Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Accuracy or authority?

According to Orthodox epologist Michael Garten:

“Authority is the normative power to bind human consciences to believe and do certain things. Accuracy is the ability to correctly represent reality or truth, or the ability to make correct inferences. Those aren’t the same.”


Actually, I don’t see how they’re the same given this rather eccentric definition. In general, it’s certainly possible to distinguish between accuracy and authority. An authority-figure can force you to do something even if it goes against your conscience. He has the power to compel conformity, even if his claims are erroneous or immoral.

If, however, we define “authority” in “normative” terms, to “bind the conscience,” then only what is right and true is binding in that respect.

But surely we’re obligated to believe and behave in accordance with what is true for the simple reason that it is true. In what sense does authority bind our conscience over and above our epistemic duties to the truth? (I’m speaking from a Christian standpoint. Atheism has no epistemic duties.)

And the relevance of Michael’s distinction is even less clear in relation to revealed truth, where one can’t drive a wedge between might and right.

“Private judgment, when correctly formulated (correcting the confusion about accuracy and authority), is not the idea that an individual must interpret divine teaching. It is the doctrine that denies there is any intrinsically authoritative doctrinal decision that the Church can make.”

Agreed. At most, the church’s doctrinal decisions have extrinsic authority. Such decisions are authoritative to the degree that they are right and true–according to the canons of revealed truth.

“Thus, there is no authoritative, much less infallible, interpretation of the Bible.”

Yes, but why do we need these lofty adjectives? Why does a true interpretation not suffice?

“And as such, any Credal formulation or recognition of the biblical canon is a human act with no intrinsic authority. So each interpretation of divine doctrine is therefore revisable in terms of its authority–some argument could in principle overturn the formulation, even if we have overwhelming reason to accept it as true.”

I don’t see how the second sentence follows from the first. As long as a credal formulation or recognition of the canon is correct, then why would it be revisable?

“Why? Because only infallible authority can make a doctrine conscience-binding in an unqualified way, and make a doctrinal formulation unrevisable in terms of its authority.”

Why should we cast the issue in terms of “authority” rather than truth and knowledge?

“Individual intellectual competency is the ability to correctly understand any data, including divinely authoritative teachings. An intellectually competent individual is still fallible; but that does not prevent a person from accurately recognizing infallible authorities, recognizing their decisions, or correctly interpreting their decisions. Our understanding of divine doctrine is subject to error, and is therefore a revisable understanding; but the doctrine itself is unrevisable.”

If you take divine doctrine as a given, then doctrine is unrevisable. But if the individual is fallible, then how can Michael take divine doctrine as a given? His stipulation is underdetermined by his admitted cognitive limitations.

Put another way, is he claiming that divine doctrine is binding on the conscience, or that divine doctrine is binding on the conscience insofar as the individual knows it to be divine doctrine? But given his fallibilism vis-à-vis the individual, then how can the individual be conscience-bound to believe divine doctrine unless he can know it to be divine doctrine? Are we duty-bound to believe something we don’t know to be true?

Conversely, if the individual can know that without being infallible, then how does that admission distinguish the Orthodox position from the Protestant position regarding the personal appropriation of Scripture?

“With normal human statements, when you correctly identify and interpret them, you aren’t bound to accept them. With divine doctrine, when you see it and understand it you must accept it.”

Michael doesn’t bother to explain what grounds that distinction. But the obvious candidate is truth. We aren’t necessarily bound to accept uninspired statements because uninspired statements are fallible. By contrast, we are necessarily bound to accept inspired statements because inspired statements are infallible.

At the same time, even uninspired statements can be (and often are) true. Don’t we have a standing duty to believe true statements?

“If I know x is divine teaching (or even just have better reason to think it is divine teaching than its alternatives) then I am conscience-bound to accept everything in x.”

How does his parenthetical concession distinguish the Orthodox position from what he finds deficient in the Protestant position?


  1. Ironic that you would post this coincident with a discussion I am having with a RC on the relation between "meaningful" anathematization, knowledge of "essential doctrines" to Christian faith, and private interpretation.

    Further ironic that, after criticizing that one's interpretation of Scripture is not "guaranteed" and then subsequently admitting his interpretation of church judgment was likewise not guaranteed, he was unwilling to apply to his interpretation of church judgments the same criticisms that he applied to so-called unguaranteed interpretations of Scripture.

    He also didn't get that in most (if not all) cases with an authority-subordinate distinction, that a subordinate may suppress knowledge of the veracity or perspicuity of the authority does not imply his conscience is not bound. He kept appealing to the need for an external authority to judge the matter.

    Anyways, good post.

  2. "Why should we cast the issue in terms of “authority” rather than truth and knowledge?"

    Because this is what Catholics are taught.