Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Wholly Unsatisfactory Response to John Wright's "Parable of the Messengers"

I've been reading through John C. Wright's A Universal Apologia for the Catholic Church. It's good.

Now Mr. Wright is not my favorite author, but One Bright Star to Guide Them may be my favorite novella. For any fan of Lewis and MacDonald, it's an absolute feast. My only complaint is that it is not a ten-book cycle.

Unlike Mr. Wright, I was born into a church and believed in the teachings of Christianity from a very young age. Indeed, I have never had any doubts in the existence of God or the truth of the Bible. This, in fact, is what caused me to hate God for a portion of my life.

You see, I attended a Christian school which railed against the usual litany of movies, rock and roll, and indeed Science Fiction. Being unable to find any evidence in the Bible that these things were sinful, I realized with a shock that men in pulpits were lying about God. Worse, they were doing so without being struck down by bolts of thunder.

For some reason, I transferred my hatred of these men to a hatred of the God who did not turn them into pillars of salt for their lies. Later on I was reconciled to God by the mercy of God, but that time of my life has left scars that will perhaps only be healed after this life (other-inflicted and self-inflicted.

At any rate, I have much respect for Mr. Wright's logical thought and intellectual consistency, despite the very different origins of his faith. However, while his Parable of the Messengers is absolutely correct from the Catholic perspective, it misrepresents the Protestant perspective.

I am not speaking of those who believe in a secret line of Southern Baptists stretching back to the apostles or anything of that sort. As Protestant and Protestant-descended denominations abound, there are certain to be ten thousand different versions of why the Church of Rome is a Den of Vipers. I am aiming for the mean, not to cover every single lizard-man conspiracy theory.

At any rate, here is a Protestant Reform of the Parable of the Messengers:

From league 0 to 300, we Protestants have no essential dispute with Mr. Wright's account.

We do need some additional clarification at the 300-400 league mark. At this point, there is already a general consensus among the messengers as to which written orders are legitimate, with a chain of documentation leading back to the followers of the Twelve General Officers (Matthias, Mr. Wright). There are essentially four groups of written orders in circulation:

1). Those which almost all messengers recognize as valid
2). Those which most messengers recognize, but a few dispute
3). Those which a few recognize, but most dispute
4). Those which almost no messengers consider valid

After debating the merits of the written orders in the second and third categories (the first are beyond dispute, the fourth are beyond salvage), the messengers settle on a list comprised of orders from the first and second categories (some of the second category orders are excluded).

In other words, the written orders were chosen in recognition of the fact that they were recognized as legitimate by the overwhelming majority of messengers. The sheep, as it were, recognized the voice of the Shepherd. And indeed, most of the orders in the third and fourth category contained teachings that flatly contradicted the teachings of the first two categories.

There is no mystery over why some orders were considered valid, understood only by the messengers. They were guided by that Holy Spirit which guides this army but also by the plain evidence of the written orders. A written order that claims the King is evil and must be rebelled against may be rejected out of hand.

We also have no essential dispute between 400-1000 leagues.

Around the 1000 league mark, something strange began happening in the camp. Little by little, the messengers started refusing direct access to the written orders. This, they said, was to strengthen the chain of command and keep unqualified messengers from misrepresenting the written orders.

And indeed, there had been problems with disagreements and divisions in the camp, It was deemed a wise precaution. All existing copies of the original orders were locked away and replaced by a secret, unbreakable code understood only by the messengers.

For the next 500 leagues, no one but the messengers were permitted to hear or read the original written orders. It was taken on good faith that the words of the trusted messengers were in line with the written orders.

During this stretch of the road, the messengers took from the war chest vast quantities of food and treasure for themselves, assuring the foot soldiers that this was in line with the written orders. They used these funds to build lavish buildings and fill them with works of art, and to fill their bedchambers with wine, gems, and whores.

They also introduced many new orders which the common soldiers had never heard before. Again, the soldiers were assured that these new orders were perfectly in line with the written orders. And because the messengers had been well trusted in the past, the soldiers were content to believe them.

Now around the 1500th league, a young man was raised up to the position of messenger and taught how to read the secret code. To his shock, he found that many of the orders of the messengers were in plain contradiction to the written orders. There was indeed no reconciliation possible between the spoken orders and the written orders.

Then he turned his eyes to his fellow messengers, and saw that their lives were also in complete opposition to the written orders. They fraternized with the enemy, raped and pillaged the innocents of the countryside, and unjustly looted supplies that belonged to their subordinates. Indeed, the army had become less of a fighting force and more of a carnival of indulgence run on behalf of the messengers and their lackeys.

This young messenger was torn. On one hand, he fully believed in the mission of the army, the greatness of the King, and the authority of its true commander. On the other hand, the written orders clearly showed him that the highest messengers were liars and opportunists in open rebellion against the written orders.

A war broke out within the camp, much bloodier and more vicious for being a civil war. When previous messengers had split away, they had taken their soldiers with them to other battlefields, preventing most bloodletting. But this young messenger was not content to leave the camp, and the other messengers would not have been content to let him escape alive.

For the young messenger had done the unthinkable and the unforgivable: he had broken the secret code and began distributing copies of the written orders in language the soldiers could understand. Any man with eyes could see that the high messengers were liars, and taught things in most obvious contradiction to the written orders.

So they called themselves "Loyalists," for they desired to be loyal to the King, High Commander, and written orders in the face of wicked and corrupt messengers.

Sadly, they were not in agreement on all points of the meaning of the written orders. Fearful of again being led astray by false messengers, they fell to fighting among themselves as well. The war was long and many friends and brothers slew each other.

As a result of the war, the high messengers instituted a series of reforms to curb the old excesses. They decoded the written orders and allowed all soldiers to read them in a language they understood. But the damage could not be undone.

The Loyalists would never again trust the orders of the camp. How could they? For five hundred leagues, the army had been turned from its mission by the messengers. The messengers had conspired together to suppress the written orders and then profited by lying about their contents.

The messengers of the camp have a few arguments against the Loyalists:

1). The excesses of the messengers have been exaggerated
2). The excesses of the messengers that led to the rebellion have all been reformed
3). The so-called "loyalists" do not agree on the meeting of the written orders
4). The so-called "loyalists" cannot explain why the written orders should be trusted
5). The so-called "loyalists" do not have an unbroken chain of command stretching back to the King

To this, the Loyalists respond:
1). Perhaps we were slightly less betrayed than has sometimes been claimed. What of it? The conspiracy to deny us access to the written orders cannot be denied, nor can the betrayal of the written orders. Who in their right mind would trust a liar and a traitor twice?
2). Perhaps the messengers of the camp have truly reformed. What of it? They still claim the same authority as before, the same authority than once almost snuffed out the written orders from the minds of men. The authority to make the written orders say the opposite of their plain meaning exists in the hands of liars and traitors.
3). This is true and cannot be denied. But honest disagreement is better than blind obedience to traitors and liars. It was not us who breached trust with the messengers, but the messengers themselves.
4). Bupkis! We know there is a King, and a High Commander. We know the history of our army. There are written orders which have always been considered legitimate, and we reject any that disagree with these. It was on the basis of this universal agreement that some written orders were declared authentic; that reason remains.
5). The so-called "true army" has nothing but a chain of liars, thieves, conspirators, tyrants, tricksters, sorcerers, and unrepentant whore-mongers. You claim as your pride the wicked men who lied to us, betrayed us, stole our wealth, and kept us in bondage. And you may keep them.
This, at least, is the story as it has come to me. To ask a Protestant to accept the authority of the Roman Church is to ask him to accept his ancestor's slave masters. I will not say that the Romans have no argument, only that wise men do not trust those who have betrayed them once already.

It did not take very many evil men to turn the Roman Church to evil the first time. It will not take very many the second time.


  1. I know it's far past date, but I would add a bit to this as a fellow Protestant (by tradition, if not in actual belief).

    The two greats schisms of the church were the result (at base) of politics, not theology. The East-West theological issue was a minor translation error on a minor part of a minor sub-topic of Christ's nature.

    And yet that schism led to the mutual, repeated slaughter of Orthodox and Roman Catholic.

    So, too, with the Reformers - Huss and Luther did not start on issues of theology, but rather of the practical behavior of the priestly class. The ninety-five theses do not read as the Declaration of Independence, a clean break in a society, but rather as a formal complaint of malfeasance.

    But one joining note of both events is the issue of the Papacy, specifically of Papal Primacy. The notion that Peter's "heir" is the vicar of Christ, and in some modes infallible, will ensure schism in perpetuity. Protestants and Orthodox alike cannot, and will not, accept the tyranny of Rome.

  2. As a Protestant studying more and more of the Orthodox of late, they present a very interesting data point that throws wrinkles into both parables.

    It is not without irony I've noticed that whatever claims the Catholics want to make against Protestants, the Orthodox can make the same claim, only stronger. And likewise any claims the Catholics want to make against the Orthodox, the Protestants can make the same claim, only stronger.

    The two greats schisms of the church were the result (at base) of politics, not theology. The East-West theological issue was a minor translation error on a minor part of a minor sub-topic of Christ's nature.

    I will note 1 thing though. If the Orthodox were so willing to fight over the most minor of minor points, then one can be pretty well assured that the issue of "new orders" is probably not going to arise within them. Of course, given that the change was to the foundational creed of the faith and involved actual words spoken by the Lord Himself it is debatable exactly how "minor" any part of it is.

    But as I've heard said before, it's worth noting that the East never had a Protestant reformation.

    1. Granted, the East also never had the intersection of political authority and church authority that occurred in the West - it came close at times, but the collapse of Byzantium prevented it from ever congealing.

      I've said elsewhere that I'm quite sympathetic both the Orthodox and Old Catholic positions. But at the same time, I don't see evidence from the early church writers or the Bible that the extreme traditionalism of the Orthodox branches is necessary.

      Moreover, any talk of the "one true Church" gets my hackles up and indicated to me that someone is advocating for an unlicensed temporal authority vested in an individual.

      At the same time, the Reformation was an overreaction many areas. In the effort to remove the excesses, traditions that shouldn't have been abandoned were.

      The key point of agreement between Orthodox and Protestant is still with regards to the issue of Rome and its claim to overarching authority. Reconciliation is most likely impossible so long as that obstacle remains.

      A secondary point of agreement is on the excessive dogmatization of purgatory and the Theotokos, though the details are complicated.

      But the great lesson that I see is that the Church cannot become excessively entwined in political affairs - it simply does not end well. This has continued to be true across the board, whether the result is schism or corruption of the Church, which has occurred in East and West alike throughout time.

  3. And so it begins