Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Dialectical problems in analyzing implicit errors

Despite having a title like a dissertation, the concept I have in mind is pretty simple. It begins with the observation that one of the sharpest divides between Protestants who consider themselves "Reformed" concerns the proper disposition of those groups toward Catholics based on the doctrine of imputed justification/sola fide. The intensity of this division gives people on both sides strong incentives toward being able to claim the original Reformers in support of their views, particularly because the doctrine in question is considered to be not only a common tenet of both sides but also the cornerstone of the Reformation itself. I believe that the frantic quest to claim the territory of the Reformers for one side of the other has obscured the historical issue at the center of the controversy: whether the Reformers actually considered certain Catholic "errors" to be implicit or explicit.

To recap what I mean by those terms, an "explicit error" is a plain and clearly expressed contradiction to what one considers a dogmatic truth. An "implicit error" is a belief that can either be orthodox or explicitly erroneous depending on intent or conclusions drawn from the belies. Clearly, there are some aspects of Catholic theology that the Reformers simply considered explicitly erroneous, particularly the ordination of a sacrificial priesthood. But what is relevant to the issue at hand is the Catholic belief in sacramental efficacy, and particularly, whether the Reformers considered that belief an implicit error or an explicit error. The main difference is that the former would leave Catholic teaching on justification corrigible by either forestalling the erroneous conclusion or correcting the erroneous intent. The latter view would not appear to leave such an option open; one would need to scrap the Catholic notion of sacramental efficacy entirely.

The knee-jerk response is to point out that the Magisterial Reformers condemned the Anabaptist view, thereby demonstrating that they considered baptism essential as a true instrument of grace. Because they considered baptism an essential element of grace, the Magisterial Reformers must have considered the Catholic error only implicit, since the Catholic error wasn't in the belief that baptism was essential but rather in the reason that Catholics considered baptism essential. Unfortunately, I don't think that this rejoinder resolves the issue so cleanly. The problem is that there are views of sacramental efficacy that would suffice to reject the Anabaptist view while still explicitly contradicting the Catholic view, and therefore, the simple rejection of the Anabaptist view doesn't entail that the Reformers considered the Catholic error implicit rather than explicit. On the other hand, neither is it clear that the Catholic view of sacramental efficacy specifically was considered a denial of the Gospel based on the broader condemnation of Catholicism as a whole and the invocation of the anathemas of Galatians, etc. It seems to me that the specific question of whether the Reformers considered the Catholic doctrine of sacramental efficacy a denial of the Gospel is still an open one.

The problem as I see it is that people have rushed into attempting to co-opt the Reformers for their respective sides without doing the preliminary analysis to determine the view of the Reformers vis-a-vis Catholic sacramental efficacy. As a result, it isn't possible to put the Reformers' arguments in a proper dialectic context for resolving the relevant issue (specifically, whether Catholicism is corrigible on justification or not). The end result is a great deal of frustration and hostility that seems to be avoidable by simply returning to the careful discipline of trying to answer this specific question (viz., what the Reformers thought about the Catholic view of sacramental efficacy) from the historical record. From what I have seen, there is far less attention being paid to that matter than there ought to be, with people instead electing to jump prematurely into the persuasive mode.

I think the implications of the problem are significant. If the position exemplified by Dr. Svendsen (i.e., that Catholic sacramental efficacy is an explicit error on justification) is correct, then he would be exactly right both in maintaining that the evangelical style should be confrontational and in arguing that accommodation to this point of view is itself an implicit error. On the other hand, if the Reformed Catholics are correct, then the relative ecumenism of their position is more appropriate, since "grabbing them by their baptism" would be a valid way of reaching Catholics where they can likely be corrected. Leaving aside the significant Scriptural issue of the "New Perspective on Paul" and those associated entanglements, there is a real, understudied problem of historical theology that is relevant to the dispute here, and jumping to conclusions is not helping to address that problem IMHO.

Now, obviously it's not a matter of great import to me as a Catholic which of these evangelical styles gets adopted. Frankly, if you're not trying to exclude Catholics from the workplace or the like, I'm fine with either the confrontational approach or the common foundation approach, because in the end, it's still about you considering my beliefs wrong and trying to convince me otherwise for my own good. But the degree of savagery involved in these particular conflicts seems to be detracting seriously from each side's ability to be effective in accomplishing good on other common areas (so-called "co-belligerency"), and that ought to be a bad thing by anyone's lights. If this provides an approach for all of you to calm down and to start confronting a problem in a calmer, more systematic way, I'll be happy. And if not, well, I'll still feel better for having made the attempt. :-)

Comments, flames, and other feedback welcome.


At 10:58 PM, Anonymous Tim Enloe said...

Perhaps you should define your term "the Catholic view of sacramental efficacy" first, so that everyone is on the same page regarding "what Catholics believe."

At 5:27 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

Unfortunately, I'm probably not qualified to be more specific either in defining the parameters of the debate within Protestantism or the views of the Reformers. The issue isn't what Catholics actually believe so much as what the Reformers thought the Catholics believed, and that I don't know. But I don't think anybody knows, at least in terms of rigorously analyzing the views of the Reformers to identify categories that can map onto the modern internal debate among Reformed Protestants. I only know that the response based on the condemnation of "Anabaptists" is logically insufficient.

Incidentally, I have no opinion (or even particular concern) about which side is ultimately "right," nor do I have sufficient knowledge to make an educated guess. All I'm saying is that the lack of rigor in analysis has caused the debate to suffer.

At 6:11 AM, Anonymous Tim Enloe said...

Well, what I meant was that there are so many caricatures of "what Catholics believe" floating around in Protestant heads that it's often difficult to have discussions like this. People read themselves a good bit of Calvin and Luther, using up 25 highlighters on all the parts where the Reformers are ranting on their worst, most stressed-out days about "Romanism" and "Papists" and think "Ah yes, those damned Gospel-hating Judaizers! It's all so clear!"

But maybe it's not so clear, especially when Protestantism itself has been for almost 200 years massively infected with revivalistic, pietistic stupidity that many Protestants simply don't have the tools to recognize in their own thinking. I have found that it's entirely possible for men to possess reams of Calvin citations, for instance, and somehow manage to make them all seem to be saying that Calvin was basically a "Bapterian"--that odd mixture of Reformed Baptist and Presbyterian that seems to define "Reformed" for too many people these days. Or else, when the citations CAN'T be made to say that, they are written off as poor old Calvin just not quite grasping that he was being "inconsistent" with his own principles. It's silly, but that kind of thing is what too often controls the Protestant side of the discussion.

What you mean by "what did the Reformers think about the Catholic view of sacramental efficacy" needs to be defined precisely because we're going to have to be able to distinguish more general concepts like "baptism actually does something" and "Christ is really present in this bread and wine", assumptions shared by all but the most radical of men in the 16th century, from Protestant polemics against "ex opere operato" and "sacerdotalism" and "transubstantiation" and so forth. If "the Catholic view of sacramental efficacy" actually does mean the worst of what the Reformers were protesting against, then no, they didn't accept "the Catholic view of sacramental efficacy". If it refers instead to more general concepts underlying specific details that may be legitimately debatable, then the argument will need to take a different form and will not be solvable merely by having men paste "clear" texts from their massive "Calvin Was Quite Clearly A Bapterian Just Like Me" file.

At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Eric Svendsen said...

The Presbycatholic said:

"What you mean by "what did the Reformers think about the Catholic view of sacramental efficacy" needs to be defined precisely because we're going to have to be able to distinguish more general concepts like "baptism actually does something" and "Christ is really present in this bread and wine", assumptions shared by all but the most radical of men in the 16th century, . . ."

Pardon me for interrupting your Baptist hate-fest, Timothy, but would you also have in mind here the members of C.R.E. (www.crepres.org)? Need we again explore the vast inconsistencies between your utter disdain of all things "Baptist," and the inclusion of Baptists in your denomination's confederation? Oh, and by the way, I do trust you forwarded all your notorius "Why the Baptist Experiment has Failed" articles onto your superiors at CRE so they can see the brilliance of your position and finally shake the dust their sandals of that accursed "sectarian gnostic" dust! Have you done that? If not, why not? Could it be that they would see your pathetic hatred of Batists for what it truly is--an entirely sectarian, divisive mindset that is counter what CRE is all about? You said you hold yourself accountable to your superiors. Do tell us how.

At 8:24 AM, Anonymous Eric Svendsen said...

"finally shake the dust their sandals of that accursed "sectarian gnostic" dust!"

Should read:

finally shake their sandals of that accursed "sectarian gnostic" dust!

At 11:16 AM, Anonymous Tim Enloe said...

I told you I'm not playing the game your way, Eric. I'm not going to respond to your wrath with wrath.

I don't hate Baptists. Large portions of my family are Baptist, and some of my good friends are Baptists. I recognize that some Baptists have been mightily used of God in the past, and also in the present. I have no problem with this at all.

Nevertheless, as a matter of principle I profoundly dislike the major emphases of Baptistic theology because I find them to be unbiblical on an exegetical basis and anti-social on a historical basis. The problems in which paedobaptist societies can become enmeshed simply pale in comparison with those created by the sectarian zealotry of radicalized forms of credobaptist society, such as the one you advocate. Credobaptism is the child of Modernity, and as such it is always groveling at the feet of Modernity, thanking Unbelief for being so tolerant of it and allowing it to have one more irrelevant voice in a public square ruled by the godless Secular State.

Thankfully, however, most Baptists seem to be just ordinary, decent folk trying to live their lives quietly and peaceably. They read their Bibles, try to live in harmony with God's will, and do the best they can with what the Lord has given them. Consequently, I think God very often protects them from becoming consisent with their ethic of individualism, and also uses them to remind paedobaptists not to become presumptuous about the better things He has given us. "Who makes you to differ?", indeed, as the Apostle says.

Ah yes, the old "divide and conquer" criticism based upon the CREC. Unfortunately for your thoroughly radical "come out from among them and be ye separate" mode of thinking, there's no inconsistency in the inclusion of Baptists in the CREC precisely because the agenda of the CREC is NOT sectarian. It started as a way to ELIMINATE sectarianism--i.e., by bringing churches out of their isolation and putting them into relations of mutual goodwill and praying for the long-term production of godly unity of mind on disputed issues.

The agenda of the CREC is, contrary to the radicalized Baptist ethic, NOT to identify a theological difference and then immediately split from the one holding it. This is where the patient, charitable, SLOW nature of the presbyterian-conciliarist form of government that the denomination holds comes in handy. The CREC's ethic is one of patient, postmillennial hope, not impatient gotta-have-purity-yesterday Fundamentalism. As Doug Jones has put it, the Church catholic has survived many controversies, and most of them took several or more generations to work out. Catholicity is patient and has a long-term vision. That's hard for guys like you to understand, since you're always thundering about always-around-the-bend slippery slopes to "false Gospels" and so forth.

As Jones continues, working within an ethic of patience and charity, it may be that the Lord will bring us all to Baptistic convictions some day. But it may be that He brings us somewhere else. In the meantime, everyone knows that the leadership of the denomination, generally considered, is paedobaptist. The churches that are not paedobaptist seem to get along just fine in the presbytery and denomination-wide meetings. The Baptists in the local congregation here sit peaceably and take communion every week right next to their neighbor who is allowing his 2 year old to partake of the Supper. No one gets up and huffs out talking about "unbiblical" practices and demanding reform yesterday or else. The paedobaptists don't complain when it is announced from the pulpit that there will be a believer's baptism after the service.

See, Eric, the CREC doesn't live its life trying to find "heresy" and "apostasy" under every conceivable rock so as to Pharisaically pride itself on its superior "purity" and "obvious" superior love for the "plain" truths of Scripture, unlike all the wacky tradition-slaves outside the clique. There's a healthy sense of balance in the CREC, and that's why your attempted reductio against me fails.

May the Lord bless you and keep you, and make His face to shine upon you, and give you peace.

At 1:16 PM, Anonymous Eric Svendsen said...

Tim wrote:

"Ah yes, the old "divide and conquer" criticism based upon the CREC. Unfortunately for your thoroughly radical "come out from among them and be ye separate" mode of thinking, there's no inconsistency in the inclusion of Baptists in the CREC precisely because the agenda of the CREC is NOT sectarian."

That's just my point: their agenda isn't, but yours is. You and your agenda contradict them and their agenda. Here's the dicussion we had with you about this on the NTRMin forum.

Link 1:

Link 2:

Link 3:

The gist of all this is as follows: You bash Baptists and criticize certain Presbyterians for embracing as in unity because there are "huge and glaring theological differences" between us. We point out to you that your own denomination does likewise via CRE. You retort that it's possible to have fellowship with "certain kinds" of baptists, but not our kind. The Presbyterians on the board take you to task and insist they enjoy fellowship with us and have no problem with us. You reply "But how can you since you have such HUGE and GLARING theological differences?" We again reply, So do the members of CRE have those differences. And round and round it goes.

Your view was shown to be contradictory. *We* are the ones who emphasize unity and bear with one another in love--so testify the Presbyterians on the NTRMin forum, none of who are "pushovers" by any means. CRE bears with one another in love, and I will assume they are no pushovers either. *You* are the one who is divisive and sectarian, and your continued war against "all things Baptist" betrays you on this. And you NEVER qualify the term "Baptist" as "certain kinds of Baptists" when you write this tripe, but instead promote titles like "Why The Baptist Experiment Failed," or whatever that piece was you wanted me to read. Do you think the members of CRE are doing that to each other?

So again I ask: What accountability do you really have, Tim? Have you submitted your anti-baptist propoganda to your leaders in CRE so that they can counsel you? Have you?

At 7:24 PM, Anonymous Tim Enloe said...

Last post to you on this Eric. You're not on the topic Jonathan proposed in his entry, and I don't wish to try his patience.

In one sense, this business about "sectarianism" is a matter of definitions. That is, in a very limited sense you and your eensy Evangelical clique do have "catholicity". That is, you recognize diversity within certain limits that describe an overarching unity. The problem is that what describes your unity is nothing more than a single radicalized piece of the biblical revelation--that is, a piece removed from organic connection with the rest, abstracted out of space and time and placed in some airy-fairy mental land called "Soteriology", and made into a stark dichotomizing principle that is far less about "exegesis" than it is about what Calvin called "immoderate severity" that causes people to fancy themselves departing from the assembly of the wicked whilst really they are turning traitor to Christ by leaving the lawful Church because it swarms with errors.

Your description of Paul's Gospel as being a couple of propositions about not adding any works to faith, which you then so ruthlessly apply to the world that it causes you to hive off from everyone who even remotely appears to be "compromising" the dualism of your view, is a rather shallow way of reading Paul. I don't care how good you are at manipulating Greek symbols; you are NOT in the head of the original author with that sort of view. Whatever his errors may be, I much prefer N.T. Wright to you and your friends on this point. Wright at least takes into account the actual history of redemption rather than subordinating it to unnaturally-absolutized 16th century polemics which fresh historical research is increasingly showing to be quite in need of clarification.

So in a way you are "non-sectarian"--that is, as long as someone meets the criterion of your radicalized understanding of the mechanism of justification, they are tolerable, but the moment they don't, out they go. It is instructive to observe that the only true dividing line between your enthusiastic billing of me as "one of the top minds in Evangelical apologetics" (at the beginning of my affiliation with NTRMin) and your extremely vicious excoriation of me as "irrational" and "hate-filled" is the mere fact that I publicly took issue with your very propagandistic approach to Roman Catholicism and "dared" to step outside the hallowed box of what you fallaciously call "mainstream Evangelical" thinking. At any rate, in the paradigm you hold, of course, I am "sectarian" because I divide up the precious unity of the sixteen or seventeen people who properly understand "the Gospel". Mea culpa, you got me there.

By contrast to your paradigm, my understanding of catholicity embraces far more than beliefs about justification, and is founded on things you explicitly reject as being authorities for you--i.e., things like the ancient ecumenical creeds. I believe that the beliefs about Christ enshrined in the Nicene Creed are far more fundamental to the Christian religion than the beliefs about the mechanism of justification that are enshrined in the Reformed Confessions. The Reformed Confessions are important to me, yes, but they are not the very definition of "the catholic Christian Church", nor do their statements about soteriological mechanisms define without residue the term "the Gospel". My catholicity accordingly transcends the petty boundaries of the fringe group you wrongly call "Evangelicalism". I am surely a sectarian if orthodoxy is a historically-late breaking clique centered on only two or three issues, but I dispute that understanding of orthodoxy just as you dispute mine. So, definitions are paramount.

As for the "tripe" about the failed Baptist experiment, well, you're remark seems to indicate you didn't even read the article I pointed you to. How you could say it's "tripe" is thus quite an interesting question. No doubt you have not read the Baptist scholar A.J. Conyer's work The Long Truce, which supports many of my points and which candidly, and sorrowfully, admits that certain forms of baptistic thinking actually do encourage the basic worldview of Modern Secularism.

And of course, since you don't read historical books by Roman Catholics because Roman Catholics don't have the spiritual insight to properly interpret history, you miss out on some very compelling exegesis of the historical decline of Protestantism throughout the 19th century--analysis which, when combined with other analysis by mainstream Evangelical scholars such as Marsden and Noll and Wells, quite well supports nearly all the things I have said which you speciously label "postmodernism" and effects of my "bacheloritis". You are only making yourself look worse as you continue developing this course of non-argument.

And as for accountability to my elders on my views of baptist sociology, well, for one thing that's not some kind of possible heresy that would need to be dealt with by those who have the care of my soul. At worst it would be an incorrect sociological theory, and one shared by many well-educated, quite pious people. Second, my pastor is Dr. Peter Leithart, and in his recent book Against Christianity he develops quite an interesting argument that the Baptist religion is, if you will pardon the pun, baptized secularism. Now put these things together, Eric. The CREC contains baptists. The CREC contains Leithart. Leithart argues that baptist theology is secularism. The CREC does not explode over such things, but stays together and patiently works through difficult issues, trusting that one day God will bring unanimity. The conclusion is that your attempt to reductio me fails on all counts.

Again, the Lord bless you.

At 7:59 PM, Anonymous Tim Enloe said...

Jonathan: To get back to the original point, you're right that historical theology questions are paramount here. In order to get at your question about whether the Reformers thought of "the Catholic view of sacramental efficacy" as an implicit or explicit error on justification, it's first important to figure out what sort of men the Reformers were.

That is: Were they late Medieval men trying to reform an existing society without breaking it to ruins? Or were they proto-Modern men trying to restart society from scratch regardless of breaking it into ruins?

I, of course, hold the former view. Some of my brethren hold the latter view. I think it is the latter view that causes Svendsen and his crew to often say things like "The Reformers weren't consistent with their own principles" as an answer to pretty clear evidence that the Reformers were not in accord with "Bapterian" views of salvation (including ecclesiology and the sacraments).

I take the opposite approach and argue that the Reformers's principles were fundamentally catholic in the sense of what McGrath has called the "tremendous doctrinal diversity" that existed in the late Medieval Church. I think that the idea that the Reformers were very concerned with organic continuity with the best of the Christian past far better explains the so-called "Romanizing" features of some of their activities than does the idea that the Reformers were messily wrapped up in logical discontinuity with their historically innovative, but purportedly "timeless", principles. That is one very important locus from which all this "savagery" that you mention is flowing.

Hence, having stated my assumption about what kind of men the Reformers were, it then seems necessary to me that a much deeper conversation about "what Catholics believe" about the sacraments is necessary. I find the baptistic "it's a work added to the Gospel" species of argument about the historic Christian position of sacramental efficacy to be out of bounds of ministerially-determined orthodoxy which both your Church and mine accept (even though quite obviously we go in very different directions with it).

I don't buy the assertions of the "Watch out! It's a Judaizer!" crowd that, e.g., Lutheranism is flirting with denying the Gospel because it believes in a form of baptismal regeneration. I don't buy the prooftexting of Calvin that makes him out to be a sort of prototypical Thornwellian Presbyterian and which then tries to shout down any other reading of Calvin as mere "twisting" of the man's words based on intent to deceive and compromise with "Romanism".

Such arguments are, I believe, specious on historical grounds. They only work in the truncated sort of world where Systematic Theology has been elevated to the level of the Platonic Forms, and the plausibility of all other readings dismissed out of hand on the basis of radicalisms about justification. I think that instead of merely repeating the harshest parts of the Reformers's polemics against Rome, we Protestants need to listen afresh to what you Catholics are saying about your own beliefs. I am still failing many times to do that well, but I am trying.

So anyway, having agreed with your basic premise, that's where I think the debate needs to go.

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous Eric Svendsen said...

Thanks for your hospitality and the opportunity to clarify my views, Jonathan. I won't intrude any longer on your web space for this. Here is my response to Tim:


At 1:03 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

Not a problem. I've posted my own response, and I think our concerns have a great deal in common.


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