Saturday, May 30, 2009

Hot on the trail of the elusive, infallible interpreter

Surely, then, if the revelations and lessons in Scripture are addressed to us personally and practically, the presence among us of a formal judge and standing expositor of its words, is imperative. It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so systematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times, and places, should be given us from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself. Its inspiration does but guarantee its truth, not its interpretation. How are private readers satisfactorily to distinguish what is didactic and what is historical, what is fact and what is vision, what is allegorical and what is literal, what is idiomatic and what is grammatical, what is enunciated formally and what occurs obiter, what is only of temporary and what is of lasting obligation? Such is our natural anticipation, and it is only too exactly justified in the events of the last three centuries, in the many countries where private judgment on the text of Scripture has prevailed. The gift of inspiration requires as its complement the gift of infallibility.

Where then is this gift lodged, which is so necessary for the due use of the written word of God? Thus we are introduced to the second dogma in respect to Holy Scripture taught by the Catholic religion. The first is that Scripture is inspired, the second that the Church is the infallible interpreter of that inspiration.

For many professing believers, this argument is utterly convincing–even self-evident.

Of course, a presupposition of Newman’s argument is to exaggerate the obscurity of Scripture. But let’s pass on that for now.

Besides all that, there a fundamental flaw in his appeal to antecedent probabilities, for his argument either proves too much or too little.

If it's antecedently probable that God would install some ecclesiastical machinery to spit out infallible rulings, then it's antecedently improbable that God would confuse the faithful by allowing rival claimants to vie for the title of the true church.

It's kind of like: there's a fail-safe to eliminate theological uncertainly, but there's no fail-safe eliminate rival fail-safe claimants. God gave us this swell machine to eliminate our doctrinal doubts, but God neglected to give us an indubitable way to identify the doubt-removing machine!

A mechanism for certainty without an equally certain mechanism to identify which rival mechanism is the true mechanism simply relocates the original uncertainty. It's doubtful which doubt-removing mechanism is the true doubt-removing mechanism, over against the counterfeit doubt-removing mechanisms.

Sort of like saying, God gave us the fountain of youth, but he forgot to give us a map. If only we could find it, that would restore our youth!

And, what is more, there's more than one fountain that claims to be the true fountain of youth. And if you drink from the wrong fountain, it will prematurely age you rather than rejuvenate you!

If sola scriptura is antecedently improbable, then, by the same token, it’s antecedently improbable that God would permit the Great Schism, when Catholics couldn’t tell which pope was the true successor to St. Peter. Antecedently improbable that God would allow Arian bishops to at one time dominate the episcopate. Antecedently improbable that we’d have no indubitable way of distinguishing an ecumenical council from a rogue council. Antecedently improbable that God would leave us in doubt as to when the pope is speaking infallibly. Antecedently improbable that God would leave us in doubt as to who speaks for Eastern Orthodoxy. And so on and so forth.

If the purpose of an infallible interpreter is to alleviate our doubts, then unless we have some indubitable way of knowing which interpreter is the infallible interpreter, and which one is the usurper, all that’s happened is to shift the source of doubt from a doubtful interpretation to a doubtful interpreter. Trading one dubiety for another.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with two considerations:

1.Instead of resorting to antecedent probabilities, we must use our eyes to see how God guides his people by observing the way in which he actually guides his people. By discovering what he has said and done rather than divining his will.

2.It also leaves us with faith. We must put our trust in God’s providence. In a God who can see further than we can see. In a God who takes us by the hand and leads us through the darkness and into the dawn.

It would be nice to see the next step before we have to take it. But that is not how God has ordered the lives of his people. We can’t expect to always see in advance where our foot is going to land. God guides us one step at a time–giving us just enough to go by, from one day to the next. We don’t get a foretaste of tomorrow’s bread today.

That’s the pilgrim path. The walk of faith.

1 comment:

  1. If it seems likely that God would give us an infallible interpreter of scripture, then why doesn't it also seem likely that he would infallibly tell us who to marry, what friends to have, where to work, etc.? It's not as though systems like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy address every difficult decision we have to make in life. If they're going to argue that their system is at least a step in the right direction, then how far in the right direction does a system have to go? Do we judge between Catholicism and Orthodoxy based on which of the two offers more allegedly infallible guidance? What if some third group offers more guidance, such as by telling its followers what clothes to wear, what to eat for each meal, who to marry, etc.?

    No knowledgeable Evangelical would deny that his system is more difficult to follow in some ways. But that disadvantage is accompanied by the advantage of having a system that's true, as opposed to a false system like Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Difficult truth is better than easy error.