Carl Trueman: The Papacy Is Not *That* Obvious…

CarlTruemanOften-times in modern conversations between Catholics and Protestants, the challenge of the apparent chaos of Protestant interpretive pluralism is wielded against the idea that Scripture is “perspicuous” or clear enough with regard to the issues of salvation and so forth. The idea is that Protestants opened up a Pandora’s box with the doctrine of sola scriptura, that scripture alone, ultimately, is our final norm for theology. Of course, there’s the usual misunderstanding here that for the early Reformers this didn’t mean ignoring tradition entirely, but even when that is conceded, the point is still raised that Protestants have made a mess of things. It should be obvious given all of our denominations, and all of our theological disputes, that the “clarity” of Scripture isn’t all that clear, and that’s one more reason we need Papal authority, and the teaching magisterium of the Roman Church in order to give us something solid to stand on. It’s one, or the only, check we have against the sort of interpretive anarchy we see in all of our “Well, I feel like this means…” Evangelical Bible studies.

In a review of Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation, which, among other things, argues along these lines, Carl Trueman argues that this line of thought tends to forget one key issue: the perspicuity of Scripture was put forward as a response to the mess of the Medieval papacy:

I wonder if I am alone in finding the more stridently confident comments of some Roman Catholics over the issue of perspicuity to be somewhat tiresome and rather overblown. Perspicuity was, after all, a response to a position that had proved to be a failure: the Papacy.  Thus, to criticize it while proposing nothing better than a return to that which had proved so inadequate is scarcely a compelling argument.

Yes, it is true that Protestant interpretive diversity is an empirical fact; but when it comes to selectivity in historical reading as a means of creating a false impression of stability, Roman Catholic approaches to the Papacy provide some excellent examples of such fallacious method.  The ability to ignore or simply dismiss as irrelevant the empirical facts of papal history is quite an impressive feat of historical and theological selectivity. Thus, as all sides need to face empirical facts and the challenges they raise, here are a few we might want to consider, along with what seem to me (as a Protestant outsider) to be the usual Roman Catholic responses:

Empirical fact: The Papacy as an authoritative institution was not there in the early centuries. 

Never mind.  Put together a doctrine of development whereby Christians – or at least some of them, those of whom we choose to approve in retrospect on the grounds we agree with what they say  – eventually come to see the Pope as uniquely authoritative.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was corrupt in the later Middle Ages, building its power and status on political antics, forged documents and other similar scams. 

Ignore it, excuse it as a momentary aberration and perhaps, if pressed, even offer a quick apology. Then move swiftly on to assure everyone it is all sorted out now and start talking about John Paul II or Benedict XVI.  Whatever you do, there is no need to allow this fact to have any significance for how one understands the theory of papal power in the abstract or in the present.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was in such a mess at the beginning of the fifteenth century that it needed a council to decide who of the multiple claimants to Peter’s seat was the legitimate pope.

Again, this was merely a momentary aberration but it has no significance for the understanding of papal authority.  After all, it was so long ago and so far away.

Empirical fact: The church failed (once again) to put its administrative, pastoral, moral and doctrinal house in order at the Fifth Lateran Council at the start of the sixteenth century.  

Forget it.  Emphasise instead the vibrant piety of the late medieval church and then blame the ungodly Protestants for their inexplicable protests and thus for the collapse of the medieval social, political and theological structure of Europe.

Trueman is no rabid Rome-hater, but points these things out in blunt form because he’s:

...simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity.  These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer.   One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Of course, none of this is an actual argument for the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, or sola scriptura. For that, I’d commend Mark D. Thompson’s fine book A Clear and Present Word.  All that same, these are points ought to be kept in mind the next time the papacy, or the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, is presented as an obvious answer to the issue of Protestant interpretive pluralism.

It’s not that obvious.

Soli Deo Gloria

10 thoughts on “Carl Trueman: The Papacy Is Not *That* Obvious…

  1. During the Future of Protestantism debate at Biola, Carl Trueman said that he preferred the more proximate objective of visible unity among confessional Protestants. He was profoundly right about that. And so the best answers to Roman controversialists who say that they only want unity are– (a) “Please, wait your turn,” and (b) Actually increasing unified Protestant authority at the local level. Achieving (b) requires debating unifying positions such as Peter Leithart’s within the full Reformation context that includes Luther, Anglicans, Anabaptists, etc, rather than in a Reformed space distracted by suspiciously constant reference to Rome. Indeed, Protestants who never tire of dragging Rome into intra-Protestant debate seem to be avoiding hard truths they cannot handle– eg fissile presbyterianism, sacramental docetism, etc– for the soft target of rival medieval popes at the mercy of temporal powers. Again, Carl Trueman was helpful at Biola, when he framed his debate with Peter Leithart in terms of the relative weights assigned to received dogmas (eg Trinity, incarnation, assurance). It would be still more helpful to so frame the matter, not with respect to Rome, but with respect to the whole Reformation legacy. If that legacy is worth continuing, its own centripetal forces need to be uncovered and enabled. Only Protestants who unify the Church in some local communities will have anything more than clever to say when their Roman friends argue yet again for a unifying papacy to do the job that Protestantism seems to them unable to do.

  2. Unity…yes.

    But NEVER at the expense of the pure gospel.

    The Catholic Church is semi-Pelagian to it’s core. ‘A lot of God…and a little bit of me.’

    The Lord knows His Church. “The wheat and tares grow together.”

    That ought be good enough for Protestants.

  3. Three addenda–

    (a) Visible unity is not scary to grown-ups. Carl Trueman’s history is intentionally a bit parodic, as Derek says, but it’s a pretty good parody because Trueman is not threatened by the mere topic of visible unity. What was most attractive about Carl Trueman’s and Fred Sanders’s contributions to the aforementioned debate, was their relaxed, non-defensive engagement with the possibility that present-day Protestants are not the crown of the ages, the perfection of gospel righteousness, the climax of rectitude that all before have failed to reach. Whilst gently critical of positions taken by Peter Leithart, the papacy, etc they do seem to realize that quite good churches can be different from the ones we know and like. Neither gave an inch that I could see, but neither had that streak of crazed narcissistic provincialism that prevents some from seriously engaging the possibility that the best future may look somewhat different from the recent past.

    (b) Visible unity is not unipolarity. Taking a hint from Carl Trueman’s empiricism above, we may find that the whole pentarchy of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and for a millennium or so, Rome has been more successful than the papacy alone. We can have much more productive discussions by sidelining the tired anarchy v dictatorship trope beloved of both side of debates about Rome and having a more productive discussion about what sorts of C21 decentralization might be, to use Michael Bird’s term, “gospelizing,” and which are just sinful dismemberment of the Body. Beware: this may entail that a good Protestant account of visible unity is bottom-up rather than top-down, a thought that threatens denominational structures as much as the papacy.

    (c) Visible unity has several guarantors. Too much attention paid to Rome has conditioned many Protestants to some ways of framing the discussion that are more hysterical than historical. Among these is a search for the one guarantor of unity in the gospel that has the most elegant theorem supporting it. But in fact disunity is caused, not by weak theorems of the poorly instructed, but by the strong sins of righteously proud. There is no Protestant point to discussions about whether the canon alone, the creed alone, this or that confession alone, the episcopate alone, etc are the one adequate substitute for papal monarchy. Sinners will run any stop sign you put up– including papal monarchy and all the foregoing– so we also need speed bumps on the way to the next schism. The sanest conversation seeks even more– the combination of centripetal forces, no one of which is enough for every future contingency, that will produce the most widespread and enduring convergence of local churches.

    • What total nonsense. You are like a man in debt by millions, singing out in joy because he found a penny in the street. And your “facts” are not even so “factual” as you make them. First, by the time that nice Dr.Luther came along, the Great Schism had been ended for over a century. Or if you date the beginnings of the Reformation to the oldest Protestant church in existence, the Waldensians, you will find that they came about two centuries EARLIER. Either way, the claim that the Reformation had anything historically to do with the Great Schism is as tenable as that the October Revolution had anything to do with democracy. Second, there never was a “mess”; there was, as fairly often in mediaeval history, an anti-Pope set up by a very visible temporal power – in this case, the King of France – to oppose the legitimate Pope. The Roman succession was never broken. That France was at the time powerful enough to manipulate the allegiance of several allies does not change matters. Third, none of the factions set up by political interest and disorder ever accepted that there should be any more than one legitimate successor of Peter. And fourth, I find it absolutely fantastic that this brief episode in Church history, lasting less than a man’s lifetime, should be used as an argument for “protestantism”, which has never in half a millennium managed to produce any doctrine to which it ever clung, and from whose side have arisen religions – such as Unitarianism and Mormonism – that are not Christian at all!

      • You are delusional in your account of “history”.

        The Catholic Church under Pope Leo X (google him – what a winner) had gone completely off the rails.
        Luther merely attempted to get it back on track of the gospel. The Reformation and the idea that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone was the nuclear bomb that went off in the 16th century.

        Many today have NO understanding of how important and necessary that was in order for one to live a life of faith, instead a life of religious, self-ascendent ladder-climbing.

  4. This explains it pretty well:

    [audio src="" /]

    It goes a long way to explain the need of such a Reformation. And it really isn’t all the long of a listen. But very interesting.

  5. “What was most attractive about Carl Trueman’s and Fred Sanders’s contributions to the aforementioned debate, was their relaxed, non-defensive engagement…”

  6. Pingback: Belief In Bible ‘Unhistorical,Illogical, Fatal’ Catholic Encyclopedia | Ramani's comments.
  7. Pingback: Why I won’t convert to Roman Catholicism | Lucas Hattenberger

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