Saturday, July 25, 2015

Feser redux

Ed Feser attempted to mount a response to Andrew Fulford's rejoinder:

Texts are made up of linguistic symbols, and linguistic symbols are human artifacts.  That the shapes you see on your computer screen as you read this count as linguistic symbols at all is a result of the conventions of English usage.  That they convey the specific meaning they do in this blog post is a result of those conventions together with my intentions in writing the blog post.  Apart from those conventions and intentions, the shapes would be meaningless, mere patterns of light on a screen or (if you printed this post out) patterns of ink on paper.  The linguistic symbols that make up scripture are, of course, like that too.  They bear the meanings they do because of linguistic convention together with the intentions of the authors. 
They aren’t claiming that without an authoritative institutional Church, scripture would be as unintelligible as (say) Esperanto is to most people.

i) True, but counterproductive to Feser's larger point. The linguistic community in which the Bible was produced, and to whom the Bible was addressed, isn't the 21C Roman Magisterium. 

Feser is doing a bait-n-switch. He swamps out the original linguistic community, which was the actual frame of reference, and swamps in the Magisterium, which was not the frame of reference for the Biblical text.

ii) In addition, contemporary Catholic Bible scholars have the same hermeneutical toolkit as their Protestant counterparts. 

Now, does scripture raise exegetical issues which appeal to scripture by itself cannot settle?  The existence of myriad Protestant denominations and sects which agree on sola scriptura but nevertheless somehow disagree deeply on many matters of biblical interpretation is, I submit, pretty good evidence that it does.

Actually, no. That can be due to emotional or sociological commitments. 

To see what is wrong with this response, consider the theological controversies that have arisen over the centuries concerning the Trinity, the Incarnation, justification, transubstantiation, contraception, divorce and remarriage, Sunday observance, infant baptism, slavery, pacifism, the consistency of scripture with scientific claims, sola scriptura itself, and a host of other issues.  Now, either scripture alone can settle these controversies or it cannot.  If Fulford says that it cannot, then he will thereby make of sola scriptura a vacuous doctrine, since if it cannot answer such questions then it cannot tell us whether it is Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Christians, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Mennonites, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Unitarian Universalists, or some other group entirely who has got Christianity right. 
Presumably he would not say this, though.  Presumably he would say that scripture alone can settle such issues, and certainly most sola scriptura proponents have thought so, since they tend to regard the holding of certain specific positions on at least many of these issues as a requirement of Christian orthodoxy.  But in that case Fulford will be saying something false, since scripture alone manifestly cannot settle these issues, for opposite positions on all of them have been defended on scriptural grounds.

i) That's equivocal. By "settle," does he mean ascertain the right answer or does he mean secure consensus? Those are two very different principles. The Roman Magisterium fails to secure consensus even within its own communion.

ii) It's possible to raise questions that Scripture doesn't answer. That may simply mean the answers are not that important. 

iii) He bunches these together as though an evangelical must say that Scripture either settles all these theological controversies or none of them. But there's no reason to treat them all alike. 

iv) In addition, we've see how the church of Rome "settles" controversies. Take insider accounts of Vatican II by Hans Hans Küng and Aloys Grillmeier. It's the kind of horse-trading you see in the legislative process. You give each faction (modernist, traditionalist) enough of what it wants to get the votes and paper over the differences for a show of public solidarity. Church politics. 

Moreover, what even most Protestants regard as the orthodox view on some of these issues was hammered out on grounds that are philosophical, and not merely scriptural.  For instance, it is not merely scripture, but scripture together with considerations about the nature of substance, persons, etc. that leads to the doctrine of the Trinity.

That's an appeal to reason rather than religious authority. That's counterproductive to Feser's argument for the Roman Magisterium. 

Or consider disputes about how to reconcile scripture with the claims of science.  Should we read Genesis in a way that requires us to conclude that the universe is only a few thousand years old?  Or can it legitimately be read in a way consistent with the universe being billions of years old?  Does scripture teach that the earth does not move, so that it conflicts with a heliocentric view of the solar system?  Or should the relevant passages be read another way?  Should we regard Adam as having been made directly from the dust of the ground, or is there wiggle room here to regard Adam’s body as having been made from it indirectly, God having used as raw material a pre-human ancestor whose own ancestors derived remotely from the dust of the ground?  If Fulford were to say that scripture alone can settle these issues, he would be saying something manifestly false, since there is no passage of scripture that tells us which of the competing ways of reading the passages in question here is the correct one. 

You mean, the way the church fathers used to teach the world was only about 6000 years old? You mean how the papacy opposed Galileo? You mean, how anti-modernist popes opposed human evolution? 

I imagine he would not say that, though.  I imagine he would say instead that we have to look outside scripture itself in order to settle these matters.

But that's an appeal to science, not the Roman Magisterium. 

But if it is consistent with sola scriptura to say that the general reliability of scripture, and general principles for interpreting scripture -- matters which in turn affect everything scripture teaches -- can legitimately come from outside scripture, then sola scriptura once again seems vacuous. 

i) He hasn't shown how the general reliability of scripture or general principles for interpreting scripture comes from outside scripture.

ii) Moreover, appealing to natural revelation to supplement special revelation is very different from appealing to the Roman Magisterium. 

What is to the point is that there is, nevertheless, necessarily going to be a degree of indeterminacy in the meaning of any text, considered just by itself, even given knowledge of linguistic conventions, historical context, etc.  This is in the very nature of texts.
The point is that the text cannot by itself rule out all alternative interpretations.
Now, where scripture is concerned, both the Catholic and Protestant sides in the dispute over sola scriptura agree that it has a divine author, who is of course not dead.  But both sides also agree that this divine author works through human instruments.  What they disagree about is whether these human instruments are all dead.  The sola scriptura position is, in effect, that they are all dead.  For it holds that God reveals what we need to know for salvation via scripture alone, and the human authors of scripture are all dead.  The Catholic position, by contrast, is that some of the human instruments in question are dead, but some are not.  For it holds that God reveals what we need to know for salvation in part via scripture but also in part via an ongoing institutional Church which has divine guidance in interpreting scripture.
But precisely because these are literal, living persons, you can literally ask them for further clarification if need be.  You can’t literally ask a text or a computer anything. 
Rather, the Catholic position is that it can’t all be just texts in the first place.  Rather, we have to be able to get outside of texts, to persons who have the authority to tell us what the texts mean.

Problem is, the very purpose of a text is to serve as a surrogate for the living voice of the author. Because the author can't be in every place or every time, the function of the text is to take his place. To speak on his behalf. 

The very thing Feser faults a text for is the very reason it exists in the first place! The apostle writes 1 John because he can't be there in person. But the church is supposed to treat that epistle as if it was John himself. As if it was John in the flesh. And it's supposed to make sense without him offering a running commentary. 

Imagine the heretics whom the apostle condemns in 1 John borrowing a page from Feser: "Due to the indeterminacy of meaning, we can't rule out an interpretation that's consistent with Docetism! Unless John makes himself physically available, unless he presents himself to question in person, we can disregard his letter. His letter doesn't 'settle' anything, even though it was written with that express purpose. We must go outside the text of 1 John to interrogate the author." 


  1. "What is to the point is that there is, nevertheless, necessarily going to be a degree of indeterminacy in the meaning of any text, considered just by itself, even given knowledge of linguistic conventions, historical context, etc.  This is in the very nature of texts."

    Yet he writes as if he expects his readers to be able to understand him.

    One also wonders how on Feser's view Christ could have legitimately condemned the Pharisees for not understanding the Scriptures since they lacked the "benefit" of the Magisterium.

  2. Steve, thanks for taking this on.