Monday, November 28, 2005

Mascall's Mistake

Anglican comprehensiveness, extolled variously as a virtue among some Episcopalians reluctant to abet schism, has come under fire of late as actually--despite promising appearances--incoherent. Crudely put, comprehensiveness refers to the quality of keeping divergent theological parties in communion such that they may worship together. In Anglicanism, ideally, Anglo-catholics and evangelicals, Christian socialists and modernists can all "agree to disagree" while coming to the altar together to worship God. The act of worshipping together in grace knits them into a Christian community, not their uniformity of propositional belief. On the other hand, when Primate X refuses to worship with Primate Y, for instance, we have a failure of comprehensiveness--a failure which prima facie strikes at one of the constitutive features of Anglicanism.

But for its critics, comprehension is hardly a virtue; it is a confusion, perhaps, one infers, even serving to mask a steady liberalization of dogma. For instance, Al Kimel some time ago raised an argument from Eric Mascall purporting to show what is wrong with comprehensiveness:

[a] The fundamental incoherence of the three-school theory can be seen from the obvious fact that the existence of each one of the schools can be justified only on the assumption that its characteristic theological assertions are true. [b] But in that case the characteristic theological assertions of all the three schools must be mutually compatible. And in that case there is no reason why we should not accept them all and a great many reasons why we should. [c] But then what will have happened to the three schools? It is quite ridiculous to envisage the Church as a tricorporate society, each of whose parts is committed to holding one third of the truth. Regrettable as this no doubt is, it is because each school has not been convinced that everything that the others were holding was part of the truth that the schools have remained recognisably distinct.

I have added letters in brackets to mark key points in Mascall's reasoning; my use of boldface indicates important words. [a] contains an extremely strong claim; in effect, the parties of Anglicanism presume that their distinctive theology is simply true. That presumption is their reason for being. On [b], they could then only be comprehended in Anglicanism if their theologies were logically consistent. But, according to [c], their theologies are not logically consistent--each party envisions itself as complete and not in need of coexistence with the others. Thus, a religion "comprehending" them would be entertaining contradictions; ergo, Mascall writes of "the fundamental incoherence of the three-school theory." And, taking his cue from Mascall's reasoning, Kimel writes "[t]he ideology of Anglican comprehensiveness is simply an impressive way of hiding the internal contradictions of our denomination."

I am not persuaded by Mascall, however. The soft point in his argument seems to me to be in [a]. He presumes each party could only mean for its theology to be taken in such a way that they contradict each other. For example, the Anglo-catholics assert "Q is true" and the evangelicals assert "Q is not true;" they must make their assertions without qualification as simply being the case, according to Mascall.

If they instead asserted "So far as we know, Q is true" and "So far as we know, Q is not true" then there would be no contradiction. Such qualification in the parties of Anglicanism is a mark of epistemic humility. Mascall's incoherence-argument requires epistemic hubris, namely the unqualified assertion of the position of one's party. But, givem our conviction that comprehensiveness--unity in worship--really is worth striving to maintain, it follows we should view Mascall's argument as a reductio of the practice of epistemic hubris. he does not do what he supposes, arguing that comprehension cannot work, but only that it cannot work without epistemic humility.


At 10:42 PM, Blogger ruidh said...

Kimel says "contradiction" like its a bad thing.

Taken as a whole, Scripture contains several sets of contradictory statements.

God is one/God is three.

God is merciful/God is just.

Jesus is fully human/Jesus is fully divine.

We should embrace paradox, not run from it.

At 7:54 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

I'd agree with you; Scripture shoves us into a set of paradoxes, apparent contradictions, whose acceptance is not optional.

Maybe Scripture insinuates that our merely human rationality, as a rule of what makes sense and what is wise, from within our familiar, profane language games and conceptual frameworks, is insufficient for grasping ultimate reality.

Or: our nature needs to be informed by grace.

At 4:45 PM, Blogger Pontificator said...

Trackback Pontifications

At 9:04 PM, Blogger Mike L said...

I am reminded of the "great-souled" Walt Whitman: "So I contradict myself? I contain multitudes..."

The first two comments above are tantamount to saying that the proposal they defend is no more incoherent than divine revelation itself. There are, it seems to me, two difficulties with that.

First, it begs the question. For part of what's at issue among the "parties" is by what authority questions about the content of divine revelation, as expressed in the traditional sources, are to be answered. Accordingly, it won't do to appeal to Scripture or any other traditional source to argue that there can and must be unity of worship without unity of belief. The opposing parties can and do make a similar appeal for their own positions, and the broad-church approach being advocated here has no basis for ruling out that appeal.

Second, the "conservative" party could well argue that the stance of "epistemic humility" (EH) is fundamentally incompatible with what God requires of us: let's call it "apodictic faith" (AF). Their view of faith seems pretty similar to that of traditional Christians of other ecclesial communions. Thus, centered on the person and authority of Jesus Christ, the deposit of faith is not a collection of tentative academic hypotheses held to be true "so far as we know," always (of course) open to revision when the Zeitgeist makes such revision advisable for those seeking tenure on theology faculties. It is the propositionally expressible content of God's definitive, salvific, indeed divinizing self-revelation to us. From such a standpoint, epistemic humility does not require us to qualify each article of faith with "so far as we know." On the contrary, it requires us, inter alia, to submit our intellects to the authority propounding said propositons as definitive expressions of the faith once delivered to the saints. AF is thus the epistemic humility of conversion and prayer; EH, as presented above, of the faculty lounge.

Of course, if one takes such propositions as all-too-human to be definitive, then I suppose we're stuck with an essentially academic faith. But I could not understand anybody dying for that.

At 9:43 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

mike l,
First: Welcome, and thanks for your extensive comment.
I'm trying to reason from within the framework of ECUSA's leadership--they would admit that there is a core of propositional belief that Christians must hold to be Christians: call them essential. Here, your term AF applies: e.g. Christ dies, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

There have been very high-profile cases of controversy about even the core in ECUSA (Pike, Spong, at al) where even bishops got away with openly casting doubt on the core or kerygma--but that did not imply even the core was to be held with epistemic humility. Thus, I agree; God requires AF of us.

But how far should we take AF to extend? To the permissibility of vestments? Candles? All parties here agree, I think, that our belief will be a mix of AF and EH.

The question dividing us is where to draw the line. Surely, if Mascall meant to say Anglo-catholics must hold to the permissibility of the use of vestments with AF, well, he was wrong, no?

At 11:28 PM, Blogger Mike L said...


I'm relieved to note that you do believe there's some irreformable core of the Faith to which apodictic faith is the appropriate response. You're also right that a line needs to be drawn somewhere, such that AF is called for on one side of it and EH on the other.

As a Catholic, however, I'd say that the line cannot be drawn consistently without an infallible teaching authority to make clear what does, and by implication what does not, belong to the deposit of faith. Catholicism and Orthodoxy, of course, disagree about precisely who, and by what means, exercises such authority. But they do not disagree about the need for something of the sort.

Admittedly some Orthodox, especially of the "Sobornost" persuasion, give an account of the Church's infallibility which differs little in substance from what Anglo-Catholics would typically give. (I am thinking especially of the emphasis on "reception" by the Church over time.) My reply to that is simply: so much the worse for the Orthodox.

At 1:03 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

mike l,
Maybe you are right, in a way; we could be seeing in the agony of the Anglican Communion a concrete indication of the need for an office with universal primacy, like that of the Pope. It seems to me that Benedict or John Paul settle such questions as "Should women be ordained?" without invoking infallibility, in part at least in virtue of their primacy. And so, a generation of Roman Catholics are spared the spectacle of schism over such questions.

Where should I go, if you have a source at heand, to get an argument specifically for infallibility--in addition to universal primacy?

At 12:28 PM, Blogger ruidh said...

Mike I, the anglican response you your teaching authority would be the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral which is now approaching 120 years of age. It says that the Apostles and Nicene cereeds are sufficient statements of faith. Anglicans need not make any confessional statements other than these.

Of course, Roman Catholic lay people don't need to make any further confessional statements either. They are free to believe the teaching of the church in other areas as their conscience dictates.

At 1:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a Catholic, however, I'd say that the line cannot be drawn consistently without an infallible teaching authority to make clear what does, and by implication what does not, belong to the deposit of faith.

IMO, it's the insistence on the necessity of an Infallible Pope exactly what makes the faith you espouse, mike l, be best described as "Papism", not Catholicism. My reply to that is simply: so much the worse for the Papists! ;-/

At 9:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I might dissent a bit both from you and from Mascall, I think that the epistemic humility necessary in discerning matters of importance to the faith can only hold if there is a path of true discernment on all matters. In other words, we cannot begin to talk about things for which we must be open to the possibility of correction if we don't first talk about things we've already inherited as true.

Anglican comprehensiveness is not a nicety. It is messy and it implies a certain degree of constant instability for the sake of coming to a greater truth. Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics and Broadchurch folks are able to hold together because they have a certain core of faith which they share, because they're willing to listen to each other and argue vigorously with each other over the direction the Church should take, and because they're willing to accept certain limitations upon their own positions for the sake of keeping the Body unified. All three of these are necessary components for comprehensiveness.

The problem that I see today, manifested by all parties, is a lack of understanding the third principle, that we show self restraint where we can in order to keep the conversation moving forward. And among liberal broadchurch folks, I often hear the claim that comprehensiveness is akin to "living in tension," as if the tension we exist in sometimes by necessity is an end unto itself. It's not. No one prior to the current era ever believed in such a thing. Comprehensiveness demands that we work together, slowly and respectfully (with humility if you wish) to come to conclusions about the faith, how we practice it as a Church, what we believe and why. It doesn't mean that we water ourselves down, acting as if what we believe is not really in contradiction with our neighbor because nobody can really know anything anyway. It means that we acknowledge a shared core of faith that must be kept because it has been decided by generations past, we acknowledge our own strongly held beliefs and recognize their epistemic roots, and then we work vigorously to try to bring about a consensus, through debate and prayer and theological inquiry and all the other tools are our disposal, in the hopes that we will mutually discern the Mind of Christ.

In other words, we live in tension only as a means to an end, hoping in the long run that our short-term tension will bring us into long-term comprehension of Truth.


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