More on Indefectibility and
the Roman Church

A Roman Catholic antagonist responded in depth to my prior posting on this subject. The questions he posed that prompted the earlier article were well thought out and reasonably argued; as was his response. I have elected to reply to some of the issues he raised here, so that PTG readers might also be able to read this second level in our exchange.

THE CATHOLIC WROTE:

I think your answer can be summarized as: “There is a true Church, which is made up of faithful believers in every age and denomination, and which the Holy Spirit protects from error. All the promises and references to “the Church” refer to this (invisible) body, which transcends denominational lines. No single denomination (the Church of Rome included) is completely “pure” in its doctrine, but God will always bring the saving message to the elect in whatever denomination He finds them. As such, it is not unreasonable to believe that the teachings of the early "catholic" Church were corrupted in the first few centuries of the Christian era. The Sacred Writings have been faithfully preserved, but no body of Christians (except perhaps at the very beginning) teaches/has taught the Christian Faith with complete fidelity.”

RON REPLIES:

That is a quite fair synthesis of my position in the paper to which you are responding.

In several of my earliest posts to that other board, I declared my intention to not become embroiled in serious apologetics. Granted, virtually any interaction between Catholics and non-Catholics that concerns issues of theological nature must, by definition, involve apologetics. However, in the light of my early establishment of the nature of my visits to that board, my response to your questions was not presented as a formal apologetic opening declaration of position, thus the relative lack of source citations and footnotes. In responding to some of the questions you raise here, I shall not return to the sources I drew from in preparing my informal reply to your original questions in order to supply the citations and footnotes required of a more formal study. Nor do I intend to couch this response in the guise of the rebuttal that would now be required in a more formal debate. Given that understanding, it must be accepted that any arguments presented in this paper constitute my considered opinions, supported by such documentation as I choose to provide. In that I rarely deal in absolutes, I do not present these arguments as irrefutable truth, though in my mind that is how they stand. Fair enough?

THE CATHOLIC CONTINUED:

No surprise that I would not agree with this idea. It basically says that there is no living witness to God's revelation in the world (such as Israel was). In this view the only real visible “witness” to God's truth is the Bible, but those who aspire to follow the teachings of the Bible are apparently divided about its interpretation. So we, the visible People of God, the New and Universal Israel, appear to be a house divided against ourselves. And in our division into so many opposing denominations we look nothing like the first People of God, the Israelites.

RON REPLIES:

Heh! No. I was hardly surprised. The Bible certainly is a living witness to God's revelation. In that all true believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and that we have God's living Scriptures, the True Church is every bit as much a living witness to God's revelation as Israel once was. Know, however, that the True Church, aka the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, etc., is not now nor ever will replace Israel. God's plans for Israel are not to be confused with His relationship to the New Testament Church. Israel is under the Dispensation of the Law and we are under the Dispensation of the Church (or Grace). If you are not familiar with Dispensational theology, just click here for a quick look at the Dispensations as taught by Lewis Sperry Chafer

Indeed those who aspire to follow the teachings of Scripture are divided over its interpretation. The reasons for the existence of such a great number of interpretations are manifold, but I believe just a few are at the root of this reality:

1. Relationship to God. The Christian faith and its training manual, the Bible, are foolishness to those who do not stand in familial relationship with God, who are not saved. Not all who profess the Christian faith, and who interpret the Scriptures, are saved; ergo, their interpretations may be – likely are – invalid.

"But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God." (1 Corinthians 1:23-24, KJV)

2. Spiritual immaturity. Just as a person must first grow in physical strength and coordination before he can walk, then gain competence in walking before he can run, so must the believer first grow in knowledge and understanding of the basics of his faith before he takes his first faltering steps as an interpreter of the Scriptures. As his competence grows, and as he learns to be sensitive to the small still voice within, so does his ability to comprehend God's Word in the Scriptures. Unfortunately, it would appear that many attempt to run before they have learned to crawl.

3. Improper technique. Closely related to spiritual immaturity, the application of improper hermeneutics must surely result in “discoveries” of doctrines never intended by God. Perhaps the most spiritually hazardous factors in the examination of Scripture are the presuppositions the student brings to his study. When one is unable to approach the Scriptures with an open mind, he already has limited his findings to those things that conform to his presuppositions. When a Roman Catholic exegete seeks the intent of Christ's words in Matthew 16:18, for example, if he already “knows” that Christ is identifying Peter as the rock upon which His church will be built and that He is establishing the Apostle as the hierarchical leader of that church, then that is precisely what he will discover. When a non-Catholic, such as myself, approaches that verse, Peter's primacy is not apparent.

4. Corrupt motivation. There have always been men and women who seek to use the beliefs of those who consider themselves Christians to their own purposes. Some seek money, as did Simon Magus and as appear to do so many of the media religious of today. Some seek political power, others sex and perhaps a few are looking to take the place of God Himself.

Are all who follow false teachers and prophets true believers, true Christians? Of course not, though it seems that many may believe themselves to be. I submit that the truly saved may be found scattered among the adherents to just about every soi-disant Christian religion or denomination. In that there is an incredible number of sects and denominations within the generic identification of Protestant, and quite a few that shelter under the umbrella of Catholicism, I agree that the visible church of today appears to be quite unlike the religious organization of the Hebrew peoples.

The religion of the Jewish nation was not as perfectly monolithic as some appear to believe. Certainly God had delivered a clear set of His laws to Moses and these became the foundation of the bylaws of the Hebrew theocracy. Though established by God Himself, these laws were not interpreted in the same way by every Jew. The laws of God as given to the Jews numbered 613. Over the centuries, private interpretation and tradition expanded the understanding of the laws to the point the Jew-on-the-street must have been virtually unable to undertake any but the most elemental activity without first checking with a rabbi to see if in so doing he might violate what came to be known as Levitical Law. By the time of Jesus' earthly ministry, the Law and the traditions of the Jews had so expanded that it was contained in two separate lines: that of the Jews in Jerusalem and that of the Diaspora, compiled during the Babylonian exile. The compilations of law, tradition and interpretation were incorporated into two Talmuds, each of which was further interpreted by its own collection of Mishnahs, Midrashim, Gemara, etc. Under Rabbinical Judaism, the once simple and clear-cut Law as given by God to Moses had become every bit as complex and confusing as the laws of America today. This incredible complexity was the ground that nurtured divisions within Judaism. There were Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and who knows how many other minor sects. We know from Scripture that Messianic sects seemed to abound in the land.

There is a more significant reason why it is inappropriate to compare the visible church of today with the religious organization of ancient Israel. The visible Church is not the Church Christ established any more than the religious beliefs of the Sadducees were those of the “church” that God established among the Hebrew peoples. If one must make comparisons between the True Church and that of the Hebrew peoples, I would argue the comparison must be made to that religion before it was corrupted. One must go all the way back to Moses' descent from Mt. Horeb and the early organization and practice of Judaism.

This takes us to a presupposition [another Catholic apologist] brought to his apologetic; that the Visible Church, by which I suspect he means the Roman Catholic Church, is the “New and Universal Israel.” I do not subscribe to replacement theology and find nothing in Scripture to even suggest that the Christian Church, the True Church, has supplanted Israel in God's relationship with mankind. I believe that He will continue to strive with the Jews until one day, the Day of the Lord, He will call them to accounting for their apostasy and failure to recognize Messiah. And after 42 months of terrible persecutions, those remaining will then endure the false peace of the Anti-Christ. After which will come what truly will be the “War to end all wars,” to be followed by the Millennial Reign of Messiah. While all this is going on with God's Chosen People, Israel, the True Church will not be present, having been claimed by its Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. I do not expect [the Catholic apologist] or any other committed Roman Catholic to accept this out of hand. As the apologetic for the Rapture, the Tribulation and the Millennial Reign is extremely complex, I invite those who would learn more to read J. Dwight Pentecost's excellent eschatology, Things to Come, Zondervan Publishing House:Grand Rapids, © Dunham Publishing Company (1958)

THE CATHOLIC WROTE:

And while God might not like this, He didn't take sufficiently effective steps to prevent it, since He only left us a small body of scriptures to go by (238 pp. in the NT), and no Spirit-guided earthly authority to settle our disputes and affirm God's truth against dissent and opposition.

RON RESPONDS:

To my mind, this statement borders on dangerous ground. In all my theological pronouncements, whether written or spoken, I never claim to know perfectly the mind of God, especially as concerns actions or issues not clearly addressed in His revelation. I certainly would not attempt to second-guess Him. For this reason, I am not willing to agree that He failed to take sufficiently effective steps to prevent “it” or anything else. I believe that God took precisely the steps He chose to take to bring about the conditions He desired. Either God is Sovereign in His dealings with mankind or He is no more mighty than one of those statues or other sacramental objects so dear to Catholic worship.

As to the Scriptures, I believe He left exactly as much as He wished, and that what He did provide contains everything necessary to know for salvation. He sent the Holy Spirit to guide the True Church and to lead believers to all righteousness. In that fallen man exhibits many of the same personal attributes as did Lucifer and the angels who followed him, many today ignore Him, even as the Jews did when they saw Jesus acting by His power. Just as the Jews denied the work of the Holy Spirit some 2000 years ago, and were guilty of the Unpardonable Sin, so today do many ignore the work and influence of the Holy Spirit. Whether all who do, or even any, are guilty of the Unpardonable Sin is not mine to determine. There is a Judge Who will decide at the Great White Throne.

THE CATHOLIC WROTE:

I admit that the NT scriptures alone teach important truths which we can all discern, but as a sole instruction manual and rulebook for organizing the Church and working out every detail of the Faith, the scriptures are insufficient. Our divisions are proof of this, because many sincere seekers cannot arrive at agreement about what the scriptures teach on many important points. So, in a way, if I accept your answer, I am compelled to accept failure on God's part. I'm sure you don't see it that way, but that is where I am coming from on this issue.

RON REPLIES:

It troubles me that so many well-meaning Catholics appear unable to comprehend what we non-Catholics understand when we speak of the doctrine called Sola Scriptura. The doctrine in no way asserts that the Bible is the repository of all knowledge, nor that it contains all religious knowledge. In the Scriptures themselves, we are told that they do not include information concerning every detail of the Lord's earthly ministry (John 21:25). But they do contain enough information to function as an infallible rule of faith for the True Church. And they contain all that is necessary to know and believe for salvation.

Sola Scriptura in no way pretends to annul the authority of the True Church to teach God's truth. Quite the contrary, in fact, for the Scriptures contain evidences that the Church exists to teach, to edify and buildup the saints (Ephesians 4:11-13, among other things. The doctrine makes no claim that God's truth never was conveyed by means of the spoken word. Were that to be so it would stand in clear opposition to the Scriptures themselves, where one might read:

"For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report? So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:13-18, KJV)

There is nothing in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura that argues against all kinds of tradition, but it does declare that all tradition must be subject to the higher authority of Scripture.

The Roman Catholic Church claims that the Magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit and by Him protected from teaching error. The implication in this teaching is that only she receives the benefit of this Divine guidance. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura in no way denies the importance of the Holy Spirit's guidance in the True Church. A capsule summary of the heart of the doctrine may be found here:

VI. The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and the government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. -- Westminster Confession, Chapter 1, paragraphs 6 and 7.

I agree that the Scriptures are insufficient as a sole instruction manual and rulebook for organizing the Church and working out every detail of the faith. And why should they be? Do you not think that God had seen how the Hebrew people expanded the 613 laws He gave them into a collection of writings and interpretations so complex that they can only be understood by men who devote their lives to their study and so voluminous that they would fill a good-sized library?

Do you honestly believe that Almighty God has nothing better to do than to figure out the most miniscule details of religious worship? Look how well the Roman Catholic Church has done with her control over the most intimate details of Catholic faith and discipline; count the changes in just the rules of fasting and abstinence over the centuries. If the principal reason for the existence of the True Church is to glorify God, and I believe that it is, then why should He be concerned over such things as the time of worship or the colors of the decorations within the building wherein gathers His Church? It is enough that He established the framework and the standards against which all teaching and traditions must be measured. Let man fill in the chinks between the stones.

THE CATHOLIC WROTE:

Those words of the Lord, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” are very important in this debate. As Christ taught this, He certainly could not have willed division in His Church. He specifically prayed that “we may be one.” And with perfect foreknowledge of all eventualities, I cannot believe He did not provide a sure means for divisions to be avoided, if at all possible. I do not see that Israel was given Scripture alone without a living authority to preside over their faith and maintain unity within it (Even today the Jews are more united than Christians), and I cannot believe that the New Israel has not been similarly blessed and provided for. But on this we can disagree.

RON REPLIES:

I see no division in the True Church and this is at the root of what stands between us. You bring the presupposition that The Roman Catholic Church is the Church established by Christ. I reject that idea. Consequently, I do not view the differences that separate the Roman Church from the denominational churches as representing a house divided against itself. In my understanding, none of these are the True Church, though all of them might include some who make up the Body of Christ within their membership. True believers, all those elect of God who are saved by faith, are in agreement. We are not divided. In that the True Church is Christ's Church, all other religious assemblies, whether Catholic or otherwise, cannot be the Church of Christ and so, therefore, Christ's words, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” is inapplicable to this discussion. Catholicism and Protestantism, if you will, do represent division, but not in the house of God. These churches will fall one day, when their leader, the Prince of this Age, is called to account. And when that happens, the Bride of Christ, the True Church, will be long gone.

I have elected not to deal with every disagreement with statements in my original response. My reason for so doing? Simple. In my original reply to your questions, I stated my best understanding of the issue. Therefore, though some of your counter arguments were interesting, I see no reason to devote time and energy to an effort that would, in the final analysis, be little more than a restatement of what I already had written. A waste of time for me and a waste of time for you..

THE CATHOLIC WROTE:

A word about how I approach debates about the Catholic Faith with non-Catholics. I generally do not argue any teachings that are different from Eastern Orthodoxy. The reason I do this is because I think that if someone has objections to the big five (papal primacy, infallibility, purgatory, immaculate conception, assumption of the Virgin), I then try to find out why he is not Eastern Orthodox. The reason for this is simple. In my opinion many Protestants try to justify their own beliefs by opposing one or all of the five Catholic beliefs I stated above. To me this is a form of “reverse” apologetics, and often an exercise in self-deception.

It seems to work like this: If we (protestants) can “disprove” those particular Roman beliefs, it must follow that our protestant beliefs are true. But it doesn't work like that. Protestantism (whichever form is embraced) must stand on its own without any reference to Catholic beliefs to support its legitimacy. It is not enough to negate one thing (Catholicism), and think that immediately confers legitimacy on another (Protestantism). So when I am confronted with a protestant debater, I always want to find out why they reject Eastern Orthodoxy, a faith which makes many of the same claims as Catholicism, though without the issues that cause protestants such distress. So I won't comment on the Roman primacy at this point.

RON REPLIES:

Don't people who reason that way just drive you nuts? I understand and accept your position and have dealt with similar arguments from Catholic antagonists, who seem particularly interested in debunking the doctrine of Sola Scriptura as the linchpin for their efforts to "disprove" other foundational Christian doctrines..

THE CATHOLIC WROTE:

For example, Jack Chick has a little comic book on a hypothetical meeting between the pope and bishops at some time in the early Church when they schemed together to dupe people into believing that Christ was really, truly and substantially present in the Eucharist. Now, Chick has a right to make whatever accusations he likes, but if he cannot demonstrate how/when such a plan was (or could be) implemented, or how/why it happened without any recorded dissent AT ALL, then there is a credibility problem.

RON REPLIES:

I beg you not consider all non-Catholic apologists, evangelists or whatever to be a single generic lumpen. I reject any association with folks like Jack Chick, as I expect you would reject being associated with the likes of Torquemada or Rasputin.

THE CATHOLIC WROTE:

OK, here I see a contradiction which perhaps you can help me resolve. You consider that no denomination in its formal teaching is entirely pure. Fine. And at the same time you state that the “True Church”, which is indefectible, is “dispersed through the various visible churches (i.e., denominations).” Fine again. Then you say that the “Holy Spirit does continue to protect the True Church from error.” And there is the problem.

The Gospel must be only one set of teachings, whatever they are. These teachings, in your opinion, are found somewhere in the Holy Scriptures, but no visible denomination actually holds and proclaims all of these teachings without some error. So, if all members of the “True Church” are dispersed among the denominations - all of which teach at least some error - and if the Holy Spirit “continues to protect the True Church from error (as you say),” then this must mean that all those members of denominations who are also members of the “True Church” are personally protected from error (for they make up the “True Church”, and error is incompatible with truth). This being the case, members of the “True Church” will not embrace any of the errors of their particular denomination, because the Holy Spirit “continues to protect the “True Church” from error,” whereby it is rightly said the “the (true) Church is the pillar and ground of the truth.”

So, I would like to ask, has it not been possible over these last 500 years for some or all these individuals who are being protected from error, due to their membership in “True Church”, to recognize each other and form a single body in which no doctrinal errors would be taught at all? Also, to your knowledge, has any member of the “True Church” written a work which we can read to find out exactly what the “True Church” believes? Surely it must have happened at least once in the last 500 years, if not before. I can't believe all the members of the “True Church” have been silent. Finally, is there some way we can discern if an individual is a member of the “True Church”, and so ask him to explain Christian doctrine to us? The advantage in this would be that as he is a member of the “True Church,” and so is being protected from error by the Holy Spirit, we could be sure that what he tells us about Christian doctrine will be true.

RON REPLIES

One might argue that, given the great multitude of Catholic orders, sects, parochial groups, etc., that it is equally reasonable to expect that at least some of these might have gathered together to establish a TRUE Catholic Church wherein all doctrine is pure and believed/followed by all members all the time. I suspect your difficulty here may be due to a couple of presuppositions you could be bringing to your understanding of my position. I get the impression you are thinking of the True Church in the same terms as, say, the Roman Catholic Church – an organized, hierarchical body. It isn't. The members of the True Church are all those saints, those truly saved, wherever they may be found.

The other presupposition I suspect you are bringing with you to this study is that a church must have doctrines and disciplines to deal with every aspect of its members religious lives. Given that understanding, it would clearly be impossible that members of the True Church scattered among all the multitude of religious bodies in today's world could claim to hold the same pure teachings. But that is not the way I understand it. Just as God gave the Hebrew nation 613 laws to govern their secular and religious living, so did He give but a comparatively few rules and doctrines to guide the True Church. Whether one is affiliated with the Abyssinian Catholic Church or the Dolly Pond Church of Jesus Christ with Signs and Wonders Following, if he is one of the elect, he can hold to the pure teachings of the True Church and, for whatever reasons, continue to gather with members of his visible church. An extreme example, if you will, but one intended to show that the ability of the Holy Spirit to preserve the True Church is not limited by our understanding. I have known people who wished to join others in public worship who were compelled to attend services in assemblies alien to their own affiliations simply because there was no other assembly within reasonable commute.

In any event, suffice it to say that I believe God has preserved a remnant of His Church and that that remnant is not gathered into one denomination or sect. How He does it, I admit I do not know. If I were Catholic, perhaps I could get away with declaring it to be a mystery, but I do not have that excuse.

And that is as far as I wish to go in this response, which is my final response in this issue.

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