Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Problem Solved: Three Responses to the Epistemic Challenge

This weekend I was discussing with a Presbyterian friend the issue of Epistemological certainty, and the comparison of Sola Scriptura with the Catholic understanding of Scripture, Tradition, and Magesterium. As I understood it, his challenge was that while Sola Scriptura is an after-the-fact method of discerning truth hierarchically, so is Papal Supremacy (which is necessarily the Roman position as our Church is defined as all those bishops, clergy, and laity in communion with Rome, which could reduce to Rome alone if it came down to it). This coupled with a wonderful service at an Anglo-Catholic church, and my own existential problems in Roman Catholicism, and obviously with my sin, combined altogether into one big crisis.

The First Response:

The first response I had from a friend who is likewise a convert was this: that the Pope is like the President in the American legislation, he is the executive and can veto bills which are difficult to overturn, he has majority support (at least when he enters), etc. But one would be incorrect to say that 'only' the President rules. A better example for a Canadian like me, focusing in British History, is the idea of King in Parliament. The ideal British view of government is to have a King-in-Parliament system whereby Parliament does their own thing, but is guided in rough times by the King. When the King becomes (or is perceived to become) to radical (Charles I), he gets beheaded and chaos breaks out. This reminds me of the Great Schism where 3 men claimed to be popes, until a council was called which shamed them into resignation one by one. This is the response to the Papacy alone argument - which in fairness, I don't think my Presbyterian friend was claiming, but merely an issue I had myself.

The Second Response:

I read on Called To Communion the articles on Sola Scriptura. The problem was, what we were discussing was more of a Scripture as supreme authority, rather than the only authority. This issue hasn't completely been resolved. The guys at Called To Communion argue that Sola Scriptura aways reduces to Solo Scriptura. To be honest I haven't read that post yet, so I will leave that as a contention for later discussion. Anyway I emailed the guys at the blog about this quandry and they responded thus (I hope they aren't pissed that I put their email up).

Dear Andrew,

Have you read Tom Brown's article on the canon? He shows why the Reformed position is deficient and it cannot be turned around on the Catholic position because we are under two entirely different frameworks. Since we Catholics do not claim sola scriptura, we are free to say that the Church infallibly selected the canon. But Protestants cannot do that because to do so would violate sola scriptura. Here is his article:


On the epistemic issue.. You asked if Catholicism was self authenticating like Protestantism. One thing to keep in mind is that Protestantism is not even self authenticating; it's self refuting. They teach sola scriptura but the scriptures do not. So there is nothing in the Protestant position that actually authenticates what
they say. Let's compare the situation to Jesus. How do we know Christianity is
right and Judaism is wrong? Well because Jesus is God. (i.e. because Christianity is right) :-) How do Jews know Judaism is right and Christianity is wrong? Well because Jesus is not God. (i.e. because Judaism is right)

Are these two positions equally self authenticating? No. There is external evidence that shows that Jesus is God - the Resurrection; His miracles, etc. So if Jesus can be shown to be God by external evidence, then it is not a self-authenticating position.

Now apply that to the Catholic-Protestant debate. There is plenty of external evidence that shows the Catholic Church IS the Church that Jesus (God in the flesh) founded. For this reason, the position is NOT self-authenticating. It is authenticated by objective external evidence. On the other hand, there is not external evidence that the Protestant position is correct. It begins with an arbitrary decision that only the Scriptures are infallible which is not taught by the
Scriptures themselves. For this reason, it's not even self-authenticating. In fact, the canon article above shows that it's self-refuting.

Hope this is helpful.

Tim Troutman

So that solved that.

Third Response:

I've committed agregious sins against Thomism in the last little while by studying all this existentialism, and flirting with Personalism. It at least gives you human responses rather than Medieval ones in categories that don't work in the world of Atomism (though that is only an existential argument against Thomism).

Luigi Giussani argues that there are 3 ways to approach Christianity, one is the Rationalistic which he labels as leading to liberal theology, the 'historical Jesus', etc. There is the mystical way, which he says leads to Protestantism as scripture is alleged to by personally self-authenticating and salvation can only be grasped through faith and so it becomes a mystical/spiritual experience rather than a corporeal one, and thus it always leads to subjectivism (I think this grossly underestimates the role of the sacraments in classical protestantism and Anglo-Catholicism and thus is only partially successful). Thirdly he says is the sort of 'realist' approach. The method he says is determined by outward realities (almost existence before essence methodology/phenomenology though I doubt he would say that metaphysically). In the third way Christ's incarnation is focused upon, the fact that he actually was a man, and his Church is his mystical body which is visible to us, and which we actually encounter. This is his argument for the church, that it is rational to actually live one's thoughts and encounter Christ's body (which he labels as the Orthodox-Catholic church), and that it is mystical to have the object of your rapture nearer to you physically and thus Catholicism has more mystics than Protestantism (though if every Protestant is a mystic...he contradicts himself). So that's his argument which if we want to stay objectivist we would have to accept. As always I would just add the warning: Anglo-Catholics and Orthodox can argue for their church too, and in the same manner.


So I don't know if that solved the problems, I mean it certainly solves the challenges of non-episcopal, and non-sacramentally focused, a-historical, and anti-traditional Protestant churches (ecclesial communities), but still the high anglos with their newly 'purified' global south will continue to disquiet my soul, and I have this other problem where every time I read the bible I see the Reformers (I'm not saying it is objectively there, I'm just saying -personally- I see it). But I met with a good friend and the RC chaplain here, and he assured me to keep journeying and that we'd be friends even if I left "the Church". Which helped alot.

Personal Note:

As I'm reading Acts again, I am compelled by the amount of preaching that was done. Almost every account includes preaching, and I remembered the joys of preaching, and how much I love good preaching (which is sparse in the Roman Church). I am thinking that if I go into the religious life, perhaps I should be a Dominican, because if I feel called to anything, it is preaching and teaching the gospel. How ironic: a man discerning with the Jesuits is now considering the Dominicans. Welcome to my life.


  1. The Orthodox-Catholic method, as Giussani terms it, includes both the Orthodox churches and the Catholic church. In addition, his method is for attaining certainty about the person of Jesus Christ, and is therefore radically open to anybody.

    Sacraments definitely act against the tendency of 'inner enlightenment' in Protestantist, as V2 documents have noted. I should also note that the rationalist approach has been quite strong in Catholicism since Descartes and Catholics also have their share of folks who base everything on visions, "puffed up without reason by [their] sensuous mind[s]" (col 2:18).

    It's about encountering the person of Jesus now and really not so much about being on the right side. Or put another way, the church exists so that Christ may be encountered now. Through Christians one encounters Christ...

  2. I would say also... Fr. Giussani taught Orthodox theology to Catholic seminarians and he also wrote a book that hasn't been translated from Italian yet: Teologia Protestante Americana (it's available as an e-book through that scritti site)...

  3. "One thing to keep in mind is that Protestantism is not even self authenticating; it's self refuting. They teach sola scriptura but the scriptures do not."

    This is untrue.