Does Ockham’s Razor Slice Through Transubstantiation?

occamIn my debate with Protestant scholar Nathanael Taylor, he tried to apply Ockham’s Razor to Catholic and Protestant authority claims, as well as against transubstantiation.

His reasoning went something like this: Catholics say the Bible plus the Church’s Magisterium is the authority. Protestants say it is just the Bible [and their Bible is seven books shorter]. Hence, going with a simpler hypothesis over a more complex one, Protestantism’s authority paradigm should be preferred over Catholicism’s.

The odd thing here is that Ockham’s Razor is in no way some ironclad rule that we can use against anything we like in order to argue for our beliefs. I mean, Muslims could argue that, based on Ockham’s Razor, their simpler doctrine of God’s being should be preferred over the more complex Christian doctrine of the Trinity. (Muslims deny that God is a Trinity of three Divine Persons.)

Or someone could argue against Protestants that only the four gospels should be used as the Bible because, based on Ockham’s Razor, four books are simpler than sixty-six and contain the words of Jesus Christ Himself, so why add more if the four will do?

But Nate also employed the Razor against transubstantiation. His argument ran something like this: The bread and wine look like bread and wine to everyone. Therefore by Ockham’s Razor they are bread and wine and not Christ’s Body and Blood.

The debate hosts gave me a brief rebuttal time here, and my response was: Jesus looked like any other human being, not like God. Matter of fact many of His contemporaries, employing Ockham’s Razor, said “isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” and did not believe He was God. Yet Jesus was God, so Ockham’s Razor in this case fails spectacularly. It can be pitted against faith, and that is terrible.

The Church Fathers and early Christians testified to their belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist numerous times. Though the consecrated Hosts look like bread, it is only their appearance. Their substance has been changed into Christ’s Body and Blood.  Yet, in spite of this unanimous teaching in the early Church, Protestants reject this belief. This is another example of a “corruption” in the early Church’s teachings, according to Protestants.

This is why, near the end of the debate, I argued that Nate needed to tell us a principled way of determining when the early Church was reliable and when it was not. He needed to do so because he accepted the New Testament canon of Scripture from the early Church–something he admitted in the course of the debate–but he rejected other teachings, like the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, that the same early Church taught. (In the debate, I brought up another doctrine universally taught in the early Church–baptismal regeneration–which Nate and all Protestants (except for Lutherans) reject).

But Nate could not give a principled reason for knowing when the Church was teaching reliably and when she was not. So his acceptance of the canon but rejection of the Real Presence is ad hoc. Arbitrary.

To complete the discussion on Ockham’s Razor, I would simply point out that nowhere does Scripture say to use this principle to interpret Scripture (or to do anything else with it). So Nate’s usage of it as an interpretive key to the Eucharistic passages has no support in the Bible itself.

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23 thoughts on “Does Ockham’s Razor Slice Through Transubstantiation?”

  1. Or someone could argue against Protestants that only the four gospels should be used as the Bible because, based on Ockham’s Razor, four books are simpler than sixty-six and contain the words of Jesus Christ Himself, so why add more if the four will do?

    Do such Protestants actually exist? In my experience, Protestant services seem to ignore the Gospels and epistles except those of St Paul and perhaps Revelation, except on Easter and Christmas. The old testament who also get a whole lot more air time than the Gospels.

    IMO, if such “four gospel alone” Protestants existed, I’d imagine they would be a whole lot more like Catholics than actual Protestants, since even marginal support for the 5 solas is simply not found in the Gospels and the Gospels are rich in sacrificial symbolism. Its also clear from the Gospels Christ established a Church….Jesus gave his apostles to forgive and *retain* sins….If that power no longer exists, we’re dead in our sins once the last apostle died….If that power went to all believers, we’re dead in our sins if even one believer retains your sins….So it only makes sense that it went to a set of believers that are unified in their consensus of which sins are to be forgiven or not, namely a Church.

    The key place these “four gospel alone” Protestants would differ is that they would be a whole lot more Jewish since it is not clear from the Gospels that we should stop circumcizing or obeying the Torah. So I’d imagine if such “four gospel alone” Protestants existed, they’d be Messianic Jews.

    1. Yes! The Protestants I know, when attempting to convert someone, tell that person new to the bible to start by reading Romans, and continue by reading Paul’s (not St. Paul’s, just “Paul’s) other writings…and only once they are converted should they continue into the gospels. Jesus’ words in the gospels do NOT support a ‘once saved always saved’ perspective.

    1. I know many Liberal Christians claim they are Red-Letter Christians, but they aren’t. If you go by Jesus’s words alone (a special case of the “four Gospel alone” Christian), Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Liberal Protestants could argue it meant “he showed us how to do it”).

      So except for doing good works on the Sabbath (Saturday) and allowing you to eat non-kosher foods (declaring all foods clean) and eat with public sinners, I don’t see how a “four Gospel alone” could avoid being a Messianic Jew that goes to temple on Saturday, is circumcised, and must live the Jewish Law *more* strictly than Jews did (i.e. the beatitudes), and obey the Pharisees (or their replacements, the apostles) who sit on the Seat of Moses in their words but not their actions.

  2. This attempt at using Okcham’s Razor is to me another evidence of an underlying problem in Protestantism in general: theological reductionism. Protestants, it seems, are in a never ending quest to reduce Christianity, and all that it entails, to the bare minimum.

    The faith is not tradition and magisterium, it is only the Bible. Salvation is not multifaceted, it is merely faith alone. In the economy of salvation, there is no room for the Blessed Virgin or the prayers and intercessions of the saints. No, it is only Christ (as if his handiwork subtracted from his glory). Liturgy is reduced to a few hymns and a sermon, and once in a great while, crackers and juice. The church is reduced, for all intents and purposes, to the individual believer. The house church movement, which is growing rapidly, wants to reduce even the visible church to the bare minimum.

    Because of this reductionism, many protestants recoil at the idea of the fullness of the faith. They view the beauty of the faith as unnecessary clutter getting in the way of the truth, rather than helping us towards it. They do not want completeness, fullness.

    To me, this is tragic. Protestants have exchanged the glory of the truth for a cheap and barren substitute. They are missing out on so much and don’t even realize it.

    1. “Protestants, it seems, are in a never ending quest to reduce Christianity, and all that it entails, to the bare minimum.”

      I don’t think this is, itself, the quest, but it can often be the unintended consequences of that quest.

      Speaking as a Protestant, I think a lot of our siblings are on a quest for the one, true faith, being convinced that the teachings of Jesus were either corrupted or ignored by the church as time went on. More often than not, I hear that this corruption took place thanks to Constantine and the church’s desire for political power. The people I know have often associated this power-hungry, theologically corrupt system with the Catholic Church, and use examples like the Galileo affair to prove their point. The Catholic Church comes to represent “religion” and everything that’s wrong with it, whereas Jesus came to give us a “relationship” with God.

      I can sympathize with wanting to understand the essentials of the faith, but the unfortunate consequence here is that even things Jesus and the apostles commanded us to do (baptism, to name one example) have been deemed non-essential.

    2. The sad part of this “just the essentials” attitude is that it deeply betrays Protestants that focus on the “personal relationship with Jesus”.

      If you’re going to marry someone, what would you think if they told you “What’s the minimum I have to do to stay married to you? How faithful do I have to be? Could I….? What’s the minimum I have to pay attention to you? Could I ….? “. Most sane people would immediately call off the wedding, since love is not about giving the minimum….it’s about giving the maximum and accepting that we’ll always fall short about what we want to give.

      If we focus on “maximum relationships” in our intimate lives, how could we focus on “minimum relationships” with God when our relationship with God should be closer than any on earth?

  3. Is that actually Occam’s Razor being applied?

    If so, then you could argue that since we cannot see, hear, or touch God, that means He doesn’t exist. I’m not sure if that is the accurate interpretation of the Razor, though, because I think it’s supposed to be the simplest explanation that takes everything into account–stop me if I’m wrong, though….

    One thing that must be accounted for is death. Clearly something is lost at death, and if you believe the First Law of Thermodynamics then whatever animated a life must still exist and go somewhere, it’s just left the body–and you also have to account for the apparent contradiction of our pretty much universal antipathy toward death despite its being inevitable. And if you believe that whatever animated a life ceased to exist, that means something can cease to exist–and then why not coming into existence?

    I’m just rambling, sorry.

  4. Devin,

    Catholics say the Bible plus the Church’s Magisterium is the authority. Protestants say it is just the Bible [and their Bible is seven books shorter]. Hence, going with a simpler hypothesis over a more complex one, Protestantism’s authority paradigm should be preferred over Catholicism’s.

    The principle of parsimony is a way of adjudicating between theories that purport to explain the very same data; it does not establish or nullify any data, or establish or nullify any authorities. It does not dictate reality a priori. So it does not show that the Magisterium has no divine authority, for the same reason it does not show that there was only one Apostle (not twelve).

    Your interlocutor’s misuse of the principle of parsimony both in this case and in the case of the Eucharist (where he makes the very same mistake) is a basic philosophical blunder.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    1. Bryan,

      That sounds spot on. When I think Ockham’s Razor, I think of the maxim: “If you hear hoofbeats behind you, think ‘horse’ before ‘endangered African mountain zebra’.” Both theories try to explain the same data (the hoofbeats), but the simpler theory (horse) should be preferred before the more complex or rarer one (wild zebra). However reality could be that you are in Africa and it is the zebra, so as you said it doesn’t dictate reality.

      God bless!

      1. His use of Ockham’s razor was, I’m afraid, a misapplication of the principle easily reducible to absurdity (as you have shown). I think what he was trying to say was simply that it’s more practical and manageable to interpret the Scripture only rather than having to make sure they are interpreted along with all the historical and contemporary declarations, papal bulls, creeds, and council teachings of the Catholic Church. He also further supported this claim by arguing that even then the interpretation of these decrees of the Church were ambiguous, making the task even less manageable. I think that’s what he was really trying to say, but he shot himself in the foot (and presented his argument in bad form) by confusing his pragmatic argument with Ockham’s razor.



    2. Bryan beat me to the punch. The Razor is used to discrimiante between models that porport to explain the same data set, that is, all other things being equal. They both then can explain the same data. But if one model can’t explain the same data set, then all things are not equal. Can Protestantism explain the same data or is it Procrustean?

      As Dr. Spock spoke, “All things being equal Doctor McCoy, I would agree with you, but all things are not equal.” Star Trek Six.

      1. Word, Perry. By the way, Nathanael Taylor in the debate mentions you (sometime after the halfway point I recall). He had combed my blog posts and read some of them and was seeking to use the fact that you argue for Eastern Orthodoxy (and therefore, on points of contention, against Catholicism) as an argument against choosing Catholicism.

        I told him that Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism are much closer to each other than they are to Protestantism, so his argument didn’t work. I *almost* told him that, if he talked with you, Perry would show him that he was a Nestorian, but I decided against that.

        God bless,

  5. Thanks for this interesting post.

    Is there a formal definition of Ockham’s razor? It interests me in another context (as a small part of an answer to the claim that God’s existence can’t be empirically demonstrated, therefore it’s absurd to believe in it).

  6. This Protestant (Lutheran, actually – there is a difference) believes that the bread and the wine are the TRUE body and blood of Jesus.

    The only difference is, that we don’t claim to know how this is so. Only that it is.

    “This IS my body. This IS my blood.” We say that Christ is in, under, and with the bread and the wine. He is truly there, in it, for us.

  7. The claim that simple doctrines are equivalent with truth is frequently used both by Muslims and Protestants.

    My rebuttal is simply this. Simple lies are more convincing than complex lies. And easier to conceive. Therefore, if someone is intent on deceiving, they will not concoct a complex dilemma which must be studied in order to understand. The complexity of Catholic doctrine is an indicator of its validity and truth.

    CS Lewis put it this way:
    “It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things are not simple. They look simple, but they are not. The table I am sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it is really made of – all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain – and, of course, you find that what we call “seeing a table” lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of.” (Mere Christianity)

  8. Most Protestants are just ignorant about the real presence of Christ in the Supper and are just going by what they have been taught from the standpoint of ‘reason’.

    If Christ commanded us to do something, then He is in it, for us.

  9. But Nate could not give a principled reason for knowing when the Church was teaching reliably and when she was not.

    The reason he gave was simply (and this is not a direct quote, but a summary from my own memory): “my own reasoning to interpret the Bible, just like you use your reasoning to fallibly interpret the Catholic Church, etc.” I think here he misinterpreted your question as though you were simply asking “How do you determine when the Fathers are reliable and when they are in error?” Protestants use their own interpretation of Scripture to decide whether the Fathers “got right” or not.

    But this becomes problematic with respect to sola Scriptura because you can’t judge the discernment of the canon against the teachings of Scripture alone without already assuming an authoritative set of books already discerned. So while a Protestant can ask “What does the Bible say about Baptism,” and compare this with what the Father’s teach, they can’t productively ask “What does the Bible say the authoritative books of the New Testament are?” and just go without whatever list is in the Bible, because such a list does not exist. Thus you have to accept the canon list the Church came up with by faith, assuming the early church, while teaching all sorts of heresy about salvation and the Eucharist, nevertheless somehow “got it right” with respect to the most foundational doctrine of all: the canon——-without being able to justify this article of faith even on your own interpretation of the Bible.

    One of the reasons sola Scriptura is not taught in the Bible (in addition to the fact that Nate’s proof text for the doctrine is problematic to me in many ways I don’t care to get into here) is because the “Scriptura” part is understood very specifically as referring to the list of books in the Protestant canon, but nowhere in Scripture is that list to be found—only in the Church’s Tradition. If you take that list away from the definition of sola Scriptura, it stands as a doctrine without a proper object, a foundation without a house, an empty pedestal, bones without flesh, etc.



  10. (and even here I have left out the bit about Protestant actually *not* accepting the canon the Church came up with, since they in fact reject it by not including the deuterocanonical books which were accepted universally even though well educated people like Jerome quibbled about it).

  11. I just got around to listening to the debate. You did great Devin. I love/hate debates. I hate that someone can be right and “lose” a debate, or be wrong and “win”. Two words come to mind: James White. Debates are mostly about scoring points in general categories, and then brief, sensational jabs that take a moment to verbalize, and an hour for the opponent to properly explain. Sort of a game of verbal hot potato. It aint fair whichever side does it. I was glad you kept things simple and didnt hit below the belt. Great job.
    I am glad Steve Martin commented above with my exact thought about the Eucharist. Every time Nathan commented negatively on the Eucharist being Christs Body and Blood (which was 4 or 5 times) I thought of the Lutherans. It is not a Catholic/Protestant difference. And he greatly downplayed the differences in early Protestantism. Luther had nothing but disdain for those who disagreed with him, particularly theological Zwinglians and baptists. It was not an “agree to disagree within the one church” feeling. It was more of a “you are a dirty heretic” sort of vibe. The “lets all get along” menality is very, very new among Protestants, and extremely new for the Reformed like Nathan. Calvin, Luther etc would not recognize his loose view of the church being merely based on a loose definition of sola fide and sola scriptura.

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