Wednesday, April 06, 2005

2nd Reply to Anglican Edwin Tait on Historical Ecclesiological Arguments and Development of Doctrine, Part II

See Part I. Edwin's words will be in blue. Any past words of mine will be in green. Past words of Edwin's will be in red.

* * * * *

It was the intersection of historical truths and ecclesiological claims which fascinated me and ultimately drew me in, via Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. In fact, my strong tendency was away from centralized or infallible authority, since my biggest beef was with infallibility. I fought that with all my might in the year preceding my conversion, utilizing Dollinger, Kung, Salmon: many of the most-used anti-infallibilist tracts. Cardinal Newman overcame my objection through the force of reason as applied to history, and the argument from analogy.

Interesting. Are you saying that you were inclined to become Catholic on other grounds,

Moral theology was the first thing that drew me in; particularly the issue of contraception; but not the issue alone, as a mere abstract belief. It was the issue as related to the history of the Church's teaching with regard to this moral teaching and others. Even as a low church Protestant, I thought that the entire Church would not and indeed could not have gotten something so wrong for 1900 years, only to be corrected through the unparalleled spiritual insight of Anglicanism in 1930. Whatever the truth was, it certainly couldn't be that! The third major factor in my conversion was studying the events and beliefs in the 16th century from a Catholic perspective (having previously approached it solely from a Protestant perspective).

and Newman simply cleared away your objection to infallibility by showing that it was compatible with a theory of development?

That was one of the things he did, yes. Mainly he demonstrated to me that true historical or apostolic continuity was explained plausibly only as fully residing within the Catholic Church. What his theory did was also to demolish the "Protestant myth of origins": the notion that the early Church believed certain things, became corrupt and then was restored by Luther, Calvin et al to what it was (the very definition of the word "reform"). The facts do not support this. Additionally, he provides the key, I think, to understanding how Church which looks quite different today in many respects, is, in fact, the same Church, developed.

Or are you saying that Newman gave you a decisive reason to become Catholic by proving that infallible authority was necessary?

Good, probing questions. In the end, it wasn't so much over infallibility, as it was about historical continuity. Contraception was just one issue of many that provided a "test case" to apply to the theory of development. Once you accept the idea that the Church (in the generic Protestant sense that I used to hold) is guided by the Holy Spirit and protected from serious doctrinal error (even if only in a sub-infallible sense, as I would have believed then), then it is senseless to believe that a theological or moral doctrine could be completely reversed from what was universally held before (e.g., contraception), or, conversely, to believe that totally new doctrines can be introduced which had never been believed before as any sort of church-wide consensus (sola fide, sola Scriptura, etc.). Studying what I now call "the Protestant Revolt" provided ample documentation for me that the latter error was rampant in those troubled times.

If the latter, then my argument stands.

I don't think that infallibility is absolutely, undeniably necessary in any case, or any possible world. I think strong ecclesiastical authority (Church and Tradition) is necessary. I think preservation of what came before, and not rejection or transformation (in a macroevolutionary sense) of it is necessary. I am speaking epistemologically. Practically speaking, on the other hand, one might make a plausible case that it was necessary to have binding doctrines, in order to prevent relativism and confusion (the biblical canon comes to mind immediately).

But it seems that you are saying the former, in which case my critique doesn't apply to you (and since frankly you're one of the pillars of what I think of as "authority-based" Catholic apologetics, this is a major issue).

Newman and development weren't the sole grounds in some logically circular sense, as discussed previously in this dialogue. It looks, then, that you have at least partially-misunderstood my epistemology, which is not uncommon. People (for whatever reason; probably mostly my fault for inadequate communication or expression) have all sorts of misconceptions about my views which come out in these dialogues.

I recognize that there are sincere and intelligent people who become Christians on these grounds. Given that I was brought up to believe, it's a different sort of issue for me and I can't really comment. But those arguments have never been primary in keeping me a Christian. Rather, arguments about the historicity of the Resurrection are in my view sufficient to make it not unreasonable to accept the Resurrection. I don't think they would convince me if I were not a Christian, and if asked why I was a Christian they would not be the answers that would first spring to mind--certainly not the answers that would lie closest to my heart.

I basically agree with this. I converted both to evangelicalism and Catholicism based largely on moral arguments or moral theology: the first time in a more intuitive, philosophical sense ("the moral argument"); the second time more so in a "history of Christian morality" fashion. But this is a much-different argument or grounds than Josh McDowell-type historical evidences. Hence these arguments bolster one's confidence that Christianity is reasonable, as you say. That's actually what apologetics accomplishes far more often than not: it helps those who already believe more than it convinces non-believers. I've always believed this.

The Resurrection and the Christian story generally speaks first to the human condition as I experience it. It is a story that makes sense of my life and of the world around me, and one that I receive experientially as having the ring of truth and goodness. Then I look at the evidence to make sure that I'm not fooling myself. And when I find that the evidence for the Resurrection is quite remarkably good compared to other claims of supernatural events, and when I see other assorted bits of historical evidence for the truth of Christianity, then that helps settle my faith over against arguments purporting to show that Christianity can't be true. But if Christianity did not make sense of the universe as I experience it, the existing evidence would be hopelessly inadequate to convince me. You can call this post-modern or subjectivistic or whatever, but I don't know any other way to proceed in these matters.

Whatever one calls it, I completely agree with you. This is a far more psychologically-complex approach to faith and conversion, which is quite consistent with Newman's own epistemology (particularly as explicitly laid out in his Grammar of Assent).

The same is true of Catholicism. I think the historical argument for Catholicism is quite enough to permit people to remain Catholics if they are inclined to do so on other grounds. Whether it is strong enough to convince me that being Catholic (in the sense of submitting myself unconditionally to the teaching and authority of the Roman Communion) is a necessary consequence of being a Christian--that is precisely the question with which I've been struggling for years. It certainly would not, on its own, convince me if I were not already a Christian, or if I were a Christian for whom questions of ecclesiology were not primary.

I look at it in a bit of a different way: I think that the historical argument is so decisively in favor of Catholicism that one almost has to adopt Catholicism by default. Other ecclesiologies and Christian self-understandings simply cannot hold up to historical fact when scrutinized. I truly believe that. For this belief we are criticized endlessly as "triumphalistic" or "arrogant" or what-not. I don't think it must follow that such a view is arrogant at all. If one believes that Christian history proceeded a certain way and that there is only one Church which is fully consistent with that history, then what is wrong with that? One may disagree, but there are no grounds for the automatic charge of arrogance or "intolerance" and all the other garden-variety accusations directed towards Catholics (of course, you can always find arrogant individuals). In the end, each side must make its historical case. Then we can compare for factuality and plausibility.

Now, once that occurs and a person decides (with as little bias as possible and a fair examination of competing claims) that Catholicism is the most plausible, it is still a big jump (personally and epistemologically) to actually becoming a Catholic and submitting oneself to the dogma and the pope. Grace and faith are required. It isn't merely an intellectual exercise. I didn't find that difficult to do at all (and I was quite the independent thinker as a Protestant, I can assure you) once I was convinced that this was THE Church. I thought to myself:

If this is indeed the Church that Christ founded, which has existed continuously since the apostles, then I submit to its teaching, and gladly do so, as I don't know everything, and never will figure out every doctrine on my own. This is how God intended it. We're not supposed to search our entire lives for Christian truth. This stuff is supposed to be worked out for us by Christian Tradition, so we can get on with serving God and other people, with assurance that what we hold is true. The purpose of the Christian life is service, not endless theological searching.

I don't reject circular reasoning as false. Most positions wind up with some kind of circularity.

Such beliefs may have other grounds for being true, such as intuition or revelation or experience, but if they are logically circular, logic itself cannot be the grounds for their truthfulness. How to arrive at reasonable axioms is the fascinating question (since we all have them).

(In my opinion Biblical arguments for Catholicism are completely circular

That would make all three of my published books and much of my website material circular, and of course I completely disagree with that. :-) I'd love to see you unpack any particular biblical argument I make and try to prove this. That would be almost as enjoyable as this discussion.

and the attempt of one Catholic Answers tract to make a non-circular argument by relying on historical evidence for the basic accuracy of the NT fails completely, because the evidence just isn't strong enough to bear that kind of weight.)

I'd have to see the argument and how you tried to refute it.

Circularity isn't self-refuting

It is in a logical sense, as explained above. But circularity does not automatically mean something is untrue: only that logical reasoning by which it is supposedly derived is fallacious.

but it's not going to convince someone who doesn't accept the necessary presuppositions.

Of course.

The Orthodox position is not circular because it doesn't rest on this kind of argument at all. Converts to Orthodoxy discern that Orthodoxy is uniquely continuous with historic Christianity based on a whole complex of factors. Sorry to bring in Abraham again, but I think he's made the case well--everyone has different epistemological reasons for accepting whatever set of canonical authorities they do accept. A standard apologetic is not a necessary part of a religious system, as you seem to be demanding.

I think that if you make everyone's reason for believing completely independent and unique, in terms of adoption of various classical arguments for this or that position, that this amounts to an unacceptable relativism or subjectivism. There are (necessary) objective historical, biblical, and rational arguments for every Christian position; I don't care what it is. A true position cannot be illogical or unfactual. There are historical facts to be dealt with (and biblical parameters). There either was an historic papacy or there was not. If there was, and this papacy had real power and jurisdiction, then Orthodox and Protestants have to explain how it is that they can exist without it (in any practical terms) and yet try to hold to apostolic succession in some form (or historical continuity, if one prefers that paradigm).

There was a theological and ecclesiological reality in the united Church of the first millennium; whatever one thinks it was, and so it is perfectly reasonable to look at the two sides after 1054 and make a judgment as to which more closely approximates (thus, more perfectly continues) what existed before. Those are only two examples among many. Individuals can choose based on sheer fideism or any number of additional factors, but if we are to do a comparative ecclesiology, objective facts must be dealt with. And they cannot vary according to every individual.

In other words, we can engage in a sensible, objective discussion on many levels of whether Orthodoxy or Catholicism is the better choice as the legatee of the early Church. It's not simply a personal or subjective matter. Personally, I don't see Orthodoxy as nearly as different from Catholicism as a lot of Orthodox folks that I have met. They seem to want to accentuate the differences; I want to emphasize common ground, without compromising my apologetic for my own position.

Abraham can make the argument he does because he is philosophically what he calls a "soft rationalist" (a wonderful term which excited me when I discovered it, because it described the position I'd come to years before but hadn't had a name for). A soft rationalist holds (in contrast to a fideist) that religious truth is based on rational evidence, but (in contrast to what Abraham calls a "hard rationalist") that you can't necessarily quantify the evidence. In other words, one decides to believe in one religious view rather than another based on a whole set of converging factors--experiences of saintliness or beauty or the presence of God, historical arguments, internal consistency of teaching, and so on. There is no fideistic "leap of faith" except in the sense that at some point one says "OK, all of these things add up to enough certainty that I'm ready to make a commitment." One can't point to certain specific arguments and say "these alone are necessary and sufficient reasons." I think that's what you and many other Catholic apologists are asking for, and I don't think it's a reasonable thing to ask with regard to religious commitments.

Well, no. Again, you do not sufficiently understand my position. I would never make the above quoted statement. I agree almost entirely with the above paragraph, and so does Newman. You can find this in previous papers of mine if you look hard enough. I've believed for many years now (man, probably over 20 years) that one accepts a worldview based on a convergence of many different evidences or aspects or influences, and that cumulative probability, not absolute certainty, is the key. This is precisely Newman's argument in Grammar of Assent.

I could never get Tim Enloe to grasp and understand this about my position or Newman's (not for lack of trying, believe me). It would be very good and heartening to see you do so. Once you lay out your position and you see me say "I completely agree with you," then I think you learn quite a bit about my position that you didn't realize before. Where you assumed a disagreement, there was, in fact, none. Now, if we have a very similar "religious epistemology," then the interesting thing to discuss is why we have arrived at different theological or ecclesiological conclusions, where they exist. The one thing is settled; then it would be on to applying the common epistemology to the practical problem of existing religious differences.

I agree of course with your rejection of anti-Catholic Orthodoxy. Any view that depends on caricaturing another view is flawed from the start (my first encounter with this was a schoolteacher in Romania who assured me that Catholics believe that God "remains parallel to the world"; I may have misunderstood a Romanian metaphor, but this has always stuck in my mind as particularly bizarre, though I can see what she was trying to say).

Good. And I reject just as passionately any true anti-Orthodoxy or anti-Protestantism. I just utterly condemned and decried one unfortunate outbreak of the latter on my blog.

Well, that's an argument that I'm afraid is going to have to take place within your own Communion. As an outsider, I can certainly judge that many Catholics have views that don't correspond to official Catholic teaching. But I am in no position to acquiesce to the view that they "aren't really Catholics."

They aren't consistent or orthodox or obedient Catholics; that's how I prefer to put it. I'm very reluctant to claim that one is not a Catholic at all. I can't be certain about that (based on baptism, among other things). But I can be quite certain about the other statements, because they are simply applying objective criteria as to what the Church holds and what each Catholic is obliged, by definition, to hold.

Certainly I doubt that you are willing to grant that John Shelby Spong "isn't really an Episcopalian," even though he clearly contradicts defined teaching of our Communion.

But that defined teaching changes, which is precisely the problem. Yesterday contraception and divorce and homosexual clergy (even female clergy) were quite unacceptable. Today your conferences take a vote and suddenly these things are permissible. That hasn't happened in Catholicism. Only renegade individuals have claimed that heterodox or immoral things are now fine and dandy.

In my opinion the Catholic claim that Protestants are in a different category because we have "private judgment" is a cop-out. We have looser teaching than you do, true. But I don't think we can reify "private judgment"--it's a vague and not very useful slogan used by many modern Protestants, but I don't think it's the kind of Basic Principle of Protestantism Catholic apologists claim it to be.

That's a huge discussion, and I have written much about it. I contend that it is one of the essential components of sola Scriptura, by its very nature. This is quite easy to demonstrate, both logically, and based on how it has always worked out in Protestant sectarian history. So much error and trouble and difficulty follows from this foundational error.

All churches have definite teaching of some sort, and all churches I know of have members apparently in good standing who don't accept every aspect of what appears to be the definite teaching of their communion. Certainly Catholics have a particular emphasis on this, and the Catholics I have in mind are indeed in a difficult tension between their belief that Catholicism is the necessary center of unity and their inability to accept some of its current teaching. But of course if such people remain Protestants they're in just as much tension.

Yes, I agree. In the one case, they refuse to accept the truthfulness of any authoritative Church whatsoever (as sola Scriptura dictates that the sole binding guide is Scripture). In the other, they refuse to accept some of the teachings of this particular Church, that they have supposedly accepted as a binding authority. Thus, the first entails an error of premise (regarding proper Christian, biblical authority, or the rule of faith), while the latter involves an internal inconsistency in application of a supposed premise ("the Catholic Church is authoritative and ecclesiologically unique, and as such, its members are bound to its teachings").

I choose to do that precisely because it seems the more honorable course. But I can sympathize with those who persuade themselves otherwise, and believe for whatever reason that things the Vatican teaches as defined are not in fact defined. They (the ones I know anyway) are intelligent and sincere people--argue with them, not me. As I said, it's an issue you're going to have to deal with within your own communion, and you can't blame me for observing what I see.

I don't have to "argue" with them, myself. My job is to simply point out to them what the magisterium has taught regarding the particular issue. They then choose whether to abide by it or not. If they choose not to, it is a clear instance of a failure to understand the nature of Catholic obedience, and our rule of faith (or conscious, rank disobedience, much as a three-year-old can stare down a parent and refuse to carry out an order). They're acting like Protestants, whether they know it or not (almost always, they don't seem to know). Having believed in both systems in my life, I can smell quasi-Protestantism a mile away. It's not a matter of name-calling or some Pharisaical kind of "judgmentalism." It's a simple factual matter; very straightforward. To be a Catholic means certain things. To paraphrase a proverb: "If one looks like a Protestant, smells like a Protestant, thinks like a Protestant . . . " Someone said that if you scratch a Latin American Catholic, you get an atheist, but if you scratch a North American Catholic, you get a Protestant." How true, sadly far too often . . . I encourage such people to simply become Anglicans, where no glaring self-contradiction and disobedience would be present.

But as you pointed out earlier, if one believes in the need for unity and the historic role of the Papacy, then Anglicanism or other forms of high-church Protestantism do _not_ "fit the bill perfectly." Granted, the tension is probably less, and certainly doesn't reach the point of dishonesty. Which is why I'm still a Protestant, however uncomfortable a one . . . .

If you respect the papacy as much as your recent highly moving, eloquent eulogy of John Paul II suggests, it would indeed be a most uncomfortable tension for you to resolve. I sincerely hope you do resolve the tension, for your own sake, even if you don't wind up where I, of course, would prefer to see you wind up.

The first quarrel I have with this is the meaning of the word "Church." Even granted that it doesn't include me, as an Anglican--

In this context, I meant the Teaching Church, or Magisterium, or (in a Protestant sense) simply teaching authority.

nonetheless I observe Catholics wrestling with the same issues. And even Catholic bishops (let alone priests) clearly do not always come to unanimous conclusions on this point. So when you mean "Church" you mean in fact "the Magisterium" as defined in modern Catholicism--the Pope and those bishops (and in some sense also those priests and laity) who agree with him on any given point. The Magisterium and only the Magisterium has the right to speak; all its pronouncements are authoritative; and everyone else must simply listen.

When they finally do definitively speak on something, yes, the faithful Catholic listens. But don't make the mistake of thinking that all of us, in the sensus fidelium, do not have any input in that process. We do. Laypeople help form the mind of the Church, which the popes and bishops are bound to follow. There can be a long dialogue and a process, in defining doctrines. For example, at the moment, there is discussion about further Marian dogmas. Pope John Paul II decided that it was not time to make these declarations (I agreed with that prudential decision, while accepting the doctrines -- as he did himself).

This would seem to mean that authority in Catholicism does (as anti-Catholic polemicists claim) boil down to "what the Pope says."

Practically, in the cases where it is on the highest level of infallibility, yes. Strictly speaking, no, as the pope is bound to Tradition and the Bible and cannot go counter to either. Hence, it is not him alone. There are many areas where we can disagree with him. I disagreed with him, for example, on the Iraqi War. Others disagree as to the propriety of capital punishment. We're allowed to do this, because both are prudential issues. The pope did not declare as binding an absolute pacifism. He couldn't do that, because it contradicts previous Catholic teaching. But a Catholic is not allowed to dissent on, e.g., contraception or women priests. Those were virtually declared as forbidden, on the highest levels of papal authority. They are binding and irreversible teaching.

Or, as one of my best friends (a Christian Church pastor) put it, "add Pope and stir." If it doesn't simply mean that--if a lay Catholic, or even a priest or bishop, sometimes has to interpret a document and figure out just how authoritative it is--then my point stands and what you're calling "private judgment" exists within Catholicism.

There is some interpretation that goes on, and some disagreement -- even within a framework of orthodoxy -- but in my experience it is almost always blown way out of proportion (which is in the liberal's self-interest, so they do this all the time).

It seems pretty evident to me that this is not how Catholicism functions. What you are calling "private judgment" when I do it is done routinely by all Catholics I know. (By Catholics who believe in the death penalty, for instance--they have to make the determination that the Pope's views on that subject are not in fact authoritative in the way that other teachings are.)

As explained, this is not private judgment, because Catholics are perfectly able to dissent from the pope on this one, since it is not a matter of dogma, but of prudential application of the principles of justice. Private judgment would be disagreeing on contraception or Mary's Immaculate Conception, or papal infallibility, or something along those lines, where the teaching is absolutely binding and irreformable. In those cases, the person is applying a Protestant way of looking at things: they don't personally agree with something, so they thumb their nose at what the Church teaches. And whenever I see it, I invariably ask, "if this is the way you see Christian authority, why aren't you a Protestant, since they believe precisely this: that individuals [when all is said and done] ultimately can decide what is true or false, not churches and institutions"?

I don't think Protestantism as a whole presupposes anything.

If there is anything that it presupposes in common (in areas where it differs from us), it is certainly private judgment. That is far more true than even sola fide or sola Scriptura itself. But I agree that one has to always generalize when discussing Protestantism, and exceptions can always be found. That's the reality of sectarianism (and private judgment).

[to be continued in Part III]

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