Sunday, November 19, 2006

Roman Catholic Reliance on Private Judgment

As mentioned previously, I've been reading Eric Svendsen's book, Upon This Slippery Rock: Countering Roman Claims to Authority [New York: Calvary Press, 2002]. The book looks at some of the basic, but all-important authority claims made by the recent batch of Catholic apologists. Sometimes looking at those basic points that an apologetic system relies on stops an argument before it even begins.

A mantra-like point made by Catholic apologists is that Protestants rely on their own fallible private judgment when reading the Bible or studying Church history. A Protestant therefore can have no actual certainty, because they have no infallible interpreter making doctrine and history explicitly clear. A Protestant is forced to “pick and choose” which interpretation of Scripture and history seems best to them. If I had a dollar for every time I heard this put forth, I could pay my mortgage every month with the money collected. It’s a favorite line of reasoning used on the show, The Journey Home seen on the EWTN Network, and among those who “convert” to Roman Catholicism.

Of this line of reasoning, Dr. Svendsen points out:

“…[T]his implies that if one decides on Rome as that choice, he must do so without engaging in the very private judgment that the Roman Catholic apologist has told us is illegitimate. That means, for instance, that the Roman Catholic cannot appeal to his interpretation of Matthew 16, which he thinks identifies Peter as the first pope; nor to any other biblical passage for that matter, since appealing to any passage of Scripture would necessarily force the Roman Catholic to engage in private interpretation. Nor can he look down the annals of Church history to find evidence that the churches granted primacy to the Roman bishop, for those writings too are subject to interpretation, and most church historians disagree with Rome’s understanding of them. Hence, he would again be forced to engage in private judgment.” [Source: Eric Svendsen, Upon This Slippery Rock, 33].

To put it bluntly, those that have chosen to become Roman Catholics have to use their own private judgment to do so. One who converts to Rome had to engage in private judgment when making a decision to become Roman Catholic. Those touting Catholic “certainty” over against Protestant “uncertainty” are putting forth a double standard. They are claiming that their position is certain, while anything else is uncertain. But their own decision to become Catholic comes from their own private judgment. Svendsen notes of the “convert” to Rome:

The fact is, he had to engage in the very same principle of private judgment that we all must use to decide among the various options; namely, a thinking, objective reasoning process, apart from reliance upon the system to which he would eventually subscribe. But it is that very same principle of private judgment that leads him to Rome and others of us away from Rome. Certainly Rome condemns the decision we reached, but she cannot condemn the principle we used to that decision, since it is the very same principle that all Roman Catholics must use to decide that Rome is the ‘true’ church. The Roman Catholic cannot introduce a double standard at this point and still be consistent.” [Source: Eric Svendsen, Upon This Slippery Rock, 34].

Thus, the Catholic convert used private judgment and private interpretation to choose Rome, but in the next breath condemns the Protestant for using private judgment and private interpretation. Even after giving oneself over to an infallible interpreter, The Catholic convert still must use private interpretation and judgment, because very few biblical texts have actually been infallibly interpreted by the Roman Catholic Church.

But the final blow to the Roman argument comes with the fact that the entire basis it rests on is self-refuting. Svendsen notes: “The body of literature we are told plainly identifies the ‘infallible interpreter’ for us (namely, Scripture and church history) is the very body of literature that we are later told we cannot understand without an ‘infallible interpreter’” [Source: Eric Svendsen, Upon This Slippery Rock, 36]. When asked how the Roman Catholic Church can establish her authority, the Catholic apologist answers that it is proved by the testimony of the Scriptures. Hence, they use a circular argument: they prove the authority of the Scriptures by the Church, and the authority of the Church by the Scriptures.

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