Thursday, January 24, 2013

Straining at a gnat, while swallowing the camel of centuries’-worth of ‘distinctively Roman accretions’

Continuing with my very long discussion with Michael Liccione at Called to Communion:

Mike 286:

That remark is as good a place as any to start for the sake of explaining what’s wrong with your approach at the most fundamental, philosophical level.

There is nothing wrong with my approach at any level, much less “the most fundamental, philosophical level”. As I’ve explained repeatedly, the “fundamental, philosophical level” that you want to bring up has been necessitated by the fact that you need to explain away some things (very many things) and account for the addition of very many other things.

In your writings, you often quote one or more English translations of the Bible. Precisely as translations, they are interpretations of critical editions of the Bible in the original languages. Those critical editions, in turn, are interpretations of what’s written on the pages of the all the oldest codices that survive. And “what the Bible says,” to the extent we know it, is what’s written on those pages. So, what you quote is not “what the Bible says.” What you quote are interpretations of interpretations of what the Bible says.

You use the word “interpretations” very loosely. It’s true that there is some need for judgment, on some issues, but very, very infrequently is there a need to make an “interpretation” that changes anything at all that is significant.

To be sure, scholars have principled means of judging the validity of such interpretations,

I’m glad you agree.

so that we may determine reliably which editions and translations are better or worse interpretations of what the Bible says.

On the best editions of “what the Bible says”, (among the NIV and ESV and NASB, for example), there is virtually no difference in meaning.

In effect, you are straining at a gnat.

But even before you start drawing theological conclusions from what you quote, you are already citing interpretations of interpretations.

You are straining at a gnat.

Accordingly, the theological conclusions you draw from biblical passages are a third level of interpretation–and as a plain matter of fact, that level of interpretation is not “what the Bible says.”

Given your straining in the two citations above, this is meaningless.

So when you cite what you call “the Apostles’ own words,” what you’re really doing is setting forth what you think the Apostles really meant, by relying for your data on interpretations of interpretations of old writings you take to be divinely inspired and historically reliable.

You are at a .0001% margin of error that my understanding, based on a grammatical-historical “interpretation”, is very much different from what the Apostle meant. And with works such as Beale’s, cited above, and Thomas Schreiner’s new workThe King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, we CPs are becoming more and more certain of what the Apostles meant, what they were thinking, because we’re finding more and more citations and allusions to the Old Testament in their writings.

Yes, they were thinking “Old Testament” in very many ways. I’ll tell you just how many. Beale and D.A. Carson have worked with more than a dozen leading OT and NT scholars to produce their work “Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament”. Even though there are 138,000 words in the New Testament, there are more than 1,100 pages with thousands upon thousands and even tens of thousands of direct OT references in the NT. There are very few places in the NT that aren’t either cited or direct or indirect allusions of the OT. The men who wrote the New Testament were thinking and breathing the Old Testament. This is inescapable.

Thus, if you want to “interpret” Romans 5, as one Seminary Professor says, “fundamental to understanding the work of Christ is understanding the work of Adam”. Just as the writer of Hebrews compares “copies of heavenly things” with “heaven itself”, so Adam was a “pattern” of Christ – and our knowledge of the NT becomes increasingly clearer as our knowledge of the OT becomes clearer.

And just as you write, and expect that people will understand what it is that you are saying, so too the Apostles wrote, and they expected that their readers would understand what they meant.

The true difficulty of “interpretation” came as “the church” tended away from Judaism in the earliest centuries, and became more and more “Greek”. This is where the true difficulties occurred at that “most fundamental, philosophical level” that you were talking about above. It was Rome which more than anything ossified many of those fundamental lacks of understanding into its own dogmatic formulations.

Whether correctly or incorrectly, you are interpreting. You are not merely reporting what the Bible says.

No, rather, as our grammatical-historical understanding of the Old Testament grows, (especially as cited and alluded to in the New Testament), and comes into more and more of a sharp focus, we are seeing historically where Rome “incorrectly” interpreted what the Apostles meant.

Now that raises the question whether your tertiary interpretations are correct. Since all interpretation takes place within and by means of some IP, answering that question requires showing, somehow, that the IP you’re using is rationally preferable to the available alternatives.

You are really the one here who is defending a “tertiary interpretation” with the need for an IP which merely assumes, but which never proves, that Rome had the authority you claim that it had in the first place.

And in a way I shall describe toward the end of this comment, you do attempt that, after having claimed it’s unnecessary. So if it’s with “remarkable ease” that I say you’re begging the question, that’s because showing as much is remarkably easy.

Hand-waving will get you nowhere.

And in a way I shall describe toward the end of this comment, you do attempt that, after having claimed it’s unnecessary. So if it’s with “remarkable ease” that I say you’re begging the question, that’s because showing as much is remarkably easy.

For the Jews at the time, the FPOF was such writings as they believed to be divinely inspired, which for practical purposes amounted to the Torah or Pentateuch.

The Jews at the time held to Sola Scriptura, in other words.

Other writings we now include in the biblical canon, such as those of Isaiah and Deutero-Isaiah themselves, had not yet been accorded the same status.

Perhaps you can be more precise with dates here. And where you get the idea of “Deutero-Isaiah”? – aren’t you giving some weight to “liberal” interpretations here?

So I interpret the above passage to mean that, given what they already had as the FPOF, as well as their experiences as a people, the Jews had no excuse for not believing that what Isaiah was saying was itself divinely inspired. And since I believe that Isaiah was divinely inspired, I believe that his claim that the Jews had no excuse for not listening to him is itself inerrant. But I hold that belief because it is asserted in what I recognize as part of the FPOF–i.e. the Bible. I would not make that judgment on my own about any individual. I have neither the authority nor the insight into souls to do that. Nor, of course, do you.

You are slipping “their experiences as a people” in here. Where do you get this? In Isaiah’s time, there were clear, biblical tests for “what precisely is a prophet of the Lord”, and that test had something to do with “100%”. It wasn’t some vague “experience” – this too was a command from the Lord, and you are fudging just as Eve fudged (as I outlined, from Beale, in the other comment thread).

You are inserting “their experiences as a people” as a criterion, but not because this criterion is found in Scripture, but because you need to work your argument in the direction of some kind of “authoritative tradition”. In fact, Jesus was quite vocal, especially in Matthew, about the “traditions of men” which “nullify the word of God”.

If you want to talk about “tradition” (much less “T”radition), New Testament scholars have identified four different types of tradition in the first century.

You quoted me:

The proper role of the human being is not to “identify infallibly the formal proximate object of faith”.

To which you responded:

That first sentence is misdirected, because I never said that it is “proper” to each “human being” to “identify infallibly” the FPOF. When we choose to make the assent of faith, whatever reasons we may have for doing so can only be held and cited fallibly. But if we render the assent of faith to what is in fact the FPOF, then we participate in the infallibility with which the FPOF is presented to us, even though we are fallible personally, apart from that.

You don’t have what is in fact – Rome says it is, and it says it is “infallibly” presented to you, but again, you have yet to prove that Rome is what it says it is. If we are talking about “begging the question”, your acceptance of Roman authority comes on an assumption, and that is the very assumption that all of you guys here are resting on. It is, in reality, a position of “sinking sand”, because

You continued to assess my statement:

There is no need for a “formal proximate object of faith”. We have “Christ alone”.

Your second sentence is simply false. You too have an FPOF: the Protestant biblical canon. It is precisely by means of accepting that canon as divinely inspired and thus inerrant that you have an FPOF–one that also forms part of what I recognize as the FPOF. Of course the “proximate” object of faith is not the ultimate object of faith, which is God. So you come to believe God, the ultimate object of faith, by means of putting faith in a proximate object bearing his authority, which is what you take to be the Bible.

Here is how that plays out in real life, from the “Exposition” section of the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:

Jesus Christ, the Son of God who is the Word made flesh, our Prophet, Priest, and King, is the ultimate Mediator of God’s communication to man, as He is of all God’s gifts of grace.

Christ alone.

The revelation He gave was more than verbal; He revealed the Father by His presence and His deeds as well. Yet His words were crucially important; for He was God, He spoke from the Father, and His words will judge all men at the last day.

As the prophesied Messiah, Jesus Christ is the central theme of Scripture. The Old Testament looked ahead to Him; the New Testament looks back to His first coming and on to His second. Canonical Scripture is the divinely inspired and therefore normative witness to Christ. No hermeneutic [or IP], therefore, of which the historical Christ is not the focal point is acceptable. Holy Scripture must be treated as what it essentially is—the witness of the Father to the Incarnate Son….

Authority in Christianity belongs to God in His revelation, which means, on the one hand, Jesus Christ, the living Word, and, on the other hand, Holy Scripture, the written Word. But the authority of Christ and that of Scripture are one. As our Prophet, Christ testified that Scripture cannot be broken. As our Priest and King, he devoted His earthly life to fulfilling the law and the prophets, even dying in obedience to the words of Messianic prophecy. Thus, as he saw Scripture attesting Him and His authority, so by His own submission to Scripture He attested its authority.

Note that well, because this is the key to the whole “authority” question. Christ Himself submitted Himself to the authority of Scripture. He provided no “authoritative interpretation”. He Himself was subjected to all the “epistemological” issues that you brought up in your first paragraph (which you wrongly accuse me of not understanding). Such questions played no role either in his understanding of or his submission to “the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings” – what was, in fact, the Canon of the Old Testament.

The Statement continues:

As He bowed to His Father’s instruction (our Old Testament) [and the not-“infallibly defined” Canon that He knew], so He requires His disciples to do—not, however, in isolation but in conjunction with the apostolic witness to Himself which He undertook to inspire by His gift of the Holy Spirit. So Christians show themselves faithful servants of their Lord by bowing to the divine instruction given in the prophetic and apostolic writings which together make up our Bible.

By authenticating each other’s authority, Christ and Scripture coalesce into a single fount of authority. The Biblically-interpreted Christ and the Christ-centered, Christ-proclaiming Bible are from this standpoint one. As from the fact of inspiration we infer that what Scripture says, God says, so from the revealed relation between Jesus Christ and Scripture we may equally declare that what Scripture says, Christ says.

Christ alone.

You continued:

Accordingly, your third sentence [“We have ‘Christ alone’”] is also false. Whatever the exact contours of the FPOF may be, when we make an assent of faith in it, we make an assent of faith in God, and thus in the one whom he has sent and is God himself: Christ. To imagine that we who have no direct experience of the Christ-event can ordinarily dispense with an FPOF and go directly to “Christ,” is at best sheer naïveté. Whatever one may call that attitude, however, it literally involves not knowing what one is doing.

The Chicago Statement exposition I’ve cited above explains why my “third sentence” is not “false” as you claim.

Regarding my statement from the WCF 1.7, you say:

Even if the sentence you quote were true, it would not follow that the individual coming to a “sufficient understanding” of the Bible would know, purely by such means, that he is doing so.

Here you are in error, because this statement speaks only of “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation”.

Many third-level interpretations of the Bible, such as yours, are incompatible in whole or part with many other such interpretations. How is the individual just reading his Bible supposed to know that his interpretation isn’t just one opinion among many–even if, in fact, it is the truth?

You are throwing up a straw man here because the claim is never made that “the individual just reading his Bible” is going to come to “complete truth”.

The claim is made that he will come to “a sufficient understanding” – that is “a sufficient understanding for salvation”.

And the WCF does not posit this in a vacuum, but only in its historical context. The reader of the Scriptures will see Christ, and Christ alone is, as I’ve said, the “locus of the activity”. It is Christ who performs the act of justification. This is where sufficiency comes in, the “sufficient understanding”.

Scripture isn’t a puzzle from which you pick and choose “proof-texts” to support Roman authority and authoritative dogmas. Scripture is Christ’s own witness.

Your claim, again, for a need for “interpretation” conveniently ignores the fact that the “third-level interpretations”, when done in the context of “the CPIP” [that is, with a grammatico-historical hermeneutic – which is really a fancy way of saying what the Chicago statement says – that “history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth”], brings these “interpretations”, as I said above, to “a .0001% margin of error”.

That is, using a grammatico-historical hermeneutic, that my understanding and that of all CPs], in things necessary for salvation, does not veer more that .0001% from what the Apostle meant.

And before the audience here rises up on something like differences in baptism or predestination, I’ll say again that in these matters, in which God has permitted there to be differences in “interpretation”, they are quoad se, ἀδιάφορα, or “indifferent things” to God. That is, God does not really care if we are paedobaptists or credobaptists. He would prefer that we not fight over them, but these are a matter that He leaves to us to decide. These things are not among those that are “necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation”. There is no doubt that they are a comfort, but just as the Sabbath was created for man (and not man for the Sabbath), the sacraments/ordinances were given for man. They are not the measure of a man.

God does not, and I may not, and neither may any church body, anathematize someone for practicing paedobaptism, or credobaptism, or for believing in predestination, or not, or holding a Zwinglian understanding of the Lord’s supper, or episcopal [Anglican] or Presbyterian or Congregational church government – such things are necessarily quoad se, ἀδιάφορα, or “indifferent things”, to God.

[Rome, on the other hand, was, for centuries, quite given to anathematizing anyone and everyone who deviated in the least from its program].

But whatever humans and human institutions say about things [“infallibly” or otherwise], God saves all of those he intends to save: “this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”

That is what it means to have a “sufficient” understanding of “things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation”.

What makes one theological IP preferable to another is not that it yields truths just by itself, but that it has a principled means of distinguishing between divine revelation and human opinion.

What makes one theological IP preferable is its ability to yield what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth”, and your “principled means of distinguishing”, even though it is merely hypothetical [“asserted, not proven”], yields a mere and supposed .0001% benefit.

And to buy that supposed .0001% [merely asserted] benefit, the Roman Catholic believer must buy into huge amounts of unscriptural “distinctively Catholic” accretions.

* * *

I said:

In fact, it is precisely your “CIP” which, in and of itself, is an ad hoc creation, developed by you specifically for the purpose of permitting “the Catholic faith” to appear to have some rational basis, when in fact, it is “the Catholic faith” which “developed” along historical lines that are incredibly ad hoc, in and of themselves.

To which you replied:

Now the first part of that sentence, ending in the phrase ‘rational basis’, is simply false. As I’ve said to Erick, the CIP is “no mere invention of mine. It is inherent in Catholicism…” I have supplied sufficient evidence for that claim before. I repeat that evidence again now, by quoting the Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” §10:

What is “inherent”? Rome makes boastful claims and these boastful claims are the foundation for what you call a “rational basis”.

And your citation of DV10 is merely an assertion, because DV10 itself is merely an unsupported assertion on the part of “the council”. It is a mere description of how they’d like it to work now, because the domineering mood and attitude that was in vogue from Trent through Vatican I through Pius XII was not popular with the liberals at the time.

There is nothing “apostolic” about the leadership of the Roman church during that era. Nor was there anything “apostolic” about the leadership at Vatican II. It was all pomp and circumstance, signifying nothing apostolic.

What happened at that council was another bait-and-switch: the Roman Church changed its posture from one of anathematizing anyone and everyone who disagreed with their dogmatic pronouncements, to accepting and even taking credit for the salvation of anyone, absolutely anyone “who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience”.

To be sure, the Council Fathers were asserting those sentences as truths.

So you agree: Vatican II was all assertion, with no supporting evidence either from Scripture or history.

But one does not have to accept them as truths to see that they present the CIP: the distinctively Catholic way of presenting the vehicles which transmit divine revelation to us, and of distinguishing, in a principled way, interpretations of them which are authentic expressions of divine revelation from merely human interpretive opinions. I did not invent that way of presenting and interpreting divine revelation. I have simply argued for preferring it to the CPIP as a way of making the needed sort of distinction.

And I have argued strenuously that “the GMOMIP [‘Green Men On Mars IP’] is preferable to the BMOMIP [‘Blue Men On Mars IP’]” as a way of presenting the vehicles which transmit divine revelation to us, and of distinguishing, in a principled way, interpretations of them which are authentic expressions of divine revelation from merely human interpretive opinions.

That and $3.00 will buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

If my argument for the rational preferability of the CIP to the CPIP is sound, then the former is not just preferable to me, but ought to be preferred by all. Yes, my argument concludes with an opinion. But if it’s an opinion better supported by argument than the opposite opinion, that is a good reason to adopt it.

Well, if my argument for the rational preferability of the GMOMIP to the BMOMIP is sound, then the former is not just preferable to me, but ought to be preferred by all. Yes, my argument concludes with an opinion. But if it’s an opinion better supported by argument than the opposite opinion, that is a good reason to adopt it.

You continue with a couple more paragraphs citing Scripture. For reasons I’ve already explained in this comment, that is both naïve and question-begging.

Only in the sense that you do not receive Scripture as authoritative. Only in the sense that you must somehow suppress the plain meaning of Scripture in order to allow for the “distinctively Catholic”.

Now you do adumbrate, in two ways, a candidate for the “principled distinction” of the sort needed. Your first way is to cite Kruger about the Bible….Now in another thread, I had already granted for argument’s sake that Kruger is basically correct, and I explained the sense in which he is correct. But I also explained why it does not follow that his case yields conclusions that are something more than just well-supported opinions….

The statements of Scripture are not “opinions”.

Specifically, he does not explain why the criteria he uses for identifying “divine qualities” are reliable enough to yield more than opinion, and he does not explain why the criteria the early Church used for identifying certain writings and not others as apostolic manage to supply us with all and only the available writings that should be accepted as inerrant. That’s where the argument of mine that I quoted above comes into play. You have not rebutted that argument; you have merely reiterated what I criticized. So you have not shown that Kruger’s IP contains even a potentially successful candidate for the “principled distinction” needed. That’s because it doesn’t.

You throw out the phrase “more than opinion”, but in reality, Kruger goes into quite a bit of detail as to why the documents of the New Testament were (a) divinely inspired, (b) with Apostolic authority (when no others were capable of having that authority), and were received (not pronounced) by the church at the time as such.

So in the end, Kruger has not made the kind of self-proclaimed “infallible” pronouncement that you find “preferable”, but in reality, Kruger’s methodology allows for an “opinion” which can be received with 99.999% certainty.

So I’ll ask you flat out, what is the benefit to the Christian of that merely asserted 0001% “principled distinction” between what’s “divinely inspired” and “merely human opinion” (and that with 99.999% certainty)?

Especially when one must swallow so much more distinctively Catholic unbiblical Roman dogma?

There is the real trade-off.

ML: Your second and final way of proposing a candidate concludes your comment:

JB: The right question, as per the Lutherans (as I mentioned it above), is not “who can give me the right interpretation?” The right question is, “Where, precisely, is the locus of activity? Is it in God? Or is it in the human?” There is the principled distinction.

ML: The inherent problem with putting the matter that way is that the three questions you believe to be the correct ones pose a false dichotomy. The distinction needed is not between what’s divine and what’s human; the distinction needed is that between what’s merely human and that which is both human and divine.

Now this is funny, because Roman Catholicism is famous for its “both-and” views of things, contra the Solas of the Reformation.

The basic difference between us, however, is not merely that we frame the issues differently, but that you have not even managed to come to grips with the way I frame them. That’s because, for reasons I’ve exhibited in this comment, you do not understand or appreciate the epistemological truths on which we cannot help relying.

I understand perfectly well the way you frame the issues, and I’ve rejected it. And I understand perfectly well the “epistemological truths” which I’ve rejected for reasons which I very clearly articulated here.

You’ll no doubt key on my .0001%/99.999% number as an assertion, and that’s true. I haven’t gone and counted those things that are pronounced “infallibly” to be “divine revelation” by a merely-asserted “infallible Magisterium”, compared with those that are “sufficient to be believed”. But that number, “.0001%/99.999% number”, is the kind of number that you are quibbling over.

You are buying into all of Rome’s historical sins and travesties in order to secure a “merely asserted” .0001% measure of certainty in “some certain conditions” that have heretofore not even been agreed upon.

In reality, your claim that I “don’t understand” is at base an appeal to authority – an appeal to your own authority as a “Professor of Philosophy” – and if that is the last, best appeal that you can make, you are truly lost.


  1. The irony here is no one who thinks that way has any idea of what it means to be called to communion with the only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He sent to save His people from their sins!

    The free gift of Righteousness and Holiness is the pathway into such deep and abiding fellowship and communion!

    1. Michael, I've seen a couple of the responses to this, and the response basically is to bad-mouth the security of the Scriptures, while to ignore the "merely asserted ... under some conditions" portion of the RC argument. Some people go from bad to worse.

  2. "Accordingly, the theological conclusions you draw from biblical passages are a third level of interpretation–and as a plain matter of fact, that level of interpretation is not “what the Bible says.”

    Funny, Jesus and the Apostles often quoted the OT as "what the Scriptures says" or "what God said". And they were often using a somewhat flawed translation, the LXX, which likewise has its own textual issues. It didn't seem to be a problem for them, as it still effectively conveyed the meaning that God intended.

    All that Bryan and Michael are doing is trying to use the tactics of postmodern skepticism in attempting to undermine our confidence in our ability to have true knowledge of history and the meaning of texts. Needless to say, this would also undercut Romanist claims and any ability to scrutinize and support their system, as well.

    Michael is also stuck having to depend on texts and the writings of popes and councils from decades and centuries ago, usually in Latin. So is anything he says really "what Rome says", or is it an "interpretation", by his own measure?

    The postmodernist's tactic is to make, ironically, very rationalistic demands of, say, Mr. Scottish Common Sense Realism, and then when Mr. SCSR can only demonstrate his truth claims with 99.9% certainty, the postmodernist declares victory and concludes that we can't really be sure about much. Now the Romanist might not be a thorough-going postmodernist, but they will use those tactics as a softening-up exercise. At the point that you can't be sure that one can determine the meaning of historical texts, or even the very words of God, they have the remedy for what ails ya': the CIP (a nice euphemism for sola ecclesia).

    Of course, many mountains of ink have been spilled on the defects of postmodernism. It logically leads to radical skepticism. For the Christian, postmodernism is a non-starter. Indeed, that is true of a theistic worldview, aside from distinctly Protestant or Christian presuppositions. God made us in His image and with the epistemic faculties to reliably know theological and historical truth through language (whether verbal or textual), whether through general or special revelation. And yes, we do have to interpret when we come into contact with language, whether that be an ancient text or our wives speaking to us from two feet away. We aren't plunged into epistemic crisis by our lack of rationalistic certainty about what our wives are trying to tell us, and while the interpretive challenges are different this holds true in the case for ancient texts. We rest in the truth that God gives *sufficient* certainty, a godly certainty, not the idol of rationalistic certainty.

    And the Bible is not simply a historical text, it is God's own speech to His People. Postmodern skepticism only makes sense in a godless world, but we know that when God speaks He also has provided the epistemic conditions for His creatures to hear and understand His words.

    Michael also needs to do away with this game of deciding what interpretive paradigm is "preferable". Why should this be a compelling criteria? The question is, what has God actually given to us as a guide to truth and life? What God gives is sufficient, regardless of whether these fools find it "preferable".

    1. Hi David -- I agree with everything you've said here. There is no "epistemic crisis". But this is all they've got -- it is their last stand, so they've got to hold fast on it.

      I've been around this with him a couple of times now. I've also posted this over at CTC as a comment, and it seems to have aroused some interest, although I haven't yet had a chance to read the follow up comments too closely. I'm going to try to get to it again in the morning, Lord willing.