Tuesday, November 01, 2005

On Whether God Could, Would, or Should Protect His Church From Doctrinal Error (vs. Edwin Tait)

This occurred in a comments box in the Ithilien blog, run by my friend Edwin Tait, a traditional Anglican who recently received his doctorate in Church history (congrats again, Edwin!). His words will be in green; "thoughtspot's" in purple, and "phillywalker's" in blue (these Internet nicknames will be the death of me). As far as I can tell, the latter two persons are Anglicans, too, but I don't know for sure. All of them have been very slow to respond ("phillywalker," not at all), so I thought I would go ahead and post this as an open question for all (especially Protestants) to ponder. I don't think they have a decent answer on this, but of course, that is just my own opinion . . . It could be a great discussion, because this is one of those crucial "bedrock" issues that divide Protestants and Catholics.

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. . . it has in general been Protestants (from Martin Luther to, I would argue, most Protestants today, including the much-maligned but still thriving Baptists) who have based the most on claiming that their theology is more in continuity with the earliest church (New Testament, but also the fathers) than Catholicism. In other words, according to most Protestants you sell the farm if you allow for "development" and see it more or less equally at work in RCs and Protestants. For if that is the case, why bother to start (or maintain) a Reformation?

I have often thought that, just as fundamentalist Protestants need to tie themselves into weird intellectual knots trying to prove that there are no errors, contradictions, or difficulties with the Bible,

What are some of these, in your opinion, if you don't mind my asking?

Catholics tie themselves into weird logical knots trying to prove that the doctrines of the Church have never really changed (only developed)

Just curious: how do you define "change" and "develop"?

and contain no contradictions or errors. Both situations stem from the untenable position of claiming that some authority other than God is perfectly clear, errorless, and unchanging. We are so frightened of living in an imperfect world with an imperfect church and imperfect guidance!

Are you contending for either of these two things?:


1) God is unable to preserve Christian doctrine without error throughout history by means of (in and of themselves, without His aid) fallen, imperfect, fallible men and an imperfect Church run by such men (i.e., sinners).
[since you seem to think He was unable to do that with the Bible, too, I suppose you would affirm this, but I'm asking, to be sure]


2) God was, of course, able to do this if He chose to (being omnipotent), but He chose not to do so.
If you chose #1, why do you believe that? Is it because you deny God's omnipotence?

If you chose #2, why do you think God would not protect true theology from corruption, especially in light of the biblical teaching that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth?

Speaking for myself, I think it's highly presumptuous to make assumptions about why God would do this, that, or the other.

I don't; not when it is a function of His omnipotence, if it is indicated in Scripture as harmonious with what we in fact see Him doing, and when it involves something of high importance to the well-being of souls.

Basically my argument here is a subtle variation of a reductio ad absurdum: I am working from what we know to more speculative things. I don't regard it as a species of epistemology at all; rather, it is an exercise in consistency of logic combined with data from revelation that Protestants and Catholics hold in common. And, as usual, I am probing premises, because I think they have been insufficiently scrutinized in this instance.

To turn around an excellent argument of Newman's (regarding sinful Popes), given the obvious existence of evil in the world any argument of the form "Why would God allow . . ." is rather unconvincing. Given all the horrible things God manifestly does allow, I see no good reason to think that He would balk at a little thing like a mistake in the precise definition of the Real Presence.

He certainly does allow all kinds of errors in eucharistic theology and other forms; just not in the Catholic Church. :-)

Anyway, if we grant that He allows error, how much error, then, do you think He allows? You give a nod to the Holy Spirit's guidance below, so you think it goes a certain distance and then we are on our own? That wasn't the view at the Council of Jerusalem (nor St. Paul's). Everything was quite certain then, and "seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" [Acts 15:28]. But that is before the days that denominations and division had to be rationalized as somehow remotely sanctioned by Holy Scripture.

We come back to what I think is the epistemological hyper-sensitivity of modern Western Christians (Newman being one of the greatest examples of this). Epistemology has taken on such a dominant role in modern (i.e., postmedieval) thought that it's easy for us to assume that uncertainty about doctrine is the worst of all evils. But I think that's a very hard position to defend.

Nice attempt at absurdly exaggerating my argument and trying to create a straw man. My questions were very straightforward, and it would be refreshing to receive an equally straightforward answer to them. You never know; it might be fun.

I deliberately compared this situation to the infallible, inspired Bible, because most orthodox Christians throughout history have held a very high view of Scripture. God did that via sinful men, so the question becomes: "why should doctrine or creeds be any different?"

It's a very serious (and I believe, important) question, and truly, I am trying to understand where you (or your friend whom I questioned) are coming from on this. That won't happen if you distort what I am arguing into a gross caricature.

I don't see this as epistemology; rather it is a matter of trust in God and acceptance of what seems fairly obvious (at least to me) in Scripture; i.e., a matter of revelation, which exists apart from a necessary epistemological rationale. We accept what it says in faith. One could say it comes down to hermeneutics, too, since what I see in the Bible seems perfectly harmonious with an authoritative Church, preserved from error.

Yes, Christ promised to lead us into all truth. He didn't promise that the path into all truth would be short or easy or free from brambles.

Who said it was easy? So do you believe this or not? If you do, then what is the immediate a priori objection to the Catholic conception? If you don't, then on what grounds, biblical or otherwise?

First, the simple answer to your question: God preserves true doctrine, and leads us (as the NT promises) not only into all truth but into all purity. But God has not (alas) embodied all truth (doctrinal perfection), or all purity (moral perfection), in any single institution or person.

I think Edwin's point is that we don't have to pretend we know why God hasn't done so. As a rough analogy: If I think God has allowed errors in Scripture (to avoid an argument, let's just say in the copying of Scripture, though it also works for the originals), I don't have to explain WHY he has done so. I can come up with lots of Scriptures (the one about jots and tittles comes to mind) that make me think God wouldn't allow any errors in the copying of Scriptures. But I find, to my puzzlement, that God did.

I think there's something odd about those who want to argue about why God "would have" done something--use evolution, or allow Scriptures to be copied wrong, or allow several popes to be jerks--rather than look at the evidence about what God has, indeed, done. Most of which is not what I would have done!

In Catholic ecclesiology, I'm not sure what account has been made for what God has done among Protestants. But in Contarini's [Edwin] (and my) ecclesiology, what God has done among Protestants AND among Catholics is a messy, but still faithful, fulfillment of his promise to lead us into all truth AND all purity. The church as it actually is--including a smattering of morally corrupt popes and nearly heretical Baptists--still has a Spirit-led morality, and a Spirit-inspired orthodoxy, that testify to the gracious faithfulness of God.

If you want to nuance the question--how far will God allow the church to drift in doctrine (or in morality)--that's worth discussing.


Sure, please do. I thought I was doing that. If it wasn't obvious (as appears to be the case, at least in your own perception of what I was trying to do), then I can assure you this was the general drift of my argument.

But if your question is an epistemological set-up to support the claim that certain doctrines (proclaimed by certain people wearing certain hats) can't be in error, I just don't see how this follows what we know about the church and about God.


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