I see that T-blog has come to the attention of a Catholic blogger and epologist by the name of Scott Carson. Here’s some of what he has to say for himself.
“I am an associate professor of philosophy at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. I earned my PhD in philosophy from Duke University and a PhD in classics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My research interests include the history and philosophy of science, especially the metaphysics and epistemology of ancient and medieval science.”
With such an impressive resume, he should be able to make an equally impressive case for Catholicism. So let’s see how well he does.
“To recapitulate briefly: I see doctrinal development beginning from "theological axioms", that is, theological propositions that are known to be necessarily (and, thus, irreformably) true on the grounds of the Church's own indefectibility as guaranteed by Our Lord.”
i) I suppose it’s hardly surprising that a philosophy prof. would take such an aprioristic approach—although classical foundationalism has fallen on hard times.
But a basic problem with this approach is that Christianity is a revealed religion, founded on the twin pillars of historic revelation and historic redemption.
Therefore, it is not an axiomatic system. Rather, our theological method ought to be a posteriori. What has God actually said and done?
ii) Then there’s the question of how Carson identifies the true church. Where did our Lord guarantee the indefectibility of the Roman Catholic Church?
“From these beginnings, theological speculation, over time, can give rise to further propositions which, if they are found to be logically consistent with the axioms, can safely be added to the body of doctrine that is to be believed de fide, since the deductive process guarantees the truth of these propositions.”
i) I’m puzzled by why a philosophy prof. would make such a statement. You can’t *deduce* anything from mere logical *consistency*. You can only deduce something by strict *implication*. Mere consistency entails nothing in particular.
ii) And if deduction is his theological method, then how does that set Catholicism apart from Evangelicalism?
What Evangelical would deny that we are bound to believe whatever is *deducible* from Scripture?
“On my account, much of the ‘theological speculation’ that gets absorbed in this process is clarificatory in character, though it may contain some speculation that goes beyond mere clarification. Ultimately, however, anything that is accepted as de fide will have some deductive proof following from other irreformable doctrines and the theorems that can be derived from them.”
But *speculation* isn’t the same thing as *deduction*, now is it? Why is a philosophy prof. with two earned doctorates from major universities unable to draw such elementary distinctions?
“That there must be such a body of doctrine seems indisputably clear to me, since it is both logically and temporally prior to the Christian scriptures themselves (I have more to say on this topic in my post on the idea of sola scriptura; for a very strange and ultimately unsuccessful defense of sola scriptura and an attempt to show the Catholic idea [along with just about every other Catholic idea] to be circular, I invite you to peruse the bizarre world of this blog [Triablogue]).”
Another couple of problems:
i) Why begin with the “Christian” Scriptures? What about the OT canon?
And what about the covenant community in OT times? Did the covenant community from, say, Abraham to the time of Jesus, have a Magisterium to keep it in check?
If not, how could the OT covenant community get along without a Magisterium, but not the NT covenant community?
This is one of the problems with theological apriorism. It’s fine for theistic proofs involving a God who subsists outside of space and time.
But when dealing with a historical institution like the covenant community, apriorism is out of place.
You have to listen rather than dictate. Listen to what God has actually said.
The people of God didn’t spring into being, ex nihilo, at Pentecost. They existed in Second Temple Judaism. In the Intertestamental period. In the postexilic period. In the Babylonian Exile. In the preexilic period. In the Monarchy. In the age of the Judges. In the wilderness. In Egypt. In the Patriarchal age. And the antediluvian era (Gen 4:26).
Where was the papacy or episcopacy during all that time? How did they manage without a Magisterium?
“What is ultimately at stake here? If you reject the idea that at least one of the Church's teachings is irreformable, then ultimately you cannot defend any Christian teaching at all. Jesus may or may not be the son of God or the Second Person of the Trinity; indeed, God may or may not be Trinitarian; God may or may not exist. Without the authority to teach these things authoritatively--including the authority to enshrine some of these teachings in the form of scriptures that are themselves to be regarded as definitive and authoritative--then nothing is authoritative and anything may be believed.”
Several more problems:
i) How is an authoritative church sufficient while an authoritative Bible is insufficient? How does adding another layer of teaching—indeed, multiple layers—solve the problem (assuming it is a problem)?
You have the teaching of Scripture, and then you have the teaching of the church about the teaching of Scripture. But if the teaching of Scripture cannot be irreformable apart from some extrascriptural mechanism (the church), then how can the church’s teaching be irreformable apart from some extraecclesiastical mechanism? How does Carson avoid an infinite regress?
ii) Why should I feel responsible for hypothetical consequences?
Like a lot of converts to Rome, Carson is on a quest for certainty. But, frankly, I’ve never felt that I’m responsible for contingencies beyond my control. Why should I?
I don’t have any warrant to be more or less certain than God as given me reason to be.
What is ultimately at stake? Well, if all we’re talking about is hypothetical variables, then what’s at stake is a hypothetical high-stakes game.
But being purely hypothetical, nothing is really at stake. All I have to lose is a pile of hypothetical chips. I can afford to lose a pile of hypothetical chips. It doesn’t make a dent in my actual bank account.
These worst-case scenarios are empty abstractions precisely because they’re too hypothetical to evaluate. I don’t live in fear of imaginary conjectures.
iii) A Protestant could just as easily float a hypothetical defeater for Rome. Does Carson lose any sleep over that spectral threat to his faith?
iv) One of Carson’s problems is his lopsidedness. He acts as if the only danger to be avoided is religious uncertainty.
There is, however, an equally perilous danger to be avoided, and that’s the hazard of false certainty—of being certain about the wrong thing.
What about the danger of a frozen error? The danger of being locked into a primitive misjudgment on the part of the early church?
Once a primitive error is made, it’s frozen in time and place, and lays the foundation for an escalating chain of errors.
iv) Carson considers sola Scriptura in a vacuum. But where Calvinism is concerned, sola Scriptura doesn’t operate in a vacuum.
Calvinism is not the same thing is Deism. It’s not as if God dropped the Bible out of the sky, and left us to fend for ourselves.
The God of the Bible is also the God of providence. A God with a providential concern for the covenant community. That, after all, is what the Bible happens to be: a covenantal document.
Catholics act as if a communal consciousness is distinctive to Catholicism. They need to acquaint themselves with covenant theology.
“Either the Church has that authority, or she does not. If she does not have that authority, as we have seen, then nothing about Christianity ever need be believed by anybody.”
A couple more problems:
i) What difference would it make to the structure of his argument from authority if we substituted the “Bible” for the “Church”?
“Either the Bible has that authority, or it does not. If it does not have that authority, as we have seen, then nothing about Christianity ever need be believed by anybody.”
Why is the churchly version of the argument from authority supposed to be sound while the biblical version of the argument from authority is supposed to be unsound?
ii) Why is the Church more believable than the Bible?
Moving over to his post on sola scriptura:
“This is a Scriptural text [James 2.14, 17, 21-26] that has occasioned much debate in this regard--so much so that some Reformers of the 16th century sought to exclude the letter of St. James from the Canon of the New Testament.”
“Whatever the source of this suspicion of the ‘Romish doctrine’ of ‘salvation through good works’, it is interesting to note the fervor of those who wished to purge even the Scriptures themselves of any such doctrine, to the point of wanting to exclude entirely those passages deemed, well, too ‘Catholic’.”
“It [Rev 22:18-19] would prove to be rather embarrassing for the likes of Luther and others who wanted to remove parts of the book of Revelation from the Canon of the New Testament.”
i) Why does Carson keep using the plural when referring to “those” who wanted to remove Revelation or the Letter of James from the canon? Other than Luther, which of the 16C Reformers wanted to remove Revelation or the Letter of James from the canon?
And that would be an overstatement even in Luther’s case.
ii) Since I’m a Calvinist rather than a Lutheran, it’s not incumbent on me to go to bat for Lutheranism. But, even so, this gets to be a tiresome cliché.
The Lutheran tradition did not, in fact, expel the Letter of James from the canon—much less Revelation. Indeed, several Lutheran luminaries have written commentaries on James, such as Bengel, Schlatter, Lenski, and David Scaer.
Schlatter also has a section on the theology of James in his two-volume magnum opus: The Theology of the Apostles (Baker 1998), 82-103.
iii) Why is James a problem for Protestants, but Paul is not a problem for Catholics? Why the asymmetry in Carson’s critique?
iv) It’s true that the Reformation reopened old debates over the canon. Why does Carson have a problem with that? Is there something inherently wrong with revisiting historical questions? Periodically reexamining the evidence? Reviewing the original arguments?
Does Carson think the church fathers had bad arguments for the canon? Does he think that sifting through their arguments would cause us to reconsider their selection criteria?
Well, if their arguments don’t hold up under rational scrutiny, then why should we be honor-bound by poorly-reasoned arguments?
Or if, conversely, he thinks their conclusions were well-founded, then what to we have to fear in going back over the evidence for ourselves?
There’s a fideistic streak in Carson’s theology. For him, the Magisterium is a makeweight.
“It is in this connection that we run up against that other great rallying cry of Reformed Protestantism, sola Scriptura, "Scripture alone", that is, the idea that the only legitimate teaching authority is the text of the Scriptures itself. This is a curious principle if for no other reason than its self-refuting nature. Now we are told that the sole source of teaching authority is to be Scripture alone. Call this assertion principle S. On what authority are we to accept the truth of principle S? According to principle S, the only source of authority for the truth of any teaching is Scripture, but nowhere do the Scriptures advocate anything like principle S.”
i) Other issues aside, how is sola Scriptura self-refuting, but sola ecclesia is not self-refuting? If the church authorizes the canon of Scripture, who or what authorizes the church? Once again, how does Carson avoid an infinite regress?
Why can’t a philosophy prof. anticipate really obvious counterexamples to his own position?
Ironically, Pope Leo XIII understood the primacy of Scripture: “Since the divine and infallible Magisterium of the Church rests also on the authority of Holy Scripture, the first thing to be done is to vindicate the trustworthiness of the sacred records at least as human documents, from which can be clearly proved, as from primitive and authentic testimony, the Divinity and the mission of Christ our Lord, the institution of a hierarchical Church and the primacy of Peter and his successors," The Papal Encyclicals (Perian 1990), 2:333b.
ii) Furthermore, for someone who operates with an axiomatic system, why couldn’t he treat Biblical authority as axiomatic? A self-evident first principle?
iii) To answer his question directly, Sola scripture derives from the identity of the Christian faith as a revealed religion. We believe in sola Scriptura because we believe in the primacy of revelation. Revealed theology is the basis of doctrine. And Scripture is the only record of revealed theology.
iv) We are dealing, moreover, with historic revelation. Datable revelation. Addressable revelation. Revelation that occurred in time and space, in a particular place and period.
The idea of a “living,” evolving, free-floating, and ultimately ahistorical tradition is antithetical to the identity of the Christian faith as a revealed religion.
“In point of fact, none of the texts of the New Testament existed in any written form until well into the second generation of Christian history. While the Apostles yet lived their teaching was transmitted orally, and it probably remained oral for some time.”
So the only apostolic teaching was oral teaching? What about the Gospels of Matthew and John? What about the letters of Peter, Paul, and John?
Weren’t these examples of written apostolic teaching? Written while they yet lived, because they were written by the Apostles?
Of course, a liberal would deny this, but Carson doesn’t strike me as being a liberal.
And if he has a liberal view of Biblical authority, then what’s to prevent him from having a liberal view of ecclesiastical authority?
“The earliest New Testament text is the First Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, dating to about 50 or 51. Now, he is obviously teaching things in that letter, things that are not written in any Scriptural text because the only Scriptural texts available to him were the Septuagint and the Hebrew Scriptures, neither of which contained any direct Christian teachings. The only way to get Christian teachings out of those texts is through ampliative interpretation, precisely the thing that is condemned by the principle of Sola Scriptura.”
So Carson doesn’t believe in Messianic prophecy or typology? To preach that Jesus was the fulfillment of OT expectation and promise was “ampliative”?
“It is extraordinarily ad hoc in its approach, and it presupposes that the New Testament Canon that we have today is something that somehow settled itself, independently of the Church's teaching authority. In point of fact, the documents of the New Testament derive their teaching authority not from their being part of the Canon, but rather they derive their being in the Canon by virtue of the teaching authority of the Church, which both produced them and put them into the Canon.”
i) So the canonical books of the NT have no intrinsic authority? They’re an arbitrary complilation of documents on which the church confers authority by sheer fiat? Is that Carson’s position?
The church could just as well have canonized the Gnostic gospels? Is that Carson’s position?
ii) Did the church produce the books of the NT? Wasn’t it individuals who produced them?
iii) Did the church put them into the canon? Wasn’t it a case of individuals who wrote books and letters both *to* and *for* members of *local* churches, viz. the Letter to the Romans, the Letter to the Corinthians, the Letter to the Philippians, &c.? Or individuals who wrote the books to and for other individuals to read, viz. Luke and Acts (for Theophilus)?
Once again, this is the problem with theological apriorism. It lacks any historical awareness of the concrete circumstances under which divine revelation was actually given.
The church didn’t preexist the apostolate, and orality didn’t preexist textuality.
It’s true that the church had a role in the dissemination of the Scriptures. Likewise, I get my mail from the mailman. That doesn’t make the mailman my Magisterium.
“If you can show that Rome usurped her authority to teach from the only authority ever intended by God, namely, Holy Writ, then you are well on your way to becoming your own magisterium. Once you've gotten rid of Rome as an interpretive guide, as Luther and the other Reformers did, you need to fill the vacuum by providing a new, Reformed guide to interpretation. Scripture all by itself will always stand in need of interpretation, otherwise there would never be any need to listen to any preacher ever again, be he Catholic or Lutheran or Presbyterian or Free Will Baptist or what have you.”
Other issues aside, Carson also says that “like many converts from Anglicanism, Newman has served as a kind of model for me.”
But how did he convert to Rome in the first place? As an Anglican, Rome was not his interpretive guide. If Rome had been his interpretive guide from the outset, there would have been no process of conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. No actual transition.
So he must have had an interpretive guide apart from Rome to use as his roadmap on the way to Rome. But if he can get to Rome without a Roman roadmap, who needs it?