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Fallible Books: Interaction with The Janitor

Part 4

Hi John.

I want to start, this time, by addressing your last two sections first. It seems they are the most important and will determine whether it is useful to continue this dialogue.

Furthermore, to clarify, Josh only asked me what I thought of your post on Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God. I thought your post was well written and decided to check out your other stuff. I decided to create a blog here not to comment on yours or get into an argument with you but because it has been a while since I’ve had a blog and I thought the functionality of Medium was really cool (I love how format options pop up just from highlighting a portion of text).

I apologize if I gave the wrong impression regarding your moniker — never thought it was solely directed at me. Again, I like the moniker! It’s different and fun to ponder.

One other point of clarification. I’m not an emotional “arguer”, in the sense that my written words are meant to capture an over sensitive and defensive emotional response. I do my best to diminish that as often and as much as possible, and such a posture has been completely absent during our exchange. Understandably, you may have perceived otherwise. Hopefully this clarification helps.

My discovery of Medium happened in a similar way. An acquaintance, Max, who is now my roommate, wrote a politically oriented post. Medium was different then. No “responses”. You used to be able to highlight a sentence and comment on just that sentence within the really cool pop up WYSIWYG editor. The experience was so enjoyable I thought, “If I ever decide to blog, Medium is the place I’ll go.” A month or two later I created an account and posted my first blog.

Thanks for taking a peek at my writing, and I’m glad you’re on Medium.

None of your questions seem to be pruning, but only opening up further digressions and cans of worms. Since I’m not interested in a full blown discussion of Roman Catholicism vs. Protestantism I’ll abstain from answering. (And I’m sure there are other Protestants who have blogs who would be much more studied in this issue than I am — my knowledge of Catholicism is perhaps cursory and I’ve never intentionally looked into it).

I understand you are not interested in such a dialogue. My questions were not intended to open up “further digressions and cans of worms.” They are definitional questions which, as far as I can tell, matter greatly to us having a productive dialogue regarding the question you seem to be most interested in (thus pruning): potential higher a priori probability of non-sola Scriptura prescriptive theological systems — which obviously requires a posteriori knowledge/evidence of what those things are (clear definitions) so as to make the next probability judgment before factoring in “specific tradition evidence”.

Richard Swinburne’s, The Resurrection of God Incarnate, is sitting right next to me, and is instructive here. He spends few thousand words going through first principles and defining terms as clearly as possible. That’s why I asked the questions I did. The rest of our rhetoric, analogies, arguments, etc. would begin to flow from clear definitions, which are currently unclear (to the respective reader, that is). We can critique each other for months and, in essence, be talking past each other due to definitional/conceptual vagueness and an unsurfaced disagreement on definitions or “first principles”. I thought those questions — assuming you’d have a couple of your own for me — could help to set foundation stones for a more productive exchange of ideas instead of going in circles.

Also, I recommend establishing a more than cursory knowledge of Catholicism and other non-sola Scriptura systems. Of course, look with critical eyes, but also be charitable and try to actually see things as a Catholic sees things. Read the Catechism. Read Protestant critiques of Catholicism with the same level of skepticism you read Catholic critiques of Protestantism (again, definition needed). Don’t cherry pick. Seek out the most intelligent Catholic apologists just as if you were searching for the most intelligent defenders of TULIP. Make it a priority to understand Jewish messianic hopes (from their perspective) and what a royal court would’ve looked like for Jews. Last, but not least, return to the fallible canon of infallible books and read it with a pair of Catholic/Protestant bifocals — if possible.

With all that in mind, and not wanting to spend a lot more time unless we agree to start from the ground up, I will respond to a few points.

In your last response you appealed to certain beliefs derived from the Bible and said that your assumption grows (or flows) out from that.

The certain beliefs I referenced were not from “The Bible” per se. The beliefs I mentioned are derived from documents from the first century. One needn’t attach special “inspired” or “infallible” status to the externally fallible examination. I’m persuaded the resurrection happened based on a prior belief in the existence of God, a strong understanding of Jewish philosophical categories and religious expectations, critically examined testimony and historiography which reaches back to around five or so years of the historical Jesus, an evaluation of alternative explanatory theories, deep reflection on the sort of theological shift required for first century Jews to hold belief in a man being messiah after being tortured and executed by Roman authorities, especially when judged against other “failed” messianic movements at the time, etc. I’m also persuaded Matthew 16 captures the essence of a special demarcation Jesus made between the historical Peter and the rest of the apostolic communion. Lastly (as far as what I mentioned in our dialogue thus far), I’m persuaded early believers in Jesus thought he was Lord (or King), and this royal seat would be understood within the context of the Davidic norms.

Those persuasions are fallible and based on educated guesses (prior to inserting theological systems and categories to explain why they could be more), but yes, implications flow out of those fallible educated guesses. If you’d like to squabble over clarifying “guess” because of a perceived rhetorical move, fine. We both know guesses can have different degrees of evidentiary support. We also need to place “guess” within the Catholic/Protestant and external/internal distinctions to see even more qualitative differences between types of guesses.

Definitions and first principles are needed to proceed.

I agree that there is no infallible test, but it doesn’t logically follow that there is no test which can warrant our belief.

Never argued your belief was without warrant. The least credulous belief is what I’m after.

In other words, I’m still not seeing how it is that you’re any better off assuming the infallibility of Rome than the infallibility of James.

Definitions and distinctions needed. As I see prescriptive Protestant theology, the former is an externally fallible move while the latter is an internally fallible move. Since we do not have the foundations in place for you to see what I’m getting at with this distinction, plus my own mediocre skills of communication, there is no sense in writing another quasi-treatise which is clear in my mind and baffling in yours.

The way a sedevacantist set of legitimate popes is contradictory to, say, Francis Beckwith’s set of legitimate popes?

Yes. Any time the “sola” prescriptive mindset is applied, disunity closely follows. How deeply controlling the “sola” is to words on a page dislodged from their context, or how subjectively it’s said to sit within an individual, determines how deep the disunity is. This is why denominationalism not only doesn’t stop, it continually grows. The controlling system indiscriminately prescribes the words to be pulled out of their liturgical context and placed within the man in the mirror. I’m not saying that was the intent. I’m saying it was the necessary consequence because humans have varied experiential baggage they bring to the text, assuming their text to be the right one.

Calvin doesn’t say in the quote you give that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught only know Scripture by the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. And finally, even if it were the case that we only had recourse to an inner testimony of the Holy Spirit… so what? I fail to see how that is, prima facie, problematic.

I bring up Calvin because, he, as far as I can tell, is Protestantism’s best and most internally consistent systematician. Here’s more of Calvin’s context:

“But a most pernicious error widely prevails that Scripture has only so much weight as is conceded to it by the consent of the church… It is utterly vain, then, to pretend that the power of judging Scripture so lies with the church and that its certainty depends upon churchly assent. Thus, while the church receives and gives its seal of approval to Scripture, it does not thereby render authentic what is otherwise doubtful or controversial… As to their question — How can we be assured that this has sprung from God unless we have recourse to the decree of the church? — it is as if someone asked: Whence will we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Indeed, Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste… those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and Scripture indeed is self-authenticated.”

If the individual doesn’t properly discern the “clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color,” then it must be because the Holy Spirit has not given them the inward testimony so as to discern, with certainty, white from black. I deny (if I eventually become Catholic or Orthodox) Calvin’s canon. So, either the “evidence of its own truth” is not as clear as Calvin supposes (and I think needs it to be for his idea to carry the required weight) or the Holy Spirit has not given me the inward testimony so as to discern, with certainty, white from black.

By moving Scriptural discernment away from the Church and into the individual, the recourse is subjective experience. In a similar move, Mormons put the terms like this: “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.”

If you see that sort of prescriptive subjectivity to be prima facie unproblematic, I suppose that is your prerogative. There are those who see truth relativism as prima facie unproblematic as well. Again, not saying Calvin or Mormons are necessarily wrong, just like truth relativists may be “right”, but both seem problematic.

This makes me wonder whether your criticism wouldn’t apply to the “Christian system” as a whole though.

One of the reasons I asked you the set of questions I did… If we were to move forward, we would need to know clear (as clear as possible at least) lines of demarcation, so as to see what is meant by “‘Christian system’ as a whole”. Perhaps we draw the lines in different places? Depending on the definition of “Christian system”, I do think it would possibly apply.

By simply plugging in “teachings of Rome” for “Scripture” in your premise... Since it seems to me that your argument is equally applicable to interpreting the teachings of Rome, you would also have to say “Therefore, I think the magisterium and tradition is not the final and authoritative norm of doctrine and practice.

Unjustified equivocation made by teasing away the “teachings of Rome” from the living Magisterium they are contextualized within. Scripture alone has no living Magisterium… except for the man in the mirror. But I don’t think Scripture plus yourself is what you mean by sola Scriptura, do you?

You’ll need to spell it out in some other way than the 2+2=4 analogy. Simply assenting to Catholic axioms won’t erase the need to interpret those axioms and the other relevant terms.

Why do you and I agree that 2+2=4?

Why not realize that other non-Catholics might be in a similar “non-whatever” situation? (Though maybe I’m mistaken and you are in a “whatever that is” situation regarding the Bible.)

As a Protestant, I’m currently convinced I’m in a “whatever that is” situation regarding the Bible. Decontextualizing it from an authoritative tradition is not an option since we no longer have the originals (fallible copies which arguably don’t even go back to the originals), and no original table of contents was attached. Again, God knows what he did. I’m as sure of that as I am of God being omniscient. It’s Calvin’s way or the Church’s. If Calvin is right, though, then I’m in big trouble, as the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit is not in me (based on a denial of the Protestant canon). The Holy Spirit would then be in you though, so yeah, I can understand why you might be in a “non-whatever “situation.

I don’t see any reason to think that. It seems pretty obvious, to me anyway, that God isn’t concerned with believers having infallible access to revelation or in any of our other beliefs.

What’s the point of calling your chosen collection “God’s Word” (assuming you do) if he isn’t even concerned with us having infallible versions along with an infallible table of contents? Maybe you can say, with confidence, “Some of God’s words are in that book.” But “God’s Word” in total? Seems like a better descriptive term, if you think God’s revelatory prescription was fallibility across the board, would be something more ambiguous like “inspired.”

People carry more or less authority depending on whether their teachings appear to comport more or less what we take to be true and their track record for approximating the truth. I’d imagine it’s no different for Joe Catholic, who has determined the magisterium has authority since it appears to comport more or less with what he takes to be true.

So, a construction of authority based on total agreement with what you think is true? If so, why wouldn’t they just be your equal? …another like-minded voter in the divine democracy. If you disagreed with an “authority”, is there any situation where you should submit and affirm what the “authority” affirms, even if you’re not intellectually persuaded?

No more ad hoc than the current magisterium claiming to be the infallible interpreters of Scripture and tradition, as far as I can see. … At least on a priori grounds.

Here is the definition of ad hoc I’m thinking of (from Webster): for the particular end or case at hand without consideration of wider application.

Again, Protestant framework needs definition. As I understand the Protestant framework, living and arguing within it for my entire Christian life, electing a pope (not just the president of an organization) would be completely ad hoc. Protestants gave up that option when they affirmed sola Scriptura and redefined apostolic succession in terms of the “right” Gospel — basically whatever they believed the Gospel to be (subjectivism).

Matatics can claim there is a “hidden pope” roaming around somewhere if he wants, which he asserts as a real possibility. It’s not ad hoc in terms of his general religious and epistemic framework to do so.

Also, I may be using a priori in an imprecise way, which could be causing some confusion (I apologize in advance if that is the case.). I haven’t been using it in strict Kantian terms. I’ve been using it in a relative relationship with minimal a posteriori definitional “evidence”. If you want more clarity there, just ask.

Actually I don’t know that everyone we would consider Protestant holds to sola Scriptura. For instance, some charismatic sects might treat (and I think do treat) modern day prophecy as being on a par with Scripture. Furthermore, many people who belong to Protestant denominations and classify themselves as Protestant might not hold to it themselves or even be aware of it (in the same way that many Catholics may not hold to the teachings of the Catholic church or even be aware of it). Furthermore, some who profess sola Scriptura may fail to form their beliefs in accordance with it either unconsciously or consciously.

I completely agree. More distinctions need to be made. That’s why I asked you those questions! :)

The network analogy still holds to the sort of Protestantism (within the larger body of merely non-Catholic western Christians) which affirms sola Scriptura.

So all you're saying is that not everyone who agrees that Scripture should be our highest and final authority agree with each other on what Scripture teaches? I have no problem with that… it hardly seems worth pointing out. The same observation could be made of Catholics (e.g., I pointed out Gerry Matatics earlier).

Yes. Both sola Scriptura and Scripture-plus systems have disagreements. A different sort though. Sola Scriptura kinds are internal disagreements about what Scripture is, which determines what God means to say. Scripture-plus disagreements (the sort which cause schism) are about who can say anything at all about what Scripture is and thereby what God means to say. The idea remains that a “who” exists. Sola Scriptura philosophically rules out the possibility for objectivity when attempting to recognize what God means to say. The “who” is you.

That’s part of what’s behind why I think it is worth pointing out.

We’re not talking abstract discussions on Shakespeare, what books are actually his, and what deep truths he meant to communicate in Romeo and Juliet. We are talking about historical (real) divine revelation with eternal consequences attached. If we were talking about the former, I would, too, have no problem. I would happily agree a secular consensus based on criteria also derived from secular consensus is the best option, because absent Shakespeare showing up, that’s all we’ve got to work with — and really, no one believes there are eternal consequences from getting Shakespeare wrong, so it’s not the biggest of deals. Since we are talking about the latter, and exist in a context far removed from the multiple relevant cultures, without a shred of the original “infallible” documents, where 99.9% (a rhetorically sweeping guess) of laity — plus a high percentage of teachers — can barely speak a word of Koine, Aramaic, or Hebrew to even start grappling with the literary nuances attached to the multiple cultures they are far removed from, where the layers of philosophy are so dense massive interpretive divides can rest on subtle distinctions which take years and a fairly well equipped mind to explore (often without conclusion), and finally (not really finally, but for this list as I am getting tired), where human psychology and subjective personal experience are so powerful and varied to cause equally capable individuals — faithful and pious individuals as well — to reasonably diverge on nearly every major question that can be asked, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suppose more solid footing exists than my own subjective interpretive wits buttressed by the belief that the Holy Spirit is giving me the right answers and not giving you the right answers about God’s divine revelation with eternal consequences attached.

That’s another part of what’s behind why I think it is worth pointing out.

Question if you decide to respond again: Why are you confident in your particular systematic theology and biblical interpretation as opposed to another equally intelligent and informed Protestant, say Dale Tuggy?

Belief that Scripture is the highest authority hardly seems like a network.

It is if the ones who hold that belief assert a bunch of significantly distinctive concepts from it.

Most of the analogy issues you raised are based on definitional confusion, so I didn’t bother to spend anymore time there.

As you mentioned, and I agree with, there is no need to continue this exchange unless we prune in such a way to build, or else we are pruning what’s needed to actually have the conversation. If you want to answer the direct questions I asked in my responses, go right ahead. I’ll stop the potentially never ending response chain (from my end) here.

Thanks for all your thoughts on this subject. They will be useful as I continue to reflect and write.

Side questions (if you get some time): Dale Tuggy… Ever listen to his podcasts? What do you think of his arguments against trinitarianism as a whole? Why do you reject them (assuming you do)?