Monday, June 13, 2005

Charity in pedantry

I've been quite pleased some recent posts by Protestants on their own personal reasons for not being Catholic. I'll note that both of them took the form "This is why I'm not convinced," rather than "This is why no reasonable person could possibly believe the Catholic argument, and all of you Catholics are brainwashed, lazy, intellectually dishonest windbags so steeped in man's philosophy that you can't submit to the Word of God." Needless to say, the latter sorts of arguments, apart from being extraordinarily improbable on evidential grounds, strike me as a blatant violation of the epistemic principle of charity that is practically necessary for any working account of truth (see, e.g., Bruce Marshall's Trinity and Truth). But apart from that, they also aren't likely to provoke any kind of useful response from Catholics, which essentially fosters the continuation of terribly unconvincing apologetic arguments (Protestants will, no doubt, empathize when they hear the same unconvicing arguments repeated by Catholic apologists for much the same reason). So I was quite pleased to find that my opposite number in the Association of Alliterative Apologists (viz., the Pedantic Protestant) had published a series over the weekend on Defending Romanism (see Parts I, II, and III). I hadn't had a chance to read the series before today; ironically, I was banging my head against the brick wall of one of the aforementioned terribly unconvincing apologetic arguments (in this case, some "amateurish" and "semi-literate" -- using the PP's terms -- eisegesis in patristic and papal quotes by someone who evidently doesn't have the background to realize just how dumb his arguments about the "most natural reading" sound to someone who has actually studied the historical period in which the authors wrote). [Note -- Sorry if that seems a bit harsh; I lack Perry Robinson's gift for saying "you're an idiot who doesn't know what you're talking about" with elegance.] Anyway, it was refreshing to wake up this morning to find someone had formulated objections sufficiently rigorously and irenically to allow useful and productive discussions might actually take place. I'll join the chorus of people who find the use of the term "Romanism" a bit silly and distasteful, but I'll take what I can get.

For brevity, I'm not going to reproduce large sections of the PP's arguments, so you'll have to refer to his posts to understand the context of my remarks (which you should have planned to do anyway, because it's very useful for understanding the Protestant position). Basically, the PP's argument identifies the Four Prongs of Catholic apologetics (one of which has two pronglets, (a) and (b)) and expresses why the PP finds them difficult to accept as an "evidential Protestant." That kind of statement (i.e., explaining why one personally finds arguments unpersuasive, rather than explaining why no reasonable person could possibly find them persuasive) is much more productive, being simultaneously honest without making pretensions of omniscience or absolute logical certainty. Frustrated apologists, take note.

Prongs 1 (Catholicism is explicitly shown in the OT and NT) and 4 (appeal to subjective mystical experiences) are likely useless as apologetic tools for those who don't have a subjective reason for being receptive to them. Neither is really an "argument" as far as I can tell; rather, they are personal appeals based on subjective intuition. I don't consider these things valueless, since there is both a mystical element and a personal element in coming to the Christian faith, but I agree with the PP that they aren't going to change someone's mind so much as reinforce an existing orientation.

Prongs 2 and 3 are where it gets interesting, so I'll reproduce these concisely. Prong (2) states:

(2) RCism is not completely supportable from the OT and NT:
(a) RCism is not inconsistent with the Bible, being found in "seed" form, but needs extra-Biblical evidence
(b) RCism is not inconsistent with the Bible, not being found in "seed" form, but extra-Biblical evidence supports the Roman superstructure added to the Bible.

The PP argues that for this to be convincing, what is required is evidence that the Fathers who are cited in support of one of the [Catholic distinctives] above are to be taken as seriously as the canonical writings. As I understand it, this means that there would have to be evidential attestation for the certainty of divine origin roughly equivalent to what attests to that of the NT Scriptures. The PP suggests three keys for the reliability of the NT:

(i) There is good evidence [liberal scholarship notwithstanding] that the traditional authorship claims of the NT writings are in fact correct.
(ii) The Apostles and Paul were directly commissioned by Jesus and their words were supported by miracles.
(iii) Again contradicting the views of liberal scholarship, I find the NT writings, while having a few things that are hard to rectify either exegetically or historically, have an internal doctrinal unity.

Particularly referring to (ii), the PP notes, "Simply put, the apostles' actions were accompanied with miracles. Revelation in the OT and the NT is accompanied by miracles or signs, and their revelations were accompanied by miracles and signs," and "This isn't an unfair condition to require, since this is the precedent in the writings [OT and NT] that both RC's and Protestants accept."

Prong 3 states:
(3) Independently of scripture, Romanism is true because of certain philosophical a priori assumptions, which assumptions in the end make Romanism the only thing consistent with said assumptions.

The PP cites the following as examples of such a priori assumptions:
(i) God wouldn't leave Christians without an infallible arbiter
(ii) God wouldn't leave Christians to be in error for 1500 years [until the Reformation]
(iii) There must be some sort of succession, whether apostolic, doctrinal, etc.
(iv) Related to (iii), barring some sort of direct line of succession, the link with truth is lost or in peril
(v) The Christian Church has to share various attributes with the "Old Testament Church"
(vi) Scriptural revelation can't possibly be enough.

The PP also makes the following observation:
Also, let it be stated that there is nothing particularly invidious about these assumptions, as they're quite natural, stemming from a quest for absolute certainty [instead of epistemic probability].

According to the PP, many Catholic apologists begin the debate here, and even more flee here when any solid response to the "evidence" for the Catholic position is presented. IOW, the argument for Catholicism is essentially a pure a priori argument that is couched in the language of evidentialism.

That summarizes the arguments, and I think that they are entirely legitimate in terms of not making unreasonable demands of the Catholic position. I hope to unpack where we might have differences in the next few posts and perhaps expound a bit on some of the issues the PP raised in his conclusion.