Both here and at Sacramentum Vitae, I’ve been involved in a long-running debate about the development of doctrine with conservative scholars from each of the three major Christian traditions. (By ‘conservative’ I mean those who believe that the “faith once given to the saints” is definitive, fully and publicly identifiable in Tradition and Scripture, and may neither be added to nor subtracted from.) Unsurprisingly, though for quite varied reasons, many of those scholars are hostile to the Second Vatican Council’s claim, in Dei Verbum (emphasis added), that the
…tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.
When I began writing about DD a few years ago, I believed that that a mutually fruitful understanding of DD could be reached across confessional lines on scholarly grounds alone. I now find that belief naïve. The purpose of this post is secondarily to explain why, and primarily to move the issue to the level I believe it needs to reach.
Although it can be usefully clarified from a scholarly standpoint, the question whether DD in the above-described sense occurs cannot be usefully answered from a standpoint that is neutral with respect to the three main traditions of Christianity. As I argued in my most recent relevant post at SV, the question which of the three main Christian traditions to adhere to—Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—comes down to a choice between three “hermeneutical circles” (HCs). In a previous post to which I linked therein, I described the content and provenance of the concept of an HC, and briefly described the three HCs in question. I claimed: “Each such circle can be viewed as a set of criteria for identifying the objective content of the deposit of divine faith [DF] precisely as an object of divine faith not human opinion; as such and necessarily, each HC identifies an authority of ultimate appeal for distinguishing between true and false doctrine.” The problem is that proposed instances of DD cannot be certified as authentic without some such authority of appeal—Scripture, Tradition, the confessing community, or some combination thereof—yet the nature and scope of such authority is itself conceived by each of the HCs in ways that are incommensurable with each of the others. So it would appear that the question precisely which authority is that of ultimate appeal has to be settled prior to those of whether there is “authentic” DD and, if so, which specific instances of DD are authentic. History alone shows how unlikely it is that we will see peaceable consensus on answers to either question.
But things are not really as discouraging as that. For reasons I gave, the choice between traditions for the informed, dispassionate, uncommitted inquirer is best broken down into two: that between the Protestant HC on the one hand and the Catholic and Orthodox HCs on the other; and that between the latter two HCs themselves. I do not propose to discuss the latter here, for I believe that the choice between the Catholic and Orthodox HCs is less fundamental than that between the Protestant HC and the other two seen together as instances of a common principle. The most epistemologically significant choice is that between the Protestant HC on the one hand and those of the older traditions on the other. I say so because, as I see it, the main difference between the two lies in how they relate belief about the nature and authority of the confessing community itself to the deposit of divine faith (DF). And I believe it is both possible and useful to compare the two with respect to how well their ways of conceiving that relation respectively meet criteria that theories in general are expected to meet.
According to the Protestant HC, I wrote,
…given the material sufficiency and interpretive perspicuity of Scripture, any doctrine which is not explicitly stated in Scripture must be derivable therefrom by some form of rational necessity. The sole function of ecclesial authority is to bear and enforce faithful institutional witness to the Truth that can, in principle, be understood independently of such authority. Thus, such authority is not strictly necessary for assimilating divine revelation; it is only a disciplinary and educational convenience.
If that is the case, then the DF—i.e., the “faith once given to the saints,” beginning with the Apostles—contains no tenet, either explicit or implicit, to the effect that the confessing community constitutes or includes an authority-beyond-appeal for the purpose of interpreting the apostolic tradition. Interpretations of the DF are legitimate only when they arise by “rational necessity” from Scripture, whose content is taken as materially equivalent to apostolic “Tradition,” and thus as interchangeable salva veritate with the entire body of doctrinally significant, extra-scriptural “tradition.” Given also the essential publicity of Tradition, we can attain as complete an understanding of the DF as is attainable in principle simply by interpreting the parts and the whole of Scripture in light of each other. Although authority in the confessing community is ordinarily quite helpful for disseminating and preserving interpretations of that sort, in no sense is it necessary for reaching or authenticating them. Scripture is clear enough in itself to ensure that authentic DD can, at least in principle, be achieved by anybody of sufficient education and good will.
By contrast, the Catholic and the Orthodox HCs each insist that the confessing community, i.e. a communion of churches which they call “the Church,”
has received from the Lord the same degree (though not the same kind) of authority as the Apostles to teach in a manner binding all believers. That is because both traditions take such a self-understanding on the Church’s part to belong, itself, to the objective content of the DF….handed on to us through the apostolic succession of the bishops.
The question thus arises: by what criteria should the dispassionate, uncommitted inquirer decide which of the two—the Protestant HC, or the others seen as a pair—best facilitates identifying and assenting to the DF by faith as distinct from human opinion?
As I described it, the rational process by which the uncommitted inquirer should strive to answer such a question is essentially abductive, where the term ‘abduction’ is used, as some philosophers use it, to mean “inference to the best explanation.” To many of those likely to read this, that is old news. For, regarding DD itself,
I have long argued that a species of induction, namely “abduction” or “inference to the best explanation,” is the standard form of DD’s context of justification-as distinct from its context of discovery, which cannot and should not try to eliminate the charismatic element. It is the quality of the abduction, seen in light of the analogia fidei and thus to some extent charismatically, which suggests the difference between mere theological opinions and development of the Church’s collective understanding of the DF.
Reacting to a suggestion by Jonathan Prejean, I endorsed the idea of kicking such a method of rational justification up a level. Thus, I proposed that the sort of process by which particular instances of DD come to be seen as rationally justifiable (not: rationally necessitated) is the same sort of process by which one can come to view one of the two HCs as more rationally justifiable than the other—at least as a way of defining the ambit of Christian orthodoxy. If that is right, then the question I framed above can be reframed as the following: Understood as sets of criteria for organizing and interpreting the raw data of Scripture and Tradition, which choice yields the better explanation of said data? If one can be shown to be better than the other in that sense, then its way of identifying the content of the DF as an object of divine faith, as distinct from human opinion, is rationally preferable to the other.
Prima facie, such a method of evaluation is like that often used to decide between competing scientific theories. Under such a method, the criteria for evaluation include, without being limited to, such qualities as internal consistency (Are all the statements of the theory logically compatible with each other and with the logical consequences of each?); capaciousness (Does the theory explain everything it’s meant to explain?); parsimony (Does the theory avoid multiplying entities beyond necessity?); and beauty (Is the theory harmonious and elegant?). If one of the HCs now in question can be shown to combines such qualities better than the other, then we can infer that one of the two is “the best explanation.” And if so, then the “best” explanation is the one best suited to identifying the objective content of the DF as an object of divine faith rather than just human opinion. For even though inference to the “best” HC only can only yield a human opinion, and hence can never suffice by itself to elicit an assent of divine faith, such an inference can be used to show it more reasonable to make the assent of divine faith to the DF from within one HC as opposed to the other(s).
Of course, objections have come from various points on the theological spectrum. They mostly have to do with how I conceive DD relative to the process of deciding rationally between the two main HCs. I shall briefly describe and meet the two objections that I believe present the clearest challenges.
First, a philosophical preliminary is necessary. Supposing that a certain body of doctrines S, formulated centuries after the Apostles in terms we have no evidence they used, point reliably to the same realities that the Apostles themselves experienced and proclaimed, it does not follow that the Apostles “would have” recognized S as doing so. (I use the rather vague phrase ‘point reliably to’ because it is unclear how certain familiar concepts in the philosophy of language, such as reference or description, can be applied to divine mysteries without substantial modification.) Let S be the set of Christological and Trinitarian dogmas formulated by the great ecumenical councils of the first millennium. Supposing arguendo that S is materially equivalent to the teaching of the Apostles on the relevant topics, it does not follow that S is formally equivalent to that teaching. For, as a general proposition: even if each of two sets of true statements, S1 and S2, express the same facts as the other, and are thus materially equivalent to each other, it does not follow that S1 and S2 mean precisely the same as each other, and thus are formally equivalent to each other. Hence, it does not follow that anybody who accepts one would accept the other. Indeed, that wouldn’t follow even if S1 and S2 were semantically equivalent; for one also would also have to know they are, which requires familiarity with all the terms used. Of course, if one accepts S as “orthodox,” one is committed to believing that, had the Apostles been exposed to S and had come to understand all its terms, they would have affirmed it. But even that assumes that S is not formally equivalent to the relevant teaching of the Apostles; for if such a formal equivalence did obtain, S would be entirely superfluous, and the question whether the Apostles would have understood it would not even arise. Hence, many doctrinal developments widely accounted as orthodox could only be materially not formally equivalent to the corresponding teaching of the Apostles. And so, if there are authentic instances of DD, they point reliably to the same facts revealed to and proclaimed by the Apostles, without thereby being limited to what the Apostles explicitly knew or affirmed.
Although, for reasons which will become obvious, that result is indispensable for the purpose of evaluating the two HCs against each other, it is neutral with respect to each. For it does not specify the authority-beyond-appeal for authenticating proposed instances of DD: whether that’s the “sources” themselves (typically Scripture), understood as proximate objects of faith but in a manner not dependent on the interpretations of ecclesial authorities; or the interpretations of the sources adopted by ecclesial authorities and proposed by such authorities as de fide. And so I believe the way I’ve characterized DD so far does not beg any interesting questions. Yet now is the time to introduce the two main objections to the terms in which I propose that the evaluation of the two HCs be conducted.
In a previous post here, my friend and colleague Dr. Scott Carson has argued that, given the nature of abduction and of doctrine respectively, DD itself cannot take place by means of abduction. The DD process is instead “merely authoritative” (my emphasis), where the relevant authority-beyond-appeal is that of the Church. His argument is an interesting one, even as his position stands at one extreme of the spectrum comprising those who admit some-or-other form of authentic DD. If he’s right, then I cannot justify applying abduction to the problem of evaluating the Protestant and non-Protestant HCs against each other. Now I happen to agree that the full authority of the Church, conceived in either Catholic or Orthodox terms, is necessary for making putative instances of DD binding as doctrine, as hence as proximate objects of faith, rather than merely justifiable as opinion. But I don’t believe that said authority is equally necessary for the process of development itself, and still less is said authority necessary for exhibiting the result as rationally “justifiable” in light of prior doctrine. Partly in defense of that position, I shall shortly describe and reply to Scott’s argument in more detail.
At the other extreme, Protestants such as Dr William Witt of Non Sermoni Res and Ioannes of Fides Quaerens Intellectum object that teaching authority in the confessing community is not and, indeed, cannot be necessary for authenticating doctrinal developments, such as the historic creeds. What authenticates putative instances of DD as doctrine, distinct from mere theological opinion, is simply their flowing by some form of rational necessity from Scripture. Ioannes argues in effect that, were that not the case, then there would be no way in principle to distinguish between authentic DD on the one hand and “new revelation,” which is ex hypothesi inadmissible, on the other. Indeed, there wouldn’t even be a logically decisive way to exclude actual negation of prior, supposedly binding doctrine. Dr. Witt goes even further, arguing that the “inherent intelligibility” of Scripture actually consists in its formal not just its material “sufficiency” for expressing the DF. That is quite similar to, if not identical with, the classic Reformed view that Scripture is altogether “self-interpreting,” i.e. fully intelligible without a wider, ecclesial interpretive context.
There’s no need to review the details of Scott’s argument that DD does not involve abduction. He shows quite convincingly that ‘abduction’, as an epistemological term of art, arose and remains within a philosophical matrix wherein abduction itself functions as a form of explanation suited only to essentially empirical phenomena. It must be admitted that truths of faith are not essentially “empirical,” at least not in the relevant sense of ‘uncontroversially observable’. Therefore, it’s a misnomer to call the process of rationally justifying certain instances of DD ‘abduction’. And if that’s so, then the process of rationally evaluating the two HCs against each other should not be called ‘abduction’ either. That’s just a point I’ll just have to concede.
But that leaves intact the main point I want to make: putative instances of DD can be rationally evaluated, without reference to ecclesial authority, in light of prior beliefs already assumed broadly as articles of faith. Concerning that point, the gravamen of Scott’s argument is that the process of DD, when its result is authentic, does not involve any process of “inference” at all. Thus (emphasis added):
Ultimately, then, the method, if it is one, by which the Church develops her doctrines is neither inductive, nor abductive, nor deductive, but merely authoritative. She makes proclamations, and the relationship between the semantic content of her proclamations, when they are authoritative, is always one of consistency, though not always one of full clarity, if by “full clarity” what one means is complete and full understanding on the part of the target audience.
The truth in that, at least from the standpoint of the Catholic HC, is that the de fide status of certain Magisterial pronouncements does not depend on the quality of reasoning, if any, that might have helped motivate them. But the fact remains that the Magisterium does not fashion “developed” doctrines out of whole cloth and then proceed to impose them on the faithful. The Magisterium merely puts the stamp of the Church’s full authority on certain doctrines which had already come to be understood by the Church as a whole as divinely revealed, not merely as opinions. That process of “coming to be seen” can be shown to be rationally justifiable, given what are taken as the relevant sources. But it is not the product of logical inference alone. Hence it cannot be the kind of necessitation characteristic of deductive inference.
The main example Scott discusses is the development of the doctrine extra ecclesiam nulla salus, i.e. “outside the Church there is no salvation” (‘EENS’ for short). That phrasing originated in the third-century controversy between Rome and Cyprian of Carthage about whether Catholics who had abjured the faith under persecution should be readmitted to full communion after repentance. I am not now concerned with who was right in that particular controversy; I merely note that Cyprian was right to formulate and insist on EENS, which the Church of Rome herself came to define as dogma centuries later. But why were they right? Was EENS just an idea fashioned for polemical purposes at a certain time, which later happened to strike ecclesial authorities as an article of faith to be imposed on the faithful? Not at all. Rather, EENS was and remains a reasonable doctrine to affirm, given other, prior, consensual beliefs interpreted according to the mind of the Church as a whole. That’s a fact of which the even the Catholic Magisterium itself could not have failed to take note.
As far back as we have records, the consensus fidelium was that incorporation into the Church is necessary for salvation, because it was taken for granted that (a) incorporation into Christ is necessary for salvation, and (b) the Church is, in some sense, the Body of Christ. Both beliefs are firmly founded on Tradition and Scripture. Incorporation into the Church was seen as somehow equivalent to incorporation into Christ, so that the latter’s necessity for salvation was seen as correspondingly transferable to the former. EENS is the formal expression of the resulting equivalence, one that itself is materially the same as the faith of the apostolic church on the relevant issues. But EENS does not follow by deductive necessity from (a) and (b) on their face. To get there, (a) and (b) must be so interpreted as to make clear that incorporation into the Church qua Body of Christ is the only way to be incorporated into Christ. Until that is done, one cannot exhibit the relation between (a) and (b) on the one hand, and EENS on the other, as logically “valid” inference from premises to conclusion according to clear rules of any sort of inference. Yet it is equally clear that, given (a) and (b), EENS is a far more reasonable proposition to affirm than its negation. The way to explain that is to see how EENS does follow by deductive necessity from more precise versions of (a) and (b) that reflected the mind of the Church over time. But in that case, deduction is not itself the process by which the Church comes to believe and profess EENS. Deduction merely exhibits the logical fallout from interpretations of the premises-(a) and (b) themselves-which the Church as a whole came to make reasonably given her prior, normative beliefs. That’s rational “justification.” Rational “necessitation” of the “developed” doctrine only arises from interpreting its premises in a certain way; but it is precisely that way which constitutes the “development.”
Subsequent clarification and refinement of EENS within the Catholic Church over the centuries, culminating in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, exhibits another way in which the development of that doctrine is rationally justifiable. From roughly the time of the Emperor Constantine, in which Christianity become the state religion, to roughly the late 17th century, when the post-Reformation wars of religion were seen to have torn Western Christendom asunder, most Catholic prelates and theologians believed that full communion with the Catholic Church, attained before death, is necessary for salvation (save in certain carefully specified cases of baptism by “blood” or “desire”). There were understandable cultural and historical reasons for that belief. But as Scott shows, it is in no sense a logical consequence of those formulations which, taken together, circumscribe the binding sense of EENS. It is a theological opinion which, though understandably prevalent for a long time, is neither formally nor materially equivalent to EENS. For several reasons that can also be traced historically, the Catholic Church has come to believe that God consigns nobody to damnation who is inculpably ignorant of the Faith in its fullness. It is now professed that such people can be saved (LG §16); but the manner in which their incorporation into the Church takes place is up to God alone, and the Church does not profess to know it. That result is reasonable, given EENS together with a reasonable belief about God’s mercy. But such a result cannot be said to follow, by rigorous rules of inference, from prior doctrines taken as definitive. The way in which EENS is now understood by the Catholic Church is rationally justifiable, given those beliefs, but is not rationally necessitated by them.
The other main example Scott discussed is the Church’s teaching about usury. His concern, like mine, was to show that the Church’s DD on that topic, as well as that of EENS, does not negate formulations of the doctrine propounded in the past with her full authority. That is necessary because logical self-consistency is a necessary condition on reasonability. If the Church’s DD did not exhibit such consistency, at least within that body of doctrine propounded with her full authority, then the Magisterium’s claims for itself would be unreasonable and, with it, Catholicism itself. Since Scott and I both believe that the Magisterium can always be successfully defended on this score, and that we could not in conscience be Catholics if we believed otherwise, I shall not bring in other examples. The main point is that, whatever may be the historical context of discovery for instances of DD that the Magisterium has come to teach with its full authority, their context of justification, which is usually that of apologetics, can and ought to exhibit their reasonability given other, prior doctrines taken as givens.
But what could such “reasonability” consist in if, as I’ve already conceded, we cannot show allegedly authentic instances of DD to be rationally necessitated by what is cited, apart from magisterial authority, to justify them? Although internal consistency is one necessary condition on such reasonability, it is by no means sufficient; so it’s important to supply an informative answer to the question I’ve just posed. For if one does not, then the challenges posed by such Protestants as Witt and Ioannes, standing at the other extreme of the DD spectrum, remains unmet.
For reasons already stated, the norms needed for authenticating DD cannot supply a mechanical decision procedure for cranking out “developed” doctrines. Formally inferential procedures can be deployed to exhibit the results of authentic DD as rationally justified; thus, such procedures belong to the theological “context of justification.” But they do not typically dominate the process of DD, the “context of discovery.” At the same time, the needed, more flexible criteria for the context of discovery must be those which the confessing community can learn to apply to such instances. The general criteria are those which apply broadly to theories of whatever discipline: self-consistency, capaciousness, parsimony, and beauty. For the reason Scott gives, self-consistency rather than necessitation is the most important logical requirement. As more specific criteria, Newman proposed his much-discussed seven “notes” of development. Lately, and partly in response to my and Scott’s discussions of DD a few years ago, Prof. Brandon Watson has adumbrated his own: “richness, confidelity, creativity, and entelechy.” Lest ‘creativity’ sound like making things up, which it isn’t, by all means read Brandon’s account. I believe that all such criteria (the theoretical, Newman’s, and Brandon’s) are severally necessary and jointly sufficient for exhibiting the “reasonability” DD on any specific point. Much work remains to be done to systematize such contributions. But no systematization would or should yield a mechanical decision procedure that can be rigorously applied apart from the sensus fidelium.
That bothers some people. For, as is patent in the very formulation of such criteria, their application must be partly subjective. Scott says “largely” subjective in the case of the general criteria, and would doubtless say so a fortiori in the case of those enunciated by Newman and Watson. But I believe Scott is overlooking Brandon’s key point, one which I believe is unassailable:
The inferences that an inferentialist account notes are very important for individuals in the process of accepting [e.g.] the truth of the Resurrection; but we are not merely individuals but a community, and it is as a community that we have our fundamental grasp of the truth. I think this is generally going to be the case. The inferentialist about development of doctrine identifies legitimate and important things — namely, guidelines about how individuals may guide themselves with respect to Church doctrine, and combine freedom of thought with fidelity to truth. But, while this certainly plays a role in development of doctrine, it is not what constitutes it as development. It is merely what makes it possible for us as individuals to go with the flow of it (so to speak). It’s as if we took a plant and tried to say that its life was a particular type of molecular motion.
Inference is something that anybody who grasps the rules can reliably do in the privacy of their study, a process which is not per se charismatic; whereas applying the more realistic criteria for evaluating proposed instances of DD is something only the confessing community can reliably do over time, and is in part charismatic. The former can be heuristically important for individuals wrestling to understand and accept this or that “developed” doctrine, assuming they share with the confessing community a rich set of common, consensually interpreted theological premises. But only the application of the more “subjective” criteria can work in the communal contexts of discovery and justification for authentic DD, where the doctrines in question come themselves to constitute articles of faith rather than human opinion. Thus, the application of the needed criteria of evaluation are intersubjective and diachronic. That is partly subjective inasmuch as it is charismatic, but it partly objective too inasmuch as various norms, both doctrinal and methodological, come into play. As such it is necessarily charismatic, but not merely charismatic.
If that is so, then with respect to facilitating the assent of faith (as distinct from opinion) to orthodox doctrines not formally equivalent to the teaching of the Apostles, the Catholic/Orthodox HC I’ve described is superior to the Protestant HC I’ve described. For if the Protestant HC were best, then some-or-other “inferentialist” account of DD (it hardly matters which) would be correct as an account of the process of discovery, and so proposed instances of DD could be reliably evaluated by any educated individual as inferences from Scripture, apart from the pronouncements of any authority purporting to speak for the Church as a whole. Yet there is little historical evidence that the writings that came to be seen as inspired “Scripture” actually functioned that way within the Church during her first several centuries any more than they do now.
To illustrate, I shall briefly describe the Church’s responses to two early heresies: the Gnostic-Marcionite, which peaked in the mid-2nd century CE, and the Arian, which peaked in the mid-4th century CE.
I speak of the “Gnostic-Marcionite” heresy because the key idea that the Marcionites and the Gnostics held in common was that the Creator of the physical universe is not the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ but rather a demiurge—and a jealous, ruthless one at that. That idea was plausible to many Christians at the time for three reasons: (1) it was an economical explanation for the apparent contrast between the character of the Old-Testament God, who on occasion would even order genocide, and that of the God whom Jesus called “Father”; (2) in the ancient Roman world, it was unclear to most Gentiles, including many Christians, that divinity is not a matter of degree but, rather, whatever may be called ‘god’ is the same God as whatever else may be called ‘god’; (3) the canon of the NT had not yet fully coalesced. Taken together, such facts precipitated a crisis of authority in the mid 2nd-century Church. So, rejecting the broad consensus of the bishops in apostolic succession, Marcion basically threw out most of what were by then being called “the scriptures,” meaning the Septuagint and other, “apostolic” writings typically read at the liturgies or synaxes. In effect, he argued that the only reasonable way to make sense of Jesus as loving Savior and supreme Revealer was to posit a radical discontinuity between the Jewish and Christian understanding of divinity.
There were two main responses to that crisis. The first was primarily authoritative. Sometime during the 140s, Anicetus, the Bishop of Rome, excommunicated Marcion and his considerable following as heretics, citing the baptismal regula fidei that, at the same time, came to be more richly formulated in what we now call “the Apostles’ Creed.” During the Marcionite period (roughly 130-145), Rome had also come, for the first time, to put together an NT canon that included the “four” gospels along with many of the epistles that would be comprised by the NT canon when, a few centuries later, the biblical canon was definitively closed by the Church. Rome certified only those gospels and letters, rather than other purportedly apostolic writings in circulation, as an authentic record of the divinely “inspired” teaching of the Apostles.
The other response was primarily apologetic: the Against the Heresies of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, written a generation after the Marcionite crisis largely as a polemic against the Gnostics properly so-called. Since I’ve already discussed Irenaeus’ approach in detail at my own blog, I shall only summarize the result here.
The main point of scholarly contention about my Irenaeus post was, in content, essentially the same as that between the Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox HCs quite generally. Thus the question was whether, for Irenaeus, the full “objective content” of the DF is reliably identifiable, as an object of faith, in a manner essentially dependent on its profession and interpretation by those who spoke for the “receiving subject” of the DF, namely those who were demonstrably the public successors of the Apostles as church leaders. Naturally, I argued that it was. My critics argued that, given Irenaeus’ methods and actual statements, no such belief about the teaching authority of the Church need be or should be attributed to him. I replied, in effect, that if Irenaeus had not been willing to make a materially equivalent affirmation, then he could only have presented “orthodox” doctrine as a better interpretation of the sources than those of the Gnostics, rather than as an exhibition of the DF precisely as an object of faith distinct from and beyond opinion. That would not have sufficed for carrying out his stated intent of showing the Gnostics to be heretics placing themselves outside the communion of the Church, as distinct from just believers who happened to adopt mistaken opinions.
Although Irenaeus would have been most suspicious of any explicit idea of DD, his work affords us what amount, in fact, to the first authentic instances of DD we know of. Relying on his personal knowledge of St. Polycarp, who had known the Apostle John and was bishop of the same city where Irenaeus had grown up, and following Rome on the question of the biblical canon, Irenaeus made certain aspects of the Church’s faith a bit more explicit than they had been before. Among those aspects was the role of the teaching authority of those church leaders who enjoyed publicly verifiable apostolic succession. That authority did not call for assent primarily because anybody with enough education and good will could see that those who held it had a better intellectual case for teaching “apostolic” truth than the heretics. Although Irenaeus did a commendable job of building such a case—mixed, of course, with his own theological speculations—its strength was ultimately secondary for him. For the kind of assent for which the common teaching called was of a fundamentally different kind from that of scholarly opinion or theological speculation. It depended more on faith than on human reason or alleged “knowledge,” and such faith was understood to take as its content precisely the public tradition of the Church as commonly interpreted by men who were publicly verifiable as successors of the Apostles-rather than by men claiming secret “knowledge” incompatible with the common interpretation. That is one of the main reasons why the Gnostics disdained it. It called primarily for obedience to a visible, living body of men understood by the common, public tradition as having divinely granted authority to guard and expound that tradition. Any gnosis one attained of God could only be attained on condition of such obedience.
Another problem calling for DD arose early in the 4th century, when Arius of Alexandria argued that “the Son” himself—not merely the humanity of Jesus—had to be a creature, albeit quite the highest of creatures, the “firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15). A lot of Christians found that plausible partly because they did not clearly distinguish between eternal and temporal causation. All agreed that the Father had “caused” the Son to exist by “begetting” him, but it just wasn’t obvious to a lot of believers that such an action was timeless within the Godhead itself, aside from and as a condition of its also becoming temporal, with the agency of the Holy Spirit, in the womb of Jesus’ mother. In my experience, many of the baptized still don’t quite get that. Nor can one blame them. The concept of an action that doesn’t take time, yet also has a temporal correlate, is very hard to grasp and no easier to explain. That is why, even today, I’ve met a fair number of formal Christians who are materially Arians. That is also why most people who accepted the Nicene Creed’s assertion that the Son is of “the same substance” as the Father did so primarily on the authority of the Church. That’s why a great many do today.
Given as much, it seems strange in later, “orthodox” eyes that a lot of people back in the early 4th century could hear the Scriptures and celebrate the liturgy, which both attested to the divinity of Christ, yet still find it plausible to think of the Son as a special sort of creature. But the Arians themselves believed they were interpreting Scripture correctly over against what they saw as the innovation of Athanasius: his favored formula homoousios, which had been rejected as late as 269 by the Council of Antioch. Although the bulk of ordinary believers were not Arian, and the monks in particular opposed that heresy, many of the educated were seduced by Arian exegesis not because they were knaves but because people had not quite got rid of the idea that divinity could be a matter of degree. In the Roman world, it was quite possible to speak and think of Christ as “divine” while still imagining him to be a creature because all sorts of (real or imagined) persons and entities were acclaimed as “divine” who could in no sense be put on the same ontic plane as “the One” posited by some Gnostic and Neoplatonic thinkers or even the “one God” of the Jews. The New Testament alone was just not enough to dispel such an idea even among those who revered it as divinely inspired. That is one reason why ante-Nicene Christology was not altogether free of “subordinationist” overtones. And so, the Arian slogan that “there was a time when he [the Son] was not” did not offend a good many of the more educated Christian ears.
On the intellectual level, the way the Church began to meet the challenge of Arianism can be found in the writings of St. Athanasius. By drawing out more clearly the connections between the Godhead, the Incarnation, and theosis, he and the Cappadocian Fathers who followed him exposed and rebutted the misconceptions that made Arianism seem plausible to so many Christians. They expressed the faith of the Church as brilliantly and creatively as those tumultuous times required. But even their best arguments were slow to convince the episcopate. Through much of the 4th century, there were times when the majority of bishops were Arian in substance if not always in expression. The coalescence of Nicene orthodoxy in the Church took several generations of conflict, political as well as theological, and in some corners of the Empire it took far longer than that. Once again, the intellectual cogency of Nicene orthodoxy, as an interpretation of Scripture and Tradition, was less of a motivator than authority, both imperial and ecclesiastical. And the way the authority was exercised was often not very pretty.
The pertinent DD ultimately achieved authoritative form in the decisions of the “ecumenical” councils of Nicaea I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451). The majority of Christians still take for granted that the doctrines taught by those councils define orthodox belief, but many are unaware that they did not achieve such status back then because people just sat down, read their Bibles, and reached the “rationally necessary” conclusions. It took a century-and-a-half of debate and infighting to come up with a series of formulations that could win the approval of the majority of bishops; and even then, the last two of those councils precipitated schisms that have persisted to this very day. Scholars proposed, and rightly so; but it was authority that disposed.
Does my account of how such early heresies arose and were met mean, as Dr Witt has charged, that I reject the idea that Scripture itself is “inherently intelligible?” Of course not. I am happy to grant that the doctrinal content of Scripture can be understood by anybody equipped with the right cognitive tools. As Witt shows, St. Thomas Aquinas holds the same. But what are those tools?
For Aquinas, even the rather small minority of believers who can come to know and understand Scripture as competent scholars can assent to its doctrinally significant content as an object of faith only if they “adhere to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule.” That is precisely why, even though Aquinas shared the common belief in the material sufficiency of Scripture as an expression of the DF, and thus as a source of doctrine, he never asserted its formal sufficiency. Of course Witt appears to believe Aquinas should have asserted Scripture’s formal sufficiency, given his overall intent, just as I believe Irenaeus should have asserted the necessity of an interpretive teaching-authority-beyond-appeal in the Church, given his overall intent. But that is where the rhetorical symmetry ends.
For both Aquinas and Irenaeus, Scripture is properly understood only if it be read and interpreted according to the teaching of the Church. The canon of Scripture is vouchsafed to us by God through the Church, and may only be understood in conformity with the mind of the Church. But Aquinas was a bit more explicit than Irenaeus about the basis for such conformity. For Aquinas, the Church reached the “right understanding” of Scripture because she has divinely granted authority to teach the “First Truth” infallibly. When propounded as regulae fidei, such teaching is not independent of Scripture, by which the Church is divinely bound and binds herself, but is infallible as interpretation of the DF, of which Scripture was seen as the materially sufficient written expression. If Aquinas did not believe that, he would not have used the phrase ‘infallible rule’ for the teaching of the Church. He would have contented himself with pointing out that the Church’s articles of faith can be seen to be materially equivalent to Scripture’s doctrinal content just because any objective, competent study of Scripture would show that she managed to interpret Scripture rightly over time. Although he did believe that study could demonstrate as much, that was not his argument for the authority of Church teaching. For Aquinas, the Church’s regulae fidei are not “infallible” because they happen to be correct scholarly interpretations of an inerrant text. Such interpretations of Scripture, even when substantially correct, are fallible. Rather, the teaching of the Church qua rule of faith is “infallible” because, when propounded with the intent of binding the whole Church in matters of doctrine, it is divinely guaranteed to point reliably to the same divine revelation that Scripture does: the “First Truth.” That, not scholarly competence, is what makes the Church’s regulae fidei authentic interpretations of Scripture as an object of faith. Hence, for Aquinas the infallibility of the Church is not a derivative of Scripture’s inerrancy, any more than Scripture’s inerrancy is a derivative of the Church’s infallibility. Rather, both derive from a common source: the Holy Spirit himself. For that reason, they are mutually attesting and interpreting. That is why the canonical list itself—i.e., th list of books actually counting as Scripture—as well the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy are themselves infallibly propounded regula fidei of the Church.
That is also why Aquinas argued, e.g., that “we must rather abide by the pope’s judgment than by the opinion of any of the theologians, however well versed he may be in divine Scriptures” (Quodlibetal Questions IX, q.8, C.). Abiding by the pope’s judgment, when such judgment is offered to resolve a doctrinal question definitively, is not a scholarly “gentlemen’s agreement” or even a purely disciplinary necessity. The former might hold only for a time, and the latter might involve just pretending to believe what one cannot believe as a scholar. Rather, it is a submission of the mind and will to the “infallible rule” of the teaching of the Church. Such a rule holds for all time, and adherence to it is an exercise of the virtue of faith not an expression of opinion, no matter how intellectually well-founded that opinion might be. Without accepting the divine authority of the Church to interpret and formulate said content infallibly, and without thereby assuming that the Church’s articles of faith are materially equivalent to what is found in Scripture, one can only hold what is “of faith” as an opinion, not by faith and thus not as a matter of faith.
So much is evident from the reply to Objection 2 in the very same article in which Aquinas uses the phrase ‘infallible rule’ for the teaching of the Church (emphasis added):
The various conclusions of a science have their respective means of demonstration, one of which may be known without another, so that we may know some conclusions of a science without knowing the others. On the other hand, faith adheres to all the articles of faith by reason of one mean, viz. on account of the First Truth proposed to us in Scriptures, according to the teaching of the Church who has the right understanding of them. Hence whoever abandons this mean is altogether lacking in faith.
To abandon “this mean” does not necessarily involve failure to perceive a great deal of the inherent, architectonic intelligibility of Scripture, and thus a great deal of the doctrinal content thereof. It means failure to believe it all on faith, and accordingly failure to perceive the entirety of the doctrinal content thereof. That is why disagreeing with the Church about the meaning of Scripture on even one point of faith is to abandon the mean altogether. If one conducts the interpretation of Scripture as though one need not be guided by the Church’s regulae fidei, one will not get the whole message of Scripture. Again, that’s not because the Church can antecedently be known, by scholarly inquiry, to have got Scripture right on every single point of doctrinal significance other than that of her authority. That is essentially a matter of opinion—an opinion I happen not to share, even though Aquinas appears to have shared it. It’s because one can only believe the Word of God with the virtue of faith, and thus get Scripture right, by reading and believing it with the mind of that Church which attests to it. And that is because it attests to the authority of the Church herself. That, for Aquinas, is why the Church’s teaching is indispensable to interpreting Scripture reliably.
Although we do not find in Aquinas the explicit, full-blown doctrine of the Magisterium that one finds in the two Vatican councils, any more than we find it in Irenaeus, that doctrine is materially equivalent to what Aquinas maintained. But that is, again, a purely scholarly question. The more fundamental issue is doctrinal.
Writers such as Ioannes, an admirer of Witt, are unwilling to concede the necessity of a teaching authority that enjoys the same degree, if not the same kind, of authority that the Apostles did. For him, an alleged authority that is divinely authorized to speak “infallibly” for and to the Church as a whole is at best unnecessary because, given the inherent intelligibility of Scripture, any proposed instance of DD can be assessed in light of Scripture independently of authority. The reason for such reluctance, which is hardly idiosyncratic, is that the criteria for allegedly infallible teaching and authentic DD are not stated in such a way as to logically rule out substantive addition to or subtraction from the DF, whereas Scripture is perspicuous and self-authenticating enough to be the sole authority of ultimate appeal for doing that very job. That notion of Scripture’s authority, in contrast to the Church’s, is one of the more plausible versions of the sola scriptura principle.
There are two problems with that position. The first is that, given that it virtually defines one HC over against the others seen as a pair, it cannot be offered as a decisive refutation of the other, any more than the other can be offered as a decisive refutation of it. For, on either the Catholic or Orthodox HCs, the authority of the Church as receiving subject of the DF is, itself, contained by the objective content of the DF. So, assuming that Scripture is a materially sufficient expression of the DF, one cannot fully perceive its inherent, architectonic intelligibility without accepting the authority of the Church. The other problem is that, if a person holding the Protestant HC accepts authentic DD in any sense at all, then they are thereby committed to an essentially inferentialist account of DD. The “perspicuity” of Scripture, manifest without the authority of the Church, would thus be the basis of the much-desired “rational necessitation” of proposed instances of DD. Yet thanks to Scott Carson and Brandon Watson, I have come to see that DD just doesn’t work that way.
As we’ve seen, the “context of discovery” for authentic DD is the Church’s intersubjective, diachronic meditation over time on the central truths of faith contained, with varying degrees of explicitness, in Scripture and Tradition. The essentially apologetical “context of justification” for authentic DD utilizes various criteria for rationally justifying the claim that certain “developed” doctrines, formally distinct from what is contained in the sources, are materially equivalent to it. That can and does include rule-bound logical inference—but only as heuristic, not as original derivation. So the application of such criteria does not yield rational necessitation of “developed” doctrines, and a living ecclesial authority is therefore needed to authenticate certain developed doctrines as de fide rather than mere opinions. To that extent, I agree with Scott Carson. But that is a disadvantage only if one already assumes that inferentialism is the way to go, and that the Protestant HC is superior on that score. I believe that the actual, historical course of what is generally agreed to be authentic DD belies that assumption. I’ve cited only a few examples, but there are many others.
Accordingly, I believe that defenders of the Protestant HC would do well to abandon the very idea of DD altogether. An empirically defensible account of how “authentic” DD actually works makes theological sense only within the Catholic/Orthodox HC, which posits the authority of the Church qua receiving subject of the DF as, itself, part of the objective content thereof. From that standpoint, the interpretive authority of the Church is essential to Scripture’s inherent intelligibility, precisely inasmuch as affirmation of that authority is materially contained in Scripture.
For that very reason, some conservative Protestants do reject the very idea of DD. They maintain that the Church’s understanding of the DF over time is essentially static, so that even doctrinal propositions which are formally distinct from what is contained in Scripture do not increase the Church’s understanding of the DF; they merely rule out the misunderstandings to which foolishness or knavery may lead. I find such a result less plausible than the purely inferentialist account of DD that I once advocated and have been convinced to abandon. For, from the fact that the DF itself is complete, it by no means follows that our understanding of it is ever is. Although the Church’s understanding reaches stages that may never be abandoned or disavowed, it is never limited to any one such stage. Nor should we expect it to be, given that the subject matter is inexhaustible. And history offers us nothing to encourage such an expectation.