Monday, July 30, 2007

What's Wrong With This...?

Consider the claim:

[1] We cannot err.

It seems to be a statement that must refer to itself; i.e. it implicitly says something like:

[2] [i]We cannot err regarding certain matters C, and further [ii] cannot err in saying we cannot err regarding C.

Suppose C is, for instance, stuff to be included in a religious confessional statement.

There is something exceedingly odd about the scope of [1] read as [2]. It seems, as a glance may reveal, to reach a bit too far and to launch what is, in effect, something of an infinite regress. That is, now [2] needs to be amended to spell out [1] so as to clarify [2ii]: we cannot err in saying we cannot err in saying we cannot err regarding C. Off to the races.

And things are not significantly different if [1] is amended to say [1']:

We are not in error.

Note, on the other hand, if the self reference is removed from [1], we have in effect [3]:

We cannot err regarding C, though we might be in error about whether we cannot err.

[3] is right on the edge of intelligibility. Maybe it means So far as we know, we cannot err regarding C, which is something like saying We might be infallible regarding C. One might for example have unerring discernment--which in fact could not be mistaken--without being sure whether or not it was in fact unerring. But it would be odd for such a one to then turn around a make the claim like So far as I know I cannot err.... as we had posited uncertainty.

Which sort of claim is implicit in the Network's new charter? Is it a matter that we should take as prefaced by a We cannot err in the following.... or rather So far as we can tell we cannot err in the following...? Or neither? Maybe we should see instead something like So far as we can tell...but we might be wrong prefacing their confession?

That last one, which admits it might be in error in the very act of making its claim, would model epistemic humility. It would not preclude disciplinary action or taking a stand, but it would imply that the ones taking the stand or taking action are ready to repent and are open to correction. My guess is that the Network's new charter does not model epistemic humilty; we are instead to take it and read it as if it is simply certain--not in error or not capable of being in error. Thus they say:

We confess the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired Word of God, containing all things necessary for salvation, and to be the final authority and unchangeable standard for Christian faith and life.

The problem is the ambiguity in that last bit. Sure, Scripture might express an immutable standard. But our grasp of it might wax and wane over time. I think the Network implicitly thinks there is no problem about the sureness of our grasp of the imputed immutable standard.
That is, they are unwilling to let Scripture be a final authority; they will smuggle in some merely human X other than Scripture as the interpreter of Scripture so as to say, in effect, X's interpretation of Scripture is the immutable standard. That kind of claim, alas, is unscriptural.

The same sort of problem crops up later in the charter:

6) We receive The Book of Common Prayer as set forth by the Church of England in 1662, together with the Ordinal attached to the same, as a standard for Anglican doctrine and discipline, and, with the Books which preceded it, as the standard for the Anglican tradition of worship.
7) We receive the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of 1562, taken in their literal and grammatical sense, as expressing the Anglican response to certain doctrinal issues controverted at that time, and as expressing fundamental principles of authentic Anglican belief.

The Network seems to be sleepwalking through these assertions, inasmuch as it does not see itself as fallible and sinful in the act of asserting them. As if in asserting them the Network was able to cast off fallibility and sinfulness. Magic!


At 11:46 PM, Blogger Chris Ashley said...

The authoritative interpretation of Scripture, for our Network brethren, is obviously Scripture's own interpretation of itself. We may not be able to perceive that self-interpretation at all times; we may never have the whole truth till the Eschaton (so goes the line of thought).

From there, you do negative theology: We don't know the whole truth, but we do know with certainty what it is not. We may not have the perfect self-interpretation scheme yet, but if you aren't trying to make one, your take on Scripture is human claptrap. We may not have a perfect X, but we can still tell that an O isn't worth considering as a candidate.

I'd expect the Network folks to hold a proper epistemic humility with respect to a perfect God, but if they applied that same humility to their brothers and sisters in Christ, we'd all be at the same rail still. The Common Cause Partnership is founded on the certainty of others' error. The ground of that certainty is the real question here, I think.

At 12:09 AM, Blogger Fr. Bryan Owen said...

Could we - should we - say, that without the possibility of error, there can be no access to truth?

Or, that without the possibility of error, faith is unnecessary?

At 10:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the final authority and unchangeable standard for Christian faith and life."

Hmm... it does seem like the fruits of the Spirit are pretty clear versus of the flesh, so perhaps they don't intend to mean as much as can be taken.

At 11:24 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

These are all quite good comments. But I think Anonymous has a good point--aren't the fruits of the Spirit clear enough, esp. in contrast to the fruits of the Flesh?

The answer, I think, is "For the most part, Yes". Where you see a sister continually promoting in all she says and does, say, Peace, Charity and Belief, while avoiding Seditious passions, Intemperance in desires, etc--it's hard to say anything other than "The Spirit is at work in her." And that is good enough, most of teh time b/c it will probably be right most of the time.

But there is a problem: we are judging motives from effects, reading back into what cannot be seen--the heart--from what can be seen--actions and their effects.

But--and here is the important part--there is probably no necessary connection between an effect and a motive, inasmuch as the best intentions can go awry producing bad effects, and on the other hand the heart--deceitful above all things--can accomplish good effects for bad reasons.

The upshot can only be, I think, that inferring the inner state from outer states is always open to correction, regardless of how right the fit may seem to us. Hence only God can be a genuine and just judge, knowing the inner and the outer exhaustively.

At 11:28 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


I think you are right to say without the possibility of error, faith is unnecessary. At the end of all things, among the saved Hope and Faith die away, and only Love remains. Why? The uncertainty endemic to our state as pilgrims here below passes away when we come face to face with God.

But faith in tension with uncertainty, or faith consciously open to correction, is an extraordinarily hard thing to ask of anyone.

At 11:43 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Sure, there is plenty of self-reference and even self-interpretation in Scripture; I would go further and say there is just too much of it.

We have a couple versions of the creation, various versions of the monarchy's formation and different readings of the individual kings, layers of commandments and regulations complete with at least prima facie divergent readings and reflections on them in the Psalms and Wisdom lit--not to mention three Isaiahs in tension, p.f. conflict betw. Ezekiel and Jeremiah's "big pictures", revisions of Amos in "Amos", the silliness about Zerubabbel, and so on and so on. That's alot for just one testament.

No wonder canonical critics are tempted to go take the whole mess and go "Bang! See? A single f#$%^ing narrative. Now STF up." Well, I'm exaggerating a little. But it is remarkable how unpopular the notion of Scripture being in intrinsic tension with itself on Big issues is (say, Gen 18 and Gen 22).

I'd wager the notion of tension intrinsic to Scripture is a tad unpopular with Duncan.

The lesson is not that we can't iron it all out.

But the ironing will not be Scriptural. It will have to go in part outside Scripture to get back into it in order to read coherence and cogency into the unruly texts.

At 10:42 AM, Blogger Jon said...

Is the spirit at work in a person the same as their intentions? It strikes me as more plausable to suggest that spirits are those forces or powers which guide us from intention to action. Bishop Duncan's case is illustrative of this point if we take him at his word. He has been reasonably clear that his intention is to work to save the church from evil (a clearly good intention), but the results from his actions are largely not the fruits of the Spirit. Given this dichotomy, I suggest we take the evil of the results to indicate a sort of ungodliness in Bishop Duncan's discernment of what actions need to be taken. Put another way the results of his actions indicate that he has probably not accurately discerned what God would have us do in the present difficulties.


At 1:44 PM, Blogger Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Scripture may be immutable, but error is ineluctable. So I would offer a position [4] extended from your [3], to wit:

We cannot err except in this instance.

With apologies to Quine.

And you are correct that in spite of what the Network says about Scripture, what they mean is about their interpretation thereof.

At 4:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thomas Merton said, "The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty."

At 6:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you say "I'd wager the notion of tension intrinsic to Scripture is a tad unpopular with Duncan" do you mean something like what Ehrman means here (and see the reply to answer 4): ?

At 6:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, Paul had an awful lot of certainty on his deathbed...

At 3:30 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

That's interesting about Duncan.

We should admit what is probably true anyhow--that Duncan is really convinced that he is right and is doing the Spirit's work. A sterling motive. But then the seemingly deleterious effects don't measure up to the motive.
And maybe he does realize tacitly that he might be wrong.

In that case, one might still hope that he would, esp. as a leader, speak to that realization. It doesn't do much good to go around saying--without any qualification--TEC and the AC are lost.

At 3:37 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


When the dust settles--and let that be soon--if Duncan manages to bind the Continuum together, even in a Federation, that would be pretty awesome. One could picture an emerging generation of leaders working to bring the Federation into the Communion via TEC, even through a new province XYZ or a snazzy diocese created by a friendly future GC just for this purpose.

All it would take is a sustained lowering of the hostile tone all round, and who knows? The fact we don't have an Archbishop, but merely a primus inter pares, could come to seem downright providential.

At 3:41 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Paul does come across as pretty certain in the face of death--he even seems to continually rejoice, evidently without angst.

But he was in love, and that steadfast commitment to Jesus kept him through what seem to have been shifts in his theology about the Eschaton, the Second Coming and the Church, et al.

About poor Ehrman--maybe he is not in love anymore with Jesus, maybe he is. The fact witnesses disagree about the crash doesn't mean--Poof!--the crash never happened.

And though Craig's apologetic defense of the Res seems strained(Ugh! Swinburne does that too, complete with probability calculus) and probably superfluous, he is generally a good theologian and philosopher. What if Craig were a Bishop? Of Pittsburgh even? There's a thought.

At 1:56 PM, Blogger Marshall Montgomery said...

This comes "last of all, as one untimely born," but check it out here.


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