Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Ontology of Authority: A Legal Perspective

I've been following the recent interaction by Scott Carson, Mike Liccione, and Fr. Al Kimel with several Protestants on the subject of Scriptural authority. Dr. Carson's posts may be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Dr. Liccione has posts here, here, here, and here. The end of those discussions was downright moribund, and it makes me seriously wonder whether Protestants are even willing to come to the table with Catholics anymore in terms of serious intellectual discussion, since I view the arguments being raised as threshhold issues for any sort of meaningful interaction with the Catholic view (I commend Tim Enloe at Dr. Liccione's blog and the commenter Kevin at Dr. Carson's blog for being glaring exceptions).

There is only a little I can add from my own expertise in the law to the arguments presented above. But I have to confess that an argument along these lines, particularly with respect to the authority of academia (what I call persuasive authority below), has been made by Bryan Cross, explained here and followed with the formal argument given here. His conclusions are bolstered by the observations here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. I should note that I have yet to see any holes in Bryan's argument either, and I believe that Protestantism also has to answer all of these arguments even to be intellectually defensible, which has not been done to date (N.B., I leave as an exercise for the reader to discern why this response is spurious after reading the rest of this post). There is only a limited amount of substance that I can add to his arguments, and more generally, I fear that the greater part of my thunder has been purloined by what has gone before. But I can at least make explicit how it ties into what has been discussed to this point.

My argument basically follows from an explanation I gave of the concept of authority in response to a query from TJW about the distinction between the sort of "expert authority" a scholar might have and legal or jurisdictional authority. I reproduce the initial paragraphs of my comment as background:

I had a very productive discussion with Dr. Tim McGrew, a well-regarded Protestant epistemologist, on that same subject here

I would argue that there is an equivocation between persuasive authority and binding authority, and within binding authority, another distinction between formal authority and material authority. Persuasive authority is simply what one believes because one suspects that testimony is reliable based on someone else's knowledge or reasoning. Binding authority possesses normative authority for pronouncing on the state of some or another thing according to formal system. Binding authority consists of formal authority (i.e., human beings invested with authority in some of their acts, so that what they issue in their formal capacity has binding force) and material authority (i.e., the body of previous law created by such authoritative acts, such as the Constitutions, statutes, or binding judicial decisions). Your term "determine" is apt for the acts of a binding authority, because it gives some definite form and decides the boundaries.

My argument was essentially that, for anything to function as a binding authority, it must actually be able to bindingly resolve every dispute coming under the auspices of the formal system. That means, ultimately, that if any interpretation of any material authority can be disputed, there has to be some human authority that has the power to finally resolve it, even if that power isn't exercised. Otherwise, in the end, all you have is persuasive authority, and the hope that there is actually an answer to be had if reasonable people simply exercise their God-given reason.

What I would like to demonstrate is that the appeals to the authority of the "plain meaning of Scripture" invariably succumb to the reification fallacy given the definition of authority I have outlined above. The concept that is most central to this definition of authority is the power to produce a formal act of normative communication. It is communication of some definite form, qua normative, from the authority to someone bound by the authority.

I should mention that I mean terms like "definite" in the ontological sense, not in the epistemological sense of being "apparent." It might not be clear even from something with an ontologically definite form what that form is; indeed, if the form were simply apparent, then there would hardly be a purpose in defining doctrine in the first place. This ontological sense is, as far as I can tell, exactly what the Magisterium means by the term "define," as used in the context of Magisterial or papal authority. See, for example, Ineffabilis Deus:
For the Church of Christ, watchful guardian that she is, and defender of the dogmas deposited with her, never changes anything, never diminishes anything, never adds anything to them; but with all diligence she treats the ancient documents faithfully and wisely; if they really are of ancient origin and if the faith of the Fathers has transmitted them, she strives to investigate and explain them in such a way that the ancient dogmas of heavenly doctrine will be made evident and clear, but will retain their full, integral, and proper nature, and will grow only within their own genus -- that is, within the same dogma, in the same sense and the same meaning.

See also Pastor Aeternus:
To this absolutely manifest teaching of the Sacred Scriptures, as it has always been understood by the Catholic Church, are clearly opposed the distorted opinions of those who misrepresent the form of government which Christ the lord established in his Church and deny that Peter, in preference to the rest of the apostles, taken singly or collectively, was endowed by Christ with a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction.

The point is not that the binding teaching is so apparent that its form should be clear to anyone who reads it, but that it is ontologically clear, certain, and manifest. The nature of the dogma itself is that it includes no mixture of error but definitely separates right from wrong, even if it wasn't apparent until later that this was the case! In other words, the necessary ontological consequence is that the binding act of the issuing authority obeys the law of non-contradiction. The form of the act excludes this and not that; it separates the correct and the incorrect. Moreover, the act of communication itself either is or is not. Just as there is no such thing as half a principle, there is no such thing as half an authority. The communication either is or is not authoritative in a certain respect; it cannot admit of contraries.

When I say that the authoritative statement cannot admit of contraries, that is what I mean by dispute resolution. The Newmanian maxim that no doctrine is defined until it is violated finds its home here. To the extent a statement is authoritative, the formal system encompassing that system must have the formal power to rule out all contraries under the jurisdiction of the authority, lest the binding act lack ontological power to bind. That is why binding acts themselves are material with respect to subsequent formal acts of authority. To put it rather simply, if there is no interpretive authority that has the power to issue interpretations to rule out contrary interpretations, then the statement itself has no authority, because the binding act either does or does not rule out contrary interpretations of the subject matter it purports to regulate. To repeat my earlier point, there is no such thing as half an authority.

Probably the most common and consistent misinterpretation of Catholic dogma I have seen is the belief that "certainty," "clear" or "constant" teaching, and the like refers to the notion of subjective certainty or doubt. On the contrary, it pertains to the objective qualities that dogma requires for the submission of the will. To see how this ontological understanding of authority conflicts with positivism, read this fantastic pair of back-to-back comments by Zippy. This understanding is also the core of the Catholic "hermeneutic of continuity," in the sense of reading previous teaching in a manner consistent with prior and subsequent teaching. It is likewise the basis for viewing definitive dogmatic teaching as "irreformable," in precisely the formal sense that I outlined above.

To bring this confusion to bear on the present discussion, we need only turn to Brandon Watson's apology for William Witt.

But Bill, I take it, would regard the disputes as being about the plain meaning of Scripture itself; because he doesn't, by 'plain', mean transparent. Indeed, as a Protestant Thomist, taking 'plain meaning' to be basically the same as Thomas's 'literal sense', he can't and won't; he'll say, as he does elsewhere, that matters are rather more complicated than this. And thus the question of how do we determine readings authoritatively (if we can) is a distinct question from the question of whether there is a plain meaning of Scripture to which good readings approximate. The first is epistemological; the second is, so to speak, ontological.

I concur that the second section should be ontological, but the entire notion of a "plain meaning of Scripture to which good readings approximate" is reifying a no-thing, a mere being of reason. It is nothing not only for the reasons Zippy gave in the comments I linked above, but also because if there is no way to determine readings authoritatively, the text itself simply is not an authority. It does not represent a binding act ontologically capable of separating categories of correct from incorrect if the act does not include within itself an essential relation to some means of authoritative determination. It lacks the nature of an authoritative act. Consequently, the problem is not epistemological, in the sense of how we know the interpretation is authoritative, but it is ontological, in the sense that the interpretation cannot actually be authoritative.

Likewise, the problem can be found here:
But, again, from Bill's point of view it would be hard to see what any of this has to do with the plain meaning of Scripture. If taken as addressing his own point, it would all look like a confusion of 'interpretation' taken as an act of interpreting and 'interpretation' taken as a way the text can be interpreted. Whether there is an authoritative interpretation in the latter sense is a different question from whether there is an authoritative interpretation in the former sense.

But there cannot even be an authoritative interpretation in the latter sense absent an authoritative interpretation in the former sense. Even if it is the best approximation for what the author intended, it still is not authoritative, for unless the author also intended to yield the authority to interpret his text to a subsequent authority, his mere writing itself ontologically lacks authority. So either the author intended his text both to be authoritative and interpreted by a subsequent authority, or God as co-author intended it (perhaps beside the intent of the author) in the same way, but in both cases, the subsequent interpretive authority is an essential element of either the divine or the human will to produce an authoritative act of communication.

This is the legal counterpart to Dr. Carson's epistemic statement that "It is tempting to say that the text means what the author of the text intended it to mean, but such a temptation, like the temptation to pick at a scab, ought to be resisted if one wants to avoid further trouble" and Zippy's metaphysical statement that "To understand language one must understand the concretely mediated author-ity behind the language, and the author-ity behind the language can never be reduced to nothing but a closed canon." The "plain meaning" posits something put in the text by the act of the author independent of the act of the interpreter, and this posited (positivist) thing is a pure being of reason that is antithetical both to the nature of the communicative act generally and to authoritative communication particularly.

But, again, from Bill's point of view it would be hard to see what any of this has to do with the plain meaning of Scripture. If taken as addressing his own point, it would all look like a confusion of 'interpretation' taken as an act of interpreting and 'interpretation' taken as a way the text can be interpreted. Whether there is an authoritative interpretation in the latter sense is a different question from whether there is an authoritative interpretation in the former sense.

So I think Bill's point is not what Scott and Michael have in mind; it's not an argument for a particular conception of authority in reading, but for a distinction between authority in reading a text and a reading of the text that is authoritative, i.e., between the reading of the text and its meaning. Scott wants to say that the plain meaning of Scripture, as Protestants understand that phrase, goes hand in hand with private judgment as the authoritative act of interpreting; Bill is, in this comment, denying this, not saying anything about the proper view we should have about the authoritative act of interpreting. That would require other considerations than Bill brings up here.

Same problem here. There is literally no such thing as an authoritative reading of the text absent an interpretive authority, so the denial of an external interpretive authority necessarily entails private judgment (which is ontologically the rejection of authority). If the authorial intent does not include the interpretive authority, then the author's statements aren't authoritative, period. He cannot bind the conscience because he did not by his act create an act that can do so. If Dr. Witt is in fact "not saying anything about the proper view we should have about the authoritative act of interpreting," then he is denying that the "plain meaning of Scripture" has any authority. And I can't see where the absence of a plain authoritative meaning of Scripture does anything for his cause. That's practically the definition of private judgment: authority is a purely personal determination.

I think Mike is on the right track, though, in recognizing that the real difference between Catholics like Mike and Scott on the one hand, and what we might (rather loosely and perhaps figuratively) call High Church Protestants like Bill (who place great weight on consensus fidelium, the Church Fathers, and the Rule of Faith), has to do with their views of the Scripture as canon in the Church, and what it means for the Church to take a text as canonical. I know that Bill, for instance, tends to think, or, at least, has indicated something like this in various contexts, that the sort of account that Mike offers involves an equivocation on the term 'Church', a failure to distinguish between the Church insofar as it wrote the Scripture (and thus insofar as it was apostolic) and the Church insofar as it accepts them submissively as canon (and thus insofar as it is post-apostolic). This certainly does suggest a different view of canon.

I concur with Dr. Carson's view that the distinction between the apostolic and post-apostolic Church is specious, but I would add the act of delivering the Scripture as authoritative would itself be incomplete absent the endorsement (or at least acceptance) of the later authority. Even inspiration itself doesn't create authority absent the concurrent divine endorsement of the interpretive authority. To put it another way, unless God Himself has given you guidance in a definitive form accessible to your perception, then He has to endorse some external, public interpretive authority for any statement to be normatively binding as divine revelation. Effectively, Protestantism is the admission that there is no such thing as authoritative public revelation; all authoritative revelation is necessarily private. That seems like a nice summary of the entire post's theme, so I will end there.


TJW said...

I'll reproduce a comment from another comments thread that Fr Kirby wrote some time back. It is about the concept of infallibility but it also contains information on authority.

Re: infallibility,

There are two kinds of arguments against ecclesial infallibility, as I understand it. The first is a priori and bases its case on the very problem of infinite recursion noted above. That is, one cannot have a truly infallible authority without it being infallibly recognised and declared to be so, which must be done by another authority to avoid begging the question, but this second authority has the same need for yet another infallible authority to certify it, and so on ad infinitum. (Obviously this is an argument against all claims to infallibility, including that for Scripture.) The second argument against ecclesial infallibility is a posteriori and bases its case on demonstrations of erroneous statements by purportedly infallible Church authorities, e.g., the RCC's former condemnationn of Galileo's heliocentricism.

The problem with the first argument is that it confuses certainty with certitude. Certainty involves the objective, guaranteed truthfulness of a proposition or belief. Certitude involves the subjective apprehension of certainty by the rational mind. An authority could have its truthfulness or protection from error guaranteed by God, there is nothing intrinsically impossible in this. However, the human being assessing any such claim for infallibility will, at some point, have to do so with fallible mental processes using evidence and reasons not assuming an infallible authority to begin with. Therefore, all assessment of infallibility is fallible, so that the person's certitude will be based on "moral certainty" rather than "absolute" certainty. Nevertheless, this does not prove that the authority so assessed does not have objective infallibility, as this is an ontological matter, whereas recognition of infallibility by human agents is an epistemological matter. The secondary argument that since infallibility can not be recognised with absolute confidence, it would be useless, and so God would not have bothered granting it to anything or anybody, is unreasonable. Again, we do not live any part of our lives on 100% certitude, nor do we need to, so the morally certain recognition of infallible authority based on converging lines of evidence is sufficient.

The problem with the second type of argument is that it does not always distinguish properly between what is genuinely infallible and what is not. And, to be fair, even the Church's theologians have sometimes misidentified as infallible statements which do not infact satisfy the criteria. The cynic could easily reply, "Ah yes, it is infallible till somebody shows its wrong, then we go back and 'find' that it was never infallible in the first place. Very convenient!" But the fact is that there have always been a variety of fallible opinions on which Church teachings were completely and finally authoritative, so it is not dishonest revisionism to review positions on what makes the grade as dogma.

As for the Galileo case, there were two inter-related scientific hypotheses condemned: that the Sun is immobile and the centre of the Cosmos and that the Earth moves and rotates. It is fascinating to me that only the first was said to be formally heretical and definitely opposed to Scripture as interpreted by the Fathers. The second was said to be erroneous theologically and philosophically. The reason I find this fascinating is that the first proposition is in fact false. The Sun is not the centre of the Cosmos, but only of our Solar System, and it does move. It orbits within the galaxy. Of course, neither Galileo nor the Holy Office knew this. But it is interesting. Anyway, I doubt that anything coming out of these proceedings could be realistically claimed to have satisfied criteria for infallibility, whether RC or Eastern Orthodox or whatever.

Posted by: Fr M Kirby | Jun 18, 2006 2:03:40 AM

CrimsonCatholic said...

That's exactly the sort of argument that I am making, so thanks for the comment, tjw!

Scott Carson adds these helpful observations. What he says about the parallel between the ontological bases of language in Aristotle and the ontological basis of authoritative statements of law is dead on. I hadn't considered in detail how my point regarding the realist underpinning of authority fit within a more general realist metaphysics of language, but Dr. Carson fills in the background nicely.