Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Why I am a Catholic / Why I am a Lutheran / The Protestant Myth of Origins

This is an exchange I had with three Lutherans; mainly Eric Phillips, following up on my paper, Martin Luther Espouses Prayer For the Dead / Retroactive Prayer, and later discussion. I used the original topic, prayers for the dead, as a springboard for the larger discussion of why the Catholic position is (I believe, with all due respect) more plausible and historically-supported than the Lutheran outlook (following up on the first comment seen below). Eric's words will be in blue; those of others in red and green. The original discussion was posted in one of my BlogBack comments sections, and also in a similar one at the Lutheran blog Here I Stand, for the post, "Prayers for the Dead."\


This is why I like being a Protestant. You're allowed to admit doctrinal errors, to re-trace your steps in light of Scripture and reason, and to admit openly that you're doing so instead of pretending that you're only teaching what your church has always been teaching for centuries. Bro. Attwood's approach here is deeply Reformational in spirit, even if it leads to a more "Catholic" result in this case (ditto re sacraments).

Tom R 03.22.05 - 9:18 pm #


And of course one reason I like being Catholic so much is that one can believe that a Church exists in the world which can actually attain to theological / spiritual / biblical truth and preserve it. This keeps us from the time-consuming and (should be) unnecessary task of "reinventing the doctrinal wheel" every generation.

For heaven's sake, do Protestants really believe that God is so weak and ineffectual that no Church on earth could have figured out the entire Christian theology by now? What y'all seem to think is a priori impossible, we accept on faith (corroborated by historical evidences), on the grounds that "with God all things are possible."

And so we see in the present case yet another instance of the glory of Catholicism. We've known about and practiced prayers for the dead from the beginning. But it is some big revelation for some Lutherans to figure this out now? And they have to go against the grain of their own Lutheran denominations to do so? Luther and the Augsburg Confession got it right, but somehow this knowledge was lost, simply because it smacked too much of "Catholicism"?

So Tom thinks this is very "reformational" and much to the glory of Lutheranism or Protestantism or sola Scriptura or private judgment, or however one wishes to characterize it?

I conclude exactly the opposite. In my mind, this is one indication of many many that the Catholic Church is precisely what she claims to be, because she got it right once again, whereas Protestants keep "discovering" what she knew all along.

No doubt this will be perceived by some as a "triumphalistic" remark. But Catholics are always accused of that no matter what we do, so I figure we may as well speak our minds freely. I wasn't trying to be triumphalistic at all, nor was that my intent. It was simply a rhetorical turning of the tables. Tom wrote about why he thought the post reinforced what was good about being a Protestant. I simply responded by explaining why I thought precisely the opposite.

Thus, if my comment was "triumphalistic" then his was equally so, and the complaint ought to be made across the board: "no one may ever speak about why they believe in one variation of Christianity over against others. They must regard all denominations and Christian opinions as of exactly the same validity and plausibility."

As that leads to manifest absurdity in result, I will stick to being a confident Catholic, thank you.

Dave asks,

"For heaven's sake, do Protestants really believe that God is so weak and ineffectual that no Church on earth could have figured out the entire Christian theology by now?"

Not at all. We believe that it was figured out a long time ago, and then overlaid with accretions and bad conclusions that obscured the truth and eventually twisted it, necessitating a Reformation, which produced again a Church that had Christian theology figured out.

Eric Phillips 03.23.05 - 2:34 pm #

Hi Eric,

Ah, but that is not consistent with the present case, so it doesn't help this particular argument.

You give the classic "Reformation" scenario and what I call "the Protestant myth of its own origins." The problem, however, as applied to the present case is as follows:

True theology was "figured out" in the early Church, so you tell us. Prayer for the dead was one of these tenets of true theology and doctrine. Then corruption came along and obscured this truth. But where was that corruption? Catholics and Orthodox have always prayed for the dead.
It was Protestantism which removed this ancient, patristic, biblical practice. As we saw (and this was the great value of Chris's post), Luther actually believed in it in some sense, and the Augsburg Confession followed suit. Yet most Protestants abandoned it.

So tell me, how is that a "Reformation" or a superior situation to the Catholic scenario? We believed in it and practiced it all along. Y'all initially kept it, while ditching many other ancient beliefs and practices. Then it was quickly lost, then recently more historically-minded Protestants found it again (and the process continues in every generation).

So now we are to believe that Lutheranism (of course, LCMS or WELS) has true theology "figured out". It was sure a rocky road to get to that point. How in the world this serves as an indication of the overall superiority of a Lutheran or broadly Protestant viewpoint on theology and epistemology, is, I confess, a great mystery to me.

Obviously, there are many more arguments to be brought to bear on both sides, and we both think our case is best made cumulatively. But this particular instance does not demonstrate at all that the Protestant notion of authority and attainment of truth is superior to the Catholic or Orthodox point of view. In fact, it would suggest quite the opposite: the truth in the matter of prayers for the dead has been obscured for most Protestants throughout its short almost-500-year existence.

Therefore, it is most inaccurate for you to describe the situation as having "Christian theology figured out." In light of the above facts, that is no argument, either logical or historical, but simply the party line. It sounds good, and that's about it. As soon as we examine it with any scrutiny at all, it collapses.

That said, I remain delighted that Catholics and (some) Lutherans (and people like my favorite writer, C.S. Lewis) can agree that prayer for the dead is a good and helpful practice. Praise God for any agreement and unity we can enjoy.

I wasn't talking about Protestantism in general, but about the Lutheran Church, in which the practice has been confessionally approved since the beginning. The fact that many Lutherans do not realize this, and have imbibed non-Lutheran ideas from other Protestants, does not change anything. Surely, as an apologist for the Roman Catholic Church, you are well acquainted with the important distinction between what a Church actually teaches as a Church, and what misinformed members may believe.

Eric Phillips 03.23.05 - 5:08 pm #

Sure, but I was disagreeing mainly with "the Protestant myth of origins," as you presented it. Far too many holes in that for it to hold any water.

Furthermore, what good is a confession if the vast majority of the members of a faith neither know what is in it, in particulars, nor practice it (or they know and reserve the right to dissent, on general Protestant principles, smuggled into the Lutheran rule of faith)?

Even the average Catholic doesn't do that badly. So I must continue to disagree that Lutheranism is some improvement or "reformation" upon Catholicism.

A Roman Catholic is asking what good a confession is if most of the "faithful" don't know it? The irony takes my breath away. You really need answer that question before you ask anyone else to.

As for the "Protestant myth of origins," I'm not about to try to prove the whole thing right here. That would be insane to attempt in the confines of a blog discussion. So go on and call it a myth if you want, but since you KNOW that we hold this "myth" to be true, you really shouldn't ask dumb questions such as
"do Protestants really believe that God is so weak and ineffectual that no Church on earth could have figured out the entire Christian theology by now?"

Not Confessional Protestants, anyway. You know the answer already.

Eric Phillips 03.24.05 - 3:18 am #

"Furthermore, what good is a confession if the vast majority of the members of a faith neither know what is in it, in particulars, nor practice it (or they know and reserve the right to dissent, on general Protestant principles, smuggled into the Lutheran rule of faith)?"

Well as long as everyone just sincerely to believe [sic] as the Lutheran church teaches, the infallible faith of the Magisterium teaching in concert will be imputed unto them.

Actually, the vast majority of Lutherans know what we believe about the essentials. You can boil the entire Lutheran faith down to the Smaller Catechism, which is what, 9 pages long? The fact that you Catholics have turned complicated systems of metaphysics and bizarre constructions of the afterlife into articles of faith is your own fault and cannot be extended to us.

Josh S Homepage 03.24.05 - 9:04 am #

The existence now of non sequitur and Josh's usual sophomoric mockery clearly means that this discussion has run its course.

Your claim is that your overall system is so superior to ours. Yet on this question of prayers for the dead hardly any Lutherans even know that Luther accepted it or that it is in your own confessions.

You can mock lay Catholic nominalism and ignorance all you like. You'll get no argument from me on that. I've written many online papers about it, and a published magazine article (in This Rock: the leading Catholic apologetics periodical), and deal with the problem in sections in my published books.

I am as opposed to it as you are, believe me. I opposed such widespread ignorance in Protestant ranks, too, when I was among your number. Apologists exist to help alleviate such problems in some small way. So why do you keep bringing it up when I agree with you? Desperation in argument?

To get back to the actual topic (rather than this evasive rabbit trail): if you find your own denomination even more abysmally ignorant than us lowly Catholics (at least on this issue), when supposedly committed Protestants are the "cream of the crop" of Christians, then you need to ask yourself some hard questions why that is. I have suggested that it is because your rule of faith is inadequate. I'm as entitled to my opinion as you are to yours.

You can ignore critiques if you like. I love critiques because they help me clarify my own positions. But if you think an answer to such a critique is to simply mock that person's faith community (ironically in a way that is really no cause of significant disagreement — other than the unedifying tone —, because I agree that nominalism is a huge problem), then you need to reconsider your own modes of argumentation and logic (or lack thereof).

If you want this blog to be more than simply a "preaching to the choir" exercise, and desire some good discussion, it seems to me that you would welcome some dissenting opinions once in a while and not sink to these unworthy tactics in reply. It's both more educating and interesting, in my book, if your goal is to generate some good discussion here.

Joshing Josh wrote:

"Actually, the vast majority of Lutherans know what we believe about the essentials. You can boil the entire Lutheran faith down to the Smaller Catechism, which is what, 9 pages long?"

First of all, I wonder whether you or other Lutherans consider prayer for the dead an "essential"? Maybe you do. But if you do, your citation of the Small Catechism is either beside the point or merely provides more ammo for my case (depending on how one looks at it).

If prayer for the dead is an "essential," then why does the Small Catechism not mention it, since you say it boils down "the entire Lutheran faith"? If it is not an essential, on the other hand, then why do you introduce the non sequitur (in that instance) of a catechism which ignores it, while explicating those "essentials"?

Either way, my point is confirmed: the Lutheran system has not in practice worked out any better than the Catholic system. Prayer for the dead provides an example of that. The truncated Mariology of current-day Lutheranism (quite contrary to Luther and many of the early Lutheran luminaries) provides another clear example. I've done much research on that question, citing many Lutheran scholars in the process.

Even the quasi-apostasy of the larger Lutheran denominations also proves my point. ELCA is pro-abortion, etc. If orthodox, traditional Lutherans are confined to small sub-groups of the larger church, which has largely succumbed to liberalism, along with the other mainline denominations, how well can the system have worked out in history?

And that "working-out" in the real concrete world is a key component of what it means to be the true (visible, not invisible) Church of God. This is another reason I am a Catholic, because our Church has uniquely preserved apostolic doctrine and moral teaching. And that has to do with the element of "catholicity" which becomes almost a joke if you wanna suggest that the true remnant, ever tinier and tinier in smaller groups is more "catholic" than my own Catholic Church (let alone "one").

Luther and Calvin thought contraception was murder. Lutherans and Calvinists (along with all other Christians) opposed it as a very grave sin till the Anglicans caved in 1930. Now all that is gone, but the Catholic Church is in the same place she always has been.

This very issue is a huge reason for my own conversion. I wanted apostolic teaching without compromise, and I only saw that preserved in one place.


I didn't mock your faith community. Nor was I the one who was trying to make polemical hay out of the supposed theological ignorance of another church. YOU brought it up with reference to Lutherans, ostensibly as proof of RC superiority. All I did was to point out that you live in a house with very thin glass walls when it comes to this issue, and should not be throwing stones. So don't whine about avoidance and mockery when your own ill-considered polemical tactic comes sailing back into your living room. If a mark of the true church is minimal lay ignorance, then there's no way the RCC is the true church. And if it isn't a mark of the true church, then stop arguing as if it were.

Eric Phillips 03.24.05 - 5:36 pm #

I guess I hit a nerve, because now you're talking nonsense: about your apparent views and about my own.

There are infinitely more important issues going on right now (that I just wrote about on my blog [Terri Schiavo]). If I'm gonna spend time disputing something with a fellow Christian, at least I'll pick one who will make some attempt to understand what I am arguing and offer up a cogent reply, rather than foolishness and preaching to the choir.

God bless you,


Eric, you don't argue with a Professional Apologist. Weeping, you fall on your knees in repentance and return to Holy Mother Church.

Josh S Homepage 03.24.05 - 9:23 pm #

Case in point . . . I concede that "mocking" was probably too strong a word for what Eric wrote, but certainly not with regard to Josh's rather poor attempts at sarcasm.


The problem wasn't with the strength of the word "mocking." The problem was that you aimed an argument at Lutheranism, and when we pointed out that it actually works better against Catholicism, you cried foul. If it was a bad argument, you shouldn't have introduced it to the conversation, right?

Eric Phillips 03.25.05 - 3:32 am #

Okay, Eric, I'll try once again. Now please read very carefully.

If y'all weren't claiming that you were superior to us (which is inherent in the very word "reform", as if Lutheranism is inherently better than Catholicism because it supposedly "reformed" it in a profound way), then you might have a point.

But my argument hinges upon your claim. I was turning the tables, which is one of my favorite forms of argument (along with analogy and reductio ad absurdum). So here was my argument in a nutshell, that still hasn't been adequately replied to, because you obviously haven't yet fully understood it. That's okay; that's why folks need to communicate much more than they do (to explain and clarify), but it is a fact:

1. Lutheranism claims to have a better rule of faith than Catholicism.

2. I used prayers for the dead as a "test case" for this proposition.

3. While conceding widespread Catholic ignorance and nominalism (later mentioning that I have published stuff on this very subject), I went on to make the point that — given the supposed superiority of the system — it is all the more scandalous that Lutheranism as a whole hasn't been able to propagate its own traditional theology to its members to any significant degree beyond that of Catholicism. Prayer for the dead demonstrates this because I highly suspect that any survey of Lutherans would show widespread rejection and unawareness that it is in the Augsburg Confession (you may dispute that contention if you like: that would be one relevant response).

4. Therefore, if this case is at all illustrative (I cited Mariology in passing as another instance of the same dynamic, and also caving on the traditional Lutheran position on contraception — and even abortion, in the ELCA: the largest Lutheran body in America), then the supposedly better system has fared even worse than Catholics, as Catholics are well aware of the propriety of prayer for the dead.

5. Thus, the argument in no way is defeated by mere mention of Catholic lay ignorance and nominalism, which I have conceded over and over (who couldn't? It's so obvious!). In fact, the very fact of Catholic nominalism assists my argument — far from defeating it — because it is presupposed in my argument and is thus part of it! Rather, it is an internal difficulty for you. That's why it is irrelevant to appeal to Catholic ignorance; it has no bearing on the argument concerning the Lutheran difficulty here.

So I stated that you were resorting to non sequitur, while Josh sunk to outright mockery: mocking me because I am a "professional apologist," which is classic ad hominem fallacy. I'm sure he would have made a very different reply if I weren't an apologist, right? I don't buy it. He used whatever tactic he could to avoid the actual argument. Otherwise, why stoop to such childishness? If he thinks I am proud or arrogant or something (as seems to be implied by the mockery), then let him make that case with some documentation, not stupidity and acting like a pompous ass.

In your case, on the other hand, I say that you simply didn't follow my argument properly, and so made statements that had little to do with the actual argument, and did nothing to resolve your problem, in terms of the argument I made. You can dispute fact, premises, or reasoning. But misrepresenting what I was arguing (inadvertently, no doubt) and appealing to Catholic ignorance accomplishes exactly nothing.

Hopefully, this will clarify my exact argument. If you disagree, then by all means, give us your reasons why, with something different than you have been providing thus far.

I should mention the following also, as to my actual argument:

You wrote:

"We believe that it ["the entire Christian theology," in context] was figured out a long time ago, and then overlaid with accretions and bad conclusions that obscured the truth and eventually twisted it, necessitating a Reformation, which produced again a Church that had Christian theology figured out."

That led me to develop my argument, and to talk about "the Protestant myth of origins." You believe the myth above, yet what do we find when we actually look at the Fathers and early Church history? Well, stuff like the following:

1. The early Church accepted episcopacy (bishops) and apostolic succession. Luther rejected this and opted instead for the rule of the oh-so-spiritual secular German princes and a state-church (the latter of which is also, of course, contrary to the early Church). Before they died, both Luther and (especially) Melanchthon issued many statements of severe regret for having done that.

2. The early Church and the Fathers (particularly St. Augustine) did not believe in Faith Alone (sola fide) or imputed, extrinsic justification, whereas Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon made this one of the two "pillars" of the so-called "Reformation."

3. The early Church and the Fathers (particularly St. Augustine) did not believe in Scripture Alone (sola Scriptura) as its Rule of faith, whereas Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon made this the other "pillar" of the "Reformation."

4. The early Church and the Fathers (particularly St. Augustine) believed in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Luther and Calvin threw it out as an abomination, sacrilege, and idolatry.

So much for the myth of "reform." This is no "reform" (which brings something back to what it was formerly), but rather, a revolution or revolt (which introduces an entirely new order — in this instance, with regard to the many novel, unprecedented beliefs that Lutheranism introduced, contrary to previous Christian Tradition and the early Church (not to mention, the Bible).

Thus, if we apply this state of affairs to prayers for the dead (as I did, only to be sidetracked into an irrelevant discussion of Catholic lay nominalism), we find that Catholics always believed it. Thus it was never lost (contrary to the Protestant general myth of profound corruption or outright apostasy in some cases). Therefore, Lutheranism didn't "restore" it (and it is hardly believed among you guys now). Instead, Luther opted to throw out purgatory, which was also believed by the early Church (particularly St. Augustine). There is more patristic evidence for purgatory than there is for original sin.

You later wrote:

"As for the 'Protestant myth of origins,' I'm not about to try to prove the whole thing right here. That would be insane to attempt in the confines of a blog discussion. So go on and call it a myth if you want, but since you KNOW that we hold this 'myth' to be true, . . ."

This myth entails the above massive contradictions and many others. I have had discussions with "CPA" about the Fathers and transformational views of the Eucharist. I had a dialogue with you yourself about the papacy. I would be absolutely delighted to discuss any of the above matters, and see you try to prove that the truth of early Church doctrine was contrary to what I have described.

If not, then your "myth" comes crashing to the ground, and your only choice will be to admit that the "Reformation" was in fact a "Revolution," and cannot be traced to the early Church in those areas where Protestants differ from ancient, apostolic, biblical received Catholic Tradition. And that signals the end of the Protestant myth of origins.

Where you agree with the Catholic Church, great, but where you differ, this is heresy, as traditionally defined (particularly by the Fathers). Schism is another grave error intrinsic to Protestantism, of course.


No, I think I was following your argument just fine. Having read your recapitulation, I find nothing new. When you suggest that the gap between Lutheran doctrine and the knowledge of the Lutheran laity proves that our Church is not in fact better than yours, i.e. reformed, you're making an argument that is hypocritical for two reasons:

1) You know very well, and I'm sure you mention it every time you debate someone re: the RCC's claim to infallibility, that any claim to have superior doctrine is just that, a claim to have superior DOCTRINE, not a claim that everyone in your church understands it.

2) No matter what the gap might be like between Lutheran doctrine and the knowledge of the average Lutheran layman, it is a HECK of a lot narrower than the gap between Catholic doctrine and the knowledge of the average Catholic layman. The fact that you are willing to acknowledge and lament the size of your gap doesn't insulate you from the force of this argument: if gap size is one way of determing who has the better church, you lose. If it isn't, then it's not relevant to this discussion.

Then there's also the fact that, even though way more Catholics than Lutherans know it's proper to pray for the dead, some of the reasons that motivate them to pray are based on false doctrine. I would choose a church that didn't pray for the dead at all over a church that thought prayers were necessary to save those who died in Christ from paying the debt for some of their own sins.

As for the rest, sorry. I said I wasn't going to try to argue that here, and I meant it. As individual issues come up, we can run with them, but the whole "myth" of origins is far too large a topic. Especially since you have more time to write long posts than I do, and a library of pre-written essays that you make liberal use of.

Eric Phillips 03.26.05 - 3:03 pm #

Thanks for your thoughts. There is nowhere else to go with this (except to make it a new dialogue for my website). Readers can then decide between the two positions (or collect evidence, as the case may be).

Footnote: meaning of nominalism:

My friend Jonathan Prejean clarified when someone asked how I was using this word:

"It also refers to people who profess to be members of a religion without actually believing the faith (believers in name only). In Catholicism, sometimes referred to as 'cafeteria Catholics,' 'CINOs,' etc.

I concurred and added:

I think the root word means "name," thus the meaning, "in name only." We might also call them "lukewarm," per the biblical usage (where Jesus said He would spit them out of His mouth). I love the term "cafeteria Catholic," because picking and choosing is the essence of heresy (whose literal meaning is "pick and choose") and of selective obedience (and Protestant private judgment, for that matter). It is fundamentally foreign to the Catholic rule of faith. So that term describes in a pictorially vivid and colorful, semi-humorous way, exactly where the problem lies. Whenever something can get right to the point and be a little humorous at the same time, I'm all for it!

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