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.

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