Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Protestant Response to Michael Garten’s “Arguments for the Reliability of the Church”

The Purpose of this post is to respond to a second post by Michael Garten at the Eastern Orthodox blog Well of Questions. This second post by Michael gives additional arguments for church infallibility. These are five smaller arguments that Michael has given and I will respond to each of them.

Michael Writes:

“1) The principle of testimony says that we should believe someone’s testimony about some event unless we have good reason to doubt the reliability of that person’s testimony. The fact of a person’s fallibility should not detract from thinking that they can be a reliable reporter about some event. When an early Christian after the death of the apostles claimed “I believe x because it was delivered to me by the apostles or someone who received their teaching from the apostles” they are a reporter. Their testimony should be considered reliable unless we have reason to believe otherwise.”

Response: I agree with the principles of this argument that we are warranted in thinking that a testimony is reliable until we have a defeater or a reason to doubt it. It’s hard to see that this is an argument for infallibility. The Protestant would need to see the citation from an early Christian witness and evaluate it on a case by case basis. Furthermore, if the Protestant saw an early church witness claim in writing that the church is infallible in the sense that it is a source of continuing revelation or a divinely inspired interpretation of revelation then the Protestant who believes the Bible teaches that divine revelation doesn’t continue after the completion of the canon would have a good reason to doubt this early church witness. Thus, it seems unclear if even the early post-canonical church did teach such infallibility and that we should trust an early witness that contradicts a teaching in the earliest church witness; Holy Scripture (Ephs. 2:20; 1 Cor. 13).

Michael Writes:

“2) Ancient Greek-speaking Christians’ interpretive skills should probably be taken into account as a reason for favoring the interpretations of early Christians. This isn’t an appeal to the intrinsic authority of Church offices or something; this is just saying “scholars who speak a language or a close derivative thereof, and are not as distantly separated in time, should be given the benefit of the doubt in how they understand a word/idea/sentence/book of that language”. Early Christian scholars who are culturally and linguistically connected to the apostles should be considered very weighty sources of information for how we interpret things. So the early Church’s scholars, at least, should be considered reliable in their biblical interpretations.”

Response: This is a good point, but I don’t see much inferential connection to church infallibility. However, it’s not clear that all people who have a good grasp of Greek should be considered as a beacon of doctrinal truth. Take Origen for example, he knew Greek very well, but we would not consider his interpretations as a part of main stream biblical teaching. Thus, this is all to say that we should look at the Ancient Greek speaking Christian’s remarks on the Greek as weighty and not so much there theology which could or could not be mistaken. Yet, we should take into consideration the theology they support by their linguistical points in the original Greek language. But this of course has nothing to do with church infallibility and it’s hard to see an argument for church infallibility from this standpoint alone (unless Michael supplies additional premises).

Michael Writes:

“3) The principle of early attestation states that we should tend to trust the testimony about some event the closer in time the testimony is to the event reported. Applying this to the teachings of the Church throughout, for instance, the first 3 centuries yields the conclusion that we should consider the Church of the first 3 centuries reliable in what it specifically taught. It is close to the events where the source (apostles and Christ) taught what it had to say, so its more likely to accurately report the source’s information (apostolic and Christian teaching).”

Response: This is a good point that any reasonable person could agree with. However, this argument and many others in this post fail to take into consideration the fact that many of the early teachings either wholly do not include the central parts of the gospel (they are ignorant of them) or they actually contradict the teaching of scripture. This is what many Protestants have claimed and thus if a claim in the early church father appears that go against the Bible (confuses justification and sanctification and a continuation church infallibility) then we would have good reason then to not accept it as authentic apostolic teaching. In the same way, we wouldn’t consider early corruptions of Gnosticism as authentic apostolic biblical teaching. The Protestant can just say that there were corruptions in the church early on and that there was and always will be in the covenant of grace made up of unbelievers and believers. It seems like then these arguments assume church infallibility to be biblical in the first place, which is something that Michael is far from proving in these arguments.

Michael Writes:

“4) Lets assume that the Church considers holy tradition to be a deposit of divinely-revealed truths. If this tradition is contained in oral practices (recitation of creeds, bishops teaching catechumens and clergy, etc.) then we have to ask the following question: is there any reason to think these oral practices would be reliable in preserving the content of the tradition? The answer is yes. The amount of care that is spent to preserve information is directly proportional to the importance of preserving the information. If you believe that you have received God’s words directly or intermediately, you will want to go to great lengths to preserve the content of that message. Given that the early Christians seemed to understand their tradition (including stuff not explicitly contained in the New Testament) as from God, there is a significant prior probability that they would not gratuitously warp the content of their tradition.”

Response: Most of these arguments miss similar types of considerations that Protestants consistently take into account. We don’t accept the Gnostic gospel of Thomas do we? Why not? Because it’s unbiblical and I am sure that most reasonable Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants could agree on that (it also doesn't seem to be self-attesting via Holy Spirits reliable belief production). We don’t trust this early testimony because it doesn’t fit in with what the first century prophets and apostles taught and wrote. Obviously if the Gnostic corruption is possible then it is certainly possible that there were some doctrinal corruption in some early thinkers that were a part of the visible church. Secondly, it’s not even clear if the early church taught the church infallibility that you believe in and if they did the Protestants would argue that such statements contradict what earlier New Testament prophets wrote. Most of the argument given in this post by you could be responded in a very similar fashion (as I have done above).

Michael Writes:

“5) One might construe passages such as “the Church [is] the pillar and ground of truth” (2 Tim 3:15) and “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13) as indicating that there is some kind of divine guidance behind the belief-forming processes of the Church. This divine guidance could be construed in terms of a tendency of the Church to get its beliefs correct, or infallible authority as well. However, there are other possible interpretations of these passages. Whether or not they are more plausible than saying that these passages indicate the reliability (or infallibility) of the Church is another question.”

Response: Protestant happen to think that the church was infallible during this period (even my favorite theologian James White), but that after the prophets and apostles died and when all the completion of canon came this type of divine infallible revelatory function ceased (1 Cor. 13; Ephs. 2:20).

Concluding Thoughts:

Michael has given some interesting arguments in his post, but the fundamental problem with these arguments is that it assumes the Eastern position and fails to take into account basic Protestant reasons for not accepting church authority.

NPT

22 comments:

Catz206 said...

“1) The principle of testimony says that we should believe someone’s testimony about some event unless we have good reason to doubt the reliability of that person’s testimony. The fact of a person’s fallibility should not detract from thinking that they can be a reliable reporter about some event. When an early Christian after the death of the apostles claimed “I believe x because it was delivered to me by the apostles or someone who received their teaching from the apostles” they are a reporter. Their testimony should be considered reliable unless we have reason to believe otherwise.”

I generally agree with this also. Do we actually have solid early evidence for Church infallibility? I’ve looked at some of the proof texts appealed to and they seem less convincing in context but I still have more early church father writings to go through.

“2) Ancient Greek-speaking Christians’ interpretive skills should probably be taken into account as a reason for favoring the interpretations of early Christians.”

Taken into account to what degree? Should I lean towards interpreting the Biblical text allegorically? Origen…Clement of Alexandria…

3)
Yeah, this is easy to agree with…but keeping in mind that the Biblical texts are the earliest and are the inspired ones.

4)“Given that the early Christians seemed to understand their tradition (including stuff not explicitly contained in the New Testament) as from God, there is a significant prior probability that they would not gratuitously warp the content of their tradition.”

Perhaps there wasn’t any intentionally warping but this does happen even to a small degree. Within the New Testament itself we see these problems and that is while the apostles were still around.

On another note, maybe MG could help me out by clarifying something. When you said “(including stuff not explicitly contained in the New Testament) as from God,” Are you referring to implicit principles or traditions not taught in Scripture such as the use of icons?

5)
These would def be some good verses to go over beyond a mere ref. Maybe if MG doesn’t cover them later we will.

MG said...

Nate--

You wrote:

"This second post by Michael gives additional arguments for church infallibility."

Where did I say this?

Catz206 said...

If the EO Church is reliable then you accept that its claims to infallibility are as well.

Nate was probably simply reading your second post in the context of your first and responding to the implications.

Nathanael Taylor said...

Yeah, thanks Allison...that is where I was coming from.

NPT

MG said...

Catz--

If A and B are intellectual positions, and A -> B, then is it possible to offer arguments for A that don't directly and immediately argue for B?

So for instance, establishing the truth of theism is sometimes taken as a precondition in apologetics for establishing the resurrection of Jesus. This is because a person has to at least believe miracles are possible to accept the resurrection of Jesus as actual. Or take the existence of Jesus and the reliability of the NT. This is a precondition for arguing for the resurrection; but it is not itself the resurrection hypothesis (even if it entails it)

Now, lets say I'm a naturalist who is debating a Christian about the resurrection. I know that if the Christian establishes the reliability of the NT and the existence of Jesus, they will be able to argue for the resurrection. So they offer me some arguments for the reliability of the NT. What would be your reaction if I responded to arguments for the existence of Jesus in the following way:

"I agree with the principles of this argument that we are warranted in thinking that a testimony is reliable until we have a defeater or a reason to doubt it. It’s hard to see that this is an argument for the resurrection though. The naturalist would need to see the evidence from an early Christian witness and evaluate it on a case by case basis. Furthermore, if the naturalist saw an early church witness claim in writing that the disciples thought Jesus rose from the dead, then the naturalist who believes that God does not exist would have a good reason to doubt this early church witness. Thus, it seems unclear if even the early post-canonical church did teach that Jesus rose from the dead, and that we should trust an early witness that contradicts a tenet of naturalistic philosophy."

Would that be a good response to arguments for the *existence* of Jesus (not his resurrection)?

MG said...

Nate--

In my post, I wrote:

"This post is an argument that my presentation of one Protestant view of the Church as reliable in how it forms its beliefs may be valid, and not a straw-man. The argument is two-part. First I will produce examples of what I consider to be Protestant attestation to belief in the reliability of the Church. Second I will give arguments for why a Protestant should accept the conclusion that the Church’s tradition is reliable. Saying that the Church is reliable means that it tends to get its beliefs correct. The explanation for why the Church is reliable is that it is led by the Holy Spirit; and being led by the Holy Spirit makes the Church tend to interpret the Bible correctly. The Bible is divinely-authoritative and factually inerrant in conservative Protestant theology. Consequently the Church tends to get its beliefs about Christian teaching right."

This clearly states that my arguments were for the reliability of the Church, and not for its infallibility. Whether infallibility follows from reliability is not relevant to whether or not these are good arguments for the reliability of the Church.

Given that arguments for reliability need to be evaluated on their own, ignoring the question of whether reliability entails infallibility, how do the arguments fair? I assume that you will have to re-evaluate their strength, given that they are not constructed to entail the conclusion you thought they were designed for.

Nathanael Taylor said...

This clearly states that my arguments were for the reliability of the Church, and not for its infallibility. Whether infallibility follows from reliability is not relevant to whether or not these are good arguments for the reliability of the Church.

Given that arguments for reliability need to be evaluated on their own, ignoring the question of whether reliability entails infallibility, how do the arguments fair? I assume that you will have to re-evaluate their strength, given that they are not constructed to entail the conclusion you thought they were designed for.

Response: As I said on the phone that may have been your authorial intent, but since you made this blog the second in your series (by labeling it the same as your previous post but just adding a two to it) then I was responding to it as a series with an addition of this recent blog that you have written. If you didn't mean for it to be a series then this response I gave on this blog is for everyone who had the same confusion I had.

Thanks,

NPT

David N said...

You guys talk on the phone...like...outside the blogosphere? Isn't that cheating?

:P

flourence n said...

i'm reading through Henry Bettenson's "Documents of the Christian Church" and i'm beginning to question the theological honesty in MG's (?? name ??) most recent posts/comments (at least with Church Authority: Argument 2).

It seems that there's an appeal to the first 3 centuries of the Christian Church without really knowing what the Christian Church had to say/do and assuming it falls into line with the current Eastern Church's practices. It would take a book to respond to many of the problems (and because i just don't have the time, for which i apologize). So instead, I strongly suggest reading an objective documentation, like Bettenson's, in which you have much the of the documents that are being quoted.

~ flourence n.

idea: to the authors of "By Whose Authority":

it would be interesting if you guys/gals would make a blog dedicated to just Church Documents and Teachings -- maybe have as a reading Bettenson's Documents of the Church? I would more than happily comment/blog away there. But i do not desire to get this blog off it's wonderful course :)

flourence n said...

Here:

http://www.borders.com/online/store/TitleDetail?detail=aboutProduct&sku=0192880713&id=51210139#aboutProduct

~ flourence n

(once again, i apologize for intruding, but i am fascinated by this debate)

flourence n said...

ugh. it didn't copy the link:

here's the description:

" Description: Since its first publication in 1967, this collection of writings from the most important moments in the history of Christianity has established itself as a classic work and now incorporates a wealth of new material.

Description: Since its first publication in 1967, this collection of writings from the most important moments in the history of Christianity has established itself as a classic work. Now incorporating a wealth of new material, this new edition will be an essential reference source for anyone interested in the history of the Christian Church. While retaining the original material selected by Henry Bettenson, Chris Maunder has added a substantial section of more recent writings. These new entries illustrate the Second Vatican Council; the theologies of liberation; Church and State from 'Thatcher's Britain' to Communist Eastern Europe; Black, feminist, and ecological theology; ecumenism; and inter-faith dialogue. The emphasis on moral debate in the contemporary Churches is reflected in selections dealing with modern issues such as homosexuality, divorce, AIDS, and in-vitro fertilization. With the publication of this new edition, Documents of the Christian Church provides insights into the whole 2000 years of Christian theological and political debate."

~ flourence n

Catz206 said...

MG-

“If A and B are intellectual positions, and A -> B, then is it possible to offer arguments for A that don't directly and immediately argue for B?”

Sure, and without your first post Nate prob wouldn’t have addressed your argument in the way he did. Still he probably still would have several other issues with it.

David-
“You guys talk on the phone...like...outside the blogosphere? Isn't that cheating?”

Yeah, we’re bad like that

Flourence-
I would love such a blog. Time is an issue but maybe we can make a couple posts along those lines though.

Also, you are not intruding at all. You always have something good to contribute and please come as often as you would like.

Catz206 said...

Flourence, would you be up for making a gust post on our blog? E-mail me.

Allison.M.Quient@biola.edu

flourence n said...

Allison:

Thank you. If i feel like i have anything meaningful to contribute I will email you. For now, I will see where this conversation goes and will wait for MG's future post he mentioned ("WOQ hasn’t ever actually done a detailed statement of our arguments against SS or Sola Fide; so expect that coming soon, including a response to your arguments here.")

A few different views on such a topic might further the conversation.

With gratitude,

~ flourence n

MG said...

Nate--

You wrote:

"As I said on the phone that may have been your authorial intent, but since you made this blog the second in your series (by labeling it the same as your previous post but just adding a two to it) then I was responding to it as a series with an addition of this recent blog that you have written. If you didn't mean for it to be a series then this response I gave on this blog is for everyone who had the same confusion I had."

Given that I wasn't arguing for infallibility in that post, do you have any response to my arguments considered as reasons for believing in the *reliability* of the Church?

Catz206 said...

MG-

So your post that came next in the series after "From Reliability to Infallibility" wasn't aimed at arguing for infallibility?

Nathanael Taylor said...

Given that I wasn't arguing for infallibility in that post, do you have any response to my arguments considered as reasons for believing in the *reliability* of the Church?

Response: I have arguments against and disagreements with the reliability of the external church when it is used to promote unbiblical and unreasonable doctrine. Now since you connected this blog to a previous blog written that argued for reliability to infallibility then I think this blog addresses those two blogs together in this blog. Now if you didn't intend for them to be together then next time you might want to avoid titling them as part 1 and part 2....again this is nothing new this is what I said over the phone. Now to answer your question directly: The church is mostly reliable and sometimes it is unreliable, but we know it is reliable when it corresponds to the Bible and right reason, when it doesn't do this then we know it is unreliable.

Hope that helps,

NPT

MG said...

Catz--

You wrote:

"So your post that came next in the series after "From Reliability to Infallibility" wasn't aimed at arguing for infallibility?"

As I have stated, in the comments here, and in the introduction to the post itself, it was not an argument for infallibility per se. As you agreed, "If A and B are intellectual positions, and A -> B, then it is possible to offer arguments for A that don't directly and immediately argue for B". The example that I gave of arguments for the existence of Jesus being distinct from arguments for the resurrection should establish this well enough.

The arguments need to be considered apart from whether or not the reliability of the Church implies its infallibility, just like how arguments for the existence of Jesus need to be assessed based on their own strength, regardless of whether or not they imply the resurrection. My post was aimed at arguing for a specific point that is a step in the case for the infallibility of the Church; but that is irrelevant to assessing the arguments.

Nate--

You wrote:

"Response: I have arguments against and disagreements with the reliability of the external church when it is used to promote unbiblical and unreasonable doctrine. Now since you connected this blog to a previous blog written that argued for reliability to infallibility then I think this blog addresses those two blogs together in this blog. Now if you didn't intend for them to be together then next time you might want to avoid titling them as part 1 and part 2....again this is nothing new this is what I said over the phone. Now to answer your question directly: The church is mostly reliable and sometimes it is unreliable, but we know it is reliable when it corresponds to the Bible and right reason, when it doesn't do this then we know it is unreliable."

The two blogs were connected and part of a series. But they were connected in the way that I specified in my introductory remarks to the post: the post is an argument for ecclesiastic reliability. This may or may not imply ecclesiastical infallibility based on separate arguments that are not in the post itself.

Do my 5 arguments count in favor of the intrinsic reliability of the Church's tradition? By this I mean prior to testing it up against what Scripture says, would these arguments be some reason for presuming that, in the absence of countervailing evidence, the Church is reliable?

Sure, perhaps counter-balancing evidence (Scriptural arguments against the beliefs of the Church) could come into play afterwards, showing that the Church is in fact *unreliable*, and hence its testimony is not to be trusted. But this is posterior in the order of argument to assessing the inherent validity of the five arguments given.

Catz206 said...

MG-

“As I have stated, in the comments here, and in the introduction to the post itself, it was not an argument for infallibility per se. As you agreed, "If A and B are intellectual positions, and A -> B, then it is possible to offer arguments for A that don't directly and immediately argue for B"

My answer was: “Sure, and without your first post Nate prob wouldn’t have addressed your argument in the way he did.”

If you merely argued for the reliability of the Church in the first, that would have been fine. However, with the labels of (1) and (2) we mistakenly assumed that the thought from the second post was continuing on from the first.

“My post was aimed at arguing for a specific point that is a step in the case for the infallibility of the Church; but that is irrelevant to assessing the arguments.”

Your intentions are understood and yes, it is perfectly reasonable to argue step by step. I think the steps were placed out of order though. If this is so, then Nate’s critique still stands.

As far as what was put forward for [mere] reliability, that is something that can now be addressed.

Nathanael Taylor said...
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Nathanael Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathanael Taylor said...

Response: The intent of my blog was to address post 2 in context of post 1 so that the argument developed in post 1 doesn't even get off the ground. I had good reason for thinking this, until you clarified, but even with the clarification I still think my tactic still stands because the way I addressed this post again doesn't allow your argument to get off the ground. Either way I am fine because your argument for the infallibility of the church doesn't even get moving epistemically at all.

The two blogs were connected and part of a series. But they were connected in the way that I specified in my introductory remarks to the post: the post is an argument for ecclesiastic reliability. This may or may not imply ecclesiastical infallibility based on separate arguments that are not in the post itself.

Response: I agree, in case it may imply it I wanted to shoot it down before hand.

Do my 5 arguments count in favor of the intrinsic reliability of the Church's tradition? By this I mean prior to testing it up against what Scripture says, would these arguments be some reason for presuming that, in the absence of countervailing evidence, the Church is reliable?

Response: No, I don't think so. At best it merely shows that the church has some extinistic reliability relation because the source of the early churches theology was the Bible. To not even take the Bible into account is just too assume your position at the outset.

Sure, perhaps counter-balancing evidence (Scriptural arguments against the beliefs of the Church) could come into play afterwards, showing that the Church is in fact *unreliable*, and hence its testimony is not to be trusted. But this is posterior in the order of argument to assessing the inherent validity of the five arguments given.

Response: I think your arguments don't work because in the context you are trying to establish them they seem to already beg the question or assume your position because the Protestant position would be that the reason why the church has happened to get anything right is through the special revelation found in the old and new testament and right reason...without these two essential elements the church would not be reliable at all. Thus, the church only derives it's reliability extrinistically from the Bible and right reason. So for a Protestant the question of the church corresponding to scripture and right reason is always logically prior to question of the reliability of the church....this is why I suggested earlier that all you arguments in the end merely beg the question.

Hope that helps,

NPT