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

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dr Witt on material & formal sufficiency

It's been brought to my attention that Dr. William Witt, who teaches systematic theology at the Trinity School for Ministry, has reformulated his critique of my view of the relationship between Scripture, the development of doctrine (DD), and ecclesial teaching authority (or: magisterium). I say 'reformulated' because he and I have had at least two exchanges on this topic in the past. Although our respective positions have not changed, I see that WW has advanced the discussion by stating his own ex professo view, and his critique of mine, in a way that is clearer to me than before. The discussion between him and me is certainly of interest to readers who have appreciated pertinent discussions of DD that have often been seen on this blog.

It goes without saying that WW's position and mine are mutually incompatible. I am a Roman Catholic; he is a conservative Protestant of the sort who, in my previous post, I identified as an adherent of the Protestant "hermeneutical circle." And yet, for reasons I have yet to fathom, he tries to enlist St. Thomas Aquinas in his cause. Thus WW:

I think the real issue of disagreement has to do with the question of the inherent intelligibility of Scripture. Followers of Newman often speak of the sufficiency of Scripture in terms of a “material” sufficiency. On the page on my blog titled “Who Are Those Guys?” I speak of how, as I read Aquinas, Arminius and Barth, they do theology as a penetration into the mystery of the inherent intelligibility of revelation as witnessed to in Scripture. I see the same kind of approach in Eastern theologians like Athanasius or Cyril of Alexandria.

Such an understanding of Scripture’s inherent intelligibility presupposes that the sufficiency of Scripture is not material, but formal. The difference here is between a blueprint to make a building, and the bricks of which the building is made. A merely materially sufficient Scripture is like a pile of bricks that can build anything from a cathedral to a tool shed, but the bricks themselves possess no inherent intelligibility (formal sufficiency) in one direction for another. The intelligibility derives from outside the bricks. Conversely, a blueprint is inherently intelligible, and thus has not material but formal sufficiency to create a specific building, whether cathedral or tool shed.

In terms of development, the claim that Scripture is materially sufficient presumes that the intelligibility of revelation derives from elsewhere than Scripture itself. A definitive magisterium (or external tradition) is necessary to decide what to do with the bricks. Without the magisterium it is impossible to know whether the bricks were intended to be a cathedral or a tool shed.

I cannot comment on Arminius and Barth, Protestant theologians whom WW knows far better than I. But for starters, I can and will say and unequivocally that Aquinas, while indeed affirming the "material sufficiency" of Scripture in the sense explained by WW, in no sense affirmed the formal sufficiency of Scripture. That is partly why Aquinas, like Newman and even Vatican II after him, most certainly did see a magisterium as necessary for interpreting Scripture reliably.

Consider this from ST IIaIIae Q5 A3 resp (emphasis added):

Now the formal object of faith is the First Truth, as manifested in Holy Writ and the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth. Consequently whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and Divine rule, to the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth manifested in Holy Writ, has not the habit of faith, but holds that which is of faith otherwise than by faith.

The context of the questio from which the above quotation is taken suggests that we may put Aquinas' point as follows: Although it is quite possible to discern "the First Truth" in Scripture without adhering "to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible and divine rule," one can only do so as a matter of opinion rather than by the virtue of faith. Hence, even if Scripture is somehow "inherently intelligible," one who affirms the truth that is intelligible in Scripture while rejecting the Magisterium has only a set of opinions about the content of the deposit of faith, rather than the kind of certainty entailed by true faith. I agree with that view. As far as I can tell, it was the view of John Henry Newman too. As for Vatican II, see Dei Verbum §7-§10.

The distinction between apprehending the "First Truth" by opinion and doing so by faith may seem irrelevant to some, but it is actually of the utmost importance. Opinion is fallible and provisional, whereas the content of the deposit of faith, as the proximate object of the theological virtue of faith, is not and cannot be a matter of opinion. Many people imagine that one can get around this by saying that Scripture is "formally sufficient" for expressing the DF and making assent to its content a matter of faith. This would mean that, for purposes of apprehending the DF by faith, nothing need be added to what Scripture explicitly says; all one has to do is "get" the blueprint, perhaps as a kind of gestalt perception, and the rest follows. But that, in my view, just isn't credible.

Protestant scholars of WW's bent are forever frustrated and disappointed by the fact that even those Protestants who would, in general, agree that Scripture is "inherently intelligible" at some architectonic level—and might even find the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed helpful—often hold or reach doctrinal conclusions so different as to be, or become, church-dividing. Thus even when they do agree, the agreement doesn't last long enough to prevent others from eventually dissenting, hiving off to form their own church, and leaving a rump behind to rest on the old, unrevised "confession." Given the denominational proliferation occasioned by such differences, it would seem that Scripture, though inherently intelligible, is actually intelligible only to—well, to whom? That's my point. WW and some others seem to believe that if only Protestant church authorities would recognize and accept the best scholarship—as understood and expounded by men such as himself—and were willing to inculcate its results firmly enough to keep the pastors convinced enough to teach faithfully enough to keep the faithful convinced enough, then the inherent intelligibility of Scripture would shine forth globally enough to constitute actual intelligibility. In fact, WW seems to believe that something very much like that happened during and after the roaring, sometimes violent theological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. Thanks to men such as Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and St. Cyril, the Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy that was painfully hammered out during that time demonstrated the inherent intelligibility, and therefore the formal sufficiency, of Scripture as a proximate object of faith!


I apologize to some if I've already overstated the irony, but others might need to have it pointed out. Almost a century-and-a-half of intellectual effort was needed to overcome the pre-Nicene theological vagueness, itself almost three centuries old, that occasioned Arianism and other forms of subordinationism. Was the resulting clarity and cogency really so great that Christians no longer needed to defer to the authority of general councils in order to identify the "orthodox" faith? Was it just obvious, by the latter part of the fifth century, that the credibility of orthodoxy consisted so much in its hermeneutical superiority to the alternatives that simple obedience to ecclesial teaching authority was unneeded? To anybody who knows church history, such questions virtually answer themselves. There were "heresies" not only before and during but also well after Nicaea and Chalcedon—and there still are. Indeed, as Dorothy Sayers so wittily showed, many people today (Catholics as well as Protestants) who accept and read the Bible as the Word of God also adhere to one of the ancient heresies without realizing it. But if Scripture were intelligible in the way and to the degree that WW says, then the cure for heresy would simply be a more thorough, more prayerful reading of the Bible. The failure of such a cure could only be explained by lack of "education" or, perhaps, sheer cussedness—i.e., by the kinds of factors which Protestants in the mid 1500s were already citing to explain their own divisions, even leaving aside their issues with the Whore of Babylon, aka the Church of Rome.

Well, it's not always or even usually like that. Even when people read the Bible correctly, and thus hold what is "of faith," they do not do so "by faith" unless they let themselves be guided, implicitly or explicitly, by the living, authoritative voice of the Church. Otherwise, even God's own truth can only be held as one opinion among others, and is thus legitimately susceptible to reversal (where have we heard things like: "The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing"?). At least that's what Aquinas thought, and I believe it.

Even so, I think even Aquinas went too far in affirming the "material sufficiency" of Scripture. For Scripture can be seen as the inspired word of God only because the same Holy Spirit who inspired it had the Church certify the writings it comprises as the pre-eminent written record of "Tradition" (i.e. of all that was handed down from the Apostles under his guidance) that could be read aloud in church. Scripture is therefore not, as the cessationists would have us believe, substitutable salva veritate for Tradition; it only constitutes the Word of God for us together with Tradition. I can therefore accept the joint material sufficiency of Scripture and Tradition, but not their separate material sufficiency. And to get formal sufficiency?

You need what Aquinas says: adherence to the teaching of the Church as to "a divine and infallible rule." I said that's what you need; I didn't say that's all you need. I like my CCC for that. But even the CCC...
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