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

Monday, July 2, 2007

Ecclesial Deism and Sacramental Magisterial Authority

Beliefnet recently published this debate between Albert Mohler (President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) and Orson Scott Card (a Mormon writer). [HT Mark Shea] The question being debated is: Are Mormons Christian?

Card goes right to the heart of the problem for Mohler: authority. Card asks: "Who gets to define 'Christian'?" Mohler knows that sola scriptura is not enough here, so he appeals to "traditional Christian orthodoxy". He mentions the historic creeds. He writes:

"The orthodox consensus of the Christian church is defined in terms of its historic creeds and doctrinal affirmations."
I agree with Card that Mohler simply begs the question. He has to. He has rejected Apostolic succession, so he has no recourse to sacramental magisterial authority, including the authority of the General Councils and Creeds. Presumably he rejects the fifth General Council's teaching that Mary remained ever-virgin. (Cf. capitula 2) But if he rejects the authority of the fifth, then why not the first, second, third and fourth as well? If he held even to the first seven, his position would be much more like that of the Orthodox Churches, and much less like that of the Southern Baptists.

Drawing from St. Vincent of Lerins, Mohler claims that the true faith is that which was "recognized and affirmed everywhere, always, and by all". But presumably he rejects the distinction between bishop and priest, something already clearly visible in the writings of St. Ignatius bishop of Antioch, writing as an old man in 107 AD. The same General Councils to which Mohler appeals regarding the Trinity and the nature of Christ, were decided by bishops who all recognized and affirmed the distinction between bishops and priests. Presumably Mohler rejects the transformation of the bread and wine, baptismal regeneration, veneration of relics, the sacrament of confirmation, the sacrament of penance/reconciliation, fasting on Fridays and during Lent, and the communion of saints, all things that the Church held and believed everywhere. If he thinks Novatianism and Donatism are heresies, how does he think he avoids them? But if he denies that they were heresies, then he has no grounds for criticizing Card for picking and choosing differently from "traditional Christian orthodoxy" than he does himself.

Card could reply by also affirming the Vincentian canon, and claiming that Mormonism is what was initially recognized and affirmed everywhere, always, and by all, and that the purity of the gospel had already been distorted and corrupted by the end of the first century. Mohler's only rejoinder would be: My ecclesial deism isn't as extreme as yours. Card could reply: True, but it is more eclectic and no less ad hoc. Picking 500 AD as the cutoff for "traditional Christian orthodoxy" is no less ad hoc than picking 80 AD. If any ecclesial deism is allowed, then there is no more principled reason to think the 'apostasy of the Church' didn't begin for 500 years than there is to think it began in the first century. And if the creeds have authority for Mohler only insofar as they agree with his interpretation of Scripture, then Card can simply reply that he [Card] does not interpret the Scriptures that way, and therefore the creeds have no such 'authority' for him.

At some point while studying the first four hundred years of the Church, I realized that the term 'Christian' isn't as important as the word 'Catholic'. All the heretics claimed to be Christians. St. Augustine writes:

There are many other things that most justly keep me in her [i.e. the Catholic Church's] bosom. ... The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house. (Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental)
My discussions with Mormons were a significant factor in helping me realize my own ecclesial deism. I pray that Mohler will likewise be benefitted from this exchange. We cannot have unity until we recognize sacramental magisterial authority, and reject ecclesial deism.


Anonymous said...

Bryan - I'm curious about the ever-virginity of Mary. Is there a common response to the point that the apostle Paul commends to wives and husbands that their bodies are not their own and that they should not deny sexual intercourse to each other, except for a time, by mutual agreement? In other words, how could Mary remain a sinless wife if she were to not fulfill her marital duties?

Interesting response to the Mormon argument!

Bryan Cross said...


Good question. In the Catholic view, the "except for a time" of 1 Cor 7:5 is contingent on the "lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control" at the end of the verse. In other words, Paul's prescription regarding the temporal limitation of consensual abstinence within marriage is not absolute, but contingent. Those husbands and wives who do not lack self-control may, by mutual consent, choose permanently not to exercise what is theirs by right, in order to devote themselves to prayer (vs. 5) and the "things of the Lord" (vss. 32,34). This is called a "Josephite marriage". And this understanding of verse 5 makes perfect sense anyway, for Paul is not requiring elderly married couples who are still capable of sexual relations to do so regularly.

I think it is also helpful to know the Catholic Church's understanding of the general context of Mary's marriage to Joseph. I'm thinking of the Protoevengelium of James. Mary is seen there like another Samuel, having been consecrated to the Lord from her childhood. In this account she had already made a vow to remain a virgin of the Lord, even before she was betrothed to Joseph. When she reaches the age of twelve, she can no longer remain in the temple lest she defile it by menses, and so she must be entrusted to a husband. The high priest comes out and tells Joseph, "You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord." She stays betrothed to Joseph and remains a virgin living in his house for four years before becoming pregnant with Jesus. Joseph is fully aware of her consecrated status, that she remained a virgin while giving birth, and that her womb is holy. She is in that way, the "ark of the [New] covenant". (See, for example, the implication of the account of Salome there in the Protoevangelium.) And so the marriage between Joseph and Mary is understood in that context. When we understand that Mary was a "virgin of the Lord", and that for that reason Joseph had no intention of "defiling" her, then her perpetual virginity makes sense.

- Bryan

Anonymous said...

Thanks, man.

Unknown said...


I somehow came across your blog today while surfing around. Your blog looks to be very interesting.

Your comment about Mohler being unable to appeal to something like apostolic succession is a very interesting point. Mohler's vague references to "traditional Christian orthdoxoy" work fine when arguing with someone who does not claim to be an orthodox Christian. But things get sticky when arguing with a Mormon.

I hope you are well.


contrarian 78 said...

I am currently reading Rome Sweet Home and noticed after having my interest piqued that Gerry Matatics has called all claimants to the seat of Peter from Vatican II on antipopes.

Would your rebuttal to this line of reasoning be similar to the idea of ecclesiastical deism, or is a more particular rebuttal needed? How does one determine when there is an antipope, for that matter?


Bryan Cross said...

Hello James, good to hear from you. I checked out your blog; if I ever need a dependable opinion about wine or cheese, I now know where to look. Thanks for stopping by.

- Bryan

Bryan Cross said...

Jonathan (contrarian 78),

I'm not very familiar with Gerry Matatics or how he comes to this conclusion. I just read Robert Sungenis's comments on it here.

I agree with Sungenis's evaluation of Matatics's argument. It seems to me that Matatics is falling into the mistake of treating magisterial authority as doctrinally grounded rather than sacramentally grounded, as I discussed here.

I agree with the Fulton Sheen quotation that Sungenis quotes. In fact, drawing from three sources: (1) Augustine's City of God, Vladimir Soloviev's Tale of the AntiChrist, and Josef Pieper's The End of Time, I wrote some thoughts on that very subject here.

I also discuss here the way concern about the Antichrist can interfere with our understanding of Christ's desire that His followers be one.

My next blog post (which I will post shortly) will discuss why understanding what is wrong with Novatianism and Donatism is key to understanding why sacramental succession of magisterial authority is so important.

Thanks very much for your comments.

- Bryan