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

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

This time, Fr. Behr

As many of my readers know, I have become a veteran of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue online. As the same readers know, such dialogue can and often does descend into a clash of polemical shibboleths. Internet culture, alas, makes that virtually inevitable. But given how sterile and ultimately boring such clashes are—whatever the initial excitement they offer some participants—I have striven consistently to eliminate or at least minimize them in my posts. As many of the combox discussions illustrate, success is not guaranteed. But with some justice, I still see my chief role as removing intellectual obstacles to mutual understanding and even concord. That is the role I seek to resume in what follows: a brief, entirely provisional critique of how Fr. John Behr, Dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary, rejects the notion of what John Henry Newman called "development of doctrine" (DD).

In my role, whereby I operate more on the conceptual than the practical level, I have come to believe that disagreement about DD—or, more precisely, about the question whether DD can be "authentic" from the standpoint of Tradition—is the biggest single obstacle to Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism on the conceptual as distinct from the practical level. I say so knowing full well that there are many factors at work in the historic schism and that the deeper ones have at least as much if not more to do with differences of "ethos," as the Ochlophobist is wont to put it, than with the highly technical, theological issues that have often preoccupied the academically inclined in both communions. Nevertheless, since I lack both the holiness of life and the worldly influence to do much else, I shall resume my little role in the dialogue by returning to the issue of DD.

When I last devoted a post to an Orthodox take on DD, I did so in response to several of my Orthodox readers who recommended an essay by Fr. Andrew Louth entitled "Is Development of Doctrine a Valid Category for Orthodox Theology?", written for the recent Pelikan festschrift. Unsurprisingly, Louth's answer was "no." But in my post, I analyzed Louth's arguments and concluded that he was conceding substantively what he was rejecting verbally—i.e., that authentic DD has occurred in a sense now recognized not only by the Catholic Church but, I maintain, by some Orthodox thinkers such as Pelikan himself. I had been prepared to reach such an odd conclusion by the blowback I had got, privately and publicly, from criticizing the well-known Orthodox pastor Fr. Patrick Reardon for rejecting DD. Eventually I felt obliged to concede that Reardon, and perhaps some other Orthodox thinkers, are willing to admit "authentic DD" in some meaty sense of that term. But I also had to recognize that other Orthodox thinkers, such as Louth and Behr, deny that they themselves do. In this respect, the dissensus within Orthodoxy reminds me of its dissensus on other matters, such as ecclesiology. But it is not for me to criticize Orthodoxy for such dissensus; after all, in the Catholic Church we have the Magisterium, which rightly exists to minimize doctrinal dissensus and does so de jure, but often does not de facto. My aim is far narrower and more useful: to criticize arguments against the possibility of authentic DD, so that the parties on all sides might become more able and willing to get clear with each other about what the fact of authentic DD actually consists in.

To that end, I am only going to criticize a brief argument that Behr gave in a talk entitled "Orthodoxy" given in Chapel Hill, NC a decade ago. I am well aware that, since then, Fr. Behr has thought and published much that is relevant; given my limited opportunities for study these days, I have only managed to savor his excellent The Way to Nicaea, vol. 1 of The Formation of Christian Theology (Crestwood: SVS Press, 2001). But I saw nothing in that book, and have heard nothing else leading me to suspect, that Behr would be willing to repudiate the essential structure of the argument he gave in his 1998 talk. And so I shall proceed on the assumption that that argument still reflects his view; after all, the text of his talk remains on the St. Vlad's website. But I remain open to correction from those more knowledgeable about him.

Here's the nub of Behr's argument (I have added the emphases):

If tradition is essentially the right interpretation of Scripture, then it cannot change -- and this means, it can neither grow nor develop. A tradition with a potential for growth ultimately undermines the Gospel itself -- it leaves open the possibility for further revelation, and therefore the Gospel would no longer be sure and certain. If our faith is one and the same as that of the apostles, then, as Irenaeus claimed, it is equally immune from improvement by articulate or speculative thinkers as well as from diminution by inarticulate believers (Against the Heresies, 1.10.2). We must take seriously the famous saying of St. Vincent of Lerins: "We must hold what has been believed everywhere, always and by all" (Commonitorium, 2).

From an Orthodox perspective, there simply is, therefore, no such thing as dogmatic development. What there is, of course, is ever new, more detailed and comprehensive explanations elaborated in defense of one and the same faith -- responding, each time, to a particular context, a particular controversy etc. But it is one and the same faith that has been believed from the beginning -- the continuity of the correct interpretation of Scripture. And for this reason, the Councils, as Fr. John Meyendorff pointed out [2], never formally endorsed any aspect of theology as dogma which is not a direct (and correct) interpretation of the history of God described in Scripture: only those aspects were defined as dogma which pertain directly to the Gospel. So, for instance, the only aspect pertaining to the Virgin Mary that was ever recognized as dogma is that she is Theotokos -- "Mother of God" -- for she gave birth to our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ -- it is something which pertains to the Incarnation, rather than to Mary herself. Whilst individual theologians have speculated about other aspects concerning the Virgin herself, and her glorification, items not directly pertaining to the Gospel of Christ's work of salvation, such as the Assumption and the Immaculate conception, have never been held to have the status of dogma in the Orthodox Church.

Let me say at once that I appreciate Behr's concern in that. He is concerned above all to rule out substantive addition to that "tradition" which, after all, hands down to us whole and entire the deposit of faith "once given to the saints." Whichever communion we believe to be "the" Church, she may do no other. Such addition would entail the idea of "further revelation," so that "the Gospel would no longer be sure and certain"; but the Gospel must be sure and certain, because it is given definitively by God who can neither deceive nor be deceived, and as such forms the proximate (as distinct from the ultimate) object of the virtue of faith. With that understood, however, there are two confusions in Behr's argument that vitiate his conclusion against the idea of authentic DD.

The first is the claim that Tradition is essentially "the right interpretation of Scripture." To be sure, Tradition necessarily includes the right interpretation of Scripture; if it did not, then it would not be reliable for the purpose I've already acknowledged with Behr. Thus we may say that the right interpretation of Scripture is essential to Tradition—but only since there actually arose such a thing as the canon of Scripture recognized as such throughout the apostolic churches. Now during the Apostles' lifetime, "Scripture" was the Septuagint, and it was their essentially Christological approach to the Septuagint that distinguished the Apostles' interpretation from other Jewish ones. But Tradition, i.e. that which was handed down to them in and through Jesus Christ, did not consist merely in a right interpretation of the Septuagint. Tradition for the Apostles also, and decisively, included the person, words, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus, all of which they experienced firsthand in the flesh (Paul being a special case); and it was in light of those that the Apostles interpreted the Septuagint as they did. At its core, then, Tradition was not just the right interpretation of the Septuagint; it was that set of revealed data in light of which the right interpretation of the Septuagint could be achieved.

Moreover, it took at least two generations after the Apostles for what we now call "the New Testament" to coalesce and be recognized as such, and several more generations for the NT canon to assume the precise content it has retained since. So, as Behr clearly recognizes, it was in light of a prior "rule of faith" that the Church was able to recognize what did and did not belong in the NT—and the NT expressed the rule of faith for interpreting the OT. That rule of faith was what had been handed down both to and from the Apostles—i.e., it was Tradition. Accordingly, although Tradition must include the right interpretation of Scripture—once it's clear, at any rate, what "Scripture" really is—Tradition must predate at least part of Scripture and provide at least some independent knowledge of that "Christ-event" which gives Scripture its true subject-matter. Even though the right interpretation of Scripture is "essential to" Tradition in the sense of being indispensable thereto, Tradition itself is larger than Scripture and even, in a primordial sense, supplies what Scripture is about. For that reason Tradition cannot be merely, or even primarily, the right interpretation of Scripture. Why this point is important for my main purpose will emerge after I address what I see as the second confusion in Behr's argument.

That confusion is between the material and the formal content of the deposit of faith. Materially, the deposit of faith may not and indeed cannot be augmented by any process whatsoever. Since it is in and by Christ, the Truth himself, that we are given the definitive revelation of God for us, there is nothing materially to add to what is revealed in and by Christ. But it does not thereby follow that there can be no formal elaboration of teaching thereon that develops over time. A good deal of that formal elaboration is what Behr acknowledges by claiming that "[w]hat there is, of course, is ever new, more detailed and comprehensive explanations elaborated in defense of one and the same faith -- responding, each time, to a particular context, a particular controversy etc." But as I have often argued before, that is precisely what authentic DD consists in. When it is claimed that there is such a thing as authentic development of doctrine, the term 'doctrine' means 'teaching', from the Latin doctrina. It is undeniable that there has been development in teaching over the centuries in the East as well as the West, if by "teaching" we mean the elaboration and transmission of true and normative statements about the content of divine revelation. Development of doctrine is a fact, and it remains a fact even though putative addition to that which doctrine is about—i.e., the deposit of faith—is neither desirable nor ultimately possible. The development of "dogma" is just the development of doctrine into formulations that the Church proposes to us with her full authority, such as the homousion. And so, pace Behr, there is such a thing as development of dogma—so long as we realize that such development adds nothing to the material content of the deposit of faith, but only formally elaborates that content in ways helpful within this or that historical context.

It might seem as though I could accomplish my main purpose by making that argument alone, without also criticizing Behr's claim that Tradition is "essentially the right interpretation of Scripture." But in fact, the juxtaposition of the two mistakes shows that Behr's argument is simply incoherent. For if Tradition were just "the right interpretation of Scripture," it would make no sense to deny that it could develop; for the human activity of "right interpretation" just does develop over time in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. That holds even assuming, as both Behr and I do, that the deposit of faith itself, which is what Scripture and Tradition together convey to us, does not develop. That does not of course mean that we have greater access than the Apostles and Father to the divine truth we understand by means of such activities as exegesis and doctrinal development. Indeed the Apostles saw the Truth directly, which few if any have done since. But it does means that, building on the foundations not only of the Apostles and Fathers but on holy and wise Christians after them, we develop "more detailed and comprehensive explanations" of the Faith and, sometimes, even correct received opinions that do not, in the final analysis, belong to the deposit of faith. I should have thought all that uncontroversial, but I have come to understand all too well why it is not.

So much for what I see as Behr's confusions. I should like to close by criticizing how Behr addresses a particular case of DD.

Behr cites the "continuity of the correct interpretation of Scripture"—the continuity of what he defines, inaccurately, as Tradition—as the "reason" for holding that the great ecumenical councils of the first millennium only "defined as dogma" things that "pertain directly to the Gospel." From this point of view, defining that Mary is Theotokos is legitimate dogmatizing whereas defining the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption as dogma are not. But this is to beg the question.

The upshot of distinctively Catholic Mariology is that Mary sums up in her person pre-eminently what every believer is called to be in lesser degree. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception tells us that Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, what each believer is at the moment of their baptism; the Assumption tells us that Mary, from time her earthly life ended, has enjoyed proleptically that fullness of resurrection which all the saved will enjoy on the Last Day. For those and other reasons, Mary is by far the most powerful intercessor on believers' behalf. Indeed, Mary is not only Mother of God but Mother of that Church which is the Mystical Body of her divine Son, in virtue of being one body with him in a unity of which Christian marriage is a sacramental sign. And that Church is necessary for salvation, even when the grace offered to the world in and through her works outside her visible boundaries. So if the economy of salvation really does include all the things about Mary that the Catholic Church teaches, then Mary is indeed "Mediatrix of all Graces"—although, for reasons I gave a few days ago, it would not be helpful now for Rome to dogmatize that doctrine. Yet, if the Catholic Marian doctrines are true, they tell Christians things which it is quite helpful for salvation to know.

Of course it is possible to be saved without such knowledge, just as it is possible for some people to be saved without ever having heard the Gospel. But to argue from that premise to the conclusion that the Catholic Marian dogmas do not belong to the deposit of faith would be like arguing that the doctrine of the necessity of baptism, which has long been taught in both East and West, does not so belong either. Such an argument would be obviously fallacious, and I don't believe Behr would make it. That's why he begs the question by simply assuming that the Catholic Marian dogmas do not "pertain directly to the Gospel."

If Behr had an adequate conception of what he purports to reject, he would not make the mistakes I have pointed out. What's needed on his part is more sympathetic understanding of what he claims to reject. But as I've implied above, if I have failed to heed that very advice in criticizing Behr as I have, I stand open to correction.

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