Sunday, July 12, 2009
How Far Can Rationalism Take Us? Scripture Alone a Development?
This article is not your typical apologetics article. In fact it may even be the opposite of what a traditional apologist would write to defend his arguments and affirm his faith position. I think however sometimes we just need to step back and ponder the paradoxes of life. I also have an 11 minute podcast to go along with this article. You can get it on Itunes or you can listen to it online here.
In light of a recent blog discussion I was having regarding historical accuracy ad interpretation, I decided I wanted to elaborate on it a bit more. Many of us today are rationalists in mind and heart. It is an imprint that the Age of Enlightenment has left on us. We don't intend to to do it, but it is ingrained in our culture. In fact we are turning into a culture of secularists without even realizing it. In the course of the day we read material and make personal judgments on things all of the time. We examine the facts and dissect things with science and come to logical conclusions. Unfortunately this type of thinking only gets you so far when it comes to choosing what Christian faith you will embrace.
It is true that many people are raised to embrace a certain faith and choose not look outside of that because that is all they have ever known. There are those who are convicted one way or another by a personal experience, bad or good. Many people come to a point where they question everything they have believed and end up rationalizing themselves out of theism into atheism. Rationalism can have its consequences.
The classic example in Western Christianity is the Protestant vs Catholic argument. One side says that the Church is governed by belief in Scripture alone which is given to us by God alone, the other says it is the Church established by Christ alone. Both have their historical problems if we really want to get down to dissecting history and putting it under a magnifying glass.
Protestant apologists like to try and corner Catholics into having to prove the papal primacy from the first 300 or so years of Christianity. There are examples of the Pope being appealed to for various reasons for sure. But one can easily dismiss the historical accounts based on reasons other than papal primacy. One can read history and choose to see what one wants to see. So there must be more than human reason alone to prove the primacy of Peter. Although faith and reason are not opposed, reason alone will not get you the answers you are looking for.
Yes the Catholic can appeal to Scripture as the Protestant can and both pit their interpretations against one another. They can debate over what Matthew 16 means, and tear apart the text and examine it. They can examine the Church Fathers and argue about what they really meant in their writings, although they were written to certain audiences for exclusive reasons over 1700 years ago. But if we shift our focus from the papacy to the New Testament canon, we find ourselves in the same boat as trying to prove the papacy from the first 300 years of Christianity.
If we were to take all of the historical information that we could find and examine it and confined ourselves only to the first 300 or so of Christianity we would be in the same situation as the Catholic trying to prove the papacy from the same isolated period. Some argue that the Scriptures were easy to determine, but anyone who has studied the history of the New Testament Canon knows that there was not a universal consensus until almost the year 400. So where would that leave the rationalist who only will appeal to a certain time period to prove a certain doctrine or belief? Would we follow those who used the The Shepherd of Hermas as Scripture, as some churches did? For example Daniel F. Lieuwen Copyright (c) 1995 in his work tells us, “St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) made use of an open canon. He seemed ``practically unconcerned about canonicity. To him, inspiration is what mattered.''(29) In addition to books that did not make it into the final New Testament canon but which had local canonicity (Barnabas, Didache, I Clement, Revelation of Peter, the Shepherd, the Gospel according to the Hebrews), he also used the Gospel of the Egyptians, Preaching of Peter, Traditions of Matthias, Sibylline Oracles, and the Oral Gospel.(30) He did, however, prefer the four church gospels to all others, although he supplemented them freely with apocryphal gospels. He was the first to treat non-Pauline letters of the apostles (other than I Peter) as scripture-he accepted I Peter, I and II John, and Jude as scripture.(31)” If we can see here that a Church Father was using another canon other than what we have today then why not go with his canon? It says he was the first to introduce non Pauline epistles into use. Why not condemn him as a heretic? Those before him after-all, were using another canon, one which refused to use any non-Pauline epistles. We have a problem here do we not?
If we are going to use our own historical reasoning alone to determine our faith then we are left to an infinite number of possibilities. The only reason we have a settled New Testament canon is because the Church gradually developed the canon by her authority. Ancient Christianity was not one that subscribed to Scripture Alone, and to my knowledge Christ never told anyone that once the New Testament was finished that the Church now operated under a new system of authority.
Many people will disagree with me I know. But to me there is only one authority to follow and that is the one that Christ appointed to be carried on by his apostles by a living, breathing Word. Yes I believe the Scriptures are God's written Word, but I only know that because of the oral testimony of the apostolic Oral Word that was carried on by the apostles successors. I believe that one has to be moved by the Holy Spirit to get that. I believe that yes, history can help us prove certain characteristics about the Church. But the fact is, all of us reading this now are 1700 years removed from that time period and we do not have access to every historical fact that we would like to affirm or oppose our arguments. The fact is, we were not there in the year 300.
It is a fantasy I think that many today think they are practicing the exact Christianity that was being practiced in the year 200 or the year 300. We all want to appeal to antiquity to argue for our faith belief. Yet I believe that no matter what historical inconsistencies that we may find in history, there is only one true Church that Christ established and He alone knew how it was going to spread and grow throughout the world. It is not just historical rationalism that will give us the answers, it is the guidance of the Holy Spirit that opens us up to see beyond the eye of recorded history, and allows us to see into the heavenly kingdom of the true Church. Once we are guided by faith then we can begin to grasp the web of recorded history, which I believe the Church has been at the center of since Jesus gave it to us. If one were to say they were practicing Christianity just like the early Christians did, who would be closer, the Catholic or the Protestant? The Catholic would be living by the living oral word now, just like the a Christian in the 200s, with addition of the later canonized New Testament. The Protestant however would now being following the New Testament canon alone, which none of these early Christians would have even had the slightest inclination towards. They used the Old Testament and only gradually accepted the books of the New Testament. Who is guilty of using the development of doctrine? I'll let you decide.
I would suggest that one read a few good books on the early history of Christianity. Look at the heresies and the bishops opposing one another over the natures of Christ and the person of Christ in the first 450 years of the Church. I promise it will have your head spinning, and the one without a living breathing apostolic authority to tell you who was right would never be able to figure it out on their own. When I started writing this I did not intend this writing to be an argument against Sola Scriptura.
Before I close I would like to point out that the Catholic Church has the highest regard for the Scriptures because they are hers. But if I have learned anything from reading history, the Scriptures cannot defend themselves from those who misinterpret them outside the apostolic Church that gave them to us. They also cannot put themselves together in a Canon without some living divine authority to tell us what they are. Reasoning can only get us to accepting a living divine authority, which must be rooted in faith. It is the intellect and reason that is enlightened by faith. Rationalism alone will only get us so far.