Monday, February 02, 2015

Can The Center of A Square Circle Hold?

 Or Does One Have to Be Cross-eyed To Make It Work?

There are more than a few problems with the latest conversion testimony lite article “Does The Center Hold?” running at the Called To (Candide) Confusion website, masterminded by a philosophical Doctor Pangloss who is obsessed with proving ad hoc that the Roman Church is the best of all reasonable, infallible and true churches in the  performatively nominal noumenal world. That is when we aren’t repeating our self and he isn’t begging the question.

But to the article at hand. The author demonstrates, happy picture of the wife and seven children notwithstanding:

1. An overweening drive to walk by sight, not by faith. If the one holy apostolic catholic church is not one, it can’t be any of the rest. Visible unity is the sine qua non of the true church that trumps all else.
2. A subsequent noticeable absence of interaction with Scripture ensues. Which is not surprising considering, but whatever.
3. The scandal of division to the point again of where unity overrides the other marks of the holy, apostolic catholic church.
4. In the end he plumps for the Roman church because it can hold the center, which,  other than visible unity, is pretty much undefined.

All in all a theology lite effort in order one supposes to join the evergrowing throng of believers streaming back to the Roman church.

Yet we fear that all that glitters is not fools gold. Scharbach has only traded for an appearance of truth and unity, which his simplistic analysis fails to comprehend,  even if the visible unity of the church trumps all as he seems to think it does.

Does The Center Hold?  
Part I
After World War I, the poet William Butler Yeats surveyed the disarray of Europe and wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”  What would he say about Christianity? Does the center hold?

Clearly, the lack of church unity in the modern world is a problem–analogous to the disarray that Yeats witnessed after the war. We may not know how Yeats would answer, but it is a question that we all need to address.

Rather  Scharbach needs to distinguish between visible institutional unity and doctrinal unity and come clean on which one is first. We think we know what his answer will be, but that he doesn’t mention it is telling.

When I was a Reformed Presbyterian, I was confident that the center holds with Christ, despite the disarray. I was happy to have found a niche of the evangelical world with good theology. And I was certain that the Catholic Church was not the answer. If anything, the Catholic Church seemed to be the biggest obstacle to any Christian consensus because it was at odds with the broader evangelical church.

But the Roman Catholic Church is not at odds with the truth?, a truly paradigm busting question in some circles.

A hush at the Westminster Library
But then as an M.Div. student at Westminster Theological Seminary I was asked to write an essay on the development of the papacy from a Roman Catholic perspective. It seemed like a waste of time. I knew that it would be a circular argument based on Tradition, which of course I did not accept as an authority alongside Scripture. So I quickly gathered some sources to bang out a response. As I skimmed some texts, I was stopped in my tracks. The arguments were cogent, even compelling. It was like a hush came over that library carrel. A door was opened that day. I still could never see myself becoming a Roman Catholic, but I had a new respect for the Catholic Church. And I was willing to learn more.

As to whether our convert could distinguish between a compelling argument and a true one is an open question. A valid and compelling argument can be built on false premises. (All dogs are black, Fido is a dog, ergo Fido is black.) Further early church history is hardly as infallible, perspicuous and sufficient as is  Scripture – or will Scharbach insist it is?  Yet in that first and foremost Rome wants to avoid arguing from Scripture as much as it can, it has been known to appeal to history over Scripture. That for starters.

A showdown at the local Episcopal Church
I was under the care of a PCA Presbytery, but with their permission we were attending an Episcopal Church that was closely involved with Westminster Seminary. While we were there, the congregation decided to separate from the Episcopal Church because of that denomination’s doctrinal decline. The local bishop could no longer even give public assent to the Nicene Creed. I was excited to be with the parish at this time. Being familiar with all the church splits that have happened among Presbyterians, this seemed like a normal course of action.

The Bishop made plans to visit the parish one Sunday in order to ask the congregation to stay in the Episcopal Church. I looked forward to the showdown. It was like a front row seat in the fight for orthodoxy! But to my surprise, I was disturbed when the confrontation finally took place. What was happening struck me as completely unnatural. If the Church is the body of Christ, then it should not be dividing like this.

But maybe the body isn’t always the body. Maybe the apostle Judas is not an apostle. Maybe the false christs are not Christ. Maybe all that glitters is not fools gold. Maybe. Or are we so hung up on the name and the claim that the reality escapes us?

We’re all longing for heaven. We’re all longing for genuine unity, not merely lipservice. But if two are not agreed, how are they to walk together Amos 3:3?  For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you 1 Cor. 11:19 . Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. Rev.  18:4 Will Scharbach admit the latter can only apply to the Anglican church, but  that it is predetermined that the Roman church is ipso facto indefectable? But this is not to beg the question, to put the roman catholic apologetic  before the hermeneutic? We know that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church, but nowhere does Scripture explicitly identify the church with the Roman hierarchy. (Well, yes. Jesus did explicitly call Peter, the first "pope", Satan  in  Matt. 16:23 if that counts for anything.)

Please understand that I had no sympathies with the Episcopal Church and I remained certain that this congregation was doing the right thing in light of their circumstances. But as the service ended and the bishop left, I found myself longing to be in an undivided Church. Going back to the Anglican Church, even if it were orthodox, would not solve anything, as it was also a product of a church split. Then the unthinkable question came to mind for a student at Westminster. Could the answer mean going back to Rome? I did my best to squelch that thought.

Good luck with that, if this is the best you can do so far.

But one thing was becoming more clear: the center in the broader Protestant world did not hold.

But this is not a hand waving, table pounding assertion/claim  as his pater familias, Dr. Pangloss is so happy to remind protestants, that does not falsify anything Dr. Pangloss already believes?

The recurring question
The Catholic question kept returning. It was distant and abstract because I thought no one, knowing what I knew as a Protestant, could seriously consider Rome in its current state. But what do we make of her claims to truth? Specifically the Catholic Church claims primacy for the See of Peter. Following this, she claims that the entire Church “subsists in” the Catholic Church, “creating forces impelling toward catholic unity” (Lumen Gentium, 8). In other words, the Catholic Church claims that the center holds in her alone. I tuned into Catholic radio on occasion. At times I was intrigued, at times inspired, and often revolted. But it was a way to listen in on their world, and I was challenged to counter what I learned with what I thought to be true.

And what of her “claims” which Scharbach mentions four times? What next? Membership in Rome cures headaches, dandruff and hangnails?

Objections easily addressed
Over the next five years, things began to change as I grappled with the usual objections about the Catholic faith. As most converts will say, many objections just went away once I found out what the Church really teaches, rather than what others say about the Catholic Church. As the Venerable Fulton Sheen said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”

As to what P&R churches teach, Scharbach conveniently forgets to tell us/don’t look for it here. 

The first objection to go was praying to saints. This did not quickly become my practice, but I could see at least that Catholics don’t worship saints. It is like asking a friend for prayer. I reasoned that if God does not allow the saints to hear the prayers, then it was no worse than having an email get lost in cyber space. This is not some kind of idolatry.

Well, of course it’s the first objection to go, because from the get go, Scharbach wants to walk by sight, not by faith. From there he can go anywhere because, not only without faith is it impossible to please God, faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God  Heb. 11:6, Rom. 10:17. But Scripture in all this is AWOL.

And  if it’s not idolatry, it is blatant disobedience and unbelief however much the modern mindset thinks that sincerity trumps all. That as long as one never intends to worship saints, one can never end up worshiping saints. But neither did Aaron ever insist that the Israelites were worshiping a golden calf whatever God said, rather his idolatrous conscience was clear on the matter. Likewise God’s condemnation of it.

For that matter can Scharbach support his claim that this is no different than asking a friend for prayer, whom one, he knows personally, much more two, is alive? But if Paul tells us in Rom.  8:26 that “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” whom are we to believe?  Whom are we to call on? Whom would we have help us intercede? The Spirit who knows better than we do what we should pray for,  or dead saints,  who’s emails could get lost in which case it’s no big deal? Is this man serious? Is his god on vacation or so busy on the phone 1 Kings 18:27 that we have to resort to the Roman pantheon which includes the co-mediatrix, Mary?

But it gets worse before he bails entirely.

Most other issues were dealt with one by one as I better understood Catholic teaching. But how could I let go of the reformation tenets of sola scriptura, sola fide, and sola gratia? Well, the answer is that I did not really have to give anything up.

Really? We shall see if he makes good on his claim, since we’re beginning to suspect his grasp of reformed teaching is rather tenuous.

Part II
A higher view of Scripture than the Reformation could offer

Okay, Sola Scriptura did have to go. In fact, problems with this doctrine are what finally caused me to take the Catholic Church seriously. But I had to think this through more in a Reformed context than if I were some other kind of evangelical. I had finally come to the conclusion that the existence of hundreds of thousands of denominations is scandalous. This conclusion is the only reasonable response in light of Jesus’ prayer “that they all be one” (John 17:21). Members of each group believe they have the corner on truth. Many have brilliant theologians, but how can we be sure who is right?

Well, maybe if they can’t figure out the unity thing, they’re not so brilliant. And Sola Scriptura does have to go. So much for promises otherwise. We hope the reader was not surprised or disappointed by Scharbach’s reneging on his previous. Because a double minded man is unstable in all his ways . . . .

But the real theological diversity and nominal unity of the Roman church is not equally scandalous in its own right? That the church which never changes did exactly that when it came to Trent and Vatican 2? Where the infallible head covers up the homosexual scandal in the church and pro abortion politicians go to communion, just not with the sedevacantists? That again  heresies will come that those who are approved are made manifest 1 Cor. 11:19? If visible unity did not always obtain in the Old Testament church, why must it even nominally in the New? That Scharbach conveniently does not answer.

As any convert knows, Scripture itself does not teach that the Bible is our sole source of doctrine, but rather that the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). J.I. Packer argued that most evangelicals can agree across denominational lines about what is essential to salvation. But the closer you look, the more you see how deep and unresolvable are the bitter divisions about how this can be explained. The center, even among evangelicals, still does not hold.

Rather Scripture tells us that not only does Scripture call the church into existence – faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God Rom. 10:17 – the church is entrusted with Scripture, which are given for our patience and comfort Rom. 15:4, as well that the church is the defender and promoter of Scripture 1 Tim. 3:15.

But it gets worse for Scharbach’s argument, such as it is.

Paul writes to Timothy to tell him that:
 . . . from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.  All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.  Timothy 3:15-17

From this we learn that one, even  a child can understand Scripture, though many religious adults seemingly cannot,  to the scandal of Scharbach’s conscience. Two, unless the plain words have no meaning, the inspired Scripture is sufficient  for all good works, even that of establishing what is a true church and where it may be found. Unless either of those two desideratum are
 good works.

Neither is Paul speaking hyperbolically as is sometime the case in Scripture; that if thy right eye offends thee, pluck it out Matt. 5:29. Note also there is no mention of tradition or the pope, nay not even the rabbit apostolic bones which for CtC is the talisman and totschke par excellent for divining truth and error, and a faux genealogical succession rather than a substantive doctrinal succession. That Christ condemns the Pharisees for building  the tombs of the prophets all the while they are the descendants of those who killed them, if not whitewash what the prophets believed Matt. 23:29-31 does not seem to register at all on our Roman apologist and CtC convert. Never mind the possibility of the analogy between Rome and the apostles. Will we go with Yeats or Jesus?

But you might say that Reformed Christians are in a different category. Even the Roman Catholic convert and writer Thomas Howard told me that he could have a better dialog with me as a Presbyterian than he can with most other Protestants, because both Presbyterians and Catholics are confessional Churches–they have substantial historical documents that define their doctrine. But the Westminster Standards are frozen in time.

No, the West. Standards have been amended and the church has been separated from the state, particularly since romanism thinks the church is the state.

There will be no new Westminster Assembly that can expand them to meet the questions that arise today. Unlike the Catholic Church, the Presbyterians have no living magisterium. When it comes to interpretation, even about critical issues that threaten to divide churches, there is no way to come to a new consensus. The the two small denominations that supported my seminary–the PCA and OPC–remained divided despite an attempt to unite. So even among the Reformed, we have to conclude that the center does not hold. But look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church and you will find that Scripture is referenced throughout. Read the Vatican II document Dei Verbum and see if you can find a higher view of Scripture in the Protestant world. The Catholic Church preserves the integrity of Scripture through her magisterium. The Church accords Scripture more authority because it is not abused by every person trying to become his own Pope.

Perhaps Mr. Scharbach has never heard of Federal Vision, that all of NAPARC condemned?
Likewise destroying the village in order to save it. So the Roman church preserves the integrity of Scripture by claiming one of its attributes for its own magisterium. Makes sense to precisely who? Anyone who hasn’t begged the question so eggregiously as to be as obvious as this?

The doctrine of faith alone was saved by grace alone
Most converts have one last objection that we hold onto that keeps us from becoming Catholic. For me, it was justification by faith. I found that the way many Catholics emphasized the importance of works seemed to take the focus off Christ and lessen a sense of our total dependence on him. Yet it does not have to be this way.

Well, since Trent anathematized justification by faith alone, that might have something to do with it. Of course if you are a liberal or post Vat 2 romanist you might not pay much attention to the magisterium, but hey isn’t popery kind of what makes popery popish in the first place?

The Boston College theologian Peter Kreeft helped to clarify this matter in his book Catholic Christianity, which is his own summary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Kreeft points out that in Romans and Galatians, Paul uses a broad definition of faith that includes a full assent of the heart and will. In this sense, he says, that we are justified by faith alone. Yes, he can say that in a Catholic book that has an nihil obstat and an imprimatur, declaring it free from error. Kreeft distinguishes this from the way James defines faith and Paul does elsewhere, such as in 1 Corinthians 13, where faith is distinguished from hope and love. In this narrower sense, saving faith does not stand alone. God calls us to truly supernatural change in life. True faith will produce good works.

His “own” summary? And just how authoritative is it? And no mention of course of the entire book devoted to justification by faith alone, the one written to the church in Italy without any mention at all or greeting of pope Peter by Paul. Hmmm. But if you can’t handle the argument of the book of Romans, you’re not competent to the question of justification when it comes to polemical theology. Of course Scharbach might not be interested in it. His contrived paradigm migh become a little too obvious.

This is, in fact, what most Reformed Christians already believe, but the commonality is often lost in translation. Of course, there is more to the discussion which cannot be covered here. But suffice it to say that Catholics most certainly believe that we are saved by grace alone. The Catechism tells us that man, “‘without God’s grace, … cannot by his own free will move himself towards justice in God’s sight'” (CCC 1993). This quotation does away with a lot of straw-man arguments that Reformed Christians use against the Catholic Church.

Of course there is more to be covered, but it hasn’t and won’t. Nor does the ellipsis contain the Catechism’s semi pelagian cooperation for no reason. Scharbach’s scarecrow would be seen for what it is, the straw man of all straw men.

Where the center holds
The more I understood Catholic doctrine, the more I could appreciate the need for the Church and the magisterium. Clarity of theology and ecclesiology go hand-in-hand. This was first true for the Early Church. Back to that moment when the papacy made sense in the Westminster library. One interesting observation I found was that a greater understanding of the significance of the papacy developed alongside the development of Christology. As we study Early Church history, we find that writings in the first two centuries paled in clarity when compared with Scripture. But doctrinal clarity in the writings of the Early Church Fathers dramatically increased as questions of Christology were resolved in the fifth century. This happens to be at the same time that ecclesiology became more defined through the strengthening of the papacy. The broad parallels suggest that this is no mere coincidence. In order to define the faith in the early Church, the center had to hold. That was found through the papacy in the Catholic Church. The need today is no different–both for the broader Church and in our individual lives.

IOW clarity of both Christology and ecclesiology go hand in hand.  The broad claim suggests that the parallels are no coincidence. Of course this is vague enough to go with the general flow of the article, CtC having long since given up their earlier paradigmatic pronunciation; that the historic monolithic and unanimous  consensus of the early church supported the roman supremacy. Except when it doesn’t and then we argue from silence. Weakly.

What finally tipped the scales
But even when this all made sense, I still delayed in becoming Catholic. In the midst of all this discovery, I had become an Anglican priest serving in a faithful Episcopal Church outside of Philadelphia. Ministry was going very well, and without any significant authority over us, we could do whatever we wanted. I kept Calvin’s commentaries to reference for homilies, and on the same shelf was a picture of the Holy Father. I figured that our parish would reconcile with the Catholic Church eventually, and there was no rush.

Besides, there was a lot about the Catholic Church that I still did not like.

Two things tipped the scales.
Even the great 20th Century theologian and convert Avery Cardinal Dulles said that he had to accept some aspects of Church teaching that he could not fully understand. But over time, he said, the haze over those issues would lift a little more, and he would understand why the Catholic Church came to those conclusions. Likewise, I had to admit that I should not expect to like everything about the Catholic Church. I, too, needed to submit to a Church that is greater than my own understanding.

That God is greater than our understanding is a given. That the church is on par with God is another matter.

Then, one day, it occurred to me that I did not want to die without being Catholic. Why? Because I was convinced that the Catholic Church was at the center. This is where Christ is most fully revealed. To be found on the last day still outside of the Church would be the same as being outside of fullness of the body of Christ. That was it. If I did not want to die outside of the Church, then I was bound by conscience to make plans to enter the Church today.

So there you have it. Scharbach is convinced. Of what we’re not sure, other than mystical undefined terms like “where Chist is most fully revealed” or the “fullness of the body of Christ”.

1 Corinthians 14:9  So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.

God provided a way
There was no guarantee that I would ever be ordained to the Catholic priesthood, so the big question was, “How will I support my family?” At this point, we had six children. It sounded like swinging from one trapeze to the other … without a net. I did not doubt that God would provide a way to follow my conscience. And you know what? There was no trapeze involved. God built a bridge. God built the bridge while I was walking on it, but He built it all the same. In the end, I was able to work for the Archdiocese of Baltimore as a layman until being ordained a Catholic priest.

I could trust God during the transition because Christ was the center of my life. You could say that Christ was the stabilizing presence, leading me to the center of His Church. God’s gift of the Petrine primacy and the magisterium, in turn, makes the Catholic Church a stabilizing presence for the world.

In the Catholic Church, we find at last, that the center does hold.

One could say all kinds of things, but one thing is for sure, while Scharbach is sure of what he thinks happened and what the Roman church really is, he hasn’t yet begun to make the argument.

Again, all well and good, but nothing of any real substance that compels anybody with their wits about them to blow up the rubber raft and start paddling for the Emerald City any time soon.  Scharbach found what he was looking for in that vague way Romanists major in. But many false Christs shall come, even to deceive the elect, if that were possible. Our private judgement notwithstanding, we think Scharbach obviously and unfortunately deceived, if not willfully.

If we've already seen one trophy convert for CtC depart to the  drunken confines of a used car lot, the rush to come up with another is still  no excuse for the shallow and  superficial - or entire lack - of arguments in Scharbach's account.

Much more, if we receive not a love for the truth, God shall send us a strong delusion, that we will believe a lie and be damned for not believing his truth, but having pleasure in our own imaginations cf. 2  Thess. 2:7-12. Such we take all the pomp and circumstance of the Roman church for: unrighteous lies and damnable errors.