Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Asking the right questions

Ben Says (http://catholica.pontifications.net/?p=1482#comment-41957):
March 20th, 2006 at 10:48 pm

“The relevant question to be asked here is whether you deny that these affirmations exemplify the property that I have labeled ‘X’; for if you do, and if you further concede that a specimen of divine teaching has got to not only be true but also to exemplify this property (perhaps admitting that Perry is right in drawing a distinction between the truth of a belief and the property that he has dubbed its ‘unrevisability’), then it would seem to follow that by your own lights, these affirmations cannot be instances of divine teaching.”

No, that’s not a relevant question. The relevant question is how, as a matter of fact, has God guided his people in the past? He did he guide his people in OT times? He did he guide his people during the Inter-Testamental period? How did he guide his people in NT times? Did he employ the apparatus of Catholic ecclesiology or Orthodox ecclesiology?

And how has God promised to guide his people in the future?

The reason that Ben ends up with the wrong answer is because he is asking the wrong question.

“Thus it is irrelevant (for the purposes of undercutting this conclusion) that you should note that you could have ‘good reasons’ for supposing that the concepts affirmed by the relevant affirmations have been affirmed by God; for however many of such ‘good reasons’ you may think you have (and however warranted you may think of each of them as being), it would still be the case that by your own admission these affirmations are, as regards their form, not ‘unrevisable’, and thus that they are not, in and of themselves, instances of divine teaching.”

Jason’s answer is only irrelevant if you accept Ben’s way of framing the issue. But why should we pose the question the way Ben does?

Why should we not recast the question in terms of the historical record of God’s actual dealings with the covenant community, as well as his promises?

Why should we posit a condition of “irreformable” doctrine as a theological criterion when that criterion is nowhere authorized in divine revelation?

“The distinction to be drawn here is that which obtains between a form in which a given concept may have been affirmed by God at one point of time (a form which you may believe yourself to have good reason to suppose that you are privy to), and a different form in which the same concept may have been affirmed by God at a subsequent point of time.”

Why should we accept a form/matter framework as the controlling concept? Why should we filter everything through that extraneous screening device?

“It would seem that as a Protestant you can refer to the concept’s instantiation in the former form as a specimen of divine teaching (where the form in question is taken by you to be the scriptural instantiation of this concept) but not its instantiation in the latter form – and I find this to be terribly problematic.”

What is terribly problematic is such an artificial way of broaching our duties before God and man.

“If you cannot guarantee, in the case of the concept’s redeployment in an alternative form, that the resultant construct is not only true but also ‘unrevisable’ (in Perry’s sense), then in order for it to be possible that someone should accept such a construct reasonably (that is, if such a person were to share your Protestant premises), then he would have himself to shoulder the burden of evaluating all of the complex arguments that you may have used to demonstrate your position that the construct in question does not fail to embody the said concept; if such a person were not to shoulder such a burden, then even though he may accept such a construct as true and ‘unrevisable’ he would yet, necessarily, be doing so unreasonably.”

The burden varies according to our natural aptitudes. To whom much is given, much is required.

“It is true of course that if my acceptance of the Catholic Church’s Infallibility is ‘a priori’ then my position may seem no less unreasonable than that of a Protestant whose acceptance of the aforesaid construct is also ‘a priori’; but then by accepting the Church’s Infallibility in this way, I am in the position of a person who will have accepted that a certain complex mathematical solution proffered to him by someone whom he takes to be an infallible mathematician, is indeed true, whereas by contrast the Protestant will be in the position of a person who, when confronted with the same difficult problem, and with what is supposedly its difficult solution, accepts this solution on some other basis (but not because he himself will have been able to see how it is that the said solution resolves the said problem).”

The obvious flaw in this argument is that “if” he knew, a priori, the church of Rome to be infallible, then, and only then, he would be in a position to exercise implicit faith in her teaching office.

Where’s the a priori argument for this contention?

“It is here that the relevance of Perry’s argument becomes obvious.

Consider this argument:

1) There exist highly complex theological and moral problems which some of us should be obliged to answer.”

This is a dubious assumption. From a Protestant perspective, we are only obligated to answer moral and theological questions if God has revealed his own the answers to these moral and theological questions.

“2) The answers to these problems can be had, but they can only be had by way of the correct interpretation and application of scripture.”

That’s true, although Scripture is silent on many subjects, and our responsibilities are commensurate with the range of revelation.

“3) There are only two possible sources for these answers: infallible churches and non-infallible churches.”

4) Non-infallible churches can indeed generate true answers to the aforementioned problems, but the persons making up these churches would be bound not to think of these answers as true, until and unless they are able to feel themselves certain that no mistake has been made in the processes that have been deployed by their respective churches to arrive at these answers.”

This assumes that a Christian is duty-bound to meet a condition of certainty before he can act.

“5) Infallible churches (supposing they exist) invariably generate true answers to these problems and all that their members would be required to do in order to be sure that these answers are true, is to be sure that their churches are truly infallible.”

This is flawed on a couple of grounds:

i) It generates a vicious regress, for if you cannot reply upon an infallible Bible alone, then you cannot rely upon an infallible church alone. For any objection to sola Scriptura it is equally possible to construct a parallel objection to sola Ecclesia. So the objection either proves too much or too little.

ii) It assumes that infallible churches generate infallible answers for all of the ethical questions and moral dilemmas we face. But no one really claims this to be the case.

That is why, in Catholic moral theology, you have various schools of casuistry for probabilifying cases of conscience.

“6) Given 1) and given that it is possible that we might be the persons who would be obliged to answer the relevant complex questions, we have to ask ourselves whether God would supply to us these answers otherwise than by means of our having recourse to an infallible church. If it is unlikely that God would do this, then it is likely that an infallible church exists.”

This conclusion suffers from the cumulative effect of the fallacious reasoning from which it is derived.

“7) It is unlikely that God would provide these answers to us otherwise than by making it possible for us to have recourse to an infallible church, since even a question like ‘Is masturbation a grave sin?’ {which I take to be an instance of the sort of question envisaged in 1)}is answered far less uniformly among Christians who do not believe in an infallible church than among Christians who do (and since I take it to be also unlikely that persons who are otherwise sufficiently in agreement with one another as to be able meaningfully to be called ‘Christian’, could yet fail to uniformly answer such a question if it is indeed the case that God is engaged in providing them answers to questions of this sort, by a means other than that of making it possible for them to have recourse to an infallible church.)”

This reiterates the faulty logic of #6.

“8) It is unlikely that God would provide us with a means of attaining the answers to such questions otherwise than by making it possible for us to have recourse to the teachings of an infallible church, since there is no telling as to how many of such questions we may feel ourselves obliged to answer in the course of our respective lifetimes, and since it is certain that our being able to have recourse to an infallible church, once we should be certain that we have in fact found ourselves such a church, would immediately furnish us with a basis for being certain that we would be in a position to answer any question {of the sort referred to in 1)} that we may in the future be obliged to answer. What is presupposed here is the idea that it is unlikely that there could be any other means which should be afforded us by God, for achieving such a basis.”

This reiterates the faulty logic of #6.

“9) Therefore it is likely that an infallible church exists.”

The conclusion is only as good as the premise(s).

“10) Now it is obvious that there are only 2 serious candidates for being an infallible church: Perry’s Church and the Catholic Church.”

How is that obvious? It could well be argued that the Catholic church and the Orthodox church cut in line through imperial patronage and outright cheating (e.g. The False Decretals) rather than intrinsic merit.

“I’m sorry if my presentation of my views leaves something to be desired, but I’m doing the best that I can.”

Ben is making the best of a losing hand.

“I have the conviction Perry has won the day with his arguments; and that Jonathan has powerfully supported him.”

This is not an argument, but an expression of Ben’s private opinion.

“And to the others: Michael supports Perry’s case as well, so we may all feel sure that the Protestants are on the wrong track.”

So if Michael, Perry, and Jonathan agree on something, then that’s proof positive that they are right and the other side is wrong. What a desperate and pathetic standard of evidence.

“Let us all not be ‘spooked’ by Jason.”

Yes, Jason is an unholy terror. Rome trembles as the mention of his name.

“Jason’s mistakes have been exposed by Perry and Jonathan.”

Notice that Ben has done nothing to actually rebut Jason’s detailed replies. He simply declares a rhetorical victory and absconds with the trophy.

But it’s one thing to say that you have bested your opponent, quite another to show that you have bested your opponent. All that Ben has done is to substitute a self-serving and question-begging assertion for a logical and factual demonstration.

“I am 100 per cent behind Perry.”

When you’re a 100% behind a losing horse, you lose your shirt. At the very least, Ben would be well-advised to hedge his bets and diversify his portfolio.

“Ben (a simple, trusting and obedient Catholic)”

It all depends on whether the object of our trust is worthy of our trust.

“Ps. Here is a sampling of questions of the kind referred to in 1) :

1) Is masturbation is terrible crime against Christ?”

i) Since this is not a datum of divine revelation, we have no reason to answer that question in the affirmative.

ii) I’d add that since masturbation has no second party, it is hard to see how masturbation could wrong a second party.

“2) Is it possible for a lawfully married couple to sin by having sexual relations with each other in a certain way?”

Possibly, but it depends on what Ben has in mind.

“3) Is the use of artificial means of contraception as a form of birth-prevention a crime against Christ?”

i) Since this is not a datum of divine revelation, we have no reason to answer that question in the affirmative.

ii) Since Christ is not a sexual partner, it’s hard to see how artificial contraception, even if a sin, would be a sin against Jesus.

“4) Is the ‘Filioque’ a true doctrine?”

Since the Johannine allusion to the procession of the Spirit has the economic rather than the immanent Trinity in view, this doctrine is underdetermined by the available evidence.

“5) What is grace?”

That depends on how detailed a definition you want. Briefly stated, grace is the free and unmerited favor of God in the salvation of sinners.

“6) Is the conferral of Baptism an ordinary means of acquiring grace?”

No. It’s a sign of grace rather than a means of grace.

BTW, if baptism is a means of grace, then why are there so many empty and abandoned churches in Europe? Where’s the grace?

“7) Was the Virgin Mary a virgin for the entire duration of her earthly existence?”


“8) Was Christ privy to the Beatific Vision when He was hanging on the Cross?”

God only knows.

“9) Did Christ ‘descend into hell’ after His death on the Cross?”


“10) Would it have been possible for Mary to have lost her virginity by harbouring lustful thoughts before the event of the Annunciation?”

Short answer: no.

Long answer: not because Mary was incapable of lust, but because it takes more than lustful thoughts to lose one’s virginity. There is, believe it or not, a physical component involved.

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