Monday, October 31, 2011

"From Catholic to Evangelical and Back Again: A Christian Philosopher’s Journey."

That is the title of a talk I am giving on November 2 at 7 pm at Baylor University's St. Peter's Catholic Student Center. You can find out more information here. If you want to learn more about St. Peter's, go here.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reformation Day, continued

On Friday, I published an entry over at The Catholic Thing, to which I linked on this blog.  Entitled, "Reformation Day – and What Led Me To Back to Catholicism," it has, as I expected, inspired some responses by a variety of commentators. What follows are some of my thoughts on those responses.


It is always an honor to have one’s work be the focus so much diverse and interesting opinions.

But given the nature of the topic, there is a tendency in all of us to perhaps not read as carefully as we should.  Thus, for example, when I say the Church is logically prior to the Scriptures, some commentators did not seem to take notice that I did not say “chronologically prior.” The reason for this is, of course, intentional: I do not believe, and no one who thinks seriously on this matter really believes, that you had a whole Bible or no Bible (66 or 73) chronologically prior to the Church’s existence. After all, Christ himself quoted from the OT. So, when I say “logically prior” I mean that the Church’s existence is a logically necessary (and chronologically simultaneous) condition for the fixing of the entirety of the biblical canon. Its consummation occurred at the end of an historical process that was organic and not mechanistic.

But it was not the consequence of authoritarian fiat (as it seems some Protestants think Catholics believe) or mere analytic criteria from which the canon had been deduced (as it seems some Catholics think Protestants believe), both of which caricature canonicity. My Protestant friends are indeed correct that canonicity cannot be absent of criteria, and some have eloquently suggested such criteria among these comments. However, just as a verdict in a court of law cannot be achieved absent civil or criminal procedures (the “criteria,” if you will), civil or criminal procedures absent a legitimate and authoritative court cannot produce a verdict either. So, when my Protestant friends write of the Church “recognizing” certain books as Scripture, or that, for example, St. Peter recognized St. Paul’s writings as Scripture, they indeed have made a good point if “the Church” spoken of in the first case has the same or similar authority as the St. Peter cited in the second case. That is, the strength of this reasoning depends on the degree to which “the Church’s” recognition of certain books as Scripture is as authoritative as the Apostle Peter’s recognition of the Apostle Paul’s letters as Scripture. So, if the two authorities are not similarly situated in fixing canonicity, the case is weak. On the other hand, if the two authorities are in fact similarly situated, the case is strong, but in that case the case is Catholic.

I should also note that in the fewer than 1000 words allotted to me for my Catholic Thing entry I was discussing the narrow question of the role and place of Tradition and authority in the fixing of the canon. So, when I share the inner thoughts of my own pilgrimage, I am referring to my reflections on that narrow question and not to the other arguments—e.g., criteria by which the Church recognized books as Scripture—that I accepted as well.  This is why the reader must attend to the language I actually use, and not the language he may wish I had used.  So, when I write that “I would appeal to the exclusion of these books as canonical by the Jewish Council of Jamnia (A.D. 90-100),” I am not claiming I had once believed that it was at Jamnia that “the OT canon was fixed,” as one commentator carelessly attributed to me. Rather, I am referring to the way in which it is procured as part of the case made for the Protestant canon.  (In fact, in my book Return to Rome [p. 123], there is a quote from the book Early Christian Doctrine in which the author, J. N. D. Kelly, points out that the Jewish Palestinian canon—the one recognized at Jamnia—was in fact not the same OT canon that one finds in the Septuagint, the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Hebrew OT, which, according to Kelly, was the version accepted as authoritative by the Church in its “first centuries.” It is from the Septuagint that the Catholic Church derives its OT canon).

In any event, one commentator nevertheless makes the claim that because Jesus had apparently accepted the Palestinian canon, then He fixed it, and who can argue with Jesus? Setting aside the question as to whether one can infer from Christ’s summary statement of the OT as “the law, the prophets and the writings” to the conclusion that he meant the Palestinian canon (especially since well over 75% of Christ’s quotes from the OT are from the Septuagint), the appeal to Jesus to certify OT canonicity relies, ironically, on a Catholic intuition. Let me explain. If the fixing of OT canonicity requires Jesus’ authority, then surely NT canonicity requires that authority (or some historical extension of it) as well, especially since in the latter case we are starting from scratch and in the case of the OT there was already an uncontroversial and identifiable core.  So, it seems then that the authority required for NT canonicity is just the sort that the Church understood itself to have when its bishops convened to address pressing theological questions at its most important ecumenical and regional councils, the very councils that resolved, among other things, the conflicts over Arianism, Nestorianism, and Pelagianism.  It is an authority that sees itself as the rightful successor of the Apostles, such that it, in the same way that St. Peter acknowledged the scriptural status of St. Paul’s letters, may issue binding judgments on the questions surrounding the scope of the NT canon.

One final word. I neglected to mention in my original entry that the Eastern Churches—both the Orthodox and those rites in full communion with Rome—embrace the 73-book canon, just as the Catholic Church does. Thus, anyone who seeks to challenge the Catholic canon has the unenviable burden of showing that until sometime in the middle of the 16th century, that the Church, both in the East and the West, having the full authority to expel Arius, Nestorius, Pelagius, propose the Nicean Creed as universally binding and normative, and get the NT canon just right, somehow, for a millennium and a half, failed to possess the power to recognize and subsequently exclude seven spurious OT books residing in its most sacred text.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Reformation Day – and What Led Me To Back to Catholicism

That is the title of my latest entry over at The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:
October 31 is only three days away. For Protestants, it is Reformation Day, the date in 1517 on which Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to that famous door in Wittenberg, Germany. Since I returned to the Catholic Church in April 2007, each year the commemoration has become a time of reflection about my own journey and the puzzles that led me back to the Church of my youth.

One of those puzzles was the relationship between the Church, Tradition, and the canon of Scripture. As a Protestant, I claimed to reject the normative role that Tradition plays in the development of Christian doctrine. But at times I seemed to rely on it. For example, on the content of the biblical canon – whether the Old Testament includes the deuterocanonical books (or “Apocrypha”), as the Catholic Church holds and Protestantism rejects. I would appeal to the exclusion of these books as canonical by the Jewish Council of Jamnia (A.D. 90-100) as well as doubts about those books raised by St. Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate, and a few other Church Fathers.

My reasoning, however, was extra-biblical. For it appealed to an authoritative leadership that has the power to recognize and certify books as canonical that were subsequently recognized as such by certain Fathers embedded in a tradition that, as a Protestant, I thought more authoritative than the tradition that certified what has come to be known as the Catholic canon. This latter tradition, rejected by Protestants, includes St. Augustine as well as the Council of Hippo (A.D. 393), the Third Council of Carthage (A.D. 397), the Fourth Council of Carthage (A.D. 419), and the Council of Florence (A.D. 1441).

>>>continue reading

Monday, October 17, 2011

Government Forms (or Deforms) Your Soul

That is the title of an article I published last year (vol. 21, no. 5, September 2010) in This Rock (now Catholic Answers Magazine), the magazine of Catholic Answers. It is now available online. Portions of this article are adapted from portions of my most recent book, Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft (InterVarsity Press, 2010). Here's how the article begins:
“Statecraft,” Aristotle instructed his pupils, “is soulcraft.” What he meant is that the state or government, by its policies, procedures and actions, places moral ideas in thesocial and legal fabric and these ideas shape the quality of its citizens’ character. This central truth animates the understanding of politics supported by Catholic teaching.

Some thinkers, however, believe that the government should, and can, remain neutral on several controversial moral and social questions about which Catholics and other Christians have taken a strong stand, including the sanctity of life and the protection of marriage. These thinkers maintain, contrary to Aristotle, that statecraft is not soulcraft, that the government should not take a position on which views are right or wrong, since taking such a stance would violate the right of citizens to make up their own minds on these questions.

This view is mistaken for one simple reason: No matter what the government permits or forbids, it is taking a stance on what it believes about the nature of the human person and what is right or wrong, even if it denies that this is so. To demonstrate that this is the case, I will focus primarily on the issue of abortion and then two other issues: the right to suicide and same-sex marriage.

>>>continue reading

Thursday, October 13, 2011

President Obama: Ex-Liberal

That's the title of my latest entry over at The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:
President Barack Obama has abandoned liberalism.  What I mean by liberalism is not the political philosophy that we typically associate with left of center politicians and candidates.  The President, of course, remains unabashedly in that camp. What I am referring to you is a particular posture concerning moral questions the President has publicly embraced on several occasions. It is from that liberalism he has walked away.

In a  speech delivered at the 2006 "Call to Renewal" conference, Senator Obama offered these thoughts on the relationship between politics and religion:

"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all."

In his 2009 Notre Dame commencement address, the President eloquently opined on the importance of mutual respect in the face of deep irreconcilable differences on the matter of the moral status of nascent human life:

"Understand - I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it - indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory - the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."

>>>continue reading

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Human Being, a Person of Substance

That's the title of a chapter I recently published in the book, Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments, edited by Stephen Napier. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011), 67-83. Other contributors in the book include my Baylor colleague Alexander Pruss as well as Jason T. Eberl, A. A. Howspeian, Christopher Tollefsen, Helen M. Alvaré, and David Hershenov. You can read my entire chapter via Google Books here. Here's how the chapter begins (citations omitted):
Over the past decade or so several challenges to the prolife understanding of fetal personhood have been published. Two of the authors who have contributed much to this critique are Jeff McMahon and Dean Stretton.  The purpose of this chapter is to respond to some of their arguments.  My point of departure will be Stretton’s 2008 Journal of Medical Ethics review...of my 2007 book, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice... In his critique of my defense of fetal personhood Stretton relies heavily on McMahon’s work. I will first summarize the case I make for fetal personhood in Defending Life, and then respond to the challenges to my case offered in Stretton’s review.

In Defending Life I offer a defense of fetal personhood, which I call the substance view.... According to the substance view, the human being is a particular type of living organism--a rational moral agent--that remains identical to herself as long as she exists, even if she is not presently exhibiting the functions, behaviors, or current ability to immediately engage the activities that we typically attribute to active and mature rational moral agents.  Because the human being is a rational moral agent, she is a person of intrinsic moral value as long as she exists.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Robert P. George and Russell Moore discuss religion in the public square

Here's an outstanding discussion between a Catholic, Robert P. George (Princeton University), and an Evangelical, Russell Moore (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), entitled Faith in America: Religion in the Public Square. The discussion took place on Monday, October 3, 2011, at Princeton University. You can watch the video here. Both these men are friends of mine, I am proud to say.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

New word: Metaphornication

Here's the context. On Thursday evening I was in Denver. Over dinner I was discussing with friends Pat Robertson's claim that one can divorce a spouse with Alzheimer and begin dating others without violating the "in sickness and in health" requirement, because, according to Robertson, the spouse suffering from Alzheimer  is "a kind of death." As the conversation continued, one of the other dinner guests pointed out that Martin Luther had said that divorce for reason of adultery is not inconsistent with marriage being indissoluble because the adultery effectively "kills" the marriage in the same way that the death of a spouse ends the marriage and allows for the surviving spouse to remarry. I then called Luther's conceptual move, "metaphornication." Feel free to use it, but just give me credit. If not, I will accuse you of "cleptologia."