Thursday, May 31, 2007

Unexamined Presuppositions 2

The Reformation arose out of the Renaissance. Protestants are ready to acknowledge the fact that the Renaissance emphases upon classical literature and a return "ad fontes", to the sources, played an important part in the birth of their movement. This dependency is obvious in the Protestant insistence upon Scripture alone. But were there any other Renaissance influences upon Luther and his allies?

It seems to me that the answer is an emphatic "yes". Another element of Renaissance culture had its effects as well: humanism. I do not mean to say that the Reformers were secularists, nor that the Renaissance humanists were essentially no different from modern secular humanists. That would be anachronistic. But humanism emphasizes the human by its very definition. One author has said that the Renaissance humanists "asserted 'the genius of man... the unique and extraordinary ability of the human mind.'"

Man as the measure of all things: this is the watchword of humanism. And this was an integral part of Renaissance culture. It would be absurd to pretend that such influences had no effect upon the Reformers, particularly given assertions such as this from Luther: "Accursed into the abyss of hell be all obedience that is rendered to government, father, and mother, yea, and the church, too, at the cost of being disobedient to God!" (The quotation is from a book called What Luther Says. I pulled this quotation from an email to a friend. I used to own this book, but I wound up giving it to a Lutheran friend who could make much better use of it than I; unfortunately, this means I cannot provide a full citation). There isn't really much left to question here: Luther has rejected the authority of governments, of parents, and of the Church to instruct him as to what God requires of man.

Sola scriptura means that the Protestant not only rejects Sacred Tradition; it also means, on the assumption that all men err, that he will not submit to anyone else when it comes to understanding the Bible. Oh, he may do so formally speaking - that is, he may agree that a particular Protestant creedal formulation presents the truth of the Bible - but if at any time he finds himself in disagreement with that formulation, his sole allegiance becomes clear: he will deny the validity of that creed or confession, and stick to what he understands the Bible to be saying. Sola Scriptura.

Now it must be said that Protestant devotion to the Bible is a commendable thing. By no means do I wish to be misunderstood about that. But the point here is that Sola Scriptura is, it seems to me, clearly and unambiguously a fruit (a baptized fruit, but a fruit nonetheless) of Renaissance humanism: "I, with my Bible, will determine what it is that God says. I will ignore the testimony of the centuries, and return to the very sources themselves, and discover what it is that God says."

This is what I mean by an unexamined presupposition of Protestantism: unwittingly they have not imported only the Renaissance interest in source documents, but just as significantly a measure of Renaissance humanism: "I will decide". Man as the measure of all things. The Protestant declares that he will decide for himself.

I am admittedly putting things rather coarsely. I intend in future posts to fine-tune this observation a bit. What I want to show, however, is that - however unwittingly - the Reformers and their heirs owe more to the Renaissance than a simple interest in ancient manuscripts.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Unexamined Presuppositions 1

There is a school of thought among the Reformed called presuppositionalism. It is controversial even amongst the Reformed themselves, no doubt due to its insistence that circular reasoning - at least on a foundational level - is inescapable (whereas others say that circular reasoning is irrational). There are good critiques of it from a Catholic perspective available elsewhere, and I do not intend to make what would surely in comparison be a poor quality effort in that direction myself.

What I wish to do in this post (and possibly subsequent ones) is consider the question of what we might call unexamined presuppositions. The presuppositionalist says that we all have them, and that if we wish to think Christianly, we need to try to identify those presuppositions that we have unconsciously held. Once we have discovered them, we need to evaluate them, rejecting those that are non-Christian and consciously adhering to those that are biblical. This by itself seems to be an admirable goal, though one doesn't necessarily need to be a presuppositionalist in order to recognize it. Consider, for example, the effect of one's culture upon the way that one thinks. To the extent that a people shares a culture, it is because they have accepted certain norms and patterns of behavior that inform the way that they act and think. If a Christian is part of a culture that seems to have more non-Christian elements than Christian ones, it behooves him to identify those non-Christian elements and to root them out his life to the extent that they are evil.

To do this is difficult. It is difficult because it requires us to examine why we do what we do, and why we think what we think. To that extent we must try, so to speak, to get outside our own heads and to look back inside. This is not something that we are going to be very good at: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? I the LORD search the mind and test the heart, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings" (Jeremiah 17:9-10). God knows what is in our hearts, but it is very hard for us to know ourselves. And if it is hard for us to know ourselves, it ought to be obvious that the difficulty is several orders of magnitude worse when we seek to know others! A generous helping of charity seems to be undeniably in order when we look at others: they are doing their best, just as we are.

What I propose to do in the next few posts is to examine the roots of Protestantism. The revolt against the Catholic Church occurred within a specific milieu. It is unreasonable to pretend that Luther, Calvin, and the rest of Protestantism's forebears were untouched by their culture. They surely were, just as we are by ours. In what ways might they have been influenced? How did those cultural influences affect them?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Lutheran's "Charity"

The Rev. Paul McCain, a minister in the LCMS, has a new post on his blog, Cyberbrethren. In it he criticizes Catholics on account of a mailing he received from the Marianists, a Catholic religious order. I'm certainly not about to pretend that Catholics - including especially myself - are above criticism. But if we are to be criticized, one would like to think that the complaints would be valid. Do Mr. McCain's critiques pass this test?

About the mailing, he says:
It is a stark reminder that for all the fine-sounding words we hear coming from certain corners in Romanism, when it comes down to it, it is, literally, "business" as usual--the business of selling masses, merits and works.
I know nothing about this particular mailing. But is it fair to say that "business as usual" in the Catholic Church is literally that: business? Hogwash. Mr. McCain sounds as if this particular gripe is right out of the 16th century, when - regrettably - there were abuses regarding indulgences (abuses which were corrected by the Council of Trent). Whatever abuses there were 500 years ago, they certainly aren't tolerated now. So this is fundamentally irrelevant today.

But surely Mr. McCain knows all that. So perhaps he objects to fundraising? But that is no less silly. A quick Google search for '"suggested donation" +Lutheran' gets 38,000 hits. Of course, we all know what a "suggested donation" often is, right? That's n0n-profit-ese for "We're selling this book or other item, but we're not allowed to call it 'selling' if we want to keep our tax-exempt status. So instead we give you a 'suggested donation' that is functionally indistinguishable from a price." One quick glance here shows us an LCMS congregation which asks for a "suggested donation" for "materials" related to a required membership class. Goodness! Doesn't that sound just like "selling the gospel"?!!? I mean, really. By way of contrast, our parish gives away books worth at least $50, to say nothing of dozens and dozens of weekly handouts, to anyone who attends our membership classes. No obligation. No questions asked. So who is selling spiritual goods, and who isn't?

But seriously, folks. I don't really believe that Christ Lutheran Church is selling the gospel. But to believe that would be no more absurd than it is for Mr. McCain to make the outrageous charge that the Marianists are "selling" masses. Poppycock. But even if the Marianists are guilty of what he says, the Catholic Church at worst would be guilty having not (yet) put a stop to it...and the same could be said about his own denomination, for not putting a stop to the "abuses" at Christ Lutheran. A little more charity would seem to be in order.

Mr. McCain continues:
If that [i.e., the so-called "selling" of spiritual things] were not troubling enough, it is shocking that nowhere in the card is there any word of Christ and the Gospel. There is a picture of Jesus standing in clouds, but the card nowhere mentions a word about the Resurrection of Christ.
Well. That certainly sounds serious. But let's stop and consider for a moment. I just checked Mr. McCain's entire post, and there is no mention of the Trinity. Does that mean he is a Unitarian? And there is no mention of the Ten Commandments. Does that mean he is a libertine? And there is no mention of the term "sola fide"! Does that mean that Mr. McCain isn't really Lutheran?!?

Of course, I'm being absurd again, and the answer to all of those questions is No, and No, and Heck No. But should I expect Mr. McCain to mention them in this blog post? No. Why? Because a blog post is not a confession of faith. And in the same way, a mailing from the Marianists is not a confession of faith. Like the blog post, it has a specific purpose. And just as it would be foolish to charge Mr. McCain with being pro-abortion because this blog post doesn't say anything pro-life, in the same way it is silly to criticize the Marianists for leaving things out of this mailing.

(It ought to be pointed out, though, that Mr. McCain seems to have missed the fact that in discussing the Mass, the Marianists have discussed the Gospel in capsule. And in discussing the Mass, they have discussed Christ, the Eucharistic Victim).

Lastly, McCain falsely accuses the Church of being "legalistic". The only thing that needs to be said here is that it is sheer nonsense born out of ignorance, and that the charge comes from one who assumes - not only falsely, but baselessly - that to deny the false, Protestant notion of "sola fide" is to affirm salvation by works. Nothing could be further from the truth.

But that's a topic for another post.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

So-Called Intellectual Suicide - Closing Thoughts

I suspect that the reason why some Protestants believe such silly things (apart from simply not understanding the Catholic perspective) is that they personally cannot imagine ever submitting to a Pope with regard to questions of religious truth, because they reject distinctively Catholic doctrines. My hypothesis is that perhaps because they disagree so strongly about these things, and because they are so confident concerning their own viewpoint, they are simply unable to conceive of anyone willingly and rationally choosing to become Catholic.

Whether that's a fair guess or not is perhaps a subject for another day. But the point I wish to make now is that the Catholic Church isn't forcing itself upon anyone, and doesn't expect anyone (indeed, doesn't want anyone) to become Catholic who doesn't believe what she teaches: among other things, that one must submit to the Pope on questions of faith and morals. If that doesn't describe you, then the answer is clear: do not become Catholic (but let us try to persuade you!) Christianity is a rational religion, but there are some things that may only be known by faith. As St. Thomas says:

For when anyone in the endeavor to prove the faith brings forward reasons which are not cogent, he falls under the ridicule of the unbelievers: since they suppose that we stand upon such reasons, and that we believe on such grounds.

Therefore, we must not attempt to prove what is of faith, except by authority alone, to those who receive the authority; while as regards others it suffices to prove that what faith teaches is not impossible. Hence it is said by Dionysius (Div. Nom. ii): "Whoever wholly resists the word, is far off from our philosophy; whereas if he regards the truth of the word"--i.e. "the sacred word, we too follow this rule" (Summa Theologica, I, Q32, A1).
Before we might expect Protestants to be willing to submit to the Pope's teaching, we would first need to persuade them that this is a reasonable course of action. But that too is a discussion for another day (several of them). Just as it will not do for Protestants to call us brainless, we Catholics cannot expect them to change their minds just because we say so. We must persuade them. And when this seems like a hopeless undertaking, we ought to remember the examples of other Protestants who have me, for instance.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

So-Called Intellectual Suicide - Part 2

By way of explaining what I mean when I say that Catholics have not given their brains the boot, I offer first the anecdotal evidence of my own experience. Far from being the end of reason, my conversion to the Catholic Church was more like the doorway to genuine intellectual advance. I have been learning more about philosophy and its usefulness than I would have ever imagined possible. I have been forced to reconsider and abandon intellectual prejudices that I have held for as long as I can remember. I have without question prospered intellectually since my conversion, so that it is entirely clear to me that these critics simply do not know what they are talking about if these "intellectual suicide" grenades are representative of what they really believe and not mere rhetorical excess.

So much for the personal anecdotal evidence. Before we go very far, though, we need to consider a couple of things by way of laying a foundation.

In the first place, it has to be understood that when the Catholic Church proposes some dogma for belief, it is not doing so just because it seemed like a good idea at the time. The Magisterium has not plucked the articles of faith out of thin air, nor out of some grab bag of opinions that do not differ very much in their value, as if the only reason we have these dogmas and not those over there is a matter of nothing more than historical curiosity. No. The reason why the Catholic Church has proposed these dogmas for our belief is that they are true. So when she asks the Catholic to accept them, it is not the same as asking me my favorite color, nor asking me what I think of the Broncos' chances this year. It is a matter of truth, and asking someone to believe something that is true is rather different from asking him to accept an opinion. This being the case, the real intellectual suicide would be to deny the truth - to refuse to submit to it - to live as though the truth were not actually true - to think and believe as though these things were not true when in fact they are. It would be to believe a lie, and it would be to reject rationality in favor of irrationality. When we consider the question from this point of view it becomes obvious that submission to the Magisterium is the very opposite of intellectual suicide.

In the second place, we need to recognize a certain distinction: a distinction between knowing what is true, and understanding what is true. And this is where theology comes in. Theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas have attempted to the best of their abilities to explain the doctrines of the faith - to make them intelligible to us as far as that is possible, and as far as they are able. One could say that theology is reason at the service of faith. This being the case, once again we see that the Catholic by no means surrenders his intellect at the parish door. Quite the contrary! Given a body of established truths, he is free to exert his energy in understanding them. Is that the death of reason for the Catholic? I suggest that the critic try reading and understanding the Summa Theologica (for example) to see the amazing use to which reason may be put by and for the Catholic. For myself, I can only say that reading the works of the Angelic Doctor has been an education all by itself.

All this being so...can the Catholic genuinely appreciate the work on justification of a philosopher like Dr. Koons (mentioned in the Introduction), despite what some naysayers pretend? Of course! Because to the extent that his work explains truths that we already believe, it may be truly useful to us. Certainly there are things that Catholics are obligated to believe: but we are obliged to believe them not just because someone tells us so, but because they are true (which is why the Church tells us that we must believe them). Having believed these things, however, it remains for us to understand them to the extent that we are able to do so...and that can be the work of a lifetime. Contrary to what some of our Protestant critics would say, then, we by no means turn our brains off when we become Catholics.

Monday, May 21, 2007

So-Called Intellectual Suicide - Introduction

A standard canard for many Protestants when quarreling with Catholics is that we have committed "intellectual suicide" by submitting to the Magisterium. These critics say this because it seems to them that if anyone refuses to question what the critics describe as merely human declarations, this can only mean that he has abandoned any genuine prospect for independent thought. This assertion has come up on a couple different blogs recently, in response to philosopher Dr. Robert Koons' announcement of his intention to convert to the Catholic Church.

In one venue, a commenter says of such conversions: "So it really is intellectual suicide on the order of what geocentrist fundamentalists ask of people." Elsewhere, in response to a Catholic's expressed admiration for an article by Dr. Koons on the subject of justification, a critic says:

I know for a fact that you don't really care anything about Dr. Koons' "excellent treatise on justification". You can't. You're Catholic...

It's not "what you think" but "whom do you trust?"

It isn't about what Dr. Koons thinks. You don't trust Dr. Koons. You can't. No matter how smart he may or may not be, he is just some guy with an opinion.
Unfortunately, it seems that these gentlemen do not seem to have understood things clearly.

In the first place, as someone else pointed out on the first of these two blogs, the claim that Catholics commit intellectual suicide is simply absurd on its face, given converts such as these and other Catholics such as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas More, and Joseph Ratzinger (to name just a few). Such silliness hardly warrants a response, in one sense, because it is so manifestly at variance with the facts.

In the second place, these critics really ought to be wary of resorting to such attacks. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if this sort of nonsense "works" against Catholics, it works no less well against Protestants in the hands of (for example) atheists. Atheists will say that Christians blindly accept what the Bible says, so that by becoming Christian we have all committed intellectual suicide. Here is just one example. A little more caution would seem to be in order: glass houses, stones, and all that.

But in the third place, it seems that these Protestant critics do not understand some things about the relationship of dogma, theology, and reason in general. In my next post, I hope to explain why Catholics have most certainly not jettisoned their brains at the church door.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

On Grace and Merit

Some people (see especially the comments there) seem to think that they understand Catholic doctrine better than even knowledgeable Catholics. I don't pretend to be a knowledgeable Catholic, but to pretend that the Church teaches legalism is absurd.

If it's not already obvious from the fact the Church condemned Pelagianism, and from the fact that The Angelic Doctor explicitly affirms that we cannot do any good without grace, and that we cannot keep the law without grace, and that we cannot merit eternal life without grace, and that we cannot prepare ourselves for grace without grace, and that we cannot stop sinning without grace, and that we cannot avoid sin without grace, and that we cannot persevere in doing good without grace, the Council of Trent doesn't leave it up to a mere question of theological opinion (although they thought quite highly of St. Thomas): " is necessary to believe that sins neither are remitted, nor ever were remitted save gratuitously by the mercy of God for Christ's sake" (Decree on Justification, Chapter IX).

And it's not like this is only dusty old theology, either. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the same thing: "Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God" (#1996). And: "Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him" (#153). And: "Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit" (#154).

Does anything more really need to be said?

Of course, the Catholic denies sola fide. But denying this and professing legalism are really two separate things. Without question one can acknowledge the necessity of obeying God because we are Christians, not because we suppose that our obedience by itself earns us anything: "He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn. 15:5). "When you have done all that is commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty'" (Lk. 17:10).

On top of all this, it seems to me that legalism is irrational: if someone supposedly merits something from God, it means that God owes it to him. But how can such an absurd position arise? God didn't need to make us; how on earth then would it be possible that we could be in a position to demand salvation from him? The very idea is silly, even assuming that we didn't deserve the exact opposite on account of our sins.

The long and short of it is that the Catholic Church has never condoned legalism, and those Protestants who pretend otherwise simply do not understand what we believe.


Two years ago, I left behind Protestantism to convert to the Catholic Church. This was the eventual fruit of more than a year's worth of contemplation, followed by months and months of research and prayer and debate with friends. Upon converting, I established a program of Catholic theological self-education. Following a year's worth of preparatory reading in philosophy, I plunged into the deep waters of the Summa Theologica in April of 2006. Now I'm in Book II of the Summa Contra Gentiles.

I am by no means a scholar. I am not a theologian. I am not a philosopher. I work in IT. I have a B.A. in Biblical Studies from a conservative Protestant liberal arts college. By no means am I sufficiently well-versed in Aquinas to fairly describe myself as a Thomist. The best that I can say in that regard is that the writings of the Angelic Doctor - as well as his prayers - have been immensely helpful to me.

I do not know whether I will ever complete my formal education, but I have been an avid reader and have attempted to the best of my meager abilities to continue my education myself through reading The Right Sort of Books.

I intend in this blog to comment on...well, whatever strikes me as interesting. But generally I think that the focus will be upon matters related to theology, philosophy, apologetics, etc. Forays into politics and current events cannot be ruled out.