Me and a Catholic talk Scripture and Tradition – Part 3

Here is the final part of me and DFXC’s dialogue, starting with my final reply and the DFXC’s final reply, the first two parts of our dialogue can be found here and here. My part is in red and DFXC’s is in blue (as I said in the previous 2 posts, this is not a formal debate or anything like that):

Me:

It’s interesting what you say about the historical method, tomorrow I’m publishing a post on my blog specifically about the problems with apologists arguing from a purely secular historical method. None the less I do believe a secular historical method is important, so we take away tradition and inspiration, or “bracket” them, you don’t necessarily take out the divine, although it is “bracketed” then you go from there. I don’t think you get a kind of Jewish proto-Gandhi figure necessarily, not if you’re reading good scholarship and really examining the materials.

It’s not about “accepting” 20th and 21st century scholars over the theologians and Church fathers of late antiquity, it’s about looking at all the information and coming up with the most accurate picture you can.

As far as the testimony of Clement, he doesn’t actually say that Valentinus was taught by Theudus, he says that is what his followers say. According to Tertullian, he started his own group when he was snubbed as a Bishop, and the things he taught were supposedly “secret teachings” that were given to him, not really a credible claim. But let’s say his followers were right, and he actually was taught by Theudus, I can compare his teachings, to those of more credible witnesses, I can compare his teachings to the Jewish Tanakh on which Jesus and his disciples relied and I can see clearly, there is an irreconcilable problem.

In order to put Valentinus (or say Marcion) on the same level as the New Testament books, I would have to insist that all the ones who knew Jesus directly, and his apostles, who came from that area and time, got it wrong, but secretly gave the truth to those guys. I’d also have to believe that “the truth” was suspiciously similar to earlier proto-gnostic thought coming from North Africa mainly, which really had nothing to do with biblical or temple Judaism, but rather was just a mishmash of different religious figures put together to make an elite mystery religion. The reason I don’t buy what Valentinus is selling is not because I don’t think he was taught by the right people, it’s because what he teaches clearly is at odds with the teachings of the apostles and Jesus. Even if his teachings were not at odds, all that would make him was my brother in history who wrote interesting things, not Holy Scripture.
With the Ebionites, or their theological cousins the Nazareans, to be honest I don’t really think they were so wrong so that they should be counted out as genuine Christians. I would say those groups were basically Christianity without Paul or John.

Here’s the point though, I read Tertullian, Irenaeus, Eusebius, Justin Martyr and whoever as historical sources, theological writers, and interesting polemicists, and yes, I rely on them to know certain historical things, but they not θεόπνευστος, God breathed, inspired, in the same way scripture is. Interestingly in his argument with the Valentinians, Irenaeus appeals to scripture, which both sides seem to take as authoritative, but not to some oral tradition, in fact some oral tradition was the appeal of the Gnostics, the same goes for Tertullian, scripture is the final authority. When they are not appealing to scripture, their arguments are often philosophical, not “the bishops say” or “the pope says” or “the oral tradition says.”

So I’m not ignoring the Fathers at all, but we need to understand the difference between a good historical source, and γραφὴ θεόπνευστος. The fact that Eusebius was a Trinitarian (haven’t looked into it but I accept that he was), doesn’t discount his value as a historical source for a Unitarian like myself, just as Josephus is an invaluable source for both of us, though we are not Orthodox Jews.
Moving on to the question of authority. I want to make something clear, I am not one of those people who thinks that one can just sit by himself with a bible and study really really hard and find the truth and there we go. Christianity is necessarily a communal institution; it necessitates a congregation, and a structure. In one’s Christian life I believe one must find a congregation, not based on what one wants, but based on it attempting to adhere to the gospel, and truth found in scripture, and attempting to practice Christian community and preaching, and then submit to the congregation and live in harmony with it.

We all however, come to the gospel one way or another, I find myself with a bible, I read it, I don’t understand all of it, but I can hear God speaking through it. Then I see the Roman Catholic Church, and it’s a Church with a beautiful history filled with lovers of Christ, with people doing their best to do Kingdom work. However I also see doctrines taught, which I cannot, without doing serious intellectual harm, reconcile with scripture, or history. I don’t think that I can simply interpret scripture alone, but the community of Christians I attach myself to must be one that does not do serious hermeneutical harm to scripture, and attempts, in it’s best way to interpret the scripture as it stands. The Catholic tradition isn’t really defined, I have no way to test it, all I have is the claim of a Church, and I cannot accept that claim as true, due to it’s not being consistent and being at odds with scripture. Not some special interpretation of scripture, plain scripture, as well as history (but that’s another story).
The point with the Catechism, is that they are giving their own hermeneutical method, and as an outsider, I see a problem. Exegesis is not arbitrary, it’s not ad hoc, there are good and true exegesis and bad and false ones, and adding an additional rule saying, “whatever it is it must coincide with tradition” doesn’t fix that. It’s like saying, “do your science, but it must fit with what I already believe,” what you end up with is the flip side of Sola Scriptura, Sola Ecclesia.

But again, I am by no means saying that one can simply sit in a room and study the bible, but the bible comes first, and when finding the Church, that should be the standard. The problem I have with tradition is that to accept it, for me, I would have to shut off serious problems I see with it compared to a plain reading of scripture. I would also have to have faith that the tradition was not only there, but preserved specifically in the Catholic Church down the ages, even though there are reasons to not believe that.


I absolutely understand your concern for the very human tendency to attempt to conform theology to one’s self, and I am part of a Christian Community that keeps me in check and focused on Christ, the Kingdom and the Gospel. But Roman Catholicism has too many holes for me to through myself into it, but in the bible, I hear God’s word, I know I can trust that.

DFXC:
As to the meat of the matter:

I do believe a secular historical method is important… [snip]… I don’t think you get a kind of Jewish proto-Gandhi figure necessarily, not if you’re reading good scholarship and really examining the materials.

I think this is down to how one delimits “good scholarship.” While there are many scholars who do a reasonable job of “bracketing” without dismissing or (if unintentionally) denigrating divinity, much of the archaeological and philological work being done from within academia adopts a form of methodological atheism that presumes against any transcendent reality (let alone the God of Abraham). This is not to say that I reject the work out of hand [it was, coincidentally enough, Bart Ehrman who first sparked my interest in Patristics], I’ve just come to believe that 1) it’s not the strongest foundation on which to develop any apologetic project, and 2) leaning too far in that direction in the contemporary context cedes more to the worldview of the ‘loyal opposition’ than I think is warranted.

It’s not about “accepting” 20th and 21st century scholars over the theologians and Church fathers of late antiquity, it’s about looking at all the information and coming up with the most accurate picture you can.

And I’d generally agree. What that picture looks like, however, is going to be unavoidably skewed according to the basic outlooks with which one approaches the investigation. As even our brief back-and-forth shows, there is no ‘raw history’ that is indisputable. Interpretation and judgment must intervene. Of this I have become more than just intellectually convinced, since my own experience attests to the radical revaluation that faith can engender. Texts that were only historically and sociologically important when I first read an wrote on them a decade ago have, in just the last year, become immeasurably deep and intensely personal. Prior to my conversion, I couldn’t see it; after conversion, I can’t not.

I don’t buy what Valentinus is selling is not because I don’t think he was taught by the right people, it’s because what he teaches clearly is at odds with the teachings of the apostles and Jesus.

Well, here again, it’s a question of determining “the right people” and deciding (in advance) on what the “authentic” teachings of Jesus and the apostles were and exactly how in tune (or not) they may have been with first century Judaism. [Not, for the record, that I buy Valentinus either — but then I have a different than you for deciding the “authenticity” of any teaching. Of course, I didn’t really buy him before either. Marcion, on the other hand, had always struck me as being eminently reason-able (absent a faith commitment that would bar his reading) at least in his basic theological position. He view does solve the whole Old Testament vs. New Testament hermeneutic problem rather neatly, after all.]
Irenaeus appeals to scripture, which both sides seem to take as authoritative, but not to some oral tradition, in fact some oral tradition was the appeal of the Gnostics, the same goes for Tertullian, scripture is the final authority.

Indeed, but the issue for me isn’t a question of the authority of Scripture but of 1) determining what counts as Scripture [which, if memory serves, is one of the places from which we’d started down this particular road] and 2) under what interpretations Scripture is properly understood. Point 1, I argue, requires granting at least some (rather decisive) authority to tradition — either oral or practical — because Scripture itself is mute on the question of its own contents. Point 2, as I think we’ve covered (or will have done shortly), is where I [try to] humble myself before those who’ve contributed so much.

I want to make something clear, I am not one of those people who thinks that one can just sit by himself with a bible and study really really hard and find the truth and there we go.

I’d not thought so but — again, from an awareness and concern for my own concupiscence — the methodologies you’ve outlined still seem to leave too much wiggle room for me to feel safeguarded against my own capacity for rationalization. It is disturbingly easy for me to make Christianity, well, easy… as, I think we might agree, so many have done these days.

Christianity is necessarily a communal institution; it necessitates a congregation, and a structure. In one’s Christian life I believe one must find a congregation, not based on what one wants, but based on it attempting to adhere to the gospel, and truth found in scripture, and attempting to practice Christian community and preaching, and then submit to the congregation and live in harmony with it.

Wouldn’t it be great if it could be “what one wants”? It’d make my life a lot easier.

I also see [Roman Catholic] doctrines taught, which I cannot, without doing serious intellectual harm, reconcile with scripture, or history. I don’t think that I can simply interpret scripture alone, but the community of Christians I attach myself to must be one that does not do serious hermeneutical harm to scripture, and attempts, in it’s best way to interpret the scripture as it stands.

Here, I think, is simple where we become irreconcilable and the difference is one that must be left up to God and the direction towards which the Spirit guides each of us. For me, there is no hermeneutic outside the Magisterium that does not do harm; for you, the Magisterium itself does harm. We operate from different axioms and, at least from my side, how those are seen and in what way they are offered to be accepted are–by definition–inarguable. Not to say that we can’t ‘argue’ over them (as we’ve been doing) but rather that I don’t expect to shift the grounds of anyone’s faith by force of bare reason alone. [In fact, I’d hope not since any ‘faith’ one can be argued into can be argued out of and, as such, wouldn’t much seem to be faith.]

The Catholic tradition isn’t really defined

Not really sure what you mean by this. It’s much more defined than any other ‘Christianity’ I’ve encountered.

The point with the Catechism, is that they are giving their own hermeneutical method, and as an outsider, I see a problem. Exegesis is not arbitrary, it’s not ad hoc, there are good and true exegesis and bad and false ones, and adding an additional rule saying, “whatever it is it must coincide with tradition” doesn’t fix that. It’s like saying, “do your science, but it must fit with what I already believe,” what you end up with is the flip side of Sola Scriptura, Sola Ecclesia.

Well here I flat out disagree with your reading. First off, insofar as it received and extended its Patristic predecessors (of whose hermeneutics you seem to approve), the Catholic tradition defined “good and true exegesis.” What hermeneutic method stands entirely outside that tradition? Or, at what point do you think its exegetes went awry? At Nicaea?
Further, “science”
does actually say that any new claim “must coincide with tradition” — that is, the traditions of science. A completely new paradigm must undergo a long and arduous period of trial before being accepted… much as shifts in the Catholic hermeneutic do. The point of saying, “your interpretation must fit with tradition,” is precisely to avoid personal novelty, the temptations of the times, and “arbitrary” or “ad hoc” exegesis.

The problem I have with tradition is that to accept it, for me, I would have to shut off serious problems I see with it compared to a plain reading of scripture. I would also have to have faith that the tradition was not only there, but preserved specifically in the Catholic Church down the ages, even though there are reasons to not believe that.

There are also reasons not to believe anything written in Scripture (plain reading or not)… but stepping beyond reason, one way or another, is what both of us have to do. If we posit that neither of us has been led to step away from God, then it would seem that the direction towards has simply been opened differently for us. Would that it would be given to me to see as you do–being/becoming Catholic is a massive pain in the rear–but the faith offered me includes the Tradition. Feel free to take it up with God. I have. I tend to think He finds it hilarious.

But Roman Catholicism has too many holes for me to through myself into it, but in the Bible, I hear God’s word, I know I can trust that.

Again — I think it’s the leap vs. the mystery. Where your trust rests, mine is restless; where mine is nourished, yours withers.

I have absolutely found this back and forth constructive and positive, appreciate your graciousness in dialoging with me, and your obvious rigor and intellectual honesty as well as your humility, it’s a breath of fresh air.

So That’s the discussion we had. I hope you get something out of it. I want to just sum up what I feel the issue is, for the sake of fairness I’ll leave the dialogue as it is and not bring up any arguments, but rather just summarize my position.

I feel the issue is whether one is able to find out historically what is and is not apostolic, coming from the apostles of Jesus, coinciding with Jesus’ message and his apostle’s message, without appealing to tradition as a higher authority. I feel it is possible, DFXC has his doubts. Another issue is that of the patristics, I feel it is enough to use them as a historical source or a theological source by which one can determine what is of the apostles and what is not without attributing to them any kind of higher authority. DFXC feels that their value is within an authoritative tradition. Then there is the concern DFXC has with interpretation, he feels that when one attempts to interpret outside the Catholic tradition, one runs the risk of simply making a theology out of one’s own image or one’s cultural background. I feel that objective interpretation is possible using certain hermeneutical methods that are in and of themselves good methods.

Thanks to DFXC for this discussion, check out his blog.

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Me and a Catholic talk Scripture and Tradition – Part 3

6 thoughts on “Me and a Catholic talk Scripture and Tradition – Part 3

  1. Dokimazo says:

    Roman;
    I really appreciate the dialog between you and DFXC. I think both positions were clear enough and I would have to side on the fact that clear enough hermeneutics would allow for enough understanding to do correct theology using the existing Bible Canon that I believe is theopneustos.. How do I Know that the church fathers had not yet apostatized or at least their beliefs were corrupted because of outside influences, in whole or in part. Something the apostle warned about and said was already present in his day.

    I probably also date the Gospels earlier than most. All of them I would date prior to 70 CE. I do believe the New Testament Canon was established by 180 partly because of the Church Fathers and them quoting that Canon and of course the Muratorian Fragment and the Diatessaron Manuscript.

    I love Bart Erhman but see a lot of holes in his methodhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIgKHiFfB0kology.

    Thanks again Roman I really appreciate the discussion and was continually looking forward to it. And thanks to DFXC who I thought had a decent argument but bent apriori to Catholicism which does pick and choose which Church Father to accept and what to accept among those catalogues.

    Thanks again;

    Dokimazo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To play “Catholics advocate” for a minute, we cannot simply assume the biblical canon a priori according to the catholic, and then judge the early fathers from that standpoint, we first have to establish the New Testament as canon, which is the whole argument to begin with.

      So for example how would you know if the church fathers apostatized? You’d compare it to the scriptures, but how do we then know that the writers of James or Hebrews or Revelation hadn’t apostatized? Just them being in the New Testament Canon means nothing unless you can establish the New Testament canon in a way that is consistent with your theology.

      Of course DFCX is bent apriori to Catholicism, but then again, I am bent apriori to Sola-Scriptura, we are all biased in some way.

      It’s defiantly a difficult subject.

      Like

  2. Dokimazo says:

    Roman;

    I think an appeal to those text. that we believe to be canonized, by the early fathers indicates their supremacy. I understand tradition, but all tradition is not approved by God. Matthew 15.3-9.

    Doesn’t the Muratorian Fragment appeal to most of the New Testament Canon? I place that about 170 AD. That coupled with the quotes of the Cannon (what is accepted today as Canon) by the fathers in discussing matters shows that they considered them authoritative. Were the fathers assuming Bible Canon when quoting those text? Of course they were. They considered them to be theopneustos. 2Ti.3.16

    I know I am preaching to the Choir. I know to a certain extent I have an apriori bent that direction but not without good reason. And I know that you and I will not agree on everything when it comes to the Canon.

    Again I really appreciate the dialog. It is both encouraging and edifying. But of course I would no more consider our words or the discussion between you and DFXC, to be inspired in the sense that Paul when writing to Timothy meant it. Nor the Church Fathers to be inspired in that way. Yet they did consider the words of Paul, and Jesus to be inspired or at least authoritative.

    I know I’m repeating myself and of course we have not really spoke about the role of God’s Holy Spirit and how it played in all this.

    Thanks again;

    Dokimazo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I completely agree with you, from the beginning there were certain writings that were considered apostolic and authoritative, but it’s not an appeal to the authority of tradition, but rather a recognition that Gods word was recognized as such. The Muratorian fragment does mention most books in the NT. but the question is philosophical, not historical. So let’s say there was a list in a document dated 120 Ad listing all the books of the NT and saying “this is scripture,” that would not make those books scripture, all it would mean is that a certain individual around that time took those books as scripture. Or let’s say we found an earlier list mentioning other works, would those works now be scripture? No.

      To a point we have to appeal to a tradition, but not as divine authority, but rather as a recognition of divine authority of the apostolic age. It’s kind of like this, I may have to rely on a map to find out where the king is, but the fact that I have to rely on the map to find the king doesn’t give the map the Kings authority.

      But the fact is we come to the bible as it is given to us, through the historical church (and sometimes despite it), and we find it to be the word of God internally, we don’t need an authority outside to determine that it’s the word of God. But if we were to ask how we got it, we’d have to appeal to a historical tradition of the church recognizing scripture as scripture. But then we must compare the rest of that historical tradition with the Church itself.

      This is where the question of whether or not an honest hermeneutic is possible.

      Like

  3. Dokimazo says:

    Roman;

    I really think we are riding the same horse. I couldn’t agree with you more that tradition is necessary partly in helping identify the inspired (theopnuestos) Canon. And of course, The Muratorian Fragment is Historical, yet I still think it has value in determining what was accepted as inspired. Again my hat is not hung on that fragment alone. Again the repetition that the early church fathers quoted and relied on that New Testament canon for settling disputes is not in dispute. So to your point that tradition in acceptance of those New Testament books was necessary in accomplishing a canon is undeniable.

    I do love your last point, “But if we were to ask how we got it, we’d have to appeal to a historical tradition of the church recognizing scripture as scripture. But then we must compare the rest of that historical tradition with the Church itself.”

    Thanks again Roman

    Dokimazo

    Liked by 1 person

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