If you’re not familiar, “special pleading” is a type of logical fallacy; Wikipedia explains that it “involves someone attempting to cite something as an exemption to a generally accepted rule, principle, etc. without justifying the exemption.”
So for example, you might argue for the general rule that “thieves should be punished, because stealing is wrong,” but then say, “it’s okay when I steal, because I can really use the money.” But, of course, everyone can use the money, and stealing is wrong when anyone does it. To apply a separate standard for yourself is special pleading, and it’s a fallacious argument. Either stealing is okay if you can use the money, or stealing is wrong and should be punished, or neither: it can’t be both.
With that in mind, I think that there’s a central question on which Protestants often employ special pleading, whether they know it or not. Namely, if an individual Christian declares that all (or virtually all) Christians on Earth misunderstand core elements of the Gospel, but that he understands it correctly, could he be right?
To say yes to this would suggest that it’s possible that the Gospel is so obtuse that not a single soul correctly understands it. This contradicts the Protestant notion of the perspicuity of Scripture, which has proclaimed since the Reformation that “anyone who is literate could comprehend the gospel and the Scriptures.”
It also would seem to render Jesus’ promises null, when He declared that He’d be with us always (Mt. 28:20), that His Holy Spirit would lead us into “all Truth” (John 16:13), that this same Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of Truth,” would help us and be with us forever (John 14:16-17), and that Jesus wouldn’t leave us as orphans (John 14:18).
This answer also raises some very troubling notions. The Gnostics, some of the earliest Christian heretics, claimed that there were secret Gospels, with esoteric teachings known only to themselves. Orthodox Christianity resoundingly denounced this. To suggest that some elements of the Gospel are known only to a chosen few, out of all of Christianity, seems to reintroduce those same Gnostic elements.
Finally, it would leave the Gospel forever unsettled. Tomorrow, some Rob Bell or Harold Camping could come along with some new “insight” into Scripture, and we’d all have to change our religion to stay hip to the Gospel du jour. How can we say we believe in orthodox Christianity, if we declare a belief that tomorrow, we may end up believing something totally different? That sounds like the house of faith built upon sand, which Jesus condemns, rather than the house of faith built upon Rock (Mt. 7:24-27).
So it would seem that the answer would have to be no. And as Catholics, of course, we’d agree. But this answer also raises problems for Protestants: after all, isn’t this exactly what Martin Luther and John Calvin did? Each of those men declared that certain core elements of the Gospel were misunderstood by everyone on earth. In an earlier post, I pointed to four major areas in which they declared all of Christianity wrong:
- On Baptism, the Protestant history Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325, writes in the section on “The Doctrine of Baptism” that “This ordinance was regarded in the ancient church as the sacrament of the new birth or regeneration,” and that its “effect consists in the forgiveness of sins and the communication of the Holy Spirit.” Again, this is A.D. 100 – 325. The situation remains the same for centuries more, until after the Reformation in the 1500s.
- On the Eucharist, the Protestant historian J.N.D. Kelly concedes that during the early Church period, “Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood.” (Early Christian Doctrines, 440). Again, this didn’t change for centuries afterward.
- On forensic justification, the Calvinist scholar Alister McGrath concedes that the “Reformation understanding of the nature of justification – as opposed to its mode – must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum.” Francis Beckwith, in Return to Rome, does a good job of handling the early Church Fathers who are sometimes used to defend forensic justification – he shows quotes from each proving that their views weren’t the Protestant one at all.
- On the canon of Scripture, I’ve addressed it here in greater depth. So far, no one’s been able to find a single early Christian who owned or used a 66-book Protestant Bible.
If all the world’s known Christians could at one time: misunderstand what Baptism does, worship the Eucharist as an idol, proclaim a different Gospel on justification (2 Corinthians 11:4), and have a Bible mixed with good and bad Books, what hope do Christians today have?
There are two posts I’ve read which really put this problem into perspective. The first is from Brantly Millegan, who writes:
Prior to the Reformation, the 73 book Catholic biblical canon had been the undisputed biblical canon for over 1000 years. This new 66 book Protestant canon being defended by John Calvin had never existed before, never having been put forth by any individual or group in the 1500 years prior (even during the first three centuries of the Church during which the canon was a disputed matter). The 16th century self-appointed reformers literally removed books from the universally accepted Bible to create a brand new canon and then justified it by appealing to an “inward illumination of the Holy Spirit”.Would evangelicals accept someone doing the same thing today?If an influential non-denominational mega-church decided to remove, let’s say, the book of Esther from the Old Testament and began printing Bibles with a 65 book canon, and started saying that all those who had more than 65 books in their Bible had added them and were therefore heretics, evangelicals would rightly be in an uproar: ‘How dare the the mega-church change the Bible!’If the mega-church responded that they had made their decision “by the testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit”, would any evangelical be satisfied by that response?
Yet that, of course, is exactly how John Calvin defends his decision to reject seven Books of what was then called the Bible (and is now called the Catholic Bible). He comes close to claiming to be individually inspired in this decision, something virtually no Calvinist would feel comfortable claiming today.
The second post is one I find even more troubling, and one I’ve mentioned before. Chaplain Mike Mercer, a former Baptist minister (now a Lutheran), explains that Luther’s Bible put Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation at the back of the New Testament, placing a warning page before them:
Up to this point we have had to do with the true and certain chief books of the New Testament. The four which follow have from ancient times had a different reputation.
Luther then proceeds to write rather scathing critiques of the four Books. While offering some faint praise, Luther levels the following charges:
- On Hebrews: “we cannot put it on the same level with the apostolic epistles.”
- On James: “I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle,” and it “is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works.”
- On Jude:“no one can deny that it is an extract or copy of St. Peter’s second epistle,” and “it is an epistle that need not be counted among the chief books which are supposed to lay the foundations of faith.”
- On Revelation: “I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.”
Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it. But to teach Christ, this is the thing which an apostle is bound above all else to do; as Christ says in Acts 1, “You shall be my witnesses.” Therefore I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.