Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
The Year of the Cat, the Week of the Troll
08/11/2007 - James WhiteLittle did I know, last Monday morning, as I fired up my iPod shuffle (the greatest invention for road bikers ever) and turned on the Stand to Reason interview with Frank Beckwith from the night before, what lay ahead. And I don't mean on the route I rode that morning, either. The past five days have set new all-time records for vitriolic nastiness, at least on the part of those devoted to Rome, anyway. I suppose there have been brief periods of similar nastiness from other groups, maybe for a day or so, but surely nothing to compare to the utter melt down of hypocrisy that can be documented this day in numerous venues. The furor over my daring to criticize the "all praise John Paul II" road tour when the Pope died was similar, but amazingly, not as nasty.
There is a temptation to collect a couple dozen doozies from Jimmy Akin's insult fest (his article attacking my sanity and identifying me as a troll was, of course, cross-posted to the Catholic Answers forums--just for maximum hatred production, I'm sure) and from the combox at STR, but anyone who has had the misfortune of running into these folks in the net is already well aware of why the pictures I posted were so spot-on accurate. Religious ferver that is based upon ignorance, prejudice, and hatred, is a powerful source, but you can't reason with those infected by it, either. Throw in a generous dosage of lies and the complicit mob-mongering of folks like Akin and you've got the makings of a really ugly example of man's religion.
Meanwhile, the original comments I left in the STR combox have been effectively forgotten, or, more to the point, twisted into something you could not possibly recognize. Since the issues I raised are still relevant, I provide them here for those who did not pursue the attempted (and quickly ended) conversation in the STR combox. I end with the last one that was relevant---that is, after that, Beckwith successfully de-railed the topic with the "I made it sound like I had never read Trent but I really did and since you took my words in their most logical fashion I will cover my hasty retreat by noting I am two years older than you are, tired, and you are uncharitable for daring to challenge my conversion and my claims in public" maneuver.
Many years ago I was on WEZE radio in Boston, MA, with then recent Catholic convert Gerry Matatics (the same Matatics who is now a sedevacantist but who had been, up to that time, a staunch defender of orthodox Roman Catholicism, at least as staff apologist for Catholic Answers). Mr. Matatics and I had done two debates the preceding week at Boston College, one on justification, the other on the Apocrypha. At one point during the radio program I asked Mr. Matatics the following question.
How did the faithful Jewish person know that Isaiah and 2 Chronicles were Scripture fifty years before the coming of Christ?
He was completely stunned by the question. For those Roman Catholics who argue that the authority of the Church is necessary for the establishment of the canon of Scripture, rather than seeing Scripture as an artifact of revelation (a point I made in _Scripture Alone_, pp. 102-109), the question poses what I think is a truly unsolvable puzzle. Over the years since I first asked the question on the fly of Mr. Matatics, I have received the following kinds of replies:
1) Some have said no one could, in fact, know, until the Papacy was established. However, this flies in the face of the fact that the Lord Jesus held men accountable to what was found in the Scriptures during His ministry, which He could not have done had this been true.
2) Some have said they could only known by reference to the Urim and the Thummim, i.e., by asking the High Priest to inquire of the Lord on their behalf. Yes, seriously, I have had some suggest this. Obviously, it suffers from many problems, but the response to the first reply would apply equally well here.
3) Some have said they would have to follow the "Jewish magisterium." That sounds great, until you realize that the Jews never accepted the very books that Trent dogmatically canonized in 1546, creating the conundrum of magisterial contradiction.
The fact is, the question points out that the demand to have an infallible authority define the canon is anachronistic at best, and, in the case of Rome's claims, unworkable in light of the fact that the first *dogmatic* and hence *infallible* definition is that of Trent, leaving us with the untenable idea that no one could truly use Scripture until after the time of the Reformation. I leave aside here all the most interesting facts concerning how even Popes rejected the final conclusions of Trent (Pope Gregory the Great rejecting Maccabees, for example). Those who have studied these issues in depth, from both sides, well know the facts of the matter.
There is one last thing I would like to note. I would like to ask anyone who claims that the Roman Catholic Church, as it exists today, has existed for nearly 2000 years, to explain something to me. When the Council of Nicea convened, around 318 (by one count) bishops attended. Could a Roman Catholic representative point me to a single bishop at Nicea who believed what you believe de fide? That is, was there a single bishop in attendance who believed, for example, in transubstantiation? Purgatory, as defined by Rome today? Indulgences? The thesaurus meritorum? Immaculate Conception? Bodily Assumption? Papal Infallibility? If these things have been defined de fide, are we to believe that the gospel has "changed" since that time, if, in fact, these things were not defined as part of the gospel at that time? Are we not left with the specter of the comments of Gerry Matatics in my debate with him on Long Island in 1996 wherein he boldly stated, before the entire audience, that we have the very same warrant to believe in the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven that we have to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave? Hard to believe? Here is the video of him saying it:
I will be reviewing a number of the comments made on STR Sunday evening this week on The Dividing Line. I did indeed feel it was a very educational exchange.
Is the use of the term "viaticum" in the 13th canon of the Council of Nicea evidence of an early belief in indulgences?
Dr. Beckwith, in his STR interview, alleged that the practice of indulgences has roots going back to the Council of Nicea, and before. He has repeated this claim in a post on the STR blog. But does such a claim withstand scrutiny? Let's examine it.
First, the practice of indulgences is recognized by all to be secondary to, and derivative from, the concept of the thesaurus meritorum, the treasury of merit. This concept has been traced in its development primarily to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, giving rise then to the practice of the selling of indulgences and the funding of the building of St. Peter's in Rome. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, "The development of this doctrine in explicit form was the work of the great Schoolmen, notably Alexander of Hales (Summa, IV, Q. xxiii, m. 3, n. 6), Albertus Magnus (In IV Sent., dist. xx, art. 16), and St. Thomas (In IV Sent., dist. xx, q. i, art. 3, sol. 1)." (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07783a.htm). Add to this reality the fact that the very concept of purgatory itself was a late development, with only portions of the later doctrine being found as late as Gregory the Great (who gave the greatest impetus to its development, but still did not hold to the de fide doctrine of the fifteenth century). If the foundational elements had not as yet taken recognizable form at these late dates, upon what basis, then, can one meaningfully read into an early fourth century document such concepts? This would involve the grossest forms of historical anachronism. As Dr. Beckwith stated himself on STR, "I am not a historian." So I wonder, what historians does he cite who make a serious argument for Canon 13 referring to indulgences as defined by Rome?
It might be good to read the 13th canon:
Concerning the departing, the ancient canonical law is still to be maintained, to wit, that, if any man be at the point of death, he must not be deprived of the last and most indispensable Viaticum. But, if any one should be restored to health again who has received the communion when his life was despaired of, let him remain among those who communicate in prayers only. But in general, and in the case of any dying person whatsoever asking to receive the Eucharist, let the Bishop, after examination made, give it him.
A quick glance at various Roman Catholic sources reveals that it is a great leap to go from the simple meaning of "viaticum" as it was used in the fourth century to the much later concept of indulgences. At this point in history this referred to the giving of the Eucharist to those who were on death's door step. Of course, I hasten to point out that at this time there was no reservation of consecrated hosts. One will search in vain for any tabernacles, monstrances, etc., in this time period. They simply do not exist, and that fact is confirmed by Roman Catholic sources. The church did not maintain them or treat them with any special care after the eucharistic service itself. There is a fairly obvious reason for this. "Real Presence" and "transubstantiation" are two different things logically, theologically, and historically, despite how often they are conflated anachronistically by modern Roman Catholics. In any case, the canon simpyl has to do with the practice of bringing the eucharist to those who are dying. To read into this some kind of reference to indulgences is to provide yet another tremendous example of anachronistic reading of early church sources.
But while we are in the canons of the Council of Nicea (a council that had to fight for acceptance in the decades that came after, which even saw the bishop of Rome abandoning its defense), I think there is another canon that should be examined, for I wonder if Dr. Beckwith puts as much weight in what it says?
Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges. And this is to be universally understood, that if any one be made bishop without the consent of the Metropolitan, the great Synod has declared that such a man ought not to be a bishop. If, however, two or three bishops shall from natural love of contradiction, oppose the common suffrage of the rest, it being reasonable and in accordance with the ecclesiastical law, then let the choice of the majority prevail.
If, in fact, it was the "ancient custom" for the Bishop of Rome to be viewed as the supreme head of the faithful, I have to wonder why Nicea said it was the ancient custom for the Bishop of Alexandria to have the headship over his own jurisdiction, just as Rome had jurisdiction in Italy?
In any case, I would like to close by noting that Dr. Beckwith did not answer my question. I asked: who at Nicea believed as he believes today? What bishop held to the doctrines that Rome has defined de fide today? The answer is painfully clear: no one did. Not a single one of those bishops believed de fide what Dr. Beckwith believes today, and what he must, if he is consistent, define as the very definitions of the gospel. I fully understand why Dr. Beckwith would hesitate to "go all in" when it comes to Rome's authority claims. But the fact of the matter is, there is no logical, consistent stopping point. That is why Matatics said what he said in the clip I referred to before.
Finally, given that the purgatory issue was central in the STR interview, may I once again invite folks to consider this formal debate section on the topic of purgatory with a credentialed Roman Catholic priest and scholar?
Likewise, in reference to Rome's misuse and abuse of church history:
I am left wondering, just a bit, how pointing out that entire monuments of dogmatic theology--such as Papal Infallibility, the Immaculate Conception (a concept taught against over the centuries by no less than *seven* bishops of Rome), the Bodily Assumption (first found in the Transitus literature which, ironically, was condemned by Pope Gelasius, and that half a millennium after Christ), and the entire complex of beliefs that developed in the middle ages into what is today the doctrines of purgatory, the thesaurus meritorum, and indulgences--were simply unknown to the church in the days of Nicea is the same as asking for belief in the "identical form." This assumes, without providing any basis for doing so, that an at least *recognizable* form of these dogmas (I do hope everyone notes the term dogma, a de fide definition that cannot be rejected by the faithful follower of the Roman See) existed in the hearts and minds of the bishops of Nicea. Is this what you are alleging, Dr. Beckwith? If so, could you please be so kind as to document these things? It is possible that in the 90 to 120 days of "marathon reading" you did earlier this year you discovered what I have failed to find in 18 years of study, so I would be most edified to find this material. But since you have admitted, repeatedly, that you had not even read the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent until earlier this year, I have a strong feeling that such works as Salmon, Whittaker, Goode, and numerous other such works, have likewise escaped your notice.
You are, of course, quite right to assert that many modern Roman Catholic concepts have ancient roots. The entire Marian complex can indeed be traced to very early sources. Early gnostic sources, that is, not to distinctly Christian ones. The perpetual virginity of Mary, for example, is first found not in truly Christian writings, but in the gnostic gospels of the second century. Have you considered, Dr. Beckwith, what it means for Rome to have the capacity, the ability, to define, de fide I remind you---this is not a belief you can dismiss or just "ponder," at least not while asserting in other venues that "words have meaning"--that Mary remained physically "in tact" as a virgin *after* the birth of Jesus? I can fully understand how the gnostics worked that out, being docetic in their thinking, but just how, sir, can one read Isaiah 9 and read that a child will be *born* to us and then allow an authority not once identified in Scripture to overturn the obvious meaning of the text so as to believe that this birth somehow involved the supernatural removal of the baby without the natural physical effects of birth upon the mother? And have you pondered what it means that such an amazing assertion can be attached to the gospel of Jesus Christ as a necessary article of belief?
It seems that part of your developing apologetic is to assert that since important developments in creedal theology took place within a context where, for example, confession or penance was taking place (you attached these directly to such issues as how to deal with the lapsed, i.e., the issues behind the Novatian Schism, Donatist Controversy, etc.,), this means that such practices are to be seen not only as valid today, but, evidently, as more valid in the "one true church" (as Benedict has reminded us of late) than any other view. But I have to wonder at the logic of such an assertion, and its historical validity as well. I first remind you of some statements from that period that probably did not appear in Jimmy Akin's books (but did appear in such works as Soli Deo Gloria's work on sola scriptura, for example---did you read that in your marathon?). The great defender of Nicea, he who stood against councils and bishops for decades in defense of the deity of Christ (upon what epistemological or ecclesiastical foundation could one stand for decades against the voice of numerous councils, attended by more bishops than Nicea, along with the condemnations of numerous bishops in all of the major sees, Dr. Beckwith---if, of course, your current views are correct?), Athanasius, in Contra Gentiles 1:1 put it rather bluntly, "The holy and inspired Scriptures are sufficient of themselves for the preaching of the truth." Do tell me, Dr. Beckwith---if the man of God can be thoroughly equipped for every good work by that which is theopneustos (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and if the inspired Scriptures are sufficient of themselves for the preaching of the truth, as Athanasius asserted, how do the Scriptures sufficiently equip you to preach the Bodily Assumption of Mary which, as a de fide doctrine of the Christian faith, defined as such by the authority of the One True Church, would of necessity be a good work for the man of God? Just a question that I wish someone had been able to ask. But I digress. Do you agree, or disagree, with Cyril of Jerusalem, who instructed his readers, "In regard to the divine and holy mysteries of the faith, not the least part may be handed on without the Holy Scriptures. Do not be led astray by winning words and clever arguments. Even to me, who tell you these things, do not give ready belief, unless you receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of the things which I announce. The salvation in which we believe is not proved from clever reasoning, but from the Holy Scriptures" (Catechetical Lectures 4:17). And in your reading I am certain you encountered the words of Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote, "...we make the Holy Scriptures the canon and the rule of every dogma; we of necessity look upon that, and receive alone that which may be made conformable to the intention of those writings (On the Soul and Resurrection). Are these statements, sir, just as valid and important as noting the ancient practice of penance?
But more than just noting the presence of these kinds of statements (and there are many, many more), I likewise point you to numerous practices and beliefs not embraced by Rome today. Why are those beliefs less important, or even to be rejected? Because of the truly consistent epistemology that lies behind Rome's claims: sola ecclesia. Rome gets to define not only the extent (canon) and meaning (interpretation) of Scripture, infallibly, but the extent and meaning of tradition as well. She gets to pick and choose between what practices and activities of the myriad one can find in early church history she will invest with some kind of special authority and which ones she will reject. She gets to define what is tradition, and what isn't. So, when Irenaeus gives us the very earliest claim to an apostolic teaching or belief in all of patristic literature in claiming the apostles taught Jesus was more than fifty years old at His death (an idea he was promoting to oppose a particular gnostic error of his day), we all can together identify such a tradition as corrupt, and reject it. Yet, if the very first claim by a Christian writer that he has an apostolic teaching that exists outside of Scripture is to be rejected as corrupt, and that within a hundred years after the death of the last apostles, upon what logical basis are we to assume Rome kept pure a fragment of tradition, unknown to the early centuries in any form, never once preached, never once bound upon the consciences of the faithful, upon which she could define as dogma the Bodily Assumption of Mary in the middle of the twentieth century? Why? Because Rome says so, that's why. It is as simple as that.
Dr. Beckwith, one does not honor the early church by embracing Rome's absolute authority claims. One can honor the lives of great men of God and still examine their teachings on the basis of the touchstone of the Word of God. I can honor Athanasius and then do as he instructed me to do in testing his teachings by that which is God-breathed. In fact, I suggest that I can be far more honest in my handling of patristic materials than a faithful, consistent Roman Catholic can, for the Roman Catholic has already been instructed that on certain issues a "unanimous consent" of the Fathers exists---when in fact, that simply isn't true. I can look honestly as the political development of the Papacy over time. Can you? Can you see Augustine representing the majority of early writers in rejecting the very foundations of modern Papal claims, not only in his view of Matthew 16, the Cathedra Petri, etc., but in his rejection of Zosimus' claims to authority in the matter of Pelagius, and accept what it meant concerning the views he held at the time? Or do you have to find a way "around" these facts because Rome tells you otherwise? Can you accept that without forged documents such as the Donation of Constantine and the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals that the entire foundation of Papal authority as it developed in history would be altered beyond recognition? Does it mean something to you that your new ultimate epistemological authority in matters of faith and morals hangs in mid-air, its historical claims having collapsed long ago?
I do hope that we all, everyone considering these things, will recognize that all of this comes back to the key issue: the gospel. You were asked by the second caller, Paul, how your gospel has changed. You did not really answer the question. Eleven years ago on the Bible Answer Man broadcast I discussed Roman Catholicism for three hours with Tim Staples, now staff apologist with Catholic Answers. At one point we agreed, thankfully, to this point: that if he and I were to be protesting abortion outside of a clinic somewhere, and someone were to walk up to the both of us and say, "What must I do to be saved?" that we would respond in substantively different manners. We would *not* say the same thing in response. And so I ask: if apostolic succession is important, shouldn't it be an apostolic succession of truth rather than an apostolic succession of persons? Should it not be our first priority to preach and teach what the apostles themselves taught? I have a sad feeling that at this point you would question whether we could even do so (i.e., that you would question the sufficiency of Scripture for such a task). But it is that very issues that separates us, epistemologically, and, since we preach different gospels, on the very level of faith itself.