Me and a Catholic talk Scripture and Tradition – Part 2

In the previous post I introduced the dialogue between me and DFXC, and started with his post, here is my response and then his reply to my response (I ask you to keep in mind this was a casual discussion, not a formal or prepared debate), my text is in red, and DFXC’s text is in blue:

Me:

I want to be clear from the outset, this is not an issue I have spent much time researching, not an issue I have developed well-formed arguments for, so what will follow is going to be an off the cuff apologia at best, I hope some slack is given. At the same time, I understand that this question is about our foundation and thus cannot be ignored.

I’ll start with what I feel I can answer more of less confidently; Valentinian teaching and the Gnostics. I’m quite confident that one could read only Book One of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (where he more or less lays out the beliefs of the Gnostics without arguing against them directly) to know that the Valentinians and his predecessors and fellow Gnostics had nothing to do with the historical Jesus and the Community which developed around his apostles. If we know anything about the historical Jesus (from a purely secular historical method), it’s that he was a Palestinian Jewish peasant who preached coming Kingdom of God and started a messianic movement influenced by the Isaiah prophesies (and others from the Tanakh) and was executed by the Roman State with approval from the Jewish Ruling class as an enemy of the State. We also know that after his death his follows thought of him as resurrected and established a community, which continued preaching the kingdom of God, and on the basis of the resurrection of Christ. We also know that his this community was originally made up of fellow Palestinian Jews, mostly of middle and lower class backgrounds.

If we can, with some degree of historical certainty, establish those facts we can write off the Gnostics almost right away. It’s obvious that their ideas and teachings have nothing to do with the mainstream of Second Temple Palestinian Judaism from which Jesus sprang and that it really had nothing to do with an eschatological Kingdom of God, which the historical Jesus preached. In fact there are good reasons to believe (outside of Irenaeus) that the Gnostics pre-dated Christianity and simply took Jesus and the symbols and figures of Christianity and attached them to their own philosophy, as they did with Judaism and Roman/Hellenistic Paganism and Hellenistic Philosophy. Their readings of Genesis, for example, have (from a historical standpoint), nothing to do with the Second Temple Judaism which developed from the return from Babylon up through the first century. Now you might say, “Ok, but which Second Temple Judaism ….” I would then reply “All of them,” Pharisaic Judaism, the Sadducees, even more eccentric types such as the Essenes, or the nationalistic Zealots or whoever, all of them have certain common assumptions which are categorically different, and opposed to, Gnostic philosophy. So there goes the Gnostic writings, I don’t need Irenaeus to know the Gnostics had nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth and the Apostolic Community. So much for the Gnostics.

The documents of the New Testament can all be reasonably dated to the time period of the Apostles. If we give historical credence to Papias’ testimony as preserved for us in Eusebius (which I think is warranted, I suggest the Book «Jesus and the Eye Witnesses» by Richard Bauckham for what I consider very good evidence that we should take Papias’ testimony seriously), then we have good reason to believe that the gospels preserve eye witness tradition and go back to the Apostles themselves. We then have Paul, who can also reasonably by connected to the Apostles and the first community of Christians, and in fact can reasonably be thought to have had authority. I think the epistle of James has good arguments going for it that it goes back to the Historical James, given that it duck tails nicely with what we know about early Jewish Christianity. We can argue about all the books, and some are harder than others, but you get the idea I hope.

Now why do we stop there? Well, one could say that the apostolic age, and after the writings that were under the authority (more or less) of the apostles, was a unique time, given that there was a direct connection to Jesus and those whom he taught. Is that arbitrary? I don’t know, but if it is, then most of the more or less unanimous opinion of Church Fathers that those texts which were written under the authority of the apostles were uniquely authoritative. It is the case, however, that there were texts under dispute, 2 Peter and Revelation for example. In those cases, we can look at the arguments given for or against their apostolic authority, then look at the history of the New Testament Canon, and see what we can make of it. After that period, there were “Church Fathers” who agree with my position (In my opinion the biblical one) and some who did not, but that doesn’t make those men “inspired” or authoritative. Being right or correct does not equate to being scripture.

There is a leap of faith here; one must believe that God preserves his word that God makes sure that his inspired message reaches his people. But I don’t have a problem with a reasonable measure of faith leaping, as Hume pointed out in his arguments about causality, even atheist naturalism demands a measure of faith that most Atheists would be uncomfortable to admit.

But if I may, I might throw a challenge your way. The Catholic position on the magnesium is pretty clear, scripture, tradition and the papacy are together the infallible rule of faith. A while back I gave a modest critique of the Catholic magnesium position (https://theologyandjustice.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/does-the-magesterium-save-the-trinity-from-sola-scriptura/). To make a long story short, following the hermeneutical principles of sound exegesis, even according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, one (if my scriptural arguments for Unitarianism are correct) would come to conclusions that conflict with the tradition. So one has a choice, either manipulate the hermeneutical method to get an exegesis that matches the tradition, or drop the tradition. If you’re going to do the former, ultimately, you’re going to have to use such Ad Hoc exegetical assumptions, that basically sound hermeneutical principles go out the window. So what happens when reconciling the two means doing serious damage to sound scriptural exegesis?

Another challenge I would give is that of tradition to the Old Testament. The Jews developed their Canon in the inter-testament period, by the time of Josephus it was basically set (according to him the 24 books were held in the temple). If we are to argue that tradition alone can establish a Canon, are we not also tied to Jewish tradition? If we are to accept the Jewish Canon, must we not accept the Oral tradition that established it? Should not Christians add to their bible the Mishnah? Or even the whole Talmud? I understand that Catholics use the books of the LXX, which include the Deutero-Canonicals, but those also were established by a non-Christian tradition were they not?

Now if you want to argue that the Jewish tradition strayed from the truth, that’s fine, and we can measure that against scripture, but can one not do the same with Catholic tradition?

DFXC:

I’d like to begin by repeating my caveat to this entire endeavor, which I find implicated in your response when you say,
“I don’t have a problem with a reasonable measure of faith leaping.”
…and I don’t have a problem with accepting mystery.
In the end, these are the colors of our faiths. Judgment is reserved for God.

None of which is to say the effort is pointless when proselytization proves fruitless. Since I embrace Anselm’s motto, fides quaerens intellectum, I believe that engagements such as these—carried out in good conscience and genuine intention—can be immensely fruitful. They are, in themselves, a kind of worshipful activity and can serve to form and strengthen faith.

Now, as to the points raised in your reply:

“…the Valentinians and his predecessors and fellow Gnostics had nothing to do with the historical Jesus… [snip] …If we know anything about the historical Jesus (from a purely secular historical method)… [snip] …So much for the Gnostics.”

I’m not sure that a “purely secular historical method” is good place to hang your argument. That’s the same method that erases not only the divinity of Christ but the divine altogether, often reducing Jesus down to little more than a kind of Jewish proto-Gandhi figure. Even setting aside that concern, however, your argument at this stage seems to want to center around what the “earliest Christians” would have believed and understood. On this point, I don’t see any particularly good reason to accept the opinions of 20th and 21st century “secular” scholars over the testimony of 2nd century Alexandrians. Clement of Alexandria informs us that Valentinus (of whose he was a contemporary) was a student of Theudus and that Theudus was taught directly by none other than Paul of Tarsus. Absent good reason to dismiss Clement (upon whom Eusebius relied as a credible authority, so such a dismissal will pull the support out from other pieces of your argument), there seems to be little ground for the suggestion that Valentinus “had nothing to do” with the religion expressed by Jesus [unless we say the same of Paul which, I believe, you’d not wanted to do]. Similar problems can be made with respect to the Ebionites, who must have had something to do with Palestinian peasant Judaism since they were, by and large, Palestinian peasant Jews.
So much for taking down the Gnostics without appeal to Tradition..?

If we give historical credence to Papias’ testimony as preserved for us in Eusebius… [snip – thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll check it out – ] then we have good reason to believe that the gospels preserve eye witness tradition and go back to the Apostles themselves… [snip] …We can argue about all the books, and some are harder than others, but you get the idea I hope.”

Alright, but I’m seeing a couple of fresh problems for you here. Granting the accuracy of Papias via Eusebius gets us The Gospel of Mark clearly enough and possibly John. His account of Matthew is highly problematic given the information available to us today. To count the Greek Matthew contained in the canon today as being substantively the same as that Hebrew or Aramaic text, to which Papias refers, requires more than a little speculation (or presumption).
Still more problematic for you, it seems to me, is that you only get to Papias by way of Eusebius and that move would seem to entail accepting Eusebius into the fold of “Early Christians.” Unless you’ve got a systematic way to dismiss his accuracy on points beyond quoting Papias, I’m thinking you’re better off heading back to Irenaeus (upon whom Eusebius also relies), since Eusebius was undeniably Trinitarian and, though accused of Arianism at times, submitted to the formulation presented in the Nicene Creed.

Now why do we stop there? Well, one could say that the apostolic age, and after the writings which were under the authority (more or less) of the apostles, was a unique time, given that there was a direct connection to Jesus and those whom he taught.”

The idea of drawing a line at the end of the Apostolic Age is an intriguing one and I think it has the potential to be the hub for a compelling counter-narrative of Christianity. It would appear, however, that such a line simply cannot be drawn at this point without relying the very figures of Tradition that such a counter-narrative must seek to exclude… or else find some connective means for discerning the ‘continuing’ Christians from their Constantinian peers.

“…as Hume pointed out in his arguments about causality, even atheist naturalism demands a measure of faith that most Atheists would be uncomfortable to admit.”

No counter from this quarter. I don’t think Hume is read nearly enough today and when he is, he’s often read only partially or poorly.

But if I may, I might throw a challenge your way.”

Fire away.

A while back I gave a modest critique of the Catholic [Magisterium] position …[snip]… even according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, one (if my scriptural arguments for Unitarianism are correct) would come to conclusions that conflict with the tradition.”

I checked out your critique. It’s interesting but I found it lacking in dealing with the whole of the Catechism when it comes to interpretation. For instance, while you do note CCC100, you then go on to produce your own interpretations of both the meanings of the Catechism and Scripture. The problem here is that CCC100 explicitly entrusts interpretation “solely” to the Magisterium of the Church. Therefore, from within the system described by the Catechism, if the conclusions of your own exegetical practice results in a “conflict with the tradition,” then it is—by definition—incorrect. [My own investigations into the Catechism suggest that it is internally consistent with such a degree of rigor that the only way to overcome it is to toss it out entirely. Once you accept its premises and begin working within its system, you’ve pretty much lost the game.]

Even if you’re both within the system and committed to a hermeneutic that yields a contradiction, there’s one important response option you left off your list: Humility. No matter how strong I might find my own interpretation of Scripture, however much I think I’ve followed the rules of “sound hermeneutical principles,” I think I need to at least start from the presumption that the work of Anselm, Augustine, Aquinas, Basil, Maximus, Gregory, and so on and so on… was all more thorough. Were I bent on taking down an accepted interpretation of Tradition (and not going to dismiss Tradition in order to do so), I feel I’d need to refute the full structure of that interpretation which, in turn, would require working through many, many texts in considerable detail… and I expect I’d finish sometime after my own natural death, when the project really wouldn’t matter so much.

[Though, once again, this all stands or falls on a submission to Tradition that is in itself part of a positive act of faith and, as such, is not something I expect any other to be moved to without the initiatory intercession of the Holy Spirit.]

Another challenge I would give is that of tradition to the Old Testament. …[snip]… If we are to argue that tradition alone can establish a Canon, are we not also tied to Jewish tradition? …[snip]… Now if you want to argue that the Jewish tradition strayed from the truth, that’s fine, and we can measure that against scripture, but can one not do the same with Catholic tradition?”

The Jewish tradition is part of an earlier “stage” in the Pedagogy of God (CCC 53; 63-73) and thus does not enter into the Tradition of the Church except in relation to the Mediator and Fullness of all revelation, Jesus Christ. Again, then, it’s not a matter of considering Judaism as “strayed from the truth” as measured “against scripture [alone]” but against Scripture and the Tradition through which Scripture comes to be fully understood.

That said, if you want to measure both Judaism and Catholicism against your interpretation of Scripture, then I have little doubt that they’ll come to equal ends… but then that wouldn’t be in harmony with the hermeneutics of the Catholic Church. Not that it has to be, except for Catholics.

Speaking personally, the greatest problem I have with any hermeneutic of the individual is one of trust. I simply don’t trust myself not to lead myself away from Truth in favor of comfort and complacency. Spiritually, I see only a simple either/or presented to me: to God through the Roman Catholic Church, or back into the wilderness of my own autonomy. But also intellectually and psychologically, the rigor of Catholic Tradition keeps me from making the road easy. It will not conform to me, so my own peculiar concupiscence is offered little room to move my conscience.

In the next post, we will finish off the dialogue, with my final reply and then DFXC’s final reply.

Read Part 3 here.

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Me and a Catholic talk Scripture and Tradition – Part 2

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