Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Dissecting a Deficient Dichotomy

On a recently posted piece discussing the perspicuity of scripture, Mr David Armstrong writes, among other things:

This is the whole point from the Catholic perspective. Error is necessarily present wherever disagreements exist - clearly not a desirable situation, as all falsehood is harmful (for example, John 8:44, 16:13, 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12, 1 John 4:6). Perspicuity (much like Protestantism as a whole) might theoretically be a good thing in principle, and on paper, but in practice it is unworkable and untenable.

Yet Protestant freedom of conscience is valued more than unity and the certainty of doctrinal truth in all matters (not just the core issues alone). The inquirer with newfound zeal for Christ is in trouble if he expects to easily attain any comprehensive certainty within Protestantism. All he can do is take a "head count" of scholars and pastors and evangelists and Bible Dictionaries and see who lines up where on the various sides of the numerous disagreements.

Or else he can just uncritically accept the word of whatever denomination he is associated with. In effect, then, he is no better off than a beginning philosophy student who prefers Kierkegaard to Kant - the whole procedure (however well-intentioned) is arbitrary and destined to produce further confusion.

There is nothing novel in this argument, nor is there anything in this argument particular to its author; it is selected because it is the easiest to reference for the time being. I myself have heard and read variations of this theme over the years as a student of Rome.

The situation described is this: the student of scripture comes to a difficult passage that possibly has multiple interpretations. Boiling the above down to the essentials, the idea is that this new student in confronting the question

(i) Takes a "head count" and sees what position has what support among the people supposedly in the know.


(ii) Hopes that his denomination, group, etc has gotten things right on this passage or matter.

The idea implied is that neither (i) nor (ii) are acceptable. And, in reality, they are not acceptable. The conclusion that is to be smuggled in is that we need some sort of allegedly infallible arbiter, and internet Romanists happen --- not coincidentally --- to have an allegedly infallible arbiter to which they can refer you, namely, the Roman Magisterium. The Roman Magisterium solves the problem.

There are two things here to discuss:

(1) Is the dichotomy a valid one? [We shall answer in the negative with the strongest conviction.]


(2) If the dichotomy were in fact valid, would this do any of the heavy lifting required to demonstrate the Romish claim that we need the Roman brand of infallible arbitration?

Let's discuss (1) first. The dichotomy is, so we contend, blatantly false, because there is at least one other option, namely, to study things and weigh the evidences for and against the position. This is not the same thing as counting heads [option (i) of the false dilemma] nor hoping with one's eyes closed that one's group just happens to be correct [option (ii)] of the false dilemma.

One can learn the Biblical languages, peruse commentaries, journal articles, etc, going to the sources themselves. One can contact the scholars, discuss things with them. One can spend time in careful and prayerful study of the issues.

As an example, I remember being rattled by the Watchtower claims regarding the deity of Christ. Their Bible [the New World Translation] had every Christological pasage referring to Christ as [ho] theos altered. But they told me and gave me literature that said that they, the Watchtower were correct, unlike those heretical faux-Christians who claim that the Son of God partakes fully in the divine essence. Now I could've counted heads as to who took the Trinitarian position [option (i) of the false dilemma], but I didn't; I could've hoped that the Lutheran Church was correct in affirming Christ's deity [option (ii) of the false dilemma], but I didn't. Instead, I undertook a rigorous program of self-study of Greek as well as anything related to the New Testament. Also --- and this is important! --- I prayed over the matter for an open mind and a willingness to be led where the evidence pointed. After attaining a solid proficiency in Koine Greek, and after acclimating myself to the scholarly works and commentaries out there, I came to the conclusion that the Trinitarian position is indeed correct, and, moreso, so correct that one cannot see it as such [upon seeing all of the relevant data] without having a serious "blinkered mentality" regarding such things. [And, to be sure, the JW's and the Mormons have this blinkered mentality.]

A second example, will suffice. I used to be rattled by Roman claims regarding justification, but, again, neither counting heads nor merely hoping that I happened to [luckily] be correct, I studied the issue carefully, carefully exegeting those passages of scripture that deal with the issue at hand. And, after a period of prayerful study, I came solidly to my present position on justification, which is echoed by the Westminster Confession of Faith. And, given that I find the Roman position to be more sensible from the perspective of what I'd a priori expect to be true, nobody can legitimately accuse me of favoring a certain outcome.

It might be replied that not everybody does this, and that many people do (i) and (ii). This is true, but it has no bearing on the fact that this third option [study and weigh the testimony] is available. If people want to be lazy or if people want to hope, then that is their doctrinal crapshoot, not mine.

In fact, that this false dilemma suggests itself to the Roman internet apologist is a rather sad statement as to his or her depth of thinking on the issue, as there is nothing particularly challenging here about this dilemma. Perhaps the Roman internet apologist, not having studied things himself or herself, relying on Old Mother Church to do his thinking for him, has atrophied to the point where every difficulty causes one to run to Mother and hide behind her Roman apronstring while waiting for her to wipe away his tears and give him a consolation cookie.

Let's now turn to (2), which means assuming [contrary to reality, we contend] that the dilemma is a valid one. That is, we assume now that when one is confronted with a scriptural difficulty, one can only count heads or hope. Does this get the Romanist anywhere?

It is difficult to see how this helps the Romanist. All the dilemma, were it true, would show is that if there is to be help, then it would come outside of mere hope or a scholarly consensus. The dilemma by itself doesn't point to Rome, and, if one wants to argue that it points to Rome, it may as well point to any other organization or magisterium that makes parallel claims to Rome: the LDS hierarchy, the Watchtower, the Great Guru who heads your local kookball cult, etc.

The Romanist [or the Mormon or the JW, for that matter] needs to mount a separate argument as to just exactly why his solution is in reality a solution. And, to be sure, merely showing that the potential solution has spoken clearly on a vexing issue doesn't go anywhere either, for this still doesn't go anywhere towards showing that the proposed arbiter's solution is in fact correct. That requires a separate argument.

Now in Rome's case, this separate argument is what is lacking. Why should I accept a self-selecting definition of Tradition? Why give portion Y of Church Father X's writings on Z to same credence as we would [say] Paul on justification? Where is the argument? What sort of verification of Father X's writings exist as were present with the apostolic writings? Were there miracles? What sort of evidence exists that X was directly commissioned by our Lord? In short, what sort of evidence is there to regard X's writing of Y on Z to be held in the same light as, say, a Pauline epistle?
When these questions can be answered in an evidential fashion as compared to a fashion that assumes the truth of the Romanist position to begin with, then the Romish position will at last begin to make some headway.


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