Tertullian's Paradox; Why Protestants and Catholics, Calvinists and Armenians, will never see eye to eye

Tertullian's Paradox

CATHOLICISM critiques the sufficiency of Scripture alone, while PROTESTANTISM critiques Catholic claims that their traditions and miracle stories are true.

First, letʼs hear a bit of the Catholic argument…

Is Scripture Alone Sufficient?

Francis Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical [Protestant] Theological Society converted to Catholicism after recognizing that Scripture alone is insufficient. Judging by his conversion (as well as that of Newmanʼs during the Victorian era when the latter quit Anglicanism for Catholicism, which stunned England) critiques of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura can be quite successful. Introducing oneʼs Protestant friends to Catholic criticisms of sola scriptura may help them question their previous ideas of biblical authority without having to introduce them to books by agnostic or atheist scholars. See this piece for instance:

Ecclesiastical Authority in Scripture and Apostolic Tradition by James Roger Black (Ph.D. in “Ancient Religions of the Eastern Mediterranean”). Headings in Dr. Blackʼs paper include:

  • “Scripture alone is not a sufficient guide to faith and practice…
  • “Scripture is not self-defining…
  • “Scripture is not self-authenticating…
  • “Scripture is not self-interpreting…

“The Reformation principle of ‘sola scriptura’—i.e., reliance on ‘Scripture alone’—is not taught in Scripture itself, was not held by the early Church…

“The commonly cited biblical proofs of sola scriptura do not actually teach what they are alleged to teach…

“Both Jesus and the Apostles made use of—and even appealed to the authority of—the oral traditions, deuterocanonical and extracanonical writings, and varying textual recensions of their day.”

See Dr. Blackʼs article for the examples he cites beneath each heading.

There is also a former Protestant who converted to Catholicism, named Dave Armstrong who has written some concise pieces on the same topic, but one can find any number of Catholic scholars who likewise have written on the topic probably going back to Lutherʼs day:

Catholics imagine that after the Reformation principle of sola scriptura is undermined then Protestantʼs will be forced to recognize or at least look into Catholic claims of divinely-directed growth of dogma and traditions, not to mention centuries of miraculous and visionary experiences.

But hereʼs where it becomes PROTESTANTISMʼS turn to aid in leading more people toward deism, atheism, or at least agnosticism.

Are Miracle Tales True?

Protestants over the centuries have examined Catholic miracle tales and found them wanting. On the miracles reported to have taken place in the early church Rev. Dr. Conyers Middleton (18th century British Anglican clergyman, Cambridge graduate and author) says, regarding the early church fathers who reported them:

“I have shown by many indisputable facts, that the ancient fathers, by whose authority that delusion was originally imposed (that miracles existed in the early church), and has ever since been supported, were extremely credulous and superstitious; possessed with strong prejudices and enthusiastic zeal, in favour, not only of Christianity in general, but of every particular doctrine, which a wild imagination could ingraft upon it; and scrupling no art or means, by which they might propagate the same principles. In short; they they were of a character, from which nothing could be expected, that was candid and impartial; nothing but what a weak or crafty understanding could supply, towards confirming those prejudices, with which they happened to be possessed; especially where religion was the subject, which above all other motives, strengthens every bias, and inflames every passion of the human mind.” [Conyers Middleton (1749), A Free Inquiry Into The Miraculous Powers Which Are Supposed To Have Subsisted In The Christian Church From The Earliest Ages Through Several Successive Centuries. Reprinted (1967). New York: Garland Publishing. Preface, pp. 21-22.]

Then in the 19th century one can read the Protestant theologian (and father of modern inerrancy), B. B. Warfield, to see how he debunked Catholic miracles and resurrection stories in his famous work, COUNTERFEIT MIRACLES. Which just goes to show, as Dr. Robert M. Price (an ex-fundamentalist Protestant), wrote, “The zeal and ingenuity of conservative evangelical scholars in dismantling the miracles of rival Christian groups (and exploding rival interpretations of Scripture used to support such miracles), is worthy of the most skeptical gospel critic.”

In the 20th century after the worldwide rise of Pentecostalism, the conservative Protestant, George W. Peters, dismantled stories of “resurrections” that allegedly took place in the 1970s during the Pentecostal revival in the Phillipines. His book was titled, Indonesia Revival: Focus On Timor (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), Chapter 4, “The Miracle Phenomena of the Revival,” pp. 57-85. Other conservative Protestants have dismantled claims of miracles allegedly performed by Pentecostal televangelist Benny Hinn, including his claim, now withdrawn, that he had “raised someone to life.”

This brings us to a Catholic book by Father Albert J. Hebert S.M., Raised From The Dead: True Stories Of 400 Resurrection Miracles. Father Hebert claims many resurrection miracles have been performed by Roman Catholic saints. Naturally Protestants like Middleton, Warfield, and Peters are not going to simply allow Catholics to believe that their Church has a preponderance of resurrection miracles vouchsafed by God. They are going to question whether any such myriad of miracles ever took place, using every possible reason, rationalization or inkling of doubt in their minds.

But then one must ask how those same Protestants, so willing to employ every reason and rationalization at their disposal to deny Catholic miracles—chalking them up to gullibility, blindness, folk tales, myths, legends, or the result of living in ignorant and superstitious times—expect modern day people to believe every last miracle in the Bible instead?

On what historical grounds can the miracles of Protestantismʼs “enemy,” the Catholic Church, be rejected without also rejecting or at least questioning heartily those found in the New Testament? If Father Hebert is correct then the miracles he enumerates serve as evidence of Godʼs approval of the Roman Catholic Churchʼs status as true church of God. And the miracles Father Hebert documents happened much more recently than those reported in the Gospels, and they are reported by people about whom we know more than is known about the Gospel writers. So what do we really know of the anonymous writers of the Gospels that assures us that they would not make use of whatever stories or pious legends were being spread about by others living in such a superstitious era?

Hence, CATHOLICISM critiques the sufficiency of Scripture alone, while PROTESTANTISM critiques Catholic claims that their traditions and miracles stories are true.

So what must one believe?

Is God speaking especially clearly on either matter? See also this post on Miracles of All Religions. What a mixed bag they are. How can God or “Whatever is Out There” expect us all to make the same sense out of such a mixed bag of miracle stories?

Arminianism Versus Calvinism

The C.S. Lewis-ian/Arminian, Victor Reppert (of the blog Dangerous Idea) and the Calvinist, Paul Manata (of the blog Triablogue) went back and forth on one of the most heavily discussed and unresolved debates throughout centuries of Christian theology and philosophy, tossing at each other grandiose concepts and words that have a core of incomprehensibility not only in and of themselves, but also in the different ways different thinkers have conceived of them relating to one another — words such as “God,” “nature,” “omniscience,” “predestination,” “free will,” “divine goodness,” “human goodness” (or lack thereof w/ the exception of “common grace”).

Vic and Paul remain “certain” that whatever core of incomprehensibility may exist in such words, their use of them makes far greater sense, and adds up to a far more imposing and necessarily true system than that of their opponent.

All of which reminded me of something Bernard Williams, a Christian philosopher, wrote in his essay, “Tertullianʼs Paradox”:

“If the Christian faith is true, it must be partly incomprehensible. But if it is partly incomprehensible, it is difficult to see what it is for it to be true…”

He continued…

“It follows further… that it is difficult to characterize the difference between belief and unbelief”

Especially, I might add, in the sense of believing or not believing in explanatory systems propounded by other Christians.

In fact, one can see how incessant debates between Catholic and Protestant thinkers seem to have led almost naturally to a rise in deism and atheism, or at least agnosticism.

There have been (and still are) so many differences between Christians in matters of theology, philosophy, liturgy, spiritual regimes, buzz words, and other practices, that Christianity ought to be called “Christianities.” A spectrum of systems exist for interpreting the Bible and for determining its authority on various matters. How does one “find Godʼs will?”

No doubt the hunt for “Godʼs will” via interpreting holy books, dogmas, and traditions is endless and exhausting which explains why so many Christians feel relieved to leave such a hunt up to their pastor, or up to the Sunday School lessons their church receives in booklets sent from their parent institution, or up to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, or up to the living patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox church, or up to the guy with the weird haircut hawking “holy hankies” on TV.

I know itʼs exhausting because I tried and sought and prayed and read and continue to read up on the topic. So letʼs pour more oil on the fire of Vic and Paulʼs dialogue, and start by asking them both why they arenʼt Catholic? Itʼs the single biggest Christian Church in the world. Nearly as big as all Protestant denominations combined. And it has what it calls “apostolic authority” going back to an apostle whom Jesus himself picked as a rock of faith to whom things on heaven and earth would be loosed, and they say that apostle picked others, etc. And hereʼs the kicker, Catholics continue to use every reasonable, rational and historical argument in order to deny something near and dear to every Protestant, the sufficiency and perspicacity of Scripture.

The story of my journey
If It Wasnʼt For Agnosticism I Would Know WHAT to Believe,
Agnosticism: Reasons to Leave Christianity

1 comment:

  1. Well done! My eyes only glazed over once and that's because I just got up. (Just teasing) I have been enjoying reading your blog. I'll be seeding this to my newsvine column.