Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Reformed Catholicism

It's been a long time since I've given any serious thought to the topic of Roman Catholicism. As priorities go, it ranks down there with Scientology and Mormonism. But, even without the Pope's death, Catholicism is coming up on my radar screen with some in the Reformed camp taking a more-than-passing interest in it.

James White's website alerted me to the existence of a blog titled Reformed Catholicism which claims to be "Classically Protestant and Constructively catholic." There's something about that tagline that puts me off, partly because I've never considered the Reformed church as being incomplete or non-catholic apart from Rome any more than I think we need formal ties to Benny Hinn. The church is already catholic without someone trying to build a temporal empire.

Don't get me wrong, I'm entirely covenantal. I covet the unity of the church across the millennia in the word and sacrament, and believe that many minds are less likely to err than one. But, I don't believe that the body of Christ is only properly reified as a 501(c)3 corporation. No one has trouble with the notion of "academia" being a real and vital one, even if all Universities don't answer to single board of trustees. There is a lucid and compelling union of the churches found in the scriptural doctrine, shared history, and rich culture of Christianity. I'm not convinced that spooky theories concerning the mysteries of the sacraments (above and beyond what the scriptures and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms teach) add anything to faith, at least when viewed from a long perspective.

Anyway, I've been observing, and occasionally interacting with, Catholic apologists. Apparently, they have gotten annoyed at having lost so many converts to Protestant arguments from the scriptures, and have started to fight back. Catholic apologetics now ring with constant claims that Catholicism is "biblical." They even try to deal with specific Bible passages to make their claims. Fundamentally, though, they try to take exclusive control of the scriptures.

The primary claim of Rome vis-a-vis the scriptures is that, since "the church" ratified the canon of scripture at Nicea in AD 325, the Vatican now "owns" the scriptures, and to interpret them in a way incongruous with Rome's representations is not allowed. How recognition of the merit of scripture should be elevated above the generation of the text is unclear to me. My recognizing that Handel is a great composer does not make me a master musician. Rome may have the ability to discern the power of scripture (properly understood, the scripture testifies to its own glory), but this is a very different thing from being master over it.

Claiming sole authority over the scriptures allows people to get away with sloppy interpretation. To call some of the Catholic exegesis I've seen sloppy is too charitable. Some of it leaves the impression of listening for content to glossolalia -- one concentrates on the babble of syllables trying to pull out some content, and eventually gives up in frustration. It's as if all rules of logical inference and deductive reasoning were suspended, to be replaced by an alchemical ability to find core doctrines in the white space between words. Isaiah talks about his sins being purged with fire. The exegetical Catholic starts with this, and diving into a churning ocean of syntax, at some length, emerges on the other side with the doctrine of purgatory between his teeth.

I'm already finding this tedious. Presbyterian exegesis is challenging and worthwhile because it is an open process. Some parts of scripture are difficult to understand, but I know where I can go to learn about the archeology, culture, or systematics needed to properly compose them. If somebody with a greater grasp of the sweep of the Judeo-Christian narrative constructs an inference beyond my ability to construct, I can examine their conclusions using basic principles that can be explained and justified.

When the Catholic comes to scripture with his doctrines already ratified, and insists that his intuitions or magisterial traditions are conclusive, we're left without the ability to discuss anything. Not surprisingly, many Protestant-Catholic dialogs quickly become posturing contests: who can appear more authoritative, less petty, or better informed. I don't think there's any point to it until everybody involved is willing to accept what the text says on face value. Trying to discuss exegesis with a man who already has an "infallible" interpretation is like trying to teach a pig to sing; it only frustrates you and annoys the pig.


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