Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Crypto-Nestorians

Following a link from one of Ponty's recent posts to an older one, I came across the following remarkable statement:
(Perry Robinson)

This is why Protestants say that everyone is in the same boat and they are just honest enough to admit it. For them, the Church just is a merely human organization of like-minded individuals. For them, the humanity of Christ is never truely united to his divine person. If it were, if it were deified by the energies of his divine person, then as a consequence it is easy to see the Church as having those same energies or properties. This supposed “honest recognition” by Protestants is a restatement of their Nestorian presuppositions—the church can’t be infallible because the church is only human. And a revisable set of propositional formulas is the best we humans can do.
Now, I pretty much approach any statement by a Catholic about what Protestants believe and how they think with the assumption that the statement is at best a crude characature, and at worse a lame libel. In the quoted passage, my expectations were fulfilled.

If the church were as unified with Christ as this passage implies, we would expect to see perfection of action by its members; and this we clearly see is not so. Moreover the Roman church concedes its fallibility on many matters (such as, famously, astronomy), which if the union were this complete it would not need to do. The church isn't "only" human, but it is human enough.

Indeed, what I see in the infallbility arguments is that the "infallible" churches are not satisfied to be merely the members of the body, fingers and toes which move at the will of the Head. No, it seems that they aspire to be the head.

A little earlier in the same article, Mr. Robinson posits the following logic:
1. Everything taught by God is doctrine.
2. Everything taught by God is infallible.
3. Therefore doctrine is infallible.
4. (Premise) No statements made by unaided fallible agents can be infallible.
5. No statements made by unaided fallible agents can be doctrine.

This definition of doctrine is entirely question-begging, and its premises again misstate Protestant belief. Classically, Protestants believed that no Christian was unaided; also, doctrine would normally refer to church teachings. It is one thing to say that everything Jesus himself teaches is infallible; but when the church teaches through a process of interpretation, it needs to be established that this process manifests God's teaching. It is not an obvious point, and it is hardly unreasonable to posit that this process is potentially capable of misstatement and other more serious defects. Indeed, there is an issue precisely because some such interpretation is seen to be erroneous, though in theory when in error it is being done outside the church.

The problem is therefore mispresented in this little exercise. The question is whether aided agents manifest the infallibility of the divine. Perhaps one can talk oneself into faith that it does happen, but such faith is against reason.

Paper

Over at All Too Common we have another pass at justifying remaining an Anglican. I think some of the pessimism expressed there is too strong.

It has become a commonplace to predict the death of the Elizabethan settlement. Now, it seems pretty clear that it is going to have suffer some limits. Without them, the exploitation of church polity that is the source of all troubles will remain a threat. But this goes too far:
It seems nice in theory, but what good is a church that refuses to dogmatize or declare the truth in many areas of the Faith? We are now witnessing the logical extreme of the via media, for now pure paganism is replacing orthodoxy. For how can three mutually exclusive theologies co-exist without a final authority? Liberalism (read: revisionism), Evangelicalism (read: Protestantism), and Anglo-Catholicism (read: ├╝ber-English-Catholicism) all claim positives about God and theology that contradict the other schools of thought; they also all claim that the other schools err in one way or another.
Well, yes they do; and I think they do all err. But "mutually exclusive" is an overstatement. The obvious answer to the first rhetorical question is that, in seeing through a glass darkly, we are fatally tempted to dogmatize where the conclusive evidence and irrefutable reasoning simply are not there. And if we are tempted, our institutions are far more tempted to exercise dogmatism as an instrument of division-- which is to say, politics.

Likewise, the obvious answer to need of a final authority is that, on the one hand, the actual final authority is each individual, and on the other, that the desire of such an authority is not being given divine satisfaction. Maybe salvation is to be found or lost among the pious differences of opinion offered by the various parties, but I don't think so-- at least, not most of the time.

Back the first time around, Ponty said:
The great weakness of the Via Media is its claim to comprehend a plurality of beliefs under the “supreme authority of Scripture.” What is neglected is the fact that the Anglican reading of Scripture is ultimately ruled not by Holy Tradition and magisterial authority but Protestant private judgment.
I don't think that getting rid of private judgement is as easy as this, or even possible, but in any case for those of us who have already seen that much tradition is not holy and that magisterial authority is inadequate, this rejoinder isn't compelling. And no amount of argument can fix this, because argument is, in the end, an appeal to private judgement: my judgement. The constant hammering on private judgement has become something of a characture anyway; Anglicans don't really believe in doing theology in a vacuum.

Ponty also said:
Our Common Anglican has fallen in love with a paper religion, as has so many before him, including this lowly Pontificator. But paper religion is not real religion. It does not feed the deepest hungers of the soul, and it leaves one trapped within the prison of the self. Nor does it strengthen one against the onslaught of the principalities and powers. Only the Church of the saints and martyrs can provide what is truly needed.
It could be said that any religion of theological propositions and dogmas is paper. I did not fall in love with a paper religion; I did not fall in love with propositions, but a real church in a real place, and now the proponents of Roman conversion tempt me with the paper goods of infallibility and a whole list of other dogmas. I am sorry for them that I do not feel a call to the Roman church, the fact remains that I do not.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Fundamentals, Reconsidered

A post by Benjamin Myers on "fundamentals" has been attracting a lot of attention around the blogosphere. I have some sympathy for what he says, but as seems to be inevitably the case, I think he overstates.

Say "fundamentals" and inevitably one brings to mind that liberal swear-word: fundamentalism. The real thing is reactionary in the truest sense, and it overcompensates, and it has become almost a synonym for anti-intellectual, angry, hypocritical factionalism. In ECUSA, tagging anything as fundamentalist is tantamount to refutation.

But then we have statements like this:
The most serious error of the early fundamentalists was that they tried to turn faith into a law, into a set of doctrines that must be believed—but faith is only ever a matter of freedom and permission, not of law or obligation.
As Al Kimel says, this fails as a reflection of Christian history. Until a century or so ago, Christians were united-- even Anglicans-- in their insistance that faith in Christ Jesus entailed believing the right things about Him. I have to agree with Al on this point, which has been taken up by many others, e.g. C.S.Lewis. It is fashionable in some Eastern and Roman circles to belittle Lewis's notion of "mere Christianity", but it's really not hard to establish a core set of beliefs, in which the Nicene Creed holds pride of place. Modern latitudinarian theology really needs to own up to its rejection of this consensus.

The "danger" lies in the temptation of systematically converting all of what you believe into core dogmas. Of course, if you are infallible, it's not a danger, but an invitation. And thus, as I've remarked before, faith in the institution becomes reckoned as unto righteousness. Thus, when Michael Liccione writes (in comments to Al's post):
The problem with Ben’s approach is the same as with all versions of ecumenical Protestantism: it turns the issue of the content of Christian faith into a scholarly exercise rather than one calling for the obedience of the whole self to something that has nothing to do with one’s own mind.
... I am not convinced that executing this obedience by submitting to someone else's "scholarly exercise" is an improvement. "Scholasticism", after all, is practically the name of Roman theology.

All Christian theology has the problem that it is manifestly the result of human intellection, whatever else it may be. It lends itself to the interpretation that it is the product of people talking about God behind His back, as it were, instead of speaking to Him face-to-face. He who listens to good theology should be hearing what God Himself has said, or at least what is the right conclusion of what God has said. If one follows the direction of bad theology, one simply gives one's obedience to other people, instead of giving it to God.

There is surely the possibility in this for theologians to mix bad theology with good; and that is what I believe happens as a matter of course. It is the obvious consequence of human nature, both in its limits, and in its Fall. Other sciences take this in stride; as a whole, theology would appear to need to do the same. Invocation of infallibility appears, in the same larger context, as a political response to the difficulty of acheiving sufficient consensus.

And that leads to some big problems. First, the insinuated coupling of ecumenism with rejection of the Nicene consensus simply isn't true. There are people who can be "ecumenical" with anyone, and there are plenty more (such as myself) who find ecumenism possible only within a certain consensus. It's not all or nothing: Roman Catholic anti-ecumenism is one extreme (and Eastern Orthodox opposition more so), and unitarianism the opposite extreme. They are not alternatives; they are endpoints of a scale. The badness of theology is thus potentially one of degree; and I personally believe that all theology is contaminated, to one degree or another, with this badness.

The second problem, though, is where the trouble really lies. If fealty to The Church is where it's at, it's abundantly clear that claims as to who exactly represents the church are humans talking about God. Maybe they are, but given the sinfulness of humnas, I'm betting they're talking about themselves.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Salty's Letter

Via titusonenine I came across the Salty Vicar's response to a "Letter From a Young Catholic".

Salty and I tend to disagree a lot, but I would like to commend this letter, though I disagree in degree with its valuation of searching perhaps over and against finding.

Over at Pontifications, of course, there is a reply. It is a reply that doesn't speak to me, for reasons that I think might resound to Salty and be a rebuke to Ponty, who says:
But how does one discern the will of Jesus, given the manifold and contradictory voices in the world? If the Catholic Church is the Church, then assent to her authoritative teachings is assent to Christ; obedience to her commands is obedience to Christ. [....] When I became Catholic just under a year ago, I made this profession: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”
In a sense, I have no problem making the same profession, because I do not agree that the Catholic denomination represents the Church in the fullness which it claims. One can assign infalliblity to almost any human authority, and with sufficient will and possibly derangement of thinking one can perhaps maintain this indefinitely. But when one sees falliblity, there is nothing one can do but place limits on one's fealty; and if the failures are severe enough, so may be the disillusionment.

The obvious answer to Ponty's first question is, "imperfectly, because we are imperfect, sinful humans." And of course I may well see this imperfectly, but the reality I see is that the reification of teaching by Catholics into an infallible Catholic teaching overreaches. I say this with the acknowledgement that by and large Catholic teaching is pretty good. Its claims for authority, however, are too political. Teaching that is really infallible shouldn't have to resort to authority for its defense.

The truth is that in the largest picture, picking the truth out of "the manifold and contradictory voices in the world" is actually difficult. But in one sense, the difficulty is overstated, especially by Catholic converts from other Christian denominations. In someone like Al Kimel or any number of other high profile convert ex-clerics, the Church of Rome is gathering the harvest that another has planted and raised. These and many others testify in their deeds, if not their words, to the breadth of the fundamental Christian consensus about who Jesus was and what his life means for us.

But in the other sense, the problem is actually difficult. Constantinople and for that matter Mecca, Salt Lake City, and wherever the Scientologists camp out vie with Rome, and at some point infallibility is just another claim to puzzled through in all those voices. If it is hard "truth", the harder and truer truth is living without it.

Sorry For the Snooze

I apologize to anyone who dropped by looking for new material in the past two months. Things have been a bit crazy personally, and then there was the Cold From Hell that led to the Bronchitis That Never Ends. One of the penalties for having a powerful singing voice is having a powerful coughing voice to go with it.

Over the next few days I expect to get back into the posting business.