Friday, July 31, 2015

Feser fizzles

Ed Feser attempted a final refutation of Andrew Fulford's defense of sola scripture. Feser's post is clogged by a repeated, lengthy comparison with empiricism. I'll try to cut the dead wood and address the key contentions:

First, why on earth should anyone take seriously the sola scriptura criterion in the first place?  Why should we affirm “scripture alone” as opposed to “Paul’s epistles alone” or “John 3:16 alone” or “the Gospels alone” or “scripture plus the Church Fathers alone” or “scripture plus the first seven ecumenical councils alone” or “scripture plus the councils plus the teachings of the first ten popes alone” or “scripture plus the letters of Ignatius alone” -- or any of a number of other possible ways of gerrymandering the various sources of authority that the Church had traditionally recognized prior to Luther?  And even if we did affirm “scripture alone,” why confine ourselves to the list of scriptural texts as Protestants would draw it up, rather than the canonical list as Catholics would draw it up?  Just as Humean empiricists have no non-question-begging way of explaining why we should confine ourselves to “relations of ideas” and “matters of fact,” sola scriptura advocates have no non-question begging way of explaining why we should confine ourselves to exactly the texts they say are “scriptural,” rather than to more texts or fewer texts or other texts entirely. 

One obvious problem with this objection is that boomerangs on Feser. What's his noncircular defense of the Roman Magisterium? Why should we affirm the pope alone rather than the pope and laity? Or the laity alone? 

Second, just as the Humean empiricist makes use of knowledge for which his principle cannot account (namely the truths of logic and metaphysics), so too does the sola scriptura advocate make use of knowledge for which his principle cannot account.  For example, scripture alone does not give you a list of exactly which books count as scripture. 

This illustrates the motto that he who frames the debate wins the debate. Feser asserts that a Protestant must make use of knowledge which his principle (sola scriptura) cannot account for. And he cites the canon as an example.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that a Protestant can't generate a (complete) list of canonical books using Scripture alone. How does that violate his principle? Feser doesn't bother to explain. He just takes that as self-evident. How does the principle of sola scripture imply that you can't use any extrabiblical evidence to attest which books count as scripture? From what I can tell, Feser's argument is purely semantic. It's based on a verbal slogan, a two-word phrase "scripture only" or "scripture alone." Therefore, if you can't generate that list from scripture alone, the principle is self-refuting.

i) If that's his unspoken argument, then it's fallacious, because you can't infer the principle from a label. "Sola scriptura" is simply a label to designate a position or principle. But you can't extract the conceptual content of the position from a two-word verbal label.   

ii) Another one of his unspoken assumptions seems to be that you need revelation to identify revelation. There's the initial revelation itself. Then there's the additional revelation to identify or verify what counts as revelation. Say, there's a prophet who reveals the word of God. But over and above the prophet it is necessary to have yet another revelation to identify the speaker as a prophet. 

If that's what Feser has in the back of his mind, it generates an infinite regress. You need a second revelation to attest the first revelation, a third revelation to attest the second revelation, and so forth. You need a revelation to attest the revealer, going back ad infinitum. 

But surely that principle wreaks havoc with Feser's alternative. You need a revelation to attest the pope. And another revelation to confirm the first revelation attesting the pope. And so on and so forth.

iii) Why assume it requires revelation to identify or verify revelation? Why assume it must be the same kind of thing in both cases? For one thing, doesn't that confuse the order of being (what revelation is) with the order of knowing (how we identify or verify revelation)? Why must those two activities be subsumed under the same principle? 

iv) Let's consider some ways in which revelation might be attested:

a) A prophetic claimant performs a miracle. A miracle is a different category than a revelation. 

b) A prophetic claimant exhibits verifiable supernatural knowledge. Suppose he tells you something that happened to you in private. Something which no one else would naturally be privy to. Although his supernatural knowledge is revelatory, it doesn't require revelation on your part to confirm what he said. Natural knowledge will suffice. Your memory of what happened to you. 

c) Suppose a contemporary of the apostles testifies that John was a disciple of Jesus. That's testimonial evidence. Eyewitness testimony. 

These are ways of attesting revelation that are not, themselves, revelatory. Do they violate sola scriptura? If so, how so?

(Occasionally there is a reference in some scriptural text to some other particular scriptural text, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  What we don’t have is anything remotely close to: “Here is a list of all and only the texts that count as scriptural” -- and even if we did, we’d have to ask how we know that that text is itself really scriptural.) 

True. But Catholic apologists typically ignore the internal evidence for the canon. It's important to draw attention to that line of evidence. Take intertextuality. 

Then there all the various specific doctrinal matters which (a) advocates of sola scriptura typically regard as definitive of Christian orthodoxy even though (b) advocates of sola scriptura have also taken radically different and opposed positions on.  In my previous post, I gave as examples the centuries-old controversies concerning the Trinity, the Incarnation, justification, transubstantiation, contraception, divorce and remarriage, Sunday observance, infant baptism, slavery, pacifism, the consistency of scripture with scientific claims, and sola scriptura itself.  If the sola scriptura advocate says (for example) “You must be a Trinitarian on pain of heresy” even though advocates of sola scriptura disagree about whether Trinitarianism is really scriptural, then he is in a position analogous to that of the Humean who makes use of mathematics, even though it is extremely dubious at best whether mathematics can be analyzed in terms of either “relations of ideas” or “matters of fact.”

i) Here he arbitrarily defines sola scripture to mean that if it were true, it would secure doctrinal agreement. But that's a non sequitur.

The issue isn't, in the first instance, whether sola scriptura is sufficient to make everyone agree, but whether it's sufficient to ascertain where the truth lies. Those are hardly equivalent. There's an elementary distinction between having sufficient evidence for what is true, and whether one is receptive to the truth–or supporting evidence. 

Presumably, Feser is not a 9/11 Truther. Does he think the fact that Americans don't agree on who was behind 9/11 mean the evidence is insufficient to rule out a massive conspiracy theory? 

ii) Regarding his list, Scripture teaches the Trinity, incarnation, and sola fide. Scripture allows for contraception as well as divorce and remarriage in some cases.

Scripture rules out pacifism, transubstantiation, and Tridentine justification.

"Slavery" is ambiguous. Scripture condemns some forms of servitude, but allows for others.

Scripture allows for some "scientific claims," but disallows others.

iii) I think Scripture is somewhat vague on infant baptism and Sunday observance. As a Protestant, I'm not embarrassed by that ambiguity. That just means God was intentionally vague. That means it's okay for me to be noncommittal where Scripture is ambiguous. 

iv) In addition, there's a distinction between what's obligatory and what's permissible or impermissible. Even if infant baptism or Sunday observance isn't obligatory, it can still be permissible. Indeed, unless it's forbidden, why would it be impermissible?

v) Finally, people like Feser often have in mind philosophical or sectarian refinements like double procession. But the fact that Scripture may be silent on philosophical or sectarian refinements doesn't mean Scripture is silent on the truth of the Trinity, Incarnation, &c. 

sola scriptura [is] self-refuting, since it is not itself found in scripture.  It presupposes precisely the sort of extra-scriptural theological criterion it purports to rule out.

Based on what? Based on historic Protestant definitions? Or based on Ed's tendentious, stimulative definition? 

Except that it too is in fact entirely arbitrary, dogmatic, and question-begging, and for reasons which exactly parallel the problems with the allegedly more modest empiricism.  For again, we need to take a vantage point from outside of scripture even to judge that scripture really is itself reliable and to determine which texts count as scripture -- just as the empiricist or naturalist has to take a point of view outside of either conceptual analysis or natural science in order to judge that they have a privileged status. 

i) He's stuck in that rut. It seems to be a purely semantic argument, where he infers the principle from the words "sola scriptura," then contends that if "we need to take a vantage point from outside of scripture even to judge that scripture really is itself reliable and to determine which texts count as scripture," that contradicts the principle.

It's as if he thinks the way to determine what Einstein's theory amounts to is to look up the words "special," "general," and "relativity" in a dictionary. 

ii) Let's take the argument from prophecy. A prophet verifies his divine commission by making one or more predictions which could only be foreseen if he's divinely inspired. 

Now, to gauge fulfillment, you have to see if events turn out as predicted. That assumes a vantage point outside of prophecy. That's comparing the oracle to future events. But how is that incompatible with what is meant by sola scriptura? In the nature of the case, verifying a prophetic claim involves a combination of Scriptural and extrascriptural knowledge. The principle of sola scriptura was never intended to exclude that vantage-point.   

So why exactly should we count scripture (and especially scripture as Protestants draw up the list) as the one infallible guide -- any more than we should regard conceptual analysis or natural science as somehow privileged?  Why not instead count as the one infallible guide scripture as Catholics would draw up the list, or scripture-together-with-the-decrees-of-such-and-such-councils, or some part of scripture such as the Gospels, or any of an indefinite number of other possible lists of authoritative texts?  

We should count the Protestant canon as Scripture because there's better evidence for the Protestant canon than the Catholic canon. Feser acts as if these are a priori questions to be answered a priori. And that unless they can be answered a priori, the answer is "arbitrary." 

But we're dealing with contingent truths, not necessary truths. With divine freedom. What kind of world did God create? 

And why take there to be only one infallible guide in the first place?  Why not two or three or fourteen?  

Because it's not an a priori question with an a priori answer. Rather, it's a question of what possibility God has actually decided upon. That is to be discovered, not intuited. 

Nor does it for a moment help to appeal to theological modesty or the need to avoid the purported “errors” of pre-Reformation theology.  For all of this begs the question no less than the naturalist’s appeal to the “success” criterion does.  

Actually, there are contemporary Catholic commentators who often admit that traditional Catholic exegesis was wrong, and Protestants were right.  

Naturally, the sola scriptura advocate will deny all this.  But the problem is that even the purportedly more modest, non-simplistic version of sola scriptura has no non-question-begging reason for denying it.  The position is entirely ad hoc, having no motivation at all other than as a way of trying to maintain rejection of the various Catholic doctrines the sola scriptura advocate doesn’t like, without falling into the self-refutation problem facing the more simplistic version of sola scriptura.  It is nothing more than an expression of one’s rejection of those Catholic doctrines, and in no way provides a rational justification for rejecting them (just as the empiricist or naturalist criteria are really just the expression of a rejection of traditional metaphysics disguised as a rational justification for rejecting it).  

i) That's terribly ill-conceived. Sola scriptura doesn't target particular doctrines. Rather, it targets an illicit argument from authority. It targets an illicit authority source. It denies the infallibility of the church. 

ii) This is why Feser's disproof of sola scripture is systematically mistaken. He acts as if the principle is meant to exclude extrabiblical sources of knowledge. He then cites counterexamples to show that it's self-refuting. But that's a straw man. Sola scriptura is not opposed to extrabiblical sources of knowledge. Rather, sola scriptura is opposed to an illicit appeal to an authority–illicit because the "authority" in question is illegitimate. The polluted headwaters, and not the mouth of the river, are the source of the problem. Rome is a bogus authority. 

iii) There are plenty of non-question-begging reasons to deny that Rome is a source of divine guidance is matters of faith and morals. Exegetical and historical reasons. 

Conversely, anyone who's studied the evolution of the papacy can see how ad hoc that is. 

And so much extra-scriptural argumentation ends up having to do the key work -- the work of determining what counts as scripture…

That disregards the amount of internal evidence for the inspiration of Scripture and the canon of Scripture. 

the work of drawing implications from scripture, 

What in the world makes Feser imagine that drawing implications from Scripture is contrary to sola scriptura? 

Now, Fulford’s latest response inadvertently does nothing but confirm this harsh judgment.  Recall point (c) of the Jesuit critique of sola scriptura cited by Feyerabend, according to which scripture alone cannot give us a procedure for deriving consequences from scripture, applying it to new circumstances, etc.  

So long as the "new circumstances" are comparable to the original circumstances, an argument from analogy will suffice.  

For example, he will have to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is not infallible, since it depends in part on (what he regards as) non-infallible extra-scriptural philosophical premises.  And if such doctrines are not infallible, then they cannot be regarded as binding matters of basic orthodoxy, any more than the specifically Catholic doctrines Fulford and other Protestants reject can be regarded by him as binding.

i) To begin with, the Catholic formulation of the Trinity isn't all that rigorous. Consider Karl Rahner's reformulations.

ii) Suppose, for the same of argument, that these doctrines are fallible. How does it follow that something is only "binding" if it's infallible? 

Suppose I see a child sauntering down to a river frequented by crocodiles. I don't infallibly know that a crocodile lies in wait. Maybe on this particular occasion it's safe for the child to play by the water's edge. Does my uncertainty mean I have no obligation to keep the child away from the river? 

Except that the problem with this, of course, is that it quite obviously and quite massively begs the question.  For why should we suppose that those who think that scripture has “been corrupted in the transmission” are wrong? 

Because textual critics furnish probative evidence to that effect. 

Why should we prefer “grammatico-historical principles” over “allegorical” ones, or over some combination of the two approaches?  How exactly are these views incompatible with sola scriptura?   How can scripture alone tell us whether the text has been corrupted or whether grammatico-historical principles should be preferred over allegorical principles? 

Because allegorical exegesis is contrary to how later Bible writers interpret earlier Bible writers. 

Now, if revelation takes place fundamentally through persons themselves, then there is a potential problem.  Persons die, or at least human persons do.  A prophet might speak or write, but when he’s gone, all we have left are his remembered or written words, and where those words are unclear, or incomplete, or indeterminate in their application to new circumstances, we cannot ask him for clarification.

That objection exposes a faulty doctrine of providence, as if the state in which matters were left at the time of death was happenstance. As if God didn't plan the life of a Bible writer so that he'd die after his mission was accomplished. 

Similarly, the Church took over for itself and judged to be authoritative and infallible the scriptural texts of ancient Israel. 

That wasn't "the Church." That was the example of Jesus and Christian leaders in NT times. 

The OT is in a position to judge a claimant to be "the Church." 

To those, it added the New Testament, which might be thought of as a written record of the teaching of certain members -- namely, the founding members -- of the moral person that is the Church.  That moral person also ultimately decided which books had what level of authority -- that such-and-such books would count as having the highest level of authority (i.e. scriptural authority), that certain other books (the writings of the Church Fathers) would have some lesser but still very high level of authority, and so forth.  In these various ways, what counts as scripture or as a document of some other kind of authority is the expression of the mind of the Church, of the decrees of a certain moral person.

i) How does Feser establish the authority of the church apart from the NT and the church fathers alike? What source of information does he have, independent of the NT as well as the church fathers, to determine that "the Church" has this authority in the first place? If "the Church" has a ranking system for the Bible and the church fathers, then "the Church" outranks both. How does Feser establish his standard of comparison? How does he get started?

ii) How does he isolate and identify "the mind of the Church"? Is that a cipher for the papacy? The Roman magisterium? If so, surely he doesn't invoke the papacy to prove the papacy, or invoke the magisterium to prove the magisterium, does he? He can't very well cite the authority of the papacy to authorize the papacy. How does he determine that the papacy is authoritative in the first place? 

Use of a blanket term like “scripture” or “the Bible” can obscure the fact that it is really a large collection of books that we are talking about, not merely one book.  And why is it made up of these exact books rather than some smaller collection, or larger one, or a collection with altogether different contents?  Fulford and other critics of my posts on sola scriptura have avoided addressing this problem head on, preferring to discuss instead the issue of why we might judge some particular scriptural book divinely inspired, which isn’t really relevant.  And that is not surprising, because there’s no way they can address it.

That assumes there's a larger aggregate of comparable candidates, of documents with equal claims. But when you compare the date and/or authorship of canonical books to other books, it's hard to come up with anything comparable. 

That is the position the sola scriptura advocate is in.  He has abstracted the canon of scripture out of the context in which it arose and in which alone it makes sense -- namely, its status as the product of the moral person that is the Church. 

The OT was assuredly not the product of "the Church." And it's highly equivocal to say the books of the NT were products of "the Church." 

To paraphrase Feser, use of a blanket term like “the Church” can obscure the fact that he's saying the books of the OT were really the product of the Roman church. The books of the NT were really the product of the Roman church. You only have to spell it out to see how unhistorical that is. 

The claim is rather that the precise shape of the canon cannot be accounted for apart from the decrees of the institutional Church.  

So before the Council of Trent issued its "infallible" decree on the canon, no Catholic theologian, bishop, or pope knew the precise shape of the canon? The papacy and the Roman episcopate were in the dark until the 16C? 


  1. Based on what? Based on historic Protestant definitions? Or based on Ed's tendentious, stimulative definition?

    I'm guessing this is a typo and Steve meant to type "stipulative."

    Feser is over 400 years behind the curve. William Whitaker's A Disputation on Holy Scripture addressed some of his basic objections in the 16th century.

    To help catch him up he should listen to the debates James White has had with Catholics on the topic. And that just gets you to level 2, since public debates can only scratch the surface of a topic.

  2. There were other canons at the time, how the orthodox church have a canon and unity without a pope? The challenge is from reality, not abstractions.

    I think Feser is getting at "facebook levels" of apologetics, I won't be surprised if next he says the papacy is in the bible.

  3. For those who are interested, here's an argument for the sixty-six-book canon of Evangelicalism. I address some of the problems with claiming that the canon was settled by a Pope or council here and here. And you can find a larger index of posts on canonical issues here.

  4. Has Rome ever given a "canonical" list of every last scrap of tradition that comes from the apostles?

    1. Not even close. But the claim is that the RC today has the authoritative "living voice" and can consult that (even in the form of questions to the parish priest).