Monday, November 14, 2005

Faith in humans

I recently emailed my husband some of the comments here talking about discovering God through the Church as opposed to Sola Scriptura. I've mentioned before that he was raised Baptist. The comments I emailed him touched on one of the bigger stumbling blocks we're both facing when considering becoming Catholics. Here's an excerpt from his email:

[Referring to the second comment here.]
Great stuff. Thoughts:

1 - He says the Catholic Church is authoritative. I have trouble elevating humans over the written rules. To me that would be like saying "The Supreme Court is a higher authority than the Constitution." The Supreme Court's job is to interpret the Constitution. But the Constitution is the highest law of the land. Anything else would be dangerous and would render the Constitution void and pointless.

2 - I'd like to hear what this commenter has to say about the checkered parts of the history of the Catholic church. If a person is to follow the church, should it matter that there have been bad popes and bishops? My own feeling is that what keeps things on an even keel is that there are written rules which sooner or later you have to come back to and adhere to. And that militates for the idea that the written rules is the ultimate authority and source of wisdom.
To quote him:

*Each Generation of bishops was succeeded by another generation of bishops, and this continues until today.
*These successor bishops, with the successor of Peter at their head, are guided by the HS (as promised by Jesus) and responsible for ensuring, and protecting the truth of the faith from generation to generation. This includes guiding the faithful in the meaning, mode, and understanding of the words of scripture.
*The Church as lead by the Bishops, with the successor of Peter at the head is AUTHORITATIVE in the life of the believer

To me this idea of tracing the lineage is dangerous because if one evil person got into the mix (and surely that has happened - aren't all humans evil to some degree?) then are all appointments thereafter invalidated? What makes you think the lineage will ever get back on track? And how can you tell when/if it does?

These are good points, and they're issues that I'm also struggling with. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

4 Comments:

At November 14, 2005 3:12 PM, Anonymous SteveG said...

Before getting started, I'll suggest again, what I did in a previous comment. You should continue (as you seem to be) to get this issue soundly addressed at the beginning, as it will likely guide everything else you do in this area.

And while I am of course going to try to address some of this in my comments, please also appreciate that while these are great questions, they are also BIG questions. In order to be adequetely answered, they really deserve book length treatment, and I can hardly do them justice in a comment box.

My suggestion is that if this is a hurdle and a struggle for both of you, then put all the other stuff you are reading aside (yes, even Chesterton), and get yourselves a copy of 'By What Authority' by Mark Shea. Mark Shea is a Protestant convert who struggled through these very same questions, and has written one of the best books answering them from your very perspective.

Here's a link to the book....

By What Authority: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition


--------------------
OK, down to bidness...

1 - He says the Catholic Church is authoritative. I have trouble elevating humans over the written rules.

OK, a few comments here, then some links to articles that discuss this in some greater detail.

First, there is a bit of a false dichotomy being set up in this train of thought. It’s said as ‘elevating humans over written rules’. Let’s push in on that a bit. What are the written rules? They are after all ‘written’ by humans, correct? According to this, I could rightly aske, why elevate these written rules over the humans who wrote them?

Christians of all stripes (Protestant or Catholic) would agree that the reason we find the rules compelling is because the folks who wrote them were inspired by God to convey God’s message. But we still have human beings involved in that equation. Assume the Christian belief that the scriptures are the word of God. In order for that to have any meaning, we have to presume that the Holy Spirit ‘protected’ those humans doing the writing from making an error in what they were laying down.

So in reality, what we have are a group of imperfect human beings who are guided by the HS to lay down in scripture what we now consider to be the bible. We have the very imperfect Peter (who denied the Lord three times) who is supposedly author of one letter, and the source of the Gospel of Mark. We have the very imperfect Paul (who murdered Christians) who authored large swaths of the NT. We have the imperfect Matthew (a former despised tax collector) who authored another of the gospels, etc., etc., etc.

All down the line, as throughout history, God uses imperfect human beings (just about the only kind) to convey his truth. He works through these imperfect tools, and guides them into truth. Again, the written rules don’t exist without the human beings who wrote them, and appealing to those written rules still leaves you with the same fundamental question.

To me that would be like saying "The Supreme Court is a higher authority than the Constitution." The Supreme Court's job is to interpret the Constitution. But the Constitution is the highest law of the land. Anything else would be dangerous and would render the Constitution void and pointless.

But the constitution without an interpretive body IS just a piece of paper with words. It has no inherent value in it beyond what we impute and interpret it to have. Let’s try out the Protestant model on the constitution to illustrate. Let’s say that the founding fathers instead of setting up the Supreme Court had delivered a copy of the constitution to each citizen of the U.S. and said, OK, this is the law of the land, use it to guide your dealings.

I think we can imagine what would happen. Each person would likely put a different interpretation on the words (as we do today when we read it). We’d have bickering over what the amendments really meant. We’d have groups of like minded folks banding together to advocate their position, and we’d be fighting out the meaning endlessly.

We do this in a sense even today. The difference is that in my imaginary example, there is no final arbiter who can settle the dispute. But in the real world, there is an arbiter, and it seems that indeed the founding fathers were wise to make sure there was such (despite any disagreements we may have with their decisions). The constitution in fact is a guiding document that without the authority structures supporting it would in effect have no authority. It’s only invested with authority because the Supreme Court decides what it means, and the executive branch enforces that understanding.

What would really render the constitution void and pointless is if the authority structures supporting it were not present to invest it with meaning as in my imaginary example.

This in fact is what has happened in Protestantism. There are no authority structures to speak of, and what you have is people each picking up the ‘Christian Constitution’ (the bible), and determining what it means for themselves. And with no appointed, authoritative arbiter to settle the dispute, people can validly claim that it means whatever they want it to mean. When it can mean ANYTHING that really means that it means nothing.

It would seem strange indeed that the founding fathers would be wise enough to set up a basic system for handling the interpretation of the constitution, but that God Almighty wouldn’t be equally wise and do the same basic thing.

And in fact, an informed reading of both history, and scripture (as a historical resource) show that this is what was intended by Christ. Scripture flatly states that it is the Church which is the pillar and the bulwark of the truth (Timothy 3:15).

I’ll also email you something I’ve begun writing on this topic as well which will explain in greater detail.

2 - I'd like to hear what this commenter has to say about the checkered parts of the history of the Catholic church. If a person is to follow the church, should it matter that there have been bad popes and bishops? My own feeling is that what keeps things on an even keel is that there are written rules which sooner or later you have to come back to and adhere to. And that militates for the idea that the written rules is the ultimate authority and source of wisdom.

Again, the issue is not removed if we look to scripture as is suggested. The same ‘checkered parts of the history’ are there for the individuals who wrote scripture. This simply kicks the can down the road. I could easily ask, should we accept the rules written by these men despite their checkered past? In both cases, we either trust that God has the power and will to protect the Church and scripture despite the imperfect tools at his disposal or not. Rejecting the church doesn’t get one out of the quandary.

I’ll also add here that the in fact even appealing to scripture as is being suggested has much bigger problems. That mindset of picking up the bible and figuring it out takes so much for granted. It takes the bible itself (where did we get it after all-it didn't fall out of the sky), literacy, a printing presse, etc. for granted.

Let’s start by mentioning again, that the modern Christian has available to him/her a bound book we recognize as ‘the Bible’. Not so, for much of Christian history. During the first centuries of Christianity, there were many works written which claimed inspiration. There were Gnostic ‘gospels’ such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of the Hebrews, etc. Why/How was the Gospel of Matthew included, but not the Gospel of Thomas? How/Why was the letter of Clement not included, but the Letter to the Corinthians was?

The question that needs to be asked and answered is how the bible that is being appealed too came to be composed of the books we all accept? The fact is that it was the Church, in ecumenical councils throughout the first 800 (in some case 1500) years that had the job of making that determination. The main acid test for inclusion was whether the book in question was orthodox and in line with the teaching of the church. It was the bible that was submitted to the Church for judgment, not the other way round.

In essence Protestants, in accepting the NT canon they do, are in fact living on borrowed capital from the Catholic Church who excluded the ‘wrong’ books, and included the ‘right’ ones over 1000 years ago. Now, if a person is willing to say that the Holy Spirit protected the Catholic Church in that process (and I’ve heard many a historically informed Protestant acknowledge just that), then on what grounds do they reject the possibility that the HS continued, and continues to do just that?

John Cardinal Newman was an Anglican convert to Catholicism for that very reason. He was an Anglican bishop who set out to ‘disprove’ the Catholic Church claims. The problem was that the more he studied history, and came to understand that even fundamental doctrines such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, etc. were hardly clear from the bible, and endured serious challenges throughout the first millennium of Christianity (Arianism (denial of Christ’s divinity) is probably the greatest heresy that occurred prior to the reformation)’ the more he realized that it was the Catholic Church (despite all it’s imperfect popes and bishops) that defended, defined, and explained these doctrines.

He came to a point where he basically realized that he had always implicitly accepted and trusted the Catholic Church authority on those things, but not on others. He ultimately realized that either the Church does have the protection of the HS, and does have the authority to interpret scripture, and it continues, or it doesn’t have it and never did and there is no reason to trust them on the canon of scripture, the Trinity or any other doctrines we all take for granted.

His famous quote is ‘To be deep in history, is to cease to be Protestant.’

To quote him:

*Each Generation of bishops was succeeded by another generation of bishops, and this continues until today.
*These successor bishops, with the successor of Peter at their head, are guided by the HS (as promised by Jesus) and responsible for ensuring, and protecting the truth of the faith from generation to generation. This includes guiding the faithful in the meaning, mode, and understanding of the words of scripture.
*The Church as lead by the Bishops, with the successor of Peter at the head is AUTHORITATIVE in the life of the believer


To me this idea of tracing the lineage is dangerous because if one evil person got into the mix (and surely that has happened - aren't all humans evil to some degree?) then are all appointments thereafter invalidated? What makes you think the lineage will ever get back on track? And how can you tell when/if it does?

Many evil people (including popes) have already gotten into the mix. This shouldn’t shock us. The biggest scandal in the Catholic Church was not some Pope selling indulgences, the sexual abuse scandal, etc. The biggest scandal is that one of Jesus’ hand picked apostles betrayed Him, another denied Him, and they all fled when His hour of danger came. That’s not what invalidates the line. The question is not whether these people are perfect. The question only is whether despite their imperfections (indeed in spite of themselves), the Holy Spirit is guiding them when they are teaching, guarding and protecting the faith (just as we beleive the HS was protecting them when they wrote-it's no different really).

The only thing that would show that the line was invalid is if from one generation to the next you could find an example on a doctrine of the faith or morals that had once been taught as true, which was now taught as false. That excercise has been tried time and again, and amazingly, no such thing can be found. While the church has certainly deepened her understanding, explained it differently at different times, etc., never has she reversed herself on a teaching.

The key that keeps the Catholic Church and the lineage intact is the papacy, which is the successor of Peter. If you read Matthew 16, you can see where Jesus is giving this role of leadership and trust to Peter, and where the explicit promise is made that even the gates of hell shall not prevail against Jesus Church.

There is no similar promise that the individual believer, reading the written words in isolation will be protected in their understanding. Amazingly, such protection is claimed by many Protestants, despite the fact that any two Protestants picking up the scriptures and appealing to the same Holy Spirit will as likely as not, come to a different interpretation from one another.

The promise was made to Peter that he would hold the keys (understood by scholars in biblical circles as being representative of the authority to teach and interpret), and his successors logically hold that in his absence. If that promise is too mean anything, then we need only be sure that when it comes to belief that we are in union with the office/person God himself charged with being the Shepard of all believers.

Here are some links for further reading on some of the topics that have come up.

Canon of Scripture

Here is a specific article addressing the 'imperfect' nature of the pope and bishops...
Papal infallibility

And here's a link with a bunch more articles on the papacy, succession, and some of the other topics that have come up....

Church & Papacy

These articles on the very question of authority should be helpful as well....

What's Your Authority
Scripture and Tradition

I sincerely hope all this helps. Please keep bringing these excellent questions up.

God Bless.

 
At November 18, 2005 12:53 PM, Anonymous David said...

Jennifer,
I haven't been over in awhile, but it is nice to see you are doing well.
Let me offer some thoughts.

1. It was humans who wrote those documents you mention and continue to interpret them (although the biblical authors were inspired). You can't have the constitution or the Bible without humans.

The Bible says the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth, and the Church predated the complete new testament by 70 years (the NT was finished being written around 100 AD). This means that for 70 years (and beyond since a church owning a whole copy of the Bible was unlikely due to cost) the Church primarily relied on the preaching and teaching of humans. Not to mention that the Church actually determined which of the more than 200 gospels floating around made it into the Bible. The Church essentially wrote, compiled, and now interprets the Bible. We don't set the bible and the Church in opposition to one another, because they are complementary. We would think it silly if a frenchman in 2005 picked up the US constitution and claimed to found the true USA on french soil based on reading it. Joining a church based solely on (that church's interpretation of) the bible, with no historical lineage back to the apostles, is a lot like joining that Frenchman's new USA.

2. The whole question of "what if you have an evil bishop" has already been dealt with in the 4th century, because it has happened. Obviously, being made up of humans, the Church will do bad things (unforunately). Even St Peter disappointed Jesus at every turn it seems. What the Church decided was that the moral worthiness of a minister doesn't affect his ability to be a minister, because it is *God* who does the saving work, not the humans themselves. Besides, if we said a bishop had to be free from sin for God to use him, the Church would have died out before it started. God uses sinful humans, just look at how dim-witted and petty the 12 apostles were in the gospels.

Another problem is that unlike most denominations, the Catholic church has a history. Whenever you have a history, you are bound to have examples of failure to live up to your own standards. Look at the failures in US history, but that doesn't mean we aren't a great country.

Just some thoughts...Good questions!

 
At November 18, 2005 1:33 PM, Anonymous David said...

That last post may have been unclear on one point. The moral behavior of a minister does not invalidate his work as a minister (i.e. his baptisms still "take" even if he is a great sinner). However...his moral behavior can (and often will) result in a loss of his office as priest if his sins are grave, public, and persist, and are not followed by repentance. Bad bishops and priests are supposed to be disciplined.

 
At August 31, 2009 9:06 PM, Blogger V said...

I'm glad you had Steve G along the way to guide you and answer your questions about Christianity.
It's funny who God sends you. If you had been sent an Anti-Catholic person, maybe you would have rejected Catholicism. Maybe not, I'm glad it works for you.
I love it because I'm dumb, but the Church is not. I'm afraid to take a stand, but the Church always does.

 

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