Monday, October 22, 2007

A Witty Reading of History

Both Dr. Michael Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae and Prof. Brandon Watson of Siris have now weighed in on the question of the alleged "plain meaning of Scripture" and its connection, or lack thereof, to the problem of private judgment. Mike's post is supportive of the argument I made yesterday here, though as usual he expresses himself with greater clarity than do I. Brandon offers an alternative interpretation of the point that William Witt was trying to make in his comments to the citation of my essay on interpreting Scripture as it was reported at TitusONENine. Brandon suggests that in some ways Mike and I are missing a crucial point that William is trying to make, not about the interpretation of Scripture as such, but about the nature of the interpretive community itself, i.e., the Church:
So I think Bill's point is not what Scott and Michael have in mind; it's not an argument for a particular conception of authority in reading, but for a distinction between authority in reading a text and a reading of the text that is authoritative, i.e., between the reading of the text and its meaning. Scott wants to say that the plain meaning of Scripture, as Protestants understand that phrase, goes hand in hand with private judgment as the authoritative act of interpreting; Bill is, in this comment, denying this, not saying anything about the proper view we should have about the authoritative act of interpreting. That would require other considerations than Bill brings up here. So everyone is talking about something different. I think Mike is on the right track, though, in recognizing that the real difference between Catholics like Mike and Scott on the one hand, and what we might (rather loosely and perhaps figuratively) call High Church Protestants like Bill (who place great weight on consensus fidelium, the Church Fathers, and the Rule of Faith), has to do with their views of the Scripture as canon in the Church, and what it means for the Church to take a text as canonical. I know that Bill, for instance, tends to think, or, at least, has indicated something like this in various contexts, that the sort of account that Mike offers involves an equivocation on the term 'Church', a failure to distinguish between the Church insofar as it wrote the Scripture (and thus insofar as it was apostolic) and the Church insofar as it accepts them submissively as canon (and thus insofar as it is post-apostolic). This certainly does suggest a different view of canon.
Some of what Brandon is attributing to William is, in fact, adequately covered by the arguments I have already put forward, so I won't repeat myself on the matter of the formation of the Canon, especially since Mike has now done such an admirable job of putting that point with even greater clarity. But there is an added dimension here, if I am reading it correctly, that does deserve some remarks. But there is always a danger, when responding to an interpretation of some third party's position, of arguing against a straw man, so I will not say that this discussion is any longer a discussion of William Witt's view, since it may not be his view, it is now a discussion of Brandon's suggested interpretation of William Witt's point in the combox at TitusONENine.

As I understand Brandon's interpretation, it has to do with the nature of the interpretive community itself, that is to say, it has to do with that corporate structure that everyone is calling "the Church". According to Brandon, there is a danger of an equivocation on this term, because someone like William Witt may believe there to be a multiplicity of possible referents for the term. In particular, it seems that some people (again, I will not say that this is true of William Witt, since I do not know that it is) think that we can draw a distinction between what we may call, for the purposes of this discussion, "the Apostolic Church" [AC] and "the post-Apostolic Church" [PAC]. These differ in the following sense: AC is what produced the Scriptural texts, PAC is what submits to them. But in order for this distinction to be anything more than a fallacious division of an entity into its various properties, there has to be more to it than this. So I will try to offer fuller definitions that do not beg the question against the Catholic position. Since the crux appears to be the normative grounding of the authoritativeness of the Scriptures as reflecting genuine Apostolic teaching, let us say that these terms (AC and PAC) may be defined roughly as follows:
[AC] That body of orthodox Christian believers who followed the teachings of the Apostles while at least one of the original Apostles was still living and actively leading the Christian community that is AC. [I do not think that the question of the Apostolic status of either Matthias or Paul will be relevant to the present discussion, but let us leave the definition here purposely vague on that count anyway.]

[PAC] That body of Christian believers who follow the teachings of Christ after the death of the last living member of the original Apostles as died.
Now, just for fun, I'd like to point out that further disambiguations are possible:
[PACO] That group of orthodox Christian believers who follow the teachings of Christ as preserved by communities that are in direct communion with a leadership that has been handed down by means of the Apostolic Succession.

[PACP] That group of Christian believers who follow the teachings of Christ as they understand them.
There may be other groups to which the term "the Church" could be claimed to refer, but I will not list any others here, since I believe that AC and PAC will suffice for the purposes of making the point that I wish to make. It will be seen at once that what I have introduced into the mix here is a diachronic criterion for distinguishing "Apostolic" from "post-Apostolic". This is the only way to draw the distinction without begging the question, since precisely what is at issue is the question of what it means to attribute to the Scriptures, which were produced by AC, an authoritativeness that is then submitted to by PAC.

I take it that at least part of the motivation for suggesting that there really is a distinction to be drawn here is the belief, quite common in some quarters, that AC enjoyed at least one charism that PAC do not enjoy, namely, a special protection from error by divine grace as communicated to AC by the Holy Spirit. It is because of this special charism, some have claimed, that AC was able to produce the distinctively Christian Scriptures that it did produce. Once produced the Scriptures themselves become the source of authoritativeness for PAC, and there is no longer any question whether PAC gets to "determine" their meaning--their meaning is fixed by what they literally say and by what AC intended them to say under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is the authorial intent school version of a nuclear weapon: to claim that the real author of the Scriptures is God himself, and that any mucking about with them is a Very Bad Thing. On this view, AC was acting more or less as a kind of literary agent for the Trinity. Like J. K. Rowling, the author--God himself (perhaps also not unlike J. K. Rowling, at least in her mind)--gets to decide what means what and who is gay and who isn't, not the readers of the text, i.e., PAC. Indeed, like one's left and right hands, PAC need never know what AC was doing, the two distinct things need never share anything, as once AC has produced the Canon, it need no longer exist; it becomes, in effect, PAC, and no longer remembers in any controlling way what it did qua AC.

What evidence is there that this distinction is a real one? How one answers that question may well depend upon what one regards as evidence. In general, though, we may identify two sorts of evidence that might impinge upon this distinction. One is empirical, the other a priori. To begin with the empirical.

There is no empirical evidence to support the view that there is any distinction of this kind. Certainly the Scriptures themselves do not bear it out, since they nowhere refer to the Church as being one kind of ontological structure when producing texts, another when reading them, or one kind of ontological structure while the Apostles live, another after they have died. Instead, we read everywhere that there is One Holy, Catholic, and Apostlic Church, and what matters is that the Church is Apostolic, not that it is composed of Apostles. AC, in producing the Scriptures, is an ontological structure that has certain properties, including the property of being inspired by the Holy Spirit to produce the Scriptures. That property has never disappeared; what has happened is that the Church, by virtue of her power to make such decisions, declared the Canon to be closed and herself to be the reader (that is, the authoritative one) of that Canon. All other readers of the Canon are readers only homonymously. To the extent that a particular reader differs in his reading of the Scriptures from the reading of the Church, he ceases to be a reader or he ceases to be reading the Scriptures. In the former case, he is looking at the Scriptures but not "reading" them in the relevant sense, he is rather twisting them; in the latter case, it is not the Scriptures as such that he is reading, but some version of them that exists only in his own mind.

(It is worth adding here, merely as an aside, that the view that the Scriptures can be assumed to accurately reflect anything like the autograph view of AC is hopelessly naive in the first place, since the text of the New Testament is a notorious mess. Not only do we have no reason to believe that we are genuinely reading the authorial intent of the original writers, we do not even have any reason to believe that we are reading the same texts, since there are thousands of manuscripts exhibiting untold numbers of textual variants, all of which have to be adjudicated to produce the text that we read as a Church or as an individual. It is the Church, by and large, that makes such adjudication possible.)

Since the Scriptures themselves do not warrant the distinction, any empirical evidence for it will have to come from outside of the Scriptures. In this context it pays to remember what I have already pointed out, that the Canon was formed only very slowly over several generations, and even the individual works contained in what we now accept as the Canon were written over a period that extends from roughly 50 to roughly 110, and it is arguably the case that none of the Apostles still lived in the year 110. So it is clear that AC, when defined diachronically as I have done, cannot possibly be the source of the Scriptures. We must understand the difference between AC and PAC as dispositional now, with AC existing only while producing texts, otherwise it is PAC that exists. This would leave us with the rather odd situation of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church shifting precariously back and forth between being AC and being PAC during the years 50 - 110, only to become PAC permanently in 110 (or much later if we make the final acceptance of the Canon our historical criterion). Add to this the fact that the authors of the Scriptural texts were themselves mistaken about the meaning of what they were writing (they clearly thought that Jesus would return for a second time in bodily form during their lifetime, and they said as much in their Holy Writ), and you have a rather compelling case against taking the distinction between AC and PAC to be a real one.

If there is no empirical evidence for the distinction, what sort of a priori evidence could there be? Plenty, obviously. All you need to do is stipulate that there is such a thing as a "plain meaning of Scripture" in the sense intended by our putative AC-PAC defender, and the distinction suddenly becomes not merely warranted, but logically necessary. In short, one can be committed to this view only on the grounds that one antecedently stipulate an ecclesiology that makes this view necessary. As long as begging the question is not counted as a fallacy, this is not a bad way to proceed, but for the rational folks it clearly will not do.

There is but one Church, and she both produced and reads the Scriptural texts. Anyone who worries that "produced" is unclear and ought to give more credit to the Holy Spirit need not worry, since precisely the same inspiration that caused the Church to produce the Scriptures also guides her reading of them, and that is precisely why there can be no such distinction as that between AC and PAC. To assert otherwise is simply to beg the question against the Catholic position.

Of course, there is a sense in which the Catholic position, simply stated, begs the question against any alternative view, too. But as our beloved Pontificator has pointed out, Where Catholics and Orthodox agree, Protestants lose (Pontificator's First Law): the Catholic view is the oldest and most widely held view, and those who would dislodge it have a greater burden of proof than those who defend it; it is, in a sense, innocent until proven guilty, just insofar as it is, well, the view of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.


Pontificator said...

Is there a difference-in-kind between the Church which lived by the Old Testament and oral witness of the Apostles and the Church which lives by the Old Testament and the New Testament? Is there not in both cases the same submission to the apostolic deposit of faith? What has changed, so it appears to me, is not the Church and the way she lives from the revelation of Christ but simply the mode of the apostolic witness (from oral tradition to written tradition). No doubt the move from oral tradition to written tradition poses its own challenges, but I do not see a decisive change in the way the Church lives as Church.

What am I missing?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Scott, that is beautiful. Couldn't have said it half so well myself.
Tony M