The Roman Catholic Controversy: Catholic Epistemology

The Roman Catholic Controversy

This is the seventh post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy. This post is the second part of my review of Chapter 6, “The Thousand Traditions.” Part One.

I should thank James White for introducing me to a new concept in the understanding of Catholicism, of which before I was unaware. His intentions in pointing it out, of course, were to expose a weakness in the foundations of the Catholic Church; but his demonstration has only served to further prove how solid that foundation is. He also alerted me to a position that opponents of the faith attempt to exploit, that to the unlearned might appear to be a weakness.

White challenges that there are two major positions Catholics hold with regard to the “nature, extent, and authority of tradition,” that are logically “completely at odds with each other” and “mutually exclusive.” In fact, the question relates to none of these things; rather, he admits, it pertains to the “sufficiency or insufficiency of Scripture.” At issue is Catholic epistemology: How Catholics know what we know. White does not call it thus here, but I believe he does in other places, and it is an appropriate term for the questions he asks and the charges he makes.

The question is relevant to White, because from his perspective, if Catholics can’t adequately explain the sources and transmission of their revelation, then they must not have any good reason for believing what they believe.  But he misrepresents the nature of the disagreement among Catholics. Both positions accept the authority of both Scripture and Tradition. Both positions hold that both Scripture and Tradition are real, finite bodies of received knowledge. Both positions hold that both Scripture and Tradition are essential elements of divine revelation on which Catholic dogma is founded. The disagreement does not call the “nature, extent, [or] authority” of Tradition into question; rather, it has everything to do with the “nature, extent, and authority” of Scripture. The underlying question is how we know what we know. There is no doubt that we know it.

The matter is only this: Does divine revelation exist partly in Scripture, and partly in Tradition?—that is, some Catholic doctrines are found in only Tradition that are not found at all in Scripture—or does the fullness of divine revelation exist both in Scripture and Tradition?—that is, all Catholic doctrines can be found in Scripture, even if only implicitly. The former view, which White calls the partim-partim view (Latin for partly … partly), holds that Scripture is materially insufficient—that it lacks essential material to present a full picture of God’s revelation. The latter view, which White calls the material sufficiency view, holds that Scripture is in fact materially sufficient—that it contains the full material of God’s revelation, even if some of it is only represented implicitly—but that Tradition is still necessary to discover and interpret the revelation in Scripture. Both views hold that we have received our doctrine from Scripture and Tradition. The only real difference is these positions’ view of Scripture; and White’s only real dispute with either of them is that neither holds Scripture to be solely sufficient. I will discuss these views in greater detail below [i.e. in the next post].

First I want to examine White’s charge that these views are “mutually exclusive,” that they create doctrinal confusion, and that they result in statements that are “often more liable . . . to various interpretations” than even the disparate interpretations of Protestants under sola scriptura. I fail to see how any point of this charge can be sustained—and in fact, White doesn’t sustain it; he does not mention this charge again after his introduction. These two views of Scripture are not “mutually exclusive” doctrinal positions that Catholics are expected to hold; they amount to only a minor theological question that in no way affects the outcome of Catholic doctrine. Whether one believes that Scripture supports all doctrine or not, all Catholics agree that between Scripture and Tradition, our doctrine is supported—and more important, proponents of either position can demonstrate this support in texts. There is no doctrinal confusion, since all doctrine is pronounced by the Magisterium, and the Magisterium speaks with one voice, regardless of the views of its individual members. The charge that this difference of opinion results in ambiguous statements that are open to various interpretations is empty, since the only authoritative interpretation is that of the Magisterium. If there is any ambiguity in interpretation, the Magisterium speaks again to clarify.

White attempts to make much of the point that the Tridentine Fathers—the Fathers of the Council of Trent—had a disagreement regarding these points. The original draft of the Decree concerning the Canonical Scriptures (which White never properly cites—I had to track it down myself) reads that revelation is passed on “partly in written books, partly in unwritten traditions,” supporting the partim-partim view. Upon debate, this was changed in the final draft to state that revelation is “contained in the written books and unwritten traditions”—allowing for the support of proponents of the material sufficiency view. This point is insignificant, and the fact that it was disputed is entirely irrelevant. The important fact is that the Magisterium reached an agreement and spoke with one voice to pronounce and clarify Catholic doctrine.

The Magisterium has agreed on Catholic doctrine and pronounced it with authority. Certainly if White means to charge that this doctrine is invalid because of a difference in theological opinion among the Magisterium’s members regarding the means of revelation, then Protestant doctrine suffers from an even greater problem, since the many disparate Protestant groups cannot agree on the content of doctrine let alone its means of revelation. This disagreement is analogous to the legal philosophies of strict constructionism versus loose constructionism among the members of the United States Supreme Court—that is, should the Constitution be interpreted strictly and literally by its letter, or should it be interpreted more loosely by the intent of its framers in the context of evolving legal and political situations? Regardless of what philosophy the individual justices of the court hold, once the court reaches a decision, its ruling is legally binding: when the court speaks, that is the law. Likewise, when the Magisterium speaks, that is doctrine.

9 thoughts on “The Roman Catholic Controversy: Catholic Epistemology

  1. Pingback: The Roman Catholic Controversy « The Lonely Pilgrim

  2. If Scripture was sufficient, it would have a list of contents – and as it didn’t, we need to ask where the contents page came from. We do not know, from Scripture, what Scripture is and is not. White’s case collapses there.

    • Protestants usually say they will accept church councils up to a certain point — but they’re very selective about what exactly they’ll accept, since many of the doctrines they oppose have been in the Church since the very beginning. I’m curious about how White is going to address the issue of the canon.

        • The usual line is that there was a “Great Apostasy” at some undefined point in the history of the Church, after which the Catholic Church was no longer Christian. The trouble is, if they accept up to the Council of Chalcedon (the line most people draw), they are obliged to accept nearly everything they object to — the Real Presence, apostolic succession, the authority of the pope, growing Marian devotion, all seven of the Sacraments — pretty much the whole kaboodle.

          • Yup, that’d be my reading too. They also tend to know nothing about the Orthodox Church, and when asked why there is Marian devotion there, and why the OC believes in the Real presence, they tend to go dumb.

        • Yes. I’ve noticed that evangelicals tend to align themselves with Orthodoxy because it’s “not Catholic” — they assume it’s somehow “purer” and “older” and “less corrupt” — until they realize that the Orthodox believe nearly everything they reject about Catholicism.

          • Yes, there’s a lot in that. the sad thing is they are rejecting their own authentic tradition and taking one someone else’s.

  3. Hi Joseph. I am going to wade through your posts on Catholic epistemology this weekend. Glad to have found them. Do you know of any other places I can go to get a better grip on the issue of Catholic epistemology (anything helpful you’ve read)? Here is a question I have face two times already:

    “You mention self-authentication. Well, in the Psalter and in Proverbs we occasionally find claims to the effect that God’s words are flawless, firm, or eternal; and, in 2 Peter 1, we’re told that saints, in writing Scripture, were moved by the Holy Spirit; but, on one level, Scripture’s stance towards itself is superfluous. Why? Because, for me, the infallibility of Scripture is an epistemic foundation. It is an axiom behind which there is nothing more to see.

    Not so for the RC. If a RC were asked how he knows that Scripture is accurate, he would answer, “The Church tells me so.” At which point he’d be at his epistemic foundation, which you’ll notice is not the same as mine.

    As far as the RC is concerned, an infallible Church leads him to trust infallible Scripture, and infallible Scripture leads him to trust an infallible Church. But I don’t think it’s that simple. Scripture’s teachings about the Church are as important as they are only because they are infallible; and, the RC know that they are infallible only because the Church tells him that they are. So, for the RC, the infallibility of the Magisterium is epistemically prior. It is the axiom behind which there is nothing more to see.”

    In my mind, I can make sense of this easily enough. It seems like a false dichotomy. And it seems to me, from my limited studies, that Catholic epistemology isn’t really rooted in what the bible says OR any certain kind of papal infallibility, but rather on something a little further back, maybe? Like the person-hood of Christ? Anyway, as you can see I need some help 🙂 If you could offer some up, some place to go read, that’d be great and I’d really appreciate it.

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