Thursday, June 30, 2005

Brief discussion, but high-quality

I've read Steve Hays's last reply, and I commend him for his resolve to stick to the issues. This will probably have to be my last post on the subject, because I've decided to wind down my dialogue activities for a variety of reasons. But the particular subject of Tridentine merit was one that I thought deserved a clear explanation from the Catholic perspective, so I was glad to have this opportunity to discuss it.

In particular, I thought that Mr. Hays asked several good questions that could use a response, so I will try to answer those questions with a bit of thematic organization.

1. Hays disagrees with my interpretation of the use of the term "merit" in Trent, suggesting that I am importing an external understanding into the plain text for no good reason. For example:

How does one probilify in the absence of evidence? And, sure, something could simply be taken for granted, but that is one of those claims which is, in the nature of the case, nothing more than a groundless assumption.

By contrast, we do have the text of Trent. That is what we know. The burden of proof is on those who wish to interpret the known by the unknown.
My position isn’t a default position. My position is based on the actual text of Trent. Trent, of itself, represents the selection-criteria of the Church as applied to pre-Tridentine tradition. I’m choosing to begin and end where the Tridentine Fathers chose to begin and end. I’m taking my cue from them. The text supplies its own context in terms of what parts of prior tradition they chose to formalize.

Now, if we had the “minutes of Trent,” that would be directly relevant to original intent. But apparently we don’t. Otherwise, Prejean could simply quote from the deliberations of the Tridentine Fathers and settle the interpretation then and there.

CC: My point is that based on purely exegetical reasons, there is no reason to think that the word "merit" in and of itself refers to strict justice. The text is ambiguous given the reasonable semantic range of the term, which is why you would consider external factors. It's not a question of clear text being overridden by outside considerations; it's a question of ordinary exegetical investigation into what a word means, at least as I would understand exegesis. So I would simply say that the text itself doesn't render either interpretation substantially more likely; both are possible, and we have to look at the totality of the evidence (including external factors) in making a judgment. I'd respond in like fashion to your suggestion that Scripture should inform experience rather than vice versa. I don't think that a coherent line can possibly be drawn between the two; there's always judgment involved in where you set the limits, so that a statement like that typically begs an interpretive question.

2. Hays also raised a couple of questions about my definition of infallibility.

This option is, indeed, available to Prejean, but it comes at a cost. Infallibility is secured at the price of wholesale skepticism. We’re abandoned to the useless tautology that Church is infallible whenever she’s infallible, although we never know when she’s infallible.

In that respect, how does the Catholic rule of faith improve over what Catholicism finds fault with in the Protestant rule of faith?
This begs the question of what supplies the “context of tradition.” You can only measure something by reference to a fixed frame of reference. That’s what makes a standard a standard. It doesn’t change. Hence, it can be used to measure change. If the standard changes, then you’re left with sheer skepticism.

According to Trent, and reaffirmed at Vatican I, the “context of tradition” is the unanimous consent of the Fathers. And this has a chronological cut-off. The earlier is not interpreted by the later; rather, the later is interpreted by the earlier.

I’d add that if the true interpretation of earlier tradition can only be ascertained by reference to later tradition, then no Roman Catholic can have access to the true meaning of tradition since his own historical position will always be past relative to some future tradition.

One also wonders what would ever amount to a principle of falsification in Prejean’s religious epistemology. He has drawn the rules of evidence so loosely that magisterial teaching can be harmonized with any pattern of evidence or counterevidence, convergent or divergent.

And, in that event, there is no evidence for Catholicism, since it’s consistent with anything. If nothing can ever count against it, then nothing can count in its favor.
If that case, how do you know when to apply infallibility to tradition? How do you know to which traditions the rule is applicable? What traditions should be preserved, and what traditions should not be preserved? Not everything that has survived would count as Sacred Tradition. Again, how is this any improvement over the Protestant rule of faith?

CC: It isn't, or at least, I've never argued that it is. As I said before, infallibility is a conclusion, not an assertion of epistemic certainty; I think that it is illogical to view infallibility any other way. One isn't any more certain of your conclusions about infallibility than you are certain about anything else, so this notion that we are vying over who has the most epistemically certain method strikes me as fanciful, not that this has prevented the argument from being beaten to death by both Protestants and Catholics. If that kind of a standard is required to avoid skepticism (i.e., a requirement for epistemic certainty), then we're all stranded either in hopeless circularity (essentially asserting our own individual infallibility) or in nihilism. Neither strikes me as very appealing, and I think it puts far too much faith in human ability than can be reasonably warranted.

Instead, I would view infallibility as a statement of one's judgment about the divine content of a concrete object, viz., that it is an actual thing that God intends the people of God to retain and integrate into the collective Christian life. To me, then, the real empirical question is how this process actually worked, and that is what appears to be meant by "unanimous consent of the Fathers." They all had an agreement on a process of communion and accountability grounded in actual persons by which concrete things were recognized to be part of the tradition, through the process of theological speculation and pious reflection on what is previously preserved. The objection I would have to sola scriptura, then, is that I doubt from the historical record that this is the process by which God reveals Himself to people. IOW, I have no reason that sola scriptura couldn't work in principle as a means for God to reveal Himself; it is simply my empirical judgment that it is not the process that God actually used. And I think that there is abundant evidence in the historical record in favor of that proposition.

3. Hays raised several points related to my understanding of grace and free will, including:

How do you know that there’s no logical conflict if you can’t show that there’s no logical conflict? What is the basis of your confidence?
Here Prejean redefines divine sovereignty by restricting the scope of divine sovereignty. Sovereignty only attaches to intent, not effect.Yet, on this view, either God is able to secure intent, but unwilling to do so—or else is willing to secure assent, but unable to do so. In what sense does he intend an unsuccessful outcome? Does he intend to fail?
What does Christology [referring to the Christology of St. Maximus] have to do with the will of a sinner in relation to the will of God?
How can grace be both efficacious and unsuccessful? Prejean seems to be distinguishing between a type of grace which is efficacious because God intends it to be efficacious, and another type of grace which is resistible because God does not intend it to succeed. If so, then it will hardly do for Prejean to say there’s no question that God’s grace is efficacious, simpliciter. He himself has set up a disjunction between efficacious and inefficacious grace, resistible and irresistible grace, with divine intent as the differential factor.

CC: I have yet to be convinced by any rebuttal to the notion that Perry Robinson, Daniel Jones, and I have variously presented regarding the essentiality of free will to any orthodox presentation of Triadology and soteriology, including your own observations here, here, and here. Frankly, unless you can show be a good reason why I should believe that free decisions are deterministically caused, I don't see where the problem is in supposing that they are not deterministically caused or that the existence of such voluntary causes poses the least bit of difficulty to God's sovereignty. I agree that fatalism may not have been exclusively an element of Greek philosophy, but it is most assuredly a pagan invention as far as I can tell, and it strikes me as fundamentally irreconcilable with the Christian account of God.

4. A few odds and ends that don't find handily into what I said above:

The very categories of election and predestination imply that the elect, and only the elect, will be saved, while all the non-elect will be damned.The question is how this can be squared with the Rahnerian view of universal grace ratified in Vatican II and post-Vatican II theology. Is everyone elect? Is salvation a live possibility for the non-elect? What does election do?

CC: To some extent, this is answered by what I said above, but to clarify, I don't think that the view of "universal grace" adopted by Vatican II is any different than the Thomist concept of "sufficient grace," wherein God allows people to be condemned by their own sinful resistance to grace (which He could have prevented had He chosen to do so, but does not). It's not a live possibility, but it would have been a possibility but for the sinful resistance, which God knew beforehand would arise. Election is God's unilateral decision to provide grace at a time that it will or won't be resisted (condemning people by their own evil) along with God's decision to allow the person sufficient freedom to exercise that resistance.

Imputation and vicarious atonement are correlative. The subject is acquitted or freed, not because he is actually innocent, but because a second party, who is righteous in his own person, has assumed his (the first party’s) debt and transferred his (the second party’s) line of credit to the account of the guilty party.

CC: I think we're miscommunicating here. What I meant by "innocent" was not that the person had not done the wrong, but that he had paid the penalty in the eyes of the law so that he was no longer obligated to pay the penalty. That doesn't strike me as imputation; that strikes me as actual satisfaction. Imputation would be if he were treated as if someone paid the fine even when the fine had not been paid, at least as I understand it. In other words, the person is treated as if the crime had never taken place; he is never judged guilty. This could be my unfamiliarity with Reformed soteriology getting to me, so forgive me if I am mistaken.

Is there no difference between pre-Photian local councils and pre-Photian general councils?

CC: Not as far as I can tell, at least in any practical sense. The distinction appears to be entirely nominal, provided that the Pope approved the council's decrees (which I believe was the case for Orange).

Again, I enjoyed the discussion, and I hope what I said was helpful to set up the board, since as you say, I am really just concerned with opening moves at this time.