[Note: The following began as a comment on a blog post, but grew a bit too long. I'm responding to Pastor Jordan Cooper of the "Just and Sinner" podcast (iTunes), which I learned about from a tweet by Anthony Sacramone. The three-part series on John MacArthur and baptism was engaging, and I've become a regular listener. I commend the program to anyone interested in contemporary Lutheranism. Here's the relevant blog post. I also refer to the comments.]
Hello Pastor Cooper,
I write to dispute part of your argument in the first Jason Stellman episode. In the comments to the accompanying blog post, Nathaniel writes that you stack the deck in your favor. My point is similar, but not quite the same. As I see it there's a twofold error: you first sidestep the logical problem of authority by discussing the (largely moral) problem of unity, and then set up a strawman about authority.
So, first: At least in the Roman communion, but probably also in Protestant communions, the problem of authority is distinct from the problem of unity. They are real and related problems, but they have different springs and are animated by different dynamics and failures, and require different solutions. They are neither the same problem, nor are they joined such that the resolution of the one necessitates the resolution of the other. In other words, unity is not a necessary adjunct to, or consequent of, valid authority. As I see it, disunity has both logical and moral dimensions, while the authority question is primarily a matter of historical investigation or logic.
The relation of these two problems is not the relation of equality, for the problem of authority is more fundamental than the problem of unity. The Christian in a quandary about which church to join (such as myself) should give more attention to the problem of authority than to the problem of unity. In intellectual disputes, the truth is fundamental and should determine our steps. Lest I be misunderstood, I decidedly do not mean that truth is all that matters. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient. The demons know and tremble. Truth doesn't always set you free. Unity flows only from the truth (not vice versa), but not by necessity.
Consider an analogy: Jesus certainly had authority over his disciples (and everything else in creation), but the sins of the Twelve frequently threatened the group's unity (and by extension challenged the Lord's authority). Sin seems to have finally severed poor Judas from the group. The fact of fragmented communion does not prove anything definite about the objective qualifications of the Lord. (The same could be said of Genesis 2 and 3. The Fall doesn't invalidate God's authority.)
However, Pastor, you treat unity and authority as constituting one problem. You begin by asserting that authority is "the reason" that people join the Catholic Church, which is probably often true. Then you switch to a discussion of unity. You state that converts to Rome will not find the unity they are seeking - the unity they couldn't find in the "50,000" Protestant denominations. (I grant the number is grossly inflated. Shame on bad Catholic apologetics.) You refer to liberal Catholic laity, rogue priests, theologians, and bishops, and even Robert Sungenis as proof of disunity. Fair enough: but this has no immediate bearing on the problem of authority.
Second: Later you come approach the problem of authority, but you don't quite reach it, for you rely on a strawman. Nathaniel's third comment does a good job of describing the authority problem as formulated by Stellman and Bryan Cross (A vs B). You do not interact with this formulation on the podcast. Instead you say that the Roman Church doesn't "block all the bad teaching." No one is claiming any such thing! It would take a more efficient fascist government than the world has ever known -- something like Big Brother in 1984 -- to do so. The conditions of infallibility, as you know, are specific and pointed: sometimes councils, sometimes popes, and certain documents, such as the Catechism. When you say that "even the leaders" in the Roman church disagree with one another, you refer to certain Jesuits and theologians -- thus skating over the genuine teaching about infallibility. Even if you had referred to bishops and popes, though, the blow wouldn't land unless the conditions were met.
I know that you know this, for in the series on MacArthur, you took issue with his citation of seemingly random documents in the attempt to characterize certain doctrinal positions. You pointed out that the responsible place to go in ascertaining a church's doctrine is its official confessional materials. According to your own principles, not even the intellectual leaders (theologians, pastors, bishops, popes) are to be sought, but rather the official documents.
The point of Cross, Stellman, and Nathaniel is this: when push come to shove -- when a controversy about dogma, doctrine or church practice becomes intractable -- who decides what is true or what policy to follow? Sola Scriptura, whether in a Lutheran or a Reformed formulation, puts the ultimate burden on a book, whereas Roman Catholicism places it on certain men in certain offices under certain conditions. The problem with assigning final authority only to a book is captured in one of Chesterton's most provocative paradoxes: "Catholics don't believe what the Bible teaches, because the Bible doesn't teach anything." If on the other hand the authority resides in men who, under certain conditions, interpret the books and promulgate its teachings infallibly, then those of us under authority have someone to consult.
Please pardon one word about your final response to Nathaniel. You write, "Ultimately, we are both left to our own interpretations of what we deem to be authoritative... To me, the magisterium doesn't really solve the issue; it just adds an extra layer of documents which need to be interpreted and studied." Here you basically align yourself with Nathaniel's position B (arrow determines target). But isn't there another conflation, here, similar to the one I've described? (1) The problem of determining who has authority, and (2) the problem of properly understanding authority?