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Friday, February 21, 2014

Two Parallel Tracks

In the course of time, when investigating the history of Christianity, and in fact tracing the development of Christian doctrine, we face two distinct problems. One problem relates to how one satisfactorily reconciles known Christian practice with the claim of continuity made by those who formed ecclesial communities at the Reformation. One must either say that a distinct continuity of doctrine and practice is not a necessary part of Christ’s faithful preservation of the Church, (which is absurd) or make oneself the arbiter of the marks of that continuity, which does an obvious violence to the historical data itself. The second problem emerges after one has assumed that the first problem is not in fact the problem, and that we can safely assume a continuity between the early Church and the communities of the Reformation. That second problem is this: How do we determine the doctrine of God, given Reformation assumptions, tools and methods, they use of which has obviously led to radically different dogmatic conclusions on things that by definition, are not matters of indifference?
To say that the first problem is a real problem and to seek out a solution, does in fact lead to the Catholic Church, because history becomes the ground for evidence which would reveal the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Reformation’s claim to ecclesial continuity. But any good Protestant, such as I was at one time, would not immediately be forced to answer the first question; he would have no good reason to assume that the reformers had falsely claimed continuity with the early Church. So, a person such as myself at that time would only be vulnerable in terms of the second question or problem that we described. The 2nd problem is distinctly a Protestant problem, because it emerges only after the Reformation assumptions and claim to continuity is taken as a given. This is why the 2nd problem is a gateway to the first, and not the other way around. It is fundamentally dishonest to dismiss the conundrum at the heart of the 2nd problem or question out of fear that it will lead to the Catholic conclusions at the end of the first.

I did not become Catholic because of the interpretive problem caused by the plethora of plausible interpretive conclusions, with no mechanism to settle those questions definitively. However, the reality of that crisis led me in all honesty to revisit the assumption of the reformers’ continuity with the early Church. The irreconcilable dilemma between the invocation of ecclesiastical authority and final individual interpretive authority, once acknowledged, does not make one a Catholic. Rather, once the essential claim of continuity is reopened for both sides of the dispute, then the raw data and its common threads becomes evidence for that test. Continuity was neither required nor desired if the question of essential continuity was taken for granted in favor of the reformers. One could simply dismiss any apparent continuity in the centuries before with a prior assumption that what was truly necessary was recovered by the reformers. Even if we ignore the fact that the assumption of the essential continuity of the reformers with the early church begs the question in dispute between Catholics and Protestants, we still do not avoid the 2nd problem, and, by God’s grace we shall not want to avoid the challenge that it poses. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to seek it out. We owe it to our own intellectual integrity, and to the charitable assumption related to my dialogue partners’ intellect, diligence, and humility. The reason the so-called Noltie Conundrum is a conundrum is because it charitably assumes all this, and then asks us if we can still determine or know the doctrine of God using Scripture alone.

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