Here a skeptic, there a skeptic
Faith and Salvation
There is a famous example of a syllogism, given by Aristotle, that goes like this:
All Men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
I’m coming to the end of Copelston’s first volume on the history of philosophy, and he is covering a number of schools that were big names in the later Roman Empire, such as the Cynics and the Skeptics. In reading over what some of these schools taught, I am struck from time to time on the similarities to some so called modern schools. It goes to prove, I think, that there really is nothing new under the sun.
Here, Copelston is describing and critiquing one of the Skeptics:
Sextus Empiricus (c. A.D. 250), who is our main source for details of Skeptic doctrine, argued against the possibility of proving any conclusion syllogistically. The major premise – for instance, “All men are mortal” – can be proved only by a complete induction. But the complete induction involves a knowledge of the conclusion – “Socrates is mortal.” For we cannot say, that all men are mortal unless we already know that Socrates is mortal. The Syllogism is, therefore, an instance of a vicious circle.
We may note that this objection against the syllogism, revived in the nineteenth century by John Stuart Mill, would only be valid if the Aristotelian doctrine of the specific instance essence were rejected in favour of Nominalism. It is in virtue of our perception of the essence or universal nature of man that are entitled to assert that all men are mortal and not because we lay claim to any perfect and complete enumeration of particulars through actual observation, which in the case in point would be out of the question.
The major premise is founded, therefore, on the nature of man, and does not require explicit knowledge of the conclusion of the syllogism. The conclusion is contained implicitly in the major premise, and the syllogistic process renders this implicit knowledge clear and explicit. The nominalist standpoint demands, of course, a new logic, and this Mill attempted to supply…
My annoyance with attacks like the one discussed here is that I do not see how it can be used to build anything positive; it is, if it is anything at all, a kind of universal acid of the mind and the heart, nullifying even itself. In modern garb this is the ‘critical’ school beloved of left leaning academics and politicians. Vatican documents often refer to it as Nominalism. Secondly, it relies on an dogmatic and unprovable axiom – there are no universals – and its adherents too often refuse to acknowledge this. Instead they like to exalt themselves as ‘the true, the brave, the elite, the vanguard, etc. etc. etc.’ over the ‘superstitious rabble’ who do hold that universals exist and are worth discussing.
You might be quick to think that there is a hard line between those who hold that there are universals – call them the religious – and those who do not. You would be wrong to do so, however, because there are large numbers of people who mix the two axioms together in various ways. It is my opinion that when this mixing takes place, Christian religion becomes weakened, even corrupted. This will take some explaining, so please bear with me.
I was doing some reading on the subject of soteriology on the weekend. It’s a big word but it simply means ‘theory of salvation.’ There has been a long debate in Christianity over how it is that man is to be saved, and if it can be done through faith or works. Various answers have been offered and Protestants of all stripes like to say that Catholics think they are saved by works. It’s an odd accusation for a Catholic to hear but it has in it some nubs of truth that can be said to give rise to the confusion. The first is that in the medieval period there were indeed corrupt religious officials who would claim to be able to forgive sins for a large enough ‘donation’ to the church. This was completely wrong and deserving of all the censure the Reformers brought to bear on it. A religious official does not have the power to contradict the faith since doing so nullifies his very claim to power.
The second bit of truth giving rise to the accusation is that Catholics have a different understanding of the word Faith than Protestants do; we are less willing to accept someone’s claim to have faith if that person shows no outward signs of it. That does not mean that we think outward signs alone will save one single soul; it does mean we think a growing faith will reform a person in ways that are too large to miss. This is one of the ways the Catholic avoids collapsing religion into an experience that is only interior, only private. The presence of Faith can be likened to yeast that leavens the community.
There is nothing in this both / and view that contradicts the Pauline theology that man is saved by faith. Paul says, rightly, that if man can be saved by works, then Christ died for nothing. If we can save ourselves by our own action, then we do not need Grace. The “good news” of Christianity is that saving grace is freely available, because man has never been able to live up to Mosaic Laws. In fact, the Catholic Church spent a lot of time and effort fighting the Pelagian heresy that held that man’s will is not so corrupt that he cannot save himself. I suppose there are some Protestants who, when they read the word “works” in Paul’s letters, think of Catholic devotions instead of the ancient Jewish Law, or who hold that devotions are analogous to it. One gets the feeling that they think Catholics save themselves by taking the Eucharist, by saying the rosary, or by scrupulously following as much of the Tradition of the church as they can.
These ideas are mistaken. There is even a term for the idea that a strict following of Tradition can save a soul. It is called ‘scrupulosity‘ and it is NOT a good thing. The online Catholic Encyclopedia describes it as “a bad habit doing harm, sometimes grievously, to body and soul.” Why, then, do these accusations about Catholics and being saved through works persist?
Could it be because Martin Luther suffered from scrupulosity? Is there something about Sola Scriptura that is analogous to the skepticism that I mentioned at the beginning of this too long post?
Writing on Galatians, Peter Kreeft offers up a very interesting link between the two ideas. Luther, he writes, stumbled over the faith and works issue because he did not believe there was a thing like human nature for faith to lift up. Thus, he called James – which deals with the issue specifically – an ‘epistle of straw’ and tried to have it dropped from the canon.
Bad philosophy can produce bad theology. Luther was an Okhamist, that is, a Nominalist, who did not believe there were any such things as real species or universal essences like human nature. If there is no universal human nature, there can be no transformed nature.
Luther thus reduced salvation to a mental attitude on God’s part, and to a legal transaction. God looks at us as if we were his children because he looks at us covered by Christ’s blood, which hides our sins, and God declares us righteous even though we really aren’t. This merely transfers the legalism from the human to the divine.
One could go on and view Sola Fide as an attempt at over zealous Pauline scrupulosity that does violence to the integrity of the Bible as a whole, as the issue of James’ epistle points out. Sola Scriptura itself plays games with the Bible, making it to be something it was never intended to be – THE criterion of truth on earth. The very attempt to make it so demonstrates a lack of faith in God’s Providence. The Bible is not the unmoved mover, the source of meaning, or the one who says “I AM.” It is not a divine incarnation or an example of divine dictation. It is done by human hands inspired by God; and contained in that word is the crucial notion of the divine working though human agents.
Sola Scriptura pits one aspect – albeit an important one – of God’s unfolding Providential creation against the rest.
This view of the Bible – taken to extreme- has similarities with the Islamic view of the Koran, which Muslims claim is word for word God’s text, flawlessly transcribed by one man, and which cannot even be truly understood in any language but Arabic. The Bible, in contrast, was written by many authors, in many languages, over a huge number of years. Which books were in and which ones were out has always been a matter of contention. The decisions about what books to include could not be based on the Bible itself, and had to be accomplished by inspired human agents – guided by God’s Providence. How do we come to accept Sola Scriptura and reject the process that created scripture? I suspect the answer is human nervousness about Providence, which appears slow and sloppy by human reason and human timelines. Holding fast to the Bible only seems like a safe shortcut.
The Bible begs to be respectfully poured over, with attention to sources, the type of document (history, legal document), time of origin, and so on. This is not a bug, I think; it is a feature. Our Bible is a book that grows with us. We can find in its pages ethical rules to aid us as new situations unfold, situations that the human agents doing the writing and compiling could not have imagined – such as writing this text on a lit screen and sending it out to be scrutinized with the click of a button. All of this interpretation cannot, however, be allowed to give rise to the idea that Scripture is play dough we can mold at will (remember, our will is nothing to brag about!). The Church is the guardian of Scriptural integrity, in the same way that it guards the integrity of the Eucharist itself.
Both elements are aids in the reformation of each person’s essence, such that they will be acceptable for being incorporated into the divine. Both are instances of the divine co-mingling and transforming of the merely human.
It may appear that I’ve left myself open to what Father O’Leary called ‘Magesterial Fundamentalism’. I counter that the very idea that a living, breathing tradition can be covered by the term ‘fundamentalism‘ is quite a stretch. Can it reasonably be said that the law of non contradicton can fall under that term? No? Then how can it be that I have put the Magesterium on the highest possible plane?
I’ve bitten off a large subject here and – as always – I’m open to feedback from all sides.