My former post Is Submission to the Pope’s Authority a Virtue? seem to have sparked an unsuspected amount of commentary. The most important bits of it were from Scott Carson [part I and part II, to which I responded here] and Mike Liccione [here]. Thanks to the comments and responses of various thinkers around the blogosphere I now see I have expressed my thoughts on the doctrine of Scripture inexactly, so I’d like to take another try at a more precise formulation. Too many different issues and objections have been raised to possibly hope to treat of them all. Instead, I am going to try to do just three things: (I) articulate what I will call The Catholic Moral Objection To Protestantism (hereafter, just The Catholic Objection), (II) elaborate my own view, which I think rebuts the Catholic Moral Objection, and (III) rebut some criticisms.
My previous post has provoked a bit of controversy. WTM, Mike Liccione and Fr. Al have all contributed some helpful and interesting comments. In my opinion, however, the most incisive criticism of my position so far, has come from Prof. Scott Carson. I left a lengthy rejoinder to him at his blog, but I’ll post it here for your reading enjoyment and to clarify any remaining problems.
Virtues are those habits of characters which enable a human being to live well. This claim means that a just person’s justice is a habit by virtue of which he or she is a good person. Something is fulfilled in the just person that is lacking or deformed in the unjust one. The difficult task then is specifying a list of the virtues–which habits of character are those which enable us someone to live well? The most common way to set about elaborating this list of virtues, or investigating whether a particular concept deserves to be called a virtue, is to specify a moral psychology.
The question I’m asking is whether submission to authority as such is a virtue. I’m raising this question to investigate a common claim from catholic apologists that a catholic espouses a virtue of submission by not questioning the authority of the pope while the protestant is guilty of a vice of hubris, or somesuch, for failing to do the same.
[I am skeptical about the claim she makes here, but I thought it was interesting. This is from Anscombe’s famous paper “Modern Moral Philosophy”.]
To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues failure in which is the mark of being bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician)—that what is needed for this is required by divine law. Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a law-giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians. But if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of ‘obligation,’ of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word ‘ought’ has become invested in certain contexts with with the sense of ‘obligation’, it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and a special feeling in these contexts.
It is as if the notion ‘criminal’ were to remain when criminial law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten. A Hume discovering this situation might conclude that there was a special sentiment, expressed by ‘criminal’, which alone gave the word its sense. So Hume discovered the situation in which the notion ‘obligation’ survived, and the word ‘ought’ was invested with that peculiar force having which it is said to be used in a ‘moral’ sense, but in which the belief in divine law had long since been abandoned: for it was substantially given up among Protestants at the time of the Reformation.* The situation, if I am right, was the interesting one of the survival of a concept outside the framework of thought that made it a really intelligible one.
*They did not deny the existence of divine law; but their most characteristic doctrine was that it was given, not to be obeyed, but to show man’s incapacity to obey it, even by grace; and this applied not merely to the ramified presecriptions of the Torah, but to the requirements of ‘natural divine law’. Cf. in this connection the decree of the council of Trent against the teaching that Christ was only to be trusted in as mediator, not obeyed as legislator.
[This is the full text of Luther’s 1517 Disputation Against Scholastic Theology. I hope to have more analysis and interaction with the text soon! I’ve highlighted the propositions I find most problematic.]
1. To say that Augustine exaggerates in speaking against heretics is to say that Augustine tells lies almost everywhere. This is contrary to common knowledge.
2. This is the same as permitting Pelagians and all heretics to triumph, indeed, the same as conceding victory to them.
My theological colleague WTM has written a fine book review of Stephen Grabill’s book Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006). WTM’s review is published at the website of the Barth Center of Princeton Seminary, and it is available here.
One question which tweaked me, but which WTM did not explore in depth was the relation between goodness as such and the arbitrariness of God’s will. WTM summarizes Grabill on the medieval antecedents to protestant scholastic versions of natural law:
All these positions [realism, mediating realism and nominalism] ground natural law in God’s will: “what makes something ultimately obligatory is that God commands it” (58).
WTM notes that this is tied to the late medieval debate about potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata, but doesn’t explore the issue further. Not having read the book I can’t say how Grabill is using the term ‘realism’, for instance, but I would have expected a ‘realist’ position on natural law to ground the goodness of a moral act in the nature of goodness itself rather than in the arbitrarity of God’s will. The position that the only ultimate ground of the goodness of a moral action sounds to me like the nominalist position of Ockham.
Of course, I can’t raise this problem without referring to one of my favorite essays: “Abraham, Isaac and Euthyphro” by Norm Kretzmann.
Blogger Drulogion has posed quite an interesting question about the relation of belief and the authority of the church. Dru starts with a story:
I once heard a story about a 16th century Jesuit mission in Brazil. After a long interaction with the people and some individual conversions, the chief decided to become a Christian (presumably bringing with him the rest of the tribe). As part of the process, the chief met with the leader of the mission to be examined. The priest began asking doctrinal questions. He asked the chief, “How many natures does our Lord have?”
The chief responded, “As many natures as you say he has, Father.”