The Parable of the Arbiters

A reader with the sagacious yet doughty name of Scholar at Arms, in reference to a prior post called the Parable of the Peddlers, writes this:

An interesting parable, Mr. Wright. I would observe that statements such as “to me, and I assume to the average faithful Catholic, there is not a group of equal and competing claims in the marketplace of ideas” seem to be unlikely to persuade those whom C.S. Lewis referred to as “Mere Christians.” It is a statement which suggests (though does not say outright) that those who are sifting through the doctrinal claims of competing denominations will not find the communion they are looking for among you and your fellow average faithful Catholics. For this and other related reasons, I hope that your posting of today will be the last we read of this schism here for a good long while.

Well, I think it merits at least one last post, the explain or explain away at least one misconception about what my parable was about. If I may indulge on your kind patience.

Let me take the comments seriatim.

<blockquote>I would observe that statements such as “to me, and I assume to the average faithful Catholic, there is not a group of equal and competing claims in the marketplace of ideas” seem to be unlikely to persuade those whom C.S. Lewis referred to as “Mere Christians.”</blockquote>

I completely agree. That is why I prefaced the parable with a comment with the comment that I was not trying to persuade anyone, but merely giving a report of my opinion and judgment.

<blockquote>”It is a statement which suggests (though does not say outright) that those who are sifting through the doctrinal claims of competing denominations will not find the communion they are looking for among you and your fellow average faithful Catholics.”</blockquote>

I am not sure what you mean.

Do you mean that I am implying that the communion of sympathy between all believers and brothers in Christ must be defective and ergo Protestants and Catholic must hate each other? I don’t believe that and did not imply it.

Or do you mean that I am implying Catholics believe the Protestant sacrament of Communion is invalid due to the lack of a consecrated priest to transubstantiate the Host, and therefore I believe the Protestant have no communion with Christ? I don’t believe that and did not imply it. The Protestants don’t even hold to the doctrine of the Real Presence.

Or do you mean that Catholics reject the process of sifting through doctrinal claims, and therefore Catholics are unfit to commune with? Or that Catholics think others are unfit to commune with them? I don’t believe that and did not imply it.

I reject these interpretations utterly. Honestly, I did not even remotely imply any of these things.

If you meant yet something else again, my wit is too loosely woven to net it as it flew by.

What I said was that many Protestants see the diversity of churches as a marketplace of ideas, and think that is a good thing.

At least one non-Catholic I know believes this diversity is crucial to the success of Christianity and is God’s divine Will. She says that each man must be drawn to God severally by his own way and bridge, for all winding roads lead up the mountain to the peak. While I would like to believe that, mainstream Christianity teaches that the way is straight and narrow, and that there is but one bridge.


What I said was that I assume the average Catholic does not regard the Church as merely one denomination among many, all of whom are competing in a marketplace.

It does not look like a marketplace to us.

It looks like a schoolroom with a school marm. Some of the students claim, truly or falsely, to have caught the teacher cheating, or deranged, and now they want to use her lecture notes and nothing else, note she wrote in happier days before her derangement, and use them to teach the class.

Unlike a market, the students do not get a vote on what they learn. Hence the dispute is not over whose ideas are correct (which the sophomores are in no position to judge)  the dispute is over who has the right to teach and be heard.

It was the difference between the marketplace approach and the broader approach I was pointing at. I was not trying to persuade anyone to be Christian, or to be Catholic.

I certainly was not asking anyone NOT to sift through the various claims, since I did it myself.

All I was doing was urging men to sift through the claims without being deceiving into thinking the claims were of the same type.

But I will say this, and I do intend this to persuade you of at least this one small point:

The various denominations are not making the same claims.

All the heirs claim to be the true heir. But each group of heirs appeals to a different judge and asks for a different standard of judgment. That was my point.

I will make the point again, this time without recourse to parable, since I fear being grossly misunderstood.

Both the Catholics and the Orthodox claim to be the same institution founded by Christ and His apostles from the First to the Tenth Century. In the Eleventh there was a break beyond repair. The dispute there is constitutional and historical.

The Nestorians and Copts and Malabars in Africa and Asia broke communion with the Church for separate reasons and much earlier, in the Fifth Century, in doctrinal disputes over early Church councils.

In the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century arose the Reformers claim is that the Church, because of various doctrinal corruption or evil acts, abdicated her mandate, and needed to be restored to that original and pure institution. After the Counsel of Trent, the Reformers broke communion with the Church and formed their own, at the time national churches, like the Church of England.

Additional Reformers claimed these churches were inadequate or apostate and again formed additional and dissenting denominations. We can call them Dissenters.

The main claim to authenticity and authority of all these Reformation denominations, Reforming or Dissenting, is doctrinal purity, particularly scriptural purity. The dispute is doctrinal.

In the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century arose the claim that certain prophets or healers (Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy or Sun Myung Moon can serve as examples) enjoyed an independent writ of authority to found a new church, based on the discovery or a vision or a visitation.

For example, Mary Baker Eddy claims to be restoring Christianity to its original form with its lost element of healing; Sun Myung Moon is attempting to unify all world religions into a somewhat Taoist and Aristotelian form of Christianity.

Other new denominations, Restorationists, arose at the same time making a less ambitious claim, but part of the general movement to restore Christianity to a primitive and apostolic and ecumenical form. These Restoration churches claim lineage from the original and primitive church. Whether you classify them with the denominations I use as examples is a matter of definitions. If their claim was doctrinal rather than charismatic, I would classify them as Dissenters, who, in effect, are Protestants protesting the Protestants.

Whatever you think of the claims, the point is that the claim being made is ecumenical, a return to a lost form.

This dispute here is charismatic. The claim is that the original Church lost (or never had) the charism or mark or mandate of Heaven, and that signs and wonders, healing, visions and miracles show that this new teacher preaching a new Christ, like a younger son receiving an unexpected birthrite despised by the elder, has arisen to lead the Christian world.

A handy dandy picture might sum this up more easily:

Now, this overview of history by itself need not persuade anyone of anything, but that point being made is that the notion that we are dealing with a “marketplace of ideas” is false, or, rather, only one of the

In the Marketplace, the only arbiter of your purchases and customer loyalty is your appetites. In the Marketplace of Ideas, a loftier setting, the only arbiter is your intellect. My point is that the point of whether the sifting of denominational claims is like a marketplace is itself one of the points is dispute. Who is to be the arbiter?

Let me make this clear by referring to the various movements mentioned:

The claim of the Charismatic type is based on the authority of the charism (to use the word in its original sense) of a charismatic leader. Joseph Smith saw a golden plate and spoke with an angel; Mary Baker Eddy healed the sick and raised the dead; Mohammad in the Seventh Century spoke with the archangel Jibrael, and Montanus in the Second spoke with or spoke for the Paraclete.

The judge they would take us to rests on the reliability of the charismatic claim. If you are sick and go to a Christian Scientist and get miraculously healed (as I have been) that is strong evidence as to the truth of their claim. That is the arbiter to which they appeal. Mary Baker Eddy and her followers voted to establish a church.

To the Christian Scientists, dispute seems simple. If the early Apostles and their disciples had the gift of healing, and now the First Church of Christ, Scientist, wields that same gift and your church does not, why not go where the gifts are? Can such gifts can come from other than God?

If you believe (and, with all due respect for Christian Scientists, as I do myself believe) that prophets do not have the authority to vote a church in being, that arbiter is not the arbiter to whom your belief appeals.

Again, the arbiter to which Joseph Smith appeals rests on the reliability of his having seen and translated the golden tablets from the angel Moroni. If you believe (and, with all due respect for the Church of Latter Day Saints, as I do myself believe) that prophets do not have the authority to vote a church in being, that arbiter has no jurisdiction.

The claim of the Protestant type would take us to the arbitration of the intellect. Oddly enough, Reformers are sometimes criticized (at least in Catholic circles) for their emphasis (we call it overemphasis) on the spontaneous and emotional and passionate nature of their communion with God.

I reject these criticisms being a misunderstanding of the Protestant mind. All Protestants, even those who reject Puritanism, have a strong inclination toward the ideal of pure worship, a simplicity and purity of rite.

It is not emotionalism. It is intellectualism.

The Puritans (and, to a degree, the Protestants) seek to simplify the gorgeous rituals of their fathers, and to eliminate the intercession of priests and saints, and this for a variety of reasons: either because they hold it to be unworthy to pray indirectly or ask assistance; or they suspect the images are idols under another name, and prayers to saints are a forbidden act of worship; or that all these things are a temptation and distraction from the true and utterly pure act of worship which has no forms, nor embodiment, no smells or bells or paraphernalia.

To the Catholic, this seems as incomprehensible as asking a man in love not to carry a photograph of his wife in his billfold. And the Protestant claim that the husband is in danger of falling in love with his photo and leaving his wife leaves us nonplussed.

But to the Protestant, it would be like asking a husband on his honeymoon, when his bride is in the room, to stop looking at the photo and look instead upon the real thing. A bridegroom that refused to stop looking at his photo of his wife while consummating the marriage would be a grotesque monster of lovelessness, and his marriage be a mockery.

The Protestant argument is that the rites and usages of the Church are not an aid and a glorification, but are instead in conflict with the pure act of worship.

The Protestant does not want anything, not even a ceremony of worship, to stand between himself and the naked glory of God Almighty.

Each different Protestant sect (I exclude the Anglicans for a reason I mention below) justifies its dissent from the sect from which it sprang on the grounds of doctrinal impurity or errors of discipline in their fathers.

Hence, the arbiter to which they all must appeal is theology.

Simpler and purer theologies tend to serve the role as arbiter, at least in most cases familiar to me. (I am no expert on Protestantism! I do no know the doctrinal differences between various groups of Baptists and Methodists, for example. I don’t know what the argument was about.)

Most often, the Protestant will refer to the Bible, and, in English speaking countries especially, the King James Bible, as the authority on which their theology rests. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura makes any other approach problematical.

The judge to which they would take us is the Bible, and the reasoning, clear or obscure, the human intellect can bring to bear on the various tales and histories and psalms and prophecies and gospels and epistles and apocalyptic visions which comprise the many books therein.

If you believe the authority of the Bible (as I and all Christians do) and on the perceptive power of the human intellect (as I and all philosophers do) the Protestants present a strong and weighty argument for their case.

But if you believe (as I, with all due respect for the Protestants, do myself believe) that the intellectual argument taken in isolation from history, or the Bible taken in isolation from the tradition which grants it whatever authority it possesses, are insufficient justification to reform the Church or to found a new church when the old Church refuses to reform herself; and also if you believe biblical and doctrinal differences of opinion are an insufficient justification to defy the Council of Trent, or any Ecumenical Church Council, or local synod, or even to disobey your local archbishop, bishop, or priest;  then the idea of forming a whole new church based on theological and doctrinal reasoning is suspect.

If so, then the arbiter of intellectual theology is not the arbiter to whom who submit your claims to be judged.

In the same way that Joseph Smith was foreshadowed by Mohammad and Mohammad by Montanus, there are earlier examples in history of the arbitration of the intellect. (I am not drawing a parallel between Mormons and Montanists, by the way, merely commenting that they appeal to the same arbiters, the arbitration of the Holy Ghost or charism ). Likewise here, the Nestorians and Monophysites or Miaphysites broke with the Church after the general councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Their objections were primarily theological, albeit the the dispute in this case was over Christology rather than Justification.

Finally, with the Anglicans and the Orthodox, while there were theological disputes that accompanied the schism, I truly doubt those disputes drove it or maintain it.

The question there was political and cultural, and the arbiter is history.

The argument which would persuade a neutral onlooker or “Mere Christian” to join with these churches rests on whether the historical claim of the Roman Metropolitan can claim legal priority over the Metropolitans of Byzantium, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. In the Anglican case, the question is whether a Prince, anointed by God to be the leader of his people, has the right under law to assume the prerogatives of leader of the Church within his national boundaries?

The argument here is legal and historical, asking who did what to whom and whether it was constitutionally justified. If anything, these are remarkably more delicate and difficult knots to unwind that the theological or charismatic claims, because the arbiter here is historical fact, and all the evidence is centuries old, and colored over with partisanship on every side.

If you believe (as I do) that the Church has the legal and even the divine authority to govern herself and to establish and teach authentic Christian doctrine, then the claim of the Orthodox is the strongest and weightiest of all (and, ironically, the claim of the Anglicans the weakest of all–there is no pre-Nicene Metropolitan See at Canterbury). For if the Archbishop of Rome presumed dignities and powers beyond his constitutional station, if he indeed usurped powers originally meant to be shared among the equal Metropolitans and the councils of Archibishops, then his excommunication is not merely legal, but obligatory, for his attempt was to make the Holy Church his private fief.

Unfortunately, the titaness called history walks with feet of fire over the historical records, and the worm of time and the torches of war and the obscuring pens of partisan or erroneous scribes makes this dispute one a layman dare not join.

My own reason for not joining with the Orthodox or Anglican Communion is personal, and need not concern us here. Let us merely say that I appeal to another and final arbiter for my strength of conviction.

To me, the historical argument is not negligible. Indeed, none of these arguments are negligible! But neither is any one of these arbiters I mention above, neither personal taste, nor prophetic charisma, nor intellectual and scriptural clarity, nor historical and legal constitutionality, is by itself a sufficient arbiter.

(I do regret having lost the readership of Doc Rampage, because I believe in that sentence I finally answered the question he three and four times asked of me, which is what standard one should use for deciding denominational claims.)

Let me not obscure the more general point by speaking of myself. The general point which I place before all candid readers is this:

To Scholar-at-Arms, with my compliments, I say this: If you thought I was indulging in some sort of Triumphalism, saying that I was right and justified and that my brothers in Christ were wrong and damned, I assure you humbly I neither thought that nor implied it.

What I was talking about was which approach to use to settle the completing claims.

My point was — and this point will offend no honest man — that choosing between denominations is not like choosing between different goods for sale in a market.

In a marketplace, the buyer has the choice of goods, and, assuming no fraud nor double dealing, the goods are all of an advertised quality. Only one’s personal appetite is arbiter. Each man finds his own path.

The situation of the Christian Civil Wars is more like a trial than a trade show, or more like a dispute over a will, with many candidates claiming to be the true heirs to the legacy of Christ, but nearly each one making a different argument, using different standards, to define what constitutes an heir; and therefore appealing to a different arbiter.

Nor is it not like a judge choosing between the disputes of heirs and assigns, all of whom make some claim to the patrimony of the decedent. But it is more like a courtroom than like a marketplace, because such a determination is part of the argument over which church, or any of them, are legitimately to be trusted. (But even whether Apostolic succession confers legitimacy is also a point in dispute.)

It is not even like choosing between recruiting offices whether to join the Army or the Navy under whose discipline you shall serve. But it is more like this than like choosing between the butcher and the baker’s shops.

It is much more like a maiden choosing between the suitors for her hand in marriage, particularly if she is an old fashioned maiden who expects her husband to lead the family and whom she must obey.

You are choosing whom to love.

And because of the way love works, the choice is made with the whole person, not just with the head or the heart. All the arbiters of your soul must agree.

That was my point. I tried to make the point in terms of a story, because I think love is naturally more story like than it is a matter of legal reasoning.

<blockquote>”For this and other related reasons, I hope that your posting of today will be the last we read of this schism here for a good long while.”</blockquote>

If you’ve read my words, you know that I regard the discussion of doctrinal differences between the denominations to erect a scandal and a stumblingblock to believers and nonbelievers alike.

I was once in a D&D game where the party fell into a dispute over the loot and drew swords and set to each other. The noise attracted a wondering party of orcs, who, discovering the party warring with each other, simply stood their polishing their weapons and picking their teeth, waiting for the good guys to maim and weaken each other before falling on them.

Considering how thickly the wolves of the Culture War press on us, and considering that the Catholics need the help of all other Christians and men of good will in fending off assaults, grown more bold in recent years, against the religious liberty all free men cherish dearly, to exasperate each other is not only unchristian, but impractical.

For reasons like this and reasons likes yours, I would not mind turning to other topics. But I also admit I find it nearly impossible to resist responding to a comment or question like yours.

So, unfortunately, your polite and well meant request that I drop the topic required at least this one long explanation and response.

If no one takes offense with my words or utters a rebuke or counterargument at which I take offense, it may well be the last I speak on this topic for a season.