Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Book Review: "Roman Catholicism" Part 2.

Continuing on in my review of this book and in particular Tom Nettles contribution on the Church we read,

"The Roman response (to the reformers) at Trent was not according to Christ or the early church. Establishing a parity of authority between oral tradition and Scripture contradicts the structure of authority and method reflected in the writings of Ignatius, Justin, Irenaeus, and others." (p. 28).

But again Nettles sets up a rickety strawman only to knock it down with force. Both the early Catholic Fathers and the Catholic Church today hold the same unified view on Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. The dichotomy drawn by Nettles is a false one. I can quote page after page of the Fathers to support the Catholic position which holds that these two sources of revelation go hand in hand none is set up over the other. What the modern Catholic Church has always taught is that Tradition is used for a correct hermeneutical reading of Sacred Scripture. Protestant apologists usually misunderstand this concept as does Nettles here. A few examples should suffice for the Catholic understanding of the source of faith and morals from the Fathers themselves,

Papias, that most ancient bishop of Hierapolis notes concerning tradition's role in understanding Christian doctrine, - "Unlike most people, I do not delight in those who talk a great deal, but in those who teach the truth, nor in those who relate the commandments of others, but in those who relate the commandments given by the Lord to the faith, and which are derived from Truth itself...It did not seem to me that I could get so much profit from the contents of books as from a living and abiding voice." (Hist. Eccl. 3, 39, 3-4).

Let us not forget that Papias according to St. Irenaeus (Adversus haereses. 5, 33, 4) heard and learned Christianity from St. John the Apostle first hand. This same man records that books (most probably the ancient epistles of Paul and early gospels) are best profitable and understood when expounded by the living and abiding voice, oral tradition.

In like manner St. Irenaeus posits the question to his detractors, imagine if no early Apostle would have written anything down, what then, from where would we get our Christian instruction from? "That is why it is surely necessary to avoid them (heretics), while cherishing with the utmost diligence the things pertaining to the Church, and to lay hold of the tradition of truth. . . . What if the apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches?" (Adversus haereses. 3, 4, 1). So important then is oral tradition for a correct and historic interpretation of Christianity in general and Scripture in particular. It is the schismatics who have always set up in opposition to this, skewed misguided views on Scripture and Tradition, among the Protestants it's the novel doctrine called sola Scriptura.

Nettles goes on in his confusion and states,

"Polycarp's faithfulness to death, Ignatius's zeal for unity and truth and warning against heretics, Justin's philosophical sophistication subdued to the truth of Jesus, Tertullian's pugnacious protection of the rule of faith, Irenaeus's pastoral alertness...Athanasius's...Augustines...Aquinas...are all cords within the tapestry of Christian testimony in the world...It inheres in the structure of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church that is the pillar and foundation of the truth." (p. 29).

I find this statement exceedingly ironic and completely in line with the usual Protestant polemical attempt to re-write the Patristic Catholic history. All of these great Catholic theologians would have not only disagreed with Nettles and his particular pet-theory that is called Protestant Baptist theology but would have roundly condemned him as a heretic of the worst degree and soundly excommunicated him. There is virtually nothing in common with Nettles and these great titans of historic Christianity, not soteriology not anthropolgy no agreement on the Sacraments or their meanings, definitely not ecclesiology and probably not even eschatology.

In the next few pages Nettles points out citing The Augsburg Confession, the Westminister Confession and the thirty-nine Articles, that evangelicals gladly embrace the Trinitarian and related doctrines of the ancient Catholic Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon and at this point we can say amen you do good but what about the rest of the canons of these Councils? On what basis do you get too pick and choose what you want to believe or reject? To reply with "Scripture alone" does you no good since these Holy Scriptures were codified and brought togather by the same Catholic bishops that attended these Councils. You cannot rob Peter to pay Paul.

Reading on I find this passage in Nettles entry,

"Rome opted for a very strong stream of medieval thought, which isolated the efficacy of saving grace to the sacraments and included the sinner's progressive sanctification by infused grace as an essential element of their definition of justification. That is both legalistic and antinomian, unbiblical on both counts. It is legalistic in that the sinner's obediance constitutes a part of his standing justified before God; it is antinomian in that it accepts as meritorious an obediance that falls short of the law's true demands." (p. 33)

This garbled mass of misunderstanding needs unpacking. First, to claim that Rome based her soteriology on [late] medieval thought is absurd and reveals a lack of historical theology and a lack of understanding Catholic soteriology. Rome's soteriology is based first and foremost closest with St. Augustine's soteriological framework as can be seen from a reading of the Catholic Catechism. It was St. Aquinas using Augustine who formulated his thought and coined much of the terminology that Catholicsim would later used. Secondly, while the sacraments are the vehicle of justification in Catholicism they are not the only instruments in Catholic dogma. Surely Nettles must know this, why he leaves it out and "isolates" saving grace to them alone says a lot about his presentation. Third, Nettles misrepresentation of Catholic soteriology he confidently asserts, leads to a form of legalism and antinomianism. But this conclusion fails since from the outset it is a strawman. Fourth, the true Catholic conception on salvation can be aptly demonstrated from both Tradition and Scripture.

Nettles next goes on to cite various passages from St. Ignatius that shows him to be a man of splendid zeal and passion for the Christian faith. Oneness and the unity of the church is highlighted as a main aspect of Ignatian teaching by Nettles. But here we can stop his tirade against Catholicism and calmly ask him, but what church is Ignatius proclaiming the beauty and the unity even unto death? Is is Nettles sectarian Baptist denomination that would not even exist until nearly two thousand years later? Or no perhaps it's the church of another contributor of this diatribe against Catholicism, "The United Church Of Christ" denomination of Donald Bloesch? No, perhaps Ignatius died defending the Presbyterian church of D. Clair Davis? No, surely it was for the United Reformed Church of Robert Godfrey? Or, it could have been for the Northwest Bible Church of S. Lewis Johnson? Maybe these are all wrong and St. Ignatius was defending the Anglican church of Alister McGrath? Or for the Southern Baptist denomination of Ronald Nash?

There is no need to go to such lengths for St. Ignatius, the blessed bishop of Antioch answers the question for us,

"Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church" (Epistulae ad Smyrnaeos. 8, 2).

The Fathers to a man are all Catholics in doctrine and in profession.

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