Friday, March 24, 2006

Faith & providence

Ben has offered yet another thoughtful reply in our ongoing dialogue.

“One more thing: though you don’t know me personally you were yet able to say something to me which has often been said to me by the people who actually do know me personally.

I am referring to your comment about my ‘Catholic conditioning’. Once again this is something I need to think about.”

I’m not necessary assuming that you’re a cradle Catholic. My point is simply that when you classify contraception, oral sex, and masturbation as “grave sins,” this is clearly a reflection of Catholic moral theology rather than natural law, per se, and so it cannot serve as a criterion for picking out the true church; rather, it takes the identity of the true church for granted.

Would the hypothetical “noble savage” or “virtuous pagan,” with nothing more than natural revelation to go by, share your moral valuation? Would Plato or Aristotle agree?

“I can’t say anything about this. I feel that I would need to leave this to Perry. He’s the one of the big guns, who can deal with something like that.”

Okay, but biblical ecclesiology is something you need to think through for yourself as well. By way of a rough outline, the concept of the NT church has its roots in the OT concept of a covenant community (“The congregation of the Lord”), dating back to Abraham. It even antedates the flood, for there was always a true religion, with a faithful following (Gen 4:26).

The synoptic Gospels have no systematic ecclesiology. In Matthew you have a couple of brief, if important, passages (16:18-19; 18:15-20).

John has some important things to say about the Christian community, such as the theological metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep (10:1-18), which, again, goes back to the OT.

And there’s a fair amount about the role of the Apostolate (14-16; 21).

The book of Acts discusses church planting and the phenomenology of church life (preaching, prayer, table fellowship). Apostles, prophets, elders, and deacons are also in view.

The closest thing to a systematic ecclesiology is to be found in Paul. He has a doctrine of the local church, consisting of house-churches.

He also has a doctrine of the universal church (in Ephesians), which is similar to the traditional distinction and ultimate identity between the church militant and the church triumphant. The same idea is present, in symbolic form, in the Book of Revelation.

Paul has a notion of church office in 1 Timothy and Titus.

Paul also has a number of theological metaphors for the church: a temple, a body, a bride, a plant, a family.

But by no process of strict inference are you going to get from there to the very specialized structures of Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

Roger Beckwith, the great evangelical Anglican scholar, as written a fine little book sifting the exegetical evidence and comparing that with subsequent developments. Cf.. Elders in Every City: The Origin & Role of the Ordained Ministry (Paternoster 2003).

“Not if a situation obtains, wherein there is warrant for believing that it is only either ‘sola ecclesia’ or ‘sola scriptura’ which can function as the appropriate mechanism (when it is construed in the relevant sense as my retooled argument will make clear below), for generating the infallible beliefs.

The possibilities in a), b) and c) are arguably unrealized because no Christian of today is arguably inspired in this way, nor made infallible in this way nor given an innate knowledge of Christian dogma.”

I agree. But in that event you will have to surrender your argument from antecedent probabilities.

“However, there does exist ‘dogma’ (in the sense of doctrinal constructions) and since I take it as self-evident that it would be normative for a person to become a Christian by way of his assenting to such ‘dogma’...”

This returns us to the same stalemate as before. It is normative for a person to become a Christian by assenting to revealed propositions regarding the object of saving faith.

In other words, to believe whatever the Bible says he must believe in order to be saved. The Bible expressly spells out a number of credal propositions. That’s a sufficient object of saving faith.

“…it would follow therefore that the assent of this person to such dogma would be susceptible of being described as either warranted or unwarranted (given the standpoint of the person himself). If it is therefore an ideal that such assent should be warranted rather than unwarranted (from the point of view of the person himself and from the point of view of every item of information which it would be possible for the person himself to validly lay claim to having), one could then plausibly assume that in the actual world (and in the absence of the possibilities envisaged in a), b) and c), and in the presence of positive warrant for it being the case either that ‘sola ecclesia’ is true or that ‘sola scriptura’ is true), that such a person has indeed been so placed as to believe that there are conditions under which his assent to dogma could be warranted and that these conditions would as such be fulfilled by his believing either ‘sola scriptura’ or ‘sola ecclesia’.”

Once again, I regard this probability calculus as a gratuitous accessory. If God has already shown us how he guides his people, or told us how he will direct his people (in his promises), then it’s both unnecessary and unhelpful to recast the issue in such hypothetical terms.

“They may not have needed to believe in the Trinity in the same way as I might need to believe in it, for it may never have been commended to them for their belief in the same way as I might find that it has been commended to me for my belief (I am here speaking of the specific formulation in which it might be commended to me for my belief); in any case, if none of them believed in ‘sola scriptura’ (at least in the sense in which an Evangelical does), then it is arguable that they didn’t formulate this doctrine by a reliance on the sort of theological method relied upon by Evangelicals to ‘find doctrine in scripture’.

So they did perhaps see the doctrine corroborated by scripture (in the same way as I might find that by deploying a certain geometrical theorem, it doesn’t contradict the geometrical axioms that I know, even if I cannot at the same time understand how it is that the said axioms can be made to yield the said theorem) but I can’t, for the life of me, believe that they ever read it off its pages as it were present within its pages in a formal sense; or that they otherwise derived it from scripture by the sort of theological method favored by Evangelicals.”

So are you saying that Nicene Orthodoxy is underdetermined by revelation? That the Nicene Fathers are claiming more for their Trinitarian dogma than they can evidence?

“How can you have warrant for believing that the final product can be successfully reversely engineered into a determinate set of parts, if your premises make it impossible for you to be sure of this, unless you are already able to perceive the whole as being already the sum of its discrete parts?”

As long as we have both relata (the raw data of Scripture and a theological construct), then we are in a position to compare the two—the whole with the parts.

We have a candidate for the whole which supplies one half of the basis of comparison, while we have the other half as well, in the raw data of Scripture.

“And if someone shows you a picture which he says is composed of the parts of the puzzle, then how can you be sure that what he is showing you is indeed what he says it is, unless you are able to see how it is that that picture has been built out of what has been claimed to be its discrete parts?”

By matching the picture to the discrete pieces.

“If you can only be sure of what the parts are by an immediate intuition, then you can’t be sure that what has been claimed to be a whole that has been made out of these parts, really has been made out of them, unless you can see how each piece has been fitted together with the others so as to make the whole.”

Any theological construct is somewhat arbitrary, not in the sense that the parts don’t go together, but in the sense that we could always enlarge the theological construct by adding other related parts to fuse a more comprehensive structuring of the raw data. One truth may be related to another truth in a variety of ways. So there are different ways of configuring the data. The boundaries are always fuzzy. What is central or circumferential is a matter of emphasis.

“My point is that if the object of my belief is a theological construct, then a position like ‘sola scriptura’ would typically oblige me to regard that belief as provisional, and as susceptible of being falsified in the event that there were to turn up a hermeneutical-exegetical argument purportedly demonstrating that that construct cannot be generated from the ‘matter’ of scripture; for if I do not believe myself to be in a position to be sure that no such argument can ever be made to turn up (not knowing how in the first place the said construct can be generated by the application of such arguments), then it would seem to follow that I would have to regard my belief in such a construct as provisional (given my admitted premises).”

Well, there are different ways of responding to this objection.

i) Are you saying that we are not warranted in what we believe unless we can rule out, in advance, every conceivable (or inconceivable) possibility that, if realized, would falsify our belief?

That’s a recipe for global scepticism.

ii) There is also a difference between what is allegedly possible and what is a live possibility. The onus is on the sceptic to show us what his hypothetical defeater amounts to, and how his hypothetical defeater is a genuine possibility, and not a merely imaginary postulate which he fantasized for no other purpose than as a blocking maneuver.

It is not my epistemic duty to shoot down an invisible target.

iii) Again, this objection could easily degenerate into vicious regress. How can you be so sure that you are sure? You may not detect any flaw in your argument. And I may not detect any flaw in your argument. But perhaps you and I are suffering from a mental block. We’re missing some subtle, indetectible flaw.

Once again, that’s a recipe for global sceptic ism. But, of course, there’s something oxymoronic about mounting an argument for scepticism in the first place, for an argument undercuts the possibility of scepticism while scepticism undercuts the possibility of an argument.

iv) As with Perry’s objection, the only way to answer the question is to conditionalize the answer.

If we have good reason to revise our exegesis, and if our belief was contingent on the old, faulty interpretation, then, indeed, our belief is revisable.

Is this a strength or a weakness of Protestant theological method?

Well, that depends on your viewpoint. From a Protestant perspective, the Catholic rule of faith locks you into a primitive error. If a mistake is made early in the progress of dogma, and that mistake is frozen in place by an ecumenical council or ex cathedra definition, then irreformability is a disadvantage rather than an advantage. Which is better—reformable or irreformable error?

On that view, the Protestant rule of faith is advantageous because Protestant doctrine is potentially self-correcting. We are in a position to catch a mistake, and rectify it instead of continuing to erect an ever more elaborate doctrinal edifice on this unstable foundation.

Tradition is always subject to Scripture. It’s a good thing when venerable tradition is revisable in light of superior of exegesis.

v) Incidentally, Perry’s objection works better for Orthodoxy than it does for Catholicism. Given the degree of internal development in Catholic dogma over the centuries, your tradition is subject to the same objection.

For even if you claim a fundamental continuity between past and present dogma, a modern-day Catholic will interpret the Tridentine anathemas (to take one example) very differently than the Tridentine Fathers had in mind.

vi) Whether the conditionality of Protestant doctrine is a benefit or deficit depends on whether you postulate a best-case scenario or a worst-case scenario.

To the Protestant Reformers, it was a good thing that we could turn the clock back on a cumulative process of error.

But you or Perry can postulate a worst-case scenario in which everything is up for grabs.

vii) But this doesn’t follow from our rule of faith, for hypothetical defeaters can be proposed for any rule of faith.

Rather, it follows from our doctrine of providence, or lack thereof. Absent a strong doctrine of providence, today we’re Trinitarians, tomorrow we’re Unitarians; today we Chalcedonians, tomorrow we’re Arians.

Ultimately, this is God’s world. What is possible is limited to what God has foreordained.

God is in control, we are not. So one can always imagine a worst-case scenario. But if that were to eventuate, it would not be because I had one rule of faith, and you had another. After all, I can just as easily imagine a worst-case scenario for your own rule of faith.

So it’s futile to speculate over contingencies beyond our control, for if, ex hypothesi, we have no control over the outcome, then there’s nothing we can do about it one way or the other. Such idle conjectures prove everything and nothing.

“I thought that this was why the Apostolic Succession was invoked as an argument against the Gnostics. Wasn’t it so invoked?”

Yes, but that was a shortcut. Not a principled argument.

“Wherein the persons in question would be obliged (by virtue of their having attained a certain level of intellectual sophistication) to believe in the relevant doctrinal constructions.”

I’m going to pick on this key element of Ben’s retooled syllogism.

I don’t deny that in the progress of dogma. A modern-day Christian may be held to a higher standard of profession than Justin or Origen. But that is based on better exegesis.


  1. "'I thought that this was why the Apostolic Succession was invoked as an argument against the Gnostics. Wasn’t it so invoked?'

    Yes, but that was a shortcut. Not a principled argument"

    What do you mean by that, Steve?

  2. Appeal to apostolic succession is an argument from authority. It assumes that an apostolic see is automatically a faithful custodian of apostolic tradition.

    Instead of out-arguing the Gnostics, appeal was make to apostolic succession. This is a polemical short-cut.

  3. Even so, doesn't it show that apostolic succession was there since the earliest times in the church?

  4. That all depends on how you define apostolic succession.

    There is also a difference between a historical claim and an exegetical claim.

  5. Apostolic succession was defined in different ways by different sources. Different churches had different forms of church government, and the earliest sources to advocate some form of apostolic succession sometimes added qualifiers that modern advocates of apostolic succession don't include. For example, men like Irenaeus and Cyprian believed that bishops had to meet moral and doctrinal requirements if they were to be followed. That sort of standard would exclude large segments of what's called apostolic succession today. With a source like Irenaeus, his argument for successions of bishops was largely an argument that loses its effectiveness with the passing of time. Remember, he was writing less than a century after the death of the last apostle. The historical closeness of the churches of Irenaeus' day with the churches of the apostolic era can't be transferred to churches of the twenty-first century. Successions of bishops were far more significant as evidence in the second century than they are today.