Monday, September 13, 2004

Textual interpretation & infallibility (continued)

The following discussion is continued from an earlier one published here.

I begin with a statement I made in my earlier discussion, establishing the context:

Well, you might objectively be under that obligation but not subjectively know it, as you would agree, I think. You already accept the infallibility of the teaching of one pope, or at least one man to whom Catholics assign the title of the first pope, at least so far as his written teachings go in his two epistles, which you accept on the basis of tradition as comprising part of the NT. I would be curious about the supposition that God's ability to infallibly guide his servant, Peter, and the other apostles in the oral traditions they bequeathed to us (2 Thes. 2:15) and written traditions, suddenly ceased to be extended any longer with the death of the last apostle.
It is possible that I'm objectively under the Pope's authority, but I am subjectively unaware of it. But you know the nature of logical possiblity over against metaphysical or physical possibility. Logically, it is possible that the Absolute is within me, as my old Hindu roomate in Glasgow used to say. However, conceding the logically possibility that the Absolute is within me does not mean that I think it is metaphysically possible that the Absolute can be found inside me.
This goes without saying.
Concerning the apostles and infallibility: first, Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the apostles were fallible men that God once used to author infallible documents or utter infallible pronouncements. Notice that we do not think that the men themselves were infallible; only their message, and only some of their messages at that. What I mean by this is that there was no guarantee Peter would speak infallibly when he acted in his capacity as one of God's first century shepherds (Jn 21:15-17).
First, with regard to your assertion that the men themselves were not infallible, but that God used them to author infallible documents, this is a distinction without a difference: you believe what we believe.

Second, where we differ is that we do not believe that God left off His divine work of infallibly guiding his apostles or prophets. Further, we believe the infallibility that you see as extended to the written documents also infused their oral teachings (2 Thes. 2:15).

This means that Catholics would agree with you in denying that any human being is infallible in himself. No properly informed Catholic believes the pope is infallible in his mathematics, his opinions about world politics and world religion,
or even in his opinions about theology.

On the other hand, we simply spell out the implications of the infallible divine guidance of fallible human authors, which you readily grant, to embrace the whole context of God's historical revelation to His people and His ongoing protection of that "deposit of faith" (depositum fidei for your benefit, since you wouldn't understand the English, of course) in the teaching of the Church.
Second, we believe that powerful works such as the ability to speak infallibly pretty much died out with the last apostle, who was evidently John. Christians living after the death of John the apostle sometimes report that miracles had ceased in their time, it seems. So there is no way that I could affirm the charism of infallibility obtaining in any man living today.
First, I don't think either of us really wants to speak of the charism of infallibility as an "ability," since we're not attributing infallibility to the human beings themselves but to the divine guidance gifted to them.

Second, I was taught that "miracles ceased" generally with the death of the last apostle at Westminster Theological Seminary where I studied. Miracles were seen as having the purpose of amplifying and reinforcing the divine natue of the great events surrounding the Incarnation and Resurrection.

Yet further study of the matter has led me to question whether this position was anything more than a knee-jerk reaction to any implicatin that real divine guidance could be thought to animate the on-going development and life of the Catholic
Church. St. Augustine gives account of numerous miracles that he witnessed while bishop of Hippo in his own day (5th century) in Book XXII, ch. 8 of Civitas Dei; and I find it interesting that the Scottish Presbyterian editors of the English translation of the Post-Nicene Fathers version of the work are at pains to dismiss these miracles as frauds by which the [Catholic] Church mislead and deceived her members!!

Again, the Protestant tradition affirms that the prophetic office has ceased. But on what basis? There are the usual assetions about the prophetic office having lapsed during the "inter-testimental" period, and "post-apostolic" period, etc.
But why should we assume this? There are plenty of counter-arguments. Newman, for example, is quite good on this. And there are some interesting statements in the NT itself.
The following remarks are, again, mine from the earlier exchange, included here to contextualize the discussion that follows:

Wait a sec: show me one fallible doctrinal pronouncement of an apostle. Where? Whom? Which?
I use the word "fallible" in the sense of "being capable of error." Having the capacity or potential for error doesn't necessarily mean that a pronouncement will be erroneous or that a fallible person will speak in error. Since the apostles were fallible men, I believe that every apostle was fallible. This does not mean that the apostles could not speak infallibly, if God so willed. Do I think the apostles ever erred concerning dogma or doctrine? If they did, it doesn't seem that we find any instances in the Bible. Yet, I would say that they were capable of error. It is just the nature of sin.
Two things here. First, I have already stated my agreement with you that infallibility adheres to the divine guidance rather than to any "ability" of the human person in question. Having said that, I would not wish for one moment to speak of the doctrinal pronoucements of the apostles as fallible, since I take these to be the product of the aforementioned divine guidance.

Second, while I would agree that all men are as capable of error as they are of sin, I would want to carefully distinguish the two. Peccability (capability of sinning) is not, as you know, the same thing as doctrinal fallibility (capability of error). I think carelessness about letting the meanings of these slip over into one another can lead to a sort of hyper-pessimistic view such as one finds in the Lutheran view of sin. A Lutheran believes that because we are fallen, we are always sinful or in a state of sin. A Catholic denies this. An adult convert who has just been baptized (washed of the stain of original sin) and has confessed his sins (absolved of his actual sins) is in a state of grace. Now, even if it were true that he fell from this state of grace by committing a mortal sin five minutes later, it could still not be denied that for five minutes he went without sinning. A Lutheran will not admit this, but it seems silly to do so.

Now if this is true of sin, it is even truer of error. It is quite humanly possible to go all day working mathematical problems without committing a single error. This does not mean that one is not capable of error. But it does mean that it is possible for a fallible human being to produce results of mathematical calculation that are infallibly true and accurate. There is nothing odd or goofy about this.

The divine charism claimed for official Church teaching in the Catholic Church is that God infallibly guides the Church in such a way that whenever the Church declares in an official capacity and a public and solemn way what is true of apostolic teaching, God will infallibly prevent her from declaring something true that is false, or vice versa. There doesn't seem to me to be much that is odd or goofy about this either.
Here, again, is another earlier remark:

I think his fears are unfounded. In the first place, I think he'd readily agree that some interpretations of the biblical text, such as the intepretation that says that the apostles assumed the existence of an infinite-personal God, are infalliblly irrevisible. We're not going to come up with a legitimate "interpretation" of the NT that says that the apostles may not have believe in the existence of God.
Vanhoozer no doubt would agree with you here.
Agreement is nice.
Regarding Vanhoozer, I had written earlier that I thought that what he fears is:
... losing interpretive "elbow room" where no definitive understanding has been attained by the mind of the Church. For example, some eschatological issues are far from settled in the Catholic tradition, such as the intrepretation of parts of the Book of Revelation. (Wild and wooly interpretations of this book are a dime-a-dozen, as you know, among some of the more fundamentalist sects, even among televangelists.) But the Church allows such interpretive "elbow room" when it comes to these sorts of things; so I think Vanhoozer's fears are unfounded.
I think Vanhoozer may fear more than you're suggesting. He apparently thinks that no biblical interpretation should claim that it is absolutely correct. An interpreter should recognize that his view is provisional and subject to change and not just in matters of eschatology. Clearly, Vanhoozer doesn't think that this is always the case, even if it sounds like that is what he's saying. But neither do I think his comments are linked to adiaphora or eschatological issues either. I'll need to read further to see if my intutions are correct though.
My hunch is that you're right about Vanhoozer. I'm not claiming that HE restricts his concerns to adiaphora or eschatological issues, but that the Church allows for differences of opinon on such matters. Hence, I would argue against Vanhoozer where he suggests that no biblical interpretation can claim absolute certitude. This would seem to fall into the sort of skepticism that can be found in Pannenberg, as suggested by an earlier recent correspondence with you. I would insist, with the Church, that the basics of the Christian Faith are knowable and certain, even if this knowledge and certitude is dependent upon faith. For example, I would say that the proposition that the "virgin" cited in Matt 1:23 from the Septuagint Is. 7:14 refers to the mother of Jesus is indisputably certain (de fide) for a Catholic believer, as well as countless other intepretive propositions.