“Low-information” Roman Catholic apologetics

In the recent Presidential election, we’ve seen the rise of what’s been called the “low-information” voter, who was perhaps characterized by the “Obama Phone” lady.

Now the Roman Catholic apologist K. Doran gives us a sample of “low-information” Roman Catholic apologetics in the following exchange:

Another writer had said this:

“The Church worldwide in the first 4 centuries hardly was conscious of Papal Infallibility (something one can only subscribe to with an accept despite the vagueness of the development of doctrine theories).”

To which K. Doran responded:

How do you know this? Do you have direct evidence that the Church worldwide from 30AD – 430AD was hardly conscious of Papal Infallibility? The paragraph you write in explanation of your claim doesn’t contain direct evidence. It only contains the indirect evidence of arguments from silence, on the order of: “when the fathers had a chance to say something about papal infallibility, they said something else instead.”

He calls this an argument from silence, but there are two very wrong things going on here.

First, when he asks for “direct evidence”, he is (like most Roman apologists) asking for direct evidence to prove a negative. He is, like most Roman apologetics, making the positive claim for “papal infallibility” [no less for an early papacy] during these centuries. At what point is it his responsibility to stop simply assuming this happened, and to actually explain how it came about?

Second, regarding the “argument from silence”, I noted in another comment thread that with respect to history, there are clear instances in which a lack of a factual information about a thing indeed does indicate that nothing at all genuinely exists on a topic. In that case, a supposed “argument from silence” is a valid one.

For example, in response to my citation from Tertullian’s total silence on the Assumption of Mary in a volume dedicated, in an otherwise comprehensive way, to the Resurrection of the Dead, Michael Liccione called it “an argument from silence”, but with respect to historical method, Gilbert Garraghan (A Guide to Historical Method, 1946, p. 149), notes that there if two conditions are met, an “argument from silence” is a valid argument.

Those two conditions are: “the writer[s] whose silence is invoked would certainly have known about it; [and] knowing it, he would under the circumstances certainly have made mention of it. When these two conditions are fulfilled, the argument from silence proves its point with moral certainty.”

Thus, his claim here fails:

the arguments from silence which you have made are all made on the part of the data set that is least conducive to arguments from silence: the period from 30AD – 380AD. During this period, the data set of Christianity is quite sparse. In particular, almost all of the letters of the bishops of Rome during this period have been lost. In our collections of patristic letters that have survived, we will usually have one portion of one person’s side of one conversation, without the rest of the context to understand what their whole point of view was. Such a small portion of the data has survived, that arguments from silence usually don’t work during this period.

This is a “low-information response” if ever there was one. J.P. Migne, a Roman Catholic writer of the 18th century, reproduced virtually every piece of writing from an early church writer, and the sum total from the period you specify, 30AD – 380AD, fills several hundred volumes, in both original Latin and Greek. Here they are in case you want to look for them:



Aside from this, there is a wealth of non-Christian information about the period. The New Testament Scholar Craig Evans has put out a 500-page book just simply providing an overview of the literature from that period which is available. It is a 500-page bibliography of the different versions of the Old Testament (translations, manuscripts, overviews of textual criticisms, etc.) Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls are catalogued, contemporary writers like Philo and Josephus, the Targums, Rabbinic literature, The New Testament (for which we have many hundreds of manuscripts from this era – all evidence not only of the texts themselves, but of the spread of the texts based on locations, and various nuances of traditions among the different areas), second- and third-century Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the early church fathers, the Gnostic writings, other Greco-Roman authors, other archaeological evidence.

Among all these thousands of catalogued sources, it is truly a head-in-the-sand move for K. Doran to say “almost all of the letters of the bishops of Rome during this period have been lost”.

I will rather say, no letters of bishops of Rome during this period were produced because there were no bishops of Rome.

And it will be impossible for you to argue that they were all destroyed in persecutions. I’ve also discussed elsewhere an elaborate industry for the reproduction and distribution of letters. If letters were destroyed in Rome, there certainly would have been copies of them sent to various parts of the empire, and if the bishops of Rome had any kind of stature at all during this period (as you say), they would have been the MOST valuable kinds of literature to be kept.

Instead, we have “crickets chirping” from that quarter. Even though, if these men (even existed, much less wrote anything), their writing would have been known and cited and copied.

How do I know that’s the case?

In their work The Heresy of Orthodoxy, Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger describe an early Christianity that “was economically and socially average—representing a variety of different [economic] classes—and had a relatively sophisticated literary culture that was committed from its earliest days to the texts of the Jewish scripture as it sought to produce and copy texts of its own” (pg 186).

In more than a dozen pages, they describe “a dizzying amount of literary traffic”, in the production and reproduction of books and letters and letter collections, including New Testament works, but also of early Christian writers like Clement and Ignatius and Hermas. In fact, The Shepherd of Hermas (c. 140) writes a Clement in Rome during that period:

And so, you will write two little books, sending one to Clement and one to Grapte. Clement will send his to the foreign cities, for that is his commission. But, Grapte will admonish the widows and orphans. And you will read yours in the city [of Rome], with the presbyters who lead the church.

In fact, Clement here is referred to as an “ecclesiastical publisher”, “a standing provision in the Roman church for duplicating and distributing texts to Christian communities elsewhere”.

If such a thing as “letters of the bishops of Rome during this period”, they would have been copied and circulated. If you choose to call this “an argument from silence”, it meets Garraghan’s historical conditions: this is not just an individual, but a system, an industry, that both was in a position to know of these letters, and would certainly have produced some evidence of them.

As further evidence of this claim, note in Kruger’s work Canon Revisited:

one area of study that has been regularly (and unfortunately) overlooked by canonical scholars, at least until recent years, is the study of the New Testament manuscripts themselves. While the content of early Christian texts has been carefully studied, the actual vehicleof these early Christian texts has been ignored as if it were a disposable husk that could be separated from its content and discarded.

Kruger spends a chapter of his book arguing “that the ‘husks’ in question hold tremendous potential in helping us to understand” not only the origins of the New Testament canon, but other documents as well.

Things like the type of materials they were produced on, the locations where they were found (which are elaborately documented, as I mentioned), variations in handwriting, types of ink, the size of the manuscripts – all are direct evidence of the “dizzying amount of literary traffic” in early Christian circles.

That there were no “letters of the bishops of Rome during this period” because there were no bishops of Rome is no fallacy. It is a valid description of the condition of the church of Rome during that period.

Doran’s citation of a fifth century writer, on the other hand, provides very little “evidence” that “there is direct evidence for the contrary claim that plenty of Christians were quite aware of a binding worldwide doctrinal authority of the Bishop of Rome”. It was a new phenomenon at that time.

His claim is a shining example of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

Further, his claim later in the same comment that:

Pope Innocent I claims several things:
(a) that a divine decree and not a human sentence, gave the Bishop of Rome his authority
(b) that this authority was worldwide
(c) that this authority was doctrinal, and
(d) that this authority had the power to overturn the judgments of other patriarchs (he implicitly overturned the Bishop of Jerusalem’s past judgment).

is categorically denied by the current Patriarch of Moscow:

The bishop of Rome did not exercise any direct jurisdiction in the East in spite of the fact that in some cases Eastern hierarchs appealed to him as arbiter in theological disputes. These appeals were not systematic and can in no way be interpreted in the sense that the bishop of Rome was seen in the East as the supreme authority in the whole Universal Church.

This is a notion, as I’ve written in the past, that was confirmed by the Vatican’s official historian of the first three centuries, Archbishop Roland Minnerath:

The East never shared the Petrine theology as elaborated in the West. It never accepted that the protos in the universal church could claim to be the unique successor or vicar of Peter. So the East assumed that the synodal constitution of the church would be jeopardized by the very existence of a Petrine office with potentially universal competencies in the government of the church.

It is a shame that such things as these are, as he said, “unconvincing to Catholics”. I don’t see how this sort of detail makes the Roman Catholic “IP” in any way “preferable”.

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