Monday, December 6, 2010

Reflections on Infallibility (Article IVb): Preliminaries on Sources

The Series so Far

  1. Article I
  2. Article IIa
  3. Article IIb
  4. Article IIc
  5. Interlude
  6. Article IId
  7. Article IIe
  8. Article IIIa
  9. Article IIIb
  10. Interlude II
  11. Article IVa
  12. Interlude III

On Using Protestant Sources for Consideration

Before discussing Scripture and Sola Scriptura, which involves looking at what Protestants have to say on the subject, it seems I should first discuss my own criteria for sources I choose.  Obviously to have a true dialogue, we need to be clear on what is believed, and not take a bad argument or a misrepresentation of an argument and treat this as the best Protestantism can come up with.

Trying to Understand What They Mean, Not What I Think They Mean

While it would be tempting to take a Protestant source and give it my own interpretation and claim in a smart-aleck way that "I was taking the plain sense of what he said," this would not be a just way to interpret it.  If I take the words of an author in a way which he did not intend, I am not responding to what he in fact intended to say.  Instead I would be distorting his words. 

While it might be partially the fault of the author for not expressing himself clearly, it would be wrong of me to try to hold the author to a view he never claimed to believe.  Since I believe it is unjust to misrepresent the Catholic Church this way and have protested anti-Catholics using this tactic, it morally follows that I must not misrepresent the belief of another in this way.

Recognition that these Individuals Do Believe and are Trying to Be Faithful

One thing I want to make clear is that even though I disagree with some of their positions, I do recognize they are trying to be faithful Christians.  It is true I believe men like TD Jakes and RC Sproul make errors where they differ from the Catholic faith.  However it is also true I believe they do not hold to these errors out of obstinacy but because they believe them to be true.

Who Speaks for Protestantism?

Before I begin, there is one problem to be aware of. Certain Protestant denominations do hold to different beliefs on different things. Some believe Baptism to be necessary and others believe it to be merely a symbol for example. Since there is not a universal arbitration as Catholics have, I will not be able to point to one definition and say “This is what all Protestants hold.” So the question is: What makes up a position which is representative?

90%? 75%? 50%+1? The largest plurality?  How representative of Protestantism is Fundamentalism?  Evangelicalism?  Pentecostalism?  Mainline Protestantism?  Non-Denominationalism?  Any attempt to deal with one will no doubt result in people saying "They don't speak for me!"

Trying to ascertain what is widely held can be difficult indeed, and it seems that I can really do no more than to speak in the most general terms about what Protestantism believes as a whole, and when necessary discuss different offshoots of the same general term when it seems the same term is understood in different ways by different groups.

Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide appear to be the two beliefs which all Protestants accept, though the firmness with which they hold it and what is understood by it seems to vary from group to group

Sources Widely Respected and Considered Informed

With this in mind, I do my best to find educated sources, not some of those odd fringe churches who make outlandish claims and wind up in the headlines or cited by atheists to "prove" how dumb Christians are.  Dialogue requires finding out how the educated member of the faithful understands the claim, and not how an uninformed individual would understand it.  I'm sure all of us have encountered fellow believers speaking in a way so embarrassing that you just want to say, "Will you shut up and stop 'helping' me?"  Also I think it would be wrong to take the understanding a teenager might have and treat it as if this is what people with a degree in theology might hold.  People do deepen in their faith over time.

I also wish to avoid things which are contentious between groups of Protestants.  It would be seen as inaccurate if I chose to apply TD Jakes' views of the Trinity and claim all Protestants believe this.  It would be inaccurate to claim that all Protestants hold to the Once Saved Always Saved view or the view of Oneness Pentecostalism.  Certainly, I have no interest in taking sides between Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Pentecostal or Mainline.

With these things in mind, I have done my best to consult works available to me which seem to be mainstream sources (which I define in opposition to obscure fringe groups), educated, and not those which are controversial between denominations.  However, this cuts both ways.  Even if there is a denominational dispute, my interest is seeing what seems to be most widely held even if a particular reader may disagree with it.

Intention to Understand what is Believed by Believers

Finally, my interests are in what believing Protestants hold and not the beliefs of those who so water down the faith that one wonders if they think Christ is anything more than a "nice guy" and a social worker.  As Christians we believe that Jesus Christ died to save us from our sins and rose again and that only through His salvific act can we reach Heaven (Yes, Catholics believe this too).

Looking for What Is Believed, Not What is "Easy to Refute"

In short, while I shall do my best to make an accurate assessment, any choices which may seem out of mainstream are not done with the intention of creating a Straw Man argument or to make Protestantism look foolish.  While some readers may disagree with the sources cited, please keep in mind this use is not done maliciously but done with good will intended.

For example, I have made reference to Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary and Nelson’s New Christian Dictionary.  Not because I think a Dictionary is something which will fully explain a belief, but because it is a source which seems to be widely respected and seems to define certain beliefs in a way which tend to be widely held.  I may choose to cite people like Luther and Calvin, when relevant to do so, because of the influence they have held among Protestants.  However, I don't intend to cite them to make them look ridiculous or evil (in the 16th and 17th century, Catholics and Protestants both expressed themselves forcefully and sometimes uncharitably).  Other cited theologians will be ones who seem to hold respect among most Protestants.

A Caveat and a Plea for Fairness

Of course, since I have clarified where I am coming from, I believe I should make this clear: The reader owes the Catholic Church the same consideration that I am trying to give to the Protestant claims.  This means considering what we actually believe and not assume that the tired old propaganda dating back to the 17th century is true.  We don't worship statues, we don't think we can earn Heaven and we don't think the Pope is God.  (Yes I have encountered all of these accusations).

Just as I am doing my best to represent accurately what Protestants believe about themselves, justice and charity requires that the reader do the same for Catholicism.

The Article Next Time

With this in mind, the next article will discuss the issues of how Catholics and Protestants view the Bible, on the meaning and implications of the Inspiration of Scripture, and try to explain why the Catholic cannot accept the idea of Sola Scriptura but does not deny the authority of Scripture in any way (See Interlude III).

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