This morning, I’ve finally been able to read through the several very “meaty” comments from Nathaniel McCallum, Nathan G., and Jonathan Prejean on the “Trusting the Authority of Scripture Is Not Knowledge” thread below. There’s really quite a lot there, and I would like to try to offer some sort of intelligent replies before the (hopefully) big discussion on Ambrose’s On the Mysteries starts next week. In what follows, I will try to be as succinct as I can. Let me know if I’ve misrepresented anyone’s particular concerns, and especially let me know if my brief replies here make any more sense of my position.
<(1) Canonization as a historical, human process: I agree with this fully. I don’t believe that the Christian Scriptures dropped out of heaven, complete and perfect, as the Muslims believe of the Koran. I have no problem admitting that the people of God in both the Old and New Testaments took a long time to recognize what we would now call the “closed canon,” and that much debate took place in which some books that were later rejected by all were initially thought to be inspired by some, and some books that were later accepted by all were initially thought to be uninspired by some.
The profound historicity and humanity of the canonization process (and also of the writings themselves that make up the canon) is one reason that I generally do not use the term “the Bible” to refer to the Church’s Scriptures. “The Bible” is, as I said somewhere, an artifact of the invention of the printing press making the cheap mass production of books possible and also of the rise of near-universal literacy making the private reading of mass-produced books possible. Add to this the fragmentation of culture-in-general that occurred as a result of the Renaissance’s emphasis on vernacular literature (implying more localized and provincial modes of education), and the fragmentation of the Church catholic in the West that occurred as a result of the Reformation / Counter-Reformation wars, and the result is the need to admit that something really drastic happened to the Western Christian approach to the Sacred Texts and we are still dealing with the fallout from this drastic change centuries later. I think that much Protestant talk today about “the Bible” does not understand this, and that much poverty of theological and apologetical discussion is caused by this lack of understanding.
(2) Inspiration as one-time event or ongoing process: I also do not believe that the human authors of Scripture were merely passive instruments recording static information beamed into their heads from on high – the so-called “dictation” theory of inspiration. The Scriptures reveal in numerous ways their profound historicity and humanity, and if anyone thinks that a “dictation of static information to passive stenographers” position is a necessary feature of Protestantism, I can point him to much conservative Protestant scholarship that disputes that.
Both Nathan G. and Nathaniel McCallum mentioned the “problem” of Esther and the Song of Songs in this connection. Well, I don’t imagine that I as a private Protestant individual have to be able to provide some sort of “objective proof” that any particular book in the canon is inspired. Although many Protestants today do, in fact, hold a sort of “me, myself, and my personal copy of the Bible alone with God in my room, no external authorities allowed” sort of position, I deny that this is the position of the Protestant Reformers from whom I trace my understanding of sola Scriptura. There is indeed a subjective and personal dimension to any given individual’s recognition of canonicity, but I don’t think a cut-and-dried case can be made that this dimension is utterly primary in Protestant thought or that it necessarily eclipses the public, corporate dimension of the individual-as-member-of-a-whole-believing community which testifies to the inspiration of the canonical books.
In this sense, I agree with Nathan G. that “The act and manner of inspiration is always within the believing (or often apostate believing) community, so any transcendence that may be possessed by the written product of inspiration can only be appropriated within the believing community.” So, in my view inspiration would have at least two dimensions: the one-time fact of the “God breathing” (theopneustos) of a given instance of Scripture, and the ongoing work of the Spirit in the whole believing community causing them as a whole community to recognize instances of theopneustos. However, I don’t think I’d be comfortable with saying that the “ongoing inspiration” of the community to recognize the theopneustos books was itself an instance of theopneustos. In other words, I’d want to say that the term “inspiration” in the context of this paradigm has two different meanings.
(3) “Original” and “Derivative” revelation: This discussion has helped me to see that much of my terminology was extremely imprecise and even misleading. Honestly, I had not reflected on my terminology as much as I thought I had, so this discussion has been very beneficial to me in that respect. Let me thus restate my position in a hopefully more constructive manner.
I happened over the last few days to read portions of Jaroslav Pelikan’s work Whose Bible Is It? in conjunction with Harold Bloom’s The American Religion. Bloom does a good job of showing that “the American Religion” – into which category he puts several prominent varieties of Protestantism, Christian Science, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Mormons – is fundamentally a “Gnostic” phenomenon focused on various expressions of the basic idea of “the Inner Light” within the private individual believer. This “Inner Light” provides the private individual with an absolutely unquestionable bedrock for holding the idea that his own private soul is fully competent (the Southern Baptists call this “soul competence”) to judge all religious matters for himself, apart from (and even in willful defiance of) all external authority. Bloom takes pains to argue that this paradigm ultimately turns the Bible into a “limp leather icon” that just hangs there in space, disconnected from all the messy mediatorial features of language and culture – which in turn results in a complex of extraordinarily vapid and unreflective talk about the “inerrancy” of a text that is really never read for what it is, but is basically like a wax nose that can be twisted to support anyone’s particular views, no matter how extreme or distorting.
OK, hold that in abeyance for a minute. Pelikan starts his book with an extremely interesting discussion of “The God Who Speaks,” in which he argues – quite persuasively, I think – that oral speaking always necessarily precedes written accounts of it, and in that sense orality is more fundamental. He doesn’t just cite Plato’s argument for this in the Phaedrus, although for any student of the classics, that argument would be quite persuasive on its own. Pelikan also argues from the text of Scripture that “orality” is primary to “literacy.” A few examples: “The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Thus said the LORD, the God of Israel: Write down in a scroll all the words I have spoken to you…And these are the words that the LORD spoke concerning Israel and Judah.” (Jer. 30:1), and “No one ever spoke as this man speaks…unlike their scribes he taught with a note of authority.” (Mt. 7:29)
However, some pages later Pelikan shows that there is another side to the story: “Because Koholeth was a sage, he listened to and tested the soundness of many maxims. Koholeth sought to discover useful sayings and recorded genuinely truthful sayings” (Ecc. 12:9), and “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope, (Romans 15:4), and, of course, “all inspired Scripture has its use for teaching and truth and refuting error, or for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man of God may be capable and equipped for good work of every kind” (I Tim. 3:16).
It seems to me that what arises from the texts Pelikan presents and the analysis of “the American Religion” that Bloom presents is that yes, there are a lot of Protestants who don’t think very reflectively about what it means to say that “the Bible is the Word of God.” Not only are the humanity and historicity of the texts downplayed in the search for “timeless truths,” but the basic fact of communication that orality precedes literacy is not understood at all by many. (Think here about the typical Protestant argument that “oral tradition” is always necessarily like the party game of “telephone” while writing is always inherently more stable and reliable.)
It will have to be a separate discussion how all of this relates to Protestant language about “the clarity” of Scripture and the “self-interpreting” nature of Scripture and so forth, but let me just say that between the comments in the original post and what I’ve read from Pelikan and Bloom, I’m convinced that I should not have spoken so hastily about “original” and “derivative” revelation with respect to Scripture. Surely it is true – as the Jeremiah passage above seems to say – that at least some parts of Scripture are “derivative” revelation, derived from an earlier oral proclamation. Yet at the same time, surely the “derivative” writing is no less “the Word of God” than the original oral proclamation on which it is based?
Pelikan also helpfully points out that although the spoken word carries more embodied authority than the written word, the written word does in fact preserve some things that the oral word cannot. I would take this observation to support both the idea that Scripture must be integrally a part of the liturgy (and so the liturgy must inherently be seen as a shaping force on our theological reflections) and the idea that Scripture is in a sense “above” the liturgy. Perhaps this needs more fleshing out, but that’s what I’ve gotten so far as I’ve thought about these things. At the least, however, I will say that I don’t have a huge problem with Nathaniel McCallum’s remark that “early Christianity posited a variety of authorities, viewing them as a self-correcting coherent whole.” I think that the best of classical, magisterial Protestantism is amenable to this view, as may be seen by comparing, say, Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (about Scripture) with Chapter 31 of the same (about the role of Councils in arbitrating doctrinal disputes and cases of conscience).
To bring this to a close, one last point from the discussions below. This one is particularly Jonathan Prejean’s concern:
(4) The need for “objective indicia” of faith: In explaining Aquinas’ view relative to mine, you wrote about “the God-given authority to a man to speak with the same authority as Christ Himself. That is not an authority that can be denied within its bailiwick, any more than God Himself can be denied. And it is specifically that kind of authority, the authority of Christ Himself in another man, that must be experienced in order for any other particular instance of authority, including inspiration of Scripture, to be properly grounded in knowledge. Those kinds of actions, action in personam Christi, is what St. Thomas would consider as objective indicia of divine authority.”
Well, I don’t have a problem with this, because as I labored to explain to you in the last post where you and I discussed this, I do in fact recognize the need for objective, embodied, community “indicia” of faith. Where I don’t follow your reasoning is the point where you want to confine the objective indicia to the Roman Catholic Magisterium and exclude all other possible forms or modes of in personam Christi authority. I have said before that I think much of your argumentation against “Protestantism” (and it not just yours, but the Catholic apologetics community as a whole) is directed for the most part at Protestant Fundamentalism, which is a very American, very democratically individualistic and philosophically-unreflective form of Protestantism. It isn’t the position of the Reformers or their immediate Scholastic heirs in the 17th century, and I can’t help but think that Calvin, Whitaker, and Turretin would not be impressed at all by your “objective indicia” arguments.
Calvin, for instance, doesn’t just write in Institutes Book I about the subjective, internal witness of the Spirit as to the canonicity of Scripture. Calvin is no mere subjectivist about Scripture. In the same Book he also enumerates a number of objective (external) tests for the veracity of Scripture, and says, significantly, I think, that the internal witness is the final test. He doesn’t say it’s the only test. But even further, he goes to great pains in Book IV to expound the idea that the objective Church, outside of the individual believer, is God’s minister on earth and cannot be lightly ignored by the individual. Whitaker and Turretin both testify to the utility of Church Councils in arbitrating doctrinal disputes, and their only litmus test here is whether the Councils “agree” with Scripture.
Now, I would say that what that sort of language means needs very much to be explored, but in any case, I just don’t see how these fundamental facts of classical, Magisterial Protestant position are not relevant to your “objective indicia” argument. Fundamentalist Protestants may run around clutching a Book the origin and interpretation of which they cannot intelligibly explain without merely referring to their own private spiritual experiences, but that is most definitely not the classical, Magisterial Reformation position. Calvin, Luther, and all the Reformed (and probably the Lutheran) Scholastics of the next few generations would have been horrified at such a notion of Scripture.
As one final thought for you, Jonathan , I saw in one of your comments that you said the papacy is a matter of “revelation.” If I’m understanding what you mean by that correctly, does that mean that the papal claims are simply and finally disconnected from the actual lived experience of the Church catholic over many, many centuries, and that the claims can never be modified or corrected by empirical reflection upon that experience? Something like that is what I take Dr. Liccione to be advocating, and as far as I can see, it ultimately reduces to sheer fideism – and therefore betrays the historicity of the Christian religion. Christianity is not a private, gnostic-like religion where all its veracity exists only in the individual head (or to use Liccione’s terms, what is “reasonable to me”). Christianity is a very public religion, and has always appealed publicly to external witnesses of its truth. If the category of “revelation” becomes detached from history, then, frankly, I don’t know what the difference between it and Gnosticism is.
OK, all of his is what I got out of reading through last week’s comments. Have I misrepresented anyone’s concerns, or failed to adequately reply to them? Does my position seem to be any more clearer – and hopefully less objectionable – now?