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

Friday, August 17, 2007

Two Paradigms

You have probably seen the drawing that can be viewed as a rabbit or a duck. There is another that can be seen as an old woman or a young woman, depending on how one looks at it. The Protestant and Catholic conceptions of Christianity are somewhat like that; they are different paradigms. Typically when Protestants evaluate Catholicism, they do so from within the Protestant paradigm. That is why common Protestant responses to certain Catholic doctrines or practices are, "Where is that in the Bible?" and "That's not how I interpret it." The Protestant is typically operating under the principle of sola scriptura with its corresponding rejection of sacramental magisterial authority, and often cannot conceive or imagine any other way of thinking.

When Protestants talk to each other, across practically all Protestant denominations, they share that same Protestant principle of sola scriptura that puts them in the Protestant paradigm. That common principle is what makes it relatively easy to move from one Protestant denomination to another. The principle itself is never debated within Protestantism. Those debates generally have to do with the interpretation of Scripture. Sola scriptura is the given principle that underlies all the intra-Protestant debates. When Protestants talk with Catholics, Protestants often continue to speak as though sola scriptura is a principle shared by Catholics as well. But the Catholic Church has never believed or taught sola scriptura, nor has she ever rejected sacramental magisterial authority. So Protestant-Catholic dialogues often manifest a strange disconnect, the Protestant treating the Catholic as though the Catholic accepts sola scriptura, and the Catholic treating the Protestant as though the Protestant recognizes sacramental magisterial authority.

How do we avoid this disconnect? We have to talk about that which lies at the foundation of the difference between the two paradigms: sola scriptura and its rejection of sacramental magisterial authority. But this is still not easy. When a Protestant is asked to defend his belief in sola scriptura, he typically assumes the truth of sola scriptura in order to do so. Sola scriptura is virtually an a priori methodological principle for him. But sola scriptura is not an a priori methodological principle for Catholics. If anything, submitting to sacramental magisterial authority is the orthodox Catholic's natural mode of operation.

My point is that it is difficult (if not impossible) to find neutral paradigmatic space in Protestant-Catholic dialogue. That does not mean that constructive Protestant-Catholic dialogue is impossible. Rather, it means that such dialogue requires that we work hard to see things from the point of view of the other paradigm; otherwise we will be talking past each other. But when the principle of sola scriptura is itself the point in question in the dialogue (as it should be), then there is an asymmetry in what is required of the participants with respect to seeing things from the point of view of the other paradigm. That is because sola scriptura is actually a negative principle. It is in essence a denial of sacramental magisterial authority in exchange for what is the default in the absence of sacramental magisterial authority: the individualism of private judgment. [My argument for that dichotomy can be found here. I also showed here that Keith Mathison's position on sola scriptura is not a middle position.] The Catholic is trying to show the Protestant that there is something that the Protestant denies (knowingly or unknowingly) is there: i.e. sacramental magisterial authority.

In this way, the Catholic and Protestant paradigms are unlike the rabbit/duck example. The person who sees the rabbit/duck figure as a rabbit and the person who sees it as a duck are both looking at the very same figure. But the Protestant looks at a smaller 'figure', so to speak, than does the Catholic. The 'figure', for the Protestant, includes only Scripture; the 'figure', for the Catholic, includes both Scripture and a sacramental magisterial [interpretive] authority. It is because of this asymmetry at the 'figure' level, and because it involves a positive for the Catholic [i.e. there is a sacramental magisterial authority] and a negative for the Protestant [i.e. there is no sacramental magisterial authority] that it is intrinsically more difficult for the Protestant to see the Catholic paradigm than it is for the Catholic to see the Protestant paradigm. Most Protestants, even most Protestant pastors, I suspect, have little to no conception of sacramental magisterial authority.

One way of calling an a priori assumption into question is showing that it leads to internal contradictions. Stephen Ray's list of questions is designed to do that. The book titled Not By Scripture Alone, edited by Robert Sungenis, is presently the best critique of sola scriptura of which I am aware. Peter Kreeft, in his book Catholic Christianity, lists six reasons for rejecting the idea of sola scriptura. He writes:

  • a. No Christian before Luther ever taught it, for the first sixteen Christian centuries.
  • b. The first generation of Christians did not even have the New Testament.
  • c. Without the Catholic Church to interpret Scripture authoritatively, Protestantism has divided into more than twenty-thousand different "churches" or denominations.
  • d. If Scripture is infallible, as traditional Protestants believe, then the Church must be infallible too, for a fallible cause cannot produce an infallible effect, and the Church produced the Bible. The Church (apostles and saints) wrote the New Testament, and the Church (subsequent bishops) defined its canon.
  • e. Scripture itself calls the Church "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15)
  • f. And Scripture itself never teaches sola scriptura. Thus sola scriptura is self-contradictory. If we are to believe only Scripture, we should not believe sola scriptura.

I might add: If there is no sacramental magisterial authority, then we know almost nothing about Christ and Christianity. We don't even know if the canon is correct, and we don't even know if the Nicene Creed is correct. All we have are various opinions. All theological claims are fallible and hence uncertain. I would also add that sacramental magisterial succession is the position we find in the fathers, and unconstested until Luther and Calvin.

But the main reason I am writing this post is to help my Protestant brothers and sisters at least be able to conceive of the Catholic paradigm. In my comment to Lane Keister I wrote, "we need to determine first who has the authority to determine the marks [of the Church]." In his reply Lane wrote, "But how can we determine that apart from the Word? Your position seems to assume some kind of supra-revelatory vantage-point. I don’t think it is possible to have such a thing." Lane's reply seems to indicate that the concept of sacramental magisterial authority is entirely outside of his conceptual framework. And that creates a conceptual disconnect in our discussion, a kind of "How can that possibly be?" on his part. In my reply to Lane I wrote the following:


The Christians who lived during the lifetime of the Apostles were able to determine who had ecclesial and interpretive authority, without consulting the New Testament, which did not yet exist. The Christians in the post-apostolic generation determined who had ecclesial and interpretive authority not by studying the New Testament (which was still not in existence as a canonized whole), but by determining which persons had been ordained by the Apostles. See, for example, the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, which were all written around the end of the first century, and notice how he teaches the churches to follow the bishop (whose authority was derived by sacramental succession from Apostles); he does not teach that each individual should follow his own interpretation of Scripture, or that each individual should determine which person is bishop by first determining who is teaching in accordance with the individual's own interpretation of Scripture. That would amount to a form of individualism which, as I argued in my article titled "Sacramentally grounded authority vs. individualism", was entirely foreign to the early church.

It was still the same at the end of the second century, when St. Irenaeus and Tertullian both faced challenges from heretics [especially gnostic heretics] trying to defend their [heretical] position by exegeting Scripture. Tertullian, in his On the Prescription Against Heretics writes:

"Our appeal, therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures; nor must controversy be admitted on points in which victory will either be impossible, or uncertain, or not certain enough. For a resort to the Scriptures would but result in placing both parties on equal footing, whereas the natural order of procedure requires one question to be asked first, which is the only one now that should be discussed: "With whom lies that very faith to which the Scriptures belong? From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule by which men become Christians?"

And a bit further on he writes:

"Since this is the case, in order that the truth may be adjudged to belong to us, 'as many as walk according to the rule,' which the church has handed down from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God, the reason of our position is clear, when it determines that heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures."

St. Vincent of Lerins (434 AD) makes the same point here about heretics exegeting Scripture that R. Scott Clark does when he writes, "All heretics quote Scripture. The question in this controversy is not the normativity of the Bible but who gets to interpret it." The fathers answered that "Who gets to interpret it?" question by appealing to sacramental apostolic succession. I discuss this in more detail in my article titled "Apostolicity and montanistic gnosticism", and in my article "Apostolicity in Acts 15".


My hope is that what I am writing here might help some Protestants better understand how to conceive of the Catholic paradigm. I think that is essential in order for our ecumenical dialogue to be fruitful.

[Correction: My post titled "Sacramentally grounded authority vs. individualism" does not show that individualism is foreign to the early church (although individualism is foreign to the early church). I worded my sentence incorrectly. My post shows rather that the only alternative to sacramentally grounded authority is a form of individualism.]


Magotty Man said...

Of course, there is the other option, namely that infallibility resides in the church when she speaks with a united voice. This has been impossible for nigh on a 1000 years now. The development of papal infallibility as a derivative of ecclesial (in toto) infallibility could be questioned - by both Protestants and the East. And we need to discuss that just as much as we discuss sola (or solo as Leithart terms it)Scriptura.

Bryan Cross said...


Thanks for your comments. It seems on your hypothesis, if I am understanding you correctly, the first schism in the history of Church would take away a power from the Church's magisterium. But there were schisms even in the times of the Apostles. But the Apostles would not have lost power or authority when some members of the Church fell into schism. And it does not seem right that a power of the Church would be so susceptible to removal, by the schism of one bishop, for example. If unanimity were necessary, Arianism would still be 'legitimate option' in Christianity.

Who would authoritatively determine whether the whole Church is in fact "speaking with a united voice"? And who would authoritatively determine whether infallibility resides in the Church when the whole Church "speaks with a united voice"? No Ecumenical Council ever ruled that only when the whole Church speaks with a united voice does the Church speak infallibly. And the difficulties I raised in the preceding paragraph imply that there could never be an infallible ecumenical council, if unanimity were a prerequisite for infallibility. Therefore, it seems to me that your hypothesis would entail that nothing the Church says (at least since the time of the Apostles) is protected from error. And that is Hussism. It entails that even the canon of Scripture is not protected from error. I mean, Hussism even undermines the possibility of certainty with respect to the contents of Scripture. So it seems to me that if the Church is protected from error in any way, that protection cannot be contingent upon whether or not there is a schism. The Church must therefore have a visible principle of unity, as I argued in Has Christ Been Divided?.

Thanks again for your comments.

- Bryan

Magotty Man said...


The fact that both the RCC and the Orthodox hold to the ecumenical councils, and that their split is not based on those councils, is telling. Also, neither denies the validity of the other. These two facts do not apply wrt arianism, Nestorianism etc.

I'm no Hussite, rest assured. And most heresies today can be tracked back to heresies, especially Christological heresies, that were addresed in the first 3 councils anyway.

BTW, I'm offering the hypothesis as a working model. I deem it not infallible, and would welcome further discussion.

Anonymous said...

I was introduced to your blog through a discussion on "You are Cephas," and I'm thankful for the forum and gentle spirit here.

Thanks for your explanations.

More dialogue later -- I'm still in process of much self-examination and study and prayer.

Praying with Christ as He did in John 17.....

Anonymous said...

Mr. Cross,

This is an old post and you might not even check the comments (hopefully you do), but I have been reading your blog and CTC (and others) for a while now and I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your writing and Christ-like attitude. I am a reformed protestant becoming Orthodox and much of my thinking on Sola Scriptura, authority, etc, has been shaped by your writings. Thanks and God Bless. Oh, and this article wasn't bad either ;)

Bryan Cross said...

Thanks very much, DCF, for your note. Today, Christ took our humanity into heaven. May God continue to lead us all into full communion with Him, and with each other.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan