Friday, April 07, 2006

Speculating For An Infallible Church

Ben posted another response at Al Kimel's Pontifications blog earlier this week. Steve has already responded to Ben's latest post, and I want to add some comments to Steve's.

Previously, Ben argued for an infallible church largely on the basis that such an entity would hypothetically be the best entity God could use, and he argued that following sola scriptura would be too difficult. After Steve and I mentioned that some hypothetical entities would be better than Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and we mentioned some of the difficulties involved in identifying an entity like Catholicism or Orthodoxy as an infallible church, Ben changed his approach. In his latest post, Ben suggests a series of circumstances in which a person might be led to conclude that the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church is infallible. Ben gives us a series of "intuitions" people might have on issues like masturbation and Trinitarianism. Eventually, Ben comments:

"This implies that my argument is able only to function in certain settings wherein certain subjects feel themselves confronted by certain types of basic beliefs, so that at any rate my argument cannot be ‘neutral’ with respect to these beliefs themselves. To the extent that a given subject feels that the above standpoint matches his own (and given his admission of certain other considerations that I have already spelt out), he will feel himself persuaded by my argument."

The problem is that much of what Ben has suggested as "intuitions", "basic beliefs", etc. hasn't been shown to be true, but instead has only been asserted. The concept that following sola scriptura is too difficult, for example, hasn't been proven. When presented with the difficulties of making judgments about the existence of God, the Messiahship of Jesus, the authority of the apostles, when the church is speaking infallibly, etc., Ben ignores those difficulties, appeals to "intuition", or proposes resolving those difficulties in the same sort of way in which a follower of sola scriptura would resolve his difficulties. Ben doesn't know how easy a rule of faith has to be. His suggestion that sola scriptura is too difficult, whereas Roman Catholicism isn't, is unproveable. If he wants to try to avoid the difficulties of Roman Catholicism with appeals to intuition and using our reasoning capabilities, for example, then advocates of sola scriptura can do the same.

Ben keeps referring to Catholicism and Orthodoxy as the only options for fulfilling the role of an infallible church, but he still hasn't given us any verifiable reason to expect an infallible church. And if following sola scriptura is too difficult, why isn't choosing between Catholicism and Orthodoxy too difficult? Ben's attempt to limit our options to Catholicism and Orthodoxy is itself something that's far from easy to follow. He writes:

"Given then the extrinsic consideration that Christ had founded a church and had indeed authorised it to transmit His teachings in His earthly absence (an extrinsic consideration which Richard Swinburne contends is utterly uncontroversial); and given then the further fact that the church in question would have then had to be a visible entity in order for it to have been in a position to accomplish the purpose which Swinburne has ascribed to it; it would seem to follow therefore that such a visible church would be a prime candidate for being the source of true doctrines in the actual world, if such a church were still to be in existence....Now of all the entities which are in existence today and which publicly claim for themselves the sort of commission that Swinburne ascribes to the Church founded by Christ, it would seem to me that it is only the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church which are able credibly to lay claim to any sort of historical link with the visible church that Swinburne has described. I take my conclusion on this score as uncontroversial since other entities which may publicly claim a similar sort of commission lack the credibility of the aforementioned entities."

And later:

"Firstly even if we can all agree as to how the term ‘Christian’ should be defined (so that we would all know to whom it ought to be applied) there would still be a problem with finding out how the majority of ‘Christians’ will have believed at a certain given time and in respect of a certain given issue; secondly, even if we are able to ascertain the opinion of the majority of Christians at this specific time and on the specific issue in question, it is yet unlikely that at other times and in respect of other issues, we would be able similarly to feel that we could have recourse to the majority opinion (as defined in this sense) for the purposes of finding out what we are to believe; thirdly, it is unclear that a majority of the ‘Christians’ will at any given time be able to communicate their collective opinion on the issue in question in sufficiently detailed a form as will be able to satisfy the conditions for being the sort of formal knowledge that I have defined above; fourthly, there would be the problem of how such persons could fulfil this role in a manner in keeping with the requirement that they should be able to do this visibly (so as to ensure that their pronouncements are rendered publicly accessible), and so that the Church which Christ had founded to transmit His teaching, would be able to be seen as endorsing this majority opinion."

Where does Ben get all of these qualifications about what the church must be? How does he know that the church must "publicly claim" this role Ben is referring to? How does he know what "other issues" the church must teach about? How does he know what's "sufficiently detailed" in a church's teachings?

I don't deny that there would be difficulties involved in discerning something like what a majority of Christians or all Christians believe on an issue. But there are difficulties involved in the systems Ben is recommending as well. Roman Catholics disagree among themselves about papal infallibility, which council rulings are infallible, etc. Catholic and Orthodox disagree with each other about how to define the church, how to judge the infallibility of church councils, etc. Discerning a Christian consensus on an issue like the deity of Jesus or the resurrection is far easier than sorting through Catholic disagreements about papal infallibility or arguments between Catholics and Orthodox about how to define the church, for example. If Ben wants to claim that issues like Jesus' deity and the resurrection aren't enough, and he wants to argue that we must have a church that infallibly speaks on issues like masturbation as well, then I would again ask how he knows which issues the church must address. If he appeals to intuition, then a Protestant could do the same, and we're no longer presenting arguments that can be publicly verified in a setting such as an online forum.

Ben thinks that an infallible church should give teachings that have the sort of specificity that we see in ecumenical councils, for example. But, as I said before, we don't need Catholicism or Orthodoxy in order to have a belief in infallible councils. Somebody could accept Nicaea, for example, as an infallible council on the basis of a Christian consensus (or on some other basis) without being Catholic or Orthodox. There isn't any way for Ben to limit the options for an infallible church to Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

Ben cites Richard Swinburne, but Swinburne wasn't referring to an infallible church. Parents, church leaders, and government officials carry out various roles given to them by God, including teaching, without being infallible. And infallibility isn't necessary for a church to be visible and hierarchical.

On the subject of the perpetual virginity of Mary, Ben writes:

"The Jews mockingly insinuated that Christ had ‘many brothers and sisters’ by way of an attempt on their part at making it seem that Christ did not have a credible claim to be their Messiah. In other words, they seemed to acknowledge that the Messiah would be more credibly thought of as having been the only child of his mother than as having been one of several children. Intuitively, these Jews seemed to realise that any woman who bore the Messiah would not thereafter want to have any more children. Additionally, the Jews who mocked Christ by suggesting that He was not the only Child of His mother, may well have known that He was indeed His mother’s sole Child; but in making a claim to this effect they may only have been intending to draw attention to what they conceived was the fact that for anything which anyone might have been in a position reasonably to know, the children with whom Christ grew up, could well have been conceived by His mother."

Since Ben doesn't cite a passage of scripture, we have to guess what he has in mind. Maybe he's thinking of Mark 6:3-4, for example. But that passage doesn't just mention Jesus' siblings. It also mentions His mother. Elsewhere, Jesus' father is mentioned as well. Nothing in such passages suggests that having siblings would be unacceptable for the Messiah. Rather, the siblings are mentioned, along with Jesus' mother, because these people are referring to their familiarity with Jesus. He had relatives with whom they were familiar. As Mark 6:2 suggests, the issue in view is familiarity, not some alleged inappropriateness of Messianic siblings. If Ben is going to derive from this passage (or others) a concept that having siblings was viewed as unacceptable in some manner, then he needs to explain how he derives that concept from the text. Nothing in a passage like Mark 6 logically leads to Ben's conclusion.

Ben continues:

"Can it credibly be supposed that that St Joseph would have ever approached Mary with a view to having carnal relations with her? How could he have dared to do this when he knew that his wife had conceived and brought to term God Incarnate? He was a holy man, as the scriptures tell us, and this sort of action (given his state of knowledge concerning the Christ) would seem to have been impossible to him....Moreover, since Christ was present at the time it is doubtful whether (even if we may suppose him to have been inclined to form sinister intentions towards his wife) he would have dared to risk the anger of Christ by seeking actively to deprive Christ of one of the symbols of Christ’s Messianic glory."

What is the "symbol of Christ's Messianic glory"? In this context, it would be Mary's virginity in carrying Christ, not her virginity afterward. Her later sexual relations with Joseph wouldn't change the fact that she had been a virgin when Christ was conceived.

And since there's nothing sinful in marital sex, we have no reason to view later sexual relations between Joseph and Mary in the sort of negative manner Ben has suggested. Other Biblical figures had sexual relations after giving birth to children God had given them supernaturally (1 Samuel 2:21). God used sexual relations to bring about the conception of John the Baptist, who was filled with the Spirit in the womb (Luke 1:15). How could the Holy Spirit associate Himself with such a womb, if Ben is correct?

Ben continues:

"Christ asked St John to acknowledge Mary as his Mother, and thereafter (effectively) committed the care of His own mother to St John. The scriptures tell us that ever since that day Mary lived with St John, which seems to indicate strongly that Christ was an only Child. I doubt whether the supposed unbelief of Christ’s supposed siblings could ever have been the reason why such a drastic measure was adopted; for the unbelief or lack of acceptance on the part of these supposed sibilings as to Christ’s messianic claims, would hardly seem to justify that Mary should cease to regard herself as a mother to them, which is what we are asked to believe that Christ had supposedly been concerned to ask His mother to do (as by way of asking Mary to regard St John as her son and so to live with him to the exclusion of her other supposed natural children)."

Where does John 19 suggest that Mary was to "cease to regard herself as a mother" to Jesus' brothers and sisters? Nothing in the text suggests Ben's conclusion. Mary can be a mother to John in some sense without ceasing to be a mother to Jesus' siblings. The fact that Mary would live with John rather than the siblings of Jesus wouldn't make her cease to be the mother of the siblings. Similarly, Mary remained Jesus' mother even as Jesus lived away from Mary's home in Nazareth during His public ministry.

Ben goes on to suggest that the brothers and sisters of Jesus may have been cousins. Whoever they were, we know that they were associated with Mary in other passages. They're referred to as traveling with her, for example, in other contexts. It's highly unlikely that Jesus was Mary's only living relative. Therefore, denying that the brothers and sisters were Jesus' siblings still leaves unanswered the question of why Jesus didn't entrust Mary to some other relative. If the brothers and sisters were cousins, why didn't He entrust Mary to those same cousins who were repeatedly associated with Mary and traveling with her in other contexts? The best explanation is their unbelief and/or the quality of John's spiritual maturity as compared to the maturity of others who could have cared for Mary. The idea that nobody else was available who could have given Mary the common care relatives would usually give is implausible. Some other factor had to be involved. I see no reason to dismiss the spiritual factor that Ben dismisses.

Regarding the New Testament's terminology, Ben tells us:

"Certain scholars contend that the ‘brothers and sisters of Christ’ are in fact merely the cousins of Christ. These individuals are described as ‘brothers and sisters’ because the Jews (as is sill the case with many other communities today) tend to refer to their cousins as ‘brothers and sisters’. The Greek has a separate term for ‘cousin’ but there is no compelling evidence to suppose that the nonuse of such a term on the part of the relevant writers implies that they must have conceived of these persons as being Christ’s actual siblings. They could simply have carried over the Jewish practice into their writings unreflectively."

We know that the New Testament authors repeatedly used phrases like "relative" and "cousin". Whether they were willing to use such terminology isn't in question. Rather, the question is why they didn't use such terms when referring to Jesus' brothers and sisters, but instead chose the terminology we would expect to be used for siblings. What Ben is suggesting is that multiple New Testament authors repeatedly chose language that would more naturally lead us away from the perpetual virginity doctrine, even though they believed in the doctrine and did use terms like "relative" and "cousin" in other passages. And these cousins of Jesus are repeatedly portrayed as traveling with Mary and are mentioned with Mary when Jesus' background is discussed, which would more likely be true of siblings than cousins. What Ben is asking us to do is interpret a series of authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul) in a less natural manner. Why would anybody do that, unless he comes to the text with a desire to reconcile it with later belief in Mary's perpetual virginity?

As I mentioned previously, the earliest patristic sources to make comments relevant to this subject suggest that Mary wasn't a perpetual virgin. And even when the perpetual virginity doctrine became popular in the fourth century, Basil of Caesarea refers to many orthodox Christians rejecting it at the time. Yet, Ben has told us that Mary's perpetual virginity is an "intuition" of Catholics and Orthodox. Again, should we conclude that the textual evidence suggests that the Biblical authors weren't Catholic or Orthodox, then? Were the people who rejected the perpetual virginity of Mary during the patristic era neither Catholic nor Orthodox?

This doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity is an example of how Catholics, like Ben, will reject the most natural reading of scripture in order to follow philosophical speculations about how Mary should have related to Joseph after giving birth to Jesus, how appropriate it seems to be to have an infallible church, etc. It's not as if Ben is advocating an unavoidable philosophical concept like the law of non-contradiction. Rather, he's rejecting the most natural reading of scripture (and the earliest church fathers) in order to follow philosophical preferences that can't be shown to carry the sort of probability that the Biblical text carries. Ben's opinion about how later sexual relations between Mary and Joseph would dishonor Jesus isn't in the same evidential category as the meaning of multiple Greek words used by multiple Biblical authors in multiple contexts.

What Ben is doing, on the issue of church infallibility and on the issue of the perpetual virginity of Mary, is appealing to unverifiable philosophical speculations when no other method of arriving at his conclusions is available. Other people could use similar reasoning to arrive at some other infallible church and other doctrines that Ben doesn't believe in. We don't have the sort of evidence for Ben's infallible church that we have for scripture.

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