Sunday, September 16, 2007

James Swan, Systematic Theology, and Catholicism

James Swan, one the members of the “Team Apologian” crew, put up this morning, what may very well be his most ill-conceived post (in my subjective opinion), on either the AOMIN blog, or his own Beggar’s All blog. James is reading through Cornelius Van Til’s An Introduction To Systematic Theology and takes a quote from the book which references some “fifty-seven varieties of heresies with which our country [USA] abounds” and then tries to apply it to Catholic converts! I kid you not; here is the greater context:

I've been reading Van Til's An Introduction To Systematic Theology. Van Til notes systematic theology seeks to offer an ordered presentation of what the Bible teaches about God. He says "the study of systematic theology will help men to preach theologically. It will help to make men proclaim the whole counsel of God. Many ministers never touch the greater part of the wealth of the revelation of God to man contained in Scripture. But systematics helps ministers to preach the whole counsel of God, and thus to make God central in their work."

Here was the point that I found most interesting:

"It is but natural to expect that, if the church is strong because its ministry understands and preaches the whole counsel of God, then the church will be able to protect itself best against false teaching of every sort. Non-indoctrinated Christians will easily fall prey to the peddlers of Russellism, spiritualism and all of the other fifty-seven varieties of heresies with which our country abounds. One-text Christians simply have no weapons of defense against these people. They may be able to quote many Scripture texts which speak, for instance, of eternal punishment, but the Russellite will be able to quote texts which, by the sound of them and taken individually, seem to teach annihilation. The net result is, at best, a loss of spiritual power because of loss of conviction. Many times, such one-text Christians themselves fall prey to the seducers voice."

Of course, I had the converts to Roman Catholicism in mind, rather than Russellites. I wonder how many of these Catholic converts actually attended churches that proclaimed the whole council of God? A question I would ask is how many Catholic converts previously went to churches with strong systematic confessions of faith, like the Westminster Confession, and how often were they taught the confession, like in a Sunday School class, and how well did their minister cover all the doctrines in the confession of faith? I would expect some rather weak answers. (James Swan, - italics in the original post.)

My-oh-my, where to begin…

Has James so quickly forgotten the fairly recent converts to Catholicism who not only went to “went to churches with strong systematic confessions of faith”, but also received seminary training in conservative Reformed schools; some of whom went on to pastor the type of church James makes reference to! (E.g. Scott Hahn, James Akin, Robert Sungenis, Steve Wood, and Jerry Matatics.)

And then there is myself. I was mentored and discipled by a ruling elder of the ultra conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church, who I had met at the Christian bookstore he was working in which specialized in classic Reformed works. After reading through the entire systematic theologies of Louis Berkhof, Charles Hodge, and W.G.T. Shedd (along with the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Longer and Shorter Catechisms, and numerous other Reformed works by such authors as B.B. Warfield, John Owen, John Murray, Jonathan Edwards, et al.), I became a member of the OPC. And my Reformed readings continued, but it was not long after my conversion that I began to see the incredible amount of schism that existed among the conservative Reformed churches. Their inability to exist together in ecclesiastical unity led to my deeper studies into history, including the early Church Fathers. (And we all know what Newman had to say about history!)

Now, I am certain that my response is not one of the “rather weak answers” James was hoping for when he penned his post. And I am quite sure that the examples of the Hahn, Akin, Sungenis, Wood, Matatics, and myself are not the only ones which make James’ post incredibly suspect.

But there is perhaps an even larger issue that needs to be addressed: the differing types of systematic theologies. Van Til (and James) acts as though the only systematic theologies that have been written are Reformed. Fact is there are Arminian, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and Catholic systematic theologies. And there is a considerable amount of diversity among the Reformed systematic theologies. How is the simply lay person going know which of the dozens of extant systematic theologies out there is one he needs to read and embrace?

I am not going to bore everyone with my personal favorites, but I would like to end this post on one important note: Van Til’s An Introduction To Systematic Theology is certainly not one of the better ones, even when we allow for the fact that it is only an “introduction”. Van Til was a brilliant philosopher, but not a great theologian; his teaching concerning the doctrine of the Trinity is but one example of his sometimes muddled thought. Van Til stated:

We do assert that God, that is the whole Godhead, is one person…He is one person. When we say that we believe in a personal God, we do not merely mean that we believe in a God to whom the adjective “personality” may be attached. God is not an essence that has personality; He is absolute personality. Yet, within, the being of the one person we are permitted and compelled by Scripture to make the distinction between a specific or generic type of being, and three personal subsistences. (Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction To Systematic Theology, pp. 229, 230.)

Me thinks I smell a whiff of modalism…

Grace and peace,


Thursday, September 13, 2007

The perspicuity (clarity) of Sacred Scripture.

An interesting dialogue (at least to me) is currently taking place between James White, and three bloggers at . The opening salvos are found here:

These precipitated the following related threads:

I know, a lot of reading, but I hope a few readers will take the time to peruse through the material, for the ongoing discussion raises numerous unresolved issues within the Protestant paradigm. For now, I am going to explore but one of those issues: the perspicuity (clarity) of Sacred Scripture.

In the last thread I listed above, James states:

Meanwhile, so many of these same folks will inconsistently sow seeds of doubt as to the perspecuity of Scripture, the clarity of the gospel, and any number of other issues all in the name of “catholicity.” While I will never stop decrying the soul-crushing slavery of Roman religion, I have no interest at all in wasting any more time with those who think it enjoyable to sit in their comfy personal libraries while lobbing off literary artillery shells at those on the front lines. (James R. White - .)

Putting aside for the moment James’ caustic style of writing, I am truly wondering how he can seriously maintain “the perspecuity of Scripture” in light of the incredible divisions among those who espouse sola scriptura. A fellow Baptist had some very interesting observations on this issue:

The Reformation principle was not private judgment but the perspicuity of the Scriptures. Scripture was ‘sui ipsius interpres’ and the simple principle of interpreting individual passages by the whole was to lead to unanimity in understanding…It was this belief in the clarity of Scripture that made the early disputes between so fierce. This theory seemed plausible while the majority of Protestants held to Lutheran or Calvinist orthodoxy but the seventeenth century saw the beginning of the erosion of these monopolies…By the end of the seventeenth century many others saw that it was not possible on the basis of Scripture alone to build up a detailed orthodoxy commanding general consent…In the next century birth was given to a movement of evangelicalism which was fervently orthodox but which extended the field of non-essentials wider than the Reformers. This tendency has continued to the present day when the various evangelical confessions of faith are all note-worthy for their extreme brevity. Evangelicalism has retained a belief in the perspicuity of Scripture but confined it to a fairly narrow area of basic doctrine. (A.N.S. Lane, “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey”, Vox Evangelica, Volume IX – 1975, pp. 44, 45.)

IMHO, the doctrine of the “perspicuity of the Scriptures” has died the ‘death of a thousand qualifications.’

As for “the clarity of the gospel”, James seems to ignore the seemly insurmountable historical difficulties that such a position raises (see the following thread for some discussion on this: ).

Once again, it is a mystery to me as to how someone can maintain “the clarity” of any doctrine (in this case “the gospel”) which was essentially lost to the world for nearly 1500 years until “the Reformers discovered” it.

I am sincerely pondering in my mind the question: have I missed something?

Grace and peace,


Wednesday, September 5, 2007

James Swan, Ratzinger/Benedict XVI and the "material sufficiency" of Sacred Scripture.

Earlier today, I noticed a post made by James Swan (09/02/07) at the AOMIN blog ( ). The post caught my eye because it is addressing certain comments I had made days earlier on James Swan's blog, "Beggars All" (08/27/07).

Why James chose to publish his response on James White's AOMIN blog instead of his own blog ( ) is a bit of a mystery to me—perhaps he did not want constructive dialogue on the matter, for as most know, the AOMIN blog does not allow comments—or maybe it was for other reasons known only to himself…

Moving on to James’ AOMIN post, he stated that I have exhibited “confusion” concerning the then Joseph Ratzinger’s position on the material sufficiency of Sacred Scripture. IMHO, Benedict XVI/Ratzinger did not display “ambiguity” concerning his position on this issue as James contends, but rather, clearly affirmed a belief in the material sufficiency of Sacred Scripture, while denying it's formal sufficiency.

James attempts to build his case on selective quotes from Ratzinger’s chapter “The Transmission of Divine Revelation” as found in the Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II , New York: Herder and Herder, 1969 (note: I shall be using the 1989 reprint by Crossroad), edited by Herbert Vorgrimler.

James begins his polemical treatment with:

While still a Cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger (now the Pope) stated, " one is seriously able to maintain that there is a proof in Scripture for every catholic doctrine" [See Joseph Ratzinger's "The Transmission of Divine Revelation" in Herbert Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), Vol. 3, p. 195]. Ratzinger made this comment with the documents of Vatican II (article nine of Dei verbum) in mind. (James Swan, “Material Sufficiency and Joseph Ratzinger” – hereafter JS.)

[As we shall shortly see, James has misunderstood the greater context of the above quote.]

James also wrote:

Earlier though in the same document, Ratzinger states the problem of the material completeness of Scripture was under dispute in 1965, and that "finally the idea of any tradition of this kind was rejected." This would indeed harmonize with Ratzinger's statement, " one is seriously able to maintain that there is a proof in Scripture for every catholic doctrine." Both these sentences reside in the same context. (JS)

First, James misquoted the selective text he provided—“tradition” should read “addition”. Second, the greater context surrounding the selective quote, demonstrates (IMHO) that James has misunderstood Benedict VXI’s/Ratzinger’s actual position. Here is the full context:

If we return to our text, we shall see that, following the stress on the unity of Scripture and tradition, an attempt is made to give a definition of the two entities. It is important to note that only Scripture is defined in terms of what it is: it is stated that Scripture is the word of God. If this makes clear the nature of Scripture, we can see from the detailed characterization of tradition, whose task it is to “preserve (it), explain it, and make it more widely know”, that it is not productive, but “conservative”, ordained to serve as part of something already given.

The next part of the sentence quo fit … hauriat is the result of a modus suggested by 111 fathers. They wanted, with small variations, something like the following addition: quo fit ut non omnis doctrina catholica ex (sola) Scriptura (directe) probari queat. Clearly, the problem of the material completeness of Scripture once more crops up here, the problem that had caused fierce debate in the Council in its first and third sessions. When the question was treated in the Theological Commission on 6 October 1965, a dispute flared up. Mgr. Philips, its secretary, made a conciliatory proposal, which met with no success, so that finally the idea of any addition of this kind was rejected. On 18 October, the President of the Commission, Cardinal Ottaviani, was given a letter written by Cardinal Cicognani at the request of the Pope, which, apart from a few improvements Chapter III, also stated that it would be desirable (magus opportunum) to have an addition at this point. The letter included seven textual suggestions, on which the Secretary of State commented in his letter: “His enim formulis ii etiam assensum ac suffragium praestaturi esse censentur, qui in maiore Concilii parte pollent.” After careful deliberation the Council decided on the third of the suggested formulations, which was probably the work of C. Colombo. It now stands in the text. From an ecumenical point of there can be no objection to it. H. Ott says: “Moreover, it is surely also true for a Protestant who has not forgotten the basis of the Reformation that we do not acquire certainty about God’s revelation only from Holy Scripture, but also through preaching and the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.” Actually, there would have been nothing to object to in the text of the 111 fathers, for no one is seriously able to maintain that there is proof in Scripture for every Catholic doctrine. The ecumenical difficulties of the text lie, as we have seen, in quite different points. Emotions had become attached to a point where they were completely superfluous. Furthermore, when one analyzes text calmly, it appears as a positive contribution towards the clarification of the problem of tradition. The function of tradition is seen here as a making certain of the truth, i.e. it belongs in the formal and gnoseological sphere—and, in fact, this is the sphere in which the significance of tradition is to be sought
(Joseph Ratzinger, “The Transmission of Divine Revelation” in Herbert Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II - New York: Crossroad, 1989, Vol. 3, pp. 194, 195.)

The “any addition of this kind” clearly refers to preceding the Latin quote, and not to a rejection of the principle of material sufficiency, as James attempts to read into his selective quote.

James continues with:

But perhaps the confusion demonstrated by this Roman Catholic is due to the ambiguity of Ratzinger's words. Ratzinger goes on to point out that even Protestants really don't believe in material sufficiency. Quoting H. Ott, Ratzinger states an ecumenical protestant should realize "... it is surely also true for a Protestant who has not forgotten the basis of the Reformation that we do not acquire certainty about God's revelation only from Holy Scripture, but also through preaching and the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit." In other words, Material sufficiency is false even for Protestants, because God uses means outside of Scripture with his people.

But this is a false understanding of what Protestants mean by material sufficiency. "Acquiring certainty" is not extra-Biblical revelation. 1 John 5:13 states, "These things have I written unto you, that ye may know that ye have eternal life, even unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God." Similarly John 20:31 states, "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." The certainty I have is due to the fact that no authority can stand above God's word to validate God's word. God says in the Scriptures "I can know," and therefore, I can know! Further, by implication, Ratzinger holds that the Roman Church provides certainty, but this indeed is an unproven assertion. (JS)

James is clearly confusing material sufficiency with formal sufficiency; “certainty” (i.e. “proof”) of revealed truths/doctrines comes via the interpretation of the raw material. Ratzinger/Benedict XVI is not saying, "that even Protestants really don't believe in material sufficiency"; no, no, no...what he IS saying is that even Protestants really don't believe in FORMAL sufficiency.

James’ comment that, “Ratzinger holds that the Roman Church provides certainty” is in perfect agreement with the consensus of the Church Fathers (“Roman Church”, being, of course, the Catholic Church), and speaks to a material sufficiency, but not a formal sufficiency of the Sacred Scriptures. Thus Ratzinger/Benedict XVI so cogently states that the “function of tradition is seen here as a making certain of the truth, i.e. it belongs in the formal and gnoseological sphere—and, in fact, this is the sphere in which the significance of tradition is to be sought.”

Backing up just a bit, Ratzinger/Benedict XVI stated in the same document that the “formulations of our Decree” [Dei Verbum], “were the product of the attempt to take into account, to the widest possible extent, the points made by the Reformed Churches and were intended to keep the field open for a Catholic idea of sola Sciptura(ibid. p. 192). By “a Catholic idea of sola Sciptura”,

Ratzinger/Benedict XVI is affirming material sufficiency, while rejecting the formal sufficiency of the Scriptures. He also believes that Protestants cannot objectively hold to the formal sufficiency of the Scriptures for: “Historical research has done away with the Reformation idea that Scripture itself has one clear meaning, or, rather, that this meaning can only have a relative character, namely within the framework of the kerygma(ibid. p. 194).

That Ratzinger/Benedict XVI advocated a belief in the material sufficiency of Scripture is so clear to me, I sincerely wonder how James could miss this. But in all fairness, I am certainly a fallible creature; as such, it is important to listen to what others have to say on the matter. The current professor of Systematic Theology at Seton Hall Univ. had the following comments:

Evangelicals, of course, have generally followed the Reformation dictum of sola scriptura. The essence of this phrase has a long and interesting theological history and is, with nuances, accepted by many, if not most, contemporary Catholic theologians. (Thomas G. Guarino, “Catholic Reflections on Discerning the Truth of Sacred Scripture” in Your Word Is Truth, edited by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, 2002, p. 79.)

The conciliar decree is open to this interpretation [material sufficiency] inasmuch as Catholics believe that statements of ecumenical councils are providentially guided by the Holy Spirit. Yves Congar closes by noting that the proper way of summing up the relationship between Scripture and tradition as found in both the Fathers and the pre-Tridentine period is in the formula used by Newman and the nineteenth-century theologian, J. E. Kuhn: Totum in scriptura, totum in traditione.

While Congar and J. Geiselmann believe that Trent left the door open for the thesis of the material sufficiency of Scripture, Joseph Ratzinger stakes the same claim for the Dogmatic Constitution of Vatican II, Dei Verbum #9. This text is “…the product of the attempt to take into account, to the widest possible extent, the points made by the Reformed churches and [was] intended to keep the field open for a Catholic idea of sola scriptura…”[12] If these theologians are correct, and the majority of contemporary Catholic theologians surely agree with them, then Catholics, in their own way, could agree with the position that the entire truth of salvation is found in Scripture.

[Note #12. Joseph Ratzinger, “Commentary on Dei Verbum,” in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. 3, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969) p. 192. Ratzinger notes here both his reservations and those of various Protestant commentators.]
(Ibid. pp. 85, 86.)

I cannot help but think that James’ view rests on very thin ice, not only do I read the greater context differently, but so does our mentioned professor of systematic theology…yet there is more; Ratzinger/Benedict XVI co-authored a book with the highly esteemed Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, and in that book he wrote:

For the moment we shall turn directly to the actual problems themselves which immediately prompt the question, what exactly does “sufficiency of scripture” mean? Geiselmann himself, as a Catholic theologian, has to hold fast to Catholic dogmas as such, but none of them is to be had sola scriptura, neither the great dogmas of Christian antiquity [i.e. the Trinity, two-natures, etc.], of what was once the consensus quinquesaecularis, nor, even less, the new ones of 1854 and 1950. (Ratzinger, “Revelation and Tradition”, in Revelation and Tradition, Rahner and Ratzinger, trans. W. J. O’Hara, p. 33.)

The question whether certain express affirmations were transmitted from the beginning side by side with scripture, whether, therefore, there is a second material principle besides scripture, independent from the beginning, becomes quite secondary in comparison; but it would probably have to be answered negatively. (Ibid. p. 46)

And Karl Rahner in another work states:

I would like, however, to try in the last part of our reflections to bring forward certain reasons for our not needing to accept – not even from a Catholic point of view – a constitutive material function of tradition which goes beyond the testimony of the nature of scripture; that we can say conversely, therefore, that it is entirely possible to formulate a Catholic sola scriptura principle with regard to the Church’s deposit of faith, provided that we understand this in a Catholic sense and therefore understand it to involve also an authoritative attestation and interpretation of holy scripture by the living word of the Church and her magisterium, and an attestation of scripture itself and its authoritative interpretation which cannot be replaced by scripture itself. (Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations vol. 6, p. 107.)

Can it get much clearer?

I think I have said enough on the matter (at least for now); I cannot help but think that an objective reading of the evidence will bring one to the conclusion that Ratzinger/Benedict XVI affirmed the material sufficiency of the Sacred Scriptures, while at the same time clearly denying their formal sufficiency.

Grace and peace,