Monday, February 06, 2017

Secret tradition

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church, some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us "in a mystery" by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have these same force…We are not, as is well known, content with what the Apostles or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten tradition…Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling investigation?…What the uninitiated are not even allowed: to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents?…In the same manner the Apostles and Fathers who laid down laws for the Church from the beginning thus guarded the awful dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence…This is the reason for our tradition of unwritten precepts and practices, that the knowledge of our dogmas may not become neglected and contemned by the multitude through familiarity (§66). On the Holy Spirit: St. Basil the Great (Popular Patristics Series Volume 42), Stephen M. Hildebrand, trans. (St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2013), 133-136. 

This presents an alternative to sola Scriptura. What's striking about it is Basil's explicit appeal to secret tradition. His justification of secret tradition. Traditions that are transmitted through covert channels. Only church authorities are privy to that "mystery". 

But an obvious problem with sub rosa tradition, with a process that's deliberately shielded to public scrutiny, is the fact that there's no check on fabricated dominical or apostolic traditions, or legendary embellishment. Imagine the unbridled power that confers on church authorities. They can stipulate dominical or apostolic pedigree for a particular tradition, and if you refuse to credit that tradition, then you are rebelling against God himself. 

Compare that to Scripture, which is a public record. In the early church, moreover, there was no controlled transmission of Scripture. Christian scribes informally produced copies of the Bible. It wasn't possible for church authorities to modify Scripture, to slip a fabricated dominical or apostolic tradition into the text of Scripture, for the chain of custody was in the public domain. The early church didn't have the centralized command and control to alter the record of Scripture. Individuals might attempt that, but would be unable to universalize their additions. Scripture presents a common frame of reference, precisely because that was in writing, and the transmission wasn't coordinated. 

To take a comparison, suppose you were a 1C Christian member of a church in Asia Minor that St. John planted. Suppose you sat under his teaching. You'd have a duty to remain faithful to what he taught you, to the best of your recollection.

Now, to change the hypothetical, suppose somebody tells you, "This is God's will!" And you ask, "How do I know that's God's will?" And he says, "I sat at the feet of St. John, and here's what he said!"

That's a very different situation. If you submit to his claim, that person has absolute power over you. He's virtually God's mouthpiece, via his claim to be reproducing St. John's teaching.

But, of course, it would be very convenient for a heretic to adopt that imposture. By contrast, 1 John supplies a public frame of reference. That's available to Christians generally. Indeed, St. John wrote it for popular consumption. Every Christian with access to 1 John has the same standard of comparison. 


  1. Steve,
    you said a couple of times, briefly, that the catholic have a dilemma, for he gives infallible hermeneutic authority to the Church by appealing to the scriptures, so he is interpreting the Bible himself. (Correct me if I represented wrongly what you've said)

    One of the topics that God used to bring me to reformed faith (inasmuch as it is biblical) was apologetics, when, after reading all the arguments in evidentialism, I came to the question "but why believe the bible?", and I found that the greater argument for the Bible was the Bible itself. I mean, "greater" not in the sense the "best argument for convincing", but in the sense that nothing higher can authenticate the Scriptures, for if History or Arqueology could validate Scripture, than the Word of God wouldn't be the higher standard. And I learned that this was no problem in terms of circularity, because (1) every standard that one can use to judge ontological, epistemological and ethical assertions are, in ultimate instance, circular (e.g., I can only believe in reason by appealing to reason itself), and if God if God (and He is!), He is the higher standard (a là "moral argument for the existence of God"), and (2) if I must believe in something, even something that is circular, that should be what God says. So I don't have a problem presupposing Scripture, even being accused of circularity.

    My question is: wouldn't the catholic avoid the dilemma I mention by saying "The Church has the last word in interpreting the Bible, because the Bible says the Church have the last word, and I know that the Bible says that because the Church said the Bible said it".

    I mean, independently of being right or wrong, or being circular, wouldn't that eliminate the dilemma that you mention, and the inconsistency of this believe per se?

    Anyway, thanks for all the good work (you don't know how many times I changed my mind on some doctrinal believes because of the arguments that you gived).

    1. A problem with the attempted parallel is that Catholic apologists typically contend that unaided human reason is too uncertain, too unreliable, to interpret Scripture, determine the canon, establish the Trinity, &c. We need an infallible Magisterium to lay the necessary groundwork.

      That, however, poses a predicament for the Catholic apologist, because he has no opening to break into the charmed circle. How can he establish the authority of the Magisterium in the first place? He can't take that for granted at this stage of the argument. Yet he's disqualified unaided reason from assessing the documentary evidence for the Magisterium.

      By contrast, Protestants don't have to take the position that unaided reason can't be trusted to interpret Scripture, determine the canon, &c. The competence of reason isn't the problem. Even an atheist can do that. Indeed, that's how some atheists convert to Christianity.

      I'd add that from a Reformed perspective, even if the evidence is merely probable, even if our arguments don't achieve apodictic proof, it's not happenstance that the faithful believe in Scripture. God, in his special providence, intends for the faithful to believe in Scripture, and he orchestrates circumstances so that they will form true, justified beliefs.

      We're not responsible for attaining an artificial standard of proof. God hasn't put us in that position. God doesn't require that of us.

      Is that what you were getting at?

    2. So the problem isn't the argument alone, but kind of marginalizing the reason, only to appeal to it later?
      I'm having some trouble to give answer to the difference between Roman Catholic circularity, and protestant circularity.

      I mean, the Bible kind of validate my perception, my reason and my feelings. I know that it does not provide infallible knowledge (e.g., mirages, fallacies, etc.), but I know that it is generally trustworthy, and this, because the Bible said it.

      William Lane Craig said that, it Jesus' body were found, no adult should be christian. But, in practical terms, how much [historic] evidence would be necessary to disprove the Bible? Am I correct in assuming that no amount of [historic] evidence could invalidate what God says? (Which, by the way, is different of saying that I should fear archaelogical discoveries, or that christianity is indifferent to evidences, or even that my faith is ungrounded).

      What if the catholic says that this is not different of his own pressupositions, in the sense that the Magisterium gives my reason and perceptions some reliability, but not the ultimate authority (like saying "I can interpret the Bible myself, but if my interpretation differ from the Magisterium, than I am the one who is wrong")?

    3. 1. Transcendental arguments are typically deployed against global skepticism. So they aren't skeptical about reason. Rather, they take the general reliability of reason (and perception) for granted, then ask what background conditions are necessary to ground the reliability of reason.

      In that respect, a Catholic apologist can't deploy a transcendental argument for the Magisterium if his starting-point is the unreliability of unaided reason, because a transcendental argument requires some confidence in the reliability of our cognitive faculties. If a Catholic apologist takes the position that unaided reason can't be trusted, then he can't get a transcendental argument off the ground.

      2. Likewise, transcendental arguments are based on common ground. Aspects of human experience that anyone except a radical skeptic will grant. It's harder for a Catholic apologist to find that kind of common ground.

      3. Circularity is virtuous if it's necessary for rationality. Take the basic reliability of sense perception, or induction. There's no argument for those things that avoids circularity. But if these are indispensible for human knowledge to be possible, then there's no rational alternative.

      4. We need to draw a distinction between pop Catholic apologists and more philosophically astute Catholic apologists. In my experience, more sophisticated Catholic apologists avoid highly skeptical against Protestant epistemology. That's because they are alert to the fact that Cartesian doubt is a double-edged sword.

      Usually, their claim is narrower. For instance, they may say that without an infallible Magisterium, we can't rise to the level of certainty required for dogmatic faith, in contrast to mere opinion. Something like that.

      There are, however, problems with that distinction:

      i) They need to establish that God in fact demands that level of certainty.

      ii) Their arguments for the Magisterium will be, at best, probabilistic arguments. So they're stuck in a dilemma: they are using the Magisterium as a makeweight, but their arguments for the Magisterium fall short of certainty.

    4. 5. The Magisterium really isn't comparable to Scripture. Scripture has an explanatory scope which the Magisterium lacks. Scripture discusses the identity of God as the Creator and Judge. That, in turn, furnishes the framework for the origin, significance, and destiny of man. It discusses how man went offtrack, and the solution. It discusses the nature of divine intervention to redeem man. And so on and so forth.

      The Magisterium doesn't cover those fundamental issues. So it doesn't have the same explanatory value.

      6. There is, moreover, a difference between the hypothetical virtues of the Magisterium and how it actually performs. In reality, it just doesn't live up to its billing. A paper theory that ill-comports with church history.

      7. There's a distinction between what we can know and what we can prove. Knowledge often outstrips what is demonstrable.

      8. If the bones of Jesus were found, that would falsify Christianity. That counterfactual is important to show that Christian theology makes genuine truth-claims. It isn't consistent anything and everything. It isn't vacuous.

      Again, though, that's just a hypothetical. That doesn't make it a realistic possibility.

      Moreover, counterfactuals like that artificially compartmentalize reality. But disproving something requires you to treat some other beliefs as unquestionable. They supply the standard of comparison.

      If, however, Christian theism were false, then that raises questions about the reliability of reason. Is atheism the alternative? If so, does atheism ultimately hollow out confidence in human rationality?

      So, considered from that more comprehensive frame of reference, there's the larger question of whether Christian theism could be false. Would we need something functionally equivalent to Christian theism to guarantee the basic reliability of reason, sense perception, induction–without which we careen into self-refuting skepticism?

  2. Basil goes into some detail about what these “secret traditions” actually are. These include:

    • Making the “sign of the cross”
    • Turning to the East at the prayer
    • The “words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing” (and yet, at Vatican II Rome actually consulted early written sources and modified its “eucharistic prayers” based on early written sources)
    • “Blessing” “the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism”
    • “Blessing” “the catechumen who is being baptized”
    • “Baptizing thrice”
    • “We pray standing on the first day of the week”

    The reason for this:

    This is the reason for our tradition of unwritten precepts and practices, that the knowledge of our dogmas may not become neglected and contemned by the multitude through familiarity. “Dogma” and “Kerugma” are two distinct things; the former is observed in silence; the latter is proclaimed to all the world.

    So these “unwritten traditions” are the “secret dogmas”. There is nothing to them but external practices.

  3. Oh, ok. Thanks. I'll think about this.
    What do you think of the saying (if I record well, was from John Frame) that to prove that Jesus didn't resurrected it would be required to do it by using the Bible? This seems to be an interest way of mantaining the Bible as the ultimate source of authority...

    1. If the Bible is the word of God, then it is, in the nature of the case, the ultimate source of authority.