The following is a lengthy reply to a comment on my original article (to be posted here shortly) on a Protestant assessment of the early church. In that article, a few comments are asked about the philosophical foundations of Protestantism and Catholicism. Below is my response:
You are correct that those who swim the Tiber (at least those that interact here) do not do so because of the analysis of modern historical scholarship. There are even others outside of the blogosphere, like Allen Brent, who convert while knowing the history and openly confessing that the historical Christ did not found the RCC. I can’t get inside someone like Allen Brent’s head as to why he would convert to Catholicism when he doesn’t believe the episcopate existed until the very late 2nd or early 3rd century in Rome, but obviously it didn’t stop him. I’d be intrigued to hear his reasons, but that is why I am not attempting to falsify Catholicism in my post—there is much to be explored in that regard.
From the writing at Called to Communion and other conservative Catholic blogs, particularly Jason Stellman’s, I am deeply concerned that the conversion stories omit this historical element. As a matter of fact, as I attempted to point out to Jason on his post on “Apostolic Succession: A Minimalist Proposal,” he wasn’t making a discernible argument for anything, let alone the Catholic notion of Apostolic Succession. When I’ve consulted other friends who have converted, this question never (or perhaps minimally) crossed their minds and yet, one of the (if not *the*) most important issues for them is the issue of interpretive authority. You even state it this way,
the starting point seems to more commonly be a sense that Protestantism at its root contains a fatal philosophical flaw and is fraught with discontinuities that render its own historical claims implausible.
I’d be curious to know more about what you mean in the way you state this question. What are the claims that are “historically implausible” and how are those historical claims invalidated by their “fatal philosophical flaw”? If the flaw you are referring to is that Protestantism does not have a mechanism to distinguish human opinion from divine revelation then that is something I will wish to contest—but again in a critical manner for the time being.
To unpack that I am going to again engage critically with the philosophical assumptions implicit in the argument and how my argument in no way leads to agnosticism but how the hermeneutical methodology of CtC does lead towards either fideism or agnosticism. As Dr. Horton states it, I believe that the argument of Bryan combines a radical skepticism regarding interpretation (particularly of Scripture) and radical absolutism regarding ecclesial authority and clarity. The rest of my comment will be spent explaining why Dr. Horton’s criticism of Bryan is correct and how this impacts the various questions you ask about schism, principled means, and agnosticism.
Bryan argues that Dr. Horton’s criticism is not true, and to prove this he focuses particularly on the distinction between a written text and a person speaking. Persons can clarify but texts cannot. Bryan says it this way,
A person can do what a book cannot; a person can correct global misunderstandings and answer comprehensive interpretive questions. A book by its very nature has a limited intrinsic potency for interpretive self-clarification; a person, on the other hand, by his very nature has, in principle, an unlimited intrinsic potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification. This unlimited potency of persons with respect to interpretive self-clarification ensures that the hermeneutical spiral may reach its goal; we can continue to ask clarification questions, be heard, and receive answers to those very questions, until the questions are answered. [Source: http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/11/sola-scriptura-a-dialogue-between-michael-horton-and-bryan-cross/%5D
I believe that Bryan’s distinction here does not appropriately answer the criticism. It is true that persons can clarify previous statements, but it is also true that texts can also dialogue with the reader and the reader can and does ask clarifying questions of the text. Bryan is correct to identify the limited potency of texts to offer clarifying questions, but that does not mean that we cannot understand what the text says. Perhaps the implications are unclear to the interpreter or the interpreter is possibly asking clarifying questions that the text did not intend to address. Limited potency with respective to interpretive clarification does not mean that the meaning of a text is inaccessible. There has been substantial discussion about how this occurs throughout the history of philosophy particularly since the time of the Reformation.
Schleiermacher insisted authorial intent was vitally important to understand texts. In my class notes from Michael Horton I have noted that the object of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics is to know the author better than the author knew himself. Wilhelm Dilthey picked this up and internalized it arguing that our finiteness limits our ability to claim universal objectivity and therefore the goal of interpretation is not to describe the external world but to express the interpreters experience of the world in an attempt to unify reality. Dilthey’s work was one of the contributing factors to the development of postmodern philosophy and also why philosophers have continued to focus upon linguistics/hermeneutics. From Dilthey we move to Heidegger who believes that the task of hermeneutics is not just applied to texts, it is applied to being, “Dasien” itself (something that Heidegger believes Descartes overlooked in his attempt to establish first principles). The Stanford Encyclopedia explains,
This Heideggerian reformulation of the problem of truth gives rise to a new conception of the hermeneutic circle. In Spinoza, Ast, and Schleiermacher, the hermeneutic circle was conceived in terms of the mutual relationship between the text as a whole and its individual parts, or in terms of the relation between text and tradition. With Heidegger, however, the hermeneutic circle refers to something completely different: the interplay between our self-understanding and our understanding the world. The hermeneutic circle is no longer perceived as a helpful philological tool, but entails an existential task with which each of us is confronted.[Source: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hermeneutics/#Turn%5D
Hans-Georg Gadamer develops this (and you can read all about this in more detail in the Stanford Encyclopedia if you prefer). Knowledge and epistemology are dependent upon language. “Language is our second nature.” Thus, texts do not come to use as neutral free objects of scientific investigation. Instead, they are the very things that shape our horizons and shape our view of the world. “At the end of the day, Gadamer claims, it is not really we who address the texts of tradition, but the canonic texts that address us.”
There were a number of responses to Gadamer’s approach, but perhaps none more important than Derrida. Derrida criticized Gadamer arguing that the fusion of horizon’s was impossible because word’s don’t have external referents, they only refer to other words. (There is considerable discussion about what is and what is not “deconstruction” in Derrida; I don’t intend to go into much detail, but this is a summary). It is also worth noting that Derrida’s coined the word “difference” to prove a point:
“Since most philosophers had preference for the spoken over the written word Derrida created a word that cannot be differentiated audibly but can be via the written medium This showed the audible “writing” doesn’t always supersede the marks-and-dashes of “written” “writing”” [Source: http://nearemmaus.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/leport-deconstruction-and-hermeneutics.pdf%5D
Men like Paul Ricouer, on the other hand, argued that in hermeneutics you are not looking behind the text (Schleiermacher), nor is the text’s horizon fusing with your horizon (Gadamer); instead, there is often a collision of text and reader (contra the deconstruction of Derrida and other post-structuralists).
In the wake of all of this development there have been various philosophers attempting to address the numerous questions that the postmodern development has engendered and all of the fields that it has touched. You can get a sampling in “Christianity and the Postmodern Turn” edited by Myron Penner. Writers on epistemology and hermeneutics are discussed by authors such as James K.A. Smith, Kevin Vanhoozer, Craig Bartholomew, C. Stephen Evans, Alvin Plantinga, Vern Poythress, and Nicolas Wolsterstorff to name only a few. These men are much more qualified to answer these objections than I am and they are all Protestants from varying perspectives. Of course, there are other philosophers working on these questions who are Catholic. I would recommend their work too, but my assumption is that they are not appealing to the Church as infallible interpreter to help solve these philosophical issues.
What does this history have to do with your question? Well, in my estimation, Bryan has accepted the critique of postmodernism when it comes to texts but has not followed the logical progression to persons or existence itself. Somehow, while we cannot get outside of ourselves in understanding a text, we can do so when interpreting a person. In reading some of the philosophers outlined above I am not familiar with any of them making the distinction between persons and texts as a vehicle for better understanding. As a matter of fact, the reason that interpretive issues present themselves is because of the existential problems which saturate every form of communication and our very existence.
It is possible for a living person to clarify their spoken or written communication, but if the interpreter doesn’t ask for clarification, thinking they have understood, then the distinction between a text and a person is irrelevant, and that is precisely the point. It is suggested that the problem with Protestantism is that with a book you cannot get past your interpretation of the text, but when you find a living person you can ask clarifying questions and understand them—but if the problem with interpreting texts is my interpretation of the text, then how is the process of interpretation different when I’m dialoging with a person? The only difference proposed by Bryan is intrinsic potency for self-clarification between texts and persons.
I’ll attempt to show what I mean by interacting with Bryan at length here:
A book contains a monologue with respect to the reader. A book’s author can often anticipate the thoughts and questions that might arise in the mind of the reader. But a book cannot hear the reader’s questions here and now, and answer them. A living person, however, can do so. A living person can engage in genuine personal dialogue with the reader, whereas a book cannot. Writing is a human technology that records the speech or dialogues of others, but cannot engage in authentic personal dialogue with the reader. Chesterton notes this when he writes that though we can put a living person in the dock, we cannot put a book in the dock. In this respect, a person can do what a book cannot; a person can correct global misunderstandings and answer comprehensive interpretive questions. A book by its very nature has a limited intrinsic potency for interpretive self-clarification; a person, on the other hand, by his very nature has, in principle, an unlimited intrinsic potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification. This unlimited potency of persons with respect to interpretive self-clarification ensures that the hermeneutical spiral may reach its goal; we can continue to ask clarification questions, be heard, and receive answers to those very questions, until the questions are answered. By contrast, a book cannot speak more about itself than it does at the moment at which it is completed; thus without a visible living magisterium, disputes regarding the interpretation of Scripture can in principle be interminable and unresolvable. A person, by contrast, remains perpetually capable of clarifying further any of his previous speech-acts. So likewise an enduring Magisterium made up of persons remains perpetually capable of clarifying and explaining any of its previous statements.
In one important respect Bryan is right about the possibility for interpretive self-clarification being greater from a person than a “book.” This truth is only superficially related to the real issues, however. Bryan assumes that with the ability of an individual to clarify themselves leads to greater understanding, but that is only one potential outcome. There is also the possibility that I’ve raised above that the questioner misunderstands the clarification of the speaker. Moreover, there is the possibility that the speaker misunderstands the question of the questioner leading to more misunderstanding. And even if there is not misunderstanding on 1st and 2nd order questions, the possibility for misunderstanding continues into third and fourth order questions.
Bryan’s rather optimistic view of the ability of persons to effectively communicate continues as he answers the potential objection that personal communication results in hermeneutical regress,
One reason why there is no necessary infinite hermeneutical regress is that with a living Magisterium we can continue to ask clarifying questions, even to the point of saying, “I’m understanding you to be saying x. Is x what you are saying? Yes or no?” And the Magisterium can respond by saying “yes” or “no.” And at that point, there is no need for an interpretive authority, so long as a person understands the English language and has adequate hearing. Interpreting “yes” and “no” is quite different from interpreting, say, the book of Romans. We do not need an interpretive authority to explain the meaning of ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ But we may very well need an interpretive authority to explain the meaning of the book of Romans, or at least to help us avoid misinterpreting it.
While agreeing with Bryan that his position does not necessitate an infinite hermeneutical regress, it does not address the difficulties inherent in personal communication. Instead, Bryan uses a rather simplistic situation where, at least in principle, the Church is able to move to “yes” or “no” questions. There is no disputing that Bryan has proposed a possible scenario in communicative discourse, but the natural question is, “Has the Church ever responded to a question with ‘Yes’ or ‘No’?” I’m not aware of that situation. So while Bryan has provided us with an ideal situation for persons to clarify themselves, I’m not sure if he could provide an example of his proposed ideal. If we look at the history of the Catholic Church, we find that Bryan’s ideal is much more complex in reality.
The successor of Peter, in communion with all of the bishops, is able to offer clarifying answers to clarifying questions under certain conditions in certain times on certain topics (and we could also say the converse that the communion of bishops in communion with the Pope is able to offer clarifying…). If the many qualifications to knowing when the “person” of the Church was in fact speaking are not dense in themselves, consider that if you have a question that you want an infallible response to you will need a council with the Pope, and he’s only ever infallibly clarified two things in 2000 years. Even if you do get an audience with the Pope, there is no guarantee that what the Pope is teaching is infallible even if you’ve understood him to be teaching something in his office as universal bishop (more on that in a moment).
Recent examples have shown how even if you have this conversation with the Pope the interpretive process can create further ambiguity. In Francis’s pastoral ministry he has been making phone calls to people that have written to him (a great thing for a Pope to be doing, IMO). During that conversation a woman claims that Francis told her that she was doing “nothing bad” taking communion as a divorcee. Whether or not this is actually what Francis said is unclear, but the fact remains that the woman walked away from that call believing that Francis’s answer had vindicated her desire to take the Eucharist [Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/vaticancityandholysee/10785938/Pope-in-hot-water-over-private-phone-calls.html].
Ross Douthat notes that the Vatican released a statement saying that the pastoral phone conversations,
do not in any way form part of the pope’s public activities,” and “consequences relating to the teaching of the church are not to be inferred…”
But Douthat retorts,
This formulation may be technically correct, but it’s also a little bit absurd. Even in “private” conversation, the pope is, well, the pope, and this pontiff in particular is no naïf about either the media or human nature. Whatever was actually said, the idea that it never occurred to Francis that a pastoral call on such a fraught subject might get media attention seems … unlikely [Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/27/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-popes-phone-call.html?ref=rossdouthat&_r=1 ]
The media story leaves many details unknown (we know how the media loves a good headline grabber!), and we do not know about the circumstances of this woman’s divorce—other than that her parish priest who would most likely have information on the situation prohibited her from taking the Eucharist—but this story shows how further communicative discourse can in fact blur already murky discourse. While there are ways in which the Catholic can respond that technically the Pope’s private pastoral advice is not “part of the pope’s public activities” I concur with Douthat that such a distinction is “a little bit absurd.” Douthat’s comments demonstrate that “persons” can be just as confusing (sometimes even more confusing) than texts.
Another important example of clarifying questions leading to further ambiguity is the case of Pope Honorius (whether he was or was not a heretic is not essential for my argument). Representatives at Vatican I argued that Pope Honorius had in fact taught heresy when claiming to exercise his role as the guardian of the Apostolic deposit—showing Papal infallibility was false. This does not mean that because some people believed this that it was so, but it only serves my point that there was serious ambiguity about what Honorius did and did not teach.
Bryan is bound to respond that this is precisely the point. Ambiguity from Honorius is clarified by further elaboration from the “person” of the Church. This response is an example of revisionism in the highest order, however. In anticipation of Bryan’s response he will say that Honorius was unclear (and this is the charitable reading), but the Church was able to later clarify the ambiguity; problem solved. Unfortunately, this leaves those initially involved in the conversation without answers to their clarifying questions. If the actual answer to the question of Sergius of Constantinople, about the teaching of Rome, didn’t come until after Honorius’s death, how has this process brought about clarification for Sergius? Sergius died in 836 and did not receive a formal answer to his question until 860 when both Sergius and Honorius were condemned at Constantinople III. Suffice it to say, the Council was of little use to Sergius 24 years after his death, particularly since at his death he had the support of (if not agreement with) Honorius. Imagine how shocked Sergius must have been when he went before God and was informed that he had been anathematized by the Church in Rome even though he had the support of the Pope at the time of his death!
This is simply two examples of the practical ways in which Bryan’s distinction between persons and texts is problematic in Rome’s own practice, but part of the reason for the discussion of all of the hermeneutical discussion above is also to show that among these philosophers you will not find the sorts of distinctions that Bryan is making. I concede that texts communicate their content differently than persons do and with a limited intrinsic potency for clarification, but that does not mean that their limited intrinsic potency makes clarification impossible. To state it in the form of a question, why does Bryan presume that in order to understand a text that there must be a living interpreter of the written text in order to determine what the text is saying? (I’d also be interested to know if Bryan applies this same standard to other fields which are dependent upon historical texts such as Shakespeare studies?)
If the response is that there are numerous interpretations (with no principled way to get past my interpretation of the text), then how does this escape the multiplicity of interpretations which likewise come from persons? While Bryan appeals to the unlimited intrinsic potency of persons to clarify, they equally possess the unlimited intrinsic potency to obfuscate. Whether or not the person does in fact obfuscate is of course related to the nature of the person (that they are in fact able to offer an interpretation of the text and are not a liar), which is precisely why in the article Bryan focuses on the Divine institution of the Church—it was instituted by Jesus and is an extension of His incarnation (my summary and not Bryan’s words).
Before moving to this question though, I want to show how these assumptions have worked in a few comments made at Called to Communion. Matt Yonke wrote an article entitled, Hermeneutics and the Authority of Scripture. In that article Matt takes the type of position advocated by Bryan and asserts,
A book provides words that must be interpreted to be understood. A person speaking to us in person, like the Apostles speaking to the early Churches, can explain the meaning of his speech. A book cannot elucidate problem passages for us. Given the fallibility of human understanding and the diversity of perspectives regarding interpretation, especially over the span of 2,000 years of Church history, it is simply not possible that a book by its very nature could be the supreme rule of faith and doctrine. At least it cannot do this if we expect there to be a consistent understanding of this book that would work itself out into consistent faith and practice. A human, or set of humans, must make the final decision about the meaning of written texts.
This quote highlights a number of the problematic assumptions that go into this methodology. The very first statement is stated in a way that implies persons do not “provide words that must be interpreted to be understood,” which is patently false. It’s likewise unclear how the fallibility of interpretation means a book by its very nature could not be the supreme rule of faith and doctrine. It is equally unclear what it means for a human or set of humans to make the final decision about the meaning of written texts. What is to guarantee my understanding of that person, and what is to guarantee that person [presumably in Matt’s article this “person” is the RCC] is accurately interpreting the passage? This perspective adopts the postmodern critique towards written texts and an absolutist position regarding the communicative potency of the RCC, but this stance is unprincipled. The claim, as it appears to me, is that the text is unclear, but with the teaching of the Magisterium the true meaning of the text becomes clearer. The truly problematic position with this is that this authority is assumed and asserted and the meaning of the text is only available outside the text itself, which renders the whole hermeneutical process meaningless in principle. The text doesn’t determine anything—by its very nature it cannot determine anything because we are only left with our own interpretations of the text—we must rely on an external authority to interpret the text for us. This is precisely why Dr. Horton labels such a perspective simultaneously skeptical and absolutist.
Particularly problematic is also the statement made by Matt (and implicitly assumed by Bryan) that books could not, in principle ever be a way of being the infallible guide for life and practice. This means that God could not—given the intrinsic qualities of books—reveal himself in Scripture without an infallible interpreter of his Word. Of course, the Magisterium did not exist in the Old Testament. The Torah served as the written code for the people of God for centuries. There were, naturally, elders and leaders established and there were even monarchies established, but all of these were ministers of God’s promise and none of them acted infallibly by virtue of an office they received. We hear of Kings ruling unfaithfully, Prophets prophesying falsely, and priests ministering falsely.
The inevitable response will be that in the New Covenant attention must be paid to the fulfillment of prophecy about the kingdom, but such a criticism would miss the point at hand. Matt has argued that books by definition cannot function as the sole infallible authority. If this is true, then Scripture could not have been the only rule of faith in the OT, there needed to be something else. If Matt is correct, then what infallible interpretive authority existed in the OT? It would have necessarily existed because the Scriptures could not have functioned in that manner.
Giving one more example of this type of interaction at CtC, consider Ray Stamper who argues here that,
The bottom line is that by placing a book, rather than a Divinely authorized living authority, at the center of his epistemic paradigm, the Protestant not only must use his fallible human reason to arrive at the locus of Divine authority (as the Catholic also must do); he must continue standing upon that fallible ground for the very determination of doctrinal truth itself – even after embracing the locus of Divine authority in scripture. Hence, he cannot escape the fallible interpretive spiral that blocks his ability to achieve clarity and certainty on some crucial matters of faith (such as Justification). Such is the problem with any “religion of the book” or any other system which exclusively places a text at the fundamental base of its epistemic edifice.
Again, the working assumption is that the interpretation of the individual creates a distance from the text that is impossible to overcome. The Catholic though has the living breathing Magisterium to clarify “crucial matters of faith.” Unfortunately, there is the assumption that by virtue of the Magisterium speaking, that removes the interpretive morass, but this is unprincipled philosophically and demonstrably false in history.
Furthermore, this position is a subtle, unintentional distortion of the Reformed view. In all of this discussion of texts and persons, what seems to be overlooked is that the text of Scripture is the living voice of God. Scripture is living and active (Heb 4:12-13). It is not a “dead” text. The Spirit is active in our engagement with Scripture and that engagement in the Spirit transcends grammatical-historical methodology (it’s not a Pelagian exercise, as Bryan notes), as important as those tools are for proper understanding God’s Word. It is true that Scripture is a text, but it is a text that contains and conveys the living Word of God.
Ray also mentions something that I find sociologically fascinating and that is that Protestantism has a problem that every other “religion of the book” possesses. While Ray submits that this is a problem for Protestantism, I find it a rather fascinating contrast between Catholicism and the rest of the world’s major religions. Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism do not have this infallible mechanism that is supposedly necessary for distinguishing human interpretation from Divine revelation. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormon’s do not claim infallibility to definitively settle interpretive questions. I won’t go so far as to suggest it is an argument against Catholicism, but it is interesting to me that the world’s major religions do not find an external authority necessary to interpret their scripture.
Finally, one of the most pressing issues that needs to be explored with this distinction between persons and texts is the legitimacy of the RCC claiming to speak as the Divine interpreter. How do we know that the RCC has this authority and how do we know that they interpret Scripture faithfully? The response is that because the Church has been founded by Jesus that the gates of Hell cannot prevail against the Church. In addition, the identity of this church is found through Apostolic Succession. Bryan states in his Solo/Sola article that,
‘Church’ is not defined in terms of “gospel,” but in terms of apostolic succession, involving an unbroken line of authorizations extending down from the Apostles. Just as Christ authorized and sent the Apostles to preach and teach in His Name, and govern His Church, so the Apostles, by the laying on of their hands, appointed bishops as their successors, and by this mystery handed on to them the divine authority to preach and teach and govern the Church. And these men also, in the same way authorized other men to succeed them to preach and teach the gospel and govern Christ’s Church. Only those having the succession from the Apostles are divinely authorized to preach and teach and govern Christ’s Church
[I’ll note in passing that those accusing my article of creating a straw-man of the Catholic position on the episcopate ought to read statements like the above and Bryan’s section on Apostolic Succession to see why I have argued the way I have: http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/11/sola-scriptura-a-dialogue-between-michael-horton-and-bryan-cross/#ApostolicSuccession. For example, “Both Pope Benedict XVI and John Zizioulas believe that the episcopacy is an Apostolic institution, and that the *bishop* received his authority to ordain from the Apostles through the **sacrament of *episcopal* ordination**.”]
Bryan goes on to quote Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Eusebius. I believe that my article answers Bryan in the main, but I also think Bryan’s characterization of the anti-Gnostic polemic is skewed. I don’t have the space to go into more detail on the nature of the anti-Gnostic polemics, but I’ll provide a summary view of S.L. Greenslade,
Above all, their [Irenaeus and Tertullian] concern is always for the preservation of true doctrine, the faith. They are only secondarily concerned with the means by which the institutional Church is maintained in being, though they are concerned with that, as a means to the main object. Secondly, the apostolic succession in question consists in the line of bishops in each local church, not a chain of consecrator and consecrated, which would give quite a different list. Apostolic succession always means the former in the early Church. Thirdly, there is no particular stress on their being bishops. The argument does not stand or fall by episcopacy, though certainly Tertullian takes it for granted. Irenaeus sometimes calls the successions successions of presbyters. The essential point is that there should be an orderly succession of responsible ministers in each local church.
This understanding of the Church of the apostolic succession lent itself to something which was not, it seems, predominantly in the mind of Tertullian, and certainly not of Irenaeus, namely an institutionalism in which the notes of authority, fixity, and good churchmanship are emphasized at the expense of other, and perhaps more important, features of the Christian life… [Pages 28-29 http://www.amazon.com/Early-Latin-Theology-Selections-Tertullian/dp/0664241549%5D
Much more has been said about this issue, and I would encourage you to reference my original article for further substantiation on these issues. The reason that the validity of Apostolic Succession is so important is because without it there is no principled way for Rome to claim that she is the “person” that can speak to clarify the biblical text. If Rome is not who she claims to be then she can be wrong and perhaps more importantly she can be deceptive; things that are unfortunately true of persons.
As I bring this response (significantly longer than I intended) to a close I can imagine that your (Burton’s) initial reaction is to say that I have not really offered a positive construction of the Protestant hermeneutical approach and that’s true to a point. The reason for this though is that the problems you see inherent to the “Protestant” paradigm are precisely the same problems with the Catholic one, but the only reason you would think that leads to agnosticism is because your approach has already adopted the postmodern skepticism of this age, which I believe is inculcated at CtC.
The point in my initial article was to point out that Jesus didn’t intend to establish the RCC nor did he establish an office, which became centralized in Rome, where a particular bishop was invested with the authority to distinguish human opinion from Divine Revelation. To state it another way, if we can agree that the Bible is God’s Word, that Jesus rose from the dead, and that the God we worship has revealed himself as Triune among other shared doctrines, I find it rather odd that you believe that Protestantism leads to agnosticism. On Protestant principles, if Jesus died, rose, and ascended to Heaven establishing a fallible Church to minister the Gospel of the kingdom, how does my belief that Jesus did not found an infallible church necessitate agnosticism? My point about Catholics and Protestants being in the same boat is that while there are some important philosophical questions that need to be asked and studied, we are on the same team.
My article is not a negative argument; it is a call to communion. Conversely, I believe that the arguments at CtC are built upon negative arguments—arguments that lack sophisticated philosophical grounding and demonstrably false historical assertions. I do not think that the interpretive issues are simple, but I do believe that they are resolvable and that we can understand persons and texts in meaningful ways that do not reduce to expressions of individual experience. To use Ricoeur’s taxonomy, the text’s world collides with our world.
To the more specific questions of distinguishing human opinion from divine revelation, the only way to do that is to submit our opinions to divine revelation, which is present in the Word of God. To posit the Church as possessing interpretive authority when it does not would be to add to the Word of God, something that is very inadvisable and dangerous to do, but I think it is precisely what the RCC has done as my original article sets out to explain. And if Jesus didn’t found the RCC, then the discussion of schism becomes significantly different than the way it is characterized at CtC. I am comfortable allowing that the relationship between heresy and schism is such that while someone may want to draw distinctions that they are so closely related as to be the same thing. Of course, that position derives from a more biblical-theological consideration of the church.
Hopefully this begins to address some of the questions that you’ve expressed. If you have any clarifying comments feel free to follow up.