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  • Writer's pictureThe Other Paul

On Submission & Authority in Response to Steven Alspach and a YouTube Comment

The Roman apologist & historian Steven Alspach (co-host of The Catholic Brothers) just posted the below screenshot with his own comments on his Facebook wall, to which I began writing a response in my own FB post, only to see (yet again) that its length was more suitable for a dedicated blog post. So, that's what I'm doing here. I put this together in only a few minutes (20? 30? I lost track of time) so excuse the lack of organisation.

This requires a fairly deep response, because comments like this (the YouTube screenshot) are able to propound a tidal wave of conflations and category errors in one short paragraph, which in turn takes a small essay to overturn. I also want to make clear that this response isn't against Romanist theology/ecclesiology itself, but a particular apologetic school within; I know a number of intelligent Romanists who will agree with my response. So, consider this not as "Protestant" vs Romanist, but "Protestant" and reasonable Romanists vs a discount-presuppositional apologetic. Let's begin.

The first response - and the only one that's truly needed - is that this is flatly false. Ask any "Protestant" (herein assuming one who affirms the inerrancy of Scripture) and they will likely tell you of a time when Scripture taught something they couldn't reconcile intellectually/morally, and yet they submitted to it anyway. I myself did the same, regarding the genocides of the Old Testament and the lack of any prohibition of slavery; I simply took those positions for granted and recalibrated my moral foundations to include these things, since they came from the mouth of God Himself. Over time I would come to discover how these positions work in the larger framework of Scripture, and I have since grown a richer understanding of such. Importantly, however, it all started with an act of submission absent full understanding. On this central point, then, the post is flatly wrong, and I would suffer that the poster either 1: Is a cradle Romanist with little to no honest interaction with Reformation thought/"Protestants," or 2: Is a convert with an axe to grind, truth be damned.

The second response is in anticipation to a potential counter, that this is not so much questioning the submission to Scripture, but to interpretive authorities thereof. Absent an infallible organ through which the true teachings of Scripture may be solidified, every "Protestant" ultimately takes the responsibility of an ultimate interpreter for himself; he becomes his own Pope. The first response is that this is not at all clear from the comment, which imputes a lack of submission to "Protestants" in a categorical fashion and without distinction. If this nonetheless was the intent of the author, then I only point to it as the 10-thousandth case of Neo-Pyrrhoneans showing that their apologetic for the need for an infallible interpretive authority really stems from their own awful interpretive/communicative ability.

With that said, the second and main response to this potential counter is to demonstrate its incoherent framing of the nature of interpretation and submission as categories and their relations to one another. To frame "submission" as a carte blanche obligation to obedience regardless of "agreement" is to manifestly contradict divinely revealed expositions of authority. The blessed Apostle, on one hand, tells children to "obey" their parents (Eph. 6:1–4) and wives to "submit" to their husbands, and to do so "as to the Lord" (Eph. 5:22; imagine if Paul said this of the Pope!). At the same time, Christ Himself commands that we "hate" father, mother, and wife (and, presumably, husband) for His sake, to carry our cross as His disciples (Luke 14:26–27). The blessed Apostle again calls for our submission to the state, which is a divinely appointed servant of God (Rom. 13:1–7), and yet the company of the Apostles through Peter told the Jewish leaders "We must serve God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). In other words, there is real authority, a real call for submission, and yet those to whom we submit are fallible, can be rightly opposed in certain circumstances, and thus cannot in and of themselves bind our conscience merely by virtue of their office. We are, in John's words, to test every spirit (1 John 4:1).

So how does this work? How can there be real authority and submission, while yet an individual has the alleged right to oppose it in certain situations? How does this get above the problem of the ultimacy of an individual's conscience? Three ways. First, per the first response, the individual conscience is not (nor was ever proposed by the Reformers) as an ultimate authority, but rather as that which is bound by the objective content of Scripture; nobody has the right to interpret it according to "private fancies," as Richard Field (17th cen. Anglican theologian) puts it, but according to its proper sense through proper rules of interpretation, which thus leads to true interpretation, which alone may be rightly said to be the speech of God that binds us. That erroneous/heretical interpretation is not binding on a man nor licit for him to hold (notwithstanding any beliefs in a "civil" right to dissent) is evident from every page of the Reformers, but especially from an entire treatise on this very question by Samuel Rutherford called "A Free Disputation Against the Pretended Liberty of Conscience," aimed at the Socinians and "Belgic Arminians" (curiously, not at the Magisterial Reformers, whom we are told promoted such anarchy). The Reformers simply argued that this could be done absent the permission of the present Church, specifically Popes and Councils, since these may err, and thus cannot in themselves bind our consciences nor rightly restrict the reading of Scripture to the laity (emphasis on "present" Church, distinct from the "universal" Church of all times and places, which no Reformer claimed would or could err on essential matters or articles of faith).

Second, when we get down to it, nobody submits to anything that they do not agree with (except through physical coercion). Romanists, like Protestants, only accept Magisterial decrees because they agree with them, but the nature of that agreement is grounded on the motives of credibility for the Church and its magisterium as they understand them, which is of such a nature that it provides near automatic persuasion on any decree. But further than this, the agreement is also still predicated on individual interpretive frameworks. We can see this by a thought experiment; suppose the Pope today gave a manifestly ex cathedra statement, no way to impugn its legitimacy. In that statement, he claims that Yahweh/Elohim in the OT was in no way whatsoever supreme, the creator, a creator, or worthy of worship; he was a minor deity at best. For Romanists reading, would you assent and submit to this interpretation? You would not, unless you are a complete fideist, or an actual polytheist, at which point you have abandoned all reason and have ceded any grounds for arguing. Now, for those who say they would not submit, you must ask yourself; why? Manifestly, it's because the Scriptures contradict this, as do past magisterial statements (which, like Scripture, is subject to the interpretation of the present Magisterium; you don't have the right to contrary interpretation). But this is you exercising your interpretive judgment over and against the Magisterium in this case, exactly what "Protestants" are being shamed for doing. But if that is the case, what about actual Magisterial statements today? Does this not show that you always have an interpretive filter running in your head when you read them, such that there is a point (no matter how high) at which you would dissent from the Magisterium? In other words, even if subconsciously, you are always subjecting the Magisterium to your interpretive paradigm; that you are extremely generous to it does not change this fact.

Third, since it is manifest that Scripture holds in tension the simultaneous reality of submission to real authority and the right (the duty, even) to dissent from such to maintain fidelity to God, this problem is now shared by both of us; we must together make an account of it. The answer simply put is to break the equivocation of interpretation and authority; that one interprets Scripture or any other given text in a way contrary to a higher authority does not itself entail an act of usurpation, since submission does not (nor can it) merely denote blind assent to the dictates of an authority, but a disposition of submission, wherein deference of whatever degree is given to this authority. Thus, I give deference to my own priest in pastoral matters, even if he could theoretically be wrong, and I could theoretically go against what he says. This deference, however, truly moves the will such as to give greater weight to that authority's opinion and lessen that of mine, such that when I would go one way in ordinary circumstances, I am moved to go the other due to an authority's opinion. This is not vague, meaningless, or empty; it is real, and any honest man can attest to this in his own life, as I can. Likewise, interpretation is not in itself an act of authority [EDIT: Of ultimate authority; there is always a sense of authority in interpretation, no matter how small], imputing meaning in accordance with one's own will (as "Protestants" are accused of doing), but is rather (all else being equal) a passive recipient of data which thus filters it through a paradigm, itself being received through our experience, reflections on issues, discourse, and so on. No one - almost no one - invents their own interpretive authority or data purely out of their own will, but receives it and acts accordingly. Thus, interpretation is not in itself an act of [EDIT: ultimate] authority, but simply us trying to grasp what is around us.

When I first "became" Anglican, it wasn't out of studying the positions and concluding this way, but simply from my need to find any faithful Church that is "Protestant" in some way after having left Hillsong. When I found my Anglican parish, only after the fact did I decide to read through the 39 Articles of Religion. At first, I agreed with everything except its articles on the Eucharist and Baptism (on the former, I was a Memorialist; on the latter, I was uncertain, but leaned mere symbolism too). I accepted this tension, but also recognised the great wisdom of this tradition, and so I humbly laid my opinions to the side and learned at the feet of Anglican theology, eventually being persuaded of Christ's real/true presence in the Eucharist and in the real effects of baptism. My parish priests, my Bishop, and my wider Anglican heritage assumed the true authority that Christ gave the Church; that of a teacher, one that demands true submission and adherence, yet which through its teaching forms us into true spiritual adults who fulfil the Lord's commands of discernment, sorting out the wheat from the chaff, even in our teachers and fathers, because those teachers and fathers are not cultivating a total submission to themselves, but a submission to the higher authority under which they operate, and by which they may be judged.

Again, this was assembled fairly quickly, so I apologise for any rough/unclear bits.

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