Friday, December 31, 2010

Aquinas, Descartes, and Schaeffer

This post consists of the fruit of some investigations related to a combox discussion on this post. My interlocutor suggests that Schaeffer is correct in proposing that Aquinas paved the way for Descartes. I deny this for the reasons already presented in that post and in the subsequent comments. Here are a few more hopefully helpful bits on the subject. As an aside, I think it’s worth noting that it is Descartes who is regarded as the father of modern philosophy and not Aquinas.

John Peterson writes in Aquinas: A New Introduction, with respect to metaphysics:

[T]he temptation is to conclude that Aquinas was a Cartesian before Descartes. For both philosophers avoid the extremes of materialism on the one hand and idealism on the other. They both deny either that all is matter or that all is mind.

Yet there are important differences between the two philosophers. That is partly due to the fact that Aquinas was less of a Platonist than was Descartes on the matter of persons. For Descartes, a person’s soul or mind is a complete substance, just as it is for Plato. But for Aquinas, who is here closer to Aristotle, a person’s soul is not a complete substance in its own right but rather the form of his or her body. For wider philosophical reasons, Descartes rejected outright the analysis of natural things into form and matter. For that reason, he could not and would not have applied the form-matter schema to the analysis of persons. So even though they are together in denying what is now called identity materialism (as well as, for that matter, epiphenomenalism), the two philosophers part company as regards the sort of thing the spiritual human soul is, i.e. whether it is a complete substance or the (incomplete) form of a substance. [p. xi, available here; emphasis added]

In my view this is a fundamental difference for the present discussion. On the one hand it is consistent both with Descartes’ rationalism (which Aquinas did not share) and with his famous insistence upon starting his philosophical inquiry with himself (or, to be more precise, with his own rational powers)—which Aquinas also did not share.

In a related vein we find the following in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas. Joseph Owens writes there:

Common to both Aristotle and Aquinas is the tenet that all naturally attainable knowledge originates in external sensible things. By their efficient causality transmitted through the appropriate media, the external things impress their forms upon the human cognitive faculties, and thereby make the percipient be the thing perceived in the actuality of the cognition. The awareness is directly of the thing itself, and only concomitantly and reflexively of the percipient and of the cognitive acts. The external things remain epistemologically prior. From this viewpoint both Aristotle and Aquinas remain radically distinct from modern philosophers, who from Descartes on base their philosophy upon ideas or sensations or vivid phenomena, instead of immediately on external things themselves. Likewise, both Aristotle and Aquinas remain just as distinct from postmodern thinkers who look for their starting points in linguistic and historical formation. [53; emphasis added]

So we see here that Owens too traces the beginnings of modern philosophy not to Aquinas (pace my interlocutor) but to Descartes, and identifies a “radical distinction” between the two.

In the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Descartes, we read the following:

Descartes rejected the Aristotelian philosophy as soon as he left school. … [I]t is probable that what dissatisfied him most in what he had been taught was natural philosophy. [Page 4, which may be seen here]

If Descartes rejected the philosophy, how can it reasonably be said that he was dependent upon Aquinas?

Elsewhere we read:

Descartes did not publish anything until he was forty years old, largely due to his fears of censure.

Why would he fear censure if his views were consistent with those of Aquinas? Answer: he wouldn’t. But he did, because they weren’t.

And again:

Descartes self-consciously rejected the philosophical heritage of scholasticism, and attempted to formulate a new philosophical method and construct of new system of philosophical knowledge. It should be noted that Descartes did concede to theology the role that it occupied in the mediaeval period and still occupied in the church of his day; yet justifiably historians attribute this concession to his fear of persecution of ecclesiastical authorities. His statement, “That we must believe all that God has revealed, even though it is above the range of our capacities” (Principles 1.25) is anomalous in his system based on systematic doubt. [Emphasis added]

I think it’s pretty clear that we may safely deny any substantive Thomistic influence on Descartes. Schaeffer was wrong.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Fed Up

I am weary of the "enhancements" that Google has added to Blogger. It's bad enough that I get the stupid "URI too large" error when posting comments on others' Blogger blogs; it's ridiculous that it also happens to me on my own blog.

I'm not going to say that I'm shutting down The Supplement, but blogging shouldn't provide irritants. Since Google seems to think that irritants are a useful part of the blogging experience (since they've added this particular irritant), I'm going to [mostly] give this up.

I'm sure I'll still post from time to time. Given this year's performance, I suppose people are used to that now already. But I'll look elsewhere for my US RDA of irritants. I don't need to get them from here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Waste Not, Want Not

I wrote the following in reply to Ken, in a thread over at David Waltz’s. But Blogger decided that it was too long and would not allow me even to preview it. Fine. So I split it into two smaller pieces, intending to post a single comment across two physical comments. But when I tried that it complained—during the process of posting—that the URI was too large, even though the parts were several hundred characters under Blogger’s limit. Whatever. Blogger people, fix this junk. It is ridiculous for limits like this to exist on a discussion forum.

So I gave up on the thread.

But since I don’t want the time I spent writing this to go to waste, here it is in its entirety. I wonder if Blogger will allow that?

Ken wrote:

Just asserting that doesn't prove your point.

You wrote that in response to this remark of mine: “As we’ve said repeatedly, the problem is with the Reformed doctrine of perspicuity,” something that I said by way of excusing you from fault with regard to the difficulties you have had in providing a complete list of things that you say are necessary to believe in order to be saved. Are you saying that the problem really is with you, and not with what you believe? I seriously doubt it.

Works pretty good for all conservative and Reformed, doctrinal Protestants. (about things essential for salvation; not secondary issues, which are the things churches disagree over)

And yet in this thread you have been demonstrably unsure about providing The List of things which a man must believe in order to be saved. You began with “a stab” at some of those essentials; when the rather obvious weakness of this was pointed out, you reversed course and said that your first list was actually complete. But uncertainty returned before you even got the latter comment posted, and you reserved the right to change your mind again later.

Meanwhile, as was shown, TF is absolutely panic-stricken at the thought of providing The List at all. He just refuses to do it, pretending (I suppose) that this is a course of moderation. But it isn’t. It isn’t because he knows as well as you do yourself that not even Reformed people agree about those essentials.

Furthermore, it is a question-begging qualification to suggest that the Reformed doctrine of perspicuity “works pretty good” for Reformed folks. You may recall that the doctrine doesn’t claim to be relevant only for Reformed folks; rather, the WCF’s language unambiguously asserts that anyone (Reformed or not, educated or not) can readily discover the things that must be believed in order to be saved. So the fact not only that the Reformed can’t and won’t agree about The List but that Protestants in their entirety cannot do so categorically demolishes the value of the doctrine. It is worthless.

Actually, Protestants are quite unified on the essential doctrines for salvation; which I pretty much think I covered.

With all due respect, this remark seems to me to be absurd, given the fact that you yourself aren’t even sure that you provided The List. “Pretty much” is pretty inadequate, in my opinion, when one is discussing things that must be believed in order to be saved. A single deviation would land someone in hell. And you’re not 100% sure about The List—a List of things which are just absolutely clear in the Bible (if the doctrine in question is true)???

I gave you a list of the clear things, for salvation. Most all Protestants would agree with that list.

So much for “quite unified.” :-)

You say, "it doesn't work". What do you mean by that? Work to produce what?

Here is what the WCF says: “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”

If that was actually true, it ought to be child’s play to provide a list of all and only “those things.” But the falsity of it is clear in that Protestants absolutely disagree about such things. So, to answer your question, the doctrine does not work in the sense that no one can tell us what “those things” actually are: all of them, with no omissions and no extras whatsoever.

And the effect of this is that Christians are left to decide for themselves what “those things” are. And that is just plain wrong (besides being divisive, as the history of Protestantism shows).

Does the RCC list of de fide dogmas for salvation actually work? How do you know they work?

First off, attempting a tu quoque here does not get you off the hook for the problems in what you believe yourself. :-)

Secondly, the Church does not pretend that literally every Catholic must be able to explicitly profess adherence to literally every dogma, because She understands that not everyone is gifted with the time, talents, and treasure necessary to know and understand them all. Intellectual ability is not a prerequisite of saving faith; it is sufficient that a man sincerely intend to believe all that the Church professes. Consequently your tu quoque fails, in that the Church neither claims that all dogmas are readily accessible to all men nor that they are required to explicitly believe all of them. Explicit faith is definitely to be preferred, and laziness in pursuit of it is certainly culpable, but men are not called to things that are beyond their gifts.

[Catholic dogmas] certainly did not produce unity, for Luther and Calvin and all the Protestants after them did not fall in line, so it didn't work.

I wonder whether you think (mistakenly, as it turns out, though I do not blame you for it) that the primary fault of the Reformed doctrine of perspicuity is its effects upon unity? No. That is a serious effect, certainly. But what I had in mind is more the fact that Protestant disunity about those essentials that are allegedly guaranteed by this “perspicuity” demonstrates the epistemological weakness of the doctrine.

Getting back to what you said in the last quotation: Catholic dogma does not possess the intrinsic power to compel submission. If men (like Luther and Calvin) sin by refusing to exercise the divine virtue of faith, that is a fault on their part, not a defect on the part of the Truth.

Reformed Protestants may have even more real spiritual unity on the essentials than Roman Catholics do.

Paraphrase: “All the people in this tiny room—who happen to agree with [most] of what I believe—have more unity than a billion Catholics.”

Heh. Well, any sufficiently-small group of self-selecting individuals would indeed have a high degree of unity. Yes. But that is a poor measuring stick for truth, in my opinion.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

St Augustine and Material Heresy

Being wrong is one thing; being wrong because you don’t know any better is another thing entirely. So St Augustine writes:

If, Honoratus, a heretic, and a man trusting heretics seemed to me one and the same, I should judge it my duty to remain silent both in tongue and pen in this matter. But now, whereas there is a very great difference between these two: forasmuch as he, in my opinion, is an heretic, who, for the sake of some temporal advantage, and chiefly for the sake of his own glory and pre-eminence, either gives birth to, or follows, false and new opinions; but he, who trusts men of this kind, is a man deceived by a certain imagination of truth and piety. [De utilitate credendi 1]

I suppose I could add another option (besides just being mistaken) to the non-pejorative possibilities for those who disagree with us: being deceived. And St Augustine shows here that different types of errors warrant different sorts of responses. Generally speaking (for those of us who do not happen to be Doctors of the Church…) the first sort of response ought to be in the range of humility.

But I digress. The point that I wished to make with this post is that there is nothing novel in the Catholic Church’s insistence that the sons and daughters of actual heretics (that is, those who have been formally condemned by the Church as such) are not guilty of formal heresy when they follow in their parents’ footsteps. They err, certainly, if they believe the same heretical things, but they are just not in the same boat with the leaders.

Elsewhere we have seen that St Augustine said basically the same thing.

But though the doctrine which men hold be false and perverse, if they do not maintain it with passionate obstinacy, especially when they have not devised it by the rashness of their own presumption, but have accepted it from parents who had been misguided and had fallen into error, and if they are with anxiety seeking the truth, and are prepared to be set right when they have found it, such men are not to be counted heretics. [Letter 43]

So we see that Augustine agrees with the Catholic Church. We should not be surprised to learn that this is the case; after all, he was Catholic. He doesn’t use the words “material heresy,” but the idea is clearly present, as is the distinction between that and formal heresy. There’s nothing “progressive” or “liberal” about the Church saying today that Protestants are our brothers in Christ by virtue of their baptism, nor in denying that they are subject to the anathemas of Trent. It’s simple justice.


“As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more na├»ve and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are too”—Dostoyevsky

I think that the second sentence really makes this remark really hit home more. It’s tremendously easy (especially on the Internet) to make the jump from wondering why Joe Bob doesn’t agree with me to concluding that the answer is so totally obvious that his disagreement cannot possibly result from anything other than bad faith, stupidity, or culpable ignorance. But when I go down that road I ignore at least two other explanations: I’m wrong myself, or Joe Bob is just simply mistaken: not devious, not doltish, and not uninformed.

I think that Dostoyevsky’s observation gets at the root of the thing. Sure, it’s possible that Joe Bob is Satan’s bagman. Yeah, he might be as dumb as a bag of hammers. Yeah, he might not have read all the coolest books like I have. But in the end it’s far more likely that Joe Bob is doing his best, and he happens to have reached different conclusions than I have. No malice, doltishness, or ignorance necessary. After all, if we look around the world we find smart and well-informed people on opposite sides of practically any question that you might happen to ask. Yet it’s tremendously easy to just be a jerk and think the worst of the other guy.

I don’t want to be a jerk. I’m going to try hard not to be. And I don’t want to waste my time bickering with jerks. There are better things to do.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

St Augustine Accepted Church Authority

St. Augustine accepted the authority of the Catholic Church, unlike Protestants who vainly wish that he was one of their own. Says the Doctor of the Church:

This religion can be defended against loquacious persons and expounded to seekers in many ways. Omnipotent God may himself show the truth, or he may use good angels or men to assist men of good will to behold and grasp the truth. Everyone uses the method which he sees to be suitable to those with whom he has to do. I have given much consideration for a long time to the nature of the people I have met with either as carping critics or as genuine seekers of the truth. I have also considered my own case both when I was a critic and when I was a seeker; and I have come to the conclusion that this is the method I must use. Hold fast whatever truth you have been able to grasp, and attribute it to the Catholic Church. Reject what is false and pardon me who am but a man. What is doubtful believe until either reason teaches or authority lays down that it is to be rejected or that it is true, or that it has to be believed always. Listen to what follows as diligently and as piously as you can. For God helps men like that. [Of True Religion 20, in Augustine: Earlier Writings, p. 235; emphasis added]

Now of course we must not conclude from the complete absence here of any mention of Scripture that St Augustine held the Bible in contempt. Far from it. But at the same time, it would be absurd to suppose that he held the authority of the Catholic Church in contempt. Far from it! As we see above, he held that the Church has authority to define dogmas and to condemn heresy, and that God blesses those who accept what the Church teaches.

An interesting side note here (apart from the primary point that he submitted to the Church’s authority and urged others to do the same) is that he evidently held to some form of doctrinal development. For he anticipates that there will be subjects about which we may find ourselves unsure of the truth, but which will be settled by decree of the Church. It seems reasonable to infer that such decrees may not already exist in every case, so that the expectation is for some questions to be definitively settled in the future. This is not the only place where he has expressed such an opinion; he also did so in On Free Choice of the Will. See here.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

St Augustine on “Fitness”

Sometimes we hear Protestants complain that arguments from fitness for some belief or other are invalid. For example, when we say that it was fitting that Our Lady’s virginity should have been preserved, Protestants get upset as though it proves nothing.

Here is something that that St Augustine has to say about arguments from fitness.

When this is known it will be as clear as it can be to men that all things are subject by necessary, indefeasible and just laws to their Lord God. Hence all those things which to begin with we simply believed, following authority only, we come to understand. Partly we see them as certain, partly as possible and fitting, and we become sorry for those who do not believe them, and have preferred to mock at us for believing rather than to share our belief. [Of True Religion, 14]

By his measure we would say (quite reasonably, I think) that an argument from fitness is not so certain as one based more upon reason. This fact does not mean that arguments from fitness are without any validity at all. Similarly, it seems clear that he does not consider them to be contrary to reason. Lastly, there is more than a hint here of St Anselm’s saying, “I believe in order that I may understand:” the pattern in the quotation above is to begin by believing what the Church teaches, and to move from there to understanding.

I concur with Augustine’s careful understanding of the usefulness of arguments from fitness (see another example here): they certainly aren’t as good as demonstration, but they are not without value, either. In any case, the purpose of this post is merely to highlight the fact that St Augustine stands in the long tradition of the Church in affirming the use of such arguments, and Protestants distance themselves from him when they reject them.

St Augustine affirmed free will

This should be unsurprising, because he was a Catholic. Nevertheless it is unfortunately necessary to make these things crystal-clear, so that Protestants who persist in misrepresenting the great Doctor of the Church will be without excuse.

In today’s episode, we see that St Augustine re-affirms that which he previously said in On Free Choice of the Will.

If the defect we call sin overtook a man against his will, like a fever, the penalty which follows the sinner and is called condemnation would rightly seem to be unjust. But in fact sin is so much a voluntary evil that it is not sin at all unless it is voluntary. This is so obvious that no one denies it, either of the handful of the learned or of the mass of the unlearned. We must either say that no sin has been committed or confess that it has been willingly committed. No one can rightly deny that a soul has sinned who admits that it can be corrected by penitence, that the penitent should be pardoned, or that he who continues in sin is condemned by the just law of God. Lastly if it is not by the exercise of will that we do wrong, no one at all is to be censured or warned. If you take away censure and warning the Christian law and the whole discipline of religion is necessarily abolished. Therefore, it is by the will that sin is committed. And since there is no doubt that sins are committed, I cannot see that it can be doubted that souls have free choice in willing. God judged that men would serve him better if they served him freely. That could not be so if they served him by necessity and not by free will. [Of True Religion, xiv, 27; in the Library of Christian Classics volume Augustine: Earlier Writings, p. 238; emphasis added]

This flies directly in the face of the Reformed error of “Irresistible Grace,” according to which men are unable to reject the grace that God gives them to believe.

Unquestionably some folks will suggest that perhaps St Augustine later rejected this view. But as noted earlier in regard to On Free Choice of the Will, he did nothing of the sort in the Retractations. Happily, the LCC editors saw fit to include the Retractations associated with Of True Religion (see pages 218-221). Did Augustine later in life reject what this book says about free will? No he did not.

5. In another place (chap xiv) I say, “Sin is so much voluntary evil, that there would be no such thing as sin unless it were voluntary.” That may appear a false definition; but if it is diligently discussed it will be found to be quite true. [ibid., p. 219]

I am reminded of suddenly of something said by Captain Jack Sparrow: “pirate is in your blood, boy, so you'll have to square with that some day.” Like it or not, some day Calvinists are going to have to square with the fact that St Augustine isn’t one of them. He was no proto-incipient-Calvinist; he was Catholic.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

St Augustine Still Isn’t Protestant

I’ve devoted a number of posts to demonstrating the folly of Protestant attempts to paint St Augustine with their own colors. In short: it cannot be done—not, at any rate, if one wishes to avoid running his works through a shredder and pulling out tiny little bits that have that Geneva ring to them when you turn up the music really loud. Okay, I’m going bonkers with the metaphor-mixing. Let’s move on.

Here is yet another small snippet showing the unambiguously Catholic character of his writings. St Augustine opens the Soliloquies with a prayer, part of which go like this:

God, through whom we disapprove the error of those, who think that there are no merits of souls before You. God, through whom it comes that we are not in bondage to the weak and beggarly elements. God, who cleanses us, and prepares us for Divine rewards, to me propitious come Thou. [I, 3; emphasis added]

This passage flatly contradicts the Protestant errors that there is no sense at all in which we merit anything but condemnation from God, and that there is no sense at all in which we could be said to receive rewards from Him.

In the very next section of this opening prayer, he writes:

God, by whose ever-during laws the stable motion of shifting things is suffered to feel no perturbation, the thronging course of circling ages is ever recalled anew to the image of immovable quiet: by whose laws the choice of the soul is free, and to the good rewards and to the evil pains are distributed by necessities settled throughout the nature of everything. [I, 4; emphasis added]

This passage repeats the fact that the good will be rewarded, just in case we didn’t get the point the first time. And it adds the extra observation that man’s will is not in bondage in the way that at least some Protestants think. He doesn’t discuss the reasons for these facts in this context, but we have seen elsewhere (here, for one example) why he says so. In short: if we do not have free will, or if God does not reward the good, then He is not just. But this is obviously impossible. Consequently it is the Protestant claims to the contrary that are in error.

St Augustine doesn’t get this wrong. He wasn’t some crypto-proto-Protestant. He was Catholic. He wouldn’t be a Doctor of the Church if he wasn’t. That very fact really ought to induce Protestant hangers-on to think seriously about how they view his teaching.

Edit: It is probably necessary (unfortunately) to respond to the suggestion that St Augustine wrote the Soliloquies early in his career and that consequently it supposedly does not reflect his mature thought. The problem with this is that the Retractations related to this work say nothing about rejecting the ideas I've quoted here. The portion of the Retractations related to the Soliloquies is included in this edition of his works (pp. 17-18), and it says nothing whatsoever about these ideas. It is therefore unreasonable to suppose that he rejected free will or merits later in life.

Papal Wisdom

“Society is for man and not vice versa” — Pope Pius XI, in Divini Redemptoris 29. This seems like a rather obvious inference of Genesis 2:18: “It is not good for man to be alone: let us make him a help like unto himself.” God created Eve (and consequently society itself) because “it is not good for man to be alone.” This is why we must reject all forms of statism and socialism as godless: because they define man in terms of his relation to the State, and because they reduce man to nothing apart from the State. Man needs society, but society does not define what he is.

But we must not suppose that Pius was some sort of libertarian or radical individualist.

This must not be understood in the sense of liberalistic individualism, which subordinates society to the selfish use of the individual; but only in the sense that by means of an organic union with society and by mutual collaboration the attainment of earthly happiness is placed within the reach of all. In a further sense, it is society which affords the opportunities for the development of all the individual and social gifts bestowed on human nature. These natural gifts have a value surpassing the immediate interests of the moment, for in society they reflect the divine perfection, which would not be true were man to live alone. But on final analysis, even in this latter function, society is made for man, that he may recognize this reflection of God's perfection, and refer it in praise and adoration to the Creator. Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will.

30. Man cannot be exempted from his divinely-imposed obligations toward civil society, and the representatives of authority have the right to coerce him when he refuses without reason to do his duty. Society, on the other hand, cannot defraud man of his God-granted rights, the most important of which We have indicated above. Nor can society systematically void these rights by making their use impossible. It is therefore according to the dictates of reason that ultimately all material things should be ordained to man as a person, that through his mediation they may find their way to the Creator. [ibid., 29-30]

It is an error to view man either as abstracted from other men, as though we do not need each other, just as it is an error to view man solely in relation to the state—as though we have no higher or greater end than the state or society.

I’ve been out of circulation for quite a while. I apologize. I do not know whether this post portends a return to more regular activity or not, but I’ve been taking notes on my reading during my absence, and there may be a few more posts related to that. And later? Who knows?

Monday, May 31, 2010

Theology of St. Thomas - the Formal Object of Sacred Doctrine

St. Thomas says that Sacred Doctrine is a single science, rather than a collection of sciences. It is distinguished by its formal object, which is all that has been divinely revealed.

The unity of a faculty or habit is to be gauged by its object, not indeed, in its material aspect, but as regards the precise formality under which it is an object. For example, man, ass, stone agree in the one precise formality of being colored; and color is the formal object of sight. Therefore, because Sacred Scripture considers things precisely under the formality of being divinely revealed, whatever has been divinely revealed possesses the one precise formality of the object of this science; and therefore is included under sacred doctrine as under one science. [ST I Q1 A3]

That’s not to say that sacred doctrine has nothing to say about anything else, but that it only has something to say concerning them insofar as revelation addresses or relates to it.

Some Protestants like to pretend that St. Thomas held to various Protestant distinctives that are contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Faith, and some members of that little band might try to say, on the basis of one clause above, that Aquinas held to “sola scriptura.” But when he says “because Sacred Scripture considers things precisely under the formality of being divinely revealed,” he does not mean to say that this is the sole locus of divine revelation, which ought to be clear from what immediately follows: “whatever has been divinely revealed…” It’s obvious that he doesn’t mean to limit revelation to what is contained in the Bible. Consider the preceding example, in which he identified a commonality of “man, ass, stone” in “the one precise formality of being colored; and color is the formal object of sight.” Analogously, he describes Scripture as dealing with things “precisely under the formality of being divinely revealed,” and says that whatever has been divinely revealed “possesses the one precise formality of the object of this science.” So he’s not trying to limit the scope of divine revelation to the Scripture here; rather he’s he’s trying to define the scope of the science of Sacred Doctrine as having to do with whatever has been divinely revealed, and addressing other things under that aspect.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can’t have systematic theologians or moral theologians or a theology of man alongside a theology of redemption or whatever; since the scope of what has been revealed is broad, and since the truth is likewise so deep, it’s reasonable to have a division of labor with regard to the science of Sacred Doctrine. We can’t all be Aquinases who are experts on practically the whole of the field!

St. Thomas and the Argument for the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

In a previous post we showed that Aquinas made a typological argument for the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin in his commentary on the Angelic Salutation. This was part of a response to a Protestant’s claim that the use of typologies contradicted St. Thomas’ views concerning the usefulness of the different senses of Scripture: clearly it does not, since he made use of them himself.

But some folks might be tempted to suggest that his use of typology in the commentary doesn’t contradict the Protestant’s argument, because (so it might be said) Aquinas isn’t making an argument in the commentary; these folks might say that the commentary on the angelic salutation is devotional, and not actually an argument. In this post we shall see that St. Thomas used typological arguments in the Summa Theologiae, which is clearly not a devotional work.

In ST III Q28 A3 he addresses the question “Whether Christ’s Mother Remained a Virgin after His Birth?” In the sed contra he writes:

It is written (Ezekiel 44:2): “This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it; because the Lord the God of Israel hath entered in by it.” Expounding these words, Augustine says in a sermon (De Annunt. Dom. iii): “What means this closed gate in the House of the Lord, except that Mary is to be ever inviolate? What does it mean that ‘no man shall pass through it,’ save that Joseph shall not know her? And what is this—‘The Lord alone enters in and goeth out by it’—except that the Holy Ghost shall impregnate her, and that the Lord of angels shall be born of her? And what means this—‘it shall be shut for evermore’—but that Mary is a virgin before His Birth, a virgin in His Birth, and a virgin after His Birth?”

St. Thomas approves Augustine’s typological interpretation of Ezekiel 44:2 as referring to Mary, and uses it as part of his argument in defense of her perpetual virginity. From this we see that the use of typology in argument is not contrary to St. Thomas’ statement that only the literal sense should be used for that purpose; this is so because God is the author of Scripture, and consequently a single passage may have more than one literal sense (as he stated in I Q1 A10).

Sunday, May 30, 2010

St. Thomas and the Literal Sense of Scripture

A Protestant comboxer suggests that St. Thomas prefers the literal sense (rather than any of the other senses of Scripture) for purposes of argument. He quotes the following from ST I Q1 A10 ad 1:

Thus in Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one—the literal—from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory, as Augustine says (Epis. 48). Nevertheless, nothing of Holy Scripture perishes on account of this, since nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense.

This comboxer uses this quotation in order to justify his rejection of a typological argument for the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin—one that views her as the Ark of the new covenant and compares her to the Old Testament ark of the covenant.

There are at least two reasons why this use of St. Thomas for this purpose is improper. In the first place, since the New Testament itself makes use of typologies, it seems to be proving too much to say that they are invalid in and of themselves: if it is to be assumed that typologies are invalid, then we would forced to conclude that the New Testament writers had gone too far themselves in making use of them. I have heard Protestants say that the only valid types are the ones that Scripture uses and that all others are invalid, but we have no principled reason to accept this claim.

In the second place, the comboxer misquotes St. Thomas by omission, and consequently causes him to appear to accept something that he does not. Earlier in the same article, St. Thomas said this:

Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses. [Emphasis added]

So it’s clear that you can’t appeal to Aquinas as an authority for the idea that the literal sense of Scripture is something singular, which would rule out typology. This fact is made more clear from Aquinas’ own use of the Bible. A single example will suffice for now: his commentary on St. Gabriel’s salutation to the Blessed Virgin, which we looked at here. There are many examples of his use of Scripture in the commentary, but perhaps the most interesting for our purposes here is the following, from his argument in the commentary for the Virgin’s purity:

Third, she exceeds the angels in her purity, for the Blessed Virgin was not only pure in herself, but she also obtained purity for others. For she was most pure with respect to guilt, because neither mortal nor venial sin could be imputed to this virgin, and she was equally pure with respect to punishment.

Three curses come to men because of sin…The third is common to men and women, namely that into dust they shall return. The Blessed Virgin was free of this, because she was assumed in the body into heaven. For we believe that after death she was raised up and borne to heaven. Psalm 131:8: Arise, O “Lord, into thy resting place, thou and the ark of thy majesty.”

The most important thing to note here is that he specifically quotes Ps. 131:8 in such fashion as to refer to Mary as “the ark of thy majesty.” In other words, he’s making the exact same typological argument that our Protestant comboxer objected to, and the same argument that he erroneously claimed was invalid in the eyes of Aquinas. Hence we see that, quite contrary to what our comboxer asserts, Aquinas believed in the legitimacy of typologies like this, and actually made use of them himself.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sacred Doctrine is a Science

St. Thomas says that Sacred Doctrine is a science. By this he does not mean something akin to modern science and its focus upon experiment; he means what Aristotle understood by the idea of science: “an organized body of systematically arranged information” (R. J. Hankinson in Barnes, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, 109). “To have scientific knowledge, then, is to have explanatory understanding: not merely to ‘know’ a fact incidentally, to be able to assent to something which is true, but to know why it is a fact” (ibid., 110). Such a science proceeds primarily by way of demonstrations from certain first principles: either such as are self-evident, or such as are established by some other science. [Consequently what goes by the name of knowledge in common conversation today doesn’t pass muster for Aristotle or Aquinas as anything other than mere opinion…But I digress.]

We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God. [ST I Q1 A2]

One thing that seems worth noting here is that with this view of what a science is, and because he considers sacred doctrine to be a science, it seems doubtless that St. Thomas doesn’t intend to be offering what he considers to be mere opinions, but truths that are no less certain than those of any other science, since they are demonstrations following from first principles.

Monday, May 24, 2010

From a Combox

From a combox discussion

Matthew writes:

You're not making an argument, Nick.

What he was responding to was no argument either. He was responding to this, from the post:

1. The only way Stapleton's argument can be truly successful is if he proves that "God and the church are the same thing." (It seems this can't be done without some kind of serious doctrinal error, so Stapleton's argument is rendered fallacious.)

That's not an argument. It's an assertion. Nick is not obliged to counter an assertion with an argument.

As for Whitaker's reply itself, he is noting that, by the rules of logic, in order for Stapleton's argument to succeed, Stapleton needs to somehow prove that God and the Church are the same thing.

No, he doesn't. All that needs to be established is whether the Church teaches with the authority of Christ. One analogy might be power of attorney: the one who possesses this is able to act with the authority of the one who has given him power of attorney, and yet the two people are certainly not the same.

That's certainly possible. But you need to prove that from Whitaker or Stapleton.

No he doesn't. All he has to do is show that the original premises had to do with the authority of the teaching of the Church, not the authority of the Church generally compared to God's authority generally. And that is beyond dispute from the post itself. But in the post, Whitaker begins with a discussion of the general authority of God in comparison to the general authority of the Church - about which no one argues that God's authority is greater - and moves from there to a conclusion about a specific that is unwarranted. It is certainly a distortion as Nick claimed. If God teaches only through the Church (P<sub>2</sub>), then it is impossible for God to be more authoritative than Himself, and Whitaker's refutation fails.

Lastly, even if Whitaker succeeds against Stapleton's first argument, it does nothing whatsoever to establish that the Church is unnecessary for knowing the canon of Scripture: the notion that Scripture (as an undefined collection of books) might have more authority than the Church in no way implies that the Scripture can (or does) define its own canon, or that the canon may be known in any objective sense apart from the Church.

Well done, Nick.


Gospel Reading: Mark 10:17-27

When the rich man asks the Lord what he must do in order to be saved, He does not give him the “sola fide” answer: “You don’t have to do anything. You just need to have faith.”

No. The Lord tells him what he must do.

The Gospel is not legalistic, but that doesn’t mean that obedience is optional.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Catholic Faith is not Rationalist

There is more to the Catholic Faith than may be encompassed by the rational powers of man. Consequently it is not merely a philosophy.

It is written (2 Timothy 3:16): “All Scripture, inspired of God is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice.” Now Scripture, inspired of God, is no part of philosophical science, which has been built up by human reason. Therefore it is useful that besides philosophical science, there should be other knowledge, i.e. inspired of God. [ST I, Q1, A1]

That’s not the strongest argument that St. Thomas will make for this, but it is the first appeal to authority that he makes in the Summa.

It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: “The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee” (Isaiah 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. [ibid.]

Because our end is one that is beyond our abilities to attain or apprehend, it was necessary for God to reveal such things to us. But it was also good for God to reveal to us even things that we might otherwise have been able to deduce by means of reason, because attaining knowledge by way of our natural powers is difficult and prone to error. As Aristotle says,

The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, we do not collectively fail, but every one says something true about the nature of things, and while individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed. Therefore, since the truth seems to be like the proverbial door, which no one can fail to hit, in this respect it must be easy, but the fact that we can have a whole truth and not the particular part we aim at shows the difficulty of it.

Perhaps, too, as difficulties are of two kinds, the cause of the present difficulty is not in the facts but in us. For as the eyes of bats are to the blaze of day, so is the reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all. [Metaphysics II, 1 (993b1-11)]

And St. Thomas:

Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. [ST, loc. cit.]

We can infer the reason for the mixture of errors from what Aristotle says; but why would these truths be known only by a few if we were limited only to what reason can discover? Because men differ in their intellectual gifts; some are capable of understanding things that the rest of us simply cannot grasp because of our own limitations: “He who has the superior intellect understands many things that the other cannot grasp at all. Such is the case with a very simple person who cannot at all grasp the subtle speculations of philosophy” (St. Thomas, Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 3, 3). But all men need to be able to attain to their end, which is God. Since all men need knowledge of divine truth in some capacity, but since not all can discover it on their own, and since some things we need to know cannot be discovered by reason at all, we need divine revelation.

Whereas man's whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation. [ST, loc. cit.]

Hence we can see that the Catholic Faith is in no way rationalist. It cannot be measured by the mind of man, because some things cannot be comprehended by man at all. Such things must be received by faith.

It might be worth pointing out, however, that there is a certain way in which Protestantism most certainly is a rationalistic faith. The Protestant claims that his understanding of divine truth is obtained directly from the Bible. But he is limited in this by his own intellectual capacity: that is, the truth that he will perceive in the Bible will be only that which he is capable of grasping himself. Man becomes the measure of divine revelation; the Truth is reduced to that which the man is able to see himself. The Catholic Faith is not like this.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sacramental Necessity and Apologetics

Are the sacraments necessary? Yes, says St. Thomas. He proposes three reasons for this necessity:

The first is taken from the condition of human nature which is such that it has to be led by things corporeal and sensible to things spiritual and intelligible. Now it belongs to Divine providence to provide for each one according as its condition requires. Divine wisdom, therefore, fittingly provides man with means of salvation, in the shape of corporeal and sensible signs that are called sacraments.

So sacraments are necessary for us because of the kind of beings we are, being corporeal and spiritual.

The second reason is taken from the state of man who in sinning subjected himself by his affections to corporeal things. Now the healing remedy should be given to a man so as to reach the part affected by disease. Consequently it was fitting that God should provide man with a spiritual medicine by means of certain corporeal signs; for if man were offered spiritual things without a veil, his mind being taken up with the material world would be unable to apply itself to them.

Because we are prone to giving the things of this world more attention than we ought, it’s fitting, he says, that by means of visible signs we receive the graces necessary to overturn this earthly fixation.

The third reason is taken from the fact that man is prone to direct his activity chiefly towards material things. Lest, therefore, it should be too hard for man to be drawn away entirely from bodily actions, bodily exercise was offered to him in the sacraments, by which he might be trained to avoid superstitious practices, consisting in the worship of demons, and all manner of harmful action, consisting in sinful deeds.


It follows, therefore, that through the institution of the sacraments man, consistently with his nature, is instructed through sensible things; he is humbled, through confessing that he is subject to corporeal things, seeing that he receives assistance through them: and he is even preserved from bodily hurt, by the healthy exercise of the sacraments. [ST III Q61 A1]

Why did God give us the sacraments? It wasn’t just some arbitrary thing: “You’ll do this because I say so.” Of course that would be sufficient, but we are rational beings and God is rational too. No, there are reasons for the sacraments. God wasn’t acting without good reason when He ordained them for us; it wasn’t mere arbitrariness.

We need the sacraments. We need them to be tangible, because we are corporeal ourselves. And God’s love for us is seen in the fact that He gives us physical signs, and that by means of them He gives us grace.

I don’t really know if Protestants would countenance such an argument as this one (from necessity grounded in human nature), but I don’t see why they wouldn’t. At the very least, though, they ought to concede that the gift of sacraments is something God gives us for a reason. But if they are willing to concede this, then I should think that they should also be willing to grant that the proper form and matter of the sacraments is likewise not merely arbitrary on God’s part, and that consequently these also are not matters of indifference.

And yet Protestants have disagreed about these questions from the very beginning. This was a wedge issue for me, with the ultimate outcome being my reception into the Catholic Church. If the Holy Spirit leads the individual Christian to receive divine truth from Scripture as the Protestant claims, then it is quite frankly impossible that they should disagree amongst themselves about it. But they do disagree about the sacraments. Consequently their claims as to how the Holy Spirit works among them are patently false. Consequently there is no reason, on the Protestant’s own terms, to believe anything that he says about what the Bible teaches.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Expanding a Previous Observation

In a previous post I said that if we Catholics ignore tradition as Protestants do, then we will misread the Bible as they do. This remark was challenged by a Protestant, who denied that they ignore tradition. I think I have sufficiently replied in the combox there (especially with Nick’s help), but I think that some more may be said about the subject.

Catholics make a distinction between tradition and big-T Tradition or Sacred Tradition, and I think it’s relevant in this case. The latter is not coextensive with the former: that is, Sacred Tradition is not exactly the same as the collection of writings produced by the Church Fathers. The writings of the Fathers aren’t divine revelation, and consequently they may err. By way of an atrocious example: St. Thomas Aquinas, who was not a Father of the Church but is a Doctor of the Church, erred concerning the Immaculate Conception. No matter the degree of respect that I have for his writings, they’re not revelation and they’re not inspired. The same is true for the Fathers.

But the same is not true of Sacred Tradition, because Sacred Tradition is divine revelation.

“Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”

“and [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.” [CCC §81]

The Catechism continues, making clear the distinction between small-t and big-T Tradition:

The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. the first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.

Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium. [§83]

Small-t tradition is subject to correction and change; Sacred Tradition is not, because it has been revealed by God.

Now in the present context, I said that we must read the Bible within the living Tradition of the whole Church. As my one or two regular readers know, I’ve said that exact thing repeatedly; it’s a quotation once again from the Catechism (§113):

Read the Scripture within “the living Tradition of the whole Church”. According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (“…according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church”).

It is not sufficient merely to dig around in the Church Fathers. Anyone can do that. Protestants do it; the heresiarchs of the fourth and fifth centuries surely did that as well. Just as Bryan Cross has said [quoted here] that “Scripture alone is not sufficient to prevent heresy,” the same may surely be said of the Fathers, whose writings are not divinely inspired. So to say that one doesn’t ignore tradition because he quotes the Fathers doesn’t answer to the issue. The tradition according to which we must interpret the Scripture and the Fathers is the same: the Sacred Tradition preserved and taught by the Church. Only by doing this may we have any confidence that we are properly understanding what God has said in the Bible; only by doing this may we have any confidence that we are properly reading the Church Fathers.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bryan Cross on Quoting Scripture

In a seemingly interminable thread on a Protestant site, Bryan Cross has some valuable things to say concerning the utility of Scripture. I’m not quoting the whole thing here (it’s reported that the comment from which this excerpt is drawn is several pages long itself).


Our snippet opens with a quotation from St. Jerome:

We ought to remain in that Church which was founded by the Apostles and continues to this day. If ever you hear of any that are called Christians taking their name not from the Lord Jesus Christ, but from some other, for instance, Marcionites, Valentinians, Men of the mountain or the plain, you may be sure that you have there not the Church of Christ, but the synagogue of Antichrist. For the fact that they took their rise after the foundation of the Church is proof that they are those whose coming the Apostle foretold. And let them not flatter themselves if they think they have Scripture authority for their assertions, since the devil himself quoted Scripture, and the essence of the Scriptures is not the letter, but the meaning. [St. Jerome, Dialogue Against the Luciferians§28; emphasis added]

Bryan remarks:

Because the essence of Scripture is not the letter but the meaning, it is not enough to have Scripture as support for one’s doctrine, since “all heretics quote Scripture.” These sects were not founded by Christ, but by some men who came later, “after the foundation of the Church.” They appeal to Scripture to justify their separation from the Church. But without the guidance of the divinely appointed shepherds in the Church, these sects fall into heresies of all different sorts, each not realizing, however, that they are in a heresy, but all (though disagreeing with all the others) thinking that it is they alone who have the correct doctrine. [Emphasis added]

He then quotes St. Vincent of Lerins:

Do heretics also appeal to Scripture? They do indeed, and with a vengeance; for you may see them scamper through every single book of Holy Scripture—through the books of Moses, the books of Kings, the Psalms, the Epistles, the Gospels, the Prophets. Whether among their own people, or among strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings, or in the streets, hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavour to shelter under words of Scripture. Read the works of Paul of Samosata, of Priscillian, of Eunomius, of Jovinian, and the rest of those pests, and you will see an infinite heap of instances, hardly a single page, which does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Testament or the Old. [Commonitory §64]

Bryan concludes, knocking it out of the park:

The point is that Scripture alone is not sufficient to prevent heresy. The guidance of the Church is necessary. And defining the ‘Church’ as those who agree with one’s own interpretation only hides the problem from oneself, by designating as teachers those who agree with one’s own interpretation. This exacerbates the problem, by giving to oneself the appearance of being within the Church and under her authority, while in actuality being under the ‘authority’ of heretics. The proper course of action is to submit to those shepherds who received the authorization from the incarnate Christ through the succession from the Apostles.

Bingo. It’s totally inadequate to pretend that merely appealing to the Bible in a vacuum is sufficient to settle anything. As St. Jerome said, it’s the meaning of the Bible that counts. How then can we know that meaning? Only by reading Scripture within the living Tradition of the Church. And that is why I am no longer Protestant: it’s irrational to suppose that all the differences among them are of no consequence. Surely they disagree on subjects which are genuinely irrelevant (so to speak), but they also disagree on subjects about which it is too incredible even to suggest that the Holy Spirit, purported by them to guide each individual immediately (i.e., without mediation) in understanding the Bible, would leave them in uncertainty. It is not to be believed that the Sacraments (for one example) are a matter of indifference, and yet Protestants differ amongst themselves not just as to their mode, but also as to their significance. Consequently the Holy Spirit is not guiding them into all truth in the way that they suppose; consequently Protestantism, having staked everything upon sola Scriptura, falls apart.


There are Protestants in that thread who are insisting that the Bible is perspicuous in such a way that everything one is required to believe in order to be saved is presented with sufficient clarity in the Bible such that anyone may understand. And yet Protestants themselves can’t agree as to what those required beliefs are, and some of them even concede that they can’t provide a list of such things. This means, of course, that they claim some things must be believed in order to be saved, but that they are unable to tell you what those things are. They are perfectly happy to quote St. Paul when he says “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved,” but they ignore (or explain away) St. Peter when he says, in answer to practically the exact same question as the jailer asked Paul, “Do penance: and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins. And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”


We need the Church. If we ignore Tradition as Protestants do, we will misread the Bible as they do.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ordination is a Sacrament

Ordination is a sacrament.

Neglect not the grace that is in you, which was given you by prophecy, with imposition of the hands of the priesthood. [1 Tim 4:14]

Timothy received grace by means of the laying on of hands, which takes place when one is ordained. A visible sign is the means by which invisible grace is given.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Man's Chief End

I like this summary of things:

The source of all man’s life is to be found in God. Through His strength and all-pervading power He maintains man’s growth and development and, as his ultimate goal, He constitutes that happiness which man of necessity pursues. Creator and goal, starting point and divine inspirer: this points to total dependence and asks for total devotion in return. Such a relation of dependence and devotion is the fundamental relationship between God and man. Man must acknowledge and express it, live by it inwardly and testify to it outwardly; for in this relationship is embodied his total human essence. He must completely surrender himself to God, and detach himself from everything which could impede that yielding. [A Handbook of the Catholic Faith, p. 304]

Monday, May 10, 2010

Gospel Reading: John 15:12-17

This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love than this no man has, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do the things that I command you. I will not now call you servants: for the servant knows not what his lord does. But I have called you friends because all things, whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you. You have not chosen me: but I have chosen you; and have appointed you, that you should go and should bring forth fruit; and your fruit should remain: that whatsoever you shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. These things I command you, that you love one another. [John 15:12-17]

The Lord Jesus says that we are his friends if we do what he commands. If that is true, then is it in any way credible to suppose that what we do is irrelevant to our standing as Christians before God? Of course not. Is it reasonable to suppose that what we do as Christians does not matter? Of course not. Why would Christ give us commands if our obedience doesn’t matter? The very idea is irrational. The idea is likewise contradicted by Christ’s own words in the parable of the sheep and the goats, where he makes it very clear that our eternal standing depends upon what we do in this life. The simple fact is that a Christian is not free to live as he wishes. He is a servant of Christ, and to be a servant by definition demands that he serve his master: that is to say, he must obey his master.

It’s not reasonable to say that we love Jesus on the one hand if we disobey him on the other. He has said that if we love him, we must keep his commands, so our obedience to him is the very measure of our love for him.

Unfortunately there are many Protestants who ignore this fact. They erroneously suppose that their obedience (or lack thereof) in this life has nothing to do with their eternal home. The Lord Jesus Christ unambiguously says otherwise. St. Paul says otherwise (Gal. 5:19-21). What we do in this life matters. Our obedience matters. Our sins matter. Thanks be to God that our sins may be forgiven, but we dare not presume upon God’s mercy.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Deus Caritas Est

Thus says the Lord: In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you: and I have preserved you, and given you to be a covenant of the people, that you might raise up the earth, and possess the inheritances that were destroyed: That you might say to them that are bound: Come forth: and to them that are in darkness: Show yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in every plain. They shall not hunger, nor thirst, neither shall the heat nor the sun strike them: for he that is merciful to them, shall be their shepherd, and at the fountains of waters he shall give them drink. And I will make all my mountains a way, and my paths shall be exalted. Behold these shall come from afar, and behold these from the north and from the sea, and these from the south country. Give praise, O you heavens, and rejoice, O earth, you mountains, give praise with jubilation: because the Lord has comforted his people, and will have mercy on his poor ones. And Sion said: The Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me. Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? And if she should forget, yet will not I forget you. [Isaiah 49:8-15]

The Lord delays not his promise, as some imagine, but deals patiently for your sake, not willing that any should perish, but that all should return to penance. [2 Peter 3:9; emphasis added]

I once knew of a man who had a sign on his car that said, “God is Wrath.” It perhaps comes as no surprise that this man was a Calvinist. Unfortunately there is nothing Christian about this sentiment. God is love (1 John 4:8). Contrary to Reformed rantings, God really does want all men to repent, just as St. Peter says. Contrary to dreadful Calvinist doctrine, He doesn’t consign anyone to hell just because it suits Him to do so.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

You can't always get what you want


Thoughts expressed over here that seem worth adding here:


Many Protestants, particularly those in the Reformed camp, like to think of St. Augustine as one of their own, even sometimes supposing that he was practically a veritable forerunner of their own theology. They consider him to be a great theologian. Of course, I agree with that opinion (and so does the Catholic Church, which names him a Doctor of the Church), but it seems to me that the Protestant’s description of him undermines itself.


I have shown in a series of posts that St. Augustine was absolutely Catholic, holding to the following:

  • Submitted to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church
  • Held that Scripture must be interpreted according to Sacred Tradition
  • Affirmed that doctrine develops
  • Denied so-called “total depravity”
  • Denied that man is culpable for that of which he is genuinely (not willfully) ignorant
  • Affirmed that real holiness, and not a mere forensic imputation, was necessary for salvation
  • Affirmed that God rewards the merits of the righteous
  • Affirmed that we have free will, and that this is necessary for the just punishment of the wicked
  • Affirmed the authority of Sacred Tradition
  • Affirmed transubstantiation (or, if you prefer, the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist)
  • Affirmed the validity of consecrated virginity
  • Affirmed that Scripture has multiple meanings
  • Affirmed the veneration of the saints, holy relics, and other sacred objects
  • Affirmed the Catholic canon of Scripture
  • Affirmed that the Church defines the canon of Scripture
  • Affirmed that sins are forgiven by the Sacrament of Baptism
  • Affirmed that prayers should be offered for the dead
  • Affirmed the offering of the Mass for the dead
  • Affirmed that the saints pray for us
  • Affirmed the authority of Scripture because of the authority of the Church
  • Affirmed the Catholic enumeration of the Ten Commandments
  • Denied that God saves men against their wills

I’m sure that more could be said: this list is merely the result of my reading of a few of Augustine’s works. But it’s sufficient for my purposes here. My point for this post is that it is simply not credible (as I said in the combox post linked above) to suggest that Augustine’s views on the subjects in this list are utterly discontinuous with those views of his that Protestants happen to like. No. If they are going to say that St. Augustine was a great theologian, they must account for how he can be so wonderfully right about a few things and yet (as they would say) so badly wrong about the things above (and many others). It is not the mark of a great theologian to be incoherent, and yet that is exactly what Protestant opinions of him demand. On the Protestant handling of St. Augustine, on their own terms, it is unreasonable to describe him as a “great theologian” (although he is). On their own terms, he could only reasonably be described as lucky, mostly inconsistent, or wildly erratic to have got some few things right while messing up so many things (as we see above).


Thought experiment: suppose a 21st century theologian came along, affirming the things we see in the list above and also those things from Augustine’s writings that Protestants approve (we Catholics would call him “an orthodox Catholic,” but I digress). Would any Protestant put such a man on the same pedestal on which they place Augustine? How many Protestants would be likely to approve such a man? LOL! Do we even need to ask the question? Of course not. And this simply goes to show the radical inconsistency of Protestant approval of St. Augustine: they ignore what they don’t like while trying to claim him as their own.


Protestants can’t have it both ways. If St. Augustine was a great theologian, they must consider his theology as an organic, coherent whole. It’s dishonest and unfair to pretend that his explicitly Catholic views are not one with the parts of his writings that they happen to like.


St. Augustine was Catholic. Attempts to say otherwise aren’t even remotely plausible.

Michael Liccione on Scripture, Tradition, and the Church

Over at Called to Communion, there is a monumental post entitled “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority.” It’s six months old at this writing, but the most recent comments (836 at last count!) are only several days old.

Besides the article itself, there are many fine comments. The 760th is from Dr. Michael Liccione, and at the risk of doing injustice to other commenters’ offerings, I think this one is noteworthy. Here's a portion:

God authored the books of the New Testament by means of the authorities of the Church he established–to wit, the Apostles and those who wrote in their name. But that Tradition of which the NT is the most authoritative written record is wider and older than the NT. Hence, the NT can only be adequately understood in the context of that wider and older Tradition. Moreover, Tradition itself can only be properly received and interpreted with the mind of the Church to which it was entrusted. Therefore, it is a necessary condition for interpreting the NT adequately that one identify which visible body counts as “the” Church founded by the Lord, and then choose to conform one’s mind with hers. One can only do that by choosing to submit one’s judgment on matters de fide to those with divinely given authority to speak for and to the whole Church: those who hold and exercise the Magisterium. But such a submission would only be justifiable if in fact the Magisterium speaks with divine authority, and is not giving just its own opinions. Anybody can have opinions, but those are always provisional because always fallible. Divine authority, when exercised, is infallible, and thus its judgments are irreformable.

The NT is “adequate” only when prayerfully read in that context. It is of course possible for a person to simply read the NT on its own and learn a great deal of what’s necessary; in fact, I believe it happens a lot. But partly for the reasons given above, I don’t think it’s possible for anybody to assent by faith to the entire content of the deposit of faith in such a way. The history of Protestantism only confirms that judgment for me; in fact, the broad split between the Lutheran, Reformed, and free-church branches of Protestantism was already evident at the Colloquy of Marburg, a dozen years after Luther nailed his theses to the door. Thus, as St. Thomas had said, it is possible to learn by reading the NT alone much of that which is “of faith”; but unless one submits one’s judgment to that of the bishops in apostolic succession, one does not adhere “by faith” to what one thereby learns. For one has no way of knowing that what one learns is the actual faith of the Church rather than just one’s personal opinions. [Emphasis added]

This is consistent with the Catechism (§113) on a point I’ve repeated many times (recently here, for example): we must read the Bible within the living tradition of the whole Church.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Vatican II on Justification: Lumen Gentium 53

Many Protestants, and basically all anti-Catholics, think that Catholics hold too high a view of the Blessed Virgin. If, then, they find that we insist that she is saved not on the basis of any intrinsic righteousness of her own, but rather on the basis of the merits of Christ, how much more would it be true that we think the same of ourselves?

The Virgin Mary, who at the message of the angel received the Word of God in her heart and in her body and gave Life to the world, is acknowledged and honored as being truly the Mother of God and Mother of the Redeemer. Redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son and united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, she is endowed with the high office and dignity of being the Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit. [Lumen Gentium §53; emphasis added]

It would be ridiculous to suggest that we believe Mary, the Mother of God, to be in need of redemption by Christ, but that we ourselves are saved by what we do! But as we see, the Fathers of Vatican II insist that she was redeemed by Christ, and of course the same applies to us. We cannot save ourselves.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Vatican II on Justification: Lumen Gentium 40

Lumen Gentium Chapter V is entitled “The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church.” In §40, the Fathers of the Council write:


The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace. They are justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then too, by God’s gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received. They are warned by the Apostle to live “as becomes saints” [Eph. 5:3], and to put on “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience” [Col. 3:12], and to possess the fruit of the Spirit in holiness. Since truly we all offend in many things we all need God’s mercies continually and we all must daily pray: “Forgive us our debts”. [Emphasis and links to Bible added]

We are not Christians because of any merit on our part; we are Christians by the grace of God. Having been saved, we must live “as becomes saints,” as St. Paul says; we must seek to live holy lives, confessing our sins when we fail.


Getting back on the horse, I hope

Ugh. Seven weeks without posting. I apologize. The real world has consumed most of my energy this year. I’d like to say that things will certainly be better from here on out, but that would be rash. More modestly, my hope is to be more productive here for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Vatican II on Justification: Lumen Gentium 14

Lumen Gentium is Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, presenting the Council’s teaching on (naturally) the Church. Chapter II is titled The People of God, and in §14 there we read this:

All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.

We are not children of the Church, nor of God, on the basis of anything that we have done ourselves, nor because of any special qualities or traits that we have which others lack. On the contrary, this can only be attributed to “the special grace of Christ.” We cannot save ourselves; He must save us. But this does not mean that we are compelled against our wills into God’s kingdom; God has given us free will, and we must exercise it. If we reject God’s grace, then the judgment that we receive will be richly deserved.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Vatican II on Justification

Over the course of the last year or so, I’ve presented a series of posts on the subject of justification as it is presented by St. Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Trent. What we have seen is unambiguous: namely, that those who claim that the Catholic Church teaches a “works-based” gospel have either not read what the Church teaches, or have failed to understand it, or are outright lying. Nothing could be further from the truth than to say that the Catholic Church teaches that we are justified by works.

For the sake of a better semblance of completeness about the question, I’m going to take a few posts to review what Vatican II has to say that’s related to justification. Fortunately for my readers who are bored by this topic (!) I haven’t found much in the Council’s documents related to it. This makes sense, since Trent is eminently clear. However, there are a few brief passages here and there in Lumen Gentium that will confirm, unsurprisingly, that the Catholic Church teaches now what Trent taught, and what She has always taught.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

St. Augustine Pleads Ignorance

It should probably be said in St. Augustine’s defense that it seems likely (although I’m not in a position to demonstrate it) that what we shall see in this post is not a view that he held all his life. Nevertheless, just as St. Thomas may err concerning the Immaculate Conception, so too St. Augustine was only human. We may be certain that he no longer has any doubts about this question:

There are these four theories concerning the soul: [1] The soul comes from propagation. [2] The soul is created new in the case of every individual. [3] The soul exists elsewhere and is sent divinely into the body of a man at birth; or lastly [4] of its own will, it slips into bodies. We must not affirm any one of these rashly. Either the catholic commentaries on the divine Scriptures have not yet given this question the explanation and enlightenment that its obscurity and complexity deserve; or, if it has already been done, the book has not reached my hands. [On Free Choice of the Will, III.xxi, p. 133f]

Several thoughts come to mind. First, it is surprising to me at first glance that this might have been unclear to St. Augustine at any time in his Christian life, but maybe that’s being a bit too unfair. As a Protestant I learned that there were two theories about where the soul comes from, corresponding to the first two mentioned by St. Augustine above, but it was never exactly clear which of these one must hold (if it was even something that Protestants would consider that important). I guess I would never have imagined the question being as apparently difficult as Augustine does, but there you go: we stand on the shoulders of giants, right?

[For those who might not know, the Catholic Church teaches (§366) the second of Augustine’s theories; this is what St. Thomas taught, too]

Secondly, it’s worth noting that St. Augustine fully intends to submit to the teaching of the Catholic Church on this point. He has no intention of jumping to a view of his own apart from what the Church says. The problem he faced was one of ignorance: he didn’t know what the Church taught about it, but it seemed to him that if the Church hadn’t yet spoken on the subject, it should do so. St. Augustine, we see, was by no means one to suppose that he could get along just fine with just his Bible. No. He understood, and we need to understand, that when we come to the Bible, we must read it within the living tradition of the whole Church. We don’t read it within the tradition of the Presbyterians, or of the Baptists, or of the Lutherans; we read it within the tradition of the Catholic Church. That means that if our interpretation of the Bible contradicts the teaching of the Church on faith and morals, then we have made an error in what we think the Bible says. Period. St. Augustine was a faithful son of the Church; it seems clear that this was his view as well.

Thirdly, St. Augustine understood that doctrine develops. Over time, the Church’s understanding of the Faith grows and becomes more clear. In our passage above, the saint makes it clear that it was at least possible that the Church had not yet spoken on the matter, and that he hoped that She would do so. I don’t know if She had done so by his day, so that Augustine was simply uninformed on this point, but She has spoken by now, as I pointed out above.

Climbing back in the saddle

I fell off the horse there for a while; time to resume daily posting (and try to get caught up for this month).

As an aside for those who might have iPhones, I commend to you the superb app for Catholics called iPieta. It has more good stuff than I can list in a single blog post. It includes the Douay-Rheims and Vulgate versions of Scripture; the current and traditional liturgical calendars; hundreds of prayers (including free audio—downloadable separately—for many of them); brief lives of dozens of saints; multiple catechisms including the Baltimore, Roman, and the Catechism of St. Thomas; lots and lots of books (including the Summa!); a Bible commentary; documents of Trent and Vatican II (as well as many documents from or relating to councils prior to Trent); a whole raft of papal encyclicals; etc. In short, it's like a one-stop shop for all sorts of valuable tools. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Amusement for the Day

I found this to be very entertaining. Perhaps you will too, unless you just can’t stand a certain green-blooded, pointy-eared hobgoblin. :-)

St. Augustine and Goodness in Human Nature

In another post we saw that St. Augustine disagrees with certain forms of the Reformed/Presbyterian doctrine of total depravity. Some folks think that non-Christians are completely incapable of doing anything that God would view as good. This is not St. Augustine’s view.

It is no trifling matter that even before the merit of good works, the soul has received a natural power of judgment by which it prefers wisdom to error and peace to difficulty, so that it achieves these not simply by being born, but instead by its own endeavor. If the soul is not willing to act, it may justly be regarded as sin, for it has not put to good use the faculty that it received. For although it was born in ignorance and difficulty, nevertheless it is not compelled by necessity to remain in the state in which it was born. [On Free Choice of the Will, III.xx, p. 131-132]

If we are created so that we prefer wisdom to error, which is a good thing, it cannot be said to be evil or wicked when a man pursues wisdom. Of course it is possible for a man to “fail” to find wisdom deliberately, by prejudiced searching or deliberately hiding from it; but if we have free will as St. Augustine insists throughout the book, then it cannot be the case that we are compelled to shun wisdom.

This isn’t to say, of course, that a man may merit initial justification. It is to say that it is irrational to suggest that non-Christians never do good; it is to say that to hold that the non-Christian cannot do good is decidedly not an Augustinian view: “even before the merit of good works” a man has some powers for good. They cannot save him, of course, but that is not why God gave them to us.