Reply to Hays’ “Catholicism” #21

Reply to Hays’ “Catholicism” #21 May 31, 2023

Jerusalem Council & Authoritative Bible Interpretation; Protestant Canon Conundrums; Hays’ Obsession with Dissident Catholic Scholars; Bible, Tradition, & Church

The late Steve Hays (1959-2020) was a Calvinist (and anti-Catholic) apologist, who was very active on his blog, called Triablogue (now continued by Jason Engwer). His 695-page self-published book, Catholicism a collection of articles from his site — has graciously been made available for free. On 9 September 2006, Hays was quite — almost extraordinarily — charitable towards me. He wrote then:

I don’t think I’ve ever accused him of being a traitor or apostate or infidel. . . . I have nothing to say, one way or the other, regarding his state of grace. But his sincerity is unquestionable. I also don’t dislike him. . . . I don’t think there’s anything malicious about Armstrong—unlike some people who come to mind. In addition, I don’t think I’ve ever said he was unintelligent. For the record, it’s obvious that Armstrong has a quick, nimble mind. 

Two-and-a-half years later, starting in April 2009 and up through December 2011 (in the following quotations) his opinion radically changed, and he claimed that I have “an evil character,” am “actually evil,” “ego-maniac, narcissist,” “idolater,” “self-idolater,” “hack who pretends to be a professional apologist,” given to “chicanery,” one who doesn’t “do any real research,” “a stalwart enemy of the faith . . .  no better than [the atheists] Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens,” with an intent to “destroy faith in God’s word,” “schizophrenic,” “emotionally unhinged,” one who “doesn’t trust in the merit of Christ alone for salvation,” “has no peace of mind,” “a bipolar solipsist,” “split-personality,” and a “bad” man. He wasn’t one to mince words! See more gory details.

I feel no need whatsoever to reciprocate these silly and sinful insults. I just wanted the record to be known. I’ve always maintained that Hays was a very intelligent man, but habitually a sophist in methodology; sincere and well-meaning, but tragically and systematically wrong and misguided regarding Catholicism. That’s what I’m addressing, not the state of his heart and soul (let alone his eternal destiny). It’s a theological discussion. This is one of many planned critiques of his book (see my reasons why I decided to do this). Rather than list them all here, interested readers are directed to the “Steve Hays” section of my Anti-Catholicism web page, where they will all be listed. My Bible citations are from the RSV. Steve’s words will be in blue.


[Chapter 7: Hermeneutics]

Reading Scripture in community

A popular Catholic trope is that, contrary to sola Scriptura, Scripture was meant to be read in community. It can’t be properly understood apart from the interpretive community of faith. To flesh out the argument: the Bible is the Church’s book. [p. 330]

Indeed. I guess this is why the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) met to declare an authoritative interpretation of the Bible regarding whether circumcision (see Acts 11:2-3; 15:1-2, 5) was required for Gentile converts (it decided that it wasn’t) and the relationship of the Mosaic food requirements for all Christians. The council of apostles and elders (15:2, 4) declared that believers ought to “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled” (Acts 15:29). Peter had already had a vision from God about most foods being clean (Acts 10:9-17; 11:4-9).

But mere visions (even if a pope has them) are not enough to set policy for the entire Church for all time (in other words, this was an example of private revelation, which can’t bind the entire Church). That takes councils getting together, with popes presiding. This is Scripture being “read in community” and “understood” by “the interpretive community of faith.” In other words, it’s a clear example of what Hays opposed; what he thought was not the biblical position. Once the authoritative, infallible decision was reached, Paul and Timothy “went on their way through the cities” and “delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4). This is Catholic hierarchical, institutional, conciliar and papal authority through and through!, and decidedly not sola Scriptura. 

To understand the Bible, you must read it from the viewpoint of the interpretive community. You can’t understand the Bible as an outside observer, but only as an insider. [p. 330]

Ultimately, yes (in terms of correct doctrine). The point is not that no one can possibly understand anything in the Bible on their own, without the Church telling them what to believe. The point is that there is a necessity for authoritative interpretation from the Church on some matters, concerning which there is dissent and confusion and discord. At the time of the Jerusalem Council, very early on in the history of the Church, the big dividing issue was circumcision and the Mosaic dietary requirements. The Church spoke, and the result was that male Christians thereafter were not required to be circumcised, nor were any Christians bound to levitical dietary regulations. There is no way that this can be spun as some form of sola Scriptura.

What’s their reference class for the interpretive community? [p. 330]

The Jerusalem Council, the biblical prototype and model of ecumenical councils led by the pope. Hays himself (whether he was aware of it or not) followed this decision involving conciliar infallibility in the first century. I’m sure he didn’t follow the entire Mosiac collection of dietary laws. And I’m equally sure that no one came around when he was born demanding that he be circumcised in order to fulfill the “entrance rite” for being accepted into the Christian Church.

And there are other biblical indications: the Ethiopian eunuch desiring to “understand” the Bible and saying, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” (Acts 8:30-31). And so Philip (directed by “an angel of the Lord”!: 8:26, 29) helped him understand Isaiah 53: a messianic prophecy (8:31-35). Authoritative interpretation and limits to exegetical and doctrinal speculation were expressed by Pope Peter, in writing about Paul’s epistles: “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pet 3:16). It was the same in the Old Testament. When Ezra read the “read” the “law” (Neh 8:2-3) to the populace in Jerusalem, many Levites were present, who “helped the people to understand the law” (Neh 8:7) and who “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh 8:8). There is (again) Hays’ “interpretive community” that he demanded to see. Oh, the blessed assurance that the Church provides!

The Bible and the Church

[Hays is saying that Catholics say:] The Bible can only be understood by the community of faith, within the community of faith. [p. 332]

We would, rather, express this more specifically and precisely as “the Bible can be understood by individuals, but if we are not to have inevitable competing Bible interpretations on important doctrinal and moral issues (where some folks are wrong), there must be a final say in some authoritative Church body. The “buck” has to stop somewhere. It’s necessary because of biblical commands to seek and enjoy a profound unity and the high biblical regard for received and lived-out ‘truth.'”

[T]he contrast between individuals and communities is often deceptive, for communities can be and often are characterized by possessive and aggressive groupthink. Their like-mindedness codifies a particular individual interpretation. Within religious communities, powerful, influential individuals vie for supremacy, to make their particular vision the dominant vision. [p. 332]

Yes, among mere men, thinking carnally, lusting for power and importance and all the rest, but in the Church, such decisions are led by the Holy Spirit, as we saw in Peter’s vision, culminating in the decision of the Jerusalem Council. That was God speaking through men, not men trying to be little gods.

Communal reading

Reading in community is a euphemism for reading the text according to a particular theological and hermeneutical tradition. [p. 334]

Exactly! The one true, apostolic tradition, passed down, as Paul constantly refers to. It is possible to have one truth! Protestants are so conditioned to never believe that they have arrived at final determinations of various and sundry doctrines, that such biblical thinking is almost foreign to them.

In Catholicism, moreover, it isn’t truly communal. Rather, it’s the Magisterium dictating to the laity what the text means. Their role is to listen and obey. [p. 334]

This is the gross anti-Catholic caricature of what I have been trying to explain in this reply. It’s easy to lie about one’s theological opponent, so that folks reading will agree that the straw man created is ridiculous and only worthy to be mocked and derided. In Catholicism there is an ultimate “boundary” of orthodoxy. G. K. Chesterton compared this to a fence on a hill that has drop-off cliffs in all directions. If the fence wasn’t there, children playing on the hill would always be worried about falling off the edge. But when it’s there, they feel both safe and free to carry on with their frolicking. I explained in a past reply that the Catholic Church only requires specific interpretations for 7-9 biblical passages. But she requires orthodoxy of all her followers, for their own good. James wrote:

James 5:19-20 My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, [20] let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Paul wrote:

Romans 2:8 but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.

2 Timothy 3:2-8 For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, [3] inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, [4] treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, [5] holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people. [6] For among them are those who make their way into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and swayed by various impulses, [7] who will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth. [8] As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith;

That’s orthodoxy; the truth, the “oneness” that Jesus prayed at the Last Supper that His followers would possess (John 17). This is what God wants all Christians to believe, for their own good and for their ultimate salvation, and the good of the Body of Christ.

[Chapter 8: Canonics]

An inspired table of contents

Sola scriptura doesn’t rule out the use of supplementary extrabiblical information to identify the canon. [p. 353]

Okay; but the result is that the Protestant is left with a fallible canon, since in their rule of faith only the Bible is an infallible authority. Thus, the Bible is inspired, but in order to identify what is the Bible, the Protestant must submit to fallible “extrabiblical information.” And of course this additional “information” was (drats!) the Catholic Church. It follows, then, that the Protestant has to rely on Catholic authority (regarded by them as fallible) in order to get their Bible. Irony of ironies . . .

So when we tally the internal evidence for the NT canon, it’s pretty easy to compile an inspired table of contents. [p. 355]

I see. Why, then, did no one until St. Athanasius in AD 367 list all 27 of them? All those folks (for 335 years or so after the death of Christ) couldn’t figure out the “internal evidence” that should have made it “pretty easy” to determine the canonicity of the 27 books, according to Steve “hindsight is 20-20” Hays? Why is that?

[The] Catholic apologist . . . asked for an inspired table of contents. Since, by his own admission, the NT writings in question are divinely inspired, if we can derive a table of contents from the self-attributions, then that amounts to an inspired table of contents. His challenge was met. [p. 335]

No it wasn’t at all. If it were that simple, the 27 books would have been accepted and proclaimed by someone at around AD 100. But it took another 267 years. Why can’t Protestants who make up silly arguments like this see that?

Speaking of St. Robert Bellarmine, Hays opines:

[S]ome of his arguments are so ludicrous that they really don’t require comment: to quote them is to refute them. [p. 357]

How often have I had this same feeling during these reviews! And when I do, I skip over the pseudo-“argument” / pablum that Hays regurgitated. This explains some of the jumps in page numbers in my citations.

The problem with that argument from a Catholic standpoint is that modern mainstream Catholic Bible scholarship denies the unity of Scripture. [p. 358]

For Hays, so-called “mainstream” Catholic scholars are synonymous with modernists / progressives / theologically liberal / heterodox / dissidents. Frankly (my dear), who gives a damn what they think? All that matters is what the Church in her magisterium actually teaches. That’s what Catholics are obliged to believe, and what they are bound to. But Hays hardly ever had time to deal with that; in other words, what was required and actually relevant in a discussion such as this. That would make it an intelligent, serious discussion, and rule #1 in anti-Catholic apologetics is to avoid that at all costs.

[A] contemporary Catholic apologist might object that the positions of modern mainstream Catholic scholarship carry no authority. [p. 359]

Indeed they would! Bingo! That is, in cases where they aren’t orthodox and don’t think — and even sadder, deliberately don’t seek to think — with the Mind of the Church, they have no authority. Even if they do express orthodox opinions, its not magisterial and any Catholic is free to disagree with them. Likewise, a bishop speaking on his own has no magisterial authority. He only does in an ecumenical council, in league with the pope.

[T]he fact that Christians disagree on the meaning of Scripture carries no presumption that God has intervened by instituting the Magisterium to clear that up. [p. 360]

The problem here is that inspired Scripture does teach a magisterium, in the example of the Jerusalem Council and in Paul’s description of “the church of the living God” as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

[T]he Bible can never be evidence for the Magisterium. [p. 362]

I just showed how it is.

It doesn’t occur to Bellarmine that what Jesus told the disciples between the Resurrection and Ascension was incorporated into the sermons in Acts and general epistles. In addition, that can also be reflected in the Gospels, when the narrator says or indicates that something Jesus did fulfills the OT. [p. 368]

There is no reason (and certainly no biblical reason) to believe this. We’re talking about forty days of the risen Jesus’ appearances, and many, many more words spoken by Him during that time than we have in the NT. If there is no reason, then why does Hays assert it? Well, it’s raw, unverified, utterly arbitrary and unsupported extrabiblical tradition recruited for the cause of opposing wicked Catholic tradition.

No doubt the apostles taught some things that were never recorded. That just means it wasn’t necessary for the universal church. [p. 369]

Again, this is completely arbitrary. Where is such a notion in the Bible? Nowhere (I’ll save you the trouble of looking). So why should we accept such a bald, unsubstantiated speculation from Hays? We shouldn’t. It’s absurd, and simply another dogmatic Protestant tradition with no basis.


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Photo credit: The Whore of Babylon (workshop of Lucas Cranach): colorized illustration from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Summary: The late Steve Hays was a Calvinist and anti-Catholic writer and apologist. This is one of my many critiques of Hays’ “Catholicism”: a 695-page self-published volume.

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