Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Why can't Scripture be the proximate object of faith?

This question was asked in the comments below, and far from being "off base," I think it is a natural question that I haven't answered all that clearly.

The short answer is as follows: Scripture is just flat-out the wrong sort of entity. Scripture is communicative, and communication works according to existing knowledge. That is not in the least intended to denigrate Scripture; it is simply affirming the reality of what it is. And communication by its very nature appeals to the knowledge of the receiver. If someone uses some term that you don't recognize (say, while teaching you a language), then he has to find some concept in common experience to explain it to you in order to communicate knowledge. So that's the real crux of my argument: Where does the knowledge of God originate in order to know things by faith?

When Catholics speak of the Church as possessing "the fullness of the faith," we mean it in this way. In knowing the Church, one knows all the things that are conveyed in revelation. This is also what we mean by the preservation of the apostolic deposit in the life of the Church. In living the Catholic life, one experiences the reality grounding all of the concepts in revelation, and to the extent one knows the Church, the proximate object of faith, one also understands revelation.
That's one thing that often gets missed in the spooftexting approach to showing sola scriptura in the Fathers. When the Fathers speak both to heretics and to Christians about the sufficiency of Scripture, they always had in mind people who had learned these things from the Church (indeed, where else would one learn it?). They chastise the heretics for denying what they had learned and for making what should have been clear to one who had learned from the Church obscure. Lots of modern Evangelicals tend to anachronistically read their notion of "Christian" and "faith" to include their own modern idea of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as if there were people walking around who had spontaneously stumbled on a copy of Scripture and were filled by the Holy Spirit, but the Fathers were talking to people who had been formed in faith within the Church. Nor was the "rule of faith" *simply* a confession or a summary of Christian tenets, but a profession of faith in what the Church taught (hence, a symbol of faith in the Church). Catholics and Orthodox may disagree on what the life of the Church entails exactly, but there is no question that the Fathers considered this life the source of all formed faith.

And there's no question, based on what I said above, that someone formed in faith by the Church ought to be able to read the Scriptures to great profit, as the Scriptures themselves plainly attest (2 Tim. 3:16-17). When someone living the life of the Church reads Scripture, he sees men speaking of his own experience. On the other hand, if your knowledge of the things of God is confused, your faith unformed, then this is not the case, and that also seems to be a clear lesson of Scripture.

I'm not trying to spooftext, but I think this is actually the message of 2 Pet. 3:16 "There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures." I don't think he means "ignorant" in terms of not knowing Greek; I think he means that their faith is unformed. Of note also is 2 Tim. 3:14-15 "But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." I'm not in the least saying that Scripture depends on the Church for its power in this regard; anyone with a formed faith will benefit from Scripture. But the ability to benefit does depend on the person's faith, and I find it difficult to understand how a person's faith is formed by knowledge (i.e., the faith has a proximate object) anywhere but the Church.

That's my criticism in essence. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit works in many ways outside the Catholic Church. But outside of what is knowable by natural theology (and many people don't even bother to learn that), there are limited opportunities outside the Catholic Church to obtain the knowledge by which faith is formed and Scripture made profitable. If someone is claiming to have this knowledge in some other way, then I am going to need to understand the manner in which he received this knowledge, because it is fairly obvious that God didn't tell him directly. And I'm by no means saying that one has to have some extraordinarily sophisticated theological or metaphysical understanding on each and every point of dogma, because even children and the unlearned can know the faith by experience, even if they can't articulate it in every detail. But even the children and unlearned who know by experience (and thus recognize their experience in Scripture) know it by the Church.

6 Comments:

At 4:04 PM, Blogger Richard Froggatt said...

I was thinking last night about the Church being the pillar and foundation of the truth. For the last couple of years I've heard this verse spoken of in connection with the authority between Protestants and Catholics.

But then I started thinking about it in connection with the Church being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets and then I thought to myself; how can I stand on the foundation without the pillar?

I was thinking in terms of being a part of the life of the Church, as opposed to my present state of non commitment.

 
At 8:19 AM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

I agree with probably 99% of what you said here, the gist of it being that Scripture is not a "standalone" entity but must always be situated within the context of a whole life of faith if it is to be engaged and understood properly.

And for the record, I agree with your point about the Evangelical spooftexting of the Fathers view of sufficiency. I saw this a few years ago, after I got out of the spooftexter circles and started actually thinking about what was being said both by the Fathers and by their Evangelical spooftexters. I believe that much of the mischief of typical Evangelical apologetics comes from the lack of sober reflection on ecclesiology and the pre-existing social connections in which faith usually arises and is nurtured. We tend to believe this vast mythology about "the Bible" that treats it like a self-contained, self-referential entity that dropped out of heaven one day already bound in leather covers and bearing a "face value" meaning that any old dolt, no matter how untrained or as you might put it "formed," can instantly understand and use as a standard to "compare" other things against.

That is most certainly not the assumption of the Fathers, and so to use their high words about Scripture as if they said those things within the mental and cultural context of low Church Evangelicalism with its Modernist assumptions about textual perspicuity and meaning, and direct, unmediated religion. I'm sure it doesn't help, either, that the Catholic apologetics against which such views are reactions often treat the Scriptures as if they are just like any other book in order to exalt the authority of the Church and its community life of faith. It's a real mess on both sides.

Since you acknowledged that the Holy Spirit no doubt has many means of working with people outside the Catholic Church, room is left for the occasional "exception" cases who literally do have nothing but a Bible they stumbled across and which is used by God to transform their lives. Exceptions aren't rules, of course, but as long as you take note of them the force of any critique I would have had of your treatment of Scripture is blunted.

 
At 12:24 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

I certainly am not inclined to deny the existence of "actual grace," as the theologians like to call it. "Take and read" certainly happens. My skepticism is strictly in terms of the ability for most people to receive a stable foundation of knowledge and judgment through such glimmers. And indeed, it strikes me as questionable that anyone who really did believe that he was a sinner would have any trust in his ability to do so.

 
At 4:01 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

Well, on the point of people who know they are sinners trusting in what they find when they just "take and read," obviously they don't believe it's only on their own authority. You've done a good job of showing that common polemical Evangelical notions about the Bible's authority often amount to sheer fideism, but for the mass of ordinary people not involved in polemics such arguments as you've marshalled would probably not even find a place in their world, and would leave them just scratching their heads. For many, many thousands of Evangelicals (and I speak from personal experience, having grown up in those circles), it is literally a situation of reading the Scriptures and having their hearts and minds radically opened and their lives radically changed: "once I was blind, but now I see".

This is all the more the case in circles which hold up "celebrity" cases of conversion as the norm--the average person wants his spiritual experience to be as close as possible to that of Joe Bob the Ex-Drug-Dealing, Chain-Smoking, Bad Movie-Watching, Rip-Roaring Hell's Angel Wannabe. Consequently, both the nature and gravity of their personal sins and the role of the Bible in changing their lives gets all the more exalted. You'd sooner talk them out of their faith in the power of the Bible to regenerate them and change their lives as you'd talk the pope out of believing in Apostolic Succession.

That is the experience of numerous Evangelicals, not just in the here and now, but over the last few centuries, and you might want to consider that IF by some remote chance they were to actually try to process your empiricist-ontological arguments and give a response, they might respond to the effect that they have personally experienced objective reality breaking in on their consciousness by the power of the Holy Spirit operating through the Scriptures (and often, also through other human channels who bring the Bible to them and / or help them work through it). I am not entirely sure of this, but it seems to me that such testimonies might look pretty similar to your own about God bringing you to the Faith through the Catholic Church--in which case, much of the prima facie rhetorical force of your arguments would collapse and you'd have to engage in a much deeper conversation about the nature of spiritual experience itself.

Now, I understand and agree with your point about the unliklihood of receiving a stable foundation of knowledge and judgment through "such glimmers." It's one thing to claim that God has radically changed your life through the power of the Scriptures, but something else to deal with the numerous forms of cognitive and emotional dissonance that arise all too easily for many who reach "burn out" points in their Evangelical "walk with God" and start paying attention to, say, the things put out by Catholic apologists.

Obviously, some guy who thought the Scriptures radically changed him but who has then spent the last 10 years sitting around in small groups with open Bibles in their laps and all going around the circle trading "What this verse means to me..." is not someone you want to consider "taught and stable" in the faith. Likewise, he's not going to gain much stability merely by reading the largely untrained exegesis of amateur Catholic apologetics websites, the Letters of Irenaeus, and isolated quotations from Newman's Essay on Development.

There are plenty of Catholics who have no earthly idea about epistemology or ontology, as I believe you have already stated somewhere, and who often sound just as fideistic about the Church as any Protestant polemicist does about the Bible. So it's really a big mess on all sides, not just the Evangelical side. Still, I greatly appreciate your efforts to address these issues, and I've learned a great deal from you that I consider to be positive and of enduring value.

 
At 10:17 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

I agree that Catholics need help here as well, and that perfect knowledge is hardly a necessity for salvation. For them, my goal is simply to broaden and deepen their knowledge of faith, as my own has been broadened and deepened in like fashion. Many, maybe even most, Christians will not avail themselves and will be thoroughly practical in their faith (children, for example, will have this practical sort of faith and utilitarian concepts directed to their actual life of faith). That is no fault, though as with all practical activities, a lack of knowledge can be objectively dangerous and doing certain things with a lack of knowledge can be reckless. But as people grow in knowledge, it is only to be expected that faith will seek understanding, and I wish to preserve the avenue for intellectual growth, which is what I see presented in the science of theology. And intellectual development is of benefit to practical life as well, no doubt. As I mentioned before, greater understanding does not hinder one's appreciation for God.

My primary concern is people who have set themselves up as roadblocks to the possibility of improved understanding, effectively erecting a fortress of error. That category includes both Catholics and Protestants; e.g., Dennis McCarthy once described Raymond Brown's doubt as a "squirrel cage." That's not to say that Fr. Brown didn't have faith or even a great deal of theological knowledge. But there was effectively no way for him to go, because his methods provided no way of correction even when he was wrong, starting as they did with fundamental doubt about what could be learned. And in matters of formal authority, theological dogma, and the like, such methods are absolutely necessary for understanding. One can certainly know dogmas in a more practical or intuitive sense in the sense of how one lives one's life, but this should not be understood to eviscerate them of their scientific content.

I have mentioned to you some Protestants who are not in that category, so I hope that you will not take what I say as directed to you or to many others like you. I am simply outlining my concern that idealist or self-referential notions of theological knowledge seem to trap people inescapably, and I think it is important for everyone to articulate their feedback mechanism by which they judge error. Many a Christian life has started with a brilliant subjective experience, but if you never get outside yourself, there is no way to go beyond that. Such a person is left simply attempting to relive the singular experience without ever grasping it in any depth. His faith can never become informed. It is that sort of faith to the exclusion of intellect that troubles me.

 
At 12:38 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

Many a Christian life has started with a brilliant subjective experience, but if you never get outside yourself, there is no way to go beyond that. Such a person is left simply attempting to relive the singular experience without ever grasping it in any depth. His faith can never become informed.

Yes, exactly, and that was a HUGE factor in my own move from generic Evangelicalism to the Reformed view. The Reformed view seemed to provide something objective, something outside of my own head, outside of my own subjective fears and worries and convictions--which were pretty much driving me spiritually nuts over the course of several years. So that's probably one reason I'm sympathetic to your points: I have seen the terrible damage that "idealism" does to one's faith firsthand, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

Again, I'm not saying that the average "The Bible transformed me" person has everything he needs to grow in Christ and develop what you might call a "fully formed" faith. All I am saying is that at the most basic level, if the Bible is OBJECTIVELY (outside of our heads, whether we can articulate or defend that conviction well or not) the Word of God, it cannot fail to perform its work and could actually be the proximate object of faith--even if said faith was severely immature. Someone may be a fideist about the Bible (or the Church), but the OBJECTIVE realities of the Bible and the Church do not lose their OBJECTIVE power because of SUBJECTIVE factors. At worst, we're talking about mature faith and immature faith based on a maturely or immaturely considered proper object, not the total nonexistence of faith because it has no proper object.

 

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