Thursday, July 03, 2008

Have a Hart

There's a rather fascinating discussion going on over at The Continuum, where Robert Hart and others are taking Mike Liccione and Al Kimel to task for their sanctimonious triumphalism. The combox, last time I checked, was getting longer by the minute, and I got into the act myself a couple of times (once using my wife's name as a pseudonym--a fairly clever ruse, even if it did happen by accident [I was using her computer, and somehow logged in using her Google account]).

What's at issue, I suppose--if anything is--is the question of how one decides to submit oneself to this or that teaching authority. The bloggers at The Continuum are all Anglicans (of the proper sort, not those faux Anglicans of PECUSA), in case you didn't know, and the blog is well worth reading. Like the Orthodox, of course, Anglicans don't buy any of this Roman primacy stuff, and I suppose there is some other theological baggage they would like to toss as well; they also behave Eastern Orthodoxically insofar as they think of themselves as fully within what they call "the Tradition", by which what they appear to mean is that the Anglican church is every bit as co-extensive with "The Church" as is the See of Rome. In some ways they are a little more charitable towards Rome than are some Orthodox, some of whom don't really think that Rome is at all co-extensive with the church, so let's count our blessings while we can.

One thing that I've noticed about the debate so far is a certain amount of equivocation on certain key terms, such as "authority", "private judgment", "the Church", etc. I don't think that either side disagrees that it is not up to the individual person to pass judgment on the truth of authoritative Church teaching; where they disagree is over what constitutes an authoritative Church teaching and why. For example, Anglicans as well as Catholics will assert that a Christian must believe in the Trinity, and both will agree that the reason why a Christian must believe in such a thing, in spite of the fact that no such thing is ever mentioned in the Scriptures, is because the doctrine has been taught by the Church. Well, what does that mean? If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said that it means that it was taught by an Ecumenical Council. Some Catholics perhaps still think that is what it means; but to some Anglicans what it means is that the doctrine of the Trinity meets a certain standard, namely, the Vincentian Canon (a subject of much comment both here and at Mike Liccione's Sacramentum Vitae). That which has been believed by all Christians at all times and places, these Anglican say, is what must still be believed by anyone professing to be a Christian.

As it happens, not everyone agrees that the doctrine of the Trinity actually meets this criterion. It is an empirical question, and as far as I can see most, if not all, of the evidence points towards the doctrine being one that evolved over time. This does not preclude the possibility, of course, that it was at least secretly believed right from Day One, but unfortunately there is no evidence to that effect, and the very fact that it was necessary for an Ecumenical Council to define the doctrine, and to anathematize anyone who rejected it, suggests that there were plenty of folks who did not accept it. These folks, according to the Vincentian Canonist View (VCV), were never really Christians to begin with--by definition. The purpose of the Council, according to VCV, was not to define some new doctrine that nobody had ever believed before, but merely to put into words--to make explicit, as it were--the genuine content of the Faith that had been handed on by the Apostles but that, in the course of time, had come to be misunderstood by certain persons.

Needless to say, the Catholic Church believes exactly the same thing. So what's the problem? Well, consider, for starters, the fact that some Anglicans say that there were only ever seven Ecumenical Councils. Fewer say that there were only ever nine of them. Certainly no Anglicans would ever say that there were ever twenty-one of them, which is what Catholics are prone to say. Even Anglicans who may perhaps have some fondness for Vatican II will nevertheless toss their cookies at any mention of Trent or Vatican I (I think we can all imagine why, too, so no need to get into any internecine strife at this point). So what were those, um, "gatherings" doing, if they weren't Ecumenical Councils but just collections of various bishops from here and there? Well, whatever they were doing, they weren't making explicit things that were already contained in the Deposit of Faith. To hear Robert Hart tell it, they were "magically" summoning up "innovations" in doctrine--especially all that stuff about Papal "infallibility" (by which he appears to mean some view about Popes being inerrant, though he was remarkably unclear on the whole thing). Who's this Robert Hart when he's at home, you may ask? Wellll...he's an Anglican--but keep calm, he's one of the proper sort that we like, not one of those nasty ones tossing our religion into the dustbin of history.

OK, so "real" Ecumenical Councils, however many of them there are, appear to be bound by this VCV. Vatican I fabricated an "innovation" (Papal infallibility), hence it was not really an Ecumenical Council (among other reasons). Mike Liccione and I argued for some time a year or two ago about what it means to say that this or that teaching "developed" over time, but I think we agreed that, whatever else it means, it does not mean that any legitimate teaching can be new in the sense of an "innovation". But Robert Hart asserts that Mike's analysis of the situation is just a bunch of hooey, and that Mike fails to understand his (Robert's) proof that Anglicanism does not fall victim to the heresy that is the set of innovations to be found in such "councils" as Trent and Vatican I. I'm not altogether sure how he knows this, since I don't believe any of the first five, seven, or nine Councils declared when the next one was to be, or how many of them would be enough. What he does say is that the VCV is a necessary (and, I suppose, sufficient) condition on authoritativeness; he then appears to use his own judgment to determine whether a particular doctrine as taught by other institutions (whether local or allegedly "ecumenical" councils, etc.) really meets the VCV.

I'm jiggy with that, as far as it goes, but there are a few worries. If it's really true that a council, if it is genuinely "ecumenical" in nature, only ever makes latent doctrine patent, what are we to do with the doctrine of the Trinity? Or the doctrine that the Holy Spirit is to be accorded the same latreia as the Father and the Son? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the doctrine of Papal infallibility had been taught by the same Council that taught the Doctrine of the Trinity. According to Robert, that would be sufficient to show that the council was not really a council; but why not assume instead that it was a council, and that Papal infallibility is not actually an innovation? In short, there are two ways to look at the historical fact of such a meeting; one is as a genuine council, the other is as a heretical innovator. Are there specific facts that would enable one to distinguish the right way of viewing the historical meeting from the wrong way? At this great distance in time, probably not. What people point to in the case of Vatican I is the view, held by many not only outside but also inside the Catholic church, that nobody ever believed in Papal infallibility before. Not only was it not semper ubique, it was more like nunc et tunc, hic et illic. But how on earth can one know such a thing with a sufficient degree of certainty to determine whether the doctrine is a deal-breaker for Councilhood? If we were to apply the very same standard that is applied to the Doctrine of the Trinity--that the folks who didn't believe it just weren't really Christians--we would be permitted to say that, well, folks, those who did not believe, at least implicitly, in Papal Infallibility simply weren't really Christians. But, of course, no Anglicans would want to say such a thing, and I doubt that any Catholics would want to say it either; but if we must say it about the Trinity, we must say it about Papal Infallibility as well--if Vatican I was a genuine council. If you don't think that Vatican I was a genuine council, you must say why you think so, but you cannot point to the doctrines that it promulgated or else you will be begging the question.

To reject the authority of a putative council on the grounds of what it taught will always necessarily beg the question, just so long as one endorses VCV. If one rejects VCV, then of course one may reject any Council one wishes, for no other reason than that one does not like what it taught. I suspect few Anglicans would want to go that route--why else distance oneself from the PECUSA madness?--(though these days I am not so sure about how many Catholics would want to avoid that route). But VCV seems like a condign principle, and it has a certain cachet in orthodox-with-a-small-o circles. Mike Liccione has written at some length on how the VCV must be read if it is to make any sense: in particular, there is a difficulty involving the fact that the VCV itself ascribes authority to "the Catholic Church", not the consensus fidelium, as would appear to be the import of semper ubique taken rather literally. Some Anglicans think that Romans want to equate "the Catholic Church" with the See of Rome, but no real Roman Catholics want to do that. The teaching of the See of Rome herself is that "the Catholic Church" subsists in what is called "the Roman Catholic Church", which obviously includes the See of Rome but which also includes every See in Communion with the See of Rome.

What does it mean to be "in Communion with the See of Rome"? One thing it means is being willing to count as "Ecumenical" those councils at which a Pope, or one of his legates, was present and to whose teachings he consented. This is a historical, rather than doctrinal, criterion for counting a council as Ecumenical. On this standard, there are indeed twenty-one Ecumenical Councils. Anglicans and Orthodox Christians reject this standard. What standard do they put in its place? VCV; but this is a doctrinal standard and, as such, necessarily begs the question.

My comments here are not intended as compelling proof of one point of view or another; they are offered principally in explanation for a certain point of view. When I converted to Catholicism twenty-five years ago, it was largely due to my thinking through various issues of this sort, but I recognize, of course, that what I found compelling will not necessarily be found compelling by everyone. That is an unfortunate artifact of our sad divisions, and it is a sign, perhaps, of how far we have fallen from that "one accord" in which the Christian community found itself in the description of the author of Acts. Personally, in the case of Anglicans (of the proper sort) and Orthodox Christians, I'm always ready to look to what we share rather than to our divisions, because the things we share, in this debauched and secular world, are so much more important than the things we disagree about.


Strider said...

Scott, are you therefore asserting that the genuineness of an ecumenical council can be absolutely determined apart from the teachings promulgated by the council?

Scott Carson said...

No, I think I may have dashed through the last couple of paragraphs there a little too quickly (it was 3:00 a.m. and I was rather tired). Clearly a council that attempts to teach heresy, or really anything at all orthogonal to something taught by an earlier, authentic council, cannot be counted as an authentic council whether or not the Pope or one of his emissaries consents to its teachings. If such a thing were to happen, it would raise the question of the ontological status of the Pope in question, as I mentioned in my discussion of the case of John XXII here.

So the VCV can deliver a necessary condition, but it cannot deliver a suficient condition, on authenticity; but perhaps my historical criterion cannot do so either, unless one takes the position that any Pope who endorses a heretical teaching thereby shows that he was never Pope, or has ipso facto ceased to be Pope. But certainly the historical criterion is also a necessary condition, which seems to be implicitly denied by the VCV.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Scott Carson:

The Affirmation of St. Louis binds us to the Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Church. This was reached as the logical consensus of Anglican formularies. The first four councils were formulative, and the last three necessary, equally authoritative, but based on what was formulated already.

You wrote:

in spite of the fact that no such thing [the Trinity] is ever mentioned in the Scriptures...

This would be true only if you meant the word "Trinity" itself. Though by no means a modern sola scritpura guy, I could prove the doctrine we call the doctrine of the Trinity with my Bible alone. It is very clear and obvious in scripture, received and recognized by the Church.

It is an empirical question, and as far as I can see most, if not all, of the evidence points towards the doctrine being one that evolved over time.

I strongly disagree. It is revealed in scripture, and without it the Scripture makes no sense. Without it, the scripture is self- contradictory and silly. The Trinity is definitely in the Bible, and not just because we look back with taught lenses. It is there and was there all along. Try, just try to make sense of John chapter one without it, remembering there is only one God.

None of the ancients believed otherwise than what I have said. A true adherence to the VC is that the doctrine of the Trinity was revealed, taught by the Apsotles, and written into scripture. Any other view departs from what the Fathers actually taught, and from what the Councils themselves declare.

I simply don't buy the Cardinal Newman theory of Doctrinal Development. It is not even good history.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Scott Carson said...


I don't doubt that you could "prove" a lot of things with your Bible. Indeed, that's precisely what the Ecumenical Councils do. The point is that all such "proofs" involve interpretation of what the Bible is essentially saying, since what the Bible says is rarely, if ever, literally true (at least to you and me, who aver as to how we are not "sola scriptura" kinds of guys).

Andrew Preslar said...

Hey Scott,

I have enjoyed following the dialogue here and at the Continuum weblog. I am wondering what you mean when you say, in your last comment, that the Bible is rarely, if ever, literally true? In my last post, I alluded to several magisterial documents which commend to us the literal sense of Scripture as the basis of all other senses, upon which we may build, but from which we may never depart.

Scott Carson said...


Perhaps I should point out that what I write is rarely, if ever, literally true!

I will grant you that there are plenty of passages where the best starting point for interpretation is a consideration of the import of the literal meaning of the text. For example, when we are told of Our Lord's capacity to heal diseases, we are clearly meant to ponder what it would mean for someone to have lordship over such physical ailments.

Whether or not Our Lord literally caused a certain bone to heal or a certain bacterium to die off is an empirical question about which we can never have absolute certainty. We may take the word of our witnesses regarding what they saw, but this is, of course, the mere reporting of empirical data and is, in turn, open to interpretation. The witnesses interpreted it in their own way; we are free to interpret it in ours.

I would say that, in this particular example, what is of principle importance is not the empirical question, but the theological claim being made, namely, that sickness, decay, and death are all of them principally signs of something else, and that they function in this capacity not only in the biblical texts but in our own lives--that is to say, it is still true that sickness, decay, and death are not principally reducible their mere material manifestations and operations. (They would be, obviously, if materialism were true, but as Christians we do not think that it is true.) What these things are signs of is sin, and Our Lord's capacity to heal them is not intended to show that he was a really good doctor (the only possible materialist interpretation of these texts) but that he had the power, which only God can have, to forgive sins.

This is a meaning of the text, in my opinion, that is not the literal meaning of the text, and yet it is the meaning of these texts. So when I say that they are rarely, if ever, literally true, all that I really mean by that is that the empirical claims they make are like all other empirical claims: they can never be regarded as literally true in the fullest, most philosophical sense of that phrase; but I mean also that this does not matter, because all of these texts, in my opinion, have deeper, more important, theological meanings, which are proposed to us by the Church, and that are much more important to endorse than the "literal" meaning. This approach to these texts is the same as was generally adopted by the Church Fathers in the case of the texts of the Old Testament, so it does not seem unreasonable to me to adopt it in the case of the New Testament texts.

Now, in the case of certain kinds of empirical claims (such as, for example, Our Lord was raised from the dead), here again there is a tension between what I would call the "materialist" reading of the text and the "theological". Surely you are right that, as Christians, we must understand this phrase to be literally true--that is, we must say that the proposition "Jesus of Nazareth died and was resurrected" is in itself a true proposition. To say that it is "literally" true is very difficult, however, since it is in itself an empirical claim, and as such suffers from all of the shortcomings of empirical claims vis-a-vis literal truth. As a theological claim, however, it is undeniably true, and it no doubt reflects some ontological correlate (that is, there is some entity, x, such that x exists, x is alive (in some sense), and x is identical to Jesus of Nazareth). To the extent that there is some such ontological correlate, I'm not too worried about saying that it is "literally" true in a loose sense of that expression.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The Bible uses every form of literature. Some is metaphor, some is simile, etc. Historical statements are meant to be taken literally, as literally as any other direct statement of fact. This is how St. Paul opens the fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians. He states four historical facts. He also relates those facts to Old Testament prophecy and then explains their meaning.

The doctrine of the Trinity is stated in a unique way. In the Gospels, for example, we hear the words that Jesus spoke, without commentary, except for the hymn that opens the Gospel of John.

Scott Carson said...

Needless to say, the claim that historical claims are "meant" to be taken literally is to impute a motive to the author and, hence, to interpret that author, hence even historical claims are open to one sort of interpretation or another. Clearly when the Hebrews wrote the history of their travels from Egypt to the Promised Land they intended for readers to take away more than mere historical details of a journey through the desert.

Also, what counts as "history" in one culture or context may not count the same way in another culture or context, so to make the claim that this or that biblical text is "historical" by our standards is again to interpret that text. In my view, the book of Genesis consists of folk tales, but according to Steve Hays over at Triablog to read it is no different than reading the New York Times.

As for the Trinity, that is the tip of the iceberg. Where will you find, in the bible, any claim that Jesus is "one in substance with the Father"? Sure, you can find him saying, in the Gospel of John, that "I and the Father are one", but even the students in my introduction to philosophy class know that there is a very long and complex history in the philosophical literature regarding the various senses in which it is possible "to be one", and very few of them entail "being one in substance". Indeed, the concept of being a substance is a philosophically vexed issue, and even if Jesus had said "The Father and I are one in substance" it would not have been able to stand as a clear and distinct claim, it would be in need of interpretation.

This is the need that is filled by Councils. Presumably, even if the Trinity is as plainly present in the Scriptures as you say, there were nevertheless folks out there who didn't get it, otherwise a solemn definition from a Council would not have been necessary. Indeed, Councils, in general, are called in times of doubt, not in times of certainty--their role is to provide that certainty with respect to doubtful issues.

So it simply isn't open to any particular individual to announce, sua sponte, that this or that issue is already plain from the scriptures and that, therefore, he has no need of the declaration of this or that council. If such a thing were licit, then anyone at all could simply announce that the Councils had erred in declaring Our Lord one in substance with the Father, that the biblical texts make it quite clear that Jesus and the Father are two distinct entities and, therefore, two distinct substances.

Anonymous said...

Historical statements are meant to be taken literally, as literally as any other direct statement of fact.

Was this a serious statement?

Kindly explain the passages in Exodus (as well as several similar instances in Scripture) wherein God ordered the Israelites to perform genocide.

For example, Samuel told Solomon to go forth and kill every man, woman, child and beast; making no distinction between age, sex or whether or not they were innocent.

IF this passage is to be taken literally, kindly explain how a Just God would actually demand the deaths of innocents.

- aristocles

Fr. John said...

Samuel told Solomon?

God has power to make all things right. All injustices will be set right.

Anonymous said...

Fr. John,

God has power to make all things right. All injustices will be set right.

How can that be when the very 'injustice' that is mentioned were actually instructions that came from God?

It was He who commanded the killing of this people, even the innocent.

I challange Fr. Hart to explain this contradiction if Scripture is to be taken ever so literally, as he so claims.

Michael said...

Very interesting - and an excellent explanation of the problem the councils present our separated friends.

Acolyte4236 said...


You wrote,

"One thing it means is being willing to count as "Ecumenical" those councils at which a Pope, or one of his legates, was present and to whose teachings he consented."

Why wouldn't the council of 979-880 count then as ecumenical?

Also, is Papal ratification of a council a sufficient condition or only a necessary condition?

Sophocles said...

Hi Scott,

I just posted a response(of sorts) over at my blog. It is the first part.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's a related problem with VCV. The trinitarian and christological doctrines defined by the undisputed councils cannot with any plausibility be held to have been explicitly believed by all Christians always. Rather, the most that can be said for them is that they were implicit in the faith and liturgy of Christians always.

It's really hard to make explicit this notion of implicitness. I think it's going to have to be some sort of entailment, or relevant entailment, relation. If a proposition p logically entails q, and does so in some "relevant" way, then q is somehow implicit in p. Maybe there is some other way of making sense of implicitness, but that's the best I can think of right now (and it's not so great, I grant).

Now if we take this standard of implicit containment, then it can be possible to demonstrate that some claim p is implicitly contained in a body of beliefs, namely by giving a logically strict (and relevant) argument from the body of beliefs to p. But if the body of belief has significant richness to it, then the task of showing p is not implicitly contained in that body of belief is likely going to be just about impossible, unless we can show that p is incompatible with the body. (But if one could show that some Roman Catholic doctrine is incompatible with the body of beliefs of Christians always everywhere, then the whole debate over authority would be irrelevant, because the Catholic view would simply have been refuted.)

Consider, for instance, just how hard it would be to prove, say, that some arithmetical claim (such as Goldbach's Conjecture) does not follow from the axioms of arithmetic. One way to do this would be to show that the claim is false and that the axioms are true. And occasionally, extremely sophisticated methods from mathematical logic can show the independence of one claim from a bunch of axioms. But it is unlikely that these methods would be at all helpful in the Christian doctrine case, since Scripture is too complex for such analysis.

So things are even harder for using VCV...