Monday, August 08, 2005

Steve Hays gets it right again!

Well, for the most part anyway (I'll quibble a bit about what the Catholic position is), but the thrust of his series is right on. Problem is, he's overestimated my opponents, and consequently, he's underestimated me a bit. My claims are a lot more modest than he thinks. Here's the basic beef that I have. I happen to think that history and science are reasonably well-defined empirical techniques that work extremely well within their respective bailiwicks. But their reliability is strongly tied to the explicit definition of what those limits are; take either one out of those limits, and it becomes far less reliable. In each case, the reliability of the method is that it is tied to human experience about when certain techniques are useful indicators of truth; indeed, that is exactly what gives them believability and probative value. In the case of history, for example, one applies accepted techniques for determining the most likely testimony of documents to historical events and then assesses the testimony to draw historical conclusions (the latter of which is entirely dependent on the application of the former methods). But in the case of both history and science, changing the definition of either of those methods or attempting to extend them beyond their logical boundaries actually undermines their believability.

Which brings me exactly to the current controversy. Certain people of an Evangelical persuasion have recently declared Catholicism "unhistorical" for its inclusion of certain dogmas without independent positive historical corroboration. In doing so, they have exactly exceeded the proper boundaries of what can be considered historical. Moreover, they have, in my opinion, relied on some highly dubious historical conclusions in making the judgment that their own views are historical. This is the content of my objection.

So with that background, I'll first answer a couple of remarks by way of introduction, and then proceed to the meat of the problem:

Hays says:
Although his contention has immediate reference to the limits of the historical method, yet his objection is presumably broader than that; for were he to believe that a Protestant could establish the Protestant rule of faith, or elements thereof (e.g., inerrancy, sufficiency, perspicuity), consistent with Protestant criteria, Prejean would be Protestant rather than Catholic. At the very least, he’d be far less critical of the Protestant alternative.

And that is exactly wrong. As I will make clear, I am likely "far less critical" of the Protestant alternative than Hays thinks. The problem is exactly that I think my interlocutors have entirely disregarded the limits of the historical method. They presume that things that are proved by reference to extra-historical methods are actually proved by history; in other words, they, not I, have confused what "historical" means. Properly, "historical" ought to be predicated of the appropriate application of techniques against anachronism, which forbids the inclusion of concepts like "authority" at all, as Hays no doubt recognizes. And if one sticks to the "historical," then as Hays wisely notes, it is a shield and not a sword. It can defend against historical objections on the probabilistic terms the opponent offers, but it cannot in and of itself "prove" the case. I myself may have contributed to the confusion, in that I made statements that seemed absolute in reference to one person's position that could be misinterpreted ("don't even pretend that you have a reason for believing sola scriptura..." was the most glaring I can recall), but that is within the context of someone attempting to argue that he converted for "historical" reasons and that the Catholic Church had "cut its ties" to history.

That argument is simply not true for exactly the reasons Hays gives above. I have no difference with Hays on any of these points, not even that sola scriptura is historically defensible in the way Hays suggests. I personally think sola scriptura is unlikely based on my own historical judgment, but I do not have the hubris to say that my judgment is identical with the historical method, and properly speaking, the question of whether sola scriptura is a valid theological concept is outside the scope of purely historical inquiry. I can, of course, present arguments for why I think it unlikely, but the facts do not in and of themselves make the judgment beyond any rational doubt.

So where does this debate turn? It turns on a philosophy about the utility of historical inquiry, which in turn depends on a theology of revelation. I will argue that this theology of revelation is what distinguishes the Catholic/Orthodox and Protestant positions, and based on this distinction, neither position has the proper standing to claim that the other position is unhistorical overall. Hays puts it this way:

The question is not whether we have an individual reason for every individual belief we hold, but whether we have a reliable source of information. Do we have a compelling reason for that—for the source of information—and not a separate source of information for every discrete belief.

I would disagree only in that I don't believe that it is a requirement for anyone to have compelling reason for the source of information, but rather, one needs only a defensible position that does not deny the veracity of historical methods (at least if one wishes to be "historical"). There are far too many exorbitant claims about historicity on both sides. Newman's statement "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant" is entirely true, if one concedes the Catholic historical method, just as the statement that the Assumption is "unverifiable" is entirely true, if one concedes the Evangelical historical method. But the fact is that neither of those methods are formally historical, because the operative question is a philosophical question for how one draws conclusions from history.

The problem is that my interlocutors (and even Steve Hays, to some extent) have assumed that Catholics are adhering to the Evangelical method of history even when they aren't, and this is exactly what leads to the (in my view) reckless charges of Catholicism being "unhistorical," an ill-advised move from the shield to the sword. The simple fact is that the Catholic method does draw conclusions in ways that violate the Evangelical historical method, but that simply reflects a difference in methods, not that either method commits anachronism in the formal sense. Historical methods do not speak to how God, Who commits anachronism simply by knowing the end from the beginning, acts in human history. Nor do they speak strictly to what sort of occurrences are possible in the absolute sense (contrary to the liberal view that simply assumes the impossibility of miracles). That is a question of human experience, and consequently, one of judgment based on the experience rather than what should properly be included in the standards of anachronism itself.

Because of the Catholic theology of revelation, it is entirely fair to say that a later dogma was truly expressed in what was used to derive that dogma (in that God put that objective bit of revelation in knowing that it would be expounded in this manner later). It cannot be called anachronism because, strictly speaking, it is not a historical question. Thus, when a Pope says that there was "unanimous consent of the Fathers" or that something was "clearly taught in Scripture," he means it exactly in hindsight rather than prospectively, because the objective content of revelation is defined by the development it undergoes later. The move of the Church to a certain belief is evidence of its earlier content, not in the subjective minds of the people holding the dogma, but objectively. So when someone speaks of holding the Catholic "to his own standards," it must be recognized that those standards cannot be interpreted according to the historical methods of an external system. Catholicism and Orthodoxy have always "read back" later formulations into the nascent seeds of a dogma, so if the person can correctly be said to have held the belief that led to the development of the dogma (even if there is no evidence that he foresaw its use in this way), he is viewed to have held the belief in the dogma.

From the Evangelical perspective, that is entirely backward, but it is important to recognize that this comes from a reversed priority in historical determinations. The Catholic (and Orthodox) method is to reason from the existence of Christians to everything else; the Evangelical method is exactly reversed. We begin by looking at the existence of people who profess belief in the risen Christ, identify common themes of their practice including their methods of developing dogma, and reason therefrom to the dogmas themselves. In other words, we posit the actual existence of a Church even prior to a philosophy of revelation or theology, because we see the effectiveness of revelation as a necessary element of any philosophy of divine revelation. Consequently, the absolute universality of the three-fold apostolic succession and the Eucharist would make it highly probable that only churches having these things could even possibly be Christian. Formally speaking, then, evidence from Scripture is only evidence of self-consistency, not external evidence used to prove the belief (and we believe that this is exactly how Scriptural evidence was used in the patristic method). Although technically speaking, this means that one could conceivably "disprove" the requirement of apostolic succession, as a practical matter, the evidence is so overwhelming that it would be impossible to do so (hence, the historical defensibility of Catholicism and Orthodoxy against any competing claims). Later developments are then admissible so long as they take place within this communion of apostolic succession reasoning communally from sources to the conclusion.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, identify Christians by isolating a number of Christian beliefs (defined as the most historically/exegetically probable beliefs based on the textual evidence of the NT) and then judging everything and everyone by the standards of those beliefs. In fact, Hays explained the contrast quite well in an earlier blog entry:

I’d add that, in my own view, the architecture of Reformed theology dovetails quite nicely with the architecture of biblical theology. What we have in Scripture is a pattern of promise and fulfillment, with wide swaths of historical narrative, punctuated by type and prophecy, which suddenly converges on the NT. This assumes a God who is providentially orchestrating each and every event according to a preconceived plan.

You might say that Reformed theology is a form of reverse engineering. If Scripture moves from cause to effect (OT to NT), then Calvinism works its way back from the effect to the cause. And it does so on the basis of implicit and explicit passages of Scripture which attribute the consequence to the agency of God.

I don't say whether Hays is right or wrong to do so, but at any rate, they are drastically different ways of coming at the problem, and the differences aren't a question of historical anachronism. But this also comes into a drastic difference on how Evangelicals and Catholics view liberal scholarship. When I view someone like Raymond Brown, the problem is that his historical methods are liberal, not that his liberalism necessarily defeats his orthodoxy, and for the reasons stated above, I don't find the argument that historical reliability entails the dismissal of miracles to be all that persuasive. I think he's unwise to dismiss the possibility of miracles, and I wonder how he can manage to sustain the cognitive dissonance necessary to affirm the faith of the Church. To escape the cognitive dissonance, he comes up with two almost entirely non-overlapping spheres: faith and morals necessary for our salvation (whatever the Church says is the rule) and history (in which whether things actually happened or not is virtually irrelevant for salvation), which is accounts for the gross dichotomy between his exegesis and his theology. I think that notion is entirely untenable vis-a-vis patristic scholarship (or for that matter, the arguments of the Apostles themselves), so it's hard for me to see how Brown or Rahner maintain their faith (most Catholic exegetes are more conservative on the occurrence of actual historical events, while still retaining the Catholic notion that inspired meaning is not limited to the historical horizons of the author). But being confused or wrong does not mean excommunication, and again, the primacy in Catholic theology is on actual physical communion with the Church rather than what mistakes you might make in your head. Thus, the fact that Joe Catholic in the pews or even the smarter guys like Raymond Brown or Karl Rahner play a role in the Church isn't an indication that the Church has somehow accepted their account of things. I think Brown and Rahner are both wrong in significant respects, but so long as their liberal historical methods don't contradict the Magisterial authority over faith itself (and indeed, they seem to be almost hyper-Magisterial in that respect, as their deconstruction of history leaves Magsiterial pronouncements with almost no motivation), it's acceptable. If it were a question of everyone being perfectly correct on dogma without regard to questions of personal ability, etc., it would be awfully hard to construct a Church of fallible human beings.

Awfully long-winded, but the bottom line is that I think my interlocutors have tried to sneak their own philosophy in under the guise of objective historical methodology, and it ticks me off. If they have a philosophical argument, don't try to pretend that the philosophical argument is resolved by historical facts. And incidentally, regarding historical explanatory power, I think that the Evangelical account of history, while arguably having more explanatory power in NT times (although I'm not sure that I accept that), has zero or near-zero explanatory power after that, often making vague allusions to a remnant that has no historical evidence of existing, even though we would expect there to be at least some by accepted objective historical standards.