While not wanting to privilege too much Newman's view of things in this matter, I must confess that Newman has been particularly formative for me, and in trying to deal with some of the harder questions that have been posed for me by some of my readers, I have found recourse to the Essay again and again. Like many converts from Anglicanism, Newman has served as a kind of model for me, but I must also admit that, unlike many Anglicans, I am not as steeped in his writings as I ought to be. I have read such standards as the Apologia, the Parochial and Plain Sermons, and, of course, Tract 90, but the work with which I am most intimately familiar is the Essay. My copy of it, which I picked up at a used bookstore nearly 25 years ago in Chapel Hill, is now literally disintegrating from constant use and consultation. I know to my sorrow that reading and re-reading a certain text over many years has nothing to do with guaranteeing anything like a competent grasp of the ideas contained in that text, but to the extent that familiarity facilitates discussion, I am prepared to discuss that text in this context.
Folks who have done me the courtesy of perusing my earlier entries on this topic will remember that I have been defending a kind of two-stage process in the development of doctrine, and that the stages as I have described them are loosely based on Aristotle's description of a realist epistemology and philosophy of science as found in his Prior and Posterior Analytics. To recapitulate briefly: I see doctrinal development beginning from "theological axioms", that is, theological propositions that are known to be necessarily (and, thus, irreformably) true on the grounds of the Church's own indefectibility as guaranteed by Our Lord. From these beginnings, theological speculation, over time, can give rise to further propositions which, if they are found to be logically consistent with the axioms, can safely be added to the body of doctrine that is to be believed de fide, since the deductive process guarantees the truth of these propositions. On my account, much of the "theological speculation" that gets absorbed in this process is clarificatory in character, though it may contain some speculation that goes beyond mere clarification. Ultimately, however, anything that is accepted as de fide will have some deductive proof following from other irreformable doctrines and the theorems that can be derived from them.
What appears to be most controversial about my picture is my insistence on this second stage of doctrinal development: the logical testing of theological speculation. I have asserted that doctrine may only develop in such a way as to allow this sort of testing, otherwise new and untestable theological claims may appear to have the full endorsement of the Magisterium itself. There are two assumptions behind this view. First, I assume that the Church does indeed have a Divine Charism such that she can teach authoritatively, not merely in the sense of deserving obedience but in the sense of having fullness of truth. Second, I assume, along with Saints Augustine and Vincent, and with Blessed John Henry Newman, that there is nothing patent in the Church's teaching at any time during her history that was not latent from the beginning: Jesus Christ just is the fullness of revelation, and all theological truth must be traceable back to him and what he taught and what was handed down by his Apostles. I sense that these two assumptions are not shared by all of my critics, so in this post I will offer a few comments about these assumptions and what is at stake in accepting or rejecting them. In a subsequent post I will explore some of Newman's assertions in chapters eight and nine of the Essay. Chapter eight, entitled "Inference", draws distinctions among three types of inference related to the acceptance of the truth of propositions; chapter nine, called "The Illative Sense", is Newman's attempt to provide a model of how it is that we grasp the truth of propositions. Newman's model is not particularly original or rigorous--he was neither a dogmatic theologian nor an analytic philosopher--but he provides something that every Christian needs: an epistemology that is neither empiricist nor anti-realist.
First, however, I must explain my two assumptions. Let me begin with the assumption that the Church can teach authoritatively. This is an assumption that will be familiar to both Roman Catholics and Orthodox. It will even be familiar to many Anglicans, who explicitly endorse something that they call "tradition" in addition to the scriptures as a source of our knowledge of God. My own experience within Anglicanism, however, was that there tend to be different perspectives on just what this "tradition" is and just what is the nature of its authority. Some Anglicans appear to think that "tradition" is nothing more than a set of interpretive stances taken over time that are, indeed, "traditional" in the sense of being old and widely accepted but by no means irreformable. Others appear to endorse a view very much like the Orthodox view, that the "tradition" properly understood represents the teachings of the Apostles, a teaching that is not open to substantive change over time. I take this latter view to be very close to the Roman Catholic understanding of the church's Magisterium: a body of doctrine that is regarded as settled truth and that cannot be rejected by any Christian. That there must be such a body of doctrine seems indisputably clear to me, since it is both logically and temporally prior to the Christian scriptures themselves (I have more to say on this topic in my post on the idea of sola scriptura; for a very strange and ultimately unsuccessful defense of sola scriptura and an attempt to show the Catholic idea [along with just about every other Catholic idea] to be circular, I invite you to peruse the bizarre world of this blog). What is ultimately at stake here? If you reject the idea that at least one of the Church's teachings is irreformable, then ultimately you cannot defend any Christian teaching at all. Jesus may or may not be the son of God or the Second Person of the Trinity; indeed, God may or may not be Trinitarian; God may or may not exist. Without the authority to teach these things authoritatively--including the authority to enshrine some of these teachings in the form of scriptures that are themselves to be regarded as definitive and authoritative--then nothing is authoritative and anything may be believed.
My second assumption will be more controversial, even among the sane. My second assumption is that whatever the Church teaches, at any time in history, will be logically compatible with everything else the Church has ever taught, or ever will teach, at any point in her history. The way I put it above was actually not quite so strong, but it is compatible with what I have just written: what is patent in the Church's teachings now has always been at least latent from the beginning. The importance of this assumption cannot be overstated. If we assume that there is such a teaching authority as laid down in the first assumption, then all of its authoritative must be logically consistent for a very simple reason: from a logical contradiction, anything and everything follows. If you're not familiar with this logical principle, let me explain what I mean.
Suppose the Church teaches two things that are logically incompatible. Let call the two propositions P and Not-P. Now, if the Church teaches these things, then we can combine them as a conjunction: (P & Not-P). I've used the sign "&" to symbolize the conjunction, and I put the two propositions in parentheses to illustrate the fact that the two of them are being asserted together: P AND Not-p. Some might dispute this move--they might say that the Church does not teach P AND Not-P, but rather, she once taught p but now teaches Not-p, and they will claim that this is not a contradiction. In a certain sense it is not, but we are restricting the discussion here to just those propositions that the Church teaches authoritatively in accordance with the first assumption. Either the Church has that authority, or she does not. If she does not have that authority, as we have seen, then nothing about Christianity ever need be believed by anybody. If she does have that authority, then those things that she teaches with it are true all of the time, not merely at the specific point in time at which she teaches them. A more difficult question is the question precisely which propositions put forward by the Church are in fact taught authoritatively, but I will save that question for another day. At present, we simply assumes that she can teach authoritatively, and now we will see that she cannot teach different things at different times.
So, we have the conjunction of incompatible teachings, (P & Not-p). If the conjunction of the two things is true, then each individual conjunct must also be true, so we may separate the conjunction into its component parts. In other words, the following deductive inference is valid:
1. (P & Not-P)Now, this deduction leaves us with our two incompatible teachings asserted individually, each being true. Now there is an inferential rule, called "addition", that says that we may take any true proposition and add another one to it so as to leave a disjunction. For example, if it is true to say that today is Christmas, then it is also true to say that "Today is either Christmas or it is Easter." Indeed, the proposition that we add may say anything at all, even something silly: "Either today is Christmas or the moon is made of green cheese." The idea here is that a disjunction is true whenever at least one of its disjuncts is, and since in the previous two examples we know that one of the disjuncts is true, we also know that the whole disjunction is true. So let us use the letter X to stand for something quite silly, like the proposition "The moon is made of green cheese." I will use the letter "v" to stand for the logical relation "either...or", and so turning back to our sample deduction, we have:
1. (P & Not-P)Proposition (4) is warranted by the logical rule of addition. It says "Either P or X", and we know that the disjunction itself is true because we know that P is true. It doesn't matter whether X is true or not. But here is where things get very interesting.
4. (P v X)
Suppose I say to you, "Today is either Monday or Tuesday, but it's not Tuesday." Surely you will agree that it follows immediately from this that "Today is Monday." That is, if what I said is really true, if it really is either Monday or Tuesday but in reality it really is not Tuesday, then it must be true that today is Monday. Now consider our sample argument. It asserts "Either P or X" in (4), and proposition (3) says "Not-P". So we may make the following valid deduction:
1. (P & Not-P)If you have been following carefully you will note that we have just proven that the moon is made of green cheese, and we did it with a valid deduction. What permitted this ridiculous inference? It was the presence, in the first premise, of a contradiction. Because the letter X here can stand for literally anything we like, we have just seen that any argument that contains contradictory premises can be used to prove literally anything, even utter nonsense.
4. (P v X)
Now think of the Church's teachings as being like premises in an argument. If any two teachings contradict each other, then we have a situation in which the Church is teaching (P & Not-P), hence, if we agree that the Church teaches this, then we can prove that the Church also teaches that the moon is made of green cheese, because this follows logically form what the Church explicitly does teach.
This kind of case only handles contradictions. What about cases where what the Church teaches is not a contradiction of any other teaching, but is rather a new teaching? Someone might assert that the Church is not teaching anything like (P & Not-p), but does teach (P & Q), where Q stands for some proposition that was never taught by the Church in the past. This is where the nature of the development of doctrine becomes very important, because now we must explore in what sense has Q never been taught? Clearly if Q is logically consistent with some proposition Not-P, then we have the logical equivalent of teaching a contradiction. If Q represents something that, let's say, nobody in the Church ever thought of before, then what is the harm in teaching it? Why can't we just say, "Well, now we've thought of it, and everybody has to believe it." There are two related problems here. The first is the question why didn't anybody ever think of it before. If there is no way to show its relation to earlier teachings then one must question whether it was ever intended to be taught by Our Lord, whom we regard as in himself the fullness of revelation. If, on the other hand, it can be shown to be related somehow to other, earlier teachings, teachings that do go back to Our Lord or his Apostles, then what is the nature of that relation? What I have been suggesting is that, however that new teaching, Q, is discovered, whether through induction, theological speculation, or just plain old brainstorming, it must be related to earlier teachings in such a way as to be proven to be such. The Church could, of course, just assert any old thing that she likes and demand assent, if her authority is literally unlimited. But my first assumption does not assert that the Church's authority to teach is literally unlimited, only that she has the authority to teach. Part of my suggestion in these posts is that her authority is limited by certain constraints, and I have been portraying those constraints as logical in character. I will argue, in further posts, that these logical constraints are limited to deductive relations.
In my next post, I will dip into Newman's Essay with these assumptions as my background conditions.