In my first ponderings of apologetics since the death of my daughter, I stumbled across the following article which "Matthew" linked to on BeggarsAll and I followed it to the original author's site. My response will be too big for a combox reply, so I am replying here. Let me make it clear too, this is not an exhaustive response to all of Mr. Bnonn-Tennant's (Bnonn is pronounced "non") positions but specifically directed to the article he wrote, which I include below in its entirety. Though he makes tangential references to other statements outside the included article (below), I will not engage those tangents at this time.
Four reasons to think that the term “catholic” in the Nicene Creed should not be read as involving communion with the Church of Rome.
From a Catholic correspondent:In other words, Mr. Bnonn-Tennant is not going to deal with the extract, he's just going to respond with his own opinions.
You’ve said on more than one occasion that the Catholic Church mentioned in the Nicene Creed is not the Roman Catholic Church. I have disagreed with you, pointing out that being in communion with the Pope, who is bishop of Rome, makes one part of the Catholic Church. I’ve come across on line an extract from a book which studies this question. I’m not talking about whether the Church went off the rails, just pointing out that when the Fathers at the Council of Nicea talked about the Catholic Church, they meant those who were in communion with Rome. I think the extract is worth reading, just to get a balanced picture.You can click here to view the extract if you’re interested. Like most Catholic literature I found it interminably dull, and I don’t intend to interact with it specifically here. I just want to point out, more generally, a few problems with taking catholicity in the Nicene Creed to imply communion with Rome:
First off, there is no "anachronism" here. An anachronism is something placed out of time, linearly speaking (eg. "printed" Bibles prior to the 16th century and the invention of the printing press). In the first example, both are referencing "the fourth century;" and in the second both refer to "in the book of Exodus." Neither of these references are anachronistic - perhaps the word/concept intended was that of "non sequitur?" Either way, neither of these fallacies exist here. The churches in communion with Rome are "catholic" and "Catholic." The term "catholic" refers to being "universal" - and all those in communion with Rome are part of the "universal" Church. One might object and say, "how about Eastern churches, are they also considered to be 'Catholic' in the 'Roman Catholic' way?" The answer to that question is that though they are not part of the "Latin Rite" of the Catholic Church, those in communion with the Bishop of Rome are indeed "Catholic" in both senses of the word. Likewise, the Sanhedrin was headed by the High Priest, and the laws spoken of in Exodus (and throughout the Torah) were indeed enforced by the priests who also comprised the Sanhedrin. There is no non sequitur in either of these and most certainly not any anachronism.
1. AnachronismConsider these two statements:
How does R follow from C? Can you spot the fallacy here? It begins with an “a” and ends with “nachronism”. Here’s an example in case it’s not clear:
- C: “In the fourth century, the term catholic church referred to the body of churches in communion with the bishop of Rome.”
- R: “In the fourth century, the term catholic church referred to the Roman Catholic Church.”
- C*: “In the book of Exodus, the term law referred to the body of religious principles and practices administrated by the priesthood.”
- R*: “In the book of Exodus, the term law referred to the body of religious principles and practices administrated by the Sanhedrin.”
The point is to be in communion with St. Peter's successor - who, for a time, resided in Avignon, so the "place" is not necessarily the important factor - but that "place" has been so firmly established, to "move" it now would be irrational... unless, of course, one sides with the sede vacantists (those who claim the "seat is empty") but even there, the reference is to St. Peter's seat. That being said, there is no "stretch" to think the framers of the Nicene Creed had in mind communion with ONE, UNIVERSAL church, and in NO WAY intended upon the anarchy of Protestantism.
2. You can’t eat your cake and have it, tooIn the same vein: say, arguendo, that the framers of the creed took it as given that Rome was the head of an authentic Christian institution, and that “catholicity” therefore entailed communion with Rome. Can we reasonably imagine that these same framers expected their definition to extend to any church claiming to be the Roman Church—provided it was located in the right place and claimed succession from the church they knew? That certainly seems like a stretch.
It seems more reasonable to think that, in the event that Rome apostatized, the framers would have dropped communion with Rome as an element of catholicity."In the event that Rome apostatized..." is a huge "if" statement which begs the question here. Mr. Bnonn-Tennant has not established any apostasy in this piece. Now IF Rome, or more specifically - the pope, had fallen into apostasy, then he would cease to remain pope and we would truly have a period of sede vacantism, but again - "the Church" would be in a period of anticipation of a new and valid pope to take the apostate's place. "The Church" would not splinter itself into hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations - and more to the point of this article - such splintering would be the opposite of "catholic" in any sense of the word!
Put another way, you can’t eat your cake and have it too: if in the fourth century the term “catholic” implied a group of churches in communion with the Roman Church, then in the 21st century the same term must imply a group of churches in the same kind of communion with the same Roman Church. If the kind of communion is not the same, and/or the Roman Church is not the same, then the term cannot be consistently applied in the 21st century. And of course, it goes without saying that the nature of communion was different (see point 4); and I’ve given ample defense in the past for my contention that the Roman Church in the 21st century is not a Christian church at all—let alone the same church as that of the fourth century.The "kind" of communion remains the same in the 21st century as it did in the 4th century. Sticking to the REAL meaning of the word "catholic" - which is "universal" - (uni = the whole, or one; and versus = turned toward; thus the word literally means turned toward the one/whole). The term "catholic" cannot, in any sense, be logically applied to those who split away from "the One" Church - and certainly not to further splits among those who split! No, Mr. Bnonn-Tennant, it is not the Catholic Church who seeks to "have their cake and eat it too," but Protestants who would like to embrace the Nicene Creed when they have no semblance of catholicity. This being said, SOME Protestants DO have a semblance of catholicity in that they reject any other "Christian" not of their cult, as if the ONLY way to salvation is through their cult - there is a "oneness" or "universal" belief there - but I do not believe Mr. Bnonn-Tennant is expressing "catholic" in such a way as to limit the "saved" to his cult, and his cult alone.
3. Essential versus incidental elements to catholicityIn light of the above, if (again, arguendo) we cannot consistently apply the term “catholic” in the Nicene Creed to our situation in the 21st century, what should we do? Obviously there are two options: Firstly, we can accept that the creed itself is faulty since it contains a definition of the church we can’t apply today (and this would be equally true for Roman Catholics as it would be for Protestants). In this case I think it would do violence to the creed to use it at all. We should simply discard it. Or secondly, we can accept that the creed’s framers took the term “catholic” to imply more than we do because they lived in a different time and a different situation, for which there is no modern corollary.In other words, in the fourth century communion with Rome was taken as a given in the definition of catholicity—but this was an incidental element of the definition, and not an essential one. It was an element which was assumed because it was the nature of the church at the time; but as such, it was not an eternal truth about the church; nor even necessarily an authentic truth. If you take the creed as pointing to essentially spiritual truths, then the church’s catholicity is a spiritual matter (ie, a universal body of believers united in Christ), which may or may not be reflected in its physical structure (ie, a given hierarchy instituted by Christ). You could hold to some mistaken notions of the church’s physical structure, yet still get the spiritual structure right. You might even hold to those mistaken notions precisely because your accurate understanding of the spiritual truths combined with your intuitions to suggest a certain structure.So it doesn’t seem problematic to me for 21st century Protestants to recite the Nicene Creed and take “Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” to refer to a spiritual unity and authenticity, rather than to some culturally-bound, historical fact about how the church’s structure once was, but cannot be now. In fact, that seems to be the right and appropriate way to understand the creed. The other way around is [a%%-backwards and] nonsensical in modern Christendom.
First off, let me explain why I've edited Mr. Bnonn-Tennant's word "a%%-backwards." I do so because some may take that to be profanity, which I do not permit on my blog. Yes, literally speaking it can refer to trying to get a donkey to walk backwards, but the use of such terminology is not necessary and I would hope Mr. Bnonn-Tennant would see why this should not be used and remove it from his article. If/when he does and he makes me aware of it, I will remove this paragraph of objection in my article/response. He could simply remove it and his point is made since "nonsensical" is redundant to the non-profane manner of taking "a%%-backwards."
Mr. Bnonn-Tennant has simply moved from any logical reason of accepting "catholic" to rejecting the Nicene Creed entirely! In this section of his "arguendo" the conclusion is that we, in the 21st century, cannot view the Nicene Creed the same way the Fathers who wrote it did. His premise is that the Church today is not the same as the Church of the 4th century. If this truly is Mr. Bnonn-Tennant's position - then I will respect it as such, and clearly then there is no defense of any Protestant sect using and/or reciting the Nicene Creed as a "credo" which they accept in the 21st century.
4. “Communion” doesn’t mean what Catholics like to say it meansAll this said, I’m not remotely convinced that communion with Rome was regarded as a given in the definition of catholicity. Or, put another way, if “communion” was regarded as a given, then I’m not remotely convinced it meant “submission” or “oversight by” or “complete unity with” or any such concept that Roman Catholics would anachronistically require. It’s simply untenable to think that Rome was guiding Christendom in the same way it guides the Catholic Church today; or even that it had anything resembling the kind of authority it assumes for itself today.
First off on this point I'd like to say that Catholics do not claim everything is exactly the same today as it was at the dawn of Christendom. The important factors at play here are:
- Jesus selected Twelve Bishops.
- Those bishops selected successor bishops when an office was vacated.
- THIS is the structure of the Catholic Church now, just as it was back then.
- Jesus singled out Simon/Peter on several occasions - most notably in promising him, and him alone, the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (these "keys" are not made mention of elsewhere in the New Testament, regardless of how much rationalizations we see from Protestant apologists).
- The recognition of the Bishop of Rome as "corypheaus" (head) of the Apostles is noted in the Early Church Fathers, both Eastern and Western.
I could go on, but I believe I'm making my point already - what the Early Church had more closely resembles that of Catholicism than Protestantism - AND - Protestantism has absolutely NO valid claim to apostolic succession! They broke from that when they separated themselves from THE Church which does validly have that (and I'm not discounting Orthodox claims here, the focus is on Protestants, so let's not be distracted by Orthodoxy's valid claims to apostolic succession - Protestants would have nothing to do with the sacramentalism of Orthodoxy either).
Secondly, "communion" is the acceptance of each other as true brothers in Christ and the Early Church was indeed in "communion" with the Bishop of Rome throughout the first 1000 years of Christendom! In the 11th century we had our first major schism - 500 years later came another one. Make note, these schisms came out FROM the Catholic Church! It is noteworthy that neither Protestants nor Orthodox presume to call themselves "Catholics."
For example, writing of a dispute in Irenaeus’ day, and another that became prominent shortly afterward, the Catholic scholar Klaus Schatz commented: “Rome did not succeed in maintaining its position against the contrary opinion and praxis of a significant portion of the Church. The two most important controversies of this type were the disputes over the feast of Easter and heretical baptism. Each marks a stage in Rome’s sense of authority and at the same time reveals the initial resistance of other churches to the Roman claim.” (Papal Primacy [Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1996], p. 11)
As I pointed out to Jason Engwer in 2010, Fr. Schatz is NOT a good example of a "Catholic scholar!" In fact, if one does a "Google" search on him they will find that most sites which cite him are anti-Catholic sites! Those Catholics sites with reference to him are likely those pointing out Fr. Schatz' contradictory, even dissenting views on Catholicism. The objective reader needs to be aware of this tactic of citing a "Catholic scholar" who may NOT be representing true Catholic teaching on a given matter - and this situation is no different. That being said, and speaking of St. Irenaeus, let's see what this Catholic Saint had to say for himself on this matter:
"But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul—that church which has the tradition and the faith with which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world. And it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition" (Against Heresies, 3:3:2) [emphasis added].It does not seem that St. Irenaeus supports Fr. Schatz OR Mr. Bnonn-Tennant's ideals, but rather declares firmly that it is THE Church founded and organized at Rome which Christians "must agree" with and "in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition." At any rate, I whole-heartedly reject the claims of anti-Catholics who cite "Fr. Schatz" as a "Catholic scholar."
Similarly, in the late second century Polycrates applied the principle of Acts 5:29 to his dispute with the Roman bishop Victor (Eusebius, Church History, 5:24:7). Tertullian criticized the bishop of Rome for an inconsistent response to Montanism (Against Praxeas, 1). The author of a work commonly attributed to Hippolytus refers to the Roman bishop Zephyrinus as “an uninformed and shamefully corrupt man”.
There is nothing in Catholicism which states faithful Catholics cannot be critical of sitting popes! If a pope has erred, then it is the responsibility of faithful Catholics to stand up to him! This has happened several times throughout history. Now that being said, let us look at a quote from Tertullian (prior to himself becoming a heretic):
"But if there be any [heresies] which are bold enough to plant [their origin] in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [their first] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men—a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter" (Demurrer Against the Heretics, 32) [emphasis added].So we see the exact same appeal to apostolic succession which I made as I opened this response as really an echoing of this 3rd century statement - over 100 years prior to the Nicene council! One must also look at the context of the Nicene Creed and not overlook the fact that when it says "catholic" it ALSO says, "one, holy and apostolic!" The term "catholic" is just ONE of the "Four Marks" of the TRUE Christian Church as stated by the Nicene Creed!
Note that even if Catholics try to say that, in principle, Rome in the fourth century had the same kind of authority as it does in the 21st century—even though in practice this wasn’t yet a fully developed or recognized doctrine—this doesn’t salvage the word “catholic” for them. Because if the kind of communion taken as implicit in the creed is only the kind of communion which was understood and practiced in the fourth century, then it isn’t modern Roman Catholic “communion”. It’s just a general notion of Rome’s importance, and of the need for churches to be in fellowship with one another.
Mr. Bnonn-Tennant's conclusion is unsupported by any primary sources, whereas I have cited some myself here in response. Mr. Bnonn-Tennant's conclusion is false because, as I have shown, even PRIOR TO NICEA, the EXACT SAME APPEALS to Rome as the head and symbol of unity for THE Christian Church are made. I therefore reject Mr. Bnonn-Tennant's argumentation as little more than his own opinion and where he did cite an outside source, it was that of one who is known to hold dissenting and/or contrary views to traditional Catholicism. I hope the objective reader here can see the fallacies of Mr. Bnonn-Tennant's arguments, the weakness of his citations and conclude as I have that this whole article from him should be discarded.