First Things has been running a fascinating and provocative series of articles that question the principles and beliefs of most of its readers. In May, it published “Why I Became Muslim” by one Jacob Williams, a Brit who grew up Anglican and then converted to Islam. More recently, the magazine published “Catholicism Made Me Protestant,” a reflection by Onsi A. Kamel, who grew up a “non-denominational, baptistic evangelical,” then seriously considered Catholicism before returning to Protestantism, though one more self-consciously Reformed.
Perhaps as a coup de grace First Things could next publish a piece entitled “How First Things Made Me Stop Reading First Things” (kidding!). In seriousness, the controversial series is welcome, because however much such pieces incite annoyance or anger, they help clarify weaknesses (or perceived weaknesses) in Christianity and Catholicism. If we don’t take the time to understand why our critics disagree with us, how will we ever dialogue with them? Yet a response to Kamel’s criticisms of Catholicism is still warranted, and I’d like to give one.
Kamel has three main criticisms of Catholicism. First, the Church does not have the best claim to the Church Fathers, given that there are “discrepancies” between Catholic apologists’ conception of Holy Tradition and the tradition Kamel encountered. Sometimes, he observes, the Church Fathers say things that sound much more Protestant than Catholic. Moreover, many Reformation-era Protestants quoted the Church Fathers at great length.
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Then there’s Bl. Cardinal John Henry Newman. Kamel argues that Newman’s theory of doctrinal development “tells against Rome’s claims of continuity with the ancient Church.” Yet, Kamel claims, one only perceives doctrinal development as congruous if one is already committed to Rome’s doctrinal claims. In Kamel’s case, he found, not continuity, but contradiction. He also finds Newman’s arguments regarding private judgment to be problematic. While “Newman castigates Protestants for refusing to ‘surrender’ reason in matters religious,” Kamel asks “if my reason was unfit in matters religious, how was I to assess Newman’s arguments for Roman Catholicism?” In effect, says Kamel, Newman’s attack on Protestant private judgment cuts both ways, thus undermining Catholicism.
Finally, “the infighting among traditionalist, conservative, and liberal Catholics made plain that Catholics did not gain by their magisterium a clear, living voice of divine authority.” Indeed, notes Kamel, someone has to do the interpreting of magisterial documents; and these interpretive authorities, it often seems, are in disagreement with one another. Every new, additional magisterial document only compounds this problem.
Thus Kamel remained a Protestant, though now one conservant not only in low-church evangelicalism, but a broader Reformed Protestant tradition that includes “Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Hooker, Herman Bavinck, and Karl Barth,” among others. These Protestants, says Kamel, “out-catholic the Catholics,” because “their answers [are] not only plausible, but more faithful to Scripture than the Catholic answers.” Sitting in his dorm room, Kamel “discovered justification by faith alone through union with Christ,” that first and foremost of Lutheran doctrines. “Luther transformed my understanding of justification: Every Christian possesses Christ…. Christ had joined me to himself.”
I would first like to examine Kamel’s underlying presuppositions. His paradigmatic approach is visible especially in his assertion that Protestantism is “more faithful to Scripture.” Such thinking, as I’ve argued elsewhere, presumes the Protestant doctrine of perspicuity, or the clarity of Scripture. This doctrine—though it is diversely understood within Protestantism—typically teaches that individual Christians using ordinary means (e.g. a good translation of Scripture, prayer, listening to biblical preaching) will be able to divine the Bible’s true meaning.
Yet presuming one paradigm when evaluating another paradigm is to a priori stack the deck in favor of one’s own position. It’s also question-begging, because it presumes something (Scripture’s clarity) that Catholicism doesn’t. It’s no surprise then that he found Catholicism to be wanting—he evaluated it on Protestant terms.
And how reliable are those terms? It’s not a little ironic that Kamel memorializes his discovery of “justification by faith alone” given the only place “faith alone” appears in the Bible is in James 2:24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” The Lutheran/Reformed paradigm thus must apply an extra-biblical exegetical framework to try and harmonize Luther’s famous dictum with passages like the above. Even more problematic, Protestants have come to disagree not only with Luther, but with each other, about Scripture’s “plain meaning” on the very essentials of the Christian faith, including which persons truly “possess Christ.”
Now for Kamel’s particular critiques of Catholicism. First, as for the Church Fathers, anybody using Google can find quotations from them that sound more Protestant than Catholic. The Catholic Church has always taught that Tradition appeals to the consensus of the Fathers, recognizing that there could be significant division among them on particular topics. How Kamel could determine Protestantism has a better claim to the Fathers than Catholicism I cannot fathom, given the widespread consensus among them on such un-Protestant teachings as apostolic succession, episcopal juridical/interpretive authority, Petrine primacy, baptismal regeneration, the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, and Marian devotion, among others.
On to Newman. Newman’s theory of doctrinal development does not undermine Catholicism’s hermeneutic of continuity. The passing of time and generations necessitates both change and a subsequent interpretation of that change. This is something, pace Kamel, that Protestantism needs to do as well. There was no complete biblical canon without it, for instance, nor an explicit formulation of Christ’s person and nature. The teachings of the Church on these concepts, and many others, developed over centuries. All Christians must make sense of such developments.
Kamel also misunderstands Newman’s argument regarding private judgment. Newman’s point is not that an individual’s reason cannot be used to evaluate any religious arguments. Of course, one needs reason in order to evaluate arguments regarding the existence of God, or which religious tradition has the best historical claim to authority. Otherwise, how would an individual be able to reason that the Catholic Church had the authority to bind his conscience? Indeed, the motives of credibility appeal precisely to reason. Rather, recourse to an individual’s personal reasoning is insufficient in theological matters regarding the authoritative interpretation of Scripture and/or that require divine faith. Thus, even if a person reads Scripture and accurately intuits a conception of the Holy Trinity, such an interpretation couldn’t be normative, because that person lacks interpretive authority. Only the institutional Church founded by Christ possesses this.
Finally, Kamel’s criticism of Catholic infighting says more about human nature than about the Church. If everyone in the pews, or even all the bishops, agreed on every particular of the Church, it would suggest the institution was more a cult (i.e., the bad kind) than a human organism that has stood the test of 2,000 years. Of course, the disagreements regarding Catholic teaching, even among the hierarchy, are disheartening. But they can also be embellished, particularly by her detractors. In truth, the Church has explicitly–defined methods for determining the interpretation of Scripture, Tradition, and magisterial documents. Many inter-Catholic disagreements stem from a lack of familiarity with these methods.
We should carefully observe the reception of Kamel’s article among Protestants. Will they gush over its succinct rhetorical power? If so, as was the case with Roman but Not Catholic—a widely celebrated Protestant polemic against Catholicism—it will once again prove the lackluster character of Protestant apologetics writ large. I reviewed the book last year, and the response of the two authors, Kenneth J. Collins and Jerry L. Walls, was, to put it charitably, sadly instructive.
Alternatively, if we observe Protestants acknowledging the kinds of deficiencies in Kamel’s argumentation I’ve cited above, it would intimate a most welcome development within conservative Protestantism—one that is willing to acknowledge its paradigmatic biases and misreadings of Catholicism and try harder at dialogue. As a former Reformed Protestant, and one deeply invested in this ecumenical project, I pray it’s the latter.