Friday, May 28, 2010

Whitaker's Disputations: A Refutation of Stapleton's Arguments on the Authority of the Church (Part 2)

We are continuing our series on Whitaker's Disputations. This post will look at Stapleton's second argument defending the assertion that we need the Church, specifically the Catholic Magisterium, to identify the canon for Christians, and that this identification gives the Church the most "certain" authority possible.

(For those interested in the earlier sections of Disputations, Green Baggins has begun analysis on the first chapter--the number of books contained in the canon.)

Stapleton's Second Supporting Argument

Stapleton's second argument1 can be summarized as follows:

P1 The canon cannot be discerned by appealing to style, phraseology and other criteria without the additional judgment of the Magisterium.
P2 The Magisterium knows best how to judge style, phraseology and other criteria.

C1 Therefore, we need the Magisterium to identify the canon.

A Simple Reply

Whitaker levels three counter-arguments, but only the second (and a directly related part of the third) will be discussed here, perhaps because it is the most practical and powerful:

Secondly, although we should concede all this to him, yet where will be the coherence of his reasoning,— The church knows best the voice of the spouse, and the style and phraseology of scripture; therefore its authority is the most certain? For what though the church know? What is that to me? Are these things therefore known and certain to me? For the real question is, how I can know it best? Although the church know ever so well the voice of its spouse, and the style and phraseology of scripture, it hath that knowledge to itself, not to me; and by whatever means it hath gained that knowledge, why should I be able to gain it also by the same?2

This argument is further supplemented:

But as to his pretence that because the church delivers the rule of faith, it must therefore be the correctest judge of that rule; we must observe that the terms deliver and judge are ambiguous. The church does indeed deliver that rule, not as its author, but as a witness, and an admonisher, and a minister: it judges also when instructed by the Holy Spirit. But may I therefore conclude, that I cannot be certain of this rule, but barely by the testimony of the church? It is a mere fallacy of the accident. There is no consequence in this reasoning: I can be led by the church's voice to the rule of faith; therefore I can have no more certain judgment than that of the church.3

Two observations for now:

1. The point is well-received. If the Church gives us the canon and we cannot come to know it any other way, what of it? How does it logically follow that the Church is now the most authoritative body in the life of the believer? How does it follow that we should now submit our interpretations of Scripture to the Magisterium?

Whitaker uses an analogy to shore up this point (which I have slightly tweaked): There were Jews who could not have known (intellectually or by faith) Christ as the Messiah had not John the Baptist revealed him to them. Does it therefore follow that John the Baptist was the best interpreter of Christ's commands? Should these Jews have submitted their interpretations of Christ's words and commands to John's first and foremost? It's not obvious how that would be the case.3

2. It is also instructive for Whitaker to remind us that however the Church gains knowledge of the canon, laypersons should also have access to those means. If the Church identifies the canon through historical inquiry, why are we not allowed to engage the same texts with the same tools and come to the same conclusions independently? What, specifically, is it about the Magisterium that allows it identify the canon? Should the methods and reasons used to arrive at this knowledge remain inaccessible to everyone outside of the Magisterium? It's not obvious why this should be the case.

Athanasius is a fine example of this. Before any council met to recognize (or "determine" as some Catholics would argue) the canon, the famous father had successfully identified the New Testament canon:

...it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued stedfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance...Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.4

If Athanasius was able to identify the canon without recourse to the determination of the Magisterium, why are Protestant Christians any different?
_____________________________

1. William Whitaker, Disputations, 286-287.

2. Ibid., 287.

3. Ibid., 288.

4. Athanasius, Festal Letter 39.

15 comments:

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"If Athanasius was able to identify the canon without recourse to the determination of the Magisterium, why are Protestant Christians any different?"

Indeed.

If Athanasius could do it, then Protestant Christians can also identify the canon without having to consult a Magisterium.

Alexander said...

Identifying the canon is not at issue. A clock is right at least twice a day. The issue is definitively stating what the canon is. As demonstrated over at Turretinfan's blog, Protestants have enough difficulty distinguishing the essentials from the non-essentials. Determining what books belong in the canon can't be any easier without recourse to some authority, which is exactly what happens. I seriously doubt that Matthew Shultz has gone through each book of the Bible, along with all the other writings which were competing for inclusion, and identified what the canon should be.

James Swan said...

Determining what books belong in the canon can't be any easier without recourse to some authority, which is exactly what happens.

Authortity isn't the problem. It's the addition of the word "infallible" when placed before it that is heretical.

Alexander said...

Which makes the Protestant position that much more untenable. A fallible collection of infallible books, all based upon the authority of other fallible men. It's great to hold your NIV now and tell us that you know what the canon is. As Turretinfan stated before, you know the ingredients of a pizza by looking at the pizza. On the other hand, if someone were to tell you to go make a pizza, would you know where to begin? The same applies to the Scriptural canon.

Without talking to God directly, or having the benefit of first hand experience, we all rely on some other authority. If that authority is fallible, it could be right, but it could also be very wrong.

Matthew D. Schultz said...

Alexander writes:

Identifying the canon is not at issue. A clock is right at least twice a day. The issue is definitively stating what the canon is.

1. Stapleton thinks Protestants cannot identify the canon at all without recourse to the Catholic Magisterium. So basic identification, let alone "definitive" identification, is very much relevant.

2. I'm not sure what grounds you have to imply that not going through the Magisterium means Protestants are guessing or lucky or some such thing (as a broken clock) when they try to identify the canon. That's a significant implication, but you would need to produce evidence to support it. It's also not helpful to just smuggle it in right at the beginning.

As demonstrated over at Turretinfan's blog, Protestants have enough difficulty distinguishing the essentials from the non-essentials. Determining what books belong in the canon can't be any easier without recourse to some authority, which is exactly what happens.

So it's not necessarily an easy task. What's the consequence of this? How does this overturn or affect Whitaker's reply?

I seriously doubt that Matthew Shultz has gone through each book of the Bible, along with all the other writings which were competing for inclusion, and identified what the canon should be.

You'd be correct. But various scholars have done that and provided external authentication for the canon we have over and against other competing books. So I don't really understand why you're suggesting that I need to personally go through all the possible candidates.

And I seriously doubt anyone who wants to appeal to an authority to "definitively" settle the canon has gone through each of the claims of the countless "infallible" denominations and groups to identify which is really the authority God has established. As with all these kinds of discussions, the lack of certainty is only being pushed back a step, from the identification of the canon, to the identification of the authority who will identify the canon for us.

John Bugay said...

On the other hand, if someone were to tell you to go make a pizza, would you know where to begin?

FIrst, you trust God to be able to put His word, infallibly, into the hands of his church. He can do this without "the church" being infallible. He just can do it. If he can't, he's not God.

Second, from the human side, there were certain tests for canonicity. Having the authority of an Apostle or someone authorized by an Apostle. There were very few of those.

Third, consider the process of how these documents were assembled in the first place. Paul writes a letter; everyone copies it and sends it around. Meanwhile, Paul collects his own letters, and makes sure everyone, even in his own day, wants copies of his letters. There is very good evidence that Paul began collecting his own letters during his lifetime. The four gospels, too, were collected very early on.

Once a document is issued by an Apostle or someone known to be an associate of an Apostle, is there really any question about it? Does the authority of a document in that situation somehow get lost, needing an "infallible church" to somehow re-affirm it?

Look at how this must have happened from the perspective of those "assembling the pizza." You have a Gospel, a life of Christ. Was it, or was it not composed by an Apostle, or an associate of an Apostle. Yes or no? Yes? Then it's something we revere and collect and read in the church for instruction.

It's not like there was a church council, and the infallible magisterium sat down and said, "Ok, guys, what have we got?" The authority was inherent within the documents, as soon as the documents were extant.

Reading "infallible magisterium" back into

John Bugay said...

Reading "infallible magisterium" back into the process is simply an anachronism.

Nick said...

You are confusing the issue of authoritative pronouncement with that of tradition. St Athanasius didn't derive his canon in a vacuum - he received what was passed onto him! In other words, he derived it from tradition. This is, likewise, how the Jews knew what was canonical and what was not.

This is where a typical fallacious argument usually manifests itself, when Protestants "respond" to this by noting these folks didn't need a magisterium to know their canon. That's irrelevant. The issue is how they knew the canon, and the fact is that knowledge didn't come from any 'table of contents' given by God in some scripture.

The issue of Authoritative Pronouncement is what comes into play when disputes or questions arise, and that is where the Church authoritatively settles the issue. So, when the book of Esther or some other disputed book is under discussion, the Church can step in and authoritatively settle the dispute one way or the other.

The Protestant has no way to settle disputes over the canon. A Protestant could logically and consistently toss out any given book from Scripture and other Protestants would be powerless to stop him (without cutting off the very branch that supports them). Someone could argue the private correspondence by Paul to Timothy and Titus was just that, private correspondence, and thus not meant for every individual Christian as part of public Church readings. The Protestant would be crippled as far as refuting that claim.

Matthew D. Schultz said...

Nick writes:

St Athanasius didn't derive his canon in a vacuum - he received what was passed onto him! In other words, he derived it from tradition

Yes, that's what Athanasius says in the quote I provided. I'm not sure what you're suggesting or trying to argue here. Did I imply Protestants derive the canon "in a vaccum" (whatever you mean by that phrase)? No.

This is where a typical fallacious argument usually manifests itself, when Protestants "respond" to this by noting these folks didn't need a magisterium to know their canon. That's irrelevant. The issue is how they knew the canon, and the fact is that knowledge didn't come from any 'table of contents' given by God in some scripture.

It seems completely relevant to Stapleton. It seems completely relevant to those Catholic apologists who think we need the Magisterium to identify the canon for us. If you think all this talk about whether we need the Magisterium is irrelevant, then perhaps your argument is with the defenders of your faith, not with Whitaker or me.

The Protestant has no way to settle disputes over the canon. A Protestant could logically and consistently toss out any given book from Scripture and other Protestants would be powerless to stop him (without cutting off the very branch that supports them). Someone could argue the private correspondence by Paul to Timothy and Titus was just that, private correspondence, and thus not meant for every individual Christian as part of public Church readings. The Protestant would be crippled as far as refuting that claim.

That's a series of assertions lacking supporting arguments. How do you know Protestants have "no way to settle disputes over the canon"? Do you mean the evidence usually invoked on discussions of canonicity is ambiguous or vague or indecisive? Or do you mean that some folks will never come to accept the complete canon as Scripture? I don't know how you'd prove the former without committing yourself to an epistemology that renders historical judgments on all historical documents, including documents used to prove Catholicism, meaningless. If you mean the latter, then we are left with a situation that every communion and denomination has to suffer.

Nick said...

Matthew,

That is what I saw implied in your comments such as:

"the famous father had successfully identified the New Testament canon"

and

"If Athanasius was able to identify the canon without recourse to the determination of the Magisterium, why are Protestant Christians any different?"

The notion of "identifying" the canon gives off the impression they were some how self-authenticating and he "successfully" came up with the list on his own. If that wasn't what you were getting at, I stand corrected - though it would also be a huge blow to the Protestant side who won't accept a canon derived from tradition.

The Catholic claim never was that without an official Magisterial pronoucement we wouldn't know anything about the canon, quite the contrary. What is wrapped up in the magisterium talk is that of deriving the canon through tradition and not of self-authentication.


You asked: "How do you know Protestants have "no way to settle disputes over the canon"? Do you mean the evidence usually invoked on discussions of canonicity is ambiguous or vague or indecisive?"

Yes, the second sentence is my point. Appealing to historical documents and such does nothing for the Protestant, since historical documents are fallible and non-authoritative.

Matthew D. Schultz said...

Nick writes:

The Catholic claim never was that without an official Magisterial pronoucement we wouldn't know anything about the canon, quite the contrary.

So you think Stapleton was wrong to argue as he did?

Or am I misreading Stapleton?

If I am not misreading Stapleton, how can you say the Catholic position was never what Stapleton argues?

By the way, the issue for Stapleton is not whether we would know anything about the canon without the Magisterium, but that decidedly smaller set of facts addressing whether we could see the whole set of books as inspired given means outside of the Magisterium. You need to be careful here in how you characterize the state of the controversy.

Yes, the second sentence is my point. Appealing to historical documents and such does nothing for the Protestant, since historical documents are fallible and non-authoritative.

You seem to be introducing concepts you didn't have in mind previously. That the evidence for the canon is ambiguous or some such thing is not the same as saying such evidence is fallible and non-authoritative. Something can be clear while being fallible and non-authoritative, and something can be ambiguous while being fallible and non-authoritative. So your comments here are a bit confusing.

I'm also not sure what you mean by "non-authoritative" or how that's relevant to the question.

Now, how would you go about demonstrating that the evidence is, indeed, ambiguous? What allows you to make such a claim? It would be helpful here to discuss some standard commentary on canonicity from top Protestant scholars to demonstrate your point.

Also, what prevents that claim of ambiguity from applying across the board to all historical inquiry, including inquiry into whether, for example, the Roman Catholic denomination is grounded in the historical documents known as the early church fathers and Scripture? The same kind of evidence is discussed in both cases (canonicity and, say, Papal succession), and it seems impossible to say that ambiguity in one does not necessitate ambiguity in the other.

Nick said...

Matthew,

You are misreading Stapleton. Note Whitaker's words (p285):

"Firstly, the major is true, if he mean books properly canonical, which have been always received by the church; for these the church ought always to acknowledge for canonical: although it be certain that many flourishing churches formerly in several places had doubts for a time concerning many of the books, as appears from antiquity."

There is a distinction between levels of authority being used by the Church. As Whitaker notes, there were doubts at times on various books, but the 'standard' by which Christians went by was what the local churches had passed on as 'canonical'. When times came for definitively settling disputes, that's where official Magisterial authority steps in.
This is further made clear by the fact Stapleton uses terms like "most certain authority" and "all doubt removed," indicating levels of certainty.

Then, if that weren't enough, Stapleton's position is made even more clear:
"The second argument wherewith Stapleton confirms the assumption of the preceding syllogism is this: All other mediums that can be attempted are insufficient without making recourse to the judgment of the church; and then he enumerates the mediums upon which we rely. For as to the style (says he) and phraseology, and other mediums, by which the scripture is usually distinguished"

Notice the phrase "insufficient," meaning there is some degree of sufficiency, and he "enumerates mediums which we rely" and by which Scripture is "usually distinguished." So the real issue is how disputes on the canon can be *ultimately* settled - which is impossible in the Protestant system.


As for your comments on 'ambiguity', I never had that in mind. I was speaking on the issue of non-authoritative, meaning regardless of what any Father or Council said about the canon, in Protestantism such comments would be non-authoritative.

Paul Hoffer said...

I do not really have time to go in depth with this but both you and Whitaker apparently ignore the fact that St. Athanasius happened to be a part of the "Magisterium." In fact, in the order of things, he was the head of the third most important see in the Catholic Church and had the authority to set the canon for the bishops under him. Just thought you might be interested in that fact.

Matthew D. Schultz said...

Paul,

I am aware of that. The issue is that Athanasius as part of the Magisterium is really not the same as saying we need the Magisterium in its infallible, ecumenical capacity to determine the limits of the canon for us. I think there's a substantial difference between one bishop fallibly telling us about a canon he received and verified and all the bishops of the Roman Catholic denomination meeting to vote on and infallibly determine the limits of the canon.

I'm not sure, though, how you'd defend this concept from Athanasius' writings:

and had the authority to set the canon for the bishops under him.

Andrew Suttles said...

> 'Determining what books belong in the canon can't be any easier without recourse to some authority...'

'But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers. ...My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me'