Saturday, October 16, 2004

Necessary thoughts

Tim Enloe has, to put it mildly, major issues with the apparently necessitarian nature of Catholic theories of the development of doctrine. He thinks Newmanian historical theology is overly (and artificially) teleological, abstract and anachronistic, better suited for the 19th century of Butler and Paley's questionable natural theology.[1] He further denies that the Church is a necessary feature of reality. He resists any understanding of history that *demands* things progressed this way or that, particularly if that way is to Rome. He rejects the Platonic idea that the Church (or any other thing, I suppose) "hovers over" the messy fabric of history, unfolding in flawless geometric precision.

I do not mean to "target" Tim. I just so happens his views trigger thoughts in me. I refer to him as much as I do to give my thoughts a sense of focus, not, I repat, to make Tim my great white whale. I also do not mean to "refute" any of Tim's objections. These are just passing thoughts about some of my hesitations to embrace them. One of my main reservations about his objections is that, if the Church, the Body and Bride of Christ, does not exist as a real but transcendent object in God's sovereign, eternal plan, then how could the Bible either? If the Church does not hover over and unfold in the lived fabric of history, why can we say the Word of God, as a transcendent reality, hovers over the printed fabric of a Bible? If there is no overarching "template" of the Church, which is the metaphysical instrument of God's Spirit forming the Church in concrete history, why are we so sure there is an eternal template of the Bible? The Scriptures use equally strong language about the value and role of the Word and the Church.[2]

I've expressed this reservation to Tim before and he has replied to me that he is not a nominalist or a Platonist, but is instead a Trinitarian. Trinitarian metaphysics (a la Van Til, Bahnsen, Frame, et al.) transcend and simultaneously nullify the skewed conceptual biases of nominalism and Platonism, just as the Holy Trinity Himself transcends and demolishes the apparent incompatibility of the One and Many of life. I have told him that, despite his anti-necessitarianism [inhale!], he must accept it at some level, since, as Trinitarian, he surely believes ante-Nicene theology necessarily *had* to develop as it did in accordance with the truth of God's nature.

But, in a recent discussion of presuppositionalism, he says the difference between the necessity of theological (Nicene) Trinitarianism and Newmanian/Catholic ecclesiology is that the Trinity is the metaphysical ground on which reason can function at all. He denies the same kind of transcendent importance for the Church, since it is but a means of grace and not grace in se. The Church is a transcendental," not the *source* of reason or grace.[3] We must not understand history according to the perfect, platonic "development" of the Church from it apostolic seeds. We must instead understand history *and the Church* -- and in fact everything -- according to the multi-unitary truth of the Trinity. He is the ground of being as much as the ground of reason as much as the ground of history and ecclesiology.

These are immensely respectable claims by Tim. But I am still uneasy about his overall anti-necessitarianism. Of course, let me qualify that uneasiness by saying I do not believe the Church, or Trinitarian theology, or the cosmos itself, *had* to develop as it did. Such metaphysical necessity -- let's call it antecedent necessity -- really does bind the hands of God. I am inclined toward a more necessary, or teleological, view of ecclesiology and theology in the sense of consequent necessity. By this I mean that we should respect the necessity of things *because* God has, as a mater of historical or theological fact, guided things that way. For example, I do not think "homoousios" or the "hypostatic union" are antecedently necessary formulations of the truth of the Trinity and Incarnation. Their formulation depended on a vast network of highly contingent social, cultural and philosophical developments. Nicene and Chalcedonian theology are, however, *consequently necessary* for us since we recognize God, as the Triune ground of being and reason, providentially led His Church to that theology.

I respect Tim’s preference, as it were, for the Trinity as the ground of transcendence versus the Catholic inclination to regard the Church as a similarly, *but not equally*, august object of faith. I respect it, but I think it is flawed for the simple reason that we cannot extricate Trinitarian dogmas from the Church any more easily than we can separate the development of the episcopacy in general, or the papacy in particular, or the canonization of Scripture, etc. from the Church. Tim insists he is a Trinitarian, and I don’t deny it. What I do deny is that he can derive his Trinitarianism from anything but the Church (or, more accurately, the Bible *in* the Church). While it’s true our understanding of the Church must derive from the Trinity[4], it’s equally true that our understanding of the Trinity is necessarily drawn from the Church. Tim is a Trinitarian which *means* he is at least necessarily a Nicene Christian. Thus, no matter how strongly Tim insists on the ultimate ontological “rank” of the Trinity Himself, he must necessarily do so in terms derived from the Church itself (by God’s authority, of course).

The crucial upshot is that every Tim’s non-negotiable Trinitarianism depends almost entirely for its orthodox essence on what he says is a mere transcendental. He cannot subjugate the immense transcendent rank of the Church without also undermining the orthodox Trinitarianism he holds so highly. To be frank, if the Church is a mere, skewed, flawed, defectible and defected canvas for truth, but in fact not the ground and pillar of truth, then the whole basis defending Trinitarianism dissolves. The dogmas of Nicea were not necessary to make the Church Trinitarian, but were *necessary* to explain and vindicate the way the Church lived and worshipped prior to them. In the same way, to paraphrase and adapt something Cardinal Newman said, the dogmas of ecclesial *and papal* infallibility are necessary to explain the way the Church and the popes acted prior to those dogmas.

Fear not: obviously, the Trinity is still the ontological basis for all things. But it’s sheer Gnostic whimsy to say we can know this apart from the mystical and historical authority of the Church. Obviously, the Bible testifies to the Trinity, but it’s willfully ignorant to say we see this so clearly *apart from* the tradition of the worshipping Church prior to Nicea and, especially, the declarations of Nicea. The Trinity grounds all things; but the Church – the People of God around the Word of God – grounds our Trinitarianism. Although the ante-Nicene Church was not Nicene, it was orthodox. Likewise, although the Church prior to “questionable” papal developments was not monarchial, it was papal. Nicea was no more antecedently necessary than Trent or Vatican I; but they are all subsequently necessary. We rely no more on the supposedly “inherent” authority of Nicea *without the transcendent authority of God* than we might rely on the authority of the pope without the authority of the Triune God.

[1] I think Tim oversimplifies Newman’s approach. First, not only should his theory of development be understood in light of Newman’s theory of assent as he articulated it over ten years into _An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent_. I can’t do justice to explaining Newman’s epistemology, so I’ll refrain from doing it injustice. Suffice it to say, though, that I think Tim too hastily stuffs Newman’s views into the rationalism of Paley and Butler. Newman’s _Grammar of Assent_, as basically a work of personalism, was so bold precisely because it resisted the impersonal rationalism of Paley. In this vein, I strongly encourage Tim, or anyone, to read Fr. Stanley Jaki's meditation on the _Grammar_.

My second reason for saying Tim simplifies Newman’s supposedly Paleyesque telelogicalism is because Newman consciously rejected it himself. See Edward T. Oakes’s review in First Things of Philip Johnson’s The Wedge of Truth, especially the last two paragraphs. Newman’s theory of assent, and consequently of the development of doctrine, was highly patristic and *phenomenological*, and distinctly less scholastic and rationalistic (cf. Etienne Gilson’s preface to the Image Books edition of Newman’s _Grammar of Assent_.) Newman has such a “teleological”, which is to say personal, view of historical theology because he has an even more deeply personal view of faith and reason. God *speaks* to us in His revelation, both immediately in our souls and, albeit more mediately, to our reason in the theological and ecclesiological developments of that revelation. To deny His voice in Christian revelation is tantamount to denying His hand in the development of His Church.

[2] God bought the Church, not the Bible, with His own flesh and blood (cf. Acts 20).

[3] I think this is a non-starter, since no one claims the Church is the *source* of grace, but is merely (!) the incarnate *vessel* or sacrament of grace. The sacraments, like the Church itself, derive their power from the Triune God (cf. CCC 1066fff.). This does not make them any less "necessary," though.

[4] As James Likoudis explains in _Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism_ (cf. chapter V), this is precisely what St. Thomas Aquinas argues in his _Contra Errores Graecorum_. The Vicar of Christ has his place on earth because the Son of God has His place in heaven. The Son proceeds from the Father and transfers His grace to the Church as a mystical *and* concrete body. Likewise, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through/and the Son and sanctifies the human person as an invisible *and* visible unity. To deny the incarnational, juridical aspect of *ecclesial sanctification* in favor of the pneumatological, mystical aspect of personal sanctification is but to deny the need for a visible head over the Church; and vice versa.

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