"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Scott Carson on private judgment

Scott Carson, a Catholic and a professor of philosophy at Ohio University, recently posted a very worthwhile article on private judgment titled "Why Privileging Private Judgment Is A Sin Against Unity". Tim Enloe posted a response at ReformedCatholicism. My reply to Tim can be found here. Michael Liccione adds his comments here.


Andrew McCallum said...


You have a difficult job ahead of you. That is, you need to convince Reformed Protestants that we believe something that we are convinced we don’t believe. I realize that you want to frame the debate in terms of those who follow the catholic tradition (Rome and those in communion with her) vs. those who exercise private judgment (Protestants). But as you have heard from ReformedCatholicism, we know that we don’t operate this way in terms of theory and praxis. The Reformed tradition operates within the catholic tradition but comes to different conclusions than what Rome does. My feeling is that you will only be frustrated if you continue to try to force the RC/Protestant debate into a framework where one of the elements of the Protestant mindset is the kind of private judgment that you, Mr. Carson, and others conceive of.

On the other hand you could view the matter with a different paradigm. You could (for sake of dialogue) look at the Catholic and Protestant communions as two branches of the Church both of whom are seeking to be submissive to Christ’s church but coming to different conclusion based on the evidence from tradition and Scripture (this is what I was trying to get you to do on your website a few weeks ago). So for instance, to take the example of sacramental authority that you seem to be interested in, instead of assuming that Protestants have created their own view of the sacraments, you could instead ask the question as to whether the RC or Protestant understanding is more in line with Scripture and the teaching of the Early Church on the matter of the sacraments. I cannot see that the medieval conception of the seven sacraments is in line with historic Christianity. This is not just my judgment, this is the judgment of the Church of Christ. Or so I would argue. You would try I’m sure to try to argue that the formulations Lombard, Aquinas, etc on the sacraments were somehow consonant with the teachings of earlier ages. I understand this argument. My point is that framing the discussion this way enables us to actually have a dialogue. But if you are going to insist that my position is purely one of personal judgment than the conversation is over. I know that neither I nor my communion operates in this way. There are is no shortage of Protestants and Catholics who create their own religion. This is just the spirit of our age, isn’t it? But not all Protestants and all Catholics think like this. I hope you might see your way to agreeing with this since you seem like a person who is generally interested in dialogue.

Principium unitatis said...


Yes, I am interested in dialogue. I think that the goal of unity requires a commitment to dialogue, and a willingness to listen to those with whom we are not presently in full communion. So, I appreciate your efforts to dialogue with me.

When you say that "the Reformed tradition operates within the catholic tradition", what do you mean? McGrath and Geisler both acknowledge that Luther's forensic model of justification is nowhere to be found between St. Paul and Luther himself. Regarding the rejection of episcopal ordination, that too is nowhere to be found from the Apostles until Luther. (The situation in Alexandria was not what Luther thought it was.) The rejection of the sacrament of confirmation/chrismation? Again, such a rejection is nowhere to be found from the Apostles till Luther. The rejection of the sacrament of penance/reconciliation? Again, such a rejection is nowhere to be found in the Catholic Church between the Apostles and Luther. So, I don't know what you mean by "catholic tradition".

There is a lot of common ground, of course. We agree on the Nicene Creed, at least with respect to its content. But one of my Reformed seminary profs was quite negative about the Nicene Creed, claiming that it was full of Greek philosophy. He much preferred the Apostles' Creed. Another former seminary professor rejected the line saying that Christ is "eternally begotten". So even though it looks like there is common ground on the Creed, the common ground is quite by hermeneutical accident. Protestants do not treat the Creeds as *authoritative*, because as Luther said, "councils can error". From the Protestant point of view, the Creed is not infallible, and therefore any particular claim in the Creed could be false. So, much of the common ground is an illusion, because the sacramental magisterial authority that grounds the authority of the Creed has been rejected by the Protestants. (Protestants think the bishops at Nicea in 325 did not have sacramental magisterial authority, because Protestants reject the very concept of sacramental magisterial authority, i.e. authority handed down from the Apostles by the sacrament of Holy Orders from bishop to bishop.)

If you truly operate within the "catholic tradition", then who is your bishop? (Mine is Archbishop Burke.) The purpose of that question is to point out that in the catholic tradition, people have a bishop. So if you are not under the authority of a bishop, then how can you claim to be in the catholic tradition? And if you *do* have a bishop, then what is the ground for his authority? Is it that he has valid orders, or is it that you submitted yourself to him because he teaches what you already believe?

If you think my argument concerning individualism and sacramental magisterial authority is unsound, please refute it.

You could (for sake of dialogue) look at the Catholic and Protestant communions as two branches of the Church

That would be to look at the situation from a Protestant point of view. I'm willing to do that hypothetically, or, for the sake of argument, but I'm just pointing out that it is not a neutral point of view. From a Catholic point of view, Peter is the rock on which Christ is building His Church, and those not in communion with Peter's episcopal successor are in schism. The Church is one, because Christ has only one Bride. There are particular Churches (i.e. the Church in St. Louis, the Church in Dallas, etc.) but there are not branches. For then there would be nothing to distinguish "branches" from "schisms", as I explained here. If you have some way of distinguishing branches from schisms, I'd like to see it.

you could instead ask the question as to whether the RC or Protestant understanding is more in line with Scripture and the teaching of the Early Church on the matter of the sacraments.

I am willing to do that. But there are two issues here. First, there is the "development of doctrine". The Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth. And so doctrine develops (see Newman's Essay on the Development of Doctrine). So you can't expect the Catholic Church to look (doctrinally) identical to the early Church. You should expect some development of doctrine, albeit an organic sort of development, not something entirely new after 1500 years, or something that contradicts 1500 years of practice. Second, going to the Scriptures to determine who is closer to the Scriptures is not a neutral method. It assumes something that is at the root of the Catholic-Protestant divide, namely that anyone can determine for himself what is the proper interpretation of Scripture. So the better approach is to look at the fathers and see how they speak about the sacraments and how they understand the Scripture passages dealing with the sacraments.

Let's start with baptism, the gateway to the other sacraments. Reformed Protestants deny baptismal regeneration, but the fathers clearly affirm it. Next, consider confirmation. Protestants rejected it, but the fathers teach it. Or let's consider the Eucharist. Protestants deny that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of our Lord. But the fathers affirm just that. Perhaps that's plenty to talk about for now.

in the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Andrew McCallum said...


Concerning bishops, I’m sure you aware that the role of the bishop is an intramural debate within reformational Protestantism. I will certainly concede the Anglican position on the matter since it’s no big deal to me. I would also point out that while the rise of the episcopacy came early in the history of the Church, there is no clear distinction between the role of presbyter and bishop in the first century or so. There is certainly a very big difference between the simple bishops of the sub-apostolic church and that of the bishop of the medieval age. But I think you want to argue is that there ought to be a succession of bishops and that the RCC can trace their line of bishops to Christ. We have discussed that question on ReformedCatholicism where I think in a nutshell we pointed out that the very clear definitions of a bishop in Scripture ruled out the many of the Medieval bishops as being anything close to bishops in the Christian sense of the term. There is a clear definition of a bishop in Titus, and from the Protestant standpoint, which I think is just the historic Christian standpoint, the bishop must be some facsimile of this. The general principle of the bishops picking successors only makes sense if the bishops are indeed bishops within the historic Christian definition. And this reflects on my chief point of writing to you which was to encourage you to see Protestants as those who like you are trying to recognize the historic Christian faith, not as those who are creating their own faith based on this assumed principle of private interpretation. My contention is that in this matter the Protestant position IS the historic Christian position and that the Early Church would not have recognized the succession and ordination of bishops who were not bishops in any Christian sense of the term.

I’m not sure as to your point on Luther and forensic justification. This is another one of those Protestant intramural matters.

On the seven sacraments, the RCC position as found in Trent was formulated by Hugo and Lombard and Aquinas and so in. Are you saying that the Early Church defended the seven sacraments as such? I know that as late as Augustine there was no firm conception of a sacrament and that Augustine called all sorts of mystical and sacred things as “sacraments.” The Scholastic definition of a sacrament was something that narrowed the list to seven. There were lots of highly speculative and imaginative reasons for coming to this number of seven but I’m not aware of anything particularly biblical or historical here. That’s my only point on the sacraments. So how do we determine whether Lombard and so on were correct on this number seven? From my standpoint either their reasons were sound or they were not. If they were not, then we reject the Thomistic summary of the sacraments and dig back further.

Yes, Protestants would not say that the creeds were infallible but I don’t see this as the position of the early church either. As late as the 5th century Augustine said that councils could err and could be corrected by Scripture. We are not arguing against the authority of the episcopate, we are arguing that early bishops never saw themselves as infallible, even in dogmatic statements. Infallibility of the de fide statements of the Bishop of Rome is not something that I can see that any early bishops of Rome were aware of. The RCC argument for infallibility here seems to me to be an argument against the historic Christian position as it is manifested in the apostolic and sub-apostolic church.

I don’t want to give you the idea that I think we can derive theology purely from the statements of the Fathers. On just about any issue such as the sacraments there were so many opinions and you can derive just about anything you want. Unless you can prove that pronouncements of the early fathers were infallible in some sense, you continually have the problem as to how to interpret tradition. Interpreting tradition is the Early Church is made even more difficult since the Church here is in her infancy. In Israel’s infancy she makes error after error and you don’t want to try to form doctrine on her practices. Likewise it’s dangerous to make dogmatic theological pronouncements on the practice of the Early Church since she was so young and there are no principles that I can see for interpreting tradition. Scripture on the other hand is infallible and trustworthy. Who interprets the Scripture asks the Catholic? A good question but it’s easier to answer than the question as to who interprets tradition since firstly the Church is the product of tradition and secondly tradition is not free from error.

I know I have not gotten to everything you asked but I think this is too long already. I mainly wanted to point out a methodological matter in these kinds of debates.

Andrew McCallum said...


Something else I forgot to put down. For most Protestant churches, not just those whose theory and practice is self-consciously connected to the tradition of the Church, there are creedal statements which define the acceptable theology of that communion. The communion in question does not allow her congregants to define their own theology. They are encouraged to read and interpret the Bible but there are confessional boundaries here. So I'm curious to know whether this is anything like what you experienced in whatever church you were involved in (I think you said you were in a Reformed seminary). You write about private interpretation as if it's something that all Protestants are doing but as I'm sure you gathered from ReformedCatholicism, this is not the way that any of the folks there operate in their various communions.


Joseph said...


You and your readers may, or may not, find this article interesting.