The Pure Church of Imagination Land — Continued

A reader with the vehemently iatric name of Doc Rampage writes:

“The Catholic view of the Church as a monolithic organization seems to make it very difficult to make them understand that Protestants do not even view our disagreement about a battle for supremacy the way that Catholics do…”

My comment:

This was not the view of Luther and Zwingli and other early reformers. Their desire was not to set up a second Church to oppose the first, nor to split Christendom in half, it was to reform the Church and correct her abuses. The desire to have each king his own national church, as England, came later. The idea of abolishing Church authority altogether is an entirely modern idea, dating from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

In any case, no one who takes Sola Scriptura seriously should look to any writings outside the books of the Old Testament or the New (a set of writings we Catholics wrote, compiled and authorized and sanctified for your use in our Ecumenical councils attended by our Priests, Bishops, Archbishops, and Legates from Metropolitans or from the Pope) to support the idea of the Church as a non-unified or lose alliance of individually self-sovereign believers. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura would logically imply that the idea of a non-monolithic Church, being extra-Biblical, is non-Christian.

In other words, the institution you have defined as monolithic ergo unchristian is the only institution from which comes the book you use as the sole source and tutor and guide to correct doctrine — and that book defines the institution in monolithic metaphors, one flock, one rock, one body with Christ as the head, one church against which the gates of Hell shall not prevail.

Back when I was an atheist, and I had no stake in the game and dog in that fight, I overheard a debate between Catholic and Protestant where the Protestant claimed that the Bible as edited by Martin Luther authoritatively and sufficiently taught the Christian faith.

The Catholic claim was that

(1)    Christians believe the Bible not merely to be literature, liturgy, prophecy, philosophy, history or hortatory, but in addition to be authoritative, that is, the commands of a father and a lord, a supernatural authority. Christians believe the Bible to be the Word of God, not the scribbling of men.

(2)    If the Bible is the Word of God, each man himself cannot decide for himself what passages or books in the Old Testament and the New to believe and which not to believe, because the nature of any authoritative statement is that it is authoritative, that is, issued by a true authority and not by a pretender.  A soldier listening to commands does not get to decide which parts to obey and which to disobey. Contrariwise, if a man gets to decide which parts to obey and which to disobey, then what he is hearing is a plea or a request or a suggestion, it is not commands. Hence, no authority rests on the consent of the individual under authority for its authorization.

(At least, not after he is placed under authority. You might volunteer to join the army, or volunteer to sign a contract, but once you are bound, you cannot rightfully disobey the authority or your own will, or else it is no authority at all and never was.)

(3) In general, no authority rests on itself for its own authority. In particular, there is neither scriptural authority for Sola Scriptura nor for the canon of the Bible. (Let us say there is no unambiguous scriptural authority.)

Hence, if the Bible is authoritative, and authoritative documents by their nature cannot attest to their own authority, and authoritative documents by their nature do not rest for their authority on the consent of the reader, but on the imprimatur of the author or issuer, then the authority of the Bible, its very right to command our respect and obedience, rests on the authority of whoever issued it. This leads to the next point

(4) The Christian Bible has no authority, and no attestation of sacral nature, outside the Church. (Here we mean the original Church, before the Catholic-Orthodox split, and before the Nestorians and Copts broke away.)

Hence, logically, if the Church has the authority to write and define the Bible, she also has the authority to interpret and comment on it, and to denounce misreadings as heresy, and to teach on other matters beyond the Bible, for the same reason that a lecturer has the authority both to write and compile and read and interpret his lecture notes, and also to speak extemporaneously.

Like I said, at that time, I had no dog in that fight. To me, it was like listening to two believers in Santa Claus argue about whether his sleigh is pulled by Eight Tiny Reindeer or, including Rudolph, Nine.

Nonetheless, according to their logic of what I then took to be a make-believe world, the Protestant lost the argument and soundly.

The Bible he claimed as the sole authoritative teacher of the Christian faith can only make that claim if the Church that wrote, edited, compiled, sanctified, protected, and promulgated the Bible had authority to do so.  The Protestant could not make the logical argument that an apostate and infidel Church had promulgated and compiled a loyal and faithful Bible. The books do not form a “Bible” unless and until the Church says so.

Unlike Mohammad or Joseph Smith or Numa, nor Luther nor Calvin claimed to have had a private interview with a divine being, or to have received new writings from Heaven which overturned the prior writings. In other words, there was not even alleged to be an independent divine confirmation of the new revelation.

It was not claimed to be a new revelation, but the old one set straight: Christ never established a Church, and the apostles and disciples had no right to appoint bishops and teachers nor to place disciples under them. When Christ Himself said “On this rock I build my Church” He meant something other than what all Christians for all time, orthodox or heretic, East or West, for all history thought He meant, and likewise when He said “This is my body.”

At least in this argument I overheard, the sole claim made was that the Bible was its own witness for itself, and that its authority binding the conscience of the Christians to it came from itself by itself ex nihilo.

(Naturally, both Protestant and Catholic claimed ultimate authority came from the Holy Spirit, both the inspirer of the writers and the readers of the Bible. The argument here was only about intermediate authority.)

To make matters worse, the Protestant side of the argument was utterly a-historical. The Protestant did not make any reference to the other denominations that had broken away from the Catholics, such as the Greek Orthodox in the Tenth Century, or the Nestorians or Monophysites in the Fourth or Third, or even to the churches of Syria and India which had never been part of the Roman Empire. Nor did the Protestant make reference to the Arians or the Gnostic or any other early heresy.

Now this silence was strange, and, to my mind, fatal. If the claim is being made that Christ established a True Church, but that lewd hirelings and false prophets vaulted the sheepfold wall and spread false teachings to the flock, then the claim implies that the Protestant will reject the false teachings and cling to the true teachings. This implies that the true teachings were at one time suppressed by the apostate Church but at an earlier time were promulgated.

Logically, the things that denominations and heresies outside the Church teachings therefore must be the source of the true teaching. If the Protestant was right, what we would logically expect was that some doctrine, such as that Christ was a lesser divine being and not God, or such that Mary was Ever-virgin, would have been taught at one time as correct, and later anathematized by a corrupt clergy. The bold Protestant would then look through the doctrines condemned by the Church to find the ones that are true, and would look through the doctrines taught by the Church but which have no clear scriptural authority, to denounce the ones that are false.

Instead, we see the opposite. The doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity, for example, is taught and believed by all the Churches of the East, from Libya to Egypt to Constantinople to Russia to Armenia to the realm of Prestor John.  There is no evidence that the Early Church ever taught the opposite, and what little evidence there is, indicates a belief as old as the earliest strata of surviving writings.

On the other hand, the doctrine of the inferiority of Christ, which, as any Arian will tell you, has at least some scriptural support, is universally rejected by all mainstream Protestant denominations. Ditto with monogamy.

Instead of a reformer returning to the original teachings allegedly suppressed by an apostate Church, all the reformers of the mainstream take the ministerial and authoritative teachings of the Catholic magisterium as authoritative and final — they all believe in the Trinity and in monogamy — and they do not look to any non-Catholic source (Arian, Gnostic) or extra-Catholic source (Orthodox, Nestorian, Coptic, Armenian)  to confirm their allegedly uncorrupted and primitive doctrines.

Instead of the Protestants returning to the earliest possible strata of the development of Christian thought and rejecting the latest, Luther and Calvin merely attached themselves to the latest fashions of the intellectual world of their century, accepted the later Catholic doctrines, such as Trinitarianism and Nicene Christology, and rebuked the very oldest surviving Catholic-Orthodox doctrines from the First and Second Century, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, or Marian Devotion. They did the opposite of what they would do if they were real reformers looking to return to their roots.

At the time, as an atheist, I had the normal atheists’ view of Catholicism. I thought all religions were equally false and irrational and lunatic, except that the Catholics were moreso; therefore it tickled my fancy that the lunatic Catholic had soundly bested the lunatic Protestant in their lunatic argument about Santa Claus.

When I converted, and to my abiding shock discovered that Santa Claus is real and sees me when I am sleeping and when I am awake, I revisited that argument to find if perhaps a better lettered Protestant, one with more historical knowledge, could best the Catholic. I had, upon conversion, no interest in becoming a Catholic and a great deal of reluctance to admit their claims or their authority. Alas, to this day, I have found no spokesman nor apologist for Protestantism who can overcome that fatal logical flaw in their argument.

In sum, my conclusion both as an atheist and as a Christian is that Protestantism has no independent source for its authority aside from Catholicism. If Catholicism is false, so is Protestantism.

I thought our Mormon friend was being a little outrageous for claiming that the apostasy of the Church happened at the death (or the ascension) of Saint John the beloved disciple, which would put it in the First Century AD, and which meant that the immediate successors of the Apostles were none of them true Christians, and not a single baptism reported at the first Pentecost was valid.

But any Sola Scriptura Protestant who places the apostasy of the Church even earlier is even more outrageous, and making such apostasy more complete, because every record of the Church, outside the compilation of documents finalized in the Third Century, or, perhaps, with the imprimatur of Martin Luther in the Sixteenth, is invalid.

There was Christ, and everything his Evangelists wrote is true, and everything they said but did not write is false, and everything written and believed by their disciples and followers is false, and everything written by everyone other than them is of no interest, until the advent of the Protestant Reformer over a thousand years later, who will teach us all truth. Unfortunately, this long, dark night of unchristian Christendom lasts from August AD 70 to early December 1521 and includes all of Christian civilization, thought, history, and ideas, and the Protestants make no claim of any independent source of authority outside this night.

Actually,  Sola Scriptura presses a claim both for an even earlier period and a later. The later claim is that the Church was NEVER correct, except on the one Wednesday in 397 AD, when the Council of Carthage confirmed the canonical list of Biblical writings from the 393 Council of Hippo.

The earlier claim is that the moment Saint John dropped his pen after writing the address on his letter to the Seven Churches in Asia, all further Christian canon was closed (until, one assumes, the advent of Luther or Calvin or Wesley or Henry VIII).

So if Clement, who was alive at the time of Paul and learned at his feet, writes a surviving epistle, or if the apostles themselves write a document called the Didache, these documents, being extrabiblical, are not only not to be read as a source of Christian instruction, they are not to be read at all.

The First Epistle in Clement is dated in the 90’s and written to the Church in Corinth. It is from him we learn the fate of Peter and Paul. The Didache is early document, also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, could be dated prior to 70 A.D. Some scholars place this earlier than John’s writing Revelations. They are the oldest extra-Biblical Christian writings extant.

By that logic, the Church was already apostate at that time, which means, before the Bible was canon was authoritatively defined, and before some of the New Testament was written.

And yet, if you are a mainstream Protestant, you accept the Nicene and Apostle’s Creed as formulated by Church Councils and Synods in the Third to Seventh Century, and follow Church teachings on the Divinity of the Son (something not expressed clearly in the Bible itself — just ask an Arian) the Divinity of the Holy Spirit, the concept of the Trinity, including our Christology and Eschatology.

So when did the Apostasy of the Church take place?

If we put it after the Third Century, we have to accept the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, the Apostolic Succession, and the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and other dogmas repellent to Protestants.

If we place it before the Third Century, then the canonicity of the Bible is in doubt, not to mention Trinitarianism. Prayers to Mary and to the Saints were commonplace long before this date, as were prayers for the dead, which indicates a Purgatory, or, at least, some intermediate stage or state before Final Judgment.

So when did the rot set in? The moment the foot of Jesus left the ground? After the Martyrdom of Paul? After the Ascension of John? During the Baptism of Constantine? During the First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus? When?

Let us contemplate a few dates and events for the sake of comparison:

Melito, bishop of Sardis, an ancient city of Asia Minor (see Rev 3), c. 170 AD produced the first known Christian attempt at an Old Testament canon. His list maintains the Septuagint order of books but contains only the Old Testament protocanonicals minus the Book of Esther.
The Council of Laodicea, c. 360, produced a list of books similar to today’s canon. This was one of the Church’s earliest decisions on a canon.
Pope Damasus, 366-384, in his Decree, listed the books of today’s canon.
The Council of Rome, 382, was the forum which prompted Pope Damasus’ Decree.
Bishop Exuperius of Toulouse wrote to Pope Innocent I in 405 requesting a list of canonical books. Pope Innocent listed the present canon.
The Council of Hippo, a local north Africa council of bishops created the list of the Old and New Testament books in 393 which is the same as the Roman Catholic list today.
The Council of Carthage, a local north Africa council of bishops created the same list of canonical books in 397. This is the council which many Protestant and Evangelical Christians take as the authority for the New Testament canon of books. The Old Testament canon from the same council is identical to Roman Catholic canon today. Another Council of Carthage in 419 offered the same list of canonical books.
Since the Roman Catholic Church does not define truths unless errors abound on the matter, Roman Catholic Christians look to the Council of Florence, an ecumenical council in 1441 for the first definitive list of canonical books.
The final infallible definition of canonical books for Roman Catholic Christians came from the Council of Trent in 1556 in the face of the errors of the Reformers who rejected seven Old Testament books from the canon of scripture to that time.

Let us also contemplate the jesting tone of GK Chesterton, who has something sober to say on a related matter:

What is any man who has been in the real outer world, for instance, to make of the everlasting cry that Catholic traditions are condemned by the Bible? It indicates a jumble of topsy-turvy tests and tail-foremost arguments, of which I never could at any time see the sense.

The ordinary sensible sceptic or pagan is standing in the street (in the supreme character of the man in the street) and he sees a procession go by of the priests of some strange cult, carrying their object of worship under a canopy, some of them wearing high head-dresses and carrying symbolical staffs, others carrying scrolls and sacred records, others carrying sacred images and lighted candles before them, others sacred relics in caskets or cases, and so on.

I can understand the spectator saying, “This is all hocus-pocus”; I can even understand him, in moments of irritation, breaking up the procession, throwing down the images, tearing up the scrolls, dancing on the priests and anything else that might express that general view. I can understand his saying, “Your croziers are bosh, your candles are bosh, your statues and scrolls and relics and all the rest of it are bosh.”

But in what conceivable frame of mind does he rush in to select one particular scroll of the scriptures of this one particular group (a scroll which had always belonged to them and been a part of their hocus-pocus, if it was hocus-pocus); why in the world should the man in the street say that one particular scroll was not bosh, but was the one and only truth by which all the other things were to be condemned?  Why should it not be as superstitious to worship the scrolls as the statues, of that one particular procession? Why should it not be as reasonable to preserve the statues as the scrolls, by the tenets of that particular creed?

To say to the priests, “Your statues and scrolls are condemned by our common sense,” is sensible. To say, “Your statues are condemned by your scrolls, and we are going to worship one part of your procession and wreck the rest,” is not sensible from any standpoint, least of all that of the man in the street.


– The Catholic Church and Conversion (1926).