Monday, October 02, 2006

The Relationship Between Christianity and Philosophy (vs. Dr. E.L. Hamilton)

*** (particularly regarding the interpretation of the Church Fathers) ***

By Dave Armstrong (2 October 2002)

I'm still not entirely sure how [a certain Protestant apologist]  is proposing to use this Nominalism/Realism duality in order to clarify the nature of Reformation epistemology, much less how [you are] going to respond!

I think his thesis is far too ambitious, and will fail. It's too sweeping. But I am interested to see how he tries to pull it off. This is not just a Scholastics vs. The Other Guys problem. The Scotists were realists, just like the Thomists were. Realism is the mainstream position in Christian philosophy (if we are to view it in terms of "super-philosophical frameworks," so to speak). If [Protestant Apologist X] wishes to fight the mainstream and come up with some Bold New Synthesis a la Hegel, he is free to do so, but I think it is way too ambitious for someone to undertake and hope to be successful or persuasive.
I would point out, however, that the critique initially began not so much as an insistence that this was the right axis to measure Hebrew thought against (with one or the other extreme as the "right end to be on"), but only as an objection to the simplistic use of concepts like the "milieu of the Fathers". It's on that more restrictive level that I'm still convinced that the objection has merit. [Catholic apologist] Gary [Hoge], based on the introductory material he provides on his website, wants us to adopt a "common sense" approach to patrology, where whatever ancient documents appear to "plainly state" is whatever we ought to believe.
We think that, oftentimes, the Church Fathers are as "perspicuous" as Scripture, according to Protestant thought. :-) My bottom-line answer to this whole line of thought is that it makes things complicated which aren't, and reduces Christianity to philosophy. Religion is not philosophy, nor is faith or theology. They are separate. One doesn't have to be a philosopher to discern mainstream apostolic Tradition. It is an historical matter and one of faith. It's not pure sectarianism, either. We can cite [Protestant historians] J.N.D. Kelly or Philip Schaff or Kenneth Scott Latourette or Jaroslav Pelikan in support of some thesis, as to what the Fathers believed.
Does anyone want to seriously argue that the Fathers denied baptismal regeneration or the Real Presence? Those things are very clear, and the fact that people were Platonists or Plotinists or whatever label their philosophy falls under is largely irrelevant. All we're saying is that there is a mainstream tradition. The Fathers themselves assume this, by and large. They don't say that someone has to get a doctorate in philosophy to know the tenets of received Christian Tradition. There are such things as Creeds and catechisms.
The invitation, in some sense, it to repeat the tabula rasa exercise of 19th century biblicists, but with the canon extended to include early patristics. Indeed, the vast majority of biographical information for Catholic convert apologists suggests that this is the route they took to conversion: "I looked at the Fathers, and none of them were Protestant, so I decided I couldn't continue to be a Protestant in good faith when no one else was a Protestant prior to the Reformation."
It's not tabula rasa; it's simply a denial that theology and historical theology must be filtered through a philosophical lens. Maybe it's because (perhaps) [Protestant Apologist X] makes such a radical separation between philosophy and theology, that he can't comprehend how Catholics (and many Protestants) synthesize them, yet assume that various philosophies (take your pick) are the handmaidens of theology, the Queen of the Sciences.
We don't think one has to adopt some philosophy to do theology. The pope is a phenomenologist. Augustine was a Platonist; Aquinas an Aristotelian. Pascal was a fideist to some extent; Kierkegaard maybe the first existentialist. Newman was in the Butlerian-Lockean stream, I suppose. We can have different philosophies, but philosophy isn't theology. That is my main answer to this thought and way of thinking. Thomism or Scholasticism is not the official philosophy of the Church. We have no official philosophy, and never have. Philosophy is the handmaiden of the faith, not a sort of necessary "handbasket" that faith must reside in or something.
Vatican II illustrates this very well. Its documents do not read like Thomist treatises at all. Rather, the prevailing influence was a movement which was quite distinct from Thomism, called Ressourcement, which drew from older thinkers like Newman and Mohler, and included Catholic intellectuals such as Peguy, Claudel, Romano Guardini, Karl Adam, Louis Bouyer, Jean Danielou, Hans Urs von Balthasar, as well as Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II himself. 

This is the general school of thought into which I place myself. I'm not particularly Thomist except for my love of the cosmological argument. My mentor initially was Fr. Hardon, a Jesuit. I learned about Catholicism by reading several of the above writers and people like Thomas Merton, who is the furthest thing from a Thomist (he was a Trappist mystic), and G.K. Chesterton (much more like Dickens than Aquinas LOL).

Speaking of the pope, if he is tied to any philosophical school, it is certainly the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler. According to his biographer George Weigel (Witness to Hope, New York: Harper Collins, 1999, 127-129):
The phenomenologist . . . [is] interested in the experience as a whole, the psychological, physical, moral, and conceptual elements . . . It was phenomenology's determination to see things whole and get to the reality of things-as-they-are that attracted Karol Wojtyla . . . [he] had become convinced that the answers were not found in the neo-scholasticism of Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange . . . The net result would be what Wojtyla would call, years later, a way of doing philosophy that 'synthesized both approaches': the metaphysical realism of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas and the sensitivity to human experience of Max Scheler's phenomenology . . . Wojtyla also agreed with Scheler's claim that human intuitions into the truth of things included moral intuitions, a certain 'knowledge of the heart' that was, nonetheless, real knowledge . . . [this reminds one of Augustine and Pascal, as well as Newman] The question Wojtyla posed in his habilitation thesis was whether Scheler (and, by extension, the phenomenological method) could do for contemporary Christian philosophy and theology what Aristotle had done for Thomas Aquinas.
This emphasis is thoroughly Newmanian (see An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent). The pope also loves Cardinal Newman. He declared him "venerable" - the first step towards canonization. Newman has been called the "father of Vatican II," and the pope helped write some of its key documents. So it seems I am rather in the mainstream of contemporary Catholicism, with my great love of Newman and this pope.
The answer I'm inclined to give is, "Yes, but [the Fathers] weren't exactly Catholics, either." It's precisely this kind of naive expectation that some corpus of writings from the early centuries of the first millennium ought to drop neatly into categories created in the middle centuries of the second millennium that is itself the root of the problem.
Only if development of doctrine is not understood. I've stated ever since my conversion that I think development is the key to understanding Church history, to grasp why today's Catholicism looks different and much more extravagant than 2nd century Catholicism, and to more closely analyze Protestant-Catholic differences. I say the Fathers are far, far closer to Catholicism in essence than to Protestantism. For example, I always cite imputed justification as a case study of this. Both [Protestant Church historian] Alister McGrath and [Protestant apologist] Norman Geisler state outright that this was a new thing basically introduced by Luther. Geisler says no one taught it from Paul to Luther (and of course we strongly deny that Paul taught it, either). That is only one of many novelties that Protestantism introduced.
Now, you can go the a-historical Anabaptist route (and Luther was also inclined to this in many respects) and simply say that apostolic succession is irrelevant, unbiblical, and plays no part in determining true Christian teaching. You can do that, but that does not overcome the fact that the Fathers did believe in apostolic succession, and an authoritative Tradition. So if we are gonna play the game of patristic quotation wars, we at least have to acknowledge that they had certain broad outlooks (in this case, ecclesiological ones, having to do with formal authority, not philosophy per se). You can play with that and claim that their Platonism or "Hellenism" or leftover paganism, or what-not radically affects their perspective on apostolic succession.
I don't buy it. I say that Christianity is an historical religion, and always was. It inherited that aspect from Judaism. Christianity is based on eyewitness, legal-historical type testimony, miracles, the life of Christ, the Cross (in time and history), etc. - not philosophy. Bodily resurrection was anathema to the Greek mind, which is why this caused such a stir on Mars Hill in Athens, when Paul proclaimed it. That's not Greek philosophy; it is Jewish "reality" or a practical, concrete, historical outlook. God revealed Himself not only in the Cloud in the Desert, but in the Ascension Cloud of Jesus, and the Resurrection.
You can't just approach a text cold, see some phrase, say "If I wanted to speak literally/figuratively, that's that kind of language I would/wouldn't use", and let that be your controlling hermeneutical principle. Philosophy is in a constant state of flux, and "common sense" is a culturally contingent commodity.
Sure. I simply deny that it has such supreme influence over the Fathers or any other major Christian figure (even Aquinas) that we can't figure out what they are saying without a doctorate in philosophy. I think this is a dead-end street. Christianity is not philosophy, but there are such things as Christian philosophies and philosophical theology. These are fine, and I love them, as long as they aren't confused with The Faith or Apostolic Tradition itself.
Now, all of this doesn't necessarily mean that we should adopt an anti-Hellenistic bias either. To me, the willingness to tolerate eclecticism is precisely what sets
Protestants apart from radical restorationalists (like Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses)
who think that the epistemic razor ought to be believing whatever appears to be "least

I tried to show that Catholics are philosophical eclectics, too. That couldn't be more clear than in my example above of the pope and the intellectual climate leading up to Vatican II. Yet [Protestant apologist X] acts as if all Catholic apologists are little Aquinas's and Aristotelians. He knows full well that my intellectual hero is Cardinal Newman, and he is no Thomist. So I'm not in that category. I don't know many apologists who are strict Thomists (there are some). Peter Kreeft is, but he can easily wear different hats. He has a whole book of commentary on Pascal's Pensees.
That proves my point again: we are as eclectic as Protestants are. We have our Benedictine or Carmelite or Franciscan mystics, and we have our intellectual Dominicans or Jesuits. We can make someone like St. Therese Liseux a Doctor of the Church (whereas Newman isn't even a saint yet). I absolutely love this about the Catholic Church. We don't feel a need to mutually anathematize philosophies and spiritualities. 

Our glory is that we acknowledge all these good things. We don't have to have endless Arminian-Calvinist wars, which accomplish next to nothing and keep Christians divided and suspicious of each other. We can have Thomists and Molinists discussing predestination but recognizing that it is a great mystery and paradox. Let the thinkers mull over it, but we don't have to divide over it. This is the wisdom of the Catholic Church.
Sometimes, a translation of Hebrew wine into Hellenistic wineskins may be legitimate, and other times perhaps not. But figuring out when it is, or isn't, is not a job for amateurs.
That's right: it's an ivory tower exercise. So let them do it. I don't have to suspend my faith and my opinion on historical theology and development of doctrine until some pointy-head at Princeton or Westminster Seminary figures out whether such-and-such view by so-and-so Father is "Hellenist" or "Hebrew." This is almost laughable. At the same time we're told that any simpleton can pick up Scripture and figure out doctrine without the need of any binding, authoritative Church or Tradition, we are told that we can't determine if a Father believed in the Real Presence till we consult the academics and learn of the man's philosophy, which so colors his views that we can't recognize them till we learn all the jots and tittles of his "epistemology."
I say this is hyper-rationalism itself. This is typical of the nit-picking, can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees mentality of the postmodernist philosophers (especially atheist analytical ones), who place philosophy far above faith (to the extent that they acknowledge faith and revelation as legitimate categories at all).
It's at least a factor of two (if not an order of magnitude) more difficult than working within the biblical text itself, since now instead of interacting with one alien culture (Judaism), we need to interact with it as it was filtered through a second.
I think you're making a mountain out of a molehill. I don't think it's nearly that difficult. This is why we have people like Pelikan and Kelly, to help us work through what the Fathers en masse believed. Nine times out of ten we Catholics need not go to Catholic historians to find what the Fathers believed on a matter. We can establish by Protestant historians that they were far more Catholic than Protestant. I think the philosophy bit is simply an obfuscation and attempt to overcome a thorny problem for Protestants by recourse to confusion and hyper-rationalistic, skeptical methodology.
This is little different from the way in which the so-called "Higher Critics" have approached the Bible, placing pure (skeptical) philosophy and cynicism above traditional exegesis and hermeneutics within a context of orthodox religious faith. Traditional, orthodox, evangelical Protestants have faith that the Bible is infallible and inspired. So do we. We also think that the Holy Spirit guided the Church Fathers in the main (to a lesser degree than the Scripture writers), allowing them to preserve the Apostolic Deposit which was passed on to them, and that we can look back, via historiography and the gift of writing, to see what they believed, on the whole. The Church ultimately passes judgment on the Fathers and determines what in their writings is erroneous. We don't simply take a majority vote. We go by what the Church ruled in councils and papal decrees.

And that's why I think whatever problems with "perspicuity" might be identified by Catholics within the Scriptures themselves will only return with a vengeance when we turn to later writers,
Catholics, too, believe in the material sufficiency of Scripture. We think all Catholic doctrines can be found in the Bible, implicitly or explicitly. I am on record in many of my papers, and in my books, saying that Scripture is almost always very clear when we go to it, but that binding ecclesiastical authority is needed because men acting on their own have in fact not been able to arrive at a commonly-accepted theology. I think the Bible clearly teaches Catholic theology. :-)
By and large, we think the Scriptures are clear, yet need a binding interpreter in the end, and that the Fathers are largely clear, but need a Church and councils to determine where they are wrong in particulars. Protestants, on the other hand (you and [Protestant Apologist X], at any rate), seem to think that the Fathers are very unclear, and the Scriptures very clear, without a need for a binding Church authority. Yet they can't come to an agreement. It is your system which is both incoherent and unworkable in practice (arguably the latter because of the former, in large part; that's what I would maintain).
and have to struggle with the implications of non-perspicuity on both their understanding of the (oral and written) apostolic teachings passed down to them, and our ability in turn to read their commentary and analysis. It's not going to cut it to just link to a page of twenty-odd two-sentence quotations about Mary from the Nicene period, and call that a "proof" of some dogma, independent of a careful presentation of how, where, and why each of those people were writing. These debates cannot be won that cheaply.
I'm all for understanding cultural milieu, intellectual background, context of statements and so forth. At the same time, I think the Fathers are very clear witnesses for Catholicism, once development of doctrine is understood, and once we understand that their formal systems were not at all like Protestantism. What was like Protestantism (in many important respects - not all, by any means) were the heretics, such as the Arians, who accepted Scripture Alone, and the Antiochan school of hermeneutics, which, partly due to their denial of allegory in Scripture, became a seed-bed of many early heresies. Examples are endless.
There's a good deal of irony in reading your claims that the Church doesn't have (or need) a philosophy,
I made neither claim. What I said was that "Christianity is not philosophy," and that I thought that [Protestant Apologist X]'s arguments and some by other apologists such as Eric Svendsen (with his "infallibility regress" argument) were in danger of making that equation, which would indeed in effect reduce Christianity to the very "Hellenism" [Protestant Apologist X] decries so much and would make it an esoteric religion of the elite: the sophisticates who know enough philosophy to decipher the mysteries of religion. I think that's very dangerous. I think there are several Christian philosophies that have worth, to more or less degrees, and I am an advocate of Christian philosophy (the half-sister of apologetics). I just want it to be in its proper place.
and that it's possible to simply set these questions on the shelf as non-germane to the practice of theology-
I didn't argue that either. I was contending against the extreme advocacy of philosophy as necessary before one can understand the Fathers, the Bible, etc. I think it's an ivory tower crock and most unbiblical. So there's no irony here if you see what I am really arguing. If I were "against" philosophy per se, then my website would never cause one to guess that. I have plenty of philosophy on there.
I suspect that most of the sorts of Protestantism that Catholics admire the least would be quite inclined to concur! Unfortunately, I think you are almost entirely incorrect to borrow this shortsighted program of denial, and that it will lead you into exactly the same sort of problems they encountered. The negation of philosophy is itself a philosophy, just not a particularly self-aware one. There is no Archimedean point, no "view from nowhere". Either you will define your philosophical precommitments formally in advance, or else you will drop into them operationally and force others to intuit them.
I agree with you, and have thought this for years myself. I am not negating philosophy at all. It belongs in a certain place in relation to dogma and theology. It's like fire, which belongs in a fireplace. Take it out of there and it is destructive, taking on a life of its own which it shouldn't have (not in a house).
Of course, I don't actually think you mean what you said in exactly the way you said it.
I don't think you interpreted my words in accordance with how I said them. :-)
What you mean is that religion transcends and constrains philosophy in a way that makes the latter the handmaiden of the former, as opposed to "hyper-rationalists" who invert the proper hierarchy.
Well, I expressed that, so it's no mere speculation on your part. I actually used the term "handmaiden." And that very inversion is why I think [Protestant Apologist X] is engaged in an exercise of "hyper-rationalism" himself (there is where the irony truly resides in this discussion. [Protestant Apologist X] rails against rationalism by using a thoroughly rationalistic methodology).
(Personally I think Physics ought to be the Queen of the Science, but they never let me vote on these titles...)
Spoken like a true physicist [EL is working on his doctorate in physics]! Not to worry; in today's academic climate, it pretty much is, and theology certainly isn't. It's lucky to be a court jester in Queen Science's Court.
I concur that this is the way things ought to be. I also agree that this is
what every individual thinker among the Fathers probably thought was true of his
own position. The question of whether or not they were right is precisely the
point under scrutiny. Even if we know what the Fathers believed to beyond a
reasonable doubt (which I don't think is nearly as easy as you let on), this does
little to tell us why the believed it, and whether that reason was good or bad -
which, after all, is the matter facing our adjudication.

But why they believed is a different discussion from what they believed. The latter is not dependent on the former. For example, as a Catholic I could say that I believed in the Immaculate Conception and papal infallibility. That is clear-cut. I said it, so you can know that and report it to someone else as an objective fact. That particular piece of knowledge (i.e., in terms of being an accurate description of two of my doctrinal beliefs) is not dependent on why I believe either dogma, which is an altogether separate issue (I agree that we should always ideally know "why" - I don't disagree with that aspect). You guys, on the other hand, are trying to make out that we can't even know what Fathers believed apart from a knowledge of their epistemology and philosophical premises. This I strongly reject.
Let's begin by thinking historically. You quip alliteratively that whether or not
people were labeled "Platonists or Plotinists" is simply irrelevant, and that "the
Fathers assume this themselves, by and large". Perhaps the "by and large" is
intended as a fig leaf to cover for the fact that Tertullian was breaking into fits of
apoplexy on this very point by the end of the second century, so I'll cut you some slack -

That's very early in Church history for any decent philosophy to be worked out: almost 150 years before Augustine's City of God. But Tertullian went off into nutcase wacko "Christianity" (Montanism). Origen placed philosophy too high in the scheme of things, too. Augustine got it right, which is one reason why he is so honored in both our camps.
but it still seems that virtually all of the early apologists (forward from
Justin) were quite cognizant of the existence of pagan philosophical schools,
thought that at least some of them were dreadful, and would have had little
tolerance for comingling them with Christianity.

Insofar as they were false, of course. But right in the Bible, Paul accepts whatever he can of pagan precepts and incorporates them into his evangelistic proclamation (on Mars Hill in Athens: Acts 17:16-34).
So I think the Fathers would have at least allowed that contamination of the pristine Judaic theological matrix by foreign strains of thought was both logically possible and potentially problematic (though perhaps in some cases also beneficial - there is no need to overgeneralize here).
No argument here. That is not my beef.
Surely you must be at least honest enough to admit some level of threat from this corner.
I oppose false philosophies, yes, especially those built around man, rather than God.
For every Antiochene Nestorian, there was an Alexandrian Origenist.
And the Catholic Church found the Golden Mean. :-)
Every malformed Gnostic anomaly featured an unappetizing hybridization of pagan mysteriology and Christian typology. Far from being a retroactively interposed Protestant rhetorical smokescreen, as you seem to assume,
I did not assume that at all. I merely made one argument from analogy: that the Arians (like many heresies) believed in sola Scriptura and the Antiochene School (grammatico-historical emphasis in hermeneutics) was a seed-bed of heresies. Both of these demonstrable claims I learned from Newman. But particular analogies do not add up to an equation of a "proto-Protestantism." Protestants are the ones far more likely to fall into this error: trying to make Augustine (and sometimes even Aquinas - see R.C. Sproul, for example) proto-Protestants, and sects like the Waldensians, and individuals like Wycliffe and Ockham and Hus, etc.
the clash between Christianity and paganism was heated, lengthy, and
far from unambiguously resolved. There is an "Apostolic Tradition", no doubt, but
what we need to do is appraise how successfully it managed to disentangle itself
from the syncretic traps in which it was constantly finding itself enmired, the
primary cause of success for all those early heresies.

This is where faith comes in. If you believe that the Christian Deposit (or true doctrines; whatever you wish to call it) can be corrupted by paganism and that God cannot protect it from such incursion, then it becomes a faith problem. You would accept defectibility rather than indefectibility. And this almost inevitably mutates, I think, into a theologically liberal understanding of how dogma and development proceed through history, somewhat like Schaff's view, as
[Protestant Apologist X] describes it.
So once again it seems that I am exercising faith in God and His omnipotence and promises, while not denying the importance of philosophy, whereas you two seem to not possess this faith that God can protect His truths from the pagans; whereupon philosophy or paganism could be said to have triumphed over the Church (contrary to Matthew 16:18, where Jesus said this would not occur). I apply that "faith proposition" to the interpretation of history. That is one of my premises: hardly a "rationalistic" or "Scholastic" one. If I must be roundly criticized for firmly believing Jesus' words, then that is a criticism I bear most proudly.
Contrary to your dubious anachronizing of Arians as "primitive Protestants",
I said no such thing. You merely extrapolated that meaning onto my words. But it is not in the words.
I suspect that virtually all of the heretical movements thought of themselves as "faithful to tradition" (Newman, in commenting on the Arians, admits as much), even though (we both agree) they clearly weren't.
If they "clearly" weren't, then you are admitting that it is quite possible to locate what the true Tradition was, at least as regards trinitarianism. But if that is possible, why is it so impossible to also determine what the Fathers taught on things like imputed justification or the Eucharist? Same difference. If something as complicated as trinitarianism can be understood in terms of historical development, I say that other dogmas can be, too. So this is a sign that you are coming over to my position of "patristic perspicuity." :-)
(Roman Catholic apologists always need to contend with the "winner writes the history books" skewing of historiography,
Yes, but the best historians are honest, whatever their allegiances are. I like Schaff, e.g., because he reports the beliefs of the early Church fairly. But then he goes off and adopts heretical notions of "development" which amount to "evolution of dogma" - which is sheer modernism. So I assume he would say that the early erroneous beliefs were later better understood and rejected by the Church, as they gained wisdom through the centuries. That notion itself cannot be sustained in the Fathers, because apostolic succession cannot be squared with it.
so no doubt you can fetch me orthodox quotes elaborating about how wretchedly Arius, et al., mangled their tradition. I'll save you the trouble of hunting them down by acknowledging their existence, while doubting their objectivity.)
The Arians were an early example of rationalism to the exclusion of biblical paradox and mystery, just as their modern descendants, the Jehovah's Witnesses, are today. Three cannot be one, so they said, so the Trinity was obviously false.
But I will note the peculiarity tension of your remarks. On one hand, you insist that one ought to be able to remain blissfully oblivious of philosophy, as if it were totally orthogonal to the evaluating of competing theological systems, on the grounds that "Christianity isn't that hard".
This is not an accurate portrayal of my position, as explained above.
* * * 
Okay, this is all delightful, but now I'm feeling too much like an ogrish apologist again.
Do you mean that apologists are typically and characteristically "ogrish" or merely that your efforts might be an example of same? :-)
So I will conclude by offering more kind remarks. You are entirely correct, and prudent, to emphasize with [Catholic writer] Greg [Krehbiel] the benefits of an eclectic program over a rigidly axiomatic one. I actually think that this is the best avenue for philosophy myself, rather than making everything conform to tightly to compartmentalized labels. There were definitely elements of the gospel (I would add, "on account of their perspicuity"!) that Christianity consistently championed to the scandal of the Academy, and as such there is no risk in my mind that the central truths of the gospel have collapsed. I'm only proposing, more moderately, that certain points that were poorly understood, initially, ended up being "crystallized" in a way that reflected catalytic seeding in an improperly buffered environment.
I would have to see examples of this, and why you think they are examples.
And I'm certainly no Hellenophobe myself. I don't think that we need to compulsively comb through our ecclesial closets and toss whatever "smells Greek" on principle,
Nope, since Paul didn't. That's good enough for me. I don't see that one can even make that argument. Virtually every false religion or philosophy has some elements of truth.
and I don't see much common ground between myself and hyper-skeptical postmodern antirealists, while I see a great deal of common ground between the two of us.
Good. So do I.
Moreover, I don't believe that Catholicism is self-evidently an invalid distillation of Palestinian-Hebraic language, and I'm not about to try to positively establish this,
as it is well beyond my capabilities. (That's Protestant Apologist X's project, and I'll be happy to watch his efforts, but I rather suspect that you may be correct in saying that it
seems rather ambitious!)

He doesn't have time, so we never have a chance to get to the bottom of his complaints. Too bad. I would be more than happy to refute them. :-)
I just want to know why Catholics are so superlatively confident of their own philosophical neutrality
We have philosophical diversity: Dominican Thomists and Jesuit Molinists; Franciscan Scotists, phenomenologists (like the pope), Platonists (Augustine), fideists (Pascal), Carmelite and Benedictine mystics, Lockian empiricists (Newman) . . .
that they think that the crime of failing to sign off on a rather peculiarly Aristotelian language set for Eucharistic doctrine (and so forth) should leave the rest of Christendom slapped with a permanent anathema.
The point isn't the philosophical categories, but that Jesus is truly present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The Orthodox and the Lutherans are realists, too; they simply use different words and expressions. All agree that it is ultimately a great mystery. We merely try to explain or comprehend it in a bit more detail. Orthodox object to our alleged "hyper-rationalism," yet they get into quite technical detail also when they discuss the filioque, the Divine Energies, and theosis, or divinization. Excessive "rationalism," then, is often in the eye of the beholder.
I don't mind talking about history generally, at least at the level of someone who (ten years ago) had about half a minor's-worth of upper division Classics courses. And, like most Bible-church evangelicals, I'm fairly fluent in the language of the New Testament. I've read most of the verses, and I know how they "ought" to be read, and why, and whether or not I agree with that reading based on my limited ability to cross-check against the contemporaneous thought and customs of ancient Western cultures.
Well, looks like our discussions are rather wide-ranging. I like it better when we narrow it down a bit.
I'm typically baffled, coming from a family background where Catholicism was considered deeply alien (not so much "wrong" as "totally foreign to personal experience"),
Very similar to my background . . .
by the insistence that Roman distinctives can be extracted from texts that don't seem to cohere naturally with any modern worldview.
It's the nature of development. I assure you that I see just as little justification (in fact, none) for sola Scriptura in Scripture. Yet Protestants think little of making that their formal principle of authority: a state of affairs which we Catholics find endlessly incoherent and almost comically ironic.
It is as a few years ago, when someone in my family received one of those "magic eye"
books for Christmas, and I stared at the pages hopelessly in an effort to coax the
hidden images to appear. I keep being told that it's "right in front of me", that
"honest" Protestants always admit that the Fathers were legitimately Catholic, that
the only logically consistent alternatives are to either embrace every dogma of the
Vatican to the letter or collapse into faithless post-Enlightenment rationalism-

I think it is pointless to mull over these huge generalities. All one can do on either side is pick a doctrine and examine it historically, and compare the credibility and plausibility of both positions.
or even that I am already part of an incoherent scheme that totally nullifies the core of Christianity. And none of it makes sense to me.
Well, that's why we talk with people of differing points of view, isn't it?: there is an inherent fascination (for thinkers and those who are intellectually curious) in why a chap seemingly in possession of rationality and common sense would espouse such a foreign, mysterious viewpoint. This is how I started studying Catholicism. I had a friend who was actually plausibily and confidently answering some of my "hard questions" (which had stumped even priests, on occasion). 

This fascinated (and frustrated) me to no end, and led to a yearlong study of how a rational, intelligent person like my friend could believe such "evident" ludicrosities such as papal infallibility and exclusive ecclesiological claims. I was arguing ferociously till I became acquainted with Newman, who stopped me dead in my tracks. But simultaneously, I was also studying the "Reformation" from both sides, and gaining more and more respect for Catholic moral theology (as I was a pro-life activist). Those three things together were what converted me.
I don't hate or resent the folks who tell me these things. I just don't comprehend where they could possibly be coming from. What you consider to be an excessively skeptical emphasis on "presuppositional" influences is to me the only way to make sense of the wildly competing claims on both sides of every issue. Somehow, we have two sides examining identical evidence, and being unable to accomplish any reconciliation of their views on its meaning. Either one side is grotesquely dishonest (with their opponents, and themselves), or else the "facts of history themselves" are not so easily assembled straight out of the box as many people are claiming.
I don't think charges of "dishonesty" are necessary (and I think they are almost always both silly and unethical). We all see things through an interpretive grid. I agree to that extent with you and [Protestant Apologist X], in terms of the ongoing epistemological discussion. We emphasize and tend to see and not see certain things according to what our prior position is. This is natural and it is not necessarily a bad thing. It simply is. It is the way brains and minds function: how they make sense of reality, and construct and organize the outer reality (whatever it really is) abstractly for themselves. 

I often see a parallel in philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn's classic analysis: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. We all have paradigms that guide our perceptions. That is true in theology as well as in science. One has to overthrow the paradigm to see things fundamentally differently. And before that happens it is extremely difficult to even see, let alone comprehend another framework, theory, or worldview.
And this is because worldviews and theories start with different assumptions. Then the house is built upon those foundational assumptions. Therefore, I don't have to assert that Protestants are "dishonest" or "stupid" because they can't see what I take to be evident realities about certain of the Fathers' views on various doctrinal matters, and so forth. They see what they have been conditioned to see, based on their own presuppositional grid. And the Catholic does the same from his Catholic grid. I have never denied this. I believe it about all fields of knowledge, across the board. I understand the Protestant position on this because I used to hold it myself. I can see both sides, having held both.
I think it is a worthwhile exercise, however, to compare two paradigms and try to determine relative plausibility and factuality. We test the claims and see which can stand up to attempted falsifiability (again, as in science). Newman stated this clearly about his own theory of history (i.e., doctrinal development). The difficulty for the Protestant is that he can't accept Newman's theory in its main outlines without simultaneously accepting Catholicism (because it leads inexorably to that conclusion). 

The Protestant, of course, can adopt some alternate theory of development that leads inexorably to Protestantism. That development itself is a reality in Church history, I take to be self-evident. One might call it "progressive revelation" (within the Bible itself) or other terms. I have yet to see such a theory that impressed me very much. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist at all. I'm looking for it, and trying my best to debate the issue with articulate Protestants who understand the larger issues at stake.
The beginning of wisdom, I think, is to recognize that in any debate where one side
keeps yelping exasperatedly about how "transparent" and "manifest" their
conclusions are without avail, the problem lies not with the evidence but with the
interpretation. What we disagree about is rarely a matter of the "bare facts", but
how they ought to be translated, knit together, and synthesized into daily application.

Granted; however, I do think the general consensus in the Fathers on many, many doctrines is fairly easy to ascertain, all things considered. 
Now, if it is so extremely difficult to figure out what the ancient Church believed on the Eucharist, how is it that Catholic apologists can easily produce many sources such as the above which inform us that patristic beliefs were far closer to present-day Catholic beliefs than various (less sacramental or "realist") Protestant ones? If it is so hard, why can I make a good solid case using exclusively Protestant scholarly sources? I don't even need to go to the Catholics. Therefore, I say it is not all that difficult to determine what they generally believed, on a number of issues. Some are more difficult, but many are quite simple to ascertain, in my opinion.
Let's begin by considering your claim that self-identification can provide us with objective facts, in a "clear-cut" and "non-philosophical" manner. As a matter of
specificity, we must distinguish between the fact of the meta-assertion ("Dave
claims to believe in papal infallibility"), and the content of the proposition made
("Dave believes in papal infallibility"). The former, I admit, is essentially
non-contingent. It simply says that you have some belief that you describe in
certain terms, which cannot be sensibly questioned. Similarly, we can all agree that
"Jesus used the phrase 'this is my body' at the Last Supper", and that Paul
(Ignatius, etc) used that same phraseology. But the second proposition requires
us to critically examine whether or not the meaning of "papal infallibility" can be
universalized in a way that shares a common meaning between both the referent
(Dave) and a hypothethical listener.

One can play around with words and do analytical philosophy all day long. I think this exercise devolves into the "philosophizing" of Christianity if it is taken too far (as I previously argued). And that would be equally as true for any Protestant distinctive as well. One cannot discuss faith propositions with no reference to faith. It's just as unbalanced to exclude faith as it is to exclude reason from the discussion of Christian dogma.
For example, knowing your own theological positions, I can safely conclude that your belief in "papal infallibility" implies that whenever Pope John Paul II makes an ex cathedra pronouncement, you will feel obligated to abide by it.
And that is easily-understood, for anyone who has troubled himself to learn the basic definition and parameters of papal infallibility.
But if I knew you to be a notorious sedevacantist, I would interpret your insistence to believe in "papal infallibility" as not having that particular consequence.
This is, of course, heresy. You can't examine a principle of one belief-system by recourse to another. That would be like a Calvinist commentary on Arminianism, or vice-versa. It is an improper undertaking from the outset. There are always folks on the fringes of any Christian position who will distort it and claim it for themselves. Mormons and Christian Scientists claim to be Christians, etc. They are not. And sedevacantists are not orthodox Catholics. Period.
When Catholics speak of the authority of Tradition, what they really mean is the authority of history-as-it-happened.
We believe in faith that Apostolic Tradition was faithfully preserved by the Holy Spirit, and was passed down through history incorrupt, yes. It is a faith proposition, but we think actual Church history is not inconsistent with the faith proposition. You can always take the skeptic's path and simply mock such a belief as untenable, implausible (given the shortcomings and sinfulness of men) or "impossible." That's always easier to do. Faith is a bit more difficult.
Whoever wins a great dispute is enshrined with the Fathers. Whoever loses is a heretic, and is rubbed from the record.
There is such a thing as orthodoxy, I regret to inform you. And every Christian group subscribes to some form of it. Most of us accept the Nicene Creed. The beliefs therein were won in a hard-fought battle with heretics on all sides. There is Truth and Falsity in religion.
If you want to stamp the outcome of that process with your imprimatur, then no Protestant will ever, ever offer a satisfactory rebuttal to any Catholic claim.
I'm trying to look at the actual facts and the Fathers and make the determination on a doctrine-to-doctrine basis, as to whether they seem closer in thought to Protestantism or Catholicism. I say it is no contest. If that makes me arrogant or a simpleton for simply asserting it, so be it. One opinion excludes another. That's how the world of ideas and logic works, and how Christian doctrine works. If it is "arrogant" or "triumphalistic" to hold a viewpoint (any viewpoint) in some fashion other than relativistically or altogether tentatively, then I refuse to kow-tow to Enlightenment, postmodernistic relativism. You can have it. I stand with the historic Church.
That is what I mean by a debate on false premises. One of the premises is "We always win", which, one might object, lamentably detracts from the dramatic tension of any joint search for truth.
Straw man. Catholics are not advocates of pure, fideistic dogma and unfalsifiability. But old myths and stereotypes die hard, and they are so much fun to trot out, to make Catholicism look like Obscurantist-Buffoonery-Writ-Large. Protestants used to believe strongly in their own systems as Truth, too, often willing to die for them. Now, however, they often revel and glory in their "tolerant diversity" and act as if such tolerated error in their ranks is the mark of spiritual superiority or maturity. I much prefer even Luther's Bombastic and Self-Anointed, Self-Appointed Dogmatism (at least the man can be admired for taking courageous stands) to namby-pamby theological wimphood and liberal feel-goodism.
To me the transition of Christianity from a faith of the poor and the meek to an establishment cult of the wealthy and powerful looks like as total a break with type as could ever be conceived. A faith which forbids its members from being soldiers and magistrates cannot be the seed of a medieval empire that imposes itself on others by coercion.
The relation of Church and State or Christ and Culture is a huge issue in and of itself. My short comment on that is that the "change" is an inevitable function of the institutionalization of Christianity, which itself had to eventually occur (and should have) if the Church was ever to be cultural salt and light on a large, culture-building scale. Pacifism is not taught in the New Testament itself. And that is why it was never the mainstream Christian position.
An itinerant preacher who criticized the authorities of his day for so much as demanding a choice seat at banquets cannot be the forerunner of Popes on thrones wearing tiaras who present their feet to be kissed by kings.
Why did Paul appeal to his Roman citizenship and eventually to Caesar, then, for his own protection, if there is some absolute break between the weak and the rich and powerful? You think that honor shown to dignitaries and leaders is somehow an impious invention, not found in Scripture? Why, then, did Paul acknowledge the high priest of Israel, who wasn't even a Christian? This is another one of those rather silly, uncritically-accepted Protestant platitudes about Catholicism that floats around endlessly. 

Besides, if the pope's authoritarianism is to be the basis to question whether Catholicism is legitimate at all, then Luther and Calvin's far more wide-ranging, "super-papal" powers as heads of their communions (often with no regard for Christian precedent or Tradition whatever) would knock out Lutheranism and Calvinism as well. You would be forced to adopt some form of completely anti-institutional Anabaptism, or Quakerism. So this objection proves too much too.
I don't doubt that Catholicism was a garden for both weeds and flowers, but too many of the weeds were rising to the top and blocking the sun, and for that alone, a Reformation was an inevitable necessity.
Then why did Luther go to the secular princes to run his church, if his principle was supposedly so against the elitism of bishops and popes? Why did Calvin adopt a theocratic-like state of affairs in Geneva of extreme authoritarianism? Some "Reformation" huh - looked at in this aspect in isolation.
Nor do the "principles" of Catholicism seem any less discontinuous. From a faith whose early principle of propagation was the death of martyrs at the hands of the secular state, Catholicism became instead a faith that wielded the sword to create martyrs, deserved or undeserved, among the so-called heretics.
That goes back to Church-State issues too "large and lumpy" to pick up here. I'm trying to actually finish this reply tonight. I'd love to talk about doctrines, not your incipient anti-institutionalism.
"Let tomorrow worry about itself" is not the mantra of any of the scheming Popes and bishops who plotted endlessly to enlarge their domains.
No one has ever said that bishops and popes were perfect. That is patently obvious today.
I don't doubt that Catholicism has exhibited a hearty constitution in the face of modernism and postmodernism alike. But the boast that Catholicism alone is vigorous is increasingly a hollow one.
Which is why I didn't make it. Christian groups are vigorous to the extent that they possess truth (doctrinal and moral).
If the course of heresies is short, then every year that sees an advance in the membership rolls of the world communion of evangelicals is an empirical blow against their alleged heterodoxy.
No, because Protestants are Christians. Their heresies must be judged in terms of individual doctrines which are erroneous, not in terms of the totality of an entire denominational tradition, as if it is utterly worthless and evil. That's not what we believe at all. But of course there are plenty of Protestants willing to assert in no uncertain terms that Catholicism is not Christian at all, and, in fact, Antichrist, or the Whore of Babylon.
Catholics are left, by placing trust in this unhappy razor of fatalism, to wish for the onset of those weakening signs that hail the eventually collapse of Protestantism, and the vindication of the true Church.
No need to. You should read Vatican II on ecumenism. You are still stuck back in the 16th century. Ecumenism itself is one of the developments that has proceeded rapidly as of late.
I am reminded of the many would-be postmortem hagiographers of the current Pope, who have grown old, retired, or died while awaiting the smoke from the Vatican roof.
And the next one will be a liberal. That's the great hope of Protestants and Catholic liberals alike.


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