Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Sorry, I missed the audible

After this comment on this post, I feel a little bit like the wideout who runs a slant when the quarterback is throwing for a fade. I just have to grin sheepishly and shrug on the way back to the huddle, because the goal was to make the connection, and that clearly didn't happen. Scott Carson spoke to his own argument, but it's clear I have some 'splaining to do on my own. Let's see if I can get us all on the same page.

I think the previous discussion was too abstract, so I will turn to a more concrete one. Take my situation as a lawyer. Suppose that I am advising a client in a dispute. I give the client my read on how the law applies to the subject, but it may be that there is no clear answer in the law, because this particular kind of dispute has never arisen before. The advice I give is only probable, because the legal issue simply hasn't been resolved in any judicial proceeding, so it is possible that the contrary would be true. In particular, my opinion on the subject does not bind an opponent who disagrees with my interpretation. My opinion might well have persuasive authority or epistemic authority, in the sense that it is based on good judgment, experience, knowledge of previous cases and the like. But in the end, it is simply not the law; it has no binding power. No matter how wise or experienced or knowledgable I may be, my statements can never have juridical authority. The other side is always free to disagree, and ultimately, to have their day in court.

It is that "have their day in court" part that strikes me as essential. What this essentially says is that there must be someone to speak with the very same force of law in favor or against some interpretation. Absent that, one simply must concede that the law has no authority over the dispute. One appeals vainly to a law that has no force, and on that account, is no law. One might form all manner of probable opinions, but none are ever binding.

It seems to me, then, that the appeal to Scriptures as a law without courts, where no one has the power to speak with the very same force as the law itself so as to compel submission, is impossible. Thus, William Whitaker fails in this argument:
THE books of scripture are called canonical, because they contain the standard and rule of our faith and morals. For the scripture is in the church what the law is in a state, which Aristotle in his Politics calls a canon or rule. As all citizens are bound to live and behave agreeably to the public laws, so Christians should square their faith and conduct by the rule and law of scripture.

If the Scriptures are the SOLE rule of faith and morals, so as to exclude any human agency endowed with the capacity to speak authoritatively in the name of God (which entails infallibility) in giving interpretations, then the Scriptures cannot be a law. They might be suggestions. They might be ideals. They might be bases for persuasion. But they cannot be a law, a rule, a kanon. And incidentally, this appears to be the common failure of every Protestant ecclesial body: they have no way to hold the Scriptures as canon, rule, or law if they accept Scriptures as the only infallible rule. To put it another way, to say that Scriptures are the alone infallible rule of faith is a contradiction, because if the Scriptures are indeed alone infallible, then perversely, they cannot be a rule.

And I don't think that Brandon Watson's response does much better, although I confess to having done my part to obscure why that is the case. Brandon says:
However, this involves a sort of distance between author and reader that fits very poorly with the Catholic view of Scripture; and, moreover, which on at least a very common Protestant view gets Protestants entirely wrong as well. It's not generally denied that there is a subsequent interpretive authority; what is denied is that this subsequent interpretive authority is the Church rather than the Holy Spirit. Protestants do not think the words on the page carry authority; they think the words engraved on the heart by the Spirit with the stylus of the words of the page carries authority.

While this is all well and good, it is simply "authority" in the sense of persuasive authority. It is authority that I find convincing, that seems true, good, or wise to me. It is not binding juridical authority, in the sense of rendering interpretations with the very same force of the law itself. It certainly could be, if one directly received some private revelation in definite form or, even better yet, public revelation. But here is where I think Scott Carson's argument delivers its maximum impact: we have no reason on earth to think that any individual has "words engraved on the heart" in any publicly binding fashion. Consequently, in whatever sense there is a "subsequent interpretive authority" (and it is not clear to me that this isn't just a meaningless use of the term), it clearly is not a subsequent interpretive authority with the power to speak with the same force as the law being interpreted, so it is irrelevant for my purposes.

The Crimson Catholic thinks that Protestants put the authority in the mere writing. There are perhaps cases of this, but these will widely be regarded by Protestants as aberrations; they put the authority not in the texts but (like Catholics, it might be pointed out) in the God who breathed them forth and gives them force and power to touch the heart.

And if God were to come down and rule on interpretive disputes in some public way, then the God who breathed them forth would be serving as the interpretive authority. But if we're just talking about some vague "force and power to touch the heart," with no definite form, then it's not the sort of authority that I have in mind. Effectively, as I said above, this is saying that the Scriptures have no authority as a canon, rule, or law.

And this is where I think attempts, like that of the Crimson Catholic and of several other Catholics in the recent discussion, to defend the Catholic view of Scripture on general philosophical principles will fail; at most they can show that it is not incoherent. But the Catholic view of Scripture is not based on a general account of the nature of authority and interpretation, nor can it be, given the unique relationship between the teaching of the Church and the Scriptures she has received; it is based on the Catholic view of the relation between the Church and the Holy Spirit.

All of this would be fine, but for the pesky difficulty that I am not attempting to defend the Catholic view of Scripture but rather to articulate what it actually means for something to serve as a law. It so happens that the Catholic view of Scripture qualifies as such a law and that the authority is established by the Holy Spirit in that view, but that only makes it a special case of a generally true description. The truth of the general description does not make any particular instance true, but it does provide a principle for separating the cases.

The Protestant denies that the interpretive authority is the Church rather than God; the Catholic challenges the dichotomy implicit in the 'rather than'. While this 'rather than' marks a break between the two, such is the emphasis in Catholic doctrine, as found, for instance, in De Fide Catholica and Dei Verbum, on the work of the Holy Spirit, and on the Father speaking with His children through the Scriptures, the more a Protestant emphasizes this, the more his or her view approximates the Catholic view of Scripture.

My point is simply that the approximation is at best asymptotic. Absent the concept of Scripture as canon, rule, or law and the authoritative interpretation entailed therein, it is impossible for such approximations to reach the goal. Emphasizing the approach might draw attention from the fact that there is an absolute limit that all of these approximations can never reach. That is why I am quick to point out that, while the commonalities might be significant, they are nonetheless irrelevant with respect to the issue of authority in the sense I mean it.

I assume here, of course, that the view of the Trinity in the Protestant case is Nicene. And all this, again, is because the Catholic view of Scripture is not based on these vague and dubious pronouncements about the nature of texts, which are nothing but red herrings that obscure the real point; rather, it is based on the Catholic understanding of the Holy Spirit's work in the Church.

But I don't think what I said is the least bit "vague or dubious." Laws without courts are powerless to adjudicate interpretive disputes, so they are no laws over those disputes at all. You yourself cited Nicaea. Why? That was a disputed interpretation of Scripture, and there is no authority who can speak with the same legal force as Scriptures so as to bind the interpretation of Scripture.

The failure to appreciate this properly seems to me to land the Crimson Catholic in a number of muddles. The word 'authority' is used a lot, but it was irrelevant to the point originally being discussed; Bill's claim was about the plain meaning of Scripture. It's the Catholics responding to it who keep trying to make authority the key issue, by fair means and foul; and they have generally been doing so by conflating two very different (albeit related) things: the authoritative character of what is interpreted and the authoritative character of the interpreting.

With all due respect, if there's no authoritative interpreter, then there is no "authoritative character of what is interpreted." They might be distinct, but the latter is absolutely dependent on the former to have any meaning. Severed from the authoritative interpreter, I don't think the quoted phrase can even possibly be given any meaningful sense in terms of a canon, rule, or law, whether the text be the Word of God or a municipal ordinance. I can't see any way in which the Scriptures are unique in such a way that somehow gives meaning to inherent authority in a way that no other text can possibly have. I have never seen or heard of a written law with "inherent authority," and quite frankly, I can't even form a concept of how such a thing could be.

It is simply false that the latter is required for the former to have any effect in our lives at all; any Catholic who reads Scripture on his or her own is living proof that you can interpret Scripture, which is authoritative, without authoritatively interpreting it, because every Catholic who reads Scripture in private devotion is doing precisely that. The whole history of the development of Catholic doctrine is filled to the brim with cases in which people have interpreted Scripture unauthoritatively to have those interpretations later recognized authoritatively as correctly capturing the authoritative meaning of Scripture. The principle that there is no authoritative interpreted without authoritative interpreter also does not fit well with the fact that the primary practice of the Church is to let any Catholic read and interpret Scripture, with intervention only where a danger to faith and morals is perceived.

I never said that Scripture was useless apart from authoritative interpretation. Just as there are trillions of transactions governed by some or another law that go off every day without a hitch, so are there trillions (at least I hope that many) of non-authoritative interpretations of Scripture that have some effect on people's lives. Legal authority isn't about the nigh-infinite number of cases that go right or that go wrong without the authority intervening. It's about those few cases that would render the law a nullity if they could not even possibly be resolved authoritatively. For example, murders are rare, but if murderers were never punished, murders would be a great deal more common. The problem I am citing is the situation when an interpretive dispute cannot be resolved even if one wants to resolve it, needs to resolve it, should resolve it, and perhaps most importantly, when the law has been given to resolve that dispute. Those are the cases that decide whether a law really is a law. As far as I can tell in Protestantism, Scripture is no law, because no interpreter speaks with the force of God.

The Catholic who reads, say, the parable of the unjust judge, and suddenly recognizes a feature in it that he has never been taught before, will naturally and reasonably regard it as authoritative, with only the negative reserve clause that it not be inconsistent with the teaching of the Church. If it becomes a matter of serious concern, there may be a need to confirm that it is indeed genuinely authoritative, rather than merely seemingly so. This confirmation may take the form of either a definitive pronouncement or a natural outgrowth of the Christian practice and prayer of the whole Church, i.e., all those other Catholics with all their unauthoritative reading being drawn by the grace of the Holy Spirit to the truth. I take it that none of this can be seriously regarded as inconsistent with the Catholic view of Scripture. But none of this is possible unless it is recognized that, indeed, there is a sort of plain meaning of Scripture that does not require the direct intervention of an authoritative interpreter to be discovered, unless by 'authoritative interpreter' we mean Truth Himself.

The first sentence in the quote above simply equivocates on what "authoritative" means. I imagine that he does not think that his interpretation is binding on every Catholic who reads Scripture, any more than I think that my judgment of the law means that my opponent is thereby bound to agree with me, even though I have no authority. I might well think that my opinion is "authoritative" in that I have a very real belief that a reasonable judge will agree with me, viz., that I have persuasive authority, but that is not the same thing. The point is that no interpretation, no matter how persuasive, can possibly be binding absent the direct intervention of an authoritative interpreter; collective wisdom cannot add up to a binding authority. The individual Catholic simply cannot make public law for the Church; the Magisterium can. And my problem is that if there cannot even possibly be the direct intervention of an authoritative interpreter, then I have no idea what it means for the Scriptures to serve as law, canon, or rule, since those rare cases are the ones separating the rule of law from anarchy.

Protestants and Catholics actually agree on the key thing here: namely, that the authority of Scripture is the authority of God, that the authoritative teacher of the meaning of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, and that without Him there is nothing but darkness.

With all due respect, no, I can't say that we agree on these matters with respect to the sense of authority as issuing binding interpretations in the name of God. I'm not aware of the Holy Spirit acting as the authoritative teacher of the meaning of Scriptures except through the charism of the Magisterium, so I don't believe that the Holy Spirit is the authoritative teacher of the meaning of Scriptures for anyone not in submission to the Magisterium. I think the authority of Scriptures as canon, rule, or law is completely nullified absent an authoritative interpreter. And I agree that without God there is nothing but darkness, but I find it hard to understand how one can avoid darkness if the Scriptures do not serve as law, including authoritative interpreters.

The difference arises in that, from the Protestant point of view, Catholics too easily conflate the interpretive act of the Holy Spirit with human interpretive acts, and, from the Catholic point of view, Protestants have an incomplete view of the work of the Spirit in the Church's interpreting of Scripture.

What doesn't seem to be coming across is that the Catholic view entails that there literally IS NO authority of Scripture as canon, rule, or law absent the interpretive act of the Holy Spirit being actually identified with human interpretive acts. It's a case of literal antithesis; the views are absolutely incommensurable. My point, which I hope to now have made clear, is that there is no such thing as half a law. Either it can be authoritatively interpreted with the same force of law, or it can't. If it can't, then it isn't a law at all; it has no authority. If you say that Scripture has authority but you reject that there is an interpreter with the power to interpret it with the same force of law, then I have no idea what you mean by "authority," because I have no idea how to parse that idea according to any meaningful concept of juridical authority.

As long as the dispute never seriously engages with this point, it is self-perpetuating, because it will never have any effect except the raising of even more light-obscuring dust. And this all is yet a further argument why Christians who make apologetic arguments against other Christians should start with what the other side gets quite right, and never say a word against them until they have done so. Easier said than done, of course.

What seems to be obscured is how sharp this boundary is. I don't see how any degree of agreement on any related issue suffices to traverse the chasm on the issue of juridical authority of Scripture. The point of this whole argument is that no matter what else you may happen to get right, the Protestant position is vitiated by the failure to give Scripture juridical authority. It cannot even possibly assert the authority of Scripture for itself, so it has no standing to make any claim on the conscience as a true Christian religion. It's all just opinion, persuasive authority, without any power to say what the law is for the Christian conscience. This means that every man is a law unto himself, no matter how well meaning.

I hope this makes my meaning clear, but if not, it would probably be helpful to think on my example regarding the difference between an opinion about the law and a judicial interpretation thereof. Without the latter, the former rapidly becomes irrelevant. I have a very serious concern that the Protestant concept of authority is actually nothing but the persuasive authority of the truth, and I see no way that can be anything but anarchy for the reasons I have outlined above.


Anonymous said...

It might be helpful if the protestant (and I used to be one) contemplated the fact that God, in revealing Himself, has consistently, throughout salvation history, provided incarnational meaning to to the act of revelation. ie "weighed weighed wanting" in Daniel, "how will I know unless someone explain" in Revelation, the prophets- "how will they hear without a preacher?", & the nation Israel -providing a context for their writings.
imho, God will be consistent to His incarnational pattern and give an incarnational meaning to His revelation of Himself in scripture and natural law. and the only candidate is the flawed weak stumbling church under the human pope.

Anonymous said...

I'm a kind of simpleton here. The question for the Protestant is simple, is it not? What method is there for resolving disputes over essential doctrine in the Body of Christ-The Church? Even better, how did the Church we see operating in Scripture resolve disputes? Acts14 & 15.

Levi said...

Honestly, I think the past few centuries in America have been a perfect example of what you are trying to explain here.

I cannot think of a place in history that has been more infested with thriving heresies of such high magnitudes.

CrimsonCatholic said...

Great. Now I've got another commenter (EgoMakarios) who can't seem to grasp the concept that my comboxes are not the place to offer general anti-Catholic observations. Alas, since I can't police the comboxes, when people abuse them, I just close them. I had a good run of decent discussion, but I've got to revert to my previous policy. Thanks for ruining it for everybody.