Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Torley on sola scriptura

I recently left some comments at the Calvinist International:

It appears that conversation has died down, so I'm going to repost my comments.

Vincent Torley asked some questions, which I answered. Torley is a Catholic Intelligent Design theorist. 

Dear Dr. Torley,
Thanks for all your fine work over at Uncommon Descent:
i) There were some questions raised about Esther and the Song of Songs at a Jewish council after the fall of Jerusalem. That event precipitated an identity crisis in Palestinian Judaism.
However, these are very belated musings. That's long after the initial reception of the books at issue. We need to distinguish between the original reception history and much later disputations, triggered by a crisis. And it's just one local Jewish council.
ii) To my knowledge, Revelation was accepted early on. It was Dionysius (3C bishop of Alexandria) who later raised questions, largely based on stylistic differences between Revelation and the Gospel of John. I'd just note in passing that given how much of Revelation quotes or paraphrases the OT, the style of Revelation is largely indebted John's sources rather than his personal style. So that objection is ill-conceived.
In addition, Eusebius was critical of millenarianism, so that jaundiced his view of Revelation.
The case for the canon is based on both internal and external evidence. If the "John" of Revelation is the apostle John, then that's sufficient grounds to canonize it. And the apostle John is certainly the best candidate.
We know from Heb 13:23 that this book was written by a member of the Pauline circle. In fact, J. Ramsey Michaels has argued that it was written by Timothy.
In any case, it has a sterling theological provenance in 1C Christianity, both due to its likely date (pre-70 AD) and affiliations with Paul's inner circle.
Apostolicity is not a requirement for canonicity. Inspiration (e.g. prophetic inspiration) is sufficient.
iii) Barber commits a common blunder. Our copies of the LXX date from the Christian era. So that can't be used to tell us the content of the Jewish canon.
Moreover, it was convenient for scribes to treat codices as a general lectionary, including noncanonical books along with canonical books. A codex was a miniature library. You could bind several books in one for ease of availability. Like a portable bookshelf.
There's no evidence I'm aware of that Qumran treated Intertestamental literature or its in-house sectarian literature on a par with OT Scripture. That's discussed by Richard Bauckham.
iv) The Bible may not settle some questions for the simple reason that they don't need to be settled. They are adiaphora.
v) In NT usage, "bishop" doesn't have the same function as in Catholic polity. The only priesthood in the new covenant is the priesthood of Christ.

Dear. Dr. Torley, I'll break my response into separate comments. Since you're contrasting the Catholic and Protestant positions, let's consider the Catholic alternative:
i) There's a left/right split in the Catholic church. And that extends into the hierarchy. Compare Walter Cardinal Kasper to Raymond Cardinal Burke.
ii) There are many loose ends in Catholic moral theology. Take competing positions in Catholic casuistry regarding probabilism, probabiliorism, and equiprobabilism.
iii) When the Catholic church takes a stand against something, that's apt to be compromised by loopholes. For instance, it forbids lying, but allows for mental reservations, equivocations, amphibologies, &c. It forbids divorce, but allows for annulment.
To an outsider, it smacks of special pleading.
iv) From a typical evangelical perspective, the Catholic position on divorce is contrary to Scripture. So which is worse: having unresolved moral problems–or resolving them in the wrong direction?
v) On a number of pressing moral issues, the Catholic church doesn't even claim to offer certainty. Benedict XVI candidly admitted that:
"We are in fact constantly confronted with problems where it isn’t possible to find the right answer in a short time. Above all in the case of problems having to do with ethics, particularly medical ethics...We finally had to say, after very long studies, 'Answer that for now on the local level; we aren’t far enough along to have full certainty about that.' 
Again, in the area of medical ethics, new possibilities, and with them new borderline situations, are constantly arising where it is not immediately evident how to apply principles. We can’t simply conjure up certitude...There needn’t always be universal answers. We also have to realize our limits and forgo answers where they aren’t simply is not the case that we want to go around giving answers in every situation..." (J. Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth [Ignatius, 1996], 100-101).
Back to Torley:
"the number of denominations still espousing Christian morality seems to be steadily decreasing, judging from the responses of certain self-professed Christians to recent Supreme Court decisions (especially Roe vs. Wade and Obergefell vs. Hodges)."
I don't see that decreasing. What I see is increasing polarization of preexisting factions. The Obama era has had a sorting action. The religious left came out of the shadows. But that division has been around since the Enlightenment. Even during the Middle Ages, you undoubtedly had many closet infidels.

"But let that pass. To me, there are two serious problems with what I might call the classic Protestant view. The first problem is that it leaves a number of pressing moral problems unresolved."
i) To begin with, sola Scriptura doesn't mean the Bible is an encyclopedia with all the answers. In addition to Scripture, an evangelical ethicist can make use of reason and evidence. General revelation supplements special revelation.
ii) Even in NT times, you had competing Jewish factions. You had Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots. You had the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel. There was no referee.
iii) God hasn't give us ready-made answers for every pressing moral problem. He hasn't made the right answer immediately clear. He puts us in a position where we must think deeply about an issue before arriving at a reasonable resolution.
"Take slavery. All one can show from Scripture is that chattel slavery is ruled out. There is no compelling Scriptural argument against the slaveholder who says, 'I don't own my slaves as such; I merely own their labor, in perpetuity.'"
But there are differing degrees and kinds of servitude. And there are different ways in which a person can enter servitude. So it's unclear why where should be a uniform answer to a pluriform issue. Unless you assume at the outset that all forms of servitude are morally equivalent, which runs the risk of prejudging or oversimplifying the issue, there's no reason to think servitude in general is intrinsically immoral. In some cases it can depend on circumstances, or the particular form of servitude.
"Or take torture. I can't think of any Scriptural argument against its use when it is intended to save innocent lives. Now, you might argue that the institutional Church took a very long time to address these issues, and that there were a number of serious mis-steps by individual clerics (including Popes) along the way, and you would be right. But as the saying goes, better late than never. At least now we can say that the Church teaches with a united voice that slavery and torture are immoral."
But that begs the question of whether "torture" is always wrong. Why shouldn't that be something that calls for careful distinctions and qualifications?
To begin with, the word "torture" is so indiscriminate. Suppose a known terrorist suffers from arachnophobia or claustrophobia. It is torture to exploit his phobia to save innocent lives? Even if we decide to define that as "torture," why would it be wrong to exploit his phobia to save innocent lives? Why does protecting him from that phobia take precedence over protecting innocent lives?
"I might add that there are a number of practical moral issues for Christians that Scripture does not settle clearly: the permissibility of divorce and remarriage in exceptional circumstances; contraception; and the question of whether lying is ever justified."
i) Commentators on Matthew and 1 Corinthians typically think Scripture does allow for the permissibility of divorce and remarriage in cases of infidelity and desertion.
ii) Biblical law and ethics usually deals with typical situations, not rare situations. Suppose a woman unwittingly marries a man who murders his wives to collect on the life insurance policy. That might be grounds for divorce and remarriage, even though Scripture doesn't mention that, for the simple reason that Scripture doesn't have occasion to directly speak to such an atypical situation.
iii) Evangelical ethicists typically think contraception is permissible, so that example begs the question.
Moreover, many Catholics, including some conservative intellectuals, find the blanket ban on contraception to be unreasonable. They think the distinction between "artificial" birth control and NFP ad hoc, and they think the blanket ban can't be justified on natural law principles. For instance, in The Virtues, Catholic philosopher and logician Peter Geach admits that the traditional arguments against contraception are bad arguments. He labors to defend the official position in spite of the admittedly bad arguments that are traditionally adduced to support it.
iv) Many evangelical ethicists think Scripture does permit lying in some situations. So that example begs the question. Conversely, it's very hard to explain how lying can be intrinsically evil on natural law principles.
When Catholic moral theology does take (seemingly) firm positions, the positions strike an outsider as arbitrary. Moreover, on closer examination, these hardline positions reduce to technicalities and escape clauses which make the position inevitably seem inconsistent and duplicitous.
Regarding the creeds, in missiology we consider that an issue of cross-cultural contextualization. In some cases it may be a mistake to impose Western formulations on alien cultures. We need to find conceptual equivalents rather than verbal equivalents.

1 comment:

  1. Here's a post I wrote about the early acceptance of Revelation and evidence for its authorship by the apostle John. It should be noted that Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and other early sources who accepted Revelation's canonicity and/or referred to the apostle John as its author had personally known John and/or spent time in one or more of the cities to which Revelation was initially written. Furthermore, the historical evidence is heavily against the hypothesis of a second church leader named John who was confused with the apostle. See here. When Revelation refers to a John without much explanation of which John is in view, the best explanation for such an unqualified reference to a John who was receiving a revelation about Jesus is that he's the John who was, by far, the best-known John at the time. He was the apostle. Since Revelation was addressed to seven churches, and some of those were highly prominent in early church history (Ephesus, Smyrna), it's doubtful that the traditional view of Revelation's authorship and canonicity would have been so widely accepted so early if the view was false. Given how influential John's disciples were in the early to mid second centuries, men like Papias and Polycarp, it's unlikely that they would have had anything other than a major influence on how Revelation was perceived early on. Much like the situation with Hebrews, doubts about Revelation seem to be a later development that contradicted an earlier consensus.