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|No. 18||Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program||July 1988|
Where Have All the Apologists Gone?
Logic and the Foundations of Protestantism
by Brian W. Harrison
It is, of course, essential that the (Catholic) doctrine be clearly presented in its entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism which harms the purity of Catholic doctrine and obscures its genuine and certain meaning.If that is so, then the modern ecumenical movement has itself become largely anti-ecumenical, because that "false irenicism" is riding high and having a field day all over the contemporary Catholic scene! Many of our prominent theologians seem to envisage the goal of all ecumenical activity as a new united world-Church which transcends all existing churches (including the Catholic Church) - a sort of Hegelian synthesis in which opposing doctrines can somehow be reconciled.
The results (of authentic ecumenical activity) will be that, little by little, as the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion are overcome, all Christians will be gathered, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, into the unity of the one and only Church, which Christ bestowed on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time.If we see very few signs so far of these results anticipated by the Council - rather, the exact opposite, with conversions to Catholicism in Western countries plummeting to an all-time low since Vatican II - then this is not because Catholics have been doing what the Decree on Ecumenism asked for, but because they have been doing what it expressly forbade. They have not consistently been "presenting Catholic doctrine in its entirety" in their dialogue with separated Christians, but have instead taken the easier road of emphasising only the common ground which we already share, and assuring non-Catholics blandly that "sincerity" and "following your own conscience" is all that really matters.
by Brian HarrisonAs an active Protestant in my mid-twenties I began to feel that I might have a vocation to become a minister. The trouble was that while I had quite definite convictions about the things that most Christians have traditionally held in common - the sort of thing C. S. Lewis termed "mere Christianity" - I had had some firsthand experience with several denominations (Presbyterian, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist) and was far from certain as to which of them (if any) had an overall advantage over the others. So I began to think, study, search, and pray. Was there a true Church? If so, how was one to decide which?
1. The Reformers asserted Proposition A: "All revealed truth is to be found in the inspired Scriptures." However, this is quite useless unless we know which books are meant by the "inspired Scriptures." After all, many different sects and religions have many different books which they call "inspired Scriptures."Calvin's Attempted Solution
2. The theory we are considering, when it talks of "inspired Scriptures," means in fact those 66 books which are bound and published in Protestant Bibles. For convenience we shall refer to them from now on simply as "the 66 books."
3. The precise statement of the theory we are examining thus becomes Proposition B: "All revealed truth is to be found in the 66 books."
4. It is a fact that nowhere in the 66 books themselves can we find any statements telling us which books make up the entire corpus of inspired Scripture. There is no complete list of inspired books anywhere within their own pages, nor can such a list be compiled by putting isolated verses together. (This would be the case: (a) if you could find verses like "Esther is the Word of Cod," "This Gospel is inspired by God," "The Second Letter of Peter is inspired Scripture," etc., for all of the 66 books; and (b) if you could also find a Biblical passage stating that no books other than these 66 were to be held as inspired. Obviously, nobody could even pretend to find all this information about the canon of Scripture in the Bible itself.)
5. It follows that Proposition B - the very foundation of all Protestant Christianity - is neither found in Scripture nor can be deduced from Scripture in any way. Since the 66 books are not even identified in Scripture, much less can any further information about them (e.g., that all revealed truth is contained in them) be found there. In short, we must affirm Proposition C: "Proposition B is an addition to the 66 books."
6. It follows immediately from the truth of Proposition C that Proposition B cannot itself be revealed truth. To assert that it is would involve a self-contradictory statement: "All revealed truth is to be found in the 66 books, but this revealed truth itself is not found there."
7. Could it be the case that Proposition B is true, but is not revealed truth? If that is the case, then it must be either something which can be deduced from revealed truth or something which natural human reason alone can discover, without any help from revelation. The first possibility is ruled out because, as we saw in steps 4 and 5, B cannot be deduced from Scripture, and to postulate some other revealed extra-Scriptural premise from which B might be deduced would contradict B itself. The second possibility involves no self-contradiction, but it is factually preposterous, and I doubt whether any Protestant has seriously tried to defend it - least of all those traditional Protestants who strongly emphasise the corruption of man's natural intellectual powers as a result of the Fall. Human reason might well be able to conclude prudently and responsibly that an authority which itself claimed to possess the totality of revealed truth was in fact justified in making that claim, provided that this authority backed up the claim by some very striking evidence. (Catholics, in fact, believe that their Church is precisely such an authority.) But how could reason alone reach that same well-founded certitude about a collection of 66 books which do not even lay claim to what is attributed to them? (The point is reinforced when we remember that those who attribute the totality of revealed truth to the 66 books, namely Protestant Church members, are very ready to acknowledge their own fallibility - whether individually or collectively - in matters of religious doctrine. All Protestant Churches deny their own infallibility as much as they deny the Pope's.)
8. Since Proposition B is not revealed truth, nor a truth which can be deduced from revelation, nor a naturally-knowable truth, it is not true at all. Therefore, the basic doctrine for which the Reformers fought is simply false.
If we desire to provide in the best way for our consciences - that they may not be perpetually beset by the instability of doubt or vacillation, and that they may not also boggle at the smallest quibbles - we ought to seek our conviction in a higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures, that is, in the secret testimony of the Spirit. ... For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men's hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. ... Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning.1The context makes it clear that in saying Scripture is "self-authenticated," Calvin does not mean to be taken literally and absolutely. He does not mean that some Bible text or other affirms that the 66 books, and they alone, are divinely inspired. As we observed in step 4 above, nobody ever could claim anything so patently false. Calvin simply means that no extra-Biblical human testimony, such as that of Church tradition, is needed in order for individuals to know that these books are inspired.2 We can summarize his view as Proposition D: "The Holy Spirit teaches Christians individually, by a direct inward testimony, that the 66 books are inspired by God."
We are obliged to yield many things to the Papists - that with them is the word of God, which we received from them; otherwise we should have known nothing at all about it.At times Luther seemed ready to take the more radical, but quite logical, step of ceasing to rely on the Pope - whom he denounced as supremely unreliable - for his knowledge of which books belonged to the New Testament canon. At one stage, as is well-known, he was prepared to condemn the Epistle of James (an "epistle of straw," as he termed it) since it seemed clearly to contradict his doctrine of justification by faith alone (cf. James 2:24). However, he was prevailed upon eventually to leave it in the canon - for no better reason, it seems, than an awareness of the abyss of doctrinal chaos and scepticism which would open up if Christians were to start picking and choosing amongst the New Testament books. Luther thus lapsed back into the less dangerous inconsistency of trusting Catholic tradition at this point. Conservative Protestants have all followed him, while liberals have escaped either form of inconsistency by the simple "solution" of rejecting belief in any form of infallible authority. The Bible is seen as a collection of fallible human documents, none of which is seen as "inspired" in the traditional sense of having God Himself as principal Author. For this school of thought, the New Testament has a privileged position over other early Christian documents only in the purely secular, historical sense of being a "primary source": it gives the best evidence of what early Christians thought, without guaranteeing in any way that what they thought was in accord with objective reality.
(a) One should not appeal to direct and immediate actions of God to explain things unless more down-to-earth explanations have first been proven inadequate. But it seems to me that one can explain the traditional Protestant belief in the divine inspiration of the 66 books very readily and satisfactorily without postulating Calvin's exclusively "inward" or "secret" testimony of the Holy Spirit. As a Catholic I would not wish to insist that the Spirit has nothing to do with that belief, which is indeed true as far as it goes (Catholics of course also believe in the inspiration of seven additional books). But insofar as the Spirit is causally active in producing belief in Biblical inspiration among Protestants, He uses the agency of external ecclesial tradition and testimony, not the immediate, inner, secret enlightenment postulated by Calvin. As I know from personal experience, Protestant evangelicals tend to accept the divine authority of Scripture as part of a "package deal" conversion experience. What primarily moves them is the preaching or counselling of some other person connected with a Church group: this leads them to feel conscious of their own sinfulness and of their need to repent and believe in Christ as Saviour. And because the same people who proclaim these profoundly and personally moving truths also commonly insist on the more "abstract" or speculative doctrine that the 66 books are inspired by God, the new convert accepts this latter doctrine as a kind of corollary or normally expected accompaniment of being "born again." In other words, on this question of Biblical inspiration he is implicitly or unconsciously accepting Church tradition - in this case the tradition of Protestantism - as the authority for one of his religious beliefs (and one of the most central and important ones at that).4. The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, III: viii.
(b) Calvin's Proposition D is in itself very implausible. Is there really a kind of intrinsic quality present in each of the 66 books - a quality clearly discernible to any humble believer open to the Spirit's guiding - by which they become "self-authenticated," not merely as containing heavenly doctrine (many non-inspired, uncanonical writings and discourses of holy people may do that), but as being directly inspired by God as their very author? Take Paul's little letter to Philemon, for example: a few simple and holy thoughts mainly concerned with an incident involving a runaway slave. Frankly, I think Calvin (or anyone else) is deceiving himself if he thinks he can see, or sense, some intrinsic qualities in Philemon which show that it could not possibly have been composed exclusively by a human author. Calvin even goes so far as to assert that the Spirit makes it blindingly obvious which books have God as their author:
As to their question - How can we be assured that (the Scriptures have) sprung from God unless we have recourse to the decree of the Church? - it is as if someone asked: Whence will we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Indeed, Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their colour, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste. (Institutes, loc. cit., p. 76.)
This is so manifestly false as to be hardly worth refuting. If discerning the inspired from the uninspired books were really so childishly easy, why was there not complete unanimity about the canon right from the beginning? Why do we not find any early Christians making Calvin's claim that inspiration is self-evident? Why, on the contrary, do we find that the entire Church adopted apostolic authorship as the main criterion for canonicity - something which was at times far from easy to discern, and in any case was never self-evident and had to be decided by a combination of criteria, including the extrinsic criterion of the tradition and testimony of local churches? Calvin's thesis of an inner, individual enlightenment guaranteeing Scripture could be empirically tested by presenting a number of unidentified religious texts - some of them books of Scripture and others patristic writings, let us say - to a group of devout, new converts from paganism who have not yet seen much of the Bible, having been led to believe just by the influence of missionary preaching. If they were asked to discern which vere inspired by God and which were not, there can be little doubt as to how the test would turn out: there would be confusion, uncertainty and guesswork, with a great many wrong answers. Of course, Calvin might claim that in any case it is as plain as black and white to him that the 66 books alone are inspired, even if the Spirit did not seem to make things quite so easy for others. But in that case, of course, all other believers, presumably, would have to rely on Calvin as an oracle in order to know which books they were to receive as God's Word. In that event he would scarcely have any right to criticize the Pope for claiming infallibility.
(c) The evident sophistry of Calvin's claim can only make us wonder why a theologian of such intelligence and learning could resort to it. The answer should be clear by now: he makes this preposterous claim that canonicity is self-evident for Spirit-led believers, not because he can offer any positive evidence for its truth, but simply because he is driven into this desperate corner by the exigencies of his polemic against Rome. Once he admitted the common-sense fact that he couldn't know which books were inspired - or even whether any books at all were inspired - without relying on Church tradition (Roman Catholic tradition, in fact, at least for the New Testament canon), then Calvin's whole theological system would be in real trouble. Sola Scriptura would then have to be frankly abandoned in favour of the fragile hypothesis of limited ecclesial infallibility which we have criticized on pages 7-8. On this point Luther was more honest than Calvin (if also more blatantly inconsistent) in admitting frankly that, if it were not for the "Papists," "we should have known nothing at all about (the Word of God)" (Commentary on John, ch. 16).