Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Private interpretation

I recently had an informal debate with two Catholics on Facebook. Here are the highlights, which I've consolidated:

Several problems with prooftexting apostolic succession:

i) There's a semantic fallacy, which equates the meaning of Greek words, with the concept of episcopacy in Roman Catholic theology. That's reading later theological developments back into ordinary 1C Greek usage. 

ii) "Succession" in the sense of church office is not equivalent to succession in the sense of apostolic succession. Apostles had very specific prerogatives. The fact that they appointed church officers to carry on their work hardly carries the implication that their specific apostolic prerogatives are perpetual. It just means that having planted churches, other people need to maintain what they started. Like the difference between an architect and a custodian. 

iii) The argument either proves too much or too little. In Catholicism, apostolic succession is funneled through the papacy, but there's nothing distinctively Petrine about these examples. 

iv) If Catholic bishops possess apostolic prerogatives, why don't they perform miracles the way Peter and Paul did?

v) If Catholic bishops possess apostolic prerogatives, why is the era of public revelation over? It's ad hoc to claim apostolic succession, on the one hand, then say the era of public revelation is over, on the other hand.

vi) Timothy and Titus weren't bishops. So there's this studied equivocation when you claim that Timothy and Titus were "bishops". That's a loaded word with connotations based on centuries of theological development. 

There is no fixed definition of "bishop" in church history, even in reference to Roman Catholicism. And it's ridiculous to quote early church fathers, as if they are prospectively vouching for subsequent developments in Roman ecclesiology, many centuries later. The church fathers weren't prophets. They were men of their times, adapting to the challenges of their day.

The episcopal office has been under continuous evolution in Roman Catholicism. In fact, you have two competing theories of the episcopate in Vatican II, one given by the majority of the bishops, and one given by Pope Paul VI. And currently, Pope Francis is attempting to decentralize the church of Rome.

vii) In the pastorals, elders aren't "bishops" in the Catholic sense. They don't oversee a diocese. At most, they are pastors or troubleshooters for one local church at a time.

viii) For that matter, notice that the qualifications for elders in the Pastoral epistles omit to say anything about sacerdotal functions. There's no priesthood in the Pastorals. 

ix) The fact that apostles appointed elders doesn't entail apostolic succession in the sense of how Roman Catholic theology defines the role of the episcopate. The Pastorals don't ascribe distinctive episcopal functions to church officers. Indeed, they don't even ascribe sacerdotal functions to church officers. Rather, it's just pastoral duties.

You can't develop the concept of the Roman episcopate and priesthood from the Pastorals, for the distinctive concepts aren't present to develop.

x) The imposition of hands has various functions in Scripture. That doesn't imply "succession" in the technical sense that you are using it. 

xi) There's an equivocation over the meaning of "tradition". Naturally some Christians were orally taught by Apostles when Apostles were still alive. That hardly justifies appeal to Sacred Tradition centuries after their demise.

A commenter appealed to oral apostolic teaching. You're now indulging in a bait-n-switch, where you redefine the nature of tradition. An example of 1C Christians learning theology in person from a living apostle is hardly analogous precedent for continuing revelations of "Holy Tradition".

You appeal to your denomination to prove your denomination. Same viciously circular argument. 

You conveniently exempt the Protestant faith from your self-serving definition of "the Church", which preemptively discounts evidence contrary to your thesis. The whole exercise begs the question. You need some evidence independent of your denominational claims to establish that your denomination has the authority you impute to it. 

Then you cap it off by offering your private interpretation of 2 Pet 1:20 to condemn private interpretation! You're oblivious to the dilemma that your appeal generates. 

BTW, 2 Peter 1:20 doesn't refer to how a reader or listener interprets prophecy, but how the prophet interprets his dreams and visions. It's about the divine origin of prophecy. 

Finally, Pope Francis is an agent of chaos. His own bishops try in vain to pin him down on what he means.

"What you state 2 Pet 1:20 to mean is merely your private interpretation."

Even if that were the case, so what? The pertinent question isn't whether an interpretation is "private," but whether it's correct. 

"Mine was not but it was the interpretation of the whole Church (not merely a denomination BTW!) prior to 1517."

You haven't provided a single piece of evidence to support that sweeping contention. What do you even mean by the "whole Church"? 

You mean every Christian layman prior to 1517 shared your interpretation of 2 Pet 1:20? How do you propose to do opinion polling on Christian laymen between the NT era and 1517? They're dead. How many of them wrote down their interpretation of 2 Pet 1:20? How many of them even thought about the meaning of 2 Pet 1:20?

Or when you say the "whole Church," is that code language for some popes or church fathers or bishops or doctors of the church? If so, that would hardly constitute the "whole Church". At best, that would be an infinitesimal fraction of the whole Church. 

"What part of the difference don't you understand?"

I understand that you are positing your private interpretation of what the pre-Reformation church allegedly believed. You must exercise your private judgment when you interpret the testimony of the pre-Reformation Church. At best, that's an interpretation of an interpretation. 

"On what basis of superior revelation do you claim that your interpretation trumps that of the Christian witness since the NT era?"

i) Interpretation doesn't require revelation. 

ii) You haven't provided any documentation that your interpretation of 2 Pet 1:20 represents the Christian witness from the NT era up to the Reformation. How would you be in a position to know what? Feel free to cite all the extant Christian writings between the 1C and the 16C that interpret 2 Pet 1:20 the same way you do. 

iii) Here's an example to the contrary. Oecumenius says:

"This means that the prophets received their prophecies from God and transmitted what he wanted to say, not what they wanted. They were fully aware that the message had been given them, and they made no attempt to put their own interpretation on it". Commentary on 2 Peter. 

According to him, the prohibition isn't directed a readers, but the prophets who received oracles. And Oecumenius wrote that centuries before the Reformation.

"So after stating his belief in the (material) sufficiency of Scripture, Vincent argues that the Church's standard interpretive Tradition is necessary because of the various ways in which different people (particularly heretics) have misinterpreted the Scriptures. To make this especially relevant to the situation today, and why the consensus of Tradition is necessary…"

The consensus of tradition is an illusion fabricated by only counting like-minded individuals while discounting people who think otherwise (e.g. Novatian, Donatus). 

"One can substitute modern-day denominations and see how his argument still holds…"

i) We could also add the church of Rome to your list. Your contrast is question-begging because you take the church of Rome as the standard of comparison, then set that in antithesis to the alternatives. But that's an artifact of your selection-criterion. 

Catholics and Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox cite the same Scriptures as well and traditionally anathematize each other. And there were competing religious schools in 1C Judaism. God didn't prevent that.

ii) Furthermore, your argument is self-defeating. You can only prooftext Roman Catholicism if you can know what the passages mean independent of the Roman Magisterium. You can't legitimately appeal to the authority of your Catholic sect to authorize an interpretation that favors your Catholic sect. For unless you already know, apart from the claims of your Catholic sect, that it has the authority to interpret Scripture, you have no warrant for believing that its self-serving interpretations are authoritative. 

iii) And even if we grant the Vincentian Canon for argument's sake, that falsifies the Catholic church inasmuch as Rome today teaches things that were assuredly not taught everywhere, always, and by all. That's why Newman invented the theory of development. 

"Thus your friend Oecumenius' statement, in falling outside of Vincent's test, is clearly teaching an unsound interpretation of the text in question and is thus falling foul of the prohibition censured by the text, whereas the Church has interpreted it correctly, not privately but corporately."

i) You're moving the goal post. You made a blanket claim. I provided a counterexample. I responded to you on your own terms.

The honest thing for you to do at that point would be to withdraw your original claim, which I debunked. Instead, you demand evidence, when evidence is provided, you dismiss it out of hand. You're not arguing in good faith.

ii) I'm struck by the chasm between the scope of your claim and the scope of your supporting material. Having appealed, in the abstract, to the testimony of the "whole" pre-Reformation church on the interpretation of 2 Pet 1:20, you don't provide any pre-Reformation commentary whatsoever on that text, even though you were the one who adduced that text in the first place.

You made a claim about the testimony of the entire pre-Reformation church regarding the interpretation of 2 Pet 1:20. By doing so, you assume a commensurate burden of proof. I'm waiting for you to provide systematic evidence, century-by-century, that this is how the whole pre-Reformation church construed 2 Pet 1:20.

iii) Instead, you quote the opinion of a 5C Christian writer. And he's not even discussing 2 Pet 1:20 in particular. Where's your evidence that his statement is representative of the "whole" church prior to the Reformation? He can hardly vouch for the future. 

iv) Finally, even if you could muster some church fathers who share your interpretation of 2 Pet 1:20, collecting the opinions of church fathers is no alternative to private interpretation. Adding up a number of individual opinions yields a set of private opinions that happens to agree on that particular verse. 

The fact that the Donatists and Novatianists were condemned by your sect means nothing to me since I don't grant the authority of your sect. That's the very issue in dispute.

I didn't cite them "in support of and authority for" my position. I merely responded to you on your own grounds. And I didn't initiate the reference to them. You did in your original quote. Have you already forgotten how this started?

It's hardly irrelevant when you appeal to "the consensus of tradition," but preemptively disqualify historical testimony to the contrary. If you exclude all the dissenters, then by process of elimination, you wind up with a residual consensus, but that's sleight-of-hand. If you only include like-minded people, then by definition your subset represents a consensus of opinion. But that's a selective, artificial consensus. You've concocted an unfalsifiable definition of tradition by summarily disenfranchising all the witnesses to the contrary. 

I don't classify Donatists and Novatianists as heretics. They were mistaken, but there are degrees of error. Both sides of the dispute were mistaken in similar ways and different ways. Although I can condemn Montanism, I can also condemn sacerdotalism. 

Donatus and Novatian are hardly comparable to Arius. He's a bona fide heretic. But not because your denomination condemns him. That's not what makes him a heretic. He's a heretic because he denies essential NT Christology.

"Explain how you determine whose private interpretation is the correct one. If you give one interpretation and the guy next to you a contrary one, how is the observer to adjudicate between you?"

It's not just a matter of giving one's interpretation, but giving reasons in support for one's interpretation. You adjudicate competing interpretations based on which side has the best supporting arguments for their interpretation. 

And there's no methodological difference in the way Protestant commentators defend their interpretations and the way Catholic commentators like Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, Luke Timothy Johnson et al. do. Both sides use the same toolkit.

"Your last post doesn't really address the elephant in the drawing room."

I can't fail to address things you didn't raise in the first place. 

"What if two scholars, equally learned and marshalling equally strong arguments for their view, come up with diametrically opposed interpretations of the same Scripture? What then?"

i) To begin with, is that just an ersatz hypothetical, or do you think it happens? Examples?

ii) If we lack sufficient evidence to adjudicate rival interpretations of a Bible verse, then we should honestly admit our uncertainty. We can't go beyond the evidence at hand and stipulate an interpretation that's underdetermined by the evidence.

Your consensus is an arbitrary consensus. By summarily excluding anyone who doesn't agree with your frame of reference (e.g. Oecumenius, Theophylact), you can produce a "consensus," but that's just a subset of the total. 

I don't share your definition or identification of what constitutes the church. 

Your problem is that you argue from your assumptions, but you don't know how to argue for your assumptions.

How did you get from evaluating arguments and evidence to "subjective relativism"? Ironically, it's you own position that reduces to subjective relativism. Apparently, you think you need some authority figure, be it the pope or church fathers or church councils, to validate the correct interpretation. You don't think you can judge the exegetical arguments for yourself.

But in that event, how do you validate your authority figure? You've disqualified yourself from arguing for your position, because you indicate that we can't judge the rightness or wrongness of a position by assessing the arguments. Rather, we need some referee to broker the issue. If so, that just pushes the problem back a step. How do you legitimate the referee? If you can't judge that on the basis of reason and evidence, then it's just a coin toss.

"This leads me to a rather obvious conclusion: if relying on the Bible alone plus the individual inspiration of the Holy Spirit leads to this doctrinal anarchy, then clearly either the Holy Spirit isn't doing a very good job...OR there is the need for some kind of singular teaching authority to interpret scripture...."

i) Notice I didn't once appeal to divine illumination. That's not how to interpret a text, whether sacred or secular. The notion that our interpretations are guided by the Holy Spirit is a false presupposition to begin with. It's a shortcut some people take who don't use proper hermeneutics. 

ii) Your conclusion doesn't follow. For instance, there was no "singular teaching authority to interpret scripture" in 1C Judaism (or Intertestamental Judaism). Why didn't God provide for that if you think that's necessary? 

iii) Doctrinal unity is no advantage if that unity is based on bogus appeal to a nonexistent teaching authority. That's not something you can conjure up out of thin air just because you dislike the consequences of not having a singular teaching authority. Even if that gives you doctrinal unity, it's not unity in truth, but unity that derives from a make-believe teaching authority. 

iv) People disagree over the meaning of Scripture in part because they bring an agenda to Scripture which they require Scripture to ratify. Scripture doesn't speak to certain issues with the specificity they demand. The problem isn't with sola Scriptura, but with people who are dissatisfied with how much they can get out of Scripture. They need to confine their questions to the answers Scripture is designed to offer.

"If you don't read the Bible with the Holy Spirit, then you're not really reading it, are you?"

What makes you think that's true? Are you saying the Bible is a closed book that only insiders can possibly understand? In that event, how could anyone come to faith by believing the message if it's incomprehensible to unbelievers?

The Bible is propositional revelation. The meaning of Scripture can be understood by outright unbelievers. 

In that respect, understanding the Bible is no different than understanding a secular text. The role of the Holy Spirit is to engender receptivity to the message, not comprehension of the message. 

"Also, what you might call 'proper hermeneutics' (incidentally, no mention of exegesis, I wonder why?)…"

I didn't pose a dichotomy between exegesis and hermeneutics. 

"…will surely differ from what I call it or indeed the man next to either of us in the pew might call it, so I'm afraid your appeal to 'proper hermeneutics' gets us no further than sola Sciptura ie: precisely nowhere."

Your objection is self-defeating, for that applies with equal force to understanding the "singular teaching authority" you take refuge in. The issue is communication in general, whether it's a case of understanding Scripture, papal encyclicals, conciliar documents, the church fathers, doctors of the church, &c. You've created a circle that you can't break into. 

"Judaism did not and does not have the fullness of truth possessed by the Church so your point is irrelevant."

What make you think the new covenant community requires doctrinal unity but the old covenant community did not? Did 1C Jews not have to be able to recognize in Jesus the fulfillment of messianic prophecy? 

"There is no such bogus appeal being made here or conjured up out of thin air but rather an appeal to the teaching authority established by Christ Himself and historically followed by the Church ever since."

You're still trapped in vicious circularity. Your appeal depends on your private interpretation of prootexts, church fathers, &c. Unless you're able to establish the authority of your "singular teaching authority" apart from appeal to your "singular teaching authority," you can't rely on your "singular teaching authority", since it hasn't been established at that stage of the inquiry. That's one of your problems: you can never get started. You need your "singular teaching authority" as your starting-point to determine what Christ instituted and to identify the one true church, yet that can't be your starting-point since you first need to establish that there is a "singular teaching authority" which you can identify on your own. Within your framework, you have nowhere to begin. 

"Since we all bring such an agenda - you, me, the man in the pew next to us - then that doesn't help either."

i) No, not everyone brings an agenda to the Bible. Some unbelievers just pick up a copy of Scripture and begin reading out of curiosity, to discover what it says. So your claim is a facile overgeneralization.

ii) More to the point, the question at issue is not whether we may bring an agenda to Scripture, but whether we're prepared to acknowledge that having gone in search of prooftexts to validate our prior agenda, we discover that it doesn't speak to that particular issue. We didn't find what we were looking for. It isn't there. 

It's not a flaw of sola Scriptura that Scripture doesn't provide certainty on every conceivable issue. The problem is not with sola Scriptura, but with our making unjustifiable demands, based on a priori expectations of what we think Scripture is supposed to address.

But the way to find out what Scripture is supposed to address is to find out what Scripture does and does not address. If God hasn't chosen to speak with specificity on an issue of interest to us, then we need to revise our priorities. Not invent a "singular teaching authority" to pad out the alleged deficiency in Scripture. 

i) You're seeking an intellectual shortcut. While I understand the attraction of taking intellectual shortcuts, seeking an arbiter to simplify decision-making process is actually a circuitous detour. It doesn't make the process simpler or the results more certain. If anything the opposite:

ii) To begin with, it just restarts the intellectual justification process in a different location. If you think we need a referee to break the tie, that leads to a regress. Now you must justify your choice of referee. If you appeal to documentary evidence to defend your choice, you have to interpret your documentary evidence. Not only must you interpret your Scriptural prooftexts, but on top of that you must now interpret your patristic prooftexts, which redoubles the effort. Each church father needs to be interpreted in historical context. That takes some background knowledge. That has its own uncertainties and competing interpretations. 

iii) Then there's the question of how you can prove your case in the first place. You can't use the Magisterium before you prove the Magisterium. You must rely on your unaided reason to legitimate the referee before you can appeal to the referee's decisions. But if unaided reason is trustworthy to independently interpret the documentary evidence you adduce to legitimate the referee, why does it suddenly become untrustworthy assuming you succeed in discharging that preliminary step? Hasn't the very attempt to prove the necessity of the referee proven the superfluity of the referee?

iv) You assume the burden of proving that papal succession is seamless. A single broken link will cause everything to fall apart that hangs on that chain. 

v) If you think we're incompetent to assess alternative interpretations based on which side has the better of the argument, you disarm your ability to argue for your own position. You can't argue against sola Scriptura unless you think we can arrive at the truth by sifting the evidence. You can't argue against sola Scriptura unless you think we can assess competing claims by judging the reasons that each side gives in support of its position. But how is that different from exegesis? 


  1. Where has Roman Catholicism interpreted 2 Peter 1:20 for us? Aren't we often told that only a small handful of Biblical passages have been interpreted by the church? Don't we often see Catholic scholars disagreeing with each other about how to interpret passages, Catholics disagreeing with each other about which passages have been infallibly interpreted and which haven't been, etc.? Why should we think 2 Peter 1:20 has been interpreted in a way that's infallible (or definitive in some other manner) by Catholic standards?

    Nobody in the earliest generations of church history directly interpreted 2 Peter 1:20, so there is no majority or universal interpretation a Catholic or anybody else could appeal to in that sense. We do have some indirect evidence of how the passage was interpreted, however. We often see patristic sources commenting on how they were converted to Christianity through their reading of scripture, how they were led to their interpretation of particular passages by some means other than the one advocated by Catholics, and so on. See the examples discussed in the post here.

    We do see some direct patristic commentary on 2 Peter 1:20 in later generations. Steve has already cited Oecumenius. David King discusses some other examples in Holy Scripture, Vol. 1 (Battle Ground, Washington: Christian Resources, 2001), 96-7. The whole series of books by King and William Webster provides many examples of patristic sources disagreeing with Catholicism on scripture, interpretation, the canon, how we should understand passages like 2 Peter 1:20, and other relevant subjects.

    On many issues, what Catholicism teaches today was absent, a minority position, or widely contradicted, even contradicted by a majority, for generations or centuries. I've provided many examples here (prayer to the dead, the sinlessness of Mary, etc.).

  2. What would you say to Catholics who assert that they are permitted to privately interpret the Scriptures, so long as their interpretation is in accordance with Church teaching?