Dialogue on the Protestant “Non-Quest” for Certainty

Dialogue on the Protestant “Non-Quest” for Certainty March 7, 2018
Rev. Michael Pahls (Reformed with Anglo-Catholic affinities, and a doctoral candidate in Church History), wrote a post entitled “A Modest Proposal.” [no longer online]. I wanted to make a response to it, as it has several elements of great interest to me (and hopefully also to my readers). Rev. Pahl’s words will be in blue. His entire tract is reproduced below.

I think that we could benefit one another a great deal through a more humble and precise phrasing of our ideas. If I had a nickel for every incautious statement made in these discussions, I wouldn’t need my university stipend!

A hearty amen! to that.

In our discussions we are rightly noting the importance of historical methodology and philosophy to this discussion, but simple straight lines from the apostolic period to the present in any communion is betrayed both by fact and by the admission of the best scholarship from each tradition.

I find this to be a fascinating statement. Right off the bat, Rev. Pahls reveals his premise (as far as I can make it out) that no Christian tradition can reasonably claim apostolic succession, indefectibility, or infallibility, or (less technically) a self-consistency throughout Church history. This is standard Protestantism in the sense that it denies the existence of any infallible Church. But on the other hand, the early Protestants (as I have often noted) did still claim that each of their traditions was truer than the other ones (else why should they exist at all?). It was the claim to theological truth that largely drove these “reformers” to do what they did, for better or ill.

Secondly, Rev. Pahls casually claims that this is a “fact” and that the best scholars in each Christian tradition affirm it. Now, since it is Catholic dogma to believe that the Catholic Church is both infallible (in what it claims to be asserting infallibly) and indefectible, and in direct line with the apostles through apostolic succession, then to claim that the “best Catholic scholars” would deny all these things, is to contend that none of the best Catholic scholars are orthodox Catholics, and all the best ones are heterodox, dissident Catholics, according to the creeds of the communion they are ostensibly part of (!!).

Is this not begging the question right out of the box, or at the very least tilting the discussion radically in favor of Protestant presuppositions? And that being the case, then the attempt to set forth a sort of “ecumenical ecclesiological neutrality” is itself beset by inconsistency (hence, unreasonable and implausible). Any “good Catholic” could not be among the best ” ‘Catholic’ scholars” and the best “Catholic” scholars have to be bad Catholics? Highly curious . . .

A strong successionist position like that of Bossuet (i.e. “We’ve been around for two thousand years, while you are comparatively novel.”)

One feels like a mosquito in a nudist colony: not knowing where to begin first, in responding to such a statement . . . How, pray tell, can Protestantism not be novel in that which it introduced as utter historical novelty? In other words, anything that wasn’t novel in Protestantism was already present in Catholicism or Orthodoxy, and anything that was, is improper and unworthy of belief in the first place. Moreover, the Protestant claim to be especial legatees of the early Fathers in a way that supposedly is not the case for Catholicism or Orthodoxy (or far less so), has huge (I say, insuperable) difficulties. Anyway one looks at it, the “historical Protestant case” is a very difficult one to make. But presently we deal with generalities and assumed truths.

or a strong supercessionist position like that of Restorationist Protestants (i.e. “Constantine’s conversion ruined the church and we have simply uncovered the original beneath the malignant accretions.”) are both simplistic.

This remains to be proven. I don’t think the Catholic position is simplistic at all. Some attempts to explain and defend it may be, but not the position itself, whereas boilerplate “great apostasy” anti-Catholic Protestantism is inherently ludicrous and ferociously self-defeating, as I have argued in many papers.

Both are demonstrably true regardless of the communion under examination. This is what makes such statements so attractive and so dangerous, for they can also be readily falsified.

I would love to see Rev. Pahls make the attempt (if it is so “readily” possible to achieve). Assuredly I would respond to any such effort. But this gives me nothing to grapple with so far.

Sweeping continuity and discontinuity descriptions conceal more than they reveal so they can only be made with regard to specifics and they need to be supported with thick description.

That’s exactly how I feel about Rev. Pahls’ present “sweeping ecclesiological agnosticism” claims.

For example, one writer speaks of the final destination of “Newman and his fellow Tractarians” as though members of the Oxford Movement converted en masse in an inexorable and undifferentiated manner. In fact, Newman’s decision to enter the Roman church was very different than that of Ward and Manning. Newman’s conversion seems to have come reluctantly, laden with doubts that were patched over by the conclusions of his essay on development. Manning’s conversion seems to have resulted from disgust over the Anglican Church’s decision to ordain a man who held deficient views of baptism. Manning and Ward went on to champion Pio Nono’s ultramontane vision of the papacy while Newman seems less enthusiastic (and certainly less triumphalist) about the results of Vatican I. In other words, these guys were very different sorts of Catholics. This is to say nothing about John Keble and Edward Pusey and Charles Gore. They never converted and we certainly could not speak of these Anglican Protestants in a single, unnuanced breath.

This is correct; I agree. Over-generalization leads to absurdly simplistic analyses and historical falsehoods. But that is not the same as one particular ecclesiological claim maintained over against another.

While Newman is incredibly important in that he opened the door for us to speak of real theological development,

Yes and no. He put forth the most plausible, ingenious, and “fleshed-out” version which has made the notion far more ‘respectable” than formerly (he’s “the man” for development in the last two centuries), yet on the other hand, the basic premises and elements of his theory were themselves developments and nothing really all that new. The (rather explicit) seeds of his theory are obviously present in St. Vincent of Lerins (5th century) and his Commonitorium.

his views do not represent the current state of the question in either Roman Catholicism or in Protestantism.

What is this “current state” and who is in the forefront of it? How do they differ from Cardinal Newman? Few things would interest me more, to discuss.

If anything, Vatican II represents a step away from Newman’s conception of “development as such.”

How so? Newman was the “father” of the Council in many ways. Both Pope John Paul II (who declared him “Venerable” in 1991) and Pope Benedict XVI have a very strong appreciation for Newman, and no one would accuse them of being out of touch with Vatican II.

Folks who are offended by this can take it up with reputable Roman theologians from De Lubac to Tillard to Schillebeeckx.

Schillebeeckx is a “reputable” Catholic theologian? That’s news to me. He is, of course, a “reputable” and a much-beloved figure among liberal dissidents (so are Hans Kung and Charles Curran), but then that gets back to the difficulty we saw above, with how Rev. Pahls determines what constitutes “good” and “bad” Catholic scholarship. Now I can readily see what he means by that, since he has named names. Let’s take a brief look at some of the things Edward Schillebeeckx has advocated:

One long-running dispute between Rome and a dissenting theologian has resulted in a partial settlement. The subject: Belgian Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx’s 1980 book, Ministry, which argued on historical grounds for a more democratic church that to some looked suspiciously like Protestantism. The Vatican announced in January that in his next book the liberal theologian will declare support for the church’s teaching that only validly ordained priests can celebrate the Mass. Schillebeeckx insists he is not retracting his views under Vatican pressure; he simply changed his mind. (“Discord in the Church,” Richard N. Ostling, Time Magazine, Feb. 4, 1985)

So he believed as recently as 1980 or 1985 that a non-priest could celebrate Mass? And this is a “good” Catholic theologian? And he is one of the very best, so it is implied? he has just now figured out the indispensable role of a priest at Mass? He is quite the wise sage of Catholic theology, isn’t he?

Perhaps this is the sort of “development” which Rev. Pahls finds most impressive and superior to that of Cardinal Newman, and in the vanguard of post-Vatican II Christology and theology in general? Stranger things have happened, I guess . . .

Speaking for myself, I think that I have as fluent an understanding of Roman Catholicism as anyone who frequents this site,

That is obvious, yet Rev. Pahls’ grasp of who is a “reputable Roman theologian” leaves a great deal to be desired, to put it mildly.

so it is not simply a question of more or better light. I was raised in an Irish Catholic home, educated in a parochial school until fifth grade, and served as an altar boy in my parish until jr. high.

How quaint. I was raised in a liberal Methodist home, became a “practical” atheist fascinated with the occult, converted to evangelical Protestantism and then to Catholicism, so that now I am a hopelessly outdated and culturally irrelevant orthodox Catholic! Quite the opposite of Rev. Pahls’ journey . . . I can testify to all and sundry that Edward Schillebeeckx does not speak for me. He doesn’t represent the faith that I hold.

I am also a Benedictine oblate of St. Meinrad’s Archabbey in Indiana, I count several leading Roman Catholic theologians and clergy among my very best friends, I helped Scott Hahn’s brother-in-law plant churches in Indianapolis, and I am a doctoral student at a Jesuit university.

That’s all well and good, but does nothing to establish the truth or falsity of the present ruminations.

All that being said, for reasons I will keep to myself, I remain uncompelled to swim the Tiber.

Hey, if I thought that someone like Edward Schillebeeckx represented the best and brightest and cutting edge of the Catholic theological scene (indeed superior in his understanding of “development” even to Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman), I certainly wouldn’t convert, either. In fact, I would be running as hard as I could in the opposite direction.

On the other hand, I am also aware of the debilitating weaknesses of my own tradition. I have a deep appreciation for the catholicity in John Calvin and the other, magisterial reformers, but I loathe the sectarianism and schism that often attaches to them.

Good . . .

I was educated in Pentecostal and Evangelical schools, so I have a deep appreciation for those traditions, but I am increasingly distressed by the “low-church to no-church” ecclesiology resident there. Barring some massive tectonic shifts in the ecclesial landscape, staking out territory as an ecumenical “reformed-anglo-catholic” seems about the only thing someone in my shoes can do. This is not the much-derided invention of a new tradition, either within or without a tradition. It is the recognition that all these witnesses are part of a still larger tradition that witnesses (more and less clearly) to one Jesus Christ.

So one must adopt the counsel of despair with regard to ever finding the fullness of Christian truth? Rather than quest eternally after it (the earlier Protestant tendency) now we simply admit that it can’t be found and settle into a comfortable theological and ecclesiological agnosticism?

I’ve been at this game for a while now and experience tells me that there is no greener grass, only shades of brown.

Experience is not the end-all and be-all of epistemology . . .

C.S. Lewis’ Uncle Screwtape once mocked our willingness to treat new phases in our pilgrimages with undo triumphalism at “having arrived” while looking at our previous steps as “adolescent phases.” It is the prerogative, of course, of the convert to zealously buy in to a new tradition without noting its browner patches, but the recognition of flaws and a healthy self-criticism of one’s present disposition is the sine qua non of mature appropriation.

I agree insofar as this refers to human frailties and real errors of excess. But I disagree that everyone must have this outlook of skepticism, no matter what type of Christian they are. Rather, I contend that we should all seek Christian truth and not despair that it can never be found because of human foibles and follies. And I refuse to buy this tripe that anyone confident in his tradition as the best or fullest Christian tradition must inevitably be “triumphalistic”. I suppose that is how it will always look to someone less confident in his own position, but what can one say? Religious truth is no less able to be found than scientific or historical truths. Why must we be so pessimistic about it?

We used to observe that new Evangelical Protestant “converts” to Calvinism (usually just the five points) always pass through a phase where they manifest an insufferable contempt for lesser, “Arminian” or “Papist” Christians. We called it a “cage stage” because they really need to be locked up for a while until they internalize the grace they have embraced.

Very true, as seen in many many folks I have encountered in my Internet interactions over the last ten years.

Roman Catholic and Orthodox converts often manifest similar features. Having finally found the seeming epistemological certitude of the Divine Liturgy, the objectivity of the sacraments, the tradition of an indefectible Church, and/or an infallible magisterium, they position themselves on these commanding heights and speak derisively toward unfortunate souls who are not possessed of these things.

I don’t condone any derision, of course. It’s silly and a huge turn-off and “bad PR”. But this is the strong human tendency upon some momentous discovery, isn’t it? I would advise all converts (including those to “Reformed Catholicism” — all gung-ho and cocksure in their own polemics — and I am not referring to Rev. Pahls) to refrain from pontificating for a certain prudent period of time. In my own case (if anyone is wondering), I only gave a few papers to my closest friends, right after my conversion. My first publication in an apologetic magazine came two years after I was received, and my first appearance on the Internet was five years after that event (with my website coming six years later).

More mature Catholic and Orthodox Christians become aware, however, that these gifts do not provide such certitude, only sound guidance in the struggle of faith.

I see; certitude is impossible . . . I readily assume that Rev. Pahls has achieved certitude at least in some areas (the Incarnation, Resurrection, Holy Trinity, etc.). Why he thinks it is unable to be obtained in other areas of Christianity would be an interesting discussion, for sure.

I have often told my parishioners and students that we haven’t really understood a tradition until we have named all its weaknesses and that the best adherents of particular traditions tend to stake out space at their margins.

Like Schillebeeckx?

Henri De Lubac, Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Jean Danielou, and John Courtney Murray were all censured for their theological views in their own day. A generation later, their teachings set the course of Vatican II.

Councils are always controversial as they occur, and for some time after. This one was no exception.

John Calvin was kicked out of Geneva only to have the Genevans request that he defend his reforms against Jacopo Sadoleto from his exile in Strasbourg. Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff are widely disavowed by Orthodox purists, but they have single handedly (or is it double-handedly) brought new life to Orthodoxy in the West.

This is all true, and shouldn’t surprise anyone who observes such things to any appreciable degree.

Reformed Catholicism (the site) does seem to represent an attempt at both the ressourcement and the aggiornamento called for by John XXIII. If we find ourselves in fits and starts on a journey of progressive self-discovery this should not by itself invalidate the project. In the end, I’m hoping that we can all take a deep breath and stop biting and devouring one another because we presently cannot hear the music calling us to “come home” to Rome or to Geneva or to Canterbury or to Constantinople (or Aldersgate, Louisville, Azuza St., etc.). Rather, maybe we should all concentrate on achieving a better understanding of one another’s native languages and view our conversation as an opportunity for a mutual conversion to Christ.

Amen! to better mutual understanding. I don’t see how the behavior of some of your peers at Reformed Catholicism blog promotes that end, when virtually every Catholic (or Orthodox) convert who dares rear his head is mocked, belittled and treated like dirt. That’s not how we treat our firmly Protestant friends on my blog. We simply discuss our honestly-held differences with them, in a spirit of Christian charity and brotherhood in the Body of Christ. Toleration and charity is not antithetical to dogmatic adherence. I agree that oftentimes the latter leads to a denigration of the former, but it doesn’t have to be, and one of the goals of my life-mission is to try to demonstrate in my own writing, behavior, and person, that it need not be that way at all.


(originally 3-15-06)

Photo credit: Image by uroburos (8-18-15) [Pixabay / CC0 Creative Commons license]


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