Sunday, January 08, 2017

How ecumenical are "ecumenical councils"?

Recently I had a marathon debate on Facebook with some Catholics and one Orthodox commenters. Here's part of what I said:

Historical exegesis and linguistic semantics aren't decoder rings. 

"Lately, I've been working through the Ante-Nicene fathers."

Have you been using your "personal decoder ring that you found in a Cracker Jack box" to interpret them? 

"Yes, every Protestant sect is filled with historians and linguists... Good luck with that."

You depend on the same thing to evaluate the historical claims of Rome. So your remark is self-defeating. 

"I don’t hold myself up as the final authority in reading the Church Fathers, or the Bible. You hold yourself in that position."

Which embroils you in vicious circularity. You must exercise your private judgment to determine if you think the documentary evidence supports the claims of Rome. But you can't then turn around an act as if Rome is the final authority, which supersedes your private judgment, for your token submission to the Magisterium is ultimately subservient to your independent assessment of the documentary evidence. Daniel remains the arbiter from start to finish. 

"Christ prayed for unity, and gave us a Church."

Do you think Christ's prayer has gone unanswered for 2000 years? When do you think God is going to answer Christ's prayer?

"Yes, studying history and the Church increases my confidence in it, but my submission to the authority of the Church is an act of faith, not of some rationalization."

So what's the basis for your confidence in the authority of Rome? Is it just an act of blind faith? A leap into the dark?

What's the relationship between your study and your confidence in the church of Rome? Is your faith in the Roman church independent of how you interpret the documentary evidence? If so, then what's your evidence that the church of Rome has the authority you impute to it? If you don't base your confidence in Rome on the documentary evidence, which you must interpret for yourself, then your faith is arbitrary.

Put another way, is you faith in Rome conditional or unconditional? You say your study "increases your confidence" in Rome. Does that mean you began by entrusting himself to the church of Rome apart from study? 

Do you think the authority of the Roman church provides a level of certainty lacking in your private judgment? But isn't your identification of Rome as the one true church based on you study? When you treat tour personal study as uncertain, how can you then pretend that Rome affords certainty? For you confidence in the certainties of Rome result from you study. How can the uncertainties of your personal study yield confidence in the certainties of Rome, when that's the product of you study? How can the conclusion be more certain than the source of the conclusion? 

You proceed as if Rome furnishes a level of certainty absent from your private judgment, yet your confidence in Rome can be no more or less certain than the private judgment by which you arrived at that conclusion. 

It's like saying, if the deck is stacked, it's a dead certainty that I will be dealt a full house, but I'm uncertain that the deck is stacked. The conclusion can't rise higher than the process of reasoning that underwrites the conclusion.

Anyone of sufficient intelligence can read good commentaries.

"And yet there are thousands of Protestant denominations with different views on all of this. So are all of them stupid except you?"

Roman Catholicism is one of the "thousands" of Christian denominations. So are all of them stupid except for you?

"Catholicism is not a denomination."

Catholicism is a sect.

"No, with the Orthodox Church, Catholicism forms the Apostolic Church." 

I understand your partisan position–which illustrates the fact that his statement involves a tendentious contrast. He exempts his own "church" from the "thousands". But that's a truth by definition tactic.

"Given that he's Catholic, he's simply being true to what he believes. I would also hold that the Orthodox Church is the una sancta."

Yes, he take his own denomination as the standard of comparison. That's only convincing to like-minded people.

He's responding to something I didn't say. The question at issue was "special access," not consensus.

"Of course, if Steve knows better than all of the ecumenical councils, it really isn't surprising that he would find himself to be the smartest person in the room."

Of course, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox can't agree with each other on which councils are, in fact, "all" the ecumenical councils. Since he apparently knows the answer, he must regard himself as the smartest person in the room.

Moreover, that backfires. By his logic, if you can even call it logic, unless a Christian submits to Lateran IV or the Council of Trent, he must regard himself as the smartest man in the room. Yet that's self-incriminating on his part, because there is no consensus on which councils are ecumenical, or what makes a council ecumenical. When Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox disagree on that central issue (central for them), by his logic, that can only be adjudicated by believing you're the smartest man in the room. 

What are his criteria for distinguishing an ecumenical council from a local council or robber council? There are no unanimous criteria. There are in fact competing theories about what makes a council ecumenical. Take receptionism.

What makes a gathering of a few hundred bishops from the Eastern Roman Empire a representative sample for the global church? Indeed, there was no global church at the time of ancient church councils. What makes a particular time and place ipso facto definitive for every time and place?

Some truths are timeless, yet he isn't lodging a direct appeal to truth, but mounting an argument from authority. By his logic, a few hundred bishops were the smartest men in the room. Yet there've been billions of Christians in the intervening centuries. So, once more, what makes a few hundred bishops a representative sample group? 

If the question at issue is eternal generation, that belief need to be justified by suitable evidence. Christianity is a revealed religion. Where's the revelatory evidence for eternal generation? 

You have some traditional prooftexts, but that's only as good as the meaning of a Greek compound word, and that's now disputed even by Roman Catholic scholars. So this isn't just my position.

"It's not in contention at all -- they were declared dogmatically by the Orthodox Church in Nicea, Constantinople and Ephesus."

An illicit argument from authority. That appeal depends on a particular ecclesiology which is, in itself, a bone of contention. I'm not Eastern Orthodox, So I don't grant that standard of comparison.

When Protestants debate Catholics, or Catholics debate Orthodox, it ultimately devolves into the upstream issue of ecclesiology rather than the downstream issue of the particular doctrine. 

"No, but when you go out on a limb by yourself and fail very hard, you should have the humility to go back to the councils and creeds to see how you can better map your linguistic framework onto theirs. If you can’t, I would recommend deferring to them. If you won’t, then accept that you are a formal heretic, since you understand the difference but refuse to submit to the Church."

That's a classic example of Catholic playacting, where you get swept up in role-playing. 

I'm not answerable to Catholic bishops. That's not the divine standard of judgment. I'm answerable to God via biblical revelation.

BTW, it's hard for people to submit to "the councils" even if they wish to since theologians draw ad hoc distinctions regard which conciliar statements are fallible and which are infallible. 

By the definition of your sect, I'm "formal heretic" because I deny the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary. But since I don't cede to your sect the prerogative to define reality, color me unimpressed. 

According to rabbinical Judaism, Christians are "formal heretics". I'm I supposed to lose sleep over that? 

"Perhaps you will be the one person on your own who used your own concepts to arrive at the truth."

You are using your own concepts to arrive at what he deems to be truth (i.e. Roman Catholicism).

"I don’t expect you will be impressed. I think it would be essential to all formal heretics that they are unimpressed by the fact that a Catholic would identify them as such."

When people can't win the argument through rational persuasion, they resort to intimidation tactics.

Conversely, Protestants like me consider the input of many other Christians when we read commentaries, theologians, &c.

Some Catholic commenters are guilty of an illicit argument from authority. Appealing to the opinion of dead bishops isn't a given when disputing with Protestants. You can't just reason from your Catholic assumptions. Rather, you must reason for your Catholic assumptions. An argument from authority is tendentious unless both sides grant the legitimacy of that benchmark. 

Mind you, dead bishops sometimes got it right, but that's a case of judging their conclusions by the quality of their supporting arguments, rather than deferring to them as unquestioned authority figures.

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