OHPT: Authority of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church (Chapter 1)

In order to stay honest and accountable, I have decided to make a blog series of my notes and thoughts on each of the chapters in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology. I want to use this space as a place to work out my questions, my agreements, my dissatisfactions, my counterpoints, and my realizations. I would love any thoughts you, inquisitive reader, have about any of these ideas or my interpretation/understanding of them.

And off we go…

Chapter 1: “Authority of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church” by Richard Swinburne

This was a good one to read out of the gate, and I appreciate OHPT making this an early chapter. Providing arguments for the authority of Scripture/Tradition/the Church is pretty foundational to all that comes after, since that authority is assumed in almost everything in Christian theology.

(I do find the almost total emphasis on Christian philosophical theology to be interesting for this textbook. So much rich philosophical theology to be explored from other religions, many of which have just as extensive and deep an intellectual history. Oh, well.)

Jaunty. Image via CapturingChristianity.com

Richard Swinburne is a professor emeritus at Oxford and is known for his arguments for the existence of God. He’s done a lot of work previously establishing some of the premises in this chapter, but obviously didn’t have space to provide that necessary background. So I am torn between assuming the best (“he had solid arguments that he didn’t have space to provide here”) and evaluating the chapter honestly (“this rests on undefended assumptions”). I have a feeling I’ll feel this way for quite a few other chapters, so hopefully I start to find a good analytical balance that honors the argument as it stands as well as the unknown-but-assumed-good-quality of the scholars’ prior works. Reading critically + charitably is hard, people.

Goodness, that is a lot of setup. Ok. In the first part of his article, Swinburne is arguing that Christians have received propositional revelations (aka, revelations of a clear idea or claim, not just a nebulous experience of the divine), and that we can trust in the authority of the Bible and the additional proclamations of authority groups that have “continuity with the apostolic church” (19).

Swinburne says God has “beliefs,” beliefs that accord with the “central Christian doctrines and all the truths of history and science.” He says this as if it were accepted Christian doctrine that God has beliefs. I found that interesting. I always talked about God having perfect knowledge, so the comment that God has perfect beliefs is interesting. Or perhaps perfect beliefs are part of God’s perfect knowledge? To me, “belief” always entails a gap in understanding. But I suspect this is just a difference of definition, not an actual point of disagreement, so I’m really just pointing it out because I found it amusing. (HILARIOUS, I know.)

Swinburne points out that Augustine said we could accept science only insofar as it doesn’t conflict with Christian doctrine. I find this… perplexing. I have more thoughts on science in conversation with religion, which I’ll save for the 3rd chapter which deals with this very question directly, but there is something so anti-knowledge in this stance. Or it reveals a different definition of knowledge than what I prefer. I mean, I guess this whole chapter is arguing that revelation is akin to knowledge (or that revelation is real and is justification for belief) so that what I would consider “unproven assumptions” are actually “well-founded assumptions”. But there is something deeply disturbing and Orwellian about the claim that we cannot believe the evidence of our eyes and ears. It comes down to what we are going to trust more, testimony of revelation or science, and what we choose to revise when the two conflict. I’m going to take the middle road and say it depends entirely on the content of the conflict (is it something science is better able to answer? Is it a question theology is better able to answer?), and that also means I think the Christian religion and science overreach their boundaries a bit. But again, I’ll save more of that line of thought for Chapter 3…

Origen, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (!!!!!) argued for metaphorical interpretations of certain biblical texts. Augustine agreed with him. So did C.S. Lewis. Why is it that the church, or at least a very large and vocal part of the church, has thrown out the metaphorical hermeneutic?! IT SOLVES SO MANY PROBLEMS. Ugh.

Swinburne argues that we can trust the non-scriptural creeds and dogma of the church authorities because of the truth-reality of revelation and the power of God to act through imperfect people means She can overcome their biases so that they come to perfectly right conclusions. I have no argument against this specifically (it’s logically possible), I just don’t agree with how it accords with other realities. It’s awfully convenient that God operates when the Church wants Her to (“God intervened enough so that the Nicene Creed is perfect!”) but not when they don’t want Her to (“Evil is the result of free will and God cannot intervene in all acts of evil in order to preserve free will.”). Aren’t intellectual and theological contemplation and discussion an expression of free will? Why, then, are the creeds more important than the vast history of human suffering — some of which was perpetuated by the very church claiming God’s Righteous Authority in their proclamations? I am neither impressed by nor convinced with this line of argument. It’s a little bit Deus ex Machina for my philosophical taste.

I know Swinburne would do this intentionally (unless he’s a closet Nietzschean?!), but he neglects to consider the incredible influence the will-to-power and bias have over minds. Again, though, I think Swinburne and I would come to an impasse where he’d say “God can make sure the right doctrine is maintained and made canon” and I’d say “Then God is pretty sexist and that’s sh*tty” and he’d probably light himself on fire.

In section 2, Swinburne argues for an internalist justification of belief over the externalist justification position (a position put forward by one of my former favorites, Alvin Plantinga!). I loved this little peek into an intellectual, theological debate between two great minds. The internalist position says a belief is justified as reliable if it accords with existing beliefs that themselves don’t depend for their justification on other beliefs. Beliefs of perception, for instance. Very recent memories. Direct information.

The externalist position says that beliefs are justified as reliable if they arise in a certain environment: from a rightly-functioning brain, in a cognitive environment well-suited for proper use of belief production, from an apparatus that was “designed” (that term is important) for the formation of true beliefs, and that the process of belief production is reliable (Plantinga calls this “a high statistical probability of such formed beliefs being true”).

Swinburne argues that the externalist position actually depends on the internalist position — we need some way to demonstrate that a belief is true (and that the brain is not impaired, that the environment is suited for true-belief-formation, etc.), and that demonstration relies on being able to determine how a belief is in accord with the basic information and perceptions we have. My complaint against the purely externalist position is that Plantinga’s whole “design” thing presupposes God and the truth of Christianity. It presumes the belief apparatus was designed to find truth, not evolved to find tools for survival that may or may not align with truth. (Plantinga does give arguments for this premise, but Swinburne does not include them here.) That’s a pretty big assumption for a premise about what constitutes true belief justification.

I also think the reverse could be said of Swinburne’s internalist position, however. Swinburne likes the internalist position, in part, because it allows for the truth of subjective experiences of the divine. If you experience a thrill from reading a passage of Scripture, that thrill is a justification for you believing in the truth of that passage of Scripture. I am unconvinced by this, as it assumes that, like Plantinga requires, the belief production of the brain is working properly. Aka, it depends on the externalist position. That thrill shouldn’t be pointed to as a justification of a belief being true, simply a marker that the belief exists. We all get a jolt of dopamine from reading things that accord with our existing beliefs. People who believe very different things get that same jolt from very different claims. So I’m not sure how that works out to a justification of a belief, unless Swinburne accepts some of Plantinga’s framework and says some people’s belief production systems are working properly and others’ aren’t, and that that makes a difference in whether or not a belief is justified as being reliable.

Why can’t there be a justification theory that takes seriously both the proper functioning of the brain/environment and the way beliefs are demonstrated to accord with the world? Am I missing something?

Ok, onto overall thoughts/judgment…

I remain unconvinced of the authority of the ecumenical body over matters of truth, because some of their assertions are so clearly wrong (and have been shown to be wrong when held up to what we can clearly know from science and experience!). Plus, there are so many bodies claiming authority for truth that it becomes a test of “who has the most street cred?” which really has no bearing on whether or not a statement is true. Well, at least in the scientific and empirical sphere. If it’s different for the church, then I remain unimpressed (isn’t that the epitome of authority bias?). But I appreciated the walk through how Swinburne (and presumably others) thinks we can justify beliefs and why the Bible emerges unscathed in his estimation.

My BIGGEST complaint is how Swinburne uses the term “probable.” He says a belief in the incarnation is justified because history and “reasons” make it “probable” that God would send Herself down as a person to save humankind. But reasons don’t always exist to the exclusion of other reasons — God could have reasons to incarnate alongside having reasons not to incarnate. (This leaves us with a bit of a “turtles all the way down” situation with needing reasons to choose between reasons, so I’ll give Swinburne a point for trying to avoid that trap and take away a point from me for falling into it.) Just because She chose one set of reasons doesn’t mean the other reasons don’t exist and are not compelling. Also, we would need a way of figuring out which reasons were most compelling, but in that case we would just point to what happened as clearly God had the best reason for making sure “this thing” happened because it happened, and then we’re getting into question begging.

But most importantly, when your “reasons” rest on a BUNCH of unproven and unproveable assumptions (such as the existence of God and the existence of a God Whose mind we can know), your claim of “probable” starts to disintegrate pretty quickly. Every assumption makes a reason shakier and makes the “probable” claim more tenuous until… well, until it’s not probable at all. It is probable if all the things you are assuming is true, but THAT is a big assumption on top of all the other assumptions. My head hurts.

Ultimately, I think what Swinburne has actually done is shown that if you already believe certain things to be true, then you can believe in the authority of Scripture, tradition, and revelation. If you don’t already believe those things, you will not be convinced here that the same authority follows. There’s an unbridgeable gap because the two sides are starting from a question that cannot be proven to have been, or ever be, answered — one side is asking that we assume the truth of God’s existence (Swinburne), the other is asking that we slow our roll on building too much on what we can only ever assume to be true (me, I guess?). I did very much appreciate the discussion on internalist vs. externalist belief justifications, though. I’ll take that forward with me in my intellectual life.

Best quote: “We can seldom be absolutely certain that our beliefs (especially in the twenty-first century our beliefs about religious matters) are true, but we can have beliefs that are probably true, and we can look for and assess further evidence in order to get beliefs that are more probably true than the ones we now have” (26). 

5 thoughts on “OHPT: Authority of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church (Chapter 1)

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