel beholden, that is the primary impediment to that “one holy catholic and apostolic” kingdom you are yearning for.

    In answer to your last question, Elijah himself came to the conclusion that he was alone, and God corrected him in that notion.

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  3. Thanks Louis. :-)

    I’m currently also going through some of those “Historical” sources on the early papacy, to try and get more information “out there” than just the summaries that I provided. Some of this is not commonly known, and the intention is to give folks a pretty good overview of what the earliest church was really like – not what the Roman church says (asserts doctrinally) that it was.

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  4. Hi John,

    Good luck and sounds like a worthy project.

    As a former RC, I can tell you that you will have a very fruitful search. I have been researching this for the past few years and the field has much fruit to yield.

    Again, good luck.

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