Someone recently quoted Dr. Carl Trueman to me in this way:
“Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination… in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic.” -Dr. Carl Trueman
The ultimate source for this quotation is a Reformation21 article from Dr. Trueman (link). Rather than trying to parse the quotation myself, since Dr. Trueman is still around, I asked him for his comments, which he kindly provided by email and gave me his permission to publish. The bold questions below are the questions that I posed to Dr. Trueman, but otherwise the material below the line is Dr. Trueman's response to my inquiry.
The argument I am making is essentially rhetorical at this point, aimed at evangelicals who have given up on justification by faith and the clarity of scripture. As these the reasons why Protestants could ultimately not be accommodated within the Catholic Church so, my argument goes, those who abandon these points have no real reason for continued separation. What then is left? Nothing but institutional continuity and the creeds of the early church. So these people should be honest, do the decent thing, and return to Rome, as Frank Beckwith did. And students in my class should understand that justification and clarity are vital, not just side issues. Yes -- we need good reasons not to be Catholic; and I have them.
Of course, it should be obvious that the fact I have not returned to Rome (or, for me, gone there for the first time) means that institutional/historical continuity a la Rome are of much less significance than justification and clarity. To use my arguments, as some have done, to imply the superiority of Rome to Protestantism tout court is nonsense; my argument is simply that Rome is superior to liberal Protestantism and the kind of woolly evangelicalism of those who think that scripture and justification are areas where we can agree to differ within the evangelical camp. Not so.
Now, to your questions:
Question 1: When you say "Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination" do you mean to embrace the idea that institutional unity and historical continuity are the marks of a true church?
Not for a Protestant. The word is central. But, if you don't think the word is clear, or that justification by faith is crucial, what's left of Protestantism?
Question 2: If we consider institutional unity as a standard, given that there were multiple apostolic sees on the Eastern side of the East-West Schism of 1054, and only Rome on the Western side of that schism, doesn't that mean that Eastern Orthodoxy is the "default position"? Likewise, since the Eastern Orthodox have not formally innovated beyond the 7th ecumenical council (contrast with the additional 14 alleged ecumenical councils of the Romans), doesn't the Eastern Orthodox church have the greater claim to historical continuity on a global scale?
Sure. But 99.99% of my students are either Western, or (as with Koreans) from a church situation determined by the Western categories of Roman or Protestant.
Question 3: Is the subject matter of Question/Answer 2 the reason that you limited yourself to "at least in the West" in the comment? If so, couldn't it similarly be said that in England the Anglican church similarly has the greatest claim to historical continuity and institutional unity?
No. Because Anglicanism breaks with Rome, theologically at least on the issue of authority, word and sacraments. So I see Anglicanism as Protestant and subject to the same strictures above.
Question 4: Is institutional unity more important than orthodoxy? If yes, then were councils like Nicaea and Chalcedon a mistake, in that they led to disunity?
Not at all. Unity is a function of orthodoxy (see Rom. 16 -- the divisive have wandered from the truth). But see my preliminary comments on the nature of my argument.
Question 5: When you speak of historical continuity, what do you mean? Do you simply mean that the differences between Rome's doctrines and the once-for-all-delivered apostolic doctrines have come to be gradually, and that the Reformation was a sudden move back to the apostolic doctrines?
I am using a virtual hendiadys, where one thing -- the Roman succession and the institutional unity it represents -- is described using two phrases, institutional and historical. Not primarily a doctrinal point.
Question 6: Do you agree that in discussing any doctrinal distinctive, the advocate for the distinctive bears the burden of establishing the truth of the distinctive? In other words, would you agree that it would be wrong to say that a dogma like the Bodily Assumption of Mary is the default position unless one can give sound reasons to reject it?
Yes. Though here you get into the differences over authority which devolve from rejection or acceptance of scriptural clarity. Reject it, you get the Pope, you get the later developments with no basis for rejecting it. Look at Newman -- he writes `Development' while a Prot, converts before it is published, and then is able to pretty much swallow everything Rome teaches and changes. He is consistent -- but thinks in a way far different to a Protestant.
Question 7: Is it fair to say that your comment to your class is intentionally provocative - aiming to be didactic in the sense of spurring the students to develop their thinking, as opposed to an attempt to strictly define a theological "default" position?
Yes. See my preliminary comment. It is designed to get people to sit up and think, to catch attention (while still, I believe, being true -- for all the reasons above). The fact that I am answering your questions indicates that I have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams!
Question 8: Do you have anything else that you'd like to say about this comment or its use by Roman apologists?
If I didn't have good reasons to be a Protestant, I would be a Catholic. But I am not. That gives some idea of how I rate the two systems. Having said that, I'd rather spend time talking to Catholic friends who think God knows the future than Socinians who call themselves evangelicals but reject the biblical understanding of God.