By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition Paperback – 16 Oct 2013
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About the Author
Mark Shea is an award-winning columnist for the National Catholic Register, and a frequent contributor to Our Sunday Visitor and other Catholic publications. He is a popular blogger, and frequent guest on radio and television.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
But, I do think Shea still accomplished a noble task. As is clear, it was not necessarily persuasive as an apologia for Rome, but it was certainly helpful as a window into Rome. For Protestants who have never questioned the Solas of the Reformation, or can’t conceive why anyone would ever want to “worship Mary” or “pray to dead guys”, this book is in some ways a necessary read. Simply for the sake of gaining understanding.
I hope it’s no surprise that I have a great concern for ecumenism. Having read Robert Webber and Thomas Oden, and then having acquired a great appreciation for the Church Fathers and the creeds, I have jumped on board with the vision of a revived Classical Christianity. A Christendom in which unity is a strived for reality, not just a pious chimera.
Thus, as I read Shea, I sought to better understand this particular strand within the Christian tradition. A strand which, perhaps in contrast to many of my Confessional kin, I think deserves and demands to be considered. So, when I say I approached this book rather openly, I do mean it.
All that said, I was unconvinced of Shea’s defense of the Catholic Tradition. In many ways, I think it was because I am not the kind of ‘evanglical’ that Shea is writing to.
The approach that Shea takes is a simple and potentially effective one. He begins by offering his heart-felt thanks and appreciation to the Evangelical tradition through which He began following Jesus. He acknowledges many of the great attributes found within evangelicalism, while concluding that it is because of certain evangelical truths, that he actually became Catholic. In a wise, diplomatic (though, honest) move, Shea shows himself as “one of us.”
The bulk of the argument, and the meat of the autobiography, begins as Shea recounts his evangelical perception of the “traditions of men.” In his evangelical days, he connected these human traditions with liberal Christianity, Christianity as exemplified by Bishop Shelby Spong, which kowtowed in rhythm to Modernist sensibilities. These ‘traditions’ were goofy ways of redefining and explaining away Apostolic Christianity. Thus, Shea developed a great skepticism toward tradition.
He goes on to explain how he learned to counter these Modernist notions, specifically regarding the historical Jesus. He devotes a whole chapter to responding to the likes of John Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar.
It was in his research and refutation of those quirky ‘scholars’ that he began to question certain evangelical tenets. Mainly regarding canon formation. This “epistemological crisis” that he experienced, is meant to be awakened in the reader. In his study, he began to wonder why the Gospels accounts of Jesus were canonized, but not, say, the Gospel of Thomas, or of Peter? Well, the Church simply made that decision. But why should it be trusted? Well, evangelicals had taught him it was because Scripture was self-attesting. However, Shea grew to find that an unconvincing answer. Thus, he had to find another route to affirm the canon. Perhaps sacred tradition could provide the key.
He spends some time recounting his investigation into Scripture’s view on tradition, which, to his surprise, was favorable in many areas. According to Shea, the New Testament actually affirms an oral tradition next to the written tradition. Not simply an oral tradition developed around the Old Testament, but the Kerygma of the Church itself. Likewise, he found many matters that are considered orthodox today, that are not explicated in the Bible. For example, a Pro-Life stance on abortion, the Trinity, polygamy, etc. Perhaps, Shea asks, public revelation did not end when the New Testament was completed?
Here lies the beginning of Shea’s real case for the authority of the Catholic Tradition. He sets out that the authority of a particular teaching does not rely in its being in the Bible, but in its being Apostolic. This Apostolic tradition was preserved both orally and textually. How could the Apostle’s teaching be preserved without them here? Well, it is through the Bishops and elders that they appointed. The red thread of Apostolic authority can be run all the way from the Vatican of Pope Francis to the humble home of the Apostle Peter.
Finally, Shea wrapping up his “conversion” (I use that term lightly) to Catholicism, states that he began to trust the Church as the faithful carrier of the Apostolic deposit. As a result, all the other hang-ups about Mary, purgatory, etc. where resolved, because he had a new authority. Or, better said, a new means of authority. Rather than the Scriptures, it was the Church and her interpretation of the Scriptures.
Shea is a good writer. He is certainly not boring to read. However, there were a couple areas that I found weak. First off, he will really only convince and disrupt a particular kind of evangelical – the particular kind that he happened to be before turning to Catholicism. A kind of evangelical that completely rejects human tradition.
I for one, do not. I look with intentness at the early Church. I trust the Apostolic teaching. However, I don’t think it follows that the Catholic Church is the only, or even the primary, bearer of that teaching. The Scriptures stand above the Church as the authority, not below. The Church Fathers are judged ultimately by Scripture, though great weight is given to their interpretations.
Ultimately, I don’t see the need to jump from “sacred tradition” to the Catholic Tradition. I think that is where Shea’s approach is lacking. He may appeal to some, but it will be those who have a very shallow understanding of Protestant theology and epistemology.
As I said, this book is a well written, fun read. And, if you are unfamiliar with Catholic teaching and self-understanding, this would function as a good introduction.
Note: This book was received free of charge in exchange for an honest review.
However, while he may convince me to accept the deuterocanon as a secondary canon of books that are good to read and may actually have sections that are inspired by the Holy Spirit, I will not accept the book of Judith as anything but bad historical fiction. I will even go so far as to admit that the writer of it may have invented historical fiction, and since he was the first, got so many things wrong. For it has way too many historical and geographic mistakes to be taken seriously as anything but a pious attempt to build up hope in a nasty era for the Jews. And succeeded, as witness how many girls have been named Judy and Judith since.
As to his big T vs. small t traditions, I fully agree, and also agree that Protestants do have many capital T traditions in common with Catholics. And do indulge in having small t traditions, varying from denomination to denomination. And often confuse microscopic t's for Mount Everest T's.
Other sources are positive. Will buy as soon as I pay off my credit card :)