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Here is a thorough response by Perry Robinson to a blog post on Sola Scriptua by Matt Meador at Ancient Faith Radio. It really helps clear up some of the issues that people often confuse when discussion the matter.
Meador gives a summary of what he takes to be the reasoning of a convert. By submitting to the authority of the church, he has staked out a position he believes differs from Protestant individualism because he is not “deciding for himself” what is true, but is rather relying on the church. Here is why such thinking is wrong.
First, the convert isn’t shifting from a position of no authority to one of authority. The change is in the kind and degree of authority. More directly though, the shift isn’t one from “deciding for oneself” what is true to having some other party do so. And that is for the simple reason that questions of knowledge are different than questions of authority. The original gloss simply and uncritically accepts the somewhat popular Protestant conflation of knowledge (or accuracy) with authority. The two concepts though are distinct.
I do not have to have authority to know and the same is true for knowing which church, if any is the true church. This is because if I meet the conditions on knowledge, then I do so. And the conditions on knowledge, at least for contemporary epistemologies, generally do not imply or entail infallibility or even pen-ultimate authority. All that is entailed is that if I do know, then I am in a position to know. So it is true that everyone “decides for oneself” as to knowledge claims, but that doesn’t imply subjectivism or individualism because that isn’t an expression of authoruity. If it did, then practically every epistemology would entail individualism.
The role that the church plays entails making judgments as to the truth of certain propositions, but it is far more than that. The church is not only making a knowledge claim, but is also producing an infallible judgement (when it makes them). Just about anyone can do the former, but it takes more than the ability to know to make an infallible judgment. Infallibility is a thesis not only about knowledge but about the possibility of not knowing. It expresses the concept that not knowing is impossible. Consequently, infallibility has modal content that knowledge claims per se do not have.
An illustration here might be helpful. Suppose that there is some case that is going before the Supreme Court. And suppose that there is some professor of law at a given university. The latter comes to a judgment as to the meaning of the Constitution relative to the case and what the correct judgment is. Suppose further that the assessment of the professor is correct. Now as it turns out, a few months later, the Supreme Court issues its judgment. It is in substance identical to that of the law professor. The professor can be said then to have known, assuming all of the relevant conditions on knowledge were met (he didn’t come to the conclusion because of some covert manipulation of an evil demon or a brain aneurism) but his knowing was not authoritative. It did not have the force of law. Only the decision by the Supreme Court would and could be authoritative. One can be accurate without being authoritative. And this is all the convert needs to make his decision without entailing some kind of latent Protestantism.
So, what is going on is a two-step tango. When the convert knows that the Orthodox Church is the true church, they are not making or attempting to make an infallible judgment. They are simply making a judgment as to knowing some proposition is true or false. Submission to the church’s authority comes after. Because the church can and does make such judgments the individual isn’t free to “decide for oneself” what is or is not binding teaching. Because in claiming to know, the individual isn’t producing an infallible judgment, he isn’t doing what the church is doing in making such judgments. And this brings us to private judgment. So we agree with the Protestants that no human judgment can absolutely bind the conscience of the individual apart from its assent, we just disagree with them that the church amounts to that. And that is why Sola Scriptura entails a Protestant ecclesiology.
The Protestant notion of private judgment is not the idea that one makes knowledge claims. That would imply that every person who does or has done so is implicitly Protestant, which is frankly absurd. The thesis is narrower and hence distinctly Protestant. It is that the conscience of the individual alone is sufficient to absolutely bind or obligate the individual to assent to some proposed proposition proposed by some external human authority. No external non-divine authority can bind the conscience of the individual unless the individual assents to it first. This is why the visible church must be a non-divine and fallible entity, and the invisible church is grounded in the doctrine of secret election. And this is why Protestants classically affirm that the visible church has authority, it just doesn’t have ultimate authority to bind the conscience of the individual. The individual always has veto power over the church with respect to what he will be obligated to assent to. All that the visible church can do is kick him out of the visible church, not the church per se, if he dissents. Here is the cashing out of the “deciding for oneself.” It is not to be understood as a decision about knowing, but about what one is bound to believe. This is why “Sola” reduces to “Solo” because there is no ecclesial authority over the conscience of the individual. Add as many secondary authorities as you like, and it will still be true ex hypothesi that none of them can obligate the individual without the assent of the individual. The individual can always trump them. This is what constitutes Protestant private judgment and Protestant individualism.
From here it is easy to see that Barrett’s tu que objection falls flat, for it turns on precisely the confusion of accuracy and authority or normativity. That objection runs something like the following. The convert is deciding for himself in the same way between Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox claims. He is deciding which of them is true. Therefore the criticism that the Protestant position amounts to individualism or subjectivism is true of the Orthodox (or Catholic) convert as well. Hence the tu quo que. The convert though is making a knowledge claim regarding the truth of certain teachings. He isn’t attempting to produce an infallible or obligatory judgment. This is why there is no teeth to the “you too!” of the objection because the Orthodox do not adhere to or exercise the right of private judgment in making a knowledge claim.
Meador asserts that the convert cannot after submitting to the authority of the Church, later change his views and claim consistency. I think this is mistaken also. Certainly, this can and does happen. More directly, there would be nothing inconsistent in doing so. It would be a case where one thought at one time that they knew such and so proposition was true, but later they changed their mind. That would say nothing as to whether such and so body actually had the kind of authority they thought it did and this is because knowledge claims and their revision do not alter metaphysics of mind independent objects. All that would follow is that such a change would be wrong (or right) depending on the truth or falsity of the proposition (X is the true church.)
The objection of circularity turns on a similar kind of levels confusion. That objection runs something like the following. If we answer the question, what is the Apostolic faith by citing the authority of the church, we can only answer the further subsequent question, how we know what is the church, by saying that it is the body that teaches the apostolic faith. Such reasoning is circular. I think this is mistaken. Here is why.
There are two levels present here, similar to the previous discussion. The objection turns on an equivocation between the apostolic faith in terms of what is taught as an object of knowledge and that it is taught authoritatively. We can make the distinction clearer by posing two questions. Is it possible to identify and know what the apostolic ministry taught from the apostles forward? And, is it possible to authoritatively teach what the apostolic ministry taught from the apostles forward? I can know what the apostolic faith is from the historical record. Once this is known and subsequently which body is the church, then I become aware of the obligatory nature of the church’s teaching because I now know that such and so body has that authority. It is akin to thinking about the resurrection of Christ. I do not use the Gospels to prove the Gospels in a circular fashion. Rather, I move from using the Gospels as historical records to the resurrection. Once that step is achieved, I move to another level, that of normativity or authority since now knowing that the resurrection is true based on the Gospels as historically reliable documents, I can take Jesus and the Apostles’ teaching about them as true and hence normative. The same is true here. Once I know that such and so is the church, I can move to being under that authority.
So if someone asks what is the apostolic faith and I tell them such and so taught authoritatively by the church. If they then ask, how do I know such and so is the church, I can then rattle off data and arguments from the historical record. If someone wants to know how I know historical facts, we can then have a wider epistemological discussion. But what I do not do is make a circular appeal back to the church as the one who authoritatively teaches the apostolic faith. Consequently there is no circularity involved.
Meador makes some remarks about certainty and knowing. He speaks of “logically testable rational data.” And that those who ask how we know which church is the one true church ground such a question in rationalism and empiricism. Epistemology we are told is the study of what and how we can know. He then asserts that knowledge does not depend on “logically testable rational data” and faith does not require such data. Rather knowledge is personal and between persons.
There is a mess here to unpack and correct so lets start with certainty. First, epistemology is not the study of what and how we can know. Rather it is the study of what knowledge is. When you study epistemology, you don’t study about stars, organisms and such. You examine what the word knowledge means. Next, certainty is a psychological disposition. It is neither necessary nor sufficient for knowing. Many centuries ago, the majority of people were “certain” Geocentrism was true. They thought they knew it was true. They didn’t for the simple reason that it was false, even though they did not know it. And you can’t know what is false. Their certitude was not sufficient for them to know. Second, people have known things, such as Heliocentricism and lacked certitude, showing that certitude is not necessary for knowledge. There are lots of things I know that I am not certain about. This is why contemporary epistemology generally ignores questions of certainty. It is irrelevant.
Now, I do not know what “logically testable rational data” means. I sounds like some version of the Verification Principle, namely that to be meaningful and subsequently knowable a proposition has to at least be capable of being confirmed by empirical means. Virtually no one in philosophy today and for some time holds to the Verification Principle. Nearly the entire last century was spent trying to make it work and it failed miserably, not the least because the principle is not capable of empirical verification.
More to the point, I think Meador is talking about scientific knowledge, but lots of areas of knowledge are outside of the empirical sciences. For example, historical knowledge does not imply or entail empirical verification because the past is directly inaccessible to us and there is no test we could perform even if we could directly access it. Second, lots of sciences are not constituted by empirically repeatable testing. It is not as if you can test the Big Bang in astronomy or the laying of strata in the past in Geology by repeating those events. These events are not repeatable and are not subject to direct observation either, not in praxis or principle. Pride of place goes to philosophy because philosophical knowledge does not necessarily entail or imply empirical observation either. I didn’t learn the laws of logic by going around and checking to see if every object was identical to itself.
As to rationalism and empiricism more directly, these are distinct theses. And the theses that they are not is the idea that one uses reason or your senses to know things. Lots of epistemologies prior to the 17th century affirmed that you know things by using your eyeballs and your brain. That didn’t make them rationalists and it didn’t make them empiricists. Consequently, just because someone uses their sense or their brain to know things, even about the church does not make them a rationalist or an empiricist.
Rationalism and empiricism are theses about the sources and origins of our knowledge and as such are generally speaking distinct theses of modernity. They preclude an appeal to antiquity or to divine disclosure as a source of our knowledge. That is why people in Saudi Arabia have cell phones, but they are not modern. Knowledge must come ultimately from reason or experience alone. This is not to say that rationalists or empiricists deny all knowledge from experience or reason, but rather they deny that ultimately there is any other source for it. Consequently, when Thomas believes because he sees and touches Christ, he isn’t being a closet follower of David Hume or John Locke. Much the same goes for the Apostle Paul’s theological reasoning in his epistles and not being a follower of Descartes.
I must confess that I am quite baffled that faith does not rest on empirical data. If that is so, why all the miracles? Why bother showing the resurrection to 500 witnesses? Why have Thomas reach into the side? And it seems entirely wrong headed to say that all knowledge is between persons. Some knowledge is not, such as what I am thinking of at any given moment. Here I think he is confusing a kind of existential knowledge by acquaintance with propositional knowledge. While the former may be superior in ways, it certainly doesn’t preclude propositional knowledge.
Meador glosses the question of authority in terms of our wanting an authoritative answer to which church is the true church. As should be clear by now, this is confused. He states that human mechanisms of authority can only be based on reason or power. From this though it does not follow that all grounding in reason and/or power are per se human. Last I checked God is pretty big on using reason and power. And both of these are displayed in the historical record. He mistakenly states that all appeals to authority are circular. I see no reason to think this is true. Certainly God’s appeal to authority is not circular. If anything, it is transcendental. Appeals to authority can be fallacious when one moves from the fact that some figure is an expert, to the conclusion that therefore some proposition is true (or false). It simply doesn’t follow that because an expert says something, that it is therefore true. Being an expert only puts one in a position to know, it isn’t sufficient to know. That is why the proof of an expert knowing is the arguments they give, because that is what arguments are, proofs or demonstrations.
Sola Scriptura entails that the church is strictly a human entity. That is, it entails a denial of deification. At best on SS the church can only be an instrument, a tool of divine will. And this is so because human nature is per se sealed off from deity which is why grace is extrinsic and legal on a classical Protestant schema and why glorification is simply a restoration to human nature per se. Such would make Pelagius quite content. This is why the issue is whether divine powers or properties can be had by humans and particularly in an intrinsic way. Infallibility is a divine power and so the question is, can and does the church have it or not? That is, can human nature be a partaker of the divine nature? This is why the issue of ecclesial infallibility is ultimately a Christological issue.