Upon This (Not So) Slippery Rock:
Ecclesial Structure and the Issue of Certainty
A Response by Chris Muha
In his recent book Upon This Slippery Rock, Eric Svendsen claims to have shown that the Catholic ecclesial system does not provide the kind of doctrinal certainty that Catholics believe it does, and that the pope as an infallible interpreter of Scripture is “functionally useless” (p.65). And while Svendsen’s main argument is indeed a valid one, the conclusions he draws from it are unwarranted. This will become clear as we examine the claims made in Svendsen’s book, particularly as those claims are understood against the background of the role that certainty plays in human decision-making. Before attending to the specifics of Svendsen’s argument, then, let us briefly examine the place of certainty in human decision-making.
Certainty and Human Decisions
It is a natural tendency of human beings to demand more certainty in matters of greater importance than in those of lesser importance. For example, a person might be willing to make a $1 bet on something he knows relatively little about, even when the odds are heavily against him. But a sane person making a $1 million dollar bet would want to know as much as possible about the situation he is betting on, and would demand far more certain odds before making the bet. Likewise a father might not feel the need to meet every single person his son or daughter dates. But a father certainly wants to get to know the person his son or daughter is going to marry, because he wants (among other things) to be reassured that his child has chosen a suitable spouse. We naturally tend to want greater certainty for things which are of greater importance.
At the same time though, thinking that one has absolute certainty can be an unhealthy thing. When a person thinks he or she has absolute certainty, it can often cause him or her to become complacent or lax. It causes them to take certain things for granted, and may lead to a sort of unhealthy dependence. One who is absolutely certain of his knowledge about a particular thing will be unwilling to listen to others who may have something valuable to contribute. After all, each one of us is finite, and can rarely (if ever) claim to possess absolute truth. As sure as we might be about our understanding of something, we must always be willing to be corrected. The more certain we are about something, the less willing we need be to entertain other opinions. But at least some shred of willingness must always be there.
Certainty and Matters of Religion
In matters of religion then, it would stand to reason that one ought to be afforded a relatively high level of certainty. Religious issues are undoubtedly the most important, and human nature would therefore seem to demand a proportionate level of certainty in such matters. A religion that failed to provide such certainty would not be fit to be a religion for humans.
And yet, even in these most important of matters, one must guard against the desire to claim absolute certainty about one’s religious claims. This is not because of a deficiency in any given religion, but because of the fact that, to the end of our days, we will remain finite, imperfect creatures. This should be all the clearer for the Christian, for whom original sin is a central belief. Religious belief then ought to be something about which one can have a very high level of certainty, but something less than absolute certainty.
Svendsen’s Critique of Catholic Ecclesiology
With these thoughts in mind, let us turn to the main argument advanced in Svendsen’s book. It is most clearly and concisely stated on p.54: “Bear in mind that even the decision to trust Rome as an infallible guide is itself a fallible decision, based on a private reading of Scripture and history.” By this Svendsen means that, while we Catholics believe the Church to be infallible in matters of faith and morals, we arrive at that decision by studying the bible, church history, etc. In other words, we make a private decision based on our understanding of such things as the bible and church history. That understanding may come to us via scholars and teachers, but the final decision is always ours. Svendsen illustrates this point by recounting the story of a fictitious Catholic convert named Debbie who, when pressed by her friend Nancy, realizes that
“When she had come to the conclusion years before that Rome was the true Church, she had always prided herself on the fact that that decision had been the fruit of years of personal Bible study and personal investigation of the writings of the Church Fathers” (p.49).
The same is true for anyone who is Catholic not simply because it is the religion he or she was born into. The readers of this article and other apologetic material are likely to be Catholic not simply because they were born Catholic, but because they have taken the time to study the bible, the Church Fathers, and the claims of other faiths, and have decided based on these things that Catholicism is indeed the true faith. It will not do to say that we know the Church and the Pope to be infallible because they tell us so, for this admits of circular reasoning that simply begs the question.
Svendsen’s argument demonstrates that we Catholics cannot have the kind of absolute certainty in matters of faith and morals that we sometimes claim to derive from our infallible magisterium. As infallible as the magisterium might be, the decision to believe that it is thus is always one that we fallible humans make. We cannot claim to have absolute certainty simply because our magisterium is infallible, and this is how it should be, if the brief analysis given above of the place of certainty in human decision-making is correct. After all, do we Catholics not claim that it is impossible to have absolute certainty in even that most important of matters, namely, our salvation? If we see admit that we are unable to have absolute certainty about our salvation, we should be willing to admit that we cannot have absolute certainty about these other matters as well. To think that we have absolute certainty would be unhealthy for the reasons given above. We ought to concede this point to Svendsen and thank him for removing this potentially unhealthy obstacle.
Taking Things Too Far
But does it follow from this that the Catholic system is “functionally useless”? Does it follow that the Catholic system is in no way structurally superior to the Protestant system? The answer to both of these questions is a resounding, “No.” Before returning to address the issue of certainty as it pertains to the fundamentally private foundation of Catholic ecclesiology, let us look at the problems with the evidence Svendsen provides as support for his claim.
To back up his claim that the Catholic system is functionally useless, Svendsen gives two arguments pertaining to disunity: 1) there is disunity within Catholicism; 2) there is more disunity among those employing the Catholic-style system of “bible plus infallible interpreter” than there is among the Protestant system of “bible alone.” Let us address the latter of these claims first.
We Catholics often say that our ecclesial system results in a single, unified denomination, whereas the Protestant ecclesial system has resulted in literally thousands of denominations. But Svendsen wants to argue that this is a false comparison, for it compares one entity (Roman Catholicism) within a broader structural system (bible + infallible interpreter) with an entire structural system (bible alone). A fair comparison would be one that is either between two structural systems (e.g., bible alone vs. bible + infallible interpreter) or two single entities (e.g., Reformed Baptist church vs. Roman Catholicism). In both cases, Svendsen thinks, there is far greater unity on the Protestant side. There is far greater unity within the Reformed Baptist church than within Roman Catholicism, and there is far greater unity between those who hold to the bible alone (Protestants) than between those who hold to the bible plus an infallible interpreter (Roman Catholicism, Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses) (see pp.44,73).
But Svendsen makes a crucial mistake here when constructing this comparison: he mixes specific (or what we might call “material”) elements with general (or what we might call “formal”) ones. He uses a specific book (the bible), but a general authority figure (any infallible interpreter). If Svendsen is to be consistent in his comparisons, he must use either entirely specific/material elements, or entirely general/formal ones. If he wants to use entirely specific elements, that is fine. But the comparison would then have to be not “bible alone vs. bible + infallible interpreter,” but “bible alone vs. bible + this specific infallible interpreter.” That is, it would have to be something like, “bible alone vs. bible + the Magisterium,” or, “bible alone vs. bible + the First Presidency.” In this case, the relevant comparison is not between Catholicism and a single Protestant denomination, but rather between Catholicism and Protestantism as a whole. Traditional Catholic claims of greater unity then are validated.
Likewise if Svendsen wants to make a comparison using formal, non-specific elements, that too is fine. But it could not then involve a specific book, just as it could not involve a specific infallible interpreter. A fair comparison would then be “any inspired book alone vs. any inspired book + its infallible interpreter.” In this case, one indeed must group Catholicism with such things as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But one also has to group Protestantism with other religions which likewise base themselves only on an inspired book, and whose teachers possess only a pseudo-authority which is never final. Such a classification would lump Protestantism together with Islam, Hinduism, and at least some strands of Buddhism. I do not think that Svendsen would here claim that there is greater unity on the Protestant side.
So, if Svendsen wants to make a comparison of the two systems, he ought then to use the purely general or formal elements, in which case the valid comparison is that between any inspired book alone and any inspired book plus its infallible interpreter. If he wants to compare the specific elements used within these systems, then he ought to do so consistently, comparing the bible alone with the bible plus the Magisterium. In both cases, there is greater unity on the Catholic side.
Disunity Within Catholicism
Or is there? This returns us to the first of Svendsen’s arguments supporting his assertion that the Catholic system is functionally useless: there is not the unity within Catholicism that we say follows from our system. He raises two points in this regard: 1) the same source which supposedly says that there are 25,000 Protestant denominations also says that there are 223 Roman Catholic denominations; 2) Catholic ecclesial pronouncements which purport to interpret Scripture are themselves subject to interpretation, and thus disagreement. These two, we shall see, are connected.
Svendsen devotes several pages to dispelling the myth that there are some 25,000 or more Protestant denominations (see pp.58-64). He claims to have tracked down the single source from which this figure is ultimately obtained: David A. Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia. Barrett projected that there would be 22,190 denominations by 1985. Of these he labels 8,196 as Protestant, 240 as Anglican, 223 as Roman Catholic, and 504 as Catholic but non-Roman (p.59). Svendsen goes on to recount how Barrett provides further figures which would make the number of Roman Catholic denominations much closer to the number of Protestant ones (p.60). Whatever might be concluded from all of this, one thing is clear: Barrett does not understand “denomination” in the way that almost everyone else does. We therefore have no reason to accept his division of Roman Catholicism into 223 denominations. But by that same token, we also should question his division of Protestantism into a projected 8,196 denominations. If we are unwilling to accept the existence of 223 Roman Catholic denominations, then we have to question his whole idea of “denomination,’ an idea which is also used to arrive at the figure of 8,196 Protestant denominations.
But these facts far from exhaust the issue of whether Protestantism is more prone to denominationalism than Catholicism. A full treatment would have to determine whether a single “denomination” is properly characterized by doctrinal similarity, organizational unity, a shared hierarchy or some combination thereof. Such a treatment would likely find Roman Catholicism to be a single denomination, and Protestantism many. After all, the 25,000+ figure was one cited unhesitatingly by both Catholics and Protestants alike. I for one heard the figure of 30,000 mentioned years ago by a professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, in the context of a discussion that had nothing to do with Catholicism. There is something about the nature of Protestantism that makes the acceptance of such a figure natural. What Svendsen’s research shows us is not that we are unjustified in claiming greater unity within Catholicism, but simply that we are unjustified in citing any specific figure in regards to Protestant disunity, whether that figure be 30,000, 25,000, 8,196 or any other figure. We too would insist that Protestants are unjustified in citing the figure of 223 Roman Catholic denominations, or any of the higher figures Barrett also provides.
One is left to wonder though what Barrett could mean when he says that there are 223 Roman Catholic denominations. One thing he may mean is that, within Roman Catholicism, there are different understandings of various theological issues, even those about which the Church has officially pronounced. This is the second point which Svendsen makes with regard to disunity within Catholicism: there are different interpretations of Church teachings. The Church documents which purport to interpret Scripture must themselves be interpreted. Svendsen uses as an example the differing interpretations of Dei Verbum regarding the inerrancy of Scripture (pp.23-25). Many Catholics appeal to the wording of Dei Verbum to show that the Church believes Scripture to be inerrant in all matters, while just as many (if not more) appeal to it to argue that inerrancy extends only to salvific matters. Svendsen’s point is that having an infallible interpreter does not necessarily result in unity and clarity, since the interpretation itself (in this case, Dei Verbum) must be interpreted.
But is this enough to prove that the Catholic system is “functionally useless”? Absolutely not. For what distinguishes the Catholic system from the Protestant one is that in the Catholic system we have a principle of clarity and unity. It may not always be exercised, such that for certain durations of time there might actually be a measure of disunity arising from differing interpretations of the same biblical or magisterial documents. But, to use the above example, the Magisterium could at any time decide which of the two interpretations of Dei Verbum is the correct one. If the decision of the Magisterium on this issue was an infallible one, then those who continued to dissent would not have the same standing within the Church, and full union with the Church could then be clearly said to revolve around the designated interpretation of Dei Verbum.
This, in fact, is the process that we see taking place throughout the history of the Church. Disagreements arise from varying interpretations of a written document (in most cases, Scripture), and are allowed to exist for a period of time while discussion and debate take place. At a certain point the hierarchy of the Church definitively pronounces on the matter, thus arriving at a clearer and deeper understanding of the original document in question. If at some future point it comes to pass that varying interpretations of that very decision arise, the same process is then repeated, this time with the hierarchical decision as the main focus of discussion rather than the original document which the decision interpreted.
The Christological heresies of the first 7 centuries provide perhaps the best example of this process in action. Let us jump into the middle of the whole process, at the Council of Ephesus (431). Prior to this council, the basic Christology of St. Athanasius had become normative: Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. But what exactly this meant when it came to the particulars was left unsaid, and many different ideas arose. One was that of Nestorius, who said that, while Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man, his human and divine natures were not really united in their being, but only in their manifestation or appearance. After years of discussion and debate, the Council of Ephesus convened and determined that Nestorius was wrong: the two natures of Jesus Christ were really and truly united, in more than just their appearance or manifestation. What we have then is an initial position which was apparently clear at the time (Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man) resolved into two incompatible interpretations: 1) the human and the divine are united only in appearance, and 2) the human and the divine are really, truly united. Ephesus comes along and decides for the latter, thus deepening the Church’s understanding and providing a clarity that could serve as the basis of unity. Problem solved. Case closed.
Or was it? Not long afterward, things would become unclear again. It had been established that Christ’s humanity and divinity were really and truly united, and theologians began to reflect on what this meant. One group (the Monophysites) asserted that in Christ, the initially distinct human and divine natures come together to form a third nature, such that Christ really has only one (monos) nature (physis). Christ does not possess a human nature and a divine nature, but rather a third nature that is the result of the combination of the two. This, they thought, was the only way to do justice to the fact that Christ’s humanity and divinity were really, truly united.
Many theologians though were unhappy with this, and wanted to maintain that the natures, while united, remained distinct. Thus once again there was an initially clear position resolved into two incompatible interpretations: 1) Christ’s natures combined to form a third nature, and 2) Christ’s natures were united while remaining distinct.
Debate raged for years until finally, in 451, the Council of Chalcedon was convened. There it was determined that the Monophysite position was wrong. Christ’s natures were not united by joining to become some third nature, but rather found their union in the person of Christ. Once again a clarity was provided that could act as the basis of unity.
To summarize the whole process then, we have an initially clear proposition (Jesus is fully God and fully man) which resolves itself into two incompatible positions: 1) the humanity and divinity are united only in appearance/manifestation, and 2) the humanity and divinity are really united. The latter is seen to be right, and decided upon. But soon after, this initially clear proposition (the humanity and divinity are really united) is resolved into two incompatible positions: 1) that real union occurs by a blending of the two natures into a third; 2) that real union takes place in the person, thus allowing for them to be united but distinct. This process has the potential to continue ad infinitum, with deeper insight and clarity being gained each step of the way.
A pessimistic observer might look at this whole process and say much the same thing that Svendsen says: “This system is functionally useless! It clarifies something, only to have it become unclear again! Every interpretation needs further interpretation!” And he’s right to a point: things become clear, only to become unclear again. But is this a sign of functional uselessness? Absolutely not; for as was just stated, deeper insight is gained each step of the way. Ephesus provides an initially clear proposition (the human and divine are really, truly united in Jesus), but the Monophysites and Chalcedonians disagree on what exactly that means. But already, they both have a deeper clarity than was had before Ephesus, for they both agree that the human and the divine are really and truly united in Jesus. Likewise after Chalcedon, there will be disagreement on whether or not Christ has one will or two. But both sides already have deeper Christological insight than those before Chalcedon, for both agree that the human and divine are united in Christ not by becoming a third nature, but rather are united in his person. So the fact that further disagreements arise is not a sign that the system is functionally useless, for those disagreements are what eventually allow for a deeper insight into what was originally said. Those who lived after the Council of Chalcedon have a deeper insight into what it means to say that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, and they have this insight precisely because of the disagreements that arose along the way. One could look at this as a very basic understanding of the development of doctrine: in one sense the teachings of Ephesus and Chalcedon are new; but in another sense, they are merely clearer statements of that truth which had been passed down before, and originates in the bible: Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man.
The fact that there is disunity then in the Catholic Church resulting from differing interpretations of Magisterial documents is not a sign that the Catholic system is functionally useless. It is simply a sign that the system is catholic! That is, it is a sign that the process the Church employs is no different than that which has been used since the earliest days. And just as it was not functionally useless back then, it is not functionally useless now.
Infallible Interpretations of the Infallible Interpreter
Svendsen might counter this whole line of argumentation by saying that each and every Magisterial document must be interpreted; in other words, there are always interpretations of the interpretations. Even if the Magisterium is infallible and its pronouncements are infallible, the people who read and interpret those infallible pronouncements are themselves very fallible. Even if it the Church passed down an infallible interpretation, that interpretation is fallibly interpreted/understood by fallible men. And it will not solve the problem to say that the infallible interpretation can then be infallibly interpreted by the Magisterium, for that interpretation still has to be interpreted/understood by fallible men. In other words, no matter how many infallible interpretations of infallible interpretations there might be in between, the last link in the chain will always be the fallible layman or cleric trying to understand it all. And if this is the case, then it is hard to see how having an authoritative interpreter is of any advantage at all. It is hard to see how the whole process of deepening understanding would have any more help getting off the ground.
Is this objection effective? No. In fact, it is actually self-defeating. If it is true, the objection defeats not only itself, but the very possibility of verbal communication altogether. How is this so?
It is obviously true that some things are hard to understand, and are in need of interpretation. This is true, for instance, of parts of the bible. As Peter tells us, certain things said by Paul are hard to understand, and are in danger of being distorted by the unlearned. It stands to reason that such are the kinds of things that demand an authoritative interpretation for their proper understanding. Now it is also true that these interpretations can themselves be hard to understand, and can lend themselves to further confusion, as illustrated above. But as also illustrated in the process above, this confusion ultimately resolves itself into any number of clear potential resolutions which are easily selected from. And it is at this stage in the process where this most recent objection fails. For once the relevant potential resolutions are arrived at, it is simply a matter of choosing between them. In other words, it is simply a matter of saying “yes” to one and “no” to the others. “Is the union of the human and the divine in Christ one of mere manifestation?” “No.” “Is that union instead a real union?” “Yes.” Or again: “Does that real union result from the blending of the two natures into a third?” “No.” “Does that real union rather occur in Christ’s person, thus preventing any kind of blending of the natures?” “Yes.” Or to use another subject: “Is one justified by faith alone?” “No.” “Is one instead justified by both faith and works?” Yes.
What happens then is that the issue eventually becomes resolved into one of the most basic units of understanding: the yes or no question. To say that something as simple as this requires further interpretation is to deny the intelligibility of language altogether, and thus to render even basic communication impossible, including the very communication by which the objection is communicated. An authoritative interpreter allows for something which is initially hard to understand to be resolved into a very basic unit of meaning. To argue that even this most basic level demands further interpretation is to state that language is basically unintelligible, which in turn makes the objection itself unintelligible. But if you’re still reading at this point, the objection obviously was intelligible to you; which means that language can be expressed in intelligible units of meaning; which means that a genuine interpreter can render intelligible that which is initially hard, to the point where it no longer needs special interpreting in order to be understood.
We see then the implications of the claim that every interpretation is itself in need of interpretation. It is true that some things are hard to understand; but it is also true that some things are not. Precisely what an interpreter does is to render easily understood those things which are hard to understand. An authoritative mechanism is necessary for rendering understandable those things which are hard, but not for grasping those things once they are rendered easily understood. If indeed a given person or body is a valid interpreter, they will de facto have the ability to render easily understood those things which are initially hard to understand. The Catholic system then works by steering a middle course between two unfeasible extremes, both of which assume that, for an infallible interpreter to be of any advantage, the end point of every chain of understanding must itself be infallible. On the one end is the extreme that believes such a system to be possible, and to actually exist. On the other end is the extreme which denies that such a system is of any advantage because the last link in the chain is always a fallible human interpreter. Each extreme denies one of the two components which give rise to the problem of interpretation. The side which believes that having an infallible interpreter results in each person having infallible knowledge denies the obvious fact that the last link in the chain is always the fallible human knower. The side which believes that such a system, even if it did exist, would afford us no advantage denies the fact that, while some things are easy to understand and not in need of interpretation, others are hard and in need of some kind of authoritative interpreter in order to be understood. The position I have articulated mediates between these two extremes by recognizing that, while the last link in the chain is always the fallible human knower, an authoritative interpreter is able to reduce to units of basic intelligibility those things which are initially hard to understand. It avoids the first extreme by acknowledging the fallibility of the knower, but compensates for this problem by recognizing the fact that certain basic units of meaning are not in need of interpretation, and that these units can be arrived at via an authoritative interpreter.
All Systems Are Not Created Equal
Thus it is that the Catholic ecclesial system affords us with a means of rendering intelligible those things which are initially hard to understand. Each step of the way, what was initially obscure becomes more and more clear. This is possible because each succeeding step does not have to rely on the initially obscure formulation, but rather can start its reflection from the clearer, more detailed, and more easily understood expression. It is precisely this advantage which Protestants do not have. For in adhering to sola Scriptura, they have ultimate recourse only to that which, at least in the case of some of the Pauline material, is initially obscure and hard to understand. They cannot construct clearer, more detailed, and more easily understood formulations of the mysteries found in the bible which can then serve as sure foundations upon which to gain an even deeper understanding.
So then, while the Catholic system affords one the possibility of a genuine growth in the understanding of those things which are hard to understand, the Protestant system can do no more than point us back to those hard things. Protestantism then is unable to afford us with a principle of unity, and it is for this reason that so much denominational division exists within the system of sola Scriptura, and that the number of 25,000 or even of 30,000 Protestant denominations seemed plausible to those on both sides before Svendsen’s research. The Catholic system, because it can make those initially hard things more easily understood, can serve as a principle of unity. But in the Catholic system, this growth in understanding is always a work in progress, and thus there is bound to be disagreement each step of the way. The difference is that this disagreement, like the disagreements before it, will allow for a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God to be arrived at, when the Magisterium eventually determines which of the sides accurately expresses the mystery. An authoritative interpreter allows disagreement to become a step in the process towards greater shared understanding, which results in deeper and deeper unity. The lack of such an interpreter prevents disagreement from being thus transformed because it prevents it from being definitively resolved.
Svendsen’s Alternative: The Infallibility of the Elect
Thus we see that in order for a system to be able to effectively determine which doctrines are Scriptural and which are not, it must have at least two qualities: it must be external to Scripture, and it must purport to provide some level of certainty. Svendsen realizes this when he proposes how it is that Christians are to determine what the true Church is and what proper Christian beliefs are.
Svendsen realizes that the Protestant position, taken at face value, must overcome a significant obstacle: if interpretation is always characteristically private, how can one know that one’s interpretations are correct? Svendsen argues for what I have termed “the infallibility of the elect.” The elect, he argues, simply cannot be deceived about essential beliefs. Svendsen cites Matthew 24:24 and 1 John 2:20-27 in this regard, and concludes, “What that boils down to is that the elect of God will always believe the essential tenets of the faith” (p.55). When it comes to the essentials, the elect are infallible. But how does a person become one of the elect? “Once we know the true gospel (by reading the original deposit), and comply with its demands (‘believe and be saved’), we may safely count ourselves among the elect of God” (p.55). Those who believe and are saved can be absolutely sure that they will correctly adhere to the essential tenets of the faith, and it is therefore unnecessary to name and define those tenets (p.55). But if we want to know what those beliefs are, all we need to do is “compare the common beliefs within Evangelicalism to arrive at that list” (p.55).
The system that Svendsen here constructs easily comprises the poorest reasoning found in Upon This Slippery Rock. There are numerous problems with the reasoning given above, but they can essentially be boiled down to two: 1) the arbitrary employment of certain terms, and 2) utter circularity.
The first instance of the former happens on p.55 when Svendsen argues that the elect cannot be deceived in essential matters. He starts to argue for this by quoting Matthew 24:24 and adding his own comment: “In Matt 24:24, Jesus says: ‘False prophets will arise to deceive even the elect - if that were possible,’ indicating that it is not possible.” Yet Svendsen goes on to make an absolutely unwarranted qualification: “What that boils down to is that the elect of God will always believe essential tenets of the faith” (p.55, emphasis added). If Svendsen’s interpretation of Matt 24:24 is correct, then what warrant does he have for saying that the elect cannot be deceived only in essential matters? The verse makes no such distinction. If Svendsen’s interpretation is right, then they should be infallible in all matters. But Svendsen knows he cannot argue for this, because the disagreement among Evangelicals on issues he would term non-essential is all the empirical proof anyone needs to see that that cannot possibly be right. Svendsen arbitrarily inserts the qualification “essential” into his argument in order to avoid this problem.
So what are these essentials which have arbitrarily become the focus of discussion? Svendsen makes a rather incredulous statement regarding these essentials: “Well, in short, there is really no need to define them if, as we have already seen, the elect automatically have a propensity to believe them when they hear them” (p.55). Svendsen is here acknowledging the fact that what is and is not essential is not always so clear. But if Svendsen is right up to this point, it should be incredibly easy for Evangelicals to enumerate and define their essential beliefs. If all of the elect believe the same way and cannot be deceived in these matters, it should be the easiest thing in the world to determine each and every essential (and, derivatively, non-essential) belief!
Svendsen does go on to present such a list, partial though he admits it is (p.55). But in order to do so he must arbitrarily insert a second concept into the mix: “Evangelicalism.” He says on p.55, “Objectively, then, one need only compare the common beliefs within Evangelicalism to arrive at that list [of defined beliefs].” At no previous point in this line of argumentation has Svendsen used the word “Evangelical” or “Evangelicalism.” He has provided no justification for labeling Evangelicals as those who comprise the elect. He has only stated that the elect are those who believe and are saved, but has not at all established what beliefs the elect believe in order to be saved. He arbitrarily inserts Evangelicalism here to introduce a concrete set of beliefs which he can attribute to the elect for the sake of arriving at a set of defined doctrines. Up to this point the actual beliefs of the elect have gone unnamed, and as we know, there are many competing sets of beliefs within Protestantism. There are some who would hold to all of the doctrines Svendsen lists on p.55 but would add others that not all would accept. Certain Pentecostals, for instance, believe that one must speak in tongues in order to be saved. Other Protestants will insist that the Scriptures are not infallible in each and every detail (say, in certain historical or scientific matters), but will hold to all of the other doctrines listed. There are then those who would both add to and subtract from Svendsen’s list. And yet these are people whom many Evangelicals would consider to be saved - that is, to be members of the elect. There are then competing systems of belief which claim to be the true set of essential beliefs, systems which Svendsen would disagree with. His choice of Evangelicalism as the set of essential beliefs cannot then proceed from the very system by which Svendsen says we are to determine correct doctrine. For there are many different people who claim to have the correct set of essentials. How then can we look to the elect when we do not know who they are? Even if it were true that the elect automatically believed the essentials, that wouldn’t solve the problem of how we know who the elect are. “The elect cannot be deceived.” Fine. Good. But who are the elect? How do we determine who they are? The answer, it would seem, would have to be that the elect are, as Svendsen stated, the ones who believe and are saved.
It is here we get to the heart of Svendsen’s circularity. The elect are the ones who believe and are saved. And the elect automatically believe the correct essentials. But they don’t automatically believe these things until they are members of the elect. This begs the question then: what must they believe in order to be saved? What are the specific doctrines that one must believe in order to be saved? Here the circularity becomes manifest, for the beliefs which make one a member of the elect are precisely the ones that we come to automatically know after being becoming elect! In other words, when one believes and is saved, one does not just “believe.” One believes something. There is a content to one’s belief. This salvific content, Protestants generally say, is what constitutes the essentials of the faith. But if, as Svendsen states, one must believe in order to become one of the elect, then it cannot be the case that one knows these essentials only after becoming elect; for these essentials are precisely what one must believe in order to become one of the elect. “What do you have to do become one of the elect?” “Believe.” “But what do you have to believe?” “What the elect believe.” “But who are the elect?” “Those who believe and are saved.” Thus the circle goes.
To say then that Evangelicals disagree only on nonessential beliefs, and that this is evidenced by the fact that they aren’t condemning each other to Hell (p.56) is a red herring, for it presupposes what has yet to be established, and which, even if true, could not be established: Evangelicalism comprises the elect. For even if the elect did automatically believe the essentials, this fact would still not allow them to actually know whether they are or are not elect, since there are others who are just as sure of their election and yet hold a different set of essential beliefs. What’s more, this refusal to condemn members of one’s own group to Hell is not a characteristic unique to Evangelicalism. The Pentecostals who think we must speak in tongues in order to be saved do not condemn each other to Hell, and yet undoubtedly disagree among themselves on various theological matters. Does this mean that they are the elect? Does refusing to condemn to Hell those who share one’s essential theological beliefs, and condemning to Hell those who do not, make one’s group the elect? No. It simply makes them a typical religious group.
Thus we see that in his attempt to construct an alternative method which is both external to Scripture and capable of providing some kind of certainty, Svendsen resorts to circular argumentation and the arbitrary introduction of various concepts. He fails to establish a way around the overly personal nature of Protestant ecclesiology. But what of the personal foundation of Catholic ecclesiology? How is it different from that of the Protestant?
All Private Foundations Are Not Created Equal
It should be clear at this point that the supporting evidence Svendsen provides to back up his claim that the Catholic system is functionally useless is wrong. He thinks these arguments show that Catholicism suffers from the same problems that Catholics attach to Protestantism, and for the same reason: the foundational decision is ultimately personal. But we have seen that the relevant supporting arguments are wrong, and this should be enough to tell us that the foundationally private decision of the Catholic must be markedly different than that of the Protestant. Thus far we have demonstrated this by looking only at the end products of the two competing systems. That is, we have taken the premises of each system, followed them to their logical consequences, and highlighted the differences at those endpoints. In order to make our critique complete, let us turn now to the beginning of those systems and attempt to extract what makes the two private foundations fundamentally different.
For the Catholic and the Protestant, the initial private decision starts out the same. Both make a personal decision to assent to what they believe to be an ultimate authority to whose judgments are final and whose pronouncements they must accept. For the Protestant, this ultimate authority is Scripture. For the Catholic, this ultimate authority is Scripture as interpreted by the Magisterium and the Church’s tradition. In both cases, the purpose of submission is the same: man is to submit himself to the true source of knowledge, so that he does not determine truth, but rather is determined by it. The goal is to minimize the negative consequences that result from the weaknesses and imperfections of the individual man. The difference though is that the Protestant system does this far less effectively. The initial private decision of the Protestant does far less to compensate for the weakness of the individual than does that of the Catholic. For what the Protestant assents to is something which he must still interpret. He in all his weakness and imperfection is not taken out of the picture so to speak, because it is still he who must interpret. All that has changed is that his private decisions are now focused on a particular set of writings, as opposed to all of the various writings which he might have studied in order to arrive at that initial decision. His initial decision allows him to focus on this particular set of texts now, without having to constantly consider that the many other texts he may have studied (the Koran, the Book of Mormon, etc.) might also in fact be true. He is free to focus on the Christian Scriptures with a certainty relative to the certainty with which he arrived at his initial decision. His initial decision opens to him a new realm of inquiry, for he can now study the Scriptures not as one set of writings that might possibly be true, along with the Koran, the Book of Mormon, etc. But in that new realm, it is still he who must make the decisions. He tries to conform his understanding to what he thinks the Scriptures to be teaching, but ultimately it is he who must determine what does and does not correctly conform to what the Scriptures are saying.
It is this element which the Catholic’s initial decision frees him from. The Catholic’s initial decision gives him access not simply to a particular set of writings, but also to an authority who can definitively interpret those writings. After his initial decision, the Catholic is free to focus on the Scriptures and to adhere to the Church’s interpretation thereof with a certainty relative to the certainty with which he arrived at that decision. The major difference though is that the system the Catholic adheres to goes a long way towards negating the negative consequences of the individual’s personal weakness and imperfection. Insofar as he is convinced of the truth of the Church, he is freed on subsequent issues (e.g. the particulars of salvation, nuances of the relation of predestination and free will, etc.) from having to make the kind of ultimate decision by which he arrived at his initial decision. The Catholic system frees its members from the personal restrictions that inevitably accompany that initial decision.
It is along these lines that the Church’s condemnations of private interpretation must be understood. The Church does not condemn the process by which people determine which religion they believe to be the correct one. There is a genuine freedom of conscience in these matters, as Vatican II makes abundantly clear. We apologists sometimes get carried away into thinking that even on this most fundamental level there is no room for private decision. But the teaching of the Church is that this decision is one each person is free to make - and indeed must make - of their own accord. It is this foundational decision which is always open to the person, and which can never become something done simply at the command of the Church. It is in the realm beyond this initial decision that the authority must be obeyed. The Protestant determines the bible to be the ultimate authority, and must then submit to it. The Catholic determines the bible as interpreted by Tradition and the Magisterium to he his final authority, and must then submit to it. For the Catholic to rely ultimately on private interpretation at this point would be to contradict the very assent by which he has arrived at this point. This is the kind of private interpretation the Church condemns. The individual who in his initial decision assents to the Church but then proceeds to disregard the help that the Church provides in overcoming his weakness is the one whose private interpretation is condemned, for it is this kind of private interpretation which is not unavoidable, and which perpetuates fragmentation.
It is precisely this fragmentation which plays itself out in Protestantism, and which is traceable to the overly personal nature of Protestant ecclesiology. Svendsen affirms this connection when he tries to argue that Catholicism results in the same kind of fragmentation because it too relies on a foundationally private decision. But as we have seen, the evidence he presents in support of this assertion is wrong, and this is because the private decision of the Catholic, though it has certain basic similarities with that of the Protestant, is nevertheless fundamentally different. The Catholic system provides a basis for unity and clarity which the Protestant system simply cannot supply, because it does not sufficiently counterbalance the role of the individual.
In all of this though, we Catholics must be careful not to disregard the genuine lessons that Upon This Slippery Rock has to teach us. We are not justified in claiming that there are 30,000, or even 25,000 Protestant denominations. And more importantly, we must recognize that our foundational decision is ultimately personal. But this, far from making the Catholic system functionally useless, simply makes it human. The Catholic system mediates a position between the extremes of the overly subjective Protestant position and the overly objective way in which Catholic ecclesiology is often explained and understood by its members. In this way is the Catholic system able to provide us with a level of certainty fitting for humans: something which provides surety (insofar as the individual interpreter is not the sole arbiter of truth) but which stops short of absolute certainty (insofar as the process is not wholly objective and always involves the individual). It is a pity then that Svendsen misses the greatest lesson that his book has to teach us, for when he attempts to defend Evangelical ecclesiology against the claim that it occupies this overly personal extreme, he does so by swinging to the other extreme, and formulating an ecclesiology which he thinks provides the believer with absolute certainty. This should not surprise us, for this is usually how extremes work; they tend to be more conducive to one another than to the truthful middle which they distort. It is this truthful middle which Catholicism occupies, and we apologists who often argue too objectively ought to thank Svendsen for his help in realizing this, even if Svendsen himself loses the import of his own lesson.