Reading through the comments to that Edward Feser post I linked to and commented on yesterday reminded me of a certain moment in my life that, in retrospect, was kind of important:
I was a sophomore at St. John’s in Santa Fe, and we’d been reading the Bible and Luther. Now, I’ll admit up front that I have a similar reaction to Luther as I have to our current President: you can’t be serious. THIS is supposed to be some brilliant leader, some long-awaited
savior reformer who is way smarter than we are? Based on…..? You’re not seeing stuck-up college professor with daddy issues? I found his (Luther’s) writings so utterly disingenuous, so patently confrontational that the olive branch he claimed to be offering read like an insult. I can imagine that someone totally ignorant of the Church, especially of how Catholics relate emotionally to some of key teachings, might not catch how belittling and divisive Luther is being. This is most especially clear in Christian Liberty, which seems to be considered his most conciliatory work, wherein he proposes the compromise of simply doing it his way.
Be that as it may, my mind was beginning to become cultivated at that time. A cultivated mind, as Aristotle says, is one that can consider an idea without agreeing with it. So, one winter day, standing outside the upper dorms, staring off into the beautiful New Mexican distance, I began to wonder: what if Luther is right? What if it is true? What if God has decided to save us via a book, rather than a Church?
Now, at the time, I suppose I was some sort of theist. Living in New Mexico at 7,300 feet up, where the stars are awesome and the thunderheads roll in across the vast mesas like a heavenly vision, with shafts of light here, thunder, lightening, and a cloudburst there, and maybe a perfect double rainbow while the sun sets in crimson and gold glory – well, you can doubt God if you want, but that was a pretty broad hint. But my Catholic upbringing was everything we’ve come to expect from the ’60s and ’70s, so I’d ‘gotten beyond’ all that Catholic stuff.
So, there I stood. For a long moment, I could see it: the world as Luther saw it, a world of abject slavery (read On the Bondage of the Will) made whole by the unmerited grace of God; theology being less about understanding and more about a glorious yet incomprehensible salvation. Faith, that is enough and more than enough. I imagined myself in the grip of evangelical fervor, talking Bible verses….
And then I broke out laughing. Out loud. Mark Shea put the problems so well in his book, By What Authority? that I’ll merely point you to it instead of rehashing it out here. To fully embrace that world, one must cultivate a love for a certain incoherence, of uncertainty raised to the level of a virtue. Educated Protestants, I’ve read on more than one occasion, lament that Tiber-swimmers have fallen to the allure of a false certainty. From this river bank, that looks like praise for theological chaos, asserting that God does not really want us to be clear on Him, His nature, His desires for us, but wants us to muscle through all those schisms and factions and denominations as, somehow, a sign we’re doing it right. Um, what?
So, at the age of 19, having reread a bunch of the Bible and some Luther and cogitated a bit, I concluded that, while I might never become a Christian, if I did, I could never become a Protestant. Note that this in no way was an argument for Catholicism, just an argument against Protestantism. I considered it possible, likely even, that both were wrong. But If I had to choose between the cool beautiful logic of Thomas and the out of control ravings of Luther* – they both had Scripture, by the way, and there’s no reason whatsoever to imagine Luther had a better grip on it than Thomas, so that’s no help – give me Thomas any day of the week, and twice on Sundays.
Back to that Feser essay. He makes a simple point, too simple, it seems, for many of his readers: you can’t use sola scriptura as a means of determining a canon. This is not, by the way, an idle question, as there have been many a battle throughout history over what, exactly, is part of Scripture and what is not. A couple of his commenters accuse him of creating a straw man, and delve into excruciating detail on what, exactly, your educated, really, truly Christian Christian means by sola scriptura. But they never answer, or even address the very simple question: how do you know what the canon IS? (Note: the comments were flying hot n heavy, I read them yesterday, so maybe somebody got around to it by now.)
Now, I’ve read enough to have heard several explanations of how the Protestant canon was arrived at, and they are a combination of wishful thinking and fantasy. Catholics are comfortable with saying: Christ left a Church to do His Will; that Church selected the books of the Bible as part of doing His Will. You can hate or love that explanation, but it’s a least coherent. Saying that the books select themselves is popular (being God-breathed is, it seems, is utterly, luminously obvious to really Christian Christians – it’s my spiritual shortcomings that make much of the history books, Daniel and Revelation seem kind of wacky, while the Song of Songs and Wisdom seem beautiful and wonderful and, well, biblical.) Appeals to history are a non-starter: there’s that pesky 1,300 years wherein everybody in the West used exactly the same canon, a canon described by Jerome and Augustine, among others – the Catholic canon. There’s that mystical point somewhere between 0 and 400 AD at which Scripture got corrupted, along with everything else, where pagan devil-worshipers stuck in Maccabees because those stories of self-sacrifice, fervor for God’s will, and martyrdom are just the sorts of things evil people promote. I guess. Then there’s an appeal to original languages, because a bunch of 4th century Jewish scholars who rejected Christ and everything in the New Testament also decided they didn’t like parts of Septuagint that were a bit too Greeky for their taste. Even though the New Testament authors quote freely from it, including the parts the Jewish scholars didn’t like…
Be that as it may, the question is simple, and therefore it must be nuanced to death in order to keep from having to take a stand on it, for the very simple reason that there is no rational, logical stand – other than saying God guided men in choosing the Books in the Bible. And that plays way too much into the Catholic position.
Back to Thomas – he will make distinctions both subtle and gross as the question requires. This is fundamentally different, the polar opposite, in fact, of retreating into a miasma of nuance, were squishy distinctions rule. As I’ve argued here on this blog, the thread that connects the modern state of intellectual confusion and anti-reason leads back directly through the 19th century Unitarian vanguard at Harvard, back through Hegel, Fichte and Kant, back through Hume and Descartes, and right back to Luther and Calvin. Their thought-processes were fundamentally irrational, mere pseudo-intellectual back-fill for conclusions of the heart. Human reason not only does not vouchsafe the truth of Scripture; by extension, reason has nothing to say about ANY position anyone claims is based on Scripture.
Which is where we find ourselves today.
One last note: one problem I have, and it’s evidently not uncommon, is that, after reading what Protestants have to say, especially their almost always bizarre caricatures of Catholic teachings, is that I have a hard time taking their positions seriously. This is bad, since the sincerity and holiness of our separated brethren should be honored and respected. Saying something is stupid – like, for example, what I just wrote above – is less than helpful. So if anyone wants to engage, I promise I’ll be good.
* No, really – Luther is a scary writer. He was on his best behavior in Liberty, and still was a monumental jerk. If you dig a little deeper, it gets worse. Much, much worse. I’m told that the stuff readily available in English is somewhat sanitized, and that, for the good reason that there’s much scatological raving in it, most of what he wrote is to this day available only in German. Odd, huh? I know I’ve had no luck finding a number of his works in English that are referenced elsewhere, when, for example, all of the mountain of stuff Thomas wrote is readily available in translation. No fanboy translator has bothered to claw everything Luther wrote into English? Please correct me if I’m wrong and point me to the source.