Friday, August 10, 2007

A bucketful of wisdom

Continuing our dialogue with MG:

“One route would be by appealing to people who have salvation but do not perform these signs. For instance the thief on the cross had salvation but did not perform these signs. Thus it seems that there is some kind of qualification to Mark 16:17-18.”

Yes, well, the argument from experience cuts in more than one direction. If you’re going to invoke experience to qualify the long ending of Mark, why not invoke experience to falsify the long ending of Mark?

“I think the issue is ‘how would the early Christians know what Christ is like apart from Scripture?’ and one way to answer this would be ‘Authoritative oral tradition and written tradition, as well as accurate oral and written tradition, could adjudicate false from true’.”

But, of course, this only pushes the question back a step. What authority will adjudicate between true and false oral and written tradition? What authority will authorize authoritative tradition?

The church? Does the church authorize tradition, or vice versa?

“I think you might be confusing authority with epistemology. When we epistemically act so as to recognize an authority, this is not the same as this authority being established *as* an authority. The fallibility of the source of knowledge is not the same as the fallibility or infallibility of the authority revealed in that source.”

Even if the authority were infallible, the port of entry is fallible. How does a fallible entry point to an infallible church improve over a fallible entry point to an infallible Bible?

“Also, I consider it an improvement because the infallibility of the Church which establishes the infallibility of Scripture would be publicly-accessible. Instead of the infallibility of Scripture just being something revealed to individual’s hearts, it is public and therefore its claim to bind consciences rests on more than a mere ‘doesn’t your heart say so?’ which is shaky ground because of how evil the human heart can be. It is in-principle and in-practice questionable.”

Once again, this only pushes the question back a step. How is the infallibility of the church personally appropriated or revealed to the individual?

“How would the Bible’s self-authentication improve this?”

i) Idle speculation (or should I say, “idol” speculation?) over which rule of faith is hypothetically superior to another is irrelevant to me. I’ve been answering you on your own grounds.

I myself am only concerned with the identity of the true rule of faith. I don’t begin with a preconception of what the rule of faith should look like, and then select the option that dovetails with my preconception.

ii) Pace, Leibniz, I don’t assume that God always does the best, for I also don’t assume, pace Leibniz, that there is always one optimal choice. There are often tradeoffs between the advantages/disadvantages of one arrangement and another.

iii) And even if there were an optimal choice, that is a retrospective rather than prospective value-judgment.

“Also, it seems that you *can* bootstrap your way from a fallible witness to an infallible witness in a certain sense. This is because a fallible witness can recognize an infallible authority. The strength of our conviction that a locus of authority exists is not proportional to the degree of authority that the locus of authority actually possesses. We can be pretty sure that there are cops and school teachers; but that doesn’t imply that because we are confident that they exist, they therefore are more binding than, say, God. And we can have less confidence that God exists and still recognize that His commands are absolutely binding and supercede all obligation from cops and school teachers. This is a case of infallible witness ‘rising above’ fallible witness; our fallible judgment that God exists and commands certain things entails a degree of obligation that is not directly proportional to our confidence that God exists.”

i)I don’t know whether this illustration is hypothetical, or if it expresses your true sentiments. For my own part, I don’t have less confidence in the existence of God than I have in cops and robbers and schoolteachers. I don’t regard the existence of God as uncertain. Not in the least.

And if I didn’t believe I God, then I would begin to question many of my otherwise irrepressible, common sense beliefs.

ii) But to play along with your argument, there is a link between the authority of the command and the existence of the authority-figure.

As an army officer, I would be duty-bound to obey a direct, lawful order by my superior. But suppose there’s some doubt about the authenticity of the order? If there’s evidence that the order is a forgery, if there’s evidence that the commanding officer didn’t issue the order, in case the enemy murdered him for purposes of identity-theft, then that would certainly affect my level of obligation.

“But of course a fallible authority could not ground the authority of an infallible authority.”

Which is the ultimate issue.

“I definately grant that this probably cannot in itself establish the infallibility of the Church. However, the revelatory function of the Church as bearer, teacher, and enactor of the divine mystery seems implicit here. It doesn’t seem impossible, therefore, to see this as supporting ecclesial infallibility, or at least some kind of incarnational ecclesiology.”

Eph 3:9-10 isn’t talking about the teaching office of the church. Rather, it’s taking about the sheer existence of the church itself as a tribute to divine wisdom. Not what it does, but what it is.

“Would you be so kind as to argue for that? [1 Tim 3:15]”

Check out the quotations from Quinn and Johnson in my reply to Blosser:

“Also, this verse could still give some weight to ecclesial infallibility even if it is referring to a local Church. This is because biblical ecclesiology includes the idea that a local Church is a full manifestation or extension of the whole Church.”

i) I deny that the local church is a “full” manifestation of the universal church. Begin local, it’s a partial manifestation of the universal church.

ii) At the abstract level, the local church (as well as the universal church), exemplifies God’s plan for the church.

iii) At a concrete level, the universal church is an extension of the local church, not vice versa.

“The evidence for this comes from the fact that__1. The local assembly is sometimes given the title of the whole, namely ‘Church’, without specified location. (Acts 20:28/Acts 20:17; Acts 12:5, 15:4, 11:26, 14:27; in 15:3, ‘Church’ refers to Antiochean Christians, whereas in 15:4 it refers to Jerusalem Christians; in 9:31 Church is singular but refers to multiple locations of local assemblies).”

This is a very weak argument:

i) The singular form could simply be a shorthand expression for a local church, the identity of which is specified in context.

I say I went “to church” on Sunday, I don’t say that I went to Church Creek Presbyterian Church (PCA), in Charleston, SC. Why? Not because I regard the local church I attend as the “fullness” of the universal church, but because it’s less cumbersome to abbreviate the reference.

ii) And no doubt there’s a sense in which these NT churches, at the time Luke was writing, participated in the divine institution of the Church. This doesn’t mean that we can extrapolate, without further ado, from the identity of local, NT churches to national (Orthodox) churches in the 21C.

“2. It provides a parallel with Israel’s understanding that ‘synagogue’ can refer to the whole nation or just a part (1 Maccabees 3:44, Susanna 41, 59-60).”

i) There’s a sense in which the local church is parallel to the synagogue, although your apocryphal prooftexts are, at best, descriptive rather than normative. But the nation of Israel is not directly parallel to the universal church.

ii) And you’re erecting your ecclesiology on merely possible inferences from pretty tangential data.

“Heretics and schismatics can be written off insofar as they don’t teach consistently with what Jesus and the apostles taught.”

i) Speaking for myself, I distinguish between heretics and schismatics. Sometimes the schismatics were either right or half-right.

ii) When the rule of faith is the very question at issue, appealing to what Jesus and the apostles taught is question-begging.

“No, it just assumes that we can identify to some degree what Jesus and the apostles understood about the Church on an historical basis, treating Scripture as a record of their words and teachings.”

I see you apply the historical-critical method to Scripture, but I don’t see you apply the historical-critical method to the church. Why is that?

“This is true in a qualified sense--namely there weren't enough bishops for there to be ‘degrees of honor/seniority’ which is the main distinction in the various levels of the episcopate. But it is possible for societies to develop and retain the same identity in the process (see Swinburne’s ‘Revelation: from Metaphor to Analogy’, specifically his chapter on the Church). Furthermore, it is possible to successfully trace the development of a society and identify it as it endures through change (if you want me to explain further then just ask). If we come to questions about the Church with this understanding, then it seems to me like Orthodoxy could very easily qualify as the best contender because the Orthodox Church understands itself in a way that is (arguably) more consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles about the Church than Protestant churches. (of course this all assumes the success of my arguments that Scripture teaches or implies ecclesial infallibility, etc.)”

i) Why do we need to come to questions about the Church with a prior, sociological model of identity through time? Why not begin with what the Bible has to say?

ii) In my opinion, a number of polities may be consistent with NT ecclesiology.

iii) Appeal to how the Orthodox church “understands itself” is question-begging.

“As I mentioned above, the hierarchy serve a representative function. They act on behalf of the part of the organization they represent; hence, when they act, the whole Church acts. This doesn’t seem like a sudden jump. In fact this appears to be operative in the apostolic decree (Acts 15:22-29) and perhaps elsewhere as well.”

This is careless:

i) Of course “apostles” can serve in a representative capacity.

ii) It doesn’t follow that bishops, individually or collectively, speak with apostolic authority. The NT qualifications for the pastorate are quite different from the qualifications for the Apostolate.

“I don’t see how this is special pleading. I don’t think I ever said that ‘being decreed by the majority of the hierarchy’ is the *only* criteria in operation here. You wouldn’t say that if all of the elders got together at your church and decided that every sermon would preach Arianism that this would be something your church had actually validly agreed about. Instead, they would have yielded their authority by decreeing something contrary to true prior teaching, thus estranging themselves from the true faith and any degree of authority or even membership they had claim to. And that’s the same kind of thing that I’m arguing is true about the EO.”

No, it’s not the same thing, for in EO ecclesiology, an ecumenical council is infallible, whereas I’d never say that the elders of my church, or the elders of my denomination, are infallible.

“Sorry I think I originally misunderstood what you meant. Could you explain how this would help?”

As one scholar puts it, “Many written texts, especially biblical ones, were written with the full awareness of other texts in mind. Their authors assumed the readers would be thoroughly knowledgeable of those other texts. The New Testament books, for example, assume a comprehensive understanding of the OT. Many OT texts also assume their readers are aware and knowledgeable of other OT texts. Intertextuality can either be explicit…or implicit,” J. Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Zondervan 1995), 212-13.

Intertextuality operates at many different levels: you can have internal parallels within the same book (e.g. Genesis), or between books that form a larger literary unit (e.g. the Pentateuch). Earlier books can lay down theological motifs that foreshadow their thematic unfolding in later books. Conversely, later books can quote or allude to earlier books. Literary dependence is a form of intertextuality (e.g. the Synoptic problem). And so on and so forth. One can work this out in excruciating detail.

“But if the canon is divine doctrine, then its status as authoritative Christian revelation can only be established (declared, formally sealed--not recognized epistemically) by divine authority. Anything less as a means of establishing the canon would be fallible, and subject to the possibility of revision in principle, which would indicate that the canon is the teaching of men, not of God. And this seems unacceptable.”

i) What is unacceptable is the way you begin with your preconceived strictures and armchair stipulations rather than observing what the Lord has actually said or done or said he would do. I prefer Scriptures to strictures.

ii) What is the official canon of the Orthodox church?

“The issue is not ‘can God reveal Himself privately?’ but ‘is Christian revelation grounded in publicly-accessible authority?’”

The issue is not “private revelation” but divine regeneration. That is not a “confirming religious experience.” Rather, that is an inaugural religious experience, absent which the individual cannot exercise genuine faith in Scripture.

“But is grace also an objective thing, or is it just subjective?”

Both. Grace is what God does in us (subjective) as well as what he does for us (objective).

“Sure, there are. But are they successful? I think the question then becomes whether the objective evidence establishes the authority or just the *accuracy* of Scripture.”

“Success” is person-variable. And you could say the same thing about arguments for the Orthodox church.

“The negation of reject is not ‘choose’, but ‘to not reject’.”

You’re being too abstract. You need to cultivate an exegetical mindset. Lower the altitude. Get your hands dirty instead of viewing the text from 40,000 feet in the air.

Yes, you can say abstractly that there are more than two options, but that’s irrelevant to Paul’s argument. For Paul, any outcome will be the result of divine agency. It is not as if God is just sitting back and letting things happen all by themselves—as if he chooses to opt out of the proceedings. “I choose not to choose one way or the other.”

For Paul, God doesn’t watch things play out of their own accord from a safe distance.

“And indeed, “to not reject” is already stated in verse 2—“God *did not reject*”—and is an action that God performs.”

And how did God “not reject”? By making a choice.

“Here’s what I’m thinking. Paul is specifically dealing with the issue of whether Israel has been completely and entirely rejected as a whole; he is not *directly* dealing with the issue of whether or not a saved elect remnant has persevered. Rather he is indirectly dealing with that issue because it is instrumental to answering the question of whether or not God has rejected ethinc Israel. In that case, bringing up the remnant shows that God has indeed not rejected all ethnic Israel, because the remnant consists of people who are ethnic Israelites.”

The survival of ethnic Israel is not an end in itself, but a means to an end:

i) Elect Jews are a subset of ethnic Israel.

ii) The prophets, Apostles, and the Messiah are a subset of ethnic Israel. Ethnic Israel supplied the raw materials, as well as the medium.

iii) Ethnic Israel, in this instrumental role, is a blessing to the Gentiles.

God is not concerned with the preservation of ethnic Israel, per se, but with ethnic Israel as a conduit.

“And indeed I think there is something within the context of the verses in consideration which could be read as affirming a conditional election of the remnant, namely the fact that God’s act of reservation in verse 4 could be taken as contingent on the act of not bowing the knee to Baal.”

And why did the remnant not bow the knee to Baal? They are not elect because they are obedient, but obedient because they are elect. And that’s the differential factor that distinguishes them from the apostate mass. You render election otiose.


  1. Steve,

    I have a slightly off-topic question, since Mark 16 was brought up. Do you think that passages like the long ending of Mark and the adulteress passage of John 8 "count" as actual Scripture? In other words, should they be considered as authoritative or as inspired as the rest of the Bible?

  2. Mathetes said...

    "I have a slightly off-topic question, since Mark 16 was brought up. Do you think that passages like the long ending of Mark and the adulteress passage of John 8 "count" as actual Scripture? In other words, should they be considered as authoritative or as inspired as the rest of the Bible?"

    They are uninspired scribal interpolations. BTW, examples like this are fairly rare, which is why they get a lot of attention.

  3. Along similar lines, I agree with James White when he says that the vowels in Hebrew weren't inspired either. Again, the context of passages are quite sufficient to inform of us the vast majority of correct interpretations, and there are only going to be a relatively few minor places where there could be some dispute.