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.