Sunday, July 02, 2006

A Response To Robert Sungenis On Church History, Luther, and the Doctrine of Justification

Here’s another question and response from the from the CAI June Q&A page, home of Catholic apologist, Robert Sungenis:

Question 38- Church History, Luther, and the Doctrine of Justification

"Hello Robert:

I sent some an e-mail last week regarding a blog site run by a Mr James Swan. Did you get a chance to visit it yet? Since then, I came across a quote that I wanted to get your opinion on it. Here it is:
*The Catholic View of Justification Previous To Trent * Again, I am Catholic to the marrow, but I do not know how to respond to the above. I would appreciate your input on this, too, if you don't mind."

R. Sungenis: "Peter, I'm afraid Dr. Pelikan is speaking much of this analysis from his own Lutheran bias. There was no teaching of "faith alone" in the patristics or medievals. Trent was following the tradition of the Church. This is precisely why Luther said he rejected the Fathers, since none of them taught faith alone. I have reams of quotes from him to this effect in my book Not By Faith Alone. We only have two or three references to the phrase "faith alone" in the patristics, and when you read them in context (e.g., Clement of Rome) you understand that they were not speaking of Luther's concept. Moreover, if there was some doubt as to how the Church was to understand justification, Luther did the Catholic Church a favor, as all heretics do, in that he made her sit down, cogitate, and write down her doctrines so that everyone would know what, precisely, the boundaries were. That is the way most Catholic doctrine is formulated and codifed -- the Church is squelching some heretic who tries to refute the traditional teaching. You really need to get a copy of my book Not By Faith Alone and read Chapter 9. You'll find out what the score is. "

Peter, I’m afraid Robert Sungenis dismissed Pelikan’s point rather than interact with his point. For further documentation of the wide range of perspectives on justification previous to the 16th Century, see Heiko Oberman’s book, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, particularly Chapter VI: The Process Of Justification (146-184). Whether or not Trent was able to define the actual doctrine of Justification depends on how much one trust's Trent. Roman Catholics implicitely trust Trent, so history will be interpreted to prove Trent's statements.

That there was a great ambiguity as to what exactly "justification" was even at Trent is documented by Alister McGrath:

"The Council of Trent was faced with a group of formidable problems as it assembled to debate the question of justification in June 1546. The medieval period had witnessed the emergence of a number of quite distinct schools of thought on justification, clearly incompatible at points, all of which could lay claim to represent the teaching of the Catholic church." [Source: Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (New York: Cambridge University Press, 259)].

It is ironic that Sungenis appeals to the "tradition of the church", as each of the groups represented at Trent seems to have not been on the same page in regards to the doctrine of justification. McGrath goes on to point out "...[T]here was considerable disagreement in the immediate post-Tridentine period concerning the precise interpretation of the decretum de iustificatione" [ibid. 268]. In another words, even after Trent made its decree on Justification, Catholics were confused as to how to interpret it!

One needs to sit back a moment and reflect on this confusion before and after Trent. The "tradition of the church" was not a clear and concise understanding of....the Gospel, for about 1600 years, and then even immediately after Trent's infallible decree. A further irony is that Sungenis strongly critisizes Protestants for having differences as to how "faith alone" is understood among Protestants in his book, Not By Faith Alone. But, would Sungenis be willing to note the confusion inherent in the Roman Catholic Church up until Trent and the following it? I highly doubt it.

In his response to Peter, Sungenis also provides an excellent example of Catholic apologetic double standards. Sungenis says that Trent was following the tradition of the church, and there was no teaching of “faith alone” previous to Luther. In other words, Luther invented “justification by faith alone”. It didn’t exist until Luther. It can’t be verified in church history. It can’t be true.

On the other hand, when the same historical standard is applied to certain Roman Catholic dogmas, like Mary’s Bodily Assumption, Purgatory, Indulgences, etc., this same historical standard is swept under the rug and hidden. One has to seriously question why a standard that Catholic apologists hold Protestants to is not likewise applied to their own beliefs. Wade through the corridors of church history and search for the threads of all Roman Catholic dogma. One falls flat of linking many of them back to the early church, or in some instances, even the Bible.

Now, this alone should be enough of a refutation of the answer provided by Sungenis. If the type of argument and answer he uses is applied to his own belief system, and that argument leaves his belief system fatally wounded, it would be wise for him to think of another form of argumentation in the future.

While Sungenis hasn’t done this in his answer, some attempt to use “development of doctrine”-to get out of this double standard. But one has to immediately scrutinize such a presupposition. Where has the standard of “development of doctrine” come from? Certainly, in the Bible, we find a progressive clarity on the revealing of its central figure: Jesus Christ. But search through the New Testament, and attempt to uncover where the Bible clearly informs us that doctrine will continue to develop after the period of inscripturation. Jude 3 speaks of "the faith which was once delivered to the saints." He doesn’t speak of delivering an acorn that will blossom into an oak tree. In other words, even the notion of “development of doctrine” doesn’t meet the historical test set up by Roman Catholic apologists. Like other paradigms, it appeared later in the course of Church history, popularized of course by Cardinal Newman.

I admit, the historical aspect of sola fide is a difficult issue, but applying a historical test to the Catholic notion of justification has its problems as well. Historically, one can make a case that Augustine didn't know Greek and the entire direction of the Church was redirected away from what the Bible says on sola fide. Commenting on a point made by Alister McGrath, R.C. Sproul notes,

McGrath sees Augustine’s treatment of justification as pivotal to the subsequent development of the doctrine of justification in the Roman Catholic Church: “Augustine understands the verb iustificare to mean ‘to make righteous,’ an understanding of the term which he appears to have held throughout his working life. In arriving at this understanding, he appears to have interpreted -ficare as the unstressed form of facere, by analogy with vivificare and mortificare. Although this is a permissible interpretation of the Latin word, it is unacceptable as an interpretation of the Hebrew concept which underlies it.” [R.C. Sproul, ). Faith alone : The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, 99]

All I’ve done here is sift through presuppositions. Protestants live by the principle, sola scriptura. In other words, history doesn’t prove what is true and what is not, the Bible does. Sungenis argues that history proves justification by faith alone is not true. Protestants argue that the Bible proves what is truth. I would rather trust in God's words rather than history.


Anonymous said...

Another Great post James. Keep up the good work. Paul L.

Anonymous said...

In case Ray or James wants to respond:

Question 6- St Jerome and the Canon

Robert, I have come across this article in which the writter claims that St Jerome never did accept certain books as canonical. The same books that Martin Luther kept in his German translation but also said were not canonical. I have always been under the impression that St Jerome submitted to the authority of the Church and accepted the books, whereas this author shows that he did not. Would you mind reading this article and comment on it? I believe that this article needs to be refuted and I do not have the knowledge to do so. Here it is:

Guest Blog:Did Jerome Change His Mind on the Apocrypha ?

By Ray Aviles

[I have known Ray Aviles quite a few years now, and i've always been impressed by his work and discussions on Roman Catholic doctrine. A few years back, I read him in dialog with a Roman Catholic on Jerome and the Apocrypha. It was so compelling, I never forgot about it, so i've asked him to write on it here. This is a good one to bookmark- James].

There’s an argument going around the Catholic apologetic circles claiming that Jerome changed his position on the Apocrypha later in his life. That he came to accept these books as inspired because of the “judgment of the churches” on this matter. Furthermore, they claim the evidence of this lies in his citing these books using the word “Scripture” to define them. RC apologist Mark Shea provides an example of this in an Envoy Magazine article (found here) He writes:

"In his later years St. Jerome did indeed accept the Deuterocanonical books of the Bible. In fact, he wound up strenuously defending their status as inspired Scripture, writing, "What sin have I committed if I followed the judgment of the churches? But he who brings charges against me for relating the objections that the Hebrews are wont to raise against the story of Susanna, the Son of the Three Children, and the story of Bel and the Dragon, which are not found in the Hebrew volume (ie. canon), proves that he is just a foolish sycophant. For I wasn't relating my own personal views, but rather the remarks that they [the Jews] are wont to make against us" (Against Rufinus 11:33 [A.D. 402]). In earlier correspondence with Pope Damasus, Jerome did not call the deuterocanonical books unscriptural, he simply said that Jews he knew did not regard them as canonical. But for himself, he acknowledged the authority of the Church in defining the canon. When Pope Damasus and the Councils of Carthage and Hippo included the deuterocanon in Scripture, that was good enough for St. Jerome. He "followed the judgment of the churches."

Shea not only claims that Jerome accepted them, but that he “strenuously” defended them. A word used to intrigue the reader, but there is no evidence that he defended them, let alone “strenuously.” Furthermore, from the citation above, he states that Jerome followed the “judgment of the churches”, which Shea translates as the synods of Hippo and Carthage, but he is mistaken. Contextually, the “judgment of the churches” refers to Theodotion’s translation of Daniel which the churches were using instead of the Septuagint version. To add to this, he couldn’t have followed Carthage considering they met 17 years after Jerome penned the above. Both Hippo and Carthage were regional councils, didn’t speak for the entire church, thus it wasn’t mandated that Jerome submit to their decisions. Yet, it was Theodotion’s version Jerome refers to when he mentions the “judgment of the churches” and not their decision on canon.

R. Sungenis: Peter, besides the fact that none of us may really know the true story behind what Jerome thought about the deuterocanonicals, the fact remains that it means very little to us now. There have been Catholics who have contested the canon all the way up to Trent's infallible proclamation in 1563. In fact, it was Cardinal Cajetan who, along with Luther, precipitated Trent's final decree on this matter because he, too, was questioning the canonicity of the deuterocanonicals. As for Jerome, we should not be suprised that he would question their status. The Church herself didn't make the final infallible proclamation until 10 centuries after him. Moreover, Trent said it was bound by the consensus of the tradition, whether it was Hippo and Carthage or Pope Innocent I or the Council of Florence. That is all that matters now. I would hope that those who are vigorous in pointing out Jerome's doubts would be just as vigorous in acknowledging that Jerome answered to a higher authority, and that authority is everyone's authority.

Churchmouse said...

Hi Peter,

I don’t know if this was amongst the “package” of emails that you sent to Shea, Sippo, etc. and not that you are still looking for some sort of concurrence, but Sungenis didn’t refute anything I said. My point was merely to correct those who claimed that Jerome changed his mind on the matter and, as far as Shea goes, to correct his error that the term “judgment of the churches” applied to a declaration by the African Synods. Sungenis agrees that there were issues leading to Trent, but here is where we part company: Sungenis claims that none of us know the story behind Jerome, but this is appealing to silence. Although silence can sometimes speak louder than words, the factors point elsewhere. Sungenis makes it seem as if Cajetan, along with Luther, spurred Trent’s reaction, but that’s not correct. Again, there were other contemporaries of Trent, such as Ximenes, Seripando, and his group, who were adherents of Jerome’s view as well. What this tells me is that this view was still very much extant and these folks KNEW Jerome never reneged on his position. Sungenis also claims that Trent’s infallible declaration sealed the deal as far as the canon went, but the question must be asked: WHY would it take almost 1,200 years to declare a canon, especially if various views existed throughout church history leading up to Trent? Wouldn’t the Church have positioned herself better especially after the African Synods? IOW, they allegedly made a decision on canon and others disagreed, so why take 1,200 years before making an “infallible” proclamation on canon? WHY would there be contestation at Trent by the group headed by Seripando if the church had indeed decided on a canon approximately 1,200 years before AND the “judgment of the churches” was indeed in effect? Sungenis states that one should be as vigorous in acknowledging that Jerome answered to a higher authority and that this authority is everyone’s authority. I assume that this authority is the Church, in particular Rome, but that’s an entirely different matter altogether and, not surprisingly, not one that I agree with. It’s beside the point. Rome didn’t make a decision and Jerome was free to indulge his position. His prefaces to the Vulgate were never changed and, in them, he was clear about these books being “ecclesiastical” but NOT Scripture. One would assume that if Jerome did indeed answer to that “higher authority” that he would have had to renege on anything which put skepticism on these added books, but that’s not the case and the prefaces remained. As far as the council of Trent and the goings-on regarding the canon, Roman Catholic scholar Hubert Jedin’s account (Cardinal Seripando: Papal Legate at the Council of Trent) is probably the best. Jim can send you a copy of the relevant chapter, in text format, via email if you’d like. Read it, mull it over, and ask yourself if Rome’s “infallible” declaration doesn’t seem more like a reaction to you—especially in light of the fact that the best scholars, albeit a minority, set themselves on the side which opposed the books. God gave us minds in which to think and discern. I don’t believe in Rome’s infallibility and declaring a canon under the pretense of it really means nothing to me.

Peter, on another note, my advice to you would be that you spend more time studying these issues for yourself rather then looking to those who can only give you opinion. Cast your all before God, read His Word, and pray for the illumination of the Holy Spirit to guide you. As always, I’ll keep you in my prayers.


Ronnie said...

Hi Robbie,

It is obvious that Sungenis is playing down Jerome's belief on the canon because it doesn't jive with the Catholic position. Notice his language,

"Peter, besides the fact that none of us may really know the true story behind what Jerome thought about the deuterocanonicals, the fact remains that it means very little to us now."

None of us really know? Jerome's thoughts on this matter are very clear as even Mark Shea acknowledged. Sungenis doesn't seem like someone you can count on to give you an objective analysis of things. Furthermore, I hope you will notice that all of a sudden "it means very little to us now" according to Sungenis. When Catholics think the fathers agree with them it means everything to Christianity. When the fathers disagree with them, it doesn’t matter because the infallible church is what matters. “Head Catholics win, tail everyone else loses” Finally, you will notice what Sungenis admitted in his reply. He states truthfully that the canon was not infallibly defined until Trent. Now how many times have you heard Catholics make claims contrary to this? How many times have you heard Catholics claim that Protestants cannot know what the Canon is without an infallible pronouncement? If this is true, then no one for over 3000 years knew what book was in the Canon until Trent came along around 500 years ago. How many times have you heard Catholics claim that Luther removed books from the Canon to justify his views, but Luther was before Trent and was in agreement with the most knowledgeable Catholics throughout history in reference to the Canon. All of this should be a testimony to you of not believing everything Catholic apologists are claiming to defend their faith.

Churchmouse said...

Listen to you Ronnie. You sound like an apologist :-) Good observations and good post. You really revealed the doublespeak involved with Catholic apologetics. Good one!


Churchmouse said...

Whoops! I see that Peter wrote the letter and Robbie gave us the head's up. So, Peter if you are reading this, I hope you take it to heart. Robbie, thanks for the head's up :-)


Anonymous said...

If Lutherans, of all people, can't be classified as Protestant, then who in the world can be?