How ‘Bout Them (Low-Hanging) Apples, Dave?
Dave Armstrong is a seasoned, respectable Roman Catholic apologist, and so you can imagine my surprise when I found an article responding to some of my Youtube content at his blog on Patheos. A response from Armstrong cannot be dismissed, so I am writing this reply. But I must first begin by thanking him for his response.
Not only is Armstrong himself a high level apologist, but those who usually come into his crosshairs are far more significant apologists than yours truly. His blog even recently has focused on men such as Gavin Ortlund and James White, both highly intelligent, well educated men, a class to which I do not belong. I am not feigning humility here – by every objective metric I am not in the same league as Armstrong, Ortlund, White, and many others. This means Armstrong had to step down in order to interact with me, and for that I am humbled.
Additionally, I must also thank Armstrong for how he engaged my work. He was respectful and never cruel. Yet, he did not demonstrate any of the softness which has proliferated contemporary apologetics. He was convictional, firm (at times even sarcastic), and yet gracious. I hope to emulate him in my response.
While I do feel out of my element, I nonetheless remain unconvinced that Armstrong’s critique of my videos was sufficient to cause me to reject them. I will not respond to every criticism he made. I have attempted instead to focus on what I think are the most important issues. If I passed over anything which should have been addressed, I am open to writing a second response.
1) Missing the Point
The most glaring issue is in the very different expectations Armstrong and I have for my videos. I think more than anything else the reason he criticized my content is because he and I have entirely different expectations of what my videos are supposed to accomplish. It is something like taking an allergy pill to cure a headache. The allergy pill might be a perfectly strong product, but if you’re expecting it to do what it was not designed to do you’re going to feel very disappointed. In like manner, Armstrong was very disappointed with my content not because of poor argumentation, but because it did not do what he thinks it should have done.
The standard Armstrong had for my videos was that I was to set out and exhaustibly establish and vindicate the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Armstrong mentioned over and again that he set out to watch two of my videos expecting me to, at some point, thoroughly prove Sola Scriptura. He even went so far as to intentionally disregard everything I said in the videos that wasn’t related to proving Sola Scriptura. He said this of the first video,
Having debated this topic times without number, and having written the book, 100 Biblical Arguments Against Sola Scriptura (Catholic Answers, 2012), I am interested here, as always, to see what biblical passages are produced that supposedly prove sola Scriptura. I will focus in on that alone.(Emphasis Mine)
It appears that Collin offers no biblical proof — in this video — of sola Scriptura other than the abysmal failure of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, used for this purpose.(Emphasis Mine)
As you can see, Armstrong believed my videos would only be successful if I proved Sola Scriptura, and since I never really made much of an attempt to do such a thing, he walked away disappointed. In fact, he did not even finish the second video due to me saying upfront that I was not going to attempt to offer a thorough proof of Sola Scriptura.
I will again seek to find any compelling biblical proof of sola Scriptura. Will Collin offer any?… Drats! Here I thought we were gonna finally reach this ever-elusive treasure-trove of biblical texts proving what Protestants absolutely have to prove, but alas, in a 36-minute video, Collin chooses to present one, and very briefly at that. He seems to be unaware of what his own burden of proof is. So, with regard to what I was looking for, this is all Collin has to offer in this video. He says he could present many more, but chose not to. Therefore, I assume that he won’t do what he said he wouldn’t do, for the rest of the video, and thus, I stopped watching. Again, if he interacts with me, and informs me that he did make an additional biblical argument in the final 17 minutes of this tape, I’d be glad to interact with it.Emphasis Mine
This is a good question to ask: am I unaware of my own burden of proof? I do not think that I am. The fact remains that I was taking a defensive posture in both of my videos. I was responding to two separate clips which claimed to debunk Sola Scriptura. Thus, I had no burden of proof; I was responding to those who bravely took the burden of proof. I only attempted to demonstrate that they did not meet their burden.
To put it as simply as possible: one does not have to thoroughly prove or establish Sola Scriptura to point out bad arguments against it. Would Armstrong not admit that true things can be argued for badly? Sola Scriptura could be false, but that would not make every argument against it a good argument. Sometimes people argue for the truth in fallacious or mistaken ways. And bad arguments for true things still need to be critiqued. It is for this reason that I do not affirm I have a burden of proof to totally vindicate Sola Scriptura every time I respond to a video which claims to totally dismantle Sola Scriptura.
This strong expectation on Armstrong’s end not only caused him to ignore and misevaluate the substance of my videos, but it even clouded his ability to appropriately discern the context of some of the statements I did make in defense of Sola Scriptura. For example, Armstrong took me to task for offering a very poor definition of Sola Scriptura. He even made sure to quote many Reformed apologists – of whom I have the most respect – to show how my definition of Sola Scriptura was inaccurate.
Collin neglected to include the crucial variable of infallibility in [his definition of Sola Scriptura]: which denies infallibility to anything else…Collin states that Gary Michuta’s definition of sola Scriptura is a “bad definition”. I would argue that his definition was deficient, per the above… The debate takes place on the level of real or alleged infallibility. But Collin hasn’t even mentioned that word in the first seven-and-a-half minutes of his video.
The problem is the quotation Armstrong cites from the video is a place where I was not offering a definition of Sola Scriptura. Mr. Machuta (the man I was critiquing) offered this definition of Sola Scriptura on behalf of Evangelicals: “The Word of God is the norm that sets all norms and the standard that sets all standards.” I then went on to explain why that definition was insufficient. In so doing, I made the point that what Machuta said was true, but that it was incomplete. Armstrong then took that as my attempt to define Sola Scriptura. But I was not defining Sola Scriptura, I was simply affirming that Sola Scriptura agrees with Machuta’s definition, even though his definition was lacking other important details. Armstrong is right that if what I said was my definition of Sola Scriptura it would be entirely insufficient, but that is not how I define Sola Scriptura.
My purpose here is not to nit-pick a simple mistake on Dave’s end. I don’t think this is a simple mistake, but is instead a clear example of how the inappropriate expectation Armstrong has for my videos negatively effects his ability to rightly hear my videos.
In summary, Armstrong only proved my videos are weak if their purpose is to mount a sufficient and exhaustive defense of Sola Scriptura. But since that was not my purpose -nor did it need to be- I do not think Armstrong offered a meaningful critique of the substance of my videos.
2) Catholic Confusion
Rather than only play defense, I would like to interrogate some of the claims Armstrong made in defense of Roman Catholicism in his response to me. And one of the more confusing elements of Armstrong’s response was in his willingness to separate infallibility and inspiration. He maintains that Scripture is alone inspired, but denies that Scripture is alone infallible.
No one is arguing that Scripture isn’t unique, the sole inspired revelation, the written Word of God or that it is materially sufficient… [Collin] then argues that Scripture is the only God-breathed, inspired document. But this is again beside the point of the dispute because no one is denying that.
Infallibility is a lesser characteristic than inspiration, which Scripture alone possesses…
I can only hope that Armstrong is simply confused about definitions, confusing “infallible” with “inerrant.” Something can be inerrant without being infallible. I could write a short autobiography of myself without any errors. Since I know myself so well, it’s conceivable that I could write about my own life and experiences and do so without error. That would make my autobiography inerrant. While inerrant, however, my biography would not be infallible, because it could have erred. Infallible information is always inerrant, but inerrant information is not always infallible.
Armstrong may want to believe Tradition is without error. There’s nothing inconsistent about that belief by itself. But to claim Tradition is more than inerrant, that it is infallible, yet not inspired, requires more explanation to be metaphysically consistent. We are not at a place to merely grant that God is not alone infallible without explanation and debate. If I am wrong about Armstrong being confused on definitions, then I would humbly ask him to please explain how infallible words (not inerrant words) can come from anything but God.
Our contention as Protestants is that God alone is infallible. Therefore, the only things that can be infallible in creation are agents that God speaks through. And that is the definition of “inspired,” which is a loose translation of “God-breathed.” God alone is infallible, and therefore nothing on earth is infallible unless God speaks through it. Fallible agents became temporarily infallible when they “spoke from God” being “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). In the Protestant mind, inspiration is the “cause” and “infallibility” is the effect. An infallible Scripture, for example, had to be caused by inspired writers. Armstrong’s insistence that something which does not have God as its author can yet be infallible alongside God’s Word seems not only illogical, but one could even say blasphemous. In fact, I am not even convinced every Roman Catholic apologist is so comfortable dislocating infallibility from God.
It seems that here Rome wants to have her cake and eat it, too. She wants to claim that Scripture is alone inspired, but she then wants to treat the Church as if she is inspired, too. They are both infallible, both from God, yet only one is inspired. It’s hard to make sense of it. But this is not the only place where Armstrong revealed Rome’s attempt to have her cake and eat it, too. There is a similar example of what seems to be a significant confusion (either in my understanding or in the Roman system itself) pertaining to the nature of the apostolic role Rome claims for herself.
Collin claims that Catholics say there are no longer apostles. Technically, yes. But we teach that the bishops are the successors of the apostles.
Rome struts about with the Apostle’s infallibility and authority, yet claims to not have any Apostles. Rome bosses the rest of the Christian world around from her Apostolic bailey, but then retreats to her “we do not have modern Apostles” motte when critiqued. The greatest example of this is to be found in the astonishing conflation Armstrong makes of the Jerusalem council with the councils which followed in the centuries after.
The Bible twice teaches that there is such a thing as infallible Church authority. The Jerusalem Council, described in Acts 15 did precisely what Collin claims nothing but the Bible has the authority or capability to do… This is the universal and authoritative (and in this case, infallible) Church. A decision reached at Jerusalem was regarded as binding and in effect, “infallible” and was to be observed not just locally, but by Christians all through Asia Minor (Turkey), where Paul was preaching. This is essentially the equivalent of an ecumenical council.
I have dealt with Acts 15 more in depth elsewhere, but for our purposes what needs to be pointed out is how casually Armstrong associates contemporary councils with the Jerusalem council. He is right that the Jerusalem council carried an infallible authority. He is right that this council’s decision was and is binding. But he is wrong to claim this is essentially an ecumenical council. Why? There is one glaring difference staring us all in the face: the Apostles! The Jerusalem council is binding and infallible because it contained infallible teachers called Apostles. And the reason those teachers were infallible is because they were inspired. If today’s ecumenical councils do not have living, inspired apostles then they cannot claim the same authority as Jerusalem’s. This is exactly the point Charles Hodge makes in his Ephesians commentary:
“The apostleship was not a mere office like that of a prelate or prince, conferring certain rights and powers; it was an inward grace, including plenary and infallible knowledge. You could no more appoint a man an apostle, than you could appoint him a saint. An apostle without inspiration is as much a solecism as a saint without holiness. Rome, here as every where, retains the semblance without the reality; the form without the power. She has apostles without inspiration, the office without the grace of which the office was but the expression. Thus, she feeds herself and her children upon ashes.”Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, 160
3) An Infallible Church?
Another criticism I must make is Armstrong’s attempt to establish an infallible church from Scripture. He does so by appealing to 1 Timothy 3:15
if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.ESV
I must at least appreciate Armstrong’s admission that this verse is not very strong on the face of it,
This may not seem compelling at first: just seven words at the end.
Indeed, those seven words are not compelling at first. But unfortunately for Armstrong, his deeper analysis does not make those seven words any more compelling toward a proof of an infallible church. Armstrong complained of my usage of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 due to his belief that it’s been debunked so many times. One could return the favor given that he mentioned 1 Timothy 3:15 as a prooftext for an infallible church, an argument the Reformed have soundly refuted many times over again for centuries now. I could rehash many of those arguments. I could remind everyone that “pillar” and “bulwark” are words not synonymous with “infallible” or “indefectible.” I could demonstrate that the context here is the local church in Ephesus, not a magisterial council in Rome (to which is the only sense of “church” wherein Armstrong would attribute infallibility), but I would like to try and refute his understanding of this verse with a fresh approach.
Armstrong (quoting from one of his books) makes a very long argument from 1 Timothy 3:15 wherein he takes this Pauline metaphor and extends it far beyond its purpose. He relates the passage to other passages which use “foundation” metaphors and concludes that a foundation must be infallible. So then, for Armstrong, Paul telling Timothy what the church is called to be is actually a promise that she will always be that. His presentation can be summed up with these quotes:
If the Church could err, it could not be what Scripture says it is… Therefore, we must conclude that if the Church is the foundation of truth, the Church must be infallible, since truth is infallible, and the foundation cannot be lesser than that which is built upon it.
In short, if the church ever failed to properly support the truth, then Paul would be contradicted, Paul would be made a liar. In order for the church to be what Paul says she is, she is must be infallible, or so Armstrong contends. But this is simply not at all how to read the passage. When Paul calls the church the pillar and foundation of the truth, he is not making a promise that “the church” will always live up to that calling. I can demonstrate this by a comparison to another passage from Paul:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”Romans 13:1-7
Can you imagine the strong defense Roman apologists would think they have in this passage if it were about the Papacy? Imagine that Paul said all of this about the Bishop of Rome rather than the civil government. Would not Armstrong and others relentlessly point us to this passage and demand we assume it implies infallibility? Yet, when this high language is attributed to the State, Roman Catholics know to qualify it as a purpose statement rather than a promise of how the State will always conduct its affairs. In fact, all of Armstrong’s rhetorical questions about whether the church can be fallible when it’s supposed to be a foundation can be asked rhetorically here to support an infallible civil government.
“How can the civil government be fallible when Paul says they are a terror to good conduct and not bad? How can the civil magistrate be God’s directly appointed avenger who carries out God’s wrath if at times he is not God’s servant and carries out wrath unjustly? Why would God command us to be in obedient submission to the state if she could err? If they State could err, it would not be what Scripture says it is.”
Roman Catholics and the Reformed alike read Romans 13 as the general purpose of the State, while recognizing that in many local contexts the State fails to live up to its calling. The State is called God’s servant who punishes evil and rewards good, but the State does not always live up to that expectation and sometimes errs. Armstrong would have to agree that the institution Scripture declares “is not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” is often times a terror to good conduct and not to bad! Has the Word of God failed? May it never be!
Paul does not qualify our obedience to the State at all in Romans 13. He mentions nothing of the State sometimes erring; and yet, Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians nonetheless agree that Paul is not speaking in an absolute sense. Why then does Armstrong demand we read 1 Timothy 3:15 with those kinds of unspoken, yet absolute assumptions? Yes, Paul refers to the church as the foundation of the truth, but this is about the local church, and this does not promise nor even imply that every church will do this perfectly. This verse is a mission statement, a purpose statement. It is a statement about what the church is and is called to be and do; it is not a prophecy that she will always do so perfectly.
The church is the pillar and foundation of the truth, but that in no way entails any one visible expression of Her will always and forever do this job without error, and it certainly does not make the church a rival to the sole infallibility of that which, as Armstrong agrees, is the only thing we posses today that is inspired by God, Who is alone infallible, the Sacred Scriptures.