Saturday, August 27, 2005

Gagging Scripture With Philosophical Speculations

Jonathan Prejean has posted another reply to me, which apparently is supposed to be his last response, according to another blog entry. As I said before, we'll see how long this resolution lasts. His previous one didn't last long.

Steve Hays has already responded to Prejean. See here, here, here, and here.

Prejean is less antagonistic in his latest response, and he refers to his desire to spend more time with his family. I wish him and his family the best, but the issues involved in these discussions are too significant to let everything go because he's less antagonistic now and makes mention of his wife and daughter. Prejean has spent more than a year arguing against Evangelicalism in public forums. He's been referring to Evangelical apologists as "stupid", "idiots", people anybody "with a brain" wouldn't find convincing, etc. He accuses Evangelicals of having heretical Christology, a false gospel, and invalid churches. I think these recent discussions he's been having with Steve Hays and me have done a lot to show how wrong Prejean is and the implausibility of Roman Catholicism.

In his latest reply, Prejean once again made many vague references to scholarship. I want to remind the readers that Prejean frequently makes these references to scholarship, even saying that his opponents should be citing scholars to support every claim they make on a particular subject, yet he doesn't abide by his own professed standards. I've repeatedly given examples of Prejean's failure to cite scholarship to support his claims and his arguing for positions that no scholar agrees with, and he does these things on issues where he demands scholarly citations from other people. Apparently, he doesn't believe in his own standards, and I don't think we have any reason to believe in them either. Anybody putting forward even a small amount of effort to hold Prejean to his own professed standards can't be satisfied with what they've seen in his writings.

As he often does, Prejean once again changes his standards in the middle of the discussion. After repeatedly making unqualified comments about how I shouldn't cite historical sources who agree with me unless I agree with all of the arguments leading to their conclusions, Prejean has added so many qualifying loopholes that his argument now looks something like Swiss cheese:

"I don't say that you need to understand everything that was in the author's head, but you at least need to know the argument he was making for the conclusion in the cited work before you use him as evidence for the absolutely must make your best efforts to understand what his [Ignatius'] reasons were before you can responsibly cite him....If I think that the citation of pseudo-Isidore wasn't all that important, I might cite him [Thomas Aquinas] and mention the disagreement, but if that's a major part of the argument, then he simply isn't a witness for my case....Same thing I said before: because their [Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria's] reasons don't undermine my argument and/or aren't sufficiently different to suggest that they're endorsing a different conclusion altogether....If they [historical sources] don't mention the arguments [leading to their conclusions], you have to figure them out; that's what scholarship is ordinarily about doing."

Given all of those qualifiers, as well as Prejean's repeated failure to explain his disagreements with every source he cites, he has no reason to continue objecting to my citations. If Prejean can add so many and such wide qualifications, so can I.

Regarding the common ground I have with Prejean, he wrote:

"We can both think that a conclusion is 'probable' for entirely different reasons, which is what you seem to be impervious to understanding."

No, I understand that people can reach the same conclusion for largely different reasons. But the fact that it's possible doesn't prove that it has occurred in the discussions in question here.

When I asked Jonathan about the probability of Jesus' resurrection, I cited the arguments of scholars such as William Craig and Gary Habermas. When I discussed the probability of my interpretation of Luke 24:25, I explained some reasons for why I reached the conclusions I reached. Jonathan and I live in the same country at the same time in history. We cite some of the same scholars (Schaff, McGuckin, Kelly, etc.), and we both consider mainstream standards of historical scholarship credible (multiple attestation is better than single attestation, the value of corroboration from hostile witnesses, etc.). Do Jonathan and I disagree on some issues involved in evaluating probabilities? Surely we do. But are our standards "entirely different"? No.

It's not as if I asked Jonathan whether he thinks the resurrection of Jesus, for example, is historically probable without knowing anything about Jonathan, his background, or the societal context in which our discussion was occurring. I asked Jonathan about these probability questions with a large amount of knowledge about who Jonathan is, what standards he accepts, how terms are commonly defined in the time and place in which we live, etc., and I told him what reasons I had for reaching my conclusions. If he thought his probability conclusions were so radically different from mine that no significant agreement was involved, then why didn't he stop the discussion there instead of letting it progress as it did?

Regarding apostolic succession, Jonathan writes:

"I'm not aware of any group, even heretical groups, that persisted in denying the authority of bishops after Nicaea and maintained historical continuity."

Notice that Jonathan changes the issue from his concept of apostolic succession to "the authority of bishops", and he once again adds the qualifier "after Nicaea", which he didn't include originally. As we'll see later in this article, Jonathan's arguments on issues such as this one depend on beginning with speculative philosophical beliefs that can't possibly be shown to be probable. Without those philosophical speculations, there's no way to justify something like Jonathan's concept of apostolic succession. The concept can't be historically traced back to the apostles as we would historically trace any other concept to a historical figure.

Regarding ecumenical councils, Jonathan wrote:

"If you want to make a case for the orthodoxy of Arianism, be my guest. My point is that there is a continuous body of Christians who operated according to a particular form that they believed to have been established by Christ with the power to dogmatize beliefs. In other words, there are institutions with discernible legal structure maintaining historical continuity. Does it prove anything in and of itself, apart from a theologial paradigm? No, of course not. But for those who have a theological paradigm in which such things are probative, it proves a great deal."

Obviously, I never suggested that I want to "make a case for the orthodoxy of Arianism". Jonathan hasn't explained and justified why he accepts some councils and rejects others, nor has he given us a justification for Roman Catholicism's rejection of some portions of the councils it otherwise considers ecumenical.

The first ecumenical council didn't occur until the fourth century. What would it prove about the beliefs of earlier generations regarding such councils? Not only did that first ecumenical council not permanently settle the dispute it was attempting to settle, but the Arian lapse that occurred after Nicaea was so bad that Jerome could write of it, "The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian." (The Dialogue Against the Luciferians, 19) Did large numbers of people eventually come to agree with councils now considered ecumenical? Yes. And some of those same people reject portions of those councils while accepting other portions.

Jonathan tries to turn this unconvincing historical data into a convincing argument for the authority of ecumenical councils by adding the philosophical presupposition that such historical data would be probative for his view of ecumenical councils. He gives us no reason to accept that philosophical presupposition, and we ought to ask ourselves what reason he could possibly have. Is there any need for God to operate through ecumenical councils in such a way? No. The best Jonathan could argue is that such an approach by God seems appropriate to him (Jonathan), but that sort of philosophical preference isn't equivalent to convincing evidence. If I think it seems appropriate for God to let Protestantism develop so as to further personal responsibility and the value of the individual, for example, such philosophical preferences would do nothing to prove that the development of Protestantism was approved by God. There isn't anything in Jonathan's philosophical speculation that's compelling.

And it's evident that the same can be said of large portions of the rest of Jonathan's system. He writes:

"I don't consider apostolic doctrine to be literally limited to what the Apostles themselves taught....My point has always been that what Christians believed was the process for developing binding doctrine ought to be the guide for what is apostolic, what Christianity is. Jason thinks that we ought to be looking for what the Apostles literally taught....I take later evidence as more probative than Jason does. It's not a question of 'no other method' existing; the disagreement is exactly on the method....Again, if one has a theological paradigm that looks for an established structure for announcing dogma rather than attempting to root in entirely in what was historically revealed at the time, and moreover a metaphysical reason for looking to the objective presence of God existing today in continuity with a previous communion, then this evidence is highly probative. The real question is whether one ought or ought not be looking for such a thing; that's when Protestantism and Catholicism are purely incompatible....I consider it highly probable that what later Christians accepted as dogma is what Christ intended to convey; you don't."

Jonathan never justified such philosophical speculations in his lengthy discussions with Steve Hays and me. But now he brings them up, without justifying them, just before saying that he's going to stop dialoguing with us.

Notice, also, the vagueness of many of Jonathan's comments. What does it mean for "later Christians" to "accept as dogma"? If Jonathan can claim that an ecumenical council ruling or a papal decree meets such a standard, why couldn't I argue that something else, such as popular opinion or a different type of council ruling, meets the standard? Why couldn't I define "Christians" differently than Jonathan does, so as to arrive at different conclusions? He may add further philosophical principles in an attempt to avoid all of these alternatives, but he can't plausibly claim that all of these philosophical speculations make for a probable case.

When Jonathan refers to post-apostolic Christians accepting something as dogma, he can't be referring to popular reception, because I doubt that a majority of professing Christians have had a view of the Trinity or the eucharist, for example, that Jonathan would consider orthodox. If the meaning of the apostolic revelation was defined by popular belief, then, as I told Jonathan earlier, something like the veneration of images would be part of the apostolic revelation during one generation, but not in another generation.

So, how does Jonathan define "accept as dogma"? In order to get his definition to align with Roman Catholicism, would he say that the doctrine has to be accepted as infallibly defined by a majority of professing Christians? If so, then what if Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and other professing Christian groups would outnumber Roman Catholics in the future? Would something like the Immaculate Conception be considered part of the apostolic revelation today, but no longer be considered part of that revelation in the future, if the percentage of professing Christians who reject it grows larger?

And what if the ante-Nicene church rejects the veneration of images, and thinks it's doing so in obedience to the second of the Ten Commandments? Surely they considered the Ten Commandments binding. Is Jonathan going to argue that something must be "accepted as dogma" in a particular way and not in another way? If so, he can't be getting that conclusion from what the historical Jesus and the historical apostles taught historically. Where is he getting it, then? He has to engage in more philosophical speculation.

Jonathan calls the conclusions drawn from his philosophical speculations "highly probable", yet he repeatedly tried to minimize the reliability of historical conclusions reached by the grammatical-historical method. So, Jonathan wants us to think it's "highly probable" that what post-apostolic Christians accept as dogma was intended by God. He gives no justification for that assertion, and God didn't give us such a system in the Old Testament era, yet Jonathan wants us to think it's "highly probable" that God intended such a system for the New Testament era. Yet, when we use the grammatical-historical method to reach historical conclusions based on testimony from the apostles themselves and their associates, for example, Jonathan repeatedly tries to cast doubt on the reliability of our conclusions. For Jonathan, his unconfirmable philosophical speculations lead to "highly probable" conclusions, but historical examination of the writings of the apostles themselves doesn't. Why should we think that such philosophical speculations carry more weight than the historical meaning of historical documents written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

Jonathan writes that "what Christians believed was the process for developing binding doctrine ought to be the guide for what is apostolic". But different Christians have held different views on that subject. Nobody in the earliest centuries defined "developing binding doctrine" the way Jonathan does. The fact that his Roman Catholic system became popular in some parts of the world in later church history doesn't prove that all Christians collectively have believed that the Roman Catholic system is "the process for developing binding doctrine".

And if Jonathan wants to claim that he's referring to something other than the Roman Catholic system, then why is he a Roman Catholic? Whatever system he has in mind for "developing binding doctrine", there is no one system that has always been the majority view among professing Christians. Even if there was, why should we think that the truth is determined by popularity? Not only has Jonathan's system not always been a majority view, but it can't even be shown to have always been a view held by a minority.

I can cite passage after passage in the church fathers in which they refer to how what the apostles themselves taught is our standard, regardless of what later generations, even church leaders, believed: Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 3:1:1, 4:26:5), Cyprian (Letter 62:14, 62:17), Dionysius of Alexandria (Letters, 1), etc. Men like Irenaeus and Tertullian believed that the churches of their day were generally faithful in maintaining the apostolic tradition, so they told people that the tradition could be found in the churches. But such a claim about the historical situation of their day isn't equivalent to a belief that whatever doctrines the Roman Catholic system (or another system) might develop in the future must have been part of the apostolic revelation. To the contrary, what Roman Catholicism would later dogmatize not only was often unknown early on, but also was contradicted.

Tertullian tells us, in a passage I'm going to quote below, that in addition to the teachings of the apostles being passed down, the explanations of those teachings were also passed down. He condemns the concept of a doctrine not being understood by one generation, then being understood by a later generation. Even if we give some room for hyperbole or carelessness in Tertullian's comments, the general thrust is clear. He had no concept of Jonathan's system of dogmatizing something like Purgatory or the Immaculate Conception more than a thousand years after the time of the apostles. Notice that whereas Roman Catholic apologists cite John 16:13 in favor of one generation knowing of a doctrine that an earlier generation rejected, Tertullian cites John 16:13 as evidence that every doctrine was understood by the church since the time of the apostles:

"No doubt He had once said, 'I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot hear them now;' but even then He added, 'When He, the Spirit of truth, shall come, He will lead you into all truth.' He thus shows that there was nothing of which they were ignorant, to whom He had promised the future attainment of all truth by help of the Spirit of truth. And assuredly He fulfilled His promise, since it is proved in the Acts of the Apostles that the Holy Ghost did come down....But here is, as we have said, the same madness, in their allowing indeed that the apostles were ignorant of nothing, and preached not any doctrines which contradicted one another, but at the same time insisting that they did not reveal all to all men, for that they proclaimed some openly and to all the world, whilst they disclosed others only in secret and to a few, because Paul addressed even this expression to Timothy: 'O Timothy, guard that which is entrusted to thee;' and again: 'That good thing which was committed unto thee keep.' What is this deposit? Is it so secret as to be supposed to characterize a new doctrine? or is it a part of that charge of which he says, 'This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy?' and also of that precept of which he says, 'I charge thee in the sight of God, who quickeneth all things, and before Jesus Christ who witnessed a good confession under Pontius Pilate, that thou keep this commandment?' Now, what is this commandment and what is this charge? From the preceding and the succeeding contexts, it will be manifest that there is no mysterious hint darkly suggested in this expression about some far-fetched doctrine, but that a warning is rather given against receiving any other doctrine than that which Timothy had heard from himself, as I take it publicly: 'Before many witnesses' is his phrase. Now, if they refuse to allow that the church is meant by these 'many witnesses,' it matters nothing, since nothing could have been secret which was produced 'before many witnesses.' Nor, again, must the circumstance of his having wished him to 'commit these things to faithful men, who should be able to teach others also,' be construed into a proof of there being some occult gospel....Openly did the Lord speak, without any intimation of a hidden mystery. He had Himself commanded that, 'whatsoever they had heard in darkness' and in secret, they should 'declare in the light and on the house-tops.'...Moreover, they [the apostles] remembered the words: 'Let your communication be yea, yea; nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than this cometh of evil;' so that they were not to handle the gospel in a diversity of treatment....Since, therefore, it is incredible that the apostles were either ignorant of the whole scope of the message which they had to declare, or failed to make known to all men the entire rule of faith, let us see whether, while the apostles proclaimed it, perhaps, simply and fully, the churches, through their own fault, set it forth otherwise than the apostles had done. All these suggestions of distrust you may find put forward by the heretics." (The Prescription Against Heretics, 22, 25-27)

And elsewhere Tertullian comments:

"But should Marcion's gospel succeed in filling the whole world, it would not even in that case be entitled to the character of apostolic. For this quality, it will be evident, can only belong to that gospel which was the first to fill the world" (Against Marcion, 5:19)

Such sentiments are found over and over again in the church fathers. Jonathan's concept of how to define the apostolic revelation was absent and widely contradicted in early church history.

Much of what Jonathan considers to have been "developed" as "binding doctrine" by Roman Catholicism was unknown to or contradicted by Tertullian and the churches of his day. The fact that a variety of concepts of an authoritative church and authoritative tradition were advocated among the church fathers doesn't prove that they would have agreed with Jonathan's system.

All that Jonathan is doing is asserting the probability of philosophical speculations that can't be shown to be probable, then he's molding church history around those speculations. The writings of the apostles and their associates are considered largely unclear and subject to allegorical interpretation, while speculations about what it seems fitting for God to do are considered "highly probable". I don't think Jonathan has taken seriously enough the warning of Colossians 2:8.

If the Roman Catholic system is consistent with what Jonathan thinks God should have given us, isn't it possible that the Roman Catholic system came from the minds of men thinking like Jonathan rather than from the mind of God? Maybe we should look to the revelation God has given us, where God Himself has spoken. And there He doesn't give us the Roman Catholic system, nor does He give us anything that would inevitably grow into that system, if we interpret the apostolic revelation as we would any other historical source. Was God silent about the system of authority He wanted us to follow when He gave us a public revelation, leaving us to find it by independent philosophy instead? Who can claim to know so much about God's purposes as to conclude that it's probable that God would use something like the Roman Catholic system?