Sunday, July 12, 2009

Jordan J. Ballor on Calvin, Conversions, and Catholicity

Published on the 500th birthday of John Calvin, Jordan J. Ballor has authored a thoughtful piece on some of the problems that arise in discussions between Protestants and Catholics about catholicity, the Early Church, and the reasons provided by converts from Protestantism to Catholicism. Appearing on First Thing's On the Square, here are some excerpts:
High-profile conversions of public intellectuals, theologians, and academics have been the cause of some consternation, however, at least in ecclesiastical circles. The steady stream of recognizable Protestants heading to Rome (or perhaps somewhat less often to the East) since the 1960s has mirrored the decline of the mainline Protestant churches, as documented by First Things editor Joseph Bottum. But it is not just the mainline churches that are losing noteworthy adherents.

In 2005 the noted historian of American religion Mark A. Noll and journalist Carolyn Nystrom could seriously ask of evangelicals whether or not the Reformation was over. And in 2007 then-president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) Francis Beckwith announced he had returned to the Roman Catholic Church. (Subsequently Beckwith resigned his position amidst questions over the compatibility of Roman Catholicism and the ETS. Beckwith’s memoir had the rather provocative subtitle, Why the President of the Evangelical Theological Society Left His Post and Returned to the Catholic Church.)

Similar conversion accounts could be multiplied. But as a Protestant and evangelical theologian myself, I am more concerned to address some of the responses to such conversions by those left behind. Among these is the book, Is Rome the True Church? A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim, by Norman L. Geisler, formerly president and dean of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, and Joshua M. Betancourt, an Anglican minister. This book is undoubtedly one that as Betancourt says in an interview, “no thinking Protestant—or Catholic—should be without,” and whose whole argument ought to be considered with close attention. But here I want to focus on just one of the reasons Geisler and Betancourt cite for the conversion of evangelicals to Roman Catholicism: antiquity.

As Betancourt says, “converts appeal to the Catholic Church’s antiquity,” reasoning that “since the Protestant tradition is only as old as the sixteenth-century Reformation, then it cannot be the true expression of the early apostolic faith and tradition.” The strategy of Betancourt and Geisler to answer this reason is to contend that “truth is not determined by age. To say so is to commit the fallacy of 'chronological snobbery.’”

The problem with this kind of answer is that the Reformers themselves could be accused of just such chronological snobbery. The Zurich reformer Heinrich Bullinger published a treatise in 1539 titled Der alt gloub (translated into English by Miles Coverdale as The Old Faith in 1541). In his treatment of the topic De nova doctrina (“On new doctrine”), the Bernese reformer Wolfgang Musculus writes, “For it is so ordered by God in all cases of all things, that the truth is more ancient than the falsehood, even like as God is more ancient than the Devil.” Perhaps not surprisingly, theologians in the British Isles in particular seemed quite concerned to defend the antiquity and catholicity of the Reformed faith, as evidenced by such treatises as William Perkins’ A Reformed Catholic (1597) and the Huguenot Isaac Casaubon’s reply in 1612 to Cardinal Perron, published later as Anglican Catholicity Vindicated against Roman Innovations. In 1565 John Jewel, bishop of Salisbury, would assail “the weak, and unstable grounds of the Roman religion, which of late hath been accompted Catholic.”

For the record, I left this response in the combox:

My dear friend Norm Geisler and his co-author, Mr. Betancourt, seem to misunderstand the Catholic argument. It is not that the Catholic faith is true because it is old. Rather, it is old because it is true. That is, the argument is an argument from the organic continuity of institution, faith, creed, and Scripture over time. It is not, and has never been, an argument from mere antiquity.

Geisler himself, ironically, argues in much the same way in his defense of the authenticity and accuracy of the NT documents. He offers several arguments to show that the late dating of them by liberal scholars is mistaken. But if "old" does not equal "true," why should that matter? Unless, of course, his claim is made more plausible if the document in question is chronologically closer to the events it claims to describe, as well as consistent with, and supports, late creedal affirmations and developments by the Church, e.g., the Trinity, Christ's deity, etc. That is no more "chronological snobbery" than is the employment of math to solve a problem in arithmetic "numerical prejudice."

You can read the whole thing, including comments, here.
(Originally posted on What's Wrong with the World)

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