Reply to Hays’ “Catholicism” #24

Reply to Hays’ “Catholicism” #24 June 3, 2023

Authority & Magisterium; Papal Development; Jn 17 & Doctrinal Unity; “OT Magisterium”?; Christ’s Descent Into Hades; Protestants & the Church Fathers 

The late Steve Hays (1959-2020) was a Calvinist (and anti-Catholic) apologist, who was very active on his blog, called Triablogue (now continued by Jason Engwer). His 695-page self-published book, Catholicism a collection of articles from his site — has graciously been made available for free. On 9 September 2006, Hays was quite — almost extraordinarily — charitable towards me. He wrote then:

I don’t think I’ve ever accused him of being a traitor or apostate or infidel. . . . I have nothing to say, one way or the other, regarding his state of grace. But his sincerity is unquestionable. I also don’t dislike him. . . . I don’t think there’s anything malicious about Armstrong—unlike some people who come to mind. In addition, I don’t think I’ve ever said he was unintelligent. For the record, it’s obvious that Armstrong has a quick, nimble mind. 

Two-and-a-half years later, starting in April 2009 and up through December 2011 (in the following quotations) his opinion radically changed, and he claimed that I have “an evil character,” am “actually evil,” “ego-maniac, narcissist,” “idolater,” “self-idolater,” “hack who pretends to be a professional apologist,” given to “chicanery,” one who doesn’t “do any real research,” “a stalwart enemy of the faith . . .  no better than [the atheists] Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens,” with an intent to “destroy faith in God’s word,” “schizophrenic,” “emotionally unhinged,” one who “doesn’t trust in the merit of Christ alone for salvation,” “has no peace of mind,” “a bipolar solipsist,” “split-personality,” and a “bad” man. He wasn’t one to mince words! See more gory details.

I feel no need whatsoever to reciprocate these silly and sinful insults. I just wanted the record to be known. I’ve always maintained that Hays was a very intelligent man, but habitually a sophist in methodology; sincere and well-meaning, but tragically and systematically wrong and misguided regarding Catholicism. That’s what I’m addressing, not the state of his heart and soul (let alone his eternal destiny). It’s a theological discussion. This is one of many planned critiques of his book (see my reasons why I decided to do this). Rather than list them all here, interested readers are directed to the “Steve Hays” section of my Anti-Catholicism web page, where they will all be listed. My Bible citations are from the RSV. Steve’s words will be in blue.


[Chapter 9: Magisterium]

By what authority?

The dispute between Catholics and Protestants is in part a dispute over legitimate authority. You have two competing claimants: Scripture alone or the Roman Magisterium. [p. 464]

That’s not accurate. The completing claims are two opposing rules of faith: sola Scriptura (one infallible and ultimate authority) vs. Scripture-Tradition-Church (three completely harmonious infallible, ultimate authorities). Catholics routinely call their rule “the three-legged stool.” Once again, Hays seems unaware of this, since that phrase never appears in his book. Perhaps he understands the concept, though. We’ll see as we go through the final 230 pages.

Given the Magisterium, he can appeal to the authority of the Magisterium, yet he needs a preliminary argument independent of the Magisterium to legitimate the Magisterium in the first place. [p. 464]

Exactly; and we do that from the joint testimony of Holy Scripture and sacred apostolic tradition.

Standing in judgment of the Magisterium

Continuity at the level of Sacred Tradition must be demonstrable. The Magisterium must be able to show continuity, not stipulate continuity. The argument can’t be that it’s consistent because the Magisterium says so. No, that has it backwards. For the authority of the Magisterium hinges on continuity at the level of Sacred Tradition. So whether or not there is historical continuity at the level of Sacred Tradition is an independent judgment that must be made apart from the Magisterium. [p. 466]

Yep; and accordingly we Catholic apologists show that the Church fathers believed en masse in Catholic doctrines, or by consensus. See, for example my own massive research on whether the Church fathers held to sola Scriptura. But this is not just a Catholic burden. Protestants, in claiming that their revolution was a “reformation” assumed that they were brining back a state of affairs that was originally present in the early Church. Hays tries to be virtually totally ahistorical, but it’s all a pose and a pretense. It’s impossible for any Christian to be completely (consistently, thoughtfully) ahistorical.

If sola scriptura is the problem, is the magisterium the solution? 

Protestants don’t find the purported evidence for the magisterium convincing. They don’t find the biblical prooftexts and patristic prooftexts convincing. [p. 467]

It’s always fascinating to me why one group of people is utterly unconvinced of what another group finds totally convincing. All we can do is present the evidences that we believe are compelling for our own positions. Some will be convinced of them (for many reasons) and others won’t be (for many reasons). But the above two sentences are good because they show that Hays understood that our own argument for Catholic authority is not viciously circular, as he has exclaimed times without number. No! We set forthbiblical prooftexts and patristic prooftexts” in support of our position.

Now, Hays remained unpersuaded. But we do offer a non-circular basis for our claims (often utilizing the opinions of Protestant scholars in agreement on particular issues; I habitually do so). In other words, Hays may have disagreed with our conclusions, but he couldn’t say that our arguments are viciously circular and beg the question. They are not and do not, and even he knew that, as indicated by this statement. On the other hand, I turn the tables and argue that in fact it is Protestantism, denominationalism, and sola Scriptura that are logically self-defeating.

If God intended the magisterium to be the solution, why didn’t he provide convincing evidence? [p. 467]

We say that He did, and that’s the dispute.

Evidence sufficient so that everyone is persuaded by the “solution”? [p. 467]

In the real (and fallen) world, that rarely happens, for various reasons. But there can be a significant, noteworthy agreement within one group, above all others.

Umpires who bet on their own team

The papacy is, in itself, a product of theological development, so popes have a vested interest in developments that aggrandize the papacy. They have a direct hand in writing their own job description. [p. 480]

Is that why the most momentous dogmatic development in the history of the papacy — the ex cathedra declaration of the pope’s infallibility — was declared by an ecumenical council (Vatican I in 1870) and not by the pope himself, because popes are self-interested? Is that why it took over eighteen centuries to come about at this highest dogmatic and authoritative level: because all of those popes were so eager to writetheir own job description” and declare that they had this power? Yes, makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

But what kind of unity does [Bishop Robert] Barron think Jn 17 refers to? Surely not doctrinal unity. [p. 480]

To the contrary, it’s certainly doctrinal unity along with every other kind. Jesus prayed “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee . . . even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one” (Jn 17:21-23). The Father and the Son are equal as two Persons of the Trinity. They don’t disagree at all, on anything. Indeed, they cannot. It’s not even possible, because they are all omniscient as well as one in essence. Surely, if Jesus intended to sanction or incorporate the hundreds of contradictory, clashing Protestant theological claims, an analogy to the absolute unity of the Holy Trinity would be the very last one He would make.

The fact that He did use it is a profound indication and indeed a strong proof that He desires a profound doctrinal unity amongst Christians. Yet Hays denies this, and (rather bizarrely) thinks that “surely” Jesus did not have “doctrinal unity” in mind at all in this prayer. Wonders never cease. But what is a Protestant to do? This is such an obvious and unanswerable — downright embarrassing — condemnation of all denominationalism that it has to be rationalized away somehow. So Hays merely wished it away and his readers and followers uncritically gobbled it up, apparently not considering how utterly ludicrous of an opinion this was.


One objection that I’ve raised to Catholicism is the absence of an OT magisterium. Why is that necessary under the new covenant but unnecessary under the old covenant? [p. 486]

Hays in this section raised the issue of the OT priests as a proposed quasi-magisterium and shot it down. But he never mentioned prophets. I wrote in my book, The One-Minute Apologist (2007):

Since infallibility is inferior to, and a less extraordinary gift than inspiration, we should not be more surprised at it than we are at inspiration, or think it is less likely to occur, or implausible. God worked through the writers of the Bible (inspiration means, literally, “God-breathed”), and this made it possible for the Bible to be without error. Some of the biblical writers, like David, Paul, Matthew, and Peter, had been great sinners at one time or other in their lives. Yet they were used by God to write inspired Scripture. Even in Old Testament times, some were granted this gift of special protection from error; for example, the Levites, who were teachers, among other things:

Malachi 2:6-8: “True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.”

Prophets routinely purported to proclaim the very “word of the LORD.” This is a much greater claim than infallibility under limited conditions. Papal infallibility is primarily a preventive, or “negative” guarantee, not positive inspiration. It is easy to argue, then, that infallibility is a far less noteworthy gift than the “revelation on the spot” that we observe in the prophets:

1 Samuel 15:10: “The word of the LORD came to Samuel:”

2 Samuel 23:2: “The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me, his word is upon my tongue.” [King David]

1 Chronicles 17:3: “But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan,”

Isaiah 38:4: “Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah:”

Jeremiah 26:15: “. . . the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.”

Ezekiel 33:1: “The word of the LORD came to me:” [“word of the LORD” appears 60 times in the Book of Ezekiel]

Haggai 1:13: “Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke to the people with the LORD’s message, ‘I am with you, says the LORD.’”

The prophets received their inspiration by the Holy Spirit (2 Chron. 24:20; Neh. 9:30; Zech. 7:12). The Holy Spirit is now given to all Christians (Jn. 15:26; 1 Cor. 3:16), so it is perfectly possible and plausible that an even greater measure of the Holy Spirit would be given to leaders of the Church who have the responsibility to teach, since James wrote: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (Jas. 3:1). The disciples were reassured by Jesus: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn. 16:13; cf. 8:32), so surely it makes sense that shepherds of the Christian flock would be given an extra measure of protection in order to better fulfill their duties.

To begin with, evangelicals aren’t bound by that article of the creed (“he descended into hell”). It’s just a dubious tradition. I think evangelicals should edit it out of the creed. [p. 491]

The descent into hell shouldn’t be in a creed. No point reinterpreting it. Just admit it was a mistake and move on. [p. 492]

First of all, it wasn’t hell but Hades / Sheol. The word hell actually has a wide latitude in theological usage. The Catechism of the Catholic Church elaborates:

633 Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom” . . .

Hades / Sheol is distinct from the biblical Greek place, gehenna, which refers to “’the unquenchable fire’ reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe” (CCC 1034). So did Hays reject the notion that Jesus preached in Hades after His death? What did he think of these passages, then?:

Ephesians 4:8-10 Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” [9] (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? [10] He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

1 Peter 3:18-20 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; [19] in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, [20] who formerly did not obey, . . .

Hays mentions and links to “an evangelical defense” of the clause in the creed that he rejects. It’s the article, “He Descended Into Hell” by Lee Irons, Ph.D. (November 2012). Irons very helpfully explains why the word “hell” is used in the creed and why it’s misleading to English speakers:

“Sheol” in Hebrew becomes “Hades” in Greek, and “Hades” in Greek becomes “Infer(n)us” in Latin, which is the word used in the Apostles’ Creed (descendit ad inferna [or inferos]). In the Vulgate, most occurrences of “Sheol” in the OT or “Hades” in the NT are rendered “Infer(n)us,” i.e., the underworld. . . .

So when we recite the Creed and say that Christ “descended into hell,” we are not saying that he descended into Gehenna or the Lake of Fire. Instead, we are affirming that he descended to the underworld, the realm of the dead, called “Sheol” in Hebrew and “Hades” in Greek. (p. 5)

Keep in mind that even if (ex hypothesi) Jesus went to hell when he died, there could be no eyewitnesses to that event this side of the grave. [p. 493]

So what? This is why we have a thing like inspired Scripture. Paul and peter wrote Scripture, inspired by God. The result was (literally) “God-breathed”). That’s how we can know it happened (from the two Bible passages above that referred to it).

Why is it unacceptable for you suppose that God failed to protect the church fathers from falsely believing the descensus ad infernos, but acceptable for you to suppose that God failed to protect the vast majority of Jews from repudiating the prophesied messiah? [p. 493]

Because inspired, inerrant revelation (Eph 4:8-10; 1 Pet 3:18-20) informs us that Jesus descended to Hades. Case closed.

Creeds are not the ultimate standard of comparison. Only revelation enjoys that distinction. [p. 493]

Exactly my present point!

From a Protestant standpoint, the church fathers aren’t authority figures. . . . you labor under the illusion that according to Protestant epistemology, the church fathers are authority figures? Where did you come up with that? [p. 491]

Oh, to name one, a guy named John Calvin:

What, then, you will say, is there no authority in the definitions of councils? Yes, indeed; for I do not contend that all councils are to be condemned, and all their acts rescinded, or, as it is said, made one complete erasure. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, 9:8)

Thus those ancient Councils of Nice, Constantinople, the first of Ephesus, Chalcedon, and the like, which were held for refuting errors, we willingly embrace, and reverence as sacred, in so far as relates to doctrines of faith, for they contain nothing but the pure and genuine interpretation of Scripture, which the holy Fathers with spiritual prudence adopted to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen. In some later councils, also, we see displayed a true zeal for religion, and moreover unequivocal marks of genius, learning, and prudence. (IV, 9:8)

Having proved that no power was given to the Church to set up any new doctrine, let us now treat of the power attributed to them in the interpretation of Scripture. We readily admit, that when any doctrine is brought under discussion, there is not a better or surer remedy than for a council of true bishops to meet and discuss the controverted point. There will be much more weight in a decision of this kind, to which the pastors of churches have agreed in common after invoking the Spirit of Christ, than if each, adopting it for himself, should deliver it to his people, or a few individuals should meet in private and decide. Secondly, When bishops have assembled in one place, they deliberate more conveniently in common, fixing both the doctrine and the form of teaching it, lest diversity give offence. Thirdly, Paul prescribes this method of determining doctrine. For when he gives the power of deciding to a single church, he shows what the course of procedure should be in more important cases—namely, that the churches together are to take common cognisance. And the very feeling of piety tells us, that if any one trouble the Church with some novelty in doctrine, and the matter be carried so far that there is danger of a greater dissension, the churches should first meet, examine the question, and at length, after due discussion, decide according to Scripture, which may both put an end to doubt in the people, and stop the mouths of wicked and restless men, so as to prevent the matter from proceeding farther. Thus when Arius arose, the Council of Nice was convened, and by its authority both crushed the wicked attempts of this impious man, and restored peace to the churches which he had vexed, and asserted the eternal divinity of Christ in opposition to his sacrilegious dogma. (IV, 9:13)

And I note in passing another guy of no particular import to Protestantism: Martin Luther. The celebrated Protestant historian Philip Schaff stated that the following letter of his referred to “the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper”:

Moreover, this article has been unanimously believed and held from the beginning of the Christian Church to the present hour, as may be shown from the books and writings of the dear fathers, both in the Greek and Latin languages, — which testimony of the entire holy Christian Church ought to be sufficient for us, even if we had nothing more. For it is dangerous and dreadful to hear or believe anything against the unanimous testimony, faith, and doctrine of the entire holy Christian Church, as it has been held unanimously in all the world up to this year 1500. Whoever now doubts of this, he does just as much as if he believed in no Christian Church, and condemns not only the entire holy Christian Church as a damnable heresy, but Christ Himself, and all the Apostles and Prophets, . . . (Letter to Albrecht, Margrave of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia, 1532; Weimar German edition of Luther’s Works, Vol. XXX; cited in Schaff, The Life and Labours of St. Augustine, Oxford University: 1854, 95. Italics are Schaff’s own)

Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586) was an eminent second-generation Lutheran theologian. He wrote in his book, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part I (St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1971; translated by Fred Kramer):

We have therefore the testimony of the ancient church . . . (p. 161)

And we confess that we are greatly confirmed by the testimonies of the ancient church . . . Nor do we approve of it if someone invents for himself a meaning which conflicts with all antiquity, and for which there are clearly no testimonies of the church. (pp. 208-209)

It is undeniably the truest of axioms that that alone is the true doctrine which the apostles transmitted and which the primitive church professed as received from the apostles. (p. 225)

These genuine, ancient, and true traditions of the apostles we embrace with deepest reverence. (p. 246)

We confess also that we disagree with those who invent opinions which have no testimony from any period in the church . . . We also hold that no dogma that is new in the churches and in conflict with all antiquity should be accepted. What could be more honorably said and thought concerning the consensus and the testimonies of antiquity? . . . we search out and quote the testimonies of the fathers . . . (p. 258)

Primal, classic, “Reformation” Protestantism was not ahistorical at all. It’s true that the infallibility of tradition and Church were rejected, but not any and all authority from the Church fathers. Hays’ radical brand of ahistorical Christianity came later on, in certain fringe streams of the Protestant revolution. He certainly doesn’t speak for all of Protestantism, and especially not for Luther and Calvin and Chemnitz, who can safely be taken as higher authorities regarding the nature of Protestantism than Steve Hays.


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Photo credit: The Whore of Babylon (workshop of Lucas Cranach): colorized illustration from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Summary: The late Steve Hays was a Calvinist and anti-Catholic writer and apologist. This is one of my many critiques of Hays’ “Catholicism”: a 695-page self-published volume.

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