Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Liberal theology

Consider a revealed religion, say Christianity. I will use "the Sources" for the locus or loci where revelation is believed to be discursively embodied. In the case of Catholic Christianity, the Sources are Scripture and Tradition, in the case of Protestant Christianity, the Sources might be just Scripture, and in the case of Islam, the Sources will be the Qur'an and various traditions. The liberal theologian does not believe that any part of the Sources is infallible in matters of faith or morals. I will take this to be part of the definition of a liberal theologian, and will argue that liberal theology is untenable.

As an adherent of a revealed religion, the liberal theologian has to accord some authority to the Sources. And so she has to decide when to follow the Sources and when not to. Since no part of the Sources is taken by her to be infallible, she has to make that decision by the light of her reason.

Thus we get our first conclusion: The liberal theologian, to be consistent, must have a high view of reason. I suspect that some liberal theologians, in the thrall of postmodern thought, do not have a high view of reason. But then they are inconsistent. For there to be any hope of a liberal theology, reason has to be capable of trumping the Sources.

Let us, then, suppose that our liberal theologian has a high view of reason. She rejects claims from the Sources when she takes them to conflict with reason. But what does it mean to conflict with reason? There are two kinds of deliverances of reason: (1) apodeictic ones are justified by a logically impeccable argument from self-evidently true premises, and (2) plausibilistic fall short of that, either by employing inductive or probabilistic argumentation, or by relying on premises that are not self-evidently true. Now I am not planning to offer any argument against in this post against being a liberal theologian in whose theological practice only the apodeictic deliverances of reason trump the Sources. But I just don't think there are any liberal theologians like that. The typical disagreements with the Sources rely on plausibilistic arguments. There are, for instance, no available apodeictic arguments for claims like:

  • salvation apart from Christ is possible
  • any non-reproductive role that a man can appropriately play, a woman can appropriately play as well
  • same-sex sexual relations are permissible
  • marital contraception is permissible
  • miracles do not happen
  • we are the product of a random, unguided, natural process
  • everyone achieves salvation
  • all the major religions tell us the same truth about God
While there certainly are arguments for these claims, these arguments either rely on premises that are plausible but not self-evident, or somewhere the argument makes a plausible and not logically strict step, or both. I do not think any self-conscious liberal theologian should deny that. Consider, for instance, the second example claim. That claim presumably has to rely on empirical data about men and women, as well as on a non-self-evident normative interpretation of that data. The liberal theologian should not be ashamed of using plausibilistic arguments--we use them all the time in our daily lives--but she should be aware that that is what is she is doing.

So our liberal theologian now not only has a high view of reason, but also believes that some merely plausibilistic arguments trump the Sources. But now we have a problem. Merely plausibilistic arguments can be wrong, no matter how strong they are. That is what distinguishes them from apodeictic ones. Now, if the Sources have some authority, it cannot be that every merely plausibilistic argument trumps the Sources.[note 1]

Thus, we get our second conclusion: The liberal theologian needs to distinguish between those plausibilistic arguments that are strong enough to trump the Sources and those that are not strong enough. (The degree of strength required may depend on which part of the Sources is contradicted by the argument.)

From this it follows: The liberal theologian's methodology closes the door to the possibility that we be corrected by divine revelation when there is a sufficiently strong plausibilistic argument for a false conclusion. After all, no matter how great a degree of strength we require in a plausibilistic argument, an argument could have that strength and still lead to a false conclusion. That is because it is plausibilistic and not apodeictic. And if the argument is strong enough, it will trump anything in the Sources. This is an unfortunate conclusion, and one that should worry the liberal theologian, given the possibility of very strong plausibilistic arguments for false conclusions.

On the other hand, revelation often concerns things beyond our experience and beyond the powers of our reason. If one takes somewhat seriously the authority of the Sources and the fallibility of reason, one will be very cautious about the idea of reason trumping the Sources. Thus: The liberal theologian needs to accept that the Sources trump reason in many of the areas of revelation, because these areas go beyond reason's competence. Thus a liberal theologian with a realistic view of reason's limitations cannot be too liberal. And, in fact, I think a realistic view of reason's limitations in regard to plausibilistic arguments makes the project of liberal theology implausible.

Let me end with what I think is one of the most serious in-practice objections to certain moral aspects of liberal theology. Many of the plausibilistic arguments in the liberal theologian's repertoire at most establish a presumption in favor of the conclusion, and thus have the form: "In light of such-and-such facts, there is a presumption in favor of claim p, absent considerations to the contrary." But surely arguments of that form should not trump the Sources--the Sources, after all, are a consideration to the contrary. Let me explain what I mean here by way of example, using an idea from this old post of mine. Take, for instance, a liberal Christian theologian who wants to argue that some form of sexual activity (e.g., same-sex sexual relations) that the Sources say is wrong is in fact acceptable. But in fact there really aren't any very strong positive arguments for the permissibility of a form of sexual activity apart from a presumption of permission, i.e., a view that if we can't find an argument against A, then we should assume A to be permissible. Granted, there might be some arguments based on considerations of autonomy, but Christians who believe that God is in charge of us--and it is hard not to believe that even if one is a liberal theologian--are surely going to be suspicious of that. Nor are there any very strong positive arguments against the claim that God in his omniscience might see some bad consequences of an activity that we do not see--this happens quite often. The most reason can say in favor of the form of activity is something like: "As far as we can tell by reason, there are no strong considerations to the contrary." Yes, but a judgment like that will certainly be trumped by the Sources, unless one has such a low view of the Sources that one is not really considering them to be Sources anymore.

This post is inspired by discussions with Trent Dougherty, but he should not be thought of as endorsing anything here.


Mike Almeida said...

The liberal theologian, to be consistent, must have a high view of reason.


Why not say that the liberal theologian must view reason as at least as reliable (or perhaps, more reliable than) as (some received) interpretations of Scripture? So the liberal theologian need not be viewed as denying the authority of Scripture at all. Scripture, he might urge, is infallible. What's not infallible is our interpretation of it: we can get Scripture wildly wrong does not entail that Scripture is ever wrong. There is something epistemically healthy about that, I think. And when it comes to understanding Scripture, reason might be at least as reliable as traditional interpretations. That is consistent with saying that neither one is wonderfully reliable. So he might not have a very high regard for reason either.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I am stipulating that the liberal theologian is denying infallibility to any part of the sources. So while there are people like the ones you indicate, they don't count as liberal theologians for the purposes of my critique.

Note, too, that the view you outline fits better with a Protestant rather the Catholic approach. For for the Catholic, the Tradition is one of the Sources, and to accord the Tradition no more authority than a reason that one thinks is not very reliable does not seem to be really take it seriously as one of the Sources.

Mike Almeida said...

For for the Catholic, the Tradition is one of the Sources, and to accord the Tradition no more authority than a reason that one thinks is not very reliable does not seem to be really take it seriously as one of the Sources.

No doubt, true. There is this very interesting balance in Catholicism between the deliverances of one's conscience, which is no small matter, and the weighty (I would not say, finally, insuperable) deliverances of tradition.

Heath White said...

Two thoughts. First, it's not true that Catholic Tradition is any less subject to interpretation than Scripture. Claims like "there is no salvation outside the Church" and "It is necessary for salvation to be subject to the authority of the Roman pontiff" just aren't today taken to mean what they used to be taken to mean.

Second, I don't see any restriction in this argument to matters of faith and morals. All the same points could be made about matters of science and history. And in those areas, most thinking Christians are "liberals".

Perhaps the difference is that in matters of science and history, reason's competence changes over time, as we gather more information. You might think that in matters of faith and morals this is not true. But I think a real theological liberal would disagree.

Apolonio said...

very nice post! the only thing that was bothering me a bit was "Sources." Now I think your definition is different from the way theologians use the word, but reading it did seem like I was reading neoscholastic theologians who insisted on the partim/partim theory. Besides that, it's a good post.

I think a more interesting question is how experience can shape our understanding of revelation and how revelation should shape our judgments of our experiences. For example, can Asian concepts somehow incorporate Christian ideas or whether they have to accept Christianity shaped by hellenistic ideas. And I don't find anything wrong with being hellenistic. Christianity indeed developed some hellenistic concepts (ex. hypostasis) as well.

But suppose we take the example of hell. There is simply an intuition and maybe in our experiences, that people in hell just..suck and why an all-loving God would permit to actualize a world where there are people in hell. Eastern Church Fathers had this intuition and some even endorsed some kind of universalism (i.e. Gregory of Nyssa). But of course, revelation should shape our judgments as well. Scripture tells us about people in hell. So this led Balthasar to say, we may not believe in universalism but we can *hope* for it. So the question is, is taking that intuition of God should not allow people in hell shape our understanding of revelation? Again, this is besides the points you were making, but it came to my head.

Drew said...

So to push the point, what compatibility does the notion of faith as a relation of trust in the veracity of aspects of the sources even if improbable on rational grounds (the resurrection) have with the rational enterprise of the liberal theologian? Is there no room for the experience of revelation as an impetus for faith here? This would seem to complicate the epistemological valuation of the Sources on grounds outside of what is rationally plausible in terms of the Sources alone no?

Alexander R Pruss said...

On the science side, I defined the liberal as one who doesn't take any part of the Sources as infallible. So someone who counts the parts of the Sources that talk only about faith and morals as infallible isn't going to count as a liberal. I agree that the term "part" is a bit imprecise--we're not talking of physical parts here.

As for whether various terms from Catholic tradition mean the same thing as when they were first proposed, relevant here is the teaching of the First Vatican Council that the teachings of the Councils must be understood in the sense in which they were originally proposed. I do think, however, that there is a difference between seeing a term as having changed in meaning and seeing us as having changed our minds as to some of its entailments. How to draw that line can be difficult.

I do think that the Councils and infallible papal teachings are by and large easier to interpret than Scripture, for several reasons. First, they are carefully phrased to rule out ambiguity. Second, they tend to be negative rather than positive in nature--they are rejections of particular, narrowly construed heresies (and the narrowness of the construction is important here). Third, we have a better handle on the historical context--on the controversies that these statements grew out of. Fourth, as a fallible but still presumptively true rule, we have the interpretation of these teachings by the present, living Magisterium, responsive to present questions, present difficulties and present heresies.

The experience question is interesting. One might take "the experience of revelation" to be itself one of the Sources. I think the same issues will come up. The liberal theologian isn't going to want to say that the experience of revelation is infallible. After all, surely she won't want to say (and nobody else should, either) that "the experience of revelation" embodied in auto da fe was infallible. Yet that the auto da fe, as a public ceremony, was the expression of an experience of revelation is hard to deny.

One might get out of this by privileging later over earlier experiences of revelation, and thus privileging our present experience of revelation over all past experience of revelation. But any such privileging surely needs to be quite weak--surely nobody now thinks that the history of Christendom is not the history of constant moral progress. (The auto da fe was an innovation.)

Heath White said...

My point about science and history was likely unclear. My thought was

1. Most thinking Christians do not regard the Sources as infallible on matters of science and history.
2. The view in (1) is not an incoherent or untenable view.
3. If regarding the Sources as fallible on matters of faith and morals is incoherent or untenable, then there must be some relevant difference between matters of faith and morals and matters of science and history.
4. But there is no such difference, just looking at the bolded sentences in your original argument. The argument should go through no matter what subject the in/fallible Sources speak on.

I am not saying that the argument cannot be fixed--far from it, actually--but I would like to see the fix.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I now see your question. Well, I think one difference is that the Christians who don't think the Sources are infallible outside of faith and morals are likely to think the Sources have little or no authority outside of faith and morals.

I took the liberal theologian to accord significant but not overriding weight to at least some parts of the Sources--that is what generates the difficulties.

So let's see how this plays out with my bolded statements.

1. These Christians can overrule the Sources on scientific matters not because they have a high view of scientific reason, but because they have a low view of the Sources' scientific reliability.

2. They do not need to draw the line between weak and strong plausibilistic arguments, because they can hold that just about any scientific argument overrules the Sources.

3. The methodology does indeed close the door to the possibility of God's correcting our scientific knowledge through revelation. However, this closing of the door comes with a bit of a justification, namely the claim that God doesn't want to teach us science.

4. The scientific matters in question do not go beyond reason's competence.

I myself think, following Vatican II's Dei Verbum, that Scripture is inerrant: every assertion made by the human authors of Scripture is made by the Holy Spirit. However, also following Dei Verbum, I think Scripture makes no assertions irrelevant to faith or morals. Hence, I agree that Scripture is inerrant only in matters relating to faith and morals, simply because it all relates to faith and morals.

Drew said...

Thanks for the response Alexander. The issue I was raising was not really about experience as Source, and I do see your point there quite well enough. The issue is the inclusion of faith in terms of the relationship of experience as that which arbitrates between Sources. I have faith, as liberal theologian, that the source is "reliable and authoritative" but it certainly is not infallible as my relation of faith to the Source is sure to adjust over time.

The question is that faith seems to have an important impact in religious discourse as a condition of how one assigns authority to this or that Source. Hence, would you say that faith, along the lines of your argument is fundamentally irrational since it technically has no justifiable grounds for belief in this over that Source as reliable or authoritative? This would seem to stretch beyond the scope of the liberal as well.


Keith DeRose said...

Very interesting post! I *think* I'm a liberal theologian, by your present construal, but I wonder about this part:

The liberal theologian does not believe that any part of the Sources is infallible in matters of faith or morals.

I believe the Sources you list are all fallible. But might there be *parts* of them that are infallible? For all I know, and for all I firmly believe, yes. I guess there's an issue of possible "neg-raising" in understanding your sentence I've italicized above. But this much is true: there is no part of them, at least as I seem to have access to them as Sources, of which I have the positive belief that it is infallible.

Anyway, supposing we have a good enough grip on what the liberal is (on your present construal), I’m most interested in your first conclusion. I'm not sure what exactly you mean by a "high view of reason" -- though to the extent that I think I have a feel for your meaning here, I don't think I have such a view. So I have an interest in resisting your conclusion. And I don't think it follows, but maybe what will result in pursuing the issue would be a better understanding of what "reason" is supposed to be here, and what a "high" view of it would be.

This analogy, though messy and imperfect, may help. Consider the several Senses. Suppose they each operate by (perhaps among other functions), each presenting propositional information to the subject whose senses they are. The subject thinks they are extremely reliable sources of information. Are any of them infallible? Well, that seems very implausible to the subject. She uses her reason to integrate the information she receives from these sources, together with some other sources. Sometimes, for example, there is very strong reason, coming from Touch, to believe something, where Vision is presenting (perhaps in a very weak form) information in conflict with that. But the subject has learned that (or at least has taken herself to have learned that), generally reliable as it is, there are certain circumstances in which Vision will present her with false information. She thinks this because, on the picture of the world she has used her Reason to develop, working with information from all the Senses, together with other sources, Vision tends to glitch up a bit under the circumstances in question.

Is our subject here operating with "high view of Reason"?

Of course, that depends on what's meant by that, but maybe the way to go is to pretend I understand that, and just present the counter-argument. So here goes:

Not necessarily. Maybe she recognizes that her Reason is highly fallible -- perhaps more fallible than Vision. Well, then, why does she allow Reason to "trump" Vision here? Well, in a way, this is a case of Touch trumping Vision, but Reason is operating. It seems our subject can be reasonable in her procedure here, despite the views I've just ascribed to her. She could be thinking along these lines: Vision is extremely reliable, but is very limited in what information it presents, and is one source among many. Some integrating and adjudicating is called for. That's one of Reason's functions. Reason is so highly fallible in part because it's often called on to settle very tough issues. Some of these are so tough because they are matters about which there is information pointing in different directions. And some are tough because there isn't information pointing very solidly in any direction. One strategy for dealing with the latter type of tough issue is to be very conservative, and have no views about such matters. But the subject is willing to risk substantial chances of error in order to have a more complete view of the world. (I'm assuming she adopts a moderate, and not a completely non-conservative stance here.) She keeps her fallibility on such matters firmly in mind, holds her view quite loosely, and is very open to change on such matters, but does not remain non-committal. That all sounds pretty reasonable to me.

But in any case, Reason is needed here. Even the policy of integrating and adjudicating information from among the several sources by clinging to the postulate that Vision is Infallible would be an instance of using Reason to reach that decision. Based on her experience, though, this would just seem to the subject to be an unreasonable use of Reason. Why suppose Vision is infallible? And why suppose it’s right in this instance? Our subject knows people well who at least profess to operate under the assumption that Vision is infallible. In fact, she’s considered adopting the assumption of several people very close to her according to which both Vision and Hearing are infallible. But when she tried provisionally adopting that assumption, it seemed to result in what seemed a very unlikely picture. It could be done, she thought -- it wouldn't be impossible. But it meant ending up with judgments that seemed very implausible. For instance, there are matters which don't seem to be central to what Vision and Hearing seem designed to deal with. Still, Vision and Hearing do present some information about them. And if they are infallible, well then, you can take what they say to the bank, even on such matters. But there are other sources that really seem aimed centrally at just such matters, and are presenting information contrary to what Vision and Hearing present, and the information these other sources present fits in extremely well with the subject's whole picture, built up from her many sources, including the matters that Vision and Hearing seem to be centrally concerned with. So, our subject (reasonably, it seems, at least to me) adopts a different method, which involves trusting Vision and Hearing to a great degree, especially on certain matters under certain circumstances, but doesn't hold either to be infallible.

Is she being inconsistent? Even unreasonable? I can't see that. As she would pointedly ask: Why think that Vision and Hearing are infallible? If anything, given the circumstances described in the above paragraph, that would seem the more unreasonable alternative. (Of course, it's very possible that there are relevant disanalogies between the situation described above and what you think, or what may actually be, the case concerning the information given to us by your Sources. But then consider this just as the presentation of a *possible* scenario under which one can use highly fallible Reason in rejecting some information from a very reliable source without betraying a "high view of Reason" and w/o being unreasonable.)

Is she betraying a "high view of Reason"? Well, like I said, this all seems consistent with her thinking that Reason is highly fallible, and more fallible than Vision. Well, I guess what I'm thinking there is that it's *generally* more fallible than Vision. I guess she is thinking that *in this instance*, she's more likely to arrive at a true view about the matter in question by going with the information that Touch is presenting than with trusting Vision. And Reason is involved in making this determination. But is this holding a "high view of Reason"? I wouldn't have thought so. Her alternative would be to go with what Vision is saying and rejecting Touch's information, which would be using Reason to reject Touch. Or she could believe nothing. Or she could believe both things, which may be flatly inconsistent, or, depending on how we are imagining the case, just in sharp tension with one another. So, this seems a reasonable defense for her to give to the charge that she’s adopting a "high view of Reason": "Look, what to do in these especially tricky situations is a very tough call. Reason has figured out that the best way to integrate the information I'm getting here is to go with Touch on this one. Yes, Reason is highly fallible. It could very well be wrong here. I have no high view of Reason. But what would you have me do instead, and why would that be so much better?"

Well, stepping out of the whole analogy to comment: One thing that seems to be going on is that I seem to be construing Reason a bit differently from you. For you, it seems to be another source at the same level as the various other sources. But I'm seeing it as at least in part performing a higher-level, "executive" function. It is what puts together information from various other sources. It "trumps" the various sources in certain cases, not because it’s so "high" in terms of its reliability, but because of the different role it plays. That's its job. It integrates & adjudicates information coming from various other sources. That's always a dicey game to play. But it has to be played. Something has to make these calls – even when the call it makes is: "I’ll just go with whatever Source S598 tells me." You may play that game by designating some sources as infallible, but it's far from clear that that's the best way to go, and even farther from clear that it's the only reasonable way to go. Why Source S598? To this, "Well, *some* source had better be infallible, or we’re in trouble!" doesn't seem very convincing. (I'm not assuming that's how *you* would answer. I'm mentioning this answer b/c it seems to be what's driving at least many people who buy into infallible sources.) Maybe we just are in trouble – if by that we just mean: have to put up with a little uncertainty.

However we construe "Reason," this point would seem to remain: We do have to integrate information from various sources, including the Sources you mention. Are you thinking that, at the pain of inconsistency, we have to designate some source or sources of information as Infallible in this integration & processing stage, or else we are betraying a "high view" of our own ability to integrate & process information? B/c I’m really not seeing that.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Let me ask a clarificatory question before trying to respond (if I can respond at all). You talk of reason as integrating. But what is it integrating in the theological case? Just the Sources? Or the Sources and something else? And if the latter, what is that something else?

In any case, your remarks to suggest a good way for a liberal theologian to proceed. One distinguishes between the things that the Sources are supposed to mainly tell us about, and assigns higher authority to the Sources in those matters, and the things that the Sources are less concerned with, and assigns lower authority to the Sources in these matters.
I worry about how one makes this distinction.

Here's one suggestion in the moral sphere. It seems that moral questions concerned with how we live our lives that are relevant to most of us ought to be among those where the Sources have very high authority. Thus, while one might argue (I don't, of course) that the Sources have relatively low authority on the conditions for initiating a war, since few if any of the intended audience would have been in a position to initiate a war, they have high authority on matters like divorce, contraception and premarital sex that are important to the lives of many people.

It still seems to me that any judgments that make such distinctions are going to be very weak epistemically. We have good reason to think God's ways are mysterious. We have good reason to think apparently little things might matter to God. (That seems to be one of the Big Lessons of the Torah, and of what Jesus says about jots and tittles.)

By the way, the problem of why source S598 is the right one doesn't bother me, because I have a fairly high view of reason. :-)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Let me add for clarity that I am unreformed infallibilist in theological matters, and so I don't endorse the suggestion I make about moral matters. :-)

Alexander R Pruss said...

A thought. Here might be a way of a liberal Christian theologian to escape some of my criticism. Instead of thinking the Sources are Scripture or Scripture and Tradition, she might think the Sources are the words of Jesus on matters of faith and morals and the ideas inspired by the Holy Spirit in the minds of the prophets and apostles. If she deems these to be Sources, she can say that the Sources are infallible, but that you and I have only fallible access to them. In this, she does not differ from the conservative theologian, except in degree (the conservative theologian's Sources are more accessible to us than hers), and doesn't qualify as a "liberal theologian" by my definition, but may still count as one on any intuitive sense of "liberal theologian".

There is no trumping of the Sources at all if one looks at things in this way, because then neither Scripture nor Tradition are Sources, but merely evidence about the Sources.

I don't think this is a view that fits well with the way the Religions of the Book work. E.g., in Christianity, Scripture has an authority beyond just being evidence for what Jesus said and what the Holy Spirit inspired various figures to think. There is something qualitatively distinctive about Scripture (and, on the Catholic view, Tradition) that is not shared by other texts that provide evidence as to what Jesus said and what the Holy Spirit inspired people to think.

But it is definely an option a liberal theologian can take--after all, she does reject some traditional claims, so she might just reject the special authority of Scripture as well (not that she should).

Jeremy Pierce said...

Alex, what do you think about the source of the belief that the Sources are infallible? Any high epistemic status we have of such a belief can't come from the infallibility of the Sources. It might come from a plausibilist argument based on the content of the Sources, e.g. the best explanation for how the Sources could have come to be the way they are. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've seen you give such an argument at some point.

So infallibilism isn't all that helpful epistemically unless we're already working from a plausibilist argument for infallibility. That means your arguments against liberal theology seem to apply to the epistemic foundation of infallibilism.

And I note that you can't make the typical Catholic move of appealing to tradition to ground belief in scripture, because that just takes you back a step to tradition and how its infallibility can be established plausibilistically.

I don't know of any internalist way around this, and I do think your arguments against liberal theology are good. I just can't see how you're going to get around them with infallibilism at this prior level without some kind of externalist epistemology such as reliabilism, and if you go that way then liberal theology's epistemic at least aren't quite as bad (although it's still not as well off as infallibilism on a reliabilist picture, because infallibility is as reliable as you get).

Alexander R Pruss said...


I made four claims about liberal theologians:
1. They should have a high view of reason.
2. They need to be able to say how plausible an argument needs to be to override the Sources.
3. Fallibilist methodology closes the door to the possibility of Revelation correcting strong plausibilistic arguments for false conclusions.
4. They need to admit that in a number of areas (and later I gave an example of moral cases), the Sources should trump reason.

Now, (1), (2) and (4) aren't really arguments against the idea of liberal theology. They simply draw out what liberal theology should be like. Granted, if (1), (2) and (4) are wrong, then many contemporary liberal theologians need to correct their theological practice. But they can probably do so while remaining liberal theologians (assuming they have something plausible to say for (2)--that's the tough one).

The main criticism of liberal theology is (3)--if this is right, this is seriously damaging to liberal theologian. Moreover, it is damaging, I think, precisely in respect of something that a lot of liberal theologians take very seriously--the idea of radical religious criticism of our society is endangered by (3), since it is all too easy, when the Sources conflict with arguments that are plausible to us for cultural reasons, simply to trump the Sources.

Anyway, do my arguments make it impossible to get to the point of taking the Sources to be infallible? I don't think so.

The most serious worry is an analogue to issue (3). The worry is that when one is choosing which Sources to accept, if one sees some source making a claim contrary to which we have good plausibilistic arguments, one might dismiss the claim that this source is a Source.

However, this danger does not make it impossible for Revelation to trump plausible arguments. For what in fact typically happens in the case of conservative Christians is that we accept the Sources without knowing all of the claims made in the Sources. (This is particularly clear when the Sources are constantly being extended, as on the Catholic view where one is also accepting of future magisterial teachings.) Our acceptance of the Sources is a commitment, and we believe that it is a gift of God's grace. We come to the acceptance perhaps on the basis of fallibilistic arguments. But our unconditional acceptance of Scripture (and, for us Catholics, Tradition) exceeds the credence yielded by these fallibilistic arguments. At least that is Cardinal Newman's account. We get probability--and then by grace we make a leap of faith.

This structure makes it possible for Revelation to trump strong plausibilistic arguments.

Here's an example from real life. When I accepted Scripture and Tradition, I did not believe that these Sources absolutely prohibited all lies. Indeed, around that time I was of the opinion that lying is permissible as long as it's for the benefit of another (not a very smart view, perhaps, but I was eighteen at the time). I could give a strong plausibilistic argument for the view that some lies are permissible, namely the standard "Gestapo at the door" hard cases. But somewhat later, I came to the realization that the Tradition prohibits all lying (there is a controversy whether equivocation is permitted). By the time I came to this realization, however, I had an unconditional acceptance of the Sources (by the grace of God), and so learning that the Sources said that all lying is wrong trumped my plausibilistic arguments in favor of lying.

What is crucial to this account is that one's credence in the Source's infallibility is greater than that yielded by the fallible arguments that one had for accepting the Source's infallibility.

This is similar, though not exactly the same, to what happens in the case of other commitments. People who marry typically have a plausibilistic argument that it would be good for them to marry. But then they make a commitment which goes over and beyond the probabilities involved.

There are two possible views one could take of this issue. One is the view I take (and I think this view is implicit in the teaching of the First Vatican Council), that when one comes to the Catholic faith, one receives new epistemic reasons which are indefeasible. I don't have a very good story of these reasons. I think Kierkegaard may get their phenomenology right when he talks of the "argumentum Spiritus Sancti" which is available when all other arguments have fallen silent, and which argument involve neither inference nor conscious religious experience (or so I read him). The second approach is that one makes a commitment--one commits one's life to Christ and one accepts the Sources. The commitment, on this second view, does not give one an indefeasible epistemic reason to take the Sources as trumping every plausibilistic argument, but it gives one an indefeasible non-epistemic reason (perhaps a moral reason grounded in one's trust in God) to do so. This non-epistemic reason is like the non-epistemic reason one has to presume one's spouse's fidelity even in the face of significant evidence to the contrary, except that in the case of faith we have indefeasibility, while in the marital case one only has a very strong presumption.

This is a bit rambly. Maybe there is a better story to be told.

And, yes, I know there are worries. What if one chose the wrong Sources? Here, I lean heavily on grace.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here ( is a really nice formulation of a version of my worry in (3).

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


I've just found out this comment of yours:

On one possible view, "... when one comes to the Catholic faith, one receives new epistemic reasons which are indefeasible. I don't have a very good story of these reasons. I think Kierkegaard may get their phenomenology right when he talks of the "argumentum Spiritus Sancti" which is available when all other arguments have fallen silent, and which argument involve neither inference nor conscious religious experience (or so I read him)."

VERY ... fascinating. Let me ask you:

1. Where exactly does Kierkeggard write about that view? I've read he holds it, however, I do not know the accurate localization in his work.

2. Do you have some further thoughts or texts on that view?

3. Would you have some tips on the literature about that view?

4. The most relevant contemporary text I remember is John DePoe's paper "Evidentialism, Reformed Epistemology, and the Holy Spirit” ( But on John account, the Holy Spirit's internal testimony in the soul of the believer is not indefeasible. I also wonder whether you, Kierkeggard or the common evidentialist would call clasify such testimony as evidence?

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

Excuse the typos like "Kierkeggard", etc., please.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. "Evidence" is a word I'd prefer to eschew when I can, for instance because I am uncomfortable with calling a mathematical proof "evidence". Kierkegaard would be even more uncomfortable with calling this "evidence".

2. If you google "argumentum spiritus sancti" you'll find references to some relevant Kierkegaardian texts.

3. It might also be that I've slightly overstated the case by talking of "indefeasibility". It could perhaps be a reasonable reading of Vatican I to allow that rational defeaters are logically possible, but in fact God is committed to not allowing the believing Catholic to meet with any.

Vlastimil said...

Thank you.

By the way, Bill Vallicella has a new post on the issue of pain which you also addressed here: it seems to him that some pains are not privationes boni. It is prima facie reasonable, however, it presents a problem for us, theists.


Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, since I actually think some pains are good, maybe the two categories will match up. :-)

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


Of course, the issue is of bad, not good, pains.

As Bill V. wrote:

"If pains are warning signals, then they are instrumentally good. But what is instrumentally good may also be intrinsically evil. The searing pain in a burnt hand, though instrumentally good, is intrinsically evil. Its positive 'entity' (entitas in scholastic jargon) is apparently not well accommodated on the classical doctrine that evils are privationes boni. Again, the pain is not the mere absence of the good of pleasure, but something positively bad. After all, the hand is not numb or as if aenesthetized; there is a positive sensation 'in' it, and this positive sensation is bad. So even if every pain served to warn us of bodily damage, that would not detract from the positive badness of the pain sensation."

And as I wrote to Bill:

The privatio account of all evil will repeat that even if every pain is ontologically positive (some ens) and evil, say, an accident or physical and mental process, its badness consists precisely in its ontologically negative, privatio aspects (e.g., insofar as it excludes some positive features that the subject of pain should have, like peace of mind, harmony, cognitive balance, etc.). Of course, this adage is both loose and somewhat counterintuitive. But, first, if some pain is positively bad even in its badness, so to speak, then God, as the First efficient cause of every ens different from himself, is an efficient cause of some evil even in its badness. And if every non-divine ens participates in the plenitude of divine being, then some evil (bad) ens participates in divine being even with respect to its badness. So, don't we, as theists, have a problem? Does not God stop to be wholly good?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I understand pain as a perception of an apparent bad. A pain is intrinsically good iff it is a veridical perception (i.e., if the apparent bad is a real bad and it causes the pain in the right way), just as a perception of an apparent red cube is intrinsically good iff it is a veridical perception. An intrinsically bad pain is one where the perception is non-veridical, for instance when one feels guilt about a good action. Intrinsically bad pains can be understood as pains deprived of veridicality--they fit well with the idea of evil as a privation.

It is false, I think, that pains are bad just because of their raw feel.

At the same time, many veridical pains are instrumentally bad. They distract us, they take away our peace of mind, they focus us on an aspect of the situation that we should not be focusing on, etc. It may even be that then there is a second order veridical pain, a pain at the loss of peace, so we are vividly aware of the instrumental badness of the first order pain.

The instrumental badness of pain is not a problem for the privation theory.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


Thanks! Sorry for the delay.

You wrote in your last reply, "The instrumental badness of pain is not a problem for the privation theory. ... many veridical pains are instrumentally bad. They distract us, they take away our peace of mind, they focus us on an aspect of the situation that we should not be focusing on, etc. "

So, as I understand you,

1. You reject the following intuition as described by Bill Vallicella: there is such a pain that "the pain is ... something positively bad ... there is a positive sensation 'in' it, and this positive sensation is bad."

2. You reassure in countering this intuition that the badness of every pain consists precisely in its ontologically negative, privation aspects (e.g., the pain is bad insofar as it excludes some positive features that the subject of pain should have, like peace of mind, harmony, cognitive balance, etc.).

Do I understand your position correctly?

Alexander R Pruss said...


Yes. Also, some pains are intrinsically bad because they are non-veridical.

Hans Lundahl said...

I am posting this, Alexander Pruss!

student said...

Idiot! you have no idea what you are blabbering about!