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

Monday, October 22, 2007

PMS II: Siris on Carson-and-me-vs-Witt

Prof. Brandon Watson of Siris has now weighed in on the debate, such as it is, between Prof. Scott Carson and Dr. William Witt on the so-called "plain meaning of Scripture." I have already defended Scott's side in yesterday's post, and Fr. Al Kimel, whose Internet moniker remains "Pontificator," also briefly defended it as a commenter over at TitusOneNine. That position is well explained in a months-old essay written by one of the other commenters there, and it seems Brandon doesn't have much of a problem with it, at least not in principle. But he also argues that Scott and I have largely missed WW's point, so that the view we criticize is not really the view WW takes. Since Brandon knows WW personally and has discussed this range of issues with him more than once before, I take Brandon's critique very seriously. Since Scott is perfectly capable of replying to criticism on his own account, I thought I'd use this post to respond to that aspect of Brandon's critique which applies to me in particular.

Brandon writes (emphasis added):

I think Mike is on the right track, though, in recognizing that the real difference between Catholics like Mike and Scott on the one hand, and what we might (rather loosely and perhaps figuratively) call High Church Protestants like Bill (who place great weight on consensus fidelium, the Church Fathers, and the Rule of Faith), has to do with their views of the Scripture as canon in the Church, and what it means for the Church to take a text as canonical. I know that Bill, for instance, tends to think, or, at least, has indicated something like this in various contexts, that the sort of account that Mike offers involves an equivocation on the term 'Church', a failure to distinguish between the Church insofar as it wrote the Scripture (and thus insofar as it was apostolic) and the Church insofar as it accepts them submissively as canon (and thus insofar as it is post-apostolic). This certainly does suggest a different view of canon.

So that, I would suggest, is where the real disagreement lies.

Rather than quibble about whether I've understood WW correctly, I shall accept arguendo that Brandon's account of the matter is correct. So the question becomes: how would I reply to the criticism that Brandon offers on WW's behalf?

I'm willing to concede that, in the way I stated the matter in my previous post, there is at best an inferential leap and at worst an ambiguity. From what I said about "the Church" as author of Scripture-as-canon being the primary and authentic interpreter of Scripture, it does not follow that the Church as receiver of Scripture-as-canon, who as such submits to what God tells us therein, is the primary and authentic interpreter of Scripture. Such a distinction between the "apostolic" and the "post-apostolic" Church does indeed obtain, if only as a matter of chronology. And so, to reach the conclusion I profess, one must rely on the premise that the post-apostolic Church-as-receiver of the canon has the same degree of teaching authority that the apostolic Church-as-author of the canon had and has. Simply to assert such a premise without argument would beg the question.

Now that Brandon has brought up that issue, I recall having had pretty much this same debate with WW last year in a long combox at the old, now-defunct version of Fr. Kimel's blog Pontifications. Like Fr. Al on his own account, I wish there were a way to recover all that, and indeed much else that I wrote at Pontifications; but that is a whole 'nother story, which I won't bore readers by fussing about. Here I shall simply restate what I recall as the gist of what I wrote, which is also implicit in what I posted yesterday.

First, I would point out that the chronological difference between the-Church-as-author-of-the-canon and the Church-as-receiver-of-the-canon tells us absolutely nothing about their respective degrees of teaching authority. From the fact that the canon was formed on the teaching authority of the former, it does not follow that the latter lacks such authority, any more than it follows that the latter has such authority. So the question that needs addressing is this: why should we believe that the post-canonical Church exercises the same degree of authority in interpreting the canon of Scripture that the pre-canonical Church exercised in forming the canon of Scripture?

One might understand almost everything I've written before about Catholic-Protestant issues as a contribution to answering that question. But for now, I shall offer a more focused answer: we should believe that the post-canonical Church has the same degree of teaching authority as the pre-canonical Church because, absent such authority, it is impossible to transmit the deposit of faith as an object of faith, as distinct from human opinion. St. Thomas Aquinas put the same point thus: "he who does not adhere to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, may hold what is of faith, but he does not do so by faith." My reasons for saying that are presented fairly economically in my essay Faith, Private Judgment, Doubt, and Dissent. But that essay is all the same due for revision and expansion in response to a criticism I've encountered fairly often. I don't know whether WW himself would adduce that criticism, but I shall address it briefly here, mainly as an invitation to shift the focus of discussion to what I regard as the most fundamental issue.

The criticism is this: if we hold that the post-canonical Church has as much teaching authority in interpreting Scripture as the pre-canonical Church had in forming it, then we haven't solved the hermeneutical problem that invoking that authority, i.e. the Magisterium, is meant to solve. All we've done is shift the problem of interpretation to the pronouncements of the Magisterium itself, leaving us every bit as much in the throes of "private judgment" as the poor Protestant who professes sola scriptura as a rule of faith. Hence it's better just to leave supreme interpretive authority to Scripture itself as a product of the apostolic Church, and avoid the arrogance involved in attributing that same degree of authority to the Church through the ages.

All I have time to do here is adumbrate an answer for the purpose I've already stated. On the Catholic conception of the post-canonical Church's teaching authority, the Magisterium not only interprets Scripture authoritatively; it authoritatively interprets Tradition and its own pronouncements as well. Unlike the static canon of Scripture, which is the most authoritative written record of Tradition, the Magisterium continuously and dynamically clarifies and refines the expression of what is handed down to us through Scripture, Tradition, and dogma. By means of such development of doctrine, it makes the consensus fidelium ever more explicit, and thus affords an indispensable norm for interpreting not only Scripture and Tradition but itself. That is the hermeneutical advantage of viewing the post-canonical Church as having the same degree of teaching authority as the pre-canonical Church.

Now I know the objections to that picture because I've often dealt with them before. The most common objections center on the idea of development of doctrine. Some object that there's no way in principle to distinguish DD from "addition" to the deposit of faith, which is by all accounts forbidden; others object that the Catholic Church, in developing doctrine, has in fact negated certain doctrines previously propounded by her own teaching authority. I've taken great pains before to answer such objections. But perhaps there are others, especially to my claim that the Magisterium affords a hermeneutical advantage. I'm all ears.
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