Private Judgment and Finding the Right Church
Is the Catholic Rule of Faith and Epistemology  Inherently Incoherent?

I responded to some questions on a public board, from (I think) a Protestant. His words will be in blue:

Thanks for the thoughtful response and the time you spent on this. I appreciate it.

See what you think of this. I find Newman's conclusion to contradict his own thesis. I agree with a great deal of what he said in regard to our eminent capacity to err.  Here's where I come to what seems a clear inconsistency in Newman's proposed solution to his stated dilemma. To set the stage, I think we would agree that none of us are really entertaining such a radical fall of reasoning as to think that we may not read the words of Scripture correctly, for instance. Rather, the common pitfall we see is that of misunderstanding what we read.

Correct. That gets into the whole vexed discussion of perspicuity, but I basically agree.

In such a "limited" fallenness of reason, the possibilities for error are still pretty much endless, whether from blatant misinterpretation to the more subtle error of a wrong interpretive grid. Yet Newman's thesis regarding the error of the personal judgements of Protestants et al relies on his own personal judgement as to what Scripture is teaching in regard to the primacy of the Church as teacher, and in regard to what actually constitutes the Church.

This is the usual objection, often called "infallibility regress" argument. I'm well-familiar with it. Where I think it breaks down is in its tacit assumption that no one can determine (not with finality or "authority") what the Church is. It is essentially a proposal of radical skepticism or rationalism at the expense (to a degree) of supernatural faith and revelation: it amounts (when closely scrutinized) to a belief that God doesn't have the power to grant one the faith and grace of finding the apostolic Christian Church, so that he can in turn discover true doctrine and theology and hence be better able to follow Jesus.

To the extent that Protestantism denies this possibility altogether, and leaves the task of discovering true Christian doctrine, Tradition, and Church squarely and ultimately on the shoulders of the individual, I think it must be opposed as both nonsensical and unbiblical as well.

This is not merely a philosophical proposition. The Bible clearly (I think) teaches about both an authoritative Church and a Tradition. The fathers assumed this, and that was their ultimate appeal against the heretics, who invariably relied on their private judgment in the "non-ecclesiastical" sense that Newman wrote about, and sola Scriptura. For the Fathers, what had "always been believed" was the determinant of orthodoxy. God had the power to preserve apostolic doctrine inviolate and to protect the true church from error.

It requires faith to believe this, and that is what a Catholic does: we have faith that this Church can exist and that it can be identified and located. We don't say this rests on our own individual choice. It is already there; like "stumbling upon" the Pacific Ocean or Mt. Everest. We don't determine whether the thing exists or not. And we must believe it is what it claims to be by faith, absolutely. Why should that surprise anyone except a person who thinks that Christianity is determined purely by arbitrary choice and rationalism without faith?

That is no longer simply philosophy or subjective preference, as if Christianity were reduced to Philosophy 0101 (where someone might prefer Kierkegaaard to Kant) or the selection of a flavor of ice cream. If we are to be biblical, the Bible refers often to a "passed-down tradition." It is Out There. It exists. Newman would say that one can find this and submit themselves to it, by God's grace (not human reason, though it is not inconsistent with the latter, nor with any biblical teaching).

This is the Catch-22 that I find in the reasoning of any Catholic who has concluded that the Church is the only safe refuge from the dangerous and unprotected wasteland of private interpretation. It's an attempt to solve a problem that we all face, but it doesn't solve it, because that decision itself has been privately made, through human reasonings.

I disagree. We make the choice, but we don't say that the choice was mere reasoning. It was led by God's grace and necessary aid, just as salvation must be so originated. No one denies that Christians choose whether or not to follow God and become a disciple of Jesus. But that very choice was made possible ONLY by God's grace; otherwise it couldn't have occurred at all, given the Fall (and the contrary view is the heresy of Pelagianism). Likewise, this is what we believe about the choice of the Catholic Church as the one founded by Christ, which we believe can be traced back to apostolic times in unbroken historical succession. This does not entirely exclude other Christians from the fold; not at all -- but that's another discussion and I can't get into that at the moment.

Apart from this faith aspect, the Catholic (especially apologists such as myself) claims that our view of ecclesiology and theology is backed up by both history and the Bible, as well as reason. I would argue (among many other things) the fact that the Bible teaches one true Church, as evidenced by the early Protestant internal divisions. In the early days, they still believed that each school was THE one, and the true Church in some sense. There was a visible structure (e.g., Calvin's Geneva, or the Lutheran princes, who took over from the bishops). They believed in one church and one truth, however they may have defined it.

Today's Protestants, however, are much less concerned with that and oftentimes become literally ecclesiological relativists, where Church affiliation comes down to worship styles, a good choir, a pastor who gives "meaty" or heart --stirring sermons, enough pretty girls to meet, etc.). I exaggerate to make a point. This is how many people choose where to go to church: not by a long study and comparison of competing doctrines or reading apologetics. I know many Protestants detest this as I do, but it still exists and is a problem. And it comes from the extreme application of this "private judgment" business, that Newman wrote about.

In other words, it's an entirely valid observation to note that coming to such a conclusion involves private interpretation of Scripture, and it's an equally valid question to ask why one is sure that that private interpretation itself isn't faulty.

Sure, if Christianity were simply philosophy or a Baskin-Robbins situation: "what flavor of the 47 ice creams should I pick?" It is not. Christianity has a history, and whatever side one comes down on cannot exclude the historical criteria because they are intrinsic to Christianity and the biblical worldview, and always have been. This is simply what Christianity is. To be a-historical is as unbiblical as it is essentially foreign to a Christian outlook. Failing that, one can try to construct alternate ecclesiologies, as Luther and Calvin did. I think they fail as alternates of the Catholic Church, to the extent that they are alternates (i.e., where we disagree doctrinally). Why I think that would require huge discussions, where many points are dealt with in turn. It is a cumulative argument, involving a "wheel" of many spokes.

It goes against the democratic equal-opportunity times in which we live, but I see the only way out of this dilemma to be in laying hold of the revelation of God, not just TO me, but INTO me. If the Catholic Church is that to which I must belong, and if right reasoning would show that to anyone with an open mind, God must show ME individually as much, because I am anything but an open-minded man - indeed, I believe that such a thing is merely a popular myth - and I am a man emminently capable of reasoning wrongly without so much as missing a beat. But if God does indeed work in this way, that undermines one of the very arguments commonly made to defend the necessity of submitting to the Church in the first place, namely that of the fallibility of private interpretation.

No, as explained above. We arrive at truth by many different means. Belief in God is that way: it is experiential, moral, imaginative, philosophical (if someone is of that bent of mind), allegorical, etc. I became a committed evangelical Christian back in 1977 largely because of what is called the "moral argument," which is not rationality per se but an internal sense of what is right and wrong, and that Christianity embodied those values. I started thinking about Catholicism initially because of another moral issue: contraception.

But see, even that was not exclusively a "Catholic" discussion, once one discovers, as I did, that all Christians whatsoever opposed contraception till the 1930 Anglican Lambeth Conference. Since I was already committed to the importance of Church history and the unchangeableness of Christian moral teaching, and believed that God protected True Christian Doctrine and Morality, and I had arrived at this judgment through my own study, discussions, and reflections as a long-time pro-lifer and activist, I looked around and saw who today taught that contraception was wrong, which was the historic Christian position.

The choice is clear: even the Orthodox, who pride themselves on being so eminently "traditional" have partially caved on that issue. They haven't maintained their own traditional disapproval and prohibition. To me that is caving to the zeitgeist -- the spirit of the age, modernism, and the sexual revolution (which thrived on the use of contraception, for obvious reasons). And that had a profound effect on me because Christianity is a conservative force in culture: it preserves the old values passed down from the apostles, as taught in the Bible. It doesn't get carried away with all the latest fads and fancies. So that was just one aspect of my decision to convert to Catholicism.

God even used movies and music to bring me to Him back when I was a thoroughly secular pagan in the 70s (somewhat like C.S. Lewis, who came to Christianity through the route of mythology, Wagnerian music, and the like). Selection of a church should be a matter of faith and prayer AND all the usual reasoning involved, just as conversion to Jesus Himself is, since the Church, if it exists, is a supernatural entity, even though fallible and sinful men and women are in it.

If the Church has been given the keys to right interpretation by God Himself, God must still reveal that to whomever He would have know it, such is our helpless estate.

But since individual salvation or regeneration or conversion or being "born again" or committing oneself to Jesus Christ as His disciple (whatever one chooses to call it) itself is of the same nature, I don't see that this reduces to relativism and "helplessness." Somehow we come to believe in God. I think He can be seen in the works of creation, as Romans 1 teaches. But it requires faith and revelation to believe in the Holy Trinity or the Incarnation or Jesus' Resurrection. Those things are revealed; they aren't part of natural law, like God's existence or innate realizations that murder or lying are wrong and evil.

Likewise, in choosing a church or denomination. All you can do is pray, study the issues, read all the sides you care to read, talk to people, look at the history of the various groups, study early Church history, study the Bible through and through and choose what you think is the closest to the biblical Church, as revealed in the Bible (and -- if you value Church history and a visible Church as a continuation of the Incarnation, so to speak -- what has existed in fact for 2000 years). It still takes God's grace, just as conversion does. I have plenty of biblical arguments throughout my website, if you are seeking those.

Yet, and I think this is a crucial point, the defense of this doctrine is carried on by its adherents in the same rationalistic terms that just about every other doctrine in Christendom is defended, which I think is a serious error that afflicts most of Christendom today, by the way.

If the above analysis (or Newman's) is "rationalistic," you must demonstrate that to me. I deny this. In fact; quite the contrary, I am specifically reducing the entire matter to faith and the supernatural and revelation, with reason assuming an altogether secondary role. But I will not renounce or demote reason, either. I submit all my beliefs to reason and the law of non-contradiction, and I believe that my viewpoint is eminently reasonable, or else I wouldn't hold it for a second.

Consider ancient Israel and her numerous apostasies. I know the parallel is not exact, but there is merit in looking at this. It has always been true that "the Lord knows those who are His", and "all are not Israel who are descended from Isreal". Yet how often was the truth assumed to reside in the temple, even as God was revealing Himself to a lonely prophet, and condemning the "Establishment religion" as apostate. Then as now, each individual was in need of personal revelation from God if he would hope to know where the truth resided.

Newman does not deny this, but he places it within the proper context, just as he does with his influential arguments about the conscience or the role of the laity. He refuses to become anti-institutional or a-historical. The Church can (and has) become very corrupt in human terms. It is in constant need of revival and reformation. This is the human condition. Yet it lasts and survives because God protects it from the folly and wickedness of men, just as He preserved ancient Israel as a people and the Bible as a written revelation.

The Bible teaches that the Church has sinners in it, and that this shouldn't make us lose faith. I have a lot of material along those lines. And ancient Israel did not believe in sola Scriptura at all. I have a chapter about that in my second book which I can send you or paste, if necessary.

Ecclesiastical continuity and tradition were clearly not enough to authenticate the true church then. Why must it necessarily be different from that now?

I deny this. The ancient Jews always had the Mosaic Law. They had the Davidic Covenant. There was a clear identifiable tradition. That didn't change when corruption occurred cyclically. They kept discovering the Law and their God again and again, and revived themselves (or, I should say, cooperated with God's revival of them). You act as if corruption wiped out the Law. It didn't, no more than David's sin wiped out the Davidic Covenant, or Paul's or Moses or Peter's sin made them incapable of writing inspired Scripture and being leaders of their people.

I place a lot of weight on the defense given for any given truth which is pressed up me as something I ought to believe. If a defense is rationalistic from start to last, I find it seriously lacking as a compelling defense, because I've seen with my own eyes the necessity of a personal revelation from God of anything concerning the things of God which I am to believe rightly.

I couldn't agree more. I have experienced that in both my conversions, and I have had plenty of spiritual experiences (I am a charismatic), and instances of various gifts such as discernment of spirits (which are easily able to be confirmed by later discoveries and further information), which are useful to me in my line of work. I think you are exactly right, but I don't think your position leads to a despair of ever finding a church or True Doctrine, or a de facto Christian relativism or radical subjectivity.

For this same reason, any doctrine which compels me to reject my own understanding on the basis of fallibility seems to be fatally flawed, in that it necessitates that I temporarily accept the very thing it asks me to reject.

I agree again. The Catholic case, like the case for God and the case for generic Christianity, rests upon truths that can be known and verified outside of itself. It is not circular at all, as so often charged. The views that are truly circular are those such as presuppositional Calvinism or Mormonism, where natural reasoning is disparaged and frowned upon and one simply accepts the truth on fideistic grounds. Catholics don't do that at all. We believe very much in both faith and reason.

The truths that are most compelling to me are the ones which I have come to see as being the only possibilities in a given situation.

That was the case with myself, regarding the prohibition of contraception. I was convinced that it was wrong, and that it's wrongness had always been believed by Christians. I looked around to see who taught this today. The choice was very easy, as there is only one Christian group (apart from some possible dinky ones) which has maintained the traditional Christian position over against the spirit of the age and the Sexual Revolution.

The doctrines of grace present themselves compellingly to me in this way. Newman's thesis fails this test in two ways. First, his own agreement with the necessity of grace, along with his trust in the reliability of the reasoning by which he has understood Scripture to be teaching submission to the interpretation of the Church, should both lead him to affirm that God reveals Himself INTO individuals, but this would undermine his thesis about the necessity of the Church as interpreter of Scripture.

Not at all. In fact, the two are able to be synthesized and harmonized, as in his view and the Catholic view. One can have a personal confirmation or experience, yet interpret and understand it in such a way that it is not intrinsically opposed to the historical, institutional, corporate aspects of Christian ecclesiology. Newman deals with this very issue at length in his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, the classic Catholic treatment of the individual conscience. But he arrives at a position very different from Luther's.

Luther (at the Diet of Worms in 1521) made the conscience and private judgment epistemologically and practically superior to everything else, be it Church or Council or pope or Tradition. In that view, the individual is radically brought back to himself as the ultimate criteria of truthfulness (yet he contradicted himself by adopting a State Church view and advocacy of capital punishment for a number of heresies, real or otherwise -- such as the Anabaptist belief in adult baptism).

I think the folly of that position is obvious, and the frightening consequences equally so. But this is what Protestants believe. This is what sola Scriptura and rejection of the binding authority of a Church and Councils reduce to. There are only so many choices which are not self-contradictory. Newman and Catholics don't have to make this opposition. We believe both that there is an identifiable Tradition and that individuals by God's grace are capable of finding it and accepting it in good faith and total sincerity, in a non-contradictory, spiritually-fulfilling manner.

Secondly, what he denies explicitly, in decrying personal interpretation, he nevertheless must avail himself of in order to formulate his thesis.

No, because the Catholic Church and apostolic Tradition are already entities "out there" which are not mere private interpretations. This tradition has been passed down and preserved and people are capable of finding it. St. Paul assumes this throughout his letters and the Fathers did also. Catholics believe as they do: that God has given us a revealed truth (which includes ecclesiology and a Church) and that he can enable individuals to discover it through grace and faith, so that they can get on with their lives and serve Him and their fellow men, rather than spending their lives on a perpetual agnostic-type quest for something that either doesn't exist or very imperfectly only, or that one can never know enough to accept on the basis of reason. We make things so complicated that God always intended to be quite simple.

Thanks for your thoughts!

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Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 22 May 2003.