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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Authority and truth--reply to Binx

I've been carrying on a conversation in the comments section with a poster named Binx, who posed some excellent questions relating to my last post. So I decided to move t into a new blog post (in part because it's late Sunday night and I haven't made a new post this weekend). As I have time--probably next weekend--I hope to move on to the priesthood of all believers, and from there to women's ordination--so stay tuned!

Binx initially raised three objections to my post (you can read his full arguments in the comments section of my previous entry):

1. James contradicts what I am saying. I responded that I don't think James and Paul are speaking of the same kind of "faith," and my evidence for this is that James identifies the dead faith that cannot save as the faith of demons, which cannot be a gift of God and which even Aquinas distinguishes from the "lifeless faith" of sinful Christians.

2 (this was the third point he made, but I'm leaving the most important issue for last). The practical flaws in Catholicism result not from Catholic doctrine but from a failure to proclaim said doctrine. They are therefore simply the results of sin and do not constitute a reason to continue in separation from the Church. I responded that when any Christian body consistently shows certain weaknesses, these weaknesses derive from some flaw in its teaching. This applies to Protestants as well. It's not that we are better than Catholics or that we are unwilling to be in union with Catholicism, but rather that (in view of the flaws of Catholicism) we cannot make the act of unconditional submission that Catholicism requires.

3. Most significantly, Binx raised the issue of authority. I'll put his argument in his own words:
the objective aspect of faith, the 'what is held to be true', is just as integral a part of faith as the act of 'holding as true'. And this is where dogma and authority are indespensible and yet absent from evangelical Protestantism. It is why 'faith' in the Jehovah's Witness sense or the Mormon sense is not faith in Christ at all. It is why Arianism is not Christian. And gnosticism, Donatism, Albegensianism, etc. Faith has an objective element that the Authority of the Church protects and that is necessary to salvation. . . . The Dogma and Authority of the Church are not the heart of Faith but they are the divinely instituted means of protecting the very fullness of the Faith.
To this I responded that the objective aspect of faith is indeed integral, but this faith is primarily faith in Christ rather than faith in whatever-the-Church-proposes-as-true. What distinguishes Arianism from authentic Christianity is its failure to proclaim the true Christ, not its failure to conform with the pronouncements of the Magisterium.

In his most recent post, Binx began by responding to this argument. I will quote snippets of his post here, but you can of course read his arguments in their entirety (which they well deserve) in the comments section of the previous blog entry.

Binx wrote:

Actually I think I would formulate the relationship between the Church (and her God given Authority to bear witness to the Truth) and Christ as integral and inseperable.


Sure. But as a matter of fact there are many Christians out there who believe in Christ but don't accept this "integral" connection. Vatican II describes us as imperfectly connected with the Church, but still in some sense members of the Body. I can live with that. But that of course means that the full authority of the Magisterium is not the same thing as union with Christ (though it may be necessary for perfect union with Christ). Some "hierarchy of truths" is necessary. Some things are believed for the sake of other things. And it seems important to me that Jesus Christ crucified should be the one for whose sake we believe in the Church, not vice versa. Of course the Church is necessary as a _witness_ to Christ. (This I think is what Augustine meant in his famous statement about not believing the Gospel if not convinced by the Catholic Church.) But a witness is decidedly secondary to the truth to which he witnesses.


So it seems to me it can't boil 'down to...our faith is in Christ, not in a doctrine or a church', because implicit in faith in Christ is faith in Christ's message necessarily mediated thru the Church. Yes?


Yes. I was not trying to create an either/or, but rather a hierarchy of importance. My problem with much Western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant (I'm not necessarily holding up the Orthodox as models here, just leaving them out because I'm less sure about them), is that we have exalted the methodology of belief above the content of belief itself (or rather Himself). William Abraham has some good things to say about this in his book Canon and Criterion, though I don't agree with all his arguments.

But I would immediately feel compelled to qualify the statement by an equally important addendum so that it only makes sense to read it as "...not fully divine and thus not the true Christ as understood and proclaimed the Church, whom the Lord gave his Authority to bear witness regarding Himself" ('He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.')


But during the Arian controversy it wasn't clear what the Church proclaimed. The Church was divided. Even Rome wavered at one point, though it never sided with the Arians. Athanasius and others defended what they believed to be true based on Scripture and the writings of earlier Christians and the analogy of the Faith. They believed what they believed passionately because they were convinced it was true, not because it came stamped by proper authority.

Otherwise who can tell us who the 'true Christ' is? That is precisely what the Arians claimed to be doing, defining the true Christ. Who has the Authority to say?


Well, that's radically different from how Athanasius approached it. And I think it's a dangerous, even deadly attitude to take (however tempting in confusing times like ours). The answer to the question is that the Church has the authority, and the Church is made up of all believers. The Church has proper authority structures, but that doesn't (or shouldn't) shortcut the messy process of actually thrashing out the issues based on what we (not just I, but not just the Pope and bishops either) believe to be true.

Clearly we need authority if this process is not to be totally open-ended and hence incapable of resolution. But that's not the same thing as saying (as you appear to be saying) that we can't even talk about why the Arians are wrong until we have heard from some Qualified Authority that they are wrong. This is the attitude that has torn the Western Church apart (not, as many Catholics will tell you, the rejection of this attitude--of course this is a matter of perspective). Medieval Catholicism took in the poison of Roman law and fell prey to its legalistic, authority-driven approach to the world. (I'm often tempted to agree with the late medieval apocalypticists and the Protestant Reformers who thought that at this point Antichrist in some way entered into the Church.) This has nearly destroyed Christianity by distracting us from the older, more orthodox, ontological approach. (In other words, is truth primarily a matter of obeying the rules laid down by competent authorities, or of participating in Ultimate Reality? Of course it doesn't have to be an either/or, but one or the other tends to be in the driver's seat, and I think it matters a lot which.)

I think this all flows from the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Church's foundation on Christ and his nature as determined by the Incarnation. The human and divine nature of Christ are inseperable, even tho they can be considered in their seperate aspects. Yes?


But Jesus' humanity was sinless. The Church is not (although she can be defined as such if you play elaborate word games that identify the mystical reality of the Church with the earthly institution enough to sanctify the latter but whisk the mystical reality back up to heaven as soon as the threat of earthly pollution becomes imminent). The Church errs--at least the institutional leaders of the Church err. The Church as an earthly institution errs. (Not perhaps in dogmatic definitions, but in the many other decisions it makes every day.) In this world the Church cannot simply be identified with Christ. This is to confound the "already" with the "not yet," and it is the fundamental error of Catholicism. When all is said and done, this is the reason I'm not a Catholic. (Although when a more extreme version of this was expounded by Touchstone's S. M. Hutchens, I responded critically in my blog post "The Ecclesiology of Limbo." Read that post, if you like, for a balance to what I'm saying now.)


(Luther and Calvin both wounded forever the Protestant movement with their inbalance regarding the Transcendence of God).


Calvin yes, with his conception of idolatry. I'm much less sure about Luther. It's hard to find someone who proclaimed the Incarnation with all its consequences as boldly as Luther. I think it's a mistake to assume that because Luther wasn't sure the Church was most fully incarnate in ecclesiastical hierarchies that he therefore had a spiritualized view of the Church. The case can be made that he did--but it's not an obvious one. (And Calvin arguably spiritualized the Church even less than Luther, although he had a more spiritualized view of the Sacraments than Luther.)

She has the promise that the Gates of hell will not prevail against her.


And she defines this to mean that certain ecclesiastical officials can't err on matters of doctrine in very narrow circumstances. In my more Protestant moods, I'm tempted to say, Who cares? (I know that's a silly and insufficient response. But it's an appropriate response to the careless way some Catholics throw the "gates of hell" passage around as if it were sufficient to wipe out all the very obvious failures of the institutional Church throughout history.)

If the Catholic Church (or the Church whose true identity is that of the original church, as Newman would say I think) has not 'preserved the fullness of the Faith', then the Scripture is not true that proclaims she is the 'pillar and ground of truth', and indeed the 'gates of hell have prevailed against her'.


Why? Why is a failure to achieve perfection part-way through one's earthly pilgrimage a total defeat by the gates of hell? What if the fullness of the truth is not something that can be preserved but something that must be achieved, and will only be achieved in Glory? Perhaps a better term for the deposit of faith the Church preserves would be the integrity of the truth. I'm not disputing the importance of preserving the deposit--I'm questioning that (by Newman's own standards, recognizing the reality of development as he did) the "fullness of the truth" is the right term for what the Church preserves.

"the members of the Church, due to the effects of original sin and actual sin, are always in need of reform. The Church’s teaching, however, is from God. Not one iota is to be changed or considered in need of reform." [Alice von Hildebrand, as quoted by Binx]


And this is the disjunction that I'm not sure I can accept. Indeed, in a way this very disjunction is anti-incarnational. I agree that the Church is more than the sum of its members. I'm not sure you can use "the Church" in a proposition whose content is diametrically opposed to any true statement whose subject is "the Church's members." In other words, I don't think you can say, "The Church is sinless; the Church's members are sinful," unless of course you are very explicitly talking about the eschatological reality of the Church, toward which we are presently in pilgrimage.

I recognize that you quote Dr. von Hildebrand as saying not "the Church" but "the Church's doctrine." This is a more defensible position, but as I said it seems somewhat gnostic to me. And of course there's a huge difference between defined doctrine and normal, everyday teaching. I'm quite willing to keep open the possibility that the Catholic Church's defined dogmas may in fact all be true (due to divine protection). I hope this is the case, because I deeply long for the unity of the Church and I doubt that the See of Rome will ever back down from this particular claim. But clearly the actual, day-to-day teaching of the Catholic Church is deeply flawed in all sorts of ways. That I'm sticking to, and I think most Catholics would agree with me, however reluctant they might be to put it quite this way.

I am not sure what you mean by 'unconditional submission', could you explain.


I mean that I would have to accept without qualification not only that all the currently defined teachings of the Catholic Church are true, but that the Holy Spirit is so guiding the Church that any future definitions would also be true. I would have to accept that to separate from the "Roman" Catholic Church is (if done with full and sufficient knowledge) to separate from Christ, so that if in the future I came into conflict with the Church, I would never be in the right to push that conflict to the point of separation.

Also, whatever this means, the Church, I think, teaches that one should always follow the dictates of one's conscience. That surely has to be balanced with what unconditional submission means (I will try and find that in the CCC if you like).


I've read quite a bit on this, and I think (though I could be wrong) that I understand it. Catholics are required to follow their consciences, but they are also required to be willing to form their consciences according to the Church's teaching. And they are required to submit even when they cannot agree, unless some practical action were required that went against the conscience. In other words, I assume that if I lived in the 13th century and knew that reporting on my Albigensian or Waldensian neighbor would lead to said neighbor being burned at the stake, I would be justified in the eyes of the modern Catholic Church in defying the decree of Lateran IV authorizing the bishop to order me to report on said neighbor; whether that would help me much back in the 13th century I'm not sure.) I'm not arguing that this kind of submission is unworthy or conflicts with intellectual honesty. I respect those who make it, because they believe it is the right thing to do. My problem is that, as an outsider to Catholicism, I don't see evidence that the Catholic Church (as an institution) is trustworthy enough for me to make that kind of submission. (The policies of the high medieval Church toward heretics are one good reason for this--I'm pretty sure the Church won't do such a thing again, but it did do it once, and I can't be sure that it isn't doing or won't do something equally stupid and wicked.)

I thought Bouyer in Spirit and Forms does a marvelous job in pointing out that the insights that Luther came to were always the heart of Catholic Doctrine and that it was the decadence of the time and of a corrupting Nominalist Theology on which he was standing that caused him to fail to perceive it. If you get the chance I would love to hear your perspective on his argument.


It's been a while since I read that book--I was at least somewhat persuaded at the time, although as someone who's studied nominalism to some extent as a grad student I'm wary of blaming everything on nominalism. (Martin Bucer, the subject of my dissertation, was trained as a Thomist; and to take one of Bouyer's examples, Bucer had no problems understanding that the same action could be wholly of God and yet fully human; but Bucer still embraced Protestantism.)

On the whole, though, I've tended to embrace Bouyer's approach. That's precisely what I was trying to address in my post. I have identified an issue where I think Luther had a definite insight that did contradict Aquinas at least (the more I look at Aquinas on this, the less certain I am that his position represented the previous consensus--and that's true on a bunch of other issues as well).

How does Luther's rejection of the unformed/formed faith distinction either constitute an affirmation of Catholic orthodoxy or an unfortunate misunderstanding due to "decadent nominalism"? It seems to me that there is something more than that going on here, and that's exactly why I focused on this issue.