Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Your opinion is private while mine is not!

Fr. Alvin Kimel, an ex-Anglican priest who became Roman Catholic, wrote a critique of “Protestantism” I have seen several times before.

First, his response was to an Anglican priest, so not everything there is applicable to Lutheran doctrines. What I write here is from a Lutheran perspective, so it does not respond to all of Fr. Kimel’s points.

One of the most common critiques of “protestantism” is that protestants are, by definition, guilty of “private judgment” while Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox (if one is Roman Catholic), or the Eastern Orthodox alone (if one is Eastern Orthodox) are not guilty of private judgment, because they are under the authority of the pope, or the Church. Protestants are guilty of private judgment because they do not have an ecclesiastical structure to resolve doctrinal disputes.

Fr. “WB” at the Whitehall Blog basically repeats the common “protestant” response to this—that any prot who moves to a non-prot denomination has done so through logical reasoning and “private judgment”, so why is that OK but another’s decision not?

Now, when I discuss this with EO/RCC apologists, I cannot seem to get a clear answer as to why one person’s choice is private, while another’s is not. And Fr. Kimel, in my opinion, does not give a clear answer either. The answer always seems to boil down to “because we are right”.

Fr. Kimel wrote “All parties agree that private judgment must be exercised in the decision to become Catholic or Orthodox. As Cardinal Newman wrote to Mrs. Helbert in 1869, “Private judgment must be your guide, till you are in the Church. You do not begin with faith, but with reason, and you end with faith.” But what does Newman mean by ending with faith? Helbert was already a believing Christian. She was struggling not whether to believe in Christ but whether to become Catholic. The solution is to be found in the difference between the Church as a magisterial community that authorizes binding doctrines in the name of God and the Church as denomination that projects theological opinions.”

It seems that one’s decisions are private until one decides to join the RCC (or EO) church. When one joins the Church, one is under authority and hence one’s beliefs are no longer private. This belief is not a rational belief, but a product of the faith of the RC convert, as Fr. Kimel states “the Catholic gives his assent because he believes that the Catholic Church has the authority to propose irreformable doctrine.” What this boils down to, in my opinion, is that the RC simply believes his choice is right, based on faith, and so he is no longer “guilty” of private judgment. Since the “protestant” makes a different choice, he is guilty of private judgment, because he does not conform to the choice of the RC convert.

This way of reasoning seems a little convenient for the RC convert to me. I do not see how there is any difference between the “protestant” and the RC convert—except of course their choices individually determined! Another issue is that the individual RC believer must still interpret what the RCC teaches—and he does this individually and conforms his views either to a greater or lesser extent to the actual teachings of the RCC.

Finally, all these questions about epistemology—how can we know what to believe?—miss the point, in my opinion. I believe they are ultimately futile. In a sense, Fr. Kimel is right, we perceive these things through faith, not reason alone. The problem comes when we try to dress up our faith in intellectual garb to make it sound as if another should follow one’s own private decision because of logical necessity.


Chris Jones said...

If we take Lutheran ecclesiology and epistemology on its own terms (rather than evaluating it according to Roman Catholic categories), we see that "private judgement" has no place in Lutheranism either.

The knowledge of the Truth, as well as the faith which recognizes and embraces that truth, comes to us through the Church's ministry of Word and Sacrament (AC V). The "assent of faith," which is so important in the Roman Catholic scheme, comes to us as a gift from outside of ourselves, given by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace. That is our Lutheran "epistemology"; and there is nothing subjective or private about it.

The Roman Catholic is concerned with authority and the submission of the intellect to the authority of the Church. We, instead, see the exercise of the magisterium (if you want to call it that) in the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the local congregation. That is where the believer receives both the content of the faith and the faith by which he holds fast to it: from the Holy Spirit, by the objective means of grace, through the ministry of the Church.

There's no "private judgement" involved.

Edward Reiss said...


You know what? I think you are right. I was sucked into in effect justifying private choices instead of starting with Christ and his Church, and the work he did on me there, offering his salvation to me, along with the faith to receive it. Since this is God's work on me, and not my own work on my own behalf, faith is not the result of private jugement, how could it be?

You mentioned the authority and submission thing to me before, but it only sunk in now.


Chris Jones said...

Of course, the RC apologist will say that the problem has only been moved down the road a bit: how do we know that the local Church in which we receive faith through the means of grace is, in fact, a true and authentic Christian Church? We are (the RC would say) still exercising "private judgement" in our recognition of a particular congregation as an authentic local Church.

It is a fair point, and there are significant issues between RCs and Lutherans about ecclesiology that are well worth talking about. But notice that we are now talking about the Church, what she is and how she is to be recognized; not about the individual purporting to determine Christian truth on his own. We are no longer talking about a strictly individualist approach to Christianity, with the individual applying "private judgement" to the Bible, entirely apart from the Church.

So taking Lutheranism on its own terms, and taking seriously what we actually teach, deprives the RC apologist of a straw-man argument.

Bryan said...


I posted a reply to your post in the combox at Pontifications.

Ken said...

Mr. Reiss,

If you haven't already done so you may benefit from a reading of Newman's "Faith and Private Judgement".

See Fr. Kimel is following the teaching of Crdl. Newman. Newman defines faith as "submission to divine authority". So, in reality, Newman would say that the lady he wrote to did not have faith, even if she stated she held to belief in Jesus Christ.

The weakness in Fr. Kimel's argument will be found in Newman's definition.

Edward Reiss said...


I think you are right Re: Newman's/Fr. Kimel's definition of faith. I have never heard of faith defined in such a way, and I think it goes a long way to explaining why I find their position re: private judgment so perplexing.

I guess I will have to read Newman.


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