"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Dr Witt responds at last

In posts I wrote last Sunday and Monday, I added my voice to Prof. Scott Carson's by way of criticizing the Anglican Dr. William Witt's broad appeal to something called "the plain meaning of Scripture." WW himself did not reply here, and at this point I rather doubt he will visit. But he has replied over at TitusOneNine, a well-known, high-traffic Anglican blog; specifically, in this comment. For the sake of inviting a broader audience to the discussion, I shall reproduce herein my reply to that comment, changing it only by correcting a few typos.

I’m delighted to see that WW has finally begun to address, if not exactly to engage, my argument. Unfortunately, we haven’t got far beyond that just yet.

The implicit assumption is that apart from such an authority any interaction with the objective text is reduced to mere human opinion. The question then becomes which group of privileged knowers becomes the locus of authority, the infallible Platonic episteme of the magisterium or the uncertain doxa of the humble believer.

Once again, that mischaracterizes what’s being asserted and how it’s being argued for.

For one thing, even if I were making a mere assumption here, the assumption would not be that the Magisterium has episteme and the humble believer has only doxa. The claim is not that the Magisterium enjoys the authority of episteme, i.e. “knowledge,” as if it had the authority of those who know as distinct from those who merely believe (i.e., who have only doxa). Those who have and exercise the Magisterium do not, as individuals, enjoy a species of insight into divine revelation that is fundamentally different in principle from that of the humble believer. Many bishops, including many popes, are not professional theologians; some lay people are better theologians than most bishops; and many humble believers have greater faith in the Catholic sense of the word than many bishops and theologians. Rather, the claim of the Catholic Church is that the Magisterium, under certain conditions, is preserved by God from error when teaching about points comprised by the deposit of faith. Such authority is charismatic, not epistemic. As a divine gift, it cannot be earned; it can only be acquired by office not study; and its scope is limited.

In WW’s formulation, there is another mischaracterization of what Newman et al., including yours truly, are asserting. We do not assert that “apart from such an authority any interaction with the objective text is reduced to mere human opinion.” I for one did not say “any” interaction with the text, precisely because it would have been foolish to say such a thing. When one reads a text, for example, one normally “knows” what text one is reading, along with a bunch of coordinate facts about the text. I’ll even concede arguendo that, in some cases, a reader can “know” what a given form of words in a text says, quite apart from an expert’s telling them what it says, when what the text says clearly embodies the intent of its human author. That is a philosophical question, and one’s answer depends in large measure on what one means by “knowledge.” But in the case of the Bible, none of that broaches the real issue.

As I’ve said repeatedly, the question in the case of the Bible is not what, in any given case, the human author intended to say, which is often an interesting question but never, in itself, decisive for any matter of faith. The question is what God is saying to his people through the text; and our claim is that it is that question which cannot be reliably answered, even for purposes of doxa, without an authoritative interpreter. Moreover, we have arguments for that claim. Newman adduced some; many have adduced others, including yours truly. But the arguments can’t even be assessed fairly if one of the key conclusions continues to be caricatured.

That’s why it’s relatively easy to defend my argument against WW’s rebuttal. Consider:

(1) The post-canonical church does not have the same degree of teaching authority as the pre-canonical church and cannot for the simple reason that the authority of the pre-canonical church has the authority of apostles who were eyewitnesses of the risen Lord. We are neither apostles nor eyewitnesses. To state that the post-canonical church has this same authority is always to subvert the authority of the canonical witnesses to contemporary subjective human opinion. Whether that opinion is that of “private judgment” or of an ecclesial magisterium is irrelevant.

In the first place, there is a serious ambiguity in the statement that “the authority of the pre-canonical church was the authority of apostles.” Even if we assume arguendo that all the books in what we now call “the New Testament” were written while at least one of the Apostles was still alive, the process of distinguishing truly “apostolic” writings from others only purporting to be apostolic went on for quite some time after the Apostles had all died. The authority of the Church that formed the canon, therefore, was not identical in kind with the authority of eyewitnesses such as the Apostles. Until the fourth century, there wasn’t even any formal list of canonical books on which the Church as a whole was agreed. So, while there is a sense in which “the authority of the pre-canonical Church was the authority of the Apostles,” that is not so in a sense that would make its authority greater than that of the post-canonical Church. Hence the truth in question does not constitute a rebuttal of my argument.

By the same token, the quote from Cullman that WW uses to support (1) is inapt. The Catholic Church, and defenders of hers such as Newman, do not for a moment deny that the post-canonical Church is “subordinate” to the apostolic tradition maintained by the pre-canonical Church and applied for the purpose of forming the canon. The Church does not claim the right to alter the canon, or even to revoke definitive formulations of the truths contained in the canon. On the Catholic understanding, the teaching authority of the
post-canonical Church is thus, from Dei Verbum §10:

Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort. (7)

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission; and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

Accordingly, the teaching authority of the post-canonical Church, through the apostolic succession of the bishops, is not “above” Scripture and Tradition, which by means of that succession hand on to us what comes from the Apostles. Rather, said authority “serves” the word of God as conveyed through those sources. The teaching authority of the post-canonical Church is only over the interpretation of what is already established as apostolic and as binding precisely in virtue of being apostolic. Hence the sort of sola scriptura claim WW offers as a conclusion from Cullmann—i.e. that “[The] apostolic norm [is] only what is written in these books"—simply does not follow from the premises offered.

WW also writes:

(2) The fundamental issue of certainty of divine revelation is whether God is in himself who he is in his revelation. If we cannot be certain that the canonical Scriptures communicate to us who God truly is in himself then we can have no certainty that they can speak to us at all. If the apostles were faithful witnesses of that which they have received, then the church needs no infallibility to hear them faithfully. The question of application is not one of epistemology or ecclesial authority, but of obedience.

I’m afraid that argument is ambiguous in itself and, on one construal, irrelevant for the purpose at hand. It is ambiguous inasmuch as, on one ready construal, it puts WW in just as precarious a position as the liberal Protestants he dismisses. Here’s why.

Eastern and Western Christianity have long differed about the extent to which God is revealed to us in the deposit of faith. In the East, the tendency is to claim that God only reveals himself to us in his “energies” (energeiae), not as he is in his essence (ousia), or “in himself”; whereas in the West, the claim has generally been that God reveals himself to us in his very essence and thus in himself. In Karl Rahner’s formulation: “The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity.” I for one find that assertion too extreme, but that is beside the point. The issue itself is very interesting and profound; but the differing answers to it generally arise from philosophical differences: metaphysical ones about being, essence, and so forth; and epistemological ones about how to interpret religious, especially mystical, experience. The matter is essentially one of theological opinion arising from such differences, such that both “Eastern” and “Western” views fall within the ambit of orthodoxy. If WW is claiming that the very possibility of being certain that there is such a thing as divine revelation depends on resolving the East-West difference in favor of the West, then he is presenting the entire faith of the Church as dependent on adopting one particular opinion over the other. Since that cannot be right, even on his own showing, I’m inclined to doubt that’s what he’s doing.

All WW seems likely to mean is that certainty about the content and truth of divine revelation requires that what is handed down to us through Scripture and Tradition tells us about God, not merely about what some people thought and said about God. If that’s all he means, I agree. But if that is the case, nothing pertinent to the debate between us follows. So construed, WW’s point is irrelevant.

His real punch line is this:

If the apostles were faithful witnesses of that which they have received, then the church needs no infallibility to hear them faithfully.The question of application is not one of epistemology or ecclesial authority, but of obedience.

I quite agree that the fundamental desideratum here is “obedience” to the apostolic witness. But I don’t at all see how that is supposed to be an argument for the claim that “the church needs no infallibility to hear them faithfully.” If the church is fallible through-and-through, then no claim about what being faithful to the apostolic witness consists in can be accounted binding on all believers, for any such claim would have to be accounted revisable in principle. For reasons I’ve given many times above, appealing to “Scripture alone” or “the plain meaning of Scripture” just won’t do.

It may well be that “canonical theists” do not adopt any particular “epistemology,” claiming instead that “the church in its canonical commitments eschewed this kind of luxury.” But the Catholic counter-claim is that what “canonical theists” such as WW dismiss as a luxury is actually a necessity. WW would do well to characterize the arguments for that more accurately than he has.

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