Roman Catholicism on Trial: Evidence and Assumptions

Protestants who engage Roman Catholics often leave the discussion in frustration. It seems that Roman Catholic apologists have an answer for everything: nothing penetrates their system revealing inconsistency with the evidence. They are good at accounting for facts, even the facts that seem to contradict other claims. Though denied, Roman Catholicism at times appears to lack falsifiability.

The idea of falsifiability will be in the background of this article, but my primary purpose will be to show that, given its theological system, Roman Catholicism lacks public verifiability. What I mean is that a Roman Catholic apologist, due to the parameters of his own theological system, cannot present sufficient reasons for a potential convert to believe the Roman Catholic Church’s claims for itself, namely that it is the one true visible church of Christ, such that one must, by good reason, assent to its authority. So, in other words, Roman Catholic apologists cannot publicly verify the authority-claims of the Roman Catholic Church.

The first section is a simple demonstration of my more complex approach in section two. The third section shows how Reformed Protestantism avoids these problems.

I.

A Roman Catholic can consider a text to be Holy Scripture only after the Roman Catholic Church has declared it to be Holy Scripture. This means that when a Roman Catholic cites a text as scripture he is implicitly acknowledging the Church’s authority to declare a text scripture and that the Church has declared the cited text to be scripture. So when Roman Catholics cite a text as scripture in support of Roman Catholicism they must already assume Roman Catholicism.

This implicit form of circular reasoning abounds in Roman Catholic apologetics, but it isn’t simply a mistake on their part. Roman Catholicism, when on public trial, always teeters between self-refutation and circularity, as I will show. When Protestants encounter such reasoning, there is no need to respond other than by simply pointing out the fallacy. Fallacious arguments do not require anything of you other than calling them what they are. This just-point-out-the-fallacy approach might seem insufficient on our part because, as Protestants, we care about the claims of Scripture. Still, we must only call out the fallacy. A Roman Catholic argument by scripture not demands only that you consider the text cited but also its assumption: A text can be considered scripture only after the Church has declared it to be scripture. Again, a fallacious argument requires nothing of us other than a declaration that it is fallacious.

Now, if the tactic of the Roman Catholic is to jump into the Protestant paradigm to show that it is internally inconsistent, there is no necessary fallacy. But even if the Roman Catholic is successful in showing some inconsistency, this does not constitute any direct support for Roman Catholicism. It only provides support against Protestantism. Too often Roman Catholics think that disproving Protestantism means proving Roman Catholicism. It does not work that way.[1]

II.

We should take this further and consider what it takes and what it means for a Roman Catholic to present evidence for Roman Catholicism.

In order to avoid circular reasoning, a Roman Catholic must provide good reasons for another to become Roman Catholic apart from reasons that assume Roman Catholicism. This is basic argumentation: one cannot present evidence that points to a conclusion assumed by the evidence. This means that a Roman Catholic must assume a theoretical position of neutrality when presenting evidence. Or, to put it differently, he must theoretically suspend his belief in Roman Catholicism to put it on public trial. Evidence must be “public evidence”: it must be offered as evidence from a standpoint of neutrality toward that which it aims to support. Stated differently, public evidence or a public reason to believe is something that does not simply show the presenter’s internal consistency, but provides the person to whom it is being presented evidence that does not demand one presuppose the question at hand. In other words, it demands a theoretical neutral position. This might be startling to people of faith, but that is how argumentation works.

Now, when a Roman Catholic takes a neutral stance toward Roman Catholicism and provides evidence for it, he is assuming that Roman Catholicism is open for a legitimate and a conclusive public trial: evidence can either be sufficient or be lacking to convince one to become Roman Catholic. In a public trial of this sort, one who is not convinced of Roman Catholicism does not need to disprove Roman Catholicism; he needs to show only that the evidence is insufficient to warrant belief in it. So when a Roman Catholic enters evidence for public scrutiny he must consent to the terms of a legitimate public trial.

The issue though is whether a Roman Catholic, given the Church’s position on its own authority, can consent to the terms of a legitimate public trial. I submit that they cannot. When a Roman Catholic presents public reasons to believe Roman Catholicism, they must consent, by the rules of argumentation, that they can provide sufficient reasons to believe apart from church authority.[2] They are in effect saying that there are sufficient reasons to believe Roman Catholicism apart from the church’s authority to establish the reasons to believe, apart from what constitutes sufficient reasons to believe, and, more importantly, apart from the Church’s authority itself. This is pretty basic: if the question of the church and its authority is the issue at hand, then one’s evidence, to be legitimate public evidence, must not rely for its value as evidence on presupposed answers to the question at hand. Moreover, the intent of the presentation of evidence must be to prove its object. When presenting evidence without intent to prove the evidence’s object, one violates the terms of a public trial. But a Roman Catholic qua Roman Catholic cannot consent to these terms: fundamental to their theological system is the notion that the Church is the arbiter of divine truth on earth, meaning that evidence itself cannot be sufficient to provide reasons to believe. In other words, no Roman Catholic can honestly enter public debate. By the very act of presenting evidence as public evidence they undermine the notion that the Church is the only sufficient mechanism of establishing the truth of a theological position. They cannot present public evidence without contradicting their overall system.

One could claim that evidence is necessary but not sufficient for belief or the “assent of faith.” Let us grant this to be true. Let’s assume that I have all that Roman Catholic apologetics has to offer in terms of reasons to believe Roman Catholicism. What is it that would compel me to move forward and make the assent of faith? The Roman Catholic cannot provide me reasons for faith, for that would, again, make reasons sufficient for belief. Faith and reason, in this schema, must stay separate. But, as someone who has heard all the evidence that Roman Catholics have to offer, where does this leave me? I am in a position to say (ironically with) the Roman Catholic that he has provided insufficient evidence or reasons to believe. Roman Catholicism has failed in its public trial. What is further ironic is that, given Roman Catholic assumptions, Roman Catholicism must fail in a public trial: the evidence for belief must fail to be sufficient (not fail in the sense it has been disproven, which is not a requirement to refuse belief). I am left with nothing but an exhortation to make a leap of faith. Perhaps this is the role of the Holy Spirit. Of course, I cannot disprove that one’s decision to make the leap of faith is due to the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction. But refusing to make the leap is not conditioned on my disproving that it is the Holy Spirit’s job to bring it about. In other words, one cannot demand that I justify my lack of leaping by disproving the Holy Spirit’s possible role in it. I could simply say that I have insufficient reasons to believe and no reason to make such a leap. And it ends there, for I actually do, even on Roman Catholic admission, have insufficient evidence to believe. The Roman Catholic has lost, and he can say and demand nothing more of me.

There is another argument for Roman Catholicism rooted in the thought of Cardinal Newman whose assumptions must be examined. Here is a summary of the position:

It is not a violent assumption, then, but rather mere abstinence from the wanton admission of a principle which would necessarily lead to the most vexatious and preposterous scepticism, to take it for granted, before proof to the contrary, that the Christianity of the second, fourth, seventh, twelfth, sixteenth, and intermediate centuries is in its substance the very religion which Christ and His Apostles taught in the first, whatever may be the modifications for good or for evil which lapse of years, or the vicissitudes of human affairs, have impressed upon it.

This “vexatious and preposterous scepticism” is the Protestant paradigm, according to Newman and others: a Protestant has no principled means of distinguishing between divine truth and human opinion. The debates on this characterization of Protestantism have raged and raged, but I want to suggest that we look at Newman’s prior commitments that permit him to realize the need for such a principle.

We should notice in his statement that we must “take it for granted” the continuity of “substance” of the “very religion which Christ and His Apostles taught” throughout church history. With this principle, according to Newman, we can assume the continuity of apostolic teaching: the theology of the Roman Catholic Church at present is of the same substance as the theology of Christ and his apostles. By this move, he thinks that he avoids the skepticism that can arise from allowing humans to interpret texts and determine divine truth. According to him, the type of interpretive analysis required in Protestantism must generate uncertainty and a diversity of opinions. For this reason, this cannot be a principled means of distinguishing divine truth and human opinion.

Now, I do not want to directly address this claim, and it has been addressed repeatedly, but I want show that Newman’s position is self-refuting. Here is why.

Newman can claim only the need for a principled non-skeptical means of distinguishing divine truth and human opinion after already knowing certain divine truths. How can someone claim the need for a principled means to distinguish the divine teaching of Christ from mere human opinion without already believing the divine truths that there was a man Jesus Christ who was the messiah, who died and rose again, who founded a church, and who commissioned apostles to faithfully transmit the deposit of faith? These are all divine truths that Newman has presumed to be true, apparently on the theoretical basis of human opinion; and it is on the basis of these divine truths that Newman demands a principled means to distinguish between divine truths and human opinion. We can begin to see the problem. He could know these divine truths only apart from and prior to the principle through which he claims one can only know such truths. He could not presuppose the principle prior to believing that Jesus is the founder of a church, for the principle contains in itself the idea that a deposit of truth is there to be determined. In other words, a principled means of determining the doctrine that Jesus deposited can be posited only by one already committed to all sorts of divine truths that, according to the principle, cannot rise above the level of human opinion.

We now see that these divine truths, assumed and necessary for Newman’s grand assumption, are known only through the very unprincipled “vexatious and preposterous scepticism” that he seeks to overcome: one must collect, legitimize, interpret, and synthesize the “secondary sources” (that is, the New Testament documents and statements of the early church fathers) to know these divine truths that, according to Newman, demand a principled means of avoiding collecting, legitimizing, interpreting and synthesizing sources to determine divine truths. Newman must theoretically first enter the realm of biblical scholarship with all its skepticism, and pull from it, through his own interpretation of the available data (that is, form a human opinion), numerous divine truths (such as “Christ founded a church”) that he claims then demands a principle to avoid the very same realm of skepticism from which and by which he came to believe those divine truths. Newman’s position is self-refuting: on his account one can legitimately come to divine truth, through the consideration of evidence, that Jesus founded a church, yet on the basis of this divine truth (and many others) Newman posits a principle that calls such means of attaining divine truth illegitimate.

Given my argument above, I conclude that a Roman Catholic cannot provide any evidence for his church without either contradicting himself or using circular reasoning. Roman Catholicism, when on trial, must always fail.

III.

The situation is different for the Reformed Protestant apologist. The Reformed Protestant always has reasons to believe what he believes apart from some magisterial church authority. His belief is not based on reason alone, that is, from natural theology or philosophy alone. He has sufficient reasons to believe given all of God’s revelation to the world (general and special). The Protestant has public and sufficient reasons to believe such that anyone in his proper mind would come to accept them.

In the Reformed Protestantism, special revelation is just as self-authenticating as general revelation. Those in their right mind—those who have been renewed to see the handiwork and handwriting of God—see Scripture as God’s inscripturated self-disclosure to the world. Scripture, then, is public evidence. God has condescended in a special and direct way to the world in creation and Scripture: he reveals himself to humans immediately, not mediately through some earthly institution.[3] Humans, when seeing the world as humans ought to see the world, will recognize the evidence of the God who has condescended with reasons to believe. Grace renews people to naturally see the evidence of God’s work in creation and redemption in Christ; and this evidence is sufficient to believe apart from some earthly authenticating authority.

True neutrality, then, is admitting all the handwriting of God as reasons for faith. Of course, nonbelievers will reject scripture as evidence, but this is due only to their degenerated view of neutrality. The claims of Scripture are reasons to believe whether or not they recognize them as such. If they were to adopt a true stance of neutrality, they would recognize Scripture as evidence of God’s work in the world. Nonbelievers unjustly declare this true evidence inadmissible. Only humans renewed by grace—humans who see as humans ought to see—naturally find all evidence admissible. Therefore, a Protestant apologist can legitimately enter all of revelation as public evidence because he knows that God has condescended to provide sufficient reasons to believe, not only to Christians but to the whole world. Scripture is a public document for the world to see; and humans in their right mind would see it for what it is: fully admissible evidence.

The Protestant apologist can enter a theoretical stance of neutrality when presenting the case for Christ, not on the terms of neutrality of the nonbelievers (who without renewing grace with not accept proper terms and who have a degenerated view of neutrality), but on terms that a renewed human would take, namely, true neutrality. So a Protestant apologist must never ask a nonbeliever to make a leap of faith; he must demand only that the potential convert look to what God has done. God has given us sufficient reasons to believe apart from the church or any other earthly authority. Faith, then, is not simply an assent to certain doctrines; it is belief in things one has good reason to believe but cannot see or understand. Faith seeks understanding, not because sufficient reasons for faith are unavailable or impossible, but because the object of faith is so glorious and so different than us that it is hard for finite and sinful beings to understand it. Faith is being “fully convinced that God [is] able to do what he [has] promised” (Rom. 4:21). And just as Abraham was spoken to immediately, so too are we. There is no need for a church to mediate the voice of God to us. It is by faith that we see or understand what God has already directly promised to us; it is not by faith in a mediating institution that we discover God’s promises.

Thus the Protestant can theoretically place his faith on public trial with sufficient reasons to believe without presupposing the question at hand. His renewed stance toward neutrality does not presuppose Christianity; it is a theoretically neutral stance, a truly neutral stance toward the world, where all evidence is admissible. The Reformed Protestant, therefore, can consistently present sufficient reasons to believe from a theoretical standpoint of neutrality and thereby consent to the proper terms of a public trial.

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[1] I am aware of Carl Trueman’s unfortunate statement claiming that Roman Catholicism is the “default” position of the Western church. This claim is certainly false. A default position is one that possess a certain privileged status over other positions given an original position. Trueman must think that the original position of “Christ founded a church” privileges the Roman Catholic system. As I will show, this cannot be the case. In fact, if this is the original neutral position (that is, the position necessary to even ask the question “what type of church did Christ found?”), then Roman Catholicism cannot be the default position.

[2] Or “reasons to assent” to the Roman Catholic Church as the true church of Christ. I am not referring to reasons to believe every doctrine of Rome, only reasons to believe its claims concerning itself as the one true visible church of Christ.

[3]The Church, in the Protestant conception, has an instrumental function; it does not mediate truth.

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10 Responses to Roman Catholicism on Trial: Evidence and Assumptions

  1. Hi. I’ve written a reply to your interesting post, but it’s kind of long and not very coherent, I’m afraid. May His peace be with you!

    Your whole argument seems to place human reason and divine authority as opposed to one another — but why must the believer choose one or the other? Does the Catholic believer, in accepting the authority of the Church, abandon all reason? Can he no longer, by the light of that reason, see and recognize divine truth for himself? Are the “sufficient reasons” that are “self-authenticating” to the Protestant not equally evident to the Catholic? Does the Catholic necessarily resign all the human faculties and depend solely on another’s authenticating authority?  Does Newman’s thesis really entail a rejection of all human reason, as you seem to suppose, or merely a rejection of relying on human reason alone?

    From the beginning, I would dispute your initial premise, your understanding of how the Catholic believer views truth and authority. You presume that the Catholic can only accept truth because the Church declared it was true. But is it the Church’s declaration that makes a truth true, in the view of the Catholic? Or is it true because it was revealed by God? Is divine revelation, for a Catholic, only true because it is rooted in the Catholic Church, or are the teachings of the Church true because they are rooted in divine revelation? You seem to mistake the claim that the Catholic Church is the “arbiter of divine truth” for the claim that she is its author or source. But no, this is not the claim of the Church. The Church is the servant and teacher of God’s revelation, not God Himself.

    You present that “when Roman Catholics cite a text as scripture in support of Roman Catholicism they must already assume Roman Catholicism.” But is this true? Is Scripture only Scripture for a Catholic because the Church declared it so? Yes, as a faithful Catholic, I can accept with confidence that the body of Scripture we hold is true and perfect because the Church affirms to me that it is. But if it were not for this declaration, would I really have no conception of “Scripture”? Would I have no idea of the inspired, written Word, without appealing to the authority of the Church? No, because Scripture rests not only on the authority of the Church, but on the divine authority and revelation of God Himself.

    Protestants so often presume a false dichotomy: the issue is not the authority of Scripture alone or the authority of the Church alone. God revealed Himself in Scripture — we believe as Catholics, in and through the Church — but Scripture is God’s revelation nonetheless. As Catholic apologists often present, Protestants cannot appeal to the authority of Scripture alone without first accepting the canon of Scripture as declared by the Church — and this is true. But is it that declaration of the canon that makes those texts scriptural, for a Catholic? Before any formal declaration of the canon of the Scripture, were Christians unable to appeal to Scripture? No, of course not — because such declaration defined the canon; it did not bestow some “divinely inspired” status on texts otherwise presumed to be human. 

    (For that matter, the Church for the most part declared a truth that had already been accepted sensu fidei fidelium for centuries: the canon was only defined for the sake of a few books whose scriptural authority was disputed. The canonicity of the majority of books was a self-evident truth to most Christians. This does not mean that the canon as a whole was “self-authenticating” — it certainly wasn’t.)

    So no, when I appeal to Scripture, my appeal carries with it the authority of the Church — but does not depend on it. Scripture is scriptural because it was revealed by God. The Church is a guide in which books to accept as canonical — but with regard to most books, that acceptance does not depend on the Church’s authority. We accept Scripture as the revelation of God because God has revealed Himself to us by the light of His Spirit. But this is not a circular argument.

    As a Catholic apologist, my arguments are supported by the authority of the Church; they do not rest on it solely. My own reason and understanding confirm me in my beliefs. As a Protestant journeying to Catholicism, I did not accept the Catholic Church’s authority by any “leap of faith” or suspension of my reason, but because revelation and history first convinced me rationally that the Church’s claims were true. Being a believing Christian, I already accepted the authority of the Christian revelation in the Word of God. The use of human reason in coming to a truth in no way contradicts the thesis that human reason alone is insufficient to arrive at that truth with certainty.

    You suppose that Newman’s thesis is self-refuting because to become a Christian, to accept Christian truths — and thus to argue from them — he must have first entered the realm of skepticism and uncertainty and interpretation, conceding the “principle” of Protestantism. But is this “principle” really merely the use of reason, or is it the use of reason alone, apart from the authoritative teaching of the Church’s magisterium? If it is the latter — has Newman really conceded anything? Did he come to any of his truths unguided by the Church’s teaching, by the revelation of God given once to the saints, or by the divine light of grace — and for that matter, did any Protestant?

    You say that, for a Catholic, “evidence itself cannot be sufficient to provide reasons to believe” — but can this really be true for anybody? Are you not applying a double standard? Can a Protestant come to saving faith entirely by weighing the evidence by his own reason? No, of course not. But is a Catholic any less capable than a Protestant of being led and compelled by that evidence, through grace? Can he not even accept that evidence as evidence without the Church’s stamp of approval? Of course he can. The evidence is evidence, whether the Church declares it or not. The Church’s authority guides, affirms, and supports the Catholic believer: it does not constrain him.

    So is a Catholic any less capable than a Protestant in considering evidence with “neutrality,” as “public evidence”? Absolutely not. Relinquishing the doctrinal certainty the Church’s authority provides, in conversations with a Protestant, does not contradict my acceptance of that evidence, any more than would my relinquishment of such certainty regarding the divine truth of God’s existence and revelation, in conversations with an atheist. The Catholic views the same “sufficient” evidence as does the Protestant — and it is equally “sufficient” for the Catholic, for the sake of argument, as it is for the Protestant. But the Catholic does not rest on such “sufficiency” alone: he carries with him the fullness of God’s revelation — all of “God’s handwriting” — and the authority Christ gave to His Church to teach that revelation. He thus has everything the Protestant has, but more: the certainty of an infallible teacher and guide, rather than an arrogant self-assuredness that what one believes is what “anyone in his proper mind” would believe — which is ultimately nothing more than an appeal to one’s own authority.

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    • John Bugay says:

      But is it the Church’s declaration that makes a truth true, in the view of the Catholic? Or is it true because it was revealed by God? … So no, when I appeal to Scripture, my appeal carries with it the authority of the Church — but does not depend on it.

      You seem to be a bit out of touch. Adrian Fortescue, for example, goes on and on about why he believes in the papacy: not because of any evidence from history (though he goes on to recount this). But because of the authority of the contemporary church, which affirms that it is so

      As Catholic apologists often present, Protestants cannot appeal to the authority of Scripture alone without first accepting the canon of Scripture as declared by the Church — and this is true.

      Joseph, Your statement is actually false.

      the authority Christ gave to His Church to teach that revelation

      Stephen is right — you are assuming what you need to prove here.

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      • Hi, John. Regarding Fortescue: Again, you seem to be presenting a false dichotomy: Can’t a Catholic be convinced both by the authority of the Church and by historical facts? I too believe the teachings of the Church, and the authority of the Church is itself their strongest support. But if Fortescue goes on to present the historical evidence, can you really say that he stands by the authority of the Church alone?

        My statement in question — like the OP’s argument above — was about Scripture, not the papacy.

        Regarding your other comments — it’s strange that you should pick out the one or two throwaway asides in my long and rambling screed and ignore everything else.

        Thank you for the reply. God bless you, and His peace be with you!

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    • Stephen Wolfe says:

      Hello, Joseph. Thank you for reading my post and responding. Though I do not like responding in this way, I will reply to your comments section-by-section. Your first paragraph seems to set the stage for the rest of your comments, so I’ll skip it.

      You presume that the Catholic can only accept truth because the Church declared it was true. But is it the Church’s declaration that makes a truth true, in the view of the Catholic? Or is it true because it was revealed by God? Is divine revelation, for a Catholic, only true because it is rooted in the Catholic Church, or are the teachings of the Church true because they are rooted in divine revelation? You seem to mistake the claim that the Catholic Church is the “arbiter of divine truth” for the claim that she is its author or source. But no, this is not the claim of the Church. The Church is the servant and teacher of God’s revelation, not God Himself.

      It did not argue that the church “makes” something true. I said that a Roman Catholic can only consider a text to be scripture after the Church declares it to be scripture. Though my statements are ambiguous concerning the status of scripture prior to this declaration, nowhere did I say that the church makes truth by declaring truth. You seem to be taking my ambiguity farther than it allows. Let me state the point differently: the epistemic ground for a Roman Catholic to believe a text is scripture is fundamentally (though perhaps not solely) due to the Church’s supplying of that ground. Of course, a text can be scripture prior to one knowing that it is scripture. The issue is how you sufficiently know it to be scripture.

      Yes, as a faithful Catholic, I can accept with confidence that the body of Scripture we hold is true and perfect because the Church affirms to me that it is. But if it were not for this declaration, would I really have no conception of “Scripture”? Would I have no idea of the inspired, written Word, without appealing to the authority of the Church? No, because Scripture rests not only on the authority of the Church, but on the divine authority and revelation of God Himself.

      As I said in my introduction, the first section is a simple demonstration of the more complex discussion in section two. One of my main points in the post is to show that Roman Catholics cannot present sufficient evidence to believe in Roman Catholicism apart from church authority. The argument is that for a Roman Catholic to present a text as scripture and still retain a stance of neutrality, as defined best in section three, his basis for calling the text scripture cannot rely on church authority by any degree. No aspect of one’s epistemic ground for believing that a text is scripture can be church authority. Otherwise, your use of scripture in support of the Church demands that the other presuppose the Church. Of course, you can appeal to church authority to use scripture to demonstrate internal consistency, but not to provide evidence for the Church to one outside Roman Catholicism.

      The issue, as I see it, is whether you have sufficient grounds apart from church authority to say that a text is scripture. This is where Roman Catholic apologetics, I think, shows its inconsistencies. Newman make a stark distinction between human opinion and divine truth. The former was the realm of skepticism and the latter determined only as the result of a principled means of separating divine truth from human opinion. In this schema, there is a fundamental (qualitative) distinction between divine truth and human opinion. Roman Catholic apologists like to jump to and from this distinction when it suits their purpose. They attack Protestants for their human opinions and claim that they need a church to rise above opinion, yet Roman Catholics will cite “scripture” and church fathers in support of their claims with an appearance of a neutral stance as I describe in the post. I insist on this: Either there is a qualitative distinction between human opinion and divine truth or “human opinion” is not as bad as they claim it is. I’m simply insisting that they stay consistent. You cannot jump to and fro depending on what suits your purpose.

      In your comment, you seem to be affirming that one can sufficiently know that a text is scripture apart from church authority. But what constitutes “sufficient to know” isn’t clear to me. What does it mean to sufficiently know prior to church authority and then to sufficiently know “with confidence” by appeal to church authority? Are there two levels of sufficiency? And if one can know, for instance, that Ephesians is scripture apart from church authority, then why can’t they know that 2:8-10 means that one’s good works play no part in the ground of one’s salvation? Or why can’t they read John 14:16 and know that the Holy Spirit is the sole vicar of Christ? See, when you permit true knowledge prior to church authority you’re permitting all sorts of problems for your position. If you think that a Roman Catholic can provide sufficient reasons to a potential convert to become Roman Catholic without appealing to church authority to provide value to the reasons for belief, then you have admitted that one has prima facie legitimacy to reject Roman Catholicism based on the same principle of analysis. You have thus admitted that one can potentially have sufficient reasons to come to faith in something without the type of authority you think is necessary. Church authority, then, is superfluous or, at least, it is nothing but icing on the cake. But, of course, this cannot be true for a Roman Catholic, so they dance between arguments of evidence for internal consistency and evidence for external verification, often without clarifying what they are doing.

      Protestants so often presume a false dichotomy: the issue is not the authority of Scripture alone or the authority of the Church alone. God revealed Himself in Scripture — we believe as Catholics, in and through the Church — but Scripture is God’s revelation nonetheless. As Catholic apologists often present, Protestants cannot appeal to the authority of Scripture alone without first accepting the canon of Scripture as declared by the Church — and this is true. But is it that declaration of the canon that makes those texts scriptural, for a Catholic? Before any formal declaration of the canon of the Scripture, were Christians unable to appeal to Scripture? No, of course not — because such declaration defined the canon; it did not bestow some “divinely inspired” status on texts otherwise presumed to be human.

      As I described above, I did not say that the issue is church authority alone. I admit that my first section does not make that clear. But as the other sections make clear, the issue is whether a Roman Catholic can present sufficient evidence to believe apart from church authority. Can a Roman Catholic consent to the terms of neutrality? Can a Roman Catholic theoretically step out of the Church to sufficiently prove that Roman Catholicism is the one true church of Christ? If so, then what do you mean precisely by the term “sufficient”? What does it mean to have sufficient reasons to believe apart from church authority?

      I do not want this to a debate on sola scriptura. I’ll just say this in response. The canon, as the “list of books,” is no more inspired than the number of parables in the gospels. The number of parables is a consequence of the parables being inspired, but the number is not inspired. So the “list of books” is not inspired; it is a consequence of the receiving or “hearing” of scripture by the church. Yes, the Church had a fundamental role in recognizing scripture, for they “hear” and recognize the voice of Christ; and the Church, as the receiving body, codified what they heard in the form of a canon. So the canon is a consequence of hearing scripture, but not the basis or that to which one must appeal to know what is scripture.

      Take this example. In the old days, military leaders in battle would send “runners” or adjutants to communicate their orders to their subordinate commanders. The subordinate commanders would receive these messages and know that it is from their superior commander because they recognized something about the message (say the handwriting, the content, a seal, or maybe the carrier). These messages are received as legitimate not on the basis of some prepared message index but for reasons inherent in the messages themselves. After the battle or the war, various people would compile the messages and assign them identification titles or numbers. This, in fact, was done for all correspondence during the American Civil War. So now when one wants to study Civil War correspondence, they would go to these volumes. The same type of thing happened with scripture: the texts were received as scripture and later codified in the form of the canon. Sola Scriptura is simply the following: the sole rule of faith is contained in texts that have been received as scripture. The codification of the canon as a list of books is subsequent to the receiving of texts as scripture, not prior to it, and saying that the rule of faith is contained in the canon of scripture presupposes this codification as subsequent.

      (For that matter, the Church for the most part declared a truth that had already been accepted sensu fidei fidelium for centuries: the canon was only defined for the sake of a few books whose scriptural authority was disputed. The canonicity of the majority of books was a self-evident truth to most Christians. This does not mean that the canon as a whole was “self-authenticating” — it certainly wasn’t.)
      So no, when I appeal to Scripture, my appeal carries with it the authority of the Church — but does not depend on it. Scripture is scriptural because it was revealed by God. The Church is a guide in which books to accept as canonical — but with regard to most books, that acceptance does not depend on the Church’s authority. We accept Scripture as the revelation of God because God has revealed Himself to us by the light of His Spirit. But this is not a circular argument.

      You say that the canonicity was “self-evident.” This means that you can know sufficiently without appeal to church authority. I know I’ve repeated this a few times, but it is the issue at hand. What does it mean to know some divine truth sufficiently without referring to church authority? Roman Catholics always talk about certainty verses human opinion. It seems that you’ve establish two standards: a standard of sufficiency to know divine truths without appeal to church authority and a standard of sufficiency to know divine truths with appeal to church authority. It seems to me that this former standard is ad hoc. What does it really mean to know a divine truth sufficiently without the requisite (and alleged) certainty that the assent of faith provides? This standard of knowing apart from church authority seems to be in limbo land, a place between human opinion and divine truth. Well, what is it? Again, it is not me who has made the dichotomy between human opinion and divine truth: Roman Catholic apologists jump into this dichotomy all time.

      Your second paragraph is full of ambiguity. What does it mean to say that appealing to scripture “carries with it the authority of the church”? My whole point is that one must not use evidence that takes its value as evidence from the thing to which it supports. Evidence that “carries” with it what it seeks to support is still circular, if I understand you correctly. The issue is whether or not one could continue to have good epistemic ground to cite scripture without it “carrying” with it church authority. If not, then this carrying is essential to citing a text as scripture and therefore is dependent upon it. If a text no longer “carries” church authority, can one call it scripture? According to what you said, it seems that one cannot. From what I can tell of your argument, it is still circular. Again, how can evidence seeking to support Roman Catholic church authority have contained in the evidence itself or carried in it Roman Catholic church authority and not be circular?

      Your last sentence is interesting. Are you saying that the Holy Spirit has revealed to you that certain texts are scripture apart from the church as mediator? In other words, are you saying that God works on earth immediately (that is, without mediation) to reveal certain divine truths and that these divine truths can be believed sufficiently apart from appeal to church authority? That appears to be what you’re saying. If that is true, then you have no prima facie objection to anyone else claiming to have sufficient reasons to believe certain divine truths apart from church authority, including the belief that such an authority is unnecessary.

      As a Catholic apologist, my arguments are supported by the authority of the Church; they do not rest on it solely. My own reason and understanding confirm me in my beliefs. As a Protestant journeying to Catholicism, I did not accept the Catholic Church’s authority by any “leap of faith” or suspension of my reason, but because revelation and history first convinced me rationally that the Church’s claims were true. Being a believing Christian, I already accepted the authority of the Christian revelation in the Word of God. The use of human reason in coming to a truth in no way contradicts the thesis that human reason alone is insufficient to arrive at that truth with certainty.

      Here again you claim two levels of sufficiency that I see all the time with Roman Catholic apologists. Your “own reason and understanding” have “confirmed” your beliefs. And this “convinced” you “rationally that the Church’s claims” are true. Again, this means that you have no prima facie reason to reject the legitimacy of another’s claim that comes to a different conclusion. Couldn’t someone (and I think quite easily) become convinced, based on the same methodology that you used to become “convinced,” that the type of church Christ founded does not include an infallible papacy, infallible magisterium or even necessitate the type of certainty that you think necessary? Of course this is possible (and I think probable), even according to your own methodology. So you can have no prima facie objection to any other conclusion, even one that excludes the type of certainty that you think necessary.

      But I think this is where many Roman Catholic apologists get uncomfortable and begin their circular reasoning. They think that it is impossible that one can stop at this lower level of sufficiency. There must be “certainty,” is the claim. So really this lower level of sufficiency isn’t in itself sufficient: there must be “certainty” with regards to divine truth. It is, then, impossible for one to come to a conclusion that contradicts the need for this type of certainty. When a Roman Catholic makes this move, they limit the set of possibilities in this lower level of sufficiency of knowledge to necessitate the requirement of the type of church authority that is Roman Catholicism. In other words, this lower level of sufficient knowledge must ultimately be insufficient: the person who concludes that such higher level of certainty is unnecessary is prima facie and necessarily in error. To take this line of thinking means that when one uses evidence to support church authority to “convince” the other, as you were convinced, they must presuppose that this sufficiency is ultimately insufficient and necessitates church authority. Therefore the Roman Catholic apologetics methodology must always presuppose Roman Catholicism in every aspect of their apologetics, for the ultimate sufficiency of certainty limits the possibilities of what constitutes legitimate lower level conclusions.

      You suppose that Newman’s thesis is self-refuting because to become a Christian, to accept Christian truths — and thus to argue from them — he must have first entered the realm of skepticism and uncertainty and interpretation, conceding the “principle” of Protestantism. But is this “principle” really merely the use of reason, or is it the use of reason alone, apart from the authoritative teaching of the Church’s magisterium? If it is the latter — has Newman really conceded anything? Did he come to any of his truths unguided by the Church’s teaching, by the revelation of God given once to the saints, or by the divine light of grace — and for that matter, did any Protestant?

      What is interesting about your comment here is that it affirms that Roman Catholics must always presuppose the church’s authoritative teaching. As I said in the post, Newman could come to realize the need for some reliable principle only after he knew the right question to ask: “what type of church did Christ found?” This question presupposes all sorts of divine truths, such as “Christ founded a church.” The principle itself is meant to distinguish between human opinion and divine truth, and the principle itself must be based on prior knowledge that there is divine truth out there to be determined. This means that Newman theoretically had to know, apart from the principle, numerous divine truths, such as, again, “Christ founded a church” and “Christ deposited doctrine” and “Christ died and rose.” So Newman must contradict himself, if he is doing anything other than providing an a hoc principle to shore up his internal consistency. But in the process he has cut off his theological system from external verifiability. How can one believing in such a system provide good external reasons to believe without every piece of evidence presupposing its object? It cannot be done. Newman has made Roman Catholicism consistent at the cost of its verifiability.

      You say that, for a Catholic, “evidence itself cannot be sufficient to provide reasons to believe” — but can this really be true for anybody? Are you not applying a double standard? Can a Protestant come to saving faith entirely by weighing the evidence by his own reason? No, of course not. But is a Catholic any less capable than a Protestant of being led and compelled by that evidence, through grace? Can he not even accept that evidence as evidence without the Church’s stamp of approval? Of course he can. The evidence is evidence, whether the Church declares it or not. The Church’s authority guides, affirms, and supports the Catholic believer: it does not constrain him.

      I never questioned the fact that a Roman Catholic can provide support for or reasons to believe Roman Catholicism. My point is that they cannot provide sufficient support or reasons to believe. Ultimately, sufficient reasons to believe Roman Catholic church authority must presuppose Roman Catholic church authority. The Protestant does not need church authority to provide sufficient reasons to believe. The Protestant position is that God communicates his promises immediately, not through a mediating institution. This means that the sufficient reasons to believe are public reasons to believe, meaning that one can present sufficient evidence or reasons to believe apart from any private evidence (evidence that presupposes the matter at hand). God works by grace apart from an earthly mediator of grace to renew a person to true neutrality and thereby capable of seeing God’s promises. These promises are immediately communicable and recognized by those whom God has renewed immediately. General revelation and special revelation together is sufficient, as the true body of God’s creational and redemptive condescension to man, to communicate the Gospel; and this revelation is public for everyone to see. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear will see and hear God’s voice in them. One in a stance of true neutrality would see and hear them quite apart from institutional mediation. So the Protestant can actually present a case for Christ that provides sufficient reasons to believe with a theoretical stance of neutrality. Roman Catholics cannot.

      But the Catholic does not rest on such “sufficiency” alone: he carries with him the fullness of God’s revelation — all of “God’s handwriting” — and the authority Christ gave to His Church to teach that revelation. He thus has everything the Protestant has, but more: the certainty of an infallible teacher and guide, rather than an arrogant self-assuredness that what one believes is what “anyone in his proper mind” would believe — which is ultimately nothing more than an appeal to one’s own authority.

      I already commented on the content of the rest of the paragraph from which these two sentences came. I just want to make light of your use of “sufficiency” and ask again: what does it mean to say that one has “sufficient” reasons to believe Roman Catholicism (which presumable at this stage is “arrogant self-assuredness” and an “appeal to one’s own authority”) but that this cannot inherently be enough? You must see that your theoretical analysis of the question “what type of church did Christ found?” already presupposes Roman Catholicism. You are arguing that there is prima facie reason to deny the legitimacy of those who come to the position, based on the same methodology that “convinced” you of Roman Catholicism, that Christ did not found a church like the Roman church. If you reject someone such as this prima facie, then you must be presupposing the answer to the question at hand. Therefore you must be presupposing Roman Catholicism. As I said in the post, your position lack public verifiability.

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      • Hi again, Stephen. It will take me a little while to digest this and reply — but for now I just wanted to thank you for such a gracious and patient response. God bless you!

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  2. John Bugay says:

    can you really say that he stands by the authority of the Church alone?

    That’s what he says.

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    • John Bugay says:

      Joseph: I was traveling and not able to give a more thorough response. However, yes, Fortescue’s discussion of the reasons why he believes any doctrine that Rome teaches, contrary to what you have asserted here, “stands by the authority of the Church alone”.

      History, he allows, is a subordinate reason. “There is, indeed, a special halo around the venerable antiquity of the first centuries; but the Church was not more guided by our Lord then than she is now. The criterion of faith about the papacy for us is what the Catholic Church teaches today. We shall never get forward in discussion with people on any one dogma till we agree about this: that the authority of the Church today is the criterion for all dogmas” (pg 26).

      This is not “both/and”. One is clearly subordinated to the other. But when push-comes-to-shove, there is only one reason why any Roman Catholic dogma should be believed: “The argument is the same for every dogma (that is why the Catholic position is essentially simple, in spite of apparent complexity); it can be understood by the most ignorant, as the religion of Christ must be…. This position admits no vagaries of private judgment for each dogma. No variety of interpretation is possible as to what the Catholic Church of today (1920, but certainly not 2014) teaches, or, if such misunderstanding should occur, the Church is there to declare her mind. Even the most fundamental dogmas rest ultimately on the teaching of the Catholic Church today….

      He does allow “history”, but declares it “neither so convincing nor so safe” as the assertion of authority.

      I am quite sure that Matthew 16:18 and the Church Fathers Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Chrysostom, and Augustine all say what I believe about the Bishop of Rome. But I do not base my faith on what they say … I base my faith on what the Catholic Church of today says. That alone is quite enough for all of us; in this we have an argument perfectly clear, convincing, final, the same for the student of patrology as for a peasant who can neither read nor write (pg 27).

      Historical evidence is an afterthought.

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