Saturday, June 16, 2007

Futility of Certain Forms of Argument

I am convinced that there is little or no real value in arguing about interpretation of specific Bible or Patristic texts with Protestants, in terms of persuading them to return to the Church. This is especially true of knowledgeable Protestants, and particularly true of anti-Catholics.

What actually takes place in these discussions is a clash of paradigms - of world views. And to the extent that each disputant is familiar with his own faith, and especially with how it may be defended, it seems to me that it is a futile enterprise to suppose that we are going to be successful in convincing them that the Catholic faith is true by quibbling about texts. Of course the texts unquestionably support and validate the Catholic Church. I'm not saying that they do not. But to someone who has thought otherwise all his life, and who has thought about the Bible in terms of some single Protestant framework, anything we say about those same texts will seem like gibberish to him.

So it seems that our approach must be different than this if the goal is to win back Protestants to the Church. Rather than arguing on the basis of specific texts - which the Protestant may either ignore or which he may interpret differently (and adamantly so at that), we must instead resort to challenging the very legitimacy of the Protestant's approach to the Bible and to the truth. As I attempted to show in a recent series of posts on unexamined presuppositions, the real issue with Protestants is not exactly hermeneutics but rather authority. It is impossible for them to justify exactly why their opinions should be held to be authoritative. And when it comes to divinely revealed truth, that impossibility completely demolishes any structure built upon it. What they have is a mass of conflicting impulses (to borrow a phrase from Nomad!) and no way whatsoever to ultimately distinguish the true and the false among them with any finality. Instead, each individual Protestant is obliged to make up his own mind - as though the Christian Faith is a matter to be decided by a mere man.

Yes, there are certainly issues about which Christians may legitimately differ. Paul makes that abundantly clear. No, those issues do not extend to the entire length and breadth of the Faith. We may not differ on the Trinity. We may not differ on the Resurrection. We may not differ on the Sacraments (and so forth).

It seems that what must be done is this: the Protestant must be shown that he has no basis on his own terms for any confidence whatsoever concerning the essential content of the Christian Faith.

Aquinas on Law

In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas says this about law (I-II, 90, 1):
Law is a rule and measure of acts, whereby man is induced to act or is restrained from acting: for "lex" [law] is derived from "ligare" [to bind], because it binds one to act. Now the rule and measure of human acts is the reason, which is the first principle of human acts, as is evident from what has been stated above (1, 1, ad 3); since it belongs to the reason to direct to the end, which is the first principle in all matters of action, according to the Philosopher (Phys. ii). Now that which is the principle in any genus, is the rule and measure of that genus: for instance, unity in the genus of numbers, and the first movement in the genus of movements. Consequently it follows that law is something pertaining to reason.
In the Summa Contra Gentiles, he says this (Book III, 114, 5; sorry, no link for this. I'm having trouble locating an unabridged website for SCG, and this paragraph has been abridged out of existence in the online editions I have seen):
Furthermore, since law is nothing but a rational plan of operation, and since the rational plan of any kind of work is derived from the end, anyone capable of receiving the law receives it from him who shows the way to the end.
If law is a plan of operation, it must be directed towards an end. What is the end of our laws? What is the goal of the tens of thousands of pages of fine print to which we are all subject? What is the purpose? It would be difficult in the extreme for me to believe that the plethora of regulations under which we all labor are ordered to the end of safeguarding the liberty that was bought for us with the blood of the Founding Fathers. In fact, I do not believe that in the slightest. Many laws include a declaration of their specific purposes, and that is somewhat helpful in answering the question, but I suppose I am more interested in whether there is a larger, unspoken end in view.

The Constitution declares its purpose in the Preamble:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
So the ends in view, for the sake of which the Constitution was established, were these:
  • Improve the union of the states
  • Establish justice
  • Insure domestic tranquility
  • National defense
  • Promote the nation's welfare
  • Secure the blessings of liberty
Lofty goals, and one could study the Constitution to see how consistent its provisions were with its stated ends, and our nation's history to see how successful those provisions were in achieving those ends. I wonder if our current laws measure up to them.

St. Thomas says that our end is God - specifically, the beatific vision. If that is the case, then our whole lives ought to be ordered to its realization - not just yours and mine, but our community's life, and our state's, and our nation's. It seems to me that the ends expressed in the Preamble are conducive in themselves to the greater end of allowing citizens the liberty to pursue their end, which is God. To that extent it seems that the Preamble is consistent with a Christian conception of the law. But it seems also to be defective, in that it acknowledges no greater end both for the United States and for American citizens. But the United States is not an end in itself (or rather, it shouldn't be). By its failure to acknowledge that Greatest End, does the Preamble - as fine a declaration as it is - sow the seeds for the statism to which we have now descended?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Charity and Judgment

Yesterday the Presbyterian Church in America (a small-ish - compared to the mainline - Bible-believing Reformed denomination) took action on the "Federal Vision"/"New Perspective on Paul" (FV) movement, declaring certain theological positions to be contrary to the teaching found in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

FV has been controversial in the PCA and other denominations for years, and there are strong opinions and smart men on both sides (and you can see my recent series on Unexamined Presuppositions for more about the problems with that: who is right? Who is wrong? Does it matter?) Unfortunately, when there are strong opinions, charity often seems to go by the wayside.

Take for example this posting by a Reformed fellow who evidently is not particularly a fan of FV. He wants to be fair-minded, but says:
Nevertheless, before I pass judgment on folks like Doug Wilson, who associate themselves with FV/AAT theology, I want to give them (any of them, not just DW) a chance to state what their actual distinctives are, if any.
Before he passes judgment on them??? Goodness! But who is he to pass judgment on them? That's rather bold, to say the least. I hope that what he really means is "pass judgment on what they say," but based upon other postings on his blog, it's not clear what he means: Take for example this post, where he declares a Catholic to be a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Unfortunately this sort of thing happens all the time. For example, when Francis Beckwith announced that he was returning to the Catholic Church, he was buried under an avalanche of simply horrid invective. One commenter even said, "Enjoy the Lake of Fire" (I'd post a link, but it appears that Dr. Beckwith has deleted the post to which this most charitable offering was attached)!!

To be fair, this sort of thing can happen when for some reason a man leaves the Catholic Church, too: I have seen cases where such folk get ripped up and down. So this is not a distinctively Protestant malady. But it's a shame nevertheless, and it certainly won't do anything to encourage the new convert to return whence he came. We need a good deal more charity and fairmindedness, and especially humility ourselves. We may sincerely believe the other man to be mistaken, and we may most certainly try to persuade him, but we must draw the line at condemning the man himself. It's not our place to do so.

Boiling it down

In an email to friends when I was on the cusp of realizing that I needed to investigate the Catholic Church's claims for herself, I asked this question:
How do we avoid everything boiling down to "Me and my Bible"? Surely
we must do that. How can we do it if the Church does not have the
authority to bind consciences?
This gets to the heart of the matter, because Protestantism enthrones the individual as the final judge of what the truth is. There is really no way to avoid this conclusion, although it can be dressed up in fancy clothes. Protestants may say that the Holy Spirit is the final judge...but how does He speak? How do we know what He says? Some will say that He speaks in the Bible, but how do we know what the Bible says? Who decides? Still others will say that the truth is to be measured by some confession or other, but again: on whose authority should we accept such an opinion? And what do these confessions say? After all, in no case has any Protestant denomination achieved unanimity even about what their own confessional standards say. Presbyterians haven't. Lutherans haven't. Anglicans/Episcopalians haven't. And in any case, they all uniformly deny that their standards are infallible. Consequently they have no choice but to deny that even their own standards have any binding force on the individual conscience. And that, of course, means that a man need not feel any compulsion whatsoever to accept those standards...and that means once again that he is free to accept them or reject them as he sees fit.

But truth is not like that. If, as I have asserted - and surely no Protestant would disagree - there are certain truths which are non-negotiable, how do we know them? And who says what is non-negotiable? If it is not the Church, it is no one at all. But if it is the Church, then it must be the Catholic Church. There are no other reasonable options. Certainly no Protestant body, coming into existence as they did barely five centuries ago, has any credible claim to be the Church to which we must all give our assent. Only the Catholic Church can make such a credible claim.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Unexamined Presuppositions 5

Last time, we ended with a question that becomes necessary as a consequence of certain opinions that were held by (for example) Martin Luther: to wit, that the Holy Spirit helps a person to correctly interpret the Bible. The question is this: Given two Protestant scholars of equal training, equal intelligence, equal acumen, equal reputations for godly character, and with equal access to all essential resources, except that one is Presbyterian and one is Baptist, which one of them is correct with regard to the doctrinal and theological issues over which they disagree?

Beyond any argument they cannot both be correct when it comes to their respective understandings of the doctrine of Baptism (to name just one). Which one, then, has the Spirit (assuming Luther is correct), and which one does not?

Let's grant that of course not all things about which Christians disagree are truly significant. St. Paul says this in Romans 14, and there really is no good reason to quibble about that. But are the issues about which Protestants disagree truly all matters of indifference? It's absurd even to suggest this, because it is inconceivable at the very least that God does not care about the truth with regard to the form and meaning of the sacraments. If he gave them to us, then the outward signs matter in terms of what they represent. If he gave them to us, then the outward signs are meant to represent something specific. These things being the case, it is simply and flatly inconceivable that error on our part in regard to the matter and form of the sacraments is a thing of indifference to God.

And now we are arriving at our destination. Because on Protestantism's own terms, it is simply and flatly impossible to determine who is right and who is wrong about the sacraments. But if Protestantism cannot deliver the goods with respect to the sacraments, then what Protestants say about how we learn truth from God has fundamental problems. In particular, since there are godly men on all sides of Protestant disputes about the sacraments, on Protestantism's terms it would be special pleading to pretend that this one or that one among them has the Spirit, while the others do not. But this means that what Protestants say about how the Spirit leads the Church into all truth is simply wrong. Without any argument the Holy Spirit does lead the Church into all truth. But the facts of the case indisputably demonstrate that He does not do so in the individualistic way that Protestants suppose.

Sadly, the pioneers of the Reformation unconsciously imbibed too much of the spirit of Renaissance humanism. In their sincere zeal to see the undeniable abuses in the Catholic Church get corrected, they went too far, and asserted for themselves the right to decide for themselves what the Bible says - to decide for themselves what the Bible teaches. Man as the measure of all things - but in a baptized version. For they would not throw God out, but rather, they would decide for themselves what it is that God says, and then they would seek to be faithful to that. In the Lord's good providence, they and their descendants have to a great degree remained faithful to much of the truth of the Gospel of Christ, so that Catholics do not need to be afraid to reckon them as brothers and sisters in Christ. But to the extent that they have arrived at correct answers, we have to recognize the fact that they have done so using an invalid method. Contrary to what they say, it is not for them to decide what God's truth is. It is not for me to say so. It is not for them to pass judgment upon God's Church on the basis of their own opinions. Rather than the humanist approach of deciding for themselves, Protestants must acknowledge that the Church is the guardian of Gospel Truth, and they need to come home to her.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Unexamined Presuppositions 4

In our last episode, I examined the Reformed/Presbyterian notion that Scripture is the "infallible interpreter" of Scripture. This model of exegesis does not work, I argued, because the Bible is an object, and objects do not interpret themselves. Interpretation is the work of a person. Consequently to expect a document - even the Word of God - to "tell us" what it means is to expect the impossible: it's not going to happen. Hence it is even more absurd to expect it do so infallibly.

Now it might be said by some Reformed folks that I have misrepresented what the WCF means by this expression. Rather, they might say that persons must use Scripture to interpret Scripture: having determined the meaning of "clear" passages, they can then use those sections as a key for interpreting the "less clear" portions of the Bible. This is a fair response (and I might have made this very reply when I was a Presbyterian).

Unfortunately, this response in no way solves the problem of interpretation; it simply changes its locus to the human interpreter, who decides for himself what the Bible says: or, as I have already suggested, it amounts to making man the measure of all things. Because it is the human interpreter who will decide what is "clear". It is the human interpreter who will decide what is "not clear". And it is the human interpreter who will decide how the "clear" passages are used in interpreting the "unclear" ones. We've discussed this problem somewhat already, and we'll return to it again later. For now it is sufficient to point out that there doesn't seem to be any good construction of WCF I:IX wherein we have an objective, infallible rule for knowing what the Bible teaches. It is not going to do it for us itself, because objects don't interpret themselves, and that means that humans are going to be involved in this allegedly "infallible" work of interpretation.

Now I'd like to look briefly at WCF I:X, where it says:
X. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
Again, this sounds very fine on the surface. But let's consider what it says for a moment. The WCF tells us here that the Holy Spirit "speaking in the Scripture" is the "supreme judge" in religious matters. Well, how do we know what He is telling us in the Scripture? Are we going to hear a voice? Are we going to receive an internal prompting of some sort? Clearly not: for we would be unable to distinguish such a voice or prompting from diabolic influence (and we would be unable to distinguish it from, for example, a very similar Mormon appeal to a "burning in the bosom"). But if that's not what we may reasonably expect, then we find ourselves in the same position as we did with regard to WCF I:IX: that is, we are forced to conclude that humans must do the job of interpreting the Bible to determine what it is that the Holy Spirit is saying in the Bible. And that, once again, means that we are back in the position of man being the measure of all things (baptized version): he will decide for himself what God is telling him: The great unexamined presupposition of the Reformation, rooted in Renaissance humanism, and contrary to the whole history of the Church during her first 15 centuries.

We ought to point out two other things about where we find ourselves. First, this is the exact circumstance in which all Protestants find themselves, Presbyterian or not. They may not adhere to the WCF formulations, but it boils down to the same, whether they are similarly confessional (like the Lutherans) or not (like the Baptists). They have taken it upon themselves to decide - independently - what it is that God says.

Secondly: at least some Protestants will object that there is another way that they might escape from these circumstances (if they even consider themselves "trapped" by them in the first place). For they may say that the Holy Spirit will individually enable them to understand the Bible correctly, appealing to a verse like, for example, Jn. 16:13: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." But is it reasonable to suppose that this verse may be applied individualistically, so that Joe or Bob can simply rely upon the Spirit to "guide them into all the truth"? I don't see how.

Let's set the stage first. Here is what Roland Bainton, the great Lutheran historian and biographer of Martin Luther, had to say about Luther's view on how one might arrive at the truth:
Luther believed that if Scripture were studied with the aid of all linguistic and critical tools, its sense would become absolutely plain, and no honest and competent inquirer would fail to miss the meaning, because the Holy Spirit would guide him to the true sense. If there were actually divergent interpretations, one would have to be wrong, and the Spirit lacking in the case of him who erred. (The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, p. 215)
Luther came to feel that the Holy Spirit was responsible not only for the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed but even for the Augsburg Confession. If the dissenter appealed to his conscience the reply was that conscience as such has no claims but only a right conscience. ... Only the correct conscience therefore is to be respected. (ibid.; emphasis in original)
So Bainton tells us Luther would say that the Holy Spirit will guide a man to the "true sense" of the Bible, and if two men disagree...well, one of them is wrong, and the Holy Spirit has not led him at all. The obvious question then is: Who is right and who is wrong? Luther had his own personal answer to that, as we see above (and perhaps we may be forgiven for suspecting that it is a most convenient answer, if not entirely self-serving): The one who agrees with the Augsburg Confession is right!

But why should we believe him? It's rather disingenuous of Luther to suppose that we ought to just take him at his word that the Augsburg Confession has God's stamp of approval on it. Given his own measure (see above), how are we to know that the Lutherans have interpreted the Bible correctly rather than the Calvinists? Rather than the Catholics? Sure, Luther might be perfectly willing to say that the Catholics lack the Holy Spirit, but is he really going to insist that the Calvinists are similarly lacking? Apparently he would, and it seems that some of his descendants would too.

Okay, so there are some who are willing to play that game. But must we do so? Given that there are godly men on both sides of almost any theological debate, are we really going to insist - despite all evidence to the contrary - that one of them is lacking the witness of the Spirit? But if we are going to say that, then we must ask another question: Which one?

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Unexamined Presuppositions 3

In my last post, I said that the Protestant has made himself the measure of all things when it comes to the Bible: he will decide for himself what the Bible teaches. This amounts to a sort of "baptized Renaissance humanism": man as the measure of all things. For the individual Protestant determines for himself what truths are said to be taught in the Bible (which is at least formally the only source of religious truth that they consider to be valid).

As I conceded, that was a coarse way of putting things: because in many cases, this is not precisely how Protestants view the matter themselves. At least some of them might explicitly deny such a representation of their position. In this post I will be addressing the Presbyterian position on the subject. I'm selecting this one for two reasons: first, I think that it is at least representative of the better sort of Protestant viewpoint on the subject (I don't necessarily mean to say that it is the best; Lutherans might say otherwise, for example, and some other groups might quibble as well, and I don't mean to belittle the others. In fact, though, I think that for the most part their perspectives will be at least similar to the Presbyterian one). Secondly, as a former member (for 20 years) of the Presbyterian Church in America, it's the Protestant perspective that is most familiar to me!

The Westminster Confession of Faith is the confessional standard for Presbyterians. What they mean by "confessional standard" is that they believe the WCF faithfully and accurately represents the system of doctrine to be found in the Bible. If there is an authoritative document amongst Presbyterians (other than the Bible itself), this is it. What does the WCF have to say about this subject? Who decides what the Bible teaches?

The answer, according to the WCF, is twofold. From Chapter I:
IX. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
X. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
So the WCF says that Scripture is its own infallible interpreter, and that the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture is the "supreme judge".

First of all, we should give credit where credit is due: the writers of the WCF clearly intended to avoid setting up man as the measure of what the Bible teaches. But do they succeed? I submit that the answer is an emphatic No.

In the first place, to make a book its own infallible interpreter is a circular argument: Why is the Bible infallible? Because it says so. Well, we might concede that an infallible book might make such a claim for itself, but that is hardly sufficient grounds for accepting the claim. Secondly, however, this claim by the WCF does nothing to settle any hermeneutical questions for us. How are we to know which are the "other places that speak more clearly"? How are we to know which clearer places (among all the clearer ones) are the ones to help us interpret this or that specific difficult one? Who is to say what is difficult and what is clear? The WCF has no answer for these questions, and I submit that Presbyterians have none that really work.

It might be asserted that the "assured results" of exegesis by competent scholars has established what are clear passages and what are not. The only problem with this is: Protestants don't agree. More specifically, not even Presbyterians agree! There are postmillennial Presbyterians, and premillennial Presbyterians, and sabbatarians, and non-sabbatarians, and New Perspective on Paul/Federal Vision Presbyterians, and so forth. It may be conceded that Presbyterians (at least in any specific Presbyterian denomination) agree about most things, but they most assuredly do not agree about everything. How then has the Bible as an "infallible interpreter" of itself enabled them to come to agreement about what the Bible says? Can it reasonably be said - even if this thesis be granted - that it has worked for them? No. It can't. An "infallible interpreter" which produces such varied results is clearly not reliable, and cannot reasonably be said to be an "infallible interpreter".

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that the Bible contains errors. It does not. What I am saying is that it cannot function as an "infallible interpreter". It's an object. Objects do not interpret themselves. Interpretation must be done by a person. But the Bible is not a person. Therefore it cannot be an interpreter. Therefore it cannot be an infallible interpreter.

This demonstrates, as far as I can tell, that at least one standard of Protestant interpretation is fallacious. When someone announces that "XYZ is true because the Bible says so!", we have to recognize that what has really happened is that he (or someone) has interpreted the Bible, and it is his understanding that the Bible says XYZ. The Bible does not speak for itself. It is an object. It is the Holy Word of God, but that fact does not grant it powers to interpret itself anymore than any other book. A book must be interpreted by a person. Claims that "the Bible says so" demand that we ask: Who says that the Bible says so? And why should we believe what he says about the subject?

In the next post, we'll look more at WCF I:X, and the question of who interprets the Bible.