Sunday, April 15, 2012

A simple loaded question

Stacy Trasancos wrote an excellent post, “Quiddity for Atheists”, on the difference between being and essence and how it relates to demonstrations of God’s existence.  As happens frequently on comboxes everywhere, the discussion went into several different rabbit holes.  Near the end, alanl64 dug this one out:

How was it decided what in the bible was to be followed to the letter and what is to be interpreted. i.e not eating shrimp, wearing mixed fabric or working on the sabbath are not followed literally (amongst many others) but acting on ones gay desires is? [N.B.: I’ve left alanl64’s spelling and punctuation intact.]

A little later, he rephrases the question:

Who is the authority that tells you what in the bible is to be read as literal and what is to be read as figurative? Simple question really.

A simple question … but a loaded question nevertheless, because it’s obvious the answer alanl64 is looking for is, “Flawed, error-prone, changeable humans make those decisions.”  Thus does he sign off:

… I don’t have any interest in if the catholic church changes the way they read the bible.  Not my place to expect the church to change.  I am just comforted to know that it is possible of change, it has changed, and it is decided not by god, but by humans.  Makes a lot more sense now.

Slam dunk, right?  Except that you have to make several assumptions to get to his conclusion.  Such as the assumption that once you introduce humans into the equation God is shut completely out of it, His Will eternally frustrated by idiots with their own agendas.  There’s also the small problem of proving from a rather ho-hum general truth that any specific example bears that truth out; for example, it doesn’t follow from the observation, “People make mistakes,” that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is just such an error.


The first way the question is phrased, alanl64 seems to be asking for a standard that separates the rules of ritual purity that no longer apply (mixed fabric, abstaining from pork, etc.) from the ethical laws that still do.  The technical answer is that none of the Law of Moses still applies, for we have been given a new commandment: “Love one another” (Jn 13:34-35; 15:12, 17; cf. Gal 5:17, Heb 13:1, 1 Pet 1:22).  The Ten Commandments make an excellent framing device to help us understand how love for each other ought to affect our behavior; thus it is that the Church still teaches gay sex as a sin against the Sixth Commandment (“You shall not commit adultery”).[1]  But in Christ the Law of Moses is fulfilled (Mt 5:17; cf. Eph 2:14-16); we are under a new law which calls forth from us from love the treatment of others that was once compelled by fear.

It’s the second phrasing, though, that reveals alanl64 to be playing “gotcha”.  For unless we’re going to claim that the Pope has a hotline to God’s desk, or that there’s an angelic messenger service that brings the Vatican God’s latest instructions, then of course we’re going to admit that humans decide between the literal and figurative, between what still applies and what doesn’t.  And that’s where alanl64 says we lose him.  Because bishops are human, they can’t possibly be protected from theological error or moral flip-flops by God; because of their interference, God can have no say in His Church’s teachings even if He exists.

Before he can ask either question, alanl64 has to grant that Scripture is somehow divinely authoritative: either the writers of the various books took dictation from God (allowing only a needlessly, relentlessly and even stupidly literal understanding) or they were inspired by God (expressing what He wanted us to know in different ways, some literal and some figurative). 

Why? Because if Scripture isn’t even inspired by God, then it’s no more religiously authoritative than Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  In such a case, it wouldn’t really matter who had what power or right to interpret the meaning of Scripture — either God doesn’t exist or He’s too great/big/important/nebulous/separated from His creation to be bothered with telling them anything, so it’s all a big scam anyway.  The authority to interpret and apply Scripture matters only if Scripture is theopneustos, literally “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16), in some fashion.

Now, alanl64 is only been pretending that he’s granted God could influence the writing of Scripture.  How do we know this?  Because if he’d truly granted that God could influence the writing of Scripture, then he could just as easily deduce from that idea alone that God could influence the Church’s interpretation of Scripture.  How could God be able to do the former but not the latter?  Both involve God revealing Himself to the mind of Man, even if indirectly or allusively.  No, if God can make individual men prophets, then He can make a group of men authoritative teachers on matters of faith and morals; if the Holy Spirit can inspire predictions of future events or declarations of God’s holy Will, then the same Spirit can protect an institution from error.

It’s not a matter of debate whether the Church has changed anything.  It is, however, highly debatable whether the Catholic Church has gone beyond working out the implications of the original deposit of faith and actually taught something 180° different from that which Christ and the apostles taught.  Such a topic is far more complex than can be addressed in a single post; suffice it for now to say, there’s change and then again there’s change.

However, it takes more than the dreary truism, “Humans make mistakes,” to prove that the Catholic Church has made a mistake in its teachings on matters of faith and morals.  Nor does a change in discipline prove that dogmas are reformable, that the Church (for instance) can change her stance against same-sex marriage because she once changed her stance on married priests. 

And neither notion proves that the Church has no authority from God.  “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18; cf. Mt 16:19, Lk 10:16).


[1] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2052-2074, 2357-2359.