Not too long ago, I was involved in an exchange with a Catholic apologist who provided a few wonderful examples of the strong-arm tactics favored by some who would defend the Church of Rome. Our engagement took place on two difference message boards and in email.
This exchange began with a challenge issued by an RCC apologist on another board. He tried to post the challenge here, but it was, as he should have anticipated, blocked. The challenge was prompted by an article I had written in response to a question by a recent convert to Catholicism.
In response to my having written, "Always, God preserved a remnant of the true Church, even through the most difficult times. Always it was men who strayed," an RCC apologist wrote:
It seemed to me to be a baited question; one this apologist surely had employed in the past, apparently with some success. Clearly, in that no one can know the mind of God and only God can read the heart, it is not possible for any human to declare with absolute certainty that anyone is or was numbered with the elect, with the exception of those named in Hebrews Chapter 11, for God Himself has told us that they are saved. The Apostle Paul mentions the remnant in Romans 9:27 and 11:5; and the Apostle John writes of them in Revelation 12:17.
We might strongly believe that so-and-so is or was a saint, but there is absolutely no way to be 100% certain. I believe as strongly as is within my ability to know that the Twelve Apostles, Mary, Joseph, James the Just, Jude and Luke certainly are in Heaven. As to those my antagonist, I shall call him Mr. Brown, named, he no more knows with absolute certainty that they are in Heaven than he can know the eternal situation of the guy who takes his money at the local gas station. His challenge is a ploy, designed to discomfit his opposition and, I should imagine, set them into a defensive mode .
How does one deal with such a challenge? With such loaded questions? One might rise to the bait, of course, and then discover himself to be in a defensive stance thereafter. He might choose to face his challenger and denounce the questions for what they are. He might argue that there is no way one's response might be verified beyond question, so to respond would be an exercise in futility. Or he might elect to respond to the challenges in the manner they merit--with ridicule. My initial response, posted on this board, was a combination of the latter three of the above options.
Posting his reply on that other board, Mr. Brown did a little victory dance based on his interpretation of my response. I do not doubt for a minute that he was prepared in advance and likely had spent a few hours working on his dance steps – long before my response appeared in cyberspace. In other words, he "knew" my answer before he saw it. If that were so, then he either is clairvoyant or he knew the questions were worded in such a way as to force any response I might make to be viewed as a victory for his team. In that I had anticipated this, I had included these possibilities in my original response.
He then referred to the opening paragraphs in my response, a statement that I was not there to debate, before discounting what I had said and pressing his issues.
Note also how he forces my assertion that the true church never went astray and my statements concerning the Holy Spirit and the indefectibility of the church in another article to be interpreted as pointing to the Catholic Church, which never was my intention. I consider this dishonest, but not unheard of from RCC apologists.
He makes a claim that he cannot validate -- that "There were in fact no other true Christians in those early centuries but Catholics." In that he cannot possibly know all who were members of the early church during its first millennium, there is no way he can effectively support his declaration. In any event, what he presents is a false conclusion not supported by any evidence, in spite of what he claims. Even if it were true that there were only Catholics in the early centuries, and they all claimed to belong to the Catholic Church, and they all believed Catholic doctrinal distinctives, that in no way means that the Catholic Church "indeed was the Church Jesus was referring to in His promises." It will take more than Brown's declaration that it appears to follow logically to make it so.
What about his allegation that "One could clearly distinguish the orthodox Catholics from the "heretics"? We have the witness of Scripture which tells us that apparently it was not so easy to identify heretics in the early church. That people were busily attempting to introduce false concepts into the theology of the early church is cleaerly shown in letters written by Paul, John and Peter. Apparently, folks in some of those early congregations had been receiving false teachers and self-proclaimed prophets and their heretical teachings with open arms. Just a few references to those heretics and their lying doctrines may be found in these passages: 2 Corinthians 11:13, 26; Galations 2:4; 2 Timothy 3:1-9; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 1 John 4:1.
Mr. Brown went on to present a few specious arguments based on a flawed interpretation of Matthew 16:19 (Again!) to support his conclusion that:
Clever move. By including the Orthodox Church within his definition of "the only Church that survived," he apparently hoped to eliminate many examples of other Christian churches that indeed did manage to survive. The Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Latin) churches have been disputing over the issue of filioque -- the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds equally from the Father and from the Son -- from the moment a local council in Toledo (589) inserted the word into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Though initially resisted by the Roman pope, the use of filioque spread into many areas of the Western church and was finally inserted into the Creed by Benedict VIII in 1014. This soon led to the Eastern Schism of 1054. Since then, the Eastern Churches have not been in submission to the Roman Pope and, therefore, surely do not qualify to be considered as part of the "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church."
How different are the various Eastern Churches from that of Rome? Look at the Christian Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, for example. The theology and doctrine of this church is not based upon the teachings and ministries of Paul or Peter, as is the RCC. Rather, it is based on the teachings of the Apostle Mark, who brought Christianity to Egypt during the reign of Nero in the 1st century – which makes it a contemporary of the church at Rome. Interestingly, Rome refers to the head of the Coptic Church as "Patriarch," but the Copts call him their Pope, or the Pope at Alexandria, and the latest in an unbroken succession leading all the way back to Mark. Sound familiar? Wouldn't you just love to see dueling unbroken apostolic successions? My unbroken apostolic succession can beat up your unbroken apostolic succession, etc. When fantasies collide, I reckon it is easier to maintain the fantasy of being ruler over all the Christian Church if one denies the title of pope to his competition and calls them patriarchs instead.
No, Sir, Mr. Brown, I will not accept your inclusion of the Orthodox Church in your definition and, in so doing, stand on the separate survival of the Orthodox churches in Alexandria, Constantinople, Serbia, etc. You get the idea, I am sure.
It's difficult to get a good hand when playing poker with guys like Brown, for they seem always to stack the deck in their favor.
In the event I should dare to disagree with his arguments, which clearly I do, Mr. Brown provided an alternative challenge:
At this point, weary of dealing with Brown's seemingly monomaniacal fascination with his tactic of the day, which was to force an admission that there were no non-Catholic Christians during the period of interest and, thereby, establish his "victory" in his own mind, I was gratified that Mr. Brown posted a statement of limits that I had posted previously.
Mr. Brown responded with another word game, as though designating our exchange as something other than a debate would make it possible to continue as before.
Sigh! The man was back to riding his one trick pony. I am having none of it. My exchanges with other defenders of Catholicism were just that, exchanges with other defenders of Catholicism.. I have no interest in stroking the ego of every Tom, Dick and Harry who comes strolling down the pike with an urge to play Monday morning quarterback. I had written, in my initial response to him:
Silly me. Of course he would be able to produce such a list and, using it, immediately know whether the persons I named indeed had lived in those times and were true saints. Sure he does, for he told me so.
Well, well. Seems Mr. Brown doesn't really have a certified list of every saint who lived between 100 and 400 AD, after all.
One more time; my questions to Mr. Brown had been quite specific :
Mr. Brown's response also was quite specific:
What he actually has is "modern patristic scholarship" that he claims can make it possible to know who the early Christians were and what they believed. That is not the same as a list of names against which he might match the names I provide. Read that to mean he can identify a few who were and what that few believed. Dodgy, Mr. Brown.
I could almost feel his hand patting the top of my head as he patronized me at the end of his assurances. Really, Mr. Brown, I should think that someone of your vast experience and long service in apologetics should be able to do better than that. Oops! Was I being patronizing?
He used the list of names from my first response.
Sonuvagun! He found me out. At least he claims he did. His argument is a simple one: We have no record of them, ergo, they did not exist, or something like that. But how in the world could he have run a list of all the people in the Mediterranean world and Western Europe in so short a time? Those folks who lived nearly 2,000 years ago must have computerized all their personnel records. After bursting my balloon, he again gave me a little pat on the head and hinted that I might wish to visit a few places on the Web that he could suggest. Silly fellow. There is no way any of those places would have a master census covering 300 years or more of Christianity.
Like a pit bull, he would not let go and continued to press me to write what he wanted me to write. He also seemed to assure me of the great respect he has for my wishes in the exchange by informing me we don't have to "debate." All I need do is write what he wants me to write. He was very gracious and promised not to hound me too much; even gave me license to ask him "similar" questions. Sigh! I so wanted to ask some non-similar questions. Oh, well. I did get two pats on the head this time.
Anyone but me notice a tinge of irony there? Perhaps a touch of bitterness? I wonder if Mr. Brown weren't becoming a bit frustrated with me for failing to play the game by his rules on an uneven playing field? Hmmm. Could be. I wrote something else he wished to deal with:
I suppose those words were not what he wished me to write. Again. I just am not worthy, I reckon, or just too plain dumb to comprehend. Mr. Brown was kind enough to explain things for me.
Mr. Brown rolled out that Roman Catholic theology for me and soon was singing a chorus of the Magisterium Blues. It's that word meanings thing again. He clearly appears to believe that "true Church" and "Catholic Church" are synonymous. On the other hand, I don't. Since I am exchanging -- remember, it isn't a debate because he changed the name – with a defender of the Roman Church, it is incumbent upon me to yield my ground and join with him. Why? Because that is the way the RCC has always operated: Join with me or else. I reckon it's gonna be the "or else," because this country boy isn't buying that the church at Rome is the true church.
Mr. Brown explained that the idea of equating the true church only with the elect is a false notion. Well, since he says it…. He informed me that this is known as the "invisible church" concept. Glad to hear that, seeing as how that is the way I have often referred to the true church. Actually, I agree with him. No place in Scripture have I found a statement that ONLY the elect can be saved. It's nice to have a Catholic seal of approval on my word choice. Our God said it first, however:
Then he informed me that this was an unheard of concept unknown before the 16th century. Well, Glory be! And then he told me it was a tradition of men – this from a spokesman for the church that is a monument to the traditions of men gone wild. I decided not to believe him. After all, he really offered no proof, though he continually hounds me for proof. I might have been willing to entertain his argument, had he been able to demonstrate to me, beyond any shadow of a doubt that no one ever thought of the "invisible church" concept before the 16th century. Oh, sure. He might trot out a few quotes from the patristic writings and claim to have made his point. Those will not be enough, however, to cover all the thoughts and all the theology of all the men who lived from Pentecost to the beginning of the 16th century. I think that's fair, for it parallels the demands he makes of me.
At this point, Mr. Brown took it upon himself to educate me on who are members of the true church (read Catholic Church) and how they attain that status. And he brought along a hired gun.
Nice quote. I admire and respect Kelly's work. In fact, I have a copy of his Oxford Dictionary of Popes on my bookshelves.
Okay now. To be a member of the true church (as defined by Mr. Brown) one need but be baptized, sacramentized, believe on Christ, and obey his bishop. Whether or not he was one of the elect was something God JUDGED? Why would God second-guess Himself? Oops! I keep forgetting. For Catholics, the Bible isn't sufficiently authoritative to be a reliable source of doctrine and, apparently, God isn't powerful enough to carry out His decisions. I suppose that means that all that silly stuff in John 3:14-18 and 5:24 is unreliable because the Apostle dared to publish it without first getting a Censor to go over it to make certain it contained nothing against faith and morals and then securing a bishop's Imprimitur. How silly of the Apostle John to have considered that the words the Holy Spirit inspired were more authoritative than those of the Extraordinary Magisterium. I wager he's still sizzling in Purgatory for his audacity.
Mr. Brown mentioned what "everyone knew" in those old days. I am in awe of his remarkable ability to know what "everyone knew" over an extended period of time, in an extended geographical area, far distant from the state of Florida where he resides. It should be noted that his "hired gun" did not definitively declare that no one in the early church ever considered the concept of the invisible church. Global statements tend to give me the runs – and that is about all they are good for. However, as long as we are talking about what "everyone knew," I might just add a few other things that some folks knew during that time frame; things like ringing church bells would knock flying witches off their broomsticks and breathing night air would make one ill. Weak argument made even weaker by going global.
Poor Mr. Brown. He just cannot seem to grasp the difference between that humongous bureaucratic monstrosity squatting in in the Vatican and the Body of Christ. Those Catholic blinders must fit really tightly.
But enough of that. Mr. Brown is not finished parading his one-trick pony.
Let's see now. Actually, what I concede is that no one can know with certainty who is saved and, therefore, no one can know with certainty who might be included in the roster of the true church. I am quite clear as to what the true church is. It is the Body of Christ, that body of true believers, living and passed, to whom our God has given the gifts of salvation and eternal life. It is Mr. Brown's contention that what I understand the true church to be is not the biblical notion. Well, my contention is that it is. I reckon that's deuce. He continues to press. (My, but that man does go on.):
At this point, he trotted out a laundry list of a couple of dozen names of Early Church Fathers. I snipped it. After all, anyone who has a set of Schaff's Fathers (I do) knows the names already. I reckon the Christian Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt can also trace its visible leaders (bishops) straight back to Christ and to His Apostles. They can also call up a list of specific people throughout church history. BTW, they have had only half as many popes as the Roman Church. I suppose that is because they elect their popes at a younger age. Wow! Two churches with essentially the same claims to legitimacy. Can you see two popes fighting for world domination? Naah. Can't happen. The Coptic Church eschews political involvement and, unlike the Roman Church, is not into telling people what to do.
Mr. Brown continued:
I noted with interest that the list did not include the names of Marcion, Arias, Sabellius, Pelagius, etc. These guys were baptized, sacramentized and believed on Christ and they likely obeyed their bishops – at least for a time. But then they went wrong and were anathematized or simonized or something and were no longer in the Catholic Church, so it could again be claimed that every Catholic was a good and true believer. Hogwash! I do not doubt that there were plenty of folks, even in the dark ages when the specter of a punishing Mother Church loomed darkly over towns and countryside, who missed the salvation boat. In other words, Mr. Brown, I am not buying what you're selling.
At this point, Mr. Brown decided, finally, to end his post. In so doing, he again patted me on the head patronizingly, and closed with an open invitation to continue the exchange.
I just can't see myself playing Eliza Doolittle to Mr. Brown's Henry Higgins, so I don't reckon I shall be taking him up on his invitation to come out and play.
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