Either self-refuting or vacuous
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Empiricism and sola scriptura redux
After my recent series of long posts on sola scriptura (here, here, and here), I fear that you, dear reader, may be starting to feel as burned out on the topic as I do. But one final post is in order, both because there are a couple of further points I think worth making, and because Andrew Fulford at The Calvinist International has now posted a rejoinder to my response to him. And as it happens, what I have to say about his latest article dovetails somewhat with what I was going to say anyway. (Be warned that the post to follow is pretty long. But it’s also the last post I hope to write on this topic for a long while.)
Following Feyerabend, I’ve been comparing sola scriptura to early modern empiricism. Let’s pursue the analogy a little further and consider two specific parallels between the doctrines. First, both face a fatal dilemma of being either self-defeating or vacuous. Second, each is committed to a reductionism which crudely distorts the very epistemic criterion it claims zealously to uphold. Let’s consider these issues in turn.
Either self-refuting or vacuous
Modern empiricism hoped sharply to delimit the boundaries of speculative reason in a way that would decisively undermine (what empiricists regarded as) the excesses of Scholastic and rationalist metaphysics. Principles like Hume’s Fork -- the thesis that any meaningful proposition must concern either “relations of ideas” or “matters of fact” -- seemed at first glance formidable weapons in the empiricist arsenal. The key theses of Scholastic and rationalist metaphysics appear to be neither true by virtue of the relations of the ideas they express, nor knowable the way ordinary empirical matters of fact are. Thus we may as well “commit them to the flames,” as Hume recommended. A crisp and clear refutation of traditional metaphysics, yes?
Well, no, actually, for there are several serious problems with Hume’s Fork. First, why should anyone find the principle remotely plausible in the first place who isn’t already committed to the background empiricist picture of human knowledge that informs it -- as, of course, Scholastics and rationalists are not? From the point of view of those against whom the principle was directed, then, it seems manifestly a question-begging non-starter. Second, there are areas of knowledge affirmed by both empiricists and their enemies for which Hume’s Fork cannot plausibly account. In particular, truths of logic and mathematics are notoriously difficult to make sense of in terms of either Hume’s “relations of ideas” or “matters of fact.” Third, taken at face value the principle is obviously self-refuting. For Hume’s Fork is not itself either true by virtue of the relations of the ideas it expresses, nor knowable the way ordinary empirical matters of fact are. Hence, by its own standard, it would have to be rejected as meaningless. Or if it is not meaningless, that can only be because it presupposes precisely the third, metaphysical sort of perspective that it purports to rule out.
Later successors to Hume’s Fork -- such as the logical positivist’s principle of verifiability, or the contemporary naturalist’s thesis that respectable metaphysical propositions would have to be either claims of empirical science or matters of “conceptual analysis” -- face exactly the same sorts of problems. (For discussion, see chapter 0 of Scholastic Metaphysics. I’ve also discussed the problems facing contemporary naturalist riffs on Hume’s principle in earlier articles online, here, here, and here.)
Now, in response to such objections, empiricists and naturalists often pull back from the face value reading of principles like Hume’s and propose that what they are offering instead is, or is better read as, something much more modest. It isn’t that the empiricist is boldly claiming to be able decisively to refute the claims of traditional metaphysics, or dogmatically insisting that there can be no meaningful or justifiable propositions other than the two kinds that Hume or a positivist would recognize. Rather (so it is suggested) the empiricist principles are best read merely as cautions against metaphysical overreach and counsels to epistemological modesty. They provide something like a burden of proof which any respectable metaphysics ought to try to reach, insofar as theories which respect empiricist or naturalist scruples have shown greater “success” than their rationalist or Scholastic rivals. Which all sounds innocuous and reasonable.
Except that it is in fact entirely arbitrary, dogmatic, and question-begging. Again, any attempt to spell out the two sorts of domain that early modern empiricists and their contemporary successors are willing to recognize -- on the one hand, “relations of ideas,” or “analytic truths,” or “conceptual analysis” or some variation thereof; and on the other hand, “matters of fact,” or “synthetic propositions,” or claims of natural science, or something along those lines -- presupposes a third perspective, over and above these two, from which they can be surveyed. And again, logic and mathematics remain as difficult to fit into either variation of the two as they were in Hume’s day. So why on earth should anyone for a moment take seriously the proposal that we should try to confine ourselves as far as we can, even in a less dogmatic way than Hume does, to the two domains in question? We already know that they do not exhaust the territory. It’s like saying: “Sure, we now know that North and South America, and Australia too, exist. But still, for reasons of parsimony, modesty, etc. let’s try as far as we can to confine our maps and globes to picturing Europe, Africa, and Asia.”
Nor does it help for a moment to appeal (as is commonly done these days) to the purportedly greater “success” or “fruitfulness” of the sorts of theories empiricists and naturalists are comfortable with. For what are the criteria by which “success” or “fruitfulness” are to be determined? Consider the Aristotelian theory of act and potency. We Thomistic metaphysicians would argue that it is absolutely indispensible to making sense of the entire range of metaphysical issues -- change, multiplicity, causation, substance, essence, existence, you name it. A book like this one can be read as one long argument for the “success” and “fruitfulness” of the theory of act and potency.
Of course, the contemporary naturalist or empiricist will object that this is not the kind of “success” or “fruitfulness” that he has in mind. What he has in mind is rather the kind of predictive power and technological application that a good scientific theory possesses. But of course, whether these are the only criteria for accepting a theory -- including a metaphysical theory -- is precisely part of what is at issue between empiricists and naturalists on the one hand and their Scholastic and rationalist critics on the other. Why on earth should those be the only criteria by which we judge the “success” or “fruitfulness” even of a metaphysical theory -- especially when, again, empiricism and naturalism themselves could not survive such a test, and when they make use of knowledge (of logic and mathematics) which is not plausibly analyzable in terms of the proposed criterion? What non-question-begging reason could there possibly be for so confining ourselves?
The only motivation for the purportedly more modest and reasonable form of empiricism or naturalism appears to be to find a way to avoid having to commit oneself to the metaphysical theses empiricists and naturalists don’t like, without falling into the self-refutation problem that afflicts principles like Hume’s Fork or the principle of verifiability. That is to say, it is entirely ad hoc and devoid of non-question-begging support. Philosophically speaking, it simply floats in mid-air, unjustified and unjustifiable. It is nothing more than an expression of prejudice against traditional metaphysics, rather than any principled grounds for rejecting traditional metaphysics. And the only way to avoid these problems would be to provide robust metaphysical argumentation of exactly the kind the position is seeking to avoid -- which would make the whole position self-defeating and pointless. (We’ve seen this problem arise in some recent defenses of naturalism, e.g. here and here.)
Now, I maintain that sola scriptura faces exactly the same sorts of problems. Just as Hume’s Fork was intended to curb the purported excesses of traditional metaphysics, so too was sola scriptura intended to curb the purported excesses of Catholic theology. And as with Hume’s Fork, sola scriptura appears at first glance to provide a crisp and clear criterion for testing the claims to which it was meant to be applied. But on closer inspection, sola scriptura taken at face value is also subject to precisely the same sorts of objections that afflict Hume’s principle.
First, why on earth should anyone take seriously the sola scriptura criterion in the first place? Why should we affirm “scripture alone” as opposed to “Paul’s epistles alone” or “John 3:16 alone” or “the Gospels alone” or “scripture plus the Church Fathers alone” or “scripture plus the first seven ecumenical councils alone” or “scripture plus the councils plus the teachings of the first ten popes alone” or “scripture plus the letters of Ignatius alone” -- or any of a number of other possible ways of gerrymandering the various sources of authority that the Church had traditionally recognized prior to Luther? And even if we did affirm “scripture alone,” why confine ourselves to the list of scriptural texts as Protestants would draw it up, rather than the canonical list as Catholics would draw it up? Just as Humean empiricists have no non-question-begging way of explaining why we should confine ourselves to “relations of ideas” and “matters of fact,” sola scriptura advocates have no non-question begging way of explaining why we should confine ourselves to exactly the texts they say are “scriptural,” rather than to more texts or fewer texts or other texts entirely.
Second, just as the Humean empiricist makes use of knowledge for which his principle cannot account (namely the truths of logic and metaphysics), so too does the sola scriptura advocate make use of knowledge for which his principle cannot account. For example, scripture alone does not give you a list of exactly which books count as scripture. (Occasionally there is a reference in some scriptural text to some other particular scriptural text, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What we don’t have is anything remotely close to: “Here is a list of all and only the texts that count as scriptural” -- and even if we did, we’d have to ask how we know that that text is itself really scriptural.) Then there all the various specific doctrinal matters which (a) advocates of sola scriptura typically regard as definitive of Christian orthodoxy even though (b) advocates of sola scriptura have also taken radically different and opposed positions on. In my previous post, I gave as examples the centuries-old controversies concerning the Trinity, the Incarnation, justification, transubstantiation, contraception, divorce and remarriage, Sunday observance, infant baptism, slavery, pacifism, the consistency of scripture with scientific claims, and sola scriptura itself. If the sola scriptura advocate says (for example) “You must be a Trinitarian on pain of heresy” even though advocates of sola scriptura disagree about whether Trinitarianism is really scriptural, then he is in a position analogous to that of the Humean who makes use of mathematics, even though it is extremely dubious at best whether mathematics can be analyzed in terms of either “relations of ideas” or “matters of fact.”
Third, just as Hume’s Fork is self-refuting insofar as it cannot be known in terms of either “relations of ideas” or “matters of fact,” so too is sola scriptura self-refuting, since it is not itself found in scripture. It presupposes precisely the sort of extra-scriptural theological criterion it purports to rule out.
Now, just as the empiricist often pulls back from the face value reading of Hume’s Fork and claims to be committed only to a more modest and non-self-defeating position, so too does the sola scriptura advocate often claim to be committed only to a more modest position than the self-defeating one I’ve been describing. Indeed, I’ve been seeing exactly this sort of move made in response to my series of posts on sola scriptura. “Well sure, Ed, those criticisms might hold against some simplistic version of sola scriptura, but not against the much more nuanced position that its more serious advocates are committed to!”
Hence, just the as the purportedly more subtle empiricist or naturalist doesn’t dogmatically rule out altogether claims that are neither matters of conceptual analysis nor empirical science, but merely proposes the latter as a sure guide by which to judge all other claims, so too does the purportedly more subtle sola scriptura advocate not dogmatically rule out theological claims and sources other than scripture, but merely proposes scripture as the one sure, infallible guide by which to judge all other theological claims. And just as the purportedly more subtle empiricist or naturalist claims merely to be commending epistemological modesty and confining ourselves to “successful” and “fruitful” theories, so too does the purportedly more subtle sola scriptura advocate claim merely to be commending theological modesty and avoiding the doctrinal errors into which pre-Reformation theology had fallen. Which also all sounds innocuous and reasonable.
Except that it too is in fact entirely arbitrary, dogmatic, and question-begging, and for reasons which exactly parallel the problems with the allegedly more modest empiricism. For again, we need to take a vantage point from outside of scripture even to judge that scripture really is itself reliable and to determine which texts count as scripture -- just as the empiricist or naturalist has to take a point of view outside of either conceptual analysis or natural science in order to judge that they have a privileged status. So why exactly should we count scripture (and especially scripture as Protestants draw up the list) as the one infallible guide -- any more than we should regard conceptual analysis or natural science as somehow privileged? Why not instead count as the one infallible guide scripture as Catholics would draw up the list, or scripture-together-with-the-decrees-of-such-and-such-councils, or some part of scripture such as the Gospels, or any of an indefinite number of other possible lists of authoritative texts? And why take there to be only one infallible guide in the first place? Why not two or three or fourteen? The purportedly more modest version of sola scriptura has no better answer to this than the more simplistic version does, any more than the purportedly more modest empiricism has a good answer to the parallel problem facing it.
Nor does it for a moment help to appeal to theological modesty or the need to avoid the purported “errors” of pre-Reformation theology. For all of this begs the question no less than the naturalist’s appeal to the “success” criterion does. For one thing, the critic of sola scriptura maintains that what sola scriptura advocates regard as errors and theological overreach were not errors or overreach at all. And the critic of sola scriptura also maintains both that sola scriptura advocates have fallen into errors of their own, and that they cannot justify on scriptural grounds alone certain key doctrines to which both sides are committed, such as Trinitarianism -- just as the critic of empiricism would claim that even the purportedly more modest empiricism cannot account for certain things both empiricists and their critics have in common (e.g. logic and mathematics).
Naturally, the sola scriptura advocate will deny all this. But the problem is that even the purportedly more modest, non-simplistic version of sola scriptura has no non-question-begging reason for denying it. The position is entirely ad hoc, having no motivation at all other than as a way of trying to maintain rejection of the various Catholic doctrines the sola scriptura advocate doesn’t like, without falling into the self-refutation problem facing the more simplistic version of sola scriptura. It is nothing more than an expression of one’s rejection of those Catholic doctrines, and in no way provides a rational justification for rejecting them (just as the empiricist or naturalist criteria are really just the expression of a rejection of traditional metaphysics disguised as a rational justification for rejecting it). And so much extra-scriptural argumentation ends up having to do the key work -- the work of determining what counts as scripture, the work of drawing implications from scripture, the work of arguing in a non-question-begging way that positions other than sola scriptura have led to grave theological errors, etc. -- that it is completely unclear why there is any point in trying to maintain that “scripture alone” is our infallible guide.
So, again, the purportedly more modest and sophisticated version of sola scriptura ends up being as arbitrary and dogmatic as the simplistic version, and as arbitrary and dogmatic as empiricism.
Now, Fulford’s latest response inadvertently does nothing but confirm this harsh judgment. Recall point (c) of the Jesuit critique of sola scriptura cited by Feyerabend, according to which scripture alone cannot give us a procedure for deriving consequences from scripture, applying it to new circumstances, etc. I had noted in a previous post that one way this problem manifests itself is in the difficulty sola scriptura advocates have had in coming to agreement on issues like the Trinity, the Incarnation, justification, transubstantiation, contraception, divorce and remarriage, Sunday observance, infant baptism, slavery, pacifism, the consistency of scripture with scientific claims, etc. I noted that appeal to extra-scriptural considerations of a philosophical sort is necessary in order to settle such issues. And I noted that if the sola scriptura advocate maintains that getting such issues right is a matter of basic orthodoxy, while also admitting that extra-scriptural philosophical considerations are needed in order to settle them, then he has made of sola scriptura a vacuous thesis. In his latest article, Fulford responds:
[W]hen magisterial Protestants like Turretin affirmed the concept of sola scriptura, they never meant by it to exclude philosophical knowledge such as substance metaphysics, etc. as a source for theology…
[H]istorically the point of the slogan is to delimit infallible communications to the text of scripture, and exclude the communications of councils and Popes from that category…
In sum, it is that the scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith. Every word in that definition is important: it is the sole infallible rule, not the only source of relevant information.
Now, the trouble with this response is that Fulford simply ignores the various specific examples I gave of issues that couldn’t be settled by scripture alone -- again, issues concerning the Trinity, Incarnation, justification, etc. When one keeps those examples in mind, the problem with Fulford’s response is obvious. If Fulford says that these doctrinal issues can be settled by appeal to scripture alone, then he is saying something manifestly false, or at least question-begging, since whether they can be so settled is part of what is at issue between us. If he admits that they cannot be settled by scripture alone but require appeal to extra-biblical philosophical considerations, then -- since he thinks those extra-biblical considerations are not infallible -- then he will have to say that the positions one might take on these various theological issues are not infallible either. For example, he will have to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is not infallible, since it depends in part on (what he regards as) non-infallible extra-scriptural philosophical premises. And if such doctrines are not infallible, then they cannot be regarded as binding matters of basic orthodoxy, any more than the specifically Catholic doctrines Fulford and other Protestants reject can be regarded by him as binding.
I doubt Fulford would want to bite that bullet. But suppose he did. Suppose he said: “OK, since what I regard as the orthodox positions on the Trinity, Incarnation, etc. cannot be settled by scripture alone but require appeal to fallible extra-scriptural premises, I conclude that those positions are not after all binding on all Christians on pain of heterodoxy.” In that case, he will have made of sola scriptura a vacuous doctrine. For if sola scriptura cannot settle fundamental doctrinal issues that have divided Christians for centuries -- again, the Trinity, the Incarnation, justification, transubstantiation, contraception, divorce and remarriage, Sunday observance, infant baptism, slavery, pacifism, the consistency of scripture with scientific claims, etc., or indeed even sola scriptura itself -- then what exactly is the value or point of the thesis? Exactly what sure guidance does it give us, and why should we be so confident of it if we can’t be confident of these other things?
Fulford says absolutely nothing to resolve this problem. In particular, he says nothing to show why the position of a sola scriptura advocate who regards certain positions on the Trinity, Incarnation, justification, etc. as binding matters of orthodoxy is any less ad hoc, arbitrary, and dogmatic than the position of the Humean empiricist.
Now let’s turn to Fulford’s latest remarks on point (b) of the Jesuit critique cited by Feyerabend, which was that scripture alone cannot tell us how to interpret scripture. I illustrated the problem by citing the parallel example of the controversy over interpreting Aristotle’s position in De Anima concerning the immortality of the soul. Fulford responds:
Dr. Feser is certainly correct that Aristotle’s views on those matters are continuing controversies. But, on the other hand, no competent historian to my knowledge disputes that, for example, Aristotle’s texts teach the distinction between act and potency…
Protestants will contend that everything we need to know from scripture to be saved is like my act/potency example, and not like the immortality of the soul example. That is, based on inspecting the actual texts of scripture, they argue that it is quite clear what God wants us to do to be saved.
End quote. Here too the problem is that Fulford completely ignores the specific examples of doctrinal examples that I gave -- again, the Trinity, the Incarnation, justification, transubstantiation, contraception, divorce and remarriage, Sunday observance, infant baptism, slavery, pacifism, the consistency of scripture with scientific claims, sola scriptura itself, etc. When we keep these examples in mind, we can see the grave dilemma Fulford has put himself in. Is Fulford claiming that it is just as obvious what scripture teaches on these issues as it is obvious what Aristotle teaches about act and potency?
If he is claiming this, then he is saying something manifestly false, and certainly question-begging. For of course, whether such issues really can be settled by appeal to scripture alone is part of what is at issue between sola scriptura advocates and their critics. On the other hand, if he admits that such issues cannot be settled by appeal to scripture alone, then he will have to admit that what Aristotle says about act and potency is not after all a good analogy for the sorts of positions which Protestants typically regard as matters of basic orthodoxy. For as Fulford says, no one denies that Aristotle taught the theory of act and potency. But lots of people disagree about whether scripture really teaches the doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Lutheran or Calvinist view of justification, etc. Yet Protestants also hold that having the right position on those issues is a matter of basic orthodoxy.
To be sure, Fulford seems to think that the doctrinal diversity among readers of scripture shouldn’t be regarded as a problem for sola scriptura. Why not? Well, he says that there are, for one thing, those “who agree with the material authority of scripture (e.g., Muslims, Mormons), but deny it formally, because they say it has been corrupted in the transmission.” Their views, Fulford apparently thinks, don’t count and shouldn’t be taken into consideration when evaluating sola scriptura. Then there are “some hold to the infallibility of the scriptures but do not interpret them according to grammatico-historical principles (i.e., they use allegorical methods of interpretation.” Apparently Fulford thinks their views shouldn’t count either. Also, there are “some [who] hold to the infallibility of the scriptures and interpret them according to the grammatico-historical method (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses, Arians)” -- but where Fulford, as a Calvinist, would naturally think of them as having erred doctrinally. So, apparently their views don’t count either when evaluating sola scriptura. Then there is the point that “there are many disagreements from a Protestant point of view that do not threaten the salvation of those involved.” Hence, if there is disagreement over how to interpret what scripture says about these issues, we shouldn’t count that against sola scriptura. Finally, there are those whose reading of scripture is distorted by “affection for traditional or community (whether secular or ecclesiastical) doctrines,” or by “willful distortion… for personal gain,” or by “ignorance of the full scope of scriptural teaching, whether due to immaturity or laziness.”
So, which religious groups should we look at when we want to determine whether sola scriptura really has led to radical doctrinal disagreement? Apparently, we should look only at those Protestant groups that Andrew Fulford regards as within the ballpark of respectable views. And it turns out -- what are the odds? -- that the doctrinal diversity among those groups vis-à-vis the issues that really matter isn’t so great after all! Lucky thing for sola scriptura, that.
Except that the problem with this, of course, is that it quite obviously and quite massively begs the question. For why should we suppose that those who think that scripture has “been corrupted in the transmission” are wrong? Why should we prefer “grammatico-historical principles” over “allegorical” ones, or over some combination of the two approaches? How exactly are these views incompatible with sola scriptura? How can scripture alone tell us whether the text has been corrupted or whether grammatico-historical principles should be preferred over allegorical principles? (And if it can’t, why isn’t that a problem for sola scriptura, especially since it has such radical implications for doctrine?) Why exactly should we think that it is the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Arians, rather than their critics, who have simply gotten scripture wrong? Why should we suppose that those controversial doctrines which Fulford says are irrelevant to salvation really are irrelevant to salvation? Why should we agree with him that certain interpretations are merely the product of willful distortion, ignorance, etc.? What non-question-begging answer can Fulford possibly give to such questions? Since he doesn’t even try to answer them, we don’t know.
Let me turn now to the reductionism to which I referred earlier, before responding to Fulford’s other remarks. Recall that I noted in my initial post in this series that by “experience,” the Aristotelian philosopher means more or less what common sense means. Hence, consider the case where I’m fully alert, in good health, looking at a green coffee cup right in front of me, in good light with no obstructions, etc. In a circumstance like that, “There’s a green coffee cup on the table” is something which both common sense and Aristotelian philosophy alike would agree is directly known via experience. But not so for the empiricist, who would say that all we really know directly in such a case is “There’s a greenish patch of color in the center of my field of vision,” or “I am being appeared to greenly,” or some such thing. For the Aristotelian, greenish color patches and the like are not the objects of experience, but rather abstractions from experience, which has just the objects common sense supposes it to have. What I perceive is the cup itself. It is only by abstracting from my perception of the cup that I arrive at theoretical notions like the notion of a color patch, of being appeared to greenly, etc. The empiricist takes these abstracted notions and redefines experience in terms of them, reducing experience to the awareness of these strange entities.
The procedure is the epistemological analogue of metaphysical reductionism. For the Aristotelian, a stone or a vine is a genuine substance, rather than a mere collection of substances or a modification of a substance. By contrast, a pile of stones, or a paperweight made out of a stone chiseled into a square shape, is not a true substance. In these cases, the true substances are the many stones (in the case of the pile) or the one stone (in the case of the paperweight). The pile is nothing more than the collection of the several substances, and the square shape is nothing more than a modification of the one substance. Similarly, whereas a vine is a substance, a hammock made out of vines is not, but is merely a modification of the true substances (the vines) that make it up. Now, the metaphysical reductionist treats the stone and vine as if they too were really just collections or modifications of substances. He treats the stone, say, as “nothing but” a collection of particles, which are regarded as the true substances; or he treats the vine as “nothing but” a collection of cells, which are regarded as the true substances. For the Aristotelian, this is a deep mistake. The particles that make up the stone are in a sense less fundamental than the stone, and the cells less fundamental than the vine. The reductionist abstracts out parts that are properly understood only in light of the whole, and then reduces the whole to them. (See chapter 3 of Scholastic Metaphysics for a defense of the Aristotelian view of substance and a critique of reductionism.)
Now, let’s turn to the parallel with sola scriptura -- which will take some spelling out, so bear with me a little longer. Just as perception involves a relationship between a perceiving person and a physical object, so too communication involves a relationship between a person and the other person with whom he is communicating. One mind conveys its thoughts to another mind. Of course, this is done through the medium of spoken or written words, just as perception is accomplished through the medium of sense impressions. But just as, in perception, it isn’t the sense impression itself that you grasp, but rather the physical object that you grasp, by means of the sense impression, so too in communication it isn’t strictly the other person’s words you grasp, but rather his thoughts, by means of his words. That’s why in the ordinary case we say things like “I listened carefully to Fred,” rather than “I listened carefully to the words that were coming out of Fred’s mouth,” or “I’m going to go talk to Bob” rather than “I’m going to go send some words in Bob’s direction.” The empiricist errs in thinking that it is really sense impressions rather than physical objects that we perceive, and it would be similarly erroneous to think that it is really words rather than people that we are communicating with.
Now, divine revelation is a kind of communication, and as I noted in a previous post, all sides in the debate over sola scriptura agree that this revelation takes place through human intermediaries. One kind of intermediary would be a prophet. When a prophet speaks to you, what you need to understand if you are going to understand his message is the thoughts he intends to convey to you. Of course, he will convey those thoughts through words, but it is strictly speaking not the words in and of themselves that you are trying to understand, but rather the thoughts through the words, by means of the words. And that is true whether or not the words are spoken or written.
In saying that much, I am not saying anything that I think a sola scriptura advocate like Fulford would disagree with. I think all sides would agree that when God speaks through St. Paul (say) we need to understand what St. Paul himself meant to convey by his words if we are going to understand what God willed to communicate. We need to learn the mind of St. Paul through his words. Scripture is important because it is through it that we get to the thoughts of the scriptural authors, and thus to the divine message that is sent by virtue of those thoughts having been inspired.
Now, if revelation takes place fundamentally through persons themselves, then there is a potential problem. Persons die, or at least human persons do. A prophet might speak or write, but when he’s gone, all we have left are his remembered or written words, and where those words are unclear, or incomplete, or indeterminate in their application to new circumstances, we cannot ask him for clarification. Of course, God could miraculously keep some prophet from dying so that he will always be around in the community for us to consult. But as everyone agrees, he has not done so. That is to say, there is no prophet who has been alive and living visibly on earth for (say) the last two thousand years. God could also send a series of prophets, each one succeeded by another who can be consulted when the previous one dies. But he has not done that either. There is no line of prophets that has continued from the time of Christ (say) down to the present day.
Is there any other option? There is. Scholastic philosophers commonly draw a distinction between a natural person (or “physical person”), and a moral person (or “juridical person”). A natural person is a particular, individual human being -- you, me, Barack Obama, and so forth. A moral person is a society of human beings organized in such a way that they have a common end and some of the rights and duties that human beings have. For example, a state is a moral person, as is a corporation. Hence states and corporations have certain rights that they can claim against individual human beings and against other moral persons, they have duties to other persons whether natural or moral, they can carry out policies which are said to express the will of the state or corporation, and so forth. Now, individual human beings -- members, office holders, employees, etc. -- are always the ones who carry out the actions of moral persons. Still, moral persons exist over and above the individual people who happen to be the members, office holders, employees, etc. at any one time. A state or corporation can maintain the same basic character, policies, rights, responsibilities, etc. generation after generation, over many centuries.
Now, like natural persons, moral persons can communicate. States can issue decrees, corporations can advertise, and so forth, and these communications can of course take written form, as well as being expressed vocally by the officials of the state or corporation. A moral person can even bind itself to follow perpetually the policies expressed in certain documents. The United States government, for example, is bound to carry out the directives of the U.S. Constitution, to follow the laws passed by Congress, and so on. To do so, however, it has to interpret those documents so as to know what their intent was, determine how to apply them to new circumstances, and so forth. And that is what one branch of the U.S. government -- the courts, and ultimately the Supreme Court -- is charged with doing.
Needless to say, it doesn’t always do it well. But of course, there are also false prophets. Now, God can of course ensure that a prophet is not a false prophet. The existence of false prophets doesn’t entail that all alleged prophets are false, any more than the existence of counterfeit money entails that all money is counterfeit. By the same token, that some moral persons have been corrupted doesn’t entail that all moral persons must in fact become corrupt.
So, if individual human persons do not in fact function as ongoing channels of divine communication, there is still the option of a moral person serving as this channel. And if divinely guided, it can be preserved from teaching theological error. Of course, just as a prophet or apostle might have a bad day -- Moses lost his temper at times, Peter sometimes lost his nerve, and so forth -- so too might such a moral person make mistakes of a sort. But as with a prophet or apostle, it will suffice if this moral person really is infallible when it claims to be teaching infallibly, even if it is not infallible when it doesn’t claim to be teaching infallibly in the first place.
This sort of divinely guided moral person is, of course, precisely what the Catholic Church claims to be. And like a state or a corporation, it has issued documents of various levels of authority. A constitution and the Supreme Court decisions that interpret it have the highest level of authority in a state like the United States. Scripture, council decrees, and ex cathedra papal pronouncements are analogous to that. Certain other papal documents are more like presidential executive orders. And so forth. These various documents are to be interpreted “according to the mind of the Church,” as Catholics say -- that is, according to the intentions and will of the moral person which authorizes them.
Now, a state will sometimes incorporate elements of the law of a preexisting state. Think, for example, of the way that Louisiana law preserves elements of the Napoleonic code, or the way that entrance into the union did not wipe out the preexisting laws of Alaska, Hawaii, etc. Similarly, the Church took over for itself and judged to be authoritative and infallible the scriptural texts of ancient Israel. To those, it added the New Testament, which might be thought of as a written record of the teaching of certain members -- namely, the founding members -- of the moral person that is the Church. That moral person also ultimately decided which books had what level of authority -- that such-and-such books would count as having the highest level of authority (i.e. scriptural authority), that certain other books (the writings of the Church Fathers) would have some lesser but still very high level of authority, and so forth. In these various ways, what counts as scripture or as a document of some other kind of authority is the expression of the mind of the Church, of the decrees of a certain moral person -- just as the bylaws of a certain corporation, the memos issued to its staff, the warranties or instruction manuals it issues to its customers, etc. are the expression of the mind of that corporation.
Of course, all of this raises many questions, but the point, here as in my earlier posts, is not to provide a complete exposition and defense of the Catholic position. The point is rather to explain the origin of one of the many serious problems with sola scriptura -- in this case, the fact that it has no principled, non-ad hoc way to account for the shape of the canon of scripture that it recognizes. Use of a blanket term like “scripture” or “the Bible” can obscure the fact that it is really a large collection of books that we are talking about, not merely one book. And why is it made up of these exact books rather than some smaller collection, or larger one, or a collection with altogether different contents? Fulford and other critics of my posts on sola scriptura have avoided addressing this problem head on, preferring to discuss instead the issue of why we might judge some particular scriptural book divinely inspired, which isn’t really relevant. And that is not surprising, because there’s no way they can address it.
The reason is that the canon of scripture is the product of the moral person that is the Church. Imagine taking a collection of documents -- bylaws, research reports, interoffice memos, etc. -- that were written by many different individuals but which arose within the IBM corporation over the course of many decades. Imagine this included research reports, product designs, and other materials that IBM had taken over from some previous, now defunct corporation whose assets IBM had acquired -- documents IBM found valuable and relevant to its own aims and thus decided to preserve. Imagine that IBM had many of these documents assembled into a collection, and gave that collection a label like “the Book.” Imagine that its aim in doing so was to make it clear to employees what the history of the company was, what the company took to be definitive of its mission, what policies employees were expected to follow, etc. Now imagine that someone came across “the Book” and asked why exactly these documents are in it -- why the non-IBM documents were included, why certain IBM-related documents were not included, and why it is a collection of IBM-related documents at all -- and also asked why it had any special authority over IBM employees. And imagine trying to answer these questions but without alluding to the IBM corporation itself or its purposes in assembling the collection in just the way it did.
Needless to say, it couldn’t be done. There would be no coherent way to make sense of the collection -- either of its precise contents, or of the special authority of the collection qua that precise collection -- apart from the communicative intentions of the moral person that is the IBM Corporation. Someone who stomped his feet and insisted that “the Book alone” was authoritative would be in thrall to a very strange delusion indeed. For “the Book” as such, as a kind of canon with its specific contents, would have no authority at all unless the IBM Corporation had given it that authority.
That is the position the sola scriptura advocate is in. He has abstracted the canon of scripture out of the context in which it arose and in which alone it makes sense -- namely, its status as the product of the moral person that is the Church. And his position is in that way also analogous to that of the empiricist who abstracts the notion of sense data -- color patches, sounds of a certain pitch, etc. -- out of the ordinary perceptual experiences of which they are mere components. Now, as noted in an earlier post, the empiricist notoriously finds it impossible once again to reconstruct an ordinary experience out of these elements. The empiricist notion of “experience” ends up being an incoherent mess. And the sola scriptura advocate has a similar problem. Having abstracted the scriptural texts out of the context in which their unity as a canon is intelligible, he finds it impossible to explain why the canon comes together in just the specific way it does.
Fulford’s further failures
Some further remarks from Fulford offer another example of this particular parallel with empiricism. In response to my point that the Catholic claim is not merely that we need to add further texts to those the sola scriptura advocate would recognize, but that we need to move beyond texts to the persons behind them, Fulford writes:
Though there is some metaphysical distinction between texts and persons, I don’t think they will ultimately help the critic of sola scriptura out of the dilemma I posed. This is because, while we can ask living persons to tell us what texts mean, the only way they can help is by communicating further words to us…
Now, it is true that in theory, a living author has the potential to provide more clarity by means of rapidly answered questions than a bare text. However, the potential difference in clarity is only a matter of degree.
To see what is wrong with this, recall an aspect of the empiricist account of perception noted above. Correctly noting that we perceive physical objects through sense impressions, the empiricist mistakenly concludes that what we really perceive directly just are the sense impressions themselves -- that it is, for example, not really the green cup you perceive directly, but rather a green color patch in the center of your visual field. Notoriously, this opens up a skeptical “veil of perceptions” problem. It seems that on a consistent empiricist view, we can never get beyond sense impressions to the physical objects that cause them. We’re stuck with the sense impressions themselves.
Now Fulford seems committed to a strange theory of communication according to which it is only ever texts that we really encounter. Even when it seems that we are communicating with persons rather than texts, we are really just encountering further texts -- the strings of words that come out of their mouths, say. We never really get to the thoughts of the person himself, any more than, for the empiricist, we get to physical objects themselves but only to mere sense impressions of them. We are stuck behind a “veil of texts,” just as for the empiricist we are stuck behind a veil of perceptions. And the implications are similarly radically skeptical, even if Fulford no doubt doesn’t realize it. For if we never really get to the thoughts of the persons behind the texts but only to further texts, then we can never really know what the texts mean, since their meaning is derivative from the thoughts and intentions of persons.
Fulford’s error is similar to that of the empiricist. Because we communicate with persons by means of texts, he concludes that all we ever really get to are texts rather than to the thoughts of persons -- just as the empiricist supposes that because we perceive objects by means of sense impressions, it is really only ever sense impressions that we perceive. Just as the empiricist is so fixated upon one aspect of experience -- sense data or the like -- that he ends up completely distorting the nature of experience, so too are sola scriptura advocates so fixated upon one aspect of communication -- namely, texts -- that they can end up completely distorting the nature of communication. They’ve got texts on the brain. They’re text obsessed. They’re text maniacs. Well, texts are fine in their place, but ultimately they are merely vehicles through which we communicate with persons. Hence any sound theory of communication -- including divine revelation via human instruments -- must put persons rather than texts at the center.
Finally, a bonus error from Fulford. At the end of his post he makes some remarks in criticism of the Catholic position. This is irrelevant, since, as I keep saying, I have not been putting forward a systematic defense of the Catholic position in the first place, but rather criticizing sola scriptura. And those criticisms retain their force whether or not one thinks Catholicism has a better alternative. So, all the anti-Catholic stuff some readers of my recent posts have been flinging is a red herring. Anyway, noting that there was within the Judaism of Christ’s day a belief that certain texts were divinely inspired, Fulford says:
What this point of history about Second Temple Judaism implies is that it is possible to know what books are holy scripture even without a visible institution given the promise of divine guidance and infallibility. This alone suffices to show that the first Jesuit charge of incoherence must actually be mistaken.
To me the fallacy here is obvious, but since it apparently is not obvious to Fulford or some of his readers, let me explain it by reference to the counterfeit money example from an earlier post of mine. Suppose someone reasoned as follows: “I know of some of the money in this bag that it is not counterfeit. Therefore, I know of all of the money in the bag that it is not counterfeit, and I know that there is no real money in some other bag.” The fallacy in this argument, I trust, is clear. Even if you know of some of the money in some particular bag that it is not counterfeit, it obviously does not follow that there is not also some counterfeit money in that bag, or that there is no real money in other bags too.
Fulford is committing a similar fallacy. For the “bag,” read “the canon of scripture as Fulford understands it.” Fulford notes, correctly, that of some of the texts in that canon, we can know that they are divinely inspired even apart from decisions made by the institutional Church. As evidence, he cites the fact that certain books were known to be scriptural in Christ’s day, before the Church existed. But it simply doesn’t follow from that that we could know, apart from the decrees of the institutional Church, the scope of the entire canon of scripture. In particular, it doesn’t follow that none of the books in the canon Fulford would recognize are bogus, and it doesn’t follow that there aren’t books that Fulford wouldn’t recognize as canonical (such as the deuterocanonicals) that are in fact part of the canon.
Now, what I was addressing, and what point (a) of the Jesuit critique cited by Feyerabend was addressing, is precisely this issue of the canon. No one is claiming that you couldn’t have a clue about whether any book is divinely inspired apart from the decrees of the institutional Church. The claim is rather that the precise shape of the canon cannot be accounted for apart from the decrees of the institutional Church. Hence, though Fulford thinks he has “show[n] that the first Jesuit charge of incoherence must actually be mistaken,” in fact he hasn’t even addressed the charge.