Thursday, December 09, 2010

Fidelity to Scripture

Catholic philosopher and apologist Michael Liccione tries to field an objection to the magisterium. Let’s see how he fares.

The argument that, because God’s people in the OT didn’t “need” an infallible magisterium, therefore God’s people the Church don’t need one either, is very common among Protestants. It is also fallacious. David Pell is right to remark that posing the issue in terms of need is “so dry,” but I think we can learn from seeing why the argument itself is fallacious.
The argument is a non-sequitur, and what makes it so is a fallacy of ambiguity on two points: ambiguity about what authority in God’s people is needed for, and who God’s people actually are. If what authority was needed for was just to maintain some sort of fidelity to the Old Covenant among God’s people, then it’s quite true that an infallible magisterium was not necessary in the OT. The priesthood, when it could discharge its function, was necessary, as were prophets, teachers, and scribes. They all had the Law (Torah), in due course written down in a book taken to be God’s word; they observed it more or less, and helped others to do so. None ever claimed infallibility, and there’s no reason to suppose that an infallible teaching authority was needed for what they did.

This is a remarkable concession. Liccione admits that you don’t need infallible teaching to maintain fidelity to the terms of the covenant. But in that event, it’s unclear why you still need something over and above that condition. Why is it not sufficient for God’s people to be faithful to his covenant? Does God require something from his people beyond fidelity to his covenant?

The first disanalogy is about the identity of God’s people, the ecclesia called out of the world to obey and witness to the one God. In the OT, that identity was easy to discern. God’s people were a distinctive ethnic group whose ancestry could be traced. God’s word was addressed primarily to them, and only pointed to a future dispensation in which it would be addressed to all people, calling them to be God’s people. In the NT, however, it is addressed directly to all people, and it announces the new dispensation to which the OT merely pointed. The new ecclesia, “the Church,” now embraces those who hear the Gospel and accept it with faith and baptism, be they Jews or Gentiles. But if that’s so, then the identity of God’s people is not so easy to discern as it was in the OT. Many who are baptized “go out from us,” as the Apostle John says, and the manner in which they do shows that “they are not of us.”

It’s not at all clear how this is fundamentally disanalogous.

i) On the one hand, you didn’t have to be an ethnic Jew to be a member of the old covenant community. Membership was open to gentiles. You could be a proselyte or God-fearer.

ii) On the other hand, even the OT distinguishes between nominal members who go through the motions, and circumcision of the heart.

In OT times, who were the people of God? At a superficial level, observant members of the covenant community. Yet the OT doesn’t leave it at that. At a deeper level, you must have faith. You must have a heart for God. Keeping up appearances doesn’t identify you as one of God’s people in God’s eyes, although it may identify you as one of God’s people in human eyes.

iii) And, of course, it was possible to commit apostasy in the OT as well as the NT. You could be circumcised, but fall away. The entire Exodus generation, except for the tiny remnant of Caleb and Joshua, was a faithless lot–even though they were nominally members of the covenant made at Sinai.

iv) Liccione also fails to explain why it’s even essential to identify God’s people.

To be one of “us,” God’s people, it is not enough to be baptized; it is not enough even to be baptized and profess some sort of “faith” in Jesus. One must remain faithful to the Gospel as the Apostles authorized by Jesus, and those whom the Apostles themselves authorize, preach and define it.

But, of course, those whom the apostles themselves authorize were a dying generation–just as the apostles were a dying generation.

It was not enough to treat the writings now included in the NT canon as the word of God; indeed, that was not even relevant. For when John wrote what I’ve cited, no such collection had even been made, and he appealed to no such authority.

i) God’s people are obliged to believe and obey however much of God’s word they have at any given time in the history of divine revelation.

ii) The apostles frequently appeal to OT revelation.

iii) Liccione is, himself, appealing to a book of the NT–a statement from 1 John.

iv) When we appeal to the NT, we are appealing to the Gospel record which Jesus commissioned.

Belonging to God’s people must, rather, involve fidelity “what was handed on,” the paradosis or “tradition” cited even by Paul and preserved by those who succeeded the Apostles through “the laying on of hands.”

i) This assumes that it was meant to be handed down outside a written record. But in that event, why do we even have a written record of the Gospel? Why was it committed to writing in the first place, if not for the benefit of posterity?

ii) And in that respect it’s following OT precedent. The Mosaic covenant was committed to writing for the benefit of posterity.

On that approach, one cannot reliably identify and adhere to that tradition without obedience to the teaching of those who lead God’s new and wider people.

But, of course, that’s circular. How do you know that church leaders are faithful to the Gospel? Just because they say so?

This is how Jewish leaders were judged. Were they faithful to the Mosaic covenant? That was the benchmark.

That very fidelity is what eventually led to the formation and coalescence of the NT canon: fidelity to the new authorities who are divinely authorized to speak in God’s name to and for those people. And so fidelity to their tradition, which was prior to the NT and ran alongside it once it coalesced, was necessary for belonging to God’s people, for being “one of us.”

i) He’s blurring different periods. To be “divinely authorized to speak in God’s name” is the hallmark of a prophet. But 4C bishops (to take one example) aren’t prophets. You can’t equate fidelity to apostles with fidelity to bishops long after the apostles. They weren’t chosen by the apostles.

ii) Moreover, even if somebody was a handpicked protégé of an apostle, that’s not a blank check. In principle, a Pauline missionary could go astray. A Pauline missionary was not immune to error, heresy, or apostasy. Unlike the apostle Paul, a Pauline missionary isn’t ipso facto inspired or inerrant. What he says is true to the extent that he is accurately reproducing what he learned from Paul. (To take one example.)

There is no suggestion that one qualifies as a member of this new ecclesia primarily by studying something called “the Scriptures” for oneself and then deciding for oneself that the ecclesia‘s leadership has got them right. That was the method employed by the Jewish leadership of the first century, and we see how far that got most of them.

i) Except that Jesus, the apostles, and other NT writers fault the 1C Jewish leadership for willfully failing to see in Jesus the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy. Jesus and the apostles argue from the OT Scriptures. These don’t treat these Scriptures as inadequate to the task.

ii) How, exactly, does Liccione think you can avoid “deciding for yourself”? After all, there’s quite a lot about false teachers in the NT. So 1C Christians would frequently have to decide on their own who was the rightful claimant. Was it Paul or the Judaizers? (To take one example.)

It just wasn’t enough. Being part of God’s people meant accepting a new kind of doctrinal authority, not just being part of an ethnic group carrying out the prescriptions of the Law as one understood those prescriptions.

I’m not clear on how that’s a “new kind of doctrinal authority.” 

Most of those who had “the Scriptures,” including most of those educated in the Law, could not see what they really meant unless they accepted that authority as coming from the risen Jesus–himself understood as the ultimate authority, but identifiable as such mostly through fidelity to the teaching of those whom he authorized.

I don’t see that this is an issue of “authority,” per se. In the nature of the case you can’t entirely foresee how a prophecy will be fulfilled ahead of time. For some gritty details await the actual eventuation of the oracle. The fulfillment fills the blanks.

The Jewish leaders didn’t reject Jesus because they couldn’t see what the oracles really meant. Rather, they viewed Jesus as a threat.

The reason for that brings me to the second disanalogy: that between the partial and developing stage of divine revelation recorded in the OT and the full and definitive stage recorded in the NT. In the former state, an infallible magisterium was unnecessary because “salvation history” had not yet exhibited its focus: the God-Man Jesus himself and the “Christ event.” The purpose of an infallible magisterium is to maintain the deposit of faith whole and entire, without addition, subtraction, or corruption. It does that by adjudicating with divine authority among competing interpretations of the deposit’s sources of transmission. Yet the question how to do that could not arise prior to Jesus because the deposit had not yet been fully given, and thus was not yet whole and entire. It was still developing.

i) It’s hard to see the force of this argument. Sure, it’s true to say that you can’t interpret the totality unless and until you have the totality to interpret. That’s a tautology.

But why is it necessary to have a magisterium to infallibly interpret the whole “deposit,” yet unnecessary to have a magisterium to infallibly interpret a partial “deposit”? Don’t the faithful need to live by whatever they have at any given time?

ii) Indeed, doesn’t his argument cut the other way. To the extent that, as he himself says, it’s harder to interpret a partial deposit, since you don’t know how it all adds up, then wouldn’t an infallible magisterium be even more needful at earlier stages of the process–whereas, once it’s all in place, anyone can see the pattern for himself?

That indeed was why the Jews prior to Jesus had no firm agreement about just which writings, beyond what we call the “Pentateuch,” were divinely inspired. The point of it all had not yet been fully made.

I’d like to see his documentation for this claim.

And once the point was fully made, it could not be grasped reliably just by seeing what could be deduced from writings that were seen by most Jews as divinely inspired.

Really? Seems like the Jews had a pretty good handle on Messianic prophecy in Mt 2:1-6 (to take one example of many).

That Jesus was the Messiah, that he was born of a virgin, that he was risen from the dead, that he was in some sense divine, that he died for the sins of all people not just the Jews–none of those ideas could just be logically deduced from writings that some Jews took as “Scripture.” Such ideas were of course logically compatible with those writings, but it took “the apostolic hermeneutic” of “the Scriptures” to see how Jesus and the new people of God went beyond mere logical compatibility and actually fulfilled them. Most Jews rejected that hermeneutic, and still do, because they did not and do not recognize the authority with which it was propounded. But if that authority was what Jesus and the Apostles said it was, then radical submission to a living, divinely authorized teaching authority, beyond a mere collection of books, was necessary for grasping divine revelation in its fullness–unlike what we find in the OT taken by itself.

Notice how Liccione is at war with the way in which Jesus and the apostles argue from the OT Scriptures. Do Jesus, the apostles, and other NT writers tell their fellow Jews that, “of course, we can’t logically deduce the Messiahship of Jesus from the OT Scriptures”?

Liccione is saying that because the OT materials fall short, you need the makeweight of authority to bridge the gap. But there are two problems with that argument:

i) You can’t assert authority unless you have authority to assert. Yet Jesus, the apostles, and other NT writers, are appealing to the OT to authorize their claims. If, on the other hand, Liccione says the OT fails to attest the mission of Jesus, then how can Jesus leverage the issue by asserting his authority? For in one critical sense, his authority is contingent on the OT.

Of course, given who he really is, Jesus has intrinsic authority. But how do you establish the given?

ii) Moreover, how does a bare appeal to authority bridge the gap? Either the OT Scriptures point to Jesus or they don’t. An interpretation, however authoritative, can only interpret what is there. What is said. The interpretation of a text can’t add something to the text. For that wouldn’t be an interpretation of the text. A true interpretation can only take what is there to be found. A true interpretation can’t make the text say more than it really says.

Nowt hat kind of submission would be unjustified if that authority were just giving its interpretive opinions without ever being preserved by God from error. It would only be justified if the authority in question were infallible when exercising its full authority in Jesus’ name.

Even if (arguendo) we grant infallible authority, how can you justify submission to an “infallible interpretation” that goes beyond what the text really said? Indeed, isn’t that a misinterpretation of the text? To impute to the text a meaning that goes beyond the sense of the words, the intent of the author, or the implications of the statement?

To reject such a magisterium in favor of nominal adherence to a set of writings is to revert to the attitude that had blinded most of the Jews during apostolic times, and continues to do so.

But Jesus, the apostles, and other NT writers don’t appeal to a magisterium when they debate their fellow Jews. Rather, they appeal to Scripture, and present supporting arguments for their interpretation.

The first is that, since revelation was not complete before Christ, the interpretation of even that limited set of books which all Jewish parties agreed was inerrant–i.e., the Pentateuch–was necessarily provisional. If so, then it could not have been definitive, and therefore could not have been irreformable. And if it could not have been irreformable, then nobody was in a position to interpret it infallibly. That didn’t come until after the Christ-event.

This is deeply confused.

i) It’s true that the canon has a collective meaning as well as a distributive meaning. The overall meaning of the totality as well as the individual meaning of particular books.

No doubt it helps to understand any one letter of Paul’s if you have a dozen other Pauline letters to supply a frame of reference. No doubt it helps to understand Genesis if you have Exodus-Deuteronomy, just as it helps to understand Exodus-Deuteronomy if you have Genesis.

ii) However, OT prophets wrote and spoke to be intelligible to their contemporaries. You don’t have to have a “definitive” understanding to have a “correct” understanding. Their speeches and writings didn’t require a knowledge of everything yet to be written by later prophets (or apostles) to be comprehensible to their target audience. They spoke to and for their own generation. They spoke in understandable terms. They sometimes spoke of events in the distant future, to prepare a later generation. But much of what they said was quite topical. Concerning the here-and-now.

Moreover, the canon was not closed even for the Jews until the Council of Javneh circa 100. And the canon they came up with was the Muratorian canon, not the Septuagint canon that the Church used. Accordingly, there wasn’t full agreement between the Jews and the Church about just which set of books was inerrant.

Liccione doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about.

i) From what I’ve read, the quaint, popular notion that the council of Javneh settled the OT canon is widely discredited.

ii) To say the Jews use the “Muratorian canon” is a ludicrous mistake. The Muratorian canon is a list of NT books, not OT books. It’s a Christian document, not a Jewish document. It probably dates from the 2C AD, representing the NT canon of the Roman church.

iii) David Noel Freedman has argued that the OT canon was settled in the 5-6C BC, except for Daniel–while John Sailhamer, building on Freedman, has argued that Daniel is the capstone of the OT canon.

The sort of argument Newman gave must be so framed as to take the entire canon as its subject. That’s because only the entire canon is about the entire deposit of faith, and it’s only about the entire deposit that any interpreter could be alleged to be infallible.

That raises the question of when the pope became infallible. If, according to Liccione, infallibility can only obtain after the deposit of faith is complete, and if, what is more, the canon wasn’t formalized until the council of Trent, then no pope could be infallible before Trent formalized the canon.

Indeed, it’s not entirely clear that Trent “definitively” settled the canon. What’s the canonical status of 3 Esdras?


  1. Cary Grant is having a very mirthful chuckle.

  2. "But Jesus, the apostles, and other NT writers don’t appeal to a magisterium when they debate their fellow Jews. Rather, they appeal to Scripture, and present supporting arguments for their interpretation."

    I can hear a Catholic saying, "There was no Magisterium at the time. Therefore, foul ball."

  3. Hmmmm, very interesting!

    A couple of things I would respond to from this article:

    1. The point of it all had not yet been fully made.

    2. i) You can’t assert authority unless you have authority to assert. Yet Jesus, the apostles, and other NT writers, are appealing to the OT to authorize their claims.

    To number one, I offer these Words from the Scriptures to show that completeness has come. Some just are not attaining to it, yet, if ever?

    2Ti 3:1 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.
    2Ti 3:2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,
    2Ti 3:3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good,
    2Ti 3:4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,
    2Ti 3:5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
    2Ti 3:6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions,
    2Ti 3:7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.
    2Ti 3:8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith.
    2Ti 3:9 But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.


  4. continued:

    As to number two, I offer these, too:

    Joh 5:36 But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.

    Joh 10:32 Jesus answered them, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?"
    Joh 10:33 The Jews answered him, "It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God."
    Joh 10:34 Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your Law, 'I said, you are gods'?
    Joh 10:35 If he called them gods to whom the word of God came--and Scripture cannot be broken--
    Joh 10:36 do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, 'You are blaspheming,' because I said, 'I am the Son of God'?
    Joh 10:37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me;
    Joh 10:38 but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father."

    Sometimes the outcome of obedience to authority seems correct.

    The situation is stark and there is a great gulf between these two sources of divine Authority, Reformational Authority and that that the RCC works from when establishing Truth in this world devils full.

    As we see with those verses from John's Gospel, where Jesus refers to His "works" as a source of understanding from "Who's" Authority He spoke and did what He did in this life, we see a similar appeal by the Apostle Paul, here:

    Eph 3:13 So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.
    Eph 3:14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,
    Eph 3:15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,
    Eph 3:16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being,
    Eph 3:17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith--that you, being rooted and grounded in love,
    Eph 3:18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,
    Eph 3:19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
    Eph 3:20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us,
    Eph 3:21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

    Seeing Paul makes reference to "all" generations, I am hopeful that we shall see and know similar in this and subsequent generations, if there are any more coming?