Thursday, August 27, 2015

"They Have So Much Confusion, They Must Be Wrong, Right?" - A Criticism of a Common Argument I've Heard Catholics Make Against Sola Scriptura

If one is familiar with Catholic apologetics, particularly apologetics against Protestantism, one often encounters an argument that goes something like this:

It is obvious that Sola Scriptura doesn't work.  I mean, look at all those Protestant denominations out there!  There are tons of them!  If Sola Scriptura worked, there wouldn't be so much division.  Obviously, the idea of everyone interpreting the Bible for himself is a failure.  We clearly need the infallible guidance of the Catholic Church to get the Bible right.

I have a problem with this argument, and the problem is one I have addressed elsewhere in a more general way.  I call this argument the Good and Intelligent People Disagree Argument (or GIPD, for short).  There are two basic problems with it (I deal with these problems even more thoroughly in the linked article):  1. It just isn't the case that disagreement on an issue must indicate a lack of sufficiently available evidence or a lack of sufficient means to know something.  2. If this argument is a good one, it is just as much a problem for Catholics as it is for Protestants.

1. It isn't the case that disagreement is always indicative of lack of evidence.  In the case of interpreting the Bible, it could be that there is enough objective evidence available to interpret the Bible rightly in a Sola Scriptura sort of way, but the evidence is just hard enough to get at that people who don't put in the necessary effort or care are prone to getting it wrong.  And people can get confused sometimes, even when they are trying hard.  Just because people get confused, it doesn't necessarily prove that something cannot be understood--even if lots of people get confused.  People get confused about all sorts of things.  I've personally encountered many people who get confused about self-evident or logically certain things like whether one can prove conclusively that 2+2=4, or whether logic applies to all reality, or whether things that come into being must have causes, or whether something must either "exist" or "not exist" and there is no third possibility, etc., etc.  When something is not right in front of us in an empirical sort of way, when it is more abstract and requires more careful and disciplined attention, we are more likely to find confusion.  This doesn't prove we can't know the truth in that matter.

And the argument fails to consider biases people have.  Perhaps there are lots of different biblical interpretations not because it is impossible to understand the Bible aright but because people tend to approach the Bible with pre-conceived ideas as to what it must mean, what it can't mean, etc.  People are often very personally (and not always rationally) motivated to hold certain positions and avoid others in religious matters.  Sometimes coming to a certain conclusion would mean social upheaval for a person.  Sometimes it would be very uncomfortable.  Sometimes it would require certain lifestyle choices that are seen as absurd and/or undesirable.  Sometimes people are biased by cultural or family upbringing.  Etc., etc.

So it just isn't the case that even widespread confusion proves a lack of available evidence or proves that something cannot be understood in a certain way.

2. If GIPD is a good argument against Sola Scriptura, Catholics are in a lot of trouble too!  Listen to this argument:

It's obvious that no one can really know that Catholicism is the true religion.  I mean, look at all the religious disagreement out there!  If we could know what the true religion is, there wouldn't be so much disagreement!  This proves that we all ought really to be Agnostic until we really know something more definitely.

I submit that if the earlier argument against Sola Scriptura is a good one, so is this one against Catholicism and for Agnosticism.  It's the same argument--"There is disagreement.  Disagreement shows that something can't be known.  So we can't know what there is disagreement about."  In the earlier anti-Protestant argument, the idea is that no one can really know (using Sola Scriptura, without the Church's infallible guidance) what the Bible teaches, and we can tell this because people using Sola Scriptura can't agree.  In the latter argument, the idea is that we really can't know which religion (if any) is true, and we can tell this because all the people of the world examining the available evidence in such matters have been unable to agree.  So the available evidence must not be sufficient to determine the matter, so we should be Agnostic.  But I don't think this is a good argument for Agnosticism, and for the same reasons I don't think this is a good argument against Sola Scriptura.

Now, let me add that I do in fact think that there are serious problems with Sola Scriptura.  More particularly, I do think that the Bible alone, without further infallible guidance, provides insufficient means for deciding between controverted denominational teachings.  I think this because, upon examination, it seems to me that there is simply not enough evidence in the Bible to decide all sorts of things that Christians need to know.  For example, the Bible simply doesn't give us enough information, I think, to decide what to do about infants and baptism (unless we add in extra-biblical assumptions--but if we do that, we have to justify them on grounds outside of the Bible, and I don't think we can do this with the assumptions we need).  We can guess at what, say, Paul would have said if we could have asked him about it.  But we really don't have enough information to know with any significant degree of confidence what he would say based on what he has actually said.  (Baptists and Paedobaptists, of course, will have responses to what I've just said, but this is not the place to get into this more fully.)  But notice that my argument here against Sola Scriptura is not based merely on the fact that people trying to use it disagree, but on a substantial examination of what the Bible actually says.  I think that, perhaps, sometimes Catholic apologists have good reasons to oppose Sola Scriptura but mix those good reasons up with not-so-good ones.  You can see how it would be easy to do this.  "Sola Scriptura is not feasible, because it doesn't provide enough information to decide important issues.  Because it is not feasible, people using it aren't able to agree.  Therefore, their disagreement is evidence of Sola Scriptura's non-feasibility."  The fallacy here is that while it is true that widespread Protestant disagreement should be seen as a symptom of Sola Scriptura's non-feasibility, it is not the case that this means that widespread Protestant disagreement by itself proves Sola Scriptura's non-feasibility, as if there couldn't possibly be any other explanation for such disagreement worth considering.

ADDENDUM:  Here's an article raising some similar issues from an Eastern Orthodox point of view.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What's in a Name?

If the early church fathers were suddenly picked up out of their own times (when they were alive) and dropped into our time, what would be the first question they would ask in order to find out where the true church is in our time?

St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Augustine give us one possible answer to that question (embedded links and added biblical references removed):

But since the word Ecclesia is applied to different things (as also it is written of the multitude in the theatre of the Ephesians, And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the Assembly), and since one might properly and truly say that there is a Church of evil doers, I mean the meetings of the heretics, the Marcionists and Manichees, and the rest, for this cause the Faith has securely delivered to you now the Article, And in one Holy Catholic Church; that you may avoid their wretched meetings, and ever abide with the Holy Church Catholic in which you were regenerated. And if ever you are sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord's House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord), nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God (for it is written, As Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for it, and all the rest,) and is a figure and copy of Jerusalem which is above, which is free, and the mother of us all; which before was barren, but now has many children.  (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 18
For in the Catholic Church, not to speak of the purest wisdom, to the knowledge of which a few spiritual men attain in this life, so as to know it, in the scantiest measure, indeed, because they are but men, still without any uncertainty (since the rest of the multitude derive their entire security not from acuteness of intellect, but from simplicity of faith,)— not to speak of this wisdom, which you do not believe to be in the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house. Such then in number and importance are the precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church, as it is right they should, though from the slowness of our understanding, or the small attainment of our life, the truth may not yet fully disclose itself. But with you, where there is none of these things to attract or keep me, the promise of truth is the only thing that comes into play. Now if the truth is so clearly proved as to leave no possibility of doubt, it must be set before all the things that keep me in the Catholic Church; but if there is only a promise without any fulfillment, no one shall move me from the faith which binds my mind with ties so many and so strong to the Christian religion.  (St. Augustine, Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, Chapter 4)

While the name "Christian" distinguishes the true religion from false religion, so the name "Catholic" came to distinguish orthodox Christianity from heterodox Christianity.  Interesting!