Gospel Simplicity + Cordial Catholic – Joe Heschmeyer & Dr. Gavin Ortlund – Review

This was an excellent exchange! I truly admire both Joe and Dr. Gavin. Both are stellar examples of charitable dialogue. Congrats to Austin and K. Albert Little. Readers, please listen to this in full, and then proceed to read my review.

I have to say that Dr. Gavin brought up some excellent points which still stick, and Joe had some excellent points towards the end. I think the most pivotal part of the show was when Austin asked, “What are we expecting from history?” I can’t stress how important asking this question is. For example, Dr Gavin approaches history with an entirely different set of expectations than does the Catholic. For the Protestant-looking-into-Catholic-claims, he will be sifting through the available documentary evidence of early writers in order to see if they exemplify agreement with all of the content of Catholic dogma. All variances are weighty counter points against Catholic credibility.

However, it is important to know that Catholicism understands the chain of Apostolic succession, and therefore the visible witness of truth, in the following manner:

God –> Christ –> Peter+Apostles –> Pope+Bishops.

That is not the same thing as :

God –> Christ –> Apostles –> every Christian writer from late antiquity through to the middle ages.

Therefore, the continuity-of-doctrine is not to be looked for, first and foremost, in the scattered commentaries of individual Christians. Rather, the continuity-of-doctrine should be found in the teaching exercises of the Teaching Office of the Pope+Bishops. The “Magisterium” just means “Teaching Office” and it belongs not to Christian commentators (per se) but to the Episcopal Government of the Church which has the Pope+Bishops structure (I realize Dr. Gavin questions the dogmatic validity of this Teaching office, and that would be for a separate set of remarks).

Now, when does history capture the teaching exercise of the Pope+Bishops. Well, there are a variety of ways. Sometimes it is just a decretal of the Pope sent out to a regional group of Bishops. Sometimes, it is a regional Council with legates (representatives of the Pope) from Rome. Sometimes, it is in a large Ecumenical Council (led by legates of the Pope). The very first example is the Council of Jerusalem (49). Another early example is the Council of Arles (314), the Council of Nicaea (325), the Council of Sardica (343), the Council of Carthage (416), just to name several councils. Then there are the early Papal decretals such as the one sent out by Pope Liberius (357), Damasus (378), Siricius (384), Innocent (405), and many others. When the Teaching Office of the Church speaks, the voice of the Church speaks, and thus Christ speaks. This is where you are expected, per Catholic doctrine, the locus of infallible doctrine from which Catholicism can be tested.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t take up the majority of the survived documents from late antiquity on through the middle ages, and so what we have the *most of* are writings that are not from the teaching exercise of the Church’s lawful magisterium. Now, that doesn’t mean one should simply just forget all the other kinds of early Christian writings. On the contrary, the Catholic Church’s own magisterium upholds the unanimity of the Church Fathers (i.e. where they all agree) as a “sign of infallible teaching”. In other words, because the Holy Spirit fills up the body of Christ in all His members, where the one visible Church communion agrees on a certain doctrine from left to right, that doctrine has the signature of the Holy Spirit’s illumination. Therefore, the Church Fathers, and we mean here the registered Saints (be they members of the magisterium or not), have a very high placement in the Church’s recognition of the work of Christ in doctrinal explication. Now, the gift of infallibility does not pertain to all the Church Fathers individually (only where they are unanimous), and where they differ would be subject to review by the Teaching Office when or if that ever happens. Church Fathers can really make big mistakes. Still less, writings from early Christians who are not registered Saints, or even less not even members of the Church, have a far less value in the Church’s recognition. So, for example, the writings of Origen, Tertullian, Novatian, Parmenian, Majorinus, Nestorius, Pelagius, Severus of Antioch, and a host of others *do have* value, but their value is not to the amount where their content becomes a criteria of continuity for Catholics. This is a vital point because, often enough, Protestants draw from any Christian writer of antiquity and conceive of their voice as a valid representation of the data pool that should serve as a test criteria for Catholic continuity. But, that’s not the case.

Joe made a very good point in the video when he said that throughout history, there may have been a number of contrary options held up in the private commentaries of individual Church Fathers. But, as Joe made clear, just because there is a variation and perhaps some obscurity, does not mean the Church’s Teaching Office is imprisoned from ever bringing the variables under the consideration of her authoritative doctrinal court in order to transform the obscurity and the variation into clarity and singularity. In fact, as Austin so wonderfully observed, this is what we should expect to happen. It is very similar with the Jerusalem Council (49; albeit this was during the open session of divine revelation) where several Christians in the body of Christ, leaders and significant elders, were divided over whether Gentiles should be circumcised. I’m sure letters were going around (to and fro) trying to argue for X and others arguing for Y, etc,etc. However, when the Church’s Teaching Office came to decide upon the matter, they took the obscurity and variation and exchanged it for clarity and singularity : Gentiles are purified sufficiently by faith alone , without Torah observances (Acts 15; save for the laws specified by St James). And that was the end of it. And, as Joe stated, the Church saw this in the 1st millennium and she would see it again and again. The Christological debates required a transition from clarity to more clarity (to borrow from Fr. Bernard Longergan’s De Deo Trino), as did the debates about grace, original sin, predestination, the respect towards icons, the lawfulness of simony, the validity of using leavened bread in the Eucharist, etc,etc.

Now, I don’t mean that Christ only gave obscure teachings. But sometimes even clarified teachings can earn more clarity when they are enveloped in a new set of circumstances and unforeseen questions. Based on the above, then, Dr. Gavin innocently makes the mistake (and here I speak with the utmost respect) of wrong expectations. This was apparent when he said that the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary was absent for centuries until St. Epiphanius of Salamis, who himself expresses that there is no surety on the final end of Mary’s earthly life. However, while this is a considerable observation, it is not a fatality for a Catholic. First, St. Epiphanius himself holds that she was bodily assumed, as he elsewhere (in a different work) simply asserts that this is what happened. Perhaps between the time of his first commentary (where he expresses slight agnosticism about it) and the 2nd commentary, he had come into contact with folks from different churches who confirmed to him that this happened and that this is spread in the churches.

That brings us to the 2nd wrong expectation that can be illustrated here in another chain:

Not everything that was spoken was written down –> Not everything that was written down was saved –> Not everything that was written down and saved was copied –> Not everything that was written down, saved, and copied survived very long –> Not everything that was written down, saved, copied, and survived in more copies made it past 100 years of existence. In other words, the available historical record that we have right now is not an exhaustive data pool of beliefs of the early Church.

Thus, there could have been more attestation or less attestation, or even more contradiction…but we wouldn’t know that since we don’t have all the records of antiquity or Church history. Therefore, just because St. Epiphanius is the first record of the matter doesn’t mean its the first time it was known by Christians, and still less would it be the first time asserted or denied. And again, St. Epiphanius himself, albeit of astounding value in both historical research and a slight test of Catholic continuity, is still not the Teaching Office of the Church, and therefore doesn’t carry the sort of gravity that some Protestants might expect. And yes, that goes for whether he blatantly taught the assumption of Mary as a dogma in his own mind, or if he rejected it as a false fable of men.

One point that Dr. Gavin made that was excellent was his tu quoque – namely, that when Catholics say “Well, you are picking and choosing via private judgment”, the tables turn on the Catholic because the Catholic is doing precisely that when he/she decides to put their faith in Christ as the instituter of the Catholic Church as His visible body and teaching office. It is not as if Catholics have a privileged epistemological 6th-sense by becoming Catholic. That being said, the Catholic does differ in this – that once he/she has put their faith in the Catholic Church, all interpretative and doctrinal questions are put to the feet of the doctrinal court of the Catholic church; whereas in Protestantism, one can access the Scriptures for themselves and renew their doctrinal commitments while being in the same Church (often). A perfect illustration of this is the few days before the Catholic Church pronounced the dogma of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, some in the Church were praying that God would stop the effort. But once it was done, those who prayed for it to not happen immediately got on their knees and thanked God for corrected them through His established Teaching Office. That is the kind of emptying of private judgment that happens under the Catholic epistemology, which is distinct after one gives their faith to the Church. A Protestant remains open to re-evaluating doctrines under any leadership by means of his own reading of the Scripture. If a Catholic were to do this, it could possibly require Church discipline.

And that goes to one of Joe’s strongest points. What is schism in Protestant ecclesiology? We know from the Old and New Testament that schism from the people of God is a sin. But what does schism mean in a world where almost all the mainline Christian bodies are imputed with a strong sense of validity and jurisdiction? Better yet, how is schism defined in a situation where 2 Baptist churches are fighting over sheep that leave one church and go to the other? Which elders has the stronger set of keys of the kingdom (Matt 18)? I think Joe’s point here sticks strongly. Only in the situation where you have a reliably visible church whose pedigree and validity is objectively traceable from a theocratic principle (i.e. we tangibly received a commission from Christ traced backwards) can schism make any meaningful sense. This would, of course, mean that the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Church, and the Assyrian Orthodox Church of the East all have a qualified basis to condemn schism, since only these have maintained such an objective traceability.

Which comes to one of Dr. Gavin’s important questions – What do we do with the East-West split? The matter is even more egregious than the Greek-Latin divide, since the 5th century already saw the first largest fracture in Christendom (besides the already fragmented communities prior to) with the break away of the Nestorian-Church (i.e. the Persian Church of the East) and the Miaphysites in Egypt, Syria, Armenia (later known as the Jacobites), and Ethiopic christians. One historian, Philip Jenkins, quite accurately stated that the divisiveness of 16th century Europe from Protestantism was quantitatively already there in similarity with the split between the Christians of the Roman Empire, the Christians of the Persian empire, and the Christians scattered in the East who fell under Arab/Muslim domination. Perhaps to the surprise of many Catholics and Orthodox, the idea of there being “one Church” until 1054 is just pure mythology. With that said, I still think there one can conduct an unbiased study of the history and find a great deal of support for the Catholic conception of continuity and visible unity. That is to say that there are a number of options to choose from even from the middle ages going forward, but if we test the merits of each claimant, I still think Catholicism has a going chance.

Towards the end, I think Joe made a strong point about Dr. Gavin’s understanding of how the early Church Fathers would have felt going to an evangelical Church today. Especially because of the issue of baptism, Dr. Gavin’s community could not graft any of the church fathers into the community because they taught (100%; and this include non Church Fathers, i.e. all early Christian writers who are documented) baptismal regeneration. That is just a symbol of how much variance between modern day evangelicalism is from historic Christianity. Now, while Dr. Gavin might be able to kindly retort that modern day Catholicism is also at variance with historic periods of Christian history, that is a great point to end before entering into another discussion where that debate can continue. And, of course, the glaring matter of whether the Teaching Office (magisterium) is itself, as understood by Catholics, a late accretion which comes late in development and deserves no dogmatic respect from thinking Christians. Until next time.

One last point I’d like to make is that this exchange between Joe and Dr. Gavin perfectly illustrates what I have conceived as a difference of paradigms between Catholicism and Protestants. I compare the Protestant paradigm to an archaeologist who is doing research at a museum. A museum holds a number of artifacts from history and scientists try to reconstruct history from these artifacts, which themselves can vary from documents, objects, skeletons, underground sites, etc, etc. However, as interesting as all these things are, the total sum of artifacts in history can’t really re-construct the perfect image of the past, and so archaeologists will often differ on some significant points about something, and sometimes those points are powerful enough to pain a different history for a particular era. In many ways, archeologists conduct their research in more dark than light. In the similar way, Protestants are conducting the science of historical reconstruction in order to see the signature of Christ in history and they are blinded by the many gaps-with-no-facts and half-survived artifacts. Thus, they also feel that if they go beyond *what’s there*, they will be imposing upon the field of research their own opinions. This is also why many Protestants instinctively look at the Apostolic Churches from East to West with this sense that they all just *made stuff up and gave it too much importance*. This archeological-paradigm, or museum-paradigm, can only go so far in reconstructing the past, and sometimes, as studies get more deep and developed, scientists change their opinions from one age to another. Protestant scholars today, in large numbers, are more and more hesitant to believe that certain unquestionable fundamentals of the past are even reliably true. For example, the trustworthiness of the Bible, whether it is a sin to divorce and re-marry, whether it is necessary to submit to an eldership of one Church, etc, etc. What we can reconstruct from a museum analysis will be far less than the reality, and will often produce more hesitation in the scientists as time goes by to assert what actually happened.

Contrast that with the Catholic paradigm. We believe that Christ came into the world and inaugurated His Kingdom on earth with His Apostolic College, and empowered them to continue on the mission that He Himself received from God the Father. He equipped them with power and authority to verbally proclaim the completeness of divine revelation (i.e. what St. Paul calls the whole Counsel of God), and promised to be with them always even until He comes again in glory to close history and usher in the new creation. The Apostles passed on their Christ-established ministry to men by the mode of a sacramental ordination, empowering their successors to likewise teach with the same authority. The dogmatic rule is that the original commission given by the Father to Christ, then from Christ to the Apostles, then from the Apostles to their successors, is continued on in those successors….such that the living voice of the Church carries the original heavenly authority that the Father confirmed from heaven when he said, “This is My beloved Son, Hear Him!”. The successors of the Apostles are arranged in a Collegial structure with a single Head, St. Peter (and his lineal successors). The Church has a functioning Teaching Office with which to perpetuate the original Apostolic deposit of revelation given by Christ. Therefore, if anyone wants to know what Christ revealed, what the Apostles taught, and what the early Church received from the Apostles, we go to the living voice of the Church to find out in the here and now.

Now, this is not to suggest (as Cardinal Manning is often mistaken to say) that the appeal to history is useless or heretical. Quite the opposite, Catholics contend that a great deal, the major deal, perhaps the overwhelming majority, of the available historical record will jive with the current beliefs and practices of Catholicism. That means that *we should* see a great deal of resemblance. However, it is not going to be as crisp as some might unreasonably expect it to be, and that is because the Catholic Church never did claim that the totality of historical documentation (literally the viewpoints of every recorded author; the practices of every local church; the beliefs of every local council; etc,etc) as a one-to-one image with herself. Nevertheless, there will be a strong historical case, even if it is not a clone of what we can glean from the artifacts of history. And thus, a Catholic can rub elbows and shoulders with the Protestants in the Museum, and engage in just as much research. However, the Catholic has a pedigree (from Scripture and history itself) to adjudicate what the full story was and how many of the artifacts agree with that story, while also doing their best to explain the obvious discrepancies and contradictions. Interestingly enough, this is a point gleaned by St John Henry Newman himself who can otherwise be thought as someone who thinks that the Church History is simply one fantastic orchestra which sings Roman Catholicism, and I’ll end by quoting him:

““For myself, I would simply confess that no doctrine of the Church can be rigorously proved by historical evidence: but at the same time that no doctrine can be simply disproved by it. Historical evidence reaches a certain way, more or less, towards a proof of the Catholic doctrines; often nearly the whole way; sometimes it goes only as far as to point in their direction; sometimes there is only an absence of evidence for a conclusion contrary to them; nay, sometimes there is an apparent leaning of the evidence to a contrary conclusion, which has to be explained; in all cases there is a margin left for the exercise of faith in the word of the Church.” (John H. Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, Vol. II (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1900), 312.)

6 thoughts on “Gospel Simplicity + Cordial Catholic – Joe Heschmeyer & Dr. Gavin Ortlund – Review

    • Thank you.

      For my purposes, I simply wanted to show examples of magisterial action, i.e. actions of the bishops in a council under the oversight of the Pope. In that case, Arles (314) fits the description, though it is not ecumenical in the later sense. Carthage (416), I would argue, is universally binding because of Pope Innocent’s ratification in very solemn terms. Even if not ecumenical in material, it is a magisterial action. As for Sardica – it was universally accepted, and achieved ecumenical status via Trullo and the constant witness of the magisterium.

  1. I am honestly a bit confused by dr. Ortlund. It is one thing to argue that Catholicism differs doctrinaly in major respects from the Church of the early centuries (something that I highly disput)…. but he also claims that theological history is relevant for protestants. But what relevance does it have if he is part of a church that teaches doctrines about babtism and the eucharist that cannot be found in history ecxept in some heresies? Ok maybe catholics got it wrong too, but here again a tu quoque can be made against non-lutheran or non-anglican protestants as well, who have doctrines that are simply absent in history. I don’t see how for a babtist for example the fathers or the ancient church can have any doctrinal relevance…

    • I think what Dr Ortlund is getting at is that Protestants can appreciate Church history and its doctrines without worrying about whether or not their tradition is consistent with the early church. Because the Catholic Church maintains it has the full apostolic deposit and infallibility on matters of moral and dogma — aspects of Church history that don’t seem to square with Catholicism’s claims raise Protestant’s suspicions about the Catholic church claims about said infallibility. He also articulated why he doesn’t think that the visible Church is bound to solely Catholicism

      • Yeah, I mean I as a christian can appreciate islamic philosophy, german existentialism, the dvaita vedanta tradition, or Oppy’s naturalism, hence if he wants to merely appreciate historical christian thought he can do that, but again he falls back into the same epistemical problem when it comes to discernement of doctrine. If a catholic, a lutheran and an anglican read the Scriptures as *clearly* teaching or at least implying the real presence for example, and if we have good evidence that a jewish context would imply such a reading (see Pitre’s work) as well as evidence that the early church believed in some form of it or another, than if I were a babtist I would worry about the fact that my babtist tradition does not teach this. So by what epistemic authority can he claim to know that he is right? If by merely claiming that the Scriptures don’t teach this doctrine, then well, somebody who disagrees with him might point out arguments that point out the contrary conclusion, and then we have a “agree to disagree” situation. Than we have two “sola scriptura” protestants who disagree about an *essential* doctrine! (Tho they might even disagree just on scriptural basis wether this is an essential doctrine to begin with). And even if there are “aspects of Church history that don’t seem to square with Catholicism’s claims” a Catholic may point out that what Eric wrote in the post. Again, I simply don’t see the worth of Ortlund’s point

  2. Is there a better way to phrase, ‘faith alone’ without making it standout as an expression that is opposite to the epistle of James?

    “Gentiles are purified sufficiently by faith alone , without Torah observances (Acts 15; save for the laws specified by St James).”

    Beside, it’s a nice post.

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