Monday, July 09, 2012

On “the assent of faith” and on locating “Mary’s Immaculate Foot” in Gen 3:15

Chuck Noll, the coach of those great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970’s, was fond of “getting back to the basics”. That is, at the start of training camp, he held practice sessions in which players would walk through the plays, without pads, before they would run them.

In discussions between Roman Catholics and Protestants, before we get to some of the highfalutin philosophical theories that are floated, it’s important to walk before we run. That’s the spirit in which I submitted this comment to the discussion at “Called to Communion”:

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Michael Liccione (#443):

John’s purpose is not to “identify doctrinal truths calling for the assent of faith as distinct from that of provisional opinion,” but simply to argue that the historical data show that the Catholic doctrine of ecclesial authority is false.

Yes, I believe I have not been shy about my intentions in any way.

As to the wider question which doctrines call for the assent of faith, as distinct from that of opinion, he does not argue that his use of scholarship successfully identifies such doctrines. He just takes for granted that the Protestant canon is divinely inspired even though, on his showing, interpretations thereof can themselves qualify only as provisional opinions.

I take for granted that the Bible is “divinely inspired”, and thanks to Michael Kruger’s work, “Canon Revisited”, I understand that “the narrow question of whether Christians have a rational basis (i.e., intellectually sufficient grounds) for affirming that only these twenty-seven books rightfully belong in the New Testament canon” is “an unqualified yes”. Or put differently, “the Christian belief in the 27-book canon of the New Testament is justified (or warranted)”.

[No, I have not reproduced his argument here. If you want to contend with it, you should read the book, because he presents it so much better, and in so much more detail, than I could. According to Sean, someone from here is going to write a review of it].

Now K Doran, Bryan, and others have already made clear in detail why one cannot infer, from such facts as John presents, that Catholicism is false. There are just too many leaps beyond evidence and logic.

In one sense, this is true. Roman Catholicism has written its doctrines in such a way that it’s just plain difficult to find the “defeaters”. One might think, there is just no way to falsify it. There is no way one can check under God’s robes to see if, for example, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only, or from the Father and the Son. No one was there when Mary was conceived, and no one was there (that we know of) who saw Mary “Assumed” into heaven. And on some questions, such as that Mary really had other children (i.e., “James the brother of the Lord”), well, the “interpretive paradigm” says that “οἱ ἀδελφοὶ” really doesn’t mean “brothers”. It would just be a “leap beyond evidence and logic” to suggest that “adelphoi” means “brothers”.

This is just for example. There are other instances like this.

It just isn’t empirically plausible to say that finally, after all these centuries, scholars have dug up enough solid information about the early Church to actually prove that the Catholic (or, for that matter, the Orthodox) doctrine of ecclesial authority is false. If the eminent Catholic scholars John cites thought so, they would have doffed their priestly collars and ceased to profess Catholicism–which none of them have done. But that is itself a secondary problem.

I have also been honest about this. In 363 I say:

A theologian like Francis Sullivan can say “most Catholic scholars agree that the episcopate is the fruit of a post New Testament development” and further “that this development was so evidently guided by the Holy Spirit that it must be recognized as corresponding to God’s plan for the structure of his Church”.

I would agree with the first part of that statement, but reject the second part of that statement. And to do so, I would look to Bavinck’s analysis of a “superadded gift” with respect to special revelation. Or the lack of such a thing, according to Protestants. The upshot is, “oral tradition” did not have “supernatural protection”. The canon of Scripture was the determining factor in ongoing “orthodoxy” (beginning with Irenaeus and Tertullian, in the way that Cullmann explains it), and yes, “Scripture alone” was God’s intended method for seeing to it that the gates of hell do not prevail against the church.

This is an honest disagreement, and we can honestly discuss this sort of thing. Again, this is where I think that theologians like Brown, Sullivan, Meier et. al. are doing a greater service for honesty and “unity” than you are – they are not hiding behind some “IP” that fixes the rules of the game. They are dealing honestly with the historical facts as they are very generally agreed upon these days.

And of course, “after all these centuries”, yes, we are in a position know more about “Second Temple Judaism”, and the peculiar mix of Hellenistic and Palestinian cultures – the histories that led to the shaping of that particular world, and the imposition of the Roman Empire on that world. We know what the synagogue structure was like – we have archaeologically uncovered synagogues, and we have, through the writings of the time, come to understand what the synagogue worship and synagogue leadership structure was like. So when Acts tells us that Paul spoke in the synagogue, and then he later ended up forming a church in someone’s house, we know how the leadership structure was set up. We know what an elder was in a synagogue. We know how the Roman and Greek households were structured (from “direct evidence” accumulated inductively, the way all history is understood), and so when Paul says “ἐν οἴκῳ θεοῦ” (“the household of God”, in 1 Tim 3:15 for example), we know what kind of imagery is being pictured here, and it is does not comport with the official explanation given in Lumen Gentium 8.

When you start pulling on threads like this, they come loose. And when you talk about “divine authority”, it is really God who has the real “divine authority”. Some of you may have heard the phrase, “words mean things”, and words like “household” and “brother” refer to certain definite things, and at some point, the weight of just simply the words whose meanings must be fudged to allow for Catholic dogma (consider Mary’s “Immaculate foot” in Gen 3:15 – to consider just one thing that’s “rationally unassailable”) makes the whole system look more like “wishful thinking” than anything else.

So no, I do not choose to believe that Almighty God empowers (in any way) people who “deduce” “Mary’s Immaculate foot” from the text of Gen 3:15, and then authoritatively make that into dogma.

I didn’t start off the great quest of my life saying, “Gee, Protestantism looks like it has an ‘interpretive paradigm’ that just is going to set the world on fire”. I began by looking at all the inconsistencies in Roman Catholicism, and the accumulative weight of them all, and saying, “God does not empower an infallible church to authoritatively do this”. This is where the true weight of the “leaps beyond evidence and logic” lie.

I’ll talk about “divine propositions” in another comment.

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