Thursday, March 08, 2007

Dialogue on Theological Liberalism, Jesus' Knowledge, and the Nature of the Ostensibly Historical Passages of Scripture

-- with citations from the encyclicals of Popes St. Pius X and Benedict XV --

Dave Armstrong vs. Dr. Edward Hamilton

Edward's replies will be in blue.

* * *

Some general preliminary thoughts of mine:

At which point on the continuum does this "healthy academic doubt" begin to be liberalism and heterodoxy? Many claim that a certain amount of historical skepticism is within the "orthodox" pale. Many liberals throw out words without explaining what they mean by them. They play word games, which is much of the orthodox complaint against the liberal methodology. How far down the line of this speculation can one go and remain "orthodox"? What criteria does the scholar or student of Scripture utilize in order to avoid sliding down that slope into outright biblical skepticism and (dare I say it?) liberalism?

Liberals undermine the rational, non-fideistic basis for Christian beliefs, which is extremely dangerous, and in the long run deleterious to the faith of the common man, who eventually gets spoon-fed this "scholarly" skeptical bilge and game-playing with words and orthodoxy and Christian Tradition. It reminds me a lot of Neo-Orthodoxy: "sure we believe all the 'right' and 'orthodox' stuff, but of course there is no rational or historical basis for it. We just believe it with this marvelously non-rational, childlike faith."). This was certainly not the Apostle Paul's perspective when he preached to the intellectual Greeks (including philosophers) on Mars Hill and in the academies. He didn't separate reason from faith in such a radical fashion.

It comes down to what "liberal" means. We need to define our terms. These days, amongst Protestants (even, sadly, evangelicals), if you ask ten Protestants to define "liberal" or "orthodoxy," you'll get eleven opinions. According to the self-consistent standard of Catholic orthodoxy (Aquinas, Newman, etc.) he who denies any dogma of the faith has lost the supernatural virtue of faith altogether. That means (if I understand this concept correctly) that such a person is approaching Christian (Catholic) faith with a mind lacking illumination from the Holy Spirit, and grace, which is a terrifying prospect indeed. Hence the frequent descent into skepticism and unbelief, of many of the people who choose to go down this path. Once the principles change, it doesn't take long for the beliefs (or lack thereof) to follow, per the process of encroaching theological liberalism outlined by Os Guinness).

Granted, historical evidence is of a "legal"-type and is never absolute, but then, neither is much of anything else, apart from mathematical or logical axioms, which are just that: axioms (meaning that they are accepted assumptions which cannot be absolutely proven). Therefore, anyone who wants to play the game of historical skepticism runs into a host of serious problems in other areas of thought. The different fields of thought run together, anyway: there are philosophies of history and of science, philosophical theology, history of dogma and ideas, development of doctrine, etc.

What many liberals do is what the Calvinist presuppositionalists do: "forget the 'secular' fields of knowledge and natural law and all efforts to defend traditional Christianity by reasoned arguments (e.g., history, philosophy) that pagans can accept and understand; no one can understand or accept Christianity with the aid of reason; it has to be accepted with blind faith. The regenerate mind can understand it; the unregenerate mind cannot possibly do so."

Edwin Tait (an Anglican doctoral candidate in history) commented: "The historical case for the virginal conception is certainly far weaker than that for the Resurrection."

But that's self-evident in the nature of the case, and is not what Fr. Raymond Brown is contending. To comment upon obvious relative strengths of cases according to one methodology is one thing; to say that one cannot arrive at the belief at all based on the report of the Gospels is another. That separates reason from the belief altogether and therefore (it follows straightforwardly) the non-believer then has no "reason" to accept the Virgin Birth at all. That's a wonderful concession to the enemies of the faith, isn't it? "Christians now admit there is no reason at all to believe in something as fundamental to its structure as the Virgin Birth. What we have been contending for centuries is now handed to us on a silver platter by Christians who are even regarded as 'conservatives' within their own ranks."

History shows us that the Virgin Birth is one of the first things to go once this game starts to be played. Other dogmas are quickly jettisoned after this path is taken (in terms of the overall movement and trend; not necessarily individuals, who may retain things to more or less degrees). One need only observe the history of the Unitarians. They wanted to maintain the Incarnation without the Trinity. Pretty soon the Incarnation went too and such biblical skepticism and Enlightenment hyper-rationalism and denial of mystery and miracle even led to the creation of further non-trinitarian rank heresies such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, Christadelphianism, etc.

The Christian faith (even considered in a less-dogmatic Protestant sense) stands together as a whole. Once one starts picking apart at various doctrines, they will lose faith in orthodoxy and traditional Christianity itself. Whether liberals think that is good "scholarship" or a "properly detached, academic" attitude or not (or think it is a Troglodyte Fundamentalism) is not my concern. I am speaking as a Christian, with the robust, rationally-supported faith of a Christian acquainted with the history of such movements and ways of thinking (one might say I am speaking sociologically or anthropologically at the moment, as well).

My initial reaction to the debate could be summarized by saying that I think the categories of "liberal" and "conservative" are not absolute, but only have relevance within the discourse of a particular community.

Of course you are right. They are dependent upon the question of the definition of orthodoxy (which is precisely why I brought that aspect into the discussion). Without resolving that, the discussion isn't very fruitful because people are using different definitions and often talking past each other.

This creates, before any other considerations, a language barrier in which different words are being used to denote the same concepts; a "liberal" in the academic community is more liberal than a "liberal" within the faith community, and that must be appreciated before we have any further
discussion.

Yes; exactly. Obviously, you two are coming from a more academic perspective (I'm not denying that you are trying to approach the question "Christianly" also), whereas I am more an "operative" of the faith community, being an apologist and not an academic (though people often mistakenly think I am one, which is nice for them to think).

But I do insist -- bottom line -- that "liberal" represents real opinions and schools of thoughts (whatever they may be). Some people seem to think use of that term is only a "fundamentalist" or reactionary or merely rhetorical, polemical ploy to avoid real discussion (as also in politics, where "liberal" is now an epithet). It isn't just name-calling. This is a concrete, supremely important issue. I trust that we all can agree on that.

These are real issues, of great import, and the faith of millions hangs in the balance. As an apologist, I am duty-bound to deal with such things, not only from a specifically Catholic perspective, but also from a "generic Christian" standpoint: opposing liberalism per se, which has caused great destruction in Protestantism as well (even more than in Catholicism). Look at Episcopalianism, for heaven's sake. If you didn't notice already, I despise liberalism even more than anti-Catholicism or the cults (or atheism, for that matter). At least those groups are generally honest, whereas I regard liberalism (very broadly speaking) as almost inherently intellectually dishonest and two-faced.

That doesn't mean deliberately (I hasten to add), but in the sense that the ideas themselves are contemptible and generally dishonest in that they pass themselves off as something they are not. I always think, "if you want to be a liberal (Protestant or Catholic) why bother to remain in those communities? Just admit that you have lost your faith and be honest enough to scram, so you don't subvert the self-understanding and vigor of the faith-life of those communities and bring others down with you."

What you are really criticizing, I think, is the idea of a moderate compromise position that seeks to harmonize certain skeptical exegetical methods with the overall embrace of classical orthodoxy. I would prefer to call that kind of person a "moderate", rather than a "liberal", and reserve the latter term for those who actively deny some positive doctrine of the Christian faith (i.e., in the sense of having to cross their fingers for some line of the Nicene Creed), rather than those who attempt to defend orthodoxy on the basis of nontraditional arguments.

This is an example of a point that would take dozens of hours to adequately respond to: it is such a complex question. I think one needs to look at these kinds of things sociologically and historically, as well as theologically. When I am responding to people like Fr. Raymond Brown and Brian Tierney I'm actually using all three methods simultaneously (as I love history and majored in sociology).

Sociologically, one indicator that liberalism is at play is the reaction of people to critiques of their work. Thus, as I documented, when Fr. Brown responds to a critique from Msgr. George Kelly with blanket dismissals of "fundamentalist," "ultra-conservative nonsense," etc., this is classic derogatory, dismiss-anyone-to-my-right-as-a-dunce-and-a-quack-outside-of-the-'mainstream'" mentality.

To me, that is a dead give-away that liberalism is involved (as noted even in papal encyclicals of almost a hundred years ago, cited below), because, why the persistent urge to refer to other fellow Catholics in this extreme fashion? Why make this attempt at polarization and demonization and ridicule of opponents? Thus, even Fr. (now Cardinal) Dulles formerly acted in this way. Since he has straightened out and become more orthodox, he has ceased to use that silly rhetoric, as far as I know. It's a herd mentality.

The only reason I can see (based on my long experience of human nature in dialogical situations) is that the critic has indeed put his finger on a real flaw, and this is so threatening that the only response is name-calling, rather than rational reply and interaction. Again, sociologically-speaking, this is the liberal mindset (whether theological, social, or political -- and I have had much experience with all of them) to a tee. It almost always despises those who differ as simpletons and dolts. It regards itself as the only "respectable" viewpoint. "Conservatives," on the other hand, tend to regard liberals as degenerates and immoral people. This may be the case for certain individuals, but it doesn't follow automatically. Oftentimes, people with the finest intentions and character are led astray by false ideas, etc., etc.

Historically, one can plainly see the process of theological liberalism: what it did to the mainline Protestant denominations, and (in the last 40 years) to Catholicism. One would have to be blind to not see this. So when a guy like Fr. Brown starts toying around with the same sort of higher critical ideas (no matter how "moderate" he may personally be), the orthodox Catholic who knows history and a bit about the state of the Church can't help but be highly suspicious. I don't claim that this is "rational argument" per se, but it is a factor that plays into how we react, and a most legitimate one.

We know what has happened to our Church and we see the strong trends. We see what this type of thinking has done to, e.g., Anglicanism. We observe the behavior and "us vs. them" mentality, and know how Catholic academia has been decimated. We know personal examples of brilliant men who were practically exiled from "respectable" Catholic academia (men like the late Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., who was a mentor of mine). These are all factors in how a Catholic reacts. And it may cause us to over-react at times or paint with too broad a brush, but the concerns are very real and altogether valid.

I thought that this was an option that Catholics themselves enjoyed-- I can remember Mark Shea saying, in the context of a discussion about the Immaculate Conception, that Catholics were only obligated to accept the doctrine itself, and not any particular justification for why it was true.

Stated in those bald terms, yes. But not knowing the rational, biblical, historical, or philosophical justification and rationale for a belief (i.e., lacking all apologetical knowledge) and nevertheless accepting it on the Church's authority is a different thing than denying that it has any such justification apart from the simple fact that it is in the Creed or is a proclaimed dogma. One is merely the acknowledgment of the limitations of one's own knowledge; the other is a subversion of the non-fideistic basis of the belief. The former undermines no one's faith, but the latter is extremely destructive once the ideas start circulating. It destroys faith and assurance of the truthfulness of dogma just as cancer destroys body cells.

There are reasons, after all, why 70% of Catholics no longer believe in their own Church's teaching on the Eucharist (a massive sociological shift in just 40 years), or on contraception, or on premarital sex. I happen to believe that one can try to explain these trends. Theological liberalism is certainly one huge factor among several. These things don't just happen at random, as if there were no causes.

Is the historicity of the Infancy Narratives itself a matter of Catholic dogma? (Honest, not rhetorical, question. I have no idea.)

Yes. In the Reply of the Biblical Commission on June 26, 1912 (spearheaded and approved by Pope St. Pius X), the following condemnation of error occurs:

Whether one may likewise doubt the inspiration and canonicity of the accounts given by Luke of the infancy of Christ [Luke 1-2] . . . or whether it can at least be shown by solid reasons -- as pleased the ancient heretics, and is agreeable also to some more recent critics -- that the said accounts do not belong to the genuine Gospel of Luke? -- Reply: In the negative to both parts.

(Henry Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum; The Sources of Catholic Dogma, translated by Roy J. Deferrari from the 13th edition [revised by Karl Rahner, Freiburg: 1954], Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 1955, #2157, p. 554)

Pope St. Pius X excoriates the modernist mentality in his encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis ("On the Doctrine of the Modernists"), 8 September 1907. It's as if he is specifically writing about people such as Brown and Tierney. Here are several relevant excerpts:
18. This will appear more clearly to anybody who studies the conduct of Modernists, which is in perfect harmony with their teachings. In their writings and addresses they seem not unfrequently to advocate doctrines which are contrary one to the other, so that one would be disposed to regard their attitude as double and doubtful. But this is done deliberately and advisedly, and the reason of it is to be found in their opinion as to the mutual separation of science and faith. Thus in their books one finds some things which might well be approved by a Catholic, but on turning over the page one is confronted by other things which might well have been dictated by a rationalist . . . maintaining the theory that faith must be subject to science, they continuously and openly rebuke the Church on the ground that she resolutely refuses to submit and accommodate her dogmas to the opinions of philosophy; while they, on their side, having for this purpose blotted out the old theology, endeavor to introduce a new theology which shall support the aberrations of philosophers . . .

30. . . . they are particularly desirous not to be suspected of any prepossession in favor of philosophical theories which would lay them open to the charge of not being, as they call it, objective. And yet the truth is that their history and their criticism are saturated with their philosophy, and that their historico-critical conclusions are the natural outcome of their philosophical principles . . . separation must be made and the human element must he left to history while the divine will he assigned to faith. Hence we have that distinction, so current among the Modernists, between the Christ of history and the Christ of faith; the Church of history and the Church of faith; the sacraments of history and the sacraments of faith, and so in similar matters . . . even those things which are not outside the sphere of history should pass through the sieve, excluding all and relegating to faith everything which, in their judgment, is not in harmony with what they call the logic of facts or not in character with the persons of whom they are predicated. Thus, they will not allow that Christ ever uttered those things which do not seem to be within the capacity of the multitudes that listened to Him. Hence they delete from His real history and transfer to faith all the allegories found in His discourses. We may peradventure inquire on what principle they make these divisions? Their reply is that they argue from the character of the man, from his condition of life, from his education, from the complexus of the circumstances under which the facts took place; in short, if We understand them aright, on a principle which in the last analysis is merely .subjective. Their method is to put themselves into the position and person of Christ, and then to attribute to Him what they would have done under like circumstances.

31. As history takes its conclusions from philosophy, so too criticism takes its conclusions from history. The critic on the data furnished him by the historian, makes two parts of all his documents. Those that remain after the triple elimination above described go to form the real history; the rest is attributed to the history of the faith or, as it is styled, to internal history. For the Modernists distinguish very carefully between these two kinds of history, and it is to be noted that they oppose the history of the faith to real history precisely as real. Thus, as we have already said, we have a twofold Christ: a real Christ, and a Christ, the one of faith, who never really existed; a Christ who has lived at a given time and in a given place, and a Christ who never lived outside the pious meditations of the believer -- the Christ, for instance, whom we find in the Gospel of St. John, which, according to them, is mere meditation from beginning to end.

34. The result of this dismembering of the records, and this partition of them throughout the centuries is naturally that the Scriptures can no longer be attributed to the authors whose names they bear. The Modernists have no hesitation in affirming generally that these books, and especially the Pentateuch and the first three Gospels, have been gradually formed from a primitive brief narration, by additions, by interpolations of theological or allegorical interpretations, or parts introduced only for the purpose of joining different passages together . . . Let him who can judge how far they are qualified in this way to make such distinctions. To hear them descant of their works on the Sacred Books, in which they have been able to discover so much that is defective, one would imagine that before them nobody ever even turned over the pages of Scripture. The truth is that a whole multitude of Doctors, far superior to them in genius, in erudition, in sanctity, have sifted the Sacred Books in every way, and so far from finding in them anything blameworthy have thanked God more and more heartily the more deeply they have gone into them, for His divine bounty in having vouchsafed to speak thus to men. Unfortunately. these great Doctors did not enjoy the same aids to study that are possessed by the Modernists for they did not have for their rule and guide a philosophy borrowed from the negation of God, and a criterion which consists of themselves . . .

. . . their boundless effrontery by which, if one then makes any utterance, the others applaud him in chorus, proclaiming that science has made another step forward, while if an outsider should desire to inspect the new discovery for himself, they form a coalition against him. He who denies it is decried as one who is ignorant, while he who embraces and defends it has all their praise. In this way they entrap not a few, who, did they but realize what they are doing, would shrink back with horror. The domineering overbearance of those who teach the errors, and the thoughtless compliance of the more shallow minds who assent to them, create a corrupted atmosphere which penetrates everywhere, and carries infection with it.

36. . . . They add also that this is not only excusable but -- curiously enough -- that it is even right and proper. In the Sacred Books there are many passages referring to science or history where, according to them, manifest errors are to he found. But, they say, the subject of these books is not science or history, but only religion and morals. In them history and science serve only as a species of covering to enable the religious and moral experiences wrapped Up in them to penetrate more readily among the masses . . .

We, Venerable Brethren, for whom there is but one and only one truth, and who hold that the Sacred Books, "written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, have God for their author'' [Vatican I, On Revelation] declare that this is equivalent to attributing to God Himself the lie of utility or officious lie, and We say with St. Augustine: "In an authority so high, admit but one officious lie, and there will not remain a single passage of those apparently difficult to practice or to believe, which on the same most pernicious rule may not be explained as a lie uttered by the author willfully and to serve a purpose." [Epist. 28] And thus it will come about, the holy Doctor continues, that "everybody will believe and refuse to believe what he likes or dislikes in them," namely, the Scriptures. But the Modernists pursue their way eagerly. They grant also that certain arguments adduced in the Sacred Books in proof of a given doctrine, like those, for example, which are based on the prophecies, have no rational foundation to rest on.

42. . . . The Modernists pass judgment on the holy Fathers of the Church even as they do upon tradition. With consummate temerity they assure the public that the Fathers, while personally most worthy of all veneration, were entirely ignorant of history and criticism, for which they are only excusable on account of the time in which they lived. Finally, the Modernists try in every way to diminish and weaken the authority of the ecclesiastical magisterium itself by sacrilegiously falsifying its origin, character, and rights, and by freely repeating the calumnies of its adversaries. To the entire band of Modernists may be applied those words which Our predecessor sorrowfully wrote: "To bring contempt and odium on the mystic Spouse of Christ, who is the true light, the children of darkness have been wont to cast in her face before the world a stupid calumny, and perverting the meaning and force of things and words, to depict her as the friend of darkness and ignorance, and the enemy of light, science, and progress.''[23] This being so, Venerable Brethren, there is little reason to wonder that the Modernists vent all their bitterness and hatred on Catholics who zealously fight the battles of the Church. There is no species of insult which they do not heap upon them, but their usual course is to charge them with ignorance or obstinacy. When an adversary rises up against them with an erudition and force that renders them redoubtable, they seek to make a conspiracy of silence around him to nullify the effects of his attack. This policy towards Catholics is the more invidious in that they belaud with admiration which knows no bounds the writers who range themselves on their side, hailing their works, exuding novelty in every page, with a chorus of applause. For them the scholarship of a writer is in direct proportion to the recklessness of his attacks on antiquity, and of his efforts to undermine tradition and the ecclesiastical magisterium. When one of their number falls under the condemnations of the Church the rest of them, to the disgust of good Catholics, gather round him, loudly and publicly applaud him, and hold him up in veneration as almost a martyr for truth. The young, excited and confused by all this clamor of praise and abuse, some of them afraid of being branded as ignorant, others ambitious to rank among the learned, and both classes goaded internally by curiosity and pride, not infrequently surrender and give themselves up to Modernism.

(http://www.stthomasaquinas.net/encyclicals/Pius10/P10PASCE.HTM)

I understand that accepting the Virgin Birth is materially connected to the Incarnation in a way that makes it quite probably that anyone who denies the former will progress on to denying that latter in short order.

Indeed.

But I'm not as sure as to why those who attempt a more minimalist defense of the Virgin Birth become "liberals" in spite of their theologically conservative self-identification.

It is not simply that denial, but the fact that it usually (almost always, in fact) occurs within an intellectual milieu of liberalism, higher criticism, loss of supernatural faith, academic pretension and elitism (which looks down its nose at the faith of the common man), etc., as outlined by Pope St. Pius X above, and by J. Gresham Machen and Os Guinness from a Protestant perspective (see also Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible, and Francis Schaeffer, and many others, or C.S. Lewis's many pointed attacks on liberalism).

If, for example, Tom Wright thinks that certain elements of the flight into Egypt are to be taken as symbolic, but nonetheless affirms that the Lukan narrative is historically accurate and sufficient to establish the Virgin Birth, then I don't see why he should be classed with a group of scholars who obviously don't accept the Virgin Birth.

Of course he shouldn't, but he can be classed with those who have accepted the flawed liberal methodology in approaching Holy Scripture. Experience shows that such scholars usually become more and more critical as time goes on, and in fact, often ditch the articles of faith. Hans Kung is a clear example. At the time of Vatican II he was fairly orthodox. But that quickly changed, as he started publicly questioning dogma after dogma.

Orthodoxy, for me, is about constructing and delineating a foundational understanding of who we are, who God is, and what God intends for us.

That sounds like "theology" to me, not orthodoxy . . .

The orthodox teaching on human sexuality, for example, teaches (among other things) that sexual intercourse is only morally appropriate within the boundaries of marriage. Protestants believe that this can be justified by appeal to Scripture. Catholics are not obligated to believe this;

No; we're not obligated to believe in sola Scriptura. We are obligated to believe that Scripture teaches against premarital sex, because it clearly does so, and we accept whatever is taught in inerrant Scripture.

they may instead believe that Scripture is insufficient to exclude, say, premarital sexual experimentation,

No they may not.

but that Holy Tradition supplements it in such a way as to render the implicit intent of Scripture explicit.

Scripture itself does that; it was not of our doing. Also, interpretation is inevitable; hence one necessarily falls back on "tradition" of some sort. Catholics believe that there is one true, apostolic Tradition that is the guide for proper biblical hermeneutics. Protestants are influenced by denominational or more personal traditions and ways of thought, whether they recognize this or pretend that it isn't present.

The Protestant position, with respect to exegesis, is "stronger", and thus in some sense, more "conservative". Catholics who want to establish the dependence of Scripture on Tradition may find themselves repeating criticisms of liberal Protestants who cast doubt on the meaning of certain passages. That doesn't make Catholics "liberal". It makes them orthodox, but on the basis
of different reasoning.

Not exactly sure what you mean here, so I'll pass.

That was mostly meant as a rejoinder of the "strange bedfellows" position of Catholics, that it's uniquely inappropriate for Protestants to ever end up saying the same things as liberals in their criticism of Catholic exegesis, history, etc.

Now if, as you assert, the only basis for orthodoxy that survives at the end of the day is a "bare fideism", as per Barthian Neo-Orthodoxy, then you might justifiably fear that Christianity will become impossible to defend within a pluralistic landscape.

I believe firmly that Christianity and Catholicism in particular are perfectly in accord with reason and all the sciences, and that there is no inherent opposition between them. Liberals try to make such opposition. The classic liberals thought they saw Christianity conflicting with scientific and modern philosophical understandings, so they responded by trying to modify Christianity accordingly.

The Neo-Orthodox, mistakenly "seeing" the same state of affairs, took a different path, and decided that the two don't have to be synthesized in the first place, and that Christianity can be put in a separate, non-rational category of faith. This is what I describe as "fideism" -- the faith which has no reasons and doesn't even seek any. It is in its own self-contained bubble. But having arrived at this impasse, the possibility then exists for any form of religion to claim equal validity; if reason is no longer a factor. The Moonies or Scientologists are then as valid as the most rigorous version of orthodox Catholicism or Reformed Presbyterianism.

The Catholic orthodox position (and mainstream Protestant "evidentialist" apologetic view: Geisler, Sproul, Lewis, Habermas, Carl Henry, William Lane Craig, Schaeffer, etc.) is that both reason and revelation are perfectly harmonious. That is my position, and always has been, both as a Protestant and as a Catholic.

But I don't think that's the position that Edwin is defending. To look again at the Protestant scholar he cited, I don't see any reason to doubt that Tom Wright thinks that the simultaneous emergence of two distinct sets of Nativity stories, with no signs of collaboration, renders both of them worthless. To the contrary, his argument is precisely the for the Virgin Birth to be so universally acknowledged between communities that did not otherwise share common history suggests that it must have been regarded as a matter of essential faith in the apostolic generation, and cannot be assigned as a later invention. (I believe he uses the phrase "an act of intellectual pathenogenesis" to characterize the unlikeliness of the Virgin Birth accidentally emerging in two separated communities at once!) Maybe that argument is an incorrect or logically deficient one, but it hardly amounts to falling back on the crutch of fideism.

My remarks were made in a larger context. I would have to look at Wright's own views to comment further on him, and have no particular desire to at the moment. I'm talking about general modes of thought and mentalities that prevail within liberal theology and scholarship. Different folks come down on different places on the orthodox to heterodox continuum. But that there is a slippery slope and an overwhelming tendency "leftward" I take to be self-evident. The same thing applies to secular academia, politics, and society (societal ethics and standards of conduct, and so forth).

I agree that the lack of consensus about what it means to be "liberal", within the community of faith specifically (where it matters to us), is problematic. But I'm not sure I see why you think that Catholicism is immune to the same tendencies.

The community is not (unfortunately), but the teaching authority is (by the grace of God and the divine protection and charism of infallibility), and it has not caved into these self-important pretenders and self-anointed priesthood of the "new, with-it, smart 'Catholics.' " So Catholic education is decimated and in a shambles, but our doctrines have not changed in the least. And in the final analysis, that is all one can look at in deciding the relative truthfulness of different communions. You can only look at the books, because compromisers and nominalists are found everywhere.

Supposing that Catholicism does have some exhaustive list of what items of doctrine are "dogmatic", and cannot be denied without the loss of divine faith (and no one has rushed to produce such a list in response to my requests before),

Invest in a copy of Denzinger or Ludwig Ott (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma). That will do the trick. There are differing levels of authority even within the category of "infallibility," as Ott explains. Furthermore, some teachings, though not technically infallible, are still binding on Catholics.

it still appears to me that you are interested in making claims about items that probably do not belong on that list. For example, is there a precise orthodox standard in Catholicism for how much self-knowledge we are required to believe that Christ possessed of his nature and mission?

Yes. See my paper: Mary's Knowledge About Jesus' Divinity (and Jesus' Own Knowledge). Furthermore, this is already fairly clear in Scripture itself, which teaches that Jesus possessed all knowledge, as a Divine Person, e.g.,:

JOHN 16:30 Now are we sure that thou knowest all things, and needest not that any man should ask thee: by this we believe that thou camest forth from God. (KJV)

JOHN 18:4 Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, . . .

JOHN 21:17 . . . Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee . . .

(see dozens of other biblical indications of knowing the future, etc., as compiled in my paper (section VI): Jesus is God: Biblical Proofs.

I think you are merely reacting to a diffuse sense that Brown (and Wright, Edwin, etc) have gone "too far".

Insofar as they exceed the bounds of "orthodoxy" and claim to represent a particular faith tradition, absolutely. A Catholic historian ought to be a Catholic historian. It's a very simple concept. If he no longer is, then he should get honest with himself and separate the adjective "Catholic" from his academic work.

There are a few specific things that we know that Jesus knew (e.g., that he would be crucified), one specific thing that we know he claimed not to know (the day and hour of the Parousia), and after that it's a matter of broad and weakly-evidenced speculation. Is there a Catholic dogma of Christ's self-knowledge? How was it defined? Can you send me a copy of what it permits and precludes? I personally would not regard anything in excess of the Biblical record on this matter to be a matter of dogma-- although I certainly have my own expectations about the sort of revelations that Jesus might have received from his Father through prayer, Torah study, and the various theophany-events of the NT. What's wrong admitting the limitations of our understanding of the Incarnation, and the psychological dimension of kenosis? I can remember in philosophy having a symposium on the question of whether any of us can know what it is like to "be" some species of animal, at the level of consciousness and self-awareness. If that is a difficult thing to imagine, heaven forbid we should be too forward in assuming we know exactly what it means to be a God come in the flesh! This just seems like a poor choice of material to dogmatize about.

Granted, it is a very complex area, and I certainly am no expert on it, but Catholics and Orthodox and conservative Anglicans and other more historically-minded Christians would contend that the Council of Chalcedon (451) defined these matters in its treatment of the Hypostatic Union or the Two Natures of Christ. The Fathers taught that Jesus had fullness of knowledge as a result of the Hypostatic Union. Catholics hold that Jesus possessed the Beatific Vision while He was on earth (in which resides all knowledge). This was reaffirmed by Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Mystici Corporis ("Mystical Body"), on June 29, 1943. Furthermore:

Among the theological errors of the modernists condemned by
Lamentabili (1907) issued by the Holy Office during the reign of
Pope St. Pius X were these propositions concerning the
knowledge of Christ:

32. It is impossible to reconcile the obvious meaning of the Gospel
texts with the teaching of our theologians about the consciousness
and the infallible knowledge of Jesus Christ.

33. It is evident to any unprejudiced person either that Jesus taught
erroneously about the proximity of the Messianic Coming, or else
that a major portion of His teaching contained in the Synoptic
Gospels is not authentic.

34. It is impossible for a critical exegete to attribute unlimited
knowledge to Christ, unless he makes a supposition that is
inconceivable historically and repugnant to moral sense: namely,
that as man Christ had God's knowledge and yet was unwilling to
communicate so many things to His disciples and to posterity.

35. Christ did not always have the consciousness of His Messianic
dignity.

In the motu proprio Praestantia (November 18, 1907) St. Pius
X confirmed Lamentabili together with his encyclical Pascendi
thereby strengthening their magisterial import.

(from the article, "The Human Knowledge of Christ," by John O'Connell, The Catholic Faith, March/April 1997)

Moreover, in the Decree of the Holy Office, June 5, 1918, under Pope Benedict XV, "Certain Propositions on Knowledge of the Soul of Christ," these ideas are condemned:
I. It is not established that there was in the soul of Christ while living among men the knowledge which the blessed and the comprehensors have [cf. Phil. 3:12-13].

II. Nor can the opinion be called certain which has established that the soul of Christ was ignorant of nothing, but from the beginning knew all things in the Word, past, present, future, or all things that God knows by the knowledge of vision.

III. The opinion of certain more recent persons on the limited knowledge of the soul of Christ is to be accepted in Catholic schools . . .

(Denzinger, ibid., #2183-2185, pp. 561-562)

Thus, Catholics (including even the big shot, famous scholarly exegetes and historians) are not at liberty to deny this doctrine. Protestants may have their own criteria, but these are ours.

The passage about not knowing the day or hour is usually explained as a voluntary limitation of His Human Nature, on the basis of the kenosis of Philippians 2, or as a deliberate "teaching strategy," where the people were not entitled to that knowledge (see Acts 1:7). But Jesus, in His Divine Nature, knew everything.

Purely for the sake of clarification, I should note that I don't want to make the objection that I think it's permissible to believe that Jesus had "inaccessible" knowledge, any more than I believe that he possessed "inaccessible" power (i.e., it would be possible, at the level of divine prerogative, to gain insight, summon legions of angels, etc.) The question is whether he would have voluntarily accepted the burden of requiring teaching for the sake of a full human experience. It seems quite difficult for me to imagine that Jesus could have been like us in every way (save sin) if he didn't set aside some portion of omniscience and go through the mechanics of studying Torah the same way other Jewish children did. So I guess I wouldn't say that we are obligated to believe that Jesus did get a perfect score on every test he took in his youth, only that he could have if he thought that was a correct use of his power in pursuit of the mission he was given. I don't feel like I have enough data to say one way or the other, and so I'm open to at least the possibility that Jesus was formally omniscient, in the sense of just "knowing everything all the time", and "pretending" to make errors or feigning ignorance as a teaching strategy. But it still smells a little too docetic for my tastes, and I think some intermediate view is more likely-- that Jesus, even when he did have supernatural knowledge, still received that supernatural knowledge in limited dosages, and through the labors of prayer, reading, fasting, etc. The same, of course, could be said of the Incarnation in general. Christ didn't need to go through the unpleasantness of spending nine months in a womb, and being born under rather trying circumstances. He could have appeared to us in a flash of light as a fully grown, 30-year-old man ready to start his ministry. Saying that Jesus could know fact X "just because he was omniscient" is a little like saying that Jesus probably never needed to worry about going hungry, because he could turn stones into bread. Technically true, but something I imagine he would have resisted the temptation to draw upon, for deeper motivations.

This is not different (as far as I can tell) from the opinion of Protestant theologians Charles Hodge (Presbyterian) and Augustus Strong (Baptist). Hodge writes that it "is a fact that the Scriptures attribute omniscience to Christ . . . We must admit that He had a human as well as a divine intelligence" (Systematic Theology, abridged by Edward N. Gross, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988, 28). Strong states: "the divine nature in itself is incapable of ignorance . . . the divine Savior can suffer and be ignorant as a man, not in his divine nature, but derivatively, by virtue of his possession of a human nature" (Systematic Theology, Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., three volumes in one, 1907, 697). See also:

"The Double Consciousness of Christ," Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., Faith & Reason, Spring, 1987.

The Humanity of Christ, Romano Guardini [link]

What you are throwing towards Edwin is a slippery-slope argument that all Christianity must stand or fall together.

In principle, I think this can be defended. In practice (an examination of the history of theological liberalism) it can be said without fear of contradiction that when certain doctrines are ditched, the strong tendency over time (in individuals and schools and denominations) is for others to be discarded. Obviously, the dilution of Scriptural authority, for example, has grim potential for the undermining of all Christian dogma. Hence Pope Benedict XV condemned the notion that the Bible was not inerrant in its historical aspect, in his encyclical, Spiritus Paraclitus, September 15, 1920:

16. . . . our predecessor of happy memory, Leo XIII, declared to be the ancient and traditional belief of the Church touching the absolute immunity of Scripture from error: our predecessor of happy memory, Leo XIII, declared to be the ancient and traditional belief of the Church touching the absolute immunity of Scripture from error:
So far is it from being the case that error can be compatible with inspiration, that, on the contrary, it not only of its very nature precludes the presence of error, but as necessarily excludes it and forbids it as God, the Supreme Truth, necessarily cannot be the Author of error.

[Providentissimus Deus, "On The Study of Holy Scripture," November 1893; quote from Denzinger, #1951]

So far is it from being the case that error can be compatible with inspiration, that, on the contrary, it not only of its very nature precludes the presence of error, but as necessarily excludes it and forbids it as God, the Supreme Truth, necessarily cannot be the Author of error.

18. But although these words of our predecessor leave no room for doubt or dispute, it grieves us to find that not only men outside, but even children of the Catholic Church - nay, what is a peculiar sorrow to us, even clerics and professors of sacred learning - who in their own conceit either openly repudiate or at least attack in secret the Church's teaching on this point.

We warmly commend, of course, those who, with the assistance of critical methods, seek to discover new ways of explaining the difficulties in Holy Scripture, whether for their own guidance or to help others. But we remind them that they will only come to miserable grief if they neglect our predecessor's injunctions and overstep the limits set by the Fathers.

19. Yet no one can pretend that certain recent writers really adhere to these limitations. For while conceding that inspiration extends to every phrase - and, indeed, to every single word of Scripture - yet, by endeavoring to distinguish between what they style the primary or religious and the secondary or profane element in the Bible, they claim that the effect of inspiration - namely, absolute truth and immunity from error - are to be restricted to that primary or religious element. Their notion is that only what concerns religion is intended and taught by God in Scripture, and that all the rest - things concerning "profane knowledge," the garments in which Divine truth is presented - God merely permits, and even leaves to the individual author's greater or less knowledge. Small wonder, then, that in their view a considerable number of things occur in the Bible touching physical science, history and the like, which cannot be reconciled with modern progress in science!

20. Some even maintain that these views do not conflict with what our predecessor laid down since - so they claim - he said that the sacred writers spoke in accordance with the external - and thus deceptive - appearance of things in nature. But the Pontiff's own words show that this is a rash and false deduction. For sound philosophy teaches that the senses can never be deceived as regards their own proper and immediate object. Therefore, from the merely external appearance of things - of which, of course, we have always to take account as Leo XIII, following in the footsteps of St. Augustine and St. Thomas, most wisely remarks - we can never conclude that there is any error in Sacred Scripture.

21. Moreover, our predecessor, sweeping aside all such distinctions between what these critics are pleased to call primary and secondary elements, says in no ambiguous fashion that "those who fancy that when it is a question of the truth of certain expressions we have not got to consider so much what God said as why He said it," are very far indeed from the truth. He also teaches that Divine inspiration extends to every part of the Bible without the slightest exception, and that no error can occur in the inspired text:

It would be wholly impious to limit inspiration to certain portions only of Scripture or to concede that the sacred authors themselves could have erred.

[Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus]

22. Those, too, who hold that the historical portions of Scripture do not rest on the absolute truth of the facts but merely upon what they are pleased to term their relative truth, namely, what people then commonly thought, are - no less than are the aforementioned critics - out of harmony with the Church's teaching, which is endorsed by the testimony of Jerome and other Fathers. Yet they are not afraid to deduce such views from the words of Leo XIII on the ground that he allowed that the principles he had laid down touching the things of nature could be applied to historical things as well. Hence they maintain that precisely as the sacred writers spoke of physical things according to appearance, so, too, while ignorant of the facts, they narrated them in accordance with general opinion or even on baseless evidence; neither do they tell us the sources whence they derived their knowledge, nor do they make other peoples' narrative their own. Such views are clearly false, and constitute a calumny on our predecessor. After all, what analogy is there between physics and history? For whereas physics is concerned with "sensible appearances" and must consequently square with phenomena, history on the contrary, must square with the facts, since history is the written account of events as they actually occurred. If we were to accept such views, how could we maintain the truth insisted on throughout Leo XIII's Encyclical - viz. that the sacred narrative is absolutely free from error?

23. And if Leo XIII does say that we can apply to history and cognate subjects the same principles which hold good for science, he yet does not lay this down as a universal law, but simply says that we can apply a like line of argument when refuting the fallacies of adversaries and defending the historical truth of Scripture from their assaults.

24. Nor do modern innovators stop here: they even try to claim St. Jerome as a patron of their views on the ground that he maintained that historic truth and sequence were not observed in the Bible, "precisely as things actually took place, but in accordance with what men thought at that time," and that he even held that this was the true norm for history. [In Jer., 23:15-17; In Matt., 14:8; Adv. Helv., 4] A strange distortion of St. Jerome's words! He does not say that when giving us an account of events the writer was ignorant of the truth and simply adopted the false views then current; he merely says that in giving names to persons or things he followed general custom. Thus the Evangelist calls St. Joseph the father of Jesus, but what he meant by the title "father" here is abundantly clear from the whole context. For St. Jerome "the true norm of history" is this: when it is question of such appellatives (as "father," etc), and when there is no danger or error, then a writer must adopt the ordinary forms of speech simply because such forms of speech are in ordinary use. More than this: Jerome maintains that belief in the Biblical narrative is as necessary to salvation as is belief in the doctrines of the faith; thus in his Commentary on the Epistle to Philemon he says:

What I mean is this: Does any man believe in God the Creator? He cannot do so unless he first believe that the things written of God's Saints are true.
He then gives examples from the Old Testament, and adds:
Now unless a man believes all these and other things too which are written of the Saints he cannot believe in the God of the Saints.

[In Philem., 4]

25. Thus St. Jerome is in complete agreement with St. Augustine, who sums up the general belief of Christian antiquity when he says:
Holy Scripture is invested with supreme authority by reason of its sure and momentous teachings regarding the faith. Whatever, then, it tells us of Enoch, Elias and Moses - that we believe. We do not, for instance, believe that God's Son was born of the Virgin Mary simply because He could not otherwise have appeared in the flesh and 'walked amongst men' - as Faustus would have it - but we believe it simply because it is written in Scripture; and unless we believe in Scripture we can neither be Christians nor be saved.

[Contra Faustum, 26, 3, 6]

26. Then there are other assailants of Holy Scripture who misuse principles - which are only sound, if kept within due bounds - in order to overturn the fundamental truth of the Bible and thus destroy Catholic teaching handed down by the Fathers. If Jerome were living now he would sharpen his keenest controversial weapons against people who set aside what is the mind and judgment of the Church, and take too ready a refuge in such notions as "implicit quotations" or "pseudo-historical narratives," or in "kinds of literature" in the Bible such as cannot be reconciled with the entire and perfect truth of God's word, or who suggest such origins of the Bible as must inevitably weaken - if not destroy - its authority.
(http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xv/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xv_enc_15091920_spiritus-paraclitus_en.html)
(partially cited in Denzinger, #2186-2188, ibid., pp. 562-564)
In circles more conservative than the ones we frequent, it is applied not to the chronologially earliest accounts of the NT (the Nativities of Matthew and Luke), but to the chronologically earliest accounts of the OT (the Creations of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2). How is your slope any more slippery than the one that leads from Young Earth Creation to Day Age Creation to a non-concordist Theistic Evolution? As I understand it, Catholic dogma requires some basic affirmation of the existence of a historical Adam and Eve, and a Fall, but otherwise grants great latitude with respect to the material in Genesis 1.

Correct.

Why isn't this an instance of tap-dancing of the same sort you accuse Edwin, when he wants to take Luke more literally than Matthew?

Because it is a serious position on the different types of literature in the Bible, unlike the fundamentalists who notoriously misunderstand this and adopt hyper-literalism. Luke and Matthew are obviously intended as historical narrative, though not conventional biographies. Speculating as to whether Jesus actually said much of what He is recorded to have said in the Gospels (as Brown does) is a far cry from accepting that Eve literally ate an apple (even the type of fruit isn't specified in Genesis).

"Apple" obviously goes beyond the text, so I'll let that pass as an example not just of fundamentalism, but of "stupid" fundamentalism. But why is it so "obvious" that Luke and Matthew are intended as historical narrative in a different way than Genesis 2? They look pretty similar to me.

For many reasons: the grand, plausibly allegorical nature of the early chapters of Genesis; the difficulty of synthesizing a hyper-literal reading with science (e.g., how can there be vegetation and life and photosynthesis on the first three "days" without the sun and the moon, created on the fourth "day"? -- this would suggest a non-chronological, non-literal, non-"scientific" interpretation); the plausibly allegorical nature of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" and partaking of its fruit as a means to describe the inner stance of rebellion against God, etc.
The text seems to become purely narrative and historical only in chapter four (at least at a cursory glance). Matthew and Luke clearly don't involve such a grand change of literary style and subject matter. Matthew begins with a genealogy; Luke with a blatantly historiographical sort of recounting of how the intellectual Dr. Luke compiled his source materials.

Both of them flow directly into later text that is undeniably historical, with no obvious break.

I think Genesis 4 is a fairly clear break from what came before. Luke and Matthew always are historical. I don't see that they are not. John's Gospel is the one which starts out all mystical and theological (though not allegorical), rather than historical.

Both of them are connected with that material by the use of lengthy genealogies.

I don't have to claim that the whole book of Genesis is un-historical (that would be rather foolish and impossible to do); only that the early portions are likely allegorical, though they are describing real events in space-time and "history," indeed. Catholics believe even that John 6 does this; that Jesus talks symbolically or parabolically in the earlier part and then becomes hyper-literal.

Both of them involve the same sorts of supernatural agency (e.g., angelic messengers and divine revelations). There is ample evidence in Christian history for an orthodox consensus in favor taking quite literally the account in Genesis 2.

It is describing real events, but the description need not be literal. It's the difference between reading a news report of, say, one's wedding and reading a poem that the bride or groom wrote about it. Both refer to a real event, but the style is vastly different.

Your "genre" argument is the product of an awareness of precisely the sort of historical-critical studies that you find objectionable above.

There are degrees to that, as you well know. The higher critics have a prior hostility to Holy Scripture with which they initially approach it. They deny inspiration and inerrancy, etc. The Catholic view or the simple acknowledgment of different literary genres does no such thing. It's mostly just common sense combined with traditional faith. I believe in faith that Jesus said what is recorded in the Bible, and that God supernaturally preserved His words, and that this is not inconsistent with secular research methods of verifying same. Fr. Raymond Brown, on the other hand, thinks that Jesus said very little of what is recorded. That is contrary to the historical faith of Christians, Catholic or Protestant.

I'm not saying you can't make a good case for the distinction, I'm just saying that the case will require you to draw on the scholarship of those who would have been considered quite "liberal" by the standards of mid-19th century Catholicism.

In some instances, possibly, yes. One has to exercise much discernment. I refuse to give people much credence (at least in an overall sense -- of course they can get some particulars right) who pretend to be what they are not (orthodox Catholics or Protestants). I would rather read an atheist exegete -- though they are execrably pathetic and thoroughly illogical; I've debated some of them) than a liberal professed Christian who views the Bible the way a butcher looks at a side of beef or a big fat living hog ready for slaughter.

(Again, I'll set aside the more radical claim assigned to Brown-- fairly or not I don't know-- that Jesus said virtually none of the things attributed to him. That's obviously not my own position, and I would find it more difficult to rescue Christianity from that more exaggerated strain of skepticism.)

As far as I understand from his critics, this was his position.

Certainly we can say that virtually 100% of Unitarians accept a highly non-literal reading of Genesis,

And virtually 100% reject original sin.

and we can further point out that if someone remains a Young-Earth Creationist, then his odds of becoming a Unitarian are quite slim. Does that mean that, in the interest of cutting short the slide toward Unitarianism, we should demand that all Christians take all portions of the Creation stories in a uniform, strongly literal sense?

The question at hand is not literalism vs. allegory, but acceptance of the Bible as it presents itself, and as it has been interpreted (broadly speaking) throughout history by the great Fathers and Doctors. I've cited magisterial documents that will not countenance a watering-down of the inerrant historical details in Scripture, or separate faith from history and rationality. This is precisely what the liberals do. But it is not a Catholic outlook. Presumably, that is not in question anymore, after all my documentation of our official teaching.

Unless we commit to an inflexible radicalism at one end of the spectrum or the other, a certain measure of "inconsistency" and tension is inevitable. We're all liberals to someone, and we're all conservatives to someone else. I don't see much utility in the deployment of slippery-slope rationales, when all of use are already halfway down the slippery slopes of any number of ultratraditionalist and fundamentalist polemicists.

Be that as it may . . . it doesn't overcome my overall argument. The history of the follies and foibles of liberal theologians and historians and exegetes is what it is.

Nor do I see any reason why Edwin might not, ten years from now, continue to make the same frustratingly nuanced and balanced scholarly opinions that he does today, without morphing any closer to the grinning visage of Bishop Spong.

He very well may. It is only a probabilistic speculation and a warning to someone I respect to be "careful," no more. "He who doesn't learn from the mistakes of the past is condemned to repeat them."

If you want to make a clear argument why, for its own sake, the historicity of Matthew's Infancy Narrative should be a foundational matter of Christian orthodoxy, then I'm willing to hear it.

In short, because historical arguments of Christianity depend almost solely on the historical accuracy of the narratives (as not much additional ancient documentation exists). If you take away the latter, the former is left with very little rational support, and experience shows that the next generation will usually reject it out of hand on that very basis.

I'm already inclined to grant enormous deference to the traditional view that Matthew is distinct from Luke merely as a consequence of using an independent source (someone from Joseph's side of the family, quite plausibly James, as opposed to Luke's dependence on Mary or one of her intimates),

But that is irrelevant to our discussion, which has to do with radical reinterpretation of the traditional understandings of the Gospels and biblical narrative in general.

so all you would need to convince me is that the traditional exegetical model is dogmatic in force, such that anyone who denies it would be a heretic.

From a Catholic perspective, yes. You (not being bound to that), are free to fend for yourself, aren't you? But perhaps you have respect for elements in Catholicism which seek to preserve Christian Tradition and can be influenced by what I have presented.

How does Catholicism, with its greater toolset of councils and magisterial guidance, allow you to make that case for me? How is that case "enforced"?

Catholic exegetes are bound to do their work in harmony with Catholic dogma, just as Calvinists are bound to do their work in harmony with Calvinist dogma. Such a notion is not rocket science.

If a Catholic seminary professor remarks to the effect that Herod didn't really kill all those babies and the flight to Egypt was a pious myth, how does a pew-level Catholic, without the benefit of extensive readings in the Armstrong personal theological library, recognize that this is wrong, while understanding that hedging on, say, the literal reading of Genesis 1 is well within the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy?

By accepting the authoritative teachings of his Church, which has condemned such wanton disregard for both inerrancy of Scripture, and the historical nature of that narrative.

Thanks for challenging me to come up with this documentation. It will be very helpful to many, I think. I've certainly learned a lot of particulars, by scanning these documents in the course of my research today.

Edward Hamilton made some helpful and interesting additional remarks:

. . . my first inclination is to look at the academic world and divide it into people who seem to have an agenda oriented toward destroying Christianity and undermining faith, and those who are trying to salvage it as a respectable position in the academic world. The latter project, necessarily, doesn't look much like the Christianity presented in the catechisms I read growing up. The assumptions are stripped down to the ropes, and every point needs to be meticulously constructed and buffered against every angle of attack. Blame Descartes if you like, but there will never be a paper in the Harvard Theological Review entitled "Was Jesus God?", where the entire body consists of the word "Yes", and the bibliography lists only "John 1:1". There is, to be sure, plenty of intervening ground for making more or less "skeptic-friendly" arguments for Christianity. But the academic world is going to dominated, for the foreseeable future, by a bunch of folks who snort soda out their noses the moment they hear a conference presenter talking about the Transfiguration as if it were a historical event, and that creates a need for conservative-minded academics to find less confrontational ways of justifying classical Christian thought in front of highly skeptical audiences.

Now, if Brown goes out of his way to antagonize conservatives unnecessarily, I agree that this might be a sign that he has sold his soul to the idea of respectability. But there are other possibilities for that kind of rhetoric. Sometimes, I think it is a 'Sister Souljah' stiff-arming designed to maintain street credibility in the academic world, a way of saying "I'm not like the people you skeptics routinely ignore as beneath your notice, and you should take me more seriously". Frankly, I think this kind of politicking is an embarrassment to the idea of academic neutrality, and a sign of how deeply entrenched biases really are, but it nonetheless happens with regularity. In Protestant circles, I think, the preferred practice is to regularly haul out "whipping-boys" from a different confessional background for mockery: post-millennialist professors can mock the pre-tribulation rapture crowd, or Arminian scholars can sniff at the idea of discovering TULIP in Romans. The need to find a group of "hardliners" or "fundamentalists" to contrast oneself with is not unusual, especially when being pressured from certain sectors. (Happens in the world of online apologetics, too-- I think that [name] used his feuds with certain Catholic personalities as a way of deflecting criticism from NTRMin, at least until it was no longer possible.)

An alternate reason for moderate antagonism of conservatives is just the frustration of being knifed in the back. The conservative thinks (perhaps a bit patronisingly) that he is defending the simple-minded faith of the masses by answering tough questions that they could never hand themselves. He sets aside the standard proof-texts for basic Christian doctrines, then spends years laboriously constructing alternative ways of reproving the same ideas from texts that are less susceptible to critical exegesis-- showing the Resurrection as an essential feature of primitive Christian communities relying only upon the "early" Pauline letters, or proving the Incarnation from exclusively Marcan/"Q" material. He thinks he's devoted his life to reaffirming Christianity in the face of its enemies, but instead of receiving praise, he gets backlash from the lay-level conservatives who feel like the idea that such a project is necessary in the first place is an implicit criticism of their faith. So they accuse him of "selling out", and he feels like he's been stabbed in the back by the people who should be grateful to him. Again, this is a consequence of human weakness (alas, theologians seems to have been granted the fault of arrogance in great abundance), but again, it really enjoins me to sympathy and milder treatment, rather than an escalating retaliation cycle that tries to drive the moderate theologian out of orthodoxy entirely, on the grounds of forcing him to be "honest" about his liberalism.

Well, those are at least two other reasons I can see for "name-calling". Of course, the real question is whether hostile polemics are being uniquely leveled against conservative critics-- if so, then the "moderate" may indeed really be a closet liberal trying to remain within some communion for personal reasons, or for the sake of subverting it from within. But if its someone who routinely risks disapproval from his own academic peers for submitting to the authority of teachings from his own confession, I'm inclined to be courteous, and give him the benefit of the doubt whenever possible.

Another of my benchmarks for liberalism is whether it translates into excessive enthusiasm for ethically "progressive" positions on litmus-test issues like abortion and sexual ethics. If I can detect an agenda for why someone wants to chip away at the authority of specific texts, it becomes easier for me to justify the visceral reaction you describe in terms of fearing that the Church is following the mainline Protestant trajectory. And I generally appreciate the concern that (to paraphrase a dictum of Neuhaus) wherever orthodoxy doesn't remain mandatory, it will eventually become forbidden. In that regard, I consider intolerance to be another foundational benchmark of someone becoming liberal, since the tendency of real liberalism is to squeeze out orthodoxy, the same way that bad money drives out good. That's why even in debates where I remain formally noncommittal, like women's ordination, I still stay far away from anyone I
see arguing that the more traditional position is "offensive" or "outmoded", or other arguments that might be omens of a coming purge. On the other hand, if I see people making skeptical-sounding arguments, but they remain friendly with conservative groups, and reliable on ethical touchstone issues, then I assume that the "moderate" stance is more of a tactical one. It also helps if I have some evidence that the person in question has an active personal spiritual life in concrete areas like prayer and church attendance.

. . . I do draw the line at anything that suggests that 99% of all Christians throughout history should be considered beneficiaries of a lucky accident, having believed truths for totally misguided reasons, and only vindicated at last by the emergence of brilliant theologians at the end of the 20th century.

. . . I consider it inevitable that Catholicism will eventually be afflicted with a "liberal" Pope, and that conservative Catholics will need to re-evaluate their ecclesiology in a way that will be more deferential to the criticisms of Protestants. If there isn't one, and I end up being proven empirically wrong about this, that would be about as clear a sign that Catholicism was being privileged with some unique supernatural guidance as any other miracle I could request, dry fleece or wet. I'm quite serious and open-minded about all this.

This is always the hope of the liberals (not saying you are a liberal; just making the "sociological" comment that came into my head): a "liberal" reforming pope is soon coming who will purge all the triumphalism and dead, outdated, irrational, unbiblical dogma and "Protestantize" the Catholic Church to make it more "reasonable" and "biblical" and suitably "tolerant" and "with it" so forth. They thought (as you may know) they had this sort of person with Pope John XXIII and his calling of the Second Vatican Council and "opening the windows of the Church," etc. But of course (as a demonstrably factual matter) he wasn't a liberal. He was as perfectly orthodox as any other recent pope, and simply favored (as I certainly do, and as you alluded to) different tactics of presenting Catholic dogma, to make it more accessible to modern man, without changing it in the least. This was the theme of Vatican II.

Both Catholic liberals and so-called "traditionalists" take this tack with John XXIII and Vatican II, but with one important difference: the liberals (since they didn't really get what they wanted in the Council) simply play games with the documents and the facts about John XXIII and pretend that both were liberal (much as, e.g., John F. Kennedy "became far more liberal after he died," as a democratic socialist political science professor I know once stated). Kennedy was far more politically conservative than his myth (likewise with the theology and spirituality of John XXIII, who also died in 1963).

Thus, we had the notorious "spirit of Vatican II," which -- translated for the non-cynical -- meant, "the re-interpretation of the orthodox council so that we can pretend it was liberal and hoodwink the ignorant masses with our little dishonest and historically and theologically-revisionist subterfuge." If you can't get what you want, pretend that what really happened is something other than it was. This is the liberal mentality.

Now, the "traditionalists" with whom we are afflicted today in greater and greater numbers, have bought the liberal lie. They now agree that the Council was liberal and that it contradicted earlier dogma. So they reject it (at least the more consistent ones among them) because they (in agreement with orthodox Catholics like myself) don't want such change (which they erroneously believe Vatican II brought about). Some of the way out "traditionalists" (called sedevacantists) even think that there has been no valid pope since Pius XII. But this breaks down upon close inspection because Pius XII can also be shown to be an advocate of the ecumenism that these people so despise, and which was a hallmark of Vatican II and of John Paul II's pontificate.

Now the fun question (in my mind) for you is to ask: "at what point do you decide that there will indeed never be a "liberal" pope who truly changes theoretically-unchangeable doctrines?" You're fairly young now (28, I believe). Let's say it goes another 50 years and this hoped-for event does not occur. Does that make you become inclined to convert (or seriously consider it as a result of the 50 year "failure"), at age 78, like a latter-day Malcolm Muggeridge (who was received at age 79 in 1982)?

Of course I would say as a Catholic and student of our history, that the past history of the papacy is already quite extraordinarily sufficient to prove (as much as such things can prove) that there is a supernatural guidance. From our perspective, the only thing that could (historically) overthrow papal infallibility as we conceive of it and believe it in faith, is a pope promulgating ex cathedra (i.e., the very highest level of infallibility) a doctrine which absolutely contradicts previous dogma. This has never happened, and that is already remarkable enough, it seems to me (astonishingly so).

The best case (in the opinions of those who present it) brought up to supposedly contradict this orthodox Catholic belief (from Hans Kung and all the usual suspects) is Pope Honorius and his supposed espousal of the heresy monothelitism. But that is easily shot down, since the hard evidence in question occurred in merely private letters. In other words, by definition, this could not possibly have been an ex cathedra announcement, binding on all Catholics, because it was private correspondence! Whether he was personally a heretic (opinions differ) is, therefore, beside the point. Most Catholics agree, I believe (and I agree) that a pope could personally be a heretic. We think that God will not allow him to change any dogma or subvert the Catholic faith so that it is something different from what it is and always has been.

So at what point, and with how much evidence, are you convinced that "unique supernatural guidance" is established by the non-actuality of the "Protestantizing" or otherwise "contra-Catholic" or "contra-traditional" pope? If you think this has already happened, then that becomes your burden: showing how Honorius or whomever else is brought forth (Vigilius, Liberius) has already done what you think should happen in the near future (and that his needed innovations were overwhelmed by later "hard-nosed" popes and councils). Failing that, I think you have somewhat backed yourself back into a corner and must admit that something unique is happening with regard to supernatural protection of the Catholic Church and its popes.

We keep going ahead as we always were and haven't changed either our dogmas or moral teaching (like them or no), whereas Protestants constantly tend to go that route (even the Orthodox have caved into the zeitgeist with regard to contraception). Folks like me see this as the glory of the Catholic Church, and a major reason why we converted. I wanted undiluted (yet inevitably developed) apostolic Christianity, looked around, and saw it (all together, rather than piecemeal) only in one place, after all was said and done. I had previously thought that some self-selected amalgam or potpourri of Protestant beliefs was the only possibility (hence, my eclectic set of beliefs as a Protestant, a bit like yourself), but then, reading Cardinal Newman's Essay on the Development of Dogma convinced me that the "apostolic deposit" resided, in fact, in its fullness, in the Catholic Church.

Uploaded on 27 December 2003 by Dave Armstrong.

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