Sunday, January 17, 2010

Magisterium More Sufficient than Scripture? (Part 3)

[Cont'd from previous section]

Is the Roman Catholic Magisterium More Sufficient than Sacred Scripture?
Bryan Cross answered on the subject of the ability of the Scripture to interpret Scripture sufficiently, from Scripture, reason, and tradition.
(Part 3)

Augustine (about A.D. 354-430):
The divine scriptures, which have lifted us up from their earthly and human meaning to one that is divine and heavenly, have stooped down to a language that is current even among the most unlearned.
- Augustine, John Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., The Works of Saint Augustine, Responses to Miscellaneous Questions, Miscellany of Eighty-Three Questions, LII, Part I, Vol. 12, trans. Boniface Ramsey, S.J. (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2008), p. 65.

This statement from Augustine speaks to the fact that the Scriptures are expressed, in many places, in language that is simple and easy to understand. Similarly, Augustine goes on to explain that the clear parts of Scripture are given to help us understand the less clear parts, though he does not mean to suggest that the less clear parts could not be understood by a careful and devout reader.

Augustine (about A.D. 354-430):
For in certain places in the scriptures a clearer explanation is given of something that a careful and devout reader might understand as well in other places where it is less clear. For our God has, by the Holy Spirit, set up the divine books for the salvation of souls in such a way that he wishes not only to nourish us with what is obvious but also to exercise us with what is obscure.
- Augustine, John Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., The Works of Saint Augustine, Responses to Miscellaneous Questions, Miscellany of Eighty-Three Questions, LIII.2, Part I, Vol. 12, trans. Boniface Ramsey, S.J. (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2008), p. 68.

These descriptions of the Scripture well summarize much of the preceding discussion. Let's continue, however, with Bryan's argument. After asserting that the need for something to tell us what is clear in Scripture, Bryan suggests we might respond "Scripture," which he claims then would simply regress the question to the previous point - how do we properly interpret the Scriptures that tell us which ones are clear, so that we can interpret the others and so on. He then asserts:
If there were something in Scripture itself that prevented the regress, then all truth-loving and adequately intelligent persons who come to Scripture would all arrive at all the same conclusions regarding its interpretation. But obviously they do not.
This statement amounts to an interesting ad hominem. Apparently if something did stop the regress would be that "all truth-loving and adequately intelligent persons who come to [X] would all arrive at all the same conclusions regarding its interpretation," but there are internal disagreements within Roman Catholicism over various teachings of the Magisterium. So, Bryan is left in one of three positions: he can accuse at least half of those who disagree as not being truth-loving or not being adequately intelligent (the ad hominem approach); he can maintain his claim about regress and agreement and claim that the RC position also doesn't avoid the regress; or he can acknowledge what we already know, namely that the test of universal agreement is a bogus test.

Part of the problem with Bryan's criticism (one he may be trying to avoid by adding "truthloving") is that there are a variety of reasons for people disagreeing about Scripture, sometimes the reason being the person himself.

Hilary of Poitiers (c 315-67):
And it is obvious that these dissensions concerning the faith result from a distorted mind, which twists the words of Scripture into conformity with its opinion, instead of adjusting that opinion to the words of Scripture.
- Hilary of Poiters, NPNF2: Vol. IX, On the Trinity, Book VII, §4.

Hilary of Poitiers (c 315-67):
If any man propose to express what is known in other words than those supplied by God [namely the Scriptures], he must inevitably either display his own ignorance, or else leave his readers’ minds in utter perplexity.
- Hilary of Poiters, NPNF2: Vol. IX, On the Trinity, Book VII, §38.

Bryan's next comment is similar:
Hence, Scripture does not provide its own self-evident hermeneutical foundation that by necessary inferences closes off all false interpretive alternatives, leaving only the one correct interpretation of Scripture.
This claim is in many ways similar to Bryan's previous claim. It's additionally notable that there doesn't have to be only one correct interpretation of Scripture. Both Reformed and Roman Catholic theology recognizes that there can be both literal and spiritual senses to the same passage. Additionally, God is able to use (and sometimes does use) word plays such as double entendres, in which two senses are simultaneously intended.

Aquinas (about A.D. 1225–1274):
The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. Now this spiritual sense has a threefold division. For as the Apostle says (Hebrews 10:1) the Old Law is a figure of the New Law, and Dionysius says (Coel. Hier. i) "the New Law itself is a figure of future glory." Again, in the New Law, whatever our Head has done is a type of what we ought to do. Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense. Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses.
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 1, Article 10

Nevertheless, let's continue with Bryan's argument:
So, without such a hermeneutical foundation, the position (that Scripture alone has interpretive authority) is left with the regress problem. There are only two ways to avoid this regress. Either deny that Scripture needs to be interpreted, and thus abandon the claim that Scripture interprets Scripture, or locate a regress-stopping point in human persons holding interpretive authority.
The first portion of this argument has been addressed above. The second part of this argument is to suggest that the supposed regression problem can be avoided if the interpreter is not Scripture but instead "human persons." It should be immediately obvious that none of the arguments against Scripture being its own interpreter above were actually in any way unique to Scripture. In other words, we could swap in "Magisterium" for Scripture in Bryan's critique and if it stands against Scripture it also stands against the Magisterium.

Bryan seems to anticipate this objection, as he continues the argument thus:
Denying that Scripture needs to be interpreted at all, is sufficiently naive and self-evidently false so as to be self-refuting. What about the human alternative? You might think that if human beings have interpretive authority that would not avoid the regress problem. But it does. That's because there is a relevant ontological difference between a person and a book.
We're about to let Bryan attempt to demonstrate his supposedly relevant ontological difference between a person and a book. However, before we do, we should address his initial point about Scripture not needing interpretation. As noted above, there is an important difference between saying that some obscure parts of Scripture need interpretation and saying that the clear parts require interpretation. Bryan's comments ignore this difference which results in the various absurdities already set forth above.

At this point Bryan quoted himself from his article:
The problem with this dilemma is that it ignores the qualitative ontological distinction between persons and books, and so it falsely assumes that if a book needs an authoritative interpreter in order to function as an ecclesial authority, so must a living person.
There is a subtle shift taking place here. Instead of arguing that the book needs an authoritative interpreter in order to act as an authority, there is a change from "authority" to "ecclesial authority." The change appears to be an attempt to avoid the original contention, namely that the Scriptures can be our final authority in matters of faith and morals.

For context, it is necessary to see what dilemma the article is referring to. The dilemma is:
Either the individual needs the guidance of an interpretive authority when interpreting Scripture, or not. If the individual needs the guidance of an interpretive authority when interpreting Scripture, then he will need the guidance of another interpretive authority when interpreting the first interpretive authority. And he will need the guidance of third interpretive authority when interpreting the second interpretive authority. That would lead to an infinite regress. But there cannot be an infinite regress, hence the individual does not need the guidance of an interpretive authority when interpreting Scripture.
As noted above, the alleged escape from this regress is to substitute "a living person" as the second (or third, or whatever) authority. Bryan attempts to explain why this matters, as follows:
A book contains a monologue with respect to the reader. An author can often anticipate the thoughts and questions that might arise in the mind of the reader. But a book cannot hear the reader’s questions here and now, and answer them.
There are two aspects to which may respond here. The first is that a merely human writer can frequently anticipate most of the reader's possible questions, yet the Scriptures are not the product of mere men. Holy Scripture is inspired by God, and God both can anticipate every possible human question and already knows all the questions that will be asked. Additionally, God can answer (in advance, in the Scriptures themselves) those questions he wishes to answer.

Augustine (about A.D. 354-430):
In the same way, therefore, the heretic shall not stand in the face of the Catholic, who made no account of his labors, when the laws of the Catholic emperors were put in force; but the Catholic shall stand in the face of the heretic, who made no account of his labors when the madness of the ungodly Circumcelliones was allowed to have its way. For the passage of Scripture decides the question in itself, seeing that it does not say, Then shall men stand, but "Then shall the righteous stand;" and they shall stand "in great boldness" because they stand in the power of a good conscience.
- Augustine, Letter 185, Chapter 8, Section 41

Origen (about A.D. 185–254):
Let us see, then, briefly what holy Scripture has to say regarding good and evil, and what answer we are to return to the questions, "How is it that God created evil?" and, "How is He incapable of persuading and admonishing men?"
- Origen, Contra Celsus, Book IV, Chapter 54

In fact, of course, that's why scripture is sometimes referred as oracles: Acts 7:38 This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us: Romans 3:2 Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. And why Scripture can provide us with answers to those who question us. Psalm 119:42 So shall I have wherewith to answer him that reproacheth me: for I trust in thy word.

The second aspect is that the magisterium of the Roman Catholic church is not a living person to whom one can go and ask questions -- at any rate the extraordinary magisterium is not.

The article continued:
A living person, however, can do so. A living person can engage in genuine dialogue with the reader, whereas a book cannot.
The magisterium of the Roman Catholic church does not typically engage in dialogs with the readers of Scripture in its extraordinary function. It may in its ordinary function (i.e. one's local bishop may sit down with one and talk about Scriptural interpretation), but that ordinary function is not a comparable authority to that of Scripture. Think about it: there have been about 21 allegedly ecumenical councils and (depending who you ask) about half that number of ex cathedra papal definitions.

The article again:
Fr. Kimel talks about that here when he quotes Chesterton as saying that though we can put a living person in the dock, we cannot put a book in the dock.
You can't cross-examine the council of Nicaea or even the Second Vatican Council. You can't cross-examine any of the popes who have given ex cathedra definitions. In theory one could put Benedict XVI in the dock, but in practice one cannot. One certainly can't put the whole "magisterium" in the dock.

And again the article:
In this respect, a person can do what a book cannot; a person can correct global misunderstandings and answer comprehensive interpretive questions.
Did you notice how Bryan added in "global" and "comprehensive"? The reason is the obvious futility of hoping that the Roman magisterium would answer any individual misunderstanding or particular interpretive question. Bryan appears essentially to have conceded this. This problem with Bryan's article has a feedback effect, however. While a merely human book may not be able to anticipate every single misunderstanding, it can anticipate global misunderstandings and comprehensive interpretive questions. Furthermore, such tasks are even easier for God: the true author of Scripture.

Nevertheless, let us continue reading the article:
A book by its very nature has a limited intrinsic potency for interpretive self-clarification; a person, on the other hand, by his very nature has, in principle, an unlimited intrinsic potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification.
Again, this characterizes the question oddly. The proper question is not whether the book (or person) has limited or unlimited interpretive self-clarification, but simply whether it has sufficient. Furthermore, of course, self-clarification is not possible for the 21 supposedly ecumenical councils, or for any of the popes who issued ex cathedra statements. The only way that further clarification in the Roman system can occur is if there is some new statement by some new generation of the magisterium. The only way in which this is "self-clarification" is when we treat the magisterium anthropomorphically as though it were a person. Still, even when we do so, if every statement that is made must be interpreted, and consequently requires a further statement by the magisterium, the theoretically limitless ability of the magisterium to issue new clarification doesn't actually stop the regress, it just continues the regress. When we further consider how rarely the extraordinary magisterium acts to define dogma (or to interpret Scripture), the practical reality is that the Roman extraordinary magisterium does not clarify itself on any sort of regular basis that would be helpful to the average person.

Nevertheless, let's continue with the article:
This unlimited potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification ensures that the hermeneutical spiral may reach its end. A book cannot speak more about itself than it does at the moment at which it is completed. A person, by contrast, remains perpetually capable of clarifying further any of his previous speech-acts.
Most of this has already been addressed above. The person at the present time is never enough, if the concept of infinite regression is workable in the first place (as noted above, it is not). In other words, if there are no statements so clear that they do not require further interpretation, even the magisterium at the present time requires further interpretation - and it always will, even if it is always willing to do so.

That ended Bryan's quotation from his own article. He then concluded:
If the possession of interpretive authority by persons did not avoid the regress problem, then this problem would continue in heaven, since we would need an interpretive authority to interpret the interpretive authority, etc. etc. But that's obviously false. So the possession by persons of interpretive authority does avoid the regress problem. In short, some humans having interpretive authority is the only real option.
Bryan's argument here is flawed. First, infinite regress could be solved another way in heaven: namely by giving the elect an innate knowledge of everything that God wants them to know. Second, infinite regress may simply not be a problem at all. That would explain why it is not going to be a problem in heaven. In short, the fact that this is not going to be a problem in heaven may simply be viewed as evidence that infinite regress is not actually a problem in general - whether for Scripture or for people.

[to be continued in section 4]


louis said...

Good analysis, TF.

"The only way in which this is "self-clarification" is when we treat the magisterium anthropomorphically as though it were a person."

This is correct. The extreme to which they take this argument is seen in that they claim the church today has interpretive authority over the scriptures themsevles. IOW, if you want to know what Paul really meant, ask Benedict.

The other 500 lb. elephant in the room is that to make this argument work, they have to pretend their living interpretive authority is infallible. Which he obviously is not. The whole argument is based on a fiction.

Matthew Bellisario said...

Bad analysis. Trying to pit the Church against Scripture is a false understanding of both the Church and Scripture. Great cut and paste hatchet job as usual.

Lockheed said...

@beowulf - the reason such posts might be deleted is that they 1) have nothing to do with the topic at hand and 2) offer nothing in the way of intelligent response. To turn your argument on it's head, Pat Robertson believes in ongoing extra-biblical revelation, in so doing he denies the formal principle of sola Scriptura. Pat is not making a private interpretation of Scripture, rather he's denying that Scripture is sufficient and relying on a magisterium, though a magisterium of one.
The Roman Catholic e-pologist who comments on such pieces may pontificate about any aspect of Scripture or tradition, but their own words can be overturned in an instant by statement from the Pope and/or Magisterium. And so, both the RC e-pologist and Mr. Robertson are in the same boat, speaking about things they really shouldn't be since neither has any authority to do so.

Lockheed said...

@Bellisario - Ad hom a meaningful response does not make.

Turretinfan said...

Mr. Bellisario:

Your comment adds nothing to the discussion, except to illustrate that you refuse to let the Scripture correct your church.


Viisaus said...

Like it says in the 1st Epistle of John, those who deny that they have sins cannot be forgiven of them.

Therefore, paradoxically: those churches that do not pretend infallibility and humbly confess their deficiencies - THEY can be forgiven, but there can be no forgiveness for those churches that pretend infallibility and thus refuse to confess their sins.

Anonymous said...

I sense a morbid reality literally going on here TF. You are like the executioner and you have just put the hood on the one to be executed. They are now bound and it is just a matter of time when the lever will be pulled and the shoot will open and the soul will drop, hung up and dangling dead!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Bellisario,

I wonder from which planet you came from?

In any event, I would be interested in reading what you have to say about these Scriptures seeing you seem to have a better understanding of them than most?

Pro 9:7 Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.
Pro 9:8 Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
Pro 9:9 Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.
Pro 9:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

What can you write about those words? Would you say they reflect Christ's way of teaching when He walked the planet earth?