Monday, February 21, 2005

Truth via error?

In commenting on a response made by the Pontificator to one of his arguments, Lutheran blogger Chris Atwood made the following observation about the question of the authorship of certain New Testament books:

If this is the case, the Pontificator’s view of church authority is far stronger and more troubling than that of Shari DeSilva. What he is implying is that pious frauds written in the second century to "nail" Gnostics and deceitfully attributed to Paul to enhance their authority - - for this is what critical scholarship takes these epistles to be - - can be turned into inerrant and unimpeachable writings by church authority. Not only that, since the letters in question were universally accepted as genuine by the early church, the Pontificator will be forced, if he continues to hold this view, to accept that the process of canonization proceeded by a kind of strange ex opere operato in which documents mistakenly assumed to be genuine by the church and approved on that basis do really become inerrant and unimpeachable as a result of church decision. Wow! What now remains of the church’s supposed infallibility? Dishonesty turned into inerrancy by the mechanics of a church council; the cheated church hierarchy imposing the document that cheated them on the world at large - - and having God’s approval to do so!

This criticism seems reminiscent of other arguments that I hear about the doctrine of the Assumption/Dormition coming from the heretical Transitus literature, about papal infallibility coming from pseudo-Isidorean decretals, and about erroneous doctrines of penance and justification coming from the mistranslations of the Vulgate (specifically, the L. "do penance" in place of Gk. "turn away from" and the L. "make righteous" in place of the Gk. "declare righteous"). Leaving aside the relative absurdity of labeling pseudepigraphy as "dishonesty" (an anachronism if ever I saw one), it would seem that this entire line of criticism partakes of the same nihilism that inevitably lands one in the lap of Harnack or Bultmann. If the great strength of Christianity as a worldview is its assimilative power for alien beliefs, as Lutheran scholar Bruce D. Marshall argues in Trinity and Truth, then it would seem entirely necessary for Christianity to make sense of beliefs taken from alien worldviews in a harmonious way. Otherwise, it can hardly be the kind of "grounding" worldview that can give meaning to the entire scope of truth. Indeed, such a reductive view of Christianity effectively negates the possibility of infallible divine revelation through fallible human beings.

Far from it being a question of the false becoming true by the Church's ratification "ex opere operato," the process of inspecting teachings by resonance with the Church's faith is a natural part of the Church's life. If we can't trust the Church to know its own faith, then we can't trust any concept of divine revelation. [Incidentally, this also explains how there could have been disagreement, albeit limited, on what was inspired Scripture without that being a church-sundering issue.] This is not to say that it is impossible for the Church to correct itself, but it does so within the life of the Church, not in response to some outside concept of objective truth.


At 1:02 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

A bit of irony just occurred to me. The standard Protestant account of the Old Testament maintained that the Council of Jamnia had the authority to decide what was and wasn't part of the Old Testatment. As I recall, they were also deceived by the pseudepigraphic nature of some of the books. For example, authorship of the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes was attributed to Solomon by tradition, but there are numerous reasons for considering both of those claims unlikely. One of the primary criteria for the Jamnian determination of canonicity was whether the books were written before the reign of Artaxerxes, so the misattribution of authorship almost certainly placed material in the canon that failed to meet the canonical standard. It would be entirely inconsistent to argue that the Jewish people, asserted to have the responsibility for protecting the "oracles of God," could correctly identify the canon despite having been deceived by the pseudepigraphic nature of the books, and yet, that such a thing could not happen in the Catholic Church.

At 7:16 PM, Blogger Pontificator said...

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