Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Orthodoxy and the ordinary believer

Getting the doctrinal content of faith right is much more important in Christianity than, say, in Judaism, where the focus is on action rather than creedal belief. Granted, Christian faith is not just creedal belief, but normally Christian faith includes creedal belief. But consider the following serious problem. If you ask the ordinary believer (and maybe not just the ordinary believer), whether Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, etc. to explain the content of the doctrine of the Trinity, if the believer says anything at all, it is not unlikely that she will say something seriously heterodox. She might affirm a view on which the divine persons are not individually God, but are parts of God, or give an account that entails modalism or tritheism (or both). The same goes for the doctrine of the Incarnation. All of this seems to seriously endanger the idea that such an ordinary believer has genuinely Christian faith. After all, if her beliefs are in fact not monotheistic or not Trinitarian, it is difficult to see her as having recognizably Christian faith. Moreover, when the ordinary believer recites a creed, it seems that she understands the creed in a sense different from that which the creed's authors gave it, and so she might as well not bother reciting the creed.

One solution to this problem of the ordinary believer is to lower the doctrinal requirements needed for Christian faith. For instance, one might simply think that it suffices to affirm that Jesus is Lord. I think this solution fails for two reasons. The first is that it goes against the universal tradition of the Church which from the beginning has held that getting the doctrinal content of the faith right and avoiding heresy is important. The second is that belief is not a matter of words. If Sally takes "Jesus is Lord" to mean just that Jesus is her feudal master, she surely does not express the same thing that St. Paul meant when he said that Jesus is Lord. A heretical account of the Trinity or of the Incarnation seems to affect the content of one's professing "Jesus is Lord"—it may affect the meaning of each of the three words.

Here is a better solution. (It is not very original, of course.) A part of Christian faith is the humility that the doctrine one believes is not one's own. A humble believer when asked about what she means by the words "one in being with the Father" in the Nicene Creed might give some explanation, and that explanation might be inadequate or even heretical, but she will qualify her explanation in some way that indicates that her explanation is not authoritative. This is an odd thing. After all, if I utter a sentence, then typically my understanding of what the sentence means is authoritative as to what I meant, pace deconstructionists. But that is not the only mode of speaking. Thus, I might be a messenger or an interpreter, passing on another's message. In this case, my understanding of what the words mean is not at all authoritative. I think that is how we speak the doctrines of faith if we are humble.

More strongly, I think there is a mode of belief like that, where the content of my belief comes from some other source than myself, and I can be mistaken in my explanations of it. To some extent, this is already true in Kripkean cases of beliefs referring to natural kinds or proper names. I may mistakenly think water to be H3O2, but nonetheless my belief that water is a drinkable liquid is true, because I am not the one who is authoritative as to the referrent of "water", even if it is a matter of my thinking (this may require some externalism). When an orthodox Christian believes that the Son is "one in being with the Father", while she may have theories as to what that means, what she is firmly committed to is not the theories, but the meaning which the Church—the mystical body of Christ—attaches to these words.

Thus in an important sense, then, the believer does firmly believe the orthodox doctrine if she firmly trusts the Church that originates the doctrine. I suspect this kind of trust and ceding of authority over the interpretation of one's own beliefs only works well if one thinks that the authors of the creedal affirmations that one accepts were fallible. This means if one thinks only Scripture is infallible, this will only work for close paraphrases of biblical affirmations.

What I said so far is not, I think, complete. For if one qualifies one's explanations of Trinitarian doctrine with a seemingly humble: "Of course, that's just how I see it, but what I truly, hand-on-my-heart, believe is that which the originators of the doctrine meant", there will be something hollow about the qualification if it is not in some way reflected in one's intellectual life. A disclaimer added on to every claim quickly loses meaning.

I think that the way that the disclaimer can be reflected in one's intellectual life is through a willingness to reject one's interpretation of the doctrine as soon as it is seen that the originators meant something else. But this, too, can come cheaply. If the doctrine is a Scriptural "Jesus is Lord" or even a conciliar "his only Son ... [is] one in being with the Father", it seems one does not risk much in being willing to reject one's interpretation. It seems unlikely that St. Paul or St. Athanasius will show up and tell one that one had misinterpreted the text, and historical evidence can often be read in multiple ways. But if there is not much risk, then the disclaimer does not affect one's intellectual life very much.

But if one is Catholic, there really is a risk of being taken up on one's disclaimer. For then the primary originator of the doctrine is not some individual who has died, but the Church that continues to be alive, and continually, through the centuries, has clarified her own teaching. There, there really is a risk that one will come across some other authoritative teaching that contradicts one's interpretation of the doctrine, and there is even a danger that a future teaching of the Church will contradict one's interpretation. In the face of such a risk, the disclaimer that one submits one's understanding to the judgment of the Church has real meat: it would not at all be surprising if one were called on this.

This post should be read in conjunction with the preceding one.


Anonymous said...

You need to distinguish between "belief" and "assent". Or explain your special meaning of "belief" that doesn't track with everyday experience and usage.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post, Alex, and I could say a lot on this subject. But here is a somewhat tangential comment:

It has often struck me that one crucial breakdown in dialogue between Catholics and Protestants occurs when Protestants say, “Catholics…[believe they are saved by baptism, believe God loves them for their good works, worship Mary, etc.]” and Catholics reply, “No, no, the Church teaches…”. Here the Protestant is making a sociological claim, which has been established (some times better than others) by communicating with Catholic individuals. The Catholic is making an institutional claim, established by reading Church documents. There is of course no reason both can’t be correct.

The Protestant has a hard time making the distinction, because in the Protestant (at least, evangelical) world, if you don’t agree with a church’s theology, you leave. This is a matter not just of personal preference but personal integrity. Also, we are all familiar with organizations that have high-sounding ideals in print somewhere but in reality operate on quite different principles (the mission statements of many corporations come to mind). And further, the Protestant is inclined to think that what matters is the individual’s belief, not the institution’s.

Your distinction between modes of belief—a deferential vs. non-deferential mode—does a lot to help here. But I would like to know when exactly this deferential mode is being engaged in, and how one tells. And also it would be important to make sure it is a matter of real belief, because it could easily degenerate into a matter of endorsing statements with a “whatever that means” attitude and no understanding at all, a kind of endorsement which has no connection with the rest of one’s experience.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Let me expand a little bit more.

To some extent, I think just about all belief involves some kind of inheritance of content. (This is, by the way, closely related to a forthcoming book by Hawthorne and Manley.)

Ordinary folks talk of electricity, viruses, computer processors, etc. If you press them to explain what these things are, they will say some things that are likely a fair distance off. Nonetheless, ordinary sentences like "Electricity is costing me more this summer than last", "I got sick with some kind of virus" and "My new computer has a really fast processor" are perfectly true, because when the folks use these terms, they use them with a meaning they inherit from others (think of the Kripke story about proper names, and extend).

The same may be true with the ordinary faithful Catholic who says: "I believe God is a Trinity." Her explanation of what "Trinity" means will be unsatisfactory, but she inherits the meaning of the term from the Church, and she is not authoritative as to the explanation of the content of her belief. I think something like this can also be true not just for single words, but for whole sentences, such as sentences from the creed.

I do not think I depart far from the ordinary usage of "belief" here. The ordinary person believes that there is electricity in wires, and in doing so believes something true, even though if she were to explain what she thinks is going on, she would probably say something false.

The ordinary faithful Catholic's views may, thus, be contradictory. She may believe that God is a Trinity and she may also assent to tritheistic claims that are incompatible with the claim that God is a Trinity. But if she is faithful, she will be more sure of the Church's claim than of her explanation.


One complication is that what I said applies best to faithful Catholics, by which I just mean Catholics who defer to the Church's teaching. There are, alas, many Catholics whose approach to doctrine is not always deferential. However, I suspect that they tend to be willing to defer on "abstract" doctrines like the Trinity, so the account will still work for them in the case of "abstract" doctrines.

Strider said...

Newman discusses this problem in his Grammar of Assent" and resolves it, so he believed, with the notion of "implicit faith," which is an assent of which both learned and unlearned are capable:

'It stands to reason that all of us, learned and unlearned, are bound to believe the whole revealed doctrine in all its parts and in all that it implies according as portion after portion is brought home to our consciousness as belonging to it; and it also stands to reason, that a doctrine, so deep and so various, as the revealed depositum of faith, cannot be brought home to us and made our own all at once. No mind, however large, however penetrating, can directly and fully by one act understand any one truth, however simple. What can be more intelligible than that "Alexander conquered Asia," or that "Veracity is a duty"? but what a multitude of propositions is included under either of these theses! still, if we profess either, we profess all that it includes. Thus, as regards the Catholic Creed, if we really believe that our Lord is God, we believe all that is meant by such a belief; or, else, we are not in earnest, when we profess to believe the proposition. In the act of believing it at all, we forthwith commit ourselves by anticipation to believe truths which at present we do not believe, because they have never come before us;—we limit henceforth the range of our private judgment in prospect by the conditions, whatever they are, of that dogma. Thus the Arians said that they believed in our Lord's divinity, but when they were pressed to confess His eternity, they denied it: thereby showing in fact that they never had believed in His divinity at all. In other words, a man who really believes in our Lord's proper divinity, believes implicitè in His eternity.

'If we believe in the revelation, we believe in what is revealed, in all that is revealed, however it may be brought home to us, by reasoning or in any other way. He who believes that Christ is the Truth, and that the Evangelists are truthful, believes all that He has said through them, though he has only read St. Matthew and has not read St. John. He who believes in the depositum of Revelation, believes in all the doctrines of the depositum; and since he cannot know them all at once, he knows some doctrines, and does not know others; he may know only the Creed, nay, perhaps only the chief portions of the Creed; but, whether he knows little or much, he has the intention of believing all that there is to believe whenever and as soon as it is brought home to him, if he believes in Revelation at all. All that he knows now as revealed, and all that he shall know, and all that there is to know, he embraces it all in his intention by one act of faith; otherwise, it is but an accident that he believes this or that, not because it is a revelation. This virtual, interpretative, or prospective belief is called a believing implicitè; and it follows from this, that, granting that the Canons of Councils and the other ecclesiastical documents and confessions, to which I have referred, are really involved in the depositum or revealed word, every Catholic, in accepting the depositum, does implicitè accept those dogmatic decisions.

'I say, "granting these various propositions are virtually contained in the revealed word," for this is the only question left; and that it is to be answered in the affirmative, is clear at once to the Catholic, from the fact that the Church declares that they really belong to it. To her is committed the care and the interpretation of the revelation. The word of the Church is the word of the revelation. That the Church is the infallible oracle of truth is the fundamental dogma of the Catholic religion; and "I believe what the Church proposes to be believed" is an act of real assent, including all particular assents, notional and real; and, while it is possible for unlearned as well as learned, it is imperative on learned as well as unlearned. And thus it is, that by believing the word of the Church implicitè, that is, by believing all that that word does or shall declare itself to contain, every Catholic, according to his intellectual capacity, supplements the shortcomings of his knowledge without blunting his real assent to what is elementary, and takes upon himself from the first the whole truth of revelation, progressing from one apprehension of it to another according to his opportunities of doing so.'

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the Venerable Cardinal Newman doesn't go far enough here. He says: "the Arians said that they believed in our Lord's divinity, but when they were pressed to confess His eternity, they denied it". But what I am interested in are cases precisely where someone says that she believes in the Trinity, and then says something incompatible with it. Newman's account would seem to say that in such cases she didn't really believe in the Trinity. I want to say that if the person's faith is a participation in the Church's faith, then she can say something incomaptible with the doctrine of the Trinity and still believe the doctrine of the Trinity.

Imagine a simple Christian fifty years before Nicaea. She says that Christ is God, because thus the Church speaks, thus the liturgy speaks. She denies, however, the eternity of Christ, never noticing the inconsistency, and she denies it with humility, open to correction. She is no heretic: she has the habit of faith, and as soon as her pastor or bishop tells her that Christ's being God entails his eternity, she will assent.

Here's a somewhat different way of taking this. Perhaps when the faithful Christian, whose faith is a participation in the faith of the Church, says something of her own to explain the faith, she is not really affirming the explanation, but she is affirming: "This explanation is true if it is compatible with what the Church teaches", maybe with some implicature that there is compatibility.

Jordy said...

Wow. Very interesting! I have often wondered what is the use of all this theology if it is never really read or understood by the masses. Thanks for the insight!

Alexander R Pruss said...


Faith is the faith of the Church, it is not just private faith (that is the standard explanation of why infant baptism is possible). The point you bring up now highlights the fact that the theologian has an ecclesial vocation, as the title of a CDF instruction has it.

Strider said...

It's not clear to me, Dr Pruss, where your disagreement with Newman really lies. Newman, apparently, believes that the Catholic Christian makes a fundamental assent to the entirety of the apostolic revelation, as interpreted by the infallible Church: "I believe what the Church proposes to be believed." One can make this assent, even while holding any number of false opinions, even while vigorously advancing theologically problematic views. He still remains within the faith of the Church because he lives within the faith of the Church and is commited to assenting to the auhoritative doctrines of the Church, when they are finally and authoriatively articualted. The question of heresy does not arise until the Church has definiively addressed the matter by dogmatic definition. At this point the believer is then forced to choose between his private, now "heretical," opinion and the dogma of the Church. Newman's analysis certainly provides sufficient space for thelogical debate and the development of doctrine.'

What seems to be crucial for Newman is the fundamental assent to the apostolic revelation, as given. If a person has made this fundament assent, if he is truly commited to whatever the Church auhoriatively teaches, hen surely he does belive in the doctrine of the Trinity, even though he is confused about it and says a lot of wrong things about. What is crucial, as you note, is the humiliy to change one's views when confronted wih the dogma.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Explained that way, there is no disagreement. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if I got the idea from Newman's Grammar of Assent in the first place. I don't always remember where I get ideas from. (I did say that this one wasn't original.)

Anonymous said...

Here's an example I'm stealing in part from Michael Dummett's "Social Character of Meaning":

If an ordinary person says, "This ring is gold," we want to say that they probably know what they mean. On the other hand, most people couldn't define "gold" as a chemist would. Ordinary people know that if they need a precise definition of gold, they should go to a chemist in order to learn that gold means "atoms with 79 protons in their nucleus."

So, even outside of the Nicene Creed example, this is how a lot of words work. Would you say that you know what "elm" means more or less? Probably, yes: it's a kind of tree. Could you pick out all the different kinds of elm in the world and explain why they're considered the same kind of tree? No, probably not. But you know to turn to a botanist to get the answers.

greg said...

All of this cognitive dissonance results from Christian theology being founded upon contradictions. Unconsciously perhaps, the minds of ordinary believers attempt to reject or route around these contradictions, like an immune system rejecting a pathogen. In suppressing the immune system of reason in order to protect orthodoxy, faith is then fully expressed.

Martin Cooke said...

We don't learn what "gold" means from chemists, but rather we may learn from them of the chemistry of gold; and we don't discover what time is from the physicists, or what feelings are from the biologists.

Suppose that, for the mathematicians, 2 = {{}, {{}}}. I could not then learn what "2" referred to by deferring to them; rather, I could only understand them if I already knew alot about what 2 really was.

So, if I believe in the divinity of Jesus and a theologian tells me that therefore I should believe that He always knew all that was going to happen, I would just wonder how much the theologian knew of God.

Alexander R Pruss said...


That is an alternative explanation available to the non-Christian.

However, it does not appear clear that, e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas' account of the Trinity and the Incarnation has any contradictions in it.

greg said...

I won't argue that there aren't sophisticated ways of thinking--epistemic squinting, as it were--where the doctrine of the Trinity (for example) doesn't look like a contradiction.

The problem of ordinary believers butchering the finer points of orthodoxy I would say has more to do with them not having been trained when they're supposed to squint.

Mike said...

I enjoy the views of the ordinary believers much more than the "orthodox" views. Of course they're more often culturally defined but they can be unique and interesting where as orthodox views are all the same.

Great tag cloud.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If one hangs around with the orthodox, one finds enormous disagreement about many things. Orthodoxy allows one to go further into issues (think of Kuhn's "ordinary science") because one is not disputing the basics, and when one goes further into issues, one can have hot disputes. Thus, accepting Chalcedonian Christology, one can ask tough questions such as: "Is there is one esse in Christ?" "Did Christ have human knowledge of all the things that the human mind can know?" "Could Christ have become incarnate as two men?" Etc. These questions presuppose an orthodox Christology, and try to push understanding further.

Both I and a friend accept the principle of double effect. So we agree on basic cases. But after that we have a vociferous disagreement: he thinks the traditional formulation in terms of intention can answer its objections, while I prefer what I take to be a more elegant and powerful formulation in terms of accomplishment. Orthodoxy makes such disagreements possible.