Archive for December 2010

White vs. Sungenis debates

December 21, 2010

I would like to share a couple of comments about the recent White vs. Sungenis debates, on the basis of the Cross Examinations published on Youtube (on Free Will and the Bodily Assumption) and Sungenis’ written response to White’s post-debate comments on a radio show.

White’s challenge to Catholic apologists

I think the debates reflect some of the biggest problems in Catholicism and Catholic apologetics today, and White has put forward “the case against” very well. As I will make clear below, I don’t find White’s position credible either, but he has certainly put a serious challenge to defenders of the Catholic Church, which I believe still needs to be met. Starting with the debate on the Assumption, I will summarize White’s (valid, I believe) arguments (or my development of them) below:

1) The Catholic Church claims the Assumption is a Dogma revealed by God. The sources of revelation are the Scriptures (and Tradition, according to the Catholic Church). But the Dogma is not found in the Bible (or in early Tradition). Thus, the Church is wrong on an “infallible dogma”.
2a) The Church no longer says the Assumption is merely a pious belief, as it was when it first appeared, but it is now binding on all believers (according to the decree issued by the Pope in 1950) in such a way that to deny the Assumption is revealed is to abandon the Faith and become a heretic.
2b) This amounts to a denial of the sufficiency of the Gospel, because there is now additional, new revelation which must also be believed in order to be saved. By what right does the Church add to the Gospel, make a previously pious belief a part of the Regula Fidei? This is a different Gospel (Gal 1:8).

Sungenis’ weak defense

Sungenis’ defense admits that there is no explicit mention of the Assumption in the Bible or in early Tradition (he affirms implicit Scripture support and late patristic support). His argument, then, is that the Church has the right to make infallible decisions without explicit support in Scripture or Tradition, based on his reading of Acts 15. Here, he says, Peter decides to free pagan Christians from the yoke of circumcision, without any explicit support in Scripture or Tradition.

I think White made two good points in response: first, the council in Acts 15 does cite Scripture as support, namely, Amos 9:11. In his written response Sungenis claimed White didn’t answer his question about where this text talks about the cessation of circumcision. Actually White gave a very good answer, pointing out that if circumcised, the Gentile nations (Acts 15:17) would no longer be Gentiles but Jews!

Second, White asked Sungenis whether the Church has infallibly interpreted Acts 15. Sungenis said no. In his written response Sungenis totally misses White’s point here: it is not that non-infallible interpretations are illegitimate! White’s point is simply to show what a fallible business Catholicism is in the end, despite all the talk about infallibility: it all depends on the validity of Sungenis’ interpretation of Acts 15!

This is where White took Sungenis at the end of the Cross Examination, and it was an embarrassing thing to listen to. Sungenis admitted his whole defense of the Assumption falls if his interpretation of Acts 15 falls. In fact even I as a Catholic think that Sungenis’ interpretation of Acts 15 falls. To me it seems clear that the decision in Acts 15 is made in favor of the Gospel, which is the essence of Christianity. The point was precisely not to add any superfluous requirements or obligations to the Gospel, which is salvific on its own (Acts 15:9,11).

Sungenis appealed to Mt 16:18 and Acts 15 to argue that the Church can add new binding dogmas to the Faith. This seems to me to be the opposite of the sense of the texts, which simply show that the Church is in service of the Gospel. White asked how these texts (which in their context have nothing to do with later dogmas) give the right to a man in Rome in 1950 to bind something on all Christians which no Christian in the first 500 years ever bound on anyone?

Is this not a different Christianity, another Gospel? I might add, when did Christians start interpreting the above texts in this fashion (i.e. that the hierarchy has the right to add binding dogmas to the Faith)? Catholic apologists often cite certain texts in defense of the magisterium (1 Tim 3:15, etc), but never address whether this interpretation is exegetically or patristically sound. What if the Church derives her authority and truth simply from the Gospel and faithfulness to it? What if it didn’t receive a right to add new dogmas, what if this is a later invention by the Church itself?

More problems

The way most Catholics would probably respond is to go to the early ecumenical councils, which made all kinds of philosophical definitions, which even White accepts (the homoousios, Chalcedonian Christology, etc). Don’t these add to the Gospel as well? This is a difficult question indeed, and I do believe White’s acceptance of the first 6 councils is a bit arbitrary, as well as his limiting the patristic period to Augustine.

Be that as it may, the counter-argument doesn’t answer the problem but makes it more complex. On the one hand, one could argue that the Christological definitions were necessary, because their substance (Christ’s divinity and humanity) is explicitly taught in Revelation, whereas it is a very different matter with the Marian dogmas, which are late theological developments with no explicit basis in revelation.

On the other hand one could also argue that the Church erred in binding philosophical terminology on believers, without any explicit basis in Revelation. As far as I know, homoousios was a term suggested by the Emperor Constantine, not Scripture or early Apostolic Tradition. And does it really make the difference between Heaven and Hell whether one believed in one or two hypostases in Christ, as long as one affirmed his true divinity and true humanity, one person in two natures?

Are we infallibly sure God doesn’t treat such matters as adiaphora (non-essential)? The Nestorians and the Monophysites believed the Gospel and had the Sacraments, are we really sure they were all damned heretics (looking at ecumenism today, it seems the Church isn’t that sure)? Do we need to edit John 3:16, 1 Cor 15:2 and a host of other passages to suit later dogmatic definitions?

One more note about “new revelation”. Sungenis claimed White doesn’t understand the concept. General Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle, whereas private revelations continue as does the presence of the Spirit which helps the Church grow in understanding of the Deposit of Faith. Fine enough, but White’s point remains unanswered: if the Assumption is part of General Revelation, then it is to be found in the sources of Revelation, which it is not. The reason Catholics believe it as revelation is the 1950 definition. This is as good as new revelation. (Btw, in the debate Sungenis himself made the terrible mistake of saying God revealed the doctrine to the Church in 1950! If it was revealed, it was revealed when Mary was assumed.)

Predestination

Briefly on the Predestination debate. Sungenis said it was White’s weakest debate. Based on the Cross Examination, Sungenis was the weak one: he turned Romans 9 into his own (extremely un-pauline) interpretation of the Exodus events, whereas White followed the thought of Paul much more faithfully. Sungenis was right, though, to point out that (White’s reading of) Romans 9 creates a lot of problems, one of them being 1 Tim 2:4.

Sungenis did well in his written response on 1 Tim 2:4. Indeed White’s exegesis here is just as bad as Sungenis’ exegesis of Romans 9. The fact that Paul mentions kings and rulers is a far from clear indication that he only means groups of people and not all people. What to do with the contradiction between Romans 9 and 1 Tim 2:4, I do not know. Better leave it a mystery.