Archive for the ‘Authority’ Category

Church Authority, Argument 5: Private Judgment and Authority

September 24, 2009

In two recent posts on separate blogs, Catz and David Nilsen both responded to my arguments concerning private judgment and church authority.  They articulated similar positions, trying to present an alternative to either (a) the idea that believers are entitled to an unqualified private judgment, or (b) the idea that the Church has inherent authority.  In this post, I will argue that their responses are unsatisfactory because they (1) ultimately affirm that private judgment is the final word in doctrine, (2) fail to correctly distinguish “inherent” from “underived”, and (3) falsely charge Catholic Christians with the use of private judgment.

(A note of encouragement to the reader: this post is fairly short–by my standards, at least–but has long footnotes.  Do not be alarmed by the size of the scroll bar, because roughly half the space in this post is occupied by footnotes.) (more…)

Church Authority: Argument 3

December 30, 2008

Accuracy, Authority, and the Visibility of the Church

In this post, I will argue that (1) There are some reasons to think the Church’s leaders have intrinsic authority, (2) Saying our parents have intrinisic authority is compatible with questioning our parents once we incorporate the concept of “insanity” into our model of authority, (3) Authority and accuracy are two distinct things, and this is implicitly accepted by Protestants, (4) Jesus thought the Scribes and Pharisees had intrinsic authority, (5) The Church continues the visible leadership structure and intrinsic authority that the Scribes and Pharisees had.

This post is a response to a comment in a very long discussion that can be found here on the blog By Whose Authority? about private judgment in the interpretation of the Bible. David Nilsen has been arguing that the gift of the illumination of the Holy Spirit helps individuals to interpret the Bible, and that the Spirit’s infallibility can speak directly to the soul of a Christian, binding his or her conscience to believe an interpretation of the Bible. Much of the discussion has already happened on his blog, and may be good background for this post.

(1) There are some reasons to think the Church’s leaders have intrinsic authority. (more…)

Church Authority: Groundwork 1

October 7, 2008

The Issue of the Visible Church and Apostolic Succession


The early Christians after the New Testament era believed that the Church was a visible hierarchical society instituted by Jesus Christ that persists through succession of apostolic authority. They also claimed to have received this teaching from Jesus Christ and the apostles. Orthodox, Roman, and Anglican (each of which claims to be Catholic—and I will call them such for the sake of argument) concur—the Church is indeed the visible hierarchical society instituted by Jesus Christ that endures through time by succession from the apostles. They each hold to the authority of tradition in some way and to some degree; so the fact that the apostolic fathers and their immediate descendants all agree about the definition of Church has a lot of weight in terms of what we must believe. Of course the good Catholic apologist will also hold that there are good reasons based on the teaching of the New Testament to believe this. And for some, those biblical arguments would be sufficient all by themselves.

In this post, I will not argue that the Catholic view is true. I will just explain what it is, what it implies, how it relates to the Protestant view, and what the structure of an argument for the Catholic view might look like.


Cirlot on Grace in and Outside the Church

September 24, 2008

The Anglican bishop Cirlot wrote a book on whether or not apostolic succesion is true (incidentally, its title is Apostolic Succession: Is It True?  Practical name for his book, eh?).  One of the objections he had to deal with to the Catholic position was that there seems to be a lot of Christians outside of of the visible Church.  The Catholic view (not Roman–just universally held by Christians across the centuries; this is the view shared by Anglicans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics) is that the Church is an organization with visible criteria of membership, instituted directly by Christ with a heirarchical structure that has sacramental grace.  The Church is a polis, a city or nation of sorts–not an earthly one, surely, but a true polis none the less.

Cirlot mentions the arguments of the archbishop of Cantebury William Temple for the conclusion that Protestants are fully the Church in just as unqualified a way as the Catholics (which here designates Anglicans, Orthodox, and Romans).  The main argument is from the superabundance of grace that we see outside the Church.  The moral and spiritual character of Protestants is not excellent across the board; there are some bad apples.  But there are so many good Protestants that it makes the Catholic view of the Church improbable.  How could a Catholic possibly deny that a good Protestant is in the Church? 


Church Authority: Argument 1

August 8, 2008

From Reliability to Infallibility

Most Protestants don’t want to say awful things about the Church.  They don’t want to say that the Church became apostate for over a thousand years.  They don’t want to say that the Church is just a mere human institution.  There is something special about it.  The beliefs of its members aren’t just normally-arrived-at human beliefs.  There is divine guidance of some kind.

But in order to not cross the line over to a Catholic ecclesiology, [1] a Protestant must deny the infallibility of the Church.  An essential doctrine of Protestantism is Sola Scriptura.  This view can be defined as the position about authority and Christian teaching that holds that there are no divine authorities about Christian teaching distinct from the content of the Old and New Testaments.  This rules out (a) oral or written tradition distinct from the Scriptures as a source of infallible divine authority and (b) decisions by the Church as a source of infallible divine authority.

How does a Protestant deny the infallibility of the Church but still hold onto the idea that being in the Church tends to make you have the correct beliefs about the content of Christian teaching? (more…)

Church Authority: Reply 1

August 1, 2008

When engaging with a sophisticated and elaborate ancient worldview that has been held by thousands of brilliant minds and many a pure heart, it is important to give that tradition the benefit of the doubt. Giving someone or something the benefit of the doubt does not imply assuming it can answer all of the objections that can be leveled against it and make an airtight case for its plausibility. But it does imply assuming that the tradition one is critiquing has answers to what seem like obvious problems with its core teachings.

(Special thanks to a phantom menace for providing many of the resources and ideas for this post.)


Should We Change Belief-Systems? Part 1

July 25, 2008

When is it correct to change one’s religious, philosophical, or political affiliations?  Is it always wrong to do so?  Should we alter our belief-system often so that we get a chance to try out everything?  Or should we take up a different worldview to rationalize a lifestyle that we find appealing?

This question can only be answered with a goal in mind.  Do we want safe lives that don’t require us to think hard?  Do we want to stay where we are at for comfort?  Or perhaps do we want to just feel like what we are doing is right–even if it isn’t? (more…)

An Argument Against Intellectual Cynicism

March 30, 2008

Recently I have met various people and read about various characters (particularly villains in The Brothers Karamazov) who are cynics. I think most people are cynics to some degree and in some way, and some kinds of cynicism in small doses can be alright. Its radical, widespread, or categorical cynicism that I think is damaging to human well-being. Consequently, I am inclined to wonder if there are any good arguments against certain of the more damaging kinds of cynicism. Below, I will give an argument against what I call “mild intellectual cynicism” and “extreme intellectual cynicism”. If successful these arguments will show that mild and extreme intellectual cynics should probably give up their brand of cynicism. (more…)

The Fathers and Theistic Arguments (II); Athanasius

December 13, 2007

My first example is Athanasius, from On the Incarnation:

(2) In regard to the making of the universe and the creation of all things there have been various opinions, and each person has propounded the theory that suited his own taste. For instance, some say that all things are self- originated and, so to speak, haphazard. The Epicureans are among these; they deny that there is any Mind behind the universe at all. This view is contrary to all the facts of experience, their own existence included. For if all things had come into being in this automatic fashion, instead of being the outcome of Mind, though they existed, they would all be uniform and without distinction. In the universe everything would be sun or moon or whatever it was, and in the human body the whole would be hand or eye or foot. But in point of fact the sun and the moon and the earth are all different things, and even within the human body there are different members, such as foot and hand and head. This distinctness of things argues not a spontaneous generation but a prevenient Cause; and from that Cause we can apprehend God, the Designer and Maker of all.
Others take the view expressed by Plato, that giant among the Greeks. He said that God had made all things out of pre-existent and uncreated matter, just as the carpenter makes things only out of wood that already exists. But those who hold this view do not realize that to deny that God is Himself the Cause of matter is to impute limitation to Him, just as it is undoubtedly a limitation on the part of the carpenter that he can make nothing unless he has the wood. How could God be called Maker and Artificer if His ability to make depended on some other cause, namely on matter itself? If He only worked up existing matter and did not Himself bring matter into being, He would be not the Creator but only a craftsman.
Then, again, there is the theory of the Gnostics, who have invented for themselves an Artificer of all things other than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. These simply shut their eyes to the obvious meaning of Scripture. For instance, the Lord, having reminded the Jews of the statement in Genesis, “He Who created them in the beginning made them male and female. . . ,” and having shown that for that reason a man should leave his parents and cleave to his wife, goes on to say with reference to the Creator, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” How can they get a creation independent of the Father out of that? And, again, St. John, speaking all inclusively, says, “All things became by Him and without Him came nothing into being. How then could the Artificer be someone different, other than the Father of Christ?

(3)Such are the notions which men put forward. But the impiety of their foolish talk is plainly declared by the divine teaching of the Christian faith. From it we know that, because there is Mind behind the universe, it did not originate itself; because God is infinite, not finite, it was not made from pre-existent matter, but out of nothing and out of non-existence absolute and utter God brought it into being through the Word. He says as much in Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth;[4] and again through that most helpful book The Shepherd, “Believe thou first and foremost that there is One God Who created and arranged all things and brought them out of non-existence into being.” Paul also indicates the same thing when he says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that the things which we see now did not come into being out of things which had previously appeared.” For God is good—or rather, of all goodness He is Fountainhead, and it is impossible for one who is good to be mean or grudging about anything. Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men.

Notice the following about Saint Athanasius:

(1) Theistic arguments do not provide the foundation of theological belief-structures in Athanasius. He speaks as though Christian theology has authority separately from the considerations of his arguments. Notice how he takes divine Revelation as giving an adequate answer to opponents: “Such are the notions which men put forward. But the impiety of their foolish talk is plainly declared by the divine teaching of the Christian faith. From it we know that, because there is Mind behind the universe, it did not originate itself; because God is infinite, not finite, it was not made from pre-existent matter, but out of nothing and out of non-existence absolute and utter God brought it into being through the Word.” He knows that God is infinite, not finite because of divine revelation–a claim that would make little sense if he thought his trust in the contents of Christian revelation required theistic arguments first.

(2) Theistic arguments are primarily rhetorical/persuastive/polemical for Athanasius.
He appeals to the common standard of human *experience* (not some kind of supreme, neutral “reason”) to argue that the Epicurean view is unbelievable. He appeals to intuitions about divine perfection to argue against Platonism’s view that matter coexisted with God. This use of a shared standard of authority to show inconsistencies within opponents’ view and bring them in the direction of Christian faith is rhetorically powerful. In the first case, Athanasius argues that experience supports one specific view; in the second case, he argues that the view in question is inconsistent.

(3) The conclusions Athanasius draws are modest. Athanasius argues from experience and intuition to some of what the fathers would call “names of God”. He shows that God has names such as Creator, Orderer, etc. But this is very different from reasoning to truths about the divine essence. For creating and ordering are divine activities. God’s names of Creator and Orderer are designations of His personal acts. Athansius leads his opponents to approach the persons who are God via their personal activities.

The Fathers and Theistic Arguments (I): Preliminary Considerations

December 10, 2007

Many Orthodox theologians dissociate themselves from using or endorsing arguments for God’s existence. It is sometimes claimed that the early Church Fathers–the early Christian theologians of the first few centuries–rejected human reason and logic and were mystics who did not care about philosophical questions. While it is true that reasoning from the reality of creation to a Creator does not factor into the theology of the Early Church Fathers in the way it does perhaps in subsequent Western theology, it has always seemed to me to be an exaggeration to deny that “natural theology” has any part to play in their thought.

The purpose of this series will be to examine the place of arguments for God’s existence and what I will call “common theistic claims” (beliefs theists generally hold about the soul, nature, etc.) in the thought of the Eastern Fathers. When I say “natural theology” I don’t mean the idea that natural reason can approach the divine essence; I just mean that human reason and experience can lead us to some knowledge of the existence of God (his activities as Creator, Designer, Lawgiver, etc.). Because of the extremely negative connotation “natural theology” has in contemporary theology, I will instead use the phrase “theistic arguments” or “arguments for God’s existence”. And notice that I do not say *unaided* human reason; because grace never abandoned nature, all intellectual movement toward God is God-given. My preliminary thesis is that the use of arguments for God’s existence and common theistic claims in the Eastern Fathers can be characterized in the following ways:

(1) Theistic arguments do not provide the foundation of theological belief-structures in the Fathers. By “foundation” I mean “beliefs that constitute the basic claims of Christianity which serve as the starting point for theology”. A foundational belief for Christian theology is “Jesus Christ is God”; this claim is part of the initial deliverances of Christian revelation. My claim is that “natural theology” does not serve as a starting point for what gives Christian faith its authority. It comes to conclusions that fit with the “foundation”; but the process is not itself the foundation. The ultimate authority of Christian claims comes from God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and the authority is known (or reasonably believed) ultimately through experience of God.

(2) Theistic arguments are primarily rhetorical/persuastive/polemical. By rhetorical/persuasive/polemical I mean that they serve a purpose of moving those outside of the Christian faith toward the faith by showing the intellectual inadequacy of naturalism, dualism, Platonism, pantheism, etc. By rhetorical I do not, however, mean “lacking in intellectual integrity”, “merely intellectual and linguistic games”, or “lacking in substance”. Theistic arguments tell us real things about the world and can be used to persuade non-Christians or help the faith of catechumens and students.

(3) The conclusions are modest. The Fathers do not attempt to idolize philosophical rationality by claiming that arguments for God’s existence give deep insights into the nature of God. They don’t bring us all the way to the Christian God. They do not infer a whole lot about God but give us some basic propositions that fit with some of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity.