Saturday, September 08, 2007

Why I love Scripture

Based on a couple of discussions triggered by my recent posts, I realized that I have been underemphasizing just how much I love and appreciate Scripture. My point in focusing on knowledge and justification of Scriptural authority is the same that it would be in focusing on knowledge and justification of any wonderful and awe-inspiring reality. I'm someone who started very early on with a child's wonder at creation, from looking up at the stars as long as I can remember to watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos and reading the book of the same name when I was very young. I would be disappointed if my subsequent knowledge of physics in any way lessened that awe and wonder, and indeed, it has not.

What I want to emphasize is that I don't in the least bit want to diminish that instinctive love that people have for Scripture. The respect for Scriptural authority, even in an inchoate emotional sense, is not a BAD thing. All I want to do is to unlock what is hidden in Scripture without knowledge of the Christian faith. It's the same thing I'd do with someone who didn't understand science. They might have real knowledge mixed with a number of "common sense" beliefs that have never been critically evaluated. My experience has been that when things are better understood, just as in the study of science, one's appreciation for the object of study only rises. That's what Jesus did with the incomplete understanding of Scripture in the Old Covenant, the meaning of which was hidden and obscured until the Incarnation.

Along those lines, it's not as if Israel's respect for Scripture was wrong; it was simply like the understanding of a child compared to an adult. One can think of the Father's dealings with Israel as a human father's dealings with an infant who lacks the capacity to understand what he was saying. Children can still be bad, in the sense of failing to do what is in their capacity, and that was true with Israel as well. God allowed that failing to illustrate the fundamental need for Him, because unlike human parents, we always need our heavenly Father (in that sense, our faith is always the faith of a child).

All of this probably sounds patronizing in the most literal way, but spiritual fatherhood is how we Catholics view our Christian evangelical vocation. The Pope is the Holy Father, the ancient Christian witnesses are Fathers, our priests are called Father, and our spiritual vocation of marriage is the model for the lay apostolate. As a Catholic, you NEVER outgrow the need for spiritual fatherhood, so the notion that this sort of fatherhood is an accusation of immaturity, something that you should in some sense "outgrow," is as far from the Catholic mind as it could be. I can see where Catholic talk of "fullness of the faith" comes off as "patronizing," but the entire Catholic belief is that one ought to accept spiritual fatherhood, and even Catholics need this spiritual fatherhood. That's not to say that we don't grow in knowledge; one does attain a maturity of faith in terms of faith seeking understanding. A mature faith understands why one consents to one's spiritual fathers; an immature faith simply obeys that spirtual guidance through instinct without being able to articulate why it is so. But this never excuses one from the obligation to obey, even if one does not understand why. One never gets out from under the authority of one's heavenly Father, as delegated in various ways to the spiritual fathers on earth (even down to one's natural father).

That is honestly how we view our separated brethren: we have a common Father (and so we are brethren), but the separated brethren refuse to accept their Father's word unless He justifies Himself to their own sensibilities. In that respect, we view them as "sophomores" in both the classic and the modern sense: people who know just enough to be dangerous. Picture the teenager who believes himself to be wise enough to judge the wisdom of his parents' command but who really lacks the wisdom to make such decisions; he becomes mature by learning enough through his own experience to actually have that wisdom. Likewise, much of Catholic apologetics is directed at critically evaluating the areas where one believes rightly, where one has obeyed the Father's Word, but without having thought through why (having received knowledge, but not judgment). This is not in any way to denigrate or discourage belief; on the contrary, it is intended to build up one's adherence to that belief by showing the reasons behind it, which the separated brother might know only partially if at all. Nonetheless, it is genuinely motivated by respect of the other person as being reasonable, capable of investigating these matters and drawing conclusions based on knowledge and experience. It is an effort to build up judgment by appealing to existing knowledge, not an effort to break down that knowledge. And note that this is the SAME approach we would take with Catholics who do not understand some area of their faith, and it is the same approach by which I myself have learned my faith from Catholics. So we really don't in the least intend to be condescending in the approach; rather, it is the pedagogical technique that we have seen to work over and over again.

To come full circle to my recent apologetics efforts, I'll wrap up with an anecdote in which I learned wisdom from a spiritual father. I had the opportunity to hear and speak with Fr. Pat Mullen, a professor of Biblical studies, on the subject of how to answer fundamentalists from a Catholic perspective. While he did point out a number of instances in which a fundamentalist reading of Scripture was just plain wrong, the main thrust of his advice was to give the following answer: "I love Jesus, and I sincerely want to do His will to the best of my ability." He maintained that this was a good answer for two reasons. First, if someone has a sincere motivation for your spiritual well-being, then their primary concern is likely that you are consciously spurning Jesus, not that you simply have a well-intended misunderstanding of Him. Hence, if you can simply affirm your sincerity in what you believe, that might well address the emotional side of their concerns sufficiently to allow a reasonable discussion. Second, anyone who won't accept that statement from you is likely beyond rational discussion, and it would be unwise to invest the effort mounting a rational argument against someone who isn't willing to discuss things on a rational basis, particularly given that a sincere denial of a charge suffices in cases where the opponent doesn't prove his case in the first place. Afterward, Fr. Pat explained to me that this should apply equally to scholars who make assertions based on unjustified (fundamentalist) authority principles to label those who disagree with their authority principle as deniers of the authority of Scripture. Given that Fr. Pat is himself a Biblical scholar (unlike any of the anti-Catholics with whom I routinely deal) who is familiar with the goals and limitations of his discipline, I believe that his observations concerning even scholars "talking out of turn" are good ones.

Upon further reflection, the wisdom of Fr. Pat's advice seemed undeniable. Someone who isn't going to respect your sincerity enough to heed what you say is not going to listen to a reasonable answer or to accept your advice. For such people, there is nothing to do but to wait on God's grace. Thus, my recent efforts have been to note that the anti-Catholic argument boils down to the assertion of an unjustified, polemical authority principle to attack the sincerity of the Catholic belief in Scripture (and more generally, the Catholic belief in its own principle of authority). This is more or less to do what Catholic apologetics directed to primarily separated brethren is intended to do, i.e., to show an uncritical acceptance of beliefs without a real understanding of WHY those beliefs are held. Thus, it is for the benefit of sincere Protestants who will be inclined to think about their own justification. But it serves a twofold purpose, in that it also demonstrates that the attacks on Catholicism are irrational and unjustified, showing that the charges lack substantiation. In this way, it shows the ineffectiveness of the polemical argument as well, which amounts to name-calling without an explanation of why the other person's belief is irrational or insincere. I hope that my recent efforts have both documented that the anti-Catholic M.O. has been to challenge the sincerity of Catholics based on unjustified authority claims and encouraged both Protestants and Catholics to consider the reasons for their own dogmatic beliefs.


At 5:42 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

That's very helpful, Jonathan. Thanks for posting it. FWIW, I went through similar battles with some of the same folk claiming the exact same thing about me as they do about you: namely, I don't like the Bible and fear its authority. The charge was made on the same grounds, too: I don't merely assume their mode of hermeneutics and exegesis is correct, so I do not engage them on the level of exegesis, so therefore I must not like the Bible.

It's purely a self-referential claim, and in light of what you've been writing recently I wonder if this is what you mean by "idealism." It's like something makes sense to them in their heads and they just objectify it, project it outside their heads and assume it fully describes reality merely because it makes sense to them on the most immediate, surface level of their self-consciousness. No attempt follows to actually grapple with what the other guy is saying, for by the definition resident inside their own heads he's simply a "sophist" who "denies that truth can be known" and "doesn't like the Bible" and so forth and so on. Is that what you're getting at with your discussion of "idealism"?

If so, I'm fully agreed with you: a sola Scriptura position that is little more than idealism is worse than useless, and it is actually absurd and fideistic in the extreme.

At 4:08 AM, Blogger TJW said...


I tried to post but for some reason it isn't showing up. Not sure what the problem is. I just wanted to recommend a website called It's the blog of James Hannam, a science graduate from Oxford with a PhD in history. If you haven't visited his site, you might enjoy it. He is a Catholic as well and I've learnt a lot from both of you.


At 8:18 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

It's purely a self-referential claim, and in light of what you've been writing recently I wonder if this is what you mean by "idealism." It's like something makes sense to them in their heads and they just objectify it, project it outside their heads and assume it fully describes reality merely because it makes sense to them on the most immediate, surface level of their self-consciousness.

Bingo. That's the idealist problem in a nutshell: if it makes sense to me (typically construed as purely internal, formal consistency), I'm going to believe it's true until someone shows me otherwise. The problem is that you didn't require that your conclusion be shown from reality in the first place, so what method can ever be used to show that it is wrong? There are infinitely many self-consistent systems that fail to describe reality accurately, and if you are going to consent to whatever consistent system you first encounter without verifying it with real knowledge, then there's not even a possibility of knowing that you are wrong.

That's the trouble I see with this version of sola scriptura. Even if it were RIGHT, they'd have no way of knowing it, meaning that the belief would be fideistic even if correct. The fact that it is not only fideistic but wrong simply magnifies the gravity of the problem.

At 8:18 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

I'll be sure to check it out.

At 8:23 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

I am reminded of a good example of the idealist problem in Kant's notion of space. That's one of the clearest object lessons in the failure of a priori beliefs.

At 11:21 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

To continue my impressive string of commenting on myself, a post by Joel Garver covers the subject of epistemic justification and notes that he is "inclined towards epistemological externalism." Obviously, I couldn't agree more, but this also points out that even WCOF Presbyterians need not be committed to the sort of idealism that I am criticizing.


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