On Private Judgment and Catholicism

On Private Judgment (from a discussion list at Yahoo.com based off evangelical revert Frank Beckwith's blog)

Return To Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic by Francis (Frank) J. Beckwith (Brazos Press, 2008)Private Judgment

Don't know if I have time for this list but Michael B in his comments at Beckwith's blog brought up some classic objections to Catholicism that basically date back to George Salmon, the 19th century anti-Catholic Anglican author of The Infallibility of the Church. The two main objections and answers as I see them.

Objection 1: An infallible interpreter requires another infallible interpreter to interpret the infallible interpreter, ad infinitum.

Answer 1: The Catholic Church is not limited to texts (which is an assumption of the objection), the texts are interpreted by a living authority who continues to interpret and clarify. There isn't another infallible interpreter but one: the visible Church who "interprets herself." (The Protestant evangelical claims the same for the Bible, that it is "self-interpreting" -- discuss!)

Objection 2: Everyone uses private judgment, it can't be avoided. Therefore we are all indeed "Protestants" procedurally.

Answer 2: In one sense this is true, private judgment (or making a personal decision, or choosing between things, etc) can't be avoided since everyone does it. However, if all is reduced to private judgment, this does away with the visible Church as an authority to speak the truth that requires us to obey. If private judgment is supreme and absolute, the Church has no real authority.

Maybe that could be worded better, but that's how I see it (cradle Catholic btw).

I left some quotes at Frank Beckwith's blog from evangelicals Craig van Gelder and Geisler/MacKenzie on the visible Church of the Bible, and Jaroslav Pelikan (Lutheran at the time, now Orthodox) and Philip Hughes (Catholic priest and historian) on the visible Church of the Fathers and Councils. These are:

"The authors of the New Testament did not distinguish between the visible and invisible church. To them, the church that existed in the world was the only church there was....This visible church was the church.....we do an injustice to the teaching of the New Testament authors if we impose this conception of an invisible church on the ideas they formulated. These authors were describing the concrete, historical, visible church that had come into existence in their day, and which was rapidly spreading throughout the Mediterranean world. It is this church that they chose to label the ecclesia." (Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church [Baker, 2000], page 105,106)

"Evangelicals also believe that the church is visible, existing now in the world. What is at issue is the claim that the Roman Catholic jurisdiction is the only true manifestation of the body of Christ on earth. This is the question of authority over which Catholics and Protestants disagree....it is true that when the body of Christ began it was all visible since no believers had died and gone to heaven, so of course it was a visible church when Christ founded it. The invisible church only grew as Christians died and went to heaven. Protestants do not deny that there was a visible Christian church on earth that traces back to the apostles who exercised authority over it, including excommunication. What Protestants object to (and Catholics have not proven) is that [the] Roman Catholic jurisdiction is the sole heir to this original visible church that began with the apostles and will continue until Christ comes without the gates of hell destroying it." (Geisler/MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals [Baker, 1995], page 112, 276-277)

"The first General Council met in 325. The Church had then been an established fact for nearly three hundred years. How did councils begin -- i.e., meetings of bishops to discuss matters of common interest? When and where did the first church councils take place? And what about the beginnings of the 'prestige' of these councils? That is, of the idea that what bishops collectively agree is law has a binding force that is greater than any of their individual instructions to their own see. To begin with the last point, it is a safe statement that from the moment when history first shows us the Church of Christ as an institution, the exclusive right of the Church to state with finality what should be believed as Christ's teaching is manifestly taken for granted. To bring out a theory of belief, or to propose a change in morals which conflicts with what the Church universally holds is, from the very beginning, to put oneself fatally in the wrong. The immediate, spontaneous reaction of the Church to condemn thinkers with new and original views of this kind is perhaps the most general, as it is the most striking, of all the phenomena of the Church's early history, so far back as the record goes." (Philip Hughes, The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, intro)

"To identify orthodox doctrine, one had to identify its locus, which was the catholic church, neither Eastern nor Western, neither Greek nor Latin, but universal throughout the civilized world (oikoumene). This church was the repository of truth, the dispenser of grace, the guarantee of salvation, the matrix of acceptable worship. Only here did God accept sacrifices, only here was there confident intercession for those who were in error, only here were good works fruitful, only here did the powerful bond of love hold men together and 'only from the catholic church does truth shine forth.' " (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, volume 1, page 334-335)

Basically, according to these quotes, both Catholics and evangelicals (and Orthodox) believe there is a visible Church with the authority to speak the truth that traces back to the apostles.


Private Judgment Revisited

Geoff << I don't think this takes the Protestant objection seriously enough. Catholics are the ones who say that we need an authority outside of the Bible to tell us the Bible is true. Many Reformed Christians would say the Bible is self-attesting. Any system needs a self-attesting authority. >>

I was only trying to answer the objection: "the Roman Catholic Church requires another infallible interpreter to tell us what she means." The simple answer to this is that the RCC is not limited to mere texts. We can go to the "author" of those texts and ask the Church what she means. And so on until the meaning is clear. We cannot do this for a book (even an inspired one) since it is not self-interpreting.

Some Reformed (I'm thinking of James R. White here) respond to this by saying the Bible is "self-consistent, self-interpreting, and self-authenticating" (part of White's definition of sola scriptura). But Michael B already disagreed with the self-interpreting part. Other Protestants respond by saying "we can and do go to the author of the Bible, the Holy Spirit who does the interpreting." (and they point to 1 Cor 2; 1 John 2:27).

Just trying to be fair, those are two responses I've heard. Maybe not sophisticated enough, they are more fundamentalist responses.

Geoff << There doesn't seem to be any good reason why the Roman Catholic Church is self-attesting, but the Bible isn't. The infinite regress objection makes sense. >>

Again, the objection only dealt with the claim "the RCC requires another interpreter." The answer again is "the RCC interprets herself" since she is a living, thinking, reasoning authority that can speak and continue to speak and clarify until the meaning is clear. Just like the author of a book can explain what they mean.

If you read Reformed writer Keith Mathison's book The Shape of Sola Scriptura, he will admit the true and authentic interpreter of the Bible is the visible Church. Then the problem becomes identifying that Church. Part of my short review of Mathison found here


Geoff << Plus, the New Testament backs this up. Jesus scolds Pharisees and scribes for not knowing Scripture. There was no infallible authority interpreting Scripture at the time. >>

Well, the infallible interpreter of Scripture at the time was Jesus Himself, and later His apostles (Matt 10:19-20; 1 Cor 2:4,7,13; 14:37; 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15; 2 Tim 3:15-17; Heb 13:7,17). In the OT it was the prophets who were inspired and infallible (2 Peter 1:19-21). The apostles and prophets were the inspired and infallible teaching authority (the "magisterium" if you will).

Now Protestants limit apostolic authority today to the texts they eventually produced (the recognition by the Church of the canon of the Bible). However there is no biblical text for that (the old "sola scriptura is not found in the Bible" argument). Catholics and Orthodox believe that apostolic authority passed on to the successor bishops (but not apostolic inspiration). You probably know that but I'm just clarifying.

Geoff << If you need the Roman Catholic Church to tell us what Scripture means, how can Jesus reprimand the Pharisees and scribes of His day? >>

Jesus does just fine by Himself. He was the infallible authority. Of course Catholics claim that's where we get our authority (Matt 16:18f; 18:17f; 28:18ff; John 14:16f; 16:13f). We don't claim any authority apart from what Jesus and the Holy Spirit give us.

Geoff << Both are final authorities in a system. Based on what you've just wrote, how can you tell Protestants that their looking to the Bible as the final (not sole) authority is wrong because of private judgment when you can't escape private judgment at the end of the day? >>

I guess we need a better definition of "private judgment." It is not simply "personal decision" or "choosing something" or "producing evidence for X...." Catholics and Orthodox say the Bible IS the final authority -- properly interpreted by Sacred Tradition (yes another term that needs defining) and the visible Church. Catholics tell Protestants the Bible requires an infallible interpreter based on evidence from the Bible, history, logic. We all argue by producing evidence for our positions. Private judgment is more than that.

There's a little book called "What Faith Really Means" I'm trying to find. It is by a convert to the Catholic Church, Henry G. Graham. He goes into private judgment a bit: [quoting a long excerpt from What Faith Really Means by Graham]

"So far, then, from being debasing or dishonoring to our intellect, we consider the Catholic attitude to be the most beautiful and sublime act of homage to Our Divine Lord; we are honoring and adoring Him Who is the first and essential Truth.

"Renouncing our own judgment! Giving up our freedom! Of course we renounce our own judgment when God has spoken; of course we give up our freedom to believe the opposite of what God teaches. Protestants do the same. A Protestant who believes in the Blessed Trinity because God has revealed it -- does he not renounce his own judgment upon it? A Protestant who believes in Hell or in the Incarnation -- where is his freedom to reject it, without sin? So, if God declares that the Blessed Virgin was conceived Immaculate, or that there is a Purgatory, or that the Holy Eucharist is the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, shall we say, 'I am not sure about that. I must examine it for myself; I must see whether it is true, whether it is Scriptural?' Let who will take upon themselves such a responsibility.

"On matters, indeed that Almighty God has been pleased to leave open questions, we are free to hold our own opinions, and there is a wide field here where discussion is not only permissible, but right and proper, and, it may be, even laudable. Thousands of volumes have been written on such subjects by theologians and priests. In such a sphere they have perfect liberty; the Church allows it. Moreover, not only does the Church allow, but she gladly encourages, the wisest, the most devout and learned of her sons to undertake researches into the mysteries already defined to be doctrines of faith; not, of course, for the purpose of finding whether they are true, but for the purpose of explanation, instruction, edification; of discovering and unfolding to the faithful more and more the inexhaustible treasures of Heavenly truth that lie imbedded in any one of the articles of the Faith.

"The world has been enriched by whole libraries of Catholic theology -- dogmatic, moral, ascetical, mystical, and the rest. To speak, then, of the intellect being paralyzed and of the spiritual faculties being deadened by the 'Romish system' is simply ludicrous. Neither the religious literature of Protestantism, nor the finished product of their spiritual system as seen in the lives of its devotees, is to be mentioned in the same breath with that of the Catholic Church.

"When we speak of private judgment, then, let us be quite clear as to what we mean; it has its uses and it has its abuses. Private judgment, in the sense of compiling a creed for yourself out of the Bible, of accepting this doctrine and rejecting that, of judging what should be and what should not be an integral part of the truth revealed by God -- this, of course, is entirely forbidden, for it is directly contrary to the method of arriving at the truth instituted by Our Lord Jesus Christ. Do people imagine that the Son of God, having revealed a body of truth definite and explicit, eternal and unchangeable, left it to us to cut and carve, and to pick and choose here and there such bits of it as suited our taste? What the better should we be today, what advantage would the Incarnation have brought to us, if, after all, we were still floundering about in doubt and uncertainty?

"Far other is the Catholic conception of Christ's mission. So soon as Our Divine Lord, speaking through the voice of His Church, solemnly declares, 'This is My teaching: this is included in the Revelation I made to the Apostles.' -- what Christian, I ask, or rather, what man that fears God, Christian or not, will dare to hesitate to bow in acquiescence, and say, 'O my God, I believe because Thou hast said it' ? ....

"The use of private judgment, on the other hand, in the sense of an inquiry into the 'motives of credibility,' and a study of the evidences for the Faith, to enable you to find out which is the one Church founded by Jesus Christ -- this is permissible, and not only permissible, but strictly necessary for all outside the Fold who wish to save their souls. But mark well: having once found the true Church, private judgment of this kind ceases; having discovered the authority established by God, you must submit to it at once. There is no need of further search for the doctrines contained in the Christian Gospel, for the Church brings them all with her and will teach you them all. You have sought for the Teacher sent by God, and you have secured him; what need of further speculation?

"Your private judgment has led you into the Palace of Truth, and it leaves you there, for its task is done; the mind is at rest, the soul is satisfied, the whole being reposes in the enjoyment of Truth itself, who can neither deceive nor be deceived....

'Be convinced,' says Cardinal Newman in his great sermon, 'Faith and Doubt' -- 'be convinced in your reason that the Catholic Church is a teacher sent to you from God, and it is enough....You must come to the Church to learn; you must come, not to bring your own notions to her, but with the intention of ever being a learner; you must come with the intention of taking her for your portion, and of never leaving her. Do not come as an experiment, do not come as you would take sittings in a chapel or tickets for a lecture-room; come to her as to your home, to the school of your souls, to the Mother of Saints, and to the vestibule of Heaven.' "

Meanwhile, here is B.C. Butler's reply to anti-Catholic Anglican George Salmon:

"Now no one, so far as I know, has ever maintained that an act of faith, in one who has reached the age of reason, does not involve or imply an act of personal decision, and a Roman Catholic advocate has no inclination to contest this point. The Church teaches that an act of faith is a virtuous act, and no act can be virtuous unless it comes from the intelligence and will of the agent. We do not merely concede the point, we strongly maintain it. But it does not in the least follow that when I say 'I believe the Church to be infallible' I am in effect saying 'I believe myself to be infallible.' On the contrary, I am saying, 'God, in giving the Church as a reliable teacher of his truth, has of course made her recognizable precisely by fallible people like me. She is recognizable, and I recognize her.'

"Salmon has confused the notion of infallibility with that of certainty, and he appears to identify the notion of belief with that of certainty, so that (on his showing) any act of belief, whatever the object of the act, is a claim to personal infallibility -- a conclusion so paradoxical that it can hardly have been intended by him. Let us try to distinguish these three notions, of belief or faith, of certainty, and of infallibility."



Argument for RCC

Michael B: "Ferde, I think that RCC claims regarding the Bible and its own authority might be circular. Here's what I mean: The RCC says that its authority is based in Scripture and in things said and done by Christ in Scripture..."

It would be circular if by "Scripture" is meant the inspired Scriptures determined as such by the RCC. But if by "Scripture" is meant "historically reliable documents from the first century" then the argument is OK. The only assumption in the argument is that the New Testament presents reliable words from Jesus on the promises He made to and about the apostles and the visible Church He founded, that the Church would last until the end, and faithfully teach the truth with His authority.

On the OT canon, Jesus indeed argued with his opponents on grounds that they would accept (the Old Testament), but I'm not sure how a complete OT canon can be derived just from his statements we have in the Gospels (the closest is "the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms" or "from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah..."). Just because Jesus read and argued from the OT does not mean the canon was settled at that time, nor exactly what that canon included.

Catholic apologist Gary Michuta and Reformed baptist debater James R. White went through all the arguments for / against the deuterocanonicals a few years back, and Michuta has a new book "Why Catholic Bibles are Bigger" you might check out. We still need the Church as at least a reliable (if not infallible) authority on the extent of the canon.

The argument for the RCC from "Scripture" is no more circular than William Lane Craig's or Norm Geisler's (or classical apologist) arguments for the resurrection and deity of Christ from "Scripture." Of course the RCC combines "Scripture" with history from the earliest Fathers, Bishops, apostolic succession, etc.


Church Not Limited to Texts

Michael B: "Further, if Christ Himself (as well as His apostles) requires an interpreter, as the Church rightly says He does, then so also does Christ's Vicar -- for the same reasons and more -- as do the Vicar's vicars in their turn. Again, we are stuck in the same hermeneutical mare's nest."

Again, already answered. The answer is (once again): "The Church is not limited to HER TEXTS. She is a living, thinking, reasoning authority that continues to interpret and clarify the meaning of her doctrine and dogma."

Christ Himself requires an interpreter TODAY because what we have from Christ is the TEXTS of the New Testament. MERE TEXTS require interpreters. They are "dead letters" (so to speak) without living interpreters.

Christ's vicar (what Catholics claim are the Popes) is not limited to TEXTS. Again, the assumption of this objection is that the Church is limited to MERE TEXTS. If someone misunderstands what Christ's vicar wrote in this or that encyclical, ultimately we can go to CHRIST'S VICAR HIMSELF (the Pope) to clarify meaning, again and again if needed.

Michael B: "For what it's worth, I think that the notion that the Bible interprets itself (a notion some of my fellow Protestants affirm) is simply false."

Thank you, just wanted to quote that and note that again. Reformed writer Keith Mathison (The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 2001) will admit a whole lot about the necessity of the visible Church in correctly interpreting Scripture:

The Scripture is to be interpreted in and by the Church within the regula fidei (rule of faith). Taken out of this context, it would inevitably be mishandled (this point is constantly repeated and emphasized: Mathison, page 48, also 81, 85, 120, 140, 147, 150, 151, 167, 267).

In the early centuries it was not possible to go to a book store and buy a copy of the Bible. Manuscripts were hand-copied, some churches had only portions. Only gradually was the New Testament accepted. Large segments of the Church were illiterate for centuries (Mathison, page 247-248).

On the nature of the Church, Mathison says: The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, established by Christ, given by Him the authority to "bind and loose" that is not given to every member of the Church as individuals. The Church is Christ's body and bride, "the instrument through which God makes the truth of His Word known" (Eph 3:10). And outside the Church there is no salvation (extra ecclesiam nulla salus) refers to the VISIBLE Church (Mathison, page 268).

The Church is "our mother," "the pillar and ground, the interpreter, teacher, and proclaimer of God's Word...the Christian who rejects the authority of the Church rejects the authority of the One who sent her" (Luke 10:16). And "it is to the Church as a visible body that we must turn to find the true interpretation and preaching of the good news of Christ. It is therefore to the Church that we must turn for the true interpretation of the Scripture, for it is in the Scripture that the gospel is found" (Mathison, page 268-270). There are leaders in the Church "to whom we owe obedience and submission
(Heb 13:17)" (Mathison, 272).

And not only this, but Mathison says this is the clear position of Calvin, Luther, and the Protestant Reformers. If this is what "Sola Scriptura" means, I don't see too much difference between the Reformed, Catholic or Orthodox view, except in the identification of the visible Church that does the interpreting.


Phil/Church Not Limited to Texts

<< 1. I'm confused as to the concept of non-verbal or non-textual interpretation. Could you define non-verbal or non-textual interpretation for me so that I get a clearer idea of what you mean? >>

Well non-verbal and non-textual were not my words. I was making the point we aren't limited to texts in the sense we have BOTH the texts, AND the living interpreter of the texts, and that living interpreter can produce more texts clarifying the meaning of previous texts and doctrines. So non-verbal or non-textual is not what I mean.

I guess your objection is that eventually the "interpretation of the Church" must be "written down" so we still have the "interpretation problem" as individuals. OK I'll concede the Church communicates her "interpretation of the Scriptures and tradition" through written forms (encyclicals, catechisms, creeds, council documents) and we may have "interpretation problems" among the laity because of that. The point is Catholics aren't limited to the texts the Church produces since we can (ultimately) go to the living, authoritative, infallible interpreter of the texts (the hierarchy of the Church through the proper channels, the bishops in union with the Pope, etc) to ask for clarification. That's what goes on in the moral, theological, technological or scientific issues that arise in modern times that aren't addressed at all in the Bible or only vaguely hinted at in previous teaching. Clarifications of doctrine and morals continue.

<< 2. Could you also point out a few of the church's non-verbal or non-textual interpretations and clarifications of doctrine for me, of the sort you are referencing in your reply? When I see specifically to what you refer, I might get a clearer idea of how your argument is proceeding. >>

Well an example of this is the Trinity. (Again not non-verbal and non-textual as explained above). We have texts of the New Testament (Matt 28:19; John 1:1; 20:28; 2 Cor 13:14) but it was the visible Church who hammered out what those texts really mean in a series of Councils. I think that is an example all Christians believe in. For example, we have one text that says,

"baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt 28:19)

And when people (such as Tertullian, Justin, Irenaeus, Cyprian, the ante-Nicene Fathers, etc) asked "what does that mean" the living authority and interpreter of the texts produces another text:

"And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father....And in the Holy Ghost...." (Council of Nicea, 325 AD)

And when people asked "what does that mean" the same living authority produces another text:

"And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (aeons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father....And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets....." (First Council of Constantinople, 381 AD)

So the meaning becomes clearer and clearer as the Church continues to interpret her doctrine and dogma. Then people asked "well, what does that mean" and more Councils were held (a source like Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma traces the development of the Trinity from the NT, the Fathers, the Councils, etc). People can keep asking "well, what does that mean" on this issue since God is a mystery, and we won't ever fully comprehend the nature of God. So that's one example.

<< 3. By saying, as you do, that the church is "a living, thinking, reasoning authority that continues to interpret and clarify the meaning of her doctrine and dogma," I don't see how you have escaped the problem. The activities you noted --thinking, reasoning, interpreting, and clarifying -- seem, at first blush anyway, to require words, and words require understanding and therefore interpretation. So, if the living church's contemporary interpretations and clarifications are verbal or textual, then we seem to be back where we were. >>

Words will always require interpretation. Point conceded. People can always ask "what does that mean...." But I guess its the level or amount of interpretation required that is the difference. Matthew 28:19 is far less clear than the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 AD. When people ask "what is the Trinity" the question was answered and settled by the 4th century AD, when it was less clear in the early 2nd century AD.

<< 4. Even if her interpretations and clarifications are non-verbal and non-textual, they themselves would still seem to require our understanding and interpretation -- otherwise how could they be properly applied, taught or followed? That is, our understanding and interpretation are required of non-verbal and non-textual interpretations and clarifications of doctrine as as well as of verbal and textual ones, or so it seems to me at the moment. It still seems like we're back where we were. >>

Answered above. Words must be interpreted, point conceded. But doctrine does and has become clearer and clearer through the centuries by the living, authoritative and infallible interpreter of doctrine in Catholic belief. We now have hundreds of De Fide dogmas that have been defined in clear language. Here is Ludwig Ott's list:



Phil, Many thanks for your helpful and well considered reply. It succeeds in clarifying a great deal. I can see now that while some differences remain between us on this point, some differences that I thought were there simply are not. That's a big help. Best, Mike (Michael Bauman)

edited by P

Originally from a Yahoo Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox Discussion List, posts from May 2007

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