Friday, June 11, 2010

Review of "By What Authority?"

A longtime bone of contention between Catholics and other Christians is the role which Tradition ought to play in forming the doctrines of our faith. Is Tradition authoritative--is it a complementary branch of revelation, a necessary part of our faith which ought to inform the way which we read Scripture? Or is it merely a set of man-made customs--"the traditions of men"--against which we are warned, a distraction from the true revelation found only in Scripture? Mr Mark Shea delves into these questions and more in his book, By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition.

The book is part apologetic, part conversion autobiography, as it recounts first a problem poses to Mr Shea by modernity, and then his subsequent "discovery" of Tradition as the answer to the questions posed by modernists. He begins by setting the stage: as a devout evangelical, he was bothered by the questions raised by modernity with regard to his faith. Whether it's Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong, the Jesus seminar, or the neo-Arians, he was finding that his evangelical upbringing offered little in the way of an effective response against these modernist challengers.

To be fair, he was able to answer the basic questions posed against his faith by these challengers. For example, a modified version of C.S. Lewis' "Lord, Liar, Lunatic" argument was enough to convince him that these demythologizers were wrong--except that it hinged on the reliability of the witnesses testifying to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Another way of phrasing this question is, why trust that the canon of the Bible is correct:
For we whom you call "modernists" prefer to be called "realists." We know that your view of Jesus depends entirely on the claim of mere human beings that your canon of Scripture and no other has the "true story" of Jesus....We know that your traditional canon of Scripture was compiled, not by an angel, but by a slow, fumbling, and thoroughly human Church hierarchy in a series of varying "canons" which not only ruthlessly excluded alternative accounts such as [the Gospel of] Thomas but also sometimes excluded books such as Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation, and sometimes included books like Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, and various deuterocanonical works....Further, this traditional Church, in addition to formulating the shape of your traditional Bible about three hundred years after the death of the apostles, also declared to be certain truths which even you regard as human tradition. Or have you forgotten about purgatory, devotions to Mary...prayer to the saints, veneration of relics, icons and statues, the Sacrifice of the Mass, adoration of the Eucharist as the True Body and Blood of Christ...."So then," asked the little voice of modernism in my head, "Why precisely do you accept the present canon of biblical books as something other than human tradition?"

Answering this definitively requires authority beyond the Bible, as Mr Shea discovered. To be sure, his Evangelical friends, elders, and teachers all suggested any number of means of getting around Tradition as the final solution: inner witness of the Spirit, Quotations by Christ or the Apostles, congruence with the rest of Scripture; he even searched Scripture itself to see if it provided a written means of determining the canon, all to no avail. Both Christ and the Apostles are silent on the matter of the Bible ultimate content; as for the other three methods, there are problems with each. Both Christ and the Apostles quote directly or at the least allude to an number of books which are not contain din the Protestant canon, be they deuterocanonical texts like Wisdom, apocryphal books like Enoch and The Assumption of Moses, or even pagan poets. On the other hand, there is often difficulty reconciling one text with another (see, for example, the "cursing Psalms as opposed to Christ's plain commandment to "Love thy enemies."), and there are plenty of text which do not "feel" inspired upon reading. Mr Shea even goes so far as to cite Ecclesiastes as failing all three "tests."

Though I was confused about how I, as an individual, could know what was and wasn't Scripture, I was by no means prepared to start redefining the canon based on my ignorance and confusion. After all, I had reasoned, the canon of Scripture had survived in relatively good shape for two thousand years, give or take a few deuterocanonicals. The glue which bound the canon together, though invisible to my eye, seemed to work tolerably well....Therefore, I realized, one of two things necessarily followed: either, as modernism said, the canon of Scripture was a merely human tradition or else God must have ordained somesort of revelation outside of Scriptureas teh means by which we could know what Scripture was. There was no third option.


That thing which defined the canon, which bound it together, which transmitted it through the years, was nothing more or less than Tradition. But is it reasonable to embrace Tradition--indeed can a faithful Christian do so? In a word, yes. As evidence, Mr Shea notes that not only do the Old and New Testament writers rely on Tradition, so does Christ Himself. Moreover, modern day Evangelicals also rely on Tradition, to some extent at least. He cites five examples of this: the Canon of the Bible (necessarily determined before Sola Scriptura can be appllied), the pro-life cause (underlying Evangelical ethics), opposition to polygamy, the doctrine of the Trinity (the very heart of Christianity), and the closure of public revelation.

From here, Mr Shea was forced at last to confront the question posed earlier, and which re-asserted itself.
But I also realized that what's sauce for teh goose is sauce for teh gander. If we Evangelicals could hold a Big T extra-biblical Tradition like the canon of Scripture or the closure of public revelation to be revelation handed down from the apostles, why did I automatically assume that Clement's, Ignatius', and Ireneaus's extra-biblical traditions were anti-biblical?....I began to think about the post-apostolic Fathers and their extra-biblical traditions.

At my Church we had believed (without giving it a great deal of thought) that these Catholic-sounding doctrines and others like them were the result of paganism creeping into the Church after the apostles had died.


Indeed, why were these men and others like them who clung to Tradition so willing to die for Christ? They were all-too-willing to oppose the modern pagans of the day--e.g. by resisting the pagan culture which permitted and at times promoted polygamy, by refusing to worship the pagans' gods, etc.--and after all the canon of Scripture was faithfully preserved by these very same men.In the end, the "pagan creep" theory looks like bunk. Mr Shea then found himself with two choices, in the end:
The big "T" stuff cannot be altered without striking at the very heart of the Faith....According to Catholic belief, the very doctrines which irk most Protestants (such as purgatory, the Assumption of Mary, the infallibility of the Pope, and so forth) are doctrines which cannot be set aside since they are squarely located under big "T" heading by the Catholic Church and are therefore immovable features of Sacred Tradition--the very same Tradition which tells us what is and is not in our Bible and does so in a coherent voice of authority sounding down the centuries through a line of bishops leading inexorably back to Jesus Christ himself. In other words, I was obliged to either:
1. Find out if the whole Catholic Tradition was truly coherent; or,
2. Arbitrarily reject the bits I was uncomfortable with, but simultaneously exploit Catholic Tradition's authority (where it was useful against modernism)--all the while hoping that both Evangelicals and modernists (not to mention the Holy Spirit) would not laugh at my wholesale inconsistency.

I chose the first route. In so doing I discovered...that, in the final analysis, there is not a single solitary aspect of Catholic Sacred Tradition from the Immaculate Conception to the Eucharistic Real Presence to purgatory to indulgences to prayers to the saints to the Papacy to infallibility to the Assumption of Mary that is anti-biblical.


Mr Shea has written a fine apologetic, a book which is both readable and worth reading. His chapter on the "pagan creep theory" of Catholic Tradition alone is worth the cost of the book, though it is in a sense an extension of the Lord, Liar, Lunatic argument applied to the Church fathers. I would recommend this book, first to undercatechized Catholics who need to know more about their faith, second to well-catechized Catholics who love a good conversion story. Third, I would recommend it to Protestants (especially evangelicals), because the chapter concerning the Evangelical embrace of sertain parts of Tradition may prove to be eye-opening; and finally, to Mormons who argue that the Church established by Jesus Christ failed until it was re-established by their prophet 1800 years later. I might summarize Mr Shea's conversion, as told by this story, in the words of fellow convert Professor Peter Kreeft: the reason to become Catholic is to be the very best evangelical Protestant possible.

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If you like this post and want to read more, here are some related posts:
Disorientation: A Review in Four Parts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)
A Short Review of The Third Testament

A Sort of Review of Chesterton's Heretics
Love and Responsibility (Book Review)
The Gargoyle Code: A More Substantive Review
A Halfway-Review of The Faith of Our Fathers (Book Review)

Review of The Meaning of Tradition