Thursday, January 07, 2010

Once Upon an A Priori

Before I comment on Michael Liccione’s latest remarks, I’d like to make a general observation. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Bryan Cross, Francis Beckwith, and Michael Liccione are all philosophy majors. That, of itself, is by no means a bad thing. Philosophical aptitude and philosophical training can be very useful in theology.

However, there’s a problem when you take a philosophical orientation as your theological point of departure. When that’s your starting point, than that’s an abstract starting point. It’s not a starting-pointed grounded in the actual history of God’s providential dealings with the covenant community.

As a result, guys like Liccione aren’t describing anything real. They aren’t describing the life-experience of the covenant community from within, in terms of how the Lord has demonstrably chosen, in word and deed, to govern his people. What we’re getting instead is a hypothetical model of how they’d like the church to be. A utopian theory.

It’s a lovely exercise in make-believe–a pleasant diversion–but it has no tangible connection with OT history, NT history, or church history. Rather, it’s a philosophical hagiographon.

On a related note, this orientation tends to generate a vicious cycle. If you dismiss sola scriptura out of hand because you think it’s antecedently unlikely, then you have no incentive to study the Bible with an eye to discovering (among other things) how God actually administers the covenant community. Having decided in advance that sola Scriptura sows untoward consequences, you don’t look to Bible history for your model of God’s special providence.

So you end up with a perfect circle as you smoothly reason from your a priori premise to your foregone conclusion. Your pristine syllogism is uncontaminated by grubby contact with the real world situation. You never have to take a shower or wash your hands.

Moving along:

“Now the question at issue between us is how to identify the propositionally expressible content of divine revelation so that we can have justified certainty about what that content is.”

i) Since the Bible itself is a propositional revelation, that’s a rather odd way of framing the issue. He makes it sound as though the Bible is a primarily nonpropositional, and the challenge is to convert the nonpropositional content of Scripture into dogmatic propositions.

ii) Now, I don’t have any particular problem with sometimes trying to re-express the propositional content of Scripture. That’s something we do in creeds, confessions, sermons, commentaries, and so forth. But it’s not as though we’re putting the content of Scripture into proposition form for the very first time. For the most part, the content of Scripture is already expressed in propositional form.

iii) Perhaps, though, he doesn’t regard Scripture, per se, as essentially revelatory. Maybe he thinks the revelatory content of Scripture is buried in some occasional statements here and there, overlaid by many other statements which don’t count as revelation. So the challenge is to dig out the revelatory statements from the nonrevelatory statements. Is that his point? Is a Catholic theologian like an archeologist who must excavate the Bible to unearth the revelatory statements buried beneath all of the nonrevelatory statements?

“That question belongs to the subject matter of theology not physics. And in theology, what settles any particular instance of that question is not a process of experimentation which either confirms or disconfirms a mathematically expressed hypothesis. When reason is employed to settle such questions, the reasoning relies for its premises on sources taken as authorities: Scripture and Tradition. Disputes arise in the first place because there is disagreement about precisely what the relevant, propositionally expressible data drawn from those authorities actually mean.”

That’s one source of theological disputes, but hardly the only source. For example, disputes may arise from willful resistance to unwelcome truths.

“Second, the aim of theological reasoning is to identify the content of divine revelation as an object for the assent of divine faith, by taking a particular construal of the data as one intended by a God who, we agree, can no more deceive than be deceived. Such a God, precisely as Revealer, is infallible. Accordingly, we can be sure that a particular construal of the data in the agreed-upon sources truly expresses divine revelation just in case we can be sure that it accurately expresses what God intends for us to understand through those data. And since we can be sure that what is divinely revealed has ipso facto been set forth infallibly, we can be sure that a particular construal of the sources is divinely revealed just in case we can be sure it has been set forth infallibly. That is why, given the widespread dissensus about such construals, there has to be a way of adjudicating irreformably, and thus infallibly, among them, if the corresponding data are to function as objects of divine faith rather than human opinion.”

i) Of course, the assumption here is that God’s inscripturated word is insufficient by itself to clearly express God’s intentions. Hence, we need some mechanism, over and above Scripture, to identify God’s intentions.

But let’s go back to my example of 1 John. John wrote a pastoral letter, probably to the church of Ephesus, to resolve a crisis in the life of that congregation. John dealt with that crisis by letter because he was either unable or unwilling to deal with it in person.

So the letter itself is designed to adjudicate the crisis–without further recourse to the apostle John. That’s the point of writing a pastoral letter like 1 John. It deals with a crisis by letter when the writer is otherwise occupied or unavailable.

ii) Keep in mind, too, that there are certain benefits to having a written record. Suppose the church of Ephesus had 50 adult members. If John spoke in person, then left, you’d end up with 50 different recollections of what he said. Some recollections would be more accurate than others. But it’s hard to correct one recollection in reference to other. You can compare them, but which ones set the standard?

So it’s obviously useful to have one documentary source, in his own words, which preserves his message. That constitutes an objective reference point which everyone shares in common.

iii) Liccione talks about differing interpretations (“widespread dissensus about such construals”), yet that fails to distinguish between an honest difference of opinion and a willful difference of opinion. For example, I seriously doubt that John’s opponents assented to 1 John. Although it was largely about them, it wasn’t for their benefit. Their acceptance wasn’t expected or required.

“That is what the Magisterium, as the Catholic Church understands it, is for. Otherwise we are left only with fallible human opinons about how to interpret the sources; and since there would be no generally accepted means for adjudicating among them, such opinions are not nearly as helpful as fallible but well-confirmed hypotheses in physics.”

i) Keep in mind that fallible human opinions are under the providential control of God. These are not autonomous variables. An infallible God can work his will through fallible human opinions.

For one thing, to be fallible is not to be in error. Fallibility creates the possibility of error, but it doesn’t create the presumption of error in any particular case. God can guide his church by making sure enough of the faithful are right enough of the time from one generation to the next. That keeps it moving in the right direction.

ii) In the situation of 1 John, where’s the Magisterial adjudicator? Perhaps Liccione would say that John himself plays that role.

And it’s possible that a member of the Ephesian church could contact John with some follow-up questions. But keep in mind that 1 John, itself, was intended to adjudicate the crisis. That’s the chosen instrument which he employed to resolve this particular crisis. That’s the concrete expression of the Johannine “magisterium” (as it were). Not something over and above his letter.

If he thought that was inadequate to deal with the situation, he wouldn’t write a letter in the first place.

“If, as I’ve already argued in this comment, an infallible authority is necessary to adjudicate with the requisite definitiveness among competing interpretations of the sources…”

Yet this assumes that a book of Scripture, like 1 John, lacks the “requisite definitiveness” to do what’s necessary. But is that what John thought of his own letter? Did he think 1 John was unsatisfactory in its own right to accomplish the goal he assigned to it?

I’m using 1 John to illustrate my point. But I could also use Galatians or Hebrews to make the same point.

Put yourself in the position of the recipient. If the courier arrived with 1 John in hand, would it be appropriate for you to respond by saying, “Sorry, but that’s inadequate! What we really need is some mechanism over and above John’s letter to address the crisis!”?

Continuing with Liccione:

“It seems to me, as it did to Newman and has to many others, that for the Christian inquirer striving to decide whether to be Catholic or Protestant, the salient question to consider is which approach to doctrine is best suited to settling hermeneutical disputes as they arise over time.”

And it seems to me that for the Christian inquirer striving to decide whether to be Catholic or Protestant, the salient question to consider is which approach is rooted in divine precedent. Put yourself in the sandals of a 1C Christian. Even in the age of public revelation we still see Apostles and other NT authors resolving disputes through the written word. Written words which are, in fact, NT Scriptures.

“But Protestantism rejects, on principle, the very idea that any visible authority can do the adjudicating definitively and infallibly.”

i) I don’t think we reject that as a matter of principle. But that’s a paper theory. Whatever its hypothetical merits, there’s no reason to think it’s true.

ii) Indeed, the church of Rome certainly doesn’t give the appearance of being either infallible or indefectible. Rather, it bears a striking resemblance a shortsighted, uninspired, institution that often makes the wrong call, then has to hastily improvise after the fact to repair the damage as best it can.

iii) For that matter, why is a fallible layman like Michael Liccione lecturing us on the necessity of the Magisterium? If the Magisterium is so indispensable, why does it keep delegating the spadework to fallible flunkies and functionaries Liccione? Is the Magisterium tongue-tied?

No comments:

Post a Comment