Embracing Doubt or Why ‘Roman Catholic Scholarship’ is an Oxymoron

Oxymoron means “sharp dullness.” It describes a figure of speech in which two words that are contradictory are put together. For example, “accurate rumors” is an oxymoron. Why? Because by definition, a rumor is not yet deemed to be accurate. Other examples could include: “insane logic,” “public secret,” “instant classic,” or my favorite, “government intelligence.” However, over the years I have come to believe that “Roman Catholic scholarship” is an oxymoron. I don’t believe one can be a Roman Catholic and a scholar at the same time. Well, let me put it another way: I don’t believe one can be a true Roman Catholic and a scholar at the same time. Why? Because being a Roman Catholic militates against what makes someone a scholar in my opinion.

I know, I know.  I don’t ever write this . . . this . . . well, this polemical. It seems as if I am discrediting Roman Catholic scholarship with a heavy hand by an ad hom fiat. Please know this is not what I mean to do. There are going to be plenty of people thrown under the bus with this one. In fact, let me start by saying there are many Roman Catholics whom I deeply respect. I am not anti-Catholic. As well, there are many Roman Catholics whom I believe qualify as scholars. However, once they become a scholar (and I am talking about theology here), as I will explain, they have to depart to some degree from Rome. I am not saying that they actually depart from their core Catholic beliefs. I am simply saying that they must suspend their commitment to Rome in order to meet what I believe to be an essential characteristic of scholarship.

Most of you would not think of yourself as scholars. I understand that. I don’t think of myself as such either. However, I would assume that you attempt to be good students. Namely, you attempt to be students of truth.

Let me back up a bit.

Rene Descartes and Doubt

Rene Descartes is often thought of as the father of modernity. He gets a bad rap these days, especially by our postmodern and emerging friends. I think some of the bad rap is justified, particularly his quest for indubitability (How’s that for a word? Don’t try to say it out loud at home). Indubitability means absolute and perfect certainty. Rene Descartes (and many of his modernistic buddies) wanted their beliefs to be beyond the ability to be wrong. Like 1 plus 1 equals 2, Descartes wanted all matters of faith to share such comforting certainty (indubitably). I can’t get into all the fallacies here, but let’s just say that this quest was not only impossible, but unnecessary. Our beliefs do not have to be infallible before we are justified in possessing them. However, Descartes’ methodology had many redeeming elements that provide benchmarks of inquiry, learning, and knowledge. The first and most important thing Descartes taught was that we are to doubt. Doubt everything!

Doubt gets a hard rap in religious circles. In fact, we are often told that the opposite of faith is doubt. For many, doubt is only what unbelievers do. It is true that doubt can be a bad thing, but it largely depends on the context and how you understand it. Doubt can be, and very often is, healthy. In fact, I argue that doubt is a necessary first step to true conviction, understanding, and real faith. Let me explain.

The Essence of Scholarship

In order to learn, one must be willing to change. I don’t mean that they must be willing to merely go from the lesser to the greater, but also from the greater to the lesser, or even from the greater to the none. If we are to be true learners, we must be able to suspend our convictions to some degree. Of course, all knowledge requires some basic foundational assumptions, as Descartes began to articulate, but all knowledge must be challenged in order to graduate to true faith. We must be willing to set aside our preconceptions, passions, and emotional attachments in order to enter a learning environment. We must be willing to doubt everything, even our doubts.

Scholarship is based on the assumption that the best, most accurate, and trustworthy information is being sought. Scholarship is not based on the assumption that we are attempting to prove what we already know or believe. I learned a dictum early in my seminary career from my friend and co-blogger, Dan Wallace: “We are in pursuit of the truth, not prejudice.” In other words, we must do our best to approach our studies with the intent to follow the evidence no matter where it leads. This is a hard thing to do, as we all have our prejudices. We all have a “home team” for which we root. This is why being true students is very hard. We don’t like to be challenged, only confirmed. However, if we are to be true students – true scholars – we must be willing to suspend, to the best of our ability, our prejudices.

A Word About Apologetics

I love apologetics, don’t get me wrong. But what I am about to say will offend many apologists out there. Nine times out of ten, I don’t think apologists make good scholars. “Apologetics” is defined most broadly in Christian circles as defending the faith. This means when there is something – an idea, event, book, or person – presenting challenges to the faith, the apologist will come to the rescue.

While there are Christian apologists out there, there are also apologists for particular areas. For example, there are apologists for young earth creationism, evolutionary theism, inerrancy, premillenialism, and counter-cults. There are also apologists for the individual traditions in the Christian faith, such as Protestant apologists and Roman Catholic apologists. Of course, apologetics is not limited to the Christian faith, as there are apologists for atheism, Mormonism, and Islam.

While I think apologetics is a necessary and much-needed discipline, and while I believe there are some very good and honest apologists out there (such as my friends Rob Bowman, Paul Copan, and Mike Licona, to name a few), most of the time the discipline falls into the trap of being a perpetual exercise in defending presuppositions.  Anytime there is a preset conclusion to which your data and interpretation of the data must point, apologetics turns bad. It is no longer a scholarly pursuit, since it has a predetermined outcome.

In our studies, we must be free to question, search, deny, confirm, doubt, and change. As hard as it is, we must allow ourselves this liberty. If we come to a subject with what we believe to be infallible or indubitable certainty, all of the data, no matter what it says, will be bent, shaped, and manipulated to fit this preset conclusion. Even our most vital and basic beliefs must be open to question. Why? We are fallible. Our ideas could be wrong. Our prejudices can be ill-founded. In short, we must question ourselves because we are not God.

What God Thinks of Doubt

When it comes to our faith in God, this is not less important, but more important. In order for our faith to be strong, our ability to test our faith must be valid. Paul admonishes the Corinthians to test the the sincerity of their faith (2 Cor 13:5). Without doubt, our faith can never really be tested. For to even take a test there must be some suspension of our presumption of perfection. Paul tells the Thessalonians to test or examine all things carefully, and only hold fast to that which is worthy of our faith (1 Thess 5:21). This is the basic idea of discernment, which requires a critical methodology. The Psalmist asks the Lord to test his mind and his heart (Psalm 26:2). God tests us all the time. The purpose of his testing is not to leave us in doubt, but that our doubt would progressively turn to assurance. In order for conviction to arise in our beliefs, tests must be conducted.

In the end, when we test our faith, when we doubt, when we discern, when we critically examine our most fundamental beliefs (remember, Paul says test all things) under the microscope and they survive, they are much stronger than they were before the test. Doubt is a necessary precondition to faith. Discernment is a necessary precondition to following God.

I don’t think Christians should have any fear in testing their faith. We should not fear the doubt that leads to assurance of truth. Not only does God not mind our aspirations to such scholarship, he beckons us to such.

Why “Roman Catholic scholarship” is an oxymoron

What does this have to do with Roman Catholicism? Well, as you can see, this post is about much more than just the viability of Roman Catholic scholarship. While what I have described above is very difficult for anyone with deep commitments, it is most difficult, in Christianity, for those who exist under authoritative human leadership. Christian traditions do not get much more authoritative than Roman Catholicism. To be fair, there are unspoken authoritative structures in many Christian traditions that, while not claiming infallibility, do share the same fundamental guidelines. Outside the Christian faith, it is not much different. I find atheists have the least ability to question their atheism, but this has more to do with personal emotional fundamentalistic commitments than any human authority. This is why atheism boasts of being the most objective, but this boast is, most of the time, very empty.

Roman Catholicism, however, exists under a official umbrella of authoritative – indeed infallible – dogmatic assertions. Again, while no one is completely objective in their studies, Roman Catholics, when it comes to their defined dogma, cannot really study objectively.  Why? Because their conclusions are already laid out. For example, if a Roman Catholic is interpreting the Scriptures, he must come to conclusions that are in line with what Rome has already said about the subject. He doesn’t have the freedom to disagree. He doesn’t have the freedom to doubt, if the doubt implies an actual possibility that Rome is wrong.

This is why all true Roman Catholics “scholars” are necessarily apologists who follow the prejudice of Rome, not the the data. Were they to doubt and come to conflicting opinions on something the Church has dogmatized, they are no longer, by definition, Roman Catholic.

In truth, most Roman Catholics don’t function in this way. In fact, the Roman Catholics whose scholarship I trust the most are a bit rebellious. They are not truly Roman Catholic. Apologists on the inside of Rome would call them “cafeteria Catholics,” since they pick and choose which beliefs they like best.

This is not to say that the trust they put in Rome is ill-founded. I don’t happen to think the magisterial authority of Rome is worthy of such trust, but that is not the subject of this post. Another time, maybe. This simply means that when it comes to biblical and theological studies, the designation “Roman Catholic scholar” is an oxymoron. Their conclusions, no matter how unlikely, must sing in harmony with Rome. However, it must be said, that if they are right and the Magisterial authority is infallible (which is the key meta-issue before all others between Protestants and Roman Catholics), then their methodology is secure to the degree that they can demonstrate this claim.

While Protestantism is certainly not perfect, there is freedom for true biblical and theological scholarship to exist. Protestants don’t have to be lawyers defending a client of tradition, but can instead be investigators of truth. We can be critical scholars. Whether or not we always practice this is a different matter, but the issue is one of allowance. Yes, the greater the allowance, the more the diversity. But the greater the allowance for diversity, the greater the possibility of true conviction to exist. Evangelicals can let the evidence take them wherever it leads, not simply to a predetermined destination. Therefore, I believe Protestant Evangelicals can practice true scholarship to a degree that other traditions, especially Roman Catholicism, cannot.

Finding Personal Conviction Through Embracing Doubt

However, this does get very personal. In the end, Christians, no matter what their tradition, need to increase their faith. This does not mean holding our hands against our ears, covering our eyes, and blindly following a predetermined route. Our conviction must be personal. It cannot be blindly outsourced. This was one of the many things that the Reformation brought back into focus: true conviction.

Martin Luther stood before a council ready to take on the prejudices of his day. Not without fear but full of courage, Luther, at the Council of Worms (in Wittenberg, Germany, 1517), gave his famous speech:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony from scripture or by evident reason—for I confide neither in the Pope nor in a Council alone, since it is certain they have often erred and contradicted themselves—I am held fast by the scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience is held captive by God’s Word, and I neither can nor will revoke anything, seeing it is not safe or right to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.”

What was he doing? Doubting. Learning. Growing. Becoming more convicted. Adducing for himself. Did he believe that he could have been wrong about his previous commitments concerning the Catholic church? Yes. This is what set him on the reformation path. Did this produce fear? Affectung. This is the type of fear he describes. It is a German word that cannot easily be translated into English. It carries all the connotations of fear, with a much more paralyzing result. In short, Luther was doubting and scared. But he knew that this was the cost of true conviction and scholarship.

Sadly, many of us (Roman Catholic or otherwise) do not often follow this legacy.  While it is easy to get caught up in defending our prejudice, let us take up this mantle of learning and be ready, for the sake of our Lord, to change when necessary. We recognize that the possibility of true conviction necessitates the possibility of error, but is this too great a price to pay? Embrace your doubts. Doubt your doubts. Test all things. Follow the evidence, not your presuppositions.

78 Responses to “Embracing Doubt or Why ‘Roman Catholic Scholarship’ is an Oxymoron”

  1. Basically I agree with you on this one. However, I wonder what Francis Beckwith would have to say. Or even Hans Kung, who, with all of his disagreements with the RCC is still a priest in the RCC in good standing, apparently.

  2. Hi Michael,

    While I agree with the spirit of your essay, I wonder whether the notion of scholarship that you defend is coherent.

    You state that one must doubt everything in order to learn.

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘doubt.’ I suppose the following definition:

    An individual doubts some claim if and only if she suspends her belief about that claim.

    If this right, and if you really mean EVERYTHING, then your view implies that one is required to suspend belief in the reliability of any method used in acquiring beliefs. This includes the reliability of our senses, memory, logical reasoning, and the testimony of others. This leads straightforwardly to complete skepticism, which seems to defeat any possibility of learning.

  3. Michael ~ I get what you’re saying, but could one not make a similar argument for evangelicals and our belief that the Bible is inerrant or infallible? Whatever the nature of our studies, we aren’t “allowed” to say that the Bible is wrong about something; our answers have to be in agreement with Scripture. We can argue that the Bible isn’t being understood or interpreted correctly, or that there are text-critical errors in the Bible. But once we say that the text of the Bible, when properly translated, contextualized, and understood, got something wrong, we probably aren’t being very good evangelicals.


  4. Concerning Kung, just because you have not been officially ousted from the Catholic church does not mean that you are a true Roman Catholic. If you have spoken against or disagree with the Church you are, whether recognized or not, no longer a Catholic. Catholics are not free to disagree at will with the Church. If they do, they are protestant :)

    I agree, however, that Kung and Beckwith would be legitimate scholars. I am not sure about the current status of Beckwith’s Catholic apologetics, but he is normally limited to areas of sociology and ethics. He is not acclaimed for his Systematic theology or biblical studies. I am not sure how he practices his Catholicism in these areas, especially in the areas that are much more exegetically or historically unfeasible.

  5. Ms,

    It would depend on whether inerrancy is an absolute sina quo non of Evangelicalism. As hard as it may be for some to go there, we must say that truth does not first submit to inerrancy, but inerrancy to truth. In this, it would be like it is the case with Catholics…only to the degree that we can justify these suppositions are the reliable. Really, I would say that the greatest degree freedom is in Protestantism, more than the Evangelicalism. However, since Evangelicalism does not have a Creed, Magisterium, or definite boundaries, some would argue that Evangelicalism is the most free in Conservative Protestantism to follow the evidence where it should go.

    This is why it is so hard to be a scholar of biblical studies and a true Catholic…one has to submit first the the authority of what the Church say about the Bible. Though there is freedom here since Rome has not spoken about every passage dogmatically, for passages such as Matt 16 and Romans 3, Catholics have no choice but to see them through the grid of Rome. The same is the case with the Creeds. For example, though current exegetical studies have gone a different direction concerning the term monegenes (“only begotten” KJV and Nicea, but now seen as “one and only”), Catholics really have to do some work to retain the infallibility of this phrase in Nicea.

    This does not even touch on how they must view the history of the papacy.

  6. James,

    As I said in the OP, there are going to be some foundational principles which are, what some people refer to as, properly basic. Of course we are to examine these as well, but, as is the case with all properly basic beliefs, they must be assumed to be examined. This does not undermine their credibility, but, in most cases, establishes them intuitively. It is not the doubting (i.e. critically examining) of these properly basic beliefs that is the issue. The issue would come if we actually denied them. At this point we would have all kinds of self-defeaters.

    By doubt, I simply mean approaching the subject with the assumption that one could be wrong. The degree which something can and should be doubted will vary greatly. For example, when I think about existence, it is much harder for me to doubt that I exist (as Descartes illustrated) than it is for me to doubt that my belief that Romans 5:1 should read “We have peace with God” rather than the alternative option based on a variant (which I am going to write about soon) “Let us have peace with God”.

    When it comes to Catholic studies say on the Assumption of Mary, they can’t approach it to see whether or not Mary really was assumed, but only to prove that she was. A Protestant, on the other hand, can believe it or deny it and still remain within their “guidelines”. The same is true with many other controversial issues such as the canon of Scripture or the existence of an intermediate state in the afterlife called Purgatory.

    In this case, the strength of the Roman Catholic church, their necessary unity, becomes their weakness in scholarship.

  7. While I don’t wish to argue against the essay in total, I would like to point out that your illustration of Cartesian Doubt and its role in scholarship seems rather sensationalist. The major critique of Descartes’ Meditations is not that he doubts (For the doubt is similar in kind to Augustine’s doubt in “Against the Academicians”), but that he attempts to apply the same specificity to all types of knowledge. He forgot what Aristotle says at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, and elsewhere, that every science has its own specificity from which we gain certainty.

    This is seen practically in our use of science in the modern world. Consider the importance of significant digits (and of which units are used) when measuring an interstate car trip versus the length of a bit on a microprocessor. It is ridiculous to apply the same method of measurement to both, although we can be certain of the length of both.

    Returning, however, to the idea that we must doubt everything: this is inherently false. Every inquiry must begin with principles that cannot be proved within its enquiry. These are what Aristotle calls first principles. Now, to apply radical doubt to everything, including first principles, forces us to doubt even our means of knowing anything. Remember, Descartes only escapes his meditation by making that rather unphilosophic assumption that surely God would not deceive him and so the world which he senses must be real.

  8. B.R.

    Thanks for your comments. Starting with the assumption I could be wrong about some things :) let me respond.

    First, I did not say that Descartes was criticized for doubt, but for indubitably. I said that doubt was a redeeming factor. But I am not coming to the defense entirely on this.

    I think my comment 6 will suffice to answer the rest.

    This would not be “radical doubt” in a philosophical way. It is simply starting with the assumption that we are not infallible and we could be wrong. If we approach our studies only attempting to prove what we already know, there will be a sliding scale of scholarship employed.

  9. Michael,

    Your position eliminates all *Christian* theological scholarship, insofar as anyone attempts to engage in theological research while taking as a given any theological proposition. In other words, it instantly eliminates from the canon of scholarship any piece of work (Protestant or Catholic) that takes any theological claim (e.g. Jesus is God, the Bible is true, etc.) as a given. In that respect, you’ve just destroyed the possibility of all *Christian* scholarship.

    Not only does your claim destroy the possibility of all Christian scholarship, it is the rationalism which is the very essence of theological liberalism. Yes, you yourself aren’t a liberal, but the position you are advocating here, in just a few generations, is what lies behind and under the death of mainline Protestantism. (See Joseph Bottum’s recent article in First Things.) Rationalism disallows scholarship from taking any of the truths of divine revelation as truths that cannot be demonstrated by the natural light of reason. And in that way, rationalism is a form of atheism, because it denies (methodologically) that anything can be divinely revealed that exceeds the power of man to grasp through his natural power of reason, and therefore it denies that anything exceeds the power of man to demonstrate through argumentation. In that way, it treats man as God — that’s the way in which rationalism is atheistic.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  10. Michael,

    I agree that we should approach all serious and honest inquiry with a receptive and humble heart. It just seemed that Descartes, of all people, was a poor example of receptive doubt. This is why I brought up Augustine, who seems to doubt in an much more honest way.

    I suppose, in the end, my problem is that I believe that the word “doubt” is a poor choice to describe that necessary openness required for discovering and understanding true things. I prefer terms such as “receptive.” This is a fault I fully recognize in myself and not in your essay. I always like to keep in the back of my mind the notion that wonder and not questioning is the beginning of philosophy and that proper discourse comes about by following that old scholastic motto numquam negare, raro affirmare, semper distinguere.

  11. “While Protestantism is certainly not perfect, there is freedom for true biblical and theological scholarship to exist.” Perhaps in theory, but that is certainly not the situation on the ground.

  12. By the way, here is a great document to read that shows why a theologian or biblical exegete would have such a hard were he to come to conclusions other than that which has been laid out by Rome.

    This document is referenced by a gentleman who disagrees with me here: The title of his site seems like he might be Mormon? However, his interpretation of this document is very interesting. It seems only to confirm the great limitations that Rome places on its theologians. However, he seems to be able to dig deep enough to find what he believes to be redeeming nuggets. But there has to be a lot of reading between the lines and ignoring of some very explicit statements. How about this one:

    “23. When the Magisterium of the Church makes an infallible pronouncement and solemnly declares that a teaching is found in Revelation, the assent called for is that of theological faith. This kind of adherence is to be given even to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium when it proposes for belief a teaching of faith as divinely revealed.

    When the Magisterium proposes “in a definitive way” truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held.(22)”

  13. Interesting. Evangelicals may be more free to doubt than some other Christians (maybe Roman Catholics, although as you point out, this is not how is usually works in reality), and less so than others (liberal protestants, for instance). But you yourself have gone to some lengths to try to define what you believe the essentials of Christianity are, those beliefs without which one cannot be considered a Christian. Sure, I might be free to doubt, but if I doubt certain things, you might not be willing to extend the title of “evangelical” to me anymore. I might be a scholar, but I wouldn’t be an evangelical scholar. It might not be a human authority or an extensive canon of tradition, but it is a certain limited consensus of definition, and I think it has the same effect. So, is “evangelical scholarship,” also an oxymoron? And if not, why not?

    On the subject of apologetics, I found your comments refreshing. But having pointed out your problems with apologetics, you also said that they were necessary. I think you might need to articulate more clearly why you think so. Here’s my take on the subject: I think that there is a place in one’s own intellectual processes for “apologetic” reasoning. That is to say, before you jettison a proposition that you are doubting, you ought to see if it can be defended, and then evaluate that defense. But I’m not sure that there should be such a thing as professional “apologists,” people whose job it is to defend a particular committed belief at all costs. I don’t think that that does anyone any particular favors, and it definitely doesn’t represent true scholarship.

  14. Here is another one concerning scholarly disagreement:

    “The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule. It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions. Here the theologian will need, first of all, to assess accurately the authoritativeness of the interventions which becomes clear from the nature of the documents, the insistence with which a teaching is repeated, and the very way in which it is expressed.(24) ”

    In other words, the theologian cannot raise questions about matter that are not reformable (i.e. dogmatic). However, they can ask questions about how that dogma is presented (timeliness, form).

  15. Dan, the point is that we must, even with the essential, encourage true engagement, which presupposes that we could be wrong. I, as an Evangelical, will without doubt have things that I think form cardinal doctrines, but this does not mean I don’t incourage true engagement from within and without. In other words, the “adduced by me” is still central. True conviction is the key and this encouragement to true conviction come with great risk. In the end, we could set up a magisterial authority and alleviate oursevles of this risk by saying, in essence, “We are the infallible interpreters. Let us take care of this for you.” However, that would go against everything we stand for.

    Yes, there will be difined boundaries, but this is not the same thing as saying that you must submit the conclusion of your studies to an infallible guide.

    Liberalism, theoretically, is ideal. However, liberalism, in most cases, can be simply left winged fundamentalism.

    Fundamentalism is the greatest Protestant error to the spirit of this post on the right. Liberalism is the greatest error to the spirit of this post on the left. In theory, Evangelicalism presents a tertium quid (third way) to the extremes. However, as I said in the op, we all get thrown under the bus here as even Evangelicalism can and has lost this spirit.

    The goal here, however, is not simply to beat up on Roman Catholicism, but to use them as one extreme of how bad things can be.

  16. BTW: This post could have been written about politics just as easily.

  17. Something is not quite adding up for me in this explanation. You may be willing to subject cardinal beliefs to criticism, but were you to give up those cardinal beliefs, you would cease to be an evangelical. Which is fine. You’ve essentially argued as much for Roman Catholics, saying that when Catholic Scholars go against the dogmas and traditions of the Church, they are not, in your estimation “true Roman Catholics.” It seems like a matter of definition. Evangelicals are, by definition, a group defined by certain core beliefs. In my opinion, you can be an evangelical scholar, but you can’t be an evangelical scholar who won’t accept the possibility of ever being anything but an evangelical scholar. I don’t see why that can’t apply to Roman Catholics as well.

    You said, “Yes, there will be difined boundaries, but this is not the same thing as saying that you must submit the conclusion of your studies to an infallible guide.”

    I don’t know. The infallible guide terminology has always been difficult for me. The infallible guide for evangelical Christians is supposed to be the Bible. Now, of course, the interpretation of that infallible guide is left up to discussion to a certain extent, but he basic principle is: “Whatever it turns out that the Bible says,” that’s your infallible guide. You’re allowed to question interpretations (within limits), but you’re still supposed to submit yourself to whatever the Bible says. In other words, you’re not allowed to disagree with the Bible. There’s more wiggle room than in Catholicism, but when it comes to the basic problem you’re describing, I feel like the same basic elements are there.

  18. Michael,

    “the point is that we must, even with the essential, encourage true engagement, which presupposes that we could be wrong.”

    That statement itself is a false presupposition. True “engagement” does not require doubting what you know to be true. If someone claims that my arms don’t exist, I don’t have to presuppose I could be wrong about my arms existing, in order to “engage” them, because to doubt the existence of my arms is to fall into skepticism about something I know to be true; that would be intellectual dishonesty.

    Similarly, if someone claims that the Holocaust didn’t happen, I don’t have to presuppose I could be wrong about the historicity of the Holocaust, in order to engage them, if I already know that it did happen. Don’t let skeptics define the rules for “engagement,” or what counts as ‘scholarship.” Skepticism is false, and therefore rules and definitions that presuppose skepticism are false and question-begging against realists.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  19. Michael,

    In your recent “pulpit post” you write, “You can share, walk around, and/or discuss, but don’t get behind the pulpit and preach.”

    If you believe that for everything you believe, you “could be wrong,” then you too can’t get behind a pulpit and preach. How could you possibly preach anything if, at the same time you believed you could be wrong about it? So if you do preach, then you are engaged in a performative contradiction, by treating what you preach with indubitable certainty. Only if you merely share your own fallible opinions on the wooden stool, are you being consistent with the “I could be wrong about everything” epistemology you are endorsing in this post.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  20. I think that many of you are focusing on the wrong issue in this post Evangelical/Catholics/Liberals.

    The issue is embracing doubt as a catalyst to faith first. Rome is used as an illustration that cannot really follow this methodology.

    However, there is going to be a sliding scale of freedom. Holding no beliefs at all and identifying with no tradition is, theoretically, the most freeing. But, as is the case with so many free-thinker campaigns, this completely misses the point. Freedom is not to avoid having commitments or presuppositions, it is the ENCOURAGEMENT to think freely so that our convictions would be “adduced by us”.

    Of course there are going to be more protective institutions with a magisterium, like Rome, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses (not that I am in any way trying to place them in the same general category), and those that will be more free like Evangelicalism. However, on the other end of the scale, you have liberal institutions that will “kick you out” of you make commitments. This is not unlike the emerging crowed. Once you make a definite stance on something, you are a fundie! That is a bit of an over statement, but you get my point. I am encouraging people to embrace doubt, not perpetually embrace doubt.

    Maybe I am looking at this differently than some, but I am not an Evangelical because there is a list of requirements to being an Evangelical. My Evangelicalism has the freedom to come and go depending on the issue. What is the sine quo non of Evangelicalism? Does it have a center, boundaries, or both? These are good questions. But no one can really be kicked out of Evangelicalism. One has Evangelical beliefs on certain issues, or one does not. It is the conviction of the individual that matters, not the conviction of the “institution”.

    Now, having said all of that, I do understand that the spirit or ethos of Evangelicalism is lost. I realize that many who proclaim Evangelicalism are fundamentalist.

    However, it is virtually impossible to draw the same parallel, even in the spirit of ecumenical kindness and humility, between how Rome keeps beliefs in line and how Protestant do. That is the point.

    Again, there are some good Catholic scholars. However, when push comes to shove, it is both liberals and Evangelicals who are producing the most objective works in their respective fields of biblical studies these day. You may disagree, but look across the board at the most reputable and valuable critical commentaries and you will find that 90% of them are either evangelical or moderate liberal. Hard core fundamentalists (liberal or conservative), most apologists, and Roman Catholics have the burden of conforming their scholarship to the preset status quo.

    Hopefully that makes sense.

  21. Bryan,

    It is actually just the opposite. Because I have studied with integrity and discernment, embrassing doubt as friend to my studies, my conviction can be much more secure.

    Therefore, when I get to the pulpit to preach, I am not preaching the truths only “adduced” by someone else, but those “adduced” by me!

    Sure, this method will ruin some good sermons. As the old saying goes, I had a perfect sermon until I opened my Bible. Preaching comes by the power of the Spirit, but we cannot expect the Spirit to bypass the preacher’s mind, heart, and convictions. Would be that all preachers would carry themselves in such a way so that the pulpit would be filled with truth first, denominational and traditional presuppositions second.

  22. Michael,

    I think you’re evaluating the function of Catholic magisterial authority from your reactionary stance against fundamentalism, and so you’re seeing it as another form of fundamentalism. Why is it ok, in your view, to hold (and preach) truths adduced by you, but not ok, in your view, to hold truths taught by others who, as adduced by oneself, have divine authority to dogmatically define such truths? It seems arbitrary (and question-begging), in my opinion, to accept the former while rejecting the latter on principle.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  23. Brian, this is why I emphasized this in the OP:

    “However, it must be said, that if they are right and the Magisterial authority is infallible (which is the key meta-issue before all others between Protestants and Roman Catholics), then their methodology is secure to the degree that they can demonstrate this claim.”

    The only “adducing” at this point would be whether or not the Catholic church serves as the seat of such authority. Then, post hoc, attempt to build a conviction about their understanding of particular passage, issues of theology, and issues of history.

    This is not unlike the doctrine of inerrancy. Once we determine we believe the Bible is inerrant, we may follow a post hoc explanation of the problem we encounter in Scripture. The justification, at this point, would be on whether the case for inerrancy is strong enough to justify what many would see as a manipulation of the text.

    I, personally, hold to inerrancy. However, my faith does not hinge on this (at least I don’t think it does). If I came to persuasive evidence that the Bible erred somewhere, what would I do? I hope (in the spirit of the post) I would follow the evidence. God is not honored when we blindly follow a tradition even when the inductive case for that tradition is standing on thin ice.

  24. Michael,

    Here’s another problem. Apply your position to the Apostles, during their three years with Jesus. Should they have first doubted everything He said, and then tried to prove/adduce it for themselves? If not, then your proposed theological epistemology presupposes the falsehood of apostolic succession, and so begs the question, because it presupposes that with the ascension of Christ, or with the death of the last Apostle, no one continues to exist who has divine authority to define dogma for us. But that’s precisely what Catholics believe, namely, that through apostolic succession apostolic authority continues in the line of bishops. So, it seems to me that your criteria for ‘scholarship’ are question-begging, because they assume that no such authority continues to exist.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  25. Bryan,

    I am not sure the Apostles (namely the pre-Pentecost Apostles) are good sources. Not only did they doubt everything, they misunderstood everything so their doubt was not a good example. Their own presuppositions about what Christ was supposed to do did not serve them well.

    I would just return to Paul who says to test all things. This whole post is simply another (albeit provocative) way to say we are to be discerning. I think when you see it that way, you will see that there is not much new here. The only think that will be hard for Roman Catholics to “test” the teaching of the church. They cannot really test all things on a personal level. It would have to be a communal thing. Even then, it would not work because it is not just the community, but the authoritative community that falls in their definition of Apostolic Succession who is qualified to test all things.

  26. Michael,

    Ok, your comment #25 is helpful, but what you say about yourself (still being willing to consider sincerely any possible evidence against inerrancy) is the same epistemic stance of Catholics toward the authority of the Magisterium. The Catholic is still willing to consider sincerely any possible evidence against the authority of the Magisterium. He can consider this evidence without needing first to doubt the authority of the Magisterium, just as you can consider the evidence against the inerrancy of Scripture, without first doubting the inerrancy of Scripture, or we can examine evidence purported to indicate that Christ is not God, without first doubting His divinity.

    So, I don’t see any principled epistemic difference between yourself and Catholic, at least not one to make the sort of general claim you are making in this post, about Catholic scholarship being an oxymoron.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  27. Michael,

    The injunction to test all things presupposes that some things are not to be tested, because they are already known. That’s because every test requires a standard. And there cannot be an infinite regress, testing this standard against another standard, and that standard against another standard, ad infinitum. So I think you should give up that fundamentalist reading of the ‘all,’ because it makes St. Paul fall into an infinite regress. What St. Paul means there has to do with testing new things, novelties, against what had already been handed on to them by the Apostles. It is not an endorsement of rationalism, but of the authority of the Apostolic Tradition.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  28. Bryan,

    I see a difference between my belief in inerrancy and the Catholic Magisterium. I may very well come to my belief about inerrancy in and with the church or independently of it. However, there is not a human authoritative institution telling me that I am or am not a part of the true church if I don’t come down on this or that side of this issue.

    In Rome, this is not the case. If one does not agree with the Magisterial authority, they are not a part of the true church and are anathematized. Even with all the evolution of that word, it is still not a good thing!

    My conviction about inerrancy would better parallel a conviction about a certain rule of logic such as the law of excluded middle. A rule of logic has no person, authority, or mandate. It is simply a principle about which I may or may not be convicted. Therefore, my convictions will be purely inductive (from the bottom up), not deductive (from the top down).

    This is the type of thinking that is necessitated from exegetical studies and authorial intent hermeneutics. There is no sense in which we are trying to make the text say something that we or anyone else thinks it ought to say. When people don’t follow this method in biblical studies, I find very little use for their “scholarship”. It is very hard for those who are committed to a tradition first, bible second to make it in exegetical studies.

  29. Bryan,

    I agree that not all things can be tested. As I said in the OP there are certain foundational principles that are presupposed. However, we need to be careful that we don’t miss what Paul’s primary concern is thoughout his letters: the testing of teaching. I am not sure what you are talking about when you say the “fundamentalist” way of testing all things. All I can say is that in the context Paul is talking about testing prophecy (1 Thes 5:20). This means that they are to test teaching. This means that they cannot start with the assumption that the teaching is correct. This starts with the allowance of some degree of doubt. These two cannot exist together:

    1. I will not let myself doubt that this prophetic utterance is from the Lord (i.e. I could not be more certain that it is).
    2. I am going to test this prophetic utterance to see if it is from the Lord.

    1 would nullify 2, wouldn’t it? Therefore, to test, to discern, indeed, to believe in a way that honors the Lord, we cannot start with the indubitably of our presuppositions. They must be tested. We could be wrong.

    Concerning the Holocaust. I understand the sensationalism of this example. However, it is not true that we don’t test the claims that the Holocaust did not happen. If there is valid evidence, shouldn’t we look at it. Of course, there is not any valid evidence which makes the example unhelpful. However, is there valid evidence that this or that interpretation of the Bible may be wrong by one’s magisterium. It is a case by case basis. But we cannot just dismiss something because we don’t like it or it does not fit in with our presuppositions. All evidence can and should be brought to the table tested, discerned, and weighed.

  30. Michael,

    I see where you are coming from, but, these are two very different paradigms, and doesn’t do any good to beg the question when making your “oxymoron” charge. Here’s what I mean. I perfectly understand why you say what you say about exegesis and “committed to a tradition first” sort of approach to Scripture. That’s because Protestants such as yourself strive to approach Scripture apart from any tradition — you think of tradition as obscuring or possibly distorting it, and so you want naked Scripture, denuded of tradition.

    But, from a Catholic point of view, such a notion is naive, failing to understand the great value of the authentic tradition in which Scripture was given, and by which it is rightly interpreted.

    I’m not trying to adjudicate here between the two paradigms. Rather, I simply want to point out that it seems question-begging to claim that the former paradigm counts as ‘scholarship’ while the latter doesn’t, because such a claim presupposes that tradition only gets in the way of understanding the text, and doesn’t illuminate the text, and isn’t necessary for rightly understanding the text. And that presupposition is doing a lot of work in your post. But, it is a presupposition, not something that has been demonstrated. And that’s why it is question-begging. (I wrote about this in a post titled “Tradition and the Lexicon.”)

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  31. You said:

    “That’s because Protestants such as yourself strive to approach Scripture apart from any tradition — you think of tradition as obscuring or possibly distorting it, and so you want naked Scripture, denuded of tradition.”

    I would modify this a bit. I think Tradition is wonderful and is an essential interpretive guide. But you would be right only if you said I don’t think we should start with Tradition. Of course, this is the difference between sola/prima Scriptura and Rome. And this, again, is why it is hard to find a true Catholic scholar, especially in exegetical studies.

    However, Rome has given more than a hat tip to authorial intent hermeneutics (the method behind exegetical studies) over the last century. They are, in theory, supportive of it. However, there has to be a strong footnote to their “scholars”. *They are in support of it so long as the conclusions to not definitely militate against the traditions of Rome.

    For the Evangelical, we are not limited in resources of tradition either. We are eclectic. This means that we don’t have to follow the traditions, books, and Father (or portions thereof) that Rome follows. We believe in Tradition because we believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. However, we don’t believe that Tradition is infallible. It can err. Therefore, even here we can be better scholars in theory.

  32. I guess that Byzantine Catholics having nothing to worry about, since they are not “Roman” Catholics.

  33. Michael writes: “My conviction about inerrancy would better parallel a conviction about a certain rule of logic such as the law of excluded middle. A rule of logic has no person, authority, or mandate. It is simply a principle about which I may or may not be convicted. Therefore, my convictions will be purely inductive (from the bottom up), not deductive (from the top down).”

    This quote is instructive and reveals some deep confusions. First, inerrancy is a doctrine about the phenomenon of Scripture. But what’s Scripture? That’s a contested question, at least no more contested than the few exegetical questions that divide Protestants and Catholics. (And even here we have to be careful. For we can ask, “What Protestants?” Some Anglicans, for example, will accept much of Catholic exegesis on matters of apostolic succession and the Sacraments, whereas low and free church Protestants would balk). So, perhaps you are saying that whatever is Scripture, it is inerrant. Fair enough. But that formal principle plays no role in determining to to what text (or texts) it applies.

    As for the laws of logic, they do depend on a person, God. If they are necessary, abstract truths, then they necessarily exist in all possible worlds. But because they are abstract truths, they can only exist in a mind. Only one mind exists in every possible world, God.

    Back to the exegetical questions. Although I am certainly no biblical scholar, one of the things that drew to my Catholicism was its historically grounded understanding of biblical exegesis. The “word study” approach–which is ubiquitous in Evangelical circles–struck me as a type of lexical gnosticism. In fact, I was tempted to write a parody of this by exegeting the Beatles’ “Penny Lane” from an Evangelical perspective. It would begin by treating it as a prophetic text since the song, written by Paul McCartney, seems to anticipate his joining Wings and becoming a band-mate of “Denny Lane.” And given the date of its composition–mid-1960s–the allusion to the “Penny” may be a cryptic reference to Abraham Lincoln, who appears on the American penny, who freed the slaves, whose descendants were fighting for freedom in the contemporary civil rights movement.

  34. Michael,

    I have been wondering how II Timothy 3:14-15 fits into what you are saying here. It seems to me that Paul is speaking of Timothy being convinced of the truthfullness of what he has been taught in the Scriptures because of his faith in the ones that taught him.

    Yes, we need to be careful and discerning. But is there never a place to take the word of those that we trust as being correct and truthful?

  35. It’s easy to document Patton’s basic contention. You have Catholic Bible scholars (e.g. Brown, Meier, Fitzmyer, L. T. Johnson, Murphy-O’Connor) as well as Catholic church historians (e.g. Eno, Schatz, Francis A. Sullivan) who challenge traditional Catholic prooftexts and/or the traditional narrative regarding the origins of the papacy, or various dogmas. These are men in good standing with their church.

    When they don’t feel bound to arrive at foregone conclusions with support Roman Catholicism, their scholarship departs from Catholic conclusions.

  36. As for Bryan’s objection, there’s nothing wrong with scholarship that’s guided by theological presuppositions provided that your theological presuppositions are justified. However, one of the questions raised by biblical exegesis and church history is whether Catholic theological presuppositions are, in fact, justified.

  37. Truth Unites... and Divides August 15, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    “In fact, I was tempted to write a parody of this by exegeting the Beatles’ “Penny Lane” from an Evangelical perspective. It would begin by treating it as a prophetic text since the song, written by Paul McCartney, seems to anticipate his joining Wings and becoming a band-mate of “Denny Lane.” And given the date of its composition–mid-1960s–the allusion to the “Penny” may be a cryptic reference to Abraham Lincoln, who appears on the American penny, who freed the slaves, whose descendants were fighting for freedom in the contemporary civil rights movement.”

    Dr. Beckwith, you should write this parody and submit it to JETS, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, for publication. It would pass upon first review for the editors have an excellent sense of humor.

  38. @Patton,

    Have you never heard of Thomas Aquinas (one of your theological patron saints, and I mean in re. to your “Calvinist” conceptual heritage)? Are you suggesting that he was not a scholar? How about someone like Hans Urs von Balthasar or Hans Küng? The fact that there are genuine real to life Roman Catholics who are Scholars amongst scholars at least should suggest to you that even the title of your provocative post is highly suspect! And I realize you addressed part of this in your post, but it seems disingenuous in lieu of the rest of your post.

    I don’t understand what motivated you to write such a thing (e.g. this post).

    But beyond all of this; the basic premise of your post is self-indicting. Meaning, that you as a 5 point Calvinist, for example, are also “governed” by an a priori commitment to a particularly Protestant magesterium. Your interpretive decisions, when you engage in biblical exegesis, for example, are governed by your prior theological commitment to Calvinism. This should at least illustrate the petitio principii (circular) reasoning of the premise of this post; and should at least cause you to be more circumspect next time you attempt to discredit Roman Catholic scholarship. In other words, as you point at Roman Catholic scholarship; you end up with four fingers pointing back at your Protestant “kind” of scholarship.

  39. Sorry to comment on something posted at the beginning but I think Hans Kung was “defrocked” (perhaps not the right term) and no longer was recognized as a priest. However, the University of Tubingen refused to remove him from the faculty where he remained a doctor of theology until his retirement. That may not be a linguistic oxymoron but it certainly is an incongruity. This also makes reference to Kung as a Roman Catholic scholar somewhat dubious; it at least requires an asterisk.

    By the way, I am not sure Francis Beckwith would agree that the JETS editorial board has a broad sense of humor. Perhaps I am wrong.

    Concerning Michael and 5-point Calvinism, Michael has never struck me (not a 5-point Calvinist) as a hard-boiled, lock-step member of that group. Michael might feel differently but that is my impression from afar.

  40. There’s really not much point in claiming you’re not anti-Catholic when mounting an anti-Catholic argument full of prejudiced caricatures.

    I like your honesty and willingness to challenge many evangelical presuppositions. But this time you’ve let yourself down. Those who think that evangelicals never really engage in apparently open-minded discussion with others unless it fits their prior dogmatic stance will take comfort from this post.

  41. Bryan writes: “But, from a Catholic point of view, such a notion is naive, failing to understand the great value of the authentic tradition in which Scripture was given, and by which it is rightly interpreted.”

    One of my favorite examples of the “authentic tradition” of the Roman Church is the direct, infallible contradictions between Pius IV and Pius IX and between Trent and Vatican I.
    Whereas Pius IV, in his Tridentine Creed, proclaimed “Neither will I ever take and interpret them (the Scriptures) otherwise than according to the unanimous consent of the Fathers,” Pius IX disposed of this “tradition” wholesale.
    You see, as Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick wrote at Vatican I, the Roman Church could not rely on Matthew 16 to support a single notion of the papacy because that passage had enjoyed at least five varying interpretations from the very Fathers to which Pius IV had alluded. That, you see, was the “tradition” of the Roman church for 300 years. But it turns out that Magisterial tradition sometimes proves an inconvenient thing and Pius IX cited his favorite version of Matthew 16 in the “First Dogmatic Constitution on the church of Christ”. Pope contradicts pope; council contradicts council.
    So Bryan, my question for you is, who should we look to for an interpretation of Matthew 16: Pope Pius IV and the irreformable Council of Trent or the opposite view taken by Pope Pius IX and the irreformable First Vatican Council? Which Magisterium is the right one in this regard, and how can you know?

    As an aside, I always got a kick out of the fact that Hans Kueng writes that the very term “Roman Catholic” is an oxymoron because you cannot have a “specific universal” church.

    Keep up the good work, Michael.


  42. I realize that Wikipedia is not infallible, but this is where I got my info. “Although Küng is not officially allowed to teach Catholic theology, neither his bishop nor the Holy See have revoked his priestly faculties.”

    If you have info to the contrary, please correct me.

  43. This may have already been said (I’m afraid I haven’t read every comment) but one of the problems here seems to be your definition of what makes a Roman Catholic. You have imported an evangelical notion of spiritual identity (the specific doctrines you adhere to) while the Roman Catholic one is much more ecclesial. Anyone who is baptized Roman Catholic is Roman Catholic, regardless of their affirmation of doctrines. The question is whether they are in good or bad standing with the church. I believe (though I am less certain of this) that even someone excommunicated is still a Roman Catholic, they’re just one who is in quite a bit of trouble.

    Community membership in any community is not an individualistic thing, but defined by the parameters set by that community. I am a US citizen because I was born to American parents, for example. The Protestant community at large, and especially its Evangelical subset, defines community membership largely on the basis of the beliefs affirmed. This is not the case with Roman Catholicism (and is even less so for Easter Orthodoxy). Indeed, under current official theology, anyone baptized under the Trinitarian format is a Roman Catholic. Yes, that means us Protestants too, we’re just in imperfect communion with the church.

  44. Oh, and Descartes was Roman Catholic, devout actually.

  45. to Werner: That is why I put “defrocked” in quotations and suggested it may not be the ideal word. I was going from memory instead of relying on a source–my mistake. And, you are correct, Wikipedia is among the many sources that are not infallible (double meaning intended). One of the Thomson-Gale (also not infallible) catalogs says this:

    “Kung’s views on such traditional doctrine as the divinity of Christ, papal infallibility, and the dogma of the Virgin Mary helped to bring about his censorship by the Vatican in 1979. He was banned from teaching as a Catholic theologian, which provoked international controversy. An agreement of sorts was reached in 1980 that allows Kung to continue teaching at Tubingen under secular rather than Catholic auspices. He is now professor emeritus of Tubingen University.” (may be outdated somewhat)

    Kung may have remained a priest but he ran afoul of the authority structure and was officially censored by the Vatican (probably censured as well). His position at Tubingen was threatened and he suffered loss because of his scholarship. Kung’s history supports my earlier statement that Kung is not a good example in defense of Roman Catholic scholarship in opposition to Michael’s post, not because he is not a legitimate scholar but because his scholarship brought him into conflict with the authority structure. I think his case supports, at least partially, Michael’s post.

    I want to make it clear that I am neither endorsing Kung nor all of Michael’s points. Just trying to keep the conversation on a straight course.

  46. Constantine,

    Regarding this “direct, infallible contradiction[] between Pius IV and Pius IX and between Trent and Vatican I,” on the one hand you acknowledge that there was no unanimous patristic consensus on this passage, claiming that were five different interpretations of the passage, and on the other hand, you claim that by defining papal infallibility, Pope Pius IX violated Trent by violating a unanimous patristic consensus.

    If there is no unanimous patristic consensus on the interpretation of this passage, then it couldn’t have been violated. So there is no contradiction between Trent and Vatican I.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  47. @John Metz,

    Whether or not Hans Küng was a controversial Roman Catholic “scholar,” or not, seems beside the point; my point is that he is still a Roman Catholic and a scholar. But no matter, there are plenty of other examples like Hans Urs von Balthasar, Hebert McCabe et al who stand in as excellent illustrations of Roman Catholic scholars who think in very constructive, and thus “scholarly” ways.

    As far as Michael Patton’s lock-step with 5 point Calvinism, or not; again, the point I am making doesn’t require that he be lock-step. My point is that we “all” are governed by interpretive magesterium; that is, anything we have committed to a priori by way of a theological tradition (whether that be Arminianism, Calvinism, Barthianism, Torranceanism, etc etc.). This is why the premise of Patton’s thoughts are circular. W/o a proper theory of revelation in place, we all must succumb to an authority other than Christ.

  48. I simply disagree that we ‘as Christians’ have the right to appeal to autonomous human reason as our ultimate presupposition (epistemic norm), whether that be to acquiesce to the pragmatic demands of the unregenerate in apologetic encounter, to appease the principled demands of secular academia, or to concede for the sake of dialogue to the pretentious claims of every person who sees fit to ‘swim the Tiber.’

    ‎”Any theory of knowledge must specify the ultimate standard or criterion for determining truth and falsity. The Christian’s ultimate standard is God’s word in Scripture; the unbeliever’s ultimate standard must be located elsewhere” (John Frame – Apologetics to the Glory of God, 10)

  49. @ Bobby Grow.

    See Michael’s followup post. I raised the issue of Kung because his scholarship brought him antagonism from the RCC power structure. I simply contended that Kung is not a good example to use to argue against Michael’s point. He remained a Catholic, but not one in the favor of the power structure.


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