Sunday, April 29, 2007

The "stuff" theory of revelation

In a combox at Dave Armstrong's blog, I had a discussion with a Protestant who had some anxiety about oral tradition as compared to written tradition. He was arguing that written tradition, because it was not subject to as much transmissional variance, should be the only form of revelation trusted. I characterized his view (a characterization that he accepted) and offered my own in the following response:
You are thinking of the Apostolic teaching as "stuff," material. That's why we're talking past each other. I'll summarize what I see you as saying, using this term "stuff" (which is something like "information," but not quite for reasons that I hope to explain).

The reason that you are making such a big deal about transmission is that you see the goal as taking the "stuff" the Apostles left us and making sure that the "stuff" stays the same, not adding new "stuff" that could be mistaken for the old "stuff" or losing any of the old "stuff." So you think they wrote this "stuff" down so it wouldn't get lost (since in oral transmission, "stuff" gets lost) and told people not to lose this "stuff" so that you can compare new material X to the "stuff" to make sure that it isn't incompatible.

With respect to 2 Kings [22], you are saying that Israel failed at its job of "stuff" protection. It was a good thing that the "stuff" was in writing, because otherwise the failure would have meant that the "stuff" was lost.

With respect to Catholicism, then, you see it as relying on "stuff" that was not properly Apostolic, hence the "stuff" that Catholicism is labeling the Apostolic "stuff" is not really the "stuff." Instead, the new "stuff" should be judged against the original "stuff," and what is contradictory should be thrown out, while what is new should not be passed off as Apostolic "stuff."All that sounds completely reasonable as a concept, and it is equally clear (at least to me) that it could not even possibly be true. This entire "stuff" concept is based on the notion that inspiration is some inherent property, like color or hardness, so that you can just look at the "stuff" and perceive it. That's the source of your romantic (but, alas, incredibly implausible) claim that the Word of God would be known as such simply by looking at it. But given that I consider this claim false, I cannot accept your account of the Apostolic deposit as "stuff."

So if it isn't "stuff," what is it? This is the celebrated distinction between material and formal sufficiency. Inspiration is a property of intended function, so that something is "inspired" as being intended for use according to a specific formal rule.

One of the major differences between the Old and New Testament is understanding. The Israelites were more or less keeping Scripture blindly, but the Church has the understanding (formal awareness) to develop by the gift of the Holy Spirit. You're effectively holding the Church to the Israelite rule (hang onto this, and don't change anything), but that rule was only established in the way that it was because Israel was a mere shadow of the Church. In effect, Israel was holding Scripture for the Church; the inspiration of the prophets was looking forward to the Church. So the reason that they were simply told to hold it and not to tamper with it was that they weren't the intended audience (at least not qua Israel, although certain righteous men were blessed with some insight into the true meaning). They were only the shadow by which the true Church would be identified.

What I would say is that if you are going to advance this "stuff" theory, then you need to articulate exactly what the "stuff" is, how it is perceived, how it gets transmitted, etc. Then show how this "stuff" theory is consistent with the "stuff" itself and how it plays out in history (did the Fathers have this "stuff" idea?). It seems to me that this concept of "stuff" is badly corrupting the discussion between Catholics and Protestants. (Protestants seem to think of material sufficiency as "stuff" and formal sufficiency as being able to see what the "stuff" is, which is clearly not what Catholics teach.) Catholics consider the "stuff" theory completely unbelievable as an account of divine revelation, so we need to come to some understanding before getting past that point.

I also made a couple of additional comments regarding Old Testament deviations from the rule of faith and the advantage of the New Covenant:
In terms of this "stuff" theory, one advantage of the Church over Israel is that it has its own regulative function (i.e., the Magisterium) to prevent deviations from the Tradition. When Israel blew it, God Himself directly intervened to get them back on the straight and narrow, either through righteous men (like King Josiah himself and the prophets) or through punishment. The Church has the Holy Spirit working in Her already, so the corrective feature we see in 2 Kings is internal, not external. Thus, it is reasonable to think that Israel could fail where the Church cannot.
The failure in the New Testament churches (as opposed to Israel, which lacked the Holy Spirit and required external correction) comes from people breaking away from Christ's unity into division and heresy (1 Cor. 1:10-11, 11:18-19), while the faithful maintain unity (Rom. 12:16, 16:17-18; Ephesians 4:1-6; Phillipians 2:1-2; 1 Pet. 3:8).

In response to these comments, someone emailed me to inquire whether there were any Catholic books providing more explanation of this idea, because the "stuff" theory that I described appears to be more or less the orthodox theory of inspiration and revelation as most Protestants understand it. That seems consistent with the Protestant with whom I was having the dialogue accepting the "stuff" theory I outlined as an accurate description of his view. Obviously, it is a serious impediment to Catholic/Protestant dialogue if we do not even understand each other's positions on the most fundamental issue of how God communicates with human beings, because the discussion of every other theological issue is framed by this issue. Consequently, I thought I should present an answer here for public consumption.

As a general matter, the articulation of how to methodologically handle revelation came during the conflict between the Catholic Church and modernism (including its associated skepticism, in both Kantian and Humean form). It is important to recognize that Scripture is simply a special case of Tradition in the Catholic view, so both Scripture and Tradition are implicitly being discussed here. However, the general conclusions were dogmatized by the Catholic Church with respect to Scripture in Dei Verbum. The historical examination of this matter within the Church is surveyed in Aidan Nichols, OP, From Newman to Congar, a worthy excerpt of which can be found here. I agree with Nichols's conclusion that while there might still be questions over how any specific solution deals with questions of pluralism, hermeneutics, and reception, the general parameters of how to approach the matter appear to have been resolved.

The two books from this clash with modernism that I've found most suggestive are Maurice Blondel, Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma (printed together by Ignatius Press under the combined title) and Bernard Lonergan's Method in Theology. Both are controversial among the more conservative Thomists and students of scholasticism, and I understand why. But I think these are valuable because they rebuke the post-Kantian theological method with the faith of the Church. They don't talk about Scripture directly, but what is important to remember about Catholic thought is that Scripture is simply a special case of Tradition. And I do recognize that any detailed analysis of Tradition must wrangle with the problems that Nichols mentioned: pluralism, hermeneutics, and reception. But what I would suggest is that they have at least offered a framework in which they can possibly be solved through tenacious examination of the contingent events in the history of the Church.

Viewing John Henry Cardinal Newman as a forerunner of this approach, I think it sells him short to think of him as Hegelian. The sort of theorizing Newman does starts from exactly the same place: that one's hypotheses about the regula fidei are not tested in one's head, but by applying a method that allows them full contact with reality. There's an inherent rejection of the Kantian critique of knowledge, because it assumes both that things can be known in themselves and that this knowledge directly impacts what theological alternatives are permissible. Revelation, then, is not directly from God's mind to our mind (which is how the post-Kantian view would necessarily see it), but it is, like natural knowledge, hard-earned conceptual knowledge about real events. It is grace, but not grace that replaces our normal operation of intellect. Rather, it elevates the operation of that intellect in a harmonious way to see an object beyond its ordinary limits (effectively, a mediated realist account of knowledge, which is all Blondel's particular "method of immance" really is).

By way of contrast, I believe that many non-Catholic thinkers (and I am particularly thinking of Thomas Reid, Herman Dooyeweerd, Cornelius Van Til, John Locke, and numerous Humean skeptics) conceded too much to Kant, more or less accepting Kant's critique of knowledge and attempting to show within that perspective that it could be answered. (N.B., As one might gather from my list, I have a theory as to why Calvinism is particularly vulnerable to this affliction, but I want to stick with discussing the Catholic view for now.) People like Blondel and Lonergan demonstrated that Thomist/scholastic ideas, rather than being naively accepted, could be deployed to show where the Kantian critique was fundamentally erroneous. Conservative Thomists like Garrigou-Lagrange (and even less conservative Thomists like Etienne Gilson) thought this sort of justification according to external methods put too much "up for grabs" (and one could cite examples like Loisy in which it did; thence arose the bitter conflct between Garrigou-Lagrange and Blondel). But in the end, I think Blondel, Lonergan, et al. were vindicated in their endeavor to argue for Thomism against modernism. I've located an article by a like-minded author that makes out a case for this view.

At the bottom line, I think the "stuff" theory of revelation is more or less the Kantian anxiety made flesh. To be true or certain, there has to be this real instance of mind-to-mind transmission from God. When these things get tangled up with phenomena, they lose their noumenal purity. Revelation is pure idea, and it must be preserved as such. Note that this is by no means an exclusively religious idea; it can also be found in jurisprudence in the form of legal positivism endorsed by, e.g., Robert Bork. But for those who view even the initial events (e.g., the delivery of revelation, the passage of a law) as themselves being mediated and only imperfectly or partially modeled as pure ideas, such notions of preservation are difficult to swallow, and the associated fears of "error," the "wax nose" anxiety, and the like seem chimerical. They are vain attempts to preserve something that was itself only a creature of the imagination, an unreal ideal, when the focus should instead (according to the Catholic perspective) be put onto the reality in which these things operate. The reality is what maintains unity through the synergistic action of the community as members of the Body of Christ, of which even the delivery of the apostolic deposit is a part.

In the Catholic view, laws and revelation were intended to serve a unitive function in a community to allow no conflict between the members, so it is at some level meaningless to speak of "error" in that function (if it fails, the Body of Christ, ergo Christianity, ceases to exist in reality). As Dei Verbum makes clear, there are truths in both what the original authors assert (the positive content of Scripture) AND in concrete reception of particular texts within the Church:

11. Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture
have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.(1) In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him (2) they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, (3) they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. (4)

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation. Therefore "all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind" (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text).

12. However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, (6) the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.

To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to "literary forms." For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. (7) For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another. (8)

But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, (9) no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God. (10)

Effectively, this implies that the Apostles have given their consent to have their own intent clarified according to the Church's dogma, just as a legislator implicitly gives consent to have disputes resolved according to judicial procedure and the like. This is why you will often see even a Catholic exegete like Raymond Brown of Joseph Fitzmyer point out that something was not necessarily intended by a Scriptural author as a historical matter, but nevertheless, it is an acceptable dogmatic development not contradictory with the original intent because the historical meaning of the passage (as best we know it) does not manifest the intent to foreclose such an interpretation. Naturally, one might speculate what would happen IF such a contradiction were ever to arise, but one ought not based one's commitments to beliefs about reality on what might happen absent some concrete demonstration that the possibility is real.

This does, of course, render something formally binding that could not possibly be binding according to the "stuff" theory, but recall that the Catholic view is that the Apostolic deposit included a specific commission to make such matters binding in a manner consistent with the spirit of the initial deposit (even to the extent of accepting additions to Scripture, such as the the additions to the book of Daniel, as sharing the same spirit of inspiration). In our view, even the original revelation was deposited under the same conditions, not having been intended to be "pure idea" even when it was first left to us. There's not a fear of Scripture functioning in this way, because that's what Scripture was made to do in the Church (as opposed to Israel, Her antitype in this respect).

Obviously, this only holds given apostolic succession of Tradition; if the chain of formal authority were broken, then even Scripture itself would lack binding authority on this theory. It is not the case, incidentally, that we Catholics assert the need of a Magisterium simpliciter. Rather, we assert the need for a Magisterium on our theory of revelation, which is a different matter. I've seen the accusation bandied about that some Catholics (including Newman himself!) have converted out of some misguided quest for epistemic certainty to assuage their angst over their own personal doubts and struggles. At least in my personal experience, that badly misunderstands what is being asserted. Instead, the argument is that it is the only consistent position that allows development of doctrine to have the same binding force as revelation itself (foreclosing "private judgment" in the Church). Given the real experience of the Church, it seems highly implausible that development of doctrine does not have such force (viz., history is a denial of the "stuff" theory as limiting what is irreformably binding to the "pure idea," the "stuff," of Scripture). Thus emerges the Newmanian dictum: "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." Obviously, one might quibble over exactly what sort of authority is required or what degree of division is acceptable, and this is the dispute between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches. But both staunchly maintain that the facts rebut any hypothesis of formal continuity with the Christian Church of ages past without some way of formally declaring irreformable de fide dogma.