Friday, February 25, 2005

Canonicity and the problem of circular reasoning

In this two-part analysis, (1) "Canon to the right of them; canon to the left of them," and (2) "Canon in front of them, rode the six hundred," the Pontificator offers a fine examination of two Protestant criteria for the determination of canonicity, (1) self-authentication and (2) apostolic authorship or authorization. The basic question, of course, centers on the authority to define canonicity. The question of pseudonymity that he treats in his second post is a secondary detail, and I won't address it here. Rather, I wish to comment briefly on the question of circular reasoning that he raises in his second post.

First, the claim is sometimes made that the Catholic Church is circular in appealing to Scripture to support her authority and then claiming the final say in how to interpret Scripture. But there is no circularity here, first, because she does not claim sola scriptura; and, second, because if she has the authority she claims, the case is no different logically from that of the NT writers appealing to the Old Testament (OT) for support while claiming divine warrant for their NT interpretations.

Second, others suggest that the Church's position is circular because it boils down to saying: "we must believe Rome because Rome says so." The concern here for avoiding self-serving abuses by those in authority is legitimate, but misplaced. The Catholic is not asked to submit to the Church because the Church says so, but because Catholics understand God to have appointed the Church and her lawfully ordained leaders as administrators of His commission. The Church is subject to the Word of God (including the message of the Bible), even while she guardian and master (as Magisterium) of the Bible's text and interpretation. The Vatican II document, Dei verbum, declares that the "Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant" (ch. 2, sec. 10, p. 756). The Church's authority is not an "enabling" one but a "restraining" one, which prevents any reigning Pope from arbitrarily inventing heretical new doctrines by binding him to an infallible tradition (including Scripture) traceable to the "apostolic deposit of faith."

The wording of Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter reserving priestly ordination to men alone, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, is instructive in this regard: he says, quoting Pope Paul VI, that the Church "does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination" (emphasis added). Again, Peter Kreeft also remarks in an article entitled "Gender and the Will of God," Crisis magazine (Sept. 1993): "The Catholic Church claims less authority than any other Christian church in the world; that is why she is so conservative. Protestant churches feel free to change 'the deposit of faith' ... or of morals (e.g. by allowing divorce, though Christ forbade it), or of worship" (20).

Third, still others claim that Catholicism is circular because it bases our conviction of the Bible's inspiration on the Church's infallibility and the Church's infallibility on the word of an inspired Bible. But it does not. While it may appeal to the Church's infallible teaching in support of our conviction that Scripture is inspired, it does not have to argue for the Church's infallibility from the Bible alone. It can argue this from other sources of early Church tradition as well. Hence there is no logical circularity here.

Fourth, there is a larger sense in which circularity, as Pontificator suggests, cannot be avoided in arguing for the ultimate criterion of a system. This is what Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas meant by saying that first principles are indemonstrable. Why should one be logical? Because it would be illogical not to be! Why should one believe God's Word? Because it is the Word of God, of course! Every system is based on presuppositions that control its epistemology, argument, and use of evidence; therefore ultimate circularity is philosophically inescapable. But this does not mean that circularity is permissible in other (penultimate) sorts of arguments. "The Bible is inspired because the Bible says its inspired" is a circular argument whose circularity is not justified. It lacks cogency. A document's self-attestation is insufficient warrant for accepting its claims. The argument can gain cogency only by enlarging its circle to include also the attestation of the Church and data of sacred and secular history. By contrast, "The Bible means what the Church says it means" is not circular in this way, since the Church's interpretation is not closed off from history, but empirically testable for fidelity and coherence both against Scripture and the other traditions of the Church.

Related reading:

The question of authority in relation to the biblical canon

Al Kimel, at Pontificator, offers another incisive post on the issue if canonicity, this one entitled, "Canon to the right of them; canon to the left of them." The problem of canonicity reduces to the problem of authority and, for the Protestant, the problem of a bifurcation between the authority of Scripture and that of the Church, which, in truth, should not and cannot be separated. There is little more ironic than the spectacle of evangelicals vociferously defending the infallible divine guidance of the apostles in their inscripturation of God's Word turning, a moment later in conversations with Catholics, to backpedal furiously at the suggestion that God could have extended this infallible guidance beyond the apostles' act of writing to their verbal teaching and that of their authoritatively ordained successors.

The Protestant position is self-defeating, because it rests on a presupposition that cannot be supported from Scripture or from history--namely, that the whole content of God's revealed will for the ongoing instruction of His Church was committed "wholly to writing," so that no unwritten residue of divinely inspired instruction survived from the oral teachings of Jesus and His apostles that remained binding on God's people after the NT was written. This assumption, stated more or less audaciously, is nearly ubiquitous among Protestants. But how could one claim to know this? The data of Scripture don't make this case. and the data of history and the Church Fathers weigh heavily against it. It does not even make good sense. First, if all bindingly authoritative oral instruction ceased with the death of the last apostle, and if the early churches did not have copies of all the NT books until well after that time, who spoke for the Lord Jesus and the apostles in the interim? Second, how is one to plausibly imagine the transition from the partially oral framework of authoritative instruction (OT + teachings of Jesus and apostles) to a wholly written framework (OT + NT) required by this hypothesis? Gregory Krehbiel offers a wry scenario:
One imagines all the churches dutifully obeying Paul's oral instructions on the Eucharist [1 Cor 11:34] and anxiously awaiting the publication in the Antiochian Post of the last apostle's obituary, at which point they are to rewrite their book of church order and eliminate everything based on oral instructions.
The whole idea, of course, seem ridiculous, but scarcely more so than some of the assertions commonly made in this connection

But then, in all seriousness, what is the Protestant partisan of scriptura vs. ecclesia magistra to say about those who remembered the oral instructions of the apostles--concerning, say, the Eucharistic liturgy--who perhaps even wrote down and preserved these, even though they never made it into the NT canon? The writings of the early Church are filled with extrabiblical sayings of Jesus, practices of the Christian community, liturgical and Eucharistic formulas, and so forth, which presuppose the divine origin and authority of these things. On the Catholic view, this is not a problem, since the writings of the NT are viewed as part and parcel of a larger normative tradition, not as a complete set of catechetical instructions for new believers, but as occasional writings with an "eye to the situation in the churches," often intended to correct abuses. But what is the Protestant Partisan to do with instructions and practices that claim to be apostolic but were never put in writing in the NT? Again, Krehbiel offers an imaginative scenario:
Imagine, if you will, John Calvin, Bible in hand, visiting the church of Corinth in the year 125. Calvin notices some practices in the church of which he has never read specific mention in Scripture, and he rebukes the church for "adding to God's word."

One of the presbyters approaches Calvin and says, "Have you not read in Paul's first epistle to this church, in the passage about the Lord’s Supper, 'And the rest I will set in order when I come'? (1 Cor 11:34) Dear brother, I was a young man when the apostle visited this church. These church practices you condemn came from the apostle's very lips. Are you greater than Paul? We also have in our possession Paul's letter to the church of the Thessalonians. He commands them to continue in the traditions, whether delivered by word of mouth or by epistle. (2 Thes 2:15) Are we to obey you or the apostle?" (Krehbiel, A Defense of Roman Catholic Doctrine Against Reformed Protestantism [Laurel, MD, 1992], p. 6).
The logic of apostolic authority runs seamlessly into the logic of ecclesiastical magisterial authority. Peter Kreeft (Fundamentals of the Faith, Appendix B) oversimplifies, but makes his points clearly when he says there are at least four things wrong with the Protestant position:
First, it separates Church and Scripture. But theyare one. They are not two rival horses in the authority race, but one rider (the Church) on one horse (Scripture). The Church as writer, canonizer, and interpreter of Scripture is not another source of revelation but the author and guardian and teacher of the one source, Scripture. We are not taught by a teacher without a book or by a book without a teacher, but by one teacher, the Church, with one book, Scripture.

Second, sola scriptura is self-contradictory, for it says we should believe only what Scripture teaches, but Scripture never says this! If we believe only what Scripture teaches, we will not believe sola scriptura, for Scripture does not teach sola scriptura.

Third, sola scriptura violates the principle of causality: that an effect cannot be greater than its cause. The Church (the apostles) wrote Scripture, and the successors of the apostles, the bishops of the Church, decided on the canon, the list of books to be declared scriptural and infallible. If Scriptue is infallible, then its cause, the Church, must also be infallible.

Fourth, there is the practical argument that private interpretation leads to denominationalism. Let five hundred people interpret the Bible without Church authority and there will soon be five hundred denominations. But denominationalism is an intolerable scandal by scriptural standards-see John 17:20-23 and 1 Corinthians 1:10-17.

Fifth, sola scriptura is unhistorical, for the first generation of Christians did not have the New Testament, only the Church, to teach them.
Obviously there are a couple of points that require some finessing here, but they clearly focus the issue of authority where it needs to be focussed. Is there on earth an institution that exists in licit episcopal succession from the time of Christ that directly bears the authority he deligated to his apostles? If so, the jig's up and the problems are all minor details. If not, it's each private interpretation of Scripture and tradition for itself, and we may as well all pack up our bags and go home.

For further reading:

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Did the Church "create" Scripture?

Al Kimel over at his exceptional Pontifications blog has a brilliant discussion of the question "Did the Church 'create' the Scripture?" I think he's done a remarkable job of covering all the major issues here in fairly short compass. The notion that Scriptures are "self-authenticating"--a notion that a commentator, Mr. Atwood reiterates--is quite commonly voiced in various Protestant, particularly Reformed, circles. I know they taught that at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia when I attended there in the seventies. Like all those other ultimately subjectivist criteria (the "inner promptings of the Holy Spirit," "what preaches Christ," etc.), it ends up functioning as a wax nose that can be turned in nearly any direction the interpreter desires. Luther would have left out Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation, which Luther classified in the first edition of his Deutche Bibel (pictured left) as non-canonical books, along with the Deuterocanonicals. Most Protestants today would be rightly scandalized by a Bible that omitted Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. The one thing you didn't address is the bizarre fact that most Protestants do, however, omit the Deuterocanonical books without batting an eye. I say "bizarre" because they typically cite St. Athanasius' Easter encyclical of AD 367 as the first public record of the complete list of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament--as does the popular evangelical textbook by Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), p. 27--without batting an eye, either ignoring or ignorant of the fact that the same Athanasian list includes all of the Deuterocanonicals as well. It does them no help to cite the canon of ecclesiastical consensus at this point, because the consensus clearly recognized the Deuterocanonicals as Scripture. Greek was the lingua franca of the New Testament ethos, and the "Scripture" to which St. Paul referred in II Tim. 3:16 as "inspired," and the "Scripture" to which other NT writers quoted and cited in their epistles and gospels was for all practical purposes the Septuagint (LXX), which included the Deuterocanonicals. I think it's the Nestle-Alland edition of the Greek NT that contains the appendix listing the multitude of allusions in the NT to the Deuterocanonical books (worth checking out). Also every listing of the canonical books of the Bible in the Council of Rome (AD 382), Council of Carthage (AD 397), St. Innocent (405), and Council of Trent (AD 1546) includes all of the Deuterocanonicals, even though they are called by slightly different names (Link). This fact alone says something about how the process of canonization occurred and where the authority lies. To me it's a safe truth that when the Apostle John declared that the "Spirit of truth will guide you into all truth" (John 14:6), he did not mean by "you" every Tom, Dick, or Harry who with his CD-ROM concordance at hand sets out to interpret the Bible by his own best lights (we have over 300 major denominatinal factions to attest to that: the Holy Spirit is not the author of confusion).