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Answering the “Confusing Revelation” Objection to Christianity

I was five years old, sitting in the back of our Oldsmobile when my mom turned around and told me that I needed to choose between Jesus and the devil. Whoa, sounds dramatic, doesn’t it?! Looking back, I probably wouldn’t have presented the decision quite like that. (My mom probably would agree.) But be that as it may, those were the options presented to me. And the decision I made that day initiated a journey into Christian faith which has continued now for forty years.

What’s So Confusing About Grace?

One thing I know after four decades: grace is definitely amazing.

One other thing I know: it’s also confusing, so confusing, in fact, that I wrote the new book What’s So Confusing About Grace? to serve as a chronicle of my forty years attempting to understand the precise nature and boundaries of salvation.

Let’s start with the question of belief: what do you need to believe to be saved? For starters, must one believe that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9)? If you do need to believe that then is that all you need to believe? Or are there additional doctrines that are required as well? And if there are, what exactly are those additional doctrines? Does salvation require belief in the Trinity, the incarnation, or the second coming of Christ, for example?

The questions also extend to ethics. Must you live a certain way if you are to be saved, doing particular good works and avoiding particular “mortal” sins? And if so, which good works must you do and which mortal sins must you avoid in order to be saved?

And are these requirements the same for everyone? Do they apply to infants and small children? Or is there a threshold (the 13th birthday, perhaps) at which point these demands suddenly apply?

And does God “grade on a curve” in consideration of factors like a hard life and low intelligence? Or does he demand the same belief and practice of everyone? Does he demand the same of an Australian aboriginal who lived five hundred years ago as he demands of the housewife who attends First Baptist in Louisville? Or does God adjust his requirements over time and place?

And why isn’t any of this any clearer?

Like I said, grace is confusing. At least that much is clear.

The 33,000 Objection

It should be no surprise that skeptics have identified this lack of clarity as grounds to reject Christianity.  And it is at this point that the topic becomes a matter not just for theological reflection but also for apologetic concern.

The resulting objection comes in different forms. According to one version, what I call the “33,000 Objection to Christianity,” the problem cashes out like this:

“You think Christianity is true? Okay then, which Christianity? After all, there are 33,000 of them!”

While the 33,000 Objection is rarely stated with more precision than this, there is a substantial objection behind that incredulous rejoinder. And it’s worth teasing out that objection because it consists of a serious undercutting defeater to Christianity.

In case you’re wondering, a defeater is an objection to a proposition (i.e. counterevidence which purports to “defeat” that proposition). There are two kinds of defeaters: rebutting and undercutting. While a rebutting defeater seeks to provide evidence to believe that a proposition is false, an undercutting defeater aims to undermine one’s grounds to believe a proposition is true.

In my experience, the 33,000 Objection is typically presented in the mode of an undercutting defeater: by pointing out the many disagreements that exist among self-described Christians as regards belief and practice, the objector aims to undercut one’s basis to accept any single one of those versions as true.

The Confusing Revelation Objection

While the 33,000 Objection is a significant challenge worth considering, in the remainder of this article I want to consider a second objection, one that seeks to turn the diversity of Christian belief and practice into a rebutting defeater to the truth of Christianity generally. I will dub this objection the “Confusing Revelation Objection.” It can be summarized in the following syllogism:

  1. Any all-knowing, perfectly wise, and perfectly good being will be maximally clear in revealing precisely what salvation requires in terms of belief and practice.
  2. God is all knowing, perfectly wise, and perfectly good.
  3. Therefore, God will be maximally clear in revealing precisely what salvation requires in terms of belief and practice.
  4. The Christian revelation is not maximally clear in revealing precisely what salvation requires in terms of belief and practice.
  5. Therefore, God did not reveal the Christian revelation.

In case you’re wondering, the argument does not assume God exists. Rather, it only affirms that if God exists then he did not reveal the Christian revelation.

Again, note the difference in scope between these two objections: while the 33,000 Objection only seeks to undercut one’s ground to accept any particular version of Christianity as true, the Confusing Revelation Objection seeks to provide a reason to believe all versions of Christianity are false. In short, this ambitious argument is definitely worth a rebuttal.

So how might a Christian respond?

The Assumptions Behind the Confusing Revelation Objection

Some Christians might be inclined to reject the fourth premise of the argument by insisting that the Christian revelation is maximally clear regarding what God requires in terms of belief and practice. However, I do not think this line of attack is promising given that, so it seems to me, Christians do, in fact, disagree widely on what is required in terms of belief and practice. In other words, premise four definitely seems plausible.

Fortunately, there is a second potential point of rebuttal. This approach consists of rejecting the first premise. To recap:

  1. Any all-knowing, perfectly wise, and perfectly good being will be maximally clear in revealing precisely what salvation requires in terms of belief and practice.

In order to challenge this premise we might begin by asking why people are inclined to believe it is true in the first place.

It seems to me that the plausibility of premise one depends on two assumptions.

To begin with, there is the information assumption according to which revelation is about conveying information, data which is essential to bring the individual into conformity with what God requires. On this account, revelation is like a map directing the proper evacuation procedure in case of fire. Just as a capable map creator would ensure that her map was maximally efficient at directing people to evacuate a building, so any all-knowing, perfectly wise, and perfectly good being would be maximally clear in revealing precisely what salvation requires in terms of belief and practice.

I’m well familiar with the information assumption. Indeed, this idea that revelation is simply about conveying important information was deeply formative in my conservative Protestant upbringing. For example, when I was a kid we described the Bible with the acronym Basic Information Before Leaving Earth. That notion of the Bible as a compilation of information on how best to “leave earth” compares rather neatly with an escape map providing basic information to evacuate a building.

Next up, we have the innocent failure assumption. According to this assumption, if a revelation is not adequately clear then that allows for the possibility that an indeterminate number of individuals could non-culpably fail to acquire the information required to benefit from the revelation.

Consider an analogy: if an exit sign on the highway is not adequately clear (e.g. it is obscured by trees), then an indeterminate number of motorists could non-culpably miss their exit. Whether we’re talking motorists or salvation seekers, these individuals would be innocent of their failures (missing the exit; missing the right beliefs/actions) because these errors would be borne of a mistaken assessment of information that was inadequately presented.

Responding to the Confusing Revelation Objection

If we want to rebut the Confusing Revelation Objection, we should focus on challenging these two underlying assumptions.

I’ll begin by responding to the innocent failure assumption. Here all one needs to do is reject the claim that there is ever any person who non-culpably fails to acquire any information that would be required for salvation.

There are a variety of ways one might flesh out an account along these lines. For example, one could appeal to a “second chance” theology according to which any doctrine which is unclear in this life is presented with sufficient clarity posthumously at which point a person could then offer a fully informed assent or denial. But that’s just one possibility. All we need to affirm at this point is that God would never allow any individual to non-culpably fail to acquire information essential for salvation.

This brings us to the information assumption according to which salvation is essentially about acquiring the “right” set of beliefs and practices. What should we think of this assumption?

At this point I return to the forty year journey chronicled in my book What’s So Confusing About Grace?  And I can say that this journey has made it manifestly clear (to me, at least) that Christianity is not simply a matter of acquiring the right information (doctrines and practices). There is intrinsic value in the journey of attempting to figure out the faith, and that journey is only made possible when a lack of clarity exists.

Imagine that there was unanimity among Christians on how to answer all these questions. Let’s say, for example, that all Christians agreed that a person was required to believe doctrines x, y, and z by their 13th birthday. This clarity could provide particular goods, but arguably it would also inhibit a deeper growth into faith as parents focused on ensuring their children assented to particular doctrines by the “deadline”.

By contrast, a faith that leaves these matters unclear opens up the space for the natural cultivation of genuine relationship between God and his creatures. For these reasons I conclude that God would have morally sufficient reasons to allow a lack of clarity on many of these questions.

Conclusion

To sum up, we began with the undeniable fact that grace is confusing. That much I will not deny!

Next, I argued that this phenomenon fuels two objections to Christianity: the 33,000 Objection (an undercutting defeater) and the Confusing Revelation Objection (a rebutting defeater). In this article I focused on responding to the Confusing Revelation Objection. I did so first by isolating two underlying assumptions – the information assumption and the innocent failure assumption. Next, I argued that a Christian need not (and indeed should not) accept either assumption.

In conclusion, it seems to me that the Confusing Revelation Objection fails. While the grace of God in Christianity is indeed confusing, that fact does not constitute a viable objection to that revelation.

Dr. Randal Rauser

Written by

Dr. Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary where he has taught since 2003. He is the author of many books including What on Earth do we Know About Heaven? (Baker, 2013); The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (InterVarsity, 2012); Is the Atheist My Neighbor? (Cascade, 2015); An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar: Talking about God, the Universe, and Everything (Prometheus Books, 2016); and his most recent book, What's So Confusing About Grace? (Two Cup Press, 2017)"Randal also blogs and podcasts at RandalRauser.com and lectures widely on Christian worldview and apologetics.

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  • Jim (hillclimber)

    All we need to affirm at this point is that God would never allow any individual to non-culpably fail to acquire information essential for salvation.

    That's a nice concise way to put it.

    And, even acknowledging the ambiguities of revelation, it is hardly difficult to square this simple, self-evident premise with the Bible. Much to the contrary, what is hard to square with, e.g. Paul's Letter to the Romans, is that Christian salvation requires knowledge of, or conformity to, some code. It is sad and seemingly unpredictable that so many Christians (not least Catholics, of course) should have come to promote such a view.

    Good stuff, thanks.

    • David Nickol

      And, even acknowledging the ambiguities of revelation, it is hardly
      difficult to square this simple, self-evident premise with the Bible.

      I am a little confused. Is the simple, self-evident premise that "God would never allow any individual to non-culpably fail to acquire information essential for salvation"? If so, there are many Christians who do not consider this at all self-evident. I see from a bit of googling that the Christian belief that salvation can come only through explicit acceptance of Jesus is called "exclusivism," and those who believe in exclusivism do not believe that those who never heard of Jesus—say, Native Americans before 1492—could have been saved. According to a couple of sites, this was the majority view among Christians through most of history. Whether or not that is accurate, there are plenty of exclusivists today. It seems to me you can't call something "self-evident" if a large number of people don't believe it.

      • Jim (hillclimber)

        Well, the idea that an omnibenevolent God would not be unfair is, if not tautologically correct, then at least as self-evident as the truth that "all [people] are created equal". (And of course, many don't find the latter claim to be self-evident either).

        But anyway, fine. I strike that phrasing from the record. You can replace it with "considered obvious to Jim (hillclimber)".

        • David Nickol

          As I understand it, the Catholic Church teaches that nobody deserves to go to heaven. This seems to be a common belief among other denominations as well. So it would not be "unfair" of God to decline to "save" those who did not know of his existence, or hear and accept the Gospel, even through no fault of their own. If nobody deserves heaven (or salvation), it is not unfair to deprive people of it.

          • Rob Abney

            Fairness implies justice, getting what one deserves. Mercy is the better description of the gift of heaven.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Thanks Rob, I was going to respond similarly: denying salvation to some people based on things out of their control (or, for that matter denying it to everyone, on a total whim) is compatible with a *just* God. But seems quite hard to reconcile with the concept of an infinitely loving God.

          • David Nickol

            Punishing people for all eternity seems to me incompatible with the concept of an infinitely loving God. What is the point of eternal punishment?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Well, the point of that would be infinite justice, of course! Stop asking silly questions! :-)

            Yes, I know. Whether there is a God or not, we cannot see how infinite love and infinite justice can be reconciled. But that fact that we can't conceive of a reconciliation doesn't mean that one is not possible.

          • Rob Abney

            Jim, what is infinite justice? I don't understand the infinite descriptor, I consider justice to be an act that occurs at a definite point in time. So then justice and infinite love can be reconciled. Not to sound too harsh but justice means that you get what you deserve and love means that you are offered a gift and the only condition is that you accept it.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            "Perfect justice" would have been a better expression for me to use.

            What I am getting at is: the demands of love exceed, but do not supplant, the demands of justice. Love has to build on a foundation of justice if it's going to be real love. So, if you have someone who has done something infinitely awful, then justice would seem to require penance that is in some way commensurate. The difficulty in reconciling comes in when you try to imagine how God could ensure "commensurate penances" to everyone while at the same time extending love to everyone.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            To answer your question a bit more directly: I cannot personally conceive of any reason why eternal punishment would make sense. But then, I don't want to presume to know the limits of human power. I leave open the possibility that we are capable of infinite evil, albeit I suspect this power is rarely exercised.

          • Gary Torkeo

            Eternal punishment/hell is the absence of God. Your choice. God isn't doing it to you, you have intentionally turned your back on God.

          • Mike17

            Could you give a source for that understanding? For example, could you quote a relevant passage in The Catechism of the Catholic Church. There are many people who believe all sorts of things about what the Catholic Church teaches. How many of them actually check to see if their belief is correct?

          • David Nickol

            This passage from the Catechism is more complicated than what I said, but I think the meaning is basically the same. Let me know if you disagree. (The emphasis is in the original.)

            2007 With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.

            2008 The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man's merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.

            2009 Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God's gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us "co-heirs" with Christ and worthy of obtaining "the promised inheritance of eternal life."60 The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness.61 "Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due. . . . Our merits are God's gifts."62

            2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God's wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.

            2011 The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.

            After earth's exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone. . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.63

          • Gary Torkeo

            Many.

          • If nobody deserves heaven (or salvation), it is not unfair to deprive people of it.

            How about letting some people have it but not others?

          • Rob Abney

            How about letting everyone who wants it have it?!

          • How about letting everyone who wants it have it?!

            That depends on what those who want it have to do to prove they want it.

          • Rob Abney

            It doesn't depend upon your actions Doug, it only depends upon you wanting it, which indicates that you will accept the gift of grace.

          • It doesn't depend upon your actions Doug, it only depends upon you wanting it, which indicates that you will accept the gift of grace.

            I definitely want to avoid burning in hell for eternity. So, nothing more is required of me? If that's what I want, then that's what I get?

          • Rob Abney

            That desire to avoid hell is helpful but cannot be in place of desiring Heaven.

          • So it's not enough that I would prefer heaven? That doesn't count as wanting heaven?

          • Rob Abney

            That works for me Doug, of course it's not up to me! But a preference for Heaven rather than Hell is much better than simply avoiding Hell no matter what the other alternative might be.

          • But a preference for Heaven rather than Hell is much better than simply avoiding Hell no matter what the other alternative might be.

            Actually, it's hard to know what I would be avoiding. Christians are all over the place when they try to tell me what it's like. Most of them seem pretty sure that the lake of fire is at least metaphorically apt. Some of them, though, seriously suggest that for us atheists, it will be preferable to heaven just because God won't be there.

          • Rob Abney

            That goes against what you wrote earlier

            I definitely want to avoid burning in hell for eternity

            But if you want to be separated from God then that is where you want to be. An excerpt from the CCC "This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell."

          • That goes against what you wrote earlier

            I am responsible for keeping my own beliefs consistent with other. If some of them are inconsistent with what some Christians say, that isn't my problem.

          • Rob Abney

            I'm not sure what you are referring to. It was your own two statements that seemed contradictory.

          • It was your own two statements that seemed contradictory.

            Perhaps I wasn't paying proper attention. Which two statements are you referring to?

          • An excerpt from the CCC "This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell."

            I don't accept the church's dogma that my unbelief in God is tantamount to a rejection of God or his authority.

          • Rob Abney

            I didn't post it to ask you to submit to it, I intended it as one Christian description of Hell since you said that you've been told of many different versions.

          • you said that you've been told of many different versions [of Hell].

            Yes, and that was one of them. You're not telling me anything new.

            But I wasn't objecting to that. I was objecting to the equating of unbelief with rebellion.

          • Rob Abney

            You are rejecting the phrase "self-exclusion from communion with God" ?

          • I am rejecting the supposition that if I don't believe there is any God to commune with, it is because I don't want that communion.

          • David Nickol

            If some people get more than they have a right to or deserve, why is that unfair to the others? If I am walking around Manhattan and occasionally choose to give a beggar a dollar, am I being unfair because I do not give every beggar a dollar?

          • If some people get more than they have a right to or deserve, why is that unfair to the others? If I am walking around Manhattan and occasionally choose to give a beggar a dollar, am I being unfair because I do not give every beggar a dollar?

            Good question. Seriously.

            A convenience store where I always stop on my way to work often has a panhandler hanging out near the entrance. Once in a great while, more or less on a whim, I'll give them some change, without feeling bothered on the occasions when I don't.

            But then . . . . My father had four children, of whom I was the oldest. Economic times were hard. When I wanted a bicycle, he said he couldn't afford to buy four so that we could all have one, and it wouldn't be fair if only I had one. Although I was as selfish as any other child of my age, that made sense to me.

            I'm not sure what the difference is, but there is one.

          • Rob Abney

            This was about social justice. Your Dad was in the position to distribute the goods/resources of the family among the members. He could've chosen to distribute a bike to you if that was proportionate to your need or desire or merit. An example that I've heard is how the last piece of cake is distributed. If you and your brother cut it then you will cut it as precisely equal as possible but if your Mom cuts it she might decide to cut a bigger piece for the older brother in proportion to the size difference between the two brothers. Maybe you and your brothers were so close in age so that you didn't have any proportionate difference.
            Is social justice observed in Heaven? I would say yes, "those that are given much, much will be expected" and "whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly", and finally Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the vineyard laborers.

          • He could've chosen to distribute a bike to you if that was proportionate to your need or desire or merit.

            That was my problem. My need was no greater than that of my siblings, and neither was my merit. And as he often reminded us, for people in our financial situation, desire was simply irrelevant. If we didn't need it, we couldn't have it, and sometimes we couldn't have it even if we did need it.

          • David Nickol

            The problem I see with the answer I gave (in which I was attempting to support my version of what I think has been one Catholic argument I am familiar with) is that it doesn't answer the question of what God owes to human beings as their creator. "Salvation" (heaven) may be a gift that nobody actually deserves, so it may be "fair" of God not to grant everyone eternal bliss in heaven. But if the only alternative to heaven for God's own creatures is eternal torment, it seems difficult to me to consider such a creator God all-loving! I think the Catholic belief is it is better to exist than not to exist. Existence is a gift. But I do not see how it is better to exist than not to exist if existence is eternal torment.

          • I was attempting to support my version of what I think has been one Catholic argument I am familiar with

            Catholic soteriology is definitely more nuanced than the various Protestant versions that I'm more familiar with. But of all the varieties of Christianity that I've heard about so far, the only one I can make any sense of is universalism.

          • Michael Murray
          • You sound like you're a primate

            With good reason.

            And thanks for the link.

          • VicqRuiz

            If you have repeatedly stated that you want every beggar to have a dollar, and if you have an infinite number of dollars to give, then arguably you -are- being unfair.

          • Rob Abney

            What if you had an infinite number of dollars and gave one to a beggar everyday but he refused it everyday. Should you use your infinite wealth to force him to accept your gifts?

          • VicqRuiz

            It depends on how badly you want him to have that dollar. If in the final analysis you don't really care, you can of course pass him by.

            I have my doubts about the analogy anyway. Being human, you can have desires which are fulfilled or are unfulfilled (the beggar takes or refuses the dollar). God, being omnipotent and unchanging, can have no unfulfilled desires.

          • Rob Abney

            You can go further and say God has no desires let alone unfulfilled desires.

          • VicqRuiz

            Quite correct. Possibly my biggest objection to the Christian God is that at the same time he is characterized as tri-omni and eternally unchanging, he is also relentlessly described anthropomorphically as desiring this, wanting that, hating this, loving the other, being pleased in A, disappointed in B.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            As I understand it, this is the tension that Augustine struggled with that led him re-conceive the concept of "eternity". As a believer in the Incarnation, he couldn't just say that God is eternal in the kairotic sense, since a major implication of the Incarnation is that God is present in chronological time. For Augustine then, God's eternality does not refer to kairos, nor does it refer to "all of chronological time". It instead refers to a sort of intermediate concept: that which integrates chronological time, that which draws all of chronological time together into a quasi-kairotic moments.

            [This paraphrases, to the best of my memory, Charles Taylor's discussion of this in A Secular Age]

          • Rob Abney

            When you are presented with confusing descriptors of someone, the easiest way to verify what he is really like is to get to know him. In this case you could start talking to Him rather than just talking about Him. Daily prayer helps you to know Him. Catholic mass is one continuous prayer to God.

          • VicqRuiz

            Based on my history of posts here, I suppose it would be reasonable for you to assume that I've never tried that.

          • Rob Abney

            I can't recall if you were a former Catholic or former Christian of another type or a lifelong unbeliever. But I've recommended the same action to others here and they have refused to try but it would be interesting to hear how daily prayer would affect you after a consistent effort.

          • VicqRuiz

            I've drifted between soft atheism/agnosticism/deism all my life.

            And I have asked God to speak to me if he will. More than once and without result.

            Which has led me to the conclusion that if Christianity is true, it's Calvinist, and I'm not elected.

          • Rob Abney

            It is up to you to become one of the elect. Today is a good day to try again. Try surrounding yourself with others who are good at praying, find someone who will pray the rosary with you for instance. I'll pray for your prayers to be answered too.

          • VicqRuiz

            "It is up to you"

            Yes, I know. It's my fault.

            Respectfully, it's not the first time I have been told that.

          • Rob Abney

            I didn't intend it as an obligation that you have and didn't fulfill but rather as an opportunity we all have. I could win the lottery tomorrow if I buy a ticket today, if I don't buy a ticket I don't consider the fact that I didn't win the lottery to be "my fault". I don't know if that sounds better or not, but when I say "it's up to you" I simply mean that you can play an active role in this process. And the main point I wanted to emphasize is that you have a much better opportunity to actually know God rather than just know about God by praying everyday. And if you and I both pray that you will know God then it will happen; Again, Amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Hi Rob.

            It is up to you to become one of the elect.

            On Catholic orthodoxy as I understand it, it is not "up to an individual (e.g. @VicqRuiz:disqus ) to become one of the elect". One is elected (passive voice). One doesn't elect oneself.

            The idea that we are in control is the heresy of Pelagianism: the notion that one can, by dint of one's own efforts, save oneself. A Catholic doesn't need to be as extreme as a Calvinist in rejecting Pelagianism, but it must be rejected nonetheless. A reasonable intermediate (and Catholic) position is that election and the opportunity for salvation will come in God's good time, and not at a time of our choosing, nor under conditions that we control by dint of our efforts.

            * I am glossing over a distinction that one could possibly make between election and "opportunity for salvation", but I don't think this distinction, even if valid, is necessary in this context.

          • VicqRuiz

            I agree Jim. If Christianity is true, and if it is God's will that I be saved, I expect that it will eventually come to pass.

          • Rob Abney

            Jim, some people, probably the majority actually, will only be concerned with a summary statement of such theological discussions, such as "so how does it affect me". In that case I would consider it more fruitful to empower someone to actively participate in their own salvation by using theologically-inexact wording rather than letting the conversation be summed up the way vicruiz quite naturally just did by basically saying "if God wants me He'll come get me". I prefer St Thomas' techniques, "to convert somebody, go and take them by the hand and guide them".

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Sorry Rob. I don't mean to criticize your efforts to be helpful, and that was a bit rude as I was butting in on your conversation.

            I am just a bit sensitive -- perhaps overly so -- to the fact that many people in @VicqRuiz's position seem to have the same reaction that he did ("I know, it's my fault"). I want to be very clear that the "it's my fault" inference is not justified on Catholic teaching.

            It's a fine line, I guess. One wants to encourage continued searching and a continued open-ness to God, without inflicting neurosis on anyone due to misunderstandings of how grace works.

          • Rob Abney

            No need to apologize, I enjoy your input. I don't want anyone having a neurosis either and I wouldn't tell someone specifically that "it is your fault", however universally speaking "it is our fault" and fortunately there is a remedy for what we lack, grace. Can that grace work if someone doesn't actively accept it?

          • It is up to you to become one of the elect. Today is a good day to try again.

            I first have to know who the elect are. A church that I used to belong to says that its members, but no Catholics, are the elect. Why should I not try to rejoin them?

          • Rob Abney

            Why did you leave that church? I wouldn’t advise that you return there unless you've worked through your differences.

          • Why did you leave that church?

            Because I began to doubt that what they said was the word of God was actually the word of God, and nobody could give me a reason to stop doubting other than assurances that I would burn in hell if I didn't stop doubting.

          • Rob Abney

            If nothing's changed since that time then I would not advise you to return there.
            The Catholic church is still an option for you.

          • The Catholic church is still an option for you.

            How does it differ? I still doubt that what it says is the word of God is actually the word of God, and it can't give me any reason to stop doubting.

          • Rob Abney

            Well, if you are truly interested, I suggest that you simply go to mass and listen to the people pray to God. You won't need to consider whether you are hearing from God. It is called the sacrifice of the mass, you will be participating by giving your time.
            Here's an easy way to find a mass near you, https://masstimes.org/

          • How does it differ? I still doubt that what it says is the word of God is actually the word of God, and it can't give me any reason to stop doubting.

            Well, if you are truly interested, I suggest that you simply go to mass and listen to the people pray to God.

            I don't see how that addresses my question. You seem to assume that my disbelief arises from unfamiliarity. It does not. I have attended many masses and paid careful attention to what was going on.

          • Rob Abney

            Maybe I don't understand what your question is, but I was assuming that you were not interested in attending a church that focused mostly on reading the bible.

          • I was assuming that you were not interested in attending a church that focused mostly on reading the bible.

            What I am not interested in is joining any institution that advocates beliefs for which it can offer no cogent arguments in their defense.

          • Rob Abney

            Do you belong to any institutions?

          • Do you belong to any institutions?

            Not at present. I belong to one Facebook group, and I would not define that as an institution.

          • Rob Abney

            It sounds like you are not interested in joining any institution and/or you don't trust any institution, seems like an issue not exclusive to your religious beliefs.

          • seems like an issue not exclusive to your religious beliefs.

            It's not, and it has nothing to do with my feelings about institutions per se. It's about my unwillingness to believe something just because someone says "You must believe," especially when they also suggest that such unwillingness is a character defect.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            You could do that, but FWIW that would be different from the direction that Pope Benedict XVI took :

            The philosophical dimension to be noted in this biblical vision, and its importance from the standpoint of the history of religions, lies in the fact that on the one hand we find ourselves before a strictly metaphysical image of God: God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation—the Logos, primordial reason—is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love. Eros is thus supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape.

            http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20051225_deus-caritas-est.html

          • Rob Abney

            We are using the term desire differently. You are using desire as love, I'm using it (and I think Vicruiz was also) as wanting.
            God's love is His will, He wills it and it happens.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I don't think you can draw that distinction in the framework provided by that encyclical. Or rather, you have to draw a slightly different distinction. Where Benedict refers to "eros" in the excerpt I provided, he is referring to the "wanting" side of love, also referred to in that same encyclical as "ascending love", in contrast to "agape" which is referred to as "descending love" (descending not in a bad way, but in the sense of a gift being given "downward" from a place of fullness to a place of need). So, in that context, God's "erotic" love is a "wanting" love. However, God being God, he wants things in a way that does not entail seeking his own advantage or "closing in upon himself" (incurvatus in se), so one can distinguish that "pure" type of wanting from concupiscence-flavored wanting.

  • “the 33,000 Objection is rarely stated with more precision than this”

    Then let me have a go.

    Look for line #45 in the “Status of Global Christianity” from the International Bulletin of Mission Research (http://www.internationalbulletin.org/issues/2015-01/2015-01-028-johnson.pdf ). It says that there are 45,000 Christian denominations, growing at a rate of two per day.

    It is rather embarrassing that the word of God can't be clear enough to unambiguously inform humans about God's plan.

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      I don't think he was referring to numerical precision. The type of precision that is sought would address questions such as: "To what extent do those 45,000 denominations have substantive disagreements?" It's not like it's a partition of Christian belief-space with 45,000 disjoint sets.

      • Yes, I agree. 45,000 does overestimate the disagreement in some respects.

        Still, as an outsider, I would think that there should be a convergence if there is some objective truth here. That there is continual blurring of "Christianity" suggests that it's all manmade.

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          I would think that there should be a convergence if there is some objective truth here.

          I agree with this 100%. As Teilhard de Chardin put it, "Everything that rises must converge".

          So, the questions then become, e.g. :

          1. To what extent has Christianity converged [ETA: and re-converged] on recognizable cross-denominational orthodoxy?
          2. More broadly, to what extent have the major world religions converged upon a "perennial philosophy"-like common core? (Especially as compared to the more widely varied and localized religious systems that existed pre-"axial age"?)
          3. To the extent that there are outstanding points of contention (and of course, there are), what degree of reconciliation seems possible? (E.g. certain strains of Buddhism seem to be largely compatible with Christianity).
          4. And, exactly how long would we expect it would take humans to converge on such fundamental questions, given that we have a hard enough time converging even on more mundane scientific matters?

          I don't think there are easy answers to any of these questions, and I'm not asking them rhetorically, as if to support my point. I'm just suggesting that some in the atheist camp seem to unreflectively adopt a narrative of overwhelming divergence and fracture, when the reality seems to be a good bit more complicated.

          • how long would we expect it would take humans to converge on such fundamental questions, given that we have a hard enough time converging even on more mundane scientific matters?

            Science does converge. Religion doesn’t.

            Look at the map of world religions and imagine that it was a map of world science (geocentrism here and heliocentrism there; evolution here and Creationism there; and so on). In modern science, the map is pretty much all one color. Sure, it can take a few decades for different theories to work themselves out and become consensus or get rejected, but it doesn’t work that way in religion. It’s not hard to imagine String Theory becoming the consensus or being forgotten in a few decades. It’s inconceivable that Shintoism (to pick just one religion) will peacefully sweep the West simply because it is a better explanation of the world.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            In modern science, the map is pretty much all one color.

            It is with regard to specific questions, e.g. you mention good examples with heliocentrism (understood relatively, of course) and (presumably neo-Darwinian) evolution. I think it would be better to stick to such specifics and avoid your initial sweeping statement about "modern science".

            If we now colour the map according to the "religioius belief" that one must undergo some degree of asceticism in order to transcend one's own ego, and that this latter is necessary to come to a state of fulfillment, then we also, I suspect, end up with near monochrome. So here also, let's be specific. Speaking in total generalities about "modern science" and "religion" isn't going to get us far, I think.

          • It is with regard to specific questions, e.g. you mention good examples with heliocentrism (understood relatively, of course) and (presumably neo-Darwinian) evolution. I think it would be better to stick to such specifics and avoid your initial sweeping statement about "modern science".

            I mean modern science (science since maybe 200 years ago) as opposed to medieval or earlier science, which didn’t work the same way.

            then we also, I suspect, end up with near monochrome.

            Religions today can’t even agree on the number or names of god(s). The only thing they agree on is that there is a supernatural realm with one or more entities. That’s it.

          • Rob Abney

            Did you read Dr. Bonnette's essay on Epistemological Realism here at SN? He poses the question of how can you even know that science is real and not just an image formed by our sensory system.
            Im not sure why you compare science to religion anyway, they're not in competition.

          • He poses the question of how can you even know that science is real and not just an image formed by our sensory system.

            Sounds like Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.

            Science is tested, and it does well (as I’m sure you can appreciate, since we’re communicating using technology built on science).

            Im not sure why you compare science to religion anyway, they're not in competition.

            In the contest of teaching us new things about the world, they’re in competition, and science is the one that delivers. If you want to say that religion has no interest in connecting with the outside world so that it can be tested, I’d agree.

          • "In the contest of teaching us new things about the world, they’re in competition, and science is the one that delivers."

            Sadly, you're perpetuating the tired old "conflict" myth here. Science and religion are not in conflict. Indeed, they both teach us new things, but different things.

            And science isn't the one that delivers (I presume you mean "delivers knowledge.") It is one of the effective tools we have for delivering knowledge.

          • Sadly, you're perpetuating the tired old "conflict" myth here. Science and religion are not in conflict. Indeed, they both teach us new things, but different things.

            From a Catholic perspective, OK. There are other Christians who are adamant that the Bible contains new science. And, of course, there are the young-earth Creationists who say that every scientific claim about the world must be correct.

            And science isn't the one that delivers (I presume you mean "delivers knowledge.") It is one of the effective tools we have for delivering knowledge.

            What other tools do you have in mind? If you’re thinking of revelation or something similar, give me some reason to accept that this is reliable.

          • VicqRuiz

            What "new things" have we learned about God since the days of Anselm, Scotus and Aquinas??

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Here's an example of some learning over that time period:

            Benedict XVI: There is no doubt that on this point [ of salvation outside the Church ] we are faced with a profound evolution of dogma. While the fathers and theologians of the Middle Ages could still be of the opinion that, essentially, the whole human race had become Catholic and that paganism existed now only on the margins, the discovery of the New World at the beginning of the modern era radically changed perspectives. In the second half of the last century it has been fully affirmed the understanding that God cannot let go to perdition all the unbaptized and that even a purely natural happiness for them does not represent a real answer to the question of human existence. If it is true that the great missionaries of the 16th century were still convinced that those who are not baptized are forever lost – and this explains their missionary commitment – in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council that conviction was finally abandoned.

            http://www.catholicworldreport.com/2016/03/17/full-text-of-benedict-xvis-recent-rare-and-lengthy-interview/

            At first glance this is a learning about the Church and not about God per se, but since we understand God to work through the Church, everything learned about the Church is, indirectly, something learned about God.

          • Rob Abney

            Sounds like Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.

            No, not at all, I would encourage you to read Bonnette's, he'll often respond graciously to any objections.

            Science is tested, and it does well

            That's a pragmatic approach tha Bertrand Russell dismissed: There's a difference between stating an indicator and giving the meaning. For example, when the streetlights turn on at the end of a day, that's an indicator, a sign, that evening is coming on. It would be an obvious mistake to say that the word "evening" just means "the time that the streetlights turn on".

            If you want to say that religion has no interest in connecting with the outside world so that it can be tested, I’d agree

            I would not say that, "religion"has always been about understanding the "outside" world, the material as well as the immaterial.

          • In the contest of teaching us new things about the world, they’re in competition, and science is the one that delivers.

            As long as you carefully restrict "things about the world" to cover only a fraction of the answer to "What constitutes human thriving?", your claim is defensible. And yet, so much of Christianity—and I believe many religions—have tremendously more to say about that question.

            As it turns out, humans quarrel fight much more over differing ideas about what is good for them than they do about the mass of the electron. So, any area of human endeavor which has significant dealings with … political/​spiritual matters will experience considerable conflict. You see this with science when it becomes politically/​spiritually relevant: is nuclear power safer than fossil fuel? Is a strong family important for civilization or should its functions be [partially] seized by the State? Should mediating institutions be encouraged or eroded?

            In carefully ignoring political/​spiritual matters, you ignore the very preconditions required for the rise and practice of science. For example, without sufficient egalitarianism the practice of science can easily reinforce power differentials, as Bertrand Russell knew. There is no law of nature which prevents scientific and technological progress from increasing injustice and human misery. (Elysium, anyone?) But egalitarianism does not appear to be one of those "things about the world".

          • As long as you carefully restrict "things about the world" to cover only a fraction of the answer to "What constitutes human thriving?", your claim is defensible. And yet, so much of Christianity—and I believe many religions—have tremendously more to say about that question.

            What is common among the religions of the world? They can’t even agree on how many gods there are or what their name(s) are.

            In carefully ignoring political/spiritual matters, you ignore the very preconditions required for the rise and practice of science.

            My interest is in finding the best route(s) to new knowledge about the world. Science is a good one (more expansively: the scientific method, with its emphasis on experiment, evidence, and repeatability).

          • What is common among the religions of the world? They can’t even agree on how many gods there are or what their name(s) are.

            What is common among all humans' answers to "What constitutes human thriving?"? Remarkably little. And it turns out that when people are dedicated to an ideology, the smarter they are the more they can and do rationalize away conflicting evidence: Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government. Again, see what happens when science gets politicized, such as the safety of nuclear power vs. fossil fuel.

            I'm not saying there is no singular (or at least less pluralistic) answer to the human thriving question. Instead, I'm saying that if there is, there are confounding factors which cause a great deal of pluralism. Do you care about correctly identifying those confounding factors, or are you content to just blame religion and pretend that doing more science will solve any pluralism problem we might have?

            My interest is in finding the best route(s) to new knowledge about the world. Science is a good one (more expansively: the scientific method, with its emphasis on experiment, evidence, and repeatability).

            Will the scientific method tell us whether consumerism is good for humanity? Or does that not fall under the category of "knowledge about the world"?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            The only thing they agree on is that there is a supernatural realm with one or more entities. That’s it.

            I see. Well, case closed then! That was easy!

        • Rob Abney

          there is continual blurring of "Christianity" suggests that it's all manmade.

          What else could it be if not man-made, of course its man-made, it's man's understanding of the collective wisdom of the ages gathered in many ways including through special revelations.
          The Catholic church was instituted to be the keeper of the faith, and despite its many fallible men it has kept the truth of the faith uncorrupted.

          • despite its many fallible men it has kept the truth of the faith uncorrupted.

            That's one opinion. Millions of non-Catholics have differing opinions. My own opinion is that it's nothing but manmade, just like all the other religions.

    • "It is rather embarrassing that the word of God can't be clear enough to unambiguously inform humans about God's plan."

      Fair enough, but the next step is to take a fact that is prima facie embarrassing and turn it into a valid objection with plausible premises.

      One caveat at the outset: the growth of distinct denominational expressions is not all a sign of fracturing unity. Much of it is borne of a laudable effort to indigenize to particular cultural and linguistic groups.

      • The example that pops to mind for me is co-opting Saturnalia and Yule for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. "You guys want to party at the solstice? No problem--party away, but let me change the justification a little bit."

        I'm not sure what's laudable here. The truth is the truth. To soften or minimize the cultural gap at the expense of truth isn't really the right way to go.

        I remember someone telling me about their discussion with someone in Peru (?) about some local belief in "The Virgin of ___" (the place doesn't much matter). She tried to convey that there being just *one* virgin was a nonnegotiable part of the story.

        • "I remember someone telling me about their discussion with someone in Peru (?) about some local belief in "The Virgin of ___" (the place doesn't much matter). She tried to convey that there being just *one* virgin was a nonnegotiable part of the story."

          It seems you're confused about why the same Virgin Mary is sometimes referred to as the "Virgin of [Place A]" and other times the "Virgin of [Place B]". Usually it's because the same Virgin Mary appeared at different times, in different places, and sometimes even under different forms. But these titles refer to the same Virgin Mary.

          It's just as if I compared "Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan" to "White Sox Michael Jordan" to "Washington Wizards Michael Jordan." It's the same Jordan, albeit at different times and places.

          • these titles refer to the same Virgin Mary.

            If you say so. This is noncanonical and sounds like fan fiction. I guess this falls under the "tradition" category within the Catholic church.

            Seems to me that this is risky business with no good evidence for whether something is made up or if Mary really did appear here or there. But, hey--it's your religion. I would have thought that Rauser's "laudable effort to indigenize" would quickly get out of hand.

          • "This is noncanonical and sounds like fan fiction."

            I have no idea what you mean in this context by the term "noncanonical." Usually that term refers to something not found in the canon of Scripture. But so what?

            Are you suggesting that only things found in the Bible are true? Or only what's in the Bible should be held by Christians? If so, then you're starting to sound like a Protestant! You're presuming sola Scriptura, a doctrine Catholics don't accept.

            "Seems to me that this is risky business with no good evidence for whether something is made up or if Mary really did appear here or there."

            I'm not arguing for or against any of the Marian appearances here. In fact, the Catholic Church doesn't require any of its faithful to believe in any of them. You can reject all of them, on the basis of the (lack of) evidence, and be a good Catholic.

            However, I do think there is a substantial amount of evidence--empirical, historical, and testimonial--for Mary's appearances at Guadalupe, Fatima, and Lourdes, in particular.

            The fact that you seem unaware of any way to adjudicate between authentic appearances and inauthentic ones make me think you have barely looked into the Church's process of verification, which is extensive and not at all casual. I think you'd find it surprisingly thorough.

          • Are you suggesting that only things found in the Bible are true? Or only what's in the Bible should be held by Christians? If so, then you're star ting to sound like a Protestant! You're presuming sola Scriptura, a doctrine Catholics don't accept.

            OK. But where is the guiding hand of God? On the selection of the canon of scripture, I’m guessing? I’d have thought that a contemporary story, by contrast, would be hard to trust.

            In fact, the Catholic Church doesn't require any of its faithful to believe in them. You can reject all of them, on the basis of the (lack of) evidence, and be a good Catholic.

            Right, but you can accept any or all of them, right? I’m an outsider, so maybe this is all accepted without raising an eyebrow, but I’m still thinking of the validation process. If there’s a tradition that traces its history to a tale told by some random farmer, I’d have thought that that would be inherently hard to accept.

            Yet the fact that you seem unaware of any way to adjudicate between authentic appearances and inauthentic ones make me think you have barely looked into the Church's process of verification, which is extensive and not at all casual.

            To some extent, yes, I’ve not studied this in any detail. Any process that uses fallible people, from witnesses to adjudicators, and then can conclude that this is indeed a sign from heaven seems rickety.

      • Instead, I would say Christianity started with a small group of adherents and grew and branched out like all other growing religions that became major faiths with mutating points of view, diverging like branches on Darwin's tree of life, some branches thriving while others going extinct, and still others remaining small yet still dividing like the story of some small independent fundamentalist churches who split over pastoral disagreements, then split again, etc. Christian history is a history of schisms too numerous to mention. As for Christian missionary societies, they compete as well, for souls, partly because they believe their denomination is the most genuine in its understanding of salvation, God, the Bible, holy rites. The influx of western missionaries into countries that formerly consisted of churches of one major denomination, like Catholic, or Orthodox, has created plenty of trouble. Even the competition in some African countries of preachers for congregants has led to outrageous claims, hoaxes and money grubbing. While in China out in the country many independent end times Christian sects have arisen, and they too are generating animosities toward one another. Please feel free to read my long blog piece at Scrivenings on Missionaries that contains plenty of information and examples from the news of which you may not be aware.

  • epicurus

    I suppose it's a drop in the bucket, but some denominations were probably founded not because of disagreement, but perhaps location or logistics, like why there would need to be a southern baptist denomination in Canada
    http://www.csbs.edu/history.html

  • epicurus

    Any Mormons here? Care to make a case for God using the confusing book of Mormon to convey His truth and message of salvation while maintaining He is under no obligation to provide a clear message?

  • Raymond

    And I can say that this journey has made it manifestly clear (to me, at least) that Christianity is not simply a matter of acquiring the right information (doctrines and practices). There is intrinsic value in the journey of attempting to figure out the faith, and that journey is only made possible when a lack of clarity exists.

    While I appreciate and respect what you are saying, this is a subjective statement. It is clear TO YOU that there is value in the journey, but is the journey necessary for salvation? There are believers that do not experience this journey. In fact, the lack of this journey in my Catholic experience is part of what led me to atheism. Are there believers that do not experience this journey? Does a lack of this experience invalidate their belief? Is their belief in "the right set of beliefs and practices" sufficient for their salvation?

  • David Nickol

    And does God “grade on a curve” in consideration of factors like a hard life and low intelligence?

    I know what is meant here, but it is not an accurate description of grading on the curve. (A very minor point, I know!)

  • David Nickol

    I am not sure what this post is doing on Strange Notions, because the Catholic Church has a fairly simple answer to the problem. There are thousands of Christian denominations because individuals and groups who broke away from the "one true Church" are in error. Yes, revelation may not be crystal clear, but Jesus instituted an ongoing organization to interpret it with the aid of the Holy Spirit, so that lingering questions could be answered—and even answered infallibly, if need be.

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      [Glossing over any sarcasm that may be in your comment ... ] I'm afraid that doesn't get you there, since even an authoritative interpreter must be interpreted.

      • David Nickol

        No sarcasm was intended at all.

        That is an answer I think is quite reasonable based on my 12 years of Catholic education and a lifetime of reading. The Catholic Church makes very strong claims to have answers guaranteed by divine guidance.

      • Rob Abney

        Who interprets an interpreter who has authority to interpret?

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          You do! :-)

    • revelation may not be crystal clear, but Jesus instituted an ongoing organization to interpret it with the aid of the Holy Spirit,

      It has never been made clear to me that I have any good reason to believe that.

      • David Nickol

        I am not asserting that as a fact, but rather pointing out that it's Catholic teaching. Consequently, the OP's argument would seem to be less persuasive for believing Catholics than for other Christian denominations. It is not for the individual Catholic to struggle to understand what is necessary for salvation. The Catholic Church provides the answers.

        • I am not asserting that as a fact, but rather pointing out that it's Catholic teaching.

          I understand that. My point is that for non-Catholics, "The Church says so" doesn't carry much epistemological weight.

  • David Nickol

    The obvious answer is that Christianity is still in its infancy, and within a few more thousand years, all Christian denominations will eventually arrive at one body of shared truths and merge.

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      I'm guessing this is in jest, but why not?

      Or, to be slightly more nuanced about it, perhaps after a few thousand more years we will have winnowed things away to arrive at consonant and compatible polydoxy and polypraxy that is mutually recognized as expressing and responding to the same truth.

      • David Nickol

        Yes, that was inn jest. The point in my mind when I wrote it is that this is a topic for which you can "make stuff up" and give a variety of answers, none of which can be supported with evidence of any kind.

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          Since when is having hope for the future "making stuff up"? The point is, the jury is still out, so let's not go claiming things like "religious belief does not converge" (especially when there is plenty of suggestive, albeit inconclusive, evidence to the contrary).

          • David Nickol

            Since when is having hope for the future "making stuff up"?

            One might hope that there will be a convergence of all Christian denominations (or even all religions) some time in the future, but to offer that hope as an answer to the problem of "confused revelation" rather than pure conjecture seems foolish to me. We have two thousand years of evidence, not only with Christianity but with every religion I can think of, that religious movements tend to fragment rather than converge. Also, there is nothing in Scripture that I know of that even hints at a convergence of all Christian denominations. So there is nothing on which to base a belief in some future convergence. And of course one can reasonably ask the question why, if there is going to be a future convergence, has there been two thousand years of fragmentation?

          • David Nickol

            I will add one more point. According to the Catholic Church, public revelation ended with the death of the last apostle. Consequently, if at some point all Christian denominations will converge, it will have to happen based on what is already known.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            According to the Catholic Church, public revelation ended with the death of the last apostle.

            That is true, but once we understand exactly what is meant by that, I'm not sure it is much of a stumbling block.

            As we are reminded in the other comments on this page, the Catholic Church does not disavow (nor does it officially propose belief in) the various Marian apparitions. If those phenomena actually occurred, and they aren't revelatory, then I don't know what is. And they were certainly public in the sense that many people claim to be witnesses. So, given an un-nuanced reading of the teaching you cited, how can it be that the Church even allows for this possibility of such "public revelation"? Why don't they just reject it out of hand?

            Or, to take a very different example: it is -- I am pretty sure -- uncontested that the Church views the deliverances of science as being revelatory of God's nature. And those revelations are surely public, and ongoing. So again, how can this be reconciled with the teaching you cite?

            And the answer, it seems fairly clear to me, is that the teaching you cite must be understood as referring specifically to public revelation that is definitive of Christ, the Gospel event, and Christian witness. Other (ongoing) public revelation may be corroborative of, or illuminative of, the definitive public revelation of Christ. If you think I'm interpreting that incorrectly, I'd be curious to see a response to my points about Marian apparitions and general revelation (i.e. science).

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            But as I said in my note to Bob, this evidence manifestly does not go in only one direction.

            Just consider the relationship between Catholic and Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran, or Catholic and Henrician communions since Vatican II. Have these communions been on a trajectory of convergence or divergence during that time period? And for a more recent "bottom-up" example, do the charismatic movements within Catholicism represent a convergence or a divergence with "evangelical" Christianity?

            Now let's "zoom out" to the larger picture. As I already wrote in my note to Bob: We had thousands of localized religions pre-"Axial Age". Now we have most people in the world identifying with one (or perhaps 2, for rare birds) of 7 or 8 major world "religions". I know there is substantial diversity within each of these world religions, but when you have millions of people self-identifying in the same way, that is not totally inconsequential, and it does represent a convergence relative to the human religious map before the Axial Age.

  • David Nickol

    A somewhat unstated assumption here is that the Christian concept of "salvation" has a clear meaning, and some individuals will be "saved" while others will not be. Even within the Catholic Church there are some who believe all will be "saved."

    • "Even within the Catholic Church there are some who believe all will be "saved.""

      Just a point of clarification: the belief that all will be saved has been formally condemned by the Church; it is incompatible with Catholic teaching. However, the hope that all will be saved is not only compatible but obligatory for Catholics.

      • For further clarification: A Catholic may not regard it as certain either that all or that not all will be saved. Am I understanding you correctly?

      • Arthur Jeffries

        There are Catholic clergy and religious who openly identify as universalists and promote a universalist theology, yet I can't name one Catholic who has been condemned or disciplined for being a universalist since the Council. Because of that I question whether Rome currently views universalism as dissent. Do you know of at least one Catholic who has been condemned for his or her universalism since 1965?

      • David Nickol

        This seems to have logical problems. If the belief that all will be saved has been formally condemned, then one would logically conclude that it is untrue. However, if it is obligatory to hope that all men will be saved, then it is obligatory to hope for something that has been declared false.

        It might make sense to say the Church does not teach that all will be saved, no one can say with any certainty that all will be saved, and no one should rely on the belief that he or she will be saved based on a belief that everyone will be saved. But how can the Church "formally condemn" a belief that may be true?

  • Mike17

    The 33,000 objection mostly arises from the Protestant Revolt of the sixteenth century. Luther invented two notions: firstly that only the Bible contains Revelation; secondly that we each decide for ourselves what the Bible means. Since then, every Tom, Dick, Harry and Sally has indeed decided for him/herself what the Bible means and they have come up with umpteen different and conflicting interpretations. What does this tell us? It tells us that God could not have agreed with Luther. God could not want his Revelation to mean different things to different people. So the first response to the 33,000 objection is that it’s the result of false doctrine. Now, if God wanted his Revelation to be clear, how would he go about doing that? He would establish an authority which would determine the meaning of Revelation. That way there would be only one meaning. And that, of course, is what he did. He established the Catholic Church. And the authority of that Church was accepted, at least in the West, until Luther’s Protestant Revolt. Since then, thanks to Martin Luther, we have had doctrinal chaos and umpteen different Protestant denominations. Now the folk who belong to these denominations are Christians but there is a big difference between the true nature of Christianity, on the one hand, and what some Christians believe, on the other. Christianity should not be confused with what Christians believe. Christianity can have only one set of doctrines and the fact that some folks have invented their own doesn’t alter that.

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      Since then, thanks to Martin Luther, we have had doctrinal chaos

      Respectfully, this is too simplistic a reading of history, even as a first pass approximation. Luther didn't "invent" those notions out of thin air. The theological and historical trends that led up to the Reformation were well underway for centuries prior to 1517. For example, the groundwork for the "flight from authority" was in substantial measure laid by mendicant preachers (e.g. Dominicans), who sought a "leveling up" of lay spirituality, such that the common folk would no longer just go through the motions. That increasing degree of personal ownership of one's spirituality was one of the contributing factors to the modern conception of the individual, which now underwrites the fact that most people, to greater and lesser degrees, aren't going to let a Church hierarchy tell them what to believe (even while many of us still recognize a valid teaching authority in that hierarchy). This is just one facet of the way that "doctrinal chaos" resulted from the unfolding of a very (orthodox, pre-Reformation) Christian logic. It's not all bad; some of that chaos (or diversity, depending on one's perspective) has relatively pristine Christian roots.

      And of course, diversity doesn't have to imply schism. Luther himself never intended to break with the Church, only to offer a (strong) internal critique. Some of the culpability for the split surely has to be laid at the feet of the Church hierarchy.

      • Arthur Jeffries

        Have you read Luther? His writings and actions which led up to his excommunication were highly inflammatory. Compare him to Erasmus.

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          I've only read short excerpts. I know he wrote some awful things, e.g. about Jews. And I get that the Church had to identify certain of his fundamental premises as heretical. I have no problem with that. But that doesn't change the fact that he had valid concerns, e.g. about indulgences.

          I'm not going to pretend to put myself in Pope Leo X's shoes, but I suppose my impression is that, if someone like Erasmus had been Pope, he could have talked Luther off the ledge, so to speak, partly by recognizing that a good part of Luther's ire was justified (and he surely recognized that, since he complained of some of the same things in his own writings).

          I agree that Erasmus provides a much better role model for how "protest from the inside" should work.

          • Arthur Jeffries

            That is well said. I agree.

  • Dennis Bonnette

    Just a couple points of logic here on this question:
    I assume that God's true revelation must be true in all its parts and that He would be successful in founding a church or sect that reflects those truths accurately. This might not apply to rituals, but surely would apply to matters of theological or moral truth.
    If a Christian sect teaches a set of doctrines and claims to be the true revelation of God, then all of its doctrines must comport with what God reveals.
    But it appears that many thousand Christian sects exist that disagree on many points of doctrine and morality. While some groups may have simple theologies that allow multiple sects, but a single doctrine, still, differences of doctrine generally abound.
    But, if we think of specific points of disagreement, it becomes clear that most all sects cannot be the true revelation of God, since they differ on specifics that God could not take both sides on. For example, is there a pope at the head of the church or not? Is contraception morally licit or not? Is masturbation licit or not? Can one divorce and remarry? How many sacraments are there? Is faith without works sufficient for salvation? The list is enormous.
    These specific doctrines cannot be both held and opposed by the same God! Therefore, God must affirm one and deny the other. Take the major question of contraception. If it is licit, failure to permit the faithful to use it denies them a basic right. But, if it is illicit, then permitting its use is to permit the faithful to sin. Whatever is the true revelation of God must teach the true teaching on this matter.
    The logical point I wish to pose is this. It appears that, given all the points of significant difference between the major and many minor Christian sects, it follows that all could be simply wrong on some doctrinal or moral point – thereby making them not the authentic revelation of God – or else, all but one sect or church is wrong.
    This argues that there must be, at most, a single true revealed religion of Christ. It does not suffice to say that all the Protestant sects agree on the major themes of Christianity, especially that the Catholic Church is wrong. The problem is that even among themselves the various Protestant denominations disagree on significant points of doctrine and morality – points on which God Himself cannot take both sides.
    Therefore, I suggest that there are not actually many thousand diverse Christian sects, but, at most, a single true Church – and, while the rest express many true aspects of revelation, they fail to match the full content of what God has revealed, and thus, are not the true revelation of God.
    A final point. This does not mean that those who fail to adhere to the full tenets of the single true revelation are all bound for hell. God is just. One must recall the doctrine of invincible ignorance. Still, all those who are saved will be saved through the same redeeming act of Christ and through participation in His revelation to the extent they are able.

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      Your argument seems to rely on the assumption that the primary point of revelation is to convey information about a moral code. FWIW, this is a point of view from which the author of the OP distances himself (and for the little additional that it is worth, I agree with him).

      If the primary point of revelation is not to convey informational propositions, moral or otherwise, but rather to invite us into relationship, to invite us into a fundamental stance with respect to reality, then it could well be the case that multiple communions are conveying the essence of that invitation correctly, even while they differ around the edges with respect to moral questions.

      What you say is true (for moral realists, at least) with regard to the fact that we can't have two or more moral codes that disagree with each other and yet are simultaneously correct. Based on that, and on the obvious disagreements that exist, one could either conclude that only one proposed moral code exists, or (as you allude to) we could conclude (as I do) that none of our existing moral codes are perfect. This latter conclusion does not seem to me to invalidate the Christ-given mission that various Christian communions impute to themselves.

      ETA: Indeed, if the moral demands on our lives could be conveyed via a code, then it would seem more logical for God to simply give us the Law and be done with it. Paul's letters argue in pretty unequivocal terms that we need to go beyond the Law, to something that cannot (entirely) be codified (because it is a living reality, i.e. Christ).

      • Rob Abney

        invite us into a fundamental stance with respect to reality

        Just a point of clarification Jim, how does the relationship with reality not include morality? And, I've never understood Paul as being against the moral aspects of the law, only the parts that served to set the Israelites "apart".

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          Paul is most certainly not against the Law, I agree. I forget which letter it is (someone please help me out), but he says at some point that it is a great aid, to those who understand it. But it is just that: an aid. It is not to be the primary focus, nor is it to be that in which we place our fundamental faith.

          As far as we can tell (I think?), every codification of reality is an approximation. No mathematized scientific theory describes reality exactly; they are all subject to refinement. No software has the perfect user interface and functionality; there is always room for enhancement to more subtly reflect our true goals (except, arguably, for LaTeX version pi, when Donald Knuth dies). No civic law is thought to be so perfect that it can't be revised. And yet, all these codifications are great aids. As long as we remember that the reality is more complex than our codification of it, we're good. So, I think, with the Law.

          And yes, of course our fundamental stance with reality has implications for, and consists in, our moral behavior. But one can adopt a fundamental stance of gratefulness-motivated-agape while remaining mired in very imperfect moral knowledge. And more broadly, a Church can correctly convey the experience of gratefulness-motivated-agape while remaining mired in very imperfect moral knowledge.

          EDITED second paragraph because some things were poorly phrased on first pass.

          • Dennis Bonnette

            What part of "Thou shalt not do murder" or "Thou shalt not commit adultery," do you think is so open to "gratefulness-motivated-agape" as to permit murder or adultery?

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            No part whatsoever.

      • Dennis Bonnette

        I guess having taught natural law ethics for many years biases me toward thinking that you cannot have rational revelation without God expressing to man a moral code that tells him what acts are fitting or unfitting to his human nature, and how these acts will determine whether or not he attains his last end (heaven, or the beatific vision).

        Nor do I see how you can ignore the evident truth that essential to the Judeo-Christian revelation is a little item called the Ten Commandments, which contain the revealed version of natural law.

        Did not Christ tell us that if we love him, we are to keep his commandments? And surely we can recall certain specifics, such as his strong statements regarding marriage and divorce.

        God cannot be indifferent regarding how we live our lives, as evinced by the very beginning of Genesis when He showed his strong disapproval of Cain's slaying of Abel.

        Revelation is rife with moral content. We are called to believe in and love Christ, but He explicitly ties that expression of love to how we live our lives in terms of a clear call to morality, and a condemnation of certain acts opposed to his teachings.

        Unless you are going to excise the stark content of revelation found in Romans 22-32, Christian revelation becomes utterly unintelligible without strict application of specific moral content.

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          Nor do I see how you can ignore the evident truth that essential to the Judeo-Christian revelation is a little item called the Ten Commandments

          I agree, and that's why I qualified: "the primary point of revelation". Not that page count is everything, and The Ten Commandments certainly punch more than their weight, but what portion of the Bible is moral-instruction-like? As N.T. Wright has written:

          But much of what we call the Bible—the Old and New Testaments—is not a rule book; it is narrative. That raises a further question: (3) How can an ancient narrative text be authoritative? How, for instance, can the book of Judges, or the book of Acts, be authoritative? It is one thing to go to your commanding officer first thing in the morning and have a string of commands barked at you. But what would you do if, instead, he began ‘Once upon a time . . .’?

          http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/how-can-the-bible-be-authoritative/

          God cannot be indifferent regarding how we live our lives,

          I have not proposed anything remotely like that statement. I am arguing about the primary purpose of revelation, and the primary mission of Churches.

          Which chapter of Romans are you referring to? (I assume 22-32 refers to verses).

          • Dennis Bonnette

            Sorry. That should have been Rom 1:22-32.

            It isn't a question of total content of Scripture, but the qualitative moral content that is undeniably central to biblical teaching.

            Recall, that God's revelation must be true in all its content. Multiple conflicting truths cannot be from Him who is Truth Itself.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            To clarify then, I didn't start by talking generally about moral content. I agree that moral content is central to Biblical teaching. I was talking about moral code. Moral content, understood broadly, is not just a set of rules. Moral content deals broadly with how one should live one's life. Some of that can be (approximately) codified. The New Testament, I claim, is pretty clear that the full moral content of revelation cannot be codified. This is testified to in Paul's discourses on the Law and, for that matter, by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

            Moreover, I agree that some specific moral teachings are pretty darn clear, either directly or indirectly from Biblical revelation (e.g. divorce) and/or from Natural Law (e.g. injunction against murder). My point, again, is that the primary purpose of the Bible, and of churches, is not to convey these specifics. Those specifics have an important, but secondary status. And I am then arguing that such second order errors do not invalidate any given communion as not being part of the "True Church".

          • Dennis Bonnette

            God and His revelation is not only 99% correct. Truth itself is whole and undefiled. God does not teach us error -- even on what you call "secondary" matters.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            God and His revelation is not only 99% correct

            That's true, but until we hit the Second Coming and beatific visions, that revelation is ongoing. God's revelation may be 100% correct, but humans and their ability (so far) to interpret that revelation seem to top out well below 99%.

            I'm not saying that what is secondary doesn't matter. I'm saying there is room for reasonable disagreement on secondary matters.

          • Dennis Bonnette

            What you call "disagreement on secondary matters" amounts to what I would call "situation ethics," which is no ethics at all.

            I once debated Dr. Joseph Fletcher, the author of "Situation Ethics," that dominated ethical debate half a century ago. Even though he was an ordained Episcopalian minister at the time, I finally got him to admit that he was simply rejecting the Ten Commandments, since he allowed exceptions to every rule.

            When you have exceptions to a rule, you actually have no rule at all. You may backtrack on murder and adultery, but focus on such a hot button issue as contraception. Is that a "secondary matter?" Note what I said earlier about the implications of either approving or condemning that act. On the one side, you approve an act that is intrinsically immoral. On the other side, you condemn an act that is claimed necessary for family and societal survival.

            No, the point of revelation is the teaching of certain specific truths. They are not 100% of what God could, if He so chose, to teach to the world. But 100% of what He does teach cannot be equivocal in its content. Either they are right or they are wrong. Subjective interpretation allows an implicit denial of the principle of non-contradiction. The basic principle of ethics is that you cannot make an intrinsically evil act into a good act, just as you cannot make a sow's ear into a silk purse.

            Christian sects that are teaching "sow's ears" are not comporting with true divine revelation and cannot be the true revelation of God. It takes but a single false teaching to reveal that a given sect is not the true revelation of God. And God cannot have failed to offer mankind His true revelation in some Christian church.

            Again, either all the sects or churches are false, or all but one are false. If the former, then God failed in His purpose of revelation -- which is impossible. If the latter, take a look at the world and make your pick.

          • Dennis Bonnette

            18And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.
            19Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
            20Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

            Note that I have deliberately given here the King James version of the Bible, not the Douay-Rheims version.

            "Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you."

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
            He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.
            This is the greatest and the first commandment.
            The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
            The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

            In other words, all specific moral teachings follow from these two primary moral commandments. In other words, the specific moral teachings are secondary; they are corollaries, so to speak.

            Or, as Pope Francis reminded us not too long ago, the Church has a "hierarchy of truths". The most clear and fundamental truths are at the top of the hierarchy. As you branch out from that root, you get to moral truths that are less fundamental and less certain.

          • Dennis Bonnette

            Less fundamental does not equate to less certain.

            Christ also taught that if a man even look at a woman with lust in his heart he has already committed adultery with her.

            A "hierarchy of truths" does not make lesser truths or commands become contradictory to their content. No one doubts that some sins are more serious than others. That does not justify the lesser sin.

            The example of contraception is a key one for dividing the Christian sects. Prior to the Anglican Lambeth Conference in 1931, not a single major Christian sect allowed the liceity of contraceptive acts. You know the situation today. So, were all the major Christian sects prior to 1931 teaching the wrong moral doctrine, or, are the majority of them doing so today? Or, is this such a "secondary matter" that God would not care what we do? As I have noted twice before, the consequences of either teaching of approval or condemnation of this act has immense impact -- showing that God could not be indifferent to what the churches are teaching in His name regarding the matter.

            Also, consider that once the procreative aspect of intercourse was separated from the unitive aspect, we have seen the rise of the homosexual agenda world wide. Do you also suggest that this has no moral importance? Again, either way you go, you get impaled on major societal and doctrinal consequences regarding the institution of marriage.

            The central point remains that God's revelation cannot be divided against itself.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Given what you have written here, I'm now even more curious to read some of your thoughts on Vix pervenit.

            So, were all the major Christian sects prior to 1931 teaching the wrong moral doctrine [?]

            In some of the finer details, I would say yes, they were. I see no shame in that, no more than there is any shame in the shortcomings of Newtonian mechanics relative to General Relativity (and no more than there is any shame in the shortcomings of General Relativity relative to whatever is coming next). There is some essence of the teaching that was correct; certain details were not. (Is this not how we should assess Vix pervenit?). So you return to the essentials, in light of what you learn along the way. Per the catechism, the Church is in a state of journeying. Is moral theorizing some special realm of human activity in which we are not in a state of journeying, but have rather already arrived at the destination?

            Or, is this such a "secondary matter" that God would not care what we do?

            I don't see the logic in that question. We do all sorts of things incorrectly all the time, without imputing God as culpable in those errors. God wants us to get to the right place eventually, but it is a journey toward truth (and therefore toward capital "T" Truth).

            showing that God could not be indifferent to what the churches are teaching in His name regarding the matter

            Here again, I don't see the logic. People -- and not to put too fine a point on it, so-called Vicars of Christ in the RC specifically -- have done all sorts of awful things in God's name. That surely doesn't prove that God is indifferent to what is done in his name.

            we have seen the rise of the homosexual agenda world wide. Do you also suggest that this has no moral importance?

            I think it has tremendous social consequence, much of it (surely not all of it) in a beneficial direction.

            The central point remains that God's revelation cannot be divided against itself.

            That is uncontested. What is at issue is whether we who are enmeshed in time, or we the Church on earth, can see with sufficient clarity the full implications of God's revelation, or whether we are (for now) still seeing it through a glass, dimly.

          • Dennis Bonnette

            You miss the central point of my initial posting.

            I am not trying to sort out which teachings you want to examine, but simply pointing out that God's true revelation cannot entail contradictory moral and doctrinal teachings.
            So, you will have to sort out the exact history and significance of the matter of usury for yourself. I think your analysis is wrong, but that is irrelevant to my main point. Having various Christian churches or sects teaching variant positions reveals that either all must be false, or all but one must be false.

            Christ clearly did teach specific moral doctrine. When he absolved the woman caught in adultery -- for all his mercy and compassion -- he did not tell her that her sin was not a sin. He told her that her sin was forgiven and to go and sin no more.

            What is more evident from your comments above, though, is that you have a process philosophy type view of Christian revelation and even of truth itself. You think that revelation is an ongoing process in which the "development of dogma" and morals can entail even the contradiction of former doctrine and morals.

            It is true that doctrine and morals develop in our understanding and depth of insight over time. But it is false to assert that what was firmly taught in the past can be contradicted by what is taught in the future. The Commandment did not say that thou shalt not commit adultery only until our development of understanding and compassion come to allow us to grasp that love conquers all and that societal relationships will be better served by having intercourse with someone you are not married to.

            It is evident that your entire understanding of truth and the nature of revelation is at variance from the fact that God is eternal Truth Himself -- and that the whole purpose of revelation is vitiated if it can be "reworked" according to human whim over time. I believe that Christ Himself said that heaven and earth will pass away, but that His words will not pass away. And that includes a lot of specific moral judgments he pronounced in dogmatic fashion, which judgments can be gleaned from a careful reading of Scripture.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            OK, I need to draw this to a close for now as I have a looming deadline tomorrow.

            On some points, I think we have at least come to a better understanding of where we both stand. To ascribe situational ethical thinking to me, and to ascribe process theology-based thinking to me, is at least in right ballpark as I understand those terms, though I'm not sure I sign up for everything in there.

            I have to squarely reject the claim that I think that "revelation ... can be "reworked" according to human whim over time." That is totally unfair and cannot be construed from anything that I have written. I think rather that revelation is worked out in time according to the will of God.

            I'll leave it to you to close things out if you'd like. Thanks for the engaging and erudite conversation.

            ETA: Sorry, I have to add one more thing. This was particularly mystifying to me:

            It is evident that your entire understanding of truth and the nature of revelation is at variance from the fact that God is eternal Truth Himself

            That God is eternal Truth himself is precisely the assumption that I am operating under. That is precisely why our ongoing process of incrementally learning the truth in time is the cognitive component of our journey toward God. As God reveals himself in time, we come closer and closer to the eternal Truth.

          • Dennis Bonnette

            Okay. Since you have to leave, I shall let you have the last word.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            If you have the patience, I'm in the clear for a little while to discuss a bit more (deadline deferred :-)).

            I am not trying to sort out which teachings you want to examine, but simply pointing out that God's true revelation cannot entail contradictory moral and doctrinal teachings.

            I don't think I have missed this point. The point of my initial response was that, once one realizes that the primary purpose of Christianity is not to convey information about a moral code but rather to witness to the Resurrection, it then follows that flawless moral teaching is not a sine qua non of "The True Church" on earth. Lest anyone accuse me of being a wild-eyed amateur hippie theologian on this point, I present no less an authority than Bishop Robert Barron, making exactly the same point regarding the secondary or tertiary status of moral teaching in the mission of the Church:

            https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/video/christianity-and-ethics/4666/

            It then seems to follow that more than one communion could be participating in "The True Church", even if one or all of them have flaws in their moral teaching.

            In subsequent comments, I then meant to point out that, in any case, it requires an extremely nuanced, not to say jesuitical, reading of Church history in order to propose with a straight face that the Roman Magisterium has never taught error. Perhaps (as I believe) Her body of irreformable dogma does not contain any error, but Church doctrine writ large is a much bigger bag than just the irreformable dogma. Where irreformable dogma ends and mere doctrine begins, and where doctrine ends and more ephemeral guidance begins, has never been clear. To imagine that there is a clean classification is, dare I say it, a very Protestant construal of how Catholic teaching works. Some things are "pretty clearly irreformable", others are "possibly irreformable". There are gradations.

            This is precisely why Vix pervenit is such an important prism through which to analyze these questions. Was the proscription on usury "irreformable dogma"? If so, I have some questions about a lot of investments made by Catholic institutions. If not, then let's compare the wording and the context of that pronouncement to the wording and context of other, more recent pronouncements, such as on contraception in Humanae Vitae. Neither of these, it seems to me, has the same sort of irreformable status as something that came straight from the mouth of Jesus (e.g. about divorce and adultery).

            And then finally, what exactly is at stake in debates about infallibility? Even if you have a teacher who is, in some -- perhaps heavily caveated -- sense, "infallible", you are still left with students who are all too fallible. If you take infallible teaching and you multiply it by fallible learning, and you end up with fallible communication and conveyance of intellectual content. It is for this reason that I can't see why we still obsess about the technical details of infallibility.

          • Dennis Bonnette

            You write, “…once one realizes that the primary purpose of Christianity is not to convey information about a moral code but rather to witness to the Resurrection….”

            The Resurrection seals the redemption of mankind from the original fall in the Garden of Eden – or don’t you consider original sin among the dogma that you accept? The Resurrection of Christ is the historical proof of His divinity and of the truths He came to earth to teach mankind. There is undoubtedly an hierarchy of such truths, but that does not make lesser ones of no importance. As you appear to concede, adultery is an essential teaching of Christ, even
            though it is part of the moral code. I submit that Romans 1: 22-32 is virtually unintelligible without admitting much specific moral content is essential to Christian revelation.

            I think we have a fundamental difference about the extent of Church teaching via the Magisterium, since no less an authority than Ludwig Ott, author of the major work,
            Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, lists some two hundred and twenty five distinct irreformable dogma taught by the Catholic Church. What few are you talking about? Since Humanae Vitae came out, it has been argued that it, too, falls into that category.

            Still, you appear tied up with the Catholic Church. My initial post was simply a logical one: Since Christian sects differ from each other regarding all sorts of central tenets, either none of them is true revelation, or else, only one of
            them can be true. You avoid this division particularly by making moral teaching not a central part of Christianity. This ignores again a simple point Christ Himself made: “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Yes, he sums them up in
            the Two Great Commandments, but do you seriously think that those were intended to substitute for the particular judgments about individual norms? Do you think he was abrogating the Ten Commandments His Father gave to Moses? He came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.

            Attempting to replace the great moral content of Christianity with some simple formula to “love God and your neighbor” or simply to “believe in the Resurrection” is to miss the entire content of Christian revelation. It is a recipe to replace God’s natural law (reflected in the Ten Commandments) with a convenient situation ethics based on the same evolutionary misunderstanding of the development of doctrine I described in an earlier post.

            Unfortunately, it is I who have to absent myself from the thread at this point, since I have a class to give in a few hours and much to do before it.

          • Dennis Bonnette

            One minor added point, lest you think I am ducking your obsession with the question of the Church's teaching on usury:

            My limited understanding is that the original concern with usury had to do with the notion of demanding repayment of something with greater value than that which was lent. At the time of its teaching, the time value of money was not known. As the economic system came to entail the time value of money, it became understood that repayment of equal value required taking into account the loss of income resulting from the temporary loss of the money lent. Thus, it was not the basic moral principle that changed, but the understanding of the economic system in which that principle was applied.

            The proper venue of Church teaching is the content of faith and morals. She has no proper venue in other domains, except as they touch upon faith and morals. Thus, no one would claim that the Magisterium's perview directly extends to economic models any more than they should claim that it extends to meteorological predictions. That does not mean that the essential moral principle intended to be conveyed is wrong or useless. For example, even if one did not accept the notion of climate change expressed in a recent papal teaching, that in no way lessens the moral principle that we are all stewards of God's creation and must act in a conservative fashion in our judgments and actions toward it.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Thus, it was not the basic moral principle that changed, but the understanding of the economic system in which that principle was applied.

            Exactly. So there we have a clear example where the essence was preserved, even while the details changed in light of what was learned along the way. In retrospect we see that pronouncement contained irreformable dogmatic content interlaced with specific technical guidance that no longer applies. This is not a matter of "truth contradicting truth". It is a matter of learning something and admitting that you got some of the details wrong.

            I don't think it is a reach to imagine that the faithful at that time could not clearly perceive the difference between the ephemeral technical guidance and the irreformable dogmatic content in Vix pervenit. Likewise, I think it is quite likely that future faithful will have better separated the wheat from the chaff in Humanae Vitae.

          • Dennis Bonnette

            Are you suggesting that perhaps the chaff of Humanae Vitae might include insistence that every act of intercourse must remain open both to its procreative and unitive finality? That was the entire point of the encyclical!
            When you can separate the wheat from the chaff in such fashion that the wheat itself is rejected, this is not development of dogma, but outright rejection of dogma.

            I grant that what is precisely irreformable in some encyclicals may be subject to discussion. But this is not the case where essential moral teachings are clearly decided, such as in Humanae Vitae. Even more to the point are the some 225 dogma cited by Ott. I note you replied to that somewhere, but have not been able to find your post as of yet. Sorry.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            By the way, if you think I'm obsessed with Vix pervenit, I'd be happy to take another example.

            The Council of Basel forbid Christians from taking Jewish doctors. Did the Church teach error? Or should I cancel my appointment with Dr. Rosenstein?

          • Dennis Bonnette

            I am sure you can find many similar points to debate. Frankly, I am not interested in debating them all. My original point remains. Logically, you just cannot have multiple Christian sects teaching contradictory things about significant doctrines and moral matters -- and still claim that they are all the true revelation of Truth Himself.

            We can parse the fine points until the cows come home, but the central point is whether authentic divine revelation can beget contradictory doctrines. You can decide which doctrines are really essential and whether some matters are merely ritual or discipline. But, unless you argue (as I suspect you do) that there is hardly any real moral and doctrinal content that has been revealed in Christianity, I think my logical point stands. Certainly, any careful examination of the formal declarations of Church councils down through history reveals a lot of formal content has been taught -- various points of which have been adopted by the many Christian sects, not just Catholicism. That alone allows for a lot of substantive disagreements.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I agree, there is no need for us to parse the finer points of any specific teachings for the purpose of this conversation, and I also have no desire to go there right now.

            As far as general points go, I think this is the point of our disconnect:

            but the central point is whether authentic divine revelation can beget contradictory doctrines

            It seems clear to me that one has to distinguish between, on the one hand, divine revelation per se which by definition is fully true, and, on the other hand, the codified doctrine whose purpose is to convey that revelation. I don't see how the revelation and the corresponding doctrine can be entirely identified, with no white space in between. As I understand things, the codification is a human approximation of something divine.

            So, it's not (at all) that I don't think there is any real moral and doctrinal content that has been revealed. It is rather that I distinguish between the content (which is perfectly correct but not fully knowable) and the human articulations of it (which are fully knowable but only imperfectly correct). This is no slander against approximations. I love approximations. Approximations point you in the right general direction. They are enough to get you by. You just can't fall in love with the approximations. God's reality is always richer than our human approximations.

            Anyway, I can appreciate that others may see things differently. I thank you again for the conversation. Have a good night.

          • Dennis Bonnette

            And I thank you for the conversation as well.

            Perhaps, I shall soon be reincarnated in my pure philosopher form.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            The Resurrection seals the redemption of mankind from the original fall in the Garden of Eden

            Yes, of course I accept that, but this is not just a proposition to which one gives intellectual assent. This is an articulation of the experience of the Resurrected Christ the conveyance of which is the principal mission of the Church. As Benedict XVI wrote:

            Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.

            The whole catalogue of propositional knowledge that seems to the object of your obsession follows from the logic of that encounter. That is why the correct conveyance of the experience of that encounter is primary, and the propositional knowledge that follows in its wake is secondary.

            As you appear to concede, adultery is an essential teaching of Christ, even though it is part of the moral code.

            Of course I "concede" that. It's a bit exasperating that you use the word "concede", as if I ever so much as hinted to the contrary. I'm just saying that the point where Jesus proscribes adultery hardly constitutes the denouement of the Gospel narratives.

            Attempting to replace the great moral content of Christianity with some simple formula

            I am not trying to replace the great moral content of Christianity, and I most definitely am not trying to replace it with something formulaic. I am trying to contextualize the moral teaching, so as to not run afoul of idolatrous worship of dogma. Christ is at the center. The dogma are sign-posts that point us toward the center.

          • Dennis Bonnette

            I think you make very clear here that you do not understand the essential point of all of the many dogma of the Catholic Church. They may be secondary to the essential personal commitment a Catholic makes to the Church, but they can never be deliberately rejected and are justly styled as irreformable. The name for those who reject them is well known in Church history: heretic.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Ludwig Ott, [in] Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, lists some two hundred and twenty five distinct irreformable dogma taught by the Catholic Church. What few are you talking about?

            The opinion of a learned theologian counts for something. So also do the opinions of the current Pope and the "Angelic Doctor" count for something:

            Saint Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God “are very few”.

            http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html

            Since Humanae Vitae came out, it has been argued that it, too, falls into that category.

            As I'm sure you are well aware, the contrary position has also been argued.

          • Dennis Bonnette

            As Evangelii Gaudium, that you are citing, clearly points out in number 36, "36. All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith .... "

            Pointing to an hierarchy of doctrine or precepts or anything else does not argue one whit against the formal force of the entire structure of teaching as a whole and in each of its parts. A dogma that is a subordinate part of Catholic teaching is still "to be believed with the same faith ...."

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            You may backtrack on murder and adultery, but focus on such a hot button issue as contraception.

            First of all, where have I "backtracked" on murder and adultery? I am saying these are as certain as any truths of Christian moral teaching and I am saying that moral teaching is not primarily what the Church is all about. Wherein lies the backtracking?

            I think that sexual ethics, as a general area of concern, is as central as anything else to the Christian moral life. I think there are clear Christian principles of sexual ethics, such as that sex has a sacramental meaning, not least because our sexuality is so primary to our human identity in the Bible, and because our entire cosmic telos is described using sexual imagery. But when it comes to specific teachings about this or that technique for family planning, yes, I think that is secondary.

            Could I ask, what is your stance with respect to the specific practices that are proscribed in Vix pervenit ?

  • Rob Abney

    There are a variety of ways one might flesh out an account along these lines. For example, one could appeal to a “second chance” theology according to which any doctrine which is unclear in this life is presented with sufficient clarity posthumously at which point a person could then offer a fully informed assent or denial

    This is contrary to the teaching that the will is fixed at death and cannot change post-humously. The Catholic doctrine of the particular judgment is this: that immediately after death the eternal destiny of each separated soul is decided by the just judgment of God, If we die in a state of mortal sin, we will be incapable of experiencing any of God's grace. Calvin holds that the final destiny is not decided till the last day.

    Imagine that there was unanimity among Christians on how to answer all these questions. Let’s say, for example, that all Christians agreed that a person was required to believe doctrines x, y, and z by their 13th birthday. This clarity could provide particular goods, but arguably it would also inhibit a deeper growth into faith as parents focused on ensuring their children assented to particular doctrines by the “deadline”.

    This is confusing, we do have a set of doctrines that we should all believe, the ten commandments, and they constitute a large part of what parents teach their children. So how would our faith be less if we were trained to know and obey these laws by our 13th birthday?

    I don't think that the Confusing Revelation Objection has been overcome, in fact it demonstrates the process of progressing further from the truth with each subsequent interpretation, all the way to Post-Modernism.

    • David Nickol

      The Catholic doctrine of the particular judgment is this: that immediately after death the eternal destiny of each separated soul is decided by the just judgment of God . . . .

      The Catechism leaves open the possibility of a "second-chance theology" when it comes to suicide.

      2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

      • Rob Abney

        Hi David, I don't see how that paragraph implies a posthumous change of will.
        Fr Spitzer refers to stats that say many people have changed their mind/will at the last second although it is too late to avoid the death; it was related to interviews with unsuccessful attempts.

    • David Nickol

      This is confusing, we do have a set of doctrines that we should all believe, the ten commandments, and they constitute a large part of what parents teach their children.

      There is little in the way of doctrine in the Ten Commandments, and there is plenty of disagreement in how they should be interpreted. For example, does "You shall not kill" forbid capital punishment? People John Paul II came very close to saying it did, but many disagree with him.

      • Rob Abney

        I'm in the middle of Feser's Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty, he makes the case that a Pope cannot change the position even if he wanted to.
        2261 Scripture specifies the prohibition contained in the fifth commandment: "Do not slay the innocent and the righteous."61 The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere.
        Capital Punishment is taking the life of a guilty person, an act of justice.

        Regarding the 10 Commandments, the Catechism states that they have "occupied a predominant place" in teaching the faith since the time of Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430), and devotes a large section to interpret each of the commandments. (wikipedia)

        But even if we chose another doctrine, how could the understanding and obedience to it lessen one's faith?

  • THE ALL PURPOSE CHRISTIAN ANSWER TO A MULTITUDE OF PONDEROUS QUESTIONS SEEMS TO BE: whatever promotes "the cultivation of genuine relationship between God and his creatures." Whether the question involves Vagueness? Confusion? Ignorance? Fear? Despair? Darkness? Division? Schisms? Scandals? Doubt? Heresy? Apostasy? Hiddenness of God? Suffering? Death? The handiest answer seems to be: whatever promotes "the cultivation of genuine relationship between God and his creatures."

    The all purpose Christian answer sounds so calming, like some soporific one need only swallow whole to get a good night's sleep, a question stopper since everyone apparently already knows for sure they have a "genuine relationship" with "God" and what that means exactly, and how to further it. Though I wonder when I see so many titles of Christian books claiming to show people how to discover or recognize God's will, how to claim biblical promises, how to find out this about God, know that about what the Bible really says or means, how to calm fears, how to survive loss, why God won't heal one, how to understand God's personal plan for one's life... If it's so self evident what having such a "relationship" with "God" is, and what God really wants you to do with your life, why all the books?

    • Many evangelical Christians boast that they have a "personal relationship" with Jesus. What makes it so "personal?" Well, they say, we have the words attributed to Jesus in the four Gospels. But there are so few of them, a couple thousand. You could fit all of Jesus's words into a small 16-page booklet. And they are subject to interpretation.

      Well, they say, there are "answered prayers." But again, that is a matter of interpretation, because no matter what happens, an evangelical Christian interprets it as "Jesus's will," even when bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.

      Whenever I have a "personal relationship" with someone it does not consist of a few thousand words spoken two thousand years ago, recorded accurately (or inaccurately) by someone else, and which require interpretation from third parties for me to "truly" understand them (especially when the third parties disagree concerning the meaning and intent of those words).

      Nor should a "personal relationship" depend on me having to interpret the results of every prayer uttered. And the range of interpretations covers every conceivable outcome: "strongly positively answered," "weakly positively answered," "strongly negatively answered," "weakly negatively answered," or even, "try again later when you have more faith."

      Question: What's the difference between a trained psychologist and a born again Christian?

      Answer: A trained psychologist can read a person like a book, but a born again Christian reads a book like it's a person.

      Unless you can hear the voice of God and hold a conversation, I doubt you can consider the relationship very personal. More like, "Here's this book I wrote," and you read it and think its interesting, but you can't even get any direct answers from the author about its contents via a simple conversation.

      Second, God is more like personus absconditus a "person in hiding" than personus up-front-us. And Christians have to make up explanations as to why God and the one true religion are not more apparent to everyone, not any more than the one true interpretation of the Bible (or portions thereof).

  • "SECOND CHANCES?" EXTENDING "DEADLINE DATES?" Basically you are admitting the evidence is not good enough to convince many people in this life, so you are moving the goalposts and claiming, "Oh, but you will be convinced and have to make a choice later, after age 13, maybe even after death.

    Really? That's not supposed to raise yet more questions concerning how effectively or rather, Ineffectively, you have defended your convictions?

    Heck, why not move the goal posts further and suggest that maybe each person will be able to spend the first million years in the next life, healing from all ignorance and suffering and wounds in this life that they have brought upon themselves and/or others, and thus have plenty of time and opportunity to learn and experience all manner of wonderful things until they grow in the knowledge of God and mature into belief via gradual development?

    Or maybe play round with the idea of reincarnation after each lifetime on different planes of existence? Each plane a gradual upgrade, slightly less "fallen" world where one can develop further like in the movie, Defending Your Life?

  • Well yes, it's true this objection is not a defeater for every kind of Christian doctrine. It doesn't touch universalism for instance, since a universalist would just say that all people will be saved regardless. However, it does affect the Christians who say that there is one true doctrine which must be accepted to have salvation, and they are many. I don't know the Catholic doctrine precisely, but it seems they teach "invincibly ignorant" people are not condemned. Therefore this is not a defeater for Catholics either. However it seems to be for certain brands of Protestants. Presumably not Dr. Rauser's Protestantism.

    If as Catholics seem to believe knowing Christ in this life would be best however, it seems a weaker version of the objection is: why not make that clearer? Or this may also simply be the arguments from divine hiddenness or inconsistent revelation. I personally never found it believable that the true faith would be revealed only in the last two thousand years after untold generations died without hearing anything. If we assume they weren't sent to hell, it still made no sense why they would have all died without knowing this if it's considered so important.

  • The Observer

    I have to say up front that no one has ever presented me with the so-called 33,000 objection. But if I were ever faced with that in a discussion, I'd answer, "There are NOT 33,000 Christianities - there is only one (a.k.a., the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church). There are also a host of heretics and schismatics out there. There have been since the First Century. (Just read Galatians or 1 John if you doubt that.) And there likely always will be.

    • Arthur Jeffries

      There are Christian communities and churches that are not in communion with Rome. Heretics and schismatics are still Christians. That's why we Catholics recognize the validity of their baptisms and in some cases we even accept the validity of their holy orders.

  • For example, one could appeal to a “second chance” theology according to which any doctrine which is unclear in this life is presented with sufficient clarity posthumously at which point a person could then offer a fully informed assent or denial. But that’s just one possibility.

    This possibility relies on libertarian free will being not only possible, but true. But since libertarian free will is logically impossible, we can safely and confidently rule out this option's possibility. Technically, we can rule out anything that relies on one's mental state to determine salvation.

    Also, if second chance theology were true, why is it mentioned nowhere in the Bible? Why all the talk about belief before death? Does god want to deliberately confuse? Well apparently so:

    And I can say that this journey has made it manifestly clear (to me, at least) that Christianity is not simply a matter of acquiring the right information (doctrines and practices). There is intrinsic value in the journey of attempting to figure out the faith, and that journey is only made possible when a lack of clarity exists.

    By this logic, there is intrinsic value in fighting wars and torturing people over disagreements over important theological issues, since that's what inevitably occurs once you have theological vagueness. Is there intrinsic value in one leaving the faith over the confusing revelation too?

    Imagine that there was unanimity among Christians on how to answer all these questions. Let’s say, for example, that all Christians agreed that a person was required to believe doctrines x, y, and z by their 13th birthday. This clarity could provide particular goods, but arguably it would also inhibit a deeper growth into faith as parents focused on ensuring their children assented to particular doctrines by the “deadline”.

    In Randal's infinitely elastic faith, anything wrong with it can be spun into a soul making challenge. Heck, why can't a person who deliberately writes a confusing user manual for some dangerous heavy machinery use the defense of soul making if they are charged with being criminally negligent? Imagine them saying that it's so much more fun and intrinsically valuable to mistakenly use the machinery and learn on your own even if life and limb are lost in the process.

    Another problem with this rebuttal to the confusing revelation rejection is that millions of Christians believe simple versions of Christianity (read: literal) simply because they were raised to do so. They didn't have an intellectual growth into the faith. And if the true version of Christianity is unknown or confusing, many people might come to the faith based on wrong version. Are these people lacking intrinsic goodness in being simpletons who just believed anything they heard growing up? And if questioning faith is so intrinsically good, why does the Bible speak against doubt and skepticism and repeatedly promote the idea of faith without evidence?

    By contrast, a faith that leaves these matters unclear opens up the space for the natural cultivation of genuine relationship between God and his creatures.

    It also naturally opens up centuries of religious sectarianism, tribalism, division, and war. Are these things intrinsically good too?

    Next, I argued that a Christian need not (and indeed should not) accept either assumption.

    And that means you're instructing Christians to deny the Bible is accurate when it says salvation is needed before you die. Why is that even in the Bible?

  • Jim the Scott

    >Any all-knowing, perfectly wise, and perfectly good being will be maximally clear in revealing precisely what salvation requires in terms of belief and practice.

    Speaking as a Catholic I rather enjoy brutally mocking this nonsense with some harsh sarcasm. Something to the effect of "Aw! How cute! An atheist/religious skeptic who believes in the Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture! What else have you got? Can anyone produce an Agnostic who confesses transubstantiation? How about a metaphysical naturalist who believes Sacraments work ex opere operato?".

    This premise begs the question. I believe God is maximally clear in revealing precisely what salvation requires in terms of belief and practice by setting up a Church with is the Pillar and Ground of Truth (1 Tim 3:15) which uses Scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17) and Tradition ( 2 Thes 2:15).

    I see no logical way God can give us a written document that by itself has this property since all written statements have some level of ambiguity by nature in that they don't exhaustively examine every angle or explain everything.

    The atheist who uses this objection on me or any Eastern Orthodox or any group that rejects Protestantism's view of perspicuity has to put on the hat of a Protestant Apologist and first convince me this Luther inspired doctrine is true before he can then turn around and use the 33,000 objection.

    It's kind of a non-starter like an Atheist boring me to death with his anti-Young Earth Creationist polemics & well I am a Theistic Evolutionist.

    PS. The 33,000 denominations objection which many Catholics use to attack Protestantism is itself questionable. Note his article by the National Catholic Register.

    http://www.ncregister.com/blog/scottericalt/we-need-to-stop-saying-that-there-are-33000-protestant-denominations